Innovation’s Altar (or, what’s So New about Innovation?)

Regarding “Innovation Redux” by Malachi Black and this post by Ron Silliman (which were both partially responding to something I wrote regarding innovation): I find that one of the sticking points on this subject is that “innovation” is often defined too broadly, or not defined at all. And so it’s easy for terms like “innovative writing” to become confused with terms like “experimental writing” or “the avant-garde.” (These terms might at times be synonyms, but not always.)

To innovate literally means “to introduce something new.”But it also means to “make changes in anything established.” Which is the historical meaning of the word’s root: “to renew, alter.” Many people (myself included) often forget this.

Consider how innovation applies to genre. The person who invented the vampire novel was doing something innovative, surely. But so too is the person who collides the vampire novel with the detective novel. (I call dibs on this! Just imagine it: a vampire detective! A singing vampire detective! In space!)

Confession time: Who here watched Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997) because it was about an evil leprechaun…in space?

…I did. And who watched Leprechaun 5, aka Leprechaun in the Hood (2000) because it was about an evil leprechaun…in the hood?

…I did. (The hood one-ups space, apparently.)

(Actually, Leprechaun in the Hood is an amazingly good film—even better than Timothy J. Feeney claims.) (But Leprechaun 4: In Space is pretty bad.)

(I call dibs on vampires in the hood!)

And regarding that fellow who got to the vampires first: did she or he really invent the vampire novel? As Paul Kincaid has correctly pointed out, when one goes searching for the origin of a genre, one routinely comes home empty-handed.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) drew inspiration from earlier entries in the Victorian “Invasion Literature” genre; it was also inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872), and by John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819). Polidori’s tale had its origin in the same storytelling game that led Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin to write The Modern Prometheus (1918). And all of these works in turn had their own inspirations. (Dracula and Frankenstein are both epistolary novels, a form that Stoker and Shelley inherited. Good luck finding the original work in that form…)

Stoker invented less than we may think. (This is not a criticism of his work; quite the contrary.) For instance, he supposedly borrowed Dracula’s mannerisms from his friend, the actor Henry Irving, and arguably took the word “dracula” from the Romanian word for “dragon” or “devil.”

And then Stoker failed to properly copyright his novel, meaning that anyone outside England—like F.W. Murnau—could steal from it (which is one of the reasons why Dracula became so inspirational—copyleftists take note). And of course Murnau, when directing Nosferatu (1922), added other pieces from other places…

A very small change can still be very innovative.

None of this is to deny that these artists did new things. But their innovations were rooted in reworking artworks that pre-existed them, which they altered. I think that most art is made in this fashion; the question of innovation then becomes one of degree: How much has the artist changed? As well as: How influential does the artwork then become? (The answers to these two questions is not necessarily related, and rightly so.)

One never finds things that are 100% new. As Frank Kermode tells us (and as Malachi Black notes in his post), such artworks would be utterly incomprehensible. We wouldn’t even recognize them as artworks! To paraphrase Wittgenstein: “If a bat could speak, we wouldn’t understand it.” Understanding requires shared systems of values.

Which is why (as this post on Conrad Veidt and others hopefully demonstrates), we should be just as interested in how new artworks are similar to previous ones, as we are in how they differ.

…There is one thing in Black’s post that I will quibble with, however:

In the context of commerce, the value of an innovation is established on a utilitarian basis; its worth is directly correlated to the degree to which it simplifies or enables a functional end or series of ends, and, in this regard, its value is empirically demonstrable. Unless one accepts the idea that value inheres in novelty even when it is divorced from utility (which would lead to a set of confused and essentially incoherent evaluative criteria in an otherwise empirically-driven system), a new mousetrap has no definite value beyond that which we may attribute to it on the basis of its newness alone (or on an aesthetic basis); it’s simply new. A better mousetrap, however, is something else entirely: it supersedes (and may even render obsolete) preexisting models precisely because it is more functional than its predecessors. And it is within the relatively linear trajectory of enhancements in functionality, of ever better mousetraps, that ‘progress’ lies. (The innovation of the iPad is valuable not because it will simply “change the way we do things every day,” but because it will measurably improve or simplify the means by which we do those things.)

Leaving the question of innovation aside (and how much value we attribute to it), it’s important to stress that an object’s commercial (exchange) value is not wholly determined by its use value.

Many people, surely, bought copies of Infinite Jest that they never read, because a friend or a reviewer convinced them to. (Well, I suppose that, for them, having the book was still useful, as it let them carry it on the subway, or put it on their coffee table, and therefore appear hip—acquire cred. Fair enough.)

But people are not strictly rational actors who evaluate purchases in strictly utilitarian terms. There is a social pressure to value, as advertisers well understand. You’ll buy the brand you’ve seen advertised, even if it costs more than the brand you’ve never heard of. Use value has nothing to do with it. (OK, you are paying for the satisfaction of buying something you recognize. That’s pretty weak, though.)

As Antonioni and Cortázar cleverly observed in Blowup (1966), Thomas wants the broken guitar neck only because everyone else wants the broken guitar neck. Why does everyone else want the broken guitar neck? Some might want it because Jeff Beck touched it, played with it, destroyed it. But others presumably want it…because everyone else wants it. And so once Thomas has it, and escapes, and no one around him wants it…

…he throws it away. Because it’s a broken guitar neck.

Why does Thomas buy the propeller? Why does he want to take photographs, to sleep with Vanessa Redgrave? Why does he want to find the dead body (if the dead body even existed)? Why does Thomas want anything at all?

It’s not always easy to say. But our desires do deform reality:

Infinite Jest became a bestseller, the must-read, must-have book of 1996 (and beyond) partly because it is very good, an innovative novel in which Wallace engages with previous works of literature and finds new things to do with them:

Socrates’ funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not all that often, Keats’ shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” and “Discourse on Method,” Kant’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic,” although the translations are all terrible, William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience,” Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus,” Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Hemingway — particularly the ital stuff in “In Our Time,” where you just go oomph!, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A.S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick — the stories, especially one called “Levitations,” about 25 percent of the time Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called “The Balloon,” which is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver’s best stuff — the really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he’s not beating his drum, 35 percent of Stephen Crane, “Moby-Dick,” “The Great Gatsby.”

And, my God, there’s poetry. Probably Phillip Larkin more than anyone else, Louise Gl&uumlck, Auden. [...] [from a 1996 interview at Salon]

All of this is duly noted. But Infinite Jest became popular also in part because (and David Foster Wallace always acknowledged this) some folks at Little, Brown believed they could sell it. It’s amazing what millions of advertising dollars can do—and thank God that they occasionally sell innovative fiction.

Because they can also be used to convince millions of people that their lives will not be complete unless they go see Transformers 2 (2009):

I didn’t see that one, I’m proud to say.

(It wasn’t set in space.)

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9 thoughts on “Innovation’s Altar (or, what’s So New about Innovation?)

  1. For Blow-Up I recommend the essay in this book http://www.amazon.com/Antonioni-Images-late-William-Arrowsmith/dp/0195092708

    Maybe you have read it. Arrowsmith was a translator of ancient texts and his reading of the major films is very assured with many literary references.

    Blow-Up seems like the perfect film about distraction. He starts to leak a genuine interest in morality after having sex with the two girls. Does the crowd really make him stop searching when he is so close to a truth? I wonder.

    Bergman said this and La Notte were his best contributions.

    I recently watched La Notte and Winter Light back to back and ironically there were made at just about the same time, 1962. I had seen both before, but this time Winter Light was much, much more powerful. La Notte is beautiful. The party drags a little for me, compared to the L’Avventura social function at the end. Though the ending is spot on. Man pressing himself on woman.

    Winter Light is 80 minutes! So much happens in them. The mise en scene is very different from what Bergman was doing. It’s very placid, almost amatuerish compared to THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (just before) and THE SILENCE (just after) – I mean in the scenes of discovering Von Sydow’s body.

    • Thanks, Greg!

      …For anyone interested in more vampire writing, this looks very interesting:

      The Vampire in Verse: An Anthology
      by Steven Moore
      Dracula Press (November 1985)

      From the customer review there: “[...] The selection is very thorough, ranging from the early 1800s through the 1970s and including classics from Byron, Keats, and Kipling as well as obscure poems that might otherwise be impossible to find. Thorough endnotes give useful information about the poets and the context in which they wrote. [...]”

      …This may look like something silly (and I haven’t seen it), but Stephen Moore is a fantastic scholar, so I imagine it’s good. I’m going to look for it.

      And check this out:

      The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600
      by Steven Moore
      http://thenovel.continuumbooks.com/

      I have a feeling this is about to become my new favorite book. More after I devour (all 800 pages of) it…

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