Back to H.F. Philosophy contents


A Total Critique of Culture

© Henry A. Flynt, Jr.


Chapter 9. Newness as Sole Value

[The numbered footnotes were written in the Nineties.]

Quite apart from Serious Culture, metaphysics, Serious-Cultural Neoism; in "culture" a production is sometimes said to be "new." A production is sometimes said to be (positively) valuable because it is "new." There are controversies over whether productions are "new"; and over what "real newness" is. There are controversies over whether "newness" is good or bad. In general, there is the notion of "newness," not limited to "culture": things are said to be "new"; things are said to be valuable because "new"here is the vague, general, valuational notion of "newness."

A few "culture" producers, taking this existing vague valuational notion of "newness" for granted, try to produce "culture" (which is (for the present, to be appreciated now, all right, but) valuable entirely because it is "new";) which is primarily "new," is "new," "different" as such; without any thought of other value, irrespective of its other characteristics. In their attempt, one thing they do is the intellectualistic, consciously experimental rearrangement of the elements of productions or an activity just to obtain a "different" production. One can play this little game indefinitely. Of course, what has enabled artists to believe in rearrangement as much as they have is that the results do have a little curiousness, surprise value. The classic example is the projectors in Gulliver's Travels who where trying to develop an ointment which would remove the wool from sheep, and to propagate the breed of naked sheep throughout the kingdom. The music concert without performers, the audience without a concert, painting a brush with a canvas, and so forth to infinity. Note the similarity to the central Dadaist techniques, which are relevant because the Dadaist technique of satire (Dada's principal purpose) is to change a thing so it appears to have its original purpose, but can't possibly fulfill it. Then, thinking about "newness" without regard for other value has led by several paths (for example, from taking "newness" as next in a tradition to identifying anything as such a next thing) to the conclusion that anything is new. Attempts to do "anything" naturally tend to take the form of doing free-floating, purposeless, trite, simple things. An example was my own rolling a ball across the floor, supposedly in the context of no activity or purpose. Then, they try to think up arbitrary new purposes, new activities. An example was my attempt, when I first conceived it, to develop a percussion-sounds ritual which would magically make a toy car roll across a desk. Finally, those who are a little more sophisticated theorize that the appearance of newness has something to do with complexity and real purposiveness, and, although confining their aim to doing something "new," try to make their productions appear to have complexity and purposiveness. I will say that this claim that a "cultural" production is valuable because it is "new" as such (irrespective of its other characteristics) is "[plain] neoism."

Here then are activities, claims, controversy, confusion in "culture," which may well be analyzed and cleared up. Since my discussion would apply generally anyway to all controversy and confusion over "newness," I will not limit myself to "newness" in "culture." In this [chapter] I will give a general study of the notion of "newness," clearing up all the confusion over "newness." As a preliminary let me mention that of course there is such a thing as neurotic opposition to apparent newness, differentness, the unfamiliar, as such: true conservatism, "neophobia." Here it is not the producer of a thing, but unsympathetic spectators of a thing, who raise the issue of "newness," as an objection to the thing. I deal with neophobia elsewhere; here I will devote myself principally to the claim that "newness" is a (positive) value. (Actually, it will be seen that the neophobe and the neoist make the same mistake, both trying to make an issue out of "newness" as such.)

Let me first list several uses of 'new' which are not valuational. Associated with the notion of "newness" is a claim sometimes made, that a thing will be widespread and acclaimed in the future, even though no one likes or even understands it now. This claim can be a plain factual claim, prediction. (I doubt if anyone has ever wasted his time with something entirely because he believed such a claim for it, and for no other reason.) It seems to me that it is poor usage, however, to say that this claim is a claim that the thing is "new." A thing may be said to be "new" if it succeeds another thing in a temporal series, is a temporal successor, latest, last; in particular, in what is considered for convenience in study, by decision, to be a tradition or activity, or set of traditions ordered according to the times they were initiated. Then, a thing may be said to be "new" if it is different in any way from another thing, different. [unprecedented; previously nonexistent]

The notions of principal interest, the most problematic notions, the principal notions to be analyzed are the existing vague valuational notion of "newness," and the notion of "newness" as such (irrespective of other characteristics). (Incidentally, such "newness" cannot be identified with the exciting, the shocking, as 'new' sometimes seems to be used to refer to; certainly the most exciting, shocking things are not "new" in any sense, but are as old as humanity and well-known to it–religion, obscenity, violence.) The key point is that valuational "newness" is, "newness" as such as a value must be, valuational notions. In the non-valuational senses, everything can be considered "new"; but the connotation of the notions of principal interest here is that only selected things "really" deserve to be said to be "new"–one speaks of "real newness." The best explication for the term '(really) new' here is that one applies 'new' approvingly to a thing one is encountering for the first time, which one finds has some major value quite irrespective of "newness," quite irrespective of whether it is "new." The "newness" of interest here is best explicated as not a "primary" value or characteristic of a thing, but rather an extra, "accidental," "secondary" characteristic a thing, which has some major value quite irrespective of "newness," can have: the characteristic of being encountered for the first time. My conclusion readily gives the solutions to all the problems about "newness." The notion of a thing having just "newness," "newness" as such (irrespective of its other characteristics or value) as a characteristic, as its value, is absurd, inconsistent; represents taking a "secondary" characteristic as a "primary" value, represents a confusion of the formal and the substantive. The case of "newness" as such is like the case of "ability" as such or "freedom" as such or "competition" as such; it represents taking a formal matter, a matter of context, as a substantive matter. (As usual, the mere formal matter isn't worth making an issue of, thinking about.)

In fact, it can be concluded that it is better to omit the issue of "newness" in determining whether a thing is valuable. The thing is "new" only if it is independently valuable, can't be known to be "new" before it is known to be valuable (and anyway, even if it is valuable, its "newness" is only a matter of when you happen to encounter it). And, thus raising the issue of "newness" does lead to the notion of "newness" as an independent, primary value, and to resultant confusion. Further, 'new', in the neutral uses I listed, can easily be eliminated, by replacing it with the boldface equivalents I gave for it. Thus I see no case where the term is uniquely useful: the notion of "newness" is supererogatory. As the term is misleading, I suggest that it be consigned to oblivion, at least as a term of rigorous discourse.