Literature’s Elsewheres: On the Necessity of Radical Literary Practices
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2022
423 pp., illus. 88 b/w. Paper, $34.95
Literary debates today are no longer about literary taste, classic versus modern, high versus low, or original versus formulaic. They are no longer about the question whether this or that text or author is “good” or “bad” (unless one decides to put literature in a purely social and political perspective). They foreground now other and more radical issues. Certainly, in the case of poetry, the telltale laboratory of literature in general, most contemporary interrogations refer to the institutional framework that draws the line between literature and non-literature as well as the criteria that help us to include certain practices in the literary field or not. In other words, and vaguely paraphrasing Nelson Goodman, it is more about “when is literature” than “where is literature” (which is already quite a radical question itself)?
Problems and inquiries like these may sound vague if not meaningless to mainstream readers and writers, yet they are at the very heart of the literary avant-garde since more than a century (and obviously the avant-garde has never claimed them to be irrelevant for politics and society at large). Avant-garde is perhaps not the right term to label the Western literary radicalism studied by Gilbert in this book, which is one of the best and far-reaching overviews of this type of writing to date. Indeed, the concept of avant-garde implies a temporality and why not a teleology, that does not match the logical, non-chronological pushing of Gilbert’s unpacking of how experimental writers and artists have pushed and continued to push the boundaries of the literary system. This is to say that this research, and this one of its great merits, abandons the linguistic divisions between avant-garde traditions (there is thus much room for non-English material, which is not presented as “alien” or “peripheral”) as well as the conventional treatment of the avant-garde as a long chain of “isms”.
Gilbert examines the experimental efforts to open the literary system from four different angles, which are discussed with the help of a small number of key examples such as the work by Vito Acconci, Stéphane Mallarmé, Kenneth Goldsmith, or Marcel Broodthaers, but the 400 well-filled pages of her study have the courage to sharply prioritize a kind of experimental canon and refrains from name-dropping or any other form of anthologizing.
Question one challenges the idea that a literary work is the (virtually infinite) materialization of an unique manuscript, which is not meant to be the work itself (if not, writing would become painting, so to speak). Avant-garde writing has thoroughly questioned these distinctions, blurring the boundaries between single and multiple or rejecting the necessity of giving a material shape to a concept or a proposition. Question two critically addresses the idea that a literary text can more or less freely take different material or sensory forms without ever losing its essence or specificity. In this regard, avant-garde words demonstrate that certain texts are completely inseparable from their material instantiation – a question that, like the very first one, also informs one of the final concerns of Gilbert’s study. What if the transformation of what literature is or can be does less liberate it from the mainstream definition of literature than re-imprison it in a new field, that of the visual arts? Why should literature become part of a system that has its own and institutionally very powerful boundaries and limitations that do not always offer the best context for truly experimental writing? Question three touches upon what many observers and participants of the literary system esteem the most vital of all issues: authorship, more particularly authorship in the sense of ownership. Here as well, avant-garde practices disrupt the belief than one text equals one author and vice versa. Texts can be creatively appropriated, while authors can morph into networked structures establishing new and permanently shifting relationships between human and nonhuman agents. Question four, finally, focuses on the alleged neutrality of what it means to be edited, published, curated, exhibited, etc., in specific environments, ranging from page to screen and anything between of beyond them. Avant-garde practices show how difficult it is to always tell the dancer from the dance, in this case the work from the system that literally produces it.
As the frequent references to visual art theory (site specificity, institutional critique, non-retinal creation, for instance) make clear, there is a great family resemblance between the literary and the visual avant-garde, the latter often being seen as being a little bit in advance than the former ( a prejudice that this book does not take on board). The now well-established tendency towards intermedia and transmedia art as well as the general mash-up of art forms in the digital era certainly explain these convergencies, but Gilbert rightly underscores the hidden inequality of media and art forms in our post-medium condition. Granted, literary experiments can find useful allies (and funding!) in the field of the visual arts, yet it is not certain that in the end there is only something to win by this strategy. For Gilbert, the attraction exerted by the field of the visual arts may prove a hard prize to pay since literature may be in danger of losing part of its autonomy in this alliance (there are however also voices that hint at a parallel danger for the visual arts, dangerously exposed to the seduction and opportunities of literature and writing, as discussed by Pascal Mougin in La Tentation littéraire de l’art contemporain, éd. Les Presses du reel, 2017).
Gilbert’s book presents a neatly structured and extremely useful synthesis of all efforts to disclose the structural and systemic features and beliefs that tend to block what literature could be or become outside our existing definitions of notions such as text, work, author, book, etc. It builds a strong argument by contextually close-reading a small set of pioneering works an authors, most of them well-known but here read afresh. Moreover, the paradigmatic arrangement of the discussion, less interested in the never lasting supersession of the old by the new than in the methodic unfolding of the fundamental parameters and yardsticks of literature as we still know it, makes Literature’s Elsewheres a crucial instrument for all those eager to make a truly critical use of literary criticism.