- Introduction:The Promise of Experimental Writing
What promise does experimental writing hold for literary studies now? This special issue of College Literature asks why experimental writing has risen to the forefront of contemporary literary studies in a historical moment defined by reactionary nationalism and populism, weaponized state violence against people of color, the enclosures of digital surveillance, and the ongoing economic and ecological precarity wrought by global capitalism. After all, experimental writing has often been understood—and understood itself—as removed from the everyday concerns of the social world. By now, the epithets are familiar: elitist, esoteric, solipsistic, formalist. The pure commitment to aesthetic experimentation has been seen as an end in itself; the artwork's autonomy from the social world has been understood as the very locus of its critical power.1 Yet the past decade has witnessed a scholarly reappraisal of the social and cultural relevance of experimental writing. This reappraisal is evident in the notable publication of The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature (Bray et al. 2012) and the inauguration of Wesleyan University Press's annual Best American Experimental Writing anthology in 2014. Moreover, there has been a proliferation of scholarly monographs, articles, and special issues of academic journals focused specifically on the politics of experimental writing—its responsiveness to the [End Page 1] material forces of social strife; its embeddedness within progressive and radical political movements; and its innovations in the politics of aesthetics.2 These considerations arise in monographs such as Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (2009); Evie Shockley's Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (2011); Alex Houen's Powers of Possibility: Experimental American Writing since the 1960s (2012); Anthony Reed's Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing (2014); and Ellen Berry's Women's Experimental Writing: Negative Aesthetics and Feminist Critique (2016)—to name just a few representative examples.3 If "experimental writing" once nominated a tradition of innovative writing by European, white, male, and heteronormative authors, then the new criticism of experimental writing finds promise in the excavation of hidden, degraded, and ignored experimentalisms developed among marginalized writers and communities.
Yet the return to experimental writing is not solely a project of recovery; its conceptual ambit is much broader, as intimated by the title of this special issue. The phrase, "lively words," is drawn from Gertrude Stein's Lectures in America (1935), in which Stein famously invokes the concept of "liveliness" to describe an experimental poetics of language that does not operate primarily through meaning—through denotation or connotation—but through the affective forces of language itself. Indeed, for Stein, language is quite literally alive, if not exactly human: it is autopoietic and signifies without necessarily expressing an authorial subject.4 Words have a materiality and force all their own—a liveliness that experimental writing makes uniquely perceptible by undoing our unconscious readerly habits. Undoubtedly, Stein's experimental writing inaugurates an important genealogy of modernist, queer, and feminist literature to which many of the authors and texts in this volume owe a debt. Yet it is her more expansive conception of experimental writing—as revealing the entanglements of language and matter, of words and the world—that anticipates contemporary interest in experimental writing. This entanglement underlies the conjunction of "politics and poetics" that this special issue seeks to understand with fresh eyes. To be sure, the essays collected here do not advocate for a single, overarching conception of the politics and poetics of experimental writing. Rather, each is invested in experimental writing because the texts themselves are actively rethinking the chiasmus of politics and poetics through their formal experimentations. The new [End Page 2] criticism on experimental writing thus promises to discover an array of new practices for reading the politics of literature, and its search is guided by the specific poetic forms and interpretative protocols that experimental writers innovate.
If literary studies again finds itself debating the work that form can do, experimental writing gets there first.5 Whereas formalism and historicism have often been opposed by literary scholars, this has not been the case for experimental writers, particularly...