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UBC Theses and Dissertations

After modernism : Charles Olson, ecological thought and a postwar avant-garde Klobucar, Philip Andrew


At the end of World War II, American avant-garde culture underwent a significant transformation best qualified as an intellectual as well as social detachment from its original political contexts. Between the wars, in the US, most avantgarde art and writing derived their respective mandates from Leftist politics and a Marxist critique of industrial capitalism. For many intellectuals, however, the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 effectively terminated any association of radical aesthetics with the Soviet system and orthodox Marxism. Couple this ideological catastrophe with the anti-Communist cultural policing of the McCarthy era, and the aesthetic and social appeal of a politicised art practice seemed increasingly unworkable as the first half of the 20th century drew to a close. The failure of ideology-based revisionary thought and writing signified the need for new intellectual roles in society, as much as it suggested the political inability of extreme Left or Right wing positions to achieve their Utopian ends. For many postwar avant-garde writers, the shift away from ideology led to a more psychologically integrated vision of human activity as a setting of constant, natural self-transformation. Various ways of qualifying this development can be outlined with respect to the emergence of specific "ecological" approaches to the arts and social sciences. Ecological studies repudiated all forms of determinism in reasoning and emphasised instead a complex series of attitudes and informal speculations, non-specific to any distinct ideology or political apparatus. A small sampling of such work would include the theory of Gregory Bateson, Murray Bookchin and Karl Polanyi. As an exemplary postwar avant-garde writer, Charles Olson demonstrates an active use of ecological thinking in his own poetics and prose work. Influenced by revisionary Leftism while at the same time highly critical of the political conservatism of writers like Pound and Eliot, Olson found it increasingly necessary to locate his oppositional poetics in a less overtly politicised discourse. This dissertation focuses on Olson's work done while he was rector of Black Mountain College (1950-1957). Among avant-garde writers and artists working in the 1950s, the College was a well-known site for progressive learning, intellectual freedom and innovative art practices. There Olson learned and further developed an extremely integrated, holistic approach to his art and theory. Rather than the intellect alone. Black Mountain sought to shape what it considered to be the entire person. The College encouraged a communal form of lifestyle, where cultural responsibilities could be explored alongside academic ones without overt references to political positions or religious faiths. In this framework, the key to re-capturing a stronger, more vital cultural practise depended upon an immanent sense of identity rather than an ideological one. Drawing upon the ideological criticism of Antonio Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Ferry, my dissertation investigates the discourse of ecology as an important response to the radical socialisms of the Right and the Left that developed during the interwar period. Discouraged by the lack of ideological alternatives to what they perceived to be the status quo, many intellectuals after 1945 increasingly substituted political beliefs with notions of "immediacy," process," "randomness" and other typical ecological values. This shift in counter-cultural poetics has been severely under-emphasised in most studies of this period; yet, an ecological view of culture and writing continued to inspire much of Olson's work as well as that of his contemporaries — most notably, Robert Duncan — throughout the 1950s. In these writers' works, a unique fascination with epistemological relativism and a highly holistic view of the relationship between language and place appear as primary, if not defining, aesthetic themes. Ecological theory provides the most important context for the development of these ideas and the new directions in aesthetics they subsequently inspired for an entire generation of writers.

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