The New Work of Composing

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Born and the Literary Avant-Garde

To begin, a quote from Gabriel-Désiré Laverdant, De la mission de l'art et du role des artistes:

Art, the expression of society, manifests, in its highest soaring, the most advanced social tendencies: it is the forerunner and the revealer. Therefore, to know whether art worthily fulfills its proper mission as initiator, whether the artist is truly of the avant-garde, one must know where Humanity is going, know what the destiny of the human race is. . . ." (qtd. in Renato Poggioli 9).

Laverdant's quote is ambitious, and perhaps naïve: We don't know how likely it is that a single individual could accurately predict the direction of Humanity, but what is useful about his quote is the way it presents a now-familiar distinction to us between "the old art" and "the new art" that is central to an understanding of an avant-garde. As you may guess, the avant-garde is an artistic position that declares itself to be new in contrast to what's come before it, which becomes the old. In the theory of the avant-garde, the old art is traditional, academic, and classical. The new art tends to be, in contrast, the unconventional, the political, and the new or experimental.

The avant-garde is, according to Massimo Bontempelli, "an exclusively modern discovery, born only when art began to contemplate itself from a historical viewpoint" (qtd. in Poggioli 14). In The Theory of the Avant-Garde, Renato Poggioli maintains that "[i]t is still true that both sides, paradoxically, continue the discussion with the tacit presupposition that always . . . there has been the same hostile relation, the same conflict, between new art and old art" (13).

To continue examining the avant-garde as it relates to Born and literary art forms on the Web, Poggioli suggests that avant-garde movements begin with two possible attitudes: that of activism or that of antagonism (26). One key element, "activism," is "the spirit of adventure," the active looking forward into the future, an attempt to greet the future head-on and help bring it to the contemporary time; "antagonism" is the "the spirit of sacrifice," that is, the active looking to the immediate past and reacting against it, a sort of reactionary rejection of the past as inadequate to express the contemporary or the future (131). Of these two poses, we believe that Born most closely resembles that of activism in its looking forward into new ways to explore the territory of new media to incorporate them into the literary realm.

This endeavor truly resembles one of the key features of the avant-garde, that is, the incorporation of something originally "non-literary" into literature—and in Born's case, as in many other historical avant-gardes, the "non-literary" aspect of society being used is that of new technology. Poggioli notes, "The experimental aspect of avant-garde art is manifested not only in depth, within the limits of a given art form, but also in breadth, in the attempts to enlarge the frontiers of that form or to invade other territories, to the advantage of one or both of the arts" (133).

This "enlarging frontiers" extends to the specific techniques of the avant-garde playing out in Born's multimedia works. For example, Mallarme, the French symbolist poet, was the first to outline the "theory of typographical emphasis," in which the manipulation of fonts became a necessary feature of the work and caught the reader by surprise by evading usual print-medium expectations (133). Apollinaire added to this what he called "visual lyricism: a graphic-figurative correspondence between the manuscript or printed poem and the sense or imagery of that poem" (134). Another hallmark of the avant-garde is the incorporation of synesthesia—the marriage of two senses or two sensory experiences in a literary work, as in Baudelaire's "Correspondence" or Rimbaud's "Voyelles" (133).

These three qualities are seen everywhere in Born's work. One of our early favorite examples, Story Problem, points most strongly to a new interactive poetics. The typographical emphasis becomes synesthetic as the reader must interact with the screen to call up the poem as sound—however, as musical notes rather than language. The typographic presentation of the poem plays with its orality without interfering or needing to create an actual voice.

Another early example, Blue Madonna, reveals synesthetic correspondence in play as the poem's lines become a visual segmentation of the central image, creating a complex relationship with the visual lyricism and the poem's theme of cross-cultural separation and fusion.

More recently, the visual lyricism and typographical emphasis incorporated in the interpretation of Outrances recalls Drucker's examination of typography and the avant-garde's "blurring of the line between forms and sites of so-called high art and the forms and situations of mass media; a muddying of distinctions between image and language" (91-92). In Born's collaboration of "Outrances," the "high art" of poetry melds with the graphic correspondence and typographic emphasis of the poem's musical subject(s).

When we present these ideas to audiences uneasy with bells-and-whistles, we do so out of a desire to contextualize the "new" within literary history, but also because we are excited that multimedia technology allows the realization of so many of these "old" ideas. These concepts are not historical artifact but perhaps key questions that literary arts have never fully resolved.

Finally, the 20th century avant-garde displays aspects of what is called "technicism," that is, the imprint of the creative and spiritual realm onto technology so as to react against the dehumanization of the purely mechanical or technological (Poggioli 138). We think this is worth pondering, because in general, our culture is humanizing technology at an accelerating pace: Think of the way cell phones, email, laptops, social networking sites, blogs, and other forms of communication technology are marketed to and incorporated by our culture. We are living in a post-Romantic time, where we can no longer simply rebel against the dehumanization of technology, because it's clearly not going away. That being the case, it is an interesting study to look at the ways our culture tries to incorporate technology in productive (and we would emphasize artistic) rather than in ominous ways.

Born is not a reactionary or antagonistic venue; rather it is conceived from what we would call the "activist" or adventurous side of the theory of the avant-garde: That is, this new technology exists and is rapidly manifesting itself into every aspect of our daily lives, inviting artistic exploration, and clearly providing means of collaboration and genre melding that previously were infeasible (if not unimaginable). To our detriment or success, Born has been a motley combination of the two kinds of art: the old and the new. Born's role in the composition of multimedia poetry is the practice of carrying the old into the new. Born doesn't strike us as part of the debate around the possible end of the printed page, any more than the wheel makes irrelevant the shoe, but it does seem relevant to consider what forms of literary arts may arise from these new technologies. So while we regard Born's work as an endeavor separate from the page, we are as curious as anyone how new media will shape our future conceptions of literary arts.

Author notes: Anmarie Trimble, Born's editor, and Jennifer Grotz, contributing editor, are part of the volunteer community that created Born.

Works Cited

  • Drucker, Johanna. The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1994.
  • McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. Palgrave: New York, 2001.
  • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London, New York: Methuen & Co, 1982.
  • Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Gerald Ritzgerald. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1968.

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