Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 80! On Creative Styles...
Good Morning fellow creatures of adventure,
A happy Nowruz – Persian New Year!
On Monday it was the Spring Equinox – the “official” beginning of spring. Now setting in the morning sky, the new moon is a slender four percent illuminated graceful slender curve. Here in Northern New Jersey the Magnolias are in full bloom and under foot the spring onions are bountiful. It promises to be a wonderful weekend for getting out and going on a long walk.
For us, it also marks a break from travel. We just got back from Alexandria, VA and the VentureWell Conference where we co-led an extended workshop + discussion into new approaches to teaching and practicing innovation titled “Fuck Ideas: How to Innovate After the Failure of Ideation — A Workshop and Discussion on a New Approach to Engaged Innovation and Entrepreneurship Parts 1 & 2”.
It was a really great conference, many good sessions, side discussions and opportunities to wander off with colleagues and catch up. But, what was really wonderful was to get on the train heading north out of Chesapeake Bay towards home knowing that we can take a break after almost two months of travel.
Now, as we step back and reflect, we also begin to cast our gaze on the horizon to prepare for a number of projects and workshops forthcoming - including an all day fully immersive worldmaking workshop we are hosting this June in Minneapolis. If you are in the northern central part of the United States at that time - it would be great to have you join us.
This morning in the spirit of slowing down, catching our breath and taking time to wander without a goal – we have gone back to our archives to revisit an old topic on how we might contrast two approaches to creativity and innovation.
(It’s also spring – and so it is time to talk style!)
How do you tell things apart when they have seemingly similar properties? It is by their style.
Approaches have distinct styles.
But, style gets a bad rap. It is considered superficial — and that’s supposedly a bad thing – but things can only be superficial if you assume that there really is depth. That deep down there's something more real and more essential. And this is itself something that is assumed in the classical model of reality – with its style to divide everything into the essential and the trivial. But — that’s just one approach – one style.
Style gets at something more broad and general than truth. As Whitehead loved to say “beauty is a wider and more fundamental notion than truth.”
Style is what distinguishes approaches. How do they move or operate? What can become beautiful? What shape do their actions take: what gestures do they make? How do they order the visible: what is their look?
Style is about gestures — primary gestures. Broad gestures that we make without even realizing we do them — like the automatic assumption that we need to dig for essences.
Gestures are habitual unconscious actions: given a certain situation — you just act in a certain manner. Ducking, throwing one's arms up, diving in to save someone drowning, or giving someone the finger, these are all habitual gestures.
Our conceptual activities have similar automatic habitual actions or gestures. These come from a way of being and doing – our mode of being. There are certain very general habits of thought and action that one immediately reaches for when confronted with an issue. These are what we are calling “primary gestures”.
These gestures are “primary” because they come first — we are already doing them before we even pause to critically think about what we are doing — these gestures seemingly happen of their own accord — they take primacy over later considered thoughts and actions that build upon them.
We could simply call these “habits of thought”, but by calling them a “gesture” we draw attention to the shape or mannerism — the pattern of action this thought takes — the style.
Modern western thought, what we are calling “Classical Creativity” enacts the primary gesture of digging when confronted with almost any issue.
Almost every issue gets styled to be about digging for essences:
“What is really going on here?”
“Is that the real issue?”
”What underpins this?”
“Is there something deeper going on?”
It’s always got to be something deep…
Here the implicit gesture or unconscious shape of the action is one of digging. But it is more than just digging — it is digging and casting aside. The gesture involves casting aside as irrelevant what is dug up until one uncovers an “essence”. In this action only the “essence” matters — everything above or beside it is judged “superficial” and cast aside.
The problem is that these gestures have no end — nothing is ever judged good enough to be the essence — and ultimately this search for essences digs ever deeper.
The style of digging is infinite criticality — infinite questioning — ultimately nothing is good enough…
We can see this gesture at work in the implicit assumptions that are made in the classical way we answer the question: “What is creativity?”
The standard dictionary answer follows the western style: creativity “involves creating novel ideas”. This in itself might seem benign. But notice what is happening: All reality is cast aside — not only are only humans creative in this claim, but only human “ideas” are creative.
We dig into a topic, find an essence, and permanently put everything else aside as “superficial” or irrelevant.
The gesture of digging and casting aside, especially in the case of creativity, is an incredibly radical gesture: the world does not count, show-up or matter — creativity is only about humans. Dinosaurs becoming birds, life emerging from non-life — not creativity. But more than that (if that is even imaginable!) it is only about what happens in the human mind— this is what it means to define creativity as being about ideas! The gesture is even more radical — everything is cast aside but the contents of the human mind.
But this gesture of digging does not stop there — it has as its implicitly assumed task the uncovering of a deep and hidden essence — much like the digging for a buried gem or vein of gold. Everything will be blasted, dug, and pushed to the side to uncover the “essential truth”. And if it is an idea occurring in the mind then the location is the brain — so all the world and all of the body is gone and now we are left with only the firing of neurons — a very atrophied reality indeed.
But, as impossible as it might seem, this gesture can go further — what “produces” those neurons? — there must be some “thing” that is responsible for this. And this gesture finds its ultimate end in DNA.
So, in this style of operation, what is creativity? The right pattern and expression of DNA…?
But, our interest is not in debating what is the right “essence” to ascribe to creativity. For us, it is not about whether creativity is a genetic expression. Or whether it is something else. That is simply to take the modern western gesture of digging to be the only approach to the issue of “what is creativity”. But, it is this very style that is the issue.
Digging and casting aside has a very specific look to it and it images the world:
What is Happening — What Does a Style Produce?
What happens because of this gesture of digging and casting aside?
Can we even begin to engage with creativity via such a gesture?
Is there a better alternative primary gesture?
Imagine using this gesture or practice to answer the question: what is flight?
We would first point to a flying creature — a bird for example, and say “somewhere in there is the answer”. So where? It is not in the head — many creatures who do have heads do not fly. Eventually it would be ascertained that it must be “in” the wing. So a bird is killed and a wing is removed and studied. Now no matter how hard you look in the wing you will never find flight — just like no matter how hard you look in a brain you will never find creativity. Why?
Because fight, just like creativity, is relational. Flight is the outcome of a specific relationship — and to fly you need to hold this relationship together. Yes, you need wings, but you also need a body, air density, currents, atmospheres, land, heat and much else. But more than any of these things you need practices that produce actions that equal fight.
What is flight? It is the achievement of an event that holds a relationship together for as long as one is airborne. Is it dependent on wings or any other singular component? No! There are certainly many and perhaps infinite specific ways to achieve this relational event — spiders fly by casting out a strand of filament, and seeds fly by making very light parasols.
Now, all of this is equally true of creativity or racism or human “needs”…
The gesture of digging is a disaster to engaging effectively with all things relational. The quest for deep essences is the proverbial bull in the china shop of relations.
Nothing is left that matters of what is being studied. But, ironically enough is left to “study” and generate “answers” — those that dig come away with answers: creativity is x, y, or z. But, it simply does not matter — what is “uncovered” can be a fact (something about brains— but it is an irrelevant fact).
Notice too that this gesture of digging and casting aside is one focused on finding a fixed and unchanging essence. Now, if creativity involves the production of something genuinely novel — how can it be some “thing” that has always already been there? That would not be creativity at work but the uncovering of the unchanging — which is the fundamental opposite of a creative process…
So what new style — what new primary gestures, and operations are needed for creativity?
How do these alternative primary gestures operate?
In relations — everything matters — but everything matters as a totality — not as a collection of individual parts.
It is a gesture of “wholes” that exceed and make the “parts.”
In this gesture the “whole” proceeds the parts — the relation proceeds the thing — the no-thing proceeds the substantive…
These are gestures comfortable with what matters being no “thing” but rather the dynamic space between things that makes up an event.
Here, with this gesture, there is no “thing” to point to… This is the style of Daoism and The Dao De Jing, where in chapter eleven it says:
[Translation: Roger T. Ames & David L. Hall. NOTE: this translation and philosophical commentary are significantly different from the vast majority of the translations that are of the western modern style).
We need to put aside the onions, pyramids, and trees.
What will the new look be?
But, these are just the beginning — once we move with relations — the style of everything changes:
“Nature” does not consist of basic particulars, but fields and processes… Everything is processes all the way “down” and all the way “up,” and processes are irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations or webs. In the process view “up” and “down” are context relevant terms used to describe phenomena of various scales and complexity.
There is no base level to elementary entities to serve as the ultimate “emergent base” on which to ground everything. Phenomena at all scales are not entities or substances but relatively stable processes, and since the processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.” Evan Thompson, Mind in Life.
It is hard to even begin to sense an alternative worldly creativity with the habits of digging for essences, the purifying and the throwing away — these are the gestures of a world beholden to fixed essences and pre-established harmonies.
Creativity is aberrant — wild, emergent and wholly relational.
Once you begin the primary gestures of depth and digging — what can be left of creativity?
Our first suggestion for experimenting with new styles of engaging with creative processes this spring: stop digging — stop throwing everything out — those gestures and habits are good for certain limited activities — but for engaging creative processes: start living across events — fall in love with that which cannot be pointed to — relational wholes… the nothing that is something — it is here — in this gesture of dynamic processes that the event of creativity thrives…
And from this we can go on to develop a larger contrast space:
… and perhaps ultimately we can evolve many new and different styles of engaging with creative processes.
And for us, that's what this weekend might allow – some time to swim in, surf, sense, and wander across worlds with an open sense of wonder.
One final note in this regard: Over the last few weeks in the gaps of time on trains, buses and planes a great book series has been awakening alternative senses – styles – of curiosity, cognition and being alive. This is the three book series Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – a series that amongst other things explores and speculates on the possible future cognitive worlds and subjectivities of slime molds, crows, spiders, AI, and octopi – all in the most compelling of styles. Hopefully – there will be time to finish this at home with the feet propped up this weekend.
Have a wondrous week inventing and getting on your new creative styles for spring!
Till Volume 81,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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