Reframing the Dynamics of Engaging with Otherness


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

Triadic Correspondences between Topology, Kama Sutra and I Ching

Produced on the occasion of the open solicitation for proposals for the The Metaphor Program of the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity with participation of the US Army Research Laboratory.


The challenge of engaging with “others” and their “otherness” is fundamental to the difficulties of governance at every level of society — from the global to the individual. One extreme approach is to argue for mutual tolerance between diverse worldviews, as in the Dialogue among Civilizations adopted as the United Nations Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations (2001). The other is to assert that you’re either with us, or against us, as was central to US foreign policy from 2001, and discussed separately (Us and Them: Relating to Challenging Others, 2009). There would seem to be few clues to more fruitful approaches, despite the many group dynamics proposals made by various parties over decades.

There is therefore a case for more radical exploration of ways of reframing the engagement with others — however speculative the endeavour. In fact it possibly the case that a more radical approach is essential since conventional approaches have proven to be so inadequate. The approach which follows takes three extremely different ways of framing the dynamics of “relationships” — if not maximally different ways — and speculates on the possibility of fruitful equivalences between them. This follows from previous arguments for seeking ways of engaging with the improbable (Engaging with the Inexplicable, the Incomprehensible and the Unexpected, 2010). In selecting them, one criterion is that they should be, to a degree, mutually “alienating”.

The three selected are:

  • Topology: as a branch of pure mathematics, this is necessarily abstract and meaningless to most, although through its generality it encompasses many forms of relationship. It is discipline dating back only a century and characteristic of Western science. It has many potential applications. Features of it have been “borrowed”, most controversially, by psychoanalysis to frame certain understandings of human psychodynamics. It is the least “popular” but the most academically acceptable.
  • I Ching: this is one of the earliest products of classical Chinese thinking. At one extreme it is an exercise of high abstraction, highly valued for its numerous philosophical implications. It centres on the ideas of the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change. It provided inspiration for the binary coding system on which modern computer operations are based. However it is articulated for wider comprehension in poetic form using metaphor. It has been a fundamental guide to strategic decision-making in imperial China. It was also “borrowed”, most controversially, by some western alternative movements since the 1960s.
  • Kama Sutra: this is one of the classics of Hindu culture, written by Vātsyāyana, and considered to be the standard work on human sexual behavior in Sanskrit literature. It focuses on many aspects of the relationship between male and female, most notably prior to and during sexual intercourse. It has been “borrowed”, very controversially, by various western subcultures as an articulation of what is otherwise widely held to be unmentionable — however central and fundamental to the preoccupations and processes associated with interpersonal relationships. Focusing on “attraction”, its subject matter is most widely and readily understood, whether or not discussion of it is curtailed or suppressed in public.

It is the very differences between the three selected that suggests that their “confrontation” may highlight new possibilities for engaging with “otherness”. Does the degree of difference between them correspond to that between “othernesses” undermining coherent dynamics in the psychosocial system? Is the “shock” that each implies for adherents of the others a useful criterion? Does this imply the kind of requisite variety that is essential for a viable system?

Can speculation on their possible relationship elicit higher orders of meaning from their juxtaposition? Given the importance of sexual attraction and sexual relations to human society, and to the exponential increase in the world population, any insights that enable them to be reframed should merit consideration — however speculative and tentative.

To what extent are contrasting frameworks, associated with implicit metaphors, conditioning both dominant cultures and those that are emerging — as argued by Susantha Goonatilake (Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge, 1999) — and separately discussed (Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors, 2000) ?

Essentially the concern here is whether “confrontation” of a set of unconventional approaches, characterized by disparate cognitive languages, can enable new forms of “traction” — in a world where the many marvellous models, strategies and worldviews are much challenged to ensure political traction, social traction, and psychological traction in relation to global challenges.

Of special interest in the three cases selected is the manner in which each constitutes a distinct form of pattern language. The question is whether such languages, together, reframe a context for more fruitful “human intercourse”.



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 Jun 2011.

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