ASA05: Creativity and cultural improvisation

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

Panel 3: Creativity and temporality

Panel convenors: Dr Sharon Macdonald & Dr Eric Hirsch,
Panel abstract

The relationship between creativity and temporality raises key questions about what kinds of change over time should be counted as evidence of ‘creativity’, as well as about the reasons for so much emphasis on creativity in certain periods, including the present. A familiar scene: people say they follow the way of the ancestors but their conduct and material culture register signs of modernity. Is ‘creativity’ the right word to apply here? How does it compare with, say, discourses of creativity as key to business success or an emphasis on personal (especially childhood) creativity as key to individual success?

How people act in time is an outcome of how they imagine the world to be. This raises the question of whether this capacity for imagination is evidence of creativity. Is a world-view informed by a belief in ‘progress’ more productive of creativity than ‘non-progress-oriented’ worldviews? Or do such worldviews imply different kinds of creativity that need to be analytically distinguished?

This panel invites papers that draw on original ethnographic or historical research and substantive cases in order to critically reflect on the relationship between creativity and temporality, and on these concepts themselves. In selecting papers for this theme we will be hoping to include a range of explorations of different temporalities, including the epochal, inter-generational, life-course and between and within particular performances. We are also interested in how questions of persistence and ephemerality, and different representations of time, intersect with creativity. And how do notions of ‘the past’ or ‘history’ pose limits on creativity or, conversely, act as a spur? Are some times, and some time-scales more productive of the creative than others, and, if so, why? We also aim to include papers that explore different vehicles for articulating temporality and creativity, such as memory and narrative, or that explore artistic challenges to conventional notions of time.

Contemporary indigenous tribal names in North Queensland

James Weiner, ANU

Aboriginal communities in Australia since 1994 have been filing applications for the recognition of native title over their traditional country since the passage of the Native Title Act (1993). The Act purports to recognize connections to country and the retention of rights and interests in country that can be shown to have been extant at the time of European contact. The Act also stipulates that no 'new' native title relations to country can be deemed to have been established after the assertion of Sovereignty in 1788 and thus requires contemporary Aboriginal society to demonstrate a considerable degree of resistance to change in order for Aboriginal proprietary relations to country to be recognized at Common Law. The dilemmas for Aboriginal communities particularly in settled Australia, and for an anthropology that recognizes change and transformation as integral to the persistence of social life, this reveals a social science conundrum that is all but insurmountable. In this paper, I describe some examples of changes in the distribution of land-holding Aboriginal groups in contemporary north Queensland, how groups have responded to the challenge of re-inscribing Aboriginal 'ownership' in the native title era, how such changes had to be configured given the restricted requirements of the Native Title Act, and what the implications are for a contemporary Aboriginal Anthropology of time, place and transformation.

Creativity as evidence of having persisted through time

Joy Hendry, Oxford Brookes University

Indigenous people in different parts of the world complain that they are portrayed by museums (and anthropologists) as if they, or at least their 'culture', had died out. Labels are written in the past tense, old objects are privileged for display, and people from the very groups that brought about tumultuous change in their lives seek to recreate the time before that contact, as if they had brought about the only change that mattered.

A technique used in museums and culture centres to counteract this criticism, and to emphasise the continuing existence of the peoples whose objects they have on display is to include examples of their recent achievements. In the new Plains Indian Museum, in Cody, Wyoming, for example, every room has a TODAY section for this purpose. In the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, there is a section of modern jewellery made by Haida craftspeople and another of revived Musqueam weaving. In the new First Nations Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilisations, there is a notice at the entrance proclaiming 'We are alive, we are diverse, and we are creative'.

Creativity has become a way to demonstrate continued vitality, then, but it is also an opportunity to draw on one’s cultural background, real or imagined, as an expression of identity, or perhaps a confirmation of that choice of identity. Artists select themes, skills, designs, and even a medium in which to work, which express a link with the past, but at the same time draw the finished product into a contemporary frame of value.

My recent research with a variety of people who describe themselves as indigenous has come up with some interesting shared ideas about creativity. Members of societies scattered widely throughout the globe seek both to draw on the 'creative' heritage of their ancestors, and at the same time to make individual ‘creative’ contributions to the present state of whatever art it is they choose.

I would like to illustrate these ideas by drawing particularly on styles of 'indigenous' architecture where reinforced steel, and thick climate-resistant glass, for example, are incorporated into buildings that at the same time express the ingenuity of ancestral teachings about making use of natural resources. Photographs taken in various parts of North America, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Malaysia will be shown to demonstrate the ideas expressed.

In theory, the artists concerned are reclaiming their cultural heritage, a heritage erroneously thought to be static. In practice they are using that heritage to express the changes their people have continually undergone in a modern medium of individual difference and creativity.

Tradition and the individual talent: T.S. Eliot for anthropologists

Felicia Hughes-Freeland, University of Wales Swansea

This paper will take the poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot’s seminal essay 'Tradition and the individual talent' (1920) to frame a discussion of creativity in relation to history, innovation, and self-invention. Eliot’s arguments about impersonality in the creative enterprise prefigures ideas associated with postmodernism and the death of the author, but are less easily accommodated alongside ‘the invention’ of 'customization' of tradition and more fragmented or poly-modal theorizations of the past and often the person.

My paper will consider criteria for embodied creativity, and explore ideas of agency and creativity in certain Javanese dance traditions to explain where creativity might be said to reside in a tradition in which the degrees of freedom for innovation might appear limited. I will consider local examples of innovators, and how outsiders have used Indonesian traditions in the name of innovation.

In high art traditions in Indonesia and elsewhere, the role of the dancer has been to conform to a pre-existing movement text by working to perfect the execution of dance figures, to repeat, not to innovate or improvise. Such practices have been seen as expressions of regimes of discipline, not self-expression. Scholars of different dance and drama traditions in Indonesia have often compared the performer to a puppet, explaining that what is at issue is not the dancer but the danced, rather as poetic work for Eliot involves the ‘extinction of personality’. But a polarization of discipline and expression is an unsatisfactory one. Eliot’s statement, situated at the heart of a modernist western literary tradition, points to a way of thinking about creativity and innovation in a more subtle way, where newness might be less blatant, and less tied to purposive intention and to self-expression. The concluding points will concern the relationship of individuality, tradition, and innovation to creativity and the need to be careful in not overstating the contrast between societies which could be characterized by western individualism and those with a different social style. I also link the arguments above into a brief statement about the relationship of temporality to structure and agency in Archer's (1995) morphogenetic version of social realism.

Performing the world: the imaginative link between action and history

Kirsten Hastrup, University of Copenhagen

Taking the point of departure in the world of Shakespeare players, this presentation explores the distinction between anticipation and creativity with a view to the illusion of closure that accompanies all social worlds. Even though Shakespeare's theatre provides the starting point, the emphasis is on the social rather than the artistic domain.

It is argued that anticipation is an inherent feature of all social action, cramming the future into the present, sometimes to excess. The world is performed into being in a play with time. In that sense temporality is part of the texture of social spaces.

Creativity, on the other hand, is performed but not anticipated. It sets itself free from the social process while it must still be 'recognized' from within it. Temporality is not, therefore, immediately part of creativity but is to be found outside of it, as a scale by which newness can be measured.

Both anticipation and creativity in the senses suggested above hinge on a notion of an identifiable social space – an illusion of wholeness. This illusion itself is constructed with time and realised in social action. It is the illusion of wholeness that integrates the unique act with the larger history by imaginatively framing both the quest for newness and the desire for duration.

Back to the future: temporality, narrative, and the ageing self

Cathrine Degnen, University of Manchester

Older people are often stereotyped by younger people as ‘lost’ or ‘living’ in the past. This phrase connotes an unconcern with or irrelevance of the present on the part of older people. Such labelling is one that (unwittingly?) employs differing temporal relations as one measure of ‘oldness’. Social perceptions of incorrect temporal reckoning are powerfully stigmatising. When linked to old age, they also contribute to the multi-layered process of otherizing of older people as no longer ‘fully adult’, a process with significant implications for one’s sense of self.

Temporal positioning however does appear to shift as people age. The ageing self exists in a time universe which differs from younger and middle-aged adults not just in terms of frames of reference, which determine how people position themselves, but also the extent to which the past informs the present, and a certain insouciance about the future. This presents insight onto a temporal positioning of the self that may be unique to this part of the life-course. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the north of England, this paper explores the dynamics of these differing temporal relationships and their implications for the construction and maintenance of the ageing self. In particular, I examine the different characteristics of narrative style used by the older people I came to know during the course of fieldwork; I consider the ways in which they challenge narrative conventions and temporal ordering; and I call into question my own initial desiring that these narrative styles were a creative form of resistance to social stereotypes.

Slow food, fast genes: the different timescapes of innovation and responsibility in the anthropology of food

Cristina Grasseni, University of Bergamo - Bassetti Foundation, Milan

Innovation or creativity: which is the best term for explaining the kind of novelty that affects our daily consumption of food? We can take innovation to mean “the improbable made real”, but unlike ‘creativity’, it also implies the responsible (or irresponsible) use of technology to achieve such result.

Food is one crucial arena in which such issues are coming to a crux, and are in need of new epistemological, moral and anthropological categories. For instance, in Italy the 1996-founded Slow Food movement has achieved enormous resonance by creating a world-wide network of ‘presidia’, i.e. of carefully monitored traditional food productions that would otherwise become extinct, either because of the small size of the production or, by converse, because of the appropriation of the recipe and name of the product by more standardised, mass productions. Nevertheless, the very project of food diversity and conservation is a sign of (post)modernity and the means by which such project is carried out include sophisticated media usage, legal tools and laboratory studies of the input of material culture on the quality of the produce, both in terms of nutritional contents and of organolectic characteristics. Here, creativity is wholly devoted to the restoration of ‘tradition’ and innovation is devoted to provide suitable frameworks for its consumption (tourism, food-tasting, ethno-cuisine etc.).

Almost diametrically conceived is the innovation of GM crops, on the one hand hailed as a possible solution to famine and starvation, on the other feared as the ultimate multinational threat on world biodiversity and ecological sustainability. The former view is representative of a belief in “progress” in contemporary society. This type of innovation implies ways of conceiving and managing timescapes that are opposed to that of ‘slow food’. In the face of widespread pressure for the introduction of open field GM cultivation, is a ‘slow’ timescape more responsible than a fast one? Certainly, time is one crucial dimension that one needs to take into consideration in order to assess the reciprocal compatibility of innovation and responsibility.

This paper draws on ethnographic observation carried out, first, amongst one community of dairy farmers who are currently engaging with the Slow Food movement in order to obtain a ‘presidium’ over their own alpine cheese – hence bettering their commercial vocation. Secondly, on the widespread frequentation of fairs, taste-training events and exhibitions linked to the promotion of “typical products” in the alpine region of Northern Italy. Thirdly, on the co-operation with Foundation Bassetti in Milan, devoted to research and awareness on innovation and responsibility, who has led a consensus forum on the introduction of open field GM experimental crops in Lombardy.

The paper will first analyse the possible contradictions within the agenda of re-establishing tradition in an already ‘compromised’ practice such as that of food production, assessing whether innovation is played up as creativity or played down as non-traditional and non-authentic. Then, it will see which of the categories used in the appreciation of ‘traditional food’ are applied to narrative and discourse in negotiation talks about GM foods by the stakeholders. Much attention will be devoted to the visual imagery associated with the two different temporalities, of slow food and of fast-encroaching, fast-spreading (new) genes.

After trust

Alberto Corsin Jiménez, University of Manchester

Creativity works on an intriguing play of analogical conversions between the opaque and the diaphanous. The New Ethics (bioethics, corporate ethics, global governance) is a case in point. Transparency, accountability and trust (diaphaneity) have been mobilized against the dark forces of secrecy, uncertainty and risk (opacity). The movement in and out of opacity and diaphaneity further works on a particular temporal thrust: the ‘reality’ of time, and thus the ‘reality’ of relationships.

In this paper I want to look at the new vocabulary of ethics by comparing it with earlier anthropological interest in the allocation of responsibility, what Mary Douglas termed ‘forensic theories of danger’: how risk, sin, misfortune or blame are distributed throughout society. Here some ‘relationships’ are cast as being outside ‘reality’, for they play out in the order of the occult, which has its own temporality. I will look at the creative forces behind the analogical economy of the New Ethics by focusing on the notion of trust, a virtue hailed by the new capitalist ethics for its alleged social robustness. Markets require trust. Social relationships require trust. Business can only go on if corporations trust one another.

The paper unfolds by contrasting earlier anthropological work on cultures of suspicion and culpability with current capitalist discourses on accountability and transparency. It examines the work that relationships do when moving in and out of the occult, and contrasts it with the kind of temporal work that capitalism demands from relationships to remain diaphanous. In this light, I further suggest that the notion of trust works as a ‘dialytical’ concept: a concept that requires to breakdown (or purify) its own context of action to convey meaning. Trust works by creating its own preconditions of existence, which must in turn be certified as trustworthy. Audit cultures are the classic example: the audit makes the culture trustworthy, which in turn holds trust as a value capable of audit. But if there is a form of relationality that does not entail trust (that lies before trust, so to speak), what happens when trust finally obtains? What happens to relationships when they achieve trustworthiness? What kind of society lies after trust? What is trust a proportion of, should something lie beyond it? What is the occult economy of trust?

New work, flexibility and the cult of creativity

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

The ongoing restructuration of capitalism entails a shift in the global division of labour, trade patterns and the structuring of work in most societies. In the rich North Atlantic societies, there is a well documented tendency towards flexibility in at least two respects: flexible accumulation of capital (Lash and Urry), and flexible work (Castells, Sennett). The latter entails, among other things, a rapid job turnover, less rigid routines (than in industrial production), a fast increasing number of self-employed persons, and a volatile and uncertain job market.

Bateson (1972) defined flexibility as «uncommitted potential for change». He also claimed that flexibility gained in one field tends to reduce flexibility in another domain. With this perspective as a point of departure, it is possible to examine critically the outcome of the assumed flexibility of new work. Drawing on interviews with workers in «the new economy» of information processing and consultancies, the paper aims to show that enhanced spatial flexibility implies reduced temporal flexibility. The significance of new information and communication technologies is discussed, as well as neoliberal criteria for efficiency. A central paradox is the simultaneous suppression of actual possibilities for creativity and touting of creativity as a positive force in the production process.

Discussants: Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge & Penny Harvey, University of Manchester