What have ISIS & SISI to do with poetry & snakes?

[ by Charles Cameron — on The utility, as PR Beckman puts it, of the Poetic Imagination — with intelligence analysts in mind, and starring Orit Perlov ]

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It’s a cognitive thing.

You may or may not be familiar with the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan‘s poem of that name, but it runs like this:

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs Zs zs zs z

To the poet, this is play, play with words and letters, meaning and form — and Morgan’s fellow poet, Jonathan Williams (aka “Jargonathan”) thought highly enough of it to offer it to Doyle Moore of the Finial Press for interpretation, printing the results in the Jargon Press book seen above. One of the finer results was this one, produced by Moore’ students / studio at the Graphic Design Department at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana:

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And what has this to do with ISIS, or the sixth President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi?

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It’s a cognitive matter.

The poet instinctively plays with, delights in, form. And form in its essence is pattern — one of the simplest and most engaging of forms being symmetry.

Poets, of course, are of no importance compared with intelligence analysts — despite being considered “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” by one of their own. Physicists, however, can be taken a little more seriously than poets in our technologically brilliant age, and even physicists succumb to the beauties of symmetry. Quoth the Stanford Encyclopedia of Physics:

Symmetry considerations dominate modern fundamental physics, both in quantum theory and in relativity.

Quoth David Gross in The role of symmetry in fundamental physics:

Einstein’s great advance in 1905 was to put symmetry first, to regard the symmetry principle as the primary feature of nature that constrains the allowable dynamical laws.

Oh, read on, read how symmetry was hiding in plain sight in the works of the Greeks, of KeplerNewtonGalileoMaxwell and Lorentz.

But again, what has this to do with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi?

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It’s a style of exploring, comprehending, and explaining, the world. A cognitive thing.

Journalists — and the editors imposing headlines on them — not infrequently enjoy a little symmetry. And so it is that the New York Times yesterday posted Thomas Friedman‘s piece titled ISIS and SISI.

Friedman obviously liked the symmetry enough to write about it, his editor liked it enough to make or keep it as the title of Frienman’s piece, and as Friedman himself tells us in his article, the first person to delight in this particular symmetry was the Israeli analyst Orit Perlov, who tweeted back in October last:

An analyst.

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Noting that the ISIS SISI juxtaposition that Perlov remarked on resembles the SZ ZS symmetry that delighted Edwin Morgan, Jonathan Williams and myself adds nothing practical to my knowledge of either President Sisi nor ISIS, any more than Edwin Morgan’s serpent tells me anything useful about Hungarian snake-bite risk-avoidance.

It tells me, however, that Orit Perlov is a sharp cookie, an analyst to follow.  It’s a cognitive thing.

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The taste for form, and specifically the habit of noticing and appreciating symmetries, is something we all share to some degree — but to sharpen it from an occasional human mode of cognition into a tool, a mastery of instinctive pattern-recognition, is more like an acquired taste.

Orit Perlov, I deduce, is a connoisseur — she will notice thing that many other analysts will overlook, because she has acquired that taste.

I’m posting this, because I’m a poet by vocation, and because I find myself practicing a poet’s version of open source intelligence analysis as I attempt to explore, comprehend, and explain the various ways in which religion plays out in the violence that plagues our world.

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And I’m posting it because as a poet-analyst hybrid, I can perhaps provide some further insight into the significant ideas presented by PR Beckman in Reflections on the Utility of the Poetic Imagination — an important (“must read”) post addressed to the military and decision-makers rather than to analysts, but equally relevant IMO to the analytic profession.

In that piece, Beckman writes:

I had been thinking about the potential utility of the poetic or aesthetic imagination in the context of the national debate about the value of various college majors. Too often this debate resulted in the STEM subjects being touted as the answer to our problems and literature and the arts reduced to “nice to have” not “need to have” subjects. But I think that we need them more than we realize. One of the challenges is that the utility of the STEM subjects is obvious especially in heavily tech-oriented organizations like the military, whereas literature and the arts don’t have that same obvious utility. I believe there is a utility here, but it is not ready-made for us, rather it is something we are going to have to discover (and that is actually a great opportunity.) Whether it is in the military or other institutions, I do believe that this is indeed “a job for poets.” But in order to demonstrate this we have to identify what the poetic imagination brings to the table and develop methodology for practically applying the poetic imagination.

My purpose in this post is to reveal one small corner of “what the poetic imagination brings to the table” — and to do so without foregoing my own poetic imagination for the emaciated and etiolated prose of a white paper or power-point brief.

In my HipBone Games and Cath Styles’ and my Sembl venture, one aspect of the larger vision we both hold is to “develop methodology for practically applying the poetic imagination”. It’s a cognitive thing — and analysts (and any others interested in creative insight) would do well to add this style of cognition to their world-reading arsenal.

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