Goldsmith, Conceptualism & the Half-baked Rationalization of White Idiocy
Joey De Jesus
Kenneth Goldsmith’s so-called “uncreative” editing of Michael Brown’s autopsy report into his piece, “The Body of Michael Brown,” is an appropriation of black suffering under the waving standard of “conceptualism.” Is he aware that his appropriation of black death contributes to a long and living history of racism? Probably. Still, he opens his mouth to release his vipers into the growing snakeyard of white supremacist liberalism and its literature. Though Goldsmith has committed to donate his speaker fees to Michael Brown’s family, and has asked Interrupt 3 to withhold the video and transcripts of the event, his wavering attempts to placate the public do little to restore to Michael Brown’s family any decency after commodifying Brown’s body into cultural capital while simultaneously communicating his own sense of supremacy. His apology-via-Facebook does nothing at all to reconcile the deeply racist practices upon which he has grounded his aesthetics of conceptualism.
In “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” Cathy Park Hong’s says, “The avant-garde’s ‘delusion of whiteness’ is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history.” To say Kenneth Goldsmith is clueless is an understatement. Goldsmith monopolizes Brown’s stolen voice to perpetuate a narrative that white representations of blackness should prevail over self-representation. While it is abhorrent that he would attempt to don Michael Brown’s skin in order to perform his cakewalk, what upsets me further is that Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance is the promise of appropriation; it is a promise to those of us who live at the margin that once we are dead, our narratives will be ‘remixed,’ chopped and screwed by a white man looking to make of our bodies a spectacle.
Conceptualism’s relationship to “found” text cannot be divorced from the colonial impulse to claim and maim. The actions are equivalent (this is now mine); the defense of those actions (I did it in pursuit of wealth, of territory, of raw materials, of conceptual art) form a Herculean constellation in the sky, a navigator’s tool to find us, an image both invisible and irrelevant to the colonized and the erased. Goldsmith’s defense of appropriation is essentially, “if you didn’t want me to take it, you shouldn’t have made it in the first place.” In an interview with The Believer, he says, “If you don’t want [your cultural production] to exist … keep it off the web. But if you put it in digital form, expect it to be bootlegged, remixed, manipulated, and endlessly commented upon.” Goldsmith conflates accessibility with entitlement—because the text is readily available at any moment, means one is entitled to it regardless of how that text came into breath. Nothing we express can be ours—not our suffering, not our power.
In “The Writer as Meme Machine” Goldsmith writes, “In the past decade, writers have been culling the Internet for material, making books that are more focused on collecting than on reading. These ways of writing—word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriating, intentionally plagiarizing, identity ciphering and intensive programming, to name a few—have traditionally been considered outside the scope of literary tradition.” The notion that these “ways of writing” exist outside the scope of literary tradition is untrue. Conceptualism creates yet another safe space for the ongoing appropriation, erasure and plagiarism of queer and/or non-white expression—in this case blackness. It will live and die by the rules of capitalism, that all language can be amassed and repurposed into new utility by erasing the people who initially spoke that language—I’m looking at you, “Igloo Australia.”
Goldsmith himself would not deny this. In his intro to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, he states, “’re-’ gestures—such as reblogging and retweeting—have become cultural rites of cachet in and of themselves. If you can filter through the mass of information and pass it on as an arbiter to others, you gain an enormous amount of cultural capital.” His careerist intention to amass cultural capital has been made perfectly clear—he suggests that the identities of others can be owned. In his interview with The Believer, Goldsmith establishes the standard that, “Conceptual art is only good if the idea is good.” Ironically, nothing about appropriation and erasure is conceptually new or good; it is not an innovative mode of cultural production, but rather, the result of centuries of unfettered capitalism and the impulse it instills in people to commodify and consume everything, including your fellow human being. He goes on to defend his use of appropriation stating, “I think that writers often try too hard in the name of expression, when often it’s just a matter of reframing what’s around you or republishing a preexisting text into a new environment that makes for a successful work.” The mobility Goldsmith references—to move between environments—is distinctly white and cis-male. Those of us who live within the realities of oppression do not possess such mobility as we are limited by historical perceptions of our (surprise, surprise!) identity. Additionally, given the Internet’s undeniable ability to democratize and provide platform to the historically and globally oppressed, the text that surrounds us, especially on the Internet, is so often the expression of the unheard and the nameless. Goldsmith’s advertising of entitlement to that material is dangerous and has been done before.
In his defense of “The Body of Michael Brown,” Goldsmith states, “I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary.” I am going to tra-la-la over Goldsmith’s declaration of himself as gatekeeper of the “literary” and focus instead on what he means by “narrativizing.” Goldsmith, one of the editors of Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, stands against narrative when it pertains to writers exploring their own non-white identities through expression. However, Goldsmith’s recent attempt at “narrativizing” text about the body of a young dead black man is totally permissible. This double standard is painfully ironic and contradictory to an earlier statement of his in The Believer. He says, “The moment we shake our addiction to narrative and give up our strong-headed intent that language must say something “meaningful,” we open ourselves up to different types of linguistic experience…” The pot is calling the kettle black. Goldsmith acknowledges his attempt at narrativizing, and so he accidentally reveals his own inability to erase his subjectivity.
Ellen Bryant Voigt addresses the inevitability of subjectivity in her essay, “Narrative and Lyric: Structural Corruption,” which she opens with Steven Dobyns’ idea that every lyric implies a narrative. She says, “What [Dobyns] means is a sequence of past events, left out of the poem, that brought the speaker to the present.” While his work is not lyric, Goldsmith’s attempts at “narrativizing” and creating a “poetic effect” invites the criticism that Goldsmith has invented a sequence of past events surrounding the death of Michael Brown that are based on his white representation of blackness. This is what any conscious American witnessed played out in the media’s criminalization and defamation of Michael Brown.
One process “DJ” Goldsmith incorporates into his practice is “remixing” found text, leaving the original effectively chopped & screwed. He says, “I altered the text for poetic effect.” To create a desired effect on the audience, Goldsmith hacks the report on the body of the deceased and rearranges it into a Frankenstein of its former self. The public history of black men and women being parsed into a litany of parts slumbers deep in the subconscious of every American. The hacking apart of a text intimate with Michael Brown’s body for an audience reminds us of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, whose body was defiled, measured, and presented to an audience to convince said people of black inferiority. In his performance, Goldsmith revives the eugenicist practice of dismemberment for the sake of projecting some pseudoscientific “truth” about the inherent hideousness of the black body.
In “Scriptsigns: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget” Marjorie Perloff writes, “Goldsmith is determined to keep his eye, so to speak, on the ball, to record noncommittally and nonjudgmentally the way the body actually works.” While conceptual poets and their defenders may use this description as a proclamation of a work’s objectivity, I feel it is imperative to state, as bell hooks does, that white representations of nonwhite bodies must never be totalizing. Praise Cathy Park Hong, who, in “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” reminds us, “…even in [conceptualists’] best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author’s visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.” This is what Goldsmith’s procedural poetic affords him, an inflation of his own subjectivity into “objective” truth—this is also why liberal institutions of support for white supremacist poets need to stop, drop and roll.
In his defense of “The Body of Michael Brown” Goldsmith writes, “this is the writing that is able to tell the truth in the strongest and clearest way possible.” This statement echoes an earlier one he made in “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” when he says, “To be the originator of something that becomes a broader meme trumps being the originator of the actual trigger event that is being reproduced.” We are supposed to accept that his procedural crafting of “unoriginal” text is somehow more objective, and therefore a more valid and valued representation of blackness than self-representation. In this instance, however, Michael Brown is incapable of self-representation, because of a different type of “trigger event.” Applying Goldsmith’s defense of his aesthetic to this particular piece, the observer learns that Goldsmith believes his ability to create memes “trumps” the life and premature death of a young black man. He is stating that his rendition of blackness is better than the rest. To Goldsmith, a white representation of blackness is the “strongest” bazooka with which to blow away his audience with the “truth.” But “objectivity” has historically been weaponized against brown bodies and minds as a way for the white supremacist to prove our inferiority. In Francis Galton’s “Memories of My Life” (1908), the bigot writes:
The first object [of Eugenics] is to check the birth rate of the Unfit, instead allowing them to come into being though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit, by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals in the world than can properly be cared for, and those only of the best stock.
This passage was reprinted in the annals of “American Breeders Magazine” volume 5 after 500 pages of articles with titles such as, “Skin Color of Mulattoes” and “Missing Teeth Inherited” featuring quotes like, “Our studies offer no support that hybrids are less fertile than pure races in man.” The conceptual argument for objectivity, when applied to the construction of white representations of blackness immediately echoes the eugenicist impulse to take a stick to a black body and poke it.
On the eve of the first International Eugenics Congress, A. J. Balfour, the principal speaker, tasked the congress with educating the public in eugenics. “Eugenics, he said, depended upon facts -which ought not to be difficult to verify; it depended upon premises whose conclusions followed almost inevitably.” Galton’s “procedure” is no different than Goldsmith’s in his execution of “The Body of Michael Brown.” Galton uses his measurements of natality and mortality to present his own bigoted ideology as objective truth. Goldsmith accidentally achieves the same effect by appropriating this politicized, scientific and legal document and re-contextualizing it in the shadow of himself.
The most notable example of “remixing” in his recent mess was Goldsmith’s intentional conclusion on the image of Michael Brown’s penis in the autopsy room. He read, “The remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable,” which calls to mind that in the racist, objectifying paradigm, the black man’s penis is anything but “unremarkable.” When rearranging the autopsy text to reveal what Goldsmith perceives is ‘objective truth,’ he is actually articulating his phallocentric gaze; his belief in the mandingo stereotype, and his anger and jealousy at the black male for what Goldsmith perceives to be the black male’s natural aptitude for sex. Brownness has a long history of being hypersexualized by the white gaze; by concluding this piece on the image of Michael Brown’s penis and reorganizing the text to semantically link his penis to the word “unremarkable,” Goldsmith effectively stands over the body of the dead mandingo, who wasn’t quite, who lost.
I’m calling out the dialectic between Goldsmith’s performativity and his subjectivity. The importance of Goldsmith’s relationship to his performativity is clear. It is Goldsmith’s performance of this material—he’s always done up, often suited in some designer paisley three-piece, embroidered in metals—this is how he becomes auctioneer of his acquired material.
Yet Goldsmith’s lack of self-awareness is stunning. For a self-identified poet, he seems to have little interest in how his language implicates and invalidates his defense. He says, “I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature…” Avoiding the pompousness of an “I produce literature” statement, in numerous interviews and articles, Kenneth Goldsmith repeats the word, “massaging,” using it as a description of his (and others’) technique in what he perceives to be interlingual translation. Here, I refer to Roman Jakobson’s definition of interlingual translation as “an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of some other language” despite the reality that both texts exist in the same language. But affording Goldsmith the benefit of the doubt—that scientific jargon is inaccessible to poetry’s audience and therefore it is another language—I’m going to continue with Jakobson’s argument that “no linguistic specimen may be interpreted by the science of language without a translation of its signs into other signs of the same system or into signs of another system.” In other words, Goldsmith’s “massages” are a process of a determining a sign’s mutual translatability, the taking of that sign and combing through a system of references for what he perceives to be an equivalent. In Goldsmith’s defense of his work, he says, “I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text.” Goldsmith’s translation of text into palatable English manipulates the audience into passive acceptance of the violence being enacted on Michael Brown’s body—violence made easy. His system of references, “plain English,” cannot be gutted of its history as a tool of patriarchy, colonization, imperialism and enslavement. The replacement of the polysyllabic alien diction of medicine with monosyllabic verbiage geared toward an audience presumed inept at understanding medical jargon brings with it a dangerous connotation: the act of simplification is mimetic of the devaluation of the black body.
Conceptual poetry has never endeavored to include those of us who do not have the luxury of abandoning our identity in pursuit of craft, because conceptual poets do not write in ways derivative of the nuances of identity. LaTasha Nevada Digg’s and Cathy Park Hong’s creation of hybrid dialects; Juliana Huxtable’s posturing as an alien identity to condemn real world misogyny; poets interrogating double consciousness; poets of the fringe blueprinting the architectures of silence… I would go so far as to say that Goldsmith and his male conceptualist counterparts work furiously to erase the contributions of people of color from the history of literature and craft, in addition to erasing us from the texts in which people of color appear. In “Post-Internet Poetry Comes of Age,” Goldsmith echoes MoMA’s show titled “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” which posits “A-temporality, or timelessness, manifests itself in painting as an ahistorical free-for-all, where contemporaneity as an indicator of a new form is nowhere to be found, and all eras coexist.” A-temporality is a myth, a ruse, a way of denying the history of oppression that dictates the conditions of so many of our lives—the myth of a-temporality is the destruction of history, not a free-for-all, it erases the art and literary histories at the margin to celebrate the freedom of the very same few.
And so, conceptualism posits that the only place for people of color in the future of the language arts is “vanished,” that we assume the identities of ghosts. In his New Yorker piece, “Post-Internet Poetry Comes of Age,” Goldsmith praises Vanessa Place’s “Statement of Facts,” stating “Place brought the poetry of witness into the twenty-first century.” Meanwhile, here we have been producing poetry of witness. Only through the lens of Place’s work does the language of witness bear any relevance to Goldsmith. I want to make clear here that I am not indicting or dismissing Vanessa Place’s theaters of cruelty, which, I think intentionally highlight the hypocrisy of white supremacist liberalism. But I find it frustrating that people of color have been writing poems of witness, yet it is Vanessa Place’s appropriation of black male voices that Goldsmith acknowledges as the new zeitgeist. In “The Oppositional Gaze,” bell hooks writes, “The politics of slavery, of racialized power relations, were such that the slaves were denied their right to gaze.” Goldsmith’s celebration of Place’s work over the poetry of witness by innovative poets of color is a reiteration of the denial of a black person’s right to gaze, to witness—a reminder that “…power as domination reproduces itself in different locations employing similar apparatuses, strategies, and mechanisms of control.”
If I were to allow the conceptualist model to poison my sense of self, then to accomplish innovative poetry I would have to imagine myself as a white man. But this pressure is not new, nor is it restricted to the bog of conceptualism. In “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” Cathy Park Hong aptly states,
Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions… Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques.
The expectation of poets of color to either acclimate to the academy’s infrastructure of white supremacist liberalism or to vanish is a Sophie’s Choice that poets of the true margin do not have to make. The alternative is for poets of the margin to continue to speak. bell hooks says, “It is difficult to talk when you feel no one is listening, when you feel as though a special jargon or narrative has been created that only the chosen can understand.” This is how mainstream and conceptual poetry function to exclude those of us who do not conform to disappearance or assuaging white guilt. Fortunately, the democratizing power of the Internet erodes the former clause in hooks’ sentence. As we shout into the void of the Internet we do it knowing everyone and no one is listening, and slowly that empowers us to speak.
…Today’s Woman / is not ward nor toy nor curio nor game, / nor slavery in this sun-time of the monsters. / Sisters! We are meritful, / and are—before an end—perceptive. / We are hurt honey but we do retrieve. / We do not squirm, we do not squeal. We square off. / We blue-print / not merely a survival but a flowering. / That’s good. Because the plight is serious in / this field of electrified spikes and boulders.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Gottshalk and the Grand Tarantelle
This is my avant-garde: burned, imprisoned, reanimated Dead Girls with dirty and mutilated faces. Assumed names and false identity cards, goldwork skies and degenerate pop sound tracks. Anachronisms which defy paternalistic, materialistic, imperialistic chronologies and hierarchies. You join the Dead Girls when you are wrecked and ruined and reanimated by art.
Joyelle McSweeney “An Army of Dead Girls: Art’s Avant-Garde”
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
Audre Lorde “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.
Cathy Park Hong, “The Delusion of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde”
I feel it is imperative that I reaffirm myself in the face of all these attempts at my erasure. I don’t live for people who contribute to the erection of the academy as a pillar of poetic accomplishment and prestige. I ain’t about that life. This is a response to the inadequacy of white-dominated academia to represent otherness in a manner that does not reinforce white supremacy. This is an attempt at seizing the locus of power and disseminating it.
If, as the conceptualists would have it, I am to relinquish myself from the shackle of my own identity in order to secure a place for myself in the future of poetry then let’s hypothetically say “fine.” Let’s say, “I’m tired. I’m complacent.” If I am to do this, then I will mythologize the tabernacle of benevolent greatening me. If I am to be vanished from the texts in which I appear, then I will assume the identity of ghost. I will use the Internet to destroy myself into nonentity, interrogate the dialectic between alienation and double-consciousness by constructing false avatars. I will radically disidentify with preexisting infrastructures designed to smudge me out. If I can’t have my narrative then as wraith, as hupia, as ice, shapeshift, sibilant and reptilian I will be the nothing white writers find everywhere.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Gottshalk and the Grand Tarantelle
Kenneth Goldsmith Interview with The Believer
Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Writer as Meme Machine” from the New Yorker
Kenneth Goldsmith, “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” from the New Yorker
Kenneth Goldsmith, “Post-Internet Poetry Comes of Age” from the New Yorker
“Against Expression: Kenneth Goldsmith in Conversation” from Poets.Org
Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown”
Kenneth Goldsmith’s Facebook defense of “The Body of Michael Brown”
Roman Jakobson “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”
Cathy Park Hong, “The Delusion of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” from Lana Turner
bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze”
Audre Lorde “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
Joyelle McSweeney “An Army of Dead Girls: Art’s Avant-Garde” from Lana Turner
Marjorie Perloff, “‘VOCABEL SCRIPTSIGNS’: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget”
Ellen Bryant Voight, “Narrative and Lyric: Structural Corruption” from The Flexible Lyric
& this nonsense:
“Baptiste Medical Journal,” August 3, 1912 International Eugenics Congress p.253
American Breeders Magazine vol. 5 p. 560