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Anand Pandian: Learning and Creativity

Anand Pandian, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, studies media and creative expression. He is working on a book about experience in a media-saturated world.

You’ve been working with filmmakers in India. Do you consider that your laboratory for studying learning and creativity?

As anthropologists, we find and build our “laboratories” in field environments far from the confines of the university. We do our thinking in relation to the material qualities and unexpected circumstances of those diverse environments. The habits of mind that we are forced to cultivate attune us to the fact that learning always happens in relation to a larger world of potential insights and experiences. The “mind” isn’t isomorphic with the brain. Minds are networks of relays between the brain, the body, the senses, and the wider environments and situations that provoke these relays into novel configurations of thought.

How do minds, then, learn in the midst of such worlds of experience?

In the ethnographic fieldwork I’ve been doing with Indian filmmakers, I have found that creativity can hardly be conceived as the expression of some spark of genius that lies deep within those individuals we tend to identify as artists or creators. Instead, what we find are endless ways of nurturing the creative potentials already lodged within diverse and complex situations. Consider how cameramen, for example, learn to react to the aesthetic potential of light and shadow. Or how directors attune themselves to the creative promise of an unexpected moment, or the way that choreographers discern potential moves in a current of sound.

Why is it important to study such larger worlds of learning and creation?

Paying attention to such practical operations of thinking and working promises much more than a better understanding of practices as specific as filmmaking. What we find are insights into the ecology of learning: Far from something that happens at a safe distance from the world, novel thoughts are events that erupt in and among the events of our experience.