A friend of mine turned to me and said: “Every thought I have, I immediately check the Internet to see who has thought it before me.”
This struck me hard. There was violence in it. How could a truly brilliant and highly accredited individual be so reduced by a few short clicks? Shouldn’t my friend be more confident naturally? Shouldn’t they simply know how great they are and leave it at that? But how can they know how swell they are if “knowing first” is where the glory lies in the knowledge economy? What should their strategy be for navigating the choppy waters of contemporary mores around thinking? What kind of solution might my friend find for allowing room to think without the fear of being out-thought? I mean… how are they to know how well they think if they are not on a top 10 list for thinkers for 2015?
If you did not know that others were thinking it, would it diminish you as much as it seems to do by knowing that others are thinking it? … I am asking for a friend.
Polish theatre maker Tadeusz Kantor said something that has stayed with me for years. Amid a completely unperturbed meander, he stated (and I am paraphrasing from memory) that he is the inventor of everything that he has not previously encountered. Even if the Internet were to have shown him that three thousand people have already done what he was attempting to do, it would be of no value to him. His mind and his muscles were free to roam the world without concern for doppelganger creators roaming it elsewhere, with similarly brilliant ideas. He remained confident that he was the inventor of his own creations. And, of course, he was.
He was born in 1918. It was a different time.
Today Kantor’s approach feels untenable; the world has become a funnel. Unless we approach our work and thoughts like the hermetic Unabomber then we will constantly discover how un-special we are. Indeed the spectre of the Unabomber’s freakishness, the danger of his singular vision, serves as a parable to keep us in the thrall of an ideology that seeks to reinforce the mono-chroming of all things.
Late-stage capitalism needs to make value out of everything it can. It demands that taste and/or popular vote determine the worth of invention. The market of creation is connected to ownership as much as it is to the creation itself. So if you don’t make it out of the gate first, then your idea – no matter how unique it is to you – falls into the waste bin of excessive notions.
So what is my brilliant friend to do when I know they are brilliant but they discover that they are not brilliant enough to be first?
Does being first even matter?
To say ‘no’ is to challenge the hierarchies of values imposed on us by neo-liberal thinking. Time is valued. Labour is valued. Information is valued. But what of emotion, impact, and affect? How do you weigh or place a monetary value on the effect a notion, idea or event has on an artist or audience?
And what of the tragedy that awaits if the stillborn idea, rejected as “derivative” or “unoriginal”, may have led the artist to the truly sublime original idea?
The difficulty we face as artists now is that we can easily access a living record of what everyone else is thinking and doing, along with what they have thought and done, and possibly infer what they will think and do. Not only do we need to do the every-day artist’s work of quieting our inner editor, we must also do that knowing that our ‘editor’ has the citations and evidence to back-up each and every critique.
Is it possible that originality is overrated? By yielding to the cult of being first, are we worshipping a false deity? Long-time One Yellow Rabbit ensemble member Denise Clarke once said to Adrienne Wong (who paraphrased from memory when she told me) that when the Rabbits discovered that other artists were working on the same material or ideas as them, the OYR ensemble didn’t take that as failure, but rather an indication that they were mining the right territory. Zeitgeist.
Which brings me back to my friend and their habit of holding new ideas up against the immense record of creativity that is the Google Search…
Stop checking the internet. But if they can’t… resolve to be mid-pack with their thoughts and keep going. Finally, resolve to recycle rather than trash. Instead of “just because it’s been done before it shouldn’t be done again”, it is precisely because it has been done that it should be done again. The world is still round after all.