Man, sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself.
The reason this newsletter has the silly name it does is that I started it in part as a place to share arguments and ideas in rough form, without having to worry about refining them. In practice, I do worry - believe it or not - but today’s post is very much in that original spirit. It’s maybe half an idea for something longer, more likely it’s nothing at all, but it’s a thought that keeps returning to me, like an ear-worm. By sketching it out here and seeing what you all think, maybe I’ll be able to get rid of it.
Here’s the thought.
We live in age of social influence, and while there is no shortage of advice on how to take advantage of that - how to influence others, how to build a following, how to change minds - there is a dearth of thinking on how to be influenced. Which is odd, because that seems, to me, to be one of the key questions of the age.
Each human being is bounded but permeable, a creature capable of making its own thoughts and actions but prone to copying and adapting those of others. When everyone around us is doing the same thing, we feel a pressure to join in that is almost physical in its force. This week happened to present us with a vivid example. Britain’s former Prime Minister Theresa May has nothing but contempt for her successor, yet even she could not resist joining the rest of her party’s benches when they stood up to cheer Boris Johnson out of the Commons after his last appearance as Prime Minister (she did not join in the clapping).
It’s not just our behaviours which are influenced by those around us but our feelings and thoughts. These days, we use the word ‘meme’ to describe the viral images, slogans and videos which circulate in endlessly varied forms on Twitter and TikTok. But the word meme has a broader application. It was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe the way that ideas, beliefs and behaviours replicate themselves and spread through populations by finding human hosts.
Memes in this sense have always been with us but they are turbo-charged by technologies of communication. Catholicism took hundreds of years to assert itself in Europe; Protestantism was up and running in a decade or two, thanks to books. The modern internet has made the transmission of memes, in the original sense, faster and more seamless than ever. Ideas like Me Too and Black Lives Matter ricochet through digital social networks, repeated by millions around the world within hours of being coined, emblazoned on placards in the street within days. It’s not just the slogan that’s transmitted but the opinion, the worldview, too. If there is one thing the advent of social media has brought home to us, it is how little we think for ourselves.
It’s no accident that we have this instinct to be influenced. Although we express disdain for those who act ‘like sheep’, herding has its upsides, as I discussed last year. It saves us effort and time and it can save our lives. When you don’t have either the time or ability to think through a problem for yourself, going with the herd is the best option; alighting from a train at a station I don’t know, I follow the crowd to the exit. Sometimes the ‘crowd’ exists in the same temporal plane as you, but it can also extend back into the past. Traditions needn’t always be deferred to but they are a form of cross-generational collective intelligence. Indeed, it’s the ability and inclination to pass things on, through communities and through time, which enable human culture.
Being influenced by others is inevitable and essential. But it’s also true that when we over-conform to influences, we surrender individuality. We get infected by harmful behaviours: smoking, anorexia, even suicide are all subject to social influence. We swallow conspiracy theories and false beliefs. We become mindless creatures of habit unable to imagine new possibilities. Conforming to influence can generate anxiety: we become worried that we’re not conforming well enough. There are externalities to be considered, too. Over-conformity is a kind of free-riding. The over-conformer takes from the shared pot of memes but fails to contribute to it. A society with too much imitation is liable to decay and degenerate, because it stops creating, thinking and innovating.
Each of us, then, has to try and strike a balance. Be impervious to social influence and you get closed off from the best that your fellow humans have to offer. Be defenceless against it and you become easily manipulable, boring, and unhappy.
But it’s harder than ever to strike this balance, because we live in societies where influence is everywhere, pressing upon us from all sides. We can instantly find out what strangers think, or at least what they say they’re thinking, on any given topic. We can consult with our friends every second of the day. It’s easier to outsource your opinions than ever; it feels good, it feels safe, to side with a crowd. There are higher costs to non-conformity, too: online communities assiduously police the boundaries of acceptable thought and behaviour.
For almost every decision we have to take, bidders line up to take the contract. Every time we look at a screen, which is almost every minute of the day, we are enjoined to think something, believe something, buy something, do something. We get told who to vote for, how to eat, how to have sex, how to sleep, what to wear, what to watch. Our devices and apps are designed to hack our frontal cortex, to nudge us in this direction or that one, to direct our attention here instead of there. They also tend to give everyone similar information. Some of the models for how to think and feel and live are good; a lot of them are bad, and the options are endless.
So on the one hand, we have access to a broader range of information and insight than any generation in history, which ought to make us all more interesting. On the other, it’s very difficult, amidst the crossfire hurricane of influence, to think and act for yourself - to be you.
I could leave it there, with the conclusion that we’re all being influenced all the time and we’re not remotely prepared for how to manage these influences, and that maybe we should think about that a little more. But I want to add this: that there is a group of people who have a lot to teach us about how to live in the age of influence, because they have confronted this question with a special intensity for hundreds of years.
Artists (in the broad sense - painters, novelists, composers, etc) are pretty much defined by the struggle to be themselves; to absorb influences without surrendering to them; to be open to others and stubbornly individual. Consequently, artists have a different relationship to influence than the rest of us do. The core difference is this: artists do not absorb their influences passively. They choose their influences, and they choose how to be influenced by them.
Since most of us don’t naturally do this, when we discuss artists we often get this wrong. In his very good short post on the subject, Austin Kleon quotes Jean-Michel Basquiat: “You’ve got to realize that influence is not influence. It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.” Basquiat isn’t talking about letting an idea passively go through his mind. He’s talking about using other artists, his influences, almost like software: let me run this programme and see what happens, what new possibilities it opens up. When we say, ‘Basquiat was influenced by Van Gogh’ we use the passive voice, as if Van Gogh is the active one. But actually the opposite is true.
Austin quotes a couple of critics who make this point more explicitly. Here’s the literary critic K.K. Ruthven:
To say that Keats influenced Wilde is not only to credit Keats with an activity of which he was innocent, but also to misrepresent Wilde by suggesting he merely submitted to something he obviously went out of his way to acquire. In matters of influence, it is the receptor who takes the initiative, not the emitter.
Here’s the art critic Michael Baxandall:
‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality…. If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, have recourse to, adapt, misunderstand…remodel, ape, emulate, travesty, parody…
I think this is partly what Jorge Luis Borges was getting at in his essay, ‘Kafka and His Precursors’. The argument is playful and subtle. Borges starts out by marvelling at how unique Kafka is - at how he seems to be without any obvious literary antecedents at all. But then he starts looking for connections with previous writers and finds them: there’s something of Zeno in K’s failure to reach the castle despite journeying towards it; something of Kierkegaard’s religious parables; something of a story by the fantasy writer Lord Dunsany (Borges’ reference points become increasingly obscure) and so on. Borges then notes that without Kafka, we wouldn’t spot any connections between these writers. Kafka has enabled us to see them anew. He has created his precursors. Borges is showing us how our experience of a writer is always filtered through the other writers we’ve read (in that sense, Shakespeare is ‘influenced’ by T.S Eliot), but he’s also talking about how great artists impose themselves on contemporaries and predecessors, rather than the other way around.
The artist is always doing things with her influences, rather than letting them happen to her. And of course, the first thing she does with them is to choose them. I am, as you know, working on a book about Lennon and McCartney. The way that the Beatles found and used their influences is crucial to their story. In the Hamburg and Cavern days, this was what set them apart from other Liverpool bands. They shared a lot of influences with other beat groups: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. But they went much further than those other bands in seeking out and incorporating different influences too: R&B, soul, girl groups, Broadway musicals. Even when they were listening to the same artists as other groups, they would choose lesser known songs to be influenced by. When they did cover versions they never simply copied or reproduced the model; they always made it their own, because they brought everything else they knew to bear on it. When they started creating their own songs, they were working with an incredibly diverse set of ingredients. The Beatles absorbed more influences than anyone else and paradoxically this made them more original.
Of course, even the Beatles started out by doing mediocre Buddy Holly covers. Just about all artists, even the great ones, begin by pretending to be a predecessor whom they greatly admire. Bridget Riley tried to be Seurat; Larkin tried to be Hardy. But they soon feel constrained, almost suffocated by their chosen model. They search for some kind of space into which to escape, by disavowing the influence altogether, or by combining it with new ones. In doing so, they forge a distinctive voice. This is roughly the process described by literary critic Harold Bloom in his book on poetry, The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom framed the poet’s struggle to overcome their literary ‘master’ in Freudian terms, as an Oedipal overcoming of parental influence. Certainly, the kind of anxiety he describes isn’t felt only by artists.
There’s obviously a ton more to say about how artistic influence works but I want to finish by drawing some lines back to how the rest of us live and work, whether engaged in a creative endeavour or not. What principles of influence-taking might we take from artists?
Attend to your influences.
I suppose this is the ur-message - to be more aware of what’s influencing you and how. Acknowledge just how much of what you think, feel and do is picked up from others, consciously and unconsciously, and try to become more conscious of more of them. Artists pay attention to this because they love their influences, while at the same time recognising the need to separate themselves from them.
Recognise that ‘you’ are made up of influences.
One of Harold Bloom’s insights is that there is no such thing as originality. There are just poets adopting, assimilating and messing around with other poets. There is nothing more anxiety-inducing than the injunction to ‘be yourself’. It implies that there is some authentic ‘you’, unsullied by influence, which must be discovered or revealed. I think this where a lot of the current anxieties over identity stem from. People feel like they have be an authentic individual, and this leads them to say ‘I am X’ or ‘I am a Y’ - which actually means adopting a group identity. But you don’t have think in those terms. Artists generally don’t, even if they get venerated for being original. Once you see yourself as merely a junction point for a whole set of influences, from your parents to your teachers to the feeds you follow and the articles and books you read, you can relax about being ‘you’. You can focus, instead, on making your influence-set as unique, layered and rich as possible. Nobody else will be at your junction point.
Curate your influences.
Which leads to this principle - always be thinking about your portfolio of influences and influencers. At work or at school, are you surrounding yourselves with people who will bring out the best in you, stretch your imagination, deepen your empathy, etc? (The old parental warning to ‘stay from him, he’s a bad influence’ contains wisdom, even if parents aren’t always the best judge of who’s bad or good). Are your media feeds designed to stimulate, surprise and nourish or just to create anxiety and reinforce bad habits?
Interrogate your influences.
We all have favourite influencers and influences - people we know, celebrities, artists, friends, writers, and uh, influencers. Books, TV shows, movies. Most of the time we’re happy just to accept that those are the people and things we admire and seek to emulate. But what artistic careers show us is the importance of pondering those influences, asking what’s good and bad about them, and how we might want to be different from them as well as how we want to be the same. How can you take what’s great about your favourite influences and yet go beyond them at the same time?
Set tighter filters. Something I’m really interested in is how the tension between breadth and depth of influence. Recently I had a mini-discussion on Twitter about how pre-twentieth century composers absorbed influence. Schubert was profoundly influenced by Beethoven’s symphonies, but how many times did he hear an orchestra play one of them? Once or twice? Schubert could not call up any of the music in the world and listen to it like we can. The young Lennon and McCartney developed an incredible memory for songs in part because they had a limited record collection at home. They heard a lot of songs just once or twice on the radio, or at a friend’s house, before assimilating them. Composers today have a vast, seemingly infinite library of music available instantly. In theory that should make them better, but obviously, most of them have a way to go before catching Schubert and the Beatles. So maybe there’s an advantage in narrowing and constraining your influences as well as widening them. Although I confess, I’m not sure how to do that. Over to you…