Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 97! Resources for Affordances...
Goodmorning speculative researchers and experimenters,
Another really hectic week is behind us. We just wrapped up facilitating two great programs workshopping urban change making strategies, new possibilities of participatory democracy, and citizen centered design.
Coming up In early August we will have published 100 newsletters!!! We will have more to say about this in August – but what matters right now is that to celebrate the joy and insight we have gained from being in a meaningful dialog with you via the newsletter - we have a giveaway we want to share (in lieu of hanging out together over a whiskey or a sea kayak paddle):
We’ll be randomly drawing names and mailing out 10 copies of our innovation book: The Innovation Design Approach, free of charge anywhere in the world.
Here’s what you need to do to qualify:
This week, after spending a good amount of time over the past half dozen newsletters on affordances and related innovation concepts, we would like to share some resources in relation to affordances and the related concepts (exaptation, worldmaking, enaction, etc…)
We get asked often “what books would you recommend in regards to the way you are approaching (fill in an innovation topic)?”
And while we are really happy to share recommendations, we are also a bit cautious. We do draw extensively on the work of others – it deeply informs our own research and the development of our concepts, practices and approach, and in our newsletters we try to share this via links, so you can follow concepts out to sources.
But – here is the thing, we are rarely drawing upon texts that are directly about creativity, innovation or management. Rather we find primary sources on specific topics – exaptation, affordances, complexity, emergence, etc.-- far more helpful. This primary research is something that we can test, synthesize, transform and put to work. But, this means that from a pragmatic perspective, any concept we are introducing in the newsletter is not coming from a book – rather it is coming from multiple sources – books, conversations, research, experimentation and application – that we are synthesizing in a unique manner.
In our own practice, we are always working behind the scenes testing, experimenting and researching – we are never just apply some idea we read directly. Our daily goal is to develop new concepts, tools, and approaches that can help others in how they engage with creative processes in practical ways. Therefore, there are no books directly about the exact topics we discuss in the newsletters.
More importantly, these books have been important to us – but they are not the last or even the first word on these topics – nor are they necessarily relevant to you. The latter point is why we are ok with presenting a long list of books. But, please do not, even for a second, take it as “you need to read all of this before you can say anything relevant on this topic”. We viscerally abhor this form of intellectual blackmail. It goes without saying, you can do astonishing things in the space of innovation without these works and you can do astonishing things in the space these books cover without reading these books. But perhaps, just perhaps, there is one book here that is of use – that is our hope:
What follows, with this annotated bibliography on affordances and related concepts, can be considered our second round of additions to our Bibliography for Innovating Emergent Futures:
There are only a few thinkers that approach innovation processes from a similar synthetic logic to our work that also utilize Affordances. The two that we return to quite often are Gary Tomlinson and John Protevi.
Gary Tomlinson, a professor of Music at Yale, has just completed the writing of a trilogy of books that offer an astonishingly insightful more-than-human approach to human innovation. We have already discussed the first two books in his trilogy: A Million years of Music, and Culture and the Course of Human Evolution.
The Final Volume: The Machines of Evolution and the Scope of Meaning covers some of the same ground as the previous volumes but now from the perspective of the creative emergence of meaning in the universe. Tomlinson develops an approach to innovation and change in a profoundly abstract and systematic manner in the middle section of this book (The Abstract Machines of Evolution). In it he connects Darwin, Pierce’s theory of Signs, Deleuze’s Notion of Abstract Machines, Mediation, Affordances, Constraints, and Niche Construction to lay out a highly usable approach to innovation at multiple scales. And in doing so he offers one of the most compelling accounts of affordances. The important caveat is that this is not Tomlinson’s explicit goal. His focus is on the evolution of meaning and defining of its limited scope in the universe.
Note: The final section on “Outstanding Questions” offers an important and original meditation on technology, evolution and culture – especially in regards to Heidegger (see below).
John Protevi, a professor of French Studies in Louisiana, has long been one of the most interesting thinkers trying to bring together Complexity Science and the work of Gilles Deleuze.
We have already mentioned his astonishing and critical book, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. It is a critical book in regards to understanding agency and change as it happens across scales and logics. It is one of the best clear and pragmatic challenges to the individual vs the social that dominates so much of systems thinking.
Life War Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences, is in some ways a more modest work that follows from Political Affect. It builds upon this previous work as well as Political Physics and Deleuze and Geophilosophy, and acts as a final summation of Protevi’s longstanding project to connect Deleuze and Complexity Science. There are many critical essays in this book that cover vast scales of agency – from the geological to the genetic. In regards to Affordances these insights are to be found in the second part: Cognitive Science: Brain and Body – especially the final essay in this section: Adding Deleuze to the Mix. Despite the unrevealing title this essay joins the concept of Affordance to a radial approach to creativity and change – where the new is real without being actual. Worth a close read.
Let’s start really simple – if you were only able to read one reasonably short article on affordances – we would recommend this one:
Now if you wanted to simply watch or listen to one work, we would suggest this discussion with Erik Rietveld – who is one of the co-authors of the above mentioned article. It provides a good introduction to both affordances and the approach of the Skilled Intentionality Framework which offers a useful way to reframe creativity in a highly embodied and activity centered manner.
Perceiving the Affordances, Eleanor Gibson writes a moving and insightful intellectual biography of their shared lives and research. It is composed in a way that folds in long quotes from James Gibson with Eleanor portraying their shared and distinct intellectual journeys. It is quite helpful in getting an intellectual history of the development of the concept via their work/lives.
Ecological Psychology in Context. Harry Heft writes perhaps the best single volume introduction to the topic. He starts with William James and moves through the various precursors, and covers in detail the evolution of the concept of affordance (see “affordances in Places and Affordances of Places”). He ends with a powerful critical reflection on the scope of ecological psychology.
The Ecological Approach to Perception James Gibson’s final work and the one that lays out a radical alternative approach to how sentient beings sense, perceive and engage with the world. How an embodied being with skills and capacities meets an environment and in their active relating affordances (opportunities for action) emerge. Affordances are a critical concept for the development of an alternative approach to creativity as a process.
Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. This is a modern classic where Anthony Chemero, who is one of the most interesting and useful (to us) of the researchers in the field of embodied cognitive science lays out an argument for Affordances 2.0. He effectively spans many traditions and approaches. And forcefully argues for an understanding of all cognition as the outcome of brain-body-environment. This work develops the concept of affordance in particularly useful ways for a more distributed approach to creative processes.
Perhaps the founding document of the tradition of Ecological Psychology is the final work by William James (1842-1910), Essays in Radical Empiricism (1913). This is a critical text and foundational to our approach. You can find this online as a PDF for Free. The first essay “Does “Consciousness” exist? is a life changing read.
The other critical tradition and approach is Phenomenology and the work of Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) : Phenomenology of Perception (1945). Given that we take perception as a give – something we just do, we miss the logic and the dynamic creative embodied process of perceiving and sensing what-so-ever.
If you are Phenomenology curious and want to read one reasonably short book that does an exceptional job of covering the history in a way that illuminates the concept of affordances, we would recommend Phenomenology: An Introduction by Stephan Kaufer and Anthony Chemero. It is wonderfully clear, concise and always insightful.
Affordances, and creative processes in general, always have the potential of tipping into qualitatively new and different ways of being alive – this is what we term “worldmaking”. Perhaps the most useful literature on this can be found within anthropology and what has come to be termed the “ontological turn” in anthropology. In regards to affordances, creativity and the qualitatively new, the works of four authors stand out: Marlyn Strathern, Marshall Sahlins, Viveros de Castro and Philipe Descola. We have discussed DeCastro and Descola previously and will be discussing Strathern in upcoming newsletters – so Sahlins:
Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021) at the end of his life published a book that upends the western approach to cosmology, religious studies, and political science: The New Science of the Enchanted Universe. His thesis, in a nutshell is “the ‘state of nature’ has the nature of a state”. A brilliant and critical work in regards to connecting affordances to worldmaking and an ontological approach to creativity.
We already detailed our favorite book by Stephen Jay Gould – that is perhaps the single best introduction to the topic.
If we were to add two books we would add:
Nietzsche’s: The Genealogy of Morals which independently develops the concept and has an enormous influence on Foucault’s development of related concepts. Gould even cites Nietzsche and this work.
Understanding Innovation through Exaptation. This book reflects the limited understanding of exaptation in the innovation and management community, but it does have one interesting chapter: “The Role of Affordance Landscapes in Exaptive Evolution”
Exaptation has been taking as a type of magical explanation of innovation in living systems by many in the innovation space. But, within the fields of evolutionary science it is quite contested in really interesting ways that offer innovation practitioners much to consider. Here are two interesting books in this regards that have been influential to our approach:
Evolutionary Causation: Biological and Philosophical Reflections (Uller and LeLand eds.)
Biological Emergences: Evolution by Natural Experiment (Robert G. B. Reid)
We have previously written extensively on Evan Thompson and Mind in Life – a critical book.
If you wanted to get a sense of the field today in one book:
The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition (Newen, De Brun, Gallagher, eds.). This book contains key essays on affordances, social cognition, and the role of tools. A really wonderful book with many insights from varied perspectives.
Affordances are relations between an active agent and relevant aspects of the environment. When we consider actual practices of perception, action and cognition they are never the property of the interior of a solitary individual. For us, two works have been critical in our rethinking of distributed nature of cognition and the fundamental role the environment plays in everything:
Cognition in the Wild (Edwin Hutchins)
Related to these concepts of environment are works that look at the social construction of environments and affordances. Here two authors stand out:
Michel Foucault: The Birth of Biopolitics
There is a great evolving literature on tools as/and affordances. Here are three recent books that exemplify this trend:
How Things Shape the Mind (Lambros Malafouris)
Strange Tools (Alva Noe)
The Sympathy of Things (Lars Spuybroek)
Just as a note: it is worth going back to Heidegger and his writing on tools. We often see that innovation scholars stop with Being and Time and its discussion of tools (which is important). But, Heidegger’s most important work on tools is in his essay on things. And this essay has been available in English in only the radically abridged version.
Bremen and Freiburg Lectures: Insight into that which is – this is the original way Heidegger intended one to read his lectures on Things and Technology. It is also an outstanding translation.
As we wrote the newsletters on affordances we were in dialog with our dear friend and collaborator Diane Ragsdale on Affordances, Worldmaking and Aesthetics.
Affordances allow us to rethink both art as an experimental aesthetics of the senses.
The two practioners that we always return to in this regards are Madeline Gins and Erin Manning. Here are two brilliant texts:
We Have Decided Not To Die (Madeline Gins & Arakawa) – this work is an extended profound extension of the work of the Gibsons on affordances. Sadly it is out of print and hard to find – but if you can find a copy at a reasonable price – it is more than worth it!
The Minor Gesture (Erin Manning). Simply put, for us – a must read.
Well, that's it for the extended bibliography on affordances and creativity. We hope that a book or two might have caught your eye!
Happy reading and experimenting. We will catch up with again in the midst of it all next week!
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