Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the New-Avant-Garde

Tyrus Miller's Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the New-Avant-Garde published by Northwestern University Press, 2009.

Honing in on "the rhetorical, contextual, and performative characteristic of neo-avant-garde practice, including its relation to politics," Tyrus Miller's Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the New-Avant-Garde examines a wide variety of largely American post World War II modernist cultural compositions--including the verbal, visual, musical, theatrical, and cinematic--illustrating how we might think productively about the diverse cultural compositions and practices from this period. Miller's book stresses the singular exemplarity of these compositions, articulating this exemplarity as “a crucial model for neo-avant-garde artistic politics” (182). This suggests that the works of the new avant-garde do not set forth programmatic authoritarian logics, but rather offer themselves up as interventions in such paradigms. They become singular examples of how to be otherwise in the world--to think, perceive, feel, differently. In many of the examples in Miller’s book, interestingly, this entails a writing or working through earlier modernist texts. Intertextuality or “writing through” becomes one means for acknowledging and reworking critically rather than merely repeating or resurrecting the materials of an earlier modernism. Miller describes how such intertextuality works in his chapter “Example 4: Pound’s Cantos Lost and Found: Paragram and Authority in John Cage and Jackson Mac Low.”

My previous chapter focuses on the ways in which Mac Low’s paragramatically generated texts served as models for exemplary sorts of subjectivity, ‘selves’ that at once are shaped by and give shape to particular generic configurations of public and private discourse. In this chapter, I go further into the political implications of such generative procedural writing, exploring the intersection between Cage’s and Mac Low’s procedural ‘expropriations’ of other texts and their explicitly anarchist politics. From the very moment of composition, by taking their words completely and explicitly from other texts, both writers experimentally put in play the relation of self and other, new text and old text, writing and reading, and poetry and other discourses. They also engage, more implicitly, the meta-historical work of exploring the modernist past of their own postmodernism, the roots of the postwar new-avant-garde in the classic avant-gardes of the early decades of the twentieth century. Their intertextual procedures suggest, through their choice of texts and creative handling of them, a highly conscious version of what Michel de Certeau called ‘reading as poaching,’ one type of a vast range of subversive tactics for consuming dominated culture and for reframing the ideological and historical values that cling to its products. As a specific tactic of citational reading/writing, Cage’s and Mac Low’s intertextual poems represent exemplary demonstrations of anarchist poetic (and more broadly, cultural) practice (66-67).

The chapter closes with “In rejecting the tie that Pound established between techniques of intertextuality and the political and historical truth of art, Cage and Mac Low break through into an exemplary elegiac space with Poundian epic in which the truth-claims of art can be weaker, more complex, but perhaps anarchically freer than before” (88).

Singular Examples is divided into three sections. The first is composed of analysis of works that offer a more hopeful vision of postwar possibilities while the second half explores works that suggest a more problematic view. The closing section of the book ruminates on postwar avant-garde pedagogy, specifically in relation to the offering of an example, of which Miller's book itself, is a fine example.

Each chapter is offered as an example of both an exemplary cultural composition and practice, but also as an example of a critical and scholarly approach to such works.

Example 1 Introduction: Latter-Day Modernists

Part One: Out of the Cage

Example 2 Situation and Event: From, The Pronouns to the Destinations of Sense

Example 3 Anarchy by Design: On Jackson Mac Low's Stanzas for Iris Lezak

Example 4 Pound's Cantos Lost and Found: Paragram and Authority in John Cage and Jackson Mac Low

Example 5 Merzing History: Kurt Schwitters, Jackson Mac Low, and the Aesthetics of Dada Trash

Example 6 Transduced Objects and Spiritual Automata: Dimensions of Experience in David Tudor's Live Electronics

Part Two: Forays to the Dark Side

Example 7 Brakhage's Occasions: Figure, Subjectivity, and Avant-Garde Politics

Example 8 Fictional Truths: Sorrentino's Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things Between Image and Language

Example 9 Beckett's Political Technology: Expression, Confession, and Torture in the Later Drama

Part Three: Coda

Example 10 Didactic Drifts: One or More Conclusions

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