- The Recuperation of the Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde
It is difficult to respond to an essay that so thoroughly lays bare (and thereby challenges) what it is we do when we respond to another writer’s writing. I find it hard to begin, caught somewhere in that terminal state between speech and silence, that moment Beckett captures at the end of the The Unnamable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Should I follow every word I write with “[sic],” at once quote myself and distance myself from what I have just written, indicate that I am aware of what it is I’m doing even as I’m doing it? I’ll go on.
The fact that Paul Mann’s The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde has received relatively little critical response since its publication in 1991 may in fact be a measure of its success. Nevertheless, this lack of response seems worthy of attention, given that Mann devotes so much of his essay to making the point that art’s (and theory’s) raison d’être is to generate further discourse, to keep the discursive economy going, however resistant to dominant culture that art or theory may appear to be.
After repeatedly, painstakingly pointing out the status of his own essay in the discursive economy he describes—the discourse of the avant-garde—Mann anticipates the likely response to his work:
It is not difficult to imagine whatever little response this essay is liable to. For the most part dismissals of what will be taken as its nihilism, its cynicism, its defeatism, its adherence to this or that dubious theory, its outmoded obsession with recuperation. But the essay was not written for those who reject an insistence on recuperation only in order to conceal from themselves the extent of their own recuperation.
And further on in the same passage: “it [the essay] was also written precisely so that it could be dismissed” . Mann, to varying degrees, has correctly diagnosed the critical reception of his work thus far. When the essay is dismissed in reviews it is because it is seen as both passé and nihilistic. Even in one of the favorable reviews of Mann’s essay the question of nihilism arises. It is this “specter of nihilism” that I want to take up here—after first reviewing some of the more salient features of Mann’s argument—as I think it is a response most readers will have to struggle through (as Mann correctly points out), and it might tell us something about the larger discursive economy of which The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde is now a part. That Mann’s position is seen as outmoded is less of an issue for me. It may be that his essay was already “old” by the time it was published, [End Page 41] his position already dismissable under the aegis of other names: Baudrillard, Barthes, Derrida. But that his essay is no longer new, that his position has exhausted its discursive currency, only further makes his point: in the discourse of the avant-garde, and in the discursive economy generally, the new supersedes all other values. More important, Mann’s position in particular must exhaust itself quickly if the discursive economy is to continue to thrive.
In The Pleasure of the Text Roland Barthes delineates what he calls the “versus myth”:
Art seems compromised, historically, socially. Whence the effort on the part of the artist himself to destroy it. . . . Unfortunately, this destruction is always inadequate; either it occurs outside the art, but thereby becomes impertinent, or else it consents to remain within the practice of the art, but quickly exposes itself to recuperation (the avant-garde is that restive language which is going to be recuperated). The awkwardness of this alternative is the consequence of the fact that destruction of discourse is not a dialectic term but a semantic term: it docilely takes its place within the great semiological “versus” myth (white versus black); whence the destruction of art is doomed to only paradoxical formulae...