Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 92 - Affordances, Cultures, Creativity and Worldmaking...
Goodmorning deworlding and reworlding beings,
It's been a busy week for us. We were guests on two podcasts – one on facilitation and the other on creativity and innovation practices (we will let you know when these are released). We also led a workshop on probing for emergent innovation – what might be called a “prototyping workshop” – only it is about how to engage with creative process prior to being at the stage where one could rightly say that one has a prototype. These are some of our favorite workshops because emergent novel things are happening that surprise all of us.
In addition to the podcasts, the workshop, and the usual hustle and bustle of life, we had a couple of really interesting conversations. One was with our dear friend Diane Ragsdale who leads a really interesting program in arts leadership - (she is the Director of Creative Leadership MA at Minneapolis College of Art and Design) about worldly creativity, worldmaking, learning, and unlearning.
This week’s newsletter was already going to be about extending the logic of affordances into the creative practices of worldmaking – but our conversation with Diane helped us push things much further – so thank you, Diane!
Last week in the newsletter we laid out a basic logic of affordances focusing on how the concepts of Embodiment, Constraint, Agency, and Assemblage interweave with Affordances:
This week we want to expand what we can do with the concept of affordances in relation to creativity. We want to expand the concept to include how it is connected to worldmaking. Hence the title of the newsletter: Affordances, Cultures, Creativity, and Worldmaking.
It is a big jump from affordances to worldmaking. So much of what we have been discussing over the last couple of weeks in regard to affordances is so counterintuitive to our deeply held historical approach to reality. It is difficult – and we really get it. So this week we are going to change approaches and try an interview format. This is going to hopefully afford us a slower step-by-step development of things:
Seeing – which is both a form of sensing and reliant on the other senses, is an activity. The eyes are not perceiving alone. They are part of a body that is always in meaningful action. As you look, you move, your head turns, you grasp things, feel things – the whole body and environment are involved. And it is not some random set of motions that your body just happens to be doing – but, you are always involved in some form of meaningful action that is always working with an environment in a tight integration of feedback.
Likewise thinking is similarly embodied and extended activity. It involves embodied skills and habits and utilizes tools and key aspects of the environment. It would be hard to say that any activity is not also a form of thinking. Ways of knowing are ways of acting…
Let’s take the example of carving a piece of wood.
Here we find doing-sensing-thinking happening “in the wild” to use Hutchin’s phrase. When we carve a piece of wood there is a tight integration of embodied doing, sensing, and knowing.
DOING: we are using all of our body and its embodied skills (relevantly developed muscles, calluses, sensitivities in hearing, touch, feel, and sight to carve into a piece of wood with a knife,
SENSING: we are seeing, feeling, hearing, and intuiting what happens in very skilled ways as we move the knife into the wood
KNOWING: as we carve we are actively feeling, intuiting, and abstracting in skillful embodied, extended and in functionally integrated ways.
Much of this knowing is embodied in ways it remains in the body as skills – “muscle memory”. It is not something that can be abstracted into conceptual forms of knowing. It is a knowing-in-doing – a “know-how” as opposed to a “know-what”. It is exactly this sort of holistic way of acting that is a way of knowing. But for the most part, the knowing as an activity necessarily remains implicit.
In activity – in the act of carving we come to make sense of a specific emergent and creative reality – that of carving: shavings are coming off as we attune our knife strokes to an angle and direction that goes with the grain of the wood…
And the activity of carving takes on a life of its own – shaping us and our actions as we shape it in ongoing cycles of meaningful engagement. The activity is our teacher – and it is a creative teacher – it makes us as “we” make the carving. New embodied skills, habits, tools, environment, and identity are co-emerging – a way of knowing emerges via an activity.
Nothing is revealed all at once, or in advance – it is only in the repetition of the doing – the cutting, turning, feeling, turning, seeing, and cutting some more that we gain a sense (knowledge) of what this piece of wood “is”, what the tool “is”, even who we “are” emerges only in the process.
This sense of what things “are” – which is a form of primarily implicit knowing (know-how) is emerging relationally as part of what the dynamics of the relational process affords us possible opportunities for action. Knowing is an active feeling (sensing).
You can see from our use of scare quotes at the end of the previous answer – what something “is,” is not pregiven or really even existent outside of some relation.
The who we “are” is not an individual removed from the world – and it is certainly not a mind encased in a brain awaiting sense data to turn into representations to act upon.
Our actions (doing-sensing-thinking) are dependent upon a strong coupling of the body and the environment. The we who senses, and thinks is a very specific body-environment system: skilled body+specific knife+specific piece of wood+chair+table+light…
The self is a relational being emerging and stabilizing in the process as a specific body+environment. This is why it is important to stress that the doing – the activity of carving is a creative teacher – we are learning and being made into who we will become. And what we become will always be an integrated self-environment dynamic (active) system.
Our actions of sensing, doing, thinking, and making are not merely reliant on, but ultimately intra-dependent on and of, materials, tools, and an environment.
The dependency is integral and creative: The relation between wood, knife, and body produces a unique productive (creative) dynamic system – it emergently affords unique opportunities for action that would not exist – nor could they exist separate from the particular coupling of skilled body and aspects of the environment. What is afforded cannot be found in and of the distinct parts prior to entering into the relation.
This is our condition “in the wild” so to speak. We are ever in action, our bodies are always coupled with tools and an environment that together give rise to (create) an emergent set of regular possibilities – this is what we mean by the activity of carving is both teaching us and creating us.
These emergent novel possibilities are irreducible to any component pre-existing the cyclical integration. But more than that – these emergent possibilities have the agency to transformatively change the parts of the system. The ongoing activity of carving changes us, the materials we use, our tools, and the environment (taskspace) we are in via the repeated looping of feedback and feedforward systems.
This is why it is better to understand this dependency as an intra-dependency rather than an inter-dependency or a mere reliance upon outside things. We are “of” the assemblage and not merely “in” it.
Here the exact knife — type, material, sharpness, etc. matters – but only in relation to the exact wood – type, grain structure, wetness, size, shape, part of the tree, etc. – but also only in relation to the body – strength, size, coordination, skills, etc… and the immediate environment – chair, table, other tools, hardness of surfaces, light…
A change in any one aspect and the landscape of affordances changes quite radically.
A dynamic ecosystem – assemblage is in play. The whole as an integrated emergent cultural-material process takes on a powerful agency and even identity of its own. There is a “direction” or propensity that is emerging – a particular “way of being” that is not directed, controlled, or even explicitly initiated by any one person or group. This is the creative power of a feedforward system.
That is a really critical thing to remember: we actively move through life and our environment as a dynamic assemblage. We are always in and of a dynamic creative ecosystem: an environment + our skilled embodied selves + a whole host of tools + nested in further assemblages…
As the Neurologist Micheal Anderson puts it so beautifully:
“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” (Micheal Anderson).
What is critical is to always remember that this assemblage is not simply supporting or enabling us to do various things. The assemblage creates an emergent condition that is more than the sum of its parts that creates unique possibilities as a whole – of which we are ultimately the outcome.
In this, it is both creating new possibilities and constraining the system into a pattern that affords these novel possibilities.
Yes – at the center of everything – really arising out of the middle of the assemblage is a landscape of affordances.
Affordances are precisely the relation between skillful bodies and aspects of the environment that afford us possibilities for action.
An affordance is not something extra that exists in addition to what we sense/perceive.
From the perspective of an organism, from our perspective as a living being, the world is disclosed to us as a set of affordances. So what we see, sense and engage with are affordances. Our lived experience of reality is of a landscape of affordances.
Well, because in our actual lived experiencing of reality, things are never first perceived as a bundle of disparate qualities. Take for example the wood carving knife – we do not first perceive it as some strange substance that is hard, small, shinny, cold, sharp, etc. that then needs to be brought together into a cohesive image in our head, that is then recognized as part of a conceptual category “knives” etc. And which, only then can we have a realization of what it “is.”
A kind of “Oh! It is a knife! – I know what that is for. Now I will apply my knifing skills to this “knife”!”
No, in our actions we encounter a “world” – we sense, perceive, and engage with things directly by what they afford us as potentials for actions in the ongoing activities we are involved with, within a larger way of being alive.
We really need to return to this integrated loop of sensing, perceiving, and doing-thinking “in the wild” – to see that we do meet the knife as a “knife” directly – which is to say “what it affords us as possibilities for action in and as part of an integrated way of being alive”.
Affordances are relational and depend on our embodied abilities but that does not mean that they cannot exist separate from any one individual. Many affordances are general – they are species specific relative to given a general environment. And this is perhaps the case for us as humans, because of our very general similarities in body, skills, and environments it could be claimed that we share, in general, and to a large degree, a species specific world of affordances.
But, this is a difficult question. And we are deeply skeptical of talking about human affordances so generally. It is perhaps far more useful to stay at an intermediate level without generalizing all the way to the human species. It is certainly true that as historically embedded cultures we share to a large degree a set of affordances as a way of being alive. That is to say that within a way of being alive, within a “world,” we share a landscape of affordances.
These very general affordances are so ubiquitous that they pass unnoticed in how they create and constrain our sense of the world and its fundamental reality. But they come into clear view when we move out of our historical mode of being alive – out of our worlds. And this is what the work of an ontologically attuned anthropology allows us to do. It can reveal to us the historical emergent regional ontology of our affordances that we mistakenly take as universal.
In this way, we can say that the “objective” (general) and “subjective” (individual) quality of affordances co-emerge.
Sure, what we sense, see, know, and engage with as a “tree” – a biological entity that is a plant would be quite different if, for example, you are part of an Animist world (integrated way of being alive). They would sense, see, know, and engage with a type of human person that has taken on a distinct outward appearance. It would not be the same “tree”. And there would be a vast array of other persons – rocks, animals, etc. are all types of human persons – and an equally vast array of meta-persons (what we might mistakenly call spirits or gods).
Such an Animist world is composed of a vast intra-woven ensemble of affordances giving rise to a landscape of very very different possibilities. And these affordances emerge from and feedback into a very distinct assemblage of embodied practices, habits, tools, environments, etc.
The stakes and reality involved in cutting and carving the branch would be absolutely ontologically different…
While as skilled mature participants in a world we can pause our activity, step back and look at things we see and identify things – that is a table, that is a knife, and that is a piece of wood… For us, things have clear fixed objective identities and words associated with them, and they exist as abstract concepts separate from any specific instance. They feel objective, natural, and given. Possibilities are afforded to us, and we engage in them – carving and whittling a form in the wood.
The question is how did we gain such abilities? We did not first learn about things via definitions. Learning is perhaps the wrong term – it feels far too formal, and deliberate. We gained such abilities by being en-worlded.
It is an odd term but it is helpful to reframing creativity as a worldmaking practice.
Prior to, and in parallel to things emerging as clear ideas and concepts (know-what) they were already immediately sensed and felt via embodied enactive practices – know-how.
In activity we are attuning ourselves, changing ourselves and our abilities as we feel the pull of certain possibilities/affordances before we know what to call them or how to understand them conceptually. The self here is always already coupled with the environment – from prior to birth to how we came out into a world, to how our mothers held us – the “we” is a “self-world”. Here it is important to stress that a “world” is a process – it is always in-the-making – it emerges from the engaged doing-sensing-knowing with and of an active creative – enabling and constraining assemblage.
The process of the environment becoming a world affords us a way of making sense – a way of being that is dynamic but stable. We are fitted – co-created by activities to a world and its affordances.
This process is not a rational, distanced, ideational decision making process of step-by-considered-step construction that responds to some internal essence (say “human nature”). This is an embodied, enactive, felt, and sensed dynamic emergent process (and it is most likely irreducible to a full explicit understanding).
There is no difference between how we came to sense-know a “tree” as a plant and someone else can sense-know a “tree” as a person both are emergent from practices….
Well, the relational process of emergence is itself creative – it both enables certain conditions and possibilities to emerge and constrains the emergent possibilities to certain bounds. The integrated, nested dynamics of an assemblage are giving rise to a stable world.
And this is felt, in our individual lives, as a general creative perspective. This feeling is not an intentional creativity, but a general felt “concern” or “care”. And this ever present low level general sense of concern, this broad feeling of concern that accompanies a way of being alive is what is termed “affect”.
Affect is the term that refers to feelings, but it is not the same as emotions (anger, joy, hope, etc.). Affect is something embodied and more general: the ability to be affected, to be touched.
“Affectivity in the broad sense entails a lack of indifference, and rather a sensibility, interest, and concern; it is required for anything to matter to an agent” (Giovanna Colombetti). This is an active – an enactive evaluative process – it inherently involves a worldly creation and creativity:
At an embodied affective level we are appraising a situation – we are directly feeling our way forward into and through a creative process. We are being drawn in and drawn out through our bodies' affective capacities. This is a skilled creative activity that accompanies all forms of action from high level abstract thinking to carving a piece of wood. We care for, and are never neutral, in our very being alive. This care is active and creative in all our doing. It is how we are at an embodied non-articulable level actively part of a way of being alive.
The short answer is yes.
But let's quickly talk about what a tool is.
A tool is a transformative extension of some human ability. Glasses extend what the eye sees, and a knife allows the hand to cut into things. But this is not a linear or simple extension, using a tool creatively changes who we are – and what aspects of the environment can become context relevant. When something becomes a tool – say a rock is picked up to hammer, for example, it ceases to be a discreet thing or neutral aspect of the environment.
Marshall McLuhan’s work is critical here. He defined tools not as discreet things but as radical mediators – as ultimately the “medium” in which we come to be who we are. He makes the radical and powerful claim that basic tools (such as writing and the alphabet) acting as a medium
“work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, & social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments…”
McLuhan connected tools directly to how we are embodied, seeing them as both extensions & co-producers of human faculties, whether mental or physical (the beginning of the emergence of meaningful skillful embodied activity). Tools by altering our habits & practices — our environment — provoke in us new logics of sense perception (a new landscape of affordances) & habitual action which transformatively alter the way we act, sense & think at an immediate level.
It really is, he was explicitly making the point that the material and the immaterial are not to separate realms of reality.
In the wild, our everyday reality consists of both immaterial and material environments and tools – it is all integrated. Words, no more than a knife, represent something. It is a mistake to see words and concepts as being qualitatively different from a knife. They both afford us novel possibilities.
Looking at the shift from pre-literate to literate societies, McLuhan says that with reading’s focus on perception, “the eye replaces the ear”. We “see” this all around us in how we talk about knowing: “I see what you mean,” “I can’t quite grasp what you are saying,” “It appears to me…”
McLuhan explains it this way: Writing is “a medium that depends solely on the eye for comprehension: the alphabet is constructed of arbitrary bits “strung together in a line… bead-like… Its use fostered and encouraged the habit of perceiving all environments in visual and spatial terms… Visual space becomes uniform, continuous, and connected… Rationality came to depend upon the presentation of connected & sequential facts or concepts…” Writing is affording us a novel world of possibilities…
McLuhan goes on to make the argument that
“Until writing was invented people lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless… speech is a social chart of this bog.
The goose quill put an end to talk. It abolished mystery; it gave architecture and towns; it brought roads and armies… It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of civilization began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind…”
Here he is at his polemical and prophetic best, but he is making an important point — technology — tools and their assemblage – their use radically and totally changes us — they are not simply neutral aids, extensions or reflections of our minds or some pre given human nature. Doing things with things as part of a dynamic integrated assemblage is inevitably radically transformative — it is creative in ways that have nothing to do with what we explicitly intend, think, or can know. No one invented writing, and no one engaged in writing could know in advance what form of a world would emerge from its use.
These assemblages dynamically produced a specific landscape of affordances.
Absolutely, abstractions, patterns, emerge from – are afforded by our larger cultural assemblages… Writing – to use McLuhan’s example – was and is an embodied practice of using tools as part of an active assemblage that afforded us novel possibilities from which both know-how and know-what emerged. Metal models, which are forms of know-what are not behind or beneath anything. To the degree that there is anything that could be termed a “mental model,” it is a high level abstraction that emerged from and cannot ever fully explicate enactive practices of know-how.
Importantly, it also becomes a tool – it affords us certain possibilities for action.
But, let's not get into this here – we have written extensively about both the issue with this zombie concept and the alternatives to it elsewhere in detail.
To recap then:
The question to ask is, what does this or that way of being-of-a-world afford? What new creative modes of being, doing, thinking are now possible?
Creativity is an ongoing worldmaking practice – from worldmaintaining to deworlding to reworlding.
Creative worldmaking is always an ontological project.
Our everyday creative practices are never separable from this logic of worldmaking. It is important to always be asking of what we are doing:
Each of these is an experimental question – a question that can only be answered in doing – in developing a creative process to work with, in, of, and on what is afforded us as part of an ongoing worldmaking process.
Well this is, once again, as far as we are going for this week.
Have a week rich with novel affordances.
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