"They Will Die Last Night We Have Lived Tomorrow": Traumatic Displacements of the Avant-Garde in Bob Perelman's the Future of Memory

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[I]n reading the textual poetics of Language writers, what might seem a linguistic swerve from political engagement appears, when focused through the lens of a more historicized account, a symptom of postmodernity, where no facet of contemporary experience--whether personal or public--is left unencoded by consumer culture.--Walter Kalaidjian, 328


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. …