l. Re the avant-garde today


November 24, 2013


In most of today’s discussions of the avant-garde I’d say there’s an unexamined assumption about the meaning of “capitalism,” when it isn’t ignored altogether—as though the term were clear on its own. Capitalism in Marx and the tradition of historical materialism is a mode of production, one in which there exists a universalization of production for exchange (commodity exchange, first in agriculture), rather than subsistence (as with the case of subsistence peasant life, or feudalism). Previous to capitalism, exchange meant barter, which assumed self-sufficient producing parties, exchanging their marginal surpluses. Capitalism is further this social relation of human beings separated from subsistence and compelled to labor for wages, the sale or exchange of the only commodity they have, their labor power. So there’s a fundamental class split in this condition between those with money or capital, hence the means to purchase productive conditions, and those with only their laboring ability to sell piecemeal. Capital then is to be understood in the heroic conceptualization proper to Marx’s Capital, with its more of less unsurpassed if now dated account of the money system, circulation, workers’ struggles with employers, primitive accumulation (original theft), large-scale machinery, fixed and variable capital, and all of the contradictions and self-undermining limits the system imposes on itself in its pursuit of profit. In the revolutionary struggles in France, political opposition to capitalism (the heart of it was the struggle over wages, the working day, etc. the workers’ struggle first, later the anti-imperial struggles (imperialism here understood as a historical phase of colonial capitalism)) took further shape (just as language did, or exchange did, or agriculture, the family, etc.—all of which will be transformed by this new form of society) before capitalism itself matured.


Revolutionary politics in its Jacobin form owed much to the past, the Greeks, Machiavelli, Rousseau (to make another eclectic list). Poets like Shelley or artists like David were certainly involved in the cultural-artistic struggle of this time. According to Marx, the final phase of such politics was the revolutionary wave of 1848. Marx thereafter developed a political account of the transformation of proletariat under capitalist production and the coming of its fixed infrastructure, the workers’ concerted struggle with it, and later developed an account of the Paris Commune. The politics were two-fold and disconnected from some of the political dynamics of the workers’ struggle he outlined. The first Jacobin period was characterized by the practice of the seizure of the means of domination, or the state. The second, which Lenin picked up, by the idea that the state itself will wither away, disappear, or ultimately be smashed. Coupled with the “productive” industrial infrastructure, the state is the repressive means of bourgeois class domination.


The existence of actual socialist countries was varied but tragic indeed. (One might add that it was less tragic and fucked up than the continuing existence of the United States, with its founding Genocide against the natives, its abductions of Africans, and its general ongoing imperialism in the name of Manifest Destiny.) Stalinism, a kind of ruthless Thermidorean period, was particularly schizophrenic: homicidally conservative at home in the 30s and ultra-left in its support of international struggles, or national liberation movements. Yet without the Soviet Union, for all its failures and tragedies, no victory over Fascism, and no decolonization. Under Stalinism, the official suppression of the avant-garde took shape, and fundamentally altered the development of modern, oppositional as well as postmodern art and culture. The official art of socialist realism inherited the mantle of prestige in socialist countries during that time.


I’m going somewhere with all this. In much of the 20th century you have an opposition to Capitalism that is itself vital, actually existing, in USSR, China, Cuba, and later revolutions in the colonies (revolutionary decolonization). The 60s upheaval in the advanced capitalist countries was also something like this, with its attendant cultural and poetic developments (Black Arts, Feminist writers, Chicano art and literature, Asian American literature and art as well). These alternative zones made possible a leap in thought, political imagination, gave impetus and hope to artists in various contexts. In the recent period, the defeat of this global left has meant that there’s very little political imagination in much so-called radical art. So there was oppositional art in these bourgeois societies, like Surrealism or the Black Arts, which effectively stemmed from the breakthroughs in revolutionary politics. There was also cultural revolution in socialist countries, a vanguard still there, if hunted in some cases. Cuba could be said to have made some differences here, being generally more progressive than the Soviets. But if the avant-garde meant anything, it meant anti-capitalist, anti-status quo of the political economy. This was true of Tel Quel, Sartre, Adorno, and a host of artists.


The present? Hard to say. But there’s the felt absence of anti-systemic political forms, with only a small block of Latin American countries, themselves vulnerable and compromised by global markets, to speak of. The global protests since the crisis are showing the possibility now open (however difficult) in the context of stagnating and drifting global capitalism. For me, the task of the artistic forefront today is distinct, historically speaking: for some of us there’s some recognition of the avant-garde’s political marginalization and, further, some actual attempt to think through what this might mean for artistic production, to use art to create an imaginative horizon from which to criticize, afflict, and witness against US empire, ruthless worker exploitation (from California farms, to Mexican and Chinese factories), barbarism toward the environment; to create and lend imaginative courage and intellectual firepower to any struggles against the hegemony of global capital; and to struggle practically ourselves against the political status quo, which is often enough an intellectual struggle that involves historical and political study as well as practical organization against a system bent relentlessly on co-optation of anything cutting edge or opposed to it. But it’s hard to make much sense talking like this in the age of neoliberalism. In short, I don’t think there’s an easy outside of global capitalism today, such as “the red century” (Badiou) afforded, stimulating, as it did, the political aesthetic imagination in various countries, making possible the linking up of cultural creation with different orders of economic and political life (in the 60s, Cuba; later, China.) Much of the happily “social,” “connected” crowd is hardly aware of the dynamics of capitalism—thus they should be careful as they try to criticize conceptualizations that grasp the historical conditions of contemporary reality. Capitalism in their understanding is a loose metaphor, and the class struggle dynamics of politicized culture are a sometimes childish work seen from the position of ruling class power.


ll. Avant-garde co-optation

—from the Poetry Foundation Harriet Blog, April, 2014


What follows is a brief account of avant-garde co-optation at work in conceptual writing and the related practice of “curating” digital archives of experimental art and literature.


First what was the avant-garde? Not easily pinned down, it is usually taken for granted as a 20th century genealogy of passionate formal innovation and traditional destruction in literature and art. The frustrated enthusiasm of the militant (“avant-garde”) poet or artist was its strong affect, consonant with the left (and some right) figures during the interwar period. They cultivated a revolutionary commitment to their historical circumstance. The historical avant-garde was a rupture (with precursors) in the 20th century’s second decade, with its Great War, its age of revolutions. The avant-garde’s various formal means and novelties,—or deconstructed reinventions of their media—conveyed a disgusted rejection of inert genre, continuous composition, and cultural institutions, before self-consciously developing into a cultural revolutionary mode across one arc of the century. 


This second decade of the 20th century phenomenon is now quite historically distant from us. In our own time it might help instead to keep in mind the “neo-avantgarde” of the postwar period, their encounters with the commodity culture of the becoming-postmodern spectacle. From Gruppo 63 and the Situationists, to AACM, the Black Arts, Chicano Arts, Fluxus, Language writing, etc., their goal was nothing short of the remaking of every aspect of experience in daily life, — in a struggle with capitalism and imperialism in some cases – or total social transformation. These avant-gardes evolved in new situation of fully developed productive forces in the context of the postwar boom, along with its televisual and commodity spectacle. These material conditions are fundamentally similar to our own time. 


As an editor of a poetry journal called Lana Turner, I’m wondering about what’s happening to some conceptual writing, a formally vanguard “literature,” some of whose representatives we’ve published, that finds itself increasingly incorporated into neo-liberal capitalism’s hegemonic public-private cultural institutions, with their known track record of normalizing and neutralizing even sometime political or artistic antagonists. In the small avant-garde literary world the academy is chief among such institutions. This institutionalization and taming of the avant-garde is one version of co-optation. Some current crosscutting developments in academic and para-academic poetry institutions, digital archives and “curatorial practice,” and a few post-Language writing aesthetic movements — at the University of Pennsylvania affiliated Penn Sound website and Massive Online Open Course (MOOC), the University of Utah’s Eclipse Archive, The Poetry Foundation Website and cross-platform poetry application, Ubu Web, etc. — seek to create what I suggest are universal but also, as a weird consequence, neutralized and depoliticized archives of avant-garde literature: at least where they comprise digital appropriations, a sort of ambiguous, even omnivorous curatorial activity. 


Digitized texts today—loose, smooth, or clunky—flow in a quasi-animated fashion. (Animation is most prominent in video poems; digitization may be animation’s secret triumph on screen, particularly today in film, as J. Hoberman has noted recently.) Texts from past historical eras, in a kind of online avant-garde version of Google Books—those of Surrealism, Dada, and Futurism, Language writing, conceptual art, and sound poetry—appear to float alongside one another, uprooted from their historical particularity, their concrete, orchestrated determinations (and actual distance from us) in journal, books, pamphlet, performance, talk, or reading. Rooted in academic or para-academic contexts, these new digital archives, richly backward looking, seem distinct from the avant-garde dream of the transformation of daily existence on every imaginable scale — especially as the academy in this post-bailout, quantitative easing period, embraces a more thoroughgoing form of neo-liberalism’s employers’ offensive, with various forms of “cost-cutting” (MOOC-ification, for instance) now on the horizon, with job and course cuts to be expected. I would here note again that modern and postmodern American poetry is now offered by Coursera and taught by University of Pennsylvania Professor and Modernism scholar Al Filreis, a colleague of Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, and Kenneth Goldsmith. MOOCs — these counterrevolutions of the classroom, transforming universities traditional roles as teacher training centers—have now made thinkable a further elimination of teaching positions, academic hiring, and the training of the K-12 teachers. Whole sections of the public sector may become technologically obsolete. Presented as a technological solution to the “crisis” of higher education, MOOCs are a notorious instance of the fetish of commodities; in this case the social relation this supposedly progressive (“free”) technology stands in for is nothing other than the academic version of the employers’ offensive.


Is one part of the contemporary literary avant-garde becoming a neoliberal para-academic apparatus, an animated textual spectacle itself “a combinatory system, which spits about affordable dissent and acceptable novelty,” in McKenzie Wark’s phrase? Poet Kent Johnson has argued recently that on balance, a previous oppositional, even Marxist “neo-avantgarde” (in the case of Gruppo 63, the Situationists, various Latin American examples, Marcel Broodthaers, etc.) emerges today shorn of its historically consequential edge of political or broadly socio-cultural effectuality. Today’s conceptualist and digital-curatorial avant-garde seems to take the shape of a conservatory of the 20th century avant-garde, without a clear periodization with respect to its historical development (transformation of the base and superstructure), like the one I sketched at the outset of my remarks.


But then co-optation is just a part of uncreative (conceptual) writing’s practice of borrowing, copying, plagiarizing, etc. without what the Situationists called détournement, or those provisional artistic attempts to turn the capitalist spectacle against itself. The contemporary mode of conceptualist appropriation instead bears some resemblance to the unlimited freedom of property assumed by certain corporate actors, the appropriation of everything that has meaning or value. It is a sign of the times that the term co-optation (or recuperation) has lost its pointed charge; and different baroque versions of found text procedure have been elevated again to renewed acclaim. The build out of online archives of avant-garde literature, with Ubu Web chief among them, is akin to the conceptual writing mode, deeply indebted to coopted texts, digitization, recorded voices, with their submerged histories.


The extraordinary combined avant-garde archive available at Ubu Web, Penn Sound, University of Utah’s Eclipse site, and certain elements of the Poetry Foundation Website (its browse poems button has a “poems by Language poets” feature) is certainly unique in its grand survey of the North American and international 20th century’s innovative, ground-gained poetics. The digital archives of various conceptualists assure the prestigious, literary monumentality of the appropriation technique. But in one bold stroke unsorted pieces of the past of avant-garde art and literature are coopted into the conceptual writing oeuvre, with conceptual writing as the teleological end of a kind history of the avant-garde as literary fashion. 


The mode of online presentation (putting things up, pasting/copying, claiming/re-claiming; Ben Lerner: “most of these lines have been control x’d and control v’d”) is at least partially captured by a certain neoliberal process or model (for Kenneth Goldsmith, the internet is the relevant the conceit of conceptual writing practice), so I’m also wondering today about what happens when the determinate differences between the movements of these earlier periods, the politics, historical openings, and possibilities that gave rise to them are largely left offstage? They can’t be easily digitized and animated on screen. Indeed what has progressive poetic education been if not a kind of attunement to the linguistically and formally inventive (meaningful, effectual) response to social struggles, societal transformation? An avant-garde “uncompromisingly advanced in form, intransigently popular in intention”—such was the old antinomy of cultural innovation entangled with the imperialist world. If these figures and processes of conceptual writing and the digital archives largely coopt the genealogy of the avant-garde, they risk reducing the political possibilities and openness of the past, its collective and revolutionary example of breaking with the example of fashion and tradition.


But there is also some new song (that old bad thing) slouching out of the megacity today, a left political aesthetic development forged in the crucible of perilous circumstance, one distinct from conceptual writing and the digital curatorial practices I’ve described above. Today another sort of avant-garde poetry is emerging, steeled in post-financial crisis anti-austerity struggles, like those in 2009 that preceded Occupy on UC campuses and other parts of the public sector, but one that is also global in reach, a “post-crisis poetics,” as Brian Ang calls it: from Moscow’s Kirill Medvedev, and the young Pavel Arsenev in Saint Petersburg’s poetry and activist video scene; to the radical poets of London and the UK, Sean Bonney among them; and to those working this vein in the rock here in California, where Lyn Hejinian has identified an activist poetic avant-garde’s emergence in the Bay Area. A social poesis cuts across my examples here, a practice that takes the form of an insurrectionary poem, an upstart or residually Marxist publication, a poster slogan, a roared chant, or an activist video of a “sick” demo. Partly informed by a neo-orthodox Marxist economic and historical perspective, or even just a loose metaphorical atmosphere of far left anti-capitalism available on social media platforms, there’s a concomitant online magazine and editorial dimension at work today. A new crop of magazines and journals in on the act does some of the work of careful and discriminating selection, keeping all the erasers in order.

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