Spectral rescue

On Jeff Derkson and Louis Cabri

Note: above, a video of Louis Cabri giving a talk, coauthored by Jeff Derksen, at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Tyrus Miller responds to the talk in the essay that follows. 


In “Immanence and Affect in Post-Avantgardism: Imagining the Social Subject,” Jeff Derksen and Louis Cabri argue that the contemporary social forms through which “the revolutionary imperative” (Neil Smith) expresses itself compel avant-garde poetry to rethink its historically inherited modes of address, formal organization, and function. Early in the twentieth century the avant-garde had tapped the effervescent energies of social revolution as the driver of aesthetic innovation, and returned back to the social world — in a whirlwind of new sounds, images, and words — its marvelous surplus of utopian impulses and ideals. But this virtuous circle of artistic avant-gardism and revolution was accompanied by its vicious shadow: the tempting convergence of the organization of aesthetic avant-gardism with the authoritarian forms of the revolutionary vanguard party and the consolidating revolutionary state, and the progressive narrowing in both of the aperture of freedom they had originally intended to open in the world. “The idea of an intellectual vanguard does not sit at all well in the poetry world of today,” note Derksen and Cabri. They go on to attribute this uneasy status to the cunning dialectic of the avant-garde I have sketched above, the undeniable imbrication within avant-garde expressions — in their organizational as well as formal characteristics — of emancipatory intentions with a compulsive mimicry of the gestures of political authority and domination. 

They suggest breaking this self-manacling through a post-avant-gardist “spectral rescue” of avant-garde emancipatory poetics. They would reorient poetry that employs techniques from the historical avant-gardes — such as the homophonic translations of Vancouver-based poet Catriona Strang — away from the representation of received collective identities and towards the adumbration of new, fluctuating, emergent collective forms not readily subordinated to the powers of representative party and state. In particular, they look to “populism,” as formulated by the political theorist Ernesto Laclau, as possessing an organizational and signifying logic (“populist reason”) on the political plane that might be understood as homologous to the formal and rhetorical dimensions of contemporary post-avant-garde writing. Summarily, Laclau sees populism as a paradoxical generalization of heterogeneous demands that cannot be met by the reigning political and social system; though irreducible to a common “cause” or “last instance,” under particular circumstances these excluded demands can become loosely enchained to form a kind of ragged text that enunciates a “People,” its suffering and resistance, its defeats and victories. The “People,” however, is not so much a social subject whose saga expressively flows from its inner essence (for instance, a nation); nor even is it the epic tale of recapture of its alienated essence, the arduous adventure of relearning an inner truth long ago dispossessed by a hostile master (the Marxian working class coming to class consciousness). Rather, it appears as an experimental montage of discrepant social fragments that composes, willy-nilly, a serial text for which the “People” might eventually serve as its entitling caption. In turn, Derksen and Cabri speculatively venture, might we not allow avant-garde techniques of montage and linguistic experimentation to resonate with populist reason’s yoking of heterogeneous collective actions, meanings, agencies, and motivations, for a contemporary repurposing of the avant-garde’s historically deflected utopian politics?

I am sympathetic to this argument, and elsewhere, in a different context, I utilized Laclau’s “populist reason” to reframe Lukács’s antimodernist defense of realism in the novel. “Not only,” I argue, “for the realist novel, but also for a much vaster span of novels this logic of populism, this problem of constituting ‘the people,’ would be at stake. Lukács’s focus on the novel, including the realist novel, remains timely, insofar as the logic of populism increasingly defines the political and cultural horizon of our day. What is no longer timely, however, is his exclusive valorization of realism in the articulation of populist reason.”[1] Derksen and Cabri boldly extend this argument, going well beyond the modernist and postmodernist montage narrative I had in mind, into the far reaches of avant-gardistic “shiftology,” zaum, and linguistic reconstellation. Yet their argument does not just provide an interpretive frame for contemporary post–avant-garde practices, despite their manifest concern with the ways in which revolutionary politics might be remade under the pressures of globalization, neoliberalism, and planetary technologies of computation and communication. It also performs, implicitly, a “spectral rescue” on the avant-garde of the past, allowing us to read in it, in shades, the not-yet of our particular community to come: 

Whorlen of the worldwide will,
the otheren of graygrow time,
stillfallen blanketing the field —
the selven that are names of mine.[2


1. Tyrus Miller, ed. and trans., “Editor’s Introduction: The Phantom of Liberty: György Lukács and the Culture of ‘People’s Democracy,’” in The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition, 1945–1948 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013), xxxvi.

2. Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov: Letters and Theoretical Writings, trans. Paul Schmidt, ed. Charlotte Douglas (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987).