Barrett Watten, “The Poet/Critic:
Transvaluations of Value after Modernism”
MSA, 20 November 2015

I continue my discussion of the poetics of value in modernism (Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams) in taking up political economy and poetics as twin forms of historically specific making, twin discourses of the determination of value. For poetics as value making, let me advance that the thirty-six individual essays in our recent Guide to Poetics Journal, along with the editorial and publication work involved in soliciting, editing, rethinking, and repurposing their content, counts as such. Each essay in our Guide—for example, Ron Silliman on “the parsimony principle,” George Lakoff on avant-garde framing, Susan Howe on Emily Dickinson, Lyn Hejinian on “the rejection of closure,” in the volume’s first section—demonstrates how poetry is a value-making activity, in giving value to it. This is not, however, only aesthetic valuation—what counts as a durable and estimable work—but involves key aspects of value in the world that produces poetry, as indissociably historical and produced. In my critique of aesthetic modernism, starting with the poem as product and the reader as consumer, I turn to Marx’s open horizon of value (comprising use value and exchange value) in my valuing of an expansive, materialist Williams over a reductive, subjectivized Stevens. Williams, early and late, shows the determination of the world as what counts as value, nowhere more readable than in the discontinuous unfolding, the uneven development of Paterson. Value is the “so much depends / upon” that originates in the “red wheel / barrow”—an open horizon that coincides with an open horizon of value in Marx, not limited to the wheel barrow’s utility or its exchangeability. In what follows, I will chart the determination of value in several aesthetic examples, read alongside the contemporary rethinking of value in Marx as a parallel, material and historical, co-production. [. . .]

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