Monday, 22 June 2009
THE POST AVANT-GARDE:
umm, what is this?
Yes, that’s an understandable reaction to the phrase. The quick response is that the post-avant refers to poetry (and other arts) that are working past the realisation that what were deliberately transgressive “avant-garde” activities are now totally accepted and encouraged by critical, academic and funding institutions. (Visualise Damien Hirst and his income; any art college degree show; etc). So any art which wants to still, ah blest impulses! do something actually new, and to challenge and redefine the nature of art (or poetry or whatever) has to begin to play some pretty subtle cute games that go beyond — but can make use of all of — previous avant-garde practices.
In terms of poetry, by my reckoning the term post-avant, if it’s to be useful, explores the authorship, coherence, performance of the text (or indeed what text?), and happily uses (look, they’re not shocking, they’re our inheritance now) any of the ways poetry has innovated in the last century (or past five hundred years). So, yes, it’s a continuance of that avant-garde or modernist impulse, but one that is aware there isn’t going to be a revolutionary artistic utopia nor a wonderful movement to always better and more modern stuff — there’s only coping with the shit we’re in, the complicated inescapable language shit we’re totally in. Disabused, but not disabled, and abusive yet.
The term was first used by the German cultural critic Peter Bürger, who in his little book, Theory of the Avant-Garde tried to present a statement about the nature and status of avant-garde art at the beginning of the 1970s. His emphasis was on art rather than literature. He was trying to update the great German sociologists of culture of the first half of the Twentieth Century Theodor Adorno and, especially, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is in many ways the model for Bürger's book (and essential reading for anyone interested in Modernist art).
Bürger sees the great avant-garde movements of the first half (essentially the first quarter) of the Twentieth Century, "the historic avant-garde", as having ended, and ended in failure, in that essential to their project was the transformation not so much of art styles, but of the whole of life. The repetition of their gestures and devices by contemporary artists he labels "neo-avant-garde" or "post avant-garde". He is pretty cold-blooded about this:
To formulate more pointedly: the neo-avant-garde institutionalizes the avant-garde as art, and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions. This is true independently of the consciousness artists may have of their activity, a consciousness that may perfectly well be avant-gardiste. It is the status of their products, not the consciousness artists have of their activity, that defines the social effect of works. Neo-avant-gardiste art is autonomous art in the full sense of the term, which means that it negates the avant-gardiste intention of returning art to the praxis of life. And the efforts to sublate art become artistic manifestations that, despite their producers' intentions, take on the character of works of art.
This is rigorous stuff! What he means is that by repeating the gestures of the original avant-garde, the neo- or post avant-garde are cutting these away from any role as demolishing the illusion or chains of art, and instead turning them into just more tricks in the artist's repertoire. Even if they think they are genuinely questioning the nature of art, they aren't: art exists as a social institution which will embrace the work they produce. Think Banksy in Bristol Art Gallery. Think Tracy Emin at the RA. Think Damien Hirst's multi-millionaire status. These people are the art establishment: they cannot make genuinely radical gestures, merely profitable or careerist ones. The art is just about art, just part of this complex social institution, which will include at this point all possible styles and techniques. "The total availability of material and forms characteristic of the post avant-gardiste art of bourgeois society" is the phrase Bürger uses to point this out, and with this his art critique matches the theoretical position of post-modernism: everything has "always already" been done, so the cultural state we are in is one that includes all possible styles.
And this is just inescapably so of contemporary art. Any art not recognising this is basing itself on delusion.
And poetry? Well, the often academically and poetry-as-a-career successful Language Poets have become essentially establishment figures in USA, tenured and feted, almost comparable to the various BritArt figures1. But in Britain — hardly so on any similar scale. Indeed I did like to feel that by some miracle British Innovative Poetry2 had preserved some "avant-gardiste" identity through its desperately marginal situation in the 1980s and early 90s.
I'm no longer so sure. There has been an increasing shift since 2000 of British Innovative Poetry's nature as a social institution. It had been a poetry produced by some people who worked in higher education, many who had a degree or whatever; and many without university education. But I find that more and more the bases for British Innovative Poetry have come to be universities and higher education colleges, and that the poetry itself is now fully integrated into the academic curriculum, whether as traditional literary studies or as creative writing. The forthcoming Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry signals this process with absolute clarity. Since the majority of those involved in this academic journal (taking editorial team and editorial board) are poets, indeed excellent poets, there is an elision between the writing of British Innovative Poetry and its study in higher education. Marginal it isn't any longer, but a component at last of a fully fledged element of the Ideological State Apparatus3. Some success.
So, not as glamorous as BritArt. But secure within an institutional base at last! Therefore, no longer in any conceivable way. "avant-gardiste".
OK, that's the general theoretical basis, using Bürger's phrase. British Innovative Poetry is now a post-avant movement.
End of story? Nahh, nothing's that clear cut, of course.
The term post-avant is used by a number of poets and critics (mainly US-based) to label trends in (mainly US-based) contemporary poetry. Thus one can talk of post-avant poets, poetry and poetics. On one level one is talking, I'm talking, about writers conscious of their position as necessarily "post avant-gardiste", and with this consciousness playing through their writing. Those that aren't are ignorant, living delusory existences as would-be avant-gardists, traditionalists, whatthefuckists.
Tighter than that there have been attempts to use post-avant as a label for a school. The locus classicus here (to offset my swearing with some Latin) is the American poet and critic Reginald Shepherd's 2008 blogpost
"Defining 'Post-Avant-Garde' Poetry" (enlarging on an earlier post by him, "Who You Callin' ‘Post-Avant'?" on the Harriet blog of the (American) Poetry Foundation.
Three quick things to note here, by the way. The term had been in use earlier, though not necessarily well conceived (Shepherd indeed refers to satirical uses of the term). The term existed and was used online heavily, and is linked with and used by online communities of poets extensively. (I am not going to chase earliest usages — let some poor drudge get a research grant for this.) It has now been used in print (academic) publications, but it is interesting and symptomatic that its use came in via online communities and networks (and see comments on Ron Silliman below). And lastly, the uncertainty and clumsiness over spellings and hyphenations. "Post-avant" is widely used as a solution, and I shall normally do so (unless quoting).
Here's a big chunk (my ellipses and two brief comments) of the crucial bit of Shepherd's definition:
The phrase "post-avant poetry," which was either coined seriously by Ron Silliman or parodically by Joan Houlihan, is bandied about quite a bit in the online poetry world. (I've never seen the phrase in print, an indication of how separate the two realms often are, though many people participate in both.) It's used with the assumption that "we all know what that is," but the term is rarely defined. . . . I hope that this too-broad discussion is not taken as a substitute for discussing actual poets and actual poems.
"Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries, particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically. As poet Elizabeth Willis writes in her artist's statement in my anthology Lyric Postmodernisms, "part of what's so interesting about the current moment is its refusal of an overtly oedipal relation to literary traditions on either the right or the left, and a willingness to construct and invent not only new kinds of poetry but new ways of reading."
These poets don't form a movement, let alone a school, but something more like a set of tendencies. . . .
Poet and editor Rebecca Wolff writes of the work in her journal Fence, a home of the post-avant (along with such journals as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Verse, and Volt, and such publishers as Ahsahta Press, the University of California Press, the late lamented University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series, and Wesleyan University Press) [note the academic bases established here — PP], such writing "intentionally blurs the distinction between 'difficulty' and 'accessibility,' preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance." Though many of these poets have projects and even systems (the book, as distinct from or even opposed to the individual poem, is important in much of their work), there aren't a lot of programs. There's much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and there are many, many blogs (this is a very wired "generation," and much sense of post-avant poetic community is produced online), but not many manifestoes. (Flarf, which poet Kasey Mohammad has defined as "intentionally bad poetry that involves Google search text results," a deliberate anti-poetry based on what Dan Hoy has called "poetics of awfulness as a style," is probably not "post-avant," but I don't understand it well enough to discuss it.) And no doubt I've missed a lot—there's a lot to miss. [difficult not to label flarf as typically post-avant — PP]).
That's quite broad, but useful. Notice reference to Ron Silliman, whose very full, informative, informed and widely read blog (started August 2002) has used the phrase extensively, and been responsible for much of the spread in its use. Silliman, one of the original group of Language Poets in the 1970s, uses the word favourably — this tends to be the poetry he values, as opposed to the wonderfully named "School of Quietude" (in British terms, mainstream poetry), characterised perceptively by him as poetry which imagines it is just poetry, belonging to no school. "Perhaps the most significant power move that the SoQ makes is to render itself the unmarked case in literature — it's poetry, or perhaps Poetry, while every other kind of writing is marked, named, contained within whatever framework its naming might imply." But:
I prefer post-avant precisely because the term acknowledges that the model of an avant-garde — a term that is impossible to shake entirely free of its militaristic etymological roots & that depends in any event upon a model of progress, i.e., teleological change always for the better — is inherently flawed. The term however acknowledges an historical debt to the concept & recognizes the concept as temporal in nature — the avant-garde that interests me is a tradition of consistently oppositional literary tendencies that can be traced back well into the first decades of the 19th century, at the very least. The term also has an advantage in being extremely broad — Tom Clark is post-avant & so am I — nobody gets to lay claim to it.
That's nice. I can use this. But it is also a tremendously broad term, which does seem to stand in for ‘stuff what I like' with Silliman. (I do simplify a more nuanced and complex analysis of the US poetry scene here. Read the blog!)
Two American poets and critics with I think more precise and usable senses of the word than Silliman are Kent Johnson and Adam Fieled. Johnson's contributions to an online discussion on a 2003 debate on Joan Houlihan's website Boston Comment on "Avant, Post-Avant, and Beyond" are extremely interesting and challenging. He started, responding to a general question on the status of avant-garde American poetry, by invoking Bürger, as I have, and then to discuss the implications of the institutionalisation of the Language Poets, who fit Bürger's criteria for a (failed) avant-garde to a tee, with their Marxising discourse boldly relating their Steinian4 poetic practice to the workers' struggle.
Language poetry, along with its various second-generation satellite formations, now stands as an experimentalist, but respectful and loyal, opposition within the Parliament of Academic poetry. The "post-avant" is the mode that ambitious young MFA'ers [postgraduate creative writing students — PP} study; it is the creative writing "style" scores of publishers are seeking; it is the aesthetic pedigree rising numbers of awards are prizing; it is the criticism and theory that prestigious university presses are publishing; it is the "subversive poetics" the current President of the Modern Language Association has made her reputation promoting.
Using Bürger's criteria, he indicates how the teeth have been drawn. He suggests that the distinction between Silliman's wide Post-avant and the School of Quietude (or whatever) is a false one: two sides of the same coin, nether really radically questioning the nature and role of poetry. What he calls for is a querying of authorship, which is where he ends up:
Following Pessoa's lead5, then, one possible challenge for future "experimental" writing will be to discard the ritualistic shackles of private authorial ownership and adopt imaginative vehicles sufficiently capacious to that force.
Of course, were this to happen to any significant degree, staunch resistance would no doubt come from all quarters of official verse culture—from those, that is, who have a stake in maintaining the status quo, "traditional" as well as "avant-garde."
Now that is an interesting call for a revaluation of fundamentals in poetry, a genuinely possible "post-avant-gardiste" position. Johnson's own work indeed involves this. His recent Shearsman book, Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, is one that has helped me reconsider my own poetic practice.
Adam Fieled, who I have published in Great Works, has in some ways a more traditional sense of the positive possibilities for a genuine post-avant poetry that escapes the dreadful triple tree of recuperation, normalisation and institutionalisation. His critical blog, Stoning the Devil, and his poetry blogzine, P.F.S. Post: Maximum Post-Avant, I both recommend passim. But I'll refer to a posting by him on the Australian ezine Cordite Poetry Review, "Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Abstract Morality In Post-Avant Poetry". He finds her work exemplary, both as post-avant practice, and, interestingly, as often diverging from the merely contemporary cool that is the routinised, toothless post-avant Johnson was savaging:
What DuPlessis does share with her post-avant cohorts is an overriding concern with poetic "process" and the scruples necessary to "use" it without abusing it. The essential moral issue . . . is whether poetry itself is a worthy endeavor in an oppressed, corrupted, oppressive and corruptive world. The "process" of creating poetry is there to be "scrutinized", "put on the spot". Poetry and poets themselves are given no kind of free ride; "true", penetrating gravitas must be earned through long and meticulous labor.
This all seems very concrete, and it is; abstraction enters the picture when words begin to appear on the page. There, "process" demands that language "have its own way" to a certain extent; nose-on-the-face inquiry would be too egocentric, the flip side of the "epiphanic" coin. Words go where they want to go; if they are not presented in a self-serving way, "there can still be a game" ([Roland} Barthes, [The Pleasure of the Text] 4)
Fieled is calling for a post-avant of rigorous total poetic selfless self-awareness, a delicate business (as his recourse to scare quotes shows!), but again, suggesting a route out of the "bad" (to borrow them) post-avant:
The answer seems to be that the poet's "I" must act as a verb, rather than a noun; the "I" must be a searching-for-a-self, rather than an assumed constant. The self is perceived as "dynamic" rather than "essential" ([Lyn] Hejinian [The Language of Inquiry], 203), a process rather than a stabilized, identifiable element. As such, post-avant poets look to poetry for a way to question the established values of socially constructed identities; poetry becomes a means whereby complacence is transmuted into a quest for moral, social, aesthetic, & personal justification.
. . .
The theory determining this method is that by taking out the "I", the post-avant poet can develop a more comprehensive view of the human condition as it exists in the world: in politics, art, social groups, countries & histories of art, politics, social groups and so on. In addition, by eschewing the epiphanic "I" (who usually has a sermon of some kind to deliver), the post-avant poet is free to cultivate a unique relationship to language, which often takes the form of a kind of interrogation.
The poet "looks into words", divines for the sub-texts that hover around linguistic structures and nuances. In this process, language itself, and the manner in which it determines our lives, becomes the focus of scrutiny. Part of the function of poetry is seen to be the enumeration of the "word-as-word", achieved by a scrupulous & detailed assault on linguistic convention.
I've taken out some attempt to draw in Romantic poetic discourse here. That's his take on the post-avant. But you can see how a poetry genuinely questioning identity may be posited.
This is a challenging operation. The Boston Dialogue piece quoted from above was set up by Houlihan after a posting of hers on her site, "Post-Post Dementia: How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem"6, sparked a lot of controversy. I can see why. She completely fails to at the fence with a number of what she labels mockingly "post-post" or "avant-avant-garde" poems. Embarrassingly, she falls into the trap of comparing poems to the utterances of people with strokes or dementia, that old Entarte Kunst play. "To question the established values of socially constructed identities", to repeat Fieled's phrase, at their most raw and basic, and inescapably human, is a tremendously worthwhile project. (The poem Houlihan most mocks is actually a little over-worked for my taste!)
So, I am, optimistic little soul that I may be, positing the possibility of something other than, more than, the institutionalised minor games that the post-avant can all too easily be seen as. Some kind of questioning stance towards the nature of poetry may be maintainable. There may be a "bad" post-avant, the inescapable fashionable mish-mash; but may be there can be a "good" post-avant, which attempts nevertheless7 the continuing radical questioning of poetry and language. It will need to be fully self-aware and to be totally questioning of its foundations. It will not provide comfort for anyone.
Is it doable this side of the Atlantic? Why not?
1 I'm assuming any British audience will not have escaped BritArt. But you may well have escaped Language Poetry. Quick summary of American poetry in the second half of the Twentieth Century follows. The 1950s and 60s (coming out of the 40s) were a hugely creative time in American poetry, with a vast welling up of a variety of poetic practices (like the more well-known art and music scenes in this time). The Confessional poets were very influential in mainstream British poetry. The Beats provided an exemplar for the British Poetry Revival of the 60s, together with input from more self-aware movements like the New York School, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain Poets, even let's not forget, Deep Image. These latter movements, which have played a major role in helping form Innovative British Poetry, tended at the time to be more marginal to mainstream American literary culture than the Confessional poets. By the 70s, apart from the ever-reborn New York scene, they were running out of impetus (and many of the main players of that generation died relatively young). The Language Poets presented from the 70s and early 80s a widespread attempt at a culminatory avant-garde poetic, rigorously focusing on total involvement with language itself (ie not self, world, anything that language refers to), buttressed often with heavyweight theoretical, often Marxising, positions (especially in the onomastic periodical L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E). Many of the poets concerned have had success in establishing themselves in American literary and academic institutions. If you want to find out more — I've used here the names which Wikipedia uses for what are quite useful starting-point articles.
3 1. All ideological State apparatuses, whatever they are, contribute to the same result: the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation.
2. Each of them contributes towards this single result in the way proper to it. The political apparatus by subjecting individuals to the political State ideology, the 'indirect' (parliamentary) or 'direct' (plebiscitary or fascist) 'democratic' ideology. The communications apparatus by cramming every 'citizen' with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism, etc, by means of the press, the radio and television. The same goes for the cultural apparatus (the role of sport in chauvinism is of the first importance), etc. The religious apparatus by recalling in sermons and the other great ceremonies of Birth, Marriage and Death, that man is only ashes, unless he loves his neighbour to the extent of turning the other cheek to whoever strikes first. The family apparatus . . . but there is no need to go on.
3. This concert is dominated by a single score, occasionally disturbed by contradictions (those of the remnants of former ruling classes, those of the proletarians and their organizations): the score of the Ideology of the current ruling class which integrates into its music the great themes of the Humanism of the Great Forefathers, who produced the Greek Miracle even before Christianity, and afterwards the Glory of Rome, the Eternal City, and the themes of Interest, particular and general, etc. nationalism, moralism and economism.
4. Nevertheless, in this concert, one ideological State apparatus certainly has the dominant role, although hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent! This is the School.
It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most 'vulnerable', squeezed between the family State apparatus and the educational State apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of 'know-how' wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected 'into production': these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the 'intellectuals of the collective labourer', the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced 'laymen').
Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)", Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays
5 Fernando Pessoa, great Portuguese Modernist poet, famous for his use of poetic personas (heteronyms), with varying viewpoints and styles, for most of his major poetry.
6 I think this is the satirical use of post-avant referred to by Shepherd above.
7 If "always already" is taken as the mantra of postmodernism, I'd like "nevertheless" as the koan of the post-avant.
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