"Jeder Kann Dada": The Repetition, Trauma And Deferred Completion Of The Avant-Garde

Dafydd Jones

The situationist principle states how my knowledge of the world has no value except when I act to transform it. The deliberate attempt at such transformation now positions itself as foundational to the present engagement with the viability – cultural, structural and political – of the idea of the avant-garde and its ligatured (so distinct) concept of the neo-avant-garde. Signalled here is the move towards the "initial outlines of alternative approaches and [. . .] first proposals of a revised practice of interpretation" (Scheunemann 2000: 10) which, it is hoped, will resist the undermining of the avant-garde/neo-avant-garde project by its very own discourse, and all of the resulting unqualified yet persistent appeals to avant-garde "oppositionality" and "eman-cipation". It may make the declamators of the avant-garde slightly uncomfortable up on their podia, but unless the project amounts practically to anything more than heroic words, noble ideals and ultimately empty gestures, we ought seriously to reconsider what continued use or relevance there can now possibly be to the category of the avant-garde. When the red flag of emancipation is yanked up high, for instance, there are two often detoured questions that should be among the first we ask: emancipation from what, and to what? What, beyond the lure of surface appearances, can "revolution" actually change when one order is supplanted by another (diametrically opposed though it may be to the former) order? If the structural logic is inverted as a result of "revolutionary" action, its very inversion fuels its repetition, and "oppositionality" rapidly gains strategic redundancy.

In Marxist thought, the reactionary nature of "free thinkers", or "muddled idealists" as Lenin once called them, compromises any emancipatory project from the outset, and "revolution" is nothing of the sort when it condemns one system only then to ask that same system for acceptance. More than once during the twentieth century, it was forcefully and sometimes violently demonstrated that people involved in what amounted to effective revolution (as opposed to its ineffective form) did not become part of systems, but that they destroyed systems. The compromised nature of what we sometimes too casually invoke as the "avant-garde" means that the case for its destructive effect is far from convincing. Mann, for instance, has already made us uneasily but necessarily aware that

[t]he avant-garde is one mechanism of a general organisation of social forces that operates in large part by means of the careful distribution of differences, imbalances, oppositions, and negations, and that regulates them through a variety of more or less effective discursive agencies in the so-called public sphere and along the margin itself. (Mann 1991: 113)

The containment, though painful, would appear complete. Now, theoretical self-destruction manifests itself as a consistent principle in western thought and cultural activity – certainly from the enlightenment's critically enlightened self-interrogation to the "radical evil" of emancipatory politics, and to postmodernism's evolution into a cultural dominant and its undoing by its own methods; the pastiche, for instance, is dissolved by using the instruments of pastiche itself, or alternatively some genuine historical sense is reconquered by using the instruments of what have been called substitutes for history. When thought systems would then collapse in upon themselves, instigate their own dissolution through anti-logic, or invert and thereby reproduce the flawed logic that was ostensibly the object of their critique at the outset, the principle is one that, evidently, impacts even upon the anarchic impulse itself.

The problematic of the avant-garde, as a concept and in terms of the ongoing viability of the project, is familiar and well rehearsed – certainly since Bürger's classic text entered into the wider discourse in the mid-1980s – with the historical avant-garde itself (as characterised by Dada) certainly not being immune to the breakdowns and faults that Bürger theoretically, and that some old Dada stagers dogmatically (and without any hint of Dada irony), identified in subsequent cultural formations and manifestations, specifically in neo-dada and in the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s and '60s. That the earlier manifestation of the 1920s actually fails consistently to uphold Bürger's later "theory" (that is to say Bürger's later hypothesising, which has been somewhat misrepresented as a "theory" over the past two decades) suggests that we might begin to make constructive use of the historical instance in our engagement of the neo, and as we potentially work towards a theory (or more accurately a concept)of the neo-avant-garde. Such a concept, critically, would have to admit to inherent problems and contradictions (its own, as well as those of its historical precedent), and in so doing either to work with them – conceding in the process some degree of complicity if not culpability – or somehow to overcomethem. The degree to which the latter is actually an option, however, might now be so heavily disputed that the only viable if not available option would actually be the former, despite its contrariness within a sense of oppositionality as conventionally brokered.[1] If we are to move away from the rigidity which pits the historical and the neo against one another, we very quickly recognise that the anticipated oppositionality of the historical avant-garde presents us with the anything-but-unproblematic notion that Bürger makes foundational for his Theory of the Avant-Garde. Bürger is well aware of the contradictory nature of the opposition in question, which uses its apparent withdrawal from the cultural order to conceal its affirmation of it, and he is equally well aware of how the whole debate initiates the expanding complexity of a sense of the avant-garde that ultimately embraces rather than rejects what it opposes. Here, indeed, lies the structural problematic, the point at which the entire concept of the historical and oppositional avant-garde can literally seize up.

Seizure, however, is one but not the only possible consequence at this point. By the radical subject's adoption, modification and revision of cultural strategies, this essay submits that the avant-garde/neo-avant-garde has, through its manifestations, historically demonstrated a deliberate resistance to and counter engagement with its own condition; specifically, in reaction against the everyday life of coexistent individuals who are, despite their coexistence, "separated from one another, separated from what they are in others, and separated from themselves" (Vaneigem 1967: 87). Sensory separation and alienation as a condition in the technologised west was recognised a whole generation before the situationist writings of the '60s dispersed, and it is famously of the art of the avant-garde that Walter Benjamin demanded the restoration of "the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity's self-preservation [. . .] not by avoiding the new technologies, but by passing through them" (Buck-Morss 1997: 377). The appeal of 1936 was as pressing thirty years and one world war later, when avant-garde recoil from, or opposition to, technology would itself have been as self-deluding as the muddled idealism of the free thinkers that once so irked Lenin. For the structuralist Marxist, if a radicalism is not a Marxist radicalism, its direction in the service of the revolution is not necessarily bound to the destruction of state apparatuses, but rather defaults as anythingbut revolutionary, and duly relegates itself to self-indulgence on the part of the "radical" protagonist.

How we subsequently invoke the idea of revolution requires a deliberate revision of readings that have hitherto dominated art historically, prescriptive (and predictable) readings of Dada, for instance, which characterise it as anarchic, a nihilist gesture, a negative act of cultural destruction offering nothing to replace what it set about destroying (and therefore, strictly speaking, not revolution). According to the binary schema of revolution that accompanies this characterisation, the task of instituting a new order in place of what Dada laid waste, that is to say a new order opposed to the old, fell to the movement's supersedent (in Paris at least), the Surrealist Revolution of 1924. If, however, we read revolution as committed to breaking down systems in all their forms, the revolutionary increasingly assumes the recognisably destructive, anarchic and nihilist traits previously ascribed to the Dadaist, abandoning binary schemata and engaging cultural logic itself – revolution, therefore, that does not define itself by preemptive conclusions. Such, potentially, becomes revolution without a goal, but revolution with effect; revolution revised practically and theoretically throughout the twentieth century in reflection upon the sobering aftermath and ultimate failure of October 1917.

The idea of what amounts to effective revolution despite the absence of any stated goal productively allows us to begin to interrogate the operation of the avant-garde/neo-avant-garde in modern experience. Benjamin's concern in his analysis of the latter (in 1936, yes, but still apposite in later contexts) was its neurological condition, the emotionally neutered and numbed state of daily repeated shock which, through repetition, ceases to have any real impact or effect. The redundancy of repeated albeit strategic deployment of shock became woefully apparent (to Marcel Janco at least) just weeks into the activities at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916 as Dada was only just beginning to flex its critical muscles, making shock ineffective if not inadmissible as a mode of critical cultural engagement for the Dadaists themselves. "Repetition" has in turn consistently accrued negative connotations and has been all-too-easily invoked critically (or perhaps really not so critically) in subsequent contestation of the neo-avant-garde:

The anti-aesthetic gesture of the "readymade" [. . .] now reappear[s] in Neo-Dada [. . .] as comic strips or as crushed automobile bodies. [. . .] Uncompromising revolt has been replaced by unconditional adjustment. (Richter 1966: 205)

The damage is easily done (but not easily undone), as the authority of historical Dada condemns its neo-type as compromised and implicitly – decidedly – not revolutionary. Repetition, it has been argued, is the most culturally, socially and politically compromising dimension of neo-avant-gardism in the 1950s and '60s. Hans Richter's swipe, however, concedes perhaps far more than it ever deliberately intended with its new characterisation of the neo's unconditional adjustment.

From the foregoing, we ought now to relate back to our own position implicitly as participants (or not, of course, as the case may be) in avant-garde/neo-avant-garde activity by the very attempt to situate for ourselves a degree of conceptual orientation. It has been suggested that "under conditions of modern shock – the daily shocks of the modern world – response to stimuli without thinking has become necessary for survival" (Buck-Morss 1997: 388) – a strategy of "absorbing" shock and of coping therefore; heads down and pay the mortgage. What is intimated is the activity of thought, as it perpetually falls short of achieving its potential unless it deliberately turns on its own structured operation, occasioning the suspension of its habitual operational mode and as it in turn makes its direct address to the containing structure. When (if) that structure is made visible, we can begin to think our relation to it, and the cautionary note is that if we cease to think that relation, the structure will recede again into invisibility and resume its unchallenged and effectively uninterrupted repressive exercise. Thinking takes the specific instance to construct a generalisation, but the general proves of little consequence unless, as Joseph Dietzgen once cautioned, it is "conceived in its relation to its special [specific] forms" (1906: 357). Thus read, thinking is a contradictory process, necessarily struggling between generalisation and specialisation, but not necessarily working towards synthesis and resolution (although Dietzgen does suggest that it is in the nature of the mind to seek to "harmonise" the contradictions of the world, to relativise and equate them) – the opposite might indeed be the case, to capitalise on contradiction and conflict, and actively to counter any potential synthesis or resolution. It becomes instructive, especially when we attempt to work through the bluffs and counter-bluffs of twentieth-century avant-garde strategies, to return to Dietzgen's early observation that reason develops its understanding out of contradictions,[2] an observation which, though central to his dialectical thought, can help us move away from too close and strict a conformity with the standard version of dialectical materialism (which, for Tristan Tzara, amounted to little more than "an amusing mechanism which guides us [. . .] to the opinions we had in the first place" (1989: 79). Presented as a way of understanding reality, dialectical materialism is flawed by its privileging of synthetic resolution above antithetic irreconcilability; its more productive potential resides perhaps in capitalising upon the latter, and certainly in its declared resistance to a sense of the eternal, the final, the sacred, with insistence on relative (but absence of absolute) boundaries. What enters into the discussion at this point is a practical suspension of the activity of a certain way of thinking, both deliberate and irreconcilable with, and potentially oppositional to, our present pursuit to think about the avant-garde.

The contradiction of avant-garde oppositionality culminates, for Bürger, in the so-called "failures" of the neo-avant-garde, and the apparent denegation of the possibility of transgression or rupturing of the social fabric – a position further complicated, as Hal Foster notes, by the fact that what Bürger credits as the successes of the historical avant-garde are not always easily distinguishable from what he cites as the failures of the neo-avant-garde: the successes of one become the failures of the other. Indeed, in working towards "righting" Bürger's concept of the dialectic, it is Foster's hypothesis that rather than cancelling the project of the historical avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde acts on the historical instance, arguably demonstrating for the first time a full and traumatic comprehension (but, critically, not completion) of the project (1994: 16). Historically, in a time of disintegrating totality, and as a component of its revolutionary impulse to change the world, the politics of modernism saw art reneging upon itself and undermining its own auratic presence, resisting transcendent autonomy and embracing lived-in everyday social and political conditions. A past heroism, however, caught up in the avant-garde's own utopian programme, defaulted in its failure to transcend itself, and,

instead of being subsumed in a transcendent ideality, art [. . .] dissolved within a general aestheticisation of everyday life, giving way to a pure circulation of images, a trans-aestheticisation of banality. (Baudrillard 1993b: 11)

It is Jean Baudrillard who makes this observation, before going on to specify and name the point of default:

the crucial moment for art was undoubtedly that of Dada [. . .] that moment when art, by renouncing its own aesthetic rules of the game, debouched into the transaesthetic era of the banality of the image. (1993b: 11)

Dada, it is suggested, marks the point of renunciation historically (still not uniquely or exclusively so), though for Baudrillard, once repetition of such renunciation commences, art becomes caught up in this "pure circulation of images" (as appropriated or re-appropriated, vulgarised or simulated). The primary concern, as Baudrillard outlines it, is the identification on our part of the right, affirmative response to such new forms. The declared interest in "the balance between the extreme banality of objects and their enigmacity" is, rather than being an interest in resolving or resisting conflict between them, always a concern "not to integrate them, but to challenge one with another – the intimacy and strangeness of objects" (Baudrillard, quoted in Zurbrugg 1997: 4), in a response that engages conflict as an integrating principle (1993a: 61).

Moving to instantiate inevitably complicates the discussion; it is instructive to a point, but stifles theoretical scope as it concretises certain principles, though at the same time conversely insisting upon the necessary practicality of what is being outlined theoretically (and which would otherwise remain abstract, remote and, quite frankly, of little use as far as discussing the viability of the avant-garde is concerned). Locating the extreme banality and strangeness of objects within our own western cultural context places us firmly in the realm of mass electronic media and its generation of sensory alienation; it is from this position, conceding to the media saturation of our environment, that any sense of oppositionality or any kind of anti-stance fails, and critical engagement responds with an admission that it must assume some (not insignificant) degree of complicity with the object of critique. Nam June Paik, for instance, made the concession to "use technology in order to hate it better" (1970:25), mercenary in his pursuit of an effective and critical role for art within the broader realms of neo-avant-gardism. Paik, for one, was attuned to the rapidly expanding though one-way imposition of thought and behaviour by the seductive means of contemporary electronic media – and seduction, Baudrillard reminds us, is what simulation does.[3] Inherently visible, it is precisely its invisibility and the passive state of reception generated which together underlie the cool efficiency of mass electronic media as among the most sophisticated manifestations of Althusser's infamous ISAs.[4] Resulting critical engagement appropriately is forced to mimic its environment, to imitate the forms and modes of production and reception embedded in late twentieth century technology and, as one consequence, notions of oppositionality necessarily undergo change and are reconfigured through anti-logic, for example, according to Gilles Deleuze's consistent operative mode of subverting rather than opposing the object.

Subversion, then, supplants opposition, and its means assume forms that are sometimes difficult to reconcile with stated avant-garde intention, critical strategies and cultural resistance, but it is precisely they which operate as the most incisive of cultural forms in affirmation of the continued viability of the project:

rather than false, circular, and otherwise affirmative, avant-garde practice at its best is contradictory, mobile, and dialectical, even rhizomatic. The same is true of neo-avant-garde practice at its best. (Foster 1994: 19)

And at its best, among the most contradictory characteristics of neo-avant-gardism is, arguably, its widely criticised "repetition" – repetition of earlier historical avant-garde gestures and strategies, to be sure, but specifically repetition of the form of the object of critique. Repetition in this latter guise must bring with it certain constraints upon the formal possibilities available to the avant-garde artist, yet though conceptually resistant to constraints, in conceding both to their necessity and their enabling potential, Deleuze duly cautions against destroying them completely:

You have to keep small supplies of signifiance and subjectification, if only to turn them against their own systems when the circumstances demand it [. . .] and you have to keep small rations of subjectivity in sufficient quantity to enable you to respond to the dominant reality. (Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 160)

Thus a conceptual mode that permits the occurrence of the constitution of the subject whilst simultaneously allowing the subject to exceed itself, to get outside itself, to defer the fixity and stability of that figure of absolute interiority. For the subject exercising the enabling constraints which allow it to test and to exceed its own limits (the "enabling constraints" so named by Judith Butler), the idea that revolution without a goal can still be revolution with effect becomes a socially viable and immediate proposition, specifically with the invocation of Dada and its instigation of what now proves to be ongoing radicalised cultural practice. The deliberate attempt at transformation of the world and the individual's knowledge of the world was, and continues to be, a spontaneous act which necessarily locates itself in the immediate extension of lived experience, and in the event struggles with a theoretical pessimism that rounds on and relocates the contest that once took place at the edges of discourse to the very heart of the culture and social order that the avant-garde would reject.

The outside/inside or object/subject distinction is now rendered invalid in thinking through avant-garde transgression and rupture. The effective nature of the movement of avant-garde transgression, as Michel Foucault's inspired theorising of exteriority puts it, "takes the form of a spiral which no simple infraction can exhaust" (Foucault 1998: 28). The spiral gives us a simultaneity of outside and inside: Jacques Lacan elsewhere invokes the Möbius strip as his metaphor; Alain Badiou elsewhere again invokes a transtemporality that makes us really the contemporaries of the great scientific, political, amorous and artistic figures of history, "which means that we think with – and in – them, without the least need of a temporal synthesis" (2000: 60). This simultaneity allows the one to inscribe in the process of erasing the other, and vice versa, forcing the question of the idea of a limit separating outside and inside, and to rethink it, in Deleuze's words, as "the common limit that links one to the other, a limit with two irregular faces, a blind word and a mute vision" (1988: 65). Simultaneity delineates limit, therefore, as a traced line determined at the surface – the fold that Badiou describes:

If you fold a sheet of paper, you determine a traced line where the folding takes place, which, although it certainly constitutes the common limit of the two subregions of the sheet, is not, however, a tracing on the sheet, black on white. For what the fold presents as a limit on the sheet as pure outside is, in its being, a movement of the sheet itself. (2000: 89)

The folding of outside into inside is an effect of reversal, indeed of doubling if not repetition, that Deleuze recognises as a doubling of "the outside with a coextensive inside" (1988: 118), a potentially multiple folding that takes it beyond the double, in the folds of the fan (fold upon fold) or the leaves of the book (folds of thought). Though it may be folded, the outside can still be apprehended precisely asoutside, however many times it is folded, in "unity that creates being, a multiplicity that makes for inclusion, a collectivity having become consistent" (Deleuze 1993: 31).

The status of this equivocity bears upon any attempt we might subsequently make constructively to proceed from Deleuze's opposition to a philosophy of the subject. We might make use of the potential of the existence of multiple forms of beings, beings that "are always produced by a disjunctive synthesis [. . .] [and that are themselves] disjointed and divergent" (Deleuze 1990: 179). This disjointedness and divergence is instanced in Deleuze's notion of the assemblage – or body-assemblage – the assemblage that can be recognised in the manufactured "artificial problem" which functions as reflexive, pointing towards a solution that is generated outside thought and the process of knowledge. Conceptualised as an open totality, no single component of the body-assemblage can be changed without affecting and changing the whole, though it remains always the sum of an infinitely variable and mutable set of relations between relations. The effect is not closure or completion, but rather the opening up of the body-assemblage and the subsequent intermingling of reactions to other body-assemblages, "of incorporeal transfor-mations attributed to bodies", within the context of the event site that is the territorial or re-territorialised plane against which the body-assemblage is thought and thinks itself.

As it moves, acts and speaks, the body-assemblage is always collective even though its form may be that of the singularity, the "One-all" as elucidated by Deleuze; what makes its statement collective, even as it is emitted by the singularity, is that it does not refer back to a subject and neither does it refer back to a double: "there isn't a subject who emits the statement or a subject about which the statement would be emitted" (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 83). To this extent, what is proposed is the collective statement that reneges on the subject category, that in a sense erases the subject, and that is, as such, a paradoxical entity whose emission "shines with a singular brilliance" (Badiou 2000: 37). Badiou concedes this much to the paradoxical entity:

it is like a line of flight, an evasion, or an errant liberty, by which one escapes the positivism of legalised beings. In the sombre opacity of the combinatory ensemble, it is like a window. The paradoxical entity is a clear singularity. (2000: 37)

The singularity, then, is recognisable in the body-assemblage; further, however, to Deleuze's collective statement, the concept of difference would, initially at least, appear to drive against completion and unifying forces, and it is precisely in thinking about systems in terms of compositions of series, with each series defined on the basis of difference, that Deleuze employs the term "singularity", relying partly on the image of the actor who plays a role, which, Deleuze suggests, is in fact beyond and greater than the personal:

What is neither individual nor personal are, on the contrary, emissions of singularities insofar as they occur on an unconscious surface and possess a mobile, immanent principle of auto-unification through a nomadic distribution, radically distinct from fixed and sedentary distributions as conditions of the syntheses of consciousness. (1990: 102-3)

Difference, in this sense, is instructive and constitutive, seemingly confounding any unifying force which would preclude difference; indeed, it further seems to confound any theoretically guiding principle that might itself militate as a unifying force. To think in terms of difference, Deleuze reasons, becomes affirmative of surfaces and surface phenomena, philosophically to abandon thoughts about surfaces as secondary to something that resides beneath or outside of them: "the philosopher is no longer [. . .] Plato's soul or bird, but rather the animal that is on a level with the surface – a tick or louse" (1990: 133).

What is preserved with Deleuze's philosophy of surfaces and differences is the integrity of surfaces of difference, argued as irreducible therefore to any unifying principle. Still, what obviously fails consistently to be iterated by Deleuze is any open hostility towards unifying principles – evidently there is resistance to such principles, resistance to permitting the reduction of thought in such terms, but unifying principles are never ruled out as conceptual options, no more, for example, than Deleuze rules out the strategic use of binaries in thought. If, as Badiou states, the unique object of philosophy is the thinking of thought, then Deleuze will mobilise any available option in working towards that object. The admission of any conceptual strategy in the process of thinking thought does permit Deleuze's philosophy freely to operate as "the capture of a life that is both total and divergent" (Badiou 1994: 55) by virtue of what is described as his "positive ambivalence" emanating from the total repudiation of negation, and embrace of chaotic difference in the "true throw of the dice" (Deleuze 1994: 304). As the body is argued to be the arbitrary relation of force with force, existence too is an effect of chance – radically innocent because of its necessity, and purely just because of its release of all things from having a purpose. Necessity transforms the game of chance into a serious game indeed, as it is positively identified "with multiplicity, with fragments, with parts, with chaos: the chaos of the dice that are shaken and then thrown" (Deleuze 1983: 25-7). In affirmation of innocence, necessity and multiplicity, Deleuze, we read, is emphatic in his criticism:

To abolish chance by holding it in the grip of causality and finality, to count on the repetition of throws rather than affirming chance, to anticipate a result instead of affirming necessity – these are all the operations of a bad player. (Deleuze 1983: 27)

The revolutionary who acts without a goal then appears as a supreme player, affirming chance, as unimpeded by causal motives as by the idea of a goal, and revolutionary movement from one relay point to the next inscribes in the process a ludic principle of engagement.

Paik's affirmation of the medium, submitting to its innocence, necessity and multiplicity in the mass technologised west, resisted the mere acceptance of instruments as given in order to insist upon their creative manipulation and capacity for the simultaneous perception of "the parallel flows of many independent movements" (Paik 1964) and layers of reality. In appropriation of the cultural medium itself, it might be argued that Paik constructed

a simulacrum of a double-negation, denying the validity of individual and original production, yet denying equally the relevance of the specific context and function of the work's own practice. (Buchloh 2000: 349)

The denial is to insist upon disunity, or rather non-unity, which is critical if Dada/neo-dada and the historical avant-garde/neo-avant-garde are to break their cultural accommodation and containment. Revolution in the terms being argued here moves the emphasis away from actions themselves to the effect of actions upon their public. The effect of Dada action, as Benjamin still felt it some twenty years after the event, was akin to that of a missile or an instrument of ballistics, "it jolted the viewer, taking on a tactile [taktisch] quality" (Benjamin 2003: 267). What quite literally "happened" left the spectator, the reader, the listener dazed and confused, the shocked victim reeling at the sustained intensity of the visual arrays or Tzara's manifesto writing:

I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am also against principles [. . .] I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense. [. . .] Order= disorder; ego = non-ego; affirmation = negation: [. . .] I proclaim bitter destruction with all the weapons of DADAIST DISGUST. (Tzara 1989: 76-81)

The manifesto writer disembodies the critique of its history and content, yet deliberately retains the myth of cultural critique among those privileged concepts of the culture that he rejects, in order to interrogate dominant practices of production and reception.

The alternative and manipulated use of familiar media becomes incisive when the people become aware of what they are watching and of what they are seeing. Richard Huelsenbeck once cautioned in the historical moment that "to sit in a chair for a single moment is to risk one's life", and so might Paik in the neo moment warn us that to sit in a chair watching television for a single moment is, similarly, to risk one's life, for "to be a Dadaist means to let oneself be thrown by things, to oppose all sedimentation" (Huelsenbeck 1989: 246). The late twentieth-century theoretical expansion on structural Marxism has constructed a logic of consumption around the sign, and under such conditions we move and operate within the intricacy of relations between sometimes replaceable if not interchangeable signs – what Baudrillard would call objects of consumption – that struggle with and problematise the systematicity of object-subject relations. Proble-matising what would otherwise uncritically be described as the "natural" order of things demonstrably makes the object-subject relation a most unstable, indeed unviable and unworkable proposition, leading to one response (call it dramatic or melodramatic) that has demanded a complete reconstruction of social logic. Again, it is Baudrillard in characteristic style who declaims, arguing that if we deal with the object as sign then there is no such thing as the object, that the object does not exist – a position that he further complicates by arguing that there is indeed no such thing as the individual, and that the individual subject is merely an effect of the social system that precedes it: it is precisely the social systems preceding them that give individual subjects their identities.

The subject, then, comes into being as a signifier active within and identified by the system, and we are faced with suspension of the categories "object" and "subject" as art dissolves within the aestheticisation of everyday life and the extreme banality of the images that saturate it. The circulation of signs under these conditions of suspension begins, in turn, to describe formally the structural terrain of their interchangeability. The serial nature of the banks of screens that provide us with a mapping of the surface delineate one such landscape, "a transfer in which nothing changes place" because one thing is always interchangeable with its correlate, and so enables that oscillation between surface and suggested depth, the physical and the aesthetic planes together made coextensive and coordinate (Krauss 1985: 10). We are reminded how the experience of seriality engendered by the readymade, for instance, "factors into this discourse the issue of [...] the multiple without original" (De Duve 1991: 179, 36), or the copy of an original that has long since been lost. Baudrillard's progressive stages in the precession of simulacra famously charts the severing of the simulacrum and its original referent through a theoretical, virtual, space, wherein becoming virtual "tends toward the perfect illusion [. . .] [but] it isn't the same creative illusion as that of the image" – that is to say, the "perfect illusion" is the perfection in reproduction of the illusion, rendering the real (the illusion) virtual (the "perfect reproduction") and in the process so extinguishing the game of illusion as "we witness the extermination of the real by its double" (Baudrillard 1997: 9).

As mass electronic media bear down upon us, the double gains in the ascendancy and renders the real redundant; implicit in this, for Baudrillard certainly, is the negativity of such redundancy, but a redundancy which the neo-avant-gardist can potentially exploit (inevitably to some extent redressing such redundancy itself). The proposition is to say that the double, which will potentially ultimately bear no relation to its original, will consequently become the object of art that isn't an object any more. . Still, as Baudrillard reminds us, "an object that isn't an object is not nothing" (1997: 9), and its imposing presence is precisely its immanence and immateriality. The object that isn't an object occupies – and the neo-avant-gardist moves in – the in-terstices that remain, the neo-avant-gardist therefore as entre-gardist.[5] Conceptually, truth demands a certain integrity of the surface – the very surface that achieved primacy under late modernism, and modernity exercised artistic engagement with, and breakdown of, the analytical truth of the object, the world and the social sphere by deconstructing surfaces and appearances. Deconstructive arrest then becomes the condition for reconfiguring the object, the world and the social sphere, to constitute in the process new "truths" innewappearances. This confirms Baudrillard's conclusion to his own initial critical observation, that it is now precisely the opposite to a deconstruction of appearances that is required, and recognising the bad conscience of the sign is to recognise "a bad conscience that had eaten away at all painting since the Renaissance" (1990: 64). In Paik's work, I would suggest, as the medium exposes a bad conscience, we witness the revolution televised.

The impulse for us now in terms of situating a concept of the neo-avant-garde is not to find alignment with object or subject, outside or inside, but somehow to find alignment with one and the other, that is to say both. This does not necessarily demand the unity of both, and it is precisely the deferred completion of a sense of unity that punctures any perceived limits in order legitimately and critically to rupture, to transgress and to exceed them. As concept, of course, we admit its functionality:

A concept is a brick. It can be used to build the courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window. What is the subject of the brick? The arm that throws it? The body connected to the arm? The brain encased in the body? The situation that brought the brain and body to such a juncture? All and none of the above. What is its object? The window? The edifice? The laws the edifice shelters? The class and other power relations encrusted in the laws? All and none of the above: "What interests us are the circumstances". (Massumi 1992: 5)

Faced with always changing circumstances, our motive ought always to be resistance to the closure and containment of an oppressive all-encompassing theory as we think in terms of a concept of the neo-avant-garde which allows for the demarcation of limits that offer us opportunity to test and to exceed them through deliberate and strategic unconditional adjustment, and posing a practical theoretical stability understood not as fixity but as variation within limits, conceding at all times that the "concept has no subject or object other than itself. It is an act" (Massumi 1992: 57, 5).

 


Notes:

[1] I would suggest that overcoming isn’t actually an option in the conventional sense, and that we delude ourselves if we think that it is; as Habermas argues and as Hal Foster reminds us, "Not only did the [historical] avant-garde fail [but] it was always already false". (Foster 1994: 17)

[2] Pannakoek, in his introduction to Dietzgen’s The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, observes how for Dietzgen "contradiction is the true nature of everything" (1906: 22). This, however, comes before conceding to the dialectic: "contradiction is understood and reconciled by the insight into the nature of the faculty of understanding" (1906: 88).

[3] Berghaus notes, however, that Paik "hardly ever dwelled on the political causes behind the media structures he condemned, and rarely focused his attention on social and economic matters unless they impinged directly on the realms of art and media" (2005: 205).

[4] See Louis Althusser 1971.

[5] Frances Stracey introduces the provocative position of the entre-garde, among others, in her Edinburgh conference paper "Destruktion-RSG-6: Towards a Situationist Avant-Garde Today" (see her essay in this volume).

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