Free Speech, Minstrelsy, and the Avant-Garde

By Chris Chen, Tim KreinerDecember 10, 2015

Free Speech, Minstrelsy, and the Avant-Garde

FEW RECENT CONTROVERSIES in US poetry have garnered as much infamy and mainstream media attention as two recent writing projects, by poet Vanessa Place and fellow avant-garde poet Kenneth Goldsmith, that attempt to draw attention to antiblack racism in ways that critics argue simply magnify the power of racial stereotypes. In ways that even their most vocal defenders admit are flawed, the works in question attempt to address antiblack racism and violence by appropriating language from two existing texts: the initial state autopsy report for Michael Brown, the unarmed Ferguson teenager shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson, and Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With the Wind.

For a broader public unfamiliar with longstanding debates about the racial politics of modern and contemporary avant-garde and experimental poetry, the sheer volume of continuing commentary provoked by these projects might seem puzzling. Two recent articles — in The New Yorker and the online academic journal — demonstrate just how polarizing these projects remain. They also demonstrate how techniques of literary appropriation lead to contentious, and some would argue largely unrelated conversations about racism and free speech. This is a controversy long in the making, as the relation between literary form and racial “content” has haunted the history of aesthetic innovation from early 20th century Anglo-American high modernist poetry through contemporary US poetic avant-gardes.

As key theorists of a contemporary literary movement called Conceptual poetry, Place and Goldsmith remain committed to the practice of recycling and sculpting texts, using techniques and procedures inspired by earlier avant-garde artists and writers from Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Sherri Levine, to the network of writers associated with the Oulipo group. While Place’s interest in historical reenactments of the minstrel tradition and “coon songs” isn’t limited to Gone With the Wind, the poet began to retweet the entirety of Mitchell’s novel beginning in 2009. Both Goldsmith’s reading of one of Brown’s autopsy reports at Brown University, and Place’s ongoing Twitter and associated performance projects, have a triggered an avalanche of criticism, far from coincidentally in the midst of a national mobilization in defense of black lives. There has been no shortage of high profile public defenses in mainstream media Los Angeles Times feature on Kenneth Goldsmith. The above-mentioned support for Place’s and Goldsmith’s projects have been quick to invoke the intrinsic, one could say procedural, value of free speech protections and the defamiliarizing power of avant-garde literary techniques. And yet both the projects themselves and the defenses on offer reproduce and reinforce a longstanding binary opposition between aesthetic form and race understood as sociological or anthropological “content.” In fact in “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” the poet Ken Chen argues that Goldsmith’s and Place’s recent projects reproduce the anthropological framing of racially “authentic” folk cultures in so-called “human zoos” and ethnological showcases in 19th and early 20th century museums and world fairs.

Goldsmith’s reading of an edited version of the initial St. Louis County autopsy report for Michael Brown — in a March 2015 performance titled “The Body of Michael Brown” at Brown University — occurred as the Black Lives Matter movement continued to mobilize in city after city in response to police shootings of unarmed black men and women. Outrage at Goldsmith’s performance reverberated through social media; lines were drawn. Place’s continued tweeting the text of Mitchell’s novel beneath minstrel avatars — plucked from the 1939 film version of the novel and from the front page of the sheet music for a popular cakewalk in 1899 called “Aunt Jemima’s Wedding Day” — was subsequently met with disgust from many poets and activists, especially in the weeks following Goldsmith’s performance — weeks that saw the police murders of Freddie Gray and Walter Scott. Online flame-wars raged. More than a few names were named. One consequence was the public collapse of the 2015 Berkeley Poetry Conference at which Place was scheduled to appear. In full view of a bitterly divided poetry community, university organizers quickly convened a replacement event, “Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Poetry Conference,” that took place in the days surrounding the massacre of six black women and three black men at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The speed and scale of the reaction to these poetic controversies were amplified at every turn by a social movement that was both gaining momentum and meeting political resistance for increasingly confrontational street tactics.

Defenses of “ConPo” — industry shorthand for Conceptual Poetry, a contemporary poetic avant-garde that counts both Place and Goldsmith as core members — celebrate the defamiliarizing power of citation, appropriation, and quotation of texts in the internet age. As Goldsmith explains, poets in the age of the internet should mine the slagheap of language ready to be “grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry.” In the eyes of their defenders, poets like Place and Goldsmith are simply putting a particular avant-garde project of formal appropriation in the service of antiracism: aesthetic forms estrange all-too-familiar racist content drawn from novels like Gone With the Wind, state dicta, and social media.


Aesthetic Form, Racial Content

Critics of these recent projects have subsequently been chastised for misreading the antiracist intent of their projects and constraining the imaginative freedom of white authors to engage the subject of race in the same ways that nonwhite artists, like the artist Kara Walker, routinely do. “Kara Walker uses violently racist imagery to make art about the racial imaginary — the American imaginary,” Place argues. “This project does the same thing.” Goldsmith asserts: “If all I can do is speak about what I know and what I am, all I can do is white and Jewish. I’m not willing to go down that road to restrict what I write about to what I am. That’s the end of fiction. That means a black person can’t have a white character.” Though they aren’t addressing either Goldsmith or Place directly, the poets Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, in an introduction to an anthology of essays on race and contemporary poetry entitled The Racial Imaginary, write: “It is striking to see how many white writers in particular conceive of race and the creative imagination as the question of whether they feel they are permitted to write a character or a voice, or a persona, `of color,’” Rankine and Loffreda contend. Yet to our knowledge none of the criticisms of these projects has claimed that the problem with these works is simply that their authors are white or that white authors should not engage with the subject of race. While there may be broad agreement among critics that the projects end up reinforcing the power of racist language and imagery, there have been a variety of reasons given for why they do so. None of the longer critical engagements with these Conceptual projects — in particular essays by the poets Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, John Keene, Cathy Park Hong, and Ken Chen — question the value of or rights to free speech. Instead these poets offer a range of readings that highlight how the particular formal strategies Goldsmith and Place use, whatever their intent, seem to buttress rather than illuminate the forms of racism they wish to draw attention to. For critics of these works, it is a repetition without a difference.

Place and Goldsmith have both announced their antiracist intentions. The self-reflexive formal framing of quoted racist materials is not itself racist, the argument goes, but critical. In Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker profile, Goldsmith declares that his 2013 book Seven American Deaths and Disasters — a text constructed from reporters’ and eyewitness accounts of a series of national tragedies from the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, to the Columbine high school shooting and 9/11 — “had demonstrated that conceptual poetry could handle inflammatory material and provoke outrage in the service of a social cause.” Goldsmith and Place both claim they are using formal strategies imagined elsewhere, in race-neutral terms, to what the latter poet calls racially charged “hot texts” or materials. In other words, race is primarily imagined in terms of raw material “grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed” through various aesthetic strategies.

While the poet Aaron Kunin’s recent reading of Place’s Gone With the Wind project finds these appropriation strategies limited, he continues to reinforce the conceptual binary upon which these projects depend. He affirms the political value of an antiracist poetics while at the same time maintaining a traditional conception of aesthetic value completely opposed to political instrumentalization. To denounce Place’s writing for “ideological reasons,” according to Kunin, is tantamount to rejecting the “foundations of aesthetic value.” But nevertheless an innovative and original antiracist poetics, he admits, “might not only use racist language and imagery, but also might express racist attitudes.” In negotiating these paradoxes, “race” remains a matter of ideological content for Kunin, opposed to the domain of the aesthetic, here defined as a form or frame “separating images from the things they represent.”

Contemporary black, Latino, Native American, and Asian American poetry have forced readers to reimagine what “experiment” or “innovation” might mean in different cultural contexts that are not reducible to a static understanding of racial difference. Recent literary scholarship of racially marked literary traditions has increasingly rejected the idea that formal strategies — for instance the use of parataxis — might bear some self-evident political content. Instead of reading for the sociohistorical content of racial identity that literary works simply reflect or express, these critics argue, we need to attend to “race” in terms of the historically shifting, contradictory forms of its appearance. The entrenched belief that poetic form and content can be divided, so that decontextualized citation can reverse the polarity of racist content, depends upon an essentialist understanding of appropriation techniques as inherently critical.


Racism and Free Speech

The most elaborate justifications for Place’s poetics, in particular, have been advanced under the banner of free speech, from the pages of The Guardian and Los Angeles Times to the online pronouncements of US avant-garde poets such as Ron Silliman or Barrett Watten. The initial debates over race and literary appropriation strategies, before Place was subject to institutional sanctions, were immediately rerouted into conversations about free speech, conversations that for the most part remain disconnected from sustained critical engagement with the racial politics of these controversial writing projects. Perhaps, as Jelani Cobb has pointed out in relation to critics of recent university protests over racism, “[t]he default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract — free speech.”

This continuing focus on the issue of free speech, we would argue, restores a petrified conflict between Anglo-American poetic avant-gardes — like Language writing — and poets attached to new social movements from the 1970s onward — from second wave feminism to the Black Arts Movement and the rise of literary multiculturalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those debates, as observers of US poetry might recall, treated poetic form as a site of political intervention in a manner that has historically set Anglo-American avant-gardes against a range of antiracist and feminist poetics. The legacy of those debates continues to govern how we read “race” as content in the work of contemporary experimental poets and performers from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to M. NourbeSe Philip, poets who adopt experimental formal strategies to engage the subject of race beyond literary multicultural expectations that have come to define ethnic poetic traditions primarily in terms of realist aesthetic values and the expression of homogeneous cultural identities.

Place’s fate brings the persistence of the form–content binary and its relation to race into sharp focus. For her defenders, the poet’s expulsion from a subcommittee of the 2016 AWP writers conference is chalked up to the unsophisticated reading practices of well-meaning but aesthetically naive poets and activists (as are the cancellations of the Berkeley Poetry Conference and of an event featuring Place at the Whitney Museum.) The National Coalition Against Censorship followed suit. In an open letter, NCAC denounced the institutional treatment of Place while at the same time claiming to “not take a side” in the debate about her work’s racial politics. This is, the NCAC assures us, because the organization:

does not take a side in any of the arguments over Place's work, or her defense of it. The most important issue is how institutions have failed to adequately deal with the controversy. […] Not only is silencing and suppression dangerous for the culture at large, it does nothing to confront the realities of racism.

But to imagine a world where we need no longer weigh the relative merit of appeals to free speech against the claim that black lives matter is not to casually dismiss the hard-won gains of free speech rights in the United States. It is simply to ask what must seem like a fairly obvious question: for whom does free speech count as the most important issue of the day? To pose this question is simply to underscore that, like all legal rights, free speech is not, as its advocates would have us believe, a timeless, color-blind ideal of open political debate and free creative expression. Free speech, as nearly every proponent of it usefully reminds us, is a right granted by the state. And no matter how crucial these rights may be in the present, they are not a pure ethics arising from abstract justice or fundamentally race-neutral institutional frameworks, but skewed by political, economic, and racial inequality. And they are rights guaranteed and enforced in the last instance, by state violence.

This appeal to state protection has perhaps done the most to stoke the flames of controversy. The poet Ron Silliman has gone so far as to claim that critics of Place and Goldsmith are enemies of free speech no different from Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, or the gunmen who raided the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Prioritizing free expression in this manner, in the midst of a social movement confronting the penal state, has been found, unsurprisingly, to be remarkably tone deaf, if not obscene.

There is more than a little irony in this. Goldsmith’s performance of “The Body of Michael Brown” offers up its elegy for Brown by appropriating the language of a state autopsy report. Place’s provocation of the Mitchell estate depends upon a legal system actively engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against the Black Lives Matter movement in cities and suburbs across the country. A more difficult conversation about race might begin to address how Place’s and Goldsmith’s projects both assume and affirm a justice system facing increasing challenges for being violently hostile to black lives today.

If free speech is “the most important issue” of our day, a different kind of discussion might emerge, not one confined to the institutions of contemporary US poetry, but one that addresses what Donna Murch has called the “emergence of a massive edifice of policing, surveillance, prisons, and punishment that is unprecedented in both U.S. and global history.” Place’s project may have been meant to provoke, as Kim Calder suggests, “a different (if less pleasant) kind of conversation about race,” but it is of limited tactical value for social movements that have historically crossed the boundary of protected speech into disruptive action. If free expression is a primary issue, we need to engage with the increasing criminalization of protest, and with forms of resistance taken up by populations the state openly attempts to silence through murder, dispossession, and hyperincarceration.



Which brings us to textual matters. If we now enter into what seem like theoretical niceties, it is largely because ConPo’s defenders have not hesitated to suggest that such matters are beyond the literal-minded, attacking what they see as the under-theorized, naïve misreadings of their critics. First, it must be said that “race” is not a thing or a matter of isolable identities but a hierarchical relation: a form. When Place quotes from Mitchell’s novel in order to display “direct representation of the thing itself,” which is the “thingness of racism that is Gone With The Wind,” “race” is imagined as the static content of racial identity. In an effort to trigger a lawsuit from the Mitchell estate for copyright infringement, Place continues to imagine race as material to be appropriated and reappropriated, stolen or stolen back. The dynamic form of a social relation becomes the fixed content of identity categories. “Showing the whiteness behind the blackface” is not critique so much as acknowledgment of white complicity and abjection so absolute it makes a mockery of what Place calls “the sweet meat of playing ally when the best status one can hope for is that of collaborator.” This curiously decontextualized and depoliticized view of “race” underwrites the poet’s contention that the project’s reproduction of antiblack slurs under minstrel avatars on social media is meant to function as a critique of white racism, addressed, one assumes, to a mainly white readership, without reproducing the traumatic force of those slurs for black audiences. In this instance, the project’s decontextualization of racist speech could be said to amplify rather than denaturalize its oppressive power.

The trouble is that race is not a static identity. “Race” names a field of unequal social relations naturalized through references to physiognomy and ancestry. Anti-native, antiblack, anti-Latino, and anti-Asian racisms have radically different histories and techniques of racial or settler colonial management, but these discrepant histories and techniques nevertheless often place nonwhite populations in antagonistic, hierarchical relation to each other. Numerous contemporary scholars have pointed out how antiblack racism and settler colonialism remain the foundation of this racial order. The power relations and patterns of inequality that constitute “race” as a fundamentally comparative concept — codifying hierarchies of difference established by black chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and anti-immigrant legislation and regulation — have over the course of centuries produced an archive of racial fantasies fusing fetishism and disgust. The blackface minstrel tradition is based as much on the open secret of white desire, empathy, and abjection as on the more recognizable violence of theft or cultural appropriation.

Defenses of Place’s two Gone With the Wind projects (“Miss Scarlet” and the Twitter blackface performance begun in 2009) misread the American minstrel tradition. The minstrel mask is an explicitly self-referential, defamiliarizing racial form that both desired and demeaned an imagined black racial authenticity. Thomas D. Rice’s 19th-century creation of the fictional “Jim Crow” — a racist caricature, a buffoonish, carefree slave dressed in rags who spoke and sang an imagined vernacular with a face covered in burnt cork — would later provide the name for a comprehensive postbellum system of de jure racial segregation and state-sanctioned antiblack terror. Minstrel shows were a collection of ventriloquized racial forms and scenarios, including a variety of shuffling, strutting, grimacing, and grinning stock figures, from “Mammys” to “Bucks,” which could be played by white and black performers alike. Even black performers applied burnt cork to their faces in order to more effectively signify blackness in this topsy-turvy theater of racial mimicry.

Black performers and the performance of black life could either conform to minstrel stereotypes or risk illegibility, invisibility, or worse. Blackness, in the world of Jim Crow, was content or it was nothing. Whiteness granted itself the opportunity to meditate on, and revel in, what Saidiya Hartman has called “the spectacular nature of black suffering and, conversely, the dissimulation of suffering through spectacle.” We fear this describes the present situation all too well.

Minstrelsy itself is not a stable repertoire of racist content, in other words, but a cultural form. Arguments that minstrelsy can be recast within a new form that reverses its racist content are not complex and subtle discoveries that might correct naive readings hung up on content. Such arguments are simply oblivious to how those ideas of racial power and hierarchy are cemented and delivered in the first place. Posters and playbills for minstrel shows routinely featured side by side images of white performers in and out of blackface. That Place reads minstrelsy in terms of the content of racial identity rather than the form of the minstrel mask merely underscores the point. The poet’s intention to reveal “the whiteness behind the blackface” is not a reflexive deviation from the peculiar tradition of minstrelsy but a reinscription of that tradition.

Consider the ways that race becomes “content” for aesthetic conflicts waged by early 20th-century Anglo-American modernist poets. Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” T.S. Eliot’s use of black dialect borrowed from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, and Ezra Pound’s “Personae” headline the litany of Anglo-American modernists who routinely donned racial masks in transatlantic struggles over cultural authority. Pound’s and Eliot’s epistolary minstrel exchanges, in particular, shore up claims for the vitality of Modernist poetic experiments against what these poets took to be formulaic British and European literary traditions. As the critic Michael North has pointed out, the “racial masquerade” of an Anglo-American Modernist literary vanguard in this period repeatedly drew inspiration from minstrel shows. For these writers, minstrelsy provided an imaginary black dialect rooted in primitivist racial fantasies, which were deployed to ridicule the exhausted rhetoric of Victorian poetry.

At the same time the poetics and politics of racial impersonation and translation produced surprising interracial exchanges. Novelist Richard Wright counted himself an admirer of Stein’s “Melanctha,” a text even sympathetic readers admit is awash in crude racist and sexist stereotypes. The poet Melvin Tolson believed the literary techniques of Eliot could be repurposed while repudiating the latter’s extreme cultural conservatism. Transpacific literary visions of cultural or commercial alliance between the United States and East Asia, a fantasy of racial renewal with deep roots in modernist poetry, have remained a persistent feature of the US literary imagination from Walt Whitman and Pound’s Cathay, to the Beats and contemporary Asian American poets’ entanglement with American Orientalism. As critic Josephine Park argues, there are significant formal echoes between contemporary Korean American poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s influential Asian American experimental novel, Dictee, and the modernist Orientalism of Pound’s Cantos. In short, the transfer between minstrel shows and Modernist and avant-garde poetry has a long history riddled with complex relays between racial and aesthetic form.

What defenses of Place’s project — including her own — reveal behind the minstrel masks of projects like “Miss Scarlet” is not a reflexive acknowledgment of a racist social order but instead repeated accusations of censorship. This suggests the limit of a poetics and politics which, in the author’s own words, only offers the possibility of ritually reenacting historical violence and a kind of wounded attachment to white abjection. The same limit is on display in the admittedly fewer defenses of Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown.” As Place puts it, “I have been fed the same poison as the rest of my kind, and I vomit it up for forensic analysis and the dog’s dinner. It may also get on your shoes.”

We cannot help but notice the unavoidably historical rhyme between the forensic analysis Place offers up and the forensic analysis of Michael Brown’s body that made Goldsmith’s performance possible. We do not point out this rhyme to be glib. Both projects are indeed responses to the situation of black lives in the United States today. In a subsequent explanation of the reading, Goldsmith has underscored the fact that he believes that the language of the autopsy report was “able to tell the truth in the strongest and clearest way possible.” But this report was one of three separate post-mortem examinations — a second report requested by the Brown family and the third conducted at the request of the US Department of Justice in order to potentially challenge an initial forensic account that might be used to retroactively justify the shooting. Far from excavating the “truth” of Brown’s life and death, the poem ends up naturalizing the clinical, quasi-objective perspective of state power while concealing how constructed and contested this “truth” remains.


(Re)imagining What Exists

Confining conversations about race and contemporary poetry to these periodic controversies continues to relegate nonwhite poets, in the words of poet Cathy Park Hong, “to the role of chorus” expressing collective approval or disapproval of aesthetic and political agendas established by others. As Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda have observed, the “language of scandal” has become a familiar, almost comforting framework for discussions about the relationship between race and literary history.

What’s frequently left out of these debates, however, is an acknowledgment of how the entrenched literary categories that continue to oppose aesthetic form to racial content have been challenged by generations of literary scholars and black experimental poets including authors like Lorenzo Thomas, Erica Hunt, Nathaniel Mackey, Ed Roberson, M. NourbeSe Philip, Claudia Rankine, Carl Martin, Tyrone Williams, Fred Moten, Renee Gladman, Douglas Kearney, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Robin Coste Lewis. These poets and others have consistently challenged outmoded taxonomies that render racial “content” intelligible in the first place for literary audiences, including the very idiom of identity itself.

“[T]here is an image of Michael Brown we must refuse in favor of another image we don’t have. One is a lie, the other unavailable,” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write in a recent article that could be read as a wrenching response to the premises that structure Goldsmith’s performance of “The Body of Michael Brown”:

If we refuse to show the image of a lonely body, of the outline of the space that body simultaneously took and left, we do so in order to imagine jurisgenerative black social life walking down the middle of the street — for a minute, but only for a minute, unpoliced, another city gathers, dancing. We know it’s there, and here, and real; we know what we can’t have happens all the time.

Imagining what exists requires and allows analysis.

We might be able to have a different conversation entirely by focusing on poetic works that challenge models of aesthetic innovation that presuppose the inert, appropriable givenness of the racial content of an autopsy report, a photo, or intellectual property. The contested meanings of these racial objects are not simply given, but are instead the end result of violent histories of formal abstraction. Refusing to simply repackage settled, static images of racial content, in other words, opens an urgently needed space for exploring radically different aesthetic and political possibilities.


Chris Chen is an Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Tim Kreiner is working on a book of literary history, The Long Downturn and Its Discontents: Poetry, Culture Wars, and the New Left, about the ins and outs of poetry, social movements, and political economy. He is currently a Lecturer in English at Yale University.

LARB Contributors

Chris Chen is an Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Tim Kreiner is working on a book of literary history, The Long Downturn and Its Discontents: Poetry, Culture Wars, and the New Left, about the ins and outs of poetry, social movements, and political economy. He is currently a Lecturer in English at Yale University.


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