What's that?
defining that continues to unfold

by Kye Nelson

What's that...when one's Best Beloved says 'Wha's dat?' and one says in return 'That, my dear is…' and then ever after for the next several weeks or months or years (depending on the tenaciousness of that particular best-beloved), all four-legged things are "cats"? That particular ising, hissing (wouldn't you, if your tail had just been pulled?) something just got named as a cat; and also "cat" is defined, provisionally as maybe "something like dat".

Now, said deeply-impressed-by-the-hiss infant could be said to be trying to cut up the world into manageable bites--and on the face of it that's a pretty thing-ish occupation. In practice, who knows whether what he's got now is static-ish, or process-ish, or some of both? (Perhaps 'some of both: I note that he's extremely interested in things that are doing something– take for instance how compelling a piece of roadwork equipment can be to a 1-year-old.) But what he's definitely got is something provisional that sooner or later he's going to modify in the direction of greater precision. Every piece of roadwork equipment may start out as a "deet-deet", but eventually there are "front-loaders", and "excavators", and "cranes", and so on. Later still, there aren't only front-loaders, there are also front-loader backhoes.

I say "Pacific Ocean" and I've named a thing, but it's not a static thing. That word contains within it water-warming-here-in-relation-to-cooling-there -- El-Ninoing -- and many other continual unfoldings. When I look up "Pacific Ocean" in the dictionary, it does give a static definition - "largest of the earth's oceans, between Asia and the American continents..." - but could it be that defining can be done differently depending on what model one is currently using? Is there a way to make a definition of "Pacific Ocean" that captures something of what I noticed a minute ago, and more? If this were possible, such a definition might have a kind of open-endedness about it that welcomes-in the process and its unfolding, rather than this static, shut-and-closed quality that the dictionary definition had.

What the aforementioned infant is doing may not be what people tend to think of when they think of defining, but it's got something of the flavor of what I'm meaning when I say 'a definition that welcomes-in the unfolding process'. Maybe it might be better to say "defining that welcomes-in…" and then the word "definition" can be saved for the artifact left behind by the defining. But what about what I said above: "just got defined"? Defining is a process, a definition is (provisionally) a thing, and "defined" – what on earth is that?... "defined" isn't so much thing-ish as it is was-ish.

That by-now-notorious infant sees a wondrous enormous something that is to-ing and fro-ing noisily, and whenever it goes backwards it makes the most delightful noise: 'deet, deet, deet'. So said infant promptly names the whole amazing something/experience "deet-deet". "Wow" just won't do when there are so many different wows happening and one wants to distinguish them, which one seems to want to do, when one is an infant, in order to say one's experiencing of the wow to somebody who is right there with one. If there isn't somebody right there to share the wow, one looks urgently for somebody and gets them there.

So what was happening with the infant I had lunch with today, who when I said the word "tractor" (which is his version of "deet-deet" – goes for all of that sort of thing) smiled delightedly (with his whole body, as only an infant can) and after the quick sharing eye-to-eye of the wonder of tractors looked around for the tractor-ing that must be going on somewhere? There was a lot of "wowing" happening, but no tractor or lion or anything else – just that lovely magical word.

What's that?.

Kye Nelson is a watcher, thinker, and collaborative consultant. Find out more about her work at www.workingprocess.com or contact her at 210/413-4339, info@workingprocess.com.

This material © 2000 by Kye Nelson. All rights reserved.

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