Unique, just like everybody else
Our poetry now
is the realisation that we possess nothing
anything therefore is a delight
(since we do not possess it)
and thus need not fear its loss
We need not destroy the past; it is gone
at any moment, it might reappear and seem to be and be the present
Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we
owned it, but since we don’t, it is free and so are we.
John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, 1949
This post has been inspired by a number of different books, articles, sleepless-night-brooding and wine-fuelled conversations. It’s probably way too long as it is, but it still feels as if it’s barely scratching the surface of what I’m trying to get at. Anyway, it’s a start. Heimatseeker is back! Today, we’re talking about imitation, individuality, and identity.
We copy all the time, and we always have. Copying, imitating, duplicating, even faking, are not aberrations, but a fundamental part of what it means to be human.
This, in a nutshell, is the central point in Marcus Boon’s thought-provoking book, In Praise of Copying.1 The book, which has been the main inspiration for this post, explores the history, social impact, and ethics of copying. The author takes the reader on a journey that starts all the way back with Plato and his concept of mimesis: the imitation, but also representation of an object whose outward appearance indicates its essence. In other words, according to Plato, the physical manifestation of an object and its underlying idea correspond to each other and therefore make it original, “real”, whereas a copy of the object distorts that relationship.
Sound familiar? It should, as today’s IP and copyright laws are based on Platonic concepts of transcendent essence: They protect not the idea itself (which arguably cannot be owned), but the fixed, material expression of an idea.
And, as we all know, today’s IP and copyright laws are not working all that well any more. No, this isn’t simply about “piracy.” Rather, in the nearly 2500 years since Plato, we’ve come away from the the notion of objects having a “transcendent essence.” Contemporary theory, says Boon (and this makes sense to me,) takes a very different view and assumes that everything is essenceless (by the way, also a key concept in Buddhism), everything is empty, and only gains its meaning through context, in a relative, dependent fashion.
Put it another way: If individual objects really had their own essence, it would be impossible to copy them.
And yet, the practice of copying, or imitation, has been fundamental throughout history, and the line between imitation and outright forgery has always been a blurry one. “Dubious orations and plays”2 were prevalent in Athens of 400 B.C. The art of rhetoric has always been based on continuation and repetition of a tradition, albeit in a thoughtful, creative way that goes well beyond pure imitation. Rembrandt’s 17th century workshop employed a large number of pupils who eagerly imitated the master’s style, making it difficult to tell whether a painting was a “genuine Rembrandt.” Finally, in the 20th century, modern art (think Warhol, Fluxus, or the Beat poets, for example) went as far as elevating the copy to something more original than the original itself, “precisely because it made explicit its own dependence on other things, signs, or matters3.”
This is important because it sets the scene for the debate: Copying is not about stealing or mindless duplication. It’s about the creation of new things, based on what exists already. It’s a creative process that is essential to what it means to be human. We fill things with meaning by putting them in context.
Innovation, Boon argues, come from combining existing things in new ways, for example, sampling in Hip Hop. This gives us a framework that allows new forms to emerge, while still retaining the history of the elements that make up the new thing. Just as children learn by imitation and role play, as humans in general, we find joy in the transformation of existing things into new ones through copying4.
But enough copying from someone else’s book! As I was reading it, I began wondering if and how these concepts might apply to not just things and ideas, but also people. If copying, imitation even, is what makes me human, then who am I? What is my own essence? What makes me authentic? Am I even real?
How do we humans reconcile our need to belong and be part of a bigger something, our wish for permanence and security, with our desire to stand out, to be special, and different?
And how can anyone be original in today’s world where everything appears to have been done already? Whatever brilliant new idea I might come up with, I can be pretty certain the domain name’s been taken and there are at least 100,000 Google results for the search term.
Maybe the now classic demotivational poster about individuality is right: We are “unique, just like everybody else.” That’s funny. It’s also quite profound, as good humour often is.
If we believe that we, too, are inherently without essence, then we, too, gain meaning through context and relationships. And that context is much less fixed today than it was for previous generations:
When my parents grew up, their life path was pretty clearly laid out to them. Where they lived, what they did, who they met, how their lives played out was driven by external factors (money, or lack thereof, being the most influential one.) Their choices were limited, but so were those of their friends, colleagues, and neighbours, and they all made the best of it. Our generation, on the other hand, is faced with virtually unlimited possibilities, and every choice we make for something is at the same time a choice against an large number of other options.
In other words: Our lack of essence gives us the ultimate freedom to create the selves we want to be, but also fear of making the wrong choice, of missing something. No one is going to tell us what’s right, or real, so we go and find things to copy. Social media are a good example, because they enable just the kind of “mass individualism” that allow us to be unique like everybody else. We can be clever and original, and at the same time, find a safe place within our network of connections that shares our interests and attitudes and validates our choices by copying them again.
In The race for attention on owni.eu, the author goes as far as arguing that “the desire to stand out in our urban universe is fostering a narcissistic society, which makes it difficult to have genuine social relationships.” He sees a deep shift from the need of survival, which has characterised human endeavours for most of our history, to “the necessity to stand out from the crowd” in modern societies, the need to prove that “we have value as an object of social and cultural consumption.”
I’m not that pessimistic, although I can see where the author is coming from. Is the curse of our unlimited freedom that we don’t compete for limited resources any more, but for our 15 minutes of fame? And as I’m busy working on my interestingness, is the individual who emerges the “real” me, or a persona I create in search of the fragile balance between fitting in and standing out?
Wrong question. If everything is created, then a distinction between different layers of reality doesn’t make a lot of sense. Everything simply is, and we fill it with meaning. Real is what we make real.
The ego is what tends to get into the way here. It’s the manifestation of our fears: Not being interesting, Not fitting in. Not being good enough. Missing out. Being the same old. Being different.
What if we could let go of all of the need to control all of that? What if, instead, we could embrace the freedom and choice we have, and get creative?
Just like our brains have quadrillions of possible neuronal connections, so does the world out there (both “real” and virtual, if that distinction still makes any sense at all these days) offer basically endless possibilities. Consciously or not, we consistently transform ourselves and collect experiences and grow our networks. We connect with people and ideas, and we find inspiration in many places.
So here’s my answer: Let’s take all these inspirations, let’s copy them and transform them, play with them and destroy them, and then recreate something new out of it, and through that process, make our world, and make ourselves. Let’s stop worrying about missing something, and just put things out there, and see where they take us5.
Because creativity is not a limited resource. We don’t have to compete for originality. Just as with love, the more you give, the more of it exists. By simply being who we are, we increase the number of interesting possibilities in the world.
Put another way:
Copy out of love, not fear. It’s not about being different. It’s about being real6.
(1) As is appropriate for a book with this subject, In Praise of Copying is available as a Creative Commons-licensed free PDF download. For a number of reasons, I decided to buy the hard cover book anyway - but that’s a topic for another post.
(2) In Praise of Copying, p115.
(3) In Praise of Copying, p49.
(4) While I’m writing this, I’m listening to the Johnny Cash cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. Anyone wondering about why creative copying would make the world a better place should listen to this song. And the original, of course.
(5) And yes, it’s equally exciting and terrifying to start blogging again after more than half a decade. You all might think this article is stupid. And yet, here it is.
(6) What could be a more appropriate post script to a post about copying, than the copy of some song lyrics (by Lilly Allen, Take What You Take, 2006):
Say what you say, do what you do
Feel what you feel, as long as it’s real.
Take what you take and give what you give
Just be what you want, just as long as it’s real.