Jon Thompson is a freelance writer and creator of the successful Naked Mentalism series, the Electronics for Magicians series and several in-depth works for the stripper deck. He is also the managing director and chief electron wrangler at Subversive Circuits, which creates unique electronic effects for performers of all of the mystery arts.
Laymen regard the mystery arts as being fundamentally creative, but when was the last time you had a completely original thought that popped miraculously into your head fully formed? If you're anything like me, the answer is probably never.
What I mean is, when was the last time anyone sat down and created something entirely from scratch without using or finding inspiration in any previously known principle? I was going to say "from first principles" rather than "from scratch", but let's include all previous principles lest philosophy PhDs blow a gasket.
I'm talking about creating something without using any of the usual building blocks of the mystery arts; the peeks, the impressions, the forces, and so on. You can ask the same question of any other form of creative endeavour. And yet, no one argues that Mickey Spillane is like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because they both created fictional detectives. Their creations, Mike Hammer and Sherlock Holmes, are clearly poles apart. Their audiences love them.
And yet, there are people in our community who pontificate about how an effect or other work isn't really new because they're built using the toolbox we all know and love. It's even been said of my own Naked Mentalism. Do you know why? Because one of the techniques in the first book takes as its starting point the realisation of why the psychological colour force in chapter 1 of Banachek's groundbreaking Psychological Subtleties works. Crazy, isn't it? I don't believe (though I'm very happy to correct myself if he gets in touch) that Banachek knew the principle by which the colour force worked, either. Until I read something in a psychology book and it jogged a connection that led me to a two-year research project that became Naked Mentalism, neither did I. However, that project ended up with the discovery of another 60+ forces covering a multitude of categories. It pushed psychological mentalism forwards.
The point is that our entire species has had very few completely original thoughts that reference absolutely nothing that has gone before, and yet we can still push things on. Our brains are constantly accepting new information, adding their own dash of inspiration and miraculously synthesizing new ideas.
It's generally assumed that Albert Einstein expressed a genuinely original thought when he published his 1905 paper on Special Relativity. Partly, this is because it contains no direct references to other papers. However, Einstein himself said he was influenced by the work of philosophers David Hume and Ernst Mach. He also said he had read Poincaré's Science and Hypothesis, which describes something called the "Principle of Relativity", in 1904. He repeatedly cited a number of other works and thinkers who had influenced him. He took a diverse set of ideas about the universe, played with the calculations and added his own genius to come up with something so astonishing that it seems like divine inspiration.
Concepts as diverse as atom bombs to GPS rely on Special Relativity. Without some of Einstein's other work (on the photoelectric effect) there's no quantum mechanics. No quantum mechanics means no transistors, no LEDs or lasers, and so on. No modern world, in other words. No matter how you look at it, the history of ideas is a continuum. The history of everything is a continuum, in fact. There are, after all, only 92 naturally occurring elements. Everything is built on something. Even Sir Isaac Newton admitted that he had seen further because he had stood "on the shoulders of giants". And yet, he also said he had been like a small boy, playing on the shore.
So, you have to draw the line somewhere and simply get on in your particular field, but should that mean limiting yourself to a list of tools that others in your field approve as somehow being the "right" ones? I don't see why it should. For one thing, it's too limiting. It's just not how new ideas come about. Rather, by playing with different, possibly unrelated tools and ways of using them we glimpse what might be.
So push on by studying related and unrelated fields, by experimenting, playing with juxtapositions of ideas and by being inspired by it all to ignore what others think, and to see beyond to what might be.
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