Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 88! The Enabling Constraints of Creativity...
Good morning self-environment relational beings,
Over the last few weeks, we have been trying to show how troublesome the problem-solution approach to creative processes can be. It is ultimately a staccato corrective practice that uses a very narrow human centered creativity to correct and limit change. In this, it is implicitly based upon a flawed and ultimately anti-creative relation to reality.
Moving away from this approach is not some small endeavor. We were reminded how absolutely ubiquitous this approach is in a post this week by Oliver Ding on Linkedin, where he referenced Hugh Dubberly’s “How do you design: A Compendium of Models” which has over a hundred historical models of design process from various industries – the absolute vast majority of which are problem-solution approaches. It is quite shocking to flip through and see this.
Additionally, just looking at almost any advertising today and we see the “cruel optimism,” to borrow Lauren Barlant’s phrase, of a problem-solution approach to consumer reality: everything is turned into a potential problem – but thankfully, there is a solution…
Where to start exploring alternatives? When we pose this question, we often hear a grab-bag of concepts – a kind of extended solutionism – “well, if this does not work, then try this” – complexity, assemblages, emergence… And while these are all useful concepts in developing ways to engage with creative processes, when taken piecemeal, it is hard to see clearly how they offer a coherent practical alternative approach to understanding reality’s creativity.
We are interested in exploring and creatively developing a view of reality that is more dynamic, intra-connected, suffused with agency, and creative in all its aspects. Over the next couple of weeks, we want to unpack one way to understand and engage with this dynamic approach to reality – and hopefully, one that moves us bit by bit away from the anti-creative problem-solution approach to reality.
Let's start with a simple story – then we can unpack it:
Outside of my apartment window that faces roughly south is a chestnut tree, and beyond that, a driveway and then the next house. Looking out the window, I can see a squirrel and our cat.
The squirrel has just run down the tree, and our cat, Blacktop, sits under its shade against the bricks of our house. He is very old, really he is at the end of his life, and when he goes out, he sleeps against the bricks, which, heated by the morning sun, affords him a warm and cozy niche where he is protected from the wind and is nearly invisible in the grass.
They both share the same space of our driveway, but they live in very different environments – worlds, really. Why?
For the squirrel, the cables overhead, what we understand as power and telecommunication lines, “afford” a safe elevated wire pathway across yards and streets. For our cat, they afford no such thing. Same space, but different worlds of what shows up in what way as specifically meaningful.
This is not a simple issue of differing “subjective perceptions” of an “objective” neutral environment – (which is the classical way to understand this situation). The squirrel and Blacktop (or squirrels and cats in general) have differing physical worlds because of the relation between their embodied abilities/capacities and specific relational aspects of the environment that these connect with. Blacktop cannot subjectively will himself to scurry across a squirrel wire path. Urban squirrels live in and of a fully three-dimensional woven world where the ground plane is only one dimension of movement possibility. Blacktop lives on and of a ground plane – a highly contoured one for sure – but a ground plane nonetheless.
What has this to do with creativity? The active interplay between their fully embodied beings and aspects of their environment dynamically creates their worlds. What we take as the givenness of reality – the objective world out there – the thing we sense and perceive as a neutral given is infact a creative achievement of intra-actions.
This is where this wonderful concept of “Affordance” comes into play as a central one to re-orienting creative practices. It is not a complicated concept, but it is a radical one all the same, because it negates the objective-subjective divide that grounds so many of our assumptions and practices.
Let’s pause on this because it is important. What is this divide? Generally, we have historically divided reality in two: an objective “out there” of atoms and brute matter and an “in us” of subjective understanding – in this problematic model, we take limited sense data and turn it into subjective representations of what is “out there.” And, in this view, most of what we see as being out there is in actuality only is in us: color, texture, feeling, meaning, thinking, creativity, etc.
We are not really of the world, we live, what A. N. Whitehead termed, “the bifurcation of nature” – something he describes quite poignantly: “we perceive the red billiard ball at its proper time, in its proper place, with its proper hardness, and its proper inertia. But its redness and its warmth, and the sound of the click… are psychic additions, namely, secondary qualities which are only the mind's way of perceiving nature”
It is a view in which we are never really part of reality but always at an impoverished subjective remove – a mind living in a sea of representations it is never quite sure about...
And this brings us back to our story of how these two differing creatures are of differing physical environments and the concept of affordance. To say they are “of” an environment is precisely to argue against the bifurcation of nature – this subjective-objective divide. And it is to argue that creative embodied and embedded engagements give rise to an actual world.
The concept of affordances is part of this alternative approach to reality that seeks to conceive of us and all living beings as a meaningful part of a dynamic and meaningful reality – it is an attempt to return us to the “great outdoors.” With this in mind, let's return to considering more precisely what an affordance is:
An affordance is an opportunity for action that is enabled by specific agent-relevant aspects of the environment because of the capacities/abilities of a specifically embodied creature.
Ok – this can sound complicated, and it is worth reading a couple of times, as it is a critical concept.
Let's unpack it with Blacktop and our squirrel and a final interlocutor – the crow in their environment of enabling constraints:
Think of the driveway itself – for a crow, it affords nut cracking when it flies up high above the rooftops and drops nuts down on the hard surface. That is not there for the cat or squirrel – for both of them the driveway affords many other specific things – but not this. They each explore and interact with very specific differing aspects of their surroundings based on their unique physiologies and habits. There is a tight active intra-connection that builds with their surroundings. As these practices loop back on themselves, a meaningful world emerges that is neither fully “in” the creature nor fully “out” in the surroundings. They and an environment co-emerge as an intra-connected unit.
And what allows us to understand the nature of this mutually creative connection is the concept of the affordance:
Additionally, as this dance of creative, meaningful co-shaping (sense-making) iterates and loops back in an ongoing give and take, both sides are creatively changed – co-evolved into a close and ongoing dynamic.
We should understand this meaningful specific environment that a creature is “of” as a “world”. With this dynamic self-reinforcing world a meaningful specific embodied individual emerges and stabilizes together with its environment/world in a mutual co-creative dance.
From this we can say a few critical things about affordances:
All of this leads to something very important: Meaning is already present in this world – our very real reality. Meaning is not a personal subjective internal quality. It is something that is co-created as an affordance by the relation between agent and environment.
Creativity is an ongoing dynamic feature of reality and how we participate in it.
We do not encounter a universal space and subjectively define its meaning for us as individuals. We always already live in and of a specific world of meaningful enabling constraints/affordances.
Let's add one closely related concept that is often thought to be quite distinct: constraints.
What does an affordance do? What does it mean to say that an affordance provides “specific relational opportunities for action”?
The wire that the squirrel is running across is not just passively accepting this act of running. The wire as an affordance acts as an “enabling constraint.” It is enabling – which is to say: creatively participating in the shaping and forming of a way of moving as something that happens only in a certain way and only under certain conditions.
Enabling, constraining, and affording are the same thing. The constraint is not a separate “thing” but a critical aspect of what an affordance is. The constraint is the relation. The squirrel is enabled in a very specific manner by the relation of embodied abilities and specific limited environmental aspects. Our cat does not encounter any such affordance.
We can make this more clear by adding two loops to our diagram – the upper one showing how affordances stabilize as enabling constraints that shape the enactive individual, and the lower one showing how the creative and experimental actions of the individual participate in shaping the environment.
Why does it matter for creativity to connect constraints and affordances?
The affordance relation gives us the world as we know and experience it – as we sense it – see it, feel it, and engage with it. What we take as a generic reality (what one might call “space”) is really our world – a specific and relational world. We share the same space with other species and cultures but live in differing worlds.
Our world is built up of stabilized affordances (enabling constraints) – they become a very specific “infrastructure.” And in our world, this is built up by collaborative assemblages – nested structures, habits, practices, concepts, and tools working in differing holistic ways that give rise to distinct modes of “being-on-a-world” – what we can call culture.
Creativity involves the experimental exaptive play with this infrastructure to push it to afford new possibilities of sensing otherwise from inside a world. We are playing with the relational dynamics of enabling constraints and what world of emergent opportunities they afford us as a “reality.”
And if we see these concepts of affordance and constraint as separate, we miss the fundamental fact that, as Richard Lewontin put it (referring to species): “we share the same space but live in different environments.” We miss how we co-enact our shared reality and how our creativity begins in the dance of affordings.
This brings us back to the larger context – we are collaboratively creatively co-making a world (sense-making) in the context of ongoing dynamic and creative self-organizing processes:
Our co-emerging worlds are creative islands dynamically emerging from other creative processes and forces that provide a continuous dynamic flow of difference.
But, we will leave this as a wonderful set of opportunities for another time…
At this point, our hope is that you can sense the logic of a way out of the paradigm of “stasis-disturbance, return to stasis” that implicitly underpins the problem-solution approach to creativity.
AND understand the integrated coherence of a set of creativity/innovation concepts that can all too easily just become a list: affordances, constraints, distributed agency, emergence, exaptation, assemblage, etc.
But more importantly for us, we hope that you can get a sense of a creativity that lives with us as beings who are of worlds – beings who are co-creatively co-enacting a dynamic active meaningful world in an adventurous reality teaming with agency, difference, other worlds and open to the emergence of the radically new.
Well, that is it for this week! Love your relationality – your affordance being with a creative joy.
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