Yesterday–day one of teaching in the new semester–did not quite go as planned, and in the wake of a couple of surprises, I didn’t get around to posting like I intended to in recognition of the nth annual RB of September. After a few years such postings carry a some heavy, if solitarily imagined, burden of tradition. Thus, “theory blackmailed”:
Many (still unpublished) avant-garde texts are uncertain: how to judge, to classify them, how to predict their immediate or eventual future? Do they please? Do they bore? Their obvious quality is of an intentional order: they are concerned to serve theory. Yet this quality is a blackmail as well (theory blackmailed): love me, keep me, defend me, since I conform to the theory you call for; do I not do what Artaud, Cage, etc. have done? –But Artaud is not just “avant-garde”; he is a kind of writing as well; Cage has certain charm as well… –But those are precisely the attributes which are not recognized by theory, which are sometimes even execrated by theory. At least make your taste and your ideas match, etc. (The scene continues, endlessly.) (54)
Why blackmailed? Translator Richard Howard could have selected a different connotation of “la chantage,” e.g., bluff, or intimidation. When the avante-garde serves theory, theory in turn may be said to hobble invention, to wrap it in a splint, to contain it. I read in this Barthes passage a concern for theory’s disciplining of innovation. Unexpectedly, this clicks with concerns in the Introduction and first chapter of Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention, a book I’ve just started. Related are questions about what becomes of “the attributes which are not recognized by theory,” put another, perhaps more helpful way, Can theory keep up with avante-garde performances? Must it?
Anyway, happy RB Day, twice belatedly.