19 May, 2014Issue 25.2HistoryNon-fiction

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What’s New, Parmenides?

Will Harris

Michael North
Novelty: A History of the New
University of Chicago Press, 2013
264 pages
ISBN 978-0226077871

Though New Historicism might have faded, the allure of the “New History” is undimmed. In the last year alone there have been new histories of the FBI, neon lighting, modern psychology, royal babies (1066-2013) and Ireland “in 100 Objects”. Yet, somehow, Michael North has managed to trump them all. His new book is not just a history of anything in particular, but Novelty: A History of the New. The irony implicit in North’s title brings out one of the book’s main themes: what, at first sight, might seem absolutely new, probably has a history as long as history itself. Still, newness, or the idea of it, sells—so Theodor Adorno made the “longing for the new” a hallmark of late capitalism. This book deals as much with that history of longing as anything else.

North has previously published, in Reading 1922 (1999), a detailed study of the social and cultural milieu into which The Waste Land and Ulysses were introduced but, not content with refracting a large range of information through the lens of a single year, he has taken a more wide-angled view in recent books, which look variously at animation, silent film, and photography. They all have one thing in common: they take modernism as their starting—or vanishing—point. Novelty extends the range further, touching on pre-Socratic philosophy, evolutionary theory, information theory, linguistics, cybernetics, and, interspersed throughout, bits of art and literature.

Novelty begins ominously, with Parmenides’s claim—2,000 years before that of Wittgenstein—that the world is all that there is and nothing can come from nothing: ex nihilo nihil fit. This becomes a refrain throughout the book, which never really progresses beyond this first nothing, in spite of the many detours North’s argument takes across differing terrain. In this way, North again shows his high modernist affinities. The “ex nihilo motif”, as Peter Liebregts calls it, appears in various guises in D.H. Lawrence’s Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921), Ezra Pound’s Canto LXXVI, and at several points in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939). In the lattermost of these, it should be said, it has become the almost unrecognisable “Ex nickylow malo comes mickelmassed bonum”, which incorporates, amongst other things, a well-known phrase from St Augustine’s ‘Sermon LXI’, “ex bonum malo“, thereby drawing together the claim that “nothing can come from nothing” with the insistence that “good comes out of evil”. How? That is the question Novelty attempts to answer.

Two “methods of coping” were found to Parmenides’s grim pronouncement and, according to North, they have never been bettered: recurrence and recombination. These form the book’s two conceptual poles. Recombination is associated with the early atomists—Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus—who postulated the existence of tiny, invisible atoms that rained down through the void; it was the shifting about of these atoms that gave the appearance of change. In his long poem, De rerum natura, through which most of atomism comes down to us, Lucretius describes how an “infinite variety” could derive “from a small number of repeated elements.” Poetry, for Lucretius, was a perfect example of this; something which, through the rearrangement of letters and words, could give the impression of newness.

Aristotle disagreed. He preferred to think in terms of cycles that were observable in nature, of things declining, coming to an end, and being replenished. It was this vision, coupled with ideas of Christian renewal, that would shape the Renaissance in the 15th century—a rebirth that was less about the introduction of the new than a restatement of the old authority. Vasari exemplified this. He advised artists to study the ancients not on the basis of merit alone, but because they were closer to the source of things; they had the authority of nature and culture on their side. Before the 19th century, this was mostly how “revolution” was thought of: as a full turn of the circle, a dramatic return to some kind of idealised prior state. There were still naysayers though: Francis Bacon held out in favour of a combinatorial approach which left space for progress and was better suited his “new scientific method”.

At this point North’s real argument shows itself, as recurrence and recombination come together to play an equally significant part in the development of evolution. Jan Swammerdam—the first to use the word “evolution”—thought that the form of any creature was contained, seed-like, in its predecessor. This model, known as “preformationism”, faltered when it came to explaining the anomalies that were manifest in the fossil record and all around us. Things clearly are not regular and do not just replicate what came before, but explaining this proved difficult.

Lucretius had faced a similar problem. If the Epicurean world was made up of innumerable, invisible atoms that rained down in endless, parallel streams, how could anything ever alter? The answer, for him, lay in clinamen, or a “swerve”. This concept, beloved of literary theorists, has recently been popularised by Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), which refers to it as “aan unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter.” An unforeseen swerve, causing one atom to bump into another and, in turn, affect the course of countless others, is what creates the possibility of change. All that was needed now was for Charles Darwin to begin his experiments on barnacles; the system he developed—natural selection—would rely as much on Aristotle’s ideas of functional recurrence as Lucretius’s swerve-driven recombination.

The beauty of Darwin’s system, in North’s words, was to “reconcile the classic alternatives of chance and necessity.” Or, more than that, to transform “chance into necessity.” Whereas before anomalies were seen as strange deviations from the preformed course, they could now be explained as integral to a process by which variety, if fortuitous, would not be discarded but fed back into the gene pool. Clinamen became the “major engine of change”, powered by the newly “interdependent couple” of Aristotle and Lucretius.

There is something overwhelmingly aesthetic about this view of evolution. It recalls David Bromwich’s comment on Wordsworth’s The Borderers that “chance is another name for a necessity we do not comprehend”. Such an attitude shows—and North is open about this—the influence of Thomas Kuhn, who features heavily in the second half of the book. In A Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn presents the history of science as one in which what is regarded as “normal” will always predominate—necessarily so, since research is conducted to that end—until the point at which enough contrary evidence accumulates to cause a sudden, irreversible “paradigm shift”. But, because this new paradigm is immediately and mutually self-reinforcing in the same way as before—and so, indistinguishable from “normal science”—the revolutionary moment is impossibly brief.

The image that Kuhn uses to describe this “shift” is taken from Gestalt psychology and was a favourite of Wittgenstein as well: the duck-rabbit. What looks for all the world like the image of a duck becomes, with an abrupt switch of perspective, a rabbit. As with scientific paradigms—which can only be inhabited one at a time—it is impossible to see both animals simultaneously. In Novelty, Kuhn’s ideas reach their fulfilment—and are, no doubt, much influenced by—Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics. Logic, psychology and evolutionary biology meet in the modern-day processing system, an instrument so powerful that any error, as swiftly as it appears, becomes “a partial basis of its future performance.” Before trouble has even begun to foment the revolutionary moment is past.

The problem is that North’s book itself comes to resemble a recursive system in which no idea is troubling enough to avoid being fed back into the argumentative performance. It does not venture beyond the well-etched grooves of the western philosophical tradition, making no mention of the concept of novelty in non-soteriological religions, where inanition takes the place of salvation. A separate trajectory, marking the influence of eastern thought on German philosophy from Schopenhauer onwards—and finding notable form in Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence”—would surely be worth a footnote. Likewise, Hegel’s writings on the historical Geist, which make an intriguing link between classical philosophy and Kuhn’s work, go unremarked on. Stephen Jay Gould, who does feature, does not get his due as a historian of science to reckon with Kuhn. His observations on the “complex dialogue between data and preconception” in Wonderful Life (1990), though apt, are probably coming from a different place. Gould always looked, where possible, to explain an idea through “a natural object” and once said that “a concept without a concrete illustration is empty.” North, whose mind is mostly uncluttered with concrete details, is clearly not of that view.

These are sins of omission, however, that must be weighed against what is ultimately a short and self-consciously partial “history”. As in the great works of combinatorial modernism, Finnegans Wake and Samuel Beckett’s late plays, Novelty could be seen as a Lucretian exercise in the rearrangement of familiar elements. The difference is that here the result is not estrangement but familiarity rephrased and repeated. Joyce could, in spite of its logical impossibility—confined by language’s recursive straitjacket—manage to hint at the ineffable, the new, the clinamen-inflected “swerve of shore”; North only reconfigures the banal. To go back to Finnegans Wake and its mangled ex nihilo, perhaps Joyce is trying to say that although nothing new is possible, the arrangement of words itself does still carry an ethical weight and words can, by their propitious recombination, make good out of evil—even if briefly. Perhaps North is trying to say this too. Unfortunately, he is no Joyce.

Will Harris is a writer and editor. He recently co-edited The Mimic Octopus: an anthology of poetic imitation.