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14 AUGUST, 2012

How Remix Culture Fuels Creativity & Invention: Kirby Ferguson at TED

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From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, or how copyright law came to hinder the very thing it set out to protect.

Remix culture is something I think about a great deal in the context of combinatorial creativity, and no one has done more to champion the popular understanding of remix as central to creativity than my friend and documentarian extraordinaire Kirby Ferguson. So I’m enormously proud of Kirby’s recent TED talk about his Everything is a Remix project, exploring remix culture, copyright and creativity — watch and take notes:

The Grey Album is a remix. It is new media created from old media. It was made using these three techniques: copy, transform and combine. It’s how you remix. You take existing songs, you chop them up, you transform the pieces, you combine them back together again, and you’ve got a new song, but that new song is clearly comprised of old songs.

But I think these aren’t just the components of remixing. I think these are the basic elements of all creativity. I think everything is a remix, and I think this is a better way to conceive of creativity.

[...]

American copyright and patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead, these laws and laws around the world use the rather awkward analogy of property. Now, creative works may indeed be kind of like property, but it’s property that we’re all building on, and creations can only take root and grow once that ground has been prepared.

One thing to pay particularly close attention to are the many examples of how liberally and broadly Bob Dylan borrowed from other creators, appropriating, modifying, and building upon their work:

It’s been estimated that two thirds of the melodies Dylan used in his early songs were borrowed — this is pretty typical among folk singers.

Kirby gave his talk shortly before Dylan entered the news not as the perpetrator but as the subject of fabulism, by science writer Jonah Lehrer — a pseudo-scandal on which NPR offered perhaps the only truly thoughtful commentary amidst a sea of blood-thirsty sensationalism:

This is the essence of the popular arts in America: Be a magpie, take from everywhere, but assemble the scraps and shiny things you’ve lifted in ways that not only seem inventive, but really do make new meanings. Fabrication is elemental to this process — not fakery, exactly, but the careful construction of a series of masks through which the artist can not only speak for himself, but channel and transform the vast and complicated past that bears him or her forward.

Certainly, the integrity standards of science journalism and the popular arts can, and likely should, be very different. Nonetheless, this parallel — in which Dylan so clearly build his voice by borrowing and appropriating the ideas of others to his own ends of creative expression — is enough to give one pause.

The additive nature of creativity and innovation is, of course, something both history in general and individual inventors in particular can speak to. Kirby cites Henry Ford, who echoes the story of Marconi and the invention of radio:

Mark Twain, unapologetic as ever, put it best: “All ideas are second-hand.”

For more on remix culture and combinatorial creativity, see Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity and the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas.

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14 AUGUST, 2012

6 Rules for Creative Sanity from Radical Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich

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“Never yield to the expediencies of life except where it is basically harmless.”

A student of Freud’s and a radical pioneer of early psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a fascinating and often misunderstood mind who influenced a generation of public intellectuals, including William Burroughs, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer. Where’s the Truth?: Letters and Journals, 1948-1957 (public library), following previous installments, is the fourth and final volume of Reich’s autobiographical writings, culled from his diaries (a favorite trope around here), letters, and laboratory notebooks. What emerges is an intimate portrait of the fringe scientist’s hopes and fears, aspirations and insecurities, doubts and convictions.

Reich with his dog, Troll, on the porch outside his study at the Orgone Energy Observatory (The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust via FSG)

But nothing bespeaks his inherent idealism more crisply than this journal entry dated June 7, 1948, in which Reich lists his six necessary conditions for creative sanity — an aspirational, if overly ambitious and pedantic, blueprint to the secret of happiness and the life of purpose.

To stay sane in an insane world as a creative man or woman he or she must:

  1. Keep one’s life financially independent.
  2. Continue unabated to exercise one’s power of creativity in concrete, strenuous tasks, always seeking perfection as near as possible.
  3. Carefully cherish LOVE of a partner with full gratification, of the total emotional being if possible, of the body in a clean way if necessary.
  4. Keep out of the trap of confusion by the average man and woman, helping others to keep out of the trap too as best they can.
  5. Keep one’s structure clean like brook water through knowing and correcting every mistake, making the corrected mistake the guiding lines to new truth.
  6. Never yield to the expediencies of life except where it is basically harmless or where the main line of development is not impeded for the duration of one’s life.

Where’s the Truth? is utterly absorbing and illuminating throughout — highly recommended.

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13 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Life, Hand-Lettered by Artist Lisa Congdon

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“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

UPDATE: After a flurry of requests, the quotes are now available as prints. Enjoy.

It’s no secret I’m an obsessive reader of famous diaries, most recently those of French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), one of the most dedicated diarists in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, are a treasure trove of insight on literature, culture, human nature, and the life of meaning.

Earlier this month, I asked the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Susan Sontag’s insights on love, as synthesized from the writer’s diaries. Now, I’ve turned to another extraordinary illustrator, Lisa Congdon ( ), and asked her to bring to life some of my favorite highlights from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) in the style of her lovely 365 Days of Hand Lettering project.

The results took my breath away — enjoy:

You can find Lisa’s stunning prints on 20×200 and Etsy, and follow her on Twitter.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

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