Category Archives: #WhosePlace

KNYGEEEE —Stéphane Doucet

I was gonna read Kenneth goldsmith’s sort-of not-apology as a conceptual poem about white guilt
Haha just kidding it’s about white imperialism
Haha just kidding really
No but I almost did
No I just thought about it
I mean I would have to self-immolate after
Just to get the taste out of my mouth, maybe chew some gum
Sidenote I actually need to explain that I’m new to poetry a tiny little baby if u will
Had no idea who KG was before well
Before well
Before march 2015
I’ve known about old white guys for a while though (got a couple of them as grandpas even) hey I’m already 27.
Hey I’m here to remind listeners that
KENNETH GOLDSMITH’S ‘THE BODY OF MICHAEL BROWN’
KENNETH GOLDSMITH (CREATOR OF) ‘THE BODY OF MICHAEL BROWN’ (THE OTHER CREATOR OF ‘THE BODY OF MICHAEL BROWN’ IS MICHAEL BROWN’S MOTHER, WHO WAS IN THE MILITARIZED STREETS OF FERGUSON FOR MONTHS FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE FOR HER MURDERED SON. SHE STILL FIGHTS TODAY.)
KENNETH GOLDSMITH’S (‘S DENOTES OWNERSHIP) ‘THE BODY OF (OF ALSO DENOTES OWNERSHIP) MICHAEL BROWN’ (THIS PHRASE MAY CONFUSE AS TO WHO OWNS THE BODY OF MICHAEL BROWN. IT IS A BATTLE BETWEEN AN ACADEMIC AND THE SOUL OF THE PERSON WHO INHABITS THE BODY ITSELF. MAYBE YOU DON’T THINK IT’S ONE OR THE OTHER. MAYBE YOU DON’T.)
By taking the phrase as a whole to mean the performance staged by Kenneth Goldsmith, we can say that it is a thing for white people, collectively
AND THIS “thing”
I’m using the word “thing” cuz I don’t know yet what this event will become but it will be shaped by discourse. OK UGH.
This thing is a “thing” we have to contend with, because it is part of a legacy of terrorism
And some people don’t get to hide behind cute denunciations of “psychopath” “monster” “lone gunman” shit like that. An individual’s act gets stapled to members of targeted populations and gets policed as such.
IF that fucker Kenny G ever again uses the phrase “death of the author” I hope Darren Wilson calls his bluff and shoots his dumb ass.
Who’s the author who wrote the story of America with their bodies.
Who’s the individual who wrote the declaration of independence on their idle asses.
This Kenneth guy wants to deny being an individual and fails but this has consequences
That performance is an epic confirmation of my dad’s favorite saying: “you choose your friends but god chooses your family”
Either way Kenneth goldsmith is now part of our familial collective voice, fellow whites, like the movie clerks, and limp bizkit, how do you feel? Oof I feel fucked.
Does this make KG the judas? The pariah necessary for redemption, bleacher of white sins?
Fuck. Maybe? We have our ways.

NOTES ON VANESSA PLACE INC. (FOR A MOMENT THAT MAY YET BE AN EVENT)

by Cam Scott

 

I.

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.

 

III.

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.[4] 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 …”[5] 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.”[6] (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.[7] Third parties, Benoit notes, may have more credibility than the offender, and so may be especially effective in changing public perception.[8] 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.

 

IV.

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.[9]

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.

[1] http://ronsilliman.blogspot.ca/2015/05/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-x-none_22.html

[2] https://www.change.org/p/association-of-writers-and-writing-conferences-remove-vanessa-place-from-the-awp-losangeles-conference-committee

[3] Place, Vanessa & Fitterman, Robert. Notes on Conceptualisms. (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), 29

[4] 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.

[5] Benoit, William. Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), ix

[6] Place and Fitterman, 2009, 27

[7] 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.

[8] Benoit, 2015, 97

[9] 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.

#WhosePlace —Brian Clements

A few weeks ago, Poor Yorick (an online journal for which I am the faculty advisor) posted a short film about the swastika: Behind the Crooked Cross, by Christine Lalla. When the film was submitted to the journal, the staff had a serious discussion about whether it would be appropriate to post such a film, whether the film was attempting to make the world safe for the swastika, whether posting the film would be worth the likelihood that someone might be offended by it. The staff decided to post the film, and I approved their decision, based on the fact that the film condemns racist ideology and takes a clearly empathetic stance both with Holocaust survivors and with Hindu and Buddhist cultures, which, in a way, were robbed by the Nazis of the naïve use of an important symbol.

While it’s not an exact parallel, some of these issues seem similar to the situation in which Vanessa Place’s Gone with the Wind project now finds itself. Many offended respondents ask not only whether it is ethical to reproduce racist language and images but also whether Place even has the right to mediate the work in the way she has. They ask whether any benefit the project creates (regardless of claims for “uncreative” writing—for surely the project has no raison d’etre if not to create social change or at the very least awareness) outweighs the discomfort, pain, outrage it creates. They ask whether Place (as a white person) is the right person to appropriate these texts and images or whether that project is better left to a person who is a member of the victimized class.

That last question of who is the right or best author is similar to a conversation going on now in the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no universal agreement within the movement over whether white Americans should be walking around with Black Lives Matter t-shirts or whether only black Americans should be carrying Black Lives Matter signs. Does “All Lives Matter” really address the core of the problem, or is it simply another way for white people to colonize a black movement? Should white people walk at the front of the march alongside black people, or should they stay in the back in a purely supportive role? But these questions aren’t really about who has the right to speak out against racism—we all have the right and we all should exercise that right. It’s a question of what kind of speech is appropriate (useful, effective) and of who has the greatest right to be heard. Who should be heard? Who needs to be heard?

Who is being heard in Vanessa Place’s project? Place herself would argue that it is not her voice we hear, as she is merely presenting an object—the text from Gone with the Wind and images associated with the promotion of the book and film. Is it the voice of the characters in Gone with the Wind we hear? No, they are voiceless mannequins that speak only with the ventriloquist’s voice. Is it Margaret Mitchell’s voice we hear? Only in a stylistic sense, perhaps—more likely that Mitchell herself also speaks with the ventriloquist’s voice. In Gone with the Wind, the ventriloquist is American culture. But who is the ventriloquist we hear in Place’s appropriation of Gone with the Wind?

Place is the ventriloquist, and the apparatus of her ventriloquism is her mediation of the text. It may seem that Place is putting the work out there “objectively” (as simply an object), but re-contextualization is a mediation, and meaning rises from context and from use. Place may not be changing the text or the images, but she is changing the meaning by posting the text and images publicly on a social media account she created and by being who she is—a white, professional woman in the 21st Century who also is a Conceptual Artist. Simply putting the text out there and letting it “speak for itself” is not an innocent act; it’s not even possible. Is it really useful to test the damage embedded in words by trotting them out every now and then to see who cries? The best test, of course, would be whether we have reached a point where no one wants to say those words, for any reason.

In one of my recent courses, a student (who was a white man) presented a project in which he tried to “reclaim” the n-word by emphasizing the materiality of words themselves and of the objects to which those words refer, thereby, in his mind, placing all objects—including people—on equal footing. The problem that the student didn’t see was that it’s not the materiality of words, nor the physical materiality of the objects the words refer to, nor any public attempt to redefine words that endows words with meaning, nor even his desire to fraternize with black friends who use the n-word among themselves—it’s the context of word use in a historical/cultural setting that creates meaning. A white man at a predominately white university presenting a project in a 90% white classroom led by a white male professor can’t elide hundreds of years of history simply by using a word differently and should not expect the two students of color in the room, both women, to take the usage lightly. As a rabbi in Behind the Crooked Cross says of the swastika at the outset of the film, “It will always be associated with the most inhumane act ever perpetrated,” despite the fact that, as a Hindu scholar in the film says, “It’s a very auspicious and ancient Hindu symbol that the Hindus really relate to very closely” and derives from Sanskrit for “well being” or “good fortune.” In the West, that usage will never override the immediate and visceral disgust most people feel at the sight of the swastika. The first line of the film is spoken by a Holocaust survivor who speaks for most people aware of the Holocaust: “I don’t like seeing it [the swastika] at all—it is abhorrent to me.”

The language and images that Place has used in her Gone with the Wind work are abhorrent, not just to most African Americans, but to all people of conscience, including Place herself, I would imagine. Then what could she hope to accomplish that would have the power to overcome that abhorrence? One should not expect that, by putting racist text from and images associated with Gone with the Wind into a public forum to speak for themselves, the ways in which people respond will be fundamentally changed. And it’s not even likely that Place had that intent in mind. Her comments about the project seem to suggest that her hope was to have the text and images shame the Margaret Mitchell estate into an embarrassing situation. Is shame a foundation for social change? That is a question I cannot answer.

But, as we all easily can discern, there is a significant difference between what Place’s GWTW work does and what, for example, documentary work like Behind the Crooked Cross does. The documentary acknowledges its mediation and thereby takes a clear rhetorical stance—and that stance is a position of empathy for Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures. Place’s project does neither; this work is not only “uncreative,” it also is nonempathetic. The work does not recruit the affinity of like-minded people; it merely invites people to make a judgment. In fact, Place seems to care not one bit whether an audience is drawn into an empathetic relationship or is moved to action or even cares about the work. The work is designed for an audience of one: the Mitchell estate. And the relationship with that audience is antagonistic. Does the work reduce suffering or increase it?

It might seem, from the perspective of Place’s project, that everyone other than the Mitchell estate is insignificant; it might seem that way if it weren’t for the fact that the genesis of the work apparently came from a desire for social change. And if this guess about the project’s genesis is correct, then it seems to me that the mismatch between goal and execution create the central problem here—a desire for social change presented as an absence of desire and with the absence of empathy; a concern about a wrong without any apparent concern for those wronged; a political statement directed at a single entity (the Mitchell estate) in a public sphere. The work is cross-purposes with its own ends. These kinds of contradictions may be the hallmarks of plenty of Conceptual Art, but I suspect that they are the hallmarks of few works of Conceptual Art with the goal of political change prior to Place and Goldsmith (I am thinking specifically of Goldsmith’s piece on Michael Brown’s autopsy). Am I suggesting that Place and Goldsmith don’t have the right to do their art the way they have chosen to do it? Of course not; they are protected by the First Amendment, and I respect and celebrate their right to publish and perform their work. But, as many respondents have said already, neither should they be surprised by reaction to the work. I suspect that Goldsmith is not the least bit surprised; Place should be surprised only by the delay in reaction to her project.

There is little difference in Place’s position relative to her project and the position of the undergraduate writing student who refuses to discuss interpretations of his work in a workshop because he “just wants to let the reader decide what it means.” In attempting to leave the work free of all trace of ego, imagination, intent, communication, and creativity, Place has also prevented the entry of other human and humane motives that tend to lend art (though, surely, not all art) power: empathy, compassion, rhetoric.

In that class meeting during which the n-word project was presented, there was one sure sign that the project had failed: the downturned gazes of not only the people of color in the classroom, but of almost everyone in the classroom. The presenter tried to trot out the argument that the word could be reclaimed because “black people use it,” which led to a discussion of context, empathy, irony, and the tension between free speech and ethics (can vs. should). I regret that the discussion didn’t go on further to colonization of language, the use of linguistic power, and the right to speak vs. the need to be heard. On the other hand, no one in that classroom the rest of the semester wanted to say or hear that word again.

I suspect that, if AWP had not come to the decision to remove Vanessa Place from the panel committee, the conference would have been filled with an even higher percentage of white faces than usual, and that many of the faces in attendance would have been downturned.

This Door Opens Only For You by Evan Kleekamp

by Evan Kleekamp

If we have to label Vanessa Place’s conceptual work—we do like to forget she has written other things—as intellectual posturing or scaffolding, then fine. Let it be. But we may as well accept that conceptual poetry, if it does anything, forces us as readers to examine a text’s frame, its posturing, its gestures, its folding and unfolding, its quilt and texture, all under the lens of a microscope.

None of these features have ever operated independently of each other (a story is never just plot, a poem never just breaks of a line), and there is nothing new or exciting about this information. But it does key in on the polemic performed by Place’s work: If meaning in a text exists then it must depend on multiple unreliable, antagonistic linguistic constructions that allow us to imagine something within the text move. (The word cat is not even a cat, remember?).

What little meaning remains is only revealed according to a lack of strict cohesion, which provides the necessary tension between the written surface of the page (the words) and the deeper elusive shifting that allows us as readers to perceive some kind of traceable development (meaning). Otherwise we wouldn’t care; there would quite literally be nothing to read (but there is always something to read). This is exactly why conceptualism asks that we study structural arrangements within a text: so we have a way of reading what otherwise might be indecipherable or invisible; so we can detect the smallest threads of difference; so we don’t just go to every poetry reading and clap our hands mindlessly as we’re told or expected (or because we’re afraid to look like we didn’t “get it”); so we have an option besides boring-not-even-fair-to-call-it-confession brand poetry where any meaning is already and was always outside of the text to begin with (and not in a good way); so we can have some kind of open-minded, yet critical, decision-making faculty we can turn on (or off, in the style of Cage) when necessary; so that we remain listening. (This is not to say in this it has not already failed).

Conceptualism is, after all, a type of play; but it seems some of us never learned how. Place has written extensively on this conceptual play under the name of allegorical writing, and I think a close reading shows her definition is more than generous[1]—especially for those who wish to extend their stay in the abyss between stale neoliberal identity politic and metaphor-heavy, auto-suffering. (It’s okay, your work can be conceptual, too. The club is not exclusive[2]). But, in this age of mass social media narcissistic frenzy[3] where charges of co-option, appropriation, stealing and sharing are let fly everyday only to go unpunished or dismissed (because who cares?), let me be the first to suggest: Maybe it is time we discuss the role allusion and citation play in our highly gendered and definitely racialized exclusion politics? Who exactly is allowed to touch what text and why?

In a recent Twitter tête-à-tête, poet Jericho Brown tried to nudge me into viewing this “scandal” as a question of subject-position politics, meaning Place as a white woman of significant—and now overt—social influence in a position of political and historical power (and thus privilege), should understand the pain she is causing those who do not live in her position; those on the receiving end of her art. There’s one major thing wrong with this critique: She does understand. Her artwork, by relying on already constructed material, leaves little room for accident. The conceptual task is to simply point. This is why Place’s Gone With The Wind project was on Twitter, where almost no one was forced to see it. As a viewer, one has to make a choice; and even once you were there you always had the option to leave by a simple close of tab or window. The question is what lured you there? (Or were you upset years after the fact when you realize it was directly under your nose at your favorite online literary magazine and you hadn’t even heard of it?) The viewer themselves is the sole automaton charged with entering or exiting the space according to their own whim, but they cannot alter the space itself. This is the most basic level of labyrinthine, allegorical thinking, which is to say with all intended coyness, this door was intended only for you (Kafka).

The other problem with Brown’s critique is that I happen to like Place’s work and feel especially and authentically empowered by it—Does this suggest Place lords over me because she is white? Does this suggest automatically that she is my master?—not because I enjoy the suffering of others, or because confirming my country’s unfortunately unexceptional and violent history gives me a sense of utmost glee—how could it? it’s not even new information—but because I often find myself surrounded by people who would rather tune out. (At this point we are far past forgetting).

I think this is why I enjoy the pain Place brings to her work; it’s why I began to seriously read in the first place: To encounter a book that doesn’t allow me to succumb to my previous thoughts. I like being changed by literature; I like literature that breaks me of my ideological chains (at least supposedly). This is all to say I find the aspects of citation present in Place’s work to be its sharpest point. A double-dose of affectless fact is hard to choke down when you have to admit to yourself everything she said might be the only thing scarier than the truth (i.e. the Law).

There is a word for the type of pleasure experienced when reading an emotionally difficult text. It is a French word: Jouissance. Anyone familiar with contemporary psychoanalysis or critical theory probably knows the term, but because Place is in a power position (apparently too much power) with her knowledge of French theory, I will simplify: Pleasure-pain. Pain and pleasure experienced without distinction; a simultaneous blurring of the two. The works of Francis Bacon, Basquiat, Cy Twombly, or any other painter who uses an array of techniques to essentially distill a derailment of logic through the senses all serve as great examples (which isn’t to suggest jouissance lives only in the visual arts or paint, but perhaps point towards our very intriguing sensitivity to words).

We celebrate these artists exactly because they surpass logic and take us directly into the sensation. They knock us right back into our bodies and I think artists like Place (and Douglas Kearney) are doing the same thing with their work. This is what Bacon means when he talks about the paint striking directly into the nervous system—quite literally striking a nerve. I think Place’s conceptual art is a perfect example of striking this nervous system (i.e. striking directly into the body itself). Why else would we be having this conversation if this were not the case? And let us not forget: Like Bacon, Place has basically been accused of making degenerate art only because she has managed to strike through the entire nerve of our American poetry microcosm. Unlike many artists using more spiritual, subjective, or community-based methods, she cut right through. As we all know, it was a very direct message: This should bother you.

Place is also prime advocate for conceptual détournement, which is a fancy way of saying to spin or emend, to alter while preserving the face of the text. Quite literally, (re)turning it. Détournement is perhaps the only cure for dénouement (another French invention that marks the climax of a conversation), and it is a viable and effective tool for reopening a closed wound. It reawakens and rattles the conversation by turning it on its head, which can be very helpful when we need to keep our minds open. So let me suggest further:

Is it possible that Place might actually be doing something quite marvelous? Hasn’t she made us all ask ourselves:

  • Can a text be racist? Explain.
  • Is it the writer of a text, the owner of a text, or the text itself that is racist? Explain.
  • Is it the owner of a text or the speaker of a text that is racist? Explain.
  • Is recapitulating or quoting racist speech/text racist? Explain.
  • Are their racist objects? How do we identify them? Why are they racist? What makes them into racist objects? Explain.

This might seem like over-intellectualizing, but it is actually a rudimentary logical exercise that asks us to try to explain to each other how we view art. And make no mistake; we should be able to answer all of these questions because if we can’t then Place’s GWTW experiment is more necessary than even I expected.

I don’t know how can anyone can look at, talk about, or even understand racism without looking into grey areas like these. And for as many people still direly and directly affected by racism in our country, how could we even pretend that this conversation is over? Say what you will, but the dire shock to the system proffered by Place’s ventriloquist mammy imagery and diction on Twitter separates itself from the didacticism found in race-film like Spike Lee’s Bamboozle simply because it asks more questions than it answers. (Consider: Can speech imply race? Is our perception of race in Place’s GWTW feed merely a linguistic phenomena if we take away the mammy signs? Consider: what if the wounds really are that deep?). If you are telling me that because Spike Lee is a black man he has an exclusive right to recapitulate and borrow from racist American iconography and lore without censure, then you I assure you: we are in for one tough ride because the longer we pretend racism is a one-sided, black-versus-white binary equation, the longer this whole catastrophe goes on. We are all implicated. We are all part of the global complication whether we like it or not.

Place does not, and probably never will, try to educate her readers on moral behavior or guide them through the aftermath of her work. Good versus evil, a binary, is of no concern to her, especially because contemporary political and technological circumstances are giving people in our corner of the world more freedom than ever before and all we do is squander it on the various canals of the internet ogling at each through doubly-staged mirror selfies and quickly making this fervently religious dichotomy obsolete. The main issue with demanding art to be didactic is that it allows the art to do the thinking for the viewer, which does nothing but lead to groupthink (pacified or otherwise). And while it is inestimably true we don’t know Place’s intentions—this I am thankful for—it is also true that conceptual art forces the reader to consider all their options and put their ideas to the test before performing their own interpretation of the text (often an impossible task) or enacting their own interpretative retelling (again, allegory). In fact, conceptual art may in fact be on of very last tools in generating some kind of interesting political discussion considering the dwindling health of our education system. We need people thinking, we need people listening beyond what they want to hear.

Consider the famous maxim of these American conceptual artists: You don’t have to read conceptual art. If anyone actually buys into this hogwash, they’ve already failed their test. Of course you don’t have to read it; the question is what happens if you are brave enough to read on. (It’s actually shameful that so many people would pat themselves on the back for following such basic propaganda). Conceptualism is both capable letting the reader negotiate their own interaction with the text and it is quite willing to wave it’s own white flag. You don’t need to be fluent in random niches of the western canon to understand a cliché like read the fine print. This is what conceptualism asks us to do. To be clear, this isn’t an attempt at canonizing. It’s an attempt to ask people to consider texts they have not and would not read. It is a request to constantly read outside of our comfort zones to the degree that we as readers at least have an idea about the blind spots in our own subjective taste.

I actually find it kind of ironic that poets like Cathy Park Hong are attacking the canonization of writers like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Frank O’Hara simply because—and this might suggest a larger problem with the corporatization of the American Academy—literature is barely surviving at the level of survey courses. As a student right now in the middle of the American Anarcho-Capital engine, I always welcome a lengthy and deep conversation on any and all poets from any teacher that can move beyond surface annotation (and their personal set of literary friends). It should also be noted that colonialism/imperialism deeply affected Joyce’s Dublin, and we should definitely remind ourselves how colonialism/imperialism’s compatibility with queer lifestyles—with the MAJOR exception of transfolk[4]—is a recent development, which doesn’t some much suggestion co-option as many years of revisionism on all sides as everyone tries to retract and nullify the widespread violence against queer people that we all know was quite the norm.

But this is exactly why I think conceptualism is so important: It forces the reader to actually engage the text even if it’s boring (Goldsmith), painful (Place), or mathematically/scientifically inclined (Bök). It’s really that simple. Goldsmith might do himself a favor and start showcasing his particular form of conceptualism as uncreative reading. Reading where you actually have read a text with limited entertainment value; exactly like a legal testimony or summons or affidavit. Reading where we are asking our readers, and most of all our students, to engage with the murky part of the text they don’t exactly like because how else will they know what the text means, who the text speaks to, or what opens it opens into?

Which brings me to my primary concern: Are people not reading? But maybe I should be more specific—and I think this is where this AWP debacle starts and ends—are we only reading things that make us comfortable?

I don’t expect any person of color (and like Yepez I hate this term) to receive any surface level enjoyment from a white woman utilizing “the racial imaginary”—another difference between Place and others writing about race; no surface abstraction in conceptualism—but I don’t believe everyone should be safe from the history of their nightmares. I think we have a distinct social duty to engage with issues like racial tension and struggle because they can only be legitimized through historical developments that demand intense and cooperative research. And while it is sad to say we need more evidence and we need more critique and we need to face some very unwelcoming realities, I wonder what the consequence would be if we did not just as often as I imagine the possibilities of a world where we stared directly into the dread of things. In this case, those dreadful things are the mammy dolls, which exist regardless if Place cites them, and our very different humans bodies and tongues, which affect languages both paralyzing and sublime, so equally dreadful.

In close, because I know there will be someone who said I let theory and intellectualization blind me from seeing the real human issue, I offer you two quotes I stole from a BOMB interview featuring the legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who I am sure no one associates with Vanessa Place or conceptualism, but nonetheless seems here to have some slight affinity.

 

“This introduced me to the notion that poetry can be an instrument of change. I took this very seriously until I arrived at my own conclusion that poetry changes nothing. It may have an effect on how people feel, but it has no effect on reality. The only person it changes is the poet himself.”

“Humanity has produced such a huge poetic output, much of it of a very high caliber. You are always building on the work of others. There is no blank page from which to start. All you can hope for is to find a small margin on which to write your signature.”


[1] Quoted here at length from the afterword of I’ll Drown My Book: “I have previously identified many forms of conceptualism, ranging from the pure to the baroque. These are matters of form. I have come to consider conceptualism, qua conceptualism, that is, as writing that does not self-interpret, is not self-reflexive, at least not on the page. In other words, writing in which the content does not dictate the content: what appears on the surface of the page is pure textual materiality, no more (and often much less) than what you see on the surface of the page. Conversely, in the way of positive and negative space, conceptualism is also writing in which the context is the primary locus of meaning-making. I have written elsewhere that all conceptualism is allegorical, that is to say, its textual surface (or content) may or may not contain a kind of significance, but this surface significance (or content) is deployed against or within an extra-textual narrative (or contextual content) that is the work’s larger (and infinitely mutable) meaning. The white cube is only a white cube, the thin spindly thing a spindly thing. The thin spindly thing, however, may well be the tail of the elephant, which leads to the elephant’s tale.”

[2] The best critique of Place’s “amorality” and its allegorical turn I’ve seen comes from Felix Bernstein in his article published on The Volta, “Notes on Post-conceptual Poetry,” which is due out soon as a full-fledge book. I haven’t got my hands on a finished copy, but from what I’ve read even his otherwise scintillating critique seems to slightly misplace, misunderstand or underestimate Place’s allegorical lean (remember: allegory and allegorical don’t mean the same thing). It is also notable that this impressive and lengthy commentary comes from a queer, white male with his own relationship to conceptualism, as opposed to these boring Mongrel toddlers who settle for Twitter squabbles and vacant political manifestos where they describe human beings as “targets.” Bernstein’s text is worth the read; it remains an absolutely refreshing vivisection of whatever remains of contemporary American poetry.

[3] If this needs more explanation please see above the link to Bernstein’s essay above.

[4] Like most queer people, I’m still waiting for major developments to happen in our acceptance of transfolk who certainly have not received their piece of the neoliberal abolitionist pie.

The Thing About Ethos: Writing Race and Surviving to Tell About it—Ruth Ellen Kocher

This week I’ve read a good number of essays and social media posts that ask, “Why are we still talking about Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith?” Many of you have talked about them, or talked about not talking about them, with your writerly friends, yes? It’s a good question and it deserves a good answer. In short, when I discovered that Vanessa Place, a visiting summer FIRST Scholar on my university campus, planned on lecturing about the now notorious Goldsmith-Brown performance to my undergraduates, “not” talking about Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place became a luxury that I couldn’t afford.
I am a full professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado Boulder campus. I teach poetry, poetics and American literature with an emphasis in Modernism. My scholarly study focused on rhetorical theory and literary criticism. I’ve published six books of poetry and have been awarded a little of this and a little of that for my efforts. Why the CV summary? Last year, I discovered that I am, according to existing records, the first black female full professor in my department. I am the first black female full professor, as well, in the College of Arts and Sciences and only the second on my large research campus of almost 28, 000 students. Since arriving on campus in 2006, I’ve found myself in mediation with colleagues a number of times and have witnessed faculty and students walking out of an interview by a nationally renowned black job candidate before he was nearly finished. I could go on. None of this is unique. I share these stories with other academic writers of color endlessly and they share their stories with me, all similar. We sigh and say, “Me, too.” I don’t mean to infer a noble savage stoicism here a la Clifford Gertz. To the contrary, I have cried into the tissue box on my Chair’s desk more times that I can count because I’ve been called, once again, “the Affirmative Action hire,” despite books, tenure, and the three tenure track positions I had by the time I got here.
So, last week when I discovered the topic of our visiting FIRST Scholar’s lecture, The White Devil and the Black Demon: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Body of Michael Brown’, I wrote a letter to my Dean asking him to petition the writer and her faculty sponsor in the Department of German and Slavic Languages, to voluntarily withdraw the intended piece. If you’re not a poet, or if you’re a poet who’s been vacationing in Papua New Guinea for the last few months, Kenneth Goldsmith performed the referent title at Brown University in March and soon thereafter found himself fielding deserved criticism (I am not neutral), anger, and backlash from writers of all demographics. The anger was fueled by his decision to rearrange the autopsy and end with a description of the slain teen’s penis (and in doing so perhaps confessing his own perverse insecurities). Did I say that my daughter turned 18 two weeks ago, or that I tenured on the University of Missouri campus a few blocks from where Michael Brown was gunned down, or that as a young professor I was cursed and screamed at by a St. Louis policeman while walking through a mostly white suburb with the Eurythmics blaring in my ear buds? I repeat, I’m not neutral.
Why a voluntary withdrawal? I have no interest in casting the writer as a victim nor do I have any interest in imposing myself and my politics on the writer. During a conversation that she and I had in the airport on my way home from the University of Montana conference, Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing, I said to Vanessa Place, who’d pointedly questioned a panelist about the lack of “confrontation” in her discussion, that, as a black woman, there is nothing innovative about confrontation for me. I am expected to be angry and coarse. I am expected to be out of line and uncivil and to be disagreeable. Forcing her lecture to be withdrawn by demand would accomplish little except the satisfaction of knowing the lecture would not be given. I’m sure there’s some metaphor about robbing the bees versus building the hive that escapes me but in order to move forward with dialogic intent we need to engage the Other. In this case, the writer responded by withdrawing her lecture and scheduling a “Listening and Dialogue” session instead. The first 30 minutes would be dedicated to the writer listening with no response to anything the audience wished to say followed by another 30 minute question and answer session. What became apparent immediately was that the audience, though sparse, was not interested in monitored expression nor in expression without an examination of the writer and her intent first. I thought it interesting that not only did audience members decide to ask questions from the start, some audience members informed the writer that he or she would comment with no want for the writer’s response. The prescribed format served primarily as a structure imposed on the audience that would dictate their expression as well as how, when, and where (a lighted podium in front of the stage which every speaker refused) they would express the expressible. The majority of attendees instead left the writer subject to the course of dialogue they determined as opposed to the other way around. If ever there is hope in the matter of racial understanding it will come when we stop confusing stump speeches with dialogue. I don’t believe true dialogue happens primarily when there’s a podium involved.
It may or may not be worth mentioning that I was the only one of two black people in attendance though it is more typical that I am the only black person in attendance wherever I find myself in Boulder, Colorado. There were just a few other people of color, all of whom spoke or asked questions. The writer expressed that her Gone With The Wind project was meant to be an “interrogation of whiteness” in that those racist images and the language of post-bellum American minstrelsy set in the antebellum south “belonged” to her as a legacy of the atrocities that white people have visited on black people in America. Using them, according to the writer, was a means to take ownership and so responsibility for the damage they’ve caused. If we were in a longer conversation I would have expressed that I don’t really care about Margaret Mitchell. She is of little consequence to my 21st century racial reality and there have been so many investigations of the book that you can even find rote discussions of racial politics in GWTW in your undergraduates Cliff’s notes. I am neither worried about fictional civil war narratives concerned with the loss of white privilege nor fictional vernaculars that cast the black subject as subhuman. I care about police brutality, fair housing, eminent domain, voting rights, discrimination, disparagement, equal opportunity, and education. Still, I’ve read references and summaries of some of the work as it appeared in Poetry Magazine (July/August 2009) with an accompanying “explanation,” some of which reads: Place illuminates the many subtexts embedded in the text concerning plays of power, gender, race, and authorship. By ventriloquizing the slave’s voice as well as Mitchell’s, Place also sets into motion a nexus of questions regarding authorship, leading one to wonder: who is pulling whose strings? Is it an oversight that the writer characterizes the work as a project which sets in motion “questions regarding authorship,” and abstractly, “race” in 2009 but as “an interrogation of whiteness” after the Change.org petition protesting her work in 2015? I would be happy to see a version of what the writer calls an appropriation of the text that owned some intersection with the present, that utilized the stereotype in a way that re-appropriated (not appropriated) the minstrel mammy, or that occupied itself with the white subject. Is her “interrogation” an evolution of thought? None of the approaches I mention here would work for the conceptual artist because they each involve some level of expression which begs the question, can any found text really service a racial project or does such discussion, such interrogation, require context and comment? Anything I might say would be complete conjecture; however, I will offer that the only interrogation of whiteness effectively taking white privilege to task was the interrogation of the writer by the audience on the night of Thursday, May 28th, 2015 on the University of Colorado Boulder. For her part, the writer was completely disposed to that interrogation.
During the Q& A, one of my colleagues quoted a recent entry on Ron Silliman’s blog where he reduces the writer’s critics to cowards—and, unrelatedly, the signers of the 2015 petition of PEN members disavowing responsibility for awarding Charlie Hebdo the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award after the tragic and senseless massacre of Hebdo journalists. As a matter full disclosure, I should say that I am one of those 204 signers and I’d expressed my position to friends and colleagues long before the invitation to sign found me by email. My colleague asked the writer if she agreed with Silliman who writes that those opposing her work (and those who signed the PEN petition) are “siding with the very same forces that… banned ‘degenerate works of art’ during the Nazi regime.” According to Silliman, those of us who signed the petition did so because we were “being sensitive.” He echoes many of Place’s supporters who believe the public outcry amounts to emotion rather than reason expressed by spiritually injured people who don’t fully understand the nature of the project. I actually had a professor from another department who was a fan of Place approach me after the session to “explain” the project to me, to explain Vanessa’s intent, and to alert me to the fact that “no one talks about this book this way.” I assured her that many have talked about the racial landscape of the book and black writers have addressed the text for quite along time. I added that the implications of the work did not escape me, a professor of 20th century American literature. I did not say, “By the way, I’m not an oaf or a child and I really don’t need another white hero.” In her question and answer period, Place noted that social media is a place where we are all used to liking one another and following one another and so a project such as hers is controversial because it disrupts that microtopia.
Have you read Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia lately? More specifically, have you read the portions of that text that attest to the lack of civility and intelligence of black people, of our emotional liability in the face of other absent faculties, of our natural desire toward whiteness as that which is more attractive than blackness—not unlike the attraction an ape would have for an orangutan over another ape? While I find problematic the continued reductive reasoning that we’re just an emotional sort of people without the intellectual capacity to really appreciate conceptual projects like those from Place and Goldsmith (i.e., we just want to like and follow and be friends with one another) I find more repugnant the assertion that the commodification of racialized violence as an artistic medium is free expression but the expressed resistance to that art work is censorship. If I am not mistaken, the Nazis killed a few people, stole some assets, destroyed some legacies, blighted a few countries, and wiped out the generational futures of a good portion of Europe. No one can say Vanessa Place or Kenneth Goldsmith have been stripped of their lives or livelihood, have suffered bodily harm, nor that they have become political prisoners for their work as has Ilham Tohti, sentenced to prison for life in China for blog posts. Neither writer has been persecuted in the way any of a number of other writers have (Enoh Meyomesse, Liu Xia, Ayse Berktay, Eskinder Nega … the list of real censorship and persecution goes on and on). Silliman may choose to retract his diatribe or apologize while not apologizing (see the follow-up entry) but his accusations and language were recklessly demeaning to writers who have proceeded with great measure and thought. With all due respect to Ron Silliman whose work I’ve used to inspire young writers for years, if he’d like to state for the record once again that he feels I’m a Nazi coward for exercising my right to free expression, let the record stand in the case of free expression being free based on what kind of chromosomal profile one has.
Rick Smith notes in his interview with Place in The Stranger that she “believes white people need to write about race because their silence on the matter suggests complicity with racism and also is an exercise of their privileged position in society.” Perhaps we should ask ourselves where an interrogation of whiteness begins. I agree with Vanessa Place. White people should write about race. I cannot help but to think in this moment that if the writer were truly interested in an interrogation of whiteness, why not begin here, with Ron Silliman and Charlie Hebdo? Silliman’s comments suppose no examination of Europe’s Islamophobia nor the matter of white desire and white fear colliding with white privilege to “own” anything and everything including the right to desecrate anything and everything, whether it’s my God or my child’s bloody body. The article concludes with Place noting that “Kara Walker uses violently racist imagery to make art about the racial imaginary—the American imaginary. [The GWTW] project does the same thing. Some art offends, and sometimes it is the job of art to be offensive because the world art mirrors and moves is offensive.” We don’t need to track down a Ouija board and summon Cicero back from the long dead to understand the crucial role ethos plays when we initiate, engage in, or participate in dialogues about race. If Kara Walker were a white woman making a sphinx with a mammy head out of sugar, or a white man putting on red face and feathers while doing a “rain dance” as performance art, or a black man desecrating the body of a young white girl with exposed genitals on stage, we’d be having a different conversation.
The matter of writing about race and living to talk about it has much to do with whose race it is that you’re writing about. Are you writing about your own race (really?) or the Other’s? When Mark Twain said “Write what you know,” he substantiated his own advice with text brimming with degrading racial stereotypes and epithets. The writing is his own, his word, his mustered Huck as a facet of the white imaginary. The work was of his time. We regularly use the text as an interrogation of whiteness in the classroom. Talking about race and surviving to tell about it has less to do with shock and pain than it has to do with being of one’s own work, of one’s word, and of a genuine disposition to discuss the matter at hand with ethical concern and a determination that failure in obscurity is preferable to the kind of successful notoriety we’ve all witnessed recently. Do I think Vanessa Place is a racist? No. Maybe. Sure. So am I. I privilege my subject-position unconsciously and strain toward inclusivity. I more acutely consider my language in the presence of white people and measure what I say in order to not be offensive. I rethink my racial privilege each time I’m faced with an alternative racial reality. I think racially—always. I don’t really have a choice. I would rather have a white woman conscious of her whiteness as a racial condition than one who simply imagines whiteness to be standard and normative in the face of my difference. Do I condone the work? No, but I don’t need to. Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith are free to express themselves through their art and to racial-slur their way to white oblivion if they so choose; however, I don’t have to support them with my personal or institutional funds, nor allow them to have undo jurisdiction or power over me, hence the Change.org petition to remove Place from the AWP subcommittee for reviewing 2015 panel proposals. I do not have to host them or welcome them to my institution or my conference events. These responses to the work are an exercise of my free expression as much as playing roulette with black culture has become an exercise in free expression for these conceptual poets.

Collateral Damage? —Kit Schluter

@VanessaPlace, in so far as I can tell, has reached its logical conclusion, although not the one originally imagined by its author. In a poetic statement recently released on Facebook, Place highlights the work’s activism within the sphere of copyright, but that aspect is a failure, has always been a failure. The estate, however “litigious,” did not care enough about her infringement to lift a finger; it was invisible, as poetry tends to be, and the grand finale – Place Vs. the Estate of Margaret Mitchell – never occurred. Nor, given the current polemical conversation, did the project achieve its other potential endpoint of becoming a piece of unminded internet ephemera. Having failed in its intention to intervene with GWTW and its ongoing event, @VanessaPlace has become nothing but this event’s latest, most intelligent (read: theoretically developed) stage. So, we might let this narrative of potentially redemptive “legal intervention” rightly fall away, and let the supposed object of the project’s critique shift away from the ongoing legacy of Mitchell’s century-old racist novel, as Place would have it, to the very ones willing to champion this new piece of unapologetic minstrelsy today in the 2010s. In that light, isn’t it this work’s own supporters who sit in its crosshairs?
Place notes that her project ran unopposed for a number of years: her thousand or so followers more or less kept lips sealed, and while Poetry ran an iteration of this project concerning histories of white-on-black violence, it would rejected a piece concerned with sexual assault on moral grounds. [John Keene’s latest essay on conceptualism has important notes about specifically white-on-black violence’s position in popular hierarchies of atrocity in the US.] Her statement, in fact, reads with a hint of disdain for these institutions and individuals who allowed the project to go unchecked. Their support of the project, be it passive or active, was where the work, always in the process of its own failure, began to take place in this new way: it paved the way for exposing those who had allowed Place herself to refresh the browser on racism and fabricate a contemporary model in which it might remain as visible-but-legitimated as it was in Mitchell’s 1935 work. After reading her statement, @VanessaPlace reads to me as a sort of intellectual entrapment in which she has unnecessarily willed a circumstance that would inflict pain, and now calls out her community for their wrong of remaining silent. Both acts are unacceptable, but the work itself remains the initiatory violence, an altogether unnecessary violence.
White support of this project is an embrace of the possibility for racism’s ingratiation/integration into poetry in 2015. More specifically, it is an embrace of a white-centrist model of poetry written with only white audiences in mind, in which white authors deem themselves able to appropriate, replicate, and reiterate narratives of racial exploitation to which they should hold themselves responsible, while remaining “blank” political sites unaccountable for their works. (Absolutely unaccountable until only recently, anyhow, and only then with the begrudging aside that this makes them betray their poetics.) I would imagine that, more than she’s laughing at this work’s outspoken critics, she must be laughing at those who believe that it is in any way racially progressive. The spectacle of degradation, in 1935 just as in 2015, is the raw material of this work, and getting beyond raw material is certainly where this project excels.
The world is already filled with the violence Place engages in here to keep us busy for more than our lifetimes. What I learned from this project was not that my subjectivity as a white person – apparently the sole demographic whose “wellbeing” Place considered in making this piece – is accountable for its position within the systems that enable and perpetuate phenomena like GWTW. I already knew that, and l don’t think the Twitter account in question does anything but diversify and strengthen these systems, making them more difficult to combat – something, I want to underscore, I would not say of all works associated with Conceptualism. Rather, I learned (or more so, was reminded) that there are still artists willing to support the prodding and aestheticization of others’ past and present pain in the name of the philosophical scaffolding under their own artistic failures; willing to dismiss, deride, and even question the ethics, intelligence, and ethical intelligence of those who speak of the pain and offense these failures cause in them and others; willing to employ the theory that should be doing nothing but dismantling projects like this to protect the right of white artists to perform cruelty for intellectual stimulation.
Place writes, “I am sorry for hurting people of colour. I am not sorry for forcing white people to re-enact the soft comfort of individual denunciation or the sweet meat of playing ally when the best status one can hope for is that of collaborator. This is a necessary cruelty, and I believe in necessary cruelties.”
This project’s cruelty is a necessary one? No. POC hurt must not be accepted as collateral damage in white-to-white education on race.
This project is over, the complicity revealed: time to kill the feed, and account for the repercussions of this flawed concept. That book has already been written

#WhosePlace —Lily Hoang

Admission: Vanessa Place published my third book with Les Figues. This does not make this essay invalid. It does not make my thinking invalid. It does not make my criticism or praise invalid.

Vanessa Place is a performance of Vanessa Place. I do not know the real Vanessa Place, and sometimes I wish she’d just stand up.

I think about Lady Gaga a lot, her performance. Does she ever wear sweats? I don’t own any sweats, either.

The performance of Lily Hoang: serious cuteness—cuteness here being diminutive, I diminish myself, attempts to make myself smaller and less obtrusive.

Back in 2011, I wrote a post for HTML Giant on this one Das Racist lyric: I’m not racist, I love white people. In the post, I discuss how as PoC, we can criticize and generalize whiteness is a racist way, but white people can’t actually call us out. Instead, it takes PoC—preferably from a PoC of a “lower” positionality—to call out another PoC on their racism.
            And to call out a white person on their racism: just so terribly easy.
            But let us then examine what racism means.

Like Das Racist, I am not racist either—because I love white people.
            Perhaps like a fetish: all my boyfriends have been white.

Pigment as beauty, or handsome and charming.

The performance of her witchly black hair juxtaposed against her ghastly pale skin.

The performance of my grey hairs juxtaposed against my yellow skin.

You might notice I have yet to approach the Vanessa Place and AWP scandal—yet. Soon, perhaps, or not at all.

            Is scandal the right word? What is?

Ravi’s humorous revelation: AWP: All White People.

When Molly Gaudry, Matthew Salesses, and Erinrose Mager hug, we joke that we are the Asian Alliance.
            Maybe we don’t call it the Asian Alliance. Maybe I just made that up. But the truth remains that we hug and hence are a minor racial contingency at AWP, a way to make white people feel better about exclusion.
           But Asians are practically white—or so I’ve been told.

Two years ago, I gave my parents a dog. It’s all black and my racist father calls it Nigger Dog. My mom tsks him—tsk tsk—Not in front of Lily, she’s too American. All of this happens in front of me. My dad thinks it’s funny.

            Last year, my dad asks me for a white dog, to balance Nigger Dog and wetback dogs—two Chihuahuas—who unlike him, aren’t even US citizens. He’d like a reproduction of the hegemony please, a way to taste it.

Within hours, Das Racist tweets that I am stupid.
            #agreed

I’m not racist, I just want to be appropriated and used by white culture. I want acceptance. I want success. Besides, what’s so wrong about wanting to participate in power?

Drunken Boat published something that Vanessa Place wrote that could be perceived as racist, that has been perceived as racist.
            And I’m guess it’s a bunch of white people who are most offended. I could be wrong, but probably not.

Asian v. Oriental: white people care about this more than Asians. Yes, I’ve read Said. Yes, I know the difference. Yes, I cringe, especially when Asians call themselves Oriental. If a white person said this, I’d call them racist. If a white person used the word nigger, I’d call them racist.
           Is my father exempt?
           As a WoC, I can call out a PoC. As a WoC, I can call out anyone. Especially white people.

Do you dare to call out my racism? I double dog dare you and I’ll whip out my WoC card and demolish your white fucking privilege.

White people tend to be the most politically correct—because they’re so scared of being called racist.
           Mostly white academics.

In college, a white girl calls me out because I mix up the terms Latina and Chicana. She’s ¼ Chicana and codes white.
           In grad school, a guy who’s ¼ Japanese bonds with me because Asians don’t sweat. He also codes white and that’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard.
           But I do love the heat.
           I come from the heat, and my body has yet to evolve.

In a final exam, I ask my students to compare Writers of Color and how their positionality has influenced the texts they generated. A student calls me racist. He doesn’t know that WoC is the accepted term now. Maybe he thought I wrote Colored Writer.

            I tell my white boyfriend about this and he’s like, Person of Color? Seriously? He’s not an academic, per se, but he’s got a JD, which is close enough to know better. I argue with him until I become bored with how I need to defend language.

I talk to this white boy about white privilege and he says he’s never experienced it because he’s from Cuba. I tell him, But you code white, and he’s like, But I’m not, and I’m like, When you walk into a room, are you constantly cognizant of your Cubanness? Do you feel the discomfort of not belonging?, and he still argues against me, knowing that I am right.

I mostly appropriate white texts.

Our dear white canon—

Does Vanessa Place’s whiteness by default make her appropriation racist? Idk, but I’d like to see you call me out if I’d done the same thing. Bam: who fuck do you think you are, white person, to dare to call me racist? As if!

I want the hegemony to fold my Otherness into its power.

My ex-husband used to tell me that the only reason my books got published was to relieve white guilt. To parade my non-white last name.
           His white guilt was a burden on me.
           So I got rid of it.
           Ahem: I got rid of him.

I’m worried this essay is unfeminist.

What variety do you include in your imagined community?

If numbers dictate a certain truth, it’d be mostly white.

At &NOW—a conference on conceptual fiction—the swarm of whiteness. It’s like only white people dare to experiment. Are allowed to. Have enough power to challenge power.
           Am I, therefore, white enough for your liking?
           I don’t code white, but I practically am, except for my body. Except for my experience. Except
           for my life.

My white boyfriend believes in the meritocracy. Hahahahahaha.

I am critiquing myself more than Vanessa Place. I find little pleasure in calling white people racist. It’s too easy.

I often think white guilt is crushing. I’d hate to be white.

I’d prefer to be called a writer than an Asian American writer. Both are true, but white editors really like my Asianness to be called to highlighted. As if my name doesn’t betray who I am.

Indie whiteness. Indie Otherness. Say what?

In a Department Head meeting, I want to tell the Dean how she should be ashamed of how old white male the demographic is. I don’t, of course. I don’t even have tenure yet.

I don’t need to be reminded that I am a token. I can’t ignore it.

I don’t want to believe my white ex-husband. I want to believe my books were—are—published because I am a good writer. But what if he’s right? What if Vanessa Place just wanted a Woman of Color in her catalogue?
           I’d be hard-pressed to agree.
           I’m scared to agree.
           I am a coward.

Post-racial should not be understood as past-racism. The on-going dialogue should be acknowledged.

I know Vanessa Place as much as she knows Lily Hoang.

Vanessa Place is a site for conversation. Text substitutes body. Racisms abound.