Professor Lindsay Thomas
October 27, 2016
“Fuck the Avant-Garde:” Books on the Verge of Extinction
Were I willing to endure the inconveniences that accompany arrest and prosecution, I would surely tote a box cutter to every gallery, a cream pie to every author reading, a handheld air horn to every concert. For the readings in Unit 3 and the class discussions by which we have interrogated them have dragged to the light a notion that has mumbled in the eldritch shadows of consciousness’s edge for a long time: Pushed to first one extreme then another by Modernism, Postmodernism, Whatever-Followed-Postmodernism, and now by the technological accident of the digital revolution, books and reading (and art and music) have painted themselves into a corner from which no escape is possible. The vanguard has room for no further advance. “The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards,” writes Cathy Park Hong in her provocative if unsatisfying essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” (5)
The quandary in which the avant-garde, experimental fiction, etc., etc., find themselves is no surprise. Evidence exists to argue that the avant-garde is by nature reactionary—Eliot, anyone? Pound? Thomas Mann? Modernism, for example, was “petrified” at its birth. Ezra Pound’s enduring declaration, “Make It New!”, was already ancient the first time he uttered it, having been poached directly from a 17th century Japanese writer. (North) Or consider Italian Futurism: Its rise paralleled the triumph of fascism, with its leader, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, lent his pen to Mussolini as a part-time speechwriter. (Morgan)
Hong focuses narrowly on “identity politics,” seeking to prove the systematic exclusion of avant-garde writers of color. (3) As a good white liberal, I have no quarrel with identity politics as a subject of inquiry. Hong’s argument persuades. Further, it must be noted that Hong’s essay is a work of social and political analysis, not, as it first appears, literary criticism. Is it too much to expect a close analysis of a handful of verses by various poets? That said, Hong’s social and political critique of racism in avant-garde poetry proves so powerful as to gain an aura that extends beyond its immediate depth of field:
“To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition. From its early 20th century inception to some of its current strains, American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment.” (2)
To the extent that “avant-garde” is synonymous with “experimental,” we may substitute for “racist” words such as “conservative,” or “corporatist,” or “capitalist,” or “careerist,” or any number of other words relating to establishment power and white (and male) privilege. Such substitution does no violence to Hong’s identity politics argument, for it is axiomatic that racism is a meme, in the strict Dawkinsinian sense, (Dawkins, Chapt. 11). It exists to fortify and preserve existing power structures. Despite its insistence on the “new,” or the “experimental,” avant-garde poetry serves a similar reactionary function. That is why the avant-garde has been racist, from Pound to Perloff (Hong, 4), its capacity for change confined to the bound pages of a small coterie of white poets. Letting in obviously eligible poets of color, from the Black Arts Movement, say, or the Harlem Renaissance, would have thrust real change upon the power structures that most privilege the white careerist poets and scholars in position to anoint themselves gatekeepers of the avant-garde (3)
In declaring, at the conclusion of her essay, that “[poets of color] must hew our own path,” Hong comes close to the aesthetic of destruction implied on every page of Galerie de Deformite. She rejects the ossified conventions of the establishment avant-garde, which she here calls “conceptual writing,” deeming it “pathetically outdated and formulaic.” (5) The answer, she insists, lies in the work of the avant-garde of color, and its most useful tool, code-switching. (5) While an aggressive push for emerging, code-switching, outsider writers is always to be applauded, success will gain only access to an already comprised and exhausted artistic tradition. In a larger sense, what is needed is not a reformation, but an annhihilation—a Ragnorok, a dance of Shiva, an Apocalypse, or in terms of Gretchen E. Hernderson, a deformation. No one has presented this state of affairs with more cleverness and clarity than Henderson and David Shields. In Reality Hunger (2010) Shields attempts the obliteration of what the author views as the illusion of authorship by creating a narrative made entirely of other people’s words. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité resurrects the book vampire-like, by using its corpse as the medium for a visual work of art.
In this way, Shields and Henderson attack the problem from, respectively, the realm of experimental literature, and that of the art book. These forms are more alike than different. An art book is the work of an artist/writer who uses the materiality of the book to create a work of visual art. The book is usually destroyed in the process. Galerie de Defformité, created for the purpose, invites reader participation on page 4: “To start deforming, turn to page 229.” An experimental book on the other hand, disassembles the content rather than the physical form of the book. As Henderson does both, her book is simultaneously an art book and an experimental book, but it is far and away more fully the former than the latter. Reality Hunger is entirely a work of experimental literature. And yet, both share commonalities. Most striking is the way each makes collage a primary technique.
Also in common, Galerie and Reality Hunger are the embodiment of ideas rather than actual books to be read. Galerie is more a puzzle, or a game, or a snipe hunt. While Reality Hunger may presage a future without authorship or copyright, it has not spawned a new genre of sampled novels or stories. In the short term, at least, Hong’s perspective seems likeliest to influence writers, readers, or books—if only because it includes actual writers, readers, and books.
Hong, Cathy Park. “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” _Lana Turner Journal. _Nov. 3, 2014, p. 5.
Morgan, Robert C. “Italian Futurism, Or the Lesson of Art and Politics.” Hyperallergic. March 14, 2014, web. Accessed October 27, 2016.
Hong, p. 6.
North, Michael. “The Making of ‘Make It New’.” Guernica, August 15, 2013, web. Accessed October 28, 2016.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1976.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Knopf. New York, 2010.
Henderson, Gretchen E. Galerie de Difformité. &Now Books. Lake Forest, IL. 2011.