April 22nd, 2013 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Experimental fiction as genre and as principle

Mothlight Cut-Up

A few years ago at Big Other I wrote a post entitled “Experimental Art as Genre and as Principle.” That distinction has been on my mind as of late, so I thought I’d revisit the argument. My basic argument then and now was that I see two different ways in which experimental art is commonly defined.

By principle I mean that the artist is committed to making art that’s different from what other artists are making—so much so that others often don’t even believe that it is art. As contemporary examples I’m fond of citing Tao Lin and Kenneth Goldsmith because I still hear people complaining that those two men aren’t real artists—that they’re somehow pulling a fast one on all their fans. (Someday I’ll explore this idea. How exactly does one perform a con via art? Perhaps it really is possible. Until then, I’ll propose that one indication of experimental art is that others disregard it as a hoax.) Tao visited my school one month ago, and after his presentation some folks there expressed concern, their brows deeply furrowed, that he was a Legitimate Artist—so this does still happen. (For evidence of Goldsmith’s supposed fakery, keep reading.)

Eventually, I bet, the doubts regarding Lin and Goldsmith will fall by the wayside. Things change. And it’s precisely because things change that the principle of experimentation must keep moving. The avant-garde, if there is one, must stay avant.

That’s only one way of looking at it, however. Experimental art becomes genre when particular experimental techniques become canonical and widely disseminated and practiced. The experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, during the 1960s, affixed blades of grass and moth wings to film emulsion, and scratched the emulsion, and painted on it, then printed and projected the results. Here is one example and here is another example. And here is a third; his films are beautiful and I love them. (The image atop left hails from Mothlight.) Today, countless film students also love Brakhage’s work, and use the methods he popularized to make projects that they send off to experimental film festivals. (Or at least they did this during the 90s, when I attended such festivals; I may be out of touch.)

Those films, I’d argue, while potentially beautiful and interesting, are not necessarily experimental films. As far as the principle of experimentation goes, those students had might as well be imitating Hitchcock.

For a literary example, let’s look at the Cut-Up Technique. Brion Gysin created it accidentally in the 1950s, when he sliced through a stack of newspaper with a razor. He demonstrated the method to William S. Burroughs, who used it to write Naked Lunch (published in 1959 by the Olympia Press—the first press to publish Barry N. Malzberg!). The novel proved immediately controversial, mainly due to its “obscene” content (sex & drugs)—but its fragmentary nature didn’t help.

Today lots of writers make Cut-Ups. And they need not risk nicking themselves with razors, since there exist numerous websites happy to do the cutting up for them. This is experimentation as genre. Sure, the results may boggle minds at certain rural MFA programs—but c’mon! We all learned the technique from Naked Lunch, which is commonly taught at college. And numerous journals are happy to publish such work.

In February 2011 I went to AWP, where Kevin Killian approached and (very politely) said, “Dodie’s work is much more experimental than you’re giving it credit to be.” This was in response to claims I’d made about one of Dodie Bellamy’s projects during my debate earlier that year with Christopher Higgs:

“If Cunt-Ups is experimental, it’s not because Bellamy did a Cut-Up in the year 2001. Viewed from the perspective of literature at large, Cut-Ups, and collages in general, are by now rather familiar. Of course there might be audiences who find Cunt-Ups the strangest thing they’ve ever seen. But Bellamy is following in a tradition: she states that directly in her Working Note: ‘Per Burroughs [sic] rather vague instructions […]’.”

I was careful there to qualify my claim, to not declare Cunt-Ups utterly devoid of experimentation. Rather my point was that if it was experimental, it wasn’t experimental because it was a Cut-Up. Cut-Ups—hell, indeterminate collages—are by now no longer inherently experimental or transgressive. If anything they’re traditional, familiar, even reactionary.

Be clear: I’m not claiming that good art can’t be made by means of collage, or that it’s impossible to find new ways of doing collage. The science-fiction / horror novel that I’m currently writing is collage-based, and I like to think it’ll be a good book, maybe even “experimental.” But if it is the latter, that won’t be so because it incorporates collage.

I’ve been making this argument for a while now. The response it usually triggers is: “Collage is still experimental to somebody!” That’s true; I don’t doubt it. But along the same lines, somebody somewhere no doubt thinks Vertigo experimental. My dear mother, for instance, would think it an odd film indeed, were she to watch it. Lord knows what would happen were I to show her Brakhage’s Mothlight.

But so what? My mother is neither a cineaste nor a film scholar. She isn’t particularly interested in movies. Meanwhile, her cinephile son found out about Brakhage at the Pennsylvania State University, in 1996, when he took a film class there. Since then he’s taught a few film classes of his own, where he’s included lectures on Brakhage, and shown the man’s films, which were also discussed in the course text (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art, 8th Edition). He could even show examples on DVD, thanks to the Criterion Collection, which has released two compilations of Brakhage’s films. The man has made it.

Likewise, if you graduate from college with a degree in writing or in English, odds are you’ve heard of Billy Burroughs. Naked Lunch has been kept in print by the Grove Press since they acquired it in 1962. It was included on Time Magazine‘s list of the 100 best English-language novels. David Cronenberg adapted it into a movie in 1991 (starring Robocop), which has since been released on DVD by (you guessed it) the Criterion Collection. The book, just like Brakhage, has made it. The Cut-Up Technique has made it.

The image atop right pictures a Cut-Up I made using the 28 March 2013 installment of the Chicago Reader. I opened that paper up to the middle and took out a straightedge razor and started slicing through the pages (no software for me). I then transcribed as best I could a portion of the resulting textual juxtapositions:

people but have to take love
who wouldn’t have to take her own
he said the person because would rather
Milwaukee than to huge Woodlawn—well
explains her own be experiencing
member wood seeking help for just made
even worked with kids in foam
you’re telling a client who used

Nothing experimental or transgressive or subversive is happening here, folks. Collage has made it. Random textual juxtapositions have made it. And one reason why they have made it is because they no longer possess much if any revolutionary potential. Such writing was once feared, perhaps, its legitimacy doubted. But times have changed. The powers that be, great institutions like the Pennsylvania State University, have seen the collage, and know they need not fear it. If anything, the intervening years have witnessed our world’s transformation into the collage. While writing this post I took fifty small breaks to check my email and answer texts and peruse Tweets and check out the word on Facebook. And, yes, that’s a pretty banal way of describing the manner in which we’ve grown used to encountering text as fragmentation—precisely my point.

Meanwhile, not all things that well-known experimental artists once did have entered the canon. William S. Burroughs was also a junkie. Heroin was as fundamental to his writing as the Cut-Up, perhaps even more fundamental. Why don’t his fans today embrace that technique—shoot some smack, then write? Why don’t they try teaching that in their college workshops—bring horse to school, encourage students to dope, see what happens? No? No takers? Well, Cut-Ups it will be, then!

Art that’s experimental in principle lies outside common genres, outside the canon. Most people find it unacceptable. Ange Mlinko notes several examples in her Nation review of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry, 2nd Edition, where she laments the inclusion of “Flarf, ‘Newlipo,’ ‘plundergraphia’ and ‘Google-sculpting’,” then singles out Vanessa Place and Catherine Wagner as specific examples of bad (illegitimate) poets. Wagner’s offense is to have penned

the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….”

To Mlinko, this poem’s lack of merit is self-evident; she assumes you agree. (She makes no argument as to why the poem is garbage, she just quotes its opening.) Since it’s so obviously trash, why did the editor, Paul Hoover, see fit to include it? There Mlinko provides an argument: Hoover was

eager to jettison sensibility, [and] has only fashion and popularity to guide him. […] Why would you teach this textbook? Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you.

We’re back to “it’s a con.” None of the poets whom Mlinko fingers are making “sensible” poems. They’re just being fashionable—the implication there being that they will soon go out of fashion. And like all artists like these poets are capital—the money in your pocket, as well as the cultural kind, poetic street cred.

Mind you, I’m not trying to pick on Mlinko. She’s conservative in her tastes, but that’s not a crime. And who knows? Maybe she’s right about Flarf—although I’d rather see an argument, not just indignant dismissal. I’m always troubled by the refusal to engage. But what troubles me more are those artists who share Mlinko’s poetic boundaries, and yet mistake their conservatism (idolatry of canonized artists) for experimentation, for a radical subversion.

Maybe you, like me, know some devoted John Cage fans eager to build careers repeating that man’s work. They agree that all sounds are equally acceptable, and that they can use chance techniques to compose. Although in my experience, they usually aren’t fully committed to those ideals. But whatever; they commit themselves to a certain tradition now 60+ years old and aging. That’s their prerogative. I certainly don’t t think them awful people (though I might think them awful artists). Artists should make whatever they want, and there’s nothing wrong with remaking artworks from the past. I love tradition! But what are the claims that those artists make about their art. The young poet making poems by picking words out of a hat is no more experimental than the painter producing landscapes in the Impressionist tradition. Both are manifestations of aesthetic conservatism, of adherence to safe, acceptable traditions.

John Cage didn’t spend his career repeating others’ experiments. He took inspiration from Erik Satie and Henry Cowell, yes. Everyone making art has influences and operates in traditions; none of us invented “making art.” The question instead concerns the status of our influences and traditions. Cage’s heroes were not oddballs in their time, as well as in Cage’s time, and Cage learned from their oddest efforts. Satie and Cowell were not, by 1940 or 1950 or even 1960, institutionally enshrined. In following them, Cage broke hard with the dominant aesthetic of his time (serialism, which he studied under Schoenberg in the 30s). The compositions he made looked damned peculiar to nearly everyone around him, and were not seriously regarded until fairly late in his career. His circle of friends was small and he was poor and his influence started expanding only later in his life. Today he’s a legend and people adore him, practically worship him. He’s become St. Cage. In the past eight years, I’ve attended three Cage exhibitions at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and have no doubt missed more. And I can mention his name to hundreds of people who know who I’m talking about. I own numerous books by and about him, and have access to numerous recordings. All of this has been the case since I first found out about Cage, nearly twenty years ago—at Penn State University.

To repeat Cage’s fifty-plus-year-old experiments now, and to thereby pronounce oneself experimental, is to practice experimental art by way of genre. And to practice experimental art by way of genre is to betray the principle of Cage’s experimentation. Cage’s work has become a new set of boundaries. Many have no desire to escape them. Why should they? It’s comfortable there, knowing “the right way” of making art.

In stray moments I wonder why so many self-professed experimental artists practicing today are so determined to recreate the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t wonder why that time period is still relevant to the present (because it is), but why remaking revolutionary artworks from then should count today as revolution.

My point is that to take an artwork seriously, to take an artistic method or technique seriously, demands that we understand it in relation to its time. Cage’s chance techniques, as well as collage, and the Cut-Up Technique—they meant certain things in 1959—they positioned themselves against the culture in particular ways, which is how they derived their subversive qualities. Since then the culture has changed—it’s always changing—and this body of techniques is no longer quite so-positioned. We do well to wonder if they can still achieve what they once did.

Those who claim otherwise are by extension claiming that nothing has changed, or that little has changed. In their view, experimental artists comprise some kind of Rebel Alliance, long at war with the evil Galactic Empire—ever since Darth Aristotle built the very first Death Star of Unity. The Rebels, a scruffy and underprivileged lot, have spent the ages arming themselves with mind tricks good at disrupting that unity, and knocking the Death Star’s targeting computer out of whack. Jedi Master Wil’bu Ro’cut discovered one such technique, a means for disrupting linear time and space, which he passed on before his death to his Padawan, Kathack Theer. Who passed it on to . . . What those espousing this view misunderstand is that there is no single Galactic Empire, but a succession of them, if not a multiplicity of them. The Rebel Alliance sometimes succeeds in blowing up a Death Star. But so too does it often succeed in building a Death Star of its own. The Cut-Up Technique is now aboard a Death Star. It’s helping pilot that Death Star.

(I’m terrible at analogies.)

At this point we might ask (assuming any of this has been convincing—please let me know): what are the demands of experimentation as principle? Does it necessitate the rejection of genre, or of tradition? Does it require a constant breaking with the past? Yes and no. Because there are, I think, two different ways, broadly speaking, to go about it, both of which I’ll try addressing in my next post.

Until then, just try doing something experimental.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

144 Comments

  1. A D Jameson

      I love giving my students rules to follow. Rules are useful for many different reasons. I just don’t like it when rules become hard and fast laws.

      Ideally, I think workshop participants should learn how to read stories on a case-by-case basis, and not just apply some “filter” to them. If all that needs to be done to make any story better is to put it in 3rd person and add more description and an epiphany, then why bother having a workshop?

      I was in workshop on Monday, and a fellow student submitted a story. And everyone wanted it to be less heavy-handed. But it seemed to me the piece was entirely invested in being heavy-handed. Being heavy-handed was essential to the story having its unique effect. And I think I was reading the story more carefully than the others in the workshop were (but I would think that, wouldn’t I?). I think it’s important to not treat all stories the same. (Incidentally, this was a PhD-level fiction workshop.)

  2. A D Jameson

      You don’t see the problems with this argument?

      Oh, I’m sure it has problems. Any argument has problems. Any concept or model or definition has problems. I would never claim otherwise.

      And who are these people? What are their qualifications? We go from a respected indie novliest to…Students?! Students–undergrads especially–are usually not qualified to make reaching assessments about whether or not something “is literature.”

      That’s why I didn’t say they were. That’s why I pointed to Josh’s review in Bookforum. He’s a contributing editor at Harper’s. That’s why I pointed to Ange Mlinko’s review in the Nation. That’s why I described the reaction of PhD writing students at UIC. You know, qualified people.

      I think you’re overreacting and imagining situations that would also disturb me which is why I didn’t propose them.

      Cheers,
      Adam

  3. A D Jameson

      Here’s another way of thinking about it. Context always matters. So let’s say I show Naked Lunch to my freshman comp class, and they think it’s the most experimental thing they’ve ever seen. None of them think it should count as an actual novel. They think it’s a hoax.

      But so what? Who care’s what my freshman comp class thinks? By which I mean, what authority do they have to determine what is or isn’t literature? They have no such authority.

      But Bookforum, Harpers, the Nation, Time Magazine, PhD programs in writing—they have some authority. So it matters, I think, what they think is and isn’t literature. Inasmuch as it, you know, matters.

      Cheers,
      Adam

  4. Michael Fischer

      I don’t believe I’m paranoid, AD. I believe the gist of my concern is with your argument’s lack of concrete analysis. Your argument that his work is experimental depends mostly on how people react to it either editorially or via cursory personal taste, rather than close analysis of his work, which I find odd, given your strong commitments to formalism. This is why I have no problems conceding that he’s experimental, because I’m confident I could analyze his work closely to show that it’s experimental while still expressing my dislike for his work and gimmicky PR stuntman persona.

      I could do the same for numerous other writers I like and dislike. For instance, I love Joy Williams; so does Tao. Joy is easily as experimental as Tao, and I could show you this by analyzing her work closely–work that might not appear flamboyantly experimental at first glance.

      As it stands, because so much of your argument about what constitutes experimental literature depends on how people react to certain viscerally, I can’t help but sense a bit of condescension and dismissiveness from you, which is surprising and something I’d expect from Christopher Higgs, not you. All this is attributed to your lack of commitment to close analysis in your OP and gives off the patronizing vibe that those who dismiss Lin are somehow too stupid to get his work or mere haters expressing their discomfort with the unfamiliar. But you haven’t taken the effort to show us–in rigorous, thorough detail and analysis–what makes Lin experimental on the page.

  5. Jeremy Hopkins

      Getting away from personal takes on terminology, I want to ask about your point that when people think it isn’t art it is therefore experimental.

      1.) If people accept it as art, then it is no longer experimental in principle.

      2.) If people do not accept it as art, then it is experimental in principle.

      What if they’re right and it isn’t art?
      Is it then a failed experiment, or just some non-art?

      It seems the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘experiment’ is somehow both unidirectional and indirect.

  6. A D Jameson

      Hi MIchael,

      I distinguish between experimental and innovative. I get the impression you don’t make such a distinction? Not sure. But if so, that’s fine. And I’m ultimately more concerned with innovation than I am with experimentation—I suspect that, in that regard, we agree.

      All I mean by experimental here (“experimental in principle”) is that such work challenges people in that they don’t think the work is valid as literature. That has nothing to do per se with formalism. Kenneth Goldsmith’s work inspires that reaction, and his work is a-formal or anti-formal. Tao Lin’s work is entirely formal. In both cases, all I am saying is that people like arguing that neither author is making valid literature.

      Joy Williams is a deeply innovative writer whose work I adore. But I’m not aware of anyone ever saying that what she wrote wasn’t literature. (If anyone ever did, I missed it.) Thus by my definition she is an innovative writer but not an experimental one.

      I don’t think my point is really all that controversial. Whether it’s useful is another question entirely.

      I don’t get any of the ad hominem stuff about my ego. I also don’t get why you seem so worked up about this. Sorry if I riled you any.

      Cheers,
      Adam

  7. A D Jameson

      Hi Jeremy,

      What if they’re right and it isn’t art?

      That’s a great question. Definitely how we define art matters a great deal. I think of art as being whatever people call art. I could call the tree outside my window art, and it might then be art to me. But it might not be art to anyone else in Chicago. So, inasmuch as art is a social practice, societies need to agree (to some greater or lesser extent) as to what art is.

      If one person says that something is art (“the tree outside my window”) and no one else agrees, then I guess that person has just found an extremely experimental artwork. Because only that one person thinks it’s art. So that points to a real boundary in how people define art. But is that worth anything? I dunno.

      By way of contrast, someone might claim that a urinal is an artwork. Most people might disagree. That, too, would be an experimental artwork. But then, over time, many people might come to accept that urinal as an artwork. Others begin making similar pieces. Now there’s a new tradition—the readymade. It stops being experimental by way of principle, and becomes experimental by way of genre. (I could submit a urinal to a show somewhere and no doubt offend some people who don’t know Duchamp, but my experiment wouldn’t count for much in the broader conversation about what art is.)

      By my definition/logic, the more the work is accepted as art, the less experimental (in principle) it would seem to be. I think I think that.

      Is it then a failed experiment, or just some non-art?

      I don’t know what “failed experiment” would mean (by these terms). I think that work is either experimental or it isn’t, although it can be experimental in degree. It all comes down to how it’s received.

      I suppose one way experimental art could fail in this regard is if someone tried making something experimental, and no one thought it as such. Like, if I enter the urinal in an art show, meaning to be provocative and to blow minds, and everyone else shrugs, and just points to Duchamp’s readymades, then I guess I failed to make an experimental artwork.

      Again, to clarify, I’m proposing this definition not because I really care all that much, in the end, about experimental art. My main point here is to argue that a lot of what I see people calling experimental art in my opinion really isn’t. I want to critique experimental art by way of genre. (Not because I care people are making it. Artists should make whatever they want. Rather, I am critiquing the claims that are then made about such work.) That’s really my main focus here. But it seemed to me that if I were going to claim that, I also needed some way of defining art that was experimental but not experimental by way of genre. Hence the concept of experimental art by way of principle.

      I’m also happy to acknowledge that I might be totally crazy or wrong about all of this. Or that my proposed concepts/definitions aren’t useful. If others find them useful, then that’s great; I’m glad to help out. If not, then it’s really no big deal. I might learn something then, or my being wrong might lead to a better understanding of the situation. Or it might not do anything whatsoever, which would also be OK, I think.

      Ultimately I’m more concerned with innovation in art. I think that’s something different than experimentation, honestly. A lot of works that are innovative aren’t experimental in any way (either in terms of genre or principle). Is what I’d argue.

      Cheers,
      Adam

  8. Jeremy Hopkins

      RE: “a failed experiment” — This could be a “failure to experiment” or an “experiment which failed in its aim.” The second is still an experiment, the first is not. They might both be art, or might not. I imagined your argument addressing either possibility and was confused.

  9. Michael Fischer

      “Ad hominem”? Really? You’ve said similar things to other commenters on this thread and in a similar tone and have come off as rather defensive to fair questions and critiques of your position(s). I refuse to buy your argument that experimental literature is simply “what people say isn’t literature.” That’s quite the watered-down argument.

      It’s also insincere to pretend like your personal definition of “experimental” is completely free of the historical, cultural, and social baggage of that term, like you can just speak for what the word means for you personally and dismiss the very real baggage it carries outside your personal definition.

      This neat separation you suggest between “experimental” and “innovative” also seems too simplistic and unrealistic, as the two words are often interchangeable in numerous contexts. I don’t have a problem with you but it’s clear you’re not interested in genuine discussion HERE, so I’m done with you on this thread.

  10. alan rossi

      I’m just a party interested in these things and I almost never comment on this site and I hate to like fall in here and play arbiter (and not that AD needs it at all), but I mean, I got to this comment and it just seems so off. I don’t think AD has been defensive at all and maybe I’ve missed some comments, but I haven’t seen any “similar tone.”

      Also, his entire argument isn’t “simply” that experimental literature is defined by those who fail to see it as literature. This is just a component of the definition; also, this component of the definition serves as an extension of the more general and traditional idea of avant-garde, which is art that pushes the boundaries of art – so, of course, it seems to me, there might be some who wouldn’t want to call such experimental things art/literature b/c boundaries have been pushed to a certain point making the art-thing, possibly, either unrecognizable or (in Lin’s case) not-worthy-of-being-recognized.

      Also, I haven’t seen him be insincere. I think I remember AD saying several times that he doesn’t find his own argument that controversial, and the component of the definition you dislike seems, as I think AD would admit, to be a mere extension of a pretty basic definition of avant-garde – so it’s totally cultural and historical.

      This section is the only section that reads with anything like a defensive tone and, frankly, it seems like you’re talking to yourself about something. I mean, it’s cool if you don’t like his argument, but it also seems like you’re bringing up stuff that is either frantically tangentially related and/or stuff that you seem to be personally super pissed about (the “but all writers experiment thing”, which I happen to agree with you on to some degree). I don’t know; I’d take another look at this though to see if you really feel the way you think you should feel, not that it matters all that much.

      Anyway, have a good night.

  11. Michael Fischer

      You’re a good friend, Alan Rosi. Good friends have their friends’ backs and that’s clearly the case here, for better or for worse.

      I’m not interested in you telling me what I don’t know, but thanks for the offer. I do in fact know what I’m talking about and know the definition of experimental offered here is unsubstantial and problematic. If you want to pretend like experimental and innovative are two disparate categories, be my guest.

      You have a good might too.

      Cheers.

  12. alan rossi

      I’m just trying to engage, like you are with AD, with some of your points I find problematic. Some of those points have to do with theory, some of them have to do with the psychological make-up of this thread.

      I don’t know who I’m (not) good friends with in this situation, and I don’t want to pretend that experimental and innovative are disparate categories (I’d have to think about that more) – anyway I never mentioned I thought they should be distinct.

      Take care.

  13. Michael Fischer

      I’m curious what you find problematic about my posts, the majority of which are about the denotation and use of a term and its definition.

      1) I have not denied the existence of experimental literature.
      2) I have even agreed that Tao Lin is an experimental writer.
      3) I have not denied that experimental literature “pushes boundaries.”

      Most of my posts are about the way a term is being casted on this thread and how its usage might disqualify certain works unfairly.

      What do you find problematic about that? And wouldn’t you agree that “experimental” is often used as a marker of artistic distinction, that it is considered by many writers to be a compliment and marker of artistic distinction? I’m pretty sure you don’t merely view the word in its most clinical denotation. All of us are “writers’ writers” here and know the label is often complimentary and code for, “high art.” No need to be dishonest about this obvious fact.

  14. Don

      To be clear: I think experimentation (that is, recovery) is awesome.

  15. PedestrianX

      Well, I win this round. Well played.

  16. A D Jameson

      It’s telling you think in such terms. Also, clever language, hadn’t realized you invented that “well played” line.

      Wanna show me any evidence for your claims? Like, regarding Tzara’s popularity? Or that he invented the Cut-Up Technique? Or do you just want to posture and win points on the internet?

  17. rawbbie

      I am really against using the word “Experimental” in non-literal ways. If you are not testing the viability of a new way to create or present literature, then it’s not “Experimental”. It seems like people use the word to refer to something “weird” or “fresh” or “new” but that’s not really what the word *means*.

      I like the way you explain how a cut-up is not experimental; like doing an experiment that proves that gravity affects all objects equally in a sixth grade science fair: it may be experimental to *you*, but not experimental to the rest of the world.

  18. A D Jameson

      Me, too! I tend to use “experimental” in its literal sense of “a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.” In my view, experimental writers are trying out new ways of writing, while others around them aren’t working that way, or don’t believe those ways valid. (I said said more about this in my original Big Other article.) Cheers, Adam

  19. Michael Fischer

      Unfortunately, such an ahistorical definition of the word isn’t going to sit well with people who know the word has been used in non-literal ways by its proponents for many years. There are numerous examples of experimental literature that is called experimental by the posturing avant garde that is not “testing the viability of a new way to create or present literature.” In fact, postmodernism itself is founded upon the belief that technique has been exhausted and all that remains is the reflexive consideration of technique, which itself is an admission that experimentation in most literal sense is a farce.

      So, while you and others mean well, your ahistorical definition is extremely problematic.

  20. Jeremy Hopkins

      “Postmodernism itself is founded upon the belief that technique has been exhausted and all that remains is the reflexive consideration of technique, which is an admission that experimentation in its most literal sense is a farce.”

      — If it was ever *not* exhausted, then how could it be now? When did it become so?

      Why should I believe them? Have they tested and found the limits of human thought? Did they achieve this knowledge through experiment, or observation?

      ————————–

      A literal definition will surely be problematic in talking to people who use a non-literal definition.

  21. Michael Fischer

      Q: “If it was ever *not* exhausted, then how could it be now?”

      A: Because it (re: technique) has had time to become exhausted. You’ll have a difficult time arguing convincingly that literary technique has not been sufficiently mined over numerous centuries of practice, which doesn’t mean, btw, that today’s writers can’t be highly original.

      Q: “Why should I believe them? Have they tested and found the limits of human thought? Did they achieve this knowledge through experiment, or observation?”

      A: I don’t know. Why should you believe anything or anyone? It’s great that you’re critical and healthily skeptical. Just make sure you don’t make the mistake a lot of creative writers make of ignoring or downplaying history.

      Comment: A literal definition will surely be problematic in talking to people who use a non-literal definition.

      Response: Of course, this oversimplifies my point about the undeniable historical context of the word and its various connotations, and presumes a neat binary between literal and non-literal that doesn’t exist for the historically aware.

  22. Jeremy Hopkins

      A1: Sure. And really I’m of the opinion that there are always multiple values at work when we consider things abstractly, and something actually can appear (and even be) both new and not, depending on perspective.
      A2: Sure.
      Response: Aren’t you utilizing a binary between “historical” and “ahistorical?”

  23. Michael Fischer

      Jeremy Hopkins: Aren’t you utilizing a binary between “historical” and “ahistorical?”

      Michael Fischer: Nope.

  24. Michael Fischer

      Jeremy Hopkins: Sure. And really I’m of the opinion that there are always multiple values at work when we consider things abstractly, and something actually can appear (and even be) both new and not, depending on perspective.

      Michael Fischer: Oh, well in that case, we really don’t disagree. I was under the impression that you believed there are contemporary fiction writers inventing “new” techniques wholly out of thin air.

  25. Jeremy Hopkins

      Okay. I’ll ask.
      How not?

  26. Jeremy Hopkins

      A category he doesn’t recognize? Might as well say he doesn’t know what realism is. I am not convinced someone can get a master’s degree and not have *some* idea of what experimental literature is. I am a pleb, so I get to say “It’s bullshit” with impunity; but I honestly expect more from a university professor.

  27. Michael Fischer

      You’re obviously young. Realism and experimental don’t compare as “categories.” Michael Martone knows what he’s talking about.

  28. Michael Fischer

      Because it’s almost always used as pejorative to describe the lack of historical perspective. Have you ever heard anyone use that word in a positive manner or suggest that it is a potentially positive counterbalance to “historical”?

  29. Jeremy Hopkins

      Okay, so one’s a class and one’s a genus.

      And the pleb/professor stuff was me joking. But the fact remains, it’d be irresponsible, if not impossible (according to you), for someone to get that far and not have encountered the term in its “historical” usage. But rather than engage with the “historical” definition you’ve referred to, he acts like he has *no* definition whatsoever, and then answers all the questions anyway, going so far as to provide a list of “experimental” works, even though he said he has not “ever used it to describe any work of literature.” The answers pretty clearly rhetorical and not direct representations of what he really thinks.

  30. Jeremy Hopkins

      1 = on = historical
      0 = off = ahistorical

      Perhaps there is some other definition of binary at play here.

  31. David Sewell

      I see the point you are making about the genre of experimental, but to my mind there is or should be no such thing. The term experimental I think too is harmful, the word itself suggests work not thought through to the end, or not finished, when it is in fact fully under the control of the artist and rendered to completion. If the artist didn’t know where the work would end up as they started, they are content with the end point sufficiently to call it completed. Rather than experimental, it is as you say work which differs from the normally accepted conventions. It is sort of avant garde but that label has become a bit debased too in this cynical age of exploitation and seen it all critical jadedness. Do we even need a label? let the work stand or fall on its own merits, without labelling it as ‘other’ or ‘transgressive’.

      marc nash

  32. Animated Gifs as Cinema | HTMLGIANT

      […] was planning to put up the next installment in my experimental fiction series today (part 1, part 2), but school has interfered. (I’m writing a paper on Dickens’s use of the […]

  33. rawbbie

      Postmodernism in art and literature is an extension of Modernist experimentation and the failed attempt at escaping Romanticisms. If Postmodernism was demonstrating the exhaustion of technique, it would have have re-made modernist works. It didn’t do this. It still strived for something new/different. I feel that Postmodernism was the exhaustion itself; it’s the last gasp of the Industrial Avant Garde before new modes of art and literature were able to be produced through newer technologies, mediums, and techniques by the current Digital Avant Garde (writing poems with bacterial DNA, movies made of molecules, and sonnets written by algorithms). If you think Experimental Writing ended with the Postmodernists, you’re sadly mistaken.

      BTW, the word ‘problematic’ is for people who make vague, semantics based criticisms and post anonymously on blogs. Grow a pair. I mean, even Deadgod has a twitter account…

  34. Pairofballs

      Thanks for your response a month later. I look forward to your next reply on July 1st. Who cares if today’s writers use the technologies of their time to generate texts? That’s a given in any literary period. Way to overstate the obvious.

      BTW, “Rawbie,” nice vague handle and lack of a link to any personal info of your own. Take a seat next to me if you’d like.

  35. rawbbie

      Sorry for the initially late reply, I have a “life” sometimes and it was less than two weeks, not a month.

      It is NOT a given that any writer who uses the technologies of their time to generate text is going to be the Avant Garde OR Experimental. Are you being experimental by changing your handle to “Pairofballs”? Are you part of the Avant Garde by using a computer?

      And it’s NOT a given that all the writers of a certain time will use those technologies at ALL. Last time I checked, Mary Ruefle still types all her correspondence, poems, and prose on a typewriter.

      If you’re sad that you don’t know who I am, you can use the technologies of our day, and Google me.

  36. Pairofballs

      It is a given, relatively speaking. Even the writer who uses anachronistic technology is aware she’s using anachronistic technology as a response to current technology or during a time when that technology is clearly dated.

      And, not a “technological example,” per se, but Dickens’s novels echo much of Darwin’s work–and vice versa–and the two never met or referenced each other explicitly in their work, so you can extend this cultural point to ideas too. Of course , if you have a simple-minded, rigid-ass definition of “experimental” that you merely use to oppose a foil or bogeyman to give yourself permission to be different, then ignore me and and work on your so-called “experimental” literature. I fully endorse writers doing whatever it takes to convince themselves to write, and I include self-inflicted delusion in this category, especially for writers under the age of 30. Take heart and do what you gotta do to generate text!

      PS–

      You can use the technologies of our day and Google me, “Pairofballs,” too. It’s up to you to figure out who I am, based on your own standards for non-anonymous posting.

  37. rawbbie

      First, let’s be real clear: I googled balls first. I gave you your screen name; you’re welcome. You are Pairofballs, welcome to HTMLGiant.

      Second, I have made no claim to be experimental and wouldn’t unless I truly believed I was doing something that attempted to present or generate literature in a way that had not been done before as a test of it’s viability as literature. I know where my work is situated in the grand scheme and it’s NOT experimental. To “experiment” is not even near the cause of my impulse to write. If you think I’m delusional, you’re fucking wrong and you should put your head down and STFU.

      Third, Darwin’s work was not Experimental, but Theoretical. He didn’t ‘test’ anything, but observed. Much like Einstein…

      My definition of the word is simple, but not simple-minded; I’m not applying the word willy-nilly to anything that’s weird or different, but to clearly defined set of literature. You’re definition is the reason Flarf became a poetic mode in the first place: to mock people who value and praise anything that’s weird and different.

      Judge writers under 30 all you want, but they’re gonna fucking bury assholes like you.

  38. rawbbie

      You keep calling this anon “Michael”. Is this a famous Michael? or just a rando michael?

  39. A D Jameson

      We are all famous, in God’s eyes.

  40. Pairofballs

      It’s funny how much stock you (and others) put into this issue of whether or not someone uses a name, or uses fifty names, etc. Focus on the ideas, not this cult of personality or trying to trace a comment to a personality or persona. When I read your posts, I don’t immediately care about your personality, personal life, where you live, what you eat for breakfast, etc. I’m focused on what you’re writing in your comment.

      PS–nice work, Sherlock. Feel better now?

  41. Pairofballs

      Darwin’s work was experimental on the page…according to numerous Victorian scholars who’ve studied his prose, ’cause that’s what literary critics study–prose (prosody).

      There are numerous passages in Origin of Species about writing and writing process that contributed to the development of the novel as we know it today and plot. Two books I highly recommend are Gillian Beer’s “Darwin’s Plots” and George Levine’s “Darwin and the Novelists.”

      I think all writers should strive to bury the competition; that’s a noble goal and I hope you (and/or your friends) are that ambitious. I’d think much less of you if you weren’t! I think T.C. Boyle has a similar quote that stems from Iowa rejecting his application for funding, so he told himself from then on that he’d “bury his enemies.” I encourage you and others to do the same.

  42. columbusmatt

      What happens if one of your Betters proclaims a novel/poem experimental?

      Is it suddenly NOT experimental because it has been called such, instead of having been labeled “not a novel”?

      If only that which has been called (by your betters) “NOT a poem/novel/play” is experimental, that leaves them (and you) a rather empty sand-box to play in, eh?

  43. A D Jameson

      Hi columbsmatt,

      I think of it as contextual. If it’s experimental to me, then it’s experimental to me. Like, if I write a poem by drawing words out of a hat—let’s say I come up with that idea myself, and don’t know others have done it. But then if I go to my Modernist poetry class and my professor tells me that Tristan Tzara did that same thing nearly 100 years ago, and that many others have repeated the idea since then—well, then my poem is no longer as experimental as I thought. Knowledge does count for something (although you might have meant something different by the word “Betters”?). That said, my poem may still befuddle people plenty back in my dorm room, where Tzara’s work remains comparatively unknown.

      In other words, I think of experimental as a relative value, not an absolute one. (Works are experimental in relation to other works.) (And I’m proposing this as one way of defining “experimental.”) I do think a lot of people use the term “experimental” to mean “unfamiliar to me,” and that that approach is substantially different from declaring works experimental because they contain particular genre features (although there can also be a lot of overlap, no doubt).

      Cheers,
      Adam

  44. Another way to generate text #7: Gysin & Burroughs vs. Tristan Tzara | HTMLGIANT

      […] them, but generative techniques haven’t been on my mind. However, my post last week, “Experimental fiction as principle and as genre,” generated a lot of text (haha), in the form of comments. Some people who chimed in […]