Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The power of metaphors

Now some time ago, I posited that something I had written might have been a metaphor for something else, only for the wonderful Gergely to rudely remind me that metaphors came in jars and were usually pickled... something that may well be very close to the truth.

Any way, I spent today in the esteemed company of Johan Reyneke, philosophy graduate and biodynamic winemaker extraordinaire. After a longish day of traipsing around wine shops and restaurants flogging our respective wares, we retired to Bar Battu in the city. After having a couple of revivifying beers and a small tasting with the staff I ordered a bottle of Jean Foillards Morgon Cote du Py 2008.

This put the cat amongst the pigeons. The initial nose (as so often) was all awkwardness, hints of faults, fist full's of grit and dirt, berries crushed under leather boots being ground into the well matured manure. Then on the palette there was that lick of acidity, the refreshing chime of bitter cherry, the underlay of granite and mineral.

Some wines demand food, some wines demand good company..

Earlier in the day we had discussed the rational explanations that can underlie some of the procedures that comprise the biodynamic method. We then reappraised the subject and I mentioned that while I had always struggled with biodynamics, I had come to accept that there were genuinely effective methods at the heart of its teaching. However I still had issues with Steiner.

Johan replied that he too had issues with Steiner, in that he felt Steiner had lifted a lot of the peasant wisdom and recast it into his Theosophical world view, and created a set of post hoc mystical justifications for the actions of the methodology.

We then moved on to talking about the limits of reductive learning systems and how they are doomed to fail when confronted by complex systems. That a reductive approach if used in a non Popperian empirical falsificationary approach leads to misguided courses of action that prove to be ultimately painful.

In agriculture it was the reduction of the hugely complex web of interactions that is the vineyard/farm ecosystem into a series of flow diagrams that merely comprise key nutritional requirements and pest vector threats. Which in turn leads to a successive unbalancing of the natural cycles, picture knocking a spinning top out of balance and watching as it careens off the table.

This we compared with the essentially holistic approach that Goethe pioneered to observation of phenomena, and his view of each element of a system is to some degree representative of the system as a whole, and how, whilst not as immediately useful as the empirical reductive approach it is, none the less, a better way of avoiding making poor decisions as there is, implicit in it's approach a respect of the system being studied and an appreciation of the inherent incomprehensible quality of the complexity to be found therein.

So how does one reconcile people to successful, non reductionary approaches to complex systems? Well therein lies where Steiners post hoc mystical gobbledigook comes into the picture, for he tied up the accumulated trial and error wisdom of a pheasant populace who had to try and cope with an unpredictable and frankly capricious world into a meaninful and justifiable philosophy of bbiodynamic gardening. For this he turned to the metaphor (see by this time, nicely pickled). An excellent way of bridging the gap between the actuality of the mechanics of a complex system and a suitably comprehensible reduction of said mechanics.

We finished on the decision that what we needed was a new metaphor for the actions of biodynamic preparations on the vineyard ecosystem, one that stripped the story of its mystical bent, one that would make sense to a 21th century lay person, and one that would place the biodynamic method in a comprehensible context.