Thirty years ago I presented a paper at McGill in which I lamented that term for its apparent linearity, like an army on the march, and quoted Baudelaire’s mistrust of its overt militarism. Perloff here offers a strong case for retaining both it and its category, positing a historical avant-garde that began in Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century and which developed until approximately 1916 when it began to be overwhelmed by the Great War, the Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War and the conservative expressive poetics all four events encouraged. The recovery of that avant-garde, and the creation of new poetries built on its methods of appropriation, quotation, collage and montage, are what she finds to be simultaneously both avant-garde and arrière-garde today. A military avant-garde usually has an accompanying arrière-garde, she points out, writing “[w]hen an avant-garde movement is no longer a novelty, it is the role of the arrière-garde to complete its mission, to ensure its success. The term arrière-garde, then, is synonymous neither with reaction nor with nostalgia for a lost and more desirable artistic era; it is, on the contrary, the 'hidden face of modernity' (Marx 6)" (53).
She declines the association of “progress” with both “avant-garde” or any intellectual movement, including the ethical progress often claimed for literature by post-colonial theorists (in Canada see Diana Brydon in “Canada and Postcolonialism” 64 and Pauline Butling in Writing in Our Time 122), implying that the most that literature can aim to accomplish socially is to be formally relevant to its cultural moment (53).