— Cultural Sources of Newness

How do researchers come up with new ideas?

How do researchers come up with new ideas? This is a difficult question, because new, radically new, also means that it is different to what you are doing at the moment, different to what you are perceiving, and how you are evaluating things. Being in the routines of everyday life at university, in your research group, at home, in your city, in your country makes it difficult to change perspective, to make your mind move in a way that your thinking flows and does not get caught up in assumptions or conclusions that confirm what you have already thought before. Ariane Berthoin Antal[1] (2006) suggests that thinking in new ways may be more likely to be stimulated between institutions than within them.

So how do you generate a between situation? Certainly, there are many ways but this year, without knowing, I have decided to choose a rather self-evident way of getting in-between things: travelling. I have not been alone but with a colleague and although we did not expect anything from our journey from Berlin to Istanbul by train, we experienced how being in-between opens up the mind. After the journey we independently wrote down some reflections that surprisingly or not resonate with each other in a beautiful way. That is why I want to share both texts with you.    

Whenever you feel like adventure you make decisions of which the outcome is totally unclear. That could be a good thing and then it’s probably not about good or bad, but about diving into whatever it is. At a certain point you find yourself on a train and you know that whatever the reason you’re on there, wherever you came from, or which destination there might be, is of a minor importance. You’re just aware of the machine-gun-like snare-drum rhythm of train-tracks in combination with howling winds and you know that it is a welcome companion for the waving-heat and the enchanting landscapes of progress and decline. The barren wasteland resonates with the comfort of the train. Somehow we were tempted in taking a 50 hour train-ride in stead of a two hour flight. Why? Nobody knows. The idea of moving slow & unpredictable is probably still very tempting. Why do it fast and easy, when you can do it slow and uneasy? The slowness is accompanied by the idea of being locked up and thus freed from all day-to-day routines. Under lock and key at last. It is being-freed from all obligations and habits. There is not really a choice, is there? Suddenly an amount of time appears, which normally would have faded away. You gain 50 hours of your life in stead of losing them to whatever routine. A time which can be used for all kinds of things. Like … staring out of the windows, making thousands of photographs, talk about stuff which is too complicated to comprehend, being nauseated from sweaty skins and toilets which would easily win the competition of being the filthiest wherever. And of course reading, sleeping, longing for good food, cold beverages, and so on. The element of endurance needs to be cherished. You never know what a body is capable of, unless it is in pain.

 

 

 

„Would you be in for going to Istanbul by train?“ asked L. “I am definitely in for it,” was A.’s immediate reply.

But why were these two so sure that this was an extremely good idea? They were not backpackers hopping on and off the train whenever they feel like and staying in places as long as they enjoy them. They did not assume that taking the train from Berlin to Istanbul was the most convenient thing to do. Or the quickest. Not even the cheapest. And they did not intend to chop the train ride into little, easily digestible pieces that lie between the stay in hotels, hostels or other accommodations in cities and towns of the former Soviet bloc they always wanted to see. It was none of this.

So the only explanation that I can think of is the travel itself – being in the middle, staying in the middle. Maybe it was this desire of being in-between. Of stretching the period of being in-between to an extent that the place of departure and destination dissolve in the present of travelling itself. To carve out time and space from our perpetuating everyday life to stop. To stop while being on the move. Being thrown back on your own.

Being in-between allows so many things to happen. Getting to know other people. Being surprised by habits of train conductors in various different countries. Loosing track of time and place. “Passports, please!,” reminds you that you have crossed yet another boarder. And you have nothing to do. There is nothing you can do. Nothing to be faster or slower. More productive or not.

 

 

Sitting there, you become more aware of your surrounding. The landscape, that flies by and that is constantly changing. You try to capture the beauty of it by taking pictures. The train itself. The light that shines through the curtains. The light that allows shadows to draw patterns on the wall, on the people, on the furniture. The light that floods the space you are in and which everyone has to wade, usually without noticing. There is always this light in different situations, in different places of the train – the restaurant, the compartment, the toilet. Being on the toilet whilst the landscape passes by makes strange connections in your brain. Anything can happen. Everything is possible. Being in-between means being in the time and space of possibility.

 

And then these constant sounds. The pounding sounds of the train. The machine working for you to cross the country quicker than your body alone could ever move. You hear it working. Hear the energy, feel it in your guts and try to capture it by making a video with a camera that has so ridiculously bad quality that you already know that nothing is going to come out of it – but you are trying. Trying to share. And the only person who you can share it with is the other one you are travelling with, the one who is also in-between, in the constant flux of perceptions. This long aesthetic experience makes you feel fully present in the moment. It frees your thinking and allows you generating ideas that would have never occurred to you being somewhere, in some place.

Being in two supports and even increases this state of mind. Being in the same situation of in-between and exposed to the same aesthetic experience, the other can easily twist your perspective whilst you are still trying to make sense of what is happening to you.

 

Of course, you have to choose well your confederate, your accomplice for this period of in-between. Someone who does not care about departure, who does not care about a target but has the desire to be in the middle, to let place and time dissolve into a flux of…of what? What is the wrong question. You need someone you can think with, talk with, be silent with, be aware with. To wait what is going to come and what is going to happen, to embrace possibility. And from time to time you go to the dining car together to have a sandwich and something to drink just to discover that in times and places of in-between sandwiches can start talking to you…and the other takes a picture, cause the audio track of you camera is so bad.


[1] Berthoin Antal, Ariane (2006)”Reflections on the need for between-times and between-places,“ Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 15, No 2: 154-166.