Appropriation and Propriety

It’s going to seem kinda weird, but almost all of my formal training on the nature of creativity to this point in my life has come from studying Classical Chinese philosophies, Confucianism and Daoism.

The title of this blog comes from my thinking about a Classical Confucian text, the 中庸 (Zhongyong) and my reception of that text in light of contemporary Continental philosophers. I’m specifically interested in the works from Roger Ames and David Hall.

Although I recognize that theirs is a somewhat specific and at times controversial project, I can’t shake the feeling that even were their translations wholly wrong (which no one seems to say), what they have to say about the nature of humanity, living, the universe, etc. is what needs to be promoted today.

Today we have this amazing capability, broadly distribute, to create through the appropriation of others’ work (the mash-up, DJing, etc.) in a manner that just wasn’t possible thirty years ago. To this Ames & Hall have already written:

One must be creative to take full advantage of appropriated culture, both in shaping it for his own place and time, and in using it as a structure through which to realize his own possibilities. He must labor assiduously to acquire the culture transmitted from ancient times but must be able to take it a step further in maximizing the possibilities of the prevailing conditions….Thinking Through Confucius (48)

Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) has written a bit about this appropriation activity in his book Rhythm Science where he states, “today, the voice you speak with may not be your own.” An uncanny feeling, that I might not be who I state I am; to this Ames & Hall say:

The dynamic of becoming whole, construed aesthetically, is precisely what is meant by a creative process. It is thus that cheng (誠) is to be understood as creativity. Creativity involves both the realization of the focal self and of the field of events, the realization of both particular and context. Self-actualization is a focal process that draws upon an aggregate field of human experience. And the field and focus are reciprocally realized. Focusing the Familiar (32)

The problem of who I am and what is the nature of art are not so distant, it’s been discussed and debated by Baudelaire, Breton, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno, Heidegger, etc. The problem is this: if who we are is subject to capitalist economic relations, then everything we do, ultimately is a question of how to turn what we do into a commodity to be sold on the marketplace. Don’t believe me? Then how do we account for the phrase, “I don’t buy it,” when we don’t believe something? What aren’t you buying? Is it that my sincerity is questioned?

The virtue of the term “sincerity” is that it describes a commitment to one’s creative purposes, a solemn affirmation of one’s self-actualization….Since all selves are constituted by relationships, integrity means being trustworthy and true in one’s associations….integrity is the ground from which self and other arise together to maximize benefit. It is not what you are, but how well and how productively they are able to fare in their synergistic alliances. Focusing the Familiar (33)

The world changes and we must respond, but what is typically neglected in that response to change is the creativity necessary to change with the times.

Not only is change an integral characteristic of things, but real creativity is a condition of this continuing transformative process. That is, our immediate experience is composed of fluid, porous events that entail both persistence and the spontaneous emergence of novelty, both continuity and disjunction. In this evolving order, there is at once familiar rhythm to life, and the newness of each moment. Dao De Jing (16)

This cosmic unfolding is not “cyclical” in the sense of reversability and replication but is rather a continuing spiral that is always coming back upon itself and yet is ever new. Dao De Jing (28)

Who we are, fundamentally, is a creative event:

Cheng (誠) [creativity], then, is the extending of the specifically human activity of actualizing genuine personhood from man himself to all constituents in the process of existence. Thinking Through Confucius (58)

Wolfgang Schirmacher calls this “artificial life.”


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