The Arbitrariness of Novelty

Posted: December 15, 2010 in Consciousness, Culture, Education, Idealism, Philosophy

One of the arguments used frequently to dismiss dire warnings of systemic collapse goes something like this: “Folks have been complaining about this for years (or decades, centuries, millennia), yet we’re still here muddling through.” Maybe the subject is economics, education, morality, crime, war, or even industrial and societal collapse. It hardly matters. The argument is so useful it can be deployed against anyone recognizing a problem or advocating taking action to change course or fix the problem — demonstrating concern, in short — by saying, “I’m not concerned because these warnings aren’t new.” Only the most labored thinker could possibly believe that novelty is what gives warnings force and that lack of novelty diffuses force.

I became aware of the arbitrariness of novelty long ago. Friends would ask, why do we need yet another recording of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony? Hasn’t that territory been amply covered? Similarly, why keep writing the Great American Novel (despite its presumed novelty)? To those who would put such questions, the preservation of a living tradition offers no appeal. Yet virtually every new technological development, contraption, or innovation is embraced with uncritical gusto. Why, for instance, would anyone want portable music in the ears 24/7 using first the Walkman then the iPod (or whatever device has now supplanted them)? Why be constantly tethered to the Internet by smart phones, iPads, and Netbooks? Is there no awareness or recognition that saturation renders experience banal?

If the previous paragraph is limited to arts, entertainments, and information, what of politics and history? George Santayana’s famous saying (which is often misquoted and misattributed) “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” has relevance here precisely because we constantly forget (though sometimes relearn) our own history. A great deal of that loss is by simple attrition, e.g., living memory of, say, WWII diminishes with each passing year. Another cause is shifting educational priorities. Hardly anyone studies Latin or Greek anymore, so that great body of Classical thought, which is the basis for all Western culture, is no longer understood in the original language. And as any language scholar recognizes, texts can be translated only imperfectly. Thus, the timeless wisdom on questions of polity and man’s relationship to the state so well thought out 2-3 thousand years ago is rendered too remote to sustain our interest. It isn’t new.

Those powerless warnings we hear never abate because immutable characteristics of human nature provide evidence of underlying truths that persist beyond every short-term attempt to jigger with things for maximal advantage.

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