The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney: An Interview with Christopher Higgs

TC: In your recent HTMLGIANT post about experimental writing you discuss closed versus open texts/art. You compare two paintings (one by Jackson Pollock). You also compare a passage by Raymond Carver (closed) against a passage by an author I was unaware of called Vannesa Place (open). How exactly would a work by De Kooning, or even minimalist or conceptual art such as LeWitt or more so Baldessari be closed as opposed to open, as those actual distinctions themselves become increasingly confused? And what are the problems you see in transferring aesthetic judgments from, say, a painting to a work of literature?

CH: The “open/closed text” concept comes from an essay by poet Lyn Hejinian called “The Rejection of Closure.” I presented it as a way of thinking about experimental literature. The decision to use Pollock was purely biased by my love and connection with his work. Like me, he grew up in Wyoming. Since there are more antelope than people in Wyoming, it’s rare to find another of likeminded artistic tendencies. I like De Kooning’s work, especially his painting “Woman with a Green and Beige Background”—but that painting is a good example of why I didn’t choose to use his stuff as my example of an open text: the level of its openness is diminished by its title and by its legibility. My use of Pollock was, aside from the personal, a strategic attempt to present what I imagined to be a maximally open text because of the way in which it resists a singular reading. On the other hand, the Hopper painting—another all-time favorite of mine—I interpret to be a closed text because all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading: a woman standing in the wings of a movie theatre while the movie plays. They represent examples of maximal opacity and maximal clarity. Limit texts, if you will. A text like LeWitt’s “Untitled Lithograph 92” would be, to my mind, an example of a closed text in that it directs the observer toward a single reading: it’s a multicolored star. But a text like Baldessari’s “Noses and Ears: Turban & Ear” is interesting because it falls somewhere in the middle. There are sites within the text where it is open and sites where it is closed, and this, I think, is more indicative of the majority of work (be it in the visual arts or in literature), which is to say, somewhere between being open and closed.

TC: I was wondering how problematic you actually find the binary nature of such a line of thought. I understand that binarism is embedded deep within Western and possibly human thought development, and you refer to its problems briefly, but what exactly do you think are the actual merits of a binary train of thought and what would be other more neutral and negative effects? It seems that since Plato this type of thinking has been problematic in Western thought. Although I think one could very well say that Plato’s own “divided line” is much more complex than that.

CH: Binary thinking is problematic, for sure. It’s not a good place to dwell. But, it’s useful to consider coexistent forces or tendencies. Being able to identify a text as tending toward an open or closed system can be helpful for various reasons, not least of which is that it can help a reader determine what particular set of reading skills might be applicable to a given text. I’ll come back to that idea later. But to counter transcendent Platonic-style binaries (such as the mind/body split), we need to look to philosophies of immanence: Spinoza, Duns Scotus, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze, etc.
TC: In general, I guess I am wondering what you have to say about the nature of this paradox in which individuals born into a Westernized culture may want to free themselves from this binary bond, but are unsuccessful due to the way it always seems to creep back in. You mention Nietzsche, but even his writings, while he attempts to be released from the net, fall back into the tradition to an extent. Also I would say Derrida or Foucault were victims (perhaps too strong a word) as well. I think lots of people realize this paradox but in the end don’t want to admit that it has certain residual consequences on their thoughts or works that they produce.

CH: Derrida points out the problem in new and interesting ways, particularly in the realm of texts qua texts. Foucault connects the problem to history. But ultimately, Deleuze is the answer. Deleuze overturns Plato in a way that no one before him could pull off. Deleuze puts an end to the paradox.
TC: I don’t deny that there isn’t such a thing as experimental literature or that categories can’t be helpful, but aren’t such judgments more intuitive and immediate rather than based on logic or analysis or such? (falling into a binarism of my own making, although I guess I don’t need to apologize)

CH: One of the reasons why I believe it is critical to engage in a study of the differences between works of conventional literature and works of experimental literature is that each require a different set of reading strategies. One cannot expect to pick up William Burroughs’s The Soft Machine and apply the same reading strategies they apply to Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. This just won’t work. It will lead to frustration. It will lead to anger. And ultimately, it will lead to the dismissal of Burroughs’s text as a failure because The Soft Machine does not abide by the same laws as Huck Finn. In order to beneficially engage The Soft Machine, one must learn new reading strategies. Plot, character, setting and theme won’t get you very far with The Soft Machine. Likewise, other traditional hermeneutical approaches simply will not generate the same results for The Soft Machine that they will for Huck Finn. I recognize that I have offered up only two texts as examples, and that this may signal to some readers that I am again retreating into some kind of binarism, but I insist that I am not. I am in favor of cultivating a multiplicity of reading strategies: some more suitable for graphic novels, some more suitable for poems, some more suitable for science fiction novels, some more suitable for literary novels, and so on. What I am trying to do by discerning the category of experimental literature is show (i) that it is different in kind, not degree (ii) that it requires a special set of reading strategies (iii) to use your question about whether one recognizes exp. lit. intuitively or logically, I hope to show that it is both, not either/or.
TC: What do you think of the relationship between academia and creativity?

I think creative writing programs, in my experience, do not foster environments conducive to creativity. They are places built on rules, by rules, for rules. They seem much more like places that teach paint by numbers rather than encourage actual creativity. On the other side of things, in the field of literature, I think there is more of a sense of openness, of genuine desire for inquiry, exploration, experimentation.
TC: Why do you think there aren’t more doctoral candidates writing on popular internet sites? Is it possibly because they have fallen into the alleged quick sand of very a fortified (“closed”) academic world? The reason I ask is because I am an MFA student, with eyes on maybe someday attempting to get a doctoral lit or philosophy degree eventually, and I was wondering what you had to say on the subject.

I come to academia very circuitously, which is to say that despite appearances I am not the product of institutional education as much as I am an autodidactic academic interloper. Most of my fellow doctoral students studied literature as undergraduates. I “studied” – a word I should be careful to use very lightly – film. Mostly, I signed up for classes to get access to the equipment and then rarely if ever attended and almost never did the homework. I took a grand total of two literature courses as an undergraduate, one of which I failed. When I did eventually end up in a master’s program in English, after a sporadic career in the film industry and a short-lived experience in the peace corps, it was more by chance than desire. Through that experience and then my MFA experience, I never fit in. I was always playing catch up, and I always seemed to have a point of view counter to the prevailing wisdom. At first I felt like an idiot, but as time went on I began to realize that my unique path to the field was actually a boon. Unlike many of my peers, I hadn’t codified my approach to reading, writing and analyzing texts. I’d never been trained one way or the other. I came to my opinions, for the most part, on my own. So for me, I was an outsider from the get go and even now, after seven and a half years & two and half programs, I still feel like one to a certain degree.


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