The Avant-gArDe, The New, and PostPostPostPostPostmodernISM

Lee Mortensen Rants about Art and Perverts your Souls


“In French ‘avant-garde’ means vanguard, means new or experimental, means original, perhaps, like art on the cutting edge, like a rebellion against something old, something tired, used up, overused,” she said.   

“Sometimes newness is merely something we’ve forgotten,” the other she said.

 “Sometimes it’s anything that violates our codes or maybe someone’s codes you don’t like,” the first she said.  

“You’re always trying to show off,” the other she said.

  OREM.  Today Lee Mortensen decided to define newness as a stitching, an intertextual orgy, and as, “even merely a mild guffaw toward what came before.”  Close friends to the Utah Valley State College professor and writer allege they saw her giving out copies of Allan Ginsburg poems to people in the colleges’ Hall of Flags.  Some students report being unhappy at these circulating copies of beatness.   “We’re not paying to have our codes violated.”  But Mortensen seems undaunted.  “I’m sorry, but Utah Valley is going to see some changes,” she stated in an interview.  She reported that “perhaps tomorrow I might define [newness] as angels smoking cigarettes and reading Nietzsche and the Book of Mormon and I’ll pass those out and what can they do to me?  But As a writer who actually has to think about getting to some semblance of a cutting edge (but why, why do I need to do this?), newness is always slipping away from me, always coming at me from other Texts which are not really new (intertextuality), always being invoked with strange juju and chanting and earth minerals because as a writer I don’t know where the hell The New comes from or even what it really is, but I have to find it, I have to, but of course, I want to be New but not Too New because it’s harder to publish when your stuff is Too New, but what does this say about my artistic integrity… I need a drink…  Well, anyway, students at the college are not sure what to make of it all and this article has gone over my word limit and my editor is kind of mad so I’m going to stop writing now and turn it in so they can publish the damn newspaper.

 Dear Reader:

Please disregard the previous article.  It was only accidentally published and if you pretend you didn’t read it we can claim it never really came out and eventually we’ll buy up all the copies of this particular edition and make the appropriate changes and then no one will ever know what really happened.


The Editor-In-Chief


The professor smokes her pipe and thinks, then begins speaking.

“When I ask creative writing students to define originality, they always say it is something unique, something new.  But what exactly is new?  Deconstructionism (ouch theory) would say that a signifier like ‘new’ or ‘the cutting edge’ is a constantly moving target, in infinite play always moving away from final meaning, leaving only traces of significance behind, hinting at only the hope of arrival.  Once a piece of new or ‘avant-garde’ art gets finished, gets purchased, gets put in a museum or book or on the Internet, gets defined and interpreted and even labeled ‘avant-garde,’ the cutting edge it once tried to inhabit has already moved on.  The avant-garde hanging on walls or staining pages and Web sites becomes the old, the tired thing the ‘cutting edge’ tries to rebel against. kdj;lkasdk jklsjdklfaj skjf ;lakjd;f lkajsklj;f; lakjd;lfkjl;kf dl;asjfl;jaldfkjas; kjfklasjdl; fkajskl;dfj;kasjf lal.dsfad.f,sdfnfal;kjf;kls dfjalsdfas./fmasldfk.alkdjfa d.s,mf;als d,fasdfma., sm,dfmas;dfalsmdf; asdf./,as/dmf aslf..f sd,fmas.,dmf/a.,sdf.,as mdf/as,.dmf./a,smf/as,.df/.mfla;skdfmasljaklsdj;fak sdkf;aslkjsaf/sd ,.fmas.d,fmasdf; lkasdjfasdfs.d,fsd,f,sdmflsdjkaf klasdfjkasklfj eweofisd7fsd dsfsdfs.f ,sdmf,.sfmnal sdofasodjflasd laskfjasdlkfj l;askfjakl;jdslkmfs, sddofkljsdd ffl;kaj ;lkasdjf; as,djlalsj;fklj f..

 (and that’s why authors drink and kill themselves)

 The professor looks up at the voice with disdain and continues puffingly.

“Modernism was, at it’s time, avant-garde.  For instance, Virginia Woolf was cutting edge, not allowing the reader to land on too much solid ground.  Before her, Naturalism was The New, a rebellion against the overt themes and niceness of Realism, which in turn tried to rebel against the poetic fantasies of Romanticism, and so on.”

 (do people really say “and so on”, like really in a real sentence in a conversation? I don’t think I’ve ever said that before in a real sentence in a real conversation)

And verily the professor stareth at the offending voice from above.

EVERY movement has been a rebellion, has, if you will, been potentially labeled ‘avant-garde,’ ‘original,’ ‘new.’  Thus, Postmodernism has been thought of as an avant-garde movement, a rebellion against Modernism’s unwillingness to really turn up the burners and ignite the entire set of cultural and narrative codes we take for granted as ‘natural.’  Modernism just wasn’t excessive enough for the next ‘cutting edge.’”

(do writers really think about this shit?  sometimes, and that’s why authors drink I guess and kill themselves and stuff)

The professor looks up at the voice with more disdain and continues more puffingly.

“Already, however, Postmodernism, as an already slippery signifier, has been “surpassed” by such movements as Minimalism, the desire to show absolutely no excess whatsoever in plot, characterization, or language (think Mary Robison or Raymond Carver).  Francois Camoin called this movement Neo-Realism, hinting at the idea that it was going back to a previous era to find The New, but adding a flat-with-a-vengeance style.”

(can’t someone just tell me a regular story for God’s sake?  I need a drink)

The professor pauses, types in emoticons ;\  ;)  :-(  lol, then holds up a sign.

In the later 1980’s, Minimalism was supplanted by a return to Realism’s style, but often these Realistic texts were filled with more Postmodern themes (think Oprah’s book list).  And, more recently, there’s another movement, another -ism yet to be named, but what I call The Neo-Postmodern, what others call reconstructive postmodernism.  One could also call it PostPostmoderism (unless one calls Minimalism Postpostmodernism, and so on).  Excess is back, at least a little, but it has what I call a soul (yes, “soul” is

 (I’ve often wondered if I could actually digest wood if I wanted to, I mean if I really put my mind to it and chewed the appropriate number of times and all the digestive enzymes really got going and how this might solve world hunger and then I might be famous and happy, but that's not going to happen)

            Here the Professor uses a transparency of stuff from other professors...


Often when people try to arrest the Avant-Garde with definitions, they invoke Postmodern and Neo-Postmodern ‘techniques’ (notice the death knell that word sounds for The New).  Here’s an assembly of structuralist dreams that try to identify the central rebellion of postmodernist writers/artists all of which we can think about when pretending to identify The New:”  

David Lodge gives us 5 strategies postmodernist writing uses to avoid modernism (from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction, 1987):

·         contradiction

·         discontinuity

·         randomness

·         excess

·         short circuit

Ihab Hassan gives us 7 rubrics of modernism that postmodernism “modifies or extends” (from Postmodernist Fiction):

·         urbanism

·         technologism (industrial/tech worship)

·         dehumanization

·         primitivism (anti-industrial worship—notice how this contradicts the above)

·         eroticism

·         antinomianism (a rejection of socially established morality)

·         experimentalism (hmmm…isn’t this what Postmodernism is?)

Laura Doan gives us a list of 8 fictional techniques authors labeled as “postmodern” use (from her book the Lesbian Postmodern, 1994):

·         intertextuality (texts only exist by pointing to and away from other texts—in other words, there is no signified, no “reality” to which a text points outside language; texts borrow from each other as a matter-of-course)

·         parody (pastiche)

·         pastiche (parody; when the text satirically/sarcastically copies the style of another writer)

·         self-reflexivity (metafiction)

·         fragmentation

·         revisionist history

·         frame breaks

·         the questioning of:

o       grand narratives

o       closure

o       stability

o       coherence

o       and, with a little nod toward Queer theory, the questioning of stable sexuality

·         magical realism (oh, sorry, that’s my addition)

In a way, the Avant-Garde as Postmodernism is very much all about Deconstruction theory—the “cutting edge”, in it’s Postmodern form, is going to try it’s damnedest to trouble all codes, all supposedly “natural” but “really” hierarchical binaries, and, when indulging in the deepest of excess, will present us with a vision of wonderful, playful, uncomfortable, blissful (think Roland Barthes/orgasm) chaos that I personally cannot live without.  Now lets look at how some avant-garde/postpostpostmodern Texts of perversion follow and violate these codes, and lets try to follow and violate to create a few texts of our own…


POMO/AVANT-GARDE tEXTS (or are these postavant-garde?):

THE nonexhaustive DREAM TABLE


BARELY POMO (but wouldn’t this be modernism or minimalism)?



Moby Dick by Herman Melville (the excess of a whole chapter on whales makes me swoon in a postmodern way)

Tristam Shandy by Laurence Stern (picaresque considered by some the first pomo novel because of it’s structurless pretend autobiographical narrative)


Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (modernism, but if the destabilization is pumped up could be postmodern)

Orlando by Virginia Woolf—movie and text (the movie is probably more pomo than the book because it often breaks the barrier holding back the audience, and it uses queer actors in transgendered roles)


Ulysses by James Joyce (farting, sex, drinking; 24 hours in 700+ pages, or is this really modernism?  I don’t think so)



Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce (actually, this is probably ultra-mega pomo seeing that the text hardly even invokes a code in order to break it)


Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (ok, it’s absurdist, but why can’t waiting for nothing and saying nothing be pomo?)



One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (magical realism can be pomo in my opinion)

“The Rise of Capitalism” by Donald Barthelme (classic postmodernism, also involving a lot of humor)


The Sot-Weed Factor and The Floating Opera by John Barth (extreme metafiction and humor)



Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (in the “tradition” of Ulysses)


Philip Glass and minimalist/avant-garde music (repeats the same chords over and over and over…)


Concrete and Visual Poetry like “Gap” by Rachel Blau DuPlessis (avant-garde typographical rhythms, and uses black space to imply covered-up words)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (minimalism, certainly, but often thought of as New even now)

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson (a neo-postmodernist, embodiment of queer theory?)



“The Sewers of Salt Lake” by Francois Camoin (becomes more and more excessive; almost feels like he’s paying homage to D. Barthelme)

“Subtotals” by Gregory Burnham (a numbered story, a list; actually, didn’t the traditional pomo’s do this in the 60’s?)



Cock & Bull by Will Self (a woman grows a penis, and man grows a vagina at the back of his knee; in the “tradition” of Orlando?)

Alex Caldiero—performance poetry on video (a perfectly normal sentence is transformed into angry sounds)



Angels in America Part I by Tony Kushner (great example of revisionist history and magical realism all in one)



Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk—movie and text (the narrative interruptions, the leaps, the gaps, the neo focus on masculinism)




Foundpoems like “Lingling,” “God,” and “Penis”



Flaming Iguanas by Erica Lopez (uses clip art, strange chatty fonts, and sexual attitude)


Vice by Ai (dramatic monologues; certainly filled with postmodern themes and anti-poetry techniques, but not necessary pomo to some)

Hypertext Fictions like “6 Sex Scenes,” “Insomnia,” “The Body,” and “Friday’s Big Meeting”

Karin England’s “real” Utah Valley Family Values recipe book (art, stories, food, and queerness)

China Avant-Garde Art—Wang Guangyi (almost too serious pastiche?)

China Avant-Garde Art—He Sen (true-crime style photos of gals doing everyday things; oh, and they don’t have eyes)



A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (moves between extreme ultra pomo and realism)




Postmodern Practice/Play Take 1

  1. Make Something Wild and unexpected with language (this is obviously a more open-ended exercise).
  2. Take one of the postmodern elements from the professor lists and use it to revise a piece of prose you have already created (or, say, something from your journal).
  3. Create a piece of prose: a character sketch of yourself or someone or something; a dialogue; a setting description; some odd exposition from a weird mind, then pick one of the postmodern elements and begin to play that into your work (like randomness, or pastiche or anti-coherence).
  4. Take a metaphor or cliché and expand it into a very excessive, or impossibly literal, prose piece.
  5. Do a photograph story (not weddings, but something else that lies on the cutting room floor), or a list story.
  6. Take two very different stories and make them merge by the end (for more pomo-aucity, play with anti-coherence or .
  7. Begin to flesh out a hypertext story of any kind either by writing one line at a time and randomly creating hyperlinks (to other actual pieces of paper; it can be hard to keep track, but that, too, would be postmodern), or by outlining all the possible combinations and choices you want to give the reader (but this is less postmodern, less random, more techno, but that is, in its way, pomo too, I guess).
  8. Turn one of your current stories into a hypertext story.
  9. Play with children's story telling and illustrating like The Stinky Cheese Man.
  10. Make up something fictional about a subterranean world under a city you are from (or an overterranean world above where you are from, say Vernal, Utah); flesh the settings and characters; then add some excessive bits from the list of postmodern elements (like primitivism and technologism and antinomianism); you might think in terms of social critique or the undermining of codes rather than the realm of acceptable fantasy and science fiction (though sci fi often critiques society and undermines codes).
  11. Take your body, or any other object, and create a hypertext story from its parts.
  12. Create a mobius strip story (or a line, but if you’re good at run-ons, you can also make a line a story).
  13. Write a subtotals story for yourself or for someone else.
  14. Take one of your subtotals stories and turn it into a concrete/visual fiction/artwork (add drawings, color, photos—mix genres).
  15. Go find any old piece of garbage/flier/wad of paper lying around on a floor or on a wall or on the seat of a bus, then come back and tell us it’s a poem and we will feel awe.
  16. Add you own practice/play ideas here:

Other Possible Experiments ...


You are a text, a character, a voice made of “strange” language and sound and perversity and complexity and randomness and unity and good and bad.  You-as-text can often appear in your writing or even be central in your writing, giving the reader a most compelling reason to believe.  Thus I want us to begin our writing by sketching ourselves as characters.  Perhaps begin with someone else’s line, like the one Greg Bottoms uses to start his essay “1967:”

Think more about language in terms of detail and sound rather than action or plot.  Try to let your draft lead to some interesting tension rather than thinking of tension or theme in advance.  Play with at least one postmodern technique in your draft.  If you begin to deviate from yourself, that’s fine.  You are shooting for 1-10 pages, double-spaced.  Here is my beginning example: