A laboratory for opening the mind

What follows is the foundation of an open philosophy, responding to the challenges of the next century, and inspired by the methodology of Edgar Morin and the experience of the Network of Possibilities – a unique gathering of a few dozen people, in Paris in the 1980s. To my knowledge, this network has not had any equivalents since.

The Network of Possibilities was born from the convergence of two demands: to think (and act) after having considered all points of view, and to taste a diverse gamut of experiences, perspectives, emotions, and so forth. It was a matter of opening the experiential and intellectual field; of permitting each individual to create his own cocktail of life, his own religion, – after having been challenged in his preconceptions and his certitudes.

Let us look at how to achieve this

Praise of Cosmopolitanism

We live in the age of anthology: lifestyles, ideas, arts, practices conceived across all civilizations and throughout all past eras reunite at this Babelic point of history. Partial truths, multiple viewpoints… Why not respond to the invitation?

In our multimedia libraries we find the music, the histories and the sacred books of all times and places. And by turns we see forms of symbolism opposed to one another: an abbey, a mosque, the yin-yang, – and they begin to clink together in our heads! Diversity that our motley streets reflect – as if in each were trying to outdo the other – all of them thoroughfares for punks, fundamentalist Catholics, the homeless, gays, Muslims… Faces that look different, possibilities to meet women of all types, thoughts of a thousand colors, new tastes and strange sounds!

The world is settling on our doorsteps. Around the corner of our street, we find ourselves in China, in Maghreb, in India…

The media demonstrates two stereotypical and fatalistic reactions to “globalization”: the withdrawal of a cultural community, with its music, traditions and beliefs, into itself; or de-culturalization, the leveling down to one homogeneity, in which the individual lets himself be molded after the standard mode of life, following the current economic watchwords, seeing the latest films, listening to the same chart-toppers as everyone else, adopting the newest fashion…

But we hope for “revolutionary individuals”, to borrow a phrase from Alain Jouffroy. We hope, in other words, for people who want to convey their desires, their passions, their freedom of thought and expression, and to do so without retiring into themselves, without renouncing collective action or their own best plans.

A Philosophy of Networks

The Network of Possibilities was thus running against modern tendencies. First, the clan mindset, which is found in the cult of the family or of a region, as well as in sects and businesses, – this is the desire to identify with a group, to blend in and lose one’s individuality, to be a member of social body, of a community, to feel protected, and powerful. It is a desire that at the root of all memberships and collective identities. It’s the great “us” of ideologies and religions. But we must not overvalue the side opposite this erotic want of collective alliance – because then we fall into the individualism typical of current society, the liberalism of every man for himself, the fragmentation of distinct individuals, closed, social entities with no great plans, living from day to day without trying to make the world a better place.

How can we avoid these two attitudes, which are the lot of most people today? It’s here that the emergence of networks is of the first importance. Networks do not only constitute a way to communicate: the concept of network is also a philosophy! It’s a horizontal space: it short-circuits the pyramidal system that has been imposed on us from time immemorial, from theocracies to our modern multinational societies. In a network, there is no center that broadcasts to the peripheries. Each individual is at once independent and linked to others, a giver and a taker, by turns initiating, organizing, or simply participating.

The ideal network would be against the holding back of information: everyone could propose his or her own initiatives, and could circulate ideas or critiques. Instead of going through directors and section chiefs to be guided, participants could communicate directly with each other. And if one takes this logic to the extreme, there should no longer be any filter, and therefore no censure against the free circulation of information and initiative.

In this sense, this ideal network would advance upon representative democracies. In our political or social systems, a majority imposes its decisions upon a minority. In a network, even if a single participant wishes to propose an idea or an activity that the vast majority of other networkers disapprove of, no one will prevent him or her from offering his proposition.

The Risk of Freedom

At this point some mention must be made of a potentially scandalous and indeed “unacceptable” part of the Network of Possibilities. The founders of this network – Paul Faure and myself – decided not to prohibit behavioral extremes, marginal opinions, or subjects often considered taboo. I speak of an attempt, rather than a completely realized reality, for in such an association as I am proposing it is not appropriate or desirable to go past certain limits, by for instance expressing racist insults or doing drugs. But in principal we would hope to be as close as possible to whatever allows us to investigate all our mental and emotional tendencies.

Each participant was free to propose any activity so long as it was more or less original. The proposition would be announced on the bulletin or on a phone message machine. There were open activities, that any member could show up at, and “closed” activities, for which one had to sign up with the organizer. They could include anything from a visit to some catacombs, a sadomasochist gathering, or an evening of initiation to little known board games. The same non-exclusivity existed with regard to ideology: a participant once proposed going to a meeting of radicals as well as a meeting of reactionaries. But this kind of visit did not have a militant goal: the participant in question was neither a member of the extreme left nor the extreme right, but only excited by the active curiosity and desire to learn that is shared by the other networkers.

One could also organize debates within the network, oscillating between high philosophical discussions, group psychotherapy, or simply personal excitements. A few examples may be useful… Since we didn’t have a specific locale, we would gather at one another’s place: one evening in the loft an apartment building in the 10th district of Paris, sitting on mattresses on the floor, to discuss suicide; another evening in a stylish apartment with big windows and a view of the gardens at les Halles, to meet with a “master” of the technique of developing mental creativity; still another time in an Iraqi restaurant to talk with several hitchhikers… Paul would propose evenings based on a “rush”, some sort of excitement or titillation, or else something that challenged the very fundamentals of the Network. Our network was one of the only associations that allowed this “self-destructive” kind of gathering: Paul would expound different arguments justifying, for instance, intolerance, censorship, or the power of those in charge. For we mustn’t deceive ourselves: the questions raised by the network remain current. In an open society, to what point can – and should – the freedom of expression, initiative, creation, go? Are we ready to listen to all points of view, and, above all, why should we wish to do so?

Why Question how we Think and Act?

Tolerance does not come by itself; there must be strong reasons to make the effort to listen to points of view opposed to one’s own or opinions that seem disturbing, – and still stronger reasons to make the effort to seek out such views and opinions. Up to now, “tolerance” has been based on vague moral considerations; and it’s been a vague tolerance. We were attempting to go much further, to live in an extreme, even painful, tolerance, which actively sought out that which would make us question ourselves. At the very least, this was an open possibility. The conviction was that each environment had in its possession a piece of “truth”.

If we would go to see a congregation of extremists, or the meeting a cult, it was not because we shared their ideas. In general, the opposite was true. But the necessity of informing ourselves demands that we also listen to the points of view which do violence to our values. Taking this even further, some networkers attempted to enter into the unknown, or conflictive, mental universe of these others, in order to put themselves in their place before judging them, and above all to “gather information” that was not only intellectual but experiential.

In our world, the pertinent facts are scattered across so many places. To know what’s happening, it is necessary to have antennae all over the world. For example, to be up to date on the crucial information about the Near East, it would be important to meet lots of militants of the Israelite Likoud and also sympathizers of the Palestinian cause, Muslims both moderate and fundamental, historians, economists…

In this quest for understanding, there are no sources that are to be a priori avoided: someone coming back from a foreign country, or a curious traveler, could turn out to be just as important as a renowned academic. The same holds true for the majority of problems. In the Network of Possibility, we would go speak with specialists on occasion, but also with people who may seem insignificant or eccentric.

But to what end? What is the use of all this activity, these gatherings and goings-on?

Towards a Metalogic

The originality of the network is to orient itself toward the service of individuals, to become a tool in their hands, and not a group that subordinates these individuals to its ideology. This is why it is said that “the network is neutral”, that it does not advocate a precise ideal, religion, political view, but is content to propose a method.

Each participant used the resources offered for his or her own ends. Nevertheless, one might suggest some main orientations: first, to multiply one’s human experiences. Many networkers wanted to meet new people, to have social get-togethers, to exchange. A little subsidiary advantage need hardly be noted: the network was benevolent – it would happen that activities one would normally pay for were free.

In this network, as opposed to in kinds of clubs or philosophical association, the most diverse (and minority) ideas could be expressed, and the judgment of others was obliged to remain in suspense. A privileged atmosphere of listening and attentiveness was thus established little by little, with some speaking without fear of their sexual fantasies, and others of their marginal opinions, or of their deepest anxieties…

A second objective, more intellectual, also existed: some participants were writers, or researchers, and from the network they drew elements useful to their work. They found themselves with people as curious as they, and had access to first-hand information on the internal life of a certain political movement, of a certain cult, of a certain milieu, or the like. Ideally, the network should have contained a person “representative” of every social sphere, every profession, every ideology, age, culture, etc. The network would have then been a microcosm of the world, putting us in contact with different universes. Unlike the internet, this networked privileged flesh and blood meetings, that dose of physical warmth and life that is lacking in virtual apparatuses.

Finally, a third aspect of social utility was able to develop in the network. The networkers were free electrons, moving about in a multitude of groups, circles, etc. By definition, they would find themselves on bridges, and at crossroads. Their purpose was to bring together different social movements; for most positivist actions do not succeed in transforming global society because of a lack of connections.

The ingredients of a pacifist revolution are already there. Innovated movements, creators, associations: the Guide of Alternatives in France and in Belgium contains 12 thousands references, and several thousand groups! We don’t lack credible ideas to solve our inner and societal problems and invent the world that’s to come. But let’s face it: the wheels are not turning. The various actions have not managed to become visible to the public at large; there has not been any real upheaval. The force of change grows in strength, and yet remains in the state of potential. There is a fundamental with our state of mind: we are not yet adept at bringing things together, at creating unity out of diversity. The same inner closure that is at the base of Stalinism and other “isms” is everywhere made manifested, and change is blocked. The Network of Possibility was a laboratory, where we searched to comprehend another state of mind, and discover the fundamentals of a metalogic that is integrative and non-divisive.