Sunday, December 30, 2012

Three Uses of the Knife

I made time during my two transcontinental airplane rides in the last couple weeks to read two books. One was Michael Shermer's "Mind of the Market", which I will have to write somewhat extensively about at a later time... But the other was preeminent play-write, David Mamet's, "Three Uses of the Knife" - one of his numerous short books on dramatic writing.

The book is intriguing and brilliantly - if at times strangely - written, and I think it has a ton of incredible insights on the writing process and what constitutes good art, bad art, what happens to 2nd & 3rd acts when writers get lazy and run out of ideas and what audiences really get out of dramatic structure. It's a short book and worth reading... but I found one passage in particular that is highly relevant to what I do.

On page 21, Mamet writes:
"Stanislavsky says there are two kinds of plays. There are plays that you leave, and you say to yourself, "By God, I just, I never, gosh, I want to, now I understand! What a masterpiece! Let's get a cup of coffee," and by the time you get home, you can't remember the name of the play, you can't remember what the play was about.

And there are plays - and books and songs and poems and dances - that are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unusual, that you leave unsure, but which you think about perhaps the next day, and perhaps for a week, and perhaps for the rest of your life.

Because they aren't clean, they aren't neat, but there's something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart.

What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we're being manipulated and we resent it."
I suspect David Mamet has hit on something quite profound here. To be fair, he does seem to do that a lot... But in this case, it's also tied to what I do for a living.

Some of this goes back to a point I've made dozens of times in the last few years... the more I try to use "reason" to try to make cogent arguments and convince people that there are better ideas than the ones they currently accept, the more it tends to feel manipulative to some people and turns a lot of audience members off - thus compelling them to reject the very ideas for which I'm attempting to make a supportive case. Rational arguments just aren't the way to go if you wish to use media to change the way people think.

It's a bit of a paradox though, because if you really think about it, presenting intellectual arguments is the least "manipulative" thing I could actually do.

What's actually far more manipulative is trying to get people to change their minds about something by appealing solely to their emotions. Mamet is talking about dramatic fiction, to be sure, but consider any Michael Moore documentary as a case in point - they are manipulative precisely because they present ideas through an emotional, rather than rational, lens. A film like "Sicko" is long on emotional appeals and comedy, while simultaneously being conspicuously light on facts or cogent arguments.

But of course, that is what is actually effective - in Mamet's words - at getting to people to think about something the next day, the next week and possibly for the rest of their lives, which is precisely what needs to happen for people to internalize a concept.

At least with the documentary form, most audiences enter a viewing with some sense of skepticism - the truly effective means of using emotion to manipulate people's ideas an sentiments is within the fictional dramatic arts. Consider a film like Nick Cassavetes' "John Q", in which a father (Denzel Washington) takes extreme measures to get a cold-hearted and possibly corrupt insurance company to reconsider their decision not to pay for his son's life-saving medical treatments. This film is undoubtedly even more effective at getting people to support the idea of state-run (so-called) "universal" health care than is anything Michael Moore could produce, if for no other reason than that the emotional appeal is much more powerful when audiences must buy into it as a pre-requisite for becoming immersed in the drama of the story itself.

Clearly what any father when his son needs an expensive heart transplant is march into
a hospital with a gun and take as many hostages as possible... 
The writer and filmmakers have presented their audience with a set of circumstances - namely that an evil insurance company callously allows a poor, sick child to die just so they can make a quick buck - and that set of circumstances must be accepted by all audiences as a condition for understanding and buying into the drama of the film.

Of course... That's just a fictional movie, right?

I suppose so, but this all winds up presenting a moral conundrum as well, of course. I'm not comfortable at all using emotional manipulation to force someone to think about what I want them to think about without any intellectual support - which to be perfectly honest, is what I think I tend to be up against in the world of idea-advocacy media.

More films than I can count are made now explicitly with a message and a goal of changing the world... and of those, few are at all libertarian and banking on none show anything but contempt for markets and sound economics, which is one of the things I care most about. Dating back at least 50 years, the film industry has been inundated with film after film that uses every tool of emotional manipulation there is - with deliberately political intent or simply as a byproduct of the writers' beliefs - to push an agenda of social change, nearly always dominated by support for statism and/or an overt rejection of many key classical liberal concepts. Ever since I was a kid there's been a huge number of ostensibly environmentalist films which pit ordinary, sympathetic families (usually with sick children, poisoned wells, dying wildlife, etc.) against powerful business interests often irrationally motivated to destroy the environment "for profit".

Avatar, Erin Brockovich, Fern Gully, Captain Planet, The Informant, Michael Clayton, The Lorax... Even the  new Matt Damon film, "Promised Land" about hydrolic fracturing ("fracking"), which opens this Friday... All of these employ the now-standard evil corporation vs. lovable natives/homeowners/children/animals archetype. Corporation/business vs. life.

It's so common today that it would be far easier and less time-consuming for me to list all of the films that weren't depicting business as evil and destructive.

Naturally, the state is never mentioned at all except occasionally as the benevolent protector of "the people", in spite of the reality that virtually anytime a corporation does something other than add value to the world, the state can be quickly found at the core protecting and subsidizing them at taxpayer expense. Even "The Informant", which is a pretty funny movie about illegal "price-fixing" activities is all about the agri-business conglomerate Archer Daniels Midlands - which, dating at least back to 1995, the Cato Institute's James Bovard called "A Case Study in Corporate Welfare":
"At least 43 percent of ADM's annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the U.S. government--"at least," because the substantial gain derived by ADM from various domestic crop support programs and export subsidies is virtually impossible to quantify.
ADM's political strategy has long been based on the ideas that politicians should control prices and markets and that ADM and Andreas should control politicians."
But hardly anyone in the film industry cares a bit about that... if they even understand it at all.

Meanwhile, the hatred of business itself, the mistrust of markets and spontaneous order and even of individual liberty on the whole is virtually ubiquitous.

Indeed! While in Los Angeles I also bought another book which I should be reading very soon entitled, "Filmmaking for Change: Make Films That Transform the World" by Jon Fitzgerald, who created and runs CineCause. I'll go out on a limb and bet that not a single example to be used in that book will be a film which suggests that markets are good or that people should be more free from government interference in their economic decisions... I'm certain no examples to be used want to "transform the world" in the same way I hope to.

I suppose there's more than a bit of poetic irony in this purchase made all the more ironic in light of this other passage from a couple pages later in "Three Uses of the Knife":
"Dramatists who aim to change the world assume a moral superiority to the audience and allow the audience to assume a moral superiority to those people in the play who don't accept the views of the hero.

It's not the dramatist's job to bring about social change. There are great men and great women who effect social change. They do so through costly demonstrations of personal courage - they risk getting their heads beat in during the march on Montgomery. Or chain themselves to a pillar. Or stand up to ridicule or scorn. They put their lives on the line, and that can inspire heroism in others.

But the purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don't think its purpose is to enlighten us. I don't think it's to change us. I don't think it's to teach us.
I don't believe reaching people is the purpose of art. In fact, I don't know what "reaching people" means."
Interesting, no?

Mamet suggests here that plays (and books, and movies, etc.) which set out to "change the world" aren't really viable as "art" any longer. I'm not certain that he's right about that, but I am certain that he's right that dramatists who aim to change the world are assuming a moral superiority to their audience, and that can easily become condescending and wind up counter-productively turning people away from the message - particularly when that message is politically polarizing in some way anyway.

Notable examples of this would include the non-liberal reaction to Michael Moore's movies, or the non-conservative reaction to Dinesh D'Souza's recent, "Obama 2016"...

So regardless of whether or not "message movies" constitute good art, the practical lesson here is that good drama makes people feel something the dramatist wants them to feel, and that in turn often compels them to internalize and think about the issues involved long into the future. Unfortunately... It seems to be that the dramatists who are by far the best at creating the kind of "from-the-heart" writing that Mamet discusses in the book are all to some degree opposed to the kind of philosophical ideas that come from intelligent reasoning. So all the moving, emotional drama that gets people to think is being expended on convincing audiences to think what I rather strongly believe are the wrong things!

This too is hardly surprising to me.

Recently, I've started thinking a great deal about creativity and why precisely it is that the best writers and filmmakers - and artists broadly - seem to be those who are the least capable of also doing the intellectual work necessary to come to accurate conclusions about the parts of human life which are somewhat counter-intuitive, like economics. One hypothesis I have for this comes from recent neuroscience research which shows that the parts of the brain responsible for empathy cannot operate simultaneously as the parts of the brain which are responsible for logical thinking.

In November, Popular Science wrote:
"A new study published in NeuroImage found that separate neural pathways are used alternately for empathetic and analytic problem solving. The study compares it to a see-saw. When you’re busy empathizing, the neural network for analysis is repressed, and this switches according to the task at hand."
It seems to me that the tools it takes to be a great creator of heart-felt drama, one needs to exist nearly all the time in the "empathetic" part of the mind. Certainly one needs to be using that part of the brain when actively engaged in the process of writing great drama in order to fully understand the humanity of what's being written. Meanwhile, if you want to understand the way societies best function, you need to be critical, analytical and use logical reasoning skills to assess what is true. This is because - particularly in the humanities, but in most of science - all the stuff that's right out on the surface and easiest to see tends to be highly deceptive.

To quote Russ Roberts' favorite F.A. Hayek quote:
"The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."
...and from Frederic Bastiat, one of my favorite quotes from the introduction of "What is Seen and What is Not Seen":
"There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen."
But of course, it's very hard to see the less-visible effects in life if you don't step back and look at an issue somewhat dispassionately. Using an example from earlier, in the John Q movie, what's not seen is the scarcity of hearts available for transplant. Nor does the movie depict all of the adults & children who were better or more viable candidates than Denzel Washington's son, or all those individuals who could afford the transplant surgery and thus provide compensation to all the hundreds of other people directly and indirectly involved getting that heart from the donor to the right patient.

The compelling story is to look empathetically at Denzel Washington's character and the actions he takes on behalf of his family. The insurance company makes a great villain, and a child dying makes a great motivation for the actions of the protagonist.

In short - all the elements that make a great story are nearly antithetical to the skills needed for good analysis.

It's hard to know where to go with all of this. It's not very satisfying to point out a bunch of paradoxes and run away, but that's kind of what I have to do here.

  • Audiences find directly presented rational arguments to be "manipulative", yet emotionally-driven drama that pushes a message is perceived instead as a good story worth internalizing. 
  • Writers who produce great drama get better at creating powerful stories almost directly to the extent that they are worse at using reason to analyze the world - virtually guaranteeing that the best story-tellers are (in some ways) the worst thinkers. 
  • The dramatist's job is not to bring about social change, but through the act of delighting and entertaining audiences, good drama can get people to think and feel new things - thus producing social change.

Clearly, in spite of it being such a short book, David Mamet's "Three Uses of the Knife" gave me a lot to think about.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

On The Subject of Creativity.

Today, I want to start a discussion about creativity.

But... Rather than open with a long tangent about how amazing Twitter and YouTube are - in that they not only provided a home for this brilliant and important discussion, but enabled me to randomly stumble on it through Brain Picker this morning - I want to dive right in and suggest that you just take a bit and watch John Cleese talk about creativity in 1991:

Then watch this related talk he gave in 2009:

Now that you've all watched that wonderful video (you did, right?), you'll notice that Cleese separates human thinking into two distinct "modes": Open, and Closed.

In the open, or more creative mode, people are thinking playfully and creatively - that is, we're exploring all of the different types of ideas that may come out of our minds without too much consideration for practicality, factual accuracy or whether or not they're logically sound. In the closed mode, we are thinking practically and rationally and critically. Some people might describe this as "right" vs. "left" brained thinking.

As a mental model for how people operate, there's probably a lot to what Cleese is saying here.

The talk itself is ultimately about how to increase people's creativity, and while he - I think rightly - offers no easy answers, he does provide 5 fairly significant conditions under which creativity becomes a lot more likely. Maria Popova of Brain Picker conveniently condensed them for me already, so I'll just quote her:
  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)
Given those conditions, it's a lot easier to become creative and generate good ideas than without those conditions. He repeatedly comes back to this idea of building a "Creative Oasis" where you can create a unique space away from the pressures and distractions in other parts of your life in order for you to become creative.

In the 2009 video, he devotes more time to discussing the need for boundaries and the importance of not being interrupted while in this Oasis.

On a personal note, the reason I often find myself staying late at my office, working on the weekends and I believe the reason I tend to do my best work between the hours of 11pm and 2am much of the time, is precisely because the rest of the people in my world (including my co-workers) go home or go to bed, and leave me free from other human distractions.

Oddly, by the way, I find that non-human distractions aren't that big of a problem. I can have music or movies on in the background and easily tune them out for most of my work (except when writing), but the minute real people are in the room, I can't focus on being creative in the same way. It turns out, it's really important to be able to shut yourself in that Oasis if you want to get into a good creative rhythm. I also find that once I'm in that mode, I really don't want to stop until I've exhausted my ideas.

And that brings me to two additional key quotes from Cleese's original lecture (again, thanking Maria Popova for her transcriptions):
"We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness."
"To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they’ve become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode."
Again, I see an immense amount of important truth in these statements.

Getting into the open mode is difficult... But it's also entirely at odds with the closed mode. They cannot really co-exist simultaneously, or at the very least, they clash... and of course this makes sense if you consider what the different modes of thinking are doing. One is a free-flowing "brainstorm" of largely disconnected ideas, shapes, colors, or words with which a person's creative mind can hopefully build brand new connections. Meanwhile, the other is an analytical process which absolutely requires you to put boundaries on your thinking and assess reality as it is.

What's more, a recent study used MRI scans on people solving different types of problems and discovered that when people's brains are engaged in what could be considered "empathetic" types of thinking, the parts of their brains which are used in reasoning and rational thinking were deactivated.

Neuroscience seems to be demonstrating that it may be impossible to be both rational and empathetic simultaneously.

And I think this sheds a lot of light on to why many artists are simultaneously so great at understanding and engaging people in universally human terms and so bad at understanding science, math, economics, and even philosophy. The skills needed to become an incredibly great artist and creator seem to be almost entirely at odds with the skills needed to become a great intellectual and thinker.

I suspect this provides some useful clues as to not only why the artist community tends towards promoting bad - but emotionally resonant - ideas about various academic disciplines, but also why it's so hard for economists, engineers and other people whose job it is to think rationally about the world and who more thoroughly the boundaries of reality, to be very creative about how they present their ideas to others.

What an interesting paradox, though, isn't it?

It's the creative person - the person who can most easily access their "open mode" in Cleese's terms - who can be most effective at telling stories and moving other people emotionally, but it's also the person who spends the most time in their open mode who has the most difficulty engaging the world logically.

It really gets at the heart of the challenges for people like me - who kind of exist in the two extremes of these different modes of thought - in conveying good ideas to others as creatively as possible. It's always been a problem, actually... The more you have to tell the truth, not embellish the stories you're telling and stick to "the facts" or the logical ideas, the less creative you can be. Creativity and intellectual honesty wind up often being at odds as well.

See: "Kony 2012", "The Story of Stuff" or Robert Reich's "The Truth About The Economy" as a few major examples of this.

At any rate, there is one thing I might quibble with John Cleese on in this - and that's that there should be no judgment of good or bad ideas when being creative. if you're working in a team trying to brainstorm, I do think that criticism can be a good thing - provided that the people doing the criticizing are people you respect and trust and whose critiques are useful.


I don't think that blasting bad ideas is a good thing in a room filled with people who offer no ideas of their own - then it's just negativity, and I do think it's better (as Cleese suggests) to build on good ideas rather than shut down "bad" ones. But I know from my own experience that I'm at my best and most creative when I have people to challenge and bounce ideas off of.

Healthy, constructive competition and challenge can absolutely aid the creative process.

The creative process isn't ever going to be identical for every person - and getting in the right headspace to generate really creative ideas and make the best decisions you can happens a little differently for everyone. But it does seem to require some time and separation from the practical or rational concerns of the rest of the world.

So for me, the serious question remains: How does one find more artists who are at the extremes of their creative "open" modes and their rational "closed" modes? Is it possible to cultivate great artists who are also brilliant and rational thinkers?

I hope so.