Total Expansion of the Letter: Avant-Garde Art and Language After Mallarmé (October Books) (Hardcover)

Total Expansion of the Letter: Avant-Garde Art and Language After Mallarmé (October Books) By Trevor Stark Cover Image

Total Expansion of the Letter: Avant-Garde Art and Language After Mallarmé (October Books) (Hardcover)


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How cubism and Dada radically reimagined the social nature of language, following the utopian poetic vision of Stéphane Mallarmé.

At the outset of the twentieth century, language became a visual medium and a philosophical problem for European avant-garde artists. In Total Expansion of the Letter, art historian Trevor Stark offers a provocative history of this “linguistic turn,” centered on the radical doubt about the social function of language that defined the avant-garde movements. Major cubists and Dadaists—including Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Tristan Tzara—appropriated bureaucratic paperwork, newspapers, popular songs, and advertisements, only to render them dysfunctional and incommunicative. In doing so, Stark argues, these figures contended with the utopian vision of the late nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who promised a “total expansion of the letter.”

In his poems, Mallarmé claimed, “the act of writing was scrutinized down to its origins.” This scrutiny, however, delivered his work into an indeterminate zone between mediums, social practices, and temporalities—a paradox that reverberates through Stark's wide-ranging case studies in the history of the avant-garde. Stark examines Picasso's nearly abstract works of 1910, which promised to unite painting and writing at the brink of illegibility; the cubists' “hope of an anonymous art,” expressed in newspaper collages and industrial colors; the collaborative, cacophonous invention of “simultaneous poems” by the Dadaists in Zurich during World War I; and Duchamp's artistic exploration of chance in gambling and finance. Each of these cases reflected the avant-garde's transformative encounter with the premise of Mallarmé's poetics: that language—the very medium of human communication and community—is perpetually in flux and haunted by emptiness.

Trevor Stark is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at the University of Calgary.
Product Details ISBN: 9780262043717
ISBN-10: 0262043718
Publisher: The MIT Press
Publication Date: June 2nd, 2020
Pages: 424
Language: English
Series: October Books
"Stark himself, however, proves to be a lucid communicator, effectively articulating fresh perspectives on each of these already exhaustively discussed topics, writing revealingly on poetry, dance, theatre, roulette, and visual art. This is an important contribution to modernist studies."—Christopher Green, Burlington Magazine

“Total Expansion of the Letter 
does an immense service to studies of the European avant-garde from Picasso to Duchamp. It brings fresh, beautifully nuanced, and important perspectives even to this well-trodden ground, while maintaining unstinting attention to salient detail. It is that most pleasing of studies: rooted both in fruitful archival research and propelled by sustained and theoretically sophisticated arguments that—it is to be hoped—will urge new generations of scholars toward rigorous engagement with the avant-garde from which we still have so much to learn, perhaps now more than ever.”—CAA Reviews