Build antifragility for cultural projects

Methodological proposal.
12 June 2020. Published by Benoît Labourdette.
Reading time: 11 min  
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What methodology should be adopted to build cultural projects that have the capacity to tame uncertainty and thus become more deeply rooted in their objectives? Methodological proposal, based on the thesis of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the philosophy of François Jullien and the psychological studies of Olivier Houdé.

Report on the state of the cultural sector post-Covid-19

It would be salutary, a fortiori after the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020 which led to an extremely destructive containment for the cultural professions (among other sectors of society), to question the methodologies in order to envisage being able to make cultural projects more antifragile in the face of uncertainty.

During this period of confinement, there have been many very inspiring cultural innovations, which are still going on: film festivals that have reinvented themselves online, remote theatre projects, collective dance or music via videophony, calls for graphic, photographic, cinematographic creation, etc.

So, is everything all right? Everybody has resisted ? I’m not sure that this is the opinion of a theatre company whose tours for the next two years are being jeopardized by the cancellation of the Festival d’Avignon, the theatres, concert halls and cinemas empty for long months, the artists leading the very many artistic practice workshops cancelled, the authors, publishers and booksellers... The State and local authorities intervened by extending the unemployment insurance for temporary workers in the entertainment industry for one year, by setting up specific aid for the performing arts, cinema, plastic arts, music, museums, publishing, etc... These were indispensable supports, it is the role of the common good. They were probably not sufficient in France, Germany for example having affirmed the centrality of the cultural sector by supporting it to the tune of 50 billion euros after the confinement (in France it is about 100 times less). But what about the causes of what appeared to be an extreme fragility in the face of health contingencies? And the next crisis, unpredictable, will be of a different nature.

I propose, in 6 steps, definitions of concepts that will serve as solid support, in my opinion, for antifragile methodological paths in the cultural sector, i.e. that allow projects to be able to exist and even strengthen themselves in situations of uncertainty or intense stress.

1. Risk prevention: a limiting belief

The first idea that comes to mind is the risk prevention approach: trying to predict everything that can happen, based on past experiences. For example, foreseeing that a new epidemic could occur, and therefore having already prepared distant alternatives for all cultural projects. Just as in a film shooting plan, the unpredictability of the weather is anticipated by a “Plan B” of shooting indoors nearby in case of rain. Or, for an outdoor event, folded barnums are always ready to be deployed in case of bad weather.

This risk prevention, while necessary and very useful, does not protect against the unpredictable. It only prevents the predictable. It is important, but not sufficient. Risk prevention presents itself as reassuring (“We have foreseen everything”), which is false: it is impossible to foresee everything. And it is infinitely rare for the past to repeat itself identically.

The reality is that we live in an uncertain world, in which what will happen and destabilize us is precisely what could not be foreseen. We saw this at our expense during the Covid-19 crisis, which weakened the whole world, hitting the weakest hardest. What we can only admit after 2020 is that the world is uncertain and certainly promises unpredictable surprises! It would be salutary not to forget this lesson.

Let us therefore assume the obvious: it is absolutely impossible to predict everything. But then, how can we prepare for the unpredictable? This is the difference between the risk prevention attitude, which is limited to what it can imagine, and the antifragile attitude, which prepares for the unimaginable, only to come out of it stronger. This thesis may seem very theoretical, not very “realistic”, because how to tame the unknown, the impossible, the unthinkable? However, intuition makes us feel that this would be the best way. But what is it concretely, and how to make a cultural project antifragile?

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2. Definition of antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The concept of antifragility was formulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”, the first edition of which was published in 2013. It was published in French translation in 2018 (Editions Les Belles Lettres).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former trader, is today a writer, statistician and essayist specialising in the epistemology of probability (i.e. the critical study of the subject of probability). He is one of the very few people to have anticipated and warned about the extent of the financial crisis of 2008, for example. His atypical thinking and his critical stance seem to me to be a solid support to nourish reflection in the field of culture. Let’s first discover the concept of antifragility, before moving on to implementation paths, adapted for the cultural field.

Just as the human body grows stronger as it is subjected to stress and effort, just as popular movements grow when they are suppressed, so living things in general develop all the better when they are confronted with factors of disorder, volatility or anything that might disturb them. This faculty to not only take advantage of chaos but to need it in order to become better is the “antifragile”, like the ancient Hydra of Lerna, whose heads multiplied as they were cut off.

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2018 (back cover).

Indeed, these words make us dream: who wouldn’t want us to be strengthened by hardship? Who wouldn’t want to be able to put Nietsche’s aphorism “What doesn’t make me die makes me stronger” into practice for their cultural projects? But isn’t that a bit theoretical and utopian? The Hydra is a myth, not reality... On the other hand, concerning the human body, our personal experience validates Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s hypothesis, because we can see that the human body is strengthened when it is subjected to stress, within a certain limit: physical exercise, vaccination, fasting... among other examples.

The point here is not to question the importance of preventing known risks. Of course, we must be prepared for the obvious risks that we know about: supervising children crossing the street, having national stocks of masks, etc. Let’s not confuse antifragility with inconsistency. But we must not give in to the naive belief that risk prevention would protect us from everything. On the contrary, the excess of forecasting and risk prevention, seen as the only horizon in organizational decisions, reassures us, but paradoxically is a factor of great fragility. Why is this? Because we believe we are protected from everything, so we lower our guard on a deeper vigilance, intrinsic to the projects themselves. Thus, in good conscience, excessive prevention can paradoxically weaken projects, perhaps even more than before the widespread practice of risk prevention since the early 2000s. Why is this so? Let Nassim Nicholas Taleb explain it to us very simply:

We have never had as much data as we do today, yet we are more unable than ever to predict. More data — paying attention to the colour of the eyes of the people you meet when you cross the street, for example — can lead to missing the essential — the big truck coming across the street, in this case. When you cross the street, you’re eliminating data, except for data that could be a critical threat. As Paul Valéry wrote: There are many things to ignore in order to act.

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2018 (page 372).

Of course we can only agree. But then, what are the relevant facts to remember, and how do you go about taking a antifragile path? What exactly are we talking about? Here is a first, very simple example of antifragility. It is not a model, it allows us to start grasping the concept in terms of concrete action :

A do-it-yourself system and a test-and-error method would have the attributes of antifragility. If one wishes to become an antifragile, one must put oneself in the “fault-loving” situation — to the right of “fault-hating” — by making faults numerous and not very damaging.

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2018 (page 34).

Here is a table (page 36) that summarizes this example:

FragileRoughRobust
I hate mistakes Spiteful mistakes are just information Worship of mistakes (since they’re light)

We are beginning to perceive, I think, that antifragility is about a method of designing projects, a certain approach to work, to development, to construction, to the way we relate to the public. But then, should we only do “do-it-yourself” cultural projects, i.e. without any real artistic project, not very fragile because they are not very ambitious? On the contrary, it is thanks to the highest artistic standards that we will be able to build cultural projects that are antifragile, whether they’re “small” or “big”, as we will now discover.

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3. Cultural Policy Missions

By the way, what is the framework for the implementation of cultural projects in France? Cultural policies, and therefore funding frameworks, have for mainspring the development of artistic creation, its dissemination and its practices. This is at the heart of the missions of cultural institutions in France, as the french official texts indicate:

Official Missions of the Ministry of Culture :

The mission of the Ministry of Culture is to promote artistic creation in all its components and to enable the democratization and dissemination of cultural works.

The mission of the Ministry of Culture is to make the capital works of France and humanity in the fields of heritage, architecture, plastic arts, performing arts, cinema and communication accessible to the greatest number of people. It promotes the development of artistic works in all their components in the territories and throughout the world. It is the guarantor of artistic education.

Source: website www.gouvernement.fr.

These missions are engaged in two directions: cultural democratization, to make works accessible to the public, and cultural democracy, which consists in fostering artistic practices of audiences. These two facets of cultural policies are complementary, and in my opinion, they always benefit from being combined. There is much debate in the political and financial stakes between these two perspectives, the answer to which lies in what are now called cultural rights. This is a subject in itself, which I do not deal with here, the cultural projects I am talking about are indifferently related to both approaches.

But what exactly is “artistic creation”? The philosopher François Jullien is one of the contemporary thinkers who explore the mysteries and potentialities of artistic creation in the most profound way. Here is an excerpt from his book “Dé-coincidence, où viennent l’art et l’existence” (2017, Editions Grasset):

In what way is art a lesson, no longer just a lesson of life, as so much has been said, to decorate life or because one is sculpting one’s life. Whether one aestheticizes one’s life as much as one wants, the notion of “art of living” is unfortunate: it is compromised with the renunciation of the adventurous inherent in wisdom and withdrawn into convenience. On the other hand, the demand for the dissonance that is proper to art, and which is more radically enlightened by modernity, puts the capacity for ex-existence at work from the outset, inscribing it in the sensible. In the de-coincidence, art and existence discover their common origin, and at first in opposition to “Creation”: discover that the new - the unheard of - is indeed possible, but precisely because it is not naively a beginning. Because it is the result of a disengagement and de-enclosure that keeps us out of the confinement of a world and its adapted adequacy. Or that it is by coming out of the hinges under which the possibilities are sealed, out of joint — possibilities that we did not suspect — that comes an audacity that, in its challenge, can redeploy from the infinite and allows us to finally begin. What each work of art does, in short: that the first morning of the world, then, becomes fleetingly within reach.

Dé-coincidence, où viennent d’art et l’existence ?, François Jullien, 2017 (page 136).

To summarize, François Jullien thus demonstrates that artistic creation is inherently antifragile, because art is by nature always reinventing, reinstating the first time at each of its occurrences. It is a lesson in life. The essence of artistic creation is to be adventurous, unseemly, uncoincidental.

4. Antifragility of a resolutely artistic and innovative approach to culture

Artistic creation is what cultural projects are meant to develop and disseminate, so let’s nourish ourselves on its deep logic of functioning, let’s allow it to express itself fully. Let us not seek to reduce what is the greatest strength of art: the requirement of audacity. Let’s take a risk in the cultural projects themselves, without which we would destroy the meaning of art, which we are here to defend! This audacity is precisely what will help our cultural projects to become antifragile. We can give it its name: innovation.

The approach to building a cultural project must therefore be innovative in order to be antifragile. But how can we identify that we are indeed in an attitude of boldness and innovation, and not in a race to reassure ourselves by trying to anticipate everything? How can we identify criteria to guide us? It is a question of our relationship to “error” and “uncertainty”: Do we seek to avoid uncertainty at all costs, i.e. the risk of error, or do we actively prepare to receive them in order to be enriched by them? Nassim Nicholas Taleb sums it up very well :

Mistakes make some things break, and some things don’t. Some theories fall apart, and some don’t. Innovation is precisely something that benefits from uncertainty; and some people sit back and wait for uncertainty and use it as raw material, just as our hunting ancestors did. ...an ethical life is not ethical when it is free of personal risk.

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2018 (page 512).

We could synthesize these ideas into one formula:

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Innovation is therefore not an empty word, which would mean following fashions, in a form of demagogic and often technophile headlong rush, such as making absolutely “digital” projects or systematically using “social networks” without even really knowing why.

Innovation is an approach, a method, which integrates into the heart of its process openness to the unexpected, and is enriched by it. It is an attitude of openness to what, a priori, destabilizes us and that we would tend to reject out of fear. But beware, innovation is not a simple messy Spanish inn either. An innovative project can be extremely vast and structured, but it must cultivate its agility, which lies in everyone’s attitude towards the unexpected: "it surprises me, it worries me, it destabilizes me, well I’m going to do my best to deal with it and I’m going to try to find out how I can make the most of it!

5. A method: mourning work

It is counterintuitive to accept the unexpected, because the unexpected represents the loss of what was expected. It is necessarily a disappointment at the outset, which we fight against by reflex: denial, anger, guilt, etc. We would like to be enriched by this new situation, as advocated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but we have to admit that our brain does not take us in this direction spontaneously, far from it.

To be able to adopt a antifragile approach, whether at an individual level or collectively (within the framework of a project), we must learn to go through the stages of mourning very often. It is usually a rather slow process, because there is little awareness of it. It is a mourning training that must be practiced in order to become more and more able to go through the stages of mourning in an agile manner. The 5 stages of mourning work are :

  1. Shock and denial.
  2. Anger.
  3. Negotiation.
  4. Depression.
  5. Acceptance (or resilience).

It’s important to know that these stages can be quite disorganized, with jumps and flashbacks, which is particularly destabilizing.

antifragility is therefore above all a real work on oneself, dynamic and difficult, because it is to be produced precisely in those moments when one is in great difficulty, when one has lost what one imagined and is caught up in one’s unpredictable reactions in the face of this loss. So, the method is to practice the work of mourning, at high speed. To go faster in mourning, so that, thanks to the resilience that the work of mourning produces, we can consider the opportunities that lie behind the loss.

In fact, antifragility is at the heart of our learning system from childhood. In his book Learning to Resist (2019), educational psychologist Olivier Houdé explains through neuroscience that from childhood and throughout life, learning and reflection are based on cognitive resistance (another way of naming antifragility):

Cognitive resistance is our brain’s ability to inhibit automatisms of thought to allow us to think But it goes far beyond that: this ability is also essential in many situations of everyday life. Indeed, we must learn to resist automatisms of thought when they are oversimplifying and dangerous.

6. A path strewn with constructive pitfalls

Preparing for the unpredictable in order to take advantage of it, in the cultural sector, means adopting, collectively and in the structure of the systems that we put in place, be it planning, technique, organisation in teams, artistic work, communication, etc., an attitude of taking distance, a less reflexive, counter-intuitive time of thinking, in short, a true algorithmic approach, which involves sharing information, combined with autonomy in decision-making.

The method to adopt this attitude, as we have just seen above, is the work of mourning, which seems to be slower to approach, but which allows us to build in reality, and not in the fantasy of what we have lost and what we would like to find again. The challenge is to get back in touch with reality as quickly as possible, which has just changed in an unpredictable and irreversible way.

This brings us to places we hadn’t anticipated. It is destabilizing at first glance, but the cultural projects will only be better, more anchored in reality, and will respond even better to their initial objectives, because they will have been able to adapt to the changing reality.

To develop antifragility in the construction and exploitation of cultural projects is to choose the path that is the least easy, the riskiest, the most agile, the least reassuring, a path of successive innovations. It is the path that will come up against the most pitfalls, but which guarantees that the project will come out of it grown and perennial.

Choosing this type of approach has profound impacts on the forms of artistic projects, working methods, professional training, management attitudes, etc. If this approach is very difficult, it is above all because it implies accepting the loss of a form of power of domination, of mastery. It implies a change in our relationship to the world, which goes against the majority ideas about effective action and organisation. Thus, it often happens that the people who weaken projects the most are the leaders themselves (artists, elected officials, directors, etc.), because they are too afraid to let go of their power. In my opinion, taking these risks is the best guarantee for building ambitious cultural projects that will fully meet their objectives in our uncertain world.

This text is the introduction to the antifragile method for cultural projects. It will be followed by other texts that will develop proposals for the field.

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Thanks to Robinson Labourdette for discovering the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and to Véronique Guiho-Leroux and Isabelle Altounian for their attentive rereading.

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