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Poem for Kenneth Goldsmith

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Just by virtue of being alive, we are all called upon daily to confront, contest, and in some instances creatively assimilate difficult language. Difficult language comes in an infinite number of varieties, and often speaks toward or against elements of our identities we don’t normally discuss. Because all of us grapple daily with identities whose importance to our lives no one else has a right to gauge or circumscribe–if a man tells me he is aware of and negatively responsive to his own heaviness every second of the day, I’m in no position to gainsay him, for instance–that means that none of us is in a good position to determine which language is difficult to whom and why. The result is that we often only consider “difficult” that language which speaks directly at (or of) a discrete and discernible community; for instance, as a Jew everyone permits me to struggle with language that is anti-Semitic, not realizing that I struggle much  more with other iterations of language that relate to identity statuses others can’t guess at and therefore don’t know. The upshot: we are all struggling daily with language, not merely because we’re human and necessarily struggle with all misanthropic language (for instance, the propaganda of ISIS or certain American neo-cons) but also because there will always be aspects of our being that are critical to us but invisible to others.

The fact that certain uses of language are explicitly directed to and at certain groups, however, means that these articulations get the most attention. It’s absolutely right that this should be the case: first, because the harm caused by language explicitly directed to or at a particular group is more readily foreseeable than the other sorts of harms language can cause, and second, because the more circumscribed the audience of a particular expression is, the more likely everyone who’s not within that circle of attention is to simply ignore any harm that speech might cause. In simple historical terms, this means, for instance, that whites have often been especially deaf to the damage caused by racist language directed at African-Americans. Different white people are deaf to this damage to a different degree, of course–and there may even be a few whites not at all deaf to the effects of racist language, though it’s very hard to imagine–but it’s certainly easier for us to anticipate this form of deafness than other sorts. For instance, if a man was long ago the victim of domestic abuse but doesn’t (or won’t) let anyone know it, verbal abuse of a particular character in the present may be extremely damaging to him in ways no one else can know or anticipate. But if that man is also white, a certain deafness to the damage done by racist invective (at least) can be readily anticipated.

In the last half-century our culture has done much to demand that, in instances where deafness to the high cost of language is readily anticipated–for instance, as to the varying levels of deafness whites exhibit to the cost of racist language–those who normally be deaf should start being mindfully less so. In other words, there’s been an entirely just demand that whites attune themselves to the hurtfulness of language that is not ostensibly directed to or at them qua whites. This is all to the good, of course; we should all have the capacity to feel personally and in real time the effect our and others’ language has on people differently situated than we are.

The question is whether the mandate to feel others’ pain personally is also a license to process that pain in a way that is idiosyncratic. Case-in-point: a white male poet is rightly admonished (however implicitly and in simultaneous conjunction with thousands of other white male poets) to develop in himself the capacity to feel Michael Brown’s death as a personal rather than merely political matter. Our society (and basic decency) urges the white male poet to consider, that is, an injustice to one young man of color an injustice perpetrated upon all of us–at least to the extent that all of us take it personally enough to aggressively combat its repetition. This is not the same as saying that Brown’s death does or can mean the same thing to all Americans, or cause the same sort of pain to all Americans, only that we can all, at a minimum, be sufficiently personally invested in combating such an injustice that we are all working together to prevent its repeat. But to internalize an injustice to this degree sometimes requires an idiosyncratic processing of language; if our goal is to have (just as one example of many possible thousands) a white male poet commit himself to combating police brutality against people of color, our focus must be on exactly that–our goal–and not on whether the said poet processes language and gets to that goal exactly the way that we might have.

This, then, is the paradox faced by language-users with a progressive political commitment, whether the situation in which that commitment is activated involves Michael Brown, anti-Semitic speech, triggering speech of any kind, or any other speech-act that specifically (if even obscurely) finds someone exactly where they live and harms them: we want people against whom harmful language has not been specifically directed to come to a place where they can appreciate the harm that language has caused, but if we over-prescribe exactly how they come to that appreciation we risk them never coming to any appreciation at all. It’s a classic choice–one all activists for public causes invariably face–between our own sensitivities and our own political commitments. As activists, how much personal discomfort or even offense can we stomach in the service of bringing someone else, by whatever idiosyncratic means, closer to the political worldview we favor?

Surprisingly often, it seems that the answer is none or nearly none. Here I put aside for a moment the question of Michael Brown, as really this sort of scenario plays out in an infinite variety of situations involving language, political commitments, and potential psychosocial damage to individuals and groups. Across a multitude of scenarios, would-be activists put (simply because they are human and thus frail as all humans are) their own sensitivities ahead of their own just causes by enforcing data-processing behaviors familiar and comfortable to themselves but not necessarily to others. As someone who has been an activist for many causes in my life–in real-world trenches as well as the aether of Facebook and Twitter–it is hard to watch those who would be activists develop agendas more oriented toward their own transient comfort than achievement of their political aims. I wince at these infelicities as an activist first and foremost, not specifically as a subscriber to any of several group identifications. I wince because to an activist the political goal is always of utmost importance; while we should never sacrifice our integrity to reach our goals, we often do, as activists, have to shed much else, including certain sensitivities. This is exactly why being an activist is so hard: we’re constantly called upon to temporarily abrogate our hard-won emotional truth (a particularly prized commodity among poets) in favor of some larger strategic framework.

More than 90% of the reactions to Kenneth Goldsmith’s poem “The Body of Michael Brown” were merely ad hominem attacks that belied our fear that the American poetry community has been academicized. It clearly has not been, else 90% of the reactions to Goldsmith’s selective editing and reordering of Michael Brown’s autopsy (incorrectly termed a “remix” by some) would have been free of logical fallacies such as the ad hominem. But that’s not what happened; instead, as has happened before in similar situations, online reactions to the poem variously attacked Goldsmith’s attitudes on race, his presumed professional ambitions, and even his basic decency and humanity–all topics on which Goldsmith’s critics have no real knowledge to work with. Good faith was presumed by virtually no one, especially surprising given that good faith is usually presumed (or not presumed) on the basis of objective consideration of an individual’s history. Whatever one thinks about Goldsmith’s poetics, his tireless and largely non-remunerative advocacy on behalf of experimental writing has spanned decades, even as he has never been accused, in all that time, of an act of deliberate and deliberative racism (putting aside for a moment any allegations of negligently perpetuating systemic racism, an absolutely vital but certainly not co-extensive claim). In poetry, the surest way to avoid addressing an issue raised by a peer is to accuse them of crass commercialism and/or personal vanity–even though not a single endeavor that’s poetry-related pays enough to motivate anyone to do it for financial reasons, and even though all of us are equally guilty of a basic form of vanity just by choosing to be (and remain) poets in the first instance. It’s all no matter, though: the Internet gives us an opportunity to speak definitively on the private lives and unspoken thoughts of absolute strangers, and we fail to resist seizing that opportunity 99 times out of 100.

What would a good faith and academically oriented reading of “The Body of Michael Brown” look like? To begin with, it might presume that Goldsmith’s intent in writing “The Body of Michael Brown” was to do precisely what the entire progressive political community in America has been rightly asking white men to do for decades: find ways to understand and internalize the pain white men have caused to others over the centuries. We’d certainly expect the processes used to achieve this result to be idiosyncratic; for instance, a lifelong artist will probably use art to understand and internalize others’ pain because that is, at base, what all artists (even conceptual ones) do to better understand their own pain. It is a sign of sincerity, in fact, when a white male poet uses the same techniques to process others’ pain as he does to process his own, as this suggests (if absolutely nothing else) that he is hoping for success in the former endeavor as much as he quite evidently has always wished for success in the latter. But of course there’s also a danger here, and especially in Goldsmith’s case: because most poets don’t read and certainly don’t enjoy conceptual poetry, and because despite poetry’s supposed academicization virtually no one actually understands the principles behind conceptual poetry, when a white male poet uses that tool to come to a place of understanding of others’ and even society’s collective pain the utility of using that tool will be understood and appreciated by almost no one. It will not be understood or appreciated because it is not the tool most poets use to process emotional data, and it will not be understood or appreciated because it is not a tool most people are familiar with at any level beyond the superficial and reactionary.

In other words, a good faith reading of Goldsmith’s poem is that he is trying as hard as he can to do what all of us fellow progressives wish him to do, but as he is doing it in his preferred but still entirely obscure way–the way that makes it most likely he will reach our shared goal of empathetic and politically actuated understanding, but also the way most likely to be misunderstood and misconstrued–he is screwed. “Screwed”  does not here mean that Goldsmith is the (or even a) victim; it simply means that he will receive public death threats that are applauded rather than condemned by his peers; he will be called vile names by people who not only have never met him but were not present at the reading of “The Body of Michael Brown” (and have not read the poem in print, either); he will–because this is how poetry communities habitually work–lose the opportunity to ever socialize, collaborate, or publish with the many hundreds of fellow poets who took exception to his poem. For if there’s one thing we know about ourselves as poets, it’s that we hold perpetual grudges against anyone who has even once contravened our own emotional truth, and that these perpetual grudges are definitionally professional as well as personal. It only takes one professional peer continuing to violently detest you for a comment you made (and did not intend at all unkindly) in a 2004 blog-post to realize that everything we say has real professional consequences; those who blame creative writing MFA programs for the lack of activism in poetry should consider that in fact poets in and out of academia enact far too high a price for the utterance of (even slightly) controversial language for vocalized activism to be anything but a foolhardy proposition for the vast majority of us.

And what would an academic reading of Goldsmith’s poem sound like? At the most basic level, it would necessarily engage the fact that concept-driven poetry a) differentially processes data via poetry by eschewing certain hallmarks of aesthetic craft and creative composition, and b) is judged primarily by the subcultures it speaks into and the conversations it generates therein rather than its conformity with reader expectations, received aesthetics, or the sort of political comity poets daily create by reclassifying what ostensibly is mob-think as “conversation.” Conversation requires not just that different viewpoints be adequately expressed–meaning that every attempt to intimidate or professionally punish those with a different viewpoint is definitionally a blow against actual “conversation”–but also that all parties to the conversation spend as much time listening as speaking, even if they believe the person they’re speaking with to be a moral or intellectual imbecile. The language produced within the poetry community by Goldsmith’s poem has in no way met the standard of “conversation,” meaning that “The Body of Michael Brown” failed one of its presumed aims at least in practice, whether or not that failure is properly attributable to Goldsmith himself. Certainly, we can see that Goldsmith’s poem a) offered us a new way to process critically important data, and b) generated further consideration of precisely the topic we imagine it was intended to address. If that consideration wasn’t fruitful, we can look as much to how the topic was considered by readers of “The Body of Michael Brown” as to how the poem’s form was engineered by its author. To be clear, this is not to say any person’s reaction to the poem was “wrong”–this is to say that the means of disagreement many people employed in reacting to Goldsmith’s poem was absolutely wrong as a matter of both morality and ethics. Personal emotional turmoil never justifies a death threat, nor does disagreement with someone over a point of morality or ethics justify an ad hominem attack. Whether or not we honor these basic principles of decency in the poetry community–and whether or not I’ve always successfully honored these principles (and I have not)–they are in fact what controls acceptable social behavior in every other sphere of human activity in the U.S. and abroad. We as poets can consider ourselves exempt from this (and we often do seem to) but we’d better be prepared to explain and justify the basis for that exemption.

Yet here’s where Goldsmith comes in for both commendation and rebuke. The poet’s re-posting of responses to his poem was clearly part of the work itself, not a vanity, as Goldsmith has for decades used such redistribution of reader responses to force us to confront how we as poets (or simply readers of poetry) do or don’t, or can or cannot, respond to provocative art on topics of great moment. Anyone with an awareness of the avant-garde tradition–whose commitment to meta-writing is at least a century old–will know that Goldsmith didn’t republish the “death threat” made against him by Cassandra Gillig out of fear for his safety or a desire to get Gillig banned from Twitter, but rather as a means to hold a mirror to the subcommunity his conceptual writing was deliberately written into and for. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to ask whether Goldsmith has sufficiently considered the idiosyncrasies of the very subcommunity he seeks to hold a mirror to. Elisa Gabbert is correct when she writes, for The National Post, that it was a grave error on Goldsmith’s part if he had such little knowledge of the literary subcommunity he was speaking into that he believed it would react to “The Body of Michael Brown” with anything other than threats, ad hominem attacks, and affective responses which exhibit no scholarly (or even quasi-scholarly) background in the reading of poetry. Goldsmith should be rebuked for indulging a false consciousness regarding the subcommunity he sees himself as belonging to; unless we view Goldsmith’s poem as a metaphorical middle finger to the myriad sensitivities of his own literary milieu–which it might yet have been–we have to consider the conceptual poem “The Body of Michael Brown” a failure on conceptual grounds.

The question, then, if we assume good faith–as all people of good faith must, if only to abide by the Golden Rule and some maxim about glass houses–is whether (and how) “The Body of Michael Brown” could be reworked to have precisely the effect in the subcommunity it was speaking into that it intended to have. Given that the subcommunity has now made clear, via Twitter, that the only acceptable way to process data and come to an understanding of its gravity and harmfulness is to process that data exactly the way most everyone else does, the question for Goldsmith is whether he is willing or able to conjoin his own manner of data-processing with that of others in order to create a conceptual work that operates in the world more like he intends it to operate. The short answer here is that Goldsmith will not be capable of producing such a work on the topic of Michael Brown–or any other politically charged topic–so long as he hamstrings himself with an artificial limitation: that every poem he writes be a framing and/or reduction of a discrete text or sequence of discrete texts, rather than, for instance, 1) a mash-up of multiple demonstrably partial texts (in whose intertextuality we might better chart his intentions and his contribution to the national conversation on topics of moment); 2) a juxtaposition of his own creative writing and appropriated texts, the better, again, for readers to chart his intentions and in the interplay between ego and culture such juxtapositions offer better conceive of his contribution to the national conversation; or 3) an actual “remix” of a text–which is not what “The Body of Michael Brown” was–in order to “show his work” re: the sort of effect he wishes the text of Brown’s autopsy could have for America generally and perhaps for white males struggling to understand the significance of Brown’s death specifically. I and many others are on record as having called Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” a failure on its own and any other terms, but at a minimum we can better understand, through the lens of Goldsmith’s most recent effort, what Hoagland meant when he said that “The Change” was intended primarily for white people. It was, in other words, attempting to telegraph to white readers that there was and is information about cultural change that they are refusing to process generatively, and they owe it to themselves and their fellow Americans to end their emotional and intellectual recalcitrance once and for all. I suspect Goldsmith had a similar aim, and I suspect that consequently the poem was read differently by different audiences–which is not to say that it was necessarily generative for any of them.

“Conceptual writing”–as least as Goldsmith and his cohort have circumscribed it–is a failure (even on its own terms) because it lacks the emotional and intellectual and compositional flexibility to have the effect in the world it quite clearly wishes to have (perhaps in part because it is endemic to late poststructuralist verse to not carefully calibrate the effect a given block of language has on its audience; by contrast, metamodernism brings such calibration to the forefront of the compositional process). Nor is conceptual writing instantly rendered of utility to American discourse if and when it is written by someone of a skin complexion other than Goldsmith’s. A rhetorical blindspot is a rhetorical blindspot, and we simply no longer live in a society in which a stultifyingly narrow poetics can be responsive to such an intricately dynamic topic as the fully-networked national conversation (if and when and where it is a conversation) on race. Strict appropriation was novel and important when Reznikoff (and Duchamp) did it a century ago, in a different place and time and context; the Digital Age is instead an era of misappropriation and reconstruction, two tools conceptual writing as it’s presently defined disallows.

The only question I have regarding Goldsmith as a man–and it has nothing to do with his attitudes on race–is this one: whether his commitment to his own rhetorical schemata is born of vanity or a studied consideration of the work he wishes to do as a poet. It is certainly possible that Goldsmith, like all of us sometimes do, has painted himself into a corner by meeting with significant public attention for a “movement” in writing whose name he himself coined. How does one back out of a mistake, when it’s finally time to do so? And how does one do so amidst a chorus of hangers-on, each member of which hopes that Goldsmith will publicly condone their next literary effort? “Post-internet poetry,” which Goldsmith recently defined in The New Yorker as merely poetry that’s not super worked up about the fact that it’s all appropriated from the Internet, is not a step forward for conceptual writing or even a lateral step. It is, instead, a doubling down on a misreading of American digital culture that typifies Goldsmith’s aging generation. Goldsmith’s belief that Gen Y thinks the Internet is no big deal stems, I suspect but cannot know, from having too little interaction with a diverse cross-section of Gen Y writers. In fact, Gen Y writers are “nonplussed” by the Internet–and here I deliberately use a word which is variously used to mean two totally opposite concepts at once. That is, Gen Y writers are (entirely self-consciously) both not at all and profoundly affected by the fact that most of their language is mediated by and in virtual spaces, which makes the most natural form of response to the Internet a metamodern one: one that both blithely borrows language from the Internet in replacement for the poet’s own language, but also (and simultaneously) wrestles creatively with that language by seeking intercession from the poet’s own imaginative language and/or imaginative rearrangements of her material. Goldsmith is wrong to eschew the term “metamodernism,” and its first principles, simply because it is not the philosophy to which he has already publicly conjoined himself–if in fact that’s the reason for his reluctance, a fact I don’t presume to know and so only inquire after here. Metamodernism, like postmodernism, belongs to no one and is at the very most merely a cultural philosophy poets can choose to exploit.

Goldsmith recently wrote on Facebook that “The Body of Michael Brown” was typical of his oeuvre; in fact, it was not. Goldsmith does not habitually indulge “poetic effect” (his words) as a means of enhancing the conspicuous “literary” quality (his words) of his texts, at least not when it means actually changing the words of a text to non-“didactic” (his words) language of his own devising. Nor has Goldsmith ever been known to dramatically rearrange a single block of appropriated material as he did here, moving around the sections of Brown’s autopsy report so that the resulting document reads quite differently than the original did. The result of these deviations from conceptual writing is a text that constitutes, in all respects, a self-expressive creative act–indeed likely a metamodern one, however unsuccessfully so. A student of Goldsmith’s writing (and for better or worse, I have long been one) might say that “The Body of Michael Brown” represents an evolution toward metamodern writing on Goldsmith’s part–and, we therefore might surmise, an attempt to be more responsive to his subcommunity in the way he structures his rhetoric-in-verse. For that, at least, he deserves applause. And like many in the poetry community who say so privately but will not do so publicly for fear of professional reprisal–a fear that is 100% warranted–I too hope that in the future we will be able to react to conceptually provocative art without resorting to ad hominem attacks, threats, or affective “readings” of a poem that do not in any politically effective way consider the ultimate aims we are all reaching toward as best we can. For many, many years I fought for racial justice daily, by seeking, as a public defender, to uphold the U.S. Constitution in the face of its racially disparate application in the criminal justice system; poets don’t have the same opportunities to directly push on state institutions that attorneys do, but as well as we are able–and in our own idiosyncratic ways–we see countless poets doing what they feel they can do with their art and their society to advance this and other progressive agendas. Goldsmith may well be part of that effort, and his own years of effort on behalf of poetry and other poets deserves some patience in consequence–as does the fact that the aim of authentic racial equality is best served when wanderers find their way to the light in the end, whether or not they travel the same roads we do.

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Posted 03/17/15
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