Sunday, November 4, 2007
"If Jesus Can Rise Again, Why Not the Avant Garde?"
That subject heading is from a t-shirt made by Les Figues Press.
A lot has been going on in blogland lately, what with conversation happening on Lorraine Graham’s and Simon DeDeo’s blogs about Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s recent article on a continuing need to assert the value of feminism, as well as a discussion on the blogs of Stan Apps and Nicholas Manning regarding whether there’s a need to assert the notion of an avant-garde. Both issues, though very different, seem to me connected in the sense that they revolve around the question of whether an assertive and therefore to some inevitable extent divisive rhetoric is necessary, or whether such divisive rhetoric is an outmoded form of discourse, something that we have gone beyond and need to stay beyond in order to continue with the essential task of learning how to get along with each other in a complex and troubled world.
I’m going to focus on the issue of the avant garde here because to me at least the continuing need for outspoken feminism seems more or less obvious, while other people are going to be better than I am at working out what that might look like both theoretically and in local applications. But an avant garde? Do we need that anymore? Stan Apps has been saying that we do, and has been describing his vision of what that might look like.
Now, many of my friends and readers of this blog perhaps remember an earlier era in this problem. It was an era in which it felt important to me and lots of others to critique the limits of a notion of an avant garde and its problematic relation to progress, militarism, and gender, race, and class, not to mention all the limitations of social group formation. Those critiques remain important, but does that really mean that the idea of an avant garde is no longer necessary at all?
Speaking for myself, I’ve never thought so. The goal of critiquing certain problems within the history of the avant garde was, to my mind, not a way of restraining aesthetic excesses but freeing up more possibilities that might challenge settled notions of what literature is and can be. I was hardly interested in a return to safer modes of writing or thinking, but to note how many more unsafe modes of writing and thinking might be possible. My sense has been that the idea of an avant garde can be found in a restless refusal to accept that what literature looks like in the past must determine its limits for the future. To me, the notion of an avant garde is valuable as a kind of impulse that must be put into practice and that can be found in multiple contexts—and not just in those that assert avant garde rhetoric.
That said, the idea that there are limitations to avant garde practice is one that has gone around widely, so much so that many people think that the idea of an avant garde is now a useless notion. In various ways, this dismissal of the idea of an avant garde has the habit in practice of discouraging or even outright ignoring more extreme aesthetic approaches. Of course, the discouragement works differently than the 80s mainstream poetry way of ignoring language poetry entirely and being hostile to any mention of it. The way, now, is to claim that one has been exposed to those ideas and has moved beyond them.
The classic example, to my mind, is Jorie Graham, who has gone on record as claiming to be more radical in her approach to writing than more definitively avant garde writers. But on what grounds does she make this claim? It mainly seems to be that in incorporating certain more supposedly extreme concepts (indeterminacy being the key one perhaps, since it’s often considered the central tenet of avant garde writing by people who don’t really read that writing or know it mainly through reading Marjorie Perloff) and linking them with the high-toned philosphical lyric a la Richard Wilbur or Wallace Stevens, she’s more radically consolidating a new center in poetry than fringey experimenters who are caught up in old school avant garde rhetoric. Get it? Moving to the center is more radical than being on the fringe. And defining a new center, it turns out, is best achieved by incorporating a few avant gestures without letting those gestures so deeply take over the text that the work becomes offensive or incomprehensible to readers of more conventional lyric or narrative verse.
But let’s be fair (not that most of us ever are). It’s not only writers who don’t seem to know what the avant garde was who think that the idea of an avant garde may now be bankrupt. Ron Silliman’s notion of the post avant, which he says quite sincerely that he thinks of as a positive development, clearly contains the implication that the idea of an avant garde has played itself out, and Ron knows as much about what it means to be an avant garde writer as anyone alive. In his formulation of the post avant, remnants of avant garde practice remain a possibility, but its intensity, its severity, its refusals and rejections are no longer tenable.
So what do you think? Is the time of any idea of an avant garde over with? Do we need more insistence on the value of aesthetic extremes? Is it important to remind people that it’s not really possible to reject the avant garde before you understand what it was in the first place? Can avant garde possibilities be found in a Stan Apps-style defining of avant garde practices, or in an impulse to unsettle accepted pieties in numerous contexts that’s both broader but perhaps dangerously general? Both? Is the idea of an avant garde old news, or one that we’ve already gone too far in forgetting? How would we know, right now, avant garde work if we saw it?