Monday, October 8, 2012

Creative Construction

We are just about to start a new unit on scholarly practices, changing media, and the purpose(s) of citation in the first-year writing seminar I'm teaching. I have been re-reading The Footnote and "The End Matter" and mulling over what I want to say to my students about how historians use sources to make meaning about the past and the relationship between one's own work and the work that came before. So I read with interest Simon Reynolds' review essay in Slate, in which he confronted the assertion, by a number of artists, critics, and scholars, that citation and stealing and borrowing are the only way that anything is created. There is only recreativity, no creativity. Reynolds argues against this, and in favor of a more Romantic (and romantic) embodied notion of creative genius. 

Recreativity has a lot in common with neoplatonist ideas about creativity. In fact, they're remarkably similar. Hugh of St. Victor argued that all art is inherently mimetic: Humans can only copy from existing natural forms. Or, as I put it elsewhere, "Nature fabricates, humanity imitates." Bark, feathers, and scales provide inspiration for clothing and adornment, the sounds of nature are the basis of all music. The human mind, according to Hugh, was plastic, and could only receive the imprints of what it had seen and try to imitate them. It could not create ex nihilo; only God could do that. Even Nature worked with a set of archetypes handed to her by God; she translated the archetypes into matter. Sometimes copying could make way for combining, as with vernacular writers who recounted history, myth, and fable. Their work was often described as combining elements of story with aspects of style. The resulting mash-up was a new literary genre: romance. In the early modern period, History became a discipline with a set of expectations about accuracy. In this case, subject matter was yoked to verifiable evidence, which gave rise to a new set of scholarly technologies for thinking about credit and the footnote.

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