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What Makes Something New Today? 

On the compulsion to innovate

Given our prejudice towards innovation, everything labeled as “new” captures our interest with the promise of genuine improvement. But are new politicians, technological discoveries, and works of art necessarily better than previous ones? As we enter 2018 we recall last year’s breakthroughs as improvements in politics, technology, and art. It is as if novelty were the only criteria: the young president of France will not only reform his country but also save Europe; new facial-recognition (Face++) software will provide access to buildings, authorize payments, and also track down criminals; and Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable overpowers his previous works.

These things may all be new, but they are not necessarily improvements. “Every innovation,” as Boris Groys explains in his book On The Newresults from a new interpretation, a new contextualization or decontextualization of a cultural attitude or act.” The new, in other words, is relative. But if innovation cannot be defined simply by our compulsion for progress, growth, and improvement, how can we know when something new occurs?

While the search for the new used to be driven by the aspiration to discover truth, essence, and transcendental meaning beyond cultural differences, today the new is primarily defined in relation to what is considered traditional, old, and surpassed. Instead of following a tradition and complying with its criteria, politicians, scientists, and artists are today required to produce new traditions and criteria. But do previous traditions ever really come to an end? Doesn’t something always remain, if only to serve as a point of reference, to help us determine whether the new is really new? While in modernity the proclamation of the new was ideologically associated with the hope of ending the previous traditions, the current era of postmodernity suggests that time cannot be stopped. We are obsessed with the idea of declaring the end of postmodernity — because we are obsessed with the new — but we find, more and more, that we are stuck in an endless present.

“The new,” according to Groys, “is not just the other, it is the valuable other — the other that is judged valuable enough to be preserved, studied, glossed, and criticized, so that it will not have disappeared a moment later.” While institutions and archives become vital for conserving these valuable innovations, they also take part in the evaluation of the objects without which they could not exist. This is why Groys believes the “new is new only when it is new, not just for a given individual consciousness, but with respect to the cultural archive.” It should not come as a surprise that this “valuable other” was already present in Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. The former was the first to posit the revaluation of values as the principle informing cultural innovation; the latter pointed out how this revaluation belongs to an age where to be new belongs to a “world that has become picture.”

Within this picture, which today goes under the name of globalization, it is particularly difficult for something new to emerge considering how framed — how closed off — the ground of innovation has become. Differences are minimized and alterations are resisted. We live in an age in which even emergencies are anticipated, if not predicted outright. For something truly new to emerge in this context, there has to be, as Walter Benjamin and Gilles Deleuze believed, an “interruption.” Something must interrupt the repetition, the ceaseless flow of the present. Have Macron, Face++, and Hirst created an interruption in politics, technology, and the art world, or have they contributed to the repetition?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to understand the demands of each of these fields. Independent of the differences among them, new politicians, technologies, and works of art paradoxically emerge when they become necessary to the current flow of things, not just when they disrupt it. Although the interruptions they create exist, they cannot be meaningful without a particular world recognizing and endorsing them. This is why it is particularly difficult to discover something new today. The new must not only emerge, it must also be recognized as such, and continuity is a necessary element for recognition. Without the continuity of a tradition, a new innovation would be too different even to be noticed. Paradoxically, involvement in tradition is necessary for endorsement by the field, that is, for the new to be accepted as a member. In other words, the new has to old enough for us to recognize it as new. Georg Simmel’s writings on fashion touch on this point. That which is fashionable has to be different enough to stand out, but not too different or else nobody would recognize it. This is why fashion changes all the time: it is the dialectic between sameness and difference.

What makes something new today is not the battle between traditional and the modern, the backwards and the progressive; it is the tension between recognition and acceptance, which is evident in Macron, Face++, and Hirst. Macron was not totally unknown to the French people: he served as minister of finance before running for the presidency and his program was endorsed by the political establishment even before he was elected. Facial recognition has existed for decades, Face++ just provides a level of accuracy that governments were waiting for so that it could fulfill their security demands. And Hirst’s new work, for all its mythological window-dressing, is just another instance of his putting things in vitrines and cabinets for museums and art dealers to admire and sell.

Whether these examples of the “new” are actually improvements, only time — and interpretation — will tell. What is certain for now is that Macron is not saving Europe, Face++ will be used to spy on us, and Hirst will not be remembered for Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University and author of Why Only Art can Save Us,  Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency (2017), Hermeneutic Communism (with G. Vattimo), The Remains of Being (2008), The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), and editor of six books on religion, aesthetics, and politics. He writes opinion articles for the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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