On The Impossibility Of Being Original – A Sociological Perspective

This is a follow up to this earlier post

     When analysing anything through a social lens, an important understanding I believe is needed; that is of the true impact of social structure on individuals. While the chosen form of functioning – easily recognised by the terms Communism, Socialism or Capitalism for example – can be naively viewed as causing isolated forms of behaviours by those within that society, a more accurate and proven understanding is that the system in place merely accentuates and brings to light certain innate human characteristics more than others; all of which are a part of every human being. For example, the Communist Nazi regime didn’t turn German citizens into blindly obedient tools for the exploitation of Jewish people, but instead created a context in which fear and a lack of social capital among the masses resulted in those behaviours being carried out. More importantly, just as there were such practices as concentration camps and gas chambers, individual and, at times, even collective examples of love and self-sacrifice also existed – as have been brilliantly documented in numerous films, such as The Pianist and The Great Escape, of which there are probably too many to count. Therefore, through this rational idea of social influence, originality can be further explored.

As goes the well-known cliché, money makes the world go round; and it is this ‘fact’ that largely deprives us of our originality. The vast majority of individuals in both Western and developing countries almost always have to consider their economic situation with every decision they make, without having the luxury of inherited or fluked wealth. Indeed, except for the lucky – or some would argue unlucky – few, money permeates every aspect of life: family, work, leisure and, most crucially, art. Art is, and should be, in my opinion, a reflection of one’s self. Therefore, what one creates is a true testament to their honesty and passions. On the surface this might be seen as a deliberate effort to avoid originality, as many people share similar views, passions and flaws, and all humans are generally driven and inspired by similar themes. Thus, without the conscious effort to deviate from the typical trends of fiction, music, fashion and film (to list four popular means of artistic expression), one’s creations will be seen in those of others. However, while ignoring the lengthy nature/nurture debate that would be required to truly explore such an issue, I believe that anything created solely through one’s own desires is true art, and is therefore evidence of originality. The problem arises when external influences come into play; of which I believe have never been so dominant as they are in today’s world.

It has already been mentioned that money is the most powerful of all, and this should not be understated or assumed to be a universal clique that has always existed and has therefore become an organic and, therefore, irrelevant issue. With the Industrial Revolution and, in turn, the growth of, and migration of, people towards large cities all over the world, has arrived an almost universal form of comparison – that of financial capital. 150 years ago, and still just about existing in very isolated villages and, of course, more so in the underdeveloped regions of the planet, each member of the community had their own unique value adding to that of the society; usually a trade, skill or responsibility cast upon them. This allowed every citizen to be both unique in their contribution to the community, but also of equal social capital to everyone else. The farmer would have been in his own way as invaluable as the baker, the builder and the tool maker for example. Of course, in the 21st century, population growth in cities across the world and policies of free enterprise and open markets, particularly in the Western world, has meant that every field of work is immensely competitive, has the scope for huge gains in wealth, but also the likely chance of complete failure. The spread of wealth in America – that of 99% of the population owning 1% of the wealth, and 1% owning 99% – underlines the resulting effects on society.

Crucially, one’s originality naturally suffers from this. While before the baker, being the only one in his small village, had guaranteed – if not booming – business, now he would have dozens of other bakeries to compete with; and with such a large population living in such a small area (think Tokyo or Beijing for example), it is quite possible for just 2 or 3 of his rival businesses to reap the overwhelming share of customers. Within this climate, the constant fight to survive financially means that money must take priority ahead of any artistic motives; whether they are ethical, goal-oriented or just one’s personal interests that they wish to carry out. Not only this, but the results of the chosen practices are now, for the first time, universally measurable – economy being the only detail compared and, essentially, the only factor that ever can be compared (because any form of art is inevitably subjective and, therefore, incomparable). The resulting awareness of one’s competition, their judgement of, and potential success over, one’s self further negates any ability to carry out artistic practices. Furthermore, work that was once a means to make a living while the remaining leisure time could still be spent on a person’s interests and hobbies has necessarily become a life-investment, with working hours increasing to the extent of leisure time being almost non-existent for millions of people, particularly in large, modern cities. Indeed, it is not uncommon for bankers to work for 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. As a result, the overwhelming majority live their lives through their work: work in which becomes the same generic practices – usually through systematic, hierarchical institutions – that everyone else takes part in. Consequently, the industrial working world has become a means of trying to carry out the same proven, standardised procedures more efficiently and intensely than everyone else.

Modern capitalist methods have further heightened the difficulties caused by our human tendencies; particularly for those that are socially aware or rely on cultural acceptance in order to live even the most trivial of lifestyles. Indeed, this is inherent among the vast majority of society anyhow, due to the immense, unjustifiably wide gap between the rich and poor that exists synonymously in both developed and developing nations around the world. This social hierarchy, while inevitably causing a handful of National, and global, role models to be idolised beyond belief, and broadening the numbers that follow a particular idolised fashion trend, music genre or political belief for example, has two particularly significant, and largely unrealised, properties. Firstly, the extreme bottom-heavy structure of such hierarchies is such that those few remaining at the top avoid the intense struggle that persists beneath. As seen by youth football academies in England, or the hip-hop gangs that continue to battle in the suburbs of large American cities, this ruthless battle is almost always underneath the person or institution that they are trying to associate with or overtake. Of course, there may be small windows of opportunity (trial days, book signings, talent contests etc.), but just as you throw your dog a bone so he will keep coming back to you, human beings also react to that small slice of hope. Inevitably, and tactically on behalf of the dominant institutions, they will stay inspired and motivated towards their targeted goal, no matter how unrealistic. Indeed, the individuals responsible for the idolised message have the money and social capital to ensure things stay that way. Secondly, and crucially for the first property to be seen as both pertinent and ridiculous, the wave starters at the hierarchy’s peak need the brawl beneath if they are to stay on top. It is the cd’s, merchandise, packed stadiums of fans, and giggling swarms of girls that gift their idols their superhero status and, unfortunately, their financial and social capital needed to float above the social majority. Of course, as Karl Marx has dramatically underlined, the vast majority of society therefore have the opportunity to rise up against the minority in power and, consequently, are able to become themselves, at least to a greater extent than at present. Unfortunately, the whole process becomes a never ending cycle, with superstars becoming has-beens, up-and-coming others replacing them and the new batch of young hopefuls imitating their new heroes once again.

If this is indeed the case then originality – while ignoring the initial social influences on the individual – can perhaps exist in a very short, temporary form. Essentially, just until the masses listen, read, watch or understand the message and, in turn, absorb, copy and spread similar themes elsewhere. Of course, it is not unknown that this is a significant part of human nature. The music industry, for example, regularly demonstrates this process, with fresh new artists releasing a first record and rising to global fame and success in just a few months before never being able to have the same effect on their audience during their second or third attempts. It’s incredible how so few musicians have been able to consistently release music that is both original and successful. As already explained through ‘social hierarchies’, the nature of such institutions means that the two are almost always mutually exclusive anyhow. Consequently, the ‘artist’, through almost any possible form, either conforms to the label that is first placed upon them or gravitates to other popular trends in order to stay relevant; negating the artist’s uniqueness when compared to the social majority, but also in the falseness of their expression – their ‘art’.

Through various processes within our modern social structure, as explained, our originality can be largely undermined. Predominantly through the emergence of new standards of living, working and, in turn, treatment of our lives and others, our time, opportunities and motivation for artistic endeavours and, in general,  behaviours stemming from our true personal make-up has become severely restricted. I am, however, confident – or should I say hopeful – that we will break through this stagnant period and rediscover our individuality and, more importantly, confidence to express it. The clear niche in industrial markets for more humanistic means of working practice suggests that it could also be a largely profitable, as well as refreshing, way of functioning. It is perhaps these solutions that are more realistic and, therefore, required for change to take place. As for the dominance of financial capital and the ‘celebrity’ over our everyday lives, we can only hope that more artistic and – I would argue – more fulfilling avenues in life can eventually overcome their presence. The recent economic recession and continued exploitation of celebrity icons could surely pave the way for change, even if our wonderfully original selves somehow fail.

‘Life is too important to be taken seriously’ Oscar Wilde

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1 reply »

  1. I never knew you had so much in you…..brilliant

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