An exploration of organisational networks, contextual leadership and the distinctions between competition, collaboration and cooperation. This study – comprised of blog posts, articles and an interview – relies on extensive reference to professional cycling and the different roles taken on in the peloton.
Ready to Jump
Sunday 11 September 2016. A diminutive professional road cyclist, Nairo Quintana, takes his place on the top step of the podium in the centre of Madrid. He has just secured overall victory in a Grand Tour race for the second time in his career. But things could have turned out so differently were it not for the spirit of adventure that Quintana and his teammates had demonstrated the previous Sunday…
For all the focus on the individual, winning unique stages, overall races, classification jerseys and intermediate sprints, road racing is in fact a team event. It is played out against a backdrop of numerous interacting systems – competing teams, event organisation, municipal authorities for the host towns, policing, media embedded within the race, team cars, support vehicles, spectators on the roadside, weather, terrain, course routes and road furniture. The passage of the cycling peloton itself – that swarming mass of lycra-clad teammates and competitors – is complex and adaptive. The peloton formation, in its responsiveness and fluidity, serves as a useful metaphor for an aspirational modern organisation.
The peloton is characterised by constant shifts between competition, collaboration and cooperation. Leadership is always in motion rather than remaining static, a baton that is passed off and handed back again, determined by day-to-day and overall objectives for the team. Leaders become followers, servants become leaders, as the road flattens or climbs, as the wind strengthens or tarmac gives way to cobblestones. Emphasis is placed on time-bound actions and relationships; forming or chasing down a breakaway, setting up a sprint finish, helping a teammate make their way back to the main group after a mechanical failure.
Alliances of mutual convenience take shape and then shatter as competitors accommodate contextual shifts. Teams operate within loose frameworks, exercising personal and collective autonomy, as they amend their plans. Decisions are made on the fly, in recognition of changes in weather, incidents on the road, the health and form of colleagues, as well as in response to the actions of riders from other teams. The roles an individual fulfils are in a constant state of flux.
Members of a nine-man Grand Tour team, assembled for the annual editions of the three-week Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will assume a variety of responsibilities. Some will defend against breakaway attempts. Others will collect water bottles from the team cars. Some will shelter the day’s designated leader from the wind, while that leader will aim to conserve energy for the final sprint or climb, or for key stages later in the week. All, though, are alert to opportunities to break free from the peloton’s grip and enjoy a day in front of the television cameras. For several teams, lacking the personnel for overall victory, exposing your corporate sponsor’s logo to a global audience is the ultimate objective. Brand awareness leads to revenue; a sponsor’s income can translate into ongoing financial viability for the team.
An effective road racer, with aspirations to win a Grand Tour, tends to master several disciplines. Invariably, they are extremely competent climbers, often to be seen at the front of the race as it reaches its highest slopes. Often they are highly proficient against the time trial clock too, the ultimate test in performance measurement. The very best are also characterised by their inner strength, their responsiveness and occasional opportunism.
Being serial masters, the Grand Tour contenders seem better able to play what is in front of them, rewriting the day’s plans when necessary, gambling where they believe the calculated reward will outweigh the potential risk. Without that mastery and responsiveness, it is difficult to adapt to and rectify major problems. Even more so to take advantage of the serendipitous opportunity. Individual initiative will often be amplified and consolidated by the supporting actions of teammates.
At the start of the 2016 Tour de France, three riders were considered potential winners: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador. This was founded in part on their own form and palmarès and, in particular, on the collective abilities of their respective Sky, Movistar and Tinkoff teams. It was expected that the big three would mark each other closely, with only injury, illness or individual opportunism likely to differentiate before their rivalry was played out on the most vertiginous of the Tour’s ascents.
As things transpired, all three came into play. Contador succumbed to the effects of crashes early in the race, while Quintana’s own performance was inhibited throughout by illness. This was exacerbated by Froome’s willingness to do the unexpected; to go against the unfair stereotype he bears of being a robotic rider in thrall to the data available on his cycling computer and the instructions received from sporting directors through his earpiece.
Froome is renowned for his sudden accelerations on the Pyrenean and Alpine climbs. Rival teams watch closely, preparing to respond, either accompanying him as he breaks away from the peloton, or neutralising his efforts. On stage 8 of the Tour, there was some relief as the summit of the Col de Peyresourde was attained with the leading group intact.
As Quintana reached for his water bottle, however, Froome attacked as the road dropped downhill, assuming an ungainly and uncomfortable position on the crossbar of his road bike. It proved to be a turning point in the race, laying the foundations for Froome’s overall victory, expertly marshalled and supported by his teammates over the remaining thirteen stages.
Seize the day
At the start of the Vuelta a España in mid-August, the names of the same three contenders for overall victory were on everyone’s lips. New variables were in play. How well had Contador recovered from his injuries, Quintana from illness, Froome from his efforts at both the Tour and the Olympics, where he had medalled in the time trial event? How would the apparently weaker Tinkoff and Sky teams respond to the collective strength of the Movistar squad? How would Froome cope without his Tour wingman Wout Poels?
In recent editions, the Vuelta has become known for its challenging climbs and searing heat. The 2016 race had been designed with several mountain-top finishes that would serve as enticing canvases for the climbing artists. One stage, though, stood out in the final week: an individual time trial, which many believed favoured Froome. If other aspirants to overall victory wished to take the sting out of that particular day, then they would need to accumulate a significant time advantage.
In the Vuelta, time can be gained in two ways. First, by finishing ahead of your competitors, thereby securing a time gap over them. Second, by winning the stage or finishing high up on it, particularly on the more difficult climbs, thereby earning time bonuses. The rider who has the lowest overall time after three weeks is declared the winner of the race.
Teamwork becomes essential, therefore, as members of a squad sacrifice their own prospects of finishing high up on the general classification in order to ensure that a colleague does. Trust-based relationships and collaboration informed by a shared purpose define the dynamics of the team. Often, however, there is a need for this to be supplemented by cooperation with riders from rival teams. These temporary alliances are mutually convenient as the pursuit of distinct goals are benefited by working together.
The Vuelta started with a team time trial, which immediately disadvantaged Contador, as his underperforming team lost time to the other overall contenders. This recast him in the role of agitator, of opportunistic forager, seeking out ways to regain time and a spot on the podium, if not overall victory. His actions later in the race would benefit Quintana, who soon established himself as the rider to watch on the steepest of slopes, assuming race leadership by the midpoint of the Vuelta.
On paper, stage 15 looked like it would be short but explosive. Only 118km in length, from Sabiñánigo to Aramon Formigal, it had a lumpy profile, with three classified climbs, culminating in a mountain-top finish. With 112km still to race, and the peloton already on the first of the day’s ramps, Contador made the jump. His attack was marked by Quintana, and together they formed an alliance, each with two teammates alongside them, as they pulled away as part of the day’s breakaway. A gamble was rapidly translated into a race-transforming opportunity.
Froome was left behind, and as the day progressed found himself isolated without teammates from Sky. Meanwhile, Quintana’s own Movistar colleagues expertly disrupted attempts to chase down the breakaway. The events of the day were as much about Quintana’s own seizing of it as the work of his team behind him. Second place on the stage, a time bonus and Froome’s loss of over two-and-a-half minutes secured the temporal buffer Quintana required prior to the time trial. Froome’s phenomenal performance in the latter suggested what might have been, with the Sky rider clawing back two-and-a-quarter minutes from Quintana. But the latter and his Movistar team had effectively won the race on 4 September.
Stories from the peloton frequently demonstrate that it is about so much more than the individual. Network effects are key, both within the clearly delimited organisation of the team, and in the messier relationships and alliances with others in the peloton. The technical policies, rules and regulations of governing bodies and event organisers give a semblance of structure to the races. But the teams use them as creative constraints, operating more under flexible frameworks than rigid plans. Without responsiveness and autonomy, without the willingness to experiment, these teams would experience little success, letting one opportunity after another pass them by.
Paradoxically, life in the peloton is about both preparing and being willing to discard a plan at a moment’s notice. It is what Harold Jarche refers to as life in perpetual beta. Complexity cannot be dealt with in simplistic terms, uncertainty is a constant, and individuals have to be willing to respond to momentary context and trust their colleagues to follow their lead. How many organisations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors do you know that operate like this?
Pelotons are able to function in the way that they do because learning and experience is embedded within them. Young riders are mentored by seasoned professionals. They learn through imitation, trial and error, developing both instinct and intuition, daring to experiment when the occasion presents itself. The sport is all about life lessons acquired on the road, the knowledge gained from numerous failures as relevant as that acquired through the occasional success. Teamwork provides firm foundations. But autonomy within loose frameworks, decision-making and accountability are all encouraged from early on. It is this crucial combination – individual action contextualised in relation to the collective – that the modern corporation, government agency and charity now need to learn.
First published by Hack & Craft News on 2 November 2016.
Peloton formations is a series of posts and articles written between 2014 and 2016. These have been collected in a single PDF document.
Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum / The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.
— Desiderius Erasmus, Adages
We are tornadoes that pick up fragments from the most varied historical and biological origins. This makes of us—thankfully—fickle agglomerations that maintain a fragile equilibrium, that are inconsistent and complex, that can’t be reduced to any fixed framework that does not inevitably leave out a great deal.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
Edges involve extremes. Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are. Crossing a border is not a simple thing. Geopolitically, getting anywhere around the world in which we live requires a constant producing of proof of identity. Who are you? You can’t cross till we’re sure. When we know, then we’ll decide whether you can or not.
— Ali Smith, Artful
The Greek poet Archilochus observed that the hedgehog knows one big thing but that the fox is curious about many things. His anthropomorphic distinction between specialism and generalism appealed to the Renaissance scholar Erasmus who included the idea in his Adages.
Isaiah Berlin popularised the concept further as he assessed the writings of Tolstoy and his Russian compatriots. He recognised the distinction between personal preference for one tendency and the lived reality of its alternative.
Philip Tetlock applied the hedgehog and fox distinctions to expertise. He realised that there was a continuum between the two. Nothing was black and white. Hybridisation was possible. Context was important for determining where one found oneself on the continuum.
But the hedgehog and the fox only told part of the story. The extremes of the continuum are the domains of the hyperspecialist and the polymath.
Given the shape of the Earth, a straight line will eventually lead back to its starting point. To chase the horizon is, eventually, to return home.
When the continuum is transformed into a circle, therefore, the hyperspecialist and the polymath find themselves nestled alongside one another. Initial surprise gives way to understanding: the polymath, in effect, is an individual who hyperspecialises multiple times over. They are serial masters.
The line and circle, however, misleadingly suggest some form of step-by-step progression. The reality is more complicated than that. As the context shifts, so does the individual. We experience hyperlinked, disjointed travels on the continuum. Sometimes we specialise, sometimes we generalise, regardless of where our preferences lie. The Möbius strip or infinite loop better reflect the experience.
The neo-generalist is an inclusive term that incorporates all the different types that appear on the continuum: the specialists, the hedgehogs, the foxes, the renaissance men and women, the multipotentialites, the multi-hyphenates, the jacks of all trades, the Pi-shaped, the comb-shaped, the T-shaped (even if they are often miscategorised, misunderstood)* and the polymathic generalists.
In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how those with a preference for polymathic generalism nevertheless find themselves in constant and restless motion, responding and adapting to context. We illustrate our argument with stories drawn from interviewees, historical figures, business, activism, science, sport, the military, art and popular culture.
You can see how these various musings provide a theoretical foundation for our exploration of neo-generalism in chapter two of the book. Our personal stories are mapped to the specialist–generalist continuum in chapter three.
‘This isn’t just an ordinary up-and-down lift!’ announced Mr Wonka proudly. ‘This lift can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of! It can visit any single room in the whole factory, no matter where it is!’ … ‘The whole lift is made of thick, clear glass!’ Mr Wonka declared. ‘Walls. doors, ceiling, floor, everything is made of glass so you can see out!’
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
I can’t think of a single philosophical reason why sameness should be valued over variety or incremental changes over great leaps.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking
To have a home is to have a biography. A narrative to refer to in years to come.
— Deborah Levy, Swallowing Geography
*Note: A T-shaped person tends to be a specialist (I – hedgehog) who has been given a manager’s hat. Often, this is the only way they can achieve promotion and greater remuneration. But a T-shaped person should not be confused with a polymathic generalist (WWW).
The T-shaped usually incline more towards specialism than generalism. Their knowledge and experience enable them to manage and instruct others in their area of expertise. However, as they embrace leadership responsibilities, becoming more involved in the development of other people through mentoring and coaching, or assuming cross-organisational responsibilities, they venture into generalist territory too.
This is why, in The Neo-Generalist, we argue that it is necessary to reposition the T on the specialist–generalist continuum.
The days go past like pictures on a screen.
Sometimes I feel like my life
is someone else’s dream.
— Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
No, they were
the scenery of the play now closing,
lengthy run it had.
— Sharon Olds, Object Loss
Broadcast over six seasons by CBS between 1990 and 1995, Northern Exposure follows the lives and communal interactions of a small group of people living in Cicely, Alaska; the North American equivalent of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is neo-modern television with Northern Exposure exploring issues relating to the breakdown of human interaction, the fragmentation of identity in the modern world, the debasement of love, and the beguiling power of wealth. The series indulges in extended philosophical musings through the mouthpieces of the ex-con DJ Chris Stevens (John Corbett) and his brother Bernard (Richard Cummings, Jr.), also offering a critique of capitalist ideology through the characterisation of former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin).
Northern Exposure constantly plays with audience expectations. It hybridises genres, borrowing from both comic and dramatic traditions, variously combining elements of romantic comedy and soap opera with aspects of the western and period drama. The series explores, undermines and collapses the distinctions between East and West, frontier and civilisation, science and mysticism, male and female, past and present. Like Macondo, Cicely becomes a mythical space; a repository of all human experiences, philosophies and civilisations.
This is a place where different cultures, religions, ideologies, even psychic spaces become shared. Cicely is where temporal, spatial and personal divisions can be elided. Various episodes concern the town’s founding as a haven of social and sexual freedom by two lesbians in the 1890s (‘Cicely’, third season, final episode), Joel Fleischman’s (Rob Morrow) dream of New York high society (‘Dinner at Seven-Thirty’, sixth season, first episode) and Marilyn Whirlwind’s (Elaine Miles) story of the visit of a Russian princess to the town (‘Zarya’, sixth season, sixth episode). In Cicely, the eternal present reigns, and the discovery of Napoleonic warriors and mammoths, visitations from ghosts and Green Men, or characters sharing or exchanging dreams are treated as commonplace.
The manner in which Northern Exposure subtly and overtly challenges our preconceptions is strengthened by the way in which it promotes its own status as a cultural artefact. It frequently draws attention to communication technology, artistic creativity and cultural consumption through Chris’s learned radio show and his avant-garde sculptures, Ed Chigliak’s (Darren E. Burrows) cinemania and the visitations to Cicely by a variety of artists, filmmakers and performers. The dialogue is also packed with knowing references to famous historical figures, writers, filmmakers, philosophers and scientists.
The episode titles, too, are richly allusive, as witness ‘Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes’ (first season, sixth episode), ‘War and Peace’ (second season, sixth episode), ‘Jules et Joel’ (third season, fifth episode), ‘Crime and Punishment’ (fourth season, tenth episode), and ‘A River Doesn’t Run Through It’ (fifth season, fifth episode). At times, as in the opening to ‘Up River’, broadcast in the sixth and final season, Northern Exposure also parodies famous literary passages and film scenes. In this case, the protagonist’s river voyage of both Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of it, the film Apocalypse Now.
Through its six-season run, Northern Exposure frequently tackles the topic of mythology. This is achieved through characters referencing theoretical studies of myth such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman. It is also done through narrative structure. Campbell’s hero adventure, for example, serves as the model for one of the key episodes of the sixth season, ‘The Quest’. In this episode Joel and Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) seek out the Jewelled City of the North, culminating with Joel’s return to New York City, his personal grail ever since he was first assigned to the remote Alaskan outpost of Cicely in the series’ pilot episode.
Beyond this fantasy, myth and dreamworlds permeate all 110 episodes of Northern Exposure, serving to create a magical-realist universe in which the fantastic and the commonplace are treated equally. The daily activities of Joel, Maggie, Chris, Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips) and Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) catering to their community as doctor, pilot, DJ, general store owner and bar proprietor respectively, are juxtaposed with explorations of magic, myth, ritual, shamanism and dreamworlds.
In many episodes, the Native American characters become associated with these more magical and mythical elements. The differences between their worldview and that of city characters like Joel is eloquently suggested, for example, in their alternative approaches to medicine. Episodes such as ‘Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence’ (first season, second episode), ‘Russian Flu’ (first season, fifth episode), ‘Wake Up Call’ (third season, nineteenth episode) and ‘Three Doctors’ (fifth season, first episode) juxtapose, often to comic effect, Joel’s scientific approach to medicine with the magic of his Native American counterparts. It is the industrial world and its practices butting up against traditions drawn from the nomadic and agricultural eras. Notions of progress and superiority are challenged and undermined.
The fantastic, however, is not the exclusive domain of the Native Americans. Chris, for one, actively seeks out fantastic experiences, and they also become part of the Cicely lifestyle for many of the other characters. Ed, for example, is hounded by a dwarf-like demon known as the Green Man (Phil Fondacaro) whenever he experiences self-doubt. Many of the town’s inhabitants are constantly dreaming, blurring fantasy and reality, and, at times, even experiencing one another’s dreamworlds, as in ‘Aurora Borealis’ (first season, eighth episode) and ‘Mr. Sandman’ (fifth season, twelfth episode).
Joel, on two occasions, in ‘Fish Story’ (fifth season, eighteenth episode) and ‘Shofar, So Good’ (sixth season, third episode), is visited by the ghost of Rabbi Schulman (Jerry Adler), who, in the latter episode is accompanied by the ghosts of Yom Kippur past, present and future. Fantastic communal events, also occur with some regularity, highlighting biases and stereotypes. In ‘Horns’ (sixth season, thirteenth episode), for example, bottled Cicely water has the effect of reversing gender behaviour in the community.
As with so much art, Northern Exposure captures the zeitgeist of its time. Its revisiting of themes that obsessed the modernists of the pre-WWII era is not coincidental. History has a tendency to both progress and echo. Artists are often part of the advance party, gauging the temperature, spotting trends. A couple of decades on from Northern Exposure and we have witnessed a period of financial boom and bust, the revival of extremist political ideologies, unpleasant rhetoric about nationalism and migration, land grabs and military muscle-flexing, and dramatic and accelerated advancement in our communication technology, as well as in our governments’ monitoring of it.
During this period, we have also seen an increasing number of people question the status quo, our leadership models, our social structures, our approaches to education and work, our rampant disregard for the environment, our very purpose on this planet. Surely there is a better way, they suggest. Surely we can make a difference together rather pursuing the path of increased fragmentation, of separation by borders and walls, of differentiation through race, belief, gender and age.
One of the most fascinating things about Northern Exposure is its portrait of community. Cicely is a small town that celebrates diversity, that welcomes in, adapts to and absorbs outsiders – with key characters like Joel, Chris, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary) and Mike Monroe (Anthony Edwards) among them. It is a community that functions both as macrocosm and microcosm in the shape of smaller groupings centred around the bar, grocery store, radio studio and medical practice. This is a collaborative, cooperative community, made up of interactive cells of people, with several individuals flowing freely between them, sharing ideas, inspiring others to action.
Northern Exposure reminds us of our shared and enduring stories. Our myths, fables, paintings and films entertainment, inspire and educate. They foster self-understanding and appreciation of our communities. They remind us of how we dealt with the problems of the past, providing the scaffolding for how we will address the future. Our stories are time capsules of the human experience.
It would be a scrapbook, a collage, a graphic novel, a dissolving of the boundaries between forms because Crow is a trickster, he is ancient and post-modern, illustrator, editor, vandal.
— Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen
The Eye of I
Now, before Daedalus left Crete, he had given Ariadne a magic ball of thread, and instructed her how to enter and leave the Labyrinth. She must open the entrance door and tie the loose end of the thread to the lintel; the ball would then roll along, diminishing as it went and making, with devious twists and turns, for the innermost recess where the Minotaur was lodged. This ball Ariadne gave to Theseus, and instructed him to follow it until he reached the sleeping monster, whom he must seize by the hair and sacrifice to Poseidon. He could then find his way back by rolling up the thread into a ball again.
— Robert Graves, The Greek Myths
For centuries Daedalus has represented the type of artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested, almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of his time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought—single hearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
But such experience can only be hinted atIn myths and images. To speak about itWe talk of darkness, labyrinths, Minotaur terrors.But that world does not take the place of this one.
— T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
Within the extensive grounds that surround Leeds Castle in Kent, stands a relatively modern maze. It is a puzzle of topiary and pathways to be solved by the wandering visitor. At the centre of the maze can be found both an underground grotto and a viewing platform. From the vantage point of the latter, you can see the circular patterns of the maze contained within a square. Observing the bobbing heads of others undergoing the challenge, the route to the grotto reveals itself. Instructions are shouted by those in the know – who have completed the journey – to those lost in the maze’s cul-de-sacs, as well as to those pressed for time and in a rush to reach the centre. The secrets, once discerned, are shared. Friends and family are called to the I at the centre of the web.
The maze (with choices to be made en route) and the labyrinth (with only one pathway) are concepts, both spatial and metaphorical, that were documented in Antiquity and popularised in the Middle Ages. They have retained their allure, often used interchangeably, through the literature and art of modernism and postmodernism. The figure of Daedalus, for example, who designed the Cretan labyrinth that housed the Minotaur, resurfaces in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. Stephen walks the streets of Dublin, the city-as-labyrinth. In the same year, T. S. Eliot revived the figure of Tiresias who sits at the centre of The Waste Land, his poem-as-labyrinth. In this figure, time, place and people converge: past and present, Ancient Greece and contemporary London, masculinity and femininity, vision and blindness. Tiresias is another I that sits at the centre of the web.
Jorge Luis Borges continued the modernist agenda with tales of literary detection and creation, dreams and maps. In essence, his short stories revolve around the motifs of all time as one time, all places as one place, all people as one person. His influence on fellow Latin American authors was immense. So too, as Gerald Martin documents in Journeys Through the Labyrinth, was that of Joyce’s Ulysses on a group of writers drawn to postmodern practices and the sub-genre of magical realism. Authors like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez self-consciously produced examples of the novel-as-labyrinth.
Márquez’s monumental One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, is packed with characters bearing the same name (all people as one person), a location – Macondo – in which all time and places converge, and a Tiresias-like character in the figure of Melquíades. Cortázar’s Hopscotch, on the other hand, is a formal experimentation, a literary maze, offering the reader multiple choices in how to read the book. This is hyperlinking decades before the invention of the World Wide Web. The labyrinth appears overtly in titles from the region, too, as witness Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth.
Running in parallel with the modernist writers and their postmodern followers were the hardboiled authors and noir filmmakers. In their works, the city-as-labyrinth forms the backdrop to feats of detection and sense-making. Invariably, echoing Oedipus (another figure from Antiquity with a Tiresian connection), the hardboiled figures of detection found themselves implicit in the mysteries they unravelled, from Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op to the protagonist of Memento. Journeying to the labyrinth’s centre, it was themselves they found waiting there. Another I ensnared in the web’s strands.
In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco draws on these characteristics of the detective narrative, borrowing from both the ratiocinative and hardboiled traditions, packaging them together with the interests and motifs of the Latin American authors. In his work, the sightless Tiresias morphs into the sightless Borges, thinly disguised as Jorge de Burgos, a blind guardian of the world’s knowledge. The question of sight, of vision, of perspective is an important one.
The I at the centre of the labyrinth is an encapsulation of personal journeys, personal narratives, rather than an emblem of narcissism. Wherever I go, there I am. In his hero adventure, Joseph Campbell owes much to Carl Jung’s ideas about individuation. He outlines a journey towards self-knowledge, an integration of the various aspects of an individual’s personality as represented by different archetypal figures. This is a notion echoed in Abraham Maslow’s progression to self-actualisation. Part of the journey requires that certain beasts – fears, misconceptions – are laid waste along the way. Crossing the threshold with Ariadne’s spool in hand, requires movement into a liminal state. Old-world thinking has to be displaced.
It is impossible to remove ourselves from the sense-making process. We cannot separate ourselves from our own subjectivity however much we may seek to empathise with other perspectives. Our modern labyrinths are the networks that we inhabit, both physical and digital. The nodes in the network become archetypal expressions of aspects of ourselves, our interests, who and where we are. We map our networks from ourselves, always finding I as a central hub. We may look to the edges, but like a spider adapting to minute shifts on its web, we are pulled to the middle again and again; Ariadne’s thread unwinding until it has led us home, where we are both detective and Minotaur.
Just like Neo in The Matrix, we see the code, heed the advice of the blind guardian of knowledge, yet play our role in the system. Our modern struggles, our quest for self-expression and agency, our bucking against the industrial machine, are timeless. A story for the ages. All time as one time, all places as one place, all people as one person. All viewed from the eye of I.
The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter and you might not emerge.
— Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Words, words that make me think. Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spiderweb at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror.— Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Aleph’
There is no single, “correct” view.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening
All our lives, every day, we constantly remake ourselves, reinvent ourselves, layer after layer, mask after mask. Maybe when finally we peel off all the masks there’s nothing left.
— James Sallis, Eye of the Cricket
The moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
No matter how far we travel along the path of truth, we will never arrive at a pure truth independent of falsity and error.
— Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan
Oedipus. The first great detective of Western culture. Like the ratiocinative detectives made popular in the 19th century, he used logic to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. But like the world-weary sleuths of the hardboiled tradition that followed, he found himself implicit in the mysteries he unravelled. The new knowledge he acquired became unbearable, resulting in him striking out his eyes in an attempt to dull one of his senses. In doing so he signified his intent to disconnect from the world around him, to deny himself one source of data to process and digest.
The truth revealed to Oedipus in his transition from a state of not knowing to one of knowledge filled him with horror. It induced in him an unrealisable desire to return to his former ignorant condition. But it also saw him take responsibility and accountability for his actions. New knowledge had to be confronted, assimilated and acted upon. He was unaware that the man he fought and killed was his father, or that the woman he subsequently married was his mother. When the mists of not knowing were burned away by the light of knowledge, he took ownership of his actions.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera uses his male protagonist, Tomas, to produce a treatise on the Oedipus narrative. Analogies drawn are unfavourable for the Communist leaders in 1960s Czechoslovakia whose actions are perceived to have removed national liberty at the expense of Soviet subservience. Their argument that they were blameless and did not know what the outcome of their actions would be are derided. This is the defence of those who abdicate responsibility, who use not knowing as a shelter rather than as the motivation to acquire learning and experience, to satisfy curiosity. It is the excuse of the War criminal, the self-interested CEO, the maligned politician.
There is a balancing act to be played with not knowing. On the one hand, there is a learning journey to be experienced as one acquires knowledge in a particular subject, following a breadcrumb trail of curiosity that forever leads to the boundaries of the unknown. On the other hand, there is a willingness to be comfortable with not knowing. An acceptance that no one individual can know everything, that there is no right answer. Marcelo Gleiser’s fascinating book The Island of Knowledge illustrates, particularly in relation to scientific progress, that what appears self-evident and obvious today can seem wholly inaccurate a few decades hence as we add to the vast pool of the known. Yesterday’s right answer is tomorrow’s monumental error.
When I wrote my first book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, on the evolution of film noir in the context of industrial, cultural and socio-political change, I deliberately opted not to include a proper conclusion. I was criticised for this in reviews, but my feeling then and now was that I was describing something that had not yet finished. There was no definitive answer to offer. Everything that had gone before in the previous pages was impressionistic, filtered through my subjective perspective. I offered it up as one view among many. The book was an invitation to conversation and further discussion, not the closure of a debate.
Perhaps my suspicion of the expert stems from that time and guides some of my research into neo-generalism. Having immersed myself in several industries and the endless streams of words and images that shape our social media, I am left with two reflections. First, that we live in a world of hypothesis and speculation. Second, that there is an overriding tendency among experts to impose their own preferences, to shape concrete opinions from them with which they seek to indoctrinate others. I can never know to what extent they delude themselves, firmly believing in the rightness of their convictions. However, when I see their platitudes and artful self-marketing shared online I am reminded of the line from James Sallis’s poem ‘Manumissions’: ‘Each morning they tell us eloquent, beautiful lies’.
Words and images deceive. Yet all gets amplified in this era defined by constant sharing and the fear of missing out. We have to remember, too, that the culture that surrounds us is often one of performance and masks. As Kundera suggests, being observed, having awareness of it, affects our behaviour and actions. While I have advocated the notion of working out loud, there are times when I wonder to what extent this becomes performance instead, self-limited and self-directed. Does the power of observation, awareness of our place on the stage, affect what we do, the filters we deploy, the stories we tell, how and what we share? In Unbearable Lightness, Kundera offers an interesting perspective on openness and transparency too, through the figure of Sabina. For her, the willing surrender of one’s privacy is monstrous. She is highly selective, therefore, about what she reveals about herself and to whom.
As individuals, there is something about straddling both the known and the not-known, balancing the open and the private. In recent weeks, I have been rethinking my own presence on the internet, what I am happy to share, what I want to withhold, where I want to hang out with friends and colleagues online, and where I feel wholly uncomfortable. It has led me to withdraw from certain platforms and communities, to re-visit how I filter, to be more selective about what I share and where. This is motivated by a desire to find more meaningful connections with fellow travellers, the curious and adventurous, who accept that the knowledge they acquire is ephemeral, soon to be displaced or expanded upon.
For people like them, the neatly packaged, the ribbon-tied, is to be treated with suspicion. They muddle through, making it up as they go along. More Lebowski than the computer-like Sherlock Holmes. Their mysteries never entirely resolve themselves, forever morphing into yet another fog of the not-known. But that is the lure. Ever expanding knowledge horizons, new questions to ponder, new opportunities in abundance. Endless possibility. But no right answer. Like Oedipus, these are liminal figures always traversing the ground between the known and the unknown.
The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge
How can we hold doubt and be truthful about the limits of knowledge on the one hand, whilst meeting other people’s expectations to be certain on the other?
— Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, Not Knowing
But she had that thing most people don’t have: curiosity. She might not have always got the right answers but she wanted to ask the questions. I value that in a person.
— Zadie Smith, NW
Something of the abysmal darkness of the world has broken in on us, poisoning the very air we breathe and befouling the pure water with the stale, nauseating taste of blood.
— C. G. Jung, Essays on Contemporary Events
In movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast, the Damned Thing, that stalks around and bends the grass as we look in vain for shade of hide or hair.
— Alexander Nemerov, Icons of Grief
Cat People (1942) was a significant film in the history of American horror cinema. It was the first in a series of low-budget feature films to be produced by Val Lewton’s unit at RKO with the aim of competing with the horror productions from other big studios such as Universal. While borrowing favoured archetypes from the Universal films of the 1930s and early 1940s, in particular that of the shapeshifting protagonist, Cat People was notable for its mise-en-scène, inventive use of sound, and its stylistic visual effects.
The latter was principally the work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, putting into effect the desire of Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur to play with shadows, engaging the imagination of the movie-going public by means of suggestion. The lighting, which at times recalled Musuraca’s earlier work on the atmospheric Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), was to influence the evolution of film noir as much as it was the 1940s horror film.
Cat People was also innovative as an example of the latter genre in locating the bulk of its narrative in a recognisably contemporary US setting, focusing on a story populated largely by everyman US citizens who are threatened by the duality and otherness of the Serbian immigrant to New York City, female protagonist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon).
The film opens in the Central Park Zoo with Irena, a fashion artist by trade, sketching in front of the panther cage. A chance encounter with ‘good old Americano’ Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), following Irena’s clumsy attempt to dispose of her first drawing, soon leads to friendship and romantic interest. Irena reveals her loneliness and sense of isolation to Oliver, while also disclosing an obsession with a mysterious cultural heritage evidenced by the many images of cats in her apartment and a statue of the Serbian King John with a cat-like figure impaled on his sword.
It becomes evident that Irena believes that she is descended from a line of devil-worshipping, lycanthropic witches who have the power to transform themselves into large predatory cats when aroused to sexual passion, jealousy or rage. She tells Oliver that she has ‘fled from the past, from things that you could never know or understand – evil things.’
An encounter with a feline-looking woman in a Serbian restaurant on the night of Irena’s and Oliver’s wedding, who addresses Irena in their native tongue as ‘my sister’, fills Irena with terror. As a result, she refuses to consummate her marriage. Oliver, despite his apparent understanding, is dismissive of Irena’s beliefs and, as his frustration mounts at the unfulfilled relationship, he increasingly seeks solace in the companionship of his work colleague and fellow draftsman Alice Moore (Jane Randolph).
With their marriage failing, Irena and Oliver decide that it would be best if she undergo treatment with a psychiatrist. Irena is not convinced by the Freudian approach adopted by Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Under hypnosis, however, she does reveal to him the history of the Serbian cat women and the fact that she appears to suffer from intermittent amnesia. Irena’s unwillingness to revisit Judd causes further tension between her and Oliver and she becomes increasingly suspicious of his burgeoning relationship with Alice.
In two celebrated sequences, Irena in panther form (although this is not seen on screen) terrorises Alice, first as she travels home through Central Park, then at the swimming pool in her YWCA building. When Oliver finally professes his love for Alice to Irena, and offers her a divorce, Irena again assumes panther form (this time explicitly shown on screen). She is on the point of attacking the couple at their workplace when Oliver, using an architect’s T-square as an improvised crucifix, beseeches her to leave them alone.
Returning home, Irena finds Judd waiting for her. While Oliver now believes all that Irena has told him regarding her shapeshifting capabilities, Judd remains entirely dismissive of her story. His interest in Irena is sexually exploitative rather than pastoral. Irena willingly submits to a kiss in the knowledge that this will trigger another transformation. In the ensuing struggle, although Judd is killed, he wounds Irena with his sword-cane, a weapon that aligns him with the statue of King John and all that he symbolises.
Irena makes her way again to the site of frequent visit: the panther’s cage at the zoo. Using the key that she has stolen from the zookeeper earlier in the film, she opens the cage in a suicidal gesture, allowing the panther to attack and kill her before it is itself run over by a police car. The film ends with the all-American couple, Oliver and Alice, walking away from the Serbian cat woman’s corpse. Normality and the patriarchal order are apparently restored.
For a 70-minute B film, Cat People is an incredibly rich cinematic experience. The film has lent itself to interpretation under a variety of critical methodologies. Genre theorists, for example, have made a case for Cat People as a horror film, a film noir, and a hybrid of the two. Auteurists have argued both in favour of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. The film has also been subjected to psycholoanalytical interrogation, drawing variously on the theories of Freud, Jung and Fromm; to feminist, queer and race analysis; and to interpretation in terms of the mythical and the fantastic.
Popular with film audiences of the forties, it subsequently was held in high esteem by a generation of film-school-educated critics, academics and filmmakers in Europe and the USA. This resulted in a remake by Paul Schrader in 1982, as well as extensive references in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. Its commercial and critical success, its enduring legacy, is suggestive of an ongoing cultural fascination with the notion of shapeshifting.
This is a tradition that includes figures like Dracula, the werewolf, Kafka’s Gregory Samsa and several characters in the Harry Potter series. In this sense, Cat People is both timeless and very much of its time, tapping into WWII-period anxieties about otherness, dislocation, exile and the rise of Fascism in Europe (panther as panzer), the self-sufficiency of women in the workforce during male absence in overseas conflicts, and the tension between tradition and modernity. All themes that we encounter still bubbling below the surface in the 2010s.
In his The Myth of the Eternal Return, philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade counterpoints archaic humans, who established their understanding of the world through magic and mythology, with modern people, who experience their lives as a linear sequence of events through historical time. In Eliade’s view, one of the contributory factors to humankind’s anxiety and existential angst is this acceptance of linearity, the abandonment of mythical thought and the resulting ‘terror of history’. Yet our popular culture ensures that myth, fable and a very different conception of time is never far away. Archaic roots are entwined with modern sensibilities, tapped with regularity by our culture makers.
Little wonder, then, as our appreciation of the world we inhabit evolves, that people remain so dependent on myth and fable to accommodate and assimilate the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain. The resurgence in popularity of the vampire film as we first learned of and came to terms with HIV/AIDS, for example, was far from coincidental. In Dracula, the vampire of a mythical landscape has the effect of a deadly virus in the industrialised communities he visits. His own legacy is a perpetual threat. In Cat People, the cat women of a magical past become incorporated into the tapestry of the most modern of modern cities. They, too, seek to endure.
With stories like Cat People, we unlock our understanding of the human condition. They provide both lessons and escape, often evidencing something primal and constant.
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing … If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Suppose you see yourself as a citizen of the world, and you have a grip on the vastness, the diversity of the human experience, as well as the problems, the horrors, the sheer scale of such things as poverty, global warming, terrorism, war and hunger. If you see yourself as a citizen of the world and recognise that the world’s problems are your problems too, what can you be but paralyzed by that realisation? What can a citizen of the world do about the world’s troubles?
— James Garvey and Martha Nussbaum, ‘The End of the Humanities?’