Trauma, Reference, and Media Technology in Postmodern American Poetry: The Testimonies of Language Writing

by Albena Vassileva

November 1, 2010


My paper studies trauma as an epistemological disruption – an
event that due to its sudden and unanticipated nature has failed
to be integrated in the structures of the mind, thus
remaining “unspeakable” (at best, pictorially representable).
Focusing on the work of Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman (with
some examples of video art to illustrate my argument), I explore
the ways in which Language poetry bears witness to a
historically-based and collectively experienced psychological
trauma. I read the Language poems as a testimony to the
overwhelming and traumatic impact of contemporary media, which
have assailed the mind with far more signals than it can
register, digest and furnish with semantic weight. My analysis
serves as a springboard to another provocative theoretical
inquiry – the problem of reference in postmodern writing. It
attempts to revise the received critical paradigm of
postmodernism as self-referential and advance the belief that,
rather than precluding referentiality, postmodernism only
rejects the reduction of reference to a world that is
perceptible and cognitively masterable.



… [A]s if a ‘poem’ could exist in the United States today that has not been shaped by the electronic culture that has produced it. There is today no landscape uncontaminated by sound bytes and computer blips, no mountain peak or lonely valley beyond the reach of the cellular phone and the microcassette player. Increasingly, then, the poet’s arena is the electronic world…

 --- Marjorie Perloff


The theory of postmodern literature and deconstructive writing has widely advocated the belief that language cannot properly refer to and adequately register the world. In the minds of many, postmodernism has come to signify the detachment of literary discourse from reality, the obstruction and invalidation of our access to history. The study of postmodern literary texts is thus invariably accompanied by a peculiar uneasiness about what postmodernism termed the loss of reality, by the uncanny sensation of letting reality slip through our fingers without being able to arrest its flow. Inquiring into the work of Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, two of the main representatives of the American school of Language Writing  and introducing some examples of postmodern video art   to illustrate the underlying argument, this essay advances the belief that, rather than precluding referentiality, postmodernism only rejects the reduction of reference to a world that is perceptible and cognitively masterable. 

Much has been written about the ways in which Language poetry defies referentiality. After all, this is the main agenda of the school – we need not look further than its name, selected to proclaim an emphasis on language and a divorce of the linguistic and empirical realities. My article, however, seeks to probe beyond the purposeful refusal of the Language poets to mirror and create a double image of reality and focuses, instead, on the involuntary ways in which the poets rewrite the effects of media in post-industrial society. With the outset of the Information Age that has reduced the status of language to just one of the multiple media around us, the Language poets, I argue, are doomed to register the impacts of the technological environments in which they are increasingly inscribed. This is a world of instant messaging and streaming media, of digital technology and mass communications landscapes, of powerful computers and enticing billboards – a world of mesmerizing technological developments that has defined every aspect of our lives, including poetic production. In this highly sophisticated technological reality of Western postmodern society, it has become impossible to extricate poetry from the complex information networks that determine it. Focusing on Language poetry, my article therefore advances the belief that it can no longer be conceived apart from the contemporary media and information landscapes that surround it.

To demonstrate my point, I study the ways in which the poetry of Perelman and Bernstein is linked to the regime of media and digital technologies, and inquire into the impacts that this regime exerts on the subject. While noone can dispute the role of the Information Revolution as a harbinger of progress, opening to man a world of possibilities never so far envisioned as reality and allowing artists to broach experiments with media and language, technology has often reminded us of its dark side as well. Looking at examples of Language poetry, I argue that the atypical representation of technological realities in it attests to a peculiar kind of a not-yet-fully mastered traumatic experience. I read the Language works as a testimony to the overwhelming and traumatic impact of contemporary media, which have assailed the mind with far more signals than it can register, digest and furnish with semantic weight. This overpowering condition of information overload, I then argue, causes a violent and unforeseen displacement in the subject’s temporality, an unnatural flattening of the chronotope. With the present suddenly “stopped short,” overtaken by the unsuspected arrival of a highly advanced technological future, the subject experiences an abrupt eschatological dislocation, an abnormal reversal of temporality. All of a sudden, teleology ends and history appears at a standstill. Unable to assign any cognitive value to the rapidly encroaching technological future, the subject is suspended in a boundless and meaningless present, an infinite “now time,” as Bernstein defines the continuum (“Play It Again, Pac Man”). These dislocations in the subject’s biographical experience unavoidably register in Language poems. Rather than precluding referentiality, Language poetry, I argue, records the asignifying processes and coding of the post-industrial society and bears witness to the traumatizing impacts of the global information network.


Technology is Everywhere! The Subject’s Entrapment in an Information-Saturated Environment and the Rapprochement between Poetry and Media Technology

[T]he most interesting poetic and artistic compositions of our time do position themselves, consciously or unconsciously, against the languages of TV and advertising.  

--- Marjorie Perloff

The problem of literary representation has been of paramount interest to critics of Language poetry who have written widely about its apparent non-referentiality. They have dismissed the works of Language poets as “an endless succession of depthless images and empty sounds, each canceling the previous one” (Weinberger 197), a writing functioning “against the conventionally referential and representational capacities of language” and heralding a “future in which … all that’s left of language are the fragmented inarticulate remains, a non-referential solipsistic muzak” (Reinfeld 55). Language writers themselves have emphasized the “antireferential” and “antisyntactical” character of their lyrics. To them, reference in language has been intrinsically linked to commodity fetishism. As Silliman explains it, “[I]f we permit the word to stand for something else, if we exchange the word for its meaning, we thereby initiate a process in which anything can stand for anything else and anything can be exchanged and replaced. Once the word can be exchanged, it can circulate (just as money circulates in a capitalist economy), and like money, the word as a medium of exchange cannot serve as a source of genuine human values” (qtd. in Reinfeld 33). The purposeful effacement of reference has thus turned into a revolutionary strategy for the Language poets. Through consistent misspelling, disjunct syntax, and erroneous grammar, they have sought to disengage language from its subjection to the capitalist project and reendow it with its “genuine value.” While the creation of this alternate system of writing, designed to undermine the reification of language, is indeed grounded in the demise of referentiality, a more scrutinized study of Language poetry unveils the concurrent production of a yet unaccounted-for (traumatic in nature) reality. 

Though difficult to discern amidst the Language critics’ blaring denouncements of reference, some assertions of the poets themselves reveal the inadequacy of dismissing the impacts of referentiality and demand a more comprehensive study of the intricate “complications within the vectors of reference” (McCaffery 161). As Bernstein announces, Language Writing effects “[n]ot ‘death’ of the referent – rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has…” (Content’s Dream 34). Language, for Bernstein, is “multireferential as well as material, and the project of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E refers to a social world” (qtd. in Reinfeld 35). Even the fragmentation, enacted in Language Writing, Bruce Andrews explains, “doesn’t banish the reference embodied in individual words; merely, they are not placed in a series, in grammar, in a row, on a shelf” (“Text and Context” 34).  While dismissing the representational power of Language poetry, some critics also allude to its hidden potential to record our reality. They are shrewd to observe an uncanny “similarity between the new sentence and current media practice” (qtd. in Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry 62). Surprisingly, however, they read this similarity as indicative of the non-referential, ahistorical nature of Language Writing: “the stylistic gesture most characteristic of language writing,” these critics argue, “is the non-sequitur. . . . It is the product of a generation raised in front of a television. . . . A non-sequitur implies a loss of memory, an erasing of history. ‘Language’ poetry as it is practiced by its strictest followers is identical to the speech of television’s masterpiece, Ronald Reagan” (62, italics added). Apart from such scarce, and often inaccurate, remarks, however, the rapprochement between Language poetry and contemporary technology has remained largely unnoticed by scholars in the field. Such an oversight seems particularly inadmissible given the increasing connectedness of present-day lyric poetry with the “wired world” (Paul Virilio’s term, “Speed and Information”). As Marjorie Perloff asserts, our contact with the discourses that surround us “tends to be always already mediated by a third voice, the voice of the media” (Radical Artifice 47).

 Radio and television, computers and film, the internet and the World Wide Web have redefined our existence in the last part of the 20th century. The new media have been created by technological developments combining computers and telecommunications. We have become a part of a complex technological machine: via a keyboard, mouse, or joy stick, we now can interact with the computer screen; via the internet and formats such as listserves and newsgroups, we can relate among ourselves in ways we never could before. Even when overwhelmed by the persistent information overload, it seems impossible to unplug and pull out. An attentive examination of the work of Perelman and Bernstein reveals that much of it attests to the positioning of Language poetry against the settings of technology and electronic culture. Step by step, Bernstein’s “Emotions of Normal People,” for instance, leads us to a world of computerized, high-tech devices, a world of “connectors and cables,” “digitalizing oscilloscope,” “logic simulator,” various “systems components” and “floating interface[s],” a world where you can “configure,” “eas[ily] … install and reconfigure,” and “cut down on chances for device failure” (85-86). “You can connect a bi-directional / Buffer or dumb terminal to the / Module’s digital inputs & relay / Outputs with crystal-controlled / External trigger for jitter-free / Duplex data compression & protocol / Source codes” (87). The lyrical persona is rhizomatically  connected to different technological regimes and does not seem to have any autonomous existence outside of them. It has become one with the world of bits and bytes – the tethers between them growing increasingly smaller and difficult to discern. 

Like Bernstein, Perelman is quick to acknowledge the new emplacement of the subject in the information-saturated technological environment. He is portrayed amidst the omnipresence of communications media where “the TV plots” frame every aspect of his life experience, even his intimate encounter and romantic amble with his partner: “let’s get out of here, they sing, / go for a walk, just you and me and the seven basic plots” (“Motion” 11, italics added). A voyeuristic pleasure in sex comes from the intermediation of the camera: “Meanwhile it was midnight. The sentence groped hurriedly for / some flimsy rhetoric, but things were too clear. The camera / was rolling, the grammar grinding, moans and groans filled / the soundtrack precisely, like food in airline trays, far away / but in theory edible” (Perelman, “Sex” 25). The sexual act is invariably carried out in front of the VCR and observed through its eyes: “With the VCR I thee watch take off your clothes and make love / into / a speech about democracy, making the world safe for, / take seventeen…” (“Sex” 26). 

Media have penetrated our lives so aggressively that it has become increasingly difficult to imagine our existence outside their regimes. They have effaced the border between reality and unreality, placing the subject in the realm of the hyperreal, forcing us to abide in a world of simulacra, to use Jean Baudrillard’s famed term.  Through his description of the uniformity and all-pervasiveness of each night’s TV lineup, Perelman, in “The View from the Dollar Bill,” ponders if we actually exist beyond this media reality. Unlike a slave who would have fled away to a place of no slavery, we know of no place to escape to that has not been permeated by and subjugated to the media: “If you’re a slave you want to run away, / but only to where there’s no slavery. / The will isn’t magical, overseers pounding those bricks / into nearly identical shape, the Wednesday Night lineup, the / Thursday Night lineup. / All the episodes, contemplated one by one, become monuments / enclosing a dead divinity, a vivid picture of what it must be like / to actually exist” (23-24). A similar theme is picked up by Bernstein in his libretto for the opera Blind Witness News, originally performed in 1990 in New York’s American Opera Projects. As in Perelman’s poem, the author parodies the loss of reference to any real world outside that of the TV. The opera follows the structure of a 30-minute evening newscast, delivered by two anchors, a weatherperson, and a sportscaster. The television news report reflects the stock verbal moves of the anchors, the empty banter, the catch-phrases, and ultimately, the idea that there is no message behind them, that the TV medium itself remains the only message (“The Medium is the Message,” to use Marshall McLuhan’s signature phrase). 

Similarly inseparable from the TV medium and interconnected with the technological world is the “Couch Potato” of the internationally acclaimed Korean-American performance and conceptual artist Nam June Paik.  The distance between the TV viewer sitting in his reclining La-Z-Boy chair and the TV screen he is watching has melted as the TV (together with much more technology) has mounted on and penetrated the subject. Who sits in Paik’s La-Z-Boy chair is thus no longer a person, but a robot made out of television sets, video components, joysticks, remote controls, mail boxes, cash registers, and a working fax machine.The installation seems to forecast the moment when technology will conquer the human to the point of making him altogether redundant. 


Couch Potato

Television has mediated and dictated our view of the divine and Nature. “Now that the Super Bowl is over / … God has come back to life / in the form of a man in a suit on TV…,” Perelman notes. (“Untitlable” 30). Similarly, Paik’s video work reveals, we no longer know the shape of the moon unless we see it on the TV. Before there was television, man used to watch the moon, Paik reminisces in “Moon is the Oldest TV” (1965) – an arc of 13 monitors, showing the phases of the moon. “Moon Is the Oldest TV: Colored Version” (2000) makes the clever argument that the moon, because it reflects light from the sun, functions like a primitive television receiver. Nature has turned into an intricate part of the media landscape. In “TV Garden,”  Paik tucks glowing monitors among bowers of philodendron. At first, the viewers wonder if it would be possible for plants to survive with only blue video light. But, as we continue looking at the TV screens, we start to question if, and for how long, we could survive glued to the tube, with no other light but that which comes from our televisions. 


TV Garden, 1982 version. Single-channel video installation with live plants and monitors; color, sound; variable dimensions. Collection of the artist. © The Estate of Peter Moore/VAGA, NYC.


Cognitive Overstimulation and Information Overload: The Traumatic Impacts of Mass Media Technology on the Mind 

This [the explosion of unlimited information] will be the great accident of the future, the one that comes after the succession of accidents that was specific to the industrial age. 

--- Paul Virilio


Alongside its positive potentials, the emplacement of the subject in the new media environment has turned into the cause of anxiety and gloomy predictions. Cultural critics have already used the terminology of trauma to describe the technological future. Discussing the “damage caused by the explosion of unlimited information,” Virilio portends that “what lies ahead is … a shock, a mental concussion. And this outcome ought to interest us. Why? Because never has any progress in a technique been achieved without addressing its specific negative aspects. The specific negative aspect of these information superhighways is precisely this loss of orientation…, this disturbance in the relationship with the other and with the world” (“Speed and Information”). Language poets reveal a similar awareness of what lies beyond the boundless possibilities opened by technology and call for identifying and withstanding the negative impacts of the new environment. “This technological change – it’s a mistake to call it progress – will not be reversed,” Bernstein asserts, “and artists run the risk of nostalgia if they refuse to recognize and respond, the better to resist, the communications environment within which, for better or worse, they find themselves” (“I Don’t Take Voice Mail: The Object of Art in the Age of Electronic Technology” 75). 

Unlike the media characterizing the Second Wave production system, each one of which performed more or less independently of the other, the new communications media are closely interlinked together and constantly supply a flow of information back and forth to one another. These media engender what Marshal McLuhan called a “global village,” a world united in a singular communications network and operating at uncommonly accelerated speeds.  The World Wide Web has brought the world together, effacing the notions of distance and depth, and granting us immediate access to inexhaustible reservoirs of information. A powerful descendant of the internet, the “information superhighways” are what Bernstein sees as the future site of unlimited information. As he puts it in “I Don’t Take Voice Mail: The Object of Art in the Age of Electronic Technology,”   “Today’s internet – a decentralized, largely text-based, linking of individual sites or constellations of users – will be superseded by what is aptly called the information superhighway” (My Way 73). This statement is particularly revealing, since Bernstein wrote it before the World Wide Web had become generally available in its current form. Using some of the concepts developed in “Play It Again, Pac-Man,” the author provides a glimpse into the fast evolving technological future, while refusing to compete with it and “resist[ing] the tendency to revise [the] essay in the light of the often oppressively (or possibly exhilaratingly) fast changes in computer technology and the formats for using it.” ( 

These fast changes in technology released abundant flows of data that overwhelmed the subject and threatened to disrupt his/her continued psychological experience. More than a century ago, Albert Einstein warned that this detrimental force, which he called “unlimited information,” would follow in the footsteps of wartime industrialism and prophesied the coming of the “second bomb” in the wake of the atomic one, “a bomb whereby real-time interaction would be to information what radioactivity is to energy. The disintegration then will not merely affect the particles of matter, but also the very people of which our societies consist” (Virilio, “Speed and Information”). Thus, as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, Einstein envisioned the traumatic effect that the information overload would exert on the subject, and, using the metaphor of the bomb, alluded to its destructive impact on the subject’s body and psyche. 

The condition of information overload first became a reality in the wake of modern society. Walter Benjamin accounts for the phenomenon by studying the traumatic shock effects of the modern city. The new media of newspapers and cinema, and the shock effects of modern urban life traumatized the subject, disrupted the traditional structure of human experience, and made the absorption and meaningful integration of new experience in the mind no longer possible. Popular art, according to Benjamin, became the primary manifestation of the sensory state of information overload. 

As the post-industrial stage entered its advanced stage, the threats of unlimited information became increasingly more apparent. The last decades of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of regimes of media and technological power unprecedented in scale and potential. Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, calls this late capitalist stage in the evolvement of technology The Third Machine Age (36) and places its arrival in the 1980s. Colossal in its dimensions and unparalleled in its sophistication, the late capitalist boom of highly developed electronic technologies emerged unforeseen and utterly unfathomable to the subject. The latter was abruptly overwhelmed by an unmatched and elaborate “network of power and control even more difficult for [his/her] … mind and imagination to grasp” (Jameson 38), a phenomenon diagnosed as incurring a state of global high-tech paranoia. Failing to keep pace with the exclusive velocity of technological developments, the subject proved unable to adequately process and assimilate them. He/she was biologically unequipped to take in so much newness within so little time. As a result, the new regimes of media and electronic culture inflicted an implacable “mutation of the object unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject” (Jameson 38). The subject’s inability to catch up with the changes of his/her rapidly transmuting technological environment thus redefined the limits of his or her psychic existence. In many ways, I argue, Language poetry recasts precisely these multifaceted changes in the psychic life of the subject and offers a glimpse into the interplay between media technology and contemporary lyric poetry.   

The works of Perelman and Bernstein often attest to the emplacement of the subject within the new technological environment and portray the lyrical persona as assaulted by a high-speed inflow of unprocessed images and information. In Perelman’s “Virtual Reality” (7), for instance, the “setting of the story / of our [the lyric heroes’] life” (7) is fully technological in nature – they are described amidst the noise of radio waves, against the landscape of routes, cars, and constantly changing billboards. Inside, the “car radios were displaying / the body of our song, marked / with static from Pacific storms. Outside / was the setting for the story / of our life: Route 80 near / Emeryville – fence, frontage road, bay, hills, / billboards changing every couple of months.” It is both the ubiquity of the new media environment and the speed at which it is presented to the mind that are of interest to the author. At an uncommonly accelerated pace, the media-engendered icons whiz by the cast of actors in the car, as they remain completely unequipped to catch and apprehend them. “Virtual Reality” also introduces the theme of the present that has been abruptly “stopped short” (7), as a technologically-determined future redefines the life of the subject: “It was the present – there was nothing to contradict this – but it / seemed stopped short, a careless afterthought, / with the background impossible to keep / in focus” (7, italics added). Perelman describes the unexpected arrival of the highly advanced technological future as an unavoidable and psychically traumatic experience. He implies the figure of a subject who is trying to get hold of and make sense of the rapidly changing technological landscape only to find out that the technological “background [is] impossible to keep / in focus” (7) and he will soon be fully overrun by it. “We could almost see / our hands seizing towers, chains, dealerships, / the structures that drew the maps,” the lyrical self reminisces in the poem’s finale, “but there was no time to / read them, only to react… the global information net had become / obsessed with our body’s every move…” (Perelman, “Virtual Reality” 10). The lyrical persona reaches for the countless images and messages that surround him from all sides, but remains unable to capture, let alone assimilate and integrate them into his present experience. 

This all-encompassing condition of “cognitive overstimulation” (355)  emerges as the rationale behind Virilio's updating of Marshall McLuhan's catch phrase “the medium is the message” referring to the Information Age. Nowadays, Virilio proclaims, it is no longer the medium per se but rather the “velocity of the medium” that is the message (The Information Bomb 141). Likewise, the meaning of information is no longer contained in its material substrate, but rather, in “the rapidity of its feedback” (143). When an accident occurs, it is equally unlikely that information has inflicted it; instead, it is in information’s unprecedented velocity that we find the basic cause: “When one raises the question about the risks of accidents on the information (super) highways, the point is not about the information in itself, the point is about the absolute velocity of electronic data,” Virilio claims (“Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!”). 

The “velocity of electronic data” along the information superhighways has also become the subject of video art. Paik’s “The Electronic Superhighway”  is among the artist’s more recent commentaries on the topic.  In fact, Paik claims to be the inventor of the term “electronic superhighway,” which he avows to have coined back in the early 1970s. “The Electronic Superhighway” features 38 video sculptures, including 25 new works, utilizing more than 650 television sets programmed to display Paik’s video images. They reveal how incredibly fast and far-reaching the changes brought by the Information Revolution are. Cyberspace has gone local, invading the most remote corners of the world. As Paik’s work uncovers, cyber-town is where small-town America meets the information superhighway and is populated by Internet travelers surfing through oceans of electronic information. 

Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway” embodies in eloquent ways the all-encompassing power of the new informational networks and the fast pace at which they are presented to the mind. The US map has been transformed into a giant neon video installation. A grid of bright lights outlines the boundary of the country, while TV screens flash with the pictures and sounds of the fifty states. Paik attempts to portray each state through what is most representative of it, at least, according to his own perception of the country. While all states are seen as partaking of one common electronic superhighway, some of them seem capable of racing along the information highway faster. Iowa, a “primary state,” is presented by a computer-generated montage of candidates that flicker by. A lot of presidential images – of Carter and Nixon, of JFK, Eisenhower, and Truman – flash by at a pace our eyes can hardly catch up with. Oulined in red, yellow, and green, California is another state presented through a screen that flashes images at hectic speeds. The frenetic pace of the images and their immobilizing effects on the mind stand out as the most evocative feature of California, and of the video work as a whole. “The images are moving really fast, Lynn Neary of NPR observes in an interview with Betsy Broun, director of the newly reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum. “You can’t event look at those images,” she adds. “California is very hallucinogenic. You see a lot of 0s and 1s. He [Paik] is very aware of the digital revolution. You see a lot of Golden Gate Bridge that kind of flashes by really quickly…,” Broun relates.




Like “The Electronic Superhighway,” Paik’s video sculpture “Megatron” (1995) displays fast-paced video images that fleet across a wall of TV screens (150 of them) in a continually changing sequence. Exhibited at the entrance of the Guggenheim Soho's exhibition “Mediascape” (1997), “Megatron” stuns the visitor with a jumble of indiscriminate video clips that range from art history to sports events, from Eastern to Western traditions and culture. This visual chaos is periodically interrupted by the recurring patterns of a bird or fish flowing across the wall of screens or the erotic images of a bare-breast woman.


The images reflect the chopped-up nature of mainstream television, on which news spots lasting a matter of seconds outnumber in-depth, feature-length reports. They seem to compete with and offset the hectic television images, which next to the video clips appear slow and outpaced.

Like Paik, Dara Birnbaum, a New York video artist with one-person exhibitions at such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna), characterizes her strategy as an attempt to slow down the overwhelming speed of technology. Birnbaum’s work undertakes to arrest the rapid flow of media images and then repeat them continuously, thus estranging them from their habitual context and allowing the viewer to assimilate and assign meaning to them. While this is hardly a new practice (estrangement /otstranenie/ dates back to Russian Formalism and the writings of Victor Shklovsky, in particular), its use within the medium of video and television is highly creative. To achieve the desired reconstruction of television imagery, Birnbaum employs video as her main tool. In her video work “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman” (1978-79), Birnbaum arrests the fast-paced flow of images from the action TV series of the same name, popular in the late seventies. Through repeating and fragmenting key scenes, in which the real female protagonist transforms herself from a simple office employee into a sexy superhero, Birnbaum punctuates essential moments and gives the viewer the possibility of mastering and analyzing them. Interrupting, cutting, and repeating the same shots or televised images thus enable Birnbaum to counter their psychologically traumatic assault on the mind, by allowing the latter the time to register, process, and interpret them. As Birnbaum puts it in her Artist’s Statement, “Talking Back to the Media,” the goal of her art is “to slow down the ‘technological speed’ attributed to this medium; thus ‘arresting’ moments of tv-time for the viewer. For it is the speed at which issues are absorbed and consumed by the medium of video/television, without examination and without self-questioning, which at present still remains astonishing” (52). It is in this way that Birnbaum hopes to initiate a “talking back” to the media, “rather than a deletion of the issues and numbness, due to the constant ‘bombardment,’ which this medium can all too easily maintain” (56). 


Coping with the Wrong Tomorrow: Testimonies to the Trauma of Temporal Dislocation in the Age of Media Saturation

Together with the build-up of information superhighways, we are facing a new phenomenon: loss of orientation.”  

--- Paul Virilio


Poets are seismographs of the psychic realities that are not seen or heard in less sensitive media; poems chart realities that otherwise go unregistered. 

--- Charles Bernstein

Unable to catch up with the changes of his rapidly transmuting technological environment, the subject experienced an unsuspected temporal displacement. The highly evolved technological future had arrived too early, before man could adequately prepare for it. In an abnormal reversal of temporality, the subject saw his future happen – it overtook the present, blended with it, and made the concept of distinct temporal zones meaningless and “shattery.” In Perelman’s words, what the lyrical I was left with was “only a future / more shattery than ever but still / nearer to us than the present” (“From the Front” 26, italics added). “[T]he future is now,” Paik memorably noted. Prematurely achieved and, in a sense, abolished, the future seemed unwelcoming and “barely interested”: “…Our / machines filled the freeway with names / and desires, hurling aggressively streamlined messages / toward a future that seemed restless, / barely interested” (10). Unsuspectedly, it was the present that acquired significance, the immediate time that had substance. The sudden collapse of the temporal perspectives into a single dimension – that of the present – announced the end of teleology and the demise of history. The lyrical persona was confined to the “‘now’ time,” doomed to abide in an eternal present. As Bernstein renders the experience, “In the timeless time of the video screen, where there is no future and no history, just a series of events that can be read in any sequence, we act out a tireless existential drama of ‘now’ time” (Play It Again, Pac-Man” 139, italics added). The subject was deprived of any existence beyond the momentary, present one. “To exist, is to exist in situ, here and now, hic et nunc, Virilio proclaims. “This is precisely what is being threatened by cyberspace and instantaneous, globalized information flows” (“Speed and Information”).

Unable to arrest the flow of time and give it more than a momentary meaning, the subject has a very Baudrillardian experience: he feels the strange sensation of perceiving his reality as if in the rear mirror of a car – always one moment too late, never having the time for adequate processing; hence, the agonizing feeling of a missed experience that overwhelms the lyrical persona in many Language poems. Overtaken by the rapidly changing technological realities, the lyrical I finds s/he is unceasingly too late, arriving and locating him/herself in these realities, and that immutable belatedness gives rise to a peculiar, disquieting uneasiness. As Bernstein testifies to the experience: “…What is this anxiety / one feels in arriving late, not meeting / deadlines, desires, go-betweens” (“Looking About” 74, italics added). Invariably in arrears, the subject loses the ability to comprehend the future that s/he meets and assign cognitive value to it. This inability to come to terms with the unanticipated displacement of temporality results in a psychologically traumatic experience. In the words of the Anti-Trauma Inc., the question becomes: “How do you cope with tomorrow when / (a) it may not be like the real tomorrow but / (b) it's arrived when you weren't ready for it? (227) / Wrong tomorrow. It's going to overtake you anyway... (229) / . . . Wrong tomorrow. Ash longer, vita brevis (Brunner, italics added). 

This sudden eschatological displacement into a “wrong” and meaningless tomorrow, inflicted by the subject’s incapacity to process the excess of information data, has turned into the cause of a severely disorienting experience. “[U]nable to unify the past, present, and future of [his/her] own biographical experience or psychic life” (Jameson 27), the subject has endured a “fundamental loss of orientation” (Virilio, “Speed and Information”). In a virtual reality that far exceeds the speed of human thought and the capacity of our mind to integrate the overloads of information, he/she has been thrown off balance, perpetually swaying and drifting. The future no longer seems imaginable or in any way predictable. No stable orienting points render help to the bewildered subject. He/she cannot conceive of what awaits him/her. “Anxious and waiting for something, but not / definable - amorphous” is how Bernstein renders the experience (“Substance Abuse” 87). No trusty guideline promises assistance in the attempt to forecast the future – the letters in the soup of Henrietta Hippo are as dependable as any social method. “Henrietta Hippo believes she can predict the future by reading the letters in her alphabet soup,” Bernstein recounts (“Comraderie Turns to Rivalry” 26). And there seems to be no better means for getting hold of the elusive temporality. 

The unforeseen reconfiguration of the temporal dimension is particularly visible in Bob Perelman’s The Future of Memory. Even a cursory glimpse at the titles of Perelman’s poems, comprising The Future of Memory, unveils the poet’s manifest preoccupation with the dimension of time. “To the Future,” “To the Past,” “Writing in Real Time,” “Symmetry of Past and Future” are only a few of the poems that demonstrate Perelman’s pronounced interest in the realm of temporality and that grapple to redefine, in a highly provocative way, the new scope of reality. A careful look into Perelman’s poems reveals that they stage with striking consistency two unnatural dislocations of poetic reality. Firstly, most poems present an anomalous flattening of the chronotope, defined by a future that retreats into the past and leaves an emptied temporal space ahead of the subject. Secondly, Perelman’s poems enact the traumatic displacement of the poet’s persona beyond his anticipated and cognitively recognizable future, and testify to his existence in an estate after the future, in a meaningless and ambiguous post-futural modus vivendi. Furthermore, The Future of Memory records with disturbing exactitude the traumatic ramifications of both these disruptions of poetic reality.

The shock inflicted on the lyrical persona is intimately linked, in Perelman’s collection, to the subject’s unforeseen encounter with a prematurely consumed and “pre-owned” future. A close examination of Perelman’s The Future of Memory reveals that it abounds in emphatically atypical depictions of a future reality that does not lie ahead of the subject, but is, instead, viewed as an already achieved and invalidated experience, as a precipitously realized and lived out “tomorrow.” Faced with the discovery that “America, [his] life, the page, / the academy of the future, / … as it turns out, / [are] in the past,” the poet can no longer envision his life as a continued and meaningful biographic experience (“The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake” 32). Instead, as portrayed in Perelman’s “To the Future,” he senses the immanence of a shocking and apocalyptic collapse: “I always expected some kind of / indefinite continuance but…/ … the world will end / up breaking apart… / … I’ll probably feel a bit shocked all the way through…” (39). In a similarly peculiar stance, death is repositioned from its customary domain after the future to an abode markedly located in the subject’s past. “They will die / last night / We have lived / tomorrow,” Perelman proclaims in “The Womb of Avant-Garde Reason” (102). In the same work, he repeatedly forecasts that “the future will lie down / with the past” (96). Perelman’s work thus enacts a peculiar overlapping of the temporal zones of the future and the past. The two are often equated and loaded with equivalent semantic charge: “… a day that will / never die, since it only exists / in the past and the future…” (113, italics added). The past and the future are in perfect symmetry, as implied in the very title of Perelman’s work “Symmetry of Past and Future” (103).

The violent disruption of the temporal dimension, caused by the unprecedented boom of media technologies, and the traumatic dislocation of the subject into an untimely and meaningless future have turned into the focus of video art as well. Leaving the 20th Century by Los Angeles-based artist Max Almy, for instance, creates a science fiction narrative of televisual time-travel via the electronic circuit and computer chip. Staging a three-part transition – countdown, departure, arrival – to a technological future, foreclosed and emptied of meaning, Almy presents the liquefying of the subject’s points of reference brought about by the fathomless changes in technology. Almy uses video and computer techniques to simulate the hyperreality of a futuristic “landscape with no detail or points of reference,” a space without perspective or point of view (Leaving the 20th Century).  

The liquefaction and liquidation of temporal perspective is also the object of Fabrizio Plessi’s signature work Liquid Time II (1993)  – a work that has become one of the most popular symbols of the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, the mecca of media art.   Over the years, Plessi has been especially taken with the movement of water, a preoccupation he has pursued since the 1970s and evident in many of his works – most prominently, Rome II” (1988) and “Liquid Crystals” (1993). 







“Tempo Liquido” (Liquid Time) presents a 5-meter tall wheel that turns slowly above a long steel tank, along the base of which water flows in a gutter. It is easy to recognize that the structure is a mill wheel, but, instead of water, what we find in each of its scoops is a monitor that shows video footage of cascading water. As the wheel turns, the water displayed on each of the monitor screens (21 TV sets) briefly meets the real water bubbling along the gutter in the tank. “There is a profound analogy,” Plessi believes, “between the two elements: water is the ancient element, ancestral, original. Video is an element of today, linked to our exited and telematic lives. … for many years now I have thought of these two only apparently different elements as being practically mutually osmotic, or better, as living a secret life full of undisclosed complicity. …” (Catalogue Museum Ludwig). The primal source of life and our world thus clash with the new information reality. History dissolves into the future. The ancient and the modern merge in one. Time liquefies, as the virtual blue liquid and the real bubbling water flow together in the basin, forming a common uniform stream. The “impossible cohabitation” (Plessi, Catalogue) between the natural and the technological becomes the symbol of a history that meets the electronic future in a timeless, ceaselessly revolving present. Tumbling down the future and the past, the watermill produces the energy of a temporally indiscriminate present where the subject has no way to navigate and can easily drown. 

Without any reference points beyond the homogenous present and with no horizon by which to orient himself, the subject feels powerless to unravel the riddle of his reality. “I find the nature and tone / of your questions to be / extremely discouraging, and to / reflect an alarming lack of / understanding…,” Bernstein reports (“Substance Abuse” 82). In another of his poems, tellingly named “Asylum,” Bernstein dwells on a motif consistently recurring throughout the works in Islets/Irritations, that of “failures of assimilation” (36). As the natural perspective is erased and all limits, center, and horizons collapse into a meaningless and amorphous continuum, language also falls apart. Bernstein’s “was, rain, dish,” for instance, consists of six pages of fully disconnected words, abbreviations, numbers, and even monetary values: “was, rain, dish / our, an, much / took, kid, stretch / well, real, didn’t / immersion, wanted, attractive / oooooo, my, served / &, see, so / … summarily, $116, available / screaming, they, off / down, is, all…” (12-13). Though not directly linked to the question of technology, the poem reflects the random organizational patterns of the information settings within which it is generated and testifies to the ramifications of their overwhelming impact. As Bernstein himself admits in “An Interview with Hannah Mockel-Rieke,” his work is never isolated from contemporary media: it replicates the jargon of technology, “its blather and its displacement” and “sounds” the “methods of organization” of the environments defining it: “I am a part of the first generation to grow up on, or anyway with, TV. My work is as influenced by Dragnet as by Proust. Indeed, quite apart from the sorts of contexts and influences I was belaboring earlier, I would insist on the primary influence of the contemporary moment: on the forms and materials given to us in the specific time we are living. This makes for a poetry that engages the social world directly, by taking on its jargon and its technologies, its blather and its displacements, not only as subjects but as methods of organization, as environments, to be sounded and tested and thought through by and in the poem (70-71, italics added). Indeed, what better way to theorize the new poetic practice than in the words of Bernstein – Language poets “sound” the media environment.

While at first sight nonsensical, the “blather and its displacement” that Bernstein refers to, I would argue, possesses a hidden referential power. The jumbled-up syntax and disjointed patterns are often the result of forces that act beyond authorial intentionality and testify in much more faithful ways to the structure and impacts of the technological environment. Since the poet can no longer be conceived apart from the writing machines of our digital age, he/she no longer writes, but is written, instead, by the media assemblages in which s/he is integrated. Rewriting the effects of media, the machinic assemblages involve much more than the poet’s intentions and meanings, and bring to the fore structures that are asignifying rather than simply linguistic. Bernstein himself admits to the fact that his works often slip outside the scope of his skills and convictions, at times evolving into a kind of “gibberish” that he is completely powerless to govern: it streams out with improper rhymes, with senseless “repetitions, careless / constructions”: “Everything I write, in some mood, sounds / bad to me. It reads like gibberish – / unnecessary rhymes, repetitions, careless / constructions – a loss of conviction” (“Substance Abuse” 79). Immediately following these verses, the author makes a curious admission: the “gibberish” that he creates is not the product of his failed efforts; instead, it constitutes linguistic “orders” that Bernstein simply “finds” and lets “speak for themselves” what often may be an unmastered by the mind experience. Hence the uneasiness the poet feels when documenting that linguistic “gibberish,” thus giving up his passion for composing lofty poetry that would assert his recognition. “Whether / I am content,” the author ponders, “to want to let those / orders I find speak for themselves, if / it is the orders as I make them that / I want to compel my own lost recognition” (“Substance Abuse” 79, italics added). 

Poetic gibberish seems more equipped to represent the psychically traumatic dislocation in the subject’s temporality than any verbally coherent and linguistically polished structure. As Bernstein fervently announces, “’[B]ad grammar’ can speak more truthfully than correct grammar…” (Content’s Dream 29). Syntactical and verbal fracturing can more reliably record the symptoms of eschatological disruption. “There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made,” Guiles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue (4). Recording and registering come forth as just another means of representing – a viable alternative to telling about and interpreting. Not by accident, in an interview he gave at the University of Pennsylvania, Perelman described the Language poets not as story-tellers, but as “antennae of the race or social receptors,” responsible to listen to and “catch a whole spectrum of different voices” (“The Poetry Man: Interview with Bob Perelman” 2). 

Similar must be the antennae that catch and feed the raw material of technical reality into the TV monitors of American video artist Bruce Nauman’s installation Raw Material: Brrr (1990).



The two monitors are complemented by a large screen on an adjacent wall as they all display the same monotonous image – that of the artist’s face, distorted in a repetitious and violent movement. Shaking his head from side to side, Nauman relentlessly spews out the same fully meaningless monosyllable: “brrr” (interestingly, invoking the first name of the artist). The painful physical effort revealed as the artist’s face distorts in this nonsensical gesture forces the viewer to resist the monotony of the repetition and ponder the traumatic impacts of the electronic media, which have besieged the mind with countless inscrutable signals. The blurting of the continuous “brrr” becomes a truthful testimony to the baffled state of the subject who is powerless to master and give semantic value to the aggressively encroaching and increasingly fast-paced media realities.

The subject’s lack of control over his or her reality is often accompanied in Language poetry by a desperate striving to come to grips with it. As typical of psychological trauma, the attempt to recapture a missed and unregistered psychic experience is frequently expressed in reenacting the undigested event. Bernstein’s “Play It Again, Pac-Man,” for instance, alludes in its very title to the act of re-enactment (“playing it again”) as indicative of the lyric hero’s endeavor to comprehend the structure of a self-governing computerized regime, impossible to fathom and predict, through playing once again the all-powerful, invincible computer game. 

In “Play It Again, Pac-Man,” Bernstein outlines the position of the subject in post-industrial reality, depicting him as a powerless victim in a world of countless and aggressively encroaching media events, ”…a world where it is not just infantile or adolescent but all too human to feel powerless in the face of bombarding events” (138, italics added). From the perspective of French critical thought, Jean Baudrillard reechoes the motif of our subjugation to bombardments staged by the technically advanced regimes of power: “We are already all strategic hostages in situ; our site is the screen on which we are virtually bombarded day by day...”(25), “...we whom the screens submit to the same violence, that of the battered, manipulated and powerless prisoner, that of forced voyeurism in response to the forced exhibitionism of the images” (39, italics added). On a similar note, in his analysis of the impacts of late twentieth-century mass media revolution, Robert Jay Lifton ironically remarks that “the staggering array of images and ideas coming from all media – television, radio, and the press – and bombarding us from all sides,” have made McLuhan declare ,“with a characteristically serious put-on,… that he had changed his thinking, would no longer say that the medium is the message; he was now convinced instead that ‘the medium is the massage’, meaning that ‘all media work us over completely, …leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered’” (19).

Technology, in late capitalist conditions, thus comes forth as the ruthless alien who bombards, subjugates, and traumatizes us, and whom we can no longer hold back and constrain. “But isn’t the computer really the alien – the robot – that is bombarding us with its world picture (not view), its operating environment; that is always faster and more accurate than we can ever hope to be; and that we can only pretend to protect ourselves from…,” Bernstein reflects (“Play It Again, Pac-Man” 141, italics added). Indeed, as Perloff insightfully notes, “…at least as far as what Charles Bernstein calls ‘official verse culture’ is concerned, technology, whether computer technology or the video, audio, and print media, remains, quite simply, the enemy…” (Radical Artifice 19, italics added). Not being able to fend off the abnormally fast, and therefore inimical, technological realities, the mind records them in its structures in their full opaqueness and incomprehensibility. This mechanism of inscription fulfills a critical historic task, expanding the archive of memory by documenting testimonies to a time when the glut of information data and the speed at which they assaulted the brain inflicted psychic trauma on the subject; a time when, overpowered by “that other form of sepulchre, the chattering television screens,” we all became “hostages of media intoxication...” (Baudrillard, The Gulf War 63). Notwithstanding its semantic opacity, this means of referring to and capturing reality constitutes just another, and, I would argue, more reliable, form of literary representation.


Rather than precluding the capacity of postmodern texts to refer to our world, Language poetry, I have argued, has forced us to reconceptualize the notions of reference and reality. If we conceive of referentiality as limited to the semantically coherent portrayal of our immediate, perceptual, and empirically knowable world then, indeed, Language poems are often devoid of it. If we, however, expand the definition of this term to encompass the jumbled-up syntax and incoherent grammar that Language works often exhibit, we would uncover their exceptional power to testify and refer to a whole new, unassimilated by the mind and thus resisting meaningful representation, dimension of reality. My article has sought to reveal the ways in which, in our postmodern age, poetry has ceased to enjoy a position of sovereignty, but has become, instead, connected with multiple media systems. Rather than functioning only through the medium of language, it is now mixing very different regimes of signs and making use of flows and exchanges that are asignifying as opposed to simply linguistic and semiotic. Postmodern poetry has thus become part of a complex machinic assemblage that operates within an information (and not purely discursive) formation and establishes a new relationship between the practice of writing and information technology. What Language poems remind us is that, in our postmodern society, we have witnessed the death of the godlike creator, formerly endowed with the exceptional power to “represent” the world outside his poem – such comfortable boundary between the inner content of the poem and the external world around it has long ceased to exist. As the two are rhizomatically interconnected, the poem functions as much more than the reflection of authorial intentions. Instead, it operates as an Aufschreibesystem  that translates the discourse of the media outside of the text into poetic realities. Such an interpretation of poetry as a machine that reads and rewrites the effects of media marks the transition from a hermeneutic to a medial understanding of representation. In an age where the media effects overwhelm the subject with far more information than s/he can register, digest, and furnish with semantic weight, the Language poem, I have argued, performs the historical function of recording information that the subject cannot assimilate and will thus never become part of the poet’s experience. While resisting the traditional definitions of representation and referentiality, this mode of registering reality serves a critical historic function, providing faithful testimonies to a moment when, with the outset of the Information Age, the overabundance of media stimuli, coupled with the hectic pace at which they bombarded the mind, inflicted psychic trauma on the individual.



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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Albena Vassileva "Trauma, Reference, and Media Technology in Postmodern American Poetry: The Testimonies of Language Writing ". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available October 1, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: June 16, 2010, Published: November 1, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Albena Vassileva