Meanland: For and against a digital avant-garde

poster_perdu_flarfOne 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the arrival of a ‘postmodern condition’ by denouncing radical Marxist politics as well as artistic iconoclasm as outdated ‘grand narratives’, we have been more or less expected to view any attempt at challenging the status quo by either revolutionaries or radical artists as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.

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

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  1. Interested to have you make your case but a couple of devil’s advocate type questions:

    Williams talks about the way modernist forms were transmitted from a few metropolitan centres, assisting them to become universalised and therefore institutionalised (while also effacing other forms of modern artistic expression, eg realism). You could argue that this transmission becomes truly ubiquitous (global) with digital media or is there a way in which this technology works against such universalisation? Not sure I understand why particularly a digital avant garde.

    – the original avant garde was uniquely focussed on the category of art and aesthetic form, pressing it into a kind of agonistic relation with social life. It does seem in retrospect that one side or the other had to give, with either art transforming social life or capitalism appropriating modernist forms. As it turned out, it was the latter. How can we now speak of an avant garde given this defeat other than as a kind of generic label for interesting and experimental artwork? What is it that now gives coherence to the avant garde as a category? Surely not just a superior form of ideological critique?

    1. Thanks for the wonderful questions, Gary.

      An answer to the first question would be that technology — digital or otherwise — has always been of interest to artists aiming to explore/advocate new ideas and new aesthetics. But that’s not at all to dismiss William’s point, as you’ve put it, or the critique of Flarf poetry that I actually referenced in the piece.

      Your second question pretty much sums up many of my own misgivings about experimentalism for experimentalism’s sake. Many would of course desist from using the term ‘avant-garde’ for precisely the reason you’ve mentioned, and would instead use ‘post-avant’ or, yes, ‘experimentalist’, or ‘hybrid’, etc. I like ‘avant-garde’ as it denotes an oppositional/combative quality, the very thing missing from so much contemporary experimentalist work. But I don’t at all see it as a ‘superior’ form of ideological critique, but as one among many (including radical realism) worth thinking about.

  2. Yes Ali, there can be “such a thing as a digital avant-garde”. The world is a play of almost infinite possibilities, and probability is so much flarf: the chance of one thing happening is equal to the chance of other things happening. The criticism you cite by Dan Hoy in Jacket Magazine is the more interesting point to me.

    Lyotard may have denounced radical Marxist politics and artistic iconoclasm as outdated grand narratives, as you say, but he was right in respect of the ossified language and ideas associated with such master narratives. The world moved on and the oppositional discourse didn’t. So, to Hoy’s point about a dependency on corporate tools (such as Google) to do the researching.

    There is no greater corporate tool than the English language, which gave Google its supremacy. (Mandarin may control the internet in the future, who knows?) Considering the old language of the oppositional master narratives didn’t work, Leftist social critiques and cultural forms can hardly be expected to invent their own natural language, so why invent a digital language? Stuff like flarfing may be the only way to go.

    The way to test flarfing as an oppositional poetic form is to give it a go in the digital mainstream. As one of its editors, why not propose flarfing as a subversive avante-garde theme for Cordite Poetry Review? From memory there was a poem in the Creative Commons issue (Flarfing Ginsberg, by Pascalle Burton)where the one comment said something like: “YES- less flarfing / more Ginsberg on poetry websites!”

    No point in dying wondering.

      1. Thanks for the links, Benjamin. As you say, Cordite did go down a similar road to Flarf some time ago. Still, there is the question of a critically oppositional avant-garde advocating social change: being actively/performatively subversive. With almost non-existent skills in the area, the whole code/poetry, poetry/code thing, circa 2005, remains beyond my grasp. The natural language manipulations of Gnoetry Daily intrigued me though. Again, thanks.

        1. Thanks Dennis & Benjamin.

          Re: Cordite, yes, there was the 2004 issue which could be of relevance here, and there’s also the forthcoming ‘electronica’ issue. That said, the idea of Flarfing as a subversive avant-garde theme certainly sounds interesting. I’ll keep it in mind. (Although I’m only the reviews editor …)

          As for Dennis’s other interesting points, I’m not entirely sure if the average postmodernist’s contempt for oppositional politics/poetics was so much a result of the ossification of radicalism, as much as it was the consequence of a deliberate turn away from radicalism towards democratic pluralism, consumerism, etc. (In other words, a move from Left to centre.) I’m not sure if I’d agree with you that ‘the old language of the oppositional master narratives didn’t work’, but I agree with you that language is of central importance here; so Flarf could be a way to go, but not the only way.

  3. The issue of a contemporary avant-garde (or of neo-avant-gardes versus the historical avant-gardes) is more complicated than what is discussed here, I think. As Peter Burger (in A Theory of the Avant-Garde) and Paul Mann (in the Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde) have noted, the question lies in what meaning avant-garde gestures can have in a culture in which the avant-garde gesture has itself now been absorbed into the social institution of art–an accomplished feat as a visit to any good museum will attest. Now that the avant-garde gesture has been incorporated by the institution of art itself, how can it retain anything like its original oppositional power, which was accompanied by the shock of the new? There are many ways of responding to this situation (including a variety of possibilities ignored by both Mann and Burger’s oddly restrictive analyses), but whether or not Flarf poetry contains an oppositional ideology at is core has little to do with the possibility of a contemporary avant-garde in any meaningful sense.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Emmett. Much appreciated.

    I can see why you and your sources see the avant-garde gesture — if seen as nothing but a performative gesture — as a thing of the past. But the point I’ve been trying to make here is that (some) Flarf poetry does have an oppositional power. I’m also not sure if I agree with you that ‘oppositional ideology’ (something of an oxymoron, incidentally, from a Marxist perspective) has little to with the possibility of a contemporary avant-garde. I feel without an oppositional poetics/aesthetics (or without artistic militancy, in Badiou’s sense) a work of art, no matter how formally innovative and so on, can’t really be ‘new’.

    1. I don’t think this objection can be dismissed so easily: Flarf is not really new, but recreates and repeats a series of previous avant-garde experiments (such as Dadaist word salad, to take one example out of many). In this sense, the question is whether Flarf can even be an avant-garde in any meaningful sense, since its form is indebted to tradition, rather than truly novel. This problem can’t simply be dismissed by referring to the political orientation of a specific work because it is a systemic problem for the institution of art…If Flarf is to be called an avant-garde, then the term “avant-garde” means something very different than it did in the past.

    2. Thanks Ali, for the precision and generosity of your reply. Without wishing to be too picky (the old left exhausted itself cannibalising like-minded ideas) a couple of points:

      * I wasn’t suggesting flarf as the only way to go: I was being deliberately imprecise- “stuff like flarf”- so as not to preempt future possibilities, language or no.

      * If the postmodern turn (by a minority, politically committed left)was not the result of an ossification of radicalism, then why the turn to the fuzzy field of desire? That is, why the alienation from the left?

      Other than that- a great post! Thanks.

  5. The newness of flarf comes from its context. It is not simply collage or cutup but involves new procedures where the sources are un-predetermined: I think this is different to dada. It sources in a sense (often) bad writing of a kind that didnt exist in the early 20th century. Its undecorousness is however what is mainly new about it. I think it pisses off a different range of literary groups, or types of readers, or at least did a few years ago. There is perhaps even something about its cooptedness which is new. The digital does create new possibilities,or we cd say the car is the same as a horse. It is! Ali I liked yr post, but perhaps u downplay yr own role too much. I think the issue is not whether texts are oppositional or not, have political potential or not, but whether we read that potential or not. I’m sure you cd come up with radical readings of fluffier texts .. Best, Michael

    1. Thanks, Michael. Excellent points. I think you’re absolutely right in saying that Flarf’s newness and its efficacy depend a lot on its context, on its being anti-Netiquette. About my own role, you’re right there too. It’s something I’m not at all trying to hide, although I wouldn’t overemphasise it in this particular case either; the poem of Magee’s that I’ve looked at in this blog really does lend itself to a radical reading.

  6. Ali, sorry to be a couple of weeks late here (consider it a derrière garde gesture) but there’s a few points worth making here:
    First, I think the commonplace association between Flarf and search engine techniques is both overstated and a limiting view of what Flarf was (I believe past tense is appropriate though the main protagonists are still producing innovative work). The digital aspect which was just as interesting was the collaborative, community one that first brought the protagonists together. The immediate political context, as Michael pointed out above, was within literary circles and in stretching what could be considered literature.
    Second, I think that though the digital played a key role in Flarf, the protagonists did not use the internet as radically as they might have – as a means of distribution (in terms of spreading the work, for example, the Flarf mailing list remained closed and in many ways exclusive) or even to create new forms (as many experimentalists have done over the last decade or more). But what they did was to use the vast resource of information that became easily available – as Nada Gordon put it in a 2003 interview “The world is just one great big beautiful verbal quarry, after all” – but this information, as you’ve shown in your example above, is radically flattened as indifferent data. Thus an overtly “important statement” about politics appears on the same level as “banal personal” gossip. Having said that, their appropriations of this information were certainly not random. I do think there was some sense in which Flarf was a kind of an oppositional cultural moment – but in the context of Bush’s USA from 2001-08ish (I discussed this further in Louis Armand’s “Hidden Agendas”).
    The final point is about locality, and, despite the internet and the global etc, Flarf was in some ways intensely local – performance was a key aspect of Flarf, with real people in the flesh, and community coming together in laughter (see Bataille, Blanchot, Nancy et al).

    Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking piece Ali

    More details on specific Flarf books here:

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