Experimental Criticism / Introduction: Annotated Syllabus / Beth Blum

Illustration by Fran_kie

This cluster on “experimental criticism” grew out of a graduate seminar on this topic that took place at Harvard in the fall of 2021. All the essay contributions to the cluster bear some relation to the course, whether as revisions to participants’ final projects or as pursuits of experimental practices explored and initiated there. To register the collaborative pedagogic origins of this project, in lieu of a typical introduction, we have provided an annotated syllabus, with snapshots of participants’ reflections on the semester’s readings and discussions footnoted at the bottom of the page. You are invited to click on any of the numbered footnotes scattered throughout the syllabus to jump to a specific annotation. In addition to offering a window into our individual responses to the course readings, we hope that the annotations provide you with a collective context for the essays to follow.

Within the cluster, you will find experimentation that takes many forms: Yoojung Chun’s choose-your-own-adventure rumination on the constancy of parental grief, as depicted by the intersections between the art video game “That Dragon, Cancer” and the 14-century Middle English poem Pearl; Marie Ungar’s investigation of the category of “cringe,” what it might look like if Susan Sontag and Erving Goffman joined forces; Elinor Hitt’s encounter with the “kinesthetic empathy” inspired by the choreography of Blondell Cummings; William Martin’s essay/fiction hybrid, describing a senior named Dexter’s spectral encounter with the wisdom of Charles Waddell Chesnutt in his university’s archive; Harry Hall’s poignant parody of academese, presented in the form of a futuristic academic lecture on the film Call Me By Your Name, in a 2052 edited volume; Sam Bozoukov’s paratactic account of learning to listen to literature—and to life’s unpredictable lessons—through Milton. Accompanying our cluster as a special feature is a questionnaire that was sent to several of the leading author-critics on our syllabus, requesting their thoughts on the status of disciplinary experiment today. The responses we received, from Charles Bernstein, Samuel R Delany, Wai Chee Dimock, Eric Hayot, Emily Ogden, and Paul Saint-Amour, are a trove of useful references, reflections, examples, and qualifications.

—Beth Blum

: :

Experimental Criticism (Fall 2021)

Graduate Seminar

Professor Beth Blum

Course Description:

During a time of rampant, albeit necessary, pre-professionalization, this graduate seminar is meant to both model and inspire academic risk-taking. It offers a selective overview of recent literary criticism that productively transgresses formal, conceptual, and disciplinary norms. Readings may include: Brent Hayes Edwards, Susan Stanford Friedman, Sianne Ngai, Saidiya Hartman, Eric Hayot, Paul Saint-Amour, and Wai Chee Dimock, among others.

Weekly Schedule

September 8th Eric Hayot, “Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do.”

Samuel R Delany, “On Creativity and Academic Writing.”

September 15th Intellectual Risk and Conformity

John Stuart Mill, “In Praise of Eccentricity.”

Anne Doufourmantelle, In Praise of Risk, excerpt.

Schopenhauer, “On Thinking for Oneself.”1

Charles Bernstein, “Frame Lock” and “Revenge of the Poet-Critic.”

September 22 A Change of Scale I:  Minimalism

Representations, “Weird Scholarship.”

Sianne Ngai, “Introduction” to Our Aesthetic Categories, “Merely Interesting” and “Theory of the Gimmick.”

Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy.”

September 29 A Change of Scale II: Maximalism

Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernism.

Wai Chee Dimock Through Other Continents, excerpts.

Eric Hayot, “Against Periodization.”

Oct.6 Experimenting Affectively

1. Angry Reading

Patricia Lockwood, “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.”2

Kate Zambreno, Heroines.

2. Love Reading

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation.

Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature, Introduction.

Oct.13 Not Reading

Amy Hungerford, “On Not Reading.”

D. Graham Burnett and Alyssa Loh, “A Few Words About Not Reading.”

Kinohi Nishikawa, “Towards a Black Book Aesthetic.”

Tom Phillips, A Humument.

John Cage, Writing for a Second Time Through Finnegans Wake.3

October 20 Some Interdisciplinary Inspiration

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Kenneth Burke, “Equipment for Living.”

October 27 Counterfactual Encounters

Paul Saint-Amour, “Soliloquy of Samuel Roth: A Paranormal Defense” and “An Interlude: We Have Never Been Modernists.”

Kiese Laymon, And So On.4

November 3 Playing Around in the Archive

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives.

Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Taste of the Archive.”5

Walter Benjamin, One Way Street.

November 10 Collaboration6

Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan, The Teaching Archive.

Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “The University and the Undercommons.”

November 17 “Autotheory”7

Emily Ogden, “Mind Games” and “How to Come Back to Life.”

December 1 “Autotheory,” cont.

Anahid Nersessian, Keats’s Odes.

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, excerpts.

: :

This is part of the cluster Experimental Criticism. Read the other posts here.

: :

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. A lover’s discourse: Fragments. Macmillan, 1978.

Benjamin, Walter. One-way Street: And other writings. Verso Books, 2021.

Bernstein, Charles. “Revenge of the Poet Critic.” From My Way: speeches and poems. University of Chicago Press, 1999. 3-18.

—. “Frame lock.” College Literature 21.2 (1994): 119-125.

Burnett, D. Graham and Loh, Alyssa. “A Few Words about Not Reading,” Reading Room. Edited by David Richardson and Sal Randolph (New York: Dispersed Holdings, 2020).

Buurma, Rachel Sagner, and Laura Heffernan. The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study. University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Cage, John. Writing for a Second Time Through Finnegans Wake. Mode Records, 2002.

YouTube, Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7mB2va1wkM . Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W97z2nUmuw

Felski, Rita. The Uses of Literature (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2008)

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday and Anchor Books, 1959).

Hayot, Eric. “Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do.” Critical Inquiry 41.1 (2014): 53-77.

—. “Against periodization; or, on institutional time.” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 739-756.

Hungerford, Amy. “On Not Reading,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11, 2016.

Delany, Samuel R. “Preface: On Creativity and Academic Writing.” Shorter views: Queer thoughts & the politics of the paraliterary. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.vii-3.

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s pharmacy.” Tragedy. Routledge, 2014. 338-360.

Dimock, Wai Chee. “Through other continents.” Through Other Continents. Princeton University Press, 2008.

Dufourmantelle, Anne. In praise of risk. Fordham University Press, 2019.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. “The Taste of the Archive.” Callaloo 35.4 (2012): 944-972.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Planetary modernisms: Provocations on modernity across time. Columbia University Press, 2015.

Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward lives, beautiful experiments: Intimate histories of riotous Black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals. WW Norton & Company, 2019.

Laymon, Kiese. “And So On: Reading and Conversation with Kiese Laymon.” Harvard Radcliffe Institute. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bOxA1jyLq4

Lockwood, Patricia. “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.” London Review of Books. Vol. 41, No.19, October 10, 2019.

 Mill, John Stuart. “In Praise of Eccentricity” from On liberty and other essays. Oxford University, 1998.

Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. “The university and the undercommons: Seven theses.” Social Text 22.2 (2004): 101-115.

Nersessian, Anahid. Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse. University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Nishikawa, Kinohi. “Towards a Black Book Aesthetic.” Penn’s Workshop in the History of Material Text. [Video]. YouTube, October 26, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5l11lPwrsPw

Ngai, Sianne. “Theory of the Gimmick.” Critical Inquiry 43.2 (2017): 466-505.

Ogden, Emily. “Mind Games.” Berfois. May 7, 2020. https://www.berfrois.com/2020/05/emily-ogden-mind-games/

—. “How to Come Back to Life: On reaching middle age and carrying on.” Yale Review, June 28, 2021. https://yalereview.org/article/how-to-come-back-to-life

Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970).

Representations, “Weird Scholarship: Virtual Issue.” https://online.ucpress.edu/representations/pages/virtual_issue_weird_scholarship

Saint-Amour, Paul K. “Soliloquy of Samuel Roth: A Paranormal Defense.” James Joyce Quarterly 37.3/4 (2000): 459-477.

—.”An interlude: we have never been modernists.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 56.2 (2013): 201-204.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On Thinking for Oneself.” Parerga and Paralipomena (1974).

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1990).

Zambreno, Kate. Heroines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).

: :


  1. William Martin on Schopenhauer

    If given the choice between dinner with Arthur Schopenhauer or half a million dollars, I would confidently choose the dinner. Why? For the simple fact that Schopenhauer would impart upon me more than half a million dollars’ worth of knowledge. At some point in our fictive dinner, I would share that I read his essay, “On Thinking for Oneself,” in my “Experimental Criticism” graduate seminar during the Fall of 2021. The avuncular philosopher would reasonably want to know the context, capacity, and contribution of his inclusion. I would simply slide him the course syllabus. His eyes would strain with bafflement. His soup would stain the document. His voice would raise these sentiments:

    The object of this course must be to permanently eliminate the elasticity of the mind. A syllabus is nothing more than a frying pan that cooks the yolk of a young mind until its natural impulses have evaporated. We must think for ourselves! A proper syllabus contains only the ideas that sprout from the fertile minds of each student. Such a syllabus will transform them into living human beings. Reading books, which contain the alien ideas of others, will transform them into automatons. The classroom becomes a laboratory.

    How absurd that this syllabus assigns John Stuart Mill. My contemporary, who subscribes to spontaneity, would also shudder at the sight of this syllabus. Requiring students to read the same books, at the same time, with the same instructor? How can so many common factors spur difference and diversity? The tyranny of opinion stifles all eccentricity like the hand of December covering the mouth of an infant flame.

    What is this nonsense you speak? Other thinkers also express concerns about the syllabus as a genre? You say that Eric Hayot proposes a trans-conceptual approach that exposes the unspoken boundaries of periodization? He seeks to generate debate, which prevents periodization from becoming ideological. Wait, now that I re-examine this syllabus, who are these other thinkers grouped with myself and Mill? Anne Dufourmantelle? Irving Howe? Charles Bernstein? They must come from later periods. Perhaps this syllabus does not confine itself to a single present? It reflects the intellectual horizon of man who thinks of future and past in conjunction with the present. Who? Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan? They too are dissatisfied with the syllabus? I see, so they argue that literary value emanates from people and not texts. Well, they are right to focus on the history of teaching as it was lived and experienced. I have suggested this from the beginning! We must not read in books, but in the book of the world. The utility of a teaching archive would clearly supersede the utility of a large but disordered library. Perhaps my inclusion on this syllabus is more a cause for celebration than concern?

    At the end of my dinner with Schopenhauer, I would thank him for sharing his invaluable wisdom. I imagine that he would down the rest of his bowl and move with haste to the restroom. While I await his return, the waiter would arrive with our bill. I would deeply regret not choosing the half a million dollars as I charge the exorbitant cost of our dinner on my card. Then, seeing no sign of Schopenhauer, I would start for the exit. Before stepping out of doors, Schopenhauer would appear by my side. I would confront him for not paying and ask if he read the bill?

    He would say that he does not read.

  2. Yoojung Chun on Patricia Lockwood

    Affective reading is what we are taught to NOT do as a literary scholar; critical reading, not affective reading, we are taught, is the flimsy boundary that differentiates us—the “real” critics—from Goodreads reviewers. But is the boundary between affective and critical reading as clear as we think? Lockwood’s piece highlights how affective our critical readings are, but the essay also made me realize how critical our affective readings are.

    I’d never read Updike, but the most feminist, LGBTQ+ conscious, queer Korean I know loves Updike. They read Rabbit, Run not as Lockwood did—as a patriarchal, sexist whining of a white man—but as a queer exploration of depression. As a Korean reader, I run into similar ironies all the time; I have a self-identified Marxist friend who loves Fountainhead. I know a die-hard Christian friend who loves The Picture of a Dorian Gray; he thinks Dorian’s mysterious corruption in the book alludes to drinking and womanizing—all homoerotic subtext was completely lost to him. Wilde would’ve been amused. I run into a similar type of culturally inflected affective reading when British friends tell me they love how Japanese Murakami Haruki is (He is the most American Japanese writer that ever existed—the man listens to jazz, drinks Irish whisky and writes in English).

    Instead of hastily attributing these incidents to jejune cultural misinterpretations, I think it is important to think about how these examples illuminate critical context that colors our affective responses to texts. To hate or to love are strong affective choices we make that reflect our values and more importantly, our performances of our values. When a text makes us angry, is the anger about the text or the critical consensus that surrounds it? Do we love to hate texts because it gives us a membership to certain critical communities?

    There certainly is a bravery required as a literature PhD student to say sentences like “I love Sally Rooney” (I don’t, I promise) and a certain postcolonial thrill in saying “I hate Murakami Haruki” (a sentence I’m allowed to say because I’m Asian). Lockwood’s hilarious and insightful piece makes me think about all the throes of indecision we experience as we sit in front of a book, deciding whether to like it or not – which often, however, is a decision about whether we ought to like it or not.

  3. Sam Bozoukov on John Cage

    It is perhaps fitting that, after ten years of being too discouraged to read Finnegans Wake (on account of its difficulty), I came to understand how to read Joyce’s text not by actually reading it (re: the theme of this part of the syllabus) but by listening to John Cage’s rewritten version of it (a mesostic poem running down the middle of the page, spelling out repeatedly 


    achieved by erasing large portions of the original text). I didn’t even finish the recording because I fell asleep about halfway through: my body was still recovering from the biopsy I had the day before, which confirmed I had stage four Hodgkin Lymphoma. 

    Although my healthy cells weren’t yet dying in chemotherapy, when I set out to complete this week’s ‘readings’ on that cold and grey October Tuesday in bed, it felt like an old, familiar part of me was already dead, while a subtler, grimmer death loomed large. 

    Not that final one at the end of our lives, but one that I dreaded even more in that moment: another year of taking classes virtually (on account of my impending immunocompromised status), except this time, unlike the pandemic year that had just passed when everyone was online, I was going to be the one severed head on a screen in class, while all my peers were in the flesh. Had it not been for my wife who, though pregnant with our baby girl, took care of me that day and every day during treatment, for the love of my family back home, for the support of my professors, friends, and classmates, I would no doubt have had a long and miserable year. Though I was all but dead, I was at peace, and so, as my eyelids began to close with the slow, ponderous weight of imminent sleep, which I only passively resisted, a deep hypnagogic state set in, wherein the peculiar, uncanny rhythms of Joyce’s words, made anew by Cage, fused to form an indeterminably clear and indelible symbol in my mind:

    “Jamie, our country is a f-f-fridge… sauracer; this is the grand mons engine; this is the alps swooping to shelter shock the three lipoleums”

    at once congealing and concealing the meaning of Finnegans Wake. Nothing about the text mattered but the incantatory ebb and flow of Cage’s voice, pulling me in and out of some half-conscious primordial ooze. Cage’s fearlessness in manipulating and erasing Joyce’s text, which I had subconsciously given the sacrosanct honor of being the hardest book in English literature, showed me that I, too, had nothing to fear in facing another year online. In fact, I soon learned it was a “death to be wisht.”

  4. Harry Hall on Kiese Laymon

    I found an empty elliptical and chose to “hike” the Pacific Crest Trail before clicking the link to Kiese Laymon’s And So On. Almost eight weeks into the semester, I was consolidating to-do’s whenever I could. Exercise, since before the pandemic, was one of my few barricades guarding against the hot weight of anxiety and depression. It reassured the impatient, insecure part of me to finish something in only one hour (and to move and use my body that had so far survived the virus). This would be a productive session in two senses. An academic lecture would be easily digestible.

    I began to realize And So On’s epiphanic, counterfactual essence only when I started to sweat. I pulsed my arms and legs as I leaned in toward the little screen (with the Ponderosa Pines passing me on the larger screen above). Laymon figured the “individual” as an imaginatively shattered fragile substance eliciting theoretical exploration; he used dialogue as the creative practice of existential development; he turned the lecture (whose etymology refers to reading) into the writerly stage on which his productive, demiurgic performance took place. The narrator, a Little Prince from another galaxy, already breathed the air of another atmosphere and already accustomed himself to another gravity. As an essayistic artifact from an atopic world of afropessimism and afrofuturism, And So On was a fiction that acted out Truth. (I use the past tense here since it was an event I witnessed.) I finished my workout about the time the lecture ended, but it stayed with me, among me, in me, for days.

    I often notice a strange, hot feeling—whose instances in graduate school have been too numerous to recount, but which began in this course with Charles Bernstein—when I read a work that communicates to me as if from a distance. It is an odd, desiring anxiety inspired by the sense of a text seeming right, and yet, inextricably aged. Not that it has aged poorly; rather, such texts seem to bear an uncanny relevance today. I think it is an anxiety caused by a fear of a work having already called you. (How daunting the idea that God could only ever appear once in the world, and that God has already come and gone: how simultaneously present and absent that state, how ghostly that impossible existence.) Reading such a text introduces an obligation you did not know you were liable to, at the start. When the world closes the door, it also locks the windows, and you’re on the outside. The prophet Jonah tried to flee such a sign. And So On seemed to have descended from another world, and I felt that strange hot anxiety on the elliptical, halfway through the semester, without much time to consider its real power. I remember it being difficult to talk about the lecture in class. How does one exist in the perpetual condition of an aftermath, with its never-ending responsibility to question the status quo? And how does one speak of Truth, except through iconoclastic quotation? The only act that feels adequate is the act of “reading,” reading in an ideal sense, not with the connotation of cold interpretation, but as a dialogic process that makes you hot and fragile, like someone writing, like a spectral substance, ready to shatter.

  5. Elinor Hitt on Brent Hayes Edwards

    Edwards has nominated himself as the Virgilian guide to all those who dare descend into the archive, as I myself have done. Why do we visit the archive in the first place? What lurks in the underworlds of library and museum storage bins? Why does it feel like there lies, in the catalogued past, something we are forbidden to look back and see? The archive, the once private contents of a desk or bookshelf, finds its eternal home in the sterile public domain. Its secrets are hidden in plain sight. When we visit the archive, do we hope to call forth a ghost? To dance with the dead by retracing the crests and troughs of their cursive script like choreographic notation? Will a lively jig erupt from the stillness of finger and thumb on delicate paper? Will there issue a shout from some long-silenced voice through the quietness of the reading room? Perhaps we go for answers and find only questions. The archive, as Edwards has taught us, requires the touch of a sensualist as much as a scholar.

  6. Beth Blum on Collaboration

    The unit on “collaboration” took place toward the end of our 2021 graduate seminar on “Experimental Criticism” and was one of the catalysts for this cluster. I remember the students asking: what would scholarship look if it attempted to fully enact the collaborative possibilities Buurma and Heffernan’s fascinating study describes? We noted that teaching is “still performing the work of the university,” as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney state, but we wondered if we could at least use the graduate seminar as an occasion to “glimpse” something closer to the “collective orientation” toward knowledge they describe.

    The seminar began with the “poet-critics” whose injunctions to break free of our “frame lock” got us off the ground. We were interested in all different scales and modalities of disciplinary experiment, perhaps especially the minor and overlooked, so that the more we read the more we began to wonder if perhaps “all criticism is experimental criticism,” to paraphrase Wallace Stevens. Ruminating on questions that have long cropped up in in creative writing departments (is any attempt to teach experiment bound to end up with it “commodified and reified in endless writing workshops” as Samuel Delany says?), we discussed what felt like the implicit view in the academy that one must “learn the rules, then break them,” as Charles Bernstein ventriloquizes, just as artists are expected to first master realism before taking a crack at abstraction. We thought about how institutional context and reputation frame the way that scholarly experiments are received, we deliberated how to balance professional training with space for explorative play.

    At the same time, reeling from the pandemic and navigating the exigencies surrounding the Harvard Graduate Student Union strike, to unreservedly celebrate the jouissance of collective unsettling felt off key. “People at risk cannot risk,” as Eric Hayot writes in his questionnaire contribution, and indeed for many of us these days—perhaps especially for graduate students balancing their literary passions with the contracting academic market—risk management feels more burdensome than exhilarating. It is a divisive question: what is a reasonable response to the riskiness of the present? Emily Ogden wisely cautions against indulging in the “more heroic registers of the negative,” even as she sees value in professional “restlessness” and allowing ourselves “to put the vocation of science on pause.” Experiment can assist us in meeting global threats with interdisciplinary nimbleness, as Wai Chee Dimock recommends, and it can guide us toward what Paul Saint-Amour describes as the “alternative practices better attuned to our needs, aims, and commitments.” Ideally, then, as Hayot suggests, the purpose of the academic institution would be to provide “the ground from which to [experimentally] strike out,” “enough of a home to return to that one feels strong enough to leave it.” How do those lucky enough to benefit from it use the gift of such institutional protection? One of the sentiments that stays with me a year after the seminar has ended concerns the ongoing imperative of intellectual courage.

  7. Marie Ungar on Autotheory

    Autotheory was what drew me to this class. I’m both an academic and a creative writer. I see these as intertwined modes of thinking. I’m interested in exploring academic writing as an artistic craft in its own right, one that is often hampered in its potential for communication by a rigid, established style. Reading work by Maggie Nelson, Andrea Long Chu, and Chris Kraus during the pandemic expanded my view of the potential for theoretical writing to be an aesthetic object in and of itself.

    This aestheticism is not just about beauty. Form and content are inseparable; to capitulate to a standard mode of writing is to accept the status quo in other ways as well. Texts on this syllabus helped show me the stakes of experimentation. “I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of oppression,” Kate Zambreno writes in Heroines, speaking to the false veneer of objectivity embedded in the standards of critical writing, which eschew feminine-coded forms of personal expression. (The fact that Heroines could easily be in the “Autotheory” unit of the syllabus but is instead applied elsewhere emphasizes how multifaceted experimentation is.)

    And elsewhere on the syllabus, in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman imagines scenes, conversations, and vivid lives rather than leave gaps in the archive unexplored—an archive which fails to represent the full lives and humanity of marginalized people, particularly Black women. Hartman’s text is not autotheory but likewise shows the importance of freeing criticism from an objective veneer and from current, narrow standards for legitimacy of method in academic arguments in the humanities. As these texts show, pushing the boundaries of academic style is not just a question of how ideas can be communicated but also what can be communicated.

Beth Blum
Beth Blum is Harris K Weston Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Her book, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature was published with Columbia UP in 2020. Her writing has appeared in Modern Language Quarterly, PMLA, Modernism/modernity, The NewYorker.com, Aeon Ideas, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and more.