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Scenius

In Search of True Scenius: 5. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

by Elizabeth Debold

Over the weekend I had the delightful experience of seeing Woody Allen’s latest: Midnight in Paris. Now, Woody Allen and I go way back—to the early stuff, like Bananas (1971), or even Take the Money and Run (1969). But when Allen moved on from Love and Death toward Crimes and Misdemeanors, I moved on from Woody Allen. It’s only been recently, spurred on by my editor-in-chief Andrew Cohen’s enthusiastic endorsement, that I’ve begun to watch him again. Midnight in Paris is charming and funny—Allen at his lightest, enthralled by the luminosity and history of Paris. And of course, the painfully hilarious dialogue that reveals the viscera of his characters in a few deft lines. But it’s not just a charming movie. Allen is ruminating on the relationship between the past and present—why is it, he is asking, that we so often romanticize the past, believing that there was a time when human life was so much better than now? Why do we create these ideas of a Golden Age where everything was more and better than the present?

It’s an interesting question. Allen, to a great extent, implicates the present in his query about our fondness for temps perdu. (WARNING: This post is going to be something of a spoiler—so you might want to watch the movie first.) The present, says his protagonist Gil Pender (played by the adorable Owen Wilson), is where the mundane happens. His character’s nostalgia for a better, more creative and romantic life, sets his heart on the past. But Allen’s character, of course, isn’t the first to be mesmerized by a fantastic past. The idea that the past is better than the present is a notion that harkens back to the Greeks. They imagined a Golden Age followed by periods of increasing decline—from Silver to Bronze, Iron, and the unnamed but grim present. The Hindus also spoke of a similar decline, landing us in the horrible Kali Yuga, where we are now. (And the Brahma Kumaris, a contemporary spiritual group building on Hindu ideas, also has a similar belief system.) Moreover, the entire myth of Eden is about a perfect world that we lost in our fall from grace. This notion of a past Golden Age has been a striking feature of most cultural worldviews that understand life as an immense cycle beginning in heavenly perfection and passing through increasing periods of decline.

Freud wondered if our sense that there was a time of perfect happiness that we’d lost came from the experience of exiting the womb. In some dim but definite imprint, the transition from floating in bliss in utero to the abrupt assault of the birth canal and ultimate abandonment left us in mourning for the loss of something that we couldn’t ever quite name. Golden age ideals may also serve another function: they may be a way that humanity has made sense of evil. The belief is that once we were good, pure, and lived in peace and harmony…and that gradually we have lost touch with that perfection. From a spiritual standpoint, this is not untrue. The development of self-identity creates the illusion of separation from All, the primordial unity of all things, the ground of Being.

We create Golden Ages out of our deepest longings, our idealistic hopes for what life should be based in what we feel we are missing in the present. In the context of a world of endless conflict, violence, brutality, and strife—which has been the case for most of human existence—the ideal of a paradise of peace makes sense. Or, to use another example, no wonder, then, that feminists have painted pretty pictures of equality onto prehistoric cultures that have left behind little more than lumpen female figurines. Desiring equality in the present, we find it in the past.

But Gil Pender, a wealthy hack writer who wants to write a great novel, doesn’t want to go back to some blissful Golden Age. He wants to go to where the action was/is: Continue reading…

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Egoless Relatedness

by Andrew Cohen

When two or more people meet who have awakened to the evolutionary impulse, there is the potential for egoless relatedness. And that is what those of us at the leading edge who want to push the boundaries of our own spiritual development need to discover. We have to find a way to meet one another in a place we’ve never been before, in a higher state of consciousness and a higher stage of development that are unhindered by the influence of the narcissistic ego and the less enlightened values of our modern and postmodern culture. Anyone can experience egoless consciousness in the stillness and solitude of deep meditation. It is easy to be egoless when there’s no relationship. But if we want to catalyze evolution in consciousness and culture, in the world of time and space, we need to make the heroic effort to go beyond ego not only when we are sitting quietly but, most importantly, while we are creatively interacting with one another, in the midst of all the complexity of human life.

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In Search of True Scenius: 4. The MIT Media Lab

by Elizabeth Debold

If you are looking for “scenius”–a scene that produces genius–check out MIT’s Media Lab. Since it opened its doors in 1986, the Media Lab has pushed the boundaries of the possible by creating an interdisciplinary space in which scientists, technologists, artists, and other bright lights can bounce off each other to envision and create the future.

This week the Media Lab was again in the news–announcing the appointment of a new director, Joi Ito. Ito is an unusual choice to run a prestigious lab at a major university. He’s never finished college (found Tufts’ computer science and the U. of Chicago’s physics a bit pedestrian). But Ito has made his mark as a venture capitalist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has shaped the internet and how we use it in large and small ways.

Ito’s first encounter with the Media Lab speaks to the conditions for scenius that they have carefully created–beginning with the gorgeous, open building (see inset photo) designed for collaboration:

As I walked into the building, I felt like a pilgrim from the Middle Ages entering a cathedral. I was in awe and a bit of shock wondering if I would fit into an “institution” like the Media Lab and MIT.

After a day of non-stop meetings with a bunch of the faculty and students, I realized that I’d found my tribe. Everyone was super-smart, driven, working on very cool stuff. They weren’t afraid to try anything. There was extreme diversity but also a common DNA. I felt a sense of mission that seemed driven by the physical proximity created by the space and the empowering brand and legacy of the Media Lab. It created a power to think long-term with agility that I’d never seen anywhere else.

People talked matter-of-factly about getting sensors from this lab, maybe we need a tissue scientist, and robots from that lab, and visualization from this lab to take this research in this other direction.

It was a firehouse of interconnections and creativity – I was completely energized and felt totally in my element. …

I had created a life for myself that was scattered across non-profits, venture startups, relationships with large research institutions and networks of people all over the world in my search for long-term yet agile solutions.

John Seely Brown often talks about ‘The Power of Pull’ – how instead of stocking assets and resources, we should pull them, as we need them. Instead of pushing intelligence, orders and ‘stuff’ from the center, one should create a context where we can pull them from our networks. Instead of planning every detail, one could embrace serendipity and chart a general trajectory, pulling the things together in a highly contextual and agile way.

The Media Lab seemed like it had all of the right elements to tackle this problem and attract all of those people like us who thrive in the chaos and complexity that scares most people away.

A mandate to think creatively, super bright individuals working at their edge, surprising juxtapositions, diversity yet commonality of purpose. These all seem to be important elements of scenius.

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In Search of True Scenius: 3. Bob Dylan

by Elizabeth Debold

The 1960s was an explosion of scenius–a remarkable time of creative ferment that lifted so many in that generation to express real genius. It was a time when boundaries were broken and both the inner and outer frontiers of the possible were pushed wide open. It would be difficult to list all of the scenius enclaves that spontaneously happened at that time. Just to name a few: the women’s consciousness raising movement, the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, and the Civil Rights movement.

Amidst the creative turmoil of that decade, Bob Dylan stands out as its chief bard and poet. Here, in a rare interview some years ago by Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, he speaks about how he experienced then a powerful spontaneous creativity that he never has since. That’s the power of scenius–so many individuals pushing an edge that creates a collective context that gives rise to genius.

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In Search of True Scenius: 2. Genius & the Network

by Elizabeth Debold

We’ve been very impressed by Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson doesn’t appear to use the term “scenius” (even though Brian Eno, who coined that term, did read Johnson’s manuscript). His thinking about the connection between individual genius and the social environment is very much in line with the concept of scenius. Johnson makes really clear that, in innovative contexts, the unique contribution of the individual is not subsumed by the collective, but enhanced by it. I’m struck that this is not only a new more systemic approach to understanding the emergence of genius, but it’s also describing an innovation in thought itself. Why? Because it forces us beyond the dichotomies and polarities of our modernist habits of thinking: self/other, individual/collective.

Check out the following quote from Johnson’s second chapter on “Liquid Networks”:

“In thinking about networked innovation…I am specifically not talking about a ‘global brain’ or a ‘hive mind.’ There are indeed some problems that are wonderfully solved by collective thinking: the formation of neighborhoods and cities, the variable signals of market pricing, the elaborate engineering feats of the social insects. But as many critics have pointed out…large collectives are rarely capable of true creativity or innovation. (We have the term ‘herd mentality’ for a reason.) When the first market towns emerged in Italy, they didn’t magically create some higher level group consciousness. They simply widened the pool of minds that could come up with and share good ideas. This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someonein the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they are connected to the network.”

Johnson’s work is helping us to develop our ideas about the fundamental principles of creating scenius.

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In Search of True Scenius: 1. What is it?

by Elizabeth Debold

Brian EnoThe editorial team of EnlightenNext magazine has stumbled upon “scenius”–in more ways than one. We first learned about the term when senior editor Ross Robertson read about it on a blog. He spoke about it on the virtual course, The Evolutionary’s Guide to Changing the World, (which is now available to take online!) that we presented together as a team last summer. We were struck by the concept because it pointed to the kind of collective creative process that has made EnlightenNext magazine sizzle with something extra. Moreover, it seemed to be evidence of an evolution in our understanding of creativity. Scenius certainly seems to be one of those ideas that defines the very edge of our current zeitgeist.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You want to know: What is “scenius”?? It is the collective form of genius. Coined by musical savant Brian Eno, it refers to his discovery that genius doesn’t simply arise in extraordinary individuals but geniuses emerge out of vibrant, cutting edge “scenes” or cultural niches where a group of people, often crossing disciplines and areas of expertise, are pushing into something new and rewarding each other for taking risks and challenging the status quo. Think: the Beats, Xerox PARC, women’s consciousness raising in the 60s, the 19th C. Transcendentalists… There are examples of scenius in the arts, philosophy, science and technology across all cultures and over the last several hundred years of human history.

My colleagues and I have a hunch that scenius plays an important role in culture change. It’s fascinating that scenius seems to arise in many different locations at the points of epochal shift. Could it be that a scenius holds in micro form a new potential for culture? If you think about, for example, the salon scene in France during the 18th C., the kind of free range of thinking and the easy companionship between women and men was far ahead of its time. It wasn’t only that new philosophical and political theories were being discussed–ideas that would dramatically shape the modern world–but that the way human beings related to themselves and each other was new. And that “newness” is now something that we take for granted as reality.

These are some preliminary thoughts about scenius that we have been discussing over the last several months. In this series on our blog, we’re going to keep track of what we are learning about scenius as we go deeper into our own investigation. You’ll hear about the different authors we are reading and the conversations we are having as we engage together about this new way of thinking about creativity.

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