On the Creative Destruction of Everything: On Oli Mould's "Against Creativity"

On the Creative Destruction of Everything: On Oli Mould's "Against Creativity"

Oli Mould | Against Creativity | Verso Books | October 9, 2018 | 240 Pages


Franz Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” eulogizes the struggle of an artist to gain adequate recognition from a conflicted public. While Josephine’s singing has earned her notoriety among the mouse people, her demand for more elaborate forms of recognition, including total exemption form working life, frustrates those who gather at her shows. From Josephine’s perspective, however, the public simply fails to appreciate the power of her work.

Channeling the ethos of a frustrated Josephine seeking the exemptions of creativity from capitalism, and despite the title, Oli Mould’s Against Creativity champions the power of “revolutionary” creative practice over and against the limiting vision of neoliberalism. If one is compelled by the title’s traditionally avant-garde formula—which consists in the negation of whatever bourgeois good—disappointment will soon follow. While being against creativity warrants praise in a culture that suspiciously places the creative ideal everywhere from the nursery to professional development—fully equating creativity in the process as the “core source of progress”—Mould is anything but against creativity. The facade of his stated opposition is torn away after the opening pages of the first chapter. From then on, the book dogmatically advocates for a model of revolutionary creativity, supposed to overthrow the global dominance of a neoliberal ideology which, paradoxically, is faulted by Mould for valorizing creativity. In Mould’s view, the revolutionary, as opposed to the neoliberal, purpose of creativity is ultimate liberation from the working logic of contemporary capitalism. In this sense, as Mould repeats, true creativity is anti-capitalist, not simply in effect, but in the presentation of content purified of capitalist logic. Revolutionary creativity retrieves lost social and ethical community, whereas neoliberal creativity reproduces alienating individuality. As Mould writes, “Being creative is thinking of entirely new ways of organizing society, ways that seek to collectivize rather than individualize”. Consequently, the subject matter of creative arts is tied to the destiny of political futures.

Reflecting Mould’s background, the text is oriented sociologically, rather than aesthetically. The five chapters detail neoliberal ideologies of labor, disability, economics, technology, and urban planning, recommending in each case ways to overcome such ideologies through the activation of revolutionary creativity. However, the text’s sociological orientation results in some aesthetic oversights, conspicuous in an argument dedicated to creativity. Though Mould insists on revolutionary creativity, he surprisingly never turns to modern art history, perhaps because the rejection of creativity which characterizes postmodern art constitutes a major obstacle to Mould’s desire for absolute revolution. For Mould, expressing a sort of romanticized modernism, creativity fundamentally consists in creation ex nihilo, that is, in the god-like creation of the absolutely new. Only through this utopian definition could his desire for content purified of existing capitalist logic ever find a theoretical correlate. In contrast, postmodern artistic practice abandons the modernist image of creation ex nihilo for various practices of stylized appropriation, whether, for example, called “pastiche” (in American aesthetics) or “combinatory” (in the French tradition). Such practices often remix existing cultural elements, and in this sense, create through dynamic repetition, instead of through the production of the absolutely new. Consider, for example, Andy Warhol’s copies of iconic commercial images. To what extent are these appropriations, exemplary of postmodernism, contaminated by capitalist ideology, and hence illegitimate forms of art in Mould’s view? Mould recovers a modernist sense of creativity ex nihilo in order to tie art to the political destiny of communism. Yet, he avoids analyzing postmodern artistic practice, and subsequently entertains a view of art at least unaware of its own critical history, if not ultimately anachronistic, due to its reliance on the essential purification of art from capitalist interest. The consequence of this reliance is that Mould’s consideration of actually existing artistic practice remains limited to the moralizing question of why virtually all artists are complicit in capitalism.

Practically, how is resistance to neoliberalism and its ideology of creativity supposed to be mobilized? Mould envisions overcoming the individualism characteristic of contemporary neoliberal capitalism through the constitution of experimental communities. As Mould describes authentic creativity, it “experiments with new ways of living, ways that conjure entirely new experiences that simply would not exist under capitalism”. Without a doubt, in light of the book’s unifying emphasis on the value of creativity in the constitution of community, a more accurate title for the book would be For Creativity. Yet such branding would entail abandoning the book’s revolutionary pretensions to shock the same “creatives” whose individualistic practices it seeks to unmask. In virtually every chapter, the book criticizes the corporate ideologies of white men (with respects paid regularly to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other tech giants), and denounces the delusional rhetoric of individualism which imagines success in terms of independent ability, functionally masking the established determinants of social privilege. In this sense, the book’s impact rests either on the guilt one feels for being complicit in the institutional racism, sexism, and ableism disguised in modern individualism, or, alternatively, on the sympathy one can muster for the destructive tendencies of a revolutionary avant-garde bent on destroying such institutions, the latter pithily excused in Mould’s view since “desperate times call for desperate measures”. In both cases, mobilization consists in deconstructing the institutional cages of individualism and the idea of self-interest, in turn facilitating the creation of communities designed around mutual aid and the idea of social welfare.

Communities of mutual aid represent a sensible alternative to the neoliberal ideology of self-interest, though if homilies to a utopian communism were a sufficient condition for the creation of such communities, Marxist treatises would have triumphed over liberal politics nearly a century ago. From a psychological point of view, Mould assumes the existence of “emotional energies” outside of and surviving neoliberalism, a hypothetical key to unlocking revolutionary opposition against it. While major sociological analyses of the emotions, following Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, might contest Mould’s hypothesis here, his interest in the emotions is to mobilize, rather than to analyze. One of the main tasks of Against Creativity is the actual recovery of non-economic emotional energy, to turn it pragmatically against the economic systems which seek to reroute or deaden the expression of discontent. Recognizing and increasing such emotional energy intensifies the power of communities mobilizing against capitalism. Surely, the excitement of Mould’s opposition to neoliberalism renders his short but attentive consideration of contemporary politics simultaneously light and engaging, bordering on the journalistic in pacing and scope. With this in mind, Mould’s philosophical approach to creativity and its revolutionary excitement resembles that of Wilhelm Reich or Gilles Deleuze, two Marxian theorists of desire who aimed to liberate the libido from repressive social constraints; here, the individual is constrained by neoliberalism, and the potential of creativity as a form of non-economic energy is realized only through the liberating effects of communitarian cause.

Yet, the actual significance of this liberation should not be understated: as are real revolutions, Mould is committed to the model of war in his interpretation of revolutionary creativity. Though on the one hand Mould champions the free exchange of emotions, drawing on Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, his argument--on the other hand--inadvertently echoes a more cynical interpretation of this anthropological classic, namely that by Pierre Clastre in his Archeology of Violence, which reconsiders gift exchange in terms of competitive war games. Ultimately Mould, relying on a theory of agonistic politics, compares the power of revolutionary creativity to that realized during the Cold War, in the case of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The utopian ambition of the landing is “fueled by the ideological warfare between the US and the USSR”. In this formulation, the revolutionary avant-garde’s opposition to neoliberalism mirrors the energy of “ideological warfare,” which, as in the Cold War, actualizes utopian projects. But one wonders whether the vaguely pacifying designation of “ideological” here is appropriate, and why, after all, it is bellicose competition, instead of communitarian altruism, that Mould lets crown his argument? Likewise, Kafka’s Josephine, whose singing, she asserts to the gathering public, “renews our strength,” has a pacifying aspect: some mouse people are frustrated with her continued performances since “such gatherings have been unexpectedly ambushed and many of our people have lain dead as a result”. In either case, what is at stake is art’s proximity not to a final freedom, but to persistent war, manifest in its ability to captivate our attention, wrenching us from self-regard, to the point of violence. Only art which accomplishes that, Mould suggests, realizes revolutionary creativity.

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