Nick J Fox: University of Sheffield
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Professor N Fox, ScHARR, University of Sheffield, Regent St, Sheffield S1 4DA, UK firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note this is the submitted version of the paper, before peer review. It was submitted to the Journal of Sociology in December 2012. You may not quote this paper without express permission from myself. If you wish to refer to it or cite it, please contact me and I may be able to advise you on progress toward acceptance.
The emergence of a ‘new sociology of art’ that seeks a more nuanced understanding of the agency of art objects and the temporal trajectories surrounding artistic production, requires are view of sociology’s uneasy engagement with creativity. This paper applies an anti-humanist ontology to assert that creativity is profoundly sociologically interesting, and key to the production of human culture, from science and technology to the arts to social forms and institutions. Analysis of auto-ethnographic data on the production of a painting of Australian mallée woodland establishes three propositions for an anti-humanist sociology of creativity:that creative production is part of an open-ended flow of affect between assembled human and non-human elements; that affective flows produce creative capacities to act, feel and desire in bodies; and that products of creativity such as artworks are themselves affects and consequently contribute to the production of social life, the world and human history.
affect; anti-humanism; assemblage; art; creativity; Deleuze
Introduction: creativity and the sociological imagination
Creativity is characterized in the social and psychological sciences either as something extraordinary and remarkable (de Filippi et al 2007: 512), or frequent and common-place(Gauntlett 2011: 15). The former perspective marks out a creator as distinct from the mass of ‘non-creative’ people: exemplary figures from art, science and literature bolster this perspective. Sociologists have tended to the latter position: for Marx, the creativity of human labour has fashioned the world, history (1975: 328, 357) and objects of beauty (ibid: 329); for Becker (1974), each instance of artistic production requires the labour of a multitude of actors. However, this paper contends that rather than asking questions about what creativity is, sociology should ask the somewhat ungainly question: what do creative products produce?or ‘what do they do?
This is to approach creativity from the point of view of its contribution to everyday life, the social world and human history. Creativity is of sociological import precisely because of the ubiquity of creative production: from writing a letter, plumbing,cookery or sex, through social action, politics and policy-making, to technological innovation and the ‘creative arts’: what part may creativity play in the production of social forms,institutions and social identities?The paper will develop an argument that creativity should be considered not as a human capacity, but as emergent from assemblages of relations between the human and the non-human (things, ideas and social formations). Sociology has recognizeised the part that social interaction, social institutions and social structures play in creative production, but I want to take a further step, to deny human privilege in the commission of creativity.
To this end, I will draw on a Spinozist/Deleuzian anti-humanist ontology of ‘affect’: an approach that some have argued open up new insights for social analysis (Ansell-Pearson 1999; Blackman 2008;Buchanan 1997; Clough 2004; DeLanda 2006; Manning 2010; Thacker 2005).Sociological studies of creativity have focused upon the contexts within which creativity occurs, or has been judged to have occurred (Ford 1996: 1112; Si monton 1997; Thompson etal 2007). However, sociologists have also attended to a narrower realm: artistic creativity,focusing on the contexts, institutions and markets surrounding art production and consumption (Gell 1998: 6), and I propose to approach creativity from this aspect. Howard Becker’s classic (1974) study of art took a sociological chainsaw to the artist as ‘creator’,arguing instead that art emerges from a collective effort, in which the artist is dependent upon a network of other human actors, whose activities included
”conceiving the idea for the work, making the necessary physical artifacts, creating a conventional language of expression, training artistic personnel and audiences to use the conventional language to create and experience, and providing the necessary mixture of those ingredients for a particular work or performance (Becker 1974: 768)”
Becker’s interactionist account of art worlds focused on such networks, the conventions of work that bind them together and the resources deployed to achieve their goals (Becker 1982), and has been used to analyse creative production, artistic genres and movements and so forth. In a recent study, Bottero and Crossley (2011) drew on interactionist network approaches to model the punk rock ‘world’ of the late 1970s, concluding that Becker’s focus on network, conventions and resources sensitised sociology to the shared meanings and interactions in creative production and consumption (ibid: 117).
Becker’s classic (1974) study of art took a sociological chainsaw to the artist as ‘creator’,arguing instead that art emerges from a collective effort, in which the artist is dependent upon a network of other human actors, whose activities included conceiving the idea for the work, making the necessary physical artifacts, creating a conventional language of expression, training artistic personnel and audiences to use the conventional language to create and experience, and providing the necessary mixture of those ingredients for a particular work or performance (Becker 1974: 768)Becker’s interactionist account of art worlds focused on such networks, the conventions of work that bind them together and the resources deployed to achieve their goals (Becker 1982), and has been used to analyse creative production, artistic genres and movements and so forth. In a recent study, Bottero and Crossley (2011) drew on interactionist network approaches to model the punk rock ‘world’ of the late 1970s, concluding that Becker’s focus on network, conventions and resources sensitised sociology to the shared meanings and interactions in creative production and consumption (ibid: 117).
The artistic field extends well beyond the immediate site of creative production, meaning that familiarity or association with the arts and their performance may provide cultural capital to producers and consumers, reinforcing social position and status, or fueling struggles between artistic movements (Bourdieu 1984; Cheyne and Binder 2010).
The artwork made me do it
Arguably, both Becker’s and Bourdieu’s analysis of artistic ‘worlds’ and ‘fields’ may be extensible to sociological study of non-artistic areas of creative production and reception,where perhaps their de-mystification of creativity is less iconoclastic. However, in relation to artistic creativity, Becker’s and Bourdieu’s emphases on social contexts of production and consumption have been criticized as reducing art to economic and power relations (Born 2010: 179), and as indicative of sociology’s ‘seeming inability to treat art as anything more than a proxy for or pseudo-reflection of the social’ (Prior 2011: 123).
Born (2010) has also criticised Bourdieusian sociology’s incapacity to theorise continuity and transformation,arguing that continuity in artistic codes and aesthetic formations, and ‘their evolution or bifurcation, subtle shifts or sudden ruptures in style or ideology’ (ibid: 179) should be accessible to a sociology of art.These commentaries upon the sociological imagination in the arts heralded the emergence of a ‘new’ sociology of art (De La Fuente 2007) that has sought to engage more directly with creative products and their meanings (De Nora 1999: 32; Prior 2011: 125; Wollf 2006: 144),alongside study of the contexts of production. As Born (2005: 16) comments:
banal observations on the complex division of labor in modern media can obscure the more interesting point that … all cultural production constructs and engages relations not only between persons, but also between persons and things, and it does so across both space and time.
A number of these writers suggest that this project challenges conventional conceptions of artistic agency. Prior (2011: 125) notes that the sociology of art seems to have lagged behind other areas of the discipline that attend more fully to the ‘ways objects are artfully present in the world, the multifarious ways they resist and react’. He invokes Actor Network Theory(ANT) to introduce a sense of art objects as themselves ‘actants’, capable of agency and producing limits on what artists do (ibid). Born (2005; 2010) finds value in Alfred Gell’s art anthropology, which ‘considers art objects as persons’ (Gell 1998: 9), while DeNora (1999:34) teeters on the brink of a similar shift when she argues for a change of focus from what music means to what it actively does.
In a paper entitled ‘The artwork made me do it’, De LaFuente (2010) references both Gell and ANT, before turning back to a more conventional view of art objects as mediators of meaning.The ‘new sociology of art’ thus reflects discontent with theories of creativity that emphasize either human agency (an ‘under-socialised’ account of creativity) or social structures and contexts (the ‘over-socialised ’alternative), and that fail to recognize the confluences between micro-processes and the‘historical trajectories’ and ‘macro-dynamics’ of art assemblages(Born 2005: 34).Gell’s (1998) anthropological approach was firmly relational, focusing upon the interactions between artists, artworks (‘indices’), art audiences (‘recipients’) and the models or other things portrayed in art (‘prototypes’), all of which could act either as ‘agents’ and ‘patients’(targets of agency) within their relationships (Gell 1998: 27).
Despite the theoretical advances afforded by this catholic approach to agency, Gell’s analysis has limitations as the foundation for a sociology of art. Most significantly, despite its willingness to ascribe agency to inanimate objects such as painting or sculptures, it remains hobbled by a conventional notion of agency, retaining a foundational ‘anthropocentrism’(Braidotti 2006: 40) that privileged human action. Consequently, Gell considered that non-human objects such as artworks possessed only a ‘secondary’ or ‘second-class’ agency (Gell1998: 36), which is ‘borrowed’ from human agents. Furthermore, his cross-tabular analysis(ibid: 29) of possible interactions between elements produced what he saw as ‘illegitimately-formed expressions’ (ibid: 36), in which an artwork played no part (for example, the power of an artist over a recipient independent of an artwork), or in which an element had an agentic interaction with itself.
For all these reasons, I do not find Gell’s approach convincing. But can its relational underpinning and its openness to non-human action be developed without its residual anthropocentrism? To build on Gell’s relationality, and to explore the issues set out in the‘new sociology’ of art, I will follow the lead of various writers (Grosz 1995; Jeanes 2006;Osborne 2003; Thrift 2004; Whitaker 2012) who have found utility when discussing creativity in the Spinozist anti-humanism of Gilles Deleuze (1990). Deleuzian scholarship has taken a more radical approach to the non-human; one that steps back entirely from bothanthropocentrism and the agency/structure dichotomy, considering instead the capacity of humans and non-humans to affect and be affected (Deleuze 1988: 122-124). The work of Deleuze and his sometime collaborator Félix Guattari includes many discussions of creativity in art, science and philosophy , but rather than a slavish exegesis of this work, I will establishin the next section a ‘toolbox’ (Malins 2006: 84) of Deleuzian concepts to synthesise an anti-humanist, empirically-oriented sociology of creativity.
In Deleuzian ontology bodies and other entities have no existence or integrity other than that produced through their relations with other (similarly contingent and ephemeral) bodies,things, ideas or social institutions (Deleuze, 1988: 125; Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 260-261).
Assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 88) of these relations develop in unpredictable ways around actions and events, ‘in a kind of chaotic network of habitual and non-habitual connections, always in flux, always reassembling in different ways’ (Potts 2004: 19).Assemblages develop at sub-personal, interactional or macro-social levels (DeLanda 2006:5), and have an existence, a life even, independent of human bodies (ibid: 40; Ansell-Pearson 1999: 157-9). We may thus conjecture a minimal ‘painting-assemblage’, comprising,
at least :subject – medium – canvas – paintbrush
although as will be seen in the next section, a creativity-assemblage will typically incorporate many disparate relations.In an assemblage, there is no ‘subject’ and no ‘object’, and no single element possesses agency (Anderson 2010: 736): the conventional conception of human agency is replaced in Deleuzian ontology by affect (Deleuze 1988: 101), meaning simply the capacity to affect or be affected. An affect is a ‘becoming’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 256) that represents a change of state of an entity and its capacities (Massumi 1988: xvi): this change may be physical, psychological, emotional or social, and an affect’s force may be – to use Foucauldian terminology – ‘coercive’ (for instance, the intensity of a pigment), ‘disciplinary’(evaluation by the art Establishment) or ‘governmental’ (an ‘artistic sensibility’). It is an artwork’s affects (for instance on its viewers) that make it appear to have ‘agency’.Affects are ‘projectiles’(Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 400) that produce further affects within assemblages, producing the capacities of bodies to do, desire and feel, and in turn producing subsequent affective flows. However, because one affect can produce more than one capacity, affects flow ‘rhizomically’ (ibid: 7), branching, reversing flows, coalescing and rupturing, supplying a diachronic and more dynamic understanding of creative production than in Gell’s (1998) theory. The flow of affect within assemblages is thus the means by which lives, societies and history unfold, by ‘adding capacities through interaction, in a world which is constantly becoming’ (Thrift 2004: 61).
Spinoza’s conception of passions as active forces (Deleuze 1990: 283) was elaborated by Deleuze and Guattari into a view of desire of relevance for an analysis of creativity. Here desire’s underlying principle is not acquisition (of an object of desire) but production of action, ideas, interactions, and thence reality (Deleuze and Guattari 1984: 27-30). Productive desire is a creative capacity (Jordan 1995: 127) of a body to act, feel or otherwise engage with other bodies and the physical and social world, while assemblages are desiring-machines.
(Deleuze and Guattari 1984: 5; 1988: 88). Relationally, human desire is the capacity of a body to affect or be affected (Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 399), and in the context of creativity, the painter’s or composer’s capacities (desires) to mark canvas or score music are simply elements in the affective flow that produces a painting or a concerto.Flows of affect change a body’s capacities in one direction or another (Duff 2010: 625), and may combine or cancel each other out. Every body, object, idea, subjectivity or other relation is consequently a territory, produced and fought over by rival affects within assemblages(Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 88-89). Deleuze and Guattari contrast what they call
molecular assemblages, in which relations combine in ways that ‘represent nothing, signify nothing,mean nothing other than the desire they produce’, with molar assemblages that are ‘stable forms, unifying, structuring and proceeding by means of large heavy aggregates … organizing the crowds’ (1984: 286-288).
Although both molecular and molar flows of affect are both productive, the former de-territorialises, opening up possibilities for what bodies can do and desire, and may produce a line of flight (Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 9) from a stable state or identity, while the latter imposes order and defines what bodies can and cannot do. Lines of flight de-territorialise assemblages (ibid: 89), leading bodies and subjectivities into a more‘nomadic’ space of possibilities for action or desire. This sounds a lot like how artists,innovators and inventors describe the creative process, both in terms of the creative act(Deleuze 2003: 71) and the effect of a creative product upon its audience (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 175-6).
These Deleuzian elements (and their underpinning ontology) supply the framework for an anti-humanist sociology of creativity. In a nutshell, this focuses upon assemblages of human and non-human relations rather than creators and outputs; on flows of affect within assemblages rather than notions of creative agency; on territorialisations and de-territorialisations of capacities to do, feel and desire rather than social structures and deterministic fields; and upon the affective capacities of creative products rather than their aesthetic or other attributes. An anti-humanist sociology de-privileges the individual creator and her/his ‘creativity’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 164), and indeed creativity must no longer be considered as an agentic attribute of a body, but rather as a territorialising (and de-territorialising) flow of affect between assembled bodies, things and ideas.
Anti-humanism, affects and the creativity-assemblage
To explore this sociology, I want to examine some auto-ethnographic data on creative production, drawn from my own hobby as a painter. This also supplies the opportunity to assess how an anti-humanist sociology of creativity addresses empirical study of what bodies and things do, how they are produced and transformed, and how assembled elements flow together and produce effects and capacities. Analysis can be grounded methodologically in Deleuze’s own (1988: 124-126) empirical approach, which he called ‘ethology’ in honour of Spinoza’s Ethics.
Ethology entails documenting the relations that comprise assemblages(ibid: 126), and how relations affect and are affected (ibid: 125,Osborne 2003: 515).Together these two approaches move beyond an anthropocentric focus on the agentic power of the creator. The former emphasises creativity-assemblages rather than bodies or things individually. So a fine-art creativity-assemblage might be summarized as painter – surface – paint – implement – subject – ideas – past events – technique,plus a multitude of relations with the artist’s experiences, emotional responses, skills and creative ideas. The latter considers creativity not as a single moment of engagement between painter, paint, model and canvas (Gell’s ‘agent’/’patient’ relation), but as a process of affecting that transforms human and non-human elements. This affective flow begins long before any mark is made on a canvas and continues long after the paint has dried.
In 2000, I was a visiting researcher in South Australia, and one weekend rented a car and set off into the Adelaide Hills. Some forty kilometers out of the city, I left the car on a dirt track and wandered through an area of mallée , a scrubby woodland of stunted gum trees, acacia sand other low vegetation that can survive in semi-arid conditions and poor soil. It was the first time I’d seen mallée apart from a planted stand in the Adelaide botanic garden. For me, it seemed quintessentially Australian, and I felt inspired to try to capture it on paper. I used my water colours to paint an image of this woodland while the flies buzzed around my head and the afternoon sun burnt the back of my neck.
Mallée No. 2 now has wall-space in my home alongside works by other painters; gaining mixed responses. One visitor, who I knew in advance considered abstracted painting low in proficiency and swift to execute, gave a favorable reaction, but asked, ‘Did it take a longtime to do?’‘Yes it did, there was a lot of thought went into it,’ I replied. This seemed to satisfy her.This little tale of creativity born from a lack of inspiration would hardly detain an interactionist or constructionist sociologist for long, but offers a datum from which to assess three propositions concerning an anti-humanist sociology of creativity. The first proposition is that creative production is part of an open-ended flow of affect between assembled human and non-human relations (bodies, things, social institutions and abstract ideas and concepts).
As noted in the previous section, affects (the capacities to affect or be affected) reflect a change or transformation in the state or attributes of a relation within an assemblage. The relations in the creativity-assemblage may be physical, cognitive, emotional, social and of course artistic, and the flow of affect in the mallée tale began with a visit to the botanic gardens and a car rental and ended with a judgement upon a painting hanging half a world away.
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