Barrett Watten, “Occupy Poetics:
A Work in Progress”
ASAP, 28 September 2015
This paper follows on a contribution to the EAM meeting in Helsinki that tracked two opposing accounts of language-centered writing’s influence on experimental poets engaged in Occupy movements, specifically Oakland. Moving from a materialist account of utopian possibility realized in poetic form to a combinatorial freedom associated with chance-generated strategies, the essay sought a convergence between contingent decision, radical freedom, and experimental practices among Occupy poets, focusing on poets David Lau and Brian Ang. In extending my argument, I survey a greater range of poets in the movement, beginning with Sara Larsen and Jasper Bernes, to develop a set of terms that interpret Occupy itself as informed by poetic principles. I return to the proliferation of poetics in the various Occupy sites, both to confirm the importance of a poetics of “combinatorial materialism,” and to extend the analysis of my first two examples by alternative concerns more prominent or visible in other poets. At the center of my discussion is a tension between the notion of poetry as value-transforming; its concrete intervention is to transform specific local matters of experience, ideology, labor, and value, and a “transvaluation of all values” that may be accessed through a purely linguistic formalism. This tension can be restated in other terms: as we approach more closely the material condition of values to be transformed in a given historical situation, we accede to an ontology and a determinism that cancels out the ideality of their transvaluation; as we approach the horizon of totality, on the other hand, the transformation of material values takes on a more abstract, relational aspect of the transvaluation of all values. The concept of “revolution” in Occupy—as distinct from other historically specific moments such as Tahrir Square or anti-austerity Greece—oscillates between an extreme localism of material conditions (such that every local Occupy movement, from Zucotti Park to Chicago to Ypsilanti to Oakland could be seen as substantially different) and a utopian horizon that must be preserved in abstract generality, or the movement fails: “we are the 99%.” The differing roles that poets play in comprehending, articulating, participating in, and critically extending the values of Occupy are not simply confined to their formal decisions, however concrete or combinatorial. In Occupy, there is not a “subject of history,” or, better put, the subject of history is as much in process and in construction as the movement itself. At the center of the Occupy movement is a poetics, one that is not simply represented by its poets. Rather, the spontaneity of decision making, the refusal of hierarchical structures, the advocacy of a general “transvaluation of values” without specifying concrete political goals, the temporal and spatial forms of the movement, and finally its self-understanding as an exemplary as much as a practical politics—all bear the hallmarks of a constructivist poetics in which there are no prior givens or certain grounds. The politics of Occupy, at the same time, is activist and spontaneous; what it accomplished starts with the concrete demonstrations of possibility and resistance, beginning with its concrete manifestations and extending to their interpretation. Finally, I take up two challenges to Occupy poetics as a politics: 1) if the debates on “whether Occupy constitutes a politics at all” affects a serious consideration of its poetics may entail; and 2) if the recent emergence of a “call-out culture” based on dispossession and trauma, and an identity politics as a political imperative, is a direct entailment of Occupy. Poetics, I will claim, in no way merely reflects the politics of Occupy; rather it anticipates them, participates in them, and constitutes them through a continuing possibility of interpreting them. Whether the current moment meets that test is my question.