Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Expeditions

Lessons From The Last Frontier, Part I

Here is an account of an era in U.S. exploration. You will probably be familiar with the details:

The United States finds victory in war, increasing its power and reputation on the global stage. Still it remains locked in competition with international rivals. One rival, in particular, has become adept at the geopolitics of exploration, boosting its international standing through dangerous, breathtaking expeditions that capture the world’s attention. Despite the success of the United States on the battlefield, then, it lags behind in the theater of discovery.

Eventually the President of the United States makes an appeal before Congress: the country should enter the expeditionary race for reasons of science, humanity, and national prestige. Yet before this goal is realized, he dies in office. The new course is set, however, and the resources of the federal government enjoined. American military personnel lead the first expeditions, albeit with considerable input from civilian and scientific agencies.

After early missteps, the United States becomes the world leader in this new theater of discovery. Its geopolitical rival bows out of the fight. Yet at its moment of triumph, America seems to lose its way. The ultimate goal is reached, but it struggles to find new missions at the frontier. Two missions end in disaster, leading to intense criticism of federal agencies by press and public. The scientific community grows restless too, frustrated with mission priorities that tilt towards heroism, politics, and flag-waving rather than basic research.

Eventually the United States government begins to ramp down its discovery missions, unable to justify the risks and expense to a public that has grown frustrated, and at times disinterested, in the project of exploration.  Increasingly the mantle of exploration passes to wealthy individuals and private corporations.

If this seems like an account of the Space Age, it is really a history of the Polar Age, a period that witnessed intense U.S. exploration of the Arctic Regions from 1850 to 1910. Here are some extra details to the chronicle above:

When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War in 1848, it gained territory, but still trailed other powers, particularly Britain, in international prestige. One way that Britain had gained this prestige was through geographical discovery – from the Pacific voyages of James Cook to the Arctic search for the Northwest Passage by James Ross, John Franklin, and others.

"The Great Race." Late 19th century cartoon of John Bull and Uncle Sam

Indeed, it was in sending an American expedition to search for John Franklin, who had gone missing in the late 1840s, that President Zachary Taylor hoped to include the United States in the project of Arctic exploration, an activity that had greater symbolic heft internationally than expeditions to the American West. Expeditions to find Franklin and explore the high Arctic met with broad support from elected officials, scientists, and the public, even after Taylor died suddenly in 1850.

The Search for Franklin. Published the 'Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep' 1880s. Credit: Science Photo Library

After explorers established Franklin’s tragic fate in the 1850s (he and his party on 129 men perished in 1848-1849), the goal of Arctic exploration shifted to geographical discovery, particularly the Polar Sea and the North Pole. Yet expeditions by George Washington DeLong (1879-81) and Adolphus Greely (1881-1884) resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven Americans. These catastrophes led to a great deal of soul searching by Congress, the press, geographical societies, and the general public. In particular, scientists had grown weary of supporting expeditions that returned very little in the way of usable data. By the early 1900s, then, the age of federally supported Arctic expeditions was over. The “Race to the Pole” relied entirely upon wealthy patrons, Arctic clubs, and commercial ventures.

The Loss of the Jeannette (under the command of George Washington DeLong) 1881

Why do I emphasize these parallels between Arctic exploration and space exploration? Because polar exploration offers a better analogy for the American space program today than the others regularly invoked by NASA and the space community. While astronauts are routinely compared to Columbus and Lewis and Clark, they are closer in roles to Elisha Kane, Robert Peary, and other explorers of the high Arctic. As much as space has been described as a New World and a New Frontier, it bears greater similarity to the Frozen North, not simply as an extreme environment but also as a geopolitical project, a subject I will take up in my next post.

The Greely Expedition

Front page of the London Illustrated News, 23 Aug 1884

On Monday 31 January, PBS will air a documentary called “The Greely Expedition” on American Experience. I served as an advisor on the project. Organized in conjunction with the first International Polar Year, the Greely Expedition was supposed to represent a new kind of Arctic exploration, one focused on international, collaborative science rather than pell mell dashes to the North Pole. In the end, however, the expedition signaled the end of serious collaboration between Arctic explorers and scientists for decades. Here’s an excerpt from my Greely chapter in The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture.

In June 1884, Commander Winfield Scott Schley cruised the waters of Smith Sound searching for Adolphus Greely and his missing party of American explorers. Greely had been in the Arctic for three years, establishing a scientific station at Lady Franklin Bay as a part of the International Polar Year. Two attempts to relieve Greely, in 1882 and 1883, had failed and Schley’s expedition represented the last reasonable chance of finding the Greely party alive. When one of Schley’s men discovered a note from Greely giving his location at Cape Sabine, Schley sent John Colwell and a small party to find him. Arriving at the site, Colwell found Greely along with six other emaciated men, survivors of the original party of twenty-five. In his narrative of the rescue, Schley described the scene:

Colwell crawled in [the tent] and took him by the hand, saying to him, “Greely, is this you?” “Yes,” said Greely in a faint, broken voice, hesitating and shuffling with his words, “Yes – seven of us left – here we are – dying –  like men. Did what I came to do – beat the best record.” Then he fell back exhausted.[i]

Rescuing Greely at Cape Sabine, Albert Operti

"Rescuing Greely and His Comrades at Cape Sabine" by Albert Operti

Schley was not on the beach himself and relied upon the reports of his men to piece together events. Yet his narrative, published almost a year after the return of the survivors, soon gained authority as a true-life account of the dramatic rescue. The New York Herald excerpted it liberally in its reports about the expedition. Later reminiscences, such as Munsey’s Magazine’s 1895 account of the expedition, presented the scene exactly as it had appeared in Schley’s narrative. Even David L. Brainard, one of the seven survivors of the Greely party, used Schley’s dialogue word for word in his 1929 account of the expedition, as well as in a more candid narrative that he published in 1940. Yet others on the beach recalled the meeting differently. One member of the rescue party reported that Greely first asked him “if we were Englishmen.” Another remembers Greely chastising them. “If we’ve got to starve . . . we can starve without your help . . . we were dying peacefully until you came.” Maurice Connell, one of Greely’s men, was unconscious at the time of the rescue. Yet for him the published account of Greely’s words did not ring true. In the margins of Schley’s book he wrote: “‘Give us something to eat!’ more probably.”[ii]

Whether or not Greely, delirious and close to death, uttered his pithy remarks is unclear. What is clear is that the scene Schley described offered a far more respectable image of Greely and his party than the ones that circulated for months in the popular press upon Greely’s return. Immediately after the return of Schley’s rescue expedition, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other papers deluged readers with lurid stories about the Greely party’s demise on Cape Sabine. They uncovered Greely’s execution of a man for stealing food. They reported on rumors of cannibalism among the party and discussed charges by Greely’s men that he was inept as a commander. Schley’s account did not erase the impact of these revelations, but arriving in the wake of the reports, offered a means of capping the well of controversy, as its extensive use later suggests.

Adolphus Greely

The controversy that engulfed Greely after his return eclipsed his expedition’s scientific work. Billed as the most ambitious research mission ever sent into the Arctic, Greely’s expedition marked instead the end of serious collaboration between scientists and Arctic explorers in the nineteenth century. In the decades to follow, explorers occasionally promoted their voyages as research expeditions, but their words had little bearing upon their expeditions or campaigns. New patrons of Arctic exploration freed explorers from having to appeal to the scientific community to raise funds or lobby Congress. From the point of view of scientists, Greely and other explorers had abandoned their research missions in order to give allegiance to new masters, private patrons and press moguls who cared little about Arctic science. Schley’s account of the rescue only underscored the point. Greely declared to Colwell that he “did what I came to do – beat the best record,” but he had not entered the Arctic to do anything of the kind. In fact, organizers of the Greely expedition had hoped quite the opposite: that Greely and his men would turn their backs on dangerous and irrelevant dashes to the North Pole, focus on methodical research, and embrace the collaborative spirit of the International Polar Year. To his credit, Greely carried out much of this research at first, but he eventually turned his attention to the geographical dashes so disapproved of by international organizers. Greely’s words on Cape Sabine, true or apocryphal, only confirmed suspicions that science had also been a casualty of his expedition.

The claim that the Greely expedition marked the end of explorers’ serious collaboration with the scientists stands at odds with most historical accounts. Because Greely brought back the most comprehensive and systematic set of observations ever produced by Americans in the Arctic, historians have often held it up as a sign that U.S. scientific exploration had come of age. For historian of science A. Hunter Dupree, the Greely expedition “laid the groundwork for a really scientific interest in Arctic and Antarctic problems.”The wealth of data collected by Greely and his men has led William Barr to revisit the events of the expedition in hopes of illustrating its scientific importance. Expedition historian A. L. Todd agrees, calling Greely’s official narrative “one of the most important source books of arctic data available to the world of science.” Focused on quality of expedition data, however, these works leave unexamined the reactions of scientists, press, and public back home. Fixing our attention here, we see a different picture emerge: a diminished role for science in Arctic exploration, a waning collaboration between explorers and researchers, and a decline of scientific rhetoric in expeditionary campaigns.[iii]

The reasons for this change extend beyond the expedition. Greely and his rescuers may have sown the seeds of controversy by their actions in the Arctic, but these actions only bloomed into scandal because of important cultural and institutional changes back home. That science fell victim to scandal after Greely’s return reflected a new trend in newspaper journalism that put a premium on critical, often sensational, reporting. This was a far cry from the 1850s, when reporters generally avoided controversy in their attempts to portray Arctic explorers as American heroes. By the 1880s, however, writers proved far more willing, even eager, to expose expedition scandals even when it came at explorers’ expense.

The estrangement of explorers and scientists also grew out of changes in the patronage of Arctic exploration. Whereas Henry Grinnell had encouraged his explorers to campaign as a way of raising funds and creating broad coalitions among scientists and the public, the deep pockets of new patrons such as the New York Herald made such actions unnecessary. Flush with funds and backed by promotional power of their patrons, explorers had little need to campaign. Greely took his orders from the Army Signal Corps, not the popular press, but many of the effects were the same. With his expedition already organized and underwritten by the Corps, Greely felt no incentive to write, lecture, or rub elbows with scientists or other groups in the months before his departure. As a result, Greely established few of the personal bonds with scientists and others that had so benefitted Elisha Kane and helped to insulate him from his critics…

[i]. Two of the twenty-five members of the expedition were native Greenlanders, Jens Edward and Thorlip Frederick Christiansen. Quotation is from W. S. Schley, The Rescue of Greely (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 222.

[ii]. “The Rescue of Greely,” New York Herald,” 26 March 1885; Frank Lewis Ford, “The Heroes of the Icy North,” Munsey’s Magazine 14 (1895): 296; David L. Brainard, The Outpost of the Lost: An Arctic Adventure (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1929), 312; Brainard, Six Came Back: The Arctic Adventures of David L. Brainard (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1940), 301; “if we were Englishmen . . .” comes from Charles Harlow, “Greely at Cape Sabine,” Century Magazine (undated) in Adolphus Washington Greely Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. “If we’ve got to starve . . .” is from Frank B. Copley, “The Will to Live,” American Magazine, February (1911): 502-3. “‘Give us something to eat!’” comes from newspaper clipping “Sergeant Connell”, 31 May 1885, Box 74, Greely Papers, Library of Congress.

[iii]. A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957), 193; William Barr, The Expeditions of the First International Polar Year, 1882-83 (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1985); A. L. Todd, Abandoned (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961).

Even Better Than the Real Thing

X-15 attached to a B-52 bomber prior to release.

We’re free to fly the crimson sky
the sun won’t melt our wings tonight
take me higher
you take me higher

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” U2

In 1996, professor Richard Bartle wrote that explorers “try to find out as much as they can… mapping [the world’s] topology.” Bartle was not talking about astronauts or cavers, but gamers.  A developer of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), Bartle challenged the idea of MUDs as games in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they were complex social environments that attracted different players for different reasons: to gain points, to socialize with others , to kill opponents, or to explore the game environment.

Richard Bartle

To call a basement-dwelling, pajama-wearing gamer an explorer might seem absurd. There is difference between exploring virtual worlds and real ones. Still Bartle’s paper raises interesting questions. Is an explorer defined by places traveled, by worldly action? Or is “explorer” an identity, something that exists as a mode of personality? If the latter, does the real world matter at all? If so, how much? What is the role, if any, of simulation within the field of exploration?

This last question may seem better suited for science-fiction literature than sociology. The sci-fi world is populated by virtual travelers: Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game, Neo of The Matrix, CLU of Tron, Henry Case of Neuromancer, and Jake Sully of Avatar. The list is long.

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

Yet simulations exist in the “real world” of exploration too. NASA conducts a number of “analog” expeditions: in the desert, in the Arctic, and underwater to provide training and allow trouble-shooting for other missions. Says NASA:

Analogs provide NASA with data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.

They have other functions too. Anthropologist Valerie Olson points out that analog missions function as justifications for the broader idea of human spaceflight. The analog mission community tend to see these simulations as more “real” than others, authentic human programs rather than robotic expeditions or computer simulations.

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), for example, takes pride in the danger and scientific rigor of each expedition. Says one NEEMO technician “This is a real and real shit happens.” [Quoted from Olson, “American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies,” Ph.D Thesis, Rice University, p. 63]

NEEMO's Aquarius Habitat

Yet “mere” computer simulations also contribute to modern exploration in ways that cannot be ignored. X-15 test pilots such as Neil Armstrong (yes that Neil Armstrong) used flight simulators to train, preparing themselves for the difficult conditions of hypersonic travel 65 miles (100 km) about the earth.

In the end, however, simulators could not adequately prepare pilots for the challenges of flying in the upper atmosphere. At lower altitudes, the X-15 behaved like a plane, and pilots relied on wing surfaces to steer through an ocean of air. At higher altitudes the X-15 acted like a rocket,  and pilots used reaction thrusters to change direction. Moving from one set of controls to the other at the boundaries of space, however, proved extremely difficult especially when traveling 4000 mph (6500 kph).

X-15 cockpit

Engineers at North American solved this problem by placing one of the X-15 flight simulators (the MH-96) into the X-15 itself. The pilot would, in effect, fly the simulator. The simulator then translated the pilot’s actions to the aircraft. As Steve Mindell writes in his book Digital Apollo:

The MH-96 could cause the “real” X-15 to fly like an “ideal” one, which would make it behave exactly the same under all flight conditions, from the vacuum of space right down to the ground. It would automatically mix the reaction controls and aerodynamic controls, so that the pilot only needed one control stick, whether flying in the atmosphere or in space, or during reentry. [Mindell, 58]

In short, simulators were not just for practice: they were an integral part of the mission itself. As for the test pilots, they were not entirely unlike the pj-clad gamer holed up in the basement. Humans can only survive at the boundaries of space by being protected from space. While the pilot/astronaut is going to places never traveled, she is doing so cocooned within a space suit, cockpit, and environmentally controlled capsule. Says Mindell:

The X-15 was an unusual craft to fly. The pilot could not see the nose, and he could not see the wings. His full pressure suit wrapped him up tight and isolated him from the outside world. He could not feel or touch anything directly other than the suit and gloves. He could smell nothing other than the pure oxygen he was breathing. In [test pilot Milt] Thompson’s words, “I was in my own little world. I was comfortable and secure and protected from harm.” [Mindell, Digital Apollo, 54]

This is the irony of exploration technology in general, and simulation technology in particular: they allow us to go longer, further, and faster even as they prevent us from experiencing such feats directly. They take us higher into universe even as they keep it out of reach.

Science and Exploration

"The Artist in His Museum" Charles Wilson Peale (1822) credit: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

I’ve been slow to update the past two weeks, due to the collision of teaching and writing projects. One of these projects, an essay for an edited collection, looks at the relationship of science and exploration in historical context. I’m including the first paragraphs of the intro below, just so you don’t think I’m playing foosball.

Westerners began to think differently about exploration in the nineteenth century. Whereas they once talked about it as a fascination, a symbol of progress, they began referring to it a “fever”: something rampant, contagious, and immune to reason.[1] During this period, explorers poured out of Europe and the United States for regions remote and dangerous. Some raced to the limits of latitude, to stand first at the polar axes.

"David Livingstone" Life and Explorations of David Livingstone (1880)

Others set off for the equatorial regions seeking lost tribes, lost cities, and lost explorers. Survey expeditions mapped the American West, inventoried the ocean depths, and facilitated the “Scramble for Africa.” States sponsored some of these efforts. Museums and universities sponsored others. Meanwhile private adventurers set off to write, photograph, and hunt their way through the world’s remaining terrae incognitae.

Three Years of Arctic Service, Adolphus Greely (1886)

Taken together these activities produced oceans of text: articles, technical papers, and personal narratives. One writer for Nature, buried by stacks of expedition literature waiting to be reviewed, wondered what was driving the process. Did exploration fever grow out of a deeper love of science, a “craving for knowledge by stronger stimulants than can be obtained by books” ? Or was it —as the metaphor of fever implied— beyond human control, an affliction activated by some instinctive desire, “a remote ancestral habit which still clings to us.” If it was the latter then science would seem to be artifice, a veneer applied to expeditionary endeavors in order to mask true motives, deeper and atavistic urges that lured explorers up mountains and into malarial jungles.[2]

[1] Robinson, Michael, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 159-164; Robinson, “Maybe I Was Wrong” http://timetoeatthedogs.com/2009/01/29/maybe-i-was-wrong/

[2] “Two Amateur Explorers,” Nature 13: 264 (3 Feb 1876)

Academics vs. Explorers

Last week explorer Mikael Strandberg published an interesting post on his blog about Academics vs. Explorers . The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.

Mikael Strandberg

Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, academics usually approach their subject matter from a specific viewpoint or research methodology. For example, anthropologists, field biologists, archeologists, and historians all have different frameworks for understanding the world and its peoples. Information obtained from explorers (or other fields) often doesn’t fit very well within these frameworks and, therefore, remains difficult to integrate. Most travelers and explorers, by necessity, need to approach new peoples and new regions with versatility, sensitivity, and creativity. They do not have the time to settle in one place the way an anthropologist does. They cannot carry thousands of pounds of equipment the way archeologists do. They cannot afford to set up their travels as controlled experiments.

Neil Armstrong: subject & expert

Second, academics often don’t know how to categorize explorers. For example, as a historian of exploration, I am interested in the culture, experience, activities, ideas, and biases of explorers. This is the subject of my research. Working with explorers is exciting for me because it sometimes gives me insight into the historical expeditions that I focus on in my work. But it can sometimes also be uncomfortable because I don’t know which hat to wear. Am I a colleague listening to a fellow expert in the field? Or am I an anthropologist, analyzing my subject for information about his or her ideas, beliefs, and behaviors?

Still I think that academics and explorers would benefit from closer contact.

One way explorers might help professionals in general (and academics in particular) is in thinking outside the disciplinary box. Sometimes my greatest insights come from sources far removed from my field of expertise in the history of science and exploration. As Will Thomas has pointed out at Ether Wave Propaganda, historians sometimes forget that their “subjects” are often sophisticated observers of events and their place within them.

One way that explorers might benefit from academics is in looking at exploration more critically. I often hear travelers and explorers speak about exploration in rather visionary terms: as a way of escaping overly commercialized and routinized life in order to find a “core” self….or as a deep-seated, instinctive behavior that humans express in order to achieve their full humanity. While these ideas are inspiring, they don’t really conform with data on the history of explorers and exploration.

Christopher Columbus, Robert Peary, and NASA astronauts all reached “new worlds” far away from the civilizations they knew. Yet all of them remained deeply invested in the practical and personal payoffs of exploration back home (eg. fame, glory, professional advancement). My research leads me to believe that the desire to explore flows as much from the influence of modern culture as it does from our innate drives or inner curiosity.

In the end, however, I am fine if academics and explorers don’t see eye-to-eye as long as they keep talking to each other face to face.

For other posts here on related subjects see:

The Myth of Pure Experience
The Problem of Human Missions to Mars
The Explorer Gene

Exploration Round-Up

So much exploration news rolls through the wires that it’s impossible to write posts about all of it, even a small fraction of it.  So I tweet when I can, but 140 characters is not a lot of space to offer analysis or even useful links. So I am going to the occasional round-up here: a short, annotated, links page to developing stories. Think of it as a expeditionary snack: more calories than a tweet, less filling than a post.

Polar Regions

The biggest exploration story out of the high Arctic in recent weeks is adventurer Bear Grylls’s report of finding human bones, tools, and large campfire remains near King William’s Island. He suggested that these might have been the remains and artifacts of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845. Russell Potter has been following the story closely on his blog Visions of the North.


Roger Launius’s Blog profiles former NASA administrator Dan Goldin lecture about NASA’s efforts in astrobiology. The Journal of Cosmology just published a special issue Colonizing Mars:  The Human Mission to the Red Planet. Many of the essays are quite pro-Mars. Mine is not. In The Problem of Human Missions to Mars I discuss the reasons why plans for human missions to Mars (and there have been many) never seem to go anywhere.



Mikael Strandberg takes up the issue of Fakes and Cheats in exploration, focusing on the motives of explorers in lying about their claims. This issue has a long history, one that I’ve written about here in regards to the North Pole Controversy of 1909. Yet its a subject that never seems to goes away. The claims of high-altitude climbers routinely come into question today. In January, ExplorersWeb wrote an editorial about rampant fabrication of claims by climbers in the Karakorum. More recently, Jake Norton, author of The MountainWorld Blog, discussed the revelation of speed-climber Christian Stangl’s faked climb of K2.  The BBC also challenged Oh Eun-Sun’s claim to be the fastest women to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. Yet not everyone’s ducking the hard routes. Those Who Dared profiles the survival stories of climbers who barely made it back. And for some brilliant photos of climbers in the field, The MountainWorld Blog features photos from Sir Younghusband’s 1903 expedition to Tibet. The Asia Society’s Rivers of Ice project offers a more sobering photographic record of the Himalaya today, chronicling, in mega-pixel detail, the effects of global warming on glaciers.

New With Age

The XX

I downloaded the album XX this morning from Itunes. I’d heard bits and pieces of it over the past few months as it trickled through the estuaries of popular culture into my living room: AT&T commercials, HBO shows, and finally an interview with the lead singers Romy Croft and Oliver Sim on National Public Radio.

The shy, breathy duets of Croft and Sim sounded to me like Everything But the Girl. Lead guitarist Baria Querishi’s spare treble notes brought memories of New Order, the Cure, and Roxy Music. The XX looked new, but they sounded old, twenty-somethings channeling the spirits of the Second British Invasion. I felt conflicted at the end of it all:  the music compelled attention, but at the same time, seemed derivative.

The Cure

“Derivative” cuts deep, worse perhaps than “awful.” After all, there are gentler explanations for awful. It could mean that an artist is pushing through too many conventions, going farther than an audience is willing to follow. In this sense, today’s awful holds the promise of being tomorrow’s brilliant. Derivative, however, lives without hope. It can only been seen as an attempt at novelty that has fallen short, a poorly disguised act of mimicry.

Or are there other explanations for derivative? Though I heard other bands playing through XX, the label derivative didn’t really match my experience of listening to it. I like the album. I found myself listening to it again. It was in my head as I left the house. I turned it on when I got back home. Would I really be so patient with an album that was a complete knock off?

At some unconscious level, then, the XX provided something new.

Seen with the dispassion of distance, of course, there is no such thing as new. Music, like any other human expression, is forged in the crucible of culture. It cannot escape the conditions of its creation – whether you want to call it borrowing, inspiring, or mimicking. Originality in this sense is a myth. Everything grows from a source. “Nothing comes from nothing” says Parmenides (and Fraulein Maria).

Yet maybe the label derivative is born out of our emotional experience, rather than rational analysis, of art. In this sense, the sounds of older influences within new music are not just a product of the artist’s cultural borrowing, but of our own psychological interpreting. Perhaps, in other words, we are not cognitively prepared to experience things as new.  How did I first experience other artists? My first encounters almost always followed the same pattern. I heard the old influences first: other bands that inhabited new music. And I can generalize further. All of my new experiences – music, trips abroad, new foods – come with reminders, comparisons, analogies with the old – the already known.

This is a well-demarcated phenomenon, particularly in studies of exploration. Christopher Columbus had never been to Asia, yet found in America all of the things that he expected to see there: cinnamon, Amazons, anthropophagi, and the Great Khan. As Anthony Grafton pointed out in New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery, the New World didn’t look so new to Europeans at first. Columbus went to his grave thinking he had reached Asia. Only over time, as the New World became old so to speak, did it come to be framed as new, as other, as disorienting. The XX began with an old soul. Now it seems fresh. Newness, like cheese, gets stronger with age.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,683 other followers