Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Genius and the Need for Social Networks

After writing this post on the death of the genius, I recently read a little about the role of Richard Wagner's social network was central to his creativity. His wife, Cosima, was particularly important in this regard, as she wrote letters and arranged meetings and any number of other things for him.

In fact, if we think about the vast majority of creative geniuses during the Modern Era, during which time the cult of the genius was popular, we see enormous social networks around them. We can see this to be true for Goethe, for example. When you find out what Goethe's social calender was like, you wonder that he created any literature at all -- let alone contributed significantly to optics and biology as well. But in fact, these social connections helped him to be even more creative. And the social support system that existed in which his genius was supported -- in no small part because people expected it of him -- was central to his development as a genius.

If we look at the networks Randall Collins lays out in The Sociology of Philosophies, we see that the most creative and most productive philosophers were the most connected ones. There seem to be a few exceptions -- Nietzsche being an obvious one -- but if you take a look at Nietzsche's social networks, you will see that he was quite connected over time, even if those connections were not primarily to other philosophers. Nietzsche was also primarily ignored during his working lifetime, and became popular only after his breakdown. That popularity was in no small part due to the fact that culture was becoming increasingly globalized and that writing could become as influential as face-to-face interactions. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that our culture is much more "scholarly" in the sense that we read more than we talk to each other has contributed to the death of the genius. And I'm not sure that our internet culture is improving matters.

It thus seems to me that for "genius" to exist, there has to be a supportive social network around that genius. That would range from supportive institutions to supportive colleagues, friends, and spouses. In a sense, there needs to be a willingness for people to act as support for the genius, subverting their own needs to those of the genius (which is almost certainly one of the reasons why Nietzsche and Wagner ceased being friends before too long, since Wagner expected such subversion to him, while Nietzsche was increasingly loathe to do so as he himself began to self-identify as a creative genius in his own right). With increasing egalitarian attitudes, the support for the genius fell apart in a variety of ways. The most obvious thing is the fact that identifying someone as a genius is hardly egalitarian in nature. Marriage equality results in spouses being loathe to completely dedicate their lives to their creative genius partners. Institutions become less supportive of genius, including the social networks in which people do not mind the creative genius essentially using everyone for inspiration. Now people become resentful if they find someone in their group is using them for inspiration for their own creative ideas. The attitude of "get your own ideas" is anathema to the development of new ideas (since new ideas only emerge in networks and are not created ex nihilio) and, thus, to genius.

It is not impossible that the genius could return. But the idea of the genius will come back to us transformed. That doesn't mean we shouldn't in the meantime, in this postmodern culture, lament the genius' loss.

No comments:

Post a Comment