The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Can technology perform what has been promised of it – can it make everyone creative? To my surprise, I conclude that it can, if by creative we understand something as distinct from creation as active is distinct from action.

Technology allows us to be active without acting, decouples action from activity both in frustrating our determination by an infinite multiplication of stakeholders and infinite attenuation of authority, and in excusing our indecision with an infinite regress of prerequisites, preparations, and precautions. While the year’s planning of a royal feast becomes the labor of an hour’s trip to the grocery store, the hour’s action of a king and counselor becomes the decades’ activity of a movement of tens of millions.

Technology can likewise democratize creativity by decoupling it from creation, after empowering it with resources cheapened through economies of scale. This decoupling takes place at two points: in preventing the concealment of sources, and in preventing the discrimination of influences.

Our popular writers defend oversimplifications with caricatures. You will read, for example, that creativity now stands revealed as inherently collaborative and social, over against an outdated and misguided nineteenth century – no, Victorian – no, Romantic (they are interchangeable for the purpose) idea of Genius inexplicably and mystically inspired with utterly irreducible, unaccountable, and unanswerable Originality.

You will hear quoted: “Creativity is the art of concealing sources.” This sounds awful to our ears; it stimulates our reflexes: concealment – hypocrisy! Expose it! And so we embrace a doctrine of synthetic, social creativity defined only as the opposite to a something that no one ever really believed.

Of course creativity is synthetic. With knowledge as with gravity, mass has force. The more knowledge is accumulated, the more it is all alive; by concentration and fermentation is becomes fertile. And it is true that creativity cannot be independent. Every act of creation is fed by a thousand buried mingling rivers. Even the springs of the desert rise by distant rainfalls. Mere self-expression cannot be original because nothing we can create for ourselves can be as meaningful to us as the things that we have experienced, that have shaped us. New and awkward is just awkward; old but well done is just well done. For a human being there should be a pleasure in seeing anything done well, with gravity and devotion: whittling or whistling, playing a toccata, laying out a garden, writing a program, spinning a yo-yo, engineering an industrial process, writing a constitution, inventing a language. The value of originality does not occur independently.

The caricature is absurd, but not new. Consider Swift, who maligned early Romanticism by comparing its writers to the spider, spinning flimsy pale cobwebs from her own substance, over against the bee, who patiently collects nectar from a hundred flowers and distills it to thick golden honey. Our idea of social creativity matches this caricature – only we take the part of the beehive, instead of the bee. But this is not viable. The vomit of bees and the spinneret-slurry of spiders are alike products of digestion; one happens to be more pleasant to observe than the other. But I have seen golden spiders spin golden webs.

The spider conceals its sources; from the look of its web you cannot tell what wings she has turned to silk. The bee flavors her honey according to the kind of flower she feeds from. But compare their work. The bee turns something pleasant in one way into something pleasant in another way; the spider turns something harmful into something useful, even something beautiful – those golden webs in the morning sun shine like bells.

But enough analogy. The architecture of social and participatory creativity is defined in its legal instruments – the GPL, Creative Commons, and others – as one based in the preservation of attribution. More than a legal reality, this becomes a moral principle. Young people, at least, regard themselves as being at liberty to use any kind of created material – pictures, songs, characters – where and as they please, as long as attribution is preserved, expecting that their makers, even if they disapprove of the particular expression, will approve of the idea of reuse as a form of promotion to their ultimate financial benefit. So it might be: but note the postulate that attribution is all the control a maker deserves over their work. (And note that even where materials are drawn from the public domain and no legal necessity operates, attribution as a moral principle holds.)

But attribution is more than courtesy: to have one’s attributions in order is the passport of good work, the condition of its admittance to critical consideration.

The drawbacks of this system are two: it excludes personal experience; and it narrows the range of influences it is wise to receive to the range of influences it is wise to admit to. The difficulty in using personal experience is that the reaction that a criticism of originality most prizes – “Where do you get your ideas?” – is the reaction that a criticism of attribution most deprecates, because it requires that question to be answered before criticism can begin. When the naming of influences becomes a public act, the choice of influences obeys the necessities of signaling that all public acts entail – some are in fashion, some are out of fashion, some are pedantic, some are pretentious, some are contemptible. Before the work even begins the selection of influences becomes the first move in the tactics of presenting the work. Because you must expect your work to be tasted with the intent of discerning its influences you must collect them out in the open, under the sunlight. What moves in the close and the dark is off-limits.

The obverse of this problem of narrowed influences is the impossibility of choosing among influences. Once what is permissible has been agreed upon, to ignore some part of that range seems capricious and arrogant. You must take it all seriously.

In education, conversation, and manners, it is a virtue to try to take everyone and everything seriously. The more you overcome the instinct to scoff at what is unfamiliar or distasteful, the more you become more a thinking individual and less an accident of genes and community. And if your ambitions are essayistic or critical, you can stop there.

But when you sit down to create something – art, music, literature, science – then you must choose: whom do you take seriously? If you cannot choose, you cannot act. You cannot have Leonardo and Warhol, Bach and Glass, Homer and Joyce, Cantor and Kronecker. You may reject without disrespect: but you must choose.

Where one is old and one is new, one must be obsolete, and one modern, or one humane, the other a fad or disease. When both are old one is classic, one is dated or irrelevant. When both are new, one is avant-garde, and one is bourgeois; or one is navel-gazing, the other is world-engaging.

You do not have to always make the same choice: but you must always choose. If you fail to choose, if you cultivate eclecticism to the point of indecision and deference to the point of impotence, you condemn yourself to the fate of Buridan’s ass, which in the thought experiment starves because it cannot choose between two identical piles of hay. I love an army of writers for their particular excellences, and will defend them in their entirety for the sake of those excellences. But when I sit down to write there are a half-dozen writers whom I can take seriously; everyone else seems ridiculous. I only demur that six is probably too many.

Consider the “mash-up.” It is, defying the dictionary’s opposition of creativity and criticism, a creative criticism; juxtapositions are not random, but either analogical or contrastive. If two analogical things are comparable, they supply understanding of each other exactly as a written analogy would. If contrastive they heighten the contrast either to absurdity or poignancy. As an art form the mash-up is not a uncalculating jeux d’esprit, not an afterthought or diversion; it is tendentious and didactic. It is a popular pastime as politics are: it gives people a chance to opine, and lends to the opinion the glamour of the underlying subject, as including Democracy or Justice in an assertion lends it weight.

Mash-ups are not nearly as unpredictable as they should be, if they are primarily creative. Nothing technically prevents mixing parts of a dozen or a hundred songs and movies, but more than two of each would be out of order, because if it were done well the parts used would meld and the critical tension would be absent.

The people most likely to disagree with this are not the makers of mash-ups but academics with the odd, pseudo-ethnographic habit of taking Internet communities and fads far more seriously than they take themselves, of concentrating on the extremes and the fringes and ignoring the consensus within those communities. They are also given to confounding creativity with informality – you will hear dialects, for instance, praised as “creative,” as if Grimm’s Law were an expression of the creativity of the speakers of Germanic languages. Dialects require creativity in the sense that they might have been otherwise; but they are not themselves creations because they had to be something and might just as easily have been something else. What was inevitable is not a creation.

This division between creativity and creation is, in its effects and its attractions, not unlike the division between sex and reproduction. Creativity, as such, is delightful, relaxing, and consoling. But when it results in creations, these attractions disappear. Your creation preoccupies and distracts you, disrupts your sleep, fills you with doubts. Like any offspring it warps you in its gestation, enslaves you in its infancy, and grows by the life it takes from you. To nourish and raise it takes strength and time to spare. Creativity is a disposition, a faculty, a gift; creation is a vocation, a devotion, a discipline. It is limitless and torturous. One creation does not easily follow another, and too many in succession, or at once, can break a constitution and unmake a home. Even once it has some substance and independence you remain weighted with interminable responsibility for it, to find the right place and the right friends for it, to see it sent out into the world. And even once you have sent it out into the world, you are left exhausted, restless, and anxious.

You can always grow, but you cannot always bear fruit, at least not of the same kind. Even the mind needs cover crops, needs seasons to thicken its sap and sink its roots. This is not to condemn those who seeks the pleasure without the responsibility; only to observe that one who, by being creative, presumes to know what it takes to create something, is a fool.