Lately I have realised that many of my peers, if not a fair deal of our generation, are caught up in impossible expectations of individual originality. The essence which lies at the heart of this issue I am trying to define is hard to encapsulate, for it strays into the territory of those things incommunicable by human language. Particularly identity, and thus sentience. Perhaps it is not an issue at all, and purely the natural evolution of things in the face of societal dominance by technology and social media. Perhaps the overwhelming frequency of audio-visual content to which we are exposed every day of our lives has shaken only my own outdated foundations, and I am nothing more than a born again Luddite.
Nonetheless, I have found that amongst peers, and most people of my age demographic I meet in passing, there exists a kind of underlying competition between us, in the struggle to be recognised and acknowledged as actualized and unique beings. I do not mean to try and generalise broad facets of existence for I am aware that some actively choose to be as homogeneous as possible, finding security in culturally-imposed dictations of normalcy. This reflection I’m making is nothing new, and extends back at least to the early 90’s that I know of. Fight Club touches on this idea in Tyler Durden’s semi-famous speech: “…You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.”
All of us want to be unique. I, like many others, based a solid percentage of my teenage years on this quest. However, there is room for conflict when there are a group of individuals – close friends – whom are all struggling for the same thing. For example, I write. A close friend of mine produces artistic content through other mediums. However, he seems to me to be wading within a halting cycle of self-criticism, believing that an idea that has been “done before” is unworthy. Often he is not concerned with a proposed project being good or bad, meaningful or not, but rather whether or not it is “original.” As if a unit of meaning can somehow be rendered void by it’s reproduction. Following this line of reasoning, I can only see that inspiration becomes plagiarism. I do not feel that this is the case. Another close friend of mine goes to the opposite extreme, and seems to be transfixed on believing that he has created everything. Here, I can’t help but feel this individual – who is a dear friend – fails to realise that things indeed have been done before, and just because he is not aware of this does not mean that he has pioneered entire stylistic movements from within his wardrobe (to fill you in, this particular friend likes to believe that every fashion trend in Western Australia originates with him.)
I believe these behaviours come from presumptions that originality is what brings success, recognition and true contribution within the arts. I do not believe this is so. I feel there are beliefs that, for example, you could only make money off a creative product if it is “original.” A quick glance at the music industry proves that this is not the case – in fact, the opposite is. Same too for visual arts. Decades of progression in ‘Modern Art’ exists in the collective conciousness as obscure and often ripe for ridicule, whereas the conceptualisation of “good art” has remained fixed for over 500 years. Subversive, alternative or otherwise ‘non-mainstream’ content can never break free from the categorisation of it’s own secondary nature. I believe that despite the existence of a cultural longing and encouragement for individuality many of us feel, it is antithetical to the development of arts and culture in society.
I do not have a degree in sociology or cultural studies – nor do I have any degree for that matter – but personally it is still clear to me that this desire for originality comes from a peculiar mechanism in which we do not take power from our actions, we take power from images. This concept I was not introduced to until I reluctantly decided to read through one feminist’s article on ‘Women and Desire’, wherein the author (whom I no longer remember) highlighted this central trait as being a major factor within the contemporary minds of women. Whether or not this is the case for women exclusively I do not know, but I do believe that this trait is embedded within the psyche of our generation – which is currently divided into Generation Y and/or ‘Millennials’, truly displaying how regressively tribal the ‘generation’ system is. By image, I refer to self-image.
I think for most of us in non-regional and primarily non-disadvantaged circumstances born beyond 1987, our reflection and personal appearance is a massive part of our identities. We are aware of what we look like at all times. This seems like an obvious statement, and to an extent it is historically true to before the 20th century, but I feel that the level at which ‘we’ – us, this generation, those born towards the 90’s – do it is unprecedented. ‘Web 2.0’ I believe is a massive driver of this phenomenon. Myspace and Facebook (even MSN) all had/have profile picture features. The ‘profile picture’ has become a dominant social icon. You would be hard pressed to find any online profile service active today which does not include an option for a profile picture, intended to be filled with a picture of yourself, the user. In fact a majority of contemporary profile services, from gaming websites to accounting firms, all require an uploaded profile picture. It is no stretch to claim that the virtual world is, as far as the eye can see, now permanently embedded within the real world, and as such so is this element of inherent self-awareness.
So we are always aware of ourselves, the protagonists of our own daily lives (although I am aware this romantic way of thinking is a long-documented hallmark of youth), and while we are aware of our own physical selves in relation to the world around us and other physical selves, there is also the existence of an underlying competition to be unique and separatist. And of course at another level, there is nothing wrong with this. What kind of world would this be if we were all the same? That is not some sort of ideal ubiquitous utopia I’m proposing. What I’m suggesting is that perhaps it could be beneficial to the progression of contemporary arts to try and wean out the hype surrounding originality and the need for “new content.” This ‘need for the new’ is fuelled by the expansive nature of Web 2.0 and the online sphere of 2014 – there are billions of videos on youtube, millions of units of original content posted everyday – but perhaps most interesting of all, the most dominantly circulated things are reposts. I do not believe that being connected online, that having a profile picture is a trademark of narcissism, as some suggest. However, I believe it is narcissism when the focus is not on having an identity, but having an identity that nobody else does. If we are so caught up in being or creating that which is ‘original’, how can we ever have any bearing of relevance to the world around us? There is nothing shameful in re-visitation or retrospection.
Something can only be original if it is surrounded by other things which already exist. These other things are what give that originality meaning. For example, an ‘individual’ can only exist when you are accounting for the presence of another party. An individual can only be individualized when they are separated and referenced against other individuals. To be truly original is directly oppositional to the desire to be acknowledged as unique, for that uniqueness can only make sense in terms of it’s antithesis.
What there is shame in is blatant plagiarism, which in a sense is being committed en masse by everybody doing the exact same thing in trying to achieve opposite. The conformity of non-conformity has been written about thousands of times before, but if you’ve gotten this far, hopefully you’re agreeing with me that it doesn’t matter at all.