In his 1991 book The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde, Paul Mann argues that all modes of discourse, including his own, are subject to recuperation by the very institutions and forces they oppose. Although criticized for what appeared to be his too-easy resignation to nihilism—the very charge made against deconstruction—Mann’s argument, however exorbitant, underscores the point made repeatedly not only by Derrida but also, as Robert Radin notes, by Barthes. I cite the section in Pleasure of the Text that Radin himself quotes:


Art seems compromised, historically, socially. Whence the effort on the part of the artist himself to destroy it. . . . Unfortunately, this destruction is always inadequate; either it occurs outside the art, but thereby becomes impertinent, or else it consents to remain within the practice of the art, but quickly exposes itself to recuperation (the avant-garde is that restive language which is going to be recuperated). The awkwardness of this alternative is the consequence of the fact that destruction of discourse is not a dialectic term but a semantic term: it docilely takes its place within the great semiological “versus” myth (white versus black); whence the destruction of art is doomed to only paradoxical formulae (those which proceed literally against the doxa); both sides of the paradigm are glued together in an ultimately complicitous fashion: there is a structural agreement between the contesting and the contested forms. (54-55)


This “problem” of this binary opposition was foretold by the Frankfurt School in general and Benjamin and Adorno in particular. For the sake of brevity, Edoardo Sanguineti’s essays on the avant-garde may serve as concise distillations of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s thoughts on these matters. Sanguineti arrives at the same conclusions as almost everyone, including Mann: the two tendencies of the avant-garde—heroic-sentimental and narcissistic-cynical—are politically compromised at birth but—and here is where Mann stops and Sanguineti goes on—the avant-garde is still a more conscientious “choice” than merely reproducing the ready-made platitudes of bourgeois art. As Sanguineti writes, “the avant-garde rises up against aesthetic commodification, and ultimately unfolds within it.” Or as Derrida famously and infamously put it in a different context and with a quite different inflection, “there is nothing outside the text {there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de hors-texte].” Avant-garde “experimentalism, if it is “successful,” is thus a preface to “innovation” within academia; innovation is the commodification of experimentalism. In the context of literature, the advent of alternative publishing outlets and distribution networks does not constitute an alternative market, much less something “other” than the market. The return of the barter system of exchange—“let’s trade books”—is a consequence of market relations. Barter is an exchange of commodities within capital and thus remains inflected by market forces. However, just as Sanguineti identifies intellectuals as a “pseudo-class,” a social formation more akin to the priesthood than the traditional class formations of labor (e.g., factory or office workers), so too post-Marxist reformulations—e.g., the precariat as a particulate of post-Fordist and post–state socialist abstractions—suggest that whatever avant-garde tendencies or forces remain extant, they cannot, must not, resemble their predecessors. Most important, Sanguineti warns against hasty generalizations across cultural and historical lines. 


So what of the production of literary art in the United States? Strictly speaking, Language Writing remains the most robust literary avant-garde from the second half of the 20th c. to the present. That’s because Language Writing is the only avant-garde, thus far, absorbed, however unevenly, into the institutions that accredit the literary—the university and college system. The glee with which some have criticized academic Language Writers for “betraying” their principles only highlights the romanticism underlying many contemporary understandings of the avant-garde. I would argue that this romanticism is one with what David Lau describes as the use of capitalism as a ‘loose metaphor.” The lack of rigor in the latter is just as dangerous as the anachronism of the former. To assume that the avant-garde of the late 20th and early 21st centuries must resemble the “historical avant-garde” of the early 20th century in its forms and practices is to freeze history and thus reify the avant-garde. The explosion of radical experiments in art, literature and music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Symbolism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, etc.) occurred under specific historical and cultural conditions, largely in Europe, and have come down to us, via museums, academies, books, etc., as innovations. Those experiments were posed against European educational institutions (e.g., the art academies) that had consolidated their powers (aesthetic, economic, and cultural) over centuries. One can, of course, retrace these experiments back to their, if you will, pre-incorporation into institutions as innovations, but their cultural power, their cachet, depended upon institutions. Thus, the art gallery and salon, for example, served as the sites for radical experiments; the museum conferred cultural power by transmitting these experiments as innovations.


In contrast, academic institutions in the United States, attempting to consolidate cultural power in the face of industrialization, immigration from Europe and Asia (to say nothing of freed slaves), and a rapidly growing middle class, had to do so over a short period of time, roughly between the 1870s and 1960s. Envious of the long cultural authority of European institutions of art and education, many Americans came to view them as gateways to cultural maturity (aping what they perceived as European sophistication) while a few, largely artists and intellectuals, scorned them as anachronistic obstacles to the development of a distinctive “American” culture. The irony is that even as American academic institutions became more nationalistic, more “American,” their perceived complicity in colonial enterprises via investments eventually made them the target of countercultural forces. The differences between Emerson and Whitman, for example, decrying Americans’ infantile attachment to the umbilical cord of “mother” Europe as a model for art and culture, and Beat, Black Art and Language writers decrying a more or less “homegrown” American academicism is significant. Whereas Emerson, like Arnold, saw “culture” as an ameliorative tonic for the ravages of capital, the Beat, Black Arts, and Language Writing movements viewed culture as a “reflection” of, if not participant in, capital machination. Hence the irreverent spelling “kulchur.”


The suspicions of these disparate movements regarding institutional culture have come down to us as catalysts for “alternative” poetic practices and publication models. Correspondingly, the distinction between innovation and experimentalism pivots on the genre- and institution-constraints of the former and the pseudo-scientific pretensions of the latter. However justified the counter-argument—experimentation and innovation are simply two sides of the same coin—the recent interest in failure, in trash and garbage vis-à-vis the trajectory of a poetics (see, for example, Volta, issue 37) must be examined on a case by case basis to determine to what extent, if any, failure is conceptualized within, for example, the falsifiability thesis of Popper. Such a self-conscious relation to the possibility of “success” is the only way to jettison the “pseud” from literary experimentalism. Insofar as the presumption of failure is perceived as a tenet of all poetry under capital—the failure of any specific poem or poetics as a generating force for future poems and poetics, the failure of distributional networks in one sector as a catalyst for distributional networks in another sector, and so forth—failure cannot be fetishized without falling back into the circulation of capital even if, especially if, one imagines oneself outside this dynamic. Thus Lau correctly underlines this Frankfurt School insight when he criticizes the belief in an “easy outside.”


As my reference to the Frankfurt School suggests, the avant-garde remains tied to European traditions. Thus, the post-Beat, post-Black Arts poets (along with narrative and lyric, performance and slam, poets) who perceive themselves as politically engaged progressives within an American tradition (extending back to Emerson and Whitman) are suspicious of the whiff of Europeanism lingering over avant-garde traditions like Language Writing. However, as more writers from oppositional writing collectives and organizations, past and present, enter American universities (to say nothing of high, middle, and elementary schools), we might, might, see some kind of cross-fertilization between different movements, across cultural lines, a mosaic of tactics and strategies (not genres). We may, that is, witness the forging of a “homegrown” avant-garde tradition (which may, like jazz or the Broadway musical, graft certain European traditions onto an American tree). As for those groups and movements formed in reaction to more localized abstractions within the literary or as oppositional forces to the literary while maintaining strategic distances from the gates of Official Verse Culture, they constitute neither traditional nor “new’ avant-gardes. 


Of course, this reading presupposes that the avant-garde cannot disable the logic of capital; it can only distort that logic within its delimited sphere, one that only abuts other spheres. The didactic function remains the horizon of its de- and re-aestheticization of art. This function cannot be underestimated, however compromised from the outset. As Sanguineti writes, “Therefore, what the avant-garde expresses in its privileged way is a general social truth, and not just a particular aesthetic truth.” This social truth is unveiled as both bourgeois “compensation” for and proletariat “reaction” to specific class dynamics and market disturbances. This is why traditional arts organizations and some members of Occupy Oakland and San Francisco, for example, intersect at the moment they both call for more funding for art and artists.


Under current conditions, as Rob Halpern puts it, avant-gardes must arise, can only arise, within the logic of capital. This predictability is not so much, or only, a weakness of the avant-garde’s historical trajectory as it is an index of the wager capital makes with history, a gamble it loses at every table, which is why it moves from table to table. That is, capital “loses” when it either exhausts the resources at any particular table—the “boomtown” phenomena that inhabits specific cities (Houston in the 1980s) or regions (Silicon Valley)—or when it costs capital too much to continue playing (the destruction of unions as a condition for “saving” jobs or the relocation of industries to underdeveloped regions, cities and countries). Nonetheless, within the field of writing in general, the absorption of every mode of experimentalism into the fold of innovation does not return things to a steady-state homeostasis. The system—even within the institution of higher education—is incrementally, simultaneously, nurtured and poisoned.

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