Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Parsing grammars of creation

George Steiner's (2001) Grammars of Creation is an incredibly erudite meditation on processes of creation, their meaning, and their embedding in art, life, philosophy, and science. He tackles religious overtones of the act of creation, differences and commonalities between creation and invention, freedom and constraints of creation, and much, much more. Coming from literary criticism, Steiner engages a staggering array of works and lives of writers, musicians, painters, philosophers, and mathematicians to shed light on the discussed topics--consequently, I know that leering gaps in my own education obscured many of the finer points of the arguments presented. And yet it is gaps and silences in the text that drew the most of my attention.

Having dazzled the reader (this reader, at least) with the breadth of his scholarship, Steiner nonchalantly throws in markers of his own limitations:
No essay on the grammars of creation should leave out Islam. My ignorance compels me to do so (p. 58).
I find nothing more frustrating, more humbling, than my incapacity, as a mathematical illiterate, to grasp this lucent realm of 'truth beauty' (p. 147).
Only mathematicians can assess the respective claims to creation, to invention and to discovery in the mathematical process.... I have no qualification to do so (p. 171).
Surprisingly, this is the only form of ignorance present in the essay. Even as he discusses invention as a form of recombination (and literature’s posited status as ars combinatoria), Steiner does not mention knowledge as a possible ingredient of creative activity. There are traces of it in the rather sceptical discussion of the establishment of new forms of thought (Darko Suvin’s proposition of the novum as a foundation of any science fiction would have, in all probability, met with much suspicion here), some more shadows of knowledge in the idea of science benefitting from, but not requiring singular geniuses for its relentless progress (actual shoulders of giants are not mentioned, though - cf. Merton 1965/85 for those), but no heads-on tackling of whether knowledge plays any part in invention or creation. The argument here is two-fold, of course: on the one hand the notion of knowledge economy (Rooney et al., 2005) comes together with ideas of the creative age (Earls, 2002) to engender business environment where creativity, knowledge, and innovation form the crucial characteristics of success or even continued existence, on the other the countless narratives of insights and breakthroughs born from ignorance: from the DIY, everybody’s-a-musician core of punk rock aesthetics to William Gibson’s (McCaffery, 1991) celebrated declaration of technological ignorance spurring him to create Neuromancer, the quintessential cyberpunk novel, to Richard Branson’s logo-ized proclamations of his own business virginity at the outset of the road to creating (sic!) his business empire.

All of my examples fall outside Steiner’s sphere of interest; while he acknowledges the existence everyday acts of creation or invention, in particular the multitude of literally unsung narratives of unspoken internal monologues, but his focus invariably returns to the great creative endeavours, from (theologically posited) cosmogony to famed works of art to establishment (creation? invention? discovery? Steiner wrestles with the issue at length) of mathematical laws. His discussion of art tends towards the classic if not classical, and never veers from what can safely be understood as high art. There are good reasons for such choices, but my own interest lies in more quotidian creation, and in the more popular art forms. Which is where we encounter another stumbling block in appropriating Steiner’s insights. He notes the collaborative practice of contemporary technoscience, the inherent sociality of a speech act, and numerous precedents of art workshops throughout history, and yet celebrates the individuality of a creative act:
In the arts, in music, in the philosophic moment, and in almost the whole of serious literature, solitude and singularity are of the essence. The creative motion is as individual, as entrenched in the citadel of the self, as is one’s own never interchangeable death (p. 181-182).
This would render the organizational experience of any kind either uncreative or, at least, unlike that of literary creativity. I am deeply suspicious of such a statement-not only from my own experience, where writing consists of bouts of solitude-seeking punctuated by moments of overwhelming need to talk about my pet projects (where conferences offer blessed opportunities for that and energize me to carry at least some of my writing projects to completion), but also from my fieldwork among computer programmers, who tended to profess the need for solitary coding, and yet huddle with co-workers upon encountering a particularly styming problem (Kociatkiewicz, 2004). Similarly, long history of literary groups and writer circles suggests at least some added value of organized attempts at creativity.

Earls, Mike (2002) Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, business and the death of marketing. London: John Wiley.
McCaffery, Larry (1991) “An interview with William Gibson” in: Larry McCaffery (ed.) Storming the Reality Studio. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 263-285
Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy (2004) The Social Construction of Space in a Computerized Environment. PhD Thesis at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.
Merton, Robert K. (1965/85) On the shoulders of giants: A Shandean postscript. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Neef, Dale (ed., 1997) The Knowledge Economy. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Steiner, George (2001) Grammars of Creation. London: Faber and Faber.
Suvin, Darko (1976) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press.