Creation is at a most basic level a somewhat lasting combination of parts arranged in new ways. On the one hand there is creation by competitive selection from random mutations. On the other is the deliberate work of authors masterminding creations. What these two processes tend to have in common is that the parts that go into the creative process are treated as rather neutral objects, much like clay to be shaped in meaningful ways. But what if the parts have a say in the process? Could the medium itself become a prime mover in acts of creation? If the parts that combine are not passive but can interact on their own, much like molecules in chemical reactions, then we fall into a new area between deliberate authoring, adaptive randomness. In this zone of interacting components and reflexive looping becomes a mechanism of creation.
The Work of Hands Drawing
Drawing Hands by the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher models the process of looping interaction. The lithograph shows a right hand that draws the cuffs of a left hand emerging out of the paper to draw cuffs on the right hand. In and out of the paper, the two hands draw each other into existence through this paradoxical loop. Escher's picture shows an implacable symmetry. The two hands are mirror images. They seem to belong to a single nonexistent person.
Now imagine that Drawing Hands becomes an animation. The hands continue to draw each other in a circular process of creation. But there are two variations. The first animated version preserves the symmetry and yields an infinite regression of identical persons. In a second version, one of the hands overcomes the temptation of symmetry and draws a slightly different one. This second hand introduces further changes. The drawing process loops back to the first hand. Change continues to propagate through this open loop. If the hands cooperate, the creative possibilities of this mutual play could become endless.
Think of these two versions of Escher's Drawing Hands as models of different types of reflexive creations. The first loop makes its own creator through a simple logic of self-interaction. If the process continues indefinitely, a repetition of self-made portraits would remain alone forever in the separate spaces of an endless regress of drawings within drawings of unbroken symmetries.
The second animation shows a reflexive process of creation that relies on a loop of cooperative interactions without predetermined structural closure. It breaks with symmetry, or rather, does not rely on symmetry at all. Each hand is a separate autonomous agent, so to speak, entangled in a mutual process of construction. The introduction of reflexive differentiation yields a richly interacting universe in a shared space.
Dialogues and Other Participations
This second model reflects Luce Irigaray's insistence that nature cannot emerge from a singular entity. She notes that nature is at least two. It is male and female, for instance. There has to be a concert of differences between at least two partners to yield nature's richness. One creator is not enough, nor is one theory of everything. They cannot account for the diversity of life that is at the heart of nature. We need to begin with at least two distinct components. Irigaray notes that all speculation about overcoming the natural in the universal forgets that nature is not one (35).
Just as importantly as having initial diversity is the presence of a mechanism that lets the diverse parts play. Nothing would come about in the absence of constructive interaction. There has to be a looping mechanism to link the different interactive partners. Physicist David Bohm applied this perspective to science. He saw nature forming itself through a dialogical process of mutual participation among radically different components. Furthermore, he observed that the process of dialogue is new to science itself. Bohm envisioned a participatory science. Science has been mainly based on the concept of arriving at one unique truth. But if scientists could engage in a dialogue, that would be a radical revolution in science—in the very nature of science (38).
Mikhail Bakhtin introduced a sense of dialogue into the realm of art. He noted that discovery at the cognitive level is an act of creation closer to invention. For Bakhtin, art does not unveil or represent something that is already there. Art creates it in a dialogic concert between the artist and the medium. The medium includes the tools of the craft, subject matter, artistic communities, and a world filtered by artistic visions. Works of art result from a cooperative construction through dialogue between all these components. Creation happens through the dialogic confluence of different insights coming together in a loop of interactions.
Bakhtin observed that the value of a work of art is not isolated and absolute. It lies in the work's potential or capacity to engage others in a creative dialogue. Language itself developed because of its interactive potential: it grew up in the service of participative thinking and performed acts (31). Bakhtin concluded that events, from the arts to the sciences, could only be described participatively. Without dialogue, isolated creative seeds would not blossom. Participants would not appreciate each other's insights. The circulation of dialogue and its engaging power is what facilitates the interaction of separate potentials that otherwise would not develop. In this sense, creation is participatory. It does not happen by itself.
One hand creates another, and a different hand loops back to carry co-creation one turn further. In this dialogic process all is more or less subject to change, including how the evolving creation deals with its environment. Knowledge becomes pragmatic. Rather than an ensemble of absolutes, such as laws or truths, knowledge is more of a practical map to navigate an uncertain landscape. In this view, a truth, scientific or otherwise, is only as permanent as the interactive vortex that gives rise to it.
This loop of co-creation goes beyond classical conceptions of truth and symmetry. What sets it apart is the cooperative use of differences in a circulation of mutual participation. In this model, feedback loops and differences work together as an engine of creation that runs on interactions. This engine of sorts spins loops that become self-maintaining vortices of innovation.
From Closed to Open Loops
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela pioneered the concept of autopoiesis in biology. An autopoietic system is basically a self-made and self-sustaining ensemble. To represent an autopoietic network, Maturana and Varela gave the example of the cell as a closed system of production. They noted in passing that the cell has to allow for some crossing of its own boundaries to exchange materials with the environment. Yet essentially, autopoietic mechanisms are closed with respect to its system of organization (135).
The groundbreaking work of Maturana and Varela on self-organization gradually led to deeper reflections on how a system can maintain identity and yet be more open to exchanges with its environment, or, in other words, how an autopoietic system could operate as an open loop. The problem is that such reflections lead to a vast frontier mostly unexplored. There are no maps yet to begin making solid inroads into open systems.
An inspiring exploration of open systems is Stuart Kauffman's Investigations. Although the term open seldom appears in his work as a category, its traces abound in this inquiry about creation in biological systems. Kauffman uses the concept of an autonomous agent where Maturana and Varela envisioned autopoietic systems (8). A free-living cell, for example, is no longer a closed, passive agent communicating through tightly guarded doors. Kauffman views the cell as actively interacting with its environment, yet at the same time able to maintain its self-identity until it dies. From the cellular to the universal, how is that possible? How can creative and destructive interactions yield life-enhancing innovation?
Investigations is about biospheres taken in the general sense of living systems. The point of departure is the realization that biospheres cannot be prestated in their configuration space. This implies that we will always have uncertainty in any system, not just in quantum mechanics or in mathematics. As a consequence, we cannot state if any system is closed. Systems will always appear open, either because they are intrinsically open or because we cannot find their closure.
Kauffman pictures autonomous agents propagating their systems of organization into all adjacent spaces where they can possibly migrate. Over their life spans, these agents maintain identity while propagating, by constantly repairing their systems as they go. They are also open to innovation because such repairs may entail adaptations to new environments. Both functions are the work of looping interactions within the environment, as living systems constantly check the adaptable viability of repairs and changes. The autonomous agent is like a hand feeling the environment, while the environment is another hand sensing the agent's actions. This forms an open co-constructive loop that is in effect an engine of innovation.
We have yet to find the inner details of such engines. Kauffman thinks that innovative ecosystems may obey basic laws of nature yet to be discovered. But here his scientific approach may be touching a traditional home base rather than stretching further into the constructivist science he has imagined (269). Kauffman indicates that his investigations can only propose some partial and tentative ideas that cannot be proven at all in any formal sense. This in itself is an indication of an open scientific approach that departs from more traditional ones in the way basic ideas are generated. What is critical in Kauffman's approach is a sense of looping back to well-established areas that work and then jumping ahead to far reaching conjectures. This is the gesture of an explorer: moving further into the unknown, but also revisiting home to mark emerging trails through reinforcing loops that stretch out with each iteration. This process recalls Bohm's sense of dialogic or participatory science. Kauffman engages in a dialogue between traditional and innovative views without allowing one perspective to take over entirely.
Kauffman concludes that the universe in its persistent becoming is richer than all our dreaming (139). For us the perceivers, as well as players and actors, our dreams are not isolated from our perceptions of the universe. They are not kept in different spaces but are engaged in a dialogical process of co-construction in the space of human imagination. Our co-created dreams and perceptions loop away from us to probe and map the unknown with an increasingly dialogical human touch.
In scientific cultures, the notion of pre-existing laws of nature is being redrawn. As this gradual reconfiguration of scientific concepts develops, the quest for possible natural laws may be transformed, at least for the near term, into working principles that help us model phenomena. The fact that models work within their domains of application does not imply necessarily that their rules are actually laws of nature itself, or even that such laws might even exist. This subtle difference moves the scientific discourse from the metaphysical to a more human level where science is starting to feel increasingly at home. The same applies to artistic cultures, or to any other culture for that matter.
Like hands drawing, we design architectures and adaptive rules to work in our environment. Different design principles can be viable, even if they are mutually contradictory in some way. Previous metaphysical concepts about unique designs of nature no longer have to hold back our hand, either in art or in science. Certainly they don't hold back innovation in media and technology.
The basic work of trial and error helps creative hands co-design in ever-widening loops of reflexive interaction. This does not exclude other traditional creative procedures. Only now we have a richer palette of constructive alternatives.