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David Hess

No Surprises: On Barrett Watten

This piece is 21,700 words or about 50 printed pages long.

‘I’ve had no intention not to state myself politically but this hasn’t entered my poetry. It’s almost as if I’ve given so damn much to that idiot war I’m damned if I’m going to give it my experience of words.’
    — Robert Creeley, from an interview in Unmuzzled Ox, vol. 1:1 (1971)

‘It is the job of the workman-artist to manufacture a better world than he sees.’
    — W.C. Williams, from an interview in Golden Goose, Series 3, no.1 (1951)

‘The allegorist assumes that, when virtue imitates vice at the moment of attack, it can, by that very isomorphic imitation, destroy its opposite.’
    — Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (190)


AMONG THE DELUGE of recent television shows purporting to wrap-up this ‘our twentieth century,’ one of the countless on the Second World War caught my attention with a quote from a U.S. bombardier pilot who described his experience of flying over the Third Reich through black walls of bursting flak and the upward rain of tracer bullets as a ‘monotony of terror.’ Such a phrase could also apply to the televised spectacle itself, its comedy of terrors, as well as vast stretches of everyday life whose stratospheric mazes we so often seem to navigate as bombardiers without a target, as pilots without a landing strip, stranded in a fog of signals. Two poets, Charles Reznikoff and Barrett Watten, immediately come to mind when considering this striking phrase.

Reznikoff, probably best known for his Testimony — two volumes of poems written from law reports spanning the years 1885–1915 — embodies in his work the sine qua non of the objectivist project: unwavering attention to actual particulars. The poems in Testimony are not a joy to read even though they are not difficult and require no labored exegesis, no (re)creation of meaning on the part of the reader. They do not draw moral lessons from the disasters they explicitly present detail by exasperating detail, moment by moment. They do not, as fellow objectivist Williams proposes, ‘manufacture a better world than [the artist] sees’ except perhaps in their ability  to painstakingly recreate the world the artist does see (or, in this case, read) and in their refusal to stray from what is seen:

‘Bishop got off the trough he had been sitting on
and walking over to Belton
the two began to curse each other
until they began fighting and clinching
and Bishop drew his pistol
and shot and killed Belton’ (Testimony, Volume One, 114)

If the above statement by Williams — whose triumph lay in a delicate marriage between the real and the imagination, a balance struck between the poem and its poetics (what would the ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ be without that strange, initial ‘so much depends / upon?’) — stands as one of the numerous calls to liberate the modern artist from ‘his’ traditional mimetic duties, then Reznikoff’s Testimony  represents a specific use of narrative mimesis for ends other than those conventionally prescribed for their use (e.g., satisfying stories of deep symbolic and moral content). Watten, as we’ll see, operates via an inversion of this method: the deployment of defamiliarizing techniques in the direction of a more radical and bare mimesis. In Reznikoff, transparency — in the mode of reportage — snowballs into opacity. In Watten, opacity — in the mode of allegory — melts into the ruins of transparency.

The aim of this essay is to explore the consequences of such a poetics of defamiliarization and its indetermanicies — despite the determinacy of the theory — as exemplified by Watten’s project, which, in my opinion, offers the most consistent (and honest) attempt by a language poet to deal with social contradictions as they occur on the level of words. I want to see whether or not the use of indeterminacy and abstraction in poems makes it impossible to determine whether or not such a use has been successful, has actually worked. Do not the blanketing linguistic disruptions so enthusiastically celebrated by the language poets ironically dismantle any effort on the part of the critic or reader to determine which specific disruption has, in fact, hit its target? In this question, I believe, hides the critical fate of language poetry as an avant-garde project.

Watten’s poetry would stand then as the limit of language poetry by finding a language for the contemporary experience of alienation qua language precisely in failing to ever leave this language, to ever subvert it. Language is not the cure for alienation in Watten — nor is anything else a solution, including language poetry or other new and improved versions in need of being mastered — though Watten’s historical account of the language movement in ‘The Bride of the Assembly Line’ may in fact contradict this statement. Indeed there seems to be no consensus on whether or not Watten’s poetry, marked by such opposing titles as ‘Progess’ and ‘Decay,’ does constitute some sort of progress. While his ‘writing,’ according to Jerry Estrin, ‘generates an entropic mannered duration’ in ‘its mimetic return to a null-point’ (Aerial 8: Barrett Watten all 203), the poetics fueling it, as pointed out by Norman Fischer, ‘is redemptive’ and ‘absolute’ (A8 both 41).

In an interview with Manuel Brito, Watten says that ‘[a] poetics of “language” is an attempt to find a workable ground for modernism that leads to real solutions for the dilemmas it proposes,’ but that this ‘inchoate, boundless “language” as a ground of aesthetic distance and source of positive knowledge’ became ‘the fantasy of objectification’ for his contemporaries looking for a way out of ‘the physicality of the earlier postmodernism’ (A8 28, last three 27). In his objectification of such fantasies of language — the drives toward meaning and the exhaustion of meaning — Watten creates what I name, with considerable hesitation, recalling that originary allegorist of modernity Baudelaire, a decadent progressivism. It is a poetry that despite modelling itself on the symbol of mechanical production, the assembly line, and the technology of montage, solely concerns itself with disintegration and catastrophe, particularly the disintegration of the modern. It stays true to language poetry’s contradictory roots in Objectivism and Surrealism, working simultaneously to foreground the materiality of language and its ironies of abstraction.

In contrast to the linguistically irrecoverable position and uncertain future that haunts, if not grounds Watten’s work would be the view held by Bruce Andrews, who sees in language itself and the slippages it generates a revolutionary promise and erotic salvation which can free subjects and readers from repressive social and psychic regimes. Likewise for Ron Silliman who promotes the collective, collaborative writing practices of his movement as a liberation from the ‘pathology of the individual’ under which ‘poets in our culture are addicted to control’ (A8 both 146). Such ‘obsessive perfectionism’ and its ‘control disorders’ (A8 both 146) appear difficult to shake as Silliman, in the essay ‘The Practice of Art,’ attempts to map out the alleged renaissance brought about by his formally ‘progressive tradition’ of which Watten’s highly controlled and deliberate work is a primary and ongoing example. In trying to dissimulate his claim to originality, he announces — recalling New Criticism’s stance toward the ‘laziness and passivity’ (Postmodern American Poetry xxviii) of the Beats and New Americans — that his ‘is the one literary tradition to value rigor and the personal responsibility of the author for all aspects of the work’ (The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets 377).

The reader must also sweat for the meaning they are not disciplined enough to deserve: ‘In its ultimate form, the consumer of a mass market novel such as Jaws stares at a “blank” page (the page also of the speed-reader) while a story appears to unfold miraculously of its own free will before his or her eyes’ (The New Sentence 13). Literature must be saved by subverting it, the reader redeemed through the force-feeding of a better language.

Such are the views shared and espoused by the majority of poets associated with the language movement who, following their sacred Steinian and Zukofskian models, seek to carry on the supposedly modernist project of heroically purifying language of its mimetic function. Both poets, however, can be seen as having expanded it — Stein especially, through her playful engagement of tropes of race, sex, and gender — in an imitation of the explosion of new mimetic possibilities as a result of modernity.

The basic solution of language-centered writing to the ‘crisis of representation’ brought on by modernity, our ‘false modernity’ as Henry Miller would say, and its globalizing changes — the (rise and) decline of literature’s cultural authority and centrality, the proliferation of codes in the service of ruling political and economic powers, the recharging of the mimetic faculty via electronic mass media and the technology of mechanical reproduction — is to reject mimesis in favor of an ideal indeterminacy, while maintaining, in a rather Derridean and hypocritical fashion, a poetical discourse that retains claims to mimetic and representative truth-making. Indeterminacy, now canonized, becomes the favorite mark of an art form that has no determinacy in a capitalist society. By choosing language as their object these poets would seem to have resolved the problem of desire, the human longing which always exceeds its objects and without which there would be no language.

A quick glance at Watten’s Frame, a selection of writings from 1971 to 1990, reveals a dryness and uniformity — appropriate to a poetry removed of the suspense provided by narrative — that most poets, including language poets, desperately try to avoid. Apart from the visual variations on the page, nothing really stands out in this poetry, except that nothing stands out. There can be no uniquely emotive ‘voice,’ no identifiable personality, no muse-desiring self — though his latest Bad History, not included in Frame, ventures into new territory with more discrete narrativized units of description in which he himself is located (parts of ‘Opera-Works’ are like this too) — in a world where ‘[t]he taste is dulled by devices running / on batteries, visible at great distances,’ (‘Non-Events’ 14) producing ‘[t]he effect of the lack of effect’ (‘Plasma’ 61) in the ironic form of ‘[t]housands of images light[ing] the screen, each person mak[ing] up their own’ (‘Protection’ 50). It is a world where irony is ironically the ‘[t]he inventory [...] locked in the warehouse’ (‘Protection’ 51), and a poetry in which if ‘you know what the words mean, you can leave’ (‘Plasma’ 64). If anything like astonishment can be said to accompany the reading of these poems it will be experienced in their embracing of and indifference to an always haunting, though never identifiable meaninglessness that the artwork is conventionally supposed to disguise or overcome.

In Watten there is no straining towards expression, towards meaning and closure, and no straining to disrupt these movements towards them either. How many poems (or poetical tracts) have we read which are no more than silent (or sometimes vocal) congratulations on the part of the authors to themselves for having found what they think is meaning (or its rupture) and for having filled up the void, that ‘monotony of terror,’ with precious signs, precious either for their readableness or for their novel resistance to being read? The secret banality that unites the mainstream with so much language-centered verse lurks in the answer. The carefree, irreverent flaunting of the possibilities of ‘meaninglessness’ and the reveling in the mysteries of the opaque word in order to suspend the critical faculty, which made much early language poetry fresh and exciting, has given way to the pseudo-democratic gesture of making the newly romanticized reader (romanticized in the aftermath of the postmodern ‘death of the author’) the locus of the meaning-making process.

Danger / ange sign

If it were a truly democratic arrangement — and it isn’t — the reader would be able to make up what it means to make up their own meaning (i.e., have a say in the theoretical discourse). Now mostly what is flaunted is the meaning and status as language poetry in that codified gesture. An anti-mimetic or, as Charles Bernstein would call it, ‘nonrepresentative’ poem now inevitably refers to the institutionalized theory, the Poetics Cliffs Notes and study guides that will explicate and justify that brand of poem. Interpretative modes have re-introduced transparency with a vengeance.

Robert Creeley, whose work shares some obvious qualities with Watten’s, has come under fire in articles and reviews by several mainstream literary critics and poets for the densely packed spareness of his poems, as pointed out by Marjorie Perloff in her book, Wittgenstein’s Ladder : Poetic Language and The Strangeness of the Ordinary:

‘This dogged, obsessive plainness,’ writes Robert Pinksy of an earlier poem, ‘works its way... practically to the point of inarticulateness.... Creeley’s language [is] so chastened that it seems to aspire toward some kind of non-language.’ John Perreault, reviewing Creeley’s earlier collection, Words, declares: ‘The same subjects remain: personalized versions of love, pain, sex and death, but whittled down to “breath units” of often breathless banality.’ And the anonymous Times Literary Supplement reviewer of Poems 1950-1965 complains that ‘the effect [of Creeley’s “numb repetition of colourless words”] is that of wading interminably through some unfamiliar shorthand or of listening to a glazed monotone’ (WL 190).

Many of Creeley’s poems do create a cage-like environment almost to the point of unbearability and nearly reproduce on a formal level — in sharp contrast to the visual-verbal bombast, say, of the Italian futurists — that ‘monotony of terror’ which captures both the essence of modern warfare and huge slices of modern life. Creeley, however, doesn’t give the war — Vietnam in this instance — his ‘experience of words’ but, in the political act of excluding political statement, forges an autonomous space for such tactical acts as poems, which — to paraphrase him from another context — are what the poet turns to when, as is so often the case, no other immediate political (or personal) acts are available. On the one hand he ‘[looks] to words and nothing else, for [his] own redemption’ and on the other hand knows that ‘[w]ords will not say anything more than they do, and [his] various purposes will not understand more than what they say’ (WL both 191).

In Creeley, the monotony of terror is registered as a speechlessness, a void of language and this, I believe, is really what disturbs critics like those quoted above who would only recognize the political nature of his writing if it were presented as a topic in the poetry. His poems are incredibly intimate occasions and more so for not relying on the usual, comfortable marker of intimacy in the form of speech. One can see here the reasons behind the original disgust the language poets harbored against speech as it bears the mark of both the subjective and the private as well as the official and public. As he writes in his essay ‘To Define,’ ‘[our] anger cannot exist usefully without its objects, but a description of them is also a perpetuation [my italics]. There is that confusion — one wants the thing to act on, and yet hates it. Description [his italics] does nothing, it includes the object — it neither hates nor loves’ (PAP 638). I find this quote hard to take as Creeley is one of the few poets whose writing I both love and hate but seems to have at its source some kind of ‘perpetuation’ in his hatred of description, his description of it — a paradox that carries a ring of both Adorno’s assertion that ‘modern art constantly works at the Munchhausean trick of carrying out the identification of the nonidentical’ (Aesthetic Theory 23) as well as some lines by Stevens, a writer of noted interest to Creeley, who aspired to a kind of transcendent description as in his poem ‘Things of August":

"Spread outward. Crack the round dome. Break through.
Have liberty not as the air within a grave
Or down a well. Breathe freedom, oh, my native,
In the space of horizons that neither love nor hate."
          (The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens 490).

Identity and description would thus seem to be as inescapable as our love and hatred for them. This paradox multiplies when one considers the famous statement from Creeley’s essay: ‘A poetry denies its end in any descriptive [his italics] act, I mean any act which leaves the attention outside the poem’ (PAP 638). Here, he is driving at an autonomy that has no other parallel outside writing except in games (and war!) and therefore would seem to immediately forfeit its autonomy in this self-referential game of keeping attention inside the poem.

Indeed I would argue that autonomy has been entirely forfeited, for instance, in Bruce Andrews’s writing, which takes Olson’s eternity-lusting ‘uninterrupted statement’ to its pre-programmed dead end — uninterrupted interruption — and moves ever closer to an undifferentiated self-referential blur in its ceaseless attempts to criticize itself as it criticizes, reproduce itself through a mocking self-parody. Believing he can address the entire social order through the kazoo of the signifier he ends up mocking his own attempts to criticize other things. In his poetry and other’s, reified analysis masquerades as play. We get a fake anarchy in which the meaning and life of a poem become no more than the ever-conventional crisis of meaning and representation, the product of the crisis of sign-based theories of production. As Watten writes in his introduction to Silliman’s Tjanting, ‘[i]ncreasingly, current art tells us only about itself; while capital is chipping away at our position, we have art to fill in the gaps. We generate performance artists [and talk shows!] because there is no drama in everyday life.’ For Creeley, however, autonomy must be negotiated syllable by syllable given the constant danger of lapsing into either mediation-denying description or solipsistic constructivism.

Although the severity of Creeley’s poetry threatens to produce an equal speechlessness and undecidability in the critic and reader, he, unlike some of the more indeterminacy-loving language writers like Andrews, cannot simply exorcise the self, himself — as if it were a matter of linguistic surgery, like removing the ‘I’ — from the writing. Or, to hijack a quote from Steve Evans’s review of Watten’s Bad History (‘Notes to Poetry’ 17), the self, like ‘[g]ender, like war, like art, belongs to the totality of bad history; it can no more be omitted from an account of that totality than its mention can be thought to exhaust it.’ Some of his lines, like those in his book Away, seem to resemble that of a Hallmark ‘friendship’ card (‘Home, / wherever, is where the heart is,’ (WL 189)) or birthday card (‘Your birthday is here / without you, that day / you were born to be here’ (WL 190)), but he offers, as Perloff says, ‘no image of his wife or himself; we learn nothing about their past, the course of their marriage, how many children they have, what they have done for a living — we don’t even know where “home” is located’ (WL 192).

Is it any surprise that I only came to these conclusions concerning the way Creeley’s writing both faithfully mimics and undermines the dominant uses of ordinary language after spending over three hours staring at the computer screen and pacing around my room and lying on my bed, unable to make sense of his statement in Unmuzzled Ox in relation to his poems and, in an act of intellectual surrender, realized that one cannot critique speechlessness or give an exegesis of the inability to say?

This desire or need on the part of the writer to describe their own speechlessness, their void of language — one wishes for a more specific term but the void is just the void — and to write what resists being put into words is not limited to Creeley, and, as I will argue later on, constitutes the central ‘problem’ or tendency in what has been labeled ‘blank generation’ fiction, with which Watten’s poetry shares some jarring similarities. Actually Creeley, in line with Wittgenstein’s infamous declaration, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ (WL 12), doesn’t try to write what resists saying, but shapes a form so that what cannot be spoken of can be glimpsed as there, haunting the words.

It’s no wonder Creeley’s Collected Poems, as Perloff mentions in her book, was on the best-seller list in Germany given the Celan-like qualities of his work. The brokenness connecting every word, encapsulated in Celan’s ‘The world is gone, I must carry you’ (Poems of Paul Celan 267) and Creeley’s ‘The door / which never is knocked upon but cries, / for who sings, dies, / what goes, will go on’ (The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 88), functions as a formal homology corresponding to that nation’s need to make sense of its own shattered history and identity without plunging into a perpetuation. Watten, too, writes a poetry in which

‘[s]eparation burns from word to word’ (‘Relays’ 128 in F)


‘[l]anguage witholds communication from those who speak it unmaimed’ (‘Frame’ 263 in F).

Melanie Rehak’s review — ‘Poetic Justice: W.S. Merwin contemplates his ancestors and his own happy, later years’ — of Merwin’s latest book, The River Sound, in the New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1999, offers an example of more conventional writing that tries to communicate the incommunicable or communicate its difficulty in communicating, locating meaning and sublimating the subjective into the objective. Merwin’s early poem ‘The Moving Target’ speaks of ‘the frustration of failing to capture a poem that deigned to show a glimpse of itself: “Coming late, as always / I try to remember what I almost heard”.’ A 60-page poem, ‘Testimony,’ from The River Sound, expresses a similar bewilderment at how something, in this case the generalized loss associated with the deaths of family members, achieves meaning: ‘I am not certain as to how / the pain of learning what is lost / is transformed into light at last.’ The result of such writing, which attempts to make into its subject (and not its form) the author’s loss for words and his subjective astonishment at the elusiveness of things, of life, is exactly that perpetuating description and false mimesis Creeley warns us of.

Rehak remarks that ‘by revisiting his awe so frequently, Merwin lessens it somewhat for his readers’ as typified by this stultifying passage so exemplary of the quasi-mystical elegaic mode that has been celebrated in much contemporary verse: ‘the way our days together / suddenly are there behind us / ours still but somewhere else before / we believed they were leaving us // or understood how they could go like that’.

‘Much of “The River Sound”,’ Rehak goes onto say, ‘is given over to worrying about the failure of words — so much so that at times it’s tempting to skip ahead to see if he comes up with any answers.’ On the deaths of fellow poets, Merwin writes:

‘out of the time and language we
had in common which have brought me

to this season after them
the best words did not keep them from
leaving themselves finally
as this day is going from me’.

Answer: you can’t stop time or prevent death, even with words. If only Merwin would realize, as his river motif seems to suggest, that words themselves have their own time and contribute to time’s progression as opposed to serving as stationary sign-posts pointing to the real. (Watten, in a review on Robert Grenier’s Sentences, speaks strangely of a ‘language that is outside of time’ in which ‘words rise off the page as the mind would like — well-lit, pure, detached — in eternity’ (The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book 237, 235), an assertion that echoes the aspirations of conventional modes even as it refers to the de-narrativized, de-contextualized space of Grenier’s work.) In the end, Merwin cannot, to quote Williams again, ‘manufacture a better world than he sees’ because for him words are there to perpetuate the loss for words, to perpetuate and describe the failure of perpetuating description. He cannot write his inability to say without immediately paving it over with his own vapid speech. In other words, we’re stuck — unable to make sense of our own loss, dismay, speechlessness, except to confess that we can’t make much sense of it — in a ‘[r]omantic negativity,’ as Watten says, founded on ‘the avoidance of any conditions that compromise the subject leading to the subject’s lyrical denial of itself’ (‘The XYZ of Reading’ 153 in F).

Like Beckett — who, in order to ‘only speak of what was in front of him,’ (not philosophical or discursive ‘being’ but ‘simply the mess’), wanted a ‘literature of the unword’ (WL first two 135, 121) — Watten makes the vapidity and subtle violence of speech itself into his main area of poetic exploration. ‘To stand the mechanism of communication on its head’ (A8 37), he strives to render accurate, tempered expression to the difficulty and impossibility of saying. His poetry’s basic ‘resistance’ dwells in the tactical use of abstracted or defamiliarized speech as strategized in this stanza from Under Erasure: ‘A transmission, / signified by breaks / Interrupted due to local amnesia...[his italics]’ (A8 70). Words and phrases are removed from context, creating both continuous spatial displacement, whereby the location in which something happens tends to change or elude identification, as well as temporal deferment, whereby no action or development is ever resolved into a definite account. The result is a diffusely intense and monotonous verse reminiscent of Reverdy at his most disembodied.

All this transpires within a greater speechlessness that frames it, almost invisibly, but that is nonetheless awkwardly (if not downright annoyingly) signified, for instance, by the ellipses which follow every five-line stanza in Progress and every stanza in Under Erasure as well as several lines in ‘X,’ ‘Direct Address,’ and ‘Frame.’ As part of his attempt at a ‘direct perception of totality’ founded in the belief that ‘in order to write, everything must be put at risk; the whole world, in suspension, could fail’ (both quotes in ‘Notes to Poetry 17’), Watten attempts the near-impossible mimesis of speechlessness, evident in the terse announcement from ‘Complete Thought’ — ‘I am speaking in an abridged form’ (F 89) — and in this summary of his poetic logic from ‘Bad History’: ‘there occurs a moment when even I can sum up an experience — but only it cannot be communicated’ (A8 8). As a result of this shell-shocked footing, the subject of Watten’s work is so often that perpetual speech, as Spicer knew, of war: ‘When people say, “After the war”, I no longer know which war — there are three wars at least, each antedating, following, and confirming the others. It is always ’the era between two wars’ (‘Bad History’ from A8 3). Moreover, language itself, and our permanent war against it(s silence), provokes the loss for words:

If at some point language walked in the open door, we would show it some respect. Our response would be more immediate than to use it as a sign. So we respect language by not being content to operate in any one part of it. It’s greater than we are. That has implications for the form. That sense is larger than one can say.  (The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, 18).

Watten follows Creeley in the high-wire act of negotiating an autonomy that may, in fact, reproduce the very structures it tries to avoid or disrupt through the direct opposition it poses in becoming too autonomous and too distant, thereby bringing about a kind of closure. Thus Watten’s theoretically-informed poetry — of which resistance to closure (writing is to be an act ‘in process’, in which the ‘[w]ords are the axis, rather than the work of art’) and absorption (‘distance rather than absorption, is the intended effect’ (In the American Tree first two 485, 612)) both happen to be core tenets — is in greater danger of falling into this trap of engendering, to cite Robin Blaser in his essay ‘The Practice of Outside,’ a ‘poetry that is a poetic discourse true only to itself and as such, simply another discourse patterned on the language system we have lived in’ (The Collected Books of Jack Spicer 227).


In ‘Method and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: After Surrealism,’ Watten comments on the practices of such poets as Clark Coolidge and Larry Eigner wherein the self almost seems to disappear into the words: ‘The mediating persona has been abandoned,’ (IAT 602) he states coolly and maybe too conclusively. Following this logic, the paradoxically de-aestheticized canvas of Progress offers no identifiable self to be glimpsed inhabiting and working the language — though a mind at work is readily apparent.

According to Watten, whose Baby Boom generation gave us the Me decade(s):
‘[s]ocial reality is a lie built upon the truth of me, and it will always defeat me — that’s how I know what it is’ (his italics, A8 16). Confronting the expressive blankness and conceptual weight of Watten’s well-ordered text, the reader perhaps longs for something a bit more tempestuous, a bit more evident of their own longing, a bit more, probably a lot more .... human.

But, as Norman Fischer writes in ‘Total Absence and Total Presence in the Works of Barrett Watten,’ the effect of this surrealistic text minus all the melodrama ‘is, curiously, both tremendously calm and entirely full of anxiety’ (A8 40), a paradox reminiscent of Creeley’s (and Spicer’s) love/hate relationship with both love and hate as descriptive ends. Pieces of speech wind up on the dissecting table of the page: ‘Glass, / pressed to looking in. / Stars and stripes forever / Make a development of you, / Thought argues contradictory....’ (From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960 — 1990 751). Keeping with the unfinished image of looking, fragments of statements and narrative fade in and out of view as the self may be said to be exploded, imploded by its own discourse: ‘To break ground with a hammer. / The rolling of eyes is not / repetitive but a loop. / I / Am not one portrait but many....’ (FSC 753).

Like the idioms of the personal and the private, the banality and stagnation of theoretical discourse is foregrounded (perhaps unintentionally), exposing the void of its own intellectual voice: ‘All that occurs is unstable. / Sudden electric potential / To enable new encounters. / A cluster of rules, / summary....’ (FSC 756) and ‘Only information needed gives. / Rectangular surface said / Vectors in this direction, / A twist of fate. / Facts again....’ (his italics, FSC 757).

In short, Watten, with a sobering and unsettling dialectical artistry, makes a map of holes. The form — like Spicer’s, a mixture of allegory and montage — keeps the writing from being only alienation. He plays back our estrangement by recording the passing of codes which have a claim on permanence and truth: ‘I want this momentum to destroy any discourse on the way things work’ (‘Paralleles’ 73, in F).

Were this effort successful, however, there would be no further cause for Watten to write: ‘For if the world were only what it is, there would be no place for us’ (‘Conduit’ 151 in F). Like Genet, who was vocal not only about his need for the fetishistic power of the State to sustain his writing practice but also about the impotence of art itself to magically overthrow the social order (a conviction that didn’t stop him from participating in political demonstrations), Watten cannot fully subvert the myth of discourse that is constitutive of the dialectical process. Thus, he must (write his) fail(ure).

As the line succeeding the one just quoted shows, in an anti-climactic self-fulfilling irony, ‘[t]he opposite is beyond reach.’ Nothing can ever be totally dialectical and no statement, no language, will ever do justice to this situation for, as he writes in ‘City Fields,’ ‘[n]o one expression can adequately include all that is the case’ (F 146).

Given that ‘[t]he poetry is this distance’ (FSC 756), one cannot produce a close reading of the text (just as one cannot produce an exegesis of the loss for words) and it would be meaningless to attempt to do so, as if the poem contained some jigsaw puzzle to be composed out of its fragments: ‘You understand this perfectly, but can not translate it into anything else’ (‘Artifacts’ 119 in F). One must then analyze how such a work resists analysis, an activity as frustrating and necessary as trying to understand the world (and here the epic and formally mimetic character of Watten’s poetry unveils itself).

Indeed, the reader encounters obstructed instructions — ‘Remember to dial 999 in darkness or in smoke’ (‘Conduit’ 176 in F) — and unverifiable references — ‘The picture of you with Anwar Sadat’ (‘Direct Address’ 210 in F) — instead of embedded meanings, an absurd expectation in this

‘[m]useum tour / conducted by mutes’ (‘Position’ 29 in F). Metaphors lie as in ‘Institutions must be the seal / Of related bodies, / between / Doctor and patient a sign. / But the doctor is incoherent....’ (FSC 758) and generalizations backfire as in ‘All dogs have mothers. / Tropes / Aggravate, provoke, rile. / A package of 1,000 nettles / Built into a style of conquest....’ (FSC 754).

Watten’s extravagant negativity is the footprint giving away the allegorical pathways taken by his work. According to the critic Angus Fletcher, ‘allegories are the natural mirrors of ideology’ (Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode 368), dramas whose dramatis personae are abstract concepts. The allegorical artwork is a cipher pointing cautiously to hidden meanings: ‘though allegory may be intended to reveal, it does so only after veiling a delayed message which it would rather keep from any very ready or facile interpretation’ (A 330). It proceeds from analysis and ‘does not accept the world of experience and the senses; it thrives on their overthrow, replacing them with ideas’ (A 323). Allegory moves from universal to particular, as opposed to metaphor which is designed to arrive at the universal through particulars. Metaphors communicate wholeness, while allegories focus attention on disjunction. As Fletcher argues, ‘the mimetic poet using metaphor is trying to understand nature; his art attempts to bring about catharsis of spent emotion.

By means of his ’message’, on the other hand, the allegorical poet is furthermore trying to control his audience. He seeks to sway them by magic devices to accept intellectual or moral or spiritual attitudes (A 192). Allegory, as a more rigorous and totalizing form of mimesis than metaphor — a ‘poetry of strict correspondences’ (A 322), is an attempt to take control over nature, not to just represent it. Or rather, by miming what is abstract — society, history, nature — the allegorist, like the fetishist, can defend him or herself against it.

Fletcher says ‘[w]hen ritual constitutes the only available means of mental survival, and when furthermore physical survival is being threatened, this secret mental survival is better than none at all [...] and the allegorical ritual (e.g., a monotonously paratactic order of sentences) does in fact alleviate any such tension’ (A 345, 347). The strategies of Watten (and some of the other language poets) have their origin in the most primitive psychology of magical techniques.

Ultimately I cannot help but remain ambivalent about Watten’s writing, because, despite its dialectical process-oriented nature, its horizon glows with a pessimism and doom about which it can express little urgency: ‘Of standard dimensions, / agreed. / The age of annihilation is / Pouring out in sterilized / Milk of recombined genes....’ (FSC 755). I doubt whether this poetry can be of any solace, except of an intellectual kind, in these times when ‘[w]e have no time for ancestors.... // Now that I live in caves’ (FSC 755) and ‘[e]veryone looks, while no one can be found’ (‘City Fields’ 143 in F). (An analogy rears its curious head here: language writing is to certain literary communities and academic circles what rap music is to the ghetto, and both genres are received similarly by most outsiders as a noisy, senseless barrage of signifiers sounding all alike). Compare this jaded, irony-heavy yet ‘neutral’ (and death-simulating) stanza in Watten’s ‘Non-Events’ (F 20):

Zero measures the invisible future.
False stars correct brain distortion
           until a solid body changes its mind.
           Blind roads bridge raised eyebrows
as fictional wheels pursue billboard tunnel.
Stage illogic plays on blank wall effect
           and new paint. Abstract utensils fade
           through mass production of primitive need.

to Creeley’s heartbreaking simplicity as in the poem ‘Oh Mabel’ (CP 577):

Oh Mabel, we
will never walk
again the streets
we walked in
1884, my love
my love.

Despite its mechanical impersonality, the obliteration of the human is not total in Watten’s poetry. As in Coolidge’s and Eigner’s poems, the minute traces of the human in his work are all the more magnified for their scarcity: ‘A large young woman sobs in a steaming hot bath’ (‘Relays’ 125 in F). There is not the gleeful pummeling of the text (and the reader) with syntactic disruptions so characteristic of most derivative experimentalism. Nor is there the flirtation with the complete, easy disposal of referential or mimetic elements as in, say, the work of P. Inman whose ‘writing in poetry’ or verse appreciation limits itself to playing with the aesthetic and sonic qualities of words. Inman’s poems reveal how the materiality of language — in the cause of a pure Cartesian cerebrality, the mind as sign freed from the body as referent — can be as spell-binding, mesmerizing, absorbing (and boring) as the expressive voice or as any other all-consuming thematic concern. Indeed, such foregrounding of linguistic materials ‘as such’ has become the criteria according to which writers are judged to be experimental and innovative and therefore ‘good’.

As Douglas Messerli declares in the introduction to his gluttonous 1,100 page anthology, repeating into the ground what has been said 11,000 times before, these writers ‘are all extremely attentive to the ways in which language determines meaning and experience both for reader and writer’ (FSC 34). Such redundancy and innovation for innovation’s sake-ism could in fact be the final nail in the coffin of the literary avant-garde, at least in its twentieth-century skin. For the next century to have a viable vanguard, the romanticization and valorization of textuality, the love/hate relationship with language, will have to give way to the impartial destruction of that rhetoric-enchanted romance and the creation of structures in and through which language, though it may be ‘all around’ us, can be seen as just another thing, event, or relation in and of the world, just as we are another inside this gorgeous, monstrous universe that is greater than we will ever be able to say.

Maybe then, to paraphrase Watten from a few paragraphs ago, language could actually walk through the door rather than have to continue to live up to our definitions of it (e.g., Norman Fischer’s ‘language is not an object and contains no objects’ (A8 46), a statement that would seem to conflict with both his and Watten’s notion, derived from Russian Formalism, of ‘the self-sufficiency of the sign’). Then perhaps language would not have to perform theoretical magic spells by playing, marionette-style, both god and the devil on the shrinking (or is it expanding?) literary stage. Breathe freedom, oh, my readers....


In an essay entitled ‘Nonnarrative / History,’ included in the anthology Onward: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Watten discusses other possibilities of ‘temporal organization’ than those offered by conventional narrative modes. As opposed to most of his contemporaries — who perhaps take too far Olson’s maxim that ‘[a]rt does not seek to describe but to enact’ ... ‘the act of the instant’ not ‘the act of thought about the instant’ (‘Human Universe’ 61, 54 in Selected Writings of Charles Olson) and are therefore unable to conceive poetry as both the presentation of one or more past instance(s) from the world outside the text and simultaneously the instance — Watten’s interest in writing poems cannot be separated from his interest in writing history, a ‘history of the present’ .... a practice reminiscent of who but Olson! The significance of this conjunction becomes clear when approaching the present problem of how to write the history of a literary movement which sought not only to discard narrative but also, as I just indicated, free the poem from the referential subordination to all past events and future anticipations, if not historical time itself.

Like the writing of poetry and history, narration and nonnarration are inextricably bound together for Watten, and much of the first part of his essay is devoted to analyzing the specific ways by which poems by language-centered writers (Hejinian and Mac Low in this case) manipulate narrative means for nonnarrative ends. Their methodology operates not unlike the way speechlessness frames the various kinds of speech in Watten’s own work. ‘Nonnarrative,’ writes Watten, ‘includes a number of forms of discourse that are not simply the negating of narrative. Nonnarratives are forms of discursive presentation in which both linear and contextual syntax exist but where univocal motivation, retrospective closure, and transcendent perspective are suspended, deferred, or do not exist. [...] Nonnarratives may subtend, deform, or even enable narrative, while leaving open questions of motivation, transcendence, and closure’ (O 388, 389).

Watten proceeds to analyze the debate among historians, such as Hayden White and Louis O. Mink, regarding what he calls ‘the ethical dilemmas of historical transparency’ (O 394). This dilemma of how to best write what ‘exceeds the language of representation’ (O 394), and what nonetheless has been temporally designated as history and spatially determined as the real, is the historical question that poetry must attempt to answer in writing a ‘history of the present’. One does not get there by simply getting rid of narrative. The complex everyday relay of narrative and nonnarrative time, ‘recurrence and feedback’ (A8 38), introduced by the historicizing and de-historicizing (and de-territorializing and re-territorializing) powers of contemporary mass media demands a more careful response.

‘[T]he commercials interrupting war footage [of the Persian Gulf],’ Watten explains, ‘segued between sound bites [Raymond] Williams saw as guaranteeing the formal totality of mass communication create overdetermining effects whereby discontinuity just is the guarantee of narrative [my italics]. Any history of the present will have to take this paradox of interrupted, overdetermined, and undermotivated narrative into account’ (O 397). It is apparent to Watten that ‘other forms of temporal organization’ (O 398) — forms other than conventional narrative or the Olsonian epic, the latter having transformed its own slide into nonnarrative and death into a surrogate ‘account of such incommensurate events’ (O 402) of history — are needed to make history (and poetry) today, a time that could either be nothing more than the present, or everything but the present.

The timeliness of Watten’s essay can be seen in his consideration of the temporal dimensions of writing when the question of time in poetry has been all but elided by the atemporal — ‘no missing past, no extracurricular present, no extraneous expectations or false visions of a future,’ as summarized by Bob Perelman in his counter-response in ‘Readings & Responses’ (42 in The Impercipient Lecture Series vol.1 No.4, 1997) — yet historically determinate poetics of the language movement and its decidedly anti-narrative yet itinerary-driven ‘progressive tradition’. The future of the avant-garde or of any radical poetry would thus seem to rest in the examination of the production of temporal differences — i.e., the love/hate of the present (moment) and of time itself in the case of language poetry — by previous avant-garde formations and in the discovery of new ways of writing time (‘making it new’) and making history (representing the evolving time-sense of modernity) beyond the obsolete temporal dichotomy of new and old and modern and postmodern.

Secondly, Watten’s essay, as I hinted at two paragraphs ago, brings into focus the problem of how one would write or narrate the history of the language movement. Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History is one such attempt at a major retrospective look and one that has been met with some dissension among fellow writers not at all directly opposed to the phenomenon under question, as testified by ‘Readings & Responses,’ a transcript of papers given at a symposium centered around Perelman’s book.

[Note: The ‘Readings & Responses,’ transcript, featuring papers by Steve Evans, Ron Silliman, Ann Lauterbach, Juliana Spahr, Bob Perelman, and Kate Lilley, is available in Jacket # 2.]

Perelman’s strategy has come under attack for its being written and catered to an academic audience which, because of its institutional allegiance, would not be able to tolerate the too meaningful meaninglessness posed by language writing, as argued by Silliman in ‘Readings": ‘What might this book have become had it been written for poets instead of as a strategy for professional advancement? Almost certainly it would have turned the present text inside out. It would embrace — rather than attempt contain and explain away — the question of meaninglessness’ (11–12). The book does have a brochure-like quality to it, as if it were a tourist guide for academics, so to speak, another kind of ‘wrap-up’:

The development of presses — Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba chapbook series; Geoff Young’s press, The Figures; Barrett Watten’s This Press; James Sherry’s Roof Press — established something of a complete literary environment for language writing. This development can be interpreted variously. The completeness of its self-management allowed for immediate access to publication and review, which in turn encouraged large-scale projects and formal variety. Most importantly this created a sense that writing was public: breaking open new territory and entering and changing literary history seemed synonymous.

But there was a reverse side to such autonomy: language writers were often accused of being a clique, writing for, reviewing, and publishing each other. Such characterizations can easily be applied to the poetic mainstream, of course. If looked at in detail, the publishing histories of the presses and magazines give evidence of a cohesive group with porous boundaries.

The initial phase of language writing is over; the careers of the participants continue; there is still widespread interest in and controversy over the issues that were raised. These issues were and are still being raised in specific, compelling acts of writing. The issues and the writing will be my concern here.       (MOP 16-17)

Perelman does attempt to describe the communal process of production at the root of language writing as in his anecdote of the ‘automatic listening’ practiced by Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, and himself in San Francisco in the late 1970s: ‘[o]ne of [them] would read from whatever books were handy and two of [them] would type. These roles would rotate; occasionally, there would be two readers reading simultaneously to one typist’ (MOP 32).

Although Perelman does not ‘want to make claims for this process as representative [my italics] of language writing,’ he wants ‘the extremity of this process, where reading and writing, hearing and producing words were so jammed together, to emblematize an important collaborative element of the beginnings of the language movement’ (MOP 33). The aim of such production would therefore seem to be to make production and use value (who wrote what, in what context, and why) unreadable, unrepresentable — which may answer my early question as to whether or not a text full of disrupted syntax makes it impossible to tell if such disruption has worked.

men at work sign

The analogy here is to commodity production wherein the complex labor and temporal coordination involving disparate human and material resources that each go into the manufacturing of a specific product are erased once the product hits the market, or, in the case of the production of literary meaning, once the words hit both the page and the eyes/ears of the hybrid writer/reader in ‘the instant that language crosses over into discourse’ (Silliman in ‘Readings’ 9).

In fact, Watten’s account of the language movement, as we’ll soon see, makes use of this analogy to see in its poetic production the foregrounding, if not the total mimesis, of just such a process of commodity production, which, by remaining a process, also short-circuits that smooth, hidden production of erasures characteristic of commodification by making them visible, by not erasing them.

Moreover, according to Perelman, ‘[s]uch a separation [“between advanced writers and benighted readers”] is what the movement wants to overturn. A public is addressed not as readers but as writers. The formalisms and disruptions of convention that variously mark language writing function to remind readers that they are also producers and not just receivers of language’ (MOP 36). Again, that Perelman is writing these words mainly for an academic market — despite his hailing of ‘[t]hose who teach literature (half of [his] presumed readers here, along with poets)’ (MOP 60) — and not to writers or artists poses the question of whether or not such a project of desegregation has been successful even within the movement itself. Given the split that Perelman, without investigating into the matter, seems to create or perpetuate along gender lines between men-as-theorist and women-as-practitioner, as pointed out by Ann Lauterbach in her ‘Readings’ response, one wonders if the separation has actually been overturned or just momentarily ‘jammed’.

In the end The Marginalization of Poetry reveals the pitfalls that lie in the path of the attempt to write a more or less disinterested literary history by one who helped make that history. It obscures the achievements and failures of its subject by not risking the identification of those failures and achievements, even though Perelman does provide critical and skeptical rather than merely descriptive treatments, for instance, of works by Grenier, Bernstein, and especially Andrews. Watten, likewise, is read ambivalently for ‘the distance by which Progress attempts to master the political field’ with ‘antiflags [which] will remain negative subsets of Old Glory’ (MOP 127).

In speaking of the manifesto-like article that he and other language poets published in Social Text in 1988 entitled ‘Aesthetic Tendency and The Politics of Poetry,’ Perelman offers something of a disclaimer for the entire book and its distance: ‘We could not narrativize the entire, amorphously defined group and simultaneously embody the subject of such a narrative’ (MOP 35). Here, the unavoidable question of representation, the one that literary histories must erase, returns to haunt a production of history — the language movement — that is simultaneously united and divided on how literary history should be made and changed. Hence we are offered, as a surrogate solution to this problem of the either/or divide between individual and collective, the erasure of the difference between producer and consumer of history, between writer and reader.

To truly end the alienation and separation between those who are subject to representations and those who produce them, the production of history would either have had to be disinterested in the first place, or (that) history would have to cease, the literary assembly lines come to a halt.

The last quote by Perelman expresses the temporal alienation all literary movements, like all workers under capital, experience; in so far as the movement produces its product, poetry-as-theory-as-history, its practitioners cannot be part of it. History is the workplace they do not own but constantly keep running, the home they do not live in but make livable. Their time of production — language, writing — remains unreadable in the substitute light of their own representation, the theoretical discourse of that production. Groups and movements must identify and sell themselves or else be faced with having this done to them as shown by the confusion over the ‘language’ tag, which was itself a form of publicity.

The contradiction or conflict between theory and practice, constitutive of artistic alienation (and thus, to a certain degree, production), seems to be what the language poets wanted to change most about literary history, in their effort to take on the whole literary field, even as they embodied that contradiction everywhere in the relationship between their own writing and its representative poetics. By not ever resolving that contradiction (and leaving it up to the younger generations to deal with it), they were, and still are, able to keep making history.

As they struggled to (re)write literary history, they labored to make poetry into an ongoing process safe from change and history, a process of freeing writing from time so that what would be left on the page would be an ironically transcendent materiality and self-referentiality where alienation ends and reader and writer can merge. The secret religiosity of language poetry shares much with the signified-demythologizing project of deconstruction whose sublime signified is, of course, deconstruction. Language in language poetry becomes the savior who (metaphorically) saves and crucifies and makes the difference hard to tell. Just ask Jack Spicer, who actually lived his metaphors and paid for it with his life. Or so I’ve been told.

Watten’s account of the language movement in ‘The Bride of the Assembly Line: from Material Text to Cultural Poetics’ (The Impercipient Lecture Series, vol.1 no.8, 1997) begins with a cognitive mapping of contemporary Detroit — a kind of car crash scene still colliding — from the perspective of that city’s symbolic offspring, the automobile. In contrast to Perelman’s monograph, he accelerates into a diagnosis of experimental writing’s currently stalled state. There has been, in Watten’s view, a ‘turning toward a skeptical abstraction in a way that presumes a value of language as critique but that refuses cultural engagement in more explicit terms’ (BAL 3). Furthermore,

This lower-case formalism has led, beyond a defunct politics satisfied to claim that the reader is ‘empowered’ to make meaning from material texts, to a poetics of ‘possibility’ — that to say what writing wants to accomplish as politics is the same as to do it; that to describe literary possibility is to represent a form of agency, in a circular fashion, as a critique of representation. It is, thus, claims for the possibility of form rather than the specificity of form; or the possibility of language rather than a specific use of language; or the possibility of critique instead of a specific politics; or the possibility of difference rather than a specific difference, that characterizes the current aporia of our collectively dialogic, site-specific and time-valued, manifold poetics. A mediated attempt to construct polity out of representation of possibility contained within aesthetic form risks reproducing the liberal dynamic of inclusion or denial — and thus a return to a poetics of expressive subjectivity that just wants to add its difference to the mix (even if realized in a new, but still codified and restrictive, set of techniques).     (BAL 3-4)

Watten presents Charles Bernstein’s recent essay, ‘Poetics of the Americas,’ from the journal Modernism/Modernity 3.3 (1996) 1-23, as an example of this flawed attempt to construct a transcendent category of the non-normative. Bernstein tries to build a politics solely ‘out of representation of possibility contained within aesthetic form’ and to ‘create an imagined community of nonstandard language users’ (BAL 6) whose language he calls ‘ideolectical,’ a language and poetry that he proposes to replace or subsume the dialect-based poetries and languages of the marginalized and oppressed members of various ethnicities and identities who inhabit the ‘New World’ if not the globe.

In opposition, Watten argues for ‘a cultural poetics that rejects a universalist distinction between “normative” and “nonstandard” modes of writing and that thus requires, as a form of politics, a specific history of difference’ (BAL 6-7). If Bernstein’s desire to found a community whose unity lies in its ‘partiality and disregard for the norm, the standard, the overarching, the universal’ (BAL 5) doesn’t immediately strike one as ridiculous (or racist, i.e., ‘your language isn’t good enough yet’) for its overarching rhetoric, its totalizing intellectual dialect, then Watten’s elucidation of a point I have been trying to hit home throughout this essay should do the job.

Bernstein, as usual, cites Stein as an ideal example of ideolectical writing for she ‘does not depend upon supplemental literary or narrative contexts to secure her meaning’ (BAL 8). This reductive reading, according to Watten, ‘[leaves] to one side the realist concerns of her early writing, as well as the public values of her late career’ (BAL 8). ‘It is here,’ Watten says pointing out the fundamental contradiction, ‘that the defense of a contextless, synchronic [or atemporal], formal modernism always [his italics] betrays an underlying teleology, its developmental account of the achievement of form, as a politics of denial’ (BAL 8-9). Bernstein’s need to mark difference reveals itself to be the urge to abolish difference.

Even more ironic is Bernstein’s ‘characterization of the identity politics that nonstandard writing struggles against — “rigidly territorializing clannishness and paralyzingly depoliticizing codicity” — [a characterization which] ends up repeating precisely the terms of Poetry Flash’s routine attacks on the San Francisco Language School’ (BAL 10). Paraphrasing the critic Charles Altieri, Watten accuses Bernstein (as well as Andrews, both part of Language School New York Local 101) of ‘being caught between a nostalgic investment in the transformative potential of modernist form, with its disruption of referentiality, and the impossibility of basing a representational politics on a critique of representation’ (BAL 10).

To Altieri, ‘Bernstein’s call for a politics of impossibility [...] looks [...] like the postmodern aporia itself’ (BAL 11), since, while modernism was able to distinguish itself from modernity, the distinction (if there ever was one) between postmodernism and postmodernity has imploded as difference and nonstandardness have become synonymous with both politics per se and transgression in order to conceal a disavowed homogeneity. Indeed, what could be more normal and predictable now, at the end of these reissued 90s, than that which every cultural style and product tries to sell itself as — the alternative?

Watten’s goal, in this anti-contextual context, is to ‘go back and reread modernism for its moments of social [his italics] reflexivity,’ (BAL 12) moments which both Altieri and Bernstein ignore in their reduction of modernism to a critique of representation, an internal exit out of modernity. ‘[M]odernism,’ Watten argues, ‘is best imagined not retrospectively, as a politics of form, but prospectively, as the site of an emerging cultural order that structures ways of feeling, thinking, and imagining difference within modernity [my italics]’ (BAL 12).

Stein and her relationship to her Ford automobile, or rather, her work’s mimesis of the assembly line production that built the car, serves as Watten’s moment of ‘social reflexivity’: ‘Stein saw in Ford’s modern poetics of repetition a mode of production that was, in explicitly literary terms, analogous to her own modernist one’ (BAL 14). Her ‘analogy’ between literary form and the mode of production fuses words and things; both are material, but neither is a source of value apart from their organization in a form.

Altieri’s citation of the standard opposition between modernism and modernity, in which literature enacts a critique of reification, fails to explain Stein’s meditation on cars, or embrace of Ford’s methods of organization, in her work (BAL 15). Thus her innovative technique of ‘abstraction is a consequence of social relations; it is a mediation of form within modernity, not a site of transcendental reflection offering a critical distance opposed to it’ (BAL 16).

(One may see here an attempt by Watten to justify his own writing which proceeds via distanciating, defamiliarizing modes while offering no distance from history or, even more so, from distance itself).

In my opinion, however, Stein’s writing most resembles the Ford car not in its assembly line production but in the driving of it. Much of Stein’s work has a powerful, steady ‘cruising’ quality to it — long swerving sentences and paragraphs punctuated by brief stops and changes in direction — all made possible by its expansive and mutating horizontal metonymy. I am reminded of her observation in The Geographical History of America of the visual similarities between plane-intense Cubist painting and the abstracted natural landscape and vast sectioned farmland of the Great Plains as seen from the window of an airplane — another instance of social reflexivity, if only incidental.

Still, Stein’s writing does seem to be about production and, in its organization of form, imitate the automated, incremental, and repetitive processes of modern industry. In this sense, her poetry engineers an experience of the generation of spatio-temporal movement and meaning as if we, in the act of reading, we’re riding or driving a car as it was being put together on the assembly line. The genius of Stein’s art can be glimpsed in the simultaneity of its self-referentiality and reflexivity coupled with an inclusiveness, a rhythmic magnetic pull by which any object or word can come into play and be encountered anew. Here’s a tongue-twisting mid-paragraph excerpt from How to Write where the writing seems to explicitly comment on its own progression and repetition as the writing takes place:

There is a narrative of seldom having had and coming to be which is it. Not to not to not to too alike like like alike they share like they prepare, can a letter place a letter can a letter place a tray can a letter place a letter can a letter be a way to have this arranged. Be arranged very well be arranged. Be arranged very well be arranged very well be arranged. They were not convinced that it was the same they were not convinced that it was the same they were not convinced that it was the same they were not convinced that it was the same. They accepted what they were convinced was not the same they accepted what they were convinced was not the same, they accepted what they were convinced was not the same they accepted what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same they replaced with what they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that which with they replaced what they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that which with they replaced what they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that with which they replaced that which they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that with which they replaced that which they were convinced was not the same it was as carefully chosen that with which they replaced that which they were convinced was not the same and this might be the name of ring around a rosy....(231)

The Fordist mode of production which sucks the life from the human labor sustaining it may very well have as another name, ‘Ring-a-Ring O’Roses,’ the uncanny children’s song that ends with the line ‘ashes, ashes / we all fall down’ — supposedly a reference to either the Black Death that ravaged Europe at the end of the Middle Ages or the Great Plague that arrived three centuries later.

In much of her work Stein appears to be sensuously parodying industry and the obligation to produce meaningfulness based on a model of nonsensuous utility. By emulating the mechanics of such industry — and all parodies may contain such emulations just as visual, as well as some linguistic forms of mimesis involve warding off the perceived threat of the mimed object by gaining power over the object’s image — she exposes the constructedness of (linguistic) meaning.

As Watten demonstrates in his essay, ‘An Epic of Subjectivation: The Making of Americans’ (Modernism/Modernity 5:2 (1998) 95-121)), Stein’s art incorporates other forms of social reproduction into its mimetic architecture: the Oedipal drama, bodily difference, ‘queerness,’ and the universal loss that underwrites all instances of individuation and identity formation. Her overwhelming generativity arises not only from her successful imitation of such reproductive processes but the parody of the failure of these institutions — Fordist industrialism and patriarchy — to bring about the stability and progress they claim to be manifestations and protectors of. In this mimesis of the failure of mimesis, she participates in ‘textual processes of identification and loss’ while proposing, in place of this failed telos, this false modernity, a ‘democratic politics of nonidentity’ (both EOS 117).

In opposition to the chronologies of Perelman and Silliman which posit Grenier’s famous slogan ‘I HATE SPEECH’ or his atemporal ideal of ‘the word way back in the head’ (BAL 18) as the originating rupture(s) that ushered in the movement, Watten sees in ‘Ford’s development of the mass production techniques that would change transportation’ an analogy for language writing since the creation of those techniques ‘was not an individual stroke of genius but the creative adaptation of the work of many predecessors’ (BAL both 17).

As ‘[t]he assembly line is a form of modernity that was never “invented”,’ ‘the Language School had no authorial origins, but began as a sequence of “improvements” within the form of organization that developed between writers in This’ (BAL 19) thus proving ‘that aesthetic form may be produced through a process of multi-authored reflexivity rather than single-authored invention’ (BAL 25). (One wonders whether or not Watten is trying to grab the originating authorial position as editor of This when there were other magazines that provided similar early forums for poetic dialogue and exchange, a few of which he mentions — Joglars, 0-9, tottel’s — and none of which he speaks of in any detail).

For Watten, a Stein-like poem by Coolidge (‘Made Thought’ from the first issue of This), offers an alternative to Grenier’s synchronic poetics by constructing ‘a duration in which meaning is made: “that which it once all but made but / for all as it is”’ (BAL 20). Watten’s statement that Coolidge’s autotelic writing ‘urged [him] on in an attempt to break the mold of the author-centered lyric toward a more contextually reflexive poetics’ (BAL 29) shows how hard the author- or genius-centered discourse of the artistic ‘breakthrough’ — now hiding under the rubric of discursive rupture — is to displace or break away from, recalling Tzara’s claim that his exercise of cutting up a newspaper and assembling the lines at random would nonetheless make a poem that resembled the author.

Moreover, Watten’s statement reveals, by contrast, that the time line of normative, individualist literary history tends to valorize vertical, inter-generational influence rather than those communal, conflictual and inevitably productive relationships that happen within generations. Whether Coolidge and Watten are members of the same generation is disputable as an almost ten-year difference separates their birth dates, but it is not hard to see that both ‘came of age’ in the 60s during the national crisis ignited by the Vietnam War.

In what is perhaps the definitive statement of his essay, Watten argues that in ‘Made Thought’ — and again this functions as a defense of his own poetry:

[w]ords are being broken down from language in a process of reification that duplicates the transformation of materials into commodities and the denaturing of human beings into labor. If there is an affirmative will, here, it is as both a distance from and a participation in modernity. In an almost algebraic sense, Coolidge’s text reenacts the way Henry Ford made cars, and the way workers came to live in Detroit. Such a poetics of analogy explains how cars entered Gertrude Stein’s material texts, along with a range of other effects of the destructive power of capitalist social relations, in her  politics of identity.(BAL 23-24)

While Watten goes on to argue that social reflexivity also occurs in Coolidge’s The Maintains, which uses the dictionary as its source for the writing (as ‘Made Thought’ may have based itself on the BASIC English lexicon) — an argument I don’t find very convincing — his tracing of an overall ‘poetics of analogy’ from the avant-garde ‘material texts’ of Stein to Coolidge is remarkable in both its refutation of the anti-mimetic stance assumed to be the theoretical staple of purist avant-garde experimentalism and his linking of the mimesis of assembly line production to a specific temporality: ‘the assembly line is first of all an economy of time’ that is constantly adjusting to its own ‘manifold improvisations’ (BAL both 32).

Because of its privileging of an anti-mimetic and atemporal poetics, the once vocally anti-capitalist Language School — like most poetries — cannot imagine itself as being ‘congruent with social production’ (BAL 34). The counter-intuitive analogy Watten draws between avant-garde poetry — with its historical ideals of a language (and author) liberated from the normative ideals of representation and utility — and the brutal routine of industrial labor thus serves ‘as a corrective to the idea of a dehistoricized norm against which nonstandard cultural responses are organized’ (BAL 33). For norms can change as fast as a nonstandard practice can ossify into one, ensuring that the Language School ‘may in turn end up reproducing itself as a new norm’ (BAL 33).

To prevent this assimilation to the mainstream — which is already happening to language writing — a radical poetry must, in the path blazed by who else but Stein, ‘imagine nonstandard identity as [more than] simply in opposition to norms’ (BAL 34) and more complexly as a dialectically mimetic process always evolving and adapting to the temporal rhythms and breaks through which modernity is written and ultimately unread by its unidentifiable dreaming subjects, its most uncertain natives. Imagination itself must be re-imagined, time made anew.


Leo Bersani’s and Ulysse Dutoit’s study entitled Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais will serve as the diving board or plank from which to leap into the third and final section of this essay — its dark, possibly bottomless deep end where, like a prehistoric Loch Ness monster, slides the lumbering question mark of mimesis.

Given the typically impoverished view of art and culture that the academy clings to, this book’s title should come as no surprise. Nor should it come as a surprise the authors’ attack on the authority of art, their praise for a strain of modernism that in renouncing art’s cultural authority takes up the cause of ‘cultural resistance’, and, last but not least, their own heavily authorial, thoroughly bourgeois-academic appropriation of this renunciation of an ‘appropriating consciousness’.

Art’s self-impoverishment translates smoothly into the self-enlargement or self-improvement of criticism. Theory buys out the ‘rapt attention’ that art once instilled in its audience — not that this is news — and does so especially in its eulogies on the death (or failure) of art, here portrayed negatively and metaphysically as the practice of speaking for ‘the real’. To academics like Dutoit and Bersani, Beckett’s and Rothko’s ascetic creations look desperately in need of the salvation of interpretation. These artists’ uttering of the death rattle of modernism is the music to their ears.

Even though ‘Resnais’ film [Mon Oncle d’Amerique] ascetically refuses to allow itself to be appropriated by us’ by ‘film[ing] the failure of mobility,’ just ‘as Beckett, especially in Worstward Ho, uses literature in order to deprive us of the pleasure of reading and Rothko, in the Houston chapel, paints in order to render us unable to see what he paints’ (AOI 175, 173, 160), Dutoit and Bersani, however, are still able to appropriate these works enough to relinquish their own need to understand them.

They do not try to understand these works beyond such a refusal and failure, and do not try to help us to understand them and their particular concoctions of autonomy in their historical contexts. Differences of class and education are never brought into the equation. Furthermore, this theoretical hysteria over the problem of expression and expressiveness has little relevance outside the mostly white academic world wherein it is expressed and wherein artworks which frustrate people’s faith in art are increasingly valorized.

Obviously, a viewer or reader for whom the reason Resnais’ films or Beckett’s writing or Rothko’s paintings remain inaccessible remains inaccessible will not be able to participate in such a lucrative ascesis and such a ‘spendidly narcissistic art [that] relieves us of the burden of discriminations, and in so doing it creates the intellectual ambiance most favorable to a loss, or suspension, of that assumption on which all particular acts of discrimination rest, the assumption of an individualizing (self-discriminating) ego’ (AOI 142, their italics).

These three artists — who ‘have renounced the temptation to fascinate us with hints of any treasure of sense whatever’ (AOI 175) and whose work’s difficulty ‘inhibits our movement toward it in order to take its measure’ (AOI 4) — stand as examples of an alternative to what Bersani calls the ‘culture of redemption’. This culture, presumably bourgeois culture, ignores art while bestowing upon it an unquestioned heuristic and salvational power through which art, and the culture it legitimizes, can claim ‘mastery over the real’.

One immediately wonders whether or not Bersani and Dutoit are doing the same: injecting, via their self-absorbed (though allegedly anti-individualistic, anti-egoistic) rhetoric, a redemptive value into the art of their modernist anti-heroes, while ignoring the universal source of art (i.e., lived experience) and its wealth of other possibilities, possibilities that inevitably fail to register on the radar of critical pedagogy. These artists — whose work ‘discourages the authoritative and knowledge-hungry ego of [their audience]’ (AOI 7) — would seem chosen for their ability to free academics, rather than the public, of their professional curse, i.e., the hell of the duty to know, to master the real in a society in which the conditions of such knowledge are the cause of so much alienation.

Such are the tracks encountered when attempting to hunt down, in the manner of the Munchhausean trick of identifying the nonidentical, the paradoxical animal of the redemptive project whose goal is to save us from the need to be saved.

In many ways Bersani and Dutoit affirm a practice homologous to the ‘skeptical abstraction’ Watten criticizes with regards to Bernstein’s anti-mimetic poetics of nonstandard language use. Rothko’s paintings, for instance, are entirely auto-mimetic, or self-referential, in that they ‘cannot seem to find a subject other than the conditions preparatory to making a subject visible’ (AOI 105):

Their mimetic intention, unlike that of most mimetic art, does not depend on images in the viewer’s memory. What is being imitated is within our visual field as we look at the painting: it is the rectangular shape of the canvas itself, as well as of the room in which the painting is hung. Rothko paints that which supports his paintings; the world that the paintings represent ends in the rooms in which they are displayed. (AOI 134)

But through their death-simulating ‘arrested forms’ and a ‘suicidal narcissism [that] has been sublimated into a spectacle’ (AOI 102,144), Rothko’s paintings also approach a ‘poetics of analogy’, or allegory, as outlined by Watten. One could argue that Rothko, through the opacity of his work, produces an empty allegory of the spectacle itself, the ruins of sight, a melancholic portrait of both the expansion of and degradation of vision. By painting that which blinds us to our own historical situation in the moment of our blinding — the endlessly theorized yet unrepresentable ground of postmodernity — he confirms ‘the Beckettian claim that the artist has nothing to express or communicate’ (AOL 128) except this inescapable situation.

The consequence of such a reading is an interminable tautology set on permanent countdown to auto-destruct. The artist cannot represent the condition of its own inability to represent this condition through his or her art. This hopelessly knotted dead end motivates Bersani and Dutoit to mumble unsupportable, idealist grandiosities that very well might have earned Beckett’s scorn for being ‘expressive of the impossibility to express’ (AOI 19):

Art thus demystifies philosophical dichotomies between the metaphysical and the physical by making concrete the indeterminate nature of being, an indeterminacy otherwise obscured in the empirical space of realized forms. Rothko’s art takes place on the unlocatable — yet somehow concretized — threshold between being and presence.  (AOI 121)

The chapel’s renunciation of its visuality allows us, paradoxically, to see a mode of consciousness wholly at odds with the enforcing of ego boundaries. Under the pressure of that blinded seeing, the viewer’s self can momentarily be reduced to the cognition of consciousness and the world — of the self and nonself — as nonoppositional, as boundary-free fusions or, in other terms, the cognition of being as incommensurable with identities.  (AOI 140)

These statements remind me of Michel de Certeau’s criticism of the concepts of ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu) and ‘power’ (Foucault), concepts which, by functioning as empty centers, imaginary phalluses — a rather redundant term I must say — stabilize these critics’ systems by ironically remaining both ubiquitous and unlocatable, everywhere invisible.

Even more ironic is the assertion that Rothko’s ‘frame paintings’ — and need I refresh your memory of the title of Watten’s selected poems — Frame? — ‘express nothing more, are about nothing more, than the sterile anticipation of a Subject’ (AOI 126). This waiting for the messiah of content — or is it the viewer who is being waited for? — would seem to make the artwork in which it was dramatized complicitous with the culture of false redemption Dutoit and Bersani believe Rothko resists.

The relentless sterility of capitalist culture may very well be what Rothko is in fact miming. His paintings imitate moreso than ‘subvert’ — in the manner of a Warhol without images — the homogeneity of commodity production in which art is also enveloped and framed, thereby becoming, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy, ‘the rigorously secular endgame in a trajectory of perceptual impoverishment’ (AOI 137). In this way, Rothko’s work fulfills Adorno’s demand that ‘art must incorporate its own decline’ (AT 320), embody its time in ruination, thus revealing how the ‘cult of the new, and thus the idea of modernity, is a rebellion against the fact that there is no longer anything new’ (Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life 235).

Autonomy, irony and critical distance — the conditions for this kind of art — are, however, gotten at the expense of explicit engagement with the terms that necessitate their achievement. Rothko’s painting, in its blunt, head-on indecisiveness, expresses the Hamlet-like dilemma of a modern art sundered by mimetic and anti-mimetic impulses — the desire to see or not to see, the urge to write or fall silent (or speak via muteness), the need to make art or destroy it (or rejuvenate it) by divesting itself of its own authority. He attains a frustrated transcendence, caught between the competing tugs of mimesis and autonomy.

Beckett’s (and Watten’s) writings suffer from (the awareness of) the same fate as well as from the masochistic vacillation — masochistic in that they cannot choose between vacillating and choosing, nor between masochism and the refusal of it — which also propelled Rothko’s art. Bersani and Dutoit speak of Beckett’s ‘dream of failure’ (AOI 12), his neverending attempt not to signify, a modernist tendency perhaps with its roots in Flaubert’s anti-mimetic fantasy of writing a ‘book about nothing’, and his desire to ‘break [...] not only [...] with culture but with our very capacity for articulation’ (AOI 20). Beckett himself writes:

As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it — be it something or nothing — begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. (AOI 22)

This totalizing, anti-mimetic drive to ‘eliminate language,’ to arrive at a state ‘when verbal sequences can longer be totalized,’ (their italics, AOI 23), when language can no longer be taken over and exploited by discourse (and one wonders if Beckett has succeeded or failed in this endeavor given his academic acclaim), seems to me an ironic attempt to locate the mimetic nucleus of language, the very foundations of expression and relation hidden in that ‘treasure of sense’ we are supposedly being denied by the writing.

And yet, as if to multiply the paradox exponentially, Beckett’s ‘subversion of relationality’ which ‘breaks down formalistically inspired distinctions between art and reality’ rests on his Cartesian ‘intuition into the inconceivable nature of any relations whatsoever between consciousness and objects’ (AOI all 25). We are again caught in the loophole of not being able to speak for or about our inability to speak for or about anything.

If any sense can be salvaged from Bersani’s and Dutoit’s hyper-idealist analysis — an ahistorical and textually essentialist reading that tries to bolster the argument for ‘the inherent unrelatedness of art to the world of objects’ and for the evil of narrative as ‘domesticating the relation between objects and human subjects as a relation between representees and representers’ (their italics, AOI 26, 89) — it will be found in Beckett’s striving for a mimesis of the experience of alienation from language itself that is congruent with, in Watten’s terminology, ‘social production’.

Encapsulating so much of what is wrong with Modernism (and its post- variants) in a few words, Dutoit and Bersani speak of the essential ‘unrelatedness’ of things when it is obvious by just being alive that nothing cannot relate, nor can anything not communicate or correspond. Language is the object or ‘real’ that Beckett wants to fail to exert mastery over because it has been used by the powers that be to make us believe in the lie of the unrelatedness of things. Like Rothko and his paintings’ ghostly imitations or representations of their own conditions of production and reception (i.e. the canvas, the frame, the museum wall), Beckett creates texts that narrate the struggle not to narrate and, therefore, the failure of that struggle.

In his famous play, Waiting for Godot, for example, ‘waiting for drama has become the object of dramatic representation,’ while ‘[i]t is both theater and existence as rehearsal or repetition that Endgame mimetically originates’ (their italics, AOI 29, 49). In this way Beckett acknowledges, not disavows, the relation, however alienated, between his audience and the actors, their mutual anticipation of the future which is our only possibility for salvation even as it is always in the future. Moreover, in referring to his radio plays, Bersani and Dutoit write:

By personifying the sounds a radio listener hears (Words and Music are the characters of Words and Music), Beckett’s plots simply repeat that combination of expectation, uncertainty, control, and passivity with which we turn the knob to programs at once wholly independent of that gesture and, in a sense, nonexistent without it. Words and Music and Cascando in particular are stupefyingly literal allegories. And the allegorical here is not a dramatic mode of psychological or moral analysis; rather, it is a way of making audible the moves and relations that are the conditions of possibility of what takes place in radio.  (AOI 53)

Rather than creating a kind of temporary autonomous zone insulated from the ‘culture of redemption’, Beckett’s work, in my opinion, looks this culture straight in the eye, sees how it keeps us from being whole by forcing us to search for an illusionary wholeness through ‘the unending repetition of its own origination’ (AOI 59) as diagrammed in How It Is, and, by boring holes into the sockets of language, reveals the secret truth of mimesis: that we’re all made of the same stuff. His writing parodies absurd attempts to conceal this truth via precisely that by which we are bound together as human beings — language — and, in many ways, to the universe as well.

On this point his writing has been consistently misinterpreted though Bersani and Dutoit do get it right when they say in the final sentence of their chapter on Beckett that he ‘beneficently mocks the accumulated wisdom of culture’ (AOI 91). We, too, are inseparably part of a void in which nothing — no matter how tiny or trivial or ugly or boring or alienating — is insignificant, yet in comparison to the rest we are insignificant. Forms of consciousness bearing the stamp of alienation, outside the blinders of convention and culture, whether gotten through drugs, art, sex, dreams and nightmares, or other mind-warping experiences, instantiate this cornerstone of life in the universe. Alienation turns out to be another link in the chain, another form of interconnectedness, albeit a ‘negative’ one — a failure that ultimately cannot help but fail. It is no wonder then that his writing should resemble something like a dark, hobbling Stein:

Suddenly enough and way for remembrance. Closed again to that end the vile jelly or opened again or left as it was however that was. Till all recalled. First finally by far hanging from their skirts two black greatcoats. Followed by the first hazy outlines of what possibly a hutch when suddenly enough. Remembrance! When all worse there than when first ill seen. The pallet. The chair. The coffer. The trap. Alone the eye has changed. Alone can cause to change. In the meantime nothing wanting. Wrong. The button-hook. The nail. Wrong. There they are again. Still. Worse there than ever. Unchanged for the worse. Ope eye and at them to begin. But first the partition. It rid they too would be. It less they by as much.  (Ill Seen Ill Said 52-53)

The inhospitability and anxiety of Beckett’s work is his mimetic response to an alienating society in which attempts to portray openly this society’s inhospitability are almost always seen as inhospitable and alienating. He represents the contemporary desolation (hidden under layer after layer of official mediaspeak and discourse) of not being able to represent what it means to both represent and not represent, to speak and not to speak — not merely ‘the undesirability of accurate perception and accurate representation’ nor ‘the hopelessness of [his art’s] efforts not to be’ (AOI 11, 54).

These latter two perceptions would have us believe inaccurately that he is acritically representing an ahistorical alienation — ‘a consciousness imprisoned in its unrepresentable restlessness’ (AOI 75) — in the mode of psychological allegory. Beckett does not, contrary to what Dutoit and Bersani argue, represent ‘the deep structure of reciprocal torment that originally made the social possible,’ (AOI 63) but rather the historical moment at which we have become alienated from our sources of alienation and representation — society, language, each other — in a ‘monotony of terror.’ He performs a mimesis of our spiritual impoverishment by ‘put[ting] meaning on trial,’ (AT 153) as Adorno points out, but, unlike other modernists who conceived art as an alternative sacrament, cannot envision anything to supersede that impoverishment.

The troubling, convoluted and always paradoxical nature of mimesis and its role in artistic, not to mention ‘social’ production should be now fully apparent. My goal for the rest of this essay is to delve into that nature and, rather than give a close reading of the mimetic operations in his poetry (which would more or less mean repeating my analysis of Beckett), draw an analogy between Watten’s work and what has been called ‘blank generation fiction’ through which we can better judge the efficacy of not only his poetry but a sizable slice of the avant-garde and its history.

Two books, Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation Fiction by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney and Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction by John W. Aldridge will lay the groundwork for this investigation. The question of ‘blankness’ — in hindsight a leftover from existentialism’s post-WW II nothingness-obsessed heyday — has been central to debates about ‘postmodernism’, most notably in Fredric Jameson’s book by the same title.

Jameson’s generalization of the postmodern as a dominant cultural style of ‘late capitalism’ — characterized by depthlessness, lack of emotional affect and personality, acritical parody, blank irony and pastiche — applies more to the products of his academic environment than to the multicultural, multiethnic mix that comprises American (now global) popular culture as a whole, an ever-growing supercollider of cultural forms that has yet to be sapped by the tractor beams of the market.

Indeed, African-American culture, as has been pointed out by more than one critic, does not share any of the qualities identified as ‘postmodern’ by Jameson apart from pastiche, which can be seen in the use of samples by rap artists. Moreover, pastiche has very visible roots in early modernism — the collage experiments of the cubists and the montage techniques exploited by avant-garde filmmakers. Unsurprisingly, Jameson’s characteristics are descriptive of the commodity itself, ‘postmodern’ or not. The leaden blanket of commodification incessantly threatens to wipe out traces of life and labor from the creations it subjects to the ruthless dictation of capital.

Blankness, coldness, lifelessness — all of those attributes that artworks for centuries, despite historical and cultural differences, have more or less been shields against — would seem then to be something artists should resist harder than ever before, not something to cultivate or even imitate.

Here we approach the crux of the question this essay is the offspring of: What kind of formally mimetic (or defamiliarizing) art can adequately express alienation, atomization, reification, systematically random violence and murder — these structures of contemporary experience congruent with capitalist production, even as some of them may be constitutive of the ‘human condition’ — without merely regurgitating or, in Creeley’s words, perpetuating them? While some artists, such as Williams and Stein, may make use of mimetic tactics, their writing’s purpose is not to represent and frame the ‘negativity’ of social experience but to undermine that petrification of language, thought, and feeling.

The only other possibility, as I have argued throughout these pages and which for Adorno happens to be the only remaining possibility at all for modern art, is to perform a mimesis (whether by allegory or analogy or documentation) that — in the manner of Beckett, Reznikoff, Watten, as well as Creeley and Spicer to a degree — looks the enemy, the pain, the darkness, ourselves straight in the eye and whispers, under its breath, between the words .... take no prisoners. The author must be sacrificed upon the altar of an art littered with the lies of its culture, Sisyphus crushed by the crag of the ‘social’. In Watten’s case the ‘social’ is represented by an assembly line (as for Spicer it was a radio set).

As Watten explains, ‘[t]he detachment necessary for a valid work can be anticipated only on the level of form; De Kooning’s “I keep painting until I’ve painted myself out of the picture ...” indicates both the conditions of the work and its social fact’ (PAP 536).

In Talents and Technicians, professor John Aldridge lambasts a group of writers — including Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Barthleme among others — who have been associated under the rubric of the ‘blank generation.’ If they are not members of the same generation -  most of whom were born in the 50s — they at least share the same technically modest, emotionally quaint minimalist writing style that, as Aldridge remarks, has been promoted in the majority of graduate school writing programs across the nation.

In Aldridge’s opinion, the work of these writers suffers from a near total lack of criticality towards American culture even as it presents states of alienation and numbness that undoubtedly have their roots in this culture. In short, their stories ‘conceal the fact that they reveal nothing’ (TAT 64) or that they show nothing happening — the obverse of Stein’s everything-is-happening-all-the-time poetics.

He also finds no sense of history — except through the often excessive denotation of contemporary objects, lists and trivia which pervades the writing — on the part of these writers who, recalling Lukacs’ criticism of Beckett, compose a ‘polite nihilism’. Or as Edmund White says:

In one sense the refinement of the blank generation consists in not selling anything. No moral lesson, no message, no political outcry, no artistic slogan — nothing is insisted on and the voice is never raised. Indeed, this is a world governed by style alone and that style’s greatest conjunction is: Never say or do anything embarrassing.  (PAP 602)

In contrast to the ‘iconoclastic realism’ of their modernist predecessors, the still-life fiction of this group ‘bears very close resemblance to the scenic blips on television’ whereby ‘as a rule, no one feature of the depicted experience is given emphasis over another’ (TAT 30, 31). And while Aldridge argues that these writers ‘do not indicate in their work that they are aware of the ugliness and vapidity of the contemporary urban and suburban environment’ and so ‘take no critical attitude toward it,’ (TAT both 39) he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult to imagine how one can confront or resist an environment that puts up no resistance, that is open, bland, uniform, monotonous, and at the same time smoothly functional and accomodative like that of a modern housing development or shopping mall’ (TAT 40).

The result is an art without the frame of autonomy to insulate it against a nation, as Lorca writes in Poet in New York, ‘of deserted offices / that radiate no agony’ (Federico Garcia Lorca: Selected Verse 229). Product resembles environment so much so that ‘art’ and ‘life’ become indistinguishable from one another: ‘never is there a mischosen word, an inept phrase, a misplaced emphasis. It all has the sheer perfection of freshly laid concrete, as if it had all been produced at the same moment by the same machine’ (TAT 73), indeed, as if manufactured by an assembly line.

I could go on listing Aldridge’s (often accurate) complaints regarding the catatonic, depersonalized nature of this writing in which, as in a talk show, ‘problems’ and ‘issues’ and commodities rather than real people take center stage. One fragment of a passage in Ellis’s well-known Less Than Zero, a novel which was soon made into a movie after its publication, should get to the heart of the artistic dilemma of autonomy I’m trying to draw an outline of. The ‘scene’ depicts a snuff film being watched by the protagonist and narrator, Clay, and his affluent young friends:

There’s a young girl, nude, maybe fifteen, on a bed, her arms tied together above her head and her legs spread apart, each foot tied to a bedpost. She’s lying on what looks like newspaper.... The camera cuts quickly to a young, thin, nude, scared-looking boy, sixteen, maybe seventeen, being pushed into the room by this fat black guy, who’s also naked and who’s got a huge hardon.... The black ties the boy up on the floor, and I wonder why there’s a chainsaw in the corner of the room, in the background, and then has sex with him and then he has sex with the girl and then walks off the screen (TAT 138)

Despite the horrific (and perhaps implicitly racist) content of this episode there is no drama here. The snuff film, like the other scenes in the book, occurs with very little interference from anything or anyone else. They simply begin and stop, like the videotape itself, without commentary, almost without reaction, ‘insist[ing] that nothing is worthy of insistence’ (TAT 47). In other words, there is no sense of struggle or tragedy or real danger or suffering in the writing.

It is amazing to me how much the passage above echoes the lines from Reznikoff’s poem quoted at the beginning of this essay, how much of a void in spirit this same passage resonates with Watten’s writing regardless of the formal differences between them, and how this last quote by Aldridge easily could have been one of Dutoit’s and Bersani’s theorizations of Beckett’s work.

Reznikoff’s Testimony is, of course, different than Ellis’s novel because he writes about actual people. The poems are second-hand witness accounts of real deaths, not fiction. Reznikoff presents them in succession, one after the other, drawn from all spheres of life and achieves defamiliarization because he does this in a poetic form — more or less the direct opposite of a law report.

It is thus through their formal integrity and singularity that Beckett’s and Watten’s writing is saved from becoming mere perpetuation, acritical mimesis. One could, however, argue that blank generation fiction does not imitate ‘daily life’ so much as mimic the way the mass media packages it for our frozen, often acritical gaze. This would explain why most of these writers inundate the page with so much cliched speech, stock characters, stereotypical situations, and conventional plots — nothing exceptional or fantastic apart from an occasional snuff film or dead body in the case of which not much can be said or done.

This superficiality and diehard conventionality — the foregrounding of the impenetrable surface detail of our commercialized world — reminds me of Conrad’s strategy in Heart of Darkness for which the author, as Aldridge mentions, was accused of ‘adjectival fakery’ (TAT 47). But it is precisely in his mimesis and objectivation of the colonialist fantasy of the ‘dark continent’, the ‘epistemic murk’ as the anthropologist Michael Taussig would say, that he is permitted to create a disturbingly critical artwork of a world where ‘no longer is man the aim of production, but production is the aim of man’ (Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, 99).

Like Kafka’s stories, Conrad’s work passes as fantasy when it is, in fact, an example of realism, a point repeatedly emphasized by Adorno in Aesthetic Theory. And like Beckett and Watten, Conrad, by writing the monotony of terror, constructs an allegory of the mess.

In the majority of blank generation fiction it is as if the suspension of judgment on the part of the author (or narrator) results not in a more objective mimesis but instead in the narcissistic self-referentiality that Bersani and Dutoit so enthusiastically celebrate and by which we are denied (or freed from) the authority and obligation to judge the artwork and the society it cannot decide to hide from or within. It is a vacuity that covers up the void instead of revealing it.

Here we can spot the perilous strait wherein grow the Scylla and Charybdis of modern art: the more autonomous an artwork or artist is the more difficult it will be to perform a mimesis that criticizes the culture which threatens them, because they must negate that culture in the performance of their autonomy. This contradictory practice of mimesis and ‘negation’ — an art whose modus operandi is criticism via autonomy — cannot help but turn on itself and sabotage any affirmation of an alternative vision of the world.

This practice, therefore, does not break with the culture it opposes since it offers no other culture to succeed the one it wishes to depose. The authority required to reject authority over the real in the cause of artistic and intellectual freedom is gained at the expense of mimetic freedom.

Criticism concerning the vexed relationship between literature and American culture — a relation much more unstable and fraught with anxiety than, say, the one with music or even the visual arts — is nothing new. In the 1922 anthology entitled Civilization in the United States, the critic Van Wyck Brooks, in his chapter ‘The Literary Life,’ produces an argument nearly identical to Aldridge’s:

... When we consider the general colourlessness and insipidity of our latter-day life (faithfully reflected in the novels of Howells and his successors), the absence from it of profound passions and intense convictions, of any representative individuals who can be compared in spiritual force with Emerson, Thoreau, and so many of their contemporaries, its uniformity and its uniform tepidity, then the familiar saying, ‘Our age has been an age of management, not ideas or of men’, assumes indeed a very sinister import.....

Everything in such an environment, it goes without saying, tends to repress the creative and to stimulate the competitive impulses. A certain Irish poet has observed that all he ever learned of poetry he got from talking with peasants along the road. Whitman might have said almost as much, even of New York, the New York of seventy years ago [....] But what nourishment do they offer the receptive spirit to-day, the harassed, inhibited mob of our fellow-countrymen, eaten up with the ‘itch of ill-advised activity’, what encouragement to become anything but an automaton like themselves? And what direction, in such a society, does the instinct of emulation receive, that powerful instinct of adolescence? A certain visitor of Whitman’s has described him as living in a house ‘as cheerless as an ash-barrel’, a house indeed ‘like that in which a very destitute mechanic’ might have lived. Is it not symbolic, that picture, of the esteem in which our democracy holds the poet? (The Discontent of the Intellectuals: A Problem of the Twenties, 35-36, 37)

Commenting on the dual tendencies of American writers to either leave their homeland for Europe — in order to find refuge in its centuries-old legacy of high culture and tradition — or reject history entirely and focus on what is solely contemporary and local, Brooks again echoes Aldridge:

To escape from provinciality is good, provided we make distinctions; but, besides provinciality of place, there is also ‘time-provinciality’, as Professor Whitehead calls it. This is the illusion that to be modern is worth all the other virtues; and the great effort of these writers is to represent the last minute, as if to keep up with the mode were more important than any of the great realities of life and death. They make much of technical questions because they have little to say otherwise, and they sneer at the great writers of the past, as Henry James used to say that Tolstoy was not worth reading, as Eliot prefers to Milton a dozen obscure metaphysical poets. To exalt the inferior over the great, in the name of their technical virtues, is a way of defending their own weakness; and Gertrude Stein has reduced their position to the last absurdity. In her theory of esthetics, neither thought nor feeling matters. Nothing counts but the word-pattern, and the greatest thing in life is a nursery-jingle.  (DOI, 53)

This last comment on Stein is, of course, wrong and typifies the kind of criticism directed at her during that time. Stein passed as a ‘minimalist’ but was perhaps the most maximalist of all the modernists, at least in terms of linguistic constructions and experimentation, and did deal with a wide array of thematic and social subjects as The Making of Americans amply displays.

Brooks’s arguments emphasize how there is no simple solution to how best represent that side of American culture — puritanical, provincial, simple-minded, pig-headed and violent — whereby we get ‘the general colourlessness and insipidity of our latter-day life.’ I would interpret this ‘our’ as meaning those members of Brooks’s middle class, his male gender and whiteness, and would propose that the artistic questions I have raised in this essay — again, how to account for the spiritual poverty of much of this society — are mostly applicable to white, middle-class men. The Biblical saying ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ still waits for its answer.

The danger any contemporary artist faces in this situation is that of creating either a nihilism in which no alternative can be put forth and embodied — as Beckett and Watten come close to doing — or a romanticization in which the conditions of social inequality and oppression are legitimized, as Stein nearly does in Melanctha or as Williams almost does in his many meditations on the ‘pure products of America’, or some combination of the two.

Young and Caveney, in Shopping in Space, paint a more sympathetic picture of ‘blank generation’ fiction. Their topography of writers shares just a few (Ellis and McInerney) with Aldridge’s literary map and turns its attention to more gritty authors like David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who chronicled with great power the experience of growing up and surviving as a queer in the U.S., only to die of AIDS in 1992, a real martyr and witness to the darkest regions of American life.

Young’s chapters on Ellis, Wojnarowicz, and Dennis Cooper — perhaps the most extreme of the authors analyzed in the book, extreme for their trying to come to terms with and understand evil as manifested in our society — supply the more relevant material to this discussion. In Young’s opinion, ‘Ellis’s disinclination to invest character with meaning is a reflection of a society overloaded with the endlessly circulating signs and signifiers of consumerism which are themselves devoid of meaning and doomed to revolve forever without substance or hope of signification’... (SIS 30).

Like its more masculinist sister genre, ‘cyberpunk’ fiction, the formal affectlessness of the blank generation prose mimics the affectlessness of a cruelly mediatized world in which meaning and desire are continuously fabricated and annihilated:

Ellis manages to present in a very pure form the homogeneity of the modern world and its tendency to reduce people to characterless ciphers, to passive consumers. His characters are consumed by boredom, by apathetic dissatisfaction. They are frustrated and powerless. They are unable to see that their desires can never be fulfilled because these are artificially created in response to commodity relations.  (SIS 33)

But Young doubts whether Ellis’s ‘bleak vision’ can really represent the highs and lows of life as it is lived today: ‘Nevertheless it is possible to feel that the judgments about mass behaviour made by postmodern theory, and indeed by Ellis himself, have an inhumane and even snobbish aspect and that people have rather more ‘authenticity’ in their lives and emotions and are less vulnerable to hyperreal blandishments than it might appear’ (SIS 38). ‘Savagely puritanical, Ellis selects his horrors and presents them within a patina blanded-out indifference’ (SIS 40) and thus does not break with the culture he is criticizing but takes it so seriously as to copy it in a spectacle of the spectacle. Autonomy, again, seems to be forfeited for mimesis.

In the chapter on his third and most scandalous novel, American Psycho (just made into a film this year), Young discusses how ‘[t]he story of American Psycho — as opposed to the book itself — uncannily paralleled the fictive themes it explored; it was treated as a fashion statement — controversial, emotive, urgent, very NOW!’ (SIS 88), recalling Rothko’s strategy of imitating the material structures of a painting’s reception within his paintings. And, like a fashion statement or a murder, the novel — the themes of which are greed, apathy, cold-blooded murder, misogyny and the domination of life by fashion and commodities — was immediately ignored by both the same media that had trumpeted it and dismissed by academics.

child mannequins in New York window

      Young argues that Ellis’s book, in spite or because of it being boring and not thrilling like the usual murder mystery/crime novel, is a transgressive artwork: ‘The films of Andy Warhol, one of the single most important artistic influences of the century, are undoubtedly boring. It did not stop them from being dangerous in that they were incapable of being absorbed by the dominant culture’ (SIS 89). American Psycho is ‘subversive’ because it does not make violence entertaining and yet saturates itself with the signs of entertainment, an itemization similar to Reznikoff’s accumulation of the names of the dead in Testimony.

Moreover, the book shows how ‘the ability to ghost-dance freely between the factual and the imaginary is an essential strategy for contemporary psychic survival, as Andy Warhol understood when he decided to treat his entire life ’as a movie’ (SIS 88). In the ‘faulty narrator’ and ‘media monotone’ speech of the cipher, Patrick Bateman, Ellis foregrounds this ghost-dance of obsolescence and the alienation that stokes it:

The book is written as if to be skimmed. It is written largely in brochure-speak, ad-speak, in the mindless, soporific commentary of the catwalk or the soapy soft-cell of the market-place; the sort of writing that comes up with phrases like ‘an attractive two-piece with matching accessories’, or ‘As for dining out, the Caribbean island cuisine has mixed well with the European culture’. (SIS 101)

The technical sophistication of the writing poses the question of whether or not Ellis’s mimesis of mediatization and commodification does not fall into the trap of reducing art to technique. Does he add to the spiritual poverty or reflect it enough to deflect it? Does he reinforce our powerlessness or offer us the means by which to begin to overcome it? By imitating death and passivity does he perform that ancient power of mimesis harnessed by shamans, witches, and healers who for ages have manipulated images of the enemy, copies of the other, thereby allowing healing to take place? Or by reducing mimesis to the level of the false animism of commodity fetishism does he disable our imaginations and undermine this shamanic art of mediation between the spiritual and the real, this strategy of possession whereby one gains control over repression, wards off danger by means of images that imitate that danger?

As Young writes, even if ‘Ellis manages to take his obsession with deindividualization in consumer society to its extreme and demonstrate that Patrick, in his role of ultimate consumer, someone who is composed entirely of inauthentic commodity-related desires cannot exist as a person,’ behind his writing ‘lies the conventional nostalgic vision of a lost world where actions were not random, where emotion was authentic and where everything once made sense’ (her italics SIS 121,120). Even though the novel (and movie) were intended as black humor, laughter doesn’t win in the end.

In comparison, Wojnarowicz carves a path out of this asphyxiating forest of puritanical mimesis that one could argue has already played itself out in the ironic monuments of modernism and post-modernism:

Although he recounts a life [in his memoir Close to the Knives] that is certainly more traditionally ‘self-destructive’ than anything experienced by the other New York novelists, he is simultaneously far less jaded and empty, far less interested in producing any mimesis of a spiritually etiolated society and far more concerned with confronting its appalling failures in terms of humanity, decency and honesty. In this political and confrontational stance, Wojnarowicz is closer to the work of performance artists such as Diamanda Galás or Karen Finley and closer, I believe, to a literary future when passionate engagement and humanitarian issues will no longer continually dissolve into apathy and the labyrinthine ways of language theory.(SIS 219)

Dennis Cooper, who is, like Wojnarowicz, a witness to the persecution of gays in America, unites, in Young’s view, the ‘laid-back vapidity’ of Ellis’s writing with the ‘urban nihilism of much New York fiction’ (SIS both 238). The result is a mannered, literary prose rooted firmly in the Gothic and decadent traditions. In its anti-hedonism, sado-masochism and romanticization of death Cooper’s writing ‘explicitly positions itself against the lies and distortions of such nonsensical pornographic utopias’ (SIS 240).

According to Young, Cooper’s ‘imagination is that of the outsider, the outlaw, or more classically the Prankster’ who writes ‘what Roland Barthes termed “a text of bliss”’ (SIS 240, 241). Young goes onto summarize Barthes’s theory of the ‘text of bliss’ (an oxymoron if there ever was one!) as laid out in his book, The Pleasure of the Text:

Barthes maintains that, ‘Criticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss’. Texts of pleasure are more orderly, less disruptive. Barthes mentions Flaubert, Proust, Stendhal and one could add Austen or Dickens; the text ‘that comes from culture and does not break with it’. Texts of bliss, he says, impose ‘a state of loss’; they ‘unsettle the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions’. In evoking the unspeakable, Cooper is dreaming the impossible dream, writing the impossible text. (SIS 241)

Barthes’s attempt to locate a ‘text of bliss’ outside of culture, or discourse, even though his discourse, like those of the other post-structuralists, permits no such outside, is inspiring but ultimately disingenuous. His brief examples of authors of ‘texts of bliss’ — de Sade, Bataille, and Poe — serve only to reveal how culture-bound his theory really is. His celebration of the ‘writerly’ text whereby the reader-consumer supposedly becomes a euphoric co-writer is an empty compensation for living in a capitalist society in which workers are regularly alienated from their work. And it is an all-too consumable, unquestioned belief of the language poets that their poems transform the reader from ‘passive consumer’ of the text to ‘active participant in the construction of its meaning’.

Barthes’s pseudo-utopian notion of textual liberation remains spurious and virtual. His dichotomy between pleasure and bliss (that he subsequently collapses) resembles the binary opposition he constructs between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ in his study of photography, Camera Lucida, a book that confuses the mimetic power of the photographic image — one which he identifies with savagery and death — with his own discursive coding of it. Barthes’s text is a melancholic testament to the horror and fascination Westerners have felt in reaction to the primitivism ushered in by their own civilization, its modernity and its explosive production of mimetic technologies.

In my estimation Cooper’s writing is anything but dangerous and increasingly looks quaint, over-refined, dated and pretentious (not unlike Barthes’s). Here are the first two stanzas of his poem ‘Being Aware":

Men are drawn to my ass by
my death-trance blue eyes
and black hair, tiny outfit,
while my father is home with
a girl, moved by the things
I could never think clearly.

Men smudge me onto a bed,
drug me stupid, gossip and
photograph me till I’m famous
in alleys, like one of those
jerk offs who stare from
the porno I sort of admire.(PAP 603)

To paraphrase the poet Carter Revard, this is an art that may diagnose the illness (by being a symptom of it) but doesn’t enact the cure. (And this criticism is not a comment on the homosexuality or other sexual practices portrayed in Cooper’s books, but on the treatment they receive at the hands of the author). Total darkness (in art) is not only boring, it’s also fake. The subject matter is not what’s offensive, rather it’s the self-indulgent detachment, crypticality and impactlessness of the writing itself that make a joke of the subjects it renders. Cooper doesn’t succeed in making the profane and abject sublime or sacred. He only makes it bland — trendily anesthetized under cover of ‘trippiness’, sanitized of everything but the fashionably pathological and perverse.

Steve Evans, in his essay ‘The Dynamics of Literary Change,’ expounds on Adorno’s theory of art, more specifically the process of emergence by which artworks perform a mimesis of their own social conditions and, by doing so, achieve autonomy from those conditions and become recognizably modern or avant-garde.

Modern art, Adorno writes, ‘makes an uncompromising reprint of reality while at the same time avoiding being contaminated by it.’ (DLC 32) Modern art negates tradition as a whole and therefore ‘both imitates and transcends the general course of bourgeois society’ (DLC 38). Likewise, ‘the new intimates death and imitates the commodity,’ according to Evans, for the ‘new in art is the aesthetic counterpart to the ever-expanding reproduction of capital in society’ (DLC, both 39). ‘The only way in which art can henceforth transcend the heteronomy of capitalist society is by suffusing its own autonomy with the imagery of that society’ and yet, as Steve writes, ‘appearance will not be redeemed in its immediacy’ (DLC 39, 41). And yet again: ‘social critique must be raised to the level of form, to the point that it wipes out all manifestly social content’ (AT 250).

One can only guess as to how Adorno would react to Reznikoff’s documentary efforts in Testimony or to the works of Ellis and Cooper and Watten, which, rather than falling into the trap of the ‘tendentious’ agit-prop mode Adorno despises, would seem to fulfill his criteria: ‘Art becomes modern through its mimesis of a “petrified and alienated reality”’ (DLC 40). Baudelaire, who ‘neither inveighed against reification [Verdinglichung] nor replicated it’ is Adorno’s prime example of a modern artist who maintains an autonomy of the artwork while staying true to his vision of modernity: ‘His strength as a writer lies in the ability to syncopate the overwhelming objectivity of the commodity form, which absorbs into itself all human residues, with the objectivity of the work as such, which is prior to the living subject. Here the absolute work of art merges with the absolute commodity’ (DLC both 40).

If the ‘aesthetic response to a world grown abstract is to mime or mirror it back without further commentary’ (DLC 41), as Steve argues, then where do poets such as Whitman or Lorca, who were every bit as modern or aware as Baudelaire was and yet don’t traffic in ‘abstraction’, fit into Adorno’s schema? Strangely, Evans asserts that the ‘avant-garde from Baudelaire forward accepts the ban on magic that prohibits it from going on about what never has been in the past and may only just be possible in the future’ (DLC 41) even though Baudelaire, with his ‘theory of correspondences’, can be said to have believed in, if not to have practiced magic, the magic of mimesis. It is through his manipulation of correspondences that Baudelaire achieves a syncopation of the commodity and the artwork, a mimesis of the temporality of modernity.

Octavio Paz, in Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde, shows how magical and spiritual traditions nourish the sources from which modern poetry still flows toward the future. In Paz’s view, ‘[t]he belief in correspondences between all beings and worlds predates Christianity, crosses the Middle Ages, and, through Neoplatonism, illuminism, and occultism, reaches the nineteenth century’ (COM 55). Moreover,

The influence of the occultist tradition among Spanish American modernistas was no less profound than among European Romantics and Symbolists. Our critics, although aware of this fact, seem to avoid it, as though it were shameful. Although scandalous, it is true: from Blake to Yeats and Pessoa, the history of modern poetry in the West is bound to the history of hermetic and occult doctrines, from Swedenborg to Madame Blavatsky. The influence of the Abbé Constant, alias Eliphas Levi, was decisive not only on Hugo but on Rimbaud. The remarkable affinities between Fourier and Levi, according to André Breton, are to be explained because both ‘place themselves in a vast current of thought which we can trace back to the Zohar and which disperses itself in the Illuminist schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a trend of thought found in the idealist systems, in Goethe and, in general, in all who refuse to posit mathematical identity as the unifying ideal of the world’ (Arcane 17). We know that the Spanish American modernistas — Darío, Lugones, Nervo, Tablada — were interested in occultist writings. Why has our criticism never pointed out the relation between Illuminism and the analogical vision, and between the latter and metrical reform? Rationalist scruples, or Christian scruples? In any case the relation is obvious. Modernismo began as a search for verbal rhythm and ended in a vision of the universe as rhythm.

The analogy between magic and poetry, a recurring theme throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, originates with the German Romantics. The conception of poetry as magic implies an aesthetic of action. Art ceases to be exclusively representation and contemplation; it becomes also an intervention in reality. If art mirrors the world, then the mirror is magical; it changes the world.  (COM 94-95, 60)

The chapter entitled ‘Analogy and Irony’ should be required reading for every student of poetry. In it and the surrounding chapters Paz elucidates the dialectical struggle between analogy — the ancient ‘science of correspondences’ (COM 72) — and irony, Romanticism’s self-destructive shield against the tyranny of religion, specifically Christianity. Irony, as criticism and as a heralding of death, continually subverts the analogical belief in the wholeness of the universe and the interconnectedness of all things.

The struggle between analogy and irony gives modern poetry its unyielding momentum whereby it becomes a ‘tradition against itself’ so much so that today ‘modern art is beginning to lose its powers of negation. For some years now its rejections have been ritual repetitions: rebellion has turned into procedure, criticism into rhetoric, transgression into ceremony. Negation is no longer creative’ (COM 162). This ‘tradition of discontinuity implies the negation not only of tradition but of discontinuity as well’ (COM 1).

Analogy, on the other hand, ‘conceives the world as rhythm: everything corresponds because everything fits together and rhymes. It is not only a cosmic syntax, it is also prosody’ (COM 63). Such a view of the world can be seen in Hegel, who, if he did not attempt ‘a prosody of history,’ as Evans writes, ‘[a]t the very least [...] attempted a grammar’ (his italics, DLC both 2). Thus modernity, its consciousness, as described by its poets — ‘the antennae of the race’ according to Pound — is split right down the middle for...

Irony and analogy are irreconcilable. The first is the child of linear, sequential, and unrepeatable time; the second is the manifestation of cyclical time: the future is in the past and both are in the present. Analogy turns irony into one more variant of the fan of similarities, but irony splits the fan in two. Irony is the wound through which analogy bleeds to death; it is the exception, the fatal accident (in the double meaning of the term: necessary and deadly). Irony shows that if the universe is a script, each translation of this script is different, and that the concert of correspondences is the gibberish of Babel. The poetic word ends in a howl or in silence: irony is not a word, nor a speech, but the reverse of the word, noncommunication. The universe, says irony, is not a script; if it were, its signs would be incomprehensible for man, because in it the word death does not appear, and man is mortal.  (COM 74)

The love of irony, of contradiction and the strange, founds and haunts modern literature, beginning with the German Romantics. As Paz relates, Novalis wanted to subtitle Schlegel’s celebration of free love, Lucinda (1799), with the words ‘Cynical and Diabolical Fantasies.’ It is an example of the manner by which ‘[i]rony reveals the duality of what seemed whole, the split in what is identical, the other side of reason; it is the disruption of the principle of identity’ (COM 45). Hence ‘Romantic religiosity is irreligious, ironic; Romantic irreligion is religious, anguished’ (COM 46).

Paz’s great service is to bring to light how ‘[m]odern poetry is awareness of this dissonance within analogy’ (COM 56). Modern poetry is both ‘the vision of universal analogy and the ironic vision of man. Correspondence among all worlds and, at the center, the burnt-out sun of death’ (COM 84). Reacting against the clash of temporalities that is modernity, language poetry can be seen as an ironic attempt to construct a uniform time out of disruptive methods, to build an analogical bridge between the time of the reader and the time of the writer. In language poetry there is no rest from the present, just as in Olson, who was well aware of modernity’s dislocation of space from place, there is no rest from history. And so, as Baudelaire could have told you, now death and ‘beauty [are] not one but many’ (COM 90):

Analogy is continuously split open by irony, and verse by prose. The paradox beloved by Baudelaire reappears: behind the make-up of fashion, the grimace of the skull. Modern art knows itself to be mortal; there is its modernity. Modernismo becomes modern when it gains full awareness of its mortality, that is to say, when it ceases to take itself seriously, when it injects prose into verse and makes poetry out of the criticism of poetry.  (COM 96)

Against Paz’s rich account of the cultural transformations of modern history in which the ‘[c]riticism of religion replaced Christianity,’ installing the religion of history, change, the future, ‘the criticism of eternity,’ (COM 186, 23) in its void, Adorno’s vision of modernity and art looks narrow. His notion of autonomy borders on the excruciatingly fetishistic. In it art becomes dominated by the project of preserving its autonomy and modernism becomes subordinated to the dual tasks of mourning for the death of pre-capitalist culture and despairing at its own condition (since there are no other means of opposition and resistance but autonomy and modernism).

In theorizing the dialectic by which ‘modernity stimulated primitivism along with wiping it out’ (MAA 231), Michael Taussig examines the dada-like Hauka movement that sprang up in Niger in the 1920s. The Hauka ‘would dance and become possessed by the spirits of colonial administrators’ (MAA 240), aping the ways — the speech and dress and mannerisms — of their oppressors. They mocked the banalization and reification of mimesis — both of culture and nature — under colonial and capitalist rule. Terror gets transformed into ecstasy:

But in addition to the conscious play-acting mimicking of the European, conducted with wit and verve, there is bodily possession — which is what makes the mimicry possible yet generally works at a less than conscious level with special, even disturbing, bodily effects: frothing at the mouth, bulging of the eyes, contorted limb movements, inability to feel pain. Strange ‘Europeans’ indeed. And surely that’s the point — they so clearly are and are not Europeans. It’s the ability to become possessed, the ability that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness if not downright savagery, which allows them to assume the identity of the European and, at the same time, stand clearly and irrevocably eye-bulgingly apart from it. What’s being mimicked is mimickry itself — within its colonial shell. You see actors acting, as Brecht would have it, but you wonder about this mimetic capacity as much as any specific action.  (his italics, MAA 241)

It is in this specific action which exposes through its mimetic excess not only the surplus of similarity denied by those enemies of life, who, in the name of power and ownership, must hide what they share with their others, but especially ‘draw[s] attention to the exuberance with which it permits the freedom to live reality as really made-up’ (MAA 255), that we should begin to see a way out of the modern ‘monotony of terror’ that condemns culture to convention and nature to domination under culture.

As Paz says...

To live in the present is to live facing death. Man invented eternity and the future to escape death, but each of these inventions was a fatal trap. The present reconciles us with reality: we are mortal. Only facing death, life is really life. Within the now, death is not separated from life. Both are the same reality, the same fruit.  (COM 171)

Or, as Nietzsche once put it:

Thinking about illness! — To calm the imagination of the invalid, so that at least he should not, as hitherto, have to suffer more from thinking about his illness than from the illness itself — that, I think, would be something! It would be a great deal! Do you now understand our task?  (his italics, Daybreak 34)

David Hess

Photo, left: David Hess, before

David Hess was born in 1973 in St. Louis, where he lives and works as a writer and editor for a local magazine. He went to Brown University and has had essays and reviews published in Skanky Possum, Readme, Quid and Mungo vs. Ranger (forthcoming). He thinks he might have some poems in a future issue of The Baffler.

David Hess with cat

Photo, right: David Hess, after

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Williams, William Carlos, quoted in Golden Goose, Series 3, no.1, Columbus, OH (?), 1951.

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Illustrations — John Tranter

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