Mastery versus Control – a distinction without a difference?

[Update: there’s a short follow up post to this here.]

“Give me absolute control over every living soul
And lie beside me baby,
That’s an order”

Leonard Cohen, The Future

“Control is tied to the idea that we can limit energy expenditures and funnel them down paths of our own choosing. We call this greediness “efficiency.” Life processes require the broadest form of energy dissipation into the finest possible “mist” of flow instead of the fire-hose we tend to hold as the ideal. A mist feeds, a fire-hose erodes and destroys.”
Antonio Dias

What’s the difference between mastery and control? I wrote recently about industrial agricultural control of the biosphere, to produce the Goods for us. As the brilliant TV Smith
“You can force it, drug it and exhaust it, pick the fruit of the rape of the land”

The post brought forth Antonio Dias’s comment (see above). So, is there a useful distinction to be made? I suppose mastery involves knowing that not everything can be controlled, that messy life will always leak out the sides, and that there must be “bohemias” from whence good ideas can come, or things-we-don’t-need-now-but-may-in-the-future can be left to keep reproducing.

…Harwood blinks. ‘It’s what we do now instead of bohemias,” he says.
“Instead of what?”
“Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconcious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.”
“We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of Geography in general. Autonomous zones do offer a certain insulation from the monoculture, but they seem not to lend themselves to re-commodification, not in the same way. We don’t know why exactly.”‘
William Gibson, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’

But surely this vision of mastery – just enough humility to know that you’re messing around too much in God’s domain amounts to nothing more than a kind of Green Confucian warning against the dangers of hubris – of believing that our knowledge and power are sufficient to keep the entropy at bay?

Is ‘mastery’ linked to the fifth stage of competence to that effect, of consciously knowing that you have unconscious/automatic ability to solve problems.

Is the difference between self-mastery and self-control to do with their (intended) outcomes. We like self-mastery when it leaves enough of the biosphere intact to keep us going, but we dislike self-control when it prevents us from having fun in the here and now, or leads to the accumulation of capital (deferred gratification blah blah blah) and thus power?

And let’s not forget, control has created miracles of co-ordination and resource exploitation. If you’re sitting somewhere with electricity and running water, and a supermarket that brings produce from around the world to your door, then you should acknowledge the benefits of “control” (alongside the costs!!).

What wisdom can we take from religion, from ecological thinking, from feminism? Has this all been done before? If people have useful things they have thought – or links to what other people have thought – please do pitch in…

A few random poems
If by Rudyard Kipling

Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

And here is a very very funny cartoon about the serenity prayer…


Further Reading
Fly by Wire by William Langeweische (This is very good – on the possibility of error and what happens when people won’t admit they might be wrong…)
Better by Atul Gawande (He’s a Boston surgeon. Great stuff on how great performance is based not on flashes of brilliance but paying attention to the small details. See also his fabulous and essential “The Checklist Manifesto“)

The Control Revolution
by James Beniger
(see a review here by the very very smart Cosma Shalizi)

The Singularity
, for those who believe our control of Nature will lead to us Teching Out…

Numerical Control
Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott.
Derrick Jensen on the Tyranny of Entitlement (Linking environmental abuse and abusive relationships)
Blink: Think without thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Pandemonium: the rise of predatory locales in the post-war world by Branden Hookway et all
Concept of Earth Jazz from “The Ecology of Eden” by Evan Eisenberg

Mastery is
“trusting yourself when all men doubt you, but making allowance for their doubting too”
“Unconscious competence” (stage four)
Fluidity, adaptiveness, innovative
Systems thinking, based on notions of stocks and flows
other characteristics?

Control is
genetic modification.
Often conscious competence (stage 3)
Rigidity, protocols, hierarchical
Numerically focussed on throughputs and outputs.
other characteristics?

Hat tip to Johnnie Moore – his tweet of the PGST post gave me a much-needed to push on on this theme.


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11 Responses to Mastery versus Control – a distinction without a difference?

  1. dwighttowers says:

    This from a good friend

    cage fighting and tai chi
    Marching bands and bebop
    dogma and philosophy
    paint-by-numbers and art
    training and education
    money and wealth
    personality and character
    information and understanding
    economy and culture
    price and value
    fucking and loving
    succeeding and flourishing
    Fashion and zeitgeist

    etc etc. A lot easier to count off than to describe.

    (What’s he got against fucking? A good casual shag between consenting adults with appropriate birth and disease control is no biggie, surely?)

  2. OK, so I’ve skimmed the post, and I’m not sure I’m liking the language of mastery or control, but here’s some thoughts anyway:

    I’m reminded of a buddhist story of the first time some buddhist monks went to the US (Vietnamese monks, I think) and how they were amazed at the awesome achievements of the human species – a species with a brain able to dream up and enact fantastic creations such as the atomic bomb… and the sad truth is that there is something awesome in our destructive power.

    There’s something going off in the back of my head that relates to the whole “Small is beautiful” concept – humans fulfilling our potential within the sytems of which we’re a part, not creating systems that dominate natural processes. In other words ecology, being part of the ecosystem not being apart from it. Mastery or control, if we’re masters or controllers apart from the natural system, we’re doomed. Hmmm, scale that down and there’s something in there about group process/meetings also – the need for them to work within the natural psychological systems of people and not be models imposed on our nature.

    And of course in the realm of the traditional martial arts it is often said that the only mastery we truly ever need is over ourselves, and all else flows from that. So maybe other criteria for your control/mastery checklist… Mastery applies to self/ Control to others??

  3. Via Facebook-

    Elin wrote: “I would say it’s hard to make a useful distinction. Yet I personally see important differences. At one hand, there can be a brilliant master who manages people without explicitly controling them (rather by empowering them and (re-) distributing mandated according to capacity and status in rhe group). At the other hand you can control people without really mastering them, in the above mentioned sense. Here I’d say you probably control people by mastering them (more by force) and the distinction sort of disappears. You can also control people (eg information control of the Internet or telecommunication) in a very abstract/remote sense, more in the sense of monitoring them (for a purpose) – where they don’t feel explicitly mastered by you (but perhaps rather by another more visible master).”

  4. And via two tweets on Twitter, about the previous post, this from Wendy Farmer;

    yes, but limited concept of mastery, not mastery as art: integration of intuition, intelligence, psyche, emotions, but analytical-technical/control-based mastery. Complexity unyielding to that variety. Hence decrease in control in wider context.

  5. And via email from someone else-

    “Yes, I think the permaculturists have it really. It is a matter of working with rather than against nature. Maybe that is smart control, but (dialectically comrade) who/what is controlling who/what?”

  6. marc roberts says:

    A quick ramble…
    Maybe it has something to do with externalities. Mastery excludes no parameter from calculation, whilst control includes only what is necessary for the excercise of control.

    I may be thinking in too “arty” a manner here – conflating zen masters with jazz masters.

    It could be said (by a pretentious ass such as myself) that a top predator ( lions etc, or ourselves) achieves mastery over its environment by behaving appropriately for that environment, as dictated by that environment, whilst never actually exercising control over it. The same could be said of the prey species, IMO. Any attempt to control the environment on terms not dictated by the environment cannot achieve mastery. So mastery requires a humility that is always absent in control.

    Slave owners never achieved what they imagined was “mastery” – only control

    for whatever that’s worth

    • dwighttowers says:

      Pretentious, toi? Pas de tout, mon ami.

      That is spot on, in my opinion. And my, are we behaving as predators! Good book on this is “Cannibals and Kings” by Marvin Harris- argument is that as humans wiped out all of one source of protein, they’d have to invent new hunting techniques. So, by your argument, constant control, but never mastery. There’s this academic at Keele University called Stephen Quilley who argues about trophic levels of energy etc… Will find and link…

  7. Pingback: Having a field day, efficiently and/or effectively «

  8. Antonio Dias says:

    I’ve found, when I try to make the distinction between mastery – something that when honestly confronted is always about finding accommodation to our environment inside ourselves – and control; that some people respond, “Of Course!” while others, equally capable and insightful, will turn up their noses and say that both are terms for coercion.

    It’s nice to see so many of the former here in these comments! I’m also gaining some understanding of how self-mastery differs from self-control. The first is grounded while the second is always a mere wish to make a bargain with fate.

    This helps me assert that there is a useful distinction!

  9. Antonio Dias says:

    One further thought on Mastery.

    You often hear the rationale that since Southern slave-holders called themselves “Master” that the word is tainted. This is one of many examples where what we have is a group attempting to justify itself – at least in their own eyes – by using a word inappropriately. A Zen Master is a master, a slave-owner with a whip is a controller of people, not their master. They were trying to justify coercion with the whole “White Man’s Burden” line of crap. Allowing this to destroy the usefulness of the word they misappropriated would honor them and devalue a useful term.

    Unless we can make a distinction between mastery and control, we have no way of talking about the difference between pursuing the fantasy of control as a “guarantor” of success, and the pursuit of a discipline of self- and material mastery that lets us reach our higher natures.

  10. Pingback: Mastery and Control, the sequel «

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