Experimental fiction as genre and as principle

Posted by @ 8:01 am on April 22nd, 2013

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.

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