Valuing originality


Valuing originality

(This talk was originally given at doctoral seminar at Plymouth University in 2005).

Originality is rather like time – I know exactly what it is until I’m asked to explain it in any detail. The reason for this is simple enough: originality is not a single monolithic quality set in stone. It’s always dependent on a set of fluid, contextually determined, relationships – sometimes contradictory – between bodies of knowledge, forms of praxis, formal discourse and informal conversation, audiences, social constraints, and much else besides. What we value as highly original in the context of arts and humanities research today may in future appear as merely an exercise in trivial pedantry – the modern equivalent to working out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin! So any discussion of originality always raises questions about relevance to both fields of knowledge or praxis, to a constituency, and to the particular individuals involved.

Fortunately we can be clear on these two points today. We are here to reflect on originality in the context of achieving the Holy Grail of doctoral study – that is: how to make “an original contribution to knowledge” in the context of the academic study of the arts and humanities. We know there are in fact numerous ways of making this contribution – if only because in their book How to Get a PhD Estelle Phillips and D. S. Pugh list fifteen different ways to demonstrate this. My initial concern here is not, however, with these numerous and particular possibilities for demonstrating originality. Instead it’s with the background presuppositions and underlying assumptions that precondition our thinking about originality – what might be called our “cultural myths of originality”. I will begin with these “myths about originality” – by the term ‘myth’ I mean an implicit account that is both true and false at the same time – and will then come back to the issue of particular possibilities to finish the talk.

I want to begin by making two simple, perhaps rather obvious, points. The first is that if we want to value – and self-evaluate – originality in ways that are useful to us, we need to constantly remind ourselves that originality is not an absolute or fixed value that, once identified, allows us – or more worryingly for doctoral students someone else like a supervisor or examiner – to say: “this approach, method, or starting-point will always lead to originality and that will not”.

Secondly, and this is going to be my central topic, I want to suggest to you that originality is best understood – and valued – in terms of a dialogue or tension within an always provisional or open understanding of different, interrelated, and sometimes even apparently contrasting, understandings of originality. To value and understand the real nature of originality we need, then, to value the quarrels and tensions between the different basic presuppositions, assumptions, or myths of and about originality. I should add that to get a sense of the myths of originality is something distinct from having a working understanding epistemological differences or interpretative frameworks. These are concerned with intellectual arguments about conceptual differences and positions – which we usually discuss in terms of methodology – while “myths of originality” are part of the often unconscious or implicit psychological dynamic of each individual researcher. That is to say they form part of our subjective, often unquestioned, beliefs about the nature of originality. They appear as constituents in the ways in which the personalities, beliefs and idiosyncrasies of researchers and research communities orient themselves to research projects.

As I have implied, we need to think about originality on a number of different levels. We obviously need to think carefully about the various particular issues identified in relation to this event – issues of “complex originationoriginal material (that is, previously un-researched areas)original connections (between extant ways of reading the material, for example), or originality via collisions of perspectives giving rise to new insights or praxis”. But, if we are to consider such issues clearly and effectively, we also need to keep in mind that we are always already culturally positioned by various background assumptions or presuppositions that can easily remain unquestioned “givens” in the research process. Unless we learn to identify and consciously consider the role of these background, “given” assumptions, presuppositions, or myths, they can weaken, distort, or even potentially undermine whatever methodological strategies we use to arrive at our original contribution to knowledge.

To give you a sense of what I mean by all this, I am going to discuss some indicative statements that will help me illustrate some “myths of originality” and their relationship to how we think about research. The first is a statement about the function of theoretical science, made by the animal taxonomist G. G. Simpson and quoted by Levi-Strauss in his book “The Savage Mind”. Simpson writes:

Scientists do tolerate uncertainty and frustration, because they must. The one thing that they do not and must not tolerate is disorder. The whole aim of theoretical science is to carry to the highest possible and conscious degree the perceptual reduction of chaos.

We can take this as a simple statement of ideal intent or, adopting a more psychological viewpoint, we can ask what affect-laden underlying presupposition informs this statement. Taking the second option, I would suggest that this statement depends on the implicit story of science as a constant battle against a chaos always threatening to overwhelm us, against a hostile, disordered world “out there”; one that needs to be controlled by the skilful creation of theories and technologies that allow us to master nature and bring order to chaos. It is of course, possible, even necessary, to see that there is truth in this myth; but also that it forgets, for example, that scientific categorical order often helps inflicts chaos on ecological order; in short, that there are many different types of “order” and that they are not necessarily compatible.

Because G. G. Simpson’s statement is such a clear example of the ordering myth of Enlightenment science (a secular variation, in must be said, on the myth of God the Father in Genesis, who brings the world into being by ordering chaos), we might be tempted to dismiss it as irrelevant to any contemporary consideration of originality. This would be a mistake. Nancy van House observes, in a recent discussion of Actor Network Theory, that working in the field of science consists above all of:

“the enrolment and juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements – rats, test tubes, colleagues, journal articles, funders, grants, papers at scientific conferences, and so on – which need continual management”.

In consequence, she suggests, we should see scientists’ work as in large part:

“the simultaneous reconstruction of social contexts of which they form a part – labs simultaneously rebuild and link the social and natural contexts upon which they act”’.

That is to say, scientists and laboratories constantly manage the social and natural environment by reconstructing or reordering the social and natural contexts that both frame, and are, the subject of their work. It is not difficult, then, to see why there is a very strong emphasis in scientific research on ordering and why originality is linked to making order, to the act of ordering or re-ordering, whether at the level of praxis or the management and ordering of praxis.

I’ll come back to originality as ordering in a moment but, at this point, I want to take a detour to remind you that, although Simpson and van House are writing about science, what they say could apply just as well to other disciplines, including those in the Humanities.

So why risk reinforcing a reductive linkage between order and science here, when the linking of ordering and reordering with originality is usually an important presupposition in the understanding of all those who, as “senior researchers”, direct, oversee and manage the progress of research in any field?

The answer is pragmatic and very simple. If we read any government statement in the national press about research, in 90% of cases we can substitute the word “science” for the word “research” without altering the meaning of the statement in the slightest. For most people aware of such things, the idea of research translates automatically into that of scientific research. People in the arts and humanities often resent this, even if they are not entirely aware of it. But if we want to value originality in all its forms we should avoid confusing popular myths about science, research managers, order and originality with what individual scientists or research managers actually do. In short, we need to be aware of the tensions and contradictions between the dominant myth of order and ordering in our culture and the variety and complexity of actual types of originality concerned with ordering.

We also need to be aware that scientists, particularly when they become part of the Establishment, will have a tendency either to buy into particular myths about the originality of art that over-compensate for their own myth, or else reinterpret art according to their own mythologies. This second situation is neatly demonstrated by the archaeologist Colin Renfrew’s assumption that contemporary art – which he sees as “a vast, unco-ordinated yet somehow enormously effective research programme that looks critically at what we are and how we know what we are” – “offers us new, often paradoxical experiences, which show us how we have misunderstood, or only imperfectly mastered, what we think we know”. His evolutionary argument makes some kind of sense when he writes about the originality of the work of Mark Dion, Cornelia Parker, Tony Cragg and Susan Hiller. But in the end his reconfiguration of contemporary art as an unsystematic paralleling of archaeology as an explanatory science does not stand up to close scrutiny. Contemporary art includes, for example, the work of Ghada Amer, Cecily Brown, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, Andrew Grassie, Jessica Stockholder and numerous others, artists whose originality is derived from types of praxis and cultural contexts that simply don’t sit comfortably with Renfrew’s argument.

To reiterate, I am not suggesting, as the popular use of the word ‘myth’ would imply, that ‘myths of originality’ are simply false. On the contrary, we need to be aware of the power of background myths or presuppositions about originality because there are obviously methodological and operational implications that flow from them. We work in a culture where the socially dominant myth is that originality in research is about bringing order to, or re-ordering, a disorderly situation – through clarification, differentiation, classification, or theorisation that re-articulates the relationships of parts to a whole, and so on. Play or improvisation – which are also about originality – are not valued in the same way. As young children most of us unconsciously internalise the assumption that learning (and by implication research) has to do with ordering, filtering or mapping artefacts, facts, positions or ideas so as to show that they are subordinate to an order, a method, a theoretical position, a hierarchy or conceptual structure – something that gives them a clear, unified, rational, authoritative, systematic place in relation to an existing and authoritative body of knowledge or system of explanation.

It follows, I suggest, that if our own particular personal, disciplinary (or even indisciplinary) approach to originality runs in some way counter to this, we will save ourselves a good deal of time and energy by being very clear in our own minds, and making conscious for others, what we are doing that is original, why we think it is original and, if possible, how the particular kind of originality we are proposing to demonstrate not only differs from predominant assumptions about originality, but why that difference is important. At the very least, this will prevent those of us who work in the arts and humanities from being either intimidated or wrong-footed by the dominant myth. While all research requires some degree of ordering, filtering, mapping, clarification, differentiation, classification, etc, there are other ways of being original. Equally importantly, clarity about different elements of originality may prevent us from unthinkingly over-reacting to the dominant myth.

The background presuppositions about research and order I’ve just identified are not, after all, necessarily an issue for those working in the arts and humanities.  Methodologies that rest on presuppositions about ordering and categorizing may be wholly appropriate to a study of, say, the history of colour theory, an analysis of the cultural relationship between Dada and Surrealism, a study of the core principles of environmentally sustainable architectural practice, or an exposition of the praxis of Abstract Expressionist painting.

Let me restate what I have just said about myth. I am not suggesting that we can simply “get rid of” the affect-laden myths about originality woven into all research strategies. Instead I am arguing that, to help ourselves produce genuinely original research, we need to be aware of such myths so as to ensure they do not unconsciously distort or unbalance our work. Let me give another example of a myth of originality in action.

In a densely argued academic study called The New Production of Knowledge: the Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies, the sociologist of knowledge Michael Gibbons writes:

“To the extent that a particular way of producing knowledge is dominant, all other claims will be judged with reference to it. In the extreme case, nothing recognisable as knowledge can be produced outside of the socially dominant form. … It seems to be a recurrent historical pattern that intellectual innovations are first described as misguided by those whose ideas are dominant, then ignored and, finally, taken over by original adversaries as their own invention”.


Gibbons evokes the spectre of censorship, domination, and repression by saying that ‘in the extreme case, nothing recognisable as knowledge can be produced outside of the socially dominant form’. In doing so he is implicitly evoking a particular myth of originality. This becomes more explicit when he later goes on to claim that we have to begin any evaluation of what is new or original on the basis of what is already known and well established.

If we stop to think carefully about his statement however, we will realise that, historically speaking, even societies that sanction dominance by the most monolithic and highly authoritarian modes of knowledge production sooner of later fail to repress alternatives – indeed they often inadvertently promote them as a subversive “counter-knowledge” because of the emphasis on unthinking dogmatism that dominance involves. That is, after all, precisely why such societies are so concerned to legislate against “free thinking”, deviance, heresy, and so on. I suggest that, as in the case of Colin Renfrew, Michael Gibbons’ analysis has been overtaken by a particular presupposition about originality that, to the sceptical reader alert to myths of originality, may considerably weaken his argument.

Gibbons is appealing to a myth about originality that takes for granted that any form of worthwhile original thought will automatically be dismissed, denigrated or co-opted by those in authority – that the new will always be engaged in a life and death struggle with the old and established. Here the presupposition is that originality is inseparable from engagement, must provide radical critique or seek to overturn the status quo. This is a myth of “originality as iconoclasm”, originality through destruction, through breaking apart given systems, destroying or discrediting cultural canons, standards of taste, bourgeois morality, Western ‘hegemony’, and so on. A more explicit vision of this myth appears in a book on the popular perception of prehistoric “sacred” sites, where Bob Trubshaw offers the following critique of what he calls Western “monoculture”:

Western culture traps us inside a web of implicit assumptions and values. To step outside these implicit ideas is always difficult, increasingly so as Western cultural values relentlessly promote themselves as “common sense”. Our “common sense” derives from a secularised Protestant outlook combined with a dumbed-down, “Disneyfied” attitude that reduces the most subtle or complex issues to simplistic dualistic distinctions … Western culture succeeds not because it is forced on anyone but because subtle interactions between education, media, commerce and government all beguile the people into thinking that there is no alternative.

Ironically in the process of making this point Trubshaw implicitly comes close to reducing the variety and complexities of different cultures to a simplistic, dualistic distinction between “bad monotheistic Western” and, by implication, “good pluralistic non-Western” culture. This is to forget that it is the tradition of critical thinking in Western culture, a tradition heavily indebted to Protestant non-conformism that enables him to make this claim in the first place.

Both Gibbons and Trubshaw are implicitly appealing to an engaged version of a myth about originality that, in its liberal variation, is very familiar in the arts. In this myth originality is associated with the radically new, with breaking with tradition, with the emerging Zeitgeist, with picking up on ‘what’s in the air’. Originality, seen in this way, is often linked to ‘being in the right place at the right time’; to luck, intuition or chance; to a certain kind of playfulness; to intellectual slights of hand and unexpected and surprising juxtapositions. (This myth has a counter-myth in a commitment to a ‘hard-earned originality’ that is all about applying rigorous methodologies or systematic approaches to problem-solving, the functional application of logical thinking and patient hard work. The root attitude manifest in this counter-myth is perfectly expressed in the claim that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”).

As I hope I have made clear, I am not for a moment suggesting that Renfrew, Gibbons and Trubshaw cannot offer us useful insights. My point is rather that their arguments are shot through with unexamined, one-sided assumptions or monolithic myths about originality. I want to summarize the general point I have been trying to make with a quotation from a book by Guy Claxton called The Wayward Mind. Claxton is offering an analogy between maps and the use of explanatory models in neuroscience, but I suggest that his map analogy applies equally to myths of originality. He writes:

“There are dozens of maps of London, all good for different purposes. The traveller has no problem switching between the Tube Map and the ‘A to Z Street Map’; she experiences no epistemological crisis as she does so. … Should we not, after all, allow ourselves a set of complementary perspectives as we try to make sense of our personal and social waywardness”?

I will now return, as promised and on a more personal note, to specifics. I want to focus briefly on one of the three issues raised in the sentence that introduces the programme for this workshop. Given what I have said so far, it will perhaps come as no surprise that this is the issue of “collisions of perspectives”.

Of the 15 “ways in which students may be considered to have shown originality” on Phillips and Pugh’s list, I find the following as particularly interesting in this respect – I have made slight adjustments to their wording to take account of my own experience.

1.  Making a new synthesis.

2. Reinterpreting existing material in a new way.

3. Testing in one cultural context conventions belonging to another.

4. Working across disciplines in a new way or, using different methodologies in an established interdisciplinary context.

Obviously a very great deal depends on the topic and area of the arts and humanities involved, but I see a “collision of perspectives” as potentially central to each of these ways of demonstrating originality because each involves a situation that the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls a “wager”. Educationally, I’m interested in the role of this wager in the context of arts-led research because of its potentially transformative effect on the researcher (in a manner that Guattari too discusses in relation to his “ethico-aesthetic” paradigm).

Ricoeur proposes that there is a “wager” whenever the “texts” we call art (but potentially all “texts”) require us to put at risk our sense of identity and self-understanding by engaging with those texts in such a way that we find ourselves only by first losing ourselves to the values and world of the work. We may be making a new synthesis; reinterpreting existing material in a new way; testing in one cultural context conventions belonging to another; working across disciplines in a new way or using different methodologies in an established interdisciplinary context. In each case, however, we are in some sense involved in an act of radical translation between one more or less familiar type of praxis, conceptual system, context, convention, discipline, tradition or methodology and another that is less familiar, even largely unknown to us. We are, as a result, engaged in something like Paul Ricoeur’s “wager”. Radical translation in this context requires us to create a new, third metaphorical field that both links and differentiates between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Following Ricoeur, I would suggest that this metaphorical, mediating position functions like a language and, as he points out, it is the primary function of language to provide new knowledge through metaphor, but in a way that makes us arrive at that knowledge through the work of interpretation. I particularly value this understanding because it suggests that metaphor, and by implication the kinds of metaphorical thinking in which the arts are particularly adept, creates original knowledge.

I want to end by giving you a brief account of trying to work with this idea, one taken from my own experience as a researcher.

My own area of praxis as an artist/researcher is the complex relationships between memory, place and identity and how these relationships are presented. An important text for many artists interested in this field of concern has been Lucy R Lippards’ book The Lure of the Local. But I have always been a bit uncomfortable with something about the orientation of this book, although for a long time I could get no critical purchase on what I would now describe as its over-dependence on a secularised version of “the myth of ‘American’ Judaeo-Christian Puritanism”. Then I read an occasional article by Rebecca Solnit in which she briefly raises the relationship between traditional British folk ballads, the early country and western music of white, working-class immigrants to America, and the American landscape. It then dawned on me both that this relationship between a musical genre and attitudes to landscape is culturally significant and, at the same time, that it was something I did not remember being mentioned in Lippard’s book. In order to check this I re-read The Lure of the Local, counting the number of references to music as I went. I also read On the Beaten track: tourism, art and place, the follow-up to Lure of the Local, to see whether Lippard mentioned the relationship between music and landscape there. What became clear was that Lippard had an implicit but clearly very real aversion to what she called ‘redneck music’; and that this aversion was linked to her declared allegiance to what she calls the ‘values, class belligerencies and anxieties, loves and obsessions’ of her ‘upper-middle-class’ New England forebears.

At this point I began to define a manageable area of research – writings by Suzi Gablik, Lucy Lippard, Miwon Kwon and Rebecca Solnit – on issues of place from an American perspective. I had a general hypothesis: that there are unacknowledged presuppositions in much of this body of writing that significantly distort it – at least when seen from a European perspective. In terms of my brief discussion of Riceour, what I lacked was the methodological handle to make the radical translation I needed, between sophisticated intellectual arguments about art and place on one hand and the nature of psycho-social myth as a carrier of very powerful affect that shapes and binds identity on the other.

I needed to find an original way to bridge this gap. I am habituated, after years of working as an artist, to wanting to trust to luck, intuition or chance; to hoping that I will “be in the right place at the right time”, to using a certain kind of playfulness and a few intellectual slights of hand and unexpected and surprising juxtapositions to get me going. And, sure enough, somebody mentioned that she’d been reading Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life and that I might find it interesting. Its discussion of the stories of dis- and re-enchantment in modern thought provided me with the tools to start my bridge building. However, the researcher in my head is – rightly – deeply suspicious of my “arty” habits and set me to doing some “proper work”. This involved a systematic and patient collecting and analysing of sociological and political material related to American nationalism, political identity, and the complex relationship between the Puritan mythos, contemporary American culture, and its foreign policy. No creative flights of fancy here, just a lot of hard, rather pedestrian, correlation and cross-referencing that will, if I have done it properly, be critical to establishing the originality of the research paper I eventually wrote.

That paper went to referees for Landscape Research, one of whom judged it as sufficiently original to be worth publishing, the other rejecting it as too wayward. Fortunately, after some changes, another journal will now publish it. There is, however, another way in which I can offer a provisional evaluation of the originality of my research. This requires me to go back to Ricoeur’s notion of the wager that requires us to risk our sense of identity and self-understanding by engaging with texts – including art works and artefacts understood as texts – in such a way that I find myself only by first losing myself to the values and world of the work.

I have a provisional sense of the original value of the research to the researcher because, in the wager of radical translation it has involved, I have had to lose a myth – central to my sense of self-identity as an artist and researcher – in order to find a modified, and inevitably provisional, sense of changed identity. It isn’t appropriate to go into details here, but it has to do with recognising a presupposition, an unacknowledged and unrecognized myth at work in my own praxis. In unravelling the complexities of the four authors’ relationship to “American” myths of dis- and re- enchantment, I have been forced to recognize not only that “their” myths originates in “our” Protestant revolution, the emotional enlightenment generated by a movement in unorthodox religion that turned out to be, as the writer John Fowles reminds us:

“… the only vehicle by which the vast majority … could express this painful breaking of the seed of the self from the hard soil of an irrational and tradition-bound society – and a society not so irrational it did not very well know how much it depended on not seeing its traditions questioned, its foundations disturbed”;

but that I remain very much caught up in that Protestant tradition, whether I like it or not.

So, paradoxically, I have had to acknowledge that without that tradition of Protestant unorthodoxy – the shadow of which falls over the world daily in the form of American-led foreign policy – it is unlikely that I could speak as I do here and now. In short, I have had to accept that I need to start to come to terms with the inheritance of both the religious and secular variants of the myth of monotheism so deeply ingrained in the psychology of every Westerner, no matter what our geography, social condition or education, because I am included in that myth to a degree I had previously ignored.

As somebody who has worked out of, and championed, a “polytheistic” perspective for many years – this talk is after all informed by a “polytheistic” myth of originality – this is for me a disturbing and challenging outcome from the research. It is an acknowledgement of the very real danger of losing the wager, of taking for granted my own presuppositions and assumptions about originality, as if they belonged to the realm of fact rather than to that of “myth”.

As someone who has spent his whole working life in education, I like to believe that in the end it is this wager, rather than the instrumental goal of getting myself published, getting into the RAE, etc., etc. that keeps me thinking about originality in the context of research. However, I have to recognise that this belief too is caught up in another myth, an affect-charged story about the primacy of self-understanding and transformation, that inevitably can in turn only ever be partial, both true and false at the same time.



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