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Bifocal: my friends Benzon and Blake

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- of sight and vision ]
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Wm Blake: The Sun at his Eastern Gate

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My young friend, William Benzon, writes:

When we look at a cloud and see an elephant we don’t conclude that an elephant is up there in the sky, or that the cloud decided to take on an elephant-like form. We know that the cloud has its own dynamics, whatever they might be, and we realize that the elephant form is something we are projecting onto the world.

And mine ancient friend, William Blake, wrote:

“What,” it will be Question’d, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, `Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative eye any more than I would Question a window concerning a Sight. I look thro’ it & not with it.”

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Albrecht Durer, Apocalypse

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As I have written elsewhere:

The great German engraver Albrecht Dürer’s illustrations of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) differ from contemporary televised images of warfare not only in terms of the armor and weaponry used, but also and more importantly by recording two worlds, the visible and the invisible, where the television camera records only the visible. The sky in television reports of war contains missiles and warplanes, and if anything “invisible” is depicted, it is invisible only by virtue of being viewed in the infra-red portion of the spectrum via night scope. Dürer’s sky is not merely “sky” but also “heaven”, and thus depicts that “war in heaven” alluded to in Revelations 12: 7, with its angels and demons and dragon, its Lady clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and crowned with the stars…

A crucial shift in the way in which we envision “reality” has occurred between Albrecht Dürer’s time and our own, and that shift has indeed largely deprived us of a real sense of the existence of an “invisible world” — whether it be the invisible world of faerie or sacrament, of poetic vision or apocalypse. That great modern prophet William Blake both predicted and lamented this loss, and his entire corpus of poetry and paintings can be viewed as a singular attempt to replace in our culture that visionary quality that our increasing scientism so easily deprives us of.

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Can we restore imagination — Blakean vision, the “heaven” of Albrecht Durer — to a significant place in our lives, without abandoning the clarity as to fact that comes with simple sight and its more sophisticated extensions — the camera, the space probe, the electron microscope?

Have we even any interest in doing that?

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Connecting dots: Luther learns découpage from Bowie

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from a British TV cop via teh glitter-glam rocker & William Burroughs -- a helpful analytic technique and its pre-history ]
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You take your learnings where you find them. DCI Luther (in the BBC cop show, series 1 episode 4) has a great many data points — in this case, photos and maps.

He arranges them in a circle around his chair, squats, studies them, rearranges them. DS Ripley comes in…

For your convenience, here’s the exchange:

DS Ripley: What’s all this?
DCI Luther: Découpage, a cut-up technique. Take a bit of text, cut it up, randomise it, make new text, see new patterns.
DS Ripley: Where’d you learn this?
DCI Luther: David Bowie — it’s how he wrote his lyrics.
DS Ripley: Are you a fan?
DCI Luther: Don’t I look like a fan?
DS Ripley: What, of songs about, like, aliens and that?
DCI Luther: Well, there’s a bit more to him than aliens. I’ll make you a tape.

Randomize, to see new patterns.

Once again, it’s a near-instinctive move, but one worth sharpening into a tool. Take it out of the zone of tacit knowledge and bring it into the explicit.

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Novelist William Burroughs learned the cut-up technique from that jack-of-all-arts, Bryon Gysin.

Interviewer: How did you become interested in the cut-up technique?

Wm Burroughs: A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was, as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, Minutes to Go, was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in ‘The Camera Eye’ sequences in USA. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.

Bowie borrowed the cut-up from Burroughs and Gysin — glitter from the avant garde:

Burroughs had a technique that would enable Bowie to renew his entire method of writing lyrics and making music. During the early 1960s, Burroughs and his colleague, the painter and writer Brion Gysin, had developed the cut-up as a method of visual and verbal reassembly that was equally applicable to painting, montaged artworks, calligraphy, tape manipulation and the word. It offered, in fact, a whole new way of seeing.

Having read Burroughs’ cut-up novel Nova Express to prepare for the interview, Bowie applied the technique to the words and sound of his next album, the darkly dystopian Diamond Dogs – a fusion of Burroughs and George Orwell. The cut-up, as he admitted later, perfectly suited his own fragmented consciousness, and also enabled him to cut through the tangle of expectation and image that threatened to slow him down. It sped everything up.

Here’s Bowie:

You take your learnings where you find them.

Randomize, to see new patterns.

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Sources:

  • Luther
  • How did you become interested
  • Burroughs had a technique
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    Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking

    Monday, March 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- briefly picking up a strand from an earlier post & running with it ]
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    Some of the fish in the pool HipBone / Sembl swims in - slide credit Cath Styles, & h/t Derek Robinson

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    I just wanted to reiterate an Einstein quote that I slipped into the middle of a post on the Black Madonna and iconography recently, where some readers more interested in the Sembl / HipBone games and their applicability to analytic work and creative thinking may have missed it:

    The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.

    The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

    According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

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    Combinatory playessential feature in productive thoughtanalogous to certain logical connections one is searching for — these three phrases sum up pretty exactly the congitive training function of the HipBone / Sembl games.

    As I said earlier, I have to wonder how many of our analysts are deeply versed in this “combinatory play” of images and kinesthetic experiences, way below the threshold of conscious thought.

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    Education: a call for actors, directors, composers, conductors

    Sunday, March 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- leaping as far out of the box from Education: on Engineers, the Navy — and excuse me, Jihad as I can manage ]
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    Director / Actor Jean Renoir as Octave in Rules of the Game


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    Let me dive directly in at the deep end.

    If, as Keith Oatley suggests, theatre is “simulation that runs on minds“, what does that tell us about actors (as compared with the rest of the population) as experienced simmers of complex realities, potential scenario planners?

    Where does that leave Ronald Reagan vis-a-vis Margaret Thatcher? What about directors vs actors? What of Jean Renoir (depicted above)? Or Clint Eastwood, actor, director — and one time Mayor of Carmel, CA?

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    On another tack:

    In one of my all-time favorite quotations — because it covers so much ground, aptly, from Middle Eastern politics to JS Bach — the music critic and pianist (and yes, Palestinian, and other things as well) Edward Said once wrote:

    When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

    If contrapuntal composers and conductors can hear, feel the conflicts between, and at times, at least for a while, balance and resolve them, what then might Bach be able to teach our analysts, policy and policy makers?

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    And finally, to quote Cornelius Castoriadis:

    Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

    What then could we learn from Mozart (and Bach, and Shakespeare, Said and Renoir) about the better understanding of our present mode of existance?

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    Yes.

    I am suggesting that there is in fact such a thing as genius, that it is a “still, small voice” available to any who care to listen — and that we might be wise to center our educational ideas around its care and feeding…

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    Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

    Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

    William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

    The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

    The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

    ….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

    Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

    Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

    STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

    It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

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