- Laboratories of the Avant-Garde
In recent years, periodical studies (and the larger field of print culture studies) has shifted how scholars approach literary movements, especially Anglo-American modernism. Journals like American Periodicals and the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, and studies by authors including Suzanne Churchill, Patrick Collier, Lawrence Rainey, Robert Scholes, Ian Morris, and Joanne Diaz―among many others―draw our attention to how magazines and newspapers create networks of readers, writers, and artists.1 Digital humanities projects like the Modernist Journals Project (modjourn.org), the Index of Modernist Magazines (modernistmagazines.org), the Colored Conventions Project (coloredconventions.org), and Circulating American Magazines (circulatingamericanmagazines.org) have made it possible for students, teachers, and scholars to study periodicals from a variety of [End Page 127] angles. These projects continue to deepen our conversations about the communities these magazines helped to create and complicate our sense of literary and cultural history.
Sophie Seita's excellent new study, Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital, contributes to this rich field, focusing our attention on avant-garde "little magazines as media that capture and create provisional and heterogeneous communities" (2). Seita's analysis enriches existing approaches to these periodicals in three key dimensions: material, group-oriented, and textual. First, she turns her attention to issues of "design, typography, and print technology" (6–7), attending to the ways that the physical elements of a magazine reflect and drive its relation to community. Second, her focus on group dynamics―"the social contexts into and out of which groups grow" and the ways those contexts shape inclusion and exclusion (7)―reveals the dynamism and complexity that sometimes escapes the anthologies and monographs that have sought to represent those communities. Third, she offers rich close readings of both creative and critical material published in the magazines, grounded in their material and group-oriented contexts.
Seita explains that she is particularly interested in the "provisionality" of the communities she studies. Members move in and out of these affiliative groups for a variety of reasons: aesthetic, political, financial, identitarian, and so on. She argues that what she calls "edge cases" (126)―those magazines that were peripheral in some way―are especially useful for "present[ing a] group's actual dynamism and provisionality, proving the retrospective canonized image to be only one version among many possibilities" (127). She seeks to capture some of the dynamism of this process through her consideration of magazines on the edges of various movements, from "proto-Dada" magazines 291, The Blind Man, Others, and The Little Review to the "proto-Conceptual" 0 to 9 and some/thing. She considers these and other avant-garde magazines as "laboratories" incubating "new typographies, verbal and visual collaborations, dialogues with each other and the public" (22). Seita reads elements like cover design, illustrations, and production values (paper quality, typesetting, layout) alongside the writers' texts themselves, and [End Page 128] the book includes eighteen images, mostly of magazine covers but also of specific poems and design elements.
Because she so closely tracks group formations and dissolutions, Seita adds valuable texture to our understanding of gender dynamics within the avant-garde. Her early discussion of proto-Dada magazines, for instance, both reveals the misogynist attitudes and language underpinning the "anti-institutional, anti-traditional language that many little magazines endorsed" and explores how contributors like Mina Loy challenged those attitudes (35). Recognizing the specific ways proto-Dada writers negotiated (or ignored) gender dynamics at the time serves to challenge more contemporary accounts of the period that downplay the role of male privilege in allowing artists like Duchamp and Man Ray to flourish even as they critiqued traditional art forms. Similarly, Seita's discussion of proto-Language and New Narrative outlets attends to the ways that the movement's "initial inclusivity," which "embraced creative differences and fostered discussion" (110), gradually gave way to a "complacency" among (mostly male) poets whose "interrogat[ion of] the politics of poetry . . . exclude[d] the gender politics of poetry" (112). Again, Seita's attention not only...