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The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (5)

The Practice of the Avant-Garde

Kristeva is in agreement with Burger, that the aim of the avant-garde from the epistemological break onwards has been to return the fetishised, autonomous art “object” or “book,” back to the realm of social practice. However, she moves beyond the somewhat simplified, and metaphysically predictable, dichotomy success/failure that dominates Burger’s work, and leaves him ultimately within the realm of reifying criticism. Burger presents us with a central avant-garde intention, which is readable, is conveyed through work, and which, because he says it failed, could also be conceived of as succeeding. This is the main difference between his idea of the sublation of art/life-praxis, and Kristeva’s formulation of signifying practice, a difference as radical again, as that between the practice of work and art/life-praxis that Burger maps out. Kristeva defines practice as something which is, somehow, a utilisation of the experience of heterogeneous contradiction for social means:

The notion of experience shall be reserved for practices in which heterogeneous contradiction is maintained...but one in which heterogeneous contradiction invests, during the thetic phase, in a strictly individual, naturalist, or esoteric representation...The notion of practice, on the other hand, would be better applied to texts in which heterogeneous contradiction is maintained as an indispensable precondition for the dimension of practice through a signifying formation, and in which, therefore, the system of representation that binds the text is also rooted in social practice... (Kristeva, Revolution 195-6)

Using source texts of a similar cadre to Burger, namely Hegel, Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung, she moves on from Burger’s success/failure dichotomy by stressing that it is personal experience which is at the root of all activity which determines practical action. This experience is that of the moment when heterogeneity has been experienced as the semiotic breach of the thetic, before the thetic reposits itself returning the subject back to the symbolic realm. Kristeva places heterogeneous contradiction continually between the subject and the practical realm of socio-symbolic praxis in such a way as to revolutionise both, not through sublation, but through an ongoing motility:

The fundamental moment of practice is thus the heterogeneous contradiction that posits a subject put in process/on trial by a natural or social outside that is not yet symbolized, a subject in conflict with previous theses (in other words, with those systems of representation that defer and delay the violence of rejection.) (Kristeva, Revolution 200)

All this happens for Kristeva through the text, which becomes the sign of this process of practical, personal revolution she calls “experience-in-practice.” Which all has obvious implications for Burger’s saturnine post-Marxist stance. Such a system as “experience-in-practice” can never be inscribed with a success/failure dichotomy if that dichotomy is one, such as in Hegelian sublation as Burger sees it, which is based on a possible resolution. However it can be inscribed within such a dichotomy if the dialectical motility is seen as based on the continuous negation of homogeneity and its subsequent breach by heterogeneity. The introduction of the subject en proc├Ęs allows for this, adding a second dimension to the breach of institutionalised art, the breach of the institutionalised subject.

Burger’s conclusion in respect of the avant-garde, also the source of his very strict periodisation of the historical avant-garde between the first and third decades of this century, is that the avant-garde sought, through various artistic practices, to remove the articulating gap between art and life-praxis, that would subsequently make such practices irrelevant. These practices could then, like dead skin, be sloughed off. This being the case, we should be in a position now, post avant-garde, to judge through these practices, whether or not they succeeded. Two points show that they did not: that their work is still a radical challenge to the aesthetics of modernism when it should be at best an archaeological curiosity, and that their temporary practices have now become a permanent addition to the category of style. In reference to the so-called neo-avant-garde of the post-war period, Burger notes:

In a changed context, the resumption of avant-gardiste intentions with the means of avant-gardism can no longer have the limited effectiveness the historical avant-gardes achieved. To the extent that the means by which the avant-gardistes hoped to bring about the sublation of art have attained the status of works of art, the claim that the praxis of life is to be renewed can no longer be legitimately connected with their enjoyment. To formulate more pointedly: the neo-avant-garde institutionalizes the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions. (Burger, Theory 58)

Here, in being so specific first about the failure of the avant-garde proper, and then about the impossibility of its project being renewed in a new historical context, Burger has fallen prey to the very institution of art the avant-garde attacked, an attack which he implicitly supports throughout his work. The manner in which he sees the attack as having already failed is the pre-condition for his definition of the attack, and he is clear about this. His logic is the result of what he calls “critical hermeneutics,” the methodology he is using his theory of the avant-garde to establish. Critical hermeneutics is not avant-garde, so it would be wrong to attack it for supporting the institutions of art, but its position is directly challenged when the avant-garde challenges the institution of art as such. In fact, it is born out of this challenge’s failure.

The basic tenet of this practice is that hermeneutical practice applies categories to periodisations of art which are, themselves, the defining conditions of these categories. To take the avant-garde as the most pertinent of all examples, the condition of avant-gardism’s critique of the institution of art as such, allows for the category of “art” which can then be re-applied back to avant-gardism, through critical hermeneutics, to establish the conditions for the avant-garde to come into being. Thus, Burger states, “the full unfolding of the constituent elements of a field is the condition for the possibility of adequate cognition of that field” (Burger, Theory 17). The process by which critical hermeneutics comes to be in a position to be critical is a three part schema owing much to Marx’s concept of self-criticism. First, we must be in the self-critical position, that is in a position to be able to criticise our own position within bourgeois society by being aware that our position is formed by the dominant institutions of that society. Then we must be in a temporal position, sufficiently posterior as to see the period in question as somehow other than our own. And finally, this should allow for a dialectical process to be set up between the hermeneutic categories of the criticism being attempted, and the material conditions by which these categories came into being.

To summarise the case of the avant-garde: autonomous art reached a stage of self-criticism which is the avant-garde. Burger comes in at the point when the avant-garde project is “over,” and he sets up a definition of the avant-garde based on its attack on the category of art, which, however, sees the avant-garde’s process of self criticism as the material pre-condition for such a category. This means the definition of the avant-garde is the precondition for its own retrospective definition. An already complex hermeneutical practice is further complicated because the avant-garde is not one period amongst periods, but the period when periodisation as such comes under attack, as periodisation as such is a major aspect of the category of art.

Therefore, the avant-garde is itself not so much an artistic movement, but the birth of critical theory and, in a point which he makes in his essay “Problems in the Functional Transformation of the Art and Literature During the Transition from Feudal to Bourgeois Art” (Burger and Burger, The Institutions of Art 69-86), because the avant-garde is the result of a critique of an ongoing development of which autonomous art is only the reification of its values, it is also the birth of modernity. Taking his influence from Benjamin’s redemptive criticism, Burger’s critical hermeneutics cannot help but say that the avant-garde was a failure, or that it is over. If it had succeeded, a definition would not now be possible as the categories of art Burger is applying to it would cease to be, and if it was not yet over, the necessary temporal distance would not be there to allow its conditions to the retrospectively posited. Because critical hermeneutics comes from redemptive criticism, which is the project of rescuing fragments of history from the “exterminating angel” of history, it is stuck with Benjamin’s melancholic schema of fragments, collapse and endings. And because it adds to this the pre-condition that its own categories can only come from the material conditions of a period, picked up on when that period is over, Burger has no choice but to see the avant-garde as irrevocably over.

However, two points save Burger and the avant-garde. First, the very categories of time being “over” and an attack having “failed” are not categories which the avant-garde highlighted by its critique of the category of art, but are categories highlighted by Derrida’s critique of the category of western metaphysics. And they can be deconstructed, making Burger’s system, however flexible and illuminating, not the result of avant-gardism, but of modernity as a whole. For it is rational modernity which is the precondition of such means/ends philosophies as “ending” and “failing,” not the avant-garde. Within Burger’s system, this would suggest then that, if to construct a theory of the avant-garde one must utilise non-avant-garde categories, that the avant-garde period is not yet over, for we do not yet have access to its categories. Second, because the avant-garde was less the end of art, than the beginning of a critical theory of art, we can, by the very existence of critical hermeneutics, claim that the avant-garde is still operating, and will continue to be until the critical history of critical theory can be written.

Moving on from Burger’s critical hermeneutics, which is subject to aporias that in fact do not debase its project but revive it, we can see how Kristeva’s system, in contrast, embraces its position within the ongoing practice of avant-garde activity. The avant-garde can now be seen as essentially a generic moment within the history of the category of art, when the history of this category, which is the history of modernity, comes up against its own body of work, autonomous art and the avant-garde, and is deconstructed.

This is the classic formula of generic deconstruction performed in Derrida’s essay “The Law of Genre,” where the form, the body or nature of the text, becomes its own theme or history, and the traditional opposition within hermeneutics between form and theme is radically undermined. Within modernity, the avant-garde then acts as a generic moment of excess, the point at which the historical categorisation of art within modernity becomes defined in the very avant-garde forms I have delineated above, which however negate it. This happens for the first time during the historical period of the avant-garde, which makes this period central to the conception to the genre of the category of modern artistic practice. The generic confrontation of the narrative of bourgeois art, with the excess of its own works typified by the avant-garde which is self-consciously in excess of the rational, occurs during the period of the epistemological break and is not in confrontation with Burger’s schema, for it is only after this generic deconstruction, that any genre can be assessed. Allowing for this, the practice of the avant-garde is not so much a utopian teleological desire to eradicate the difference between art and life, though it may have been stated as such. Instead, it must be seen as a practice of experiencing in works, the manner in which their practice puts the subject on trial, and how this trial is also the trial of social structures including the “work” of art.

The idea of practice which Kristeva proposes, comes from the same materialist source texts as Burger’s, but because her methodology of semanalyse is allowed to be radicalised by the Freudian subject, it is able to traverse the gaps between antinomies, without succumbing to their metaphysical demands. Semanalyse is Kristeva’s hybridisation of structuralism, psychoanalysis, formalism and the nascent theories of the Tel Quel group. Her own definition of the project in the “Prolegomenon” to Revolution in Poetic Language is as follows:

We will make constant use of notions and concepts borrowed from Freudian psychoanalytic theory and its various recent developments in order to give the advances of dialectical logic a materialist foundation—a theory of signification based on the subject, his formation, and his corporeal, linguistic and social dialectic. (Kristeva, Revolution 15)

Put in these terms, it can be seen that semanalyse adds to Burger’s valuable work, and in a sense finishes it off. Already Burger has added a materialist aspect of the social dialectic to dialectical logic through his concept of the category of art in bourgeois society. Kristeva adds primarily the subject, but a subject not only formed by the material conditions of society, but also of language and the body which completes the dichotomy subject-object which allows for the generic deconstruction of the avant-garde to occur.

Semanalyse, an ongoing, deconstructive, semiotic, materialist process, is, therefore, the practice of the avant-garde of the experience of heterogeneity that comes out of the remainder of its deconstruction of the category of art. Its generic confrontation of the history of this category with that within its body that is in excess of such a totalising history, produces a negative heterogeneity which, when decollated into text by the re-imposition of the thesis, begins the process of signifying practice generative of the avant-garde text. This text puts all categories on trial, including the teleological categories of Burger’s critical hermeneutics, and because it can no more succumb to the semiotic or become the symbolic, and remain text, it makes a nonsense of all metaphors of ending and success. The avant-garde, through the practice of semanalyse, ceases to be a historically specific period, but becomes the generic moment when the two basic categories of art, history and the body of work, deconstruct each other without eradicating each other. The avant-garde can neither fail, nor be concluded. Once discovered as a precondition for poetic language production by the post-symbolist and avant-garde writers and artists in question here, it is retained as the critical practice of the deconstruction of the categories of art which seek to limit it. It is these limits which the avant-garde breaches, without ever dispensing with.


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