Sep 29 2014

February 2014

I used to write a lot of poetry, at least a poem a day. Much of it was bad, but some of it was good. (Some got published, even.) The publishing appealed to me, but the fact that I could write poetry that somebody thought was good was even better. If 20 people I didn’t know had read a handwritten copy of my poetry and congratulated me, I think that would have had the same effect on me. I like the idea of the solitary genius sending out notes to the world, notes that have some modicum of experience, insight, and turn of phrase that can get called genius.

I don’t think I am a genius; I think that there is genius to be had among us all. I don’t mean that we all have Picassos sitting around in our mind, waiting to be painted. I don’t think we are all Bob Dylan, nor do I think that we are all Bob Dylan of whatever we are best at. This is not a “you can be whatever you want” essay, because you can’t. I can’t play for the Oklahoma City Thunder ever ever ever, and I couldn’t have even if I had kept playing in leagues instead of moving to goofy intramural teams at age 14. I’m 5’8″. There are stories of determination and grit and pluck and luck and skill and overcoming and I love them dearly and they are not the point of this essay at all. On point: there is some genius hanging out in us, even if that seems incongruous to everything I just argued.

It’s a very romantic notion, that there are geniuses at all. Structural arguments can be invoked here: about how both the author and the reader were invented by the 18th century novel, about how time and place tell you what you’re going to be talented at because that’s the only way you know what to try. Those are all true things. But I think that there is an element of genius that transcends these concerns. Whatever we’re doing that gets called genius is called genius because of human connections it can make.

This is true on a societal and pedestrian level. Societally, pieces (of art or culture or law or anything at all) get recognized when they can make enough social connections that they get (displayed or performed or enacted) in places that count. Super-structurally, you gotta make your way through the system, and the ability of the art or artist to do that connecting makes the art successful. That’s essentially an abstracted statement of my research interests in my academic career. I write data-driven articles and stuff. I do my best to make an exciting thing grounded enough so that it counts as scholarly but fascinating enough that it stays true to the amazing cultural act which is the circulation of art.

At Independent Clauses, I spend a great amount of time thinking about how music connects to me. The blog is essentially an ongoing extension of my poetry: attempts at getting a particular viewpoint into the world, with hopes that people will be delighted because of it. It’s a bit of a logjam on the “genius” front: a singular viewpoint talking about other people’s viewpoints, hoping that a person with the same viewpoint, but perhaps less inclination to set that viewpoint into essay form, will enjoy it. I’m a person writing about how things connect to me and trying to get those things to connect with other people. Some people who have written books that were trendy a couple years ago would say that makes me a connector, a class of people different than others. I think that’s not true.

I think we all do this every day. We all try to make connections, whether it’s Pinterest or Facebook or personal conversations or the work that we do. The thing that excites me, the thing that drove me to write this essay, is that those connections are the genius of us. Picasso connected with us because he took all of art history and made it fit with what people were experiencing at that time. The fact that how he was experiencing echoed how the audience was experiencing was the connection. If you have a friend in the area/register/office/cubicle/carrel next to yours who makes you laugh, that person is connecting. And that person, if they’re really good at doing that, is tapping genius.

Some will read this as redefining everyday things as magnificent and scoff. Perhaps there is a quantifiable difference between a Monet and a good joke. Hopefully there are more good jokes in the world than Monet paintings. But I think I’ve enjoyed more good laughs than Monet paintings in my life, and not just because I’ve not been to many art galleries. That contextual laughter is more connected to me than a Monet is now. I can understand, perhaps, what Monet and Picasso were thinking about by reading the history, but I can’t make it relate to me more than a good-natured joke about a situation that a group of us fell into.

It’s possible that even this backfilling of social connection onto Picasso and Monet is an alternative history. Perhaps people were drawn to those artists merely because of the shocking, inspiring beauty of their work. Without going into the question of what constitutes the culturally-shifting definitions of beauty at any given time, I’m okay with that counterargument. If the defining feature of our time is that we’re more connected now than we ever have been (which, I would wager, is more or less the marketing catch phrase for Millenials), I can live with that. If we have to read into history how we weren’t connected (and how we were) as a way to figure out how we can live and love in the 21st century, I am on board with that project.

But back to that central claim: that connections are what we are acknowledging when we say something is genius. I don’t watch a lot of movies because I don’t “connect” with them. I don’t have a reciprocal sense of emotion: I don’t feel what they’re feeling. I get where they’re coming from, and it’s not where I’m coming from. Sometimes that means that I’m on the outside looking in: some metaphorical hometowns are huge. Wes Anderson comes from my metaphorical hometown. Red 2 doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy Red 2; It just means that I’ll never call it genius, because it doesn’t make a social connection with me. I’m not coming from where it’s coming from. Genius is about finding that mythical hometown that we are all from: hence, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Hence listicles, too. We all want to connect; some people look for the most number of fleeting connections, while some people pour themselves into a small number of big pushes for connection.

A blog can turn into nothing but a content mill, as Carles noted and then enacted. A blog can seem to be nothing but stream of consciousness ploys to get clicks. At its capitalist end, way yes, baby. But a blog can also be a conversation, a sort of daily connection that lives on the fringes of consciousness. The Internet is a network of people; the deep web, the unindexed 80+% of the Internet, is pure connection. This is nothing new to say. The thing that is novel is this: we shouldn’t take these connectors for granted. Yes, some people abuse Facebook, but ultimately a lot of people are able to bring connections to other people’s lives on a daily basis. Some people bring joy on a more regular basis than art. And if that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.

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