Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 111! Creativity: Scaffolding R Us...
Good morning dynamic beings entrained in holistic systems,
This week, our beloved cat Blacktop, featured in many newsletter stories and drawings, died. He was nineteen years old – and had far more than the requisite nine lives – and in many very real ways, he gave us life every day in his unique ways of wisdom. He is profoundly missed – the house empty and a bit less alive. But he is wandering on with an infinite curiosity in the hearts of all those he touched.
This morning, we are writing from Dundee, Scotland, where we have spent the last week working with many interesting creatives across this region. We have been exploring with others what it means to be and co-evolve an ecosystem for change making and innovation.
For us, one of the things we are interested in understanding when we travel is how the contemporary apparatus of creativity is functioning in that region. And how this logic is being actively resisted or transformed in new and surprising ways.
Walking into Scotland's entrepreneurship and innovation labs/support spaces, we see this contemporary apparatus of creativity firmly entrenched. Here in Dundee are the same set of tools, arrangements of environments, and conceptual tools we find across Europe and the Americas. If one could instantaneously jump from an innovation space in Lisbon to Vienna, to Stockholm to LA, to Vancouver to Dundee, one would not even notice that one has entered a new space – the room sizes, shapes, and ratios of walls to windows are of a piece. The table numbers, sizes, and distances are similar. The tools of sticky notes, canvases, phrases, projectors, whiteboards, concepts, and methods are equally seamless. The actions, practices, sprints, pitches, meetups, and exercises would feel uncannily the same. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. Rather, for us, it is anthropological evidence of what might be called the contemporary apparatus of innovation.
If you remember, last week’s newsletter introduced this critical concept of an “apparatus." The term, a translation of the French “dispositif,” can alternatively be translated as an “arrangement” or device, machinery, or deployment – and however one translates the term – the fit is not ideal. An “apparatus” in English can falsely give one the sense we are talking about a discreet tool or device. But the term should suggest the quality of a system. The term apparatus is intended in this context to give us a way to understand how the deep, unspoken, and even unthought regularities of our lived experiences are produced, have agency, are shaping us, and have the agency to continue.
Thus, all of these innovation labs across continents can give us a sense of what our contemporary apparatus of innovation includes. These taken-for-granted regularities in spaces for creativity give rise to an implicit and explicit focus on ideation as central to all creativity. All of the highly diverse practices, tools, and environments that we find in and around these spaces give rise to this ideation-driven practice. With this term, Ideation, we are not just focusing on the discreet practice of ideating – practices like brainstorming, for example. Rather, for us, Ideation is a whole set of linked concepts, modes of attention, practices of doing and experimenting, felt sensibilities, and embodied values that put the disembodied, conceptual, and articulable at the implicit heart of all practices. As such, it becomes something we see, experience, and do every day in a myriad of manners – even when we are not focused on innovation.
As a practice, it is something that is championed by everyone from complexity consultations with their focus on creativity = abduction (the bringing together of unlike ideas), to old-school creativity experts who focus on novel forms of divergent reasoning. Parts of this ideation apparatus extend back to Greek practices that first emerged over 2500 years ago, and others emerged in the last 100 years.
Ideation is not some natural or neutral practice that we organically turn to when we engage in creative practices – but it feels this way. It is something that is unquestioned and operates in a seamless manner at almost all levels of innovation.
How is it that certain intra-woven practices like ideation are just taken as synonymous with innovation?
Is it because they are simply correct? We know this is not the case because of the radically conservative nature of ideation.
Is it because of human nature? We know this is not correct as we can see both historically and culturally that this equation of creativity=ideation is both of recent development and has a cultural specificity.
Is it because of an underlying ideology or mindset? This last question exemplifies the issue because it suggests that we are fixated on ideation because of an idea – we are so deeply co-shaped by a set of practices that we take ideas to be the driving forces behind everything, including the concept of ideas itself.
This is where the logic of an apparatus that we introduced last week can help us. By “apparatus,” we mean the technical term primarily developed and introduced by Michel Foucault in the late 1960s as a way to understand why certain regularities emerge in our lived experience that we take for granted as being wholly natural. A perfect example of such an unthought regularity is Ideation. Foucault describes it this way:
"What I'm trying to pick out with this term [apparatus] is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements."
~ Michel Foucault
Thus, something experienced in a holistic and all-encompassing manner is the outcome of not one deep source but rather a highly distributed and highly heterogeneous set of things that “capture” and profoundly creatively transform the living. Why this is important is that to change this one practice of ideation = innovation, we need to do many things differently. It is not enough to focus on just switching out ideation for some other better and more effective approach to creativity. Why? Because the reason we ideate in the ways that we do is because of a vast heterogeneous set of things. The apparatus of ideation – the dynamic and systemic ecology of ideation is highly robust and resilient. More something
This is where the Enactive Approach to Cognition can be very helpful in illuminating what Foucault means by the concept of an apparatus.
The enactive approach to cognition argues that we think the thoughts we have (such as the what and how of innovation/ideation) not because of other thoughts and ideas – but because of how we are embodied, extended, embedded, enactive, and affective. In essence, how a highly heterogeneous ensemble of environments, practices, tools, and embodied skills creatively capture and productively transform our livingness.
With this, we can ask:
Foucault’s apparatus is nothing other than this specific historical ensemble of embodied, extended, embedded, enactive, and affective logic. We are who we are and have the creative practices we have not because of some deep universal truth emanating from deep within us but because of what we do with the shaped bodies we have that are extended, embedded, and enactive. Critical to the enactive approach is the creative and agential role that is given over to the system. We do participate in the making of such systems, but they turn around and then shape us in irreversible ways.
Another useful concept to understand this is the concept of scaffolding. From an enactive perspective, we can understand ourselves as inherently scaffolded beings. We do not come into the world as solitary naked creatures that slowly acquire layers of culture that express, support, filter, or deny our essential identity. Rather, we are beings who are always already and necessarily scaffolded. This scaffolding is not something extra and dispensable, rather it is both intrinsic to who we are and always actively shaping us. We are beings who are emergently co-shaped by our environments – by the apparatuses that we participate in. This is a process that has no clear beginning or end. This is a process that has no one source – it is not us who directs it – and it is also us who directs it – we are active in all parts and because of all parts, and as all parts of an apparatus.
Here, it is important to make a couple of distinctions in how we are using this concept of scaffolding in what is perhaps an eccentric usage. Scaffolding is a widely used metaphor for an approach to the practice of teaching and learning. This approach to education focuses on how and what supports the learner to develop an independent competency in their own unique manner, and then, as those competencies develop, the scaffolding is gradually removed. The analogy is to architecture, where scaffolding is necessary during construction and then removed when things can stand on their own two feet, so to speak. Scaffolding in education is an important alternative to models like knowledge transfer, which frames education as an inputting of the requisite knowledge. Such transfer models are problematically expert centered, assume knowledge as a discreet thing to be mastered, and that the expert is always necessary, etc.
But, here is the problem with this approach: to be human is to be always already scaffolded. We are inherently extended/scaffolded by a nearly infinite number of tools, practices, customs, etc. And we are not only scaffolded via such extensions, we are equally permanently scaffolded by our co-constructed intra-subjective environments. We never “stand on our own two feet,” so to speak – we “stand” as permanently and complexly embodied, embedded, and extended beings who are always in the midst of collectively making and remaking their extended beings.
To frame learning and being human in relation to a scaffolding that falls away, and then we “stand on our own” – is to turn our attention away from what it is to be human. We don’t ever stand on our own – we don’t exist on our own, and we are very much types of hybrid scaffolded beings that are always in process – in process of being produced by a scaffolding/apparatus that we participate in producing. Our aspirations should not be to remove all that makes us for the sake of an illusion of a radical independence and standing on our own, but to first realize that we are intrinsically scaffolded – and that this scaffolding has a creative/productive agency, then to enquire and disclose how we are co-shaped into the historical beings we are by specific apparatuses (scaffolds) we are, and finally to work with others – including more than human others – tools, habits, customs, critters, infrastructure, environments to experimentally co-shape new extended and entangled dynamic worlds. And in this the scaffoldings/apparatuses will change but not fall away.
There is no radical creative practice that is possible if it is not also taking on the current creative apparatus. To jump to engaging with a creative project of one's own without critically and creatively taking on the existing apparatus of creativity is to implicity stay within the bounds of a limited developmental approach to creativity. Why? Ideational models are inherently conservative. Ideation and all forms of creativity that put ideation and conceptualization at the beginning of the process are practices that inherently predetermine the scope of outcomes to existing modes of being alive. Now, this is certainly not always a problem, but to conceive of what one is doing as being radically creative, while working in and of the current apparatus of creativity is to fall prey to the most basic of illusions.
Thus, a critical practice of creativity will always involve the hard work of disclosing the heterogeneous components of the apparatuses that are creating “us” – co-creating our ways of sensing, acting, and conceiving of what creativity is and how it is practiced. Now, disclosure cannot work alone – we need to dismantle key aspects of the scaffolding. But we also need to remember that we cannot stand on our own – dismantling is also an experimental practice of building something else up. Thus, critique is necessarily an entirely creative practice. And to the degree that critique is understood and practiced as merely a negative argument – it will always fail to do anything but allow the existing practices to enactively keep going.
What does a critical practice of creativity look like? The other key concept we introduced last week was that of an epicycle. This concept gives us a way to understand how a qualitatively novel creative apparatus can emerge from within an existing apparatus.
Creativity, whether it is the ongoing creation of an existing apparatus and its emergent outcomes or something qualitatively new, is a collaborative event. We are always of a dynamic collaboration – an apparatus of a holistic heterogeneous set of environments, tools, habits, formed bodies, and infrastructures – moving in a mutually co-creative co-shaping dynamic. This is a distributed, self-organizing, emergent condition (it is irreducible to an individual or an idea).
As a highly networked system feedbacking into itself – it has an emergent agency that can supersede the agency of the parts. In a real sense, we don’t notice this because it just works (things flow). This is how an apparatus co-creates us as specific subjects.
What of a radical and qualitative creativity?
What of a racial critical and creative process that seeks to both dismantle and remake otherwise the contemporary apparatus of creativity?
Outside of any stable set of dynamic processes that acts like a ‘closed’ system or apparatus, there will be elements that play a significant role in determining the system— even controlling the system, but are themselves unchanged by the system — these are called “feedforward” elements. The term feedforward signifies this pushing of a system from the outside in a direction — toward a different or new state.
This Feedforward process can become a critical aspect of creative processes:
Consider a situation where a coherent novel process is developed in such a way that it can successfully separate itself enough from the conditions that gave rise to it:
Now, it has developed some limited autonomy and a qualitatively unique agency – such that it has self-organizing and self-sustaining abilities – a type of qualitatively novel autopoiesis. Importantly, this more-than-human process is not simply budding off and becoming independent and existing in parallel to the dominant process. This is a far more difficult and rare process for most things if they do not change, the conditions from which they emerged will be eventually reabsorbed by the world from which they emerged. Such is the power of most existing systems/apparatuses.
This “epicycle” — this qualitatively novel process cycle that has come to stand outside of the major cycle (apparatus) “can function as if they were controlling, feedforward elements, altering and determining the system from which they arose with little change to themselves.” (Gary Tomlinson). And now, it is actively deconstructing one scaffolding to build another.
Creative processes are types of feedforward processes – what Brian Massumi calls “the event of self-futuring serially repeating itself” – but in a manner that reshapes the very terrain of its emergence.
We are stopping here. The rains of Scotland are at our backs, pushing out towards the airport and into the pre-dawn world. The winds are whipping up the salt waters off the ocean and into the rains. Salty tears of rain run down our faces as we await the bus.
Till next week – be well and remember beautiful Blacktop’s lived advice: stay outside no matter how hard the rain gets – because that's where life is happening!
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