A History of Creativity
capitalism and the changing shapes of a once-divine power
“God is the most uninteresting answer to the most interesting questions.”
I’ve always been surrounded by artists, but I’ve never thought of myself as one. My mother, my grandmother, my best friend, and now my six-year old daughter are all my artistic inspirations. I love to be immersed in their ideas, their visions, the beautiful things they’ve made. But I’ve always thought of myself as too much of a rationalist to be an artist. I suppose that’s why I write, and why I’m an academic. Despite this, I am often told that I’m “very creative.” I sometimes wonder if this has anything to do with my savage, self-destructive, edge; I’m always up for completely destroying whatever it is that I’ve built in order to turn it into something new. I’m ready to burn what I’ve written, tear apart my clothing, or cut off all my hair.
The author Sophie Strand writes about creativity as something “uncomfortable”, perhaps even destructive. She likens it to the power that Federico Garcia Lorca called duende. This force, Strand writes, “does not care if you live or die, but it cares deeply about ‘aliveness’ generally.” Duende works as a force that “spasms and deforms and surges through you.” Art is transformative, Strand notes, “but no one ever said it was safe.” We could say the same thing about creativity itself.
I first read Lorca’s essay “Play and Theory of the Duende” in a Spanish literature course, as an undergrad. When I studied abroad in Granada and lived on Calle Manuel de Falla, across the street from the park where Lorca’s childhood home has been enshrined, I thought about him every day. According to Lorca the duende is the mysterious power or force “which everyone senses and no philosopher explains”. It was the force that made Spain into a “country of ancient music and dance where the duende squeezes the lemons of death.” Looking back on this essay now, I have to wonder if it was one of the key inspirations that made me write a book about death. Whatever the case may be, it’s difficult to imagine that this sense of the presence of death, this “mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents” hasn’t influenced the way I think about life, death, and creativity.
This week I’m following up on a question that I posed last week, as I was thinking about my Q & A with Krista Dragomer (it’s now up, on the CUP blog, and it’s great: check it out here). If life and death are connected laterally, as “sisters” (rather than one acting as a kind of absolute power over the other), then what is it that keeps them in relation? What facilitates their lateral relationship? One could argue that God is bigger than both life and death, and it’s God that keeps the two in relation. But I think this is an uninteresting answer to the question. For one thing, the figure of God has (for too long) been exclusively aligned with life. It’s difficult to break that alliance. I do think, however, that the figure of God can help us better understand creativity. Like God, creativity is a power or force. Like God, it’s a deeply ambivalent term. Some love it, some hate it. When I mentioned to Krista that I was writing this piece on creativity she admitted that despite using it to describe aspects of her work (like creative mentoring), it’s a term she dislikes. It’s no wonder, given its history.
Capitalizing on Creativity
Most historical perspectives on creativity don’t trace the term itself but instead reflect on what they believe the term is describing (such as imagination). What would we be looking for, if we wanted to write the history of creativity? Would we have to begin with the earliest records we have of human art? Or would we look to archaeological evidence of innovation (the wheel? making fire?) Or would we study our brains? This is too much for me to entertain. Instead, I’m simply interested in what we can connect directly to the word itself: creativity.
Despite the fact that creativity has etymological roots in an ancient dead language (the Latin creatio, creare) it’s actually a very modern term. This graph from Ray Haberski shows us that the English language term “creativity” was effectively unused, in books, until the late 1930s. The term isn’t widely used until after World War II, when it experiences a brief explosion, like a cultural atom bomb.
The term is on the decline. And thinkers on the left today tend to be critical of the term creativity. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that when use of the term exploded, it was often associated with Madison Avenue advertising agencies, with the political economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”, or with Richard Florida’s “creative class.” It was a term productively exploited by capitalism, in other words. Creativity is something that fuels innovation, we’re told, and something that businesses want in their labor force.
Oli Mould’s Against Creativity argues that “the language of creativity has been subsumed by capitalism.” It’s become, for Mould, a distinctly neoliberal power or force. He traces the history of creativity back to theology; to the story of a creator God who makes the world through acts of creation. Mould calls this an external view of creativity, one that’s imposed on us from the outside. He traces the internalization of creativity back to Enlightenment humanism. Thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau read humanity (rather than God) as the power that could create “something from nothing.” Creativity was in us.
Mould doesn’t take issue with the idea that creativity has become an internal force. What he takes issue with is its privatization. He points to the privatization of art, for instance, in European capitalism. With artistic commissions that advanced the stature of individual artists, the powers and products of creative work were pushed outside of social collectives and into the private sphere. Creative work became something to monetize. Creativity became commodified, and part of our social capital. Now, Mould says, “everyone is encouraged to be creative—at work, in our personal lives, in our political activities, in the neighborhoods in which we live, in schools, in our leisure time, in the choices we make in what we eat every night, in how we design our CVs.” We are, he says, “bombarded by messages that by being creative, we will live better, more efficient and enjoyable lives.”
In other words, not only has creativity ceased to be a power external to the human (or lorded over the human by an all-powerful deity), but it’s become a power deep within us. Creativity exists within our deepest, most intimate, internal registers. We might think of it as spiritual. And when we see it floating around in the business world, we can remember how capitalism exploits us, using our own innermost capacities.
I find Mould’s argument pretty convincing. But I have to wonder at the extent to which creativity has actually become something internal rather than something external. Those Enlightenment philosophers he cites (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) arguably weren’t interested in reflecting on creativity as a dimension of human life in general. Rather, they were interested in creativity as a property of Man (the European, white, male thinker). Man was a figure, a model, perhaps even a kind of divinity—the sort of human that only certain humans were eligible to become. Man was, to be sure, a more accessible and widely distributed figure than God (it was easier to become Man than to become God!) Man was secular, and worldly. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to think of the creativity of Man as a model that is externally imposed. What if this is the creative form—the shape of creativity—that’s imposed on us by capitalism?
Creativity Beyond God and Man
Look, I’m not suggesting that creativity isn’t in us. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t tap into something in the interior regions of our bodies, or pass through us somehow. What I am saying is that I’m skeptical that it’s ever purely internal or external. I don’t think power breaks down in a clean way. If “creativity” is something that’s also external in some way, that hits us from the outside, or gets filtered to us through biomythological figures (like God or Man), then we (those of us overdetermined by figures like Man) should probably spend more time thinking about what other filters we might interface with as we negotiate the raw power and force of creativity.
In his new book Antagonistic Cooperation: Jazz, Collage, Fiction, and the Shaping of African American Culture (another Columbia University Press book!), Robert O’Meally tells a new history of black creativity. The phrase “antagonistic cooperation” comes from Ralph Ellison, who used it as a description of the jazz ensemble: an example of artists playing both with and against each other. I wish that I’d been able to read this book (published in 2022) before I wrote mine. I feel like “antagonistic cooperation” is exactly the sort of tense, sometimes agonistic, collaborative dynamic I was trying to describe in the sisterhood between life and death.
At any rate, what projects like O’Meally’s illuminate are simply other languages, models, or filters, for what it means to use, encounter, or channel creativity. It is undoubtedly the case that creativity names a power or force that the capitalist economy has harvested or has found ways of imposing on us. But projects like this—that point to forms of creativity arising beyond the models of God and Man—are a reminder that this power isn’t the same as capitalism itself. It’s something we can encounter through other shapes and models. It looks different, in other social collectives. What if creativity is a word for the most savage and exquisite form of power? What if it names the power to harmonize while invoking dissonance? To antagonize while cooperating? To generate pure aliveness in the throes of death?
Creatures of Creativity
There’s undoubtedly something about creativity as a fully internal property of human individuals that’s inherently secular. When we describe creativity as something in us, something correlated with our brains or our distributed corporeal networks for thinking, we don’t have to worry about creativity becoming metaphysical. We can maintain a rational and reasonable approach to the subject. Sure, it’s powerful. But it’s a power that we generate in our ourselves, one that we control. It’s not some weird power out there. It’s not totally mysterious, it’s a physical something-or-other that science should be able to explain, and scientists are justified in contemplating.
I’m all for interesting scientific practices and experiments that encounter and contemplate creativity, don’t get me wrong. But I think ruling out the possibility that creativity functions externally to us, as well as within us, is myopic. It’s also anthropocentric. Why shouldn’t creativity be something exhibited by trees? Or in planetary orbits? Or in the “antagonistic cooperation” between life and death? And why shouldn’t those forms of creativity impact us in concrete ways? Why shouldn’t creativity be an element of our environmental conditions?
Because we can’t isolate it. We can’t capture it and look at it under a microscope. We can’t even say, with real confidence, that it exists beyond our brains and bodies. So we are basically left attributing it to God and/or those divine metaphysics all over again. It’s an intellectual regression. Right?
I’m of the opinion that secular logic traps like this are out of date. And yes, this is because I’ve spent a lot of time studying theology. But I have no interest in reimposing the figure of God on thought, and trying to drag everyone back to some pre-modern form of thinking. I do think, however, that loosely theological things are often dismissed out-of-hand by those who don’t have an interest in grafting the figure of God back onto thought. For me, however, it was precisely through theology that I began to clearly see other ways of thinking.
The way I think about creativity has been influenced in an outsized way, perhaps, by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Michael Halewood has argued that Whitehead was the one to actually coin the term “creativity” in the 1920s. So the word, as a word, might just be traced back to this odd 20th century philosopher-mathematician. In Halewood’s research he hasn’t been able to find an earlier printed use of the term, in English. And this seems to be corroborated by the historian of science Steven Shapin (despite the fact that he also refers to this use somewhat derogatorily as “quasi-religious”). Remember the graph that I cited, earlier? There were barely any references, in books, to the term before the 1930s. Maybe it’s totally reasonable that Whitehead has overdetermined my sense of what creativity is!
Whitehead needed a new word because he was staging an explicit critique of the way that theology had habituated generations of thinkers to understand creativeness or generativity. Historically, in theology, God staged acts of creation and made created things. But Whitehead was trying to think, philosophically, about a world that wasn’t static like that—about a world of change, a shifting and unstable cosmos in process that unsettled old lines between subject and object, or internal and external. God had historically been used as a figure to explain or reinforce stability. God was the figure who made and sustained the world; the figure who made it unnecessary to ask deeper questions about how we came to be. For Whitehead, creativity wasn’t something that God made. It wasn’t something that originated in God. Rather, creativity was the principle of novelty. As he put it, God was a “creature of creativity.” God, that is to say, is a figure determined by creativity. A figure (I would argue) that we humans use as filter through which to encounter, soften, or mitigate the raw powers of creativity. God is a figure that’s been used to turn up the volume on the exquisite dimensions of creativity, to make it a little more lovely. But if you’ve ever read biblical texts, you also know that God can nevertheless illuminate what’s savage, as well.
If God is a creature of creativity, perhaps life and death are as well. The words themselves are certainly creative terms to describe creative forces or processes. Perhaps creativity is the force that keeps life and death in relation—that animates their antagonistic collaboration. Death is terrifying, of course. But life without death would be even more horrifying—a reproductive proliferation of excess.
Perhaps creativity is more than just a name for something we can access within ourselves. And more than just a thing that capitalism seeks to extract from us. That’s not to say it’s not within us! But perhaps it’s a force that’s in us because it’s passing through us, and connecting us. Perhaps it’s a name for the raw novel power that makes live, and makes die. It’s something we seek, in fear and trembling, to encounter—even if we often need a filter or a form of protection (forms like God, or reason, or art) in order to interface with it directly.