“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Against Creativity

The below was a “provocation” I delivered at the conference NonfictionNow held last weekend in Melbourne for a panel (dubiously) entitled "Public Sphere Literary Criticism as Creative Nonfiction."

The main contention of this panel, as I understand it, is that literary criticism in general, and book reviewing in particular, should be viewed as a creative act. It’s worth thinking briefly about why such a claim would be contentious—and the answer, I think, is that definitions of creativity over the last 500 years have typically evolved in opposition to conceptions of criticism and scholarship. The key term in the history of the division between criticism and creativity is genius.
When the conception of genius appeared in the 18th Century, the artist’s task was profoundly changed: unlike the master artists of the classical tradition, geniuses did not require formal schooling to master their artistic technique. As Edward Young noted in his Conjectures on Original Composition from 1759, ‘genius is from heaven, learning from man.’ For the genius to rely too heavily on erudition would result in scholastic imitation, rather than radical originality.
But the genius’s ability to generate original works of art comes at a great price: the genius is not capable of understanding how his or her own work is produced, because the genius’s creative ability is not a product of rational understanding, but an innate faculty or talent. As Kant says in his Critique of Judgment, ‘no Homer or Wieland can show how his ideas, so rich at once in fantasy and in thought, enter and assemble themselves in his brain, for the good reason that he does not himself know, and so cannot teach others.’ In simple terms, genius is, above all, a figure who does not understand what it is he is doing.
         Because the genius can only produce work without understanding it, the post-Kantian paradigm of art had to suppose an informed spectator in the form of a knowledgeable critic, who—in a relationship not dissimilar to that of the analysand and analyst—supplements the work of art by explaining what it means. The critic becomes necessary for decoding the work of art, which the genius produced but can’t possibly understand. The result of this fairly sad state of historical affairs is that critics and artists have been pitted as would-be antagonists, even as each has parasitically relied upon the other.
           But the notion of the genius that I have just described died somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century, I think—I will let you decide where. Instead, we are in the process of developing a new notion of aesthetics in which the key term is no longer genius, but rather creativity. While I am in no way nostalgic for the older paradigm of genius, it is nonetheless hard to see the new paradigm of creativity as a positive development. Creativity is one of those words that provokes an immediately positive response, and therefore is beloved by bureaucracy. 
          Creativity, above all, is a neoliberal and late capitalist word that we associate not only with such entities as creative writing programs, but also with economic concepts like the creative class and cultural creatives—and what creativity signals above all else is a lifestyle choice, a choice to be the kind of romantic, inner-city dwelling person who is not tied down to a specific locality, a restrictive work schedule, and who does not see the value in traditional institutions (in this sense, the advertising "creative" may be the figure of contemporary creativity par excellence). The “creative” person is thus a member of a transnational, cosmopolitan bourgeoisie, and “creativity” itself becomes a celebration of precisely this state of affairs.
The paradigm of creativity no longer needs the critic, because “creatives” are not interested in criticism or in systematic critical thinking or even the history of art, since being creative is about being in an amnesiac and ever-present state of possibility—a constant state of a potential coming to fullness that ultimately reflects the hyperproductivity of a globalised, networked post-historical monoculture. Indeed, creativity is, for better or worse, simply the cultural equivalent of what is perhaps neoliberalism’s favourite word—innovation, and the modern paradigm of the creative individual more or less adheres to a model of entrepreneurship, albeit an entrepreneurship in which the return on investment is perpetually delayed, perhaps until death and even beyond.
Under the paradigm of creativity, the critic’s traditional function has been absorbed by a new set of institutions that now consecrate creative works. Much of the process of canonization of writers now falls onto the prize system, and literary culture, for better or worse, has become almost entirely a prize culture—a state that is evident in the way all authors’ bios list not only their wins but also the instances in which they have been shortlisted for an ever proliferating number of literary prizes.
Although it is increasingly being stripped of both its cultural capital and largely phased out of a variety of institutions, such as universities and the media, where humanities and book reviews appear under constant threat, criticism is more important now than ever. For the reasons I described above, I would be very happy if criticism—despite the fact that it certainly involves and requires creativity in the everyday sense—continues to stay away from creativity. Even better, I truly hope that it takes a few artists with it, pushing them to be not creative at all, but scholastic, learned, imitative, critical, to accept that rational thought is part of the repertoire of human experience and emotions rather than something that is opposed to emotion, and to aspire towards work that is difficult, rigorous, complex, obscure, discomfiting, challenging, and even painful from time to time. Rather than a creative criticism, how about a criticism that aspires toward a non-creative fiction, towards a more substantial art than the disposable commercial realism of most so-called literary works?
          I would suggest that in the current climate of “creativity,” criticism’s job—its work—is to be both utopian and reactionary, and to do what it can to work against the diffusion of generic principles of a marketable creativity, to argue for the value of difficulty, and to excavate and enliven dead traditions that have too quickly been cast-off by a modernity that has attempted to declare all of history obsolete. In simple terms, it still falls to the critic to encourage people to think, to read, to question, and to remind everyone that art is and needs to be something more than an entertaining reflection of our vertiginous world which seems stuck in a never-ending present even as it hurtles toward an uncertain future.