Mimicking the Avant-Garde: Intellectual and Artistic Activism in the Digital Age / by Patrizia C. McBride

Mimicking the Avant-Garde: Intellectual and Artistic Activism in the Digital Age

Patrizia C. McBride

The paper examines the recurrence of formal structures and tropes drawn from the European avant-garde (Futurism, Dadaism, German and Russian Constructivism) in the theorization of a digital turn that has unfolded in English-language scholarship of the past two decades. In focusing on two exemplary texts (Lev Manovich’s 2001 The Language of New Media and “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” composed by a group of scholars and activists that includes Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapps, and Peter Lunenfeld and posted in 2009), I appraise the stakes of drawing on avant-garde activism in framing the relation between knowledge production, artistic and intellectual engagement, and disciplinary institutionalization.[1]

I begin by examining the distinctive understanding of time that enables this theorization. In situating their discourse within an unfolding and open-ended process, the two texts deliberately evoke the avant-garde embrace of radical immanence as a stance that collapses the distance to one’s object of investigation and thereby subverts available epistemic and institutional hierarchies (Futurism and Dadaism). In addition, in describing the coexistence of older and newer media in ever shifting constellations of cultural production and consumption, both texts call for constructing non-linear and often recursive trajectories of development, whereby ‘anachronistic’ media and individual and collective modes of engagement come to prefigure and set desirable parameters for negotiating the turn to the digital.

I then turn to the distinctive understanding of mimesis that undergirds much contemporary theorization, and that revives the avant-garde appeal to bridge the divide between theory and practice by reconceptualizing criticism as a kind of making, indeed, a poietic activity defined by imitative experimentation (in the texts examined here this constellation is evoked through Constructivist tropes). Finally, I examine the epistemic horizon that much contemporary discourse on the digital shares with avant-garde activism. This involves, among other things, acknowledging the inseparability of theorization and advocacy; conceiving of scholarly engagement as collective, decentered, and fundamentally incompatible with fixed hierarchies; and shifting away from an anthropocentric notion of knowledge grounded in consciousness and towards cognitive modes predicated on the spiraling interaction of bodies, technologies, and environments.

  1. [1]In focusing on Manovich’s discussion of the status of cinema and of the image after the digital, on the one hand, and on the manifesto’s demand for militant digital humanities, on the other, my objective is not simply to describe a debt or discursive genealogy but rather to evaluate the productivity of avant-garde modes of theorization and intellectual activism within contemporary academia.

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