- What did the Savage Detectives Find?
Today the concept of creativity has an unprecedented reach, both within and beyond the artistic sphere. Definitions of the creative have become inextricable from definitions of who we are or who we are becoming. Creativity no longer designates a special capacity detached from everyday routine. For many people it is the key to getting along in the world, even surviving. Creativity reveals itself as an essential human asset, both symbolically and economically, on the levels both of the individual and of the species. Our aim is to assess the advantages and the predicaments of a state in which everything and everyone is creative. We have associated this essay with the novel The Savage Detectives (1998; English translation 2007) by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), imagining our own inquiry as an extension of the quest of that book’s protagonists. This allows us to condense our questions into a single formula, the question that Bolaño left unanswered, or encrypted, in his novel.
We begin by suggesting that the contemporary detachment of creativity from any particular expertise, which we characterize as “generic creativity,” raises again the question of the ontology of creativity. For the disorienting aspects of the contemporary situation, whereby creativity loses its anchorage in any particular subject or object, remind us that if creativity has in the past been understood as a skillful or technological manipulation of the given, it has also been understood as an adding to reality, generating a novum that [End Page 253] could not have been foreseen. It was this underivability of the product that gave poetry and art their rarefied quality.
In order to test the hypothesis that contemporary generic creativity might reveal something valuable about the relation of creativity to being, we consider the place of poetry in modern life, which is the subject of Bolaño’s novel as well as of Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963), one of the key models for Bolaño. Both books recognize a binarism between what we call “romantic” and “classical” conceptions of creativity: on the one hand, an adding to the world, and on the other hand, a recombination of the already at hand. This traditional way of framing the question would seem to be suspended by the contemporary concept of generic creativity, which resembles an undisciplined version of romantic creativity. Poetry, the anachronistic pursuit of Bolaño’s modern urban protagonists, symbolized in the novel an attempt to understand the nature of creativity in terms other than those offered by the romantic and classical models. The detectives’ path led to a wordless picto-gram which appeared to satisfy them, although they never say why. We will try to interpret the pictogram.
The term “creativity” has recently resurfaced in a range of discursive contexts. Creativity provided the theme of the XX German Philosophical Congress in 2005.1 Psychologists and linguists have succeeded in demonstrating the interdisciplinary applications of the concept.2 The theme of creativity plays a key role in political theories arguing for the rejection of alienating modes of labor in capitalist society via the autonomization of creative forces and the realization of alternative forms of life.3 In the early 2000s the term was used to name a socioeconomic category of workers, a “creative class” amounting to about thirty percent of the U.S. workforce and including a wide range of occupations (e.g. science, engineering, education, computer programming, research), with arts, design, and media.4 Unlike the modern notion of spiritual freedom, which seems to trust in the reality of a [End Page 254] domain transcending nature, including human nature, creativity can easily be naturalized. It can be regarded as a capacity allied with the species’s inherent tendency to adjust itself inventively to the environment. Such a dynamic procedure may sustain scientific research as well as artistic practice.5 Inquiries into the mechanisms of creativity thus offer a way of breaking disciplinary boundaries and of discovering a non-specialized ground shared by epistemology and aesthetics. It is equally noteworthy that creativity underpins the dialogue among cognitive sciences, philosophical phenomenology, and Buddhist...