Preferred Citation: Unruh, Vicky. Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1994.

5— From Early Words to the Vernacular Inflection: Vanguard Tales of Linguistic Encounter

Language in the International Vanguards

I have suggested, and will demonstrate more fully, that in Latin America vanguardist inquiries into language were often marked by concrete cultural problems. Moreover, an awareness of language as the site of cultural and social tensions often characterized the historical avant-gardes in general. Although the European movements are not my central concern, they provide the basis for contemporary theories of the avant-gardes, and it is pertinent to look briefly at what those theories suggest about language. The fundamental position of linguistic issues in international vanguardism is widely recognized and virtually unquestioned. But critics and theorists of the vanguards differ noticeably in the degree to which they perceive that language was conceived in vanguardist polemics as a social and cultural problem. In his exploratory piece "Language and the Avant-Garde," Raymond Williams cautions against attributing a specific theory or ideological position on language to the vast array of experiments and attitudes that actually made up the vanguards' approach to the subject. Still, it is difficult not to discern certain attitudes toward language that run through the manifestos and artistic practices of the European avant-gardes. These include a rejection of the cognitive power and experiential viability of rational thought and discourse; a consequent antipathy toward conventions of representation, particularly those associated with narrative; and the exercise of what were construed as prediscursive verbal strategies, oral and written, that would somehow provide a more immediate apprehension of experience. By liberating words from the chains of tradition (grammar, genres, and literary conventions), artists would forge new creative principles, including language practices more in touch with an imagined primary experience and the juxtaposition into nonorganic works of decontextualized words and images. But language was portrayed in vanguardist polemics not only as an issue of style or a path to fuller


apprehensions of reality but also as a phenomenon of social life, heavily implicated in the autonomous claims of aestheticism and in a perceived disunity between representation and experience, dream and action, art and life.

This multifaceted characterization explains in part why vanguard practitioners expressed such radical ambivalence toward language, which constituted for them the greatest obstacle to original artistic expression and the greatest hope for renewal as well. In short, language was to be torn apart and rebuilt. The new art, according to writers like Apollinaire, would seek a scope "vaster than the plain art of words" ("The New Spirit and the Poets" 228), and Tristan Tzara's infamous "NO MORE WORDS!" announced Dada's campaign to pulverize semantic units into primary elements of sound and rhythm (Motherwell 84). At the same time, Tzara saw language—when properly used—as a utopian path. Demolishing the academy would yield a "fabulous form of action," and this, in turn, would reintegrate art and life and provide an antidote to literature, "a notebook of human imbecility to aid future professors" (Approximate Man 169). And André Breton portrayed the unleashing of words as a continuing critical activity with an antihierarchical spirit: "The hordes of words which ... Dada and Surrealism set about to let loose as though opening a Pandora's box ... will slowly but surely make their way into the silly little towns and cities of literature ... and here confusing without any difficulty the poor and the rich sections, they will calmly consume a great number of towers" (Manifestoes of Surrealism 152).

Raymond Williams has cogently noted the double-edged quality in vanguardist approaches to language. Language, he observes, "was being simultaneously identified with the blocking of 'true consciousness' and, to the extent that it could emancipate itself from its imprisoning everyday forms and, beyond that, from the received forms of 'literature,' as itself the medium of the idealised 'pure consciousness'" (40). But Williams's short piece on the subject is also exceptional in addressing, albeit briefly, the fact that some vanguardists saw language also as "material in a social process" (Williams 43). Most recent studies of the language of the avant-gardes, however, attend to the relationship between linguistic experiment and the quest for new levels of consciousness through the desired primary experience of created languages.[2] Renato Poggioli and Peter Bürger, two major theorists of the vanguards, have relatively little to say about language at all. Poggioli notes briefly the social significance of the linguistic revolt: a childlike


secret language that constitutes "simply one of many forms of avantgarde antagonism toward the public" (38). But he directs more attention to the search for "linguistic purity" and "transrational languages" that, in his view, aligns the avant-gardes with the nineteenth-century aestheticist tradition and twentieth-century European modernism in general.

Although Bürger also says little about language directly, his work suggests how vanguardist linguistic investigations may be addressed as cultural critique. In contrast to Poggioli's elision of the differences between the avant-gardes and modernism, Bürger insists that the former constitute a break with the aestheticist tradition precisely in their focus on the social status of art. He proposes that vanguardists challenged the autonomy of art from life and the nineteenth-century aestheticists' efforts to resacralize art by restoring its aura.[3] Generally, however, Bürger subsumes the problem of language under artistic style and technique. Jochen Schulte-Sasse, in his foreword to the English translation of Bürger's work, examines differences between Poggioli and Bürger and notes that, for the latter, "the development of the avant-garde has nothing to do with a critical consciousness about language; it is not a continuation of tendencies already present in Aestheticism" (xiv). While aestheticism and modernism as defined in the Anglo-American tradition, Schulte-Sasse asserts, might be reduced to an "attack on traditional writing techniques" and to a "purely linguistic negation, " Bürger shows that the avant-gardes can only be understood as an attack on art as an institution (xv; my emphasis).

I have no argument with this reading of Bürger's differentiation between modernism and the avant-gardes, but Schulte-Sasse's phrase "purely linguistic negation" harbors a limited view of language and of the uses to which vanguardists put it. Bürger's own work implies a broader perspective. Although he may subsume language under artistic means, his views on the latter point to a more complex conception of language as a socially shaped phenomenon. Bürger asserts that, by making available the artistic means of all periods, the avant-gardes challenged an evolutionary hierarchy of styles. This idea may be logically extended to the avant-gardes' exploration of language as socially and culturally constructed. Juxtaposing languages from multiple realms and inventing new languages from scratch were similarly antihierarchical activities that underscored the existence and significance of those socially constructed hierarchies. Returning to Williams's work, moreover, he insightfully perceives this very quality in the vanguards' varieties of ver-


bal performance: "The rclapse to the rhythms of the mass in the middle of an outraging Dadaist spectacle," he argues, is a "reminder of how deeply constituted socially language always is, even when the decision has been made to abandon its identifiable semantic freight" (36).

In Latin America, avant-garde language activities were inventive as well as recuperative, as artists sought to dismantle old languages and create new ones from the void but also to recover "lost" languages from imagined national and ethnic pasts. A close reading of these projects reveals an image of language as the site of historically grounded cultural tensions and the move toward new ways of thinking about language and culture. Paradoxically, the vanguardist trope of a primal verbal universality provides the context and sometimes the direct stimulus for projects affirming linguistic complication and difference.

5— From Early Words to the Vernacular Inflection: Vanguard Tales of Linguistic Encounter

Preferred Citation: Unruh, Vicky. Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1994.