Theses Doctoral

Savage Mind to Savage Machine: Techniques and Disciplines of Creativity, c. 1880-1985

Nolan, Ginger

This dissertation explores how the imagined semiotic mode of the unconscious, illiterate "savage" was instrumental to twentieth-century technologies of production in two respects: firstly, in the context of a global division of labor, as a way to disqualify certain groups' intellectual products from the category of intellectual property; and, secondly, in disciplines of aesthetic production, as an imaginary model on which to base new technologies of design and communication. In my dissertation, Savage Mind to Savage Machine: Techniques and Disciplines of Creativity (1870-1985), I argue that class inequalities under capitalism have been linked to the ongoing formulation of two distinct--albeit tacit--categories of epistemic subjectivity: one whose creative intellectual processes are believed to constitute personal property, and one whose creative intellectual processes--because these are deemed rote or unconscious--are not regarded as the property of those who wield them. This epistemic apartheid exists despite the fact that the unconscious psyche or, as I call it, the "Savage Mind," was, at the same time, repeatedly invoked by modernist designers in their efforts to formulate creative technologies, ones that tended increasingly towards digital modes of production. The history I examine in the dissertation reveals how modernist design has implicitly constituted itself as the process through which unconscious, magical creativity becomes consciously systematized and reified as technological, scientific forms of production. The dissertation is structured around four disciplinary paradigms of design, which collectively span the late nineteenth to late twentieth centuries--industrial design, architecture, environmental design, and media arts--and asks how and why each of these sub-disciplines invoked "savage thought" to develop new methods of creativity. While it is well-known that Europe's avant-gardes often imitated the visual forms of so-called primitive societies, there is scant scholarship accounting for how the alleged thought processes of an "originary" intelligence--gleaned from the theories of anthropologists, psychologists, and other social scientists--were translated into modernist design methods. Designers in fact hoped to discover in "primitive" and magical thought specific intellectual mechanisms for linking designed things to larger contexts of signification, a search that dovetailed with early endeavors in the field of Artificial Intelligence to devise computational languages and environments. The Savage Mind thus lies at the heart of new media technologies, even while intellectual property in those technologies remains the purview of a scientific elite.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Scott, Felicity Dale
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 13, 2015