Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Edward Said and the Avant-Garde

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Edward Said and the Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

This article examines the interconnections between Said's critical oeuvre and a range of theoretical positions apropos of the European and American Avant-gardes. Questions raised in this article pertain to the critical deconstruction of generic distinctions between the work of art and the work of the critic; the role of the Avant-garde in identifying and critically subverting the institutional basis of aesthetic discourse; the ironic antagonisms between Said's discursive projects and the critical "heritage" of the Avant-garde. In light of the latter's proto-critical maneuvers in a variety of media (plastic, literary, musical), Said's work can be seen as expanding, enriching, and radically accelerating certain avant-garde initiatives, though he often subverts them in turn, conspicuously in respect of their postmodern inflections.

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The purpose of this essay is to identify and analyze the mostly unexamined inter-discursivities between the work of Edward Said and that of the Avant-garde in its various artistic, literary, and critical manifestations. Said's theory will be examined for what insights it may provide into the historical emergence of the Avant-garde over the last two centuries and its relation to both Modernism and Postmodernism. While the task is complicated by a lack of documentary evidence regarding Said's critical responses to specific Avant-garde works and texts, his many writings on modern theorists, novelists, and composers provide sufficient critical resources to ensure a sustained, if somewhat speculative, investigation of his oeuvre in relation to this topic. And while it may be objected that the Avant-garde is not the same as Modernism, it certainly constitutes a portion--indeed, the most formalistically radical one--of the modernist sensibility and thus both extends and lays claim to some of its expressive and critical capacities. The essay, then, will compare Said's theories to others that pertain to the Avant-garde (i.e., the movement in both literature and the plastic arts) and various "avant-gardists" (i.e., anyone engaged in modern cultural practice who innovates in an avant-garde way) in order to see how they confirm or resist each other with respect to the role of the critic, the meaning of history, questions of modernity, exile, and Orientalism. In this way I hope to bring to Saidian theory a number of formal and discursive objects otherwise presumed to be beyond or beneath its critical horizon.

Although the essay highlights shared coordinates of intellectual concern between Said and the Avant-garde--i.e., their attitude of transgression and critique of dominant ideologies, institutions, ways of seeing, or "structures of feeling" (Raymond Williams's phrase)--it by no means asserts that Said is part of the Avant-garde or even qualifies as having an avant-garde sensibility. Indeed, the majority of instances show how Said's critical insights conflict with the expressive impulses of the classic Avant-garde of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the neo-Avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, or various poststructuralist discourses that some critics, including Said himself, have labeled "avant-garde" in order to disparage, marginalize, or otherwise object to them. In these latter instances of labeling academic discourses "avant-garde," an intellectual genealogy can be traced between avant-garde and postmodern practice and/or criticism, establishing connections Said seems to regard with suspicion, though on closer inspection his own critical posture occasionally reveals surprising affinities with postmodern formulations of avant-garde attitudes, as I shall demonstrate. A premise on which this pairing of avant-garde and postmodern is based pertains to the comparable relation of both to twentieth-century Modernism, with the Avant-garde's relation being more synchronic and culturally-inflected, while Postmodernism is more diachronic and historically complex (changed conditions of production, distribution, and consumption related to America's postwar hegemony). …

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