A History of Novelty

Review of the idea of what we mean by Novelty from the origins of the Western philosophical tradition, through variations and contributions of the concept until what Novelty is today.

Tree of life, Ernst Haeckel (The Evolution of Man, 1879).

Tree of life, Ernst Haeckel (The Evolution of Man, 1879). Font: Wikipedia.

Michael North’s Novelty. A History of the New begins with Parmenides, no less. The book, published last year by The University of Chicago Press, goes back to the origins of the Western philosophical tradition and explores the genealogy of the changing notion of ‘novelty’ through the centuries –which means the Enlightenment, Darwinism, the historical avant-gardes and the philosophy of science–, up until the present.

While Parmenides defended the immutable and Plato denied the possibility of anything being more than reflection, and thus appearance, Aristotle reflected on the notion of accident and Empedocles saw the universe as a series of stages of mixture and separation, as an alternation of changing phenomena. In the first few centuries of philosophy, the idea that nothing new is possible prevailed, although there were also some attempts to grapple with change and difference. The atomist school is based on the idea of combination, and it is the first thread that North follows when he sets out to pinpoint the most important moments in the anatomy of the new. But it is no easy task, given that ‘In chronological priority and in intellectual influence, nothing comes from nothing can be considered the foundational premise of Western philosophy.’(22) In the beginning there is not only platonic doctrine, there is also Genesis, with its initial lines that may or may not be talking about creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) and final few lines that don’t totally rule out the idea of ongoing creation (creatio continua) ‘in which God sustains the universe, where necessary, with additional acts of creation,’ (37) Although the holy book does make it clear that there is one Creator with a capital ‘C’ (even though He is actually several, given that the names and incarnations of God throughout history are many).

Darwin made the definitive leap many centuries later when he showed the evolution of the species and argued the importance of mutation. Although his discoveries were revolutionary they were accepted in record time because they showed the continuity of a tradition that could be visualised. Small variations without any radical breaks. Recognition comes before discovery. Darwinism soon absorbed all other spheres of human reality, North explains, including language. It may be the ideal model for explaining innovation. Most, if not all, of the elements exist previously: novelty is the result of a combination. Of a formula. The ongoing relevance of this explicative pattern can clearly be seen in one of the most instructive narratives that have addressed this issue: the documentary Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson, which attempts to elucidate the cultural logic of our time. From Ferguson’s point of view, there is no such thing as revolution in culture (and perhaps n anything). Any major change is the result of many small changes, always in terms of shared authorship, of voluntary or involuntary cooperation. The name ‘Picasso’ is actually an umbrella term that encompasses many contributions to the history of painting made by the great painter himself and by other artists who may have been less significant but created a favourable context in which this talented and exceptional individual could channel, catalyse, synthesise and remix various traditional and contemporary elements in an oeuvre that was –ultimately– unique.

North emphasises the importance of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the history of ideas about the new, as a twentieth century book that, like Darwin, did not just set out an original theory but also created a framework through which to understand many others. In 2012, University of Chicago Press reissued a fiftieth anniversary edition with a prologue by another of the great philosophers of science, Ian Hacking, who writes: ‘A revolution changes the domain, changes even (according to Kuhn) the very language in which we speak about some aspect of nature. At any rate it deflects to a new portion of nature to study. So Kuhn coined his aphorism that revolutions progress away from previous conceptions of the world that have run into cataclysmic difficulties. This is not progress towards a pre-established goal. It is progress away from what once worked well, but no longer handles its own new problems.’ Until 1962, the word ‘paradigm’ was seldom used: it was after The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that it became common currency, along with the expression ‘paradigm change’.

Science and politics may perhaps more easily accept the notion of a ‘paradigm change’ – even if only as a result of the sum of a great many micro-changes – than humanities and the arts. And therefore also the notion of revolution. This may be because even though we don’t hesitate to label Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein geniuses, the reality of laboratory work and interconnected networks prevails in the sphere of science. This has been increasingly so in recent decades as biotechnology has displaced theoretical physics at the centre of gravity of scientific knowledge, without a ‘star system’ recognisable to society at large, without identifiable leaders, without great geniuses. Near the end of his book, North writes: ‘What this means, though, is that novelty, which was once linked inextricably to the individual, to originality, and which has often been defined in terms of a tension with the social, actually seems more feasible as a social phenomenon’ (206). As such, innovation, driven by individuals working in parallel, can only be understood as a complex phenomenon made up of innumerable nodes that radiate in all directions and meanings that are not always compatible, as part of a process of collective creation that doesn’t necessarily move forward in unison. Even if knowledge is cumulative and subject to necessary obsolescence (given that some ideas lose validity as history advances and contradicts or deactivates them); even if the myth of progress that took shape in modernity can only be called into question again and again; even if the myth of originality is just that, a myth, and we have to defend the poeta doctus at the expense of the questionable poeta genius; in spite of all of this, I still think it is clear that, at the very least, the art and literature of the 20th and 21st century are no longer in the same paradigm as those of the 19th century. Not just because a few prominent individuals have hastened this change, but also because of the powerful constellations of thousands of creators who have worked with different materials and different values, in different spheres.

The problem, as North argues in his book, comes from seeing modernism or the avant-gardes as revolutions. Informational essays and journalism, whether in the fields of politics, society, culture or technology, conscientiously overlook the difficulty involved in generating genuine innovation, and promote a constant stream of supposed novelties in line with the latest fashions and trends. In fact, the endless repetition of the semantic field of innovation neutralises its impact on the collective consciousness. We shouldn’t be surprised to find people who say that e-mail is like traditional letters, or that in Don Quixote Cervantes already used all the narrative techniques and themes of the modern novel (although his masterpiece does not contain, for example, free indirect style, stream of consciousness, photography or democracy).

The two formulas that modern communication most often uses to grapple with the possibility of the new (in a context saturated by consumption and thus by planned expiration and by the need to constantly renew the things we own) date back to Christian theology: rebirth and revolution. Perhaps only three of the major concepts that we use today are modern: generation, evolution and paradigm. So it comes as no surprise that ‘media evolution’ is one of the hottest fields right now. Over the past few decades the threat to the print medium has boosted the study of the history of books, but as Nora Catelli writes in Testimonios tangibles (Anagrama, 2011), the concept of media archaeology has also been created. Because novelty wants to discover its history. Its origins, its genealogy. So it can quickly acquire the prestige of the old.

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