Monday, November 3, 2014

the history of "new"

Some good bits from the Critical Margins interview with Michael North, author of Novelty: A History of the New

On the problems of thinking the concept of "new" and "novelty' in the English language.
"The main noun we have for the new, novelty, has got all sorts of pejorative connotations. In a number of fields, innovation is used for significant developments, and novelty is used for trivial, temporary ones, despite the fact that an innovation is etymologically just a change in something and not a completely new thing in itself. And the plural, novelties, is used for the most ephemeral kinds of trinkets and doo-dads..... 
The new.... is not something our language makes it very easy to discuss."
"One of the things that originally appealed to me about the topic of novelty was that it is used widely in all sorts of contexts. It’s one of those ordinary ideas that we don’t think about much, under the assumption that we know what we are talking about when we say that something is new. Like a lot of ordinary concepts, though, it almost completely gives way when you put any pressure on it, which is why there are so many arguments about whether some phenomenon is really, truly new or not. So I guess I think that everyone would be better off if we had a better notion of what is meant when the word new is used. We might be able to decide, for instance, if it makes sense to be as worried about the retro as we seem to be."
On the manifold ironies of Ezra Pound's slogan "make it new"

"The phrase is actually ancient, and Pound adapted it from a Confucian text. In the original it has nothing to do with art, but is an exhortation to rulers to keep their principles fresh and up-to-date. Pound didn’t translate the phrase until the late 1920s and it wasn’t picked up by anyone else until the 1950s. So the common notion that it was some sort of rallying-cry for modern artists and writers is wrong. My argument in the book is that it became influential only when modernism was on the wane, as critics and scholars faced the problem of what to do when the new becomes old. In fact, scholarly and critical use of the phrase has drastically simplified the actual ideas of modernist writers and artists about novelty, which are actually quite complicated and conflicted. The idea that “Make It New” designates some uncompromising devotion to artistic innovation is mocked by the simple fact that it is itself a very old slogan.
On his claim in the book  that “modernism, as a movement and as a collection of works, has turned out to be more durable than the postmodernism that was supposed to replace it.”
"What I meant is that there does still seem to be a great deal of interest in modernism, as a general concept and as a collection of works, while talk about postmodernism has pretty much died out.
The recent work of Fredric Jameson would be a case in point. The original ideas behind postmodernism, that there was a binary opposition between it and modernism, that there was a general historical break between the two, have been discredited. And there’s the problem that certain writers, such as David Foster Wallace, faced pretty squarely, of coming after postmodernism.
The general problem of “coming after,” of belatedness, is one that is obviously shared by modernism, postmodernism, and whatever comes after that, and it becomes more complicated and more acute with each turn of the screw. It’s the problem of newness, really. The syndrome of having exaggerated expectations of novelty, which are then exposed and debunked, is one that seems to go on and on. One of the things argued in the book is that this syndrome may be based on an unrealistic notion of what novelty means."
On why his book only takes the history of novelty up to 1970 or so (which just so happens to be the dawn of the postmodern era). 

"The book does stop with the neo-avant-garde in the 1970s.... There’s a certain inherent appeal in talking about the present, so it would have been interesting to take the analysis farther, but at the same time it’s harder to be confident about developments that are still going on. And I think, where the issue of novelty is concerned, we are still stuck with the same set of problems and questions that were defined in the polemics of the 1960s and 1970s. How do you keep on being new? How can you be new when newness itself seems passé? I think these are questions we are still stuck with."

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