Isidore Isou’s Venom and Eternity – A Bakhtinian Perspective

In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin emphasizes the importance of laughter in the popular-festive tradition. He asserts that narrow-minded seriousness cannot coexist with Rabelaisian images, which “are opposed to all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready-made solution in the sphere of thought and world outlook” (3). It follows that film comedy, of all cinematic genres, is the one that most obviously lends itself to Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque.

However, the subversion and grotesquerie that Bakhtin identifies in Rabelais is equally present in the experimental works of the avant-garde, albeit at the expense of accessibility to the masses. Robert Stam writes:

In the modernist period, the carnivalesque ceases to be a collective cleansing ritual open to all “the people” to become the monopoly of a marginalized caste. Carnival, in this modified and somewhat hostile form, is present in the outrageousness of Dada, the provocations of surrealism, in the travesty-revolts of Genet’s The Maids or The Blacks, and indeed in the avant-garde generally. (169)

This “somewhat hostile form” often takes shape within cinema as works that subvert the conventions of traditional film continuity. In Isidore Isou’s 1951 film Traité de bave et d’éternité (or Venom and Eternity), the dominant carnivalesque strategy is not laughter, but negation, specifically the negation of the image.

Isou was the founder of Lettrism, a French avant-garde movement devoted to creativity and originality above all else. Begun as a one-man movement, Lettrism gained a following of disciples, indeed qualifying it as a “marginalized caste.” Isou identified two kinds of phases in the history of poetry: the “amplique” phase, characterized by innovation and growth; and, following the exhaustion of creative possibilities, the deconstructive “ciselante” (or “chiseling”) phase. The latter reduced poetry to its simplest elements, from poetic form to verse to word to sound pattern to nonsense, and finally with Lettrism, to the letter (Kaufmann 83).

By 1950, Isou felt that cinema had exhausted its own creative possibilities, and he set out to initiate a chiseling phase, a “willful accumulation of errors” that he labeled “discrepant cinema.” By showing only footage that is not related to the soundtrack narration, and by debasing the image in various ways–painting directly onto the film stock, bleaching out people’s heads, scratching the film emulsion, flipping images upside down and playing them in reverse–Isou breaks the connection between image and language, the latter of which he considers more important to the evolution of cinema.

Although the title of Isou’s film is commonly translated into English as Venom and Eternity, a more literal translation is Treatise on Slime and Eternity, which accurately describes the film: it is a treatise arguing for a new form of cinema, but it is also a fictional narrative assembled in the proposed cinematic form. It deals with destruction as a necessary step toward reinvention; the “venom” or “slime” of the title connotes the negative (slime being a low, disgusting thing) as well as the positive (in the sense that life emerged from the “primordial slime”).

The film (henceforth Venom and Eternity) is divided into three chapters–“The Principle”, “The Development”, and “The Proof.” “The Principle” is a manifesto delivered by Isou in the guise of an ostensibly fictional character named Daniel. Daniel differs from Isou in name only: like Isou, Daniel is the founder of Lettrism, and he seeks to make the film that Isou has already made with Venom and Eternity. Though Isou eschews direct address in his narration, opting to present himself only as a fictional character, he appears onscreen throughout the first chapter, swaggering around the streets of St. Germain des Prés and staring directly into the camera. As will be seen in further examples, the image of Isou as Daniel is self-reflexive while the narration is not.

Daniel is heard delivering his manifesto inside a film club, where an audience jeers at him and shouts epithets. The essence of Daniel’s speech is the Rabelaisian concept that cinema must be destroyed in order to be created anew: “In Rabelais’ novel [Gargantua] the image of death is devoid of all tragic or terrifying overtones. Death is the necessary link in the process of the people’s growth and renewal. It is the ‘other side’ of birth” (Bakhtin 407). The destruction of the old and birth of the new world is precisely the object of celebration in Carnival–hence negation as a carnivalesque strategy, and the one favored by Isou.

The negation of the image does not translate to the nonexistence of the image. Though Isou wants cinema to be rooted in language, at one point asking why cinema shouldn’t become a species of radio, he rarely deprives the audience of any image whatsoever. Instead, in a manner reminiscent of Alfred Jarry, he uses discontinuity to provoke and offend the public, or in Isou’s case, to offend cinephiles who are optimistic about the future of film (Stam 8). In so doing, he turns cinema on its head, not just figuratively but literally as well, when he flips the image upside down. Bakhtin writes:

That which stands behind negation is by no means nothingness but the ‘other side’ of that which is denied, the carnivalesque upside down. Negation reconstructs the image of the object and first of all modifies the topographical position in space of the object as a whole, as well as of its parts. It transfers the object to the underworld, replaces the top by the bottom, or the front by the back, sharply exaggerating some traits at the expense of others. Negation and destruction of the object are therefore their displacement and reconstruction in space. The nonbeing of an object is its ‘other face,’ its inside out. And this inside out or lower stratum acquires a time element; it may be conceived as the past, the obsolete, or the nonexistent. The object that has been destroyed remains in the world but in a new form of being in time and space; it becomes the ‘other side’ of the new object that has taken place.” (410)

Isou’s literal modification of topographical position, a cinematic rendering of a world upside down, is characteristic of a downward movement that is found in both popular-festive merriment as well as grotesque realism, manifested in Rabelais as a movement toward both an earthly and bodily underworld: “Down, inside out, vice versa, upside down, such is the direction of all these movements. All of them thrust down, turn over, push headfirst, transfer top to bottom, and bottom to top, both in the literal sense of space, and in the metaphorical meaning of the image” (Bakhtin 370). Later in Venom and Eternity, Daniel predicts that his film shall be “like hell composed of circles,” circles comprising the things he holds dearest. A descent into the lower depths is thus ennobled, and the “completed, perfect quality” of existing films is denounced in a carnivalesque subversion of the traditional hierarchy of film practice.

Throughout his speech to the film club, Daniel makes a series of hyperbolic and exaggerated statements: “I like the Cinema when it is insolent and behaves as it shouldn’t”; “Everything that has existed is bad”; “One must go beyond the image and attack the film stock”; “I want to make a film that hurts your eyes”; “I would rather give you a migraine than nothing at all.” He concludes that those to whom he is addressing his manifesto are “a bunch of idiots.” One of those in attendance, a character named “The Stranger,” later defends Daniel with additional hyperbole:

By destroying the image, Daniel splits the image, makes it more intelligent than an ordinary image, because a destructive image is superior to an ordinary image. Else it could not destroy it. One must be stronger and superior to someone to beat him. Therefore, your film will be the most interesting in the history of cinema.

At one point in the film, Daniel states: “I know that my film is above all existing films today. I myself am above my own film.” Such conceit seems absurdly exaggerated, and is not likely tongue-in-cheek considering Isou’s reputation for megalomania (Kaufmann 81). In Bakhtin’s terms, however, the aforementioned statements are compatible with the grotesque style of the carnivalesque tradition, of which he considers exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness to be fundamental attributes (303).

Isou ends the first chapter with a title that reads, “I hope you’ll find the second part more fun.” This seemingly self-deprecating remark presupposes that the audience has not been enjoying the film up to this point. It also addresses the audience directly from the perspective of the author; this occurs frequently in the titles that appear throughout the film, but as mentioned before, it is only when there is no spoken narration in conjunction with the onscreen text: the soundtrack is limited to the world of the diegesis. The key characteristic that makes the second chapter “more fun”–that is to say, more accessible from a narrative standpoint, in spite of the continued discrepancy of the image–is the love story it introduces. The banality of this love story becomes the subject of self-reflexive commentary, but without ever disrupting the spoken narrative.

According to the credits preceding “The Development”, the character of Eve is portrayed by Colette Garrigue. When Eve is introduced in the narrative, a woman is shown onscreen, but a credit title identifies her as Blanchette Brunoy, not Colette Garrigue. This self-reflexive visual tactic foregrounds the discrepancy between sound and image, specifically between the dual portrayals of Eve. The narrator states that Eve’s bearing is “that of a wicked empress, a marble as cold as a sculptural image of War,” but Brunoy appears cheerful and radiant. As the narrator proceeds to chronicle Daniel and Eve’s relationship at length, footage is shown of Isou and Brunoy walking arm in arm, as if to supplement the banal subject matter formulating the narrative. However, these images are joined in the chapter by far less congruous footage—manipulated images of men on a boat, a dog, people skiing–which reinforces the film’s aesthetic of sound-image discrepancy.

In the midst of his romance with Eve, Daniel recalls a previous girlfriend, Denise, with whom he had shared a sadomasochistic relationship:

He left his teethmarks upon her, and she bore black and blue marks, like his rubber stamp of jealous ownership. He despoiled her…he used her money. “Does she love me beyond her needs, beyond her daily bread?” And he broke her, he tore her to feel himself within her. He ravaged her to make himself unforgettable. He installed himself within her.

Aside from distancing the film’s protagonist from audiences who would traditionally align themselves to his desires, Daniel’s cataloguing of abusive behavior betrays his own need for acceptance: “Does she love me beyond her needs, beyond her daily bread?” There is ambivalence in the imagery of abuse that echoes Bakhtin, who relates the connection between abuse and praise in the language of the Rabelaisian marketplace to the carnivalesque connection between death and rebirth:

The popular-festive language of the marketplace abuses while praising and praises while abusing. It is a two-faced Janus. It is addressed to the dual-bodied object, to the dual-bodied world (for this language is always universal); it is directed at once to the dying and to what is being generated, to the past that gives birth to the future. Either praise or abuse may prevail, but the one is always on the brink of passing into the other. Praise implicitly contains abuse, is pregnant with abuse, and vice versa abuse is pregnant with praise. . . . Praise and abuse may be aligned or divided among private voices, but in the whole they are fused into ambivalent unity. (415-416)

In Venom and Eternity, there is ambivalent unity in the self-deprecating remarks that contradict Isou’s self-aggrandizement; in the appeal to destroy cinema in order for it to evolve; and in the decision to introduce a new form of cinema via something as familiar as a love story.

A moment late in the film sheds some light on Isou’s motivation for centering his narrative on Daniel’s romantic escapades, when the character named “The Stranger” tells Daniel the following: “You will show images to draw attention to words. You could even tell a love story to remind one, in the shelter of that story, of another love, a rarer, more precious love.” The second chapter ends with scrolling credits offering a more cynical and more likely explanation:

The author of this picture, Jean-Isidore Isou, wrote this chapter during a spell of poisonous tenderness resembling that of the girls who emerge from his room with an ‘I love you’ meant for no one, and bursting with desire like a fruit into which no one will ever bite, so monstrous does it seem at a distance. But upon reading these lines over, on a day of love super-saturation, he found this entire chapter insipid. However, the author knows that people go to the movies to swallow their weekly Saturday night dose of tenderness. And though they don’t give a hoot about the story, they retell it in the hope of a deserved success. The author does not care for this type of legend, because these are questions of personal taste. Only systems where form goes beyond story are of interest to him.

Again, Isou identifies himself as the author, not within the voiceover narrative but through intertitles. He no longer merely expresses hope that the viewer will find the material that follows “more fun” than what preceded it; now, he outright dismisses the second chapter as “insipid,” as if to vindicate himself by self-reflexively distancing his narrative from precisely the category of stories to which it belongs. Thus, abuse and praise are fused into ambivalent unity.

“The Proof” begins with Daniel and Eve attending a Lettrist poetry recital. The theory of Lettrism developed by Isou prior to making Venom and Eternity called for the negation of articulate language, and it “challenged the false appearance of communication demanded by the power structure” (Kaufmann 176). Just as Venom and Eternity negates the image, not by eliminating its existence entirely but by defacing it, so does Lettrist poetry negate language, not with silence, but with an absolute and external form of noncommunication, expressed as gibberish. One may find similarity in Bakhtin’s description of a popular form of comic speech during the Middle Ages, the “coq-a-l’ane” (“from rooster to ass”):

This is a genre of intentionally absurd verbal combinations, a form of completely liberated speech that ignores all norms, even those of elementary logic. . . . It is as if words had been released from the shackles of sense, to enjoy a play period of complete freedom and establish unusual relationships among themselves. (Bakhtin 422-3)

Like the coq-a-l’ane, Lettrist poetry is a form of carnivalesque language. Its challenge to “the false appearance of communication demanded by the power structure” is a challenge to the hierarchy of social practices and norms, as Robert Stam explains: “The linguistic corollary of carnivalization entails the liberation of language from the norms of decency and etiquette. Carnivalesque language is designed to degrade all that is spiritual and abstract; it transfers the ideal to a brute material level” (169). In Lettrist poetry, the other side of the abuse of language is the praise of the letter. Isou states that the poems “were composed solely for the beauty of pure noise, for the harmony of outcry.” However, in reverence to narrative conventions, the poems recited in Venom and Eternity are presented as part of the film’s fictional scenario.

The viewer is told that Daniel and Eve “let themselves drift into the orbit of Lettrist folly.” For a film in which Lettrism and its founder are lavished with bombastic praise, it bears notice that Lettrist poetry is described here as “folly.” In fact, the word carries greater ambivalence than its negative connotation may suggest, as Bakhtin explains:

It has the negative element of debasement and destruction (the only vestige now is the use of ‘fool’ as a pejorative) and the positive element of renewal and truth. Folly is the opposite of wisdom–inverted wisdom, inverted truth. It is the other side, the lower stratum of official laws and conventions, derived from them. (Bakhtin 260)

Isou evokes the notion of inverted wisdom when he states in the narration that Daniel would be “an exotic fool to all imbeciles.” As Bakhtin writes of the clown: “he is king of a world ‘turned inside out’” (370).

Daniel is prepared to counter criticism of his willfully accumulated errors with the argument that there are no perfect works. For Isou, cinema is in a perpetual state of incompletion. Referencing two figures of the Enlightenment, Eve tells Daniel:

All images are equally indifferent. Madame de Charriere told Benjamin Constant that God existed but died during the creation of this unfinished world, that the universe you see is but the scaffolding of a never-to-be-completed universe. Similarly, the Cinema shall never again be what it used to be. If I follow you correctly, Daniel, according to you the God of the Cinema is dead.

Cinema, then, is an embodiment of the grotesque realism that informs the carnivalesque. Bakhtin writes: “The grotesque body, as we have often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body” (317). This other body, the one of Isou’s film, is incomplete in yet another fashion, as the viewer eventually learns from the author’s intertitles: his film was originally four and a half hours long.

The remainder of Venom and Eternity finds Daniel growing tired of Eve and rejecting her, after which she goes insane and is deported. A sense of circularity arises from the fact that Daniel will proceed to make Venom and Eternity, the film that Isou has already made, and which has now reached its end. In spite of such inferred self-awareness and the subversion of the traditional “happy ending,” the spoken narration never demonstrates explicit self-reflexivity, instead remaining as linear and free of disruption as the traditional Hollywood-style narrative. Isou only inserts himself indirectly by having fictional characters express his proclamations for him. Visually, however, the film is rarely anything but self-reflexive, given the centrality of destroyed images to Isou’s aesthetic. It is as if there are two narrational modes, the aural and the visual, and only in the latter may the viewer find examples of carnivalesque self-reflexivity. In its totality, Isou’s film engages in authorial intrusion, most obviously when he incorporates himself into intertitles; however, the discrepancy between sound and image allows the fictional scenario to proceed on its own course without any such intrusion.

Venom and Eternity is a treatise within a fictional narrative, in the sense that Isou’s fictional counterpart, Daniel, serves as the mouthpiece for Isou’s theory of “discrepant cinema.” However, it is also a fictional narrative within a treatise, since Daniel’s story is surrounded by a self-reflexive framework of authorial address, manifested in intertitles. These intertitles are not read by Isou, and therefore never intrude on the diegetic sound world; instead they reside within the discrepant visual realm of “chiseled photography.” Consider the following, which appears early in the film as intertitles directly from the author:

In an era where everyone is concerned with beautiful photography, the point here is to destroy the image. By destroying the object of painting, Picasso gave a new purpose to painting. That is why the painters of colored picture post-cards are failures. On the other hand, we have been able, for the first time in the annals of the Cinema, to complete a scenario independent in itself, without being forced to intercut it with “visual elements.” Therefore, an attentive spectator will be able to hear the most beautiful scenario in the history of the Cinema.

Even disregarding the hyperbole of the last sentence, it is questionable whether Isou truly achieves what he claims to have achieved. While his scenario is independent in itself, being limited only to soundtrack narration, he makes his assertion regarding “visual elements” through the visual element of onscreen text. Less questionable, however, is the place that Venom and Eternity holds, within both avant-garde cinema as well as the Bakhtinian tradition of the carnivalesque. The latter, often linked to comic genres, bears equal relevance to the subversions of the avant-garde.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. 1968. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1984.

Kaufmann, Vincent. Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP.

Stam, Robert. Reflexivity in Film and Literature. 1985. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

Traité de bave et d’éternité. Dir. Isidore Isou. 1951. DVD. Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954. Kino International Corporation, 2007.


In the Avant-Garde Cinema a Parasitic Paradoxical Parody Sometimes Develops: Tendency-Wit in the Films of Owen Land

Wide Angle Saxon (1975)

In Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud distinguishes between “harmless” wit, or humor that evokes sympathetic laughter, and “tendency-wit,” a more hostile form of comedy that targets its subject with derisive laughter (Abrams 382). One finds tendency-wit in the satirical works of artists inhabiting the avant-garde. Renato Poggioli writes that the task of avant-gardism is “to struggle against articulate public opinion, against traditional and academic culture, against the bourgeois intelligentsia” (123). Bearing that in mind, it’s not surprising to encounter avant-garde films that employ the weapon of tendency-wit against mainstream culture and commercial cinema. Specifically, Hollywood is the target of derision in such early experimental works as James Sibley Watson’s Tomatos Another Day (1930), which mocks the redundant uses of sound employed in early talkies. More generally, however, one finds in avant-garde film a subversive and parodic approach to conventional notions of causality and temporal sequence; one example from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) is the use of title cards that arbitrarily denote “Once upon a time,” “Eight years later” and “Sixteen years earlier.”

Such expressions of disengagement from mainstream practice are characteristic of what Poggioli describes as the “alienation” of the avant-garde. He asserts that an avant-garde can only exist in a liberal-democratic, bourgeois-capitalistic society, and that art which declares itself antidemocratic and antibourgeois pays involuntary homage to the society it negates. Further, he states that the avant-garde is “wrong in blaming its isolation on the single type of society in which that isolation has become necessary and possible” (119). In its struggle against public opinion and conformity, the avant-garde forms its own social order, a specific culture in opposition to a general one.  It is here that the institutionalization of the avant-garde makes possible a culture of negation within the avant-garde—in other words, artists begin to emerge who feel alienated within the institutionalized avant-garde, and they turn a satirical eye upon it.

In film, there have been few instances of such critiques; notable early examples include Even—As You and I (1937), a mockery of Surrealist film by Roger Barlow, Harry Hay, and LeRoy Robbins; and The Hearts of Age (1934) by William Vance and Orson Welles, conceived as a parody of Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet. P.Adams Sitney writes that Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) is a parodic inversion of the avant-garde dream tradition (349). However, the avant-garde filmmaker whose work consistently takes a critical stance toward avant-garde cinema is George Landow, otherwise known as Owen Land.

Land’s films, typically categorized as structural films, contain numerous references to other avant-garde films, including several of his own. By using parody and self-parody, Land provided a humorous contrast to the seriousness of the theorists and academics who insist on avant-garde film as an institution. In so doing, he maintained an ongoing cinematic dialogue with the avant-garde film community, which he judged as equal to the mainstream culture in its susceptibility to fashions and trends.

His references to other filmmakers are not always obvious. One striking image that appears in his film Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970), then reappears in New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976), is that of a running man with the text “This is a Film About You—Not About Its Maker.” (In New Improved Institutional Quality, the running man appears as an alien, a visual gag that echoes Poggioli’s notion of the alienated avant-garde artist.)

Land explained the image as follows:

The films of Deren and her contemporaries were about their makers, the personal, poetic/lyrical (highly subjective) cinema. This filmmaker in 1970, running uphill in the Sierra Nevada mountains, needs to distance himself from the lyrical cinema and from its centres [sic] in New York City and San Francisco. He borrows a Big Lie from advertising: This is a film about you, not about its maker. (Land 86)

In referencing his own contemporaries, Land was less oblique. Wide Angle Saxon (1975) contains a film-within-a-film that parodies Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971). Michael Snow, who narrated Frampton’s film, also narrates Regrettable Redding Condescension (whose title is a play on Land’s own Remedial Reading Comprehension), directed by the fictional Al Rutcurts, whose name is an anagram of “structural”:


Since 1966, I have been filming the process of pouring red paint on a wide variety of objects. A few weeks ago, I felt an urge to film another object being covered with red paint. What I believe I see recorded in that piece of film fills me with such fear, such utter dread and loathing, that I think I shall never dare to make another film again. Here it is…

An electric hotplate, shot from above, is covered in dried red paint.


Look at it. Do you see what I see?

Silence. More red paint is poured from a bucket over the hot plate. It starts to bubble and steam as it heats up. Image fades to black.

Shot of cinema audience applauding the film.

Land chose to parody (nostalgia) because of his disappointment with conceptual art and the conceptual tendency, and because he felt Frampton’s film was hindered by its over-conceptualization (Land 105). Land’s film-within-a-film, in edging Frampton’s idea closer to absurdity, achieves the ironic incongruity and satiric impulse that characterize the parody mode (Harries 6). Interestingly, in Visionary Cinema Sitney identifies Land, Snow and Frampton as the “severe ironists” of structural film (431).

Tendency-wit is not only a technique utilized by Land, it’s also referenced directly in his film On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist be Wholed? (1979). The film was conceived after Land read Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious: “I was struck by the fact that Freud keeps citing marriage broker jokes. They’re the only jokes that he uses as examples, and they’re bad jokes! Freud didn’t have any good material. He would have bombed in Las Vegas” (107-8). The film’s many references to Freud’s marriage broker jokes are particularly amusing in light of the influence that Freud had on the avant-garde “tradition.” Land’s film consists, among other things, of two people in panda costumes discussing avant-garde film:


What game are we going to play tonight?


We each have to tell one marriage broker joke, and then pretend we are avant-garde filmmakers making a film about marriage broker jokes.


What’s a “structural film”?


That’s easy, everybody knows what a structural film is. It’s when engineers’ [sic] design an aeroplane, or bridge, and they build a model to find out if it will fall apart too soon. The film shows where all the stresses are. (Land 54)

On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed? (1979)

The first panda goes on to mention how “more avant-garde filmmakers are using animals in their films these days” (54). In addition to such self-reflexive statements, the absurd remark that “everybody knows what a structural film is,” and the false definition that follows, highlight the confusing and impractical nature of the term “structural film.”

Shortly before Marriage Broker Joke ends, a character recites some text from Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious:

The object of attack by wit may equally well be institutions, persons, in so far as they may act as agents of these, moral or religious precepts, or even philosophies of life which enjoy so much respect that they can be challenged in no other way than under the guise of a witticism, and one veiled by a façade at that. No matter how few the themes upon which tendency-wit may play, its forms and investments are manifold…(Land 74-75)

George Landow, a.k.a. Owen Land (1944-2011).

The avant-garde, a culture of stylistic dissent and a philosophy of life for some, is nevertheless occasionally threatened by an institutional quality. Fortunately, there are filmmakers who use tendency-wit as a weapon against the conformity of institutionalization. Owen Land was such a filmmaker.


Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. Glossary of Literary Terms. 9th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.Freud, Sigmund. Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1916.

Harries, Dan. Film Parody. London: BFI, 2000.

Land, Owen. Two Films by Owen Land. Ed. Mark Webber. London: LUX, 2005.

Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.

We Have Never Been Avant-Garde

Bruno Latour

We Have Never Been Modern.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour identifies the distinction between nature and society that characterizes modernist thought. He claims that such thought ignores the hybridization that is always occurring between science, society, and discourse. Latour speaks little on the subject of art, leaving one to wonder whether modernism as an artistic movement is necessarily tied to the idea of modernity in social sciences. In any case, parallels may be drawn between the targets of Latour’s criticism and historical movements within the arts that have been labeled modernism, postmodernism, and the avant-garde. Modernism and postmodernism have easy corollaries in Latour’s text, but the avant-garde, which emerged as a challenge to modernism in the arts, poses a dilemma. Does its stated goal of deinstitutionalizing art and radically integrating it with life align the avant-garde ideologically with Latour?

Salvador Dali's 1972 ad for the Datsun 610 Wagon.

Salvador Dali’s 1972 ad for the Datsun 610 Wagon.


Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern takes a revisionist approach to social modernity that translates well to an interpretation of modernism in art. His text explores modernity’s division between nature and culture; he argues that the separation between these two realms, a process by which the West is “modernized” and made distinct from other pre-modern cultures, leads only to a proliferation of nature-culture hybrids, matters that blur the distinction between the real, the social, and the discursive. For us to be modern, there could be no link between purification (the act of separating nature from culture) and hybridization. For Latour, the link does exist, so we are not modern.

Modern art follows what Latour calls the modern constitution; in other words, modernist art “develops out of high culture but is sharply critical, even deconstructive, of certain high-culture values” (Naremore 9), and it is aware of its position in history. Just as modernist art is borne out of modernity, so is postmodern art borne out of postmodernity. Latour is highly critical of postmodernity, dismissing it as “a symptom, not a fresh solution. It lives under the modern Constitution, but it no longer believes in the guarantees the Constitution offers” (46).

It is easy to surmise from Latour’s conclusions on modernity and postmodernity the position that he would take on modern and postmodern art movements. However, a crucial transition occurred between those movements. The avant-garde—that is, the series of early-twentieth-century movements that Peter Bürger named the “historical” avant-garde and which included Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism—emerged as a response to high art, embracing the technology that the modernists abhorred. “Avant-garde” was originally a military term, as James Spalding explains:

In traditional military strategy, the avant-garde remained a small, highly skilled, quick-thinking, and, one might add, devious and unprincipled section of an army. It was sent ahead to assess the lie of the land, spy on the enemy’s position and, if necessary, eliminate the advance guard of its opponents. Many took the opportunity to desert, or switch sides. (57)

Likewise, the artistic avant-garde is so named for its perceived position at the forefront of society, yet seems always on the verge of “deserting” that society.

Tristan Tzara

Tristan Tzara, founding member of Dada.

“We don’t accept any theories,” writes Tristan Tzara in his 1918 Dada Manifesto. “Do we make art in order to earn money and keep the dear bourgeoisie happy? . . . A work of art is never beautiful, by decree, objectively, for everyone. Criticism is, therefore, useless; it only exists subjectively, for every individual, and without the slightest general characteristic.” With such antagonism toward institutional boundaries in art, the question arises: Where does the avant-garde fit into an art-historical reading of Latour’s critique of modernist thought?

For an answer, one can turn to Renato Poggioli’s definition of the avant-garde as a “culture of negation” (107). It would appear that the stated goal of the historical avant-garde, to abolish the autonomy of art and thus eradicate the boundary between art and life, sits comfortably beside Latour’s project. However, consider Bürger’s assertion that the avant-garde failed in its mission to integrate art with life. In fact, the avant-garde’s failure is directly attributable to its desire to achieve this integration, since that desire is predicated on an acceptance of capitalism’s claim that art can exist as a secular religion that transcends commodity relations (Home).

A key characteristic of Latour’s argument is his approach to temporality: “We have never moved either forward or backward. We have always actively sorted out elements belonging to different times. We can still sort. It is the sorting that makes the times, not the times that make the sorting” (76). Latour sees social avant-gardism as being no different from postmodernity, insofar as both implicitly situate themselves within a historical trajectory. He describes postmoderns as being “simply stuck in the impasse of all avant-gardes that have no more troops behind them” (62).

Viewing Latour through an art-historical lens, one sees not that the true avant-garde ceased to exist long ago, but that a true avant-garde has never existed at all.

(Though Bürger pinpoints the “historical” avant-garde as the only genuine avant-garde, one might choose to apply the term more loosely, so that it encompasses any group that organizes itself in opposition to capitalism and the institutionalization of art. For purposes of clarification, “avant-garde” will henceforth refer to this looser application of the term.)

The avant-garde places itself in opposition to the forces that allow it to exist. As Poggioli explains, the avant-garde can only exist within a bourgeois-capitalist society and it serves as a reaction against such a society (106). It is constantly fabricating artistic experiences and striving to make itself more accessible to the public, sometimes even embracing the trappings of capitalism, while it condemns the mainstream for doing the same. Under the guise of innovation, the avant-garde ignores hybridizations of traditionally mainstream and avant-garde practices, which have for years proliferated in the marketplace. Richard Murphy writes:

The avant-garde’s interrogation of the institutional definition and function of art reveals the pervasive influence of the institution upon the work’s reception, upon its meaning and upon its production. And in revealing the arbitrariness of both these institutionally imposed definitions and of the generally accepted aesthetic values, the avant-garde points to the institution’s tendency to legitimize only certain meanings, truths and codes to the exclusion of other possible values: in short the avant-garde demonstrates the institution’s use of convention to privilege a particular set of dominant social discourses. (24)

When a “sub-system” such as bourgeois society, religion, or art is siphoned off from the rest of life, there emerges self-criticism of that sub-system. Referencing Marx, Bürger states that “one can only abstract the general observation that self-criticism presupposes that the social formation or social sub-system to which that criticism directs itself have fully evolved its own, unique characteristics” (23). Therefore, the avant-garde—no matter how dedicated it may seem to eradicating the boundary between art and life—will always owe its continued existence to the sub-system it criticizes: institutionalized art. Speaking about art in general, Theodor Adorno writes:

Works are usually critical in the era in which they appear; later they are neutralized, not least because of changed social relations. Neutralization is the social price of aesthetic autonomy. However, once artworks are entombed in the pantheon of cultural commodities, they themselves—their truth content—are also damaged. In the administered world neutralization is universal. (228-229)

It can be argued that most, if not all, experimental techniques utilized in commercial works have precedents in the avant-garde. However, it is no less true that most such techniques in avant-garde works have precedents in other avant-garde works—and for that matter, in commercial ones: Duchamp could not have produced his ready-mades had they not already been made. For Arthur Danto, modernism ended with “the emergence of the appropriated image—the taking over of images with established meaning and identity and giving them a fresh meaning and identity. Since any image could be appropriated, it immediately follows that there could be no perceptual stylistic uniformity among appropriated images” (15).

The avant-garde community is and always has been a part of the system of which it is inherently critical. At the same time, that system has generated countless hybrids that complicate the very notion of a separation between “mainstream” and “avant-garde.” This is made evident by surveying historical developments in popular media, including commercially released films, television programs, corporate advertisements, promotional music videos, and popular music recordings. Since capitalism tends to be viewed by Benjamin, Greenberg, and other Marxist critics as a problem that needs solving, special attention should be paid to American works that explicitly suggest a profit motive.

The examples that follow do not purport to be representative of all media. Most of them originate from the late twentieth century, particularly the 1960s, because that was an especially adventurous era for popular culture, music, and films made both inside and outside of the Hollywood system. It is not being argued that these are examples of avant-garde works that somehow managed to creep into the mainstream. Instead, these instances are mentioned with three goals in mind: to illustrate the long history of avant-garde/mainstream hybrids; to establish that the incorporation of innovative or progressive artistic methods into commercial mainstream media does not negate the historical avant-garde’s mission to bridge the gap between art and life, but in a sense achieves it; and to debunk the portrayal of the “average” person in a capitalist society as the victim of conditioning, which has left him or her unable (or unwilling) to consume anything more complex than kitsch.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

Certain manifestations of experimentalism are commonly greeted with enthusiasm by American youth culture, because the prospect of challenging established structures is associated with rebellion against the previous generation’s social norms. This was certainly evident in the “psychedelic” counterculture of the 1960s. It is this counterculture that made Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a commercial success despite a mixed critical response, and this interest was founded primarily on a roughly ten-minute sequence in the film that utilizes avant-garde techniques to portray the protagonist’s journey “beyond the infinite.”

The extent to which avant-gardism was embraced by 1960s popular culture for its ability to portray, simulate, and enhance hallucinogenic drug experiences cannot be overstated, and some of the most experimental and formally subversive films to reach a wide audience during the decade were projects involving pop stars. Among these was Bob Rafelson’s 1968 film Head, starring the Monkees.

Like the Beatles’ 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour, Head is a non-narrative patchwork of surreal vignettes and musical sequences. What makes the Monkees’ film far more interesting as an avant-garde/mainstream hybrid is the manner in which it critiques media manipulation and the band’s own fabricated image through self-reflexivity, stream-of-consciousness logic, found footage, a circular structure, and songs. The last of these did not prevent Head from failing commercially. Of the film, Parker Tyler writes:

The reality of the standard term ‘plot’ has been supplanted by the reality of the drug-and-dream inspired term ‘trip’. . . . If such films as [Head] are occasionally denounced by the inside Undergrounders, it is because they resemble commercial films enough to be suspected of making a play for the biggest possible pop audience. (231)

If Head fails as a commercial film, but also “fails” in the eyes of the avant-gardists who might appreciate it more if it didn’t star the Monkees, then such a film can only exist somewhere in between—or rather, in a realm where these oppositional forces do not exist, where commercial product and art can apply to one and the same thing.

Historically and as a whole, network television has been taken less seriously than even the most frivolous commercial cinema, but it has nevertheless shown occasional traces of avant-gardism, particularly in its early days. Through the 1950s and until his death in 1962, comedian Ernie Kovacs hosted several experimental television comedy programs that tested the limits of a medium still in its infancy.

Alongside conceptual gags and surreal humor, Kovacs broke the fourth wall, exposing the behind-the-scenes workings of television and making several technical innovations in the process. As Ann-Sargent Wooster suggests, the roots of video art could be traced, in part, to Kovacs’s 1952 experiments with distorting the signal (207).

Within the medium of television, the most compact format for appealing to consumers is the commercial. One might argue that the impact on American culture by the classical avant-garde movements, specifically surrealism, is most evident in advertising. Filmmaker and original surrealist Luis Buñuel—whose first film Un Chien Andalou (1929) was a collaboration with fellow surrealist Salvador Dali (who went on to star in commercials in the 1960s)—has proven a major influence on TV ads, insofar as they use unexpected juxtapositions to momentarily shock the viewer into taking notice of what is being advertised (Beebe). The connection is a natural one: influenced by psychoanalysis, the Surrealist movement was largely about desire, while the aim of commercials is to arouse interest and stimulate desire for a product or service.

For Greenberg, this would point to the avant-garde being “looted for new ‘twists,’ which are then watered down and served up as kitsch.” However, considering Greenberg’s insistence that the enjoyment of kitsch requires no effort on the viewer’s part, some commercials do not qualify as kitsch; certainly, the more abstract and surreal ones do not. This is evident even from a small sampling of scenarios used in commercials from America and abroad: An iguana watches as a helicopter drops a giant box of cigarettes into a swimming pool (Benson & Hedges); a gorilla in a recording studio performs drums to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” (Cadbury); a man laments the tragic circumstances of his ability to transform everything he touches into candy (Skittles); a stubborn young boy tells his parents that only actor Robert Loggia could convince him to drink orange juice, after which Loggia enters the kitchen to extol the benefits of calcium (Minute Maid). Not only are these scenarios comically surreal, but the tenuous connections to the products they advertise also encourage intellectual engagement, however small, on the part of the spectator.

A yet higher level of audience engagement was required when Senator Mike Gravel, running for president in the 2008 Democratic primaries, garnered attention for his unusual campaign ads. In one, he stands next to a lake, staring silently at the camera for one minute, then picks up a rock, throws it into the water, and walks away.

At the time the video surfaced, Gravel’s press secretary explained the “meaning” of the video: “Where he’s coming from is that, it’s less about him coming across with a heavy political message in this video, as much as it is the message of the impression the viewer will have, looking at him” (Kleefield). This specious explanation only reinforces that Gravel was attempting to subvert the form of the political ad. Were performance art to become more common among politicians, Gravel would be seen as a pioneer.

In addition to surrealist methods, the aforementioned psychedelicism was also used in corporate advertising to appeal to the youth culture and counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Television commercials provided a fertile creative ground for computer graphic designers and visual effects artists. One such artist was Robert Abel. Abel used a “candy-apple neon” technique to create immensely detailed, highly stylized animated commercials for several products, notably 7-Up (Campbell).

Suggesting a meeting between visual artist Peter Max and experimental filmmaker James Whitney, Abel’s work was unique in its own right. It was indeed being used to advertise a corporate brand without irony, but that does not cancel out the artistry in what Abel achieved. If anything, the presence of art in something as utilitarian as a television commercial is evidence that art and life are integrated, and that a division between them only exists where the individual perceives that it does.

Turning to music, one discovers in Frank Zappa an artist whose accomplishments could qualify him as both an avant-gardist and a “pop star,” and whose self-marketing strategy allowed him to disseminate unusually complex ideas to a wide audience in the form of entertainment. Zappa’s song lyrics consistently mock American society and consumer culture, but he was quite serious in asserting his preference for the capitalist mode of production. This is important because, though he was best known as a rock guitarist and satirist, Zappa was also a composer of highly experimental orchestral works that posed potential difficulty for both performer and listener. His albums routinely juxtapose these works with more familiarly structured pop songs. This makes Zappa’s output a challenge to digest, not just for high-minded classical listeners who want little to do with pop, but also for a larger audience drawn to his sophomoric humor and novelty tunes. One of his more stylistically uniform albums, The Perfect Stranger, is comprised entirely of contemporary classical and electronic compositions; nevertheless, in the liner notes Zappa writes: “All material contained herein is for entertainment purposes only, and should not be confused with any other form of artistic expression.” In interviews, he insisted that his music was entertainment, and that no one should ever be forced to hear music that someone else has deemed artistic (Wragg 206).

Zappa’s music is by no means an avant-garde rallying cry for the elimination of institutional high-low distinctions; it merely represents one artist’s total disregard of such distinctions. That his oeuvre is typically categorized as “popular” in record stores and elsewhere, yet sits most comfortably next to the work of comparatively obscure avant-gardists, is a testament to his ability to communicate challenging ideas to a wide audience through ingenious marketing (or frankly, high visibility via self-promotion). It also challenges Greenberg’s notion that “true” culture could never intentionally integrate itself into our productive system, and demonstrates that Zappa envisioned an “average” American consumer who was open-minded, intelligent, and curious.

Just as it has challenged long-standing modes of art- and entertainment-based production and distribution, new media raises its own set of questions about the avant-garde. Socially speaking, the Internet provides an excellent example of the laxity of a democratic society toward dissent among its own members, with copyright law being one established norm that has been seriously threatened.

Returning to film as an example, a major studio does not want its product to be made available for free via the Internet because it depends on the sales of that product to generate revenue. However, many experimental filmmakers are equally reticent to post entire works on the web. This is not just for financial reasons: the global availability of an avant-garde work threatens to diminish its mystique. Experimental filmmakers are frequently concerned about the method by which a work is being screened, preferring film projection, or in any case, not a low-resolution YouTube video.

For some filmmakers, home viewing on a DVD is unacceptable for a work that was shot on film and ought to only be screened on film. A fair number of avant-garde films both old and new have been made commercially available on DVD, but they are only a small fraction of what could be made available, were there not such a puzzling reticence on the part of filmmakers to distribute their work for private home use. Despite an emphasis on preservation in the discourse on experimental cinema, there is a sense that some living filmmakers wish to protect their own films from being screened to as wide an audience as possible.

The major studio’s profit-driven “give the people what they want” philosophy contrasts with the avant-garde filmmakers’ “give the people what we believe they need” alternative, but in either case the work itself takes the experience of the audience into consideration. The major difference is that the profit-based approach is more likely to acknowledge the audience’s choice in patronizing the movie theater, and will implicitly take a stance (however condescending) of gratitude, while the alternative sees itself as the cultural antidote to the insidiously formulaic mainstream cinema. Avant-garde film maintains its status as an institution, one operating on the outskirts of commercialism—except on those occasions when admission is charged.

To the problem of the polarization between avant-garde and mainstream film, David E. James offers a Latourian solution:

[The] argument that the cinemas of disenfranchised social groups are the truly populist ones disputes both the naive celebration of the democracy of Hollywood and the apotheosization of the avant-garde; neither position can account for the diversity of non-studio film practices or the political transactions they involve. The categories of the avant-garde and the industry must be dismantled, and their blank polarization opened to the play of heterogeneity and interdetermination within the field of practices the terms otherwise simply divide. In place of the single, transhistoric, self-regulating avant-garde tradition appears the spectrum of alternative practices which develop and decay with historically specific needs and possibilities. And far from being categorically defined against a monolithic, uncontradictory industry, these alternatives emerge from (and in certain circumstances merge with) a similar plurality of practices constructed in the margins of the industry or even as mutations within it. (22)

Though James mentions “the diversity of non-studio film practices,” it is worth adding that he does not call for a radical transformation of the film industry; like Latour, he is simply advocating a change in perspective. The distinction between avant-garde and mainstream could likely end with the increased stimulation of public interest, and that is best achieved through the marketplace. It is conceivable that a television viewer in the 1970s, seeing one of Robert Abel’s commercials, would be just as compelled to seek out experimental animation as he would be to go buy a 7-Up. If many Americans are, as Greenberg puts it, “insensible to the values of genuine culture,” that doesn’t mean they have been hopelessly brainwashed. Whether they develop a curiosity toward an artist’s work depends, more than anything else, on the effort made by the artist to generate interest.

The integration of art with life would eliminate the need for an avant-garde. For any movement calling itself avant-garde, “success” would be its own demise. Many artists and innovators take a position against the capitalist system, but just as many have no qualms about working within that system, and the latter group’s contributions to their art should not be ignored simply for their complicity in corporate success, or their own well-deserved financial remuneration. All artists, no matter how opposed they may be to “the system,” are partly responsible for keeping that system in place, just as the system is responsible for those artists’ ability to keep producing art, and voicing dissent.

Of democracy, Poggioli writes that “the tyranny of opinion easily dominates in moral as in cultural matters; but such tyranny is incapable of exercising decisive sanctions and establishing absolute conformity” (106). A liberal-democratic, bourgeois-capitalistic society is bound to have majority voices threatening to drown out dissenters, but there is always the potential for those dissenters to influence the majority through the very processes by which the majority gained its “tyranny.”

Latour ultimately suggests in We Have Never Been Modern that society should retain most of the modern constitution, but reject the illusion that modernity is somehow cut off from the past. After acknowledging that its greatness stems from hybridization, society can move onward, continuing to produce hybrids. The avant-garde will never achieve the goal of reintegrating art into the praxis of life; it can’t. The only way that a unity between art and life could be possible is if that unity has existed all along. It is not through avant-garde works but through translation, the proliferation of hybrids, that we see that such a unity has always existed.


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