One cannot think about the avant-garde without committing oneself to a theory of history. The term “avant-garde” was first applied to art in the early nineteenth century amid the euphoria of Europe’s accelerating technological and cultural domination over the rest of the globe. It became particularly associated with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernism, when European narratives of historical progress — from both the right and the left — pointed toward the near future as a potential civilizational apex. The avant-garde were those so close to modernity’s cutting edge that they seemed to already be living in a utopian fascistic, anarchist, or Marxist revolutionary future.
To some early twentieth-century thinkers, particularly those on the right, history seemed to move in a straightforwardly linear, teleological fashion. As Friedrich Nietzsche puts it in Human, All Too Human, “A selection is now taking place among the forms and habits of higher morality, whose goal can be none other than the downfall of baser moralities.” The same was true of different forms of “aesthetic feeling”: his age, he argued, “will let most of them (namely all those that it rejects) die out.” To others, particularly vanguardists influenced by Marx and Hegel, moving forward was a more complicated dialectical business: to break with the past, one had to first come to a sophisticated understanding of its contradictions. The Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky thus aimed to offer his “soul on a plate for the dinner of the future.” Embedded in both right-wing and left-wing avant-gardisms was the idea of radical dissent against the present — as well as the hope that, by dissenting, one might correctly assess what moving “forward” means.
But on the eve of the Second World War, many thinkers began to doubt that the history they longed for still lay before them. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin describes the 1930s from the imagined perspective of “the angel of history.” Though “turned toward the past,” the angel is being pulled into the future. “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread…. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
The metaphor expresses Benjamin’s horror at where his world is headed, and what it’s leaving behind. Under the leveling force of capitalism, and with some cultures bent on exterminating others, humanity appears to be hurtling toward what, in Benjamin’s letters with Erich Auerbach, was described disparagingly as “a culture of Esperanto.” Many threads of human history are being forgotten because they do not fit into the dominant, grand narratives of fascism on the one hand and globalized capitalist modernity on the other. The angel of history is looking back at the “wreckage” that is being discarded. He is still able to appreciate its discarding as a “catastrophe”; Benjamin enjoins his readers to do so as well.
When I reread this essay today, I instinctively imagine a variation on Benjamin’s angel of history: his face turned toward the future, he is being pulled back into the past; slowly, he realizes that history is moving in the opposite direction from that which he had been taught to believe. Perhaps history is a merry-go-round, this angel wonders, or perhaps time has reversed course. But what had seemed like the future is suddenly receding; and what had seemed like the past is coming back again, in frightfully familiar forms. In a sense, this is the same wreckage and shock Benjamin’s angel faces — of history’s messy, nonlinear repetition and forgetfulness. But our contemporary angel’s central horror is not our collective capacity to forget; rather, it is the rapidity with which we are thrown back into stages of community-building we thought our generation had superseded.
In the last few decades, our understanding of where our political systems are progressing — or regressing — has seemed increasingly troubled and murky. This makes one long for a new avant-garde that could show us a way forward. Instead, we ought to ask, with Benjamin: is “forward” really the most important of our cardinal directions? We must also continue asking the second question implicit in his angel’s horror: what collective “we” do we imagine racing into the future? When we dream about moving forward, whom are we planning to leave behind?
Today, as in the fin de siècle, when we look toward the future we often — consciously or not — imagine some kinds of people as intrinsically closer to it by virtue of their gender, race, ethnicity, or geographical location. Cathy Park Hong made this point powerfully a decade ago, calling out the racism of the American literary establishment in her “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” In that essay, she argues that some of our most innovative contemporary writers — Black Took Collective, Bhanu Kapil, Tan Lin, M. NourbeSe Philip, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, and others — explore how the communities the avant-garde speaks for and addresses can be expanded. They work toward this expansion by “code-switching between languages, between Englishes, between genres, between races, between bodies.” They strive to highlight the intersectionalities in which we live and relate to each other, underscoring bonds between people and between communities that are not tied to old Hegelian narratives of development and underdevelopment, of revolution as a march into a modernity that we are supposed to universally desire.
These writers, whom Hong correctly identifies as a cultural vanguard, think about history in unexpected and original ways. What modernists taught us to understand as the future seems to them to have been a mirage, a way of reifying how different places around the globe and their inhabitants — those more and less developed — relate to one another. The alternative philosophy of history that they embrace is not Benjamin’s, though it bears a family relationship to it. Instead of wanting to get to the future quicker, these contemporary writers, most of them people of color and many of them queer-identifying, want to be able to time-travel non-linearly, with as much flexibility as possible. If Benjamin dreams of taking a “tiger’s leap” into the past, these writers dream of leaping between the past and future, and between different pasts and different futures.
Whether by bringing historical archives back to life — as NourbeSe Philip does in Zong! — or, as Robin Coste Lewis does in “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness,” by moving
— slowly — forward,
millennium by millennium, trying
to see everything
that has taken place until
I arrive at the present moment — me
lying in my bed
— these poets allow time to move backward as well as forward, helping us accustom ourselves to and learn from its nonlinear, unpredictable motions. They revive old narratives thought lost, bring ones that are supposedly new into conversation with their historical predecessors, force us to confront archival absences as well as traces of history that persist among us, even though we no longer know what stories we should tell about them. As Farid Matuk puts it in “When I Look at Pictures,” these poets have “the nerve… / to fold time / in my mouth as if to call / back an escape line.” They recognize the escape from a stagnant present might often lie in folding time backward rather than forward. It might lie in naming more precisely the historical narratives that we seem to be reliving in reverse.
These poets are right. To make us see our world anew, the avant-garde needs to teach us how to slip back in and out of history, how to turn it both forward and backward; how to accept that history might be a set of loops and spirals with many speeds. But if that’s what the avant-garde aims for — to show us that history is multiple, and often runs in circles — should we still call it an avant-garde?
Marta Figlerowicz teaches at Yale University. Her public-facing writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post, Jacobin, Cabinet, n+1, and elsewhere.