Observations, historical notes


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WHERE WE ARE NOW: A DOZEN OR SO OBSERVATIONS, HISTORICAL NOTES AND SOUNDINGS FOR A MAP OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN INNOVATIVE LITERATURE AS SEEN FROM THE INTERIOR


Steve Tomasula


Klincksieck | « Études anglaises »
2010/2 Vol. 63 | pages 215 à 227 ISSN 0014-195X
ISBN 9782252037614
DOI 10.3917/etan.632.0215
Article disponible en ligne à l'adresse :



https://www.cairn.info/revue-etudes-anglaises-2010-2-page-215.htm



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Steve TOMASULA
Where We Are Now:
A Dozen or So Observations, Historical Notes and Soundings for a Map of Contemporary American Innovative Literature as Seen from the Interior

  1. What was great about the fi fties is that for one brief moment…nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened.” —Morton Feldman



  1. A Brief Moment (Redux)




Composer Morton Feldman was describing a moment when a visitor to Robert Rauschenberg’s studio was able to buy a painting for the money in his pocket—$16—and take it home tied to the roof of his car, because nobody really knew if this new style of painting was art or junk. He was describing the state of visual art in the wake of Duchamp’s Fountain: the urinal hung in a gallery that asked why isn’t this art too?—and in answer precipitated the fl ood of means, materials, and methods that would remake the art world in the image(s) of abstract expressionism, earth art, perform- ance art and a host of other forms loosely grouped under the rubric “con- ceptual.”
Enter most art galleries today, and the view of contemporary society you’ll nd is less likely to be expressed by a realistic painting of a Parisian cafe than a work like “Alba,” the rabbit genetically engineered to glow green. Instead of casting history as a bronze general on a horse, it’s more likely to take the form of “1,000 Hours of Staring,” a blank piece of paper that the artist stared at for a thousand hours to imbue with a history, the way a cheap, ordinary pen becomes museum worthy because of the history attached to it, say, by having been in the pocket of an astronaut on the moon. That is, today, mainstream visual art IS conceptual art: art where the concept or ideas informing it are at least as important as the work itself, art whose form calls attention to these ideas, the actual subject.
Steve TOMASULA, Where We Are Now: A Dozen or So Observations, Historical Notes and Soundings for a Map of Contemporary American Innovative Literature as Seen from the Interior, ÉA 63-2 (2010) : 215-227. © Klincksieck.

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Feldman also could have been describing a moment that seems to have arrived 75 years later, in the literary arts, for we too, authors, critics and readers, seem to be living through a sea change.


    1. What is Innovative about Innovative Lit? (Part I: The Short Answer)




Nothing.


    1. What is Innovative about Innovative Lit? (Part II: The Long Answer)




Depends. Variously called experimental, conceptual, avant-garde, OuLiPo, hybrid, surfi ction, fusion, radical, slip-stream, avant-pop, post- modern, self-conscious, alternative, anti- or new literature, “innovative” literature seems unhappily named. Unlike the sonnet or Bildungsroman, no term seems to describe its many faces partly because the terms themselves are as historically bound as the works they seek to describe. Like “love,” it is easier to say what innovative literature isn’t than what it is and so….


    1. What Innovative Literature Isn’t




There’s probably no need to rehearse here the conglomeration of com- mercial book publishing and selling in the ‘80s other than to note the ho- mogenizing effect that this chain-store or “Hollywood” approach to the publishing and selling of books had on American literature: the backdrop of “non-innovative” writing against which “innovative” writing can be seen.


    1. What is Innovative Literature? (Part I)




Anyone who steps away from the bestseller lists can see that the literary landscape beyond its commercial walls is just as wild and lawless as that of visual art, just as varied, just as conceptual: novels in the form of dioramas; stories told as recipes, poems in skywriting or genetic code, pixels, skin—as well as print and sound—carriers of language with the strangeness authors have always given ordinary speech in order to transform it into art.
In fact, this strangeness, or unfamiliarity, may be the very core of what makes writing literature, and pushed to its boundaries, what makes lit- erature conceptual, a term that seems to be more inclusive for the kinds of writing that are called innovative. To paraphrase critic Gerald Bruns, conceptual writing is “made of language but not of what we use language to produce: meanings, concepts, propositions, descriptions, narratives, ex- pressions of feeling, and so on. It’s not that conceptual writing excludes these things; it’s that the writings we call conceptual [or innovative] are no longer in their service.” In this way, authors can be like painters once photography freed them from their service to document historical events, or create life-like portraits. The clowns of both Shakespeare and Beckett understand this, undermining the pragmatic literalness of their masters’

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speech. As suggested by Steve McCaffery’s “The White Pages,” an exhaus- tive, performative reading of headings in the Toronto Phone Book (http:// www.nd.edu/~ndr/backissu.html), it’s hard for a functional street map, di- rectory, or urinal to be read as art. It is only by disconnecting the pipes of these “texts” that they can become symbolic. It is only by making them useless that they can, paradoxically, become useful—useful in a different sense—not as urinal, map, or phone directory, but as rhetoric. As art.


    1. “I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry.”


—John Cage




    1. What Is Innovative Literature (Part II)




Against this broader literary background, a few family resemblances shared by those works called “innovative writing” emerge: foremost, today’s innova- tive writing isn’t so much new in the sense of the historical avant-garde’s man- tra—Sweep away yesterday’s literature!—as it is concerned with articulating contemporary thought through means thought artful, literary. In this circular sense, it stands in relation to mainstream literature as conceptual visual art stands to visual art as craft, commercial product, collective memory or iden- tity, decoration, therapy, or any of the other uses to which art is put. That is, innovative/conceptual writing shares an ethos with contemporary thought, especially contemporary philosophy, theory, linguistics, or historiography (see Brian Evenson’s Altmann’s Tongue, an exploration of being through violence); this is a literature that often takes its own medium as part of its subject mat- ter (see Craig Dworkin’s Parse, a line-by-line conversion of a grammar book into its own grammatical system); or works out of assumptions, including those about literature, other than those of the status quo or mainstream (see Percival Everett’s The Water Cure, a novel that resonates in post 9-11 America for its examination through language of who has the right to torture).
If the “non-innovative” novel is genre ction, or even the traditional “mirror traveling down the road of life,” as Stendhal characterized what we’ve come to think of as the traditional novel with its emphasis on authen- ticity, craft, transparency of language, sentiment, and the text as trompe l’oeil, the innovative novel would be the novel more interested in exploring the possibilities of form, the limits of language: a type of literature sug- gested by Sterne’s Tristram Shandy that emphasizes text as a medium, the material nature of language, and the role of these materials themselves in shaping what we think we know.
Of course all of the attributes in traditional writing, such as emotional resonance, can be found to some degree in conceptual writing, and vice versa (as David Foster Wallace once noted, the ending to David Markson’s plotless and philosophical Wittgenstein’s Mistress was about as “heart- breaking” as could be found in literature). The Heart vs. Head dichotomy that traditional vs. conceptual writing (and art) is usually cast as can more

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accurately be thought of as a spectrum. Innovation in writing, as in life, is a matter of degree, a matter of emphasis. But more often than not this alternative literary tradition articulates an assumption that literary form, like form in music or visual art, both refl ects and emerges from its histori- cal moment. It implies that the conventional forms of the past are no more appropriate as contemporary expression than a minuet in a mosh pit.
That is, this is a type of literature that believes that aesthetic choices are just that—choices—not manifestations of some natural and timeless way to write. The eternal verities. Or rather, aesthetic choices are extensions of his- torical moments, that conventional form (as well as well as unconventional form), carries a viewpoint, an attitude through language and to language and to the world. It believes that literary form embodies epistemological, or ontological positions, or otherwise articulates convictions about how the world works, including the literary world. By its very nature, then, though institutions such as bookstores and publishers tend to limit the defi nition of what counts as a novel or poem, conceptual literature tends to keep these defi nitions unresolved (see chris cheek’s sound poem “How Chicken George Put the Cat Among the Pigeons” http://www.nd.edu/~ndr/backissu.html). Or at least fun and unexpected. This is a kind of literature that asks us to look again, to consider what else the text might be doing if our fi rst reac- tion, our reaction premised on past ways of reading, doesn’t seem to t the conventions we’ve been taught (indoctrinated) to read by, as might happen when rst encountering Shelly Jackson’s story in tattoos, Skin (http://in- eradicablestain.com/skin.html) or R.M. Berry’s Frank, a rewriting of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose monster is an experimental novel created by a relative of Gertrude Stein in the image of Stein’s prose. It asks us to re-read if we fi nd ourselves in the position of viewers who came upon a cubist paint- ing for the fi rst time and exclaimed—“People don’t look like that!”



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