The Oxford English Dictionary, the “definitive record of the English language,” defines avant-garde as:
- The foremost part of an army; the vanguard or van.
- The pioneers or innovators in any art in a particular period.
1910 Daily Tel. 1 July 14/6 The new men of mark in the avant-garde.
The first recorded usage of the term avant-garde applied to the arts connotes a masculine accent consistent with its military origins: “The new men of mark” (emphasis added). In early 20th-century England, Europe, and America, the “new men of mark”—implicitly white and able-bodied—were remarkable and visible because they stood at the forefront of culture. They could make a mark by opposing cultural institutions because they dominated those institutions.
Women, people of color, and queer or disabled artists rarely enjoyed such power, privilege, or membership. Unable to assume a militant position at the forefront of culture, they often came from the outside and operated on the margins, working strategically to transform literary traditions and visual cultures that excluded or denigrated them.
Rather than attempting to rehabilitate the term “avant-garde” to include women and people of color, we offer a new, more inclusive term. Taking a cue from classical ballet rather than warfare, we propose the term en dehors garde to describe the strategies of writers and artists whose mode of experimentation does not conform to the oppositional stance associated with the early 20th century avant-garde.1 En dehors means “coming from the outside” or “turning outward.”
En dehors is a classical ballet term meaning ‘outward.’ En dehors is added to other steps and terms to describe which way a step should be moving. For example, a pirouette en dehors would mean that the dancer would turn ‘outward’ away from the supporting leg.
Our proposed feminist theory pivots on the notion of “turning outward,” as we seek to engage YOU—students, scholars, artists, writers, and the general public—in the work of reimagining the avant-garde as a more inclusive en dehors garde. We’re not just proposing a new theory of the en dehors garde; we’re proposing a new method of production.
Typically, theory is written by a lone scholar and delivered in a coherent, linear argument. We want to generate theory in a experimental, collaborative way. Multiple authors and creators will turn out during a limited span of time to contribute short position statements. Our born digital, multi-authored, multimedia theory of the en dehors garde will assemble a wide range of perspectives, poses, and strategies that change with each reader’s encounter.
Via this new production process, theory becomes plural, elastic, and mutable, rather than fixed and hierarchical. Our method is feminist in its collaborative, decentralized structure, which defies the expectation of a single authority or unified argument.
We are not trying to supplement or replace existing theories of avant-garde, but to activate theory-making through a new method enabled by digital tools and platforms. Digital tools aren’t inherently liberating, feminist, or avant-garde, but they can be deployed in service of feminist designs. In conducting this experiment, we want to see whether new digital tools and platforms can help us transform the way we generate theory, produce knowledge, and distribute cultural power.
For this experiment in theory-making to work, we need your help. Join our digital flash mob and contribute your ideas to a new, collaborative theory of the en dehors garde. Your post(cards) will appear in a grid like the one below: