Over the last couple of weeks we have been digging into the ideas of Systems Theory. The goal is to fold these powerful concepts into the students’ creative experiments. Systems Theory offers both a way to understand the underlying processes behind how/why things happen, and gives us pragmatic insights into how we can intervene in larger systems to make change happen. All of which is crucial to actualizing a creative possibility. The students’ introduction into understanding reality from a systems perspective has been the wonderful book on systems by Donella Meadows (Thinking in Systems).
The book begins with this quote, which has become a touchstone for the class:
If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves… Thereʼs so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
Here the stress is on two things: (1) the rationality which produces a system and (2) the pattern of thought that are behind this rationality. Meadows understand these as being part of the paradigm that a system operates within. Or the mindset which comes out of the system. For Meadows these two words are interchangeable.
The question of paradigms/mindsets has become a key one in the class. It is, after all, quite difficult to be creative if we are just using our generic cultural assumptions and mindset unconsciously or uncritically. Especially if we do not recognize that we are doing this. We spent the last couple of classes digging into the underlying mindset(s) and historical rationalities that are part of the deep shaping of our patters of thinking (why we keep creating the same outcomes). The work of Deleuze, Foucault and a number of sociologist have been key to this effort.
Meadows offers something in addition to the these efforts: she lays out a set of very simple rules of thumb to help uncover basic mindsets. In her discussion of the most effective leverage points in a system she offers twelve points. Of these, she considers (1) the rules of a system, (2) the purpose of the system, (3) its self-organization, and (4) the paradigm (mindset) to be the most effective. And she suggests that the key critical stance that we should adopt to activate these leverage points is from a perspective that manages to stand outside of any mindset. Putting aside the good arguments against the possibility of fully doing this, this set — four parts of a system and a critical stance — offer an effective set of tools for the rapid analysis of any system or thing.
We spent last class trying these tools out and developing our own methods utilizing her insights. We started simple — looking at a coin toss — and slowly moved onto examples from mathematics, poetry (Aime Cesare), Evolutionary Biology (Darwinʼs ideas on the mechanisms of evolution), and Anthropology (the decoding of the Mayan Glyphs). This really helped us diagnose many of our implicit default assumptions that we are always using (our basic (contemporary) mindset).
The key difficulty that we keep coming up against is that we imagine we can ignore context. One example from the class: I hold up a large photo of the sky and ask “what does it mean?” Within the prevalent mindset of the class (and I would argue it is our general mindset), students jumped into analyzing the contents of the picture. They skipped right over the question of “what is it? What am I looking at?” — which is to say they just assumed the context was obvious. This led us into an exercise to unpack some of the critical assumptions that we make all the time (when we ignore that meaning, as Wittgenstein said, is use). These are our mental defaults that help us move through things quickly. But they are the very things we need to be most critical and skeptical of. This is doubly true when engaged in developing new ideas, because they are always in tension with a specific context (and might even be something that in another context is the norm). Here is the initial list that we generated (I am just showing the list referring to mindset — we also generated a table about the context of the present):
Matter — Spirit
Form — Content
Body — Mind
Nature — Culture
Real — Artificial
Pure — Corrupt
Space — Time
One — Many
Us — Them
Men — Women
It is very partial and lacking nuance, to be sure. They are all binaries. In each pair, each term has an argument for why it is better (e.g. spirit is pure and good, or matter is real). Each is really two conjoined opposing arguments.The point being not to take a side within the system but to develop a way to leave both sides of a singular mindset behind. (We could turn to the work of Derrida here for a far more nuanced discussion of the operation of binaries, but I am interested in moving quickly and roughly across this terrain).
The way that we began to frame this stepping outside of this binary mindset was to turn to the wonderful aphorism of Whiteheadʼs: “Turn every opposition into a contrast.” Now, one way to understand this would be to see a type of linear contrast (much like how we define politics from left to right). Which gives us the possibility of inhabiting the inbetween. But this method—let us call it the “inbetween strategy”—common to much of postmodern criticism, simply reinforces the binary. The way Whitehead uses the term “contrast” suggests the making of a much larger field in which the binary inhabits but a small zone. And so we began to develop larger fields of possibilities. Topologies to multiply possibilities. This becomes its own exercise (here we drew upon “fitness landscapes” and similar visualization techniques).
This brings me back to the question of paradigms, which is what I would like to focus on in this post. The term, which is so ubiquitous today, has just this last year turned fifty. Its contemporary usage was coined by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (itself a revolutionary book). He was curious about the structure of change (the system of change) within scientific practices (really just Physics — and it must be noted that the translation to other fields is a complex one, in which we should not, as is all too often done in the creativity industry, assume it is a simple one-to-one translation of his terms. Ian Hacking offers some important thoughts on this in his introduction to the book’s fiftieth anniversary reissue — well worth reading).
Kuhn is using the term Paradigm differently than Meadows — less mindset and more framework. But framework does not do it justice, more needs to be said. Kuhn says that science operating in its everyday mode is what he famously terms Normal Science (in which the framework is resolved and stable such that the main activity is puzzle solving). Under Normal Science, knowledge and progress is cumulative. We are building up and enriching a discipline (with revolutions comes a genuine loss of traditions, skills, techniques, and world-views).
Change does not come about via the discovery of a new fact, or the disproving of an old settled truth (which is Popperʼs classical argument). Rather, some individuals come to be bothered by things that are odd, or peculiar within the system — anomalies. These anomalies have always been there. Every structure has many anomalies. Most often we ignore these (noise in the data that we assume will eventually disappear…). But instead someone follows these. At some point they have a hunch of an alternative framework that comes from thinking about the anomalies. This new quasi-framework Kuhn says is more like an example. They develop a powerful example of an alternative way of framing the question. This is what a paradigm is under these conditions of revolution (Kuhn calls the evolving challenge phase to Normal Science: Revolutionary Science). A paradigm is at this moment nothing more than a powerful example. In Kuhnʼs precise language: a fruitful exemplar. It is exemplary, but not (necessarily) true (and logically it cannot be true — that will only come later when the discipline evolves new methods of ascertaining truth).
This is something critical that we miss when we talk about “paradigm change” — we talk about it as if the new paradigm (framework) already pre-exists. As if we just need to park our car in a new parking spot on the other side of the street. But the paradigm begins its life as just an exemplary hunch. A rough alternative that co-evolves with the ensuing crisis that taking seriously the anomalies produces. The paradigm is in the making at this point. We cannot just pull it off the shelf — which is what it often feels like is happening when we talk about all of the many “revolutions” today — from the green revolution to the smart phone revolution. These all talk about paradigm shifts, but they fail because for the most part they are taking a pre-existing position (usually the opposite side of a binary — our mindset question again) as an imagined new paradigm. Kuhn discusses this as one of the most common ways crisis is resolved — by going back to the Normal Science (an example would be the various green revolutions that are forms of “green washing”). It is important to note that those involved in re-normalizing a crisis most often imagine they are furthering a revolution (they are not disingenuous). It is simply very difficult, as the quote from Meadows shows, to shift a system.
The key for me in all of this is the realization that a paradigm emerges iteratively. It begins as a hunch, that becomes an example to follow, and then evolves from there in an open ended — fruitful — manner. This is a theme that I have been returning to often in these blog postings on creativity. We need to recognize the radical nature of emergence (I discuss this in more detail in my earlier post “The Body in Action”). This issue comes up in one of Kuhnʼs most famous points: that the new paradigm and the old paradigm will be incommensurable. A lot has been written on this, and the idea of incommensurability has been taken up by many important thinkers (Foucault, Braudel, Serres to name but a few). While this post is already getting quite long, and so I feel loath to get into this issue in depth, I would like to suggest that incommensurability is not simply a question of frameworks or mindsets but arrises out of the totality of parts of differing modes of being of a world. It is an emergent relational totality of a way of being of a world. Relational Emergence and the ensuing possibility of incommensurability is key to rethink creativity. This logic of emergence and incommensurability are crucially invisible to our basic everyday mindset. Evan Thompson says it quite succulently:
…“nature” does not consist of basic particulars, but FIELDS AND PROCESSES… Everything is process all the way “down” and all the way “up,” and processes are irreducibly relational — they exist only in [emergent] patterns, networks, organizations, configurations or webs. (Evan Thompson)
Before ending — two things: The first is that Kuhn gives us a powerful (possible) checklist of what should be there in the nascent stages of a paradigms evolution (which we can add to Meadows’s rules of thumb):
He says that a good (fruitful) paradigm has three key qualities that emerge early on: (1) it is novel (he says it wonderfully: it must be sufficiently unprecedented), (2) it should link up questions that currently seem as being worlds apart, and (3) it should offer up many new problems (that people feel are worth having).
The second and final thought comes out of a lingering concern that I have with the importance given to mindsets and paradigms. My concern is that this places an inordinate emphasis on mental activity — thinking and theory. We could leave such a discussion of mindsets imagining that creativity is a desk job. But this would be to fall back into the mind/body or spirit/matter set of dualities. Rather, as we find in any research discipline it is the daily entangled activities of acting, doing, making and thinking that count. It is the difficult work of generating experiments. It is the noticing anomalies in the ongoing stream of doing that counts. Ian Hacking says it best:
Most experiments donʼt work most of the time. To ignore this fact is to forget what experimentation is doing. To experiment is to create, produce, refine and stabilize phenomena… But phenomena are hard to produce in any stable way. That is why I spoke of creating and not merely discovering phenomena. That is a long hard task. Or rather there are endless different tasks. There is designing an experiment that might work. There is learning how to make an experiment work. But perhaps the real knack is getting to know when the experiment is working. That is one reason why observation, in the philosophy of science usage of the term, plays a relatively small role in experimental science. Noting and reporting reading of dials — Oxford philosophyʼs picture of experiment — is nothing. Another kind of observation is what counts: the uncanny ability to pick out what is odd, wrong, instructive or distorted in the antics of ones equipment. The experimented is not the “observer” of traditional philosophy of science, but rather the alert and observant person. Only when one has got the equipment running right is one in a position to make and record observations. That is a picnic.
Last week Laurie Anderson came and spent a class with us. For the students it was an ideal moment as we had just finished a series of experimental projects and we were beginning to look at ways these projects “resist the present.”
The class quickly became an open-ended discussion about creativity, student projects and Laurieʼs work. It was quite an amazing few hours of sharing ideas and digging into concepts. Students jumped in and talked about their ideas and Laurie responded with hers. The discussion ranged from:
- how to choose what one should do (Laurie offered her three criteria “(1) is it going to be interesting? (2) is it going to make money? and (3) will it be fun?” (she would settle for two of the three))
- how to avoid becoming a brand
- making work for audiences of dogs
- and to the works of the 13th century philosopher Dogen.
Something that really struck me was her answer to the seemingly innocuous question: How do you write a song? She answered (and I am paraphrasing as best I can) — “every time I approaching writing a new song — I donʼt know how to write a song. I start from scratch with no idea of what a song is.”
I love this approach. For academics and for institutions of higher learning, myself included, even when we are teaching creativity, this is a tough response to hear. It is a response that champions the great neglected art of forgetting. Learning is all about knowing and accumulating knowings so as to be knowledgeable. And knowledge is all about memory — which is the opposite of forgetting. In bringing up knowledge and memory I do not intend to invoke that old dreaded image of pure rote learning. Not at all. But what we do, as teachers, is ask people to learn and remember things. Each class builds upon the next. From the introductory class, year by year, memory by memory to the upper level classes where one is (reasonably) expected to have an enormous amount of knowledge at one’s disposal. A knowledge that forms the breath a depth of a tradition or a discipline. But what of forgetting? Laurieʼs answer suggests that creativity involves a pedagogy of un-learning — of active forgetting. And that this key skill for creativity is in direct conflict with a great deal of what is crucial to much of higher education.
Over the last couple of weeks we have also been reading some of the work of the great french philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Near the end of his life he recorded a series of interviews about various topics. When he was asked about “Culture” this is what he had to say (as paraphrased by Charles Sitvale):
“Deleuze says that he does not live as an “intellectual” or sees himself as cultured because when he sees someone who is cultured he quite simply is terrified, and not necessarily with admiration. He sees “cultured people” as possessing a frightening body of knowledge, knowing everything, able to talk about everything. So, in saying that he’s neither an intellectual, nor cultured, Deleuze understands this in that he claims to have no “reserve knowledge,” no provisional knowledge. Everything that he learns, he does so for a particular task, and once that task is completed, then he forgets everything and has to start again from zero…”
Again the same insistence on starting from zero. It is a difficult lesson. We pride ourselves in our knowledge, in our culture, and our fields. But creativity asks something different of us than “a frightening knowledge of everything”. It requires a rigorous, skilled practice of radical forgetting. And the development of a style of creating that in some sense “knows nothing”.
I think part of the problem is that we are unwilling to be so radical because to get to this state of forgetting is to become stupid. It is to be a fool. Our deep seated habits are part of an educational tradition that is a product of the Enlightenment that has as its goal to free us from superstition and all of our supposed “primitive” stupidities. Our self image as educators and students of higher learning is to be cultured. This is hard to overcome. Who is willing to be shown to be stupid? We might like Laurieʼs answer or Deleuzeʼs answer intellectually, but are we willing to follow them? How far? To zero?
It is no easy task.
Nietzsche wrote a wonderful essay near the end of his short teaching career: “The Utility and Liability of History for Life.” This essay is an extended meditation on the simple fact, as he puts it, “That without forgetting it is utterly impossible to live at all.” He makes this claim in defense of an idea of life as a creative evolving open-ended possibility. For Nietzsche, we need to protect ourselves from a diet too laden with history and knowledge. Creativity, and life, are processes that forget and in forgetting swerve, leap, refuse to repeat, refuse existing identities and evolve in strange sideways iterations that pass through a returning to zero.
I suspect that outside of polite conversation few of us are willing to follow these ideas — forgetting, stupidity and betrayal are too great a cost for most of us. Where are these rewarded in Universities? (I know, I know, we can add all the good jokes in at this point about administrators and how incompetence rises to the top — that Universities really do reward stupidity. But these enjoyable reactionary asides simply lead us away from sticking with the difficulty.) And this is that we, myself included, are unwilling (most of the time) to follow forgetting for many good reasons — who wants to waste time reinventing the wheel every couple of years? Who wants to repeat the worst of history? To put it mildly, there is good reason to refuse forgetting. The new will not necessarily be good, moral, useful — or even that new…
So where does that leave us?
But what if we were never really children of the Enlightenment? What if all knowing (and not just creative processes) involves forgetting and erasure? What if we see knowledge as not the uncovering of what is simply already there but hidden but as itself a creative act? What if knowledge evolves and enlarges a productive darkness as much as it sheds light? What if the techniques of the light will not help us operate in the actuality of the darkness of both knowledge and creativity?
Creative acts — acts of knowledge production — are exaptive (see my first post). To be creative one needs to be a follower and not a leader… We follow an ahistorical force that sweeps us along with it…
This is the question that Laurie brought into our midst — invoking the spirit of Dogen, Nietzsche, and Deleuze. Thank you Laurie — for reminding us all what is at stake and why such pleasure in curiosity and stumbling in the dark matters. Now on to a joyous active forgetting.
Good, as Bruce Mau says, is a know quality — to make something new you cannot focus on if what you are doing is good or not. This is really difficult. We are as individuals and as a culture organized around things being good. We want things that work and ideally work exceptionally well. We are always making things better. Creativity has a hard time in such ecosystems. The new usually does not work and when it does it does not work along the lines of how things worked in the past. There is wonderful saying I remember reading somewhere on this: You cannot make a transistor by trying to make a better vacuum tube. In the creative process we are working in a field situation — things come from everywhere and go off in all sorts of tangents. We roam across these fields following hunches about novel processes. Our everyday lives are far from field situations — they are mostly goal directed — which is to say we are doing the work of the good — which is following a path and improving upon it. A key questions for creativity is how do we set up field situations? How can we roam?
To dig into this question we’ve been watching the movie on the last year of the great experimental restaurant El Bulli (El Bulli: Cooking in Progress) as part of the class. El Bulli is famous for being only open for a few months of the year and that when they are closed they are at their secret research lab inventing new ways of cooking. And over the last couple of decades they have won every possible accolade for their creative cooking. Anyway, it’s a pretty astonishing movie that spends half of its time in their research lab (you can watch it on Netflixs). The big assumption about the lab is that’s where you would assume they are coming up with new dishes for the next season at the restaurant. Ironically, as you watch them do all sorts of things, they seem to do everything but this. They are not making any new dishes. This makes the movie have a very odd tone — cooks who do not cook (dishes). The one major rule they seem to follow in their lab is “no dishes”. The question that I asked my students was “so if they are not making dishes what are they doing in the lab?”
There is a great moment early on in the movie where the team makes an important discovery about how ingredients could relate to each other — everyone is quite excited — and Adria Ferran (the head chef) says this: “That’s our problem, there are thousands of combinations… Now we have a direction, at this moment taste does not matter, we are looking for something magical and if it opens a new path”. That’s it in a nutshell — they are spending so many months looking for new paths — and at that moment it does not matter if it tastes good. Later they collect the most promising paths (magic) and take them to the restaurant. And only after it opens for the new season do they start to assemble these paths via a new set of experiments into dishes that taste good. Two things strike me immediately (1) you need to set up negative rules to refuse certain habits (no dishes, not about taste) for magic to happen and (2) the good will come last — a new good emerges from the process (the question will be are we ready to accept it and at what cost). A brilliant movie, and a brilliant restaurant.
Well, in the class we have been taking all of these ideas and doing a series of experiments with them. Here is one of them. It is a cooking game that makes visible how we push things towards the good (and how we can alter these habits). It also allows new techniques, flavors, and processes to emerge — Adria’s pathways. These pathways (which are hard to see directly in these recipes) are what we are now experimenting with. Below you will find first the assignment (try it out and report back). Then there are three examples. For us the key was not: are these good dishes or are they really new dishes? The key was could we find novel pathways anywhere in the process and then how would we follow these? Anyway — see for yourself:
Making a Meal (Exaptively)
“A Creator who isn’t grabbed around the throat by a set of impossibilities is no creator. A creator is someone who creates their own impossibilities, and thereby creates possibilities” Gilles Deleuze.
OK — this assignment should be a lot of fun, and be quite a challenge — push yourself, it will be worth it. It is to make a meal trying out a number of the ideas that we have discussed in class. You will need to follow the rules of this game (the impossibilities) and you will need to be as inventive as possible (to make the new possibilities). I will do the same exercise and we share them next week. For inspiration watch: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress on Netflixs. Please don’t wait for the last minute to do this — do it this weekend so you have time to document and write up. And if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to email me.
Randomly choose any page from any of the previous homework assignments and print it out. (Make sure that the page has words that cover the whole page).
Neatly cut this page in quarters.
Label each quarter: (1) Ingredients, (2) technique, (3) equipment, (4) style
Now for each quadrant circle the four words closest to the corners.
Choose the longest word from each list.
You now should have four words, each of which corresponds to Ingredients, technique, equipment, and style.
Use the ingredient word to shop for ingredients: each letter of the word should correspond to an ingredient. For example if my word is “including” I will need to get 9 ingredients because there are nine letters in “including”. I would need an ingredient that begins with the letter “I” and another one with an “n” and so on. take this word to a store and find a method to discover the ingredients.
Now you will do the same for the cooking techniques you will need to use. Each letter will represent a technique (such as frying, poaching, steaming, etc.). For example if your word is “bigger” then you will need six techniques, “B” could be boil, “I” could be ignite, “G” could be grate and so on.
Now do the same for equipment (pots, pans, spoons, knives, whisk etc.). Use only what your word gives you.
For “style” take your word and find the word ten before it in a dictionary and use this as the inspiration for your style of the whole meal.
Document each step of the way. Write out the recipe. Photograph the process and the final product. And Enjoy! Please email these to me.
Here are three of our cooking experiments:
1. Recipe: Dear Approval Director Winter
Eight tbsps of all purpose flour
Add half cup of almond milk to the all purpose flour
Put the apricots under warm water to wash and soften them
Preheat oven to 450 degrees
Regular sugar should be added to mixture/vanilla extra (optional)
Overtop the cake mixture, lay out the apricots in your desired formation
Veerily apply a simple syrup overtop the apricots
Allow ten minutes for cake to cool
Let yourself feast!
Icing pen (optional)
Electric hand mixer
Rack to cool
Wearily place pieces of the cake onto small plates
Ice sides of cake if desired
Neatly powder sugar over the cake
Tether mint together and set on plate next to the shortcake
Experiment with drizzling caramel sauce overtop the apricots, or adding sliced pears to the cake.
Ready to serve!
2. Recipe: Around After Seeing Which
a = avocado, r = rice, o = oregano, u = urgelia cheese, n = nuggets and d = dough
a = amandine, which is a method of cooking involving the use of almonds. For f = fried, t = thickening, which is basically a method of making the food thicken. For e = en papillote, which is a method of cooking in which the food is put into a folded pouch and r = roast
s = spoon, e = electric oven, e = electric frying pan, i= igniter, n = nutcracker and g = grill
The style I used for my word “which” after I looked it up in the dictionary for inspiration was a Chinese style meal, which means that I will be preparing the meal similar as if they were Chinese dumplings
3. Recipe: Sometimes Without Memory Clay
Saute, Oxidize, Marinade, Extract, Toast, Infuse (m,e,s — ignore repeated letters)
Watercress, (i — missed), Tofu, (Dried) Herring, Onion, (U — missing), Tempura
Masher, Egg Beater, Oven, Roasting Pan (m — repeat, y — missing)
Onions saute and then toast in oven using oil from Herrings
Mash and Extract: Watercress + Herrings + Oil (use food processor)
Marinade/Infuse/Oxidize: Tofu in Herring + Watercress Paste
Beat (Egg Beater): Tempura
Clay cooking: Harden outside
Clay presentation: Scattered Blocks + debris
It is the mid-point of the class. I thought I would share some of the ideas that keep appearing in the class. Perhaps it is too much to say they are “rules” — but they are pragmatic things to consider none-the-less. Here they are:
Provisional List to Consider for Creative Processes:
In the beginning was the act (Wittgenstein).
This is about creation and the making of the new — what we often call creativity for the lack of a better term. “Novelty.”
The new, creation and creativity can be over valued. Much of what is most interesting and important in life is not radically new.
The new should be approached with an experimental caution. To make great art (or anything else) does not require radical creativity, so let us not fetishize this.
The new will not be understandable when it first appears.
The new will be non-cognitive and non-conceptual when it first emerges.
Come in third. The first time something new happens it is too unique to even be seen. The second time something new happens it is an echo — a fleeting unstable double. But it is only when something happens for a third time that it can be recognized. Be there.
Be a follower and not a leader. Follow the odd, unusual, perplexing.
Donʼt judge good or bad, that comes later — just follow.
Pay attention not to “what it is” but to “what can it do.”
Curiosity curiosity curiosity — always ask of things and events — what can they do? What else can they do? And what else can they do?
Produce variations then select then repeat: multiplicity — selection — multiplicity — selection…
Do it again differently. And then do it again differently. Then see the patterns, and frameworks now step outside of these and do it again.
Creativity = constraints. Freedom = constraints. Actively producing constraints = being creative.
Donʼt break all the rules but develop new rules that break the old framework.
Creativity is not just craziness all the time. All activities have phases. You will need to act differently in different phases. Be disciplined about this.
Paradox: only dumb people are capable of doing something new, and only smart people can recognize that they have done something new. Become both dumb and smart all at once.
Creation is about processes. Processes are about procedures and environments. To make something new is to make a series of new processes — which is to say a series of new environments and procedures. Another way to talk about environments and procedures is via ecosystems. Ecosystems consist of environments, objects, agents, habits, etc…
Everything is collective. Become actively collective and every part equally active.
Things are relations.
- We are spread out and contain multiplicities.
All reality always involves subjectivity — it is always happening to someone or something (many things!).
A continuous moving feeling responding thinking process. responding, changing, responding, changing, responding changing…
If something is boring after a minute, do it for five, if it is still boring do it for ten, eventually it will stop being boring. (John Cage)
We sense/feel overallness first, not the details.
The properties of the world (hard, soft, liquid…) are always relational — they are for something or someone.
Perceptions are not images in our heads. They are actions done by our bodies engaged in purposeful action out in the world.
We make our environments (co-make), and not just adapt.
Technology is at the heart of being human. No technology no human.
We are extended far into what we imagine to be outside of ourselves.
Meaning comes from doing. ʻKnow howʼ leads to ʻknow whatʼ. Most knowing is not cognitive it only appears in embodied actions.
Meaning is use (Wittgenstein). Meaning is relational and contextual. (Even when you work alone art is not a solitary practice).
Begin in the world and not in your head.
Donʼt trust that your spontaneous actions come from you alone.
The world is what is done — this is ongoing — what is doing.
Change begins with this reality: Welcome the whatever — its constraints: history, present functions, and existing structures. You cannot start where you want — begin where you are now. And know the present experimentally.
There is no stationary point outside of the world to contemplate the world. There is no neutral place for you to contemplate your next move, develop a history or critique an existing system. To interpret is to act, to act is to change (spurse). You are of a world in the making.
Work with a real world. Real change needs a real world. This is different from ideas. Systems, structures, infrastructures, systems of circulation, new words, bodies, materialities, postures, habits, economies…
Orient practices to a future. One makes for a people still to come — and that includes you. ʻYouʼ do not pre-exist what you do — you are an outcome of what is happening.
- Make a new life. In order to make new art you need to work on new ways of living — new ways of “being-of-the-world.”
You never work alone. When creation works it is “disclosing” new modes of being-of-the-world.
Develop new habits first. Meaning making = Habit making (body in world). Habit + Routine = trope (tropism) — this is transformed in movement (Erin Manning).
Care for events (ecologies, systems).
Construct flexible frameworks. Be evolving a type of paradigm or over arching logic.
Treat all mediators as modulators.
Be OK with ramshackle constructions.
The medium is the message. The medium is the massage.
Donʼt fall for the illusion of content, information or communication (see rules 1 & 2).
Ideas come from actions. Thinking comes from doing. There is no waiting for an idea to come nor is there a divide between theory and practice. There is only doing.
All life is lived abstractly — it selects from too much — ““”less is abstraction”&rdquo”; (the real meaning of “less is more”).
The trick with abstraction is to push it beyond its limits.
Donʼt solve problems before you create them.
Problems donʼt pre-exist in some objective realm. They must be made. The question is: what is the problem that is worth having?
Experiments donʼt work most of the time. You will not know the purpose at the beginning of the experiment.
Actively forget. To be creative it is as important to forget as to know.
Develop new languages, new processes, new procedures.
Treat everything as process.
Treat everything as a field.
The new happens sequentially, sideways and via emergence
Causality is stranger than you think.
The origin of something is not its essence, it is just what it was.
Ignore stories of purpose and the proper ends/uses of things — “purpose is porpoise” (BP Nichols).
Purpose is everything that can grab a hold of something.
Form is excessive. Form is not function.
Be done with the judgement of good. For example: this is not working therefore it is bad. Because it is bad it is evil. Judgements are experiments not final dismissals.
Turn every opposition into a contrast
Pluralize and remove the capitals: Art becomes arts, Science becomes sciences, Nature becomes natures, etc. Be generous.
Resist the present — you are going to have to know what it is.
Avoid the confirmation bias.
Diagnose your biases, frameworks and worldviews. These will not all be cognitive — many will be in how you walk or sit.
Beauty happens — it is an encounter.
Fear and Creativity — we think afraid of being judged for doing something new but really we are afraid of the level of betrayal that the new involves.
Things (actions) donʼt happen to you — they happen to your actions — actions upon actions (force upon force).
Every meeting is a meeting open to radical change.
We inhabit a world stuffed full of an ever expanding set of “creatives” arising as fast as the marketing and managerial gurus of the self innovation branding industry can push them out. We now have the “creative class,” the “cultural creatives,” “digital creatives,” and “productive creatives,” amongst others. Given this riot of possibilities, I thought it might prove useful to backtrack into creativity’s history to help us understand some of the possible trajectories of creativity today.
To some, I hope, it will come as a shock, given our current boisterous profusion of creatives, that the word creativity is of very recent coinage. As absolutely crazy as it sounds, “Creativity” first shows up only in 1927.
Why so long in developing?
Why so long in developing? Just to be clear, it is not that we just didn’t have a word for what people had always understood they were doing and thinking about since the beginning of time when they made things. The modern idea of creativity did not exist (at least in the European tradition) until the early twentieth century. J. S. Bach was not trying to be creative, nor was Michelangelo. They were trying to develop a way of expressing the fundamental truth about reality. They understood this goal, and their actions, as being fundamentally conservative acts. What we might hastily and anachronistically term creativity was on their part a desire to always go deeper towards the full uncovering and expressing a fixed, singular, stable, and most importantly preexisting truth. We see this clearly in the terms they used to describe their actions. They spoke of return, renewal and even revolution. These are all ideas of that stress both stasis and conservation, while implying a movement away from (misguided) innovations and a turning back to towards the original source. The major developments of the European tradition are events that were framed by the participants as part of an arduous journey to return to the original truth that had been lost by generations who strayed from the ideal path. Within this orientation to a fixed truth ideas of novelty and creativity had no place. This was because general understanding of creativity and creation within the European tradition was that god alone could create. The production of the genuinely new was a power reserved for god, and was an act carried out only once at the beginning of time. And in relation to this singular act of god’s creation the role of humans was to reveal this truth and show it in all of its perfect glory. This meant that nothing truly new could exist at the level of human action, and that reality was a playing out of god’s original foundational creative act. Without generalizing too much we could say the whole of the history of European Tradition is metaphysically anti-creative.
While this is a strong claim and a full understanding of these ideas that make up our history is critical, I’d like to swerve away from continuing to dig into this history and pose a question: Does the massive rise of interest in an individual’s creative capacities, and all of the talk about creatives actually mean that we are now shifting our model of reality away from our historical conservative metaphysical models?
I ask this because I would hypothesize, that while we are a culture quite comfortable with innovations, and innovators we are not one that is ok with the idea that reality itself is creative. What I mean by reality being creative is that it is not the playing out of a set of fixed initial conditions or laws but that reality involves the continuous emergence of the new. A creative reality is one that is ever evolving in a manner that generates genuinely new objects, regularities and even laws. While this is a view developed by contemporary fields such as Complexity Science it is not in any way central to most of our public discourse about reality or creativity. If anything, it would appear that our continued cultural obsession, for example, in pursuing a Theory of Everything (TOE), at the cost of trillions of dollars, makes it clear that the truth of reality for our culture at large is still is something fixed, essential, and outside of the world of change. I bring up The Theory of Everything project as an example because its radical reductionist spirit is such a clear example of our classical christian conservative metaphysics transposed into a scientific research program. The claim is that if we can find The building blocks of reality we can understand everything — or as Steven Hawking’s puts it “if we do discover a complete theory [of everything]… we would know the mind of God.” This vision of reality is based on a conceptual model that is, in its essential features, the same as the original fusion of Greek and Jewish thought that gave us a god, who stood outside of creation, could create something from nothing, and made the many from the one. Ultimately it is a vision that ask of us yet again to perform the most conservative of actions: read the mind of god.
This is why the year 1927 is so interesting. The wonderful term “Creativity” first comes into being that year as a concept developed by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. What Whitehead was doing while coining the term was attempting to produce a philosophical system that could come to terms with the reality of ceaselessly creative universe irreducible to any foundational act. For Whitehead creativity was to be the foundational concept of a new metaphysics. It was a metaphysics in which truth would be conditioned, reality would be a process evolving into novelty, and that “natures” (such as human nature) are emergent, dynamic and relational. It was a worldview in which becoming would replace being. And the age old question: “why something and not nothing?” would lose its centrality to a more pressing question: “how does novelty emerge?” Unfortunately much of twentieth century philosophy did not follow thisadventure (Whitehead’s wonderful term), as it wandered into the realms of logical syllogisms, celebrating Being, and the endless possibilities of deconstructing all metaphysics. And so ended the first great attempt to develop a philosophy of creativity and a metaphysics of creativity.
Given that this is our 3000 year history, I would suggest that no discipline has any real long standing hold over this more fundamental idea of creativity. This is, to be blunt, because creativity has simply not had a role in the development of the western tradition. Art, while currently actively claiming the role as champion of individual creative freedom, is not a discipline that has been historically focused on creativity. The seeming “natural” fit between art and creativity is something that evaporates on closer examination. I am not arguing that artists (like many others in a myriad of contemporary fields) are not innovators, far from it, but let us not conflate innovation with creativity. We need to resist performing a deeply anachronistic violence by conflating a discipline with our current interests, values and concepts. If anything the study of the metaphysics of creativity today is only found in widely scattered pockets straddling multiple disciplines: complexity science, developmental systems theory, emergence theory, Object Oriented Ontology, Process Philosophy, and the works of thinkers such as Simondon, Stengers, Latour, Kauffman and Deleuze (to make a very quick limited list).
I’d like to end this provocation with another question: What are we missing when the cultural conversation on creativity is nearly exclusively focused on the development of creatives and the individual creative process? Now, just to be clear, there is nothing this argument to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with an interest in developing individual creativity. Far from it, I would argue it is a necessary part of a contemporary education. But not because it helps develop a class of creatives and a more flexible labor force (this is something we need to be cautious about). Rather it could become part of an education geared towards engaging with the radically creative nature of reality. Today, in a world faced with very novel changes and challenges that fit into none of our neat categories (that evolved out of a metaphysics of stasis) we need to participate in the adventures of creativity. This is a far larger and far more complex adventure — full of novel possibilities, alliances and radical shifts in who we are, what we research, and what we are becoming — than we might be allowing for…
(For this week’s blog post, here are a few questions and some possible ways to answer them.)
What stops us from being creative?
Well, because we are afraid.
Afraid of what?
Of failing.Or of being seen to fail?
Why are we afraid to be seen to fail?
Because we have come to like the rewards of being successful.
And what is successful?
Success is something measurable, knowable and concrete. So we focus on what can be clearly known, and measured. We avoid the indeterminate, vague or merely curious.
There are no rewards for the vague, no judgement can be applied and so it cannot be determined if we are good, better, or much better than the rest.
What happens then?
Our identity is caught up in being good and being seen to be good. So now we cannot fail — or be seen to fail, because we would be shown to be like everyone else — failures.
Where did we learn this?
The obvious answer is at school. School teaches how to be afraid. how to judge right and wrong, good and bad.
Right and wrong on what scale?
A known pre-existing scale of reason and truth. Could be anything.
So, how do we get out of this?
We have to unlearn our habits of fear and judgement.
How do we do this?
We go back to when where we not afraid? Before we learnt how to be afraid?
When was this?
So the answer to being creative is to go back to when we where in kindergarten? Why?
Because we where still curious, pure, and naive?
What other story does this story remind one of?
The Garden of Eden and The Fall?
What model do these stories have in common?
We need to return and it is impossible to return?
Well it is a type of argument that proposes a state that we need to reach to be creative, but we cannot reach, and thus we are caught in a double bind and will always fail.
What kind of judgement is this?
So we need salvation, or a new prophet to become creative?
It seems so…
Could this model be wrong?
Well, let us keep that we have a habit of being afraid. But try ditching the idea that we need to go back to an origin — an impossible origin.
OK, so what are we afraid of when we try to be creative?
Really? Of what?
The present, our values, our history… and for what?
So creativity is destructive?
Yes, deeply so — and worse it is forgetful…
Could we judge creativity based on how destructive and forgetful it is?
Sure, with the coming of the car the horse and everything related to it becomes beside the point.
We are talking about quite violent processes?
Think civil rights, feminism, the automobile — Whitehead, the philosopher who coined the word creativity put it something like this: The major creative advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur.
Fear seems appropriate then. Or at the very least to be expected.
Yes, but “caution” is perhaps better state.
Forgetful Caution — that seems like quite an absurd mix?
How about: Naive, experimental, forgetful caution that actually ruptures something?
To be willing, as Samuel Beckett says, to fail as none dare fail?
Why not, that is going to do something fun.
Last week in the Creative Thinking class, Liz Lerman led an exceptional workshop focusing in on the body in action as a site of thinking. The class begins, we all stand in a circle, and Liz asks for one person to step forward and do something. Someone steps forward and walks ten feet. Then she asks some to copy this, they do. Then she asks for another person to copy this and someone does. After a few more rounds of this she asks the circle: so what model of copying is being used? Thousands of years of debates about the status of representation, the original and the copy are staged in this moment. That was the first five minutes. Remarkable.
In the workshop in moments like this, models of action and concepts were spontaneously emerging. Often the response is that of course this happened, because these ideas are in us. We need these kinds of workshops to free us to let what is really in us out. Now, I would like to take a slight detour from this workshop (i will come back to it) to look at how we frame the question: where does creativity come from? I am interested in how we implicitly frame the way to answer this question by the use of this word: in. Both that the answer is in us or in anything at all. Do we need to frame our answer in this manner? Is everything in something? Is creativity the type of thing that it could even be in something?
Here is a story that gets at this (it is one that I so often tell that I have no idea where it originated). Let me begin it with a simple question, and no this is not a trick question, no matter what it sounds like. Is the water sitting in a swimming pool on a warm summer day liquid or solid? Let’s say you said liquid, how would we know? Well, we could dip our hands into the water and feel its qualities, and thus confirm it is a liquid. Perhaps we jump in at this point. Imagine that we are skilled enough and we go up and jump off the ten meter board, all is fine and the waterʼs qualities slow down our descent and we emerge delighted and unharmed. But now imagine that this is a very special diving board and we could climb up hundreds of feet and we dive into the very same pool. Are we meeting a liquid or a solid? The outcome to us will be the same as hitting concrete. We are lucky if we survive. So: same water, same pool, same temperature, same body, just a different distance and a very different quality emerges.
Now just for variety, let us add another character into the equation. On that summer day a Water-strider, a small insect that can walk on water, finds it way onto our pool. Now for the water-strider the question of liquid or solid is moot, it is interested the properties of surface tension. Could we add this to my original question: is this water at this very moment a liquid, solid or a tensile surface? (Obviously we could continue adding such examples (e.g. viruses bounced around in brownian motion)). The answer would have to be yes: at this moment the water is (1) liquid, (2) not liquid and rather solid, and (3) neither rather it is a tensile surface.
OK, so what does this story tell us about where the quality of liquidness resides? Is it in the water? The short answer would be no. The quality is changing when nothing in the water changes, so it cannot be in the water. But then where is it? Is it in the diver? It is not there either for a similar reason. So what can we say? Is it not in anything? Then where is it? Could we say that it is a quality that emerges from a constellation of things happening in an organized manner? Thus, “Liquidness” emerges across this event of diving. Liquidness is a relation and not a thing. If we change the parts or the pattern the relation changes and different qualities emerge. Is this to say anything could emerge? Could I just decide water is brittle? No. This is not an argument for relativism. But could I alter the field and the processes to make such a quality possibly emerge? Sure, it is possible, but it would only emerge through action in the world. The simple, and often very perplexing fact is that relations are real properties of the world, that relations are dynamic and emergent properties, and the world is not simply composed of things in things all the way down till we get to the most basic things the universe is composed of: strings.
How far could we take such an argument? Evan Thompson, in Mind in Life, puts it this way:
In the context of contemporary science… “nature” does not consist of basic particulars, but fields and processes… there is no bottom level of basic particulars with intrinsic properties that upwardly determines everything else. Everything is process all the way “down” and all the way “up,” and processes are irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations, or webs… (pp. 440-1. My italics)
What does this tell us about creativity? What happens if we move to framing our questions about creativity to relational and emergent terms? How can our practices teaching and learning creativity been seen to be pattern seeking rather than essence seeking? Can we begin in the middle and stay in the middle with our thinking and doing? Creativity in the co-making of fields and processes?
This brings me back to day two of the class: working with our bodies. A speculation: it is through our bodies-in-action that we easily sense relations. Diving, for example, is always a testing, a pushing, an evolving of a relational whole. What happens if I twist my body this way? What happens if I go higher? What happens if the pool is deeper, or the board stiffer? We are working across a field, and we are evolving processes (we usually call them techniques and habits). It is not that this practices does not involve thinking or ideas, far from it, one is having ideas all the time, but these are worldly ideas, they are part of sensing between and across practices: “I sense that the trampoline could alter diving. What if I link the trampoline to diving could I change how we train our bodies to take positions?” (and so on…)
This is what I sensed happening over the course of the workshop with Liz Lerman. We as a group where not being ask to connect with our bodies as a font of creativity. We where experimenting with becoming relationally aware beings.
This week we will be continuing this with a second workshop led by Liz.
Some notes: After week one I asked the students to look up Daniel Kish, and watch the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys and to diagram the similarities between these stories and the evolution of the wing, and after last week they took a look at the movie: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, it is a powerful story of our relational beingness.
As we rev our engines for this semester’s iteration of the Creative Thinking course, we’ll share some of the materials and discussion topics here. A good place to start is this list of “rules,” originally aimed at art students, but applicable to anyone, anywhere. Maria Popova of Brainpickings provides the backstory:
Buried in various corners of the web is a beautiful and poignant list titled Some Rules for Students and Teachers, attributed to John Cage, who passed away twenty years ago this week. The list, however, originates from celebrated artist and educator Sister Corita Kent and was created as part of a project for a class she taught in 1967-1968. It was subsequently appropriated as the official art department rules at the college of LA’s Immaculate Heart Convent, her alma mater, but was commonly popularized by Cage, whom the tenth rule cites directly. Legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s longtime partner and the love of his life, kept a copy of it in the studio where his company rehearsed until his death.
What would you add?
Note: This post is the first in a weekly series, written by Iain Kerr, the instructor of the Spring 2013 Creative Thinking class at Montclair State. He’ll be writing here weekly, in response to class discussions and activities.
This saying has always perplexed me — how does form follow function? If form follows function then where is function coming from that something is following it? This golden rule of design strikes me as being more a fantasy than having much to do with paying attention to how things come about or even a hallmark of “good design.” But why bring this up at all? Some background, when I mentioned to a colleague that this semester I would be teaching a class called Creative Thinking at Montclair State University and that Iʼd draw upon examples from nature, they thought that I should say something about the importance of this rule. I was not sure what to say at the time but when I was asked to also contribute to this blog I thought that this would be a good place to begin thinking about creative thinking. What does form follows function mean and why does it come up in relation to creativity?
The phrase “form follows function” comes from the early modernist architect Louis Sullivan who used it as the fundamental principal underlying all reality. Here is how he puts it in 1896:
“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression, That form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Of course we cannot give Sullivan the entire credit (or blame) for such a rule, it is less something that Sullivan uniquely dreamed up but an exemplar of a (now) prevailing understanding of reality. This pervading law as Sullivan termed it, acts with a moral authority fusing both how reality in general works and how we should approach creating things. It is part of the sentiment that led to both the ideas that “less is more” and that “ornament is a crime”. As an argument about reality and creativity in general is it true? Is this really the “pervading law of all things organic and inorganic?”
The wing is good an example of form following function as one could get. Every part of the wing from hollow bones to spiked feathers works to make flight possible. Just watch a Barn Swallow swooping, darting and gliding for a few minutes to be convinced of this. But thatʼs part of the problem, in making such an observation I am starting at the end with an established form (the wing) and an established function (flight), to explain how something came about. But if starting at the end is of little help, how did this situation come about? How was the wing created?
Well, this is basically where I started on the first day of class:
What is the use of half a wing? This is the deceptively simple question that George Mivart asked Charles Darwin upon reading Origin of Species in the 1860ʼs. What advantage is half a wing? Mivart posed this question as a way to frame a radical critique of Darwinʼs logic of evolution — for surely to get to a wing you have to pass through a stage where you have half a wing — which is to say that you, as the poor creature with such an unfortunate appendage, are stuck with a useless ungainly protuberance that you will drag around until you get eaten. Even worse you would be in this in-between state for millions of years. And if this was not enough, on top of it all how could a creature “know” that in a few million years flying would be such a great thing that it is “worth” getting eaten for generation after generation to finally posses a wing? Imagine trying to explain that to your kids. So how could would a wing emerge by trying to follow its function? How could anything new emerge? Clearly something is awry with this way of thinking about it. Form cannot follow function that blindly that far into an unknowable future.
So what is the advantage of half a wing? This simple deeply perplexing question lead Darwin to his most important and radical idea about creation and creativity. It is an understanding of change that challenges the whole of the Newtonian atomistic and mechanical paradigm. But that is getting ahead of the story. First, the solution to the half wing mystery: The wing was never and is never a “wing”. There was never “half” a wing because there never was a “wing”. OK? Well, this is a bit opaque and circular for an argument. But what I mean by all of these scare quotes is that the wing as a thing did not evolve from the beginning to be a “flying wing” (if this is what we understand by “wing”). So the thing that looked like a “wing” was not a “wing” but something quite different. Notice when we say wing we are conflating a current purpose and with the thing itself (e.g. flight and wing). But the wings “purpose” is never just one thing. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is everything that it helps make possible? Flight is just one of the many many things that wings are good for. The wing help Penguins swim and leap, Ostriches run and maneuver at high speeds, and give the African Black Heron a shade producing umbrella that attracts fish, and allows the Barn Swallow to fly.
But, this might sound slightly disingenuous — for one could obviously and easily argue that these are secondary effects of having wings for flight. The real reason for the wing is to fly and these other uses for Penguins, Ostriches and Herons are just happy secondary accidents of adapting a wing for flight. Now, this is correct, the Penguin, Ostrich and Heron are tweaking a wing designed for flight for other purposes. But it turns out that is precisely how the wing came about in the first place — the flying wing was also a happy accident in a long line of happy accidents that got tweaked for flight.
To look at this letʼs wind the clock back over 200 million years ago to when dinosaurs first developed feathers. We find the first proto-feathers (hollow pointy tubes) tens of millions of years before we find examples of feathered flying dinosaurs (those critters we now call birds). These first feathers are speculated to have first emerged as a way to remove and sequester excess minerals from the body. Being long hollow filaments whose function was to sequester minerals they had the unintended effect of storing heat effectively. This afforded dinosaurs the possibility of moving into and shaping new environments (this is important to note — creatures do not simply respond to external environmental stimuli, they are always co-shaping their environment all with all the other beings that make it up). And so these filaments got more numerous, longer and larger and in doing so changed the look of the body. Recently it was discovered that even the ancestor of the beloved T Rex was covered in a down like feathery coating, which raises the visually shocking possibility of a feathery T Rex. Unsurprisingly all sorts of dinosaurs developed feathers as feathers allowed for new forms of sexual display, thermoregulation and protection from being eaten. It is now speculated that most dinosaurs had feathers of some kind (sorry Jurassic Park Fans — it just turns out that most rock that fossils have been found in do not preserve such fine details). Feathers quickly evolved from being single filaments to being branched, long and colorful and began to show up in various patterns on bodies, from all over, to along the spine, to along the limbs.
It is this distribution of big feathers along the limbs that interest us — for when we see big feathers along an arm or leg we (now) see “wings”. So what was the unintended consequences of having big feathers on ones arms? Was it flight? No. We can see from looking at these early winged creatureʼs bodies that they neither had the muscles nor the bone structure for flight or even gliding. So what where they up to while looking like birds? Well wings do lots of things really well, they help with running, keeping more eggs warm and many other tasks now lost to history.
Helping keep eggs warm on nests in particular seems to promote a good spread of the wing (big wings means you can keep more eggs warm than just sitting one one egg as a naked chicken might). So how did an egg warming system becomes a flying system? (It is important to say at this point in evolutionary history there was no reason that wings needed to evolve into a flying system and in many many branches of feathered and winged dinosaurs they did not). A couple more things to note: at this period mammals begin to show up — which is to say little four legged furry critters, and the world had become increasingly populated with trees. One of the astonishing consequences of a wing that develops to keep eggs warm is that it can help a creature born with very long back legs and short stubby arms run up a tree or other steep slope without toppling over backwards. Little furry mammals with four even legs can scurry up trees to escape no problem, but not so for a dinosaur. But, it turns out that when a small dinosaur flaps its egg warming devices in chase while running up a tree these wings do not help lift it up but rather they help push its back legs into the tree and so it can run upward without toppling over! Now once up a tree these egg warming tree running appendages will be discovered to make falling a little more gentle and appealing. And so begins a very new adventure as a whole world opens up…
This is quite an astonishing story and one that is happening all the time, it is how eyes evolved, the ear and most everything else. In evolutionary science this process is called exaptation and is a key mechanism for the production of novelty (creativity). Well, back to the initial question: what is form following? If by following we mean that the purpose or function already exists and the form is following this then it is an impossibly wrong statement. For what would it mean to imagine that “flight via wings” pre-existed its realization? This was never the purpose of the wing. Nor could we separate this purpose from the emergence of a new environment of trees, mammals, eggs and much more. The purpose/function “flight” only came into being as a function the moment that it did as an actuality (which is to say as a form). While in hindsight it appear obvious and could be made to seem like a linear process, the reality is that it could not have been predicted looking at a dinosaur sitting on some eggs any more than we can now predict all what the wing will become next.
The misplaced concreteness of seeing a wing as its definition is an error of placing the definition inside, in the deep essence, of the wing rather than seeing this purpose as an outcome and possibility of a set of things, habits and environments. Purpose/function is no more in anything than the man is in the moon. But this does not mean it is an illusion either, it is simply distributed, held across a web, as the achievement of this web of dynamic things, practices, and environments.
But does this mean it is not following something? If in this case, quite literally, no one is leading (no one designed the wing), the sense one gets is of following. This is the interesting thing and perhaps why the whole phrase has stuck around for so long. It does seem that the event of the filament is following something. I would suggest that novelty (or the new) is following itself. Now this sounds paradoxical but as environments, habits and things meet something totally outside of prediction is emerging. And this emergent quality, that is not understandable via reductionism, is following itself into becoming.
What does this reveal about creative thinking? Well here are some of the many astonishing things that interest me:
that the most innovative creations need no maker,
that novelty cannot be thought in advance — it can only be found in doing,
that novelty happens through a process of repetitive sideways movements,
it involves ignoring purpose,
creativity is a form of betrayal,
novelty is irreducible to prestateable laws,
and perhaps most importantly we are following what does not exist into existence via a process full of many twists, turns and perplexing leaps as it emerges.
Here’s a wonderful video from NPR Music, following David Byrne and St. Vincent as they prepare to go out on tour with their new album. Working with choreographer Annie-B Parson (Big Dance Theater), they created a live performance that takes their casual movements and elevates them to a fully-realized “show.” Check it out!