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An Indispensable Concept and a Serious Problem

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The trouble in such cases seems to come from the paradoxical relation between relative and absolute novelty, since the relative is not actually a modest version of the absolute but rather the antithesis of it. To say that everything is new to someone somewhere is to make novelty a routine fact of existence, part of the steady state of the universe. A genuine novelty, in the sciences at any rate, is a major disturbance in the universe, a development like consciousness or life itself. Novelty of this kind is the stock-in-trade of evolutionary biology, and evolution itself is the most widely accepted account of novelty in the absolute sense. And yet, there is still considerable controversy among biologists about what should count as an evolutionary novelty, and there is a great deal of troubled introspection in the field about its standards and methods of defining the new. Popular accounts such as the biochemist Nick Lane’s Life Ascending dramatize evolution as a series of splendid “inventions” such as eyesight or sex, but practicing biologists have warned for some time that such developments are far too general to be considered discrete evolutionary novelties. They are, as the paleornithologist Joel Cracraft puts it, “typological constructs… and as such are limited in what they can tell us about the processes actually responsible for the origin and maintenance of evolutionary novelties.” That is to say, something like eyesight is not a single “invention” at all but a bundle of genetic changes and developmental adaptations, one that can differ as dramatically from species to species as the eye of the octopus differs from that of the chimpanzee. But the problem left by Cracraft’s skepticism is how to find an evolutionary innovation that is not a “typological construct,” and where, in the complex relation between discrete genetic change and gross phenotypic appearance, to find the defining hallmarks of the new.

Novelty, in short, is at once an indispensable concept and a serious problem, not just in one but in a number of different disciplines. Given this situation, it makes sense to assume a fairly well-developed tradition of commentary on the concept, a continuing discussion of it in the abstract, apart from the practical definitions applied in particular fields. But it doesn’t take much looking to discover that there isn’t any such tradition, no standard text, no omnibus history. Though novelty is not itself by any means new, being one of the very first ideas to trouble the consciousness of humankind, it seems almost to have no past, as if it arose from nothing every time it occurred. Of course, novelty as such has been discussed any number of times between Parmenides and Whitehead, and some of these discussions look back over past attempts before beginning their own. Philosophical accounts of the new became especially self-conscious, not oddly, around the beginning of the twentieth century, when William James and Henri Bergson added their considerable efforts to those of Whitehead. But these are really additions to the history of the new and not accounts of it, except insofar as all three philosophers identify novelty as one of the great unsolved problems in modern thought.

Clearly, novelty subtends modernity itself, and so the lack of any solid notion of what the new might mean threatens the validity of common concepts of the modern. Here, the chief symptom is the prevalence of Ezra Pound’s famous slogan, Make It New, the ubiquity of which signifies both the centrality of the concept and the absence of any real attention to it. A good recent example is offered by the scholar and critic Jed Rasula’s very capable survey of modernist demands for the new, a survey he calls simply “Make It New.”  Like many of those who have reused Pound’s perennially useful slogan, Rasula puzzles briefly over the “it,” which seems to be such a pointed reference and yet remains so vague. Surprisingly, though, he does not wonder at all about the real gist of the slogan, the “new,” which to him “seems concrete and unambiguous.” Then, since the most important part of the slogan does not require definition, writer after writer can be brought forward to say his or her piece about the immediate necessity of novelty without anyone pausing to wonder what is meant by that term.

Rasula can hardly be blamed for not defining what is taken so wholly for granted by his sources. As the literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton comments in a review of a recent collection of artists’ manifestos, “Nothing is more typical of these activists than a mindless celebration of novelty—a brash conviction that an absolutely new epoch is breaking around them…  How one would set about identifying absolute novelty is a logical problem that did not detain them.” Of a group of avant-garde composers working later in the century, the philosopher Stanley Cavell once observed, “There is, first, an obsession with new-ness itself… None, that I recall, raises the issue as a problem to be investigated, but as the cause of hope or despair or fury or elation.” In these first-hand accounts of the work of modernism, what is perhaps the most important distinguishing quality of that movement is left unexamined and undefined.

Novelty, in short, is a crucial and yet vague term in the sciences, the social sciences, and the arts, so that defining it is an inherently interdisciplinary task, beyond the interests and ambitions of any particular field. Perhaps it is not so odd, then, that so little is to be found in the scholarship on novelty as such. For the same reason, we are steadily less likely, every year, to get a general account of the concept, as the work of sociology, philosophy, biology, and aesthetics advances, becoming ever more daunting to the nonspecialist. To anyone foolish enough to approach the problem on so broad a front, however, it soon becomes apparent that there is a considerable consistency, not in definitions of the new, which are always very hard to come by, but in the models that have been applied to the problem. The simple fact that very few of these exist, that serious workers in every field have come back to the same few methods of conceptualizing the new, makes it possible to attempt its history.

What follows, then, is not a comprehensive account of everything said on the subject of novelty, or even of the best that was said, but rather a basic history of the conceptual models that have made it possible to think about what seems an unthinkable problem. That there is something necessary about these models is suggested by the fact that their basic shapes were established before Plato and have not varied much since. The purpose of the first chapter of this study is therefore to show how there came to be but two ways around philosophy’s foundational skepticism about the very possibility of novelty. One of these, recurrence, has the advantage of seeming to have the sanction of nature but the disadvantage of not seeming to offer any real novelty. The other, recombination, seems to offer unlimited novelty, but only if unprecedented relations between existing elements can be considered truly new entities. Despite the equivocal nature of these models, between them they can account for virtually every one of the major ways in which novelty has been conceptualized in European history—reformation, renaissance, revolution, invention—and it is the purpose of the second chapter to describe, in fairly summary fashion, the development and differentiation of these and the political and intellectual implications of the differences between them.

Modern experimental science originally based its account of the universe on a revived version of ancient atomism, and thus, by its lights, recombination explained the creativity of nature as it also described the nature of scientific investigation itself. Later, in the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn demoted this sort of science, suggesting that significant advances and discoveries arrive as total revolutions in the way science is done. But science itself, in the form of evolutionary biology, had already worked out a highly sophisticated symbiosis between recurrence and recombination, the genesis of which is the subject of the third chapter. It seems very telling that the most influential modern model of creative change should itself have been invented as a subtle combination of two ancient precursors. Evolution, imagined even by Darwin as a revolution in human thought, advanced beyond such models from the past mainly by consuming them, producing a new hybrid with significant advantages derived from all its antecedents.

Another purpose of the third chapter is to show how evolution made novelty fundamental to nature and thus sparked renewed interest in it as a scientific and philosophical issue, without definitively settling any of the basic controversies that had dogged discussions since the pre-Socratics. Later biologists called on a wide range of other disciplines in order to address what turned out to be one of the main open questions left behind by Darwin—the actual nature of evolutionary novelty, and it is the purpose of chapter 4 to show how probability, statistical mechanics, and information theory came together not just to inform late twentieth century biology but also to offer a model of the new that would become influential all across the information age. Cybernetics, systems theory, and information processing seemed like such new disciplines when they arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, in part because they appropriated the new as their raw material and because they promised, somewhat paradoxically, to make the production of the new automatic and certain.

The issue in all these cases is the nature of ontological novelty, which is surely the most daunting version of the problem, since the very laws of physics seemed for so many years to rule the truly new out of the question. Turning to epistemological novelty would seem to make things a good deal easier, since it must be true that everyone has new ideas and new experiences every day. Relative and subjective novelty of this kind must be common and thus easy to define. It is the general burden of the last three chapters, however, that this is not the case. As far back as Plato’s Meno, in fact, philosophers have been troubled by a homely paradox: how can I find out what I want to know unless I already know it well enough to identify it? In the Meno, the argument is openly eristic, and it is meant to be swept aside by the resolution that we already know what is important, so that learning is really recollection. Plato resolves the issue, in other words, by showing that there is no such thing as a new idea. Modern scientific inquiry would be neither necessary nor possible if such were really the case, but some modern philosophers of science have also believed that preconceptions have an inevitably primary role in scientific research. According to the most influential account of modern scientific discovery, in fact, “particular laboratory manipulations presuppose a world already perceptually and conceptually divided in a certain way.” If so, then it would seem that a new idea would be just as hard to come by as a brand-new lump of matter.

It is not surprising, then, that influential modern explanations of new ideas in the sciences should follow very closely ancient models of novelty in the physical world. Chapter 5 follows this resemblance in the influential work of Thomas Kuhn, which is, despite its overt reliance on the trope of revolution, a virtual anthology of old models of the new. Kuhn’s particular way of arranging recombination and recurrence into a self-sustaining cycle owes an obvious debt to Darwin, but it also bears a strong resemblance to the project of cybernetics, which reached the height of its fame at about the time Kuhn published his masterwork. Thus the chapter will take up a number of intriguing similarities between Kuhn and Norbert Wiener, particularly the ways they attempt to account for scientific discovery and advance within a system of knowledge that is self-sustaining and thus to some extent impervious to change.

In their different ways, Kuhn and Wiener try to explain how a system might arrive at a point where the new is both routine and revolutionary. At this same time, critics of modernist art and literature were facing a similar puzzle: how to handle the transformation of modernism into a settled fact of contemporary life. Could there be, they wondered, a tradition of the new? The first step toward answering this question is to determine what modernists meant by the new, and this is not by any means a simple task. As chapter 6 will show, writers and artists of the early part of the twentieth century held a wild variety of positions on the subject of novelty, some of them strongly negative. Even those in favor of the new as such had a great many different ways of describing their ideal.

In fact, it seems that the only reason there is any order at all to the cacophony of modernist statements in this respect is that the range of available models of novelty had already been circumscribed by history. Modernism, in other words, does not have its own theory of the new, in part because there is no one theory of the new universally subscribed to by modern artists and writers. Even the apparent simplicity of Make It New can be opened up to reveal a series of layers, telling the history of novelty back to its beginnings.

One of the most interesting things to be discovered by a serious examination of Pound’s slogan is that it was not a slogan until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The phrase that is now universally taken to summarize the ambitions of modernist artists and writers was quite obscure until the literary scholar and critic Hugh Kenner gave it some prominence in the Hudson Review. It became so notorious, not because it summarized the ambitions of the modernists themselves, but rather because it helped critics and scholars to talk about a quality that was then under serious debate. The contest joined in the 1960s between the essayist and visual art critic Clement Greenberg and the artists responsible for Pop, minimalism, and conceptual art was very largely fought out over the issue of novelty. A great deal of the struggle within Greenberg’s criticism itself is over the difference between the necessary novelty of modernist art and the apparently spurious novelty of the art that followed. Chapter 7 is about this contrast, between the tradition of the new as it came to be defined by Greenberg, Stanley Cavell, and the modernist art critic and art historian Michael Fried and what Greenberg damned as the “Novelty Art” of the movements of the 1960s, movements that are still commonly lumped together under the damning title of the “neo-avant-garde.”

Partly by coincidence, the tradition of the new established and defended by Greenberg and Cavell very strongly resembles the circular pattern of upheaval and reintegration discovered in the sciences by Kuhn and Wiener. Some of this similarity might also be explained by the example of evolution, discernible in the distance behind both models, and some more of it may be due to the friendship between Kuhn and Cavell. The intellectual part of that friendship was based on a mutual interest in the problems and possibilities presented by the later Wittgenstein, especially by the tacit forms of life that Kuhn came to call paradigms. On one hand, the shared linguistic conventions that Wittgenstein explored are flexible and open-ended, and thus they seem to present the possibility of infinite novelty. On the other hand, there is no such thing as thought outside a paradigm, and no way to check the authority of a paradigm from a vantage point beyond it. The result is a newness that always remains circumscribed within the limits of the old.

The conclusion will reconsider this paradox in light of the history of the new in general. That history may also be able to shed some light on the disturbing fact that so many twentieth-century prophets of innovation, in the sciences as well as the arts, have come to be seen as repressive traditionalists. Is it the passage of time that makes a radical thinker like Kuhn seem an apologist for the status quo? Were the great modernists secretly conservative all the time, even when they were making their innovations? Perhaps there is something in the structure of novelty itself that might account for the fact that change and continuity lie so close together in twentieth-century art and thought. Or perhaps there is a tension within our ideas about the new that results in a pattern of constantly frustrated expectations. If so, then it may be possible to untangle our expectations by investigating their history and thus to come to a better estimation of the possibilities and impossibilities of the new.

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of several books including Machine-Age Comedy (2008) and The Dialect of Modernism (1994).

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2 Jan 2014
If you care about the idea of “new”, or how "new" has influenced literature and art, then you must read Novelty.
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