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  • The Dialogical Avant-Garde: Relational Aesthetics and Time Ecologies in Only Revolutions and TOC
  • Amy J. Elias (bio)

The modernist avant-gardes’ gaze toward futurity linked them intimately to modernity’s faith in forward progress (of history, of art). They were the shock troops of the modern, marching us into the utopian future and away from the desiccated, conservative, politically and/or aesthetically compromised past: the term “avant-garde” itself insistently conjured notions of forward motion. As a result, in the twentieth century the avant-garde has typically been aligned with confrontational materialist dialectics. Those who mourn the passing of the avant-gardes—such as Peter Bürger, Alain Badiou, and Richard Schechner—often understand them to be fatally undermined by a shift from historical diachrony to the timeless synchrony demanded by multinational capital: one of the clichés about postmodernism that we’ve inherited from Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, and others is that it collapsed time into space and was best discussed in terms of dehistoricized, spatializing logics.1

Whether or not postmodernism is still with us, certainly the twenty-first century began with an insistent return of history precisely in the context of geographical spatiality, ironically in the [End Page 738] deeply politicized contexts of a global war on terror, a backdraft global financial crisis, new concerns about global climate change, and national democracy movements aided and abetted by global technologies. In some surprising ways, the arts were prepared, armed with newly reworked techniques and aesthetic language that focused not on a utopian vision of the socioeconomic future but on a redefined ethical relation between people in the spaces of the present. Stemming from different fields and working from a post–1950s countercultural move toward the “everyday,” arts discourses have produced critical keywords that share an imperative of connection: interactivity; relationality; activated spectatorship; intersubjective relationship; remix; participation; collaboration; connectivity; conversation; poetics of relation; translation; cosmopolitanism.

The importance and proliferation of these keywords today imply that intersubjective communication is an aesthetic as well as an ethical imperative that has deepened through, and after the turn of, the twentieth century. If how to see and hear the Other was at the heart of the postmodern debates of the mid-twentieth century, often figured in tropes of difference and in the mode of irony, a strong query in the twenty-first-century arts is how to speak with the Other and how to set discourses in dialogue, often on a global scale. In the early years of the twenty-first century, for example, literary theory is consumed by pragmatisms and their planar logics of interaction and exchange. Ecological criticism has gained popularity and critical force, focusing on human relationships within an environmental context.2 And in the visual arts, work published since the turn of the twenty-first century by Grant H. Kester, Rudolf Frieling, and others has analyzed as fundamental to post–1950s visual arts such concepts as participation, collaboration, conversation, and collectivism.3 The emphasis of those in this last group is exemplified in installation art of the 1990s, which reformulated postmodern [End Page 739] spatialization into a new counterrhetoric: relationality. Art curator Nicolas Bourriaud and artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, and Félix González-Torres promoted a “relational aesthetics” that was less a utopian move forward than a millennial swerve sideways, in the tradition of pragmatism and dialogics. This turn has once again raised in art circles the question of the relation between ethics, politics, spatial models, and aesthetic form.

A reconsideration of dialogics across the arts, therefore, seems now to be in order. In this article, I turn to my own primary field of study to ask in what ways contemporary fiction may participate, if at all, in an interarts move to relational aesthetics as a new avant-garde form that turns away from utopianism and the aesthetics of confrontation and toward an ethics of collaboration between artist and audience, audiences and works, audiences and other audiences.4 A thought experiment in some ways, this essay is meant to sort out both the questions and the possible answers that arise when different but contemporaneous art forms are compared against one another and in relation...


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