At the end of a previous post, I half-jokingly encouraged 'stealing' 'my' pictures for a presentation (how deluded I was ... I mean, like you'd want to completely wreck your presentation!). At which point I linked to Faris given that it's perhaps the main thrust of his blog Talent Imitates Genius Steals.
Then, whilst preparing a paper the other day, I was reminded of the 'The Death of the Author' thesis that feels particularly pertinent to this issue. For those unfamiliar with the idea, it suggests that we never truly create original meanings, since every representation - be it an essay, painting, technological device, whatever - is always based on, and only exists in terms of, other representations.
So, was the iPod breakthrough creativity? Well yes, but it is easy to forget how indebted it is to the Walkman, and don't forget there were many other MP3-type devices on the market well before it. And even if we take the product design itself, the one that Jonathan Ive 'created', he couldn't have created the idea from scratch. Rather, the inspiration/idea has to have originated from something else in his cultural memory, even if it is was something bizarre, like the clean, pristine meanings of a new ceramic white bath.
"We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."
So, does this mean that we should never give any credit to anyone's ideas; that everyone is a plagiarist; that every creative awards ceremony has been nothing more than a mere illusion? No, I don't think so. But, what we need to realise is that creativity (whether though the act of writing, art, design etc.) is more about the art of 'appropriation' than pure 'invention'. In order words, we do not create new things per se, but rather, appropriate existing things to arrive at alternative assemblages/constructions.
Taking this idea a step further, it suggests that creativity is inextricably linked to the interpretation of culture, at which point the ideas of Michel Foucault are particularly helpful. In his latter work, Foucault implies (as an activist branding wasn't really his bag) that creativity is born out of people being critically aware of cultural meanings, and that leveraging (or re-imagining) those meanings gives us a strategic platform for creativity.
This helps us to better understand why creatives are good at what they do. Whether it's an actor, comedian, artist or designer, they have an intuitive understanding of how certain elements of culture 'work' the way they do. Comedians and scriptwriters for example, often make people laugh because they understand the societal norms and contradictions that present cultural loop-holes for irony, satire, ridicule etc.
The key hook of all this is that by expanding your level of cultural awareness (your 'background books' as Umberto Eco calls them), it gives you the means (a 'technology of the self') to re-imagine a whole new world.