Birrell, Ross John
The theatre of destruction: anarchism, nihilism & the avant-garde, 1909-1945.
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
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This thesis argues that theatricalization is an appropriate paradigm to employ in a political reassessment of the historical avant-garde moments of Futurism, Dada and Surrealism. Through an analysis of the performativity and theatricality of the manifestos and manifestations of these successive avant-garde, it is suggested that each avant-garde moment self-dramatizes a destructive character. An argument is then developed that the destructive character of the avant-garde demonstrates and displays a libertarian-barbarian dialectic which emerges from within the discourses of anarchism and nihilism, in particular from Michael Bakunin’s maxim: ‘the passion for destruction is a creative passion, too’.
The destructive character of the avant-garde is manifest most clearly in the manifestos which announce and perform a desire for the destruction of the institution of art and the re-integration of art and life, as advanced by Peter Bürger. Identifying a parallel between the discourses of theatricalization and aestheticization in Symbolist drama, I argue that the paradigm of theatricalization necessitates a critical re-assessment of the polarity which Walter Benjamin advances, between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of art. Further, it is suggested, we must also re-examine the polarity which Bürger asserts between Aestheticism and the avant-garde with respect to the question of autonomy in art. Thus, from Bakunin’s initial breakdown of the opposition between destruction/creation we embark upon a re-examination of the polarity between key terms of the avant-garde: libertarian/barbarian; incarnation/integration; aestheticization/politicization; theatricality/performativity.
The theatricalization of avant-garde manifesto is then articulated in the context of Habermas’ study of the structural transformation of the public sphere from feudalism (theatricalization) to capitalism (literalization).
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