Rather than attempting to rehabilitate the term “avant-garde,” we offer a new, more inclusive term: en dehors garde. 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 “martialised,” oppositional stance associated with the historical avant-garde.1
En dehors means “toward the outside” or “turning outward.” In ballet, it describes a directional movement: a dancer’s leg moves outward and away from the supporting leg, where the weight is centered. It is an outward movement, reaching outward and beyond the center.
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.
The en dehors movement also has a circular quality: the dancer’s leg curves outward with an eye toward that center as a point of return. The circular motion does not follow a linear trajectory. It is also not hierarchical, having nothing to do with who is in front or behind.
A New Feminist Theory
Perhaps you can already see metaphoric advantage of the term en dehors garde for a feminist theory of the avant-garde. “Avant” means “before,” implying that artists are ahead of their time, arranged in a hierarchy, militant and prepared for attack. “En dehors” means “toward the outside,” implying that artists are turning away from the center or norm, moving in a circular motion, with an eye toward the center. Upon return, the center is transformed, adjusted, and reformed by the arc of the revolution.
Rather than assuming a militant position at the forefront of culture, women, people of color, and queer or disabled artists often came from the outside and circulated on the margins. They rarely enjoyed the power, privilege, or authority derived from membership in the institutions of art. Instead, they worked and moved strategically to transform gendered, racialized literary traditions and visual cultures that excluded or objectified them.
A New Feminist Method
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 have instead generated theory in a experimental, collaborative way by using social media to orchestrate a digital flashmob in the summer of 2018. Multiple authors and creators turned out to contribute short position statements, in the form of digital post(card)s. Our born digital, multi-authored, multimedia theory of the en dehors garde comprises a wide range of perspectives, poses, and strategies.
We display the post(cards) on our site in a Pinterest-style grid. Readers may select and arrange post(cards) into their own theoretical formations of the en dehors garde, exporting the results as a PDF. In this way, readers participate in the ongoing production of feminist theory of the en dehors garde.
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.
What we’re doing may not be so different from what we do when we read what we typically think of as theory—dense, complex, abstract arguments. When we grapple with that kind of theory, we typically underline the passages that we deem most important and rearrange them according to our own interests, often tying them to other texts. Our feminist method simply makes this process of selecting and arranging more tangible and explicit, so that readers become more conscious of their active role in theorizing.
In proposing a feminist theory of the en dehors garde, we are neither trying to supplement or replace existing theories of avant-garde, nor do we expect that the term “en dehors garde” will take the place of “avant-garde” in popular or academic usage. Instead, we seek to activate theory-making through a new method enabled by digital tools and platforms.
We also aim to develop new forms of digital scholarship and theory commensurate to the en dehors garde. As Elisabeth Frost argues, to look back at history with the inclusion of female experimental writers and artists “challenges the way in which avant-gardism itself has been conceptualized” (xv). Digital platforms offer new technologies for documenting and analyzing women’s negotiations with the historical avant-garde, allowing us to chart an alternative en dehors garde that proves to be neither a mere supplement to nor plea for inclusion within the current critical models of avant-garde formation. Open-source tools enable us to transform our scholarly methods and products in the same spirit of avant-garde innovation and collaboration that animated Mina Loy’s feminist designs a century ago.
Turn out for the En Dehors Garde
Digital tools and platforms 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 digital tools and platforms can help us transform the way we generate theory, produce knowledge, and distribute cultural power. For our experiment in theory-making to work, we need our readers’ help. Fortunately, more that 6o people joined our digital flash mob and contributed their ideas and vision to a new, collaborative theory of the en dehors garde.
- The term en dehors garde was suggested by Nancy Selleck, Associate Professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, a feminist scholar of early modern literature and culture, as well as a dramaturg and theatre director and at Harvard, Boston Directors’ Lab, and UMass Lowell. It seems appropriate that this idea was generated in conversation with a scholar who began her career outside academia as a professional ballet dancer. We are grateful to her for suggesting the term and elucidating its significance in ballet.