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 Emily Ogden is below.
What does ‘experimental criticism’ mean to you?
Experimental criticism, like autotheory or critical memoir or in some contexts even essay, is a term more often used to signal a demurral than to point to a well-defined genre. If I tell you I am writing “experimental criticism,” what I want you to know is that I do not intend to comply with the professional norms of academic literary criticism. We use these terms for writing that draws on specialized training that only graduate study in the humanities is likely to provide, but that at the same time declines to offer what would readily be recognized, in the field of training, as a “contribution:” an incremental correction to or augmentation of the body of scholarship. We might call Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts a work of autotheory rather than creative nonfiction because, more than her other books, it signals debts to queer theory (by footnoting academic texts). But at the same time we might call it autotheory rather than theory because it so manifestly is not in the form of, say, an article for GLQ. Or we might call Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse experimental criticism, because while it is as much a product of Nersessian’s expertise in British Romanticism as her other books, its autobiographical material, its style, and its relationship to claim-making tell us that it is not simply scholarship on British Romanticism. Someone could, I suppose, set about assimilating Keats’s Odes to one of those giant footnotes that appear in the critical review paragraph of a journal article, in which scholars A through F think X and scholars G through O think not-X. But that person would have missed the point to an almost comical degree.
Experimental criticism, then, names neither a school nor a turn, but rather a site of persistent questioning of the norms of scholarly writing. (Persistent questioning, but not “insurgency” or “refusal;” I don’t want to get carried away with the more heroic registers of the negative.) Norms that experimental criticism might suspend include: the impersonal voice (instead, first-personal writing); the view from nowhere (instead, a situated and limited perspective); aesthetic impartiality (instead, the frank admission of idiosyncratic taste); and the ambition to contribute in the scholarly sense, which is to say, add one’s bit to the collective edifice of knowledge. For the latter ambition, the experimental critic might substitute essayistic or poetic hopes: the wish to follow a thought where it leads, to express an idea, to make something new. The experimental critic tends, in short, to put the vocation of science on pause.
I would think that most people who read experimental criticism do so for much the same reasons that readers of poetry read poetry: it speaks to them, it gives them pleasure, it takes them into new galleries of thought and feeling. Why would one mount a defense of experimental criticism? Let those who enjoy it, enjoy it; and as for the others, let them follow their inclinations elsewhere. I am not much interested in converting anyone to a new set of desires.
But does experimental criticism make any appeal to us, if it does not appeal to our taste? Does it lay any claim to our impartial attention as scholars? Only in this respect: that none of the ways experimental criticism suspends the professional norms of literary criticism are remotely new. Every item on the list of its demurrals is familiar from scholarly publications forty years old or older, some of them written by self-described literary critics and others simply influential in modern languages departments. Black studies refused the demand of an impersonal voice, both early and often (think of Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.) Donna Haraway, in “Situated Knowledges,” called for the deliberate placement of one’s view in a limited perspective. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, organized a theory of photography around the idiosyncratic importance one detail in a photograph, the punctum, might have for the observer. Stanley Cavell, with his account of the critical act as one of acknowledgment and not knowledge-making, treated criticism as an act of poetic making. A different set of examples could easily be substituted. In another context, with more space and time, it might be possible to sketch out a disciplinary history that would show how, from the incorporation of the amateur New Critics into the professionalizing discipline in the early twentieth century, through the area studies fields’ challenges to the neutrality of scholarly knowledge-making procedures, the literature departments of modern research universities have at every point harbored dissenters from the norms of scholarly knowledge-production. So if experimental criticism offers something for the professional critic to ponder, it might be this: that its restlessness is professional criticism’s own. Experimental critics are not the first, the only, or the last to wonder whether the form of expert writing literature departments require for credentialing is actually the one best suited to capture the forms of understanding and insight that these departments foster.
This is part of the cluster Experimental Criticism. Read the other posts here.