<Book Review>
The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s): Exorcising Experimental Theater and Performance
James M. Harding
[U of Michigan P, 2013. (248 pp.) ]

James M. Harding uses The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s): Exorcising experimental theater and performance to dispel the misconceptions about the avant-garde(s) taken for granted since Peter Bürger’s influential Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984). Beginning with an explanation of why using Bürger’s text as a bible for anyone interested in studying the avant-garde is problematic, Harding pluralizes the avant-garde, delineates its history and refutes the idea that the avant-garde dies. He proposes that rather than dying the avant-garde ‘ghosts’: Ghosting often occurs in theatres when spectators are faced with something they have encountered before but under a different set of circumstances.

Harding describes the many faces of avant-garde to show that it transforms rather than dies. He details the history of the avant-garde as a whole, whilst acknowledging that it contains subsets, all of which are equally worthy of the designation, despite what avant-garde theorists and rivals say.

In the introductory chapter, Harding sets out his goals and begins to historically analyze the avant-garde, insisting that in order to fully conceive of the avant-garde’s place in history, performance, and cultural criticism one must start as close to a beginning as possible. Bürger‘s major claim was that there is a clear distinction between the historical avant-garde and what he largely dismisses under the category of the neo-avant-garde, which is exactly the kind of traditional definitional thinking Harding aims to destroy.

Harding introduces his argument that avant-garde history is non-linear and has a multiple of avant-gardes that can exist on their own as well as in parallel (though not always in cooperation with) each other. Cleverly using this as a way to set up his position for the rest of the book, Harding leaves the reader with no doubt that the avant-garde is not clear cut or easily defined; indeed that is what makes it avant-garde.

The first chapter is devoted to the messy history of early Parisian avant-garde, especially the public conflicts and the rivalry between the surrealist André Breton, and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, which significantly affected the trajectory that avant-garde took. Expanding on his introductory chapter Harding begins to lay out the foundations of his counter arguments to Bürger that the historical avant-garde is complex and not as solid as we are led to believe. Harding’s use of this public and significant rivalry aids the reader in grasping the concept that nothing in the avant-garde ever dies and nothing about the avant-garde is simple. In fact, Breton’s attempt to ‘kill’ Dada, as detailed by Harding, actually reviving it whilst surrealism developed alongside it. This example verifies Harding’s contention that multiple forms of the avant-garde exist at one time, demonstrating that its history is not so linear and not so easy to break down.

Harding takes us into Bürger’s quickly dismissed ‘neo-avant-garde’, using this chapter to show that the avant-garde is not an easily deconstructed idea. He reclaims ‘neo-avant-garde’ by breaking down its history and renaming it “American hybrid vanguardism”. Without this detailed but at times overly wordy look into the migration of the avant-garde to the United States as well as the historical frame behind the move, readers would not be able to grasp the future chapters of the book.

Harding uses the simple idea that to understand and rectify misconceptions you need to look at what has previously gone wrong and change; starting with the basics. This chapter is one of the most important in the book. It allows the reader to walk into the later chapters with the knowledge that previous highly acclaimed texts on the avant-garde have failed to deal with the Eurocentrism that comes with this field of study (along with a multitude of other sins Harding has set out to correct). He expands on this idea of Eurocentrism in his chapter about transnational performances and the ways in which the cultural colonial politics of the west seep through into the avant-garde performance. By dedicating the first few chapters to stripping back the previous theories of avant-garde and analyzing what is left – in an almost avant-garde way– Harding is able to allow the reader to rethink the avant-garde. He shows that the reason and logic in Bürger’s text too easily dismisses and simplifies the avant-garde.

In the third chapter Harding looks at Andy Warhol, the Living Theatre, and Frankenstein in relation to the authorship. Using these as an entrance into a discussion on the authorship issues surrounding the avant-garde and how various stages of the avant-garde have tackled such issues. Harding lays out the debates surround the ‘artist as author’ and the various positions that influential figures in the avant-garde community have taken. Within this chapter Harding also develops the link between romanticism and the avant-garde, something he notes many historians have failed to give time to.

Harding’s fourth chapter deals with Brechtian aesthetics as a means to discuss the intercultural avant-garde, specifically the issues that unfold in defining what makes a performance avant-garde when it transcends cultures. Within this he notes the problems that come with the intercultural avant-garde in regards to the authority of the performer and intention of the avant-garde performance. The second part of this chapter focuses this look at the cultural avant-garde on Peter Brooks’ The Mahabharata. Harding argues that Brechtian techniques and the political intent of a director should be considered separate from the moment Brechtian aesthetics meet poststructuralism. He puts forward that this is a point that critics frequently miss, that the death (or severing of the author from their work) of the director allows for the real avant-garde performance to be seen.

Chapter Five takes on the transnational history of the avant-garde. Harding puts forward the idea that link between ‘avant-garde’ and the European experimental theatre is a construct rather than a true linear path way. Such a school of thought is Eurocentric and it ignores the existence of similar experimental theatres etc. that could be considered avant-garde, that were present at the same time, just not in Europe.

In the sixth chapter Harding moves towards the future of the avant-garde by discussing nostalgia, globalization and the possibilities available for the contemporary avant-garde. In this chapter he further expands his belief that the avant-garde is still alive and challenging society. Harding calls for his readers to look at the victors in avant-garde and the vanquished in avant-garde and the separation of these two as a way of speaking about the structure and influence of the avant-garde.

In the final chapter Harding ties the chapters together and relates it back to the title of the book. He determines that death never comes to the avant-garde because the ghosts it has are constantly influencing performances. It is this, Harding claims, that keeps the avant-garde alive and breathing today.

Harding takes the reader on a journey from The Trial and Sentencing of Maurice Barrès by Dada, to the significance of Warhol’s Frankenstein, to The Brig by The Living Theatre and how it speaks on a larger societal scale in the 20th Century. He goes into the avant-garde in a fresh and exciting way, speaking on topics previously over looked or purposefully ignored by other scholars, such as transnationalism and the too easily used and under criticized link between the birth of the avant-garde and the romantic period. Harding addresses the issues of the bourgeois patriarchy that exists in the avant-garde, albeit it not as much detail as he could have done, but the reader is made aware of the issues this creates in the avant-garde.

As well researched and detailed as The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s) is, it is not a book that someone new to the field of the avant-garde should go into lightly, if at all. Unfamiliar readers will struggle with this book without a relatively solid understanding of the avant-garde, or a very thorough and handy reference text. Harding’s writing shows a well-versed scholar in the field of the avant-garde and he easily weaves the historic aspects with criticism of the theories he detailed in the introduction as being problematic to the study of avant-garde. His use of the word ‘ghosts’ when describing the avant-garde(s) is a brilliant way of criticizing the past theories of the avant-garde whilst allowing the reader to gain a sense of the rhizomatic, non-linear, conflicting, and overlapping ways avant-garde performances can live, and are seen by some to die and but in fact never do.

He repeatedly uses this metaphor to highlight pitfalls of prior theories of the avant-garde. Harding talks about false ‘truths’ becoming ghosts that haunt the study of the avant-garde. In this book Harding is attempting to exorcise the ghosts of the avant-garde in order to provide a fresh take on avant-garde history and theory, and with this book he succeeds. It is a solid contribution to the rethinking of the avant-garde movement and a richly detailed historical breakdown of the avant-garde.

     — Reviewed by Alexandra Simpson, Texas A&M University

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