The standard line on “experimental” writing—sometimes called “innovative” writing—which we have inherited from the 1970s and 80s is that it “disrupts” linguistic norms and thus destabilizes a damaging political status quo. But what do we do when “innovation” and “disruption,” far from changing anything, self-evidently belong to the standard toolkit of neoliberal policy, as they do now?
In this talk I argue that the aspiration for an “experimental writing” encapsulates many of the long twentieth century’s fundamental conflicts about history, knowledge-production, and who gets to belong to the future. Experimental writing epitomizes the late-twentieth-century expectation that language can intervene in the world and explain everything powerful, from defense strategy to DNA, and, at the same time, seeks to counter that expectation on its own terms. Centering on the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s, in this talk I juxtapose Language writing’s counter-communicative “politics of form” with a more mainstream meditation on the materiality of language, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1986). The creation of “experimental” writing as we now understand the term, I suggest, allowed a fiction of scientific autonomy to fill the role once occupied by (modernist) aesthetic autonomy in ways that embedded structural whiteness in the experimentalist canon.
In the last few decades, so-called “experimental writing” has faced a reckoning with its own complicity with white supremacy, which many have attempted to explain away as a “blind spot” or a matter of incorrectly accounting for the “experimental” artists of color who were there all along (yet mysteriously excluded from the coteries that constitute networks of power and patronage). While taking seriously experimentalism’s aspirations, I also outline how an attachment to a fictive epistemological autonomy left radical poetics of the 1980s indebted to a specific dream of futurity that has come to be revealed as increasingly untenable.