Friday, April 08, 2022

Thinking Outside the Box

It's overrated. It's really easy to do, I've been doing it since I was 13.

OTOH, there is a level of deep outsideness that actually is valuable, the kind which says "Box? I see no box," not merely as contrarian "What is reality anyway?*" popular among the clever but not brilliant. I do respect that. But its rare, and the imitation of it just grows tiring. It is common in the arts. Oh, you're incorporating Native American rhythms into your jazz/pop?  How quaint.  I've been experimenting with Mongolian throat-singing myself. You do deserve some credit, I suppose, for being the only kid in town who was listening to that radio station in the 60s and playing in 5/4 time, but it's modest. Modern art seems to be forever "starting a conversation" about whatever, challenging your expectations.  Extra points if you work in blood, sex, texture, or animals. Yawn.

In Modernism, it became popular to praise something as being original, as if that were some great accomplishment in itself.  I bought into that when I was younger, fading as I got toward the end of college but persisting for years after in at least some form. I don't think we can blame the Europeans for this one, as it grew up in the American expansion, with ideas of American newness, originality, and independence. The original colonists were intent on preserving what was best from their European parent cultures, not only the British, but the French, Spanish, and Dutch as well. Even the Scots-Irish, who we associate with the frontier and that idea of American self-sufficiency, did not start that way, and subsequent changes were adaptations to new environments, in which they tried to keep the stripped down essentials of the old ways in the new circumstance. Circuit-riding preachers were somewhat of a new thing (not entirely), but what they brought was the foundation for the KJV-only, four-spiritual laws theology still used in those areas today.  Not wrong, necessarily, but missing some pieces. Cattle-rustling as a career, and the defenses and punishments against cattle-rustling weren't new, they had been common in Scotland and Ireland.  They were just new in America. There was a lot of rhetoric about newness and originality in America, but preservation remained the norm for a long time.

Even though the Wessex-dominated lowland South colonies were the traditionalists, it was the Puritans who had the peculiar horror of "novel" teachings, and novelty in general.  It might be a New Jerusalem here, but the emphasis was on supposed return to NT theology and practice. 

We could say that the radical idea that newness was good in itself was the main new idea. Technological innovations fueled the concept, as those were visible improvements. Yet all regions and movements revered tradition and mere oldness for many decades of American history. Still do, really. We still notice that the West Coast is different, having collected many of the fans of newness from the states back East. It has been the big cities of the world that have usually served that function of attracting experimenters, and we have that, too. But America has that extra overlay of admiration as a whole for such folk.

Claudia Stokes, author of Old Style: Unoriginality and its Uses in 19th C US Literature (Expensive academic book, but you can read the introduction at the Amazon page, and I thought that was enough for my purposes) applies it specifically to literature and captured some interesting aspects I had not thought of. What we would call unoriginality now was admired in literature because it showed knowledge, understanding, and mastery of classical learning. It was not only religious, as in How much more understanding of God than St Paul do you think you have, Jasper? but also the revival of Roman and especially Greek thought. A writer had to show that he knew Plato and Aristotle, not just experiment with new rhyme schemes. Even in the 20th C a TS Eliot might be a great innovator, but packed his poetry with classical allusions. "April is the cruellest month, breeding..." is not merely a description of postwar devastation and discouragement.  It echoes the first lines of "The Canterbury Tales."

Those who came after untethered further from the past, and revelled in it.

But in the 19th C there was an additional use for literature, especially by women for girls. Women used poetry and novels to show how adult women should live (and more or less obviously, how they thought men should live as well). Girls were expected to show they understood this by imitating it. While women did introduce a good deal of new perspective and literary innovation, these were generally within the confines of highlighting the themes of adult responsibility, of delivering care to the overlooked and unfortunate, of remaining calm in crisis. Male writers did it as well, though more often in popular literature than in what we now look back on as high literature, in Hawthorne or Melville. Men might record adventures in strange settings with exotic names and inhabitants, but the underlying themes tied them to the values of grandfathers: honor, loyalty, honesty, courage. These things still apply however far you go from us, son.  

It is relatively easy to find someone who can rattle off a hundred alternate uses for a brick, as one old creativity test used to measure. Sometimes it is useful.  But we overvalue that sort of originality. There is a team-building exercise which I have come to dislike, of setting a team some physical task, and then ramping up the expectations greatly, to what would be impossible levels under the original directions.  The trick is supposed to be that someone notices a way to - well, you could say "transcend the rules," but you could also call it "cheat." To those who protest that the solution is cheating, the instructor is supposed to note that our assumptions limited us.  He - these leaders are nearly always "he" - never said you couldn't do this or that! Yes, technically true, but tiring.  It is a useful lesson to check your assumptions from time to time to see if there is some legal way around your obstacle. But it is not enormously useful. You get the occasional breakthrough, but come up empty the next week and the week after for further improvements.

*Classical reference: Firesign Theater


Deevs said...

I recall a professor I took a course from (very intelligent woman, possibly the smartest person I've met) saying that she had European researchers note a strain of creativity in American researchers they didn't see anywhere else. Pretty small data point, but I've been keeping that in the back of my mind ever since. I haven't had much occasion to work with foreign researchers yet, so maybe I'll get a better idea in the future.

Oddly enough, another anecdote from this professor comes to mind reading the article. She came onto a project as a graduate student, taking things over from a graduating PhD. The project required a large spring with a very specific response. Basically, they needed the spring to have the proper uniform geometry you'd expect from a spring in its uncompressed state. The spring was massive enough that gravity would compress and deform the spring, though, so it couldn't just have a constant cross section.

The previous student had spent weeks working with differential equations, etc. trying to get it to the right shape when at rest. When she took over, she modeled a uniform spring and applied a gravitational force to it. This deformed the spring in a specific way, so she took the deformed geometry and just flipped it around. Now, the spring would have the desired geometry when at rest under standard gravity. It was a really simple, elegant solution that makes the hearts of physicists and engineers get all aflutter.

Anyway, I bring that up because I think arguments could be made about which of the two students was thinking outside of the box there.

Anonymous said...

"Rocky Rocco at your cervix". ;)

G. Poulin said...

The value of original thinking is not in its newness, but in its capacity to correct a bad idea that has become entrenched to the point of being unchallengeable. Not novelty as a goal in itself, but rather contrariness in the service of truth. I suppose there is some evolutionary value in complacency and conformity for the sake of social cohesiveness, but it needs to be balanced from time to time by someone willing to say "Wait a minute. Let's take another look at what we're doing here."