Novelty: A History of the New

Michael North

Novelty remains a central problem of contemporary science and literature—an ever-receding target that, in its complexity and evasiveness, continues to inspire and propel the modern.

Novelty: A History of the New

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Price: $26.00
Author: Michael North
Length: 264 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-10
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.

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