'Tel Quel' and Surrealism: A Re-Evaluation. Has the Avant-Garde Become a Theory?

Article excerpt

Is the notion of the avant-garde in culture irrelevant and out of date? If

this question is answered positively, then a further question: what are the

possibilities for the avant-garde in literature in the present climate, also

becomes irrelevant. Another question imposes itself: what were the reasons for

the demise of the avant-garde?

It seems indisputable that Surrealism was the most prominent movement of the

avant-garde in the twentieth century. Its organization as a group, its

strategy, its periodicals, its manifestoes provide the model for other

avant-garde groups such as Lettrism, Situationism or the Fluxus group.

Surrealism has become, however, an international phenomenon more present and

effective in the seductions and games of mass market advertising than in the

proposition of anti-systemic modes of thought or action. Its rupture has been

projected outside its historical moment and has lost much of its force. The

notion of the avant-garde as such is paradoxical. The implications of political

radicality and subversion are undermined by the recognition of the status of

the avant-garde as a movement, as a phenomenon identifiable outside the

tactical present of its activity. The tactical subversions of the avant-garde

are projected outside its historical moment and into or onto history. The

avant-garde would have to be disengaged, then, would have to disengage itself,

from Surrealism, in order not to suffer the same fate.

Surrealism proposed a reorganization of mental life through the recognition

of the continent of the unconscious and the imagination. This proposition was

premised on an appeal to science, to theory, in particular to Freud's

psychoanalysis. If a factor in the constitution and functioning of the

avant-garde is an appeal to theory, what happens to the avant-garde when theory

invades the territory of literary creation and fiction becomes theoretical? A

re-evaluation of the relations between the Surrealist movement and what seemed

to be its successor, Tel Quel, will throw some light upon these questions.

The periodical, group and literary movement Tel Quel was the focus of much

of the radical rethinking of textuality in the 1960s and 1970s.(1) The main

thrust of its ideology might be represented by the Derridean statement,

"Il n'y a pas de hors-texte."(2) The text or texture of language was

proposed as exceeding all other areas, seen as restricted with relation to Its

"infinite potential."(3) Tel Quel was associated with many of the most well

known theorists of the time, such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques

Derrida and Jacques Lacan; Julia Kristeva was in fact a member of the editorial

committee from 1970. The core of the editorial committee and direction of the

review was however made up of creative writers, novelists and poets, and the

review, as well as being at the forefront of theoretical innovation, also

formed part of the avant-garde in literature. Principal figures in this context

are Philippe Sollers; the novelist and ostensibly the director of the review,

Marcelin Pleynet, the "secretaire de redaction," and Denis Roche, both poets,

and less well known novelists such as Jean-Louis Baudry, Pierre Rottenberg, Guy

Scarpetta, and Maurice Roche.

It is not only the identification as an avant-garde that suggests

comparisons between Tel Quel and the Surrealist movement. Both movements are

based in the mobile site of the periodical which has a certain immediate

efficacy in the context and a spontaneity in relation to events. Both movements

are to an extent dominated by an individual, Breton for Surrealism and Sollers

for Tel Quel, who becomes the focus of the affective energy of the group and

who precipitates shifts in the trajectory of the movement according to a

strategic interpretation of the context. …