Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 112! Resources for the Negative in Creativity...
Good morning winter beings and becomings,
It has been quite a strenuous week – coming back from extended travel always is. Now that we are home from Scotland, we are finding our footing again in our home ecosystem – an ecosystem that did not stop while we were gone. Some returns feel harder than others and this one certainly did.
Nothing really stopped this week or even slowed down to make the adjustment easier. But, between teaching and working on various international projects (India and Austria), we managed to squeeze in a few great events:
We have also been working hard on developing a new series of workshops on probing and prototyping for co-emergence. We hope to roll these out next year and do an early version at the VentureWell conference in spring 2024. While working on this, it was really gratifying to learn that our 2023 Venture Well workshops on probing and prototyping were rated one of the top five events at their last conference. Often one does these conference workshops, and you don’t hear anything further about how it was received – so this was special.
This fall we edited and revised our book “Innovating Emergent Futures: The Innovation Design Approach for Change and Worldmaking”. When we first published the book a few years back – our drawing skills with software tools were not as good as they are now. And we always felt we could draw things better. Now after drawing well over a thousand drawings and diagrams for our newsletter and LinkedIn posts in the last couple of years, our skills have improved (one would hope so!).
There are nearly 100 unique drawings and diagrams in the book, the project of revising these was a big one. This fall, we finished the project, having revised and redrawn all the diagrams and 99% of the images in the book. You'll find the diagrams to be more precise, detailed, and clear. Additionally, we added a number of new diagrams and drawings to support the text. As we were redrawing things, we took time to improve and revise some of the terminology – making it more consistent throughout the book. We've moved the glossary to our website, which has been updated and grown into a more comprehensive list of concepts. Finally, the original version of the book had no bibliography – this is something we always wanted to get to. Now, we have developed a bibliography on our website – with all the key books annotated.
If you don’t have our book on Innovation – please take a look – it offers a comprehensive alternative take on both “what is innovation” and “how to do it.” If you have already purchased a copy of our book from us – we sent you an email with a free copy of the revised PDF (hit reply and let us know what you think!)
Talking about glossaries and bibliographies – It feels like a good week to pause in our newsletter and add in some helpful resources. Over the last four newsletters, we have focused on the underappreciated role of the negative in creativity and innovation. In the past, we have talked quite a bit about the technique of blocking, and enabling constraints – but we never comprehensively laid out why the negative is such a critical and generative fundamental aspect of creativity. These four newsletters have been our effort to give the negative its due:
Over these four newsletters we introduced some new terms and concepts that are quite important to an alternative approach to creativity:
The act of “not-knowing” is a whole style of enactive emergent engagement that is fundamentally enabling and generative. The term does not mean that one does not literally “know” what something is or what will happen next. Of course, we can effectively ascertain the identity, meaning, and purpose of most things in our everyday context. Rather the non-knowing of creativity is a practice we deliberately engage with for the sake of participating in the emergence of novelty. In relation to our spontaneously creative dynamic context, not knowing can be part of an experimental process. To say “I don’t know what will happen next” or “I don’t know what this is” – is part of a deliberate process of actively “blocking” the known with the goal of experimentally co-emerging novel exaptive potentialities. For example: If you block (i.e. refuse to engage with the identity, meanings, and purposes) the logic of a coffee cup, you can, via a set of iterative engaged experiments ask, “If this is not a cup – & I block all the forms of “cupness,” – & I don’t assume to know what it is – then what else can it do?” – “what else can it afford me in some novel experimental context?”
Aesthetics is what we can sense and how we sense. Aesthetics is our most “basic” way of being alive. It involves both how and what we sense – and how we come to “comport” ourselves. It is the way we describe and understand our historical forms of sense-making.
In any historical mode of sense-making, there are profoundly felt moments of discomfort, disruption, and absurdity – and there are also sensations of how we practice in our everyday lives pulling difference back towards existing norms – our normative comportment.
In creative experimentation – negative sensations are potential cues to novel pathways worth exploring. Blocking is a negative act that is experienced negatively. And this experience of perplexity, horror, wonder, disgust, frustration, stupidity, and boredom – are the critical sense-making cues that need to be actively and experimentally explored in ways that are enabling and generative of qualitative differences.
What we sense, feel, and know is not the outcome of an ahistorical human nature. Rather it is the outcome of an integrated system of practices. This is what Foucault called a “dispositif” in French and is commonly translated as “apparatus”:
"What I'm trying to pick out with this term 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
An apparatus in this sense is a system that has the capacity to capture the historical practices of a community and transformatively shape/create these practices in a different enactive manner. Foucault’s concept has been productively used to understand organizational situations, and business ecosystems as well as address political questions. The philosopher Georgio Agamben usefully extends the definition in more enactive directions:
"I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. … the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and—why not—language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses—one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face." ~ Georgio Agamben
Our “God model” of creativity is best understood as a specific historical example of an apparatus – it is more than just an idea or a conceptual process – it literally consists of “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions,” etc. Organizations interested in developing creative practices need to put far more attention towards ecosystemic questions – architecture, organizational logics, infrastructure, practices, tools, rituals, etc. and far less towards the usual suspects of mindsets, beliefs, and individuals.
“The posture is the practice” (paraphrasing Dogen). Comportment comes from the Latin – to bear, to carry. Literally, it means “to be with carrying”. It suggests: an embodied stance and the behaviors that are part of an embodied practice: how one carries oneself. And it suggests how we actively bear or carry qualities of a world. Comportment is active, relational, and embodied. And this is what we are curious about – how can we come up with new styles of comportment for creative practices in a creative universe?
We have to “know” to refuse the known. But what is it that we need to know to block to move us toward doing-thinking differently? Is it never enough to know and block the explicit features, the primary use of something, or its general form. Everything explicit relies on a vast set of unspoken, tacit assumptions and structures– an apparatus. So, to return to the question of “how might it be to think or act differently”? We need to go beyond what can be explicitly stated or known to enactively disclose and block a way of being alive. In short, disclosure needs to uncover the implicit and the tacit. we need to go beyond disclosing and blocking the obvious and what can be put into clear concepts.
Here we can follow the ontological turn in anthropology: what we are disclosing and potentially blocking is a “world” for the sake of exploring the potentiality that “other worlds are possible”.
And in disclosing a world – we need to focus our disclosure equally on tools, practices, concepts, and environments. We need to start with understanding how things make us, – and this will be something that cannot be put fully into words – what we disclose and block as part of a creative practice will need to be things, environments, practices, and concepts.
We face when experimenting for the sake of newness, a nothingness – what we might mistakenly conceive of as the “void.” But this is not the void of pure emptiness – in the binary sense of “the opposite of fullness.” Rather the act of actively and knowingly refusing or “blocking” the known – opens our practices up to the fullness of a creative universe beyond and within the given. A radical generative otherness that has always been there.
This negativity – this “nothingness” is perhaps closer to the Japanese term “ma” – which can be translated as nothingness – but a more careful translation would render it as a generative emptiness or gap or pause. And it is this “ma” – this “nothingness” of the generative pause that John Cage and his conceptualization of silence as anything but silent, and our practice of experimental blocking both engage. The comportment to radically pause – to leave space “empty” is to allow it – and not us, to be generative of something new – an “emptyfullness” becoming…
Here, the practice of “not knowing” that allows a nothingness to emerge is a very demanding and highly engaged stance – or comportment – that has many important aesthetic and ethical dimensions (and these practices of a via negativa – a way of the negative are far closer in resonance to Buddhist traditions than Christian traditions).
A radical creativity begins with the creative refusal of our current historical models of creativity, and to do that, we need a critical “history of the present.” We need to ask: How did we come to be the kind of beings we are today? How did we come to have our explicit and implicit beliefs, concepts, and practices? How did our models of creativity emerge and why?
Every bit of who we are and what we do has a history and every bit of this could be otherwise. A critical “history of the present” (a term/practice that Michel Foucault developed) is not a neutral and generic history of what interesting and different things happened in that distant exotic land of the past. Histories are not holidays. Rather it is the active uncovering of the interwoven processes, concepts, development of embodied habits, tools, infrastructure, rituals, and environments that is co-shaping us into the beings we are.
To make real change happen – to participate in a genuinely creative adventure – is to believe that we can go beyond what is and what we imagine is possible. But to do this is not easy. We, as humans, do not have some core essence to ourselves that is fully walled off from the world around us and immutable to change. We are fully embodied, embedded beings who are wholly made by our world as we participate in the making of this world. And this means the radical critical practice of reevaluation, reconsideration, and reinvention involves us and who we know ourselves and our world to be.
The important insight in this regard is that we have, as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argues, “watery souls” and as much as we feel our true self is fixed and ahistorical – things can and will change:
“In the co-evolution, the development of culture would have to be complemented by the deprogramming of genetic imperatives or what used to be called instinctual behaviors. The effect was the organization of biological functions in various cultural forms, such that the expression of biological necessities depended on meaningful logics. We have the equipment to live a thousand different lives, as Clifford Geertz observed, although we end up living only one. This is only possible on the condition that biological needs and drives do not specify the particular means of their realization. Biology becomes a determined determinant.
So again, who are the realists? Would it not be the Fijians who say that young children have “watery souls,” meaning that they are not full human beings until they demonstrate the mastery of Fijian custom? We have seen that peoples round the planet have some such similar idea. The idea is that human nature is a becoming, based on the capacity to comprehend and enact the appropriate cultural scheme: a becoming, rather than an always-already being.” ~Marshall Sahlins
For the sake of a future that is different from the past, we have no choice but to start our journey from where we are and who we are today. And to do something different, we then need to first experimentally know and refuse who we are, how we define creativity, and how we develop practices.
Thinking is always emerging from the middle of a historically situated embodied and enactive doing. Thinking emerges in relation to what he calls a “dispositive” – a specific historic “apparatus” of tools, techniques, practices, skilled bodies, environments, etc., that collectively construct the seeable, the sayable, the knowable, and the doable. From this perspective then, is this question posed by Michel Foucault, not the very definition of a creative practice? “…The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently.”
Foucault was often criticized for offering deep critical histories of how we came to be who we are – without offering any alternative – without ever suggesting what we should be or aspire to be. But this limit – this refusal to say anything positive – is precisely what is most important for a style of creative practice that actually wishes to embrace that the qualitatively new is possible. We cannot know a truly novel and alternative future until we make it. A futurist claims to know in advance what we will become, what we can become, or what we should become – might be interesting – but they are ways of reducing the future to what we already can know and imagine. Foucault – and a radical comportment towards creativity, is asking us to trust the non-knowable – to trust that other worlds are possible. And to believe that we can co-shape new worlds via creative collective emergent processes that will go beyond the known if we are willing to disclose and block what is disclosed. Then, we can actively co-create new ways of being alive beyond knowing.
Ferran Adria, one of the founders of the groundbreaking, highly innovative restaurant El Bulli had a wonderful simple definition of creativity: “No copying.” Basically: understand what has been done – and don’t repeat it – don’t repeat it at any level.
It is a negative definition – it says nothing about what to do or what is possible – only what not to do. It recognizes that if something is radically new one cannot know anything about it in advance – so how could one say anything positive about it? Or claim to know exactly what to do? It is a definition that uses knowing to refuse what is known. This negativity – this path of the negative for a radically new future – is powerfully generous and demandingly rigorous. It asks of us to comport ourselves in such a way that will allow for the genuinely new to come into being. We are asked to style our lives and practices in a manner that makes the new as the new and non-pre-existent a potential. In this, the via negativa of creativity is more than just a “belief” that the new is possible.
We have pulled together some of the books that have been important in informing our own experiments in developing a “via negativa” of creativity. These books have over the last twenty-plus years been folded into our practice in various practical and experimental manners. They are by no means necessary, but in adding them here, our hope is that perhaps there is one or two that might catch your curiosity and come into dialogue with your own creative practices in your own unique manner. In addition to books, we have added videos, sound recordings, and some music.
Well – that's it for this week. We will meet you next week as we dive into what we feel is a key way to understand creative processes: Epicycles. Till then, keep refusing, blocking, welcoming the non-existent but emergent, and dwelling in relation to empty-fullness!
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