Killing Creativity

Part of the problem with creativity, and what’s killing creativity, is the flattening of the distinction between creativity and innovation. Earlier this month, Newsweek, a magazine in its financial death throes, made a tiny stir in the business innovation community over “The Creativity Crisis.” Yet, fundamentally, the article itself betrayed an absolute misunderstanding of what it means to create. Creativity is not a “product,” not just the raw material used to stoke a commercialization engine. It’s not a natural resource like coal or fresh water. The typical rhetoric around creativity assumes an output always already reduced to nothing but instrumentality. Destroyed in this flattening is any distinction between the recombination of elements, and incremental improvement, and creativity as the true bringing into being.

Throughout the Newsweek article, it’s creativity as consumption, the “creativity” of buying a cake mix and adding an extra egg. This sense pervades wide swaths of the creativity porn one finds among consultants and bloggers looking to give you “Ten Ways To Be More Creative Now” and the like. All of that babble of people selling ways to be more creative (like being more popular, more attractive, a better housewife, a better employee) just pulls us further away from what it means to make, to make things out of the texture of being, to go into being and bring something back. Perhaps the “crisis” merely comes from the fact that such false creativity is running out of things to cut and paste, with only so many remakes to make, and only so many iterations of derivative to sell.

In short, these so-called creativities are merely creativizations of mediatized components. If only they actually were in “crisis!” The notion behind them takes utterly unthoughtfully at face value what Heidegger calls the “enframing” (Ge-stell) of the technological, reducing all beings to nothing other than their availability and manipulability. Such a view drags creativity into the realm where “everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for future ordering.” And further, again, via Heidegger, “radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth.”

There is, as always, room in the market for innovation; raw materials and prior works all equally veins to tap for economic growth. But to muddy the issue of fading innovation with a sloppy view of creativity—that serves no end at all.

Resisting “life,” resisting “story”

I often find myself resisting the void of a concept such as one’s “life,” the normative narrativity of viewing a “life” as sequence of events with story-like structure, and story-like meaning. Generally, I don’t like imposing that artificial logic on whatever it is I am wherever and whenever I happen to be. I prefer to let moments be moments, without the whole associated apparatus.

Galen Strawson’s “Against Narrativity” really helps crystallize this episodic, non-narrative mode, a mode of being-around-the-world without being-about-the-world.

I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative in their outlook on life. If one is Episodic, by contrast, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.

One has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the (further) past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms.

 I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past experiences ‘from the inside’, as philosophers say. And yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future.

I’m well aware that my past is mine in so far as I am a human being, and I fully accept that there’s a sense in which it has special relevance to me* now, including special emotional and moral relevance. At the same time I have no sense that I* was there in the past, and think it obvious that I* was not there, as a matter of metaphysical fact. As for my practical concern for my future, which I believe to be within the normal human range (low end), it is biologically – viscerally – grounded and autonomous in such a way that I can experience it as something immediately felt even though I have no significant sense that I* will be there in the future.

People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit, specifically Narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice sessions without recalling those sessions. The business of living well is, for many, a completely non-Narrative project. Granted that certain sorts of self-understanding are necessary for a good human life, they need involve nothing more than form-finding, which can exist in the absence of Narrativity; and they may be osmotic, systemic, not staged in consciousness.

As for Narrativity, it is in the sphere of ethics more of an affliction or a bad habit than a prerequisite of a good life. It risks a strange commodification of life and time – of soul, understood in a strictly secular sense. It misses the point. ‘We live’, as the great short story writer V. S. Pritchett observes, ‘beyond any tale that we happen to enact.’

Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity

Skimming from the top

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

Paul Graham, “The Top Idea in Your Mind