— Cultural Sources of Newness

Newness from things that don’t fit together

“Things can work even when they don’t fit together” and “Misunderstanding can contribute to coordination”—these were the first two insights that David Stark shared with us at the workshop that we organized at the WZB June 26-28 in preparation of the book with the working title “Valorizing dissonance. Cultural perspectives on newness.” Where did we—a group of 17 academics from different parts of Europe and North America—go from there? One part of our agenda was to get from dissonance to newness, a concept that was foreign to many of our guests.

Beginning two days of discussions

Beginning two days of discussions

The first day was sensually rich, starting with Antoine Hennion’s paper “Paying attention: What is tasting wine about?”, in which he took us into into the experience of different wine-tasting spaces. He was followed by a second paper analysing the wine market in Germany, presented by Jörg Rössel. A couple of hours later Anne-Sophie Trebuchet-Breitwiller led us into the world of luxury perfumes, walking us into the store and through the process of becoming attached to one of the exclusive scents. Then Michael Hutter exposed us to newness generated by the meeting of Louis Vuitton handbags with Murakami designs. When can the dissonance between arts and commerce generate fascination and tip potential customers from desire to transaction? And what can we learn from the relationship between tasting and testing?

Conversations never stopped

Conversations never stopped

After an evening in the depths of Kreuzberg we regained our seats in order to cross the world with Kimberly Chong, whose ethnographic study of how an American consultancy inculcates the ethic of shareholder value into its Chinese employees so that they can “create value through value propositions.” Her illustrations of how in-company training create a spectacle around value and value narratives were (at least for me) hair-raising. Then we flew back to Europe and landed in pig farms in Denmark. Having had our noses sensitized to precious perfumes the previous day, the paper on seeking to create a value proposition for the environment and the economy by cleaning slurry from pig farms, as described by Liliana Doganova and Peter Karnoe could not have been a greater shock to our bodies!

“Anyone interested in values and valuation should be interested in accounting,” Michael Power announced, and most particularly if we are interested in dissonance and newness because “the power of accounting is to suppress and convert dissonance and new elements.” The ensuing discussion took us into many directions, including the relationship between accounting and fiction, the generation of new metrics and new narratives.

Still seated in Berlin, we were transported again to China by Olav Velthuis, who explained the trajectory of the art style of “cynical realism.” His story included artists, curators, collectors, gallery owners, and critics, each playing roles in identifying and appreciating a new style or … denouncing and devaluing it. The claim to be avant-garde art is not so easy to establish and maintain, as we also saw in the following paper presented by Patrik Aspers and Edvin Sandström, who used the example of performance art at festivals. Sometimes conflicts over art lead to the courtroom, requiring experts to engage with laypeople in the jury, who are worlds away from the rich collectors to whom they usually explain the value of a work. The story John Brewer told inspired David to offer him the catchy title “Trials and tribulations of attribution.”  The day closed with a more familiar world: Philippa Chong recounted what she had learned from interviews with reviewers of new fiction, in which she discovered that these critics who are “portrayed as important gatekeepers and tastemakers” are also “self-deprecating and unsure human beings” whose work entails producing statements of value with which others are likely to disagree, but which, they hope, contributes to “a kind of collective wisdom that can correct for individual biases.”  A useful example of disagreement as a productive force for newness and permanent process.

 

Food matters-1

Food matters-1

Dinner at a solid German restaurant on the Gendarmenmarkt restored us, so that we could continue the next day with the last two presentations: Claude Rosental explained a controversy over a demonstration of fuzzy logic, which started with virulent attacks on an internet forum and ended in journals and private letters, where the style of exchange shifted. No consensus was reached, instead the debate generated newness in the form of a “collective statement” that permitted various actors to use the arguments in their own interests. Sophie Mützel then laid out a fascinating range of possible directions her new data set on restaurant reviews in Berlin from 1998-2012 could lead, taking us back to the sensually rich beginnings of our workshop two days ago.

A lot  of ideas to digest

A lot of ideas to digest

Can we fit such a diversity of themes together into a book? It should not be any problem with strong authors, particularly when we agree with David’s maxim that “things can work even when they don’t fit together”! We certainly put into practice the principle that “Misunderstanding can contribute to coordination.” The new working title for the book shifted over the course of the workshop, currently provocatively formulated as Varieties of valuation. From innovation to dissonance. (We sensed that although the participants said they now had gained a better understanding of the concept of newness, the term might not have the catchiness needed for the book market, but the readers will definitely get it in the introduction and in various chapters!) That title may undergo more changes, but one thing is certain: the reader will find material to stimulate body, mind, and soul because we are encouraging our authors to jump right into each story rather than stick to traditional academic formats.

As  co-editor of this volume with Michael Hutter and David Stark,  and as a contributing author who has not yet written her chapter, I have an exciting time ahead with this project! And most importantly, with some really good people.

Food matters-with people

Food matters-with people