I’ve had a chance to finally go through Marjorie Perloff‘s “Language,” which has been open on my MacBook Pro forever…well, at least since August 7, when it was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Perloff, one of the preeminent lit critics and a champion of the Language Poets and other avant-garde movements, takes on the changes in the nation since the events of 9/11.
In her essay, she argues that an event that should have made us more attuned to the outside world haa, paradoxically, made us more inward instead:
“The very language of the decade expresses our anxiety about the outside world. Talk of the ‘third world’ and ‘emergent nations,’ expressing as it does a first-world confidence and sense of control, has given way to the ubiquitous ‘our planet,’ as in, ‘saving our planet.’ …”
“When most Americans talk of saving our planet, they have a myopic view: They mean the environment they witness every day, with its SUV-clogged freeways, plastic-bottle glut, and absurd excesses of electricity and water consumption. In this context, a session at Whole Foods Market may feel comforting, but what about those places on the planet where there is not enough electricity to speak of excess or where there are no paper diapers to clog landfills? Better not to think about them, and to focus on such issues as childhood obesity (Michelle Obama‘s cause) or the relative effectiveness of the various sunscreens on the market.”
“Perhaps, now that a decade has gone by since 9/11, it is time for us once again to look outward. The increasingly tedious discourse of self-reflection—based on the assumption that we are the leaders of the ‘free world’—must give way to a more accurate sense of who and where we are in relation to the developing nations and cultures in our ‘global’ backyard. Language study—not just of ‘foreign’ languages but also of our own—will help us to deal with the reality that, as Wallace Stevens put it, ‘we are not / At the center of the diamond.’”
I don’t find her final argument terrifically convincing. “We are not the center of the world” has been the mantra of President Obama, but so far I don’t see Brazil or South Korea or even China stepping up to the plate of “world leader,” though their economies may be (comparatively) booming and their populations swelling. Perhaps the role of “world leader”itself is one of the 21st century’s early retirees, and there are no cops on the beat anymore.
Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.