Barrett Watten


The Xyz Of Reading: Negativity (&)

The world is structured on its own displacement. "We don't believe our senses. The level of automatism we have to deal with..." is functionally exact. There is a continual need for new forms through which this distance might be converted into a formulation of the immediate present. The present I no longer appears likely in the form of an identification; rather, assertion marks the limits that identity can only fill in. For if the world were only what it is, there would be no place for us.

The forms of contemporary writing are entering into an acknowledgment of this stricture--that the work is only completed, apart from the writer's intentions, in a response. As a medium, writing will continue to be sounded and tested, but the medium is no longer simply in the writer or on the page. A new series of literary values is taking on an independent existence, apart from the "object status" of the work. The writer is faced with adjusting herself to what accurately is the medium, a missing person that is a space for projections, the ground for what wants to be perceived.

This new medium is the resistance between writer and reader, speaker and hearer. "It is widely acknowledged that competences of hearers are greater than those of speakers. ..," but when the speaker or writer takes on he complexity of association that occurs in the listening ear (or to the reading eye), the hearer or reader frustrates this attack on her territory by simplifying the response. Where the speaker or writer says more to anticipate any possible reading, the hearer or reader selects a distance, removing first of all any absolute claims for "statement" being made by the work. Any "statement" is blanked, negated, made into the form of an encompassing void--from the perspective of the reader, it indicates only the limits of the writer's form, as incoherent and various as that might be. It is not by any means what she is "saying." Nothing can be compelled from the site of the \speaker except the outlines of her form. This new resistance of the medium, then, demands from the speaker an intuitive mastery of blanks and negations.

The speaker no longer hears only herself; she must also hear what the absence of herself would mean to another. While the lyricism may be sentimental, the structural analysis is exact. A display of social, temporal existence is dramatic and problematic even under ordinary lighting, simply because at any moment the lights could be turned off. But it is beyond the speaker to assert any problem of "existence"; denied an initiatory role, she can never be wholly responsible for the conditions of her speech. A crisis is indicated; if "existence" rather than any of its components is the site of a representation that can never be stated directly, "existence" itself must be acknowledged to be on the verge of collapse. There is a residue of faith that another will appear to revive it. But "another" still represents a lack of power over oneself--a classic proposition in which the death fantasy becomes the effaced speaker's accommodation to the audience.

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 may be 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. But at the same time that the strategy is exhausted, the hearer/reader has gone beyond it, no longer listening to what it is that the speaker/writer asserts. The failure of the initial premise creates an empty form for the reader's projection of. ..So it is that this self-involvement is accepted. The drama of existence is now in quotes, mutable, ready for reinvention--as "the drama of existence 'in quotes.'" This is precisely the point at which the exemplary rejection structures the reader's involvement in the work. But the meaning of the work has now changed; beginning by deflating its own self-sufficiency, it ends in a form, the limits of a kind of activity that can be identified only at a distance, by another. The rejection is detached from its original site and continually applied to new circumstances. It has almost become a lesson in survival.

In contemporary writing the medial space between the work and the world is the aesthetic object or act--in order to perceive the work this object or act must be made instantly concrete; there is no other choice. The work is therefore understood at a level considerably more general than that of the writer. In consideration of her craft, the writer must learn to transcend the writer's mind at work; a thorough and uncompromising "editorial" imagination is needed, alongside whatever dissociation participates in the original act. The detachment necessary for a valid work can be anticipated only on the level of form; De Kooning's "I keep painting until I've painted myself out of the picture..." indicates both the conditions of the work and its social fact. This is in no way a recognition of a mythic order, that is, an already existing set of relations, however gross and magnified, or metaphorical and derived. It is not any collective "death of the subject" that accounts for the subject's removal from the work. Rather, it is the necessity of the very conditions of communication, without which reading or hearing cannot take place. The reader is implicated in the structure of the writer's displacement, and the effaced intentions of the work are the reader being taken into account.

The form of a riddle travels through space and time. We question a question in order to fill in its form. Its meaning is the questioning act. If "existence" is calling itself into question, we can easily supply the answer because in that case we know; the question has become ourselves. If "existence" is the question, writing will be perceived in so far as that is the question it asks. Here there can be no objects of thought but only an extension of the temporal that effaces any motives. Then the world is only r this kind of instantaneous act? Its history falls like an oily rain. Only a f rigorous avoidance will tell us anything (will tell us "it is like that.") Fashion models twist and turn in front of the camera as the shutter clicks. The public reads Sartre (not Tjanting) on buses. We make something out of what's missing by filling in the blanks, giving our meaning to what has been negated. Such are the limits of art.

The world is everything that is not the case.

for Diane Ward

(Barrett Watten. "The XYZ of Reading: Negativity (&)." Poetics Journal 6 (1986): 3-5.)

Also relevant to the question of public and private language is the author's catalogue essay for Image/Word: The Art of Reading (New Langton Arts, 1985). Recent and forthcoming: Total Syntax (SIU Press, 1984), Progress (Roof, 1985), and Conduit (Gaz).