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.
The response sent by Wai Chee Dimock is below.
For me, “experimental criticism” is an attempt to keep pace with the changing world, making sure we are in touch with the existential as well as intellectual landscape of an increasingly dangerous century. It has to do with going outside our comfort zone, doing things we weren’t trained to do but probably should be doing as responsible citizens. For the past few years I’ve been trying to learn about the science and technology needed to respond to climate change. Recently I was able to publish two short pieces in Scientific American. They took an enormous amount of work, and weeks if not months of revising. They make me a newbie once again, in ways that I find both comical and educational. I suspect more of us would be going out on a limb like that, as the urgency of the climate crisis becomes unmistakable. It would be interesting to see what the humanities look like then, when “experimental criticism” is a risk that we all take.
This is part of the cluster Experimental Criticism. Read the other posts here.