What does it mean to create? Who or what could be said to create? God? Artists? Evolution? Markets? The Dialectic? Do things "just happen" and if so is that a kind of creativity? Taking storytelling as its point of reference, this essay considers the notion of creativity as it applies both to the productions of the human imagination, especially stories, and to the self-making of the material universe. I define creativity broadly as the bringing forth of new material, linguistic, or conceptual formations or the transformation of existing ones and as calling, not for a "cultural poetics," but for a more broadly conceived poetics of making (poesis, in its most inclusive sense), encompassing both the natural and cultural realms as conventionally designated, a poetics capable of articulating the stories human beings tell with cosmogonies detailing the coming-to-being of the physical universe. Extending the purview of creativity beyond the human realm to include the processes shaping the material universe allows us to envision creativity itself in terms of a generative multiplicity that resists articulation in binary oppositional terms and that demands therefore to be thought as ontologically prior to any possible differentiation between the domains of nature and culture, or between reality and its cultural–linguistic representations, challenging us to reimagine not only the relationship between nature and culture but also the problematic of representation that continues to inform much work in the humanities and social sciences. Such a reimagining might proceed precisely from an enlarged understanding of creativity—and in particular of storytelling—and I consider some of the epistemic and writerly implications of this claim for anthropology as a discipline concerned preeminently with exploring and documenting the varieties of human being-in-the-world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stuart McLean is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. The problem central to his work is that of theorizing the intersection between the material world and the human elaboration of cultural meaning. He approaches this by considering the variety of ways in which human beings have understood and articulated the relationship between their own acts of imagination, remembrance and self-identification and the material processes giving form to their bodies, their material environments and their world. His work seeks to accord no a priori explanatory privilege either to “nature” or “culture” as conventionally defined but to focus instead on their intersection and overlap, as revealed through particular sites, histories and material practices. He understands this ‘in-between’ space as a zone, not simply of classificatory ambiguity, but of transformation and generative possibility, out of which new forms of knowledge and imagining can emerge. He has pursued these concerns via a series of interlinked explorations of the dynamics of historical memory, the meanings of cultural creativity and the construction of that definitionally elusive yet world-historically consequential entity known as “Europe.”
Articles published in Social Analysis and the Irish Journal of Anthropology (both 1999) and his book The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity (2004) address one of the key episodes of modern Irish history – the Great Famine of the 1840s, which claimed more than a million lives and continues to inspire intense academic and popular debate. He approaches the famine, not as a bounded historical episode, but as a complex and dynamic cultural phenomenon, intimately related to the transformations of Irish society from the mid-nineteenth century to the present and requiring multiple modes of engagement on the part of the researcher, including analyses of archival, visual, literary and ethnographic sources. He considers too the multiple ways in which the past is materialized in the present through, for example, landscapes, places and objects, which themselves then assume an agentive role in shaping cultural outcomes and perceptions. Such sites, he argues, afford a potential vehicle for historical experiences and ways of knowing the past (for example, oral histories and local topographical knowledges affirming the spectral persistence of the famine dead) that are often marginalized in academic and official historiography. They thus provide a unique basis for re-conceptualizing both the story of modernity, in Ireland and elsewhere, and the indispensable involvement of material sites in the production of historical knowledge.
McLean is currently working on a second book project, tentatively entitled A Poetics of Emergence; Imagining Creativity beyond “Nature” and “Culture.” This explores the possibility of conceiving of creativity, not as an exclusively human capacity (a view sometimes advanced in Euro-American reflections on the topic) but as a relational process operating across the domains of “nature” and “culture.” The book argues that human beings in diverse times and places have intuited such a continuity between human creativity and the processes shaping the natural world and that these intuitions have found a variety of expressions through mythology, folklore, literature, art, philosophy and science. The book aims to challenge more restrictive definitions of creativity and to open a space for transcultural and transdisciplinary dialogue by developing a comparative account of human imagination and creativity as informed by and participating in the self-creation of the material universe. Portions of this work have already appeared in the volume Landscape, Memory and History: Anthropological Perspectives (2003), in a special edition (2007) of the Irish Journal of Anthropology (which he co-edited with Steve Coleman of the National University of Ireland) and articles in the journals Trames (2008) and Cultural Anthropology (2009). He is also engaged in a further ongoing project in collaboration with his colleague Thomas Wolfe (History/Global Studies, University of Minnesota) and Mika Aaltola (International Relations, University of Tampere, Finland). This involves a series of public workshops, held in Minneapolis and Helsinki, supported by a University of Minnesota Title VI European Studies grant, by the Finnish Academy of Sciences and by the research division of the Nokia telecommunications corporation, examining the conceptual, methodological and writerly challenges posed to European Studies by the recent enlargement of the European Union. Among the questions we are interested in exploring are: what is "Europe" made of? When the European Commission and other bodies talk about the "construction" of Europe, what kinds of entities are being mobilized to this end? The workshops aim to facilitate intellectual dialogue between scholars in the United States and in the various EU member countries and have featured participants from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Finland and Ireland. They envisage that the series will continue through 2009-10 and will culminate in a collaboratively authored publication or series of publications. In its focus on the multiple interfaces between discourses on identity and belonging and the materialities of objects, places and technologies in the context of contemporary Europe, he views this project as continuous with many of the thematic concerns of his previous work, while affording an opportunity, at the same time, to explore those concerns on a different scale and through dialogue and collaboration with scholars from other intellectual backgrounds.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
CA: What is the purpose of telling stories? What do stories want?
I think the answer to these questions depends largely on your understanding of what a story is. I’m not sure that stories in the sense I’ve used the term could be said to “want” anything. Obviously it’s possible to think of a story as a piece of consciously shaped narrative art, following a definite trajectory (with a beginning, middle and end etc.). In my own work, I’ve tried to deploy the notion of story more expansively – to refer, for example, to a variety of material and ecological processes that might once have been conventionally identified with the realm of “nature” rather than that of “culture.” In fact one of the ways in which I’ve attempted to engage with storytelling is as a way of undermining precisely that distinction. In one sense I’m following the lead of Walter Benjamin, a thinker who was one of my earliest inspirations and who, in his celebrated essay on the work of Nikolai Leskov, invoked “nature” as “the anonymous storyteller, who was prior to all literature.” It could be objected, I suppose, that such a claim is necessarily an anthropomorphizing one, although I don’t see it in such terms. To speak of other than human storytellers is to speak of processes of unfolding that may or may not be meaningful or beneficial to humans – indeed, they might prove incomprehensible or destructive. It could be said then that stories “happen” – that storytelling refers to a movement of temporal self-differentiation that need not be thought of as linear (although, as Tim Ingold has recently reminded us, not all lines are straight lines) or as proceeding toward any pre-assigned telos (Benjamin, for example, notes that there is no genuine story for which the question of how it continued would not be legitimate). I see human acts of storytelling as participating and intervening in the storied unfolding of the world understood in these terms – as attempts, if you will, quite literally to make a difference.
CA: Is ethnography an art? How does taking a writerly approach to ethnography shape knowledge?
I’m tempted to answer the first question with a simple “yes.” In fact, I don’t see how it could possibly be anything else. As to the question of writerly approaches to ethnography, I see anthropology – all anthropology, even its most hard-headedly positivist variants - as always inextricably engaged with the practice of writing. The difference between “writerly” and “non-writerly” approaches to me consists in the degree to which they take explicit cognizance of this and thus the degree to which they are willing to assume responsibility for their own knowledge making-practices. I’d also want extend consideration of anthropology’s relationship to writing beyond ethnography as a method and genre to include the discipline’s latterly much neglected comparative heritage. In fact, one of my current projects is an attempt to re-invent the genre of the comparative anthropological essay – a form that, for me, offers a rather different set of challenges from those posed by ethnography. One answer to these questions then would be to point out that ethnographies are not the only kind of writing that anthropologists have produced – or could produce.
CA: How has writing ethnography changed over the past 25 years?
Obviously it would be difficult to deny that the range of possibilities for ethnographic writing has expanded in the wake of the publication of Writing Culture (which, I take it, is the tacit reference point of the question). I would suggest though that the past 25 years have witnessed far more experimentation and innovation with regard to method and subject matter than writing per se. In fact it strikes me that there is still a profound resistance on the part of most anthropologists to taking writing seriously – a tendency, that is, to treat writing as an extraneous aesthetic adornment of decidedly secondary importance compared to the ‘serious’ business of describing and documenting contemporary actualities. I remember as a newly minted Ph.D in search of employment that whenever someone would compliment me on my writing in a job interview it was invariably an indication that I wasn’t going to be hired! For me, in contrast, writing is an integral and constitutive part of what anthropologists do. Writing is inseparable from our engagement with the world. When I describe myself as an anthropologist I’m describing myself as a writer – they’re the same thing (although, obviously, there are many ways of being a writer). Having said that, I do see signs of an increasing attentiveness to writing on the part of anthropologists in recent years. Next Spring (2013) Anand Pandian (Johns Hopkins) and I are co-chairing a School of Advanced Research seminar on the subject of “Literary Anthropology,” which we conceived quite explicitly as an experimental writing workshop rather than a series of meta-reflections on the status of writing in anthropology. The range of participants – from established senior figures to people of my own generation and younger (including a poet and a novelist) – and the fact that the proposal was accepted in the first place gives some indication, I think, that anthropological writing (which, as I’ve pointed out, doesn’t only mean ethnography) might be beginning to receive the sustained and serious consideration that it demands.
CA: If you were to teach a course on literature and anthropology, what would your students read?
A very interesting question, although not an easy one to answer! I’ve never attempted to teach a course on that specific topic, although I would say that all my course are in some sense ‘about’ literature and anthropology. “Literary” texts (always a somewhat slippery label) that have featured on my reading lists in the past have included The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, John Berger’s Pig Earth, Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. A writer whose work I’d love to teach is James Joyce – I studied English literature for my primary degree and wrote my undergraduate thesis on Joyce, so he’s been something of a long-standing obsession (one to which I returned, in fact, in a piece I recently finished that deals, amongst other things, with his wonderful short story “The Dead”). In fact I’d love to teach an anthropology course based entirely around his work and have students read everything he published, including Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Perhaps I will one day!
CA: Your 2009 article blurs the line between geological creation stories, mythical creation stories, and academic or anthropological stories, arguing that all derive from the same creative, relational process. Your talk at the 2011 AAA meetings approached the same topic in a more literary fashion, poetically blending these acts of creation into the same narrative. Can you tell us about some of the material processes that intertwine with your own writing and creative process?
First of all, I would insist that my engagements with texts – anthropological, literary and other – are material processes – that is, affect-laden, potentially transformative encounters that need not be distinguished in that sense from my engagements with audio-visual works, landscapes, animals, plants, meteorological phenomena or other humans. It’s unfortunate that the protocols of academic writing and publication encourage – or force - us to place these things in distinct categories. (I remember Tim Ingold saying once in a talk that it would be nice to be able to cite a passing cloud in a bibliography). I would certainly say that the inspiration for my work comes from all of them. I would want to call attention too to the physio-chemical dimensions of the writing process itself – the cup(s) of coffee in the morning, the food one eats (or forgets to eat!), maybe a beer or a glass of wine to unwind at the end of the day etc. There are also certain activities that, for me, are indissociably linked to thinking and writing – particularly swimming (preferably in the sea when there’s one available although my midwestern institutional location often obliges me to make do with a lake or a pool). For me one reason – perhaps the most important reason – why anthropologists should study literature is to remind themselves continuously of the materiality of their own writing and knowledge-making practices and of the embeddedness of those practices within material processes that simultaneously constitute and forever exceed them. In the end I would see all of my work as an attempt to manifest and think through precisely that embeddedness, a task that I regard as being at once empirical, conceptual and writerly.
- Faculty Biography and List of Other Publications
- Bodies From the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-Human Agency and the making of Collective Memory: Trames, 12 (62/57) 299-308, 2008.
- "To Dream Profoundly": Irish Boglands and the Imagination of Matter. Irish Journal of Anthropology: Special issue, Engaging Imagination: Anthropological Explorations in Creativity, 10 (2) 61-68, 2007.
- Introduction: Why Imaginatio. Irish Journal of Anthropology: Special issue, Engaging Imagination: Anthropological Explorations in Creativity, 10 (2) 5-9, 2007.
- Coedited with Steve Coleman. Engaging Imagination: Anthropological Explorations in Creativity., Anthropological Association of Ireland.
- The Event and its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
RELEVANT ARTICLES FROM THE ARCHIVE
Cultural Anthropology has published essays which re-theorize the nature/culture dynamic. See for example, David Hughes' “Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area” (2005); Celia Lowe's “Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from 'New Form' to 'Endemic Species' in Indonesians' Conservation Biology” (2004); and Hugh Raffles' “'44Local Theory': Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place” (1999).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of other essays on ethnographic practice. These include, Nancy Campbell & Susan Shaw's “Incitements to Discourse: Illicit Drugs, Harm Reduction, and the Production of Ethnographic Subjects” (2008); Brian Axel's “Anthropology and the New Technologies of Communication” (2006); and Haim Hazan's “The Ethnographer's Textual Presence: On Three Forms of Anthropological Authorship” (1995).