On contemporary culture and the creative imperative

A blurring of lines between practices and institutions is characteristic for today’s complex societies. Consider for instance the increasing number of people producing media content and texts. An increase ever so little located within media organisations themselves. The online news site Buzzfeed, for instance, laid off their entire quiz and many of their popular culture editors because it suddenly realised that unpaid community contributors already also do the job. Everybody is allowed to create quizzes, but, as it happened, so did a single college student from Michigan manage to become, without really knowing so, Buzzfeed’s second largest global traffic driver.

The number of people carrying out creative work, producing aesthetic and cultural value, has increased drastically. The rapid boom in design professions as well as the cultural significance attached to the idea of creativity and the creative industries is a testament to that. The primacy of aesthetic discourses has moved from the galleries and academies towards ‘the people’. Or at least this seemed the hope of many cultural policy initiatives, like those of New Labour in the UK. The hope of the ‘project of modernity’ within which finally all can participate in the social, economic, and cultural production of society. Everybody has creativity – everybody can create and care for something, everybody creates and cares for something. And the young and dynamic creative industries sound way more egalitarian than the old and bourgeois cultural industries ever could anyways. Yet that New Labour avoided questions of aesthetic value at arm’s length and ultimately surrendered them not to ‘the people’ but the neoliberal rationale of ‘the market knows best’ should be common sense by now.

Contemporary cultures are haunted by the futures they missed – haunted by the ubiquity of a cultural memory expanding in the infinite step of meaning being produced. Digital technologies, the intrusive drivers enlarging this step, transgress through their computational logic and entropic generation of data a constant element of randomness into contemporary culture. Digital media create, as some argue, an immobilising ‘pitch-black deep space of thought’ in which we are unable to sufficiently remember ‘the’ past and predict ‘the’ future. It is the same trajectory in which tech evangelist gifted us the pervasive ethos of productivity and efficiency – only to shortly after start themselves promoting counter initiatives of mindfulness and well-being.

There lies, at the heart of contemporary culture, an ever so strong creative imperative. We are supposed to live in the now and constantly re-invent ourselves before, beneath, and beyond old institutions. We are supposed to work for all of them at once and none of them at all. And when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘I’ – the ‘we’ of ‘Is’. There are countless, and predominantly Western, I suppose, narratives that urge one to live life ‘fully’ – whatever that means. It is ok to be ‘gelassen’, to live in the moment and appreciate life’s immediacy – yet apparently only if you do so efficiently. But those who do not hesitate to break up ‘old’ institutions to unlock a direct and immediate connection with life seem ever so often unable to realise that the greatest of all institutions are not those in-between people but incorporated within the ‘I’.

The resilience of this obsession with creators seems obvious. Those who manage to create something singular are rewarded – of course only after this uniqueness is asserted by a critic still. The lucky lottery winners of the creative industries are rewarded by being enthroned the primacy over the discourse of socio-economic success. Filmmaker and prominent voice of ‘the’ YouTube creator community Casey Neistat embodies this most clearly. ‘Do What You Can’t’. We are supposed to celebrate those who make, those who create, keep creating, keep putting the work in to do more of what they can’t. But it is at the same time Neistat, the living American dream of self-made entrepreneurial millionaire and pop icon, who, just human too, realised at the heights of his career the values of family, of ‘old institutions’. First he shut-down his daily programming, then came back, once or twice (I’ve lost count), only to leave again and again, preaching ever so less the ethos of ‘do more’ and instead that of ‘spend time with those you love’. Yet I would suppose, it is precisely that what many people can’t do. They work their lives off in the hope to spend time with their family, for there to be a future of time spent together.

Artist, entrepreneur, and intellectual Alexander Kluge argues that we, once again, need to learn to be more poetic. A trajectory I believe many would and do agree with. However, a trajectory so often misinterpreted still. For doesn’t the poet’s ‘work’ start not with the word gracefully expressed but the world viewed and experienced much more slowly and intimately than any theodicy of productivity, progress, and creation could ever lend?

Of the many scenes in Kluge’s ‘The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time’, one especially stuck with me. A car, loaded to the roof with luggage, turns up the driveway of house, a mansion even. The passengers are a child, whose parents died in a car accident, and the foster parent, who took care until the authorities managed to find relatives willing to take care. They enter the house within which the child’s new family is currently moving in. Busy people moving all kinds of expensive furniture for even more busy owners. Nobody has time for the visitors, nobody seems to really care for the visitors – not even the new mother. The only thing she cares about is getting everything ready for the dinner reception this evening. They wait, are told to wait. The foster parent has notes prepared on little pieces of paper. She has written down everything the child likes and needs and eagerly tries to explain it first to the mother and then manically to anybody passing by. The child, meanwhile, is sitting alone, left to itself and waiting in front of the past and future collide.

The social sciences and humanities are not excluded from the developments outlined above. While not less driven by the ethos of productivity and illusion of originality, they ever so often still seem the first and loudest to critique the former. Scholars are supposed to be cutting-edge researchers, inspiring teachers, elegant writers, technical presenters to their peers and clever ones to the public, sombre administrators of the academy, appealing consultants to policy and industry, and, most importantly, successful fundraisers. Myself writing piece after piece, haunted by deadline after deadline, trying to figure out my own academic future of solitude, I can only sit here and wonder: Who is this child we at once care for so much but spend so little time with after all? The role of the academy as institution seems ever so strongly to resemble that of the foster parent knowing and fighting for the needs of a child not truly one’s own.

It is a testament for today’s times that academics feel the need to be the most vocal advocates for society. Abstracting needs, creating recommendations or critique, engaging with people who care a great deal about dinner parties. This seems to be the bread and butter of contemporary intellectual practice. However, are academics really the best people to do these things – the most intelligible inquirers, writers, or speakers for society? One can only wonder what the world looks like through a child’s view. And I can only ask: Should the academy not to be the institution sitting right next to the child instead of fighting above its head? Not the institution for but of society. Not the creator of actions for a world to come but broker of sensibility for a world about to pass. A sensibility for the now which today seems ever so often overshadowed by the urge to create.

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