Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector

in (06.12.2006)

The avant-garde tradition as a renewable vector of breakout from the art institutions and cultural fuel for social movements and struggles.

1. There is no one avant-garde. They are plural: historical cells, groupings, networks, and movements. From the perspective of the singular, the tradition of the artistic avant-gardes appears as a density of overlapping trajectories, each with its own contexts and genealogies, programs, practices, and protagonists. Seen from the place of the collective, this same tradition resolves into a single vector, a directional force that again and again punches a hole in the paradigm of capitalist art. In diverse events of intransigently transitive invention, this vector gathers and focuses a radical force sufficient to rupture the all-consuming gravity of capitalist imperatives. This vector has not disappeared, is not the dead relic of a history that has ended. Museums, art schools, and magazines cannot entomb it. Even now, obstinate agents reconstitute and reinvent it, giving it new names and new forms. In common with anti-capitalists everywhere today, they look back bitterly and overcome their pessimism by organizing it.

Money is the root form of representation in bourgeois society.
T.J. Clark

2. Backing up now, to begin again, more carefully. Vector: a directional force, the appearance in time and place of an arrow or one-way street. The direction is: beyond. Starting from, but going beyond, capitalist art. Meaning: beyond a systematic organization of representation and toward an agency that would be political without for that ceasing to be artistic or aesthetic. If such a movement were possible, would it be sustainable as a model, or fated in advance to defeat and re-absorption by representation, by the paradigm of capitalist art that was, after all, its point of departure? Can a claim to agency, a demand for a collective autonomy more real than virtual, carry the impulses and experiences of art beyond art as such? Art beyond art, art against art: dialectics or impossibility? Would the performances and traces of a politicized agency that originated in but renounced capitalist art not be different, in qualitative ways, from political agency and performance that did not pass through the experience and ordeal of this vector? And if there were such a difference, would it, itself, be capable of generating a politics? Would it speak of human capacities, desires, and experiences that should be, could be, generalized, made available for the free development of all, instead of restricted and professionalized, as privilege? Would not such a generalization necessarily imply a radical reorganization of social relations: revolution?

Neutralization is the social price of aesthetic autonomy.
Theodor W. Adorno

3. Art only decorated the world; the point was to change it. Decorated: compensated and apologized for, affirmed and stabilized. Bourgeois art decorates the capitalist world, the social given, organized exploitation, structural barbarism, "perennial suffering." The philosophers have described this art: an open and expanding category constituted and reproduced by institutions and conventions, the art world. Where the philosophers of art considered their work done, critical theory begins. It grasps the historical context and exposes the social basis. It diagrams the ideology of capitalist art. At its center: the artist, then and still the singular, original and authentic genius-creator of work, opus, oeuvre. Signature as auratic seal, proof of presence, which the market converts to cultural capital and exchange value. Artistic autonomy: limited exemption from the law of profit, a suspension of the continuous cost-benefit calculations of instrumental reason, a decreed no-fire zone in the war of all against all. Qualified permission to evoke and explore what lies beyond, the promise of happiness: the joy of solidarity, gift giving, play, free communication and mimesis of nature, liberated contact and performance. But: only in art, not in "life." This rule is non-negotiable. Only virtual enactments are permitted. These may only enter the interested calculus of everyday life in the same form as everything else there - as commodities, fungible equivalents of exchange. And this contract marks the structure of the work or opus. So Adorno: artÂ’s "double-character," both autonomous and social fact.[1]

The art world, then, is a ghetto. Relatively free, compared to the indifferent rigors and enforcements of daily capitalism. But powerless in its confinement. The ghetto has its own distributions of power, internal divisions and hierarchies, stars and slaves, shantytowns and gated communities. But around it all, a categorical wall, patrolled by the institutional police and, if need be, the state. In short a social sub-system of capitalism, of capitalism as world system. Its functions: to soothe the loss of capacities, autonomy, and experience; to gather and channel the pressure for change; to neutralize the desire to actualize the promise by actually changing life. Marcuse in 1937: "the affirmative character of culture."[2] Althusser, 1970: to "interpellate" individuals as obedient subjects of capitalism.[3] All this is well mapped. Bourgeois art was, and remains, exposed... and yet goes on. As it will do, so long as capitalism calls the shots.

4. Bourgeois art: does this really capture the current reality? Does this category, with its implication of high culture, still conform to a contemporary world in which the old classes, the bourgeoisie and proletariat, seem to have mutated beyond recognition before the globalizing advance of spectacular society and its middle classes of enthusiastic consumption? Some argue that the opposition between life and art was always overblown and in any case is not strictly sustainable: at the conceptual edges, at the dividing frames, these categories always blur and merge.[4] True enough, but this is no refutation; the Derridean objection does not deny that the division is real, that it operates and produces difference as a real effect.

Others hold that the relative autonomy of bourgeois art has been subsumed and eliminated by what Adorno and Horkheimer in 1947 named the "culture industry."[5] Whatever limited autonomy art enjoyed in an earlier phase of capitalist modernity, we are told, all artistic production is now fully exposed to the law of profit. Market imperatives now thoroughly shape and manage artistic production and even over-determine the production of artistic subjectivity. Whatever space of exception autonomy was once able to wrest from the domain of coerced competition, the categorical difference between art and life has now been overwhelmed and undone. Such diagnoses, giving too much rein to Adornian hyperbole, are overstated. Certainly this is the tendency, and certainly it is a threat to autonomy. But however weak and shabby that autonomy now appears, it still functions and does service in a relative way: the fact remains that artists can, in the white cube and black box, explore questions that cannot be asked without certain reprisal in the context of everyday life. And the complete and utter reduction of art to its character as "social fact" would recoil and subvert the art systemÂ’s social functions. Without its autonomy, capitalist art can no longer claim to be art. In order to perform its affirmative social role as compensation for the lack of real happiness, art must credibly constitute a sphere in which that lack can be confronted and coped virtually. True, the culture industry can simulate artÂ’s autonomy and invoke the pretense of its promise of happiness. But the fact that the art institutions are still here and still produce a functional, if enfeebled, autonomy suggests that what the culture industry offers is not a good enough substitute to really fool anybody. Mere entertainment distracts but falls short of the more challenging and effective compensations offered by bourgeois art, even if it has become more difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. If the trends continue, will there not be an eventual vanishing point? Could not the market and administration simply fill this space of autonomy completely, the simulation replacing the model utterly, leaving nothing, not even the memory that art once existed? Such a prospect seems dubious and exceeds even what Adorno was willing to formulate. For now, in any case, even the slimmest relative autonomy counts for something and, in the give and take of liberal politics, is worth defending. The same goes for academic autonomy, which has long been under similar pressures. None of this, however, is the concern of the avant-gardes - or, for that matter, of radical anti-capitalist strategy.

A revolutionary action within culture cannot have as its aim to be the expression or analysis of life; it must aim at lifeÂ’s expansion. Misery must be pushed back everywhere.
Guy Debord

5. The historical avant-gardes probed the borders and limits of capitalist art, bringing into view for the first time its institutions and unwritten conventions, its paradigm and social functions. Repudiating the powerlessness of prison-house autonomy, the avant-gardes began organizing jailbreaks. The practices are diverse, but the vector is clear: breakout, a force of rupture that negates the conventionalized difference, carrying the promise and experiences of art into the conflicting given of the capitalist everyday. Not as art: this passage transforms. As interventions, adventures: local liberations and disruptions aiming at generalized, global transformations. Debord: the "critique of separation" (1961), the "decolonization" of everyday life (1966).[6] Gestures, models, tactics, strategies: what the impulses of art become, leaving bourgeois art behind. What avant-garde practices initiate becomes, in the wake, available to theory. Bürger, 1974: Theory of the Avant-Garde.[7]

6. Focusing "primarily [on] Dadaism and early Surrealism but also and equally [on] the Russian avant-garde after the October revolution," Bürger judges that the avant-gardes failed in their attempt to integrate art into the praxis of life: "It is a historical fact that the avant-garde movements did not put an end to the production of works of art, and that the social institution that is art proved resistant to the avant-gardiste attack."[8] For Bürger, the avant-gardes did succeed however in initiating the project of artÂ’s self-criticism and, as a result, in dissolving the organic work of art and reconstructing it on a different basis. "Neo-avant-garde" attempts to repeat the failure of the historical avant-gardes merely facilitate the re-absorption of these failures as art. More than dubious, BürgerÂ’s conclusions misrecognize the mutable, always renewable force of avant-garde breakouts and their relations to the project of anti-capitalist revolution. Obviously enough, the historical avant-gardes did not bring about a termination of capitalist art. That it continues is a result of the defeat of the revolutionary cycle that began in 1917, a defeat for which the artistic avant-gardes of course cannot be blamed. In this sense, the unqualified success of world revolution and the destruction of capitalist relations would be the necessary conditions of a successful supersession of bourgeois art. True enough: these are the limits of "pre-history." But in thinking historical success and failure in such a literal, linear, and all-or-nothing way, Bürger grants too much to the current given and blocks access to what, still in an Adornian idiom, could be called the "emphatic truth" of the avant-gardes. If we are to recognize these first breakouts as the constitution of a renewable vector, we first need to understand the sense in which the historical exposure of artÂ’s roles and functions under capitalism cannot be undone, revoked, or proclaimed away. This exposure, and its subsequent elaboration by theory, was the determinate negation of bourgeois art: the critical dissolution, liquidation, demystification, disenchantment of a specific paradigm, with all its frenzied, churning forms, rules, and apparatuses. What remains unrealized is the next spring of the dialectic: the positive creation or invention that would take the promise set free through the negation and code it into new forms and practices that would replace the bourgeois work of art altogether. While the positive mutation that would initiate the supersession of art still awaits actualization (revolution), the negation itself has been accomplished. The sheer power of the given, as brute fact, can repress this negation. With the affect machines at its command, spectacular power can even make it seem ridiculous as a kind of retrograde extremism. The market can and does keep bourgeois art churning after its death by exposure. But this effect of reification cannot undo what has been actualized in thought and practice, what has entered history as a social counter-fact. Power would like to utterly eradicate the memory of these breakouts, just as it would like to erase from history every trace of insubordination and insurgency. It will never be able to do so, so long as there remains in the world the slightest shred or shadow of negativity. Nor can it prevent this negative dialectic from being recovered, reconstituted, and reactivated, at any moment, as a vector - no more, at any rate, than neo-liberalism has succeeded in erasing for all time the force of the name of Marx.

We are in history, and its time is not over.
Susan Buck-Morss

7. BürgerÂ’s judgment that the avant-garde breakouts amount merely to a "false sublation" (falschen Aufhebung) of autonomous art into life, then, sees defeat and calls it impossibility.[9] BürgerÂ’s misrecognition does not ask what would really be required for the "success" or "realization" of the avant-garde vector in a world that is no longer capitalist: the pressure and focus of continuous attempts, within a context of protracted and determined social struggle. The leap that transforms does not come out of nowhere. It can only issue from the pressure of unsolved problems lived as urgencies, from the inherited blockages of revolutionary theory and practice. Bürger fails to grasp that the breakouts of the artistic avant-gardes are dependent on but also contribute to the emergence of new revolutionary situations. So he takes the defeat of one revolutionary cycle as the termination of revolution as such. In this, he reflects that melancholic current of cultural pessimism that circulates through Frankfurt School critical theory and risks aligning it with the neo-liberal proclamators of the end of history. One finds this cultural pessimism in Habermas and even in Marcuse, but above all in Adorno. Page one of Aesthetic Theory: "The sea of the formerly inconceivable, on which around 1910 revolutionary art movements set out, did not bestow the promised happiness of adventure.... ArtÂ’s autonomy remains irrevocable. All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function - of which art is itself uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty - are doomed."[10] In this and other infamous dismissals of committed cultural practices, Adorno proves incapable of thinking beyond the paradigm of bourgeois art. Granted: within that paradigm, the double-binds Adorno formulated hold like iron laws. Bourgeois art cannot become something other than bourgeois art without ceasing to be bourgeois art. How little this actually says, and with what resigned pessimism the Frankfurt Master held on to a compromised autonomy even as the tremors of 1968 rumbled through his lecture hall, is clear enough. Adorno was uninterested in where the vector beyond bourgeois art could go because he could no longer imagine anything beyond "late capitalism" that would be worth fighting for. The radical openness of history darkens here, from promise to threat. The anti-dialectical opening of Negative Dialectics says it all: revolution missed its moment, period, full stop.[11] Therefore back to the feeble autonomies and sublimated compensations of philosophy and bourgeois art, to wait out the dark ages. The paralyzing seductions of this pathos have been well marked. Adorno can only be read against the weight of it.

8. Adorno, Shapiro, Greenberg, MacDonald: today we can recognize the shared despair and resignation around which these disappointed Marxists orbited after 1945.[12] Out of it came the persistent tendency since then to conflate "the avant-garde" with modernism. According to its advocates, the modernist artwork is a force-field that formally registers the contradictions and anxieties of modernity - of a world continuously razed and remade by capital and technology - and at the same time formally generates resistance to the given. Exactly how it does so differs according to the account, but all accounts agree in locating force and value in the rigorous work or opus. There are multiple, even conflicting, versions of this narrative, but in all of them the avant-gardes emerge as the heroic makers of an exemplary modernism. Here, act and performance of break and rupture are always trumped by the works they leave behind: "event" is normalized by displacement and reduction to trace or relic. In these narratives the role of the avant-gardes is to confirm the institution of autonomy and accomplish the rescue of bourgeois art - from kitsch; from an utter collapse into the commodity form; from socialist realism, Stalinist or Trotskyist politics, indeed from any partisan commitment whatever; from the structural and historical aporias that never cease to haunt it. Modernism as rescue: even the "farewell" of T.J. Clark, whose art history tempers scintillating connoisseurship with radical political intelligence, reproduces this elision of avant-garde breakout.[13] TodayÂ’s critical new guard - Bois, Buchloh, Foster, Krauss - struggles with the modernist accounts but resignedly ends by writing new ones of its own; these register modernism in battle with its others ("anti-," "post-"), but finish just the same by confirming the work-based bourgeois paradigm.[14] Mutations of left-wing melancholy?

One response to all of this is - exit.
Brian Holmes

9. Thinking the avant-gardes as a renewable vector of breakout suggests a different narrative. From the perspective of the vector, what is decisive is the break with bourgeois art and its indispensable condition: the work, opus, oeuvre, "piece." The work - as trace and proof of the artist, however far removed, however ephemeral or immaterialized - is the prerequisite of institutional objectification and the final reduction to exchange value. It is, so to speak, commodified in advance. The expandable categories of capitalist art can apparently absorb every artistic practice that can be folded back into the form of a work. What eludes the work-form, however, would seem not to be subject to institutional control or market discipline. If such elusions are possible, they could never be absolute or fully self-assured: "iterability" - the structural possibility, beyond the aim of any intention, that any repeatable mark, gesture, utterance, or performance can be displaced from its original context and re-grafted onto others - functions here as confirmation of an irreducible institutional power to misrecognize anything as a work, in order to capture it.[15] Escape from the work-form, then, would derive rather from the rigor of a conscious refusal that becomes formally qualitative: if realized strongly enough, the radical desire that animates such practices makes them repellent or repulsive to the machines of absorption, perhaps because the violence of recuperation becomes too naked.

It could happen like this: Presumably any project, any instrumental movement toward a specified end, rehearses a (positive) dialectic of closure and results in a work. If this were confirmed to be the case, then any gathering together of anti-capitalist practices into a project - say, "the project of decolonizing everyday life" - would constitute a work always already prepared in advance for institutional capture as profitable positivity. But a work in the sense of an artwork requires the closure of accomplishment: it must be "finished" in order to fully enter the circuits of cultural capital that end in exchange value. (Think of the famous question to Pollock: "But how do you know when itÂ’s done?") A project, however, can be open-ended and perpetual: a negative dialectic that refuses final, totalizing synthesis. The project of decolonizing everyday life, for example, aims at a generalization of autonomy - more opening than foundational closure. Such an aim defers completion to the moment of revolutionary reorganization of the social given, a moment that can and has been thought as the advent of a perpetualization of negativity, of an interminable process of deconstruction and reorganization. It is always possible to misconstrue the movements of such a project as discrete "works," in order to capture them for art history and capitalization: it is in this sense that exchange value is "always already" there, as a possibility that haunts every use value. But as the example of the Situationist International shows, when refusal is borne with sufficient openness and determination, then the violence of such a capturing misconstrual becomes so obvious as to risk exposing the social functions of the paradigm and thus subverts the operations of absorption.[16]

If this is the case, then the refusal of the work-form would be a practical opening in or by which the vector can be reconstituted and launched. In the idiom of Deleuze and Guatarri, we might then try to think the avant-gardes as an available (nomadic) "war machine" that produces "lines of flight" leading out of the capitalist art paradigm.[17] Whatever idioms, metaphors, or images we choose, the vector always generates divisions that in turn generate alternative historical narratives. If the work-form is taken as the indispensable support and condition of capitalist art and its apparatus of absorption and enforcement, then a first division would distinguish production that attempts no more than to successfully instantiate the work-form from other practices that consciously manifest some critical resistance to that form. But a second and more provocative division would acknowledge the difference between practices that, while critical and resistant, nevertheless result in works from those which succeed in durably refusing the work-form.

Rather than ask, "What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?" I should like to ask, "What is its position in them?"
Walter Benjamin

10. Significant realignments would follow from these divisions. The first and for some most upsetting would be a drastic reduction in what could credibly be called "avant-garde." But in the face of the stupefying conceptual degradations and linguistic inflations generated from the relentless imperatives of selling and hustling, these might be welcome and even merciful cuts. Whatever is produced for the institutions of capitalist art, whatever aims at gallery, magazine cover, biennial, museum, art history, indeed whatever finally conforms to the minimal conventions of exhibition and performance and seeks an understanding reception within those conventions: all this certainly will be absorbed and will end by reinforcing the paradigm and the world system this paradigm serves and subtends. This is so no matter how "critical" in form or content, no matter how transgressive of this or that particular convention. As has been known for a long time, the art world can readily process difficult and critical works, and the stimulant of this manageable resistance arguably strengthens artÂ’s affirmative social functions. So let all this be called capitalist art, and let those working within the paradigm continue to distinguish between what could be called naively affirmative and critically affirmative works. The thesis here is: avant-garde practices only begin where this paradigm ends.

11. How would art since 1945 appear, if viewed through these divisions and re-categorizations? Much depends, of course, on how generous or uncompromising the viewer decides to be. A few examples, then, without trying or needing to be exhaustive. Naively affirmative capitalist art: abstract expressionist painting, late surrealism, minimalist sculpture, pop, nouveau réalisme, so-called neo-dada and neo-avant-garde, performance art, neo-expressionism, installation art. Critically affirmative capitalist art: early Gutai performance, the Independent Group, happenings, some nouveau réalisme, NO! Art and the March Group, Fluxus, Vienna actionists, some conceptualist art (arte de los medios, nova objectividada, Hi Red Center, Bikyoto Revolution Committee), early Living Theater, early Guerrilla Art Action Group, institutional critique. Avant-gardes: ultra-lettrisme and Internationale lettriste, situationists, provos, Subversive Aktion, Kommune I, diggers, yippies, Black Mask, King Mob, theater of the oppressed and the Living Theater in exile, late Guerrilla Art Action Group, Tucumán Arde, Comité dÂ’action étudiants-écrivains, Radio Alice, Gran Fury and ACT-UP, Reclaim the Streets, Tute Bianche, Volxtheater Favoriten/Publix Theater Caravan, Luther Blissett, Yomango, Grupo de Arte Callejero, Colectivo Situaciones, Bureau dÂ’Études, some tactical media (Yes Men, ®TMark, Critical Art Ensemble).

12. This would be one way of reorganizing pessimism in the face of market-driven contemporary "pluralism." Of course, any such revisions and redistributions are sure to provoke furious reactions from those invested in the standard progressive histories or the dominant critical counter-narratives. Cultural capital, reputations, careers are at stake at every turn. Proprietors will leap to defend what they take to be theirs. But the point is not to outdo the philistines in discounting or even vulgarly dismissing whole categories of practice and production. The task at hand is to try to think the avant-gardes as a radical vector, as a resolute break with business as usual, and then to see where this might take us. Granted, the examples given can be contested. Other lists could be generated based on different, more or less generous, interpretations of the same criteria. Given the cataloguing, archiving, and marketing of everything, we could argue interminably about how far or long specific projects, practices, and groups really eluded the work-form and institutions of capitalist art.[18] These arguments would quickly open questions about the very possibility of désoeuvrement - or of a different désoeuvrement, of practices that would durably resist recuperation into the conventionalized work and opus.[19] Is there anything worth doing or saying that would not take the form of a work? IsnÂ’t the attempt to elude the work-form itself a project, and therefore a work? Can any conscious, intentional activity at all escape the pull of the economy of labor and work, cost and benefit, exchange, and profit? Pure play, BatailleÂ’s "non-instrumental expenditure," and DerridaÂ’s "aneconomic" gift without return are thinkable, but are they performable? And if they were, would they too, pushed out through the twists and turns of institutional capture and mediation, also be reduced to work? If a war machine is a mode of production, then are not lines of flight also works? What of "biopolitical" and "immaterial" production? Would this be Paolo VirnoÂ’s "virtuosity"?

So what would these questions mean for the vector and the politics of its refusal, of its drive beyond the given? How certain, really, is the predicament described by this mantra, "There is no outside"? Or rather: what, really, can be meant by it? Are we truly to believe that there could possibly be, and that we might now be living in, conditions of "total administration" or "absolute integration" without remainder? Evidently not, since we can still ask the question. Is there no difference between, on the one hand, a work that aims from the beginning at the museum and, on the other, a gesture, constructed event or catalyzed process sited beyond the art world and addressed generally, but which much later and against its impulse is "acquired" and displaced into a museum collection? (And this text, for example, is certainly a work; addressed primarily to artists, critics and theorists, how far can it, by speaking of the vector, contribute to its renewal?) Such questions and arguments would be welcome and, well... productive. But the position taken here is: there is an alternative. Openness persists. There is history, even if progress was a fatal illusion. However the "plane of immanence" is conceived, there demonstrably is an outside of the institutions of the capitalist art system, and passages to that outside amount to decisive and effective breaks with the bourgeois paradigm. The practical impossibility of totalized systemic closure and of a permanent, globalized stabilization rescues this thesis from recoil into voluntarism. Anti-capitalist practices for the liberation of everyday life have in the past been invented and pursued by determined collectives of artistic agents, and nothing in the contemporary organization of exploitation and control excludes or forecloses the reconstitution of this vector. Moreover, such practices were and will continue to be qualitatively different from critically affirmative capitalist art, as well as easily distinguishable from the exhausted routines of conventional representational politics. The thesis is: this vector can be recovered and reactivated in new ways at any time. To say so does no more than to confirm, with Clark and Nicholson-Smith, "Why Art CanÂ’t Kill the Situationist International" (1997).[20]

It is necessary to see when an encounter in a concrete collective task becomes impossible, but also to see if such an encounter, in changed circumstances, does not once again become possible and desirable between persons who have been able to retain a certain respect for each other.
Michèle Bernstein

Alas, itÂ’s hard to please Mr. Debord.
Nato Thompson

Culture abhors stench because it itself stinks; because its palace, as Brecht put it in a magnificent line, is built of dogshit.
Theodor W. Adorno

13. An objection certain to be raised: this is too extreme, restricted and restricting, zealous, puritanical, aggressively trivializing, violent. Another (its cousin): this is romantic, merely rebellious, maladjusted, resentful, juvenile, infantile, pathological. (Please grow up!) (Or: please find an analyst!) Clearly, this vector is not for everyone. The divisions and choices it brings into view will, understandably, produce discomfort, if not rage. But wouldnÂ’t these forms of anxiety always and necessarily be triggered by any real proposal of the "social question?" WouldnÂ’t it be naïve to believe questions of social stakes, conflicts, and struggle can be posed without triggering them? Add to this the social fact that the art world has grown to bloated proportions. (How many people, how many of us, earn our bread there in one way or other? Does anyone know? Could anyone guess?) Obviously, this vested interest cannot be expected to welcome the reactivation of this dialectic. That canÂ’t be helped. This is how things appear and are bound to appear, if the radical force and aspirations of past avant-gardes would be remembered and renewed. But this at least can be offered: such choices cannot be coerced. The vector is a reasoned conclusion. But also: it is bond, commitment, affinity born of experience, passion, the deeply embodied roots of resolution. None of this is meant to disqualify anyoneÂ’s production or to pass moralizing judgment on their means of living, though it will surely be received as these. Others will complain that this refusal of art is a barbarous desertion, an abandonment of a precious sanctuary or safe house, a crude act of terrorism against the fragile shards of utopia embedded in the products of artistic autonomy. No, the days are long gone in which art could be clung to as something whose value is simply given as such, as eternal verity, humanist Spirit, the civilized other of barbarism. Even before Auschwitz and Hiroshima, what Adorno called artÂ’s "very right to exist" (Existenzrecht) was in question, and the repeated repression of this question prepares the shock of its repeated return.[21] The only thing more barbarous than what bourgeois art and culture have functionally become is the renunciation of art and culture altogether: so Adorno.[22] Exactly on this point, the vector goes a different way. To attempt to go beyond art, to negate it and realize its truth and promise as something other, as new forms and practices beyond the paradigm and in support of struggles for systemic transformation: far from barbarous, this would be a very generous reach for "true humanity."[23] As a support of structural barbarism and organized misery, art in its contemporary form has not ceased to be obscene. To those who cling to it, little more can be said. The division divides, and each will know their own.

14. A different objection: why "avant-gardes"? Why renovate a term so implicated in the histories of "bad" militancy, of elitism, privilege, and power in the revolutionary tradition? Fair question.[24] Vanguard partyism has been thoroughly critiqued and repudiated.[25] These conclusions are accepted and endorsed here. The artistic avant-gardes were not always innocent of hierarchy and posing. But neither can they be reduced to the names Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. While they can and should be criticized, their convictions did not exactly make them monsters of brutality, ready to instrumentalize everyone to the last drop and put to the wall anyone who stands in their way. For the most part, they were satisfied to instrumentalize themselves, as far as they could bear, by turning their own lives into this vector. In so far as the artists of the avant-gardes were militants, they are subject to the critique of militancy that, there too, disentangles truth and promise from their opposites.[26] They are not exempt from that practical ethics that mostly was disastrously missing from the revolutionary tradition. History has brought all of this into view, and any renewal of the vector will have to process and reflect it. Rigorous, interminable self-critique is the necessary condition for new leaps and mutations of revolutionary theory and practice. The use of the term "avant-gardes" here, then, does not mark a return to vanguardism. It is meant to do no more than to invoke a tradition and to give it, without nostalgia or rose-colored glasses, the respect that is its due. It is obvious, and painfully so, how degraded this term has become. Still, there seems not to be another that says as much or says it better. If one were found and were to come into usage, no one should object to letting this one go. Until then, it will have to be used, if only for the simple and compelling reason that the vector it denotes requires a name.

For the moment, only the Surrealists have grasped what the Communist Manifesto demands today. They exchange, to a man, their expressive human faces for the face of an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds.
Walter Benjamin

15. The repudiation of metaphysical optimism and of History as Automatic Progress was a crucial aspect of the Frankfurt School critical project. But it is still necessary to disentangle the critique of progress from the dead-end of reified cultural pessimism in which Adorno and others came to rest. For this, Benjamin offers the needed theoretical resource. In 1926, ex-surrealist Pierre Naville had provoked a crisis among surrealist poets and artists. His pamphlet "The Revolution and the Intellectuals: What Can the Surrealists Do?" challenged the surrealists to discipline their revolt with a practical politics, in order to seek forms that would go beyond scandal and become effectively anti-capitalist.[27] In 1929 implicitly affirming Naville’s polemic, Benjamin published a dialectical critique of the surrealist attempt "to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution": "A very different air is breathed in Naville’s writing that makes the ‘organization of pessimism’ the call of the hour.... And that means pessimism all along the line. Absolutely. Mistrust in the fate of literature, mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the fate of European humanity, but three times mistrust in all reconciliation: between classes, between nations, between individuals. And unlimited trust only in I.G. Farben and the peaceful perfection of the air force."[28] These are hard lines. They tell us: count only on this, that capitalism will unleash the full force of its war machine - at the time, in the form of an attack dog called fascism - on whoever attempts to displace it. Benjamin goes on: "To organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred percent for images."[29] The meaning of "image" here is illuminated retrospectively by the incomparable 1940 essay "On the Concept of History."[30] Benjamin means the "dialectical image" that brings into relation, in the flash of a constellation, contemporary struggles and the unpaid debts of history. This weaponized image is the "true image of the past" that flares up in urgency. It is charged with the "Now," the electric awareness that the past is both at stake and a supporting protagonist in every contemporary struggle. Such images, Benjamin insisted, are the mediation by which the rage, bitterness, and resentment of the defeated - and of those who inherit their defeats - are converted into the action-oriented "spiritual" resources needed for struggle: confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and resilience.

The concept of history at work here is neither linear nor progressive. Its form is the rupture, the cascading qualitative mutation that follows a radical break with the given and with the temporal continuum in which the given is continuously reproduced. In BenjaminÂ’s analysis of the defeat of the German Revolution of 1918-23 and the rise of fascism, his indignant contempt for the blunders of the Left is legible and pronounced. His criticism of vulgar productivism - of that ideology of work shared by capitalists, social democrats, and revolutionary Leninists alike - anticipates the Frankfurt critique of instrumental reason and remains as valid today as when it was written. But even more woefully confirmed is BenjaminÂ’s critique of the history-as-progress that underwrites productivism: the myth that the dialectic is unfolding automatically, unstoppably, toward classless society and the infinite moral perfection of humanity. In the myth of progress, technology becomes a good tout court - one more unassailable given. If Auschwitz and Hiroshima have killed this myth in the realm of "objective historical truth," it still persists as an ideological reality, as the artificial ground of official and manufactured optimism.

The avant-gardes as a vector of breakout: this re-description corresponds to and models the temporality of rupture that now appears as the only viable anti-capitalist concept of history. The organization of pessimism: the refusal to be reconciled to capitalist art, the commitment to link up with others to actualize this refusal. In the determination to receive, bear, and reactivate the inherited blockages of revolutionary theory and practice, the impulses of art crack open the shell of art that contains them. The experiments in practical autonomy thereby set loose would, as they did in the past, nurture and catalyze the rhizomes in struggle, to which they are oriented. The articulation of the two is where a radically cosmopolitical and anti-capitalist culture begins to emerge. Faces that ring like stuck alarm clocks register and testify bodily to the urgency of awakening to the structural horror of the given situation, of responding to the intolerable - and to the scandal of inertia, silence, inaction. Benjamin: "Only when in technology itself body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality surpassed itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto."[31]

Intellectual integrity demands our political engagement in both a radical criticism of capitalism and radical criticism of historical progress.
Susan Buck-Morss

16. The price of breakout, of self-subtraction from the dominant consensus, is the return of a certain alienation, a marginalized social position, institutional exile or self-exile. And this alienation can only be borne together with others who have made similar passages. Anti-capitalist struggle offers its own liberations: the experience of camaraderie in the affinity group, lived solidarity and mutual support, the pre-figurations of real collective autonomy. These experiences are fragile compensations, however, wherever social movements and struggles are not yet strong enough to support a radical culture that keeps reification at bay. There are, no one can deny it, moments of profound connection, real "communication," the joys and ecstasies of collective becoming. But these do not add up to the social "happiness" of capitalist "success," a spectacular effect that only a revolutionary context can dispel. In imagining, making, writing, doing the needed radical culture and its rhizomatic forms of cooperation, what Guattari called "group-subjectivity" is exposed to all the hostility of the given - a pressure that over time has made many groups implode.[32] Hence the term "breakout" here, rather than "exit" or "flight": it marks, at least metaphorically, the force and momentum needed to jump a wall or cross a closed border, to breach or negate a "security obstacle" that is already militarized, that already deploys the violence of threat and hostility in its apparatus of enforcement. The vector as anti-capitalist breakout is also this: the decision to risk exposure to the given enforcements. This risk is a condition of beginning again, of reopening all the questions and performing the right to question without condition. Moreover: the risk that begins there, in increased exposure to the legalized violence of the given, will not be the end of risk for those willing to rethink what is or could be "in common." Global justice is no certainty, no guaranteed result, no final and automatic fulfillment of a dialectic seen and seized in advance. The only certainties it can have anything to do with are negative ones: this is not it. Yet to decide and act, to commit to "the forms of a resolution," it is necessary to leave even the certainty of the negative. One carries the conviction, but never the proof, that planetary justice, to the extent that such a thing is possible at all, can be realized beyond the capitalist given. What is thereby mobilized in the vector exceeds the calculus of conventional "politics" and the "promises" of politicians: its ground is the promise as such, as urgency and nothing else. Or, to use BlanchotÂ’s idiom, apt in every way here: as "exigency."[33] Shifting now to the first person plural, for the risks involved in pronouncing this "we" will not deter us here: If, despite everything, we make these choices and take these risks, preferring the uncertainty of these anticipations to the reigning common sense, if we reach beyond all guarantees, beyond that safety and security it is the business of the given state to promise, we do it because we want to: because when all is said and done, itÂ’s who weÂ’ve already become.

In her 2002 essay "Revolutionary Time," Susan Buck-Morss marks the irony of an academic industry founded on the ruins of Walter Benjamin, a scholar whom the academy rejected. Surveying the global scene of capitalÂ’s purported end-of-the-century triumph, she marks the unimpeded factual accumulation of misery and atrocity. She goes on to blast an academia that offers little beyond its own accommodation, and that has already resigned itself to further compromises of autonomy under the new rigors of market discipline and neo-liberal structural adjustments. Continuing on from the lines of the epigraph above, she writes: "This can be done from a plurality of social positions - constructions of race, sexuality, ethnicity, postcoloniality and the like - but it cannot be done comfortably. If we are too comfortable, either as established Benjaminian academics, globe-trotting gadflies, or as would-be Benjaminian academics, globe-trotting groupies, we are part of the problem."[34] For "Benjaminian academics," substitute "artists, critics, theorists."

What our generation has learned: that capitalism will not die a natural death.
Walter Benjamin

Who will resist? It is necessary to go beyond this partial defeat. Of course. And how to do it?
Guy Debord

17. Artists and cultural practitioners who have reached the conclusion that capitalism has once again become intolerable and that renewed anti-capitalist struggle is an urgency are apparently faced with a choice between three alternatives. Either remain inside the art system and settle for adding more critically affirmative art to the quantity of capitalist art. Or reconstitute the vector and make a resolute break with this system. The third alternative would be to shuttle back and forth between inside and outside, as need and opportunity permit. Maybe. But the argument here has been that these alternatives are illusory. Working within the capitalist art system is necessarily a losing proposition. Meaning: not that nothing at all can happen there, but that any such happening should not be confused with a radical culture that can credibly be called anti-capitalist. Given the structure and functions of artistic autonomy, double-games that try to overcome art without giving it up must end by affirming the paradigm and can be, at best, only critically affirmative. In practice the three alternatives reduce to two.[35] The real choice is to break or not to break with the capitalist art system. Many of us would like these options not to be mutually exclusive. The conclusion here is that they are, and that hard lines need to be drawn to clarify the choice and the stakes. Those who choose breakout have a tradition to look back to, the histories of the avant-gardes as vector. Seen with open eyes, this tradition comes down as unrealized promise and unsettled debt. But also: as renewable force and effective pressure and process, as collective reach for revolutionary time. The radical openness of history is hiding in every second of every moment. De-reification hovers in the daily images of global governance: robocops with riot sticks and shields, streets filled to bursting, cars in flames. The message circulating, whispering behind the chatter of talking heads: perpetual war and "common ruin" are not immovable fate, encore un effort. After the dissolvent of the negative, after the rupture, would begin the time of free creation.

This is a preprint electronic version of an article forthcoming in Third Text, vol. 21, no. 3 (2007). Many thanks to Rozalinda Borcila, Steven Corcoran, and Brian Holmes for their responses to early drafts of this essay.


[1] "ArtÂ’s double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy." Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp), p. 16; Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 5.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, "The Affirmative Character of Culture," in Marcuse, Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

[3] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), pp. 115-20.

[4] All such arguments today tend to derive, wittingly or not, from Jacques DerridaÂ’s brilliant reading of KantÂ’s Third Critique, in particular his deconstruction of "disinterestedness." See chapter 1 ("Parergon") in Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 15-147.

[5] "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" in Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002). Today the critic and theorist most strongly associated with this analysis (and, rightly or wrongly, with its most pessimistic and foreclosing tendencies) is Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. See for example the "Introduction" to Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000), especially pp. xxxi-iii.

[6] In his 1961 film Critique of Separation, Guy DebordÂ’s voice-over narration includes this line: "The only adventure, we said, is to contest the totality, whose center is this way of living, where we can test our strength but never use it." And: "Everything involving the sphere of loss - that is, what I have lost of myself, the time that has gone; and disappearance, flight; and the general evanescence of things, and even what in the prevalent and therefore most vulgar sense of time is called wasted time - all this finds in that strangely apt old military term, lost children [en enfants perdus], its intersection with the sphere of discovery, of the exploration of unknown terrains, and with all the forms of quest, adventure, avant-garde. This is the crossroads where we have found ourselves and lost our way." Guy Debord: Complete Cinematic Works: Scripts, Stills, Documents, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2003), pp. 31, 35. The phrase "decolonization of everyday life" sums up the situationist project from its inception and appears, probably not for the first time, in "Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organizations," a short text adopted by the 7th Conference of the Situationist International in Paris in July 1966 and published in Internationale situationniste 11 (October 1967): "Such an organization sees the beginning and end of its program in the complete decolonization of everyday life." Ken Knabb, ed. and trans., Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 223.

[7] Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1974); Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[8] Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, pp. 44, 77-8; Theory of the Avant-Garde, pp. 109, 56-57. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the critical responses to Bürger authored by Benjamin Buchloh and Hal Foster. Both are aimed at BürgerÂ’s dismissal of the post-1945 "neo-avantgarde" and, to some extent, at BürgerÂ’s categorical division between "historical" and "neo-" avant-gardes. Both responses seek to rescue the dismissed bodies of work and to reestablish the possibility of contemporary avant-garde, or at least "critical," artistic production. My criticism of Bürger, issuing from other concerns and aims, intersects very little with the conclusions of these finally modernist critics, although I do feel close to FosterÂ’s resistance both to "Frankfurt School melancholia" and to that "dialectic of failure" shared by Bürger and Buchloh. By the categorization I propose here, what Bürger calls "neo-avant-garde" art would be "critically affirmative" rather than avant-garde. Buchloh, "Theorizing the Avant-Garde," Art in America, vol. 72 (November 1984), pp. 19-21; and Foster, "WhatÂ’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde?" in October 70 (Fall 1994), pp. 5-32.

[9] Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, pp. 72-3; Theory of the Avant-Garde, pp. 53-4, translation modified: "In summary, we note that the historical avant-garde movements negate those determinations that are essential in autonomous art: the disjunction of art and the praxis of life, individual production, and individual reception as distinct from the former. The avant-garde intends the abolition [Aufhebung] of autonomous art by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. This has not occurred, and presumably cannot occur in bourgeois society unless it be in the form of a false sublation [falschen Aufhebung] of autonomous art. Pulp fiction and commodity aesthetics prove that such a false sublation exists.... In late capitalist society, intentions of the historical avant-garde movements are being realized but with results other than what was intended [mit umgekehrten Vorzeichen]. Given the experience of the false sublation of autonomy, one will need to ask whether a sublation of autonomy status can be desirable at all, whether the distance between art and the praxis of life is not what guarantees in the first place that space for free play within which alternatives to what exists become thinkable."

[10] Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 9; Aesthetic Theory, p. 1.

[11] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1975), p. 15; Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 3, translation modified: "Philosophy, which once seemed overtaken, keeps itself alive because the moment of its realization was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that by resignation before reality it had also crippled itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the transformation of the world has failed."

[12] For an orienting discussion of Meyer Shapiro, Clement Greenberg, and Dwight MacDonald in the context of post-1945 Marxism in the United States, see Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983). See also Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock, "Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed" and the other essays in Francis Frascina, ed., Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).

[13] T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).

[14] These four writers have for a long time been the prime movers of the journal October. While divergences in approach and position persist among them, their shared if qualified endorsement of opus-based artistic modernism emerges strikingly in the final roundtable that concludes their collectively authored survey art history. That at the end of the day these four theorist-historians re-emerge as defenders of modernism is not without irony - one that would seem to be a literal translation of the paradoxical predicaments of the capitalist artwork. Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005), p. 674.

[15] Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context" in Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

[16] The resistance of anti-capitalist projects, a resistance IÂ’m characterizing here as one deriving from its desiring force of refusal and breakout, should not be confused with attempts to short-circuit the work-form by bringing the deferral of closure into the gallery or other institutions of reception. In 1993, for example, Robert Morris published a collection of essays under the title Continuous Project Altered Daily (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press). But as the names of the co-publishers already make clear, whatever is collected under this title is intended to be received as the work of an artist whose identity as such, however critically or self-critically carried, is never in doubt or question and therefore will comfortably take its place within an established oeuvre. I take it that the difference between such moves and the anti-capitalist practices IÂ’m pointing to is qualitative.

[17] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[18] Bürger for his part seems to conclude that practices inevitably become works: "[E]fforts to sublate art become artistic manifestations that, despite their producerÂ’s intentions, take on the character of works." Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, p. 80; Theory of the Avant-Garde, p. 58.

[19] Here and in the sentences that follow, I refer to Maurice BlanchotÂ’s notion of désoeuvrement ("unworking" or "worklessness"), as a "neutral" force of dissolution that haunts and ruins the work of art, especially as this notion was taken up by Jean-Luc Nancy, in his 1983 engagement with the thought and acephalic experiments of Georges Bataille, as well as to the fruitful textual call and response NancyÂ’s text provoked. However I am suggesting pushing this notion more in the direction of a politicized evacuation of the work-form. Even "ruined" or unworking works in BlanchotÂ’s sense meet the minimum conditions of the bourgeois paradigm and would in my schema function without problem as critically affirmative works. Indeed for Blanchot this "empty power" of unworking is the negative aspect of the artwork (or that aspect of it that is always slipping toward the abandon of a negativity without reserve), without which its positive (meaningful and "enlightened") aspect would not be possible. Both aspects together - and the ambiguity between them - constitute "the irreducible double meaning" of what he calls "literature." Blanchot, "Literature and the Right to Death," in The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays, trans. Lydia Davis, Paul Auster and Robert Lamberton (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, 1998) pp. 387, 398-9. The "power without power" of BlanchotÂ’s unworking work touches everything at stake here, however, and there is much to think in the links between the desire to evacuate the work-form and the desire to evacuate the place of state power. In any case, the constellation that has formed around BlanchotÂ’s notion and NancyÂ’s text looms behind this "essay." It is also clear that this constellation, which includes among others Jacques Derrida, Marguerite Duras, Emmanuel Levinas and Dionys Mascolo, needs to be brought into critical articulation with the rewriting, by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, of revolutionary theory in terms of the "general intellect" and the generalized biopolitical production of social life as such under post-Fordist capitalism. For some points of entry into this constellation see Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Connor and trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991); Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1981) and Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997); Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992) and Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 1997); Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis and London: University of Minesota Press, 1993); and Marguerite Duras, The Malady of Death, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Grove, 1986), but perhaps above all her Destroy, She Said, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1970), a text that predates NancyÂ’s essay by more than a decade but, in processing and transfiguring the experience of the Comité dÂ’action étudiants-écrivains in May 1968, belongs in the strongest way to the constellation. On the new, radically generalized productivism, see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004); and Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004).

[20] T.J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Why Art CanÂ’t Kill the Situationist International," October 79 (Winter 1997), pp. 15-31.

[21] Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 9; Aesthetic Theory, p. 1: "It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident any more, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist."

[22] Adorno, Negative Dialektik, pp. 359-60; Negative Dialectics, pp. 366-7.

[23] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. xi: "Critical thought, which does not call a halt before progress itself, requires us to take up the cause of the remnants of freedom, of tendencies toward real humanity, even though they seem powerless in face of the great historical trend." While marking, again, the need to refuse or at least resist the Frankfurt School pessimism freighting the sentence, this dialectical understanding of "true humanity" as the limit of reification dissolves all rigid conceptions of human nature and historical finality and weathers well the once de rigueur critiques of "humanism."

[24] Hal FosterÂ’s summary catalog of standing complaints against the category will suffice here: "The problems with the avant-garde should be familiar, especially to readers of [October]: its ideology of progress, its presumption of originality, its elitist hermeticism, its historical exclusivity, its appropriation by cultural industries, and so on." Foster, "WhatÂ’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde?", p. 10. It will be clear that these "problems," even in fully developed form, fall far short of a knock-down repudiation of the avant-gardes as vector. Given that the self-critical tendencies and capacities within this tradition have long ago addressed most, if not all, of these complaints in practice, it is high time to redirect some deconstructive energy at the dominant caricature of "the avant-garde."

[25] This critique amounts to a tradition in itself, from Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek; to Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationist International, and the March 22nd Movement; to, now, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Among many possible formulations, DebordÂ’s and Daniel Cohn-BenditÂ’s, both strongly informed by the theoretical work of Socialisme ou Barbarie, would indicate how far this critique had come by May 1968. See part IV, "The Proletariat as Subject and Representation," in Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone, 1995), pp. 47-90; and part IV, "The Strategy and Nature of Bolshevism," in Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, trans. Arnold Pomerans (Edinburgh, London, and San Francisco: AK Press, 2000), pp. 181-222.

[26] The term "militant" can mean many things, depending on context, and is at this point in need of a genealogy of its own to distinguish and clarify different usages. Its original referent would seem to be the members of a clandestine revolutionary cell, directed from afar and above by a revolutionary party and its inevitable "Central Committee." In this form, entangled with the top-down, ultra-centralized party form associated with Leninist vanguardism, militancy implies a personal subordination to "discipline" that amounts to the surrender of individual autonomy: the militant lets the party leadership do all the thinking and blindly carries out orders like a good soldier of the revolution. Scattered references in situationist writings, notably in Raoul VaneigemÂ’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, extend this critique by emphasizing the self-abnegation involved in separating political activism from the realm of pleasure, play, adventure, and desire. The Retort collective has recently emphasized the return of the sacrificial and ferociously destructive aspects of this militancy in al-QaedaÂ’s revival of the worst tradition of vanguardism. It must be said, however, that many activists today use the term "militancy" to refer to contestational tactics based on direct action, from classic non-violent civil disobedience to monkeywrenching, the destruction of genetically engineered crops, and other forms of selective property damage. Since today such direct actions are almost always carried out by qualitative affinity groups rather than old-style party cells, this contemporary usage already reflects the critique of militancy as incompatible with the conditions of autonomy and play. See Vaneigem, The Revolution in Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Rebel Press, 2003), pp. 109, 174, and chapter 12 ("Sacrifice") and chapter 15 ("Roles"), pp. 107-16 and 131-50; and Retort (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso, 2005), chapter 6 ("Modernity and Terror"), pp. 171-196. The British theory collective Aufheben offers a short discussion of the situationist critique of the "militant" in "Whatever Happened to the Situationists?", Aufheben 6 (Autumn 1997), archived online at .

[27] Pierre Naville, La Révolution et les intellectuels: Que peuvent faire les surréalistes? (Paris: n.p., 1926). For a discussion of the "crisis" triggered by this text, see Helena Lewis, The Politics of Surrealism (New York: Paragon House, 1988), pp. 55-69. While Benjamin cites the title of NavilleÂ’s 1926 polemic, his invocation in the quoted passage below of "NavilleÂ’s writing [Schrift]" refers to the 1927 text, "Mieux et moins bien," published in La Révolution surréaliste IX-X, pp. 54-57. There, Naville proposes the "systematic pessimism" glossed by Benjamin.

[28] Walter Benjamin, "Der Sürrealismus," in Benjamin, Angelus Novus: Ausgewählte Schriften 2 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1988), p. 213; "Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia," trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-34, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 216-7, translation modified. A close reading of NavilleÂ’s two polemics together with BenjaminÂ’s characterization of them would likely reveal that the dilemmas and choices involved in giving revolutionary desire an adequate "practical politics" are more complicated than either acknowledges or implies. Certainly in retrospect, with so much more history behind us, we know this to be true. The immediate result of the Naville crisis is fairly clear: five surrealists (Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret, and Pierre Unik) joined the French Communist Party in 1927. Naville meanwhile gravitated to the Trotskyist Fourth International. BenjaminÂ’s 1929 text is ambiguous with regard to organizational issues and doesnÂ’t register the Stalin-Trotsky split. These ambiguities however do not prevent us from appreciating the action-oriented position he enunciates: neither unwarranted optimism nor a pessimism that remains impotently "unorganized."

[29] Benjamin, "Sürrealismus," p. 214; "Surrealism," p. 217.

[30] Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," trans. Harry Zohn, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-40, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 389-400.

[31] Benjamin, "Sürrealismus," p. 215; "Surrealism," pp. 217-8, translation modified.

[32] See Gilles Deleuze, "Three Group Related Problems" in Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974, ed. David Lapoujade and trans. Michael Taormina (Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), pp. 193-203; and Klaus Theweleit, "Remarks on the RAF Spectre: ‘Abstract RadicalismÂ’ and Art," in Eva Grubinger, ed., group.sex, trans. Jörg Heiser and Michael Robinson (Berlin and New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 1998), pp. 75-101.

[33] See, for example, Blanchot, Friendship, p. 64 ("the communist exigency") and p. 111 ("the exigency of refusal").

[34] Susan Buck-Morss, "Revolutionary Time: The Vanguard and the Avant-Garde," in Helga Geyer-Ryan, Paul Koopman, and Klaas Yntema, eds., Benjamin Studien 1 (Amsterdam and New York: International Walter Benjamin Association and University of Amsterdam, 2002), p. 212.

[35] For a comparative discussion of these alternatives, see Gene Ray, "On the Conditions of Anti-Capitalist Art: Radical Cultural Practices and the Capitalist Art System," online at ; and forthcoming in Left Curve 31 (2007).