Force, italicized force, especial force, is the emergent phenomenon of the 20th century Anglo-European arts.  The emergence meant the difference between Turner ("atmosphere is my style") and, say, Franz Klein. The 19th century had amplified and deepened the philosophy of conflict. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and Maxwell spelled it out. Reason, Force's antithesis and apology, lost face. Class struggle was licensed by the perception that the “rationalist domination was nothing more than the bourgeoisie’s glorified idealization of its own hegemony" (Engels). 

The impulse of the Literature of Force was the cruel appetite of life1 and the magnet the vitalizing "rawness of the real” (Badiou). Like the earlier herald Blake, Rimbaud understood that the world is justified as a dynamis, a power of destruction and becoming and nothing else. To touch the electricity of things would be to live. Lautréamont portrayed Force in its rapacious aspect, Whitman in its constitutive aspect. By distinction, Mallarmé, Rimbaud’s counterpart in the invention of Experimental poetry, created a force-rejecting literature of Transcendence. Rawness and Transcendence: these two poles of twentieth century experimentation result from emergent Force. Apollinaire on the one side, T. S. Eliot on the other. Césaire on the one hand, Celan on the other. 

In Europe, French Cubism, circa 1910, is juddered by the new age’s fracturing Force. But it reactively imposes on Force a geometrical cool, superficially unifying it with angular Frankensteinian sutures and patch-representations of everyday objects in middle-class rooms—a bourgeois theme shared by Matisse's quiltings. In sharp contrast, Italian Futurism develops a blatant sun-oriented  hard-on for Force, not least the energy possible to words. Marinetti: I observe how trivial is the spectacle of lacerated human flesh when compared with the shining and aggressive barrel of a gun scorched by the sun and rapid fire (“Geometrical and Mechanical Splendor"). Later Mayakovsky repeats the act in Russia, performing himself as clown and warrior of what Nietzsche called the Dionysian “affirmative affects: pride, joy, health, . . . enmity and war.” The Great War meanwhile produces a spectacular show of explosive Force. Marinetti and Apollinaire applaud it. Having heard Nietzsche’s call for the return of Dionysus, Yeats, steeped in great native hatreds, announced in his geometrical meters the approach of the Rough Beast. 

The chaos of the war spills into European Dada's mockingly violent performance art, an explosive dismissal of the cohesive ideals rationalizing the war. Howling in the Cabaret Voltaire, staging raids, blasting cognitive and aesthetic proprieties, Dada loudly caricatures culturalized Force; call it aversion therapy. But in the major key of modernism it celebrates immanent energy as a positivity. Tzara:  “DADA; an absolute indisputable belief in each god immediate product of spontaneity (“Dada Manifesto 1918").

In a seeming paradox, postbellum Russian Constructivism imposes geometrical cool on its posters and canvasses in the interest of, precisely, Bolshevik Force. Malevich: our thought proceeds through revolutionary cubism to the nonobjective and from there to the suprematist color of noncolor to the new utilitarian world of things and the religious spirit of pure act (“Toward Pure Act”).

Then, in the early 20s, Surrealism, while imitating Dada’s calculated bad attitude and behavior (Breton: The simplest surrealist act consists in going into the street with revolvers in your fist and shooting blindly into the crowd as much as possible. Anyone who has never felt the desire to deal thus with the current wretched principle of humiliation and stultification clearly belongs in this crowd himself with his belly at bullet height), amplifies Dada's history-rejecting embrace of Spontaneity: it gives its barbarously reckless heart to involuntary creativity as a method to purge, definitively, the literary stables (Breton, "The Automatic Message”). Its adolescent joy lies in a somewhat subconscious mind spring-loaded with marvels, sharks whose white bellies absorb the sheet’s last quiver. It at least pretends to exalt the body (Artaud’s shit to the spirit). If it straps Communism to its Anarchy, it's as a prosthesis to satisfy conscience.

In sum: one or another inflection of Force is the common denominator of the original European avant-gardes, those to which North and South American poets have looked —used to look—may still from time to time look—for inspiration.

In Anglo-European culture, the age of the aesthetics of Force dissipates in the early 1960s. By that time, Surrealism’s would-be disturbances had long since dissipated into cloudlettes. In the arts, Abstract Expressionism is a last gasp before the Xerox art and bloodless Pop art of the 60s. The Beats emit a howl. The Black Arts Movement panthers at the edge of white cultural hegemony. Otherwise Force is  already contained, discouraged, corporatized. 

After the 60s or for that matter the 20s there is no new movement excited enough about Force to inspire a manifesto. And without a Manifesto is no Avant-Garde (an impression reinforced by Martin Puchner’s Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestoes,Avant-Gardes.) Besides which a small army is required, an organization.2 It's the difference between gestures of the avant-garde type and an actual movement. The Language Poets could at least count on backup. But their work leaned toward methodology and critique. between gestures of the avant-garde type and an actual movement. The Language Poets could at least count on backup. But their work leaned toward methodology and critique. 

In the 1960’s the geometrical taste for order asserted itself in the work and rules of Conceptual Art and with scribbled-over complications in French Oulipo. These developments were by way of a fading white belief in Force’s value—the military always excepted, at the level of international relations—and resignation to the supposed static quality of history. (Lukács found historically static sensationalism in modernism, though its traffic in sensation was actually dynamic. Postmodernism is historically static without sensationalism.) Lately Conceptual Writing enjoys the same vacation from the hopes and problems of Force, and the digitalized culture of Literary Cool now numbers many adherents. But a large number of poets still work the now grayed-out Experimental field, while of course an even greater number cling to centuries-old poetic habits or subside from it in talk and lineated prose. Force bounces at the end of a bungee cord in this Experimental in-between. 

For long now, Experimental art in the U.S. as in Europe has hung back mindful of the historical ravages of Force’s savage optimism. (By contrast, the so-called Latin Americas still miserably enjoy aesthetico-political agitations.) It has sufficient spit to complain, but, to repeat, it can’t birth a full-blast manifesto. It lacks organization, a center, a common cause other than an implicit skepticism of the continuing pertinence of conservative poetics. It isn't in advance of anything not already familiar. It may dream of but can't produce a developed two-ply program (art + politics) or love itself enough to drop leaflets all over the city. Certain current Bay Area poets, together with my co-editor David Lau of not-so-distant Santa Cruz, are in the way to forming a group with a social purpose—but see Juliana Spahr's searingly honest "Non-Revolution" in this issue. In the main, the idea of a real and present avant-garde is a fiction arguably only useful as a prod to keep poets alert like the flappers in Gulliver’s Travels. The increasing synonymity of "avant-garde" with "innovation" is (I think) slack, a  delusion, a piece of flattery, a sort of terminological penile-enlarger. What is actual and immediate is only a lukewarm experimental poetry increasingly marked by shared techniques that block futurity: bent grammar, syntactic ruptures, paratactic gasps, dead drops in space, etc. Is this depressing? It is what it is. What alone preserves it from cerebral gardening and idle gamesmanship is the quotient of force (spontaneity, singularity) in individual style and sensibility: precisely the birth not the death of the author in work that wars with, at the very least, the social excess of language and grammatical automatism (language qua law)—a struggle avoided by the pooning poetics of appropriation.

Militantly messianic, the avant-gardes projected unsustainable levels of intensity (Tzara: “oh intoxications deliver us from parasitic mire and from the lazy rite of living / and from the others from so many others”). Naturally they get blamed for having clay feet, but art and thinking do so of themselves and in the realm of ideals there aren't any other kind. 

Their impassioned discontinuities were reclaimable by culture (that sluggish continuity) because they aimed impossibly high and—their clay feet dangling from the clouds—could be dragged down. So it was that once upon a time an ethos of Force came forth from a combination of nature, mechanical technology, and Marx; called and was heroically if often naively answered. Then replaced by “texts” and rectangular monitors. No one is saying they were exemplary. But they put on a good show; they weren't yawns.

In the somewhat manhandable Europe of the 1910s and 20s Force saw opportunities to organize and agitate. Italian and Russian Futurists beat their respective recalcitrant donkey nation into motion. The Great War made borders and social formations somewhat plastic. 

Out of Russia came cries for recasting the forces of production and for international reorganization. And well into the 40s a few tyrants sparked the need for alternative conceptions of forceful actions. By contrast, the United States today is unable to birth a notion of change. Half the country has its head on backward. The other half has a dithering expression that can't be described as forward looking. Chattering social media create an illusion of community. Popular culture neons the blues, and television sets are for almost everyone magical revolving globes of multiple channels. Capitalism is a Bitch Goddess with thousands of paps, eager to give suck. The universities suck at its teats. And corporations are not "persons"  able to consider giving to each according to his need. All this is known. It doesn't do any good to know it.

Short of a catastrophic destruction of the fetish of capital our best hope is the recent renewal of the critique of political economy that was conducted in, precisely, Capital, if only by means of what Daniel Bensaïd in Marx for our Times calls “the molecular labour of theory.” This last, however, is still holding up a sign that says: “Wanted: dialogue with a political project capable of assembling and combining energies”—i.e., Force. Not that human nature with its terror-born bloated and violently reactive ego is such as to sustain hope.

 

1  See Edoardo Sanguineti's essay "Toward a Literature of Cruelty" in this issue, p. 204.

2 Lana Turner no. 4 was pleased to run "Manifestoes" by Josef Kaplan, Marilyn Chin, Brian Ang, and Amaranth Borsuk with Kate Durbin. These, like Rimbaud's, were brave lone shots, not fusillades.

 
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