Experimental Criticism / Questionnaire Answers / Paul Saint-Amour

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 Paul Saint-Amour is below.

—Beth Blum

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I don’t think of myself as an experimental critic through-and-through; I’m a critic who experiments now and again by departing from what I take to be the conventions of scholarship in literary studies. If this kind of experimentalism sounds like zombie modernism, I’d observe that most of my critical off-roading hasn’t attempted to make declamatory or rarefied innovations in scholarly form. Instead, it has borrowed moves and cadences from popular genres. “Soliloquy of Samuel Roth: A Paranormal Defense” is framed as the transcript of the late Roth’s communication, via Ouija board, with a spirit medium. The device allowed me to imagine how the infamous author, publisher, and pirate might have responded, from beyond the grave, to his reputation as one of the persecutor-villains in James Joyce’s career. “An Interlude: We Have Never Been Modernists” uses the premise and contours of alternate-history fiction to comment, both playfully and seriously, on the consequential arbitrariness of how period-based subfields are configured in our discipline. Both of these pieces tried to connect affectively and cognitively with readers by way of an indirection of critical voice, the first ventriloquizing a historical figure and the second a parallel-universe self. But criticism that harnesses popular or everyday genres can also allow for vocal modulations toward directness, or at least the impression of direct address—witness Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Juno Richards’s The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism.1 It’s possible that experiments such as theirs or my much smaller attempts are just anomalies that consolidate literary criticism’s genre system. But these days we’re seeing a number of signs—the present questionnaire included—that an opening up of that system is underway.

Jonathan Kramnick has recently centered a discussion of method in literary studies around the craftwork of close reading, especially “the practice of placing language from the text one is discussing inside the sentence one is writing in such a way that accommodates the formal economy of each.”2 If in-sentence quotation is indeed a central aspect of our method, then placing constraints on the sentence one is writing will affect method by changing the mutual accommodation of one’s prose and the material it quotes. I felt the truth of this in writing “The Literary Present,” the one piece of mine that explicitly experiments as to technique rather than genre. It’s also the only arguably modernist piece I’ve written. Like the lipograms Oulipo borrowed from the ancient Greeks, it embargoes the use of a common element of the language—not a letter, as in the lipogram, but a verb tense. Having to mortise in-sentence and indented quotations (both of which I exempted from the embargo) to prose written in any tense but the simple present meant reckoning with an altered temporal mechanics of quotation. Gone was the convention that acts of textual, authorial, and critical enunciation take place in an eternal present; gone, too, the concomitant fiction that text, author, and critic are all contemporaries in that eternal present. The experiment taught me that constraints on craft can produce changes in other registers of a piece of writing—in its construction of the temporal scene of reading, for example, or in its tone, which, in literary analysis divested of the present tense, tends toward the rueful or valedictory.

Do such experiments need to be replicable in order for their findings to be valid? Kramnick argues in the same essay I cited above that reproducibility is not the criterion for truth in literary studies the way it is in the sciences. (“Do a reading the same way again to make sure that it yields the same result and you will appear to be losing your mind. Repeat the performance of someone else and you will be guilty of plagiarism.”3) Without claiming that experiments like the one I undertook in “The Literary Present” are valid only if reproducible verbatim, I would affirm that they’re worth repeating in spirit. That is, it’s worth experimentally constraining our conventional practices in order to stress-test them, make them revealingly unfamiliar, and open the possibility of discovering alternative practices better attuned to our needs, aims, and commitments. And by conventional practices I refer not only to the grammar and syntax of our analyses but also to our distance from our objects, our emplotments of argument, and our citational practices and communities.4

Although they’ve differed in length, device, tone, and occasion, my pieces of experimental criticism have all, in the process of getting written, brought me back to the question of efficacy. “Yes,” I’ve found myself thinking, “it turns out it’s possible to write in the genre of the séance transcript, or without using a common verb tense—but does it work?” In the scene of writing, that question can remain unasked or overshadowed by other, more inert questions (“Is it finished?” “Will they like it?”). It’s salutary, then, when some gambit or constraint to do with the techne of a piece of writing reminds you that scholarship is, among other things, a functionally communicative act. But the question of whether a piece of scholarship works as an act of communication is importantly different from the demand that it be self-emptyingly clear or exhaustive in its position-taking. Although I’ve tended to favor open-faced experiments that let the reader in on the device, one of the most resonant moves experimental criticism can make is to gesture toward what it declines, in the same gesture, to make explicit. Criticism, in other words, may be subject to withholding. Such gestures can be merely coy or sly, but they can also mark the limits of the critic’s certainty or self-conversance. They can offer an alternative to the manifesto’s tactics of enunciation and self-exposure. And they can invite readers into a more sustained engagement with a piece that might include taking up the work it leaves unfinished. As Paul Mann writes toward the end of “The Nine Grounds of Intellectual Warfare,” one of my favorite pieces of experimental criticism, “There are many more than nine grounds, but the rest are secret.”5

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

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  1. Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Juno Richards, The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).
  2. Jonathan Kramnick, “Criticism and Truth,” Critical Inquiry 47 (Winter 2021): 221.
  3. Ibid., 239.
  4. In the last of these cases, I have in mind Sara Ahmed’s description, in her introduction to Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017), of her policy of not citing any white men in the book so as no longer to “conflate the history of ideas with white men” (16).
  5. Paul Mann, “The Nine Grounds of Intellectual Warfare,” Postmodern Culture 6.2 (January 1996): n.p.