Sensing and sense making:
Why we need the ways of the trickster to truly embrace uncertainty
“What is it like to be an insect?” was the title of a virtual lecture I attended a few days ago. Interested in a post-human centred approach to life and society, I was curious to see whether I would learn what it is like to be a different species. The lecture by Lars Chittka was fascinating on many levels and showed us how bees have developed patterns of behaviour which demonstrate a capability to recognise, identify and even imagine the world around them. A few weeks earlier I had attended a lecture by Merlin Sheldrake on An Entangled Life: another eye-opening talk, on how fungi communicate and collaborate. It turns out that fungi, in their way of collaboration, are more similar to humans than to other plants. More and more we start to accept the fact that there is so much to learn from the ecosystem than we have gotten to know and appreciate. This is a promising development in our attitude towards the planet altogether.
Being different species and being connected to other forms of life are a popular future scenario in futures thinking processes. In Futures Literacy Laboratories we often use alternative futures like these to question our assumptions on what it is like to be human. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder when we explore the patterns and behaviours in other species, why do we always stress the ways in which they are similar to humans’? Why can their behaviour only teach us something when we recognise it as our own?
In other words: why does their behaviour always have to make sense?
In the practice of futures literacy (the capability to use the future to rethink our actions in the now), we use futures for sensing and sense making in the present (Miller 2018). As a futures illiterate person, one might sense and make sense of certain phenomena, without giving too much thought to their sources. In the process of becoming futures literate, we become more skilled in imagining and diversifying futures and thus opening ourselves up for emergence, the novelty that is around us. We sense more, but things also make more sense. This desire to make sense of what we do not know often becomes the source of our agency. When things make sense, we feel more comfortable. When we sense things without making sense of it, we quickly feel uneasy. And in the rush to make sense, we might even fall into the trap of just ‘making’: doing, acting, making decisions while forgetting to sense anything at all.
But when did we stop just sensing? When was the last time we took the space to think and wonder, without making any sense at all? Have we lost the ability to just marvel at something and be comfortable at not-understanding, without turning that into a skill in order to make sense of it after all? We need to imagine far more outer worlds and futures in order to stop making sense and to move beyond the psychological construct that is our world today. We need the trickster, instead of the teacher:
We will never discover new worlds unless we pay heed to the tricksters — whose seemingly innocuous acts of deception are powerful invitations to us to leave the perceptual comfort of our visions; whose verbal train of abracadabras are portals out of our reality-tunnels. They teach us that nothing is what it is, that what we see is actually ‘how’ we see, and that new worlds are woven intimately into the fabric of the normal. Bayo Akomolafe (2013)
The trickster is not a person per se, it can be an act, a god, an idea. Tricksters can show us how sensing changes us, and by changing, we are in return changing our senses. We need to pay attention to the ways of the trickster and how she operates, where she hides and lurks in the cracks or in the shadows. She is not there to intentionally deceive us, but to invite us into entering a new world of senses that we are currently missing out on.
Sensing can be a different way of learning without the need to articulate or reproduce, as a more generative way of acquiring knowledge as my friend Craig Slee would put it. As in letting go of the desire to be productive, but instead enjoying small and meaningful experiences, nurturing little, seemingly useless insights. Trusting that, down the line, what we are sensing in the present might make sense in the future when the time is right.
So what is it like to be an insect? How animals and plants operate is still largely a mystery to us, and we should move beyond this human centred approach in trying to make sense of it.