21 January 2007

a conversation with jeffrey deshell : part two

Lance: Do you sense something about what you think of when you say “contemporary experimental fiction” that separates it from the experimentalisms of, say, the 1960s? The 1760s? What, I mean to ask, makes the experimental experimental for you in 2007 that might not have made it experimental in 1907?

Jeffrey: These are indeed thorny questions. Let me begin by clarifying just a bit. The questioning I’m talking about has to happen on many different levels—the level of writer, of text, or reader—and will (necessarily) put into play the status or existence of each. So while a mass-consumption romance novel has to ask questions about genre and marketing, these questions do not extend to a serious inquiry about the status of language, the status of the text and the status of the self. So not only do I not consider this “experimental,” I don’t even call it literature. This is probably a weak restatement of the Frenchie (Blanchot, Barthes, Derrida) distinction between work and text. This brings up a couple (at least) more questions: if we (I) exclude this, can we exclude other, more “radical” types of writing, like e-writing and hypertext? And, can realism be experimental?

I’m going to tackle the “easier” question first, the question of realism. Can realism be experimental? Can realism, the dominant mode of narrative, question itself sufficiently, genuinely, strongly, so it becomes truly self-conscious? I would argue yes, and use Flaubert as an example. On some level, Flaubert is the opposite of what we’ve termed experimental, having distilled Madame Bovary from an original of 600 odd pages to 250: now that’s some revision. This revision, if I would not call it spontaneous or improvisational, I would still call self-conscious. He’s the one who first articulated the desire to write a book about Nothing. What marks Flaubert’s realism as experimental or literary is his irony, his ruthless (self) distance. Irony is what separates “good” questioning realism (Flaubert) from “bad” reactionary realism (Franzen).

One could argue that it is irony which is the quality that determines experimentalism, as one (text, writer, reader) needs self-distance in order to be self-conscious. It’s impossible to say if irony precedes self-consciousness, or if self-consciousness preceded irony, although they are not identical. I think Wendy Steiner would place irony fully in the modernist sublime camp. And wasn’t there a discussion going around a couple of years ago about the death of irony? Some sort of post-irony?

It’s hard to say that irony is the necessary ingredient to experimental fiction, however, because as de Man reminds us, there can be no theory of irony because irony is the interruption of theory. So we have to take each case separately, and maybe we’ll find a quality these works have in common, and maybe this thing will be called irony rather than self-consciousness, or maybe it will be called something else.

Now, the trickier question of e-writing. Quickly and simply, I would not put e-writing into this category of literature that questions itself. I say this for 2 reasons, which really might be more than two, but really might be one as well. Let me begin by asking this question: is e-writing a radically different form of writing? If you say yes (as Tomasula’s excellent post seems to indicate, a post deserving of a separate response), then how can both the pros and cons of the medium be part of the work? In everything I’ve come across in my (admittedly limited) reading on the subject, why is it that there’s very little questioning of the value or project of doing this at all? What is lost in the demand that one “think in terms of screens, chunks, or blocks of text that would fit on a notecard”? What is lost in the expectation that the work “have a sound track, move around”? Why isn’t the questioning of (the value of) technology part of (most) work? He implies an ideology of progress that I’m uncomfortable with. Can technology itself be self-questioning? I don’t think so.

If you answer the other way, that e-writing is simply another form of writing, and that language is platform neutral, then I would ask what does the machine add to the experience of language? In other words, isn’t all text hypertext, in that references and signifieds are open-ended, multiple and personal? Don’t we all have multiple, uncontrollable, textual links, every time we read? And how dare you control how my links function, where they go. And unless you’re going to link (I’m unfamiliar with the vocabulary) every single word, aren’t you still working within a hierarchy of directed manipulation? I have a similar complaint against hybrids, or fiction with pictures, soundtracks, etc. It reminds me of MTV. I don’t want a video to limit the images I get from language or music. This is not to say that such work is invalid, or uninteresting, or not as radical as it claims. It is to suggest, however, that it doesn’t possess the irony or self-consciousness necessary for what I’ve termed literature Electronic literature is a contradiction in terms. I know we disagree on this, so I’d like to hear how and why you classify these hybrids and/or e-writing as experimental.

I’m sympathetic to what both you and Tomasula call difficult work, work that isn’t resolved by a single or even multiple readings. And difficulty, contradiction, ambivalence, complexity etc. can come in many forms: there are as many ways to be self-conscious as there are selves.

You’ve asked me how experimentalism might differ today from other times. I was going to think about this in terms of irony, but if we even go back to the 1970’s and 80’s, how do we define writers like Federman, Sukenick, Hawkes et al.? I mean, the ironic Hawkes of Travesty is quite different from the mawkish Hawkes of Blood Oranges, and Sukenick, Katz, Coover et al., well, their irony is hard to pin down (maybe Roberson can chime in here). And all of our irony today isn’t subversive or complex: metacommercials are rather popular, as was Seinfeld. It seems much of today’s irony is used to reinforce the status quo, to abstract or detach the ego or self from the game, which is the opposite of the questioning I’m interested in.

So how are we different? I guess I would say that women are more fully represented now than they’ve ever been. It was possible, although ignorant, to talk about experimental fiction in 1960’s and 70’s (let alone the 1760’s and 70’s) without mentioning any women, while now, even the most superficial discussion has to include Acker, Maso, Tillman, Caponegro et al. And Stein, Barnes, and others have been mainstreamed to a certain extent. So yeah, I’d say that’s important.

There seem to be a lot more avenues for disseminating fiction than there were even 5 or 10 years ago, with places like Chiasmus, Starcherone, Akashic etc. This is certainly a good thing. There’s a lot of good work coming out now, of all different kinds, with all different presuppositions and concerns. At the same time, there’s a certain despair over how quality writing has become marginalized, neutered, rendered irrelevant. This is what now Tomasula calls “a diminishment in the appreciation of poetics.” I would argue that this diminishment is not unrelated to a general devaluation what I’ve called the peculiarity of literature: if all (textual) experience is equal and similar, if a video can do the same thing as a written story, then interesting and complex texts, perhaps the most interesting and complex texts, will get ignored.

One of the differences, which I hinted at in my Steiner response, is that I do believe that while writing of fiction has remained healthy, the critical apparatus for innovative fiction has certainly broken down. Under this rubric I would include review mechanisms, as well as more academic criticism and theory. There’s so very little of it, and much of what is written sometimes isn’t very smart. I do think we need full-time critics who know what they’re doing who care about such writing. Actually the word “need” is perhaps a bit strong. We’ll keep doing what we do, I suspect, regardless. These points are certainly not exhaustive, but are maybe places to start.

Lance: I’m not sure I wholly agree with your suggestion that it is irony that separates “’good’ questioning realism (Flaubert) from ‘bad’ reactionary realism (Franzen).” This is not so much because I disagree with your sense of irony as a mode of self-distancing consciousness, but because my sense is that irony has beaten at the heart of the novel genre from its inception, whether that genre has engaged in so-called “realistic” practices or not. I’m thinking, for example, of Cervantes’s use of acidic irony toward the romance tradition in Don Quixote, Sterne’s toward the novel genre itself and its assumptions in Tristram Shandy.

But I’d rather focus momentarily on the word “realism” in your equation and ask if perhaps we should think of “realism” as one of the least mimetic forms extant, suggest that the real “realism” is the one embraced by the fast fractures and radical destabilizations we see taking place throughout recent literary history in experimental fiction, the sort we find, in other words, evincing itself at the rise of modernism and carrying on through postmodernism into whatever we want or don’t want to label our current alternative aesthetic impulses. Isn’t it experimental fiction, in its varieties and vagaries, that is most seriously involved with, as Lyotard put it, trying to present the unpresentable, the flux we think of as contemporary existence? Isn’t experimental fiction the kind most committed to giving us a sense of what “reality” feels like, and isn’t the traditional “realism” of, say, a Stendhal or Zola, with its coherent subjectivities, arced plotlines, transparent stylistics, and comfortable moralities, the opposite of that?

You’re right that I tend to disagree with you, as well, in your assertion that “electronic literature is a contradiction in terms.” I should begin, though, by underscoring how much unsuccessful e-writing is out there, how much of it is produced either by visual artists who have no sense of language, or language artists who have no sense of the visual, or perhaps “artists” who simply like to see things move on a screen and go bang in the night, or practitioners who don’t seem to be aware that, with barely two decades of exploration behind them, they are still working in the infancy of a new mode of expression. That said, the most interesting examples do by their very presence pose the question: what is fiction in general, what is e-fiction in particular, and what, if any, is the relationship between the two? I’m thinking of e-writers like Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, and Young-Hae Chang, who have produced fascinating work that continuously challenges its own processes while presenting us with textual events we simply haven’t experienced before, don’t quite know how to read yet, how to talk about. They thereby insist that all of us writers push farther, even if we decide not to venture into electronica.

What you have to say about contemporary experimentalism(s) differing from past experimentalism(s) resonates deeply with me. I might only add that I sense over the last ten or fifteen years a certain political urgency having entered the discourse of experimental prose that maybe wasn’t there to quite such an extent in the modernist or even early postmodernist projects. Of course even as I write that line I can name exceptions: Dos Passos, the Dadaists, Burroughs, Pynchon, Sukenick. Still, I tend to think of many modernists as being quite content to stand back paring their fingernails along with Joyce—which, in a sense, leads me to my next question: how do you respond to the charges that much experimental fiction is elitist, that, at the end of day, if our conversation is any indication, one needs an advanced degree to talk about it?

Jeffrey: I would definitely agree with you that irony has “beaten at the heart” (nicely put) of the novel since its conception: I was arguing that its presence in what we term realism differentiates it from a na├»ve or sentimental realism, what could be argued as the dominant mode of narrative, the realism that works to reinforce preconceptions and habits rather than works to question them.

I would also agree, up to a point (because I think I see where you’re going with this), about how realism, with a small ‘r,’ tries to (re-)present or articulate the contemporary world in all its destabilized forms, all its vicissitudes and variables. Flannery O’Connor argued that we are all realists, and in this sense, it’s hard to disagree. What else can we do but represent the world as we (want to) experience it? But if we push this, then there are as many realities as there are participants. What might be contemporary to me might not be contemporary to you, or what might be positive in contemporary life to me might be negative to you.

Representation is never objective, and so one constantly takes a position on what one is representing. And by “taking a position” I mean “putting oneself in play.” And putting oneself into play can be a way of resistance, or a way of celebration, or something else entirely. To be more precise, this putting oneself into play, what we’ve called irony or self-consciousness, simultaneously detaches and involves, abstracts and questions. This is key, more fundamental than mimesis. If we take mimesis, even a formal mimesis, as the ultimate objective, then we are no different from Zola and Stowe, or from Franzen and Drabble. Just because we live in an e-chamber pop-culture wild wired world does not mean we should reflect, without irony, that world. I’m remnded of a Bernhard quote: If we do not constantly exist against, but only constantly with the facts, says Oehler, we shall go under in the shortest possible space of time.

One could argue that this irony is itself a mimesis. We live in an ironic, all-too self-conscious YouTubed MySpaced world, and so the "natural" response to such a world can’t help being ironically self-conscious. I would counter this argument by saying this type of irony celebrates and affirms the self rather than questions it: it is the opposite of putting oneself into play. Plus, we can’t overlook the fact that, well, writing is different.

We’re not going to agree on e-writing yet, mostly because I’m too ignorant of it to offer anything other than ill-informed platitudes.

To your last question, about politics and elitism. I agree that the political situation of the world is so pressing that to ignore it seems irresponsible. The fact that the political situation of the world has always been pressing is really beside the point. We have to ask ourselves, individually, if a previous reaction, say the modernist one (as if there is a single modernist reaction) of silence, exile and cunning is appropriate or adequate for us. For many (most?), I expect that it’s not.

What can fiction do, then? I would like to make a distinction, first of all, between discussions of politics and discussions of power. Now obviously the two are inseparable, but they’re not indistinguishable. We can think of politics as relations between people, and, like aesthetics, politics in this sense is closely tied to choices, choices how we live our lives and how we compose our works. Here, fiction CAN affect, in direct and oblique ways, in immediate and mediated ways, the other(s). The danger of this, of course, is that art and life decay into solipsism and selfishness, where the authentic choices of how to live and how to make art are obliterated or eclipsed by mere consumer choices (Ford or Chevy, Miller or Bud). But ideally, and hopefully, by reading a provocative and self-conscious work, where the choices are imaginative, dangerous and, well, right, one can learn to make similar imaginative, dangerous and right choices in living. That’s the hope.

I’m not sure how art, or experimental literature, can directly affect discourses of power. Other than make the reader question the "naturalness" of power discourse through politics (choice, as defined above), the contest seems one-sided. I think of Genet or Sade as the most possible examples, but I can’t see how even they directly and successfully challenged the power structures of their times. I don’t think fiction, literature in general, is that efficacious at directly confronting and changing discourses or structures of power. What it can do, however, is perhaps, in the long run, more powerful, in that it can show a) how we are interconnected through the choices we make, b) that these choices, whether they be aesthetic or political, are important and c) that the easy choices are often not the best, that one needs imagination to truly make good choices. But this might be Pollyanna-like here, perhaps a rationalization of my own emphases.

As for the elitism part, I won’t argue against the word, only its connotation. On the one hand, I’m fond of the Wilde quote, that Art should not try to become more popular, the public should become more artistic. The public, the masses, I can’t define those groups any more, and “reading public” seems a contradiction in terms. There are readers out there, but I have no idea how many readers are interested in what I’m interested in, or the things we’re talking about today. It reminds me of when I used to work at the campus radio station: you’d bring your records and put together a set, but as to how many people were actually listening to you, who knew? Some nights you’d get a phone call, other nights not, but you’d still try to compose a good set. I’m guessing it’s not an overly large group who is willing to put themselves into play like we’ve been talking about, but I really have no idea. A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? I’m guessing less than ten thousand. What difference does that make? What does the number of one’s readers measure?

But since elitism has so many negative (at least in this culture) connotations we need a new word. How about educated? I don’t necessarily mean university educated (although the university can be a good place for the reading and writing I’m talking about), but educated in the sense that you’ve had experience reading this type of thing before, that you’re not bothered or disturbed by reading that asks more questions than it answers, that tries to break you of habits of presupposition and safety, that forces you to interact with the text, the world and yourself imaginatively and dangerously. How is this education tied to opportunity, to class and to other economic factors that might limit it or make it impossible? I wish I knew. I’m guessing we’re more of a mandarin than elite class anyway. I mean we have very little power.

Lance: What a wonderful quote from Bernhard, Jeffrey, and I had never thought about your distinction between irony as mode of self-consciousness and—what do we call it?—a certain faux or unreflexively staged contemporary irony that’s all about jumping up and down and saying Look at me! Look at me! Look how cool and detached I am! Which, of course, is about nothing save green narcissism, the existential mode du jour, and hardly about revelation or revolution. A mode, by the way, that jibes nicely with the one you describe in which democratic choice has become bastardized into the right to download whatever songs you deem fit from iTunes. This is late-stage capitalism in democracy’s clothing, and people are falling for it more than ever, I'm afraid.

Ben Marcus argues provocatively in his by now well-known piece on experimental fiction in Harper’s that the “true elitists in the literary world” are the ones who evince “a hostility toward the poor common reader, who should never be asked to do anything that might lead to a pulled muscle.” But what, I wonder, constitutes a “common” reader? A bus driver in Baltimore? An innovationist in Indiana or India? The bland (if ever amorphous) bourgeois whom many of the early avant-garde movements sought to harass? And what sort of textual aerobics might lead her or him to pull a muscle?

In its
Human Development Report 2000, the U.N. defines illiteracy as the inability to read or write a simple message, and reports that 90 million children worldwide are denied any sort of schooling, 232 million any sort of secondary education, and that one billion adults are illiterate through and through. Is that really what we mean when we say illiteracy? Is that the only kind? In 2004, as I mentioned earlier on this blog, the N.E.A. questioned 17,000 American adults about their reading preferences and habits. The survey discovered that since 1982 there has been a loss of roughly twenty million readers—a number that represents a ten percent drop in readership—and that reading rates are declining among all demographic groups regardless of gender, ethnicity, education, age or income level, with the steepest decline in the youngest groups—i.e., those between 18-24 and 25-34, respectively. Of those surveyed, 95.7 percent said they preferred watching television to reading, 60 percent attending a movie, 55 percent lifting weights.

In light of such news, to what extent aren’t all readers “elitists,” the very existence of written texts “radical” and “disruptive” … while, ironically, increasingly anachronistic and pointless with respect to the culture at large, to any real “revolution”? To what extent do such statistics reduce all queries concerning “elitism” and “innovation” to ethically challenging if ultimately unenlightening drills in semantics?


One way, it occurs to me, that we might define most, if not all, contemporary experimental fiction is to say it is that sort of writing shot through with a theoretical intelligence—a self-reflexive, difficult, often contradictory critifictional awareness. In a sense, this is no more than an extension, I think, of your use of the notion of irony. Whether or not that’s generally the case, it strikes me as the case in an important and illuminating way with respect to your own project. Which theorists and/or philosophers (if you sense a difference between the two terms) most inform your writing?

part three of this conversation
coming soon . . .