French noble and scientist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, widely considered to be the father of modern chemistry, never actually wrote his most famous phrase: “Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme.” ("Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.") It is a paraphrase of the law of conservation of mass, which he clearly enunciated in his Traité élémentaire de chimie, published in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. The law came to be known as Lavoisier’s law, even though previous research had already established it in principle.
As interesting as it can be to entertain the thought that a cornerstone of modern science be attributed to a man who didn’t exactly write it nor quite discover it, it is the fact that Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (which we quoted earlier) wrote something very similar, almost two thousand years before Lavoisier, that most powerfully illustrates the resilience of ideas. In the introduction to his reportedly only book, Anaxagoras wrote: “Rien ne naît ni ne périt, mais des choses déjà existantes se combinent, puis se séparent de nouveau.” (“Nothing is born nor destroyed, but things that exist are combined then separated again.”) Is that not a founding statement for modern chemistry?
Enter French literary theorist Gérard Genette, whose main sin was to have contributed in the shadows of giants like Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss to the structuralist movement. While his narratology, a science of storytelling, was his claim to fame in the late sixties, his study of textual transcendence (transtextualité) in the early eighties provides an interesting take on the nature of texts, particularly since our civilization was about to enter headfirst into the World Wide Web. Genette spoke of hypertext as a concept well before the term came to design the links that were embedded in a digital text to allow the reader to understand why some words were chosen and references made, and to travel back in time through "the texts underneath" (the hypotext).
Had he written his Traité de chimie two centuries later, Lavoisier might have referred to Anaxagoras’ book using a hyperlink, the way citizen encyclopaedists do in Wikipedia. But that’s assuming he knew about it. What Genette says is that it doesn’t matter. Anaxagoras’ quote is the hypotext to Lavoisier’s whether Lavoisier knew about it or not. In Palimpsestes, Genette posits that no text is, in and of iteslf, new. Palimpsests refer to ancient parchment which, because it was such a rare resource, was often recycled. It was scratched or whitewashed so that it could be written on again. But one could often still read parts of the old text underneath. It was thus possible to retrace the history of a particular piece of parchment by studying the hidden layers of text it contained.
The emergence of the Internet and other instantaneous communication means has turned the temporal axis of hypertextuality into a mutli-vectorial affair. As a civilization, we produce more texts than ever before. And narratives developed in one text (say, a news article) are often far from settled before another text takes over. That means that most of our modern narratives are transtextual, but, more importantly still, plurivocal. They transcend not only texts, but authors, cultures, contexts.
While this phenomenon may seem quite normal nowadays for breaking news stories and political or economic narratives, it is not limited to our twitter and facebook newsfeeds. It is taking over most spheres of human activity, from the arts to science, industry and, more broadly, ideas. And that’s where it becomes really interesting.
Famous people’s quotes, which have taken over social media like brushfire, are a classic manifestation of Genette’s theory in popular culture, and maybe an accelerated version of what may have happened to de Lavoisier. As people copy and paste inspiring quotes, share them in status updates or in photomontages bordering on the cheesy and, eventually, use them in PowerPoint presentations or TED talks, these little pearls of wisdom get mashed up and, quite often, misattributed. That’s how almost half of the Internet’s quotes became the words of either Einstein, Picasso... or Morgan Freeman.
One infamous instance came when the late Steve Jobs, in a 1996 TV interview, invoked the quote “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, which he falsely attributed to Picasso. It’s almost impossible to figure out who is the actual author of that exact quote – it could very well be Jobs’ own interpretation of something Picasso may or may not have said. It doesn't matter. That’s the essence of Genette’s hypertextuality. Wisdom is apocryphal. And that’s a good thing. As Jean-Luc Godard (again, may have) said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”
In essence, while some of us may actually write texts, sign and sometimes copyright them, the brilliant ideas we come up with are rarely, solely our own. They are a collective, more often than not unconscious work, each and everyone of us adding layers upon layers of meanings. And new technologies have brought this endeavour to the global – and synchronous! – level.
Our cumulative knowledge, at the scale of the civilization, belongs to no-one. Protecting it from the use – and further layering – of others is not unlike destroying it. Lavoisier was guillotined at the age of 50, after a summary trial under Robespierre’s Reign of Terror – some particular issue with the "de" in his name. But he, and Anaxagoras, and a bunch of others who didn’t have the luxury to put their wisdom to parchment in the intervening centuries, were right. Nothing is ever really created. Nothing is ever lost. It’s always the same old stardust being transformed. In sometimes beautiful ways.
And that’s why we shouldn’t create to keep. We must create to give back. Add to the layers. Feed the network. Our parchment is virtual, infinite, and essentially, deeply democratic. The world is our palimpsest.
This text is part of a series written in the context of the Fifth edition of the Montreal-Barcelona Summer School on Management of Creativity, organized by Mosaic HEC Montréal and Universitat Barcelona, July 9 to 24, 2013.
Illustration by Studio 923a. Read all posts in the series at blog.fandco.ca/yulbcn.