Peculiarity over Productivity

by Matt Blair on May 1, 2009

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning

If inefficiency is culture, as I recently asserted, what is the effect of a nationwide preoccupation with efficiency? Isn’t that just another kind of culture?

When I use the word culture, I’m describing what I see as an ideal culture: a diverse and evolving conversation of ideas.

If enough people in a particular society decide that productivity is more important than quality, they are likely to adopt similar hyper-productive techniques and approaches. This can produce an abundance of something that is healthy in smaller amounts, but might not necessarily be good for us in large amounts. Overall diversity suffers. Culture suffers.

The Maize is All The Same

America grows so much corn that we don’t know what to do with it anymore, so we’ve starting stuffing it in every kind of food and drink we can find. After we ran out of ways to use it to fuel our own bodies, we started turning it into fuel for other animals, machines and manufacturing processes.

As Michael Pollan put it in a 2002 article:

“Even farm-raised salmon are being bred to tolerate corn — not a food their evolution has prepared them for. Why feed fish corn? Because it’s the cheapest thing you can feed any animal, thanks to federal subsidies. But even with more than half of the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually being fed to animals, there is plenty left over. So companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra have figured ingenious new ways to dispose of it, turning it into everything from ethanol to Vitamin C and biodegradable plastics.”

No surprise that enthusiasts in South Dakota even assemble a ‘palace’ every year in its honor:

Mitchell Corn Palace

But if you want corn like this in the United States:

Corn in a market in Peru

Corn in a market in Peru

You are most likely out of luck. It’s harder to grow. It’s different. “No one” wants it.

But I want it.


Culture is the accumulation and assemblage of myriad small decisions: if individuals are making decisions based on their own interests and aptitudes and surroundings, the results will be varied and idiosyncratic.  Some pockets will be very interesting and fertile, while others are less so, but as a whole, the culture will be very rich.

Yet if individuals start to perceive that they are all solving the same problems and answering the same questions, they are more likely to adopt similar techniques and solutions. The results converge towards the middle of all possibilities, and the choices for everyone become more limited.

The scope of our knowledge as a society becomes smaller, our modes of thinking fewer and our perspectives narrower. Even our empathy diminishes.

This is the macro-effect of a society-wide surplus of sameness: We are less adaptable, not only as artists or thinkers, but as a community and a civilization.

In Praise of Peculiarity

I have some very specific, and in some ways peculiar, thoughts about the creative process. Some of my ideas are pretty solid, based on years of personal experience.  Some are nascent and emerging and subject to change. And most of them are still so tiny and tentative I probably haven’t noticed them yet.

I would never say that any of my ideas are the one way to do it — even for myself.

I delight in coming across ideas that point in an entirely different direction from my own.  I think, “Wow, that actually works for that person? I wonder why?”  Part of it is natural skepticism, but it is mostly curiosity.  We are all so different, and the more insights I’ve sought into the ways we perceive and process and think and work, the more nuance I find.

Peculiarity is Incalculable

To twist a cliché, creativity isn’t rocket science. And by that I mean that it isn’t a process that works by mathematical rules, according to testable concepts, with repeatable results.

There’s not one way to do it. There is no orthodoxy.

Creativity and art are natural heterodoxies, systems that encourage a flourishing divergence of thought.

One of culture’s most important functions is to serve as a repository for stories, perspectives and experiences. It is a storehouse which we can visit when we seek beauty or meaning, or encounter difficulty — both personal and societal. The more similar the ideas in that storehouse, the fewer our resources. The less diverse our models of what it means to be human, the fewer solutions we have to apply to emerging and present challenges. We are poorer.

This is why creative diversity and cultural richness matter.

Instead of techniques that generate a surplus of similar ideas, we need techniques and approaches that give us a diversity of ideas.

We don’t need questions that suggest similar answers: we need techniques and formulas and patterns and attitudes that yield an ever-changing series of new questions.

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sunday May 2, 2009 at 5:48 pm

I much enjoyed this. Read a great comment recently from a microbiologist; she said that because of her background, she thinks of diversity as ecological stability.

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