The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s)

Exorcising Experimental Theater and Performance
James M. Harding
A spirited challenge to previous notions of the avant-garde and avant-garde performance


The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s) offers a strikingly new perspective on key controversies and debates within avant-garde studies and on contemporary forms of avant-garde expression within a global political economy. At the most basic level, the book challenges pronouncements of the "death of the avant-garde" that tend to obscure the diversity and plurality of avant-garde gesture and expression. In place of a single history or theory of the avant-garde as such, the book posits the notion of "avant-garde pluralities" as its conceptual point of departure, and demonstrates how an appreciation of this multiplicity can lead to a more dynamic and increasingly global understanding of vanguardism in the performing arts.

In pursuing this goal, the book surveys a diverse array of avant-garde performances and develops a range of theoretical paradigms that defend the haunting cultural and historical significance of avant-garde expressions. James M. Harding revisits iconic sites of early twentieth-century avant-garde performance to examine how European avant-gardists attempted—unsuccessfully—to employ that discourse as a strategy for enforcing uniformity among a politically and culturally diverse group of artists. He then challenges historical and aesthetic categories that he believes have promoted a restrictive history and theory of the avant-garde and a narrow reading of avant-garde performance. The book reveals the Eurocentric undercurrents that underlie these categories and urges scholars and historians to consider instead the global political dimensions of avant-garde gestures. Finally, the book takes up the question of how the frequently announced death of the avant-garde thwarts a fuller exploration of the contemporary forms of vangardism that have emerged within the context of increasingly global political economies.

The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s) joins other recent studies that call for a radical rethinking of the history and theory of avant-garde performance, but goes further in arguing for the importance of reopening the pivotal controversies and debates that have shaped the field of avant-garde studies. The book will be of interest to scholars across multiple disciplines, including theater and performance, art history, and literary studies. It will also appeal to scholars who study the relation of art to politics across a range of historical periods and cultures.

"A timely and necessary contribution that will set the agenda in theatre and performance studies—in avant-garde studies and beyond—for years to come. Harding maps the ways in which avant-garde studies has evolved over the past half century, noting the controversies, debates, and contentions that have marked the field and the ways in which certain voices—from both critics and artists—have been privileged in those debates."
—Sarah Bay-Cheng, University at Buffalo

James M. Harding is Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland. 

Praise / Awards

  • "Harding paves the way for the next chapter in the critical discourse on avant-garde(s)."
  • "Part of the function of an avant-garde ... is to revive and reanimate spirits long since crushed by outside forces, such as, most recently, globalization and the 'war on terror.' Harding’s political passions emerge most forcefully here, as he aligns his thinking with Walter Benjamin’s lament over a history written only by its victors."
    ---Times Literary Supplement
  • "As Harding persuasively argues, history is where scholars should consign rigid theoretical models of 'the historical avant-garde' - not vanguardism itself."
    -Comparative Drama
  • "James M. Harding’s latest book is a manifesto calling for an overhaul in contemporary scholarship on experimental performance of the last century... Looking back and ahead at the same time, Harding demands a shake up of the way we study and practice theatre history. In Ghosts of the Avant-Garde, he proposes an exorcism of an entire field."
  • "The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s) is a timely and significant contribution to the field of avant-garde studies. It both assesses and advances the field; by engaging in heated critical debates and offering original perspectives, Harding challenges the reader to consider uncharted territories in understanding and interrogating the avant-gardes. While, at times, performance analyses lack descriptive details that could potentially focus more on exploring performances and artists rather than theoretical debates around them, the book nevertheless presents a compelling case for the continued revisioning of avant-garde theories and practices."
    --Theatre Journal

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 248pp.
  • 1 B&W illustration.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2013
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11874-8

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  • $74.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03610-3

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  • $33.95 U.S.

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  • avant-garde, performance, experimental theatre, political theatre, performance theory, performance studies, performance art, dada, surrealism, the Living Theatre, literary theory, cultural criticism, cultural studies