carve in huge letters, you readers of my will (and I speak to my pupils,
my hypocrite children, the lovers of the proletariat, who are so like me, numberless,
by now, as the grains of sand in my empty desert), over my grave, these words of mine,
with spit, dipping a finger in your mouths: (as I now dip my finger
in amidst the excessive abscesses of my frozen gums):
I have truly enjoyed my life:
_ Edoardo Sanguineti1
I think of those who struggled in the avant-gardes of the past as comrades. One day, when I am dead too, I will join them in that past which was one endless attempt to make some present time other than this one. Some present where art and life might meet.
Some of those I call comrades of the avant-garde were real heroines and heroes. I think of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe on the channel island of Jersey, defying the Nazis. I think of that picture of Cahun with the iron cross of the enemy between her teeth, taken just after her release from a Nazi prison.2 I think of Robert Desnos, who was not so lucky. I am not one of those comrades.
And yet neither am I one of those who went on to betray the good old cause. I am not even a footnote to this history, or a footnote to a footnote, yet every one is a comrade, without distinction, who lived their lives for the avant-garde to the end.
One calls comrade those who went on, even when the cause was lost. Even when there are no good reasons for not giving up. As Asger Jorn put it: the avant-garde never gives up.3
In our time, one might vary the military metaphor a bit, even if one stays with the theme of strategies. Who now is the avant-garde? Who is the derriere-garde? Who are the lost children, sent out between the lines? Who are the sappers? Who are the comfort women of the era of pure war?
As the horizon closes, perhaps the comrades who carry on in solidarity with the historic avant-gardes no longer see ourselves as disrupting, subverting, or rebelling, as those are now the slogans of the ruling class. Maybe our work is quite the opposite, a matter of creating zones of a certain consistency, endurance, commonality. Maybe in this pure war world we are the conscientious objectors.
The avant-gardes took their pattern from the Communist Manifesto.4 They were not clandestine but public groups. Marinetti announced the Futurist program in a front page ad in the newspaper. The key medium of all avant-gardes is the media of their time. Dada used access to the postal system of warring nations from neutral Switzerland. They all lived in public at a time when the private life was the great bourgeois achievement.
But these are not those times. The avant-garde today might occupy its media in a quite different way. Debord and Becker-Ho saw it coming: the need for a more discreet mode. The devil’s party, occasionally present, but never as itself.5 It is time for an opaque, even obfuscating avant-garde.
The avant-garde was supposed to have gone away. The modern became the postmodern, and then merely the contemporary. The temporal horizon closed. But the avant-garde didn’t go away. It never gives up. It is elsewhere.
But let’s set the bar high for what counts as an avant-garde. It is not a style or a clique. Mere bad manners aren’t enough. It needs some range.
There’s no one definition. Avant-gardes resemble each other in some features, differ in some, and never the same ones. It’s a matter of family resemblances. Avant-gardes are some (never all) of the following: international, inter-media, inter-generational, multilingual, bi(or tri)gendered – interstitial.
These interstitial formations confront the historical forces of their time along at least two of these three fronts:
Firstly, there’s the struggle in and against one’s material. It could be color, gesture, form, language, sound, code.
Secondly, there’s the struggle to change life. There’s another way of inhabiting everyday life, of negotiating sexuality, community, gender roles, money, town and country.
Thirdly, there’s an engagement with the larger currents of a time. Some might think of this as “politics,” but perhaps that’s too restrictive a term. The real engagement is with history, and if there is an overcoming of certain conventions about art and life, so too with politics.
Perhaps there’s one way in which things really have changed. There’s no longer such an open horizon. There aren’t as many possible ways of life as there used to appear.
Those who come after, who think of us as their dead comrades, let’s hope they don’t hate us too much. At least we tried. If there is still an archive, the traces will be there. We didn’t give up.
Perhaps it's time to stop taking the historic avant-gardes as a point of reference. The futurists, constructivists and surrealists confronted a quite different era in the evolution of the commodity form. Perhaps it's better to start from the postwar moment, from the neo-avant-gardes, and their confrontation with the society of the spectacle, neo-capitalism, post-fordism – call it what you like.
A common version of this move – I have tried it myself – is to work both forwards and backwards from the situationists. Their influence seems everywhere in the early twenty-first century. These appear as the apex of critical or creative forms of avant-garde praxis of the era before ours.
In this essay I want to work forward from gruppo 63, an Italian avant-garde that is more or less a contemporary of the situationists. In some ways it does not quite rise to the standards I set out above for a real avant-garde. Being mostly writers, mostly of the same generation, all Italian, and almost all men, it lacked the interstitial qualities of a major avant-garde. Its challenge was more literary and political than everyday. Still, it did seed some ideas that would be far-reaching.
Growing out of the pages of Il Verri magazine, it was founded in a hotel near Palermo in 1963, and included Umberto Eco, Amelia Rosselli, Nanni Balestrini and Edoardo Sanguineti, among others. They said farewell to the crepuscular poetry of the time, making language itself the object of literary play.
I want to concentrate in particular on the Genoese poet and scholar Edoardo Sangunieti (1930-2010). The red cleric, the last Marxist: His mission was to spread and affirm class consciousness, at least among the intellectuals. In addition to a key member of gruppo 63, he was a collaborator with both the painter Enrico Baj and composer Luciano Berio.
He encountered Baj in 1951, around the same time as Asger Jorn. Interestingly all three of them were opposed to abstraction. What Baj and Sanguineti had in common was a refusal to see the page or the canvas as a separate, utopic space, rather than as a living, bleeding, organic thing.
His methods were montage and allegory. His comrades were the avant-gardes but also the practitioners of the philosophy of praxis, and in particular Antonio Gramsci, whose mission was the knowing of the world through its contradictions and via its transformation, and who hewed to the continual verification of speculative ideas in praxis.
Gramsci (like Alexander Bogdanov) thought of ideology as a productive force.6 Most critical theories, from Lukács to Althusser or Adorno, stressed the negative side of ideology. They are critiques of its limits. Sangunieti was more interested in what it did.
Sanguneti is a rare figure in his time and milieu in insisting on a certain kind of realism in his approach to knowledge. He saw both the philosophy of praxis and the avant-garde as experimental practices that put communication to work in and against the world, and in the process discover the limits of communication: “the avant-garde remains the ultimate way to meet the things themselves.”7
The avant-garde discovers the commodification of culture through its own practice. Through a certain cruelty with its materials, the avant-garde attacks the grids of perception, breaking them against the thing-itself. But this is an historical action, one that needs ever new strategies.
Sanguineti was opposed to the neo-realism popular in postwar Italy. Its progressive content was just bait for the old ideological forms. He was opposed to a Sartrean literature of commitment. It collapsed aesthetics into politics in a naïve and undialectical way. The novelty of his position was in insisting that the avant-gardes themselves had a realist dimension. A "realist" text should shatter a given ideological form, revealing the social relations of their production.
Sanguineti was aware of confronting a new situation, with a dimension lacking in the experience of the historic avant-gardes. The neo-avant-garde had to work not only in and against the market, but also the museum. The latter had by now caught up with the game of the making of new values and was integral to it.
Borrowing from Benjamin’s notes on Baudelaire, Sanguineti understood the avant-garde artist as using the refusal of the values of the market as a long term strategy to succeed in it.8 The heroic-sentimental and cynical-virtuoso moments of the avant-garde, first refusing the market, then making the refusal into a higher form of marketing, were integral moments in one and the same practice.
What exactly is the avant-garde in advance of? The commodity form. The avant-garde makes negative commodities: “this act obviously offers the most mysterious type of fetish: a commodity for which no recognized demand exists.”9As such, the avant-garde touches the real limit of commodity form, if only for a moment.
The key role of the neo-avant-garde, however, is to reveal the commodification of culture: “by virtue of the sheer shrewdness of history, the avant-garde expresses the dialectical moment within neutralization marked by aesthetic commodification.”10 Like the philosophy of praxis, the avant-garde lives its contradictions. The contradiction of the neo-avant-garde is in knowingly playing in and against the game of pushing outwards the boundaries of what can be commodified, of finding, in negative, the outline of the non-commodity, even as it collapses back into commodity's warm embrace.
This at least has the merit of standing temporarily against the current of the romantic-bourgeois aesthetic – which strangely is still with us today. The romantic-bourgeois is about “success,” about artists who rise up against the market only to affirm it by producing a new rationale for it. The perfect expression of which is probably Andy Warhol, the archetypal “blue chip” dead artist for today’s hedgie-cum-collector. “Art indeed descends to the level of the market, but from this healthy soaking in rugged reality, in stimulating materiality, it then instantly tips over into the noble, unobjectionable elite of classics.”11
Sanguineti is canny enough to note that it is only the petit bourgeois who is ever all that troubled by avant-garde provocations. The petit-bourgeois has little power to create new kinds of market value. She or he gets to trade in minor things, spotting opportunities to buy cheap and sell dear, but rarely to create whole new kinds of commodity. That takes real market power. The petit bourgeois is troubled by artistic innovation, but the bourgeoisie proper is less proper about its art. Their investment in the value of the thing will, at least in part, make it a thing of value ex nihilo.
Artists, in Sanguineti’s view, are a pseudo-class. Hence the avant-garde does not have its own unmediated sense of class, even though it cannot escape having a class. In Sanguineti’s analysis, the avant-garde has to choose a class orientation that is not of its making. “Only if the struggle against aesthetic commodification is properly grounded in the structure does it find correspondence and support in an organic yet fully organized struggle against the specialized nature of the artistic profession … in order to overcome the division of labor. And only then can the phenomenon acquire an openly revolutionary significance, in the most profound sense of this term.”12
Only the neo-avant-garde constitute an appeal against neo-capitalism. It stands against the relapse into a sentimental version of the romantic-bourgeois. Allen Ginsburg and the beats – whom the situationists regarded as mystical cretins – are his example. In Ginsburg the anarchist impulse is severed from the communist one. In Sanguineti’s work – from his collaborations with Baj onwards – the dialectic between these two impulses towards revolt is central to his orientation. Like the situationists, Sanguineti recognizes that that flight towards consumption has replaced adventure, and anarchy is just a gateway drug to “alternative” culture as a subsidiary market.
The neo-avant-garde stands against the role of critics in manufacturing criteria for consumption of art. In an era where the museum becomes the buyer of aesthetic product, critique of the museum declines. Not since the futurists has anyone seriously proposed burning it down. Art theory becomes an exercise in legitimation of a combinatory system which speaks about affordable dissent and acceptable novelty.13
How is a comrade of the avant-gardes to live out the moment after their failure? Particularly since it can be a very, very long moment. Sanguineti’s contemporary, Guy Debord, wound up the Situationist International in 1972, and became in succession a film maker, an alcoholic, a suicide, a forgotten man, and a National Living Treasure.
Sanguineti, on the other hand, became a noted scholar and chair of literature at Genoa in 1974. He was a city counselor in Genoa (1976-1979) and then a member of parliament (1979-1983), elected as an independent on the Communist Party ticket. It’s a career trajectory somewhere in between Umberto Eco, founder of a school of semiotics and redeemer of the bourgeois novel, and Nanni Balestrini, who co-founded Potere Operaio in 1976 and had to go into exile in 1979.14
This is not the era of the avant-gardes, of the futurists or surrealists. This is not the era of the neo-avant-gardes, of the situationists or fluxus or gruppo 63. The task is in effect to figure out what this third phase is in the history of the commodity economy, and hence also of the strategies for being a neo-neo-avant-garde, in and against it.
One could, at this juncture, depart from the aims and methods of avant-gardes, and try to draw out of the descendants of the philosophy of praxis some lengthy disquisition on the state of the commodity economy. But that’s not how avant-gardes work. They work on their own materials, on their immediate social relations. Their engagement with history may be modest, but it's practical.
Starting then from art and everyday life, a few things have changed since Sangunieti’s time. Firstly, Sanguineti opposed the literature of commitment as a false collapsing of the space of aesthetics and politics, but it would appear in our time that the partition between these two spheres has indeed collapsed in reality.
Secondly, Sanguineti adhered to the old language of class, in which relations of industrial production generate two antagonistic classes, with a bunch of petit bourgeois in the middle, including intellectuals, who have what one might describe as a contradictory class location.15 But it appears now that the evolution of the property form towards “intellectual property” as a fully private property right is producing new class relations.
Thirdly, Sanguineti imagines that the real historical significance of the avant-garde can only come from its alignment with the politics of the working class as something that comes to the avant-garde from without. His avant-garde practice has its own integrity, its own struggle with its materials, but this is meant to be in a relation of homology with a struggle over the means of production elsewhere, rather than as such a struggle in its own right.
As one can discover via any act of creation, creativity in general is no longer some secondary and peripheral aspect of a mode of production that is busy elsewhere. To be creative, playful, inventive, and so forth is no longer an orientation that points to an outside. Sanguineti intuits this already in his remarks on the beats. Anarchy, on its own, is as likely to conjoin with capitalism as communism. Anarchy, in the sense of free play, creation, disruption, is now included as an essential part of the production of new commodities. To that extent, the language of the old avant-gardes is now the language of capital itself.
The commodity form in Sanguineti’s time was already coming to have theological and simulated properties. But oh, how far we have come! The old property forms of patent, copyright and trademark have been swept up into the general category of “intellectual property,” which functions increasingly as a fully private property right. Long after the enclosure of the village commons comes the enclosure of the cultural commons.
And just as the enclosure of the commons produced the landless class that would become the industrial worker, so too the enclosure of communication produces a class of non-possessors, a hacker class, shall we say, a post-industrial class whose labor is the production of the new, but who more often than not end up estranged from the product of their creation.
Thus, a neo-neo-avant-garde might look to the immediate working conditions of those who create the new, rather than imagining it has first to align itself with political organization that comes from without. Creative work of all kinds is being divided up between a tiny handful who will own and control its results as property and the great mass who create in conditions not of their choosing. It's time to create our own organizational forms, not borrow them from the museum of past struggles, and based directly on the precarious lives of the majority of the hacker class.
Let’s not forget that subordinating the avant-garde to political movements outside of it has generally not gone well. The anarchic energy of futurism ended up a minor house style of fascism. The attempts of dada, constructivism or surrealism to service the party line ended up in defeat. Louis Aragon became a perfectly ordinary party functionary. Forced to choose between his communism, his surrealism, and his homosexuality, René Crevel gassed himself, leaving only a one-word suicide note: disgust.16
The avant-garde of our time should not be communist but ex-communist: the expelled, the ex-centric, the extreme, the extrinsic. It’s the job of the avant-garde to experiment with its materials, with social forms, with historical roles. Its job is to get out of the old repetitions of tragedies as farces. Its job is rather to invent new genres of historical act.
The avant-garde moves forward by finding new ways to put the past to use. It invents new past-present relations. It does not cite or quote the works of the past, as the scholar or the political pedant might. And it will no longer be satisfied with futurist fragmentation, dada collage, letterist chiseling, surrealist over-coding, situationist détournement or fluxus chance-operations. An avant-garde moves forward, on its three fronts, not by making the new in old forms, but by making old forms new in a new way.
As to what past to exploit as materiel for the struggles on all fronts, that is a tactical matter. An avant-garde might occupy a “new media” terrain, as Marinetti did with radio.17 Or it might work with certain forgotten and under-valued materials, as fluxus did with its multiples of cardboard, wood and glue. In an era when communication is less a condition of possible markets in commodities, but is itself the primary commodity of our over-developed world, an avant-garde might approach the media with some guile. This may no longer be an era in which to announce one’s aims and methods in a newspaper advertisement, to be read by just anybody.
To become historical, an avant-garde of today would best be as interstitial as the best of the past avant-gardes: international, intermedia, inter-generational, inter-linguistic, involving two, three or many genders. It would work not only on its materials, but also on social relations, and perhaps in particular it would work on the property form of communication itself.
An avant-garde of today would not imagine it could just stay in the terrarium of art, but nor would it feel too bound to make gestures to a politics beyond it. It would rather engage with the relations of power, of precarity, inequality, exploitation and oppression which are directly present in the working conditions of the hacker class from whom avant-gardes
An avant-garde of today might question the sort of publicity to which its precursors were prone. Perhaps a certain obfuscation of identity might now be the order of the day. It might also take a step back from the polemical tone that has become something of a commonplace, particularly since the situationists. Those endless boys’ games of name calling and textual one-up-man-ship are just fuel for the advertising that runs along the edge of the blogosphere.
An avant-garde of today might also revisit questions of organization. Loose affinities, weak ties, hairballs of tangential liking seem the order of the day in the age of (anti)social media. One might think tactically about whether to take advantage of this or to construct organizational forms antithetical to it. That the situationists expelled people is for many still a scandal, but was perhaps their finest invention. The best situationists, after all, were ex-situationists.
An avant-garde of today has to negotiate tactically not just between the market and the museum, but also with the academy. Its already present in Sanguineti, whose day-job was as teacher of literature. The short circuit was already coming into effect, where the academy rather than the market would validate what would then be consecrated in the museum.
Just as the avant-gardes found ways to produce the negative commodity, and the neo-avant-gardes found ways to produce the negative of the museum, so too we could start to imagine negative objects of avant-garde scholarship: objects with precisely the same function of tackling the real limits of the social form, in this case the form of the vetted and credentialed scholarly product. The avant-garde never gives up. Even, or even particularly, in this era in which all of the aesthetic markets seem to conspire to deny its very existence. The whole of aesthetics is recoded as a story about “innovation,” meaning the construction of new categories of commodified experience. But what the avant-garde’s struggles really center on is the production of the non-commodity experience. This is what all of its various fronts – against form, against life, against history – have as connective thread.
What distinguishes the avant-gardes of our time from their predecessors is that they are drawn from the ranks of those who know and experience the new class relations of commodifed culture, science and information directly. Their class experience is no longer mediated. It results directly from labor not only in the cultural market place but also in the museums and universities that now directly participate in the making of new values. Hence the moment arrives when even the teaching of the avant-garde has to ask itself whether it can be avant-garde teaching.
And so the avant-gardes live on, so long as there are those among the living who call the avant-garde dead their comrades. Who intend to join them in some past where art and death meet.
1 Edoardo Sanguineti, Libretto, translated by Pádraig J Daly, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 1998, III
2 Louise Downie, Please Kill Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Aperture, New York, 2006
3 Asger Jorn, “L'avantgarde se rend pas,” 1962, reproduced in Stefan Zweifel et al, In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni: The Situationist International 1957-1972, JRP Ringler Zurich, 2007, plate 70
4 Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Garde, Princeton University Press, 2005
5 See McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration, Verso, London, 2013
6 On Gramsci and Bogdanov, see Zenovia Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controvery, Cornell University Pess, 1988
7 Paolo Chirumbolo and John Picchione, Edoardo Sanguineti: Literature, Ideology and the Avant-Garde, Legenda, Oxford, 2013, p. 17
8 Walter Benjamin, A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Verso, London, 1997
9 Edoardo Sanguineti, "Essays on the Avant-Garde," translated by Joel Calahan, Lana Turner, No. 6, 2013, p. 108
10 Sanguineti, p. 120
11 Sanguineti, p. 109
12 Sanguineti, p. 113
13 See Boris Groys, Art Power, MIT Press, 2008
14 Nanni Balestrini, The Unseen, Verso, London, 2012
15 Erik Olin Wright, Classes, Verso, London, 1998
16 Raoul Vaneigem, A Cavalier History of Surrealism, AK Press, Edinburgh, 1999
17 Timothy Campbell, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi, University of Minnesota Press, 2006