The Higgs-Jameson Experimental Fiction Debate, part 2

Posted by @ 3:46 pm on March 7th, 2012

CH: Now then, while your definition (in Part 1) is certainly more elegant than mine in its brevity, it seems problematic to me in terms of its three main assumptions: unfamiliarity, the dominant, and schism.

Jakobson’s idea of the dominant, for example, seems patently antithetical to experimental literature because it supposes an integrity of structure that I’d classify as akin more to orthodoxy than heterodoxy.  In other words, “a focusing component” tends not to be an attribute of experimental literature; in fact, it seems to me that the comportment of experimental literature stems from a distaste or distrust or disinclination toward such a notion.

ADJ: That’s a fair point, although I think even experimental fiction has its organizing principles. There are always some things the artist wants to do, and other things he or she doesn’t want to do—even if that changes from section to section, or moment to moment. The dominant is simply a record of those desires—and note that my definition does not require them to be conventional.

Would you say, then, that experimental fiction lacks any and all convention? Any and all integrity in its structure? And, if so, can you give examples of such texts (fiction that lacks any and all convention, any and all structural integrity)?

CH: Okay, two issues here.  First, we have to distinguish between reading practices and writing practices.  When you say “There are always some things the artist wants to do…” you disregard the reader’s experience of the text.  To say that the dominant is “simply a record of [the author’s] desires” is to privilege the relationship between the writer and the idea of the dominant.  But as a reader, I am not privy to the desires of the author; all I have to work with is the text in front of me.  As a reader, if I attempt to define a dominant for a work of experimental literature I will find that it slips through my fingers, that it will not behave, will not allow itself to be reduced.  In a way, this absence of a dominant might signal to the reader that he or she is encountering experimental literature.

ADJ: This is a point we could get hung up on—[glances around to see if Walter Benn Michaels is nearby, then resumes]—and we might want to return to it later. But for now, let it suffice to say that I’m assuming both an intelligent writer and an intelligent reader who are familiar with some of the conventions for writing. Which is what it means to be an intelligent writer and reader, correct? Like, if I pick up a book and see that it’s set in San Francisco and begins with a murder, and then involves the efforts of a hard-drinking, hard-smoking man named Stan Shovel to apprehend the murderer—I think it’s only fair for me to assume that I’m reading a noirish crime novel, and that the author is at least passingly familiar with Dashiell Hammett. And the pleasure of that book will to some extent depend on what new twists and turns the author can perform within the conventions of that genre and tradition.

CH: Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “some of the conventions of writing” — especially given my argument that the conventions of writing are inadequate help to the reader of experimental literature.  The example you’ve given is applicable only to a work of fiction: a category of literature with conventions, to which a reader could surely bring his or her assumptions and reading strategies.  Furthermore, your example offers the reader a sense of familiarity granted by convention: a setting (San Fransisco), a protagonist (Stan Shovel), an inciting incident (the murder), and so on. But what assumptions and reading strategies does a reader bring to a work that does not offer the reader those familiar conventions?

ADJ: I don’t understand that last sentence. But in any case, I didn’t intend that Stan Shovel example as an example of experimental fiction.

CH: I didn’t read your Stan Shovel example as an example of experimental fiction.  My point is that you are reaching for markers of identification, assuming that these markers exist in all identifiable works of literature and can be (and should be) accounted for by a kind of resemblance with tradition — here again is your connection to Eliot and Bloom.  

To rephrase my question, what if the markers of identification are too opaque to render legible, or what if the intensity of confusion is magnified to a level of incomprehension?  To be less extreme, what if the genre and tradition is unclear, making it impossible for the kind of pleasure you describe as arising from the “new twists and turns the author can perform within the conventions of that genre and tradition”?

ADJ: But you’re not stating anything that disagrees with me. As I said in my original definition, the author takes unfamiliarity as her dominant, even to the point of schism. Of course an experimental work will look weird—will intensify confusion etc.—otherwise it isn’t a very good experiment! The remaining “markers of resemblance,” as you put it, might in fact be very slight.

The only reason I hired Mr. Shovel was to point out that to become a reader, and to become literate, is to learn not only the letters and words on the page, but the conventions that organize their arrangement. And no matter how initially confusing an experimental text looks, there will still be conventions organizing it. They will just be unfamiliar ones.

It’s it’s problematic for you—if you’d rather discuss the reader than the author—then we need not insist on calling the dominant “a record of the author’s desires”; “focusing component” is more apt. If the text has structure, then something must be insuring that structure. The dominant is simply that thing, or set of things.

Here’s yet another way of putting it: the dominant is simply the aspect of the text that you can’t get rid of. When J. K. Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter, she says that Harry walked into her head, fully formed. She saw a bespectacled young boy with a scar on his forehead, who didn’t know who he was. And that character became the dominant element of the work: the whole thing unfolded from Rowling pursuing the question, “Who is this boy, and where did he come from?” She couldn’t get rid of Harry Potter; everything else in the series was secondary, subordinate to HP.

Another example. If I write a Shakespearean sonnet, there are certain rules that I must follow. It must be fourteen lines long. It must follow a certain rhyme scheme, and a certain rhetorical progress. Those rules are dominants: they control all the other decisions I make. And it’s certainly OK if I decide to toss those rules out the window—we may, in theory, do what we like when we write—but the more I toss, the less I’m writing a recognizable sonnet.

Does this clarify my initial definition? This is why the writer of experimental fiction must take unfamiliarity as her dominant: if she takes what’s recognizable, what’s conventional, then there’s no way her text can be anything other than recognizable and conventional. She must instead privilege disruption, and difference from the other familiar texts around her. (This is true despite whatever aspect of the text she’s experimenting with.)

Returning to our reader/writer distinction, I don’t think the reader can make a conventional text into an experimental one. If I write a perfectly ordinary Shakespearean sonnet, it will take a lot of cleverness on some reader’s part to claim that I’ve written an experimental poem. Either it’s similar to other sonnets, or it’s not; this is a fairly objective matter.

CH: This is turning out to be such a turbulent conversation for me because of the way you continually fluctuate between talking about a text and talking about writing practices — it seems like you’re trying to formulate a definition of experimental fiction for a writer rather than a reader, whereas I’m trying to describe the object a reader encounters.  That whole bit where you say “This is why the writer of experimental fiction must take unfamiliarity as her dominant…” just doesn’t compute with me because it’s written from the point of view of what a writer must do, rather than what a reader must do.  

What if, instead of discovering identifiable markers like plot, character, and setting, the reader begins with a slew of words: “The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one….” (Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence)?  The reader is adrift.  Confusion replaces familiarity, regardless of the level of intelligence held by the reader.

ADJ: “Confusion replaces familiarity”—that’s my whole point! The experimental writer means to confuse, which is why she prioritizes the unfamiliar. And yet she must retain some convention, some link to the literature of the past, if her work is to be recognizable as such.

I don’t know how much it matters if Dies lacks plot, character, setting. Is it a novel? I myself thought it was a sentence, or, beyond that, “a novella-sized book of literary prose [and/or] poetry” (that’s what the inside copy claims Les Figues Press specializes in). If I assign a student George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, and he returns complaining that he can’t find the plot in it, well, I have to question his intelligence. (More charitably, I’d just assume he doesn’t know much about contemporary poetry.)

But despite the failure of a well-rounded character to show up on page one, there may still be recognizable elements of fiction and narrative in Dies. Susan McCabe, in her Introduction, offers explicit strategies for reading the text as a war narrative. Furthermore, she points out its uses of puns, paradox, archaisms, catachresis, metaphors, and other literary conventions (xiv). These are all points of continuity with the literature of the past that help ground the reader, and that help make Dies recognizable as lit—it’s not just a “slew,” as you call it. Place’s long sentence, despite its initial offputtingness, is not absent any and all convention. If it were, it would make no sense to speak of it as a sentence, as literature!

CH: Again, your move away from the reader and back to the writer just then is, I’m convinced, a salient part of our disagreement, given that I see the perspective of the writer and the perspective of the reader as radically different.  You just began your last response by saying your whole point was that “The experimental writer means to confuse…”  

Right there you are talking about what the writer means, not what the text is doing.

Whereas I am uninterested in (and unconvinced of the tenability of) speaking to the act of the writer as it applies to the critical reception of literature, your position seems to slip from the point of view of the writer to the point of view of the reader without qualm.   

ADJ: POV has nothing to do with it. I’m interested in the objective words on the page, which don’t change regardless of who’s looking at them. I’m less interested in subjective responses than you are, regardless of whether they’re the author’s or the reader’s.

CH: POV actually has everything to do with it!  You stated moments ago, “As I said in my original definition, the author takes unfamiliarity as her dominant, even to the point of schism.”

Thus your entire argument is predicated on what the author takes as her dominant.  

Then you write, “The experimental writer means to confuse…”  

You see?  You’re not talking about the objective words on the page.  You’re talking about the author’s decision making process.  I’m saying, who cares what the author takes as her dominate.  Let’s look at the text.  What is the text doing?  

ADJ: I don’t understand your fervent dismissal of authorial intention. Are you saying that questions of intent and desire should be dismissed from English Studies entire? (If so, why ever interview an author? Seems like a plum future for critics!)

Knowing what, say, Raymond Roussel set out to do when he wrote Impressions of Africa, or Locus Solus, seems pretty important and relevant to me to one’s understanding and appreciation of those books. Of course one can argue to what extent he succeeded or failed, but to not take that into consideration … ?

Wouldn’t you agree with the statement that, when Georges Perec wrote La disparition, he intended to write a novel that avoided using the letter E? Or do you have trouble even with that?

But, again, we can leave this aside, and just look at the words on the page, if you like. It ultimately doesn’t matter much for the sake of my current argument.

CH:  The reason I think this is central to our disagreement is that when you posit the desire of the writer, or attempt to explain the intention of the writer, this implies the Hegelian aesthetic paradigm by imagining the text as a vehicle of communication, intention, purpose, as a means to an end rather than a means unto itself.  Since I cannot see through a text to the other side where an author sits awaiting my success or failure in deciphering her creation, I take solace in its autotelic nature.  I encounter an object, a machine, in this conversation a text.  I pick it up and look at it and attempt to determine what it does and how it does it.  I am the ape holding the bone in the opening scene of 2001, just before it realizes the use value.  

ADJ: I thought it gauche to point out that you’ve been clutching that spare rib for some time now.

Again, “what the author desired” need have nothing to do with my initial formulation (which can be read more as a suggestion for authors than anything else). Taking it from the point of a reader/critic: we can certainly look at a text and see whether it looks like other texts around it. The degree to which it doesn’t, it’s experimental. (Now I fear I’m repeating myself.)

CH: Well, now you’ve altered your definition, which is fine, but should be noted.  I will say this: I am familiar only with what I am familiar with; I do not know what the author is familiar with.

ADJ: That’s not really true. Literary history doesn’t operate with its eyes closed. I know for a fact that Bellamy has read Burroughs. She even tells us that herself!

CH: And James Frey went on Oprah and said A Million Little Pieces was a work of nonfiction!  Who cares what a writer says about their own work?  The last person I would listen to with regard to an art object would be the author of the art object.  Artists are notoriously incapable of talking accurately about their own work…as the great filmmaker Robert Altman once said, “If I could tell you about it, I wouldn’t need to make it.”

ADJ: Altman’s claim there is that a description of an artwork is not a substitute for the artwork—and who (besides a Wikipedia-skimming undergrad) disagrees with that?

Beyond that, though, your argument is reductio ad absurdum. It’s true that artists are often wrong in the claims they make regarding art (so are critics). But to proceed from there to “Who cares what a writer says about their own work?” strikes me as needlessly extreme.

But you seem very determined on this point—very orthodox! “Thou shalt dismiss all authorial statements!” But some artists are good self-critics; others are not. Why paint them all with one brush? I’d hate to lose, for instance, what John Cage said about his own work. Or what Gilbert Sorrentino said about his. Or, hell, James Joyce said about his; he was one of his own best critics!

CH:  Alas, I am often described, even by loved ones, as needlessly hyperbolic.  Reductio ad absurdum is a fair accusation, but I stand by my fallacy.  Aside from the way it needlessly subordinates the text to the author,  in my experience authorial intention is the least useful and least interesting tool of critical analysis.  Honestly, I could care less what John Cage said about his own work, and even less about what Joyce said about his.  As a writer, I enjoy the ego boost associated with yapping about my own work, but I would encourage readers to ignore everything I say about it.  The work is its own thing.  I am the parent who put it in the world, but when it gets published that means it has grown-up and must be dealt with on its own terms.  We don’t hold parents accountable for their adult children, so why should we hold published works of literature accountable to their authors?  Makes no sense to me.   

ADJ: “Needlessly subordinates” strikes me as an odd phrase, especially given that authors create texts. And your parent/child metaphor is precisely that—a metaphor. “We don’t hold adults responsible for the things their children say, so why should we hold adults responsible for the things their books say? Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America is entirely its own thing; ignore the irrelevant guy who wrote it, and what he may have intended.” Why, for that matter: once any words have left the body, in any form, they’re on their own! This is why I can never understand why my girlfriends take offense when I say I don’t love them—as well as with my argument that they’re not playing freely enough with my words (or with my indiscretions).

I myself am extremely interested in authorial intent, and think it wrongheaded to disregard that entire aspect of writing. But what’s crucial here is that I don’t think your lack of interest in this, no matter how much it may satisfy you, poses any serious challenge to my statements about experimental fiction.

CH: You’re confusing rhetoric with poetics.  Neither Gingrich’s book nor your comments to your girlfriend are art objects, which means those examples are  specious.

ADJ: I don’t see why (textual) art objects get a special distinction here. Don’t they possess rhetorical as well as poetical qualities? (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, to pick but one experimental instance?)

CH: More importantly, your examples highlight the very reason why I am so opposed to the idea of authorial intent when it comes to analyzing literature: it suggests that literature is no different than rhetoric.  I, on the other hand, claim that there is a difference.  And experimental literature is particularly valuable here, because of its ability to emphasize that difference.  While works of fiction can easily be construed as rhetorical objects, given their adherence to orthodoxy and privileging of communication, the unique behavior of anomalous texts provides salient illustration of alternative possibilities for considering and understanding literature as something other than rhetoric.         

But to bring it back to an earlier point in our conversation, when I first read Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Ups I had read Burroughs and his cut-up predecessors, but then I gave Cunt Ups to a friend who had no familiarity with Burroughs or his cut-up predecessors – does this mean from your perspective that the text was experimental for my friend but not for me because of my familiarity and her lack of familiarity, or is it a matter of Bellamy’s familiarity with Burroughs and his predecessors that determines its status as experimental?  In other words, whose familiarity are you talking about when you talk about “taking unfamiliarity as a dominant”?  

ADJ: Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian cornered me at the AWP book fair; they’ll be pleased to see we’re still going on about this. (Hi!)

It’s true that my formulation has its subjective side. Your friend found Cunt-Ups to be a more experimental text than you did. But what of that? Some consider Memento an experimental film—and maybe, for them, it’s the most experimental thing they’ve ever seen. It blows their minds every time they watch it. But a film critic who’s seen more movies can say, “No, Chris Nolan isn’t really doing anything all that unfamiliar”—and can point to a flurry of interest in reverse chronology that occurred in the late 80s through the early 2000s. This is part of the value of doing historical criticism—it’s why, for instance, I took the time to document a large number of works that use reverse chronology.

You and I can similarly say to your friend: “Bellamy is working within a clear tradition: Gysin, Burroughs, Quin, Acker … . In fact, Bellamy and her fellows in the New Narrative inherited the Cut-Up Technique and took it as a common working method.” This may be a mystery of the English Studies profession, but it isn’t secret knowledge. And part of our jobs as literary scholars is to be able to educate people in this history.

I’m somewhat puzzled by your implications otherwise—that readers are unable to know anything about the literary history that they and authors operate in. It seems rather odd to me to want to jettison that whole body of knowledge, to treat each new text as if it’s completely reinvented literature!

CH: I will admit, if it’s not already painfully obvious, that I take a more philosophical rather than historical approach to criticism.  As I’ve suggested, I find countless problems with the critical apparatus invested in “literary history.”  I also align myself more with Nietzsche’s power of forgetting than Marx’s obsession with remembering — which is a whole other tangled argument for another day.

But, I’m not sure you’ve answered my question: whose familiarity are you talking about when you talk about “taking unfamiliarity as a dominant”?  Are you talking about the author’s familiarity with literary history or the reader’s?  All along it has seemed like you were talking about the author’s familiarity….but what of the fact that I (as a reader) was pleasantly confused by Bellamy’s Cunt Ups despite having a familiarity with Burroughs and his predecessors?  In other words, the effect of Bellamy’s text was not hindered by my familiarity with the technique: I still found it experimental because it behaved heterodoxically, convulsively, and seemed to privilege the provocation of the free play of my imagination over the communication of information.  

ADJ: Whose familiarity can change, depending on the context we’re speaking in. I can say more about this later. For now, however: how on earth is following Burroughs’s “instructions” heterodox?

CH: Orthodoxy is a grand narrative.  The dominant discourse.  The privilaged position.  It arises from the continual recuperation of a particular territorialization of values.  Heterodoxy moves alternatively to orthodoxy. Ergo, any act moving alternatively to orthodoxy qualifies as heterodoxic. Precedent does not disallow this distinction.  In other words, the fact that Bellamy utilizes Burroughs’s “instructions” does not nullify the effects produced by the text and does not transform its behavior into orthodoxy. This is one of the inherent problems I find in your use of the concept of familiarity.

ADJ: How are collage and chance techniques not familiar in post-WWII art? Anyone who has spent any time at all surveying the field knows that they are ubiquitous.

This doesn’t mean that one can’t do unfamiliar things with those basic principles, even now. But one would have to, you know, actually do that.

CH: Familiarity and orthodoxy are two different things.  Consider the way in which  Bellamy’s text ingeniously critiques that particularly masculinist formal tradition with which it is engaging.   While feminist interventions may be familiar (I’m not sure they are, but again this begs the question: familiar to whom?), they can hardly be seen as orthodox.  In this way alone, I think even under your definition, Bellamy’s is the experimental text rather than Burroughs’s, given that Burroughs remains within the masculinist paradigm established by Tzara.  In fact, one could argue that Bellamy’s text shows that Burroughs’s is actually the quaint one!  

ADJ: I hardly think that cut-ups are “owned” by any one of the seventeen genders. (Uh, Kathy Acker?) Indeed, my point is that such work is not uncommon, and thus not controversial (inasmuch, mind you, as we’re talking about cut-ups!)

Anyway, regarding how familiarity can become orthodoxy: color me concerned only when folks forget that fact. Me, I don’t want to have to subscribe to one right way of making art—whether that arises through overt “instructions” or unconscious imitation. Regardless of whether that right way is rigidly realistically unified, or rigidly fragmented.

At all times I want to discover the formal limits involved in making art, then try thinking past them. (Hence my goal in writing things like “A Dozen Dominants.”)

CH:  Again, I’m not talking about making art.  I’m talking about reading art. Two separate activities.

ADJ: So you say!

CH:  Yes, of course I do!!  Because I am not approaching this subject from a creative writing perspective, which seems to be the way you’re approaching it.  Rather, I am approaching this subject from the perspective of a literary scholar.  

From my interview series (part one & part two) I learned that many creative writers see little advantage to the question “what is experimental literature?” For the creative writer, labels seem useless aside from marketing concerns.  Perhaps this is one reason why people get so confused and/or frustrated as to why we have these kinds of conversations: from the perspective of the writer, the distinction is, at best, pretty much irrelevant.

But from the perspective of literary scholarship, on the other hand, making distinctions, creating reading strategies, and elaborating theoretical propositions is key.  Why?  Because the literary scholar is interested in reading and thinking critically about texts.  In other words: a separate activity from the activity of the creative writer.  Which doesn’t mean that creative writers aren’t also critical readers, or that critical readers aren’t also creative writers, but the former privileges making art and the latter privileges reading art. Maybe this is why you thought we had more in common than I did at the outset of this conversation: we are indeed talking about the same subject, but we are approaching it from different perspectives. You seem to think the difference of perspectives is either nonexistent or inconsequential, while I think they are crucial.

ADJ: I’ll leave that last sentence aside, as I have no idea what it means, or where you’re getting that from. And I think it clear that my formulation has uses for literary critics. My feathers ruffle when anyone argues that “only maneuvers X, Y, and Z” are “experimental.”

CH: To bring it back to your focus on familiarity…perhaps as a reader I find familiarity in the unfamiliar, and aver that such a position does not constitute a text’s membership in the orthodoxy because although I recognize a repetition of mutation, each mutation is distinct, an anomaly, without filiation.  In fact, I would say of experimental literature what Deleuze and Guattari say about the history of ideas in the tenth chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, “[Experimental literature] should never be continuous; it should be wary of resemblances, but also of descents or filiations; it should be content to mark the thresholds through which an idea passes, the journey it takes that changes its nature or object” (235).   

So, from my perspective, the desire to rescue the anomaly from its obscurity by homogenizing it into conformity within the orthodox tradition strips the singularity of its power.  To bring it back to our discussion of Vanessa Place’s book, I agree Dies: A Sentence is literature, but what I want to suggest is that your attempt to yoke it to the conventions of fiction evacuates its potency…

ADJ: I tried once to yoke Vanessa Place to something. I know better now than to make that mistake again.

CH: … because Dies: A Sentence presents itself as an anomaly, a mutation, an irreducible singularity: something other than fiction.  In other words, as experimental literature rather than experimental fiction.  So instead of elaborating on the ways in which it is like other works of fiction, I think the greater service to the text would be to describe its alterity, its difference, its unrecognizability, its unfamiliarity, which is not contingent on the desires of the writer, but is manifest in the text itself.   

ADJ: I don’t think I disagreed that Dies is experimental … ? If I point out the ways in which it resembles previous literature, I don’t do so to deny it of its experimental aspects; I just want to point out how it’s literature—and how it therefore has values within the literary tradition. (How could it be otherwise?)

As to what the “greater service” would be—doesn’t that depend on the situation, rather than being some Transcendental Truth? Understanding Dies’s place(s) in literary history is a matter of understanding both the ways in which it’s anomalous as well as continuous. I’d never want to force anyone to choose one.