Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 98! Summer Creative Practices...
Good Morning radiant becomings of the summer breezes,
It is nearing the end of July, and the summer is reaching its midpoint.
This week we are heading out on holidays – Iain is off to the West Coast – Vancouver Island, and the Coast Mountains to see family and wander into the alpine. Jason will traverse the East Coast intertidal zones from Jazz fests to good shore breaks.
This summer we spent a lot of time thinking about affordances and how hard it is to experientially shift to actively sensing experience as affordances. As part of our own efforts, we have been altering our daily practices in subtle ways. Summer is an ideal time to introduce new habits and practices into our lives – perhaps more ideal than January when this topic really comes to the fore. In summer (hopefully), we have more time to be experimental and to take on new activities.
“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).
We have been thinking a lot about activities and creativity as we wrote on affordances. In a very real sense there is only action – activity. Activity in life does not have an opposite. We are always in motion – from the subatomic scale to the scale of the universe, everything is in motion – in ceaseless activity. And from a very human-centered practical perspective, even staying still – bringing ourselves into a meditative posture – is a complex and even challenging activity.
But, nonetheless, we, as a culture, do circulate constantly around the opposition between the active and the passive. We, for example, oppose bodily activity and thinking – we have sayings like “think before you act,” or “stop and think,” or “I'm much more a thinker than a doer.” And then there is a similar opposition between action and perception “Don’t do anything – just observe,” etc. When we pay attention to this, we can see that much of our self-understanding relies on this dichotomy of being active and equally being inactive.
The divide between thinking and acting is a dangerous illusion – as is the related divide between sensing and action, or perception and action. Perception is an action. Perception is a deeply embodied and situated skilled cultural activity – as is sensing in general, as is thinking – thought is always in the act. Thought is always an embodied and extended tool-centric cultural activity as Michael Anderson in the above quote frames it.
The issue we have with this opposition is that it pulls thinking and perceiving out of the active, really the enactive, flow of life and makes it something quite separate.
To say that thought is “in the act” is not only to refuse the active-passive duality but to also, equally importantly, refuse the logic of reducing thinking to a location. Thought is not an activity that can be clearly located in the head – it is not the activity of certain brain cells. Thinking is in activity – it is both distributed across activities and emerges from the middle of activity. Thinking is an extended and distributed activity done with and of an environment, tools, practices, and others.
“Thought is in the act. Every practice is a mode of thought, already in the act. To dance: a thinking in movement. To paint: a thinking through color. To perceive in the every day: a thinking of the world’s varied ways of affording itself.” (Manning & Massumi)
The arising of novel thoughts is a process that involves novel ways of engaging with ongoing creative processes of the world that stream through and thrive all around us.
For us, a major aspect of deliberately working with creative processes involves first putting aside both the logic of active and passive and the logic that thinking is not a worldly embodied and distributed activity. We need to put aside that thinking is an internal brain-centric activity. And then we need to develop practices – activities that can help us gain a sense of how much agency the world has – how much it actively participates in what we might consider our agency and our thinking – as Erin Manning puts it so well, “to perceive in the every day: a thinking of the world’s varied ways of affording itself”
This is not an easy shift. Because of our cultural practices and concepts, we do sense thinking as something happening exclusively in our heads – as something profoundly private and internal. And we do feel that we are the agents directing our thoughts. So, while we can conceptually agree with the argument that thinking is distributed, embodied, external, and emerging from the middle of activity – it is much harder to feel and live this at an embodied level. To both understand this and come to be able to work more effectively creatively takes a serious embodied effort in deliberately developing new practices – new patterns of activity.
We initially developed these “exercises” or subtle shifts in practices for ourselves to accompany our research into affordances. And we would like to share it with you as a set of practices to explore over the summer. These are not profound complex activities, nor are they extra special new secret activities that unlock the mysteries of creativity that we somehow discovered – they are for the most part very mundane activities – activities that most of us already do in one way or another. For us, this is very deliberate. We have tweaked our mundane practices to both actively disclose and give agency to the relational worldly nature of creative thinking practices. And we are sure you are doing similarly.
The purpose of these practices/exercises is not to make one “more” creative; rather they are designed to:
The key is to introduce a set of practices into your life, bit by bit. Wholesale changes in mundane practices are exceedingly hard to sustain (think of your New Year’s resolutions). Read through the activities and pick out key parts in each that both resonate and feel like doable changes, and start there. But ideally, please don’t just focus on one activity – the real benefit comes from the holistic ecosystem of practices. Make these your own – or develop your own entirely following the same questions and curiosities.
The first important caveat in all of this is that this is just a starting point. These are practices that are of use to us, and we feel that they might be of use to you. Perhaps they are not directly of use – but our hope is that they will support you in the ongoing development of your own practices – let them emerge. To this end, we will try to say why we feel each activity is important as we explain it.
The second caveat is that these practices are not directly about your “work”. While these practices can be tied to the introduction of practices in the area you are innovating (your “work”) – but this is a separate set of ecosystemic changes where context will change everything.
These practices might seem too normal, too like things we are already doing, and not different enough to be worth trying. But, their qualitative difference is hidden in the nuance. Please give them a full read and try them out this summer (we tried to give them a sense of adventure). Who knows what changes might emerge?
The final caveat is that we are all busy, and many of us are profoundly overworked both inside and outside of the home by the very real and very exploitative forces of capital. These activities should not feel like an additional chore or burden. Mold and transform them to what can work for you.
Writing is a powerful enactive technology for thinking. The type of writing we are most interested in for this exercise in (enactive) thinking is often called note taking. But this is not that. While we all take notes – jotting down what we hear or read, and this is important – that is only one very small part of this activity. That said, the concept of “note taking” is a good initial frame of reference for this activity.
Using paper and pen to think from the middle is a critical art that involves the creative development of thoughts/concepts via a deeply embodied and extended looping process. The paper and pen are not simply there to record pre-existing thoughts – to simply take notes of what is happening “in the head”. Using paper and pen to write, draw, and diagram – all of which are connected here – work as a fundamental active and creative part of thinking's extension through the body and out onto paper and back through the body via perception. This is a looping – a looping of body-world-activity. Importantly this looping happens in the midst of other activities: reading, listening, washing the dishes, having a coffee, doing laundry, conversing, building, experimenting, walking, etc. And this extended looping activity is the focus of this practice.
Put simply, writing is never a recording of an activity that is actually happening elsewhere (in the head). Writing-drawing-diagramming on paper is a holistic generative activity where new concepts emerge from the middle of body-pen-paper-environment-action.
We can rewrite, from this embodied “note-taking” perspective, the quote from Micheal Anderson:
We are embodied social environment-altering pen and paper users. These 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…”
What is key, and what makes it qualitatively different from note taking is this use of repeated looping – and how far outwards we can extend this looping. One writes to invent a new, different phrase, word, concept, diagrammatic relation via repeated practice. The pen, hand, arm, body, eye movement is inventing the curve and shape of a new concept in repetition. As we draw we feel-see in the moment and adjust in repetition – going over a line, rewriting a word, crossing out and redrawing differently. Pages fill with similar phrases, words, paragraphs, shapes, diagrams, etc. And the feedback effects of looping shift into a feedforward effect as a concept emerges from the middle of the activity to take over and propel the whole in a new direction.
We see this in the sketchbook of artists and writers – pages and pages of similar shoes, bottles, lines, hands, objects mixed with repeated phrases, concepts and terms. This is not an effort to copy or reproduce – but gain a sympathy for – a shared agency with the world and creatively develop something new.
We can get of sense of this practice in the thousands of pages of John Ruskin’s (1819-1900) workbooks from his time in Venice working on the concepts that would become The Stones of Venice:
Let’s get some tools:
Let's start working:
Here are some key aspects and recommendations for this practice of enactive thinking-in-writing:
Have a notebook and pen handy all the time.
On the practice itself:
Diagrams and Repetition:
Playing with new pens from Muji:
Practices of Attuning to far and close:
Remember that one of the goals of developing a practice of working with pen and paper in a book is to fully sense how embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive thinking is – to think in and across an affordance landscape. You should pay close attention to this in a way that can help further its agency in the whole process. This begins in noticing and adjusting:
As you notice new unique outcomes, tweak and adjust practices to give the whole more agency. We can do this by transforming tools, adjusting environments, developing new embodied skills etc. Remember you are making a practice in the doing of the practice.
Enactive thinking needs new habits and spaces in addition to extended writing practice just introduced. Our suggestion is to carve out of each day some time for mundane physical activities that slow you down and expand you outwards. These are most often activities we have given over to independent machines: Coffee making, washing dishes, vacuuming, etc. It is not so important exactly what these activities are, as that they:
The goal is to pull yourself back into actively sensing how you are a whole body actively connected to an environment through tools and activities:
Returning to the wonderful quote from Micheal Anderson is helpful as we explore this next activity:
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).
As an example: of such a practice: I decided that one of these activities for me (Iain) will be to make coffee by hand. Grinding the beans with a cheap hand grinder, boiling the water on the stove, and using a drip filter. I have little interest in a fancy cup of coffee, but I have a real interest in feeling and enacting processes that are overtly embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive – and this process does this quite well. As the water boils I lean against the counter, drawings and writing is on the fridge, my notebook is open on the counter. There is no radio to pull me into other worlds. The loop extends and has a space to repeat in variation – perhaps only as a silent spoken dialog with the self or perhaps with a pen…
It is important not to see any of this as a chore, but as an experiment in exploring enaction. And to use these breaks in your routine as practices that will bleed into and transform your other daily activities (especially in regards to work).
Washing, drying and putting away dishes is another powerful enactive practice. Touching, holding and sensing each object as a distinct thing. The moving around the kitchen to put things away – the reaching, bending, perceiving… I especially enjoy balancing the washed dishes on a cloth on the counter without a dish drying rack. These are all the tools of an activity, carefully balanced and summing up a moment.
Again make sure that your devices are off or away, and that the radio etc. are off. Of course there is nothing wrong with listening to the radio/podcasts etc. or getting on your devices – but you do need to carve out a time for mundane activities that can allow your mind to be as broad as the space and as active as your body.
Make it a habit of using your notebook in these moments. In the kitchen you should see on the fridge bits of text, drawings and diagrams. Leave your notebook open (it should easily be able to lay down flat).
The anti-efficiency aspect is important for a couple of reasons:
Efficiency as an embodied environmental practice has real consequences that ripples through every we do. It radically divides our subjectivity into necessary and unnecessary, it streamlines practices to a narrow focus, it tunes out differences and categorizes the odd, new and different as distractions. It begins at the end (goal) and organizes your day/life/subjectivity backwards. It short circuits repetition, variation, thresholds, novelty… We turn ourselves into a means and not an end…. It works best when we become experientially disembodied…
Efficiency is a deep seated cultural logic that has its place, but takes over too much of our places, habits, practices, tools and forms of embodiment. Think of these mundane practices as islands protected from efficiency’s reach.
These practices can also be extend by doing other physical things that let your thinking practices expand enactively in open ways. These activities could be walking, sewing, cooking, dancing, scrambling, running, cycling, building, baths or showers etc.
We find the most interesting forms of extended attunements to enactive affordances happens in mundane practices with living systems. The practice of fermenting things is one that is most rewarding in these regards: sourdough bread, kombucha, miso making, pickles, country wines, etc. (Noma has a wonderful accessible and experimental cookbook on fermentation that is worth checking out).
Well, that’s it from us for the week! We hope that you will try incorporating some of these activities or aspects of these activities into your daily practices. Reach out and tell us how they are changing you and please share with us your practices.
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