It’s basically all this guy’s fault.
In light of the short story The Country of the Kind, I’ve been thinking a bit about creativity. This story suggests that creativity is a necessary curse that we must endure if we’re to be fully human. It disrupts the world and our spirits but it keeps society from becoming moribund. You can see a similar theme in other stories in this collection, in Harrison Bergeron, for example, A Work of Art and even Student Body.
These stories belong to the mythical corporate American age. In the 50s, highly structured workplaces were the norm, often demarcated through union agreements as much as the formality of the civil service or the wood panelled gentility of a Manhattan advertising agency. Artists of all sorts were looking for ways to breakthrough what they saw as a stultifying conformity.
For some science fiction in the 50s were all over the idea. These stories and others like them anticipate the counter culture of the 60s that began to question the hierarchies that ruled corporate life at the same time as the criticised everything else. Many good things came of that, among them major steps forward against racism and sexism, homophobia and the treatment of the the sick and the poor.
Alongside these, though, have come social changes which, while leading to an infinitely more benevolent world, betray the enduring human capacity for self-delusion.
As a result of changes in attitude over the years, we now live in a world that lionises creativity. The most influential global super-corporations are those that embody the dress-down, bean bag and table football view of creativity. Formality, hierarchy, and closed-plan offices are a thing of the past, and now the anarchic atmosphere of communal innovation rules.
The archetype of this culture of creativity is the rock star. How often do we hear that expression about some fashionable innovator? Google ‘rock star entrepreneur’ and take a look at what I mean. Suddenly creativity is not limited to those who dig deep into their spirit and the roots of culture to bring us fresh insight into being alive. Suddenly, it belongs to everyone, from project management analysts to marketing strategists and even as far out as the world of human resources analysts.
This co-opting of the creative is, naturally, a hollow sham. In his fine article TED Talks Are Lying to You Thomas Frank elegantly takes down the whole empty genre of corporate creativity. He focuses on the business guides that sell the same empty aphorisms and insight-free anecdotes over and over.
This was not science, despite the technological gloss applied by writers like Jonah Lehrer. It was a literature of superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time.
In real life, creative workers are amongst the least valued and most underpaid. Frank sees that all ‘his creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up.’ These guides to creativity aren’t about learning lessons from creative people at all: what do artists really have to teach change management consultants and six sigma process managers, after all? It’s nothing but a flattering mirror for the professional-class readership.
What this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.
This is a symptom of treating creativity as a life style choice. The clue to what creativity is really about is in its name: it’s about creating things. It’s not about thinking of new ways to tell other people to do things, or making innovations in the amount red tape that’s generated through the process of creation.
You need some of this in a creative project but life is generally easier if they stay out of the way of the creative process itself. Unfortunately this culture of creativity has led otherwise unexceptional people to believe that have something to contribute to the creative world. You might consider therole of critics in the arts world, for example – mea culpa, I suppose.
But that’s not really where I’m heading. Sticking to the corporate world, I’m talking about The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. This brilliant article by David Graeber pin-points exactly the problem with the modern corporate world.
Greaber believes that ‘huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.’
We have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”
Now, just to be clear I work in the creative team in a financial services company marketing department, and that sounds like it migth be a bullshit job to me. In fact, it’s absolutely true that I believe that quite of lot of my effort is expended on work I secretly – and occasionally not so secretly – believe doesn’t really need to be done.
But I suspect that the rise in the creative corporation is a direct response to the general pointless of most of the roles it supports. We flop in a bean bag and imagine we’re like Bob Dylan writing A Rolling Stone as we write another brochure about fund charges to protect us from the hard truth that we’ve just wasted a goodly proportion of our time on this planet – time we could have spent doing something purely pleasurable – on four pages of copy and design that’s going to go straight into recycling bins up and down the country.
There are economic reasons why we’ve got to this situation, but surely one of the prime motivators is the is the desire to feel useful. It’s the power of the work ethic that keeps the entire capitalist charade ticking over – the Protestant work ethic, Buddhist values of duty and submission, deference to aristocratic or religious hierarchies that still persist.
These make it hard for us to just ‘do’. The creative act in particular has to be tied to some kind of material gain. In this Gradgrind world of marketable skills and value-added, the arts find themselves having to justify their existence. In Should Literature Be Useful? Lee Siegel looks at the way that the humanities are finding themselves hooked into this same Puritanical impulse.
There is another way to look at the studies’ conclusions, however. Instead of proclaiming the superiority of fiction to the practical skills allegedly conferred by reading non-fiction, the studies implied that practical effects are an indispensable standard by which to judge the virtues of fiction. Reading fiction is good, according to the studies, because it makes you a more effective social agent. Which is pretty much what being able to read a train schedule does for you, too.
There seems to be an innate human of art and creativity. Steve Aylett argues that real creativity is hated and feared. His latest project, The Heart of the Original, is an attempt to help those afflicted with creativity:
Those who burst out thinking in public encounter not only sarcasm and physical aggression but a total lack of legal recourse. I explain how to ‘pass’ among the mentally dead while remaining alive. This zombie camouflage involves more than merely looking happy.
This is surely a useful guide, which I urge you all to support. If we ourselves can’t push the cause of thinking for its own sake then we owe it to the world to support those I do.
I suppose this brings us back to the narrator of Country of the Kind. It’s a lesson perhaps in how much things remain the same. Even as human beings like to pretend they crave the rewards of creativity they really don’t. They see the disruptive element that real creativity brings and have constructed this pretend version to make us believe that human culture moves forward when in reality it continues its sideways path around the rim of the abyss.