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  • Challenging Creativity: A Critical Pedagogy of Narrative Interpretation
  • Alexander Hollenberg (bio)

The humanities and the rhetoric of creativity

The interdisciplinarity of creativity research in academia has lent itself to a proliferation of inchoate ideas, definitions, and arguments, and yet, curiously, within the public sphere “creativity” is often promoted as a socio-economic panacea, a word with power enough to heal us of the fractious vicissitudes of modern life. In the face of widespread precarious employment with which our graduating students must now contend—employment that is insecure, temporary, seasonal, contracted, lacking benefits—workers’ creativity is typically celebrated as a means of negotiating the new neoliberal norm.1 In Ontario, the recent mandate of the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities2 emphasizes its role in support of “a dynamic business climate that thrives on innovation, creativity and partnership” (2014 Mandate Letter). Likewise, the Ministry of Education’s report, Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education [End Page 45] in Ontario, repeatedly calls for “increase[d] training in innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship” for secondary students (3, 6, 7). Unsurprisingly, this vision echoes economist Thomas Friedman’s pedagogical imperative in a New York Times op-ed column almost word for word: the education system must teach “entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity,” so as to engender a class of creative “untouchables” who have the requisite imagination to do old jobs in smarter ways (“The New Untouchables”). For many in the humanities, these more-or-less explicit ties between creativity and capital are suspect. In literary studies, we often see our role as filling out a vanguard of social critique, and we view our subject matter—the creative texts themselves—as the vehicles of such critique. Suddenly, our own pedagogical obligations come into question. How can literary educators teach modes of creativity that prepare students for their contemporary context without also tacitly endorsing the precarious world they are inheriting?

The subsumption of creativity into corporatist discourse is, certainly, nothing new. In 2003, for example, the City of Toronto published its Culture Plan for the Creative City, in which it promoted creative culture as essential to the economic health of the city (5). Citing a study prepared by economist Richard Florida and Meric Gertler (now President of the University of Toronto) for the Ontario Ministry of Enterprise, Opportunity, and Innovation, the report is founded on the premise that “arts and culture, ethnic diversity and cultural openness act as magnets to draw high-technology industries and spur economic growth” (9–10). In other words, creativity services the progress of capital. One might be tempted by such an equation, for it explicitly suggests that the creative worker and her concomitant creative acts have value and are valued by society; still, what’s missing from this optimistic reading is that to transform the creative moment into a moment of economic value is also to reimagine creativity quite restrictively. Creativity becomes, in this sense, work, but more perniciously, in the discourse espoused by those such as Florida, creativity—in its Romantic connotations of flexibility, individuality, and self-direction—becomes the servant of neoliberal policy, “a fantasy of labour. … the possibility within capitalism of work without exploitation” (Szeman 29). That is to say, to promote an amorphous form of creativity as the model of labour and essence of economic value in the twenty-first century is to more subtly transform creativity into its opposite—a sign of complicity within a given system.

In its contemporary ubiquity, creativity has become a paradoxical signifier of neoliberal conformity. “Creative work,” according to Sarah Brouillette, “tends to be figured contradictorily by creative-economy rhetoric, [End Page 46] as at once newly valuable to capitalism and romantically honorable and free” (4). Further, creative-economy discourse tends to divorce creativity from social responsibility through

its treatment of self-realization as a process that can occur in the absence of any judgment about the impact of one’s work on society; … its stigmatization of collective politics and workers’ interdependence; its lionization of an elite cadre of creative innovators and sidelining or outright omission of industrial, service, and manual labor; and its insistence that the individual worker shoulder the burden of establishing a secure future.


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