“Obvious Contradictions”

The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks

Philip Nel.
University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
224 Pages.
ISBN 1578064902; Hardcover $45.00 [

Review by Allen B. Ruch

Seeing as the cover of this book features the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald transformed through Photoshop into a rock concert, I feel entirely justified in opening my review with a discussion of drunken college conversations. Now, if you are anything like me, back in college, you had a favorite watering hole where the scruffy bohemians and loony intellectuals would congregate to discuss life, the universe, and everything. And you'd meet a lot of wonderful people there, solve the world's problems, and argue about who would win a bar-fight between Norman Mailer and Mary Daly. And once in a while, you'd meet a person who, at first glance, seemed to have a lot in common with my your interests -- someone who loved the same movies, read the same authors, and listened to the same music. You know what I mean: "Wow, cool! How can anyone who's read Gravity's Rainbow, listens to Frank Zappa, and digs Ren & Stimpy be anything but cool? In fact, I bet we agree on just about everything!" But occasionally this is not, sadly, the case, and after another hour or so of intense conversation, the cracks begin to appear in the boozy façade of instant camaraderie. "Seems they disagree a lot on what all this really means, and golly, I never really thought Harold's Purple Crayon was a Marxist critique of rampant consumerism...." Eventually the realization occurs that this person is actually an agent from a parallel universe, and even though they might enjoy the exact same books and CDs as you, they are invested with an entirely different set of views on reality! (Not the shift to "them." Paranoia?) Usually around this time, one of two choices becomes strikingly apparent: call for another round and push on into even more pretentious realms of heated debate, or claim liver failure and duck home to order a pizza and catch a rerun of Fawlty Towers.
Well, reading Philip Nel's The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity was a lot like this experience, but without the beer, the hovering scent of patchouli, and the cute waitress. Having concluded its two-hundred odd pages, I have the feeling that I've been pinned down to the bar by a conversation I didn't expect to have, with a fellow who seemed a lot more fun at the beginning of the evening.

It all started off on the right foot. Nel's book is pithily subtitled "Short Incisive Shocks," and is advertised as "an evaluation that tracks American culture's shift from modernism into postmodernism." A flip through the chapters reveals some exciting names: Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Dr. Seuss, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, Chris Van Allsburg, Laurie Anderson and Leonard Cohen. So far so good -- an interesting topic, a diverse collection of writers and artists. The jacket flap makes some heady promises, asserting that the author "attacks the notion of tremendous and sudden change in artistic understanding and literary practice" by proposing that "a series of small but far-reaching changes drew understanding from modernism to postmodernism." Not to mention that Nel would "realign your conceptions of twentieth-century literature, art and music."
But a few chapters into The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity, things begin to go wrong, and around the halfway point, the "Conclusion" starts to look as tempting as an exit sign. To begin with, despite its promotional claims, the book decidedly does not "track" any such "shift from modernism into postmodernism." It is merely a collection of labored, semi-political essays with only the most wispy connections between chapters; not only does it fail to "realign" one's conceptions of "twentieth-century literature, art and music," it barely articulates its own conceptions. (Indeed, there are about four novelists mentioned at any great length, three artists, and only two musicians!) Even the grand, sweeping title is somewhat misleading, as Nel basically extracts a single idea from the historical avant-garde -- the use of ironic juxtapositions as a technique for provoking critical thinking -- and ruthlessly applies it ad nauseam to his selection of subjects, which soon lose their eclectic charm and begin to appear both limited and arbitrary. Although Nel takes this theme through many variations, he fails to develop it with any real depth or lucidity, and at times he seems to be saying nothing more than, well, ironic juxtapositions have the ability to provoke critical thinking!
This is further aggravated by his tendency to overstate the obvious. For instance, take his critique of the famous 1937 Bourke-White photograph called The Louisville Flood, reprinted in Nel's first chapter, "America Meets the Avant-Garde." The photograph is simple but effective: a group of unemployed black men are queued in a breadline beneath a billboard depicting a happy white family. Driving along merrily in their new car, the family smiles radiantly behind a sunny caption reading, "The World's Highest Standard of Living: There's No Way Like The American Way." One would think that additional elucidation of its cryptic mysteries would be unnecessary. But Nel devotes numerous paragraphs to demonstrating how this "surrealist" technique "exposes the contradictions of capitalism" by playing on the "tension between apparently incongruous realities." (Apparently Nel sees no contradictions in communist propaganda.) To be fair, not all of his examples are so trite; he soon moves his discussion to Nathanael West and Djuna Barnes, examining how their writing used contradiction and ambiguity to challenge contemporary society. But once this chapter concludes, we are suddenly carried on to Dr. Seuss; and from there, to Donald Barthelme, and so on, each subject analyzed for "obvious contradictions" (to borrow one of Nel's own headings), with the same basic idea trotted out time and time again over 200 pages. Like all one-trick ponies, it quickly wears out its welcome.
While this sense of repetition works to exhaust the reader's patience, a certain fuzziness makes it hard to grasp just exactly what Nel is trying to say. Although the book purports to be a coherent thesis on art and culture, it comes across as a collection of independent essays, strung together with a few common ideas and jury-rigged into a loose conceptual framework. (Indeed, two of the chapters -- those on Dr. Seuss and DeLillo -- were academic papers in a previous life, and they are the book's most rewarding sections.) Perhaps on account of this after-the-fact serialization, Nel's distinctions between the avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism never come sharply into focus. Although he seems to believe in a fluid spectrum, his proffered definitions and arguments come across as worn and tired, overly stiff at some places, and too slippery at others. Although one would think it critical to the goals of his project, he makes only a half-hearted attempt to distinguish between the cultural paradigm of postmodernity and postmodern techniques in art, and that itself comes fairly late in the work. Only rarely does Nel take an active role in shaping the intellectual current himself, and even then he hedges his bets with a certain timidity. (His idea that the term "Twentieth-Century Literature" will soon bridge the gap between modernist and postmodern writing is worth exploration, but it remains largely undeveloped.) This tendency to hold back is frustrating, as one gets the impression Nel wants to say more, but is afraid to stake too vigorous a claim.
Even more frustrating is Nel's tendentious use of the avant-garde in his self-appointed task of tracking "American postmodernity." It quickly becomes apparent that by "avant-garde," Nel principally means surrealism, which he proceeds to cannibalize, appropriating only the components required to fit his overall thesis. Careful to explain that by surrealism he does not mean "melting watches," he does the movement a disservice by reducing it to politicized juxtapositions and glaring contradictions. (The apolitical Dalí is essentially dismissed altogether.) We've already seen Nel's analysis of the Bourke-White photo; here he places the multivalent style of DeLillo under his stencil:

DeLillo, who in several interviews cites avant-garde art as a major influence, turns to the ambivalent legacy of Dada and surrealism because they are uniquely suited to revealing the ideological underpinnings of the Cold War period. As discussed in the introduction, he turns to the historical avant-garde because the emotional attitude of the Cold War era is surreal.

By saying this, I do not mean to evoke a political scene that resembles a Dalí landscape with buildings designed by Sabato Ridia. Instead, I mean to suggest that, as artists like René Magritte placed apparently disparate realities on the same plane, so the period following the Second World War is an era during which conflicting realities came into sharp relief. (pg. 102)

There is something both reductionist and facile in his explanation, which substitutes political ideologies and emotional attitudes for Magritte's misplaced locomotives and floating derbies. This is not to deny the power of surrealism to provoke thought and create a space for imaginative possibilities; but comprehending and representing conflicting realities is not the unique province of the avant-garde. Of course the surrealists took contradiction and non-sequiturs to extreme (and often absurd) limits, but one suspects that many previous American writers such as Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville had a passing familiarity with the notion of contradiction as a rhetorical tool! While they might not have had the historical avant-garde to fall back upon to represent conflicting realities -- which were most likely as apparent to the intelligent observer of, say, the Civil War than as the Cold War -- they had satire, fabulism, irony, and in the case of Melville, a literary imagination that prefigured modernism itself. Although these writers didn't have to contend with a media-saturated environment and an increasingly ironized population, the essence of contradiction remains the same despite the number of channels -- the only real difference is that writers like DeLillo, Barthelme and Pynchon mask their progressive politics in irony and ambiguity, the artistic lingua franca of the day. By subjugating the avant-garde to the radical-political and obviating its effects on form and aesthetics, Nel takes a polemical approach that flattens out the very ironies he's so keen on revealing.
Having said that, Nel's chapter on DeLillo's Underworld is nevertheless illuminating -- though I feel he reads too much into the surrealistic aspects of the novel, his discussions of paranoia, ambiguity, and open-ended texts have a richness lacking from the chapters on Barthelme, Van Allsburg, and Laurie Anderson. Obviously DeLillo is a writer well suited for Nel's perspectives, and his analysis radiates a welcome confidence.
Unfortunately, this does not carry over into the next chapter, which takes children's book author Chris Van Allsburg as its subject. Here Nel's politics seem especially forced, crushing the lighter aspects of surrealism under the weight of his neo-Marxist critique. Let's take a look at his analysis of Van Allsburg's illustrated book, Two Bad Ants. Neglecting their assigned antish duty of working diligently for the queen, two ants explore a forbidden human kitchen, finding themselves lost in a surreal and dangerous world of incomprehensible objects. Nel has this to say:

From the ant's perspective, this shiny kitchen, with its glistening appliances, is a nightmare. A toaster, an electric disposal in the sink -- these items confer bourgeois status to a human being, but terror to an ant. Van Allsburg's illustrations, like Magritte's paintings, use size to estrange us from a world we might otherwise accept as familiar or even recognize as desirable. In The Tomb of the Wrestlers (1960), Magritte paints a blooming rose that is as large as the room in which it sits; in The Listening Room I (1953), he does the same to a green apple. Just as excessive size makes us re-see the apple or the flower in Magritte's paintings, so excessive size makes us re-see conspicuous consumption in Two Bad Ants' kitchen. From an ant's point of view, this kitchen turns conspicuous consumption into a monstrosity. (pg. 126)

Here we see Magritte placed on the witness stand to give evidence against the toaster, that well-known abomination of capitalist culture. Although it's easy enough to dismiss this reading as ridiculous, it's also frustrating, because Nel again clips the wings of his own subject. By narrowing his vision of the avant-garde to the political sphere, he marginalizes the other, equally vital aspects of surrealism and postmodernism that make them such fertile grounds for artistic endeavor. What about André Breton's "total transformation of the mind and all that resembles it?" What about aesthetics? What about, as Calvino wrote, the qualities of lightness and quickness? One gets the feeling at times that Nel is missing the point. In one telling example, he implies that Magritte's popular acceptance is a source of dismay, citing examples of how his avant-garde work has been absorbed by mass consumer culture, from CBS appropriating his cloudscape-within-an-eye (Magritte's The False Mirror, 1928 vs. William Golden's "eye logo," 1951) to Magritte prints appearing in television shows such as Frasier and The X-Files. Though Nel's point that the revolutionary is often co-opted by capitalism is certainly valid (though, as he admits, hardly new), nowhere does he suggest that maybe people actually like Magritte, that his cloudy eye is, perhaps, also elegant and beautiful.
Another reason for the book's general fuzziness and lack of direction emerges towards the end, once we fully realize that the chapters are episodic rather than developmental: Nel offers no compelling criteria or rationale for his particular selection of subjects. Obviously they are among his favorite writers, musicians, and artists, but other than that, no unifying pattern emerges. One can easily have imagined a virtually identical treatise based on a different collection of creative minds. Why Don DeLillo and not Thomas Pynchon, who after all, makes a more extensive use of surrealism? Why Leonard Cohen, a Canadian ironist, rather than Bob Dylan, an American with obvious roots in surrealism and modernist poetry? Or must we suppose that Nel's "representative" subjects are indeed selected according to personal taste rather than the demands of a logical thesis? Certainly his main argument could be applied to almost any interesting figure from Twentieth-Century American arts and letters. (Or for that matter, pop culture as well.) For a book proffering to alter the way we look at the boundaries between high modernism and postmodernism, much more is needed than a handful of "small incisive shocks" scattered across an arbitrary sampling of artists.

The above example from Two Bad Ants may anticipate my final critique, which is the book's overall lack of humor -- Nel approaches many of his subjects like intellectual Hall Monitor equipped with a wet blanket and a bucket of cold water. This is especially puzzling, as he is best known for his work with children's literature, and one praiseworthy aspect of The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity is his dignified treatment of Dr. Seuss, Crockett Johnson, and Chris Van Allsburg. Still, though Nel occasionally coins a clever sub-heading or offers an amusing in-joke -- as when he writes, "One could imagine Jerry Mathers (as the Beaver) strolling down these streets" -- the book is fundamentally humorless, as if he were afraid that cracking a few jokes might cost him an A-plus on his term paper. (Though one would think the references to Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, and Said's Orientalism would at least guarantee him an A-minus.) Although many of the works he discusses are rich with multiple levels of humor and nuance, Nel forces them to bow to political correctness, and anchored to the planks of his neo-Marxist critique, there's not a lot of room for the elevating powers of whimsy or the sly latitudes of subtlety. Unless Nel can access a work through a political angle, it frequently leaves him baffled or cold. Understandably, one gets the sense that he doesn't see himself like this, and there's something almost embarrassing about his awkward attempts to explain the more comic elements of the works under his study. Watching Nel try to make sense of out of Donald Barthelme's The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or Laurie Anderson's "Automotive" is like watching Ward Cleaver explain the virtues of Mad Magazine to the PTA.
This deficiency is most evident in the final chapter, which largely deals with performance artist Laurie Anderson. At heart, Laurie Anderson's work is fun: it may have some very serious intentions, but it delivers its points playfully, often leaving itself open to a variety of interpretations. While its undeniable that Anderson's art challenges a wide spectrum of cultural values and social constructions, Nel invests her pieces with only the most dogmatic meanings, collapsing her witty ambiguities and sublime epiphanies into a political screed. He also tends to over-interpret using a sort of critic's sleight-of-hand. In several cases, Nel will make an interpretation of a piece, then extend that interpretation to another, and so on, until a chain of inferences is forged. By eliding the connecting links -- not to mention ignoring the fact that they remain his interpretations -- he establishes a false connection between the original text and his own exegesis, so in the end we are simply told what Anderson "means." For instance, let's look at his discussion of "Mach 20." In this spoken-word performance, Anderson plays with the notion of kamikaze-like sperm cells racing to impregnate a single ovum. Through progressive stages of giganticism, she increases the biological proportions while maintaining the same ratios of size, number, and speed. The final result is likened to 400 million "blind and desperate" sperm whales, traveling at Mach 20 from coastal California to reach the islands of Japan within 45 minutes. She ends the piece by intoning,

How would they be received?
Would they realize that they were carrying information, a message?
Would there be room for so many millions?
Would they know that they have been sent there for a purpose?

So how does Nel interpret this "avant garde shock technique?" Through a slippery chain of increasingly more idiosyncratic interpretations, we are finally informed that "Mach 20" is a critique of "the reification of both masculine heterosexuality and its deployment in macho warfare," symbolic of "American missiles with a mission to destroy." It apparently escapes him that the biological mission of a sperm cell is the opposite of destruction, but rather to engender life -- in Nel's view, sex is about masculine power and violence, apparently even on the microscopic level. His sinister interpretation neither accounts for Anderson's final questions, nor does it pay any regard to the deeper biological miracle, placed in startling perspective by Anderson's surreal analogy. Although Anderson's piece is certainly complex enough to both suggest and support the imagery of missiles and/or sinister purpose, there are numerous other associations and pathways branching off that Nel leaves utterly unexplored. In the end, his analysis tells us more about Philip Nel than it does about "Mach 20."

Of course, after a dozen paragraphs of arguing and disagreeing with this book, it feels a bit awkward to shift gears, but I don't want to leave the impression that Nel's endeavor is entirely without merit. First of all, his writing style deserves to be complimented, as it remains direct and casual without sacrificing academic gravity. He only uses jargon where it serves a clear purpose, leaving his narrative refreshingly uncluttered. The first chapter does justice to Djuna Barnes, a writer surely deserving wider popular attention. As previously mentioned, the chapters on Dr. Seuss and Don DeLillo are quite worthwhile, and Nel does the world a service by including the subversive Doctor in the pantheon of postmodern giants. He makes an excellent case for the subversive elements inherent in the fantastical Seussian world, and one can only share his indignation at the horrifying ways his work has been appropriated after his death. Nel wisely proposes that sparking the imagination is just as important as overt political engagement, and he makes a convincing case for open-ended children's literature. After all, the imagination is where we envision a better future, and much of what we take for reality is based on alterable social constructs. There is no doubt that Nel is doing important work in this field, and despite my disappointment with this book, I will happily buy Nel's next work, Dr. Seuss, American Icon. And finally, it is good to see another cultural critic in the tradition of Gerald Graff, a fellow Leftist not afraid to take on his more extreme comrades. Nel offers a reasonable space between the impotent paralysis of Frederic Jameson and the shrill fantasies of Jacques Baudrillard, and his refutations of their views are both insightful and valuable.
Unfortunately, these strengths alone are not sufficient to recommend this book -- especially with its $45 dollar price tag. In the end, it stands as a collection of essays of various quality strung together by a few thin ideas. I recommend paying for your drinks and sending out for the pizza.

--Allen B. Ruch
6 February 2003

Additional Information

Book Homepage -- The book's listing on the University Press of Mississippi Web site.

Philip Nel's Homepage -- The author's homepage.


Email LJ Lindhurst at: ljl@w-rabbit.com

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.