The most important of all rights, the one whose absence sooner or later permits the shutting down of every other one, is the right to blaspheme. Call it “freedom of speech” if you want, but I believe it runs deeper. It is the right not only to “say” – and by that I mean any cultural expression and all of the arts – anything but explicitly the right to offend, to make people crazy (literally) by articulating whatever goes most deeply against their beliefs.— Ron Silliman, May 22, 2015.
Thus opens Ron Silliman’s recent blog post, “Je suis Vanessa,” a strange mash-up of claims with little or no relation to the actual events he conflates in a stunning dismissal of poetry communities. In the space of a few paragraphs, he completely negates the importance of discursive and performative debate and agitation required for social clarification and, one hopes, eventual stasis among community advocates. Communities and institutions frequently resort to informal and quasi-logical forms of reasoning in order to clarify positions and policies, and to re-organize institutional hierarchies that no longer usefully serve their purposes. Certainly, the Mongrel Coalition, many people of color, and friends of people of color are living through a cultural moment largely defined by national crises in Baltimore, Ferguson, South Carolina, New York City, and in so many other places where police have attacked black bodies. Racial violence has been everywhere in America since the first ships of human cargo arrived. At the moment, however, local activists, municipal authorities, and federal prosecutors seek a potential alteration to the white-on-black violence in black communities where police frequently enforce racist attitudes with horrific results. In response to this national conversation and in a climate of heated tensions over recent police murders of African Americans, Ron Silliman wants to proclaim “freedom of speech” as the debate worthy of our attention, and along with this middling call to action, he somehow muddles up the Enlightenment perspectives that give resonance and meaning to such claims.
For instance, in his May 22, 2015 post, after pointing his finger at the “famous cowards” who protested an award to Charlie Hebdo survivors, Silliman claims, “Anyone who thinks that the ability to prohibit one form of speech is not part of a chain of logic that gets playwrights hung and presidential candidates exiled, arrested or shot is as ignorant of history as Jeb Bush is of science.” Here it gets confusing. The context of Charlie Hebdo in Paris is strikingly different from the climate of anger in the U. S. over the deaths of African Americans in communities aggressively policed by racist cops. I can only begin to understand the meaning of Silliman’s pastiche of recent events by reflecting on the Enlightenment and democratic values one typically, and broadly, associates with “freedom of speech.” I’ll have more to say about this below, but for now it’s useful to pause over another piece of the mash-up in Ron Silliman’s blog post:
We have, on at least two occasions recently, seen white authors producing works on the subject of race be attacked for their productions. We have seen what amounts to an online lynch mob attempt to prevent Vanessa Place from participating in the planning of events in the AWP. One need not agree with Place or to even think her Gone with the Wind tweets are anything but a klutzy and obvious way to say that, yeah, we are still the nation that enslaved millions and committed an act of genocide on the peoples who lived here before our ancestors arrived with guns.
Silliman moves by way of quick comparisons, from critics of Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire to critical “attack[s]” by “an online lynch mob” on Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith, and somehow the former’s removal from the AWP planning committee is swallowed up in reference to aboriginal genocide in North America. Silliman, here, is seized with over-excitement. Indeed, the pace of the whole essay tests any reasonable patience with its overt claims and petty labeling of critics of Conceptual poetry as a “lynch mob.” I’m not sure how Ron Silliman thinks democracy and its institutions work, at national and even coterie levels, though it seems he values authoritative pronouncements over reason, extravagantly confused metaphors over carefully construed statements, and deliberately obfuscated proclamations over sustained reflection. But since he is bringing up this problem of Enlightenment reasoning (which is itself a part of a much larger history of uses in constant need of revision), it’s important to remind ourselves, and clarify for Ron Silliman, how communities typically operate in democratic public culture to ensure the success of their members.
For one thing, in Silliman’s depiction, a crucial demonstration of what Kant called the “private use of reason” by a disciplinary organization becomes a generalized accusation of censorship. In characterizing AWP’s decision against Place in this way, Silliman confuses the crucial issues at stake in the Place/Goldsmith controversies over representations of race by white conceptual authors. AWP exercised a form of judgment in its decision to remove Place from its 2016 subcommittee. This action was not a form of censorship but was instead an example of decision based on an evaluation of situated discourse that included the voices of many actors. A “private use of reason,” Kant argues, is reason focused on institutions, coteries, and other social organizations. It provides ways to understand how diverse social bodies create and modify arguments and actions that benefit their needs. AWP, by removing Place from its organizing committee, reasonably executed a judgment that the executive committee believed to benefit its agenda in some specific way, notably by reducing its connections to what many, and what Place herself acknowledges, as hurtful speech in her tweeting of Gone with the Wind.
Ron Silliman’s conflation of “freedom of speech” rhetoric and Enlightenment forms of reason is hostile, defensive, and dangerous. For one thing, Silliman turns a disciplinary decision into a public event, which it is not. For Kant, “The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men [sic]. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use that a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.” These distinctions are important because Kant’s formulation gives us insight to how we form judgments and come to decisions at national, institutional, disciplinary, and vocational levels. What happened with Vanessa Place and AWP was a large, but private, process in the making, where critics of Place made a compelling argument against her participation in the organizing of events, and AWP organizers were persuaded and took action by removing her from the program committee. This has no bearing whatsoever on issues of freedom of speech in public contexts, or even in private ones. Even small poetry coteries manage the social realities and hierarchies of their domains in similar fashion. That is, adherence to community values is tested through argumentation, strong performances of attitude, written and verbal debate, and other forms of advocacy relevant to the stakes a community deems important. Silliman, in his own way, too, is managing claims to institutional power, and associates himself with Place and other Conceptualists. I suspect it’s a move to maintain influence or perceived influence in a sphere of poetic practices that no longer fully includes him.
In the context of the Enlightenment principles that Silliman appeals to, essential public realities are confused. He accuses AWP of censorship while violently reducing opponents of Place to a “lynch mob,” a term that carries such emotional, damaging weight in the context of violence against black bodies. There is no fear of destruction of democratic ideals by poc mongrels or other critics of white culture. While poets may believe they participate in the public eye, it’s largely a world composed of institutional organizations that only appear as a kind of public in Kant’s sense. This is important because Silliman’s scale of attack is confusing and misleading; it betrays a violence and fear that requires address given the current social volatility at private and public levels.
The bigger problem I see is that these tiny threads of Enlightenment possibilities for meaningful discursive exchanges are threatened by the rhetorical limitations of Silliman’s pronouncements: his language is in no way inclusive or democratic. Instead, the fear and insult to his power claims are apparent. Fred Moten recently in a talk called “Blackness and Poetry” called modernity a socio-ecological disaster. That is the ongoing reality we are in, one that began 500 + years ago with the movement of West Africans across the Atlantic as slaves. The violation of human bodies, not to mention geographic and climatic bodies, has produced damage that will not be undone, physically or psychically. Given that reality, what do we do? Where do we begin to find forms of generosity and reason to sustain something more hopeful?
Modernism—its Imagisms, Vorticisms, and Futurisms—its insane appetites for energy at all costs, appetites we see instantiated again and again in Place and Goldsmith—is part of this violent, kinetic apprehension. The Enlightenment Kant attempted to shape is one little possible map forward that most democracies have imperfectly relied on since the 18th century. Given the complexities of thought and feeling around race in an American context of police violence against black bodies, it’s irresponsible of Ron Silliman to invoke Enlightenment ideals even as he distorts those purposes and possibilities.
For too long, a community of poets has let Ron Silliman make unsupported proclamations. I have fought off and on with his statements for 20 years. I have been impressed with him and I have gone for long periods ignoring him, too. He invented himself through blog and books, and shaped arguments in poetry that have been important until now. Now the communities that overlap in poetry and culture where he claims authority must decide on how to handle his advancement of racial insecurity. Beyond ignoring his misguided and compulsorily awkward defenses of Conceptual Poetry, perhaps we can begin to acknowledge other possibilities for poetry and its advocacy in diverse locations. Perhaps we should begin by renouncing the ongoing modes of violence that too often give direction to contemporary writing. We have an opportunity to renew and re-invent. We have an opportunity to acknowledge new voices. We have always had this opportunity, but certain disgruntled and belated modernists want to mark it, claim it, promote it their way. Let’s do something else instead.