Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 17! Worlds and Worldmaking - Part 1...
Happy Gregorian New Year!
It’s the end of the first week of a new year — at least according to one of many calendars.
This is in itself fascinating — there are countless different dates and concepts of what and when the “New Year” occurs. Knowing of these different traditions is more than just having some interesting facts to throw out as charming dinner conversation in our diverse cosmopolitan society. Each New Year announces a different way of being alive and points to the existence of different worlds.
The various New Years are happening in qualitatively different worlds and are connected to different moments in different cycles which have a unique importance: a new moon in spring, or the rising of a constellation when a certain fish returns is not arbitrary or quaint— rather these are practices of more-than-human worldmaking that are directly connected to profound and distinct modes of change and continuity.
What does it mean to say that these practices are connected to “worlds” and “worldmaking”?
And just as importantly why does this matter to the development of creative practices?
For many of us, especially in the modern west — humans are humans the world over and at a deep level we all have the same essence and needs. We confidently talk about human nature and a universal hierarchy of needs. From this perspective there is only one shared reality and in this reality we are all deep-down basically the same. Sure there might be differing cultures, but each of these is addressing the same underlying human reality — just in a distinct manner. We assume a deep human essence or sameness that is expressed differently by various cultures.
This perspective imagines that differences between cultures are epiphenomenal and that we all share one common reality and essence.
This is what anthropologists term the “modernist” perspective. It is a recently developed “western” perspective that sees cultural differences as being differences in degree. This perspective holds that we all live in one shared world.
How does this perspective approach creativity and innovation?
It imagines that creativity is a universal human problem solving activity that is ultimately addressing a set of fixed and unchanging universal needs.
But is there simply one fixed universal reality?
Is this modernist perspective able to conceive of qualitative differences?
Is it blind to the differences between worlds?
How should we understand a contemporary animist claim that rocks, tools and rivers are people?
The modernist perspective explains these away as superstitions to be overcome, or as elaborate metaphors that are not meant in any literal sense — “of course, no one is claiming rocks are people, that would be silly, they are simply getting at the fact that everything is energy and “alive”— but they don’t have our modern words for it!”
For a moment, let’s not jump to adjudicating the truth of these animist statements. Let’s focus on the style of judgement being used in the modernist perspective:
We, to the degree that we hold this perspective, believe that we can pass judgement, because we have special access to reality and in doing so we are policing and maintaining a perspective where there is only space for one reality — there is and ultimately can only be one world.
As “moderns'' we are making and maintaining “a world where only one world is possible.” It is a style of engaging with reality where there are only quantitative differences but no qualitative difference.
But, does this do justice to the animist world and its qualitative difference?
This is both an ethical question and a question about what creativity involves. Ethically our modernist style of judgement erases the other. It is a colonial perspective — we can subsume or colonize (erase) all difference from inside of our perspective. And from the perspective of creativity, it reduces creativity ultimately to only involving change-in-degree. But what of change-in-kind? What of qualitative difference?
Can we, today, afford to be so worldblind?
It is not so easy to answer this without falling into some problematic assumptions:
There are two elements of such schemas, which play a particular role in structuring worlds:
Our daily actions in specific environments with specific tools (physical and conceptual) make and remake a world. In this way a world is not reducible to a “worldview”.
While it is reasonable to say there is a “modernist perspective” or an “animist perspective” — these are high level abstractions that are deeply entangled in the worlds from which they emerge. Most of what makes up a world cannot be fully explicated or reduced to abstractions. Most of what makes up a world are practices that involve specific bodies in specific environments doing specific things.
NOTE: It is hard to recognize that we have a world for we are so “of” our world (and not simply “in” it). Because of this we have included a set of simple exercises to help us sense how we are “of” a world (see: “Alternative propositions and Exercises” below).
Whatever judgement we make about another world — say an animist world — our judgement cannot ultimately replace, subsume or explain away its actuality or difference. An other world is irreducible. All worlds are irreducible.
Take as an example the animist world understanding that rocks, tools and rivers are also humans. Does Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs now apply to a chair? Maslow’s model cannot expand that far, we are dealing with an un-subsumable difference. When a chair is a human —then what a human is — is something very different.
All of our most general concepts — nature, self, matter — these are “worldly” concepts. They emerge historically from a set of practices, have specific effects and co-make a “world” — but not “The World”.
Here it is useful to contrast the modernist model of a single ontology with a model that allows for multiple fundamental ontologies to co-exist:
World is always plural: worlds.
If we can recognize this then we can say “other worlds exist.” And if we can say this then we can ask — what specifically are they?
What are wondrous thing: other worlds exist. We are not all the same.
There are differences that change everything.
We cannot speak for everyone — this is both an ethical and aesthetic stance: there is no final external measure to judge a world — judgement is always immanent to a practice.
That other worlds exist is an “ontological” challenge — it challenges what it is “to be” (the study of which is termed “ontology”). This challenge asks of us a new type of engaged listening — a listening that does not begin with the urge to translate, empathize, generalize or assist.
It is a far more active “listening” — for if worlds cannot be fully explicated but only understood via immersive practice — then we need to become far engaged.
Our engagements and listening need to take on the form of alliance and diplomacy — a negotiation between differences which acknowledge that the difference cannot be erased. (A fundamental underdeveloped aspect of creativity is diplomacy —acknowledging and negotiating difference —but more on this later).
While books, videos and the like can only get us so far — they are poor tools — but they are the tools we have ready to hand. Here are a few books and videos we have been enjoying in preparing for this issue of the newsletter (by no means exhaustive):
This week we shared a lecture by Philippe Descola on worlds and animals. He wrote an important book on the topic of worlds: Beyond Nature and Culture. Much of what we are discussing in this newsletter draws heavily upon his work. It is worth a close read, in it he makes an argument that there are in general four basic worlds (we are summarizing quite radically):
While such a summary is far far too brief — what we hope you can sense is that our world (what he calls Naturalism or the Modern Perspective) is not The World — and that other worlds exist.
Beyond Nature and Culture is a big book! Finding and listening to his lectures online is a good starting place, or here is a much shorter book that can serve as a good introduction: The Ecology of Others.
He is part of what is termed in anthropology as the “ontological turn” — an odd and problematic term, but nonetheless it does get at this critical perspective. Some other key figures in this project are:
Creativity is about change, and at a fundamental level creativity challenges who we are — as individuals and as societies. This is, when pushed, an ontological challenge — it challenges our very mode of being.
To develop creative practices and processes is also, when pushed, potentially a question of developing new processes of ontogenesis — new practices of worldmaking.
Most creative practices and methodologies frame their concern as some form of general problem solving, or the innovation of a unique singular outcome. And in doing so they do not recognize that there are deeper and more radical forms of change at stake.
This is not simply an academic question of what or who is more creative. Radical forms of creativity allow us to ask: what is the relation between our historical mode of being alive in the west (the modernist perspective) and inequity or environmental destruction?
Is our anthropocentric world part of the problem?
To face the radical challenges of inequity and environmental destruction today we need a creativity that challenges and transforms who we are and who we could become.
A developmental creativity that focuses on problem solving — developing say better electrical cars — is good and necessary. But such a developmental creativity is worldblind — it is not able to ask and respond to the fundamental questions that we need to address today.
For example: How can the developmental creativity of a Human Centered Design such as the Design Thinking approach address worlds?
What becomes of human centered design when rivers are also humans?
This is not a hypothetical question. Other worlds exist where trees and mountains are people. Other worlds exist where chairs and tables are animate. Other worlds abound. And with each what it means for us to be a human radically changes. Our most basic concepts do not translate — theirs is not our world.
With this recognition of profoundly qualitatively differing modes of being alive we become more sensitive to qualitative difference — which is at the heart of all creativity.
When we can see that what might seem quite universal and ahistorical is actually very historical, quite recent and not at all universal -- we open up to genuine multiplicity—to actual other worlds.
Creativity becomes political, anthropological, and ecological — but in wholly new ways. Creativity begins in caring for difference — for other modes of being alive. Creativity begins in recognizing that all of our universal terms (including creativity) are of a world and a historical mode of being alive. Creativity is an aesthetic and an ethical project. Aesthetic in that it involves the creation of new worlds and ethical in that it involves the creation of new worlds in a reality of many worlds.
With the astonishing multiplicity of new year’s in our lives we awaken to the wonderful fact that difference is everywhere and everywhere nuanced and irreducibly unique. And that all creativity is connected to practices of worldmaking and is not simply a one-off activity of novelty production (a new widget for consumers) or an exercise in detached personal growth.
This week we end our newsletter with a longer exercise:
We need new creative propositions that lead us out of our current state of world blindness.
Here we are utilizing the term “proposition” in a unique way: it is what the philosopher who coined the word “creativity” A. N. Whitehead defined as a “lure for feelings”.
Propositions like “other worlds are possible” are not statements to be judged as true or false but as “lures” — a thing that draws the willing into a new way of sensing and feeling possibilities. Sensing and feel matter here — for our sensing goes “deeper” and wider than our conscious forms of knowing. And ultimately our conscious and reflective forms of knowing grow out of our embodied sensing and feeling. Any creativity interested in the qualitatively new needs to go deeper than conscious forms of knowing and imagining. For our imagining is always closely tied to our mode-of-being — our world.
How do we follow a proposition — how do we follow a lure for feeling differently? This is where exercises and practices come into their own.
Practices for creativity give us new ways of feeling possibility and sensing into the unknownable. They scaffold the building of new habits and practices. Their repetition builds up a deep resource of embodied capacity — which can give rise to new ways of thinking.
So here is our first proposition and exercise for a new year.
The basis of this exercise is that to really engage with the proposition “other worlds exist and other worlds are possible” we first need to deeply sense what it is to “be of a world.”
To sense that other worlds exist we need to begin by experiencing that we have and are “of” a world. We do not live in a universally neutral reality that is experienced the same everywhere. We are made by, and only come to be ourselves, as an environment.
To embrace change we have to feel that “change” is not just a thought exercise. We think, know, sense, and feel in culturally very specific ways because of our habits, practices, language, tools and constructed environment — our chairs make us who we are far more deeply than any idea ever has…
But this form of change is difficult.
Part of this is because we are not simply “in” reality — a universal space we all share equally. We are “of” a specific world.
What makes change hard is that this specific world is not one that is fully explicable nor is it something we can take off like Pajamas.
We are so fully of a world that we mistake it for “just how things are” — and assume that deep down everyone globally senses, feels, sees and thinks roughly the same. We are, in our everyday lives “worldblind.”
Much of what makes us “be” is unspoken, and ultimately unarticulatable practices, rituals, and embodiments. The knowledge is held in practices, objects and environments.
It is easy to change many things within a world — but fundamental change involves world changing. And this is much harder.
Given the enormity of the crisis (environmental and equity) we are in, we need to recognize that change will need to be at the level of our ‘world’.
So here is a simple exercise to begin this process:
Set aside a minimum of 20 minutes for this exercise. For the duration of this exercise turn-off, and put away all media: radios, podcasts, phones, and silence phone notifications.
In the midst of whatever you are doing, stop and sit on the ground. Right there and then. If you are cooking in the kitchen, stop and sit on the floor. If you are writing or zooming at the dining room table, stop and sit on the floor. If you are out walking and reading on your device, stop and sit on the ground.
Stay with this without doing anything for a moment — at least a few minutes. Take in how this small change in location has shifted you out of everything. What can you see?
Sense deeply how you are now “in” a world, but that you are ever so slightly no longer “of” a world.
Now, there on the ground, start to make whatever you were doing “work” again. Do this in a provisional manner -- can books prop up your computer to afford you typing or zooming? Or do you need to lie down fully to afford typing?
Try cooking on the kitchen floor. Don’t give up — what is possible?
Embrace how hard this is. Don’t get up. Kneeling is ok. But stay with the ground.
As you try to do whatever it is you need to do dwell upon what it means to “fit” into a world — to be of a world.
When it feels right, slowly stand up and step by step recompose yourself into your world:
Sit down in a chair and notice what all comes back to you.
Hold your kitchen knife at the counter and feel how a world is recomposing around and through you.
Take some time and make some notes. Start to describe our world directly from your experience. Don’t jump to pre-existing concepts but try and find a new language that arises from your experience.
Do this exercise often. The larger goal here is to get a real sense of this world and how it makes us. The next time you do the exercise be more focused:
This exercise will expand your sense of being-of-a-world and allow you to have a more nuanced awareness of what and how change happens when we are so profoundly of a world.
We find it gives one a sense of modesty, curiosity and openness to what it all takes to bring meaningful change about.
Given the enormity of many of our current challenges, this is a good place to begin.
(And next week we will continue to explore worlds with an extended exploration of worldmaking).
Here’s to a weekend filled with creativity and hope.
Till Volume 18…
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: If any of this resonates – check out our book Innovating Emergent Futures – where we take creativity and innovation all the way down the rabbit hole.
🏞 P.P.S.: Some of the drawings this week include some hard to see details. Here we offer you Volume 17 drawings in Hi-Resolution.
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