*Originally published as introduction to Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2006) pp. 1-17
The day will come when one original carrot will be enough to start a revolution. —Cézanne
Is an avant-garde viable under the conditions of post-modernism? This question immediately gives rise to others, concerning the status of avant-gardes historical or conjectural, and concerning the various cognates of post-modernism and the numerous other post-s and isms that have populated critical discourse in literature and the arts during the latter half of the last century. Consequently our initial question may come to appear purely definitional, while any endeavour to respond to it programmatically will nevertheless remain ambiguous, eclectic, even contradictory. The reason for this has not to do simply with the diversity of possible positions vis-à-vis avant-gardism and post-modernity, nor with the ambivalences of historicity or interpretation, but with what has been called (in deference to the poetic legacy of the Russian poet Velimir Chlebnikov) “the discoveries of forgotten but never completely lost archaic resources of construing, which lead to unexpected significations of the language structure.”
It has been argued that all art worthy of the name is in some sense experimental, and that experimentation is inevitably bound to innovation by the same thread that binds the purportedly new to the idea of a tradition. Such a formulation reveals an inherent “referential indeterminacy,” wherein words like experimental, avant-garde and tradition come to approximate “heterologous signs,” without indicating whether they should be read literally or metaphorically, while demanding that we nevertheless interrogate their meaning within an increasingly conventionalised discipline. This “metacritical” dimension to the question at hand has in various quarters been perceived as bringing about something of a renewal of the trope of the “avant-garde,” lending it a critical force which extends beyond the domain of aesthetics into the entire field of thought, sign systems and technology.
While today it might be possible to speak of avant-gardism with respect to cognitive science, for example, and quantum computing, this in itself may simply reflect that the history of avant-gardism has always in some way be bound up with the question of consciousness, its transformation and re-invention. Its proper domain, we might say, has increasingly tended to encompass the encyclopaedic “lifeworld of man” and the prospect of what humanity might yet become by grasping its own-most possibility in what “it is” and what “it has been.” This curious temporal conjunction of the “avant” and the “post,” mediated by the trope of experiment (or of experience), has a long historical genealogy that only in relatively recent times acquired the self-consciously aestheticised character that, in the twentieth century, became institutionalised as “the” avant-garde, and which is often said to have terminated in the discourse of post-modernism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this account of the “end of the avant-garde” is once again under contention, as the viability of a continuation, renewal or reinvention of avant-gardism—in tandem with the end, exhaustion, death of postmodernism—is raised by artists, critics, thinkers generally, unsatisfied with the pre-millennial wisdom that everything is permitted, hence nothing is any longer possible.
The promise of liberation is always a precarious one, and if the advent of the global economy, equal opportunity, the new media and communications technologies, and the end of the Cold War suggest—at the end of the twentieth century—a future world utopia, then this half-decade of the twenty-first century has violently dispelled that illusion. Beneath the guise of cultural pluralism and permissiveness, the hard edge of socio-economic ideology continues to give purchase to a critical engagement that previously (under post-modernism) was said to no longer be viable. And with it, the critical necessity of something “like” an avant-garde, not simply as a reaction or counter-action to a present state of affairs, but as an active intervention in futurity, in the very possibility of a future.
For these reasons, the title of this volume—Avant-Post—should not be taken as signalling a merely historical project, or one of cultural pessimism, but rather something like a call to order and a call to address the situation, today, of those outposts (avant-postes) that ensure a future for critical culture.
In his study of the New York school of poets—John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Frank O’Hara—improbably entitled The Last Avant-Garde (1999), American critic David Lehman (echoing Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas, and others) contends that: “the argument against the viability of the avant-garde today rests on the assumption that there is no real resistance to the new, no stable norm from which the defiant artist may depart.” The contradictions of the “new,” as a term largely inherited from Ezra Pound’s injunction to “Make it New!” cedes here to the characteristic complaint that postmodernism in the 1970s and thereafter stole the carpet out from under critical experimentation. Moreover, having stolen the carpet, postmodernism then went about stealing the rest of the avant-gardist décor as well, which henceforth was reduced to a mere retro “style” or historical fetish. Thus Lehman writes, in the first person plural: “If we are all postmodernists, we are none of us avant-garde, for postmodernism is the institutionalisation of the avant-garde.”
Following the major ideological, technological and economic upheavals in the post-WWII American cultural landscape—mediated, in those eminent domains of literature and the fine arts, by the “scandalous” figure of Pound and by the predominance of what Clement Greenberg in 1955 felicitously termed “American-Type” painting—the concept of the “present as a moment of revelation” (a time, according to Habermas, “in which splinters of a messianic presence are enmeshed”) was sacrificed in the cause of a new historicism, from which avant-gardism succeeds modernity in the form of mass-media culture, “kitsch,” neo-liberalism, and compulsory global democratisation. This sacrifice of “the tradition of modernity”—to what Harold Rosenberg termed the “Tradition of the New”—was repaid in the currency of historical tradition traded in a merely present time. Setting aside the problem of tradition and the present, or of a tradition of the present, Habermas’s remarks, coupled with those of Lehman, draw attention to the particular politics of the institutions of literary and art history emerging from the 1970s, according to which the future of cultural production would for evermore assume the form of a repetition of the “end of culture,” represented by the end of Flower-Power utopianism, the debacle of the Vietnam War, and the Watergate affair.
That this view of history could be described as specifically generational and local—for example, in terms of the post-Greenberg generation of art critics like Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, or in terms of American post-Cold War cultural arbitration—has not been sufficiently commented upon. The widely reported death of the avant-garde, on the contrary, has come to be attributed (within cultural studies, fine arts, and the literary critical media) a degree of universal social significance that, in life, it (“the avant-garde”) could hardly have aspired to. Indeed, the death of one culture’s avant-garde has acquired the status of a veritable end of history, characterised by a universal—so we are told—disillusionment of (primarily leftist) ideologies, a radical pluralism of style, the eschewal of any mainstream, and an overwhelming tendency to retrospection. It seems to matter little that this laissez-faire view of cultural history fails to account for the fact that large sections of the so-called avant-garde were dominated by conservatism or radical right-wing ideology, or that pluralism is an idea bound from the start to the myth of bourgeois liberalism “opposed” by successive avant-gardes; that its often revolutionary posture was orientated towards the establishment of a mainstream in its own image, and that even the least socially-engaged of avant-gardes were preoccupied with their own internal politico-aesthetic programmes.
In this sense, both Lehman and the generation of “1968” appear to succeed primarily in elevating their particular discursive paradigms, of modernity and postmodernism, to the unique status of a last call before historical closure, ideological futility, eternal repetition, self-parody, and the messianic promise of “no future.” Thus we encounter the chiliastic echoes of Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” (1863) and Nietzsche’s critique of Cartesian modernity in Human, All too Human (1878), under conditions in which the death of the avant-garde is made to strangely resemble the conditions of its historical birth.
Something like paternity of the historical avant-garde (as viewed through western eyes) could arguably be said to belong to the otherwise unlikely figure of the Compte de Nieuwerkerke, Director-General of the Imperial Museums in Paris—whose interventions in the jury procedures for the 1863 Salon was the immediate cause of Napoleon III’s inauguration of the Salon des Refusées, at which Édouard Manet’s notorious Déjeuner sur l’herbe was first exhibited, thus indirectly ushering in Impressionism and the history of European “avant-gardism.”
Born of the institutions of Imperial French culture, the avant-garde has ever since maintained a type of parasitic relationship with the dominant apparatuses of official taste and of moral and intellectual permission—even if this relationship fashions itself as an “adversary relation,” by which (as Roger Shattuck has argued) the avant-garde “gains its special status” through its critique of “the main body of the culture to which it is reacting.” Pound’s self-promotion from the London drawing room circuit—as private lecturer on Provençal poetry—to harbinger of “the New,” is indicative of the very character of the avant-garde’s origins. Pound’s career finds an immediate antecedent somewhere between that of Fillipo Marinetti—bourgeois media savant and sole inaugurator of Futurism—and that of Manet—covetous of success at the official Salons, yet driven by circumstance to assume the leadership of the “first coherent, organic, and consciously avant-garde movement in the history of modern art.” The curiosity is that it was the mechanisms of official culture itself that caused a significant number of such otherwise highly individualistic artists, writers, and thinkers (like Pound), to purvey ideas of collectivised action and to gather around themselves “consciously avant-garde movements.” For Pound and Marinetti, such action arguably remained bound to personal prestige and, like Théophile Gautier before them, to claims of cultural arbitration, education, and social transformation.
More curious, then, that the failure of collective action has, particularly since 1968, became the primary criterion in judging the success or failure of the so-called avant-garde project. Aleš Debeljak, for example, has written that the failure of “the avant-garde effort to transcend the institution of autonomous art” and to “integrate art into everyday life in the name of utopian social change,” can be attributed to the fact that the avant-garde project “ended in a collapse of the aesthetic and practical dimensions without liberating effect.” This view remains incomplete in many respects, not least because its failure is accounted one of modalities. This is similarly the case with Habermas’s rejection of postmodernism on the grounds of an “incomplete project of modernity,” linked to a critique of Enlightenment rationalism. As Lautréamont famously said: “Plagiarism is necessary; progress implies it.” And if the work of the avant-garde—whatever, or whoever that is supposed to be—has been historically directed at the revelation of this seeming contradiction in the logic of progress, then the “collapse of the aesthetic and practical dimensions” is not an end of avant-garde history, but rather its condition as a “critical counterpart” of the very bourgeois system of values to which it is said to be opposed (and whose illusion it has nonetheless always functioned to sustain, as the very raison d’être of avant-gardism). In this way, progress retains a satirical dimension: a détournement of the very priniciple of origination and invention which has always been advertised as its summum bonum.
It seems to be no accident that the series of political, social and epistemological ruptures and recursions that had led up to the installation of Napoleon III should have found themselves mirrored in the revolutionary discourses of avant-gardism, in which the “new” has always, in some sense, affected itself by way of a détournement of the received tradition—but above all of the revolutionary tradition itself, born alongside eighteenth century Romanticism and the open-ended progressivism of the Enlightenment project. Likewise the ambivalent relationship of successive avant-gardes to industrialisation and the status of the machine in modern life. Successively an object of satire and utopianist praise, “the machine”—from Jonathan Swift and Jeremy Bentham, to Marinetti and Marcel Duchamp—has emblematised the inherent paradox of the avant-garde hypothesis. Moreover, in terms of a “programme,” whose success or failure is necessarily measured in progressivist and socially redemptive terms, avant-gardism appears itself to be nothing more than a particular détournement of the very social ideologies that gave rise to it.
It is for this reason that the birth and presumed death of the avant-garde mirror one another in contemporary critical lamentations in such an uncanny way. After a century-and-a-half, the avant-garde’s principle legacy, it seems, is its own disappearance: a vanishing act corresponding to a type of rectified perturbation in the system of western historical consciousness. Hence, Debeljak writes: “While liberal bourgeois individualism implied the provinces of privacy, self-development, dignity, and autonomy, the emerging form of the individual self in advanced capitalism is instead articulated in terms of fragmented and narcissistic consciousness.” And all of this not because the avant-garde was driven from the streets, like the once ubiquitous organ-grinder, but because it had long ago learned to convert its radical currency into a mix of public sinecure and private fund, and in the process turned from antitype of social conformity into one of conformity’s very safe-guard.
Moreover, given the uneasy association of revolutionary “aesthetic practice” with politico-economic idealism over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, it is hardly surprising that debate over the status of avant-gardism and of the various modernisms should come to mirror those about the necessary phases of Western industrial, liberal-democratic, industrial “evolution.” According to such analogies, the history of avant-gardism commences with the “second phase” of the Industrial Revolution in France and ends with the media revolution following WWII and the advent of “globalisation” (previously anticipated by Marx), signalled in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and elsewhere as a descent into pure simulationism—culminating “today” (in the shadow of “11 September 2001”) in a mode of politico-economic avant-ism whose instrument is the affective contretemps of a globalised network of ethical inequivalence masked by a pseudo cultural uniformity and enforced by way of what Antonio Tabucchi has termed “that which arrives before Time and against Time,” exemplified at the turn of the 21st century by the transformation and regulation of conflict as a social fact by the spectre of pre-emptive war, “des guerres faites avant.”
In many respects the prospect of the spectacle of a perpetually reiterating state of affairs must always have held perverse appeal to the sort of solipsistic/nihilistic temperament that views all of history as tending inexorably towards itself, as though “it” were its natural apotheosis and end-point—whether this be the revolution of Marx of the New World Order of the American neo-conservatives, viewed through the prism of a western cultural apparatus and media that has increasingly come to be characterised by a functional ambiguity: an ambiguity which anticipates and incorporates “in advance” its own critique and thereby affects a type of discursive law.
Antonin Artaud’s excursus on Heliogabalus, or the Anarchist Crowned (1934) provides a paradigm case in the unmasking of precisely this type of aesthetico-moralistic ambiguity, one which always accompanied both judicial messianism and the counter-hegemonic claims of political anarchism, as well as their aestheticisation by way of “avant-gardist” theory and praxis. For Artaud, it is precisely in the body of the Law itself that the rule of order is overthrown, given over to the serial, almost mechanistic, iteration of its otherness in “deviance” and “perversion,” and to the equating of these terms with the real politics of, for example, social justice.
Like the anal-aggressive phase of infancy delineated by Freud, the historical avant-garde has acquired for itself something of the caché of the diminutive tyrant emblematised in Charles Fourier’s “little hordes”—those anarchistic street urchins cum trash collectors in whom the work of social hygiene is transformed into endless play. It was Fourier’s basic contention that it was not man but civilisation that needed reforming. And like Jarry’s Ubu, Fourier’s social monstrum posed a challenge to the moral dictatorship of utopianists and utilitarians like Robert Owen and Jeremy Bentham (just as it does to the present day ideologues of “democratisation”), exposing the fundamentalism of—and fundamentally normative distinction between—the role of social engineer and that of social “revolutionary.”
Fourier’s legacy has more recently been taken up by Guy Debord, in whom the “no-work” ethic functions as an uncanny counterpart to the social fictions of consumer culture; and by Peter Bürger, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) yokes together the systemic disorder of Dada with the disordered system of revolutionary praxis called Surrealism. In both cases, the logic of the “new,” and the counter-logic of its resistance, are merely available stereotypes in the round of laissez-faire deregulation and re-appropriation. As Theodor Adorno says: “Even where art insists on the greatest degree of dissonance and disharmony, its elements are those of unity.” The dream of aesthetic social praxis has in this sense always served a homoeostatic function, in which the ruptures and discontinuities of avant-gardism have served more as a deflection from the fact that the idea of linear progressivist history was itself never more than a political expedience. The enervations of what is called postmodernity were thus forecast from the very outset of the modernist project.
“It is possible,” Karl Mannheim wrote in Ideology and Utopia (1936), “that in the future, in a world in which there is never anything new, in which all is finished and each moment is a repetition of the past, there can exist a condition in which thought will be utterly devoid of all ideological and utopian elements.” Confronted with the redundancy of both traditional social taboos and the “novelty” of transgression, permissibility itself recedes from awareness as the sole universal actor in a social theatre devoid of a stage. The absence of ideology is perhaps, then, merely the latest manifestation of a hegemonic structure whose regulatory power seems to be everywhere visible, but nowhere verifiable. If such is the condition of the postmodern, then the decried lack of a point of critical “resistance”—of a critical object as such—is simply one more ruse in the aestheticisation, and consequent anestheticisation, of shock-value.
In any case, the necessary belatedness of postmodernism as a discourse carries with it the sort of historical stink that always accompanies the resurrection of old corpses to adjudicate on matters of social or cultural permissiveness. The trick has been for it to present itself as lacking any historical dimension at all—as though it were, in essence, a timeless mechanism arrived at through the technologising of all critical orientations towards a possible futurity. A purely disembodied stink. Hence, for Jean François Lyotard: “Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).” Its status, as future-anterior, links it to a perpetual recursion in which everything is made to look and smell more or less “the same”—since what is being looked at or smelled is no thing but rather a kind of trope: the commodity relation according to which Coca Cola, the Mona Lisa and a sexagenarian Mick Jagger achieve a discursive, timeless equivalence.
The question that has consistently been raised over the last thirty years is: if the condition of criticism is continuous with that of modernity, is postmodernism thus predicated on a post-critical condition? Or, contrary to received wisdom, is the perceived ambivalence of criticality today due not to a lack of a “point of resistance,” but rather to an oversubscription of antecedents; or else to the fact that criticism itself has become “mimeticised,” as it were? That the criticality of the historical avant-garde, founded upon a supposed relation to the otherwise unpresentable, has ceded to representation as criticism, thus constituting itself as a post-effect? And if such is the case, is it inevitable that “criticism” be left with no other option than to adopt a strategy of “acceleration,” in an effort to regain at least a nominal vantage point in this ever-shifting, virtualised terrain? This has been one of the conclusions put forward by contemporary media theorists like Vilém Flusser, Friedrich Kittler, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles, re-echoing the prescriptions of McLuhan thirty years earlier and Walter Benjamin thirty years before that—suggesting that the technical, mass reproduction and circulation of images does not serve to conceal a social reality, rather it reveals the inherently technological dimension of that reality.
If Habermas, to the contrary, identifies the radical phase of modernity with the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, this is because he perceives in its social orientation a criticality without direct antecedence, without a model. Modernity’s attempt to come to terms with the unpresentable, as Lyotard likewise contends, is thus tied to a certain condition of crisis in the accession to an experience of discourse removed from one of epistemological foundations. Hence, a condition of crisis vis-à-vis the representable is taken as the condition of modernity as such. Nevertheless, as Bürger and numerous other commentators have pointed out, “when Duchamp puts his signature on mass-produced, randomly chosen objects and send them to art exhibits, this provocation of art presupposes a concept of what art is,” just as Tristan Tzara’s cut-ups presuppose an idea of what literature is. And indeed, just as Bruce Nauman’s “Fountain” and John Ashbery’s “Europe” presuppose an idea of avant-garde art and avant-garde literature. To paraphrase Marx, the conventions and clichés of all the dead avant-gardes weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
In these terms, the application of electronic computing in contemporary poetics, with its explorations of hypertext, hypermedia and other aleatory mechanisms of inscription, has made only modest advances upon earlier forms of “avant-garde” writing—such as the algorithmic constraint-based poetics of Raymond Queneau and the Oulipo—other than in incorporating aleatory mechanisms directly into the “work itself,” wherein the aesthetics of probability and chance operations become part of the textual edifice while their actual mechanics remain invisible. This is perhaps a condition of all forms of technical supersession, yet the ubiquity of techno-aesthetics accompanied by a too-discrete dependency upon a sublimated technics (exemplified by such things as operating code, as Kittler has long observed), stands at odds with a certain “criticality” vested in the appropriations of an historical avant-gardism that today finds itself more properly expressed, we might say, by way of hacker subcultures than by the burgeoning institution of digital art.
Consider, for example, the textual interventions, détournements and chance operations in now canonical work like John Cage’s Roaratorio (1979), wherein the “operating code” is itself performed alongside the work’s so-called content, and is endowed thereby with certain “metatextual” properties that assume for themselves the function of a conductor/composer, insofar as the rest of the performance (of which they assumes the role of metonymic counterpart) takes its cues from them: i.e. they produce instructions or recompose indexes of subsidiary operations performed by other instruments and so on. Which is to say that such performances comprise a diagrammatic field, indeed a schematisable sign system. Much of the new media, meanwhile, has been employed in the arts in a primarily imitative manner—either to automatise the type of work pioneered by Cage and others, by way of computer programmes, or to redploy such things as analogue video art within the digital field, or else to surmount the perceived limitations of print media’s fixed typo/graphic distribution by way of the mutlilinear schematics and visual kinaesthetics of “electronic writing.”
This, perhaps, remains today the proper “task” for an avant-garde, in overcoming the traps of analogical thought in the conception and supersession of the formerly “new” by way of a simple transition form one platform to another—regardless of which critical domain we choose to speak of. Gene Youngblood, author of Expanded Cinema (1970), has made similar remarks concerning the status of “new media” within the discipline of the arts, arguing that video art, for example, “can only have a formalist reference—the graphic properties of the image.” For Youngblood, “the new avant-garde is about creating autonomous social worlds that people can live in. Art is central to that, but the art is not what’s avant-garde. What’s avant-garde is metadesign, the creation of context.” The notion of context as content is born of the very idea of communications technologies, from McLuhan to cyberculture, in the re-appropriation of corporate media space, through public access cable TV, satellite, internet, GPS and WiFi. A critical, ecological mode of thought—networked, transverse, topological—here assumes the practical function of “avant-gardism” in effecting the structure of how things come to mean, and how meaning is lived.
We know that the history of experimentation did not commence with the “avant-garde.” Nor has social transformation always accompanied a project of aesthetic transformation, even if the term “culture,” for example, implies it. The experimental viewpoint—from John Dewey, Gregory Bateson, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Pouzin and Ted Nelson to the contemporary “technopoetics,” “codework” and “meta-design” of the likes of Metz, Stelarc, Kenneth Goldsmith, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz—necessarily holds that avant-gardism is first and foremost an attitude towards life if it is to be anything at all. This raises the question of whether the long-standing debate over “the avant-garde” and its various manifestations is simply a contest over terminologies or whether it is tied-in to a broader aestheticisation of ideology and of ideological purchase upon critical “praxis” and upon the “real.”
Prague, May, 2006
 David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Anchor, 1999); Zygmunt Bauman, “Postmodern Art, or the Impossibility of the Avant-Garde,” Postmodernity and Its Discontents (London: Polity, 1997) 95-104; Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity—An Incomplete Project,” The Anti–Aesthetic: Essays in Post–Modern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, 1983) 3-15.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt: Suhrkramp, 1970) 235: cited in Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) 56.
 Cf. Prefiguring Cyberspace: An Intellectual History, eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002); also Virtual Realities and their Discontents, ed. Robert Markley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); and Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, eds. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (London: SAGE, 1995).