What if originality is a farce?

To be a human being is to have a mind enmeshed in the zeitgeist of society and language, not transcendent of it.

At one time, back when I used Twitter consistently, I tried googling and searching the text of my own tweets before posting them. It started as a project of curiosity. But this exercise turns out to be a great way to prove to yourself once and for all that the concept of “original thinking” is probably a complete farce. Our ideas, even the ones we think we have all by ourselves, emerge in a social zeitgeist that we can never escape. Our thoughts have us instead of us having them, as the saying goes.

It brings to mind all of those old feral child thought experiments. What does a person “think like” if they grow up completely outside of relationships, socialization of language, and human culture? These reflections orbit on the dilemma that language not only gives us the ability to form thoughts, it also dictates the architecture and structure of thoughts themselves. (What is the thought, “I am an individual,” if you don’t have language? Can you even “have” the thought?) True originality, unpacked from this perspective, looks like a shaky proposition.

At first, it was disconcerting to search my own thoughts and see them come back to me from the minds of other people I have never met. It’s a hard to kick to the commercially inculcated mythology that I am a special snowflake in the universe. What is the point of standing up and speaking out if it has all been said and done before? Is not the insistence on my own “unique” contribution not belie the simple insecurity of my ego? Yet another foolish attempt to pass as an individual in a world full of people brainwashed to think of themselves as individuals? But eventually this train of thought circles back and turns on itself…

To be a human being is to have a mind enmeshed in the zeitgeist of society and language, not transcendent of it. Transcendence is an even greater self illusion than originality.

Questioning the logic of personal originality is a helpful practice for questioning the power of mammoth digital media companies who can so easily exploit the trip wires of our compulsion for affirming our uniqueness, individuality, and individuation. Our attention is ripe to be sold by anyone that can reassure us we are special—that my voice is unique. Significant corporate investment poured into reinforcing this belief. Facebook’s revenue model, for instance, can’t afford for us to realize and acknowledge that we aren’t really all that special and that we really don’t have anything original to add. The entire industrial social media complex depends on people comparing and contrasting themselves with one another. This is the whole point. But social media did not invent this human preoccupation with other humans, nor invent the exploitation of it—they are only exploiting it using new digital tools.

It is ironic, isn’t it, how this belief in the originality of self is a doctrine we espouse in unison?

The point? It is important to question the supposition that we can look at the social world around us as anything other than a social creature enmeshed in the environment they behold. It means, I think, embracing the limit of our perception, even our perception of ourselves. Often we are like fish claiming to describe what their aquarium looks like to an observer from 50 feet away. But at some point, I guess your life as a fish becomes much less anxiety provoking if you just accept your fishiness. (At least if you are a fish that speaks a language—otherwise you probably weren’t even worrying about it in the first place.)