Same Difference

Creativity has become one of capitalism’s biggest growth sectors and best alibis: On Oli Mould’s Against Creativity

As an aspirational ideal, “creativity” has a uniquely insidious siren song: It promises escape from the system that defines it. To be creative is to transcend or recombine the established order, but there’s always the danger of cooptation and appropriation. As Dr. Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park puts it to the park’s CEO, “You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunch box and you’re selling it, and you’re selling it!” But of course they are — why bother with scientific breakthroughs if you are not going to commodify them? Figuring out how to sequence DNA is one thing, but turning that idea into a theme park? That is true creativity.

In Against Creativity, Oli Mould, a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of London, explores this phenomenon of how radical and revolutionary ideas become mere fodder for lunch boxes. Creativity, Mould claims, is often invoked to describe not how ideas break free of capitalism but are made compatible with it. It recasts kinds of labor that may have seemed outside capitalist exploitation — care, emotion, art, design — as the most exploitable form of production. The way creativity is used today, Mould writes, “feeds the notion that the world and everything in it can be monetized.” Accordingly, creativity has become a means to rent, sell, or offer subscriptions to something that was once free or otherwise disconnected from the profit motive. Graffiti artists are hired by real estate firms to bring a safe level of grittiness to a neighborhood. Ebay asks us to choose between passing on a valuable collectable to a relative or finding the highest bidder.

The “power to create something from nothing” can only derive from cooperation. No one does great things alone

In Mould’s account, capitalism is especially hungry for subcultures — hippies, punks, skaters, etc., not to mention black and queer culture in general — which can be transformed into “vehicles for its proliferation.” These subcultures are mined for new symbols, artifacts, and practices that can be scaled up from regional favorites to international sensations.

This vision of creativity’s close bond with economic growth is epitomized by urban-planning theorist Richard Florida, who has convinced cities and towns to cater to the “creative class” as the central engine of their economic development. One need only install the sorts of converted living spaces, artisanal bars, and totems of tolerance and “authenticity” that “creatives” enjoy and sit back and watch as game developers, interior designers, and small-batch chocolatiers jump-start the local economy.

“Contemporary capitalism,” Mould argues, “has commandeered creativity to ensure its own growth.” As that claim suggests, he believes that creativity pre-existed capitalism and has not always just been a euphemism for economic exploitation. In his view, the word originally signified the generation of something from nothing, or the uniting of two previously separate ideas. But since something truly new or different is unassimilable to capitalism’s techniques for value extraction — economies of scale, interchangeable workers, mass production — much of creativity under capitalism is, as Mould argues, “newness to maintain more of the same,” rather than the development of new ways of being.

As a result, creativity under neoliberalism can be found only “by looking to your own agency; any appeal to wider structures do not matter.” Regardless of whether you are a poet or a software engineer, once you are convinced that creativity begins and ends within yourself, your work stops destabilizing the power structures that divvy out the rewards.

Nevertheless, Mould holds out hope for “an alternative, perhaps revolutionary creativity” capable of “creating new phenomenon to which capitalism is unaware.” This would require redefining creativity in terms of evading capitalist co-optation. It also means surrendering the individualist ideology that is central to “creativity” as an aspirational ideal — the idea that you alone can make a difference. If you believe the change agent is yourself and not your relationships with other people, you are already working in a capitalist mode.

One doesn’t even need to be critical of capitalism to acknowledge this: The “power to create something from nothing” and turn impossibilities into lived experiences can only derive from cooperation. From the moon landing to the polio vaccine, no one does great things alone.

Contrary to capitalist myth, individual genius can produce nothing in itself. Neither people nor things are creative; ideas and processes and relations are. True creativity, according to Mould, is inherently social, a matter of reorganizing collective effort rather than iterating on products and services. He points to Britain’s National Health Service and other cooperative work arrangements as fertile ground for authentic creativity: “Co-operative models of labor organization, self-management and equality of pay; these are the antitheses of the current vernacular of creative work, but they should be its driving force.” To redeem creativity, in other words, we should stop seeing it as the basis for rewarding individuals with fame and fortune and instead focus on the creative potential of organizations.

But if Mould is right that true creative work is the opposite of selling out, then how do you do creative work to survive? It is not easy to delineate between capitalistic behavior and unalienated “authentic” activity, because capitalism constantly demands that individuals do things in exchange for money. If anything short of a complete overthrow of capitalism will fail to permit a “true” creativity (which may indeed be the case), we’re boxed in to an analytic corner: If creativity is best understood as anything that is not capitalism, then creativity actually depends on capitalism. In a post-capitalist world, by this view, no one would be creative.

To define “true” creativity against the workings of capitalism, Mould must be able to spell out exactly where creativity ends and marketing begins. But these are not so easy to clearly differentiate, and the process ends up requiring a kind of exceptionalism. At one point, he tries to frame true “creativity” through an analysis of the work of Jack Coulter, “a synesthete who paints the colors he hears.”

Coulter’s paintings are, of course, themselves consumable, they are for sale as prints, and his Instagram account has over 66,000 followers. The outputs therefore become commodified. But it is the experiences that Coulter has before putting brush to canvas that is “creative” in the non-capitalist sense. He is experiencing stimuli that are simply not achievable by “normal” sensibilities. The resultant works are vivid depictions of the world that he has access to; visual representations of a world that a non-synesthete would never be able to experience.

By this account, what makes Coulter’s work creative rather than capitalistic is rooted in his having a particular kind of body with particular capacities. Mould labels this “diffability” — his neologism for disability that emphasizes difference over lack. While this is clearly meant to betoken respect for the differently abled, it also complicates his earlier definitions of creativity. To say that an “experience” like Coulter’s synesthesia is creative until it leaves his mind seems to contradict his claim that creativity is a social enterprise. Here, one can simply experience something unique to become creative. More troubling is how this appears to pin creativity on something one has no control over, opening the door for a kind of biological determinism — though Mould does not step through it himself. He notes instead that the diffabled face a more acute version of the dilemma everyone faces under neoliberal capitalism: whether they should turn the qualities that make their experience unique into products that make them commensurate with everything else that can be bought with money.

In 2017, Pepsi ran a commercial in which Kendall Jenner attends a vaguely sketched protest march (protesters carry signs that read “join the conversation) and gives a Pepsi to a cop. The cop tentatively accepts it and, after drinking it, is rewarded with inexplicable applause. The commercial is nearly three minutes long — so long that it has a B plot where a cellist and a photographer (i.e. creatives) are unhappy with their work until they are inspired by seeing the protest. It is not hard to imagine the ad agency brief that led to this: a few breathless paragraphs about a new generation trying to balance their care for the issues with feelings of belonging and personal inspiration.

What’s missing from Mould’s argument about creativity is precisely this kind of scaffolding: What kinds of creative work are systematically prevented?

The rebuke from the ad’s targeted demographic was swift — clearly Pepsi had appropriated the image of protest to try to profit off of a sterilized version of what thousands of people found very meaningful — and the ad was pulled. But it had already done its work and garnered dozens of headlines and a few television news segments. In an economy where attention begets profit, confronting corporate malfeasance has a good chance of creating more value than headaches for shareholders. By conforming to a culture of popular outrage, the liberal commentariat participated in a Pepsi ad campaign. The ad even made it into the introduction of Mould’s book, published a year later, and now the review that you are currently reading. Should we have ignored the ad and risked tacitly endorsing it, or was critique more appropriate, even as it generated the sort of buzz that ad executives dream about?

Whitney Phillips, in a white paper written for journalists about the risks of amplifying far-right groups, addresses another version of the same question: She writes that while it may have been “unethical” to completely ignore a resurgent, organized white supremacist movement online, it is also true that “news coverage of those messages helped make the messages, and their messengers, much more visible than they would have been otherwise, even when the reporting took an explicitly critical stance.”

One of the main catalysts of this no-win scenario, Phillips writes, is the “tyranny of analytics”: “The emphasis on quantifiable metrics stacks the news cycle with stories most likely to generate the highest level of engagement possible, across as many platforms as possible. Things traveling too far, too fast, with too much emotional urgency, is exactly the point, but these are also the conditions that can create harm.” We don’t know how to confront the emotional and physical violence of multinational brands or white supremacists without giving them valuable attention.

Revolutionary creativity would need to circumvent this dilemma as well as the conundrum of “selling out.” It would have to invent a new way to contend with the logic of attention, the political economy of clicks and views. Exactly what that way is a known unknown. Knowing what we do not know — what Robert K. Merton called “specified ignorance” — allows researchers to build a scaffold for knowledge creation. The state of particle physicists in the 1960s suggested the existence of the Higgs boson, but it wasn’t actually discovered until half a century later. It was the specific lack of knowledge that drove scientific investigation.

What’s missing from Mould’s argument about creativity is precisely this kind of scaffolding: What kinds of creative work are systematically prevented due to our collective ignorance? Mould implores readers to practice “imagining the impossible” as a means of confronting capitalist appropriation. But how do we make these individual efforts sync up and scale?

This seems more urgent than rehashing how capitalism neutralizes and assimilates novelty produced at the margins. Even as we fight capitalism, we conform to its logic not by selling out but by desiring what it teaches us to desire. In his quest to defrock capitalist creativity and uncover a true, authentic creative power, Mould loses sight of this power of conformity. We need a method that is itself the product of creative thinking but has its sights on creating a new normal and not personal distinction. To conform is to give up individual freedoms in service of a greater good — if we are truly casting aside our individualist ideas of what counts as creativity, then we need to start getting specific about the kind of box we are willing to think in. Rather than get bogged down in the dubious binary of “Is it revolutionary or is it appropriated?” we should instead ask what kind of anti-capitalist culture would be worth conforming to.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.