The “ontological turn” in recent philosophy, which among other things presents the notion of the Event as a radical discontinuity in both cosmic and social being, also prompts consideration of the idea of an avant-garde in/of nature. While Badiou and Deleuze, the major instigators of the turn, diverge in their respective characterizations of the Event (for Badiou, the Event is multiple; for Deleuze, it is unitary—for Badiou, the Event is untotalizable, an errancy of the void; for Deleuze, the Event is totality, a plenum become wavicle), both thinkers have not hesitated to apply this cosmo-ontological category to political as well as aesthetic practice. Yet the Event itself is not a practice, but its overthrow; it is the admission of the Inhuman into human meaning. Only such a breakthrough in human reality, at once impossible and actual, is sufficiently radical to give rise to an avant-garde.


The avant-garde, then, is necessarily an apocalyptic movement whose limit-condition exceeds the social to encompass all of reality. When the vanguard in the person of Lenin met the avant-garde in the form of Dada in Zurich during WWI, the exiled Russian revolutionary leader seems to have anticipated something like a philosophy of the Event when he told a young Romanian poet that “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” This statement reaches past anthropocentric social being to the roots of material reality, following Marx’s imperative to read human history as an extension of natural history. The seeds of revolution can and must be found in the dialectics of nature itself.


If Lenin’s words could have been made known to the Marxists debating the legacy of expressionism over ten years later, the debate would have been instantly resolved. In response to the argument of Lenin’s hagiographer Georg Lukács that art must reflect a “unified reality,” and that expressionism failed to do so, the radical Utopian Ernst Bloch asked “What if authentic reality is also discontinuity?” The radicality of reality, to which, in accordance with Lenin’s principle, theory and practice must do justice, always takes the form of a profound disequilibrium—one that ultimately has its source in the propensity of nature to revolutionize its own modes of production (as in the transition from mixtures of water and carbon to living systems).


Ernst Bloch’s emphasis on the discontinuity of reality is indicative of his philosophy of the Novum, his own version of the Event. The term Novum denotes the unpredictable, unprecedented emergence of the New in both society and nature. Recent interest in Bloch’s work has mostly centered on his rehabilitation of the Utopian strain in Marxism; however, he also devoted considerable effort to rehabilitating the Marxist concept of matter as well. Identifying himself with a tradition of anti-mechanical materialism he called the “Aristotelian left,” Bloch conceived matter as self-moving and self-innovating, in constant ferment, flowing uphill through the cracks in entropy by means of a series of profane miracles (my term, intended to complement Bloch’s friend Walter Benjamin’s surrealist-inspired idea of a “profane illumination”). Bloch’s anti-mechanical concept of matter finally has received scientific validation with the advent of chaos and complexity theory, which models systems of many interacting parts to see how novel properties may unexpectedly emerge at the level of the whole. These interactions are considered anti-mechanical because the “emergences” resulting from them disrupt the linear relation between cause and effect found in mechanical systems. Time and again, such emergencies of matter have revolutionized the mode of production of the cosmos itself. Bloch often referred to the world as “unfinished,” a work in progress—produced by a collectivity working, mostly unconsciously, at both infinite and infinitesimal scales.


The avant-garde, acting as a cultural tipping point, is mimetic of nature’s tendency to overspill its boundaries, to become something wholly other than itself. With complex systems’ contravention of entropy, nature violates its own initial motion, transitorily self-elaborating against the fact of its ineluctable heat-death. It is this ontological ripple, amplifying wavelike toward rupture, this against in nature that reappears in human culture under the sign of a furor once held to be “divine.”


Unless it opens to the unnameable, untameable flux of the Inhuman, text-centered practice cannot avoid systemic closure, cooling toward stasis and sterility. The call is for a movement through the ekstasis of the Eventual. The potential of poetics is not to naturalize cultural innovation, but to acculturate the self-exceeding propensities of natural becoming. To become as radical as reality itself.

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