The Higgs-Jameson Experimental Fiction Debate, part 1

Posted by @ 8:01 am on February 27th, 2012


A D Skywalker vs. Darth Higgs

Adam: Last weekend, playing a stray note on my recorder summoned a cyclone that whirled me away to the swamps of Tallahassee. There I impinged on Christopher Higgs and his wife, who lodged me in their spacious Rococo flat (refurbished from a gator-packing warehouse). Over dinner, Chris and I had numerous opportunities to discuss—and to disagree about—the nature of experimental fiction…

A D JAMESON [leaning back from his seventh helping of tiramisu]: At the risk of spoiling such a fine meal, perhaps you and I can finally figure out why we’ve butted been butting heads regarding the nature of experimental fiction.


ADJ: Let’s start by each defining what we think experimental fiction is!

In my case, the best formulation I’ve been able to come up with is the one I wrote at Big Other: “Experimental art is that which takes unfamiliarity as its dominant—even to the point of schism.” (Instead of “art” here, we can easily read “fiction.”)

By “dominant,” I mean to echo Roman Jakobson’s formulation: “the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components. It is the dominant which guarantees the integrity of the structure.”

And by “schism,” I mean to echo Frank Kermode, who argued in The Sense of an Ending that “novelty in the arts is either communication or noise. If it is noise then there is no more to say about it. If it is communication it is inescapably related to something older than itself” (102). Schism is total noise: “Schism is simply meaningless without reference to some prior condition; the absolutely New is simply unintelligible, even as novelty” (116).

So, in other words, an experimental artist is still working in a recognizable tradition—what she makes is still (mostly) recognizable as art—but she prioritizes unfamiliarity to such a degree that it governs her decisions, As I put it in that BO post [proceeds to recite from memory]:

The experimental artist wants her artwork to be different from all the other artworks around her. She desires that her results be unusual, unfamiliar to the point of looking peculiar, perplexing. She may be drawing on conventions, she may be working inside one or more traditions. But her conventions and traditions are not dominant ones; they are, perhaps, older ones, or unpopular ones. Or she may be importing ideas and conventions from one medium into another, where they are not well known.

Or it may be that she has noticed an idea—a possibility—that has not been fully developed in other artworks, and therefore seeks to develop it. She exaggerates or expands that minor concept or idea (something that isn’t dominant in other works) until it overwhelms the more familiar aspects of her artwork, distorting and enstranging the entire thing. Hence Manet and Degas exaggerated the de-emphasis of line and more energetic brushstrokes that they observed in works by Velázquez, J. M. W. Turner, and Eugène Delacroix, developing that idea until they arrived at Impressionism.

CH: First, I must say I resist using the category “experimental fiction,” because what is modified in that construction is “fiction,” whereas what I’m interested in talking about is “experimental literature”: a unique category of irreducible singularities existing between and across other generalizable categories such as fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.  To talk about “experimental fiction” is to talk about a type of fiction like “crime fiction” or “horror fiction” or fill-in-your-favorite adjective-fiction.  Alternatively, I will claim that experimental literature is different in kind rather than degree, which is to say that experimental literature is neither a type of fiction nor a type of poetry (nor any other predetermined convention) but is instead a category unto itself: both poetry, fiction, and everything else simultaneously yet irreducibly.  A mutation.  And therefore fundamentally anomalous.   

ADJ: OK, well there’s one disagreement, right off the bat. I have no trouble with the term “experimental fiction”—writing that’s recognizable as fiction, and yet is also chiefly concerned with experimentation. It would be a subset of fiction, if not a genre. Although certainly one way to experiment with fiction is to push it toward other rhetorical modes, like poetry and nonfiction. But they need not do that.

Returning to the question of genre: I believe there exists a genre of writing that people call “Experimental Fiction.” However, this is a historical category, and it consists largely of writers using inherited techniques and devices that they and others consider “experimental.” So, for instance, William S. Burroughs was (in his time) an experimental writer, and he popularized the Cut-Up Technique. And today a lot of people use that and similar techniques, and call the results “Experimental Fiction.” Here’s one example, Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups.

And to my mind, there’s nothing experimental about those kinds of texts, except in name. Instead, they seem very conventional to me, very traditional—almost quaint.

CH: We’ve only just begun our conversation and I’m already perplexed by your position.  How is it that Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Ups does not conform to your definition of experimental art as “that which takes unfamiliarity as its dominant—even to the point of schism”?

ADJ: 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 […]”. Bellamy’s not taking unfamiliarity as her dominant. Would it be experimental for me to write a confessional poem a la Sylvia Plath?

I myself am more interested in the principle of experimentation than I am in any particular genre. And I believe that that experimenting can be done with any genre of writing, indeed any kind of writing. Wherever there is writing, there is convention, and wherever there is convention, one can mess around with it, and experiment. And so, for me, it makes perfect sense to talk about experimental realism, and experimental romance novels, and experimental lab reports, etc.

But enough about me. How would you define experimental fiction? I mean, experimental literature?

CH: Again, the distinction to be made between the concept of “experimental fiction” and the concept of “experimental literature” is not merely one of semantics.  The difference determines how one engages with a text. 

If I approach a text, or recognize it, as a work of “experimental fiction” then I bring to that experience my assumptions about the conventions of fiction and thus look for legibility as determined by those conventions – in other words, a set of answers. 

If, on the other hand, I approach a text, or recognize it, as a work of “experimental literature” then I bring to that experience my assumptions about the conventions of all literature, thus collapsing the functionality of assumption-based determination by virtue of excess, rendering legibility indeterminate – in other words, a set of questions.      

How, then, to identify a work of experimental literature?  Or, put another way, what effect does the experimental text produce, or what affect does it induce, that distinguishes it as anomalous?  (This question seems more useful than a strict “definition,” given that definitions are really only useful apropos of some specific context.)  In general, I would describe its comportment as heterodoxic, convulsive, privileging a Kantian aesthetic paradigm (predicated on confusion, through the provocation of the free play of the imagination) over the Hegelian aesthetic paradigm (predicated on the primacy of communicating information).

ADJ: My goodness!

CH: Yeah, it always seems fitting to bust out the old Kant/Hegel business right off the bat. 

ADJ: Despite our different terms, I wonder if we are really saying anything different here.

CH: I think we’re saying a lot different.  First, I get the sense — and please correct me if I’m misreading you — that you see experimental literature as “a strange way of communicating” or as “a way of making communication strange” whereas I see it as more interested in provocation than communication.

ADJ: Mm, that first bit sounds too reductive for my tastes. Fiction (and literature) can do many different things, only one of which is “communicate.” (We’ll probably need to define that term.) For instance, fiction can be just as interested in mis-communicating, or in being opaque, as it can be in communicating anything.

As for that second bit, I think that I agree, although are you saying that provocation and communication are opposites, or even opposing priorities? Can’t communication be extremely provocative? That cop I flipped off last night seemed to think so.

CH:  Provocation and communication strike me as neither opposites nor opposing priorities.  They are simply different strategies.

ADJ: Oh, OK.

CH: But to clarify, from my perspective communication is not the effect produced by experimental literature.

ADJ: I may even agree with that! For me, the basic issue is that there is, in any given time or place, one or more conventional ways of making fiction, and an experimental fiction-writer is primarily concerned with violating one or more of those conventions. And since communication is usually the product of adherence to convention, it’s hard to see how such a writer could insist on violation and communication.

Although I believe that even in the most experimental works, there is still some continuity with the literature of the past, and so there will still be some adherence to convention and tradition, and so there will still be means for communicating. Inasmuch as the author is interested in communicating. So it’s a matter of degree.

CH: I’m sure we will circle back on these issues—

ADJ: I aim to do nothing but circling all night.

CH: —so I’ll just briefly mention here that another instance of our disagreement resides in our positions vis-à-vis this idea of “continuity with the literature of the past.”  I conceive of literature as neither a continuity nor a rupture, but as a rhizome.

ADJ: There’s a cure for that now, you know.

CH: For me, individual works of literature are not beholden to a given time or place or lineage as much as they are instantiations of various intensities, assemblages of affective forces, which are transhistorically immanent.

(WTF does that mean?) 

In part, this means I reject the temptation of filial causality, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of linear modeling.  (Note, for a little support, how Oulipians use the term “anticipatory plagiarists” to describe those writers who predate them yet stole their ideas.)  In other words, I don’t share your view of literary history as a kind of reverse engineered domino effect. 

Instead, I see it as always in the middle, bubbling, in process, without beginning or ending, coming and going, vulnerable and susceptible to contagion.  What crystallizes to manifest convention arises from a particular territorialization engendered by the continual recuperation of a similar set of intensities and affective forces (which I would identify as being codified by, but not created by, Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, Pope’s Essay on Criticism, Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, Tolstoy’s What is Art?, Sartre’s What is Literature,  Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult,” to name only a few.)  What resists crystallization arises from the continual deterritorialization of those particular intensities and affective forces, which, given the multiplicity of their difference, cannot be reduced to a simple binary antagonism.   

ADJ: How are you not proposing a much more linear tradition than me? In which some dominant set of conventions run from Aristotle to Horace, etc., to Jonathan Franzen, their current defender/avatar. And which must be overcome! I’m all for taking down Franzen, but the rest strikes me as specious: I doubt these conventions are so codified, so contagious, so continuous—or even have all that much in common, honestly (aren’t you being exceedingly reductive?).

And how is this not a tremendously Grand Narrative on your part? In which experimental literature is a kind of Rebellion, erected in defense of some Dominant Orthodox Empire that has ruled writing—“territorialized it”—for a thousand generations?

That all seems so … pat to me (not to mention more than a little self-aggrandizing: Exp Lit as Han Solo!). I mean, maybe there have been times when writers and readers alike forgot en masse that they have alternatives to strict mimetic realism—maybe—but today doesn’t strike me at all as one of those times. This reminds me of the New Narrativist rallying cry, “Attack the castle of the novel!” To which I’ve always responded: which castle? Kafka’s Castle? Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies? How can someone believe, c. 2012, that the novel is only one thing—some singular Crystal Fortress that could be assaulted?

CH: It’s not a matter of “overcoming” anything.  Again, there is no binary antagonism between the act of territorialization and deterritorialization; instead, these concepts signal behavioral differences.  So what I’m suggesting is an alternative way of thinking about that age old “conflict” between convention and experimentation by which we drop the idea of identifying “a set of conventions” and take up in its place an investigation of a text’s intensities and affective forces, some of which are territorializing and others are deterritorializing.

While my position may seem more esoteric, I believe it allows for a richer picture of literary history because, at a very basic level, the spectrum of contingency is much broader, which allows for a wider variety of entry and exit points, anachronisms, and other more varied couplings of individual texts.  Not to mention, as we will surely grapple with it sooner or later, the problem of originality seemingly inherent in your model, given its implied correlation between the new (the different) which begets the copy (the same) thus establishing familiarity. 

My model counters this tendency by offering an alternative to that correlation: the experimental text is seen as the new (the different) in-and-of-itself, without comparison to the same (a kind of inverted Platonism, which I borrow from Deleuze’s book Difference and Repetition) by virtue of its particular intensities and affective forces. 

So, whereas for you Bellamy fails to create an experimental text because Burroughs had already produced something similar, thus rendering Bellamy’s text a familiar copy, I would say the perceived similarity does nothing to diminish the text’s singularity because chronological precedent is less relevant than the effect produced or the affect induced, neither of which depends on “unfamiliarity” or antecedent.    

ADJ: There’s a lot there to chew on, but I think you’re attributing a post hoc ergo propter hoc to my position that isn’t there. I’ve said nothing about linearity or originality—indeed, my writing at large resists both terms:

[The experimental artist] may be drawing on conventions, she may be working inside one or more traditions. But her conventions and traditions are not dominant ones; they are, perhaps, older ones, or unpopular ones. Or she may be importing ideas and conventions from one medium into another, where they are not well known.

Regarding Bellamy, I’m just saying that when she looked for a central organizing structure for her work (a dominant), she reached for a very familiar, conventional model: the Cut-Up. And in the tradition that Bellamy’s working in, Burroughs is a central, seminal figure—an authority figure. She’s not resisting her tradition in any way, experimenting against someone who was once himself experimental. (Again: per Burroughs’s instructions…)

CH: First, you are absolutely predicating your argument on a linear model, since for you familiarity is the key and for something to become familiar it must have precedent.  (In many ways, your argument shares affinities with arguments made by both T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom.)

ADJ: You seem determined to insult me. But see how cool I remain, a model guest. [quietly seethes]

CH: No insult intended!  In fact, many critics pride themselves on being associated with Eliot and Bloom.  And since your position aligns so strikingly with theirs, I assumed you would be one of those critics. (In other words, I thought I was paying you a compliment!)  

Now then, earlier you argued that the repetition of Burroughs’s Cut-up technique is what renders Bellamy’s work “quaint.”  To quote you directly, “Viewed from the perspective of literature at large, Cut-Ups, and collages in general, are by now rather familiar.”  You repeat this sentiment here when you claim, “She’s not resisting her tradition…” (Hello Eliot and Bloom!)  So, your argument is that a text fails to be experimental if it is conceived of (by whom, I’m not sure – the writer?) as familiar.    

ADJ: Things rise and ebb, disappear and return. Somewhere, someone is reading Naked Lunch for the very first time; for them, it may as well have been written in 2012. That doesn’t change the fact that Burroughs wrote the book in the 50s, and popularized the Cut-Up Technique then, since which time certain coteries of artists have been using it steadily—e.g., the New Narrative writers, with whom Bellamy self-identifies, and who have always acknowledged inheriting the CUT from Burroughs/Gysin.

So I don’t think it remarkable for me to say that Bellamy’s working within a particular, uninterrupted tradition in which the CUT—and other collage and chance techniques—are extremely common working procedures, even to the point of being taken for granted. Which is a situation I have trouble describing as experimental. (I’ll stand by “quaint.”)

CH: Perhaps even more importantly, I fear this conversation suffers from the fact that we are arguing different arguments.  I have no interest in what an author chooses to do, so when you begin with the phrase, “[The experimental artist] may be drawing…” I automatically disengage because I’m uninterested in hypothesizing about what an author may or may not be drawing on. 

Instead, I am interested in describing text objects: what they do, how they do it, and why this might be important.  You seem to want to talk about writing practices, choices writers make, how those choices inform the text, which is fine, but not what I am arguing about.  I am arguing about what a text does, not what an author does. 

You say that Bellamy uses a familiar model and so therefore the text cannot be experimental.  I say the text is experimental because of what it does and how it does it, regardless of precedent and regardless of what the author was or was not familiar with.  From the perspective of the reader, neither the effect caused nor the affect induced by the object relies on its level of familiarity.  So although our conversation will continue, our interactions will likely seem askew.  Perhaps readers will find this disjunction appealing, or perhaps frustrating, (hopefully a little of both?), either way I’d like to make sure it is duly noted.         

ADJ: Well, we can get more into this later on. I’m happy to leave the question of authorial intentions aside for now, since they disconcert you so, and look “just at the text itself.”

CH: Returning, then, to my definition, I also believe experimental literature is necessarily “Writerly” rather than “Readerly” in the way Roland Barthes explains it in the introduction of S/Z, which is to say that it requires the role of the reader to shift from consumer to co-producer of the text.

ADJ: I don’t know if we have any disagreement here. (Do we?) But it’s probably worth pausing over Barthes’s distinction, because it helps explain why I think innovation and experimentation can be distinguished from one another—which will also explain why I don’t think that “innovative fiction” is synonymous with “experimental fiction.” All fiction, if is any good, is innovative to some degree. That’s part of the challenge in writing the stuff, isn’t it? One wants it to be familiar and yet not redundant.

So let’s say I admire J.K. Rowling (I honestly do), and want to write something derivative of (“inspired by”) her Harry Potter series. I’ll pen the exploits of a group of magic-wielding … nomads … who attend a school … in the sky. They traverse the clouds in airships, dueling other nomadic students! It will be like a cross between Harry Potter and Airborn! Although maybe that’s still not innovative enough …

See, the goal in this particular instance is to write something that’s new enough to be its own thing, but that’s also still readerly enough to become a bestseller. Innovation is an important element in this: if my novel isn’t novel enough, very few will want to read it (“It’s just a rip-off.”). But if it’s too novel—if I innovate too much with the form or the genre or the prose, pushing it to the point of unregonizability—then it won’t sell. At least not to its target audience.

Experimental fiction, then, is fiction that gets pushed to that point, in some aspect of its making. The author prioritizes making one or more aspects of the text unfamiliar, even to the point where the whole text, then, looks unfamiliar or strange as a consequence … (Although it will still have to be recognizable as a book, if we’re to regard it as one.)

CH: I’m going to continue to have a lot more to say about your decision to approach this topic from the point of view of the author (like when you say “The author prioritizes…”) but I won’t get bogged down with it here because I need to finish my definition.  So, finally, I would argue that experimental literature is insatiably nomadic.

ADJ: Hey, no fair picking on nomads!

CH: See, what I’ve done there in that last bit, using the word “nomadic,” is subtly reference my Deleuzian approach to literary studies.  A little wink and a nod.  It was pretty clever, I thought. 

ADJ: I might have suspected. Deleuze was notoriously unfair to nomads.

CH: No!  Deleuze loved nomads!  You must be thinking of Derrida.  I never heard Derrida say a nice thing about nomads, come to think of it.

ADJ: Which is odd, since he himself once was one!

[Continued in Part 2!]

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