This ancient question takes on new urgency as the competitive advantage of the “knowledge economy” depends more and more on 50 million “cultural creatives.” It takes on still more urgency when we notice how few new ideas are now issuing from the humanities and social sciences.
This question took on personal urgency when I chose today to quit smoking. (I started smoking when I came to Montreal because this city is, as someone recently put it, Canada’s “smoking section.”)
For smoking had become where my new ideas came from.
Who knows why? I think ideas like the commotion that smoking creates, the commotion of activity, sensation, physiology. This commotion somehow interferes with the screen between the conscious and unconcious mind and, like Canadians from the North or Mexicans from the South, ideas steal across the border and just keep going. They begin to earn their keep, and make a place for themselves. Before you know it, they are a blog entry, an article or a book. (This idea brought to you by Imperial tobacco! I still have a lot of nicotine in my blood stream.)
But there is a second effect going on here. I was surprised to discover, when hitching hiking across Canada in my youth, that ideas like the sound of the big tires on giant rigs. The same effect happens when I am on an airplace at 30,000 feet. Something about that roaring sound from the engines. Ideas come rushing in. The same thing happens when I am in a seminar room or a board room.
I think smoking, trucks, planes, seminars and board rooms work like vega-matics. They divide the world into many little sounds or ideas. Now we have something to work with, lots of elements all in a jumble. The jumble incites our inclination for pattern recogntion. We start to assemble: Oh, that goes with that, goes with that, goes with that. Hey presto, an idea. (It was this effect that I was trying to talk about in the entry below called “Taking Madison Avenue by storm.”)
Where do new ideas come from? They come, in part at least, from any activity, place or event that gives us controlled commotion. Create lots of disorder, mix in a few rules for order, and we have an aid to invention. Networks form. New constellations light up. Things figure and reconfigure. Now we have something.
This is of course classically what we say cities do. They bring together the lots of differences and the differences begin to interact and patterns form. It is also, if cities do not stand in for this, what we say markets do. They do not merely assemble differences, but insist on their convertibility and responsiveness. It is, indeed, the effect of all cultural dynamism, as Virginia Postrel has noted. See The Future and Its Enemies at www.dynamist.com.
Cities, markets, seminars, and of course smoking somehow break down the borders and supply the play things of our creativity. But not the academy. How many times have we sat in class rooms and seminars only to hear the class resort to the recitation of all the things that must be true. How grim this. In particular, the field of anthropology and many of Foucault’s children have created a great act of consensus in which, irony or ironies, differences do not figure, in which profusion cannot happen, in which creativity has ceased.
Surely, this cannot last. Surely, this intellectual regime will be crushed beneath the weight of its own tedium. Given the choice between the safety of orthodoxy and the liberatory joys of difference, surely one of these days the academy will do the right thing. In the meantime, I’m not smoking and neither are they.