Reviews — From the December 2013 issue
Ezra Pound’s dictum “Make It New” has long been cited as modernism’s driving objective. Yet Pound, in coining the phrase, was actually drawing on his own (rather free) translation of a maxim associated with the ancient Chinese king Cheng Tang, which Pound first encountered via another translation, by the Scottish sinologist James Legge. (The original Chinese has something to do with replenishing or replanting tree shoots.) In 1950, the critic Hugh Kenner, writing in The Hudson Review, attributed the phrase to Pound alone, sweeping aside all surrounding context. So “Make It New” was itself made — but it wasn’t new.
As the professor and critic Michael North illustrates in his excellent book Novelty: A History of the New (University of Chicago Press, $26), many of our ideas about newness, whether in the sciences or the arts, are based in misapprehension. Mining the work of classical thinkers (Plato, Empedocles), natural scientists (Charles Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould), and twentieth-century philosophers (Thomas Kuhn, Stanley Cavell), North shows us that novelty has always been nettlesome, “one of the very first ideas to trouble the consciousness of humankind.” The author of Ecclesiastes, exhausted by his own skepticism, asks, “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already, in the ages before us.”
Part of the human mind’s resistance to novelty is embodied in the philosophical conundrum Ex nihilo nihil fit: “Nothing comes from nothing.” Aristotle took a mild run at disproving that notion, but most classical thinkers, from Parmenides to Lucretius, cherished what North calls “temporal stasis”; “newness” was evidence only of deep cyclical changes embedded in natural processes. That which came was always part of something.
Even the Renaissance, the most concentrated explosion of novelty ever to clobber the human experience, was an attempt to mimic the stature of the classical age. Renasci, the word used by those who actually lived through the Renaissance, was taken from farming, and related to what North describes as “organic patterns of growth.” (Semantic misunderstandings within this topic are, it seems, frequently horticultural.)
In the sciences, no idea has altered humanity’s understanding of itself more profoundly than Darwin’s formulation of natural selection, “the basis for a model of novelty,” North writes, “with more influence, right now, than any other.” Stasis could no longer be imagined to sit, like a bored king, at the heart of all life. It cannot be a coincidence that human politics shifted with the recognition of the natural world as an engine of violent change: the understanding of revolution within nature begot revolutions within nations.
One aspect of modern life North regards as genuinely new is the tendency to convert everything into information, whether literally, as gigabits darting along strands of optical fiber, or more figuratively, as when information itself “comes to seem the basic stuff of the universe.” After Watson and Crick, most of us accept that all life depends on how “the four nucleotides of the DNA strand could be matched to the twenty amino acids that make up all proteins.” North makes the dazzling case that viewing life as made up of discrete packages of rearranged, recombined information helped lead to, among other things, Andy Warhol’s silk-screen Mao portraits and replicated Campbell’s soup cans. Warhol, the high priest of what the critic Clement Greenberg dismissed as “Novelty Art,” had something typically eloquent to say about the quality of creative newness: “[I]t’s just amazing that it keeps, you know, going on. And the way new things happen and stuff.”
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