Santiago Zabala in Public Seminar:
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 New, “results 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?