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The Theory of the Avant-Garde and Practice






Libbie Rifkin


(This is an extract from Libbie Rifkin's book Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author)



While the relationship of Modernism to the rise of the New Criticism and the "academicization" of poetry has been documented, the institutional history of post-War poetic avant-garde formations has evaded scholarly attention.  This is partially attributable to the fact that Peter Burgerís Theory of the Avant-Garde has controlled the terms of the discussion since its publication in English in 1984. In that now-canonical text, Burger argued that the "historical avant-garde" forced the bourgeois "institution of art" into a stage of self-reflection; it revealed the functional role of aesthetic autonomy in reproducing social hierarchies without, however, re-integrating art into the life-praxis of culture. This avant-garde--and for Burger it was the only one--thus failed in its historically determined mission (49). To the extent that a movement such as Surrealism had any effect, Burger claimed, it was to render art more vulnerable to the recuperative forces of the culture industry, to pave the way for the pre-commodified ironies of Pop and other "neo-avant-gardes."


Burgerís argument has affected thinking about contemporary innovative poetry in a number of ways. His emphasis on institutions is a welcome addition to theories of reception: it adds a layer of materiality to Jaussí model of literary evolution, promises to broaden the tight hermeneutics of Wolfgang Iserís elaborations of the reading process, and helps to rationalize the empirical observations of reader-response studies.  But Burgerís own use of the term "institution" is more limiting; for him, it worked as a sociological wedge only in one brief moment of self-reflection. By his account, the institution of art became visible through the agency of the avant-garde sometime around 1915. After that historical moment, he argues, the terms lose their materiality: "institution" and "avant-garde" remain frozen forever in a bloodless battle, opponents in theory only. In the aftermath of his work, scholars of innovative art movements have taken the two terms to be mutually exclusive. For Burger, the failure of the historical avant-garde is to blame for what he claims is the now purely gestural, ineffectual nature of cultural revolution. For scholars, practitioners, and enthusiasts, the persistence of his theory itself proves a formidable obstacle.


With the exception of Burger, history has never been a problem for the theory of the avant-garde, which prefers to work on the level of the concept. As Paul Mann has argued in The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde (1991), a book that darkly promises to be the "last word" on the subject, traditional scholarship of the avant-garde has had two preoccupations that are in fact intertwined: definition and death. As self-proclaimed exception, the avant-garde both lives and dies by definition: "The avant-garde consistently defines itself both in terms of and against definitions imposed upon it" he writes; as self-proclaimed exception, the avant-garde both lives and dies by definition (9). Mannís text weaves a fugue on this basic dialectical theme: "the avant-garde is first of all the instrument of attack on tradition, but an attack mandated by tradition itself;" (11) "the avant-garde is not a victim of recuperation but its agent, its proper technology;" (92) and finally "criticism is not an adversary force but rather a means by which culture discovers its contradictions so that it can accommodate them to itself" (118).  Once "recuperation" is revealed to be the "syntax of cultural discourse, its elementary propositional form," the only answers for art with pretensions to resistance are anonymity, silence, exile, and cunning.


Without the benefit of Mannís linguistic turn, most avant-garde scholarship has come to a similar conclusion, largely because it attempts to deduce sociology, aesthetics, and politics from logical problems within the concept. Hans Magnus Enzensbergerís classic "The Aporias of the Avant-Garde" (1962) consolidates this traditionís typical moves. Enzensberger traces the military roots of the term "avant-garde," breaking it down into its component parts and pushing each to its aporetic limit. The first aporia emerges when the avant-garde moves from the synchrony of the battle field to the diachrony of historical progress. Confronting the enemy up ahead, the "en avant of the avant-garde would, as it were, realize the future in the present, anticipate the course of history"(23). In spite of tremendous advances in prognostication by the "consciousness industry," this is, of course, impossible. And yet the whole system depends on this impossibility; the avant-garde is the engine of advancement for the main body of artistic works, but the scene of its reception is, by definition, always just out of reach.  The avant-gardeís value, in fact its very identity, can only be determined by the future generations for whom it is already passť. Put most succinctly: "The avant of the avant-garde contains its own contradiction: it can be marked out only a posteriori" (28). The social contradictions derive from the temporal one, in Enzensbergerís analysis. In the military milieu, the "guard" is a collective, united by discipline and proud of its distinction from the majority. Transferred to the artistic realm and from a spatial to a temporal plane, the avant-gardeís militant energies turn backward, and the elite corps attacks the majority it is supposed to be leading. Without an obvious enemy, Enzensberger suggests, avant-gardes in the arts are constrained to embody the "anti," to live the ideals of "freedom" and "revolution" in a doctrinaire, and ultimately self-destructive capacity.


Following these models, an institutional analysis of post-War poetic avant-gardes would appear both oxymoronic and anachronistic. Once we realize that the theory of the avant-garde universalizes one moment in European modernism, and that aesthetic autonomy is just one of many problematics that innovative art addresses, we can see that poetic avant-gardes continue to emerge in the second half of this century, and that their breakthroughs as well as their failures have complex and continuing effects.  Recognizing the "perpetual institutionality" of avant-gardist practice need not then amount to an acceptance of de facto complicity (Theory-Death 63). Rather, it can serve as the foundation of rigorously local inquiries into different kinds of artistic marginalities, the uses to which they are put, and the various centers that they both emerge from and oppose. Contemporary avant-garde poets have, as Ron Silliman puts it, "grown out of the same historical conditions that raised the question of theory itself within the academy," a genealogy they share, I'd argue, with their post-War forebears. These poets are poised to "offer a specific reading of theory" and thereby, in some sense, "reverse the parasitical relationship between poetry and its critique." This reversability raises "the question of institutionality  per se as a constituent element within theoretical, as well as aesthetic, discourse." Silliman suggests that "one conclusion that necessarily follows is that each theoretical approach should radically reformulate its conception of a proposed canon"("Poets and Intellectuals, 124, emphasis his). Theory-death, multiplied, could thus offer an infinite number of new leases on life.


Bourdieuís theory of the cultural field comes much closer to capturing this sense of possibility than the theories of the avant-garde. Describing the various, semi-autonomous cultures of competition out of which art is produced, Bourdieu achieves a kind of panoptic perspective, capable of articulating the "refractive" relations between even the most isolated of struggles. But he does not exempt himself from the dynamic he describes. By locating the battle over the rules and norms of each segment of the cultural field at their various cores, Bourdieu not only offers the possibility for some degree of generalization, but also builds into his theory an understanding of the way theory distorts its object. Unlike the hypostatizing gaze of "closed" theories of the avant-garde, then, he retains a certain dynamism of perspective:


ďThe semantic flux of notions like writer or artist is both the product and the condition of struggles aiming to impose the definition. In this way, it belongs to the very reality which it is concerned to interpret. To decide on paper and in more or less arbitrary fashion debates which are not decided in reality, such as the question of whether this or that pretender to the title of writer (etc.) belongs to the population of writers, is to forget that the field of cultural production is the site of struggles which, through the imposition of the dominant definition of the writer, aim to delimit the population of those who possess the right to participate in the struggle over the definition of the writer (Rules 224).Ē


Institutions of the avant-garde are persistently inchoate, and to the extent that they reach codification, it is in the form of what Bourdieu calls "anti-institutional institutions," paradoxical socio-textual universes--like the term "avant-garde" for example--in which freedom from institutions is inscribed in those institutions (Rules 258). Bourdieu thus models a relation of theory to practice that seems extremely useful for analyzing the work of poets who were engaged in both. However his map of the cultural field--drawn, as it is, according to rigidly economic coordinates--cannot be truly responsive to the "flux" that he finds within it.




copyright © Libbie Rifkin





Libbie Rifkin is Adjunct Assistant Professor in the English Department of Georgetown University. She writes about 20th century American poetry and its institutions, with a primary focus on avant-garde poets in the 1950s and 60s. Other research interests include the history of the modern literary archive, masculinity studies, and African American poetry and poetic community at the mid-century. 


She has published articles and reviews on 20th century poetry and poetics in Poetics Today, Contemporary Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and Jacket Magazine. Her current work focuses on George Oppen and the politics of gender.


Her book, Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), is an institutional history of American poetic ambition in the 1950s and 1960s.




1. Recent avant-garde-oriented work is beginning to take up institutional questions while generally maintaining an emphasis on aesthetics. See, for instance, Aldon Nielsenís Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (1997),  Rasula (1996), and Golding (1995). Nielsen's work is a long overdue genealogy, rooting postmodern poetic innovation (primarily but not exclusively African-American) in the tangle of Modernist experiment and traditions of black orality and musical improvisation. He discusses the work of African American experimentalists associated with such pre- and post- "Black Arts" circles as the "Dasein" and "Umbra" groups, but he seems more interested in presenting an array of poetries than in tracing the connections between the shape of particular social formations and kinds of poetry that emerged from them. His long chapter, "A New York State of Mind," approaches the kind of socio-poetic mapping that I attempt here. Goldingís book comes the closest to an institutional history of post-War avant-garde formations with its excellent chapter on Origin magazine. Despite the promise of "culture" in its title, Daniel Belgradís The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America (1998), which ranges over painting, sculpture, dance, bee-bop, as well as poetry, presents more of an intellectual than an institutional history of the period.


2. I briefly discuss Jaussís evolutionary model in the Introduction and elaborate it further in Chapter Two. Iser develops his notion of the "implied reader" in two major theoretical works: The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication from Bunyan to Beckett, and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1978). Iser distinguishes himself from Jauss by narrowing the latterís "horizon of expectation" to the notion that texts demand particular readerly contributions in order to "concretize" their meanings.


3. For instance, Svetlana Boym analyzes the very different stakes of aesthetic autonomy for Russian avant-gardes facing state sanction in Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet. I will be discussing her politically and culturally-informed critique of "death of the author" motifs in Chapter Three.