The originality question

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." -- Carl Sagan

The room is usually 20 feet by 30 feet. In it, young men and women, called students, are supposed to think original thoughts and then capture those thoughts in original writing. It is a requirement by the university. We, as teachers, are supposed to reward originality with marks (credit points). But I often wonder how capable I myself am of original thoughts.

I am entering middle age without having produced anything substantially original after my PhD dissertation. Its originality has since probably been overshadowed by the work of Anouar Majeed’s ideas. And I did not have a lot of original ideas to my credit. In fact, it is easier to survive in a majoritarian society if you have no original ideas. Then I became a teacher, a very traditional job.

Now I only teach what other supposedly original writers have produced. There are not many original thinkers out there and those who were truly original did not live very happy lives. Friedrich Nietzsche spent the last years of his life in silence after having suffered a mental collapse. Reinaldo Arenas and Michel Foucault contracted HIV and died of the complications. Jean Baudrillard was not qualified to teach in the French university system.

Karl Marx, perhaps the most original economic thinker of his times, died as a stateless person after suffering from acute pleurisy. Only 10 or 12 people attended his funeral ceremony at Highgate Cemetery. It would take many years for his ideas to gain popular support in different countries.

The fact is that outside the assignments that my students write for the class, there is no tolerance for originality in the society. Even as a teacher, I am supposed to reward a kind of predictable format of originality. The classroom has no space if a truly original student started questioning everything around him/her.

Originality, as we think of the idea in this age, is a relatively new idea. Even though Plato debated the difference between the original (reality in his words) and the imitation by painters and poets in Book X of The Republic, the idea that original thoughts are equal to tangible property is a recent invention.

The world’s first legislation that posited that ideas could be owned by authors was passed in London in 1710 and is known the Statute of Anne. Another significant push towards this direction was made in the second half of the 18th century in England by Edward Young in his essay "Conjectures Concerning Original Composition" in which he praised the original writers as "great Benefactors; they extend the Republic of Letters, and add a new province to its dominion" and condemned the Imitators as those who "only give us a sort of Duplicates of what we had, possibly much better, before." In this essay, copying other authors’ words was called a grave form of theft. The concept of private property was going to be applied to ideas too.

Originality, as we think of the idea in this age, is a relatively new idea. Even though Plato debated the difference between the original (reality in his words) and the imitation by painters and poets in Book X of The Republic, the idea that original thoughts are equal to tangible property is a recent invention.

But originality remains a tricky concept outside the written world of laws governing copyright. We can witness its futility in everyday life whenever a grandmother suggests applying turmeric powder on a cut or a wound. Usually, the grandmother has heard of this remedy from her elders who have heard of the benefits of the spice from their elders. This is the world of oral knowledge.

The world of copyright laws and patents can only utilise the first written records as "proofs" of ownership to the ideas. Therefore, it has been historically possible to claim the original discovery of something that everybody knew of orally just by writing about it or reporting about it to the audience of your home country. The most famous example of this kind of ownership is the originality attributed to Columbus for the discovery of the American continent.

The native Americans, who were already there, did not discover it for Spain and Portugal. They only discovered it for their own use. To combat this kind of "claims of originality" which are basically forms of Euro-American theft of traditional cultural knowledge of other peoples, India has established a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library: "TKDL provides information on traditional knowledge existing in the country, in languages and format understandable by patent examiners at International Patent Offices (IPOs), so as to prevent the grant of wrong patents. TKDL thus, acts as a bridge between the traditional knowledge information existing in local languages and the patent examiners at IPOs" (

In other words, local cultures are already original enough for their own needs and they need to be protected from international knowledge-pirates.

Another famous example that illustrates how the idea of originality can become oppressive is related to the present-day location of the American film industry in Hollywood, California. The inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Edison, was also the inventor of the Kinetoscope, a first iteration of the movie camera. Thomas Edison armed with his over 1000 patents had the power to control what people could do with the movie camera. Therefore, a lot of independent filmmakers moved on the other side of the American continent because Edison was in New Jersey, where he even his technology partners sought mobsters to make the moviemakers pay for using raw film and the movie camera.

Originality, therefore, is a tricky concept and it has become as oppressive as capitalism after getting transformed into something resembling property. Shakespeare, the most famous borrower, reportedly only created two original plots: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. Every other play was built on borrowed stories and legends. Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Valery, and Thomas Mann all borrowed the character of Faust from the anonymous author of Faustbuch (1587), a collection of stories about past magicians.

This article, too, despite its intentions, has not been original enough.

Published on July 10, 2016