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In the shadow of unparalleled war and genocide, the aesthetic violence that the historical avant-garde once employed to spark utopian renewal became reality and thus lost its force. Citing the emergence of individual practitioners in place of previous collectives, Langston not only theorizes the nature of Germany's post-fascist avant-gardes but also illustrates his theory with seven examples: Peter Weiss's early paintings, novels, and quasi-surrealist film; Dieter Wellershoff's coterie of writers and their new realist prose; artist Wolf Vostell's happenings and pop paintings; Rolf Dieter Brinkmann's posthumous collages and audio recordings; Alexander Kluge's television windows and laconic stories; Christoph Schlingensief's postcinematic spectacles; and Rene Pollesch's postdramatic theater. In each instance, Langston demonstrates how the legacies of the historical avant-garde became testaments to the catastrophic realities left in German fascism's wake.
Covering a span of six decades, from Weiss to Pollesch, Langston claims a unique space for Germany's post-fascist avant-gardes, one distinct from modern progress and postmodern pastiche, where an ethics of time-how can time ever march forward again after Auschwitz?-assumed central importance.
About the Author:
Richard Langston is an assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Avant-Garde Time After Fascism
On the Futurity of the Historical Avant-Garde
When is the avant-garde? Students and scholars of the avant-garde are wise to separate this awkward little question from its imperfect variant, When was the avant-garde? An inveterate preoccupation among countless thinkers, this second query has produced countless biographies that, in retrospect, double as obituaries. Historicizing the avant-garde is fraught with peril. Because the avant-garde is so frequently unintelligible, the signification that accompanies historiography has certainly helped to secure the avant-garde its rightful place in the annals of Western aesthetic and cultural history. Conversely, dating it and rendering it transparent has very often resulted in the declaration of its death. To name the avant-garde is at once to kill it off. This double bind has especially been the case in German aesthetic theory and intellectual history after fascism. By suspending the avant-garde in the present tense, the initial question does not imply that any and all obituaries are premature or that the avant-garde prevails in an interminable present as an immutable entity unscathed since its beginnings. On the contrary, asking When is the avant-garde? presupposes that the avant-garde possesses a unique temporal consciousness that departs from modernity's axis of linear, irreversible time with its three fundamental stations: the past, present, and future. As its name implies, the avant-garde occupies a place in time at the forefront of the present. Diagnosing the avant-garde's temporal ontology in greater detail is nevertheless methodologically tricky. Above all, choosing which or whose avant-garde to inspect surfaces immediately. The boundary between "When is" and "When was" begins to collapse, for does not every concrete manifestation of the avant-garde eventually expire? In things avant-garde, the question of mortality is unavoidable. As much as this first chapter wishes to forestall this slippage from the synchronic to the diachronic, the diachronic dimension of the avant-garde requires inspection, too, if only to throw into relief the temporal particularities of German avant-garde consciousness as it developed throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
This tack is absolutely necessary for studying German avant-gardes after fascism. For one, it refutes the innumerable declarations of its premature death well before the rise of fascism. Visions of Violence contends that in spite of Nazi prohibitions and the hardships many avant-gardists experienced in exile, the avant-garde persisted in Germany well into the second half of the twentieth century without necessarily degenerating into modernism or morphing into postmodernism. Pursuing the question When is the avant-garde? is indispensable insofar as it pinpoints a paradigm shift at the halfway point in the continuum of the German avant-garde's past one hundred years. By querying the avant-garde's temporal consciousness, Visions of Violence contends that German avant-gardes after 1945 did indeed continue their forerunners' quest for alternative modes of experiencing modern time. Yet this quest after German fascism embarked on a markedly different path than its forerunners. Illuminating these transgenerational links and innovative breaks cannot proceed philologically, however. What the avant-garde in Germany became was that which interwar thinkers like Walter Benjamin had initially hoped the first generation of avant-gardes would have realized prior to the catastrophes of fascism. Asking When is the avant-garde? thus illustrates a vital initial link between pre-fascist avant-garde theorizing and post-fascist praxis. What emerged as avant-garde after Hitler had, in part, already been articulated in terms of a patently German theoretical intervention into the inadequacies of the historical avant-garde in light of fascism's imminent dominion over Germany. Hardly a lofty vocation unto itself, retheorizing the avant-garde in the shadow of National Socialism was both a political charge in its own day and a message in a bottle of what and when the avant-garde should be in the future. After fascism, this message languished for decades before one exceptional post-fascist theoretical moment not only acknowledged its receipt but also confirmed its relevance for a culture in which the forward march of modern time functioned in large part as an escape from the horrors of its recent past.
Conceiving Germany's post-fascist avant-garde as the inheritor of a decades-old theoretical modification of the historical avant-garde must come with several caveats. If Benjamin's message, for example, did indeed arrive in the future, it did not describe precisely the historical demands that would be placed on the post-fascist avant-garde. The interim realities of fascist violence necessitated yet another modification of the theory of the avant-garde. The theoretical message in a bottle-a blueprint of the ideal avant-garde capable of transforming West German culture-would only become useful in the postwar present if it intervened in the dominant temporal consciousness that arose out of fascism's defeat. Second, this second modification was steeped in an ethical imperative born out of fascism's mass-produced death, world war, and mass destruction. To evoke the avant-garde after 1945 was at once to question the possibility of German time ever moving forward again after the murder of millions. Accordingly, avant-garde time after 1945 found itself shuttling between the poles of repetition, progress out of, and regression back into the urban ruins, mountains of corpses, and battlefields that National Socialism left in its wake. And third, modifying Benjamin's prescient theory of a better avant-garde from the years of exile had to revise the intimate relationship between the body and time that galvanized under fascism and that has haunted Germany ever since. After 1945, a great many German avant-gardes identified the human body as a material basis upon which to realize this new yet not-so-new paradigm for intervening in the course of modern time. Pursuing the genesis and nature of this original message, tracking its voyage into the future, and ascertaining its reconfiguration after fascism; all this sleuthing requires a set of circuitous time travels. Starting in the European sixties-the height of avant-garde memorializing-the ensuing story first journeys backward to the twenties of the Weimar Republic and the exilic thirties-the heyday of (German) theory's confrontation with the (French) avant-garde-and then jumps forward again into the West German fifties and sixties, that point in history when theory began to acknowledge the traumatic implications of the Holocaust for German time. The voyage concludes with a final leap forward into the eighties, a moment when the sign of postmodernity began making substantial inroads into West German art and philosophy. More importantly, it marks that point when avant-garde theory finally grasped the implications of a message in a bottle that the Frankfurt School thinkers had dispatched some forty years earlier.
When then is the avant-garde? According to Renato Poggioli's compendium The Theory of the Avant-Garde, Italian futurism captured in name what would become the temporal rule for all other avant-gardes to come. Futurism, not the movement that began in 1909 but rather the inner logic of all avant-gardes, describes the avant-garde's self-designated position outside and ahead of present time. A harbinger of an imminent revolution, the avant-garde anticipates utopia. It is the most extreme incarnation of modernity's irreversible march of progress into the future. This hardly answers the original question, though. Poggioli is quick to note that the futurist moment of the avant-garde is not without its complexities and contradictions. How is it now possible, he writes, to anticipate something that has yet to happen and about which one can know nothing? Neither of the present nor of the future, the avant-garde occupies (under its self-appointed guise as predecessor) an intermediate stage in time somewhere between the present, the past, and a potential future that has yet to be actualized. Where Poggioli legitimizes the temporal paradoxes of the avant-garde as imparting a mythical force essential for its raison d'être, the much more sober Hans Magnus Enzensberger suggests in his essay "The Aporias of the Avant-Garde" that these paradoxes do not just invalidate its claims to futurity but also deem it entirely "nonsensical and unusable." Although the avant-garde construes itself as being of the future, the avant-garde's temporal translation of the spatial metaphor en avant can, ironically enough, only be confirmed a posteriori. In spite of its desire to escape the present and arrive at some unknown future, the avant-garde can only materialize through careful reflection on what was avant-garde. With the ascent of the consciousness industry in the postwar period, avant-garde futurity lost any and all credibility. Futurity became the algebra of consumer trends whereby capital junks the very thing it anticipates at the moment it is reified. In Enzensberger's mind, there was little doubt that the idea of the avant-garde was an irreconcilable oxymoron whose inflated postwar currency warranted a healthy dose of skepticism.
Published in the same year, Poggioli's and Enzensberger's assessments of avant-garde temporality are identical in terms of how they both punctuate the essential nature of its futurity. Yet the question When is the avant-garde? is not the paramount question they seek to answer, nor does it lead to the same conclusion. At the core of Poggioli's and Enzensberger's arguments lies a greater concern for that other question of the avant-garde: Is it dead yet? In both instances, the avant-garde's forward displacement in time validates, on the one hand, its inexorable capacity to reemerge again and again like a phoenix (Poggioli) or, on the other hand, the need for its interment (Enzensberger). Poggioli's optimistic outlook acknowledges the diachronic persistence of futurity in all avant-gardes. Conversely, Enzensberger contends that from his post-apocalyptic position-where modernity has begun to show signs of exhaustion-historical investigation reveals that the avant-garde was in fact always obsessed with the past. Surpassing the traditions of yesterday, destroying legacies, negating historical narratives, and trailblazing into the future were the manifest flip sides of the avant-garde's surreptitious yet intensive engagement with the past. What the avant-garde called revolt was actually the result of careful study of modernity's masters, the absorption of their established ideas, and most importantly, the effacement of all traces of any retrograde reflection. Nothing less than a smuggling and laundering ring, the avant-garde looked backward into aesthetic modernity's past in order to envision and promote a future it proclaimed as opposing everything that was and is. Enzensberger clearly complicates Poggioli's response to the question When is the avant-garde? From his vantage point, the avant-garde is not the most extreme manifestation of the "horizon of expectation." Instead, the historical avant-garde operated as a clandestine courier that secretly articulated each side of the temporal divide of modernity-the split between the past and future-by disingenuously passing off its engagement with modernity's history as something new. For Enzensberger, the reincarnation of the avant-garde after fascism was crucial for exposing its forerunner's longstanding preoccupation with avowing and disavowing the past. "Every avant-garde today spells repetition," Enzensberger exclaims, because "it keeps the back doors open for itself" without ever acknowledging critically its indebtedness to history ("AAG," 264).
The grounds for Poggioli's and Enzensberger's differences lie in their relationship to modernity. While Poggioli equates the avant-garde with modernity, Enzensberger disqualifies all avant-gardes past and present because of their antipathy to modernity. Not only does Enzensberger differentiate modernity from the avant-garde, but he also insists that this divide has widened in the wake of the twentieth century's world wars, fascism, and genocide. Auschwitz and Hiroshima, he maintains, mark the end of an era ("WMP," 27). Accordingly, post-apocalyptic modernity has been divested of its nebulous futurist moment. In the postwar period, modernity's lifeblood lies in interrogating the excesses and errors of its own past. Far from promoting nostalgia or eschewing such essentially modern concepts as progress, innovation, or the new, Enzensberger contends that visitors to the museum of modernity must liberate its modern and avant-garde artifacts from musealization. To do so, one must first destroy the museum's contents in the name of "historical critique." One must then read in these ashes insights into the aporias hidden within the avant-garde's history. Only through the lessons gleaned by historical critique can the modern impulse transcend the threat of repetition evinced by what others have both derided and celebrated as the "neo-avant-garde." The continued career of modernity after fascism is contingent upon a dialectics of time that arrives at a horizon of expectation through the space of experience. In spite of its appearance of extremism, Enzensberger's prescription for sustaining the spirit of modernity on the carcass of the avant-garde is unquestionably one of moderation. Although his proposed method of "productive incinerating" (produktiv verbrennen) echoes the violent posturing of bygone avant-gardes, in actuality it is a meticulous process whereby poetry emerges from the spirit of critique ("WMP," 9). Similarly, the temporal consciousness of this post-apocalyptic modernity inhabits concurrently the past and the present in its commitment to the new ("WMP," 9, 28). The new, however, no longer refers to an unknown future. In an effort to sidestep the pitfalls of the avant-garde's futurity, Enzensberger translates en avant from its forced temporal designation back into its original spatial denotation. He thereby suggests that the new must manifest itself in the creation of a world language of poetry, a linguistic space international in scope yet nevertheless attentive to the peculiarities of German history. Futurity, Enzensberger suggests in "The Aporias of the Avant-Garde," has no place in modern consciousness.
Excerpted from Visions of Violence by RICHARD LANGSTON
Copyright © 2008 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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