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The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (6)

In the Event of Avant-Garde Practice…

For Lyotard, the sense of practice as the site for a radical challenge to the totalising dominance of bourgeois art is equally as strong as in Burger and Kristeva. However, because he comes from a critical, essentially Kantian, philosophical tradition, rather than a dialectical, Hegelian, tradition, his sense of practice is somewhat different. For Kant, the practical realm is the realm of understanding whose adherence to natural laws is called into the pleasure/pain realm of the sublime, by the demands of infinite reason on its finite limits. His schema is as predominant within the category of art as the dialectical schema, and, traditionally, it has relegated the practical realm to a pedestrian and secondary function. However, Lyotard looks to rehabilitate it through his use of the sublime event.

The event is the representative and temporal incommensurability of the moment, which is doubly sublime: the experience of the “it happens,” proof of the infinite which is marred by the terror of it not happening again, and our inability to give a proper case for it. It is the regulation/disruption of the practical realm: the sublime collapses into the realm of the infinite, and the infinite realm’s limitation by the realm of practical understanding.

Using the idea of the sublime event, we can see that the dialectical play which Kristeva sets up between the subject and the social is not a final conclusion for avant-garde practice. Instead it is merely the precondition for the regulative generation of the avant-garde practice of the event within text. The antinomy body-theme, the generic basis of avant-garde practice, is generative of a deconstructive motility which produces a tertiary practice: the regulation of the event of difference as a sublime event.

The event, like life-praxis and signifying practice, is in fact a process, namely, the process of sublime reflection. As such, it contravenes the two basic premises of the category of art: limited work and successional time. This contravention is the precondition for its generation, making it first a tertiary process, but because its process is the precondition for the discovery and deconstruction of the antinomy body-theme, it is anterior to the category art. Which is why the postmodern, the name Lyotard gives to the art of the event, is that peculiar temporal state, the future-anterior. The future-anterior is the periodic category of critical theory, it is what will be found in the future, to be the precondition of its own existence. It is in accordance with the retroactivity of critical hermeneutics, and is also a category used by Kristeva in her early essay “The Ethics of Linguistics” to define the project of the avant-garde.

The peculiar time/space of the event is what it adds to the practice of avant-garde text. It comes into the gap between body and theme, regulates this deconstructive motility and generates text, but in a synthetic manner in that it is text based on the heterogeneity of its component parts, body and theme, which is a result of their negation. Its regulation of the event of difference is the sublime faculty, while its moment of activation within modern art is the avant-garde. Following this logic, one can see that the avant-garde differs from the postmodern in that it does not try to set up an art which demonstrates the event, rather it is the post-event text generated by the deconstruction of modernism by postmodernism.

Such a highly complex tertiary, yet also essential, role for the avant-garde is allowed for by Lyotard’s conception of “the differend,” and, like critical hermeneutics and semanalyse, the theory of the differend must now be seen as the ongoing practice of the avant-garde within the still dominant category of bourgeois art. The differend is the untranslatability of every event when one tries to convey it to another. It asks to be phrased, the phrase being the minimal linguistic unit of all conveyance, but it never can be in full, therefore:

The differend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be...What is at stake in a literature, in a philosophy, in a politics perhaps, is to bear witness to differends by finding idioms for them. (Lyotard, The Differend 13)

The differend of modern art is the incommensurability between the successional teleology of its history, which is its theme, and the specific moments of its body which negate such a history. Such a differend occurs in the avant-garde, because the avant-garde was the first moment and movement to allow the category of art the perspective of self-criticism necessary for the realisation of this internal incommensurability. In modern art we have, therefore, two arts, or the art of two plaintiffs, which are always being forced into one genre at the expense of one of the two parts. The period of the avant-garde was the moment when the articulating gap of modern art, without which such an art would be meaningless, was first perceived. The event of this differentiation was the event of the differend of the category of art, and the avant-garde is the idiom of that differend.

To summarise, the basis of any theory of the avant-garde must come from the theory of practice, but must also reside in the practice of theory, for it is with the birth of critical theory that the avant-garde was equipped with the conditions for its own self-definition. This theory is reliant on three moments or events. First, the realisation of the category of bourgeois art through its self-critique. Second the setting up of a dialectical play between the two antinomies of this category, the subjective practice of avant-garde text, within the restrictions of the socio-symbolic order. And third, the regulation of this dialectic into a synthetic generation of text, by the negation of the two sides and their conversion into heterogeneous elements to be regulated by their untranslatable differend.

The avant-garde relies on the practice of theory for its definition, but these practices also rely on the avant-garde for their definition. So while the theory of the avant-garde defines the practice of the avant-garde, as described above, the practice of the avant-garde also defines the theories of critical hermeneutics, semanalyse and the differend. I would say then, that within the practical realm of the theory of the avant-garde, we have three theories of three avant-gardes. Burger’s conception of the institution of art is the theory of the historical avant-garde; Kristeva’s conception of the generation of the subject is the theory of the revolutionary avant-garde; and Lyotard’s use of the event which sets up a differend between the two is a theory of the post-modern avant-garde.

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