The current discussion on the “whiteness of the avant-garde,” following Cathy Park Hong’s article in the journal Lana Turner, has brought up the question of whether avant-garde poets fail to deal with a supposed “color blindness” in their radical forms and experimental practices. The following is a section from Bad History, written in 1992 and published by Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz’s Atelos Press in 1998, that addresses the cultural construction of whiteness—my own, in fact. It was written the summer following the Los Angeles riots after the beating of Rodney King, and is informed stylistically by the art writing I had been doing in Artweek during that period—many instances of which took up matters of cultural politics across the spectrum of race, class, and gender. It would only be a short while before I took up my teaching position at Wayne State University in Detroit, but that is another story. Those calling out the “avant-garde” as not confronting its racial cultural logics need to look a bit further.

To Elsie

On being the white male heterosexual I’m supposed to see myself “as”—but who’s looking? For William Carlos Williams, as a pure product Elsie was the exception that proved the rule of his own impure lack of identity—the non-solution of “no one driving the car” being the prescient mastery of a situation the poet’s white male heterosexual heirs would have to negotiate sixty years hence. And so indeed have we come to see ourselves predicted as the outcome of our incommensurate acts—Williams in ironizing himself as “not” the pure product he would libidinally like to be; we in retreating from the historical sentimentality of his look. Now we can only admit to having no such desire left as Williams would have liked to preserve—unless we are willing to be seen, in self-contradiction, “as” violent dissociations of Williams’s self-objectification. But does the resulting desire—”not mine”—convey any more politics than the one I could claim by negating my own lack of identity in the white male heterosexual’s violently self-destructive but cannily self-preservative acts? Think of Chris Burden shooting at a jetliner in 1973—it is of course granted that he missed. Such desire can have no object—either it casts itself out as its own unknowing or it is observed, from a distance, as something needing to be controlled. Are you someone who needs to be controlled? Let’s install a separation of looking and being looked at within you, to partition and control that violent desire which would only later lead to your sad undoing.I can control myself only if I can see myself from a distance that is not you, thanks—but that will acknowledge me in any difference from myself. But to see myself “as,” which separates me from the violence I would like to do to myself, gives I the choice to continue me‘s role as the object of my own persecution. But in that I am only being prescient, looking forward another sixty years to conflicts my progeny will not be able to avoid. All that expression of me may now address the ages as simply a retrospective solution to Williams’s dilemma with Elsie, held in suspension by I and thus firmly in control. It qualified that other me and all its expressive desires in the distance it needs from an I that will control it and finally put it down. In Los Angeles such expressive me‘s overran the landscape in opposite to the violence of being looked at by white male heterosexual I‘s. The choice certainly was not always theirs to see themselves “as”—as I may imagine it already to be mine. Here I mean no negation in my preserving the cultural relic of William Carlos Williams’s poem, even if this can only be seen as a violent piece of writing—but unlike the former artist’s characterizing of himself in an act of self-undoing, it is not an option for controlling the desire of white male heterosexuals. If only because, seen from the distance of Los Angeles, a black man decided to name it himself.

From Bad History (Berkeley: Atelos Press, 1998), 35–37. Copyright (c) Barrett Watten 1998, 2015.

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