Thursday, January 29, 2004

Reading Watten, Bad History

Reading Watten's Bad History, first "The 1980's," which is a kind of essay-poem deconstruction of some office building the architect Philip Johnson designed at 580 California, San Francisco. The architecture web site describes Johnson as an anti-postmodernist:
As an architect, Johnson is most widely respected for his work in the early 1950s while still under the influence of Mies Van Der Rohe. However, he has altered his architectural principles from Modernist to Post-Modernist to anti-Post Modernist at will. This has led to the criticism that he shows more interest in style than in substance. He will probably be remembered more as a stimulator of ideas than as a designer.

It's critical, Yes, but with elaborate distance, as if he's the same precise distance in metrical, NOT English, units from the space and object(s) he observes. Too fixed, then? I don't know, but I'd prefer to see/hear the subjectivity/poet move around his imagism, as it were. Oh, not move around it in the sense of circling it along the same circumference, but, rather, move in and out, nearer to and further from its disparate mythemes and signifiers, sometimes even touching the fucking building blocks or disturbing their stationary subjectivity he subjects them to. Likewise, "he needs to" interact with them and then behold himself, the maker, the architect of the building's significance, which should shift until he's almost a ghost passing through walls and indistinguishable from their substances. Just a thought, but, alas, a wish to read my own poetry, what I'd do with the piece and the piecing/piercing of this building. Not Watten's writing.

I.e., "it's too clinical," or is that me, creating "my Barrett Watten," nay, not even mine exactly so much as "theirs," whereas perhaps the real Barrett Watten is not so dry and clinical (like a Freudian with an analysand who lays on the couch and never makes contact, or even hears the analyst speak, like Lacan?).

But whose building is this, anyhow? Mine, or Watten's, or Philip Johnson's:

The combination of facing motifs shows a simultaneous
fascination with ironic control and the disavowal of any

How does one learn who really built this building, anyhow? Has Johnson blueprints that specifically list "ironic control and the disavowal of any consequences" as intentional formal considerations, designed from the get-go, maybe recurrent throughout Johnson's other constructions?

You have to admire how much Watten "can read in to," or is it "write out of" a building. Again, there is some lineage to imagism and objectivism, I think, except this is "essay form." I mean, he constructs an entire "essay" and "critique" of a building and the essay reveals as much about the critic as it does the architecture reviewed; it's really a poetry, "dry," perhaps, "clinical" (seemingly), and "abstruse," but really fascinating if you give it a chance, Steve. Check this out, for example:

The slanting grid of steel and glass reflects an ambiguous light that human designs can only interrupt. Therefore our desires are to clear such obstacles away so that the clarity of our purposes may be known to us.

I mean, how do you read this? It's not philosophy, for it's so much more sensuous in the graceful charm of its reflections/sense and you never have to wait until the next sentence or end of the paragraph to take off with meaning. And besides, there's so much more play between the signifiers and what/how you choose to have them signify:

It is a beautiful gray ironic day, with forecasted clouds in the depthless background to complement the bold relief of our vacant enterprise.

Or this:

Each sphere comes complete with a view, but that view will never get around this corner.

Heck, maybe that's a mixed metaphor, but if so, then it's by definition metaphor, and it's fun to read; you get surprised and "charmed," subtlely and gracefully, by where the sense of the sentence goes and the way your expectations are pleasantly and consistently chagrined. If this were pure "deconstruction," or architectural criticism, wouldn't the language be considerably more "scientific," "representational," "denotative?" I think so. However, it's poetry, on the surface quite abstract, but given just a little work, pretty fascinating, really.

The title "poem"/essay/piece "Bad History" more immediately grabs me, probably because of the themes early on -- "war," "history," and our concept of same, which must, after all, change if we are to understand them and reduce or eliminate their occurence,
cross-generational goal I know Watten pursues no less than any of the rest of us do.

I love the way that Watten alerts us to our lazy habit of avoiding responsibility for the shambles of our world, for our wars, for our histories, whereas its most immediate manifestation resides right here always local and completely accessible, namely our minds and how we choose -- learn ourselves to perceive, conceive, structure, conceptualize our world, our histories. "A bad thing happened to me," Watten begins, reminding us that we can either passively (defensively -- repress our alienation of our alienation of our anger and our wherewithal to change) percieve life as happening to us or we can couch our realities in the active voice whenever warranted by personal and communal responsibility.

Section F, the essay/poem "The 1990s," closes Watten's Bad History. "Closes" is, of course, ironic here, for naturally Watten, or for that matter any Watten, will almost intentionally work to subvert, problematize, or otherwise question almost any book's manifestation of closure, perhaps especially one working to deconstruct our infatuations with flawed modes of conceiving history. What a funny, neat piece this is, then, with its mock-heroic alarm bell sounding both the introductory and the concluding sentences -- "Time is of the essence." All the more appropriately disillusioning are these twin chimes given the fact that every single sentence unit securely sandwiched in between them rings truly discomfiting with the patently hollow, deviously ambiguous clap trap fiduciary jargon and financial management blather of a corporate annual report.

This is really quite ingenious when you think about it. Ostensibly, the piece resembles poetry in only one ambivalent way. It's replete with infinite ambiguity, except here ambiguity is hardly a poetic quality; rather, it's neither true nor beautiful. Here, in these seemingly verbatim, actual "Standard real estate contract" and "quarterly reports" from "Century Properties Fund XIX" -- Century 21 in the original, perhaps -- ambiguity functions insidiously to strip the signifiers of almost all possible signifying utility and render the thoroughly representational language thoroughly useless as reliable finacial data or instrument. Anybody who's ever read a typical financial prospectus by a crooked financial institution knows precisely what I mean, but here's some of the hash that Watten employs for fresh inspection of this, ummm, let's call it, ______-speak:

In this regard, it is anticipated that some remaining properties will be held longer than originally expected. We will monitor changes in financing availability trends and consider marketing property for sale when economic conditions improve. However, the Partnership continues to operate in negative cash flow position due to the effects of higher operating expenses as well as competitive market conditions, including the widespread use of concessions and depressed rates.

At the level of the short phrase, this ______-speak is entirely denotative, but from sentence to sentence, it is, of course, completely emptied of any kind of meaningful signification. There's no way to tie any verbiage here to concrete signifieds. "It is anticipated that" doesn't tell the reader who's responsible for the anticipating (note the passive voice syntax); "some remaining properties" doesn't tell the reader which, nor what kind of, properties; "longer than originally expected" offers no reasonably reliable or definite time frame; further, it obscures whatever parties might rightfully be held accountable for forecasting any previous or original expectations. In sum, there is not a single shred of data here that a prudent investor could use or trust to make an investment decision whether to buy or sell anything. Nothing here can be used to predict any facet of the future.

This is all the more harrowing if we consider the financial product's apparent subject matter: real estate. What is for most individuals, couples, and families the single most prominent item of material-existential security, and investment concern -- housing -- apparently cannot be treated with any more certainty and assurance than predictions of rain or sunshine for a summer day 10 years in advance. Watten accentuates this sense of utter insecurity by highlighting a second almost universal concern humans have: domestic relationships. Although the term "Partnership" is in the surface context a reference to the firm or financial institution that here specializes in real estate investment, one cannot help but think its fateful 13 instances of reference also strongly suggest marriage partnerships as well. And again the anxieties are ominous: (1)"There can be no assurance that additional loans are forthcoming from the General Partner"; (2)"overbuilt market condition continued to impact Partnership performance"; (3)"In light of the Partnership's performance . . . growth will not be attained"; (4)"the Partnership continues to operate in a negative cash flow position"; (5)the Partnership's working . . . reserves have declined and negative operations persist."

All in all, "The 90s" closes Watten's book Bad History with a pretty bleak picture of the way we process "history" and especially the relative anxiety we accrue when we fortify ourselves with false securities, deceptive and empty syntactic charades. Even our most private and sacrosanct institutions of Home and Companionship are threatened by the bad history we construct for creating our futures.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Purely Formally You wreak English rarely swell

Following Baktin's idea of the dialogic and the argument (perhaps even the fact) that all words or utterances are directed toward an answer, a response, including poetic words, poems, and poetries, it is reasonable, in my opinion, to level a small, partial (however irrelevant, often, and even more often, no doubt, petty) verdict of Egotism and Agenda on many poetries otherwise claiming the status of the divine by virtue of their being "purely formal." For the purely formal seeks a response, too, usually recognition. It wants to garner praise like "finest ear since Smith or Creeley or Williams or Zukofsky or Pound." It wants to declare itself the victor over Form 1A Past, Ideology 2B Present, or School of Newest Aesthetic 3C Future and other ghosts of a chance chant taking chances with Chancey or was it Clancy who couldn't really sing? It wants to establish itself as the most able researcher in the discipline and therefore most worthy of the private and/or state grant monies (regardless whether it has actually discovered anything of worth, practical application, or sustenance). It wants, it craves, it demands, it extorts; it both pines for and bargains for; it argues for and it beseeches "an other" subjectivity external to itself as object as well as process. In brief, it does NOT operate solely as an end in itself, and it seeks the same ole same ole same ole redundant binky of existential illusions, Immortality.

Whereas instead it could seek . . . just about anything else? If only it will indulge in . . . WHAT? Meaning's not such a terrible thing, albeit some will insist righteously and maybe rightfully that it's not such a terrible thing to waste. Thousands of perfectly polite and neighborly and selfless trees ARE slaughtered every year just so that reams and reams and reamings of cubicle generated bureaucratic corporate culture paranoia and several volumes of passionately useless architectural blueprints can pile up in warehouses occupying spaces some years ago inhabited by the planet's next generation of extinct species.

Yet man does not live by form alone. Woman cannot sustain herselves on a strict diet of content. No self-respecting Queers would force-feed themselves the neo-evangelical creed of New Formalism and still call themselves artists, much less interior decorators and hair stylists made for the celluloid tube. And what happens in this world constructed by this particular(ly) representational verbiage to a white guy if, goad forbade, alienated by racists, bigots, homophobes, feminists, gays, the rich, the poor, the illiterate, the tenured in the 80's, the French, the American, the Indonesian, the Left Over, the young, the digital, the urban, the rural, the thin, the ugly, the tucked, the black, the blue, the red-skinned albino, the every conceivable group, minority, or majority alike? Well naturally at least one subjectivity he carries around with his body, even if that subjectivity is a non-essential reproduction of other laboriously alienated subjectivities, would probably feel compelled to get out of a Dodge Caravan digestive tract pre-Caxton a wee bit of content no Structure of form save perhaps bricolage might permit.

Know matters how tantalizingly totalizing they be.

Admit it! We're all parental and we're all childish. Even in Mexico, at some time or another, each smile is blather to the flan. Or a little while. Whatever, Amigo, 'cause we're just looking for a dope fiend if we haven't already found one, and if we have, then we're looking for some other so-called "natural" high. Books are people, too. Maybe it's true that you can tune aporia, but you can't hide a Lettrist between comment tags in a java script without defeating the purpose. Which is behind Door Number 1 if you go to Stanford and study under Adrienne Rich, which is behind Door Number 2 if you study yer Standard and Poors and beat the yoyo's bashing and pumping like shameless Banshee shills for a softcover hardpriced mantra of Efficient Market Theories, which is behind Door Number 3 if you study on the mean streets, too? Sure Lacan had a Penis brain, but did he inherit it or was it manmade? Self-exculpatory. What a piece of work "the Work" is, so we call his or her writing "work," when really it's his or her play and recreation and spiritual pursuit. Work is what he or she does on the clock of alienated labor and permanently lost life (though try convincing a Buddhist of that screed, Angry Old Man), regardless the toil committed. But everything's his or her "work." Ya gotta love it when ya hear the actors and directors talk about theirs, ditto the newscasters. Ditto the politicians, now, too. Or ya gotta hate it. Yes, it's an either/or interpellation, and a sign of an insignificant time. Chime. Rhyme. Saw that coming, or heard it, huh? You wreak English rarely swell. Which could be racist, depending how I read it or where I leave it, what context and who wrote it, whether it's forgiven or whether it's unconscious. Speaking of Kirby Olson, but now that's even nastier, 'cause frankly it's just plain unnecessary, and second you just cannot know, and moreover what's that use? Not to mind, so I should throw the reference out, the baby and the bathwater. Again, same difference. I mean the meanness, the potential cruelty, the acerbic twitch, I meant stretch. I meant that it's always a stretch to imagine anybody is going to read anything one writes as closely as one was when it was written. Or read it at all, so why not write it any way, anyhow? How pluralistic of you, Mother Superior!

Though it's all true, isn't it, all the heavy duty morality that literature is supposed to teach but evidently doesn't -- just look at the tenured exploiting the adjuncts, bad as India -- so it's moved to the theorists and "action" (i.e., teaching, what, as always, the really good ones do, whether they're writing or reading, same dif).

The Noise of Digitality

Does Francois Lyotard mean to pronounce a totalization of digitality:
In a digitally based age, Lyotard says, all knowledge must be digitizable to be preserved; anything that is not digitizable will not be called “knowledge” and will be excluded from our systems of data collection, organization, and preservation. The opposite of “knowledge,” for Lyotard, is not “ignorance,” as it was for Enlightenment thinkers, but “noise”– a mode of expression or existence that cannot be included within digitizable categories. A parallel might be the radio: clear transmission is “knowledge,” and static is “noise,” which interrupts the broadcast of knowledge.

Well, sorry, Franny-boy, but how about we resist that one and defiantly produce analog objects that cannot be digitalized, that resist digitalization, that explore other modes non-digital and their will to survive yer post-modernity. Grenier's "scrawl poems," for example. By the same token rage to "be new," we might produce "noise" that comprises new objects we can call art.

On top

When you get done being
the guy
on top.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Re: the Republican "human" brain, this joke, my own "brain"?

Maybe this explains it: "People with damaged hippocampi and amygdalae cannot learn anything new."

The Structure of FEAR, Bush-Kerry/NOT-Dean

Bush's Structure exploits the pornographic content of "Terrorism," capital-T, to totalize one of humankind's longest-running and basest deep-hypothalamus character weaknesses: FEAR. With this archetypal achilles heal, the Bush Administration shackles its vulnerable and systematically disenfranchised evangelical Christian constituency and controls their every inhalation like sharp-edged meat hooks immobilize a great slab of woolly mammoth carcass before precision butchering. Nary a villain in history, fictional or flesh, has not employed the same, ignoble trope (means). But this we all know and there are enough of us who observe how empty and transparent are Bush's signifieds, the so-called weapons of mass destruction, the so-called ties to Bin Laden and Al Queda, the so-called economic recovery, and so on. And yet the ideology's center holds. FEAR survives even our fiercest onslaughts of pure sensory reality, common sense, and many century's aggregate of utterly contradictory wisdom. For the trope superglues itself to proprioceptive connectors on the other side of which resides some of our most ancient genetic heritage.

No wonder then that at the same time we are seduced by the equally transparent and ethereal signified "electability," we are unable to recognize its derivation from the same bullying center, the exact same structure, FEAR, the Kerry candidacy, the elephantine horse's ass of the Democratic Establishment Party Machine and even some of our discombobulated culture's most creative neocon critics (Franken, Moore, Moby). Terrified of suffering yet 4 more years under the Khmer Rouge psychic conditions of a 2nd Bush term, this triumvirate of Democrat traditional sensibility cowers from its own projected darkside aggression and proportionally alienates itself form seizing the day to rupture the entire FEAR Totalization by unifying behind Dean and the Dean Movement, a unique and newly surfacing structure of courage that hasn't been seen since the late sixties and early seventies.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Derrida

In her very fine lectures for her Survey Course on Post-structuralism, Mary Klages, of the University of Colorado, talking about Derrida, writes, "His example is to think about the concept of 'sign' -- as soon as you try to say that all signs are equal, that there is no transcendental signified that holds any semiotic system together, that signifying systems have no centers, and that therefore all signs have infinite play, or infinite ranges of meaning, you have to say that the only way you can even talk about signs is by using the word 'sign', [misplaced comma?] and assuming it has some fixed meaning. And then you're back in the system you're trying to 'deconstruct.'"

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, as in the title The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book and this "term" as a signifier for Language writing, following Derrida, refers to poetry where all signs are equal, like L is equal to A, which is equal to N, which is equal to G, and so on. Or, rather, all signs have provisionally equal "play," and of course GET A LOT MORE play. This is a gross oversimplification, and I'm not trying to define Language writing, which, more importantly, continues a development from The New American poets and certain Modernists (Pound, Stein, Zukofsky, Williams) that favors greater play.

One question is whether Bernstein and others originated the idea as a result of being poets and "being ahead of" Derrida, or had they largely developed their art and their "theories" from their sharp reading(s) of theorists like Derrida and Roland Barthes. My own hunch is that Bernstein et al, like most really good poets, were independently "discovering" these same "truths" and thus naturally gravitated towards Derrida and Barthes and other post-structuralists who were also reading precursors from Saussure to Heidegger.

The idea of bricolage, poet as bricoleur, is interesting: "The idea of bricolage produces a new way to talk about, and think about, systems without falling into [the] trap of building a new system out of the ruins of an old one (88b). It provides a way to think without establishing a new center, a subject, a priviledged reference, an origin," Klages writes, explaining Derrida. For many, the choice is between bricolage and totalization, the "desire to have a system, a theory, a philosophy, that explains EVERYTHING." Klages lists the Puritans and their concept of "God," which is of course the archetypal totalization, God at the center of everything. For Freud, it would have been "the Unconscious." For Marx, "Socialism?" For Eisner, the Partnership Model?

There are many references to bricolage as a literary method or poetry form, including John Bennett's association of bricolage and found poetry in his excellent essay "Poets in the city - Bricolage | La Perrugue ":

The notion of bricoleur is more rewarding. In 1973, Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced the notion of the bricoleur who appropriates pre-existing materials that are ready-to-hand. We use things to hand and improvise our lives, actions, behaviours from short cuts through buildings, down alleyways, via favourite views to ways of being in the city not covered in the guidebooks. It is cumulative, involves unintended uses, economical (using a small number of tools) and has unintended consequences and fits the process of evolution, as well as cultural change.

And perhaps poets, should be alert to bricolage a feature of language which Wittgenstein compared to 'an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.'[xii] How to write the city into poetry?

Klages, delineating Lyotard, that "postmodern things are 'a big jumbled mes' out of which order does not arise. This multiplicity is also referred to as a smorgasbord, as bricolage, as collage, or as pastiche: a seemingly random collection of events, actions, signifiers, or ideas which do not coalesce."

Sunday, January 25, 2004

More Helen Keller poems, 5-liners

That I might smell what
isn't given to me,

as others smell danger
or a rat

when none is there


Oh, I have my touch,
and I can feel wind,
tears, loneliness, gratitude

some things some others

have ideas about


What if I had a choice,
eyes or ears?

Well of course I'd take one
of each, I answer

That doesn't sound greedy, does it?


Ah, but we've all got eyes and ears,
you say, they are God given

It's a given, you are
given to say

You are given your orders


I will take
very little from this material world

my time, some several
beatings, solace,

a crap


Some would deny me words

Of course I can make my own
if need be

But mostly they're free,
even the surplus production


What is women's work
is unknown to me

I don't have to do much,

anyhow. There are few men around
to take care of
me, though


What is a woman

with her sight and her sound
paying her attentions

I have my own intentions
to find out.


Some people say I am
deaf, dumb, and blind

Others: Just deaf and blind

But I'm all of these, and
more, depending who else is around


Maybe very little is profound
And everything's been around
for a very long time

But something is profoundly
important at some time or another


Jan 26, actually

Umm, so what
do you want

to talk about

so you
do want what


As soon as I could, I
asked myself, "Who
are you," a simple question

that terrified me

at first, then demanded grief.


After grief came anger,
followed by guilt and
then joy, curiosity, wonder,

and tremendous relief
because I sold that swampland in Florida


No, seriously, why should you
be different for one requiring

a human mirror with hands
and fingertips for eyes

and voice formed of fingerprints?

Friday, January 23, 2004

Reading Marija Gimbutas and Detractor Cynthia Eller

Posts by pot stirring Listserv regular Kirby Olson compelled me to revisit long admired gender archaeology synthesizer and theorist Riane Eisler, also Marija Gimbutas, as well as Gimbutas and "matriarchal myth" detractor Cynthia Eller. Eller is the author of The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future (Beacon Press, Boston, 2000). Rabble rousing Kirby had referenced her writing as an example of academic feminists essentially shredding 70's feminists' myths of matriarchal prehistory. I should stay out of some of the petit-tetes that KO starts every other day or so, but I submitted to the temptation and then I got crazy and spent 4 hours in the early, early morning searching out Eisler and Gimbutas essays/websites/references on the Internet.

Some of the best of these are located at a really fine feminist web site called Suppressed Histories Archives -- Global Womens Studies. The site webmaster is named Max Dashu. It is his Review of the Eller book that I am reading. (Alas, Yes, the site is evidently maintained by a man and the review of Eller is by a man. Nothing wrong with that. Just that it is ironic, and/or I always feel a bit embarrassed learning So&so is a male, NOT a female, feminist, as I had automatically assumed. OR, ACTUALLY, it's the fact that I am, myself, such a radical or at least radically aspiring feminist for 25 years now, and who's going to believe me? I have no female readers.)

It was Marija Gimbutas' feminist archealogy classic The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 B.C. that paved the way for later theorists like Riane Eisler. Matriarchal myths declare what Max Dashu describes as "the existence of egalitarian human societies: cultures that did not enforce a patriarchal double standard around sexuality, property, public office and space; that did not make females legal minors under the control of fathers, brothers, and husbands, without protection from physical and sexual abuse by same."

Saturday, January 17, 2004


No less unfortunate,
all the things impossible
to control by worrying harder
came back to haunt them.
In my own case, probably not particularly common and certainly not exemplary, the "will" to produce poems/poetry generally only toggles a dull, robotic servant hankering for words and congested with half-baked ideas. The "Will," as Perls, or maybe Rank or May -- no, it was Lowen, the Bioenergetics originator, -- understood and explained lucidly, actually runs counter to "the Body" (in this description, "the true self" is neither an idealized nor castigated one). True progress derives from surrender of the will, dissolving its control, however "noble" that control seems. Think of the dieter, for example, depriving himself of adequate nourishment in order to "force" away 10 pounds in three weeks. Soon as the will loses its sad, tired, almost tyrannical grip, as it always must, "the Body" restocks that willed away 10 pounds. "The Body" knows better. Oh, well, yes, the body is a

That morning

That morning we dressed for war. Clothing Optional. One lieutenant, an Assistant Manager in the Shipping Department, took notice, but the others continued to search far and wide.