The Nameable: On Experimental Writing
I hear the word “experimental” and reach for my revolver. I don’t consider myself an experimental writer because experimental writing is about the experiment, and that doesn’t interest me.—Steve Erickson
In the summation of his poetics as “An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music,” Louis Zukofsky is suggesting a metaphoric area, the southern region of which is made up of pedestrian utterances and the northern, “upper” region—and by upper I think there’s at least a notion of aspiration—a place where the poem tends to be more than mere function, that is, it tries to become music. Language near this loftier border wants to be ordered, formal, and at play with abstraction and connotation. (“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” says Walter Pater stating a similar, if more dogmatic, idea.) Everywhere between these two limits, between speech and music, exists the potential space for the poem.
I’d like to propose a definition that modifies Zukofsky’s metaphor to clarify and broaden the term of “experimental writing” and which thus hopefully rehabilitates it from the censure of the many—including a formally daring writer like Erickson—who view the province of experimental writing as a naval-gazing warren, an unpopular gymnasium occupied solely by the effete.
Here’s my idea. Experimental writing is an integral whose upper and lower limits are symbolized by two quotes, the first by William Carlos Williams and the second by Audre Lorde. First the lower limit:
William Carlos Williams in 1923 attempts to write a novel, but he finds he is deeply dissatisfied with what seem to be its formal possibilities. He writes in the accurately titled The Great American Novel that all one must do to have a novel is “catch up a dozen smelly names and find some reason for murder, it will do.” But if a writer were to do this, the implication goes, she would be merely creating something hackneyed, some form of cheap entertainment. Williams has greater ambitions. He wants to do better than just build a “pyramid of words, tombs.” But he cannot seem to realize his ambitions to transcend the novel’s formal limits. And in an almost throwaway moment of frustration, Williams writes, “Progress is to get. But how can words get… Words. Words cannot progress. There cannot be a novel. Break the words. Words are indivisible crystals. One cannot break them—Awu tsst grang splith gra pragh og bm…”
Williams seems to do what every writer, in a moment of frustration, has done: bang a fist a few times on the keyboard. William tries, as literally as he can, to break the words.
He finds he can’t do it. Well, he can do it, but the words are useless then, won’t work anymore as elemental pieces of language. By severing the language sign from its denotational ability, this recorded, seemingly simple, everyday moment of frustration hides a profound aspect of language: i.e., that it acts connotatively and denotatively.
For example, if I speak the word “pencil,” an idea will form in your mind. Each of you may picture a variation of this idea, but the utterance denotes so that some variation of a fairly particular writing instrument appears, so to speak, in your mind. Simultaneously, there are connotations occurring in your mind as well: latent swirling ideas about school or standardized tests or perhaps a general nimbus of childhood glows around the word “pencil” in your consciousness.
This basic semiotic principle of language’s denotational and connotational aspects is a unique condition of the writer’s medium. Music in particular can be wonderfully abstract and is capable of delivering an emotional response almost entirely through connotations. A major chord might be “happier” than a minor, Debussy may evoke the ocean, and your cell phone ring might signify that your boyfriend is calling—but, in general, music is relatively free of the very particular denotative function of language. Similarly in the visual arts, there is a commonly used taxonomy that shows that, apart from figuration, a work of visual art can be a non-denotative abstraction.
Why is this important? I think there are several reasons, ranging from the theoretical to the perhaps immediately useful. One conclusion that follows is that the literary arts are made out of a socially constructed material. Language works (as much as it does) because we agree on meanings. And because it is made out of a socially constructed material, the literary arts inherently have both a normative aspect and—something less frequently acknowledged—a hard constraint on its form: i.e., it’s very difficult if not impossible to use language to think outside of language and, as Williams discovered, one can’t really break it from its signifying function and try to repurpose it. Investigating this fundamental aspect of language is a primary (and well-trod) project of Modernism—cue spotlights on the busts of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.
(Another conclusion of this is that—IMHO—since this lower terrain of our metaphoric space has been so cleverly tracked by not only the high modernist masters but by artists in an unbroken line to the present (e.g., Language poets, Oulipo, Flarf) that perhaps that vein of the mine is tapped out. Obviously people disagree with this (and I frequently disagree with this) but my tentative advice is that in your work if you find yourself enamoured of deconstruction, obliquity, and engineering—why not do some fooling around with construction, emotion, and clarity? False dichotomies no doubt, but this parenthetical to serve as time machine to the young MFA student I never was.)
Finally, what this lower boundary of the land we are calling “experimental writing” might help us understand is why not only Steve Erickson but many formally risky writers eschew the label. There is often in the committed anarchist project a hidden but fundamental solipsism and cynical terminalism, which, by various philosophical justifications, also shows disdain for the emotional payoff, the cathartic or epiphanic goods. ‘Overly cerebral’ or ‘too clever’ are common complaints.
A metaphor then: The traditional novel is like a car whose purpose is to deliver the reader from point A, through an emotional Freytag path, to point B. But the experimental writer here, too clever for her own good, has taken apart and reassembled the auto, repurposed its chassis, catalytic converter, spark plugs, etc., in order to make a sculpture, which she displays proudly and dedicates—so says the plinth on which it is placed—to revolution. Or maybe The Revolution. Erickson et al. complain upon seeing it: Phooie, now we’ll have to hitchhike.
But our strawmen I think are reacting to (as they know) a partial definition, only the lowland of the Experimental Writing nation. So let’s turn to Audre Lorde, whose quote represents our aspirational upper limit. Lorde writes that her poetry is “to give name to the nameless so that it can be thought.”
(A digression. The quote that might have typically occupied this space instead of Lorde’s, say, in your undergraduate symposium of late last century, would have been Pound’s maxim: “Make it new.” But as recent research reveals, Pound’s saw celebrating novelty was actually ancient dictum, third-hand appropriation of a Shang dynasty inspirational motto. Not that new, in other words, and the phrase’s etymology likely says more about Pound and the colonial impulses of canon formation than it does about revolutionary praxis.)
In order to understand Lorde’s functional definition of her literary art as that which “gives name to the nameless,” the key question to ask is: What makes something nameless?
The shortcut answer is to invoke the semi-amorphous concept of ideology. I’ll just give two perhaps reductive examples to illustrate ideology. This hopefully will also illuminate what Lorde might have been trying to get at in her concept of the “nameless.”
The first example—one you are probably now familiar with—is the concept of white privilege. Privilege in general can be seen as an invisible allowance. As Peggy McIntosh describes in her famous essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which was written over thirty years ago (and a mere twenty after Althusser), privilege consists of gifts and conditions almost secretly given and usually unconsciously accepted. Such advantages are structural and in general do not require an overt, conscious racism from its beneficiaries to nonetheless be taken. Ideology here can be said to refer to the network of tacit (nameless) assumptions participants make—often mindlessly—to both reinforce and continue a process of hidden advantage. McIntosh’s list of invisible privileges include:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.”
Very similarly if a bit broadly, a second illustrative example that may shed light on Lorde’s idea of the “nameless” is the ideology of capitalism. Ideology is notable not only for its insidious norming of certain values (e.g., media reinforcing ideas of white beauty) but also for its subtle hiding or obscuring of facts that contradict these values. Think of the shiny and powerful devices in your pockets. We all want, in fact we think we all need, these devices in order to participate in contemporary society. On the one hand we may “know” that these devices are built through modern slavery and child exploitation, but these facts are obscured to us, are hidden from us, by an ideology that tells us to ignore such information in the face of our desires. If such an ideology—if this apparatus of forces and assumptions—didn’t exist, it very well might be unconscionable for us to be so exploitative, but ideology makes such evils overlookable, and our tacit avoidance becomes an everyday, sinisterly banal, evil.
What does this have to do with experimental literature? Since ideology acts as the veil over our eyes, Audre Lorde, when requiring her poetry to “name the nameless,” is pointing to the revelatory function of the literary arts to pierce through that veil, to show ourselves our hidden assumptions.
What experimental literature has the potential to do then is to name and subvert or destroy the many literary, psychological, and social ideologies that are hidden from us. Perhaps the most obvious way literature does this is by its history of churning through aesthetic ideologies. In fact, one history of contemporary poetry can be read as a dialectical progression between competing aesthetic ideologies (e.g., meter versus free verse, confessional versus image versus objectivist). However, there are other significant ways that literature can be revelatory about ideology. To make this clearer, it’s useful to read the rest of the quote from which the Audre Lorde phrase is taken:
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought…*
A self-identified “Black Lesbian Feminist Warrior Poet Mother,” Lorde is defining the revelatory act of poetry for women because poetry for her is a matter of naming the invisible structures that a dominant group constructs or reinforces which oppress. (Also, note that the act of writing is imbricated in a revolutionary process that leads to action.) So here is another way to think about the aspirations of experimental writing: one of its key functions is to reveal invisible habits and structures of aesthetic, psychological, and social domination.
(Arguably, this is what all art does—and what separates it from entertainment. Art expands our concept of the known, names the nameless, reveals hidden structures, and articulates the unsayable. This also why at first sight significant art often seems “difficult” or “ugly.”)
One ambition then of this attempt to re-define experimental literature is to rehabilitate and expand its definition to include those whose efforts have been historically erased—as well as a continuing examination of those forces of erasure. In an essay that deserves reading in full, titled “New Ideas about Black Experimental Poetry,” poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander writes:
We name the experimental, as we name any quality, moment, school, or movement in literature, in large part from the vantage point of today. So what appears to be doctrinaire, even hegemonic, from here and now, might well have had to fight to make its space in its time. We now take for granted Langston Hughes’s forging poetic form from jazz and the blues. There have been so many practitioners in the jazz/blues poem mode, from the sublime to the ridiculous, that its status as a form is now a given. But when a young Hughes was making those first poems in the 1920s, the forms, the vessels that brought those musics into the muscle and bone of poems, simply did not exist. Hughes was a radical innovator who made poems that managed to sound natural, inevitable, and almost artless, in their very artfulness.
In addition to Langston Hughes, Alexander goes on to cite African-American groundbreakers Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Jean Toomer as writers whose revolutionary contributions have been similarly discounted or distorted.
In addition, Alexander writes “The names Will Alexander, Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt, Nathaniel Mackey, Ed Roberson, Claudia Rankine, and Tracie Morris are often cited as experimental, and with obvious cause. But to discuss these writers without including a peer discussion of African-American writers who are not placed under that rubric or without placing them in a historical lineage of African-American writers which redefines the experimental is to lose a richer sense of what they are doing.” Alexander is bringing our attention to another tacit assumption of what is innovative or considered “avant-garde.” From the perspective of valorizing that which exposes the invisible rules of hegemony, the definition of the experimental should be expanded so as to note the historical erasure of groundbreaking writers and to describe and thus reclaim their writings as revelatory projects, but also, from the similar but opposite perspective of fighting the stultifying label and placement in an avant-garde prison/pedestal, we should simultaneously strive continually to be unsettled by and to interrogate the forces that define the experimental canon. Indeed Alexander writes, “Anthology after anthology makes it clear that, as with so many other accounts and schools of American arts, black styles, mode, content, and approaches have been poached but not credited, but that in their real theorization, the white avant-garde was not thinking about black writing in a significant way. Thus it is clear to me that, to put it plainly but I think usefully, a theory of black experimental poetry is going to look different than a theory of white experimental poetry.”
After a poetry season riddled with notable acts of variously ingenious racism, a great deal of soul searching and public and private discussions occurred around the issue of prejudice in contemporary poetry. One such panel took place at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church where several poets, including Simone White, Christopher Stackhouse, Cheryl Clarke, Ariel Goldberg, and Mahogany L. Browne, took part. Writing about this event on the website Hyperallergic, Alexis Clements writes:
Stackhouse …offered a number of insights and provocations on aesthetics, speaking about his own ambivalence around becoming a “well-trained poet,” and about “acculturation and training your vocabulary.” In response to his comments, I couldn’t help thinking about areas of the arts that attach terms like “avant-garde” or “experimental” to themselves — about how so many young writers aspire to be “avant-garde” by trying to mirror the behaviors and artistic mannerisms of past, often European, artists. … So what “avant-garde” or “experimental” means to me, when I hear it today, specifically within institutional settings (i.e., from people who have some measure of access to institutional arts in the US), is precisely the opposite of the words’ meanings…
I think this is a very wise and grounded warning. Here we are, in the walls of just such an institution, discussing what the “experimental” means. Fight to name the nameless and make visible that which is hidden. If we have such a calling—that’s the job. But let us encourage each other also to not discount the blinding power of ideology. Let us be skeptical of what we think we can see.
And lastly—narrowing the scope significantly and so somewhat apart from the previous—I wanted to talk specifically about fiction, that particular range among the integral with which we’re defining experimental literature.
A traditional idea of narrative consists of two elemental parts: character and plot. From these basic ideas flow the problems and solutions of most novels and short stories: e.g., Who is my hero? What occupation do they have? What is the conflict? How do I create a rising sense of action? What is the character’s emotional voyage? What is their epiphany?… However, not conceptualizing its form using these two elements is what has in large part been the defining feature of experimental fiction. Instead, what experimental novelists—either intuitively in some cases or with radical premeditation in others—have done is to choose different foundational concepts to create narrative.
Experimental fiction I think is fighting a much more deeply entrenched and perhaps more organically hardwired orthodoxy than poetry. This may be because there is an (arguably illusory) locus of perception through which we have a, by definition, prejudicial and subjective lens to experience the world, that is: our sense of self. Another way to say this: it is nearly impossible to have a narrative without a sense of “personhood.” However, I would argue, this actually describes a far wider possibility than fiction’s traditional dependence on the concept of “character.” (Another way to say this is to suggest the narrative arts need to recognize an understanding of consciousness as more of an emergent and interdependent phenomenon than we’re used to admitting.)
As well, like Williams and his desire to “break words” there have been, among the historical avant-garde, attempts to valorize or even ratify an abandonment of another traditional element of narrative, that is: plot. Writing in 1954, Robert Creeley writes:
The story has no time finally. Its shape, if form can so be thought of, is a sphere, an egg of obdurate kind. The only possible reason for its existence is that it has, in itself, the fact of reality and the pressure. There, in short, is its form – no matter how random and broken that will seem. The old assumptions of beginning and end – those very neat assertions – have fallen away completely in a place where the only actuality is life, the only end (never realized) death, and the only value, what love can manage.*
What Creeley is trying to defy here is a traditional sense of plot. He says the story has no time, and its old purpose—to deliver moral lessons or the consolations of a redemption fantasy—has been challenged and is being replaced by something else, no matter how random and broken, that has “the fact of reality and the pressure.”
Prose narrative—as writers as diverse as H.T. Tsiang, Nathalie Sarraute, Clarice Lispector, David Markson, Gilbert Sorrentino, Harry Mathews, David Antin, Ishmael Reed, Steve Katz, Kathy Acker, Gail Scott, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Lynne Tillman, Jean Eschenoz, Nathaniel Mackey, Enrique Vila-Matas, César Aira, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Gary Lutz, Carole Maso, Percival Everett, Tan Lin, Trey Ellis, Evan Dara, Pamela Lu, Renee Gladman, Miranda Mellis, and Evelyn Hampton, to name only a few—can depart gorgeously and ferociously from traditional ideas of “character” and “plot.” However, even in its wildest iterations, fiction maintains some sense of personhood—even if at its outermost limits this is the ghostly authorial presence in the prose’s construction—and event—likewise even if this is what Edward Dahlberg taught Charles Olson when he said that a perception “MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.”*
My argument then is that “plot” and “character” as traditionally viewed hide unwanted formal constraints so that an understanding of experimental fiction requires an abandoning of these ideas as the foundational building elements of narrative. Instead we replace them with: a) a sense of personhood and b) events or perceptions in series. This might seem just a semantic shift, a different naming for the same concepts of character and plot, but I think these actually expand the possibility, freeing fiction from hidden and historical obligations of the genre. It’s as simple and difficult as this: If a writer makes different assumptions about the basic elements of her genre, she will immediately confront different problems, recast the field of composition, and—if successful at confronting this new field and these new problems—create revelatory work and expand our notion of what can be named.
Adapted from a talk given at Naropa University on October 4th, 2016.