The Constructivist Moment

The Constructivist Moment

by Barrett Watten


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Provocative cultural readings of avant-garde literature and art.

Winner of the American Comparative Literature Association's Rene Wellek Prize (2004)

As one of the founding poets and editors of the Language School of poetry and one of its central theorists, Barrett Watten has consistently challenged the boundaries of literature and art. In The Constructivist Moment, he offers a series of theoretically informed and textually sensitive readings that advance a revisionist account of the avant-garde through the methodologies of cultural studies. His major topics include American modernist and postmodern poetics, Soviet constructivist and post-Soviet literature and art, Fordism and Detroit techno—each proposed as exemplary of the social construction of aesthetic and cultural forms. His book is a full-scale attempt to place the linguistic turn of critical theory and the self-reflexive foregrounding of language by the avant-garde since the Russian Formalists in relation to the cultural politics of postcolonial studies, feminism, and race theory. As such, it will provide a crucial revisionist perspective within modernist and avant-garde studies.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819566102
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 07/01/2003
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.03(d)

About the Author

BARRETT WATTEN is Associate Professor of English at Wayne State University and the author of Total Syntax (1985), essays on avant-garde poetics. He was the editor of This (1971–82) and co-editor of Poetics Journal (1982–98). Recent collections of his literary work include Frame (1971–1990) (1997), Bad History (1998), and, forthcoming, Progress/Under Erasure.

Read an Excerpt




Until then I'll type out here, surrounded by papers, dictionaries, file folders, notebooks, Coronamatic cartridges.

Is this the word "Coronamatic"'s first appearance in verse?

Would Eliot've allowed "Coronamatic" in his verse?

If so, under what circumstances?

– Jackson Mac Low, "56th Light Poem: For Gretchen Berger – 29 November 1978"

Toward a cultural poetics of the material text, I will begin with a construction of "the words themselves." This chapter charts the development – in American modernist and postmodern poetry – of the use of preestablished, nonauthorial poetic vocabularies for literary composition. While Coleridge's concept of poetic diction is normative and hierarchical in its selection of appropriate vocabularies for literature, what I am going to call poetic vocabulary is both open-ended and critical, allowing the new meaning of jargons, dialects, idioms, and technical senses into poetry. The emergence of the concept of poetic vocabulary may be discerned in a historicist reading of Coleridge's account of poetic diction by means of the critical term desynonymy, which I will use to unlink Coleridge's synthesis of the ethics of new meaning in experimental poetry (at the time, the poetry of the Lyrical Ballads) from his call for a readership of "suitable interpreters" (looking forward to his culturally conservative notion of a national clerisy) who would preserve – and enforce – distinctions between word meanings. Coleridge's synthesis directly influenced the invention and popularization of BASIC English by I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden, who wished to reduce the vocabulary of English in order to create a universal second language that would be transparent to new meanings in science, industry, and commerce. Ogden and Richards's experiment in modern linguistic hygiene was quickly noticed by modernist experimental poets, and in 1932 the expatriate journal transition published a translation of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake into BASIC, thus placing side by side "the simplest and most complex languages of man." As a modernist, Louis Zukofsky was also inspired by BASIC's reduced vocabulary of 850 words, and in turn made literary works using preestablished vocabularies, such as his early experiment "Thanks to the Dictionary." Zukofsky also wrote a critique of Ogden and Richards's BASIC and continued to use delimited vocabularies in his experimental texts. In the 1950s, postmodern poet Jackson Mac Low directly incorporated the 850-word BASIC vocabulary in many experimental texts. In his work, vocabularies such as BASIC provide the source text that, through the application of compositional rules, yields the target form of his poetic output. This movement from source text to target form is reenacted in the reading and production of Mac Low's work according to the careful instructions of his prefaces. In the target forms of Mac Low's texts themselves, we may identify both an ethics of reading and a notion of community in the arbitrariness and constructedness of his pregiven poetic vocabularies.


Jackson Mac Low's question for T. S. Eliot, whether the word Coronamatic could under any circumstances have occurred in poetry as Eliot understood it, marks an important paradigm shift in American poetics. While Mac Low was not the first American poet to consider language itself as a material for the construction of poetry rather than as a medium of communication, his poem is an explicit formulation of a historical shift from a paradigm of Anglo-American criticism known as poetic diction to one of poetic vocabulary. The concerns of poetic diction are Coleridgean, normative, and finally prescriptive; its modernist interpreter, Owen Barfield, bases his account of it on Coleridge's dictum that "poetry is the best words in the best order," i.e., "the best language." In its capacity to incorporate "a steady influx of new meaning in language," poetic form will give the rule for what meanings we can accept (181). Mac Low is thus accurate in asking whether Eliot would have "allowed 'Coronamatic' in his verse." While poetic diction begins with the question of le mot juste, of the unification of diction and good sense as providing standards of style and efficacies of communication, it ends with a distinction between what language is appropriate to poetry and what is not. By virtue of poetic diction, poetry separates language into hierarchies of appropriateness: at the one end, not only a judicious choice of words but language separated from particular interest; at the other, jargons, dialects, and idioms whose interested discrepancies are beyond the pale of poetry as it is normally understood. In moving to a paradigm of poetic vocabulary, evident everywhere in the construction of his work, Mac Low registers the historical emergence of specific vocabularies: When did Coronamatic become a word, and howmany years would it take for it to become available for poetry? Aligning the historical fact of emergence with different critical standards than have come down through the Anglo-American tradition since Coleridge, he queries the circumstances of the use of a word such as Coronamatic in terms that address poetry to a wider horizon of language. Language is no longer to be judged in terms of its appropriateness for poetic diction; rather, poetry will be judged by its relation to language, seen as more capacious than its form.

Poetry as a result becomes a site for asking questions about language rather than an enforcer of communicative norms. Poetry's linguistic difference from the norms of transparent communication, of course, has been one of the most debated assumptions of twentieth-century literary theory. The turn to cultural studies, in one genealogy, begins here, with an attack on the cultural norms assumed in the autonomy of poetic language. In her account of the "poetic language fallacy," Mary Louise Pratt argues that the opacity of poetic language, as a reinforcement of literary and cultural hierarchies by virtue of the presumed superiority of poetry to ordinary language, merely distorts or foregrounds the structural defects of normative communication. Proposing an ethics of communication that accounts for differences of usage, on the other hand, Michael J. Reddy claims that norms of transparent communication are linguistically embedded in habitual metaphors that poetry's resistant language may expose and contest. Such views beg for a synthesis in which the difference of poetic language from the presumed transparency of ordinary language may be explained by a notion of linguistic agency that is historically contingent, rather than formally immanent. The opacity of poetic language enacts, in such a synthesis, a purposive deformation of communicative norms that may, in turn, change norms embedded in language (or provide new ones). In this sense, poetic language does not merely reinforce literary and cultural hierarchies but provides both vehicle and agency for a language-centered critique of meaning. Such a criticality may move beyond poetry to participate in processes of communication not restricted to literature as it identifies the making of new meaning with the kind of linguistic opacity we find when new terms are introduced in a lexicon. The shift from poetic diction to poetic vocabulary thus points toward a wider cultural frame for the constructive use of poetic language.

The constructive use of poetic vocabulary, the notion that a poem literally can be made from a predetermined, objectified lexicon, is a unique and historical contribution of American modernism and postmodernism. Examples of constructive devices based on language seen as exterior to poetic form exist in many literatures, but the notion that a poem can be made from a preexisting, objectified lexicon arose with American modernism. The claim I will make, not to be overstated, is that a notion of poetic vocabulary, not simply a matter of poetry's linguistic materiality, emerged with American modernism, specifically in the work of Louis Zukofsky. There are, of course, many examples in the European avant-garde in which poetry is made from linguistic materials; consider Tristan Tzara's notion that cut-up newspapers can be assembled in a poetic text that will, ultimately, resemble its nonintentional author. In the work of the French OuLiPo, language games may involve restricted lexicons and rules for their use, but this is not the same as making a poem from a preexisting, objectified lexicon. An important bridge between the two approaches is Anne-Marie Albiach's French translation of Louis Zukofsky's "A"–9, using a pre-existing vocabulary taken from the Everyman edition of Marx's Capital. The argument that follows undertakes a kind of thought experiment to chart the emergence of the use of poetic vocabulary from its origins in the English romantics (better known for their promulgation of poetic diction) through a series of American modernist and postmodern poet/critics. There is a literary history of almost two centuries, exemplified in romantic, modernist, and postmodern moments, of how poetic language seen as object provides a linguistic means for cultural critique. Poets representative of each period — from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Louis Zukofsky to Laura (Riding) Jackson to Jackson Mac Low to a number of poets of the Language School — variously foregrounded the materiality of poetic language, both in explicitly critical terms and implicitly in their work.

For the romantic poets, to begin with, poetic language was the locus for a negotiation between culturally emergent meanings and the stabilities of literary form. The inclusion of vernacular speech in Lyrical Ballads, as part of a larger cultural project of ballad collecting, is one example of such an aesthetic response to expanded cultural borders. The nuanced vocabularies of philosophy (as with the opaque terminology of the German romantics) and of science also put pressure on normative theories of meaning. Such a contestation may be seen in the contradictory insights and incomplete realization of the form of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. Revisionist readings of the Biographia show how its attempt to reconcile language, literary form, and cultural value reflects an instability of meaning as much as it promotes conservative ideals of poetic autonomy. The instability of Coleridge's account of poetic language is a part of an epistemological uncertainty that is at once historical and cultural. This uncertainty (also the source of its capacious possibility) is reflected in the many ways poetic language in the romantic period takes on values of opacity in relation to transparent norms of communication (as with the neoclassical conventions of the eighteenth century). Such foregrounding of linguistic devices — from Chatterton's archaisms, Blake's neologisms, Scott's use of both archaism and dialect, Clare's incorporation of regional usages, and Wordsworth's objectification of common speech — reveals the unstable, expansive cultural moment of romantic poetry behind the concerns for language, meaning, and form in Coleridge's account.

Coleridge ultimately wanted to stabilize the epistemological uncertainty of language by casting poetic form in the mold of transcendental reflection. While Coleridge's anxiety about language led to a program for the inculcation of communicative norms and cultural values by means of literary form, one legacy of his poetics involved a reversal of this movement (even as much modernist poetry, from Yeats to John Ashbery, preserves the autonomy of form as the site for the identification of language with value). At the modernist moment of epistemological uncertainty, a theoretical concern with language tends also to place under erasure Coleridge's privileged locus of critique, poetic form, in order to access more directly the relations between language and culture. An example of such a movement — from an assumption of the transparency and universality of poetic form to a critique based on the relations between language and culture — is evident in the invention and promulgation of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards's BASIC English (seen as a complement to Richards's parallel development of a normative account of poetry). As a vehicle not only for the contestation of received ideas about language and meaning but also for the use of linguistic norms as social control and imperial politics, BASIC bypassed the mediations of poetic form at the heart of the romantic (and much of the modernist) project. In so doing it acted out, in a historically significant manner but to a virtually absurdist degree, the linguistic legacy of romanticism even while reversing its polarities of language and cultural change. Where the romantic period saw an expansion of language that led to Coleridge's valorization of poetic form as a solution to questions of value, BASIC's restricted vocabulary would reduce possible meanings within ordinary language as a standard of value as well, but without the mediation of poetic form.

In polar opposition to the romantic fascination with linguistic expansion, BASIC (an acronym for "British American Scientific International Commercial") wanted to stabilize questions of meaning not through the authority of literary form but by reducing the number of terms used in the language — the number of substantives, morphological inflections, and what it called verbal "operators" (fig. 1). Its goals were to restrict language to an optimal economy and transparency in order to simplify and clarify meanings; in the words of Richards (and in BASIC): "Basic English is English made simple by limiting the number of its words to 850, and by cutting down the rules for using them to the smallest number necessary for the clear statement of ideas. And this is done without change in the normal order and behavior of those words in everyday English." In so doing, BASIC adapts Standard English for use as an international lingua franca; according to Ogden, English is the natural candidate for such a task because it "is the only major language in which the analytic tendency has gone far enough for purposes of simplification" — a conflation of morphology with linguistic history in the fact that, with a low proportion of morphemes to words, English developed as a "relatively analytic" language. Conveniently, English's analyticity (and thus its object status and availability for poetic vocabularies) make it a perfect vehicle for international commerce, its high correlation between word and thing reflecting the reification of commodity capitalism. A summary of the structure of BASIC describes how it compresses meaning in a standardized vocabulary (which can optimally be printed on the endsheets of its instruction manuals):

The syntax was accompanied by a reduced vocabulary of 850 words in sets: 400 general words and 200 picturable words (600 nouns), 150 adjectives, 82 grammatical words, such as across, all, can, and 18 operators (such verbs as get and put). Operators had three roles: to replace more difficult words ... to form phrases that would obviate other verbs ... and to be part of a phrasal verb. ... By such means, [Ogden] concluded that his operators could stand in for some 4,000 verbs.

While BASIC advocates a transparency of communication in ordinary language rather than critically adjudicates the opacity of poetic language, its Coleridgean origins are clear — and not simply in the substitution of its language's more available opacity for the difficulty of poetry. Coleridge wished to stabilize meaning in poetic form so that judgments of value could be grounded in a commonly held set of objects (the canon, in other words). The Coleridgean tradition continues, somewhat modified, in the demand for standard meanings of common terms that become, in turn, the basis for BASIC's promulgation of a technocratic elite, a secular extension of a Coleridgean clerisy, who would undertake the inculcation of norms based on its adjudication of language and meaning. In extending the presumed benefits of the administered control of meaning to the world at large (not simply the then-English-speaking world but the expanding worlds of international and colonial capitalism), Ogden and Richards attempted a modern interpretation of the paradigms for meaning that Coleridge tried to resolve in the Biographia and elsewhere.


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Table of Contents

Poetic Vocablary
Coleridge's Desynonymy
Zukofsky's Dictionary
Mac Low's Lexicons
New Meaning
Avant-Garde Paradox
Postrevolutionary Poetics
Legend's text
Multiauthors (M)
Multiauthors (F)
Multiauthors and the Listserv
The Descent
Cultural Poetics
Stein's Ford assembling This
The Bride
The Great Divide
Lissitzky's Examples
Constructivist Poetics
Detroit Techno
Nonnarrative Poetics
The Construction of History
An era of stagnation
The Fall of Saigon
Nonnarrative Ending
Dark Matter
The nothing That Is
Limit Situations
After the Fall
Kabakov's Kommunalka
The Postmodern Turn
The object of Spiritual Fantasy
The Modern as Spatial Fantasy
Voundaries as Subject
Social Space and Negativity
Gaps between Terrains
Art and Negativity
Negativity and Social Space
For a critical regionalism
Site and Nonsite
Douglas's Le Detroit
Posturban Detroit

What People are Saying About This

Michael Davidson

"The Constructivist Moment will be an important contribution to our knowledge of modernism and to the avant-garde, and it will be a key document in our understanding of contemporary experimental language arts."
Michael Davidson, Professor of Literature, University of California, San Diego

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

“Barrett Watten's magisterial analyses of the intersections among social forces and aesthetic forms, his powerful fusion of theory and practice as a poet-critic, create a bridge between cultural studies and poetics. This demanding, incisive, necessary book writes about, and for, the radical transformation of culture."

From the Publisher

"The Constructivist Moment will be an important contribution to our knowledge of modernism and to the avant-garde, and it will be a key document in our understanding of contemporary experimental language arts."—Michael Davidson, Professor of Literature, University of CaliforniaSan Diego

""The Constructivist Moment will be an important contribution to our knowledge of modernism and to the avant-garde, and it will be a key document in our understanding of contemporary experimental language arts.""—Michael Davidson, Professor of Literature, University of California, San Diego

"Barrett Watten's magisterial analyses of the intersections among social forces and aesthetic forms, his powerful fusion of theory and practice as a poet-critic, create a bridge between cultural studies and poetics. This demanding, incisive, necessary book writes about, and for, the radical transformation of culture.""—Rachel Blau DuPlessis, author of Drafts 1-38, Toll

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