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Making an Example of Duchamp: history, theory, and the question of the avant-garde

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In the "Preliminary Remarks" to his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger states that "the examples from literature and the fine arts to be found here are not to be understood as historical and sociological interpretations but as illustrations of a theory". Debating the Hegelian notions which underpin Bürger's famous account of Dada and early Surrealism – as constituting the theory of the avant-garde – and his disputes with Adorno on this basis, this essay seeks to consider the question of what is at stake, more generally, in the attempt to give examples of the avant-garde in critical and theoretical work. The first concrete "illustration" of Bürger's theory to appear in his book is the work of Marcel Duchamp, and it is indeed hard to think of another figure who has been re-presented, so repeatedly, as the object of a demand to exemplify in this way, by both artists and theorists. Offering a critical reading of several accounts of Duchamp's work, the essay goes on to suggest that thinking this peculiar "exemplarity" necessitates a philosophical recognition of the problematic relationship between general and particular inscribed by the concept of an avant-garde itself, insofar as the demand for non-identity (to tradition), which its implicit temporal dynamic articulates, suggests that any example of the avant-garde would have to be marked, not by its repetition of some feature common to all possible examples, but precisely by its lack of any "determinate" commonality. In this way, the essay seeks to ask several questions about what we conventionally mean by "avantgarde", and suggests the limitations inherent within prevailing "art-historical" theorisations of the avant-garde as a collection of period "styles" or "techniques". The essay concludes by arguing that a contemporary response to Duchamp (or to Dada) is not compelled to be a nostalgic mourning for an irrecoverable lost object, but may, in its engagement with the question of an avant-garde, produce (as certain contemporary practices suggest) a repressed futural potential within the present. It is in these terms that the "ex-emplification" of Duchamp should be re-thought: not as the "model" for a repetition of fixed, empirically locatable strategies or techniques, but as "exemplifying" an im-manent logic of non-identity which demands a continual "renewal" of a critical art's relation to social forms and relations other to those with which the category of an avant-garde has previously been confronted.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 15, 2006

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