From the European archive: 2 essays 
TRANS. BY JOEL CALAHAN

On the Avant-garde

1. Art as commodity 

The structural etymology of the avant-garde has been perfectly outlined by Benjamin in his description of Baudelaire’s attitude toward the literary market (Angelus Novus, pp. 129-138 etc.): the poet’s inescapable prostitution to the market as objective appeal, and to the artistic product as commodity. Benjamin’s explanation is accurate because the avant-garde is a phenomenon that, in spite of apparent analogies to historical circumstances belonging to other cultures, proves in its final, most profound form to be (as everyone knows) utterly romantic and bourgeois (Benjamin: “Of course, personal rivalries between poets are as old as the hills. But here the rivalry is transposed into competition on the open market. The goal was a victory in that arena, not the patronage of a prince”).* This prostitution clearly illustrates the dual movement within the avant-garde, and in fact expresses with the same exact attitudes, with imperfect awareness or none at all, the heroic and sentimental aspiration for an uncontaminated artistic product that might escape the unmediated game of supply and demand, that might be commercially useless, along with the cynical virtuosity of the hidden persuader who introduces a commodity into the circulation of artistic consumption, a commodity that is a surprising and audacious gesture able to defeat the weak, stagnant competition of less aware and unbiased producers. When avant-garde art is accused of being immoral and insincere, in reality its critics are lamenting a form of competition that appears fundamentally unfair to them, filled as theyare with nostalgia for artisanal production, or with a petit-bourgeois complex,or with the backwardness of a classic capitalist (meaning inadequate at the imperialist, or as we used to say, neo-capitalist level)—all, of course, with powerful ideological sublimations and a broad moralistic veneer.

Though the heroic-sentimental moment and the cynical moment are often quite distinguishable chronologically, in historical reality they exist within the single, same instant, because they are, structurally and objectively, the single, same thing: releasing the cynical aspect on the future, rather than current, market, is an act that does not change the essence of the thing, and does not render the entire system that guarantees the product’s existence, the product’s potential to take its specific form, and the product’s aesthetic communication, any more innocent or fair. 

At the outset, this act obviously offers the most mysterious type of fetish: a commodity for which no recognized demand exists. In fact, the product’s aesthetic guarantee initially appears absent any formal relation with products available on the market at the same time: the form’s unaesthetic market features must be valued as an irrefutable sign of its distance, made explicit polemically by the rules of the current market. It is as if the absence of the question, or the provocative refutation of any possible actual demand, assumed as guarantee of innocence and fairness, might on its own be able to erase the very nature of the commodity for all time. The heroic sentimental moment is heroically and sentimentally blind: it means closing one’s eyes at the very moment in which the aesthetic product begins its natural and effective existence as a commodity. The artist operates by placing capital investment between decorous parentheses, which, as he still hopes, ought to wait for him on the street corner. In his artistic imagination, he collects this investment for acceptable aesthetic hygiene at an infinite distance: but since he remains sentimental and heroic, he is also ready to accept the risk that his own work in theory does not exist, inasmuch as it does not enter into aesthetic and social communication, despite [because?] avoiding, where possible, the filter of commodification that will mark and corrupt any meaning beyond all recovery. That the dealer might detect the transaction, in this case, is not the business of the artist: and in fact, usually, the transaction is entirely the dealer’s own. Bottling the manuscript is a gesture of innocence. Stendhal previously mentioned the bookseller (“M. Levavasseur, Place Vendôme, Paris”) but he could write, without blushing: “S’il ya succès, je cours la chance d’être lu en 1900 par les âmes que j’aime, les madame Roland, les Mélanie Guilbert, les…”.The history of the word “succès” is the secret of the romantic-bourgeois aesthetic. 

But I must in conclusion repeat that if the art of the avant-garde has this structural etymology, little or no consolation remains for the moralist. I can here make fully evident what elsewhere has been confirmed with less sentimentalism and less cynicism—that is, by operating, as I indicated, by peaceful and inconsequential bourgeoisies for whom the art work is, firstly, something that everyone understands, in a market utopianly conceived as capable of an eternal equilibrium, in which supply and demand work in harmony. From Baudelaire on, but more precisely and more extensively for the entire romantic and bourgeois historical narrative, the progression of romantic bourgeois culture unfolds with strict logic. The adventure rises up again and again against the order of the market, though it produces, due to the nature of things (that is, due to the nature of the market), the disordered adventure of the commercial rationale of art.

2. The market and the museum 

Structurally speaking, the avant-garde rises up against aesthetic commodification, and ultimately unfolds within it. At the level of superstructure, the avant-garde is the declared enemy of the museum; yet, in the end, just as in the worst fairy tales, the museum devours the avant-garde with perfect ease. Little consolation comes from the fact that the avant-garde succeeds in rising from its own ashes: the fact remains that it rises only to be devoured again. The future of Futurism, for example, had to begin in this way. And this symptom is considerable due to the museum’s destruction, as well as the very destruction of disinterested contemplation that is, as Adorno has clarified, the total neutralization of the aesthetic fact, its calculated evacuation into a limbo of uselessness and falsely innocent innocence. As an extreme case, Dadaism can and must be interpreted as the rejection of art in this sense, in a world in which art cannot be conceived of apart from its inert form in the museum (library, concert hall, etc.). Dadaism’s entry into the sterile galleries of the museum (just like any other avant-garde) runs parallel to and complements its entry into the grimy stalls of the street market. The museum and market are wholly contiguous and interconnected; they are two facades of the same social edifice. Price and prestige are identical, acting on the practically active or theoretically idle sides of the aesthetic phenomenon, respectively. If the museum is the true representation of the autonomy of art, it is at the same time the compensating representation of its market heteronomy. 

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. The process remains mysterious, until its mechanism is taken as a whole, until it is understood that the museum has its raison d’être in the sublimation of the commercial reality of the aesthetic fact that occurs inside: it is the highest extension of art as commodity, wherein the violent money storm is calmed and reality hides its head among the clouds, and the artistic product remains the one thing for which no amount can be paid. Struggle against the museum is the natural banner of every avant-garde, its compulsory and sacrosanct watchword. The same perpetually frustrated prospect of restoring the commodified art to its ideal reality is at play. Having fallen to the level of free entertainment, and having been settled by sociology as one of the problems arising from idle time outside of work (resolved partly by the museum of natural history, partly by the art museum), art attempts to rescue itself from its destiny of clownish sterility, to salvage any evidence of nobility in the sea of mass media. In the best hypothetical situation, it succeeds only in driving up its own price before plummeting into the museum. Thus, the economic elite destroys the meaning of art’s existence while simultaneously assuming the role of noble savior: the petit-bourgeoisie, which is by definition concerned with defending traditional common sense, and by appearances conserving all eternal human values that have been instilled by school, family and church, continues (poor thing!) to let itself be dismayed and awed and terrorized by the dehumanization of the art work. But the upper class, which rules prices and directs consumers as long as it can, knows what it buys and is frightened by nothing. Just as the bourgeoisie knows that everything has its price, and preoccupies itself with finding and spending the appropriate amount, it similarly knows that, sooner or later, every artistic product finds its ideal museum.

1963

Originally published in “Il Verri” n. 11, 1963.

* Benjamin, Walter, “Central Park,” trans. Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, The writer of modern life: essays on Charles Baudelaire
, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 167.

† “Moreover, if they are a success, I run the chance of being read in 1900 by the souls I love, the Mme. Rolands, the Mélanie Guilberts, the [a blank].” Stendhal, The Life of Henry Brulard, tr. John Sturrock, (New York: New York Review of Books, 2002), 9.









Avant-garde, society, commitment 

I have previously sought to describe how the avant-garde must be defined and understood in relation to the phenomenon of aesthetic commodification, as an ambivalent response to the actual conditions of the market (and consequently as a shrewd competitive strategy and a disdainful repudiation of commodification at the same time). And here it bears repeating that the two constitutive moments of the avant-garde, the heroic-sentimental moment and the cynical moment, exist, in historical truth, within the single, same instant, because they are structurally and objectively the single, same thing. Taking up this reasoning once again, it is worthwhile emphasizing a few additional points that are closely linked to this analysis: 

a) I can say very schematically for the moment that the avant-garde cannot be explained directly in class terms, or directly in political terms, but only in entirely aesthetic terms, as is natural (as an organized set of doctrines, poetic programs and polemics, formal solutions, thematic anxieties, and finally critical positions and art works characterized by such a set, etc.), and in wholly economic terms (as a parallel set of reactions, active on various levels, from the intimately psychological to the more crudely and directly practical, and ultimately always at the level of concrete market conditions, etc.). In effect, the phenomenon does not involve a class per se, but—if the description I offer is correct—a pseudo-class (artists, or more broadly, intellectuals). This pseudo-class has by nature an unmediated relation to the general structure of society, with its economic principles. And two descriptive categories follow from this relation that bracket class division and class struggle, or rather presuppose class division and class struggle, as the two categories also clearly presuppose the very concept of commodification. The first category pertains to superstructure, through which the avant-garde takes shape as a linguistic-ideological phenomenon (at its most ideologically explicit when it is openly political); the second pertains to structure, through which it takes shape as the response of an artist or intellectual to how his professional situation might be directly affected (at its most extreme when the avant-garde project is conscious of potential alternatives, that is, when it holds a conscious political project). 

b) The all-too-common assertion that the avant-garde is typically an exclusively bourgeois phenomenon is a correct assertion, provided that it is accompanied by an immediate, essential clarification. To be true, the proposition must mean only that the phenomenon depends on the economic conditions in which the history of bourgeois art develops and reaches maturation, and therefore on the economic conditions of fully-developed bourgeois society. The placement of the historical nexus between avant-garde and commodity once again allows the phenomenon to be defined. But this nexus does not completely express a mechanical relation of class: the avant-garde is exclusively located in the area of bourgeois society, but is obviously a mechanical expression of the bourgeois class in power. The avant-garde, precisely because it arises from the broad fabric of economic-social relations as they are reflected in the conditions of the artistic market and of the intellectual pseudo-class, does not possess an unmediated connotation of class. Only concrete historical analysis can enable one to define the avant-garde as similar for this or that movement, for this or that artist, in this or that historically-concrete circumstance, without accepting the legitimacy of any general programmatic conclusion in the arena of politics. Italian Futurism and Russian Cubofuturism, to cite two facile but obvious models, are extreme examples (and striking symbols) of a radical divergence of ideology and politics, both in the overall shape of their histories and in their ultimate outcome (and these shapes lie well beyond any familiar analogy for the purpose of specific definition and likewise for the purpose of any linguistic distinction naturally linked to ideological divergence). 

c) State capitalism and the various developmental stages of socio-economic relations in a socialist society are worth examining separately up to the point at which they influence the actual formation of the avant-garde. Nevertheless, even within a socialist society, the avant-garde remains the phenomenon in which the truth of the aesthetic fact as social phenomenon is most likely to be expressed, until the moment at which the aesthetic product continues to take essential shape as a commodity, despite any incidental corrections, meaning minor structural corrections of the market. And this is the case in any manifestation, even when the avant-garde is most violently challenged and repressed, and therefore manifest with the highest level of latency. Where it appears, this repression can express very different things: it can express the guilty conscience of a political-cultural power that challenges the phenomenon of superstructure, when it cannot (or cannot yet) overcome and dissolve the structural base; but it can on the other hand express (sometimes simultaneously) the precise desire of a political-cultural power that aims to break up specific oppositional and adverse political-cultural forces, and thus ultimately embody a real moment of class struggle. How the roles are distributed in this struggle is something that can certainly not be decided in the abstract, nor in a hurry, but can only be revealed through concrete historical analysis, with the actual meaning of the given historical moment, even if it proves to be contradictory. One must therefore outline a research program and method, clearing the road in the meantime of various obstinate prejudices that must be removed. 

d) Yet it remains evident that, if the concept of avant-garde does not allow an unmediated connotation of class, no concrete avant-garde movement exists that is exempt from this kind of class connotation. And this fact can be inferred from my assertion that the intellectual group is by nature a pseudo-class and that the avant-garde maintains a relation to the general outlook of the economic mechanism in bourgeois society, and more broadly in any society in which aesthetic commodification is active at any level. Due to the contradictions of practice and doctrine within the concrete history of any individual movement, a class connotation can be difficult to establish or fit into an appropriate formula; often, it may only be achieved by making precise distinctions within a movement, with close attention paid to the roles of specific groups or even of individual persons within these larger groups. The histories of Italian Futurism and Russian Cubofuturism—among the most familiar and consistent examples because they are supported by a painstaking, extensive apparatus of ideological and political statements—await numerous careful clarifications on this very point. 

e) Cautions in method that emerge from interpreting the repression of the artistic avant-garde do not rule out the opportunity to make a normative assertion: if it is in fact true that the hidden truth of art is contained in the avant-gardes within any social landscape characterized by aesthetic commodification, and only there, then it is also true that, during this commodification, any attempt to challenge these artistic avant-gardes by the political-cultural power signifies at its furthest extreme, not merely the negation of the avant-gardes, but, absolutely and simply, the negation of every authentic artwork in general. 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 (that is, the specialist-professional dimension of art) 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. The authentic and constant theme of all avant-gardes is realized in this moment: the theme that expresses the heroic-sentimental moment, and liberates it, for once in history, from the cynical moment contradicting it from the very roots. The theme par excellence is seen in Lautréamont’s well-known formula (Poésies, II), which was of utmost importance, of course, for the surrealists: “La poésie doit être faite par tous. Non par un.”*

II. 

Therefore, what the avant-garde expresses in its privileged way is a general social truth, and not just a particular aesthetic truth. Neither does it involve, I would argue, a specific sociological interpretation, bound to a given method and dependent on a definite perspective: it involves rather the fact that the avant-garde is constituted at its root as contention, and that this contention, when generated on aesthetic terrain, directly mobilizes the entire structure of social relations. I have already broadly emphasized that this contention is then endowed with an essential ambivalence. Here it will do simply to note that this ambivalence alone confirms the unmediated nature of the deferment, so that the dialectic of adventure and order on which the avant-garde is typically established is not only confirmed organically at the level of art and at the level of economic-social relations (not through an elegant analogy, but through strict homology: that is, structurally), but its economic-social aspect is internalized, so to speak, by its aesthetic aspect. 

In any case, I use the term adventure against order to indicate that the model I have in mind is, in classical terms, the model of the historical avant-garde, and that I place myself conspicuously once more in relation to the classic condition of the market and of bourgeois society (despite all the corrections and warnings already noted, including the classical phase of imperialism within the idea of classicism, according to Lenin’s description).And, at first at least, this is certainly proper and even necessary. But in advanced imperialist societies (neo-capitalist, mass culture, etc., according to the nomenclature of choice), it is useless to emphasize how the space of the adventure, in the sense contained in “tradition of the new,” appears to be utterly pitiful, if not fully destroyed.

Recall how symptomatically Breton’s first manifesto (1924) adopted thenostalgic return to childhood and the power of the child’s imagination as a point of departure while appealing to the imagination as an organ of adventure (“la seule imagination me rend compte de ce qui peut être”).The child’s imagination proved to be an alternative drawn from memory to the “impérieuse nécessité pratique” (“imperative practical necessity”) of the social order, the event of surrender taking place “aux environs de la vingtième année” (“in the vicinity of the twentieth year”). This interpretation not only reveals the resounding appeal to an exquisitely romantic and bourgeois motive, but also the fact that, in explicitly Freudian terms, the adventure appears suddenly endowed with a fundamentally regressive value, suddenly frustrated by the objective triumph of the principle of reality (of order). 

I am concerned here with updating, in a certain sense, the evaluation of the regressive meaning and the urgency of the order, but in relation to structural motives. The problem is how, within its continuous superstructure, the present concrete form of the avant-garde might be cleared away so as to assess its historical development. Thus, it is certainly true, in a sense, that the neo-avant-gardes are directly dependent on the typical structures of neo-capitalism in the historical present, though this relationship may never be conscious. They furthermore draw their specific character from this dependence. But one ought to hold off anticipating any of my argument’s polemic features if it is to avoid being transformed from accusatory to apologetic, a transformation that must take place, often against the intentions of its usual promoters. My argument claims, in effect, only that the neo-avant-gardes in their general form constitute an appeal against the neo-capitalist order; this form is entirely equivalent to the one in which the historical avant-gardes, also in their general form, previously constituted an appeal against the order of historical capitalism. Only the specific historical definition of the adventure can settle the matter. And I will now emphasize a few fundamental points: 

a) Firstly, the so-called romantic types of the historical avant-garde diminish, together with its most openly anarchic-revolutionary impulses, at least in the garishly romantic (late romantic) form in which the historical avant-garde assumed them. This meets the practical extinguishment of directly political (that is, anarchic-revolutionary) opportunities in neo-capitalist countries, and the growing preeminence of social-democratic tendencies in the working class. Highly ambiguous moments of relapse based on the erotic and the mystical are not unusual at highly advanced stages of development (“everything is holy!”).§ And these moments cannot simply be eliminated by being classified as atypical; on the contrary, in looking ahead, the horizon of relapse will be considered typical. The diminishing of impulses will inevitably cease, not simply a higher-level—that is, more organic—integration rejecting all that is not organically integrated as outside of itself, as a pathological trace, but rather forming around it as a kind of natural aesthetic deposit. In this sense, the mechanism is still classical: so-called romantic types are restored by induction, by asocial evacuation. Instead, novelty ought to be located in the realization of the split between anarchic impulses and revolutionary impulses. Needless to say, this realization is still accompanied by corrections that proceed from shifts in the axes of class struggle to underdeveloped countries, and ultimately to the real dialectic of city and country. The working class makes this dialectic possible, at least for now, in theory as well as praxis. The objective response, so to speak, is technical: the adventure has the color of the atomic catastrophe, and turns inside out with shudders of terror. In the neo-romantic relapse, at its most extreme phase, the atomic apocalypse displays erotic and mystical hues. The regressive value is clearly at its peak. 

b) The consumption of style accelerates in relation to the fundamental aggressive development of a society of consumers: the principle of reality tends to coincide with the principle of obsolescence. This phenomenon combines with the triumph of an “other-direction” (“hetero-direction”) of such force that it appears to be almost physiologically determined, and thus allows the luxury of a wholly mythological foundation (Riesman, par excellence).This does not involve, as it might appear at first glance, the cynical moment of the avant-garde, nor does it require withdrawal, as it would for a proposal concerning the actual identification of this moment with the heroic-sentimental moment. The acceleration produced in the flight of the heroic-sentimental from the absorbing consumer, from the social market, is central to the fierce cleverness required by the worsening of relentless market pressure, and therefore objectively pushes one toward ever new strategies of hidden aesthetic persuasion. Thus, one consumes this flight, for the time being. The neo-avant-gardes express this in ever-stronger measures, tragically or defiantly, this flight ahead toward consumption: in the tragic version, the theme of flight tends to replace fully the archaic theme of the adventure, or, if one prefers, is the proper version of it. The relapse of neo-romanticism is clearly stimulated with energy. And the emergence of the apocalypse has a new, thoroughly technical occasion for reappearing all over again. 

c) Aesthetic monopoly reaches its peak with the perfection and completion of market monopoly, and with its definitive conquest of the State (even of the aesthetic market, what most directly concerns me here). The ever-increasing tendency toward the group, replacing the archaic movement, follows from the appearance of these monopolies. Historically speaking, the group reveals the truth of the movement. At the same time, the incendiary manifesto is succeeded by the bureaucratic regulation. If the group is not organized spontaneously, then criticism will provide for its organization. From this point of view, the organization founded by the critic is, for the aesthetic market, the ultimate realization of the process that takes shape as a philosophy of manufacturing on the general market. But in a more strictly philosophical sense, one can observe how from this view the vulgar versions of phenomenology and structuralism, in their current historiographic and artistic application, express the critic’s monopolizing (and manufacturing) moment: these ideologies, with strong doses of proclaimed neutrality, prove to be the most suitable tools for circumscribing with description (and packaging) the privileged hunting ground of the consumer who advances and devours. The notion of a movement diminishes the poetic and ideological moment of every avant-garde (empirically speaking, the moment at which an era is instantly reduced to an -ism). The very moment of practical enclosure is substituted for it, in effect. Here the neutral, always descriptive appearance of the critical exercise conceived and carried out in this manner lapses suddenly from its severe and rigid incorruptible impassivity, and takes form as a neutralizing reality, subject to the urgent and brute rationale of the market, no matter whether fully unconscious of this. Thus, the zone that poetics and ideology leaves open is then instantly filled by means of judgment, by the mere givenness of the given: the critic acts as a window. This feature, then, is the higher voice of other-direction (the constant directing of the consumer). A disinterestedly aesthetic predisposition for a dialogue about art (and in its purest form, ideology) is displayed in the heroic-sentimental moment, in the group as well as the critic. This predisposition in effect transforms itself into cleverness through the insistent rules of market consumption. The givenness of the given is truly, in the end, its being-there-exposed, as being-there-to-be-consumed. The other-direction, then, by taking a critical voice, reveals the substance of the thing as a matter of course: by claiming that the product is neutral (and that it is good because it is neutral), the other-direction claims success in neutralizing the product. And adventure, as the last flight ahead that remains feasible, is left to anticipate (like the condemned who turn to despair) the objective outcome of neutrality. Warnings at the threshold of the apocalypse where the group struggles, in the neutrality revealed, its effective loss of sense, warnings that the group is forced to restore itself as a movement in order to remain in existence—these are indeed useless. Which can ultimately be expressed as the ideologization of the avant-garde. 

d) The struggle against the museum tends to dissolve in proportion to the extent to which the museum is transformed, at the same time, directly into the real buyer of the aesthetic product. If the private monopoly does not take hold, public capital intervenes, which takes upon itself not only the final neutralizing process, but the production of what must be neutralized: it guarantees, from the very moment of production, sufficient neutrality. The term of experimentalism can then indicate, if we wish to interpret it this way, this extreme form of original neutralization. At the culmination of professional specialization, the laboratory is transferred to a place within the walls of the purchasing museum. The transitional narrative that housed the entire existence of the operations of each avant-garde will be scorched to the ground. Sentimental heroism has now no other battlefield where it can be exercised than this museum-market. A kind of gymnastics tournament is created, virtuoso yet only technically so, meant to take place inside a building, which is fairly and fiercely permitted to take on a single appearance. And the false analogy with scientific experimentalism has the ring of truth at this point, insofar as it teaches (inasmuch it can in fact teach) that the two cultures are united and pacified at the same time, as sibling neutral conditions. The adventure may now be conceived of as a kind of guided exercise, developing normally and gradually in the various galleries of the permanent exhibition. The completion of the outcome arrived at in the institution once again guarantees the potential for the objective production of an uncultured avant-garde: when the museum-market, with all of its critical apparatuses, succeeds in planning completely the ordered filling of its galleries, and arranges the universal catalog, the free-trade zone of refusés is recreated instantly, in terms that are truly romantic, and by definition no longer neutral (even if always neutralizable, needless to say). The museum-market guidebook will contain, now as much as in the age of the historical avant-garde, directions to the terrain where the next adventure will regain its movement, as clear as an itemized attendance sheet. 

Thus, the path of the avant-garde remains the appointed path, of necessity, in the encounter with these necessities. Further, the path of the avant-garde effectively becomes the appointed path in the world of art for the understanding of these facts, if illuminated dialectically in its structural roots, and thus if truly understood in its contradictions, in the real fabric of basic contradictions. And I must repeat here, with unwavering stubbornness, that the problem of realism, today, must be submitted and resolved within this view. 

III. 

The complete neutralization of aesthetic commodification necessarily occurs at the moment in which it takes shape as the specific social form of art. Thus, the structural framework mentioned previously, within which every avant-garde articulates itself, once again arrives before our very eyes. Commodification still sanctions the split between culture and politics as a result of its neutralization. And the market heteronomy of the aesthetic product is restored, philosophically speaking, by the principle of the (social and political) autonomy of art. 

Various reactions and strategies follow from this condition. I will set aside the satisfied (or at least resigned) acceptance of neutralization on behalf of the pleasure of granted autonomy. I will simply observe closely, though briefly, two typical forms that protest tends to assume from this perspective. Despite willingly admitting the possibility of empirical contamination, two attitudes invite separate analysis: commitment and the avant-garde. Commitment, for the time being, can be explained as the moment in which culture, taking note of the sanctioned split, and expressing the painful disclosure, courageously aims to sacrifice its recognized autonomy as illusory and guilty, and to convert itself, with just as much energy, directly into politics. I obviously am not alluding to any particular form of engagement, defined distinctively or exclusively: beyond any individual doctrinal position and practice, there is a general model of ideological/functional behavior that has recognized and assessed, and still recognizes and assesses, multiple concrete incarnations of various consistency and importance. Now, when I happen to speak of conversion (from culture to politics) in a similar model, I do not use the term casually. The first principle of commitment may be recognized in the violent upheaval in passing from one to another form of superstructure, and the passage is feasible in these terms precisely to the extent to which the same root of the illusion—already sickly and now finally rejected—is preserved intact: one passes through as a result of this act of recognition. The fraudulence of autonomy may be ultimately rejected, but only by treating it not as historical residue (though this would be understandable as well as correct) but as an active and obsessive presence. In reality, the dialectical unit of culture and politics is lost in ever-new ways: a mere categorical substitution is created through naïve and non-critical unmediated identification, that is, naïve politicization of culture. The same mechanism that presides over the split is confirmed by a transition conceived and carried out in this naïve manner. The most consistent solution in this case is for the intellectual to be converted into politics, a transformation played out on the most useful and proper terrain for his type: subjective, individual, psychological. 

For this reason, I will not claim that the avant-garde has in its very structure a consciousness of the dialectical unity of culture and politics. But I will make the claim that, objectively speaking, its position is certainly more correct and more penetrating. On this ground, the avant-garde naturally uses its constitutive privilege. Through its institution as a contestation of order at the aesthetic as well as economic-social level, through its general relation with the base, through the consequent impossibility of immediately reducing it in terms of class, the avant-garde cannot but mobilize the moment of market neutralization. The rejection of degrading autonomy thrown open before it does not mean the acceptance of penitential heteronomy with stoic rehabilitation; rather, it means suspending, at the roots, the deceptive alternative formed in this manner. The rejection of autonomy means fiercely and singularly forcing to the limit the contradiction that is located in market heteronomy: by virtue of the sheer shrewdness of history, the avant-garde expresses the dialectical moment within neutralization marked by aesthetic commodification. 

The ideologization of the avant-garde means this: supporting, in light of an exercised dialectical consciousness, a similar shrewdness, and leading it finally to the ground of reason. There is no doubt that, with the prevailing destruction of reason, if we truly wish to preoccupy ourselves with this aim, no alternative solutions will oppose us.

1965

Originally published in Avanguardia e neoavanguardia. Edited by Giansiro Ferrata. Milan: Sugar Press, 1966.


* “Poetry should be made by all. Not by one.” Ducasse, Isidore, Poésies and Complete Miscellanea by Isidore Ducasse, Also Known as Lautréamont, tr. Alexis Lykiard (London: Allison and Busby, 1978), 75.
Cf. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Marxists Internet Archive (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/)
‡ “Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be.” André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 1-47.
§ Allen Ginsberg, “Footnote to Howl,” Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956), 27.
¶ David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, abridged and revised ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 19-31.


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