Experimental Criticism / Questionnaire Answers / Charles Bernstein

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 answers sent by Charles Bernstein are below.

—Beth Blum

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What does “experimental criticism” mean to you?

I don’t much like the term “experimental” for inventive or nonconforming criticism or poetics, though I appreciate that much of the work I do, and admire, is so characterized. I prefer something closer to Jason Zuzga’s “knowledge-in-process writing.” I had a conversation at Rutgers with Stephanie Burt on this topic years ago. Somewhat comically, we reversed positions: Burt advocated the experimental though for all intents and purposes is agin. My talk was called “Subject to Change: Experience as Experiment,” and that Emersonian turn reflects a way in which experiment might be viewed as essay: to try out. In this sense, I’d say the humanities is an experiment or that America is; but my essays are research and development, what I like to call pataquerical. I rarely experiment, but I do often write with an aversion to the straitjacket of professionalization in the pursuit of possibility and the acknowledgment of contingency. I am currently working on a book I plan to call The Kinds of Poetry I Want: Scraps–Scrapes–Screeds–Screams, which includes “95 Theses,” first presented at a panel on “Aversive Prose,” convened by Eric Keenaghan and Josephine Park at Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania in  2016 (published in MLA’s Profession). The panel title came from a graduate seminar I led in 2015, which presented an abbreviated history of exceptional and aversive approaches to essays and discursive prose (upper-limit poetry / lower-limit manifestos).

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’s the argument? Who said that?

I am not against scholars writing in highly conventional, professionalized ways. My criticism has to do with limiting “legitimate” scholarship to any one “correct” approach, something rarely questioned in required dissertation writing workshops, given, for one thing, that they are not optional. The form of the “argument” is not the only way to write a dissertation and the dissertation proposal is only useful if it is recognized as provisional, as something necessary to rethink at each stage in writing process. The suppression of stylistic self-consciousness comes from a sense that aesthetic concerns interfere with “argument” rather than being the foundation for stylistic choice.

I am for “critical imagination and imaginative intelligence,” as Paul Bové puts it in Love’s Shadow.

The literary academy is too often governed by mechanisms of discipline, control, and hierarchy –– often while ostensibly critiquing discipline, control, and hierarchy. The desire — a death drive —  is to turn the humanities into pseudo-science by restricting references, styles, tones, and methods. As an equal branch of knowledge, the humanities offers a dialectical/hermeneutical alternative to science. Though the necessary work may be more unmastering knowledge than mastering it. How about dialogs, parataxis, speculation, flight of fantasy? Deduction is fine but I prefer induction and intuition. Less argument, more artifice.

For the past decades, there has been a “personal narrative” escape route from conventional scholarly impersonality. Similarly, a “poetics” path has been possible for some.

However, you greatly exaggerate the “aesthetic latitude” of contemporary literary practice, which resists aesthetic invention with a tenacity that equals that of literary criticism.

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?

For undergraduates, I always assigned a weekly commentary or informal journal entry in place of term papers and tests. The web certainly makes that easier and allows for class sharing of posts. But I don’t know if that has affected how English classes are organized.

Access to scholarly writing is too often limited the digitally privileged, while the undermasses hit paywalls asking for $25 or more to read a single article. From the first, the web promised greater access for publishing, for increasing the diversity only of those being published but the kinds of writing permitted. But to create such spaces of difference requires commitment, resources, and strong editorial vision. Such alternative spaces (sites, periodicals, and publishers) existed before the Internet and persist inside it. These spaces are always precarious.

The web is as much a “vast wasteland” as TV was when the FCC’S Newton Minnow coined that phrase. Internet prose is often, but not always and not necessarily, driven by commercial considerations that reduce it to tabloid, sensation, or endless repetition of the same factoids with slight spins. If web posts avoid the gray drone of much academic prose, they are also subject to mandatory tone and style control of their own.

Perhaps the web pushes to popularity while the literary academy pulls toward authority. But in today’s USA, popularity is the biggest authority of all (and possibly the only one). Authority, as played out in PMLA, is also a form of popularity: the most cited secondary sources become the acting canon. However, for whatever it may suffer in dullness, scholarly essays, with assiduous attention to sourcing facts and references, offer a stark alternative to the crippling, dark web of disinformation found on-line. Which is why the question of how we write is crucial not just for scholarship and art but for democracy.

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?

I go on writing the way I do for the same reason I go on living: I don’t see any viable alternatives. But I know it won’t be too long before a nonviable path opens to me. In the meantime, I will speak truth to truth as long as able.

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

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Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein is the winner of the 2019 Bollingen Prize for Near/Miss (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and for lifetime achievement in American Poetry. He is the author of Topsy-Turvy (Chicago, April 2021) and Pitch of Poetry (Chicago, 2016).