Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What is creativity?

How does it work? Is it mere imitation, or transformation, or could it be — under rare circumstances — “pure” creation, that is, out of thin air, as it were? This last possibility is captured in the Christian doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo”, which is attributed to God — the creation of the universe out of “nothing”.

It is a moot question, whether the description, in Genesis 1, of God creating the world in six days, is compatible with this doctrine — after all, when one reads it, you get the impression that there was “something” formless or chaotic before God incrementally imposed order on it. This would make the creation myth in Genesis 1 similar to the creation myths across a wide spectrum of cultures, which always assume a primordial chaos, followed by order somehow being “created” out of the components of the antecedent chaos.

But whether one believes in the divine capacity to create something out of nothing, or merely to bring order to chaos, when it comes to human creativity, it is hard to defend any semblance of creation from zero; at best, humans can “create” by shaping, structuring, transforming, ordering or organising some given “material” of some kind into something “novel”. There have been two influential ways of thinking about this, namely what the ancients called mimesis and creatio, respectively.

Mimesis, which forms the etymological basis for words like mimetic, imitate, mime and mimic, means creation by imitation, suggesting that creating something always requires a preceding model or archetype, which is imitated in the creative act. Creatio, on the other hand, gives greater credence to creating without pre-existing models, but this need not re-invoke the creatio ex nihilo-doctrine of the church. Creatio can be understood as creation without imitation, by or through experimentation, by constructing something (a novel, a poem, a sculpture, an architectural design) without any preconceived notions.

The trouble with creatio in this sense is that, no matter how experimental it is, one cannot escape pre-existing notions altogether. To leap into a realm NEVER before visited or broached is an impossibility, at least as far as making it intelligible or communicable in a new “creation” is concerned. To speak a new language is still to speak or use a language of sorts, to design a novel building is still to design a building — unless it is recognisable as a building, it is arguably not architecture, but something else altogether. It is illuminating in this regard that one fairly persuasive “definition” of insanity is the inability on someone’s part to communicate in a recognisable language, to be an “idiot” in the literal sense of being someone who is trapped within the circle of his or her own, un-shareable ideas.

Hence, it seems that the most accurate notion of creativity would be something that recognises the inability to escape from some kind of precursor, however minimal (in the guise of language, or images) it may be — in fact, I am tempted to say that Kierkegaard’s notion of “repetition” captures it well. Instead of, like Plato, understanding repetition as repeating something that has always existed in the form of an archetype, Kierkegaard conceives of repetition in paradoxical terms, as “repeating differently” — when an architect designs a concert hall, for example, he or she can’t get away from previous designs of concert halls, but faces the challenge, either to repeat one of them passively, as it were, in the process merely copying other, existing concert halls, or to re-interpret the very idea of a concert hall, repeating the idea in their design, but doing so with a difference. Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic Hall is a good example of this.

Just in passing one may note that “repeating differently” also exhorts human beings to live their lives according to this paradoxical formula — repeat your life as a human life (which is unavoidable), but do so with a difference — honour both convention and invention, simultaneously.

One could therefore also describe creativity by saying that one creates (a novel, a human life) by “inventing” something comparatively new on the basis of some existing thing, or by transforming some “convention” inventively, as Derrida has argued. In fact, Derrida’s deconstruction of the supposed opposition between invention and convention is a demonstration of each of these concepts being implied, and limited by the other. That is, simplifying in the extreme, convention always has its roots in an invention of some kind, which, through long use and custom, becomes sedimented in the form of conventional practice. On the other hand, invention cannot occur in a vacuum; it always, unavoidably, happens against the backdrop of conventional practices, in relation to which the invention appears novel. They are, one might say, locked in a life-giving struggle of mutual implication. Convention is limited by the need to invent, or perhaps re-invent it from time to time, and invention is limited by the necessity of a kind of social agreement that an invention is socially acceptable, useful or valuable. Without invention, no possibility of convention, and without convention, no need for invention. Without convention, no invention would have teeth or appeal, and without invention, conventions would become fossilised, obsolete, desiccated, barren.

This, I would argue, sums up the situation in which global societies find themselves today. The conventional political-economic system of liberal democracy combined with neo-liberal capitalism is increasingly showing itself as having outlived the reasons for becoming conventional in the first place, with regard to both economic conditions worldwide (the exclusion of the majority of human beings from the economic “benefits” that it has generated for a small minority), and, even more importantly, ecological conditions, which just happen to comprise the indispensable basis or foundation on which all living beings (including those people who still blindly cling to the existing economic model) depend for their livelihoods. As Thomas Princen has remarked, nature can do very well without humans, but humans cannot exist without the natural foundation of all life.

The task facing all creative human beings today, therefore, is to come up with novel ideas concerning our economic mode of existence, keeping in mind that this is inescapably imbricated with political ideas of governance. How do we “repeat differently” our economic being-in-the-world, with due regard for human needs and for those of natural ecosystems, with which humans are intertwined, whether they admit it or not? And how do we factor this into our political mode of being, in a way that there may be economic and ecological justice for all?

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