On the Fetishization of "Creativity"; Towards a General Theory of Work
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On the Fetishization of “Creativity”; Towards a General Theory of Work

In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past. . . . Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.

Walter Benjamin, 254

This paper emerges from a long-standing sense of disquiet regarding the status of the notion of “creativity” in psychoanalytic theory. Within the cultural sector of which psychoanalysis is an integral and sometimes influential part, there are few more celebrated attributes than “creativity” and the “creative.” Psychoanalytic thinking has steadfastly participated in this sector-wide celebratory attitude. Though seemingly straightforward and unambivalent, this celebratory attitude, when put to even moderate scrutiny, reveals itself to be complex and polyvalent.

By “attitude,” I mean an involuntary posture or position, many of whose multiple determinants are unconscious. When one consciously speaks or thinks the word “creative” or “creativity” one is assuming such an overdetermined attitude in relation to the object in question—usually a cultural product or its producer.

What concerns me is the primarily involuntary dimension of the relation established between audience and “creative” object: the cluster of mood, meaning, and force which is put into place by the words in question—creative and creativity. I proceed with the assumption that when these words are thought and spoken, a formal set of relations is affirmed. The subject(s) using them is (are), in the use, affiliated with, and even bound to, the object(s) described. This affiliation and binding is of a particular, and often unremarked, sort. [End Page 1]

I mean here to highlight the fact that “creative” is a relational word, marking a particular kind of relation. And like all other relations, this one is mediated by a mix of wish, anxiety and defense. Used casually, the word “creative” apparently refers to properties intrinsic to the described object, i.e., “creative” writing, “creative” artist, “creative” playing. This attribution of intrinsic properties to the object obscures access to and diverts attention from the more fundamental relational dimension binding speaker/thinker and object.

The judgements which lead to a process being treated as “creativity,” or to an artist or object being considered “creative” are invariably external judgements. The object described is not one which, in the description, is being identified with. The words represent considerations made from outside and made after the fact. (By “outside” and “after” I mean also to include those processes of retroactive self-reflection by which one concludes that what one has just done, what has just transpired on the inside, was, indeed, “creative.” This judgement about one’s own performance is, formally, also an “outside” judgement. There is a formal, phenomenological, difference between the “I” which judges and the “I” which has just produced.)

The “creative” object is an extraordinary one. We use the words “creative” and “creativity” to refer to what we take to be the special modes of development and production by which these extraordinary objects have come into being. The word “creative” takes for granted an opposition between the presumably problematic modes of production relating to the object in question and the ostensibly well-known, regulated, rule-bound modes of production by which ordinary objects are fashioned. The “creative” object is, then, regardless of its elegance, one which, on its face, or via its mode of production, is thought of as irregular and unruly.

By irregular and unruly I mean that the object or process thought “creative” is one which has apparently broken (a) rule(s) and/or violated regulations. The “creative” object is, in this sense, always transgressive. When we think of an object or person as “creative,” we are implicitly expressing our awareness of and appreciation for a successful transgression. [End Page 2]

To see an object as “creative” is to see it as situated beyond the usual reach of usual law. The “creative” object’s special status involves it simultaneously violating law and receiving our sanction.

The word “creative” conveys our conscious sense of admiration for the object’s ingenious...