Bob Perelman, The Future of Memory. New York: Roof Books, 1998.
- 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. As he notes, this image confers a
"transcendental gloss on the avant-garde by saying that it's otherworldly,
heavenly, in this case, alien" (Nichols 532). In other words, for
Perelman the avant-garde is defined by its attempts to point beyond the
horizons of the historical period to which it belongs; the essence of the
avant-garde's relation to historically futural modes of being therefore
resides in its being captured or abducted by alien possibilities which
express themselves unconsciously at the level of form. According to this
model, poets do not heroically project themselves beyond historical
determinacy, but are instead "inculcate[d]... with otherworldly forms"
(Perelman, Future 11) whose import is necessarily opaque and
- Clearly, Perelman's dramatically fictional solution to
the problem of avant-garde temporality is a joke that we cannot help but
take seriously. Contained within it is a problem that has obsessed
postmodernity: from what position might one inaugurate a contestatory
relation to the meaning-systems of the present? Nevertheless, Perelman's
fantasy of an absolute Other lending the "naïve poet" its
otherworldly agency calls attention to itself as a deus ex
machina that saves the poet from phenomenological complexities that
cannot be ignored for long (Future 11). Naturally, he
acknowledges that there is "no Other of the Other": "There's no place
from which to live a different life. So critical distance in that sense
doesn't seem possible. But what about provisional contingent critical
distance within that world?... It doesn't have to be outside that
there's a place for a fulcrum, it can be inside" (Nichols 536). Much of
The Future of Memory can be understood as an attempt to
anatomize the negotiatory practices capable of generating this "internal
distance." And to follow the "argument" of The Future of
Memory we must be willing to imagine this space that is beyond the
opposition of immanence and alterity. For Perelman, it is important that
this space has an essentially futural character--in its first
determination, it should be seen as a space in which the poet is actively
lending himself to a possible future, whose contexts of understanding are
necessarily unintelligible from his temporally anterior standpoint. The
poet is to be imagined here as constantly operating on the margins of
intelligibility, all the while trusting that his moments of incoherence
are the formal harbingers of an emergent social configuration that will
belatedly lend a coherence and practical intelligibility to his literary
- There is thus a theory of historical time at work
in The Future of Memory which is self-consciously in
dialogue with Raymond Williams's concept of emergent social formations.
Perelman's concept of avant-garde artistic practice hinges on the idea
that the poet can make him/herself available to inarticulable "structures
of feeling" which anticipate futural social practices. A historically
anticipatory structure of feeling is defined by Williams as a "formation
which, because it is at the very edge of semantic availability, has many
of the characteristics of a pre-formation, until specific
articulations--new semantic figures--are discovered in material practice"
(Williams 134). This sense of poetry as the embodiment of historically
proleptic half-meanings which an emergent historical community may "take
up" with a view to practical action is essential to Perelman's poetic
- A long poem entitled "The Womb of Avant-Garde
Reason," which serves as a centerpiece to The Future of
Memory, gives life to this idea:
Here, Perelman is imagining the time lag that must take place between the
composition of a poem and the various interpretive communities who will
encounter the work in the future. He has faith that the process of
temporalization that the text must undergo will allow future communities
to realize the concrete practices that the amorphous half-meanings of
his poem could be said to anticipate. He symbolizes this in the image of
time sprouting legs and hands: changed historical circumstances will
allow future readers to recuperate and lend propositional content to
structures of feeling present in the poem only at the level of form.
This will make possible a transliteration of poetic values into the
everyday realm of "annoyances" and practical particulars. A "lien" is "a
claim on the property of another as security against the payment of a
just debt." Perelman is saying that
he has "given over" part of his being to the future, has surrendered his
poetic property with the understanding that the future will "make good"
the meanings that he has temporarily suspended, and that he cannot
untangle by himself. But what form will this futural payback take? In
what direction will the hermeneutic elaboration of Perelman's text
proceed? By the time one can ask these questions, the issue is already
out of the poet's hands: "others" are responsible for recasting the terms
of Perelman's text with a view to the future--one which, he hopes, will
make possible "less destructive circumstances" and the "capacious
translation between groups" (Nichols 538).
- The "memory" Perelman evokes in The Future of
Memory is therefore a combined function of both the poet and his
temporally posterior interpretive communities. He is profoundly sensitive
to what this essay will define in terms of a "cultural semantics." The
poet must be committed to "mutually contemplating the rhetorical force
of--not words, but of historical sentences, phrases, genres" (Nichols 538).
Existing beneath these macrohistorical semantemes, whose power to
"interpellate and to stir up emotion" (538) Perelman alerts us to,
there are the local articulative possibilities that he leads us to
picture in terms of the shifting drives of Kristeva's semiotic. Kristeva,
we should recall, refers to anamnesis as the process whereby the
semiotic is introduced into the symbolic in order to pluralize its
significations (Revolution 112). For Perelman, the function
of memory is similar. Its value resides not in its ability to provide the
poet with Poundian historical exempla, which could serve as concrete
existential alternatives to those provided by contemporary systems of
value. Rather, memory refers to the process whereby poetic intentionality
is capable of "carrying one back" to the level of a primordial
sense of possible relations, similar to the condition of primary
functional and social competence which characterizes infantile life.
Here, then, we see the futural value of memory in The Future of
Memory: memory is the function which enables the poet to inhabit a
shifting and pre-articulate "social sense," whose ability to lend itself
to newly emergent social configurations aligns it with Williams's
structures of feeling.
- Essential to the method and meaning of The
Future of Memory, therefore, is the complex Kristevan thesis that
our "intuitive" sense of possible social relations is rooted in
the primordial regulation of our senses: a process that takes
place when our affective and even our physical comportment toward others
is first established in concert with symbolic (and therefore social)
values which continue to hold sway throughout our adult lives. However,
for Perelman, poetry is best suited to contest and complexify our social
sense not when it strives to mimic the kinematics of the mother's voice
through a Kristevan "musicalization" of language. Rather, Perelman seeks
to induct the reader into this primordial world of sense in a way that is
necessarily and in the first instance disposed toward a constructive
relation to a possible future. In other words, he establishes a relation
to the world of "sense" not by amplifying the sound texture of his poems
in order to evoke a Kristevan chora, but rather by precipitating
a hermeneutic crisis that will force the reader to marshal all the
values of emergent and half-cognized sense with a view to its
various possible futural consummations.
- "The future of memory" therefore designates a
process that includes both the text as a document of sensed
possibilities for affective recombination and the futural communities of
readers whose concrete practices can lend these half-meanings a social
intelligibility. The locus of memory's futurality is therefore the
mediating position of the reader--a reader who is continually "carried
back" to the historically incipient senses of the text, while at
the same time incorporating its primordial "feel" for new and capacious
intersubjectivity into its concrete political strategies.
- For Perelman, this mediative role of the reader is
essential, because he strives to write a poetry that is socially
prophetic yet escapes the phenomenological paradoxes of poetic
"genius," in which the writer is somehow capable of delivering a "message"
which is "'far ahead' of its time" (Trouble 7). To be sure,
poems such as "To the Future" partake of a general problematic of
genius, in which the author lends his/her voice to futural possibilities
that are unavailable to conscious articulation. In this poem, Perelman
figures himself as writing "fake dreams" and "skittish prophecy" on the
empty pages of books that have been "cleaned" in a kind of ideological
laundromat (Future 40). Again, the ideological "distance"
that the laundromat creates is of the same order as the alien visitation
of "Confession." Perelman emphasizes the absurdity upon which his own
models of "genius" are founded, and yet allows their urgency to be
registered beneath their kitschy exterior. In fact, his 1994 critical
study, The Trouble with Genius, can be understood
as an attempt to think through the paradoxes and necessities which such
unstable moments of his own poetry express. In that text, he says of
modernism: "While these works may have been written to express the
originary, paradisal space where genius creates value, they do not travel
directly to the mind of the ideal reader, the critic who accepts the
transcendent claims of these works and the subsequent labor involved"
(10). It is precisely by stressing the un-ideal character of the readerly
function, therefore, that Perelman hopes to move beyond this modernist
version of genius and the false models of pre-ideological "paradisal
space" which his own laundromats of negativity parody.
- To this end, Perelman focuses on what might be described
as the "time lag" that exists between a text's "signification" and the
various interpretive "enunciations" the reader effects with respect
to the values latent in the text. In this model, readership becomes the
site of various mediations which serve to frustrate the seamless
transmission of textual meaning to an ideal reader. As we have seen, the
most important of these mediations has a historical provenance. The
reader, for Perelman, is always historically futural--both in the sense
that readership must inevitably come after authorship, and in the
larger sense that this belatedness allows the reader to serve
as a representative of all futural historical communities. This
belatedness is essential, since he is writing for an audience that shares a
set of social codes which is historically in advance of his own text. The
fact that his text will only "realize" its meaning in the material
practices to which these social codes correspond means that Perelman's
technical experiments can only emerge as socially "pre-formative" if a
futural interpretive community belatedly accords them this status.
- This is a significant departure from the
modernist model of genius, because it means that it is ultimately up to
"others" to determine the prophetic value of Perelman's text, or to put
the point more strongly, prophetic value is precisely what is
missing from his text, and must be supplied by the
interested and transformative readings that futural audiences will
provide. It is therefore only by amplifying this "missing-ness" or
incompletion in his text, while at the same time "calling out" to his
audience's sense of possible, but as yet undetermined, social practices,
that Perelman can hope to be accorded a paradoxically belated proleptic
significance. In this way, he abjures the totalizing centrality of
properly avant-garde temporality, and institutes what he
describes as a "post-avant-garde" poetic practice, which consists in an
"acknowledgement that the social is all margins these days.
Poetry--innovative poetry--explores this condition" (Nichols 542).
- The Future of Memory employs this
post-avant-garde poetic practice by calling out to be completed by the
reader in various ways. One of Perelman's most provocative gestures is
his insertion of a darkened page into the middle of the volume--into the
middle of another poem, in fact, which the piece of paper "interrupts."
This darkened page is entitled "A Piece of Paper," and clearly evokes his
desire to allow various external contexts of understanding to "intrude"
upon his text and combine themselves with its meanings. The piece of
paper is represented as "signifying others who speak and live or not they
weren't given air time and paper to ride this recursive point of entry"
(71). The text's blind spot is thus the existence of others as such,
which Perelman can only virtually "presentify" in the image of a piece of
paper coming from "without" the text and carrying alterity with it. When
he invites the reader to "blink your blindness inside legibility" (71),
he is hoping to extend our notion of textuality to include the
unforeseeable acts of interpretation which his poem will elicit.
- Another long poem, entitled "Symmetry of Past and
Future," expresses even more vividly the "post-avant-garde" dialectic
that Perelman hopes to establish between text and reader:
The first thing to note here is that the facticity of the historical past
is aligned with the facticity of Perelman's own "plies of writing." The
pun on "executed" is important, since it suggests that the status of this
textual and historical pastness as "already executed" serves to
"execute," or put to death, the agency of desire--a function allied with
the movement of history and interpretation, as opposed to the
fixity of official history and the written word. But in at least one
case out of twenty, this execution has been granted a
"reprieve"--something has been left "unwritten" in history (and in
Perelman's text) which calls out to the desire of the contemporary
reader. This reader is oriented toward the "vanishing point" of the
future; s/he thus occupies the site where the "blindnesses" of official
history--its "missing" elements--can be "written into" an emergent
meaning-system and rendered legible.
- It is important, however, that the political
desire of the contemporary reader is not free of a certain kind of
facticity. Every attempt to move creatively into a possible future is
performed against the backdrop of "involuntary memories" and
psychological "reflexes" which limit the kinds of social relatedness that
the contemporary reader can imagine and work towards. This explains why
Perelman aligns this kind of historical "work" with the interpretive work
that readers perform on texts. For him, the primordial world of
"sensation" constitutes a kind of libidinal "text" whose emotional
grammar is determined by the patterns of human relationality that hold
sway during socialization. The attempt to expand this emotional grammar
to include a more capacious form of collective relationality thus entails
a return to this most primordial "text," in the interest of elaborating
and extending the "meanings" to which it is sensitive. And just as
Perelman offers his own text as a document of inarticulate structures of
feeling whose formal patterns (or "shapes") he hopes will be rendered
meaningful through the material practices which they anticipate, so does
the world of "sense" constitute a half-written text which can be
revisited with a view to renegotiating what makes "sense" in a given
- In Perelman, then, we find a profoundly complex
exploration of the historical determination of our deepest psychical
structures and, more importantly, a reformulation of what it means to be
avant-garde when this historicizing imagination is applied to the
condition of the poet him/herself. Of course, this perspective is not new
to Perelman or unique to him. Since at least the late 1970s, Language
poetry has attempted to reconstitute the poetic avant-garde while
remaining responsible to the theoretical complications of structuralist
analysis and ideology critique. In fact, it is in his interventions from
the early and middle 1980s that we find the meditations on sense and
ideology most central to the strategies of The Future of
Memory. In his contribution to the important
Writing/Talks collection, appropriately entitled "Sense,"
Perelman refers to an "invisible reified atemporal empire, this sense of
decorum that's backed by political power, that tries to define all
language" (66). He is exploring here how the world of "sense" is
determined and delimited by this ideological "empire," but also how it can
be imagined as a pre-semantic reserve which is capable of decomposing and
temporalizing the illusive "atemporality" of reified social conditions.
And as in "Symmetry of Past and Future," the agency that is accorded
"sense" is aligned with the interpretive mediations of textual meaning
that historically situated readers embody.
- A poem entitled "The Classics," which was first
published in Perelman's 1981 collection, Primer, is included
in his essay on "Sense," and stands as a tripartite allegory of the
origin of infantile consciousness, the transmission of textual meaning,
and the dynamics of ideological interpellation and negotiation. As such,
it usefully illustrates the basic conceptual relations between memory,
textuality, and collective history that he animates in The Future of
As a narrative of infantile consciousness, these first two stanzas
suggest that at the beginning of life, "thought" is almost purely
unconscious--it is figured as an instinctual, automatic hand, whose
intentional marks are not registered by the fluid, unengravable medium of
consciousness. As a narrative of the transmission of textual meaning,
this would correspond to the modernist ideal that Perelman outlines in
The Trouble with Genius: a pure and unmediated transcription
in the reader's mind of the author's valuative systems.
In the beginning, the hand
Writes on water. A river
Swallows its author,
Alive but mostly
Lost to consciousness.
Where's the milk. The infant
Gradually becomes interested
In these resistances.
- Perelman explicitly draws this connection in his
self-interpretation in "Sense": "That's Piaget's theory that
intelligence--it's preprogrammed obviously, but--it gets triggered by the
fact that you can't find the breast very easily. So the sense behind
here is of reader and writer being the infant, and the milk being
meaning. The resistances are the words" (67). In other words, the
author is the writing hand, the reader is the fluid medium of
consciousness, and words are the "resistances" which interpose themselves
between a pure authorial intention and an ideal reader. That is to say,
words are the site of an irreducible mediation; they could be said to
"get in the way" of an ideal transmission of authorial meaning to
readerly consciousness. Instead of conveying a transparent meaning,
words provoke an active process of "feeling out" meanings--an
interpretive process which requires many half-conscious creative
gestures, all oriented around enunciating the hidden or "ideal" meaning
of the text in highly indeterminate ways. Similarly, "instinct" is the
automatic hand that should lead the infant directly to the breast without
any need for the mediations of half-consciously coordinated actions. But
since the physical world presents "resistances" to the ideal, unconscious
working of instinct, the infant must begin actively to "interpret" the
world, in order to begin consciously coordinating its actions.
- "Instinct" and "pure authorial meaning" are
aligned here, then, because they are "preprogrammed" and should "ideally"
produce subjects who are pure automatons: unconscious reflections of
somatic drives or unalterable meaning-systems. The Future of
Memory's concern with practices capable of generating critical
"distance" from contemporary meaning-systems is thus clearly anticipated
here. As we have seen in "Symmetry of Past and Future," Perelman is
concerned with a similarly "ideal" model of ideological
preprogramming, in which ideology inscribes itself primordially as a kind
of social "instinct," determining human subjectivity even at the most
basic level of "sense" or "sensation." The consequences of this for
Perelman's own poetry are profound: he suggests that we should understand
the transmission and assumption of authorial meaning as a moment within a
larger process of ideological transmission--a process in which the
subject assumes and "enunciates" the ideal "content" of ideology with an
agency which could be described as having a hermeneutic provenance.
- In this sense of his own text's implication in
dynamics of ideological transmission, Perelman reflects Language
writing's awareness that the very legibility of a text depends upon the
social meaning-system in which it exists. As Ron Silliman writes in "The Political Economy of
Poetry," "What can be communicated through any literary production
depends on which codes are shared with its audience" (Silliman,
Sentence 25). To make this point even more strongly,
Silliman quotes Volosinov:
"Any utterance is only a moment in the continuous process of verbal
communication. But that continuous verbal communication is, in
turn, only a moment in the continuous, all-inclusive, generative process
of a given social collective" (22). This means that meaning as
such is always implicated with the "generative process" of ideology;
and this is a problem for writers who hope to assume an oppositional
stance toward current social formations.
- Perelman's "solution" to this problem centers
around a constitutive misprision which he sees as part and parcel of the
reader's relationship to ideology's "message":
In his prose commentary, Perelman alerts us to Quintillian's tautological
definition of clarity as "what the words mean" ("Sense" 67). But for
Perelman the idea that words could "successfully" convey a transparent
and universal meaning represents an impossible "ideal." "Pure meaning," perfect clarity, can only be
conceived as an extra-human abstraction: a sun existing only "for
itself," removed from the processual "evolution" of syntax. In order for
meaning to actualize itself, it must temporalize itself, subject
itself to the interpretive interventions which language incites; it must
constantly be reborn in a human world.
Success is an ideal method.
For itself the sun
Is a prodigy of splendor.
It did not evolve. Naturally,
A person had to intervene.
Children in stage C succeed.
Emotion is rampant. We blush
At cases 1 and 2.
- As a description of ideology's perpetual
re-birthing of itself in individual subjects, these passages are
profoundly suggestive. Perelman suggests in these rather casually
executed, but philosophically resonant, parataxes that if "ideology has
the function of 'constituting' concrete individuals as subjects"
(Althusser, Lenin 171), then concrete individuals
simultaneously occupy a
location where the subject(-matter), the discursive elaboration and
performative accentuation of ideology, is negotiated. In Perelman's
developmental narrative in "The Classics," therefore, as well as in his
historical narratives in The Future of Memory, ideology is
there from the beginning, as a kind of immanent textuality: an
instinctual matrix which positions the subject in socially determined
discursive fields. However, for Perelman the "content" or "meaning" of
this ideological (sub)text is indistinguishable from the various
interpretive enunciations it receives when its meaning is
"realized" in the social being of individual subjects. This is important, since it means that ideology may
be subjectively enunciated in ways that Bhabha describes as
"catachrestic"--i.e., intentional or unintentional "misprisions" of
ideology are always in danger of producing the embarrassing "bad
subjects" referred to above as "cases 1 and 2."
- Perelman hopes to introduce precisely such a
transgressive enunciatory practice into the reader's relation to his own
text, but insofar as authorship and textual meaning are associated with
the instinctual inscription by which ideology "textualizes" itself, he is
faced with the difficulty of not being able to instantiate this
transgressive practice "from the side of poetry." Instead, a peculiar
kind of memorial agency on the part of the reader is invoked:
Again, the child here stands in, first, for the developmental subject as
s/he becomes liberated from the automaticity of instinctual responses by
actively assuming the functional patterns which were originally "lived"
at a purely somatic level; second, s/he stands in for the subject of
ideology, insofar as this subject, in its enunciative practices, gives
shape to an imperative which in another essay Perelman
jokingly expresses in profoundly voluntaristic terms: "I don't want to be
an automaton" ("First Person" 161); finally, s/he stands in for
the readerly function, which can never be the automatic transcription of
textual fact into objective meaning, but must rather express the
irreducible mediation of interpretive enunciation.
In what he already knows
Eventually liberate a child
From the immediate present.
- This means, of course, that the "immediate
present" of a unitary and inescapable textual meaning is as much a
fiction as the unilateral "voicing" of ideology and the conative
determinism of "instinct." In each of
the above cases, the mediacy of enunciation has always already corrupted
the putative immediacy whereby the conative life of the subject, its
ideological positionality and interpretive agency, could all be understood
as direct and inevitable reflections of various somatic
regulations, subject-positions, and semantic facta. The question that
remains, then, is what these "hidden quantities" are, which allow for
what Lacan describes as the "little freedom" of the subject in his/her
comportment toward these various aspects of the Symbolic Order: i.e., the
functional distribution of instinctual responses, the ideological
totality of "effective discourse," and the matrices of textual
- For the Perelman of The Future of
Memory as much as for the Perelman of Primer, the
answer resides in the "semiotic"--a primordial system of psychical
"marks" which both forms the instinctual fundament of the symbolic, and
exists as a labile force of "unsignifying" beneath its socially organized
systems of value. In other words,
what the subject "already knows" should be understood in terms of its
participation in an ideological meaning-system, which can be imagined as
a constellation of semantemes: discursive units that provide
the most basic coordinates of what can "make sense" in a given culture.
For Perelman, then, the "hidden quantities" in this semantic structure
would be the even more primordial system of phonemes, which
constitutes a semiotic reserve prior to, and yet organized by the horizon
of possible meanings embodied in the semantemes. According to
this analogy, the fact that individuals "automatically" sort the phonemic
values they hear according to the lexical and semantic values with which
their language-competence has made them familiar is the psycholinguistic
parallel to a process of ideological automaticity.
- In a 1980 essay entitled "The First Person,"
Perelman quotes Jonathan Culler to help illustrate this point:
The subject thus "already knows" how to make sense out of the pre-semantic
semiotic elements which s/he encounters, but this knowledge is not
conscious. In fact, in his juxtaposition of the above quote with another
by Culler, which refers to the "variety of interpersonal systems" and
"systems of convention" that define subjective functional operations
(Perelman, "First Person" 151), Perelman means to stress that the
"automaticity" that characterizes the individual's relationship to the
microcosm of individual speech-acts has its origin in the regulatory
systems of a social macrocosm. However, Perelman's notion is that if it
were somehow possible to dwell at the level of the phoneme, and
"consciously" to assume the seemingly instinctual movement from
pre-semantic values to socially recognized meaning, one might be capable
of multiplying the possible meanings of any individual speech-act in ways
that are potentially contestatory. He provides the following gloss on the
"hidden quantities" passage above: "My sense of connection here is:
liberation from the present.... Somehow, the initial sense of the
combinatorial power of language destroys this hierarchical frozen empire"
A speaker is not consciously aware of the phonological system of his
language, but this unconscious knowledge must be postulated if we are to
account for the fact that he takes two acoustically different sequences
as instances of the same word and distinguishes between sequences which
are acoustically very similar but represent different words. (150)
- If the transition from a phonemic sequence to a
semantic ensemble to a socially guaranteed meaning is understood to occur
immediately--i.e., according to the mythical temporality of Perelman's
"immediate present"--then the desemanticizing process whereby constituted
meanings are allowed to dissolve into their phonemic "raw materials"
offers the possibility of protracting the time lag which continually
"liberates" the subject from what would otherwise be the mechanistic
nightmare of semiotic unicity. In Perelman's work up to and including
The Future of Memory, the sense that it is possible to
inhabit a semiotic space which is in principle separable from
the social totality that organizes it into systems of meaning leads to
an idealist agency that post-structuralism's semiotic model of
resistance has made familiar. He explains, in reference to one of his
earlier talks, "I talked about Robert Smithson's sense that if you stare
at any word long enough, it fragments. You can see anything in it. It's
the axis of selection. We all have this file cabinet with a million
cards. We can say anything" ("Sense" 75).
- The phoneme thus comes to represent a space of radical
non-identity, in which the semantic inheritances of a given social
organization may be "broken down" and re-articulated. Perelman calls
attention to the fact that it is only at a level beneath the
signifier that this kind of absolute differentiation holds sway. In
contradistinction to Saussurean linguistics, which stresses the fact that
a signifier has meaning only in relation to another signifier, he
references Jakobson's idea that signifiers, while contrastive and
significantly related, are already constituted as discrete ideational
quanta: "Only the phoneme is a purely differential and contentless sign.
Its sole... semiotic content is its dissimilarity from all other phonemes"
("Sense" 73). This is an important
distinction, since for Perelman, the word is already heavily
weighted with the values of socially organized meaning, whereas the
phoneme is closer to what he describes in his essay as the physical world
of "sense" ("Sense" 75). In other words, the perceptual ontology of
language, the sonic texture of words, intimately tied to the physical
coordination of the vocal apparatus, represents a pre-lexical universe of
possible meaning, whose "contentlessness" ensures its status as a
"beyond" of the constituted meanings that he hopes to challenge.
- Of course, the alterity of the sensate, or the
"semiotic," with respect to the world of socially organized meaning, or
the "symbolic," is anything but pure, and should perhaps be designated as
an "intimate alterity," or extimité, to adopt
Jacques-Alain Miller's term.
Kristeva's work provides the most systematic articulation of this
dialectic, and its importance has been registered by theorists of the
Language movement since its inception. Famously,
Kristeva's chora is a modality of the semiotic which denotes
the vocal and
kinetic rhythms that primordially articulate instinctual functions "with
a view" to their social organization. Kristeva writes:
In other words, at the developmental phase when an infant's instinctual
responses are first becoming coordinated through its pre-linguistic
interaction with the mother and the family structure, socially regulated
symbolic positions are already ordering the infant's pre-symbolic
affective and motor dispositionality. This is important, since it means
that the labile, pre-figurative world of the semiotic, which Perelman
seeks to draw upon as an absolutely differential reserve of pre-symbolic
and purely possible meanings, has already received the impress
of symbolic agency, and the socially organized law which is its
predicate. Even the semiotic beyond of the symbolic--the
fractal world of phonemic distribution, sensorimotor articulation, sound
as opposed to meaning--is subject to symbolic regulation, if not
We emphasize the regulated aspect of the chora: its vocal and
gestural organization is subject to what we shall call an objective
ordering [ordonnancement], which is dictated by natural
or socio-historical constraints such as the biological difference between
the sexes or family structure. We may therefore posit that social
organization, always already symbolic, imprints its constraint in a
mediated form which organizes the chora not according to a
law (a term we reserve for the symbolic) but through an
- In many ways, however, the undecidability of the
semiotic, its combined determinacy and indeterminacy, its status as a
primordial corollary of the symbolic which is nevertheless irreducible to
the symbolic, is precisely what guarantees its value for a contestatory
poetics such as Perelman's. The semiotic emerges as a "moment" of the
symbolic, which is somehow in excess of the symbolic--a moment which is
therefore immanent in what we "already know," but which represents the
possibility of decomposing and reconfiguring "the known."
- In The Future of Memory and his recent
critical work, Perelman is attempting to imagine ways that poetry could
mobilize the semiotic with a view to such epistemological shifts. It is
well known that for Kristeva, poetry is valuable because in it "the
semiotic--the precondition of the symbolic--is revealed as that which also
destroys the symbolic" (Revolution 50). In its amplification
of the pre-figural rhythms and kinematics of language, poetry offers a
glimpse of the dissolution of a symbolic whose unicity has become, in
Kristeva's terminology, "theologized." This simultaneously sets in motion
a process of resignification, in which the semiotic chora is
raised to "the status of a signifier" (57), thereby rendering plural and
multivalent the meanings that are allowed to accrue to any given
constellation of linguistic performances.
- It is important to stress this resignificatory moment in
Kristeva, since it constitutes the difference between Kristeva's dialectic
of signifiance and what she calls the dérive: the
"'drifting-into-non-sense'... that characterizes neurotic discourse"
(51). Likewise, in critical statements that anticipate The Future
of Memory's strategies, Perelman is very careful to distinguish
himself from what one might describe as purely "semiotizing"
appropriations of Kristevan thought--ones that concentrate on pure
"deterritorialization" and "decoding," without the complementary
re-assertion of emergent identities in what Kristeva calls the
"second-degree thetic" (Revolution 50). In reference to the
early formulations of poets such as Ron Silliman and Steve McCaffery,
George Hartley can point quite casually to the
"Reference-Equals-Reification argument" in which thetic signification
as such is irremediably aligned with the values of existing
ideological meaning-systems (Hartley 34). But far more complicated lines
of enquiry into textual politics have been opened up from within the camp
of Language poetry itself. Along with Perelman, Barrett Watten is at the
forefront of this enquiry, interrogating how it might be possible to refer
the moment of resignification beyond the immanence of
Kristeva's textual dialectic, and toward a more "total syntax"
which would include a holistic social "situation" as the site of such a
- In an essay entitled "Building a More Powerful
Vocabulary: Bruce Andrews and the World (Trade Center)," Perelman engages
precisely this debate by focusing on his fellow Language poet's demand
for "'a structuralist anti-system poetics'... that would disrupt
transparent reference" (119). Perelman writes:
Perelman is quoting from Andrews's essay, "Constitution / Writing,
Language, Politics, the Body," which builds upon an earlier submission to
the seminal "Politics of Poetry" number of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,
in which Andrews called for a poetics of "subversion": "an anti-systemic
detonation of settled relations, an anarchic liberation of energy flows.
Such flows, like libidinal discharges, are thought to exist underneath &
independent from the system of language. That system, an armoring,
entraps them in codes & grammar."
Perelman objects to the Kristevo-Deleuzian rhetoric of libidinal flow and
"deterritorialization," because he holds out hope for a semiotic process
that could "join the center and make it more various" ("Building" 128),
rather than foreclosing all "investment in present-tense collectivities"
(126) in a desemanticizing process dangerously similar to the
"flood tide of Capital" which it hopes to contest.
Andrews recognizes the problem that his call for such subversion raises.
By its processes of interchangeability multinational capital has already
produced a radical dislocation of particulars. Marx's "All that is solid
melts into air" can in fact be read as saying that capitalism is
constantly blowing up its own World Trade Centers in order to build newer
ones. If this is true, then "to call for a heightening of these
deterritorializing tendencies may risk a more homogenizing
meaninglessness... an 'easy rider' on the flood tide of Capital."
- Again, one must note that both Kristeva and Deleuze are
more complex than this anarchizing application of them might suggest;
every Deleuzian decoding process has "conjunctive synthesis" as its
dialectical complement, just as
every Kristevan encounter with the semiotic drives is completed in its
secondary thetic phase. But what Perelman demands we consider much more
closely is how a textual practice might intervene in this dialectic in
such a way that both its decoding and, most crucially, its recoding
moments might embody a process of signifiance which does not
merely pluralize meanings according to the expansionist and dispersive
logic of capitalist production, but instead might offer a locale in which
meanings may be contested in ways that are both determinate and
politically transitive. In The Future of Memory, this
requires that we go beyond the Kristevan dictum "musicalization pluralizes
meanings" (Revolution 65) and instead begin to explore the
historical relation of reader to text, the kinds of interpretive agency
this relationship makes available, and the possibility that a text's
political semantics may ultimately be evolved in an extra-textual
process very different from the historical avant-garde's ambition to
"sublate society into art" (Perelman, Trouble 4).
- In fact, The Future of Memory's
emphasis on political transformations that must occur beyond the text
allows Perelman to resolve contradictions that remain aporetic and
disabling in his prose work:
Here, Perelman is registering the fear that the "resignificatory" moment
that poetic texts make available must derive its coherence and
epistemological valence from the larger social meaning-system in which
these texts are situated. And unless one is to fall prey to what Peter
Middleton calls the "linguistic idealism" inherent in the belief that
avant-garde texts punctually and empirically reconstitute this system
(Middleton 246), one must confront the proposition that even the most
radical recombinative strategies necessarily leave the historical ground of
their intelligibility uncontested.
If language is made up of units, broken apart as all things are by
capitalism, and if nothing new is created beyond the horizon of the
phrase or the sentence, then these new, charged units would still depend
on capital for energy to band together in momentary transgression.... To
avoid this conclusion I think it is necessary to posit... a writer for
whom the aesthetic sphere forms an autonomous space. Within this space,
however, the notion of political art would be a metaphor if not an
oxymoron. ("Building" 130)
- In the above essay, reprinted in the 1996
The Marginalization of Poetry, Perelman's impossible
solution to this problem is to suggest that art could constitute an
autonomous meaning-system, capable of challenging the current one without
borrowing any of its terms. But such a phantasmal art-practice would
necessarily be removed from the contemporary horizon of possible
significations in a way that would render it perfectly
unintelligible, and thus politically unviable. Notice, however, that in
the above passage he allows room for an epistemological contingency that
is not generated from an impossibly isolated creative locale, but
partakes of a historical process of transformation which is beyond the
horizon of merely textual agency. To rephrase Perelman, "if something
new is created beyond the horizon" of the text--in other words, if an
extra-textual process of social transformation makes available a new
organization of socially coded meanings--then the "broken units" of his
poetry could be resignified according to the values of a newly emergent
meaning-system, and come to express the structures of feeling that
predate this system's concrete practices.
- This sense that a historically futural readership may be
able to "charge" Perelman's text in unforeseeable ways, and that the poet
should therefore create enclaves of non-meaning in order to call out to
these supplementary futural meanings, is what makes The Future of
Memory such a brilliant and strange document of "post-avant-garde"
poetic practice. The "memory" of The Future of Memory evokes
the text's ambition to carry the reader back to the pre-semantic level of
Kristeva's semiotic--the shifting territory where social meanings are
pluralized and rendered fluid. Kristeva recognizes that meaningful social
practice is impossible at this level, and therefore posits the
"second-degree thetic," which represents--at the level of the text and of
the social dialectic which it "joins"--"a completion [finition], a
structuration, a kind of totalization of semiotic motility"
(51). But The Future of Memory
exceeds these formulations by insisting that the practical completion and
structuration of the text's semiotic processes cannot be performed by the
text itself. Perelman, one might say, gestures beyond certain kinds of
"linguistic idealism" by separating the practices of the text from the
practices of society. And yet the responsibility of the text to a larger
social dialectic is maintained in Perelman's sense that poetry should
dispose itself toward a collective future, and surrender its meanings over
to futural communities whose concrete practices will constitute an
extra-textual "thetic" phase in the significatory process.
- This is why The Future of Memory so
often offers itself as a kind of unconscious love letter to the future.
The final passage from "Symmetry of Past and Future" is an eloquent
example of the text's solicitation of its unknown readers:
Perelman is giving his love to the material circumstances of his futural
readers, lobbing his poem into this unknowable future, in the hope that
this world of particulars will confer a social legibility on his text's
illegibilities. It is important that "Symmetry of Past and Future" ends
on a note of radical asymmetry, its incomplete final sentence and
concluding comma imploring the reader to complete the poem with meanings
unavailable to Perelman in his historically prior and epistemologically
determinate condition. And as in the first passage we examined from this
poem, this determinacy is figured as a form of embodiment here.
He seems to be lamenting the fact that a "sense" of possible forms of
affective relationality is always rooted in the psycho-somatic
constitution of specific historical individuals. If "sense" were somehow
capable of emancipating itself from the body, and thus from the various
symbolic regulations that express themselves at the somatic level, then
one's sense of possible "social intersection[s]" and "interaction[s]"
(Nichols 536) could develop itself in complete freedom from the restrictive
symbolic positions which the current social formation has to offer.
- The impossibility of this kind of freedom is
indicated by the poet's sense of his own body as an obstacle. His body
represents the fact that "sense" is always an embodied possibility
attempting to project itself toward the eternally futural "day" when
sense will be able to legislate to itself the terms of its own most
primordial constitution--in other words, the utopian day when our
affective comportment toward each other will be able to create itself
ever anew, without the "obsessive" historical work of symbolic revision
- Until that day--"a day that will / never
die"--Perelman's future is "the future of memory."
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1. In his "Language Poetry and
Linguistic Activism," Peter Middleton draws the connection to Williams by
defining Language poetry as an emergent cultural formation, which "cannot
fully comprehend itself within the available terms of the pre-existent
social order, nor can it be fully comprehended from within that knowledge
produced by the dominant order" (Middleton 244).
2. Webster's New Universal
Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition.
3. The notions of "enunciation" and
"time lag" are both derived from Homi Bhabha. In The Location of
Culture, Bhabha references Stuart Hall's use of the "linguistic
sign as a metaphor for a more differential and contingent political logic
of ideology: 'The ideological sign is always multi-accentual, and
Janus-faced--that is, it can be discursively rearticulated to construct
new meanings, connect with different social practices, and position
social subjects differently'" (Bhabha 176). Enunciation therefore
refers to the process whereby "customary, traditional practices" are
resignified in order to express "displacements and realignments that are
the effects of cultural antagonisms and articulations--subverting the
rationale of the hegemonic moment and relocating alternative, hybrid
sites of cultural negotiation" (178). "Time lag" thus refers to the
discursive space which opens up between Bhabha's "hegemonic moment" of
the ideological sign and the dialogic, contestatory processes of its
"articulation" as discourse, narrative and cultural practice.
4. For example, the terminology of
"social meaning-systems" and much of the terminology of this essay is
derived from Bruce Andrews's formulations, esp. the important "Total
Equals What: Poetics and Praxis."
5. Perelman writes: "when everybody
understands what it's saying, the words seem perfectly transparent and it
all seems ideal" ("Sense" 67).
6. The conceptual framework for this
account of ideology obviously owes much to Althusser's well-known account
of knowledge-production, but the emphasis on negotiation or
re-inscription is decidedly post-Althusserian, and is represented most
recognizably in recent works such as Tom Cohen's Ideology and
Inscription. In Althusser's account of the three Generalities,
contemporary knowledge-production "always works on existing concepts,
'Vorstellungen,' that is, a preliminary Generality I of an
ideological nature" (184). However, for Althusser, there is always
the possibility that knowledge qua "science" might come to
"break with ideology" (191). For Cohen, and the intellectual milieu
which guarantees his book's legibility, this is no longer an option, and
epistemological breaks of even the most radical order must be seen as
revisionary re-inscriptions of the terms of extant ideology. For Cohen,
then, "inscription" refers both to the way in which present knowledge
production (Generality II) is determined (inscribed) by previous abstract
generalities, and to the way it redefines (inscribes) the terms of this
extant "raw material" with a view to the production of new concrete
generalities (183). "On the one hand, inscription in this premimetic sense
seems encountered as a kind of facticity, as the crypt of some reigning
or deterritorialized law, once posited and installed. On the other hand,
it is precisely in the non-site of inscription that the possibility of
historical intervention and the virtual arise" (Cohen 17). But since
the ideological process of "being inscribed" (4) is effective at the
deepest levels of our being--in the ways we "narrate" our very
"perception and experience" (17), it is difficult to know how and when it
is possible for genuine "reinscription" to occur--i.e., the process
whereby the "instituted trace-chain is disrupted, suspended" so that
"alternatives to programmed historicist models can appear accessed"
(17). For Cohen, however, the domain of "the aesthetic" represents a
central site of "conceptual remapping," which "is linked to a programming
of the senses by mnemo-inscriptive grids" (11). This emphasis on the
pre-figural world of "the senses" and the way in which this world is
ideologically "programmed," resonates very clearly in Perelman's work,
and helps contextualize his own sense of the poem as a site of
7. Again, the notion of "time-lag" is
crucial to this understanding of catachresis: "I have attempted to
provide the discursive temporality, or time-lag, which is crucial to the
process by which this turning around--of tropes, ideologies, concept
metaphors--comes to be textualized and specified in postcolonial agency:
the moment when the 'bar' of the occidental stereotomy is turned into the
coextensive, contingent boundaries of relocation and reinscription: the
catachrestic gesture" (Bhabha 184).
8. On ideological "voicing," see
Bhabha's "Signs Taken for Wonders" in The Location of Culture,
especially "the voice of command" (116).
9. In "The Subversion of the Subject
and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious," Lacan refers to
the unconscious as a chain of signifiers which "insists on interfering in
the breaks offered it by the effective discourse and the cogitation that
it informs" (Lacan 297). However, "effective discourse" refers for Lacan
not just to analytic discourse, but more profoundly, to the historically
determinate "symbolic form" which it reproduces, and which
guarantees its intelligibility (296). I mean to evoke this latter meaning
here, whereby effective discourse is understood as an intersubjective
knowledge-formation, derived from the historical punctuality of the
Symbolic, and representing its various imaginary sedimentations.
10. Kristeva gives this particular
valence to the term "un-signifying" in her Revolution in Poetic
Language (65). The English term "instinctual," which I use above,
is Strachey's translation of Freud's trieblich. However, the
naturalistic connotations of the English term risk foreclosing the sense
of the drives' availability to social regulation. Unfortunately, English
has no corresponding word for the German evocation of "drive-ly" forces.
See J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of
11. Cited from Jonathan Culler,
Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of
12. Cited from Roman Jakobson,
Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning.
13. See Jacques-Alain Miller,
14. See Barrett Watten, "Total Syntax:
The Work in the World." Watten's interventions on this topic are many and
various; especially important seems his recent attention to "emergent
social meaning," in which a formal dialectic of romantic particularity and
contextual disjunction dynamizes and defamiliarizes a public sphere which
is thereby called upon to revise and reformulate itself. See Brito's "An
Interview with Barrett Watten," in which the private oppositionality of a
graffito image is seen as "emerging from a blanketed and negated
background into 'saying something' it can scarcely recognize" (21). For
Watten, this emblematizes poetic practices in which "private language
qualifies the public and creates a new ground on which instrumental
meanings can be modified and redefined" (21). Also relevant are his
recent articles, "The Secret History of the Equal Sign:
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Between Discourse and Text" and "The
Constructivist Moment: From El Lissitzky to Detroit Techno."
15. Bruce Andrews, "Writing Social
Work & Political Practice," L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 9/10 (Oct.
1979), unpaginated. The quoted passage appears on page 17 of the reprinted
essay in Bruce Andrews, Paradise & Method: Poetics and
16. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In
this system, conjunctive synthesis corresponds to a function called the
"celibate machine" which denotes the dialectical eventuation of "a new
humanity or a glorious organism" (17).
17. This sense of intuited
half-meanings which precede concrete practices is expressed in the great
paradox of Marx's introduction to the Grundrisse--i.e., that
the simplest categories of politico-economic thought are only
conceptually available once they have been complexified as the expression
of manifold and juridically mediated concrete relations. For example,
possession, in its abstract simplicity, is only available to thought once
the complex system of property relations has been constituted as a
concrete category in which "possession" denotes a host of possible
relations between families, clan groups, masters and servants, etc. And
yet, Marx speculates about conditions under which an abstraction may lead
an "antediluvian existence" before it has become the expression of
fully developed concrete relations (Marx 101). In such a case, "the
simple categories are the expressions of relations within which the less
developed concrete may have already realized itself before having posited
the more many-sided connection or relation which is mentally expressed in
the more concrete category" (102). This means that one might posit a
moment of emergent simplicity in which liminally concrete
relations could find expression only in pre-categorical
figurative modes, or what Raymond Williams describes as "structures of
feeling" (Williams, esp. 128-135). I would suggest that Perelman's
method takes shape as a self-conscious deployment of precisely such
pre-conceptual forms of historical abstraction: forms that "call out" to
the futural system of instituted, concrete relations which alone will
render their import intelligible.
18. See Revolution in Poetic
Language: "And thus, its complexity unfolded by its practices,
the signifying process joins social revolution" (61).
19. I retain Perelman's misspelling of
"obsessiveness" in this passage, since this particular "illegibility"
radiates poetic value, even in the absence of a readable authorial
sanction. Perelman deletes the word in the revised version of the poem
which appears in Ten to One: Selected Poems (216).
Althusser, Louis. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York:
---. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben
Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.
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Combined issue with Open Letter 5.1 (Winter 1982): 154-165.
---. Paradise & Method: Poetics and Praxis. Evanston, IL:
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---. "Total Equals What: Poetics & Praxis." Poetics Journal 6
---. "Writing Social Work & Political Practice."
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and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R.
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Perelman, Bob. "Building a More Powerful Vocabulary: Bruce Andrews
and the World (Trade Center)." Arizona Quarterly 50.4
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---. "The First Person." Talks: Hills 6/7. Ed. Bob
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Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 63-86.
---. Ten to One: Selected Poems. Hanover, CT: Wesleyan
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---. The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and
Zukofsky. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.
Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1985.
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Barrett Watten. "Aesthetic Tendency And The Politics Of Poetry: A
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