The Quality Without a Name

I began reading Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building again.  He spoke of patterns which  described things that evoked what he called the "quality without a name.”  It is a way of expressing a oneness which, due to the very nature of language, cannot be expressed:

 “This oneness, or the lack of it, is the fundamental quality for anything.  Whether it is in a poem, or a man, or a building full of people, or in a forest, or a city, everything that matters stems from it.  It embodies everything.

 Yet still this quality cannot be named.”[1]

 I like to use the word vitality for this, but I understand what he means, I think.  He spoke of being in balance with the forces acting upon a given situation.  For example, trees on a windy ridge will grow while bending in the wind, maintaining a dynamic stability between the stand of trees, the ridge, and the wind.  A gully below them, however, may start eroding, and the more water that runs, the deeper the gully becomes.  The gully becomes a self-destroying feature.

So it is with appreciation and cynicism.  That which we appreciate for its vitality can maintain a dynamic balance, what that what we see from cynicism we can find feeds on itself. 

I was also struck by Alexander’s comments about how few patterns we actually employ in our daily lives.  We wake up, have breakfast, go about our daily patterns of employment and enjoyment, eat, go to bed.  We have ceremonies, family events, etc.  but our daily activities can be described be described in remarkably few patterns.

I am reminded of an ant colony, in which the behavior of the whole colony cannot be predicted by studying any individual ant.  A colony can forage for food, move about to find a new home, and establish traffic lanes within its overall movement without a central leader or coordinator.  Each ant simply follows some very simple patterns of behavior.  For the ant, these patterns are “timeless” – they just are.  The behavior of the colony emerges from the interconnectivity of the ants.

Is humanity like an ant colony?  Is each of us following simple patterns of behavior which somehow contribute to the whole in ways we don’t or cannot understand? 

If this is the case, then there is great value in understanding the patterns which shape our daily lives.  Are we modifying those patterns as we evolve as a collection of life on earth?  If so, are we doing so in an appreciative way, enhancing our vitality as a whole, or in a cynical way, creating self-destructive interaction?

I am not sure that we can talk about these patterns of vitality with words or mathematics.  A young couple in love may sit in a corner of a café, oblivious to the rest of the world, thinking that there is nothing but the other’s gaze of interest to them.  The words they exchange have little to do with the fact that they are together.  Others in the café may bask in their own reflections of having gone through that stage in their own relationships, the children that emerged from it, and the children that emerged from their children.  They may see it as a cascade of humanity, propagating itself in an endless pattern, yet the young couple sees this as a unique moment in time.

This courtship pattern has played it self out for millennia, each generation discovering it separately across cultures, time, and language.  Our couple may get married in a ceremony using patterns which go back to ancient Roman times, if not earlier.

Words tire easily.  The half-life of an utterance is likely about 10 seconds.  Surely, some words linger, such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.  But how long would those words last if they were not taught in schools? 

Patterns endure.  No one had to teach our couple-in-love to seek out the quiet corner of the café.  As their relationship moves towards an exchange of rings, vows of love, a ceremony on an altar, and showering of presents, they are participating in millennia-old patterns.  I would imagine that all of our forms of government, economic systems, science, and technology will drastically change of the next century, but young couples will still seek quiet times together to go through the same patterns of love, and they will still go through the ancient ceremonies.

I once heard Ave Maria being sung in a Prague church by a mother and daughter duet.  They knew each other and the church’s acoustics extremely well, able to make the entire church resonate with their voices.  Ave Maria is one of my favorite pieces of music; I never tire of it.  When I hear a new artist sing it, I enjoy hearing both the music and their particular variations on it.  The meaning comes both from the predictable texture of the experience, with the variations introduced by the individual artist.

Perhaps we cannot understand the emergent qualities of humanity with words.  Perhaps, like the ants in an ant colony, we have to look to the patterns which shape us and our collective behavior.  Of course, we can use words to describe patterns.  I could write an endless stream of words about Ave Maria, but none of them could replace even the most elementary musical playing of it.  I can write about the patterns which emerge in a drum circle, and even play a tape of one, but this does not replace the experience of actually being in one and co-creating the patterns which emerge in the playing.

This is not an academic exercise.  The world is connecting itself in ways unimaginable just a generation ago.  The Internet is connecting people and information across time and space in ways unimaginable to the ancient Romans who gave us our wedding ceremony.  Jet travel is connecting people, commerce, and diseases in rapidly advancing ways which we do not yet understand.

Are we building on patterns like the trees on the ridge which adapt to their conditions?  Or are we building gullies, things which are self-destroying? 

The problems we face have an amazing ability to scale.  Put five problems in a space, and they can all interact to make things 25 times worse.  Famine, disease, poverty, corruption, and natural calamities work can work together seamlessly.

Put five problem solvers in a room, however, and it is very unlikely that we will get even five times the problem-solving capability.  It is quite likely that we will end up with less.

If we try to deal with the emergent qualities of humanity by collecting and fighting problems, the problems will win.  Like the eroding gullies, they are an irresistible force which will eventually destroy themselves and their surroundings. Cynicism fuels itself.

If, however, we seek to amplify the appreciative patterns of uplift, we can shape the emergent qualities of humanity for the positive as we move to our newly connecting world.  These patterns reflect the positive core values, and like the trees adapting to their windy location on a ridge, are able to adapt and grow, adding to the quality without a name.

[1] Alexander, Christopher, “The Timeless Way of Building,” Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 28

Text and photos by Tom Munnecke, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, May 20, 2003