"They will die last night we have lived tomorrow": traumatic displacements of the avant-garde in Bob Perelman's The Future of Memory.
The theory of postmodern literature and deconstructive writing has widely advocated the belief that language cannot properly refer to and adequately register the world. In the minds of many, postmodernism has come to signify the detachment of literary discourse from reality, the obstruction and invalidation of our access to history. The study of postmodern literary texts is thus invariably accompanied by a peculiar uneasiness about what postmodernism termed the loss of reality, by the uncanny sensation of letting reality slip through our fingers without being able to arrest its flow. Inquiring into the poetry of Bob Perelman, one of the main representatives of the American school of Language Writing, this essay advances the belief that, rather than denying reference, postmodernism only rejects the reduction of reference to a world that is perceptible and cognitively masterable. Through an in-depth analysis of Perelman's The Future of Memory, I explore the semantically non-transparent structure of Language verses, and suggest that these verses attest to a peculiar type of a yet-not-fully mastered traumatic experience. The Future of Memory, I propose, testifies to a critical moment of late capitalist history--a moment defined by the eschatological rupture and traumatic annulment of the subject's imagined future reality under the reign of commodity culture. My further analysis seeks to complicate the reading of Perelman's verse as a record of an unclaimed psychological trauma, and recognizes in its overt non-transparency a carefully thought out revolutionary strategy. Challenging the theorization of Language Writing as a practice that defies referentiality, I thus advance an understanding of Perelman's work as a testimony to the traumatic displacement of the poet's envisioned avant-garde future by the late capitalist reality of consumer society', and maintain that this work presents a formative ground for a new post-avant-garde aesthetics.
The problem of reference has been of paramount interest to critics of Language Writing. Dating back to the 1970s, this postmodern trend has been presented by poets and theorists such as Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, and Barret Watten. (1) Scholars of Language poetry have often pointed to its apparent non-referentiality. They have dismissed the works of Language poets as "an endless succession of depthless images and empty sounds, each canceling the previous one" (Weinberger 197), a writing functioning "against the conventionally referential and representational capacities of language" and heralding a "future in which ... all that's left of language are the fragmented inarticulate remains, a non-referential solipsistic muzak" (Reinfeld 55). Language writers themselves have emphasized the "antireferential" and "antisyntactical" character of their lyrics. To them, reference in language has been intrinsically linked to commodity fetishism. As Silliman explains it, "[I]f we permit the word to stand for something else, if we exchange the word for its meaning, we thereby initiate a process in which anything can stand for anything else and anything can be exchanged and replaced. Once the word can be exchanged, it can circulate (just as money circulates in a capitalist economy), and like money, the word as a medium of exchange cannot serve as a source of genuine human values" (qtd. in Reinfeld 33).
To disengage language from its subjection to the capitalist project and reendow it with its "genuine value," Language writers have sought to diminish or fully efface reference via consistent misspelling, disjunct syntax, and erroneous grammar. While the creation of this alternate system of writing, designed to undermine the reification of language, is indeed grounded in the demise of referentiality, a more scrutinized study of Language poetry seems to unveil a somewhat different reality. Though difficult to discern among the blaring denouncements of reference, some assertions of Language writers reveal the inadequacy of dismissing the impacts of referentiality and demand a more comprehensive study of the intricate "complications within the vectors of reference" (McCaffery 161). As Charles Bernstein announces, Language Writing effects "[n]ot 'death' of the referent--rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has ..." (Content's Dream 34). Language, for Bernstein, is "multireferential as well as material, and the project of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E refers to a social world" (qtd. in Reinfeld 35). Even the fragmentation, enacted in Language Writing, Bruce Andrews explains, "doesn't banish the reference embodied in individual words; merely, they are not placed in a series, in grammar, in a row, on a shelf" ("Text and Context" 34). (2)
This multivocal explication of referentiality calls for recognizing the peculiar ways in which Language poems attest to some recurring poetic realities. Most prominently, Language poetry seems to evoke the uncanny remodeling of the poet's relation to temporality. The unforeseen reconfiguration of the temporal dimension is particularly visible in Bob Perelman's The Future of Memory. Even a cursory glimpse at the titles of Perelman's poems, comprising The Future of" Memory, unveils the poet's manifest preoccupation with the dimension of time. "To the Future," "To the Past," "Writing in Real Time," "Symmetry of Past and Future" are only a few of the poems that demonstrate Perelman's pronounced interest in the realm of temporality and that grapple to redefine, in a highly provocative way, the new scope of reality. A careful look into Perelman's poems reveals that they stage with striking consistency two unnatural dislocations of poetic reality. Firstly, most poems present an anomalous flattening of the chronotope defined by a future that retreats into the past and leaves an emptied temporal space ahead of the subject. Secondly, Perelman's poems enact the traumatic displacement of the poet's persona beyond his anticipated and cognitively recognizable future, and testify to his existence in an estate after the future, in a meaningless and ambiguous post-futural modus vivendi. Furthermore, The Future of Memory records with disturbing exactitude the traumatic ramifications of both these disruptions of poetic reality.
ENCOUNTERING A "PRE-OWNED" FUTURE: TRAUMATIC DISPLACEMENTS OF THE AVANT-GARDE
Discussing the modes of transfiguring the poet's imagined reality, we should first delve into the factors inducing the uncalled-for temporal rupture. Why is the lyrical persona confronted with the traumatic condition of seeing his or her future removed to the past? Why is he/she afflicted by an incapacitating paralysis, by a deplorable inability to arrest and hold onto the slipping reality of avant-garde poetics'? The Future of Memory, provides an unequivocal answer to these questions, pointing to the advent of an all-pervasive culture of consumerism and, in more general terms, to the subjugating logic of late capitalism as the overriding cause for abolishing the modernist experiment. Defined by the ambitious modernist project, the innovative avant-garde future has yielded to a trite and conventional poetry, a poetry whose blatant transparency relates it to commodity fetishism. Many of Perelman's poems lament "the words / that died on / the way to / the mall, mad / that the world / hadn't thought / to provide / anything more interesting /than ranked merchandise ... "("Love and Probability" 78-9). Or, as Perelman recounts elsewhere, "... modernism's big adventure / is still in print / on matchbooks and corporate lowers, /... / with customers paying for the pleasure / of buying." In a rather pessimistic stance, the author concludes: "Meaning is a dog, / following masters ..." ("To the Past" 63, italics added).
Indeed, much of Perelman's poetry advances the belief that the only permissible meaning in the context of late capitalist culture is that which reiterates the dominant discourse of power, the meaning that as "a dog / follow[s] masters" (63). The avant-garde experiment has, therefore, been seen as cancelled by a "future where the / dead are already buried en masse / by judgments already made, beneath lobs / of fundamental meaning" ("Symmetry of Past and Future" 112). This future is also portrayed as conceived by a new type of readership--an audience that can no longer transcend the overused meanings, imposed by the governing system of power: "... [O]n the street, / ideal readers are /just now giving / birth to the future / while chained to pre-owned / words, structured sentences, / oversexed genres ... " ("Ideal Poem" 91). The violent uprooting of the avant-garde ambitions by a future ruled by "judgments already made" and "chained to pre-owned / words, land] structured sentences" becomes the source of an immensely traumatic psychic disfiguring. Faced with the discovery that "America, [his] life, the page, / the academy of the future, / ... as it turns out. / [are] in the past," the poet can no longer envision his life as a continued and meaningful biographic experience ("The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake" 32). Instead, as portrayed in Perelman's "To the Future," he senses the immanence of a shocking and apocalyptic collapse: "I always expected some kind of/ indefinite continuance but ... / ... the world will end / up breaking apart ... / ... I'll probably feel a bit shocked all the way through ..." (39).
The shock inflicted on the lyrical persona is intimately linked, in Perelman's collection, to the subject's unforeseen encounter with a prematurely consumed and "pre-owned" future. A close examination of Perelman's The Future of Memory reveals that it abounds in emphatically atypical depictions of a future reality that does not lie ahead of the subject, but is, instead, viewed as an already achieved and invalidated experience, as a precipitously realized and lived out "tomorrow." In a similarly peculiar stance, death is repositioned from its customary domain after the future to an abode markedly located in the subject's past. "They will die / last night / We have lived / tomorrow," Perelman proclaims in "The Womb of Avant-Garde Reason" (102). In the same work, he repeatedly forecasts that "the future will lie down / with the past" (96). Perelmans work thus enacts a peculiar overlapping of the temporal zones of the future and the past. The two are often equated and loaded with equivalent semantic charge: "... a day that will / never die, since it only exists / in the past the future ..." (113, italics added). The past and the future are in perfect symmetry, as implied in the very title of Perelman's work "Symmetry of Past and Future" (103).
Through effacing the borderlines between the future and the past, Perelman alerts us to the traumatic annulment of the poet's imagined avant-garde future--to the abrupt and unforeseen immuring of the ingenious avant-garde experiment within the limits of the past. As Perelman's "The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake" relates:
I can see eyes painted open on the death mask of that lovely arrangement I used to call the world, America, my life, the page, the academy of the future, which, as it turns out, is in the past. They even move. They are mine: that was home. (32)
The formerly "lovely arrangement," which for the poet represented his world (his country, life, and writing/the page/), is now replaced by a "death mask" with "eyes painted open." The end of the stanza reveals that these eyes belong to the lyrical hero and, through staying wide open, obey the historic imperative to absorb and reflect, in the flesh of the poem, the unexpected displacements of his future and past.
The devaluation and loss of the avant-garde past and of all pleasures of playing with language are thus rendered as a saliently traumatic experience, and Perelman's poems, in The Future of Memory, exhibit a striking abundance of trauma terminology. Under commodity culture, the unconventional words from the avant-garde past are depicted as "scattered survivors," and the present is seen as "full of survivors" sentences" ("The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake" 32). Reminiscing of the avant-garde period, Perelman remarks:
It's plain that there was time and that it took place but its quick pleasures are now words in a language with only scattered survivors. ("The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake" 32)
While acknowledging the present condition of poetry as wholly subservient to a discourse of power, the poet believes that true language still subsists in the words of the "survivors." Perelman implies that those are writers who fight the use of "instrumental speech" and openly confront the "pre-owned futures / hosed down the hyperspace of capital":
The present is full of survivors' sentences. With disoriented conviction and memory too deep for instrumental speech swimming sinkingly toward pre-owned futures hosed down the hyperspace of capital where freedom spells the rampant logos turning attractively bemused typefaces and icons toward the traffic. ("The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake" 32)
Despite their effort to subvert the instrumental use of language, however, the "survivors' sentences" are seen as bound to "swim sinkingly toward [the poets'] pre-owned futures." Harking back to the avant-garde past, they are more and more out of place now. The past is thus nostalgically portrayed as focalizing all that is wholly unthinkable in the poet's contemporaneity. It predominantly figures as the time of "modernism's big adventure" ("To the Past" 62), a time of gallant avant-garde experiments, resolved to do away with the belief in voice and self-expression and usher in a radical new treatment of the poetic word. "The Womb of Avant-Garde Reason," among other poems, reminisces of this vanished past, characterized by the poet's resolve to unsettle the enemy within each word and activate its multivalent meanings, to defy the age-old norms of legibility and "perspectival responsib[ility]," and resist "the aerobic bureaucracy / of personal growth" and the constraints of any pre-defined artistic models. Put in the words of the poem:
The words will no longer be utopic settees in niched rooms, no more giving comfort to the enemy within who sees legibility as a monument lit at night no more bowing beneath the flourishing arm of the scene painter perspectivally responsible no more living inside those burning Oedipal circles with their loops of ashy flame hypnotically extinguished and reignited, annealing positions [strengthening] in the aerobic bureaucracy of personal growth, no more! (94)
The theme of "personal growth" markedly alludes to the centrality of the individual, of his/her voice, intentionality, and talent as hallmarks of the postwar literary milieu. Unequivocally, the poet denounces the self-centered, introspective poetics of the 1960s and 1970s, and rejects all forms of personal lyricism. In Chapter Four of "Symmetry of Past and Future," for example, Perelman rejoices in "the death of the past, swaddled in / old jargons of self-expression ..." (107). In "The Womb of Avant-Garde Reason," he likewise comments on the persona-centered lyrics of the past whose prerogatives of "surplus emotion in individual psyches" and "personal cupids above every mirror" the avant-garde sought to dismantle and revise. Speaking of the newly-rekindled flames of confessionalism and personal voice, Perelman recounts:
These same flames have been burning for 200 years in the dark paternal mills backlit by the lemony dawn of romantic factories that increased concentration of surplus emotion in individual psyches and set personal cupids above every mirror, replacing an economy of need ... by an economy of desire ... (95)
Apart from these scarce references to the postwar literary period, the past, in Perelman's work, remains primarily associated with avant-garde aesthetics. The Future of Memory despondently laments the fact that the past, as focal territory for the avant-garde experiment, is increasingly less recognizable. As described in Chapter Two of "Symmetry of Past and Future," "the past humps up / until it can only be / guessed at ..." (105).
While Perelman's collection testifies in powerful ways to the traumatic abrogation of the avant-garde future and its abrupt displacement in a consistently devaluated past, it would be quite reductive to limit our understanding of the work to this poetic fact. Indeed, there is a future that has receded to the past, but, if we heed the message of Perelman's title, there is also a future that awaits its birth, a future that anticipates its active recreation and theorization. As paradoxical as it may strand, this is the "future of memory."
"THE SUPERSESSION OF MEMORY" AND THE GENESIS OF FUTURAL MEMORY
The very title of the collection. The Future of Memory, announces the theme of memory as pivotal for unraveling the complexities of Perelman's work. Memory seems to be implied in all major developments of the poems. It is also of central significance in every discussion of questions of temporality. The title of Perelman's book relates memory to the future, while the very first poem locates its mutations in the non-distant past.
The reader is particularly credulous about the poet's ideas on memory, since they are shared with him/her in the mode of confession. Perelman's poem "Confession" opens The Future of Memory, announcing a radical disruption of the writer's mnemonic faculty and broaching the broader question of what will happen to memory in the future. "Aliens have inhabited my aesthetics for / decades," the author confides. "Really since the early 70s. / Before that I pretty much wrote / as myself, though young. But something / has happened to my memory, my / judgement: apparently my will has been / affected" ("Confession" 9).
The poem ("Confession") not only attests to the unforseen changes in poetical memory, but studiously pinpoints the 1970s as the precise moment of their occurrence. In the context of "Confession," the transmutation of poetic memory appears as a mechanism of defense whose function is to guard the author against all poetry of pre-established categories. In its attempts to copy the discursive norms in fashion, this poetry resembles closely the models in a fashion catalogue. Perplexed at the encounter with the insipid cliche models, the lyrical persona speculates: "I'm sure my categories have / been messed with. I look at / the anthologies in the big chains / and campus bookstores, even the small / press opium dens, all those stanzas / against the white space--they just / look like the models in the / catalogs" ("Confession" 9). The author proceeds by describing the different models of poems: "There is the sexy / underwear poem, the sturdy workboot poem / you could wear to a party / in a pinch, the little blaspheming / dress poem. There's variety, you say: the button-down oxford with offrhymed cuffs: / the epic toga, showing some ancient / ankle; the behold! the world is / changed and finally I am normal flowing / robe and shorts: the full nude; / the scatter ..." ("Confession" 10). As the end of the poem reveals, the newly acquired state of normalcy is related to an act of denuding. Nude and scattered, the new poem emerges as the only viable alternative to its trite and conventional prototypes.
Unwilling to abide by the cliche definitions of late capitalist culture, the creator of such scattered poems is depicted, in "Confession," as an alien belonging to an otherworldly kind of reality. He is somewhere above our world, "waiting for my [his] return ticket / to have any meaning, for those / saucer-shaped clouds to lower!" (10). He is hoping to be understood and accepted in our reality, but such a welcoming event is rendered completely impossible. In the words of Perelman. "The authorities / deny any visitations--hardly a surprise. / And I myself deny them ..." (10). Refusing to create a poetry, which reproduces the discourse of power, the poet remains an "abductee" misunderstood and unaccepted by the "earthlings" (11). Left by himself, he ponders: "What could motivate a / group of egg-headed, tentacled, slimier-than-thou aestheticians / with techniques far beyond ours to / visit earth, abduct naive poets, and / inculcate them with otherworldly forms ... It would be / nice to get some answers here--/ we might learn something, about poetry / if nothing else, but I'm not / much help, since I'm an abductee, / at least in theory, though, like / I say, I don't remember much" (11).
Memory seems to be fading as the lyrical persona approaches the abode of the future. In "The Womb of Avant-Garde Reason," Perelman establishes a straightforward connection between memory and the future, declaring his conviction that memory will disappear in the future. "[L]ifting and sealing / the curtains of memory / rustling their signs and signatories," the wind, in Perelman's poem, "reveal[s] the body of the future / wearing only light / and uncoded / immediacy" (94). The poem repeatedly dwells on the motif of memory's invalidation in the future. It talks of the "supersession of memory" (96), of "the never to be seen future ... of memory" (96), of the "falls of memory" (102). The lyrical persona is almost exalted by the fact that he will no longer have to remember. He will no longer have to remember the music, the city, or even his own self: "I will do an unnamed dance to the supersession / of memory to music I will not have to remember" (96, italics added). "The dance--my only memory ..." (101, italics added). Nearing complete amnesia, the author confides: "I described one particular city I so thoroughly I literally wiped it / off the map so I don't remember where it was / or what I wanted because I don't look anything / like I did / or if I do / I don't remember. / Do you?" (101, italics added).
The consistent allusions to the loss of the poet's mnemonic faculty problematize the status of memory in Perelman's collection. Indeed, if poetic memory disappears, how can memory have a future (after all, the very title of the book, The Future of Memory, proclaims the future existence of memory)? To account for this semantic incongruity, Perelman introduces a vital typological distinction. A careful examination of his poems invites the recognition of two distinct and temporally demarcated kinds of memory. What disappears, Perelman claims, is personal, individual memory, memory as the locus of poetic experience and emotions, and the memory that must and will possess a future is that of a collective, yet unformed, but, in its essence, socially constructed body.
In fact, the divorcing of memory from its customary association with the poetics of personal lyricism seems to be the primary agenda of the author. Ever since the 1970s, Language writers have undertaken to challenge all poetic forms of lyric subjectivity as privileged sites of memory inscription, to undermine the practice of introspective poetics that posited memory as the focus of self-centered expressiveness. It seems the revolutionary message of Perelman's work is namely his call for reconceptualizing memory as a possible construct of a commonly envisioned future rather than a finished product of the individual past; as an entity that can transcend the bounds of separate individuals and dwell in a collective corpus inhabiting the future time.
RECLAIMING THE FUTURE (OR, A FUTURE AFTER THE FUTURE): THE BIRTH OF THE POST-AVANT-GARDE
The reconceptualization of memory as a product of the future (a future after the future that has been "pre-owned" and annulled), rather than the past, is intrinsically linked to, and, in fact, derives from the subject's reconfigured relation to time. In Perelman's book, the poet and his future readers do not inhabit temporally overlapping zones. The poet is situated in a realm that is temporally anterior to that of his interpretative audience--to that futural group of readers endowed with the potential to revisit and rearticulate the poet's work. Only after a process of temporalization, in a yet-undefined futural moment, can Perelman's words acquire a socially viable meaning. It is in this sense that Perelman's work reads as a message to the future, a call to its unknown readers to take up its moments of undecidability and lend them novel, socially progressive meanings.
The emphasis on the reader's centrality for recasting the words of the poet in accordance with the social semantics of the future introduces an active non-textual agent whose interpretative act evolves from the laws of reality rather than the conventions of the text. In other words, it is society (as fractured through the reader) that constitutes the work of art, and not the work of art (as was the avant-garde ambition) that forms a model for a better world. This shift from a properly textual to an extra-linguistic semantics in Perelman's writing foregrounds a new type of poetic aesthetics that has already been referred to as the "post-avant-garde" one. (3)
To make way for the extra-textual reshaping of his work and leave space for the future act of his interpretive audience, Perelman consistently effaces his individual authorial presence and undermines all possibilities for imparting determinate meanings. Composing a poetry of half-meanings, fragmented enunciations, and unresolved tensions, Perelman rejects all clear-cut preconceptions and preformed definitions of reality, and forms a textual void, an emptied abode that could only be semanticized by future readers. Thus, in a truly apophatic (4) stance, the author opts for the negative space of silence and emptiness, and undertakes to construct it through disrupting coherent meanings. On the structural level, this semantic disruption rebounds in the mode of syntactical rupturing, which to Language writers presents the foundation of what they have termed "the new sentence." (5)
The sentence, however, quite seldom remains the most basic unit of disruptive activity. Perelman's verses abound in disjunct signifiers, sememes, and, at times, even phonemes. Phonemes, to Language writers, present those most fundamental units, which, while organized in accordance with the stringent rules of language, do not have yet a socially determined meaning. These elementary, primordial entities function as the building blocks of Perelman's archaeology of negative spaces. In the words of Perelman himself: "Only the phoneme is a purely differential and contentless sign. Its sole ... semiotic content is its dissimilarity from all other phonemes" ("Sense" 73). Not yet charged with any pre-conceived ideas, the phoneme is seen by Perelman as closer to the world of "sense" ("Sense" 75). And if reaching the level of "senses" is important, it is because the power to manipulate them can help the author interfere with and change social behavior. Paraphrasing Julia Kristeva's thesis, set forth in Revolution in Poetic Language, Joel Nickels observes that "our 'intuitive' sense of possible social relations is rooted in the primordial regulation of our senses" (# 8). Thus the disarticulation of verse to the level of phonemes emerges as a strategy for impacting and altering society through a deft exploitation of the readers' senses. It is from this perspective that the text's unintelligibility, ensuing from its radical disjointing, can be regarded as a purposeful attempt to challenge and reshape the present structure of socially imposed meanings. Indeed, the desemanticization of poetry seems a rather unorthodox means for exerting a shift in societal norms and parameters. Such a practice, however, appears quite justifiable through the lens of Jean Baudrillard's provocative insight that "any direct appeal to +the people" as such is no longer a viable option given not only the avant-garde's failure to sway the masses but, more radically, the implosion of the social itself as a stable referent ..." (In the Shadow 37).
At this point it seems incumbent to provide a further observation on the dual status of the concept of unintelligibility. On the one hand, Perelman's The Future of Memory presents an often jumbled-up account of a traumatic psychological experience that has remained secluded from the mind and not completely mastered by cognition. Indeed, I have argued that Perelman's verses record the traumatic displacement of the avant-garde future, its untimely annulment by the onset of commodity culture. Language writers conceptualizations of this historical moment, revealed in their forceful theoretical arguments, attest to the fact that this traumatic reality is undergoing a process of rationalization and assimilation. However, the invalidation of the poet's future is doubtlessly a trauma that has not been overcome and conquered yet. To come to terms with it, the poet reenacts it in indecipherable, paratactic verse, quite often introduced by phrases, divulging a confounded slate of mind (e.g. "Something has happened to my memory ..." ; "I'm sure my categories have / been messed with ..." ; "I don't remember ..." ; "I don't know," etc.). Thus, on the one hand, the unintelligibility of Language poetry reflects the impact of an undigested, trauma-born experience and bears witness to the poet's struggle to come to grips with it.
On the other hand, however, Language poetry is deliberately made incomprehensible. Its unintelligibility, achieved through the disarticulation of its syntax, phonetics, and grammar, is a purposeful act of revolt, a premeditated social strategy aimed at undermining the instrumentality of language and achieving a certain sociopolitical agenda. By temporarily suspending meaning, Perelman calls to a future community of readers that would bestow upon his yet unfinished poetry a newly emergent social interpretation. In the words of Nickels, "the poet [Perelman] is actively lending himself to a possible future, whose contexts of understanding are necessarily unintelligible from his temporally anterior standpoint. The poet is to be imagined here as constantly operating on the margins of intelligibility, all the while trusting that his moments of incoherence are the formal harbingers of an emergent social configuration that will belatedly lend a coherence and practical intelligibility to his literary experiments" (# 4). "This sense that a historically futural readership may be able to 'charge' Perelman's text in unforeseeable ways, and that the poet should therefore create enclaves of non-meaning in order to call out to these supplementary futural meanings," Nickels argues, "is what makes The Future of Memory such a brilliant and strange document of "post-avant-garde' poetic practice" (# 37).
Inaugurating a new, post-avant-garde aesthetics, Perelman's work is thus much more than a quiescent testimony to unconquered trauma--it is an active reservoir bursting with the creation of new meanings and language. To sabotage his reduction to ,just one more product of commodity culture ("Here I sit, brokenhearted / producer of American consumption, / lived to write, but / only monitoring the screen," "Laptop" 69), the poet sets out to disrupt and cancel all familiar meanings and "language" the world for himself by means of "ironiz[ing], / experiment[ing], writ[ing] wrong ..." You either swallow the "pre-owned" meanings of the world,
Or language it for yourself. Make your own recipes: ironize, Experiment, write wrong.... ("The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake" 32)
Writing wrong, diminishing or fully effacing reference via consistent misspelling and faulty syntax and grammar is thus enacted as a poetical strategy aimed at the disengaging of language from its subjection to the capitalist project. "The fight for language is a political fight," Steve McCaffery notes, and further explains: "The fight for language is also a fight inside language" (159). As evinced in the very title of Silliman's essay "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," in order" for a new world to appear, the word in its conventional sense should disappear. While the rejection of normative patterns of morphology, syntax, and grammar no doubt gives birth to new forms of poetical language, it still appears questionable that, by defacing standardized structures, poets can efficiently fight the commodification and fetishizing of language. As Marjorie Perloff remarks, discussing the ruptured enunciation of Language Writing, "[T]he work that lasts is one that does not merely fragment, distort, write over" or under, cut up, splice, or collage, but that uses these techniques to encode complex meanings" (563).
POST-AVANT GARDE EXPERIMENTS: THE DENUDING AND RE-IMAGINING OF LANGUAGE
Indeed, only the future will tell if the fractured poetics of" Language poetry could define any space for reenvisioning and reinventing the present. What seems indisputable, however, is that, through the operation of this mode of writing, the text turns into an arena for radical improvisation and experimentation with language. In "Writing in Real Time"(65), for instance, the poet sets out to record the train of thoughts as they evolve in real time. The scattered and disordered thoughts are interrupted by the studious counting of the number of verses composed, a practice that places a peculiar emphasis on the material aspects of poetic production. "Writing in Real Time" opens with verse No 16, 438 and concludes with 16, 519, meanwhile expressing its aspiration to reach verse No 17, 000 ("What a triumph it would be to get to 17, 000." p. 67). Writing in real time is disclosed as the opposite of chronological writing, where each moment is ascribed a strictly defined position in time, and the reader works to unravel the sequence of moments described. What matters in "real time" are the various facets of the same moment ("some of the different faces of the same moment," as the author contends, 67)--the different ways, in which a given moment is perceived and interpreted by the spectator:
The puppy leaps up, hoarse, cowed, needy, grateful. springing out of zero, you, yours, it's you, sixteen thousand four hundred and fifty four, your smell, your cheese biscuits. The puppy leaps, the entertainment god smiles at entertainment, the President helicopters --these are some of the different faces of the same moment to which we assign the number sixteen thousand four hundred and fifty five sixteen thousand four hundred and fifty six sixteen thousand four hundred and fifty seven sixteen thousand four hundred and fifty eight and sixteen thousand four hundred and fifty nine.1 I've changed my mind. In theory, it's enough to think. In practice, the woman wiping the stony black plastic tables at the Science Museum restaurant has two hours and twenty minutes to go she told me. Sixteen thousand four hundred and sixty sixteen thousand four hundred and sixty one. Does that man beat that woman or just read the paper? It's too late to retrace half thoughts. They sounded intriguing, but are written sixteen thousand four hundred and sixty two ... (67) (6)
Similarly to the way meaning is stripped of its allegiance to any diachronically defined models of temporality and is freed to evolve according to the discontinuous logic of real time, another poetic convention, rhyme, is divested of its age-old attire and is shown to be produced by the sensual rhythms of verse. "... What rhymes with 'rhythm'? / 'Mythic?'" Perelman ponders in "The Masque of Rhyme" (114), and then presents his take on rhyme: "You have to squint to / hear it. Squint and scatter letters to / the five senses, shake off circumstance, and / find yourself in words ..." (114).
Perhaps most evocative in exemplifying Language writers' philosophy of experimental writing is a poem, in The Future of Memory, entitled "The Game" (50), one of the "Fake Dreams" (starting on p. 42) that Perelman relates. In it, the author describes a linguistic game that takes place in real time. Sitting in front of numerous computer screens, the lyrical persona types in different words: "I'm / in an academic office, surrounded by / screens, each with a keyboard attached. / The screens depict scenes in cities; / I'm to type in words. I / type 'PLAY' and a section in / the southeast of one city blows / up ... / "GUILT,' on the other / hand, creates a whole fiat small / town on a screen which had / shown 'verdant' forest. I see a / little car moving down 'Main Street.' / It stops and makes a right" (50-1).
In the game depicted by the author, the connection between the signifier and the signified seems altogether arbitrary. The reader is unaware of how the word "guilt" could have any relation whatsoever to the "verdant forest" and the "little car" making a right on "Main Street." The stable, fixed relationship between the signifier and the signified is problematized. Even more so, as the game proceeds. "I go over to a third / screen with a generic New York / City," Perelman writes, "and type 'I LIKE HORSES' / but nothing happens. 'I GET OFF / ON THE HORSES OF INSTRUCTION THE / HELL WITH THE MARLBORO MAN': still / nothing. Apparently syntax cancels out the / effects. Okay, so just plain "HORSES." / Anything? Yes, a tiny pup tent / has appeared in the lower righthand / corner, on the sidewalk in front / of a department store. I try / "I': a second pup tent. "LIKE': / a third. The power of writing / in this particular game is starting / to feel, shall we say, illusory" (51, italics added).
Syntactically correct sentences, Perelman seems to assert, are incapable of reflecting or creating any kind of reality. Building an argument in favor of breaking up normative structures, Perelman reveals that, when displaced from their conventional positions in the sentence, words can generate a new and fully unexpected meaning. At first sight, however, the kind of writing in which entirely divergent words may give birth to the same, identical reality (a pup tent, in this case) seems quite "illusory"--how can the same signified (the pup tent) correspond to three completely different signifiers ("horses," "I," and "like")? But just when the reader is at the point of disbelief, Perelman is quick to provide a very Derridean explanation: "An authority (dressed in blue) is / in the doorway with three large / yellow envelopes. He is holding them / out to me: none have return / addresses and the authority is both / offering and withholding them. It is / mail/not-mail ..." (51-2, italics added). Instead of assigning a specific meaning (contained in a specific envelope) to each one of the signifiers mentioned, the "authority" holds out to the lyrical persona three yellow envelopes, none of which has been supplied with a return address. The "meaning" contained in each envelope Thus remains indeterminate and exchangeable rather than fixed and attached to only, one signifier or one particular message. It is highly uncertain that once it has reached the intended signifier, the envelope will territorialize it and set tip a permanent address with it. As the Derridean trait erasing all stable definitions and meanings, signifies both the presence and absence of a particular meaning, the envelopes (and the meanings in them) are both mail and not-mail, both offered and withheld from the reader.
Interestingly, The Future of Memory parallels this attempt to divest language of any pre-formed and positively defined meaning with an act of corporal denuding and physical baring of the body. Indeed, an attentive examination of Perelman's work reveals an insistent recurrence of the motif of denuding. In "To the Future" (39), for example, the author relates a dream of the lyrical persona, in which he sees himself completely naked in a laundromat--preoccupied with cleansing and divesting till his books of their former content: "Then I / was in the laundromat, naked, washing / the books I managed to save / from the war. These were quite / sturdy, as you might imagine ... / ... Once a page / would ,get clean enough then I / could v,.rite on top of it. / Like now: fake dreams, skittish prophecy--/ it doesn't matter as long as / the breath comes a little quicker, / and the pulse firms and skips ..." (40). Only after stripping off the "sturdy" pages of their previously sanctioned content, the poet can rewrite them in a new, more passionate, experimental way.
It seems that the denuding of language of its publicly accepted attire is viewed as the only possible road to redeeming its intrinsic, genuine value. The custom of adorning language in accordance with the public codes of the commodity regime of power has been described as something taught to us at school, a practice we have been initiated into since our very early childhood. In a section of "Writing in Real Time," called "School" (72), Perelman presents to us "a fixed picture / of what I [he] learned" about language back in his school years. He describes the language that he was taught to use as "walking the canonized street / in publically ciphered clothes / to hand one's life / a degree in consumer / senses ..." (72).
Perelman's work calls for a radical divesting of language of its "publically-ciphered clothes," for its denuding of all ceremonial attire. Likewise, the undressing of the lyrical persona, as the carrier of language, to the point where he is left with nothing but a body and its poetics acquires central significance in the collection. In "The Womb of Avant-Garde Reason," the poet recounts: "If you notice my toga I'll take it off / so that you will notice nothing but my body / and its chosen prosthesis, / its hands, its ear, its mouth, its solar anus, / its Lawrentian phallic godhead, its Kahlo-esque song of its other, / its computer, its macro, its chosen form, / in a word, / its poetics" (95). As the poem proceeds, Perelman establishes peculiar connections between the naked body and the future, asserting that the thoroughgoing peeling off of every artificial layer is the only road that leads to future resurrection. In a prophetic tone, Perelman announces the possibility of reviving the invalidated province of the future, and locates the source of its rebirth in the poet's "naked body": "If you notice my toga / I'll take it off / as my prosthesis strums / some object in measured strains / and VII leave it on the floor / shimmering and quivering to be sensually mourned .../ Thus the future will shine out / from my naked body" (97, italics added). The poetics of the body and its prosthesis invites a recognition of the corporeal dimensions of writing and seeks to undermine the belief in any exteriorly imposed conventions. "My toga on the floor, / sensually mourned" (97), the author repeatedly announces. Refusing to wear the formal dress tailored by the governing discourse of power, Perelman stages a post-avant-garde experiment with largely disassociated words and phrases:
I avant You (singular) guard He, she. it reads speculatively (Quick! for the factories and portfolios are full oF children) We avant You (plural) guard They throw tomatoes, bricks, keys, panties All that summer, Father's car was in the garage with a full tank and the keys above the visor ... (93-4)
Rather than being non-referential in nature. Language poetry. I have suggested, attests to the shocking annulment of the poet's imagined avant-garde future and registers his unforeseen displacement into a space where "poetry and music limp along ... against a backdrop of real estate" (Virtual Reality 29-30) and writers are reduced to "speaking subjects / living the exchange rate / every, time they open / their single-mouthed dictionary" ("Laptop" 69). Indeed, the unintentional disruption of meaning and structure as constitutive of a trauma-induced discourse, as well as the deliberate violation of semantic, orthographic, and syntactic limens as partaking of a social-oriented writing, seem to annihilate and invalidate the very possibility of reference. "I avant / You (singular) guard ... / We avant / You (plural) guard...." the poet stutters, unable (or, perhaps, unwilling) to provide a more coherent account of his abolished avant-garde reality ("The Womb of Avant-Garde Reason" 93). However, it is in this rescission of cognitive reality, in the refusal to repeat the discourse of controlling power, that Language poetry unfolds a historically vital referential dimension. Inscribing the fate of the avant-garde in the late capitalist reality of consumer society and outlining the grounds for a new, post-avant-garde poetics, Language Writing defies the obliteration of reference in semantically non-transparent poetry and ratifies the viability of history in the realm where comprehension fades. Such a rethinking of reference, Cathy Caruth argues in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative. and History, is "aimed not at eliminating history but at resituating it in our understanding, that is, at precisely permitting history to arise where immediate understanding may not" (11. italics added).
(1) Critics, such as Walter Kalaidjian, for instance, have observed a connection between the late avant-garde school of Language poetry and the early avant-garde trend of Russian Futurism, whose foremost representatives are the poets Vladimir Maiakovsky and Velemir Khlebnikov. The project of Language writers also resembles the agenda of the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1915 (Roman Iakobson and Osip Brik--its major figures), as well as the formalist theory produced by the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOYAZ) in St. Petersburg (Boris Eichenbaum, Lev lakubinsky, and Victor Shklovsky). For more on the subject, see Kalaidjian's "Transpersonal Poetics: Language Writing and the Historical Avant-Gardes in Postmodern Culture."
(2) Disputing the criticism of Language poetry as a practice severed from reality, Perelman also recognizes the referential capacity and historical import of this school of writing. In The Marginalization of Poetry, he challenges the views of critics who perceive a "similarity between the new sentence and current media practice" and assert that "the stylistic gesture most characteristic of language writing is the non-sequitur ..." (62). Perelman refuses to subscribe to the belief that "It [language writing] is the product of a generation raised in front of a television," a product whose most characteristic gesture, "nonsequitur[,] implies a loss of memory, an erasing of history" (62). Perelman also rejects Fredric Jameson's vision of the "ahistorical anomie of postmodern schizophrenic production" (69), as well as his endeavor, in "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," to "identif[y] language writing with ... depthlessness, Lacanian schizophrenia, the erasure of history ..." (63, italics added). Undermining the idea of the non-historical nature of Language poetry, Perelman advances the belief that "The new sentence is both a symptom of the age and a formal device that is highly motivated by literaryhistorical concerns. It marks an attempt to move literature closer to daily, life ..." (61, italics added), or, as he avows in even more specific terms, "Today parataxis can seem symptomatic of late capitalism ..." (62, italics added).
(3) Perelman himself defines his poetics as distinctly "post-avant-garde" in character due to its emplacement and operation in a socially active marginalized arena. In an interview conducted by Peter Nicholls, Perelman remarks: "I want to show that you can make poetry by attending to the medium itself, by (in a more literal sense of the verb) marginalizing it, making margins, by attending to both social and formal emplacements and opportunities for motion." "Is that avant-garde or not?" Nicholls inquires. "It's not," Perelman contends. "It's 'post-avant-garde,' so to speak, in that it's gesturing towards an acknowledgement that the social is all margins these days. Poetry--innovative poetry--explores this condition" (543).
In its incorporation of an extra-textual component, "post-avant-garde" aesthetics displays the characteristics of what GilDs Deleuze and Felix Guattari have described as rhizomatic literature. "The book as assemblage with the outside, against the book as image of the world" (23), Deleuze and Guattari postulate in their conceptualization of the "rhizome-book." The rhizome itself "unlike trees or their roots," connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature: it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states" (21, italics added). "[N]ot every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature," Deleuze and Guattari stipulate, "semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of different status" (7). A "nonsignifying system" (21), the rhizome "ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of prover, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles" (7).
(4) Perelman's consistent practice of evading and baffling available meanings and explications, thus defining the text's negativity, recalls the apophatic (negative) trend in Christian theology, expounded in the works of such mystics as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (fifth century A.D.). Dionysius's teachings maintain that God cannot be expressed through any image nor characterized in words, for he is greater than all possible knowledge and definitions. As transcendental meaning is beyond all wisdom and truth, and the Ineffable Word is impossible to grasp or render in positive terms, one should rather define it negatively, through what is not meaningful, what does not happen, what is not seen.
(5) The term has been coined by Ron Silliman. Contrary to Jameson, who sees the disruption of signification and structure as producing "schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers" (26), Silliman discovers in this same rubble of poetical language, in the silence of blank spaces between linguistic constituents, the most genuine source of interaction and meaningfulness. In the words of Silliman himself, "The new sentence is a decidedly contextual object. Its effects occur as much between, as within, sentences. Thus it reveals that the blank space, between words or sentences, is much more than the 27th letter of the alphabet" ("The New Sentence" 92, italics added). The logic Silliman expounds is one of in-betwenness and exteriority, and not of inwardness and hidden meanings. "Truth" is no longer in the word itself. In the opinion of Edmond Jabes, quoted in Bernstein's verse essay "Artifice of Absorption," truth is "in the burning space between one letter and the next" (Jabes 7, italics added). Language poetry thus sets the stage for post-hermeneutic literary criticism--a criticism that dismantles the belief in literature as a domain of finite meanings and transcendental signifieds. While hermeneutics rests on the assumption that texts are what they are by virtue of our acts of exegesis and interpretation, post-hermeneutic criticism invalidates the search for meanings within the inner corpus of the text, and practices, in Foucault's words, "a thinking of the outside."
Importantly, as Silliman remarks, "It [the new sentence] is the first prose technique to identify the signifier (even that of the blank space) as the locus of literary meaning. As such it reverses the dynamics which have so long been associated with the tyranny of the signified ..." ("The New Sentence" 93). Paramount for the effect of the new sentence is not its capacity for conveying a definitive message or meaning, but, on the contrary, its ability to undermine any possibility for singular interpretation and articulation. Instead of pining after transcendental signifieds, the Language poet orchestrates an interplay of signifiers that operate in highly unconventional manner. This predilection for the signifier marks another similarity with Russian Futurism, which, as Mikhail Epstein observes in After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, gives full precedence to the "world of the signifier itself" (19), "the self-sufficient word" (samovitoe slovo), as Khlebnikov once termed it. The meaning of a Language poem is thus completely unpredictable and changeful, as it depends on the position of the signifiers, on their paralactic link with the adjacent words and sentences, on the distinctive spatial figures circumscribed by them. In "Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice," Perelman describes the role that parataxis plays in the meaning formation of the new sentence: "... from a purely formal perspective, the new sentence was not that drastic an innovation. A new sentence is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance: new sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative flame nor are they thrown together at random. Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences" (61).
(6) Critics such as Kalaidjian, for instance, have regarded the poetic mechanisms of the Language verse as analogous to futurists' transrational poetics and Khlebnikov's :oHm technique. Kalaidjian recognizes in Language poems the same method of textual estrangement (ostranenie) that Shklovsky, at the outset of the century, introduced as a signature device of the early Russian avant-garde. Shklovsky preached the need to make art strange, to capture the attention of the reader through removing his/her senses from the hurried, automatic mode in which he/she has grown accustomed to perceive reality. Only in this way, Shklovsky believed, the reader would be able to discover the unique and totally surprising quality of his/her otherwise banal reality. At the heart of Shklovsky's theory of estrangement thus lies the method of defaliarization, whose goal is to decelerate the reading process, to let the reader spot and savor each sentence on the page, each word in its unique, distinctly singular, and unrepeatable quality. Leading readers away from their habitual modes of perceiving reality, defamiliarization strives to shock them into recognition of the new and so-far-unexplored potentialities of life and thereby initiate them on the road to social activism and analysis. While Language poetry indeed employs this estrangement (ostranenie) technique, it remains unclear if it engenders any politically significant critique or merely records the symptoms of late capitalist reality. As Kalaidjian aptly remarks. "Today it is still an open question whether the Language poets' postmodern version of Shklovsky's ostranenie actually serves politically, as the Russian formalists claimed it would, to subvert the bourgeois world outlook its rituals of social consumption and ideologies of the imperial self, introspective privacy, 'voice,' and so on--or if it merely reflects, symptomatically, capital's own fragmented spectacle of commodity exchange" (333-34).
While unquestioningly sharing some common features with the futurist and formalist agendas of the early Russian avant-garde, Language Writing, I would argue, adopts an immensely different poetic technique as well. Practically the opposite device to that of the early avant-garde estrangement functions in the late avant-garde Language trend. Language Writing often employs the strategy of automation of perception or "sloughing off" (otslaivanie), which Epstein has described as principal device of Russia's late poetic avant-garde (1970-80s). In poems such as "Writing in Real Time"(65), for instance, the Language writer does not aim to draw out facts from commonplace realities, to place them in an unconventional environment, and grant them strangeness to acquire visibility: he, rather, chooses to allow the words to stream out simple, unadorned, and hackneyed just as they do in our humdrum and prosaic world. Nothing in the counting of poetic verses seems unexpected and peculiar the sequence of numbers on the page is nugatory, trivial, and quite predictable; nothing is surprising and unusual--words come out as derivative, repetitive, familiar. The "sloughing off" poetic practice does not attempt to hold the reader's focus or attention. Quite on the contrary, it aims to speed up its removal from word to word, from line to line, from page to page, to automate the reader's recognition and perception until, quickly thumbing through the pages, he/she forgets about the verses in the book and finds him/herself in the abode of total silence. There, in a domain where no established rules apply, the reader can discover his/her way to probe into the secrets of reality, to contemplate political alternatives and launch societal and gnostic inquiries. Facing the ultimate silence is, in fact, a profoundly religious experience. "Getting rid of," or as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite puts it, "clearing aside," the layers of conventional meanings, we approach the estate of the Absolute Value. As Epstein penetratingly construes it, "After all, the Supreme Value (which is also non-Value) keeps silent, and the more words about it we quote, the sooner we will approach its 'authorial' word about itself: silence within itself, where we, too, may abide" (After the Future 65).
Andrews, Bruce, and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
Andrews, Bruce. "Text and Context." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. 31-38.
Baudrillard, Jean. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
Epstein, Mikhail. After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1995.
Jabes, Edmond. The Book of Questions: Yael, Elya, Aely. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1983.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Kalaidjian, Walter. "Transpersonal Poetics: Language Writing and the Historical Avant-Gardes in Postmodern Culture." American Literary History 3.2 (Summer 1991): 319-36.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.
McCaffery, Steve. "From the Notebooks." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. 159-62.
Nickels, Joel. "Post-Avant-Gardism: Bob Perelman and the Dialectic of Futural Memory." Postmodern Culture: An Electronic Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism 11.3 (May 2001): 40 pars. Online. Internet. 29 Sept. 2003.
Nicholls, Peter. "A Conversation with Bob Perelman." Textual Practice 12.3 (1998): 525-43.
Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.
--. "Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice." The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. 59-78.
--. "Sense." Writing/Talks. Ed. Bob Perelman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 63-86.
--. Virtual Reality. New York: Roof Books, 1993.
--. The Future of Memory. New York: Roof Books, 1998. Perloff, Marjorie. "The Coming of Age of Language Poetry." Contemporary Literature 38.3 (1997): 559-69.
Reinfeld, Linda. Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.
Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1995.
Weinberger, Eliot. "A Note on Montemora, America & the World." Sulfur 20 (Fall 1987): 197.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2004|
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