Epic change: Foucault on ‘today’ as a moment of vision

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We are living though remarkable times. Digital technologies are disrupting societies around the world, while our economies putter fitfully in and out of recession, and climate change sweeps whole suburbs into the sea. What is most remarkable about these times is how few people attend to their changing nature. Many people invest time and energy in distracting or shielding themselves from the changes that define the present. Even those who engage the present tend to treat it selectively, singling out those aspects of the historical moment that are relevant to their occupation and interests and zeroing in on them while ignoring the rest.

It’s time that we all took stock of the amazing times we live in. Because what we need today, more than anything else, are leaders – people that are capable of synthesising the chaos of the present, engaging with these changes and steering us through them. We need circuit-breakers, disruptors, people who look for opportunities in a crisis – people with the resilience to confront the present as a moment of crisis, the agility to mobilize multiple resources to deal with it, and the vision to mark new paths into the future. Today, our challenges are global in scope, yet so are our opportunities. The breakthrough initiatives that will define the coming decades will connect challenges and opportunities in unforeseen ways, putting us on paths towards goals that previous generations didn’t know existed. The great leaders of history have always been disruptive thinkers.

It boils down to a passion for epic change – a passion to redetermine the future. Epic change is not something that one can do by oneself. People who are serious about epic change know that the correct point of focus on the matter is not to say: ‘How can I change the world?’ but: ‘How can I participate in the most effective manner in the changes that are happening around me today, to accelerate these changes and help nudge history in the right direction?’

Foucault_headThe French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) spent his life engaging the present as a moment of change. Foucault was not a system-builder, but a philosopher of the present. No matter how abstract or erudite his topics of inquiry, he was fundamentally concerned with the shifting, changing, world about him. Most philosophers start (if only implicitly) with a point of view on truth and the metaphysical nature of things. Foucault started with a situated vision on how things are changing today. Foucault would ask how he might contribute to these changes so that he too was changed by the experience. This was the point of doing philosophy, for Foucault: to learn to engage with change in such a way that he was transformed in the process.

Follow Foucault’s example and treat the present as a life-changing opportunity. Looking below, you’ll find an exercise that can help you achieve this. Before you start the exercise, take out a sheet of A4 paper and draw up a chart with three column and multiple rows. Head up the columns with the following questions: [1] What is going on? [2] What does it mean? and [3] How should I change?

You are now ready to start. Follow the steps of the exercise as carefully as you can.

STEP 1. Heroize the present. Ask yourself:

‘Out of all that’s happening today, what developments stand to have the greatest impact on the future? What are the signature developments of the present day, by which it will be remembered in years to come?’

STEP 1.1. Try to identify three developments that, in your view, define the present as an important historical moment. Write these developments in the left-hand column of the chart.

FOR EXAMPLE:

What’s going on? What does it mean? How should I change?
The government is taking climate change seriously – at last!
 The social web is changing everything
Rising fuel and electricity costs are cutting into consumers’ spending power

STEP 2. Transfigure the present. Have confidence in your convictions. Assume that the events that you’ve listed represent real developments that will continue to impact on society in the future. Try to imagine the unfolding of these events into the future. Ask yourself:

 ‘What are the implications of the changes that I’ve identified? If these represent ongoing trajectories of change, how will they impact my life and world?’

STEP 2.1. Record your reflections in the central column of the chart.

FOR EXAMPLE:

What’s going on? What does it mean? How should I change?
The government is taking climate change seriously – at last! We can still avoid the worst effects of climate change – but only if we commit ourselves to rapidly decarbonizing society.
The social web is changing everything We are connected and co-creative. People want to take advantage of the opportunities
Rising fuel and electricity costs are cutting into consumers’ spending power We are in perilous situation. A spike in interest rates could push us back into recession

STEP 3. Commit yourself to change. How might you interface with the developments that you have identified in your chart in a way that would allow you to grow from the experience and take your life in new directions? Ask yourself:

‘How should I engage with these events? How might I participate in what is happening today in order to make this historical time my time?’

STEP 3.1. Write your reflections in the right-hand column of the chart.

FOR EXAMPLE:

What’s going on?

What does it mean? How should I change?

The government is taking climate change seriously – at last!

We can still avoid the worst effects of climate change – but only if we commit ourselves to rapidly decarbonizing society.

Sign up to green power, join a car share system, eat less meat

The social web is changing everything

We are connected and co-creative. People want to take advantage of the opportunities

Take the plunge, join Twitter! Look into implementing social tools across my business

Rising fuel and electricity costs are cutting into consumers’ spending power We are in perilous situation. A spike in interest rates could push us back into recession

Join a food coop. Get out of debt

LESSON: Inspire a passion for epic change by situating yourself at the heart of the present and asking how you could contribute to the future. Attend to the changes around you, imagine the world otherwise than it is, and commit yourself to the opportunities revealed.

Comments

  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful post. You are very right in saying that these are times of epic change and yes, not everyone is keen to embrace changes as radical as those we see today Thanks for your suggestions, they are worth some serious thought and a good try. 🙂

  2. David Airth says:

    Tim,

    Thanks for the change. I like the idea of change. If only we could change gradually and uniformly. That is perhaps why we get these big jolts of change now and then, because we can’t do it gently or rationally. Look at Egypt today. Why couldn’t it have changed and reformed incrementally instead of having this big burst all at once that seems to be causing more havoc than it is worth.

    Change is a difficult thing. Most of us are reluctant or unwilling to do it. I don’t think it is all about leadership because often it doesn’t materialize. I believe it has to do more with a governing system, a system that will provoke change automatically. I think a lot of us already live in such a system. It’s a system whose middle name is change. It is always in flux and agile. Its name is liberal democracy. All other systems of governance collapsed because they refused to change or were inherently incapable of change. Take communism for instance.

  3. Tim Rayner — What a beautifully written post! The need for epic change and leaders who have the consciousness, compassion, commitment, courage and capacity to step up to the task of serving as evolutionary architects/entrepreneurs is wonderfully advanced. However, I was a bit let down at the end. Our challenge has many more dimensions than one might infer from your simple analysis process. Do watch this fascinating video by Bill Reed, a Boston architect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFzEI1rZG_U

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your kind words and feedback. I agree that my examples in the exercise fall far short of a solution to our state of compounded crises. They are really only placeholders for the reader’s own responses.

      Thanks for the link to the video. I’ll check it out. A whole systems approach is vital.

      Tim

  4. David Airth says:

    It seems I am out of step with this post on change. It talks more about personal change than systemic change. But personal change does not always amount to much if you can’t change a culture or a society. One problem is how to change enough individual minds in order to change culture and society as a whole. Most of the time it is a long drawn out process that can take generations. For example, look how long it took America to address segregation (and reach a consensus), which still shows pockets of resistance.

    • Thanks, David. I always enjoy and appreciate your comments.

      Yes, the focus here is on personal change, but systems change is part of the picture too. The key thought is that broad-scale social changes can be genuine personal opportunities – providing that we engage these changes creatively and with vision. It seems to me that this proactive outlook on change is sorely lacking in the contemporary world, and obviously valuable given the great changes and challenges of our time. This outlook is pivotal to social enterprise and entrepreneurship generally, I think. We need more of it! This was my motivation to write the post.

      A passion for epic change is obviously not enough to change the world, this is true. But without this passion, social (and socially transformative) enterprise would probably not exist, and where would we be then?

      Kind regards,
      Tim

  5. Tim, I love what you are doing, intelligent, inspirational. So, I’ve nominated you for Blog of the year 2012 award, you are doing an amazing job! Shine on ! http://digitalculturesandtranslation.com/2012/12/15/blog-of-the-2012-year-award-nominations/

  6. David Airth says:

    I was trying to think of events that changed the world. I came up with AIDS, 9/11 and SARS. With those events there were people who took the leadership to change things so as to better the situations and ensure that those events might not happen again. Many of us did our part to change and help remedy the situations. We did it willingly but also because we had to, because the ‘system’ told us we had to. All this leads me to think is that we need big, dramatic events in our lives in order to make real significant changes. We need events that we can share in, otherwise meaningful social and political change doesn’t occur.

    Recently there have been two events that probably will make some last changes. Coincidently they both have the name Sandy – Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I think these events will eventually bring lasting change on two fronts, on climate change and gun control. And I think the leadership is there, under and within the presidency of Barack Obama.

  7. Reblogged this on dannignt's Blog and commented:
    Change, all around us.

Trackbacks

  1. […] universe, if I were to find a word that marked 2012  for me, I would borrow the expression “Epic change” from  fellow blogger Tim […]

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