Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

02 NOVEMBER, 2012

How the Gutenberg Press Embodies Combinatorial Creativity

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From metallurgy to the division of labor, or why Gutenberg was a typesetting despot.

Brain Pickings celebrated its seventh birthday last week. Since day one, it has been my belief that we create by amalgamating different pieces of knowledge from various fields, with various sensibilities, and from various time periods — knowledge that may seem useless but ultimately isn’t — into new combinations that we call our own ideas; by cultivating a certain way of operating that allows for the remixing of our existing ideas; by creating a rich personal micro-culture that lends itself to such alchemy. Creativity is, in other words, combinatorial and it’s reliant upon a vast, eclectic pool of such intellectual resources. Brain Pickings has always been a sort of library for these diverse building blocks of combinatorial creativity.

In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library), applied mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman explores how Gutenberg’s printing press embodied the power of combinatorial creativity, and did so to a degree that far exceeds what the popular mythology around it would have us believe:

It turns out that the printing press is far from simple. The technological innovations that Gutenberg developed were much more than the modification of a wine press and the addition of the idea of movable type. Gutenberg combined and extended a whole host of technologies and innovations from an astonishing number of areas, and that is what made his work so powerful. He used metallurgical developments to create metal type that not only had a consistent look (Gutenberg insisted on this), but type that could be easily cast, allowing whole pages to be printed simply at once. He used chemical innovations to create a better ink than had ever been used before in printing. Gutenberg even exploited the concept of the division of labor by employing a large team of workers, many of whom were illiterate, to churn out books at a rate never before seen in history. And he even employed elegant error-checking mechanisms to ensure that the type was always set properly: There was a straight line on one side of each piece of type so that the workers could see at a glance whether any letters had been set upside down.

Only by having the combined knowledge of all of these technologies does the printing press become possible and cost-effective.

Early wooden printing press,1568, capable of producing up to 240 impressions per hour; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Though Steve Jobs may have been right in asserting that “creativity is just connecting things,” it’s more than that — it’s connecting the right kinds of things. And, above all, it’s equipping oneself with the very things to connect in the first place — it’s building a mental catalog of knowledge, then cultivating the right “associative trails” running through that catalog.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Art of “Negative Capability”: Keats on Embracing Uncertainty and Celebrating the Mysterious

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On the art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) endures as an icon of literary creativity. In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, found in John Keats: Selected Letters (public library) and dated December 21, 1817, Keats uses the phrase that has come to be the single most emblematic phrase of his entire surviving correspondence, even though he only makes mention of it once: “Negative Capability” — the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Triggered by Keats’s disagreement with English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.

Keats writes:

Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

In the introduction to Selected Letters, Jon Mee writes of the letters themselves as a meta-embodiment of “Negative Capability”:

The provisionality of the correspondence might be taken as a triumphant demonstration of negative capability, recording Keats’s ability to project himself into different roles and live in a state of creative uncertainty, but these letters also seem to express a deep sense of insecurity, which frequently took the form of a desire to escape the fever and the fret of the life around him.

Perhaps Christoph Niemann was right, after all, in asserting that insecurity is essential to creativity.

All of Keats’s surviving letters to his family and friends are available as a free ebook.

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26 OCTOBER, 2012

Susan Sontag on the Creative Purpose of Boredom

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“Most of the interesting art of our time is boring.”

Artist Maira Kalman believes that it’s very important not to be bored for too long. And yet the history of boredom shows that boredom has an essential function in the history of art.

From the recently released volume of Susan Sontag‘s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love — comes a meditation on the creative purpose of boredom as a form of attention:

Function of boredom. Good + bad

[Arthur] Schopenhauer the first imp[ortant] writer to talk about boredom (in his Essays) — ranks it with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life (pain for have-nots, boredom for haves— it’s a question of affluence).  

People say ‘it’s boring’ — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.  

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.  

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good— obviously.)  

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.  

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 is the sequel to Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, which gave us Sontag’s rules and duties for being 24, her 10 guidelines for raising a child, and her love, death, art and freedom.

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