4. Everywhere chaos reigns

Final piece in a four-part series exploring the shifting images of creativity in the history of western thought. Follow the links for part one, part two, and part three.

Maslow’s image of ‘integrated creativity’ can be seen as an attempt to resolve the same tension in the Romantic image of creativity that poets long strove to unite. On the one hand is the seed of inspiration, the so-called creatio ex nihilo – unwilled, unconscious, at once sublime and self-originating. On the other is the rational discipline, the learned skill and hard work needed to make the original insight a practical reality. To put it another way, the imagination of Dionysius alone is ungoverned and wild, requiring the intervention of Apollo’s discriminating temperament, while the latter relies on the former’s liberating spirit in order to bring inspired novelty down to terra firma. In short, inspiration without discipline is madness; discipline devoid of inspiration lacks originality.

In Coleridge’s mind, this difference was one of degree which distinguished the divine faculty of Primary Imagination from the creative synthesis of the Secondary Imagination (leaving aside the empty adumbrations of Fancy, which, on its own, was an ‘adulterator and counterfeiter of memory’ that had closer kinship with associationist ideals). But where the Romantic synthesis of imagination swung between the poles of a liberated human soul and established poetic convention, the twentieth century humanistic paradigm located creativity in the meaningful exchange between an evolving subject and its relationally constituted world.

Only later humanistic psychologists came to recognize that the unconscious undermined the absolute knowledge-bearing status of Descartes’ self-conscious subject, but they also criticized Freud’s unconscious by exposing a subtle Cartesian inheritance in its notion of an isolated psyche. In this way, by shifting the emphasis from intra-psychic, libidinous drives to inter-subjective, affective experiences, psychology stood to offer a revolutionary image of creativity as an interactive mind-world relationship concerned with drawing out the meaningful relations between things, rather than seeking the meanings of things in and of themselves. In such an image, a new mode of being emerges in which novel relations are not spatial or unidirectional – leading either towards the object and away from the subject or vice versa – but temporal and inextricably interlacing. The designation ‘creator’ no longer applies in such an image, just as form is not something imposed on brute matter, as if divinely from above. Rather, creativity has become an active exploration existing somewhere between invention and discovery, like the potter who welcomes and gathers her clay while simultaneously being received and moulded by it. This is why every truly novel irruption almost always elicits a certain surprise.

This image of creativity that we have arrived at still struggles for recognition, because in modern mainstream cognitive psychology, a computational concept of creativity still rules in most research laboratories. In this artificial environment, creativity is operationalised as a kind of businesslike problem-solving, and unconscious activity is reduced to brain-based ‘associative processes’ or else disregarded completely. Creativity on this account simply involves the recombination of existing parts, and the more mutually remote the parts, the more creative the solution to the problem. What is being described however is an objective super-imposition of discrete states on what is an inherently relational process that occurs in time. By retrograde analysis, psychologists chop up the temporal act into a series of parts combined without considering the continuity of influencing relations, leaving them content to identify creativity with the end solution, yet unable to explain the underlying novelty-generating process at work.

It is worth noting that the rise of psychoanalysis at the cusp of the twentieth century saw the unconscious become a target for all that was primitive, debased and corrupting. Not only was the self-conscious human seen as an insignificant byproduct of evolution, an epiphenomenon – a fluke – she was governed by a cacophony of denied urges and repressed emotions; things that, were they ever to see the light of day, would bring about chaos. Human instincts therefore had to be subdued. Versions of this belief remain ingrained in the current zeitgeist, despite the earlier discoveries of depth psychology and the progress of the humanistic movement. For if the unconscious is indeed chaotic, in what way can it be considered the wellspring of creativity? This uncertainty relates to the pejorative connotations implied in the modern usage of the term ‘chaos’, as it is often used to describe any situation marked by anarchy, confusion and disarray. However, early history suggests this is a skewed conception of its original meaning. It was the Greek poet Hesiod who coined the term ‘khaos’ to describe the void from which everything else appeared, the original formless state in which the world was created. In this sense, the immaterial, pre-symbolic realm of the unconscious is not a negative chaos, but a fertile ground ripe with potential.

It is not by coincidence that the approach of embodied cognition uses a similar understanding of chaos to characterise psychological and behavioural states as a whole. In terms of complexity theory, the globally distributed neural activity that modulates consciousness is often said to be ‘chaotic’ in that it is inherently unpredictable. But crucially, it is also self-organising in such a way that small uncertainties are amplified over time until they tip the balance into a new and stable pattern of activity. On this view, unconscious mental phenomena are not ‘going on’ in the brain; rather, unconscious processes are forms of dynamic activity in a ‘space of possibilities’ available to the system whenever it is destabilised. Crucially, this system includes not only the brain, but also the body and its environment interacting through time. When a new possibility arises within this nexus, the system enters a new phase of instability that is pregnant with potential, ceaselessly transforming into something new through the influence of the past, which informs its ineluctable progress. Order may therefore be restored, but ultimately chaos reigns.

We began this investigation by considering the mechanistic view of science, which explains states of affairs in the world by way of efficient causation. We shall conclude by granting creativity a new image that is not so determined, yet which avoids the equally fatalistic tendrils of teleological finalism without appealing to some sort of divine intervention. Adopting the terminology of dynamical systems, we can describe every creative act as a type of unwilled phase transition into unforeseen novelty and coherence. In this way, the broad spectrum of conscious-unconscious dynamics are viewed as similar in kind to all manner of complex adaptive natural systems and biological processes on the edge of equilibrium. Indeed, as the mathematics of complexity urges us to accept, the so-called ‘random walk’ of evolution appears to be not so random at all, and in fact trends towards novelty through order – for is not chaos at one level suggestive of harmony at another? Perhaps creativity is, as Wordsworth intuited, the true origin of the species after all.