Charting Ironic Progress: The Reflexive and the Romantic in Barrett Watten's Progress
Comes to the history of words.
The thought to eradicate
In him. The poetry
Making him think certain ways . . . .
I. Poststructuralism: New Historicism v. Lacanian Psychoanalysis
At least poststructuralist theory has, contrary to structuralist thought, verified that subjectivity does indeed exist. When structuralists argue that the language of the system is all-encompassing, one wonders if such a thing as individual consciousness exists. For instance, Claude Lévi-Strauss neglects even the idea of an author in "The Structural Study of Myth," calling all incest stories simply versions of one another that are seemingly spawned from some kind of collective unconsciousness that is miraculously hard-wired into readers and writers alike. And Jonathan Culler divorces a text's codes--institutionally implemented--from any particular meaning or message in "Beyond Interpretation." What then, is an author, an artist, or a poet? The author appears dead, and the structuralist critics have murdered her.
Stanley Fish has posited that a great author's only claim to fame is that she has mastered the codes of her culture; similarly Stephen Greenblatt, after Michel Foucault's line of thought, has argued, beyond such mastery, that the author functions to negotiate and transmit the inculcated values of her culture. Building on, and then slightly diverging from, this argument, Jacques Derrida advocates the purposive and resonating free play of signifiers in lieu of the stiff and stuffy logos that will inevitably break down in contradiction because authors, though masterfully crafty, cannot totally control a resistant language. At least these poststructuralist critics recognize the category of author. However, such conceptualizations of author (and, by implication, artist and poet) deny any romantic consciousness and agency.
By romantic, I mean that visionary interiority and that private genius which is exemplified by a mind that creates beyond mere reaction to outside forces. By this conception the author will not die! The ultimate romantic is one who staves off society long enough to delve into herself and celebrate her individuality. In this postmodern world of multiple discourses, such a conception constitutes a naive, idealistic dream on one hand and an already inculcated discourse on the other. How can one disavow knowledge? How can one not be influenced and constructed through and through by her community? All one can reasonably do is resist. Even though that resistance may be futile, she at least establishes herself. Even if that self-construction is, paradoxically, learned discourse, at least such expression constitutes the Other's other.
A poststructuralist conceptualization that posits the possibility of subjective resistance, though still endorsing the power of the social order, is engendered by Jacques Lacan's linguistic approach to psychoanalysis. He purports that the discourse of the Symbolic Order, the other alluded to in the above epigraph, formulate one's psyche. In other words, entry into language constructs one's identity and thus engenders a person into a subject position in the Symbolic Order. However, one need not be content with that fact. Indeed, according to Lacan, the constitution of symbolic relationships and a symbolic mentality, as opposed to essential relationships and an essential identity, creates doubt regarding the predominant order. That doubt produces desire for a more stable (read, essential, or even romantic) order. One becomes anxious about the relationship between discourse and reality; one becomes anxious about one's subjectivity.
Such is the situation of the postmodern, poststructuralist poet. Traditionally, poets have occupied an interior place in existence. In the face of poststructuralist theory which dictates that they master discourse, most notably by reflexively ironizing their own belief systems and, consequently, beliefs, poets lose all sense of depth (or what they think encompasses depth). Lacanian psychoanalysis offers a way to "go deep" once again, albeit still self-reflexively and -distantly.
II. The Stage is Set
I have taken the time to outline contemporary theories about subjectivity because the subject of my examination, the poet Barrett Watten, undoubtedly has as well. Early in his career, Watten was associate with Language writers of the late 1970s and early 198Os. These academic poets like Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, and Ron Silliman took linguistic philosophy and critical theory to the extreme as they subverted the language of popular and intellectual culture in almost unreadable formalism, unreadable because it obtusely and ironically reflects upon its very self, its very language. In a phrase, they play with language such that their poems can not be coopted by a mass readership, such that poetic meaning is contentiously constructed by the individual reader rather than passively conveyed to their dominant society. Paradigms of New Historicist interpretations of the great author, poster-poets for Foucauldian power politics (not to mention faithful worshipers of Jacques Derrida's deconstructive antics) , Language poets master the discourse of the repressile dominant society in order to subvert it. And a significant portion of Watten's poetry encompasses such enthusiasm: it refuses to be contained by self-consciously playing with its own chain of supplements.
But poetry is about more than play; poetry is about more than a critique of a consumer culture: poetry is about romantic introspection as well. I have privileged the Lacanian standard because Barrett Watten's project in Progress is to map his own subjectivity. He realizes in the course of these 120 pages, these 600 five-line haiku-like stanzas, that he cannot forget his poststructuralist lessons. He cannot forget that the history of words engenders his subjectivity. He cannot transcend the discourse of the Symbolic Order, the Other, that he knows has created him and engendered his unconscious -- his dreams, his fantasies, his poetry. He cannot reflect without engaging an irony that distances himself from the very subject he wishes to explore and to know -- his own psydhe. He cannot surpass, he cannot bypass "The poetry, / by / Making him think certain ways . . ." which has exiled his soul from his subjectivity, which has eradicated romantic thought in him. Barrett Watten is a postmodernist poet who wishes to be a romantic but fails, and fails not only utterly but tragically. Although he can imitate the voice of the Other, he cannot imitate the voice of the Other's other -- romanticism.
III. The Plague of the Symbolic Order, The Plague of Discourses
Jacques Lacan has vigorously argued how the field of language, and by implication discourses in general, determines one's identity. Building on Sigmund Freud's oedipal theories, Lacan asserts that one's relationship with the Name-of-the-Father (the Law, the Symbolic Order, a society's discourse; as opposed to simply one's father figure proper, according to Freud's theories) constitutes onels subjectivization: "The Other is the locus in which is situated the chain of the signifiers that governs whatever may be made present of the subject -- it is the field of that living being in which the subject has to appear" (Seminar XI 203) . In other words, speech not only riddles but creates one's unconscious and one's psyche. In his next lecture, Lacan further defines how insertion into the Symbolic Order places one in a particular subject position. In any event, the subject exists via, through, and within language. How does such a theory of subjective identity affect the poet?
To read Progress, or any other collection of Barrett Wattenls poetry, is to enter a realm of disparate and dissentious discourses. (There is not one Symbolic Order here, but countless many.) Linear narrative appears unthinkable; not even episodic narrative exists. The subject of the poem is Watten, as I will illustrate; however, he depicts such a diversity of half-formed discourses that the overall subjectivity derived from the word is incredibly inchoate. Progress constitutes the anti-diaristic diary for the logs engender nonsense. The reader peruses 600 microcosmos that are utterly segregated from one another. Each stanza ends with an ellipses that one would think would signal a continuation of the current thought in the next, but such connections are few and far between. The ellipses instead appear to function as abrupt fade-outs. The subject of the discourse does continue to exist somewhere in time and space, but Watten has decided to switch the channels of his mind.
This book, though constituting a map of his own experiences, neither records the daily activities of his existence nor develops the emotions arising therefrom. Watten enmeshes himself fully in the web of discourses that detergine his contemporary existence. An always already, prefabricated random sample is in order.
stand at attention, and.
Purple snake stands out on
Porcelain tiles. The idea
Is the thing. Skewed by design . . . .
These three stanzas, which lead up to this examination's epitaph regarding the history of words, deny coherence. They resist sustained, meaningful interpretation because they flail among haphazard subject-matter and obtusely, even obfuscatingly, flaunt their opacity as language, as discourse. One searches for meaning and discovers discombobulation.
These stanzas compel the maximum effort to read; and they require the ultimate in supposition (and projection) on the reader's part. The introductory, contradictory orders force the reader to tense up; the odd imagery and the irregular, if not faulty, syntax makes her realize the piece's playful artifice. It is as if the poet commences one train of thought with a particular formulation but suddenly either leaps to or is struck by another conceptualization. The result -- a wreck of language whose derailment is intensely obvious. Watten's concern here is discourse. To inquire into its nature is to overcome it and, hopefully, achieve subjective agency for oneself. (Or so the theory goes.) However, what does it mean to find language in a wreck?
As one reads the book entire and realizes his practice to be a contribution to Language Writing, she can discern an accumulate context that focuses upon the nature of subjectivity in a society whose discourses are extremely multifarious. Even in these three stanzas, Watten's two most significant through-lines, the self-reflexive references to "I" and writing, make themselves known. In the first stanza, he contemplates the relationship between ideas and their form, concludine forms, necessary distortion; in the second he alludes to the ideological power of discourse; in the third, he meditates upon the desire for depth, for substance, in the face of language which not only necessarily exists at a superficial, surface level but also distances oneself from such inquiry into depth.
Perhaps, then, Watten has found himself in a wreck; perhaps, then, he desires to make that wreck meaningful by internalizing it; perhaps, then, this book-length "poem" of abstracted and fragmented discursive vignettes, as it constitutes an interrogation of the discourses that pulse through him, engenders an investigation of and into his own subjectivity. The problem is that all he can know is discourse. Even the desire to achieve romantic feats constitutes the desire of romantic discourse that he has learned and not inherently engendered. And the fact of discourse places him outside of himself because the self-realization of his own discursive interiority, which is not really interior at all but rather always already exterior, boomerangs his self-consciousness outside of himself and puts the locus of control on the shoulders of the Symbolic Order. His investigation puts his very subjectivity in question. Any vision of agency that he may have dreamed of becomes mere fantasy. He can report, but he cannot achieve the "perfect" depth, the romantic vision of interiority, as it becomes in this world an irony and a paradox because it functions in the same way as all of the other discourses. He cannot see the forest of his soul -- an unmediated romantic vision -- through the trees of his mind -- the self-reflexive awareness that the outer Symbolic order's discourse mediates and, even worse, generates his inner soul.
Watten exists in a dilemma of the subjectivity whose only result is non-existential doubt and unrest. In "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud," Lacan similarly theorizes the subversion of the subject in the face of language.
"I am otherwise," laments Watten (69). The poet is alienated. The network of discourses in the Symbolic Order engages him, certainly, but by no means does it offer him solace. Unsatisfied, he feels overwhelmed and overdetermined. Just as he realizes that depth is illusory, so too does the very notion of privacy. Discourses pervade and illuminate all. And that enlightenment is blinding. To continue on the first page of Progress where we left off . . .
White, to each of these cancels
fog. Collapses self,
And invading enemy wins.
The argument itself, disassembling . . . . (1)
Though constructing his mental existence, the discursive "arguments" constrain and confuse Watten as well. His mind gazes out upon the world and sees the foggy carnival of language-the chaos of the Symbolic Order-injecting itself into his mental processes.
Watten's relationship with the world of ideas degenerates into insecurity and alienation. This book constitutes the progress of the poet's primary disease -- the recognition that one's identity is not one's own. Whereas the romantic Wordsworth spontaneously recollected emotions in tranquillity (he held onto the illusion), the discursive Watten discovers that his lines, and the emotions which they supposedly represent, are not his. Consequently, any notion that he has ever entertained regarding the primacy of his soul fails:
Inspect I to complete a symbol
And account for its design,
Phantoms on a road to here
Lead to collapse,
leaving . . . . (94)
Close reading proves fatal; inwardness proves illusory. Constructed of language and discourse, the poet falls apart in a flail of language and discourse too extensive to abstract here. Imagine permutations of the five stanzas already reviewed multiplied 120 times over.
Lacan would call the plight that Watten exacts in Progress aphanisis, the fading or disappearance of subjectivity. Watten cannot have complete faith in anything, especially himself, for his investigations perpetually force him outside himself into the cold aridity of discourse. He contemplates his psyche in irony. Watten plays in the web, yes, but the play is tragic because it overwhelms the space for absolute significance. As Lacan suggests, certainty takes an indefinite leave of absence: "If, indeed, there is no belief that is full and entire, it is because there is no belief that does not presuppose in its basis that the ultimate dimension that it has to reveal is strictly correlative with the moment when its meaning is about to fade away" (Book XI 238).
However, the poet has not gone completely mad. As I stated before, images of "I" and writing prevail; and, after a time prove invaluable in achieving a minimum of coerente In fact, in many passages, Progress allegorizes the collapse of Watten's mind in the face of an all-consuming constructedness: "The wall cracks and topples . . . . / On its fictitious base," (70). Watten doubts what exists at the core of his being; he hystericizes the probability of his non-being. He finds no satisfaction in the Symbolic Order because it, being multifarious and varied, provides only a relative, unstable foundation for his selfhood: "Even / I am the summation of logic / Arrayed on contrary precepts . . . . " (74).
The logic of language is not just a prison house which he has resolved himself to play in; it is also a house of cards -- tentative, tenuous. Yes, a game produces play; and yet, considering what is at stake, this game produces anxiety as well. Poetry exists not only as play but also the mapping of anxiety: "The poetry is this distance / Given in place of names" (48) . Recognition mentally closes the abyss between signifier and signified; however, paradoxically, it further annihilates the psyche because it is the recognition of a tragic gap and lack. Regard the profound alienation of this stanza:
He publishes a book by himself
Under my name.
I wake up
To dismantle the equipment,
But the book inside is asleep . . . . (50)
The poet does not even have access to his own authorship. Some [O]ther, be it person or society, has composed the poem. As Lacan would state, the poet writes the paradigmatic discorse (the discorse of the Other, the Symbolic Order). Once again, the poet enters a paralysis which no amount of self-conscious overcoming can truly overcome:
But it could be an empty sign.
Rapidly, constantly stated
You are just a little boy,
An omnipotent god,
paralyzed . . . . (57)
But it could be an empty mind -- an empty soul paralyzed with the insight of its own exteriority. Poststructuralist theory helps one maintain a metacritical, intellectual attitude over the plague and the rage of discourses that one internalizes by sheer habit, but the feelings of inferiority remain, pervade.
Lacan meditates upon the ways in which a person can reclaim some power; his solution most notably involves producine a discorse of onels own that will be absorbed by the Symbolic Order. Such activity serves to mediate (though not ameliorate) the alienation of an existence filled with self-ironizing lack. The opportunity for the poet is prime, even primary.
I want to solve an equation.
Iron filings spiral into
open to debate.
A box contains only its shadow. . . . (13)
Watten seeks to solve the formula not only of his mind but of his poetry. Thankfully (hopefully), he realizes that his subjectivity is more than just one half of an input-output equation. This shadow, which exists deep inside the box, defies rationalization and intellectualization for it is open. surpassing, and transcendent. Perhaps the pysche, indeed the soul, is more than the sum of its parts. Could this constitute a romantic (re) vision?
Lacan offers another bit of power in "The Agency of the Letter" when he theorizes about the Symbolic Order's malleability. Granted, the Symbolic Order is much more pervasive than individual subjectivity, and any agency that the subject asserts at some level must have been determined in reaction to the Symbolic Order, but the subject can assert at least some control, however minuscole. Influence is a two way street: just as the Symbolic Order positions the subject, the subject can mold the Symbolic Order, thereby transforming her own existence: "The answer is that the slightest alteration in the relation between man and the signifier, in this case in the procedures of exegesis, changes the whole course of history by modifying the moorings that anchor his being" (174). The history of words has made Watten think certain ways, but it does not preclude metamorphosis of identity through the rewriting of personal history.
Watten realizes that he must deal with the discourse that has been imbued in him. His control is little, but at least he recognizes it. It is significant that he amasses 600 little poems-600 frayed threads of discourse-without attempting to suture them together. Just how active is his mediation? And so we return to where we began our examination-poststructuralist theory and the plague of ready-made, always already consumed discourses: "Trade values of stock figures / That I permute and combine" (63). He constructs self-knowledge by dismantling the layers and layers of discourse and language that already exist inside him: "veil behind veil, / Constant production of self" (33). However, is what he finds merely another layer of discourse, another veil? He leaves himself in order to return to himself, but does that return constitute a deeper vision? In other words, is the romantic notion of the poet itself a symbolic ruse designed to fool poets into believing they can achieve interiority? Clearly, Watten interrogate the Symbolic Order that has determined his subjectivity. But the question remains: has he effected (affected) change? Has he journeyed to the root of his soul and regenerated his natural, innate self? "Cracks split, / to grow trees . . . ." (64). Or has he looked inside himself merely to find not only one Other but many Others? "I / Am not one portrait but many. . . ." (45).
Adams, Hazard and Leroy Searle, eds. Critical Theory Since 1965. Tallahassee: UP of Florida, 1986.
Culler, Jonathan. "Beyond Interpretation." The Pursuit: of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981. Rpt. in Adams'Critical Theory Since 1965. 322 - 329.
Fish, Stanley. "Rhetoric." Critical Terms for Literary Studies. 2nd Ed. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 203-222.
Foucault, Michel. "The Discourse on Language." Trans. Rupert Swyer. Social Science Information 10 (1971). Rpt. in Adams'Critical Theory Since 1965. 148-162.
--------. "What Is an Author?" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1977. Rpt. in Adams'Critical Theory Since 1965. 138-147.
Greenblatt, Stephen. "Culture." Critical Terms for Literary Studies. 2nd Ed. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 225-232.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud." Écrits: A Selection.. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. 146-178.
-------. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. 1973. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton 1981.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "The Structural Study of Myth. Il 1955. Structural Anthropology. Trans. New York: Basic, 1963. Rpt. in Adams'Critical Theory Since 1965. 809-22.
Messerli, Douglas, ed. "Language" Poetries: An Anthology. New York: New Directions, 1987.
Watten, Barrett. Progress. New York: Roof, 1985.