Editing Modernism in Canada


November 13, 2014

“everythings too fuckd up today” & the revolution cannot wait: a brief reflection on the political at Avant-Canada

by Eric Schmaltz

Not all delegates of the Avant-Canada conference would necessarily locate themselves under the umbrella term avant-garde since it is, as many critics have pointed out, a contentious, perhaps even outmoded, label with controversial militaristic connotations. However, I find the term useful in articulating a position that is not compliant with the status quo. More pointedly, the term, for me, identifies a radical mode of praxis that seeks fundamental social or political change. Avant-Canada was a meeting place for many of these types of poets, artists, and thinkers.

Continental theorists of the avant-garde such as Renato Poggioli and Matei Calinescu have addressed (with varying degrees of complexity and success) what are generally considered to be the two vectors of the historical avant-garde: 1) the radical political avant-garde, art in the service of social and political ideology; and 2) the aesthetic avant-garde, the belief that liberating artistic and literary form possesses the power to change society. This binary is over-simplified and specious, but it was while I was en-route to Avant-Canada that I wondered which face of the literary and artistic avant-garde I would enjoy over the course of the three-day gathering. Of course, it would be egregious to suggest that the conference reflected any one variant––numerous perspectives on the role of politics in art were situated, from the politically charged lyrics of the dub poets Lillian Allen, d.bi young, and Chet Singh to the more insidious formal experiments of conceptual writers like derek beaulieu and Christian Bök. From my perspective, however, the conference was characterized by a concern for topics of a more radical political interest over aesthetics.

The discussion I was privy to oscillated around topics of injustice, misogyny, and exploitation, among other issues. I am thinking of the timely “killjoy” panel “The Female Future-Garde in Canada” during which the panelists addressed issues of feminism, academia, and community by sharing not only their critical assessments, but their deeply personal narratives of experienced sexism, misogyny, and assault. The discussion was triggering and effectively confrontational––these panelists (whom I deeply admire) recognize, as Lee Maracle does in her essay “Ramparts Hanging in the Air,” that, “Silence is no longer a weapon of resistance.” Instead they vocalize a rightful opposition to the egregious offenses they face as they work to re-shape discourse, develop tactics of resistance, and strategize for the future. The roundtable left me exhausted and, as Julia Polyck-O’Neil has also indicated in her post, feeling “heavy,” but that heaviness, that weight, is something I want to carry with me as I continue to research, write, and organize to remind myself of the ways in which I can and should contribute. And I am also thinking of the dub poets, the cacophony of Jordan Abel’s plundering of Western novels in his performance of Un/Inhabited, the lucid anger of Lee Maracle’s keynote on colonialism and memory as a site of activism, Michael Nardone’s analysis of the sonic/spatial disruptions of the Idle No More Round Dance, and Skawennati’s futurist mini-series TimeTraveller™. Amongst these proceedings was my own presentation – ‘the killing of speech:’ The Sonic-Politics of The Four Horsemen” – which sought to develop a theoretical context that recovers the material and political possibilities of the sound poetry event that some sound poet practitioners have long abandoned.

The political spirit of these happenings is timely amid Canada’s ongoing climate of socio-political tumult, and indicative of a restlessness, discontent, and desire for change. It was a moment of not only broadening political and aesthetic consciousness, but the formation of a network committed to change. While bill bissett, in an apparent moment of disillusionment in 1978, once wrote “th revolushun will have to start tomorrow / everythings too fuckd up today,” Avant-Canada was a crucial interstice that saw the productive collusion of artists,  activists, writers, and thinkers unwilling to wait.

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