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Sincerity Versus Self-Expression: Modern Creative Agency and the Materiality of Semiotic Forms


Existing anthropological accounts have tended to portray the normative ideal of the modern subject as predicated on the demand that the materiality of semiotic forms such as the body and words be subordinate to the subject’s interiority as a condition of possibility for his or her freedom and moral autonomy. In this article, I seek to contribute to the ongoing and fruitful conversation in anthropology over the idea of the modern subject by highlighting the distinguishing features of a specifically modern normative ideal of creative agency in which the materiality of semiotic forms is fully incorporated into the architecture of the self and is seen as a condition of possibility for its articulation. This norm is epitomized in the notion of self-expression that has emerged from Sentimentalism and Romanticism. In doing so, I draw on fieldwork I conducted in creative writing workshops in Israel and American postsecondary jazz education, as well as on self-help literature. I argue that this normative ideal of modern creative agency qualifies the assumption that modernity has been predicated mostly on the desire to keep nature and culture ontologically distinct. I conclude the article by exploring this normative ideal as it resurfaces in the present historical moment in modern subjects’ attempts to orient themselves under conditions of neo-liberal uncertainty, open-endedness, and potential creativity.

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on subjectivity and selfhood. See, for example, Ahmed Kanna's "Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging "City-Corporation""(2010), Tomas Matza's "Moscow's Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show" (2009), Debra Curtis' "Commodities and Sexual Subjectivities: A Look at Capitalism and Its Desires" (2004), and Ernestine McHugh's "Contingent Selves: Love and Death in a Buddhist Society in Nepal" (2002).

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on modernity, including, Eric Gable's "The Funeral and Modernity in Manjaco" (2006), Webb Keane's "Sincerity, "Modernity," and the Protestants" (2002), and Louisa Schein's "Performing Modernity" (1999).

About the Author

Eitan Wilf is an Assistant Professor (Lecturer) of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is interested in the institutional transformations of modern creative agency and practice in the contemporary U.S.A., with a specific focus on new forms of cultivation of creative practice in modern organizational and high-technology settings. Currently, Wilf is writing a book-length manuscript based on eighteen months of fieldwork in U.S. collegiate jazz music education programs. He earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago in December, 2010.

Eitan Wilf, "Eitan Wilf." October 19, 2012 via .

Additional Work by the Author

Forthcoming. “Rituals of Creativity: Tradition, Modernity, and the ‘Acoustic Unconscious’ in an American Collegiate Jazz Music Program.” American Anthropologist.

2010. "Listening to Modernity: Creativity and Cultural Reproduction in American Postsecondary Jazz Education." Anthropology News 51(9):7.

2010. “Swinging within the Iron Cage: Modernity, Creativity, and Embodied Practice in American Postsecondary Jazz Education.” American Ethnologist 37(3):563-582).

Author's Comments

My interest in the anthropology of creativity emerged out of my own personal biography as a violin player trained in the classical Western music tradition, a jazz trumpet player, and a poet. I studied in conservatories, enrolled in a jazz school, and participated in creative writing workshops. These experiences have made me think about how standardized curricula and rationalized pedagogical methods are deployed to cultivate creative practice in different domains. I then began to be curious about the conflation of the presumably antithetical modern normative ideals of rationality and creativity as a phenomenon of increasing proportions in contemporary modern polities. This conflation is not limited to institutionalized art education. One can see it everywhere: from modern organizational settings that turn to discourses of creativity to boost their productivity, to career counselors who mobilize these discourses in the design of methodical exercises that are supposed to help people find their ‘true’ vocation. I thought that the jazz school, the creative writing workshop, and similar art programs epitomize this conflation and provide wonderful sites to explore it.

My purpose in the article was to qualify a dominant trend in the anthropology of modernity that has focused on a modern semiotic ideology that stipulates that the self must be independent of and antecedent to the materiality of semiotic forms that serve to express it. In this narrative, my words or my body gestures, for example, are publicly available semiotic forms that indicate my prior and independently existing self. I thought that this was a very partial portrayal of the modern self. This narrative erases Romantic normative ideals of creativity that have had a definitive impact on notions of the modern self. These Romantic ideals posit the self as potentiality whose realization can only be achieved by its articulation. In other words, the materiality of semiotic forms becomes a condition of possibility for the self—it is part of its architecture. This semiotic ideology finds clear expression in institutionalized art programs that conflate modern normative ideals of rationality and creativity because these sites are often based on the methodical and rational manipulation of the materiality of semiotic forms as a way to articulate and realize the neophyte artist’s self.

In the article I switch between U.S. self-help literature, Israeli poetry workshop, and U.S. collegiate jazz education. On the surface, this might seem as a methodological error. However, I felt that such a broad canvass was necessary in order to make it clear that the semiotic ideology I am concerned with is not limited to some esoteric pockets of contemporary modernity, but rather is as ubiquitous as the semiotic ideology of the modern self that stipulates a total separation between this self and the materiality of semiotic forms. As anthropologists, we have learned to assume that in all things modern, the notion of the dematerialized self is the normative ideal (though not the practiced reality). Similarly, we have learned to expect surprising conflations of persons and things only in non-modern settings. I think this is a long-held professional habit that needs to be changed. Anthropologists who have focused their analytical lens on modern forms of creativity have been aware of this skewed perception for a while but I think we need to tease out the full implications of the ubiquity of modern normative ideals of creativity for how we understand modernity.

Modern normative ideals of creativity are often reenacted in moments of open-endedness, when individuals have multiple possibilities and options for future actions. In these moments, the turn to the ‘inner self’ or to one’s ‘inner nature’ as a source of action and as a compass is more likely to occur. For example, as I argue toward the end of the article, the rise of neoliberalism has produced precisely such open-endedness for many people in many forms. Choosing one’s next job, deciding on the identity of one’s spouse, deciding what to study, how to raise one’s children—many issues have become matters of personal choice and risk-taking. I suggest that under these circumstances, the turn to one’s ‘inner nature’ as a compass is likely to occur and that this turn often involves the manipulation of the materiality of semiotic forms for the purpose of articulating this ‘inner nature’.

The Youtube video below exemplifies these different points: 1) The narrator says that many people ask him whether they should become architects. 2) He tells them that in order to be able to choose one’s life’s career, one should find what makes one happy “deep down inside.” 3) He notes that whereas in the past, being 10% happy with one’s job was o.k., today there are many more “choices and opportunities.” 4) He then concludes that the idea about what one should be doing with one’s life comes from doing many things and then realizing what fits—“it’s in the doing.” These four points exemplify some of the key dimensions in modern narratives of self-expression: 1) Normative ideals of creativity typically emerge in moments of open-endedness, when decisions need to be made for which people do not have readily available answers. 2) In such moments, people often turn to their ‘inner nature’ as a sort of a compass. 3) Such open-endedness is related to the risk-taking imposed, and the flexibility enabled by contemporary modern job-markets and social contexts that are highly different from previous job-markets and contexts. 4) Discovering one’s true self as a compass involves articulation. One has to experiment with different activities in order to realize one’s self. In other words, one does not have a clear notion of the self prior to its articulation. Hence, the materiality of semiotic forms is part and parcel of the architecture of the self.

There is nothing unique in this video. It is only one out of numerous other examples for the ubiquity and impact of modern normative ideals of creativity in the present historical moment. This does not mean that there are no settings in which the norm of the dematerialized self is dominant. However, I think that modern normative ideals of creativity and the specific self that they entail have been significant in more ways than anthropologists have allowed for. My purpose in the present article was to suggest that we need to account more fully for the ubiquity of these ideals, and also to offer some ways that we can do so.

The Restless Soul in the Bathroom Mirror by Lee Weinstein (New York Times, September 2010)

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