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Novelty: A History of the New

Novelty: A History of the New

by Michael North

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If art and science have one thing in common, it’s a hunger for the new—new ideas and innovations, new ways of seeing and depicting the world. But that desire for novelty carries with it a fundamental philosophical problem: If everything has to come from something, how can anything truly new emerge? Is novelty even possible?

In Novelty


If art and science have one thing in common, it’s a hunger for the new—new ideas and innovations, new ways of seeing and depicting the world. But that desire for novelty carries with it a fundamental philosophical problem: If everything has to come from something, how can anything truly new emerge? Is novelty even possible?

In Novelty, Michael North takes us on a dazzling tour of more than two millennia of thinking about the problem of the new, from the puzzles of the pre-Socratics all the way up to the art world of the 1960s and ’70s. The terms of the debate, North shows, were established before Plato, and have changed very little since: novelty, philosophers argued, could only arise from either recurrence or recombination. The former, found in nature’s cycles of renewal, and the latter, seen most clearly in the workings of language, between them have accounted for nearly all the ways in which novelty has been conceived in Western history, taking in reformation, renaissance, invention, revolution, and even evolution. As he pursues this idea through centuries and across disciplines, North exhibits astonishing range, drawing on figures as diverse as Charles Darwin and Robert Smithson, Thomas Kuhn and Ezra Pound, Norbert Wiener and Andy Warhol, all of whom offer different ways of grappling with the idea of originality.

Novelty, North demonstrates, 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. A heady, ambitious intellectual feast, Novelty is rich with insight, a masterpiece of perceptive synthesis.

Editorial Reviews

Peter Middleton

"Novelty is an indispensable account of the extraordinary persistence and power of ideas about novelty and the new in our culture. It is very well researched, clearly written, and above all sustains a compelling narrative. Michael North surveys a wide field of intellectual and cultural history, and provides pithy, often witty, summaries of complex ideas. The result is a book that is bold in its claims, and sure to stimulate discussion.”
N. Katherine Hayles
"Witty, sophisticated, and sharply written, Michael North's Novelty: A History of the New tackles the oxymorons lurking in the subtitle with gusto and a wide scope of learning, ranging from the classical Greeks to Modernist writers like Pound to the art criticism of the 1960s and 1970s. In exploring the multiple valences and models of the new, North accomplishes that most elusive of achievements: explaining how something can at once be new and old, recurrent and unexpected. Highly recommended not just for academics but for the general reader as well."

Rita Felski

"In this ambitious and admirable book, Michael North invites us to look anew at the very idea of the new. Ranging across philosophy, science, and art, he teases out the recurring patterns that shape our sense of how newness comes into the world. Under the pressure of North's sharp gaze and remarkably lucid prose, novelty turns out to be more familiar and yet more surprising than we had known it to be. This is a major contribution to intellectual history."

Art Review

“Essential reading for anyone trying to work out what’s contemporary about contemporary art.”

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University of Chicago Press
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-07787-1




As Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta fall from the exploded remains of the airliner Bostan, the narrator of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses poses what turns out to be the abiding question of that novel: "How does newness come into the world?" It is a pertinent question for these two, who need to sprout wings very quickly or suffer annihilation on the beach below; and it becomes even more relevant after their miraculous survival, as they undergo a series of fantastic transformations. It is also a typically modern question, not just in the value it places on the new but also in the confidence with which it assumes that novelty exists. In his haste to ask how newness comes into the world, the narrator neglects to establish that it does come. But the peculiar way he asks this question about novelty actually casts some doubt on its status. Newness is expected to "come into the world," apparently from some point outside it, as if there were some other sector, not the world as we know it, with a reservoir of novelty that periodically "leaks" into our space, to take a memorably odd metaphor from William James. The metaphor implies that novelty doesn't belong in the world at all, and that once here, stray droplets of it must soon dry up and cease to be new.

Rushdie's narrator and his characters ultimately spend some time worrying about novelty, sifting through authorities from Lucretius to Darwin, without really clarifying—much less answering—the original question. In its earnest demand for something new, its blithe assumption that a store of novelty exists somewhere, and its utter, contradictory vagueness about the nature and status of that source, Rushdie's question fairly represents the attitude of modernity toward what is usually considered its most definitive attribute. Whenever it is supposed to start, modernity is always marked off from whatever comes before by the conversion of the new from a relative term into an absolute value. At some point, the ordinary, trivial freshness of the passing moment becomes the novum, the new in itself, and the present becomes the Neuzeit, a time not just radically different from all others but better because of its difference. Before novelty could become "the essence of modernity," it had to be essentialized itself, a host of novel effects and stylistic surprises, natural wonders and scientific discoveries, inventions and innovations gathered up into one abstract category explaining and exalting them all. In this respect, "Make It New" stands first on the command line of the modern program because it converts everything into a format that modernity can use. In its vagueness, Pound's motto dictates something grander and more abstract than the transformation of "it" into a new version of itself. Enlisting every particular in a single, all-inclusive category, the slogan makes everything into the one thing that matters: the new.

How much sense does it make, though, to want everything to be new absolutely, once and for all? It seems an especially feckless ambition when even the ordinary claims of any relative novelty are so easy to dispute. In merely empirical terms, the boasts of any period or movement to have effected "an absolute beginning" are easily disproved, so that the breakpoint of the modern is pushed farther and farther back until the Renaissance becomes the "early modern" and the stretch of temporal wasteland once known as the Dark Ages is revealed in its turn as a series of preparatory renewals. If George Boas is right and "what we call 'periods' are simply the names of the influential innovations which have occurred constantly in ... history," then every period is vulnerable to the inevitable disputation of its novelty and thus to the loss of its conceptual distinctness. The fact that "Make It New" is itself an ancient saying and not a coinage of 1914 is one of the best examples of the apparently inevitable priority of the past over the pretensions of the present, and the resulting paradox of an old saw commanding the new might then stand for the uneasy condition of any modernity that bases its claims on lack of precedent.

If the relative newness of every period, every movement, school, or trend is open to dispute, if any particular novelty is always subject to the inevitable evidence that discoveries are preceded and innovations anticipated, then what of the category itself? Are these historical difficulties evidence of a more general problem in the concept of novelty as such? Even in the abstract, of course, novelty depends on something prior, on the very continuity it claims to violate. If what distinguishes new things is their difference from what existed before, then it does not seem possible to establish novelty as such, without reference to a past that did not contain it. As Josiah Royce argued some time ago, this means that the newness of any new particular cannot be apprehended in the particular itself, nor can it be generalized as an abstraction. The apparent novelty of any particular moment, he says, "is neither to be adequately expressed through any of our processes of classifying objects, nor yet ... to be adequately presented to us by any datum of sense or of feeling. For a sensory datum or an immediate feeling does not immediately show you that it is unique in its own kind." If Royce is right, then perhaps problems in defining the modern, whenever it occurs, begin in a more fundamental problem with the concept of novelty in general, as distinct from any particular new thing.

And yet, for several centuries the new has floated in front of scientists and artists, a goal quite separate from particular discoveries, inventions, or artworks. Hannah Arendt dates this desire for absolute novelty to the Enlightenment, especially to revolutionists in France and America, who insisted that "they saw things never seen before, thought thoughts never thought before." Arendt refers in two books to this "strange pathos of novelty," a phrase as strange as the feeling it describes. For pathos can mean "passion," which is apparently what Karl Jaspers had in mind when he coined the phrase Pathos des Neuen. But Arendt not only uses pathos in this sense but extends it to "the enormous pathos we find in the American and French Revolutions, this ever-repeated insistence that nothing comparable in grandeur and significance had ever happened in the whole recorded history of mankind." What is so strange, even apparently to Arendt herself, is the sense of suffering the term pathos brings to this vaunting claim of absolute originality.

Arendt's phrase implies that the hopes of the new are always disappointed and pretensions to absolute novelty brought low by their inevitably relative realization. But the phrase may also imply something like the opposite, that the relative enjoyment afforded by any minimally different experience is negated by an unappeasable hunger for the absolutely new. For the new, as an ideal, is inherently unapproachable, its essential quality of not having been before ruined as soon as it is realized. Utopian desire, which is aimed at an ever-receding future, can apparently be strengthened by unending deferral, but the passion for novelty, which depends on the present not being the past, is made pathetic by the passage of a second. Making it new may therefore be a sure way of making it self-contradictory and therefore ultimately dissatisfying and disappointing.

The "pathos of novelty" thus conflicts with a much more common notion: the frisson nouveau that Theodor Adorno dates to Victor Hugo, in which historical and social changes promise an inexhaustible sequence of unprecedented sensations, new thrills. For Adorno as well as Arendt, though, the passage from the relative, new thrills, to the absolute, the thrill of the new, inflates and imperils the experience of novelty, giving it a kind of pathos. As he puts it in Aesthetic Theory, "The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself. This is the curse of everything new." If, as he suggests elsewhere in the same text, it is "the cryptic inaccessibility of the new" that constitutes its appeal, then every actual instance of the new is a violation of its category and thus an emotional disappointment. The passion for the new is a feeling that always keels over into suffering, since it is a desire motivated by its own unrealizability.

For Adorno, then, the new "is a blind spot, as empty as perfect thisness." What attracts explorers, scientists, and artists to the new, however, is an obtuse desire to stare into this blind spot—not to find some new thing, some merely temporary innovation, but to find novelty in all its abstractness. This is impossible, since, as Adorno says, consciousness "can dream of the new, but it cannot dream the new itself." Nonetheless, he admits, it is the necessary abstractness of the new itself that pulls individual acts, discoveries, and works of art out of their degraded status as instrumental entities and makes them instances of freedom. Without the impossible goad of novelty as such, that is to say, there would not be any of the incidental novelties that distinguish a progressive life from blank, eternal continuity. Though there seems to be an absolute disjunction between relative and absolute novelty, the latter seems to be at least the psychological precondition of the former.

Novelty, then, is "ontological nonsense. Something is, although and because it is not what was before." It may also be experiential nonsense, if Royce is right to insist that the quality of not having been before is not really perceptible in the thing itself. Philosophers of science from the time of Pierre Duhem have also argued that conceptual novelty presents a paradox, that major changes in scientific thought must actually precede the empirical evidence that ostensibly supports them. Some philosophers have been just as wary of logical novelty, on the traditional argument that if a logical connection is to hold, then the conclusion is already implied by the premises preceding it. Perhaps this is why so few attempts have been made to formulate a rigorous definition of novelty, why it features so rarely in philosophical discussions, where it tends to tag along as an adjunct to the larger and graver problems of time or change. But if it cannot be defined or even adequately conceptualized, novelty can apparently be modeled; and the history of philosophy and practice are full of, perhaps even defined by, the structural metaphors that have been applied to the problem.

One of the most hopeless of these is to be found in Adorno, who often represents novelty as a negatively ironic effect of mechanical production: "In its original economic setting, novelty is that characteristic of consumer goods through which they are supposed to set themselves off from the self-same aggregate supply, stimulating consumer decisions subject to the needs of capital." In this, probably the most common model of novelty currently in use, the new is reproduced over and over, like any other manufactured item. The ontological paradoxes of absolute novelty, no longer philosophical inconveniences, are in fact the basis of its utility in the capitalist system, in which every real product is a broken version of one product, the new, which is always on offer but never actually available. Novelty of this kind is automatically self-canceling: the more of it there is, the less it can be novel. But since, in this case as in all others, scarcity drives demand, the absence of the definitively new simply increases its hold on the desires of the consumer.

Whatever aesthetic prestige the new may once have had has been pretty well ground to dust by the influence of this model, which relies on the irrefutable truism that novelty is the ultimate object of every sale, though it cannot in fact be delivered. Yet even Adorno is not exclusively bound to this model, and Aesthetic Theory often surprises by the positive treatment it gives to novelty, which so often features there as one of the most transparent lies of the capitalist system. In fact, the mechanical production model is only a recent example of a kind of modeling that has been influential since the very beginning of Western philosophy. Structural metaphors of one kind or another have long helped to mediate between novelty as ontological nonsense and novelty as practical possibility. The basic shapes of the most durable models were laid down at the very beginning, in response to the first declarations of philosophy that novelty is nonsensical.


Where novelty is concerned, the common sense of the ages seems to have been expressed for good and all in Ecclesiastes: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has been already, in the ages before us" (1:9–10). But Ecclesiastes simply declares that novelty does not exist, not that it is ontologically impossible or logically incoherent. These more extreme judgments were left to philosophy. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the dictum Ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing comes from nothing—the rule that outlaws all novelty, which must somehow come from that which does not contain it, expresses "the highest principle of our orientation in the world of experience." The truth of this statement may be demonstrated by the appearance of Ex nihilo nihil fit at both ends of the history of Western philosophy.

At this end, in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, the work that was supposed to finish off Western philosophy as it had been practiced for centuries, is this proposition: "If things can occur in states of affairs, this possibility must be in them from the beginning." On the surface, at least, this seems to be Wittgenstein's version of the ancient philosophical cliché that the effect is implicit in its cause. It appears here in apparent defiance of the skepticism of Hume, who cast doubt on the necessary relation of cause and effect, and against the opposition of pragmatists such as James, who felt that belief in this relation made real novelty impossible. Wittgenstein is not concerned as much with metaphysics as with logic, but in the latter case as well he maintains "there can never be surprises." Sweeping away all the old claptrap of the syllogism, with its merely accidental relations, Wittgenstein replaces it with a logical syntax, the validity of which is implicit in very notion of logic itself. Once this structure is in place, "a new possibility cannot be discovered later." Still, the Tractatus ends with some famous quasi-mystical hints of a vantage point outside this world, enclosed as it is within its own rules of thought. And it does allow that although objects are "unalterable and subsistent; their configuration is what is changing and unstable." If we cannot actually surprise ourselves with thoughts we are incapable of thinking, that is to say, we may at least rearrange the mental furniture a little to keep ourselves amused.

Such a radical austerity was meant to clear away centuries of philosophical confusion, and thus it may not be pure accident that it strongly resembles the very first steps in that philosophy, before the confusion set in. In fact, Wittgenstein's first step, the proposition "The world is all that is the case," a step that all by itself seems to rule out the new, had already been taken twenty-five hundred years earlier, when the goddess of wisdom informed Parmenides "that Being is ungenerated and imperishable, entire, unique, unmoved and perfect." On the surface at least, Parmenides' poem is about cosmology, and for him questions about "what is" are questions about the earth, the sun, and the stars. But it was not difficult for Bertrand Russell to read the poem as a treatise on logic, in which being is a property belonging to objects of thought, "to everything that can occur in any proposition, true or false, and to all such propositions themselves." In so doing, he brings the beginnings of Western philosophy into contact with its conclusion and makes Parmenides sound a good deal like Wittgenstein.

Cosmological or logical, the completeness of being makes the imposition of something new quite impossible, for this would violate the law that Parmenides was apparently the first to lay down: nothing comes from nothing, "a thesis which," according to Aristotle, "more than any other, preoccupied and alarmed the earliest philosophers." This thesis can be interpreted as a statement about physical being, that nothing can be created except from preexisting matter; as a statement about cause and effect, that everything must have a cause that already in some sense contains or implies it; or as a statement about epistemology, semantics, or logic, to the effect that creation from nothing is unthinkable, unsayable, or illogical. In any of these cases, the thesis lays down what Alexander Mourelatos calls "a sweeping ban on coming-to-be." But Parmenides was so alarming to other early philosophers because the ban on entirely new things seemed also to outlaw change of any kind. As Simplicius reasoned it out, "if something has changed, what-is has perished and what-was-not has come into existence," and thus the unity and consistency of the universe have been violated. What looks like change to ordinary mortals is therefore either a mistake, since we cannot always sense the underlying consistency of what appears to be different, or an illusion, propagated by the world of opinion, which is denounced at length in the second part of Parmenides' poem.

Excerpted from NOVELTY by MICHAEL NORTH. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of several books. He lives in Valley Village, CA.

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