What’s This Newsletter About?
The short answer…
This newsletter is about two main ideas: novum and interregnum.
novum: the capacity for new social phenomena to emerge
interregnum: a crisis-prone period of transition to a new order of things
We can say that during periods of interregnum like ours, novum appears.
But not all periods of interregnum are made equal. Its consequences can be broken up along levels of scale: (1) global, (2) state & politics, and (3) society.
Together, this 3-part schema structures my substack, Novum Newsletter.
If this perspective interests you, consider subscribing if you haven’t already.
The longer answer…
We are living amid a historic transition period, a time of interregnum. While imprisoned in 1926, Antonio Gramsci famously wrote that an interregnum is when many “morbid symptoms appear” because the “old is dying and the new cannot be born.” You may have heard this before. The decayed symptoms are so often self-evident today.
Still, the idea behind interregnum goes much deeper than what’s usually assumed. Gramsci spoke of transitional periods as operating at different levels. From the grandest scale to the lowest, these three levels are (1) the global order and world markets, (2) the state and politics, and (3) everyday life, the social sphere.My view is that we’re in a weird situation where we’re 3 for 3. All levels are shifting and in great flux. This isn’t just any interregnum.
The drivers of our ongoing transitional period are many, but a few leading ones should be highlighted. These observations form the foundation of my perspective.
Firstly, there is technology and the internet: it is indisputably the leading accelerator of change today and has developed far faster than can be processed politically, culturally, or socially. Just in terms of cognition, it has caused a transformation within us that has only just started and is still poorly understood because it is so without precedent.The sweeping instability it has wrought, coupled also with its boundless possibility, leaves the future unsettlingly wide open.
Historically, modernity has mainly been the story of Western power and its expansion. But today, the West is in the process of being de-centered as other emerging powers amass the means to take a seat at the highest level. In our increasingly multipolar world, grand narratives on civilizations and regional identities are staging a comeback. Here we also have many unknowns, especially when we consider the growing scarcity of Earth’s resources. Just as importantly, a global middle class has also emerged for the first time. This new generation of non-Western masses will inevitably ask something of the world as its imbued with new meaning.
Finally, capitalism isn’t what it used to be. It’s now deeply financialized, value creation more immaterial, and its world more and more machine-led. Labor’s slide continues unabated as its share of total economic output drops to historic lows. So many old ‘economic laws’ taken for granted no longer apply. The entire coordinates of value creation are out of wack, often causing resentment and discontent. What does capitalism look like with a declining labor share and even a declining worldwide population?
Amid all these great upheavals, the “great masses […] become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously.”This is a core feature of an interregnum, that void we are currently living through.
The public, unmoored from what it once took for granted, is adrift. And the only antidote is a turn toward novum and the new, lest we continue to be trapped within history and it being "a nightmare on the brains of the living," resigned to future stagnation.
But what is novum, exactly? Amid times like ours, novel structures and ways of thinking emerge, sometimes by accident. This is what’s called “novum.” Novum is the reservoir from which the creative human spirit emerges. It’s a word popularized by philosopher Ernst Bloch to describe the potential of ‘newness’ to appear, said to be latent in each period. The concept undergirds Bloch’s belief in a positive teleology for humankind.
As he writes in his three-volume work The Principle of Hope:
Ages in which nothing happens have almost lost the feeling for the Novum; they live in habit and what is coming is no such thing, but rather as circumscribed as what happened yesterday. But ages like the modern one, in which history, perhaps for centuries, stands in the balance, have the feeling for the Novum in the extreme, they sense what future is…
Amid times of transition and its sweeping changes and crises, human potentiality inevitably turns toward novum: the emergence of the ‘unexpectedly new’—or, to quote a phrase we’ve heard so often in the past few years, “can you believe it?” Well, you best believe it’s happening.
Novum is a newsletter that investigates what is unique to our interregnum.
A little about myself
My name is Anton Stjepan Cebalo. I’m a modern historian by study (BA, MA). Being psychically damaged by the past few years and feeling cooped up in my head, so exhausted by it all, I needed to write about living in the current year. This is a newsletter that tries to give the present its due after being frustratingly swallowed by it for far too long.
I take my time in assembling well-researched source material to make accessible stories on the past, present, and possible future(s). So, if you like my writing, stay a while. Share this around. Leave a comment. Maybe subscribe, so I get a little bump of motivation knowing I’m putting out something worthwhile. It lets me know that someone out there is listening.
An interesting graphic from a 2016 paper from the wikipedia entry for metasystem transition, or the development of higher forms of organization. We are thought to be in such a transition now.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope, pg. 288