In his article “No Surprises: On Barrett Watten” (Jacket 12), David Hess argues that Stein and Williams represent the art that seeks “to undermine that petrification of language, thought, and feeling” caused by capitalist production. Their poetry is designed to liberate and enliven language and the ways of life dependent on that language, implicitly resisting industrial capitalism’s tendency to reify ways of being into commodities. Hess sees Watten as pursuing the only viable alternative for progressive writing: his work attempts to dialecticize the slick, bland surfaces of the representations generated within capitalist production. To re-represent the representations of reality in bureaucratic, commercial, legal, and military languages. In some ways his project resembles Ashbery’s, but whereas Ashbery seems content to open up a space of play in which the reader might enjoy some momentary breathing room, Watten’s project is explicitly socio-political and has a revolutionary intent. As a “poem” attempting to uncover and overthrow “history” (the accumulation of narratives about events, or Geschichte), Bad History resembles Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project.
This book was intended to put Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image into action. In The Arcades Project attempts through primarily visual means to uncover the mythologies of fashion, progress, and commodification which concealed the true nature of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. A cultural phenomenon, such as the dust in the streets of Paris, reveals itself under Benjamin’s gaze as dialectical, simultaneously signifying boredom (Paris is dusty and dead) and intense conditions of production (the dust comes from innumerable construction sites). Benjamin called his project “An experiment in the technique of awakening. The dialectical—the Copernican—turn of remembrance” (AP 838). He believed that the conditions of industrial capitalism put people into a kind of dream state: by examining the world of commodities he hoped, in a revolutionary gesture, to awaken them from the dream in a moment of dialectical reversal.
Watten’s method is language based rather than imagistic, but he has the same purpose: to uncover the reality of 20th century late capitalism in America by discovering the dialectical properties of the language (and to a lesser extent, the images) produced by the culture. Everything is grist for his mill, as demonstrated by the “Sources” section at the end of the book, where “Persian Gulf War (1991)” is listed as a source on a nearly equal basis with newspaper articles, scholarly articles, poems, “personal communications,” and other texts. Watten’s dialectic is juxtapositional: by arranging these fragments seemingly at random, they work upon each other and reveal one another’s status as a sign obscuring its truth. His method is very close to Benjamin’s dream of a book composed entirely of quotations.
Watten partially explains his method through two quotations at the end of the “Sources” chapter that closes Bad History (p. 151). The Hegel quote suggests that what’s bad about Watten’s “bad history” is the confusion that’s occurred between “history” as events that actually occur and “history” as the narrative of those events, which inevitably emphasizes and conceals those events that it would be inconvenient for the dominant ideology to remember. Watten reveals himself to be very much concerned with the poet’s traditional role as tribal rememberer, but the Nietzsche quote takes his intention a step further. An unbridled historicism destroys the illusions of ideology but also threatens “existing things of their atmosphere in which they alone can live.” Only a creative, “constructive drive”—utopian energy—can justify this kind of historicism. Watten is certainly interested in destroying the illusions of ideology and I am not certain whether or not he wishes to preserve the habitus of the people and things in his book, as Benjamin did with his obvious affection for the commodity world of the Paris arcades. Of course, Benjamin was writing of the 19th century whereas Watten’s “bad history” is of the now. The most useful thing about the book, for me, is how it has "activated" what I already knew about the 1990sa decade I, like the rest of the country, seem to have sleepwalked through.
Of course, the rest of the country doesn't have the excuse of having been in its twenties, now does it? It was exciting for me to finally really plough all the way through a Language-oriented book and feel like I really understood what it was up to and how and why it worked. I've read plenty of Language poetry but rarely have I pushed as hard at one of these books as I feel it demands. We're on to Nick Piombino's Theoretical Objects next, and the experience with Watten has helped make Piombino's project seem a little more transparent to me. Still stuck on the question of what precise relation my generation's work has to Watten's generation of soixante-huitards. I was struck by the broad, generous margins of Watten's book, which contrast sharply with the ascetic, almost mingy space that the Green Integer books provide for their texts. Meanwhile I'm fetishizing the beautiful covers of the new books I acquired at AWP (with a few exceptions: Eshleman's book could almost pass for a Black Sparrow book, and Doug Powell's book has an appalling, almost nuttily bad cover. They're both from Wesleyan) and my own book, of course, will be as beautiful an object as I can make it. Beauty and the social. Socialized beauty, that's what this country needs. That and a foreign policy that won't have billions of people dreaming of our destruction every night.