Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature: forms or identities?

The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature is both a book I want very much to read (check out the price, though) and to throw across the room. The introduction, by editors Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, and Brian McHale has been posted by Charles Bernstein on the jacket2 website, along with the book's Table of Contents. While it's hard to judge a book by so little evidence, I sense that the volume weaves unsteadily on a familiar tightrope that runs between issues of form and identity. It's not a tightrope that we haven't seen many times before, though it's one I'd like taken down, or at least moved to a chasm between newer skyscrapers.

The problem, as I see it, is this: on the one hand, experimental or avant-garde literature gets discussed as a series of formal issues. On the other hand, where gaps appear in the form-only mode, they are soon filled with work about identity positions, usually grouped together and somehow operating in an outer loop of the central formal issues. And so we see that, according to these editors, experimental literature can be characterized according to the following categories (and these are just a few):

--OuLiPo and Proceduralism
--Altermodernist fiction
--Concrete poetry and prose
--Found poetry, appropriation
--Visual art
--Genre fiction
--Interactive fiction
--Digital fiction
--Computer gaming

These headings suggest that we are entering a world where rules are paramount. Experimental rules are different from traditional ones. A noun + seven exercise is not a sonnet. The editors assert that what happens when you move from sonnet-world to noun + seven land is that "fundamental questions" about literature are "unrepressed," and "everything [is] open to challenge, reconceptualization and reconfiguration. And so verbal art gets thrown in the air, all the words of a Shakespeare sonnet tossed to the winds, and only a few gathered up to be re-placed on the ground as another poem, not about love and immortality, but about the words themselves. So far so good; I'd hardly disagree. I want to read the book, remember?

But somewhere in the middle of this table of contents the content shifts, briefly, to "experiments with identity." We've left the world of rules and words and entered a more real world, we sense, one where what's at stake are persons with marked identities. This is the world we live in, where more than linguistic rules apply, even when they remain crucial. Hence, we get a chapter by Ellen Friedman on "women's avant-garde writing in the 20th century," another by Aldon Lynn Nielsen on African-American avant-garde poetics and a third on "language and innovation in anglophone postcolonial poetry" (a behemoth of a topic on its own). The tension surfaces in the titles here: "experiments in identity" are not necessarily experiments in language, and vice versa.

But we turn back as soon as the next section is announced as "The New Experimentalism," which has nothing to do--it would seem--with race or gender or post-coloniality. There is but the word "globalization" to tease us. The editors say in the introduction that the globalization chapter is about "complex connectivity" and "proximity," but nothing about how those connections move across real differences. What is in the chapter may contradict my impression, but the introduction leaves me to think that what the last chapter promised of "identity issues" has now moved into something more theoretically abstract, namely, "an implicitly politicized aesthetic resistance to globalization," as Gibbons characterizes it. There is one paragraph in the introduction about "political subversion," but that relates solely to postcolonial literature and a critique of hybridity. What of uses of experimental poetry by white poets on behalf of the Occupy movement, or by Asian-American poets to write about the internment experience? By Hawaiian and local Asian poets to resist rampant land development? What about Kaia Sand's Tinfish book, in which she--a Norwegian American--writes about that internment camp experience and uses experimental techniques as buffers against the ethical pitfalls often fallen into by writers of her identity position?

If one were to launch a critique of the volume's identity politics, one might well wonder what happened to Asian-Americans, Hispanics, queers, and other minority groups in late 20th century (or even earlier) literature. And, if one were to critique the emphasis on form, one might ask, what are the intersections between identity and form, even outside of these minority categories? What is European about the avant-garde, anyway? Is it largely based on the appropriation of African art? Are all minority uses (appropriations!) of avant-garde techniques rebellions against it, or against other identity positions? How can avant-garde techniques be considered absolutely integral to the practice of writing realism about post-colonial situations that more resemble than differ from the writing of a European avant-gardist than one might think? If process is so crucial, then why is it used by persons from different cultures in different ways? Is experiment ever a form of content? What is content in an experimental poem or prose piece? The questions are legion, and I don't see evidence of them here.

At the end of a section on "The Persistence of the Historical Avant-Gardes" I find one root to the problem, a metaphorical root.  Let me quote: "The persistence of the historical avant-garde into the present guarantees a sort of family resemblance among the contemporary varieties of experimentalism. As with real families, resemblance here is not a matter of everyone possessing some essential feature common to all types of experimentalism; rather, it involves a series of overlapping similarities--common threads, some of which connect one subset of experimental practices, whiles [sic] others connect other subsets." The metaphor is family. If traditional, mainstream literature is one family, the one that doesn't question its own terms, then the experimental family breaks these terms open for inspection. Why then, are we using the identity-bound metaphor of "real family" and "resemblance," this very real adoptive parent wonders, rather than thinking of experiment as composed OF differences, and of a way to make connections (paradoxically, yes) across these differences? If family represents a kind of coherence, then what has it to do with a tradition of coherence's breaking? What happens when a member of that family suffers from dementia, loses his or her identity, begins to speak as if she is writing an experimental poem? The difference of one self to itself is surely part of what makes experimental writing necessary? It was to B.S. Johnson, who is quoted in the introduction, in his House Mother Normal, but the quote is about his dislike of the term "experimental writing" and not its uses.

In my work as Tinfish's editor and as a teacher of literature and creative writing in Hawai`i, I've found similar resistances to those inscribed in this book, although almost all of them are resistances to the avant-garde and not to traditional forms--which increasingly include Hawaiian forms of orature.  Resistances work against difference, but difference is where much treasure can be found. When a press's last volume is by an author who is a Coptic Christian Egyptian engineer living in Seattle and writing in English, who employs a form something like haiku, and when that combination of terms does not seem so surprising after all, that's when you know there can be no such separation between questions of identity and form as this introduction suggests. It's time to create anthologies that consider all these questions throughout, not simply moving from one to the other as if they lived in separate neighborhoods.

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