Monday, February 1, 2010

Watten and Prose - In a New Key

Reading over Barrett Watten's Lecture text "The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field, Or, What is a Poet/Critic?" along with the two responses he references on his website, I was moved to comment on some of the issues raised, back-channeling from memory to reinstate various biographical aspects which do not seem to have been remarked about his aesthetic choices over the years.
In the past, I have denigrated attempts to privilege "confessional" tropes, since that tends to engage the "biographical fallacy" of imputing personal etiology of theme and consequence in literary works--making of criticism a kind of psycho-analytical franchise. Nevertheless, the question has been reopened--with the professional retrospective emphases they (the Language Poets) have indulged in (i.e., most visibly the recent Grand Piano project edited by Watten, though Silliman has also attempted--both in print, and online, for some time--to mount an historical argument built around the hegemony and mutually reinforcing achievements of these same participants), insisting upon a plateau of ulterior authority which depends to a significant degree upon social connections, rather than gratuitous, accidental association. 
Pertinently, Watten, it should be noted, was a service kid, who spent much of his childhood in foreign countries. This separation from a stateside background, I regard as a key aspect of his alienated status as a de-facto "outsider" considered in the context of a proto-American literary identity. He was early on exposed to the vivid realities of America's foreign policies, graphically contrasted against the exotic foreign cultural tapestry that served as the backdrop for his familial setting. Further, his relationship to his parents was colored by the internal conflicts generated by his Father's archetypical position as a physician employed by the American military, complicating the Oedipal drama of having a patriarch comprised of doctrinal power, and personifying the ethical enigmas inherent in military authority, igniting a potent radicalism and disaffection familiar to our generation (1960's).   
In addition to this--and this is a fact I see nowhere explored, to my surprise--is his original educational track as a pre-med biological sciences major, beginning at MIT, then transferring to UC Berkeley, finishing the Bachelor's Degree despite experiencing a full renunciation of the sciences career track in favor of his adopted role as an aspiring avant garde poet, among the mixed milieus of the Left Coast. This delayed transformation--which Watten himself reminded us of momentarily ago, reproducing a Life Magazine/Life Science Library photo op including himself (at age 17) in a science classroom at MIT in 1966--was in large measure the cause of his late entry into the literature game, and the delay in his exposure to the standard textual works ordinarily required of those majoring in the Humanities, specifically English, Classics or Comparative Literature, as well as to readings in aesthetics, literary criticism, sociology and political science. 
The scientific background, as well as the delayed exposure to canonical, and allied texts, may account in part for the directions his interests have taken him. Initially resistant, for instance, in the early 1970's, to the post-Structuralist revolution in the disciplines of linguistics, leftist historiography and literary criticism, he was unfamiliar then with the work of Adorno, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva--though he may have been aware of the work of Marcuse, and possibly of Levi-Strauss. The continued emphasis upon highly technical critical apparati, with multiple levels of abstraction and elaboration, seems to me to derive from a quasi-scientific approach to materials, one guided by a desire for resistant antinomies, and unassailable proclamations. 
It wasn't until Watten had resumed his studies at Berkeley in the 1980's, that he was drawn into the contemporary debates within the academic linguistics community, and the wider spheres of Structuralist and post-Structuralist theorizing, that would constitute his special areas of emphasis. Crucially, this coincided with his professional commitment within the academic institution, with all its attendant hierarchies of status, conferment, and duty, to a critical function for which he was specifically qualified and positioned. In other words, on a purely aesthetic level, he had rejected the functional artist profile in favor of an identity that would afford him the opportunity to "attack" the problems inherent in language and society simultaneously, while benefitting from the insulation and authority of academic freedom, a position familiar to the American Left throughout the post-War period. And the ambiguities of extended theoretical elaboration would undermine and liberate the frustrated empiricist of his youthful misadventures into science.             
In a note I wrote for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E newsletter #12 in 1980, I cited Lacan's proposition about the dissociation of the sign from signifier "The him a personality by means of a Speech which is Law...The subject remains riveted to the imaginary, which is taken for real, to non-distinction between signifier and signified...The cause of this incapacity to distinguish between signifier and signified is the absence of an original substitute for self, itself due to an unfavourable outcome of the Oedipus." [Jacques Lacan, by Anika Lemaire, 1970, English version 1977, Routledge & Kegan Paul.] Though this was a generalized implied criticism of the Language Poetry movement's early attempts at combining a radical political positioning with an avant critical program, I see now it applied to individual members as well.     
In Watten's lecture, written in a characteristically turgid style bristling with neologisms from "cultural criticism" and overburdened with long-winded phrases (addressed, in effect, to the community to whom this vocabulary gratefully belongs--my recalling here, Barry, once having remarked to me, about the density of  Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception "that's the point, isn't it?"), he basically sets out the very simple proposition that criticism and poetry may indeed occur as twin enterprises in the same head, and nominates William Carlos Williams's example of Spring & All as his key obligatory text. Why such a tendency might be expected of a former sciences major, whose academic preoccupation up to his 20th year was in cycling through empirical and testable equations of verifiable theory about phenomena, strikes me as hardly worth mentioning. But why this same intelligence should embrace cultural 
analytics as a defense of a kind of non-syntactic and/or synthetic compositional technique in creative writing is a more tempting question.
When Barry and I attended the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop in the early 1970's, a matriculation which he notably de-emphasizes nowadays, the primary object-lesson was our observation of the relationship between social behavior, and literary form. We could see how ambitious and careerist-minded students adapted their materials to the prevailing modes of literary fashion. For them, the literary activity they carried on related directly to the life-styles, academic positions, and publication hierarchies they aspired to, which struck us as aesthetically "unethical"--at least it did to me. I previously tried to suggest that Watten's first original work--at the earliest stages of the formation of an individual voice and approach to form--was, perhaps unconsciously, an attack on the didactic signifiers which were presented as object forms. Watten did not "come out of" the lyrical tradition; he hadn't entered the academy planning or imagining to place himself in a milieu in which the exercise of a lyric skill would be a sufficient accomplishment, as a middle-class fulfillment of duty or artistic enterprise. In short, mere "poetry"--in the sense in which it was being passed down through the Modernist canon of examples--would never adequately repay the commitment of effort and frustration which characterized his sense of mission. 
Even if Watten had been capable of turning in a high mimetic like that of Creeley's middle period, or of Coolidge's early, doctrinaire meta-epics (like The Maintains or Polaroid), such an enterprise would have been insufficient to his means. What was needed--and he shares this with Bernstein and Silliman--was an art which could be interpreted as uniting the concerns of the School of Vienna's socio-political conscience, while setting itself apart from the registered Modern or post-Modern stylistic modes of composition--in short, an art of non-syntactic poetic formality which purported to take a total responsibility for (incorporating) all spheres of awareness simultaneously: Aesthetic, political, social, historical, relational, personal. But no verbal structure of this breadth, as such, that did not have as its basis a narrational flow, has ever been conceived, or would be likely to be. Only by juxtaposing the illogic (secret internal logic) of a non-tradition organizing principle within a verbal structure--with an inspired exegesis of the intention behind the structure's plan, could the competing requirements be honored, could, that is, the professed responsibility for a correctly positioned political and aesthetic stance be supplied, while at the same time defending (protecting) the poem from all accusations of derivation (from the Tradition). 
It was immediately obvious at the outset that Watten's power of insight and analysis were so great as to present a challenge to all but the most innocent (or, conversely, integrated) impulses of raw inspiration. His critical faculty was many times more impressive and fluid than his emotive faculty. What this would eventually lead to, would be a consciousness of the complex interconnectedness of contexts which determine a work (e.g., the Structuralist's turf--which seems adroitly designed to accommodate a mind like Watten's), and an increasingly arid metier (Watten hasn't published any poetry to speak of, for almost 20 years, and has devoted himself exclusively to ever more intricate explications of his unique cultural/critical vantage-point from the crumbling outlands of Detroit). The biographical paradigm suggests, naturally, Duchamp, for whom the early performance of generating artifacts became an irrelevancy, truncated by an abandonment--witty and evasive at all points--that lasted half a century. Rather than a turn to language in the mid-Seventies, the crucial tendency was towards factors external to the act, the critical faculty short-circuiting any impulse to inspiration flowing from mere enactment.          
It has been suggested that works such as Adorno's Negative Dialectics, or Wittgenstein's On Certainty or Remarks On Colour are in fact--in every sense in which post-Modern, post-Structuralist theory could devise--themselves poem-works, since what they essay is the penetration of areas of inquiry or research which once were thought to belong to the realm of aesthetics or rhetoric. Though these works emerge from the study of the problems of philosophy, on a heuristic level poetry itself may be a kind of short-hand for the expression of formulaic transcriptions, and so a poetics peppered with metaphors and dense abstraction may accountably qualify as artistic behavior.  
The critics of Watten's extended lecture, Anthony Mellors ("Postmodern Self-fashioning") and Scott Thurston ("The Poet as Critic, Criticism and as Poetics: On Barrett Watten and Robert Sheppard"), each take him to task for "transgressively" crossing the line that would separate critical observation from self-interested poetics advocacy. The Modernists (Pound, Eliot, Moore, etc.) were all routinely vilified, both in their time, and by their successors, for mixing aesthetic programs with artistic performance, and the same charges were made against Olson and Cage and Bly, later on, for attempting to justify their art, or influence the critical community into accepting their whole work--both poetry and rubric--as the expression of a coherent, or responsive/sible dogma. 
What I see in this idea of the combinative ingenuity of linking critical descriptives with "raw" inspired poetry, in Watten, is a retreat into a false mimetic--fashioned out of surrealist methodology, purportedly responsive to "historical imperatives" (i.e., politically correct positions with respect to socialist theory) but actually chaotic in its formality. Where does this lead? If the poet/critic is a mediator between the stuff of literature (even his own) and its augmented reception, are we thus required to deny the existence of an objective reader, one not soiled by the context of his/her own preconceptions?  
Ironically, post-Modernism had already begun to generate new formal models, in advance of the vaunted "Language Poetry" revolution which its participants now wish to imagine as their own construct from the mid-1970's, born immaculate from the head of Olson's Projective Verse (1950) or Breton's Manifesto (of 1924). But Ashbery's Rivers and Mountains, Tennis Court Oath and Three Poems, Palmer's Blake's Newton and Circular Gates, Coolidge's IngSpace and The Maintains, Eigner's another time in fragments, Mac Low's Stanzas, and Grenier's Dusk Road GamesWater Farmer and A Day at the Beach had already happened. Greenwald, Gallup and Mayer, to take just three random examples, had already begun to fashion structures which separately challenged the "new poetry" of 1960. What these works now lacked, was a critical framework from which to view their meaning and significance, an outline of presumed purpose and an edifice of highly selective and shrewdly integrated historical antecedents, and the myth of a "movement" to canonize their activity as "social" and properly motivated--work which Silliman--with his background in radical political theory--and Watten--with his keen critical acumen--were well-qualified to provide. 
The problem with this program was that the substance--the specimen works themselves--were either yet to be produced, or had not been adequately buttressed by a theoretical framework. The contingent activities of writing, publishing, criticizing, and promoting (through the adaptation of theory and ideal of "shared" purpose(s)) would occur simultaneously, incorporating and consolidating new work before it (the participants) had even exerted any real influence among the fragmented "community" of readers for new work. Indeed, the severely limited dimensions of this new community insured that overlaps, incestuous interaction, borrowing and appropriation, vanquishing of progenitors real or imagined, would go hand in hand with the gradual (and inevitable) generational "adoption" of the "new" even as it positioned itself as oppositional and excluded (complaining all the way). 
Predictably, then, the idea of a "Language Poetry," by and large, has become an academic phenomenon. Even within itself, fragmentation and exclusivity have prevented a perfection of the dialectical drama which Watten and Silliman are now at pains to historicize, with its competing Eastern contingent (Bernstein, Andrews, and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E stream) vying for authority, or standing tacitly apart.
With the "expanded object"--
"the poet/critic refuses both monumentality and the accretion of objects (discourse in a static, normative sense) and engages the effective horizons of the critical act. Moving from the rejected concrete universal, with its moral project of regulating the value of complexity, to an open and productive engagement with complex logics that subtend the making of the object, the poet/critic refunctions the mode of production of meaning and value that once went under the name of literature but which has, of necessity, taken new forms. There is no particular genre now to which his or her activity is restricted; the poetic is a made relation motivated by the conditions of its possibility and the necessity of its occurrence in a larger cultural field. The poet thus becomes the maker of an object that enacts and criticizes the considerations of its own possibility, while the critic becomes the site [sic!] of discursive knowledge that [who] explains and expands the resulting reflexivity of the object. It should go without saying that both sides of this dyad refuse to externalize institutional structures, in which the poem is a disciplinary object or the critic the disciplinary subject as they displace the interpellative call [summons] of the autonomous poem toward a social imperative that is, after Althusser, delivered at many sites of meaning. Even more, we can look for a logic in which dyadic structure of this opposition itself is recast, even as a mere positivity of their identity would risk losing the force of the negative 'slash' of nonidentity between the two opposed functions. I began by claiming that gender and sexuality were key aspects of  the concrete universal—in Goethe’s notion of a living and embodied  spirit contained by the form—that necessitated its refunctioning in other terms. While my critique has been mainly to recover the social logics of the poet/critic dyad, gender and sexuality appear at key points. Of course, seeing the poem as object in a psychodynamic sense is gendered by definition, even as one possibility of gender would be to see the ‘critical’ element of poetic making as something like an act of parthenogenesis, the birth of Athena out of the head of Zeus. In moving  from the ‘sclerotic Hegelianism’ of the concrete universal to an open spatio-temporal field of objects in the postmodern, parthenogenesis often appears as the first move toward a better account of the object in terms of desire. Such an early postmodern challenge to the dualism  of subject/object is readable in Charles Olson’s spatial allegory of  ‘The Moebius Strip,’ which refuses the object status of the poem in its complexity."
--the so-called hybrid "poet-critic" has the freedom, therefore, to posit the terms and conditions of the poem's reception in advance of its creation--rather like attempting to furnish a proof for the existence of a poem that may, or may not, yet exist, but which could, or ought to, given the right conditions and the validity (veracity) of the equation. Thus the aesthetic is subsidiary to the political ("toward a social imperative"), while the personal priority, the advancement of a program of individual progress through a public, institutionalized setting is facilitated--"the conditions of its possibility and the necessity of its occurrence"--authorized by the histrionic accession of successive tenures in the academy. This kind of circular posturing, in which a theory of progressive overthrow of the "old" centers of power is reenacted in a continuous unfolding of struggle, is tiresomely familiar; and can, and often is, used to defend the dullest and least imaginative literary activity, in this instance a literature posited as dense cultural theory itself.
Does activity like Watten's lecture itself--as an example of the "poet/critic" production it insists upon--qualify as "literature"? Are Conduit or Bad History to be considered alongside Spring & All and Kora in Hell or Ashbery's Three Poems as an example of simultaneity of function called for in this injunctive summons? By refusing to authorize an object specimen, offering instead the work as a "site" of active engagement (interaction between competing spheres of ideology ("sites of meaning")), the poem is demystified, shorn of reliably describable techniques, qualities or references. Further, "parthenogenesis often appears as the first move toward a better account of the object in terms of desire," so we can expect novel genders of identity in the forefront of the struggle to reinvigorate (give "a better account of the object in terms of desire" in) the poem. Perhaps the new genders can "give birth" to new versions, through new forms of pro-genesis? Will these, then, even look and feel like art at all?   
Ironically, from a vantage now, thirty some years later, I note an attempt to pretend as if the real progenitive "language" works themselves, enumerated in paragraph #13 above, have been ignored, so that the artifacts of the "Language School" can occupy their place(s). I sometimes think that the "Language School's" singular accomplishment is in describing the descent of post-Modernism from Zukofsky, Williams and Oppen down through Olson, Creeley, Eigner, Ashbery and Coolidge, larded with reams of vaguely familiar ratiocination. Who will read these texts when the controversies they stirred have faded out? Won't it still be more enjoyable to read the originals, than imagine what people thought they ought to have meant in a future they couldn't predict?                                


Conrad DiDiodato said...


outline of Watten's critical views (and methodology)for those of us unfamiliar with his writings is very interesting. I'm tempted to check out the "Grand Piano" project.

But you've made some rather puzzling statements along the way. I'll single out only this one:

"It has been suggested that works such as Adorno's Negative Dialectics, or Wittgenstein's On Certainty or Remarks On Colour are in fact--in every sense in which post-Modern, post-Structuralist theory could devise--themselves poem-works, since what they essay is the penetration of areas of inquiry or research which once were thought to belong to the realm of aesthetics or rhetoric."

Adorno's "Negative Dialectics" a poem-work? In what sense a poem-work? I can see some anticipations in his social theory work (in "Dialectic of Enlightenment") with Walter Benjamin of the postmodernist theory of "spectacle" and "simuulacra" (particularly in Benjamin's critique of commoditized object as having lost its "aura"). When I read the above I immediately pulled it from my shelf.I thought Adorno was really trying to clear up some badly used philosophical terminology, such as "concept", "reconciliation", "mimesis" and (more controversially) "guilt", with a view to making theory more conformable to contemporary human experience.

His aim, unless I'm mistakened, was to break the strangehold of the hypostatized "concept" on the world of particulars.To change (or revolutionize) the nature of consciousness altogether as a consequence of rethinking the subject-object nexus.His dialectics is negative in the sense of this radical delimiting of the traditional (perhaps Kantian)notion of conceptual understanding.I don't think it's the areas of aesthetics or rhetoric from which he wants his critical apparatus to distance itself.

I suggest, rather, that you look at Adorno's essay "Lyric Poetry and Society" where he espouses a sociology of art along the lines you've suggested: meaning a comprehensive appreciation of lyrical poetry as gathered from an analysis the individual experiences they chronicle. Here is a vision of art as social critique, a particular application of the principles of social theory he establishes in "Negative Dialectics". Adorno's last work, which he didn't live to revise fully, is entitled "Aesthetic Theory" where he developed the thesis of art as a social project freed from the constraints of a reified logic.

Curtis Faville said...


At issue here is a host of questions, none of which could be covered in even a series of dense blogs.

I was just taking the opportunity--occasioned by Watten's reference to his lecture, and the online responses to it--to make a few stray points about his career, and how it feeds into the essay he references.

I once knew Watten very well. Certain of the things he's tried to do recently strike me as both aesthetically, and personally dishonest. He's a brilliant man, a brilliant writer, who I think got sidetracked into this "cultural criticism" cul-de-sac, instead of practicing poetry. Wasn't becoming a poet the point? Well, he's now saying that criticism and poetry go together, are perhaps the same thing. Someone (not Watten) actually said they thought Adorno's and Wittgenstein's work were "poems"--but Watten is basically saying something very similar here, that poetics and poetry are somehow interchangeable, perhaps even the same thing.

I know Adorno's work--not all of it, but much of it. Negative Dialectics is a masterpiece. I marvel at his intelligence--it's an extension of Marx into intellectual spheres I would have thought couldn't be claimed, but he did it!

Steven Fama said...

What's the photo at the top of the post? I didn't read any reference to it in your post?

Curtis Faville said...

That's Watten's fetish rock, which he found in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

He's written about it in a couple of places--it's a metaphysical object for him. I think it's volcanic.

J said...

In a note I wrote for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E newsletter #12 in 1980, I cited Lacan's proposition about the dissociation of the sign from signifier "The him a personality by means of a Speech which is Law...The subject remains riveted to the imaginary, which is taken for real, to non-distinction between signifier and signified...The cause of this incapacity to distinguish between signifier and signified is the absence of an original substitute for self, itself due to an unfavourable outcome of the Oedipus." [Jackques Lacan, by Anika Lemaire, 1970, English version 1977, Routledge & Kegan Paul.]

Sir Faville, a PoMo? Wow. Lacan was one strange cat--tying together Saussure to Freud, more or less. Lacan's system is not really philosophy, but anti-philosophy (then Freudianism itself a species of anti-rationalism, for the most part). And wasn't he palsies with the surrealists as well? So Lacan's system could conceivably be some grand surrealist farce, Operation Mindf**k as the freaks said back in the day. I don't really care for it (and rumors are Jacques L was pretty comfy during Vichy days, even a sometimes correspondent with ...Herr Heidegger).

And little or no empirical confirmation exists for Lacanian concepts, the Mirror stage, etc. His readings of linguistics ("semiotics") have also been mostly replaced, by both the behaviorist-cog sci types and Chomskyites.

The Frankfurt school's another matter. Marxism has a certain empirical plausibility (many hipsters forget Marx actually follows from British empiricism as much as he did from Hegel) but also rife with grand assumptions: like the dialectic, and class struggle itself--and the basic claim that exploitation can be somehow quantified.

Though, really, I for one prefer orthodox marxism, even the errors, to psychoanalysis or PoMO obscurantism (won't mention their names). One can at least argue with a more rational marxist (or could, at times).

Ive read some of Adorno--mostly Culture industry. His Hegel stuff didn't impress too much (then I consider Hegel a bastard child of Kant and like spinoza via the Greeks--Herr Hegel's unique brand of anti-rationalism was probably more to blame for 20th century catastrophes than Marxy Marx hisself. And Nietzsche had a hand.....)

I find it amusing when some PoMo insists that Marxism and say Heideggerian "existenz" philosophastry can co-exist. Not bloody likely. The PoMo's occasional allusions to Kant may have done some good, though they usually overlook Kantian rationalism--. (Gramsci gave his blessing to Kant at one point...) Kant's Critique does still offer a middle ground between the reductionist /positivist/Darwinian types, and marxism/psychoanalysis, that is, if one buys the synthetic a priori. Not that it will do much good....

Curtis Faville said...


These are separate questions, but I think interesting parallels could be drawn between Lacan's application of Freud, and the post-Structuralist aspects of Watten's biography (and aesthetic choices). No one will ever do it, but it would explain some things, I believe.

The Language Poets have gotten very big for their britches. Will anyone who understands where they actually came from ever take them on? Probably not. They'll just be ignored.

J said...

The later, near-death Freud of Civ. and its Discontents wrote a few interesting things, more akin to social psychology than his earlier psychoanalysis (tho' basically along the lines of...humans are violent, sex-crazed animals! wow). Lacan and the Zizek comrades followed the early Freud, which is mostly dream analysis, ego/id stuff, repression, regression, et al....mostly quackery, I believe. Dangerous quackery, much beloved by bureaucrats of left and right.

Kesey knew the score on clinical psychology (and statist apparatchiks, really). There may be something to psychology (one hopes), but if Zizek's it....well...when I hear the word Zizek I reach for my revolver...

Wittgenstein may offer another route but Phil. Investigations quite a bizarre collection of proverbs as well. I could understand a poetical drawing inspiration from St. Ludwig, but not sure I would recommend it as...... a Weltanschauung. Still the old empirical relativism in ways...though he did convert to papacy-ism.

I imagine you've read Barthelme's the Genius...:)

Brown Obsidian--that's Watten's stone, I believe. ....(type of volcanic glass....usually black, and glassy)