Toward a tentative theory of new ideas (on the need for thinking during a period of collapse)

Thinking takes on new urgency during a period of collapse. Dougald and I both believe that we’re living through such a period, and he reminded me of this when in his recent post he wrote,

Why this should be so [that is to say, why ideas are returning today with a freshness and immediacy] becomes clearer as an increasing number of mainstream voices acknowledge what some of us have been arguing for years: that we are not living through a cyclical recession, but a structural crisis with multiple causes, in which a return to business as usual is not an option.

The hyperlink takes the curious reader to his website where he discusses his fellows’ crackpot idea for an Institute for Collapsonomics. The group, he writes, was united by “a sense of the absurd – and the word “collapsonomics”, followed by the idea of an Institute for Collapsonomics, began as a kind of joke.” There is something to this sense of the absurd, some inkling that all new ideas could be jokes.

Good jokes or bad ones, naturally.

Let’s take another look at the name, “Institute for Collapsonomics.” A neologism could be one paradigm for idea creation.

1. New ideas always emerge at some distance from our expectations. Like good jokes, they knock us out of the saddle.

2. New ideas don’t quite make sense. They are absurd if not by definition then certainly by experience. They don’t quite sit with us, yet they don’t necessarily repel us.

3. New ideas can’t quite be described in the vocabulary we have on hand. Consequently, we’re forced to become poets by default, forced to grope toward a new vocabulary, toward a certain theory of naming.

4. That vocabulary consists (i) of analogies (via analogia) and (ii) of negations (via negativa). There is a productive ambiguity concerning whether one is naming that which already exists but hasn’t yet been named (a child, say) or whether one is creating something new out of surrounding materials (a collage, say).

5. Analogies are handy because they “constellate” the new idea. Put differently, they set hooks into the idea but from different angles, in different ways, at different depths. However, analogies are insufficient in that the new idea is not the sum total of all the analogies. It is (also?) something more. (The new idea is kinda like X, kinda like Y, kinda like Z, etc.)

6. Negations keep alerting us to this something more (e.g., The new idea is not X, not Y, not Z, etc.). Negations are “cautionary principles”: “No, you haven’t quite got it. See how the idea slips away.”

7. Over time, ideas will either take root, settle in, become common sense, or they’ll be “crackpot” or “sheer nonsense.” Time, use, familiarity, and, not least, workability all determine the fate of the idea. That is, the extent to which a new idea can be integrated into  a familiar or a changing set of practices and the extent to which it can satisfy deep spiritual/human needs will conjointly determine the extent to which the idea will live on.

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