Limits of the Written

This blog has already cited several written policies, agreements, and other documents from Twin Oaks.  Referring to written documents will likely continue.  However, it is also important to explore the relationship between what is written and what is actually practiced, and the continual dynamics between the two.

Written documents, as have already been referred to in previous posts, can tell us a lot about the structure of a given society and their culture.  However, there are many limits to what we can know from written documents:

  • There is often a gap between what is written, especially with broader goals and vision, and current practices.  It would certainly be convenient if the stated vision of a community accurately described the common goals of the individuals in that community, but there is often a disconnect between the two.
  • Even with formal government structures and processes, written documents often do not accurately describe how those systems function in practice.  Reading the relevant sections of the US Constitution or the standing rules of the Senate would only in the most general ways prepare an appointed Senator with no political experience for getting legislation passed. Things like lobbyists, the bureaucracy, campaign donations, and intra-party dynamics are simply not explained anywhere in those documents.  Those systems are often so complex and situation specific, that in most circumstances it would be difficult to produce an overall general operational guide to explain how all of those competing interests will generally function.  Network analysis starts to scratch the surface in explaining these dynamics, but often usually just comes up with creative visualizations to show the complexity of a given system.
  • Many written documents do not explain the purpose of the given agreement/rule/policy/law.  This isn’t as relevant in dominant culture for most citizens, because all that really matters it that one does not disobey the laws and incur sanctions, which happen regardless of the reasoning of the law itself.  In PostRev societies, purpose is more relevant because those societies try to organize in a way where coercive institutions will not be as necessary, meaning people will have to follow agreements out of their own free choice because they make sense.
  • Written documents do not always in themselves explain the history behind the agreement/rule/policy/law.  § 18.2-509 of the Code of Virginia prohibits anyone from shining a bright light into a structure for animals at night “that causes such animals to panic or become injured.”  You’ve got to wonder, what happened that the state legislator felt the need to create a law about this?
  • Written documents, especially in the forms of agreements or policies, rarely give detailed insight into the daily lives of individuals, which even in the most hyper-regulated societies are not controlled to this extent.  Occasionally individual practices may be forbidden or encouraged formally, but this often only happens in more extreme situations.
  • In many modern complex systems, it is nearly impossible for any individual to have a comprehensive understanding of a complex set of legislation or administration.  There is not one lawyer on the planet that knows all the laws of the US.  There probably isn’t one who even has a complete grasp of the entire tax code, only one section of law.

The incomplete viewpoint of written documents, coupled with many social sciences’ emphasis on what is written, combine to create fields of study that try to pass off partial analyses of societies as comprehensive studies.  Often these biases are a result of the unrecognised assumptions of the culture the researcher is from, which in most fields is a culture of high levels of hierarchical organization, bureaucracy, contracts, laws, and other written documentation.  Since these are the things that are important in the researcher’s society, they often look for these things in other societies, ignoring the relevance of aspects of daily existence that are important for both societies.  Focusing on laws and regulations, changing voting patterns and party alliances, the written histories of the elite class that command others, or vast amounts of statistical information, can only tell us about those specific parts of a given society.  One can only truly gain deep understanding of how things really operate by spending significant amounts of time in a society, living as a member of that society as much as possible for a long period of time, often several years.

The previous paragraph conflicts with most of what one would learn, train for, and practice in various social sciences in academia, because it is not possible to acomplish soley by reading books in ivory towers.  One of my motivations for writing this blog is to explain a variety of systems and structures of core importance that are not written, instead existing as a result of routine practice, commonly understood yet unwritten systems, or other various parts of daily life that are not written.  Later posts will focus on the dynamics between what is written and what is actually practiced (both in general dynamics and specific areas), but also on these unwitten systems that are very essential to the functioning of PostRev society.

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~ by Ethan Tupelo on 02009.07.23.

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