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  • The Imaginary Solution
  • Craig Douglas Dworkin (bio)

The production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal "solutions" to unresolvable social contradictions.

Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Quoniam mihi quidem alia adhuc via non patet istud praestandi, nisi per imaginaria procedendo, formulam √-1 littera i in posterum designabo.

[Since the only way to make any progress has been by proceeding along an imaginary path, I henceforth designate the negative square root with the letter i.]

Leonhard Euler, Institutionum calculi integralis

From the modernism you want," quipped David Antin, "you get the postmodernism you deserve."1 True enough, as the last quarter century has shown; Antin's dynamic nicely encapsulates the logic of canons, in which interventions resonate both forward and backward, as lineage and precedent adjust to accommodate and account for apparent ruptures or discontinuities. But Antin's instant proverb is also a good reminder that whatever the dominant canon might be—whatever it is that comes to mind at the thought of "modernism" or "postmodernism" [End Page 29] or "contemporary literature"—the lack of critical consensus on the literature of the previous century means that there are still viable alternatives for our sense of the contemporary. Indeed, as this essay will show, the last few years have seen one of those alternatives making good, with interest, on the promise of a particular modernism. Or to phrase it from the other perspective, a particular modernism has finally fully arrived, about a decade behind schedule, but making up for lost time. Part of the task of this essay is to document the emergence of this return and to provide evidence of a tendency that plays out across media, indexing and exemplifying one of the defining conditions of its cultural moment. Because these works fall outside the genres and styles likely to be familiar even to many readers of avant-garde literature, this documentation will require a certain degree of descriptive cataloguing (although it is worth noting that the catalogue itself, not coincidentally, is a key component of the works I will itemize). With the series of examples that follow, I further hope to show that this particular trend in contemporary literature is uniquely hinged, not only recovering one of the dreams of its literary past but also looking forward to what may be the nightmare of our digital future. This second claim, for the history of digital poetics, starts from the premise that a poem may well have a greater affinity with works from other disciplines or in other media—in this case Internet applications, software, and digital video—than with other poems. Following Lev Manovich's insight that certain artistic forms predate the media that best accommodate them (Language 248), I will argue that these poems are proleptic: their striking forms anticipate the computerized new media that would seem to be their ideal vehicle.

As Marjorie Perloff persuasively argues in Twenty-First-Century Modernism, there is a "special relationship between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first," and certain literary works from our own fin de siècle often have a stronger family resemblance to the avant-garde impulse of their modernist predecessors than to the more proximate writing of their so-called postmodernist moment—even when those earlier works are not direct models or influences (164). I want to trace a similar congruity here, where the "special relationship" in this case is the radical dilation of modernist experiments by twenty-first-century writers, who magnify and distend what were [End Page 30] the tentative, occasional, and local tactics of early modernism into aggressive, explicit, and comprehensive strategies of textual production. Singling out some of the novel impulses of modernism and taking them to drastic logical conclusions, these twenty-first-century works are less a belated or revised modernism than a kind of modernism in extremis. The works I have in mind combine several disparate traits of early modernism: first, the compositional play of rule and constraint at the heart of the recombinatory linguistics theorized by Ferdinand de Saussure in his notebooks on paragrams, a generative poetics actually put into...


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