- Experimental Tendencies and the Tradition of Experimental Poetics
In the tradition of avant-garde poetry, interrogation of the relation between form and material has often been the staging ground for experimentation. While in actual practice this has meant experimentation on both sides of that equation, there has been a definite critical tendency to favor experimentation with form as the more important cutting edge. This tendency has placed the drive for experimentation on some uncertain footing at times—see the difficulty that much of the leftist avant-garde went through in resolving the formal influence of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot despite their conservative or outright fascist politics. More recently, there is something of a critical movement to reorient experimental writing in ways that grapple with the political and social histories of the more conservative strains of the avant-garde. With a fervor that suggests that this reorientation was significantly overdue, calls to own up to this heritage exploded on the poetry world in the wake of Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2015 performance of his ill-conceived conceptual poem “The Body of Michael Brown,” the reaction to which ranged from an intensification of questions about the critical valorization of conceptual writing to outright calls for the expulsion of conceptualism and other sorts of formalist experimentation from the poetry community for their [End Page 417] inadequate commitment to antiracist and anti-imperialist politics.1
This is an important part of the context within which we receive Nathan Brown’s The Limits of Fabrication: Materials Science, Materialist Poetics. To the extent that Brown’s book represents a vigorous and thorough articulation of just how valuable formalist experimentation is for the criticality of poetic work, especially by reminding us that poetic experimentation stems from the relation between form and material, the book is an important contribution to the conversation. On the other hand, what would be most valuable at this stage is an attempt to bring a critical discussion of poetic experimentation into greater contact with questions of the politics of experimental writing as a set of social and institutional structures, and on that front, Brown’s book leaves us with work to do.
The basic conceit of The Limits of Fabrication is Brown’s proposal that “we approach materials science and materialist poetics as branches of materials research and fabrication” (10). Brown asks us to conceptualize the two as engaged in the same kind of activity: the fabrication of matter through the manipulation of material at a more fundamental level. For materials science, fabrication refers to the making of matter at the nanoscale, for example, by the manipulation of individual atoms, where the properties of the material that scientists encounter are different from the properties of matter that we experience at the more familiar macroscale level. For poetics, the payoff has to do with the specific way this gets us thinking about poetry as a formal activity of making. If we understand that materials science deals with direct manipulation of fundamental particles at a level at which the properties of what we ordinarily call matter do not apply, Brown suggests that we can think of the materials of writing as bearing a similar relation to things such as meaning and, especially, image. Poetics as materials research and fabrication, then, is a way of understanding poetics as “a material problem of formal construction” (10), prior to, or at least at a more fundamental level than, words, phrases, ideas, and so on.
Brown is adept at describing materials science processes for the nonspecialist reader, and in the first chapter, he gives us an exciting tour through some of the achievements of this cutting-edge field. Brown enlists this science to argue that while some branches of speculative philosophy have endeavored to broaden our functional definition of what sorts of living entities are considered important, the distinction that underlies that problem, between inert or inorganic material and life—between “living being” and mere “physical being,” in Heideggerian terms—has [End Page 418] remained undertheorized. At the nanoscale of fabrication, nonliving material...