Radical Chic and the New
Leonard Bernstein, his wife Felicia Montealegre and Don Cox, Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party in the Bernsteins’ Park Avenue penthouse in Manhattan, January 14, 1970. From New York Magazine.
A discussion of “radical chic” – a term used to denounce criticism and radical thought as something merely fashionable – is, to some extent, a discussion of the new. And while the merely fashionable is, in spite of its pretensions to be innovative and new, still conformist and predictable, being radical is the (sometimes tragic) attempt to differ. Such attempts to differ from prevailing (complacent, bourgeois) agreements are strongly dependent on the jargon of novelty. Therefore we find overlapping dimensions of the aesthetic and the political in the concept of the new.
The new itself, a key concept of aesthetic modernity, however, has not always been fashionable. And the category of the new is of course nothing new itself. The new fills archives, whole libraries – and that is, somehow, a paradox in itself. Generations of modernist aestheticians were dealing with the question: why is there aesthetic innovation at all, and how is it possible?
With the post-historical exhaustion of history the rejection of the new was cause for a certain satisfaction. Boris Groys argues that:
the discourse on the impossibility of the new in art has become especially widespread and influential. Its most interesting characteristic is a certain feeling of happiness, of positive excitement about this alleged end of the new – a certain inner satisfaction that this discourse obviously produces in the contemporary cultural milieu.
The malicious denial of the possibility of the new represents the very idea of the philistine: the self-sufficiency of ever-repeating sameness. In this sense, the new has been contested to denounce any claim to possible change. And in this perspective, again, any devaluation of the new has strongly political dimensions. But this gesture is not only a politically conservative gesture; it is also an anti-aesthetic gesture. As the aesthetic deals with identifications that become problematic, dynamic, too overly complex to be reduced to merely one name, concept or position, the new is just one of its many names. For these reasons, the new structurally unites the political vanguard with the aesthetic avant-garde, since both are struggling with the confinements of the given order of discourse in the quest for possible – if only symbolic – alternatives. And if aesthetic form, as the aesthetic tradition from Hegel to Bourdieu argues, at least to some extent materializes specific forms of life, the overlaps between the aesthetic and the political dimensions of novelty are even bigger.
Without openly political intentions, Boris Groys has theorized the new in structural terms – in opposition to all linear understandings of a teleological or utopian conception of it. According to Groys, the possibility of the new arises from the valorising practice of the culturally-dominant archives, and is not dependent on anything transcendent. The new is the fragile counterpart of the institutional orders of what already exists. Groys argues that by collecting, organizing and presenting the past in a structured manner, the process of valorisation implies the continuous production of the profane and thus the possibility of the new. The new is, thus, a limit concept of the archive, its immanent other.
Such a structural approach to (the question of) the new is fundamentally agnostic. The new does not fall from the sky; it is not unconditional; it is the outcome of practices of distinction. And so Groys’ theory allows for socio-theoretical readings. Since the new is rooted in forces that are fully terrestrial, its possibility stems from changing relations between the existing rather than from the invention of something purely unseen.