In the beginning of the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind, John Nash has just started postgraduate studies. Unlike his classmates, he shuns classes and coursework, preferring instead to exercise his academic freedom to spend quality time with pen and paper, trying to come up with an original idea.
We’re not all wired to become Nobel laureates like Nash, but I do suppose no sapient being can content herself with rethinking along paths already walked. Thought karaoke may be prevalent and even necessary for the development of our own ideas, much like the art school student is tasked with copying the great masters in order to learn how their paintings work. However, I believe that coming up with original ideas (even small, sympathetic ones, not necessarily Nobel-worthy ones), the task that was the hardest in the first place, has become increasingly difficult in the past decades.
Or, rather, it has become hard across an even wider demographic. As early as 1929, Virginia Woolf noted that women (and the financially underprivileged) were having a harder time with creative thinking than their male, financially secure counterparts. In asserting that money and a room of one’s own were required for writing fiction, Woolf stressed how the women of affluent families, due to the very material reasons of financial dependence and lack of privacy and spare time, were unable to create the way their fathers, brothers and husbands did. (If Woolf noted that these material constraints also applied to the vast majority of population – the working class and beyond – she did not put as much weight on it as she did on gender divisions within families.) What the present-day ubiquity of media, in the form of TV, cinema, newspapers, magazines, books, websites, discussion forums, smartphone apps et cetera has changed is that the white middle-class male, along with others possessing the rare privilege of personal space-time, now also lacks a proverbial room of his own.
“By hook or by crook,” writes Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, “I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.” According to Woolf, the creative process requires one to idle, to contemplate and to loiter: three activities that get increasingly difficult in a culture where we’re subjected to input from all directions. Those members of our society that privilege spares from obstacles such as the demands of childcare, working multiple jobs, or not having a room in the first place, will be encumbered by the demands of the information society. Our bookshelves, libraries, smartphones, tablets, laptops and TVs are competing for our attention. Well-meaning friends keep asking if you saw this-or-that article in the newspaper, read this-or-that classic or watched this-or-that movie.
Piling our minds up to the brim with the ideas and stories of others, it may be surprisingly hard to excavate enough space in that mental hoard for innovative thought, as thoughts begun will autopilot into tracks already seen and read. It’s as if the tentative, sketchy stage of a genuine thought – the stage where it’s unpolished and lacking in language – is autocorrected into a familiar form. The burlesque form of a new idea is smoothed down, its curly head pushed back under the ink-grey sea of what has been printed before.
The problem that a Philosophy student, or a serious student of any topic, will invariably have is this: the classics are there, calling on her, beckoning, urging, compelling her to study them, as she has no desire to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, in order to formulate anything of her own, she must refuse the books and have a date with pen, paper and no specific agenda.
I would not argue, as John Nash does in A Beautiful Mind, that “classes will dull your mind, destroy the potential for authentic creativity.” (Too many compulsory ones might, simply by virtue of leaving no time or energy to follow your own trail of thought.) However, whether it’s completing a class, reading a book or article, watching a film or browsing a website, the consumption of information should never be a goal. Completing that class isn’t a goal. Watching that documentary isn’t a goal. They’re tools. Paying attention to what your real goals are, and what activities are simply the tools for achieving those goals, will be vastly beneficial to the goal of having a thought of one’s own. This perspective will be helpful in determining whether it’s in your interests to be studying or staring at the ceiling, just you and your thoughts, at any given moment.
What’s more, clarifying the goal-tool division is beneficial for one’s self-respect. There is so much media – and much of it is valuable, intelligent, even important – that one will always feel left behind if one treats the drinking in of media as a goal in itself. Determined to take over the whole wide world by studying it from Aristotle to Zizek, the student may gain breadth of knowledge. But, unless she pays attention to leaving space between the classics in her mind, will she gain it by way of sacrificing the focus that would have enabled her to morph the elements she’s gathered into a bridge, or at least a lifeboat, the focus needed to let her distinguish her own cogitations from dusty cogitos?
With the focus granted by a ‘room of one’s own’, whether physical or mental, what pleasure it brings to sink into an excellent text, resurfacing, like a pearl diver, with a treasure. However valuable, the treasure is easily lost unless it’s diligently protected from the ping requests of cultural clutter. As the intellectual offspring of the middle classes is increasingly fascinated by downshifting, media may be the new mammon: we collect impressions instead of artifacts and determine our status in cultural knowledge instead of material wealth (although the latter is necessitated by the former). We run the risk of becoming information Scrooges: much like the privileged generations of times past mistook money to be a goal, hoarding it instead of using it for whatever purpose they deemed best, we must beware of gathering information for its own sake, competing with its quantity instead of putting it to use. Whether we’ll eventually learn, collectively, to surf ubiquitous information and whether the developments of technology will aid or hinder it, is a topic I hope to revisit.