Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061




Barrett Watten: From the Other Side of the Machine


Since Roland Barthes declared the author dead, murdered by the discursive codes and structural conventions of the literary system that ironically inspired him, writers have had an increasingly anxious relationship with their beloved medium, language. How does the poet react when he feels overwhelmed by the shifting sea of signifiers that comprise our contemporary, postmodern existence? Language poet Barrett Watten conceives of language as an infernal machine, an impersonal script-writer which dictates the codes of existence and inscribes subjectivity from the outside. Therefore, he, like other Language poets, attempts to throw a monkey wrench into the engine of language: the poet must break the machine before it breaks him. By generating nonsensical, opaque texts that foreground language as pure and material textuality, devoid of meaning, the poet delays the inevitable closure of the text, the interpretation of the poem, the shutdown of his psyche. However, he also defers his very sense of self. Watten exists not only as the breakdown of language, but also the psychological breakdown of subjectivity. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has a name for this state, subjective destitution. Subjective destitution hollows out and distances the subject from the language of the symbolic order that so bears down upon the subject. Subjective destitution is the dissociation from and the loss of language. Subjective destitution places the subject outside of language, beyond language, in a space where a real of subjectivity unfettered by and uncontained in the word may exist. Watten drives himself through language and appears on the other side of the wall. It is the task of my paper to explicate what remains of the subject who has passed over to the other side of the machine. Is the destitute subject a shattered psyche, or a psyche that, having cut through the symbolic order, has finally achieved a relationship with the real of being?


This abstract summarizes my presentation, "Barrett Watten: From the Other Side of the Machine," 20th-Century Literature Conference, Louisville, KY, February 27, 2004.