Bob Perelman

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Bob Perelman Feature

Rob Halpern

Restoring ‘China’


A shorter version of this essay, with a different set of emphases, was first presented at the National Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry of the 1970s” conference, University of Maine, Orono, in June 2008, as part of a panel entitled “New Narrative — New Sentence — New Left,” together with Robin Tremblay-McGaw and Kaplan Harris.
An abstract of this can be found here:
http://vectors.usc.edu/thoughtmesh/publish/173.php.

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I love Soup — the lo-fi San Francisco magazine of innovative writing that ran four issues in the early 1980s — and when I first noticed Bob Perelman’s poem “China” in Soup #2 (1981), I had a hunch. This was long after having become familiar with “China” by way of Fredric Jameson’s canonical essay, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” where I suspect many of us first encountered the poem. [1] But “China” first saw the light of day in Soup, where it sits beside Bruce Boone’s essay “Language Writing: The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism.” Upon reading the poem there, in situ, together with Boone’s critique of a then emergent Language poetry — a critical assessment which nonetheless praises Perelman’s work — I sensed a submerged relation between the complex community dynamics made legible in the pages of Soup, and Jameson’s own very different critique of Language writing, where “China” makes its appearance as the unfortunate exemplar of a “bad” postmodernism.

Soup excerpt, left page

Excerpt of Boone’s essay, together with “China”, pages 2-3, Soup 2.
A larger more readable version of these pages appears at the foot of this paper [link].

 

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Committed to a cross-pollination of high and low cultural forms, Soup embraces the popular and literary alike. Steve Abbott edited the first three issues of the zine between 1980 and 1983, and these were followed by a final perfect-bound issue in 1985, edited by Bruce Boone himself. Soup is significant because it was able — among other things — to stimulate and contain community differences, while registering the social and aesthetic antagonisms that traversed the avant-garde literary scene in the San Francisco Bay Area circa 1980. Soup does the invaluable work of making the dynamic conversations and fault lines between divergent literary tendencies and their related constituencies audible, without indulging in hostile positioning, or ad hominem bickering. At the same time, Soup foregrounds a shared set of stakes.

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Anticipating Jacques Rancière’s theory of politics as dissensus, Soup becomes political paradoxically by nourishing conditions of possibility for disagreement, and by creating common ground for conflict. [2] For Rancière, “a dissensus is not a quarrel over personal interests or opinions. It is a political process that resists juridical litigation and creates a fissure in the sensible by confronting the established framework with the illegible, or ‘inadmissible.’” [3] “Juridical litigation” is synonymous with policing, and “the established framework” could be any dominant method for making meaning. In other words, dissensus gives rise to “a modification of the fabric of the sensible, a transformation of the visible given,” and it argues for there always being “several spaces in a space, several ways of occupying it.” [4] This is critical for Rancière insofar as dissensus introduces positions and voices otherwise excluded from unified spaces and discourses. From our own vantage point today, Soup offers a model of a complex literary and social organ that won’t cohere as a univocal discourse or a smooth space, just as it refuses to reduce to any one aesthetic tendency. Instead, Soup stimulates the dynamics of productive tension between discourses and practices.

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The second issue of Soup — where Perelman’s poem and Boone’s essay appear side by side — highlights a commitment to “New Narrative” writing, and in doing so it provides a useful illustration of this productive tension. Abbott’s editorial statement helps to clarify “New Narrative” by defining some of its priorities:

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New Narrative is language conscious but arises out of specific social and political concerns of specific communities. [… ] It stresses the enabling role of content in determining form rather than stressing form as independent or separate from its social origins and goals. Writing which makes political and emotional (as well as linguistic) connections interests me more than writing which does not. (1)

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These writerly values are not consistently shared, however, by all the contributions to the issue. In fact, Abbott’s brief introduction articulates an aesthetic and a social position at odds with Ron Silliman’s very different programmatic formulation — “New content occurs within already-existing forms; new forms contain already existing content” — which appears in an essay called “Modes of Autobiography” later in the same issue (41). This juxtaposition, together with the tension it stimulates, is an effect of Abbott’s editorial practice, and it offers a sense of Soup’s approach to community difference. Silliman’s formulation asserts a constitutive difference between new movement writing, on the one hand, whose social content — say, an emergent ethnic or sexual identity — would require more familiar forms to ensure communication; and, on the other, formally inventive writing, whose new forms make pre-existing content legible — say, the material signifier, or reified language — as if for the first time, thus putting movement writing at odds with avant-garde practices. New Narrative implicitly challenges precisely this division. Indeed, for New Narrative, the content born of new social movements necessitates new forms as part of a struggle to enable the perception of what otherwise goes unperceived.

Cover image of «Soup» 2 courtesy of the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Cover image of «Soup» 2 courtesy of the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo, SUNY.

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Soup #2 showcases a stunning mix of short narratives (Luisah Teish, Kathy Acker); poems (Bob Perelman , Elaine Equi, Aaron Shurin, Leslie Scalpino); silk screened graphics; and comics by Abbott himself; as well as instructions for performance; video stills of a staged graffiti action; an interview with Sylvan Woods, “one of the hottest and youngest underground bands in SF”; photos of a San Francisco Mission district playground mural; and even “toxic shlock” [sic]. The sheer divergence of mediums and forms further attests to Abbott’s commitment to articulating writerly concerns with a broad range of cultural phenomena. Together with Silliman’s “Modes of Autobiography,” and Boone’s leftist evaluation of Language writing, the issue features Robert Glück’s New Narrative classic, “When Bruce was 36 (Gossip and Scandal);” Acker’s “First Days of Life;” an early version of Scalapino’s “Considering How Exaggerated Music Is;” and Perelman’s poem “China,” as mentioned, which appears in an ample sidebar gracing the right side of page two of Boone’s contribution.

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Can there really be anything more to say about Perelman’s “China”? The poem is famous, of course, because of its appearance in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, where Jameson uses the poem to represent the sort of “textuality or schizophrenic art” symptomatic of late capitalism’s simulacral abstraction. As Jameson’s argument goes, the poem reflects the disintegration of referential language, and thus exemplifies a whole socio-aesthetic tendency reflective of how “the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent experience” (25). After citing John Cage’s silences and Samuel Beckett’s sentences, Jameson introduces Perelman’s poem to illustrate a more contemporary literary tendency: “My example,” he writes, “will be a less sombre one, a text by a younger San Francisco poet whose group or school — so-called Language Poetry or the New Sentence — seems to have adopted schizophrenic fragmentation as their fundamental aesthetic” (28). Jameson presents the poem not only as representative of a postmodern literary aesthetic, but as being typical of “so-called Language Poetry,” and in so doing he curiously unifies Language writing as though this were itself internally consistent or organized around a coherent set of fundamental features.

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The use to which Jameson puts his illustration is remarkably reductive. Moreover, it stops short of thinking beyond a set of perceived aesthetic practices consonant with “the breakdown in the signifying chain,” or what the essay refers to as “the randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory” (25). It’s not my primary intention, though, to make a lot of hay with Jameson’s critique of Language writing, as this has been sufficiently done, most notably by George Hartley in Textual Politics and the Language Poets, as part of an effort not only to redeem “China” from Jameson’s left critique, but to defend Language writing more generally, as if what was at stake were that project’s political pedigree. While Hartley’s critique is quite brilliant, one effect of this critical defense has been an uncritical acceptance of Jameson’s identification of “China” as an example of a comprehensive aesthetic tendency, a concession that unwittingly reproduces the terms of Jameson’s reading, if only in order to overturn them. [5] These terms are reproduced in a polar debate that often organizes itself around the question of whether Language writing participates in “a critique of and Utopian compensation for the reification of language in late capitalism,” as Hartley argues; or, whether it merely represents a symptom of this phenomenon (52). In either case, when hewed to as a privileged illustration, “China” comes off looking exemplary, whether positively or negatively evaluated — “good” (critical, modernist), or “bad” (uncritical, postmodernist) — while the either / or structure goes unchallenged. And yet, the terms of this debate, according to which the political value of a poem gets measured against a set of formal criteria, like the “materiality of the signifier,” remain fundamentally inadequate. Whether a poem like “China” “draw[s] attention to the socially inscribed gestural nature of the language,” as Hartley argues, or whether it represents a symptomatic reflex of the socio-economic system itself, as Jameson proposes, these competing positions abide by the very same logic as they harden around the same terms. [6]

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Rather than focus on “the political” as an attribute of macro-social phenomena whose “utopian” effects transpire at some remove from the particular communities they might otherwise involve or affect, it’s worthwhile here to focus on “politics” more modestly, and locally, as dissensus. In other words, instead of asking how a poem like “China” performs a set of “political” concerns formally, say, through “the materialization of the signifier,” — i.e., fragmentation, parataxis, disjunction, etc., techniques which may or may not allegorize larger socio-economic processes — why not ask how the poem becomes socially significant insofar as it challenges the “field of possibles,” or the various positions a local culture of literary production enables and constrains at any moment? One would need to know about the many works and forms around and against which any one — like “China” — becomes legible, in order to evaluate that one, which could not be “one” without all the others. This approach would be much more sensitive to a set of dynamics that are “political” only insofar as they simultaneously map and contest the perceptible limits of what the field allows us to perceive. [7] The field itself would then become representative of larger social phenomena, rather than this or that singular work, none of which could ever achieve an exemplary status. And while any complete reconstruction of a “total” field can only be speculative, if not impossible, there might be subsets of this totality where salient tensions and illustrative relations assume a critical priority over individual works. Soup magazine offers one such subset.

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The appearance of Perelman’s poem beside Boone’s critical essay in Soup resituates the problem of “China” and Jameson’s use of it in relation to a new horizon of interest that privileges a whole community above any of its representatives. When read as a socially embedded artifact, the poem can no longer be understood as “representative” of anything in isolation, because its significance can only be grasped by way of its position in the field, among the local readerships within which it first circulated. In other words, Jameson can only make “China” a privileged test case by subtracting it from the poem’s living ecology, flattening its cultural landscape, eliding its social relations, and erasing its print history. By doing so, he performs the very features of “schizophrenic” signification at the level of his own analysis.

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Without rehashing an old discussion, I want to return to the poem — recently referred to by Jeffrey Nealon as the “‘primal scene’ for debates surrounding the relation of poetics and cultural studies” — but I want to do this by way of Soup, which haunts Jameson’s reading like its occulted mise en scène. In recalling the poem’s original social habitat and the various contexts that inform its appearance in the second issue of Soup, I want to restore the critical context of that “primal scene,” together with its queer content — too often lost — while reconstructing the stakes of what was arguably one of Language writing’s first sustained appraisals: Bruce Boone’s left critique, a critique upon which Jameson’s reading of “China” depends, and yet consequentially elides. This, at least, is my argument.

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But why “China”? How did this one poem by Bob Perelman come to Jameson’s attention? Unlike Jameson’s more renowned examples — Beckett, Cage — “China” comes from a marginal, and marginally recognized, reservoir of late twentieth-century avant-garde projects; and while a constellation that includes Beckett, Cage, and Perelman might make sense to us now, this was certainly not self-evident in the early 1980s, at a moment before the work of Language writing had received much critical appraisal outside its own practitioners. Indeed, Perelman’s early work was not readily available, and familiarity with it would presuppose an awareness of a relatively remote print ecology. But transmission from the world of marginal avant-garde writing to the halls of the academy is not quite as smooth and automatic as Jameson’s essay might suggest. Jameson’s use of “China” appears transparent, but this is only because he draws no attention to the various organs of literary production — distribution, circulation, and consumption — that inform the poem’s reception, and whose erasure shore up an illusion of false immediacy, compromising the essay, as well as the reception of Perelman’s “China” that the essay continues to facilitate. In other words, Jameson’s decision not to address the poem’s social mediation only works to cleanse the essay of significant content in the interest of exhibiting an exemplary literary form. And so, while it might appear to be of no consequence how Jameson discovered Perelman’s “China,” the conditions of possibility for his reading of the poem become consequential as soon as one begins to attend to the submerged stakes, tensions and antagonisms, that silently persist in discussions of “Postmodernism, or The Cultural of Late Capitalism,” “China,” and Language writing more generally.

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My contention here is simply this: Jameson’s access to “China” is not immediate, but rather mediated — something one would expect Jameson the dialectician to acknowledge — and these mediations can’t be separated from the poem without one’s critique falling prey to precisely what Jameson takes issue with: formal disjunction with the object’s social sense. Whatever immediacy one perceives in Jameson’s access to Perelman’s poem is an effect of his essay’s failure to acknowledge the situation of the poem’s circulation, a situation involving a number of communities Jameson himself may have had a stake in.

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It may seem strange that so much could hang on Soup magazine! Taking seriously Jeffrey Nealon’s proposition regarding “China” as the site of first significant encounter between language writing and academic criticism, I’ll even venture to say, somewhat differently, that Soup itself is that primal scene — primordial soup — where Language writing and Cultural Studies converge. And the repressed “other” haunting Jameson’s reading of the poem may well be New Narrative, whose alternative emphasis on social circulation — of emotions, bodies, texts, gossip — “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” eclipses.

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So how did Jameson find “China”? Despite the footnoted reference in “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” suggesting the contrary, I don’t think Jameson came across this poem through a reading of Perelman’s third collection of poems, Primer (This, 1981), where it appears on pages 60–61. Had Jameson found it there, we might safely assume that he read the book, and that he chose his one poem for exhibition because of its exemplariness from among the many first rate poems to be found there. And yet, “China” is an anomalous poem in Primer, if not a singular exception insofar as it’s the only poem composed by the sentence that also employs end-stopped lines, where the grammatical unit of composition is equal to the prosodic unit of measure. And while one might argue that this is Jameson’s reason for selecting the poem — he even makes it clear in his essay that “China” offers an illustration of “New Sentence” writing — Perelman’s book, on the whole, makes a more compelling case for the tension between “new sentence” and poetic line, that is, unit and measure. In other words, even a cursory reading of Primer would register the fact that “China” is not at all exemplary, and almost any other poem would be more characteristic of what Perelman is up to. Take “Mature Ejaculation,” for example, whose first two stanzas read like this:

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Monsters and metaphors arose
From human necessity. The period
Ends the sentence by force.
“When the lightning hit the house,
It gave the apparatus a boost,
And gave me the power,
To turn the page of a book!”

Elaine went a little too near the lake
And her Geiger counter went crazy.
Monsters spent the next five minutes
Lumbering out of their element. The brush
Feels its way through the light. (57)

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No doubt, Perelman is as good a prosodist as he is a practitioner of the New Sentence, and in “Mature Ejaculation” he draws attention to the sentence thematically while allowing the poetic line to break its syntax. The poem also thematizes the way “social life bogs down” in “useless signs,” gesturing toward postmodern crisis in a manner consonant with Jameson’s own thematic concerns. Jameson selected “China,” however, as an exemplary specimen not only of Perelman’s work, but of Language writing more generally. And while it’s certainly conceivable that Jameson read Perelman’s Primer in its entirety, and that he chose “China” deliberately from among all the poems in the book, my argument rubs against the grain of this reasoning. Indeed, I want to introduce the possibility that Jameson never even saw a copy of Primer when he was composing his essay, and that this has consequences for the local history of our poetry community in ways that exceed whatever prurient interest this little detail might arouse. [8]

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Fredric Jameson was no stranger to the local scene in San Francisco during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was even familiar with New Narrative as it emerged in the space between the local gay writing community and the avant-garde poetry community, and his role here is significant. Bruce Boone met Jameson at the Marxist Literary Group (MLG) Summer Institute in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in 1977 and 1979, the setting for Boone’s book length narrative Century of Clouds, one of New Narrative’s foundational texts. The MLG is a working affinity group sponsored by the Modern Language Association, and its summer conclave functioned as an intensive for emerging literary theorists and critics working within the Marxian tradition. Bruce Boone attended the summer institute together with Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Stanley Aronowitz, all of whom figure prominently in Century of Clouds, and the theoretical rigor nourished there was critical for New Narrative’s emergence. Jameson even wrote the blurb for Boone and Glück’s 1981 collaboration, La Fontaine, calling it “a brilliant book [in which] the poet/translators shrewdly enlist La Fontaine in their ‘new narrative’ writing”; and he has a juicy role in Glück’s New Narrative classic Jack the Modernist, where the character “Martin” is loosely based on Jameson, whom the narrator, “Bob,” refers to as “a famous art historian and Marxist critic who really wielded some French majesty.” [9] In Boone’s Century of Clouds, by contrast, Jameson is simply “Fred” — “the captain of our destinies and true Teddy Roosevelt of our souls” — and he functions as a key character whose rigor provides the narrator with a necessary foil. [10]

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Given Jameson’s friendships with Boone and Glück in the late 1970s and early 1980, it’s safe to say that he came across Perelman’s “China” in the pages of Soup. And while the speculation may well be sound enough, concrete textual evidence supports my claim as the version of the poem that appears in the body of Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” bears a textual trace of its local ecology like an irrepressible stain. Specifically, Jameson’s transcription of “China” lacks an entire sentence that appears in Primer. In the “Postmodernism” essay, Perelman’s sentence “Don’t forget what your hat and shoes will look like when you are nowhere to be found” is followed immediately by, “Even the words floating in air make blue shadows”; Primer, however, interposes an additional sentence: “Coats in the window hung up on hooks; question marks where the heads would normally be” (61). Jameson’s transcription of the poem isn’t compromised by error; it’s just that he wasn’t transcribing the poem from the pages of Primer, but rather from Soup, where “China” contains the very same omission. [11] And the omission was never corrected, despite subsequent appearances of the essay in various publications, and Jameson’s explicit reference to Perelman’s book.

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The missing sentence is a smoking gun, but it would be shortsighted to imagine this as though it were significant in itself. Jameson’s (mis)reading of the poem finds deeper significance when one takes into account its placement beside Boone’s “The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism,” a review essay of Talks(Hills 6 / 7), edited by Perelman himself, an archive of his “Talk Series” begun in 1977. [12] Boone’s essay is inflected with characteristic affability and conversational candor as he remains rigorous and partisan in his critique of Language writing’s more abstract techniques, whose effect, according to Boone, is often to render politics as though it were merely textual, even as these techniques are deployed differently by a range of writers. By way of his analysis, Boone articulates a set of concrete community tensions and fault lines, and he addresses these antagonisms explicitly. In his reading of Silliman, for example, Boone writes: “Here the implications of Silliman’s analysis have become clear. He is advising a clean break with that world, the world of meaning, the world of emotion, the world of cause and effect. In short, with everything but the world of language considered formally” (7–8). Boone overstates the case, of course, but he seems to be doing so strategically — almost as if using free indirect discourse — in order that we grasp the stakes of the project as perceived by the community of writers associated with new social movements. This is how Boone reckons a specific subject position into his analysis. He continues:

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This, I think, is the cause of the antagonism toward Language Writing on the part of many other groups in the writing community. Let me put this quite plainly. If you take away people’s emotions, their ability to tell stories and their capability to deal generally with the outside world, you are really not going to have much of an appeal to several significant groups. Blacks, Latins and other racial minorities for instance. Most feminists and politically oriented gay men for instance. And in all likelihood political people generally.

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Activating those qualities whose absence from Language writing Boone laments — socially legible emotion, gesture, and voice — the essay performs one of the first sustained critiques of Language writing from the left, and it makes its argument without reducing the complexity of its object to a coherent set of common formal features. Here, Boone reads Perelman’s poetry, but unlike Jameson’s reading of “China,” “The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism, together with Soup in its entirety, throws Perelman’s work into relief against a panoply of emerging writing practices — including those of Silliman, Armantrout, Benson, and Watten — demonstrating a more dynamic field, one resistant to the isolation of abstracted elements characteristic of Jameson’s citational method. Indeed, Jameson’s inattention to the social vectors traversing his found “example” — if not his tacit disavowal of the actual pages from which he lifted the poem — is consequential, not only for his interpretation of the poem’s seeming exemplarity, but for the multiple writing communities whose productive antagonisms and social energies are occluded in Jameson’s critique, a critique that betrays its undialectical character in its failure to reckon its own conditions of possibility into its analysis.

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Steve Abbott’s inclusion of “China” in the “New Narrative” issue of Soup situates the poem along several polemical, social, and aesthetic trajectories, all of which traverse the issue in its entirety, and the decision to place “China” opposite the title page of Boone’s “Pluses and Minuses” — which significantly includes a critical appreciation of Steve Benson’s “Views of Communist China” — is anything but haphazard. Moreover, the location of Perelman’s “China” on page three of Soup argues for a reading of the poem as inseparable from a zone of common engagement and productive disagreement. Because “China” participates in such a charged constellation of avant-garde and politically committed writers and artists, it can’t be abstracted to serve as an isolated example without risking a loss of context so severe as to compromise whatever use to which the poem might be put. And yet this is precisely what Jameson does, thus eliding the social relations enacted through Abbott’s staging of dissensus as this framing gets peremptorily eclipsed, and with it, the communities whose interests are at stake.

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“The Pluses and Minuses of the New Formalism” argues for the critical importance of narrative causality, subjectivity, emotion, and affect for any aesthetic practice engaged in political struggle. [13] Boone begins his essay by way of reasoned provocation:

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It’s not that the current language writing movement doesn’t succeed on its own terms. It excels on that terrain — abstraction, language experimentation and so on. But it isn’t what you would call an engaged writing, and as a movement it suffers from some serious defects for this reason. And for the same reason, it gives you the feeling of being rather distant from life. It’s as if the genuine intelligence you feel there ends up eluding life, not participating in it or embracing it.” (2)

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While the generic identification of “Language writing” suggests the same reductive move that Jameson makes, Boone quickly goes on to make exacting distinctions between a number of Language poets, distinctions often lost under the sign of “Language.” Of all these poets and projects, Boone draws special attention to Perelman, not for his exemplarity as Jameson does, but as an exception. In Perelman, Boone reads for feeling, affect, and intuition. Insofar as Perelman stimulates emotion, at least as far as Boone is concerned, he is “the Language Writer that seems most intuitively aware of social dimensions in things.” Boone then goes on to question whether Perelman is even a Language writer at all, troubling Jameson’s easy identification even more:

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Something in his poetry is close to the life of things, not their explanations and to that extent, I think, something that doubts the language poetry program. Still, Perelman, whether he ‘is’ a Language Poet or ‘isn’t’ one, seems to be the one who comes closest to thinking about history as a problem in — and of — his poetry. I think his phrase ‘road tones’ is something like a sense of purposefulness in things.” (3)

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Referring to these “road tones,” Boone goes on to quote a poem of the same title from Perelman’s 7Works:

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In the prime of their loveliness
they fall from the aether into
books. They are mistaken
for one’s own hands, and are used
freely from one generation to the next.

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“These are new feelings in language formalism,” Boone says, and then goes on: “For Perelman, it’s as if modernism is already how you have things. So the only tack you take is to write about them as if they were all absent. And then — only then — it all comes gushing back again, hot and heavy. You can have it all again, the heavy syrup, the songs, the love, all of it. Including Keats” (4).

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Finally, Boone refers to Perelman’s work by way of one of his key concepts for understanding New Narrative technique — “text / metatext,” the way a text keeps a running narrative on its own production — suggesting a close proximity between their two projects: “Of course in this stance there’s something to make you a little giddy — and that is planned too. Ironic vertigo — a text/metatext operation liberally sprinkled with perfumes. But it’s a spectacle or show. Loving what he presents, Bob Perelman wants you to see that it’s factitious, or made-up, and that you shouldn’t want it to be more than that.” (4). [14] What’s important for Boone is the way Perelman’s writing introduces “new feelings in language formalism” — emotions, intensities, affects — which do more than merely express the already given; and this is precisely what Silliman disavows in “Modes of Autobiography” when he argues that “new content occurs within already existing forms; new forms contain already existing content” (41).

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Boone really “likes” Perelman’s writing because it registers a set of feeling tones while remaining formally self-aware of the limits of its own artifice. Yes, the self and its attendant fictions are mere constructs that buckle under pressure. But for Boone, the subject is more than just a set of fragments under scrutiny, because subjectivity is a critical social medium for catalyzing and organizing relation. Boone’s position here resonates with that of Theodor Adorno, who in the preface to Negative Dialectics argues for using “the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity.” [15] In other words, rather than formally registering the submission of the subject to myths of its own self-making, Adorno would have his work push beyond those myths by way of a subjectivity reinvigorated by its critical engagement — writing — with social forces. New Narrative does precisely this, without subscribing to the theoretical liquidation of the subject Jameson associates with Language poetry. At the same time — to recall another theorist — it’s Louis Althusser’s theory of the subject, interpellation and “hailing” (direct address), that gives Glück and Boone permission to affirm the work of actually producing subjectivity through their writing. [16] And while Perelman’s work breaks through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity, Boone might argue that it stops short of activating the strength of the subject at a new level of social potential that exceeds self-reflexivity alone.

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Most importantly, perhaps, Boone’s reading of “new feelings” in Perelman’s work runs against the grain of the famous argument in “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” regarding the dissolution of subjectivity and the “waning of affect” — what Jameson refers to as “the end of the bourgeois ego” — in contemporary aesthetic forms. “As for expression and feelings or emotions,” Jameson writes, “the liberation, in contemporary terms, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling” (15). Boone, however, advises against Jameson’s critique, even while lending it its privileged terms. Indeed, Boone’s “Pluses and Minuses” rescues a poem like “China” avant la lettre by claiming for it, in whatever modest way, precisely what Language writing is often thought to have abandoned: “expression and feelings or emotion.” So while Jameson is quick to link linguistic disjunction in an “exemplary” poem like “China” with an erosion of feeling, Boone reads Perelman’s work, with all its “sadness and humor,” for traces of emotion resistant to this erosion, however cited or ironic those traces might be, almost as if Perelman’s poetry were stimulating a potential opposition to the very cultural dynamics Jameson would have it represent.

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This is Boone’s great discovery about Perelman’s work: that one ought to read it against the grain of its own tendency. In other words, rather than hewing to a radical disavowal of affective life and a critique of expressive subjectivity, Perelman’s poems may well be en route to bringing a new set of feelings to articulation by way of which the bourgeois subject might then begin to break through, in Adorno’s prepositional terms, the historical situation Jameson’s essay analyzes — characterized by the superceding of the individual ego as the center of social and aesthetic life, if not by the reification of feeling itself — rather than merely registering these things. These would be Perelman’s “road tones.” What Boone refers to as Perelman’s “new feelings” may point toward the frontier where, unable to name or organize the new affects through which such a situation might be more clearly grasped, feeling folds back and ironizes the language through which it has become reified. Even if such an ego is unable to push beyond the myth of its own self-constituting subjectivity, it can feel this impasse critically while stimulating those affects capable of “conducting” — channeling, organizing — the senses around the problem as a properly historical one. This is what I believe Boone reads in Perelman’s writing: tones of pathos presaging a whole quality of affective life just shy of the language and method needed to organize those affects in the political interests of a community.

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For Boone, and New Narrative more generally, this language and method would require nothing less than the language and method of narrative itself. This is how Boone effectively insinuates New Narrative’s priorities — if not “gay content” itself — back into the very scene of literary production that unwittingly marginalized those priorities, if only by demoting the critical value of emotional life in the work of contemporary avant-garde poetry. In stark contrast, Jameson represses this social material by abstracting “China” away from the terms of Boone’s argument — how could he not have read the essay? — as well as from the poem’s own print history. The effect of this is that Jameson cleanses “China” of the feelings Boone ascribes to Perelman’s work in order to make the poem function as a pure example.

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At the same time as Boone commends Perelman’s work for its manner of stimulating feeling tones and affects, he also laments the way the writing so readily gives in to the dominant crisis of narrative. Following his cautious praise, Boone goes on: “And what about narrative in Perelman’s writing? [… ] There isn’t an aspect of narrative that isn’t entirely subverted, and story telling becomes a convertible function on the capitalist model. So pronouns exchange for pronouns, tense for tenses” (4). Narrative subversion offers nothing to celebrate. So while the writing makes certain features of late capitalism available to cognition — lack of connection, occluded relation — it also stops short of pushing beyond the same social characteristics of late capitalism, which would require nothing less than narrative itself. [17] Where Perelman’s work arrives at its limit for Boone isn’t in the “schizophrenic” erosion of referential language, or “the waning of affect,” but rather in the work’s undermining of the narrative function altogether: “Here my uneasiness mounts by leaps and bounds. It’s a ‘buried narrative’ with quote marks around it, so you don’t mistake it for human life” (4). This sort of narrative as ironic citation is in direct contrast with Boone’s own performative use of narrative in the interest of transforming real social situations. While Boone affirms the way Perelman’s poetry underscores the artificial nature of the self — the fiction of identity, the construction of subjectivity out of linguistic traces and textual remains of every sort — he nevertheless remains dissatisfied with the way narrative’s social function is dispatched in the work before it is able to achieve something more than a mirroring effect of commodified language’s entropic drift.

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In short, then, Jameson’s critique of a “schizophrenic” Language writing betrays all the insights of Boone’s critical appreciation in “The Pluses and Minuses,” despite the fact that Jameson most likely found his example embedded with Boone’s essay in the pages of Soup. Had Jameson attended to Boone’s analysis with greater care — had he accounted for the local scene around Soup that enabled his access to the poem in the first place — we might have had a very different re-presentation of so-called “Language poetry” in “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” and perhaps a very different “primal scene” of first encounter between Language poetry and the academy.

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Of the two critiques of Language writing, Boone’s is arguably the more radical, and socially affective, insofar as he calls for doing something beyond the object of his criticism — “I need something more than this. I need a literature that will help bring on social change” — if only by stimulating the potential for new subjectivities by way of new feelings and affects (8). In short, Boone cares little for the misidentified “schizophrenic,” and more for the traces of real emotion, lived affect, consequential language, and the transformational potential of subjective content. Whether it’s by way of poetry, narrative, or theory, valuable literary criteria for Boone organize themselves around social consequence: “It’s not that you can’t do theory according to this way of thinking, but you have to make your theory have actual consequences” and “what should have been happening [… ] was more explicitness, more directness about the consequences of these various points of view” (2). Language is always consequential, and for Boone, literary engagement must manifest itself consequentially in ways that activate, however “weakly,” the potential for transformed limits and possibilities.

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And this brings us back to the problem of “China.” Referring to Benson’s “Views of Communist China,” toward the very end of his essay, Boone writes:

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In the course of his performance, Benson discloses truly intimate feelings with what appears to me as a sometimes alarming openness. And perhaps inevitably, another poet present for the discussion takes advantage of this vulnerability. At this point the discussion is not at all edifying. It seems cruel on the second poet’s part and even has overtones of homophobia. But I have a second reservation about the piece. How can a can a subject as serious as “Communist China” be treated like a fantasy? For much of the piece the subject seems to be dealt with so figuratively that is seems lacking in respect for the real China of more than 500,000,000 real people [… ] The tone seems to imply once more that Language writing refers to itself, not the world. Yet at some point in this piece one realizes there is an equation being set up between, oddly, what Communist China is and what one feels. (9)

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Read in tension with Jameson’s use of Perelman’s “China,” there is some historical irony in Boone’s comment, as well as a strange echo of Jameson’s own critique. It’s almost as if Boone had provided Jameson with a template for reading one “China” (Perelman’s) by way of another (Benson’s), while simultaneously offering a corrective to Jameson’s entire approach. In other words, one can read the germ of Jameson’s argument with Language writing in Boone’s reading of Benson’s “China” as a self-referential fantasy that quickly dispatches its referent. But the problem with Jameson’s whole critique — something he ought to have learned from “The Pluses and Minuses” had he been faithful to his source — is also legible here: its exaggerated emphasis on ontology, rather than on a more nuanced appreciation of affect, that is, its privileging of postmodern being at the expense of postmodern feeling.

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Finally, Boone refers to the end of Benson’s performance, which incorporates a bit of appropriated dialogue from a book on the People’s Republic, a dialogue where Benson reads the lines of a young girl and is referred to as “she” by Perelman himself, who reads together with Benson. “The performance ends,” Boone writes, “with Bob Perelman taking up the book to read a long narrative passage about visiting the apartment of an older Party militant. Perelman and Benson take, respectively, the voices of the narrator and the young girl.” Boone goes on, then, to quote a bit of the dialogue:

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Perelman: What do you wan to do as an adult?
(pause)
Benson: Whatever the Party needs, I will become.
Perelman: She stopped for a moment and stood motionless, and then, a radiant smile of beautiful straight white teeth. (9) [18]

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“Well,” Boone concludes, in a comment that also concludes his own essay, “I like the gay aspects of this scene. But it makes for an odd ending” (9). Of course, the “gay aspects” are a matter of reception, staging, audience engagement, and the like, all of which underscore the social setting of performance. Again, where Boone aims to retain the social, gendered, and sexual — as well as the historical and literary — implications of Benson’s performance, Jameson’s abstract citational method eclipses what Boone values most, thereby occluding the critical queer at the “primal scene” where Language writing encounters its first rigorous left critique.

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All of this speaks poignantly to our own contemporaneity, to our ongoing concerns around community, and to the place of antagonism in it. Moreover, it speaks to a perennial and pressing need to ensure against the erasures that are often the yield of critical methods that hew to exemplarity. Alternatively, Soup nourishes conditions of possibility for dissensus, that is, for intervening at the limits of the speakable — exclusion’s circumference — while elevating conflict from the personal to the political by way of open, direct, and explicit discussion, rather than the other way around, lest we allow a fractious system that has already so deformed and distorted our sense of possibility to continue policing the false separation of personal and political life spheres within poetry’s current social ecologies.

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Soup continues to offer a dynamic illustration of politics as dissensus. As such, it’s difficult to abstract a poem like “China” away from a whole composite of struggles without compromising our grasp of the stakes, at once shared and contested, across perceived divides. A return to Soup today — and by way of Soup, to Bruce Boone’s engagement with Language writing in 1980, and his critical appreciation of Bob Perelman’s poetry in particular — helps us in the ongoing work to correct the historical record, while orienting our attention toward an other future.

Soup excerpt, left page

Soup excerpt, left page

 
Soup excerpt, right page

Soup excerpt, right page

 

Notes

Thanks to Kim Hoerbe for helping me to prepare the spread of pages 2 and 3 from Soup for this essay; and to Kristen Gallagher for her engaged reading of this essay when it was still in draft form.

 — R.H.

[1] First published as “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984) 53–92. Jameson’s essay appears in the volume to which it lends its name, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) 1–54. All references to the essay here are to the latter.

[2] In his introduction to the proceedings from the Left Write Conference on leftist politics and engaged writing practices (San Francisco 1981), Abbott reflects on the significance of manifest antagonisms on the left: “Political divisions are not necessarily bad. Lessons may be learned from them and persons involved can later regroup with an even greater understanding and commitment. [… ] No one can agree to principles of unity that deny the validity of their own struggles or that assign these struggles to categories of minor importance. We on the left must forge stronger bonds of trust among ourselves, bonds based on mutual respect and support as well as openness to well-intentioned criticism.” Left write!: Edited transcripts of the 1981 Left Write Conference, ed. Steve Abbott (San Francisco: Left Write Conference Publication, 1981) 2. For an analysis of this conference and its proceedings, see Kaplan Page Harris, “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry,” American Literature, Volume 81, Number 4, December 2009 (805–832).

[3] This definition appears in the glossary appended to The Politics of Aesthetics by editor and translator Gabriel Rockhill. See Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (NY: Continuum, 2006) 85.

[4] See “Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Art Forum, March 2007 (261–4).

[5] See George Hartley, Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

[6] Hartley’s argument for the political value of “China” appears in the final paragraph of his essay, where he adopts Jameson’s own prescription for “a new political art,” only to hold Language writing up as exemplary: “Ironically, Perelman and other so-called Language poets can be seen to meet Jameson’s call for a new political art whose ‘aesthetic of cognitive mapping’ in this confusing postmodern space of late capitalism may achieve a ‘breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing [the world space of multinational capital], in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion’” (52).

[7] For this approach, my thinking moves by way of Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996).

[8] Jameson may have also been drawn to the poem for the seduction of reference, and his own interest in “the unfinished social experiment of the New China,” only to avenge himself on the poem and its “structural secrets” for turning out “to have little to do with that referent called China.” Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (29–30).

[9]See Robert Glück, Jack the Modernist (NY: Serpent’s Tail, 1985) 36. Originally published by Gay Press of New York in 1985. Glück has confirmed by email that “Martin” is based on Jameson. “Martin” also shows up in Glück’s story “Violence” as “a formidable art historian” in Elements of a Coffee Service (San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1982) 90.

[10] Bruce Boone, Century of Clouds (Nightboat Books, 2010) 65. Originally published by Hoddypoll Press (San Francisco) in 1980.

[11] I’m indebted to Barrett Watten for drawing my attention to this perfect coincidence of omissions when I first presented this material at the National Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry of the 1970s” event in Orono, Maine (June 2008). I was astonished by Watten’s immediate recall upon seeing the reproduction of the pages from Soup that I circulated at the talk, and shown here above, as his cross-reference anchored my hunch in textual fact.

[12] In his prefatory note to the volume, Perelman writes, “I began the Talk Series in the spring of 1977. Since then there have been 37 talks. A ‘talk’ is a broad designation — was the situation educational, creational, dramatic? Was information to be presented or were values to be embodied? Was the focus on the speaker or the community of speaker an audience? The answers all varied.” (San Francisco: Hills) 1980.

[13] Boone no doubt learned from Jameson’s Marxian cultural analysis, a critical apprenticeship narrated in Century of Clouds, and this is evidenced in Boone’s essay on Frank O’Hara, “Gay Language as Political Praxis,” which appeared in the first issue of Social Text together with another of Jameson’s canonical essays, “Reification and Utopia.” See Bruce Boone, “Gay Language as Political Praxis: The Poetry of Frank O’Hara,” Social Text no. 1 (Winter, 1979) 59–92.

[14]As Robert Glück writes, “From our poems and stories, Bruce abstracted text-metatext: a story keeps a running commentary on itself from the present. The commentary, taking the form of a meditation or a second story, supplies a succession of frames. That is, the more you fragment a story, the more it becomes an example of narration itself — narration displaying its devices [… ].” See Glück’s “Long Note on New Narrative,” in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, eds. Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, Gail Scott (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004) 28. Originally published in the online journal Narrativity, http://www.sfsu.edu/~newlit/narrativity/issue_one/gluck.html

[15] See Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (NY: Seabury Press, 1973) xx: “To use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity — this is what the author felt to be his task, ever since he came to trust his own mental impulses; now he did not wish to put it off any longer.”

[16] Glück reflects on New Narrative’s debt to Althusser in “Long Note.” See Biting the Error, 30.

[17] Jameson makes a similar argument regarding the importance of narrative in “Cognitive Mapping.” See Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. C. Nelson, C. and L. Grossberg (University of Illinois Press, 1990) 347–60.

[18] Benson’s “Views of Communist China” appears in Hills 6 /7 (Talks)74–103. It is also included in The Kenning Anthology of Poet’s Theater: 1945–1985, eds. Kevin Killian and David Brazil (Kenning Editions, 2010).

Rob Halpern

Rob Halpern

Rob Halpern is the author of several books of poetry, including Rumored Place, Disaster Suites, and Snow Sensitive Skin (co-authored with Taylor Brady). Currently, he’s co-editing the poems of the late Frances Jaffer together with Kathleen Fraser, and translating the early essays of Georges Perec, the second of which, “Commitment or the Crisis of Language,” appears in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. He has also written a preface for the recent reissue of Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds (Nightboat Books). An active participant in the Nonsite Collective, Rob lives in San Francisco.

 
 
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