Interview with Michael North, Author of “Novelty”

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New stuff. New ideas. New concepts. New paradigms. Gotta love ‘em. I loved the idea of a history (so connected with the past) of the new. I wrote to Michael North to ask him for an interview about his book, Novelty: A History of the New (buy at U Chicago P or Amazon). He graciously agreed and this is the result.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Michael. You start your book off with something I had never really thought about before, “The state of being recent, unfamiliar, or different from the past is actually a little difficult to talk about in itself, since modern English in peculiarly deficient in respectable terms for the new.” Could you elaborate? Is that true of languages such as French, Japanese, Chinese, German or Russian, for instance?

Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North
Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North


What I meant is that 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.

Some of this is inherent in the term, which comes into English from the French, where it originally designated a certain sort of merchandise, what you might call dry goods. So it had the connotation of triviality in French as well. I don’t know enough about the other languages to extend this any farther, except to say the awkward shift from adjective to noun, from new to newness happens in German as well. The new, in other words, is not something our language makes it very easy to discuss.

I was quite surprised by the idea that anything actually being new in the world of fashion and art is not given much credence. Please tell us more about that. Is retro now the standard in fashion, for example?

If you believe what Simon Reynolds says in his recent book, Retromania, then there hasn’t been much new in pop culture since the early 1960s. Even movements that look different, like punk rock, are really attempts to recapture an original excitement, lost in the haze of psychedelia.

Sometimes artists, writers, or musicians are open and even defiant about their dependence on the past, as, for example, postmodern architects were. But Reynolds seems to come around to the idea that something is wrong with an art that lives mostly by recycling. And I think his book is representative of a general sense that most of what is being done now in pop culture is a retread of some kind, and there does seem to be a certain amount of anxiety about that.

In the introduction to your book you say of the subject of novelty, “Though novelty is not itself by any means new, being one of the very first ideas to trouble the consciousness of humankind, it seems almost to have no past, as if it arose from nothing every time it occurred.” You go on to argue that novelty has no standard text. What audiences did you think needed such a history?

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.

I was quite surprised to read in your book that the famous phrase of Ezra Pound, “Make it new,” was not widely used until the late 1950s and early 1960s. Could you tell us a bit about the origins and later uses of the phrase?

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.

This is a striking statement, “virtually nothing new has happened in the history of novelty since Epicurus.” Wow – please tell us what makes you say that.

Well, I guess this is what the book sets out to demonstrate. The various ways in which we think about newness – revolution, evolution, paradigm shift – can all be traced back to earlier and simpler models that were first put together by the Greeks. It’s not the case that later thinkers were consciously copying earlier ones. Instead, the fact that the same models persist over time suggests that there is something necessary about them. What you might say is that the history of ideas about novelty illustrates the main point I’m making about novelty itself, that what passes for new is actually the old revived or rearranged in some way.

I was struck by this passage, “the new became a goal, not an impossible anomaly.” Who represented best the goal view and when did it start to take shape?

The view of tradition is that novelty is a mistake. When people begin to question tradition and value the up-to-date instead, then they begin to see novelty as valuable and desirable.

You could say that this must have happened many times in history, or else very little would have happened. But at some point, by most accounts during the Enlightenment, the values of freedom, change, and self-determination become the dominant ones, and you get revolutionaries like those in France and North America, and philosophers like Kant, who wanted to reason their way out of bondage to the past.

Please tell us about the alphabetic metaphor.

Philosophers have often been tempted by the idea that nature is divided up into a limited set of standardized elements, rather like an alphabet, that could be combined and recombined to yield the full variety of the world. It’s one of the most common models of novelty because it explains how variety can be generated without any increase in matter or energy.

The alphabet is a powerful analogue for this kind of system because its combinations are meaningful, at least when letters make up words. So we get ideas like the genetic “code,” a metaphor that has been literalized to suggest that genetic sequences are a message of some sort.

You write, “The specific shape of Darwin’s model of novelty is very largely determined by its heritage, and by the changes Darwin effects in the old models as he brings them together.” Please elaborate.

My basic idea about Darwin is that he brings together the two classic models of novelty – recurrence and recombination – to make up the process of evolution, in which traits are randomly combined, generation after generation. Because the elements to be recombined in this system were so fine-grained, change would always have to be slow and incremental. But the cyclical aspect of the system guaranteed that change would not dissipate and could then build up into large-scale differences. Thus evolution is slow and piecemeal, but it can also produce major changes.

Staying on the subject of Darwin, you say this, “Darwin established novelty as an issue of science and philosophy to face, but without converting very many to his particular explanation of it.” Please tell us what the problem was with his particular explanation of it as far as other thinkers were concerned.

The issue I’m addressing here is natural selection, which was embraced by some social thinkers, and turned into “survival of the fittest,” but was thought by many biologists to be an insufficient explanation for the variety of nature. In the years just after Darwin’s death, natural selection was often looked at as a purely negative force, a mere pruner or editor, that could never push evolution in a creative direction. In other words, many biologists around the beginning of the 20th century thought that evolutionary biology needed another model of novelty, and this is why evolutionary novelty was a lively topic of debate at this time.

What was the saltatory model of novelty?

Saltations are leaps: big, abrupt changes in a developmental pattern. Darwin didn’t care for the idea of leaps because he felt that natural processes are always slow, steady, and incremental. It was important to him to show that processes of change still visible in nature could account for the variety of life, given enough time to work in, so that it was no longer necessary to invoke large-scale natural disasters to explain changes in the fossil record.

Scientists in general dislike the idea of leaps because they tend to separate effects from causes. Of course, saltation later became a live issue again, under the sponsorship of Stephen Jay Gould.

I found this thought-provoking, “perhaps the coming of the information age was not a revolution at all but rather the arrival of something simply unprecedented.” Is that because it has affected so many people in their day-to-day lives? Are revolutions, then, to be minor affairs from here on out by comparison?

I’m relying in this passage on the idea of revolution as a full turn, a return to something. This is the way many political revolutions have been conceived, as the restoration of rights or privileges, but it’s less true of the Industrial Revolution and perhaps of what you might call the digital revolution. In these cases, the problem is that revolution implies something pretty brief and punctual, which is no longer the way historians look at the Industrial Revolution. We now tend to look at such historical changes as more spread out and diffused, not linked to single, dramatic inventions like a certain form of the steam engine. I don’t think this means that change is less fundamental or profound. It just comes in a less dramatic form.

Could you please discuss a bit the relationship of cybernetics to “normal science” and “revolutionary science?”

Part of my point in this part of the book is that a cybernetic system is a good example of what Kuhn called “normal science,” though Wiener badly wanted cybernetics as a movement to be revolutionary. Normal science is incremental, collective, and conventional. It works by rearranging known quantities into new configurations. This is fairly close to Wiener’s vision for science: it would work collectively, collaboratively, and rather undramatically, constantly compensating and rebalancing as new results come in. But Wiener also had a rather messianic side, and he liked the idea of vast, sweeping changes, arriving like a thunderclap. So he ended up imposing this revolutionary model of novelty onto a practice that was really a good example of a very different kind of system, one in which the new arrives gradually and is constantly reabsorbed.

Please discuss the shift in the reputation of cybernetics over the years. Is the term used much nowadays?

We are living in the future that cybernetics foretold, and since it hasn’t turned out to be quite as rosy as promised, there is an inevitable tendency to see the whole idea as a bit fraudulent. But some of the basic ideas behind cybernetics survive in systems theory and anywhere else where recursion is an important principle. There is also a lively and influential body of second-generation cyberneticists that is still working to extend some of the original ideas.

Could you please expand on this statement, “modernism ended up in more or less the same bin with cybernetics?”

These are two movements that promised great change, new freedoms, and are now looked at with a fair amount of skepticism. Cybernetics was supposed to diffuse authority and empower individuals, but now it is often criticized as a model of centralized control. Aesthetic modernism was supposed to overthrow tradition and open up the arts, but it is often criticized as hermetic, distant, and disengaged.

The fact that this has happened in much the same way to modernizing movements in the sciences and the arts may suggest that there is some sort of inevitable irony at work. Perhaps revolutionary movements always look repressive in retrospect, as their promises of total change fizzle out. What this may mean, though, is that expectations are too high in the first place and that a more reasonable idea of what novelty really is and how it comes about could prevent the disappointment.

Please tell us about the term “mechanical selection.”

Mechanical selection is a term that describes the process whereby demands for efficiency lead to improvements in design. The idea is that machines tend to become not only simpler and more efficient but also more beautiful over time.

Bad design dies out, as it were, just as poorly adapted species are gradually eliminated by natural selection. I guess it’s obvious from this description that the term was especially popular at the very beginning of the machine age, at a time when people had a lot more faith in the industrial process than we are likely to have now.

What are some examples of the recombinant model of aesthetic novelty?

A large body of examples would come from algorithmically generated art. Literary works that are created by applying some kind of filter to a pre-existing source text. A lot of music, starting with twelve-tone composition, would also qualify. Art forms such as collage, and any kind of appropriation art, where pre-existing elements are incorporated and rearranged.

I liked the phrase, “automatic anathema.” I notice that you don’t mention Hilton Kramer or the periodical The New Criterion in your book. Was he simply not a player in the history of novelty? Was he not an exemplar of the automatic anathema?

I think that’s fair. I’ve always been bothered by blanket condemnations of the present day, and it’s especially distressing to me when the great achievements of the modernist period are used to condemn later changes in art or literature. It would certainly have been interesting to discuss the exact meaning of the adjective in the title of The New Criterion, which was clearly meant to revive the old Criterion, edited by Eliot, and an editorial stand that was conservative even in its own day.

What do you mean by “the redefinition of series as grammar?”

A series doesn’t have any particular structure, and it can be extended simply by addition. A grammar has rules and makes patterns, and it is extended in particular ways.

What I was describing with that phrase was the affect of a linguistic metaphor applied to art. In the 1960s, some artists came to feel that an array of art works could be generated by quasi-linguistic procedures, governed by a kind of grammar, so that what might otherwise have been a repetitive series actually produced something new, at least in the same way that a given statement may be new, though its structure is anticipated by the grammar of the language.

Please expand on this provocative statement, “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.”

I guess that is a bit tendentious. 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.

Could you explain what you mean by “the growing power of language as a model?”

One of the major stories of the 20th century is the influence of language as a model across the disciplines, in philosophy, anthropology, psychology, even in genetics, where the linguistic metaphor is pervasive. This is also true in the art of the 1960s and 1970s, where individual artworks were often presented as if they were utterances, formed on the basis of quasi-linguistic rules.

Of course, lots of art works in this period actually incorporated language, or at least letters. Some artists went beyond this, and took language as a general model of creativity. The argument in the book is that language has always had this kind of authority because it provides a certain kind of creative novelty, one in which rearranging standard symbols results in unprecedented statements. You can get an infinite number of statements out of a fixed set of elements, which is a pretty tempting proposition.

You book seems to take the history of novelty only up to about 1970 – am I incorrect there? Any plans for a sequel?

The book does stop with the neo-avant-garde in the 1970s. Given the fact that it starts with pre-Socratic philosophy, that’s actually a pretty good stretch. 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.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks for asking.