Friday, June 20, 2003

My big summer reading book has arrived. It might also be my fall one as well, truth be told. It’s a volume I’ve been waiting for literally for eighteen years & now that it’s here, my very first impression is that it’s a thing of beauty, a 430 page cornucopia of tightly packed, brilliant prose from the best critical mind of my generation. Its title is The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics & its author, Barrett Watten.


I’ve been waiting for it since the publication of Total Syntax, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1985. Total Syntax was – & still is – one of my favorite critical texts ever. It’s one of those books of which I own multiple copies, one of them fully marked up. Watten’s take-no-prisoners close readings of Coolidge, Olson, Eigner, Russian Formalism, Robert Smithson & many of Watten’s own peers gives, even at nearly two decades’ remove, the best feel for the actual experience of language poetry on a day-to-day basis of any book I know. A major reason for this is that Watten was central to virtually every important discussion &/or initiative that took place associated with the western version of langpo from the first issue of This magazine onward. Any history of the phenomenon that doesn’t put a substantial focus on Watten’s work as poet, critic & organizer, really can’t be said to be even marginally adequate.


That’s the test I always use when I see an account of this writing between, say, 1970 & the mid-80s. Watten’s poetry, as well as his prose, doesn’t lend itself to a casual reading, for some of the same reasons that Olson or J.H. Prynne have likewise resisted litcrit tourism. Accordingly, there are more than a few histories out there, some of them well intended, that don’t address his role fully or even directly, & which then proceed to get most everything else wrong also.


Watten’s project in The Constructivist Moment strikes me as broader & more ambitious. Within the introduction, Watten positions Total Syntax this way:


My early criticism, in Total Syntax (1985) and an article titled “Social Formalism” (1987), may be seen as attempts, before the dawn of the material text (which had everything to do with the emergence of the Language School and its textual politics), to find models for an avant-garde textuality within a larger syntax of cultural meaning.


The new volume “addresses the gap between constructivist aesthetics and a larger cultural poetics.” By constructivist, Watten means literally “the imperative in radical literature and art to foreground their formal construction,” but he’s not interested primarily – at least this is my take, having read some of these pieces previously in journals – in mere exoskeletal exhibitionism. What he seems to be most interested in – it may be the link to the cultural poetics part of the subtitle’s equation – is their negativity, the gap they initiate or articulate or define by their process:


The constructivist moment is an elusive transition in the unfolding work of culture in which social negativity – the experience of rupture, an act of refusal – invokes a fantasmatic future – a horizon of possibility, an imagination of participation. Constructivism condenses this shift of horizon from negativity to progress in aesthetic form; otherwise put, constructivism stabilize crisis as it puts art into production toward imaginary ends.


As I read that, the constructivist work necessarily plays a specific role within the dialectic between art & the social world from which it inevitably derives & in which it then participates as a disruptive intervention.


But I shouldn’t pretend to know more than I do. Watten’s table of contents will give a far better sense of the path of his argument than I can here:


  • From Material Text to Cultural Poetics
  • New Meaning and Poetic Vocabulary: From Coleridge to Jackson Mac Low
    • Poetic Vocabulary
    • Coleridge’s Desynonymy
    • Zukofsky’s Dictionary
    • Mac Low’s Lexicons
    • New Meanings
  • The Secret History of the Equal Signs: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E between Discourse and Text
    • Avant-Garde Paradox
    • Postrevolutionary Poetics
    • Legend’s Text
    • Multiauthors (M)
    • Multiauthors (F)
    • Multiauthors and the Listserv
  • The Bride of the Assembly Line: Radical Poetics in Construction
    • The Descent
    • Cultural Poetics
    • Stein’s Ford
    • Assembling This
    • The Bride
  • The Constructivist Moment: From El Lissitzky to Detroit Techno
    • The Great Divide
    • Lissitzky’s Examples
    • Constructivist Poetics
    • Detroit Techno
    • Moments
  • Nonnarrative and the Construction of History: An Era of Stagnation, the Fall of Saigon
    • Nonnarrative Poetics
    • The Construction of History
    • An Era of Stagnation
    • The Fall of Saigon
    • Nonnarrative Ending
  • Negative Examples: Theories of Negativity in the Avant-Garde
    • Negativity
    • Dark Matter
    • The Nothing That Is
    • Limit Situations
    • Negativities
  • Post-Soviet Subjectivity in Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Ilya Kabakov
    • After the Fall
    • Dragomoshchenko’s Metapoetics
    • Kabakova’s Kommunalka
    • Post-Soviet/Postmodern
  • Zone: The Poetics of Space in Posturban Detroit
    • The Postmodern Turn
    • The Object of Spatial Fantasy
    • The Modern as Spatial Fantasy
    • Boundaries as Subject
    • Social Space and Negativity
    • Gaps between Terrains
    • Art and Negativity
    • Negativity and Social Space
    • For a Critical Regionalism
    • Site and Nonsite
    • DouglasLe Détroit
    • Posturban Detroit