Trauma, Reference, and Media Technology in Postmodern American Poetry: The Testimonies of Language Writing

Article excerpt


My paper studies trauma as an epistemological disruption - an event that due to its sudden and unanticipated nature has failed to be integrated in the structures of the mind, thus remaining "unspeakable" (at best, pictorially representable). Focusing on the work of Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman (with some examples of video art to illustrate my argument), I explore the ways in which Language poetry bears witness to a historically-based and collectively experienced psychological trauma. I read the Language poems as a testimony to the overwhelming and traumatic impact of contemporary media, which have assailed the mind with far more signals than it can register, digest and furnish with semantic weight. My analysis serves as a springboard to another provocative theoretical inquiry - the problem of reference in postmodern writing. It attempts to revise the received critical paradigm of postmodernism as self-referential and advance the belief that, rather than precluding referentiality, postmodernism only rejects the reduction of reference to a world that is perceptible and cognitively masterable.

... [A]s if a 'poem' could exist in the United States today that has not been shaped by the electronic culture that has produced it. There is today no landscape uncontaminated by sound bytes and computer blips, no mountain peak or lonely valley beyond the reach of the cellular phone and the microcassette player. Increasingly, then, the poet's arena is the electronic world...

- Marjorie Perloff

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 work of Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, two of the main representatives of the American school of Language Writing and introducing some examples of postmodern video art to illustrate the underlying argument, this essay advances the belief that, rather than precluding referentiality, postmodernism only rejects the reduction of reference to a world that is perceptible and cognitively masterable.

Much has been written about the ways in which Language poetry defies referentiality. After all, this is the main agenda of the school - we need not look further than its name, selected to proclaim an emphasis on language and a divorce of the linguistic and empirical realities. My article, however, seeks to probe beyond the purposeful refusal of the Language poets to mirror and create a double image of reality and focuses, instead, on the involuntary ways in which the poets rewrite the effects of media in post-industrial society. With the outset of the Information Age that has reduced the status of language to just one of the multiple media around us, the Language poets, I argue, are doomed to register the impacts of the technological environments in which they are increasingly inscribed. This is a world of instant messaging and streaming media, of digital technology and mass communications landscapes, of powerful computers and enticing billboards - a world of mesmerizing technological developments that has defined every aspect of our lives, including poetic production. In this highly sophisticated technological reality of Western postmodern society, it has become impossible to extricate poetry from the complex information networks that determine it. Focusing on Language poetry, my article therefore advances the belief that it can no longer be conceived apart from the contemporary media and information landscapes that surround it. …


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