Tag Archives: ethnography

“Experimentalism by Contact”

My essay “Experimentalism by Contact” is now available on Project Muse as part of a special issue of diacritics edited by Brian Lennon on “Thinking with the Sciences.”

The essay is drawn from my book in progress, Experimental, and tries to do a number of things (possibly too many things), including periodize literary “experimentalism,” explain why experimental writing is so white, and extend Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s concept of the “epistemic virtue” as a way of thinking across literature and the sciences.

I wish to say, just to give the academic culture of sprezzatura a little kick, that it was completed under enormous time pressure (not due to diacritics but, mostly, to the huge amount of uncounted labor related to the job market, especially when you’re “successful” but not so successful that you end up “employed”) that nearly killed me dead. I almost didn’t submit an essay because it seemed all but certain at that point—after three postdocs, and after two unsuccessful (and custom-written) job talks that spring—that it was my last semester in the profession. (One of those unsuccessful job talks became this.) Out of pure luck I ended up employed after all, but it was, shall we say, an unpleasant time. And on top of it I was living in Wooster Square, so, you know, there was the constant danger of having my car towed for no reason.* (Damn you, New Haven PD!)

Poor essay, to have such unpleasant origins. I can’t say it’s my favorite piece of writing, but I stand behind the ideas.

On a happier note, though, Diane Berrett Brown was the best, most thorough copy-editor I have ever encountered, and the peer review (one by Brian and two by anonymous readers) was very smart and on point. Working with diacritics was a great experience, and the footnote-checking made me finally get my reader’s card for the lovely British Library.

Lots of people helped me write and think about the essay in various ways. Hillary Gravendyk let me bounce ideas off her; Lauren Klein and Nihad Farooq were generous, patient readers of drafts; and folks at the Newberry Library’s American Literature Seminar, the Penn Mods group (thanks especially to Julia Bloch for inviting me), and the Stanford Center for the Study of the Novel helpfully responded to earlier versions of the essay. Scott Selisker invited me to be the token poetry person on a post-45 science and lit MLA panel earlier that year, basically just because he’s a mensch, and that opportunity proved extremely productive for my thinking about experimentalism, as have my conversations with Scott, who is a brilliant and generous colleague.

The essay is dedicated to the memory of Hillary Gravendyk, who still counted Williams a favorite despite also thinking he was really (as we used to say in grad school) problematic.


*The neighborhood did genuinely smell like pizza in the afternoons, though, which was a definite plus.