Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 48, December 2014)

Jeffrey DeShell
Notes toward a defense of experimental writing

This is part of a debate I often have with myself.

I’d like to orient these notes along two threads, both introduced by quotation. This first quotation is by Theodor Adorno:

It would be superficial to think that the experimental is the uncertain, is what is built on air and can be destroyed tomorrow; and to take the non-experimental for what is certain. It is precisely that which does not experiment, which keeps right on going as if it were still possible to do so, which continues to compose as if the old preconditions were still secure, that is consigned,…to downfall and oblivion…The experimental is not automatically within truth, but can equally well end in failure; otherwise the concept of the experiment would have no sensible meaning at all. It is undeniable that many so-called experiments already discount, in themselves, the possibility of their failure… (651)

Many practices of so-called hybrid or conceptual writing1 do not in fact meet the criteria of this definition. Many forms of hybrid writing have hardened into something like a genre, and this genre avoids the requirements of the essential characteristic of experimentation. In other words, the risk element of much hybrid writing has been removed and hybrid writing as such (yes, as such) is a writing that is ultimately safe. Despite its insistence—“Failure is the goal of conceptual writing”—(Place and Fitterman, 20), hybrid or conceptual writing is often a writing that “already discount[s]…the possibility of…failure.”

One can easily say that A) this is definition is outdated, its criterion no longer valuable or interesting, the very term regressive and oppressive. We are, after all, in 2013, and the word “experimental” is so 1960’s, if not 1920’s. One could also say that B) hybrid writing is that which, by definition, breaks out of genre into something new and exciting, something without responsibility, something truly monstrous.

Can you have more than one monster? After the first monster, don’t you have a genre? A theory of monsters? A model or form? A concept?

Maybe “experimental” truly is passé. Maybe everyone (but me) knows what they are doing.

Both objections, it seems, carry with them a baggage or an “ideology” that I’m not sure everyone will be comfortable with. The first objection presupposes a thinking of literary history based on progress and advancement. Can we say that literature in 2013 is more advanced (sophisticated, developed, complex, attuned? what?) than the literature of 1920, (1820? 1620?). Literature can become out of its own time, sure, and concerns can change, appear and disappear. But does literature really progress in a linear fashion?

The second objection is perhaps more difficult to address. Does hybrid writing truly resist the dominant paradigm? Is there such a thing as the unclassifiable, as the “un-genred”? And what is the relationship of these “monsters” of writing to other arts?

And what does it mean to fail? Does anyone consider themselves a successful writer? A failed writer? We all know Beckett’s famous dictum, read on posters, tee shirts, blogs and as the signature of innumerable email accounts: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” (Worstward Ho, 89). Can (has) failure hardened into a kind of theory? What could be a theory of failure? The goal?

Are we all Platonists, believing in forms (eidos) independent of their material manifestation, forms that need be (easily) translated into their earthly actualization? Are we like the mythical boor at the mythical cocktail party who, after tapping his temple, insist he possess a best selling novel: he has only to write it? Or perhaps we are a new type of neo Platonist, a neo neo Platonist, who believes narrative is completely platform neutral, and this, this text is equally at home as an ipad app, a 35 mm film, a book trailer, a string quartet, a staged performance, a large fresco, a pdf, a bound book etc. And what happens to writing? Does writing, and reading, therefore become an endless search for the signified, a signified independent of its manifestation or actualization? Does the specificity of writing, taken in a radically literal sense, disappear into mere media?

It would be foolish to deny the exciting and important work produced by the collision of media. But my questioning, on this side of the debate, is one of perhaps economy and resistance. What remains when media collide? Or, to be more exact, how do different media resist translation into others? To be more exact still, what remains of writing, taken in this absolute literal (non-metaphoric) sense, in the collision of linguistic narrative with other forms of art? What would be the success of such writing? What would be the failure?

This brings me to the second quote orienting these fragments: “If this handbook of literature meant to say something, which we now have some reason to doubt, it would proclaim first of all that there is no—or hardly any, ever so little—literature…” (Derrida, 223).

On the one hand, it seems ludicrous to bring up the paucity of literature in this day and age, at this point in history. If anything, we have too much literature, way too much to keep track of, to digest, to teach and to read.

What did Derrida mean?

One of the ways of thinking (writing) about this is to say that literature is not only not conceptual, literature is that which specifically resists the conceptual. In other words, literature is that which struggles against the closure on to the signified. A work, and I’ll use that term in the Barthesian sense, which flattens its own actualization in favor of meaning, concept or even allegory transcendental to it may be many things, but it’s not literature. A work that suppresses or overcomes (even sublimates) the real differences and arguments between media and material in favor of an overarching thematic approach may be provocative, evocative, interesting, important, influential etc. etc. etc.; it may be sociology, art criticism, philosophy, memoir, propaganda, manifesto, tech writing et al, but it’s not literature.

But so what? Why should I listen to a rarefied, exclusionary and esoteric definition of “literature” (that word certainly has its own baggage) by some rapidly aging white guy? Didn’t we just have a postmodernism so we wouldn’t have to let some rapidly aging white guy tell us what literature is and is not? Why should I care about these distinctions?

Maybe you shouldn’t. Again, this is part of a debate I have with myself. And maybe its particularity is such than I’m just talking to myself. But I’ll ask your indulgence for a few more minutes.

This resistance to the signified, this resistance to transcendence is what literature does, perhaps what it does best. Literature (alone?), in its actualized and irreducible particularity, in its existence, not its mere conception, can resist the universalizing power of the concept, the flattening of difference, the reliance on transcendence, of moving us out the here and now into some vague hope of the future, or some rosy memory of the past. It is literature, in this sense, which can resist the twin seductions of optimism and nostalgia. But this resistance takes the form of writing.

Perhaps it is this criterion, this resistance, which determines the success or failure of the experiment in experimental writing.

Finally, I’d like to turn to one of the most monstrous stories by one of the most monstrous writers in the Western tradition, “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka. I hesitate to call this an illustration or an example (of what, a concept?). In the story, the explorer, the bystander, is unable to read the drawings of the texts: the writing resists all translation and metatextual understanding. “‘Read it,’ he said. ‘I can’t,’ said the explorer, “I told you before that I can’t make out those scripts’” (161). This is a writing that promises no comprehension or understanding, a writing that refuses to guarantee conceptualization (the “transcendence” viewed on the faces of the previously executed as narrated by the officer is purely speculative, and is remarkably missing from his own dead stare). This is writing where experience takes precedence over comprehension, where inscription takes precedence over theory: where you can’t read unless you read, unless you have it written on your body. This is literature at its most literal, an absolute literality that can’t be transcended, that can’t be overcome or transformed into something else. This is a writing that is not pure signifier (what would be such a thing?) but writing that depends upon nothing else for its validity or power.

Certainly, neither Kafka nor this story requires any sort of defense from me. But it is this explicit indifference to transcendence, this insistence on writing, on language and the risks of language, which announces the literary experiment. An experiment that can always fail.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. “Difficulties.” In Essays on Music. Ed. Richard Leppert. Trans. Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Worstward Ho. In Nowhere On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho. New York: Grove Press, 1995. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony.” Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. In The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken Book, 1981. Print.

Place, Vanessa and Robert Fitterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2009. Print.


1A discussion of the relation of the terms (and genres) “hybrid” and “conceptual” is beyond the scope of these notes. They are not always synonyms, even though I use them here as such.
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