The Betrayals of the Avantgarde: Karel Teige’s Cine-Poetics and Beyond
By Louis Armand
“To make literature with a gun in my hand had for a time been my dream.”
– Richard Huelsenbeck
“Modernity today isn’t in the hands of the poets, but of the cops.”
– Louis Aragon
Avantgardism has always been vested in ideological struggle, though in retrospect this struggle is frequently aestheticised or abstracted into a type of avantgarde metaphysics, in which “the new” circulates as a transcendental signifier of pure possibility detached from the real political character of its revolutionary rhetoric, its historical dimension circumscribed by isms: Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. Each of these isms, drinking at the well of an ancient antagonism, enacts a kind of Gnostic ritual in which the destiny of the world (no less) is bound up with an act of aesthetic completion, whether by enlightenment or by apocalypse. This is the revolutionary task the avantgarde has always, in one form or another, imagined for itself.
Whether or not “modernism” and “avantgardism” can be regarded as in any respect synonymous during the first half of the twentieth century, or merely coincidental upon a drawn-out transitional moment in the technological and politico-economic evolution of the European idea, is perhaps a moot point, since in any case they come to represent complementary facets of the same historical “problem.” Given the imperative of crisis in both, within a context of violent transition across much of Europe (A transition sometimes mediated by nationalism, less frequently by the experiment in democracy that in a very few countries of the West had already acquired a tradition – a tradition which happened to provide the liberal environment in which an otherwise antagonistic avantgarde could productively evolve with minimal threat of state suppression) – from Imperialism to Totalitarianism, with various detours into libertarianism, social democracy and market capitalism – even this simple binary, which has become the foundation of endless art-historical truisms, is fraught with contradiction. In his 1974 study, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger famously but unpersuasively sought to contrast “modernism” with the “avantgarde” on the tenuous basis that modernism “is defined in terms of its consistent and continuous adherence to the concept of aesthetic autonomy” while the aim of the avantgarde has been to reintegrate art into life through a critique of institutional ideology (especially that concerning “art” itself).
Contrarily, it’s easy to argue that the abstractive (autonomous) movement of modernity (as distinct from what Poggioli called the “sociological-aesthetic myth of l’art-pour-l’artisme) is precisely what provides the critical possibility of an avantgarde as such, while – as Bürger concedes – in the final analysis a “reduction” of art and life eliminates the possibility of a critical position. Bürger concedes that “an art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticise it.” As others, like Guy Debord, have noted, “the suppression and realisation of art are inseparable aspects of the same overcoming of art.” And it is for this reason that a “socially-transformative” project of “reintegrating art into life” is visible even in the seemingly paradoxical, spasmodic anti-art of the various Dadaisms and their stabilisation within the discourses of Cubo-futurism and Constructivism. The same reasons that gave rise to such seemingly unlikely artefacts as Raoul Hausmann and Richard Huelsenbeck’s “radical communist” manifesto What Is Dadaism and What Does It Want in Germany? (1919) in which the artist demanded the “introduction of progressive unemployment through comprehensive mechanisation of every field of activity” and the establishment “of a Dadaist advisory council for the remodelling of life in every city of over 50,000 inhabitants” – as well as “the “immediate regulation of all sexual relations according to the views of international Dadaism through establishment of a Dadaist sexual centre.”
The same reasons, too, manifest in the ideological discrepancies between two of the most frequently cited instances of the avantgarde’s “last” convulsive flowering in Europe: Mai ’68 in Paris and the Prague Spring (Pražské jaro). Discrepancies that belie deeper antagonisms within the socalled avantgarde project, inherited from the interwar era and transposed into a fractured image of experimental “liberalism” in the late 1960s, whose revenance-effect was still visible in Fukuyama’s timely proclamation of the End of History in 1989. What in the interwar era remained fluid and contested, becomes a set of doctrinal positions from which revisionist critiques like Bürger’s have biased the avantgarde idea and which have, within the mainstream of Western post-war intellectual discourse – with its initial impetus in the work of Sartre and other self-proclaimed “existentialists” – obscured the ideological crisis at the heart of it.
The embarrassing and sometimes shameful adherence of key Western intellectuals to the tenets of Stalinism and Maoism, even after the facts were well known (Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s grotesque apologies for the Moscow show trials; Sollers’s laughable subscription to the Chinese “cultural revolution”) taints twentieth century “modernism” and “avantgardism” no less than Pound’s and Marinetti’s befuddled adoration of Mussolini, or Heidegger’s unrepentant Hitlerism. The fact that a certain post-war prestige attached itself to the Soviet Union in light of its dubious opposition to the Nazis, has of course tended to slant the way in which history has been projected in this respect, just as the cultural and economic prestige of the United States served as an ideological foil in Western Europe (no less than in the USSR) for the discourse of revolt against the apparently one-sided hegemony of market capitalism.
Mai ’68 and the Prague Spring illustrate the dilemma frequently concealed here, based in what were in fact (despite a shared pre-history of Nazi occupation) diametrically opposite social movements: one, symbiotic with an economic “renaissance,” appealing both to modernism’s apparent revulsion by consumerist (i.e. American) kitsch as well as the revolutionary discourse of a “political avantgarde,” and drawing upon the heroic image of war-time (partisan) resistance movements; the other emerging from a populace whose cultural and political independence had been twice traded away by the West and whose non-partisan resistance movements had been systematically decimated, such that their dissident movements had evolved directly within the framework of an oppressive state socialism, characterised by a recent history of isolation, economic crisis, widespread purges and Soviet clientelism.
Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 didn’t, in this respect, produce the major sea-change in Western intellectual circles it might have. And if the Budapest uprising and the Prague Spring did marginally more to realign attitudes, this likely as not took the form of a handydandy flirtation with Maoism and the various brands of anti-colonialism fashionable on the boulevards in the ’60s and ’70s – of the kind satirised by Godard and Fassbinder and only marginally linked to actual political struggle in Algeria, Palestine and elsewhere. It would be wrong, however, to regard these as merely forms of “boutique” avantgardism sponsored (covertly or otherwise) by the competing powers to produce a cultural of political distraction, for their consequences were nevertheless significant and continue to enmesh debate in a “postmodernist” miasma that is both “capitalism’s masterstroke” (Fukuyama) and the triumph of institutional “leftist” revisionism (as for example the project of October magazine).
While a disproportionate number of the victims of Stalinism – particularly those affiliated with the interwar avantgardes – had to wait until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in order to be, as they say, “rehabilitated,” many socialist dissidents from those same groups in the Warsaw Pact countries remain in undeserved obscurity still, haunting the margins of a discourse whose major leftist elaborators in the West were actively complicit in their suppression. This is the dirty history of “the avantgarde,” which – in its ideologically homogenised Franco-Germano-centric view of itself (ventriloquised by American proxies like Rosalind Kraus and Hal Foster) – have too often privileged the representatives of Sovietised “modernism” while effectively collaborating in the silencing of its internal critics (doing the work of the NKVD and KGB).
Toyen, Bohuslav Brouk, Jacqueline Breton, André Breton, Vítězslav Nezval, Jindřich Štyrský (seated), Vincenc Makovsý, Paul Eluard, Karel Teige (Prague, 1935)
Situated as the major interchange on the Paris-Moscow axis, the situation of the interwar Prague avantgarde was (and remains) paradigmatic in this regard. Capital of the only advanced industrial state east of Germany – with a Western-orientated liberal democracy and a flourishing avantgarde with close ties to the Cubists, the Constructivists, the Berlin Dadaists, the Bauhaus and the Surrealists – Prague was the proverbial beacon-on-the-hill of the new “European idea” emerging from the defeat of the German Reich and the collapse of the Habsburg empire. The scope of the Prague avantgarde ranged from the “first Dada novel,” Melchior Vischer’s Sekunde dirch Hirn (Second Through Brain) (1920), and the Dada manifestations of John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann in tandem with Adolf Hoffmeister, Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich at the Liberated Theatre (Osvobozené divadlo ) – from which Poetism, Devětsil, and Prague Surrealism successively emerged – to the irrealism of Kafka, the “science fiction” of Karel Čapek, the experimental poetics of Marina Tsvetaeva and the structuralism of Roman Jakobson and René Wellek, among many others.
Central to much of Prague’s interwar avantgarde scene, much as Guillaume Apollinaire was to that of pre-war Paris, was Karel Teige – writer, polemicist, collage artist, theorist – who formed close connections with Man Ray, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, André Breton and Le Corbusier, all of whom visited Prague on his invitation. And if Prague’s status as an internationalist avantgarde capital of interwar Europe has since become obscured under the influence of world-historical events and the city’s secondary position (after Berlin) on the Cold War fault-line (figuratively at least) between East and West, in that perennial non-place of “Mitteleuropa,” then this diminution, suppression and at times erasure is nowhere more paradigmatic than in the case of Teige himself, in whom the ideological forces of “History” found a most convenient scapegoat. For in Teige we see how truly inimical to the self-proclaimed guardians of the “avantgarde” the internationalism and syncretism of a certain modernity still remain and just how superficial the work of intellectual reparation, so to speak, has been since then and in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, even as the West begins again to doubt its global triumph.
For while to “Western” eyes Prague has served at key times as a symbol (however ambivalent and indeed accusatory) of totalitarian oppression and as a beacon of resistance and of the “free spirit” – Hitler’s annexation in 1939, the Prague Spring in 1968, the Velvet Revolution in 1989 – the substance behind this symbolism and the modernist/avantgardist tradition underpinning its cultural labour has largely been ignored. And despite the West’s apparent fascination with the city, on each occasion of its oppression by the Nazis and then the Soviets, it was the Western Powers who left it to fend for itself – just as, despite Western intellectuals’ extravagant love affair with Kafka, the legacy of Prague’s other major modernist innovators, Teige foremost, after forty years of communist suppression and Western ignorance and neglect, has continued to be left to fend for itself.
Like many involved in the avantgardes of the 1920s and ’30s, Teige believed that the problems of art proceed from a social dimension. While never a member of the Communist Party his theories linking Constructivism and Poetism led him to a broadly “socialist” understanding of the revolutionary task of art – driven by a catholic conception of futurity expressed, in 1924, in the idea of an “Americanised Europe on its way to becoming one chaotic and cinematic metropolis” in whom “the accompanying social change” would produce “an harmonious international city,” of which Prague was emblematic. It was Teige’s misfortune, unlike his Western counterparts, to find himself after WW2 living not in an internationalist utopia but in a communist-dominated state veering towards dictatorship, whose socialism bore no relation to Teige’s (as some critics nowadays say with all the sneering satisfaction of hindsight) naïve socialism. For Teige, art was never in the service of the revolution, it was the revolution – his vision of an ars una encompassed all aspects of social life alongside all modes of production, in contrast to the Socialist Realist dogma in which art served purely as an aesthetic representation of ideology.
The political orientation of the pre-War avantgarde and Teige’s later victimisation by the communist authorities in post-War Czechoslovakia, cannot be separated either from the mode in which his ideas were formulated or the manner of their later suppression. Arguably, Teige’s importance to the pre-War avantgarde scene in Europe has been almost entirely negated as a consequence of ideological normalisation during the Cold War era and the invention, basically, of a “secret avantgarde” whose existence in the Yalta Conference states remained (and in many cases still remains) that of a shadow to the institutional avantgardism of the liberal left within the cultural conglomerate represented by the Marshall Plan.
While Teige’s standing in pre-War Czechoslovakia had been commensurable with that of Le Corbusier and Breton in France, during the immediate post-War period following the communist putsch (and as a consequence of his earlier criticism of the Moscow show trials – for which Vítězslav Nezval, Louis Aragon and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were all avid apologists) Teige was declared persona non grata. His reputation was almost completely overshadowed by that of his one-time friend and collaborator Nezval, who disowned him (to the disgust of mutual friends like André Breton) – but while elsewhere Stalinist sympathisers like Louis Aragon have since attracted a degree of criticism, Nezval, a no less rabid Stalinist and unbridled egotist in addition, still remains the default representative of Czech avantgardism, even in the most recent cultural histories. In addition to being obliged to recant his anti-Stalinist views and to issue a stern public auto-critique, Teige (at the same time as Nezval was receiving official sanction) was systematically harassed, denied access to all but informal modes of publication, and denied the opportunity to emigrate. Teige’s official humiliation continued even after his death in 1951, when his apartment was confiscated and his papers and library were destroyed by the communist authorities.
As if to reinforce all this, and on the flimsy pretext of having been written in a minor European language, Teige’s work was subsequently allowed to fall into an obscurity in the West equal to the obscurity into which it was cast in Czechoslovakia, affected – and this is a conclusion difficult to avoid – with at least the partial collusion of the “liberal left” in assuagement of their Soviet minders (and this despite the ongoing art-historical vogue Surrealism and Constructivism have experienced since roughly that time). To be exact, Teige’s work first appeared in English translation only in 1999, while the first important secondary literature on Teige didn’t appear until the mid-2000s. In comparison, the semiotician Jan Mukařovský, Teige’s contemporary and one of the founders of Prague Structuralism, prospered after the War – during which time he became one of the architects of the communist purges and was appointed Rector of Charles University. With the Anglo-American hunger for Structuralism in the ’70s, Mukařovský even had an impact in English in some quarters of academia comparable (arguably) to that of Roman Jakobson (who, along with René Wellek, had escaped Prague before the war).
The point here is not to exaggerate the comparative reception of these thinkers, but to highlight a disparity between the ongoing reception in the West of the likes of Mukařovský (particularly in light of the reassessments directed at Heidegger, who for a time enjoyed a similar position under Hitler as Mukařovský did under the Czechoslovak dictator Klement Gottwald, though did not exercise it to the same ends) and someone like Teige. And while it is characteristic of this period, in which dissident figures on both sides of the Marxist-Capitalist divide were overshadowed by those overtly complicit with the ideological status quo – which is to say, the phoney “revolutionary struggle” the Cold War masqueraded itself as – such an alibi is not readily available today, where in its place we often simply confront a project of consolidation within Western intellectual discourse that (still) projects itself eastward as the definitive cultural narrative, by way of its Guggenheim franchises, its virtual monopoly on “impact assessed” scholarly publications, its saturation of digital archives, and so on.
By a perhaps not un-ironic twist, the necessary disillusionment produced by this hegemonic powerplay (in addition to all else, and accompanied by an ongoing “postmodernist” angst about the failure of the “neo-avantgarde”), gives a renewed impetus to precisely the kind of legacy Teige’s work bequeaths. Monolithically overshadowed on both sides, it represents something like an apotheosis of everything the experimental avantgardes of the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries set out to accomplish, for it illuminates the real object of the critique: that, like a secret army, in order to become what it is, the avantgarde must not be – and it must accomplish this in full view of the world.
John Heartfield (left), at the AIZ magazine office, Prague (1936) & his “Farewell to Prague!” (1938)
Is it merely a circumstance of history, then, that Teige – like Trotsky, though under rather differing circumstances – acquires a certain “validation,” having fallen by the wayside of Power? Or is the form of this “fall” already a denunciation, of that false “transformation of consciousness” the institutional avantgarde represents by becoming, in effect, an Ideological State Apparatus, as Althusser says? Yet the duplicities of this expropriative movement are such that the romance of avantgardism, particularly in the former West, and among intellectuals who ought to know better, is allowed to dissemble the fact that any wholesale “transformation of consciousness” must necessarily betray a political impetus – and that, moreover, no “avantgarde” could pursue such a programme without relinquishing its experimental basis.
Teige argues precisely this point in his “Poetist Manifesto,” published in 1924, in which a programmatic constructivism is confronted with an irreducible poiēsis, an idea that will remain – if not always formulated as such – the basis of Teige’s thinking even during his socialist period. “Each calculation,” he writes, “rationalises irrationality merely by several decimal points. The calculus of each machine has its π.” This π is the critical-generative element, the poetic spur, which is both so-to-speak “objective” (it is the only truth in art) and “without object” (it has no model, whether interior or exterior). When art or language or even politics is stripped of “ideology,” it is this that remains, and it is this that “ideology” is ultimately unable to abolish: the element that exposes its inauthenticity, as it were. It is the locus of a “disillusionment” in every sense.
In the manifesto, Teige called for a generalised poetics as the foundation of everyday life, expressed in the synergetic intermeshing of all aspects of modernity, from the technological to the psychological, the political and the semiotic. This syncretism reaches beyond its immediate historical formulation towards the post-War preoccupation with cybernetics, hypermedia and interactivity. Unlike the technocratic utopianism of Marinetti, Poetism, for Teige, was to be the actual crowning achievement of a communitarian future concerned not with the artefacts of modernity but rather its self-transformative potential. “Poetism,” Teige wrote, “knows that one of the greatest values embraced by mankind is human individuality harnessed to the discipline of the collective fellowship of man.” Just as Heidegger envisage poetic dwelling, so Teige envisaged a communitarian dynamic. As a revolution towards potential, “Poetism,” Teige insisted, was “not an -ism.” Nor was Poetism “art” in any pre-existing sense. “Poetism is,” he argued, “above all, a way of life.”
It was Teige’s objective to “revise all values,” “to liquidate existing art categories,” to produce an “art that ceases to be art.” The “Poetist Manifesto” was not about “poetry” in the sense of a literary genre, but about a generalized poiēsis. It is necessary to read Teige’s major theoretical statements in tandem to appreciate the original character of his thinking here. The emergent concept of a life-poetics takes shape in several very different contexts: the first is the “Poetist Manisfesto” of 1924, then “The Minimum Dwelling and the Collective House” – an essay primarily concerned with the problem of social housing, published in 1931 – and “The Inner Model,” a response to Surrealism, from 1945. Teige’s starting point may be described as a “projective dialectics,” an attempt to understand the true character of experimentalism and the role of the avantgarde as a critical-generative force.
In this, Teige lays the practical foundation of his project, distinguishing his “poetics” from an avantgardism that constitutes its own “problem” – that is to say, from the vicious circle of “ideology.” Teige conceived of this dialectic as “projective” in that it is drawn into the world, or as Heidegger says, thrown. The basis of its critique are not a system of pre-existing values, but the convulsive encounter between emergent forms. In this way Teige’s “Poetism” approaches aspects of de Saussure’s semiology, in which “meaning” or “significance” arises on a basis of interactions characterised as “differences without terms.” As in montage, “sense” doesn’t devolve upon discrete semiotic elements on the basis of pre-existent “meanings” or “resemblances” – rather, like Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical image,” their constellation, so to speak, makes sense of them. As Benjamin says,
‘It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a ﬂash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. – Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.‘
It’s no accident that Teige saw an immediate expression of this idea in the logic of collage. Like Debord some decades later, Teige recognised that the significant element of collage was its capacity for détournement. Not only does the encounter between previously unrelated elements produce “sense,” but this “sense” has the potential to affect a critique. A critique not of some “content” or other, but of the very logic (the ideology in fact) of sense vested in objects: which is to say, in a mimēsis. Collage, montage, architectonics and psychic automatism all provided Teige with opportunities to develop a non-objective poetics which at the same time emphasised its radical materiality.
In 1925, Teige turned his focus on the work of Man Ray. Teige considered Ray’s photograms (“rayographs”) as opening a path towards precisely such a materialist “poetics” of the object, in which the implied technicity of montage and the “seamless potential” of collage might be given “formal” expression – what Teige called “optical poetry.” This was not supposed to be a metaphor but rather a revolution, a reinvention of “seeing” that would also and at the same time entail a reinvention of “poetics.” Art in all its previous formulations was declared to be abolished, or if not abolished, transformed beyond recognition: the future it represented could only be grasped if the revolutionary character of this transformation itself was grasped. As Paul Éluard was to write, “it is possible to transform anything into anything else, anything whatsoever.” The photogram provided a blueprint.
Karel Teige, collage no.55a (1938)
During the next ten years, these ideas of “combining the incompatible” percolated through his theoretical writings before emerging, in 1935, as the basis of Teige’s major art practice. Additionally informed by Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma (1925), and by the “Dadaist collages” of Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, Max Ernst, and the “visual imagination” of John Heartfield (resident in Prague from 1933-38 in exile from the Nazis), Teige’s later “Surrealist” photomontages and collages – some of which appeared, alongside that of Jindřich Štyrský, in Erotická revue and Edice 69 – aimed at an overarching “pictorial synthesis of contradicting elements.” As Karel Srp has noted,
‘the mutual relation of the motifs used became the most important question of photomontage; while in pictorial poems the choice of motifs was subordinated to a single unified tone, in surrealist collage it was the role of contrast and discrepancy which came to the fore.‘
The majority of Teige’s 374 collage works, however, weren’t published until after his death in the samizdat journal Zvěrokruh and remained unknown outside communist Czechoslovakia until they were “discovered” by German art critics in the 1960s. In retrospect, we can see the collages as an integral part of the overall architectonic design of Teige’s syncretic modernism, whose “social” dimension was never separate from the question of articulation, whether in the aesthetic forms of collage, cinema, architecture or “poetry,” or in the ideological foundation of the future ideal “harmonious international city.”
What Teige was attempting was an entirely new theoretical structure for a new poetic environment; in the process he sought to reinvent the very idea of the avantgarde. His “projective dialectics” had evolved through a shift away from the idea of “form” and “model” towards “process” and onwards, to the polyvalences of “figuration” and “prefiguration.” His next step brought him into direct conflict with Le Corbusier on the question of communal architecture. Teige’s interest in architecture was two-fold: on the one hand, stemming from a concern with the economic roots of urban housing shortages, he viewed architecture as a realisation of social possibility and consequently as a mode of socialism; on the other, stemming from a concern with structure, he viewed it as an expression of poiēsis, of a social dynamic in flux. For Teige, social reality must first and foremost be experimental.
Teige’s approach to the question of the “minimal dwelling” anticipated Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxionism, in that the minimal should maximalise potential. This was not simply an economic argument. For Teige, a dwelling that could meet an essential existential minimum must, by definition, also be collective. Unlike Le Corbusier’s machines for living, with which this idea is superficially similar, Teige rejected any notion of a “hermetically sealed structure” (as in Le Corbusier’s “Unité d’habitation”) or any reduction to classical principles of proportion and scale (Le Corbusier’s application of the “golden section” as the modular standardisation of the individual body). Teige, who lectured on this subject at the Bauhaus in the 1930s, envisaged a collectivity that wasn’t merely an abstract assemblage of units (“unity” in “separation,” as Debord says), but a dynamic system. This is the social dimension of Teige’s thinking, however naively it might’ve been accommodated to the imperatives of state socialism – for the dwelling must itself be the socius. While the language of Teige’s essay on the minimum dwelling is often programmatic, its key points are derived – as in his approach to the rayographs – from the materiality of the problem. The minimum is effectively a semiotic minimum on which the collective discourse that dwelling entails can be founded ; it is the defining possibility of social interaction. The architectural minimum becomes an architectonic minimum, the interstice defining a general economy of articulation.
The final development of Teige’s syncretic modernism came about in his discussion of photography in the “Inner Model,” his last major theoretical statement, in which he attributes the operations of a generalised poiēsis to an autonomous structural agency (for example, the “technical, photochemical process that,” in the production of a photographic image, “is essentially automatic”). From Breton, Teige borrows the metaphor of “psychic automatism,” but ultimately the “psychic” character of this automatism is independent of purely human agency. Teige returns to the Freudian understanding of a psychic apparatus, whose structures are differential, and whose operations are guided by a radical ambivalence. He defines what he calls the “inner model” not as a mimetic substitute, but as a “psychograph” produced “by those forces of the psychic apparatus that act on it before it becomes what it is.” The “inner model” is, in effect, the non-objective core of Teige’s poetics – and it represents the moment at which his thinking deconstructs the ideological basis of its “socialism.”
Teige’s photo-poetics or typophotography – exemplified in practice in his 1923 “Pictorial Poem” collaborations wit Jindřich Štyrský and his better-known 1926 collaboration with Nezval, Alphabet – overlaps with both Berlin Dada (Hannah Höch’s Meine Haussprüche, for example, from 1922) and the photo-poetry of Russian avantgardists like Mayakovsky and Rodchenko’s About This (1923) and Mayakovsky and Rozhkov’s To the Workers of Kursk (1924-7), developing from the “bioscopic” approach first mooted by El Lissitzky. As Aleksandar Bošković notes,
‘In the 1920s, inclusion of mass-produced and machine-made images—photography, photomontage—together with the application of a filmic vision as a fundamental part of literary fiction, was a much more radical statement about modernity than it may appear to us today. In this context, the 1920s photopoetry emerged as a new genre that aspired to appropriate the products of technological culture in creating poetry more alert to the mass sensibility of a rapidly changing mechanical age. As a new hybrid form that combines poetic text and photographic images, photopoetry was ripe for poetic experimentation and production of optical provocations.‘
In certain essential respects, this “bioscopic” incorporation of a general poetics within the sphere of the socalled technical image epitomises Teige’s emerging cinematographic, techno-poetic vision. As Bošković argues, the bioscopic book was conceptualised “as an alternative cinematic apparatus,” capable of transforming
‘a mere object into a concrete “technology” due to its operational body: its continuous page sequence and the dialectical interaction of the poetic text and photomontages featured on its pages. The specificity of the bioscopic book’s operational body is defined by the montage… as overt juxtapositions and accumulation, repetition, seriality, or sequence… the reader/viewer both takes part in the topography of the bioscopic book and becomes a part of its conceptual material circuit. The reader/viewer participates in the re-creation of the cinematic ‘projection’ by setting the alternating current of the bioscopic book in motion.‘
This “concrete technology” thus presents itself as an apparatus for “the formulation and re-production of montage thinking as a new cognitive model by which we interact with the outside world” in which, as Teige says, the “silver screen of our dreams displays electrogenic poems” engulfed in a new global “sensibility” anticipating the syncretic thought of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, and its Situationist critique. Indeed, Teige’s photopoetics is never conceived separately from a form of “expanded” future cinema of which, already in 1924, he writes “the rapid succession of facts, ideas and observations” – at a “velocity… similar to Einstein’s theorems” – “brings about a simultaneity of perception” – an “overwhelming visual orchestra… of form and matter in motion… a cineplastic poem that abides and unfolds in time… a space-time poem that, as Whitman says, ‘Needs not words, nor music, nor rhyme’” and which – like Benjamin’s dialectical image – would be not only “an accurate description of our age” but encompass “the most radical psychological contrasts with such acuteness that it borders on paradox.”
What is important here is that this paradox no longer represents a problem in need of resolution or accommodation, rather it exposes a certain impetus to “abstraction” that is fundamental to what Teige perceived as the true technological condition of humanity. And it is here that Teige’s conception of “montage” is most radical in its departure from Bürger’s reductionism – as a generative semantic conceit that cuts across not only spatio-temporal but also social dimensions, transforming perception itself. To the extent that all modernity is an “accelerationism,” Teige’s vectoral ciné-poetics vests abstraction in a new (potentially fundamental) reality to which the eye-mind is given access under the tutelage of unprecedented velocities. “A landscape,” he writes, “which we traverse at the speed of a hundred kilometres by train or car is devoid in our eyes of its descriptive and statistical dimensions; our senses are impregnated with a vision of totality and synthesis.”
Karel Teige, collages no.196 (1941) & no.48 (1938)
Drawing on the Simultaneist impulses in Apollinaire’s Alcools, Teige’s synaesthetic “vision” comes to inform a generalised poetics as the basis not merely of an aesthetic standpoint but, like Fuller, of a “total” world view – in which avowed socially-transformative aims are not in contest with the abstractive autonomism of modernity at large, but fully in synthesis with them. It is in the “paradox” of the moving image that Teige identifies the aspirations of Poetism as most fully expressed, “that there is but one art in many guises” speaking “in all the languages and dialects of human imagination.” As an analogue to his integrated/dynamic conception of the social and aesthetic dimensions of life, cinema represented for Teige that acme of creative life which for Gropius and Le Corbusier was represented by architecture: a weightless, perpetually mobile, virtual architecture of poetic vision and thought. A revolutionary idea for its time.
In practice, Teige’s involvement with filmmaking was more or less limited to the genre of Poetist screenplay – explored in tandem with Voskovec, Nezval, E.F. Burian, Vladislav Vančura et al. as “a synthesis of picture and poem, set in motion by film” – whose most successful interpreter was arguably Aleksandr Hackenschmied, considered to be the founder of Czech avantgarde cinema with his 1930 film Aimless Walk (Bezůčelná procházka), but who became better known in his American incarnation as Alexander Hammid, co-author with Maya Deren of Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Yet if the evolution of “expanded cinema” in Teige’s total conception as a medium still belongs to the future, its “reality” is already vested in the world – it is, in a sense, the immanence of the world itself given temporal expression:
‘Cinema revealed to us a brand new artform, one perfectly attuned to the character, needs and essentials of our time. We recognized the cinema as a cradle of all new art. Its live radio-concerto is where the sundry voices of all the world’s cities and the keen magic of melancholic songs converge. Where the most singular images and foreign lights burn as ephemeral stars shrouded in steam train mist. The possibilities of cinema are endless, its resources rich and limitless. Its genuinely modern poetry is all-encompassing, precise, terse and synthetic.‘
Almost a century on, and like some return of the repressed Teige’s theoretical investigations appear to us today strangely cognisant, in their most radical formulations, of a line of development in “Western consciousness” from cinema to cybernetics, to that eminent domain of post-humanism in which contemporary thought still dreams of itself as the midwife of an artificial intelligence it has always been nostalgic for. What had been consigned to the dustbin of history only to become one of those poltergeists that find ways of upsetting the proverbial applecart, Teige’s syncretic modernism confronts us in equal measure with an unnerving prescience and the naivety of the “heroic spirit, intoxicating exoticisms and beautiful optimism”: which is to say, with the disillusionment of the “new” in its momentarily recognisable form. Poetism claimed to be more than merely “a silent accompaniment” in the world of social interactions, but is its revenance the symptom or a secret “cause” of a poetics of radical ambivalence that continues to test the adequacy of modernism’s theoretical prostheses, or the barely glimpsed prelude to a cinema-without-end?
Cf. Michael Chapman, “Fusion and the Avant-Garde,” Fusion: “Bürger developed a sociological argument that the practices of the historical avantgarde had emerged as a fusion of art and life, merging practices into a hybrid assault on autonomy that can be characterized as distinctly avantgarde. Refuting previous positions, Bürger argued that the avantgarde wasn’t concerned with merely dismantling the classifications of art, but the institution of art in its entirety. This was dramatically opposed to Clement Greenberg’s hegemonic theory of art practice, where the segregated medium was the sole attribute through which the avantgarde could advance. It was in opposition to this diffusion of art practice that Bürger’s theory framed a radicalized lens through which the avantgarde could be reconceptualised: combating the segregation of medium with a deliberate fusing of the structures of art and their political and social histories.”
Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1968) 20.
Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) 50.
See, for example, L’Internationale: Post-War Avant-Gardes Between 1957 and 1986, ed. Christian Höller (Zürich: JRP Ringier, 2012).
See Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
See František Šmejkal, “Kurt Schwitters a Praha,” Umění 34.2 (1986): 184-191.
Karel Teige, “The Aesthetics of Film and Cinematography,” trans. Zdeněk Polívka, Prague Poetics, ed. David Vichnar (Prague: LPB, 2017).
Teige’s work was first translated into English to any real extent in 1999, while the first important secondary literature on Teige only appeared in the mid-2000s. In comparison, the semiotician Jan Mukařovský, Teige’s contemporary and one of the founders of Prague Structuralism, prospered after the War, during which time he became one of the chief architects of the communist purges and was appointed Rector of Charles University. With the Anglo-American hunger for Structuralism in the ’70s, Mukařovský even had an impact in English in some quarters of academia comparable (arguably) to that of Roman Jakobson (who, along with René Wellek, had escaped Prague before the war). The point here is not to exaggerate the comparative reception of these thinkers, but to highlight a disparity between the ongoing reception of the likes of Mukařovský in the West (particularly in light of the reassessments directed at Heidegger, who for a time enjoyed a similar position under Hitler, though did not exercise it to the same ends, and even comparably minor collaborationist figures like Paul de Man).
For just as Teige is erased from cultural history in communist Czechoslovakia, so we have the erasing of, for example, Wilhelm Reich in democratic USA.
There are no scheduled discoveries, and the “new,” which is not a synonym for “progress,” being always contingent and in-excess of itself, cannot be reduced to a paradigm of ideological operations.
Karel Teige, “Poetist Manifesto,” trans. Alexandra Büchler, Karel Teige 1900-1951: L’Enfant Terrible of the Czech Modernist Avant-Garde, eds. Eric Dluhosch and Rostislav Švácha (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999) 67.
Karel Teige, “Obrazy a předobrazy” [Figures and Prefigurations] (1921), cited in Miroslav Petříček, “Karel Teige: Art Theory between Phenomenology and Structuralism,” Karel Teige 1900-1951, 326.
Walter Benjamin, “Awakening,” The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 462; n2a, 3.
Karel Teige, “K estetice filmu” [“Towards an aesthetics of Film”], Pásmo 1.7-8 (1925): 2.
Qtd in Vojtěch Lahoda, “Teige’s Violations: The Collages of Karel Teige, the Visual Concepts of the Avant-Garde and René Magritte,” Karel Teige: Surrealist Collages 1935-1951 (Prague: Edice Detail, 1994) 8.
See Teige’s notes on “Koláž, fotomontáž” in the Literary Archive of the Museum of National Literature, Prague: 2266-2277, no. 134/62.
Karel Srp, “Collage as Simultaneity and Contradiction: The Pictorial Conceptions, Quotations and Paraphrases of Karel Teige,” Karel Teige: Surrealist Collages 1935-1951 (Prague: Edice Detail, 1994) 23.
Cf. Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper, 1975).
Karel Teige, “The Inner Model,” Karel Teige 1900-1951, 342.
Aleksandar Bošković, Photopoetry and the Bioscopic Book: Russian and Czech Avant-Garde Experiments of the 1920s, doctoral dissertation (Slavic Languages and Literatures) (University of Michigan, 2013) x-xi.
Teige, “The Aesthetics of Film and Cinematography,”
Teige himself sums this up in a brief parable of sorts: “Guillaume Apollinaire, who so ingeniously anticipated many of the future developments, tells a story about a painter who stands ‘at the very edge of life, in the realm of art,’ only to discover that he has in fact entered ‘at the very edge of art, into the realm of life.’”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
LOUIS ARMAND is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), & Breakfast at Midnight (2012). His most recent collections of poetry are East Broadway Rundown (2015) & The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015). His critical volumes include Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He currently directs the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 9th, 2017.