Cloud Atlas
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15 June 2023

“Rethinking organization theory: The fold, the rhizome and the seam between organization and the literary” [Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) #32]

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Original post can be found here:

The article up for recommendation and commentary today will really stretch your mind. If you ever saw the movie ‘Cloud Atlas’ starring Tom Hanks, or read the book (the book differs quite a bit), that is the example used by the author to introduce some deep postmodern concepts that are used in turn in systemic operational design or SOD- the original military design methodology introduced by the Israelis in the late 1990s. This article is titled “Rethinking organization theory: The fold, the rhizome and the seam between organization and the literary” by David Pick. It can be found in the link below in the journal ‘Organization’, 2017, Vol. 24, №6, pp. 800–818. I strongly recommend you check this one out, and if you hit the pay wall, try using your local librarian to help you score a PDF of it. It is worth the effort. Commentary below after article link:

So, this article is useful for military designers and educators when we get asked “tell me more about how the Israelis did SOD, and could you offer up some relatively accessible documents to help us gain some insights into what often becomes an inaccessible or highly intellectual design methodology to consider for military affairs.” The most tricky aspect of SOD and military design that is inspired by SOD is the integration of postmodern philosophical concepts into the designer framing and reframing of how they and their organization understand conflict.

SOD’s creator, Dr. Shimon Naveh, studied postmodern theory as well as military strategy (Soviet operational shock concepts from WW2), blending these into complexity theory, sociology and architectural design. He fused these into SOD- for militaries to break out of traditional, orthodox, mechanistic modes of thinking and acting in warfare. Naveh drew heavily from a range of exotic postmodern ideas including ‘assemblages’, ‘nomadology’, ‘rhizomes’, ‘folds’, ‘interiority-exteriority’ and using topology to challenge and deconstruct the modern military frame. Most of these came from the work of Deleuze and Guatarri, two pioneer postmodern philosophers whose work spanned the 1970s-2000s. You can find some design treatments of these concepts for military applications here (two different links and PDFs below) without any paywall too:

Now, back to this article…

The author for this article, David Pick (Australia), uses postmodern concepts of the fold and the rhizome that came from Deleuze, and combines them with another concept known as the semiotic square to outline a way to break out of orthodox, mechanistic and systematic (inputs lead to clear predefined outputs in analytically rationalized logics) thinking- to start to think systematically. Pick uses Deleuze and Cloud Atlas to illustrate this- and this article does use some heavy terms but compliments them with lots of great examples. The semiotic square originates from Hellenistic reasoning (ancient Greek philosophy), and was largely ignored after the rise of the natural sciences until in the mid-20th century, postmodernists began reappropriating the concept as well as many others (mobius strips for instance from topology).

This paper would be wonderful to challenge, disrupt and deconstruct why militaries believe in domains (multi-domain warfare), how we produce phases in our campaign designs, how we fixate on predetermined desired ends linked to ‘ways’ and ‘means’ that are isolated, rationalized and implemented into a systematic logical progression from present state into a stable, realized future (line of effort). These concepts would in most instances represent the antithesis of virtually everything inside of modern doctrine. Pick frames this and why he sought to use the postmodern novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ below:

“The presence of organization in Cloud Atlas and the strangeness of its narratives draw attention to the connection between organization and the literary. For example, we might begin considering the gaps between the form and content of organization as imagined and represented by academic researchers and organization as the social constructions and processes that are lived. From here, the literary then challenges us to think beyond form and content. It also propels us to problematize the gaps between the real (that which does not depend on our conception of it and is beyond our ability to describe), reality (that which we know — meanings that we use to provide a sense of what is there) and fiction.” — Pick, p. 801.

This article provides a deep dive into Cloud Atlas, demonstrating how the author of the book played with multiple narrative concepts, arranging things and characters in what is hardly a linear or conventional sequence. Rather, chapters fit within future chapters of the book in an ‘Inception’ style of nesting, where one story becomes fiction in the next, repeating and then twisting in the last chapter to make the entire book a sort of Möbius strip folding in upon itself.

In rapid fire pace in the beginning, Pick provides a brief literature review that itself is full of fantastic theorists and authors I hold dear, including Burrell and Morgan, Chia and Holt, Tsoukas, and Deetz. Each of these are themselves rabbit holes that designers should explore too, but once more this article by Pick is a fantastic read in itself. Whether you read the book or saw the Tom Hanks movie, you should be able to follow along. If not, I recommend watching the movie (or better yet, reading the book) and then returning to this article to truly grasp the valuable insights.

I will finish this with Pick’s summary of a Deleuzian Fold, which is profoundly significant both in the Cloud Atlas composition, but in how SOD practitioners approach designing in complex warfare. There is nothing like it in our doctrine or contemporary operational planning methodologies. But could we add it?

For Deleuze (1993), the fold has metaphorical properties. First, he compares the fold to a Russian doll because it has interiority and exteriority (a fold within folds). Second, he compares the fold to Japanese origami because it has processual characteristics that refer to the transformation of form. In other words, the fold refers to form in that folding involves enveloping/developing and involution/evolution. It is a ‘point of inflection’ where things change their form as force is applied — that is, where variation takes place. Deleuze (1993: 9) illustrates this transformative property and distinguishes between organic and inorganic folds by describing how a caterpillar envelops a butterfly (i.e. it is folded inside it). He goes on to explain that the caterpillar develops (unfolds) into a butterfly. It then dies and involutes (refolds) back into its constituent parts. These constituent parts become inorganic folds that wait to evolve once again into an organic fold — though in a different form. Thus, we have organic folds that are interior envelopments of other organisms (e.g. the caterpillar and the butterfly), which are distinct in the ways that they are complex envelopments of interior sites (Deleuze, 1993). By contrast, there are inorganic folds. These simple and direct folds are exterior sites, including water, air, fire, and rocks, that flow in, through, on and around organisms (organic folds). Deleuze (1993: 9) also argues that no separation exists between the organic (interior) and the inorganic (exterior) because the inorganic folds into the organic and the organic folds into the inorganic. For example, a lake is an exterior (inorganic) site, but it is infused with organisms (e.g. fish); however, the fish that move through the water are also suffused with that water in every cell of their bodies, and these fish contain the seeds of all other generations of fish, which, in turn, are suffused by inorganic folds, and so on.” Pick, p. 803.

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