One of the more prevalent perceptions propagated by the dominant ideologies of the last few decades has been the belief in the death of the avant-garde. Ever since the ex-Leftist French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard decided to announce the arrival of a ‘postmodern condition’ by denouncing radical Marxist politics as well as artistic iconoclasm as outdated ‘grand narratives’, we have been more or less expected to view any attempt at challenging the status quo by either revolutionaries or radical artists as ineffectual and passé. But can the internet, the postmodernist tool par excellence, be used subversively as a means for creating confronting, cutting edge art? Can there be such a thing as a digital avant-garde?
I’d like to begin this blog by citing the great Welsh thinker Raymond Williams’s definition of the original avant-garde – that is, the ‘fully oppositional type’ of modernist artists who were active, mostly in Europe, in late nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries – from his essay, ‘The Politics of the Avant-Garde’:
The avant-garde, aggressive from the beginning, saw itself as the breakthrough to the future: its members were not bearers of a progress already repetitiously defined, but the militants of a creativity which would revive and liberate humanity.
The extent to which Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists and other avant-gardists of the period to which Williams is referring succeeded in ‘reviving and liberating humanity’ is, of course, rather debatable; and as Williams points out later in the same essay, many of the techniques and experiments of these artists were coopted by mainstream capitalist cultures in areas of mass entertainment, popular culture, advertising, and so on. But the confrontational militancy of many early avant-garde artists’ works – whether the ‘slap in the face of public taste’ delivered by Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Communist Futurist poetry, or the shock of Mina Loy’s sexually explicit feminist, anti-romantic Love Songs, or the graphic violence and bizarre perversions of Un Chien Andalou – remains, after all these decades, potent and undeniable.
The purpose of this blog is to briefly address the possibility or otherwise of the emergence of an avant-garde in the digital milieu. I’d like to focus on the recent US poetic collective Flarf, which has been dubbed ‘an experimental poetry movement’ by Shell Fischer in a 2009 article. According to Fischer, the Flarf poets ‘prowl the Internet using random word searches, e-mail the bizarre results to one another, then distil the newly found phrases into poems that are often as disturbing as they are hilarious’. The resulting work has been described by one favourable commentator as ‘subversive’ and by another as a poetry that ‘often takes the form of social critique’, but also criticised by poet Dan Hoy in Jacket magazine for its creators’ ‘wilful dependency on corporate tools to do the searching, selecting, and contextualizing of poetic material, with no intra-textual suspicion or extra-textual analysis of the tool itself or what this means for the ‘product’ that’s being made’.
I’d like to suggest reading a Flarf poem as a way to evaluate viewing the artistic experiment as either a properly ‘subversive’ and ‘critical’ avant-garde movement or a shallow consumerist fad which, in Hoy’s words, sees ‘Google as a utilitarian tool without also acknowledging its [corporate, capitalist] ideological architecture’. A good selection of poems by a number of writers who identify themselves as Flarf poets can be found in issue 30 of Jacket magazine, and I’d like to take a closer look at Michael Magee’s ‘Fascist Fairytales 36’ as it appears in this selection.
The poem, written as an obviously bogus theatre script divided into three ‘Acts’, is an unabashedly fragmented and incoherent dialogue between the characters of Margaret Thatcher and the Sphinx. With absurd and provocative statements such as ‘Perfect competition is like virginity: it triggered a further doubling of crude oil’, ‘The nun agrees but asks for anal sex so she might keep her virginity’ and ‘Fearing a nuclear holocaust Margaret Thatcher integrates them into an enjoyable romance’, this poem indeed brings to mind the avant-gardist literature of early twentieth century.
But does it also advocate a radical, emancipatory politics, or does it instead view power and hegemony with a routine (postmodernist) irony and satire à la an episode of South Park? Magee’s poem is clearly a political piece as it references, among other things, the 1980s UK Miners’ Strike and the 1996 Comprehensive Ban Treaty. But I find that its political engagement goes beyond simply citing political issues by actually challenging dominant capitalist ideology. In my reading of this poem, its heady, chaotic conflation of sexual, political, economical, scientific and cultural concepts not only playfully reflects the absurdities of contemporary life but, more importantly, it names and exposes our deleterious willingness to believe in these absurdities.
Consider, for example, these lines from the second section of the poem:
A great percentage of prostitutes boast entire lingerie wardrobes in pink, act of rebellion. The pituitary glands of dead Meat and Livestock may be kept secret.
THATCHER: Bottoms Up, Threshers and Victoria!
Here the presentation of sexual exploitation and consumerism – ‘prostitutes [who] boast entire lingerie wardrobes’ – as radical action is not a clever tragicomical send-up but, as shown in the following line, an indirect naming of the obscene ‘secret’ of capitalist economy. ‘The pituitary glands’ – that is, the crucial part of the brain that generates hormones – of corporations such as Meat and Livestock do not generate supposedly healthy competition or a rational pursuit of happiness, but instead produce irrational fantasies which manipulate us into seeing exploitation and consumption as enticing ‘acts of rebellion’. The grotesquely candid Thatcher of Magee’s poem – to be contrasted with the odiously sanitised portrayal of ‘the Iron Lady’ in a forthcoming Hollywood movie – is rattled by the truth of this revelation, and shouts out the names of the independent British alcohol retailers that entered into administration partly due to her ruinous, free market policies.
The success of an avant-garde work of art cannot be assessed in terms of the work’s ability to singlehandedly foment social and political change – no cultural product, no matter how widely available or publicised, is capable of doing that – but such a work’s value should be seen in its willingness to participate in an experimental artistic movement with the aim of contributing to a break with mainstream culture and ruling class ideology. As such, I believe the Flarf poem that I have very briefly discussed in this blog can be seen as a properly radical work.
I will stop short of describing the entire Flarf oeuvre in this way because many poems associated with the movement are in my view, if I may be forgiven a pun, fluff, i.e. rather superficial linguistic playfulness with little to no discernable political or antagonistic notion. But a similar point could be made about any artistic movement. Based on digitally produced poems such as Michael Magee’s ‘Fascist Fairytales 36’, I believe the internet has the potential to enable and host a genuinely avant-gardist formation.