Avant-God

Notes on the intersection of anti-art and eternity.

A still from Isidore Isou’s Venom and Eternity (1951).

The ideas flooded in on the train today. If my prayers seem to go unanswered each night on my way home, they are occasionally answered in these early morning floods, when everything seems possible.

I was thinking about how quickly we forget that everything failed on November 8, 2016. Politics. The media. Big data. The public. The failure was so large that we have trouble getting our heads around it — like 9/11 — and the result is that we’ve tried to make rafts out of the wreckage, to rebuild on the basis of the New York Times or the DNC or the FBI. As a practical matter, we don’t have much choice. Electoral participation is the only way to change people’s lives in the near term and I believe that it will, albeit by a Blue Wave that everyone refuses to understand, insisting there must be a one — a messiah — rather than a cacophony of Mom-fueled Facebook groups. Liberals can’t accept this because they love celebrity; leftists can’t because it’s insufficiently radical, but there it is.

Still, there is room for another track of research — one that typically emerges during crises like these — that appears underexplored in our dogmatic times. I’m thinking, of course, of nonsense — the avant-garde.

There is a saying in addiction circles that “your best thinking got you here,” which is meant to tell the addict that they cannot use the mental processes that led them into addiction to think their way out of it. They need to try something completely other, and artists (or anti-artists) have periodically suggested the same to Western civilization. World War I led to the revolt of Dada, while World War II summoned Situationism. It is worth wondering if such revolts are even possible today, absurdism having been so thoroughly integrated into popular art and common sense, but then again Americans— like the artists of the teens and ‘40s — do again seem to be being offered accommodation in one of two Procrustean beds. Work and suppress all dissent or dissent in increasingly banal forms that are as limited as they are professionalized.

I was watching Isidore Isou’s Lettrist manifesto Venom and Eternity this week. In many ways, it’s standard rage against the machine: young man brays against the Reality Principle. In this way it looks backward toward James Agee’s introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and forward to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Isou was 26 when he made it, the age for manifesto-writing and/or early death. (Isou lived until 2007.)

It also feels dated and reactionary (beyond the standard mid-century macho misogyny) because of its obsession with the new. While the project, like Dada, is animated by negation, it cannot resist positing a new position, just as Dada evaporated instantly into Surrealism. Like the Higgs boson, a negative program requires a great deal of energy to sustain itself — perhaps an impossible amount — and invariably collapses into some fetish or another. (Just ask Socrates.)

But it is is the fleeting negative moment that is interesting to me. I understand it. My first words were, reportedly, “I want out,” and I’m sure they have passed everyone’s lips. But what is out? What is outside the system of common sense that brought us to November 8, 2016. How can we get there? Isou’s film — when it does not get in its own way — offers a glimpse. His official program is to disconnect words from images by pasting a narrative and theoretical voice over found and distressed footage. He calls this “discrepant” cinema, and its meaning lies not in either word or image, but in their discrepancy, which creates a space, a channel, that is less like a manifesto, and more like a prayer.

If my prayers seem to go unanswered each night on my way home, they are occasionally answered in these early morning floods, when everything seems possible.