Student-Professor Dialog: Creativity and Society

The following is a series of (ongoing) exchanges with my professor on the subject of creativity and innovation in society. I felt that it was worthwhile sharing the dialog. 

April 17th
Hello Professor,

I apologize if my comment today came off as a tirade or diatribe. That wasn’t my intention. You commented that our generation may be a bit cynical, and that may be true, but that’s not how I like to think about my attitude. Instead, I like to think of myself as being critical, specifically a critical thinker who criticizes and seeks to deviate from the status quo in favor of gleaning new insights and gaining new potential solutions. I believe our problems are a result of a society who seeks perpetuating the status quo, similar to the silo or echo chamber effect. I believe this is a result of people who willingly accept ideas, problems, and solutions presented to them, or that reinforce and reaffirm their beliefs, rather than inquire for themselves, critically challenge their beliefs, and generate their own solutions, be it through reflective thinking or collaborative dialog.

That being said, I love your class and I think you’re a fantastic professor who is doing great things. I’ve had a passion for creativity my whole life, and it’s a pleasure to explore the topic in your classes. As a result of the many readings and discussions presented throughout the semester I’ve arrived at a few revelatory insights that I’d like to share with you.

First, I believe that creativity is a product of struggle, of problems and the suffering it produces, and the passion it generates when people apply their “will” to overcome that struggle. Nietzsche has been a tremendous influence for re-framing how I conceptualize the human condition as a continual overcoming. I learned that the root of creativity in Latin is creo, which translates as “belief” or “produce, choose, put into existence”, and that the root for creo in Indo-Proto-European is cor- which translated as “heart”, as in coronary or cordial. Hence my conviction that all creativity is an enterprise of heartfelt passion generated by struggle, or problems and suffering, to overcome circumstance, whether they are imposed by nature’s absolute values or society’s relative values.

Throughout time the greatest civilizations collapsed at the peak of their opulence, the pinnacle of their immoderate greatness. I attribute this to the fact that these civilizations, among other things, grew increasingly complacent with their level of comfort, and as a result experienced none of the struggle necessary to diagnose problems and apply creativity and innovation for their resolution. I observe this in our current culture where imitation and conformity are the rule, where everyone talks of freedom, equality, and autonomy but it is very rare to witness these qualities being demonstrated. Authenticity and autonomy, in my opinion, are absolutely necessary for acknowledging and individuating problems in our world. The Greek prefix root of these words is autos meaning “self”, and the respective suffixes are hentes meaning “doing” or “being”, and nomos meaning “law” or “the structured ordering of experience”.

The greatest creators, innovators, and thinkers, I argue, operated outside the norm, deviated from convention, and existed on the periphery of society. They acknowledged that if you do what everybody else is doing, you’ll get what everybody is getting. As a result they lived according to their own being or doing, their own law, and solved problems no one else acknowledged or saw. I think of William James who said “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” As well as Schopenhauer who said “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see. With people with only modest ability, modesty is mere honesty; but with those who possess great talent, it is hypocrisy.” In this way we see that it’s not what we look at that counts, but what we see. Hence da Vinci’s reply to the secret of his creative and inventive genius, “saper vedere” or “to know how to see”.

That being said, my comment today in class arose from my latent frustrations regarding our society. Politics is a touchy subject because if affects everyone. I have a desire for people to critically engage in things that matter most, specifically the preservation of our freedom, equality, and autonomy, rather than indulge in the mundane and mainstream. But it seems that most would rather appeal to authority, the status quo, or convention, and acquiesce to empty political rhetoric propagated by the “superiors” rather than looking at the facts and coming up with their own opinions. That is what a democracy with cognizant and active citizens should embody.

Once again, thanks for all that you do. I hope this email has found you well, and that I articulated my thoughts with enough clarity, and I look forward to talking with you more. Also, here is a link referencing the phenomenon of inequality and creativity I mentioned today in class, titled The Inequality Puzzle in U.S. Cities by Florida. Thanks again.

Sincerest Regards,

X

April 17th
X:

Thank you for this very thoughtful and smart email message. I would love to talk to you more about some of these ideas.

A few very quick responses.  Yes, struggle is a major component of creativity (part of the theme of creativity and crisis) and individual passion and the authentic desire to improve a situation are the fuel that drives the creativity train.  As a sociologists I would say the tracks are not of the creators own making.   Society structures what we take to be a legitimate problem in need of a creative solution. So, creative people certainly operate outside norms but they are also bound by those norms and it is incumbent upon the scholar/critic to see the creator as both heroic and also as constrained and to understand how these two facts interact to produce, limit, or otherwise influence creative development.

I also agree with the relationship between complacency and creativity, although I think you need to acknowledge that one man’s complacency is another man’s struggle. So, the piece that you need to take into account is power.  If the complacent have absolute power, then you get decline. But, if the powerless and the outsiders have some access to politics, resources, power, then you can have great undercurrents of creativity even while the fat cats get drunk.

Finally, I was going to write and thank you for offering your insights today in class about politics. I agree with your points and don’t think you were delivering a tirade.   Many people are dissatisfied with the state of our political system and its capacity to deliver innovative solutions to our problems. As you suggest, old ideologies crowd out critical reflection and creative response.  Both parties are guilty.    My own opinion is that rhetoric matters and when one party has, for more than 3 decades, told the American people that we can not collectively solve problems and that our government (which is us) is always the problem (and never the solution), then we have stacked the deck against tackling the biggest problems of our times.   The market can facilitate solutions but it does not “believe” anything — it is through politics and democracy that we decide what type of society we want to live in and how to achieve these goals.   By turning a people against its government, I believe, we have undermined the process that we depend on for creatively engaging collective problems.  Single creative individuals acting alone without the tracks (to refer back to the earlier metaphor) can not solve our problems.  Government is part of the process of setting down tracks (not the only part).   As a “creative pragmatist,” it is hard to watch political tactics (the smart use of rhetoric) succeed at electing candidates while undermining their capacity to govern at the same time.

Sorry for my diatribe!

Onward,

Y

April 24rd,
Hello Professor,

I appreciate your response! We could talk for days– and I’d love every minute of it!  I have some thoughts regarding society’s role as a facilitator of change and revolutionary progress. I’d love to hear any feedback or insights you could provide.

Regarding society and creative change: in my opinion institutional structures, such as government or education or religion or corporations, are economies of scale for ideas (values), and as such they are subject to organizational inertia. I believe as these structures grow, they reinforce themselves on top of themselves through a process of normalization, specifically as a means of increasing cohesion and improving efficiency. That is, the structure self-perpetuates itself due to various self-preservation mechanisms explained in psychology and sociology, like herding, cognitive bias, the echo chamber/ silo effect, etc.

The consequence of these structures and the “typological” normalization they demand is that the structure begins to crystallize and become increasingly rigid. Deviations from the structure’s systematic process of normalization are looked down upon and rarely rewarded. What is rewarded is conformity to the “standards” typifying the accepted structural norms. In the end the structure, say as cultural custom or societal convention, becomes the largest barrier of change and inhibitor of progress. These may manifest as laws, or standardized testing, or rituals, or work processes– any formalization based on a set of premises or principles dictated by the structure’s authority or gatekeepers. Initially these premises may or may not reflect changes within the natural and social environment, but as time goes on and the structure grows, change inevitably takes place and I’d argue that these premises become increasingly abstract and irrelevant to the changing demands within the empirical landscape.

From what I observe in creativity and innovation on a sociological level, and evolution on a biological level, change occurs organically; it begins with a single individual, a single gene. Perhaps environmental demands cause the retention of a swath of genes, similar to the way societal demands cause a retention of a group of individuals, like those witnessed in collaborative circles, like the Fugitives, or the Vienna Circle and the like. This bottom-up population thinking contrasts with top-down typological thinking. Change can take place with the top down typological thinking (Platonic), but it must work within the bounds of its established premises. Eventually demands change to such a degree that premises need to be discarded in order to usher in revolutionary change.

That being said, I’m skeptical of institutional structures. I believe that so long as they represent the dynamic will of free thinking individuals who seek collaboration for mutually beneficial ends, these institutions work on their behalf. But because of organizational inertia and the mechanisms of normalization that functionally preserve the status quo, I do not believe that the governing authority representing institutions are capable of addressing the changing demands in the long run. This is especially the case when those in authority are the pinnacle product of the normalization, embodying the most abstract conventions established within the structure (culture).

However, my biggest frustration does not lie so much with those in positions of authority as it does with the individuals embedded within the population. Normalization has occurred to such a degree that abstract theory and “ideals” become the end for society, resulting in a populous devoid of independent thought, lacking a critical consciousness. We have denounced personal experience, and the accompanying opinions about that experience, in favor of societal standards to such a magnitude that people have grown blind: incapable of sensual inductive thought. Instead they defer to authority, to ideals, to norms for their answers, like sheep.

There is a dark corollary to this story that manifests symptomatically throughout society as a cultural malaise. When the individual experience is oppressed to such a degree that authenticity becomes the exception rather than the rule, people become sick. In proportion to their openness to change, I believe societies manufacture mental illness: body dysmorphia, depression, anorexia, substance abuse, criminal activities, and the list goes on. Other examples are increased emphasis on grades and testing rather than learning and understanding, an absence of mutually vested dialog between teachers and students, and lack of communication in general as people defer to authorities or professionals to solve problems that they should otherwise work out with others within the relationship of their context.

I hope I’m not being too harsh. I honestly and earnestly want the best for people, my fellow man and society at large.

I read two articles recently that have embodied much of my thoughts on the matter and I’ve been eager to share them with you to hear your thoughts. One is titled The Creative Monopoly and discusses a lecture by Peter Thiel at Stanford. Relating back to my thoughts on society as a self-perpetrating structure, the article discusses the negative flip side of competition and proposes an alternative approach for creating value within the context of business and markets. I recommend checking out Peter Thiel’s lecture notes linked in the article. The other article is titled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams. It relates to my sentiment that ideals and social norms become a means rather than an end.

I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. I’m eager to hear your thoughts. I know your probably pretty busy grading papers and what not, so don’t feel any pressure. If you’re available, I’ll be around until graduation and would like to catch up and listen to some of your thoughts on various subjects I’ve been thinking and writing about, such as sociology, creativity, and the like. Thanks again!

Sincerest Regards,

X

Why Study Philosophy

Rows of books lined the shelves. He leaned back in his chair thoughtfully and looked at me for a moment, then threw his hands up and asked, “So what do you want? Why do you study philosophy?” He looked at me over his desk with his elbows resting on the manchettes, hands folded just below his face, with a curious patient smile.

I hesitated a moment. I knew what I was going to say. I’ve thought about this answer so many times I could write a book on it. I suppose I was trying to distill it into something powerful, so he could feel the conviction.

“Why do I want to study philosophy?” I thought out loud and my eyes drifted upwards as if looking for higher inspiration. “I want to be a better thinker. I want to develop my critical thinking skills, my problem solving skills, my ability to change perspectives and look at and identify problems differently…” I paused again. I just blurted that out. Calm yourself. “Actually…” I collected my thoughts and tried thinking practically. “Well…I’m not looking for truth, because honestly, I’ve ruled out that there’s an ultimate truth. So I suppose I want understanding. I want to understand myself and the world and my relation to the world. I want the skills and ability to solve problems and surmount whatever challenges come before me, in whatever I do. I want to look at problems and see possibility, no matter what the task or challenge.”