Paths of Curiosity – The Microstructures of Creativity

Curiosity likes interstices where it can move unchecked and that are favorable for the emergence of the new, whose form and point of connection to the old are not previously known. Noris it clear beforehand what continuities there will be, what kind of ruptures will divide the new from the old, or how the conflict between preservation and overthrow will end. One well-researched kind of interstice is the social site where the indi-vidual creative act encounters things and a materialized nature that the gaze can penetrate, the mind can recognize, and the hand wants to change. Since the Renaissance, at the latest, the Western imagination has regarded the creative individual as a creator and the origin of the creation of the new. Hans Blumen-berg carefully and precisely traced the long preceding process of transformation and the valorization of curiosity to the striving for and drive for knowledge that was the precondition for the development of the individual.

After all, the strategy of uncovering roots in the individual psyche or in the social environment in which the creative individual acts is itself a practice that seeks to follow curiosity and decipher it. As clever as the research strategy presents itself as being, ultimately the individual creative act resists being ordered in existing clas-sifications. A look at the numerous biographical and auto-biographical testimonies about scientists and artists unearths repeating patterns—for example, how a sudden insight all at once brings together previously separated strands, thoughts, and associations from disparate domains or suggests that they be seen together. The conditions that foster creativity can be listed, including the necessary open spaces and free time. But the final, decisive aspect that could explain the creative act remains hidden in an impenetrable and incommunicable zone. It is as if the aura surrounding the act of individual creativity could be preserved only if it is able to elude its own introspec-tion and with it the words about it. The ladder is pulled up after it is used. If coincidence favors only the mind that is prepared for it, as Pasteur said, then the question remains how this readi-ness arose in a speciflc case, and analogies have to sufflce as answers to the question of how it can be consciously brought about.

The high value attributed to thoughts, visual associations, and language when following the traces of individual creativity has long concealed that creativity and the emergence of the new are owed not only to ideas and insights but also, to achieve lasting effect, to work on and with things. What the French historian of technology Marc Bloch aptly called “la force créa-trice de la chose créé” (the creative power of the created) con-tinues its effects in things. We have already spoken of the cultural matrix, the interacting social group, in connection with the invention and spread of symbolic technologies. For the inventions of the creative individual must be spread and com-municated if they are to become part of the social creative process that builds on the creativity that others emit, absorb, and reemit. Language is not the source of ideas; rather, it medi-ates between thinking and technology. It “washes” (as Marc Bloch put it) what would otherwise be incommunicable and would remain limited to the narrowest local space.

The symbolic technologies made it possible to build up the inexhaustible space of representation for the development of cultural-evolutionary strategies in which replicative informa-tion in the cultural memory that is inscribed in things is unloaded outside the limited biological memory. The external symbolic technologies and the networks they form are them-selves things in which the creative power of other things and of the ideas that have led to them continue to have their effects. They are the result of a continued history of interaction between things and people who create, mediate, learn, use, and pass on things. Thus, if we ask about the microstructures of creativity, we must always also examine this astonishing mixture, these seemingly inextricable loops and ramiflcations. By working with delays and temporal jumps, we can at best reconstruct the paths, which are never temporally straightforward, but we can never even partly determine them beforehand. The paths behind us always include paths not taken, as well as stories that would have been possible but that never occurred and were never told in this way. The passage between the space of possibility and the space of reality can be extremely short, and what previously appeared disordered but possible later all too easily appears to have been orderly. This is the famous moment when order arises on the margin of chaos, and this process, irreversible as it is, is also irreversible in the practice of research.

It is no coincidence that recent scientiflc research and scientiflc history have turned toward the material and cultural practices as applied, used, manipulated, given signiflcance, and implemented for further practical-scientiflc work as the “culture in the experiment” in the laboratory34 but also in the scientiflc fleld. Closer examination of these concrete sites of knowledge production has itself proven to be a creative reservoir for observ-ing, analyzing, and commentating on the processes of scientiflc activity—“emerging science” as well as “emerging technol-ogy”—in their temporal and geographical diversity and for conceiving and seeing them from new perspectives. They have placed the materiality of scientiflc practice—the signiflcance of instruments in producing or reconstructing processes and phe-nomena that are present or absent in nature—at the center of the deciphering of the creative process. In the laboratory, the context is mostly ignored because the aim is a constant, puri-fled, and siteless environment, but the proper selection of a site with its consciously sought-out particularities is central to fleld research. In this case, the manipulation of the site seeks to achieve what in the laboratory is striven for by means of the experimental design and by blocking out the site as much as possible. A third site has long since joined these, of course—an imaginary model created at the computer, where the researcher models and simulates what happens in another place.

One of the theoretically most original and historically most precise descriptions of the microstructure of creativity in the laboratory is that of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. He is inter-ested in those material arrangements that twentieth-century laboratory researchers in the practice and everyday language of biochemistry and molecular biology call experimental systems. They determine the framework conditions of research work in the experimental research flelds. They are set up so that they can provide currently unknown answers to questions that the experimenter is not even able to clearly formulate yet.

Here and elsewhere, Rheinberger takes up François Jacob’s concept of the “machinery for producing the future.” In flnding and producing the new, the process between the not-yet and the no-longer (which cannot be given precise temporal limits) always points beyond itself. Experimental systems serve to materialize questions and bring forth concepts that embody them. A closer inspection shows that two different but insepa-rable structures interlock in an experimental system. The flrst are the objects of knowledge or, as Rheinberger calls them, the epistemic things that are the aim of knowledge’s effort. They can be objects but also functions, reactions, or chemical-biologi-cal structures. They are still unclear and undetermined; they are “ideas in flux.” This state of still being undetermined, of course, should not be seen as a deflcit but rather as determining activity. Epistemic things paradoxically embody what one does not yet know; despite experimental presence, they are (still) absent.

To launch the process of operational redeflnition that aims to transform the epistemic things from a still vague shape into a deflned comprehensibility with clearer contours, either experimental conditions or technological things are needed. These include instruments, recording programs, and in particu-lar the standardized model organisms that are so prized in the life sciences. These technological things, apparatuses, and instru-ments and the model organisms prepared for this purpose are themselves the result of the technological civilization we live in. “It is not the sciences that have brought forth modern tech-nology,” writes Rheinberger. “It was the technological form of life that gave the special epistemic activity that we call science its historical impetus and its irresistible momentum. In the flnal analysis, the systems of science draw their meaning, dignity, and esteem from this overarching realm.” The technological things are themselves sedimentation products of local or disci-plinary work traditions with speciflc measuring equipment, preference for speciflc materials, or craftsmanlike skills. In contrast to the epistemic things, the technological conditions have to have characteristic qualities in the context of the current standards or purity or precision. They determine the epistemic things in two ways: they limit and bound them, but they also give them space by forming their environment and by allowing them to emerge.

Rheinberger reconstructs this temporally and spatially nontrivial interplay between epistemic things and the techno-logical conditions that allow them to emerge on the basis of a case study devoted to the test-tube system as an experimental system for researching protein biosynthesis. But if an object can function as a technological as well as an epistemic thing, depending on the place that it occupies in the experimental context, and if the interplay between the various components is closely interwoven, then the question of why the distinction between the two things should be introduced in the flrst place arises if this distinction is subject to a constant historical revision. Rheinberger’s answer is unambiguous and brief: the distinction helps us to understand the game of bringing forth the new, the emergence of unpredictable events, and the gen-eration of surprises—for which experimental systems exist. It helps us understand the nature of research.

But the perspective can be reversed if we want to under-stand the creative power of things. The distinction between science and technology, between the objects of knowledge and the things that help bring it forth, is not identical to the bound-ary between uncertainty (which is feeling one’s way toward new knowledge) and certainty (which is needed to trust that things will function). Nor does the boundary run straight between producing the future and securing the present. Science does not always stand for surprise in flnding an as yet unknown identity, nor does technology always stand for its consolidation. Research is not alone in asking questions; technological and machines are built not solely to give answers but also to make additional questions possible. Long before there was laboratory science, for centuries craftsmen and technicians worked as tireless tinkerers. Both science and technology produces the future, and, vice versa, it is also expected that science will secure the present by providing reliable answers from secured knowledge. Epistemic things and the technological conditions under which they crystallize to take shape and achieve a—temporary—identity together form the intertwining alternate strands of the micro-structures of creativity. Both are indispensable for bringing forth the new—and yet they are not sufflcient to produce innovations.

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