noose16x9
Type
Polemic
Category
Culture
Debate

When poetry is racist

Michael Brown was killed on 9 August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. He was eighteen. He had just graduated high school. He was black. He was shot at least six times by a white police officer.

On Friday 13 March 2015, conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith gave a reading at Brown University. He paced and read for thirty-minutes, a photograph of Michael in his high-school graduation gown projected above the stage. The reading was called ‘The Body of Michael Brown’. It was a ‘remixed’ version of Michael’s autopsy. Not much had been changed: the medical jargon was translated, the order of certain words rearranged, and the ending rewritten. Now the ‘climax’ of the piece, as it were, was an observation of Michael’s ‘unremarkable genitalia’.

White America’s fascination with African-American men’s genitalia has a long, and troubled history. It unfolds within the history of white ownership of black bodies. We all remember slavery: a time when blacks were bought and bartered, and understood literally as objects for consumption by white America. Men, women and children were branded with the names of their masters, and assigned value based on their physicality and capacity for work. We all vaguely remember the violence that followed the abolition of slavery: the lynchings and race riots and the night-time raids of the Ku Klux Klan. African-Americans were hung, beaten and burnt alive as punishment and as performance. Their deaths were transformed into spectacles that attracted hundreds, even thousands, of whites. Their bodies became souvenirs. Bones, teeth, and scraps of clothing became keepsakes. Following the horrific murder of Sam Hose in 1899, a local shopkeeper collected and displayed Hose’s knuckles in his front window.

When Kenneth Goldsmith read ‘The Body of Michael Brown,’ he was perpetuating the objectification of black bodies for white consumption. He read the autopsy of a black man who was murdered by a white man. He read it as a white man, in a country where white men have historically oppressed and exerted ownership over black bodies. As Jacquelyn Valencia, a black poet and fan of Goldsmith’s work, observed, Goldsmith ‘is not black. He is not from Ferguson. He is not related to Michael Brown.’ Despite the long proclaimed ‘death of the author,’ work is not created in a vacuum. These things matter. In this case, the race of the ‘author’ matters. Yes, the work would have been received differently if it had been read by a black man.

In essence, Goldsmith’s reading was recreating the power structures that resulted in Michael’s death. He rhetorically dissected Michael’s body for an audience that was overwhelmingly white and male. The audience then repeatedly referred to Michael as ‘a body, the body, it’ during the Q&A following the reading. Rin Johnson, a black woman in the audience, later wrote ‘the whole description feels sexual’. Michael’s humanity was stripped away, again. Goldsmith had the audacity to label it art, as though creating ‘art’ means he gets a free pass on human decency and perpetuating white supremacy.

Let’s consider authorial intent for a moment, even though Goldsmith’s intent is murky at best. His work has traditionally focused on remixing existing sources rather than creating new ones, on examining the nature of creativity and originality in a world overflowing with data. His work Printing Out the Internet, for example, was aimed at literally reprinting the internet. His general philosophy seems to have been outlined in ‘Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?’, when he wrote ‘[t] o be the originator of something that becomes a broader meme trumps being the originator of the actual trigger even that is being reproduced’.

In reading the autopsy of Michael Brown, was Goldsmith hoping to ‘trump’ Michael’s life and death? Or ‘trump’ the #blacklivesmatter movement and their representation of Michael?

Goldsmith attempted to clarify his motivations in a Facebook post, comparing the reading to his work Seven American Deaths and Disasters, in which he transcribed radio broadcasts and television reports of national tragedies like September 11.

I took a publicly available document from an American tragedy that was witnessed first-hand … and simply read it … for me, this is the writing that is able to tell the truth in the strongest and clearest way possible.

Even with this explanation, his intent is unclear. What ‘truth’ was he hoping to reveal? Michael Brown’s death is already a cultural touchstone. Reading his autopsy is not art, because it is not making us question or reimagine anything. In reality, Goldsmith was simply exploiting the power of Michael’s autopsy – which has already been well-established – for his own gain.

Goldsmith determinedly ignored the clarion call of #blacklivesmatter, a shorthand for the campaign that swelled in America and around the world following the murder of Michael. He ignored the work of African-Americans staunchly taking a stand against police brutality and the continued racial inequality that plagues America today. This wasn’t a failed attempt at solidarity, but rather a calculated move to capitalise on the momentum of #blacklivesmatter. At the very least, Goldsmith has fundamentally misunderstood the aims of the movement and the source of the tragedy.

In the words of Mongrel Coalition, a radical group aimed at countering the inherently white, colonial nature of colonial poetry, ‘The Murdered Body of Michael Brown’s medical report is not our poetry, it’s the building blocks of white supremacy.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Hollie Pich is a freelance writer and PhD candidate living and writing in Sydney.

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Comments

  1. The fundamental point that seems to have been missed in the Goldsmith/Brown debate is that this is an appropriation of a representation not an appropriation of a real body. Goldsmith should not be the object of scorn then, of outrage, feigned or real, on behalf of black bodies. If anything it is the author of the autopsy, the original creator who should take umbrage at being plagiarised. We should though focus our attention on what Althusser called ‘the repressive state apparatus’ that created the conditions for Brown’s murder and the autopsy report in the first place.

    If anything by remixing the autopsy report Goldsmith highlighted the state. We became both aware of the frame of politics and poetry. I would argue that this is a good thing. But is it appropriation? Is the paper that publishes excerpts from the report less racist? Is Overland racist for publishing images of Klansmen? Is the historian who writes about Hitler, who defends the republication of Mein Kampf, a Nazi? To not afford Goldsmith a similar position, to easily assume his intent with this piece, is a wilful and ignorant act of misreading. This may be because it fails to recognise conceptual poetry as legitimate, with its own discursive economy and logic. If Kenny had done a neo social realist spoken word slam there may well have been applause, self-congratulatory compliment from left liberals intent on bringing Brown, Ferguson, #blacklivesmatter into the consciousness. But I would argue that this could be an aestheticisation of politics precisely because it lacks formal inventiveness. The object of criticism then is both those who murdered Brown and those who fail to see the radicalism of form in conceptual poetry itself. To do otherwise essentially misses the point.

    It also neglects a history of radical aesthetics from Adorno to Anzaldua and the avant garde and appropriation from Pound and Reznikoff onwards. This is what perhaps has been most galling in the commentary of Goldsmith overall – its thorough lack of historicising both in relation to poetry and poetics seems to suggest it has mainly been an opportunity for people with little interest in poetry itself to gain cultural capital through personal identity politik. When the positionality of authors has been absent, people have been unable to sustain criticism within the frame of poetry. Hence, in this article a history lesson and a discernible opportunism.

    Moreover, the perils of positive association, of declaiming ‘I am this’, will be evident to those familiar with literary theory and politics in the very least. It is not always strategic or logical or correct to say ‘I am political’. Hence, the labour of the negative. Goldsmith does not need to frame his poetry for us, but so far people have failed to read it with anything approaching a degree of intelligence his oeuvre to date would warrant, instead preferring, ironically, to be derivative, repetitive and dumb.

    • “The fundamental point that seems to have been missed in the Goldsmith/Brown debate is that this is an appropriation of a representation not an appropriation of a real body. Goldsmith should not be the object of scorn then, of outrage, feigned or real, on behalf of black bodies.”

      Wait, so Goldsmith should only come under fire if he LITERALLY appropriates a “real” black body, while any and all ‘mere’ representations of black bodies are fair game? The suggestion here that appropriations of ‘mere’ representations of black bodies are in themselves politically innocent or utterly unproblematic is completely ridiculous.

      Oh and yes, even if this article is not, we are well aware of the history and politics of form (traced back through Pound[!!!] etc.). Only here, in THIS instance, Goldsmith’s formal enactment betrays more than he may have intended: the white, colonialist and colonizing thrust and pedigree of that institutional form itself.

      • Is the paper that publishes excerpts from the report less racist? Is Overland racist for publishing images of Klansmen? Is the historian who writes about Hitler, who defends the republication of Mein Kampf, a Nazi?… If Kenny had done a neo social realist spoken word slam there may well have been applause, self-congratulatory compliment from left liberals intent on bringing Brown, Ferguson, #blacklivesmatter into the consciousness.

        • Ridiculous. On the one hand you (rightly) want to draw attention to the importance of form and context, while on the other you attempt to compare compo to being a historian(!) without any acknowledge of the obvious differences. They’re not the same: the comparison is willfully misleading.

          Furthermore, and again, the distinction between “real” and “symbolic” appropriation of Brown’s body is facetious – no one is saying that he actually dug up Brown’s body, that’s absurd. And the “don’t be angry at Goldsmith, be angry at other stuff instead” is undialectical (which is ironic with the citation of Althusser) – it’s not an either/or situation.

          • Hey, R D WOOD:

            Nice try, but again, you willfully, and disingenuously, ignore CONTEXT: my comment “it’s not an either/or situation” refers explicitly to the mutual complicity of the posited “author of the autopsy”, and Goldsmith, with a certain regime of power. On the other hand, my comment “compo to being a historian” refers to your focused comparison between a conceptual poet and a historian. Get it?

            And I’d like to here more about this “history of radical aesthetics” that supposedly exonerates Goldsmith. Along with Pound, does it also include the Italian futurists?

            PS. You’re not a former student of Goldsmith’s are you?

  2. Thanks for the provocative article Hollie. I think it worth highlighting that this was a performance (I believe there is no published text) and one of the key issues here is bodies, as has been said. & no matter what he claims, Goldsmith cannot get away from the politics of his own body.

    I think this performance is substantially different to his “Seven Deaths” book – these transcriptions were from American tragedies that were not directly a result of a particular power relationship between bodies. While I don’t believe Goldsmith’s intent was racist – the performance seems naive at best – I think it does raise serious issues with regards to conceptual writing, the author, the body and responsibility.

  3. mostly in accord with the article’s tenor – who’s the all who “remember slavery” (not me, for sure) -unsure though of the totalitarian title indicting ALL poetry – whoever’s attribution it is / was

  4. Hey, R D WOOD:

    Nice try, but again, you willfully, and disingenuously, ignore CONTEXT: my comment “it’s not an either/or situation” refers explicitly to the mutual complicity of the posited “author of the autopsy”, and Goldsmith, with a certain regime of power. On the other hand, my comment “compo to being a historian” refers to your focused comparison between a conceptual poet and a historian. Get it?

    And I’d like to here more about this “history of radical aesthetics” that supposedly exonerates Goldsmith. Along with Pound, does it also include the Italian futurists?

    PS. You’re not a former student of Goldsmith’s are you?

  5. It is not about exoneration but complication.

    On my authorial position: this is precisely the point one would expect to be made – without situating me in an identity matrix the criticism can’t add up. It mimics the way the attacks on Goldsmith have been essentially ad hominem and reify the identity of the author.

    If I wanted to I could leverage the fact that I am a person of colour and I could claim marginal status in this regard for purposes of cultural capital. Or conversely I could say I heart conceptual poetry and be apparently complicit with a whole regime of white racism. To do both though seems impossible because the frames and intersectionality of poetry and politics has been so occluded.

    • Oh but it is an exoneration. Lets look at the passage again: “The fundamental point that seems to have been missed in the Goldsmith/Brown debate is that this is an appropriation of a representation not an appropriation of a real body. Goldsmith should not be the object of scorn then, of outrage, feigned or real, on behalf of black bodies. If anything it is the author of the autopsy, the original creator who should take umbrage at being plagiarised.” Seem pretty clear to me.

      And yes, my guess at your identity was a cheap shot, sorry about that. But its a move that I don’t in fact need to make. ‘Radical aesthetics’ does NOT equal ‘radical politics’, your reference to Pound is in this regard quite telling. My criticism focuses precisely on this formal concerns: again, the colonial thrust and pedigree of conceptual techniques, and the power structures reinforced and reinscribed in and through such under-theorized present day reenactments of such techniques as Goldsmith’s Michael Brown poem.

      PS. You have, in fact, said “I heart conceptualism” in a fb thread.

      • I am happy to heart conceptualism. I happy to be part as a reader and writer of a varied, exciting field of aesthetics and think about the frames of poetry and use of techniques that cohere around conceptualism. I am also equally happy to heart post-conceptualism, Alt-Lit, flarf and a whole host of other fluid and dynamic categories.

        I heart it and I would not put Vanessa Place in the same place as Kenneth Goldsmith; just as I would not put Erin Morrill, Craig Santos Perez, Myung Mi Kim, Dawn Lundy Martin, Douglas Kearney, Jeremiah Rush Bowen, Joey Yearous-Algozin in the same place as Kenneth Goldsmith. Just like I can say ‘I heart modernism’ and not be a supporter of Pound’s later politics.

        So much criticism of this has not been about poetry but Goldsmith as a ‘white man’, so much so that it has tended to reify the liberal author function according to sets of criteria that do not adequately reflect lived and embodied experience. It is in short too easy. My initial response was to this article specifically and it differs from stand alone sentiments I have expressed. On this piece it is not about exoneration, it is about complication and getting back to the poetry. I would though critique the all too easy conclusion ‘X is racist’ because it over-simplifies what is going on without historical consideration of necessary aspects including racism in poetry, the history of form, the history of appropriation. Hence, pointing out the obvious thing that people have so far failed to consider: the text he appropriated is an official, public document.

        What though are the colonial techniques inherent in conceptualism with specific regard to the people who use such techniques? Are they still colonial techniques if I as a coloured person use them or any number of the poets I listed above use them? Is it a cheap shot only because it turns out I am not white? Is the neo social realist spoken word slam different in regard to appropriation?

  6. Using a reference to genatalia in the second paragraph, presumably to grab attention, and then making the unsubstantiated remark in the sentence that follows makes it seem as though the author of this, too, has appropriated the genetalia.

    • But that is what Goldsmith did and what many people have objected to. He restructured the autopsy report to finish on the line about “unremarkable genitalia.” What an ending hey

  7. This debate is a waste of breath. Goldsmith’s “poem” was tasteless, faddish, and without aesthetic merit, but the notion that it forms one of “the building blocks of white supremacy” is an hysterical absurdity, and as such it trivialises an important issue.

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