The current avant-gardes in contemporary Anglophone poetry make their claims largely by reference to previous avant-gardes. Their status thus supposes a transmission (however garbled) of aesthetic practices or propositions and of self-fashioning performances within the cultural sphere. It is a diachronic account which takes genealogy for history. It understands itself as an art practice (even when styling itself as anti-art) rather than an aspect of an enlarged struggle toward the transformation of basic social arrangements that defines a synchronic or historical avant-garde. This self-identification should not be taken as a failing but as an inevitability in an era wherein such struggles are diminished or neutralized.
What would be the expected outcomes for a genealogical avant-garde?
One: given that its identification depends on being adequately of a kind with previous aesthetic radicalisms (rather than an expression of current social content) it would be compelled to insist that the primary characteristics of avant-gardes are aesthetic or formal. This is not to say there would be any shortage of claims for the political valence of such art (indeed in addition to practitioners there will always be a fraction of the intelligentsia available to provide these rationalizations).
Two: knowing itself through the categories of culture and art it would be led to take as its basic provocations a set of questions not about immediate social antagonism but about the status of culture or art — moldy questions posed as if evergreen or newly discovered regarding the status of imagination authorship originality genius “what is art?” and so forth.
Three: it would preserve the race gender class codings of previous avant-gardes. Again it would insist periodically to be challenging these categories. Nonetheless the very markers which allow its self-identification would be markers of a previous relationship between the official avant-garde and other traditions rather than the current status of struggles around these rifts.
Four: even as it secured its aesthetic claims via challenges to previous aesthetic regimes — said challenge being a sine qua non of avant-garde form — it would nonetheless have to genuflect before culture as a concrete phenomenon since its existence depends on the persistence of culture as a medium of transmission for avant-garde practices. Thus it would cultivate its relationships with institutions of cultural transmission (Franco Moretti names the museum and the avant-garde as “unsuspectible accomplices in a violent reorganization of the past”).
All of which is to say that the genealogical avant-garde is defined by a single contradiction. It has no choice but to affirm the very cultural continuity which it must also claim to oppose. Its existence is premised on the continuity of an avant-garde with identifiable generic character — that is to say an aesthetic avant-garde. It nominates itself according to this logic. It exists only in so far as culture exists and only at a remove from daily life. Thus it is compelled to forsake the historical ambition to overcome the division between aesthetics and daily life. In such a situation the genealogical avant-garde can only recognize and celebrate its own falsity and superficiality and indeed declare this superficiality and falsity to be part of its program.
Do we then search for the moment of truth in this falsity? We could. We would probably find something interesting because we are trained to do that. How’s this: we have already discovered that the genealogical avant-garde must affirm the very thing at whose negation it pretends — for it cannot conceive of an autonomous existence without the persistence of a previous social dispensation even as that dispensation’s basis excludes true autonomy. We might call this problematic “the affirmation trap.” It will perhaps be already clear that the affirmation trap describes as well a more general social relation. Even as we recognize that labor under capital guarantees our exploitation and lack of autonomy we are compelled to affirm labor — affirm the capital relation — as we are unable to conceive of any other basis of existence.
No wonder the current genealogical avant-garde (as Jasper Bernes and others have noted) is so deeply entangled with work and particularly with the data-ordering tasks of the paradigmatic middle-class labor market for the United States.
Here perhaps we have provided the very service that the genealogical avant-garde requires: a matching of aesthetic practice to some corresponding and contemporaneous social content. This will always be a possibility given that the relationship between art and society is not one freely chosen by either. Notice however the peculiarity of this situation: the genealogical avant-garde reproduces the affirmation trap alongside the social body. It needs the institution of art to continue so it can reproduce its existence. Just so the laboring class in the wreckage of the workers movement needs the institution of wage labor to continue so as to ensure its own reproduction.
But such politics can no longer provide any material basis for enlarged struggle. At best the affirmation of labor offers bare survival. Now demands for more and better jobs become a limit to struggle lacking an emancipatory dimension. We might even be tempted — by way of analogy with the genealogical avant-garde — to speak of the persistence of organizational forms deriving from the workers movement as the genealogical party. That argument will have to be unfolded elsewhere.
While we can now say that the genealogical avant-garde necessarily discloses a relation to its social basis we must also note that this relation stands on its head. Despite occasional claims to criticality the genealogical avant-garde is an affirmative avant-garde. It reproduces itself only through its servility to culture. Representing the affirmative character of culture it perfectly inverts the negativity of the historical avant-garde. Rather than aligning itself with social antagonism it aligns itself instead with the limit to that antagonism.
An affirmative avant-garde is no avant-garde at all. No amount of curated clothes nor pious antipieties can make it so. But this recognition does not itself bring a negationist avant-garde — a historical avant-garde — into being. We can only revisit the question of the historical avant-garde in good faith if there is a renewed social antagonism to provide the ground. And it is surely the present possibility of such that animates this forum. This is why much poetry has turned itself toward recent upheavals — not only in search of an erotics of struggle and not only to draw on popular imagery for a new period style but because for the first time in several decades it allows us to ask the question of the avant-garde in a hopeful rather than skeptical tonality.
To this point we can speak only of possibilities. But we can nonetheless set forth some basic orientations for a historical avant-garde in the present moment.
One: it will not be identifiable via formal similarities to previous avant-gardes.
Two: it will take as its basic provocations a set of propositions about immediate social antagonism.
Three: it will draw its relation to race class gender from contemporary rifts.
Four: it will align itself first with the negation of the current social arrangement including the negation of culture both as a medium for transmission and as such.
A newly historical avant-garde may prove unrecognizable to the very culture in which it arises given that we have by now learned too well to identify avant-gardes genealogically which is to say formally. Even if a newly historical avant-garde does arise it will certainly encounter its own version of the thicket of contradictions attendant to the fact that the avant-garde to this point remains within culture.
This contradiction can only be resolved through direct engagement with lived social antagonism. Whether this social antagonism will present itself at a level able to rescue the avant-garde from itself remains to be seen.