ASA05: Creativity and cultural improvisation

4th - 7th April 2005, University of Aberdeen, UK

Panel 2: The creativity of social, political and religious life

Panel convenors: Dr Sari Wastell, & Dr Melissa Demian,
Panel abstract

This panel aims to critically explore the nature of 'creativity' in social, political and religious life by considering the extent to which - or those contexts within which - 'creativity' is conceived of as a social rather than an individual capacity. That is, we take as our starting point that the innovations which appear to cause temporal/historical discontinuities are not always (if ever?) genius-inspired practices or knowledge without precedent even by those who deem them 'creative.' Rather, they are appropriations in the sense of practices, information or belief systems being 'transplanted' (through processes including but not limited to colonization, violence, missionization, education, media and trade) and then recontextualized by those who appropriate them. This process of decontextualization and recontextualization is what creates the effect or appearance of social discontinuity. To illustrate this process, the panel will be divided into a morning session devoted to the theme of appropriation and an afternoon session focused on discontinuity. The separation is an artificial one, as many distinctions between cause and effect can be, but we are maintaining the distinction in order to ask how people use their appropriations, either voluntary or involuntary, of other people’s knowledge/practices in order to generate a sense of sociological distinctiveness which is salient in a particular historical moment. Papers might consider who attributes 'creativity' to acts and persons - both amongst the actors concerned and as between actor/informants and the anthropologist/observer. Finally, all contributions would be encouraged to consider what is at stake when 'creativity' is invoked in either indigenous exegesis and/or anthropological description, and what is the 'work' performed by the valorisation of discontinuity generally?

Inspiration and creativity: UK fiction readers and the art of composition

Adam Reed, University of St Andrews

In this paper I aim to explore the nature of ‘creativity’ through a reflection upon the event of fiction writing or composition. In particular, I want to approach the notion of creativity through the parallel notion of ‘inspiration’. Here I draw upon my ethnographic work with the members of a UK literary society. Fans of a particular novelist might be expected to assign creativity to the individual person of the author. However, the fiction readers I worked with saw creativity as a force that existed in the world (independent of individuals but capable of inspiring them). Indeed, they claimed that during states of inspiration authors found a way of making connections with states and minds external to them. Far from conceived as an individual capacity, creativity was therefore a force which demonstrated that authors must look beyond themselves in order to write. Society members reflected upon the source of that inspiration and upon creativity as a social capacity.

Speaking Maori in Parliament

Ilana Gershon, Emerson College

In New Zealand, Maori have had indigenous self-representation in Parliament since 1867, when four seats were set aside for Maori representatives only. Are Maori members of Parliament transplanted Maori chiefs? Or are Maori MPs political strategists operating in a hybrid space, interweaving Maori and European New Zealand registers to embody a creative biculturalism? In this paper, I explore the political consequences of appropriation in social contexts where cultures are indeed viewed as bounded wholes that can be represented literally through members of Parliament. I ask how members of the New Zealand Parliament negotiate the conflicting notions of representation and sovereignty underlying European New Zealand and Maori conceptions of leadership. Maori chiefs are cultural leaders in a way that contradicts how the New Zealand parliament is structured to recognize both sovereignty and democratic representation. I explore how being a Maori MP is problematically linked to being a Maori chief, with anxieties about allegiances to various political entities surfacing periodically. In practice, the resulting tensions often emerge in the New Zealand Parliament as arguments over authenticity – whether a Maori member of parliament is truly Maori enough to speak for others. In this paper, I will discuss the conflicting assumptions underlying the differing notions of leadership at stake in the New Zealand Parliament as members explore the contradictions between imagining themselves as a bicultural Parliament and the practice of being bicultural.

‘Creativity’ in English Baptist understandings of assisted and assisting conception

Jeanette Edwards, University of Manchester

How are innovative medical and biotechnological practices enlisted to, and accommodated within, pre-existing religious frameworks? This paper focuses on ‘new reproductive technologies’ (NRT) and Baptism. It draws on ethnography from a region of England where non-conformist religions emerged with industrialisation and where chapels were built alongside cotton mills. At present Baptist churches remain a small but significant presence in the region and Baptism appears to be the only religious denomination not in decline. The paper explores the way in which Baptist ministers and members of their congregation explore some of the possibilities presented by NRT. It looks at ‘creativity’ in the reading of scriptures and explores how baptist understandings of kinship (in both sacred and mundane worlds) accommodate biotechnological intervention in human reproduction. The paper focuses on the limits to improvisation and on the way in which ‘religious technology’ incorporates, rejects and engages with ‘reproductive technology’.

Locating ‘flexibility’: the creative production of music and care amongst Czech nurses and Greek Gypsy musicians

Rosie Read, University of Manchester, Aspasia Theodosiou, University of Manchester,

Social theories which stress the importance of flexibility and mobility within contemporary reconfigurations of time, space and identity have been subject to critique in recent years (Appadurai 1986, 1993, Lash and Urry 1994, Featherstone 1995). It has been shown for example that ideologies of flexibility and mobility can provide the very ground for new processes of social exclusion (Adkins 1999, 2002). This paper seeks to build on this critique, by stressing not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ and ‘where’ of hegemonic constructions of flexibility. We examine how these emerge through location; how they are always creatively appropriated in the context of particular histories, experiences and economies (Gupta and Ferguson 1999).

This paper compares the increasingly flexible nature of ideas and practices of music and ‘care’ within two distinctive ethnographic studies. On the Greek-Albanian border, the aestheticisation of ‘culture’ has transformed ‘traditional’ music into an increasingly mobile ‘product’. This can be linked to the increased essentialisation and social exclusion of those who traditionally perform this music, i.e. gypsy musicians. In Prague, notions of ‘adequate care’ within hospitals and nursing homes have been dislocated and fragmented by the recent social and economic upheavals associated with the collapse of socialism. In this process the association between femininity and ‘adequate care’ is increasingly naturalized, thereby producing new forms of social exclusion for female care workers. Nevertheless, this paper will emphasize how local histories, knowledge and experiences provide the ground through which hegemonic discourses of flexibility are appropriated and re-located. This in turn supplies social actors with the resources to creatively counteract processes of social exclusion. Ultimately the paper aims to review the concept of ‘flexibility’ within social theory, by suggesting that a focus on locality points towards the existence of multiple forms of ‘flexibility’.

‘That’s how they do it in Paris’: masking innovations in a Kabyle village

Judith Scheele, University of Oxford

The mountainous area of Kabylia has long been described as ‘remote’, and has, within colonial and partly also within post-colonial French anthropology, come to epitomise the very idea of changelessness, as based on an ‘original democratic constitution’. These ideas, forged in the particular context of the 19th century, have by now eagerly been taken up by local intellectuals, in the name of the discovery of age-old ‘Berber culture’ and history. Over the last two decades, they have been articulated within several larger social movements (the Berber movement of the 1980s and the ‘‘arush’ or ‘tribal’ movement of the 2000s), and have been adapted accordingly to the local context, in a politically and socially very ‘creative’ act, but that claims to be a ‘retour aux sources’.

In actual fact, Kabylia has never been ‘remote’, but was located on some of the most important trading routes from the Mediterranean coast inland, and has a long and sustained history of labour emigration. The ‘borrowing’ of ideas has always been central to the self-perception of villagers: village life in all its forms and expressions – economic, intellectual, religious, artistic – is based on the idea of ‘imports’ of all kinds, and of being part of several overlapping networks, which heavily influence the social dynamics within the village community itself. ‘Creativity’ and ‘social change’ have always been perceived as coming from and ultimately depending on the outside; ‘intellectuals’ are those who are in a position to mediate between the village and the outside world, thereby ‘making’ both. Individual creativity as such is little valued; whereas an individual’s capacity to draw on a large variety of networks is widely praised.

Rather than showing how ‘social creativity’ often describes a re-contextualisation of outside ideas, this paper focuses on the reverse effect: how ‘creative’ social changes can be masked in terms of outside sources of legitimacy, in order to become socially acceptable.

Making a Splash!: water rituals, subversion and environmental values in Queensland

Veronica Strang, Auckland University of Technology

This paper examines the recently created Splash! Festival in Maroochydore, in South East Queensland, which is organised by local European-Australian environmental activists and ‘New Age’ groups. The objective of the Festival is to celebrate the social and cultural meanings of water, as well as its sensory and aesthetic qualities. By materialising their collective ideas through art, material culture and performance, the organisers hope to encourage the participants to think about and valorise water more holistically.

The one-day festival takes place on Chambers Island in the Maroochydore River, and entails a series of – often participatory – events, including art works, music, dance and theatre. Relying heavily on representations of animals and plants, these events appropriate and recontextualise local indigenous rituals, while also drawing on perceptions of early European Pagan ceremonial practices to provide an imaginative educational and sensory experience. The Festival culminates with a semi-religious Ceremony of the Waters in which water from each of the rivers in the catchment area is ‘blessed’ and poured into a central vessel in a symbolic affirmation of the ties between local communities.

Through the use of religious symbolism and pleasurable sensory and aesthetic experiences, participants in the Splash! Festival are therefore encouraged to focus on aspects of water that in Queensland are generally subsumed by much more utilitarian economic and technical concerns about resource management. Though the subtext of the Festival is somewhat obscured by its playful form, Splash! is intentionally subversive, linking with continuing indigenous resistance to colonisation, and with wider concerns to revive or recreate social communities that can resist the fragmenting and exploitative effects of an increasingly right-wing socio-economic context. In this sense the Festival represents both a long-running critique of colonial hegemony, as well as collective creative efforts by an enlarging sub-culture to challenge and subvert contemporary political values, and to promulgate different social and environmental practices.

Creating ethnography: differing notions of creativity in anthropological knowledge production, a Maori/European example

Elizabeth Cory-Pearce, Goldsmiths College

In Britain in the 1920s, anthropologists created ethnographies that were typically functionalist accounts of forms of ‘social, political and religious life’ elsewhere in the world. However, the subjects of their observations may have figured the nature of creative processes differently. In instances where anthropologists study their own people, differing notions of creativity and knowledge transmission may become more apparent. In this paper I explore possibly differing notions of creativity in the work of Makereti/Margaret Thom, a student of anthropology at Oxford in the 1920s.

Makereti, like other anthropologists at the time, drew extensively upon the writings of colonial ethnographers. However, where she did so without reference or alteration, the work of others appears to be presented as ‘her own’. Yet ethnographers also made use of the words of their participants, sometimes named, sometimes anonymously. This layering of expression makes problematic any direct connection between individual talent and creativity, whilst also jumbling up conventional roles in the production of ethnography (who is actor or observer, informant or ethnographer here?). Perhaps these layers of appropriation suggest something more than ‘copying’ in terms of the way creativity might be figured in a Maori setting?

Giving comparative examples drawn from colonial art and photography, I consider the ways in which creative agency might be attributed to the person or persons made present through such creations, and their relationship with the reader/viewer. When located within a Maori cosmological framework in which all things in the universe originate through reproductive conception and are genealogically connected, the creation of texts or images might be figured not in terms of an author, artist or photographers ‘individual genius’, but in terms of relationships of descent from ancestors, through which knowledge, skills and expertise may be transmitted.

Ataturk’s ‘never ending dance’: the power of self-institution in Islamist and Kemalist movements in Turkey

Christopher Houston, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

The work of Nigel Rapport and Cornelius Castoriadis strongly emphasize in different ways the arbitrariness or gratuity of creation out of nothing or self institution. Both deny the efficacy of ‘intersubjectivity’ in constituting selves or meanings. Rapport does so on an individual level (individuals are primarily self-fashioning, rather than cross-subjectively, collaboratively produced).  Castoriadis does so on both an individual and social level (intersubjective relations, although fabricating individuals, are not the origin of  social-historical creation, whilst societies are encapsulated and self-preserving entities, opposed to the self-institution of other societies). Finally both place a high ethical and political value on ‘transcendental’ (Rapport) or ‘autonomous’ (Castoriadis) self-institution, although for different reasons. Their analytic stress on ‘discontinous creation’ gives onto a particularly interesting set of issues in relation to the experience and analysis of domination and resistance.

This paper jumps off from an abbreviated discussion of these claims to explore selected changes within both the Islamist and Republican social movements in Turkey from the early 1990s to the present, the years in which I have, unavoidably intermittently, been following their development. Using a number of eclectic yet not untypical texts (an advertisement placed in Time Magazine by the Turkish state to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Republic; a recent manifesto of the governing and ‘Islamist’ AKPARTi; and a speech in Parliament by the Chairman of the People’s Republican Party (CHP)), I argue that the extravagance of Islamist resistance in Turkey post 1980, characterized by ongoing innovation, gratuitous invention, florid polemics, critiques of or returns to ‘tradition’, and radical breaks with political positions strenuously defended only years before, diagnoses or brings to light the fantastical power of Kemalism itself, exposed by Islamist resistance as informed by a doctrine of the triumph of the will. Islamist resistance reveals Kemalism’s power to be the power of explicit self-institution or unceasing creation out of nothing.

Discussants: Sarah Green, University of Manchester, Christine Ward Gailey, University of California at Riverside