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    Barrett Watten's Bad History: A Counter-Epic of the Gulf War

    Philip Metres
    John Carroll University

    © 2003 Philip Metres.
    All rights reserved.

  1. 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.[1] 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).[2] 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.
  2. 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).[3] 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.
  3. If intellectuals and activists struggled to find and transmit their positions vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf War, poets seemed half-paralyzed by 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]
  4. 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.
  5. 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."
  6. The Poetics of Interference and the Epic Poem

    Figure 1
    Figure 1: Decoy #1
    © Michal Rovner
    Used with permission of the artist.

  7. 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 #1" by 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 Pentagon, 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.
  8. Rovner's work anticipates the poetics of interference central to Bad History.[7] 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."
  9. 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.[8] 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.
  10. 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.[9] 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).[10]
  11. 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."
  12. 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, for example, and that maybe what is intended. Lyrical horror is our "participation in democracy" at the level of violence of compulsory voting 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 can 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.[11] The poet becomes, at least for the span of certain sections, a dissenting journalist.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.[12] 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 representation:

    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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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 war, 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.
  19. A Homer Who Sees He Doesn't See: Complicit, with Resistance

  20. 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.[13] 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 leftist analysis.
  21. 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."[14] 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.[15]
  22. 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.[16]
  23. 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.[17]
  24. 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.
  25. 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 Man

    still turns without surprise, with mere regret,

    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)

    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.
  26. 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.
  27. 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, oppositional mode.
  28. 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."
  29. 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.
  30. 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 interference itself.
  31. 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 contrast 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.
  32. 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.
  33. 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.
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. 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 back and forth in a conscious morality play--a balancing act of self-undoing moral tightropes, not falling into the waiting gasps of the crowd but spinning always higher, dangerously out of reach, while the crowds below 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.
  37. 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 about Vietnam.
  38. 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.
  39. De-Forming the Epic: Footers, Margins and Endnotes

  40. 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, and endnotes.
  41. 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."
  42. 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?[18] 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).
  43. The choice of 28 January 1990 is not immediately clear. However, Watten has 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.
  44. 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 meaning 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 Saddam Hussein 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 the war as an historical event can vary significantly, depending on how one frames the events that lead up to war.[19]
  45. 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.
  46. 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 create 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.
  47. 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

    Talk Back




    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 Gulf 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 lyric's monumentality, 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 itself.

    11. Watten asserts his poetic use of these discourses: "quite a lot of the impetus for Bad History came from 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 Iliad, 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 War.

    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 liberal position taking one finds in Levertov or Lowell I particularly mistrust. I remember vividly Denise Levertov on the steps of Sproul Hall, acting out her fantasies of revolution, just before the chain link fence of People's Park was stormed (Berkeley, 1969). So the tradition of antiwar poetry I'm engaged with rejects any form of symbolization for a more processual, and temporal account, one that does not simply leave the poet on the higher ground. (Email)

    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 before:

    Artists concerned with oppositional strategies [during this new war] must therefore take into account that there is well-developed 'state of readiness' for what could be a protracted struggle for the social control of meaning-- a struggle in which art may well have a role. We are not starting at ground 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 moment.

    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 campaign 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.

    Works Cited

    Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

    Bennis, Phyllis, and Michel Moushabeck, eds. Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader. Brooklyn, NY: Olive Branch P, 1991.

    Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992.

    Bernstein, Michael André. The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1980.

    Clark, Ramsey. The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1992.

    ----. and others. War Crimes: A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq. Washington, DC: Maisonneuve P, 1992.

    Davidson, Michael, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991.

    Friedlander, Benjamin. "A Short History of Language Poetry/According to Hecuba Whimsy." Qui Parle 12.2 (2001): 107-42.

    Jeffords, Susan, and Lauren Rabinovitz, eds. Seeing Through the Media: The Persian Gulf War. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1994.

    Levertov, Denise. Poems 1968-1972. New York: New Directions, 1987.

    MacArthur, John. Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. New York: Hill, 1992.

    Monroe, Jonathan. A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1987.

    Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1989.

    Norris, Christopher. Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals, and the Gulf War. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992.

    Pease, Donald. "Hiroshima, the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, and the Gulf War: Postnational Spectacles." Cultures of United States Imperialism. Eds. Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 557-80

    PBS Frontline. <>.

    Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996.

    Rasula, Jed. The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990. Urbana: NCTE, 1996.

    Ross, Andrew. "The New Sentence and the Commodity Form: Recent American Writing." Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1988. 361-80.

    Silliman, Ron, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, and Barrett Watten. "Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto." Social Text (Fall 1988): 19-20, 261-75.

    Virilio, Paul, and Sylvère Lotringer. Pure War. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

    Watten, Barrett. Bad History. Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 1998.

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    ---. Frame: 1971-1990. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997.

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    ---. "Michal Rovner." Artweek. 20 Feb. 1992: 14.

    ---. "No More War! An Unwanted Animal at the Garden Party of Democracy at Southern Exposure Gallery." Artweek 7 Feb. 1991: 1, 22-3.

    ---. "Seyed Alavi." Artweek 14 Mar. 1991: 15.

    ---. "The Turn to Language and the 1960s." Critical Inquiry 29 (Autumn 2002): 139-83.

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