Rather than redefining or rejecting the term “avant-garde,” we offer an alternative: en dehors garde (listen to pronunciation).
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.
In proposing a feminist theory of the en dehors garde, we are not trying to overrule 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 imagine that our theory of the en dehors garde might occupying the same stage as reigning theories of the avant-garde, but alter the choreography and bring new dancers and moves into view. Like the feminist avant-garde Sophie Seita describes, the en dehors garde “critiques previous, traditionally male dominated avant-gardes by attending to what has been excluded and what must remain provisional” (165):
In this view, the allegedly anti-identity, theory-driven, hierarchical, and manifesto-heavy avant-garde is… only one among many other possible manifestations of ‘avant-gardeness,’ rather than the measure of all others. (Seita 165)
A New Feminist Method
We don’t just want a new feminist theory: we want to generate theory in a new way. We seek to activate theory-making through a new, collaborative method enabled by digital tools and platforms.
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 offering 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 flash mob. In the summer of 2018, dozens of writers and artists 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.
In adopting this method, we 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.
Digital tools and platforms aren’t inherently liberating, feminist, or avant-garde, but they can be deployed in service of feminist designs. In conducting our experiment, we wanted to see whether digital tools and platforms could help us transform the way we generate theory, produce knowledge, and distribute cultural power.
- 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.