Friday, 15 March 2019

Who are the Avant Garde? What is their cultural role?

They get their name from the advance guard of an army; but misunderstand this to be a group who are leading. In fact, the avant garde do not decide where to go.

They are merely a part of the main army extended forward, with a particular job; which is temporarily to engage with the enemy until the real army arrives from behind.

In cultural terms, the avant garde are the intellectual class, radical academics, controversial journalists, progressive theoreticians, 'modern' and 'shocking' artists etc... What is their job? Merely to be a temporary distraction until arrival of the main force; which is is The Bureaucracy.

The avant garde emerged in Western Culture along with the Bureaucracy. As The Bureaucracy grew - so did the avant garde - simply because the AG are creatures of the Bureaucrats.

The avant garde do not decide on the nature of the enemy - that has already been decided by the generals (The Establishment) back in the main part of the force. The avant garde fight don't choose their skirmishes, but merely fight who they are instructed to fight.

But the avant garde are deluded. They have been fed a fantasy, which they believe - and they have convinced plenty of others; so that the enemy imagine that their job is to defeat (only) the avant garde!

This is a brilliant tactic of the Establishment - The Bureaucracy roll slowly into-place after the avant garde have begun the fighting; but unexpectedly - unrecognised - unopposed; and typically will incrementally tie-up, pin-down and crush the enemy.

The avant garde delusion is that it is they who lead, make decisions, choose the enemies and direction; and everyone else follows in their wake - and (merely) occupies the territory that the AG have won for them...

But the reality is that the avant garde are - and always have - been merely a functional part of The System; that part which the ruling Establishment has projected forward from the Bureaucracy to do a job.

The avant garde are therefore useful, but inessential to victory. The Bureaucracy are the Heavy Infantry, the occupying force.

From the Romantic Christian perspective, we who are enemies of the avant garde/ Bureaucracy/ Establishment - the AG are not our real enemy. Our enemy is the Bureaucracy and Establishment. We ought not to be duped into supposing that a victory against the avant garde has achieved anything other than delay us from engaging the real foe.


William Wildblood said...

Quite true. The avant garde are usually just pawns. How they would hate to realise that truth about themselves! No doubt they can be used as such because of their pride.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Yes, that is the key. Also, that one can leading a very well-rewarded and praised life being a pawn of the Bureaucracy - plus, since the mid sixties they will also praise you for being a radical, Bohemian rebel.

I wrote about a specific example of this- Evidence-Based Medicine - here:


The book opens with a Preface that is a masterpiece of smugness and self-mythologizing. There are potted biographies of all the writers (a self-styled ‘group of rebels’), with tales of their conversion-experiences. Their credentials are listed: military bravery, unstinting dedication to patients, relentless self-education, skepticism (wonder what happened to that on the way to this volume?). And as we embark on the main text, the authors leave us with the four commandments necessary for EBM to be effective: ‘master’ clinical skills; practice continuous life-long, self-directed learning; be humble (I kid you not, they really do say this) and finally be enthusiastic, irreverent and fun-loving. And that is all you need to make EBM work - X-ray vision and bulletproof underpants are merely optional extras.

The book is dedicated to Kilgore Trout. This gives the game away - Trout is the fictional alter ego of the science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut - doyen of the sixties counter culture. So EBM - authored principally by a Professor at Oxford and McMaster Universities and one of the most famous doctors in the world - is dedicated to an invented, obscure, deluded scribe of pulp Sci Fi. This is telling. In a sense EBM is a pompous artifact into which the medical version of anti-establishment radicalism has declined during the nineteen eighties, in another sense it is the sad monument to the bad faith of those who sacrificed their idealism on the altar of worldly power and success.

Fair enough and good luck to them; but you can’t have it both ways guys. You might have been wild boys in your youth, but now you are the establishment: darlings of Health Service Management; funded to the hilt by the Department of Health; an orthodoxy enforced by contract and regulations. Whatever luster of radical chic EBM once had has been long tarnished as the spirit of reform was melted down and recast into a model of entrepreneurial self-promotion. Skeptical reflection was re-written by systematization and conversion into algorithmic and statistical routine.

Karl said...

Excellent essay! But you metaphor becomes inconsisten at the end. You argue convincingly that the avant garde is just a forward deployed part of the army and the bureaucry is the heavy infantry (main force) of the army. Then the real enemy is the whole army including the avant garde. It is merely that the avant garde is not the most important or the most dangerous part of the enemy army.

Moreover, in a war you have to fight the avant garde. They are the part of the enemy army you encounter first. Still it is usefull to keep in mind that there is a main force on the way.

In effect, the avant garde opens the Overtone window on the left, the bureaucrats close it on the right.

Karl said...

Yes, now it is clear. The army (avant guard and bureacrats) are a tool of the real enemy. I agree.

Bruce Charlton said...

Corrected respost of comment from yesterday - c 20:00

Karl - Also, I didn't mention that the generals include demons.

I suppose my point was that the opposition tend to focus all their energies on winning the debate with the avant garde - but when the Bureaucrats implement the material in laws and regulations, all opposition capitulates (not even passively resisting) and turns instead to the latest avant garde wrangle.