by Cam Scott
Vanessa Place is not a fool and does not require anyone’s help. Or possibly, she is a fool and is beyond help. Either will do. And yet just last week, Lang-Po magnate Ron Silliman announced that ‘il est Vanessa,’ forcing the matter to a binary decision around identification with her person, much as the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo had done weeks prior with their escalating calls to AWP to replace her as a juror at this year’s conference event. Let’s excerpt a particularly extortionate co-theory from Silliman’s op-ed: “Are the signers of the petition to the AWP really that different from the police officer who fired at Michael Brown? If so, it is only in degree, not in kind.” This is such a reckless statement that I don’t even know how to respond. If Silliman means to conflate these matters, the burden of proof is on him.
Straightaway, I don’t believe that opposition to Place’s presence as an AWP juror has anything to do with the liberal bogey of censorship, which I don’t think can be exerted laterally by just anyone. Insofar as this is a question of tactics, there is the matter of locating the state in a given situation. This is obviously a major point of disagreement, and a properly political one at that, where certain privileged purveyors of whatsoever speech have outrightly conflated any display of strength with repression. But of course force may be wielded differently, creatively, radically. Many a white critic has blanched at this suggestion, citing “mob behaviour” in order to shore his (our) relative discursive fortunes. And yet, whenever I hear one such cite a mob, the foresight and authority of the Greek chorus springs to mind.
And the matter becomes less and less about the specific artists under discussion, or attack, by the day, as commentators reflexively turn up for duty in the most absolutely predictable fashion. Much as the moment has been forced to its crisis in the call for a decision, its more lasting repercussions will certainly concern readers’ own words and identifications. To pursue a formal analogy with power that actually works, consider Mongrel Coalition’s call-outs as a lesson in interpellation: denounce white supremacy in art and just watch who stands up indignantly.
This is not a senseless escalation but a properly political (so tactical) exacerbation of the stakes of discussion. At a glance, one may oppose the empty formalism of the defenders of free speech to those who insist upon treating the substantive content of each communication as though it were worthy and capable of a response. On another level, I’m not so sure that this formalism is a tenable position in itself: seeing as nothing like a proper challenge to some sacrosanct abstraction like ‘free speech’ is underway, I believe that this position tacitly endorses the specific content of Place’s speech, whilst condemning the specific content of her critics’ speech. Nobody is disinterested here.
So let’s talk about that. For a couple of years now, and up to this minute so far as I know, Vanessa Place has been tweeting text appropriated from Gone with the Wind as an ostensible challenge to the estate of Margaret Mitchell to take ownership of its virulent racism. I don’t know anyone who cares to dispute her intentionality on this point. As Place herself has emphasized over her career, that is the least salient aspect of a given work. Rather, the project is met on grounds of its fundamental inefficacy and insensitivity. A change.org petition to have her removed from the AWP conference asserts that “her recent work with Gone with the Wind re-inscribes that text’s racism-she does not abate it–in the flesh of every descendant of slaves.”
At this point, one must marvel at the self-certainty of the poet who persists in such an artwork, assured of its proper significance in spite of the emphatic correction of those for whom slavery is not an aesthetic concern, who are not themselves beneficiaries of this legacy—a relation to ‘her’ material that Place emphasizes by way of disclaimer. Place may profess some small distance from the agency of the author-compiler here, but does it matter? As the experience of trauma memorialized in and activated by the text vividly matters? As she asserts alongside Robert Fitterman in their co-authored Notes on Conceptualisms, “is the absence of mastery irrelevant to the presence of slavery? The answer may depend on in whose image the slave is made.”
Crucial to the practice of Vanessa Place is a performance of inherited, inescapable guilt; a guilt which inheres in the symbolic fabric of American society and inculpates every possible subjective standpoint. In describing her job as an appellate attorney, Place has proffered what she calls an “abject apology,” uttered with defensive pique and made from a position of assured complicity. On this point, I believe her to be sincerely insincere, or the opposite. We are each born in medias res, and yet retain some modicum of creative agency. Thus re-authoring Gone with the Wind is not a stoical endeavour; it is a restive, incessant labour. It puts something into play as for the first time, here and now. The risk is that Vanessa Place must take responsibility for Margaret Mitchell’s words as though their author, which she is: this is her Quixote, through and through. But everything follows from the manner in which one assumes responsibility.
One problem is that transcendental guilt can actually preclude doing better by one’s contemporaries and material. It is a credo tempting one to narcissistically swap awareness and concern for a self-sacrificial stance. And much of Vanessa Place’s work appears concerned with this a priori guilt, a wretchedness that saturates her own, and every, subject position. In this regard, it anticipates the present uproar, such that I might suggest abrupt censure as the only properly political interpretation of the work. So the pressing question is not so much ‘Why Vanessa Place?’ (she knows why, or the work fails doubly, by her ignorance as well as its insensitivity) so much as it becomes ‘Why only now?’
In a real way, today’s roving chorus gathers momentum from the aftermath of Kenneth Goldsmith’s supremely callous appropriation of the autopsy report of Michael Brown as yet another of his artistically vetted ‘American deaths,’ suitable for quick consumption. The uproar following this performance was concerted and immediate, and Goldsmith’s initial silence deafening. But his subsequent statement, an uninsightful and eerily standardized reiteration of the rules of his ‘uncreative writing practice,’ effectively poured gasoline on a fire. His transmission concludes with the words Ecce Homo, ‘Behold the Man’; by which the artist would appear either to compare himself to the crucified Christ, or worse, re-assert his appropriative authority over the body of Michael Brown by framing his death as a sacrifice. These gestures are not simply hackneyed, but re-duplicate the racist horror they will not in so many words denounce. (To do so would threaten the integrity of the artwork, it appears.)
‘Our critics are literalists,’ insist Goldsmith and Place, as though this weren’t the limit point of any merely reiterative conceptual writing practice. In other words, they appear to complain that critics are reading the work rather than the cultural capital that has accrued to their respective persons, or the site of each performance, which do and do not coincide. To which I would say No: your tormentors are reading the sordid conjuncture of the two, for the voicing wounds all the more deeply in its placement and specificity. The only surprising element here is the surprise itself.
The capitalization of reputation is a key theme in the work of both Place and Goldsmith, who count on their physical presence and the manner in which they manifest a text to sublate the bearings of its source. Goldsmith’s often excruciatingly dull books, for example, require his personality and advocacy as conductor or they would be worse than redundant of their appropriated content. In this way, if they are formally sublated, it is only by the Body (the corporation) of Kenneth Goldsmith himself; an instance of that special kind of immortal for whom this quantity is foremost something so nebulous as reputation. In this respect, Goldsmith’s work is homologous with capital, the use-value of his source largely irrelevant to his market. For his purposes the commodity enhanced by circulation could be anything: yesteryear’s traffic and weather reports, or the body of a black man murdered by the state. White supremacist or patriarchal logics also function along these lines, where one is judged according to the value afforded their person rather than anything else they may do or say. The literalist is improperly attached to use-value, taunts the sophisticated reactionary, whereas ours is monetized talk; which is only to say that many can’t afford the luxury.
Place has done a great deal to show that the force of poetic vocation is as often indifferent to meaning, the poem in its supposed preciosity as alienable as any other commodity. If we may take seriously for a moment the observation of Place et al that an oeuvre is a brand, we may enquire as to the falling market value of Con-Po at the moment. Tenured poets, academicians and paid Marxists all over the world are selling their shares; there’s a feeling of real panic on the floor.
This resonates with the structuring metaphor of William Benoit’s Image Repair Theory: “when faced with a threat to our image, we rarely ignore it, because our face, image, or reputation is a valuable commodity. We not only desire a healthy image of ourselves but want others to think favorably of us as well … Similarly, both non-profit and for-profit corporations, as well as governmental organizations, usually prefer to have others think well of them …” It’s not entirely clear if VanessaPlace Inc. is a for-profit corporation or a state bureau, but her brand is notably savvy with respect to consumer transference. For conceptual writing emphasizes a structural relation between communication and capitalization. Benoit, too: in his theory, meaning is largely marketing. Reputation underwrites speech such that we impute value(s) to a speaker’s words qua currency; the speculator-critic repairs to reference only in a time of crisis. In rendering the “paradoxical commodity” of culture—consisting in nothing but conflicting messages used up in their transmission—Place and Fitterman observe that conceptual writing “invites the reader to hallucinate repair.” (To contemplate the work they needn’t read, or to endure the very words they cannot stand to hear. )
Benoit’s morally disinterested formalism grants his theory its explanatory reach; personal and corporate recovery stories are recounted alongside one another in strikingly similar language. One result is that his project comes across as incredibly cynical, as though one’s movement through the world is but the buying of indulgences for later use, like gathering 1-ups in a video game. According to Benoit, after a public embarrassment or transgression—for one cynical means of repair is to convince oneself that the merely insensitive is in fact transgressive, therefore heroic—one must draw upon an established reputation: a reserve of public record, engendering good will.
Goldsmith’s statement on his performance at Brown attempted precisely this manoeuvre, referring the audience to his acclaimed Seven American Deaths and Disasters, and the momentary prestige of conceptual writing more generally. The statement likely backfired in that, rather than mitigating the frightful impact of his most recent performance, it drew greater critical attention to persistently problematic features of much related work. Thus we may observe a program of what Benoit calls “third party image repair,” a recuperative effort undertaken on an offender’s behalf by peers, whose stocks are falling, too. Third parties, Benoit notes, may have more credibility than the offender, and so may be especially effective in changing public perception. But they are incapable of apologizing on anyone’s behalf. Vanessa Place’s uselessly truistic wielding of Lacan is such that she sees these interactions as transpiring in a hall of mirrors; there are only third parties here, incapable of lodging a reply.
For this reason alone, I think it’s important for this commentator to situate himself alongside the work in question. If it’s not clear by now, I have little time for the rhetoric of Kenneth Goldsmith—who but the too privileged stands to benefit from a declared moratorium on expressive writing?—but have engaged certain of his works with interest and gratitude. Likewise, the work of Vanessa Place has enriched and enraged me in turn. I can only presume that others in my position have felt personally challenged by recent events because of a professed interest in these artists and their work. I mean (probably white) readers whose complicity may or may not consist in a self-conscious insistence that politics manifest aesthetically, but then theorize art’s autonomy in such fashion as protects artists from the political ramifications of their work. It goes without saying that this is an embarrassingly disinterested stake in such ghastly content. For certain of us, ‘nous sommes [insert embattled institution here]’ is a chastening realization and nothing like a rallying cry.
The question I ask myself, that I would encourage others like me to ask themselves individually, and to ask each other repetitively, is just what about the vaunted contexts of capital-a Art lulls us into a sense of security in comradeship, that we are so willing to furnish wicked acts with clever explanations on behalf of non-forthcoming authors, lips indignantly sealed? Whose company am I in when it is my wont to retroact my unwarranted expectation of responsibility and concern upon often explosively sloppy, hateful works, and then only when it suits? Am I so well looked after in the everyday that when confronted with a torrent of racist offense, I would sooner perform a sophisticated audit to exonerate the speaker than denounce the act? The catch-all excuse here, for modernist creativity, is artistic autonomy: accountability to no one.
One vector of complicity for me is that I appear structurally less susceptible to certain viscera, certain triggers; as a Euro-settler subject of white supremacy, my offence is at first abstract, intellectual and second-hand, as my bad faith vis-à-vis the body concerns the delusion that it can’t happen to me, simply because it doesn’t. Thus my merely intellectual opprobrium for self-sacrificial shock and awe can be recuperated as a kind of grim enjoyment, or at least understanding. This is just another form of pleasure; and the pleasure one takes in supposing to have understood something, even in order to disapprove of that thing, is gratifying nonetheless. One important difference between Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place concerns the relation of their respective performances to the pleasure principle; but at a decisive moment such as this, I don’t think this critical point is especially worth dwelling upon.
Why turn cartwheels against a common interest in defence of the irredeemable? (In keeping with her abject apologetics, I am sure that Vanessa Place herself would not object to this epithet.) In a word, prejudice. Our provisional ‘we,’ having believed something to be good insofar as it speaks to ‘us,’ must stand to abrupt correction. Over the last couple of weeks, we have all heard white poets declare Vanessa Place’s performances anti-racist, insofar as they perceive these works to have been mitigated by a common kink, the savour of guilt which is only the seedy obverse of white saviourism.
Allow me to rehearse one such defence, the sooner that it may be dismantled. The syllogism runs thus (in reverse, of course): as white guilt manifests extreme self-consciousness, by defying the latter term (prudishness) whilst affirming the former (guilt), Place enacts a kind of cathartic exorcism on behalf of ‘the audience,’ an abstract quantity we may suddenly perceive to have been presumed white from the start. If you, like me, feel sheepish to recognize yourself among this crowd, consider that it’s never too late to get up and leave. No more mining for art where the precious ore is another’s hurt.
By reducing language to data, conceptualists forget (or forgo) its bodily aspect. No wonder the artist qua synthesizer is confused when their language injures people as though it were a body— they have forgotten that, in actuality, it is precisely such a thing; it begins and ends with the body. Language is not information. It is somatic and it is a symptom.
I am only sketching this possible dynamic en route to a larger point: for interpretations are not excuses, and I have heard too many excuses passed off as interpretations this week to belabour this point. Above is a superficial white interpretation that preserves within it the very structures that it would oppose. An alternate reading has been offered, irrefutable insofar as it vocalizes a good deal of historical and present pain and trauma, and any audience that fails to admit of this reading is perpetrating a callous suppression. To draw lines with better precision than Ron Silliman, such an attempt to invalidate the sense of the ‘offended reading’ may even be a form of censorship, or worse. (For there are far worse things, one might add.)
‘Je Suis Vanessa,’ says Silliman. This is a loaded statement for, as seen, Vanessa Place has built a practice around the performance and assumption of an irremediable guilt. And seemingly, it has been her intent in so doing to inculpate or play upon the implicit sympathies of her audience. But recent events show us the limit point of this approach, in so many ways. For one, such a wilfully aggressive performance of guilt presumes a disjunction between that artistically crafted ‘evil’ persona and one’s own presence in the world. Identification with either is risky at best: but I don’t think that Place is foolish enough to believe that one may seek solace in a disjunct space between identities. I think that the repudiation of this inner haven is the basis of her practice and that’s why I don’t feel the least bit bad for her at this juncture. At the moment, Silliman’s rallying cry is a formal statement of solidarity with any and all speech up to and including the abominable, intention irrecoverable from beneath a mass of slurs and provocations. We should all be so lucky as to have the privilege of aligning ourselves with the loudest voice in the room when they are challenged, even en masse.
As all manner of over-cautious cowboys (a stunning contradiction, really) decry the ‘mob mentality’ fomented online after the fashion of Mongrel Coalition et al, I am tempted to ask, what’s wrong with a mob? Is there really something to this form, focused and disperse at once, that trumps the sensible cause for which it is mobilized? All I see is a pathological (read: apolitical) fear of wilful collectivity.
Jon Ronson, in his recent book against Twitter mobs and the like, accuses the swarm of mere schadenfreude. Ron Silliman does one worse and, in a scandalously provocative conflation, accuses these same structures of lynching. Minimally, I would suggest that Silliman’s defence of free speech is deeply conflicted insofar as it is highly conditional. Debates around freedom of speech must bracket the content in order to assert the unconditional right of any speaker to express themselves. (Never mind that I think this is liberal bad faith and deeply unwholesome; for when dozens or hundreds of marginalized voices appear in concerted formation, this does not suffice to make them an establishment equal in significance to that which they oppose, may they surpass it in strength. Only a protected fool could make this conflation.) Silliman’s coercive rhetoric of free speech is not adequately categorical, for he effectively tells us that every-person Place’s speech must be defended, while her critics are to be feralized and put down. Moments like this test the political reflexes of our contemporaries, so that we may see just how far their empathy extends and in what direction.
It’s often painful to be corroborated in one’s suspicions, but this white vanguard and its provocateurs run aground on the same few thoroughly bourgeois performative contradictions: heroic transgression of the law, protected by law; setting out to offend and crying foul when offence is noted. To hastily conclude, I would implore the mercenary artist: one can’t both sell the world and live in it. Moreover, where a language of hate denotes expensive taste, speech has never been free.
 Place, Vanessa & Fitterman, Robert. Notes on Conceptualisms. (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), 29
 For this reason perhaps, the only works of his that I managed to read were Soliloquy and Fidget, exercises in transcription-translation of incommensurable terms from an outer world largely resistant to the writer’s means. These auto-confessional works are appealing for having more in common with Modernist novelistics than conceptual art, but appear supremely ironic in retrospect of this moment: in Fidget, the beleaguered author cannot adequately trace or locate his body with words; and in Soliloquy, we find him talking only to himself.
 Benoit, William. Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), ix
 Place and Fitterman, 2009, 27
 Christian Bök, for example, wishes to remind us that Goldsmith’s forthcoming Capital is placed with Verso, “the greatest leftwing publisher in the world.” (https://twitter.com/christianbok/status/595311136490164226.) Presumably, it is morally incumbent upon me as a reader (now collector?) of Žižek to update my low esteem for Goldsmith, in receipt of this non-sequitur.
 Benoit, 2015, 97
 The Modernist anxiety of influence manifested by a core set of Conceptualists pertains; the objet a of whose output is posterity; the postulate of a future reader precludes a contemporary reply. Kenneth Goldsmith’s incessant disparagement of poetry is to this point; nobody reads poetry anymore, therefore my poetry will be unreadable, he decides. In this we glimpse again the twin antipodes of narcissism: if one can’t possess something utterly, one must oppose it with the same vigour. To be clear, I’m not interesting in the actual legibility of Goldsmith’s texts, but the sense of this advertising slogan, which may be but a timely affliction.