Entries tagged with race

Entry 22: Speech Acts

Tim Kreiner has written a considered response to my previous post, an act of intellectual dignity given what else is out there. His piece circles around a conflict between abstract rights (Free Speech) and concrete acts (antiracist politics) he says Place herself caused when she pushed inadmissible racial content into the public arena. He also sees her timing as crucial: while I imagined that Place was grabbing a part of the limelight from Kenneth Goldsmith’s scandalous performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy, he believes that she “added the images in the midst of a live social movement against specific acts of state violence targeting black people.” [Correction: Place added the banner in 2012, and the profile photo in 2011; thus, both of our scenarios are incorrect. It is still an open question why a project that was not getting attention suddenly create intense outrage. The relation of image to text here is still crucial.] While we agree that adding the images converted a banal textual project into a racial provocation, he sees her opportunism as not simply in the aesthetic series but as an attack on the social movement, and thus criticizable from that perspective. Her cynical use of Free Speech, and by an extension the defense of her work in terms of it, cannot be dissociated from its effects on antiracist organizing and its larger concern, #blacklivesmatter.

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A week ago, I returned from Germany to find the online poetry community in an uproar over Ron Silliman’s “Je suis Vanessa Place.” There, Silliman triangulates the Charlie Hebdo award controversy with the petition to remove Place from a steering committee at AWP, and her conceptual project to tweet Gone with the Wind in 140-character chunks over several years. Since then, a second letter campaign in part led to the devolution and canceling of the Berkeley Poetry Conference 2015 (BPC), a situation still unresolved.  Silliman sees the primary issue as freedom of expression in a climate of projective and even rhetorically violent debate. Unfortunately, whatever the merits of his position—which I agree with on many grounds—his own rhetorical strategy makes analogies and leaps that are at turns defensive and projective to the point of offense to most readers. … More

Reaching further back into my personal archive of whiteness, I find this poem—written in Iowa City about 1971 or ’72 and published in 1975, on the theme. It is the second poem in my first book, Opera—Works. The title quotes a line from Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers.”

The Whiteness Which Covers All

Magnum opus
white
marginal waves
nested in whiteness

The triangle dilated
fragments—
the voracious snake
hidden
in the sheets of—

White sea
flat under a white sky

The narrow eye, such that
it encompassed the
compelling frigidity.

I was
witnessed throughout.

From Barrett Watten, Opera—Works (Bolinas, Calif.: Big Sky Books, 1975), 6; reprinted in Frame (1971–1990) (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997), 280. Copyright (c) Barrett Watten 1975, 1997, 2015.

The current discussion on the “whiteness of the avant-garde,” following Cathy Park Hong’s article in the journal Lana Turner, has brought up the question of whether avant-garde poets fail to deal with a supposed “color blindness” in their radical forms and experimental practices. The following is a section from Bad History, written in 1992 and published by Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz’s Atelos Press in 1998, that addresses the cultural construction of whiteness—my own, in fact. It was written the summer following the Los Angeles riots after the beating of Rodney King, and is informed stylistically by the art writing I had been doing in Artweek during that period—many instances of which took up matters of cultural politics across the spectrum of race, class, and gender. It would only be a short while before I took up my teaching position at Wayne State University in Detroit, but that is another story. Those calling out the “avant-garde” as not confronting its racial cultural logics need to look a bit further.

To Elsie

On being the white male heterosexual I’m supposed to see myself “as”—but who’s looking? For William Carlos Williams, as a pure product Elsie was the exception that proved the rule of his own impure lack of identity—the non-solution of “no one driving the car” being the prescient mastery of a situation the poet’s white male heterosexual heirs would have to negotiate sixty years hence. And so indeed have we come to see ourselves predicted as the outcome of our incommensurate acts—Williams in ironizing himself as “not” the pure product he would libidinally like to be; we in retreating from the historical sentimentality of his look. Now we can only admit to having no such desire left as Williams would have liked to preserve—unless we are willing to be seen, in self-contradiction, “as” violent dissociations of Williams’s self-objectification. But does the resulting desire—”not mine”—convey any more politics than the one I could claim by negating my own lack of identity in the white male heterosexual’s violently self-destructive but cannily self-preservative acts? Think of Chris Burden shooting at a jetliner in 1973—it is of course granted that he missed. Such desire can have no object—either it casts itself out as its own unknowing or it is observed, from a distance, as something needing to be controlled. Are you someone who needs to be controlled? … More