- The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s): Exorcising Experimental Theater and Performance by James M. Harding
Ghosts materialize with some regularity in theater and performance studies, both as subject and as theory-enabling metaphor. Herbert Blau, Joseph Roach, and Marvin Carlson have all powerfully used haunting or ghosting as tropes to explain how theater and performance work. But only James M. Harding proposes to conduct an exorcism, with the intention of casting out one particularly persistent specter from the field of avant-garde studies: Peter Bürger’s 1974 Theory of the Avant-Garde, which has exerted an outsized influence since its 1984 publication in English. Bürger’s central claim, as many will recall, is that the avant-garde is distinguished by its critique of art as an institution—not only the museums, academies, publishers, etc., in or through which people usually encounter art, but also prevailing ideas of what counts as art. For Bürger, the avant-garde emerged in the early twentieth century to dismantle the barriers between art and life supposedly erected, or at least reinforced, by the aesthetic movement. With the avant-garde, art ceased to function as a social safety valve for the mildly disaffected bourgeoisie and became instead a “life praxis.” In Bürger’s Theory, the ferocious mockery of Dada is the essential avant-garde stance, and once that mockery became a predictable source of pleasure for a large enough late-capitalist public, the avant-garde was effectively dead. Cage? Warhol? Merely “neo-avant-garde” to Bürger.
Harding wants to expel the ghost of Theory so that other, more performance-friendly theories of the avant-gardes might thrive. To do so he critiques at length not only Bürger, in whom he rightly detects an anti-theatrical streak, but also the entire “Eulogist School of Avant-Garde Studies” (51), among whose members he counts Richard Schechner and David Savran. Harding borrows that pithy phrase from Mike Sell, whose critical work serves as a major source for his own argument. Like Sell, Harding insists that all avant-garde movements are internally pluralistic, always moving in multiple directions from multiple points of origin. Likewise, he resists any account of vanguard activity that explicitly or implicitly leaves off the s in the “avant-gardes.” Indeed, Harding’s fundamental problem with Theory of the Avant-Garde is that it’s the theory of “the avant-garde” (9): singular, homogenizing, and totalizing. To characterize the non-linear historiographical [End Page 576] method with which he wants to replace Bürger’s theory, Harding adopts Deleuze and Guattari’s botanical metaphor, the rhizome. The book’s strong general claim is that the concepts of origin and originality that enable critics to speak of an historical avant-garde mistake the manner in which avant-gardes coalesce, develop, and disperse. While Rosalind Krauss and Martin Puchner, among others, have made similar arguments about the misapplication of such concepts in histories of vanguard art and performance, the point bears repeating. Harding repeats it convincingly, taking scholars to task for confusing the demise of any one avant-garde with the death of all past, current, and future avant-gardes.
To demonstrate what an attention to vanguard multiplicities can reveal, Harding revisits several performances well known to scholars, reading them “against the grain” (23) not only of artists’ stated intentions but also against the conventional critical wisdom. He is not the first critic to note that Hugo Ball’s “verse without words,” performed at the Cabaret Voltaire in “magical bishop” (1) regalia, existed in tension with Ball’s expressed desire for a “unified, stable discourse” (8). Harding does well, though, to celebrate that tension as a condition of “plurality” (9) that demands a flexible theoretical model. To emphasize how contested the ideological terrain is within any particular avant-garde, he recounts the squabble within Paris Dada that produced both the sober, Breton-helmed 1921 mock trial of Maurice Barrès, through which Breton and Aragon attempted to expulse Tristan...