Qué TAL ? - Transdisciplinary Action-Research & Literacy
Coordinator - Cultura21 International
Research Associate - Institute for Theory and Research on Culture and the Arts (IKKK),
Leuphana University Lüneburg
The 2009 Summit of the World Alliance for Arts Education aims to further develop priorities based
on the ambitions set in the UNESCO Roadmap for Arts Education, set in 2006. This Roadmap
included a number of expectations towards arts education, relating to its role in education for
sustainability. Also, the UNESCO Roadmap aims to close the “divide between cognitive and
emotional processing”, through “link[ing] Arts Education [...] with Education for Sustainable
Development”. It also states that arts education should be “included in all curriculum subjects”,
suggesting an inter-... and/or transdisciplinary value of the arts for all areas of education.
My contribution will focus on the overall challenge posed by the contemporary global crisis of
civilization and the search for sustainability, exploring how the arts, and art education, can be
involved in this challenge.
As the following text will operate at an epistemological and (hopefully) transdisciplinary
methodological level, it will involve a great deal of abstraction and introduce complex notions,
without having enough space to fully explicate all these notions. The end references provided will
allow interested readers to explore them, and of course the space of the Summit will allow to
discuss them further.
The challenge of sustainability
The challenge of achieving sustainability, in the face of a complex crisis of civilization combining
ecological, social, cultural and economic dimensions, demands integrated understandings and
responses. One quote attributed to Einstein has passed into common knowledge and is often
invoked in the face of the global ecological crisis: “We can't solve problems by using the same kind
of thinking we used when we created them.” An alternative version of this attributed quote states:
“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we
created them.” Whether the author of any of the two quotes was Einstein matters little here. What
counts is that the quote, in its various forms, has apparently gained popularity and reveals the
intuition by many social agents, that the unsustainability of our current development model has to
do with the way our thinking is organized.
The literacy of Modernity, acquired from Descartes and Bacon and fully blossoming in the
scientific disciplines of the 19th century and in the techno-science of the 20th century, based on
disjunctive thinking, simplification by reductionism and atomization of knowledge and experience,
has allowed the economic and technological developments of the past century, but it has also
engendered the global crisis of unsustainability and fails to address its level of complexity. Such
complexity cannot be addressed with use of existing disciplinary knowledge, even if combined in
so-called “multi-disciplinary” packages: “There is one thing such knowledge cannot tell us, and that
is how a number of different things act together when exposed to a number of different influences at
the same time. And almost everything we encounter around us contains a large number of different
things and is exposed to a number of different influences” (Laszlo 1996, p. 3). The search process
for sustainability requires a reform of thought, which allows to move beyond these limitations and
acquire a better understanding of complexity.
The limited space of my contribution at the WAAE 2009 Summit does not allow me to expose in
details, the exploration of this reform of thought, and the paradigmatic shift it implies. But I will try
to synthesize here its main dimensions. I will focus on three keywords, under the acronym : TAL:
– Transdisciplinarity (Cf. Basarab Nicolescu) as an epistemological frame, orienting arts
education towards the education of citizens-artivists-artscientists ;
– Action-Research as a methodology nourishing a wider rationality encompassing the senses and
the body in a multi-leveled reflexivity (Cf. the upcoming “International Summer School of Arts
and Sciences for Sustainability in Social Transformation”) ;
– Literacy of a new type as a body of knowledge and sensibility; with two levels: an “ecological
literacy” (Fritjof Capra) highlighting principles of resilience in diversity, dynamic balance and
creative webs of life ; and a literacy of complexity (Cf. Edgar Morin) nurturing dia-logical
thinking and highlighting principles of eco-auto-organization, autoecopoïesis and unity in
The TAL model is expected to foster a “sensibility to patterns that connect” as the foundation of
shared “aesthetics of sustainability” (Cf. Gregory Bateson, Sacha Kagan).
I will now review these three dimensions upside down, i.e. starting with literacy and ending with
the transdisciplinary epistemological frame:
The new type of literacy which is required, for a movement towards sustainability, is first of all an
ecological literacy, or eco-literacy (as coined by Fritjof Capra), which encompasses the
development of an understanding and sensibility for:
– the link between resilience and diversity ;
– the dynamic balance at work in nature and society ;
– the creativity and open interdependence of webs of life.
Resilience and diversity constitute cornerstones for sustainability. In systems thinking, the notion
of diversity is inseparable from another notion: resilience.
Resilience refers to the capacity to adapt to change from the “outside”. The term is used in ecology,
referring to the limits of a system's capacity to be perturbed; once the limits are reached, the system
either collapses or finds a new state of equilibrium. As noted by ecological artist David Haley, “the
capacity to withstand disturbance is not just a question of how long the status quo can be
maintained, but how we might evolve to dwell in this new world” (Haley 2008, p. 204).
Resilience necessitates the preservation of diversity: Sustainable systems can only exist as long as
diversity is preserved, so that the exogenous shocks of the unexpected may give way to the
endogenous responses of resourceful (social or eco-) systems. Less diversity in a system means a
lower resilience. “In ecology, for example, it is the variety of species, the number of ecological
niches, the abundance of interactions among species and between community and environment that
guarantee the stability and continuance of the community. Variety permits a wider range of response
to potential forms of aggression from the environment” (De Rosnay 1975, p. 130), and as well,
variety permits a wider range of response to potential disturbance/aggression coming from within
The preservation and the advancement of diversity (i.e. both biodiversity and cultural diversity)
toward an optimal level (i.e. not maximum, infinite diversity, but enough diversity to allow
resilience) is a key normative target for sustainability.
The understanding of dynamic balance means that ecosystems and societies be perceived as
flexible, ever-fluctuating networks: Their flexible stability depends on “multiple feedback loops that
keep the [overall] system in a state of dynamic balance. No single variable is maximized; all
variables fluctuate around their optimal values” (Capra 2002, p. 231).
The search for dynamic balance, rather than growth (e.g. economic growth, military-political
expansion, religious or ideological proselytism), is a prerequisite for a sustainable development of
human societies in the 21st century. It also depends on an intelligence of cycles, based on 'systems
thinking', beyond the limited linear rationality of the intelligence of straight lines of 'progress'.
The understanding of the creativity and open interdependence of webs of life, constitutes the
fullest achievement of an ecological literacy:
First of all, it implies the understanding of the great Cycle of cycles of the planet Earth: “All living
organisms must feed on continual flows of matter and energy from their environment to stay alive,
and all living organisms continually produce waste. However, an ecosystem generates no net waste,
one species' waste being another species' food. Thus, matter cycles continually through the web of
life”(Capra 2002, p. 231).
It also implies the principle of interdependence: “All living systems communicate with one another
and share resources across their boundaries” (Capra 2002, p. 231).
Finally, it implies an expanded understanding of creativity as a property of all evolutionary
networks of life, linked to the notion of emergence. Emergence "has been recognized as the
dynamic origin of development, learning and evolution" (Capra 2002, p. 14). From there, the
concept of creativity can be understood as a basically biological phenomenon: "Creativity – the
generation of new forms – is a key property of all living systems." Life is constantly creative: "And
since emergence is an integral part of the dynamics of open systems, we reach the important
conclusion that open systems develop and evolve. Life constantly reaches out into novelty" (Capra
2002, p. 14).
Literacy of complexity
The complexity of the global crisis and the search process of sustainability require however more
than only an ecological literacy. On its base (and following Edgar Morin's research), a literacy of
complexity can emerge, which encompasses the development of an understanding and sensibility
– dia-logical thinking ;
– the principle of eco-auto-organization ;
– the principle of autoecopoïesis.
These three complex elements may then allow to better understand and develop the unity in
diversity of a sustainable human evolution.
The real world we live in, is complex because it does not fit with the clear, coherent, uni-
dimensional logic of theories designed by the human mind. To better understand the world we live
in, we need to move towards more complex notions, i.e. notions that are inter-related with relations
of complementarity, competition and antagonism, and with a dynamic complementarity between
these relations (e.g. between competition and complementarity). Complex relations thereby
institute, no longer a linear logic, but a complex dia-logic: “dialogique signifie unité symbiotique
de deux logiques, qui à la fois se nourissent l'une l'autre, se concurrencent, se parasitent
mutuellement, s'opposent et se combattent à mort” (Morin 1981, p. 80). A dia-logic combines a
'unity' (e.g. in the constitution and evolution of the physical universe: the unity of chaos and
genesis), a 'complementarity' (e.g. physical organized matter needs disorder to come to existence ;
neg-entropy also works for entropy), a 'competition' (e.g. dispersion and complexification are
competing in writing the history of the universe) and an 'antagonism' (e.g. disorder destroys
organizational order while organization dissipates disorders).
Dia-logic allows to construct complex “macro-concept” such as Edgar Morin's principle of “eco-
auto-organization”: Eco-auto-organization is a macro-concept too complex to fully explain in the
limited space of my contribution at the WAAE 2009 Summit. I can merely outline its elements here
(without further explaining these elements): Eco-auto-organization explores the complex
organizational relationships between individual life forms and the ecosystems in which they co-
evolve and eco-evolve. Eco-organization highlights the complementarity of diversity, complexity,
spontaneity and organization. Auto-eco-organization further encompasses the continuous role of
eco-organization as co-organizer of self-organization (e.g. the co-organization of living beings by
their autonomous, autopoïetic logic and by their networks of relationships with their eco-systems),
the mutual reinforcement of the complexities of autos and oikos, the correlation of increase in
autonomy with increase in dependence on eco-organizational complexity, the dialogical
explanation of life phenomena (i.e. the recourse to the eco-auto or auto-eco), and its extension into
a principle of generalized ecology exploring the eco-auto-logic in human societies and in the world
In line with Morin's work, I am proposing the principle of autoecopoïesis (cf. Kagan 2010) as a
macro-concept that highlights the role of a cultural evolution in the search process of sustainability.
Morin's insights in la méthode point at the genesic force of chaos at the root of any creation, and
highlight the continuous presence of chaos (and of order from disorder) in generative endo-exo-
causality and de-re-organization, two macro-concepts that, in turn, are at the root of phenomena of
emergence, are fueling the poiesis of machine-beings (i.e. the creative evolution of the universe)
and are imposing an uncertainty principle which disarms all forms of determinisms (whether they
are based on linear causality, on autopoietic teleonomy or on contemporary theories of 'evolution
towards more complexity').
Morin points out that poïesis and organization are not having the same meaning and should not be
confused with each other... Poïesis is about the creative-constructive-productive, while organization
is about the processing-of-structuring-of-processing; so one reality is approached with both notions,
but from different perspectives. Although Morin uses the word organization much more widely than
poïesis, the later bears a transformative potential, of especially high relevance to the search process
of sustainability in its dimension of cultural change.
Already at the level of physical machine-beings, Morin expresses that poïesis is built upon chaos
and implies both a generative organization and the intrusion of noise ; the active organization then
turns noise into novelty. At the level of living beings and human societies, autoecopoïesis stimulates
a certain productive openness to disturbances, which can seize the potential of disturbances,
creativity and emergence for social transformation towards sustainability. Such an openness moves
beyond the rigidity or autism of the strict “autopoïesis” of modern societies as defined by Niklas
About Luhmann's 'autopoïesis'
With his wide-ranging theory of the differentiation of modern society as a profound segmentation
into mutually opaque social systems, Luhmann elaborated an especially strong indictment of
modernity as a culture of unsustainability. The overall social system, in contemporary society, is
incapable of communicating directly with the non-human environment. It can only be 'irritated' by
its direct environment. An autopoietic system is able to select which irritations it will notice and
ignore the other ones. As long as the systems are only “autopoietic”, nothing guarantees that they
will genuinely evolve, acting upon irritations. They are more likely to interpret the irritations in
ways that will eventually lead to their self-annihilation through further mis-consideration of the
environment. Luhmann's conclusions on the possibility for social systems to overcome the
contemporary ecological crisis are especially pessimistic (cf. Luhmann 1986).
“Strict autopoïesis as a culture of unsustainability in hypermodernity, is not an inescapable trend.
Autopoïesis is but only a tendency that, if strong and dominant so far, may be balanced by
ecopoïetic tendencies, i.e. tendencies of psychic systems and social systems to construct themselves
in open communications with their environments (implying a co-determination and co-evolution of
both the system and its environment through the emergence of properties stemming from the open
communication between system and environment). [...] Not only 'eco-' is necessary, but also 'auto-'
because the capacity for relative autonomy (i.e. a capacity for self-closure) is a pre-requisite for a
system's ability to participate in its own (re-)construction” (Kagan 2010).
The significance of autoecopoïesis at the level of arts education and cultural production consists
especially in the development of “aesthetics of sustainability” alongside Gregory Bateson's notion
of a “sensibility to the pattern that connects” (Bateson 2002): a sensibility that echoes the insights
from systems and complexity thinking and the understanding of eco-auto-organization.
The rationality of disciplinary sciences inherited from the developments of Modernity, is not broad
enough to generate a dia-logical thinking, capable of understanding and developing unity in
diversity. The reform of thought which is required by the search process of sustainability, calls
forward an extension of rationality and reflexivity to the fullest capacities of human beings,
building upon the complementarity between the arts and sciences.
A methodology of action-research can work towards building such a complementarity of arts and
sciences in the building of a broader reflexivity and rationality. The mutual transformation of
research through action (and vice versa), of comprehension through apprehension (and vice versa -
cf. Kolb 1984), and of science through art (and vice versa!) can allow an autoecopoïetic process of
creativity for social transformation.
The development of a multi-leveled reflexivity, thanks to action-research, echoes the theory of
“multiple intelligence” and the linkages between intelligence and sensitivity as described in the
UNESCO Roadmap document, after Antonio Damasio (Cf. also Lakoff and Johnson 1999). It also
follows Hans Dieleman's definition of four types of “more-than-rational reflexivity” which artists
and designers contribute to developing, i.e. aesthetic, hermeneutic, ontological and professional
reflexivities (Dieleman 2008):
– Aesthetic reflexivity “helps people to reflect and express themselves though 'identity',
'personality', 'symbolic meaning' and signs'” (Dieleman 2008, p. 141);
– Hermeneutic reflexivity “helps people to reflect on day-to-day routines, conventions and ways
of living” (Dieleman 2008, p. 142);
– Ontological reflexivity “helps people to see reality in different and more holistic ways”;
– Professional reflexivity “creates contextual knowledge”.
Action-research calls forward collaborations between practitioners from different disciplines in the
arts, sciences and other professional domains. The process is expected to be one of mutual
enrichment, dedicated to productive dialog and mutual teaching/learning processes.
With a number of colleagues, I am currently engaged in developing a space where such an action-
research-based approach of arts and sciences for sustainability, can be developed, with the project of
the first International Summer School of Arts and Sciences for Sustainability in Social
Transformation (ASSiST) organized by Cultura21 together with the International Council for
Cultural Centers (I3C) and the Latin American Network of Art for Social Transformation (and
expected to open in August 2010). The Summer School aims to encourage scientists and artists to
transform their own working processes, thanks to the insights gained from the other participants. As
stated in the concept of the summer school: “Navigating through the insights of cross-disciplinary
dialogs, the summer school participants will discover islands of common experience, on the way to
a shared transdisciplinary common ground as the long-term destination of the summer school.”1
Every edition of the Summer School will focus on a theme highlighting specific modes of action-
research. For the first edition in 2010, the theme will be “Walking and Places: building
transformations”. Walking, as a practice for exploring, learning, mapping, and intervening, in urban
and in rural contexts, will be explored. As stated in the Summer School concept: “Traditional as
well as new ‘déambulation’ practices (e.g. in postmodern dance or among traditional pastoralist
communities) mark the relationships between cultural practices and their social and ecosystemic
environments. Furthermore, in the recent past, walking-based (re)search practices have flourished
both in the arts and sciences (e.g. in contemporary art practices or in the new discipline of
“Promenadologie”), opening up spaces for inter- and transdisciplinary explorations, which the
summer school will further develop and interconnect.”2
The extension of rationality and reflexivity allow the development of multiple “levels of
perception", meeting multiple “levels of reality” and thereby forming a domain of
transdisciplinarity and transculturality (Cf. Nicolescu 2002), away from reductionism, holism and
other forms of simplification of reality.
A prerequisite to the “trans-...” is the “inter-...”: The “inter-...” of interdisciplinarity and
interculturality, “operate[s] most especially at the level of the membranes, of the borders, of the
contact areas between different elements or different systems, and [...] foster[s] dialogues across the
membranes. The 'inter-...' should not be mistaken for the 'multi-...' nor for the 'integrative'. Neither
does the 'inter-...' set differences apart as irreducible, nor does it integrate differences (making them
increasingly indistinguishable)” (Kagan 2010).
Understood as a sensibility that operates at the borders/membranes, the inter-... of interculturality
constitutes an indispensable element of aesthetics of sustainability.
The “trans-...” of transdisciplinarity and transculturality, operates both outside and across different
systems: It calls forward the practice of several levels of perceptions attentive to several levels of
reality and the exploration of a logic of the included middle across levels of reality. It announces a
practice that is neither a science of sciences, nor a philosophy of philosophies, nor a 'theory of
everything', but a complex relational methodology that allows to conceive of unity in diversity, and
invites everyone (across all disciplines and all fields of practice) to turn complexity into a praxis.
About the logic of transdisciplinarity: The included Middle
Transdisciplinarity requires a new type of logic, which can better face complexity. I already
mentioned Morin's “dia-logic”. Another development was made by Basarab Nicolescu, building on
Stéphane Lupasco' “logic of contradiction” and distinguishing between several “levels of reality”,
in his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity: “In order to obtain a clear image of the meaning of the
include middle, we can represent three terms of the new logic – A, non-A and T – and the dynamics
associated with them by a triangle in which one of the vertices is situated at one level of Reality
and the other two vertices at another level of reality. The included middle is really an included
third. If one remains at a single level of Reality, all manifestation appears as a struggle between
two contradictory elements (example: wave A and corpuscle non-A). The third dynamic, that of the
T-state, is exercise at another level of Reality, where that which appears to be disunited (wave or
corpuscle) is in fact united (quanton), and that which appears contradictory is perceived as
noncontradictory. It is the projection of the T-state onto the same single level of Reality that
produces the appearance of mutually exclusive, antagonistic pairs (A and non-A). A single level of
1 See for more information: http://www.cultura21.net/dokuwiki/doku.php/orange:sumschool
2 Further reading here: http://www.cultura21.net/dokuwiki/doku.php/orange:walktheme
Reality can only create antagonistic oppositions” (Nicolescu 2002, pp. 28-29). As Nicolescu
explicitly states, his understanding of the 'logic of the included third' respects the axiom of non-
contradiction, at a given level of reality.
Nicolescu sees a popular illustration of the logic of the included third, in a famous story of the
French stand-up comedian Raymond Devos ('le bout du bout') with “a man who desperately wants
to separate the two ends of a stick. He cuts his stick and then sees that instead of having separated
two ends, he now has two sticks, both of which have two ends of their own. He goes on cutting his
stick, all the while becoming more and more anxious – the sticks multiply ad infinitum, but he
finds it impossible to separate the two ends” (Nicolescu 2002, p. 31).
Transdisciplinarity requires action-research, as it “is both a body of thought and a lived experience.
These two aspects are inseparable. Transdisciplinary language translates the simultaneity of these
two aspects into words and actions. Any excessive slipping one way or the other – to the side of
discursive thought or to the side of experience – takes us away from the domain of
transdisciplinarity” (Nicolescu 2002, p. 119).
Transdisciplinarity is not just about knowledge either, as Montuori noted: “The transdisciplinary
approach does not focus exclusively on knowing, but on the inter-relationship between knowing,
doing, being and relating” (Montuori in Ed. Nicolescu 2008, p. xi).
The domain of the trans-... constitutes an epistemological frame, which together with the
methodology of action-research and the new literacy of ecology and complexity, is suggesting to
orient arts education towards the education of citizens-artivists-artscientists, integrating human
capabilities in their 'unity in diversity' in order to face the challenge posed by the global crisis of
Such a direction, which I proposed here to summarize as the TAL model, would foster, across all
areas of education in the 21st century, an esthetic ethics / ethical aesthetics, based on a sensibility
to patterns that connect. Morin also evoked an “art principle” comparable to the “art of the skillful
butcher” or to that of the musician: “The systems sensibility will be like that of the musical ear
which perceives the competitions, symbioses, interferences, overlaps of themes in one same
symphonic stream, where the brutal mind will only recognize one single theme surrounded by
noise” (Morin 1981, pp. 140-141, own translation).
As I am arguing elsewhere (Kagan 2010), three levels can be broadly identified in the sensibility to
patterns that connect:
– Topics that connect, i.e. "instances where the inter-relatedness of cultural, social, economic,
political and ecological processes is explored. Also, linkages between local and global realities,
between different time frames (from the short-term to the very-long term), and attention to
intercultural linkages, constitute topics that connect";
– Processes that connect, i.e. searching-working-learning processes involving a multi-leveled
reflexivity and a nurturing of the inter-... and the trans-...;
– Values that connect, i.e. an open ethical inquiry into the meanings and implications of justices,
in a pluralistic way, opening up multiple layers of interpretations.
It is my conviction that developing such aesthetics of patterns that connect, throughout all areas of
education, would fulfill the ambitions of the UNESCO Roadmap for Arts Education, under
discussion at the 2009 Summit of the WAAE.
Gregory Bateson, Mind and nature: a necessary unity, Hampton Press, Cresskill (NJ), 2002 [first
ed. Bantam Books, 1979].
Fritjof Capra, The hidden connections: A science for sustainable living, HarperCollins Publishers
Ltd., 2002 [page numbers in quotes are based on Anchor, 2004].
Hans Dieleman, “Sustainability, Art and Reflexivity: why artists and designers may become key
change agents in sustainability”, in: Sacha Kagan , Volker Kirchberg (Eds.), Sustainability: a new
frontier for the arts and cultures, VAS (Verlag für Akademische Schriften), Frankfurt am Main,
2008, pp. 108-146.
David Haley, “The Limits of Sustainability: the art of ecology”, in: Sacha Kagan , Volker Kirchberg
(Eds.), Sustainability: a new frontier for the arts and cultures, VAS (Verlag für Akademische
Schriften), Frankfurt am Main, 2008, pp. 194-208.
Sacha Kagan, “Cultures of Sustainability and the aesthetics of the pattern that connects”, Futures:
The journal of policy, planning and futures studies, 2010 (upcoming).
David Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development,
Prentice Hall, 1984.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge
to Western Thought, Basic Books, 1999.
Ervin Lazslo, The Systems View of the World: A Holistic Vision for Our Time, Hampton Press, 1996.
Niklas Luhmann, Ökologische Kommunikation: kann die moderne Gesellschaft sich auf
ökologische Gefährdungen einstellen?, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, 1986.
Alfonso Montuori, “Foreword”, in Ed. Basarab Nicolescu, Transdisciplinarity: Theory and
Practice, Hampton Press, 2008.
Edgar Morin, La méthode, volume 1: la nature de la nature, Seuil, Paris, 1981 [first ed. 1977].
Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of transdisciplinarity, State University of New York
Press, Albany, 2002.
Joel de Rosnay, Le macroscope: Vers une vision globale, Seuil, Paris, 1975. [English version
available at: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/macrbook.html ]