“It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again” This timeless line from Silence of the Lambs (and its countless attendant memes) may enter our mind clothed in hyperbole as we study on hot summer days. Maybe we have air conditioning and maybe we don’t; sometimes we might eschew A/C and douse ourselves with a garden hose. Yet sometimes even a study break can feel like a torturous chore leading inexorably to more punishment. When that happens, we may return to our coursework minus a key element: our academic inspiration.
What summer gives in delicious indolence it can take away in scholastic productivity. And we can’t just fake it till we make it. Writing good assignments isn’t about rote robotics; we’re expected to pour, add, splice and dollop liberal doses of our authentic selves into the mix. When theory meets practice, essays are born; we cannot merely connect passages of quotation with linguistic twine and expect success. Likewise, if we’re adorning our verbiage with linguistic makeup but feeling forced to do it because—deadlines, then mortal pathos can get in the way of our butterfly urges. Put another way if we aren’t feeling the it of inspiration we’re probably not gonna have any Grade A fun writing assignments on those dog days of summer. The question emerges: besides requiring our natural need to be physically comfortable, from where else might the essence of our inspiration arise?
Our mis en place sets the stage. Soaked head or no, there’s studying to do, and someone’s got to do it. Not only run of the mill studying either, but AU Assignment Writing, the type where there’s a scanty four big essays per course and each more crucial to our final mark than the next. Just showing up in a class and collecting participation points by swaying the discussion to our favourite pet peeves and current event bugaboos is not an option. Nope, at AU we have to stay on task and be our own taskmaster. And that means cracking the books and getting those typing fingers limbered up for creatively wielding our new knowledge. AU assignments require a concatenation of streaming ideas and information, morphed into an essay sculpture worthy of an erudite Rodan.
To be effective, we put a lot of us into our work. That is, we make it clear that what we’ve learned we can apply to the assignment questions under inquiry. Our brains become crammed with reams of information, piled up in great haystacks awaiting the brain’s baler. After countless hours reading and note-taking we’re full to the rafters but that’s not what the learning is about. It’s the assignments where we prove our worth and those require the magical pixie-dust additive of inspiration. To write more than dubious academic prose requires a sparkle of insight, a sizzle of eureka.
Yet, the origin of these bolts of genius remains murky. Karl Marx stated that “we set out from real, active human beings, and from their actual vital processes we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this vital process. Even the phantasmagorias in the human brain are necessary supplements of man’s material vital process” (Marx, 95). How much of our vital impulses are mere diktats of our social environs, and how much are truly new creations? And can a quick hose-off really reset our creative buttons? To consider this we must first investigate the germinal root causes of inspiration itself.
A Malebranche of the Creative Tree
There’s no sense in torturing oneself into studying harder; the tortuous route by which an idea bubbles to the surface of our consciousness happens of itself easily enough. Why do we think what we think, anyway? Many of the simplest thoughts arise from a hypothalamic desire: a snack, for instance: subliminal messages emerge from unconscious nether lands requesting an apple or some pie, and they appear with the prowess of practised procrastination whimsy. Yet deeper inspiration, of the species that makes it into our essays as the amalgam of all we’ve learned in a given course, that n + 1 of rote facts and figures tinctured with our personal aroma of greatness, that’s some tricky terrain to chart. The causative calculus and etiological eddies of inspiration have stumped philosophers throughout history and, not without irony, verdant growth has followed every seeming dead end. Perhaps the way into inspiration is not out of our normal thoughts but straight through the morass of the mundane. We just have to flutter the mix a bit.
One traditional school of thought is that, well, thought is not only our own but also simultaneously belonging to someone else. And that someone, for most of the history of Western Civilization was, God. A classic pre-Modern thinker in this vein was named Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715). His theory of occasionalism stated that “created things are in themselves causally inefficacious and that God is the sole true cause of change in the universe” and “it is God who creates us and conserves us from moment to moment and who alone acts on us and for us” (Doney, 140). Legions of more recent thinkers have wondered about a mystical animating spirit that gives us our get-up-and-go. There’s a certain mystery associated with those divine moments of mental elasticity that we otherwise know as our creative impulse.
For Malebranche, our minds are the keys to the divine and we share them, in a sense, with a Creator: “in man there is a soul, or mind, distinct and separable from the body; awareness of mental states is immediately infallible” (Doney, 140). Say what we will about ideas we’ve had, or songs we’ve imagined, but the key at AU is to get those ideas out of their transient mental states and into tangible status as written assignments. As such, Malebranche’s image of the divine origins of inspiration are a reminder that the stardust we are composed of has the capacity to make greatness in the form of top grades if only we think of our potential that way. We may all be akin to grains of sand on the cosmic beach but that same sand can either adorn windows with stained glass or a litter box for pussycat’s pleasure. The difference is in how we channel our essential makeup and if we find joy in the process.
From Miracles to Materialism
Fast forward the historic-philosophical VHS to the present day, or not too presently present so much as to the time when Beta machines and 8 tracks were prescient states of the art and VHS was lingering over the horizon like a sea of bunny ears antennae, and we have Louis Althusser. In 1970 his theory of ideology, and especially the way ideology reproduces itself, bunny-like, with the silent knowing glances of the ruling class, broke ground in understanding why people believe what they believe and how creative inspiration comes to serve the interest of the status quo.
Althusser stated that “the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, ie. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words” (Althusser, online). In words begin responsibilities to the beliefs of our culture, or at least coherence in the eyes of those who judge and mark our work.
As the saying goes, we’re never more than four feet from a spider. And likewise we’re never far removed in thought from the dominant ideology of our culture. It’s not a matter, though, of domination or liberation as a binary. Jacques Derrida states: “when one speaks of hegemony—that is, the relation of forces—the laws of structure are tendential; they are determined not (do not determine) in terms of yes or no, hence in terms of simple exclusion, but in those of differential force, more or less. It is fitting here to emphasize the impossibility of a sheer exclusion in order to account for the effects of repression, hence for returns of that which should not return; symptoms and disavowals that this very law can produce and reproduce, never failing in fact to do so” (Derrida, 293). At some level we always reproduce ideology we’ve lived even as we bring to the fore new living approaches and innovations.
So then, in words, therein ideology. For our inspiration to transcend or upend common sensibilities is to adopt the critical thinking skills that form the bedrock foundation of higher learning. Think here of how when choosing our courses or major we can’t avoid the twinkling sensation that we will perpetually be asked what we’re going to do; that is, get, from our education. And that question reverts almost exclusively to economics. Lingering behind the cognitive bushes of such a question is that we’re being asked how we will make a living in the future, diplomas or degrees aside. In contradistinction, we might note how few of our well-meaning interlocutors ask the opposite question: how miserable would you be if you took schooling only to achieve monetary benefit? A quarter century ago the band Green Day addressed this thought in timeless fashion: “my mother says to get a job, but she don’t like the one she’s got” (Green Day, online) If only we all could become rock stars and astronauts, right?