Sunday, 17 October 2010

Type | Mini Essay | Just what is on our mind?, by Nima Seifi

“Life itself is a quotation," Jorges Luis Borges once said. It is important to note that the source of the quote is a collection of Jean Baudrillard’s fragments and sketches entitled Cool Memories. I only know this because I read about it online – the quote may have featured elsewhere, in which case, replace the details of the above where necessary.

If you type the quote into Google, it churns out over 300,000 results, ranging from online quote repositories, to the titles of blogs and social media site profiles. Borges’ digital immortality is an excellent example of his knack for pulling off elaborate meta-textual pranks, and this is probably despite him being unaware of the quote having been published – he was just one of those types who got things right without even trying.

What it also illustrates is how human experience is linked by one (dubiously attributed) quote. We might not be aware of it as we go about our daily business, but that shared consciousness – that shared process of thought – is somewhat reassuring and deserves attention.    

Somebody once said that “every single human articulation is a quote” – well, they must have, right? And they did, sort of. “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation,” said Oscar Wilde, which is the same, give or take the whole quote. Either way, we’re on about the same thing. 

The first word we speak has to be acquired. I’ve been informed by several reliable sources that my first word was in German. It was actually more of an essay; in fact, it was an entire chapter, word-by-word, from Heidegger’s Being and Time. On that note, has anybody ever heard of a newborn arriving into the world with a speech prepared? It’s the least they could do given circumstances. But no, because a) babies are lazy and b) we have to spend our lives borrowing everything, only for it then to be taken and mishandled by somebody else.

Quotations – i.e. phrases used by well-read people in debates – are distinct from daily speech because, for some reason, quotations become dislocated from their original historical conditions and float about as a reminder of a (likely famous) person’s unique insight. Whether it is written or oral is irrelevant – what’s important is the disconnection.

Technological innovations haven’t changed the nature of the quotation; they’ve just made it easier for people to access the database. Generations of brilliant observations and thoughts are potentially at the fingertips of person with a laptop and wireless connection. Online dictionaries invariably provide a “quote of the day” and anybody who owns a Smartphone can download an application that does the same.

The Internet has also given us the ability to curate our borrowed wisdom and display it to everybody else. On Facebook, the “favourite quotes” section is effectively an exhibition of the quotes people have curated from sites like wikiquote. My private collection includes spectacular quotes from Deleuze, Levi Strauss, Umberto Eco, and a metropolitan police spokesperson coming to terms with the theft of Jonathan Franzen’s glasses at the launch of his book – a cross section of my life over the past few months, all within 600 pixels. Now that’s what I call economizing. 

What does this portend? Is there now no excuse for people who are unable to furnish a conversation with a dazzling insight from what is routinely a dead white man? No. Do we run the risk of invalidating the very notion of the quotation, i.e. if everything is a quotation then there are no quotations? There is probably a quote about it somewhere, check Is being noticeably more clever than everybody else a genuine possibility in this day and age? Probably not, but then it’s the taking part that counts.

It is too easy to debunk this stuff, as merely being a sort of intellectual accessorizing that should be avoided. What is occurring is an immaculate realization of the way people have always shared and given texture to experience – quotations. It began with the oral tradition, evolving into print and now through to the digital age – quotations guarantee the survival of human experience. Aside from football, X Factor and Shakespeare, that’s all we have going for us as a species. 

By Nima Seifi

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