February 27th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

The Higgs-Jameson Experimental Fiction Debate, part 1


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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  1. Bobby Dixon

      You guys are in Tallahassee? Fucking weird. 

  2. alan

      Kant: “Comprehension is only a knowledge adequate to our intention.”

  3. A D Jameson

       Thanks, we still are!

  4. Mike Meginnis

      Enjoyed this. Will say that so far, Adam’s approach to the question works better for me, though the reliance on the language of authorial intentions does seem a little troubling. (And anyway, questions like this actually bore the shit out of me, so it’s a testament to the quality of the participants that I didn’t hate this at all.)

  5. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Mike! …even if you are temporarily under the spell of Team Jameson. :) 

      The discussion of authorial intention comes to the foreground in the next installment. 

  6. Bobby Dixon

      Before I read this I originally commented something like, holy fuck you guys are in Tallahassee. 

      That’s where I live and there’s a pretty neat lit community here, although a lot of seems wholly ignorant about about internet lit (maybe they’re all just really into being internet anonymous). 

      Have you guys ever gone to any readings in town?

  7. Ryan Ridge

      This is freakin’ awesome, gentlemen! Love it. Side note: I don’t think Naked Lunch actually features any cutup material. At least according to Burroughs the introduction of the cut-up and fold-in techniques occurred between Naked Lunch and Nova Express and so I think Nova is the first to feature the techniques and you can tell. The book’s basically unreadable. 

  8. Ryan Ridge

      Ah fuck, maybe it was Soft Machine. I’m probably wrong. Wouldn’t be a first. At any rate, looking forward to Part II of this!

  9. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Ryan. 

      As far as I understand it, Burroughs used the “word hoard” for Naked Lunch (1959) as well as the Nova Trilogy (1961-64), as well as Minutes to Go (1960), The Exterminator (1960), and of course Dead Fingers Talk (1963).  The level of cut-up I think was varied in each of those cases, and then there’s the addition or supplement of “the fold-in method,” which he talks about using in The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express (the last two of the trilogy).

      Here’s a cool letter Kerouac wrote to their mutual friend Lucien Carr in 1957 about going over to Tangier to help Burroughs complete Naked Lunch, which mentions the word horde:


      And here’s Burroughs giving credit to Tzara for the idea:


      I love, love, love the Nova Trilogy.  The Soft Machine especially is such an amazing book.  I hope readers won’t think it unreadable.  It’s totally readable — in fact it’s an exhilarating reading experience.  For those who crave the comfort of understanding, the key to it is the seventh (?) chapter….the one titled “The Mayan Caper,” which offers a pivot point for the reader to swing their experience around.  It’s so visceral.  I taught it a couple of summers ago and I had students who got physically sick from reading it…which I took as a sign of the text’s great success!   

  10. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Bobby.  I’m in Tallahassee.  I teach at FSU, where I’m working on my PhD dissertation.  Mr. Jameson is in Chicago.  I don’t really have much of a connection to the literary community here in town.  The only readings I’ve gone to are the ones at The Warehouse, and not many of those even.  I’m pretty much a homebody.

  11. Ryan Ridge

      That’s a great letter. Thanks, Christopher. I love the Nova Trilogy too, but I think my favorite by him is Wild Boys. That book’s on another level.

  12. Michael J Seidlinger

      Flex those discussion/debate muscles! This is an excellent read. I look forward to part 2. 

  13. Ken Baumann

      You both are nuts. <3

  14. Bobby Dixon

      The Warehouse has readings but they are mostly MFA peeps. Robert Olen Butler often appears. 

      There are a handful of “genre writers” in the area and they do readings at bars sometimes too. 

      There is a (kind of an odd choice of a title) journal called Espresso Ink that may or may not be a lot of undergrad writing that is pretty good. 

      The fact that you’re teaching at FSU makes me hopeful. 

      Nothing wrong w/ being a homebody. Welcome to my hometown, dude. I hope you enjoy it. 

  15. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I’m not sure it’s that A D is prioritizing authorial intent or even linearity and chronology in his definition (although I think his definition is more reliant on linearity that what he cops to when pressed on this subject) so much as he is prioritizing structures (which I guess is related to authorship in terms of process, in that a structure like a cut-up is defined by process) — but what I feel like Chris would say is that two text objects can share structural properties yet have very different affects/effects, and that a text is “experimental” not based on its structure and how familiar or unfamiliar that structure is, but based upon what degree of confusion it evokes in the reader and to what extent it implicates the reader as co-author.

  16. John Minichillo

      Maybe I’m not getting the point, but I may never be able to wholly let go of the concept of the historicity of a work, especially when “experiment” is a term that’s likely to be understood that way no matter how insistent the critic is. For example I don’t quite understand, and suspect no amount of discussion will help me understand how work can be judged as familiar / unfamiliar in effect without some sense of linearity, be it a reader’s personal experience of what they believe a text may be doing or a more objective / informed perception of literary history.

      Though I feel pretty grateful to be party to this discussion and am kind of enjoying my confusion right now.

  17. Anonymous

      We must Decide! For The Good of The People!

  18. deadgod

      If one can tell that a “set of questions” is at work, then one has had that set communicated to one.

      If one finds oneself provoked by “indeterminate legibility”, then that indeterminacy has been communicated to one.

      If one can tell that that one’s imagination is provoked “[to] play”, then the provocation constitutes a communication of play.

      The word “communication”  does not necessarily commit its users to a connotation of closed meaning and completely text-determined understanding.  It is always also an open word, a readerly word — a play-disclosive word.

  19. deadgod

      ‘Transhistory’ is not necessarily different from effective-historicality, in that an effectively-historical sense might be one of a “transhistorical immanence”.

      For (perhaps ironic) example, ‘instantiations and assemblages of transhistorical immanence’–that’s a way of rephrasing – phrasing something new but not ‘new’ in comparison to some particular same – a philosophical-historically rich rhizomatic array of forces:  that of substance.

      (There’s one philosopher (in my view and experience) who, without escaping Aristotle, complements him from without:  Nietzsche.)

  20. deadgod

      “History” itself means ‘propter hoc‘.  Where there is because, there there is cause, and where there is a concrete therefore, there there is history.  ‘After’ a particular thing doesn’t necessarily mean ‘because of’ it, but neither does the fallacy of post ergo propter rule out the possibility of propter hoc ergo post hoc being both a logical and a reality-conforming account.

      For example:  having read Plutarch’s Life of Mark Anthony didn’t ‘write’ Antony and Cleopatra for Shakespeare. 

      –but that’s not the argument of “literary history”! 

      The argument is that that Plutarch – well, a translation of it – is one ‘because’ of the play, one array of vectors in a larger complex of arrays of vectors that constituted Shakespeare’s experiences, mind, artistry, and so on.  A relationship between the two textual rhizomes can be traced–not totally determinate and explanatory ‘in reverse’, but rather, an intelligible part of the ultimately not-totally-explicable artistic process of composing the play.

      One isn’t completely and exclusively to derive the latter from the former ergo (in conceptual imitation of a concrete process)– that totalization is not what a sensitivity to the effective-historicality of (both more conventional and more experimental) literature has to commit oneself to.

      History itself is “always in the middle”, “always […] in process”–to say “in process” is to smuggle connection into the “coming and going” of rhizome-constitution.

  21. deadgod

      What is the difference between a “set of conventions” and an array of ‘intensities and affective forces that territorialize’?  What’s the difference between ‘experimenting with a “set of conventions”‘ and an array of ‘intensities and affective forces that deterritorialize’? 

      I mean to ask how the more elaborate – perhaps more useful – wording, while being a “new” statement of a transhistorical immanence, is not actually a statement of the same transhistorical immanence.

  22. deadgod

      new […] without comparison to the same

      That’s an interesting self-contradiction–perhaps generatively paradoxically so.  The question it provokes is, as epistemic paradox will do, that of intelligibility.

      How does one know without comparison to “the same” that the text (say) is “new”? what intensities and affective forces recuperate one’s relation to the text as “new” without comparison to “the same”?  What does “new” disclose here?

      (This difference is distortive like that of “fundamentally anomalous” — if one thing is “anomalous” to another, they’re already in comparison; there’s already some basis for comparison.  (Certainly a “mutation” is not “fundamentally anomalous”!)  A text that is not like any other text at all–how would one know that that text exists at all?)

  23. Awesome debate on experimental fiction | Paul Jessup
  24. A D Jameson

       I’ve been to Tallahassee once, to visit a friend of mine, also named Dixon, as well as to make a pilgrimage to what was then the FC2 editorial office (I used to work for FC2, tangentially).

  25. Christopher Higgs

      Wild Boys is one I haven’t read.  I will put it on my list for this summer.  Thanks, Ryan.

  26. A D Jameson

       Of course it does, Mike! You’re a formalist, like me!

      Authorial intent has long troubled people in lit studies—ever since “The Intentional Fallacy.” But lots of folks today have trouble with that essay. I study with some fo them at UIC. ;)

  27. A D Jameson

       I’m certainly not a Burroughs scholar (someone call Davis Schneiderman!). But I’ve always heard that Burroughs used the CUT in writing NL.

      From the ghost of Burroughs that perches on my chest while I sleep.

  28. A D Jameson

      Chris and I are going to do follow-up posts at the end. I’ll keep mine as simple as I can.

  29. A D Jameson

      The reason why I don’t feel linearity is all that important for my argument is because traditions, while linear, are not purely ABC historical. For instance, Gertrude Stein applied certain Cubist concepts to language in the early 20th century, and influenced Hemingway, others. Who then went off down one winding, twisting road that ultimately includes travelers like Raymond Carver and Tao Lin. But Stein’s thoughts on parataxis and elision/repetition also influenced the Language Poets, much later on, who did something very different with those ideas, or with different aspects of those ideas. It wasn’t Stein > Hemingway > Carver > Langpo > Lin.

      Traditions are always branching, merging with other traditions. And some lay dormant for long periods of time, then get taken up again.

      And to do one thing in 1925, then do it again in 2005, is at heart to do two different things, simply because of the way the world is always changing—”Pierre Menard,” and all that.

  30. A D Jameson

       deadgod, Chris said he’d reply to all your comments. (We flipped a coin.)

  31. Christopher Higgs


      “deadgod” knows that I ignore his/her comments on principle, which is why it’s odd when s/he continues to attempt to engage me.  As far as I’m concerned, when I see “deadgod” I skip right over the comment.  His/her whole routine can be summed up as “the freshman who learned about deconstruction and then applies it over and over,” which I find boring and unproductive.  Feel free to acknowledge his/her comments, Adam, but I can’t be bothered.  

  32. A D Jameson

      deadgod, Chris just emailed me to say he’s a little backed up with school work right now, but he’ll get to your comments as soon as he possibly can. Cheers, Adam

  33. Christopher Higgs

      As Adam said, we are doing closing remarks, which I’m looking forward to.  As far as plain English…challenge excepted. 

  34. Christopher Higgs

      Your characterization of my position seems pretty accurate, Tim. 

      For me, both Cunt-ups and (say) The Soft Machine are examples of experimental literature because, to be super reductive, they prioritize confusion. 

      Adam seems to believe that experimental = did it first.  He argues that Bellamy’s text is repeating Burroughs’s text, and therefore Cunt-Ups is familiar, not experimental, quaint. 

      I do not agree with that equation.  For me, the repetition of a technique does not automatically make that technique conventional or orthodox, and it certainly doesn’t diminish from the effects produced or the affects induced. 

      But, we get into this more fully in the next section.  Stay tuned! 

  35. deadgod

      Okay, that’s funny.

      Adam, Chris doesn’t publicly “engage with” any comment when he senses that that “engagement” might expose his difficulties with the terms and names he mentions, and why would he?

      –but wisely politic bureaucrats are only one part of this community.

      You, for example:  does Deleuze’s use of “territory” complicate your Jakobson-inflected sense of “convention”?  Do you think “effective history” is useful in thinking about “experiment”?

  36. Anonymous

      That seems really crappy. I thought the questions dg raised were natural enough in response to the bit of debate posted above. They’re done in his characteristic herky-jerky style, but they’re basically the same things I was left wondering about. I’m not really sure what the point of a debate like this is if you’re not open to reasonable enough questions.

  37. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, John,

      I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your confusion.  As you know, confusion is the name of the game, as far as I’m concerned.

      The subject of nonlinear history is tricky.  In part, this is because of the illusion of history’s objectivity, in other words the illusion of linearity.  Maybe a helpful way of putting it is to make an analogy using E.M. Forster’s distinction between story and plot, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, but for the sake of the analogy and for readers who might not be familiar with it, I’ll briefly summarize it:  

      For Forster, story is a series of events.  This happened and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.  The example he gives is: “The King died and then the queen died.”

      Plot, Forster tells us, is different.  Plot is the outcome of cause and effect.  This happened which caused that.  The example he uses is, “The King died and then the queen died of sadness.”

      Linearity, for me, is akin to plot.  Non-linearity, for me, is akin to story. 


      Because linearity suggests forward and backward motion, progress and regression.  This happens, which causes this to happen.  Non-linearity, on the other hand, suggests random motion, convulsive and repetitive. 

      Here is a graphic illustration.  Compare the flight patterns of these geese (which I would suggest represent linearity/plot):


      with these starlings (which I would suggest represent non-linearity/story):

      So, while the pattern of the geese can become familiar, the pattern of the starlings cannot.  In the same way, the pattern of cause and effect (plot) can become familiar, because we recognize the pattern and then anticipate its outcome: we see that a cause produces an effect, which produces another cause and another effect, and so on.  But, the pattern of randomness (story) cannot become familiar, because we can never anticipate its outcome: it is impossible to predict what will come next because it doesn’t work through cause and effect, instead it works through accumulation: this happened and then this happened and then this happened and so on. 
      These behavioral differences are like the behavioral differences I am trying to talk about here in terms of experimental literature.  For me, exp. lit. behaves like the starlings: unpredictable, even if history contains its doppelganger, because every singular instantiation is just that: singular.  No two murmurs of starlings ever bend and pitch in the same movement or pattern, even if we can say “Oh, that’s just a murmuration of starlings, I’ve seen that before.”  Unlike the flight patterns of geese — where, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all — starling murmurs are fundamentally anomalous, just like experimental literature.   

  38. John Minichillo

      No wonder I was confused. Nowhere in the discussion was there reference to plot, except of course for the association of plot to certain thinkers or lines of thought, which assumes quite a lot. I’m also quite sure you don’t see experimental literature as simply nonlinear in form, though it would be one distinguishing feature and part of its unfamiliarity. Otherwise, experimental would be a misnomer, since nonlinear would do just fine.

  39. Anonymous

      “What is experimental literature?????”

      How bout my friend’s description of the opening of Moby Dick: “He’s trying to fuck with you”

      Case closed?

  40. deadgod

      Chris’s pomp isn’t jarring in context.  It’s an instantiation of a transhistorical immanence–but one that’s left its traces, its history, as rhizomes do with whatever intelligibility they partake of.

      Here is a distant example of what provokes Chris’s principled economy of bother (my direct engagement with Chris is almost at the end of the thread):  http://htmlgiant.com/random/what-is-experimental-literature-pt-1/

      Here, in reaction to (in my economy of bother) silly bullshit, is an amusing poem of mine, followed by a statement of principle from Chris and some Regrettable Moments of mine that might have added at one time to the oppressively, what, “deconstructive” effect I used to have on Chris:  http://htmlgiant.com/random/the-beginners-guide-to-deleuze/ .

      Here’s an interaction between Adam and me in which can be seen our divergent ideas of how an interest in conversation emerges (begins comment ~69):  http://htmlgiant.com/film/drive/ .

      I’m pretty sure if you ask your questions, you’ll get reaction like you can see elsewhere on this thread.

  41. Anonymous

      I agree, John. Christopher Higgs plays fast-and-loose with terms. All he
      really does is distinguish between “linear” and “non-linear.” The
      “experimental” part is unconvincing and tacked-on clumsily. Furthermore,
      the assumption that causality=”familiarity” is bizarre because it
      oversimplifies and misrepresents complex linearity, suggesting that it’s
      somehow impossible to produce a linear text that is “unfamiliar.” But
      if “unfamiliarity” is somehow the hallmark of “experimental” literature,
      his argument is shot to hell because there are countless examples of “unfamiliar” linear texts.

  42. Christopher Higgs

      No, no, no….I’m talking here and in the debate of non-linearity in terms of literary history.  I’m not talking about the content within an individual work. 

      I used the analogy with plot/story to try and help you understand how you might conceive of the familiar/unfamiliar problem in literary history by extrapolating the connection that difference has with plot/story. 

      You see, Adam’s position relies on a linear model of literary history, given his stance on the value of familiarity.  My position relies on a non-linear model of literary history, given that I do not value familiarity. 

      For Adam, experimental fiction is related in a cause and effect relationship with those works of literature that proceed it.  Which, in a way, sort of makes sense since he’s talking about fiction.  For me — and again, I’m not arguing about “fiction,” I’m arguing that this subject we are talking about should be thought about as its own category — experimental literature is not related in a cause and effect relationship with the works of literature that proceed it, but instead manifests particular intensities that distinguish it as anomalous and that those intensities are not diminished by their repetition or familiarity.   

      I’m sorry if I only confused things further with my analogies to plot/story and bird flight patterns.  I thought I was being helpful.

  43. Anonymous

      ” I’m arguing that this subject we are talking about should be thought
      about as its own category — experimental literature is not related in a
      cause and effect relationship with the works of literature that proceed
      it, but instead manifests particular intensities that distinguish it as
      anomalous and that those intensities are not diminished by their
      repetition or familiarity.”

      Very nice. This little bit has helped me the most so far in understanding your position. I think it’s a sign of this debate’s effectiveness/interestingness that I go back and forth on being convinced by one person’s take, and then the other’s, and the back to the original take, and then on and on. . .   

  44. Anonymous

      Haha, nice.

  45. Anonymous

      I’m sorry, but this still seems rather tangential. You associate “familiarity” with form, whether you explicitly say so or not. Because “literary history” is intertwined with “form,” you can’t move the goalposts and suddenly pretend like you’re discussing some non-existent “literary history” inseparable from “the individual content” of a text.

      Given the above, it should be mentioned that scholars of “non-linear” texts (particularly scholars who study non-linear story cycles) routinely connect non-linearity to ancient oral traditions that actually predate Aristotelian causality. I’m once again baffled at your insistence upon foisting this word–“experimental”–onto an argument that is more or less about your personal preference for certain forms over others. 

  46. deadgod

      The difference in self-explanation between ‘story’ (less) and ‘plot’ (more) is a matter of “familiarity” — ‘plot’ makes a narrative more “familiar” because more explained.  “Familiar” is an indexing of knowledge; the more knowable, reasoning from cause to effect, then the more “familiar” with that causal process one would likely be.

      Of course, to say that ‘the king died’ is already to be in a causal framework–causal explanation here is a matter of degree and not kind.  ‘Stories’ have less ‘plot’, not no ‘plot’.  “Familiarity”, too, in the discernment between ‘story’ and ‘plot’, would be a matter of degree.  Absolute anomalousness of narrative doesn’t obtain, at least in Forster’s thought.

      The distinction between skein and murmuration frames the question of “familiarity” in terms of predictability:  the murmur wheels and darts with — the claim is — qualitatively different predictability than does the skein, that is, with zero predictability.  The murmur moves randomly, so it can’t become “familiar” in its movements (as the skein mostly (?) does).  This randomization of movement – like with a rabbit scampering across open ground – is ‘like’ the emergence of a truly “experimental” piece of writing.

      Of course, in the case of animals moving randomly, there’s always also a predictable – a knowable – component.  Starlings collectively might be spontaneously flitting, but they are–it is–also moving in causal response to what signalling members of the murmur see and feel:  predators, food/nests, wind, and so on.  So, again, an analogy to absolute anomalousness is imperfect.

      The distinction between linearity and (putative) non-linearity – that is, constructing or disclosing the category of ‘non-linearity’ – is a way of questioning whether history, which might seem to be a fantastically intricate – but, theoretically, knowable – super-bundle of connections, is in reality completely connected, completely knowably causal.

      –or whether there are emergences in a demonstrably causal history of things which were not caused.  –which is the position of “non-linearity”.

      Two questions:  a) Can the non-causality of an apparently historical object or event be demonstrated?  b) Are there rules for the intelligibility of such an object or event?

  47. Anonymous
  48. Experimental fiction as genre and as principle | HTMLGIANT

      […] 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: […]