The New

Another rough draft from The Age of Aesthetics. Part of the problem here is that I have two oppositions which don’t necessarily fit together. One is modernist innovation, always involving antagonism, in contrast to corporate-promoted innovation today, which is non-antagonistic. The other is micro-social and micro-political collective innovation, versus the corporate capture and privatization of innovation. These two schemas of the politics of innovation don’t quite coincide the way my argument would like them to.

Anyway, here goes…

“The only way we’re going to survive is to innovate our way out of the box,” says management guru Tom Peters. “We’re down to one idea, which is innovation.” This statement is interesting both for its desperation, and for its certitude. The “box” of habit and routine is fatally constricting us. We must innovate, Peters says, because our very survival depends upon it, and because there is nothing else we can rely on. Permanent “management revolution,” based on the principle of “thriving on chaos,” is the only way to go. But innovation itself, or “thinking outside the box,” is the one thing that Peters does not ever doubt or question.

Innovation and the New remain our highest values in postmodernity and the Age of Aesthetics, just as they were in the age of twentieth-century modernism. The categorical imperative of our productive endeavors is still to “make it new.” But the sign of this imperative has been reversed; it has flipped over from negative to positive. Modernist creation was fundamentally antagonistic: “there is no affirmation which is not preceded by an immense negation” (Deleuze). “Making it new” had avant-gardist, anti-capitalist, or at least subversive and anti-conformist connotations;it was always opposed to the standardization and repetitiveness of mass production. (Even the fascist side of modernism — as in the Italian Futurists and Ezra Pound — was anti-capitalist in this sense). But today,in a world of flexible production and lifestyle marketing, the imperative to “make it new” is enthusiastically embraced by Capital. After all, corporations themselves are now mindful of diversity, and opposed to standardization and repetitive mass production. And so they embrace a perpetual newness that is upbeat and free of ntagonism. Continual “reinvention” is the watchword, both in corporate organization (the focus of Tom Peters’ interest) and in product design and marketing.

Does this mean that the very notion of change and the New has been compromised? Haug suggests that capitalist “aesthetic innovation is… basically aesthetic ageing — [marketers] are not interested in the new as such. Their determining aim is the outdating of what exists, its denunciation, devaluing,and replacement.” In this sense, the perpetual novelty of aestheticized commodities never actually leads to anything radically New. For capital itself cannot innovate. The New always comes from the outside,from beyond,or from below; all a corporation can do is internalize this outside, by channeling the flows, appropriating the innovations for itself. As Lazzarato beautifully says, paraphrasing Gabriel Tarde: “Everything first happens by multi-consciousness, and it is only afterwards that an invention manifests itself through a uni-consciousness… Invention is thus always an encounter,a hybridization,and a collaboration among a multiplicity of imitative flows — ideas, habits, comportments, perceptions, sensations — even when it takes place in an individual brain.” Encounters and hybridizations cannot be programmed or planned in advance; they are always contingent and unpredictable. The future remains open, with an undecidable margin for maneuvering. Every real event involves a moment of excess, a surplus of what happens over its provoking causes and necessary conditions. Innovation thus continually emerges,without warning, from what William James calls the “quasi-chaos” of moment-to-moment experience.

In this way, change is both continual and incremental. It takes place in a series of small, discrete steps; yet the additive effect of all these states is to produce a continuous chain. Or to state the paradox in other terms: innovation is at once singular and common, individual and collective, personal and anonymous. Somebody must have been the first person to play the blues, or to bake a pizza, or to wear a baseball cap backwards. But such singular innovative acts mean little by themselves. They only signify because they are part of a chain. Each micro-innovation depends on other micro-innovations that came before it; and each is taken up in subsequent adaptations and alterations. If these innovators have not become rich and famous from their work, if even their names have been forgotten, this is because their innovations usually pass undetected, as they are absorbed into the textures of everyday life. In any case, the innovations do not really “belong” to their inventors, for they are parts of an ongoing process that was going on before them, and that extends far beyond them. Innovation is thus the restless movement that William James calls “experience,” Bergson calls “elan vital,” and Whitehead calls “creative advance.”

What happens when coolhunters ferret out these innovations, and when corporations learn to “thrive” on the chaos of their making? The process of change is interrupted, and the continuous chain of inventions is broken up. A particular innovation is isolated andidentified; that is to say, it is privatized, capitalized, broadcast widely, and marketed on a massive scale. It is stamped with copyrights, patents, and trademarks. It is no longer anonymous and common. It becomes visible, as a discontinuous novelty, and as a mark of distinction or prestige. The innovation has become a commodity; an unremarked, self-determined practice has been captured in the form of a fixed object (it has been “reified”). It is now something that people will gladly pay for. The flux and reflux of “experience” is organized into a series of strategic aesthetic innovations. As consumers, we are plugged directly into this product renovation cycle. We crave novelty in order to stave off boredom. We continually need infusions of fresh commodities, just as vampire-capital continually need infusions of “living labor,” and just as vampires in general continually need infusions of fresh blood.

This means, in a certain sense, that capitalism always lags behind. Its frenzy for innovation is a consequence of the fact that it is always late. It must engage in a continual struggle to catch up with what is already happening in the “street.” This time lag is what totalizing theories of administration (Adorno),manipulation (Haug), and programming (Baudrillard) always miss. The New always comes from outside. Capitalist appropriation and accumulation are entirely dependent upon there being something outside, something beyond the system’s circuits of production and reproduction. Therehas to besomething — some surplus — for Capital to appropriate and accumulate. Otherwise it will give way to entropy, and slowly wind down.

Nonetheless, this Outside is very difficult to discern. It seems too facile, for instance,when Lazzarato distinguishes between the “event” of public, collaborative creation, and the “simulacrum of the event” or “pseudo-event” (99) of advertising and marketing. For even if these can be separated in principle, the former is entirely seized and covered over by the latter in practice. Lazzarato claims that “the dynamics of the event and of multiplicity are indigestible by capitalism.” But isn’t this a sort of lazy, hip (or even hippie) Deleuzianism? One that ignores all of Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) work on capitalism’s infinite capacity for “axiomatization” and “capture” (or appropriation)? Events and multiplicities are precisely the things that capitalism does digest. They are its prey, and they constitute the terrain upon which it establishes its empire.

It seems nearly impossible to disentangle the innovation that happens in the “street” from the ways in which that innovation is recuperated and commoditized. Our entire society is saturated and driven by trends in fashion, marketing, and consumption. The entire physical, sensible world — the world we see and hear (and feel and smell) all around us, in our homes and on the streets and in the shopping malls, as well as on TVand on the Net — is organized and defined by corporate practices of aesthetic innovation. Under these conditions, the New as such cannot be extricated from aesthetic capitalism’s incessant drive for obsolescence and novelty. Today, the New is inextricably tied in with entrepreneurship, and with marketing, advertising, and branding. The distinction here is a formal, Kantian one. The event of the New,the process of innovation,always impacts us from outside. It must be given to our “sensibility,” in order for there to be social experience at all. But the “schemata” of our understanding, the ways in which we apprehend and make use of these innovations, are only provided by the commodity form. It is only through the process of corporate capture and marketing that the New is actualized, or made present, in the world.

And after this, I need to say something about the Antinomy between theories of manipulation and programming (e.g. Adorno, Baudrillard), which offer no hope of resistance; and theories of the primacy of collective creation by the multitude (Lazzarato, Hardt and Negri) who are absurdly optimistic as to the prospects for resistance and change. Hardt/Negri and Lazzarato are right, as against Adorno, in asserting the ontological priority of “living labor” or “general intellect” over capital’s recuperation or appropriation of this labor and intellect. But they are willfully naive to think that this ontologically primary process is accessible without passing through the circuits of capital — the necessity of this passage (on the Kantian grounds I mention above) is what Adorno’s pessimism correctly apprehends, and it is also what fuels Zizek’s criticism of Hardt/Negri. Similarly, what is wrong with a lot of contemporary cultural studies it that it assumes the efficacy of “resistance” after the entry on innovation into the circuits of capital — hence all the stuff about “resistant readings” of TV shows, genre fiction, etc. — whereas in fact such resistance doesn’t come after subsumption by capital — at that point, everything is already complicitous, as Adorno would say — but only before, in this ontologically prior, but largely inaccessible way. There’s no easy solution to this (Kantian) antinomy; any push towards one will involve projections of morality and desire (the 2nd Critique) and/or aesthetics (the 3rd Critique) rather than anything empirically accessible.

11 Responses to “The New”

  1. Greg says:

    Hi Steve, This blog-entry is wonderful as always, and I have nothing much to add. Except to suggest that you check out Nigel Thrift’s work, like his recent “Re-inventing invention: new tendencies in capitalist commodification” in the journal Economy and Society, Vol.35 #2, May 2006. I just got a copy yesterday (and haven’t had time to really get through it), but Thrift has a similar set of coordinates (Tarde & Lazzarato are key among them), and here are the last words of the essay (um, spoiler alert?): “Capitalism is carpeting expectation and capturing potential. Simple condemnation of this tendency, as if from some putative outside, or, alternatively, embracing it as a part of some continuously fluid overarching vitalist order will not do. Rather, it seems to me to call for radically new imaginings of exactly how things are, but under a new aspect that we can currently only glimpse ‘a tune beyond us, yet ourselves,’ as Wallace Stevens put it.” There is more, another essay, same journal, Nov 2003 by Thomas Osborne called “Against ‘Creativity’: A philistine rant’ maybe worth a look … but perhaps a bit more tangential to what you are after here. Thrift, though, definitely worth a look. take care, Greg

  2. piscator says:

    Some possible lines:

    1. The possibility of yoking up this ‘outside’ — the sort of needed moment of innovation — to a definiate and more graspable politics of the commons: a shared AND antagonistic space of creation. This space can be mapped out into actual institutional politics, perhaps, a little more solidly

    2. If one believes that they do offer any sort of creativity/spark– Hollywood movies seem difficult to get within this framework,

  3. Ken says:

    Hi Steve,
    This is actually one of my favorite posts. Fun and helpful to watch you write and think. The authentically “new” or “innovative” is, as you note, incredibly difficult to locate these days in part because the very conceptual terrain has changed (I answer yes to your rhetorical question). And I agree with your skepticism even about the synonymous substitution for the “new” gaining more and more traction in criticalspeak — “event”. Authentic events, even for Badiou, are few and far between: St. Paul and the French Revolution don’t come along everyday even if you accept those two as authentic events that tear a whole in Being, reshuffle the ontological order, etc. (Although I would love to see your aesthetic sensibility joined to Badiou’s larger arguments)

    But on the larger question of this “new” conceptual terrain for the new or innovative that seemingly traps us: if there is a new terrain of the new, a truly new terrain of the new, don’t we first need a new calculus of some kind other than the Kantian split you articulate with such ease and clarity? Hasn’t capitalism, in its all devouring capacity (I don’t necessarily agree with that position, but I understand it), already commodified and thus transformed our very tools of thought here? That is, if capitalism is the ontological horizon you seem to frame it as — that is, there is nothing beyond it…or, rather what “is” beyond it can only be accessed via capitalism’s networks…then doesn’t capitalism already may have hold of your ontological calculator, too? You are using an already commodified tool or method…the Kantian antimony as you frame it….to try to grasp or get at what is in fact a new ontological order (capitalism). In other words, the “lag” you sense in capitalism is actually an illusion fostered by capitalism itself, an illusion of an older, ancient ontological order with an outside or “other” that can still be approached by the same philosophical methods, the grammar of Being and non-being that underwrites your discussion of capitalism and “non” capitalism? Perhaps this explains all the current, almost frenzy attention to the tradition — moving back from hegel to Kant to Spinoza — the Greeks — even Parmenides? As far back as we look there is no tool that helps us get at the all encompassing new ontological order of capitalism?

  4. David Daratony says:

    It’s always a pleasure reading your ideas.

    Excuse my elliptical and somewhat disconnected thoughts and quotes.

    Does logic only discover algorithms to which we are responsible for supplying a connection to the world? Does poetry not follow the same sense? What about innovation?

    Merleau-Ponty writing around 1946 in *Sense and Non-Sense* sums up his task in the first three paragraphs of his preface. I bring this up to address your first opposition.

    “It would seem that the communion between a man and his power to choose cannot long be endured. Among the rebels, some have unconditionally surrendered to the Communist discipline, others to a revealed religion, while others–those most loyal to their youth–have split their lives in two: in their roles as citizens, husbands, lovers, or fathers, they follow the rule of a fairly conservative reason, localizing their revolt in literature or poetry, which thereby becomes religion.” -Merleau-Ponty

    In an essay I had to read for a job (believe it or not!) by Michael Heller “Avant-garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words” he opens with a quote from Bataille and Robert Creeley:

    “To get from inside to outside, man must cross through the narrow passage whose name is anguish.” -Bataille

    “Tradition is an aspect of what anyone is NOW thinking, not what someone once thought.” -Robert Creeley

    Heller later writes about a group of poets in November of 1987 who read poetry “‘to Iraqis shelling Iranian positions…’ The report is illustrative of a certain power of poetry which is no longer found in our postmodernist culture. Echoes and remembrances still exist, in the awe which the word poetry still inspires among general readers, in the preponderance of academic literary study devoted to poetry, even in the way major publishing houses continue guiltily to publish poetry at the expense of their bottom line. Auden claimed that ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ but as the above points would indicate, there continues to be something special, even mythic about poetry in the consciousness of many…

    “There is also the tradition of method, a tradition which, while perhaps of some importance for the audience of poetry, is of supreme importance for the makers of the poem. This tradition not only nests and is sheltered inside the tradition of authority, but is, by rupture or by overcoming of that authority, capable of standing outside it and, ultimately, of forcing that tradition to rise up and well around it, to reenclose it within authority, so to speak. In this line of development, a rebellion against the past, enabling a poet to use, deploy or forgo a technique in the process of making. The literary critic or interpreter looks not only for instances of these two lines of tradition but for the manner in which they interact (or fail to interact), how they animate each other as occasions of hypostasis, first the sacred function driving technique, then technical change enabling the sacred. Poet and critic look for these crossovers, these irruptions and tearings, for they represent, as Renato Poggioli suggests, the point where an avant-garde system is ‘transmuted in turn to a cause . . . where it becomes a dogma and a mystique transforming avant-garde praxis into principle and doctrine.’” – Michael Heller

    This last point seems to be a hamper on antagonism where the initial point of praxis was meant as antagonism. As Poggioli points out, antagonism as praxis often becomes principle and doctrine thereby enclosing all “antagonisms” within the initial point of praxis.

  5. sixfootsubwoofer says:

    Hello. I just discovered your blog (through a search for Samuel Delaney) and am extremely excited about your ideas. As I am somewhat new to this type of theory, I have a question for you:

    I have always been interested in the gap between aesthetic innovation and capitalism’s aquisition and commoditisation of it. This “time lag” is something I have always been aware of as being a fetile ground for cultural theorization. And I am curious about your ideas of how this ‘gap” could be a correlative of Zizek’s “gap” between the ontic and the ontological, and/or Lacan’s various “gaps”.

    Also, do you think this is a gap that will ever be filled? This is a bit speculative, I know, but do you think that there will be an immediate collapse of capitalism if this gap is ever filled? Is this an oversimplification? What about the various speculations concerning a point of “singularity”? Could the Singularity be this catastrophic collapse of capitalism brought on by the closing of the gap between aesthetic innovation and its capitalist commoditization?

    And do you think there are grounds for an argument that this gap has already been closed?

    Thanks for any comments you might have. Any suggestions for authors or essays concerning these questions would be greatly appreciated. I will be beginning my thesis work in a couple of years and any ideas would help me to formulate the direction I might like to take.

  6. A few brief responses.

    Greg, thanks for the Nigel Thrift cite. It’s a powerful and very useful essay.

    Ken and sixfootsubwoofer both, I think you are right to focus attention on the gap, whether temporal or ontological. I don’t have any answers here, but I agree that that is where I need to look…

    David, thanks for the Heller cite, it is very interesting and I am trying to work towards thinking about the role of aesthetics per se (not just capitalist “aesthetic innovation”) in all of this.

  7. chuk says:

    no, this is not up to quality. very good topics and appropriate sentiments, but it sucks.

    “Encounters and hybridizations cannot be programmed or planned in advance; they are always contingent and unpredictable. The future remains open, with an undecidable margin for maneuvering. Every real event involves a moment of excess, a surplus of what happens over its provoking causes and necessary conditions. Innovation thus continually emerges,without warning, from what William James calls the “quasi-chaos” of moment-to-moment experience.”

    thats really your writing at its worst. please never print it.

    “We crave novelty in order to stave off boredom. We continually need infusions of fresh commodities, just as vampire-capital continually need infusions of “living labor,” and just as vampires in general continually need infusions of fresh blood.”

    come on.


  8. David Daratony says:

    The “detournement” above was not meant to locate aesthetic innovation in capitalism or capitalism’s use of aesthetics (a Brechtian critique). Rather to locate aesthetics in practice.

    What is the role of aesthetics? Is it not tied up (intentionally or not) with our daily lives and/or intentionality?

    Bakhtin’s *Toward a Philosophy of the Act*??

  9. john steppling says:

    I wonder about this idea of “real” events. Since such events are made by people who have been colonized intellectually and emotionally. (maybe since i used to work in hollywood… takes are rather jaundiced). Benjamin said we no longer have real experiences. In Hollywood the word “innovation” was tossed around all the time….but of course what it meant was quite the opposite….although a cosmetic change was needed. Innovation meant a new color of familiarity…..because the familiar helped keep the audience warm and fuzzy.

    So real events……I think this is somehow a doubtful split….and kind of what Ken was saying above. Innovation was also a word I remember running into a lot at grants meetings for US arts funding. “Is he an innovator”? I never quite understood this. The lazzarato quote is brilliant. Its exactly so in the culture industry for sure. The shelf life for new is ever shorter, too. What does being an ‘innovator’ mean at this point? It has meaning only in the context of capital and product. One consumes the new…..and without such commodification the term is pretty meaningless I think. Im reminded of how “ego pyschology” took over in the US (adjustment therapy) about the time the ego shrunk to nothing.

  10. Keith says:

    Hi Steve,

    Great post, and while I always enjoy reading your blog, this one has left me a bit perplexed, mostly in regard to the following:

    “Lazzarato claims that “the dynamics of the event and of multiplicity are indigestible by capitalism.” But isn’t this a sort of lazy, hip (or even hippie) Deleuzianism? One that ignores all of Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) work on capitalism’s infinite capacity for “axiomatization” and “capture” (or appropriation)? Events and multiplicities are precisely the things that capitalism does digest. They are its prey, and they constitute the terrain upon which it establishes its empire.”

    Is this really a “lazy Deleuzianism”? Isn’t it more characteristic of an event that it _does_ escape capitalism, and for that matter, history? (cf. Deleuze, “May ’68 Didn’t Happen”). Perhaps Badiou and Deleuze would even be in agreement here, where it is a matter of an event being in excess of a situation, and what is absorbed are its material traces – that is to say, what a work of art initiates is altogether different from what might happen to it within the market. Deleuze would also maintain that there is no such thing as “commercial art”.

    Also, might it not be appropriate to make some distinctions between an “innovation” and an “event”? And if events are “entirely seized and covered over by [pseudo-events] in practice”, is it not still possible that “retroactive interventions” – in the sense that Badiou would attribute to them, but also, one might suspect, Deleuze as well – are entirely capable of freeing events up from the sediment that may have covered them over along their becoming? It then manifests itself as a problem of politics as well, if I am not mistaken.

  11. Keith,

    thanks for your comment. You are pointing to a difficulty that I am trying to finesse, as I rework the passage I posted as this entry. I am inclined to agree with you to a large extent, that the event (in either Deleuze or Badiou) is in fact in excess with regard to its (recuperative) actualization. I am trying to find a fine line between making the liberatory potential of this sound too easy, and effacing it altogether. The event, and what Deleuze calls its “counter-effectuation” is a very delicate thing. The point which separates the potential of an event from its recuperation as advertising and just more self-realization by capital passes through both politics, and (crucially) aesthetics; and the latter of these is precisely what The Age of Aesthetics in toto is trying to grasp.

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