Tuesday, July 31, 2007

From "Legends"

Kazzer says capital killed all the crofters
Kazzer says capital killed all the crofters
Kazzer says capital killed all the crofters

From "Lines in Space"

trowel - render - hazchem - wrecking, bar

trowel - render - hazchem - wrecking bar
ducting - bolster - spatula - vent
and agency
agency - enthusiasm - transcedence, then - negation

gather your writing materials together and advance
piazza - loggia - calle - portico
the square sloping elegantly in a place they called siena the
leaning towers of subjective experience of note # 3056,
bologna, the red do you remember, subject pinion term “darling”?
the roman palace in humid nights of split (in moonlight, athwart the buffed paving)
the venetian arsenale in relcutant hvar (where we first…)
how we travel vs. how they do did

You arrive alone in dover at 3 am what next? You have the name of someone in the city can they help you? We cannot help you. They can? Good. Europe is a big place that has such wanderers in it. During
these close nights of imminence then I got to thinking of all those blissed-out beatnik losers and crazy-eyed ayes-theetes like roussel like trocchi going mad for what?

how to live a good life how to live a great life how to live just a life
as he said, capitalism is mainly about having fun and
let those other suckers pick up the bill, then commenced harsh laughter
white teeth flash, same of nation
and I think it’s just as well that I am not intense or too talented
then again, nephew, they got to see the angels feel immemorial dislocation of ecstatic glossolalia
the rhythm the rhythm the
hé-llo my name is william and I am from stoke-on-trent impoverished ugly sarcastic mythless there are no fucking angels in stoke upon the trent it has been an instant since my last confession here it is I’m an abstinence addict

were they right? // am I wrong? I
am certainly wrong will lang-
piciously and ex- // uage fix aus-
//quisitely crafted
me? // plumber builder plasterer electrician
know feel touch transform // pass
she left afraid but hopeful
mournfully up the steep cliff path ==== WAIT
went a single figure
//in the darker hours,
before the dawn // sweet is the night

//heading for
//the window
//our capital or

This" - "indicates a visual separation that is a long gap in the paper text version. Blogger won't reproduce this so am using " - " instead.
I experiment a lot in this collection with columns which cannot be reproduced so have used "//" to indicate a column break

Lines in Space

Lines in Space represents the last five years of my poetry activity. I somehow, being a slow starter, only reached maturity in my thirties even though I have been writing since my mid-twenties. As the title suggests the work is an investigation of the semiotic presence of material, written poetry in pagespace. As such many of these do not transpose easily if at all into HTML, certainly not in Blogger but those that do will appear here for a time.

A large number of these are under consideration and some have been published already. Still, while the copyright remains exclusively mine will post selections and leave them up until I have to take them away. I may also post my thoughts on how the work turned out the way it did. Why not, poets never do that. We'll see if I have the energy.

From "Lines out of Space"

a word in your shell is like

we entered freely into the nautilus
shell which is diminishing
for some of them the sea’s suspiration
was until that point as yet unheard
that point of our diminishing
from the shell there was no escaping

from the monolith gleaned the megalith
which I admit are no more than words to me
words with meanings not like the ones
the proper poets opt to use there
was or is no choice but to pace the crouching spiral
and adopt a stance which the others might pursue

for the confusion of the labyrinth
comes not from a mazey complexity of
options turns deadends and blank walls
it is rather a perpetual scaling down of the world
both familiar and upsetting is the park of dolls
and miniatures will disturb those who recuperate slowly

little by littler by littler still
we exited the nautilus from the
tiny horn which announced us to the
single grain of beach which they had
left to us and the monolith gleamed while the
megalith didn’t and the water’s urged words
got smaller and smaller and smaller

Lines out of Space

For the past 5 years have been working on what I hope to be my first published collection, Lines in Space. Many pieces were written during this period which I value but just didn't fit into Lines in Space. This blog seems the ideal location to publish them under the title Lines out of Space. They will appear in alphabetical order.

Forthcoming: August is Poetry Month

I have been posting rather a lot of academic material so have decided August 2007 should instead be poetry month.

I will post extracts from my, hopefully, forthcoming collection Lines in Space. I will also post poems which didn't make it into the final selection for that. Finally will finish posting from the four part sequence called Moths. Have posted part 1, "Ip" already.

There are also some other miscellaneous projects and experiments which I never typed up so will endeavour to do so and post them as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (end)

The Practice of Everyday, Everybody, Everything

At one point Lefebvre declares, “the true critique of everyday life will have as its prime objective the separation between the human (real and possible) and bourgeois decadence, and will imply a rehabilitation of everyday life” (Lefebvre, Critique 127). The right of each individual to a rehabilitated everyday life, that is one divested of bourgeois categorisation, returns us back to the predicament of David Antin’s mother. Denied access to the everyday, her world becomes increasingly confusing and hostile to her, her own world hostile to her, in a manner Lefebvre calls alienation.

Undoubtedly, he does not see the rehabilitation of the everyday coming from the avant-garde, quite the opposite in fact, but his comment does raise a radical issue in relation to the perceived gap between art and life which is, that removal of this gap as much requires a radicalisation of the everyday as it does the processes of artistic creation. If this is to be achieved one must avoid totalising slogans such as figure to a degree in Lefebvre’s now somewhat dated piece. Instead, one ought to proceed in accordance with the faculty of Jewish judgement as Lyotard phrases it: “‘Be just’; case by case, every time it will be necessary to decide, to commit oneself, to judge, and then meditate if that was just” (Lyotard, Just Gaming 53).

To live through the everyday is exactly this process, an endless series of judgements, often without criteria, all therefore similarly irreducible, similar to each other only by virtue of their radical heterogeneity. To lose a sense of this, which means effectively to lose or be denied one’s faculty of judgement, is to lose your life, and is not only the predicament of Antin’s mother but of an art that is not able to judge. To rehabilitate the everyday aspect of art one must then return to the artist the faculty of judging from phrase to poetic phrase, perhaps without criteria. The artist must judge beyond the realm of rationality.

Such a reconfiguring of the relationship between poetic creation and the everyday realm of judgement, case by case, is the process that links the avant-garde with the New York School aesthetic. In other words, the New York School is avant-garde in the manner in which it rehabilitates the everyday through its poetic process, by addressing the event of the judgement of everyday, within their own day to day existence as poets. It is not an attempt to “remove” this distance as Burger would, to retain it for the good of the negative dialectic as Adorno prefers, or to enforce a selective distance between certain art and a certain sense of an ideal everyday as Lefebvre demands. Rather, it is an attempt to use poetry to mediate, case by case, between two overtly metaphysical categories.

In Kenneth Koch’s insistence on the surface, Schuyler’s use of objectivism, O'Hara’s pursuit of Personism, and Ashbery’s search for a process of poetic cognition that, like music, just goes on, we have four means by which such a mediation might occur. The removal of depth from poetry forces the poem to have the same status as the everyday, is effectively something you must get up and do again everyday, as it has no lasting value otherwise. Schuyler’s construction of his subjectivity around the objects that come into his sphere day by day, produces a poetry that literally judges every thing, everyday, as a new case of itself.

Personism attempts to make the poem part of the everyday systems of intersubjective communication, such as the telephone, while also making it a permanent ongoing record of his friends and their day to day existence. And Ashbery’s work in its expansiveness and self-conscious processual aesthetic, is the most sustained analysis of the possible aporia inherent in all of this: if everything is so different does not that mean it is all the same, and if so how or why do we keep on judging? In the following chapters I will take the New York School case by case to see how they attempt to rehabilitate the everyday by returning it back into an ongoing practice of poetic judgement, without falling into the classic blind-alley of the valorisation of the now and the moment for its own sake, seeing it rather as a moment within which judgement must always be taking place.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

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.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

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 procès 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.

The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (4)

The Praxis of the Avant-Garde

At the root of these three critical theories of the avant-garde is the theory of practice and, indeed, it may be said that when one talks of the avant-garde, one is always, by implication, talking about the practice of the avant-garde. This conception of practice takes on special resonance only when considered in terms of work. It is more usual when analysing any movement to consider the work of that movement, and whether you are a hermeneutic or materialist critic, it is with work and works that you are finally concerned. This is necessitated by the retrospective temporal category which is criticism, which must, in almost all cases, make art forms into fetishised objects treated in a quasi-archaeological fashion. In calling the avant-garde a practice, one is not saying therefore that there are no avant-garde works of art, rather one is saying that the avant-garde confronts the category of “work” with the category of “practice” and, at least for a period, favours the latter over the former. Thus, it may be said, that any theory of the avant-garde which concentrates on typologies based on categorisation of collections of diverse works, is in direct contravention of the basic tenet of avant-garde art and makes out of avant-gardism another face for modernism.

Within the category of art, the conception of practice does not begin with the onset of the avant-garde at the end of the nineteenth century. It is, rather, prepared for by Romanticism and its valorisation of the conflation of the subject and the work, particularly noticeable in the figure of the alienated, Romantic genius. And it is the concept of genius which is the origin of the practical realm of the idealist Romantic philosophy. A conflation of subject and practice which is placed in a kind of simple equation, subject (of genius) + practice = Romantic work of genius, this comes from the way in which art, within the modern period, has come to be seen as the functional equivalent to religion, and is most marked during the period of autonomous art. However, it is not until the avant-garde that practice is placed at the centre of an artistic process, not to produce work, which would be a rhetoric, but to destroy the category of work as such.

Avant-garde practice is a kind of anti-rhetoric, a somewhat ascetic programme of means by which the category art can be destroyed by eliminating the predominance of work. In fact, it would be true to say that, just as there is no truly Romantic work, in that the idealist philosophies of Romanticism cannot be actuated in material form, so there is no avant-garde work of art. For the avant-garde, the primary aim was to take the practice of art production and elevate it to a position where it could replace the affirmative and ossified category of art with a more vibrant dialectic category. There is, as yet, no name for this second category for, as Burger notes, it was never attained. There are avant-garde works, just as there are Romantic works, but these are works left over from the practice of the two movements.

Within all three of the critical theorists of the avant-garde I have looked at, this element of practice is manifest as the single most important feature of the avant-garde, and is the main point where their theories could be seen to be comparable. This, then, is perhaps the best definition of the avant-garde: a movement which places the category of practice over the category of work, so as to destroy the category of art and return it to the practical realm of life. However, this presupposes the category “definition” as one which is valid and such a definition would, therefore, be a rational modernist definition of avant-gardism in Lyotard’s terms, and so another aspect of the ongoing process of the totalising of modernism by its absorption of all other art movements and periods.

Burger, Kristeva and Lyotard manage to avoid this totalising tendency by appreciating that this “definition” of practice is not a typological category with meta-narrative claims to dominance, but rather a process. It is a dynamic process of practice which is opposed to the static definition of work that typifies that category of art, and this makes it a radical challenge to the very preconditions that could tie down the central definition of avant-gardism. Further, it is a process which is ongoing, and not limited temporally to a particular period, or spatially to a particular group of already written texts. Practice, by its nature, rejects the fetishised and excavated “work” of art, in favour of a dynamic and ongoing “practice” of what should, in fact, no longer be called art.

All three theorists are able to retain this radical motility of the avant-garde, not merely because they are more acute and respectful towards avant-gardism than their counterparts, but because they have also perceived the simple concomitant result of the practice of art. As Burger makes clear, the practice of art seeks to eradicate the gap between art and life-praxis by returning art to life-praxis, destroying it as a bourgeois category. The implications of this for art are radical and well documented, but the implications for the theory of art are just as important. Increasingly, the categorisation of art resides not in the conception or production of art, but in the reception of the art object and so, the destruction of the category art proposed by the avant-garde is also the destruction of the theory of art. Practice, in this light, does not refer to the process of creating art in the traditional sense of Romanticism and modernism, but to a process of creating the category of art. In this process, criticism is central.

Critical theorists not only realise this, but they concur and embrace it. Which is unsurprising as critical theory is the result of the avant-garde. Thus, in each of the three theorists I am analysing here, we not only have a theory of practice, which I will elucidate in the following pages, but also a practice of theory which is instrumental in creating and retaining the category of art. As is the case with all criticism. What is different in critical theory is that the practice of the theory of practice is post-practice, and therefore its own practices are marked by the challenge of avant-garde practice, a practice which has generated critical theory but which critical theory also defines continuously through its practical assaults on its own categorical position.

Burger makes the point that the avant-garde’s desire to radicalise the relationship between art and life, which reached its apotheosis in autonomous art movements at the end of the nineteenth century, was not a desire, necessarily, for political “engagement.” Instead, it was a desire to eradicate, once and for all, any gap between the practice of art and life-praxis. This was, according to Burger, to be carried out on three fronts. First, in the category of conception of purpose, the avant-garde was no longer to conceive of its projects as anything other than a return to life-praxis. At no point would they consider their “work” as somehow separate from living, and from the institutions of living we all hold in common, namely society. Second, the emphasis on individual creation which sustained autonomous art through the development of the myth of the Romantic genius, would be negated. Not to be replaced by some sense of medieval collective art, but to negate such categories of creativity altogether.

And finally, third, in the realm of reception, avant-gardism looked to means by which the perceived gap between producer and audience, a gap which is the essential articulation of the category art, could be removed. The hope was to make conception, production, reception and life-praxis some kind of seamless whole, aiming for a Hegelian sublation of the perceived antinomy art/life-praxis.

Burger is careful not to get stuck in standard hermeneutic gestures of analysing individual work as this contravenes his own methodology of critical hermeneutics, however he does give a number of examples of how avant-garde artists and writers went about achieving these aims, to which I can add more examples. The emphasis in surrealism on automatic creation and objective chance, not only removes the traditional purposive impetus of artistic creation, but also gives creation over to anyone via games, slips of the tongue, chance meetings and so on. A point clearly made in Breton’s early definition of surrealism as, “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express...the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by though, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (Breton 26). Or Dali’s conception of objective chance as “a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations” (Breton 274), which is effectively a program for the transformation of the category “everyday life” into that of the “marvellous”: “Let us not mince words: the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful” (Breton 14). This is especially what Lefebvre dislikes about the avant-garde, the conviction that, “existence is elsewhere” (Breton 47).

Dada performances have a similar automatic quality, and they put forward an art whose only aim was to destroy art. In the ingenious “Dada Manifesto 1918” Tzara produces a catalogue of attacks both against art and against his own weapon against art, DADA: “I am writing a manifesto and there’s nothing I want,” “DADA—this is a word that throws up ideas so that they can be shot down,” “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING,” “A work of art shouldn’t be beauty per se, because it is dead,” “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is that of having none on no principle,” and “there is great destructive, negative work to be done” (Tzara 3-12). Further, in their confrontational performances at the Cabaret Voltaire, sometimes resulting in actual conflict with the audience, they looked at means of eradicating the gap between stage and auditorium.

Italian futurism followed suit, also mounting a systematic attack on all the tropic and thematic concerns of art. A typical example is Marinetti’s essay “Against Past-Loving Venice” which begins: “Venetians! When we cried out, “Let’s murder the moonshine!” we were thinking of you, old Venice soiled with Romanticism!” (Marinetti 56). His declaration is also in accord with the futurist credos of nihilism: “Time and Space died yesterday” (Marinetti 41), and “Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice” (Marinetti 43).

Meanwhile, the more profound experiments of Russian futurism looked into the substance of creation. They tried to ascertain the structural base of all communication, hidden beneath language and shapes, so as to open the creative act of manipulation of this substance to the whole populace. While, in their desire for zaum or transrationality, they hoped to remove from art the means-ends rationale imposed upon it by bourgeois capitalism, which was seen as the category’s defining feature. Khlebnikov defines zaum, alternatively translated as “Beyonsense” or “transrational,” thus: “Beyonsense language means language situated beyond the boundaries of ordinary reason...Beyonsense language is used in charms and incantations, where it dominates and displaces the language of sense, and this shows that is has a special power over human consciousness, a special right to exist alongside the language of reason” (Khlebnikov, Letters 383). Clearly, “beyonsense,” is, in essence, the avant-garde as I have defined it so far.

Burger concludes that the project of the historical avant-garde to remove the articulating gap between art and life-praxis via their sublation, a move which sought to radicalise not only art but also life and make such differential categories irrelevant, failed. The result was not a return to praxis, for he sees the avant-garde as buying into the myth of an originary state when art and life were one and the same thing, but continuation of the practice of work towards stylistic innovation and perfection. This failure is useful first in that it marks a clearly discernible point of difference between avant-garde and modernist experimentation. Avant-garde experimentation was not stylistic innovation, but an innovation within the category of style with an aim to destroying it. When it failed to do so, it became modernist innovation. It also opens up a point of difference between the practice of artistic creation, which is the practice of modernism, and art/life-praxis. Quite clearly, the first is an affirmative renewal of bourgeois art, which is still ongoing, while the second is a periodised attempt to revolutionise bourgeois art by destroying it, which failed and no longer pertains within contemporary art.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (3)

Lyotard’s “sublime”

Lyotard’s conception of what is essentially not the sublime but the Kantian sublime, is not initially posited in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime as a development of his earlier work on the sublime and the postmodern and the sublime and the avant-garde. Rather, it is an attempt to read the sublime as a “tautegorical” sensation of pleasure and pain which marks the point where Kant’s critical schema is cut across by the manner of his text. This manner is the way in which we linger over the beautiful, the way in which tautegorical sensation causes us to linger rather than rationally follow through Kant’s heuristic schema, which he lays out for the third Kritik. However, away from the “letter” of Lyotard’s text, which itself purports to stray from the “letter” of Kant’s text, we can find a vital addition to critical theory of the avant-garde. Earlier work has, of course, provided useful clues as to how we might carry out such a reading. “Answering the Question What is Postmodernism?” is the first text where Lyotard indicates the importance of the avant-garde for postmodern theories of art production and reception:

I think in particular that it is in the aesthetic of the sublime that modern art (including literature) finds its impetus and the logic of avant-gardes finds its axioms...I shall call modern the art which devotes its “little technical expertise”...to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition 77-8)

This importance lies in the particular ability of the sublime to present the unpresentability of the infinite via the dual sensations of pain (the inability to give a representative case of the infinite) and pleasure (this failure being at least proof that the infinite exists). This definition of the operations of the sensation of the sublime does not differ from his later formulation except in terms of its relative paucity of details. Lyotard is using this “early” sublime to differentiate between modern and postmodern art:

modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows for the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer the reader or viewer a matter for solace and pleasure. Yet these sentiments do not constitute the real sublime sentiment, which is an intrinsic combination of pleasure and pain...The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself. (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition 81)

He does not specify here the relative relationship between the sublime and the avant-garde, whether the avant-garde is part of the affirmative consolation of modernism or the radical sentiment of the postmodern. However, it should be clear immediately that the effect of the sublime is to introduce a radical heterogeneity into the affirmative realm of the symbolic order, via the presentation of the unpresentable’s existence in direct accord with Kristeva’s schema.

A second article, written at a later date, returns to these issues and specifically looks at the relationship between the sublime and the avant-garde. In “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” Lyotard departs from his usual Kantian bias to give a second formulation of the sublime through Edmund Burke. Burke was a source for Kant, but the latter dismissed the former’s conception of the sublime as being too psychological. Burke’s use for Lyotard is that he formulates the sublime not merely in terms of presentation but also in terms of time.

Lyotard has always been primarily a philosopher of time. To the Kantian “legitimate paradox” of pleasure and pain, he adds Burke’s bipartite set of “terror” and “delight.” Terror is the feeling of fear of privation that is instigated by the possibility of the that it happens not happening again. This not happening is associated with death, silence, loneliness, the whole gamut of negative associations that go along with the process of closure. The terror is so strong that it leads to the need for the terror-causing threat to be suspended and this suspense, which is also a privation for it arrests the event and is the privation of absence, is delight. Terror of the that it happens not happening is mingled with the delight of the suspension of this possibility, in the lingering of art, and the resultant heady mix of pleasure and pain is the sublime. The second sublime. Why this second manner of the sublime is so important is not merely because it explains further the first manner of lingering and adds a temporal dimension to what was essentially a spatial problem of magnitude. It also further establishes the link between Lyotard’s ongoing dialogue with Kant, and postmodern art, and his wider theory of the event and the differend.

The event is the single most important moment in Lyotard’s work on art. It is, within a wider sense of the loss of faith in meta-narratives that is the postmodern condition, possibly the one thing we can take for granted: that it happens. He is very careful, considering the implications of such a claim, to stipulate exactly what he means by the event, to differentiate it from other similar strategies of the now that particularly obsess modernism:

That it happens “precedes”, precedes itself, because “that it happens” is the question relevant as the event., and it then pertains to the event that has just happened. The event happens as a question mark “before” happening as a question. It happens is rather “in the first place” is it happening, is this it, is it possible? Only “then” is any mark determined by the questioning: is this or that happening, is it this or something else, it is possible that this or that? (Lyotard, The Inhuman 90)

The event is the unpresentable because it is what precedes all presentation, as the question as to whether or not something is happening. Once this question has been asked then another thing has happened, that is the event of the question. It is impossible therefore to give a case of the event, to repeat the event at any time, but it is not impossible to ask about the event. Modern art “fails” essentially by trying to give a beautiful example of the event. The avant-garde is significant because it interrogates the it happens of art by asking the question of the it happens, rather than trying to identify with the event in subsequent representations.

Avant-gardism is the interrogation of the sublime of the event of artistic creation and of art as the institution of creativity. It does not create works which are themselves sublime nor works that talk about the sublime. The avant-garde “work” of art is the question asked which ushers in the sublime. When one asks of the event of art, one first opens up art to the possibility of the event not happening again by merely raising the question, then one arrests this possibility.

Returning to Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime we can now see in the two moments of the causation of the sublime, a wider extrapolation of the avant-garde moment in art. The addition of Burke’s temporal aspect is especially important because it is this aspect that allows Lyotard to move from the sublime in general to the specific import of the sublime for avant-garde and postmodern art. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime is highly specialised and not really interested in aligning Kant with wider concerns such as the avant-garde, but its detailed analysis of the operations of the sublime add a great deal to our understanding of the avant-garde. The sublime is split into two parts, the mathematical and the dynamical.

This does not mean that there are two sublimes, but that the sublime is essentially a process that allows it to mediate between two heterogeneous realms: understanding and reason. Understanding is based on natural law and is mathematical in make up, reason, on universal freedom and is dynamic. The sublime partakes of both aspects and in doing so opens up completely the relation of the sublime to the avant-garde. The mathematical “family” of the sublime is the unification of homogenous units which, however, do not necessarily belong together.

Thus, the basic model 1+1=2 is the mathematical basis for this theory. It combines two homogenous elements, two ones, in a manner which is not natural or necessary to them, that is, neither of them are two, they are both ones. The mathematical roughly corresponds to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea of the aggregating power of fancy, and is the faculty of combination which is limitless as long as it is guided by the finality of nature, which is an organic unity. In other words, this faculty can combine any number of ones, in any number of forms, ones of mountains or ones of animalculae to use two particularly Romantic examples, as long as they are being combined with an aim to their unification as a two.

The dynamic “family” is the connection, not combination, of heterogeneous elements based on a cause-effect model rather than a mathematical model of identity. This faculty is slightly harder to figure. First, the idea of heterogeneity means that the two elements being connected are from different faculties, but while they are heterogeneous, their connection is necessary. Lyotard gives the example of an accident; an encounter, an event. An accident is inconceivable without the substance it affects, nor an effect without the cause of which it is the result.

However accident and effect belong to the realm of understanding, and cause and substance to the more abstract realm of reason. This might be formulated thus: (1+1 : A+A) = Accident, with the colon indicating a connection of heterogeneous elements whose bracketing together equals the accident. If the heterogeneous elements were not connected, they would still exist as they are, as they are unaffected by their connection. But unless they are connected in this manner, the accident cannot occur. Thus, they remain individually unaffected by the accident: it is only their connection to each other that is equal to the accident.

When these two elements are brought together in a synthesis, the resulting feeling of pleasure is equal to the pleasure of the beautiful. The sublime is the dual feeling of displeasure and pleasure. Displeasure comes from the manner in which the mathematical pursuit of forms collapses into formlessness. This occurs at the point when quantity becomes quantum. The mathematical faculty can combine, as I have said, any number of any kinds of unit, but when the mathematical either breaches the limits of apprehension, when a unit is simply too large or too small to “see”, or the limit of representation, when the number of units is so internally or externally “large” it can no longer be given in a single case, becoming infinite, then the sublime occurs.

The sublime is the moment when the faculty of representation, mathematical understanding, is confronted with the infinite of the unpresentable, dynamical reason. This can happen when confronted with the magnitude of natural forms, or with a magnitude of their combination. Initially it is the cause of great pain, the sublime spasm, but because it is the result of a dynamic relationship between two heterogeneous faculties, it is also the cause of great pleasure. The collapse of understanding occurs, because reason, absolute freedom, is always calling out to understanding and understanding is always aspiring toward it. The “two” of the mathematical sublime is the finality of reason, of absolute freedom. This freedom is limitless, and because the mathematical is based on the combination of homogenous forms, homogenous to themselves, this pulling of form into the formlessness of reason, for form is limit and reason is limitless, results in its failure.

The sublime occurs in the middle of the dynamical relation between these two heterogeneous faculties. Between the point where form as organic unity collapses, and where it is re-inscribed in a cause-effect relationship with the infinite via critical synthesis, the immediate event of the sublime agitation based on the incommensurable differend between these two heterogeneous faculties, happens. That this has to happen is also true; reason will always pull understanding beyond its limits. Lyotard calls this the event. An attempt to represent this happening is equal to modernism. The presentations of the unpresentability of this event is the postmodern moment which precedes all forms of modernism. The interrogation of this event of the sublime which preceded the discovery of the postmodern within the modern, this is the avant-garde.

Lyotard is necessary for any student of the avant-garde and here, for us, he is doubly so. His formulation of the sublime first extrapolates the praxis-practice axis, out into praxis-practice-event. This can be immediately presented as the other to the art-work-representation axis of traditional, affirmative aesthetics. Secondly, it re-affirms the importance of heterogeneity for an understanding of the avant-garde. Like Kristeva’s subject in absence, the Kantian subject of the sublime is never attained, only promised.

The heterogeneity of the two faculties that the sublime facilitates, via the tautegorical reflective duality of sensations pain-pleasure, is also the ongoing promise of a final synthesis of the two faculties of the subject. It is a promise that can never be fulfilled because it is a promise based on a demonstration that this will never happen. Because the sublime interrogates the infinite, the unpresentable, it promises it to us; because the sublime interrogates the finite, presentation, it stops us from achieving the unpresentable. Heterogeneity is the incommensurable in art. It does not forbid us utopia (Burger), a transcendental ego (Kristeva), or critical synthesis (Lyotard) absolutely, but is the scene where such promises are made. A promise is the most elusive of (speech) acts. Unlike a gift, it is never fulfilled and therefore requires no retaliation; unlike an interdiction, it does not “kill” us, but keeps hope alive. It makes us linger, happily unhappy, in an eternally renewed event of its own happening. It is in the interrogation of the subject of this sublime promise, that the avant-garde occurs.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (2)

Kristeva’s Subject En Procès

As much as it is necessary to understand the historicisation of bourgeois art categories to comprehend Burger’s theory of the historical avant-garde, it is necessary to understand Kristeva’s conception of signifying practice to comprehend her concept of the avant-garde and its ability to put the subject en procès (on trial). I will not summarise the whole of her argument in Revolution in Poetic Language,[i] rather I will restrict myself to a brief outline of her concept of signifying practice, and then go on in more detail to look at its implications for the avant-garde.

Strictly speaking, Revolution in Poetic Language is not a theory of the avant-garde, but of the manner in which revolution within social structures can find an equivalent through linguistic structures, in the subject.[ii] Subjective “revolution,” further, is not actuated especially by what Burger would identify as the historical avant-garde, and indeed the second part of the work which is the “practice” section of textual analysis, is concerned with two, historically, pre-avant-garde writers: Mallarmé and Lautréamont.

However, Kristeva’s conception of the ability of poetic language to put the subject in an equivalent state of revolution is not only inherited from avant-garde ideologies from formalism through to surrealism, but it also fulfils the primary definition of the historical avant-garde which is to eradicate the distance between art and life-praxis. In her professed aim to bring about the equivalent of a social revolution within the subject, she is also indicating to what degree the social is determined by the linguistic encoding of the subject of enunciation. Simply put, revolution in poetic language will result in social revolution.[iii] This is a major contribution to avant-garde theory for it returns to the avant-garde the question of the subject, which was always vital to it.[iv] It is also a major contribution to theories on poetry as a whole, for it provides a radical explanation for such complex linguistic structures that is negative and generative, rather than affirmative and reifying.

Signifying practice is first a process. A vital point, especially when concerning the avant-garde, for it stresses the importance of process and practice over work (primarily the category “work of art”). It is the manner in which the subject is generated and negated within language. It is also the place where the subject is generated and negated, full stop. Language, more specifically signifying practice, is the moment wherein subjectivity operates but it never is, being composed of two elements which are radically heterogeneous. The first is the semiotic which operates through the space of the chora. The chora is “a non-expressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated” (Kristeva, Revolution 25), and is what is formed by the regulation of the drives by a priori sexual and social restrictions—the oedipal triangle. The result of this regulation is the mark whose combinations produce a rhythm.

The second is the thetic breach of the semiotic, the primary scission between subject and the other that occurs from the mirror stage on when the subject begins to identify the difference between subject and object, and begins the identification of itself with a specular, imago other.[v] The thetic is the primary scission that ushers in language acquisition, it takes the subject away from the semiotic space of the chora, to the social space of the symbolic order. This is how signification occurs, but signification is static.

Signifying practice is an ongoing, dynamic process which occurs when the semiotic is returned within the symbolic, threatening it with a sudden irruption of the death drive. This always happens, requiring a second thetic break which re-enforces the symbolic order onto the semiotic drives. The first thetic break is necessary, both to form the subject and to save the subject from the excess of semiotic drives. The second is more a position taken up in relation to the semiotic, a retrogressive positing of the semiotic as the decollated, or sacrificed, origin of the symbolic order through the thetic.

The first thetic moment results in the linguistic subject of enunciation,[vi] the second in ongoing signifying practice. In a sense, the process of signifying practice then is the ongoing repetition of the two moments of the subject, its positing via a primary scission and its re-positing via a secondary cut of semiotic rupture. The first is what Lacan calls the “tuché,” the encounter with the real, the second is his “automaton,” the compulsion to repeat.[vii] What is important about signifying practice is that it inscribes the poetic or avant-garde, which is the habitual or enforced rupture of the semiotic within the symbolic, within a double process of negativity, and repetition, of negativity repeated and of repetition as negativity.

Thus we have a double negation, primary and secondary scission, and also an ongoing process of repetition that is the repetition of negativity. When this process gets re-cast as a practice, something the subject consciously works at through text, then we have the revolutionary aspect of poetic language which first came to the fore as conscious practice at the end of the nineteenth century with the beginning of aestheticism’s collapse in the avant-garde. In different manners, the work of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Mallarmé undermines the assumed bourgeois cogito of subjective certainty.

Kristeva’s system is more complex than Burger’s, and seems to operate within completely different territory, but in fact it is only a development of his conception of institutionalised art, symbolic order art, into the heterogeneous realm of the subject. In doing this she immediately rescues the avant-garde from the failures ascribed to it by Burger and many other materialist critics. Kristeva’s avant-garde text can never fail, any more than it can succeed, not in the crude sense of achieving its aims, for what could those aims be?

The aim of the semiotic is to overwhelm the symbolic; the aim of the thetic is to arrest the irruption of the semiotic. If the semiotic succeeds, the subject becomes mad, mad with melancholy, and literally under threat.[viii] If the thetic succeeds the subject becomes static, literally ossified by its success, and falls into the life of a robot—Lacan’s automaton. Neither alternative is attractive, but because of the dialectical nature of the subject, neither is likely either as the thetic is always negating the semiotic, and the semiotic is always breaching the symbolic. It is clear, for these reasons alone, why the twin concepts of Hegelian negativity and Freudian rejection are so central to Kristeva’s work.

Negativity is vital in that it is this process of the negation of the semiotic chora into signifying structures that results in syntax and thus in text as such. Syntax, then, indeed text as a whole, is to be viewed not as a process of conveyance of communication, but of the cutting-off of the semiotic into linguistic code that the subject can deal with safely:

In other words, if the symbolic function is a syntactic function, and if the latter consists essentially in linking a subject (and elements relating to it) and a predicate (and its related elements), the formation of the symbol of negation precedes this function or coincides with its development. To say “no” is already to formulate syntactically orientated propositions that are more or less grammatical. In other words, negation in judgement is a mark of the symbolic and/or syntactic function and the first mark of sublimation or the thetic. (Kristeva, Revolution 122)

Rejection is the second moment of signifying practice, the moment when syntax becomes poeticised, to use a formalist term.[ix] The moment of rejection is the moment when the subject throws away the “automatic” forms of the symbolic order, rejects them as somehow distasteful to it. One might ask why the subject would do such a thing, one might ask why rejection, why an avant-garde at all? The answer is to have what is discarded returned to it. The symbolic rejects itself in order to re-posit itself by the retroactive positioning of the scene of the semiotic,[x] thus completing the dialectic economy that is signifying practice. In traditional, non-poeticised, poetics, this was achieved and anaphoric text was maintained,[xi] but in the avant-garde text the process is radicalised into practice; process becomes practice:

Rejection...is characteristic of the subject in process/on trial who succeeds—for biographical and historical reasons—in remodelling the historically accepted signifying device by proposing the representation of a different relation to natural objects, social apparatuses, and the body proper. This subject moves through the linguistic network and uses it to indicate...that the linguistic network does not represent something real posited in advance and forever detached from instinctual process, but rather that it experiments with or practices the objective process by submerging in it and emerging through the drives. This subject of expenditure is not a fixed point—a “subject of enunciation”—but instead acts through the text’s organization (structure and completion)... (Kristeva, Revolution 126)

One final aspect of Kristeva’s theory must be taken into account, and that is heterogeneity. Her system as a whole, like Burger’s, in based on a dialectical model and she utilises Hegel and Marx extensively. However, it is her use of Freud that radicalises her narrative towards another sense of materiality. The materialist aspect to her work is clear, but her sense of the material base of the subject in the social realm is not limited to the history of the modes of production, but also takes into account, as we have seen, the subject.

This subject, the subject of uncertainty as opposed to previous proposed phenomenological subjects of certainty, is posited as the never there through the ongoing motility of signifying practice. This motility can be maintained because of the heterogeneity of drives: “drives are...the repeated scission of matter that generates significance, the place where an always absent subject is produced” (Kristeva, Revolution 167). One has to turn to an earlier article for a better definition of what this heterogeneity of drives actually is.

In “From One Identity to Another,” Kristeva clearly marks out heterogeneity’s nature and its importance:

The notion of heterogeneity is indispensable, for though articulate, precise, organized, and complying with constraints and rules...this signifying disposition is not that of meaning or signification: no sign, no predication, no signified object and therefore no operating consciousness of a transcendental ego. We shall call this disposition semiotic, meaning...a distinctive mark, trace, index, the premonitory sign, the proof, engraved mark, imprint—in short, a distinctiveness admitting of an uncertain and indeterminate articulation because it does not yet refer (for young children) or no longer refers (in psychotic discourse) to a signified object for a thetic consciousness... (Kristeva, Desire in Language 133)

Such a heterogeneity is built up of successive occasions of the two laws already noted: repetition and rejection. Drive motility continuously comes up against restrictions and is halted, leaving marks. The successive accumulation of these marks is the rhythmic musicality of the semiotic which is an essential heterogeneity to all signification. Heterogeneity is the necessary precursor to the sign, its thetic cut producing all signification, but it is also a scene which the sign must return to, as if to the scene of a crime.

These issues will be continuously analysed in this study in language perhaps less opaque than Kristeva’s, but at this point a few clarifying remarks might be apt. Kristeva’s sense of heterogeneity is of a disposition which precedes signification but which still leaves marks, that is it is a process of marking, previous to signification but which also breaches the symbolic order later on, as it were. It is heterogeneous material to rational signification but the marks, in other words its basic materiality, can be cut from the semiotic source and subsequently be made into rational signs.

A second sense of heterogeneity, however, will also be investigated in this chapter, that of the irreducibility of the sublime phrase which is a foundational aspect of Lyotard’s work. In this schema the confrontation is not between heterogeneous and homogeneous realms, that is it is not dialectical as Kristeva’s schema quite clearly is, but is rather between two heterogeneous realms. This will be explained later, but it should be asserted here that both senses of the heterogeneous are essentially the same, what differs is the nature of the relation of the heterogeneous mark or phrase to the process of signification.

Heterogeneity is clearly essential to understand signifying practice, but it is also a key aspect to understanding that aspect of the avant-garde which will facilitate setting up a relationship between it and the New York School. Heterogeneity is the part of text that repeats, but in a manner other to, note it is other and not opposite to, the process of repetition that purely affirmative art partakes of. Affirmative art essentially re-affirms the institution of art at the very point where the institution of art may come under threat. This is especially true in the case of autonomous art which seeks to remove itself from the influence of social institutions altogether. The repetitive aspect of affirmative art becomes, therefore, anaphoric; it repeats the external semantic realm of the institution, at the expense of its hylic specificity.

Heterogeneity is the repetition of this hylic specificity at the expense of the anaphoric potential of a text.[xii] It re-inscribes the text with the symbolic order’s other, the semiotic, in such a way that at first it appears as a dialectical antimony to the symbolic order. However, the mark of the semiotic is not opposite to the sign of the symbolic order, but rather its precondition and subsequent necessary other against which it defines itself. Alone, this would make the semiotic the hylic equivalent to anaphoric affirmation, but because of the law of rejection, such affirmation is negated and the radical challenge of the subject en procès is returned to the scene of the text.

It is this return of the absent subject that is the return of the heterogeneous into the text and is the onset of the avant-garde. And so heterogeneity seems somehow foundational to all I will be saying here: a basic refusal by the material of expression to allow itself to be forced into the imposed normative category of rational semantics, coupled with a wariness over elevating materiality up to the status of a metaphysical other to rationality. It is the double process at the heart of the life of heterogeneous material expression that makes Kristeva’s work so important for any consideration of the avant-garde, which is not just a rejection of rationality, but a dialogue with, and critique of, rationality through the development of the material of the nonrational at its centre.

Kristeva’s analysis does not refute Burger’s, rather it develops it. By replacing praxis with practice, she sets up a system of textual practice that can challenge the dominant institutions of bourgeois art, can question their very validity, without having to aspire to the loftier aims of the avant-garde utopia, although her aim is similarly utopian in parts. Her highlighting of the value of the absent other, courtesy of the heterogeneity of signification which always exceeds the certainty of self-expression typified by the subject of enunciation, allows us to see the avant-garde as part of a larger history of conscious inscription of the heterogeneous in text for the purpose of subjective and social revolution.

We can also see how this work operates clearly within the tripartite set “everyday—everybody—everything.” Through her development of practice we get a sense of the relation of poetic revolution to social revolution, which, then, through the idea of how this puts the subject en procès also demonstrates how the revolution of everyday social conditions cannot occur without a revolution within the subject. Finally, the use of heterogeneity indicates the importance of retaining the specificity of the thing, whether it be the utterance, the subject as thing, or the thing as such. This recognition of the tripartite ramification of Kristevan practice also “segues” perfectly into the final theorist I want to consider here, Jean-François Lyotard, and his conception of the sublime.

[i]There are a number of sources for such a summary including the introduction to the English translation by Leon Roudiez, John Lechte’s book Julia Kristeva, and Michael Payne’s Reading Theory.
[ii]Her project is laid out clearly in the semi-utopian and prophetic “Prolegomenon”: “The text is a practice that could be compared to political revolution: the one brings about in the subject what the other introduces into society” (Kristeva, Revolution 17).
[iii]In dealing with Marx’s conception of history as the history of modes of production, not of the subject present to itself (a conception Burger wholeheartedly agrees with), Kristeva has asked the vital question: what has happened to the subject? Revolution in Poetic Language is the beginning of an answer she is still formulating today in texts such as The Powers of Horror and Black Sun. Her thesis begins from the realisation of the absence of the subject from the history of the modes of production, “the subject never is. The subject is only the signifying process and he appears only as a signifying practice, that is, only when he is absent within the position out of which social, historical, and signifying activity unfolds” (Kristeva, Revolution 215). But it goes on to radicalise this absence by introducing the idea of practice wherein the subject’s continuing absence from the modes of production is the source of its revolutionary import: “If history is made up of modes of production, the subject is a contradiction that brings about practice because practice is always both signifying and semiotic, a crest where meaning emerges only to disappear. It is incumbent on “art” to demonstrate that the subject is the absent element of this practice, just as it was incumbent upon political economy to prove that history is a matter of class struggle” (Kristeva, Revolution 215).
[iv]Burger does not acknowledge this, yet even his basic three part definition of the avant-garde’s desire to remove the distance between art and life-praxis, through the radical re-appropriation of production and reception, is essentially a theory of the subject in language (production) defining itself in relation to the other (reception). It is strange that he does not concede this, considering that the two major avant-garde movements, surrealism and Russian futurism, both place the radicalisation of subject/object relations at the heart of their experiments.
[v]For the full description of this process see Lacan’s now often cited “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Écrits 1-7. Also, Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Here, especially in part 6, “The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze,” he elaborates a great deal on the effect of the split that this originary specular moment produces. Speaking of the repetition of this original split, which occurs every time we are involved in an encounter, “tuché,” Lacan notes, “this split constitutes the characteristic dimension of analytic discovery and experience; it enables us to apprehend the real, in its dialectical effects, as originally unwelcome. It is precisely through this that the real finds itself, in the subject, to a very great degree the accomplice to the drive...” (Lacan, Four Fundamental 69). This section is an important source for Kristeva’s theory on the subject as practice.
[vi]The subject of enunciation is a concept Kristeva has taken from Emile Benveniste, but is an old problem in ontology in general. It is the moment when the subject says “I am,” and conceives of itself as internally complete, yet also placed external to itself by its ability to enunciate itself in language.
[vii]Lacan, “Tuché and Automaton” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis 53-64.
[viii]This is how a later text such as Black Sun can be seen to be updating the early semiotic work by re-positing the excess of non-signifiable content in terms of melancholy.
[ix]Roman Jakobson’s definition of “poeticity” is helpful here: “poeticity is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion” (Jakobson, Selected Writings III 750). Jakobson’s point is, that that which defines poetry, the dominance of the function “poeticity,” occurs when the word’s phonetic, rhythmic or graphic qualities are emphasised at the expense of its semantic or representative qualities. This emphasis on the materiality of the word is the result of the marking of a text and produces a text that, if not presymbolic, is somehow marked by the presymbolic. This was dubbed in Russia, “zaum” or transrational poetry, and was, as Osip Brik notes, a return to the mark at the expense of sense. He claims, “we can turn any line of poetry into a transrational one, if, instead of meaningful words, we insert sounds which express the rhythmic-phonic arrangement of these words” (Brik 124). Brik is in agreement both with Kristeva, that the marked text results in rhythm as a dominant, and also with Derrida that the phonic element is not essential. All that is essential is the rhythm of repetition.
[x]The origin of this conception of rejection is of course Freud’s fort/da.
[xi]Anaphora is the rhetorical method of repeating the same word in different phrases, and originates from the Greek sense of to “carry back.” It has subsequently been used by linguistics, text linguistics in particular, as a primary term for explaining the cohesion possible in units larger than the phrase or the “sentence.” The definitions of anaphora are not standardised but essentially it is the repetition of a word in a subsequent phrase. However, it has wider implications than this for this “repetition” of a “word” can take the form of pronominal repetition, the word can be replaced by a pronoun; it can be subsequently missed out altogether through ellipsis, therefore it is present as a trace; and it can be replaced in ellipsis by a substitution or holding device in place of a lexical item. Further, anaphora can “repeat” the “word” by a variety of synonyms for the original word which, themselves, can be subject to reorganisation, ellipsis and so on. Anaphora is, then, the perceived repetition of a primary word, distributed throughout the text as a form of cohesion made accessible by the primary referential capacity of lexical items. The best example of this being “it,” which is the anaphoric indicator supreme, as it refers back without specifying within itself what it refers to. It bears the trace of all words. This is a capacity much abused by the New York School.
[xii]The choice of hylic here is deliberate. Its synonyms are all either semantically deficient, or over determined. “Form” is, in this context, too charged with traditional divisions between form and content, and is too suggestive of formalism. Besides, the hylic is formless in that it is not limited. Material is better, in that it is more neutral, but hylic means “of matter” so is in effect material’s adjective. Another alternative to this would be somatic, but its relation to the human body goes too far for the basic level of material that makes up the hylic, and besides, is too redolent of psychoanalytical discourse. Further, it should be made clear that the anaphoric is the repetitive aspect of the poetic text while the hylic is its material specificity. One of the possible aporias then of a processual aesthetic is how one reconciles these two heterogeneous realms, in actual fact that of the homogenous and the heterogeneous which is accentuated in poetry, as poeticity is in essence repetitious.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Process of Avant-Garde Practice

This article was originally a chapter in my PhD thesis that did not make it into In the Process of Poetry.

I write because it is natural like I piss like I’m ill...We are looking for a straightforward pure sober unique force we are looking for NOTHING we affirm the VITALITY of every instant...
Tzara, “Unpretentious Proclamation”

The word leads a double life. Sometimes it simply grows like a plant whose fruit is a geode of sonorous stones clustering around it; in this case the sound element lives a self-sufficient life, while the particle of sense named by the word stands in shadow. At other times the word is subservient to sense...sound becomes merely a “name” and humbly carries out the commands of sense...
Khlebnikov, “On Contemporary Poetry”

Only the unsyntactical poet who unlinks his words can penetrate the essence of matter and destroy the dumb hostility that separates it from us.
Marinetti, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature”

After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentrations of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you. Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can...Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing...Go on as long as you like. Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.
Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”

Burger’s “Category of Art”
Between the two approaches to the avant-garde I described in the previous chapter, Peter Burger’s work forms a kind of a bridge. Subject to the historical limitation of the avant-garde, which is a necessary precondition for his system of critical hermeneutics, he is however the prime theorist of the relation of the avant-garde to the return of art to everyday life. And, read critically, his work is the point of entry for a theory of the avant-garde for which I am arguing here.

Jochen Schulte-Sasse’s introduction to Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde is useful in that it attempts to differentiate Burger’s work from Poggioli’s, showing first the dominance Poggioli had enjoyed in the area up to this point, but also a certain bias in that it totally ignores the importance of Kristeva’s work which, by the time the introduction had been written, had been around for a decade. He summarises Poggioli as typical of a number of theorists who take as their basis for a definition of the avant-garde the manner in which experimental literary movements adopted a certain scepticism towards language as possible conveyor of truth, and confronted the conventional, clichéd language with experiments in form in order to dislodge those clichés.

This would mean that the history of the avant-garde would be traceable back to the point when a mass market for literature was first established; the essential precondition for a means/ends philosophy that leads to literary cliché becoming so widespread. In other words, back to the eighteenth century, with the cult of the new already in full force in Romanticism as a reaction against the mass market. While these socio-historical conditions are a necessary precursor to the development of the avant-garde, as Schulte-Sasse notes,

Poggioli’s criteria are both historically and theoretically too unspecific; his arguments cannot accomplish what must be the primary task of the “theory of the avant-garde”: to characterize with theoretical accuracy the historical uniqueness of the avant-garde of the 1920s (Futurism, Surrealism, the left avant-garde in Russia and Germany). (Schulte-Sasse X)

In contrast to Schulte-Sasse’s criticism of Poggioli’s being historically unspecific, he praises Burger for the historical and theoretical specificity with which he identifies three clearly separate periods in the history of art in bourgeois society. These are the loosening and eventual severing of the artist’s dependency on a patron, fully achieved by the end of the eighteenth century; the shift towards scepticism toward language and form which occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the beginnings of European literary modernism; and finally the self-conscious realisation of art’s own position within society as a whole at the end of the nineteenth century.

Schulte-Sasse’s conclusion is similar to my own, namely that the American tradition of avant-garde criticism, which disallows any real differentiation between the avant-garde and modernism, means that the specific import of the avant-garde is missed:

Modernism may be understandable as an attack on traditional writing techniques, but the avant-garde can only be understood as an attack meant to alter the institutionalized commerce with art. The social roles of the modernist and the avant-garde artist are, thus, radically different. (Schulte-Sasse XV)

The nature of the methodology that Burger adopts, critical hermeneutics, means that his definition of the avant-garde can never be anything but historicised, and thus the three elements of the avant-garde he highlights as specific to its self-definition, tie into the three periods of the history of bourgeois art that Schulte-Sasse highlights in Burger’s work. The movement away from the feudal system of patronage, and the development for the first time of a mass market for art productions making art collectively a commodity, meant that also for the first time the “category of art” came into being. An assumption made by many critics is that this category is somehow universal and beyond question, but in fact, as Burger notes, the very idea of “works of art” is a historicised aspect of modernity, created from certain social, functional determinants based upon the material and ideational requirements of these works.

These requirements are that “works of art” can be made into a type of commodity and that they affirm the dominant ideology, and also the material conditions of their production and reception, the artist’s relative financial autonomy, and the appearance of a mass audience.[i] Burger concludes: “the singular term ‘institution of art’ highlights the hegemony of one conception of art in bourgeois society” (Burger and Burger 6). Historically, this is essential for the avant-garde for, until art became a category, it was not possible to have a movement based on questioning this category. However, it also has for us a theoretical importance that cannot be over-stressed. Once we accept as critics that art is itself a historicised category, begun in the eighteenth century and finding its full being with Romanticism, then we can begin to move on from the unspecific categories of Poggioli’s criticism, and mount a serious definition of what the avant-garde signifies for us today.[ii] The avant-garde is the first movement actually to question the very basis of the categories of “art” that we still seem to take for granted, and which certainly modernism accepted as necessary preconditions for its own experimentation.

Following the establishment of this category, a rebellion began from the middle of the nineteenth century centred around scepticism towards the mean-ends philosophy that this categorisation of art had introduced. The autonomous art movement that began with Romanticism’s adoption of Kantian intransitiveness, and of individual alienation from the mass of bourgeois society, was a definite attempt to negate the economic basis of art production and reception. The aestheticist stance of the l’art pour l’art movements at the end of the nineteenth century, were an attempt to escape the commodification of art by removing art from the social realm altogether.[iii]

However, as Burger notes through Marcuse’s work on affirmative culture,[iv] such a removal of art from the realm of the social did not undermine the power of bourgeois society, nor even remove art from the equation. Instead, it set up an essential dialectic between society and its other, which allowed for the bourgeois individual to gain legitimation by seeming to practice within a non-utilitarian realm:

All those needs that cannot be satisfied in everyday life, because the principle of competition pervades all spheres, can find a home in art, because art is removed from the praxis of life...In bourgeois society art has a contradictory role: it projects the image of a better order and to that extent protests against the bad order that prevails. But by realizing the image of a better order in fiction, which is semblance only, it relieves the existing society of the pressure of those forces that make for change. Where art accomplishes this, it is ‘affirmative’ in Marcuse’s sense of the term. (Burger, Theory 50)

This is an essential point in the history of bourgeois art, in that it reveals for the first time the two-fold nature of this category, that is that “art in bourgeois society is based on the tension between institution and individual work” (Burger, The Decline of Modernism 18). It is only after this realisation that one cannot undermine the category of art in bourgeois society by removing art from society, in fact one further strengthens this category in doing so, that an avant-garde attack on the institution as such is possible. Such an attack is based on what Burger sees as the primary aim of all historical avant-garde movements: the destruction of the category of art by removing the traditional dichotomy art/life-praxis altogether. Initially, it does this by attacking autonomous art, but it is not merely the stance of a new movement rejecting the past as traditional definitions of the avant-garde would have it, but, because of the historicised nature of autonomous art and all it represents, it is a rejection of the category of art as such. Burger concludes:

In summary, we note that the historical avant-garde movements negate those determinations that are essential in autonomous art: the disjunction of art and the praxis of life, individual production, and individual reception as distinct from the former. The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. This has not occurred, and presumably cannot occur, in bourgeois society... (Burger, Theory 54)

The importance of the avant-garde and of Burger’s definition is not, however, predicated on the success of avant-garde utopian aims. Rather, without it, the idea of the category of art as a historicised aspect of bourgeois society would not be available to us; the reasons behind Romanticism’s cults of the personality, novelty and artistic intransitiveness would be hidden from view; the implications of autonomy in art as affirmative of the dominant culture would not have been seen; and the necessity for self-criticism on the part of critics themselves after the avant-garde’s attack on the institution of art would be unknown to us.[v]

Without the avant-garde we are not equipped with the critical tools to define the avant-garde, nor literary modernity as a whole. It is at this point that Burger stops, relegating the avant-garde to a brief historical rebellion against the very category of art as such, which did not succeed, but, rather, produced the conditions for a complete definition of this category and in this sense strengthened its totalising dominance.[vi] The failure of the avant-garde is the point when we, as critics, come to see the success of the category of art, and in this way art remains as conservative and affirmative as it ever was. However, what has changed in a radical fashion is criticism itself which, provided with the full history of the category of art in bourgeois society, is now able to move beyond the categories of Romantic criticism into a new critical language. In this way, then, the work of the avant-garde is being carried out on a different front, that of critical theory, and Julia Kristeva’s definition of the avant-garde is testimony to this.

[i]For a fuller analysis of this process see Peter Burger, “The Institution of Art as a Category of the Sociology of Literature,” Burger and Burger 3-29.
[ii]Essentially, this is not one of my aims here, except that, because of the particular nature of the relationship between the avant-garde and the practice of criticism, it is vital to make clear to what degree my own critical assumptions are historically part of the avant-garde’s conflict with the dominant category of art.
[iii]Their methodologies were varied combining hermeticism, scandalous material, self-immersion, utilisation of non-western material particularly the oriental, wilful difficulty, exploration of taboo or occult themes, self-publishing and so on. Each was designed to stress that art existed for itself, merely by showing that it did not exist for any other use. Burger notes how, in this manner, autonomous art took on the mantle left by the collapse of religion. It did this by fulfilling three definitions of the role of religion: a separation of this world and an other world, the development of a form of independent value, and the presence of a figure beyond the quotidian demands of bourgeois society. And so, from Romanticism onwards, certain artists were stressing an essential distance between society and their own aesthetic world, attempting to develop forms beyond the demands of commodification and setting themselves up as geniuses with god-like insights.
[iv]For the full debate on Marcuse’s conception of the “affirmative,” see Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde 50-54, also Schulte-Sasse XXXV-XXXVI.
[v]Hopefully, this should make clear that the avant-garde is not one movement amongst movements, but the point where the concept of art as a series of movements, moving forward in a teleological manner, comes up against its other. The avant-garde demands that “art” question its own existence. It is the point when modernity is deconstructed by being revealed as seeking to define the set of which it is also a part. This set is everything that we consider to be “art.” All that we used as meta-categories for establishing literary history is revealed as itself a part of the historical process of modern, bourgeois art. Which throws into question the idea of a linear literary history altogether, in fact makes such a history impossible to realise, and because of this throws into question what “art” itself is.
[vi]An ironic point which Burger makes later on is, that the ingenuity and rigour with which the avant-garde set about destroying the categories of art meant that, once their utopian project failed, these categories were enriched by a whole new set of categories. This is the basis for his dismissal of the neo-avant-garde, of which the New York School is a part. He sees their experimentation in the same manner as that of modernism, that is a renewal of the power of the category of art by providing it with ever more rich affirmative others. Burger will only concede that the definition of the avant-garde, an attempt to return art to life-praxis, is a historical phenomenon tied into the three historical conditions: the category of art, the autonomy of art, the attack on autonomy. These conditions exist in time and they cannot be repeated.