The Creative Public: democratic or productive?

Jan Løhmann Stephensen
In the mid-90s Yves Michaud pronounced “the end of the utopia of art”. By this he was referring to the waning of a historically significant understanding of a privileged relationship between on the one hand: art and its discourses; and on the other: “the utopia of democratic citizenship”. According to this belief, art was thought to have a particularly benevolent influence on interpersonal communication, and was thus perceived as “a correlate to citizen-based utopia […] a utopia of possible communication, […] of ‘cultural communism,’ or at any rate of the cultural community” (146). However, looking at the actual state of affairs, even when it comes to judging or discussing art, “the aesthetic community” – that is: the contemporary art world – appears to be nothing but “skirmish and strife” (151). Given this the coupling between art and democratic discourse and citizenship seems rather far-fetched, Michaud argues, thus announcing the end of its reign.

The reports of the death of this utopian idea could, however, be greatly exaggerated. In fact, contrary to this, it would rather seem that this utopian coupling has been restored in recent years, although in a somewhat transformed form, which now is marked by discourses on “networks”, “collaboration”, “projects”, and not least: “creativity” (which appears as a “stand in-term” for “art”, one might say, with an emphasis on its productive aspects, rather than those related to reception and taste). This new discursive figuration also includes the third grand utopia around which the Western democratic societies have developed since the 18th Century, “the utopia of labor” (135-40), which like the other two utopias has also been in a profound crisis, especially since World War II and in particular the 1960s. Today, this new coupling forms a hegemonic vision of what might be termed the “creative productive public”, which as a general rule is presented as the historical overcoming of a number of problems and ills, pointed out by previous critiques of capitalism (Boltanski & Chiapello; Stephensen).

This tendency is found in a quite elaborated form in Charles Leadbeater’s book entitled We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity (co-authored with 257 other people), as well as in Tapscott & Williams’ Wikinomics (2006) and Macrowikinomics (2010) and a number of other publications on related issues. But perhaps most obviously it is found in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (2006), in which so-called “social production” or “commons-based peer production” is thought to have had a profound transformative effect on not only markets, but also on the realm of human freedom (both on a political and individual level). Although the term “creativity” itself does not quantitatively speaking appear all that central, Benkler nonetheless insists that the core of the networked information economy is the combination of nonmarket production and the democratization of creativity (425). He furthermore emphasizes that the type of social relationship the commons-based peer production processes initiate get their “social valence by … the shared experience of joint creativity they enable” (374-5). And at the end of this, Benkler, of course, interlaces the creativity performed in social production with the rise of the so-called “networked public sphere”, which is explicitly described as a phenomenon “attenuating, or even solving, the most basic failings of the mass-mediated public sphere” (465).

This last phrase is, as already mentioned, a recurrent theme in the introduction of these ideas of “participation”, “produsage”, “social production”, “collaborative creativity” etc., namely: the celebration of these as a successful cure for a number of major, societal ills of Modernity – especially, of course, of Capitalist Modernity. One crucial aspect of this has to do with the degree or level of activity which is being assumed, emphasized, and no doubt often exaggerated. This should obviously be seen in contrast to the passiveness of the consumer-citizen previously associated with the fall of the public sphere at the hands of commercial mass media once suggested by a broad range of theoreticians from Adorno and Habermas to Guy Debord. Now, even the act of consumption is increasingly thought of in not only far more active terms, it is also emphatically perceived as a creative praxis in its own right, meaning that we are now faced with a discourse that almost completely blurs the distinctions between production, consumption, and democratic citizenship.

The de-alienation through co-creativity

Another aspect of this historical overcoming of certain core problems of Capitalist Modernity, has to do with that cluster of ills, which have often been subsumed under the concept of “alienation”. The first kind of alienation supposedly done away with now, by way of the insistence on these collaborative, co-creative aspects, is, of course, social alienation. Which in essence, at least in the Marxist tradition, is fundamentally thought to spring from the second kind of alienation, that this discourse on specific practices claims to overcome, namely: the alienation of labour. Which then ultimately is closely interrelated to man’s alienation from himself and his truly human function, his so-called “species being” (Gattungswesen) (Marx). The overcoming of which especially since the 60s – inspired by the reappearance of the early writing of Karl Marx – has routinely been portrayed as being equivalent with the “creative praxis” or similar concepts, as if the Romantic belief that – in the words of Matthew Arnold – “the exercise of a creative activity is the true function of man” also perfused Marx’s critique of alienated labour as some kind of implicit counter ideal. A theme which is frequently found in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Cornelius Castoriadis, just to mention a few, and which constituted a central trajectory in the countercultural, anti-capitalist/work discourses of the period. Given this history it’s hardly much of a surprise, that these ideas of “collective creativity”, “mass creativity”, “co-creative labour”, etc. now become endowed with huge political and social potentials within quite a broad range of discourses.

Recursive publics as publics?

These themes are also working as a subtext in more critically inclined contemporary texts like for instance Christopher Kelty’s analysis of the so-called “recursive publics” of the Free Software movement. In Two Bits, Kelty for instance defines these recursive public as “publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place and which, in turn, constitutes their everyday practical commitments and the identities of the participants as creative and autonomous individuals” (7). The role of human creativity in all this is thought in dual terms: it is both the means, that is: what constitutes and maintains this recursive public through “running code”, dodging the restraints of proprietary software producers, IP-law, attempts at state regulation, etc.. But in this conception of recursive publics, creativity is also the end, aim or raison d’être of the whole “enterprise”. It is thus a fundamental part of the social imaginary of the Free Software movement as a recursive public that it liberates the creativity of its users and – perhaps especially – its own contributors.

What makes these recursive publics differ from the public sphere in the Habermasian sense is at least to facts: (i) that a substantial part of its publicness is devoted to the maintenance and consolidation of its own infrastructure, and (ii) that it’s not only concerned with the constitution of autonomous individuals (in the tradition of Enlightenment thinking of the public sphere, democracy, etc.), but creative ones as well. This last aspect has a number of consequences for the access to and openness of these publics, and raises a number of questions concerning the actual publicness of these publics. What seems to be happening in these recursive publics is that one’s democratic access to and “speaker’s rights” within these recursive publics varies according to one’s ability to actually contribute to the maintenance of their infrastructure. A criteria of performative citizenship, one might say, where the worth and impact of one’s voice becomes closely related to one’s ability to perform the privileged kind of praxis within these publics, namely: to “run code” on quite a sophisticated level and thereby “propose changes by actually creating them” (222), while everything else is being dismissed as “just talk” (58). Or as Kelty also puts it: “the only argument that convinces is working code” (58); hereby defining technology/free software – and by implication: (productive) creativity – as a “more powerful political argument because ‘it works’” (92).

Works cited:

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

Boltanski, Luc & Chiapello, Eve. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

Kelty, Christopher M. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

Leadbeater, Charles. We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity. London: Profile Books, 2008. Print.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844).” In Writings of Young Marx on Philosophy and Society. Easton & Guddat, Eds. New York: Anchor Books, 1967.

Michaud, Yves. “The End of the Utopia of Art.” In Think Art: theory and practice in the art of today. Bartomeu Mari & Schaeffer, Jean-Marie, Eds. Rotterdam: Witte de With, 1998. Print.

Stephensen, Jan Løhmann. Kapitalismens ånd & den kreative etik. Aarhus: Digital Aesthetic Research Center, 2010. Print.

Tapscott, Don & Williams, Anthony D. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Portfolio, 2006. Print.

Tapscott, Don & Williams, Anthony D. Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World. New York: Portfolio, 2010. Print.

Posted in Public Interfaces Category