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SYNCRETIC MODERNISM

KAREL TEIGE & THE COMMUNITY OF OBJECTS

Avant-gardism has always been vested in ideological struggle, though in retrospect this struggle is frequently aestheticised or abstracted into a type of avant-garde metaphysics, in which “the new” circulates as a transcendental signifier of pure possibility detached from the real political character of its revolutionary rhetoric, its historical dimension circumscribed by –isms: Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. Each of these –isms, drinking at the well of an ancient antagonism, enacts a kind of Gnostic ritual in which the destiny of the world (no less) is bound up with an act of aesthetic completion, whether by enlightenment or by apocalypse. This is the revolutionary task the avant-garde has always, in one form or another, imagined for itself.

Whether or not Modernism and avant-gardism can be considered partially or wholly synonymous in the first half of the twentieth century, both can be said to achieve an apotheosis in the transition, across much of Europe, from Imperialism to Totalitarianism—a transition sometimes mediated by nationalism, less frequently by the experiment in democracy that in a very few countries of the West had already acquired a tradition—a tradition which happened to provide the liberal environment in which avant-gardism could productively evolve with minimal threat of state repression. In the post-War period, this “liberalism” affected a certain bias as a consequence of the Nazi occupation and its excesses, and of the prestige that had come to attach itself in intellectual circles to the Soviet Union, so that even during the initial stages of the Cold War apologists for Stalinism in Western Europe (such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty) frequently commanded positions of considerable cultural influence, while apologists for Hitlerism (Martin Heidegger would be one example) have been vilified and in some cases criminalised. And yet the crimes of Stalinism were in no manner less grotesque than those of Hitler, and in scale frequently exceeded them.

Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in the late ’50s did not produce a major sea-change, and many of the victims of Stalinism—particularly those affiliated with the pre-War avant-gardes—have had to wait until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in order to be, as they say, “rehabilitated.” And yet they remain ghosts, haunting the margins of a discourse whose major elaborators were frequently complicit in their repression. This is the dirty history of the avant-garde in the West, which too frequently rewarded the official representatives of Soviet “modernism,” while effectively collaborating in the silencing of its dissidents. This issue is particularly vexed in the case of inter-War Czechoslovakia, an advanced industrial state with a Western-orientated liberal democracy and a flourishing avant-garde with close ties to similar groups elsewhere. Central to Prague’s avant-garde scene was Karel Teige—writer, collage artist, theorist—who formed close connections with such figures as Man Ray, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, Andre Breton and Le Corbusier, all of whom visited Prague on his invitation. But while Prague has become a symbol in the West of totalitarian oppression and as a beacon of resistance—Hitler’s annexation in 1938, the Prague Spring in 1968, the Velvet Revolution in 1989—the substance behind this symbolism and the Modernist tradition underpinning the cultural work of resistance has been allowed to become obscured. The irony is, of course, that despite the West’s apparent fascination with Prague, on each of these occasions the city was left to fend for itself, just as the legacies of its key Modernist innovator has been unduly left to fend for itself.

*

Like many involved in the avant-gardes of the 1920s and ’30s, Teige believed that the problems of art proceed from a social dimension. While never a member of the Communist Party his theories linking constructivism and poetism lead him to a broadly “socialist” understanding of the revolutionary task of art. It was Teige’s misfortune, unlike his Western counterparts, to find himself after the War living in a communist-dominated state veering towards dictatorship, whose socialism bore no relation to Teige’s (as some critics nowadays say with all the confidence of hindsight) naïve socialism. For Teige, art was never in the service of the revolution, it was the revolution—his vision of an ars una encompassed all aspects of social life alongside all modes of production, in contrast to the Socialist Realist dogma in which art served purely as an aesthetic representation of ideology.

The political orientation of the pre-War avant-garde and Teige’s later victimization by the communist authorities in post-War Czechoslovakia, cannot be separated either from the mode in which his ideas were formulated or the manner of their later suppression. Arguably, Teige’s importance to the pre-War avant-garde scene in Europe has been almost entirely negated as a consequence of ideological normalization during the Cold War era and the invention, basically, of a “secret avant-garde” whose existence in the Yalta Conference states remained (and in many cases still remains) that of a shadow to the institutional avant-gardism of the liberal left within the cultural conglomerate represented by the Marshall Plan. While Teige’s standing in pre-War Czechoslovakia was commensurable with that of Le Corbusier and Breton in France, during the immediate post-War period—as a consequence of his criticism of Stalin’s show trials—he became persona non grata. In addition to being obliged to recant his anti-Stalinist views and to issue a stern auto-critique, he was systematically harassed, denied access to all but informal modes of publication, and denied the opportunity to emigrate. Upon his death in 1951, his papers, parts of his library and his apartment were confiscated by the communist authorities.

On the flimsy pretext of having been written in a minor European language, Teige’s work was allowed to fall into an obscurity in the West equal to the obscurity into which it was cast in Czechoslovakia, affected—and this is a conclusion which is difficult to avoid—with at least the partial collusion of the liberal left in assuagement of their Soviet minders.[1] (In comparison, the semiotician Jan Mukařovský, Teige’s contemporary and one of the founders of Prague Structuralism, prospered after the War, during which time he became one of the chief architects of the communist purges and was appointed Rektor of Charles University.) It is characteristic of this period, in which all the dominant tropes of the Modernist avant-garde are replayed like a West End musical—for dollars or political prestige—that dissident figures on both sides of the Marxist-Capitalist divide were overshadowed by figures overtly complicit with the ideological status quo: I mean, of the phoney “revolutionary struggle” the Cold War masqueraded itself as.

For just as Teige is erased from cultural history in communist Czechoslovaka, so we have the erasing of, for example, Wilhelm Reich in capitalist USA. Meanwhile we have someone like Gabriel García Márquez, a personal friend of Fidel Castro, being awarded a Nobel Prize. The Cuban exile Reinaldo Arenas, who himself died in semi-obscurity, accused Márquez of being “an unscrupulous propagandist for communism who, taking refuge in the guarantees and facilities which liberty provides, set out to undermine it.” In addition, Arenas made the point that, “although not without merit,” Márquez’s work was “not at the level of… writers who have either died in oblivion or been ignored.”[2] This is not simply a complaint about injustice, it is a comment on the expropriation of the Modernist legacy by the dominant ideological apparatuses of our time. Not only has Modernism been subsumed into the mainstream, but the critical impetus of the historical avant-garde has become nothing but an –ism subservient to the interests of the marketplace. In Arenas’s view, Márquez and others like him represent the real power of ideological, cultural normalisation in the post-War period and the substitution for the “revolutionary” discourse of the avant-garde by a central committee script.

By a further ironic twist it might be said that this disillusionment is itself the apotheosis of everything the avant-gardes of the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries set out to accomplish, for it identifies the real terms of the critique. The transformation of consciousness—and every avant-garde in some sense sought to achieve this modest goal—could never be programmatic without relinquishing its experimental basis. There are no scheduled discoveries, and the “new,” being always in-excess of itself, cannot be reduced to a paradigm of operations. Teige makes precisely this point in his “Poetist Manifesto,” published in 1924, in which a programmatic constructivism is confronted with an irreducible poiesis, an ideathat will remain—if not always formulated as such—the basis of Teige’s thinking even during his socialist period. “Each calculation,” he writes, “rationalises irrationality merely by several decimal points. The calculus of each machine has its pi.” (67). This “pi” is the critical-generative element, the poetic spur, which is both so-to-speak “objective” (it is the only truth in art) and “without object” (it has no model, whether interior or exterior). When art or language or even politics is stripped of “ideology,” it is this that remains, and it is this that “ideology” is ultimately unable to abolish: the element that exposes its inauthenticity, as it were. It is the locus of a “disillusionment” in every sense.

*

In his “Poetist Manifesto,” Teige called for a generalised poetics as the foundation of everyday life, expressed in the synergetic intermeshing of all aspects of modernity, from the technological to the psychological, the political and the semiotic. This syncretism reaches beyond its immediate historical formulation towards the post-War preoccupation with cybernetics, hypermedia and interactivity. Unlike the technocratic utopianism of Marinetti, Poetism, for Teige, was to be the actual crowning achievement of a communitarian future concerned not with the artefacts of modernity but rather its self-transformative potential. “Poetism,” Teige wrote, “knows that one of the greatest values embraced by mankind is human individuality harnessed to the discipline of the collective fellowship of man.”[3] Just as Heidegger envisage poetic dwelling, so Teige envisaged a communitarian dynamic. As a revolution towards potential, “Poetism,” Teige insisted, was “not an –ism.” Nor was Poetism art in any pre-existing sense. “Poetism is,” he argued, “above all, a way of life.”

It was Teige’s objective to “revises all values,” “to liquidate existing art categories,”[4] to produce an “art that ceases to be art.”[5] The “Poetist Manifesto” was not about “poetry” in the sense of a literary genre, but about a generalized poiesis. It is necessary to read Teige’s major theoretical statements in tandem to appreciate the original character of his thinking here. The emergent concept of a life-poetics takes shape in several very different contexts: the first is the “Poetist Manisfesto” of 1924, then “The Minimum Dwelling and the Collective House”—an essay primarily concerned with the problem of social housing, published in 1931—and “The Inner Model,” a response to Surrealism, from 1945. Teige’s starting point may be described as a “projective dialectics,” an attempt to understand the true character of experimentalism and the role of the avant-garde as a critical-generative force. In this, Teige lays the practical foundation of his project, distinguishing his “poetics” from an avant-gardism that constitutes its own “problem”—that is to say, from the vicious circle of “ideology.” Teige conceived of this dialectic as “projective” in that it is drawn into the world, or as Heidegger says, thrown. The basis of its critique are not a system of pre-existing values, but the convulsive encounter between emergent forms. In this way Teige’s “Poetism” approaches aspects of de Saussure’s semiology, in which “meaning” or “significance” arises on a basis of interactions characterised as “differences without terms.” Elements are not made sense of by one another—one category or form by another—but their encounter, so to speak, makes sense of them.

It is no accident that Teige saw an immediate expression of this idea in the logic of collage. Like Guy Dorbord some decades later, Teige recognised that the significant element of collage was its capacity for détournement. Not only does the encounter between previously unrelated elements produce “sense,” but this “sense” has the potential to affect a critique. A critique not of some “content” or other, but of the very logic (the ideology in fact) of sense vested in objects: which is to say, in a mimesis. Collage, montage, architectonics and psychic automatism all provided Teige with opportunities to develop a non-objective poetics which at the same time emphasised its radical materiality. In 1925, Teige turned his focus on the work of Man Ray. Teige considered Man Ray’s photograms (“rayographs”) as opening a path towards precisely such a materialist “poetics” of the object, in which the implied technicity of montage and the “seamless potential” of collage might be given “formal” expression—what Teige called “optical poetry.”[6] This was not supposed to be a metaphor but rather a revolution, a reinvention of “seeing” that would also and at the same time entail a reinvention of “poetics.” Art in all its previous formulations was declared to be abolished, or if not abolished, transformed beyond recognition: the future it represented could only be grasped if the revolutionary character of this transformation itself was grasped. The photogram provided a blueprint.

*

What Teige was attempting was an entirely new theoretical structure for a new “poetic” environment—in the process he sought to reinvent the very idea of the avant-garde. His “projective dialectics” had evolved through a shift away from the idea of “form” and “model” towards “process” and onwards, to the polyvalences of “figuration” and “prefiguration.” His next step brought him into direct conflict with Le Corbusier on the question of communal architecture. Teige’s interest in architecture was two-fold: on the one hand, stemming from a concern with the economic roots of urban housing shortages, he viewed architecture as a realisation of social possibility and consequently as a mode of socialism; on the other, stemming from a concern with structure, he viewed it as an expression of poiesis, of a social dynamic in flux. For Teige, social reality must first and foremost be experimental.

Teige’s approach to the question of the “minimal dwelling” anticipated some of the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, in that the “minimal” should maximalise potential. This was not simply an economic argument. For Teige, a dwelling that could meet an essential existential minimum must, by definition, also be collective. Unlike Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” with which this idea is superficially similar, Teige rejected any notion of a “hermetically sealed structure” (as in Le Corbusier’s “Unite d’habitation”) or any reduction to classical principles of proportion and scale (Le Corbusier’s application of the “golden section” as the modular standardisation of the individual body). Teige envisaged a collectivity that wasn’t merely an assemblage of “units,” but a dynamic system. This is the social dimension of Teige’s thinking, for the dwelling must itself by the socius. While the language of Teige’s essay on the minimum dwelling is often programmatic, its key points are derived—as in his approach to the rayographs—from the “materiality” of the problem. The minimum is effectively a minimum semiotic within the collective “possible,” the general field of “semiosis” that defines social interaction. The architectural minimum becomes an architectonic minimum, the interstice defining a general economy of “articulation.”

The final development of Teige’s syncretic modernism came about in his discussion of photography in his essay on the “Inner Model,” his last major theoretical statement, in which he attributes the operations of a generalised poiesis to an autonomous structural agency (for example, the “technical, photochemical process that,” in the production of a photographic image, “is essentially automatic”). From Breton, Teige borrows the metaphor of “psychic automatism,” but ultimately the “psychic” character of this automatism is independent of purely human agency. Teige returns to the Freudian understanding of a psychic apparatus, whose structures are differential, and whose operations are guided by a radical ambivalence. He defines what he calls the “inner model” not as a mimetic substitute, but as a “psychograph” produced “by those forces of the psychic apparatus that act on it before it becomes what it is.”[7] The “inner model” is, in effect, the non-objective core of Teige’s poetics—and it represents the moment at which his thinking deconstructs the ideological basis of its “socialism.” Poetism, finally, is not “a silent accompaniment” in the world of real social interactions, but the “latent poetry” of the real.

Like some return of the repressed, Teige’s theoretical investigations appear to us today strangely familiar—cognisant, in their most radical formulations, of a line of development in “western thought” from Structuralism to cybernetics, to recent theories of techno-poetics and technicity, and to the eminent domain of post-humanism. One of the proponents of that term, Francis Fukuyama, perhaps rightly assessed the “end of ideology” in 1989 as an historical end, if we accept—as Teige ultimately did—the need to both reinvent and disillusion ourselves of the very idea of ideology, in order not only to avoid complicity in the normalisation and falsification of thought, but to inaugurate that poetic revolution which is the existential minimum, and to build upon that.

Louis Armand

*A talk delivered at the inaugural conference of the Société d’Etudes Modernistes, Sorbonne-Paris III, 24 April 2014.

[1] Teige’s work first appeared in English translation in 1999, while the first important secondary literature on Teige appears in the mid-2000s.

[2] Reinaldo Arena, Before NightFalls, trans. Dolores M. Koch (London: Penguin, 1993) 302.

[3] Karel Teige, “Poetist Manifesto,” trans. Alexandra Büchler, Karel Teige 1900-1951: L’Enfant Terrible of the Czech Modernist Avant-Garde, eds. Eric Dluhosch and Rostislav Švácha (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999) 70-71.

[4] Teige, “Poetist Manifesto,” 70.

[5] Karel Teige, “Obrazy a předobrazy” [Figures and Prefigurations] (1921), cited in Miroslav Petříček, “Karel Teige: Art Theory between Phenomenology and Structuralism,” Karel Teige 1900-1951, 326.

[6] Karel Teige, “K estetice filmu” [“Towards an aesthetics of Film”], Pásmo 1.7-8 (1925): 2.

[7] Karel Teige, “The Inner Model,” Karel Teige 1900-1951, 342.

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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
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"Poetism is the crown of life; Constructivism is its basis" // Karel Teige

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