Novelty: A History of the New

[25 October 2013]

By Michael North

Reprinted with permission from Novelty: A History of the New, by Michael North (Footnotes omitted). Published by University of Chicago Press. © 2013 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website, or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.


The state of being recent, unfamiliar, or different from the past is actually a little difficult to talk about in itself, since modern English is peculiarly deficient in respectable terms for the new. Newness can suffice in a pinch, but it seems both awkward and fussy. Novel has a slightly pejorative sense when used as an adjective, and a very restricted meaning when used as a noun. And novelty has a very shady reputation, redolent of dime stores, corny songs, and practical jokes. What does it mean, that the most common terms for the new are so hard to use? How does the quality that makes a new shirt or a new friend such a positive experience turn into something almost sinister in the abstract? That quality, of being different from what has gone before, is clearly of great importance to us, though we find it difficult and even embarrassing to give it a name. But the linguistic awkwardness in finding a good descriptive term for the new is almost certainly the effect of a deeper difficulty in coming up with a definition of it. Perhaps there would be a better noun than novelty, one above suspicion, if English speakers were more certain about what they mean when they call something new. Filling in that blank, giving the term novelty something more certain to stand for, is the purpose of this book.

Right now, at a time when most first-run movies seem to be either remakes or sequels, when the popular new singers are all expert mimics of some vocal style of the past, when period nostalgia progresses through the decades faster than time itself and threatens to catch up with the present, the status of novelty as a value would not seem to be particularly high. Indeed, a consumer marketing firm determined as long ago as 1991 that “newness used to have a cachet all by itself. It doesn’t anymore.” In the art world, indifference to the new has been a popular pose at least since the 1960s, when Robert Smithson decreed, “Nothing is new, neither is anything old.” In fact, the whole distinction between modernist art and that which followed in the 1960s, a distinction that once seemed so epochal, was based on an apparent disagreement about the very possibility of the new and about the desirability of associated qualities such as originality and autonomy. All of these were blown away like so much dust, it seemed, when Andy Warhol promoted some Campbell’s Soup cans from the supermarket to the art gallery.

Desire for the new, however, seems to be a fairly durable human quality, and interest in it persists even now, after its role in the worlds of art and fashion has been exposed and debunked. The computer and consumer electronics industries, before all others, keep the topic of innovation current and popular, even as the movie industry tears through its old comic books looking for heroes, and a considerable amount of academic research is aimed at defining innovative business strategies so that they can be imitated. Innovation is also a concern in the sciences, especially biology, where the nature of evolutionary novelty is one of the main points of contention between developmentalists and traditional molecular biologists. Emergent evolution, briefly fashionable a century ago, has been revived by such disputes and is now seriously considered an explanation for the new not just in biology but also in physics, in systems theory, and in the work of contemporary theorists such as Manuel De Landa. Certain strains of continental philosophy, especially those following from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, get much of their polemical punch from the claim that these thinkers can adequately explain how the world generates genuine novelty. Of course, very little obvious overlap exists between this sort of philosophy and the study of commercial innovation, though Deleuze was concerned enough about the apparent similarities between his work and the “disciplines of communication” to ward them off with a blast of sarcasm. Such antipathies aside, the problems and possibilities of novelty now receive a considerable amount of attention from a number of different disciplines.

Despite this interest, however, there is considerable diffidence about defining the nature of the new as such. For example, contemporary study of innovation in business begins with an article of faith laid down by the economist Joseph Schumpeter: “The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the consumer’s goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.” Though Schumpeter seems quite insistent about the necessity of the new, and though innovation studies in sociology, anthropology, social psychology, and communications have such an ingrained bias in favor of novelty that it threatens to become a shibboleth, “similar to ‘motherhood’ and ‘patriotism,’” the basic term in the field still seems to have been left more or less alone, untouched by close examination. The standard text on the diffusion of innovation defines an innovation as “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption.” And it declares forthrightly that “it matters little, so far as human behavior is concerned, whether or not an idea is ‘objectively’ new as measured by the lapse of time since its first use or discovery.” Novelty is supposed to be an ontological possibility, since there is a “first use or discovery,” but its objective status is mysterious enough to be protected by scare quotes.

To innovate is, in Latin at any rate, to renew or to reform, not to start over afresh, though it has acquired in English usage the implication of introducing something new to a particular environment. In this sense, however, “diffusion of innovation” is something of a redundancy, since an innovation is by definition something that has become new by being moved to a place unfamiliar with it. Diffusion, that is to say, is itself tantamount to innovation. But one problem with this definition is that diffusion also assumes acceptance and thus the dissipation of novelty. Even in its reduced form as innovation, then, actual novelty only exists at the very crest of the wave, in the time, however short, between introduction and acceptance. Since the novelty in question is purely subjective in nature, dependent on its relative unfamiliarity to a new audience, it tends to evaporate almost at the very instant it is recognized.

Innovation is therefore a term that compacts within itself the whole hopeless treadmill of capitalist advance that had been decried even before Marx, powered by a double bind in which novelty is both necessary and impossible at the same time. In such a system, oddly enough, the novel can persist only insofar as it meets with resistance and doesn’t diffuse. This is one reason why the avant-garde is often considered a necessary adjunct to the settled order it supposedly opposes, why sociologies of innovation in the arts strongly resemble sociologies of commercial innovation. The economist David Galenson’s intriguing project, for example, attempts to quantify and compare the relative importance of major modern artists, using novelty as the definitive characteristic of accomplishment. As he shows with abundant quotations, this was the standard often applied by the artists themselves. To take just one example from many, Joris-Karl Huysmans praises Edgar Degas as “a painter who derived from and resembled no other, who brought with him a totally new artistic flavor, as well as totally new skills.” However, whatever Huysmans may have had in mind, the “totally new” is a quality that proves very hard to capture.

In fact, Galenson passes over the new itself, restricting the term novelty to obvious, startling developments with little staying power, to concentrate on innovation, which he defines as “a change in existing practice that becomes widely adopted by other artists.” An innovation is a novelty that sticks—a difference, as the anthropologist Gregory Bateson would have it, that makes a difference. This, then, is Galenson’s version of the paradox visible in the sociology of diffusion, since it seems to make innovation almost the opposite of novelty, insofar as the importance of an innovation comes to depend on its acceptance and durability and not on its difference. As Galenson’s own evidence shows, artists resisted this double bind with just as much commitment as they proclaimed the new. Like a member of a medieval craft guild jealous of its secrets, Georges Seurat tried to prevent others from appropriating his techniques: “The more of us there are, the less originality we will have, and the day when everyone practices this technique, it will no longer have any value and people will look for something new as is already happening.” Innovation, defined as a widely accepted change, thus turns out to be the enemy of the new, even as it stands for the necessity of the new.

An Indispensable Concept and a Serious Problem

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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