‘Avant-garde and Mediation (apropos of a recent essay by Franco Fortini)’ Part 2 – Tito Perlini (1967)

         Nobody in Italy so far had directed such a cogent accusation at the neo-avant-garde. Fortini makes a clean sweep of the half-hearted discussions based upon neutral analyses, upon second or third-hand interpretive schema, upon empty combined formulas, in order to problematise the issue in the direction of an authentically dialectical effort of understanding. Unequivocally differentiating himself from those that show themselves inclined to demolish the neo-avant-garde on the basis of minor prejudices or doubtful reasons of a personal nature, or through visceral reactions with a flavour of indifference [di sapore qualunquistico], Fortini has effectively put his finger on the central nodes of the problem, situating it in the historico-sociological dimension to which it belongs. Although his argument appears anything but irrefutable and his final conclusions ultimately unacceptable, even if his framing can be reversed, there is no doubt that any further serious effort to grasp the phenomenon dialectically will need to confront his arguments and reckon with them thoroughly. 

         The critical point of Fortini’s dialectical argumentation, as we have seen, is constituted by the idea of the avant-garde as the repudiation of the concept of mediation. The avant-garde is therefore conceived as the assumption of a conflictuality that refuses conciliation and, hence, considers the dialectic as an effort to overcome contrasts. The refusal of a self-sated totality condemns the avant-garde attitude to perpetual laceration between unreconcilable opposites or to oscillation within an insoluble polarity. Art stands opposed to society and refuses to allow itself to be absorbed by its system of values, but, at the same time as it sets itself up as an autonomous sphere, it subtracts society from its own contestatory intervention, recognising its legitimacy, and allows [society] to rise to second nature, allowing [art] to be circumscribed within its circle and to be subordinated as a functionally autonomous sphere and hence as an institution. Autonomy reveals itself to be subordination and conflict is the appearance that cloaks a profound agreement in which the capacity of bourgeois rationality for mediation finds its expression. The extremity of a conflict that issues from the defence of an autonomy poorly understood finds its expression in the decadent-symbolist moment of European artistic culture. It is against this manifestation that the rebellion of the old avant-garde artist takes its cue. 

         Fortini’s interpretive schema is a suggestive one, but one cannot escape the suspicion that the starting point is based on a misunderstanding. Is it really true that the avant-garde is founded, as Fortini claims, on the repudiation of the category of mediation? It is helpful on this point to briefly examine what Fortini precisely intends by ‘mediation’. Fortini refers explicitly to Lukács, from whom he draws – in a different guise – aspects of the well-known critique of the avant-garde. His argument is strongly influenced by Lukács’ mature aesthetic and historico-critical conception, that is of the writings after 1930. He also takes up his critique from The Destruction of Reason in which irrationalism is presented as a refusal of the dialectic and as the opposed-complementary pole to a purely formal rationality.

Lukács 1913

         It is reasonable to reserve serious doubts about such a conception, even in light of things Fortini has written elsewhere. In the preface to the Italian edition of The Soul and Forms, Fortini advances a stimulating hypothesis in relation to the concept of ‘mediation’ in Lukács. Taking up a suggestion of Lucien Goldmann’s,4 and focusing on the definition that, in his youthful essay on the essay Lukács had given on this form that he describes as autonomous and intermediate between philosophy and literary expression, Fortini highlighted how the essayistic discourse (by its very nature eminently ‘ironic’ and ‘ambiguous’) allowed the young Lukács to elude the peremptoriness of ‘tragic form’ and to withdraw from the seduction of death by accepting the intermediate discourse. As in ‘his’ Thomas Mann, to whom he dedicated close attention throughout his life, in Lukács as well irony presented itself as a means by which death was to be exorcised. Fortini’s question is the following: can an intermediary discourse, which is what essay writing is, be considered a metaphor and anticipation of what will later in Lukács be posed as the category of ‘mediation’ – gradually taking on the aspect of ‘the Party’ or the ‘Typical’ over the course of his oeuvre? In light of such an intuition, the antifascist struggle itself as well as that for co-existence, appear to Lukács as the ‘…concrete incarnations, born of the mediating cunning of History, of a fundamental conflict, the one between Capitalism and Socialism, which cannot be lived fully as such because the sight of it would, like the tragic God and the sun, fulminate the reckless’. It is clear that, framing the issue in this way means that the category of ‘mediation’, as intermediary conciliator, is posited in Lukács as an escape from unresolved and unresolvable conflict, as the circumvention of tragedy. If this hypothesis of Fortini’s is to be accepted – as we believe it should be – it means that the mature Lukács came to overlay, on top of the category of mediation he brilliantly developed in History and Class Consciousness, a substantially different one. Understood in the way explained above by Fortini, the exercise of ‘mediation’ has little to do with the category of mediation as it emerges in the pages of his early masterpiece. Now the exercise of mediation is essentially the art of the middling [medietà] as in the just medium, contemporaneity of opposites destined to remain as such, the attenuation of a conflict that is in itself irreparable, the arduous and precarious equilibrium within an insuperable polarity. The attitude of the older Lukács (frustrated in the palingenetic-revolutionary hopes he had nourished in the 1920s, bending for the sake of realism, as an inevitable and necessary evil, to the Stalinist system of power) appears marked by the bitter wisdom of he who has overcome, or rather, reneged the stage of youthful illusions. Mediation thus understood is Pathos der Mitte, equilibrium within the insuperable contradiction; it is an attitude that appears very similar to Thomas Mann’s irony.

[4Author’s note: See L. Goldmann, ‘Georg Lukács, l’essayste’ in Revue d’esthetique, Jan.-Mar. 1950, pp. 89-95.]

Such a mediation is not authentically dialectical, it presupposes a vision of reality as fundamentally a-dialectical, it is to escape from a dilacerated reality, in which an insuperable contradictoriness presents itself at the very toot of the real, as a metaphysical plane. The Vermittlung [mediation] that Lukács had drawn from Hegel in his youthful Marxist work, presents itself in complete contrast to such a search for a shrewd and precarious equilibrium within a basic contradictoriness. What is missing from such an exercise of mediation is precisely what is posed as its founding moment: negation. In Hegel (and in the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness which harks back to him), mediation is not given without negation, without a negative attitude towards reality as it is immediately posed. Mediation is essentially beginning and passage to the second term that is posited in relation to the first as something that wishes to begin by being absolutely other. The second term wins its independence through the negation of the first, a negation that is, equally, the premiss for an elevation, inasmuch as the second term, having become separated from the former so as to repudiate it [rinnegarlo], tends to reconcile itself with it. The third moment, that follows such a process, is the first-plus-something that was not there in the first term; in other words, it is mediated. Reality is negated in its empirical immediacy so as to be reaffirmed through mediation. The facts [dati] are thus unblocked from their dead factuality in which they appear to be congealed and inserted into that process of which they are moments. The unblocking of the facts opens to a movement of totalisationMediation opens totality to knowledge.

Alexandra Exter, Set design for ‘Satanic Ballet’, 1922, A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum Alexandra Exter, Set design for Satanic Ballet, 1922

         Now, the avant-garde, inasmuch as it is radical negation, is not a repudiation of the category of mediation, but its premiss. It is not mediation that precedes the negation that would repudiate its sagacity so as to strive towards an irrational and abstract refusal of existing reality, but it is negation that posits itself as an original moment of a process of totalising mediation. The conflict in which avant-garde artists are implicated cannot repudiate mediation for the simple fact that it is situated before not after it. It is immersed in an existential sphere that precedes the exercise of mediation, and hence in immediacy. It is in the very moment that this immediacy as such is negated that the dialectic arises, that mediation begins to exercise itself as a totalising moment. The totality is a result, not a fact; and, moreover, it is a result that is forever put in question; it is a process, it is a totalising movement, not something pre-constituted that as such would end up coinciding with the given reality.  

         It is symptomatic that while Fortini, invoking the mature Lukácsposits the avant-garde as something opposed to the dialectic, Herbert Marcuse,5 evidently influenced by the young Lukács of the Theory of the Novel and History and Class Consciousness, discerns instead a profound affinity between the dialectic and avant-garde art, in that it is a refusal of reality’s tendency to become totalitarian. Indeed, the young Lukács’ principal effort is to overcome that gloomy and intriguing obsession with tragedy (the sphere of the ‘all or nothing!’) that his early work was caught up in. The decisive turn comes with The Theory of the Novel, which affirms a utopian conception that allows Lukács to open himself to totality without having recourse to an annihilating transcendence, which it to say, to a dimension that could nullify the worldly sphere.6

[5Author’s note: in relation to this theme, see H. Marcuse, Reason and Revolution. Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, New York 1954; Eros and Civilisation. A Philosophical Enquiry into Freud, Boston 1955; and One-Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, London 1964.

6Author’s note: the influence exerted by Kierkegaard upon the young Lukács still awaits proper study. There are some very interesting hints in relation to this in C. Pianciola’s review of the Italian edition of The Theory of the Novel, which appeared in Rivista di Filosofia, vol. LV, n. 1, 1964, pp. 88-96]

[Part 3 to follow]

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