Monday, November 13, 2006


Barrett Watten was in town this past week and, as the trope would have it, was taking no prisoners, offering two dense, high-energy events open to the public under the auspices of Temple University, the first on Thursday at Temple’s downtown center near City Hall, the other the following night at the Slought Foundation gallery out in University City. The first was billed as a reading, the second as a talk. Both used text, discourse, & visuals – the talk went beyond PowerPoint & html to include a video replay of Bruce Andrews having his way with Fox attack dog Bill O’Reilly as well as the post-velvet tones of Wolf Eyes, a noise band that I would characterize as Iannis Xenakis meets Sonic Youth or perhaps Pere Ubu filtered through the ears of Brian Eno.

The subject was negativity and the endless problem of how to avoid subsequent incorporation into the omnivorous culture that commodifies, recuperates & tames all that enters its yawning maw. Tho Watten mentioned Dylan only once in his talk – to note how the Malibu troubadour’s recent work continues to reflect the restlessness that has been that singer’s edge now for over 40 years – the tune I couldn’t get out of my head began

When you're lost in the rain in Juarez
An' it's easter time too
An' your gravity fails
An' negativity don't pull you thru
Don't put on any airs
When you're down on rue morgue avenue
They got some hungry women there
An' they really make a mess outta you.

which is the first verse of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” just possibly my favorite set of lyrics in the entire Dylan canon. That title is so typically Dylan as well: not, pointedly, Tom Thumb’s Blues, but rather just like them, so that there is a reference to something we finally never quite get to see.

This peek-a-boo effect bedevils all modes of radical particularity as well. Some innovation in the field of art comes along – paintings of soup cans, the new sentence, the use of “raw” sound in music, uncreative writing – and within three decades you can better believe it will be all thoroughly bracketed by gobs of buttery art theory, just one more ounce of frosting on the layer cake of the real. Noise music as a genre traces its roots back to John Cage & comes pre-packaged with its own protest group, Mothers Against Noise (MAN). Recuperated avant la lettre? You bet.

The problem of recuperation, of one avant-garde after another perpetually “selling out,” has ultimately to do with that preposition out. Not unlike the old sixties shibboleth turn on, tune in & drop out, avant-gardes soon learn that there is, literally, no outside, no out position, that it is always already a location inscribed well within whatever the social field might be. You want to avoid working for a living & getting by on SSI & food stamps? Be forewarned that you will turn very quickly into what the phrase “SSI & food stamps” implies. Dylan himself once ventured that “to live outside the law you must be honest,” which only barely conceals the deeper reality that to live outside the law, you must nonetheless reside within the criminal justice paradigm.

I have used the term post-avant to suggest that there is a further possible condition, one that doesn’t so much erase the problem of permanent negativity as to step beyond getting caught up in the debris field of habitual recuperation. It does this not just by abjuring the more nonsensical elements of the avant garde’s historical origins within a military metaphor, but even more by focusing instead on the process of recuperation as such. If, say, the negativity of a band such as Wolf Eyes is always already doomed, the act of giving a talk at a space such as Slought on the domestication of noise bands carries within itself a residual radicalism that the Ann Arbor band cannot reach.

Andrews’ confrontation with O’Reilly is one possible example. Not only is Andrews not willing to accept the simplistic red-baiting that is O’Reilly’s primary – indeed only – critical move, Andrews demonstrates (repeatedly) that O’Reilly has not read the book in question, that O’Reilly does not understand the context of the class in which the book is being used, that O’Reilly does not understand the perpetually contingent process of pedagogy itself. And that O’Reilly is willing to proceed willy-nilly without such basic levels of comprehension, the logical equivalent of a chain smoker in a fireworks factory.

Watten’s own critique is another such example. Indeed, what may have been most powerful about Watten’s two events in Philadelphia was the degree to which they manifested & confirmed the importance of the critical as a key dimension of the creative. It is that, more than anything else, that separated out language poetry during its heroic moment in the 1970s from all the other modes of post-New American writing. Nobody gets that better than Watten – it is what he & Andrews have most in common – and nobody does it better than Watten either.

So this is where negativity’s negation – positivity, the positive – relates directly to its cognates position and preposition. Out’s role as the latter, as a device for making possible the process of positioning itself, is at once both decisive and false. This is why the new always occurs at the margin, a disruption from the barbarians rather than an innovation within. Yet it is only by pre-positioning out’s place as somehow beyond an imaginary limit that it can function as such. If in fact out is understood as an ascribed position – this is not poetry, this is not a pipe – then its move clearly is one within the system. And it is only by acknowledging this that this system itself can start to come into view.


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