Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North. University of Chicago Press. 264 pp. $26.00.
There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.”
Yet surely this is something of a truism. There are many ways of being new. Indeed, an important part of “being new” has always been the different ways that ushers of new forms have conceived of their offerings as “new.” It may seem that the twentieth century saw an unparalleled explosion of artistic –isms, but it is hard to tell what has actually increased, the number of new forms or our appetite for cataloging them. One of the interlocutors in Oscar Wilde’s great work “The Critic as Artist” says that “the duty of imposing form upon chaos does not grow less as the world advances.” Fair enough, but we should still be wary of the chaos engendered by forms themselves, lest we get lost in a nominalist maze of our own making. In his most recent book, Michael North surveys this maze-in-progress from above, and tries to track the shifts of our timeworn sense of novelty.
North aptly characterizes some of the tensions inherent in the notion of novelty by drawing our attention to two of its major models—recurrence and recombination. The former, he says, despite its apparently organic character, hardly captures the sense of disruption that novelty can produce, while the latter, despite its seemingly infinite potential, depends on the proper relations obtaining between previously existing elements. Ultimately, North’s book aims at a synthesis of the two models, incarnated in the work of certain twentieth-century thinkers who, in both art and science, pursued a more holistic conception of recurrence and recombination as aspects of one and the same dynamic process.
North begins his study by taking us all the way back to Parmenides, to show how entrenched the notion of invariance is in the history of philosophy. Later philosophical developments in antiquity, as North tells it, relegated novelty to the realm of mere appearances, with some exceptions—Aristotle, for example, sought to conceptualize accident as allowing for the emergence of new forms, not only superficial change. It is Empedocles, however, who is the first hero of North’s story: he theorized the universe as in a cycle where recurring moments of unity are arrived at after long periods of disunity, an idea with notable precedents both within and without the Greek tradition.
North sees not only recurrence in Empedocles; he sees recombination, too, later developed to a greater degree by the atomistic tradition. In these ideas, one begins to see the emergence of two dominant models of novelty that try to overcome the Parmenidean framework. If what recurrence and recombination bring about is what was originally new, then we may say that the novelty we encounter is just the same novelty that already was, yet reconfigured and represented in such a way so as to make us experience it anew. That said, North warns us against assuming that Empedocles was an enthusiast of newness, for “the goal of Empedocles and the pre-Socratic atomists was not to open up intellectual space for innovation but to save the appearances and thus to make philosophy consistent with observable reality.” Nonetheless, they did succeed in putting a crack in Parmenides’ armor, in North’s account.
In the rest of the chapters making up “Part One: How Newness Comes into the World,” North examines forms of cyclical or combinatory renewal as they manifest themselves in the evolution of Christian doctrine, in the concepts of “renaissance” and “revolution” in humanistic and scientific domains alike, in Darwin’s theory and in the history of the notion of “evolution” itself, as well as post-Darwinian reactions to natural selection. North gives Darwin credit for “resolving the old opposition of Aristotle and Lucretius”—in his work, “the cycle of generation escapes the circular by incorporating an element of recombination, wherein particular traits and features are selected from a constant and changing pool of variation.” The last section in Part One changes gears, focusing on the practice of calculating chance to stem the tide of Nature’s randomness, in probability and information theory. There, too, North shows how even the most modern results have as their ghostly predecessors ancient hopes and worries.
In “Part Two: Novelty in the Twentieth Century,” North embarks on, first, a twin study of Thomas Kuhn and Norbert Wiener, setting Kuhn’s famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions alongside Wiener’s dark horse Invention. Like Darwin, North writes, Kuhn arranges an “interdependent relationship between recombinant and revolutionary novelty;” the physicist-turned-philosopher’s theory also manages to thread its way between the Scylla of recombination and the Charybdis of recurrence—“normal science combines and recombines its basic elements until sufficient anomalies arise to cause a revolution, which then feeds these anomalies back into a new version of normal science. Thus normal science replicates itself in subtly different forms, generation after generation.” For North, then, Kuhn’s theory depressingly foretells the eternal return of orthodoxy.
In Wiener’s case, our author sees a way to conceive of a cycle within which anomalies are constantly reassimilated, rather than resisted. By analyzing how “feedback” and “noise” function in Wiener’s writings, North concludes that “cybernetics might be said to represent the perfect fusion of normal and revolutionary science . . . without the unfortunate moments of stasis and upheaval that plague Kuhn’s system.” Ultimately, however, even Wiener falls prey to a similar fate; the stages of invention described by Wiener produce, ultimately, “the very antithesis of inventiveness.” As North writes, “even when information is allowed to flow freely . . . its course is essentially circular, as it is fed back into the system that generated it,” adding, “this recursive circularity seems capable of modulating the new and different until it no longer exists.”
In the last two chapters of his book, North takes on the art world, showing how broadly Kuhnian conceptions of aesthetic modernism arise in the writings of Clement Greenberg, Arthur Danto, Michael Fried, and Stanley Cavell. Included in these last chapters is a lively excursus into the unexpected origins and perhaps even more unlikely afterlife of the modernist dictum “Make it new!” too readily attributed to Ezra Pound. Especially helpful is North’s attention to the various ways in which the imperative to novelty can take on both radically progressive and starkly reactionary contours. Most interesting, however, is his discussion of the peculiar aesthetic modernism that seems to arise from the writings of Fried and Cavell, a fascinating topic that has more and more been getting the attention it deserves. A short summary does no justice to North’s rich discussion; it will suffice to say that he sees in these thinkers the foundation for a model of constant or perpetual revolution, which he describes, in the earlier case of Greenberg, as a “dramatic return to a prior state.” With respect to Fried, North shows how a kind of “radical self-scrutiny” is shown to be the “definitive practice” of modernist art; with respect to Cavell, North describes the way he manages to reinvent the Kuhnian concept par excellence, the paradigm, as “criteria for appropriateness,” rules that are “constitutive and therefore enabling” of forms of life that lend coherence to human behavior. Though North appears to conceive of this model as one in which anomalies increasingly become the norm, he notes that, for Cavell, “modernism . . . is the revolutionary process by which art returns us to the world lost when modernity calls all norms and conventions into question,” adding, “the purpose of novelty, then, is not to defeat but to reinstate tradition,” however provisional and open to revision it may be.
What readers are to do, ultimately, with the wealth of erudition evinced by North over the course of his detailed and often illuminating reconstructions of thinkers ancient and modern is not obvious. Clearly there are as many ways of being new, of sounding the clarion call of novelty, as there are names in North’s book. More pessimistic readers will think, perhaps, that North has shown to an overwhelming degree that, as art historian Thomas Crow once memorably put it, “the avant-garde serves as a kind of research and development arm of the culture industry.” A more optimistic response might be that what North shows us is how novelty, rather than breaking with tradition, as we typically think of it, is in an important sense the very battleground where what becomes tradition is won and lost. There may be few things older than novelty but, as North’s book persuasively shows, it is in no danger of leaving us anytime soon.
Dylan J. Montanari is a graduate student at Stanford University, where he also co-coordinates the Philosophy and Literature Initiative. He is pursuing a dual Ph.D. in French and Italian literature and specializes in late 19th and early 20th century aesthetics. His work has been published in Berfrois, Chicago Review, Philosophy & Literature, and Italian studies journals. Before moving to California, he studied at the University of Chicago.
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