Experimental Criticism / Questionnaire on the State of Experiment in the Discipline / 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.

The questionnaire is below.

—Beth Blum

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The Questionnaire

Will you give us an interview? We are conducting a survey on the status of scholarly risk-taking and creativity during this period of global and disciplinary turbulence. We are writing to you because you are an author whose work we read and admired in a graduate seminar at Harvard (English 297C) in the Fall of 2021 titled “Experimental Criticism.” In so doing, we understand not only the tremendous demands on your time but relatedly the qualms of scientist Francis Galton who, in 1870, described his circulating of the first questionnaire as a “daring undertaking,” given the “impossibility of foretelling whether a particular person will receive them kindly or not.”1 Nevertheless, we are hoping for a round-up of first-rate scholarly experimenters willing to spare a few moments of their day to reflect on one or more of the below prompts concerning how experiment fits into their everyday practice. Here is a chance to offer guidance, insight, and inspiration to future literary scholars yearning to try something different.

  • What does “experimental criticism” mean to you?
  • 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?
  • Why don’t we grant literary criticism the same aesthetic latitude as our literary objects? Is this distinction, in your view, a good thing?
  • 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?
  • In your experience, can institutional context operate as a productive experimental constraint? At what point does experiment become conventional? Can conventionality produce experiment?
  • 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?

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Charles Bernstein
Samuel Delany
Wai Chee Dimock
Eric Hayot
Emily Ogden
Paul Saint-Amour

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

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  1. As quoted in Evan Kindley’s Questionnaire (Bloomsbury 2016), 9.
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.