On Free Speech and Racial Difference

Now that the National Coalition against Censorship (NCAC) is urging the AWP to revise its position on Vanessa Place, there have been numerous exhortations validating First Amendment policy and procedure. While I am by no means a legal expert, communication and rhetorical studies provide legitimate views into speech and action, and speech-as-action, so as to help us make judgments on issues of free speech and censorship. In particular, in regards to Place and her removal from the AWP subcommittee, we are dealing with a debate not merely of “freedom of speech,” but of formalist and non-formalist theories regarding First Amendment practices and interpretations. To get a better sense of the issues involved, Thomas Streeter does a lot to help us understand the legal and linguistic realities at stake when freedom of speech issues are raised. Streeter’s argument should in part be familiar to poets who recognize the indeterminacy of language, and for whom the contexts of language production inform decisions of formalist appropriation.

One of Streeter’s most important arguments is “that language use is an important kind of social action, that words do not merely reflect reality or express ideas, they primarily are a way of doing things, a way of acting in the social world.” There are class-, gender-, and race-based perspectives to consider when we argue for and against freedom of speech, particularly when forms of expression are presented as speech-as-action. A critique of free speech, Streeter argues, is based in a fundamental distrust of formalist interpretations of the rule of law. Such a critical stance is particularly at stake for those who petitioned AWP to have Place removed from its subcommittee: freedom of speech, as it is conditioned and managed by institutional authority, is often defined by formalist determinations of how First Amendment debates are critically addressed. In opposition to a formalist legal interpretation, contextual approaches to the rule of law require different interpretive analyses.

Streeter, for instance, shows how pornography has been read as a “form of action, not of speech,” in certain legal cases. He goes on to summarize positions of scholars who say “subjective experiences of minorities in the U.S. ought to be a primary consideration in the creation and interpretation of hate speech laws.” The suggestion these critics make “is that the evils of rape-culture and contemporary racism force us, or should force us, to fundamentally reconsider how American law thinks about freedom, speech, and their regulation.” There is not always a noticeable difference between “slighting someone with a racial epithet and hitting them in the head.” Streeter argues that these differences of language use and physical conduct “are neither clear nor generalizable enough to coherently underwrite a system of decision-making that claims to be able to transcend context and achieve the neutrality that is the goal of law in the first place.”

Additionally, an article by Garrett Epps last year in The Atlantic points out how modern interpretations of First Amendment policy are based on racist responses to Civil Rights. The claims of white supremacists for speech platforms were first tested legally in this era. Before the advent of broadcast media, freedom of speech was more frequently tried in relation to property rights. “It’s a mistake to think that the U.S. system goes back to the foundation of the republic,” Epps argues. “At the end of World War II, in fact, our law was about the same as Europe’s is today.”

My point in bringing this up is that the context-based decision to petition the AWP to remove Vanessa Place from its subcommittee has basis in First Amendment debate and theorization formulated on this blurry line between speech and action. The decision of the AWP to remove Place is not as apparent a violation of free speech as some commentators believe it to be. Upholding free speech at any cost as a category in liberal democracy often denies the fluid realities and situations wherein individuals and institutions determine the values based on explicit exchanges of words and conduct.

I’m not really interested in siding for or against freedom of speech in the current contentious atmosphere (as though such a complex and controversial agenda for American democracy could be adequately debated in this current context). My point is to ask that we consider the implications of our positions on First Amendment issues, and to realize that our views resonate within a legal and political grey area. Similarly, I’m not interested now in criticizing Conceptual Poetry. Like other strategies of writing, it can be successful or unsuccessful. (I actually quite liked Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters (2012), and I presented a paper on it at a conference two years ago.) The argument though against Place in this context has to do not with her freedom to reproduce Margaret Mitchell’s text (I’m sure that author’s estate loves the publicity), nor with her fabrication-by-appropriation of an empty gesture for us to view ourselves in, which can be read as a speech-as-action exhibition of her own racial attitudes. This is the specific context that urged critics to respond to Place’s text as it resonates in the violent atmosphere of racial brutality and in a complex array of anger and heated defensiveness that stems from what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”

To appeal to First Amendment formalist legal logic in this context is to forgo an opportunity for discussion and change—to actually listen to the appeals directed not so much at the formal aesthetics of poetry but at the institutional management and division of poetry into carefully controlled hierarchies of power in the form of publishing and social positioning. The control of such hierarchies does reasonably interface with freedom of speech, too, blocking and hindering some voices while promoting a chosen few. You cannot abstract language from bodily reality, racial differences, social situations—though this is exactly what proponents like NCAC and its supporters are capable of doing.

For more, see “Some Thoughts on Free Speech, Language, and the Rule of Law,” in Robert Jensen and David S. Allen (eds.), Freeing the First Amendment: Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression, New York University Press, 1995, pp. 31-53; and DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3).

Je suis—Huh?

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.

RIP Kenneth Warren

I’ve been thinking of Ken all day. The following is from my introduction of his terrific essay collection, Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch (2012):

Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch thrives in the outrider genre. At once disciplined and astute, studious and light-of-foot, it puts into useful tension the textures of life and art. Kenneth Warren comments on the close associations poetry has in relation to a lived experience—an experience that’s always in question, but that poetry and art attempt to shape. Written over the course of thirty years for small press zines and journals, including his finely edited House Organ, this collection of essays represents an era in part neglected in the literary record. Somewhere between the New American Poetry of the ’60s and ’70s, the Language writing of the ’80s and ’90s, and the more recent advance of smoke and mirrors entertainingly referred to as Conceptual Poetry, a diverse, complex, and marvelous cultural period of poetic potential has been often overlooked. Warren’s essays correct this, offering a record of literary achievement, cultural production, and social witness through essays and reviews on figures as diverse as d. a. levy, James Haining, Bob Kaufman, Kathy Acker, Ed Sanders, and Bo Didley. These essays, along with “Language and Its Meaning” and other fugitive reviews in part reveal a character of mind devoted to a human need for knowledge and experience as it was created in a cultural period of radical change (I’m thinking of course of the era beginning with Reagan and the obnoxious reflex, he initiated, of throwing a dollar sign over everything). “Semiotic Sobriety” counteracts the more-well known claims of the New Sentence—not so much as challenge, but as a divergent increase of patterns of perception largely missed by that doughty text. The cultural history and the literary account Warren offers remind readers of the vast and invigorating contexts of poetry that have largely gone underground—under the dollar sign—and into a bunker of beautiful things.

You Can Say It’s Not Racist

You can say it’s not racist, and make claims of formalist innovation, but that doesn’t excuse the gesture in its context. Only the confident possession of a certain type of world view could lead one to call for “a panel discussion around the intersections of art, racism, and offensiveness” at AWP. For one thing, GWTW is a soft target: despite the racist depictions of Mitchell’s characters, few would find much value or controversy in dragging the novel out of its furzy southern crypt in today’s heated public climate of racial violence, where the illegal actions of white cops and their institutional managers are so nakedly displayed. What exactly does Place want her audience to take away from her mammy tweets in this context?

Place’s critics challenge the calculated exploitation of her decisions to mime black bodies and voices and images in contemporary climates of violence towards African-Americans in the U. S. But condemnation in the strongest possible terms should be aimed at the American literary institutions and audiences that participate in the P(l)acification of racial realities. Communities do indeed censor violent speech (a social action) when it fails to function as a relevant and meaningful expression of public potential. Place’s unstable sense of kairos and Goldsmith’s reduction of Michael Brown’s body show the limit of conceptualist poetics: it is a practice now motivated by sensationalism and violence. The gesture of such appropriation-based poetics belies an attitude determined by racial and social inheritances of cultural power. The self-expression of the Conpo author is filtered through the appropriated text or mammy avatar. A roundtable discussion is not required to tease out the unsettling performative claims Place tweets.

I’m reminded of a poem by Amiri Baraka who somehow insisted on aspiring to forms of wisdom as part of the obligation of being a poet. Such forms might be interesting for poetry now:

Bad People

We want to be happy
to check
the definition

We want to love
& be loved
What does that

Then you, backed up against
yr real life

claim you want
only            to be correct.

Imagine the jeers,
the cat calls
the universal dis

such ignorance
creates. (SOS 344)

M. NourbeSe Philip

I introduced M. NourbeSe Philip’s performance April 30 to the Northeast Modern Language Association:

“If no one listens and cries / is it still poetry?” M. NourbeSe Philip asks in her second book of poetry, Salmon Courage. The question carries over to more recent work as well, and conveys what Fred Moten describes as the author’s “heroism, which amounts to nothing more than a radical disavowal of the heroic, consisting [in] a deep and a fatal sounding.” That deep and fatal sounding is tested most notably in Zong!, a book-length poem based on an eighteenth-century court case, Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only public document related to the lives and deaths of 150 Africans murdered for insurance money aboard the slave ship Zong. This work, undertaken “on behalf of the living,” attempts, as Philip acknowledges, to “re-humanize[…] dehumanized figures.” Her investigation sounds the fragile exposure of human life against the infernal codes of legal and economic systems, all in a language that disrupts its own certainty. Philip’s self-mastery as a poet enables her writing toward an event that resists any imposition of meaning, and so poetry is used to enter an abyss of dreadful imaginings.

“Creat[ing] disorder with poetry, though with an accuracy of language,” Philip announces an ongoing process of arrival. Her writing is circumscribed by features of modernity shaped and extended by slavery, colonialism, and the borderline mechanics of sovereignty and discipline whereby the world is apprehended. What she encounters is nothing less than a “socio-ecological” catastrophe. The disruption of the violent history that encompasses and conveys the murders on the slave ship is disclosed through a “fugal anti-narrative” that discovers song in the legal records of Zong. The poem bears witness to the “resurfacing of the drowned and the oppressed” in a world where immigrants even now drown in desperate voyage into the African Mediterranean. Philip addresses the ongoing violence of modernity through the scale of human abduction, where language and its orienting features give shape and consequence to the brutal linearity of trade, law, and the subjective harrowings that underwrite a vicious global contest over natural resources and human labor. Such intersections of desire and economy find origin in Europe and Africa at the beginning of the modern era, and the languages and imposed silences of those relations between nations and people haunt us still. It is this “hauntology,” as Philip puts it, that concerns the startling clarity and terror of her work.

Philip was born in Tobago and moved to Canada to attend Western University, where she graduated with a law degree in 1973. Besides the investigative and linguistic achievement of Zong!, other major works include the novels Harriet’s Daughter and Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence, and the poetry collection She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, winner of the Casa de las Americas Prize in poetry. Author of four collections of essays and other writing, Philip’s work spans and interweaves contrasting genres. Her writing situates themes of colonialism, race, memory, identity, and place at the contrasting intersections of political and poetic innovation. Please join me in welcoming her here tonight.

All this now

Mongrels to Citizens:

experimentation is fundamentally rooted in blackness and wounded life: they don’t get to tell you otherwise

your body is an experiment.

your memories: an experiment

your life: an experiment

every minute is an experiment in survival

everyday is an experiment toward liberation