Part of our challenge here at MarcelDuchamp.net is figuring out where to draw the boundaries for what is pertinent to the subjects of “modernism” and “avant-garde.” Personally, I have always found the effort to narrow the historical or general “avant-garde” into a single definition confounding.
For anyone who may be experiencing a similar problem, I’d like to propose taking a close look at the following passage. Berkley’s literary theorist Leo Bersani begins his essay, Boundaries of Time and Being: Benjamin, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, by formulating a number of questions that circle around the larger question of how to situate the modern against (or within?) the contemporary landscape. The following selection may be long, but I recommend giving it the time it’s due.
“the modern…retains an incomparable aura: that of being spiritually stranded, uniquely special in its radical break with traditional values and modes of consciousness. And to say this is to return to the logical problem I raised at the start: if an exacerbated consciousness of the modern is necessarily characterized by the sense of being cut off from the premodern, how can we understand the terms in relation to which, more exactly against which, the modern itself is to be defined? This very problem is perhaps a creation of the modernistic modernity to which I have just referred. If the concept of modernity always implies the sense of a break with the past, of living at moments when certain important thresholds are crossed (thresholds of political or economic modes of organization, of demographic movements and the distribution of social pressures and loci of power, of cultural hierarchies—including the place of religion in a culture’s resources for making its experience intelligible and for guiding ethical choices), it does not necessarily imply that modern times are chiefly characterized by an inability to do something that past epochs were able to do: to make connections and, more precisely, to connect with their own traditions. Now, however, the modern is understood not merely as a break with the past but as an inability to understand the past. The modernity of the twentieth century includes the loss of what other maternities did not necessarily give up when they defined their own distinctiveness: an understanding of the tradition to which that modernity added something new. The break with the past now is marked by a mournful sense of the break itself as unique. We are modern because our modernity makes absolute the notion of discontinuity as a loss of the aptitude for continuities. To speak of the past therefore becomes nearly inconceivable once it is no longer merely a question of describing other customs, other systems of justice, other sets of beliefs, but rather the lost capacity of consciousness to place itself in relation to history. Modern consciousness, in short, is irremediably cut off from other ways in which human beings have understood their modernity, their comparatively limited break with their own past. This is the apocalyptic nature of out modernity, which in this century has frequently been spoken of as if it were a mutation of consciousness rather than the latest in a series of regular turns, accretions, and ruptures within an organically whole tradition. How, then, can we speak of that from which we have mutated? Is the mournful consciousness that describes this evolutionary drama the vestigial remnant of an extinct mode of being?”
(Leo Bersani, “Boundaries of Time and Being: Benjamin, Baudelaire, Nietzsche,” in The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 47-48.)