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Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 381-390

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Modernism's "New" Literalism

Jennifer Ashton,
University of Illinois at Chicago

21st-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics. Marjorie Perloff. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Juliana Spahr. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
The Historicity of Experience: Modernity, the Avant-Garde, and the Event. Krzysztof Ziarek. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Since the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E appeared in 1978, the poets then and since identified with its name have stood as the exemplary postmodernists in American poetry. While some writers in that movement have eschewed the label "postmodernist," the relation to modernism that the label declares has nevertheless become the crucial thing about them, visible above all in their efforts to draw the boundaries of their own canon to include certain previously marginalized modernists (e.g., Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, Laura [Riding] Jackson). But if so-called "language poetry" has been the foremost example of a contemporary postmodern poetry, it has also been the foremost example of a contemporary avant-garde in American writing. What, then, are we to make of an avant-garde that derives its credentials not from rejecting the aesthetic and theoretical commitments of its predecessors (in this case, of modernism), but rather from appreciating, restoring, and continuing them? What does it mean, in other words, to imagine being avant-garde as belonging to a postmodernist tradition? Or, to put the question slightly differently, what does it mean for the "post" in postmodernism to become, not a mark of succession, but of contemporaneity? Three books in this vein—one by longtime language poetry champion Marjorie Perloff, and two by younger protégés, Juliana Spahr and Krzysztof Ziarek—share overlapping chapters juxtaposing modernists like Stein and the Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov with postmodernists like Bernstein and Andrews, Lyn Hejinian and [End Page 381] Susan Howe. In all three books, modernists and postmodernists are brought together because they are understood to share a set of problems or questions about language (and, supposedly, similar answers to them). More particularly, I will argue, they share an interest in what it might mean to think of a word as an object, and further, in how to understand not only the relation between that object and other objects (the ones it names or to which it refers), but also the relation between that object and a series of subjects, from the one who produced it (its author) to the ones who will encounter it in the world (its readers). The installation of these questions has clearly become central to, in fact, constitutive of, the modernism/postmodernism formation. And inasmuch as these questions are about the fundamental theoretical conditions of the text as such, the commitment to asking them—more precisely, to making poems by asking them—has come to be imagined as the constitution of a more or less permanent avant-garde, an avant-garde that never becomes an arrière-garde because it consists not in developing new forms but in reflecting on the conditions of form itself.

The battle between the avant-garde and the mainstream thus comes to look like a transhistorical condition, where the problem of one's relation to history turns into the solution of one's relation to form. This solution is already familiar to readers of Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), for it is precisely what constitutes the pathos of his critique of postmodernism. For Jameson, the fact that "the 'classics' of the modern can certainly be postmodernized" (and, by extension, that the classics of the postmodern can likewise be modernized) is itself the symptom of a postmodern condition whose essence is the failure of historical critique. 1 For Jameson this failure is produced by the failure of a certain critical distance, a distance that postmodern works inevitably foreclose. "[N]o longer unified or organic, but now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds" these works promote a reading...


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