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.

I agree with this perspective of what is most problematic about her work, but as one among many that still need to be kept in play. To begin with, I want to raise a question of the intentionality perceptible in the circulation of racialized images, and the way racism may be ascribed to them. This is not to separate intention from context, but to find ways of reading it that are contextual and historical. An example that comes to mind through this controversy was an incident, about ten years ago, when a show of Kara Walker’s work was to be shown at the then-quite-stodgy Detroit Institute of Arts. Walker, whose work with racist fantasy material is now widely known and highly regarded, was new to Detroit, and the DIA was still a bastion of cultural separatism in the city. Off hours, a black janitor encountered the work during installation and complained; the show was cancelled. This is the kind of textbook case that organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship deal with all the time, from Huckleberry Finn to the current controversy around Place.

On the other hand, the contrast between that moment to the ramp up of Walker’s career in museums could not be more marked; her work seemed so out of place in those contexts, with no connection of any sort to community, that it appeared (at least to me on seeing it at the 1997 Whitney Biennial) as a form of racist chic. Here, the abstraction of rights and the white walls of the gallery/museum complex together produce a deracination of racial content as an argument of power. A third moment would be the exhibiting of a Walker film installation at the inaugural exhibition of MOCAD in Detroit, where it passed without comment; indeed it was definitive of the kind of engaged art the museum wanted to show. In a final example, Walker’s monumental sugar sculpture at a Brooklyn warehouse met with high attendance and publicity recently, but at this point her iconography was so well known that the moment of racial provocation had been largely folded into a vocabulary of site-specific sculpture and historical references.

Another register comes from my teaching. In my classes at Wayne State, I show images of racial stereotypes when reading texts like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. Discussion of these images takes place openly in a multi-ethnic classroom; in one, we tracked images of Tar Baby through a series of publications, from Joel Chandler Harris to Walt Disney, focusing particularly on a children’s book from the 50s or 60s that depicted the Tar Baby hanging from a tree. The point was how this image could be blindly perceived as benign, given the history it stood for (and continues, in some unconscious way). I would like to think that my teaching is responsible, and that these images can and must be shown and taught—even from the perspective of a white male professor.

Now the question is, not that Vanessa Place is reducible to Kara Walker, but what is so different between the two? If it is simply that Place is white and Walker is black, then my teaching racial images at Wayne State is as problematic as Place’s work, and it isn’t. But at the same time, I hesitated to display, for instance, the Disney image on this page, as it could easily be misinterpreted and circulated as a meme from barrettwatten.net as evidence of racist intention; in the context of the out-of-control discourse around Place I could be seen as just another conceptualist. What is going on, then, with the ascription of the degree of racism in Place’s project? And if Place is deliberately trading in race, how does that intention intersect with the drive to prevent her from presenting her work as an attack on antiracist organizing? Is the historical context of racial violence, from Oscar Grant to the present, really the target of her provocation, either for her or for us? What is the relation between being sure that it is, and the climate of anguished debate that is taking place around it? How do demands to exclude Place intersect with the certainty that she is excludable? What is the difference between the racial and racist content in all of the above examples, and the absolute certainty that what Place is doing must be removed from any institutional setting that would legitimate it?

After so many questions, I will offer my theory: with the addition of her images, and after the Goldsmith piece, Place saw an opportunity to provoke a logic of exclusion that, she thought, would privilege her work in some way. [Correction: this theory now turns out to be historically inaccurate, and will be modified as I learn more about the timing of the response to Place.] In other words, she wanted to put herself in the position of the excluded, racialized object while maintaining the subject position of the master class. I am not sure precisely how her thinking on this aligns with her explicit statements: one, that she wanted to provoke a lawsuit, and another that she wanted to indulge in a kind of symbolic cruelty along racial lines. But what it did result in is that she has now become, herself, an excludable object—the Thing to abject so that a community in solidarity against racial violence can define itself and become one. If so, one wonders if this is all part of the cunning of her piece, and if what she really wants to prove is that she can survive the moment of exclusion. This is where her feint toward Free Speech as a protection comes in—as the invocation of a pseudo-universal that is really motivated by a deeper, darker logic. The crux of the matter comes right here, in that the game Place is playing with her speech, and the general principle of Free Speech, are not the same. History forces them apart, and this controversy is the result. At the same time, I am going to question what it means to position Place as the object that needs to be excluded to make community. I think this is misdirected, for aims that are not entirely clear. Why should we be paying that much attention to this work? Who cares! Just deal with it and get on it with it. Demilitarizing the police is a more important task, and one that has a more direct effect on #blacklivesmatter. Poetry politics—what kind of lesson does it offer? Has Place simply offered the community an object to be excluded so that it can constitute itself, a mere symbolic victory based on the exclusion of bad symbols?

That is more or less my position. It has been misread as an endorsement of Silliman’s call for Free Speech, which I agree with only in part, apart from the language (the painfully wrong metaphors) that he uses to express it (and those are part of his position, too, I grant), and also that he refuses to distinguish the historical contexts and differences within which speech acts. But if Free Speech is historical, not formal, it is a part of the same long struggle for liberation as #blacklivesmatter, and that is why I do not want to separate the two. The Free Speech Movement was one of a series of interdependent movements for liberation of the 60s, and that spirit should continue at Berkeley.

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