Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Armand D'Angour, The Greeks and the New: Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and Experience. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 264. ISBN 9780521616485. $33.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Schultz, Concordia College (

Version at BMCR home site


"What does one prefer?" Robert Hughes asked in his famous The Shock of the New, "an art that struggles to change the social contract, but fails? Or one that seeks to amuse and please, and succeeds?" Fortunately, in the case of Armand D'Angour's The Greeks and the New. Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and Experience, we don't have to choose. In this book, D'Angour offers us a gloriously disruptive narrative in a manner that is self- conscious (without being lamely solipsistic), meticulous, and multifaceted; quite pleasing indeed. D'Angour's insistence on multiplicity is especially important, since his approach to the new in ancient Greece is based on a dazzling host of subjective, embodied perceptions and presentations. It is a move – borrowed from R.G. Collingwood, among others – that allows D'Angour to explore the new using a number of divergent methodologies ranging from the logico-lexical to the psychologico-philosophical, from the literary-symbolic to the socio-historical; it is a move that allows D'Angour to search, to hypothesize, and to question rather than reductively anatomize. The result is something appropriately "new": a resounding return to the rigorous application of the historical imagination, a scintillating, hypermodern Altertumswissenschaft.

After a brief Introduction, in which he outlines his project and his methods, D'Angour opens with his Chapter I, giving an account of previous scholarly approaches to ancient Greek innovation and creativity. Here, D'Angour is specifically interested in the perceived incompatibility between the Greeks' apparent (and oft cited) socio-political conservatism and their equally apparent (and rather unprecedented) obsession with novelty and "the new" across multiple spheres of endeavor. Also included here is an explanation of the various senses of what "the new" can mean, a section on the psychology of novelty, and a short section on some possible structural and symbolic associations with "newness" in ancient Greek thought and myth.

In Chapter II, D'Angour argues that a more holistic view of "newness" can be used to subvert the traditional view that the ancient Greeks were "held in the grip of the past," an entrenched notion most famously articulated by B.A. van Groningen in 1953. D'Angour's project here is to show that there was no paradox between "ancient Greek conservatism" and "ancient Greek creativity." Rather, these two concepts are best understood as conceptual poles between which a vast range, and the vast majority, of ancient experiences and expressions regarding both the new and the old were manifested. "Novelty and innovation were no less real phenomena for the Greeks than for us," D'Angour notes (62). As such, we should not expect to find an objective, monolithic "ancient Greek view of the new." Nor should we expect that ancient notions of the new were always positive. Rather, we should expect fluid, shifting hierarchies of values that are every bit as complex, subjective, and socially determined as our own present moment. The entire chapter is masterfully argued.

A new Greek term for "the new" – kainos – is the subject of Chapter III. Here, D'Angour uses an impressive set of literary and linguistic tools to show how, at the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E., the ancient Greeks began to use a novel word for new. Moving from epic to old comedy, from the mythic tradition of the ancient Greek hero Kaineus to the linguistic tradition of the Old Testament anti-hero Qāyin, D'Angour demonstrates the close connection that existed between technology, innovation, and originality in the minds of some late Archaic and early Classical Greeks. Of particular interest here is the connection that D'Angour reveals between kainos, metallurgy, and metal craftsmanship and how the meaning of the more traditional neos could not encompass the "modern, artificially created and potentially disruptive kinds of novelty" (80-81) that kainos came to signify in reference to the shiny, glimmering, avante-garde artifacts circulating in the post-Orientalizing Aegean.

In Chapters IV and V, D'Angour develops the philosophical and linguistic arguments further. Chapter IV revisits and complicates the argument made in Chapter II, treating the "new" in juxtaposition to its antonym the "old." Chapter V tackles the concept of the "new" for both the pre-Socratics and some later thinkers. Specifically treated here is how the notion of newness was sometimes placed into cyclical contexts that blurred the new/old dichotomy and how a fifth and early fourth century interest in the compilation of discoveries and inventions (heurēmata ) both documented and praised past inventions while also promoting contemporary creativity.

In Chapter VI, D'Angour shifts gears and explores the interconnected notions of birth, wonder, light, and the senses. That bright light bulb that blinks into existence over a cartoon character's head when they get a new idea? It is rooted in a Greek intellectual tradition. D'Angour shines in this chapter, and shows how ancient Greek notions of the new can be thoughtfully explored not just by way of texts, but also by way of images. These images can be both literal and artistic, with metaphors and imaginings of birth, of awe, and of radiance all playing multiple, and sometimes contradictory, roles in ancient Greeks' perceptions of "the new." For example, while brilliant light was a common trope associated with various aspects of novelty in both literature and art (141-150), D'Angour also notes that this illumination need not be completely pleasurable. Indeed, the revelation of horror or a dire reversal could also be signaled by metaphorical radiance, dragging hidden truths to light. Also treated in this chapter are the visual arts. D'Angour rightly affirms that some ancient Greek artists, both painters and sculptors, were obsessed with originality, that some were self-conscious social actors competing with each other for commissions and novel aesthetic effects, and that some of these artists' products "could be viewed as a technē worthy of respectful consideration and intellectual analysis" (154-55). These are important points, precisely because they help us continue to undermine the tidy, traditional biologico-evolutionary model of stylistic development currently entrenched in our histories of Greek art. The picture that D'Angour paints is far more realistic, far more nuanced; it is one in which artistic transformations, differences, and novelties can be understood as phenomena born from an agonistic culture of struggle. Thus, the "Greek revolution" of the fifth century need not be seen as the result of some generalized, inevitable march towards naturalism, but rather can be seen as the result of socially placed individuals battling their way towards (and away from) the new.

The connection between competition and the new is further developed in Chapter VII, "The Inventions of Eris." Here, D'Angour describes the relationship between the agōn and ancient Greek notions of novelty, innovation, and creativity. While there is little textual evidence to connect innovation with commercial activities and everyday goods, the archaeological record is a bit more promising: for example, the development of red-figure pottery and the Corinthian order can thus be seen as the result of competitive drives in the fifth century arts . More firmly, D'Angour sees innovation resulting from competition in the spheres of music and poetry. (Sport is also treated, but there seems to be little connection between competition, athletics, and innovation. Indeed, sport, for D'Angour, is a rather conservative field: "New victories were the aim, not new ways of winning" (171).) War was also a playground for "the new," as generals, tacticians, and engineers experimented with new deployments, strategies, and war-machines with devastating effect. Interestingly, D'Angour sees the famous invention of the catapult by the technicians of Dionysios I, as described by Diodorus Siculus, as "the result of the preponderance of expertise rather than a competitive desire on the part of the technicians to outdo each other in inventiveness" (179). This might very well be true. And yet Dionysios was himself involved in an ancient arms race in which military innovation and competition (that is, the war against Carthage itself) were directly, and practically, linked. While micro-competition between individual technicians might not have given rise to the catapult, the macro-competition between Carthage and Sicily (or the cultural gestalt that this conflict generated and reflected) almost certainly did.

Chapter VIII treats the ancient Greeks and their music. For D'Angour, music is a sphere that provides the most direct and long-lasting evidence of the Greeks' obsession with creativity and innovation; indeed, as he shows, novelty and change in music had been both encouraged and demanded since at least the time of Homer. Interest in "the new" in music takes a number of different forms. The new in music could be simply the latest song. It could also be "news" – that is to say, the events of which a bard sang could have been events that had never been sung of before. Moreover, since song embraced and was expressed through diction, meter, verse, tone, melody, and harmony, all (or some) of these particular areas could be seen as a potential sphere of innovation. The self-conscious juxtaposition of new harmonies with a conservative theme (or vice versa), for example, would have opened up near infinite creative possibilities for ancient Greek bards. The motivations for particular musicians to claim to be "new" were also diverse. Some musicians sought to highlight authentic change, others sought to dazzle their audiences (or their fellow musicians) with ostentatious novelty, and still others seem to have only paid lip service to the traditional trope of "the new." This range of potential innovations and how these innovations were characterized could be found in virtually all types of music. Moreover, musical instruments (first among them the human voice) were themselves loci for change, novelty, and revolution, and this revolution, in both performance and instrumentation, was acknowledged as such by ancient commentators and practitioners. Conservative thinkers connected new trends in music to failures in education, promiscuity, radical individualism, and worse; young musical professionals, on the other hand, praised innovation and saw the radical transformations in fourth century music as both exciting and, to a certain extent, necessary. That there were (at least) two poles of rhetorical reaction to revolutionary musical praxis in the fourth century should hardly surprise, of course. Elvis and The Beatles were thought decadent by some. This is a brilliant, dazzling chapter and should be required reading for any student or scholar interested in the nuances of ancient Greek art, literature, music, or creativity.

The same can be said for Chapter IX, "Constructions of Novelty." Here, D'Angour demonstrates conclusively that some ancient Greek thinkers clearly recognized that language itself could be both a rich source of novelty and a potent sphere within which innovation could be generated. D'Angour's focus here is on the rhetoric, drama, and comedy of late fifth century Athens, an energizing time at which "The creative, persuasive power of words was variously viewed as positive, exciting, dangerous, or frightening" (211). Important here is that D'Angour is not only talking about new rhetorical forms or new poetic formulae. Rather, he is talking about how the authors of these forms and formulae were themselves self-consciously writing and thinking about the potential newness of their own products. Also important in this chapter is the impact warfare and Athenian imperialism had on the climate of innovation that dominated the polis in the second half of the fifth century. The book concludes with Chapter X, "So What's New", that ties the whole package together.

In sum, this is a fascinating, engaging book. D'Angour has demonstrated that the ancient Greeks , in almost every sphere , believed that novelty, change, and newness were not necessarily things that "just happen." Rather, as he shows, these phenomena could be seen as the result of human intention, ambition, skill, effort, and ingenuity. In a field that has only recently begun to remember its roots in (and its obligations to) the minds of ancient individuals, D'Angour's The Greeks and the New shows the way forward. Not to be missed.

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