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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1117-1127

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Laurent Jenny. La Fin de l'interiorité: théorie de l'expression et invention esthétique dans les avant-gardes françaises (1885-1935). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France [Perspectives Littéraires], 2002, 155 pages.

By the mid-1960s a figure as fundamental to history of modernism as Greenberg had begun to doubt the usefulness of the avant-garde as a concept and to give increasing weight to the distinction between the avant-garde and avant-gardism. What makes this case particularly instructive is the fact that by means of this distinction Greenberg sought to counteract what were, at least in part, the unintended effects of the very concept of the avant-garde that he articulated. The subsequent developments seem to have borne out Greenberg's apprehensions about the critical and artistic legacy of the conceptual apparatus of the type he put together. With Tel Quel advancing to center-stage in Paris soon after the dissolution of the Surrealist group, and Conceptualism eclipsing abstract art in New York, the avant-garde was rapidly fading into theory, making the practice of art and the practice of theory of art increasingly indistinct.

Recently, one of the most self-conscious voices in avant-garde criticism, T.J. Clark, sounded a mordant and elegiac note in his eloquent good-bye to the political, social and aesthetic pretensions of avant-garde art, and, by implication, of its scholars, The Farewell to an Idea (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999). His defense of the artistic value of Abstract Expressionism, crucial to the design of the book, for example, is predicated on the execution of the typical avant-garde posture—"Condescension just is the form of the petty bourgeois recognition" (401). The aphoristic drive manifest in the quote makes it hard to miss a ring of a jury's verdict in it. The famous lines from Pound's Cantos Clark chose as an exergue to his conclusion fix the scale of the modernist failure—"Here error is all in the not done, all in diffidence that faltered"—and establish sobriety as a price of redemption, if not as the redemption itself. But today's climate is inimical to sober thinking about avant-garde art—not only because the museums of contemporary art give us much encouragement in the opposite direction, but also because of an overwhelming number of questions that linger unresolved notwithstanding decades of the "theories of the avant-garde." [End Page 1117]

The current situation in France, as much as Jenny's book lets on, is not that different. So the reader shouldn't be surprised to find that in the introduction to La Fin de l'interiorité: théorie de l'expression et invention esthétique dans les avant-gardes françaises (1885-1935), the author pauses to reflect upon the methods of literary history and to stake out his territory vis-à-vis select interlocutors-rivals. On the left, he finds himself defending against Bourdieu's reduction of criticism (in The Rules of Art especially) to an investigation of the sociological structures permitting accumulation of symbolic capital. The stigma Bourdieu's demystification of pure, i.e. difficult to the uninitiated, art attaches to the motivations of the avant-garde artists—"the negativism which, in its very revolt, admits its own defeat" (La Distinction [Paris, 1979], 105)—is practically identical to the T.J. Clark's epitaph for Abstract Expressionists recalled above. On the right, Jenny's project appears to be pre-empted by Rancière's comprehensive ontology of French literary modernity in La Parole muette: essai sur les contradictions de la littérature.

After expertly outlining Bourdieu's and Rancière's positions in the opening pages of the book, Jenny launches a brief and spirited counter-offensive. Bourdieu proposes that the field of cultural production is intrinsically driven to hermetic self-reflection by the pressures of autonomization vis-à-vis other fields, especially the economic one, whose logic it inverts. Accordingly, the artist's efforts to...


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