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?


Nicholas Manning said...

Mark, I think this is a good post, but to me the relevance or non of the avant-garde is not really the issue.

Much more than the term, it's the political and aesthetic ramifications of the poetic Stan is proposing that concern me. The rest relates to a fairly taxonomic question which, at least to me, is of absolute secondary concern.

I don't mind if Stan wants to call his 4-point-plan 'the avant-garde', the 'new-avant-garde' or the '2007 Stan Apps Manifesto'. In each case it's a proposal for a poetics and a praxis, for the theoretical basis of the type of poetry Stan feels needs or could be written today.

It seems more profitable for me to centre debate around the tenets of this poetic rather than on its nomenclature. Perhaps you'll argue that nomenclature leads to content, signifiant to signifié, and vice versa. Saussure would disagree. The 'avant-garde' discussion has distracted us from the original central issue, which to me is of prime importance, namely: to what extent will we aim to incorporate a complex historicity into contemporary poetic production?

If we see the 'avant-garde' or whatever as opposing itself to historicity itself - which I still maintain is the timbre of Stan's initial 'rear-garde' formulations/accusations - then we need to decide if this emphasizing of "the eclectic now" over "an interwoven historicity" is aesthetically and politically dangerous, or not.

I know you think it isn't. I know you think Stan is being sufficiently historically minded. But I am extremely skeptical of this proposed "radical eclecticism", which gives off distinct odors to me of "don't be caught up on the discrete hegemonies and injustices of the past: live in the NOW."

But whose "now"?

Daniel Pritchard said...

I think the whole question is borderline ridiclulous. The avant garde – to what does it refer except a certain school of artists and writers and thinkers and their aesthetic? Yes, their time is done. They are mostly dead, and the relations of that society no longer exist as they did then. Any attempt to reproduce the aesthetic of those artists would produce only a shadow of a thing that some people remember.

Pushing limits of acceptability is not the realm of the avant garde alone, although I believe there was an attempt in the mid Twentieth Century to co-opt all types of non-traditional artistic representations under the banner of the avant.

michael said...

...our animosities mostly map onto mythical entities. (The "avant garde" is only one such.)


K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Mark, I’ve been following the conversation on Stan’s and Nicholas’ blog, and we've been talking about it together of course, but I still haven’t decided whether or not the somewhat divisive notion of a contemporary avant-garde is useful. We’ll see if I’m able to get to a point by the end of this comment. I suspect I will decide that it is, but we'll see.

A substantial number of the writers that inspire and influence my work come from traditions that are avant-garde: Baudelaire, Whitman, Blake, Dickinson, Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Marllarme, Apollinaire, Pessoa, Pound, Cendrars, Duchamp, Mayakovsky, most of Dada but for me especially The Baroness Elsa—I respect but feel ambivalent about Tzara, Ball, Duchamp, and Breton, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Lorine Neidecker, Marianne Moore, HD (I like her prose best), Mandelstam, Vallejo, Williams, I haven’t had my objectivist moment but they are in this list anyway, Cesaire, Akhmatova, Brecht, Michaux, Laura Riding, Neruda, Beckett…This list isn’t inclusive at all, and I’m not going to attempt, for now, to carry it into the living, or to extend it backwards. My only point is that I, personally, don’t know how to contextualize my work without using the term avant-garde. Even Silliman’s “post avant” and Stan’s “rear guard” still need “avant-garde” as their reference point. That term is still the reference point for thinking about work that is associated with (primarily) European and US Modernism but also specifically with forms and content that are aesthetically and socioculturally different and often (but not always) abrasive.

I’m not interested in making the avant-garde as I’ve just described it into another cannon, although it would be easy to do that, and plenty of people have. But do I find it (an avant garde) a useful concept because it’s a reminder to me how much of the poetry I care about is in opposition to canonization, to hierarchy—even as it is inevitably caught up in those things. It reminds me that it is, still, important to oppose these things and to be vocal about it, and that art offers ways of communicating and learning, and thinking and having fun that are flexible and different from, say, a third US political party.

It’s obvious that the specific things an avant garde might oppose and the ways in which it might oppose them are different from what they were. Numerous writers bring a variety of contexts to bear on their writing, including complicated concerns about race, gender, and class.

The idea that there might be only one avant-garde is ridiculous, though. It’s not as if all the writers I listed above were always hanging out with each other and going to each others parties (although often they were—hanging out and having parties is an important part of being avant-garde). Nope, we have a lot of avant-gardes that are sometimes in opposition to each other. I’ll consider rear garde (although whenever I read that term, I think “cover your ass”—there, now I’ve said it), but I definitely do not want to be post avant.


I probably have a "too simplistic" view of this question -- and I admit that -- but to me, for what it's worth, the term "avant garde" has become reserved for the types of people who have never, and will never allow themselves to be "accessible," and resist being pleasant, unless of course, they're receiving praise. Either that -- or it's a clear sham, in that the writing is hardly much of an "advance guard" of any kind, and thus is just watery spaghetti sauce, and in that case, it's people thinking they're hot, when they haven't done a day of manual labor in their lives.

These folks sniff around at parties while Alabama Slammers are being fizzed up, and get pissed because your friend called Dublin on their long distance. One writer in particular comes to mind who always has floral products about. If that person can say "I'm avant garde" and receive plaudits for that very statement from Big Actors in the Literary Community, then anyone can say it and if anyone can say it, then it's worthless. I mean, what point is there in having "a real avant garde" and then "another avant garde?" I hope that doesn't make me too much like Little Nervous What's His Name--- who accused you once of only featuring readers who attack the current president and say "f***."

I bristle, too, when people say "I'm in the new New York School" or the like. The same people look down upon stuff like fraternities when, in fact, their behavior (groups they belong to, hence people they exclude) is similar. They move in packs and they suck. It gets my blood up. My Blood And.

In any event, the world is coming to an end of course, and your brilliant piece about that (which isn't avant garde but is just plain old good-ass witty writing) is, to me, an argument that we should -- each of us -- be stockpiling some 40s. Because they ain't gonna be cheap nor, as you point out, will they be plentiful once the world crashes down at our feet. B.A.

Art Durkee said...

In the same way that "post-avant" requires the avant-garde as a reference point, the post-Modernists require the Moderns as a reference point. All of which leads one to think that we haven't really moved on from, or finished coming to grips with, the influences and innovations of the Modernist avant-garde. if we had really moved on, the titles of the movements or -isms wouldn't keep referring back to the past.

So, in fact, I think that it's not at all that the avant-garde is over and done with. I think it's that the whole ramifications of all those new ideas still haven't been deal with, absorbed, or become integrated. No, we're still dealing with what happened in writing a century ago; we haven't moved on at all.

I have frequently questioned Ron Silliman's division of All Poetry into either "post-avant" or "School of Quietude." The latter almost always contains a whiff of judgmental dismissal, despire denials to the contrary. I partially question this because I question all binary categorizations, which inevitably create an either/or polemic when in fact the reality is usually a both/and situation, not an either/or situation.

i think most self-identifying categories are claims to solid ground made in the face of insecurity, uncertainty, and fear of the unknown. I think most -isms or schools in poetry, in particular, are ridiculous fictions. Such a move is always designed to create an "in group" and to exclude everyone who's not in the "in group." It's a juvenile tactic at best, a heinously manipulative one at worst.

But then, surely I am not the first to have pointed out how very insecure most poets are about their own (contested) turf. One often thinks that the reason so much energy gets spent on these sorts of disputes is precisely because they are about things of so little importance to the greater realm of living.

Ryan W. said...

"One often thinks that the reason so much energy gets spent on these sorts of disputes is precisely because they are about things of so little importance to the greater realm of living."
that's interesting.

my answers to questions about the avant-guard and categories, etc, tend to quickly form a damp nest of self-recriminations. not of myself but just my statements. like this.

I like the bristles and blood.

hmm. I don't expect to ever have strong feelings about something being avant guard or not, or something being post avant, etc. I get the feeling that artistic concerns change and diverge independent of the nomenclature, and unaided by it, to a greater extent than I can easily comprehend. I just get the feeling like there's the actual stuff that happens over time, and it doesn't care what we call it. Nomenclature is often an aid in diagramming and understanding, but just as often an impediment. And I dunno, in the mood I'm in right now I think it might be an extreme impediment. Imagine there's no nomenclature. It's easy if you try.

I haven't read the discussions Mark links to but suspect I will.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Art Durkee. I think this articulates one of the major points I was trying to make:

"In the same way that "post-avant" requires the avant-garde as a reference point, the post-Modernists require the Moderns as a reference point. All of which leads one to think that we haven't really moved on from, or finished coming to grips with, the influences and innovations of the Modernist avant-garde. if we had really moved on, the titles of the movements or -isms wouldn't keep referring back to the past."


tmorange said...

i'll hopefully respond more directly to what you and others have said, mark, in a subsequent post. but for now my initial impulse is to insist that the spirit of the avant-garde is still quite vital but that it might be more useful to think less in linear/temporal orientations (after, ahead, progress) than in spatial ones (centers and peripheries).

and i think this is the significant development of the past few years in contemporary poetry, namely the proliferation of peripheries relative to the centers of poetic production in this country -- and peripheries with less explicit or definable affinities for the historical avant garde.


Ryan W. said...

a bowl of peripheries

Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Responding to Nicholas, up top:

Nick, I think your distaste for the "now" is misplaced. What is this, an ethical judgement for tradition in favor of the present? I think it's a mistake to imagine the so-called tradition, or set of traditions, or whatever you believe in, as having some sort of significant or meaningful ethical ballast that the "now" lacks. The general mistake of conservatives is to imagine that tradition is loaded with ethical goodness. There's nothing unethical or unsavory about "now" that doesn't have a far worse analogue in any or every tradition.

I believe in critiquing traditions, finding fault in traditions. Part of this is not believing that traditions are intact, internally coherent, ethically emblematic, or very helpful. Traditions are loaded with the past's rationalizations for abusive behavior. They are also loaded with implications about the radical difference of different groups of people who, supposedly, "belong" to different traditions. I don't believe in those implications of radical difference; I think they're a collective fantasy imposed by contructions of tradition, and I think the insistence by you and Tony on the radical difference of racially different people is regressive and weird. Eclecticism is about the denial of the relevance of the constructions of difference articulated through various traditions.

Further, your initial dismissal of Mark's point is inappropriate, since I have been arguing all along that this radical distrust and denial of relevance of tradition is fundamental to the category of "avant-garde art." I think traditions are constructed packages, maintained in the present. My animosity is for those traditions which have a hegemonic function, which also tend to be the traditions that are best preserved and best articulated. I have the hope that eclecticism could be a vehicle for permitting transfers of cultural information that are discouraged by the articulation of hegemonic traditions. This can only take place in the "now" because that is the only time we have. . . I feel like you want to claim tradition as some sort of virtual time or time-substitute, and that way leads to those types of fantasies that I consider least productive.


Your criticism of the term "rear garde" is funny and valid, but I didn't invent the term. Terms can be absurd, maybe they're always absurd. . . but they can denote relevant continuities at the same time. And once you don't have the terms, you just have to describe what you're trying to say with other words, which is typically much harder to do and understand.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hey Stan,

Oh, I completely agree that terms help denote relevant continuities. I'm all for terms--they are very useful for conversations. Hey, who did invent the term "rear garde," anyway?

tmorange said...

lorraine: clement greenberg defined kitsch as rear guard ("Avant-Garde and Kitsch," Partisan Review, 1939). tho i'm sure he's not the first to use the term. matei calinescu's five faces of modernity is really good on this, but unfortunately he does not index the term so i'm paging through hastily and not finding anything...