Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 91! Affordances: Expanding the Creative Terrain...
Good morning lungs of northern fires,
Here on the north-western edge of the Atlantic Ocean – we have been engulfed by the smoke of far-distant Quebec forest fires for the last few days. The effects of the Capitalocene in the climate crisis are very much deep in our lungs.
In light of what is happening, it certainly feels odd to go back to last weekend when we both managed to get out kayaking – Jason on the upper Raritan River and Iain further north in the Adirondacks – out to the islands of Indian Lake. River Kayaks and Sea Kayaks. White water paddles and Greenland style paddles – such different affordances – such differing aspects of the environment being called forth… Such differing worlds emerging…
We will come back to this – at least obliquely….
Last week we contextified affordances as a critical concept to move us out of camerabrain on a tripod view of ourselves. We ended the newsletter with a promise:
Understanding affordances will allow us to organically grasp a set of seemingly discreet concepts that are all critical to an alternative approach to developing creative processes. And it does so in a similar way to how learning the very basics of riding a bike unlocks a cascade of skills, abilities, and possibilities.
This week we want to explicate what we feel are perhaps the closest experiential connections:
And that is how Embodiment, Constraint, Agency, and Assemblage interweave with Affordances.
And, we have to say – it is hard – really hard, to decide which terms to introduce first. They all cascade out as a tightly interwoven whole.
Our selection is a bit arbitrary –we went back and forth about this quite a bit – even during the writing. But we decided that we should approach this from the perspective of an individual involved in a creative practice. And from the perspective of an individual in action, adding these four terms first made the most sense to us.
As we begin, a quick note: take time with this newsletter to do the simple exercises and follow the links – especially to watch the videos. The text relies on these additional activities…
Ok – Let's quickly remind ourselves: Affordances are RELATIONS between aspects of the material environment and the EMBODIED abilities of an active individual. They are NOT things or simply aspects of the environment. They are situational – CONTEXTUAL relations that are creatively developed and sustained.
In the act of doing, the relationship is always enabling – it is actively making certain outcomes possible, and it is likewise constraining in that it makes some outcomes more likely.
Affordances are enabling-constraining.
What does this mean? Why is this a “relation” and not “in” the thing itself?
Let's take a seemingly very sophisticated human activity: walking. Being able to walk involves our skeleton, muscles, proprioception, skill, perfection, and much else.
But, putting all that aside for a moment, walking, for us, at its simplest, is a type of “controlled falling.”
It is something that is afforded to us by the physical nature of our bodies + gravity + a reasonably flat environment. As we lean forward (fall), our body seems to spontaneously throw a leg out to arrest the fall – we keep leaning, and the body throws the other leg out…
Try it – seriously! Stand, Lean, Fall, Step! Repeat…
We can, and we have made the simplest of walking “robots” that can walk in exactly this sense of controlled falling. These devices look like a human stick figure with a hinged set of arms, legs, and torso:
These “passive dynamic walking robots” can walk astonishingly well without any sensors, motors, or controllers. Which is to say they are walking without perceptions or a brain to regulate and control their actions. Really – please take a moment to watch the video of this passive-dynamic walking carefully. It is pretty astonishing.
Now why is this relevant to our discussion of affordances, and enabling-constraints?
Where does “walking” come from? What causes it? What affords this outcome? Is it something emerging from some command and control sensory operation?
Not at all. An action is emerging – walking – that is the relational outcome of a specific material form (the exact physical nature of the “robot”) in a specific environment (gravity + ground plane). Walking is enabled (and constrained) – really enacted by the specific nature of the body (weight, material, hinges, ratios, etc.), meeting the right environment in the right way.
Isn’t this what we mean by an affordance?
Now if we were to change certain critical aspects of the robot body, walking would no longer be afforded (at least not in this way). The specificity of the materiality of the body matters:
AN AFFORDANCE REQUIRES A SPECIFIC EMBODIMENT & CONTEXT
Now, it is no different with us and our bodies in all of their glorious aspects. Our general and specific form and specific materiality are contextually critical to what and how we do what we do. Our specific material form enables – really co-constitutes what and how we do what we do. The body, in its form and matter – matters. The body is not just a support/extension of a brain.
BUT, here, it is important to remember it is EMBODIMENT + ENVIRONMENT (in relation to an activity). For example: Our passive-dynamic robot would not walk if the force of gravity changed substantially. There is a symmetry to this creativity: on both sides, the formed matter matters.
The body + environment relation is enabling and constraining. It opens up a specific field of possibilities – a space where certain outcomes are far more likely than others.
Think of the experience of running across a field of large rocks downhill at some speed. How do your shoes-feet and body orient and find the right place on the right rock over and over again in a complex choreography?
It certainly would not be wrong to talk about the creative intelligence of the body.
Now, who is the “agent” in all of this? Certainly, we can no longer claim that agency is the property of a subject in the classical sense of “I authored these actions.” Agency – really creative agency is, as Lambros Malafouris puts it, is “not a permanent feature or property that someone (human or nonhuman) has independently of situated action” – but, rather it is the emergent and relational outcome of material engagement…
A wonderful example of this is found within the family of our favorite bird, the crow. One particular crow, the New Caledonian crow, is astonishingly accomplished at tool use and demonstrates an ability to solve physical puzzles that no other similar crow can (despite having equivalent brain size, body size, etc.).
What is different about these crows? Well, it turns out that they have narrower and more pointed beaks. What does this afford? For one thing, they can focus very clearly on what is being held in their beaks and guide it far more effectively. But that is not all; the shape of their beaks affords an astonishing range of grasping abilities (see the above link for a video on this). The particular morphology of this bird plays a critical role in its ability to solve complex puzzles – it affords them a unique way of being-of-a-world. They are “smart” because of and through their specific embodiment connecting to their context.
Embodiment – the shape and matter of things do not just apply to our bodies or those of other living things and how they directly connect to an environment. The logic of affordances goes further:
My partner (Iain) is an architect and urban planner, and one of their favorite examples in this regard is the Traffic Circle vs. Traffic Light.
Traffic Circles and Traffic Lights have very different affordances for car drivers and lead to very different traffic outcomes:
The coupling of an embodied subject plus car is meeting context-relevant aspects of the environment (the features of the traffic circle) – and this relation affords – enacts – in a creative logic certain propensities over others.
Propensities? The traffic circle has a “style” that is qualitatively different from that of the traffic light. We could say it tends towards certain practices. This is its propensity.
Here it is more useful to talk less about any one individual driver or any one car meeting an environment – but about nested systems, general identities, groups, larger emergent patterns, and habits. We can call this an “assemblage.”
The nested emergent dynamics of the ASSEMBLAGE affords certain propensities. We need new levels of abstraction, but the basic logic remains.
The assemblage is creative…
What of creativity?
The first and perhaps most critical thing to say is:
We cannot return to ascribing creativity back to some fixed and autonomous subject. There is no “you” who “is” the author of creativity.
In the exact same manner that agency cannot be ascribed as the property of a human subject, neither can creativity. We have to recognize how the formed material assemblage affords certain propensities over others.
We can participate actively in this – but our agency will be in relation to, and emerge from, the emergent enabling-constraining dynamics of the system.
Perhaps we can end with an example and a return to where we began:
The example: The Fosbury flop and modern high jumping. How does one “jump” the highest over a bar?
Most of the parameters in high jumping are reasonably fixed: the body and the bar. The technique, the transforming of the physiological capacities of the body, and the track are the three areas open for variation – and what one can do with each of these is significantly constrained.
Prior to the full development of the flop, most techniques used a direct feet-first high-speed approach, and the jumper had to land on their feet. With the advent of thick matting, body postures could radically shift. The technique that pushed the posture of the body the furthest was the “Fosbury flop” (named after the athlete who popularized this technique). The flop utilizes a highly counterintuitive curved tangential slower approach and a “backward” jump where the head clears the bar first and one lands on one's back. (Here is a good video of the Straddle Technique (which was dominant prior to the adoption of the flop) and the flop going head to head.)
For us, it is not about which technique is “better” – new techniques will emerge, and variations of old techniques might make a comeback.
What matters is the form that the creative process necessarily takes: It is an experimentation with what an assemblage emergently enables – and this can ultimately only be found in action – what does the assemblage afford as propensities to explore?
In some sense, there is not that much difference between the general creative logic of a traffic circle, a passive-dynamic “robot,” a Caledonian Crow, and a high jumper – all are surfing the emergent propensities – affordances – of a specific formed material relationship...
Affordances: Embodiment, Constraint, Agency, and Assemblages…
We have seen that creative processes can involve the transformation of bodies and what they can, in context, relationally afford. But bodies do not only transform within the limits of their skin. Bodies can transform via tools. And this brings us back to our kayaks. Kayaks are tools that extend the body into new material forms. They afford the body (in context) a new extended, and very different creative set of propensities.
Sea Kayaks afford splitting waves, and tracking straight courses, while river boats afford rotating and moving on waves in almost a 360-degree fashion. The boat-body senses and responds, shapes, and enacts – surfs new affordances (affordances that the body alone would never have).
Yet another creative assemblage – a body-boat-paddle-wave-tide becoming…
One could call this affordance a “constraint,” and stress how a dynamic contextual relational system is “constrained” towards certain emergent patterns over others. And there is a good argument for doing so (see Alicia Juarrero’s wonderful latest book: Context Changes Everything: How Constraints Create Coherence). But, this term, in its negative framing, fails to fully suggest the constructive and active powers of what is happening. Something is being enabled, something is being afforded, and in many cases, this is novel – what is the term that can encompass this enactive creative logic? Certainly not a constraint alone.
It is not about arguing about one term over another – it is about being able to actively and experimentally move across concepts to further a robust creative practice:
Affordances – Embodiment – Constraints – Agency – Assemblages…
And working effectively with these in creative processes is what matters.
Well – once again, that is it for the week!
Next week we will focus on how we sense and actively experiment with what an assemblage affords.
Live and experiment across contextual material relational assemblages and work their propensities towards novelty!
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