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Impossible things? Negative capability and the creative imagination

McAra-McWilliam, Glasgow School of Art

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This presentation reviews the history and contemporary understanding of the concepts of creativity and the imagination. Irene McAra-McWilliam will refer to poetry and visualisation to explore the role of the imagination, and to reflect on the concept of creativity. Using examples from art, psychology and science, she will illustrate a number of ways in which we have ‘imagined the imagination’. She proposes that education, with its increasing reliance on the jargon and practices of business and bureaucracy, has lost sight of its central role in developing the Keatsian concept of a ‘negative capability’ which is the basis of creativity: ‘Negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’1 This ‘negative capability’ is the ability to deal positively with complexity, paradox, and ambiguity in processes which have uncertain contexts and outcomes. This capacity is increasingly of value in a world in which the contexts and fields of operation of academic disciplines, governments and businesses is expanding. Indeed, industry, whose leaders work within ‘wicked environments’2 characterised by increasing complexity and change, is recognising and rewarding this ability.3 Professor McAra-McWilliam proposes that the current educational milieu, with its ‘final vocabularies’4 of business and bureaucracy, is placing a relatively higher value on positive capabilities which lend themselves to measurement. Students’ and teachers’ negative capabilities are thereby marginalised or excluded, along with their ways of thinking and making, and their languages of expression. She suggests that current educational models are driven by inadequate and outdated models of business which focus exclusively on productivity and results while, ironically, industry and management research is increasingly defining negative capability as essential to innovation in uncertain business environments. The presentation concludes by offering some insights into research practice in art and design as a means to reaffirm the role of education in the development of negative capability, and in imagining solutions to ‘impossible things’.

1 John Keats, letter to George and Thomas Keats dated Sunday, 21 December 1817.
2 Malhotra, Yogesh. 1997. Knowledge Management in Inquiring Organizations. Proceedings of 3rd
Americas Conference on Information Systems (Philosophy of Information Systems Mini-track), Indianapolis, 293-295.
3 Simpson, Peter, French, Robert and Harvey, Charles. 2002. Leadership and negative capability. Human
Relations. 55(10), 1209-1226.
4 Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Author Bio(s)

Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam is Head of the School of Design at the Glasgow School of Art.
     She was previously Head of the Interaction Design Department at The Royal College of Art in London, and Professor of Design Research at the University of Technology in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. As Director of Design Research at Philips Electronics in the Netherlands, Irene McAra-McWilliam envisaged and directed global research in areas such as ambient intelligence, interaction design, brand design and user experience, and set up interdisciplinary teams in Philips research laboratories world-wide to integrate design and scientific research in the innovation process. She created and coordinated the European Commission’s research domain Connected Community, and conceived and directed the award-winning project Living Memory.
     She has been voted one of fifty top design leaders by the UK's Design Week magazine. She is an expert in design philosophy, creativity, design for new technology and social innovation.