[What follows is a written exchange between the editors about the contents of this issue of Postmodern Culture. As a “postface,” it is meant to be read after the other items in the issue; we hope it will serve as a preface to discussion among other readers. Please send your comments on the issue to the discussion group, PMC-TALK@NCSUVM (PMC-TALK@NCSUVM.NCSU.EDU on the Internet).]
Many of the works in the last issue of PMC were concerned in one way or another with that “crude particular,” the body: this concern seems to carry over into the second issue, focusing on the body as one pole—positive or negative—in the field of identity. As you might expect, the body brings with it some familiar metaphysical pitfalls— nostalgia for presence and for the unitary sense of self, especially. What’s interesting is the way a number of the works in this issue address these problems.
While body and voice are conventional opposites, several of the works here also bring out the slippage between them, the way one can become the other. For Howe body becomes voice: the figure of other is “thin as paper,” present in her own writing and so made concrete, part of “invincible things as they are.” For O’Donnell voice becomes body: he singles out the “Frigicom process” proposed as an invention in JR whereby voice is frozen, made portable. Both are kinds of transferal, bridging gaps, but one is redemptive and necessary to the identity of the present, the other threatening, potential ordinance.
The technology of communication is directly implicated in both the redemptive and the threatening aspects of ‘language made portable’— redemptive for Ulmer, threatening for O’Donnell. Bernstein, talking about the way some postwar poets accept the materiality of language, makes a point which might be applied to many of these essays: he says that there is a “persistence of dislocation, of going on in the face of all the terms being changed” which nonetheless does not amount to a new “equilibrium grounded on repressing the old damage.” It is at least arguable that language or voice acquires materiality exactly in the moment of being dislocated from the body of the speaker, and though that dislocation is potentially dangerous (in that it makes it possible to commodify voice), it also makes it possible to break up and break into the authoritative monologues of history and identity, constructing a present out of the frozen (and shattered) voices of the past.
This dis-location, disjunction, and portability of language-as-body, material language, enables both openness and control. Because the self is disjunctive it can be reconstructed, reinvented (Trembath); poetry has a special claim on us because it is its own monument, because in it loss and presence coexist (Hart’s reading of Mills- Courts); and if we are to undertake a critical project that would disown what Bernstein calls the “nonbiodegradable byproducts” of logocentrism (as Ulmer urges us to do), such a project would have to acknowledge that nonbiodegradability and to contain the metaphors it deconstructs, the broken idols now made to dance in a godless pantheon. On the other hand, this disjunction stages language in the theater of mass-media production, making identity (as Dolan implies) especially susceptible to simulation and manipulation.
These writers respond to disjunction in different ways, though. There’s Howe’s project of understanding how the past structures the present, which is the sort of project Bernstein; then there’s the activity of restructuring the manner in which we appropriate the past, which is a large part of what Ulmer wants us to do; there’s also a sort of reconstruction in bad faith (Dolan discusses this) where the present is justified with reference to a past reconstituted to suit the purposes of the moment; and finally, there’s the sense that one can never really adapt to disjunction. McCorkle’s “Combustion of Early Summer” is an example:
Sorting things out, nothing really fits:
The puzzle of mountains with pieces from a regatta,
We have pieces from other lives,
The difficulty is to remember them . . . .
If these responses have anything...