Tuesday 9 July 2019

Creativity and Novelty in Education and Life

A number of things have happened this week which has led me to think about the intellectual efforts that academics engage in to make utterances which they claim to be insightful, new or distinct in some other way. The pursuit of scholarship seems to result from some underlying drive to uncover things, the communication of which brings recognition by others that what one says is in some way "important" or "original", and basically confers status. Educational research is particularly interesting in this regard since very little that is uttered by anyone is new, yet it is often presented as being new. I don't want to criticise this kind fakery in educational research (but it is fakery), of which we are all guilty, but rather to ask why it is we are driven to do it. Fundamentally, I want to ask "Why are we driven to reclaiming ideas from the past as new and rediscovered in the present?" Additionally, I think we should ask about the role of technology in facilitating this rediscovery and repackaging of the past.

Two related questions accompany this. The first is about "tradition". At a time when we see many of the tropes of statehood, politics and institutional life becoming distorted in weird ways (by the Trumps, Farages and co), what is interesting is to observe what is retained in these distortions and what is changed. Generally it seems that surface appearance is preserved, but underlying structure is transformed from the structures that were once distributed, engaging the whole community in the reproduction of rituals and beliefs, to structures which leave a single centre of power responsible for the reproduction of rituals and beliefs.  This is, in a certain sense, a creative act on the part of the individual who manages to subvert traditions to bend to their own will.

Central to this distortion process is the control of the media. Technology has transformed our communication networks which, before the internet, were characterised by personal conversations occurring within the context of global "objects" such as TV and newspapers. Now the personal conversations are occurring within the frame of the media itself. The media technologies determine the way the communication game is played, and increasingly intrude on personal conversations where personal uncertainties could be resolved. The intrusion of media technologies increasingly serves to sway conversation in the direction of those who control the media, leaving personal uncertainties either unresolved, or deliberately obfuscated. The result is both a breakdown in mental health and increasingly lack of coherence, and increased control by media-controlling powers.

Where does creativity and novelty sit in all of this? Well, it too is a kind of trope. We think we are rehearsing being Goethe or Beethoven, but while the surface may bear some similarity, the deep structure has been rewired. More importantly, the university has become wired into this mechanism too. Is being creative mere appearance in a way that it wasn't in a pre-internet age?

At the same time, there's something about biology which is driven to growth and development to overcome restriction. Our media bubble is restriction on growth, and right now it looks menacing. The biological move is always to a meta-level re-description. Epochs are made when the world is redescribed. But we cannot redescribe in terms of "creativity" or "innovation" because those things are tropes wired into the media machine. Seeing the media machine for what it is may present us with some hope - but that is very different from our conventional notions of creativity.

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