- The Postmodern Split:Poetry, Theory, and the Metaphysics That Would Not Die
Postmodernism, in spite of its exaggerations and myopias, has left us with many gifts, including two strains of the critical tradition that struggle to reconcile with each other. Those strains grow from two undeniable truths: that the self can never occupy the space of the other, nor can the self extricate the other from its nature. Given the conflict between these truths, the postmodern resistance to metaphysics can never be quite as rigorous as it imagines, since the self, as inextricable from what it can never be, must be an object of faith, its origin and agency rooted in an eclipsed otherness beyond our capacity to witness or understand. A sense of this eclipse, acknowledged or not, haunts the contradictions of recent critical and literary culture, a postmodern approach that, in rejecting metaphysical models of meaning for more politically exigent and skeptical forms of rigor, has adopted a faith in the limits of our language as the limits of our world. In spite of this shift, metaphysical assumptions, embedded in that language, stubbornly persist. We are what we are not, which is to say we embody vast reaches of reverie, memory, and incommunicable nightmare, the mysteries of both free will and all that circumscribes it. In us and before us, an otherness persists, intuited by way of its effects, by the ghosts of missing presences among our most immediate objects of experience: our bodies, our psyches, our silences, and the words we speak.
Since to say the word “I” is to invoke both a self and an other, the word has a little of poetry’s penchant for paradox in it. As a yoking of opposites, it is mythic. It does what the poetic imagination does constantly in our daily discourse: it creates a language for something we [End Page 558] intuit as beyond our language. It goes where reason cannot. It speaks the unspeakable, clarifies our felt relation to it, our sense of ontological wonder, hunger, and awe. If we accept that poetry is by definition a metaphysical activity, speculative in ways that summon faith, then the phrase “postmodern poetry” seems a bit of an oxymoron. Admittedly, the word “postmodern” blurs from abuse and overuse, though in poetry criticism it has come to describe poets who follow in the theoretical footsteps of Jacques Derrida, who, in rejecting naive notions of meaning as a stable essence buried in words, would in general resist affirmations of the real as something buried and, so, beyond appearance. This spirit of disciplined resistance is not new with Derrida and continental philosophy of the postwar years. Rather it is an intensification of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method that prides itself on rigorous adherence to immanent data; to being as appearance, as embodied in the near at hand. Husserl, in defiance of Kantian speculations about “the thing in itself” as something apart from the mind’s categories of space and time, would “bracket off” from consideration all that lies beyond the realm of immediate experience. So too a postmodern sensibility would bracket off or discredit notions of the buried self as a center or ground, out of which grows consciousness as we know it.
A creative and critical culture devoted to skeptical rigor has engendered the poetic sensibility that Marjorie Perloff describes in defense of “language” poetry, a movement self-identified with a postmodernism that “no longer recognizes such ‘depth models’ as inside/outside, essence/ appearance, latent/manifest, authenticity/inauthenticity, signifier/signified, or depth/surface.”1 The political resonance of this defiance is in turn a demythologizing of the “self-made” man, defined apart from his social context, affirmed within a capitalist system that views individual freedom as exaggerated and success as consistent with character. Unfortunately, postmodernist rhetoric, granted license as polemic, often falls victim to a reductio ad absurdum akin to the essentialist exaggerations that it would critique. To eliminate depth models, for instance, is to eliminate the conscious/unconscious duality, and so the metaphysical contributions of the psychoanalytic tradition must go—and with them our intimations of hidden desires, histories, and fears. The postmodern rejection of depth models implies...