Ralph Berry on Experimental Writing

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[Posted by BR]

Forms at war : FC2 1999-2009

Forms at War: FC2 1999-2009, ed. R.M. Berry

I recently received a copy of a wonderful and very exciting new collection of experimental writing, edited and introduced by the writer and critic R.M. Berry (English, Florida State University), which I wanted to draw to your attention. Reading Berry’s introduction to the volume, however, reminded me that I’ve been meaning, for a while now, to recommend another recent piece of his: his essay on “Experimental Writing” in the still relatively new Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature (ed. Richard Eldridge). Since the two projects are closely related, I thought I’d take this opportunity to recommend both at the same time.

Since discovering Berry’s work a couple years ago, I’ve become a great admirer of his critical intelligence, and his probing writings on innovative and avant-garde fiction — everywhere deeply informed by Wittgenstein and Cavell — strike me as particularly exciting examples of how ordinary language philosophy can enrich literary studies: every time I read a piece of his, I come away energized, thinking new thoughts, not only about experimental writing itself, but also about how to think about, and use, OLP in my own work. I find them provocative and challenging, in the best senses. In particular, his way of drawing out unapparent affinities between the ideas of OLP thinkers like Cavell, and those of thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, and Jean-Luc Nancy, has been a revelation to me.

So I’m very happy to have this chance to spread the word about his recent work on, and on behalf of, experimental writing.

First, Forms at War. According to the description on its back cover, this book…

… collects twenty-three experimental prose works published by Fiction Collective Two during the last decade. Together they contest the false present of the Bush years, continuing the political and aesthetic struggle that gave birth to modernism’s dream of form. These fictions–by Kim Addonizio, Diane Williams, Michael Martone, Brian Evenson, and nineteen others, first published by FC2 between 1999 and 2009–all locate America, not in the neverland of free-trade or the lost Eden of cultural homogeneity, but through the truer landscape of language. Kate Bernheimer’s portents, Lidia Yuknavitch’s embodied medium, Steve Tomasula’s engagement of the letter, each refuses the nowhere of Bush-speak; each insists on itself here and now. In these works, the vendettas of post-9/11 confront a limit. Their counter-history, not of narratives, but of forms, brings to the surface what our ceaseless violence has repressed, an alienation so widespread it feels like second-nature. Forms at War brings back what never went away. Its writing is the work we are.

And here, to pique your desire to read Berry’s introduction to the volume, is one of its many thought-provoking paragraphs:

One way to characterize experimental writing from modernism to the present is that it dispels transcendence, means to resume proximity’s risks, to be right where its words are happening. William Carlos Williams in 1923 described it as leaving the readers naked, deprived of their protective barrier or covering. “The reader knows himself as he was twenty years ago and he has also in mind a vision of what he would be, some day. Oh, some day! But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is.” The idea is that, even in the greatest achievements of lyric and narrative, an alienation has already occurred, a distancing of readers from the reality they inhabit. This may not sound new, but Williams’s innovation–like that of modernism generally–was in giving this alienation a temporal accent. That is, what readers are protected from is not so much horrific facts as an action or event, a reality that’s ongoing. Like other experimentalists, Williams when pressed would call this ongoing reality the words themselves, as though in previous writing readers had overlooked the letters or printing, and yet treating words as objects was precisely what Williams determined not to do. Instead, he sought to make words unapproachable, not because his writing was esoteric or off-putting, but because the distance necessary for interpreting it had collapsed. Gerald Bruns has suggested that, when writing brings us down to earth in this way, we hear rather than understand it. The idea is that our words exist closer to us than representations, as “close” as our skin. To hear them is to attend before their meaning occurs to anyone, to take responsibility for exactly what we can’t say. At such moments our meaning ceases to be ours, not because it has been foisted off by powers and institutions–although that’s true enough–but because we become what’s happening, the ongoing reality, a meaning we’ve grasped too late. (pp. 14-15)

And here is a preview of Berry’s superb essay on “Experimental Writing,” which he wrote for the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature. Having studied with the avant-garde poet Bob Perelman while I was a graduate student at Penn, I’ve read my fair share of critical writings about experimental writing; this essay is definitely one of the best on the subject that I’ve ever come across:

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