Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 81! Who Is the Individual and Who Is Creative?
Good Morning beings of an event,
A quick note: Despite overwhelming response, we have cancelled our Minneapolis workshop on June 5th, 2023 due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control. A quick shout out to thank Dan Nietz (check him out - he’s doing amazing work) for his contributions to the event. Keep an eye on our newsletter for future workshop and event announcements…. Now - onward!
This week we have been thinking about individuals and creativity.
The study of creativity historically focuses on individuals, individuality and it treats creativity as an internal property that an individual could possess.
We are given by name the great inventors and creative individuals – that list of DaVinci, Einstein, Jobs, Picasso… – almost always a list of mainly men and mostly European – but even if we rethink the cannon of “creatives” in ways that are far more diverse – it is always about some individuals and their creative genius.
And by extension creativity is conceptualized as being about how each of us has some unique internal capacity for creativity. This is problematic view of us as beings on many fronts:
The list could go on, and we have written and explored extensively on how we are not this type of individual but rather a type of enactive being – a subject that is embodied, embedded, extended and enactive (this piece on the problem with mindsets is as good a place as any to begin).
Who are we?
“When the constituents of a system are highly coherent, integrated, and correlated such that their properties are nonlinear functions of one another, the system cannot be treated as just a collection of uncoupled parts. Thus, the activity of strongly non-linearly coupled brain, body, and environment cannot be ultimately explained by decomposing them into subsystems, or system and background. They are one extended system.” (Chemero & Silberstein, Extending Neutral Monism to the Hard Problem 2016).
To begin thinking about the individual we need to engage with a larger unit – we are a dynamic being + environment. But, it is admittedly hard to see ourselves as something more than our minds + bodies – there is afterall such a clear distinction between our bodies and the environment. We can see clearly a physical edge and end to the self – our skin, our limbs – they do not dissolve outward into a fine mist that fuses with the environment. The body clearly has a boundary. And our contemporary culture is one that is fixated on brains and bodies to an inordinate degree such that it is very hard to make our own experimental space to actively explore different approaches. But as a “basic unit” – as an individual, we need to reconsider what this seeming individual unit consists of – does it make any sense to see it as ending with the edge of our skin?
Anthony Chemero, one of the most interesting researchers in the field of enactive cognition makes the strong claim in this regards that even consciousness is not an internal property:
“I reject the idea of neural correlates of consciousness. There are no correlates of consciousness because consciousness, like thinking more generally, happens in brain-body-environment systems... Claiming that consciousness doesn’t happen in brains alone might strike many people reading this as crazy… In today’s brain-centric intellectual climate, the claim is undeniably counterintuitive… The advantage of rejecting the idea of neural correlates of consciousness is that... it makes it possible to claim… that consciousness is neither nothing but brain activity, nor is it something else in addition to brain activity…. [we] argue that consciousness is best understood as the activity of nonlinearly coupled brain-body-environment systems.”
If what we most consider our self – our conscious sense of self – is not internal how could “our” creativity be internal?
Our creative practices happen across such a reality and it is critical to understand the creative self as one where creativity is not springing from some unique internal individualistic intrinsic mental well and acting on an external world – rather creativity is the very much the emergent property of the system:
“We are [embodied] social environment-altering tool users. Tools give us new abilities, leading us to perceive new affordances, which can generate new environmental (and social) structures, which can, in turn, lead to the development of new skills and new tools, that through a process… of scaffolding greatly increases the reach and variety of our cognitive and behavioral capacities” (Michael Anderson, After Phrenology).
The “basic unit” our “self” needs to be reconceptualized in a far more distrubuted, intra-woven manner. The “basic unit” is far more historical, engaged, and situated – it is perhaps best understood and experienced as “co-evolving self-environment”.
Our cultural focus on individualism and the historical form that this takes (that there is some unique internal immaterial essence to the self) takes significant attention away from the relational dynamics of creative processes. We focus almost exclusively internally on the self, the brain, on mindsets and subjectivity when far more energy and effort should be focused elsewhere – on experimenting with collective practices, and environments across multiple scales, etc.
And on the flip side this form of critique can also lead to an endless debate about the status of individuals and individuality – is it all just process? Is there actually anything that is an “individual”? Does the self even exist? To argue from an enactive position to that there is no self is certainly not the direction that we would go. Our curiosity is focused on creative processes – how they work and how things – novel or otherwise come into being.
What can get lost in these debates about the status of the self/non-self is that creative processes produce individual things – events, identities, subjects, processes etc. Things are individuated, and those things include ourselves. And thus, for us, the focus of engaging with creative processes is one that is best understood to roughly focus on how anything is individuating/individuated.
Rather than focusing on individuals and individuality as something pregiven – it is more important (from the perspective of creativity) to focus on the processes that lead to something/someone individuating (and then the processes that keep what has individuated stable and allow it to persist).
We need to shift our focus in regards to creativity from studying “unique individuals who create” to “unique creative processes that individuate novel events”.
The critical question is: How does a novel event come into being – how does the new individuate? This is the critical question for creativity.
Before getting into this question directly, it is important to ground this discussion in an understanding of emergence (really dynamic co-emergence). How things individuate is not a linear process that could be explained in a “this causes that” manner.
It is important to have a sense of the contrast between linear systems and non-linear ones as one engages with creative processes (processes of individuating novel events). As a novel assemblage individuates, the form of causality and the system shifts from being linear to non-linear.
Linear Systems rest like briefly existing peaks of mountains on small temporary islands in a vast sea of non-linear causality. They are the spaces where “this causes that” – they are rare and limited in scope but as a way of engaging with reality they are far more pervasive than would seem appropriate.
Linear causality is additive, proportional and works via aggregation. A simple way to visualize this is how we build with lego: Many things add up proportionally to a whole which is roughly a sum of its parts. And in the end it is reversible (decomposable) – you can take it apart the same way you built it and you will have the same parts at the end as you had at the beginning.
Non-linear causality is neither additive nor proportional. You cannot trace anything directly to anything. Outcomes are not proportional to inputs. This is because non-linear systems involve emergence. Emergent processes are ones where the emergent whole (the “outcome”) is different from its parts in an irreducible manner – and equally importantly where the whole makes its parts (system causation). And, there are no solitary outcomes but a pattern of possibilities.
The study of emergence most often focuses on an “Upward” non-linear causality: how parts are making a whole – and it is just that one cannot exactly say how the parts contribute to this new whole.
One could understand this in relation to human individuality and creativity as: “humans play an important role in creative outcomes (individuating novel things) but they do not do this alone nor can we exactly define what their roles was…”
And such an understanding could leave in place the classical concept of creative self: now it is just that the genius did not do it alone, they were critical – but we cannot exactly specify how… it is too complicated, non-linear and emergent…
But this would be to miss what is most important and challenging about emergent processes:
“...the parts do not exist in advance, prior to the whole, as independent entities that retain their identity in the whole. Rather part and whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other.” (E. Thompson, Mind in Life).
“the parts do not exist in advance… as independent entities that retain their identity…”
We should hear this in reference to our selves – our individuality. We are a part of the creative process of individuating something unique and there are many other parts, yes – but when these parts come together in a relation dominant manner they do not remain the same – they themselves become something else.
The event of creativity – the process of individuation makes us who we are as much as it makes the novel event itself.
We are an outcome of emergence’s system causality – the novel event arises from the relational dynamics of the parts (pre-given individuations) – but also these parts are the outcome of the novel event (the new individuation).
Yes individuals and their individuality (the achievements of other processes of individuation) can play a role in creative processes. But “creativity” is not in them – rather they are (always already) collaborating in a relation-dominant process of emergent individuation of the new, in which they will also be the outcome.
The long list of “geniuses” is less a list of individuals who were responsible for some unique creative outcome than a list of people who were the outcome of creative processes. And if genius means genesis – that they were the genesis – the cause – the source – the spark of creativity then this is wrong. The genesis is held relationally across the system and ultimately the person we recognize them to be – is itself the product of the event. The so-called genius is less the producer and more the product…
Creativity as a process is neither individualistic or anti-individualistic – it is rather a relation-dominant co-emergent process of individuation of novel autonomous and semi-autonomous systems.
The question “what unique quality in that person allowed them to create this?” can lead us away from the creative processes involved. But a question such as “how did a creative process come into being (individuate) that created ways of being such that someone could come to participate (individuate) in the process in this new way?” – while harder to articulate (and follow) – might be more helpful…
Individualism, individuality – really matter in creative processes – but it is individualism and individuality of the event that individuates in a new and unique manner that really matters:
“Belief in the Event. An enacted faith that when the next step falls, the world will rise up to meet it, replete with potential, brimming with tendencies, teeming with others, and always with a tinge of surprise. Belief in the event is an existential posture: a leaning into the world's powers of self-renewal. To do this, a body must abandon itself to them, then walking with them step by step as their ally or intercessor. To say that it is an existential posture is to say that it can be extended into a habit. Also called "belief in the world." Also called "affirmation." “(Brian Massumi The Personality of Power, forthcoming)
An important focus of creative processes needs to be on how new processes of individuation are possible – on how to believe in events – and hopefully far less on the human as a pregiven individual who creates alone and from a unique internal source.
Individuation, and the individuation of events (that in turn participate in making us who we might become) is an important way to understand the process of invention and it changes how we understand identity in general and our identity specifically.
Individuation is the processes by which some thing and its milieu differentiate and come into a distinct being. What individuates is an assemblage of dynamic components that can affect and be affected. The thing that individuates – whether a person, an object or a larger event is not reducible to the Aristotelian categories of time + space (when and where). A better example of this form of identity and individuation might be in how we give a proper name to a storm.
How do we understand what is individuated? (The “what is it?” question). Not by looking for a stable internal essence but by experimentally inquiring into what it can do – by welcoming an event and meeting it experimentally. By actively working with what relations it can enter into – affirmation. New habits…
And our identity becomes inseparable from the experimental relations it engages with. Identity becomes an experiment, an adventure in individuation that beyond the self will make a self – an event – “a leaning into the world's powers of self-renewal…”
Have a wonderful week individuating...
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