On Creativity, Constraints and Blocking

Blocking variables for creativity

Creativity involves the conditions and processes by which something new can occur. Creative processes lead to a new pattern of order emerging. 

All around us things are patterned into regularities: rocks form in certain patterns, the weather moves in other patterns, our politics and our shoes have a pattern to them — there is a regularity and general order to the world.

We know from the Complexity Sciences that all forms of order involve constraints — for otherwise things would dissolve into a chaotic state. Order, which emerges spontaneously in a self-organizing manner, constrains the many possibilities of a system into a few semi-stable possibilities. In this way, as Terrance Deacon notes, the whole is less than the sum of its parts

What is a Constraint?

What is astonishing in this statement is that all order — all life emerges via constraints. But what is a constraint? In general usage we understand a constraint as a type of rule: do not do that. It is something external and arbitrary. We live in a world with many such constraints. But are all constraints external and arbitrary?

The first thing to note about order is that it does involve a movement from more possibility to less. When something emerges as some specific thing in a repeated manner (say granite or a shoe) of all possibilities of what it could become it is becoming only a small subset of these. The vast field of possibilities has been constrained in a regular manner to produce a limited outcome (the rock or the shoe for example). 

The concept of a constraint “does not treat organization as something added to a process… and yet it neither demotes organization to a mere descriptive status nor does it confuse organization with the specifics of the components and their particular singular relationships to one another. Constraints are what is not there but could have been…” T. W. Deacon

A constraint can be either external or internal. 

External Constraints

External constraints: how a road limits where a car can go, or a law proscribing what can or cannot be done. We understand these forms of constraints quite well. 

Internal Constraints

But constraints can also be intrinsic. A constraint can emerge out of the relations of a system: because something is arranged in this manner the degrees of freedom are restricted. The constraint is a property of the system itself. Self-organizing properties have these forms of constraint. We can see these in the emergent order of a whirlpool or a crowd. In self organizing systems constraints emerge as a systems property that regulates the outcome to be more one thing and less others.

This allows us to understand order differently, “while in the past… [we] tended to think of organization as something extra, something added to the elementary variables, the modern theory… regards organization as a restriction or constraint.” W. R. Ashby

Constraints are dynamic and statistical — they are about patterns where something is more likely than others to happen. And such a pattern begets further patterns — constraints propagate and this propagation gives rise to complex order. 

To understand why something is the way it is to also to understand why it is not something else — why it is constrained intrinsically and extrinsically to be less than what it could be. And that this lessness is an achievement. This lessness is a creative act.

Understanding constraints: 

  • They are always there
  • Order = constraints
  • Order = reducing the more (chaos) to less
  • Most are environmental
  • They are both extrinsic and intrinsic
  • Life = constraints + excess
  • Replication of constraints = system propensity 
  • Cumulative constraints lead to complex order (it is never just one constraint)
  • There are always alternatives (ignored, suppressed, invisible) — alternative ways to do similar things
  • There are always odd unintended possibilities hovering around at the fringes

Constraints and Our Everyday Lives

Our sensing and thinking arises from how we are embodied, embedded, extended and enacted in a dance of co-shaping with our immediate socio-material environment. This is to say that we arise from a complex set of nested and sequential constraints. Without a really deep understanding of how we are emergent from an extended set of environmental constraints (internal and external) — it is impossible to properly understand how we have creative agency. 

Worldmaking as a creative process through constraints

We are emergently shaped into the beings we are by a set of constructive constraints. The dynamic interaction of tools, habits, environments and concepts give rise to a living field of potentialities which is the terrain of our lives. 

Constraints are apart of the creative process

Our everyday engagements are defined by engaging in activities with things that afford us certain abilities— they afford us emergent opportunities for potential action via a series of constraints. The clay is formed into a cup that heat transforms into porcelain that by its shape affords holding and drinking. 

Affordance Exceed Identity and Purpose for Creativity

But there is an excess in this relation — a more than — while the cup affords drinking and holding it is more than this.

Everything we engage with could be something else. Often it is something else, when we are in a position of urgency and we do not have the right tool — whatever is at hand becomes that which we need. A shoe can become a wine bottle opener, a door stop or a hammer. Our coffee cup can become a pencil holder, a musical instrument or cookie cutter.

Blocking Allows Affordances for New creative possibilities

We could consider these moments of necessity or crisis as types of constraints: we don’t have the right tool so we ignore (or block) the proper use (affordance) of an object and use it for a different existing purpose. 

In our everyday lives there is always a dance of less and more. Order and excess. Potential and the possible. Where the existing pattern more often than not is what repeats.

Creativity and Constraints

The emergence of the new involves the development of new constrained dynamics.

Our example of co-opting one thing for a new (but existing) usage of how the new can emerge: You need a constraint to stop a constraint. By our “blocking” of the standard usage/affordance of the cup it “frees” the cup to become more-than a cup. 

We have produced  a diversification of potentials in the initial field (the cup can become more than a cup). 

These co-options are a switching of one intentional feature to do the work of another intentional object. It is the using of an unintended effect to an existing purpose, and in this manner it is a form of adaptive co-option (see right side of the diagram below).

Exaptation Features as constraints

But, this is not the only form of co-option that is possible:

  • Intentional features could have unintended effects that could lead to novel purposes. 
  • Unintentional features (in an intentional object) could lead to novel purposes. (See the left hand side of the above diagram).

These are called “exaptive” features — meaning that they are outside of any existing purpose.

Blocking is a Process

What to block is an empirical and experimental question — you need to test things out. What begins to emerge when you block X?

Blocking is a technique to explore the “more-than” of both intentional and unintentional features of existing things.

  • It allows us to move from adaptive to exaptive via blocking intended effects (we move from the right to the left of the above diagram)
  • It allows us to focus on the exaptive features by blocking the necessary physical properties of things (we explore the left side of the above diagram directly)

What Are You Aiming For?

The goal is not the emergence of the radically new in one miraculous step or an earth shaking epiphany that gives you insight into a wondrous new world. But something very modest at first  — the emergence of something odd and different that you can follow.

The odd and different will be some form of novel affordance that is emerging because you are developing new skills, ways of sensing and acting because the normal sets of skills, and habits are blocked.

What is critical in the following of a novel emergent affordance is that the blockage remains active. Systems have strong propensities and to overcome these a suite of blockages needs to be developed and maintained if you wish to keep your difference alive. 

Experimental Steps in Constraining Towards Novelty

We can see this process having a series of general steps:

Current State of a System ripe for Disruptive Innovation

Start: Have a good sense of the current state of the system. What are its patterns and propensities? What are the intrinsic and extrinsic constraints? What is the assemblage and what are the emergent potentialities?

Blockage for creative output is Introduced to a System
  1. Imposing a Blockage: This is the first step: you have produced a rule based external constraint to open up something to be more than it is. What else could it be? What else could it do? These questions are always in relation to an area of interest: What else could this do in regards to this area of interest? There is always a very general frame or focus.

Here you are allowing more ways to emerge to do the similar thing— you are not (yet) trying to do something radically new. The new is adaptive.

  1. Expand the scope: It is also a moment to pay attention to existing alternatives (from other cultures, species, histories, etc.), and other unintended things that could be co-opted in a similar manner.
  1. Selection: Select multiple outcomes with the greatest level of novelty. Other criteria can be applied. They key is novelty and moving away from the propensities of the existing system logic.
Context Shift Introduced as a creative force to a System
  1. Environment switching: Put experiments in new contexts. Allow contexts to be changed by engagements and vice-versa (novel sense making). What else can they do? Here we begin to sense new system dynamics and propensities (novel intrinsic constraints). This leads to the emergence of novel affordances that are exaptive. Environment and “thing” is in an experimental co-emergent dance.

    Do this in parallel with multiple novel outcomes. Don’t settle on one pathway or potentiality.

    [a] Experiment with hybrids. Multiple joined exaptations are necessary. You are always making collectives. What can they do? What else do they need? Where can you find that in other unintended capacities?
Novel Approaches Emerge in a System
  1. Novel assemblages emerge: As collectives emerge novel approaches (qualitatively different) emerge (to the original matter of concern). 

    [a] New scaffolding constraints emerge 
    [b] Stabilization of agent and environment
  1. The final question: how does this become a world? Emergent fields explored/invented via practices, techniques, concepts and tools. This is a new iterative process focused on change-in-degree: improvement. 

The New Emerges via Iterative Constraints

With each development and stabilization of a novel affordance new unintended affordances glimmer. The stabilized novel affordance becomes the new normal. And the process begins again: what could be blocked? New blockages are developed and new affordances discovered. At key moments in the process the nature of the blockages shifts. There are distinct phases and tasks to the process.

Iteration by iteration a system is pushed towards an emergent threshold of qualitative difference. 

Blocking becomes an exaptive iteration for creativity

Blocking and following are a dance. You don’t just block once and then get into the activity of experimentation, never to return to blocking. 

Iteration is a creative act, not an act of improvement or perfection. 

Each iteration is a creative deviation that involves a new blocking and experimentation to sense and co-evolve with a new emerging affordance. This affordance is stabilized. Then the process of iteration, constraint and deviation begins again. The dance changes when one senses a qualitative threshold. Now the constraints are back to their “normal” job of stabilizing a world. 

Creativity is Constraints, Blockages and Emergence of Novel Constraints

Creativity is a process. 

It is a process that begins with constraints that are giving rise to stable patterns of order. This pattern is disrupted by a new form of constraints — blockages. These are utilized in an iterative manner to experiment towards radically new forms of order (and thus a novel set of emergent intrinsic constraints).

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