Whatever you thought of it at the time, the fate of Tel Quel – the journal, the group and the theoretical orientation – concerns us all in one way or another, for the fate of the avant garde (was this really the last one?) has something to say about our society, our history, our politics and our relationship to the future. Given Tel Quel’s essentially literary orientation, its history can also tell us something about the place of Literature in the new televisual age.
Patrick ffrench’s title, The Time of Theory, is a reminder that Tel Quel seemed to offer the most prodigious theoretical synthesis of the age, so that the fate, not just of Theory itself – now pronounced dead by some – is at stake here, but also of some of its components: Marxism, psychoanalysis, linguistics. Again, for those interested in collective dynamics, or in intellectuals and their sociology, the group offers an interesting laboratory experiment, while for those bent on denouncing the modern and hastening its dissolution into Post-Modernism, the charismatic role of Tel Quel’s leader, Philippe Sollers, will confirm many dark suspicions about the relations between power and the very ideal of an avant garde (including the vanguard political parties, most notably the Bolsheviks, on which the aesthetic ones were explicitly based). And what, finally, about the spectacle of political and ideological defection, of which Tel Quel offers so many striking dramatisations, from literature to politics, from Soviet Communism to Maoism, from Maoism to pro-Americanism, from Marxism to religion? Any one of these moves might mark you for life; the accumulation (like the dialectic of quantity and quality) begins to offer a somewhat different picture, giving apostasy a bad name and opening the door wide to the debunking analysis of intellectual opportunism pioneered by Pierre Bourdieu – and exemplified here in a particularly satisfying way by Niilo Kauppi’s book.
Like the cycles of the great Mafiosi or the history of the Comintern, the chanson de geste of the various avant gardes has a relatively immutable pattern: the first friendships and then the founding of something; the deliberate scandals and provocations; the manifestos; the enemy lists, the exclusions left and right; the hegemony of intimidation; and then ... Avant gardes are all alike in their prime, but each one lives its eventual dissolution in a different way.
The journal Tel Quel was founded in 1960, by a group of ambitious young literary intellectuals, who found a first rallying cry in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman. These three books offer more or less concordant accounts of the early years, Forest’s being the most richly anecdotal (his is essentially a narrative history, a fine specimen of French cultural journalism); ffrench, the most theoretical of the chroniclers, nails down the competing philosophical positions of the era; and Kauppi, paying predictable attention to ‘social reproduction’, offers a priceless account of intellectual patronage and the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the welcome accorded by the elderly François Mauriac to his young Bordeaux compatriot, Philippe Sollers: ‘the creative gift seemed to be something which could be passed on, with impersonal rather than personal characteristics. It was a question of extraordinary, yet transmissible qualities.’
The new journal had somehow to affirm its originality in an already crowded field. Thus, it could not have anything in common with the hegemonic Sartrean journal, Les Temps modernes, but must be more pragmatically literary, and non-engagé (something all the more striking when we remember that France was then still in the throes of the Algerian war). In this sense, the Nietzschean motto of the eternal return, which gave the journal its name, stands as something of a deliberate provocation: ‘I want the world, and I want it as it is’ – tel quel.
In contrast to the newly revived Nouvelle Revue Française, which had come to embody the literary establishment, the new review would attempt to stand for experimentation, or for avant-gardism as such, without quite knowing where this virtue was to be found at a moment often described as the ‘end of the postwar period’. The immensely successful nouveau roman offered a temporary solution, but scarcely a durable one. Still, a few relatively unexploited names and works would be inscribed on the banner: Artaud, Bataille and Lautréamont, whose potential his first discoverers in the Surrealist movement had failed to celebrate in useably contemporary terms. The editors also developed amicable relations with Bataille’s journal Critique, in which the first swallows of a recognisably contemporary philosophy and theory took their flight; some of whom – Barthes, Foucault, Derrida – came to entertain fitful relations with the new journal, Barthes in particular remaining faithful to the end. His own death, in 1980, was followed by the official dissolution of Tel Quel in 1982 and its replacement by the significantly retitled L’Infini, now completely under Sollers’s direction, and, equally significantly, transferred to another publisher.
The whole operation thus officially lasted some twenty years, since it was in 1963 that the first of the great exclusions took place, Sollers’s rival at this point, Jean-Edern Hallier, retrospectively observing that there was not enough room for two male hippopotami in that particular water-hole. The reorganisation of the journal was entrusted to Marcellin Pleynet (one of the merits of Forest’s history is that he gives full attention to the somewhat neglected development of poetry in the review – above all that of Pleynet himself, and of that splendid poet, Denis Roche – as well as to the later relations with painting and with cinema; Pleynet’s close relations with American poets in Paris and his teaching stints in the US also foreshadowed a later evolution). All of this bore fruit in the banner year of 1965, which witnessed Tzvetan Todorov’s presentation of the Russian Formalists, Sollers’s discovery of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, the break with Robbe-Grillet and the New Novel, the arrival of Julia Kristeva in Paris (from Bulgaria), and finally the publication of Sollers’s ‘nouveau nouveau roman’, Drame, which announced a whole new kind of ‘textual’ literature.
If we date the effective end of this avant garde with the de-Maoification of 1974 (after the visit of the group to Beijing), its productive years can be reduced to something like a decade, more or less coinciding with the now largely accepted dating of the so-called Sixties as running from about 1963 to the oil crisis of 1973.
Let me here repeat the words of Guy Debord, quoted by ffrench, which raise the question of the mortality of an avant garde, a matter that seems oddly to obsess these books, more than does another mystery, which is the coming into being of an avant garde.
Avant gardes have but a brief life-span; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have lived that life to an end. After the avant gardes, operations are engaged on a vaster scene. We have only too often witnessed élite troops, who, having accomplished some valiant exploit, go on parading with their decorations and finally turn against the cause they once defended. Nothing like that need be feared from troops whose attack was waged to utter dissolution.
Debord was, to be sure, the leader of yet another ‘last avant garde’, the Situationists, and also formally dissolved his group (in May ’68). Tel Quel had no relations with these competitors at the time, but seems to have posthumously (and perhaps abusively) canonised Debord. The quotation gives them ambiguous aid and comfort, for it is unclear whether Sollers’s group should be identified with the last sentence, as they themselves prefer (‘waged to utter dissolution’), or rather with the next-to-last (‘turned against the cause they once defended’).
The most interesting reflection on the collective nature and structure of Tel Quel is offered by ffrench, in the context of his luminous analysis of the relationship of Tel Quel to Bataille (on which more below). For Bataille’s Collège de Sociologie in the Thirties also represented a kind of avant garde, but as it were to the second power, being directed against the supreme model of the kind, Surrealism. In ffrench’s view, Bataille’s operation was not one of founding a collectivity but of an inauguration which was also a dissolution: Bataille’s ‘expérience intérieure’, he suggests, ‘being interior and transgressive, tended to fracture the community itself’. The later reprise of these ideas by Jean-Luc Nancy and others then replicates this ‘unhappy consciousness’ of the ‘communauté désoeuvrée’ in the very different situation of de-Marxification and the end of the political vanguard.
But an avant garde is not an empty form, which ambitious and opportunistic young intellectuals can seize on at their pleasure: it has its historical conditions of possibility, which in Tel Quel’s case were both formal and conceptual. These in turn had their roots in a specific situation of literary history and philosophical crisis, as well as in a complex political conjuncture. Avant gardes are always being accused of what may be called the ‘fallacy of the manifesto’: the idea that one can abstractly block out the space of the new work in advance and then fill it in, with results that often look like mere mechanical illustrations of a disembodied aesthetic theory. Whence at least one of the ambiguities that obnubilate the charismatic figure of the leader. Could André Breton really have been a great poet, when his energies were so completely given over to organisation – which is to say, to the proclamation of the doctrine and the subsequent policing of its orthodoxies?
The critique of the Führerprinzip has been a central charge in the various Post-Modern critiques of Modernism: modern art, with its doctrine of innovation and the invention of new styles, has always been an affair of male gurus (not excluding a few women, such as Gertrude Stein). Modernist politics has been organised around ostensibly mass parties with an élite vanguard leadership (not only Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Mao Zedong, but also Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler, de Gaulle); while artistic vanguards have always centred on a great leader jealous of his directorial prerogatives, and animated by a keen sectarian spirit. Breton was supremely that, temperamentally, and leaving aside the puritanism of the Surrealist celebration of desire, there is ample testimony that Sollers followed in these particular footsteps.
The manifesto, however, has to have something to say, and something new: that was certainly the case with the Surrealist Manifestos, as fresh today as they were sixty years ago. The Tel Quel manifesto – the collection Théorie d’ensemble, published in the autumn after May ’68, and including the godfathers, Barthes, Foucault and Derrida – may be less fresh today, but still seethes with theoretical effervescence.
It posits a kind of linguistic materialism, with openings towards Freud and Marx, towards Lacan and (more secretly still) Mao: towards literature and politics alike. Elisabeth Roudinesco’s summary is as useful as any other:
Sollers put together a skilful amalgamation with the help of concepts elaborated during the structuralist years. From Foucault he borrowed the pair reason/madness, making it the site at which a ‘textual rupture’ was emerging. From Derrida he took the idea of a ‘proto-trace’ [architrace], transforming it into the possibility of ‘repressed’ écriture. In Lacan he was able to find essentially a way of integrating Freudian discourse into the entirety of his project. And finally, through Althusser, he was able to tinker with the Bachelardian notion of an epistemological break, which allowed him to situate the history of textuality within dialectical materialism. On the basis of that mix, which was intended to be explosive, the history of literature was thought through as a series of textual ruptures, which could be grasped in the works of Sade, Bataille, Artaud.
This gives a good sense of the eclecticism with which those hostile to Tel Quel taxed it. For those for whom the Tel Quel doctrine constituted a new kind of synthesis, and a necessary one – ‘demanded by the age’ – it would be important to add that syntheses can also be constructed from the distances and differences between the constituent points, and not only by the old, idealistic method of organic unification.
What Roudinesco’s summary misses is the centrality for Tel Quel of a notion of textual productivity (though, as we shall see in a moment, this may turn out to be something of a misnomer). It is not easy to extract doctrinal positions from its texts, which are almost always polemic, some would say terroristic. Indeed, the cultural politics of the Tel Quel group has most often been seen as one of wholesale intimidation, raising the question that poses itself equally for Surrealism: of whether aggressivity and dictatorial hectoring are not also part of the very nature of the avant garde.
Even so, one can find in Sollers formulas for a kind of linguistic materialism which might amount to a doctrine:
It is thus within language, now grasped somehow mathematically as our milieu of transformation, that we must pose the problems that concern us – this is to say, outside of the notion of a character (to the degree to which you, actors, authors and readers of this life, you take yourselves for characters, you give in to the mythology of our society, you identify yourselves with a trivial and limited identity which is not your own); and also outside the notion of a product (for to the degree to which you valorise the product, you posit the existence of the museum and sooner or later of the academy; you favour a collection of things arrested and frozen in the pseudo-eternity of value, in contradistinction to the way in which what we are looking for ought to lead us on beyond all value).
Jean-Joseph Goux’s book, Numismatiques, remains the philosophical high point of the doctrinal codification of Tel Quel, combining as it does Freud and Marx, Lacan and linguistics, in a set of homologies that has never been equalled (though Goux himself was never an official member of the group). Forest meanwhile makes it clear that Julia Kristeva’s invention of the slogan of ‘intertextuality’, along with her work on Saussure and on Bakhtin, was meant to open the literary text up to the social ‘text’, and not, as in the appropriation of these ideas in Anglo-American criticism, to re-imprison us within its essential ‘literariness’.
At this point, one can but remark on the uncertainty with which Kristeva’s work is positioned within these histories, a hesitation that derives at least in part from the anomaly of the ‘signature’. Do these writers aim to produce a coherent, personal oeuvre or system, which can stand on its own, or are they rather to be considered as moves within an essentially collective project? Kristeva’s status is complicated by the undeniable muflerie of the caste of French male intellectuals (gender perhaps doing double duty for an equally undeniable Parisian chauvinism), in which perfectly proper theoretical criticism (of her mathematics, for example) becomes indistinguishable from personal jealousies and sexism, replicating the kind of reception once accorded her great predecessor, Simone de Beauvoir.
The notion of textual productivity – the idea that language itself is non-human (as Paul de Man once put it), that it is not subjective but rather structures the subject, and that its laws present a kind of destiny which certain linguistic practices can challenge or disrupt – this notion clearly has its affinities with the spirit of the Althusserian seminar on Capital, even though Althusser prudently kept his distance from the review and resisted absorption into its pantheon. For many at the time, the assimilation of language to the dynamics of production as analysed by Marxism came as a revelation, and also as a kind of liberation from within the linguistic orthodoxies of structuralism. Finally, however, it was not Tel Quel, but rather the rival journal, Change, which ran with this notion (enriched by the model of Chomsky’s generative grammar). But this review, founded by Jean-Pierre Faye after his break with Tel Quel during the heady days of 1968, as a competitor for the soul of the French Communist Party, failed to attain the worldwide status of an avant-garde to which Tel Quel so successfully aspired.
So far as textual productivity is concerned, it is ffrench who, in his subtle and plausible apology for the group’s evolution, makes a crucial distinction. Its positions on language were not Marxian in spirit after all, let alone deconstructive; nor did Tel Quel appeal to this or that notion of desire: rather, the key value was derived from Bataille’s notion of excess and of a symbolic potlatch.
These books also qualify Tel Quel’s relations with the Communist Party, and assert (mostly on Sollers’s own testimony so far as I can see) that the group did not become Maoist overnight, but that it had been interested in China and Mao Zedong thought as far back as 1966. These sympathies and fascinations did not initially interfere with its more official flirtation with Party intellectuals, an episode many have compared to the earlier efforts of the Surrealists to infiltrate the Party and become its chief ideologues (a comparison that might extend all the way to the final discovery of a purer Communism outside the Soviet Party, in the one case in the person of Trotsky, in the other in the phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution).
Here we have to remember that before May ’68, the PCF was the only game on the left, and the only mode of access to a mass working-class public. It is not to be seen as an agent of Moscow, or as a set of rigid dogmas (indeed, the history of Tel Quel’s relations with Party intellectuals shows a good deal of uncertainty among the latter as to how to evaluate the new structuralist ‘discoveries’), but rather as a contested space in which, after a time, the more outlandish Tel Quel doctrines were gradually repudiated for the more reasonable compromises of the Faye group, or of the increasingly sophisticated PCF intellectuals themselves. But Tel Quel kept faith with the Party, endorsing its deep suspicions of the student uprising of May and keeping a prudent silence on the August invasion of Czecho slovakia by the Soviet Union (an error, Sollers confided in private correspondence, but one ‘whose necessity will appear ever more clearly with the passage of time’).
Meanwhile, the break, when it came, turned on a mere pretext (although one long celebrated in memoir and legend): the Party’s refusal to publicise Anna-Maria Macciocchi’s enthusiastic account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution at the Fête de l’ Humanité in 1971. After that, posters all over the office: ‘Down with dogmatism, empiricism, revisionism, opportunism! Long live Mao Zedong thought!’ Forest records the visit of a bewildered Derrida, whose contacts with the group did not last long after this. Poundian ideograms began erupting all over Sollers’s ‘texts’ (indeed, one can claim with some plausibility that the bridge from Maoism to Americanism was called Ezra Pound); finally, there was the pilgrimage to revolutionary China itself in spring 1974, from which the group, along with Barthes, return chastened and relatively uncommunicative.
The falling away from Maoism was thus relatively undramatic, as though no one had taken it particularly seriously in the first place, or as though, after the other reversals, this one was somehow predictable in advance. There was never any contact with the genuinely Maoist groupuscules, people who gave up their careers and went to work in factories, and whose disengagement from such politics was a long and painful one that left lasting scars. Certainly the mere words ‘cultural revolution’ (gradually associated by the group with Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’) were an attraction in themselves, and worth the price of admission. But this dénouement was surely not what Debord had in mind when he suggested that the vocation of the avant garde was eventually to efface itself in favour of ‘operations on a vaster scene’.
Instead, there came an enthusiastic special issue on the United States; an apparently mind-blowing experience of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (published in French in 1974), leading to the discovery of ‘totalitarianism’ and the revelation of the figure of the dissident (‘we are all Russian Jews,’ Kristeva intoned on a famous occasion); an intensified fascination with the sacred and with Jewish and Christian theology; and finally the disbanding of the journal itself, along with Sollers’s astonishing literary about-face, in which unreadable textual productivity suddenly gave way to a relatively representational (and autobiographical) bestseller (Femmes, 1983), published by Gallimard.
No one could claim that the new development was not interesting (by this time the footwork needed to be even more acrobatic); what one must say, however, and what Forest admits, is that ‘the questions posed by Tel Quel from 1974 on are no longer the exclusive property of the revue.’ This is an understatement. With de-Marxification (one might add, with the rise of media journalism), the ‘desire called theory’ shattered into a host of distinct lines and impulses: new rivals appeared with the so-called ‘nouveaux philosophes’, but intensified competition came also from older ones (Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari), the renewal and spread of the Lacanian movement, the rise of various feminisms as well, not excluding a Lacanian version, the American take on deconstruction, the emergence of a French New Right. With these new theoretical groupuscules, any serious renewal of Tel Quel’s avantgarde brief (let alone that of l’Infini) was definitively precluded.
Is this to say that the very possibility of an avant garde after Maoism (or after Marxism) no longer exists? Predictably, the group itself asserted this, rationalising a virtue out of the necessity with the insolence (‘je veux le monde et je le veux tel quel’) it had developed over the years. Whence the deeper significance of ffrench’s title. Tel Quel marks the ‘time of theory’ rather than the mere lifespan of an ephemeral avant garde. The distinction remains significant today, when Post-Modernity has so often been characterised by the impossibility of avant gardes, and the death of theory has been celebrated, if for very different ideological motives. It is worth listening to Sollers himself on the matter:
an avant garde can exist only so long as the space of Marxist-psychoanalytic interpretation constitutes the rational horizon of thought, and in reaction to that horizon (as the manifestation of an inassimilable irrational ‘remainder’). The present saturation of ‘avant-gardist’ space – rapidly transformed into a limited and stereotypical academic one – at one and the same time spells the end of that rationalist horizon. The ‘end’ of Marxism is in sight. That of psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is less visible but no less impending – and this is what in my opinion explains the sapping of avantgardist production (which overall is nothing but an insignificant and more and more local and regional ‘resistance’ to analytic interpretation).
This is a characteristically qualified and ambiguous death certificate, which would have held good fully as much for the great prototype, Surrealism, with its explosive introduction of Freud and Marx (and the Hegelian dialectic) into the France of the Twenties. But even taken figuratively, Sollers’s affirmation affords considerable wonderment: are all avant gardes characterised by a commitment to Marx and Freud, it being understood that the very necessity of such commitment presupposes the relative scandalousness of both? This is to lend the two traditions a privileged status, merited by the way in which both – as unities of theory and practice – spell the end of traditional philosophy and traditional philosophical systems. Or are we merely to understand that their privilege lies in the opening up of the properly unspeakable and perpetually unnameable, of the permanently scandalous – namely, class struggle and the unconscious? And where do the discoveries of a perhaps equally defunct linguistics fit in? And if all this is either now fully assimilated, into a mass-cultural ‘cynical reason’ which knows all about Marx and Freud, or else fully refuted (by a History that has disproved Marx and shown Freud to be a charlatan), then is swimming with the current still a world-historical activity?
Patrick ffrench puts the best face on the matter by way of an ingenious rewriting of the twice-told tale. We were wrong to think of the trajectory of Tel Quel as so many commitments abandoned en route: adhesion to the nouveau roman, then to psychoanalysis and to forms of structuralism, then to Soviet Communism, then to Maoism and so forth, the whole interwoven with Lacan’s shifting commitments, and offering a picture not unlike the aleatory twists and turns of Barthes’s career. It is Bataille who once again offers the key: what we took to be a provisional commitment was rather a form of subversion, the living through of this or that position in order to arrive at the limit which spells its dissolution:
Tel Quel does not attempt to elaborate a psychoanalytic theory of the text, but uses literature to point to radical and restricted, undeveloped moments in psychoanalysis. In the same way that Marxism is appropriated for its undoing, Freud is called upon so that the limits of his thought on literature can be suggested. The moment of theory is beset by internal contradictions which reveal the synthesis to be conflictual on every level.
What we took to be a series of broken commitments, therefore, was really an ideological acting-out intended to dissolve the positions in question (as analysis dissolves its various symptoms through the talking cure), a kind of immense ideological potlatch in which, finally, everything gets destroyed in a joyous excess. It remains to be seen whether religion, dissidence and the American dream will experience the same fate.
The version in ffrench’s book may be supposed to be the currently authorised apology, behind which the mysterious figure of Sollers emerges, like the Cheshire Cat – cynic or joyous iconoclast, self-punishing theoretician or opportunist on a grand scale, genuine writer or literary charlatan, with the gift either for ‘friendship’ or for intimidation? Perhaps the secret lies in these alternations, this fundamental ambiguity, as the double focus of his novel Women (only recently translated into English) gives us to suppose. This is a pastiche of Céline (lots of ejaculations! ... lots of unfinished sentences! ... lots of trois points!), in which the history of the world is deciphered as a vast conspiracy of women against men. This confronts us with a genuine undecideability: is it a feminist statement or the expression of a global, well-nigh metaphysical misogyny? In the fiction itself, the device of an American narrator, who confides to a writer S. the task of transcribing his experiences, makes it impossible to tell whether the real Sollers is this quite likeable and insouciant rogue and womaniser, or, on the contrary, the writer who offers so many truly malicious, unexpurgated portraits of identifiably real people (of whom only the dead – Lacan, Barthes, Althusser et al – need be mentioned here).
Kauppi has no doubts on this score and delivers the sociological case for the prosecution. According to him, the history of Tel Quel must be read in the light of the career determinism which has been one of Pierre Bourdieu’s major achievements. Here the historical situation (of publishing houses, journals, literary movements) constitutes one axis, the competition for ‘cultural capital’ the other. Whatever misgivings the metaphorical nature of this concept may inspire, it sheds a good deal of raw light on intellectuals, and on their commitments and activities. The Tel Quel group, for example, is made up of both rich and poor (Sollers and Pleynet, for openers), but is above all characterised by people lacking in what has traditionally constituted cultural capital in France: they are not normaliens, for instance; some of them have no academic degrees; some are provincials, some even foreigners (Kristeva), mounting to Paris for their assault on the capital as ill-equipped as Rastignac (or Balzac himself), since they have only their talent.
But it is not a question of acquiring cultural capital by their talent (as other, more naive contenders attempt to do): but a matter of changing what counts as cultural capital in the first place, so that this new kind of talent they possess will suddenly count, and in the process devalorise the old kind. They arrived at the right time, coinciding with an explosion of the new thing called Theory, which deflated traditional philosophy and literature, in such a way that a Sollers, for example, would henceforth appear as a new combination of writer and theoretician. At the same time there was a huge expansion of the university system so that a new public of students was available for the new writing and the new kind of theoretical journal, and the traditional separation between scholarship and ‘creative’ literature was broken down. To which I’m tempted to add the later modification of this new situation which the evolution of Tel Quel also exploited: that shift, in France, from a print to a television culture, from writers to celebrities (classically anatomised by Régis Debray), substituting high-cultural talk shows for laboriously meditated philosophical tomes, interviews for novels, cultural fashions for old-fashioned literary movements, famous names for unknown masterpieces (unless it is that the discovery of the unknown masterpieces, from Lautréamont to Céline, only adds to the cultural capital of the discoverer).
It makes perfect sense; my only reservation has to do with the reproach of ‘opportunism’ inevitably contained in such analyses. For, surely, opportunism here means fidelity to the historical situation itself, a strategic calculation of possibilities, a keen sense of what is to be done (that was not done or not possible before). To make this into a mark of disparagement is to apply the old substantialist categories (the writer ‘expressing’ his innate genius, the philosopher ‘reflecting’ his innate wisdom) to the new view of things, which was supposed to replace the old one. As for Tel Quel, I was never very enthusiastic about its ‘textual production’, and I wonder whether a theoretical reader today can still read Théorie d’ensemble with any of the plaisir or jouissance one can find, for example, in Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaux (a genuine embodiment of textual productivity, which presents very different problems of reading and interpretation).
But whatever the actual results, Tel Quel must be credited with having conceived the very idea of this great mobile, self-fashioning synthesis. And perhaps with other merits as well: Adorno says somewhere that only those who lived before the final victory of Stalin over his rivals can have any conception of the close relations between vanguard art and vanguard politics that then obtained: that a revolutionary art necessarily implied a revolutionary politics and vice versa. This was not a proposition to be laboriously argued but something obvious to everyone: what made it necessary to argue for it (if indeed you still wanted to) was the intervention of an obligatory aesthetic of socialist realism, which divided the artists themselves into political artists (the realist ones) and mere Modernists – not necessarily right-wing artists, but apolitical practitioners of an activity somehow neutral in itself. I think we no longer share this conception of the problematic relationship, if not the outright incompatibility, between art and politics; on the other hand, this new freedom from such traditional dilemmas may not be so enviable either, since Post-Modernity achieves it at the cost of no longer quite knowing what the political is, or what revolutionary art might be.
Tel Quel played a very significant role in breaking down the barriers between aesthetic innovation and experimentation, and political commitment. In so doing, however, it achieved a paradoxical outcome, for instead of ending up producing a revitalised and genuinely political Modernist art, it produced that very different new thing we now call Theory. Could it be argued, then, that by living a certain modernism to excess, it killed Modernism itself off, as effectively as it now claims to have killed off Marx? In that case, perhaps in the process it killed off the idea of an avant garde as well.
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