From Laboratory to Vivarium

Sophie Seita, Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital

Stanford University Press, 272pp, £23.99, ISBN 9781503608719

reviewed by Douglas Field

What was – or is – the avant-garde? As Sophie Seita discusses in Provisional Avant-Gardes: Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital, ‘it is a label that most scholars of avant-garde work either leave unquestioned or theorize to the point of limiting is application.’ And since, as Seita claims, the term is ‘popularly understood to refer to an individual or group with an anti-establishment attitude, producing stylistically innovative work, often with political aims in mind,’ this has led to ‘a seemingly coherent set of now-canonical and historical avant-garde movements with key players, clear manifestos, and an identifiable style.’  

At the heart of Seita’s project is a rebuttal of the flawed but influential study, Theory of the Avant-garde (1984), in which Peter Bürger distinguishes between the ‘historical avant-garde’ (Dada and early surrealism) and ‘neo-avant-garde’ – art produced after World War Two – which he dismisses as a pale imitation of its predecessor. In Bürger’s pessimistic account, the avant-garde fails, but the neo-avant-garde fails better, since it is guilty of establishing the historical avant-garde as an institution. Whereas the historical avant-garde attacked the institution of art, guided by the aim to merge what Burger describes as art and life praxis, the neo-avant-garde institutionalised avant-garde strategies.

In sharp contrast, Seita argues that ‘we need to instantiate avant-gardism as a contemporary concept, beyond the simple model of the original and its lesser copy.’ Unlike critics who view the avant-garde as an historical period, Seita argues that avant-gardism is provisional and fluid, a phenomenon that can be explained by what she calls ‘proto-forms,’ a way of conceiving ‘avant-gardes as provisional networks of affiliation rather than rigidly demarcated groups, where proto- suggests provisionality and heterogeneity, while form stresses media, genres, and groups.’

Seita’s argument is driven through case studies of little magazines from World War One to the 21st century: proto Dada (1914-1929), proto-conceptual (1965-1975), proto-language and queer new Narrative (1971-89), feminist (1983-2009), concluding with a chapter on contemporary digital magazines (2008-2017). As she rightly notes, little magazines are conspicuously absent from Bürger’s account of the avant-garde. And while a number of influential scholarly works, among them The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Little Magazines, have tracked the important of these publications in the development of global modernism, few scholarly works focus on the 1950s and beyond, despite the proliferation of little magazine and small press publications until the mid-1970s.

In her discussion of four Proto Dada New York magazines – 291 (1915-16), The Blind Man (April-May 1917), Others (1915-1919), and The Little Review (1914-1929), Seita explores how ‘The little magazine . . . became the medium in which experimental typography was developed,’ noting the developments in monotype technology and lithographic offset, which enabled editors and contributors to innovate printing and typesetting. As Seita explains, ‘In 291’s case, it is through attention to typography, layout, and, where available, editing and printing . . . that we understand an avant-garde’s working process as collective,’ a term that Alfred Stieglitz, the magazine’s editor, referred to as ‘laboratories.’

By paying attention to the material and cultural contexts of little magazines, Seita explores ‘the crucial contribution of little magazines to the nascent conceptual art, which gained prominence between approximately 1965 to 1975’ through a reading of 0 to 9, an influential publication edited by Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci. And while Seita claims that ‘Vietnam Assemblage’, published in some/thing (1966) ‘is the only issue with a clearly delineated political program,’ she tracks a political turn in editorial statements in the 1970s, arguing that ‘the little magazine has become a critical-theoretical apparatus.’ Seita’s case studies are largely convincing and compelling but given her emphasis on ‘heterogeneity’ – a term she uses frequently – the little magazine appears somewhat monolithic in her account. During the Mimeograph, or Mimeo Revolution, a frenetic outpouring of little magazine publishing from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, many – but by no means all – little magazines were invested in avant-gardism. And while many little magazines were innovative and iconoclastic, characterised by a leftist political bent, others, such as The New Review, were described by the poet-critic Eric Mottram as ‘the archetypal establishment magazine.’

Little magazines have a long history of side-lining female contributors and editors, particularly during the Mimeograph Revolution. By the 1980s, Seita observes how ‘magazines and forums came to be considered political forms rather than mere receptacles for politics.’ In little magazines such as HOW(ever) (1983-92) and Raddle Moon (1983-2002) readers and contributors created an ‘enduring an trustworthy community’ in which they ‘forged a feminist avant-garde identity that drew on theory and formal experimentation, as well as gender and self-expression, brining theory and identity politics into a productive relation.’

The book’s final chapter examines ‘what it means for an avant-garde to engage inventively with the digital medium today.’ Print, as Seita points out ‘is anything but anachronistic,’ underscored by the plethora of printed publications circulating across the globe. In place of the term ‘post-print,’ Seita offers ‘intermediation,’ a word that acknowledges the coexistence of print and digital technologies. And while some critics have heralded the ascendance of digital media, Seita tracks the ways that ‘printedness can be realized digitally,’ building on the work of critics such as Jerome McGann, who argue for the materiality of electronic texts. The avant-garde magazine, Seita concludes, has evolved from a laboratory into a vivarium in which ‘the reader or “user,” can observe a small ecosystem as it takes place.’

Provisional Avant-Gardes draws on a range of reasonably well known and obscure little magazines in order to argue that these publications reveal how the avant-garde, far from being a historical phenomenon, is continuously evolving. Seita argues that “A new model of avant-garde criticism based on diachronic reading and provisionality allows us to interrogate why a particular notion of avant-gardism as unique, exclusionary, or programmatic remains so popular.’ The book unsettles recalcitrant definitions of avant-gardism, instead offering a model that embraces plurality and provisionality. ‘If we do not safely relegate the avant-garde to a more authentic long-gone past or a utopian future that we will never experience,’ Seita contends, ‘how can we reclaim the avant-garde as contemporary phenomenon that speaks to us as scholars, writers, and readers?’ Seita’s central thesis is compelling but her book stops short of asking whether a new term might be needed in light of how ‘avant-garde’ is bowed down with historical meaning and misunderstanding. As she notes, ‘emergent’ gained currency in the 1980s, an attempt to shrug off the associations with ‘avant-garde’ and to acknowledge non-white, queer, and female voices.

Provisional Avant-Gardes is at the vanguard of scholarship that explores the vibrancy and cultural importance of little magazines. And while Modernist Studies have established the centrality of these publications in the development of global modernism, there is relatively little critical work from the mid-1950s to the present. Notable exceptions include A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing 1960-1980 (1998) and In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955 (2009). Provisional Avant-gardes is an important contribution to the growing field of little magazine scholarship, which highlights the playfulness of some publications, including Acconci’s poem, ‘Act 3, Scene 4,’ for example, in which he published one line of a 350 poem across 350 magazine copies. But while Seita tells us that she inhabits both ‘scholarly and creative world,’ the book remains firmly in the former camp; it’s a shame that her prose doesn’t quite reflect some of the more whimsical aspects of avant-garde little magazines. The book is nonetheless an important contribution to the field of little magazines, and a thought-provoking take on the shifting sands of avant-gardism.

Douglas Field is a senior lecturer in 20th century American literature at the University of Manchester, and author of All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin.