The call to be disobedient
On Michael Nardone
Note: above, a video of Michael Nardone giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Stephen Collis responds to Nardone’s talk in the essay that follows.
We are at an interesting historical juncture. Governments, acting, as usual, as agents for industry and capital accumulation, are fiddling with the dials controlling communicative acts, trying to squelch (as in “suppress the output” of) the frequencies of dissent, or else simply decreeing them (via legislation, in Canada, like Bill C-51) the noise of terrorism, “full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.”
This is the moment within which Michael Nardone seizes those dials, and tunes us into the particular disruptions of the Idle No More round dances. I will make three brief points.
If we are going to be persuaded that there is a link between the “sonic and spatial” disruptions of the Idle No More protests — which took up the space of consumption (shopping malls during the Christmas season) and distribution (highways and train tracks) with drumming, singing, and dancing — and the idea of an “avant-garde,” then we will need to reorient our definition of radical aesthetic practices. This is exactly what Nardone is after. I would proffer the simple notion that an avant-garde practice is one that is oriented towards social change (whether that orientation is carried out via formal maneuvers or direct and deictic acts of social pointing). I might also add that this “orientation” is best (most appropriately, now, under current conditions) made within (adapting Jodi Dean’s phrase) a communist horizon — that is, a maneuver or pointing towards a destination the horizon of which is a complete transformation of social relations.
Nardone cites Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, who links decolonization with anticapitalism. I think Coulthard has just this idea of an orientation within a communist (anticapitalist) horizon in mind, as he suggests that Indigenous blockades and interventions like Idle No More have both negative (disruption, rupture) and positive (the proposition of an Indigenous alternative behind the blockade or within the round dance) functions. I think we do have to be wary of subsuming anticolonial movements and acts within a European/colonial matrix (thus I myself am reluctant to deploy terms like avant-garde anymore) — but I also think we can work from an anticolonial ground towards new ways of orienting social art practices.
Nardone also reorients the avant-garde around the notion of the “call to arms.” I am reminded here of Howard Caygill’s argument about the call in On Resistance, which he links to Indigenous resistance via the Zapatistas’ much-remarked use of the genre of the call. Unlike the historical avant-garde’s manifesto, the “call to resistance,” Caygill argues, “does not come from a problematically constituted subject of speech” — “calls to resistance on the whole come from nowhere” and “are not directed to a defined public. They perform a capacity to resist which, once declared, is actualized.” I read the call to be “Idle No More” this way (who is the subject of this call exactly?) — and I think it is more productively disruptive, in Nardone’s sense, when it is this open and ubiquitous: Idle No More, while clearly “Indigenous,” was received and responded to by a “public” that included many who were not Indigenous, and it burst out into spaces that strictly Indigenous protests had not accessed before (shopping malls).
A manifesto usually comes from a particular, specified body promulgating the manifesto, and is typically intended to express the intents and purposes of that body. A call to be “Idle No More” is, potentially, harder for the state to squelch, harder to return to a status of mere noise.
“It is, finally, to argue that any conception of an ‘avant-garde’ in Canada that attacks only the institution of art, only aesthetic praxis — stopping short of the structures that circumscribe that institution and that praxis — will not suffice” (Michael Nardone).
I think I am repeating my first point — switching the dial noisily backwards. Ultimately, what Nardone calls for is an entirely new definition of the avant-garde — one in which the idea that certain aesthetic practices might cease to count as works at all is turned on its head, so that the ceasing to count as artworks (alone) reveals a becoming of something else — a breaking forth of collective struggle in the midst of material matrices of production. It is an old idea, somewhere near the core of what we now think of as avant-garde — that art and life, aesthetics and struggle, become indistinguishable — that we make our resistance as we would a work of art, and that we make our works of art as we do our resistance — that there is no moment when we are not artists, not resistant, and not building a new world of justice from within the ruins of the old world of oppression.
The question I’m left with is: does the term “avant-garde” do any productive, liberatory work anymore?