- Barrett Watten’s Bad History: A Counter-Epic of the Gulf War
This essay situates Barrett Watten’s book-length poem Bad History against the debate between Jean Baudrillard and Christopher Norris regarding the proper position of the intellectual during the Persian Gulf War. Bad History provides a provisional third way, mobilizing both the paranoiac postmodernity of Baudrillard and the hyperrationality of Norris, in a poetry that refuses to extract itself from its own subjective position, a resistance that speaks beyond the limits of its own political group. Watten’s poem is the most sophisticated attempt to grapple with the Gulf War in part because it situates itself in the cultural milieu that enabled the war itself to take place: what Paul Virilio calls “Pure War”—that state of society whereby the real war is the constant preparation for war. By invoking and countering the epic mode through a poetics of interference, a subjectivity vacillating between complicity and resistance, and formal innovations (including use of footers, newspaper-like columns, and a hefty appendix), Bad History stands out as perhaps the most important poetry to emerge out of the Persian Gulf War. —pm
More than a decade has passed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a war that offered up an “instant history” that effaced the histories of colonialism and empire in the Middle East, thanks to saturation media coverage that covered up far more than it revealed.1 There is little doubt now that mass media sources, from CNN to the local news, acted principally as an extension of the military effort. This media saturation has led critics like Jed Rasula in The American Poetry Wax Museum to suggest that the only proper way to resist the war was to refuse to watch television (376).2 Yet Western intellectuals who opposed this war could reach no consensus about how to resist, or even about the very possibility of resistance within the centers of empire; the war seemed to evacuate the very notion of “centers,” as television coverage of Pentagon news briefings infiltrated homes throughout the world.
The crisis of oppositionality appeared most visibly in the impasse between Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern analysis of the war (captured in the provocative title of his book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) and Christopher Norris’s Chomsky-inflected critique (no less provocative in the directness of its attack on what he terms Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals, and the Gulf War).3 Neither articulates a completely convincing reading of the war, and each, in light of the other, feels somewhat one-dimensional. To overcome the seeming impasse presented by these contrary paradigms requires an analysis flexible enough to value both the productive paranoia of Baudrillard and the hyperrationality of Chomsky. The Baudrillardian mode impels us to: 1) question not only mass media coverage, but information itself, insofar as it becomes indistinguishable from propaganda in times of war, particularly in what Baudrillard calls “the profound immorality of images”; 2) recognize the way in which war itself has become virtualized, simulacral, and based upon the logic of deterrence; 3) describe the war as a Western civilian experiences it, where the media and military use of optical technology merge to a single aim; and 4) pursue a risky rhetorical strategy that mimics the dominant narrative in order to subvert it. The Chomskyan mode, on the other hand, provides us a model that helps to: 1) deconstruct U.S. media coverage of the war by producing an historical narrative of U.S. foreign policy that emphasizes its complicity in the situation it aims to solve by war and by producing an alternative narrative of war resistance, both at the center of empire and in the Third World; 2) investigate the effects of war on the ground in Iraq (not to mention in the United States, where thousands of veterans suffer from Gulf War Syndrome); and 3) suspend the (postmodern?) illusion that just because something is not covered by the press does not mean that it’s not real. Each paradigm seems to supply the perspectives that are absent from the other, and yet something is missing from both. Neither critic manages to capture...