Influence and intimidation

My review of Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influencemay have been quite little, but the thoughts it sparked were quite big. So hop on board this train of thought as it heads for the intimidation of influence and calls at the process of cultural production on the way.

Intimidation by influential production

To believe that you will ever be as great as 'the greats' seems an unworthy thought. I mean, we're talking about the people who have produced genuinely influential works. People like Lethem, yes, but also E.B. White, Prince, Matisse and more.

Do not mistake me. I don't mean great in terms of quality (however you may measure that) as that would just be martyrdom. No, rather I'm referring to the effort, the commitment and the ability of these great creators to see their intention through to a product that can ultimately be consumed by others.

Again, let me clarify. I am not talking about any old consumable product. I'm talking about one which moves people: whether it moves their minds, their emotions or the edges of what and how they understand. That is the ideal effect of consumption. All too often, however, the consumption of creative output is more like binge eating and most products are nothing but empty calories.

The inverted trigger

Let me take a step back. 'The Ecstasy of Influence' (which of course also lends its name to Lethem's book) was a revelation. It's a 'collage text': an interwoven collection of quotes, thoughts and constructions all stolen and tweaked to create a single voice, purporting to be Lethem. This deliberately constructed voice is then used by Lethem to discusses the very nature of writing and plagiarism.

Most seams are hidden, but a few attributed quotes are scattered in for good measure too. From this myriad of minds, a few lines stood out around the idea that everything we produce is rooted in influence. And this led to what you might call an inverted trigger.

 ...the actual and valuable material of all human utterances - is plagiarism.

If a thing has been said in the best way how can you say it better.' (Marianne Moore).

These lines pose that the influence of existing art and thought is not only inevitable but dominating. Can you imagine? All we have is regurgitation. This thought kicked into action a slow paralysation. How can you produce anything if you think all you're actually doing is repeating something that's already been done better?

But that wasn't the worst part. Over time, this approach to influence mulled and, picking up some other influences (obviously) along the way, graduated to become another hypothesis: perhaps what differentiates an artist or creator is the process of producing a final, consumable product. And perhaps it's this process that counteracts the dominance of the influence of others.

Of course, this idea is pretty paralysing too because the cumulative series of complex processes that produce a single entity are quite often simply unfathomable. You can absorb ideas and rethink them as your own plagiarising concepts, but to package them into something consumable and nutritious? Perhaps that is where genuine greatness lies.

Paralysis by process

To ground this a little more, take a collaboration between a writer and a musician. One is inspired by the words of another to not only commit some of his own to paper but to commit them to sound recording too. The musician then hears an opportunity to experiment with some old sounds put to new use. And takes it. Hours are spent tweaking and constructing until a finished piece is played out loud. Consumed. And the listener is moved.

The key is that there was not only creativity, but also a commitment to the process necessary to see the idea through. They built it up until what was influence and inspiration became consumable as something new and distinct. And worthy of such consumption.

And it is in witnessing or conceiving of this process that so many come unstuck (or rather, become stuck). In hoping to produce, we are thwarted on all sides: by the dominance of influence itself; by the intimidation inflicted by the production of the very products we consume because of the great influence they affect; and, finally, by the fear that to 'just do it', without due process, will create nothing but vapid noise, exerting little or no influence at all.

Thus we are pushed  - by the intimidation of influence - into silence.

Avoiding the trap of comparison

Hat tip to TK

It strikes me there are two cognitive tracks that need to be relaid if that silence is to be broken.

The first is the trap of comparison. So common in many walks of life, the danger and the allure of comparison is huge.

Take the Facebook phenomenon. Not only are the odds stacked against you that you're likely to be friends with people who have more friends than you, but you also watch a highlights reel of their lives. All the best bits posted #nofilter and updates just at those '-feeling content' moments. We all know it's only a fraction of reality. But we still compare.

We sit there watching other people's lives stream by in technicolor adventure while we sit at our desks putting off the washing up. And we feel like giving up, because rather than being inspiring, it makes us feel as though we can never do enough to catch up.

That same trap applies to the influence of art and the intimidation of production. We need inspiration, and we're interested in what others do and how they do it and so we get sucked in. But watching how others produce is only ever a highlights reel, just like Facebook. You don't hear the self doubt, the revisions and corrections and the fears induced by the intimidation of the creator's own influences.

Everyone's process is just that - a slow, gradual and cumulative process, journeyed on without any assurance a final product will be achieved. Which brings me on to the second cognitive track that needs relaying: the idea of production as an isolated event.

Accepting cumulative consumption

From the outside it seems as if the creators we admire go from inception to consumable in a discrete set of actions. One thing at a time. And while yes, each final product is its own entity, the process of its production is the same as that for all the rest. There is only one process: it is constant and it takes time, effort and pacing.

Consumables that move you do not pop into existence. They come from slow stirrings and interactions. They are thought about, planned, laid out, revised or changed completely. The last product that was made and next one to come both contribute. While it might feel like you are stuck in a single moment, trying to achieve a single task, really you are surrounded by context and influence, built up day by day, experience by experience.

That I am not enough today to be what I want to be tomorrow is something I still struggle with. Of course I am not - I am missing a day's worth of process. But instead of holding on to that logic, it feels instead like failure. And thinking down that track means you give up trying to get to tomorrow, because you assume you'll never be good enough to get there.

Everyone has a yesterday


We should be comforted by influence. The success of production should be an inspiration - a sign that it's possible. But of course, the double-edged sword that is influence encourages you to forget that everyone had their yesterdays, where they had not done and gone far enough to reach that point of final production. Where intention finally became consumable.

But there was a yesterday, and it was hard and it was private- just as yours and mine is. And must be.