Democracy, Law and the Modernist Avant-Gardes: Writing in the State of Exception

Democracy, Law and the Modernist Avant-Gardes: Writing in the State of Exception

Democracy, Law and the Modernist Avant-Gardes: Writing in the State of Exception

Democracy, Law and the Modernist Avant-Gardes: Writing in the State of Exception

Synopsis

Sascha Bru fundamentally revises our understanding of modernism's cultural and political history. Bringing together a wide range of European experimental writers and a detailed analysis of Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti, German Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck, and Belgian expressionist Paul van Ostaijen, he situates these writers within their exceptional democratic context and demonstrates how the modernist avant-garde, during the First World War and the upheavals that followed, became caught up in a series of "states of exception."

In these conditions, legal democratic institutions were bracketed and set aside and "literature" as an autonomous realm was temporarily suspended. Faced with extreme forms of politicization, avant-gardists throughout Europe tried to safeguard literature's autonomy in a variety of ways. These included turning politics and law into genuinely artistic materials and producing a repertoire of alternatives to existent frameworks of democracy. Against assertions that avant-garde's anti-art gestures were meant to overcome art's autonomy and approximate the condition of politics, Bru shows that European avant-gardists may well have been staunch defenders of art's sovereignty in modern times.

Excerpt

In 1942 Lionel Feuchtwanger, German émigré writer and friend of Bertolt Brecht, complained to the New York Times. American officials would not let him visit Brecht as they both intended to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the Nazi book burnings. Assuring American readers that Brecht and he had fled fascism with nothing but praise for America’s democracy since their arrival in the us, Feuchtwanger could not see why they were not allowed to travel more than five miles from their homes, to speak in public, or to go out after 8 p.m. Had American readers misinterpreted their work that drastically?

Few anecdotes from the modernist archive so forcibly illustrate that passage between Anglo-American and European modernism has never been easy. Linguistic and cultural hurdles have always made certain patches of European modernism rather exotic to non-continental readers. One such exotic patch are the so-called ‘historical avantgardes’ of futurism, expressionism, Dada and surrealism, among others, which had no clear equivalents in the us and Britain during the 1910s and 1920s. Common sense dictates that this absence of a concurrent pendant to the European avant-gardes in part can be led back to differences in politics. European avant-gardists operated in a far less stable political context than modernists in the us and Britain. Indeed, the crisis of civilisation, the passing of an old order and the coming of a new announced in the European fin de siècle soon made room for an unprecedented ‘age of extremes’ in what Eric Hobsbawm has called the ‘short century’ that went before our own. Europe in the early twentieth century not only saw a politics that put social institutions to the test. Its highly unstable political history also left a clear stamp on the cultural realm of letters as the historical avant-garde began to test the institutional limits of literature, too. By contrast, within the more stable and longstanding democracies of the us and Britain, politics interfered far less with writers’ and artists’ business. As a result, so critics of British . . .

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