You Are Not a Switch
Recreativity and the modern dismissal of genius.
You don’t have to be an antiquated Romantic or old-fashioned early 20th-century-style Modernist to find this input/output version of creativity unappealing. Surely the artist or writer is more than just a switch for the relay of information flows, the cross-referencing of sources and coordinates? What is missed out in the recreativity model is the body: the artist as a physical being, someone whose life and personal history has left them marked with a singular set of desires and aversions. There is also the little matter of will: bubbling up from within, that profoundly inegalitarian drive to stand out, to assert oneself in the face of anonymity and death. It’s this aspect of embodiment and ego that gets downgraded in digital culture, which tends to reduce us to the textual: a receiver/transmitter of data, a node in the network. This is what civilizations and societies always do: remake the past in the present’s image, mistake the current conditions of knowledge and experience and feeling for an unchanging human condition or biological reality.
Still, let’s entertain for a moment the notion that the recreativity believers are right: that innovation is an obsolete and unhelpful notion and that the curatorial, informationalized model of art is where things are at. A few years ago William Gibson opined, via Twitter, that “less creative people believe in ‘originality’ and ‘innovation,’ two basically misleading but culturally very powerful concepts.” Forget for the moment that Gibson would appear to be rather an original writer, an innovator in his field. What’s relevant here is that he is characterizing as false consciousness the mindset that powered everything from 20th-century modernism to the most dynamic eras of popular music. Post-World War II jazz explorers like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. The 1960s psychedelic moment, with the Beatles circa Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix between Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland. Post-punk pioneers like Talking Heads, Joy Division, and Public Image Ltd. Nineties techno-rave-influenced auteurs such as Goldie, Bjork, and Aphex Twin. Even today, evidence would suggest that artists, writers, and musicians who labor under the misconception that it’s possible to come up with something new under the sun are much more likely to try for that and thus stand a better chance of reaching it. Perhaps it would be better if we continued to be “misled”! Whereas the ideology of recreativity, as it spreads, not only legitimizes lazy, parasitic work, it actively encourages it by making it seem cool, “timely,” somehow more advanced than that quaint middlebrow belief in the shock of the new.
As much as it is propaganda in favor of underachievement, recreativity is also, I suspect, a form of solace: reassuring balm for the anxiety of overinfluence, the creeping fear that one might not have anything of one’s own to offer. The achievements of a great composer or a great band (such as Led Zeppelin, a target of Everything Is A Remix’s Kirby Ferguson) seem less imposing if you can point to their debts and derivations. Part of the appeal of standing on the shoulders of giants is that it makes the giants seem smaller.
Revealing that Nabokov probably purloined the title and basic plot premise of Lolita from a 1916 short story by the German author Heinz von Lichberg serves to diminish Vlad’s stature just a little, bring him down to our level. Even though that fact can hardly account for the overflowing inventiveness of the language, the brilliance of characterization, the satirically mordant observation of late 1940s America, and all the other ample evidence of Nabokov’s, if you’ll excuse me, genius.
Although its proponents see recreativity at work in every field of artistic endeavor, fiction and poetry seem particularly prone to being viewed in terms of recycling. I think that’s because literature lacks the dynamic relationship with technology that you see at work in the plastic arts, cinema, or pop music: the new formal possibilities opened up by innovations in materials and production processes. Working with the same tools as it always has—words—and steadily amassing behind it a couple of millennia worth of narratives, archetypes, tropes, and so forth, literature inevitably starts to feel more and more like a closed, self-referential system. Hence the confidence with which Tom McCarthy declares, near the start of Transmission and the Individual Remix, that “every groundbreaking or innovative work turns out, when probed a little, to be piggybacking on a precedent, which in turn has its own precedents.”
But rather than wring his hands about the predicament of belatedness, McCarthy argues that ‘twas ever thus. Each and every writer, from Shakespeare on down, is “a receiver, modulator, retransmitter”: “not an originating speaker” but “a listener” whose activity is necessarily “a secondary one.” Moreover, literature can only really be about other literature: No new content can seep into it from experience, history, the changing world outside. “Let me ... affirm in no uncertain terms, that ... I have nothing to say,” writes McCarthy. “Indeed, I’d go so far as to claim that no serious writer does.”
Recreativity talk often has, like this, a peculiarly cheerful, even rousing tone and a categorical sweep to its proclamations. But beneath the surface positivity, I suspect, lurks despair about a kind of inner poverty, as though the mass of cultural matter we collect and stuff into ourselves is just making us ever more empty and barren inside. The mental sleight of hand in “genius steals” is the syllogistic implication that if you steal your ideas from here, there, and everywhere, you might actually be a genius, too. Hence Austin Kleon’s candid and chirpy confession (and suggestion: you try it, too, budding artist!) that he has a “swipe file.” “See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.”
If only it were so simple. The stealing and the storing is the easy part. The much harder—and forever mysterious—stage is the transformation of the borrowed materials. Recreativity has nothing to say about this stage of the process, the bit where, every so often, genius comes into play. It’s not the fact or the act of theft but what’s done with the stolen thing that counts: the spin added that “makes it new” (to twist slightly the modernist injunction of Ezra Pound, a major exponent of quotation and allusion himself). The hallmark, or proof, of genius, in fact, is not merely transmitting or remixing. It’s fashioning something that others will someday want to steal.
*Correction, Oct. 5, 2012: This article originally referred to Alva Noë as a she. He is a he.
Simon Reynolds is the author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past.