Considering Invention

Steven Johnson and Alex Reid (and Alex again) have turned my attention to invention recently.  (John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention has been inspiring me as well.)  Johnson and Reid describe invention as a process informed by networks and assemblages, respectively.  For Johnson, “ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”  Reid goes a step further to describe the experiential state of invention:

There is a frame of mind, a state of awareness or attunement, that facilitates invention…an affective state into which one slips in and out, a state that one can learn to enter with increasing ease. And it is a non-deterministic subjective state in that it does not delimit by itself the results on invention in some hermeneutic-methodological way (as critical reading methods tend to do). Instead, as I stated above (and many times before), it recognizes invention as emerging from the particular assemblage to which one is exposed.

Both Johnson and Reid focus on invention as an emergent phenomenon, one that develops out of a particular milieu that is material, mental, and social.  This does not necessarily mean that we can define or describe these networks and assemblages in their entirety, that we can account for every component contributing to them.  Nonetheless, this sense of invention as emergent stands in stark contrast to the notion of invention as pure inspiration, as the product and creation of an individual mind.  This in turn suggests certain possibilities for facilitating the process of invention.  As Johnson notes, if “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts,” then we should focus instead on trying to expand the network:  “The trick is to get more parts on the table.”  In turn, Reid encourages us to develop a particular frame of mind that facilitates invention by attending to the assemblage.

So, invention can benefit from having more parts on the table, from expanding the network, and also from putting ourselves in a frame of mind that better prepares us to attend to the assemblages in which we are situated.  I see this as an opportune moment to add another term to the conversation:  identification. I have in mind not only Kenneth Burke’s understanding of identification as the sharing of properties (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, etc.) through language and other symbolic systems but also the notion of immediate identifications that occur outside of symbolic interactions and thus are not mediated through representations.  This latter notion of identification emphasizes our exposure and exteriority over the coherence and interiority of Burke’s understanding.  As beings exposed to one another, we cannot rationally control all of our identifications, and indeed this exposure serves as the condition of possibility upon which we construct those rational, discrete identifications.  We can thus talk about identifications as, on the one hand, discrete, identifiable, and given to representation and categorization and, on the other hand, as multiple, incoherent, and beyond representation and categorization.  My sense is that Johnson’s understanding of invention privileges the former notion of identification and Reid’s the latter, but I’ll leave this question aside for now.

Instead, I would like to briefly consider how identification informs our understanding of networks and assemblages.  Johnson encourages us to expand the network, to put more tools on the table, but part of the issue here has to do with what we recognize as tools.  It’s important to remember here that this emphasis on tools points not only toward material objects and technologies but also toward systems of thought, ideologies, attitudes, etc.  But how much do we know about the networks that surround us?  What extent of these assemblages can we identify?  Multiple conversations in rhetorical studies address this question in some way or another.  Actor-network theory and object-oriented rhetorics both come to mind here, as do branches of the digital humanities such as critical code and platform studies.  All of these conversations seek to expand our understanding of the variables at play (and how we identify these variables) in any given situation.  These conversations direct our attention toward the fact that there are already a number of tools on the table that we do not normally consider or recognize.  Putting more tools on the table can mean adding elements that we already know and understand, but it can also mean learning to see new tools that we did not recognize before.

As Reid notes, we also need to recognize how adding certain tools to the table not only expands but also contracts the assemblage.  In the context of rhetoric and writing, Reid particularly has in mind those tools of hermeneutics and critique that suggest a particular mode of invention:

In the humanities, and especially in English Studies where most writing is taught, we tend to view invention as a hermeneutic process, as a product of a reading methodology. That is, how does one know what to write? One reads a text (or texts), applies a critical methodology, and arrives at an interpretive claim, which then becomes the thesis of one’s essay. This is not solely the method of literary studies. It is also the method of cultural studies and the post-process compositions it informs.

By identifying ourselves with particular methodologies, theoretical perspectives, or schools of thought (we could also say, in the broader conversation of social invention that Johnson explores, by identifying ourselves with capitalism, democracy, etc.), we limit the possibilities for invention.  Adding tools to the table might increase the possibilities for invention, but they also narrow the possibilities for the type of invention.  This note allows us to reconsider the notion of identification as exposure.  Reid’s attention to invention’s frame of mind suggests that we can position ourselves in an attitude of exposure, an attitude that does not insist on a particular method of invention but that remains open to the movement of the assemblage.  This is not only a particular mode of invention; it also describes a particular mode of identification, one that (among other things) suspends the notion of “me” as a coherent and unified actor in the network.  By adding a consideration of processes of identification to the conversation, we will be better prepared to consider how the networks and assemblages of invention are constructed and whether invention might exist prior to these networks and assemblages, as a process of exposed and exterior beings.


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