Much has been said about the problems internal to historical instances of avant-gardes: they are prone to classism, sexism, racism, and homophobia; they devolve readily into cultic forms with charismatic leaders, running on ostracism and embattlement; they align themselves wittingly or unwittingly with disastrous political programs; they replace the full archive with a convenient, severe, parsimonious one; they mistake text or canvas for brick and mortar, a battlefield or revolution; they declare the end of art and then go on making it; they become, instantly and over time, the thing from which they performed a disengagement. This is all unsurprising given that they happen in history. Their fundamental flaw beyond happening to happen within damage is that they stipulate themselves as coming from some afterwards to the history in which they find themselves. “Avant” makes a certain kind of sense only as a fantasized temporality; avant-gardes have usually described themselves less as militia and more as time travelers, or as the latter then the former. They attempt, via an arrogation of privileged vision and assaults on norms, to weaponize time. 

 

I’m reminded of Adorno’s admonition in “Lyric Poetry and Society” that the lyric speaker often seems to speak from the vantage of a fully realized “humanity,” come back from this unrealized future moment to bestow angry gifts of analysis and judgment (delivered as renovations of form and salutary content) on the blind present. This mistake applies to a group as easily as an individual composer, and the error of hiving off a collective and its productions in fake time, a futural bubble floating within the present, is fatal to the aims of its projects, if not the projects themselves, proffering an aesthetics as a politics and politics as primarily a textual phenomenon and a policed social border. It’s therefore also unsurprising that the notion of a contemporary avant-garde is usually met with irony or embarrassment (irony as embarrassment’s pyrrhic protection), both by those who would announce a new common aesthetic commitment in the ruled field of the arts and by those who have elected to receive such announcements. 

 

The idea of a contemporary version of the good group today has to contend also with the digital domain of the present, its instantaneous disseminations and reactions, its significant reaches both real and fantasized. Both categories of person (announcer and receiver), both populations (often they nearly overlap), are now set within a virtual flow that produces new forms of isolation and connectedness, as well as facsimiles of the old forms of these inevitable social experiences, and with them come all the old problems of sameness and difference—witting and unwitting intolerances, ambitions to mutate the writing and thinking subject that instead strengthen the present subject or leave it undisturbed in its decadence. After the Internet, we’ve been more likely to see loose literary movements than manifestic announcements of a total program for everyday life driven by a collective art practice. These movements have often been disembodied, scattered, and liable to half-life into mere branding and intentional controversy with the life of a mayfly or newscycle, or they’ve deliberately begun in such a confined state, jokes from the start.

 

Could a contemporary avant-garde appear, one that was productively self-examining around questions of intolerance and other group dynamics (including self-policing itself), one that coordinated aesthetic commitments with revolutionary social aims, that wasn’t crippled by embarrassment and irony over both its historical moment’s belatedness and earliness, that generated among and across its members compelling individual works of art? Sure, but it would have to lose both the avant and the garde. It would have to meet all the temptations, be stubbornly the time it’s of (which includes all others to date), undo the arrogation of superior vision, and let go of an interventionist model of poetry, even of that form of hypothetical intervention in which a radical art escorts the social toward a time when that art won’t any longer be necessary as a distinct form of life. At this point of divestiture, an avant-garde would more nearly resemble a group of people committed to revolution who also happened to enjoy making art and talking about it in the shadow of present structures.  At present, I can’t think of a group, bad or good, to which I would want to apply the term.

 

In that present, Commune Editions (http://communeeditions.com/) seems like the most pertinent and self-proposing candidate for this thing-without-a-name; its organizers are committed, on both page and foot, to things beyond and alongside poetry and, within the genre, they move interestingly in and out of anonymity, collaboration, translation, and manifesto (http://communeeditions.com/2014/06/23/misanthropocene/), all the while bracingly and cheerfully self-aware that no writing escapes its cultural conditions and antagonisms (and thus expresses them) and the imaginable (available) subject positions through which all writing must pass. It’s instructive that their sense of the possibilities for (mis)writing (and living) the anthropocene is so charged with self-consciousness, and self-consciousness about self-consciousness, that it verges on becoming the content of writing, or the only possibility, a room made of avoided exits, a ditty of no tone. 

 

To sing the impasse is one way, to echo its earlier forms another. Another possible candidate for collective contemporary thought-in-form doesn’t exist as persons, more a tendency appearing here and there in some poetries: the past of poetic practice. I’m interested in a radical arrière, in non-conservative, non-nostalgic uses of past poetic resources, because I believe formal patterning too capacious a thing to be rejected as politically problematic or the uninterruptable property of a single subject position or historically inert, regardless of its past uses. There’s a difference between using archival form as a marker of privilege and flight from the demands of the day on the one hand and, on the other, testing pattern (meter, stanza structure, rhyme, etc.) for its capacity to hold and phrase the present, to be against the day rather than elsewhen. John Ashbery’s sestinas don’t feel like Arnaut Daniel’s for many reasons; the troubadour’s participation in a boast culture and his effort at mastering the disorganization and dissolves of eros become, 750+ years later, a way of doing urban system mimesis: the feeling of moving within deeply ruled structures the mind both can and cannot perceive—an abyss of rule. “The Painter” or “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” can’t help coming after and coming during, offering extreme form first as a measure of the difference between feudal and capitalist landscapes, or art before and after mechanical reproduction, and then as something less obvious and ironized and finished or known: the unarrestable expressive capacity of pattern in whatever set of conditions.

 

It seems conservative to me to rule any archival resource dead or offlimits, and just as conservative or blithe to think its resurrection is as simple as the decision to reuse it; obligations to negotiate a specific history of use should attend any desire to speak into and out of that history across the present. To navigate between the Scylla and Charbydis of denial and permission could be simply to accept a politicized version of Eliot’s tradition and the individual talent schema, a heroic individual reacquiring a sense of what form’s depopulated history might mean for form’s present. But that archive is populated by persons and potential collaborators; I want to think of form’s history as an inexhaustible content, the ongoing work of the hugest group, and prosody as a semi-durable record of how a body was caused faintly to rock, and to rock other bodies, within its moment and after—that’s labor of a kind, and a poetic non-commodity I don’t want to throw out or consume, disavow or preserve, but attach to, reconsider, and transmit with all the present’s differences, with rather than in advance or after.

 
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