The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (review)
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Reviewed by
Philip Nel. The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2002. xxv + 224 pp.

The term "avant-garde" has a curious status within accounts of contemporary culture. On the one hand, the concept is redolent of a [End Page 488] bygone era, a heroic age of manifestoes, revolutions, and attacks on the bourgeoisie; on the other, claims that experimental artistic technique and political radicalism are connected make the avant-garde a perennial concern. Card-carrying postmodernists would undoubtedly give the notion short shrift: to designate an artistic movement a vanguard, even leaving aside the repugnant military connotations, implies that the history of aesthetic forms has a direction and goal, and further that the revolution of everything from the senses to the social order itself is possible as well as desirable. Such ambitions are remote from the postmodern sensibility, which many, if not all, commentators would agree favors irony, play, pastiche, the big joke rather than the grand narrative. Yet something of the spirit of the avant-garde lives on within postmodernism. Its echoes can be detected, for example, in Lyotard's aesthetics of radical innovation or, equally, in the effacement of the boundaries between art and everyday life, once challenged with revolutionary fervor by the historical avant-garde but now achieved by commercial culture, a situation that strikes some commentators as an insidious reconciliation and others as an opportunity to learn from Las Vegas.

For Philip Nel, in The Avant-Garde and Postmodernity, the legacy of the avant-garde offers something rather more basic: surrealism, Dadaism, Fluxus, and other movements of the early twentieth century, provide postmodern fiction, illustration, and popular music with a valuable set of techniques with which to attack prevailing ideologies. Nel's lively and informative study finds such techniques at work in surprising places, including children's literature and the contemporary novel. The study sets out its readings chronologically: the fiction of Nathanael West and Djuna Barnes shares common features with the avant-garde movements then achieving notoriety in America; a lucid analysis of the short stories of Donald Barthelme and the novels of Don DeLillo, particularly the monumental Underworld of 1997, extends the treatment into postmodernity, and leads in turn to a detailed discussion of the music and performance of Laurie Anderson and Leonard Cohen. Most intriguingly, Nel explores the use of surrealist technique in the work of Dr. Seuss and Chris Van Allsburg. The enigmas of Magritte live on in The Cat in the Hat. The Avant-Garde and Postmodernity comes into its own when examining visual parallels, and the book's abundant illustrations work in close and persuasive concert with the argument. Nel's range of reference, which includes an impressive knowledge of 1930s Hollywood film, admirably refuses the boundaries between the popular and the literary, text and image, script and performance.

Nel's primary contention is that avant-garde technique offers postmodern works the means to engage with and critique the social [End Page 489] world. Although surrealism and other once-shocking movements are now a staple of the advertising industry, as Nel rightly acknowledges, the techniques they made available still afford contemporary artists ways to interrogate and contest dominant ideologies. In recuperating the avant-garde, Nel hopes therefore to challenge the bleak pronouncements of some of the critics of postmodernism.

The postmodern avant-garde that emerges from Nel's account is a modest affair, shorn of many of the defining features of the historical avant-garde: no manifestoes or revolutionary militancy here and little sense of collective purpose or destructive zeal. Instead, the survival of the avant-garde offers something closer to liberal reformism, a limited dismantling, a small-scale assault on false consciousness. Nel's argument underscores postmodernism's uneasy relationship with Marxism and its tendency to fall back, at moments when it thinks itself most radical, into one variety or another of reformist idealism. As a result, the book is somewhat at odds with itself: clearly attracted to the far-reaching materialist analysis that Marxism promises but committed nonetheless to a postmodernist skepticism. And yet Nel's valuable emphasis on the contradictions of capitalism and his awareness of the material...