Kenneth Goldsmith reading “The Body of Michael Brown”
(screenshot via @soulellis/Twitter)
“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” —Denise Levertov
I have written elsewhere (“Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz”) about the empire-building taking place under the rhetoric of a liberating avant-garde vis-à-vis Conceptual Poetry as presumably helmed by Vanessa Place & Kenneth Goldsmith, tapped and touted for years now by the premier leftist poetry critic, Marjorie Perloff. But this week, many at Brown University watched as shock value antics reached new lows, reveling in blatant disregard and tone deafness for the recent murder of Michael Brown, as Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance, “The Body of Michael Brown,” was executed in the service of his previous canonizing and careerist maneuvers, especially thrown into sharp relief as attention for Place and Goldsmith reaches its nadir. This latest last-gasp play for attention lays literary claim to Michael Brown’s body in ways that call into question exactly who Goldsmith hoped to appeal to, what privileges he expected to take advantage of in the process and which populations are so casually disregarded. He overstepped in revealing ways, calling attention to the historical power plays he has publicly boasted and by enacting how privilege is expected to invoke and establish power.
If Andrew Dice Clay hadn’t strategically tapped into the backlash of male anger after the second wave of feminism, he would not have been one of the largest grossing comedians going. He wasn’t clever or funny; he just knew which hot-button subjects would tap into an anger at those demanding sociological, personal and political power changes and calling for more egalitarian shifts in those realms. His “dish rag whore” routines garnered attention and rendered him popular. He was calculated in his selections, and his material required very little effort or creativity; one might even say his jokes were “uncreative,” as they seemed to be lifted or “appropriated” straight from the backlash culture around him. He recognized insecurities, played up to them and gained support on the basis of fear and uncertainty. An angry audience was already in place, ready to be tapped, waiting for affirmation, alleviation and group-fomenting.
Despite strident efforts to intellectualize their performances and position themselves with feet in both the art and literary worlds, Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place strike a closer resemblance to men like Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern as characters who proclaim their First Amendment advocacy by reifying sexism as the basis for their noble cause. Stern himself was called a hero by mostly white middle class men for “taking on” the FCC in the name of discussing the details of women’s bodies and rating them fuckable on the air. In the latter case, the two comedians capitalized on men’s insecurities stemming from the gains women made by publicly celebrating sexism in the name of anti-censorship. They were also hearkening back and pining to reestablish the old order where men held power and women were silent and expected to serve. Similarly, Place and Goldsmith are laying claim to working for a very specific and narrowly defined higher order of art and literature that removes responsibility for considering others. In their definitions, no one is accountable to history and sentiment; such expressions of empathy or concern for the human have no value—and your response is your own responsibility, not an intentional effect of their “recontextualized” performances. Their material prominently features detailed descriptions of rape and, now, the dead black male body, laid bared on stage by a white man.
Anyone who does consider the effects of one’s art on others, who has an ethics, is burdened, perhaps not even “free,” Goldsmith suggests:
I really have trouble with poethics. In fact, I think one of the most beautiful, free and expansive ideas about art is that it — unlike just about everything else in our culture — doesn’t have to partake in an ethical discourse.
And of course, if you are thusly ‘burdened’ with an ethical discourse, you are not ultimately in power; you don’t have true agency. Someone else presumably has dominion over you.
Goldsmith wishes to present art as a free pass for blatant disregard, while pretending his appropriative performances are not in the service of any values or ideological framework (he ‘does not editorialize’, as if the “artist-poet” incurs no responsiblity for the selection, manipulation and presentation of texts). In fact, his appropriated, recontextualized presentations can erase the impact of entire histories and contexts just as the Internet does. As he explains:
Any notion of history has been leveled by the internet. Now, it’s all fodder for the remix and recreation of works of art: free-floating toolboxes and strategies unmoored from context or historicity.
This sleight-of-hand comes from someone who does not feel the repercussions of being a brown or black body walking the streets of a country with a brutal history of racism, the impact of which remains life-threatening today.
So what was Goldsmith banking on with his latest selection of Michael Brown’s body as “subject matter”? Akin to comedians Clay and Stern, what anxieties would Goldsmith be tapping into?
1) ANXIETY CAPITAL. One of his main foci has been the Internet. We’ve got books diagnosing and analyzing our Internet fears. The “I walked 20 miles to school with no shoes on” nostalgia has shifted to how “social media is replacing our personal interactions” handwringing. Luddite fears of the cyber-world replacing our jobs with computers and robots remains an underlying current in today’s technologically-advancing marketplace. Goldsmith has capitalized on those fears calculatingly well—and received lucrative institutional support in the process.
In line with the ConPos traditional efforts to be provocateurs, it should come as no surprise then that perhaps Goldsmith’s attempt to shock for effect and win attention was hinged on the anxiety of racial tensions. This anxiety is one of the triggers that narrows the lens through which we see and attempt to control people of color, and in that regard, by reducing Brown to descriptions of his dead body, Goldsmith in essence named, colonized and held symbolic court over the now-neutralized threat of Michael Brown.
2) PRIVILEGE. There are real life threats to people of color daily. The number of deaths this year alone by police is so daunting, I would strongly hesitate calling the cops if I were a person of color in need. With the proliferation of cell phone cameras and networking communities, a more aware public and increased insecurity over race-consciousness has grown. People of color and allies are organizing more actively and vigilantly, while those who have not yet examined our inherited positions of privilege have become loudly silent with uncertainty. Many do not know how to begin addressing a history this country has made no reparations nor redress for; thus white guilt is palpable. Others are also threatened by demands for a change in the systemic racism that our institutions – and the people who make them up – benefit from and do not want to relinquish. Obviously, silence isn’t working. And akin to those angry men seeking affirmation, alleviation and group-fomenting through the words of Clay and Stern, we have a large number of anxious citizens who do not know who to look to for immediate relief or guidance in this climate of racial-tension and calls for the abolishment of often-deadly bias.
Certainly Goldsmith is as acutely aware of these heightened anxieties, fears and sensitivities that have arisen since the multiple shooting deaths of people of color in the last year alone. But since his art would be “troubled” by “poethical” concerns if he were to have considered the impact of last Friday’s performance at Brown on people of color and Michael Brown’s family, one might surmise that he had, in line with his previously provocative maneuvers, an agenda instead. As the Michael Brown shooting is still acutely within the national consciousness, Goldsmith could not have imagined he was making anyone aware of this event in any substantive way. So who, exactly, was Kenneth Goldsmith’s gesture meant to appeal to? Is he alleviating anything for those in privileged positions—white people—who don’t know what to do and don’t have to do anything in the face of this epidemic?
It seems, beyond the shock value aspect of a white man on stage standing beneath a black man’s portrait, one who is known to have been gunned down by a white man in a position of authority and who remains unchallenged in his life-taking act, that perhaps another set of ideological values surfaced, however intentional or not, as he read the details of Brown’s gunned-down body.
It is the selection and manipulation of Brown’s body, the reordering and rewording of descriptions of Brown’s body, that allows Goldsmith to symbolically assert authority over Brown, much in the same way white supremacy has historically “animalized” black and brown bodies in order to claim dominion over them and establish positions of power. As a white man – and all that symbolically codifies — standing beneath the “humanizing” portrait of Michael Brown, Goldsmith begins to strip the humanity from Brown with his “literary” descriptions of Brown’s murdered body. Goldsmith explains his authority as being in the service of literary aesthetics:
I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary. I indeed stated at the beginning of my reading that this was a poem called “The Body of Michael Brown”; I never stated, “I am going to read the autopsy report of Michael Brown.”
Just as lynchings were public statements reifying the established order, the selection, manipulation and performance of a text that reduces Brown to his murdered body is also a public declaration over Brown, of the dominant order, complete with a revealing, punctuated end on Brown’s genitalia. It is difficult not to associate this final note with the brutality also focused on the genitalia of black men during lynchings—and the sustained effects of that bodily focus on people of color carried on today:
These attempts at shock value antics are nothing new to Place and Goldsmith, except this time the latter seems to have overplayed his hand and laid bare the limits of white privilege. It has not insulated him, as may have been expected, from numerous responses calling attention to the effects his performance had on others, however intended or not. Is it his responsibility to be concerned with a “poethics”? Perhaps white privilege has taught him he needn’t worry. But what about the additional implications of an art that enacts and advances values he has also used to establish himself in the literary world with a career, plentiful paid platforms that give him voice and therefore additional power and the ability to appeal to and affirm values that simply assert the old world order where slaves were property, to be used and discarded as one sees fit? Insulating one’s self with the privilege of not “troubling” one’s art with an ethics is one thing; performing oppressive acts is another feat that has caused a public outcry of pain and rage that Goldsmith cannot ignore.
I imagine Goldsmith simply didn’t consider the effects his performance would have on people of color; there does not seem to have been any real regard for that potential at all. That’s how privilege works; it doesn’t even occur to the privileged to empathize with the “other”. He took a brazen chance, secure in his sense of authority as a white man speaking aloud the details of a murdered black body, and perhaps even hopeful, like Clay and Stern, that the anxiety he would tap into and reap the benefits from, one rooted in a white supremacy that runs deep in this country, would far outweigh the potential hurt of any people of color—and benefit him with renewed publicity for his colonized field of Conceptual Poetry. His concern was one of self-aggrandizement. Certainly one of the key underpinnings of empire building is white supremacy, and if one knows how to take advantage of one’s ascribed privileges, he might make his move to resuscitate attention for the work that was advancing his popularity and career. But he over-calculated and is feeling the blowback, just days later, in a proliferation of responses online already.
Jacqueline Valencia, one of Goldsmith’s former students, weighed in on his appropriative move:
Now think of Goldsmith again as the vessel of that report. He is not black. He is not from Ferguson. He is not related to Michael Brown. Did he speak to the Brown’s relatives? If he didn’t are we to think that Brown’s death, because that of that freely available autopsy report, are we to believe that Brown’s body is now freely available to the public. This is a black body that Goldsmith is rendering in his reading. That alone is the reason that concerned me. As a mixed woman with a black father who has had his rights (and life) questioned because of the colour of his skin, we both grew up subtly being told that our bodies belonged for appropriation.
I hope the irony of Goldsmith’s reaction to Valencia’s critique is not lost in light of his own efforts to shock for effect while reinscribing white supremacist values— “Goldsmith messaged me and was shocked at my reaction.”
Now in an age of increased visibility and conscious awareness, Kenneth Goldsmith, apparently, will not give permission to Brown University to release his performance, claiming, “There’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more.” Why was no consideration given beforehand to the people this reading might harm? Perhaps he didn’t expect the pain to be coupled with rage and public denouncements? Goldsmith certainly did not anticipate the number of negative responses his beloved social media microphone amplified back at him, and further, he outed himself as one who can choose to enact white privilege in an imperialistic manner – laying claim to Michael Brown’s body – without fear of punishment or retaliation. That is the heartbeat of white supremacy: to starkly and publicly lay claim to black bodies, manipulate and declare them either property or threat, as an assertion of white power—without fear of retaliation or cost.
3) THE SELECTIVE RESPONSE. While the ConPos are proactive about “owning” and celebrating criticism in minute fashion (i.e. re-Tweeting basic reactions of anger, proclamations of shock, etc) (Place calls these responses “inches”), what is more telling is the criticism they actively ignore, even when it is tweeted at them directly and repeatedly and posted on their Facebook pages. What do these “inches” look like?
While Kenneth Goldsmith’s selective re-Tweets reflect gratification, “…no one knew wtf to do with that.” One may infer that shock value was Goldsmith’s goal:
It is unclear if many of those in praise of Goldsmith’s performance were also in attendance, but that point seems moot when re-Tweeting praise for the “wizard himself”:
So what do the “inches” exclude? Poets of color are executing a variety of innovative feats in the usual margins, works that are tokenized, disregarded or co-opted as business-as-usual. Did Place or Goldsmith respond to the Mongrel Coalition’s many attempts to engage them? No. Goldsmith blocked them on Twitter. Apparently all attention, and inches, isn’t equal.
Articles in praise are reposted and Tweeted, but substantive criticism is ignored or blocked. Why? Just as the Flarfists attempted to lay claim to techniques many poets were developing and adopting in response to the increased popularity and availability of the Internet, these particular ConPos are also heralded as the foremost proponents of said techniques, due in large part to their own nepotistic promotional efforts and with Marjorie Perloff’s enthusiastic advocacy and promotion. They have been quite proactive about garnering this attribution, despite knowing that many writers of color have long before their efforts fomented and practiced conceptual techniques. Cathy Park outlines in great detail a number of these writers of color in her hard-hitting piece, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde”:
For too long, white poets have claimed ownership and territorialized “the new” as their own and for too long experimental minority poets have been cast aside as being derivative of their white contemporaries. If tastemakers of poetry like Marjorie Perloff have this fear of a black planet, let us become “enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming” them and wrest control of the wheels of innovation. The most radical writings today are coming from poets of color—writers like writers like Black Took Collective, Rodrigo Toscano, Bhanu Kapil, Tan Lin, M. NourbeSe Philips, Douglas Kearney, Farid Matuk, Monica De La Torre, David Lau, Divya Victor, LaTasha Nevada Diggs, and so many more.
Beyond the lack of response and what that means in terms of shaping these “writers’” careers and canonical inclusion, there are quite a few essays that have appeared lately that either speak to the advancement of discussions around writers of color, including the Boston Review’s recent, “Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde”, Evie Shockley’s “Shifting the (Im)balance: Race and the Poetry Canon” and Sueyeun Juliette Lee ‘s “Shock and Blah: Offensive Postures in “Conceptual” Poetry and the Traumatic Stuplime” for starters.
I’ll close with a revealing excerpt from Lee’s essay that foreshadows the problematic effects of Goldsmith’s Brown performance:
These [Conceptual] proceduralist approaches intervene in how we experience the writing: they invite our appreciation of the work’s “stupid” virtuosity, suggesting that if we are offended, it’s because we just aren’t sophisticated. This easy profundity allows the author to remain unaffected, outside of the writing and in control.
I hope the racialized lines that get drawn around “conceptual” writing are made evident by this equation. “Whiteness” doesn’t have to care—it doesn’t have to have a body or a history, etc. Writers of difference ought to care whereas “conceptual” writers don’t have to. They get to remain unaffected. Whiteness allows them to be read as dwelling in abstraction and play which writers of difference aren’t typically afforded unless they clamor for it. If Goldsmith had elected to cover events that had overtly racialized overtones, such as lynchings, the dynamics of the traumatic stuplime would have been more evident.
… I recognize that my framing of this dilemma in terms of “caring” and seeming to have a “personal stake” may seem ridiculous for those interested in the avant-garde. I argue, however, that the avant-garde has always immensely cared, and has always immensely had a personal stake in what it produces. To erase these considerations from the debate is to efface the true promise of the avant-garde—to license us full access to ourselves.
Or as the Mongrel Coalition responds to such enactment:
The Murdered Body of Mike Brown’s Medical Report is not our poetry, it’s the building blocks of white supremacy, a miscreant DNA infecting everyone in the world. We refuse to let it be made “literary”…
Just as there is no absolute “free speech” in this country, perhaps it is time to stop giving free passes to the reinscription of white supremacist moves in the names of art and literature and begin examining how people in positions of power benefit from and harm with such performances. The abstracted remove they fabricate simply isn’t enough cushion anymore for a pardon and reward.
art to mimic the police
art to replicate colonial violence
art as shield for white supremacist fantasies
–we get it. we feel it everyday
Originally published at VIDA Review on MARCH 18, 2015
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.