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. Jaw-dropping astonishment would be another way of putting it, leading many commentators to dismiss Silliman as out of touch, politically retrograde, and irresponsible. As the disgraced standard bearer for the establishment of Language writers in the Valhalla of their symbolic power, a generation that has been passed over and is no longer relevant.
Since I am at the core a Language writer, language seems a good place to begin. William Carlos Williams said it best: “to write badly is an offense to the state, since the government can never be more than the government of the words” (in a 1950 letter to Robert Creeley). This precedence of language per se over political content, though not to be taken at face value, is one that informs the politics of Language writing, in a historical series beginning with Williams through writers who focus intensively on the relationships between words (Stein, Zukofsky, Creeley, Mac Low, Berrigan, Grenier) as a politics. The use of language has an ethical implication; often this is interpreted formally in terms of a skeptical, if not suspended, relationship of language to referent and a stress on the nonidentity of subject and predicate in sentence and argument construction. What this position argues against most would be broad and unfocused forms of reference (to Left or McCarthyite politics in the 50s, for example) and illicit conjunctions of overly broad reference with predications or value judgments based on it. But in Silliman’s prose, we get this: “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. In signing, they too have wrapped their own fingers around the trigger of that gun. Either you are shooting Lorca or you are not shooting Lorca, setting fire to Roque Dalton or not setting him ablaze.”
Like the mishmash of mixed metaphors and themes throughout his piece, this sample clarifies what Williams meant by “the government of the words”—here, an instance of dangerous misrule. References are broad and characterizing and predicates have run amok. Are the petitioners firing guns at those who disagree with them, like Darren Wilson? Or is the murder of Michael Brown merely a staged, symbolic event, like the circulating of the petition? Either way, the implications are more than disturbing—they reveal a blindspot at the center of the argument, something missing that is pushing the language to extremes. One way to name that blindspot is to evoke the bodies of black men who have been murdered by police, from Oscar Grant to Freddie Gray and throughout American history. How can the physical and political body of the black victims of racial violence be understood? And if they cannot be, is what is missing between reference and predication precisely the subject position of he who cannot understand, whose presumed neutrality and nonidentity is being called into account by the unrepresentable referent? This is where the violence of Silliman’s writing comes in, pointing to the useful concept of “white fragility.” The overamping of the rhetoric, the inability to grasp the reality of the referent, the illicit conjunction between referent and predication create nothing short of outrage on the part of the reader. That was my feeling on reading it, and I immediately wrote Silliman to suggest that he was being irresponsible and should specifically address these traumatizing effects of overmastering an argument. In writing on race and Vanessa Place, Silliman fails to observe the “government of the words” that would unite reference (to race and art practice) and predication (to politics and free speech) adequately. What we get is a blindspot at the center of an argument that reactively discredits the very position he wants to take, in advocating for a disinterested public forum.
But Silliman does have an argument: it is that to restrict Place’s speech is to align that act with every other denial of speech that has occurred, from the Nazi burning of books to Jesse Helms’s censorship of the NEA to the murder of poets. Silliman does not represent these issues in their particularity; rather, they become instances of the same general principle, a purported universal right. The historically constructed nature of that right, rather than its abstract and procedural basis, are what concern us here, and Silliman needs to separate, not conjoin, historically different instances, so that reference and predication are not illicitly linked. At the same time, his article is also a specific, and very historical, defense of Vanessa Place’s Twitter project, which he sees protected like any other act of speech. But first what is, precisely, the speech act involved? From 2009, as a work of conceptual art Place has been tweeting Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in 140-character chunks on her Twitter site—this is known. Somewhat recently, she added an author picture of Hattie McDaniel from the 1939 movie, and on her banner posted a racially stereotyped image of a black woman from turn-of-the-century sheet music, i.e., from the Jim Crow period. Thus, her conceptual project demands to be read historically, and that is unusual for conceptual art. Every detail of the piece matters in terms of “what it is,” and all bear on whether the work is racist and in what way. As Tyrone Williams noted online, it seems the addition of the images was the trigger that created the outrage over the piece (and demanded attention for it); before that, nobody really cared about the project—it was obscure. Place, in an interview, said that she wanted to provoke the Mitchell estate into a copyright suit, but failed to do so; the canceling of the BPC may give her a basis to claim her speech was denied.
What kind of speech is this project? First, it is a work of art that uses appropriation strategies to denaturalize and defamiliarize a text that has racialized, and to present readers, racist content. The choice of texts is important: a middlebrow historical romance that does “historical work” in channeling Jim Crow stereotypes into more modern, mainstream form (much like Walt Disney’s Song of the South, with which it might be compared). Other works she might have tweeted, to get at the effect she was interested in, include slave narratives; Huckleberry Finn; the dialect poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar or Claude McKay; Zora Neale Hurston’s stories. Each would have an entirely different effect; that, in itself, tells us that the use of Gone with the Wind has a critical dimension, and is not just an instrumental foregrounding of racist tropes, even if it is not spelled out. Knowing something of Place’s theoretical agenda, you might say that she is attempting a “redistribution of the sensible” (after Jacques Rancière) that redeploys an out-of-date racialist text to denaturalize and foreground the racism we live in the present. For many reasons, this simplistic “holding up the mirror” to racism fails, as black readers have very different partitions de sensible than white ones around racial stereotypes and tropes. By simplistically conflating at least the two communities, the work reveals its own blindspot in that it arrogantly assumes, from the magisterial position of the conceptual artist free to manipulate her texts, that the polysemy that results is a controllable aspect of the work. So the work fails to control its responses, and we are free to read it differently. But even at the point of failure, Place’s speech is, in my understanding of the tradition of the First Amendment, entirely protected. This does not mean that you cannot dislike it, but you cannot prohibit it. Mongrel Coalition or May 24 letter writers are well within their First Amendment rights to call for the sanctions against Place, as an extension of their right. But as art it is not instrumentally racist, and at least so far in our discussion it is certainly not hate speech or injurious. Up to this point in the argument, Silliman would be right to see the attack on Place at the AWP, based on this work, to be punishment for, and thus abridgment of, her right to speech and creative expression. However, to make that claim, he needs to read Place’s work in greater detail and not simply align it with every other example of prohibited speech. Place’s work is a particular that Silliman ineptly elevates to the standard of a universal, confusing both.
The second moment of Place’s speech act, however, may be the more important one. This is the addition of the two images, which I assume came after the outcry to Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, as what got audiences to pay attention to the work and to decry it as racist. To begin with, there is no question that Goldsmith’s use of the autopsy report was one of the worst performance ideas an artist has had. It is obscene and open to criticism on numerous levels. What was even worse was the staging of the reading: Goldsmith in his performance suit, reading his bowdlerized and manipulated text, in front of an image of Michael Brown in cap and gown that his family had circulated. The irony has a definite racist potential, suggesting that the promising scholar is not the same man whose body is being anatomized after having been shot numerous times. Black men as collegians are merely simulacral; their degraded body is the reality for us. Goldsmith, however, got a lot of attention for this work, and here is where I think the racist dimension of Place’s piece comes in. She wanted that attention, too, and to get it she posted the two images. These change the remote, conceptual calculation of the tweets into something more immediate. It is as if to say, I am the racial unconscious; I am pushing these images at you; what are you going to do about it; nothing. Place attempts to imitate the introjection of racialized stereotypes, and that is truly dangerous for her or anyone to do. Only someone entirely dissociated from the implications of those images, their effects on people who have experiences of those images that are shameful and degrading (both black and white people), could put those up there in cold blood. The work is racially provocative, and I cannot think of another example that indulgences its privilege to provoke across racial lines, through a work of art, in that manner. My initial response to it was that Place was an instance of racial chic, the “fashionable” or arty/risqué use of racial tropes (Warhol; Gilbert and George; Trevor Winkfield; the Rolling Stones), but I am not sure. It could also be seen as simply racially provocative, circulating racial material not to defamiliarize it but to push buttons and get a response. And a response is what she got—that is evident. Should Place be denied a place at the BPC? How should we decide—and is the rhetoric of the petition the only way to think, or do we need a broader conversation? Are the criteria simply the protected nature of the work of art, which I think fully covers the tweeting of Gone with the Wind, or is she being racially provocative, engaging in hate speech? Is she shouting fire in a crowded theater; does she injure; and whom?
From my perspective the better outcome to the absolute debacle of the BPC, and its attempt to cover up its removal of Place with the launching of a second conference directed toward the work and issues of Poets of Color, would be to use a dialogue with Place as a pedagogical and political moment. I can see a much more expansive discussion around questions of speech and offensiveness that may still be engaged; even as here Silliman’s call for “blasphemy” as an aesthetic aim is just the kind of simplistic confusion and even baiting I see in his mixed metaphors on protected speech. One aspect I would bring to the table is a purely historical one, that goes along with the historical context of the first BPC: the politics of expression that were an implicit part of the rise of the counterculture and liberationist politics in the 1960s. I discuss these questions of liberation in my article “The Turn to Language in the 1960s,” and specifically align Language writing with the victory of the Free Speech movement at Berkeley in 1964–65 (the same year as the first BPC). The recent, and excellent, book by Loren Glass, Countercultural Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013) shows how transgressive literature (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Howl, Naked Lunch, and many other texts) were published in a historical context that included post–1945 continental literature (the New Novel), Black liberation (The Wretched of the Earth); and gay liberation (William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, John Rechy). A broad movement of liberation challenged the boundaries of what was admissible in public speech, and aligned sexual, postcolonial, and black liberation with those ends. There is much to be said about the transgressive (entirely sexist and racist) values of Burroughs’s work from the period, even as may continue to read them, while the recovery of underappreciated works like LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s The Toilet or Jean Genet’s The Blacks would be a consequence of that productive mix. That is something to pursue in the present, and groups like the Black Took Collective, at the intersection with other radical poetics, would lead the way. For this reason, the dogmatic leveling of politics to the restriction of speech should be opposed; we need to keep our discourses open.
[This will be a work in progress, which may be expanded or revised; please note date of access when citing.]