Rethinking Experimental Literature / the Avant-Garde / what Henry Miller calls “the inhuman ones”

Posted by @ 3:14 pm on July 1st, 2011

"Pond Scum" by Bill Benzon

I love Benzon’s photos of pond scum, especially because many of them feature manmade objects amidst the polluted water, which creates an interesting tension between the living and the dead. The juxtaposition of “nature” and “industry” also appeals to me. Bio and synthetic. Both are contagions. Neither are innocuous. Alone they seem dormant, put together they seem toxic. Or at any rate, they seem removed from humanity, forgotten, neglected, afloat in their own private universe. I’m beginning to think of “the avant-garde” synonymously: both living and dead: undead. Or more precisely, not-human, inhuman, unhuman, or as a kind of desire to dehumanize.

Conversation is cracking over at Montevidayo lately on the topic of “the avant-garde.” I tried to join in by offering some preliminary ideas about the connection between the avant-garde and dehumanization. But then other obligations got the best of me and I fell out of the conversation.  Then, in the comment section of an interview I did with Noah Cicero over at WWAATD, I responded to questions by Stephen Tully Dierks and  tried to extend some of these ideas by showing their application via specific literary texts (Beckett, Barnes, and Burroughs). 

All of this to say, I figured maybe I’d do a thinking-out-loud post here on the topic.

What I have for a long time termed “experimental literature” is perhaps, upon further consideration, best described as a form of human abstraction, an attempt at defamiliarizing the human experience or human understanding. A D Jameson has proposed that “Experimental art is that which takes unfamiliarity as its dominant—even to the point of schism.”

On one level this seems right to me, but it also seems problematic in the way it relies on “unfamiliarity.” How exactly do we calculate unfamiliarity? As artists, wouldn’t we need to have a complete comprehension of all previous works created in order to produce something unfamiliar?  And from the reader’s perspective, what is familiar and unfamiliar would depend on exposure.  Isn’t it more precisely the act of defamiliarizing understanding or experience that we should consider the experimental impulse? Understanding and experience, of course, directly relate to being human.

Whereas concrete literature (or) realistic or naturalistic literature (or) representational literature seeks a connection with humanity, with the human experience; experimental literature, perhaps more accurately described as abstract literature, resists connecting with humanity, resists mimesis. The desiring machine of abstract literature moves away from the clarity of realism, toward the opacity of the unknown.

Interestingly, this impulse seems to manifest in other artistic mediums as well. Consider the difference between:

“The Problems we all Live With” by Norman Rockwell (1963)


"Sketch Les Indes Galantes" by Frank Stella (1962)

The Rockwell moves toward understanding and experience, toward humanity. The Stella moves away from understanding and experience, toward inhumanity.  In a way, I think this echoes my attempt at explaining experimental literature in terms of Hejinian’s opened and closed model.  I’m currently reading Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy, which opens with a comparison of Ashbery’s poem “These Lacustrine Cities” and Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Through the comparison she shows how “The Wasteland” corresponds to (i.e. represents) a real London, whereas “These Lacustrine Cities” has no referent because it is imaginary and therefore is indeterminate. I’m not finished with the book yet, but even in this opening example it seems like Perloff is describing the difference between a closed text (“The Wasteland”) and an open text (“These Lacustrine Cities”). Bringing this back to my current ideas, I’d offer that “the Wasteland” is an example of a human text, an attempt at becoming more human; whereas “These Lacustrine Cities” is an example of a dehumanized text, an attempt to become less human.

If not human, than what? Monstrous? I have a lot more to say about that idea, but not now.

Again recently over at Montevidayo, in reference to this work of couture by Alexander McQueen:

Lara Glenum commented:

“What I love about antler-lady is how she is nothing but accessory, a rococo mash-up of textures & species. Her code-switching, her occluded face, everything is inhuman. Incongruity made congruous through kinesis alone. Sutures me into my terror lobes.”

Everything is inhuman.


I could easily get carried away in this post, offer a bazillion examples and quotes, but I will resist and say this is the trajectory of my current thinking, which I’m attempting to puzzle out as a potential dissertation prospectus. I’m keeping notes here, if you’re interested.

Let me end with this passage from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934), a book I am finishing now for the first time — an amazing book — a beautiful and disgusting book — a book I highly recommend:

Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles. I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples. I can see about me all those cracked forebears of mine dancing around the bed, consoling me, egging me on, lashing me with their serpent tongues, grinning and leering at me with their skulking skulls. I am inhuman! I say it with a mad, hallucinated grin, and I will keep on saying it though it rain crocodiles. Behind my words are all those grinning, leering, skulking skulls, some dead and grinning a long time, some grinning as if they had lockjaw, some grinning with the grimace of a grin, the foretaste and aftermath of what is always going on. Clearer than all I see my own grinning skull, see the skeleton dancing in the wind, serpents issuing from the rotted tongue and the bloated pages of ecstasy slimed with excrement. And I join my slime, my excrement, my madness, my ecstasy to the great circuit which flows through the subterranean vaults of the flesh. All this unbidden, unwanted, drunken vomit will flow on endlessly through the minds of those to come in the inexhaustible vessel that contains the history of the race. Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates. I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals. (254-255)