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.
Lectures given in 2022 and published in 2052. Introduction written in spring 2052.
Free University of Massachusetts
Yes, the celestial bodies of subversive discourse—the radical satellites that orbited Capital’s incessant tensions, that maintained their ellipse through continuous strain, that magnetized more and more subjects, establishing a spiral, gaining force, pitching toward the progressive polestar—these heavenly spheres traced a course far from the walls of the academy. Yes, as the waters of revolution ebbed and flowed, as its waves grew fat and crashed upon the rocks of right-wing orthodoxy, critical theory and literary criticism proceeded far away on their own unaffected trajectories. Yes, our New City has found little need for scholarly posturing except in the realm of burlesque. Yes, to study any text associated with the private, corporatized universities of the early 21stcentury is not to mobilize insurgent speech.
But even ancient astrologers understood the planets as signifying, rather than affecting, worldly affairs. As every material act inscribes a certain impression on our human collectivity, it is our political and ethical task to plot each little, supposedly insignificant star upon the map of the entire historical night sky. To perceive our revolutionary past, to grasp its genesis and thereby realize the conditions for perpetual revolution, we must set our sights on structural totality. The task of introducing this obscure series of lectures on the film Call Me By Your Name, given at Harvard University during the academic semester of spring 2022, presents the opportunity for more than an analysis of content: it incites the drive for an anthropology of ourselves.
To speak of the epoch now thirty years past is to track civic changes so profound and so concurrent that they seem to have followed a design. By the middle of 2020, the tacit facts of social life were already in the process of being rewritten. As in times before, in the wake of a prior pandemic, the signification of sex had first deepened and then expanded. Then, as now, a moment of bodily proximity, flesh upon flesh, whether on a bed or surrounding a stage, would represent more than an effect of that sad human gravity that congregates circumspect bodies—who before wandered outside and alone—together, as if to share their warmth. Many have already written about how COVID-19 solidified the assumed existential barrier between inner and outer. The recognition of our own viral porousness did not at first endear us to the empathic universal drama in which we all played an integral role; rather, it hardened the space of ourselves, made us uneasy around others, and most often, left us lonely. (Similarly, the incessant self-narration and dissociative hyperreality characterizing social media failed to engender deep communication or even lasting distraction.) In such rare in-person scenes, one would expect to observe an overriding affective state overwhelmed with fear and its accompanying umbra, isolation.
Still, every moment of intentional closeness could become a juncture, a possibility. With a crowd, we could always anticipate some combination of erudition and analysis, inspiration and provocation. So, to evoke the distinct psychic structures in this lecture hall, we must include alongside the usual human weariness, the desire for diversion, and the unspoken academic hope for the mind’s self-transcendence, a multitude of simultaneous preceding calculations, a series of self-reckoning assessments made by every present individual, which would surely imbue the space with an air of reverence and theological longing. Everyone could, perhaps they should, have stayed home among their own virtual collections. They would have expected something of their efforts and thus acted as the anachronistic builders of an academic Tower of Babel: almost aware of their inevitable failure but almost revolutionary in their placing at the pinnacle—highest, with the furthest to fall—their perilously exalted speaker.
For we could argue that by the time of these lectures the general faith in the written word had already begun to crack beneath the acknowledged and unnamed exigencies of the Internet. When this last pandemic began, books—whether critical tracts, high literature, or beach reads—signified the silence and privacy of the home, a synecdoche for the seclusion of one’s own mind. Locked down in our libraries, we realized that in the thickets of the written word, authors hide for a time to create an echo-effect throughout the town they surround, choosing to reveal themselves only sometimes—and only when the right moment arrives—as naked, disguised, or behind some other sort of veil. In a time of impossible escapism, books hemmed us and bound us in. Augustinian dialogue, although still discursive, became our craving. For while speech and writing might chip darkly away at the same human stone, the advantage of speech would be that it orients the miner toward fresh air, whereas writing digs further into its own subterranean city. When stuck inside our rooms so small we could not deny their cramped materiality, even in spirit, we understood how an echoing effect often arises from capacious chambers that are, in fact, dead ends.
Long ago, psychoanalysis elucidated how speaking—in our daily lives, as in a lecture—forces us to feel the shape and weight of our words, which seemed smooth and flat upon a page or alluringly backlit in our minds; in either case, when spoken, we come to realize their substance and sting. Upon the academic lectern, the podium that could resemble a political stump, a pulpit, a dissection table, or a witness stand, the lecturer presented oneself and the performative facts of one’s speech, enacting at base the essential and original “auto-theoretical” scene. (“Auto-theory,” if you remember, was that erstwhile appellation whose genre at best accentuated what was always the case: the constructed subject’s incongruity with constructed “theory,” and the interwovenness inevitable in attempted partitions.) The writing subject before took refuge in the vast periphery of the “secret”. In the lecture, they stood before their audience pale and unkempt, a little tramp without their trappings, and still tried to put on a show.
I mean that there were always greater expectations and investments for real-time recitations. And at this time, everyone in the room literally put their bodies at risk to achieve the indubitable assembly of a collective. Even before this pandemic, academic lectures were processions of institutional affiliation and spectacles of the university’s excessive consumption. They were performative sites reaffirming the humanities’ precarious prestige, which required the assiduous conviction of the orator as much as the compliant presence of the audience. Back then, analyses of writing tended to assert an agent and an object, but the lecture-scene is obviously an exhibition enacted by both speaker and listener, wherein the latter’s rapt attention or straying gaze were variations upon their essential role, to which our speaker—for his part—must remain responsive. This is to say that the idealist theories of dialogic engagement between the reader and the text become palpable in person. The arena of the lecture fires the floodlights upon the whole theater. Audience-members might see the stage’s elaborate scaffolding; they might decipher the rigging of this concerted Ship of Fools. In other terms, the latent sensation of the inequitable and superannuated social structure in the literary academy only prodded us when we read, and, in person, pierced us where it hurt.
If all good art compelled its audience to respond, then writing was the partner who first spoke love on a train platform, before disappearing forever, in the next moment, among the whistles and crowds and engine smoke… and the lecture was that train delayed just before its departure.
Such is the form, the social framework, the powerful circuit of the academic lecture through which our speaker conveyed aesthetic and theoretical experience. In service of editorial humility, I will not provide the usual overview of the text you will soon read. The length of these lectures, despite their discursivity, does not prevent a contemporary reader from diving in, straightaway. And one will find that these talks contain in themselves the explanations and architectonics that were once expected of a “critical introduction.” Readers will not require an etymological dictionary to understand the central terms (“desire,” “love,” and their angelic train) and float upon the text’s surface, plunging deep whenever they wish. So too, the anxieties and arguments about suspicious criticism and its suspicious critics, about “modernity” and its malaise (defined by that foregone romantic assertion of “secularization”) will not demand extra-textual study.
Our speaker—a man, white, mid-30s, having just achieved the prerevolutionary paradise of tenure in the humanities—seems identifiable foremost by his actualization of parodic tropes. As an undergraduate, the introductory texts of literature and queer theory—arguing for a right way to read, a right way to desire—spoke to his sense of erotic uncertainty. He followed the then interminable academic trajectory through graduate education, leaning further into esoteric debates of queer “negativity” versus “optimism.” His first manuscript was on the medieval letters of the philosopher Abelard and his student Heloise, illicit lovers who turn—Abelard happily, after his castration, Heloise obligingly, given her persistent desires—to monastic communities. Our speaker’s ars academica, provided near the end of his manuscript’s introduction, sounds closer to a paean inspired by Deleuze and Guattari than a tract on historical Christianity:
As a scholar of queer sexualities, I am reluctant to speak of “ends.” My academic training has attuned me, rather, to textual practices of elongation, suspension, the movement of fragments and unfinished “arabesques,” pleasurable style instead of substance, indefinite enjoyment… also those texts that present themselves as a sequence of starts, of experimental hypotheses, introductions, or prologues oriented upward but far from their object: a series of star-bound but only suborbital flights.
Now while this first book suggested that desire itself (as incessant, frantic, consuming) is queer, subsequently, his essays eddied among such unlived generalizations. He studied the intricate Greek masculinities of agoras and symposia, then literary practices of postmodern “transgression”—the unfortunate undercurrent of these works, their real unstated contribution to the popular conception of the word “queer” then being that queer sexual experimentation could only flourish in aristocratic enclaves or on the predefined peripheries of power.
The premise of these lectures, as you will soon learn, furthered these themes while imbuing them with the anxiety endemic to those for whom writing and art—once considered Beauty, once hopefully held as Healing—has almost disappointed. Consider the following passage from our speaker’s first lecture and note its elaborate elision and labored phrases, even in its fecundity. Note its intense reticence, as if intentional, toward the erotic specificities of character-attachment that an audience might expect. “If I were to begin now,” he says, if being the operative, abjuring word,
If… I would introduce myself by saying that for a very long time, I wanted to write of the film Call Me By Your Name (which I have watched innumerable times, and which enraptured me with its beauty) and of its originating novel (which I have not yet read). I wanted to create a text that somehow expresses—but not only expresses—the desire or love I feel when I watch the film, and the desire or love that compels me toward and keeps me from the book. I wanted to communicate and explore the almost objectless nostalgic yearning that watching the film instilled, and how (and at one time why) these feelings leaned toward the desire for writing some text, which too became increasingly objectless, nostalgic, and yearning.
In short, he hopes to write
a devotional text; a eulogistic, panegyrical text; a text oriented both toward an impulse of wholeness (to approximate the film’s sanctity) and toward an impulse of fragmentation (to approximate the writing subject in love); a text suffused with the film’s authority (to extend, elongate, and explore its desires, to interact with its meanings, to feel its contours, and to feel it again); a text essentially and emotionally attached to the film; and one recalling a whole tradition of literary expressions and explorations of love, as Dante wrote, before his Comedia, of his beloved and deceased Beatrice in La Vita Nuova.
Mark how this opening section insinuates love in its deferral, describing a set of indiscriminate emotions, instead of events, remembrance, instead of actions, even avoiding, for now, the word love itself. Mark how the narrator, otherwise insignificant, increases himself through quotation toward a universal literary agency, an aestheticized sensual subjectivity. Mark the gravity of its inconsistencies, inclining toward while contracting from closure. Mark the in-medias-res essence of “serious” desire and the authority seized in unknowing knowledge. I hope that you can already see how such questions were stretched taught for the sake of suspension, a word which connotes the condition acrobats require to cross their tightropes and, more broadly, narrative drama.
In these lectures, our speaker recognizes his love for the film but feels a compulsion—out of shame or reverence, it is not immediately clear—to speak of that love, to analyze it, to expand its reach indefinitely into his lectures while checking its influence by refusing the novel. The intention remains vague since his angst about aesthetic influence abrogates any erotic creativity. His close readings of the film elucidate what he already knows: the reparative possibility of represented beauty, the conceptual distance that such work requires. In the end, you will see, our speaker has but wants, gropes but grasps. He attempts liberation through asceticism, lauds sensuality through limitations. He celebrates the critical flight into the autobiographical as if our daily lives were not the forested undergrowth ecologically sustaining the woods of patriarchy. (A decade earlier, he might have imagined that the curve of critical theory could arc from negativity, to reparative reading, and at last to liberated action; he could not foresee the swerve of theory’s sine-wave back down toward the same ethical swamps.) Student evaluations of our speaker depict such a character. While some—invariably men—praise our speaker’s robust professorial authority, others liken him to the old-age formalists Vladimir Nabokov and Harold Bloom, describing his demeanor as morally repugnant but not, in all, disagreeable: a bit like cigar smoke, or Ernest Hemingway’s thick chest, flexed for the camera.
The film in consideration, that apparent impetus for speaking (as if this man might ever need an invitation), aligns uncannily with his prior research, and is simple enough: a university homosexual drama displaced onto the historical space of 1980s northern Italy, synthesizing philhellenism’s passion for masculine youth and modern Judaism’s self-association with errancy, whose erotic is overfull with a lacking nostalgia in the quixotic sense of the tourist. So in a very classically formalist sense, the framing of the lectures mirrors that of the film. For what was the erotic Bildungsroman, centered on the sensual life of the child, now unspoiled but soon to be infected by desire—or what is the adult projection of such a character—if not a reflection of the lectures that speak of the unspoiled desire of the film while awaiting the base consummation in the Word? What was it but an aesthetic expression of our lecturer’s favorite Kafka quotation, which he repeats like a benediction: “A cage went in search of a bird”?
We can recall too that the current subjectivity defined itself, foremost, by the sense of existing in an aftermath. The recent and unprecedented pandemic seems to be waning, and in this post-diluvian disposition, the imminent is the subject of remembrance; hope was once a thing with feathers. The former world-order, which all expected to gloriously dissolve, seems to be restored. Our speaker, then, is led by a melancholic, ghostly desire for an old disposition whose expectancy was itself negated by time. He seeks the obviously impossible, almost regrets his partial salvation. He says, “I felt helpless to his desire, whose persistence I precipitated, and under which I started to distress.” And we find the whole conceit of deferral—of desire and denial—instilled in the doubling of selfhood that the theoretical cogito requires. It mirrors the doubling of erotic male subjects. It parallels the film’s double negation that establishes passion for an unreachable past, but therein a fantastical one. As our speaker says, Elio’s line, All I needed was to reach out and touch, “expressed the impulse of either Thomas or Veronica.” These lectures, like almost all scholarship of its period, are a marker of the speaker’s wanting projection and wanting despair. They are the ideal and stereotypical employment of creative “spirit” so recognizable today as the archetype of our former vampiric market exchange.
So perhaps a brief caution is needed. Words like “desire” and “love,” although still common today, have undergone such drastic shifts of meaning and feeling—we have so extensively achieved a different economy of bodies and pleasures—that their apparent signification in these lectures might seem obscure and antiquated, a displacement of other concerns. Like the concept of God, “desire” and “love” denoted an orientation toward tomorrow; like the cross, they contrasted with the narrative blinkers oriented back to an experience and a time gone by. We must recall that theory used to assume a subject’s attachment to visual stimuli structured itself as a binary of identification, with one character, and attraction, toward another. After the revolution began, it did not take long for the metaphysical dichotomization—of wanting-to-have and wanting-to-be—to crumble in the same convulsion that cleft the rock of our heteronormative sex-gender distinction. Radical change replaced iteration. Our old paradoxical twosomes shattered.
But here, as cicadas—emerging for the first time in years—offer their entire beings to eat and to breed, our speaker exhibits a distinct, post-pandemic distress in maintaining an essentially lyric quality in approaching his own subjectivity. Remember, at this time, presence is new and so seen literally. Truth is imagined only as confession. (Speakers are expected to suffer a series of affective states while the audience sits impassive.) So prudent readers today might foresee, early on, our speaker’s disquieting explanation whereby yearning and absence, like a contagion, first infected him. Like the old common narratives, these lectures postulate love as lack, and see lack as a substance, and send us looking for its source. As readers and listeners, we were conditioned to seek intimate details and the pleasure of “finding” them. Knowledge, that which could only be confided in secret, was a captivating sight; capturing and exposing it prompted a spectacle. It was a scandalous affair one would pay to perceive. It was the killer, convicted of regicide, carted through town.
It might then seem to readers today that our speaker recognized his text’s inherent constraints. They might think that through the dramatic proliferation of doublings and parentheses our speaker intended to fracture any sense of erotic linearity. They might presume he attempted therein to defamiliarize the lecture’s scene and to reorient the audience toward the architectures of domination they were all repeating. They might assume that our speaker’s convergence of mental energy upon a film that would appear forgettable, deferring further from the original novel, was the sharpest scalpel for performing diagnostic surgery upon an audience’s malignant preconceptions about interpretive practices and art’s salvific potential.
But readers today will notice how our speaker addresses the audience as if an unidentifiable authority were keeping a record and comparing the facts; our speaker has not yet embraced the inconsistencies inherent in language to enact revolutionary speech. Readers will see a persistence toward ascertaining subjectival certainty through “queer” desire; our speaker has not yet recognized the self—especially in daily life—as the field for experimental and subversive erotic variability. To be sure, these qualities lie latent in the following lectures: churning, even simmering, but not yet to the brim. Nothing overflows, and we might say that the tone, if not the logic, is purely apophatic… and so replete with apparent self-consciousness and an intentional attitude of irony. Yet we know that contemplation and self-awareness precipitate change only sometimes. The reader of these lectures might find themselves frustrated by the stickiness through which it seems the audience must wade, among the muck once called “reason,” then “heteronormativity” then “postmodern solipsism,” then, unfortunately, an “aesthetic tradition.”
Let us leave aside the historian’s question of what hopes were first placed in the protraction of scholastic theory (for, as Lacan once said, “One does not need the plan of an apartment to bang one’s hand against the walls”). The easy critiques of scholarship’s intentional linguistic belatedness, the spectral anachronism of academic parlance, acting at best as a “luxury language” (much as opera was once called a “luxury art”), styling the articulation of abstracted experience: these critiques should be understood and accepted. So too should we recognize that the dialectic between queer optimism and pessimism, the passion of the philosophical interplay between speech and writing became possible, and operative, only in a particular context, among a particular class, and with a degree of material alienation.
The overall forms of meaning, the narrative arcs governing our arguments, bear far more importance than any linguistic concern. We must ask ourselves why we all, individually, found ourselves yoked to this language, to till the academic field, and why we desired it. (Because in truth, we have always spoken obliquely, we academics. To think we once blamed Derrida for our derealization, as if our language, our logic, or our canons could have ever truly held water.) For instance, an auto-theoretical lecture possessed the aura of a blessed synthesis for those who sought “life” in academia. It was difficult then to discern how the eclipsing of all non-academic living signified the conquest of capital’s incessant, disciplinary spread. “Literature” for us inevitably incorporated an apostolic quality, fulfilling a pastoral role, whose ethical valence could be inferred not only from how the word “hieratic” sounds so much like “hierarchic”; not only how the pastoral metaphor implies a self-realization in knowing love and a self-sacrifice in offering it; not only how Oscar Wilde once said, “It takes a thoroughly selfish age, like our own, to deify self-sacrifice”; but all of these ideas, along with the audience’s subordinate dependency that the metaphor both assumes and entails. Our speaker undeniably holds this bygone faith. But while working within the scholarly realm, he also seems to suspect that the available genres of academic criticism can only abide in the conjectural, or that, at least, speculation is their easiest orientation. Then, it seems, he cannot really inhabit mourning, or joy, or despair (the feelings instigating the very discourse of embodiment), and it is a bounded life he portrays, and perhaps barely a “life” at all.
I will leave it to subsequent studies—if any are deemed necessary—to determine these lectures’ influence upon the local academic culture beyond which they surely did not extend. Instead, for now, I suggest that readers today attempt to recognize his stilted idiosyncrasies as signifiers for the scholar’s and the audience’s particular faiths and feelings, or to see within and beyond these labored phrases, this cotton wool of cultural capital, to the presence, even if elided, of a historical humanity. Beyond every veil seemingly intentionally imposed, readers today might still see how out of this “modern” scholar’s distinct bourgeois desperation seeps certain forms of writing that contain some element of a general despair, a black alga left on the ground after an oily substance assimilated back into the earth. Readers may see how the performance of the lectures speaks evasively, but nevertheless speaks of the loneliness surrounding the speaker like a besieging army, awaiting the time when even the reception-hall conversation must cease, for the scene was only ever ephemeral.
Here is the paradox: it was once said that the unfinished sentence is a lonely place that the writer attempts to flee as promptly as they enter it. But the concept takes its shape from the general loneliness of the world, to which the fleeing writer must return. After all, the “Proustian” elongation (the sustained searching for phrasal meaning, the prolonged deferral of eventual sorrow) illustrates the first adage, in reverse. For Walter Benjamin once attributed to Proust’s sentences a vitality, an “entire muscular activity of the intelligible body” sustaining “the whole enormous effort to raise its catch”, which, in its manic energy, both veils and implicitly expresses a deeper despair. Our speaker seems to labor with both conjectures in mind, and one might claim that such writing achieves a mimesis of modern thought. Yet “Thinking,” Benjamin said, “is eminently narcotic.” (We must remember to read these lines descriptively, not prescriptively.) “Not to mention that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.”
Kafka: Franz Kafka, Aphorisms, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 16.
Lacan: Jacques Lacan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan, Book VIII: Transference, translated by Cormac Gallagher, published by Jacques Lacan in Ireland, http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/, 177
Wilde: Oscar Wilde, Intentions, London: Methuen and Co, 1913.
Benjamin: Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
This is part of the cluster Experimental Criticism. Read the other posts here.