In this critical conversation, Tamara Levitz and Benjamin Piekut discuss the ideas developed in the afterword to Piekut’s 2019 monograph, Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem. Duke University Press has made available a PDF of the afterword, titled “The Vernacular Avant-garde.” The discussion below can be read as a counterpoint to the themes developed in the separately published essay, which readers are invited to download here for a limited time. The authors are grateful to Duke for providing this resource to readers of ASAP/J. The discussants wish to thank Maria Buszek, G. Douglas Barrett, Jeremy Braddock, Patrick Nickleson, Gavin Steingo, and Max Williams for their helpful feedback.
TL: Hi, Ben. I’m looking forward to exchanging ideas with you about the concept of the “vernacular avant-garde.” Do you want to start by telling us how you conceived of this concept, and, broadly, what you mean by it?
BP: When I finished my Henry Cow book, I wanted to develop a concept that could help think through the situation of many of my musical protagonists, those who worked outside of the university or conservatory system as well as the mainstream recording industry—or, at least, within a highly charged relationship to it. They didn’t learn at the seminar table, or through lessons with a “master” composer or visits to the new music festivals, and they addressed a different audience than the one we usually associate with avant-garde music. Yet they were highly aware of their historical position, committed to formal experimentation, conversant with contemporary trends in the arts, and often committed to some program of radical social change. The diverse, often incompatible musics made by these artists operated largely through recorded media and emerged most conspicuously after 1945. I was thinking not only of Henry Cow, but of Sun Ra, Lydia Lunch, Maggie Nicols, the Red Krayola, Alice Coltrane, the Sun City Girls, John Cale, and so on: though not entirely delinked from the literate establishment, these artists occupied a zone distinct from it, constantly getting channelled into the market and other institutions, then breaking out of them, disappearing, or going underground. The vernacular avant-garde was my way of trying to pull all of this into a meaningful coherence to see if it would have a wider applicability. Two distinctions—one between modernism and the avant-garde and a second between elite and vernacular—are built into the concept.
TL: It is interesting to me that you think of “vernacular avant-garde” as a concept, rather than as a style, movement, or aid to periodization in music history. I understand you to be proposing in this way a Foucauldian approach to historiography. Can you explain your understanding of the vernacular avant-garde as a concept in more detail?
BP: I subscribe to the view that a concept is the result of a particular inquiry; it gathers up and defines a problem for thought, a problem that is not already there in the objects of the study or the analytic itself (in this case, a historical method).1 And there is a difference between categories and concepts. My study of postwar music employs categories—such as discourse, practice, status (high/low), and politics—in an empirical research process, out of which emerge concepts, or at least this one: vernacular avant-garde. That concept joins others that already operate in studies of modern and contemporary culture, such as modernism and avant-garde. Categories are the lenses through which to conduct a study, and concepts are what come out of it: they are specific to their context, empirically grounded, and contingent. Moving them into other contexts (that is, transforming them from concepts to categories) means that they are necessarily altered or frayed at the edges; like the vernacular itself, coincidentally, concepts are built for translation. They allow us to group together problems and see how they travel to other situations or compare with historically distinct arrangements. I distinguish concepts (as well as categories and analytics) from theories, which exist to explain things. So concepts are always wedded to empirically specific research and made for thinking with.
Given the embeddedness of my original research object in discourses of popular music, authenticity, post-1968 cultural politics, left critique, the marketplace, and sound reproduction, any concepts that come out of the inquiry would suggest further development and contestation around such topics as global capitalism, race, modernity, coloniality, aesthetics, institutions, and the contemporary academy. Knowing that you share my keen interest in these ideas, I’m glad we have found the chance to set aside the empirical work for a minute and spin out a few speculations in the register of method and concept.
TL: Yes, it seems urgent for us to spend time thinking about concepts, especially as they transform before our eyes into slogans and hashtags, and warp from ideas into brands in this critical moment of rapacious turned lethal capitalism. Recently Kimberlé Crenshaw posted on Instagram that, “Intersectionality is not additive. It’s fundamentally reconstitutive. Pass it on,” confirming her commitment to promoting conceptual precision—even if through soundbites—as essential to the current struggle for racial justice.2 We are living in a time when profit-oriented Boards of Regents in the United States can order faculty back to teach live with few protections during a deadly pandemic, and when adjuncts and lecturers are losing their jobs by the thousands. As academics become disposable labor and the basis for academic freedom collapses, it feels imperative to rethink academic work, also by devoting time and labor to concepts, even within the cultural realm.
So let’s plunge right in. I think I am most struck by how you dislodge the concepts you consider from their entrenched positions in critical thought. It seems to me, for example, that you want to move away from Renato Poggioli’s and Peter Bürger’s historically situated and geographically circumscribed definitions of the term avant-garde from the 1960s and early 1970s—the very period you study.3 In this I see an affinity between your work and that of Per Bäckström, who points out how the reemergence of avant-gardes in the 1960s, and their alleged failure, led to that scholarly urge to look back and define the avant-garde as an aesthetic movement in Anglo-American and German/French modernity. Bäckström laments Bürger’s pervasive influence, and how he convinced so many people that the avant-garde in modernity could function as some kind of norm in analyzing the avant-garde in late modernity. Backström counters that there has always been a heterogeneity of avant-gardes—all historically contingent, geopolitically and linguistically determined, and defined only in the moment they erupt. Given vanguardia in Spanish or avanguardia in Italian mean something closer to high modernism than avant-garde, that English term may have to be peripheralized.4
I see a similar impulse behind your desire to understand the concepts of modern and avant-garde, vernacular and elite, in relation to each other, as you asked me to do when you sent me this diagram of your “question space” in the middle of a heated debate, and stopped me in my tracks. Can you guide us through this question space, as a way of introducing your concept of the vernacular avant-garde to others? Perhaps we could start with Miriam Hansen’s idea of the “vernacular modern,” which I sense provided a major impetus for your project.
BP: I read Hansen like a revelation, as many others have. She wanted to consider the ways that so-called classic Hollywood cinema—not only avant-garde film—took new modes of sensory experience to global audiences in a mass-produced cultural form.5 It wasn’t specifically her turn to the vernacular that I found so inspiring—music studies had dealt with popular music, jazz, and folk for a long time—as much as it was her bracing interpretation of the formal innovations in mainstream film, or more precisely, how mass audiences experienced them. The cinema studies to which she was responding with great force and invention had previously examined these qualities in high-status art films alone.
TL: Yes, in fact it has been argued that “vernacular modernism” is really a theory about film history: Hansen was dissatisfied with how film scholars had come to define the studio era of Hollywood film as “classic”—a term that created a questionable binary between “classic” and “modern,” and that denied Hollywood film’s historicity by masking its reliance on technologies that were part of the historical formation of modernity.6 Instead, Hansen sought the modern not in a film’s narrative strategies or form, but rather in the technology of film distribution itself, or in the sensorial impact of certain genres like slapstick (which allowed her to address formal innovation in mainstream cinema, as you allude to above). At the time it was groundbreaking in her own discipline for her to imagine Hollywood cinema as a “cultural practice on a par with the experience of modernity, as an industrially-produced, mass-based vernacular modernism.”7
I find it intriguing that Hansen associates the vernacular with mass culture. In the classic article you reference she describes the vernacular somewhat loosely as combining “the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with connotations of discourse, idiom, and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity, and translatability.” She likewise links it explicitly to Americanism, “the question of why and how an aesthetic idiom developed in one country could achieve transnational and global currency, and how this account might add to and modify our understanding of classical cinema.”8 This is quite a unique approach to a term that most people tend to associate generally with the local cultures themselves, or with a dialect in contrast to a standard language (such as Hochdeutsch or Parisian French). I am curious, do you agree with Hansen’s interpretation of the vernacular?
BP: There are many things I agree with, yes. I like her sense of “everyday usage,” actually similar in my view to the notion of local dialect. The audience’s skill at experiencing film’s shocks and pratfalls seemed just as important to Hansen as the directors’ talent for making them. And, for her, usage is a kind of translation, which itself implies a modicum of productive, creative output by the audience. That was part of her bold claim about mass culture, or her recognition that there was a lot happening there that was otherwise getting missed. And I liked her recognition of how the US-dominated film industry, its mass reproduction and circuits of distribution, offered a low bar of entry for these unprecedented sensory experiences, “whatever the economic and ideological conditions of its hegemony,” as she put it.9 The vital charge of the films, their kinetic energy, was kind of post-literate: they spoke to anybody regardless of their station, background, or education. Sound recording, as you know, was doing the same thing in music. Importantly, this demotic appeal to a global audience differed profoundly from the public “availability,” for want of a better term, of a Kandinsky, Marinetti, Schoenberg, or Satie. Those guys might have dipped into the cabaret scene or whatever, but their intellectual and artistic work addressed a highly educated, middle- and upper-class audience. They were born or trained to do it. So Hansen’s vernacular was a broad way to point to this other world outside the academy or museum, outside the order of the word—even though, as you note, it was completely commodified and commercial, which can jar with those more anachronistic senses of the vernacular. But I also think vernacular harbors a potential that exceeds her use of it in that context, which I’m sure we will come back to.
TL: I see what you are saying, and I’m really interested to learn how you develop the potential of Hansen’s vernacular, particularly by translating it into the context of the avant-garde, which she leaves explicitly unchallenged.
BP: I had to translate Hansen because some of her discipline- and medium-specific premises can’t be extended smoothly to other disciplines or to a transdisciplinary understanding of modernism or the avant-garde. First of all, Hansen’s cinema audiences weren’t the ones making the films. Film was too capital-intensive and its production too industrialized for regular people outside the studios to make narrative movies.10 And I think that kind of popular creativity, making your own stuff with and in response to others, is an important aspect of the vernacular that falls out of Hansen’s work.
More challenging (for my purposes) was Hansen’s premise that modernism was the same as avant-garde. She wrote, “[In cinema studies,] the term modernist is reserved for alternative forms of film practice (experimental and avant-garde film, international art cinema) that are in turn closer to the intellectual and elite movements of literary and artistic modernism.11 In her texts on vernacular modernism, Hansen used the term avant-garde but never really theorized it; in the famous essay we have been referencing, she once refers to the avant-garde as that which attacks high art, but more frequently she uses it as a family name to refer to constructivism, suprematism, futurism, and the Soviet filmmakers, all of whom advanced “a politics of radical transformation.” In either case, and most generally, I actually think she used it in part as a metonym for “elite.” In her terms, avant-garde film made elite modernism, and Hollywood made vernacular modernism.
But if those elite modernists—the avant-gardists—sought radical transformation, did the other modernists seek it, too? Did the vernacular modernists, with all their hegemonic Americanism and complicity with the entertainment industries, seek radical transformation? That was less clear to me, but it seems doubtful. So I found a certain haziness around this question in Hansen, and I think it derived from her assumption that there is no significant difference between modern and avant-garde.
TL: Yes, I think Hansen’s conflation of modernism with the avant-garde leaves a significant gap in her theory. It also demonstrates to me that these concepts do not translate perfectly across media. If I undertake the thought experiment of applying Hansen’s theory of vernacular modernism to music, for example, I find myself thinking about how certain “avant-garde” artists‚ let’s say the surrealists—including, in my view, the composers in “Les Six”—drew inspiration from genres like ragtime and tango, which they heard performed by local or US bands in Paris and other cities, or on recordings. On the surface, their practice may resemble those of the Soviet avant-gardists as interpreted by Hansen, and so I can feel confident her terms hold for music history as well. I can similarly call the composers of Les Six either modernists or avant-gardists, depending on whether I agree that they are surrealists (and not everybody agrees on this point). Likewise I can assume that the recording industry that produced records for global distribution in the early twentieth century parallels cinema as a vernacular modernism. But then, very quickly, my thought experiment starts to fall apart: scholars never described ragtime and tango as classic, for example, and bands covered those genres rather than watching them—a very different kind of engagement, as you pointed out. Further, German critics (to give another example) distinguished “modern” or “new” music in the 1920s not from the classic, but rather from the Romantic or from Wagner, although one can argue that the “Stravinsky-Schoenberg” debate set up something resembling a progressive-neoclassical binary that later persisted in Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik. In other words, neither the discourses, practices, nor concepts of cinematic modernism map neatly onto those of musical modernism. So I’ve learned a lesson, as you’ve already pointed out: these concepts are to a certain degree (but not wholly) media specific, related but not the same as they apply to each, because different media have unique phenomenological characteristics and discursive histories.
I think that by evoking Hansen yet placing her in the lower left-hand quadrant of your question space, you situate her work within new networks of interpretation, and also historicize her, as you will yourself be historicized in turn (historicization being perhaps the necessary reflexive strategy of critical thought). Hansen’s position as a modernist theorist of modernism becomes clear. In your question space, you set her ideas in motion, allowing once incompatible concepts like modernism, the vernacular, and the avant-garde to glide past each other like the weighted objects of a Calder mobile, making us aware of their genre-specific nature and historicity, and of the adjustments one constantly has to make in translating them from one medium into the other.
BP: That is a good way of putting it. For the reasons you give, it can be perilous to speak of a modernism or an avant-garde outside of a specific discipline or medium. Yet I think the common description of modernism as that which translates the experience of modernity—transitory, fugitive, contingent—into aesthetic terms and the avant-garde as that which does so in a more radical or critical manner is a workable generalization. Theorists have outlined a number of different avant-garde strategies—institutional critique and fragmentation (Peter Bürger); functional transformation/Umfunktionierung, or the reorganization of forms and instruments of cultural production (Bertolt Brecht); medium specificity (Clement Greenberg); intermedia (John Cage); and shock or innervation (Walter Benjamin)—by which an artistic project becomes avant-garde, but I am not interested in advancing any of these in particular, or in reducing this heterogeneity to a single notion of radicalism, which Bäckström shows has happened with Bürger. Those strategies are often contradictory and can appear alone or in partial combinations with each other. It’s the broader distinction from modernism that’s more important for my analysis.
TL: I can see why you don’t want to advance these strategies, given how tied they all are to the limited context of Anglo-American and German modernity. Your chart already exposes their limitations. I don’t feel attached to these strategies except historically, and don’t see why they should prevail in the present, and globally, especially if we aspire to provincialize Europe in our interview. So I would resist your effort here to reinstate some European order. I prefer to see your question space chip away at the modernism/avant-garde dichotomy that has proven so curiously resilient for westernized academics studying twentieth-century music worldwide.
BP: That is a valuable qualification: these are some avant-garde strategies that have been advanced and analyzed historically, yet there is no reason to accept the list as exhaustive.
TL: In this regard it’s wonderful you add vernacular to the mix, because that destabilizes the terms even more. Because whereas I can imagine well how modernism can have elite and vernacular forms, it is more difficult to see how this can be true of the avant-garde—the very purpose of which, for some, is to challenge elite or institutionalized art, or to blur the boundaries between it and everyday life. How can an avant-garde that has the high-low/elite-vernacular built into its dialectic be elite or vernacular itself? Grappling with this problem while analyzing your chart set off a chain reaction in me: like dominos falling, these familiar concepts began to collapse, their historicity, racial foundation, and geopolitical specificity laid bare.
BP: Yes, Dada challenged institutionalized high art and wanted to integrate it into daily life, but, with In Advance of the Broken Arm, Duchamp still put that shovel into a gallery. He didn’t manufacture 2,000 shovels to sell them in a provisions shop. And 291 was not exactly a barn-burner, either. In other words, these endeavors remained in rarefied circuits of elite culture, whatever discourse might have accompanied them at the time or since. Andy Warhol is another example that usually comes up, yet he moved into the mass-mediated, commercial marketplace not with his silkscreens or his films, but with the Velvet Underground and their contract with Verve (a fitting illustration of the role that music plays in articulating the vernacular for other disciplines). By contrast, I wanted to focus on artists and musicians—like those in VU—coming from and working within vernacular forms (the blues, rock, for example), rather than those who reference popular culture in fine-art contexts, challenge institutionalized art from those very same art institutions, or merely possess a background in something like advertising, as Warhol did.
TL: The question would then be how to define an avant-garde within the vernacular, given the very premise for the concept would then have potentially collapsed.
BP: No, I wouldn’t say that. If an avant-garde seeks radical transformation in some manner, then a vernacular avant-garde would advance or attempt such a project in, from, or through some position outside the establishment order of the word, in a zone, like Hansen’s vernacular, characterized by everyday usage, translation, and participation—say, in some corner of the commercial marketplace, or in a dance hall, or in a church basement. By what means would it pursue such radical transformation? Again, to echo Bäckström, I have never been convinced that any one strategy necessarily constitutes the “authentic” avant-garde, as if one must attack the art institutions, or as if one must put pressure on disciplinary borders. That’s what I mean when I say that I resist a reductive conception of radicalism. If you take dub, for example, you have producers—nonaccredited, independent, far from the metropolitan centers of industrial popular music production—using novel technologies and techniques to rescramble our perceptions of space and time in the recorded medium. Dub becomes avant-garde when these experiments are linked to a millenarian politics that envisions a world beyond Babylon. In my opinion, it need not also advance a Bürgerian institutional critique or enact functional transformation in order to manifest as an avant-garde in the vernacular.
Ultimately, my little quadrants are just tools for thinking through some historical problems. They are not sectors of an exhaustive map of social space. I value that sociological approach highly—think Bourdieu—but it proceeds from a totalizing perspective on the cultural field, one committed to the definition of categories and the development of a theory. I am less interested in categories and I do not offer a theory, but I do have a concept, something to think with. I believe that it is ultimately clarifying to have this concept of the vernacular avant-garde, but it certainly doesn’t straighten everything out! Indeed, I wanted it not to simplify, but to work through the complexity of the arrangements I found in the course of historical research. Methodologically, the concept proved its own need. Shoehorning my material into the existing theories, then, felt so reductive, stubborn, coarse. Why? What’s distinctive or different about these artists, and are these differences widespread? Why do the other concepts associated with the avant-garde feel wanting? Could a new concept, dropped into the mix, change the conversation and generate some new questions? This is what I meant by “question-space.” It’s deictic: here is the thing I want to try to figure out, not these other things (related though they are).
TL: I can relate to your research process here. It does make me uncomfortable to abandon Bourdieu completely because I worry about losing the material basis of our analysis and its systematic frame. This is what kept me indebted to classic theories of the avant-garde for so long. To speak personally, your chart brings me back to the beginning of my career, in the 90s, when I was asked to teach a course on “Avant-Garde Music.” During the years I taught that course, I had to develop a coherent idea of what the avant-garde in music was, because otherwise the course would have collapsed under its own premise. Educated in the North American and European traditions of largely white modern and contemporary music, and reading Bürger, Poggioli, and so many others, I came to conclude that the avant-garde in music had to be associated with the negation of music, something very few musicians attempted, comparatively, in the early twentieth century. I firmly considered the Dadaists, futurists, and surrealists to be avant-garde, and still do. After that, it got a bit blurry. I remember, for example, the day I received my copy of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, and the Sex Pistols became the successors to the Dadaist avant-garde through the Situationists and my intellectual world was tossed upside down.12 Although I have changed a great deal since that time, after studying decoloniality, white supremacy, and anti-racism, I still clung desperately to old ideas of the avant-garde when we first began discussing your concept of the vernacular avant-garde a few years ago. Those concepts had remained surprisingly entrenched, having installed a vise grip on my imagination, as epistemologies of coloniality tend to do.
What I like so much about the question space you have created for these concepts is that it shows me a way out of a tradition of theorizing that is applicable only to a miniscule European repertoire. It allows me to ease up on these concepts, and relate them playfully. I start to realize that the relation is more important than the poles, and that how the avant-garde plays out in local, contingent circumstances modifies how historians establish it as a concept. The avant-garde may not be about negation in 1975, for example, and the modern may look different for Rapsody than it did for Schoenberg. Am I understanding you correctly here? Could you give us an example of the vernacular avant-garde so we can learn more about it?
BP: That’s right: I am much more interested in the relation, or the analytical distinction, between something-like-modernism and something-like-avant-garde. This distinction continues to obtain for many of my subjects far past the historical specificity or apparent utility of those terms themselves over one hundred years ago. One example I use is a comparison between the Rolling Stones and the German band Faust, who are important characters in my story. Both of these groups got into tussles with their record companies around 1970—but, in the case of the Stones, Decca simply stood in the way of the band capturing its full earnings. Their negotiations—or eventual abandonment—of the contract was a business decision, end of story. Faust was a different animal: their contract with Polydor was more of an accident of circumstance during a period when the European recording industry was casting about for the next big thing. But Polydor’s resources would end up playing a big role in Faust’s electronic experiments. Without those resources, it’s hard to imagine how the band could develop their complicated signal processing units, for example.
Eventually, the label required Faust actually to release some albums, and that led to the end of the business relationship—Faust had to grab everything they could while they still had access to that Polydor money. The label itself—as a company, manufacturing and distributing commodities in the marketplace—was the problem that Faust had to face, and this relationship to the institution differed substantially from the relatively untroubled one enjoyed by the Stones. Both bands operated in the vernacular register, but Faust had a tense, even duplicitous stance toward Polydor. Faust was both inside the music industry and straining against it, or working toward aims that were distinct from the ones on offer. This kind of case is what I would like to have a concept for. It bears striking similarities with Anthony Braxton’s Arista period, which was roughly contemporaneous.
TL: I am intrigued by this example, because it draws my attention to a form of funding for experimental or “avant-garde” music that is not always forefronted when people talk about the 1970s. You describe to us how Faust discovered a loophole of sorts—a space opened up by record companies that, for a short period, were willing to take risks in supporting music that was not necessarily going to sell widely.
BP: Yes, for a few years when The Beatles broke up and Motown was moving to Los Angeles, the major record companies weren’t sure what was coming next.
TL: There are several elements that strike me about this story: on the one hand, it reminds me of other moments in twentieth-century western music history when dramatic shifts in funding for the arts had an impact on what might be called the “avant-garde.” I am thinking in particular of the period of inflation immediately after World War I in Germany, when composers rather suddenly realized they would have to appeal to a private donor (Mäzen) or subscriptions to fund their projects as the economy collapsed. That was the period when the Donaueschinger Musiktage and Salzburg Festival began in Germany and Austria, for example, and when Schoenberg founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen in Vienna. What those composers in the 1920s had in common with Faust is that they linked the notion of creating new music to the creation of new institutional spaces, yet retained the class hierarchies, models of funding, and exclusionary policies of the institutions from which they wished to distinguish themselves. (The Berliner and Viennese Secessions are other good examples of this.) I see a bit of this parallel in how Faust struggles with its record company, while accepting its funding as the basis of its existence.
I also see a parallel in how Faust gains access through its record company to new technologies that influence music production (signal processing units), just as composers around 1920 would have gained access through these exclusive festivals to new “technologies” (i.e., chamber music ensembles) that shaped musical production for decades to come.
What makes the cases very different, however, is that Faust is dealing with a record company, which purports to reach a very wide public. In other words, this is, as you have explained, a vernacular avant-garde, one that is made possible by an industry that reaches distant audiences. Experimentation—traditionally a key aspect of the avant-garde— also necessarily means something different for Faust in the 1970s than it did for the futurists during World War I. Modern and vanguard composers could not have used record companies in Germany in the 1920s as they did in the 1970s. So already with this example your concept is allowing me to relativize how I think of vanguards and the vernacular at specific moments and in particular circumstances.
Your example also solidifies the point that even though the vernacular avant-garde may critique existing institutions and seize the means of production (by replacing institutionally- or state-funded journals with DIY zines, for example), these actions are not in themselves associated with a specific kind of politics. I am struck that Faust’s interactions with Polydor point to tensions over artistic freedom, but do not constitute a form of political activism. It is illuminating to consider that institutional critique or functional transformation can be integrated into any kind of political project, as I believe you suggest here. This helps to explain the function of the avant-garde in neoliberalism, for example, and opens up space for fresh historical analysis.
BP: Yes, I follow the example of recent scholars in maintaining that the politics of the avant-garde are never guaranteed.13 Once you open up the analytical space in this way, new patterns become apparent. Rick Perlstein’s book on the beginnings of the modern conservative movement in the US, for example, describes a vanguard insurgency from the right that took aim at the liberal consensus that spanned the Democratic and Republican parties in the late 1950s.14 I mean, the possibility of a hard right politics is there so early in futurism. In the case of Faust, there is no explicit political program, so it would be an exaggeration to say that they wanted revolution. But I do think they were after an otherwise possibility, something that lay beyond or outside of what existing institutions could do, as you surmised. I think of that speculative critique as something more than just the desire for a world where they, too, could enjoy philanthropic patronage. It’s more like: “What if there were some world where this band, with these backgrounds and tastes, playing this music, did not have to string along a bunch of suits until they came to the obvious conclusion that Faust would not become the next Beatles?” In that sense, I consider their project to have been radical: it required a fundamental reordering of some kind.
TL: Hmmm. I am still wondering what you mean by radical. I associate the term radical with the Black radical tradition, pedagogies of liberation, the New Left, or leftists movements of the 1960s. The term has been much analyzed in these contexts and can be seen as what W.B. Gillie calls an “essentially contested” concept.15 And yet even if the term is already unstable, it makes me uncomfortable when it is detached from these specific contexts and applied as a general qualifier for musical practice, especially when this is done indiscriminately. It is too easy to use casually the term radical to advertise music or musical practice, or to give music value or relevance: if something is radical, it must be good. Words like vanguard or progressive are sometimes applied to similar ends. In my view, if Faust wanted to explore new institutional configurations, that is not necessarily “radical.” In fact, they didn’t do much to create those new configurations, so they are not radical at all. Or maybe they are? Are all vernacular avant-gardists radical?
BP: I do think that music studies has tied itself up in knots for years by tacitly concluding that radical has to mean progressive, valuable, and important on a historiographical level. Instead, I would want to use it to signal any fundamental or categorical kind of change, at the root level. I would not want to insist that it has a specific or preordained politics, as the term eventually acquired during the social movements of the 1960s you describe. For example, I still want to be able to use it for radical right, to reference proposals like using the military for domestic security in the US, reinstating poll taxes or other tools of disenfranchisement, and other fundamentally transformative notions. Faust’s exploration of new institutional configurations, insofar as that process works on changing the fundamental bases of making music in the first place, would indeed be radical. But your question is helping me to remember that there is a difference between effecting radical change and envisioning or attempting it. You’re right that Faust failed to install those new institutional arrangements on a permanent basis (they surely achieved something for a few years); they were like pirates or scoundrels, operating illicitly. They were neither inside the institution nor outside of it as an excluded other, but rather what Fred Moten calls “out from the outside.” We might say that Faust, like all vernacular avant-gardists, acted in compromised situations. They worked with what they had. They did not proceed from, say, the position of total negation that often seems like a requirement for theories of the avant-garde—they are always imbricated in these bigger institutions in some way, even as they strain against them toward some radically different arrangement. Or, to reference the “anticipatory critique” of Moten, they strain toward some different world, but also from one.16 The other world was already there.
TL: Your comments make me think back to Homi Bhabha’s “Unsatisfied: Noted on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism,” in which Bhabha, drawing on Fanon, speaks about the temporality of political struggle. Revolutions neither occur in the moment, Bhabha writes, nor do they bring about change in some utopian future. Rather, revolutionaries negotiate undecided or indeterminate political directions day by day, moment by moment, in what he calls chiasmatic historical time. You seem to embrace a similar notion of the temporality of the avant-garde in your monograph on Henry Cow, in which you tell the story of the band by documenting its day-to-day decisions and actions. I found this powerful as a literary strategy; it helped me to imagine a temporality for the musical avant-garde that was not based on abrupt acts of negation. Reflecting on this now, in light of our conversation so far, has helped me to understand better your use of the term radical.17
BP: Other parts of Bhabha’s essay were at the front of my mind during the writing of the book, but you are picking up on my intention to make some account of an avant-garde project with a prose style that felt faithful to the reality of its enterprise—its imperfections, compromises, contingencies, and so on. I wanted to tell a story that deferred making generalizations about “critique” or “radicalism.” In place of those generalizations, I wanted descriptions of a daily practice in the forms of rehearsal, debate, performance, study, organization, and collaboration. In fact, in the register of method, I thought of this project as my own attempt at doing what Brent Hayes Edwards accomplished in a more majestic way in The Practice of Diaspora—that is, he declined to take his orienting categories (of “diaspora” or “blackness”) for granted. Like him, I wanted to document the “unavoidable misapprehensions and misreadings, persistent blindnesses and solipsisms, self-defeating and abortive collaborations, and failure to translate even a basic grammar of [avant-gardism].”18 I wanted to tell a more modest story, restricted to ten or twelve individuals hashing out an avant-gardism “day by day” (to quote the title of a piece Lindsay Cooper wrote for Henry Cow). There were hardly any abrupt acts of negation, as you say. It was a relentless problematization, tumbling certainty into uncertainty: the world is a problem. I do not consider it to be a story of “failure.”
It’s difficult not to sense this indeterminate political possibility in light of the remarkable wave of Black Lives Matter protests this spring and summer, which we have been discussing at length during the course of preparing this interview. The speed with which the ideas of removing monuments and abolishing the police have entered mainstream discourse is a testament not only to the power of these demonstrations themselves, but also to the intellectual and administrative labor of the BLM organizers and their allies. Saidiya Hartman just made the same point the other day in Artforum.19Those organizers and intellectuals have been developing their arguments and proposals through years of study, debate, and collaboration. They were ready: that’s a practice of daily preparation for uncertainty. It reminds me of Chris Cutler’s lyric, “Contentment is hopeless / unrest is progress.” Or, like Bhabha said, “unsatisfied.”
TL: Yes, I really loved the way Imani Perry described the current political moment on Facebook as a combination of “beautiful possibility, a great deal of marketing and promotion,” and “a whole lot of the same old in the middle of it all, wearing a different outfit.” “Years of hard work lie before us, no matter what,” she commented to her own post.20 But to come back to Bhabha, I wanted to note that he addressed not only temporality, but also the spatial aspects of the vernacular, his work in that regard comparable to Hansen’s, but having a very different purpose. Whereas Hansen found the vernacular in Americanism as a universal model of business promising unlimited mass consumption, as we spoke about above, Bhabha sets it up in opposition to such a universal, and interprets that universal more abstractly as a cosmopolitan community. He speaks of initiating a constant, disruptive, unsatisfied, incommensurable dialogue between the cosmopolitan and the vernacular, and of dwelling in the liminal border, margin, or space of translation between the two. Comparing the vernacular etymologically to the uncanny, he concludes that to vernacularize is to “dialectize,” be in a “dialogical relation to native or domestic,” or to introduce “the global-cosmopolitan ‘action at a distance’ into the very grounds—now displaced—of the domestic.”21
I rehearse these ideas here because I sense you understand vernacular both as Hansen and Bhabha do. Bhabha’s cosmopolitan, in your theory, might be represented by the concept of the avant-garde, which appears to have universal significance as it circulates in music studies. Rather than just buy into this universal concept, however, you are asking us to initiate an “unsatisfied” dialogue with practical avant-garde action on the grounds of the local, and to dwell intellectually in this space in between.
BP: Yes, Bhabha’s vernacular cosmopolitan arises from an “unsatisfied” relationship to the local—contentment is hopeless—as much as it does from the adaptation of the global-cosmopolitan for local use. One of the reasons I prefer vernacular to popular is that sense of restless translation for the local, but also from it. You use what you have, what’s available to you, to get somewhere new: practice over plan, improvisation over design. That seems to be what is going on in the vernacular. And as Stuart Hall pointed out long ago, the popular tends to bring certain connotations of authenticity or resistance that I would prefer to put away for now; they can lead to judgments about who can or should play which musics, or who is with “the people.”22 As a modality of negotiation and adaptation, on the other hand, the vernacular never makes claims about purity. It offers no escape from the tensions of the wider social field, and for that reason it is difficult to claim it as a site of populist “resistance” to anything. Sometimes that’s true, of course, but it isn’t guaranteed.
And the vernacular can also host anti-popular positions. The taste formation that emerged in rock discourse of the late 1960s is a case in point: critics and fans wanted to distinguish themselves from the masses, not build solidarity with them. Another good example is the grant that Henry Cow received from the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1977, which I believe was the first government grant ever given to a “popular music” act (it had been awarding jazz and improvised music for years). That might appear at first as a step toward populism or something, but one shouldn’t mistake Henry Cow for what Naseem Khan called at the time “the arts Britain ignores.”23 One of the grant panelists had informally tutored some of the Cows at Cambridge, after all. So the striations, hierarchies, patterns of privilege and inequality all continue to operate (or get multiplied or reformulated) here. Although I sometimes refer to the vernacular as “feral,” I do not mean that it reproduces chaotically or randomly, since even the wild expresses emergent forms of organization, structure, and pattern.24
But none of that changes the fact that Henry Cow operated in the vernacular. They learned through doing, toured on the rock circuit, and published their music with Virgin records. They reached a mixed audience of non-specialists and connoisseurs through radio, LP sales, and concerts in town halls, clubs, community centers, and outdoor municipal festivals (especially in Italy). The discourse about their music was found in mass-market periodicals and newspapers. They worked collaboratively.
Also important is the fact that they were self-taught or informally taught (the ones who attended university didn’t study music there), so notation was not foundational to their practice. Many working in the vernacular avant-garde trained in some version of that literate tradition (piano lessons, military bands, church choir), but the zone where they meet is defined by performance and recording, not notation. The word vernacular can signal this mixed scriptural economy. Notation hasn’t disappeared, but it has assumed a transformed position in relation to improvisation and modes of transmission that never leave the domain of sound. I have often referred to the following apocryphal scene that captures what I’m talking about: an eighteen-year-old in South London with no “formal” musical training learns to play music by listening to records by the Shadows, then the Yardbirds, then Sun Ra, then Varèse, then Berio. In each of these cases, he puts the LP on the turntable and asks, “How can I do that?”25 This musician came up in the aural mode, listened discriminately but widely, and then applied that knowledge in a practice leading to performances and more recordings—the process remained in the domain of sound. The mode of listening is participatory and circulatory; it closes the distance between audience and player. This basic quality distinguishes vernacular avant-garde musics from elite formations that borrow from the vernacular without ever joining it. The latter rarely distinguish themselves from Stravinsky’s ragtime appropriations.
TL: I had to think a long time about your response here, because it addresses the aspect of your question space that most troubled me when I first saw it, and that I have continued to grapple with since. I am talking about the decision you made to set up the vernacular against the elite.
In my view, this particular binary functions a bit like a powder keg, or catalyst, for a contemplation of the many related binaries that have shaped the study of modern literature and music. I am speaking here of what Robert Scholes calls the “mirage of the great divide” as a basic element of modernist critical theory, and defining feature of modernity. Scholes traces the imaginary of this socio-economic divide from Lukács’s distinction between representation and entertainment in the novel (1914-15), through Clement Greenberg’s seminal essay on kitsch and the avant-garde (1939), Babbitt’s and Hulme’s classic versus romantic self-expression, Adorno and Horkheimer’s serious/autonomous versus light music, Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction versus aura, and New Criticism’s good versus bad poetry, to name just a few examples.26 Andreas Huyssen summed up this history when he spoke of the model of high and low art, or elite and mass culture as ”a cipher for a much more complex set of relations that always involve palimpsests of times and spaces that are anything but binary.” I think it’s interesting that Huyssen, like you, is thinking analytically, describing this great divide as a “central conceptual trope and energizing norm.”27
I again take a moment to review this history because I think the phantasm of this great divide is present in your work, and understanding this has allowed me to gain insight into what you mean by the vernacular avant-garde. You formulated your thoughts on experimentalism and the avant-garde after 1989, in the period when critics like Huyssen and many others were rethinking the very possibility of a high/low distinction or great divide. By introducing the term vernacular into the classic binary of high/low now, you force us to rethink the divide yet again, but this time in a way that seems generative for critical theory in the twenty-first century. Notably, none of the theorists I cited above use the term vernacular in speaking of the great divide. And yet the subjects they speak about—mass communications, the culture industry, the popular, the masses, accessible prose, and so on—undoubtedly relate to it. In other words, the vernacular serves in your work as a kind of camouflage that allows you as a critic to slip in a rather destabilizing way between multiple historical iterations of the imaginary of this great divide. Another way to see it is through spatial and temporal metaphors: just as you channeled Hansen’s and Bhabha’s vernacular to help us understand the spatial relation between the local practice and concept of the avant-garde, or local and Americanism as mass culture, you conjure Huyssen to shapeshift between various great divides. The reason you do this, it seems to me, is because we are living in a time when the great divide is now simply incessantly duplicating itself, undergoing a strange kind of conceptual mitosis as the socio-economic division it once purported to mirror collapses as a viable basis for the analysis of art.
The tension generated by the vernacular-elite dichotomy is extraordinary, and opens up so many possibilities. I am curious, for example, how it shaped your understanding of the physical space in which you think vernacular avant-garde relations occur. You seem to see this space as being particular, and necessarily outside institutions of so-called high modernism like Darmstadt. I have heard you speak of the concert hall, for example, as being the antithesis of a vernacular avant-garde space. Can you explain why you set up these oppositions?
BP: I admit that these oppositions are drawn more sharply in method than they were in history, but there is a reason for that. The institutions of the academy and the museum/gallery (and, by extension, the concert hall) figure prominently in Bürger’s theory and that of his successors. But when one’s research centers on figures who were never installed in those settings, one finds different perspectives that have gone largely unexplored in relation to this theory. For one, the institutions are different. Jazz studies has given a lot of attention to Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the institutionalization of neo-classicism in the 1980s, but I regard that as just one part of a bigger story that would track Ornette Coleman’s chamber music compositions of the early 1960s, his two-year hiatus in protest of the conditions of the clubs, his catalytic role supporting the loft concerts as a cherished alternative, and his enthusiastic embrace, with Miles Davis and other pioneers, of more popular Black musical forms in the 1970s. Together, Coleman’s investigations outline a concerted problematization—it’s practically programmatic!—of the institutional establishments of jazz, including the white-owned clubs, festivals, and record companies. Limiting the conversation to Marsalis in the 1980s obscures Coleman’s more subtle (and perhaps self-conscious) probing of institutions of many kinds—not just classicizing ones—and from many angles.
For popular musicians, the governing institutions were always the capitalist recording industries. And for both the jazzers and the rockers, music journalism was posed as an institutional problem that had to be challenged. This problem was discussed by Amiri Baraka, Archie Shepp, and, a little later, Frank Kofsky. One of my favorite stories from Henry Cow is about Virgin Records’ promotional attempts on behalf of Slapp Happy in 1974, when the company got their contacts at Melody Maker and New Musical Express to write a few puff pieces. Slapp Happy’s Anthony Moore and Peter Blegvad, however, used the occasions to declare that their music would not interest the readers of the NME, and argued over the validity of interviews at all. That mockery was funny, but it also signaled the power of the rock press as an extension of the industry—it had to be negotiated in some way. That specific institutional arrangement doesn’t exist in other parts of the cultural field.
Alternative histories in the vernacular also offer many examples of artists founding institutions—not attacking them—to present their music, preserve their history, or advocate for their interests: the AACM, Black Rock Coalition, Women’s Liberation Music Project, London Musicians Collective, and so on.28 My larger point is simply we do not easily make it to these other perspectives on the central categories of avant-garde theory without shifting the focus outside of the fine arts establishment. Once we have done that, places like Darmstadt will look different, too.
TL: I think it is also interesting how spaces created outside established institutions become institutionalized in turn, and how practitioners within those spaces persistently appeal to the dichotomy of the modern-avant-garde in establishing them.
We will come back to this, but I want to change directions for a minute. So far in this interview we have been speaking about a very circumscribed geopolitical context. We have both drawn our examples exclusively from England, the United States, and Germany, and you speak in Henry Cow about the avant-garde being “forever tagged by the European middle-class.” As I noted above in speaking about Bäckström, however, the terms modern and avant-garde circulated globally in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío first used moderno in 1888 in an article published in Chile, for example, but his term did not mean the same thing as the term modanizumu later did in Japan, and, on the contrary, may have had more affinity with the Cuban term vanguardia. It seems to me we need to dwell for a moment on what the concepts of the modern and avant-garde mean in translation as they circulate around the world. This leads to the question of how the relations we speak about are embedded in a capitalist world economy that produces racial, ethnic, gendered, sexual, and class inequality and difference. Perhaps we can start by talking a bit about why you foreground the European middle class?
BP: I appreciate this challenging point. Let me clarify what I meant about the persistent importance of the European middle class: by necessity, the avant-garde exists within and contributes to the world system you describe. Imperial political structures—the ones that enabled and supported the European middle class—are there in some form whether the avant-garde in question is European or not. In dialogue with the work of practitioners and scholars around the world, I am interested in inquiries that can multiply our stories of the avant-garde and suggest new theoretical problems.
One way to recognize these histories, while also provincializing them to make room for others, is to formalize them. I mean that one comprehends this European story of the avant-garde—this kind of sensorial adventure enabled by extractive capitalism, chattel slavery, and political domination—to be one single, situated history arising from a general condition of colonial encounter, which, insofar as it is general (ie, formalized), must be multiple rather than singular. That particular European avant-garde is reduced to one angle through a structure of post/colonial relation open to approaches from many directions. This method is quite distinct from centering Europe as primary or surrounded by weak, late copies in the former colonies. I know that many writers have contributed to such a methodological transformation, but books by Elizabeth Harney, Alejandro Madrid, and Chika Okeke-Agulu have been clarifying for me, not to mention the curatorial achievements of Okwui Enwezor.29
TL: I think I understand what you are saying here, but let me parse your answer apart to be sure. I have realized that the best way for me to appreciate the full range of your intervention is to follow the intellectual clues you scatter on my path. In this case, that meant pausing to contemplate the work of Madrid, Harney, Okeke-Agulu, and Okwui Enwezor.
In my view, your concept of the vernacular avant-garde stands at the nexus of the approaches represented by these authors as they mirror different stages in the history of theorizing the avant-garde in the postwar Westernized academy. Although scholars developed theories of modernism and the avant-garde successively in reaction to each other in the late twentieth century, these theories did not supersede, replace, or negate each other. On the contrary, all of them still matter in the present, which is why it is important to be able to move between them as you do.30
We discussed above the enormous influence of Bürger’s and Pogglioli’s normatively Eurocentric theorizations of the avant-garde in the 1960s and 70s. But we haven’t yet addressed how postcolonial scholars began challenging such views in the 1980s and 90s. Kofi Agawu’s critique of the emphasis on “difference” in studying African music in ethnomusicology in the early 2000s is a good example of a postcolonial approach that relates to your project. Agawu wanted to move away from the colonial binaries that disadvantaged the Western study of African musical practices. But he remained perhaps too indebted to the binaries he sought to abandon, and left unexamined the ways in which his own field, music theory, was implicated. This “over here” and “back there,” metropole/periphery, empire/colony approach still dominates in musicology.31 It is evident as one perspective in the multilayered work of Madrid, who explores how Mexican artists negotiated an avant-garde defined in Bürger’s and Calinescu’s terms, compares modernisms through a national lens, and adopts analytic methods developed in Austria (Schenkerian analysis) to prove how Latin American composers contested colonialist aesthetics.32
BP: Yes, and he cultivates a keen sense of how the problematics of the modern and the avant-garde are re-posed in post-revolutionary Mexico, or how basic terms must be reconfigured in light of a historical arrangement that was materially distinct from the one that impelled Bürger and Calinescu.
TL: Harney’s approach is rather different, however. Writing after the spatial turn and with knowledge of new modernist and settler colonial studies, Harney, with Ruth B. Phillips, rejects both the idea that modernity and modern art originated in Europe and moved outward, and the long-standing practice of using nations as the unit of comparison within world systems.33 Instead, Harney joins many other scholars in remapping modernism and emphasizing its mobility: people, concepts, and texts in modernity circulate transnationally, she argues, co-producing modernism through different temporalities, in specific moments of encounter and exchange.
Moving away from postcolonial binarisms and thinking of modernism in terms of transnational interchange changes the ways we think about the agency of those operating within non-European hierarchical systems determined by the coloniality of power. Postcolonial scholars who assume modernism originated in Europe might limit the agency of artists in the colonies by speaking about them as borrowing, imitating, appropriating, or revising European models. Harney, in contrast, wants to acknowledge that agency by exploring how such artists resist, reclaim, challenge, react to, make demands on, and mistranslate those models as well. Okeke-Agulu coined the term postcolonial modernism to describe this process of critical engagement, reimagining, and anti-colonial struggle. In the marvelous book you cite, he examines how Nigerian artists in the period of decolonization drew on African tradition to reinvent the European primitive, synthesizing Western and indigenous technique to establish their own affirmative, self-determined, modernist artistic identity.
In thinking through the differences between these scholars, two themes crystalized that helped me to understand your concept of the vernacular avant-garde. The first is that of indigeneity, which Harney explores at length. The concept of the indigenous, generated dialogically in relation to the settler, implies a different attachment to locale than the vernacular, and draws attention to the structures of settler colonialism and role of ethnicity in the colony itself. Yet the indigenous are obscured in Bhabha’s postcolonial approach. When you speak about the general condition of colonial encounter being multiple rather than singular, I understand you to be including structures of settler colonialism and the concept of the indigenous in your interpretation of the vernacular, and to be asking us to acknowledge cultural difference and what Dylan Robinson calls “critical listening positionality” as essential to it.34
The second is Harney’s idea of mobility, which seems crucial to your concept of the vernacular. I would go further with this than Harney does in the texts I read, however, by introducing Laura Doyle’s concept of geomodernism. Doyle really pushes back on postcolonial thought, arguing that European modernity was formed from the outside and never original in the first place, and that artists generally work under conditions of interlocked, mutually produced, highly contingent, competitive, and overlapping empires—conditions that are intensified in the twentieth century by “new technologies of finance, travel, communication, labor, and war.”35 I think your concept of the vernacular avant-garde references this geopolitical history, and situates the avant-garde within it.
BP: The chain of thoughts you have fashioned in this response reminds me why you’re such a creative and formidable conversation partner. We began this discussion about empire and modernism with my comment on the European middle-classes, and I want to add one more thing that seems relevant. Because scholars of the avant-garde—especially in the US—have so consistently valorized their object of analysis, I have wanted instead to emphasize the tenacity of European bourgeois hegemony. Although there surely exist zones that “speak to other possibilities,” to paraphrase Sylvia Wynter, or practices that outline ways of thinking and being that have not been generated within that colonial/modern matrix, you don’t necessarily escape that hegemony by leaving Europe, and you don’t necessarily escape it by leaving the elite.36 In either case, you hear artists expressing those power relations, negotiating them, or challenging them, albeit differently from how they were being expressed, negotiated, or challenged by elite European (and elite non-European) avant-gardes. That is certainly true of the Marxist musicians in Henry Cow, and not only because they were white Brits playing Black music (I’m referring to free jazz, fusion, and rock, and yes, I know that rock after 1965 is often considered to have become “white,” a development I regard as relatively minor compared with the massive effects in the twentieth century of Black musical aesthetics across racial formations—all of which the members of Henry Cow were well aware and debated extensively).
TL: I agree that recent scholarship on decolonial aesthetics risks drawing false conclusions about the possibility of an avant-garde outside modernity.37 I am glad you brought our conversation back to race, because I feel we cannot conclude our brief discussion of imperial conquest and the capitalist world economy without addressing chattel slavery. Your concept of the vernacular avant-garde reflects your reception of the work of Fred Moten, George Lewis, and the Black radical tradition. I wonder if you could clarify how you understand the avant-garde in relation to Blackness.
BP: Moten, Lewis, and other scholars of African American music have shown how certain key premises of avant-garde theory, like autonomy or the strict separation of fine art and popular repertories, have not been available to artists working in the Black expressive traditions. One could conclude that Black music is ill-served by (European) avant-garde theory, but I prefer the approach of Moten, who, again, formalizes the entire history of the avant-garde as the performance of a surplus, haunted by a Hegelian philosophy of history that produces both the new and a racial other through European expansion. (Of course, there is always a lot in Moten’s work, but this is what I’m taking from it for my analysis.) Through this prism, both the racial exclusions of avant-garde theory and the anticipatory critique of the Black radical tradition come into view. That critique is “anticipatory” because the disjuncture that we have identified between the vernacular and existing theories of the avant-garde is already there with respect to Black performance. This is why I think there is some particular relationship between the vernacular avant-garde and Black expressive culture, beyond or in addition to the long-observed importance of vernacular theory in the African American literary tradition. So I’m saying that I like Moten on this topic not because he helps me understand why white avant-garde theory falters when faced with Black music, but rather because he leads me to suspect that Black music, or maybe Blackness in general (as surplus or fugitivity), forms a kind of constitutive condition for all these vernacular avant-gardes that exceed the language we’ve had to discuss them.
TL: Your comments bring me back to the opening of In the Break, and Moten’s interpretation of Frederick Douglass’s description of his Aunt Hester’s scream. What I find so important about Moten’s anticipatory critique as he develops it in this chapter through an interpretation of
Marx’s contemplation on the commodity speaking in Das Kapital is that it is articulated in sound and tied to the history of chattel slavery. It is precisely the connection between the invention of Blackness or race and the production of the new in capitalist modernity that leads Moten to conclude “the avant-garde is a black thing,” and “blackness is an avant-garde thing,” as you note above. I wouldn’t want to lose sight here of the fact that he is linking the avant-garde to capitalism as a world system that produces specific forms of labor division, exclusionary notions of the human, and racism. The surplus in capitalism explains why the avant-garde is an inherently racialized term.
Immersing myself in Moten’s layers I can’t help but fast forward in my mind to Greg Tate famously describing hip-hop in 1988 as “the only avant-garde around, still delivering the shock of the new (over recycled James Brown compost modern-ism like a bitch), and it’s got a shockable bourgeoisie, to boot.”38 Tate references tongue in cheek a Eurocentric notion of the avant-garde with which hip-hop actually shares many characteristics, including institutional critique and reorganization of forms of production (Sugar Hill Records, Def Jam, Death Row, etc.), intermedia (the five elements of hip-hop: MC’ing, DJ’ing, breakdancing, graffiti, and knowledge/wisdom), shock, and extensive theorization. Hip-hop also acquired a substantial critical apparatus in the westernized academy comparable to that of the European avant-garde: hip-hop journalism emerged in the early 1980s, hip-hop feminism followed a decade later, and by the early 1990s a new generation of Black scholars in the academy had produced a formidable body of research, causing some to include “academic scholarship” as hip-hop’s sixth element.
But hip-hop also asserts itself as a Black culture/nation—a fugitive assemblage in Moten’s sense. Born of the appositional stance of artists digging in record crates from Kingston to the Bronx, with samples from soul backward and forward to the present, hip-hop performs the object resisting through the scratch and the “lyric surplus” produced by samples, beats, and bars. As hip-hop became more commercialized, entrepreneurs complicated its Blackness as avant-garde by vigorously embracing the capitalist system that produced the inequality it representationally opposed. At the same time, as Regina Bradley has so beautifully analyzed, hip-hop developed problematic, what she calls pathological, static representations of Black masculinity for mass consumption by multi-ethnic audiences.39 In Tate’s words, “hip–hop culture and the hip–hop marketplace, like a quantum paradox, [came to] provide space to all black ideologies, from the most antiwhite [sic] to the most pro–capitalist, without ever having to account for the contradiction.”40 In this way the struggle for Black liberation came to take place both “out from outside” and within the capitalist system that enslaved Blacks and produced their racial difference, as Imani Perry obliquely implies in the comments from Facebook I quoted above.
Thinking about hip-hop through Moten’s profound theoretical lens allows me to begin to understand why the avant-garde is inseparable from Blackness. I found myself contemplating this idea while listening to the recent beef between J. Cole and Noname (Fatima Nyeema Warner), which occurred just as we were completing this interview, and which offers such a compelling example of the Black avant-garde now. This whole thing started when J. Cole released “Snow on the Bluff,” in which he expressed his discomfort with an unnamed young woman (immediately identified as Noname) who had challenged him because of his lack of involvement in the nationwide protests for Black Lives Matter and divesting the police. It was a pretty classic J. Cole track, with the “sincerity” fans love and detractors hate, impeccable bars, and a neo-soul groove/beat co-produced by Kelvin Wooten.
Noname responded with “Song 33,” in which she mourned the killing of Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, and questioned J. Cole’s decision to dwell on her criticism while trans women were being murdered. Situating J. Cole as a symbol of patriarchy and exposing his misogynoir, she ended with the bars, “We democratizin’ Amazon, we burn down borders. This a new vanguard, this a new vanguard. I’m the new vanguard.” Clocking in at 1:09 minutes— Noname’s trademark Instagram length for her tracks—Song 33 has a fire beat by producer Madlib. The rhymes on these two tracks led to a heated debate over patriarchal structures and women’s rights within the Black community. Yet Noname regretted her decision to release it, and wrote on Instagram a few days later that she would leave the song up because Madlib had “killed the beat,” but that she would donate part of the earnings to “mutual aid funds.”41
So why do I tell this story here? Because in spite of Noname’s hesitancy, her song does something that indeed suggests a new Black vanguard. It’s not just that Noname takes an appositional stance—rapping about tearing down Amazon while posting her music on platforms that use Amazon, reminding of murdered women—”One girl One girl missin’, another one go missin’”—in a catchy refrain, identifying as a political radical while producing commercial rap, creating a book club while learning about Black Marxism from YouTube videos, angering fans by first embracing capitalism and then rejecting it, and so on.42 The raw, lo-fi sample from Anthony Perkins’s 1986 film Psycho III that opens the track already offers up the lyric surplus of which Moten speaks. But even more stunning is Madlib’s decision to create a beat with a catchy bass line culminating in a dissonant synth chord that harkens back to J. Cole’s neo-soul but morphs into a piano cluster as the song progresses, and ends with a jazz flourish that lands directly on the word “vanguard.” It’s both funny and radical, this sonic reference back to free jazz on the word “vanguard,” this lyric surplus, this musical middle finger to J. Cole. With impeccable intuition, Noname withdraws her words while praising Madlib’s beat, letting the commodity itself sound, the object resist—with a lesson in Black music history. And even if, or maybe precisely because, the song is fleeting and the debate around it even more so, this feels to me as it encapsulates everything about Moten’s Black avant-garde.
And so hip-hop is hitting the ball out of the park, and Peter Bürger’s avant-garde has become a little dot on a page—a remnant, maybe, of a time when whites dominated in the academy. With Noname and so many others this obstinate little concept—the avant-garde—persists, as has capitalism, as has hip-hop entrepreneurship, as has racial inequality in capitalist democracy, accompanying us into the twenty-first century, winding its way contagiously through the now virtual streets of new vernaculars.
BP: This is one of the reasons that “high and low,” as modernist critics conceived it, doesn’t really cut it anymore—there are too many nested transformations and contradictory movements for that binary. I’m glad you brought up hip-hop, because it’s a good example of how the vernacular avant-garde concept can be useful in thinking through some contemporary transformations, and I’m thinking specifically now of higher education. Hip-hop entered North American academia first as a subject of social analysis, then poetic, and then musicological analysis. Now, however, it’s increasingly common for music faculty to see students who are serious practitioners in hip-hop (or other fields like noise and live electronic music). For the most part, those young artists had previously surmised, regrettably but correctly, that a university music department was not for them. That’s changing, which has created some interesting problems for departments still built around the assumption that there are only two elevated forms—classical and jazz—and the university/conservatory is the place to study them.
TL: Yes, I would agree that the university is trying to embrace multiple vernaculars (diversity!) while maintaining allegiance only to one specific, reified formation of one (European modernity)—a project that cannot succeed. Schools try to mute Black voices by accumulating signs: pictures of Black students in brochures, operas with bars and beats—fractured shards of a Benetton ad in an age of social media. I agree that this leads to confusion about the very meaning of a vernacular (now confounded with identity politics or genre).
BP: The slow collapse of the authority of the classical music canon has many causes, and it will have many long-term effects for academic music departments. It would be a mistake to lump them all together, so it bears repeating or clarifying that the vernacular avant-garde does not necessarily contribute to the valorization of popular music studies against the entrenched defenses of the canon or whatever, and it likewise does not lead to the kind of facile rapprochement we see in young classical performers playing chamber music in sneakers. No, the vernacular avant-garde is also invested in elevated forms (or forms of elevation), advances its own versions of exclusionary taste formations, and has not operated through assimilation into older fine-art institutions (as in those ghastly “collaborations” between DJs and orchestras). These frictions extend well beyond the superficial folly of requiring a noise musician to learn species counterpoint, and they will not disappear when the canon is displaced by whatever order is coming next.
TL: I think this has to do with how music departments in the United States developed in the 1980s, when crucial debates about opening up the canon and obliterating the high-low divide led to positive practical change inhibited by sluggish conceptual change. Modernist divisions (mass culture and the elite, the popular and the classic, etc.) still continue to operate in music departments straining to meet the demands of new demographics of students making music in multiple vernaculars.
BP: Yes, but given the vernacular avant-gardes’ own increasingly robust institutionalization, that talented student hip-hop producer or noise artist can seek markers of prestige from outside the university: an invitation to Maerzmusik, a write-up in The Wire magazine, or an album with Important Records. These examples are just a small subset of the larger structures of recognition that have been built up after many, many decades of the vernacular avant-gardes. Although some assistant professors in composition might well be after the same accolades, this network of festivals, labels, journals, and presenters is fairly distinct from those that have traditionally marked success in the university-sanctioned world of contemporary music. Unlike a hit song in the commercial field, however, these other prestige markers can’t be easily dismissed by the establishment, because Maerzmusik, The Wire, and Important also operate in a restricted market and make claims on a radical history of the avant-garde that continues to carry tremendous weight in academia. The result is that we have competing standards of recognition for musics thought to be “advanced” and not market-oriented.
I think Michael Gallope outlines a similar problem with great clarity in Deep Refrains: when the vernacular starts mixing with institutionally legitimized positions—say, when a folk tune is inserted into a symphony, or, at a broader level, once the phonograph enables unprecedented adventures in listening—thinkers invested with the authority to interpret musical meaning (say, Adorno) are exposed to aesthetic rules or idiomatic norms, from the margins, that they do not understand.43 But this paradox doesn’t only belong to critics of the institutionalized fine arts. One could add the example of new music criticism that George Lewis analyzes in A Power Stronger that Itself.44 Faced with the diverse aesthetic reference points of AACM members in the 1970s and 1980s, jazz critics consistently revealed an inability or unwillingness to expand their more restricted field of judgment to take in the stylistic allusions at play. To put it another way, when artists switch and combine codes, some critics aren’t able to follow the changes.
I did find, however, that a number of rock critics in the UK from the late 1960s into the 1970s moved with some ease across norms in different genres, from free improvisation to electronic music, jazz, and R&B. Again, this reflects the mode of listening characteristic of the LP era, but it’s part of a longer history: significant for me has been Bernard Gendron’s account of the emergence of a popular music aesthetics, first in jazz journalism of the 1940s and then in rock during the 1960s.45
TL: I’m so glad you brought up Gallope’s work. Of course, his project is quite different from yours in that he is primarily interested in the paradox of how the vernacular (or vernacular music making) appeals to formal norms of some kind. His vernacular is also one side of a dialectic, an “ideal type” if you will, whereas yours references material reality. So there’s a difference. I was struck most, however, by Gallope’s and Moten’s emphasis on sound—something that seems less central to your approach. In Moten, sounds—“phonic materiality”— disrupt a legacy of slaves as capital within capitalism, as we discussed above. For Gallope, vernacular music making is similarly all about attaining a resistant sound. In contrast to Moten, however, Gallope does not racialize his vernacular sound (at least not in Deep Refrains), and does not allow the commodity to speak (having muted the relationship between the vernacular and capitalism in this text). I am not sure I see in your analysis of the vernacular avant-garde, as we have discussed it so far, a similar attention to sound. This leads me to wonder: what role do you think a concept like the vernacular avant-garde might play in hermeneutics?
BP: I’ve never considered hermeneutics to be my register, but, to come back to the new Black music of the 1960s, the artists and many of their fans heard passion, intensity, and love in that music, while white critics tended to hear rage, noise, and nihilism. Yet I think those interpretive distinctions are immaterial in what I’m doing, since the main point is sound itself as the medium of communication, intellection, collaboration, and education in the vernacular—the whole LP experience we discussed earlier, for example. Or, maybe I would want to talk about the importance of sound (after phonography) as a contact zone among musicians of distinct backgrounds—that was certainly the case in experimental music of the late 1960s. But, to stick with Gallope for a moment, it was the undecidability of the sound, the absence of a hermeneutics (or its infinite multiplication), that enabled those translations to happen.
TL: It’s nice for us to come back to the topic of sound as we wind down our interview. I’ve noticed that we have focused in this conversation primarily on music making, and I wondered if that was a coincidence. Do you think the concept of the vernacular avant-garde is uniquely suited for theorizing about music?
BP: I do think that music exerts a particular kind of gravitational pull in the vernacular. I already mentioned that long history of highly developed popular aesthetics, and one could note that film has one of those, too—but from the side of production, the prohibitive cost of film for most of its history has meant that the medium never offered a practice equivalent to learning new songs by ear, making and trading tapes, or whatever. And I recognize the robust history of amateur photography, but again, I just don’t think it has occupied a position comparable to music, to the kind of participatory circulation where consumption flows easily into vernacular production. Dance shares with music the sweep from esoteric to quotidian, but music’s long history of domestication and privatization via the commodified forms of sheet music and recordings also sets it apart. Music has penetrated deeply and easily into the smallest folds of daily experience, even more so than a demotic form like television. Or look at poetry: its contemporary vernacular form is the musical lyric.
To me, it’s telling that the eminent art historian Thomas Crow turns to music so often in his incredible book The Long March of Pop.46 It’s like the “low” can hardly be thought without recourse to music. This observation leads me to take note of some salient differences among academic disciplines. It wouldn’t be news to say that music scholars have a history of belittling the many vernacular forms of music, be that through their judgments of value, the variable prestige levels they give their subdisciplines, their pious and pompous missions to preserve other cultures, and so on. The break between Western elite/canonic and all other musics is deeply ideological and firmly entrenched, even (or especially) in the structures that administer musicology’s “others” (ethnomusicology). But I also find it significant that the music disciplines, qua musicology, have nonetheless encompassed the full range of elite to vernacular (the first issue of the discipline’s flagship journal in the US included Richard Waterman’s article, “‘Hot’ Rhythm in Negro Music”).47 A desire to study the vernacular forms would not require a disciplinary break, as it did for so long in art history. In the latter, the field was so discontinuous that a turn to, say, advertising, comics, or crafts would seem to require a shift into some other scholarly formation, such as folklore or American studies, material culture, or visual studies. The founding of cultural studies in the 1960s would be another example of a professional transformation that was necessary to make space for research on vernacular culture. Music never forced such a disciplinary caesura. The interdisciplinary field of inquiry known as sound studies might issue a certain challenge to the music disciplines—to reorient around questions of listening, for example—but that challenge was not necessary to clear disciplinary space for vernacular musics. They were already there.
TL: I can see what you mean about how ontological differences between media can result in distinct disciplinary paths to professionalization, which in turn would affect how experts in different fields conceive of the vernacular or position it within their analytics (or outside of them). Given a lot of listeners like to interpret, learn about, collect, play by ear, and cover their favorite music, music scholars can distinguish themselves in the academy only by emphasizing their professionalism or expertise in doing the same.
It may seem that one way to overcome this tension between professionalization and the vernacular is to move between disciplines, dwelling in the exilic state of mind Edward Said theorizes. But I would argue that this is not enough, as decades of calls to embrace interdisciplinarity have proven. Instead I think it might be helpful to think through the vernacular and the academy in terms of Moten and Harney’s concept of the undercommons. They use the image of “an encircling of [settler] war wagons around the last camp of indigenous women and children” to describe university professionals constituting themselves in opposition to the unregulated, unprofessional labor of those they neglect and exclude.48 Professors claim to be critical of the university as a state strategy but cannot be, because their critical thought is too tied to their professionalization. Operating from the nonplace of abolition and fugitive community of the undercommons, Moten and Harney demand the university be dismantled.
In this interpretation, then, reconciling the vernacular with the critical theory essential to defining the avant-garde becomes impossible. Instead, the subversive intellectuals of the undercommons improvise thinking outside the university, their voices appearing as “uncanny” (Bhabha’s word!)—strangely familiar yet not, disturbing the critical chatter of the professionals, conveying the secret of their solidarity in errant tones.49 This nonplace is where, joyfully, our speculation ends.
BP: We emulate those intellectuals not by finding a new home discipline or moving between professional norms. Instead, we undermine the notion of discipline itself. Moten said it best: “Fuck a home in this world, if you think you have one.”50 I think one of the members of Henry Cow later described the band, after years on the road in the pressure cooker of endless tours, as the “walking wounded.” How to cope with the uncertainties of life far from home? That’s why we study: to document and analyze the stories of artists, yes, but also to learn from them.
- Colin Koopman and Tomas Mazta refer to concepts as “formulations produced by inquiry”; see Colin Koopman, and Tomas Mazta, “Putting Foucault to Work: Analytic and Concept in Foucaultian Inquiry,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 817–40, at 824. I found their discussion of these matters to be illuminating—as well as Nahum Chandler’s methodological asides in “Originary Displacements,” boundary 2 27, no. 3 (2000): 249-286—though the methodological and philosophical conversation they draw upon has a long history and many important contributors.
- Kimberlé Crenshaw, post from July 6, 2020, Instagram.
- Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde  (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968); Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
- Per Bäckström, “One Earth, Four or Five Words: The Peripheral Concept of ‘Avant-Garde’,” actionyes 1, no. 7(Winter 2008), online at http://actionyes.org/issue7/backstrom/backstrom1.html
- Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/Modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–77.
- Yuri Tsivian, “Talking to Miriam: Soviet Americanitis and the Vernacular Modernism Thesis,” New German Critique 122, “Miriam Hansen: Cinema, Experience, and the Public Sphere” (Summer 2014): 47-65.
- Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses,” 65.
- Ibid., 60.
- Ibid., 65.
- David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
- Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Fallen Women, Rising Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Silent Film As Vernacular Modernism” Film Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2000): 11.
- Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
- Kimberly Jannarone, ed., Vanguard Performance Beyond Left and Right (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015).
- Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).
- W.B. Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, new series 56 (1955-56): 167-98.
- Fred Moten, “Not in Between: Lyric Painting, Visual History, and the Postcolonial Future,” TDR 47, no. 1 (2003): 135
- Homi Bhabha, “Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism,” in Laura Garcia-Morena and Peter C. Pfeifer, eds., Text and Nation (London: Camden House, 1996), 191–207.
- Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 5; the original quote ends with “blackness.”
- Saidiya Hartman, “Interview,” Artforum.com, July 14, 2020.
- Imani Perry, Facebook post of June 13, 2020.
- Homi Bhabha, “Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism,” in Text and Nation: Cross-Disciplinary Essays on Cultural and National Identities, edited by Laura García-Moreno and Peter C. Pfeiffer (London: Camden House, 1996), 202.
- Stuart Hall, “What is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David and Kuan-Hsing Chen Morley, 465–75 (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).
- Naseem Khan, The Arts Britain Ignores: The Arts of Ethnic Minorities in Britain (London: Commission for Racial Equality, 1976).
- Anna Tsing, The Mushroom At the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
- The scene is not entirely apocryphal. It corresponds closely to the biography of Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler.
- Robert Scholes, “Exploring the Great Divide: High and Low, Left and Right,” Narrative 11, no. 3 (October 2003): 245-69.
- Andreas Huyssen, “High/Low in an Expanded Field,” Modernism/Modernity 9, no. 3 (September 2002): 364, 367.
- Art historians have also employed novel approaches to institutions; see Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); and David Joselit, “Institutional Responsibility: The Short Life of Orchard,” Grey Room 35 (2009): 108–15.
- Elizabeth Harney, In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004); Alejandro Madrid, Sounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009); Chika Okeke-Agulu, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel, and Ulrich Wilmes, eds. Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic: 1945–1965 (Munich: Prestel, 2017).
- Mark Wollaeger makes this point in, “Introduction,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, eds. Mark Wollaeger with Matt Eatough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3-22.
- Leon Wainwright, Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
- Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, second edition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987).
- Elizabeth Harney and Ruth B. Phillips, “Introduction: Inside Modernity: Indigeneity, Coloniality, Modernisms,” in Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism, eds. Ruth B. Phillips and Nicholas Thomas(Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 1-32.
- Dylan Robinson, Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).
- Laura Doyle, “Modernist Studies and Inter-Imperiality in the Longue Durée,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, 669-96.
- Wynter, quoted in David Scott, “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview With Sylvia Wynter,” Small Axe 8 (2000): 165.
- For a list of resources, see https://monoskop.org/Decolonial_aesthetics.
- Greg Tate, “It’s Like This Y’All,” The Village Voice 23, no. 3 (January 19, 1988): 22.
- Regina Bradley, “Contextualizing Hip Hop Sonic Cool Pose in Twentieth- and Twenty-first-century Rap Music,” Current Musicology 93 (Spring 2012): 55-70.
- Greg Tate, “ Introduction: Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects,” in Everything but the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture, ed. Greg Tate (New York: Broadway Books, 2012), 7.
- Noname, @nonamehiding, post from June 21, 2020, Instagram.
- See “This is an Uprising! A Conversation with Boots Riley and Noname,” Haymarket Books, June 15, 2020, online at https://www.haymarketbooks.org/blogs/172-this-is-an-uprising-a-conversation-with-boots-riley-and-noname
- Michael Gallope, Deep Refrains: Music, Philosophy, and the Ineffable (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2017).
- George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
- Bernard Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-garde (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
- Thomas Crow, The Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design, 1930-1995 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
- Richard Waterman, “‘Hot’ Rhythm in Negro Music,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 1, no. 1 (1948): 24–37.
- Fred Moten, and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2013), 34.
- Ibid., 42.
- Ibid., 140.