What follows is a brief account of avant-garde cooptation at work in conceptual writing and the related practice of “curating” digital archives of experimental art and literature.
First what was the avant-garde? Not easily pinned down, it is usually taken for granted as a 20th century genealogy of passionate formal innovation and traditional destruction in literature and art. The frustrated enthusiasm of the militant (“avant-garde”) poet or artist was its strong affect, consonant with the left (and some right) figures during the interwar period. They cultivated a revolutionary commitment to their historical circumstance. The historical avant-garde was a rupture (with precursors) in the 20th century’s second decade, with its Great War, its age of revolutions. The avant-garde’s various formal means and novelties,—or deconstructed reinventions of their media—conveyed a disgusted rejection of inert genre, continuous composition, and cultural institutions, before self-consciously developing into a cultural revolutionary mode across one arc of the century.
This second decade of the 20th century phenomenon is now quite historically distant from us. In our own time it might help instead to keep in mind the “neo-avantgarde” of the postwar period, their encounters with the commodity culture of the becoming-postmodern spectacle. From Gruppo 63 and the Situationists, to AACM, the Black Arts, Chicano Arts, Fluxus, Language writing, etc., their goal was nothing short of the remaking of every aspect of experience in daily life,—in a struggle with capitalism and imperialism in some cases—or total social transformation. These avant-gardes evolved in new situation of fully developed productive forces in the context of the postwar boom, along with its televisual and commodity spectacle. These material conditions are fundamentally similar to our own time.
As an editor of a poetry journal called Lana Turner, I’m wondering about what’s happening to some conceptual writing, a formally vanguard “literature,” some of whose representatives we’ve published, that finds itself increasingly incorporated into neo-liberal capitalism’s hegemonic public-private cultural institutions, with their known track record of normalizing and neutralizing even sometime political or artistic antagonists. In the small avant-garde literary world the academy is chief among such institutions. This institutionalization and taming of the avant-garde is one version of cooptation. Some current crosscutting developments in academic and para-academic poetry institutions, digital archives and “curatorial practice,” and a few post-Language writing aesthetic movements—at the University of Pennsylvania affiliated PennSound website and Massive Online Open Course (MOOC), The University of Utah’s Eclipse Archive, The Poetry Foundation website and cross-platform poetry application, Ubu Web, etc.—seek to create what I suggest are universal but also, as a weird consequence, neutralized and depoliticized archives of avant-garde literature: at least where they comprise digital appropriations, a sort of ambiguous, even omnivorous curatorial activity.
Digitized texts today—loose, smooth, or clunky—flow in a quasi-animated fashion. (Animation is most prominent in video poems; digitization may be animation’s secret triumph on screen, particularly today in film, as J. Hoberman has noted recently.)[i] Texts from past historical eras, in a kind of online avant-garde version of Google Books — those of Surrealism, Dada, and Futurism, Language writing, conceptual art, and sound poetry — appear to float alongside one another, uprooted from their historical particularity, their concrete, orchestrated determinations (and actual distance from us) in journal, books, pamphlet, performance, talk, or reading. Rooted in academic or para-academic contexts, these new digital archives, richly backward looking, seem distinct from the avant-garde dream of the transformation of daily existence on every imaginable scale — especially as the academy in this post-bailout, quantitative easing period, embraces a more thoroughgoing form of neo-liberalism’s employers’ offensive, with various forms of “cost-cutting” (MOOC-ification, for instance) now on the horizon, with job and course cuts to be expected. I would here note again that modern and postmodern American poetry is now offered by Coursera and taught by University of Pennsylvania Professor and Modernism scholar Al Filreis, a colleague of Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, and Kenneth Goldsmith. MOOCs—these counterrevolutions of the classroom, transforming universities traditional roles as teacher training centers—have now made thinkable a further elimination of teaching positions, academic hiring, and the training of the K-12 teachers. Whole sections of the public sector may become technologically obsolete. Presented as a technological solution to the “crisis” of higher education, MOOCs are a notorious instance of the fetish of commodities; in this case the social relation this supposedly progressive (“free”) technology stands in for is nothing other than the academic version of the employers’ offensive.[ii]
Is one part of the contemporary literary avant-garde becoming a neoliberal para-academic apparatus, an animated textual spectacle itself “a combinatory system, which spits about affordable dissent and acceptable novelty,” in McKenzie Wark’s phrase?[iii] Poet Kent Johnson has argued recently that on balance, a previous oppositional, even Marxist “neo-avantgarde” (in the case of Gruppo 63, the Situationists, various Latin American examples, Marcel Broodthaers, etc.) emerges today shorn of its historically consequential edge of political or broadly socio-cultural effectuality. Today’s conceptualist and digital-curatorial avant-garde seems to take the shape of a conservatory of the 20th century avant-garde, without a clear periodization with respect to its historical development (transformation of the base and superstructure), like the one I sketched at the outset of my remarks.
But then cooptation is just a part of uncreative (conceptual) writing’s practice of borrowing, copying, plagiarizing, etc. without what the Situationists called détournement, or those provisional artistic attempts to turn the capitalist spectacle against itself. The contemporary mode of conceptualist appropriation instead bears some resemblance to the unlimited freedom of property assumed by certain corporate actors, the appropriation of everything that has meaning or value. It is a sign of the times that the term cooptation (or recuperation) has lost its pointed charge; and different baroque versions of found text procedure have been elevated again to renewed acclaim. The build out of online archives of avant-garde literature, with Ubu Web chief among them, is akin to the conceptual writing mode, deeply indebted to coopted texts, digitization, recorded voices, with their submerged histories.
The extraordinary combined avant-garde archive available at Ubu Web, Penn Sound, University of Utah’s Eclipse site, and certain elements of the Poetry Foundation Website (its browse poems button has a “poems by Language poets” feature) is certainly unique in its grand survey of the North American and international 20th century’s innovative, ground-gained poetics. The digital archives of various conceptualists assure the prestigious, literary monumentality of the appropriation technique. But in one bold stroke unsorted pieces of the past of avant-garde art and literature are coopted into the conceptual writing oeuvre, with conceptual writing as the teleological end of a kind history of the avant-garde as literary fashion.
The mode of online presentation (putting things up, pasting/copying, claiming/re-claiming; Ben Lerner: “most of these lines have been control x’d and control v’d”) is at least partially captured by a certain neoliberal process or model (for Kenneth Goldsmith, the internet is the relevant conceit of conceptual writing practice), so I’m also wondering today about what happens when the determinate differences between the movements of these earlier periods, the politics, historical openings, and possibilities that gave rise to them are largely left offstage? They can’t be easily digitized and animated on screen. Indeed what has progressive poetic education been if not a kind of attunement to the linguistically and formally inventive (meaningful, effectual) response to social struggles, societal transformation? An avant-garde “uncompromisingly advanced in form, intransigently popular in intention”—such was the old antinomy of cultural innovation entangled with the imperialist world.[iv] If these figures and processes of conceptual writing and the digital archives largely coopt the genealogy of the avant-garde, they risk reducing the political possibilities and openness of the past, its collective and revolutionary example of breaking with the example of fashion and tradition.
But there is also some new song (that old bad thing) slouching out of the megacity today, a left political aesthetic development forged in the crucible of perilous circumstance, one distinct from conceptual writing and the digital curatorial practices I’ve described above. Today another sort of avant-garde poetry is emerging, steeled in post-financial crisis anti-austerity struggles, like those in 2009 that preceded Occupy on UC campuses and other parts of the public sector, but one that is also global in reach, a “post-crisis poetics,” as Brian Ang calls it: from Moscow’s Kirill Medvedev, and the young Pavel Arsenev in Saint Petersburg’s poetry and activist video scene; to the radical poets of London and the UK, Sean Bonney among them; and to those working this vein in the rock here in California, where Lyn Hejinian has identified an activist poetic avant-garde’s emergence in the Bay Area. A social poesis cuts across my examples here, a practice that takes the form of an insurrectionary poem, an upstart or residually Marxist publication, a poster slogan, a roared chant, or an activist video of a “sick” demo. Partly informed by a neo-orthodox Marxist economic and historical perspective, or even just a loose metaphorical atmosphere of far left anti-capitalism available on social media platforms, there’s a concomitant online magazine and editorial dimension at work today. A new crop of magazines and journals in on the act does some of the work of careful and discriminating selection, keeping all the erasers in order.
[i] See J. Hoberman, Film after Film, New York: Verso, 2012.
[ii] For more on the “employers’ offensive,” see Robert Brenner’s “Structure vs. Conjuncture,” New Left Review, II, 43, January-February 2007. Brenner is one of the most formidable contemporary Marxist historians. A brief excerpt: “From the mid-60s the rate of return on capital began to fall, and continued to do so over the next decade and a half, reducing the pre-tax rate of return for non-financial corporations by 35 per cent between 1965 and 1979; and introducing, from 1973, an extended epoch of stagnation and crisis of even greater length than the postwar boom. In response, employers unleashed an intensifying assault on labour organization and working-class living standards that has not abated to this day. The ‘Great Society’ increases in social spending and business regulation had been premised upon a regime of high profits, economic expansion, and the taming of working-class and other social rebellions.”
[iii] See the forthcoming Lana Turner: a Journal of Poetry and Opinion, no. 7, fall 2014.
[iv] See Adorno, Benjamin, et al., “Presentation II,” Aesthetics and Politics, New York: Verso, 2007.
Poet David Lau grew up in Long Beach, California. He has described his family as a “Chicano-Chinese and Anglo household.” He earned degrees from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The poems in his first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat (2009), were described by the Believer’s Dominic Luxford as...