- More than a decade has passed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a war
that offered up an "instant history" that effaced the histories of
colonialism and empire in the Middle East, thanks to saturation
media coverage that covered up far more than it revealed. There is little doubt now that mass media sources, from CNN to the local news, acted principally as an
extension of the military effort. This media saturation has led critics like Jed Rasula in
The American Poetry Wax Museum to suggest that the only
proper way to resist the war was to refuse to watch television (376). Yet Western intellectuals who opposed
this war could reach no consensus about how to resist, or even about the very possibility of resistance within the centers of
empire; the war seemed to evacuate the very notion of "centers," as
television coverage of Pentagon news briefings infiltrated homes
throughout the world.
The crisis of oppositionality appeared most visibly in the impasse
between Jean Baudrillard's postmodern analysis of the war (captured in the provocative title of his book, The
Gulf War Did Not Take Place) and Christopher Norris's Chomsky-inflected critique
(no less provocative in the directness of its attack on what he terms
Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals, and the Gulf
War). Neither articulates a
completely convincing reading of the war, and each, in light of the
other, feels somewhat one-dimensional. To overcome the seeming impasse presented by these contrary paradigms requires an analysis flexible enough to value both the
productive paranoia of Baudrillard and the hyperrationality of Chomsky. The
Baudrillardian mode impels us to: 1) question not only
mass media coverage, but information itself, insofar as it becomes
indistinguishable from propaganda in times of war, particularly in what
Baudrillard calls "the profound immorality of images"; 2) recognize the
way in which war itself has become virtualized, simulacral, and based
upon the logic of deterrence; 3) describe the war as a Western civilian
experiences it, where the media and military use of optical technology
merge to a single aim; and 4) pursue a risky rhetorical strategy that mimics
the dominant narrative in order to subvert it. The Chomskyan mode, on
the other hand, provides us a model that helps to: 1) deconstruct U.S.
media coverage of the war by producing an historical narrative of U.S.
foreign policy that emphasizes its complicity in the situation it aims to
solve by war and by producing an alternative narrative of war resistance,
both at the center of empire and in the Third World; 2) investigate the
effects of war on the ground in Iraq (not to mention in the United
States, where thousands of veterans suffer from Gulf War Syndrome); and 3)
suspend the (postmodern?) illusion that just because something is not
covered by the press does not mean that it's not real. Each paradigm seems to supply the perspectives that are absent from
the other, and yet something is missing from both. Neither critic manages to capture his own positionality, or rather, his
own subjective history.
If intellectuals and activists struggled to find and transmit their
positions vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf War, poets seemed
its televisual brilliance, missile-eye camera perspectives, and obfuscatory
debriefing sessions, by its effacement (via media and military censorship) of
corpses, and its blitzkrieg speed.
Perhaps because of its avoidance of traditional poetic modes that rely on
subjective immediacy and imagery, Barrett Watten's Bad
History (1998) wrestles with the war in a way that is almost
commensurate with the logic of what Paul Virilio calls "Pure War"--the
state of preparedness for war that constitutes the real war. At its best moments, Bad
History articulates a poetic strategy that mediates the
theoretical deadlock between Baudrillardian postmodernism and Chomskyan
rationalism. By pursuing Baudrillardian immersiveness without fatuously
reveling in it and thereby flattening the contested landscape of history,
while at the same time laying the groundwork for a Chomskyan poetic
critique of the war that does not extract itself from its own subjective
position, Watten's Bad History effects a resistance that
moves beyond smug self-congratulatory rhetoric. By invoking, and then
countering, a poetic form that itself has glorified wars--the epic--in a
poetry adequate to the conditions of postmodernity, Bad
History stands out as perhaps the most important poetic engagement
of the Persian Gulf War.
At the same time, to say that the only way to read Bad
History is as a poem about the Gulf War would be
overzealous. Of the thirty prose pieces comprising the book, only the
first seven (Part A of Parts A-F)--a mere 27 pages of a poem spanning 128 pages, with 21 pages of endnotes--centrally concern the
event of the
war. The range of subject matter--from readings of office buildings to
meditations on William Carlos Williams, from reflection on being named
his mother's executor to mulling over the ongoing shifts in area codes
and the subject positions of screen savers--belies any reading of this
work as simply a "Gulf War" poem. And yet, that Bad History is
framed by the language of the art review ("The 1980s"--"Philip Johnson's
postmodern office building") and the language of a financial prospectus
("The 1990s") evokes the conditions of postmodernity in which a war like
the Gulf War takes place. Bad History, in short, is not
simply about the Gulf War; but in its attempt to lay bare the
problematics of narration, of subjectivizing the history of the 1980s and
1990s, it actively resists the representation of that war as
star-spangled tracers and ticker-tape parades.
Because of its obsessional relation to narration and
history-making, Bad History evokes most particularly the
tradition of twentieth-century epic initiated by Ezra Pound's
Cantos, itself a counter to the tradition of epics narrating
the birth of a nation through the heroism of warfare. Bad
History counters its own epic tendencies in three basic ways.
First, it problematizes the history-making procedure of epic by enacting a
"poetics of interference" and by stretching an account of the
Gulf War beyond the forty-three-day television event known as "Operation
Desert Storm." Second, it articulates a subjectivity vacillating between
complicity and resistance, creating a text at war with its own
positionality. Third, even though it forgoes the rhetorical
oppositionality of anti-war verse, it nonetheless resists through form.
Using hypotactic sentences, footers, columnar style, and a hefty appendix
of secondary sources, it challenges the formal and ideological limits of
mainstream lyric poetry through a language-based "poetry for use."
The Poetics of Interference and the Epic Poem
|Figure 1: Decoy #1
© Michal Rovner
permission of the artist.
- How to frame a poem attempting to cover a subject as virtualized
as the Persian Gulf War? The photograph on the cover of the book, "Decoy
Michal Rovner, introduces some of the essential problems with any history
of the Gulf War. It is itself an enactment of Bad History. Slightly
off-center, the photo depicts a gray, indistinct figure set also slightly
off-center, holding both arms above his or her head. Nothing else is
visible, and even the ground is indistinct from the sky, creating the
impression that the figure could be suspended in utero. The
grainy grays of the photo render it, indeed, somewhere between an
intrauterine sonograph and the televisual images that were released from the
which were replete with target markers and "missile-eye" views of the
buildings, bridges, and vehicles to be destroyed. Lacking all context,
our "reading" of the image is blocked. We do not even know, for example, whether the figure is American or Iraqi; is the
gesture one of victory or surrender? Nor do we know whether the figure faces us or
someone else, outside of the picture. We do not know when or where the
picture was taken, or even if it is a photograph at all. It seems
equally possible that it appeared as a cave sketch of sun worship. But
even if Decoy #1 leaves open the possibility that it is an image of an American or an Iraqi, its very inscrutability deprives
it of particularity and of affect, blocking a reader's attempt at identification.
Rovner's work anticipates the poetics of interference central to
Bad History. In a
1992 review of Rovner's exhibition, Watten noted how the artist's premise was
that "where unthinkable events are concerned, interference is as much a
form of knowledge as clarity" ("Michal Rovner" 14). In
contrast to the tradition of war photojournalism, in which the photograph
articulates in its fine detail not only the scene of war but also the
position of the journalist-witness--and, hence, the imagined audience at
the home front--Rovner's images, according to Watten,
obstruct and render virtually abstract the faces of war...through the
limits of the media, and in Rovner's self-conscious imitation of the gaps
in transmission through techniques of reprocessing and reframing, what is
depicted is a new relation of knowledge to events.... This knowledge is
open-ended, a permanent threat. (14)
In other words, Rovner reproduces the war in such a way that it lacks
decisiveness, it lacks a narrative, it lacks the fine grain of the hero's
face. And yet, because Rovner's images enact the very technology of
information transmission, in all its gaps, they are themselves an historical
record of the Gulf War, insofar as the war was one of information
transmission and obstruction, in which the war's first hero, in the
words of a CNN video, was "the Patriot missile."
Watten, along with others in the "language poetry" movement emerging in
the early 1970s, has similarly worked to articulate a poetry resistant
to commodification, absorption, and manipulation, countering the
image-economy that is the engine of mainstream lyric poetry. I will forgo a full examination of
language poetry's history, innovations, and principal agents, since it is
the central focus of this essay to show not that Watten is a language
poet, but that he is a poet who, by virtue of his experimental approach to
language, offers a particularly useful model of war resistance poetry.
Further, such an analysis is probably no longer necessary--given the
current critical attention on the movement (or, in Ron Silliman's term,
the "moment")--and perhaps impossible, given its heterogeneity.
However, a brief glance at some of the contours of language poetry might
explain how Watten's experimental tactics emerge precisely from the
realization of lyric poetry's failure as social action during the Vietnam
War. According to Bob Perelman's witty
definition, language writing was
a range of writing that was (sometimes) nonreferential, (occasionally) polysyntactic, (at times) programmatic in
construction, (often) politically committed, (in places) theoretically inclined, and that enacted a critique of the literary
I (in some cases) (21).
Perelman's parenthetical amendments suggest the degree to which the
writers who found each other in the early 1970s shared a multiplicity of
poetic tactics, rather than a single poetic strategy--though this
common set of tactics does suggest a distinctive movement. Frequently, those tactics
struck out against illusions of poetic transparency: transparency of subjectivity (the
lyric self), transparency of language (common language made pure), and
transparency of image (the image as window into the real). For example,
in their 1988 essay, "Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A
Manifesto," five language poets, including Watten, offer two proposals:
1) to dissociate the "marginal isolated individualism" of the
narrative persona so valued in contemporary poetry (264), and 2) to write a
"contaminated" rather than a "pure" language (269).
These proposals for a new poetry, from a certain angle, address the way in
which antiwar poetry such as Denise Levertov's presumed a position of
pristine distance from which one could compose transparent images of U.S.
war atrocities on Vietnamese civilians with the pure language of the
lyric, without regard for the ways in which American antiwar poets were
implicated in the war by their privileged position as citizens of the
United States, distant from the scene of battle. In the end, this poetry
undergirded the illusion that a "pure" lyric language could resist another
"pure" language without consequences--in particular, the bureaucratic
language of the Department of Defense, with its technocratic terms such as
"body counts," "collateral damage," and "friendly fire."
Watten's poetry prior to Bad History pursued a rigorously
abstract, theoretical, self-distancing strategy of writing that might be
considered the absolute negation of the lyric; at times, it is difficult
to tell the difference between Watten's theoretical writing and his
poetry. The most evident difference is often simply the publication context--that is,
to state one of Watten's poetic concerns, a frame that tells us
"this is a poem." In a poem alluding, perhaps mockingly, to Pound's
ABC of Reading, Watten's "The XYZ of Reading" (1988) waxes
theoretical about the danger of the lyric as substitute for political
action (an implicit attack on the work of Levertov and Carolyn
Forché) and anticipates Bad History:
Romantic negativity, the avoidance of any conditions that compromise the
subject leading to the subject's lyrical denial of itself, is too easily
symptomatic. It's easy enough to feel victimized by the daily news,
example, and that maybe what is intended. Lyrical horror is our
"participation in democracy" at the level of violence of compulsory
in El Salvador. Taken as an assertion, then, such lyricism no longer works
even as a form of bondage between writers. (Frame 153)
Watten's language here aggressively provokes the question: how is this a
poem? There are none of the poetic devices that one might encounter in a
traditional poem; it reads more like a poetic statement or
a manifesto than a poem. What we have, at its most stripped down,
is the movement of a mind troubled by the poetry of witness, insofar as it
appears a symptom rather than a symbolic action. For Watten, poets today
no longer retain any illusions that writing lyric poetry is a kind of (or
replacement for) participatory democracy, as writers like Levertov had
felt during the Vietnam War. Watten's remark in Leningrad,
a text co-authored by four language poets reflecting on their encounter
with the Soviet Union, cuts to the
heart of the problems of lyric subjectivity: "Isn't there a complicity
with power, however at odds one may be with it, behind the sense that one
is at the center of things?" (110). What Watten pursues is a poetry that might move against expressions of lyrical
horror--which often become mere aestheticizations of violence for the purpose of
bourgeois consumption--and instead locates itself in a consciousness
constantly worrying over its own epistemological limits.
By countering (not only on the cover,
but throughout the book) the lyric's tendency to rely on image, Bad History revises the televisual
history of the Gulf War. Below, I will show how Watten filters
the "images" of war through a disembodied voice that hyperconsciously
details the overdetermined nature of those images. Here let it
suffice that this poem resists the war on the level of its illusion of
transparency. But Watten does not simply replace the official media
representation of the war with a Chomskyan alternative history, or a
Forché-influenced lyric poetry of witness.
In his evasion of the image-economy and lineation of lyric poetry,
Watten's poem uses the sentence as his principle formal device. Heralded
by Todorov as an "appropriate form...for a thematics of duality,
contrast, and opposition," the prose poem has an extensive tradition as
counter-poetry (qtd. in Monroe 18). Unlike mainstream prose poetry, the
"New Sentence," in the hands of experimental poets like Ron Silliman or
Watten, has an unsettlingly non-narrative and cross-discursive thrust.
Watten's combinations and deformations of multiple and often disparate discourses
move beyond the critique of political language outlined in Orwell's
famous essay, "Politics and the English Language." Critiques like Orwell's hold out for a transparent, common-man language, a throwback to
Wordsworth. In Bad History, we encounter a poetic
subjectivity that cuts diagonally through art criticism, journalism,
romantic lyric, dream language, and financial prospectus. The sentences
stretch, harry, and perhaps even subvert the discourses they invoke.
Poetry is not a kind of language divorced from these various discourses,
but rather, to paraphrase Jerome McGann, a complicating procedure toward
and within those discourses. The
poet becomes, at least for the span of certain sections, a dissenting
Watten, therefore, moves beyond the space-time miniaturization of the
lyric (in its private individual moment) into larger, more expansive
cross-dimensional spaces, and over longer stretches of time, through a
strategic invocation of the epic. This is admittedly a strange subgenre
for Watten to choose, since the epic poem emerged as the form of
nationalism par excellence--the story of a people's triumph by battles--and
even more so because televisual coverage of the Persian Gulf War
resembled an epic in which generals and technological weaponry were equal
characters. However, with Ezra Pound's Cantos arose a new
kind of epic, opposed both to the lyric poem that had risen into
dominance by the early twentieth century and to the old epic, which required
a more unified and univocal society. In Michael André Bernstein's
formulation, Pound's "modern verse epic" might still court the strategy
of articulating a national (or Western) culture, but it does so "in a
society no longer unified by a single, generally accepted code of
values...justifying its argument by the direct appeal of the author's own
experiences and emotions" (79). Pound's Cantos opened
the way for modernist experimentation in poems that would collage
different texts, voices, and narratives into explorations of national
(and even international) subjectivity; Muriel Rukeyser, William Carlos
Williams, Charles Olson, and many others are indebted to Pound's opening
of the form.
Bad History's jacket blurb suggests that the poem both invokes
the Poundian epic (it is a poem "including history") and counters
it ("In...Bad History, history includes the poem") by
questioning the notion that the text can somehow exist outside of
history while attempting to record history. Watten's "epic," therefore, is fundamentally at
odds with the formal characteristics of epic but not with the project of
epic-making, of narrating a subjective (and even national) history. The
opening caveat in the book's acknowledgements page, that "Bad
History is a work of literature and makes no claim to factual
accuracy," reverses the docudramatic co-optation of reality for
literature, even while in practice Bad History rigorously
harries any stable notion of history and factual accuracy. Further, the
epigraph, from Mark Cousins's "The Practice of History Investigation,"
alludes to Watten's cagey approach to history, one equally interested in
the problem of trauma and representation as in censorship and
The evident irritation expressed with a concept of event which does not
measure up to its canons of evidence, the shock expressed at a practice
whose interpretations refer to events which 'historically' may not have
happened.... Imagine a practice of interpretation which prefers secondary
sources, and unreliable witnesses! (vii)
First, we see that Cousins is interested in the "irritation" and "shock"
expressed by people (most likely historians) who are confronted with a
counter-method that questions the very basis upon which "objective
historiography" has relied. Second, we should note the distinction
between the event and the evidence of the event, and the blurring of
fiction and history. Finally, in a war in which media coverage rendered
impossible even the fantasy of secondary witness (that is, mediated
witnessing), Bad History foregrounds the difficulty for American civilians in reconstructing what actually
happened; any reconstructed narrative must rely, as former Attorney General and
activist founder of the International Action Center Ramsey Clark
assiduously attempts to do in The Fire This Time: War Crimes in the
Gulf, on secondary witnesses and shaky sources. But if we are to
take the quotation as somehow representative of Watten's poem, then the
"preference" for secondary sources represents a sort of provocation, since this preference does not imply the "availability of
only" secondary sources.
The Gulf War--itself an event to which most of us were secondary or even
tertiary witnesses, if witnesses at all--is the ground from which
Bad History emerges. For Watten the event of the Gulf War
cannot speak for itself alone. Perhaps because of the incredibly brief
span of the war, in marked contrast to the Vietnam War, Watten's text
draws backward and propels forward, beginning in the 1980s and ending in
the late 1990s. The war isn't just the war, but the social and historical
conditions that yielded its brief, deadly blooms.
Part A, "The 1980s," begins with something not immediately concerned with
the Gulf War: Philip Johnson's "postmodern office building."
Watten's art-critical musings, rather than simply avoiding history and the
actually look awry at both. By suspending an
immediate discussion of the War and by focusing on a particular building
that signifies the cultural historical (postmodern) spirit of the 1980s,
Watten's move intimates that any discussion of the war must reach
backward into the past, rather than toward the particulars of the war's
beginning. The office building becomes a mnemonic for the 1980s; even
more, it suggests the way in which structures of monumentality signify a
certain way of remembering. The book begins:
Philip Johnson's postmodern office building at 580 California. The
combination of facing motifs shows a simultaneous fascination with ironic
control and the disavowal of any consequences. Cynically juxtaposing
corporate-induced localism with functional office grids, the artificer
has reduced all construction to a memorial bas-relief. Each view is a
little tomb, complete with signature crosslike prison bars. These bay
windows must be our final release! (1).
His description indicates how the architecture itself foregrounds "ironic
control" and "disavowal of any consequences," two aspects that marked
the position of the television viewer of the Gulf War. In this sense,
then, the building anticipates the war--or perhaps even creates the
conditions where such a war could be possible. In addition, each window
view--"a little tomb, complete with signature crosslike prison bars"--suggests the television screen merging with the crosshairs of a
weapon sight. Moreover, the building seems to enact a kind of faux
sublime transcendence--"these bay windows must be our final release!"--and becomes instant memoir, just as the Gulf War became instant
history. Echoing Baudrillard, each pedestal on the rooftop is a "blank
marker for an event that might have been but never took place" (2). The
building, in the end, suggests a widespread cultural situation in which
events themselves could be mediatized out of existence.
A Homer Who Sees He Doesn't See: Complicit, with Resistance
- Bad History is a counter-epic in another sense,
insofar as epics also have traditionally been the founding stories of
nations, mythologizing its inner conflicts and external wars from the
perspective of an impersonal communal voice. Because the media representation rendered the
Gulf War--at least for the American viewer at home--an antiseptic affair,
a Hollywood fantasy rewrite of Vietnam, Watten's counter-epic refuses the
nationalist narrative and becomes itself a "bad history." That is, it
is a naughty history, an anti-nationalist history that shows bad form,
that subjectivizes another history. But rather than a simplistic
rendering of Chomskyan oppositionality, Watten's self-positioning rejects the anti-war argument
that there is good and bad history--that we are constantly
subjected to the bad history of mass media--and need to articulate a "good history" that accounts for
Bad History, therefore, is an epic of worried subjectivity,
attempting to resist even while knowing its own complicities and
limits--all the while refusing to bracket the moment at which the text is
being produced. True to Cary Nelson's articulation of history as a
"palimpsest of two durations, then and now," the writing of Bad
History itself is an event essential to understanding Bad
History (Nelson 3). In other words, as Watten wrote in an email,
"I'm living what I'm writing, not writing about what I experienced." Bad
History thereby rejects the tradition of anti-war verse that
dominated during the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a
tradition that relied on a poetry of witness (as in Levertov's early anti-war poems) and
epistemological authority (as in Robert Bly's deep image poetry of
The Light Around the Body and "The Teeth Mother Naked at
Last"). It should not be surprising, given that the
language poetry movement reached back into another poetry tradition, that
Watten's work evokes another anti-war poetry tradition.
Informed by his numerous reviews of art exhibitions in the early 1990s,
Watten's Bad History struggles against three prevailing
artistic pitfalls that emerge in the art of that period: first,
oppositional art frequently responded just to the event itself, not to
the conditions that made that event possible; second, oppositional art
"preached to the converted"--embracing its own marginality in ways that closed down its possible audience; and third, oppositional art
tended to foreground identity politics in ways that limited
exploration of its own epistemological limits.
So even as Bad History refuses the traditional subjective
position of the nationalist epic poet, it also is inflected by the
successes and failures of oppositional art from the period; rather than
simply relying on a self-protective oppositionality, it becomes a
subjective history swinging between complicity and resistance. The
resistance of Bad History bridles against its own
limitations, situated at the "homefront," distant from the scene of the war.
After Part A's postmodern office building, Section I, called "Bad
History," initiates the emergence of this resistant/complicit "I,"
puzzling over the language of wars' beginnings and endings:
A bad event happened to me, but its having occurred became even more
complicated in my thinking about it. Even if this event had happened
only to me, it was only recently made available for retrospection; it had
to be proved as taking place in every other event. Take the War, for
example; I no longer know for certain which war is meant.... It is
always "the era between two wars." So there was a very long war before a
period of time in which that war had just been over for a very long
time--even though it took its place as immediately preceding that time.
Then a very short war called that very long time to question....All those
times even now seem to guarantee each other, as part of an assertion of
the reality of the first and only war. (5-6)
This is a disembodied, indeterminate, distracted voice, worrying over the
problem of language and temporality. The "I" is like a voice in an echo
chamber, reverberating until estranged into a flattened affect, as if
amnesiac: "a bad event happened to me, but its having occurred became
even more complicated in my thinking about it." But rather than
sounding like Fredric Jameson's postmodern subject, whose affect in the
end represents a fundamental loss of historicity, Watten's "speaker"
pursues relentlessly its own flattened sense of time. It is as if the
lyric subject had been traumatized by the event, which though distinct,
"had to be proved as taking place in every other event." The War,
too, becomes a floating signifier, not attached from any specific war,
but somehow including all the permutations of war--the Second World War,
Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, Cold War. The Cold War--"always on
the verge of ending"--lingers over all the wars. This sense of an
ongoing perpetual war echoes Virilio's notion of "Pure War," in which the
Cold War superpowers engage in a war marked by the constant preparation
for war; what Watten's speaker gropes for is a name for that war's
perpetuity, the war without end.
The subject's disbelief in the War, necessitated perhaps by the psychic
inability to remain in a state of constant crisis, paradoxically leads to
a feeling of responsibility for its existence. This stance creates a
demonstrably different tone from much war resistance poetry, accustomed
as it is to the clarity of oppositionality. When the war ended, "it was
a relief--I always doubted the extent to which the poet could just by
writing think he could keep it going, even for the space of a lyric poem"
(8). Watten's line reverses the formulation that the war resistance poet
writes poems about the war in order to end the war; what this line
suggests, rather, is that the lyric poet writes about the war in order to
make it real for the writing-self distant from the conflict. These
lines seem particularly addressed to the lyric poetry of Denise Levertov,
imagining the Vietnam War in poems like "Life at War," in which Delicate
still turns without surprise, with mere regret,
Paradoxically, Watten's lines suggest that the lyric poet who seeks to
resist the war through means of imagery does so in order to convince
herself of the reality of the war, but ends up initiating a vicious
circle of traumatized representation.
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys. (122)
The Cold War, with its small and distant wars and its possible path to
nuclear armageddon, forced people into a condition of
disbelief, "a kind of suspension" (7).
Watten's echo of Coleridge's famous formulation from Biographia
Literaria regarding the reader's necessary openness toward his
"supernatural" poems in Lyrical Ballads suggests the way in
which fictional and historical narratives function by the same logic.
Watten also references how Robert Creeley's poem "The Tiger" invokes a
"reassuring but freakish monstrosity that would rivet us in our seat, as
in a Stephen King movie" (8). At both moments, Watten pursues a
Baudrillardian line of analysis that applies both to the Cold War and the
Gulf War. The Cold War was the war that lacked overt signs of warfare,
and hence could be disbelieved; the Gulf War, experienced by the distant
television spectator as a virtual media event, could be believed only
insofar as one was willing to enter its fictionalized televisual
representation, with Hussein as its Godzilla to be destroyed.
Watten's notion of disbelief, incidentally, spans both the willing
(postmodern?) consumer of the Gulf War as heroic epic and the
(Chomskyan) dissenter who sees this representation as frankly
"unbelievable." In other words, by focusing on the problem of
disbeliefs, Watten's poem addresses the dilemmas of being an (American)
civilian at the center of empire, distant from the conflict, without
choosing the more comfortable, but ultimately less productive,
In order to believe in the Gulf War, the viewer needed to suspend the
disbelief that wars have human consequences, which always requires a
faith in technological mastery. In this war, perhaps more
so than in any previous war, technology took its place as a key
character in the postmodern epic. Here, again, Watten avoids the
oppositional mode, trying to retrace the thoughts of a speaker who is
haunted by the seeming reality of the virtualized televisual conflict:
each new war being the culmination of our old belief in the supersession
of a new technology.... Only later did we find out that the success rate
for Patriot missiles was only 6 percent. How can we be so thoroughly
trained to disbelieve the evidence of our senses? Didn't I see an
incoming missile come down through the sky from the vantage point of a TV
crew in Dharan, Saudi Arabia.... while the cameraman tracked the outgoing
Patriot to an explosion that was visible proof of its success? (9)
The speaker expresses puzzlement at how the information regarding the
Patriot's success rate violates his sense of the images he "witnessed."
This puzzlement is contrasted with the glee of a certain "poet," who
failed to think about the consequences of all this virtualization: "the
poet didn't want to think about that ground [which would be destroyed by
the Patriots and Scuds], so pleased he was with the spectacle of a
disbelief that called into question any criterion for an historical event"
(10). It is unclear who this poet is; this character experiences pleasure
in the totality of the spectacle of a disbelief. If this line read
"pleased...with the spectacle," we might say that Watten is critiquing
Baudrillard's euphoria over spectacles themselves. But the line reads:
"the spectacle of a disbelief," which makes it seem equally possible that
it refers to some Chomskyan dissenter who resists the spectacle as well.
The poet could be Watten himself. In the end, naming names matters less
than acknowledging the speaker's uneasiness with the way the poet's
pleasure in his stance toward the event seems to distance him further from
the brute reality of the bombs.
This section concludes by tracking the very circulation that
Watten's ruminative repetitions of words and phrases have enacted. The
"bad event," obscured by false witnesses and faulty technologies, still
remains at a distance. However, its very repetition through
representation--particularly in the form of those Patriot missiles
hitting their targets--finally instigates the speaker to language:
"it was the continuous, circling treadmill of its displacement for a very
long time, brought to a single image--obscured, interfered with,
reprocessed at a third remove over remote-control channels of
communicative links--that got me here to say this" (10). The speaker's
voice, then, becomes an analogue for the virtualization of the
Gulf War; only through such a poetics of interference, the poem suggests,
might we become conscious of the obscuring workings of
Watten's poem does not rest in its own fascination with the interfered
virtualized images, as an eviscerated Baudrillardian analysis
might; instead, it pursues the consequences of the "ground." However, in
to a Chomskyan analysis, Watten's juxtaposes dissident witness accounts
of the effects of the bombing to a narrative of vexed American
subjectivity. Part III, "Iraqi," suggests the gulf between the American
civilian and the Iraqis (and those other Arab and non-Arab civilians
caught in the "crossfire") who bore the brunt of the bombing.
The definition--"Iraqi: various scenarios for wearers of a mark of
distinction and/or shame" (15)--that begins the section opens the poem
into a consideration of how identification with the other is always
complicated by the ease with which we can disown that identification.
Watten re-tells the story, told in Ramsay Clark's War
Crimes, of a Jordanian woman whose husband had been
strafed by machine-gun fire from American planes; the husband, driving
his cab to Amman, becomes an example of "the consequences of appearing
Iraqi at a particular moment in time." Juxtaposed to this story is the
(American) speaker's account of wearing a pin from the Iraqi pin project
that identified him as "Iraqi": "Guys would loom out of the crowd,
saying, 'Hey, an Iraqi!'" (16). The speaker becomes so conscious of his
pin that he "always remember[s] to take my pin off for official meetings
at work" (16). While the Jordanian man's misidentification as Iraqi
leads to his death, the American maintains distance from his adopted
identity for "official meetings at work." So even though the pin
communicates a willingness to stand with "Iraqis," it also problematizes
that relationship, and forces its wearer to acknowledge the gulf between
his experience and the Iraqis'. Finally, this section foregrounds the
way in which even the story of atrocity comes secondhand, from secondary
witnesses and distant sources.
Because the war was not simply the event of war, but the years of
cultural and military preparation for the war, what better place to begin
than with children's toys? Section IV, called "Museum of War," meditates on
how the constant preparation for war requires young warriors to be
prepared and leads to the
inevitable sacrifice of children. This "Museum of War" does not exist in
actuality, but rather is a virtual museum of Watten's imagining, one
which perhaps cohabits the literal Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green,
London. Taking his son Asa to the Museum of Childhood, Watten describes
an artist's diorama where "each display is designed to be the perfect
miniature of a moment of loss" (17). The diorama described both
resembles a child's toy and invokes the bombing of the Amiriyah shelter
during the Gulf War, where "at least 300 children and parents were
incinerated in a structure we knew had been built for civilians; now they
must reelect the entire PTA!" (19). The absurdity of the non
sequitor "PTA" brings us to the insurmountable gap between our
experience of raising children and the horror of the Amiriyah bombing.
The imagined diorama makes us wonder whether representations of war are
always already domesticated by our limited vision of what war is.
Layered into this section's description of these two museums is the
language of statistics and numbers. The language of statistics invokes
the military's (and mass media's) fascination with weaponry specs and
lingo--"Imagine the 'daisy cutter' effect of a 7.5 ton superbomb manually
pushed from an open end of a C-130 cargo plane--shock waves ripple out in
all directions, leveling all structures 500 meters on either side"
(19)--and the way the naming of weapons seems to take the place
of visualizing their effects.
Watten's imagined dioramas in the Museum of War also lead to a more
disturbing possibility; can one represent (or imitate) the war and
yet still resist it? Is the process of representation a kind of repetition,
a re-enactment of the trauma? Perhaps representational art might always
fail to be oppositional: "Here an online editor objects that imitation of
war in rapid displacement of incommensurate remarks is not an argument
against war--it could likewise be a form of participation" (19). How,
indeed, can one represent war through poetry in a way that avoids merely
replicating the war, in which both writer and reader become, willy-nilly,
more participants? How to evoke the devastation of the "Highway of
Death" so as to re-member it, to make it present, and erase the censored
blank spaces? Watten cannot "remember a flatbed truck containing nine
bodies, their hair and clothes burned off, skin incinerated by heat so
intense it melted the windshield" (20). In the end, Chomskyan arguments notwithstanding, what would having such
images represented in the media or in a "Museum of War" accomplish? Perhaps the
Gulf War, whose mass media representation was so vigorously censored and
therefore de-realized, may actually be a war which art can make real
in a way that is not simply repeating the war.
In Section V, "Intellectuals," Watten yokes together Marxism and Romantic
lyric in a piece on the 1991 L.A. riots. Donald Pease has argued that
the Rodney King beating, the innocent verdict on the white California
police officers, and the resulting riots "activated an alternative
memory" (576) that dispelled the illusion of internal consensus against
an external enemy manufactured during the Gulf War. The riots
interrupted "U.S. spectators' previous identification with the
surveillance apparatus of the New World Order...[and] reversed the
effects of U.S. disavowal of neocolonialist brutality in the Gulf..."
(561). The King verdict and riots laid bare the unsettling divisiveness
within the United States around race and class.
What burns Watten, however, is the distance between the intellectual, in
his ever-higher highwire morality act, and the reality on the ground:
Who will save us? Intellectuals--split off from the mass of revolutionary clouds
returning from a daily fog bank? The fog moves back to reveal smoky haze rising over burnt-out districts of Los Angeles,
ô intellectuals, you who speak as if there were no one to hear you! But this smoky
haze has spoken again, as we knew it would.... Ô intellectuals, wheeling
and forth in a conscious morality play--a balancing act of
moral tightropes, not falling into the waiting gasps of the crowd but
spinning always higher, dangerously out of reach, while the crowds
realign your center of gravity for you! (23-24)
The ironic call--"who will save us?--mimics the intellectual's (and, one
might add, the lyric poet's) desire to rescue the masses from the
most powerful even as it mimics a more bourgeois voice, wondering who
will protect him from the advancing destruction of the crowd. In the
second voice, the answer is tautological--the police, whose violence set
off the violence of the rioters, will save us. The intellectual, by
contrast, cut off from the discontents that led to the conflagration, can
only perfect his own hermetic moralism.
The tautological (and fraternal) order of police is also, not
surprisingly, a mirror to the larger tautology of Pure War. In Section
VI, "Against All," Watten spins out, in Steinian fashion, a traumatized
repetition of battles:
Always already, all wars are ready. But this is the war of all against all. The war has
begun again, the war to renew all wars. Everywhere is war. Echoes answer war already--echoes always answering war. "War is
not the answer." We need to escalate! (25)
In this thickly intertextual passage, Watten deftly weaves theoretical,
philosophical, and pop cultural references into a Steinian attack on war:
a war of words. Using the Althusserian formulation, "always already,"
which designates the illusion that ideological constructs are natural and
eternal, Watten suggests that wars, rather than promising to end war,
seem only to ensure future wars. The "war of all against all" refers to Hobbes' philosophical pessimism, and rubs against Marvin Gaye's
plaintive protest song "What's Goin' On," which itself adopts one of the
anti-war slogans of the 1960s--"war is not the answer." But Watten's
poem reverses Gaye's plea: "Father, father, we don't need to escalate."
Gaye's plea is one that has not only domestic implications (Gaye was
later murdered by his father), but also racial ones; Gaye's song is as
much about the tumult in U.S. ghettos and the state response as it is
The Gulf War, which begins the book, therefore, cedes to the race/class
war of the L.A. riots, to Waco, and beyond, to global financial war. If
what follows in Bad History moves further outward from the
Gulf War, one might argue that it moves further inward into the Gulf War
as well--the Gulf War as symptom of a cultural-historical situation.
However, such a reading might obscure the fact that the permutations of
war in Bad History are ultimately subordinate to the problem
of national and personal history.
De-Forming the Epic: Footers, Margins and Endnotes
- Bad History counters the televisual representation of
the Gulf War as an heroic epic not only through its foregrounding of the
interfered image, its manifestation of a vexed complicit/resistant
subjectivity, but also through its form. In particular, Bad
History employs the generic conventions of both newspapers and
scholarly texts, with its central newspaper-like column, running footers,
The running footer of dates to the text and the columnar print style evoke
the newspaper form. However, instead of quoting and then critiquing the
mass media representation of the war, Watten's text denies any exact relationship between the dates and the text. The dates,
in fact, do not speak for themselves, nor do they take control of the text. Here,
as elsewhere, Watten acknowledges in his notes his indebtedness to the
work of Iranian-born Seyed Alavi. Alavi's artistic re-workings of
newspapers--principally, the removing of the dates--enacts the vexing
counterpoint, in Watten's words, "between two kinds of time: one created
by their work in its process of development, and another embodied in the
materiality of the encompassing culture that surrounds it and surrounds
and threatens to engulf it" ("Seyed Alavi" 15). Unlike the typical
manipulation of headlines for political ends, Alavi's work renders a
resistance to the overdetermined language of official history and, in
Watten's formulation, "to replace it with a time of our own."
Similarly, Watten's use of historical dates invokes a Chomskyan concern
for drawing out an historical counternarrative. The text's dates begin
with 16 January 1991, then skip ahead and back to other dates: 1 March 1991, 28
January 1990, 19 April 1993, and end finally with 27 December 1993.
16 January, of course, marks the beginning of the bombing, but what
about the other dates? How should
we read the connections between the footer-date and the text itself?
Watten, in contrast to the Chomskyan mode, leaves these investigations to
the reader; part of the reader's work, perhaps, is not only to figure out
the significance of those dates, but also to take part in the
construction of the history of the poem. One finds, for example, that
1 March 1991 marks the day after the official ending of the conflict,
(even though the war continued long after that date and plainly continues, in
different permutations, down to the present).
The choice of 28 January 1990 is not immediately clear. However, Watten
revealed that the date also marked the death of his mother, and that her
birthday was 19 April, the day that would later be remembered nationally
for the Waco conflagration, and then a year later the Oklahoma City
bombing, committed by Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh. Watten's use of
this date of personal significance suggests, therefore, the limits of the
outworn notion that the language poetry requires active construction by
the reader. By introducing something from his own biography not knowable
within the text, yet somehow essential to the text's meaning,
Watten shows that he cannot escape the biographical contours of his own
subjectivity, however objectivized.
Finally Watten's dates, particularly the evocation of the official
beginning and ending of the war, also enable us to question the very
primacy of those dates as markers of conflict. When did the Persian Gulf
War begin? If we look at chronological tables from three different
sources--1) PBS Frontline's Gulf War website, 2) Seeing
Through the Media: The Persian Gulf War (1994), and 3)
Beyond the Storm (1991)--we note the degree to which the
event of the war depends upon what events are seen as having led to the
war. For the official
history provided by Frontline, the first date provided is
2 August 1990, when Iraq invades Kuwait. But the second source presents an
introductory caveat, noting that "in order to understand the historical
of the Persian Gulf War, we need to go as far back as World War II and the
British reconfiguration of the territorial boundaries of the nations of
the Middle East" (307). Thus it begins with 17 July 1990, when
"Saddam Hussein accuses the U.S. and the Gulf states of conspiring to cut
oil prices" (307), and focuses on the infamous exchange between
and April Glaspie on 25 July 1990. The third source, Beyond the
Storm, provides an even lengthier historical trajectory, beginning
in 1869, when "Suez Canal and powered river transport open up Mesopotamia
to international trade" (356). It goes on to detail Western oil
investment, military intervention, and covert operations in Iraq
beginning in 1912, and provides a thorough account of the politics of the
Middle East. Obviously, these three examples suggest that how we discuss
as an historical event can vary significantly, depending on how one frames
the events that lead up to war.
In the material construction of the page, the text is impinged by
margins that are almost as large as the text. The white space--the
unspoken--lingers on either side of the hypotactic sentences. It is as
if we were reading the only column of a newspaper to which we do not have
complete access, which we cannot complete reading. In contrast to the
slim margins of an industry book, the extensive margins create an eerie
effect, the feeling that something is missing. It also gives the active
reader much room for marginalia, to make connections with the text.
Although it would be easy to overinterpret such a formal gesture, it
nonetheless points to Watten's obsession with frames--his desire to
counter the domination of authorial presence, and his humility in the
face of what he does not, or cannot know.
The extensive annotations at the back of the book provide a
useful archival function, in the mode of a Chomskyan dissenter; at the
same time, they show Watten's indebtedness to a whole range of texts and
knowledges--from high literary theory to human rights texts, from chance
encounters to unavoidable fate. In contrast to Chomskyan analysis,
however, these texts do not stand as guarantors of scholarly integrity and historical truth, but rather
a tangle of narratives from which we must wrestle our own bad histories.
Our lives, Bad History suggests, "cannot be lived as 'one story' but as stories
that overlap, from one to the next, with no final form to hold them
together" (74). They overlap with each other's and with the grand
narratives of nations and empires, in ways that are often obscured and
unknown to us. History is enacted in a financial prospectus, no
less so than in the newspaper or on a calendar, the date marking the
death of a mother.
For a poem to be historical and to resist war at the same time is no
straightforward task. Bad History's limitation as a poem of
war resistance lies, perhaps, in how it abandons the investigation of
what remains outside its ken and instead focuses on the limitation of its
perceptual frame, in all its primordial negativity. For example,
continued investigation of the ongoing narratives of the Gulf War in Iraq
and of U.S. veterans, or further dialogue with activists and war
resisters in the United States, might have enabled the text to function as
an agent of further texts and events. But such limitations are built
into what it means to be a subject, much less a resister. In the end,
Watten succeeds in resisting the tendencies of poems and poets to bow
quickly for the emperor's laurel, or, conversely, for congratulations
from the like-minded and already-converted.
Department of English
John Carroll University
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Thanks to Tom Foster for his
characteristically helpful suggestions for this essay, which emerged from the ashes
of a review that appeared in Indiana Review (Spring 2000).
1. This essay was written prior to the
Second Gulf War, "Operation Iraqi Freedom"; however, given that the Iraqi
people have lived under a state of economic siege since the 1991 Persian
War, the second declaration of war functioned as a continuation of the
first conflict rather than an initiation of an entirely new one.
2. Numerous analyses of mass media
coverage have shown the degree to which the media acted as an extension of
the military effort. In Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in
the Gulf War, John R. MacArthur details how Pentagon front-man
Pete Williams cajoled, coddled, and ultimately convinced the major media
industry into agreeing to press restrictions, in the form of "press
pools," which assured that all journalists would compete against each
other for the same stories, distant from the scene of war, and always
mediated and censored by military escorts. In particular, the
omnipresence of PAOs (military public affairs officers) compromised
journalists' ability to have even a free interview with a soldier.
According to NBC correspondent Gary Matsumoto,
Whenever I began interviewing a soldier, this PAO would stand right
behind me, stare right into the eyes of the [soldier], stretch out a hand
holding a cassette recorder, and click it on in the soldier's face. This
was patent intimidation...which was clear from the soldiers' reactions.
After virtually every interview, the soldier would let out a deep breath,
turn to the PAO, and ask [something like], "Can I keep my job?" (171)
The Pentagon, even after delaying "unilateral access" to the front lines,
delayed further coverage with news blackouts during the initial phases of
the ground invasion. Unfortunately, "most of [reporters'] dispatches and
film took so long to get back to Dhahran [the media base in Saudi Arabia]
that they were too dated to use. The Pentagon's real Phase III was
censorship by delay" (189). Intriguingly, media complicity in the
military effort during the 2003 war, though far more mutually satisfying, was no less problematic;
the innovation of "embedding" reporters with various divisions granted reporters more "access" but
paradoxically rendered them even more vulnerable to reporting the war
from a partisan, indebted point of view.
3. Jean Baudrillard's first article on
the Gulf War appeared just days before the war, arguing that the war
"would not take place." (Two succeeding articles round out his
meditation on the event-ness of the Gulf War.) Christopher Norris
directs his critique principally at Baudrillard, though he has larger
schools of fish to fry ("postmodernists," "deconstructionists," etc.)
which largely evade his critical net. A fuller treatment of this debate
would, of course, enumerate the ways in which both critics demonstrate
their theoretical blindspots. Oddly enough, and contrary to his earlier
writings, Baudrillard shows himself at times to be an anti-image
moralist. Norris, by contrast, willfully misreads Baudrillard and
postmodern theory more generally. For the sake of this article, however,
I have limited myself to a consideration of the productive edges of each
theoretical analysis of the Gulf War.
4. Despite the obstacles to poetic
response, poetry did emerge in response to the Persian Gulf War. Protest
poetry--in its embrace of a transient, engaged,
anti-nationalist, and performative poetics and its rejection of the modernist
implicit nationalism and detachment--such as June Jordan's "The Bombing
of Baghdad," Calvin Trillin's "deadline poems" (appearing in The
Nation), Tony Harrison's Guardian-commissioned long
poem "A Cold Coming," and William Heyen's book-length meditations on the
war entitled Ribbons: The Gulf War--offered an immediate, if
perhaps ephemeral response to the machinations of war rehearsed on
(inter)national media. While the poetry anthologies responding to the
Persian Gulf War (with some notable exceptions in both After the
Storm and Rooster Crows At Light From the Bombing)
occasionally replicated the problems of lyric poetry--elision of poems'
historical context, often-bourgeois antipathy toward the mass
representation of war--they also provided a site for gathering and
sustaining war resistance beyond the event itself.
5. Paul Virilio argues that we live in a
state of "pure war," in which the real war is not the battle itself, but
the endless (cultural, media, industrial) preparation for war. Though
Virilio dates the military-industrial complex from the 1870s, he argues
that the postwar era is actually an extension of the Second World War, in
which "all of us are already civilian soldier, without knowing it. And
some of us know it. The great stroke of luck for the military's class
terrorism is that no one recognizes it. People don't recognize the
militarized part of their identity, of their consciousness" (26). Pure
War thus pervades all aspects of culture, from the increasingly violent
and technophilic video games like "Duke Nukem," "Quake," or "Doom," that
invite young people into the cockpits of fighter jets and to view the
world through the target eye, to less immediately violent but no less
virulent displays of nationalism such as that found in television
coverage of the Super Bowl or the Olympics.
Pure War manifests itself, as well, in what Eisenhower famously called
the military-industrial complex. The U.S. military-industrial complex
impacts the globe not simply through U.S. military engagements, but also
through counterinsurgency and covert operations, military training of
Latin American officers in places like Fort Benning's School of the
Americas, military occupation of land in places like Okinawa and Vieques,
and in skyrocketing levels of indiscriminate sales of weapons, sometimes
to opposing sides in conflicts. Pure War, for Virilio, amounts to
"endocolonization" (95)--a situation in which one's own population is
colonized by state power.
6. Interestingly, Watten's poetic
project seems to have found its ideal mediating subject in the Persian
Gulf War. His use of poetry as mode of theoretical inquiry; his
obsession with the problem of the frame; and his "attempt to articulate a
productive negativity" (Friedlander 124). All come to
maximum use in "writing through"--(as John Cage's or Jackson Mac Low's
procedural "writing through" texts)--the Gulf War.
7. During the period before and after
the Gulf War, Watten wrote some forty reviews of art exhibitions in the
San Francisco Bay area, some of which articulated--or at least provided
the inspiration for strategies of oppositionality
that the poet would attempt to incorporate in his work.
8. The emergence of the language writing
movement during the closing years of the Vietnam War deserves further
exploration. Bob Perelman has suggested one way in which the war
affected these writers: "language writing coalesced as American
involvement in Vietnam was nearing its bankrupt conclusion: this was a
significant cause of the unaccommodating nature of its poetics" (13).
What is "unaccommodating" about the politics of language writing? The
language writers (from Bernstein to Andrews to Silliman) have demonstrated, if not a range of political views,
then certainly a range of ways in which to activate a poetry of politics. One could just as easily speak
of Denise Levertov's unaccommodating politics at the end of the war,
but her writing could not be confused with "language poetry." In short,
that war (and, doubtlessly, the poetic response
to that war) may need further elaboration, to explain the crystallization
of the need for avant-garde modes.
9. Watten's argument is made explicit
in his recent essay, "The Turn to Language and the 1960s," which
describes the origins of the language poetry movement as a result of
the failure of 1960s political poetry, particularly that of Levertov.
10. Relatedly, Charles Bernstein's
verse essay "The Artifice of Absorption" argues for a poetry that is
anti-absorptive--one that is marked by "impermeability, imperviousness,
ejection/repellence" (20). For Bernstein, the anti-absorptive poem
rejects the transparency of realism and statementalism. Bernstein sees
anti-absorption as a positive strategy not simply for its resistance to
commodification, but for its ability to address postmodern conditions.
In his words, "In contrast to--or is it an extension of?--Adorno's famous
remarks about the impossibility of (lyric?) poetry after Auschwitz, I
would say poetry is a necessary way to register the irrepresentable loss
of the Second War" (217). In "The New Sentence and the Commodity Form:
Recent American Writing" (1988), Andrew Ross argues that language
poetry's strategies for resisting the prevailing powers of commodification
include a fourth proposal: in a time when "rhetoric no longer acts as
agent provocateur" (377), the language poets challenge through form
11. Watten asserts his poetic use of
these discourses: "quite a lot of the impetus for Bad History
my writing in that [art criticism] medium. For one thing, I was going
against journalistic practice by writing long sentences, with tons of
hypotaxis, and not breaking them up in small paragraph units" (personal correspondence).
12. The blurb on the back of the book,
more so than the blurbs on mainstream poetry texts, which often invoke
the most commodifiable and romantic elements of contemporary poetry's
discourse, is essential to understanding the work:
In a famous modern definition, an epic is a poem including history. In Barrett Watten's Bad History, history
includes the poem. Begun to mark the first anniversary of the Gulf War, the poem looks back on the decades previous and
forward toward--a duration of events, which, because the poem is in history, do not cease to occur. The poem, too, becomes
the event of its own recording.
At this point, an important question arises: to
what degree do we accept without reservation the assertion that this work is a version of epic? In other words, perhaps this
statement is simply not true, or even more cunningly, is a ruse. Reading this book with The
The Aeneid, or even Paterson in mind, one might be hard-pressed to find epic "characteristics." So
perhaps this claim is merely a red herring, a satire on the over-earnest reader. A cursory glance at other language poetry
books suggests that, despite critical claims to the contrary, experimental poets do engage the "mainstream tradition" in their
pursuit of an experimental future of poetry. To quote one example, just as the blurb for Bad History suggests
parallels to the epic, the blurb for Lyn Hejinian's Oxota suggests parallels to Pushkin's verse novel
Evgeny Onegin. Rather than being a mere Hitchcockian "McGuffin," these allusions to traditional poetic forms,
subgenres, or works suggest that much work needs to be done in articulating the way in which the avant-garde engages--and here
the military notion of "engagement" feels right--what might be termed "the tradition." Clearly, as evidenced in Watten's
text, one way to talk about the project of experimental writing is not as a reinvigoration of these forms and genres (à
la the New Formalism), but rather a representation of their exhaustion, both ideologically and poetically.
13. In this way, Watten's poem
participates in the larger literary-historical arc of the verse epic
grounded in a particularized consciousness or speaker, from Whitman's
"Song of Myself," to Peter Dale Scott's Coming to Jakarta, to
more recent verse epics.
14. Watten, a draft resister during
the Vietnam War, wrote that his poetics attempts to articulate his
traumatic experience of the Vietnam War, which was, in his words, "both
totally threatening and a non-event...experienced...through resistance,
negation" (personal correspondence). Bad History provides, in this
particular way, a revision of the Vietnam War even as it revises the Gulf
15. In Watten's words,
The really effective anti-war poetry, for me, in some sense engages the
irrational. Pound's section of Mauberly with its incantations, and the hell
canto. Duncan's passages on the war. Sandburg's buttons poem. Ginsberg,
particularly "Wichita Vortex Sutra." On the other hand, the kind of
position taking one finds in Levertov or Lowell I particularly
remember vividly Denise Levertov on the steps of Sproul Hall,
her fantasies of revolution, just before the chain link fence of People's
Park was stormed (Berkeley, 1969). So the tradition of antiwar poetry
engaged with rejects any form of symbolization for a more processual,
temporal account, one that does not simply leave the poet on the higher
16. In his article, "No More War! An
Unwanted Animal at the Garden Party of Democracy at Southern Exposure
Gallery," Watten meditates on the problem of oppositional strategies in
light of the state of readiness that Virilio had theorized some years
Artists concerned with oppositional strategies [during this new war]
therefore take into account that there is well-developed 'state of
for what could be a protracted struggle for the social control of
a struggle in which art may well have a role. We are not starting at
zero; the War has been with us for some time.
(Artweek February 7, 1991, page 1)
Given the state of "preparedness" of the Pentagon for the Gulf War, the
art that simply responds to the event itself might fail to be
oppositional at all. The war itself would simply be the conclusion of a
long argument; to attack it is to miss its body.
17. In contrast, for example, to
Levertov's "Staying Alive," her notebook of poems cataloguing a history
of the Berkeley anti-Vietnam movement and invoking a romantic
collective identity in opposition to the government, Watten's Bad
History is saturated with a sense of subjective isolation.
Perhaps only in this way, Levertov's and Watten's poems are similar in
that they most closely articulate the particular epistemological and
political limits of war resistance during their respective historical
moments, and demonstrate the tremendous differences between Vietnam and
the Persian Gulf War.
18. Though Watten's strategy is to
pursue a Zukofskyan "thinking with things as they exist," the dates
cannot represent only the time of writing, since in the section footed by
the date 16 January Watten notes that "only later did we find out
that the success rate for Patriot missiles was only 6 percent" (9).
Watten's use of the dates may represent an impossible desire for a
writing that aims for full awareness of its subjective-historical moment
or a method of anchoring a meditation against a specific historical
19. An equally straightforward
question--when did the Gulf War end?--also yields three different answers:
1) 8 June 1991: "Victory parade in Washington"; 2) 6 January 1992: "An ABC
20/20 story airs on the deliberate U.S. public relations
regarding the false reports on Iraqi soldiers and incubator babies" (321);
and 3) 15 August 1992: "UN Security Council votes to allow Iraq six
months to sell limited amount of oil to finance civilian needs" (374).
Oddly, none of these endings corresponds to the official 28 February 1991 ceasefire; the ensuing rebellions in Iraq by Kurds and Shi'ite
Muslims in March does not even appear on the official chronology, even
though some of the bloodiest fighting took place during this period.
Finally, the policy of economic sanctions against Iraq and bombing sorties
against infrastructure might also qualify as a continuation of the war,
even though official hostilities ended in 1991. The 2003 war, "Operation
Iraqi Freedom," suggests yet another "end point," itself perhaps only a
point on a much longer vector.
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