We Must Be Decadent, Again

by on Nov.20, 2013

I am in a strange position because while I am certainly ‘avant garde’ in terms of my affinities with the historical avant garde I feel I cannot be avant-garde because my affinities are historical.



That is, I am a Futurist, but I am a Futurist of 1909 rather than a Futurist who believes or anticipates a Future as envisioned by, say, TED talk panelists or believers in the progressive motion of literature as a reinforcement of political/capitalist bona fides.

My favorite part of the Futurist Manifesto is where they imagine themselves benighted and about to be consumed by cannibal teens.

They will find us at last one winter’s night in the depths of the country in a sad hangar echoing with the notes of the monotonous rain, crouched near our trembling aeroplanes, warming our hands at the wretched fire which our books of today will make when they flame gaily beneath the glittering flight of their pictures.

They will crowd around us, panting with anguish and disappointment, and exasperated by our proud indefatigable courage, will hurl themselves forward to kill us, with all the more hatred as their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. And strong healthy Injustice will shine radiantly from their eyes. For art can only be violence, cruelty, injustice.

Futurism set itself up against decadence, but to be Futurist in 2013 is to be decadent, moving backwards. It is indeed strange to feel time folding, to be in 2013 thinking like 1913.  Why has time folded. Why is it no longer moving forward.  Why am I not a avant-garde. Why am I not avant.  Am I a rear-gardist or just an asynchronous, a bad soldier.

After her reading last night, the brilliant Sylvia Guerra shared that me that she is working on a new book based on Lautreamont, one which ‘writes around’ Lautreamont.

Why is she asynchronous not looking forward to a neatly progressing time why is time folding why do we need Decadence again.

I believe it’s because after the horrors of the 20th century Decadence is the deeper vision. It is no longer ‘escapist’ or ‘merely shocking’. After the horrors of the 20th century constantly re-reeling in media and repeating themselves in new depredations across the globe, Decadence takes on the work of truth, truth’s firey destructiveness. Everything is burning. Man’s default mode is cruelty and exploitation, outrageous depredation and deprivation. We have to go backwards to find an art form that does not hide this truth under ideologies of progress or purity. The TED-talkathon, which infects every part of our political and cultural environ, amounts to a new Victorianism, the imperialistic export of progress. We must be Decadent again.


21 comments for this entry:
  1. Stephen Malagodi

    The only decadence left is to embrace the actual process of decay. The more commonplace definition of ‘self-indulgence’ is so very mundane as to be completely boring and de-rigour.

    It’s rather easy to explain why 2013 seems like 1913; it’s the end of (another) empire, social and technological insability (also known as innovation) and ideological bankruptcy.

    Structural decay yes, recidivism no.

  2. Lucas de Lima

    Joyelle, your mention of the cannibal brings to light many resonances here with Eduardo Viveiro de Castro’s Inconstancy of the Indian Soul, which delves into just how devoted to cannibalism the Tupi tribes were despite the civilizing efforts of Jesuits. If to be killed and eaten was to become immortal, to kill and eat the other was to produce memory. So a negative sociability that in fact preserved history comes out as indigenous before it becomes what we now call “queer.” Dying to write more about this but I have to do a digital humanities assignment now.

  3. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Re Eduardo Viveiro de Castro’s Inconstancy of the Indian Soul, just want to note that one of my son’s best friends from highschool is the translator of that.

    And to say that I am reminded by what you write, Joyelle, of Hamlet’s the time is but of joint which comes right after his encounter with a ghost. And that Derrida recalls this quote and riffs on it in Spectres of Marx.

    I’m only sorry that Hamlet and Derrida encountered spectres rather than cannibals …

  4. drew

    reminds me of this passage from D&G, used re: accelerationism: “to go further still… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization… For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.”

    why not a call for decadence?

  5. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Drew, it’s funny, I red that same D&G passage a couple days ago at Steven Shaviro’s blog. He followed it by writing: “This passage has in fact been taken out of context, and interpreted much more broadly than I think D&G ever intended. For the statement only makes sense in the light of their overall understanding of how scarcity under capitalism “is never primary,” but rather “is created, planned, and organized in and through social production.”” Without agreeing or disagreeing with Shaviro, I wonder if that suggests a relation between Joyelle’s proposed decadence and our current forms of production.

  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    Stephen, I’m with you on decay, I agree completely, I also agree that this moment of imperial dismantling is an excellent moment to check the imperial logic in our literary culture and replace it with something else. Decadence seems like a nicely counterintuitive idea (to me) in the middle of all this tech-based ‘improvement’ of the ‘life’ of ‘people all over the ”world”.

  7. puke king

    “Man’s default mode is cruelty and exploitation, outrageous depredation and deprivation.” –this is really antithetical to any sort of radicalism, including being avant grade. The main assertion in regards to any radicalism is that we can put our faith or our delusion into the fact that survival can be done without fucking over someone or something. However, we know that this can’t be done under capitalism which relies on alienation in order to maintain…pretty much the whole system.

    To assert that something can be put forward without ideology is a bunch of b.s.
    also is truth essential?

    everything is encoded and everything is situated. the quoted part of the futurist manifesto is probably in regard to this sentiment. in other words “we know people will buy into it. we know we will fail, because all situated forms eventually fail someone or something. at the very least we must rejoice in this violence/ chaos, because it is the only way of moving forward.”

    I think the question about decadence might be more interesting if you actually asked what this representation might look like. remember that decadence also results from the same existential crisis of consumption (the inability to intellectually define material meaning to the point that it leads to over or under consumption) that asceticism comes from.

    If you’re talking from an aesthetic point of view, you should probably be talking about representation, or just getting rid of representation altogether. Which is sort of the basis for abstract expressionism all over again.

  8. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi ‘Puke King’! Thanks for this note.

    Yes I think my views may not be compatible with avant-gardism. Correctly diagnosed!

    I don’t know how I can be avant-garde since I don’t believe in humanity or a ‘better”future.’ I don’t believe truth is ‘essential’, though maybe I do, maybe the essentially terrible nature of humanity is essential. I don’t believe you can ‘put something forward without ideology’ but I do believe you can unsubscribe to ideologies of aesthetic purity and progress. That is probably not appropriately orthodox of me, which is why I am not avant-garde. I love words, icons, metaphors, symbols, fraudulence, fakeness,ornateness,artifice and images and am not against them. I am not an abstract expressionist. I may be a German expressionist.

  9. lovingly reckless reverse transcriptase

    I have read this before and have long suspected you were infected by the Landian virus.
    2013 is nothing like 1913. Decadence has been subsidized for 50 years. All wildness channels redirected, twisting back into themselves in narratives of lack. How strong/high are the levees? Higher than death. No escape from the TED talk echoing in all mouths fingertips. Certainly not the fertility trap of urban China, nor the thrown-cat fetishizing of high yield agriculture subsidized circuitously through governmental lacklacklack program flyover dysgenia. “We need decadence” decadence knows no need. It’s too late now. Maldoror makes love to the burning Hitler effigies of endless 1946 TED talk, and to the burners as well. ‘”and…and…”‘

  10. David Need

    I’ve spent this fall immersed in Russian Symbolist writers, especially Bely, who I think is the strongest/most visionary. There’s an interesting study–Erotic Utopias by Olga Matich that looks at Decadent circles… Several years ago now I read The Verse Revolutionaries by Helen Carr on Pound, H.D. Hulme et all circa 1905-1913… and I’ve been working with Rilke, quite intensely–I have a book coming out on him w/translations from the French this spring… so this period leading up to WWI really matters to me (I’ve been writing some on H.D. as well). And there is a good deal right now that seems similar to that caul decade–the sense of an end/apocalytical that is so critical to decadent decision… Two things though worry me… 1) the whole hope there, at least in tech futurisms, was badly betrayed by WWI/Russian Revolution… so, if I were a futurist it would have to be through the corridor of something like an Aestheticist track–Rilke, Akhmatova, maybe Tsvesaeta–where what goes forward is somehow still rooted in tradition/even as tradition breaks… the Mayakovsky-Hulme arc is ruinous… beautiful but ruinous… and hard to bring up children inside of… which tends to be one of the rulers I use to test things… and 2) I think in many ways 1975-1982 Punk/New Wave and maybe disco can be read in terms of decadence… but that was also (outside) the time during which unions collapsed and this great ogre of neo-liberalism/began to emerge… Anyway–I love the call for decadence/connection to 1909… that’s my time… but if we are there again, we need to find another door… and be aware that something like WWI might be on the near horizon… some terrible human violence…

  11. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    “I love words, icons, metaphors, symbols, fraudulence, fakeness,ornateness,artifice and images and am not against them.” You are beginning to sound like a late c19 Catholic. Which is about at decadent as it gets.

  12. David Need

    H.D. by the way was all about the asynchronus/folded time… that time is, in fact more like that… not serial/repetition, but episode… like a series of days/years… the idea of the serial is really a high cultural/ascetic move… the notion of the episodic closer to the way that despite there having simply been a series of days (risings, settings) I am not in the same place I was, say, 1965, playing a cowgirl in the basement with my best friend & using the drain pipe from upstairs as a tree, and this place I am here, 2013, laying out after classes… and the connection between these times is not some notion of the same (tho I could impose such a standard) but memory…

  13. lazslo

    @Lucas – please write more about it!

  14. James Pate

    Great post…The Ted talks are the apotheosis of neo-liberalism, making us feel good and “innovative” about unpaid labor, ruthless business practices, and vulture capitalism. Who cares if we exploit and disenfranchise huge factions of labor as long as we get to wear sneakers and listen to the Beatles…

    I’ve also always disliked “progressive” for mush the same reason, how it is a term that is all too easily co-opted by neo-liberal arguments. In some ways, to have a truly left position, like Kshama Sawant’s in Seattle (who I really hope runs for President, maybe we at Montevidayo could start a super PAC for her) is a deliberate turning away from the totalizing grip of neo-liberal “progress.”

  15. Anna O'Meara

    My ideas: “Futurist” has been one of those over-used terms, just like “avant-garde.” This is possibly because moments in history always want to establish themselves as more modern than the past and artists want to be more than the era and act as though they know some sort of artistic utopian future through art. I think Guy Debord’s take on this is the most valid (which is informed by Marx): to be opposed to the entirety of this era, and to sacrilegiously use ideas from the whole of available history, including, certainly, Lautréamont, who had a similar approach to writing. And, yeah, TED talks are clearly imperialistic, capitalistic bullshit.

  16. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle


    I dreamt last nite about a new literary movement. It was invented by this one kid maybe 20, slim blonde skateboarder’s hair. He lay down all the time (part of his technique) wore only neutral colors, sweater and sneaks. He smelled very bad.
    Theory was no power words. I’m trying to remember some from the dream but one phrase was “a covering hole.” All words began with “dis” or “un”. He also had FLAT groupie girls! These girls were gaga acolytes in their mid teens who lay around FOLDED and packed in soft squares like shirts on shelves or shirt cardboard for sale in clothing stores.

    D&G: Dolce & Gabana

  17. me me me

    “why not a call for decadence?”

    because nothing’s shocking. capitalism has absorbed decadence. accelerationism allows one to feel savvy and ironically “embrace” decadence anyway, doing all kinds of theoretical contortions to stay “subversive,” but once we’ve driven the car off a cliff and there’s nothing to “accelerate” any longer, what good is it as a theory? … it’s hard to be revolutionary (or avant-garde) when you’re dead.

  18. Johannes

    It’s strange to read me me me’s and Puking’s responses because they don’t really deal with the argument at hand. Joyelle has already said that it’s impossible to be revolutionary when you’re dead. She’s already said that she rejects the traditional model of “avant-garde” that Puking then responds be re-iterating. I also think that Puking’s account of the “avant-garde” is seriously revisionist. Afterall, in many ways the historical avant-garde comes out of decadence; Dada was hardly about people being good and nice. I also find it hard to take seriously a comment like Pukings that falls back on telling Joyelle what she “should” do – ie follow the rules.


  19. Kim

    but don’t all these exciting movements fall under the umbrella of youthful revolt, whether dada punk or futurism, an explosion of useless ornamental beauty against the forms and lines of organized functional society, its earned production of sedatives. anyway that’s where i find hope, not for some better world, or evolved humanness, but in these temporary perhaps spiritual extacies, disturbing what’s human, because humans are fucking ruthless