Assemblage Theory Cognisphere object-oriented rhetoric

object-oriented creativity

I would appear to have the opposite reading/writing problem from many of my graduate students. They often cite a difficulty in stopping reading and research to start writing. My problem is that I often can't get all the way through a book (or sometimes even an article) without having a strong urge to start writing. So while I would have liked to have gotten all the way through Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From before writing about it, here we are, halfway through (which required some restraint on my part).

Of course the common academic complaint about an author like Johnson is that the work lacks a certain amount of academic/scholarly quality. Perhaps he has a tendency to making bolder (unsubstantiated or over-simplified) claims or connections than an academic would. On the other hand, the book is interesting, readable, and provocative: three things scholarly prose tend to struggle with. So one must make of it what one can. Creativity in particular is a difficult subject for humanists. Economists might speak about "creative professionals," psychologists develop theories of creativity, educational theorists search for ways to encourage creativity in the classroom, and cognitive scientists map the brain's activity while being creative, but in the postmodern humanist era, creativity continues to suggest a kind of agency that is theoretically unavailable to us. So while the common "everyday man's" complaint about Johnson's book might be his insistence that creativity is networked, in the humanities we might object to creativity being depicted as anything other than an intersection of the unconscious and ideology… I think, because really we just don't speak much about it at all.

What we require is an object-oriented creativity perhaps.

Johnson identifies several qualities of environments that enhance creativity. I've read through four so far: adjacent possible, liquid networks, slow hunches, and serendipity. What it seems to come down to is that in order for good ideas to emerge their constituent parts need time and space to bounce around and into one another. Here's a brief look at each part from an object-oriented approach.

1. Adjacent possible. Basically this means that the idea that you will make next will be constructed from the parts or objects that are before you. E.g., in evolutionary terms, one doesn't jump from primordial soup to a mammal. Objects must be created along the way. This is an interesting take on OOO's rejection of the quasi-scientific notion that everything can just be explained by the movement of atoms. We're not just atoms. Objects made from atoms have qualities that atoms do not. Still, not any idea is possible (though it might not be possible to know what ideas are impossible, because in some sense you never fully know what is before you and what might be adjacent). Nevertheless, the basic principle Johnson derives here makes sense: "the trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table." So this is a kind of fundamental OOO idea. It's not just humans separate from the world; it's relations among objects. 

2. Liquid networks. This is about physical spaces–cities, communities, office spaces–and the way that their design might encourage or discourage the exchange and development of ideas. I've written here several times about the unfortunate design of academic workspaces. One might also thing about media networked communities and spaces. This fits in quite well with DeLanda's adoption of Deleuze and Guattari's models of assemblages with territorializing and deterritorializing tendencies. One can also think about this in relation to theories of exposure and exteriority: does one develop assemblages that encourage ideas to intermingle, to move beyond their established spaces, to connect in ways that might mutate them? In other words, it's not only about getting more parts/objects on the table but building a "table" that facilitates interactions among those parts.

3. Slow hunches. Basically this is about giving yourself time. Even though we might experience those eureka moments (or tell ourselves such stories later), it might take time to accumulate the objects that seem to come together suddenly. I wouldn't want to discount the affective moment of eureka, but I also wouldn't want to attribute everything to it, to suggest that being creative is about creating conditions for eureka moments. Slow hunches are like that familiar phrase, "after long years of hard work, he became an overnight success." Ultimately, the slow hunch is about building that network of objects over time and collecting them in a way that leaves them open for connection. 

4. Serendipity. That leads to serendipity, which is obviously the flip side of the slow hunch. Johnson makes some interesting observations here about the value of reframing, e.g. going for a walk or sleeping on a problem. I was particular interested in his discussion of some neurological imaging research done by Robert Thatcher and others (fire-walled unfortunately) that charts the relationship between IQ and states of chaos in the brain. As Johnson explains it, measurements of the brain indicate our continuing vacillation between a highly-ordered state of neurons firing (phase-lock) and a state of electrical noise. On average the noise lasts 55 milliseconds, but Thatcher's research indicates that people that have noise lasting longer, approaching 60 milliseconds, have higher IQs. Johnson writes, "Science does no yet have a solid explanation for the brain's chaos states, but Thatcher and other researchers believe that the electric noise of the chaos mode allows the brain to experiment with new links between neurons that would otherwise fail to connect in more orderly settings."

To return to DeLanda, we might think about this again in terms of deterritorialization. Phase lock is the operation of habit. Chaos states would suggest a recurring step toward potentiality and virtuality. To make the leap toward object-oriented panpsychism, one might suggest the psychic operation of objects is this potentiality to participate in new relations within liquid networks among the adjacent possibilities.

If I am going to have a new idea (new to me at least), then my brain has to be able to enter a state from which a new object, a new pattern of relations, might emerge. It can't just do the same things over and over. Furthermore, it can't just be my brain that's able to do that. My brain has to participate in a network of objects with a similar capacity for being exposed to new relations.