Over on the Harriet blog, Kenneth Goldsmith posted an account of a keynote address by Marjorie Perloff at the recent Conceptual Poetry Conference in Tucson. It’s well worth reading, although it offers up a point of view I disagree with. Here is the response I posted a short while ago:
I’m an admirer of Ms. Perloff and am a little reluctant to criticize her based on Kenneth’s summary, but if his characterization is accurate, I have to take issue with her logic.
According to Kenneth, “She also questioned the values of a poetics based on identity in a time when neither phone numbers nor email addresses tell us where caller and recipient are actually located, nor does an email address provide vital statistics about its possessor; when an AOL or Yahoo address, for example, reveals neither nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, age — and often not even gender.”
It’s absurd to claim a connection between contact codes (phone numbers and email addresses) and identity. The assumption seems to be that because the codes don’t point to “vital statistics,” identity itself must be similarly free-floating. I recognize that the notion of a non-existent identity (or a shifting miasmic identity like some blowing cloud of pixels) is the philosophical flavor of the moment, but it’s a silly idea and only serves to undermine her argument. When I first encountered T. S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), I had no idea whether he was a man or a woman, an American or a Brit or a Canadian, a Catholic or a snake-handling pentacostal, or whether he was alive or dead. The more I learned about Eliot, to be sure, the better I understood the sources, resources, context, and aims of his work … oh, that’s right: all the aspects of a writer’s work that spring from his or her identity!
This confusion that theorists like Kenneth—and Ms. Perloff, evidently—persist in propounding is between the procedures of technology and their impacts on our way of being in the world. Certainly they affect the way we live, think, and feel—but they don’t reshape our essential being to match their (after all) transitory forms. When Gary Snyder writes that “as a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth,” he doesn’t speak just for a faction: he speaks for every poet and every reader. Our forms of expression may change in response to technology, but the core of our nature persists through them all.
To be fair, I have to note that Kenneth’s report on another address to the Conceptual Poetry Conference—by one of the original L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E theorists, Charles Bernstein—announces Mr. Bernstein’s recantation of “many of the position that he had abided by over the past three decades.” Assuming that Kenneth’s report is accurate and that Bernstein was serious (he has in the past displayed a wickedly droll sense of humor), we might be witnessing the appearance of a genuine counter-current in the accepted notion of how poetry works and what it’s for.