BY Justin Clemens
THEME LEADER The National Gallery of Victoria
SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.
Justin Clemens is interested in the notion of change as a mutating yet simultaneously consistent facet of our lives. He investigates this aspect from the imperceptible to the obvious, from the metaphysical to the physical, from the sociological to the political. For the NGV Triennial Voices, Justin contributes a selection of quotes on the theme of change obtained through a large variety of sources from all over the world, communicating this global phenomenon in everyone’s lives.
…she’s driving the ks between states
hoping her state of mind will change.
Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food (2016)1
‘Change was incessant, and change perhaps would never cease’, Virginia Woolf writes in her classic novel Orlando (1928).2 The eponymous protagonist, born a sixteenth-century English aristocrat at a time of great uncertainty for the little country ruled by Elizabeth I, mysteriously changes sex from male to female in the course of the story. She thereafter lives for centuries without ageing, if confronted by staggering personal, social and technological changes, and struggling with the ferocity of global history: ‘All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion’.3 The turbulence of change unseats the existences of all.
You can see Woolf’s point: even over brief sequences of time, nothing, not even the supposed invariants of the human body, are stable enough to provide a fixed point from which to orient your beliefs and desires, your hopes and your actions. Every certainty will sooner or later be challenged, if not resoundingly falsified, by the unstoppable course of events. Even in those forms of art, religion and philosophy that propose forms of eternality or immortality – in Woolf’s case, a unique character who lives beyond the bounds of any possible human life – the claims of changelessness are very weak.
The history of the word ‘change’ is revealing, not least due to all the changes it has itself been through. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word entered the English language in the early thirteenth century from the Anglo-Norman chaunge, itself from the Old French change, and before that from late Latin cambium (exchange) which, moreover, is possibly cognate with the ancient Greek καμπ- (to bend, turn, turn back, as in the turn of a river or the turning-point in a discourse). Over the years, as the OED itemises, change has meant such diverse things as: the substitution or succession of one thing for another; a round in dancing; to die; to deceive; to reciprocally give and receive; a place where merchants meet; variation or mutation; inconstancy or fickleness; an alehouse; and so on. Accordingly, the synonyms of change are as shifty and manifold as the word itself: alter, alteration, cash, holiday, exchange, difference, conversion, adjustment…
Words for change are evidently central to language and experience. Think of the many common idioms: she’s changed her mind; it’s a change of pace; loose change; you’ve changed your tune; a change is as good as a holiday; they’re chopping and changing all the time; don’t go changing; he had a change of heart; the scene was changed; etc. You can change your countenance or clothes or carriage or currency or character or king. Equivalents of the word in other languages are at least as complex, even as they provide changed inflections, intonations or implications: various advisors have proffered Veränderung, שינוי, 更改 and изменение, among others. But there is no ultimate language in which to adjudge the changes those changes make. Indeed, from the point of the multiplicity of languages, and given that there are multiple words for change within and across languages, and because languages are changing in multiple ways all the time – any attempt to talk about change is undone by the very language in which one tries to talk about it.
Change has confronted, and will continue to confront, any and all societies and people, ancient or modern, existing or as yet unborn. People sometimes like to dream that change, let alone rapid change, is a feature of recent or modern societies; that, by contrast, there once were or there will be halcyon days freed of uncertainty – stable, calm, immutable – whether in the Garden of Eden or among archaic anthropoids, among the gods or the animals, perhaps in a coming utopia or near a distant star. But this probably isn’t so. The primacy of unmasterable change is patent in even the smallest details of everyday life, acknowledged in poems and stories and knowledges from all times and places. As Lao Tzu says: ‘The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way’.4 Or, as a famous fragment c. 500 BCE by the ancient Greek thinker Heraclitus of Ephesus has it: ‘In the same river, we both step and do not step, we are and we are not’.5 The river of life is constantly changing and, even as we step into the changing waters, we too are also changing; in doing so, we are no simply longer ourselves, but becoming other.
Every society, every individual, at some point has to decide how they, whether collectively or personally, are going to come to terms with such change, the actuality and inevitability of change. We seek to explain change, to give reasons why things change, to try to reconcile ourselves to change by such explanations and tall tales, whether these are mythic, religious, artistic, scientific or philosophical. It is probably no accident that such accounts are often quite violent, given the propensity of change to do damage to beings. Ancient poets liked to image these processes as ages or epochs, as do modern archaeologists: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and so forth. For his part, the Australian poet John Forbes felt that we were living in ‘The Age of Plastic’: ‘The dictionary definition of change’, he writes, ‘means your face looks different in the water’, which ends up sounding surprisingly like Heraclitus crossed with Narcissus.6
So should we affirm or deny change? Seek to control or manage it? Or, alternatively, ride the tiger of change wherever it may go? Some people attempt to stop change happening with all their might; others try to incite change, to be what is now sometimes called ‘change agents’, to take control of the processes of change, to bend these to their benefit or their will. Indeed, when people start talking about change, they usually offer prescriptions and proscriptions, explications and exhortations, confessions and contradictions, often couched in the most strenuous or strident terms. ‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, in various ways’, Karl Marx proclaims in his notorious Thesis 11 on Ludwig Feuerbach, but ‘the point is to change it’.7 Many have agreed with him. For the influential management theorist Peter Drucker, ‘the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity‘.8 Still, not everyone is on board with such enthusiastic assertions regarding the good of change. As Günther Anders, alluding to Marx, points out: ‘It is not enough to change the world. That happens anyway, and generally beyond our control. What matters is to interpret this change, specifically in order to lead it’.9 Don’t interpret, but change! Seek change and exploit it! Interpret change to lead it! – so many counsels concern change, yet so few accord with one another.
Even initially tiny changes can become gargantuan over the course of time, and part of the difficulty of change is that change is always changing. You may think now and again that you’ve at last gotten used to the constant barrage of
weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions; now comical, then tragical matters.10
But change itself has a way of changing on you. Not to mention changing you, too. And because change changes, the speed and the rate at which it changes are also always subject to arrhythmic acceleration and deceleration. Even the negotiations you try to carry on with change ultimately won’t be up to the job. As Guo Xiang says in the Commentaries on Zhuangzi, ‘In the course of change and transformation there is nothing that is not encountered sooner or later’.11
No wonder it is so hard to write cogently about change. There is no experience more universal – which makes change banal and vacuous when talking about it in the abstract. Its ordinary everydayness is too ubiquitous and multifarious to capture its essence. Yet, in its very everydayness, we each ceaselessly experience, perhaps alone and in our own way, incommunicably, the unexpected and distressing facts of change, at scales ranging from the molecular to the cosmic. As the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza might have said, changes that diminish our powers of acting make us sad; changes that increase our powers gives us joy; most of life is a mutable immixture of the two.12
Yet the paradox of change is that change then becomes the only constant. Parmenides of Elea, who flourished around the same time as Heraclitus, that partisan of flux, entirely denied the possibility of change:
Being has no coming-into-being and no destruction, for it is whole of limb, without motion, and without end. And it never Was, nor Will Be, because it Is now, a Whole all together, One, continuous.13
Or, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes, time ‘is the most radical form of change, but the form of change does not change’.14 More demotically, the nineteenth-century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the immortal phrase: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same). So there is something strange about change in that it sometimes doesn’t seem to change: it is paradoxically a stasis, paralysis, disorder and transformation all at once.
My grandmother died last year. Her name was Leah Haskin. She was very old, 107 in fact. In an obituary for Leah, Joshua Levi wrote:
Born in an age before television and the pop-up toaster, and just five years after the Wright Brothers made their first flight, she survived two world wars, the creation of the nuclear bomb, the Cold War and saw the population of the world grow from 1.65 billion to more than seven billion.15
Even given the necessary elisions of such a list, you can realise the savage intensity of those changes. I sometimes think: how did she face the extreme changes of the twentieth century? What did she feel? What did she think? How did she do it? How will we do it?
For the current century is not proving any less disruptive. Perhaps the most demanding change, amidst the radical technological innovations, daily terrorism and globalised social upheavals, is a change that even bears change in its name: climate change. It was once a common joke about Melbourne weather that, if you didn’t like it, you’d only have to wait ten minutes. But climate change is not weather change. Climate change changes the ways in which weather changes. It changes the ways in which weather can change. Moreover, this is not merely a neutral happenstance, but has anthropogenic factors: we now know that we are all simultaneously victims and perpetrators of this extreme planetary change. We will have to do something. But what?
Perhaps this is why art remains so important, in a world that can often seem so difficult, so overwhelming, so complex as to defy all collective representation and effective action. In fact, art has perhaps never been so important. Art alerts us to change and reminds us that, no matter who we are, we are at once subject to its vicissitudes as well as agents of its happening, that we have ‘response-abilities.’ Art does this according to imaginative, novel and open forms of address that seek to go beyond existing modes of discussion. Art changes itself and us by offering (often mysterious) new ways of confronting the non-artistic events of our times.
‘Mysterious’ is the very word with which Rainer Maria Rilke described the composition of his Sonnets to Orpheus, written between 2 and 20 February 1922. The poems were catalysed by news of the death of a young girl, Wera Ouckama Knoop, a friend of Rilke’s daughter. The very first stanza of the very first sonnet in the sequence runs:
Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung
ging neuer Angfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.
M. D. Herter Norton translates the lines as follows:
There rose a tree. O pure transcendency!
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was silent. Yet even in the silence
new beginning, beckoning, change went on.16
This is the place to stop. Yet change will not. As art tells us, change never stops going on.
Justin Clemens is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
Image: Timo Nasseri, Epistrophy, 2016–17, (detail), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
1. Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2016, p. 14.
2. Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (1928), Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire, 1995, p. 86.
3. ibid., p. 111.
4. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Arthur Waley, intro. Robert Wilkinson Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire, 1997, p. 1.
5. Heraclitus quoted in Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1983, p. 28.
6. John Forbes, ‘The Age of Plastic’, in Collected Poems, Brandl & Schlesinger, Rose Bay, 2002, p. 137.
7. Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845), Marx/Engels Internet Archive,
8. Peter Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985), Routledge, London and New York, 2015, p. 33. Italics are Drucker’s.
9. Günther Anders cited in Paul van Dijk, Anthropology in the Age of Technology: The Philosophical Contributions of Günther Anders, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2000, p. 29.
10. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), New York Review of Books, New York, 2001, pp. 18–19.
11. Guo Xiang cited in Zhuangzi, The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. Brook Ziporyn, Hackett, (Indianapolis, 2009, p. 201.
12. See Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Edwin Curley, intro. Stuart Hampshire Penguin, London, 1996.
13. Parmenides in Freeman, p. 43.
14. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p. 89.
15. Joshua Levi, ‘Australia’s oldest Jew mourned,’ The Australian Jewish News, 26 May 2016.
16. Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. M. D. Herter Norton, Norton, New York, 1992, p. 17.