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Bards: binding time and space

I’ve recently been working on a project covering how language and culture emerge, and their relationship with the brain. It’s led me to understand, in a new way, the brilliance of Iolo Morganwg, and just how much he was ahead of his time. Here, I want to briefly discuss how Barddas anticipates the work of Alfred Korzybski, whose dictum “the map is not the territory” is pretty well-known these days.

You can find a quick introduction to Korzybski and the system he developed – General Semantics – here. Briefly, he understood that our experience of the world, our existence, is an abstraction. Since we cannot process the full volume of sensory input that we receive, we filter it. Those filters are language and culture: the methods that groups of humans have developed to capture and encode their knowledge of the environment in which they live in order to transmit it to other people, including future generations. He called this “time-binding”. This video gives a good introduction, and is only a few minutes long:

Consider: a human infant has no way to interpret or understand what it is experiencing. It has to be taught by other humans: its parents, its extended family, and the social group within which they exist. This is done by teaching the child the language(s) they need to understand concepts, and which in itself sets the parameters of how the surrounding environment (social/physical/economic/political/etc) can be defined and understood (“binding space”). Culture, which overlaps with language, sets out the ways to exist within the environment, and within the group that are acceptable or unacceptable, successful or unsuccessful.

Stories, poems, legends and myths are symbolically true: they set out a group’s abstracted understanding of the world. Myths are not expected to be literally true, but they are true nevertheless – because they exemplify to group members how they should relate to the world around them. The ‘map’ of culture is not the same as the reality of the ‘territory’, but it is a more abstract, more manageable, representation which we can use to guide us through life.

However, problems arise when our cultural ‘map’ no longer represents the territory accurately. This understanding was explored by Karl Weick in his model of ‘sensemaking’; there’s a good introduction to that here. Briefly, groups need to be able to evaluate complex experiences and find a model that explains them. This is, of course, a process of cultural development. If our environment has changed in some way, or if we have have moved to a new environment, our existing ‘mental maps’ are no longer appropriate, and cannot guide us successfully or safely. A sensemaker is able to recognise this, and to either adapt their old map or generate a new one that is more useful. Failure to do so leads to inappropriate behaviour and, if the individual (or group) insists that their ‘map’ must be true despite all the evidence to the contrary, to mental illness and/or social chaos.

It seems to me that this process of sensemaking was precisely what Iolo Morganwg was trying to formalise with his concept of the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain:

  • The Bards ensure that people have a good command of the language, and communicate the myths and other cultural vehicles for a shared understanding of how to live. As experts in the power of stories and ‘cultural maps’, they also act as diplomats with groups who have different cultures. They maintain the cohesion of the ‘in-group’, and peaceful relations with ‘out-groups’.
  • The Ovates are responsible for monitoring our understanding of the environment by studying it and gathering knowledge. New ideas and understandings are brought to the Gorsedd for “peer review”: to be tested through debate and demonstration, and accepted where appropriate.
  • The Druids – all of whom are required to be experienced Bards – establish laws and rituals. They take note of the Ovates’ discoveries, and test the cultural maps against the new understanding of the environment. If and when change is necessary, they will work with the Bards to develop new cultural content, which the Bards will learn and then disseminate.

The model seems to have worked fairly well for the Welsh during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, assisting them to weather the transition from a neglected minority nation in an agricultural society to facing overwhelming Anglophone immigration combined with state-sponsored Anglicisation policies in an industrial economy. During this period, the Gorsedd, combined with the National Eisteddfod and local eisteddfodau, gave the Welsh a space in which to consider and adjust their mental maps as a nation.

As we begin to face a future dominated by resource depletion, exploding energy costs, and the withering away of state structures which can no longer afford to provide services such as health care, social care, or policing, the mental maps we have developed since the advent of cheap fossil fuels after the Second World War, and the expectations of “cheap stuff” that we have developed since the globalisation process of the early twenty-first century, we need to embark upon a new sensemaking effort, creating new mental maps for the new territory, and a new culture to help us navigate a changed world.

Iolo himself was a prolific inventor of new words and poetic metre, as well as collecting and recording many aspects of existing culture that would otherwise have perished. We too need to not only decide what to preserve that works and what to discard that is no longer relevant –  but also to create new cultural and linguistic ways to describe the territory that we are now entering.

There is still a lot to be learned from Iolo Morganwg’s solution.

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