Posted by: Johan Normark | December 6, 2010

Creativity in anthropology

Last Thursday and Friday I attended a workshop on the future of gender studies in archaeology at Stockholm University. These were my final days of work at the university. From January 1st I am back at Göteborg University. Before the train ride back to Göteborg I read an article written by the anthropologist Stuart McLean (2009). It is called “Stories and cosmogonies: imagining creativity beyond “nature” and “culture”“(Cultural Anthropology, vol. 24(2), 213-245). It includes some of my own influences (Lucretius, Spinoza, Bergson, Deleuze, Latour, Serres, and DeLanda,). The article “considers the notion of creativity as it applies to both to the productions of the human imagination, especially stories, and to the making of the material universe” (p 213).

McLean makes no distinction between “archaic” and “modern” conceptions of the universe and he does not see human creative acts as repetitions of events occurring in the original creation. Creative acts are participating in ongoing processes. Creativity is not an attribute of humans or “supernaturals” but it is a relational process occurring between various bodies. He points out that when “nature” occurs in anthropological narratives it is as “cultural representations” that are distinct from the material realities that they are believed to represent. However, this dichotomy between nature and culture does seldom exist in “non-Western” contexts.

The author defines creativity as “the bringing forth of new material, linguistic, or conceptual formations or the transformation of existing ones and as calling, not for a ‘cultural poetics,’ but for a more broadly conceived poetics of making (poesis, in its most inclusive sense), encompassing both the natural and cultural realms as conventionally designated, a poetics capable, for example, of articulating the stories human beings tell with cosmogonies detailing the coming-to-being of the material universe” (p 215-216).

The article includes three “scenarios” that describe quite different narratives. The first deals with how humans relate to the material universe in various creation accounts (such as in the Trobriand islands and New Guinea). According to Lévy-Bruhl these mythic worlds were of pure and unconstrained potentiality, a fluidity, where entities had not been established. They had not been actualized from the virtual to use Deleuzian terminology. These stories not only recapitulate the ancestral deeds it is also participating in an ongoing process of transformations in the present. Here McLean comes to the most important part of his text. How are these stories retold and interpreted by anthropologists? They are usually explained as ecological adaptations, group solidarity or cosmology, etc. Whatever they do the anthropologists refuse them the ontological claims that are found in the stories themselves. McLean rather sees the anthropological retellings and all other stories as participations and extensions of the self-making of the world.

The second scenario deals with the “affinity between processes of material creation and the fashioning of humanly intelligible narratives” (p 223). It begins with Lucretius’ clinamen which is the minimum deviation in the path of the atom that creates materials by differentiating the regular free fall of atoms. Lucretius studied self-organizing material processes and he has therefore been seen as the precursor of evolutionary ideas and chaos/complexity theories. Serres argues that Lucretius saw the world as fluid and that it is defined by continuous movement where stability simply is the temporary slowing down of the universal flow. Serres states that “the physics of Lucretius is a hydraulics” (p 225) where physical bodies, sensations, and imaginary products emerge from the same processes. Lucretius “shows the world to be knowable and comprehensible precisely by refusing any separation between the world and our knowledge of it” (p 226).

In the third scenario we are moved to Venice as it is a city of imagination, secrets, architecture rising out of the mud of a lagoon, etc. It is the entanglement between these materials in the watery setting that provides the impetus for creativity.

McLean argues that humans are not always the primary storytellers. Animal-human ancestors in Melanesian myths, Lucretius’ atoms, and Venice’s lagoon produce realities with their own dynamics no matter what people believe they mean. Stories are “expressions in linguistic form of a dynamic power of self-differentiation immanent to the material substance of the universe” (p 232). Expression is here related to Deleuze’s notion that expression is immanent and non-dualistic.

It is argued that anthropologists should “enter into dialogue with, rather than seeking to explain away, the ontological and metaphysical claims that [their informants] put forward” (p 235). This is not about cultural relativism but of “engaged creative practice, involving both the empirical exploration and the experimental composition of a reality that is acknowledged to be fluid, heterogeneous, and multiple and that is produced and revealed under different (although no less objectively ‘real’) aspects by the endeavors of both science and poetry” (p 235). So what should an archaeologist do since she/he has no direct access to ancient informants? My answer has for quite some time been that it is the physical remains in the material record itself. Those are our informants.

Many Mayanists have used Maya creation myths in order to understand settlement patterns etc. The perspective has always been that of “representation.” That is, architecture simply represents those ancient creative events. Creation myths are always part of ideology and how the elite “legitimizes” their power, etc. That is for sure part of the process but that is seldom what the narratives themselves proclaim. What McLean does not mention in his article is that Deleuze (and Guattari) discusses several regimes of signs/expressions. The examples that McLean provides from the Melanesian contexts are presignifying regimes that are less ordered and multivocal than a signifying regime. The latter is far more rigid and relies on the hierarchical arborescent schema that the whole “representational” thinking idea depends upon. In Mayanist cosmological studies it is the arborescent schema that dominates. I will include far more presignifying tendencies in my own narrative of caves and water in my upcoming articles.



  1. Hello Johan Normark,
    Thanx for your blog and your comment on Stuart McLean. It is the first time that I hear about creativity as a topic of anthropological research. Do you know more about authors who take this subject? Some years ago I have been looking for it but then I couldn’t find anything. Are you doing reseacrh on creativity?
    I recently got my PhD on creativity. It was a study from the field of organizational studies, although I am an anthropologist.
    I would like to hear from you.
    Kindest regards.
    Han Bakker

  2. I am not doing research on creativity as such. However, inherent in the Deleuzian and Bergsonian perspectives is creativity, differentiation, etc. Tim Ingold was once influenced by Bergson and has in recent years become inspired by Deleuze. He is the only anthropologist that I think may study creativity. I may be wrong though.


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