- Newswriting, Historiography, and the Controversion of the Present (after Heine)
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Since when is anything really new? So long as the perpetual clamor for the new or the perennial saying that there is nothing new under the sun persists, a radical novum—a new that would not be merely the renewal of what has already been and that would not follow as the inevitable consequence of what has already taken place—seems out of question. And this is no news. It is to these opposed views regarding the new that writers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno responded, when they considered the emergence of novelty in the nineteenth century as a critical category of late capitalism—critical, that is, for articulating distinctions between the new and the old, the latest craze and the outmoded, the modern and the obsolete. But despite and because of the frequent changes in fashion, the character of new items, insofar as they are “new,” seems determined to be ever the same. Adorno and Benjamin are therefore also quick to point out that “the new” does not indicate a decisive historical turn or end. And at the same time, because the new pertains in no stable way to the items on which it is predicated, and because its sense as a predicate has itself been subject to debate for centuries—with a spectrum ranging from Edmund Burke’s characterization of novelty as the charm unfamiliar objects exercise on children, to the avant-garde’s evocations of a radical, revolutionary break with all previous, moribund traditions—“novelty” seems as obscure as it would be decisive.1 Neither an epoch-making event, nor a category of being—nor an alternative to those categories that, since the Greek beginnings of ontology, have decisively shaped its articulation—the new figures instead as what Benjamin will call a modus of “historical semblance,” a simulation of what has never been before, but that, in its repeated advertisement, perpetuates its seeming opposite, the recurrence of the ever-same.2 Several decades later, Adorno will describe novelty in the art market terms of commodity production and reproduction:
Nouveauté is aesthetically the result of historical development, the trademark of consumer goods appropriated by art by means of which artworks distinguish themselves from the ever-same inventory in obedience to the need for the exploitation of capital, which, if it does not expand, if it does not—in its own language—offer something new, is eclipsed. The new is the aesthetic seal of expanded reproduction, with its promise of undiminished plentitude.3
And temporarily setting the question of this “historical development” aside, even a cursory glance at commercials today shows promotions for new products that will soon be outdated.
Is it unproductive, then, to ask whether and how a radical novum could be introduced, said, or thought? Would the new be unthinkable, not because of certain accidental conditions, but because of a logic proper to it? After all, significant historical change and declarations of novelty have repeatedly been characterized as mutually exclusive modes, and in ways that would come to parallel the distinction between history and daily news, itself a commodity for consumption. The erstwhile journalist and editor of the Bamberger Zeitung, G. W. F. Hegel indicated as much when he wrote Fress-Freiheit, “freedom to devour,” for “freedom of the press” (Press-Freiheit).4 In very different terms, Benjamin will contrast Herodotus, “the first storyteller of the Greeks,” to the journalistic [End Page 81] stories that provide information whose value “does not survive the moment in which it was new.” Herodotus’s story of an Egyptian king “preserves and concentrates its energy and is capable of releasing it even after a long time,” and thus is “like those seeds of grain that have lain for centuries in the airtight chambers of the pyramids and have retained their germinative power to this day.”5 I will return to this story of encryption, but for the moment, it is worth noting how news value appears to be negligible and unsustainable over time, whether it is devoured or goes to waste. This coincidence in the writings of two quite different thinkers...