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  • The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks
  • Richard Flynn (bio)
The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks. By Philip Nel. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2002

Because I am about to take exception with one of its major premises, let me say at the outset that The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity is an excellent book. In large part this is because Philip Nel's writing is a pleasure: lively, clear, stylish, and free of unnecessary jargon, even when discussing the clotted prose of critics such as Fredric Jameson. Nel's eclectic choice of subjects is also praiseworthy, especially since he discusses children's writers Dr. Seuss and Chris Van Allsburg alongside adult writers Djuna Barnes, Nathanael West, Donald Barthelme, and Don DeLillo. Then there is the idiosyncratic choice of pairing Laurie Anderson with Leonard Cohen (although I must confess that Cohen doesn't strike me as the most representative postmodernist popular songwriter—Bob Dylan, anyone?—, and he's a mediocre poet to boot). One has to admire—I do admire—Nel for taking such risks, and I experienced a number of "small incisive shocks" while reading this book.

Indeed, Nel gets so many things right in this book that one hesitates being critical. Foremost among them, he distinguishes between the historical and aesthetic avant-gardes, and he is particularly astute in pointing out the ways in which Jameson's claim to an "historical rather than a merely stylistic" postmodernism actually reinscribes stylistic distinctions and reinforces a dichotomy in which modernism is both distinct from and superior to postmodernism (qtd. in Nel xx). As I have said elsewhere, this problem stems from Jameson's narrow definition of modernism in terms of its affinities with realism, rather than its radical experimentation, a distortion that causes him to dismiss the postmodern poetry of Bob Perelman as "depthless," characterized by "a waning of affect," and "schizophrenic fragmentation" (Jameson 10, 28). Proposing a "realignment of the ways in which we conceive of twentieth century literature and culture" by "furnishing ambiguities that engage the imagination" rather than foreclosing meaning, Nel describes postmodernism as an extension of modernism modified by a series of what Don DeLillo calls "small incisive shocks": "ambiguities [that] are both provocative and merely representative, actively shocking and passively matter-of-fact" (97). Nel actively seeks to subvert, or at least to unsettle "categorical boundaries": modernism/ postmodernism, high/low culture, and most provocatively for the readers of this journal adult/children's literature.

Most readers of this journal will already be familiar with Nel's excellent essay "Dada Knows Best: Growing up 'Surreal' with Dr. Seuss," winner of the Association's [End Page 183] 1999 article award, in which he convincingly explores the affinities between Seuss' work and surrealism as it was popularized in 1930s America. That essay, reprinted here as chapter 2, takes on even greater resonance juxtaposed with readings of the "adult" fiction writers. I am less confident of the value of Nel's similar analysis of Chris Van Allsburg, primarily because the historical evidence seems less compelling. But this leads me to my major objection here: Dada and surrealism are not synonymous with the modernist avant-garde, and this would be even more obvious were Nel to pay attention to both poetry and to historical modernism before the 1930s.

While the occasional reference is made to poets, why, for instance, evoke Stein's Everybody's Autobiography (1937) rather than Tender Buttons (1914) published (as Marjorie Perloff points out) in the same year as the first of Duchamp's "readymades"? Nel dismisses the significance of 1913 Armory Show (6), which caused great public furor at the time and had an enormous impact on American literary artists like Stein and William Carlos Williams. By locating the origins of postmodern writing (almost exclusively fiction) in the thirties, Nel skews the historical record, unintentionally perpetuating the binary he wishes to dismantle, what Perloff calls the "tired dichotomy. . .between modernism and postmodernism" (1). Perhaps because the critics he relies on, Andreas Huyssen and Linda Hutcheon, do not concern themselves much with poetry, Nel forgets to avail himself of some of the best evidence for the continuity of modernist-postmodernist experimentation...


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