In Defense of the Avant-Garde

by on Jul.01, 2011

I had a strangely visceral reaction to Christopher Higgs’ post on HTML Giant calling Montevidayo “experimental.” It was of course a curiously defensive reaction on my part and pretty pointless. So now I’d like to think of a couple of ways that I’m in favor of “the avant-garde.”

First I think Joyelle’s post from a while back rejection Bob Archambeau’s categorization of Charles Bernstein as a “rear-guardist.” But her rejection is not just to the linear terminology of rear-guardism (which obviously Archambeau shares with Marjorie Perloff, as in Josef’s post from a couple of days ago), but the idea – which has been often expounded on this blog – that the avant-garde is linear:

A Manifesto is a spasmodic text,a text of paradoxical urgencies, urges and intentions. First, it wants to say something. Then, it wants to declare that statement already obsolete. The dateline on a Manifesto on the one hand insists on entering itself into History, into the Public Record, but also serves as an expiration date– what is felt fitfully at the time of writing will no longer be current even by the time the Manifesto is published and read. What is made Manifest, then, is not permanence but transigence, transience, fickleness, intensity, expiration, obsolescence, the interaction of non-comparable units of time: Art’s anachronism. It is this lethality that the Futurists refer to in The Futurist Manifesto (20 Feb 1909): “Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.

(I highly recommend reading this mini post, it’s pretty suggestive.)

The second argument: There’s always a lot of talk about the homogeneity and the exclusivity of the avant-garde, and I’ve probably made this argument too. But the flipside of that coin is that the poetry establishment in the US is incredibly homogenous and incredibly exclusive. Mainly it works through giving out prizes and jobs, and doesn’t want to enter into discussions about the rationale. One great thing I think Ron Silliman has accomplished – despite the way too reductive nature of his arguments – is to force a lot of people to admit to a very basic truth: we all have different aesthetics, there is no object good and bad. And in part the exclusive-seeming nature of the avant-garde is a result of a decision to argue against the establishment, owing up to their aesthetics.

Personal anecdote: When Joyelle and I started Action Books, one of the things we absolutely wanted to do was to owe up to our aesthetics, not just to be honest but to push the idea of an aesthetics not as a set formula but as a discussion; and also to give a kind of framework for reading our texts. It seemed to us that most presses out there kept repeating mantras like “we don’t care about styles, we pick the best of any style,” as if there was some kind of neutral judgment. So we wrote a few manifestos and articles setting out some of our interests and thoughts.

This seemed like a reasonable thing to do, but immediately people started bitching about how we thought we were better than other people, how we were too negative, how we were full of ourselves, how we were “problematic,” how we acted too big, how we thought we had a “silly little media empire,” how we thought we were “too punk rock” and “bomb-throwing” terrorists, and how we thought we were more-avant-garde-than-thou etc. And the strangest (and most pervasive) one: that we were counterfeiters trying to steal “experimental literature” (I still get that one, file under xfenophobia).

With this I want to suggest that *some* of the exclusivity-seeming airs of “avant-garde” groups comes from acknowledging that they have ideas that are at odds with the prevailing norms. Our intention had never been to be exclusive or “too punk rock,” but in fact on some level to explain where we were coming from and why we were publishing stuff that few if any other presses out there were interested in publishing.

Here’s our “disabled text” manifesto which caused people at the annual conference of ALTA (American Literary Translator’s Association) to stand up and call us names (“Graduate students! Nonsense! Useless trash! Impostors”).

Here’s “Find Us With the Lemurs” (about “soft surrealism”), which mostly people didn’t care about (it was first published in Cross-Cultural Poetics, XCP).

To return to Joyelle’s post, it might be that the nature of the manifesto is very volatile, spasmodic – that its rejection timelessness unnerves in itself.

8 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, here’s another mag that seems very much guided by the principles you mention in your Personal Anecdote on Action Yes: announced by editor Josh Stanley, Brit transplant at Yale, currently, which is why you will find as many Brits in it as Yanks. Hot Gun! is hands down one of the hottest poetry and po-thought mags to emerge in past couple years. Including newly revealed texts here by Ed Dorn:

    >Sorry to cross post —

    Dear eaters,

    The summer sun glows on the bean sea that separates us all from the glottic love of the distant shore and the fiery rubber eraser of hope. At last, to you, in the end I am pleased as gunk to announce the publication of the second issue of Hot Gun!, a special issue on the work of Edward Dorn. You can find it here: .

    This issue of Hot Gun! contains across 126 pages i) a selection of poems by Timothy Thornton, Nour Mobarak, The Rejection Group, Francesca Lisette, John Wilkinson, Alexander Nemser, Jonty Tiplady, Luke Roberts and Justin Katko; and ii) a section of work on and by Edward Dorn, including essays by Reitha Pattison, John Armstrong, Kyle Waugh and Richard Owens; two unpublished poems by Dorn, “The Poem of Dedication” and “Osawatomie”, with notes by Justin Katko; and Dorn’s introductory note to The Book of Daniel Drew as well as an uncollected poem, “To Tom Pickard & the Newcastle Brown Beer Revolutionaries”. Most of this work was collected in early 2010. It costs 10 dollars in the US and 10 pounds international (postage is included in both prices). Friends, I am, mountebankishly doing the commodity shuffle, ever

    Yours, Josh

  2. Ryan Sanford Smith

    I agree with everything here, Johannes, great thoughts–this has been I think my biggest harping point for a while now, just wanting everyone to own up to their aesthetics, people seem to knee-jerk against anything involving labels / camps / other various tics of ‘lumping together’, but why? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of it; some folks do definitely get really hung up though on insisting ‘We’re not like X, we’re better than them, we don’t do what they do.’ Oh please. They (we) are all doing what ‘they’ are doing, everyone is doing the same thing just about different stuff. There seem to be often very telling blindspots to mirroring behavior, i.e., accusing of ‘homogeneity’ while being blind to one’s own, etc. More interesting for all involved to own up to it & talk about why indeed there are so many mutual phenomena that work this way. But there’s often too much energy spent knee-jerking, getting defensive, insisting, etc. From all sides, I mean, which is the point.

  3. Christopher Higgs

    Hi, Johannes,

    Thanks for this post and for your comments over at giant.

    Since my thinking about this connection between dehumanization and the avant-garde/experimental — I always hesitate to use “avant-garde” as a descriptor unless I’m talking about the historical avant-garde, instead I use experimental because experimental seems like a stronger descriptor for the kind of transhistorical desire for mutation that I perceive to be moving through certain texts — is partly influenced by the kind of stuff you and others discuss here at Montevidayo, I was hoping to have made an interesting contribution.

    It seems instead like I’ve made my position seem at odds with your projects, when in fact I intended it to echo on another frequency, or add to them.

    Like you, I am interested in a transhistorical description (not a linear description — thus, I agree “avant-garde” is a wrongheaded term, likewise “postmodern”); I’m interested in abstraction, which seems synonymous to me with disabled/grotesque because in both words and concepts we are attempting to distinguish a particular difference, a “disruption in the visual field” as Lennard Davis would say; I don’t see “experimental” as an elitist term, I am interested in conflating high and low, not amplifying it! When I talk about “experimental literature” I do not mean to exclude China Miéville or Stanislaw Lem — in fact, I presented a paper at the most recent CEA conference on the affinities between experimental and popular literature. All this to say, I’m disheartened that I was unable to position my ideas in closer proximity to the Montevidayian assemblage.

    I think what you say in your comment over at giant is really helpful for me:

    “I’m trying to think about poetry outside of the conventions experimental vs conventional model because I feel those discussions just doesn’t have anything to with what I’m writing or the stuff I like to read.”

    It sounds like you are tired of that binary and have decided to abandon it in favor of creating new ways of thinking/writing/talking about literature. For myself, I think I have been caught up in trying to fix that binary, reformulate that binary so that it would not lose its applicability. At the moment I am considering the pros and cons of remaining engaged with that binary and attempting to further redefine or restructure it versus following your lead into the wilderness of other possibilities.

    At any rate, thank you for engaging in correspondence with me. I very much appreciate it.


  4. Archambeau

    If it’s obvious that I share a linear view of literary history with Perloff, it isn’t obvious to me. Maybe I wasn’t as articulate as I should have been in the post you refer to, but what I meant to say was that Bernstein, in honoring the avant-garde of the early 20th century, especially the Italian Futurists, was doing something very different from what those Futurists did. Their manifesto called for destroying the past, but here Bernstein was honoring that 100 year old manifesto in a museum. There’s a name for that kind of move (honoring an avant-garde past): William Marx William Marx called it “arrière-garde: in Les arrière-garde au XXe siècle .

    So anyway. I don’t know about “linear” (in the sense of progress, or being on the right side in a war between obsolete and new, or whatever) but I do tend to think in terms of historical context: what a document or action means is, for me, linked to its time and place. To say Marinetti’s words 100 years ago is different, I think, and means something different, from saying them now. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to get at. Whether I said it well or not, I don’t know.

    My sense of Joyelle’s piece (and I could be wrong) is that she sees manifestos as having these disruptive functions everywhere and always. For me, Bernstein’s reading of Marinetti’s manifesto in the museum was more of an act of cultural conservation than of disruption. But I don’t deny that there could be disruptive elements even for us in that old manifesto, or that other manifestos couldn’t be disruptive in other contexts.



  5. Johannes

    Yes, you’re approaching it as literary history. Joyelle was talking about a dynamic of the manifesto that eludes literary-history-fying, arguing that that is part of is spazziness.


  6. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    We need a name. New forms always miraculate. I’d call it sPLAY. Nearest new model to date may be Blanchot’s Unavowable Community.

    Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

  7. adam strauss

    Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem is a lovely read!

  8. Michael Leong

    Speaking of M.Blanchot (and speaking of surrealism) — this is from the excellent essay “Tomorrow at Stake”: “The history of surrealism is only of scholarly interest, particularly if the conception of history is not modified by its subject…” So too, avant-gardism should modify our very conception of history (literary or otherwise).

    I quite liked “Find us with the Lemurs” — it’s too bad that people didn’t care much about it. Much of the writing on “hard” and “soft” surrealism is either excessively dismissive or unhelpful. For example, I was struck that Jack Foley, in “Soft & Hard Surrealism” (, uses, out of all people, Jane Hirshfield as his example of “soft surrealism.” I’m not sure what the pay-off is.

    And to Chris — I think the term “postmodernism” can be productive and doesn’t have to be tied to a linear view of history. After all, Lyotard has the concept of “the future anterior.”