Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 86! For Creativity's Sake – Let's Leave Our Problems Behind?...
Good morning dynamic and curious becomings,
It is a beautiful morning as we write – the full moon has just set, the birds are in full song, and a deep darkness prevails. It is a wonderful phase of the early morning to be listening and writing.
Last week we carefully laid out a critical analysis of the generic approach to problems; our goal was to (1) show what this approach explicitly entailed and  why it is so fundamentally problematic as an approach to creativity.
This week we want to keep exploring problems and creativity. And in doing so, we wish to move from the generic approach – the “problem + creativity = solution” approach towards a very different approach. We are interested not in getting into the details – that will come later, but in the big picture:
How do these differing approaches connect to very differing ways of approaching being alive?
It is only when we understand how a seemingly mundane practice – like the way we pose problems – connects to a larger ethos – a way of life, that we can begin to see how consequential such practices are.
Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of how the generic approach to problems works:
At its core, it is a world-view that engages with reality as something to be solved. It does this because of an implicit assumption: there is a neutral state of things that, when disturbed, must be returned to this state. Such disturbances are problems that we solve via a creative process to return things to the original neutral state.
This approach to life and creativity has four main characteristics:
Let's take a moment to review these:
At its core, the generic approach to problems and its assumptions shape and emerge from a vision of what it is to be human and what it is to be alive. We could summarize this worldview as:
Reality is a problem. Most of the time it is good, but it will throw you a curveball. As a human your job is to survive by responding creatively to solve these problems and bring things back to “normal”.
Because reality can be a problem, this approach cultivates a fundamentally adversarial approach to reality – it is always a potential problem in need of solving. It is always something that has the potential to go off the rails, go south, fall apart, lose the plot… etc.
And creativity is our great salvation – it is the skill that “saves” us – it fixes things and gets things back on track.
Let’s go a little further: In this approach, reality is independent of us, and we need to fit ourselves to it: reality is a problem that we need to creatively solve to be alive.
This is something we see expressed in early Darwinism: We find ourselves in environments that were ultimately not made for us, and we have to figure out how to fit. To be alive – to survive – is to creatively solve the problems that our environment forces upon us. And those that can fit – the fittest – those that can most effectively creatively change – most effectively solve problems – are those that survive. This is life then from the perspective of the generic approach to problems…
It is the logic of survival of the problem solver:
This is an astonishing model of being alive – living as problem solving. It is also a model that expresses and reinforces the four fundamental qualities of the generic approach to problems that we critiqued.
Is life really a problem that must be solved, with all that this implicitly entails? Is reality really a static thing thrown off course by disruptions?
Reality is something inherently dynamic. It is also something that is always in change – it is morphing, evolving, and taking on new and different dynamic but semi-stable states. Things are highly interwoven and relational. Processes of becoming happen in complex non-linear ways. We are the outcomes of emergent processes. The sciences of complexity and many process oriented worldviews have given us great insight into this:
“In the context of contemporary science… “nature” [reality] does not consist of basic particulars [things], but fields and processes… There is no bottom level of base particulars with intrinsic properties that upwardly determines everything else.
Everything is process all the way “down” and all the way “up”… these processes are irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations or webs… Phenomena at all scales are not entities or substances but relatively stable [relational] processes…
…and since 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, p. 440)
This approach to reality that is coming from complexity science is fundamentally incompatible with our historical generic approach to problems and the larger worldview that it engenders.
To genuinely and fully take on the criticisms of the generic approach to problems and the model of creativity it presupposes is to take on a much larger question. It is to take on the project of reorienting a way of being alive and open up to participating in a fundamentally dynamic and creative universe.
If we just jump from the criticism to an alternative problematizing process, we will miss this critical and ultimately fundamental aspect – to move away from the generic approach to problems is to shift one's orientation towards how one is in and of a world.
Where to begin? In the wake of Darwin and others who ushered in a far more dynamic vision of life and reality, philosophers, theologians, artists and scientists began to take on the question of what is it to be alive in a highly dynamic context. Their answers were inherently more active, participatory and dynamic approaches.
American pragmatics like William James, in conjunction with Henri Bergson and Phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl began to explore a dynamic alternative – the process of “sense-making.” (No, it is not a recent term coined and owned by various management consultants despite their charming claims).
“Sense-Making” is a term that then goes back to the late 19th-century pragmatics and phenomenologists who wanted to come to terms with how we were an active part of a dynamic world – we participated in the making of the world, even as the world made us.
For these traditions, it did not make sense to understand living as a process of overcoming problems or fitting to a predetermined distant objective reality. Rather, living is an active process of sense-making. We emerge as beings from the very process of making sense of our world – and in doing this, we are never separate from the world.
Now this can feel like a very generic insight that offers little to change our approach to reality. Here the term “making” can throw one off – “sense-making” – because one way to understand this term is to stress the “making of sense” as an internal process of making “sense” of external things. In this understanding of the term, the work of making is internal and has no impact on an external reality. Such an interpretation would be entirely compatible with the “survival of the problem-solver” worldview and its objective impassive reality we must fit ourselves into.
But, as these early phenomenologists argued, we need to understand the term “making” as an active process of shaping the external world around us: we “make sense” by actively making a world from the reality we are given. We are actively changing the physical external world. “Making sense” is not an internal representational act, it is a form of active doing – making is thinking – making is sensing. The two are inseparable in this dynamic dance.
Now, as a dynamic dance, this is not a one-way process – we cannot change reality however we wish. Reality has agency in this. There is a dynamic give and take:
But then, what of the term “sense” – how does this fit into this process of co-shaping?
To be alive is to have a perspective – to engage things from a unique embodied value perspective. The things living beings encounter affect them. We are precarious beings in precarious circumstances. We inherently value things in very specific ways, for they afford us, because of who we are, specific possibilities. This, then, is the “sense” we are making in living. The two terms join but have their dynamic independence – not “sensemaking,” but: sense-making.
“We are always already embodied, biological, sensorimotor, and social beings engaged in the adventure of making ourselves and our world together with others and together with our material environment.” Di Paolo
In contrast to the problem solving view of life, where we pre-exist and are fitting to an external reality by solving problems to create a stable neutral state – sense-making is a process in which we emerge from an environment, remain actively connected to an environment, and ultimately co-shape it into a world. Sense-making is the making of a world. We are not simply in a generic reality but dynamically co-shaping an environment into a specific world.
Di Paolo understands this as “the key insight of the [Sense-Making] – enactive approach is to conceive of mental live as the ongoing meaningful engagement between precariously constituted embodied agents and the worlds of significance they bring forth in their self-asserting activity.”
Self and world are not ever independent but intra-dependant agents in a web of co-determining relations through which they mutually enact (make) a meaningful reality – a specific world.
It is a highly dynamic process – it is always uncertain how things will go – we are in and of precarious circumstances. But, the issue is not ultimately one of “solving problems” – but in an attuned ongoing dynamic co-shaping: we sense changes as possibilities – where will this lead? What is emerging? Can we go in this direction? We are making a path – a world in the walking. Creativity is a constant.
Of course, not all change is positive, concern is always present. Care is inherent (not a subjective addition to reality). Matters of concern are always emerging – these are matters that have to be engaged – as Burno Latour says, “Instead of “being there whether you like it or not,” they still have to be there, yes (this is one of the huge difference), but they have to be liked, appreciated, tasted, experimented upon… Matters of concern as disputable, and their obstinacy, seems to be of an entirely different sort: they move, they carry you away, and yes they also matter…”
Or, as Mercedes Valmisa puts it in “Adapting, A Chinese Philosophy of Action”:
“Adaptive agency is not fully controlled by the human side of the co-action paradigm. But in the same way, we cannot understand an action as springing from an individual and independent agent alone (inner), neither should we favor the other side of the co-action paradigm, namely the non-subjective and non-intentional world (outer). Adapting does not imply determination or incapacity to do otherwise… An efficacious use of the world’s affordances consists in creatively shaping and re-appropriating them. Accordingly, adapting is a contextually creative way to act and a timely confluence between actors that raises a new and suitable event.”
In a creative intra-dependant dynamic world of many worlds – we are not in the business of trying to fix things – running around solving problems to get back to some prior state of things – we are always mutually sensing and caring through ongoing creative co-making – we have a living situated concern for what has emerged, what is emerging and what could quite radically emerge altogether differently if we truly problematize things…
That is it for this week, the sun is up, and other concerns draw us towards other affordances. We hope that this gives you a sense of other possibilities and other ways of engaging creative processes beyond the generic problem paradigm…
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