- The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(S): Exorcising Experimental Theater and Performance by James M. Harding
Current scholarship in theatre and performance has questioned a linear conception of the avant-garde rooted in privileging the Eurocentric vision, and works by Mike Sell, James Harding and John Rouse, and Kimberly Jannarone have advocated for a major reassessment in the field of avant-garde studies. In his new book, Harding embarks on a major revision of the avant-garde’s theoretical underpinnings. In this critical study, he challenges the traditional understanding of the avant-garde as a singular, linearly developed Western phenomenon predominantly driven by progressive politics, firmly situating his own argument vis-à-vis various controversies and debates that have advanced the field of avant-garde studies during the past half-century.
Pointing to the avant-garde’s “multiple points of departure, not necessarily reliant on another” (4), Harding addresses the principles of plurality, multiplicity, simultaneity, and hybridity in reexamining a range of avant-gardes, as well as “exorcising” their ghosts. In this, he challenges Peter Bürger’s conceptualization of the “historical avant-garde” that the latter introduced in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (published in 1974, and translated into English in 1984), which for several decades became a singular authority in avant-garde studies. While critiquing Bürger’s dismissal of the post–historical avant-garde, Harding also voices concerns against more recent theoretical debates that continue to validate Bürger’s cultural selectivity and linear historical perspective. Specifically, he confronts the so-called eulogist claims about the demise of the avant-garde that periodically reemerge in avant-garde studies. In addition to painting a multilayered theoretical landscape of avant-garde studies, the introductory chapter also offers a number of critical lenses that Harding employs throughout the book to interrogate a selection of avant-garde performances. Among these lenses are the principle of “the rough edges of cultural exchange and appropriation” (23), transnationalism, gender discourse, the concept of “rhizomatic structures,” and the idea of vanguard ghosting.
The book’s first chapter highlights complicated and contradictory avant-garde histories fraught with multiple tensions and nonprogressive strategies [End Page 156] employed by artists as they competed over establishing an authoritative voice in constructing an avant-garde discourse. Harding offers a fascinating analysis of multiple points of resistance between Tristan Tzara and André Breton; specifically, he analyzes a series of trials that Tzara and Breton staged, both literally and figuratively, to “manipulate the language of vanguardism for their own agendas” (18), which were often authoritarian and reactionary. Chapter 2 fosters the concept of American “hybrid vanguardism” (59), pointing critical attention to the debates around John Cage’s aesthetics and politics in relation to the “neo-avant-garde.” Disputing the neo-avant-garde premise that, he claims, is rooted in acknowledging repetition and lack of originality of the post–historical avant-garde, Harding instead proposes the concept of hybridity for discussing post–World War II American experimentation, particularly artistic developments occurring at Black Mountain College and New School for Social Research. As Harding convincingly demonstrates, this form of experimentation, and Cage’s work specifically, blended art and academic settings—an integration previously rejected by European avant-gardists—and combined American and European sensibilities shifting the avant-garde position from “the negative to the alternative,” “from anti-culture to counter-culture” (70). Furthermore, Harding provides a productive redefinition of Cage’s silence through the lens of feminist and queer theories, suggesting that silence, in this context, may be viewed as a politicized concept that draws attention, albeit unintentionally, to the absent voices traditionally ignored, silenced, or erased from the canon. The next chapter then refocuses his discussion of silence to critique the intentional erasure of authorship in the productions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Andy Warhol and the Living Theatre’s Julian Beck, respectively. Harding reveals that the anonymity of the female author (Mary Shelley in this case), grounded in Romanticism’s patriarchal privileging, and the exclusion of Shelley’s authorial voice in these...