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The Avant-Garde and the Crisis of the Long 1970s

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Organizer: Jean-Thomas Tremblay

Co-Organizer: Drew Strombeck

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Genealogies of the North American literary avant-gardes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have tended to rely on a pair of origin tales. An aesthetic genealogy has cast experimental aesthetic production (such as the Language School, New Narrative, ecopoetics, Conceptualism, performance art, site-specific sculpture) as a direct or indirect response to midcentury movements (such as the New York School, Confessional poetry, the Beat Generation, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism). A political genealogy has viewed these generic innovations in light of an effort, fueled by 1960s militancy, to diagnose and produce utopian alternatives to the relation between the individual and the collective. This seminar proposes to expand and reroute existing histories of recent avant-gardes by considering the ways writers and artists, alone or in groups, have responded to a crisis in the reproduction of life that accelerated in the 1970s. Trends that, taken together, constitute an exhaustion of living resources that forecloses futurity include cycles of fiscal crisis; increased pollution; the rise of inequality; the decline of the welfare state; the destruction of unions; and the widespread deflation of Civil Rights, second-wave feminist, pacifist, and anticapitalist organizing. This seminar seeks to chart how avant-gardes across disciplines have mediated living-wage rarity, deadly epidemics, and other aspects of an uneven management of vitality indexed by race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and disability. Without taking for granted the hermeticism of schools and movements, this seminar invites a comparative criticism that tracks how formal and generic experimentation, as they have traveled across sites and media, have responded to the sociopolitical transformations of the long 1970s. The conveners welcome papers on literature, screen cultures, performance, and visual arts. They also welcome papers that work toward a multilingual and transnational mapping of the contemporary avant-gardes. Conference-length papers will be circulated a few weeks ahead of the conference in order to encourage lively discussions. Please include, along with your abstract, a short bio. Please direct any questions or inquiries to Drew Strombeck ( and Jean-Thomas Tremblay (

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