The Denunciation of Vanessa Place




On May 13, 2015, a group calling themselves the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG) tweeted the following:

twitter

Outrage ensued. In the following days, the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (Gringpo is a combination word formed of “gringo” and “conpo,” the latter being short for conceptual poetry, the movement with which Place is identified) called for those they identified as “friends” of Place’s, in particular people of color, to “denounce” her. Those who either overtly refused to do so or remained silent quickly became targets of the Coalition themselves. “THEY WON’T DENOUNCE HER,” tweeted MCAG (all tweets were in all caps, as above). “THEY CARE MORE ABOUT CONCEPTUALISM THAN BLACK PEOPLE.” Frequent tweets sent from the account reminded followers who these individuals were by tagging them, and reiterated their ethical failures.

Then, moving from the individual to the institution, the Coalition began tweeting at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (which hosts an annual conference with over 10,000 attendees), demanding that AWP remove Place from the pool of judges evaluating conference panels, calling for University of Colorado Boulder to remove her from her summer teaching appointment, and asking that she be dis-invited from the upcoming Berkeley Poetry Conference. Place’s talk at CU-Boulder, which was to focus on her contemporary Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown,” was protested by a faculty member and converted by Place into a listening forum in which the community could discuss their issues with her work, and Place would answer questions if so desired. After initially deciding to keep Place on the schedule, mass dropouts (for various cited reasons) led the BPC organizers to cancel the conference and plan a new conference entitled “Crosstalk, Color, Composition,” in which prominent poets of color will give readings and lead seminars. AWP, after receiving a Change.org petition calling for Place’s removal signed by over 2,000 supporters, announced via Twitter (to much back-patting celebration on the Mongrel Coalition’s part) just four days after MCAG’s preliminary tweet that they had removed Place from the AWP Los Angeles 2016 Subcommittee. AWP’s statement read that while it “believe[s] in freedom of expression, [it] must protect the efficacy of the conference subcommittee’s work,” an explanation pretty much no one was satisfied with.

Most recently, rounding out a trifecta of event cancellations and dismissals in the literary, academic, and art worlds, the Whitney canceled a performance entitled “Last Words,” which was to be held on June 6, 2015. Named for an ongoing project of Place’s in which she speaks the final statements of all inmates executed in Texas, Place’s reading was to be accompanied by a conversation with Avital Ronell and Kyoo Lee about what it means to speak of one’s own death. Ironic.

Vanessa Place has been doing challenging work on racism, or “racist work,” depending on whom you ask, for years. In 2009, Poetry magazine, the most prestigious journal in the field, published a poem of Place’s that appropriated the Prissy “bringin’ babies” speech — famously racist language — from Gone With the Wind, just as the Twitter account used as evidence of Place’s racism by MCAG does. Prestige, of course, does not in itself exonerate the work, but this early publication made her work on race widely known. The Twitter project began the same year, and has been active since, with Place producing six years of near-daily tweets. Throughout, the account’s avatar has been a publicity still from the film version of the novel — a photograph of Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played “Mammy,” in costume. Place’s use of the image in large part seems to account for the Mongrel Coalition’s assertion that Place “wears blackface.” The account’s background photo is a similarly racist caricature taken from the sheet music for “Jemima’s Wedding Day,” a minstrel song. The images, perhaps more so than the accompanying text feed, are undeniably racist and painful to witness, making an attack on Place easy to launch — her critics frequently utilize screenshots throughout social media. Many people, certainly more than had initially been following Place’s Twitter, encountered the images with only the context provided by the Mongrel Coalition, as exemplified in the above tweet.

To complicate matters further, the Gone With the Wind Twitter account is not the only work by Place that engages with racist material. Along with fellow panelists Douglas Kearney, Cathy Park Hong, Ronaldo Wilson, and Daniel Tiffany, Place also participated in an AWP-adjacent event in 2014 that was ejected from Seattle’s Frye Art Museum but found a home elsewhere. Entitled “Coon Songs, Kitsch, and Conceptual Writing,” the improvisational performance explored the history of so-called “coon songs” and their aesthetic and political implications. Tiffany and Place are white Americans; Kearney and Wilson are African American; Cathy Park Hong is Korean-American. At this event, Place performed part of a piece that had previously been part of a performance/presentation in 2012 at New York University on the minstrel show. Another performance, a recording of which MCAG damningly posted on their Twitter, entitled “What What Nigger,” has been performed at a number of venues, including CU Boulder in 2012 and Brown University in 2013. The poem is comprised of quotations from legal documents in which the word “nigger” was used to prove something: either that the crime was a hate crime (the word shouted before the attack) or that the two defendants were allies (the word said between them as a mark of affection). As Place has said, the law always uses the word as proof of guilt. In addition to a poet, Place is also a criminal defense attorney who represents indigent sex offenders on appeal, and has previously published and performed works using courtroom materials. One might say, in reviewing some of her recent projects, that her choices have made the case easy for the current prosecution.

Indeed, the material engaged by these performances is unquestionably racist. The more salient question in this moment, however, is whether this makes the performer, and the performances themselves, racist. If the former question seems as though it does not belong in a piece of art criticism, this may generally be true, but, in this case, when the attacks have been in part “about” Vanessa Place as an alleged racist, it becomes relevant. Place’s critics say that these performances uphold white supremacy, knowingly or unknowingly, by perpetuating racist text and images. Because Place has disseminated racist material, she is racist. Other critics are more concerned with the second question: do these works successfully perform an anti-racist critique, or do they unnecessarily retraumatize people of color (and black Americans in particular) for sensationalist purposes? Place, these critics say, utilizes abhorrent methods while telling us nothing new. We know Gone With the Wind, for example, is a racist text — and if we don’t, the battle is probably already lost. In this case, the performances are failed experiments. The former group would argue that they are experiments that would only be undertaken by a racist.

Racism is a serious charge. Despite her reputation for refusing to explain any of her works publicly, Place issued an artist’s statement a few days after being removed from the AWP adjudicating subcommittee. In it, she characterizes her work as wanting to interrogate “the white imaginary [… to] intentionally show […] the whiteness behind the blackface.” Critics have responded by stating that there is no need to “show” this whiteness, as we’re already aware that it’s there. I would argue, however, that by “intentionally” showing the whiteness, Place interrogates white people’s appropriation of black culture in a more nuanced (to use the term that the Mongrel Coalition says they will have none of) way by enacting this desire for what the “Other” has. One might also note that people of color already perform valuable interrogations of this desire (Jamaica Kincaid and Hilton Als both write powerfully on Gone With the Wind, for example). Yet, if there is a structural relationship between white and black Americans, a power dynamic that devalues black lives as it appropriates black culture, could it potentially be useful to examine that relationship from the structural position of whiteness? In other words, should we read Place’s work not literally, but structurally, and since white supremacy is a structural problem, might we consider work that approaches it on this level valuable?

This seems to get us back to the problem of the white subject as the “universal human subject,” though. Do we really need to understand anything more from the white subject’s position? One obvious — and true — answer is no. This was the problem with Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance that appropriated some combination of Michael Brown’s multiple autopsy reports. In the first of two recent articles focusing on Goldsmith and Place, the poet and critic Lillian-Yvonne Bertram notes (quoting Toni Morrison) that Goldsmith’s performance represents an attempt to enter “what one is estranged from,” in which the white writer (and here, she is quoting the introduction to The Racial Imaginary anthology, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap) is “veiled from […] their own power to wound.” Goldsmith’s response to the response to his piece seems to verify this reading: he apologetically asked that the video be taken down, and donated the money from his appearance to the Brown family. Expecting to perform an elegy of a kind, Goldsmith forgot that his body, and its color, mattered; that this American disaster (unlike the others in his book Seven American Deaths and Disasters) was a particular black death in a country where police routinely murder black Americans and go unpunished.

It is worth mentioning that, unlike Place, Goldsmith continues to teach — at the University of Pennsylvania — and has not been removed from any of his institutional duties, nor subjected to the level of vitriol that Place has, despite the widespread offense his performance provoked in his audience and beyond. Goldsmith, playing the buffoon, falls comfortably into the structural position of white unknowing. As Bertram’s follow-up article notes, after “discovering” that whiteness cannot in fact access all spaces and people, and that subject position matters, Goldsmith finds himself comfortably rehabilitated. After two months or so of silence, he is back and active on social media, and his remix of the Arcades Project for Verso, leading publisher of the left, is much anticipated. Goldsmith’s trajectory shows how, as Bertram puts it, “whiteness can participate in and witness its dismantlement in order to rebrand and re-enfranchise itself (through literature, appropriation, and literary appropriation).”

Place, of course, has not been so lucky. We might read this in terms of her subject position — as a queer woman who has never had a long-term position in academia, she has less protections than Goldsmith does. However, we might also note the difference in the two poets’ work, despite the fact that the linkage between Place and Goldsmith, two white conceptual poets, has been consistent throughout the attacks on Place. Bertram characterizes Place’s Gone With the Wind Twitter, which gets a brief mention in her first article and is expanded upon in the second, as inhabiting the same blind spot as Goldsmith’s performance but in a “nonchalant” way. Nonchalance implies carelessness, a lack of sincerity when confronted with thoroughly traumatic material. This difference between the tone of Place’s and Goldsmith’s pieces shores up an important difference: the way whiteness operates as an unseen or visible factor in each case. If Goldsmith’s “apologetic” response places him comfortably within the discourse of what Place, in her artist’s statement, called “the sweet meat of playing ally,” then it might be worth considering that Place’s work does something very different, and to ask exactly what — and to what ends.

It seems to me that Place’s whiteness is “marked” negatively by her performances in a way that Goldsmith’s is not. In her engagements with racist material, Place presents her body not only as a white body, but also as a knowingly guilty white body. If, as Bertram argues, for white self-representation via white representations of blackness to work, the context must be avoided, Place might be said to refuse this convenient evacuation from her body. Yet, if, as Bertram says, “whiteness” in Place’s work “understands itself as a critical component of the work, its genesis and performance,” do these tonal valences matter? Does the position of whiteness shift? Of course, one might then ask the question of whether this kind of structural shifting can ever be enacted by a work of art, simply by holding a mirror to the world. Perhaps Place’s work makes us so uncomfortable because it rejects the idea, so prevalent in the poetry world, that a work of art can transform conditions. Or perhaps it makes us uncomfortable because it speaks against easy alliances by reenacting the perpetrator’s crimes as part of an ongoing investigation, thereby letting the ugliness be spectacularly ugly. It is hard for me to imagine that these works and their reception (and the artist’s response to that reception) in any way function to rehabilitate whiteness — if they did, there could not be so many people, of all races, working to dissociate themselves from it and to loudly denounce her.

Of course, the ugliness “shows,” and the crowds scatter, in large part due to Place’s use of racist imagery and text, a choice that has raised any number of questions about the ethics of engaging with traumatic materials at what seems to be little or no risk to oneself (although the events of the last month or so might say otherwise). In confronting any work of art that revisits or represents trauma, the question all artists must ask is whether the work merely retraumatizes — since all effective work based in traumatic material must do so — or manages to accomplish something more. Goldsmith and Place’s engagements with black trauma raise the question of whether a person who does not “own” a trauma, so to speak, has any right to engage it, despite, or because of, their historical responsibility for that trauma. Then, of course, there is the question raised by critics who see Place’s work as juvenile, weak, and shallow, questioning whether the project even contains the possibility of challenging white supremacy. Who even cares about Gone With the Wind, anyway, when black Americans are being killed in the streets?[1] On the other hand, if black Americans are still being killed in the streets, are we that far past Gone With the Wind? Is that part of the point?

This perhaps brings us back to the question of whether we should read Place’s work literally or structurally. Reading the work literally seems to place us in a difficult position in terms of authenticity and instrumentality. The desire for authenticity is an understandable one, and this project, in its layered inauthenticity, activates that desire. Margaret Mitchell’s racist representations of African Americans represent one level of the inauthentic; there is also the inauthentic “author” @VanessaPlace breaking copyright, and, one might argue, “inauthentically” engaging with black trauma because she has not lived it. In part, these multiple inauthenticities raise the question of whom this work is for. If its aims are didactic, can it be for people of color? How could someone who doesn’t authentically know an experience have something to say to those who have an embodied sense of that experience? In addition, if a work is to commit the sin of representing a trauma that is not one’s own, which might cause pain to readers whose direct experience it is — does such work not have a responsibility to tell us something new, or make a difference in the world somehow?

While insightful, content and subjectivity are the ruling forces in this line of argument, and questions of form are entirely put aside. The question of form would focus more along the lines of whether the performance reveals something interesting in terms of structures, cultural conditions, and systems, whether it functions as a litmus test for the way works of art — profoundly racist ones included — circulate. The work of art is then addressed less to a particular reader — it is not a system of objective correlatives eliciting a reader’s response to its content and subjectivity — but instead asks readers to consider its place in the world of texts and in the world more generally.

Authors, too, circulate in the world, and much has been made of this as critics of Place’s characterize her as profiting from black pain. What does it mean, though, to be the author of @VanessaPlace? A name, a photograph that makes us cringe, text that makes us cringe — none of it “hers.” The death of the author (that old chestnut) never seems to endure in literary consciousness. Place seems to understand the ways in which this death has both always occurred and never fully occurs. She chooses to exist in the literary milieu as a persona that occupies a particular space, never advancing the illusion of some authentic self, yet understanding that her structural position, as is always the case, is embodied and exists under different pressures at different times in the world. Could it be that the body of the white person, when positioned in the world in this marked and structural way, enables a different (if less pleasant) kind of conversation about race?

Poetry presumes there is a difference between knowing a fact and enacting or exploring a process; between the bare facts of racism, and the execution in space and in language of an investigation about how it functions structurally — in this case, within literature-as-commodity or literature-in-the-world. Of course, literature is always these things, but Place’s performances are designed to emphasize and allow us to interrogate these systems. In terms of these structural questions, the recent response to Place’s work has been instructive, and indicates to some extent what the project may have intended to enact. The way in which the work found its larger audience has been determined at least in part by its platform, and the mobilization around @VanessaPlace happened so rapidly because cyberspace allows for the dissemination of a work out of context, at an incredibly rapid rate. MCAG’s use of inflammatory statements damning the project and its creator, accompanied by repeated screenshots of the racist imagery on Twitter, has significantly influenced its reception by a larger audience. In addition, MCAG’s refusal of any dialogue about the work (a refusal that is much easier to perform in a bodiless space) initially silenced potentially useful conversations by insisting upon a binary in which non-racists prove they are non-racists by denouncing Vanessa Place, and racists (or what MCAG terms “people of color shields”) are those who will not denounce Vanessa Place.

In a 2007 essay, Major Jackson, a prominent African-American poet, lamented the “mystifying silence” of white poets around issues of race, who, according to his survey, generally avoided the topic out of fear that they would become the subject of a “poeticized Truth and Reconciliation trial.” Comparing the willingness of white American fiction writers to engage with issues of race, Jackson noted that without “complete, wide-ranging and far-reaching racial dialogue as a literary and cultural legacy reflected in our poetry, discussions of race and ethnicity will forever be a spectator sport.” Place expressed a similar sentiment in a phone interview with Jen Graves on the cancellation of the Seattle “Coon Songs” performance. Place explained: “The white gig is to act like we don’t have anything to do or say about race. […] I think you run into the danger of it not being our problem, our conversation.” There are important differences between the way the two writers think white American poets can usefully contribute to conversations about race — Jackson, affiliated with a more lyric tradition, calls for poems that assert “the unity of all human beings,” but since Place is more interested in enacting and exploring racism as it operates structurally, she never outlines the proper moral position to take about the material she re-presents. This makes her easy to cast as a villain (a characterization she welcomes up to a point, as it accurately describes her place in the structure). We might, then, since Place’s conceptual practice is in large part what has made her MCAG’s target, consider what aesthetic battles are also being played out behind the scenes.

Place recently posted a video of the artist Santiago Sierra on social media, and the connection makes me wonder if Place’s interventions might be better read, rather than under the rubric of the lyric, in terms of their status of what Claire Bishop has termed “relational antagonism,”[2] since, after all, the “conceptual” in conceptual writing is a nod to conceptual art. The Mongrel Coalition, true to form, has already said “NO” to Sierra after the video was posted, but there are other possible replies.[3] Offering a counterpoint to the more familiar term “relational aesthetics,” in which works are based in the desire to create a microtopia (small-scale utopia) via the dialogue between work/artist and viewer, Bishop claims that antagonism, not utopian ambition, is essential to the creation of a truly democratic society. This is not to be confused with a clumsy cry for “free speech”; rather, Bishop’s point is that “without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order — a total suppression of debate and discussion, which is inimical to democracy.” Certainly, the Mongrel Coalition’s tactics seem to fit well with the notion of this “imposed consensus,” and it makes good sense that both Place’s and Sierra’s work become targets. Let us not forget that the left, too, has its authoritarian orders.

What Place’s work threatens, then, is the illusion of a kind of microtopia unique to the poetry world: that subjectivity is whole and authentic experience can be transmitted, and that community is a space of “immanent togetherness.” Rather than promoting identification, Place’s projects “are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort,” in Bishop’s words, and maintain tensions rather than model communities. The “unease” surrounding Place’s work can be linked to its mission of challenging, in this case, the poetry world’s supposition that it is a domain that “embraces other social and political structures” only in ways we would welcome. Instead, Place creates a kind of “ethnographic realism,” as Bishop says of Sierra, “in which the outcome or unfolding of [her] action forms an indexical trace of the economic and social reality of the place in which [she] works.”

A common critique of relational antagonism is that it merely states what Bishop calls the “pessimistic obvious”; in this particular case, that Gone With the Wind is racist, that whiteness is responsible for blackface, etc. Rather than a restatement of the obvious, Place’s antagonism explores complicity and interrogates our reception of that complicity, from which none of us are exempt. The work makes paradigms of exclusion that already exist in the poetic “microtopia” visible by creating a tension between their existence and the supposed utopian quality of the space. Many of Place’s contemporaries are committed to the ways in which poetry has the ability to enact positive change in the world, but Place’s projects become embedded in other institutions in an antagonistic context, one that calls poetry’s supposedly positive relationship to what’s outside into question. The antagonistic positioning of the work generates a kind of “radical undecidability” about not only the work, but also the world the work is part of. Place’s Twitter has “disrupted the art [here, poetry] audience’s sense of identity, which is founded precisely on unspoken racial and class exclusions, as well as veiling blatant commerce.” In choosing the medium of social media, she also disrupts its normal functioning — if social media is a place in which we construct a self we want others to see, Place has used Twitter to make a self no one wants to see.

These are ugly works because they deal with ugly things. Rage, disgust, and shame — depending on your subject position — are the only reasonable responses to these projects. There is no reason to “like” them any more than the realities they reflect and therefore ask us to reflect on. Sometimes, as we all know, though, looking at the most uncomfortable things enables the most important conversations. Sometimes not, certainly. But we can’t afford to miss the chance.

¤

[1] See, for example, Matthew Shinoda and Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s commentaries on the LARB Radio Hour podcast.

[2] Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, 51–79.

[3] For one, see Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty. Her take on Sierra’s moralizing as the primary issue with his work is relevant here, as Place’s work is difficult in part because she refuses to moralize about it.

¤

Kim Calder is a PhD candidate specializing in post-1945 literature and critical theory at UCLA.


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