The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde.
"The avant-garde is not the victim of recuperation but its agent, its proper technology," Mann begins a chapter titled "The Germ of Consent," adding, as metacomment, "this formula ... has begun to take on a sort of banner tone here, as if it were already reaching out of the text to inscribe itself on a dust jacket" (92). Here, as throughout, he is alert to the potential of germinating a concession in his own text, consenting to the inevitability of recuperation. He is dangerously close to having written the last word on the avant-garde and is acutely discomforted by his awareness that even the last word is a point of embarkation for a renewed series of comments, a soap or sitcom of the ongoing saga of The Death of the Avant-Garde perpetually reinscribed in each new theory--the vanguard floating in a preservative solution as in a pathology exhibit, in "a state of discursive supersaturation in which advanced art comes to exist only in a kind of suspended animation," and this discourse is itself "lost in hypnotic fixation on images of its own containment" (33).(2) The arrested gaze is most likely that of the media junkie, in whom the hominid legacy of hand-eye coordination has culminated in the digital manipulation of remote-control buttons, feasting on the televisual menu of appetites engineered in advance of any primal desire. The vanguard, Mann seems to suggest, is an unwitting (and at times witless) subcontractor at the construction site of new technologies of containment. "The avant-garde was launched by the bourgeoisie and is locked into a decaying orbit around it"; "to be avant-garde is already to be bourgeois precisely by one's commitment to innovation"; "the contradiction encompassed by resistance and accommodation [is] the avant-garde's most basic structure and driving force" (81, 68, 9; emphases added).
Mann's treatment of the avant-garde as a technology finds a useful corollary in Paul Virilio's suggestion that beside every museum of industry there should be a museum of accidents.(3) The guidebook for such museums (which would also gratify the vanguard compulsion to fetishize difference) could be J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. This would reinforce the view that technology is pathology--with Jayne Mansfield's severed head and JFK's brain as salient icons of the auto industry--and also accentuate Mann's basic preoccupation: "The avant-garde's historical agony is grounded in the brutal paradox of an opposition that sustains what it opposes precisely by opposing it" (11). The vocabulary of ritual violence speaks to the paradox that vanguard aggression is outfoxed by rival brutalities. But there is a further outrage. After 150 years of bourgeois repossession of the vehicles of the avant-garde, one has to wonder to what extent this entails an artistic complicity, and whether the avant-garde is a vanguard in name only, "a processed opposition" (86). Citing William Burroughs's dictum that the most successful police state needs no police, Mann wearily concedes, "For us, the avant-garde is its avant-guardian" (76). The traditional bourgeois recuperation of the avant-garde has become a mode of production, a "precuperation" (140).
At this point it's best to exhibit facets of Mann's thesis in terms of its periodic nomenclature: recuperation, resistance, colonization. RECUPERATION: "Recuperation is the syntax of cultural discourse, its elementary propositional form. It is the spectacle of the internalization of margins, the revelation of the effective complicity of opposition" (15). This is the elementary form of a double bind vexing the traditional avant-garde, giving rise to a corollary thesis on RESISTANCE: "The avant-garde is ... the official narrative of the futility of resistance, the futility of the anti itself" (88). Or, in Gregory Lukow's formulation: "'Dissent no longer needs to be neutralized. It is part of the act of submission'" (118). In the Derridean term that probably has broader application than any other, the "anti" is always already recuperated to the "pro": the dialectic makes it so. "To act against bourgeois culture on any level is also to act in its name [because it is! a dialectical system that relies on internal oppositions in order to sustain and advance itself. Modern culture can only progress by a kind of internalized violence; it must continually attack itself in order to survive and prosper" (11). The precise term for this is "endocolonization," exemplified in collage, which "juxtaposes fragmented and discontinuous signs in order to develop a syntax for normalizing their contradictions" and is thus by analogy "a program for encoding the marginal without eliminating its utility as margin" (106). COLONIZATION:
The avant-garde colonizes the extra-aesthetic, the extra-cultural, the
discursive; as always, advanced art is not only recuperated but is itself a
recuperative function. An internalized exterior: precisely the figure of the
The end of the avant-garde is the reorganization of cultural space. The
culture industry uses its vanguard to remap the foreign as a margin, a site
comprehensible only in relation to itself.
(78-79) By this route Mann discerns--but fails to pursue--the real force of the military thinking from which the term "avant-garde" derives.
In Pure War, Paul Virilio argues that a congenital underdevelopment of a nation's population is the direct consequence of a perpetual escalation of the stakes of "preparedness" for war.(4) Mann appears not to have included Virilio in his lexicon of conceptual resources;(5) nor does Virilio, for that matter, concern himself with the avant-garde; but to link the avant-garde with colonial depredations, as Mann does, is implicitly to map an isomorphic resonance between artistic and military vanguards. We might fruitfully consider, for instance, that symbiotic juncture of 1848, when the incipient vanguard (in the person of Baudelaire) takes to the streets in civil discord. The rites of a coercive nationalism, undertaken in a spirit of postrevolutionary paranoia, consolidate the bourgeoisie, which in turn becomes chief target of artistic insolence (or its variant, aesthetic disavowal of worldliness). A more fully historicized thesis than Mann attempts might consider the bourgeoisie not simply as an emergent socioeconomic class enfranchised shortly before the avant-garde arose in protest of its ascendancy, but rather as that class consolidated by nation-states mobilizing for "pure war." Such a thesis would of course have to study the early penetration of the armaments industry into modes of industrial production--and it would be imperative to recognize that everything meant by "industry" has been virtually synonymous with militarization. The advantage would be to enable us to recognize that the continuity of the avant-garde may well be dependent on a continuum of historical dominants, a series of wars: 1870, 1914, 1935, 1939, 1964. The avant-garde, in this light, would be a mutinous revolt; but the source of the mutiny might arise from a premonition of the civilian populace unwittingly recruited (in an ongoing lifelong draft) for military ends.
My fantasy of another book to stand in the place of The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde is just that, a fantasy. It is also an honorary gesture, since Mann's own fantasia is the inspiration. What remains to be considered is the liability of a procedure that resists historicizing the avant-garde, which will enable us then to consider the gains. By this point it should be clear that Mann is inclined to gloss over distinctions between several terms: "bourgeois," "culture industry," "cultural discourse," and "capitalism" (all of which are at times subsumed into his own term, "the white economy"). This blurring has the cumulative effect of provoking a much broader application of his thesis than the relatively confined scope of the avant-garde itself suggests. This is a thesis in which the vanguard is a synecdoche for any form of disgruntlement, unrest, disavowal, transgression, subversion, opposition. Mann's dilemma is that of Baudrillardean hyperintelligence generally: what to do with one's vigilance? He sees the discursive proliferation of subject positions, of stakes in arguments, as an insect swarm, a pestilence of subintelligent compliance with a totalizing system of staged oppositions. "How can one avoid being nothing more than an ideological drone of some pro or some con, or what is probably worse, of some illusion of autonomy from them?" (18). From this perspective, to take a particular stand (compliance or resistance, inside or outside, and so on) is to nestle into that position as a security blanket, a consoling sanctuary, a "saving illusion" in Joseph Conrad's sense. Is Mann, then, merely replaying the ultimate high cultural modernist gambit, seeking shelter from the storm of rank particulars?
We need to ask what is lost by eliding the distinctions between such notions as "late capitalism" and the "culture industry." By generalizing an unhistoricized avant-garde, Mann effectively conflates it with late capitalism as such; yet, because he often speaks pointedly to the struggles of the historical avant-garde, we're invited to fudge terminological contours and, in effect, think of nineteenth-century moments as themselves episodes in late capitalism. This is by no means an improbable periodizing move. If mercantile economies of the late middle ages are seen as a nascent form of capitalism, then capitalism is clearly "late" by the time of the industrial revolution. The point is, it's impossible to surmise from Mann's text what thesis of the rise of capitalism he subscribes to. Likewise for "culture industry," a concept associated with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, but which Mann applies without rigorous adherence to their precepts. Possibly Mann is an adherent of Dr. Johnson's credo about numbering the streaks of the tulip; and maybe he would avow the cogency of Melville's question in "Billy Budd": "Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?"(6) What is lost in Mann's procedure is the faculty of fine rainbow discriminations. However, the unyielding insistence on generalities, along with the holographic form of exposition, suggests that Mann is sensitive to Melville's question and has deliberately pursued a dehistoricized thesis.
Why, then, does Mann discuss the avant-garde in such broad strokes? The answer (implicit in his title) is that the avant-garde is not his topic at all. This book is finally a critique of criticism, of discourse, of theory's stage management of a chimera, "the avant-garde," as a "theory-death." "The death of the avant-garde," then, "is the n-state of the recuperation of its critical potential by a narrative of failure" (40). Discourse is regenerated by each petit mal, each micro-expiration of vanguard opposition, each minute reminder of the failure of the revolution. To say that the avant-garde is the agent of recuperation, "its proper technology," turns out not to mean that the avant-garde is the recuperation as such, since what is really being recuperated is an anemic state of discourse which requires the avant-garde the way network television needs a particular kind of programming for the rating sweeps week. (Mann's book merits consideration as a discussion of media politics.) The episode called "The Death of the Avant-Garde" is a favorite rerun, a hardy perennial. "The triumph of death-theory," Mann suggests, is when the avant-garde is "remembered and reiterated precisely as history, as story, narrative, lesson, text--to be retained as left behind" (40). To narrate a failure suggests an unassailable narrator; to narrate a tale of death is to perpetrate the image of oneself as a survivor. And so it is that "theory-death" vindicates theory.
Theory proceeds in its postmortem on the avant-garde by collectivizing individual deaths into a mortuary effect--as, after a transport disaster, the specific bodies are cumulatively folded into an epitaph on "the passengers." The obtuse generality of the label "avant-garde" is not one of Mann's own devising but rather an inherited aspect of his subject, which is what the discursive economy does with each and every vanguard occasion.(7) Mann's thesis is that the avant-garde has been the traditional term for denominating resistance, insubordination, opposition, and dissent; and that by generalizing many distinct varieties of dissent under the rubric "avant-garde," this discourse has been able to categorically neutralize all of them by demonstrating the ineffectuality of any one of them. Mann thereby brings us to the point of considering the cost of such generalizations, awakening the need for a radical particularism, whereby Marinetti or Tzara can no longer function effectively as synecdoches for "the avant-garde." As one who has always been enthralled by the particulars of avant-garde scenes but also intuitively felt the generic designation to be unsavory, I feel grateful for Mann's perspective. What, then, to make of his own unremitting use of the very terms of generality which his thesis finally exposes? Is he suggesting that all discourse, no matter how self-aware or how informed of the constraints of "the white economy," is helplessly complicitous? The short answer (and as Mann makes clear, there is no other): yes. Is the situation as grim as all that? Is there no remaining outsider position from which to defiantly launch, even if in utter futility, a projectile into the compound of bourgeois self-assurance?
Mann takes Baudrillard's line and suggests a discursive implosion. "One of our theses: the death of the avant-garde is its most subversive stage": "when recuperation is so generalized ... the dialectical machinery supporting the institution collapses under its own incorporated weight" (74, 119).(8) He acknowledges that "The present critical project has been engaged most of all in order to comprehend that strange critical state" in which "criticism is not an adversary force but rather a means by which culture discovers its contradictions so that it can accommodate them to itself" (118). It's misleading to call it a "critical" state, since it is patently the cultural context of a generation, or now several, manipulated into an idolatry of the oppositional by images from popular culture, mainly music. Mann's book is fully internal to the prevailing discourse itself, working out its rules and internal logic. So, as he fails to account for historic differentiation in the role of the avant-garde during the past century, Mann also neglects the sociological implications of his observation that it's "a means by which capitalism continually adjusted itself to changes in the conditions of change itself" (120). One can see this analysis applied to the colonization of youth, and of target marketing in general. Population segments become the unwitting vanguard of the syndrome by which the margin, the unassimilable, is recuperated as the oncoming wave of the next thing to be internalized, and by means of which the collective hallucination of a "permanent growth" economy can be sustained. Adversary forces, it turns out, have consistently served as a spur to further growth.
The avant-garde exposes, at its own expense, the remorseless appetite of the bourgeoisie (or late capitalism, culture industry, and so on), its rapacious cannibalizing of otherness and remorseless endocolonization of itself. The appetite of capital is in turn replicated by the industry of commentary and metacommentary, in which there is no longer much difference between the frenzy of the press corps and the crowds at an MLA convention. So Mann arrives at the lugubrious spectacle of a "masocriticism endlessly postulating its own torment," "an interminable discourse of termination" (19, 115). His is itself an exemplary demonstration of masocriticism: is not the holographic style an inventive way of masochistically revisiting the same trauma center again and again? What does Mann intend by participating in, and perpetuating, a discursive momentum that he clearly sees expended in futility (or worse, in complicity with what it would oppose)? His sentiments are guided by Baudrillard, who reads a certain sullen resistance on the part of the masses' refusal to vote, for instance, not as indifference but a silent scorn at the stakes of the game. Mann would appear to recite a normative protocol in the conviction that the system will finally be overcome by the giddiness with which it processes and recuperates every possible position and voice. "It might be that the last task of theory is to exhaust theory itself, to push its terms until they disintegrate or, as Baudrillard would say, 'implode': 'my way is to make ideas appear, but as soon as they appear I try to make them disappear'" (19). Eventually (such is the hope) we stop paying attention to the fates of individual ideas and begin to see the larger picture, which is a cycle of appearance/disappearance, opposition/recuperation, perturbation/resolution--the cycle that reconfirms the priority of its own holomovement (the expectoration of global capital) with every display of a normalized exception. The tradition of informed critique, Mann wants to say, has long since become a tradition that is most effective in demonstrating its own cancellation, or its own eventual accommodation to the hegemonic norms of a dominant culture. Even the most exhilarating acts of critical repudiation--and this is why the avant-garde is an exemplary case--are primarily excitations local to the grotesque and shameless body of capital, or they are the moments that circulate, since circulation as such is the holomovement of global capital. As the current spectacle of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh demonstrates (and they are the demonstration of prior demonstrations), it makes no difference whether sales are motivated by love or hate, adulation or revulsion: if it sells, it sells. And discourse cannot resist the tautology. "One must therefore proceed in the certainty that ... criticism no longer speaks the voice of alterity, or speaks it only in order to cancel what is always left of it ... [and] that if difference must be discovered it is precisely a difference from us" (145).
The logical conclusion of Mann's views on the contamination of critical discourse is the necessity of abandoning its venues. He withholds the full disclosure of this aspect of his thesis until the final pages of the book, so one is tempted to read the end as an act of disappearance, a repudiation eloquently resonating in the silence or aftermath of The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde. (But then, Mann troublingly reappears in the pages of Contemporary Literature reviewing further episodes of the avant-garde; which suggests that an interminable discourse on termination is not so easily disavowed for one whose sensibility and training have been nurtured for precisely such tasks.)(9) We're left with the implication that the traditional avant-garde must, once again, lead the way; that exemplary nonproductive acts of disappearance must be pioneered by artists. "Without exception art that calls itself art, that is registered as art, that circulates within art contexts can never again pose as anything but systems-maintenance" (143). Nor does Mann expect staged repudiations, melodramatic scenarios in which the artist says, in effect, I despise you all and will no longer give you the satisfaction of opposing me (or siding with me): I no longer play the game. Nor will it be a Duchampian withdrawal without theatrics or denunciation. Instead, what is required is to have never entered the lists in the first place. "What one must imagine is an unprecedented silence, exile, and cunning.... Not a critical theater in which to represent oneself but a hidden struggle to dismantle in oneself, in one's network, the entire theatrical apparatus. A fast for burning off discursive toxins" (144). The artist, setting the pace for critics, disappears like Conchis in The Magus or Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow.
The idea is salutary, but that is its liability. It must be asked whether Mann has tipped his hand here, whether even a reference to such acts of nonparticipation risks recuperating them--whether my mention of them here, as it were, seconds the motion Mann makes, and the two of us comply with the logic of containment. (Those pesky nonartists: they're out there somewhere, invisible as it may be, but they'll not get beyond the walls of the kingdom, and we'll see to it by expanding the walls to the limits of the universe if necessary.) Yet here the deficit of the unhistoricized approach bobs up again, for Mann is describing something that may indeed have its own subterranean legacies, its own shadow realm of unincorporated invisibility. I'm thinking of the hermetic tradition, particularly as surmised by Frances Yates. Without attempting to address, let alone settle, the question of whether such a tradition persists today, the very prospect that it might is sufficient to throw the concept of the avant-garde into a certain prominent relief; for the avant-garde has always been (and here I intend a totalizing statement that might, for once, be supported by all the available particulars) conspicuously public, antihermetic in fact. Overt. The avant-garde serves Mann quite precisely for his larger task of repudiating the recuperative maintenance procedures of critical theory, because it is decidedly the image of what is public and conspicuous. That such capitalist issues as marketing strategy arise in the discussion of the avant-garde makes perfect sense, since the vanguard enters into symbiosis with capital not only in its pursuit of novelty but in its insistent comportment in the public arena, an arena (and a public) thoroughly striated with the territoriality of capital--capital as cargo cult.
The intersection of art and market seems inevitably to contaminate not so much the art as the mode of attention trained on it. The absorption of Art Brut into the gallery/museum network motivates Allen Weiss's collection of short essays, Shattered Forms: Art Brut, Phantasms, Modernism. He, like Mann, is troubled by doubts about "whether any difference, once expressed and examined, can maintain its otherness" (4). Insofar as "The museum remains the site of universalization via representation and the determination of values: spiritual, intellectual, economic, and otherwise," Art Brut risks becoming Art Benign as it enters the museological assembly. "Indeed," Weiss adds, "an insidious tactic of cultural appropriation is to give what is most free and most subversive the highest value in order to neutralize its practical efficacy" (52). It's questionable whether the work of Antonin Artaud, Adolf Wolfli, Michael Nedjar, and other heroes of Shattered Forms are accorded the "highest value"--in fact, they seem to circulate along a perimeter discourse sustained by writers like Weiss (who publishes regularly in the nonmainstream journals Art + Text and Sulfur, where earlier versions of these essays appeared). Unlike Mann, Weiss does not reflect on the paradox of his own assertions on behalf of "what is most free and subversive"; and he would rather attribute to postmodernism a baseless "universalization" arrived at "not through rationalized metaphysics but through international capital": "Postmodernist aesthetics inaugurated the cognitive preconditions for the appropriation and commercialization of all that is marginal, be it within or without our culture" (57). Such diagnoses are, to be fair, not so central to Shattered Forms as this implies. Weiss is an enthusiast of transgression, and a valuable chronicler of the alien frontiers opened up by Valere Novarina's proposition that "all words are scars of the spirit" (105) and by considering the "electroprosthetic resurrection[s]" of such radio art as Artaud's "Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu" and Gregory Whitehead's "Oral or Anal"--works that strive toward the realization that "It is only when our entire body becomes a mouth that we can truly speak" (114).
Weiss's suggestive little book ranges from Art Brut to "other modernisms," including Ecrit Bruts, Kinomadness, and Edible Architecture, and can be seen as subsumed, in part, by Louis Sass's formidable Madness and Modernism.(10) The most valuable aspect of Shattered Forms is Weiss's adherence to the proposal that "aesthetic alterity is always to be found within ourselves, and must be cultivated" (3). Too insistent a preoccupation with the market syndrome of recuperation, as in Mann's case, can lead to the assumption that the deepest drive of the arts is to be chastened and then repatriated to the bosom of the oedipal family. It presumes that the "shattered forms" of radical alterity are stages in a pursuit of wholeness, disjecta of a self-recuperation that prefigures the social recuperation of canon, curriculum, and marketplace. Weiss, on the other hand, is willing to entertain the prospect that the arts may be driven by the desire to escape that cycle; that certain artists may be in search of a protective disordering, not a consoling order. (Houston Baker's thesis--in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance--of African American literature oscillating between a "mastery of form" and a "deformation of mastery" comes to mind.)(11) The art of forgetting thus becomes as crucial, if not more so, as the art of memory; and this art proceeds not by obliteration and deficit but by proliferation and excess, in which memory is overrun by a monstrous ubiquity of fractured codes, shattered forms, and the squalor of material plenitude. What's required is a commitment to a nondialectical materialism (following Georges Bataille, on whom Weiss has previously written with gusto in The Aesthetics of Excess), which Gilles Deleuze calls "a realism of deformation, as opposed to the idealism of transformation" (qtd. in Weiss 47).
We are now immersed in an almost convulsive celebration of margins and marginality and the empowerment of traditionally dispossessed subjects. These books by Mann and Weiss are opportune warnings about the confident assumption of the prospects of overdue recognition and the benefits supposedly available at the center, up on the pedestal, and in other sites of legitimation. In an increasingly conventional view of such matters, feminism, multiculturalism, and postcolonial theory would remind us of the trauma of marginality and the need to avoid romanticizing margins (even while the experience of marginality is claimed as an advantageously alternate education). There are signs that the blanket notion of marginality is (at last) being refined, and such refinement is crucial if Weiss's concerns are to be heard as anything more than a nostalgia for the strange. We should also aspire to a more meticulous examination of what (and how) power and prestige are constituted at the center: the lack of sociohistorical analysis in Mann's book seems in part a blunt challenge to the vacuity of speaking of cultural matters in terms of "we" and "us"--after all, have such assignments of allegiance ever been anything other than an anxious bourgeois requisition of the alien for the theatrical display of its own tolerance? (But of course the very concept of the bourgeois in the preceding sentence is what needs refinement.) The figurehead of the avant-garde now seems weathered beyond recognition, and enthusiasts of the vanguard seem increasingly like the Deadheads, tripping out on the specter of anachronism as the surest sign of authenticity. The term should be retired (with dignity, not ignominiously expelled--although as Mann indicates, the tradition of such expulsions is by now an embarrassment). The resources of estrangement and the protective disordering that "avant-garde" once designated now need to be disencumbered of that label and of any other (like "postmodern"), since the diagnostic task of the labeling impulse is and always has been a pre-emptive strike. Any public act courts a label, but only the most naive or nostalgic can now imagine that "avant-garde" is anything but a designer label for momentarily fashionable mindware. So how do we talk about the events that would really challenge us now? I would side with Mann: confide only in those you trust, be cagey, circumspect, disarming, and don't go mouthing off about subversion if you really want it to work.
(1.)Rosalind Krauss, "The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodernist Repetition," October 18 (Fall 1981): 47-66.
(2.)This prognosis may be applicable as well to the saga of deconstruction, particularly during the brief exhilaration that it bore in its wake at Yale--as in Geoffrey Hartman's euphoric proclamations that the artificial membrane separating theory from literature had dissolved, and that an egalitarian array of commentaries was all that the eye could see. The site of this Bastille rhetoric has since shifted to Hypertext and the Internet.
(3.)Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983) 33.
(4.)Virilio, Pure War 92-95.
(5.)The (unmentioned) Ur-text for Mann's work is "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." As theoretical provenance, Michel Foucault's concept of regulatory discourse is discernible; Theodor Adorno is a sort of silent partner (elucidating the complicity of revolutionary ideology in the art world with capitalist economies); but the official patron is Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard is not much cited (Mann has resisted his epigrammatic style almost completely), but those familiar with Baudrillard's work will see him lurking just below the surface throughout. In the end this tactic functions as an implicit critique, since the relatively constrained application of Baudrillard to the avant-garde reveals by contrast the futility that often accompanies a reading of Baudrillard himself, as if he were needlessly disposed to generalize his fastidious observation of particulars (as in the books on America) into amorphous theses about "hyperreality," "seduction," and "the simulacrum."
(6.)Herman Melville, "Billy Budd," Billy Budd and Other Stories (New York: Penguin, 1986) 353 [ch. 21].
(7.)The lack of an index emphasizes the point that there is no information content to the book, that its value is polemical rather than documentary. But of course this also exposes Theory-Death to the charge of complicity with the dominant discursive economy. Mann openly allows the charge but less openly pursues a sabotage in the interstices of that discourse.
(8.)We see the symptoms of such internal collapse in the soap opera of political correctness and multiculturalism, where the new right saw subversion permeating American society, while the left-leaning intelligentsia saw a culture hibernating in the hegemonic blanket of Gulf War patriotism. That both charges were accurate confirms Mann's thesis about generalized recuperation. The culture is permeated with patriotism and subversion, but what Mann (with Baudrillard, Foucault, and scores of other theorists) sees as an ongoing agony is that the extremes are not actually engaged in any contestatory way. There is either a preaching to the converted or else an unyielding confrontation (as on the streets in front of abortion clinics) Social change thus falls into the chasm between unanimity and discord in a purely aleatory way. Consequently, that segment of the population traditionally prepared for administrative and leadership roles in the dissemination of ideas and values, the liberal humanists, find themselves masters of a forum that no longer exists (or has been exiled to the storage room in a museum). Those of us trained in the legacy of philosophic counterpoint and rhetorical ingenuity, whose sensibilities have been indexed by education to an itinerary of salient cultural moments (in art, architecture, music, literature), have literally no one to talk to but ourselves. In the hectic proliferation of various jargons of authenticity and professionalism, the arts have failed to adjust to the scale of disenfranchisement and neutralization that the demotic idiom of the middle now represents: we (artists, academics, and so forth) have not figured out, for instance, how to sidestep the technical regalia and say, with the clarity of the dentist pointing to a tooth on the x-ray, it has to come out.
(9.)Paul Mann, "A Poetics of Its Own Occasion," Contemporary Literature 35 (1994): 171-81.
(10.)Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1992). Sass explores the hyperrationality of modern philosophical and artistic self-reflexiveness in its affinities with schizophrenia (disavowing any attempt at influence or causality). His 400-page text (with another 160 pages of densely informative notes) constitutes one of the more cogent reviews of modernism, to which its meticulous clinical information comes as a bonus. However, the breadth of Sass's research, and the general reliability of his observations, will not compensate, for many readers, for his complete omission of Lacan. (See Weiss's review of Sass, "The Demon of the Demon of Analogy," Sulfur 34 : 225-27.)
(11.)Houston Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987) passim.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 1994|
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