Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 107! How Are Other Styles of Creative Practice Possible?...
Good morning from the other side of the fall equinox, it is the full moon today – something to feel far on the other side of the other side of the thick bed of rain calling to the mushrooms. Are you foraging your city streets? We will be this weekend – Jason in Paris and Iain in Jersey.
Last week we asked at the end of the newsletter: how can we develop creative practices that are “true” to our dynamic, emergent, creative processual reality? In response to the question, the issue of how one works with uncertainty and not-knowing in radical creative practices came up in emails and discussions during the week.
This week, taking our inspiration from these questions – and Ursula Le Guin, we are writing about the left hand of the unknowable – creativity.
“Reality is… “
Last night we were at the Japan Society in New York attending the first event in their series commemorating “John Cage’s Japan”. The event was a performance by Paul Lazar of Cage’s Indeterminacy – a set of 190 one minute stories. Lazar bare footed and dressed in a suit with a crisp white shirt and tie performs a random selection of these stories while doing a strange dance on a bare stage and all the while in a highly engaged dialogue with the audience.
Cage’s stories range from the mundane, to jokes, to personal family stories, to Zen parables, to observations. There is no direct connection between one and the next. Given the one minute time constraint some have to be spoken very fast and others are quite slow – one word left in space alone for a time until the next joins it.
With each one minute story Paul repeats the same dance – a dance which is a series of quirky angular gestures that encompass his body and edge on being nearly meaningful. The chance collision between differing stories and the same gestures is in this work makes each moment unique – and they strike one in a way that is shaking – surprising, funny, revelatory – even though you have seen all the gestures and actions of the dance many times before.
Here is one of the stories:
There was an international
conference of philosophers in
Hawaii on the
subject of Reality.
three days Daisetz Teitaro
Suzuki said nothing.
Finally the chairman turned
to him and asked,
you say this table
around which we are
sitting is real?”
Suzuki raised his
head and said Yes.
The chairman asked in
what sense Suzuki thought
the table was real.
“In every sense.”
The arguments of the complexity sciences and of the enactive approaches to cognition are all encompassing arguments – they are arguments that pertain to all reality and all humans. In short they are ontological arguments about how all of reality works and how all of humanity behaves. Big stuff…
These are claims that:
life is …
human life is…
These are not claims about what these things should be or could be – they are claims about what they are – and in some sense what they always have been.
Given the seeming distance between these claims and how we in general understand things and ourselves means that the insights can be challenging to grasp. And it can be easy to confuse, especially in the case of the enactive approach to cognition, these claims about how reality is – with claims about how we should act.
Perhaps it is easier to see why this matters – and why this can be so confounding – by focusing specifically on the claims that the enactive approach makes about all humans.
The enactive approach argues that all humans all the time are:
The argument is that all humans are this way all the time. But, it can seem that only a small segment of humanity is “in touch with their feelings” or “deeply connected to others” or “is actively engaged with their immediate environment”.
It can seem like this list is inspirational – it is more about how we should be than how we are:
Be more connected, embodied and sensitive…
But this is not what is being argued. The argument is that we are intrinsically and permanently connected, embodied and sensitive – and it is not an ethical or practical argument that we do or we don't need to be more of any of this.
How can this be?
Are we not far too individualistic?
Are we not far too much in the abstract and immaterial?
How can one claim that we are all fully intersubjective even if we see from our first hand experience that many people we know would claim to be totally independent individuals who are acting alone in a fully rational manner, and drawing upon our pure imagination to develop an outcome?
How can it be then that we feel and understand ourselves as a discreet individual – I certainly feel I am me – but yet we are never not interdependent enactive agents that are collaborating with a dynamic environment?
Do we just live in self-deception?
Do we have a false conscience?
Are we blinded by ideology?
Do we just need to take off some pair of glasses and see things for what they actually are?
These arguments are ones that are often made – but this is not what the enactive approach argues.
The enactive approach argues that we are not “blinded” by any set of abstract concepts (an ideology), or that we are somehow “deceived” about reality. Rather, and this is where things get interesting – we, along with self-organizing systems at multiple scales, have collectively organized and built an enactive world such that this individualistic independent subject reality emerges.
How we are who we are is a process that is enacted by habits, practices, rituals, tools, shaped bodies, nested environments, cultural systems, etc. It is not an idea we possess – a mindset that we could simply change via reflection, discussion and persuasion – but a reality we participate in enacting.
Open, Co-shaped and Co-shaping
The tools of the complexity sciences allow us to see how diverse dispersed patterns emerge in a non-linear manner from a relation dominant system to emerge into some novel pattern that has its own independence, and logic while being connected but irreducible to what instantiated it.
And enaction, in this context of emergence, allows us to understand how our specific active and ongoing practices of collectively shaped embodiment, the making and using of world opening extensions (tools), in specifically constructed environments enacts – affords – us a world – a very real reality in all senses of the term – as Suzuki puts it.
And this is why Environmental Psychology and the concept of affordances, Material Engagement theory and the relational agency of tools, plus the Evolutionary concepts of Niche Construction (we are making an environment as it is making us) – are all critical in understanding how we come to be the beings we are in the worlds we are of.
But what of our individualistic sensibilities?
What of our approach to creativity that makes it the exclusive purview of humans, individualizes it, and makes it idea focused – are these not highly problematic given our present reality? And if they are – how do we go about changing them?
Ludwik Fleck (1896-1961), an early Polish philosopher of science, developed the concept of “thought styles” to conceptualize how thinking was an inherently social phenomenon. Cognition, as an inherently intersubjective practice – a practice of a collective, would, as Fleck argued, always have a collective quality or “style”. A distinct thought style emerges in group interactions via shared practices, techniques, environments, tools, habits, embodied logics, concepts and rituals. Such a group is bonded by a “mood”. These practices have “active” elements that co-shape the members and “passive” elements – what the group implicitly lives as the given affordances of reality.
What is helpful is the idea that what defines a pattern of thought is its “style” and “mood” – for a style is far more than what can be clearly articulated (say an ideology), or something that could be seen as primarily mental (say a mindset), or ascribed to an individual (character, psychology, etc.). Style is an enactive and intrinsically relational quality. It is a lived experience that has a tone or mood to it, that it carries with it – and it is of an environment, of ways of acting, and rituals. Style is embodied – enacted in ways that cannot be articulated. Style is in and of tools and environments that cannot be reduced to utility or clear conceptual purpose – and in this sense cannot be separated from the tools or environments. Style is immanent in and of its lived reality – immanent in all of the aspects of its lived reality.
And consequently when we speak of changing patterns of thought from Fleck’s perspective – we are not focused on something that is individual, internal, brain focused, or clearly conceptualized and articulable. A “thought style” is immanent to a way of life. To change patterns of thought is to collectively evolve a new extended style of practice for living that will have a differing tone, mood, and propensities. It will be a new collectively embodied, environmentally intra-woven ongoing lived process.
Thus, coming back to the question of how we come to terms with our lived style that is anthropocentric, individualistic, brain focused and idea driven – we need to look to the question of how can we develop new styles – new modes of being alive…
Clearly, there is a dominant thought-style of creative practices that has emerged in the “West” mid 20th century. And it is one that in its hyper anthropocentric individualistic internalism is decidedly unsuited to engage with the critical tensions of our present world. We would argue, we cannot take on the present challenges with a creativity thought-style that is ultimately part of the practices and ecosystems of our challenges.
Ultimately to change our thought-style of creative practice is to change our environment, tools, concepts, embodied gestures, towards a new more-than-human intrinsically relational, dynamic and emergent world. It is about changing how we gather with others (human and non-human others) to enact novel ways – styles – of being and becoming.
A critical set of questions follow from this in regards to our creative practices today:
The answers will have to confront that we have historically come to produce our collective extended selves in relation to creativity in a style that is more disembodied, more individualistic, more mind/brain focused, and that is solution/outcome oriented – and this is not “natural” or even that effective (by its own criteria) – it is the outcome of a particular contingent history.
And in understanding that this is historically contingent – it gives us the opportunity to radically remake our creative practices – our ways of gathering, in any number of alternative manners.
The issue is not to find the “best,” or most “natural” or universally “true” creative practice – that essentializing and universalizing style of approach is something that we would argue is part of the problem.
Rather, the question “what should be done?” is one that we take as an open call to experiment with multiple new ways and styles of gathering. And these experiments involve inventing a new ethos of creative practices suited to the tensions and contradictions we wish to care for in this precarious act of planetary living today.
Our sense of one alternative approach to develop creative practices, and one that strongly contrasts to our current style of creative practice, is to begin from an actively intra-subjective stance that engages with the world as one that is itself spontaneously creative, and where all creativity participates in shifting self-organizing systems towards new feed-forward cycles.
There is much more to say about all of this, but given the profound gap between our current evolving sense of what it might be to be an enactive human embedded and intra-subjectively coshaping a highly dynamic nonlinear reality – and our historical style of developing a world and practice of anthropocentric, individualized, brain focused, and idea driven creativity – isn’t it time to consider some pragmatic, and radical alternative possibilities of worlding differently?
Last night, sitting in the audience, and watching Paul enact with us a space of openness that welcomes as John Cage would put it: “whatever comes next” – is an astonishing challenge. And it is even more of a challenge when we leave the theater.
One of the powers of Cage’s work is how it develops with us ways to enact a style – a comportment that is welcoming of uncertainty, non-knowing and radical newness.
Uncertainty and non-knowing are the conditions of creativity. And the opposite is also true: a radically creative reality is the condition that allows for a dwelling with possibilities beyond the given.
Ursula Le Guin articulates this in quite strong terms: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
Putting it this way, while certainly true to experience, leaves something critical unsaid. Perhaps, what we mean in saying we cannot truly know what comes next is to say that our reality is both open and actively creative. Reality is not a passive stage awaiting human creative acts. Reality is active and spontaneously making the new and different happen.
And perhaps – the permanent uncertainty is not intolerable but the medium of living – “...to prefer laughter to tears…” John Cage
Our inherent role in this is also an active – creative – one. To be alive is to be active – there is no neutral or passive position possible in being alive. Even to “just think” is an act of change making – thinking is afterall an embodied and extended activity. To act = to participate in creation = ongoing creativity.
Our lived condition is one where we ultimately cannot know the outcomes of our acts in advance and one cannot not act.
Participation in an open, dynamic reality is to be of the radical creativity that is both what it is to be alive and the condition of reality. To speak of living and honoring uncertainty – to dwell with wisdom in the not-knowing – is the other side of the coin of being of a creative universe. It is, as Ursula Le Guin says, the left hand of uncertainty.
And as we are beings of a symmetrical embodiment – beings of two active hands so too are we enactive beings of an immanent non-knowing and an immanent all encompassing creativity.
As beings of an open dynamic creative universe we are fated to be, as everything equally is, active, open, dynamic and changing processes in radically non-knowable ways.
“...to not know whether one knows or not…” Cage quoting Norman O. Brown.
The concept of “not knowing” can also be misleading in a critical way: Not knowing can suggest that there is something there that “could be known, but that we just don't know it”. But in relation to radical creativity, we do not know what will come next because if it is radically new – there is nothing to know until it comes into being. Knowing can only come after/alongside. Forms of knowing in the conceptual sense of knowing emerge late in the enactive process of the emergence of the new. First, as inherently active beings we participate in the creative processes of the coming into being of the radically new, and then in parallel the equally active and creative processes of knowing emerge via ongoing sense-making practices.
While it is correct to say that we dwell in not knowing and that we need to develop ways of living with and honoring uncertainty – we do need to come to terms with Le Guin’s “intolerable uncertainty”.
But, perhaps this puts the stress on the wrong aspect of this reality: It is not uncertainty and not-knowing that we need to come to terms with, but the condition of being of a radically creative universe – and our condition of being permanently active entangled creative creatures in this open dynamic universe – that is the ground of not-knowing and uncertainty – and that is what we need to ethically and aesthetically honor/dwell within and of.
What are all the styles and modes of comportment that can be invented to emerge enactively with this?
At some point late in the performance Paul slowly speaks this story while moving, back turned from us, in the far corner of the stage, hands on one knee and hips cocking out to one side arms swinging into almost meaningful semaphors:
Till next week be well mid-stream…
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