Book cover: Oxford University Press.
This essay distills what I see as a fugitive, peripatetic set of counter-colonial avant-gardes, innovative and mobile to different degrees, challenging both what avant-gardes do and who are included among them. I do not treat them as a movement but as convergent spaces of work and thought, of “counter-conducts,” of co-practitioners in restless motion, figuratively in style and genre, literally in the range of places they travel, paths they cross, where they linger, meet, and move to and from. What joins them are the singularities of where, how, and when they press against the oppressive weight of racialized imperial governance, the counter-colonial refusals they share in melding political and aesthetic commitments and labor. Their geopolitics makes for a restless, borderless archive, dismissive of finitudes, wary of certitudes, but taken with manifestos, visionary, and in formation.
Though emerging from that Dresden invitation, the challenge came askew and from elsewhere: to understand politicality in a different register and mobile place, an aesthetics of dissent defiant of colonial governance and its conditions of subsumption. Tracking the ambiguities of political and aesthetic choice—from the common format of the “small magazine,” the disguise of folkloric content to the printing and paper sources—it is clear that whether decisions (and restrictions) were made under fierce colonial surveillance, under Vichy command, or in the imperial aftermath of purported independence mattered enormously.
Some of the ambiguities now strike me not as issues to resolve, but as willed and sometimes strategic in the aesthetic making of dissensus as it emerged—experimental, casting aside modes of expression, rebels against canons while other implicit mandates were installed. In Southeast Asia, the Mahgreb, the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, the Middle East, in the urban enclaves of Beirut and Cairo and Port-au-Prince, with stopovers in Paris and New York and London, are circuits of movement, neither in unison nor in progressive succession. They appear in multiple cascades of political vision and aesthetic innovation.
Much of these avant-gardes, so named, cross archipelagos of colonial detentions and dispossessions; they were experienced piecemeal, sometimes on a global scale. If “managed mobilities” were emblematic dispositifs of colonial governance (as I long have argued), a common signature of these anti-colonial warriors was to be emphatically in motion, neither to be immobilized by government decree, nor dissuaded in their transgression by colonial constrictions and their fictive borders.
RIPTIDES OF DISSENT
The paradox is there from the start, in the very juxtaposition of terms: an “archive” by nature and in its emergence assumes a will and force of its own. It surreptitiously imposes category making, creates sharply marked divisions between information and debris. It sets out draconian rules of engagement: no pens, no photocopying, no cameras, ultimately no access. Not least, it elevates its own criteria of relevance as sacred in wielding its command. An “avant-garde,” on the other hand, is poised and poses itself consciously not to do the opposite but to resist the nomos of classification and the norm of order, transgress the restrictions and constrictions that common sense so easily imposes even without explicit command.
Whatever this archive already includes, there is good reason to be on guard against its demands. Such an alert defines part of my venture: to address what principles and politics of authorization name something or someone as “avant-garde” without assuming who might care or remain indifferent to claim membership. What unexposed scaffolding might be brought into view, what does the label carry and to whom does it apply? What sort of archive might it summon and what might go into its curation? And in the spirit of an avant-garde, what are the subversions we confront and might perform in doing so? It is a query that takes in Adorno’s warning that no concept comes without a surfeit, a remainder, an excess that spills beyond its declared edges. It is precisely those edges—both of a possible archive and of a possibly radically differently circumscribed avant-garde to which I’m drawn.
INVERTING THE LENS
My thought is that we might, as did the wondrous Filipino novelist and polymath José Rizal (executed by the Spanish government) with his subversive novels on the cusp of the twentieth century, recalibrate both the directionality and the gravitational pull of the imperial compass. Might we invert the lens that has the European gaze riveted on the colony, and the colonized gaze turned toward Europe for “inspiration.” Might these gazes melt into movement, materiality, and proximities that defy fixed directionality? In motion, circulating, accumulating new ways of seeing as they turn. I think here of the aesthetics of dissent not as it emerged at the presumed Euro-American core, but on a broader imperial map marked by anti-colonial moments and mobilities that transversed and transgressed that assumed center.
For here were an astounding trans-generational series of successive interventions, similar but never quite the same. These riptides of dissent flooded plains, breached levies, and the manicured gardens of colonial decorum. In so doing, they produced strikingly disruptive and eruptive forms of popular global politics. Histories of empire, produced a mottled mix of famed and unacceptable artists—novelists, poets, illustrators, journalists, and editors—who mobilized their dissensions to produce an irreverent aesthetics and recalcitrant politics. The forms of recalcitrance were neither fixed nor necessarily agreed upon. At the edges of such a potential archive and in the outer folds of what might be considered avant-garde emerges an anti-colonial compendium of possibilities and visions.
Documenting these breaths of vision from a clogged and embattled space identifies a loose set of allegiances at best. They might be made up of an assembly of small groups carrying out minor ventures, committed to bold interventions, or confronted with failed efforts. It is not even clear when and how an avant-garde might be considered successful or effective. Was it by its visibility or how belligerently it faced off the imperial powers (though public throngs did not know about it)? Perhaps it was neither a story of failure, nor one of success.
What was the material with which they worked? Short lived journals, as in the insurgent Dutch East Indies on the cusp of becoming Indonesia in the 1930s. Some, like Légitime défense, published in Paris in 1932 (only one issue) by six Caribbean students who themselves saw the journal as a “provisional tool,” were virtually ignored by those to whom it was acidly directed—the placid youth of Martinique. As one of its authors, René Ménil, was to put it in a re-edition of Légitime défense forty-six years later, the “cruel pleasure of aggression” was a “way of settling scores with colonial hideousness (laideur colonial), ‘sadism’ ” (as he put in parenthesis). The pleasure [was] also of living the inflicted wounds to better announce the legitimacy of the cause,”
Légitime défense was followed by Étudiant noir, another “small review” (le petit journal) whose credentials gave it more fame but still dubious success. The range of myths and ambiguities about how long the former lasted—a single edition in 1932, or two, whether poetry was included (it was not), whether it was indeed the first place where one of its group, Aimé Césaire, used the word “negritude” (the word he actually used was “Négrerie”) was only rivaled by the fact that no African students (besides Senegalese Léopold Senghor) contributed to its profile, if not success. So, a question: was more made of their impact later than they actually had at the time? Or did their notoriety derive from the originary story they provided, with a beginning, specific time, and place of creation—facilitating retellings and an accessible narrative line?
That might have been what so irked the Cameroonian literary critic Edward Ako, who tracked down a half-century later the succession of (often unintended) misquotes and misinformation that was passed down (even by Césaire and Senghor years later) and by those who never saw or read either the one (or two) issues of Étudiant noir that actually appeared before it was censored. But maybe not. There were revues that circulated across the Antilles in the 1940s, collectives that envisioned the Caribbean as a direct affront to colonial mandates, taking on petty and powerful forms of Vichy censorship to decry, to mock, to deplore.
In the early 1960s there was Souffles-Anfas, a journal with flaming, raging poetry and politics from Morocco. There were books published and immediately banned (think Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, emptied from French bookstores shelves by censures a day after it appeared). And simultaneous with these dispersed movements, the succession of Asia-African congresses sometimes overrun by performative posturing (think Bandung 1955) but studded more importantly with prominent public figures who took their anti-European and anti-white supremacy politics as their mandate and founding premise.
“TO HELL WITH FRANGIPANI”. . . OF SUZANNE CÉSAIRE
In writing about Aimé Césaire, the concept that drives the power of the response, that pushes to new heights, transforming the notion of “politics” is clearly Césaire’s embrace of “poetic knowledge” and “poetic truth.” Capturing the imaginations of those who followed his itinerant words, Cesaire was singled out as the one who conveyed the power of anti-colonial refusal, drawing in many who followed in his wake. Living in the COVID-19 pandemic amidst Black Lives Matter in New York City since mid-May 2020, I can’t help but think that what actually galvanized so many and so many of us now, has been the Césaires’ embrace of “poetic rage.”
A recent account of the Paris protests in support of Black Lives Matter uses the phrase, but it is one borrowed from, and captures the fierce poetics of the Césaires. Aimé is there at the forefront. But it was Suzanne Césaire who was a force of her own. Her brilliance was breath-taking, as was her beauty (on which few who met her did not comment). Schooled in philosophy with Aimé at the École normale supérieure that pinnacle of French education, she cultivated the capacity to concentrate her rage in words that barely held to the page.
There is something else uniquely evident in this avant-garde, epitomized and named by Suzanne Césaire’s essays. It was an astounding capacity to write “in code” in precarious times. It was a movement around censorship, seized books, shut down, and internment. Some have even argued that their petit revue Tropiques, now infamous and renowned, was camouflaged as a poetry journal dedicated to Caribbean folklore. Some claim that the surrealist movement was a mere cover as well. The first conjecture is only likely if Vichy officials never read what she wrote (which they surely didn’t). For Tropiques’ January 1942 edition, she was fearless and dismissive of what she called “hammock,” “tourist literature,” calling for “the death of [the] sappy, sentimental, folkloric . . . to hell with hibiscus, and frangipani, and bougainvillea. Martinican poetry will be cannibal. Or it will not be.”
For she and her comrades, publishing during the fascist Vichy government required writing “in code.” With Aimé’s writing already banned from publication in France, Tropiques required an attunement to political surveillance and to what demanded being said nonetheless. As striking to my mind was Suzanne Césaire’s assault on colonial common sense. Her terse assessment of a “willful blindness” of history and of “the work it takes not to see.” “The work it takes not to see” has provided the colonial condition in its governmentality throughout the world. The terms of disengagement take many forms. They may emerge as “skittish seeing,” of an “averted gaze,” that imperial dispositions cultivated. Those terms of disengagement were invariably followed by a turn away. Suzanne Césaire’s writing repeatedly expressed this “disposition of disregard”—a touchstone and measure of racial politics, an active dissociation, uncomprehending what is seen and spoken. That disregard describes yet something else, marked by a negative space, “that from which those with privilege and standing could excuse themselves.” This ability to excuse oneself from wrought engagement joins refusal to witness and the almost legal legitimacy recusal confers.
Breton shared another observation in his exuberant, almost ecstatic 1943 preface to Césaire’s Notebook on a Return to the Native Land. The poetics of dissent was captured in the very lettered being of Césaire. It’s a quite amazing passage in which Breton in turn regales the reader with Césaire’s appreciation of the young trilingual gender bending poet, the Comte de Lautreamont—born in Uruguay, schooled on Baudelaire, Bryon, and Poe, and like Césaire, impassioned by a form of poetry that in itself was a “writ of expropriation.” For here was a poet who understood, again as did Césaire that “poetry starts with excess, disproportion, quests deemed unacceptable.” These transgressive and radical moves condu embrace the very definition of what constitutes an avant-garde.
Anti-colonialism and critiques of imperialism were not absent from European avant-gardes, but it would be difficult to argue that the politics of anti-racism provided the backbone of their being and the sinews of their assaults. It took several decades for Breton to come out forcefully in an anti-colonial position, far after Césaire. Anti-colonialism was there for some of the European avant-garde but could never be as central as it was for those whose lives were framed by its constraints. When in 1925, Breton wrote the First Surrealist Manifesto—it was the year in which he notoriously, as James Clifford noted, made a stance on the side of anticolonial rebels in Morocco when France was engaged in what Clifford wrote was a “minor [colonial] war.”
Actually, it was not so minor. Some historians consider the Rif War, which brought colonial Spain and France together to defeat a Moroccan army, the first war to use tanks and aircraft, a “harbinger of the decolonization process in North Africa”—or as some put it, the “last colonial war.” Not least it could be considered, as by some historians, precursor to the Algerian war of independence three decades later. Invariably accused of trespassing and transgressing norms, the militant poets of the anti-colonial moment did just that repeatedly. I’m not even sure that one can say that their “origins” were in Morocco or Martinique, in Indonesia, or Paris. Originary narratives were antithetical to their practices and projects. Their poetics and politics were firmly situated but not their imaginations. We might do better to be swept up with them in itineraries of meeting and inspiration.
Excerpt from Interior Frontiers: Essays on the Entrails of Inequality by Ann Laura Stoler, 2022, reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. This excerpt has been lightly edited by the author.
Ann Laura Stoler is Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, as well as the Founding Director of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry.