- Post-Avant-Gardism: Bob Perelman and the Dialectic of Futural Memory
There is a play on words somewhere in the title of Bob Perelman’s recent book of new poems, but what exactly is the substance and import of this wordplay? The Future of Memory: in this title, Perelman is suggesting that it is time to question the comfortable status “memory” has achieved as a source of poetic emotion. If memory is to have a future, he seems to be saying, then its uses and meanings must be rethought; and for this unregenerate Language poet that primarily means dissociating memory from the forms of lyric subjectivity that the term currently evokes. For memory to retain any living value, it must be prepared to extend itself beyond the individual world of confession and reminiscence and become the site where possible collective futures are negotiated. The Future of Memory therefore approaches memory not as the inviolable substance of individual identity, but rather as a function of ideologically charged social regulations. It is the place where concrete political practices express themselves as collective emotional dispositions; as such, it constitutes a network of shifting and contradictory values, which Perelman hopes to animate with a view to a more various and capacious form of sociality.
Perelman’s emphasis on memory sheds a great deal of light on the Language poets’ critiques of “persona-centered, ‘expressive’” poetry (Silliman et al. 261). In “Aesthetic Tendency And The Politics of Poetry,” the important contribution to Social Text which Perelman co-authored, for example, confessional poetry is aligned with a lyric disposition in which “experience is digested for its moral content and then dramatized and framed” (264). In this poetic tradition, “authorial ‘voice’ lapses into melodrama in a social allegory where the author is precluded from effective action by his or her very emotions” (265). However, it is important to note that the Language poets who authored this article distinguish themselves from the confessional tradition not through a wholesale rejection of the categories of self, memory, and experience, but rather through a poetically embodied critique of the specific forms of self, memory, and experience that confessionalism privileges. This is never a merely negative critique; on the contrary, it is one that attempts to broaden and reconstitute our understanding of subjective processes and their relation to the “beyond” of the subject. For instance, when the authors of “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry” compare their compositional practices to Coleridge’s “refusal to identify the I with the horizon of the ‘I,’ and thus with easily perceived moral categories” (266), when they recommend an “openness of the self” to “processes where the self is not the final term” (266), they are clearly proposing alternate models of subjectivity—models in which the “I” is in an animating and animated relation to the “not-I” (269). Perelman’s interrogation of the future of memory can therefore be understood as part of this larger ambition to multiply and complicate the forms of selfhood that poetry has at its disposal.
It is strangely appropriate, therefore, that The Future of Memory begins with a poem entitled “Confession.” Perelman admits in an interview that this is a provocative gesture, since confessional poetry has been the object of “great scorn” for the Language writers since the 1970s (Nichols 532). But again, this opening move is less surprising if we understand The Future of Memory’s deep concern with problems of consciousness and subjectivity, and its consequent exploration of the forms of “poetic intentionality that oppose [themselves]... to the elision of consciousness that occurs in habitual constructions of belief” (Silliman et al. 266). This oppositional intentionality is expressed quite casually in the opening poem of The Future of Memory, in which Perelman assumes the confessional mode only to state: “aliens have inhabited my aesthetics for / decades” (9). In this succinct poetic statement, Perelman grounds himself mimetically in the camp images of postmodern public culture, while at the same time harnessing the utopian energy of this culture’s most characteristic fantasy: an “alien” form of life beyond the known horizons of current social formations...