Violence and avant-garde notes

January 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is un-composed, but have been thinking a lot about avant-gardism, its militaristic aspects and modernism, newness, Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the inversion of market and  the temporality or, as Benjamin says, the philosophy of the violence’s history.  Avant-gardism attends what initially seems a “mythic violence,” rather than “divine violence” the myth being the construction of the necessity for the narrative of law’s establishment, or the formation of law-making forces as opposed to law-preserving forces.  

At the end of his “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin writes:

On the breaking of this cycle [a dialectical rising and falling of law-making and law-preserving violence] maintained by mythical forms of law, on the suspension of law with all  the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally on the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded.  If the rules of myth is broken occasionally in the present age, the coming age is not so unimaginably remote that an attack on law is altogether futile.  But if the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, is assured, this furnishes the proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible and by what means.  Less possible and also less urgent for humankind, however, is to decide when unalloyed violence has been realized in particular cases.  For only mythical violence, not divine, will be recognizable as such with certainty, unless it be in incomparable effects, because the expiatory power of violence is not visible to men.  Once again all eternal forms are open to divine violence, which myth bastardized with law. It may manifest itself in a true war exactly as in the divine judgment of the multitude on the criminal. (300)

Which reminds of Agamben’s works on Homo sacer, which is to me an academic and aesthetic study of The Hanged Man in Tarot:

ImageBut  let me finish with Benjamin.  He ends his essay: But all mythical, lawmaking violence, which we may call executive, is pernicious.  Pernicious too, is the law-preserving, administrative violence that serves it. Divine violence, which is the sign and seal but never the means of sacred execution, may be called sovereign violence.


Right here is so much of the thrust behind the recent moves toward Political Theology among certain academics. Divine violence is the violence that “reigns over”…the violence Blanchot meditates on in The Writing of the Disaster. 

To what sovereign is the avant-garde in allegiance?

The tension, to me, is between the inherent violence of avant-garde and the enchantment (or re-enchantment) of the occult and New Thought.  This tension is central to understanding the Psychedelic.  The intentional return to nature, to the pre-political that acts not just romantically but as an invocation of the Romantic period’s history of violence.  

One must put the violence of the avant-garde in the context of Kenneth Anger’s films, the occultism of Crowley, and the religion of the Manson Family.  I’ve been reading the memoir of Ed Sanders, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side.  Sanders also wrote a book a few years back on the Manson Family.  I see Sanders’ political and poetic tactics as re-enchantment along the lines of Robert Duncan’s poetry, the open field poetics of Charles Olson, and the New York School.  For good reasons, the feel of different works get separated into various contingents, what’s so nice about books like Sanders’ is the way they show a massive intersection of artists, activists and religion.  For some reason, the avant-garde in New York here is often more discursively separated from the European avant-garde and separated from the Day-Glo west-coasters than is the case with how art and ideas move.  

Undoubtedly, the bluesy Texas psych bands like 13th Floor Elevators and Sir Douglas Quintet take something different to San Francisco than the pre-glam glam in L.A. of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito brothers who invoke a Harry Smith-inspired folkiness.  Undoubtedly, New York sounds and feels different with the Fugs and The Velvet Underground — always cooler, more intellectual seeming, more performed irony and less jouissance and carnivalesque.   Much of the carnivalesque comes from the UK, where pre-WWII nostalgia looks and sounds different –you hear this in George Martin’s comedic influences on the Beatles and especially in Ray Davies’ turns to Music Hall textures.  In the Kinks, particularly the bridges to songs, Ray Davies often uses R&B texture to code authentic critiques of commercial and middle-class culture.  These differences are important, but what makes up the psychedelic overarches it.    

The connections between German philosophy and American artists and activism in the 1960s.  We hear of Joan Baez playing in Paul Tillich’s apartment, and of course Marcuse is a big figure with One-Dimensional Man.  The commercialization of the psychedelic movement was being written about as it was happening.  It becomes hard to distinguish what “happened,” as many people who lived through it will tell you, and yet it is like Benjamin says: “Less possible and also less urgent for humankind, however, is to decide when unalloyed violence has been realized in particular cases.”  We could apply this phrase to 1968 in general and move on to analyses of the works that continued to move throughout the past 50 years.  Here’s an example: 

Laurie Anderson uses Benjamin’s Angel of History in her song “Progress.”

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