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Writing that reveals a high type of discovery is literature.—William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon, editorial note, Contact, 19211
ContactIt’s the secretIt’s the momentWhen everything happens—Introductory sequence, 3–2–1 Contact, 1983–862
In 1989, four poets of the variety that came to be called “Language” traveled to Leningrad for an international conference on culture and poetics, bringing these writers—so influenced by the Russian avant-garde of an earlier moment—into direct personal contact with the Russian avant-garde’s Cold War–era successors. In Leningrad, the book that they wrote collaboratively about the experience, Ron Silliman explicitly frames the conference in world-historical and, specifically, Cold War terms: it occurs “during that brief window in world history between the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Eastern bloc,” and although the conference is conceived as “international,” Lyn Hejinian observes that “the French were right in saying that the conference was more a dialogue between Russians and Americans.”3 Ever aware of their own situatedness in history, the Language writers sought to effect a cultural encounter outside the terms of a state ideology that they saw as fully complicit with mass atrocity, most notably in Vietnam.4 As Hejinian would later put it in “Barbarism,” her unfaithful reflection on Theodor Adorno’s most infamous comment, “the word ‘barbarism,’ as it comes to us from the Greek barbaros, means ‘foreign’—that is, ‘not speaking the same language’ . . .—and such is precisely the task of poetry: not to speak the same language as Auschwitz. Poetry after Auschwitz must indeed be barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities.”5 In this rewriting of Russian formalist ostranenie, Hejinian stakes out an ethics and politics of language with explicit geopolitical resonances in a historical present of which she is keenly aware.
My inquiry here has to do with US “experimental writing”—not every text that has ever been called experimental, nor every text that is indebted to scientific thinking (a notion that, as I will discuss below, is very fraught), but rather, the tessitura or general center of what contemporary writers and critics usually mean by the term—for instance, when Charles Altieri writes about “poets trained in the experimental or ‘innovative’ tradition,” or when Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue use the word in the subtitle of their essay collection We Who Love to Be Astonished.6 It is a term that perhaps lacks a meaning, but has very definite uses all the same.7 What makes it “American,” despite clear debts to Russian, and other, literary history? Why did it emerge as a descriptive term, as Paul Stephens has argued, not in the period with which it is most associated—the early twentieth century—but rather the 1980s?8 How can we account for its simultaneous durability, in aggregating a fairly well-established set of critical expectations, and its tendency to dissolve, give way, or expand infinitely upon scrutiny? The aims of this essay are trifold. [End Page 7] First, I wish to show how Language writing in the 1980s, and indeed a broader critical practice of self-rehistoricization in that moment, helped to discover-invent the early twentieth century as the canonical scene of literary experimentalism. Second, I wish to offer, through what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have called “epistemic virtues,” a rubric for understanding experimentalism that can capture its potentialities without altogether falling for its rhetorics.9 And finally, I wish to illustrate how epistemic virtues operate in literary experimentalism through an example, that of William Carlos Williams and what he persisted in calling “contact.” In this, I will be crucially concerned with questions of time: historicization, periodization, recovery, temporal folding, and primitivism; for in re-narrating a “usable past” of (primarily US) literary experimentalism, the Language writers sought to puncture the time of liberal empire, setting up relays of historical resonance whose echoes now emerge as a periodization problem for experimentalism.
As Silliman’s self-historicization—placing the Leningrad conference between the events at Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall—attests...