Editorial statement: volume two

Literature occupies an ambiguous position, continuously oscillating between demands placed on it by its own concept. On the one hand, literature – like any art – must be sensitive to its time and place. Constituted as socially mediated antithesis to its society, literature re-casts into form the content espoused (or eschewed) by its contemporary society. [1] Not least its practitioner, the literary writer, is deeply embedded into the demands of divided labor. Yet on the other hand, literature also remains autonomous. Untethered, in principle at least, by the society from whence it nevertheless arises, literature juxtaposes elements foreign to it – foreign, perhaps, to any society – to generate what, in its most lucid moments, might just be a world of its own. Endlessly negotiating its own possibility, within the society of divided labor or within any society, remains the pride and primary tenet of literary production. [2]

The place and situation of ‘experimental’ literature, too, is between these two poles. Most literature, and particularly its avant-garde (however construed), is ‘experimental’ in one way or another. How could it be otherwise? The literary writer, beholden either to the incessant commercial demand for
‘novelty’ – experimentation, but not too much, thank you – or to hovering back and forth between a ‘day job’ and their craft, must cope with the double burden of being able to reflect on the conceptual frailty of a plight whose crushing reality is nonetheless repeated and amplified at every corner. Residing in – if not: escaping into – the autonomous characteristics of literary art is an obvious, if never easy, way of dealing with this burden. Upholding a difference between ‘novelty’ and ‘experimentation’, tenuous though this distinction may be on a conceptual level, thus nonetheless becomes vital work. If nothing else, it allows the literary writer to carve out a space where their craft escapes, however temporarily, the shackles of commercialization.

‘Consuming literature’ is thus not the contradiction in terms that tenured snobs would label it whose removal from social pressure renders them in any case ineligible to pass judgment on the literary fringe. It is not that literature cannot be consumed because it is not a consumer product; because of some auratic status as the last refuge of intellectual pursuit in a world relentlessly dumbed down. Literature is neither refuge nor haven. Escapism into its autonomy serves only to further ossify the status quo. [3]

‘Consuming literature’ is rather a phrase indicating not a contradiction, but a productive tension. Every once in a while, a literary commodity emerges whose very consumption reaches altogether beyond the realm of consumption. Every now and then, literary art, remaining conscious of its alienated social origins, nonetheless soars beyond them, re-casting them into a mold that is no longer of this society. Where this succeeds, experimentation separates from novelty. Where this succeeds, literary art projects “the complete emancipation of all human senses and attributes”; a state where “the eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object emanating from man for man.” [4]

Casting itself beyond the society of alienated, divided labor from within the society of alienated, divided labor, literary art can expose the frailty of its shackles. Where this succeeds, experimentation succeeds. Here it is once again “obvious that the human eye gratifies itself in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc.” [5]

[1] Theodor Adorno: Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973), 19.
[2] See Musil’s Man Without Qualities, especially Book 2, Chapter 60.
[3] Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 230.
[4] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert Tucker (ed.): The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), 87.
[5] Ibid, 88.

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