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Guest Post: A Hipbone Approach to Analysis

Charles Cameron is the regular guest-blogger at Zenpundit, and has also posted at Small Wars Journal, All Things Counterterrorism, for the Chicago Boyz Afghanistan 2050 roundtable and elsewhere.  Charles read Theology at Christ Church, Oxford, under AE Harvey, and was at one time a Principal Researcher with Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies and the Senior Analyst with the Arlington Institute:

A Hipbone Approach to Analysis

by Charles Cameron

I think it’s about time I laid out some of the basic thinking behind the style of analysis that I refer to as the “hipbone” approach.

Seen from one angle, it has to do with Sun Tzu’s double-whammy: “know your enemy, know yourself”.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Let me be blunt about this: if you want to “know yourself” and “know your enemy” as Sun Tzu recommends you should, you’ll need to be able to keep two opposing minds in mind at the same time – and still retain the ability to function.

The hipbone approach uses very simple concept-mapping tools and some fairly subtle insights derived from a lifetime of introspection and the arts to facilitate and annotate that process, and to make the resulting understandings available to others.

But first, let’s get down to the kind of thinking that lies behind this approach.


One thing I want to know is: what are the most subtle and complex mini-structures that the human mind can take in, more or less at one swoop. Then I’d like to know what their moving parts are, how — to the extent that they have a “main thrust” — they handle parallelisms and reconcile oppositions to that thrust, and what they do with stuff that’s oblique or orthogonal to it, how they put constraints to use in service of expression, what use they make of decoration, how they handle ignorance, how they reconcile head and heart, certainty and doubt, and how they keep the surface mind occupied while affecting the deeper layers of our being… And I want to know that, viscerally — to feel it in my bones, if you like – because I’d like to be able to do more or less the same thing with regard to complex real-world problems, on a napkin, by myself, or with friends or enemies.


I want to know what those things are because (a) they’re the most nourishing things I can feed myself, and I need all the nourishment I can get, and (b) because it turns out that if I can come up with product that has the same formal properties, I’ll be able to explain things both to myself and other people that otherwise leave me stuttering platitudes.

Somewhere right about there, I run into a quotation like this one, from Cornelius Castoriadis in his World in fragments: writings on politics, society, psychoanalysis, and the imagination:

Remember that philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

What I think I’m hearing here, half-hidden in the words, is that the Mozart Requiem is one of those high-density, subtle and complex mini-structures.

And I agree — in fact I find myself thinking of the arts that way, as the natural places to look for high-density, subtle and complex models of reality.


Of course, it would be absurdly neat if nobody else had ever noticed this, and I could take all the credit for myself – but no, the great anthropologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson makes pretty much the same observation about poetry:

One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get mapped onto a level of diversity in us that we don’t ordinarily have access to. We bring it out in poetry. We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships in the other person and in the world that we are not usually conscious of in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves, because of this mapping from complexity to complexity.

Poems are precisely “high-density, subtle and complex mini-structures” – that’s how they manage the “mapping from complexity to complexity” – and so the question comes up, what’s the role of structure in the arts?


Let’s take a quick look at musical structure, and at polyphony and counterpoint in particular. Your enemy’s perspective and your own – or the many perspectives of the various stakeholders in a complex, perhaps “sticky” or “wicked” problem – can be compared with the different, often discordant melodies from which a Bach or Mozart or Beethoven weaves a fugue – melodic themes which are not infrequently “inverted” or in “contrary motion”.

So what can the musical structure of counterpoint teach us, who are faced with real-world situations comprised of different needs and ideals — often discordant, often in counterpoint or opposition to one another, often in “contrary motion”?

Here’s Edward Said, discussing the Israeli-Palestinian problem in terms (gasp!) of musical form:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

Like him or leave him, Said in this paragraph is clearly thinking along similar lines to the ones I’m proposing.

Or to move to yet another art, that of theater — what can we learn about the simulation and modeling of complex issues from Shakespeare? Keith Oatley’s Shakespeare’s invention of theatre as simulation that runs on minds is a serious exploration of that possibility.


I’m going to return to the arts, and lay out a theory of what an art is and how it works, in a later post in this series – but for now, let me just say that I’ve devised a cognitive mapping tool, or more precisely a family of games and mapping tools, that I call “HipBone Games and Analysis” because they’re all about the way one idea connects with another – just as “the hip-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone” in the song.

And as I commented recently on Zenpundit:

What I’m aiming for is a way of presenting the conflicting human feelings and understandings present in a single individual, or regarding a given topic in a small group, in a conceptual map format, with few enough nodes that the human mind can fairly easily see the major parallelisms and disjunctions, as an alternative to the linear format, always driving to its conclusion, that the white paper represents. Not as big as a book, therefore, let alone as vast as an enormous database that requires complex software like Starlight to graphically represent it, and not solely quantitative… but something you could sketch out on a napkin, showing nodes and connections, in a way that would be easily grasped and get some of the human and contextual side of an issue across.


To balance Sun Tzu’s “know your enemy, know yourself” with which I began, I’ll offer by way of counterpoint Christ’s “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you” (Luke 6.27). And now for two of my favorite words: more soon…

13 Responses to “Guest Post: A Hipbone Approach to Analysis”

  1. zen Says:

    Excellent, Charles, thank you.
    Your post made me think of optical illusions. I usually show a set to my students when I try to get them to understand the difference between perception and reality:

    illusion_Optical_illusions-s300x369.jpg Ol image by 7mike5000

    Typically, a third to half of the class will see an illusion in a given way – say seeing an old lady in the middle picture. A minority will see something different, a young lady. A small number of students will naturally see both at once. When the discrepancy is pointed out, most still cannot see both until they are given clues and then a lightbulb turns on and everyone sees the illusion’s multiplicity.
    I think minds are light that. Tolerance for ambiguity and paradox comes naturally to a few but most require some teaching and a moment of insight when the harmony of difference crystallizes.  For some, the task is anxiety provoking:
    Ambivalent vs. Black-and-White Thinking

    From a recent study, "…college students were asked to write an essay coming down on one side or another of a contentious issue, regarding a new labor law affecting young adults, while other groups of students were allowed to write about both sides of the issue. The students forced to choose a side reported feeling more uncomfortable, even physically sweating more, says Frenk van Harreveld , a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam who studies how people deal with ambivalence."….

    "Ambivalent individuals’ ability to see all sides of an argument and feel mixed emotions appears to have some benefits. They may be better able to empathize with others’ points of view, for one thing. And when people are able to feel mixed emotions, such as hope and sadness, they tend to have healthier coping strategies, such as when a spouse passes away, according to Dr. Larsen. They may also be more creative because the different emotions lead them to consider different ideas that they might otherwise have dismissed.

    “Ambivalent individuals’ ability to see all sides of an argument and feel mixed emotions appears to have some benefits. They may be better able to empathize with others’ points of view, for one thing. And when people are able to feel mixed emotions, such as hope and sadness, they tend to have healthier coping strategies, such as when a spouse passes away, according to Dr. Larsen. They may also be more creative because the different emotions lead them to consider different ideas that they might otherwise have dismissed.”

    But ambivalent thinkers are often slow decision-makers, easily sucked into analysis-paralysis.

  2. J. Scott Says:

    Charles, As I said on your earlier post, you’re on to something. I’ve decided to deconstruct the first "O" of Boyd’s OODA loop (actually, I’ve been monkeying around with this as a diversion for sometime, but after the conf, decided it needed a little more wringing). That is offered because one of the guys at the conference offered a paradigmatic shift of vocabulary using OODA–he (Terry Barnhart) shifted to See, Reframe, Experience, Grow. OODA, in my humble opinion is not linear, but is often interpreted as such. For lack of a better phrase, I see it "swimming in a soup of harmony" (assuming we’re talking home-team, friendly OODA–not the enemy–during the conf I coined a phrase "virtuous OODA" which went over nicely) where "harmony" is defined using this unique definition provided by a friend (and seemingly appropriate to your work:  ."You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Harmony is the marriage of the contrary and of the similar; marrying discordant elements, regardless of tone, of color, of line, of thought and of purpose. " (Ed Hunter) .An Air Force LtCol at the Boyd Conf offered the following on the trust component and I love the metaphors: "Trust, to be most useful must have surface area; it must pervade AND permeate.  In my view pervasion and permeation must drive to maximum possible depths in order to persist when outcomes challenge trust notions and/or events threaten to erode trust.".The notions of pervasion and permeation are powerfully evocative concepts when considering "what" and "how" we see; for if we’re thinking about it, we can provide context, which assists in meaning to better articulate….Zen, I categorize ambiguity as good and bad; good ambiguity means you have the insight to "know" something is amiss (we possess the tacit knowledge necessary to know there is a problem) and try to create meaning (think a math problem) and bad ambiguity where insight is not at play and confusion reigns..Excellent post; look forward to more, I learned something today; thanks, Charles!

  3. J. Scott Says:

    I failed the formatting, but tried. My apologies.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Zen, all:
    I’m hoping to keep most of my responses for later posts in the series, so please don’t regard a failure to comment here as lack of enthusiasm — I’m delighted to be discussing these things, but some of my comments will work best when woven into later posts…
    The formatting is often a tad strange, not to worry.
    My own intro to Boyd came through Michael Wilson, whose Toward an ontology and Continual & Complete Intelligence both contain quite a bit of OODA-related materials.  Highly recommended.

  5. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Music, math, and poetry, just saying.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Indeed.  I wish I could unpack e^(i*π) = -1 as easily and richly as I can unpack "I am no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand" — surely a potent example of a "high-density, subtle and complex mini-structure".

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Scott: . Nice definition of harmony from your friend Ed Hunter. It reminds me of Wordsworth in the Prelude: .

    The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath
    And harmony of music. There is a dark
    Invisible workmanship that reconciles
    Discordant elements, and makes them move
    In one society

  8. J. Scott Says:

    Charles, Thanks for the Wilson essays and the Wordsworth! Ed said his version is a synthesis of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galazy) and Georges Seurat—what a combination!

  9. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Wow, words like those are not of the trees broken down into paper, but dreams broken down into math, very eloquent math.

  10. Charles Cameron Says:

    Larry: "words like those" — you’re referring to the Sylvia Plath piece?  I’ll post what I wrote about it for a book that’s about half-written…

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Sylvia Plath has a wonderful creation story in miniature, in the first poem in Ariel: she shows us the world in microcosm. It is an aside in the poem, almost a throw-away — she’s speaking of her new born daughter, Frieda, and she writes,

    I am no more your mother
    Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
    Effacement at the wind’s hand. 

    Stop, go no further, therein lies perfection. Let us separate out this description of a beginningless beginning: the cloud — we are already in mid-stream, life is ongoing, there are clouds enough that we know the word cloud, and what it refers to… — distils — and we know, too, how that works, how the cloud holds and releases rain, how the rain fills aquifers and begets springs, rivers, ponds… — a mirror — pools, lakes… but she has not needed to mention pools or lakes, she has skillfully brought their mirroring to our attention with no need of a water word… — to reflect — for that is what water pooled and at ease does, as we at pond or lakeside see it: it reflects… — its own — here, bringing her image back full circle to the cloud, she achieves a completion — as though cloud and reflection might stand in this perfect symmetric relation for ever — an implicit platonic timelessness which in her next phrase, — slow — she, without haste, utterly and effortlessly — Effacement — demolishes, not at some idealistic platonic level, but returning us vividly to the elements where we began — at the wind’s hand — like some perfect and symmetric sand mandala exquisitely created by Tibetan monks, then swept, all form erased and all colors blending, into a sack from which the sand can be emptied into river or sea… and yet in English, in words, in sixteen words.
    Perfection: indeed, the perfection of creation doubled up against the subtler perfection of dissolution.
    And this perfection so casually spent upon the air, one of a dozen metaphoric means in the poem to speak of her new born daughter, her first cry, her nakedness, her selfness, her breath, her first sounds so close to music…

  12. Charles Cameron Says:

    I apologize for the formatting — I still haven’t figured out the art of making paragraph breaks in my responses here…

  13. The Gap: visualization « The Image Says:

    […] is a good visual representation of a gap. It is as if described by a musician (I was going to say poet) instead of […]

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