— Cultural Sources of Newness

Distance, anger, and the new in academia

Over lunch in Paris, during a break from reading a dissertation about creativity in research, I found myself reflecting on the connections between distance, anger and the new in academia. In the “Cultural sources of newness” research unit we point out that newness is a quality that is retrospectively attributed to an idea, a practice, or an object. Many things that are “new” are fleeting, and do not achieve the status of “newness.” But all new things are nevertheless significant for a moment, and may become a source of newness–or not–a shift that often depends on power relations. Three cases offered themselves to me during my lunch break, two of which entail anger, an ingredient I have not yet encountered in the literature on newness and innovation. I brought those two cases to lunch with me, then discovered a different one in the sunshine outside the restaurant. 

The first case loaded with distance and anger is a new life constellation that a family I know is embarking on because of current academic promotion practices. The husband, a young academic who is soon coming up for tenure in the United States, is waiting for articles to work their way through the publication pipeline. His dean made him an offer: we’ll stop the clock if you take a leave of absence this year. The young family faced a stark choice: should the wife give up her job and take the children to the new temporary location to be with her husband, or should he leave her alone to lead the life of a single working mother while the dean and the tenure committee wait for the journal editors to make up their minds? The couple chose to keep her job and live apart for the academic year. The grandfather has left his life in a different country to help his daughter manage the balancing act of a full-time job with two little children. So two couples are being separated, leading lives across significant distances for a long period of time.

Will the distance imposed by the cultural practice in academia of counting ranked journal articles rather than assessing potential end up generating any kind of valuable newness? When I tell friends and colleagues about the new life situation this family is enduring, they summarize their anger simply and clearly: “academia sucks”.


La naissance des formes, Ossip Zadkine (photo ABA)

La naissance des formes, Ossip Zadkine (photo ABA)

The local confrontation with the new after lunch took a completely different form: in the middle of the street outside the restaurant I was struck by Ossip Zadkine’s statue called “La naissance des formes” (The birth of forms). Black metal contortions with a straight, black highrise in the distance.  Looking around me, I noticed that the birth of forms was just a few steps away from death: the other side of the street was bordered by a high wall, behind which lay a cemetery. Curious, and seeking a space of peace to dissipate my anger, I decided to enter. It turned out that the cemetery held even more connections to culture and the emergence of the new than I first imagined.

History of Montparnasse cemetery

History of Montparnasse cemetery

The area had been full of nightlife before the city of Paris turned the land into a cemetery in 1824. The cabaret owners feared they would lose their live clientele. The area did not die because new cultural agents arrived: stonemasons and sculptors. And the cemetery became the home to illustrious men and women of culture, including Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, attracting tourists from around the world. Location and emotional responses clearly matter for the emergence of the new.

Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir, Montparnasse cemetery

Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir, Montparnasse cemetery


The third case is not a matter of separation, nor of life and death. It is about endings and beginnings and it returns to the themes of distance and anger in academia, but in a different constellation from the first case. The closing of a research program in an institution cuts off lines of study but can also be an opportunity to explore new paths. Someone I know well recently came up with a proposal for a completely different research idea when facing such an institutionally-imposed crossroad in his/her academic career. Colleagues from diverse disciplines and organizations responded very positively when they heard about the idea, expressing curiosity and adding suggestions. Unexpectedly, however, academic power stepped in with the killer argument “there is nothing new to be found in there, I talk about that topic all the time! Why don’t you continue what you have been doing?”

Interestingly, colleagues have responded very differently to this story than they have to the first case. Instead of resignedly saying “academia sucks” they encouraged resistance in order to pursue the new: “Jetzt erst recht!

Years ago I wrote an article about the generative value of “between times and places.” The opportunity to reflect on these stories over lunch in Paris today was offered by having to travel to an advisory board meeting. Now I would add a new section to the article: about how between times and places help gain distance from anger and replenish the creative juices that are essential for generating newness in academia (and probably most other spheres of activity in society). It is quite likely that there will be many chances to test this proposition.


A very close friend who read a draft of this post before I published it on the blog commented with a historical perspective:

The idea that anger contributes to newness seems itself novel, but on second thought I ask myself why should it be? On the macroscale the centuries of pent-up anger among peasants and people brazenly exploited by monarchy, aristocracy, and Church certainly exploded into newness during the French revolution (institutions previously untried–at least in France–and a total upheaval of power relations) before bequeathing what was arguably just another round of the all-too-familiar power struggles for domination and hegemony. (The same could be said of many political and social revolutions and of other experiences on a much smaller scale.)”




1 comment
  1. Daniel Conklin says: 8. Oktober 201421:59

    Fascinating. Made me think of Mikhail Bakunin, who said: “The urge for distraction is also a creative urge.”

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