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“A Possible Story of the Avant-garde” – A Review of David Vichnar’s SUBTEXTS (2015)

SUBTEXTS (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books) is an a-temporal book. In his introduction to it, David Vichnar posits an almost century-long discussion of the possibilities, or rather the impossibilities of the avant-garde(s) facing the ever-new neo-avant-gardes in their original a-temporal context. So, we get it from the start that SUBTEXTS leans heavily on their contemporary context(s).

Whether we consider those more ancient theories of the avant-garde movements (Renato Poggioli’s , Peter Bürger’s or Hal Foster’s) or the more recent ones (John Roberts’, Gregory Sholette’s , Boris Groys’s or Claire Bishop’s), we are likely to understand, as Vichnar would instruct us here, that all the theories have tried to tell us the story of the sanctified “Art” which turns its back on aestheticism, only to return even quicker to “the praxis of life“ (Nietzsche’s Eternal Return?).

However, the author of SUBTEXTS comes here the closest to the Joycean concept of the avant-garde which was duly based on Joyce’s and Jolas’ Parisian experiment with transition magazine. There, for the first time in the history of the so-called avant-garde (February 1928) the aesthetic category of synaesthesia (somewhat pre-conceived by Richard Wagner’s endeavours in that field) was not only made possible and feasible, but also accepted by its various followers. Ever since those times, these followers or avant-garde participants have included various visual cum literary cum theatrical cum musical artists and emancipatory creative individuals.

Vichnar is perfectly right to state in his introduction that in that Joyce-Jolas era, Finnegans Wake appeared more than a “polysemic, encyclopaedic book designed to be read […] with ear and eye”, as it was actually from the start “a self-reflexive book about the role of the book in the electric-mechanical world of the new technology” (Donald Theall).

SUBTEXTS is a compendium of eight essays which give us the real access to a possible story of the avant-garde of the sort Vichnar sketched out in his brief introduction to his book. His well-conceived and theoretically unpretentious essays make us believe Duchamp who, once interviewed, declared that “an Avant-garde movement such as DADA was more like an artist’s act of rebellion in life rather than an artistic movement per se”.

The first essay in Vichnar’s book is devoted to the writing of history and identity in Finnegans Wake. It deals basically with the notion of identity following Derrida’s idea that “there is no identity: there is identification” and expanding the Joycean notion of the reader’s impossibility to read with his eye and voice a certain text “identically”. As we fail to read a text “identically”, we arrive at a certain hesitency ofabsorbing the said text, so, Vichnar says that, by following a certain Foucaultian premises enriched by Laclau’s and Mouffe’s political arguments “Joyce’s project can be seen as a wor(l)d-symptom of a particular historical forgery under particular historical circumstances” (p.21).

Further along Vichnar tends to the Modernist obsessive notion of “forgery”, thus thoroughly examining the notion of PLAGIARISM as it was discussed in Francois Le Lionais’ texts on the French Oulipo group (the notion of ‘anticipatory plagiarism’), then later in Vichnar’s memory of Guy Debord and his Situationists’ movement—all presented in Vichnar’s second essay in SUBTEXTS. Here, the point of interest which emerges in the discussion of Debord’s attempted definition of détournement is his treatment of the phenomenon which appears to be “a particular kind of quotation… and whose ideology is to act anti-ideologically without ‘any previous…reference’” (p.25).

What appears interesting here is Vichnar’s claim that the anti-historical and anti-ideological détournement (or a certain notion of plagiarism) coincides with the avant-garde“politico-aesthetic technique of collage” and is in fact a certain effect of the “collapse of the division between logos andhistoria”duly acquired through the acts of expropriation/ appropriation (according to Louis Armand).

The third and fifth sections of the book explain even further the historical journeys into the revolution of the Word, each one addressing a different geographical practice—the third is targeted to the practice of the anglophone world(s), whereas the fifth examines its European heritage.

The third essay explains the historical journey from “poetriarchy”—the so-called rule of the poet/ry as exemplified in the respective works of Joyce and Jolas, the ones which encouraged German Expressionist poetics and the French Surrealists—to “proteiformity” (the birth of the protean forms of language). This latter category could be recently seen in the work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets such as Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Carla Harryman.The accent here is placed on Steve McCaffery, poet/theorist who, according to Vichnar, is the poet who avoids the best the traps of the formal dichotomy of Joycean vs. Steinian cum transitionmag discourse.

The fifth essay is a bit about the same issue- but in French language, as it analyses the “heresy” or a transgression in the “revolutionized word”, as exemplified in Philippe Sollers’ novel H– which Vichnar himself aptly co-translated into English.

However, Vichnar’s semi-developed yearning towards the theory of “borrowings” cum plagiarism becomes a full-blown explanation in section four, the one which precedes his discussion of Sollers’ revolutionary wor(d)k. This essay deals with the case of a well-established writer Iain Sinclair who in both his poetry and his fiction, establishes his “psychogeography,” which consists in reading urban space and architecture as palimpsests of their various pasts and presents, in archiving their past development and in recording their effects upon the psyche of the observer.

The sixth essay in SUBTEXTS is devoted exclusively to Christine Brooke-Rose’s work which has “less to do with the realist mimesis of ‘consciousness’ than with imaginative employment of the fundamental organisational grid of the written language”. Or, as Brooke-Rose’s story has something to do with the numerous employment of languages in exile her work could be perhaps described in her own words saying that “discourse comes from Latin discurrere, to run here and there.” This explanation could be applied to the erratic experimental language writing of all the exiled writers working in a proto (Ur)language they coined for themselves throughout the twentieth century.

The same sensation of the “alienated writer’s” alienation, in life as in language, Vichnar tries to tackle in his following text which deals with the seminal writing of the American writer Kathy Acker. As he speaks about that unique brand of ‘subversive plagiarism’, Vichnar does not fail to mention Acker’s radical writing method of hacking, appropriating or pirating an older text. If we stretch Acker’s idea of acquiring an older text or an idea a bit further (as her Serbian translator I have already mentioned this fact in my introduction to her work in 1986), we are likely to arrive at the point to believe than anyone’s writing (as we remember it recorded) or anyone’s artwork is just an extended replica of an older colleague’s idea. Just, in some more recent cases, as in Joyce’s we can track his idea of a “Ulysses” back to Homer‘s Odyssey, but in the case of Homer, for instance, we are not physically  able to trace his ideas, myths and legends to any of his rhapsodic predecessors.

The essay on Acker is perhaps the most serious in the entire collection as it follows “verbatim” the development of the word’s revolution as exemplified in the extraordinary postmodernist while at the same time explaining the “anti-revolution” happening in her writing, the avant-garde negation and antagonism as predicted quite similarly by the founder of Situationism, Guy Debord. “Any revolution, right-wing left-wing nihilist […] is good for business. Because the success of every business depends on the creation of new markets”.

David Vichnar ends his collection of essays by introducing yet another hypertextual writer, a Borgesian descendent Mark Danielewski, whose novel House of Leaves, published in 2000 had already served as the crossroads for the newly emerging generation of hipster-scriveners who challenge both the idea of the hypermedia and the very idea of writing as lecture supreme of any given text. And their effort still presents, we imagine, every potential writer’s primeval activity.

Nina Živančević

Paris, January 2019

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
"It is the business of the future to be dangerous" // A.N. Whitehead

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"Poetism is the crown of life; Constructivism is its basis" // Karel Teige


“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
February 2019
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