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Open Letter to Collective Wisdom Practitioners

from Mimi Katzenbach, Oct 27, 2007

Dear Collective Wisdom Practitioners,

My passion and life purpose is developing drama, which is inherently collective, as a form of wisdom. My expertise is in playback theatre and drama curriculum theory. I spend most of my mental, creative time in Fifth Century BCE Greece when drama was born trying to reshape for modern use the collective experience in the ancient amphitheatre.

Lately, I've felt you in the amphitheatre with me.

As I read various seed papers on the Collective Wisdom website, I am stunned by the resonance between what you are doing and the archetypal dramatic forms, Tragedy and Comedy. We all desire life to be a comedy and believe that tragedy is what blocks us from it. But in the amphitheatre, Tragedy, the dramatic form, was what the collective had to experience to get to the ‘comedy’ we all desire our lives to be.

Odd as it may sound to you, what I see you doing is hard, courageous ‘tragedy’ work. The deep aim of Tragedy was to help the collective bear unbearable knowledge. Tragedy is understood as a drama of Necessity. The necessary but unbearable knowledge of Tragedy is that we, the human ensemble, are ‘acting’ in catastrophic ways that can destroy us utterly.

We have been struggling for fifty years with the unbearable knowledge that human beings have the capacity to destroy the planet through weapons of mass destruction and are now struggling with the knowledge that human activity is 90% responsible for global warming. From where I sit in the amphitheatre, we are struggling with the unbearable knowledge that we are the ‘tragic’ enactors of our own extinction.

How, we ask ourselves, could such a thing happen? Are we our own worst enemies or are we simply ignorant of something that Tragedy teaches us - vital knowledge about how human beings can unintentionally become the enactors of our own extinction. Aristotle defines Tragedy as the human situation in which `a former source of happiness suddenly dramatically reverses into its opposite. We never intend to engender miserable human conditions, but there is a pattern in life that ‘flips’ our pursuit of joy into misery. Modern sociological science has identified a tipping point; thousands of years ago, the world's first Tragedians discerned a Flip or flipping pattern.

The Tragic Flip is, for me, the most powerful explanatory concept for our era. Man’s triumph over nature has flipped into ecological devastation. The industrial age flipped into the pollution age. Einstein's scientific genius flipped into weapons of mass destruction. Fossil fuel discovered in a shale in Pennsylvania in 1849 flips into global warming in 2007. The freedom to be one’s self on one’s own terms has flipped into the disruption of human community. These tragic Flips have an uncanny rightness with Aristotle's notion that tradegy is a coherent, comprehensive, unified pattern mirroring the oppositee of our intentions.

Imagine the transformative power in a collective whose intention is to identify flipping patterns on multiple levels - cultural, historic, organizational, economic, global, local, industrial, ecological, spiritual and in personal ‘theatres of life.’ How might we together seek to transform it? How can we flip the flip? Frankly, I can think of no more urgent collective initiative.

And collective it must be for us to bear knowledge of the tragic Flips that afflict us. Our contemporary Sophocles, Vaclav Havel, says that when we learn individually of the horrors of how humanity acts, we are filled with despair and helplessness. But, mysteriously, apprehending unbearable knowledge as part of a collective experience, such as in live theatre, detoxifies the poisons of despair and helplessness and we engender “real hope.” Havel is actually referring to dramatic “catharsis,” whose literal meaning is to detoxify, to cleanse. In theatre theory, catharsis is defined as the collective tumble into consciousness of the tragic Flip.

I experienced the mystery of catharsis over and over in my years as a playback conductor and actor. A whole evening of death, sorrowful losses, ordinary failure and extraordinary suffering would leave everyone in the room at the end of the evening radiant, alive, and filled with hope.

When I said at the beginning of this letter that I saw collective wisdom practitioners as doing ‘tragedy work,’ what I meant is that the group medium has the power to bring the whole human collective to the luminous glow of Real Hope. Real hope follows the blessed detoxification of collective catharsis and only a collective medium can bring us to it.

Thousands of years ago, a collective human medium was invented that moved us through confrontation with unbearable knowledge to Real Hope. In these tragic times, collective wisdom emerges spontaneously and its practitioners feel it holds real hope that we can radically change how we are acting on the planet, an evolutionary impulse for humanity to be active players in the show of life.

And, as we all know, the show must go on.


See you in the amphitheatre,

Mimi Hilson Katzenbach


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