New Literary History,
2010, 41: v–xv
Jonathan P. Eburne and Rita Felski
hat is an avant-garde?
In posing such a question, this is-sue o
New Literary History
seeks to reexamine a category that oten seems all too sel-evident. Our aim is not to draw up aresh list o defnitions, specifcations, and prescriptions but to explorethe conditions and repercussions o the question itsel. In the spirit o analogously titled queries—rom Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” toFoucault’s “What is an Author?”—we hope to spur reection not onlyon a particular object o study but also on the rameworks and criticalaculties that we bring to bear on it. As Paul Mann notes, every criticaltext on the avant-garde, whether tacitly or overtly, “has a stake in theavant-garde, in its orce or destruction, in its survival or death (or both).”
A reassessment o these stakes is one o the priorities o this special issue.Narratives o the avant-garde abound. Whether they come to burythe avant-garde or to praise it, these narratives are typically organizedaround moments o shock, rupture, and youthul revolt that speak tocertain belies about the unctions o experimental art and the natureo historical change. In his 1968
Theory of the Avant-Garde
, or instance,Renato Poggioli describes two major phases in the development o the avant-garde. The frst stage is anchored in the letist politics o the1840s and the 1870s, where the notion o an advanced guard serves toauthorize the political agitations and underground activities that helpedtrigger the revolutionary events o 1848 and the Paris Commune. In thelate nineteenth and early twentieth century, the mantle o the avant-garde is transerred rom politics to aesthetics, as maniested in thenew stridency and shock value claimed by art and the sel-consciously vanguardist ethos o such movements as Dada, uturism, surrealism, andconstructivism. For Poggioli, however, such aesthetic appropriations o the insurrectionary energies o political vanguardism remained largelymetaphorical and risked bad aith in exaggerating the circumscribedeects o artistic innovation and intervention.
This narrative has been widely adopted and adapted in the our de-cades since its publication, and its insistence on the historical priority o a strictly political—and letist—incarnation o the avant-garde remainsinuential. From Poggioli’s vantage point in 1968, the meaning o past