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C LIT 549 A: Twentieth-Century Literature

Traditions of the Avant-Garde

Meeting Time: 
MW 3:30pm - 5:20pm
THO 217
Herbert Blau

Additional Details:

There was a messianic strain in the avant-garde that thought it would build the future upon “the ruins of time.” The paradox of the seminar title suggests that time remains the spoiler by some indelible habit of keeping track of itself and calling that history, while the avant-garde, in defiance of tradition, eventually became part of it, with traditions of its own. We shall be studying these traditions as a form of consciousness, along with the major strategies of the avant-garde, as they emerged in early modernism and still appear, not only in our most experimental forms, but in the trickle-down economy of the aesthetic, as conventions in poetry, fiction, drama, as well as the visual arts, the media, fashion, and popular culture.

Meanwhile, it's been rather amusing, and chastening too, to see ideas, highly theorized or absorbed into cultural studies, which are attributable to what is now the classical avant-garde: Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism —or to later variants, like Situationism, now being canonized too. And while it would seem to be oxymoronic to speak of traditions of the avant-garde, what was all the more amusing, if not disheartening academically, was the degree to which scholars, with all the talk of historicization, were largely unaware of the major figures of the avant-garde, and the incursion of its traditions upon the course of cultural critique, itself indebted to art and literature of the most radical kind. From Derrida or Foucault to Žižek or Butler, there has always been a discourse with these traditions, if not destroying art to redeem art, with stressed-out or equivocal feelings about the aesthetic, as in Alain Badiou'srelatively recent Handbook of Inaesthetics.

The seminar will, then, be reflecting upon certain habits of mind that came out of the manifestos and practices of the avant-garde, which has always been faced with the prospect that once it becomes a habit, it is no longer very avant, but ideologically predictable, inflected as it may be today by race, class, gender, ethnicity. We will in the process be reading some of the originary documents and studying the disruptive or scandalous forms that are, with modulations, still very much with us, though real disruption or subversion (once jargonish terms of the curriculum) is harder to come by, not only in the arts but also in theory, after the abatement of deconstruction. Some of the readings may nevertheless take us with residual provocation or unpurged energy from the traditions, including the conceptualism of Duchamp (ground zero of “non-art”), into the more fractious genres of modernism—as in Gertrude Stein or BLAST, or poets making it NEW—into visual/sound poetry, John Cage, the now-mythic earthworks (and theory) of Robert Smithson, and deviant kinds of performance, including body art.

Required Texts:
Mary Ann Caws (ed.), Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Univ of Nebraska/Bison)
Michel Sanouillet & Elmer Peterson, The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Da Capo)
Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (Vintage)
Ezra Pound, Personae: The Shorter Poems (New Directions)
William Carlos Williams, Imaginations (Norton)
John Cage, Silence (Wesleyan)
Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings (Univ. of California Press)
Lea Vergine, Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language (Skira)

Catalog Description: 
Selected movements, schools, and trends of significance in twentieth-century literature of Europe and Americas. Symbolism, surrealism, dada, expressionism, neorealism, existentialism, nouveau roman, and absurd may be considered. Texts in English, French, and German figure most prominently, but Spanish, Italian, Russian, and other materials may be examined. Content and emphasis vary.
GE Requirements Met: 
Other Requirements Met: 
Last updated: 
April 28, 2016 - 9:19am