Creativity and play.

When people think about creativity, they generally think about arts, such as music or painting. While it is true that the arts are the most extreme form of creativity (although even there, people tend to follow schools of thought and to conform to expectations), it is a grave misunderstanding to equate them. In fact, creativity is present in most areas of life, or could be.

Creativity is a property of activities and productions, but not of all activities and productions. Assembly line manufacturing is very productive, but not creative. The obvious reason for this is that the worker on an assembly line has no choice in what he’s doing, so there’s no creativity involved. Creativity can only exist in activities where the agent can make some choice; more specifically, where the agent can imbue the product of his acts with some of his true personality and one’s personal ideas and preferences.

Pure creativity does not exist: creative acts, when they exist, are constantly interlaced with non-creative acts. This is perfectly natural, as some skill must enter in the equation, even if only in a trivial way. Choosing what one will wear on a given day is a creative act, but one must still know how to put the articles on (unless you’re a nudist, I guess). In any art form, there are skills to acquire before one can put one’s creativity into physical form, even if it’s only drawing a line or singing a note.

Like love, creativity is a basic impetus and human need. We all crave to express ourselves, to change ourselves and our environment to reflect who we are, even though this is rarely possible. Most avenues of expression we have are suppressed or opposed, from our hair and clothes to the way we relate to other people and to society.

The repression of graffitiing is just one form of repression by the State, made sadder by the fact that it is the ultimate refuge of teenagers who have nowhere else to go. This is why they put so much energy into defying possibly heavy penalties. Teenagehood is a made-up construct (an age interval where the human being is grown up but has no legal rights and is still made subservient to his biological parents’ orders), but the result of the enforcement of that construct is frustration, rebellion and anger. How can it be otherwise? To claim that this “teenage rebellion” is “just a phase” and that “that’s how teenagers are” is to betray an active desire to not understand the inhumanity of that state.

Not all forms of rebellion or escape are creative. Taking drugs is a non-creative acts. Protests are, at least in the mainstream, non-creative acts. This is not to say that no one should take drugs or protest; both these activities have many merits, but those merits manifest themselves as more utilitarian ways to open up the field of action, so to speak, so creativity can be better expressed or focused.

Creative action takes place most powerfully in open-ended systems. Such systems have very few, simple rules, limit the possibility of groupthink (these two points being related, as groupthink and rules will generally tend to converge towards the default of social rules and traditions), and maximize cooperative possibilities. Two good example of open-ended systems (and the ones that always gets used in these types of discussions) are open-source software and wikis. The positive results of these two systems hardly need mention. In any collective endeavour, the less rules-centric and the more cooperation-centric the system is, the more creativity will result.

This general principle is also true of individual artists. Many artists are financially successful by being purely reactive and putting out aberrated works, but for an artist to be creative demands of him to put himself outside of the reactive mindset and look at things from a different, more personal perspective.

This is not to say that limitations are inherently anti-creative. In fact, many kinds of limitations stimulate creativity (you need a box before you can think outside of it). An overabundance of possibilities leads to anxiety and dispersal of attention, but having too few possibilities leads to stultifying. That being said, we generally limit ourselves to begin with, because we only focus on a few interests and thus will tend to use those as our foundation. I concentrate on a few specific topics for my blog entries because those are the topics I know the most about. I could write about, say, alpacas, but I don’t know anything about alpacas so my level of interest in writing about them is very low.

We can label the sustained exercise of creativity as the “sense of play,” or simply “play,” taking the lead of Bob Black’s famous essay The Abolition of Work. He describes play pretty much exactly in the same way I do, from the particular political perspective of attacking the concept of work. He defines play as a voluntary activity, in which the player finds reward in the experience itself, and which may or may not be rule-governed.

No one should ever work.

Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want to act.

… Curiously — or maybe not — all the old ideologies are conservative because they believe in work. Some of them, like Marxism and most brands of anarchism, believe in work all the more fiercely because they believe in so little else.

Ouch! Quite a burn against Anarchism there, although I honestly think it’s a little unfair. Anti-capitalists concentrate on work because they see it as the center of exploitation in the capitalist economy. I do agree that there is too much of a focus on how to save work from capitalism, and not enough of a focus on how to scale down the economy and operate on different premises, but that’s just my personal take on it.

I do disagree with Black on one little point: he states that things like “Conversation, sex, dancing, travel” are not rule-governed and yet are forms of play. I do agree that they are forms of play but not that they are not rule-governed. To a very inattentive observer they might be, but there are a great number of rules that govern them, not only in the law books but also in social mores and their internalization as self-censorship. These rules are as real and as effective, and in most cases, as explicit, as the rules of Chess or baseball. One may argue that they should not be thus governed, but that’s a separate issue (I would personally argue that anomie in any area is unsustainable, if only because people will implicitly create rules to ease cooperation).

So far I have only discussed creativity as a basic human need, and not about its important function of motor of a free society. Black does an excellent job in his essay of pointing out the ways in which play is not only a different framework for the individual, but also entails an entirely different social ethic from that of work. It is in all points an excellent introduction to what I would call “creativity as a social principle,” and when I get to that topic I will come back to Black’s essay.

2 thoughts on “Creativity and play.

  1. David Gendron August 12, 2009 at 12:48

    Great post!

    “I do agree that there is too much of a focus on how to save work from capitalism, and not enough of a focus on how to scale down the economy and operate on different premises, but that’s just my personal take on it.”

    I’m not sure about this. Questioning the concept of “work” is a component of “scaling down the economy and operate”.

    But communists anarchists (not Left Libertarian) focus more in their anti-work philosophy because they’re not interested in economy (and ancaps focus more in their pro-profit bullshit because they’re not interested in other things than economy! ;) ). Maybe it’s a simple semantic reformulation on what you said here.

  2. David Gendron August 12, 2009 at 12:49

    “scaling down the economy and operate on different premises”, I should say.

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