Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Creativity and the Individual

Steven Augustine wrote in a comment to my previous post:
Jacob, I'd have to say that this question is as colored by personal value (the word "fetish" isn't a neutral one, in this context) as the comments. Then again, what of it? What opinion, on any matter, *isn't* highly inflected?

The question isn't whether or not our interpretations are "inflected," the question is, how? In what way? How does any particular set of these unexamined assumptions shape our perceptions?

I mean "fetish" in a psychoanalytic sense, not as a negative buzz word. Your defense of the right for economic return on your labor-something never challenged in my brief post, not even by suggestion--is itself evidence of the need to take a closer look at what's involved here.

To the degree that our belief in the individual source of creativity rests, not on an understanding of either the product, or the generative process, but through and in terms of what we believe about something else (economic ideology), then those beliefs will have been not merely colored by the secondary field, but replaced by it, such that we can never be sure, when we think we're talking about art, that we're not really talking about something else--which seems to be what happened in your response.

My question then breaks down into two parts: what are the assumptions that lead us to replace the real subject; and the subject itself (the individual and creativity).

The idea of the individual subject, standing outside and free of context, is itself a fetishistic notion. When you write, the language, which you did not create, is creating with you; you write in consort with everyone who has written and spoken in that language. You can say that what you write would not have come into being without you, but it does not come into being through you alone, no more than we become individuals other than in relationship to others. The consequences of ignoring these distinctions are not trivial--they affect our ability to recognize the disguises worn by the defining ideologies of our time, leaving us increasingly vulnerable to the manipulations of those most privileged by the dominant ideologies.


  1. "You can say that what you write would not have come into being without you, but it does not come into being through you alone, no more than we become individuals other than in relationship to others."

    Certainly, Jacob, but that was my point in using the carpenter-building-a-table analogy. What you say is true of everything made by every creature making things, in the history of making: influences can't be avoided, and technique (in everything from sonnets to bird nests) is, partially, a cultural inheritance; it's such a universal that it can be factored out of the equation, in my opinion. Why not argue that there's no such thing as an "individual", either?

    If you're saying that the exquisite dining room table made by a lone carpenter cannot truly be said to have been made by her/him alone, that's another matter (verging, I think, on the metaphysical). Otherwise, why pick on writers/composers (the intangibles craftspeople) et al?

    Anyway: interesting question! I'll stay tuned to see how you resolve it...

  2. You say that cultural inheritance can be "factored out of the equation." This is exactly where I think you go wrong, leaving unexamined the very questions most relevant here. You ask, somewhat anxiously, "why not argue that there's no such thing as an individual?" --but how can you argue whether something does or doesn't exist, when you have nothing more than a vague, semi-mystical notion of what that might be--of what an "individual" is? A person dismisses the usefulness of examining ideas they come to need. When it comes to ideas or beliefs, I think that finding ourselves in need of them makes me suspect that there's some kind of delusional thinking at play, a dream we prefer not to be awakened from.

    There's nothing "metaphysical" about saying the carpenter hasn't made his table alone. It's so obvious, that only some kind of blindness can explain seeing it as otherwise. He makes it with tools he's inherited, with the knowledge he carries within him--which is a part of him, not only of what has made him, but of what he is, an individual-in-the world, an individual-with-others.

    Pretending that compound is not there, that there can be, that there is or has ever been or ever will be an "individual," free standing, is a flight from reality, a wish to preserve an illusion.

  3. With all due respect, I think it's a little late in the day for me to get involved in a quasi-Structuralist wrestling match; it was a long time ago that everyone I knew chose either A) a version of your apparent thinking on all this, academically, or B) chose the opposite. You can't really, by sheer force of will, turn this into a living controversy again, Jacob. Surely you can settle for having your own opinion on the matter and being happy with it... ?

  4. Well, no...if I thought it were only a matter of my opinion, I wouldn't have bothered writing a post... and my "opinions," such as they are, feel more to me like open question, which for my apparently less advanced intellectual state, are far from settled.

    If, however, you find that you've resolved matters to the point you can imagine tucking them neatly away in Category A and Category B, than I don't suppose we have much to discuss, do we!

    But thank you for your thoughts. Your comments are always welcome here.

  5. Jacob, my opinions aren't settled on the matter because I think I've found THE answer; they're settled because I've already found the answer to the question that appeals to me. You can spend a lifetime worrying that bone (some most probably do), and it may well be worth it... I just can't, personally, go around and around on that one anymore. I'm certainly not extravagantly pleased with myself, to the point of gloating, over my complacency; it may possibly indicate the worse kind of intellectual sloth on my part.

    No harm done; no blood spilt; no need for dueling pistols...

    Shake on it? (or some virtual equivalent?)

  6. Sure. It does work better from my end, your not being interested in the questions, than casting them--outside my belated understanding--as perfectly settled (or at least, evenly and permanently divided), in the rest of the world.

    Not being interested works fine for me! And I do appreciate your posting your thoughts here.

    On then, to other things...


  7. Steven especially might benefit from the following (though Jacob will surely appreciate it more): http://lloydmintern.wordpress.com/2008/01/04/24-petulant/

  8. Here's that link to Lloyd Mintern's post in a linkable form...

  9. Erm, thanks... Lloyd... but having emerged, sleeker and wiser, from my "Sophist" phase about twenty years ago, I'll leave your done-to-death insights to younger, callow "seekers of truth". Though I'm flattered that you're hankering to pick a fight with me. One last thing; I'm curious: are you an auto-didact?



  10. Sophist?


    It's one thing to say you aren't interested. It's another to play this game of "I know better," being all of (maybe) 40 something?... and resorting to labels when you aren't up to point-by-point discussion?

    Disagreement makes discussion interesting--but that assumes engagement. If you're not interested in engagement on a particular subject, fine... but don't pull that "I know better now that I've been through this before stuff."

    You don't know what I've been through anymore than I know what you've been through... intellectually, existentially... not without real engagement.

    You have some good ideas... I more than welcome your comments, but please... a little basic honesty would serve you well before you accuse others of sophistry.

  11. Jacob, thanks for putting up the link.

    Steven Augustive, I just thought my piece was relevant to the debate you and Jacob (Barking Dog) were having. He seems to me to be more than generous, in his replies to the way you question, and scorn his original thesis. That thesis, well articulated, is just true, and therefore expandable. I don't know how anyone could object to it, though it is interesting to see you try. Jacob is right in saying that pulling rank is not a friendly idea, when you don't know who you are talking to.

  12. Sorry, Jacob, but I've lost patience with the low level of so much narcissism-fueled, solecism-riddled, crypto-solipsistic blogging. All that endless content, gushing every day (often, new posts more than once a day): how can you *possibly* expect the level to remain high? Time for bloggers to grow up.

    If a blogger wants to indulge in a little cod philosophy, they're certainly free to, but at some point the realisation must dawn that there are others floating around out there for whom what our theoretical blogger thinks of as ground-breaking material is, in fact, third-hand bong-scented stare-at-a-Dali-poster trivia. Fair enough, if some guy or gal hankers to express these thoughts, but if one *wants* people to comment, one will *have* to expect some negative criticism from time to time (especially if our theoretical blogger has the temerity to link someone... ME... by name to said hackneyed post).

    In the absence of an editorial policy, bloggers will have to learn to be careful about what they post (at least tighten the ideas up a bit, for god's sake), or who they post about. It's not all going to be the insipid, standard, "Great post!"

    I tried to bow out of the first ad-infinitum-argument-loop gracefully. Was the effort to be gracious not appreciated?

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  14. Was the effort to be gracious not appreciated?"

    What was the gracious part? I seemed to have missed it...was it

    ...jumping into a thread, the subject of which interests not at all?

    ... your preference for ad hominem insults over addressing actual content?

    ...spending a good many words suggesting your greater wisdom, then disappointing your would be admirers by failing to produce evidence of same? ...Though I suppose that could be construed as "gracious," as an unfiltered demonstration of your wisdom might well have blinded lesser souls.

    You do think well of yourself, I'll give you that. A good thing, as you have quite a task ahead of you, bringing so many blogs up to your adult standards.

    Good luck with your project, though!

  15. As a fitting cap to this exchange:

    From Larval Subjects.

    Students shuffling out of the classroom after a discussion of Platonic realism and the possibility of transcendent, objective values independent of culture, history, and individual determination.

    STUDENT: “This class is impossible.”

    ME (Alarmed): “Why?”

    STUDENT: “We come in here thinking we understand the world and now we discover that everything we think might be mistaken.”

    In a comment, larvalsubjects added:

    I think what was most important in the comment was the statement that "everything we think might be mistaken”. That is, the conditional. The world becoming questionable or mysterious is a condition, I think, for practicing philosophy. In the philosophy classroom– especially at the introductory level –I believe the production of this space of the question is the most important and significant thing to be accomplished. That is, the teaching of philosophy shouldn’t be about demonstrating a particular doctrine, nor is it simply about acquainting students with a variety of different philosophical positions (though that’s important), but is rather about opening the space of questionability as such.

    Holding the world before us as an open question is not sophistry, it's what keeps mind and heart alive. What Augustine seems to tale as a fault of youth, is one of the few joys of life that do not diminish with age.

  16. Wow. If I may intervene and sidestep the whole jacob/steven exchange:

    Can you explain what you meant by the term "unexamined"--unexamined by whom? the people leaving the comments? it seems to me that textual criticism (led by, among others, jerome mcgann) and postmodern theory (foucault, barthes) has thoroughly tangled with the need for an Individual Creator-- the "genius" behind the work, the Author.

    It's interesting that Steven Augustine response appeals to the economic aspect of authorship-- that is, who "owns" a work and who has a right to its proceeds.

    The carpenter-building-a-table analogy is a bi of basic Platonic philosophy and I can't believe neither of you has pointed it out yet! talk about unexamined...

    my last point: jacob I love your blog, and your comments at dan green's site, and I'll be reading more in future.

  17. Maitresse,

    Unexamined assumptions.

    Unexamined by those who trade in the assumptions. Any assumptions. We have to need to examine our presuppositions, no?

    In this discussion: writing, reading and critiquing "realist" fiction without reflecting back on what is meant by "reality" ... and it's modes of representation.

    Your reference to Plato-- Absolutely right! He has Socrates applying this sort of metaphor --the craftsman to the idea--again and again, doesn't he!

    ... but I rather doubt he had in mind the reversed Marxist implications suggested by Augustine... intended and examined or not. Strange, isn't it, how ideological capitalists have absorbed and incorporated mirror images of Marxist determinism.

    As you wrote: "It's interesting that Steven Augustine's response appeals to the economic aspect of authorship-- that is, who "owns" a work and who has a right to its proceeds."

    Doubly interesting, as this changes the subject--fundamenatlly, recasts it in the fetters of an economic ideology...

    Because we don't acknowledge our ideological foundation, we end up with ... what Martin Buber termed "mismeeting." And the failure to examine our assumptions is not the cause here, but the symptom--the means we apply to avoid engaging with an Other we want neither to annihilate, nor to rule... but to accept in partnership.