Our usual way of thinking about originality is to see it as a rare commodity, something in short supply. We see it as something that is hugely outweighed by ‘non-originality’ – by derivative, second-hand stuff of one sort or another. The alternative to originality is repetition; either I create something new or I copy what has been done before, the choice is as simple and as basic as that. As Paul Gauguin has said, ‘art is either plagiarism or revolution’. There is nothing in-between.
Clearly, there is infinitely less merit in simply duplicating something (something that was itself in all probability an inferior copy of something else) than there would be in introducing a fresh note in a world weighed down with tiresome repetition, a stale and tasteless world, a world that has become almost entirely bogus. After all, every time some element or other is duplicated it becomes one step further removed from the source, and thus is loses yet another bit of whatever vestigial trace of ‘reality’ might have remained. The witticism that is recycled too many times becomes bad taste. The meal that is pulled out of the fridge and reheated day after day, to be swerved up again and again is less and less appetizing every time we meet it. Not merely unappetizing, it eventually becomes an out-and-out insult.
Once the business of copying sets in at all, which happens very quickly since there is no effort, no work involved, then it proliferates wildly – it takes over as weeds do in a neglected flowerbed. Once copying starts then it can happily feed on itself; as Jean Baudrillard says, the thing about simulation is that it quickly does away with the need for the original since the copies can very easily get away with copying each other, creating in the process and unending series of null or vacant worlds – worlds that bear only very superficial resemblance to the original article. In this case the simulated worlds – like the serially reheated dinners – also become what is essentially an insult. They assume the nature of a caricature, they turn into a lampoon; they become a mocking, jeering voice that perversely sneers at reality. The automatic process of ‘copying’ – which is akin to weeds taking over in a garden or iron rusting away to nothing in a scrap-yard – inevitably creates a cheap parody of reality. What is more, this ubiquitous down-grading process creates a cheap parody of life that it nevertheless manages pass off as the real thing.
This seems like a rather extreme view to take on the subject of ‘originality versus non-originality’. Not everything can be an original, after all. I can hardly expect to hear deathless prose or timeless poetry every time someone opens their mouth to speak to me. What kind of a world do I think I live in – a world inhabited exclusively by the likes of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Charles Baudelaire, George Elliot, Franz Kafka, William Blake, William Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Emily Dickinson, Li Po, Jalaluddin Rumi…? And even if this were the case, do I really imagine that Oscar Wilde never repeated himself, or that Shakespeare spoke by composing once-off sonnets for everything he had to say, or that Bertrand Russell conversed only in freshly-minted epigrams? Freshly minted originality is after all the exception rather than the rule, a rare and precious commodity, and – moreover – a commodity that must be diminishing all the time as it gets used up over the centuries. Once something original has been said or done, then that – surely – must be one less original left for anyone else to say or do? This being the case, how can we be blamed for making do with ideas that have already been around the block a few times? Realistically speaking, how can recycling ideas be avoided? Come to that, how can ENTROPY be avoided?
This however is a back-to-front way of seeing things, even though we can’t see it (and even though the idea that our perception is inverted may need a bit of explaining before it becomes comprehensible). A good way to start making this idea comprehensible is by thinking about information. Information essentially means that which is unique and unprecedented, that which hasn’t been said before. This is the key criterion for distinguishing information from non-information (or ‘redundancy’) – we just have to ask the question, “Is it new or is it old?” Redundancy is old stuff, it is repetition; it is when there is a kind of echo so that what has been said keeps coming back to you over and over again. If I give you instructions on how to bake fruit scones and then, have told you the steps and the ingredients, proceed to go over it all over again then this is redundancy; the repeated stuff is unnecessary, it is useless padding – a pointless exercise in filling up the space. Information however is far from being a limited commodity and this is very easy to show: the universe, taken as a whole, is pure undiluted information. How could this be otherwise? There is no way that existence itself can be an ‘expected’ sort of a thing. The ‘Whole of Everything’ is unprecedented – there is no way that it can be predicted from any supposedly external objective platform or framework because there is no such platform or framework. By definition, there is nothing outside of ‘The Whole of Everything’ – if there was then it wouldn’t be.
Even though we take existence (or ‘the universe) totally for granted in our normal day-to-day way of thinking about things it isn’t really something that we can do this with. After all, who said that there has to be ‘something instead of nothing’? Who said that there has to be anything at all, including the possibility of even having that thought? The fact that there is something constitutes the most cosmically tremendous surprise going – you couldn’t top this for an ‘unexpected turn-up’ no matter how much you wracked your brains over it. “OK,” I say, with my PR hat on, as I address the board meeting, “existence is a pretty original concept alright but it’s getting kind of old hat at this stage. It’s still OK perhaps – and it was truly great when it first came out – but it is just isn’t radical enough any more. So my marketing team and I have come up with something that I’m sure you’ll agree really will take everyone by surprise…”
You can’t top reality. The fact that there is anything at all (instead of ‘an absence of anything that no one notices or comments on because there is no one there to notice or pass comment’) is every bit as mind-blowing now as it ever was. To say that the fact that there is anything is ‘mind-blowing’ is a resounding understatement. It is in fact the understatement of all time. Even starting to think about it, even starting to think about the possibility of starting to think about it, blows every fuse in your brain. This is a very pure source of information indeed – this is the mother-lode. This stuff is 100% pure, 100% uncut information and our brains can’t come anywhere close to dealing with it, processing it, getting a handle on it, etc. We are used to information that has been so badly watered-down that it hasn’t even got a trace of the genuine stuff in it any more. What we are left with is a homeopathic dilution, and when we think we’re experiencing reality as a result of taking in this crappy excuse for the real thing this is simply a ‘placebo effect,’ a delusion.
Reality itself is pure information and reality by its very nature is unlimited and unbounded. It is the Universal Set, U. It is Everything and Everything has no limits, no boundaries. For the Universal Set – we could say – there is only one ‘exclusion criterion’, and that is the criterion or rule that excludes the possibility of there ever being anything that isn’t in this set! If we say that the universe is pure information then we could say that in this universe there is only one ‘impossibility’ and this is the impossibility of there ever being anything that isn’t information…
We could say that information is like pure white light and that there is nothing else – in reality – apart from this light. But let us just suppose, by way of a little ‘thought experiment’, that there is something else, something that isn’t information, something perhaps in the nature of a shadow. So if we say that there is this shadow, then the very fact there is a shadow is itself an extraordinary and unprecedented sort of a thing. Who would have expected that? In short, the news of there being a shadow constitutes information in itself – news concerning the unexpected absence of information is itself perfectly valid information! [This principle can also be expressed in terms of ‘interestingness’ – if we live in a world where everything is interesting, and then something comes along that is not interesting, then this fact is itself extremely interesting. The lack of interestingness is itself a very interesting phenomenon.]
Information is like ‘the truth’ in this respect – if there is something that is not true, something that is a lie, and we can see that there is something that not true, something that is a lie, then this is a true thing that we can see and so we have not departed from the truth after all. There is no getting away from the truth because if I tell a lie then it is true that I have told a lie! Just as there is nothing that exists outside of the realm of truth (because if it exists then it must be true that it exists), so too there is nothing that exists outside of the realm of information (because if it exists then that existence must constitute ‘information’). As we have said, even if something appears to exist but doesn’t, the fact that it appears to exist constitutes undeniable information (and on the other hand, if something doesn’t exist and also doesn’t appear to exist either then the problem simply doesn’t arise).
So, going back to the point of this discussion, what all of this means is that not only is EVERYTHING information, and that EVERYTHING is a completely open field, completely unlimited and also inexhaustible, but also it is completely impossible for there to be anything that isn’t information!
So how does this work? How do we reconcile this statement with our starting-off position, which is the common-place perception of originality (which is the same thing as information) being very much a limited commodity? How do we reconcile the radical conclusion that ‘everything is information’ with our pragmatic experience of living in a world dominated by repetition and predictable regularities? One way to make such a reconciliation is by thinking in terms of a trick. Going back to the idea of ‘the realm of truth’ within which even lies have a legitimate place because they are ‘true lies’ we can see that there is here a possibility for a lie which does not acknowledge itself to be a lie. Even though it does not own up to being a lie it would of course still be perfectly visible as such since in the realm of truth all things are visible (which is to say, nothing is concealed), but then we have the further possibility of a lie which does not acknowledge itself to be a lie and which also doesn’t allow itself to be seen as such. But how would it do this? This is where the trick comes in – if the lie blocks out or excludes or conceals everything else in the realm of truth, everything else apart from it, then there would be no way for it to be seen as it really is, i.e. a lie, since it itself does not admit to being such.
This ‘exclusion manoeuvre’ creates a special sort of a situation because we can then only see things within the terms of the particular set-up that has been thus created. In this way, via this manoeuvre, the lie becomes true – it is ‘true within the terms of the closed system’, which are the only terms that are allowed. The lie (or ‘the bias’) becomes true (or unbiased) within the context of its own terms, which of course are themselves biased.
In a closed system originality isn’t just ‘a rare commodity’, it simply doesn’t exist. It cannot be allowed to exist. Originality – which is to say, something that has not been specified in advance, something for which there is no precedence, something that has not been approved by the proper authorities – cannot exist within a closed system. This is after all the definition of a closed system! So the idea that originality or uniqueness is a rare and precious commodity is something in the nature of a ‘necessary myth’; the closed system can’t come right out with it and admit that originality is ‘off the menu’ because it can’t admit to being a closed system. The fact that it can’t or doesn’t admit to being a closed system is what makes it a closed system in the first place. The biased system can’t admit to being biased and it can’t admit any information that doesn’t conform to it own specific way of seeing things; it also can’t admit that there is any other way of seeing things.
If the closed system did allow originality into its domain then this would blow the whole scam sky-high. The lie cannot allow anything apart from itself and originality is not part of the lie. Genuine originality would unfailingly show up the hidden slant for being a slant and so the way the system gets around this problem is by playing the game that originality is in short supply, that it is scant, that it is a limited commodity, that there ‘just isn’t enough of it to go around’. It is something that is associated only with those who society labels as being rare and exceptional human beings, men and women of ‘genius’. Strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely) this labelling process protects society. If Albert Einstein says such-and-such a strange thing, or if James Joyce writes such-and-such a strange novel, then we know that this is because they are geniuses and so we ‘take no notice’. They are allowed to say whatever it is that they are saying. If you or I were to say such a thing, without Einstein or Joyce having made it alright to say it first, then that would be another story entirely. Not just anyone can come out with strange stuff without they themselves being thought strange into the bargain. You have to be specially authorized. You have to be an authorized genius.
This process of having to be labelled (or ‘accredited’) by society before we are allowed to come out with unique stuff is a well-known phenomenon. Thomas Kuhn refers to it in relation to his idea of the ‘paradigm shift’ – the new idea is resisted to the limit in the first instance and the bearer of the new idea is reviled and castigated, marginalized and ignored. If the new idea still manages to break through the formidable defences of the system then a different tactic comes into play and the idea is co-opted, it is made forthwith into the new orthodoxy and so the ultra-conservative, neo-phobic system gets to survive after all. This tactic of smothering or blocking small challenges, and co-opting the challenges it cannot block or smother make the system well-nigh impregnable. Orthodoxy does not care what ideas, what values, what beliefs it enshrines, just as long as it gets to enshrine something. Once it has enshrined something or other, then it can get on with the very important business of repressing everything else for as long as it can possibly manage it…
The closed system coats true originality with a protective veneer or secretion via the process of validating it, just as an oyster coats a grain of sharp sand trapped within its shell to stop it being an irritant. So when we come across ‘validated originality’ – originality that has been co-opted by the orthodoxy, then the chances are very much against this originality shocking or surprising or changing anyone. This is like the punk movement of the seventies after it become a mere fashion trend, after it became just another way of seeking approval, another way of trying to ‘fit in’. Because it has been approved by the establishment, it is the establishment. The mere fact that we have been taught a particular poem at school, or given a particular novel to read, is enough to send us to sleep. Everything about the system has the function of putting us to sleep – that is the whole point of a ‘closed system’. ‘Closed’ equals ‘asleep’, ‘open’ equals ‘awake’.
Originality, or true information, is all about waking up. It is all about seeing beyond the arbitrarily-imposed ‘official boundaries’ and realizing that the world is infinitely bigger and infinitely richer than we had been led to believe. For this reason information is always heretical (or ‘revolutionary’) and it cannot be conveniently incorporated into a dead and mechanical system without it also becoming dead and mechanical. Openness cannot serve limitation without ceasing to be open – it cannot be utilized by our normal way of thinking and our normal way of seeing the world without becoming a caricature of itself, without being transformed into some type of Orwellian ‘double-speak’. Originality cannot be ‘used’ for the simple reason that ‘uses’ or ‘purposes’ or ‘goals’ are always non-original, because they are always clichéd reflexes or habits. Originality can never serve the habitual mind since it is the enemy not the friend of the habit.
Originality that has become habitual, that has been subsumed and taken over by the system is very unlikely to wake anyone up. But it still could do since beneath the coating or veneer of safe normality it is still original. It is still information. But then for that matter everything is information, if only we could see it in a fresh way.
Originality is everywhere, it is in everything – there is no shortage of it and it does not belong only to certain accredited experts or geniuses or historically validated persons. It is in everything, if only we could see the world in the unique way that is naturally and intrinsically ours, rather than seeing it over and over again in the tired, stale old modality of perception that has been given to us by the system.
The unique and the precious, the mysterious and the profound are all around us – it is only a conspiracy that we see otherwise.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.