One of those questions that I find myself continually teetering around is where do ideas come from?

These days, this question arrives every morning as I pathologically shrug off the imperative to get working on my dissertation prospectus. Having passed my comprehensive exams a little over a month ago, I’m now in the stage where I should be putting together the formal plan for what my dissertation will be. It’s a document that, as far as I can tell, should sketch out a basic argumentative throughline, a set of critical interlocutors, and a breakdown of what each chapter will cover. Ideally, the extensive reading performed prior to the comprehensive exams and the thinking-through of the reading that takes place in our exam documents should get us started down a direction arcing toward that prospectus.

However, I’ve found myself stumped of late. And for a couple of reasons.

First, my approach to the exams was intentionally broad and baggy. Where some design their reading lists to comprehensively survey a specific theme or conversation in some recognizable archive of literary or mediatic texts, I put together my lists to broadly survey three sets of critical—let’s say—traditions or geneaologies: Marxism, cultural studies, and the critical history of the university. I wanted the birds-eye view of these labyrinths, and what I ended up with was just that: a distant perspective on a variety of turns in a maze whose design did not tend in any particular reducible direction, at least in the case of the first two lists. These are labyrinths with multiple exits and entries and no clear teleological point of arrival. I came out of that survey with a lot of half-formed understandings but no original ideas and no impetus to shift any particular discourse. What, after all, would be the point of such an engagement on my part? What kind of hubris does it take to think one has something important to say that hasn’t already been said by better minds than mine?

Which leads me to the second condition of my stumpedness: a general disillusionment with the work of professional academic criticism. My will-to-critique feels like it’s been sapped, not least because of the institutional situation in which I find myself. It’s also not likely helped that so much of my reading in the last several months has been concerned with all the many points of poignant antagonism the university manifests. Like the famous student returned from his studies at a university in Wittenburg, there’s something rotten in the state of things. I don’t find many dissenters on this point, at least in my generational cohort within the ivory tower complex.

The problem of this second stumping is that there’s something so boring about mere despair, and yet something so obscene about flippant optimism. Both despair and optimism rest their evaluations on the perceived future of our institution, where it’s headed. Despair ennervates. If we’re headed nowhere, then why move in any direction at all? Optimism, on the other hand, is useful. It activates, but what it activates, in this context (and, of course, this is open to dispute), is a pathological will to reproduce the conditions of the present, the conditions of scholarly productivity and the forms of its output. That is, optimism begins from the notion that there is something in the present state of things that holds the potential for an otherwise, and so the response it calls for is more of the same, while making it feel like it’s something new and different. Hence, all the radical critical practices preached in our professional publications, all the new forms of perceiving culture that allegedly potentiate new cultural practices and therefore new ways of making the world. “Imagine other worlds” is the critical imperative of the optimist. But what does that imagination get us, even were it possible?

I guess I’d allege, conservatively, that it’s especially challenging to imagine a different world from within the given one. We look at the shape of the world and extrapolate from that looking that there are new things to see. It doesn’t seem to follow. But that’s just the sort of critical gesture that the publication cycle feeds on, and so literary criticism and critical theory becomes, to some extent, predictable, banal, and naively self-congratulatory. Maybe this is a consequence of my own ennervated and yet privileged point of view, but it feels really hard to want to get any work done in this frame of things.

So, to return, where do ideas come from?

On the one hand, they would come from our will to make them arrive. That will is always conditioned by our situation, and its conditioning determines the form of what it receives in the idea’s arrival. More of the same, at best.

But on the other hand, ideas emerge out of the creative process. Creativity: a paradoxical word so far from the work and training of scholarship. Creativity suggests that something is created, something out of nothing, light out of darkness, a world out of the abyss. But this is never the case except in our myths. Creativity, as any artist will tell you, is just the name for the recombinatory process whereby existent material, subjects, forms, and spaces of appearance are put together in alternative ways. So, to create is always to produce more of the same, and yet, it manages to be different.

In this sense, creativity describes the work of the optimist. It is the quality that allows anything to appear at all, even though what appears is nonetheless a repetition.

Creativity also describes the work of the dialectitian. Something exists. It is confronted with its virtual capacity to be otherwise. The thing and its other create something new in their contradiction. Modes of production come into conflict and result in new modes of production. The form of a thing and its content, pushed into artificial contradiction (and what is there but artifice), produce different relationships of form and content. Whether political economy, institutional practice, culture, or cultural criticism, the contrapuntal concert of things that already are plays out into new codas and new refrains.

The challenge, then, is to perform a kind of creativity that eschews dead recurrence, which reproduces by intensifying, “creating” by underscoring, and thus, at the same time, perpetuating a kind of decay. This is different, I think, than a kind of creativity that affirms lively repetition. A sort of playing with things, rather than making them work.

The concept of creative play is one I’ve always felt ambivalent about. On the one hand, it feels quietist. Like, just shut up, sit in the corner, and play; leave the real work to the serious folks. Play seems like a kind of retreat—from the political, from the “real” work of the world. But on the other hand, the only times I’ve ever managed to make anything I could feel good about began in a state of play, when I wasn’t concerned about teleological ends or institutional recognition. Perhaps that’s it: a play that doesn’t aim at recognition. Play is not a recital. It’s sloppy, experimental, and—here’s the intervening key—it doesn’t, in itself, make the world a better place. It doesn’t make a difference, unless it does.

It’s sort of like what Edward Said said about criticism, that it shouldn’t be conditioned in advance by any modifiers or programs. To play at writing a dissertation—and I’m being frank about this in a perhaps self-serving way—is to try to have fun with it without expectation of institutional reward or political exigence. When it comes down to it, we’re playing with words and ideas anyway, and we’re doing it in an ivory playpen.

This is the only way I can think of this work and still feel any will to do it. If politics is the goal, literary criticism and critical theory is not an effective field in which to do that, and this isn’t to say that we should refuse politics in our work or treat our objects and practices as somehow autonomous from the political. Instead, it’s to be like Bartleby, to not refuse or affirm but instead to be naively nonchalant. Professionalize yourself? I’d prefer not to. Be relevant? I’d prefer not to. Make a difference? I’d prefer not to. To not be opposed to writing something “worth” reading, but to not condition the process by a teleological standard of value.

It’s a bad posture, but there’s a capacity for movement here, even if we’re not standing up straight. I’ve known plenty an inspiring creative person that slouches while their ideas dance.