Wednesday, 18 March 2009

879 - Two Quotes on Identity and Civil Rights

The first from Susan Greenfield:
What would it actually be like to have a community where everyone was fired up, excited by the act of revelation and discovery, with such a strong and robust sense of self that each was impervious to the needs or reactions of others?...

One answer might be to limit the number of those in society who were creative...

[Or] lets take a different tack. Perhaps the answer might lie, not in contriving different stereotypes, but in drawing on the advantage that each offers to society.... All four scenarios - Someone, Nobody, Anyone and Eureka - have their place in the narrative of a human life story, as well as in enabling a fully functional and successful society. The problem until now has been that the balance hasn't been right - neither for the individual nor for the particualar society in which they live. But now, for the first time in human history, the technology is there to enable us to have not just the technological toolkit but also the time and space to shape a world that creates an environment where all four personas can be developed into an integrated portfolio....

(Greenfield, i.d., pp. 290-1)

The second from David Lewis-Williams, and anthropologist writing about Upper Paleolithic cave painting

Here I examine interaction of mental activity and social context: how, I ask, do notions about human experience that are shared by a community impinge on the mental activity of individuals and how does socially controlled access to certain mental states become a foundation for social discrimination?

(Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, Thames & Hudson, 2002, pp. 9-10)

The two authors are writing about the same subject, creativity interacting with community, but Greenfield writes about the 21st century, Lewis-Williams about the 120th century BC. Both recognise the potential for social discrimination in the way creativity is handled.

Three things chill me about Greenfield's analysis.

The first is that, although she herself does not advocate the suppression of creativity (explicitly, she chooses 'a different tack', though not before sketching the social engineering that would be necessary in order to limit the number of creative people to a minority), other policy makers, more pragmatic and less ethically motivated, might.

The second is that I strongly suspect that her partition of life into four equal mindsets - creative, individualist, community-minded and full of wild abandon - is simply wrong. Rather, it seems to me, creativity expresses itself through the other mindsets, allowing us to transcend them. Categorising creativity on a par with the others implies that there are times when creativity is not appropriate, but, say, drudgery for the common good is. But doesn't this remove the imagination that could transform the drudgery, through hope of better times, subversive humour, and inventiveness? Leading rapidly to a situation where those that are privileged are able to remove themselves from the need to slog, at the expense, by default, of those - the identity-poor? - whom they legislate to stay in place, keeping an unequal society ticking over.

The third is that Greenfield assumes that only thanks to technology do we have the ability to shape a fully integrated human life. This theory hobbles us, tying us to tools that only the rich, individually and as nations, can afford. It belies the evidence of evolution and extant hunter-gatherer communities, as Lewis-Williams' quote implies, as well as those creatives who we let ourselves celebrate, but maintain are dysfunctional, forgetting that their dysfunctionality is as likely to be a product of the suppression of creativity elsewhere in post-agricultural society as it is a personal disability. If only technology can fix it, we have a license for physical intervention and legislation. But if it is part of our humanity to be creative, such restriction can at best challenge us, at worst harm us.

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