The Schlock of the New
Maybe it was spending a week in France that got me thinking about Marcel Duchamp. Sipping coffee on the left bank; listening to music outside the Pompidou Centre; reading in Le Figaro about the award of this year’s Duchamp prize. Whatever it is, Duchamp has been weighing on me of late; “Fountain” and all. Which is somewhat uncomfortable, so I want to unburden.
What’s been bothering me is the problem of “the new”. We’re used to being told there are no new stories. There are seven stories, I believe, which can be endlessly retold by a million monkeys smoking Hamlet. Or something.
We can add new veneers to the furniture of The Story; we can add new accidents to the old substances – we can, in fact, perm any one of an infinite variety of Aristotelian synonyms whilst expressing the truth that there’s bugger all in heaven and earth, Horatio, that your nanny didn’t read you in the cot.
And we’re used to taking this truism and teasing another from it. There’s nothing new left in literature. I’ve said it myself plenty of times. Largely – and, I still think, justifiably – in response to another wave of excitement about the artistic groundbreakingness of some or other new tech or app. Twitterature is great – teaches starkness and economy. Blogging teaches spontaneity and may actually hasten the rate at which a writer finds her voice. Wikis can undoubtedly build communities. But they don’t promise anything NEW. Don’t worry – I’ll be back to the Interweb.
Take art, though. The last century and a bit has seen endless innovation. No wonder we writers spend our lives feeling like poor cousins to the art world (or is that just me?).
Only it hasn’t. Feel free to argue any of these points, by the way. I’m not an art historian. I’m a philosopher. Impressionism was really only the secularisation of Orthodox iconography put in the hands of a guy with dodgy eyesight. Fauvism followed the great tradition of Pre-Raphaelitism in being new by doing things people first did so long ago no one was still alive to remember it was actually really old. Cubism was simply an illustration of a Platonic textbook on aesthetics. Even Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting are really only mysticism without God.
But when Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal in a gallery and wrote “R. Mutt” on it, THAT was new (OK, I DO have thoughts about fossil-hunting and Paley’s Watchmaker, but they can sod off to the awkward corner for now). Similar new things happened in literature. And in philosophy. And in architecture. Together and with far too much generality, we call the kit and caboodle Modernism.
Modernism is, I concede, rather similar to the medieval movement known as Nominalism, but I don’t care. Modernism DID what Nominalism IMPLIED. It was new (enough).
What did it do? It removed forever the necessary link between form and meaning. By uprooting things (sentences, shapes, objets trouvees) from one context and placing them in another to create DIFFERENT THINGS, Modernism once and for all invalidate the equation of one thing and one meaning. What it did with the results was to play around with things. Meanings mattered very little, except inasmuch as they were subverted, and forms mattered very much (Postmodernism isn’t new, because all it really did was look at the meaning side of the equation rather than the form one. Modernism was the thing that cut the umbilical cord).
All kinds of things have happened since Modernism that should have created something new – from videotape to Moog synthesisers. But they haven’t.
And when we as writers wring our hands and wonder when oh when is SOMEONE going to do something NEW with the wonderful tools technology provides, that should be a real comfort.
What we learn from Duchamp, and from the utter failure of Neil Gaiman or Cory Doctorow or MCM any other webwriting pioneers to do anything new in literature, is what we should have known all along. Newness has very little to do with technology. Sorry, McLuhan, but the medium is NOT the message. I’m sure that’s not the textbook account. Take plastic. We’re always hearing how instrumental it was in Modernism – Mies van der Rohe couldn’t have built half the chairs he did without it. But actually, plastic just happened to be the new material that was around. And the people with the new ideas found they liked it.
The point is this. Technology is a tool for the new. It is the means by which we can give better shape to the new, once the new comes along. And, undoubtedly, technology shapes our minds, provides our context, and it is bursting like an Alien from the chests of context that the new will come. When it does come.
Of course we have no idea of knowing what the new in literature will be like. But the point I want to make is that we DO know what it WON’T be like. Writers will probably illustrate (sic) it with technology, but it won’t consist in a new, tech-enhanced way of writing. So yes, as writers who want to be there at the birth of The New, we need to keep abreast of technology; we need to play and experiment and see where it leads us, and let it feed in to our subconscious.
But the person who gives birth to The New will be the one who sees behind the wires and the LCD and the e-ink and the Google Wave. They will be the one with the idea who rips a urinal off the wall, writes “R. Mutt” on the side, and sticks it in the gallery.