The Art of Interruption: William Carlos Williams and New Materialist Poetics

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Author: Joel Nickels
Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,586 words

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[(essay date winter 2006) In the following essay, Nickels suggests that the resurgence of new materialist poetics in contemporary poetry can be traced back to the work of William Carlos Williams, who critiqued the experimental economics of his era in Paterson.]

In the early twentieth century, experimental literature and economic theory maintained a rich, if somewhat confusing, dialogue. Ezra Pound's economic meditations, from ABC of Economics to What is Money For?, are well known. But as Michael Tratner notes, theories of credit, debt and consumption also play a shaping role in the works of authors such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston.1 Luke Carson, in like manner, shows how large a part monetary exchange plays in Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography and The Geographical History of America, and in her writings on Roosevelt and the New Deal.2 Amidst these shifting tides of literary economics, a Social Credit journal called New Democracy served as a curious showcase for modernists such as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Jean Toomer, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings and T. S. Eliot.3 Today it seems strange that a journal devoted to such a seemingly specialized area of economic inquiry would receive submissions from major literary figures such as Williams, Toomer, and editor of New Directions James Laughlin.4 But as critics such as Alec Marsh and Jean-Michel Rabaté suggest, usury, money and credit were not simply a matter of abstract calculation for many modernists.5 Instead, economic theory constituted an entire metaphorics of blocking mechanisms and circulatory processes that was deeply ingrained in literary modernism. In this context, Social Credit became a highly influential form of "experimental" economics whose symbology overlapped broadly with literary experiments of the period. This leads one to ask what the status of economic theory has become in contemporary poetics. Is there any form of experimental economics that overlaps with its methods? Is there any metaphorics such as that produced by Social Credit that works its way into experimental poetry?

At first glance, it seems like postmodern theories of language and culture have supplanted economic theory as a touchstone of experimental literature. The theories of semiotic drift and indeterminacy advanced by figures such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard have clearly made themselves felt in contemporary poetics--much more so, it may seem, than the economic "grand narratives" critiqued in Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition.6 In fact, postmodern theory's robust metaphorics of rhizomes, differends and simulacra seems much more fruitful for literature than the dry calculations and scientific pretensions of early twentieth-century economic theory. Accordingly, to Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" and Daniel Bell's "end of ideology" we might be tempted to add the "end of economics" as a hallmark of postmodern thought.7 But looked at a little more closely, the anti-totalizing theories of a figure such as Lyotard contain some highly concrete economic propositions. And this means that the armory of postmodern tropes and figures that enlivens so much experimental writing is not so distant from...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420110028