Experimental Criticism / Questionnaire Answers / Eric Hayot

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 Eric Hayot is below.

—Beth Blum

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What does “experimental criticism” mean to you?

I suppose there are two main types of experiments in criticism, as there are perhaps two main types of experiments in all imaginative and intellectual work: the type that breaks molds, destabilizes norms, and produces a nonce outburst of freedom that does not aim to, and cannot in fact easily be, reproduced; and the kind of experiment that stresses boundaries, pushes beyond, or finds new space in ways that are explicitly designed to allow repeatability. The first destroys the existing landscape; the second makes a path in it.

There’s room for both these kinds of things in life. My piece “Academic Writing, I Love You…” is an example of the first type. No one including me is going to write a second one of those. But the rest of my work is an example of the second type: a series of attempts, while doing other things (like answering questions about the historical imaginary relationship between China and Europe), to open the aperture of the usual, the possible, and the normative to a slightly broader set of possibilities: to create paths or openings that other people can follow.

It may be that for most people only the first more radical type of experiment is truly experimental. But I would say that for me the second type is probably more important—certainly more important as a matter of daily practice—even if it’s the examples of the first type that are most often remembered.

All of that speaks to the question of the genre of experiment, its relation to established norms and discourses. But there is another dimension of experiment that lies on the production side of the equation, namely, the way that an author (or authors) might write experimentally, that is, in an open and imaginative way, writing not to say what they already know but to discover what they do not yet know. I try, but do not succeed, always to be writing in this mode of experimentation. (For instance, I had no idea before I started answering this question that it was possible to think of experimentation in these ways; writing the answer is my way of finding an answer, with the proviso and hope that such an answer will not be the answer but an opening to dialogue and discovery.)

If you don’t think experiment precludes advice and emulation, then what are the qualities of experimental writing you admire, and what are the qualities that can imperil it?

My defense of experimental mode #2 above clearly puts me on the “experiment includes advice and emulation” side of things. Experiment is an attitude as well as a practice. It’s also for me often a question of fun and of a willingness to lose. My published writing I mostly like, but my unpublished writing is full of stupidities and disasters that result from me trying weird stuff and it not quite working. Trying new things out, deciding that I want to make a sentence that has a certain sound, just because I like the sound, letting go of the need to be saying explicitly all the time exactly what I intend or mean… those are for me part of the process of writing in the open that belongs to the general spirit of experimentation.

My first encounter with the parable of the talents came from a children’s illustrated Bible that I must have read tens if not a hundred times. The set of feelings it invoked in me as a child have remained with me all my life. The important part (to me) was this: the master leaves behind three slaves, handing them each ten talents (a unit of currency) and telling them to care for his property till he returns. One slave invests wisely, returning the master’s money tenfold. Another slave gambles his money away. A third buries the talents and returns them to the master upon his return.

The fact that the third slave is singled out in the narrative as the worst one—the master tells him he did not give him his talents to hoard, but to use, and the message is, don’t bury your God-given gifts in the ground—struck me as deeply and outrageously unfair. The man is a slave; he is afraid of his master’s wrath. He cannot boldly gamble or invest, he cannot risk, what does not belong to him… he simply preserves it against ruin. The story recognizes the fear of risk, the degree to which what we today would call precarity prevents the slave from building something new from what he has, from risking anything of his small and temporary freehold for possible gain. And then it tells us that this attitude is foolish.

To which I say: maybe it would be better if the man were not enslaved. It is hard to risk, in writing or in art, when you are afraid, unless you are pushed (by yourself or by your circumstances) to the very brink of disaster, at which point you must act (this is Thelma and Louise driving off the cliff), or if you can build the forms of egotistical and even narcissistic protection necessary to stave off your awareness of your vulnerability (this is, perhaps, the Donald Trump story). People at risk cannot risk. A precondition then for the support of experimentation in art as in life is the creation of social and institutional systems that give people the ground from which to strike out, that provide enough of a home to return to that one feels strong enough to leave it, or to add to it, or to transform it in some way that risks both gain and loss.

Why don’t we grant literary criticism the same aesthetic latitude as our literary objects? Is this distinction, in your view, a good thing?

My answer to the second question depends on what you mean by “same” in the first one. Exactly the same? That seems silly: part of how we know what genres are has to do with our sense of the normative range of their latitudes, the expected set of things they can do. That’s what provides a framework for the act of experimentation in the first place. So I don’t have a complaint in general about the idea of a genre called “literary criticism,” which would be less extreme in its aesthetic ramblings than, say, poetry or fiction. That’s fine.

I do however think that in current literary criticism the range is too narrow. Part of that stems from how hard the genre is; part of it from a weird disconnect between the profession’s awareness of the force of language and its willingness to eliminate elements of that force (or to refuse to use them) from its own major normative genre. I’d like, overall, more experiments and more range and more latitude: not a total explosion of form but much more play within the frameworks we have, and the development of new frameworks (the kinds that people can follow, and modify).

That said I recognize that this preference is at least partly a matter of personality. I can imagine that even in a world with much more latitude than there is now I might still be on the side of more latitude—that there might not be a moment where I would say, hold on, things have now gone too far!

What does the spread of online public writing—and with it the resurgence of essayism—mean for the distinction between the personal and professional, literature and criticism?

We are living in what is in many respects the historical high point of literary and cultural criticism—at least in quantitative terms. I guess that there have never been so many words written (and YouTube videos made, etc.) about culture as there are in the year of our Lord 2022, and that there has never been a higher percentage of the human tribe involved in the production of those words. That’s great news for the humanities and for literature, storytelling, film, television, art, music, and so on.

On the other hand, we know that this is happening at the same time as the collapse of the undergraduate major in the humanistic/critical fields, and the concomitant collapse of the graduate programs that feed the professoriate. The challenge is to think of these two forces—the rise of non-professional or non-scholarly criticism and other symbiotic cultural production (fan fiction, e.g.) on one hand and the fall of scholarly criticism on the other—as aspect of the same cultural system. This requires seeing them not as the simple expressions of a giant cultural see-saw (when one goes up the other goes down) but grasping their participation in a totality of cultural production that does not arrange them in anything so clear as a zero-sum relation.

A full answer to this question would therefore have to open two other big worm-cans, namely: (1) the resurgence of personal criticism, autotheory, memoir, and the like, about which Anna Kornbluh is writing a very interesting book and about which Robert Tally in his recent book has something to say; and (2) how this immense surge in criticism/response to the aesthetic corresponds to the general aestheticization of the field of culture and politics diagnosed first by the Frankfurt School and explained, at least for the late 1970s, most clearly by Fredric Jameson in his essay on “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” I’ll leave those alone for now.

In your experience, can institutional context operate as a productive experimental constraint? At what point does experiment become conventional? Can conventionality produce experiment?

As someone who’s a big fan of the experiments of the French Oulipo group, I certainly believe that constraint can stimulate rather than constrain creative activity. Indeed I think my favorite kind of writing is the conventional but beautifully and interestingly written academic essay, the kind of essay that makes you wish you’d written it. As a reader I take a great deal of pleasure in identifying those small subtle places where a sentence or an essay goes from solid to amazing, and in trying to reproduce the logic of that transformation in my own work or in my teaching of for others. Indeed one of the main things you could say about The Elements of Academic Style is that it’s an attempt to formalize some practices that make for good and exciting writing, to make them available for everyone. Not so that everyone writes the same, but so that it’s easier to understand the spirits and letters of experimentation within the literary critical form: to make it easier in the long run for more people to try experiments within the conventional framework, and so to modify and enlarge the capacity of the convention.

We won’t ask, as they did in the 1929 final issue of the Little Review modernist magazine that inspired this questionnaire, “why do you go on living?” (However, if you wish to answer that question, we would be most interested!). A slightly less intimate question might be: why do you go on being a literary scholar? Or, if you prefer, what do you see on the horizon for future scholarly experimentation in the discipline?

The simplest reason is that I have people I love and people I promised to care for, and that I have the resources that make that loving and that caring (and receiving love and care) if not exactly easy then at least frequently possible (with effort, and therapy).

As for going on being a literary scholar, my reasons are manifold. Probably at least three:

  1. I love teaching, and for me teaching is still one of the major goals of writing. Of the projects I’m currently working on two of them stem directly from, and aim to extend, my teaching work.
  2. Though the pandemic made things hard, and sometimes I thought I had lost faith in myself and the profession, I have been reminded by a couple recent talks I’ve attended and things I’ve read that this profession and its work still have the capacity to excite me and move me. I still have a lot to learn.
  3. I still believe in the absolute epistemological centrality of the literary (and aesthetic production more generally) to the project of the humanities, which is to study and understand what human beings are, what they have been, and what they are capable of. We know of no human community—going back as far back as we have evidence of human communities, so, 70,000 years at least, probably more like 100,000—that has not told stories, danced, or sung, told jokes or lies or made signs or taught or laughed or adorned itself and its dead. There is no humanity without this hand-work and mouth-work, no matter how easy it is in our current life to think of this work as extraneous or supplemental to the “truly” important activities of being human (eating, reproduction, making money).

What’s more this aesthetic necessity or centrality to the human is not uniform over the historical period in question. Instead it can be (and has been) used by both the makers of culture and its interpreters to create effects, both large-scale social ones and small-scale individual ones, and to register (consciously and unconsciously) the social forms, patterns of possibility and necessity, and forms of economic and political life to which a given community finds itself bound, or binds itself willingly. The production and the study of aesthetic activity is therefore not only fun, interesting, difficult, charming, challenging, or transformative: it is also finally necessary, if we wish to know who we are, who we have been, and who we might be—both separately and together.

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

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Eric Hayot
Eric Hayot is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies at Penn State, where he teaches classes on literature, media, and being in the universe. He’s the author of five books, including The Hypothetical Mandarin, The Elements of Academic Style, and Humanist Reason.