A little kerfuffle in a tiny corner of the art/literary world seems to me to bear some significance worth exploring. The conceptual writer Vanessa Place has been removed from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs committee for refereeing the panel presentations for the 2016 AWP Convention. This is as a result of her latest project, which is the gradual tweeting of the entirety of Gone With the Wind, on a Twitter page with a picture of Hattie McDaniel (the “Mamie” of the film version) and an image from the cover of a sheet of music for a late 19th century “coon song” on it. Place’s removal was the result of a petition initiated by AWP members, on the grounds that her project was racist and caused pain to people of color (henceforth “POC”).
Meanwhile, another conceptual artist (one of the best known), Kenneth Goldsmith, has been under attack for the presumed racism of a recent project of his: a public reading of the autopsy conducted by the police medical examiner of Michael Brown, the young man shot in a now globally known incident in Ferguson, Missouri. Here, a new actor enters the scene, a group calling itself the “Mongrel Coalition.” The Mongrel Coalition demands, forcefully and obscurely, immediate “decolonization,” and, with strategic wisdom, chose the soft targets of Place and Goldsmith (as a synecdoche of white dominated innovative literature and art more generally) to denounce the exploitation of black bodies by white aesthetes (“gringpo”): http://gringpo.com. The Mongrel Coalition seems comprised of graduate students; at the very least, they know all the white guilty vulnerabilities of the academic literary elites, and are familiar enough with the discourses of said elites to establish the double bind: one the one hand, innovative literature is formalistic play that ignores and, by implication, is complicit with, the oppression of POC; and, on the other hand, innovative aesthetic devices were invented by POC and stolen (and tamed) by white people. As you can see from the mock titles on the website, the indictment of these cultural black body snatchers is that they want to keep their “white privilege” while (by) gesturing towards an alliance with POC. How would one actually align oneself with POC? Presumably by finding ways of implicating others in that double bind, which keeps you one step ahead of those who might implicate you.
Place, as we can see from her Artist’s Statement in response to the dust-up (https://www.facebook.com/notes/vanessa-place/artists-statement-gone-with-the-wind-vanessaplace/10152841235969212?pnref=story) and, no doubt, Goldsmith, want very much to be exemplary leftists and allies of POC (Goldsmith has, in response to the unexpected and vehement criticism of his performance, requested that the transcript and video be suppressed). Place, in particular, sees her project as a kind of performance of White Guilt, in which case she might (but doesn’t seem to) see the ferocious attacks on her as a part of the performance itself—if you volunteer yourself as a scapegoat so as to cleanse the community, you shouldn’t be surprised if others take you up on it. She acknowledges the “cruelty” of what she has done, in iterating a history of cruelty, and so the “cruelty” of the response to her would seem to affirm her intentions. At any rate, if not paralyzed by White Guilt, that’s how she could easily take up the consequences of her action—and then things might actually get interesting.
The kind of conceptual art Place and Goldsmith does is very much in the tradition of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” aimed at transgressing and confusing the boundary between what is art and what is not art. Goldsmith’s previous books have mostly been transcriptions, for example of 24 hours of traffic reporting in New York City, or, more recently, his Seven American Deaths and Disasters, which transcribes reports of JFK’s assassination, RFK’s assassination, John Lennon’s murder, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the Columbine massacre, 9/11, and Michael Jackson’s death. Place has done some more “modernist” (surrealist, stream of consciousness) type writing, but quite a bit of transcription as well—of court documents of sexual offense trials, for example. To put it simply, the idea is that if you read these texts within a frame reserved for “literature,” you read them differently, and they resonate in surprising ways.
Whether one enjoys or is interested in conceptual art or not, it is useful to consider why it might be a target for victimary fanatics—especially when it tries to be “politically relevant.” The purpose of conceptual writing is to de-authorize texts, to treat them as floating discourses that no one controls and therefore no one should own (part of the point of Place’s Gone With the Wind project is to bait the Margaret Mitchell estate into a copyright lawsuit)—and in which we are also therefore all implicated—any text is just part of our language, and cannot be contained within the circumscribed fields of authorship, genre, etc. To de-authorize is to de-sacralize, and to de-sacralize, for those invested in that version of the sacred, is to desecrate. For the victimary activist, iterating, without comment, without credit, descriptions of violence done to black bodies, is a desecration of those bodies just as much as drawing an image of Muhammad is a desecration of the prophet for some Muslims. The experience of POC (and, perhaps LGBTETC, as honorary POC, but the Mongrel Coalition doesn’t seem to me so certain about that) is sacred, in other words, and only an authorized priestly caste can perform the rituals sanctifying it. Reading over the website of the Mongrel Coalition, I wouldn’t expect violence from its members—if anything, we can see this as an extremely savvy career move, which is sure to open up publishing and job opportunities (situating it firmly within the tradition of the avant-garde and Romanticism more generally). But the logic has already, and will continue to, seep out into the broader culture, and its implications are violent. If certain modes of experience become sacred, their sacrality can and must be defended with all means necessary, and “argument” will not be a very effective means. Only anathematization will suffice, and anathematization requires the support of various means of intimidation—to defend something sacred to you is to show that you are willing to go to lengths to which those who might desecrate it are unwilling to go. This little incident (from which I’m sure Place and Goldsmith will recover, a bit tarnished, perhaps) is a useful reminder that to engage the victimary is, necessarily, to engage in desecration; indeed, that desecration must be the main means of struggle in the attempt to neutralize the victimary, in particular since if the much desired (by the left) hate crimes legal (and moral) regime is to work, it must rely upon the sacrality of experience (otherwise, how would you know when a Confederate flag is being displayed in a “hateful,” as opposed, say, to a satiric or scholarly, way? Only a POC priest[ess] is duly authorized to tell you). And it is best to understand what that implies. For me, at any rate, the possibilities of conceptual (and procedural) writing and art have just risen a bit in my estimation as potential cultural weaponry.