Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I tend to be very reticent about my research on this blog, perhaps due to the universal academic fear that nobody is interested. But I think I'm going to try to change that; after all, research is what I devote most of my brain to, and it is probably the most satisfying part of my life. (I mean, besides persimmon season, naturally!)

I have a few different research projects going on at the moment, but the most important is of course my dissertation. If one were to pigeonhole it, it would be called an American modernism dissertation, but the project actually resists such pigeonholing quite a bit. For one thing, one of the chapters is on a nineteenth-century French author, Zola. For another thing, the conceptual rubric of the project resists, or rather suspends, modernism as an identifying category. There is an impulse that I call "experimental" that runs through naturalism, modernism, and the avant-garde.

It's that word, "experimental," that gets me the most questions, and indeed it's the problematic nature of the experimental that most interests me.

When we talk about experimental literature, we usually mean one of two things, each inadequate yet revealing. One is an overly broad definition: that any text that is formally interesting, unusual, or, in short, literary by any number of standards may be deemed "experimental." This definition is inadequate insofar as it is too broad, nearly meaningless. It is revealing, however, insofar as it is used as a term of approval, one that, like "interesting" (as Sianne Ngai has so brilliantly explained [Chicago Journals paywall]), can express approval while evading or suspending aesthetic judgment.

Another use of the term "experimental literature," usually used in an attempt to narrow the overly broad definition above, is extremely literal: the author is imagined to have conducted a scientific experiment somewhere in time and space, and whatever appears on the page is the result, the "data," as it were. A direct and usually tenuous analogy is thus made between writing and "the" scientific method. Friedrich Kittler has a great chapter on automatic writing and the avant-garde in connection with precisely this definition, so I do not wish to say that this definition cannot be productive. But I think that it, too, is inadequate because it fails to capture, or has to try too hard to capture, a lot of literature that I think we would deem experimental but which did not emerge from amateur psychology experiments.

Moreover it presumes that we know what a scientific experiment is. Out of a desire for rigor, the second definition of experimental literature supposes that there is a single scientific method, universal, transhistorical, and fully theorized. Such an assumption might be forgiven if, in our "desire for rigor" we were to adopt scientific conventions ("assume the cow is a cylinder"; "assume zero friction"), but for good humanities scholars such an assumption would be ludicrous. It's no good to give up rigor out of a desire for rigor.

In point of fact, the definition of "experiment" and its status as a part of science has been in flux for centuries. In the period of interest to me, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, experiment is prestigious. It is a way to bring to light hitherto unseen realities. To be "experimental" has connotations of action and heroism, in contrast with "observational," which connotes passivity and even possibly just not doing anything at all. To be experimental is to be as scientific as possible.

And the notion of the experimental is also being radically challenged by the institutionalization of the biological and social sciences.

It's taken for granted that the well established physical sciences are the pinnacle of scientificity to which all other sciences must aspire. That's exactly what Claude Bernard very explicitly does in his Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865), arguing that there's a natural, quasi-evolutionary sequence that begins with physics and chemistry and proceeds to the biological sciences, such that medicine, formerly an "art," is surely next in line to become experimental. Of course, Zola piggybacks on this idea, saying that after medicine comes the novel. (Obviously.)

This notion, that there is a unified scientific method and it is defined by the methods of the physical sciences, is still very much in force today. But there is a reason that the physical sciences use certain methods: they are well suited to the things that physical scientists study. Suppose you are studying epidemiology: there's a serious ethical challenge to infecting a bunch of people with a disease in order to study its etiology under different conditions.

Claude Bernard's solution is one that we still use today. It's still experimental, he argues, to observe the outbreak of an infectious disease first in one climate and then another, so long as you're doing it advisedly, with the hypothesis in mind that climate is a factor in the disease's etiology. That nature has infected the subjects on your behalf does not, he argues, make your work less experimental. On one hand, we can see his point; on the other, we can see how this constitutes a significant revision to the idea of experiment. It's no longer as much about what you do as about what you think. This is not Bernard's only revision to the idea of experiment, nor is Bernard the only one developing methods that are suitable for studying living and/or thinking, feeling creatures. New methods are proliferating all the time, and developing the clarity-in-obscurity of professionalism.

The upshot of all of this is that the concept of experiment is being made newly capacious, that the professional sciences are invested in their own clarity-in-obscurity, best exemplified by experiment, and that that clarity-in-obscurity is thought to get at the heart of reality.

It is this sense, the sense that to access reality warrants a clarity-in-obscurity, that animates the four texts that I discuss in my dissertation and constitutes what, for me, is a better account of "experimental literature." It is defined not by a single method or set of formal devices but by this fundamental understanding of a reality alien from us in particular ways that it was not previously alien. For Zola, there is the symptomatic depth model, which he himself constantly undercuts with a horrified awareness of the power of the superficial (in every sense) to control even the penetrating scientific gaze. For Stein, there is, increasingly, a move toward abstraction and a refusal of empirical reality as inevitably disappointing. For Moore, there is the encounter with the nonhuman animal or thing that always points, indexically, away. And for Williams, there is the photograph of the far-flung primitive, which is the only way to reveal Paterson.

It is in this clarity-in-obscurity, this sense of the real, that the sciences seek knowledge; there, too, is it sought by the authors I discuss. That literature of the period is seeking knowledge, not some kind of alternate fluffy "poetic knowledge" nor an inner, personal knowledge, but something metallic and solid and alien that we would all recognize as knowledge should give us some pause. It returns us to the word "experimental" as a term of approval, with its suspension of aesthetic judgment. Why is it the duty or the pleasure of literature to produce knowledge, and what does it mean when it is? Why is it good to "experiment," to "innovate" (a.k.a. make it new)?

How is it that we can understand art as a kind of research, and why is it that we so want to do so?


SEB said...

This is an interesting question for me because I teach in a studio art department, where tenure and promotion standards for studio art professors contain a "research" component which is fulfilled by the production of art exhibitions (which are analogous to publications for us art historians). The exhibitions themselves are presumed to be the result or residue of artistic "research" in much the same way as an article or book is the result of research for a more conventional scholar. It then remains to qualify what counts as artistic research, and why. When we are trying to get the science people to take us seriously, we tend to frame artistic creation as a method for investigating and making sense of the world, hence research. Certainly the best artmaking is based in a thorough investigation of the world and understanding of it, although the ways in which connections are drawn and interpretations made are usually foreign to the science people. To the extent that it is experimental, it is experimental in the sense of an experiment which reveals a new methodology for making sense of things.

I think of my grad school roommate, who was a molecular geneticist working on the phylogenetics of lichen. Her job was to sequence the genetic code of the fungal partner in lichens (remember lichen is a symbiote, fungus + alga) and do comparisons between samples to show how closely they were related to each other. In other words, she was a high-tech taxonomist. Her data was collected in a 'study,' not an experiment, but in the course of her study she investigated several innovative methods for making sense of what she observed, and this was the experimental part of it. It was much more humanistic than I would have expected - and of course taxonomy has a much closer relationship to the humanities than other forms of scientific experimentation (see cabinets of curiosities, speciation etc).

As for experimental art, I definitely recommend that you read some writing by Wu Hung on the subject. Some of his most groundbreaking work in the study of contemporary Chinese art has involved popularizing the term "experimental art" to be used in place of "modern art," precisely as a way around the problematic of using such a Western-centric term as "modern" in the Chinese context. The first place he begins to work this idea out is in the catalog for the exhibition "Transience," which was at the Smart Museum in 1998. The idea gets fleshed out in "Exhibiting Experimental Art in China" and "Reinterpretation: a decade of Chinese experimental art." I have no doubt that all these will be in the Berkeley library. Bonus: good writer and easy to get through, nice pictures.

Natalia said...

Thanks for the references, K; they sound like good reading.

The practical consequences of art-as-research, i.e. for tenure reviews in an art practice department, are really interesting.

Although I agree with a lot of what you say, I'm a little bit uncomfortable with it because you're using the word "experimental" in the colloquial all-good-art sense that, I want to clarify, is not the same as the "experimental" that I mean. "Experimental" as you appear to be using it could belong to any period or place. (It strikes me, from your description, that Wu Hung's use of "experimental" may also hinge on a universalized notion of experiment, although obviously I shouldn't make that pronouncement without doing the actual reading.)

The "investigative," the "innovative," the "new" are modernist terms that I want to bracket, to take less for granted. The experimental literature that I see gathering strength in the later nineteenth century insists on its own ability to get at hidden realities, less through experimental methodologies than through experimental feelings that can be abstracted from the practice of science. And those experimental feelings are historical and, to an extent, local.