The much discussed military origins of the term ‘avant garde’ suggest that the attraction of writers and artists to avant gardism stems from a certain aggression or combativeness. We assume that avant gardism is a self-heroizing gesture, an adoption of grandeur for the self-styled polemicist on his way into battle. Another term for a military avant garde might be shock troops; members of the literary avant garde are expected to imagine themselves as similarly shocking. Even the descriptions we commonly associate with avant gardism, words like raw and cutting edge, appear to support such a thesis. Viewed as such, the avant garde seems a pompous and brutal affect, ripe for casting off.
I will suggest, however, that the avant garde cannot be so easily disposed of. It is, in fact, the writerly position par excellence.
The fundamental position of the avant garde, both militarily and artistically, is before. This is true in both the spatial and temporal sense. Take the military usage of the term. The avant garde is the first unit to enter a new territory. They prepare the ground for the main force to follow. That is, they stand physically before their compatriots and enter enemy territory temporally before them.
It follows then that the position of the avant garde is structured similarly in its literary incarnation. It is commonplace to speak of avant garde writers and movements as breaking new stylistic and thematic territory which may later be adopted by mainstream literary writers (or artists or filmmakers etc.). However, I think it is a serious mistake to assume that the allure of avant gardism and experimentalism lies in such a preceding of the mainstream. Rather, we should see that the structure of the avant garde, in the sense of being doubly before, is revealingly analogous to the act of writing.
Put simply, the avant garde is the site and time of the writer vis a vis the work. The writer is always in this position of being doubly before the work, always preceding and displaced from the work as such. This spatial and temporal non-coincidence makes the writer the avant garde of the work. To be sympathetic to avant gardism is, for the writer, to be attuned to the nature of writing.
The writer is similar to the military avant garde in another important way. As with any military operation, the attack of the advanced guard is subject to the possibility of failure. There is the potential that the avant garde paves the way for a victorious invasion, but there is also the potential that the advanced force is wiped out, that no follow-up attack comes, that the avant garde will sacrifice in vain. The stakes for a writer are clearly not (at least not usually) an immediate matter of life and death, but structurally the writer’s action mirrors that of their military namesake. This possibility of failure, which (in the case of writing as in war) is tied up with a near certainty of a less-than-perfect outcome, is fundamental to the act of writing.
Potentiality and desire – the desire to make and the potential that work will fail or come to be something other than expected – are at the heart of writing. The work itself will inevitably both exceed and fail its writer’s desires, and this necessary misfiring of desire and design means that the writer possesses not the work but its image. Ultimately, these further couplings – potential and desire, excess and failure, work and image – necessitate and deliver the writer, necessary and excluded, to the position of double beforeness.
This is not, however, a tragic position. As Maurice Blanchot understood, the role of the writer is to make space for the work. Writing is then not primarily an act of communication but in fact a clearing of ground and making of space. To write is to serve in the avant garde of the work, to occupy the uncertain position of being perpetually before a work that will never and always arrive.