Online Edition: Fall 2003

The Constructivist Moment

From Material Text to Cultural Poetics

Barrett Watten

Wesleyan University Press ($27.95)

by Brent Cunningham

The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics is a work of academic literary and cultural theory made up of eight chapters, each an essay Barrett Watten has written over the last ten years. While the specifically Russian version of "Constructivism" does show up periodically in this work (largely in the person of El Lissitzky), this is much less a book for Russian scholars than for those interested in literary theory, contemporary poetry, and American cultural studies. At the same time, Watten knows a lot about a lot: his interests run the gamut from poetry and poetics (especially the Language School of which Watten is a prominent member) to American modernity, Fordism, American photography and art, political theory, New Historicism, Detroit techno, Detroit city planning, psychoanalytic theory, continental philosophy, and, yes, Russian art, architecture and art theory.

Watten is aware that it is not particularly earth shattering in academic circles to point out that all these areas (art, theory, culture) have their social "constructedness" in common. Instead, the book seeks to give both theoretical and cultural specificity to the subtleties of Watten's particular notion of the constructed. He does this, in part, by stressing two other (at times equally general) concepts which he clearly sees as unifying forces for his diverse interests: materiality and negativity.

By materiality, Watten means to indicate both the social context in which writing occurs (in turn conceived as both its "historical referents and utopian prospects") and the stuff of art itself (language, paint, sound). Materiality not only leads to Watten's essay on the history and uses of restricted vocabularies as "material" constraints in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jackson Mac Low, Louis Zukofsky, and Kit Robinson, but also provides a convenient bridge to analyses of art, film and music. By defining all avant-gardes by this "irreducible" materiality, Watten is free to range over multiple art forms and diverse cultures, while also keeping a "materialist" politics in sight.

Watten's "negativity" (or "refusal") is even more complex than his "materiality." And no wonder, since he is pulling from a daunting range of thinkers: "I have employed six interlocking accounts of negativity in the course of my analyses: following Hegel, Foucault, Kristeva, Zizek, Lacan, and Heidegger." Nor does Watten choose between the "cultural, psychological, and formal aspects" of negativity: "This refusal may take the form of an explicitly oppositional poetics; or it may be self-negating even to the point of withdraw from society or suicide; or it may involve a radical reconfiguration of the formal possibilities of a genre or medium and their cultural significance." Nevertheless, the concept is sharp enough to help structure an impressive summary of Slavoj Zizek's understanding of the Lacanian Real, to provide a useful reading of Stan Douglas's photographs of downtown Detroit, and to highlight a number of insights into the poetry of Robert Grenier. Negativity also seems to be at the heart of Watten's critique of Charles Bernstein's arguably more positivist (or as Watten is willing to put it "universalist") views of difference and identity.

At the same time, Watten's reliance on somewhat borderless concepts such as materiality and negativity has the significant drawback of risking abstraction and opacity. Although The Constructivist Moment is much more lucid than his previous critical book, Total Syntax (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), Watten's style can still be quite difficult to penetrate. For some readers this density will be intriguing, while for others it will be frustrating.

This objection can be made even more precise by looking at the architecture between disjunctive sections of Watten's essays, and between the essays themselves. Transitional phrases and repeating motifs have the effect of implying connections, continuity, and correspondences between sections. While highly suggestive at times, this technique often forces Watten's most provocative tableaus to appear as mere components in larger arguments, a labor they cannot always accomplish. A case in point is Watten's brilliant reading of Gertrude Stein through the automobiles she owned and through her attitude toward her cars and Henry Ford, by itself a section worthy of Roland Barthes. The section makes the point that modernist writers like Stein were not separate from their social matrix despite their being read by scholars for precisely their autonomy and distance from that matrix. Contrary to those scholars, Watten instead finds the "genius" of a Stein in her ability to foreground her writing in the conditions of her age, so that it becomes "an imitation, or form of parallel play, of that [Fordist] mode of production."

Leaving aside the possible objection that an imitation is also a distancing, even autonomy by another name, the real problem comes in the next section. There, Watten delves into the formation of Language Poetry in the 1970s ("an abrupt transition," Watten admits) in order to argue that "a pragmatic sense" of what Stein meant by genius is exactly how the Language School was historically formed: by accretion rather than invention, by immediate responses to material problems, and more specifically by "a sequence of innovations within a form of organization that developed between writers in magazines such as This. "This is all consistent, according to Watten, with the accretive manner in which Fords assembly line came into being.

Unfortunately, here the extension of Watten's "assembly line" comparison actually undercuts Watten's original insights regarding Stein, for now the metaphor must bear not only the work of Gertrude Stein but also the social formation of the Language Poets. While it might be compelling to hear Watten explicitly argue that the products of artistic social formations are equivalent to the art works of individuals, he does not make this argument. The looseness of his point (and the stretching horizon of the trope) ends up implying little more than this modernist writer and this postmodern literary movement have some relation to the invention of the assembly line, or maybe to assembly lines themselves, or maybe to both.

Even inexact conflations of this sort would be interesting were Watten to explain the necessity for the network of implied and overarching arguments and resonances this book features--that is, to talk specifically about why he uses the linked form he uses in these essays, and thus to perhaps expose his own devices, revealing academic argument to be as much a "construction" as any of the cultural products he investigates.

This may very well be one of Watten's points, if not an explicit one. But although such an overt move does not happen, there is still a great quantity of solid information and suggestive theorizing in this book, by a writer and scholar deeply and personally obsessed with contemporary poetry, art, and theory. So personally involved, in fact, that Watten regularly uses his own work as examples. Some readers may object to having a core participant in the Language School try to historicize and valorize the very movement he helped create, but I suspect most readers will find it engaging to watch Watten leap from couch to chair, from analyst to analysand, from academic to poet. Whether the entire effort is an idiosyncratic approach to academic discourse or another document in the ongoing history of Language Poetry will be up to individual readers and scholars.

Fall 2003 Table of Contents