Updated: May 6, 2021
The title of this blog just popped into my head. I created it. But not out of nowhere, something outside the idea caused the idea. I didn’t try specifically to come up with these words, I just thought roughly about creativity and that I wanted to write about it, and from there, the words came to me. You could say I was ‘inspired’.
Does this everyday human process of creating mean we should question the ‘I think therefore I am’ philosophy? How different would history be today if Descartes had said instead:
‘I create therefore I am’?
If, as a creative person, you ever need validation for your creative practice, there are certainly convincing arguments out there that creativity comes before what we commonly call ‘thinking’. The clue is in thinking about something. What we’re thinking about is ideas, whether strong ideas, like our sense-perceptions - our experience of real things (as mediated by our unreliable brains) - or more conceptual ideas, like ‘justice’ or ‘peace’, or ‘poetry’ or ‘music’. Without these ideas there is no scaffolding for thought. You could even say ‘I create therefore I think’.
The linked video is of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who contends that the ‘idea’ is the source of any discipline, and the rest, thinking about ideas included, follows after.
1m 49s: “What happens when you say: "Hey, I have an idea?" ...everyone knows that having an idea is a rare event, it is a kind of celebration, not very common. …. I say that I do philosophy, that I try to invent concepts. … Someone who makes a block of movement / duration might be doing cinema. Music invents another type of blocks that are just as specific. And alongside all of that, science is no less creative. I do not see much opposition between the sciences and the arts.”
Gilles Deleuze ‘The Creative Act’
Deleuze goes into this more deeply in his other books and collaborations, but the key aspect is that thinking is inspired by ideas. The creative spark, one essential part of the act of creation, is just that: having an idea. And the spark is powerful, because ideas condition the thinking.
If ideas condition thinking, then having ideas and bringing them into the world - being creative in other words - is a responsibility. So it’s important to understand what we are doing when we create.
The first question I need to ask myself then, is: what do I mean by my own idea - this topic. What do I mean by: ‘turning the creative spark into fire’?
Explaining will take me three blogposts... here goes with part I:
The Special Source
‘Popped into my head’
‘Dawned on me’
‘Was staring me in the face’
‘Came to me...’
‘...in a flash’
‘A light went on’
‘A lightbulb went off’
‘A eureka moment’
All these are phrases that describe, in a different flavour or tone, the same thing: inspiration. Inspiration comes from the Latin: something ‘breathed into’ you - something that occurs to you, without you doing anything consciously.
I’m about as sure that I don’t believe in ghosts as I am that I do believe in inspiration. And that’s interesting, because inspiration is just as invisible as ghosts. You can see the thing that inspired you, and you can feel inspired, but the link between the experience and feeling inspired by it, is invisible.
Perhaps it’s because of this invisibility that not everyone acts on their inspiration. How can inspiration have weight, meaning, relevance, if it doesn’t ‘exist’. How can I have conviction about what has inspired me, especially if it just ‘occurred’, came for no ‘rational’ reason? Is it even mine? Such thoughts can fuel doubt, inertia, writer's block... but these reactions can themselves become sources of renewed creativity.
The fact that something has inspired you is the reason to believe in that something. The thing that gives it weight is the thing that comes from staying true to that inspiration. Inspiration is what allows real creative things in the world - works of art, designs, products - to be conceived in the first place.
On the other hand when you don’t follow what inspires you, you risk going along with things that don’t. When you question or take a different angle on things that are widely held as fact, sure, you risk losing face, but without questioning and exploring, you end up living with all the things people currently hold as facts that aren’t true. It’s ideas that bridge the gaps.
Deleuze argues that, from Plato to Descartes, leading philosophical concepts have themselves left a big gap: they’ve forgotten to account for the ideation stage in their own philosophies. This has led to overly deterministic and mechanistic views of reality that have been consistently overturned by discoveries in science like relativity, black holes and quantum physics - areas now accepted as fact that required human imagination and originality not only for their discoverers to unearth them, but also for others around them to understand them.
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to what we know and understand. While imagination embraces the entire world and all there will ever be to know and understand’
My hypothesis here is that it’s important to respect your ideas. It’s good to test a hypothesis - and that’s where the power of thinking kicks in: thought is needed to explore and develop a creative idea - to test it. So, to test this: if ideas are the essential scaffolding of thought, what happens when thought is taken as the main thing, and ideas forgotten?
There is plenty of precedent in history of our tendency to forget the importance of the idea-stage. Short-sightedness is a term for taking only results that suit us at the time while ignoring the original ideas and the bigger picture. Short-sightedness is what has brought us atomic bombs out of revolutionary scientific discoveries, and political narrow-mindedness facilitated by algorithms whose underlying mathematical principle that was conceived to do the opposite, to combat narrow-mindedness.
We can turn, as a recent culmination of this tendency, to the myth of technological neutrality. Where that neutrality myth - that idea, that dream - drives technological development, it can discourage creativity and curtail other freedoms because of the things technology gets to present as if fact, that in fact distort reality.
If tech development is underpinned by an overly simplistic ideology that prioritises too much of what we usually regard as ‘thinking’ (keywords: ‘logic’, ‘maths’, ‘stats’, ‘analysis’), then there is too little attention to other important dimensions of humanity (such as ‘intuition’, ‘creativity’, ‘imagination’ and the input of different cultures that informs and matures these essential faculties). In claiming to solve problems without that fully rounded toolset, algorithm-makers are at risk of creating new problems - by bringing in unconscious biases, and at scale. We all have unconscious biases, it’s human. But ignoring this, or thinking or pretending we don’t, can result in a development culture that calls itself innovation, but is treading old ground (sexism, racism, colonialisation).
The idea may come first, but it is vulnerable to us not realising it does. In that cognitive gap worse ideas get investment, ideas that take advantage of the status quo as opposed to evolving it (cf. Cambridge Analytica). Also, frustratingly, as Malcolm Gladwell tells us in Blink, we can’t statistically back up a brilliant idea right out the gate, nor can we statistically back up a true insight that is made in a matter of seconds by an expert. Conversely, months of analysis by multiple professionals can come to the opposite (wrong) conclusion about the thing the expert’s insight took seconds to identify. Great ideas can go to early graves in an over-testing culture, even if that culture remains inferior than it would be if new original ideas were taken more seriously. This is why we need to respect intuition and the creative spark more. Creativity is important work in progressing culture, an essential counter to culture becoming entrenched or regressing.
Forgetting the value of the novel idea is a problem as much in economics as in philosophy. Much of economic theory also starts ‘post-idea’ - with ideas being the ‘forgotten given’, neglected, unexamined, in a way that hinders progress toward better ideas. The very terms ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ already presuppose the presence of value that can only be contributed by the creative act: the ideas behind the technologies of value that constitute means of production worth labouring with.
Sticking with economics, but flipping the test back again, let’s see what’s right about prioritising ideas - genuine innovation. If we remember the value of new technologies, for example, and if we break down legal barriers surrounding intellectual property sharing, dismantle global economic and cultural stereotypes and create just small economic incentives for development of new ideas, it could not only be economically beneficial, it might have the side effect of being literally planet-saving. That links to an article by Paul Romer the Nobel prize winning promoter of endogenous growth theory. Beneath this theory is the idea that humans are primarily creative as opposed to reactive - reactive when they need to be (to exogenous forces) but creative when left alone. Ideas are endogenous: they come ‘from within’. With a bit of realistic optimism, Romer believes, stimulating the creation of ideas and connecting the ideas up better globally could reverse climate change.
Humanity is a mix of inspired and misguided. I don’t need to call in examples on that one. We find BS everywhere, and, interestingly, such barriers both obstruct and inspire change. But dissatisfaction because of barriers is not the sole source of creativity.
Artists are free to accept any source for inspiration - joy, grief, a passing bird. And practical, boundary-crossing breakthroughs don’t all come from applied (‘problem-solving’/‘innovation’-type) creativity either. Inventions can emerge tangentially, from errors even - serendipity - or as by-products of more purely creative processes that shed light on hard problems from unexpected angles. Which is to say creativity for its own sake is important. Creativity itself is a human need-and-solution in one, and not just theoretically. In history, creativity comes before the inventions. Spontaneous ideas underpin the advancement of technology.
“Technology is more closely related to art than to science
Most teachers of history ignore the nucleating role of technology and concentrate on the social changes that are engendered by it.”
New York-based artist, designer, and creative programmer, Zach Lieberman, helps run interaction design studio YesYesNo and the School for Poetic Computation. In observing a difference between art and design, Zach suggests that art - pure creativity - is what we can turn to when we are lost.
‘Design … is like navigating a city in the daytime: you know where you are, and where you need to get to, but might still get lost along the way.’
‘Art is “walking around a city at night—you don’t know where you’re going, exploring with no direction. It’s so self-directed, and it’s about understanding yourself and sharing those findings with the world.”’
(From an article published by Adobe, here.)
But there’s another question, if we are to prioritise pure creativity as a source of the ideas that govern our directed thinking, we need to ask why. We need to go one step up the ladder from thought, get to ideas, and then ask what’s above that, to make sure that this time, we don’t leave anything out.
In part II we’ll cover where creativity comes from.
Thanks for reading part I of ‘Turning your creative spark into fire’. If you want to check out the Ideas panel of the Delic app while you wait for part II, head on in and create a project!
Or head to Delic’s Discord channel to continue the discussion.