Why it’s getting harder to be original

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf

Language is a treacherous beast. Sometimes it’s not easy to say what you mean. One word can be a synonym for a whole string of others that serve to signify quite different things. Similar mutability in an individual could attract a diagnosis of, say, dissociative identity disorder, the psychiatric term for hosting multiple personalities. The user of any such versatile word must forget, for the moment, its other roles. Dissociate it from its history. Let the context speak for it. And so, when I titled this post, ‘original’ didn’t strike me as ambiguous – until I read some definitions.

According to my Macquarie Dictionary (2009), a colloquial meaning of ‘original’ is ‘mentally ill; insane’. Ergo, when I look it up in my Macquarie Thesaurus (2007), I find, under the heading ‘PSYCHE’, a long list of synonyms including ‘certifiable’, ‘demented’, ‘non compos’, ‘queer’ (!) and ‘wrong in the head’. However, a different set of synonyms (under ‘ACTUALITY’) includes ‘factual’, ‘objective’, ‘positive’, ‘real-life’ and ‘true’. Meanwhile, the usage I had in mind (under ‘CREATION’) fits with ‘groundbreaking’, ‘imaginative’, ‘ingenious’, ‘innovative’ and ‘inventive’. The word as an adjective also appears under ‘NEWNESS’ and ‘OLDNESS’. That anyone speaking English can be understood at all is a miracle.

Yet words, like behaviours, rely on their context for apt interpretation, just as one gesture can mean different things in different cultures (or subcultures). Context (like the one-eyed man in the country of the blind) is king. Psychiatrist RD Laing applied this perspective in his field, i.e., nurture more than nature accounts for schizophrenia. But the biological bias has eclipsed his groundbreaking insights in our myopic, pill-popping times, even though science has now caught up with his observations, and tells us our brains can shape-shift in response to our environment. For instance, studies show that the brains of internet addicts are shrinking.

Comparing disparate theories of schizophrenia in his PhD thesis, ‘Schismatic Mind’ (2000), Richard Gosden, an independent researcher, critiques government-supported pre-psychotic detection and pre-emption measures. Promoted as preventive medicine, these programs hinge on drug-based intervention, being driven – surprise! – by funding and lobbying geared to grow Big Pharma’s market, trialling meds in Oz before launching high-stakes campaigns in the US and Europe. Among other likely interpretations, Gosden cites ‘an unnecessary expansion of social control’ and ‘a threat to human diversity through the enforcement of hyper-normality’. His work hasn’t reached enough people, from what I can see, 15 years on, searching the Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Centre website. And EPPIC’s founder’s critics, for all their cred and good sense, are vastly outnumbered.

Meanwhile, expansion of social control is speeding up, due to our digital networks’ conduciveness to government surveillance, combined with the addictiveness of social media, online games etc., which – not unlike psych drugs – produce ‘affective blunting’ in habitual users. Who needs shrinks prescribing meds to subdue wayward teens when technology can achieve a broader reach?

The net’s early enthusiasts envisioned it as a boon enabling a revolution in social equality, not as a ubiquitous tool for enforcing conformity. They failed to foresee that corporate giants would put paid to a level playing field. The rise of pseudo-Darwinist atheism at the expense of ‘Christian’ compassion favours an ethos of competition: survival of the fittest, triumph of the will, may the best man win. But neither Amazon nor Google stands for equal opportunity.

Social equality has meaning to the extent that it fosters diversity. Uniformity, which on the surface might look like equality (one argument for making school kids wear uniforms) too often signifies a state of subjection to higher authorities, the opposite of personal autonomy. The old idea that we are what we eat could apply to all we consume (or read): stuff that industrialisation has made increasingly mass-produced. As we overpopulate Earth, overeating, displacing and poisoning other species (e.g., the bees that pollinate our trees), and our diet, despite mass-marketing’s lies, decreases in variety (due to depleted resources, factory farming, unwholesome fast foods etc.), how can we hope to do more than rehash and remix the stored record of thought that assaults us from every digital platform and ad space; an undigested, atemporal chunder of high and low culture, all jumbled up? No wonder we can’t even agree that global warming is real, let alone work together to deal with its effects.

Manufacturing (now on the wane in Oz) has produced endless repetition (and landfill). But why limit boring expedience to metal, plastic, asbestos etc. when living cells can be cloned in progressively more complex forms? As humans voluntarily become more mechanical and science strives to humanise robots and AI, who’ll win the race to achieve a seamless fusion of man and machine? Technology has enabled more people than ever before to be creative, providing tools and tutes that make creativity seem easy. But the rise of individualism, with its demand for convenience, has a lot of blandness to answer for.

Because a colour-by-numbers embrace of creative expression as entertainment doesn’t tend to produce originality, which our comfort-craving culture has devalued – hence the ‘myth’ (read: archetype) of the suffering artist has gone out of fashion. Yet transcendence can’t happen without surrender, commitment and sacrifice. That’s not just a Christian myth – it’s a practical reality. Originality isn’t a choice (choc chip? mango? berry?) but an inner imperative, a quirk of nature or destiny; and can, like behaviours displayed by the so-called mentally ill, elicit rejection. The wider the range of available options, the narrower most people’s tastes, it seems – how else to explain the ubiquity of Starbucks, McDonalds etc., the ultimate in replication of the familiar? Or their literary equivalents, genre fiction churned out in relentless series, with heroes always solving crimes and heroines catching Mr Rights? How many versions of the same story can one person read before cliché embalms their thinking and feeling functions?

Whether you think original means radical – going back to the root – or inspired – striking like lightning – it’s suggestive of verticality. Digital culture, in contrast, hits us horizontally. Ideas spread sideways like viruses in crowds, morphing yet derivative like Chinese whispers. It’s a trend reconfiguring, among other things, music, art and literature – each remake getting a little more blurred, diluted, homogenised, in transmission. And so, I find myself turning back to the classics, hungry for distinctive voices like Woolf’s, Joyce’s, Kafka’s – the work of artists driven by visions bordering on ‘madness’ – in my search for relief from a culture where sanitisation gets mistaken for sanity.

This entry was posted in the death of the reader, the life of the writer, use & abuse of language and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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