Adventures in Edinburgh 2: Pushing the Envelope

One of the events that got me thinking on my recent trip to the Edinburgh Fringe was the last of a series of lectures about comedy and culture from researchers at Brunel University’s Centre for Comedy Studies and Research. The one we went to was by Leon Hunt, and as well as focusing on the work a particular comedy duo, did some nice analysis of the concept of dark comedy. I do like a spot of theorising, as you know.

The thing that particularly got me thinking was the phrase ‘pushing the envelope’. This is a formulation that gets bandied around a fair bit in comedy, and you also hear it all the time in barbershop’s various debates about style. There are some interesting parallels and differences in the way the phrase gets deployed in these two worlds, and I have been saving the idea up to have a think about. Now I’m home again, it’s time to mull.

Soapbox: The Anti-Educational Ideology of ‘Talent’

I have written several times over the years about how ‘talent’ is a socially constructed narrative, and about the obsessive, dedicated work that goes into creating the skills that get labelled as ‘talent’. What I have been hitherto somewhat muted about is the damage that the mythology of talent does to our culture, and to individuals within it. This has come into focus for me in recent months as I have been writing about the phenomenon of the ‘non-singer’ as part of a book chapter for Oxford University Press.

The ‘non-singer’ is the inevitable by-product of our cultural construction of talent. We approach talent with a kind of magical thinking that sees the capacity for music (or indeed for all kinds of other specialist activities) as somehow both genetic and supernaturally bestowed upon particular, ‘gifted’ people, who are thereby set apart from normal mortals.

Adventures in Edinburgh


I am recently back from a trip to the Edinburgh Festivals, which offer what may be the richest, most varied and most genuinely international collection of common cold viruses in the world. Coming home with ‘festival flu’ is, apparently, all part of the experience. In five days we went to 15 events and 2 exhibitions; some were professional, some amateur; some charged for entry, others didn’t (interestingly, this is not quite the same division as pro/am); and covering comedy, music, theatre, visual arts and cultural commentary. I also came home with incipient artistic indigestion.

I’ll have some specific thoughts to tease out in response to some of these events (and/or in response to the peculiar juxtaposition of some of these events) in future posts. But in the first instance, I’d like to mull on some general points about the nature of the Fringe Festival in particular, and the effect it has on both the performers involved and the performances they produce.

Decision Fatigue and the Creative Process

There are only so many decisions you can make in one day. And when you have made too many, you lose your willpower. Rolf Dobelli reports on the psychological studies that demonstrated this very clearly, and also shows some of the consequences for real-life situations such as the criminal justice system. But, apart from recommending a rest and a snack to recover, he doesn’t really offer much help in dealing with decision fatigue.

This matters to everyone, but I’m particularly interested in how it impacts on the creative process. We often talk about creativity as if it is some kind of magical thing bestowed on us from above, not least because the source of our best ideas is only partly and intermittently susceptible to conversant self-awareness. But the actual activity of generating creative products is essentially one of making decisions. Global decisions (what to produce, for whom, of what size, with commitments to which genre(s)); artistic decisions (expressive register, characterisation, emotional shape); technical decisions (key, voicing, texture, chord choice). Think how much time you spend in planning, day-dreaming, and trial-and-error tinkering - all those are species of decision-making activity.

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