June 13th, 2011 / 10:58 am

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Evan Lavender-Smith}

Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of Avatar (2011) and From Old Notebooks (2010).

Question #1 – The Body

In the first volume of “Five Questions,” when asked to describe experimental writing, Bhanu Kapil redirected my question to the body: “Or: What are the somatics of an emigrant line?” She then went on to discuss “the diasporic body” -and- “the language of somatic experiencing.” I find this provocative line of inquiry very interesting because it draws our attention away from the role of the mind in creating literature and instead compels us to pay attention to the role of the body. What thoughts do you have about the relationship between the body and experimental writing?

I believe, perhaps naively — i.e. according to a wrongheaded or oversimplified application of evolutionary psychology — that what I consider “my aesthetics” have been strongly shaped by my body, that artistic expression and appreciation and understanding are bound up with fitness indication in relation to sexual selection. I write and read the best that I can; this “best” has been determined by a number of things most all of which have themselves been shaped by forces related to human beings struggling to “make it” in one way or another. In this formulation there is really little need to distinguish artistic content, to try like Freud and others to decode art’s sexual content; it is merely the display of artistic creation or artistic appreciation/analysis that is sexualized. What is art? Art is whatever our bodies have decided it to be. Why make/like art? Because my body is telling me to.

Question #2 — Politics

In describing experimental writing, Miranda Mellis suggested, “Its politics are its aesthetics and vice versa.” I’m interested to learn your perspective on the political potential and/or limitations of experimental writing. Additionally, in what ways do you think experimental literature can engage with politics differently than other forms of literature?

I often slip into a mode of thinking and reading whereby I project correspondences among the aesthetics and politics of form. For example, I will perceive that a “liberalism” or “conservatism” in form is transferrable or translatable to a political orientation for the writing. How accurate or useful this is, I’m not sure. But I am occasionally embarrassed by my eagerness to denigrate certain types of writing by way of political epithet: “He’s very conservative, i.e. I’ve read his kind of shit a thousand times.”

One problem with the political potential of experimental writing is that not very many people are reading it. I believe that an effective politics must issue from a place of concern for other people, and I believe that there is a certain type of writer who desires a large audience because he genuinely feels that there may be something important happening in the minds of people who have recently read his writing, that there may be something beneficial about his writing and its impact on the world. (To a reader weaned on poststructuralism, that may sound shockingly archaic and naive, I know.) Although a genuine authorial political orientation isn’t as common as it once was, as authors have grown more cynical about their audiences and have felt compelled to compete with vulgar image entertainment for their audience’s attention, I believe it can still exist powerfully. This is something that David Foster Wallace discussed, of course, and I believe that Wallace was a writer who felt compelled to write, at least in some small way, out of a concern for the welfare of other human beings; there is a discernible politics about his writing beyond the simple formulation in which we posit an equivalence or neat correspondence between politics and aesthetics. Also, Wallace felt compelled to write in a way that would find his writing many readers despite at least some impulse to the contrary (that’s an important and obvious point that I haven’t often heard made). Is there an innate give-and-take relationship between formal experimentalism and the interest of general audiences? Or has this correspondence between formal conservatism and marketplace demand been foisted on us by a conservative publishing industry? I think mostly the former. At the cineplex they’ve got the indie art film and the mega-blockbuster showing on adjacent screens: the theater on the left is always nearly empty and the theater on the right always nearly full. How does the art film director get some of those audience members to come over and watch his movie? He needs to do some stuff that will appeal to the viewer of the blockbuster, some conventional stuff; he has to sucker him in with some familiarity. It’s the quantity and quality of that suckering in that I struggle with in my thinking about writing and art. Beckett keeps it to an absolute minimum, to my reading, and that’s probably one reason why Beckett is so appealing to me. In Beckett there’s a hardheadedness about not caving to the exigencies of conventional rhetorical orientation and expectation, and there’s a corresponding anxiety which follows from a restlessness about the incommensurability of literary form in relation to human existence: “Present state, three stories, inventory, there. An occasional interlude is to be feared. A full programme. I shall not deviate from it any further than I must. So much for that. I feel I am making a great mistake. No matter.” But now I’m back to conflating politics and aesthetics. Here’s the thing: if you have made the crazy decision to devote the better part of your waking life to thinking about art, then yes, the aesthetics and the politics of writing will probably seem one and the same. But from another perspective – from the perspective of 99% of the population – this equivalence might seem a bit … strained. I have this terrible guilt about my prioritization of aesthetic value above other kinds of value. In recent years art seems to have become an increasingly rarefied practice, and perhaps it is in consequence of this that I feel it is a great luxury – an unimaginably decadent mode of existence, really – to devote one’s thought, let alone one’s life, to art.

Question #3 — Economics

Debra Di Blasi responded to my question about how we might evaluate the success of a work of experimental literature (in light of the seeming lack of established criteria) by arguing that the act of “Determining ‘success’ or ‘failure’ shifts literary significance to product rather than process, to a means to an end rather than a means to a means to a means, i.e., evolution. Product concerns itself with marketing, process with art. They remain antagonistic neighbors.” By shifting my question away from the realm of aesthetic judgment and toward the discourse of commodities, Di Blasi raises interesting economic considerations. How might we begin to think about the use value of experimental literature? Or, to put it another way, what does experimental literature offer society or the individual that cannot be accounted for elsewhere?

I don’t think we should feel compelled to think about artistic content in relation to utility. The concept of use value is generally inimical to any rigorous conception of value we might associate with art. If indeed art possesses some value, it is a decidedly useless value. It would never occur to me to ask myself of a work of art, “What can I do with this?”

(I would like to imagine that this statement is not in conflict with what I wrote above about artistic expression and appreciation as fitness indicators in relation to sexual selection, though it probably is. I seem to want the best of both worlds here, on the one hand a conception of art free from any aesthetic mysticism, on the other hand free from the corruption of use and utility.)

Question #4 – Race

When asked about the relationship between women and experimental literature, Alexandra Chasin responded by asking, “What about the relationship between people of color and experimental literature in the U.S.? What about representations of race and racial Others? Can we talk about that?” Since this sentiment was echoed by various of the previous “Five Questions” participants, and because it strikes me as true that discussions about race and representations of racial diversity tend to be underrepresented in the field of experimental literature, I think it’s important to pursue answers to those questions. What are your thoughts?

I think that Deleuze & Guattari are particularly instructive on this question in the Kafka book. “Experimental literature,” as I believe you’re using it, and “minor literature,” as D&G use it, possess quite a bit of categorical overlap, as it is you and D&G are all talking about a formal difference that exists between the culture’s major/conventional literature and its minor/experimental literature. D&G characterize this difference in terms of establishing a minor practice of a major language through a procedure by which the expression of the major language is “deterritorialized.” There are certain cultural conditions congenial to such deterritorialization — for tearing a chunk off the language, adding to it or paring it down until it begins to rub up against the major expression of the language in a way that exposes that expression’s poverty – and it seems that the immigrant experience in the United States — especially the experience of the children and grandchildren of immigrants, those who may feel themselves on the brink of losing touch with a language – may be one such condition. In order to burrow deeply into the language and establish its minor practice, the writer must feel some form of linguistic dispossession, I think, often by virtue of some or another form of linguistic or cultural marginalization. My study of literature in English has proven many times over that it is not commonly the white male writer who is the linguistic trailblazer.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

Which are your favorite works of experimental literature, and why?

Some favorite books I’ve read this year include Collapsible Poetics Theater by Rodrigo Toscano, Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner, and Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright. I like those three in particular because they seem to me fully committed to the project of a minor literature, to the revolutionary imperative of wresting and rescuing our language from itself. Another recent favorite is David Trinidad’s The Late Show: the dynamic tonal registers of autobiography resonated powerfully with me in that one. It may be telling that I’m choosing only poetry; sometimes I feel that genuine literary experimentation is possible only for the poet.



  1. Adam Robinson

      Wait, is Evan Lavender-Smith Superman? Take away his glasses and they look suspiciously alike.

  2. Daniel Bailey

      i think he looks more like russell brand if russell brand had an npr sticker on his volvo.

  3. Ken Baumann

      Really enjoyed this. Thanks, Evan. Thanks, Chris.

      E: Many points/planes here that I’ve been on lately: wanting art to be useful/useless, politics v. aesthetics, decadence of artistic devotion, the conventional stuff… Hell, maybe most of us are thinking about this shit all the time. Anyway, it was good to see someone else with those concerns. 

      There exists a crowd pleasing, formally interesting, politically moving but primarily artistic work… why I love Kubrick’s movies so much. (although they weren’t Twilight popular)

  4. deadgod

      I think the parenthesis to the response to #3 is sharp.  The “best of both worlds” are in conflict:  the writer who unforcedly rejects mass acceptance or commercial compensation as signs of “utility” might still want to be “selected”.  –One might want to challenge as many people as possible to question the “convention[s]” one finds somehow deleterious, including – for some:  especially – those “convention[s]” that are political-economically destructive (and including aesthetic “convention[s]” that the writer thinks are just narcotizing or whatever).

  5. deadgod

      Unlikely, but not impossible.

      Sophocles.  Marlowe, Shakespeare.  Are Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle “primarily [or even much] artistic work”? 

      Some Hollywood directors, whatever one thinks of their politics:  Ford, Hawks, Capra.  Kurosawa.  A few of the (obvious) ’70s directors.  How popular in their countries and days were the Nouvelle Vague and New German Cinema directors?

      “[C]rowd pleasing, formally interesting, politically moving but primarily artistic work” surely can be said of a fair amount of music; I’m thinking especially of opera and 20th c. popular music, but maybe others would include, say, ‘world’ music in those places where each kind of it is not ‘world’ music.

      In the modern histories of propaganda and advertising, there might be some of it that counts as, eh, close to “primarily artistic”.

      Cooking up such a list is an exercise in pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

  6. Evan Lavender-Smith

      Thanks, Ken.

      Yes, Kubrick is fantastic and is all of those things you mention — though I might argue with “crowd pleasing.” It seems to me that even his biggest box-office successes were more crowd teasers than crowd pleasers … tempting huge audiences to the theaters via image-culture exploitation/subversion (pot-smoking Cruise-Kidman, rabid-eyed Nicholson, etc.) or by exciting simple genrelust (sci-fi, horror, war, historical, etc.), and then once those good folks were inside and in their seats with their refreshments and the theater doors were closed the crazy was free to commence. Kubrick seems well aware of the necessity to concede slightly (and slyly) to marketplace realities. But with Kubrick — as with Malick, maybe the only other recent big-draw director for whom I’d stand in line — it’s more a ruse than anything, a lure. It was not Tom Cruise’s toothy smile that kept us on the edge of our seat. I remain stubbornly convinced, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the average theatergoer, the average reader — your average everyday human being with no professed interest in Art — actually deeply desires unfamiliar intensities and upset expectations and radical difference, in short, desires the experiment … the problem is he doesn’t know that he does. Perhaps he is reminded from time to time, or maybe only a couple-few times in his whole life. One reason why film is so potentially powerful is that a film could conceivably reach out and awaken a hundred million of these sleeping souls in a single three-day weekend.


      Anyhow, “crowd pleasing” and “primarily artistic” are, I think, difficult bedfellows. Perhaps the only criterion for art in which I have any confidence is that a work of art will not confirm generally held beliefs about the workings of the world. And the crowd pleaser, by definition, does just that. 

  7. Evan Lavender-Smith

      Thanks, deadgod.

      I might add that I do believe it could be convincing to argue for a theory of art in which selection conditions artistic presentation and reception irrespective to the artwork’s “immanent” or “immediate” political orientation. Whether it’s more experimental or more conventional would matter only in relation to the politics of the work’s interpretative community and would ultimately have no bearing on whether or not selection is a factor, because selection will always be a factor, selection being the condition for art’s existence. That would be a very bleak aesthetics, though! I would prefer to hold on to this much less bleak art-has-no-use-whatsoever aesthetics!

  8. deadgod

      If that “theory” were a description not just of what gets selected, but – less “bleak[ly]” – of what can get selected, it might reveal concrete reasons for optimism.

      I’m not sure what people mean by “use” when they talk about art.  Everything that happens to one is ‘used’ in the sense of incorporation, of participating in the constant composition of a self.  To me, “use” isn’t just an instrumental thing, a thing of obvious mechanical exchange and compensation.  When one reads Beckett, say, and, in parts and as whole(s), the book(s) really sink in, they use one, in the sense of transforming one, re-composing one. – and that play of forces constitutes and, in turn, is intelligible as a change in value–in a phrase: a “use value”.

      “Use” is political-economic, monetizable, a constituent of ‘market’?   Well, hell.

  9. deadgod

      [Ack – “Reply” fail.  That’s in “Reply” to Evan’s comment nearest above.]

  10. Tummler

      Yet another excellent contribution to the series, and yet another excellent discussion blooming from it. Thanks, Chris and Evan.

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