On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Negativity for Life

A conversation with Barrett Watten about the idea of "negativity" in the historic avant-garde


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Pedagogy
  • Philosophy / Theory

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Temple University Creative Writing Program


Aaron Levy


University of Pennsylvania Department of English and the Temple University Creative Writing Program

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19148


50% Formal - 50% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Negativity for Life." This event will take place on Friday, November 10, 2006 from 6:30-8:00pm at Slought Foundation. Poet and critic Barrett Watten will deliver a creative talk about the idea of "negativity" in the historic avant-garde, accompanied by examples of contemporary acoustic, visual and literary practices. Barrett Watten will be introduced by Rachel Blau-DuPlessis, professor of English at Temple University.

This event, sponsored by the Temple Creative Writing Program, is part of an ongoing series of programs at Slought exploring the historic and contemporary avant-gardes, with an emphasis on extreme performances and practices. Barrett Watten's focus on experiences of rupture and refusal in radical art and literature takes place in the charged setting of related exhibitions and events at Slought this fall: "Primal Sections: A Günter Brus Retrospective," in which artist Günter Brus pushes himself to physical and mental extremes to analyze his own body and its functions, and "On Bareback Subcultures and the Pornography of Risk," a public conversation and series of film screenings with theorist Tim Dean addressing the principled abandonment of condoms amongst gay men and scenarios of purposeful HIV-transmission.

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Barrett Watten is a poet and a Professor of literature and cultural studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. He has published two volumes of literary and cultural criticism, of which The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (2003) was awarded the René Wellek Prize in 2004. His published works of poetry include Frame (1971-1990), which appeared in 1997; Bad History (1998); and Progress/Under Erasure (2005). As a student at UC Berkeley in 1969, Barrett Watten met poets Robert Grenier and Ron Silliman and studied with Josephine Miles. He later returned to the Bay Area and began to form relations with the experimental writers who would become to be known as the Language School. Watten edited This, one of the central little magazines of the "movement," and co-edited Poetics Journal, one of its theoretical venues. Recently, he has spent time in Germany as a Fulbright Fellow, at the University of Tübingen and in Berlin, where he wrote on visual art, performance, and cultural politics.

"What is negativity, as an element of literary and culture production? If there is one criterion of the avant-garde with which its critics all agree, it is one of the avant-garde's historical origins in a negative moment of refusal of the culture from which it emerges. This refusal may take the form of an explicitly oppositional politics; or it may be self-negating even to the point of withdrawal from society or suicide; or it may involve a radical reconfiguration of the formal possibilities of a genre or medium and their cultural significance. Arguably, all three are related - countercultural politics, self-negation, and new formal possibilities - and will be present to some degree in any instance of the avant-garde. We need to find ways of positioning negativity that do not end in a predictable result: sterility or recuperation, a decline of force or a reintegration into the whole. Rather than reifying a single, strained negative dialectics in which avant-garde agency performs a permanent refusal of integration, we need to hold open the spontaneity, instability, and evanescence of the avant-garde as a limit situation..."

-- Barrett Watten, The Constructivist Moment