Poets and critics have had some trouble discussing Vanessa Place’s piece Tweeting Gone with the Wind. I have a suggestion. Why not say that her piece is poorly written?
Under her own name, Place, a poet and performance artist, used a Twitter account to reproduce the entire text of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. For several years, she posted a few lines a day on the feed @vanessaplace, framing the text with images of racist stereotypes from the 1939 film version of the novel and illustrated sheet music from a late nineteenth-century minstrel show. In May 2015, an anonymous group of writers called the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo publicly denounced the racism they saw in Place’s writing. On Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, they called on all working poets to join their campaign, and many poets responded by contributing their own denunciations. In response to an online petition, the administration of the Associated Writing Programs removed Place from the subcommittee that evaluates panel proposals for the organization’s 2016 conference in Los Angeles. After more protests on social media, she was forced to cancel appearances at the Berkeley Poetry Conference and at the Whitney Museum.1
Most of the responses have characterized her problem as racism rather than bad writing. 2,195 writers signed a petition declaring that “[Place’s] recent work with ‘Gone with the Wind’ re-inscribes that text’s racism — she does not abate it — in the flesh of every descendant of slaves. . . . She furthers her career on the backs of Black ancestors — the hands that filled the master’s pockets now fill hers.”2
The writers of the Mongrel Coalition have a more powerful rhetoric. On May 13, they posted on their Twitter feed: “VANESSA PLACE IS RACIST. DEFEND HER AND YOU ARE COMPLICIT.” They put considerable energy into publishing and repeating their statements. On July 6, shortly after Place transcribed the last sentence of Gone with the Wind and changed the privacy settings to lock her Twitter account, they posted: “SO MANY THINGS COULD BE SAID ABOUT HOW THE U.S. OPPRESSES POC. LIKE FOR EXAMPLE: VP IS REPRESENTATIVE OF A U.S. BRAND OF WHITE SUPREMACY.”3
There are a couple of problems with this diagnosis. For one thing, in a brief statement, Place describes her project as antiracist. Her framing of Mitchell’s language is intended to highlight the racist attitudes in a cherished work of popular art; she would also like to provoke Mitchell’s estate to take responsibility for these attitudes.
It may be objected that anyone can profess antiracism; the pretense of working for social justice could provide a cover for more sinister intentions, or for unconscious prejudices. However, by the same argument, one might just as easily question the motives of the writers who accuse Place of racism. In fact, Place’s ideas about racism are almost impossible to distinguish from the ideas of her accusers. In all of her statements, Place identifies structural racism with subject positions. On this account, under white supremacy, all white people, regardless of what they intend, participate in the racism of the position they occupy. Thus, Place accuses Margaret Mitchell not only of creating vicious stereotypes but also of exploiting the bodies of 19th-century slaves in order to do so; and, thus, Place’s accusers say the same thing about her victimization of the same enslaved people and their descendants; finally, Place agrees with her accusers, acknowledging the guilt that she shares with Mitchell:
I am stealing the material from Mitchell because I believe she stole it first. Neither of us has any right to the matter (as in the lives) therein: the only difference between Mitchell and me is that I already know I am guilty.4
If the history of racism consists in identities rather than actions and attitudes, then the only meaningful difference between one white woman and another hinges on whether she acknowledges her guilt. This argument, given definitive form by Judith Butler in Excitable Speech, appears to be the most popular account of racist language among the intellectual left today.5 According to this argument, there is no functional difference between Place and Mitchell because they speak the same words from the same subject position. However, in terms of belief rather than identity, Place is far closer to her accusers than to Mitchell. If there is a difference between what Place believes and what her accusers believe, I would be curious to hear what it is.
Place’s professed commitment to the cause of social justice is supported by an impressive record of achievements. In her work as a public defender, she has taken on the difficult, thankless, and necessary task of protecting the rights of some of the least privileged members of society. As a publisher of Les Figues Press, she has supported adventurous writing by numerous people of color, publishing books and sponsoring performances by Sawako Nakayasu, Bhanu Kapil, Tisa Bryant (to limit my examples to works I have read and performances I have personally attended), and others. If anyone had any questions about the decisions Place would have been likely to make as a member of the AWP conference subcommittee, the calendar of past events sponsored by Les Figues Press would have been a pretty good indication. In general, publishers have neglected the work of minority authors, and, as Cathy Park Hong argues, the avant-garde tradition has selectively forgotten the people of color who were some of its greatest innovators, but Place seems to have been making an effort to address these problems.6
In my view, accusing Place of racism is intellectually irresponsible. The idea behind this accusation seems to be that any writing that uses racist language or imagery is itself racist, and, if the writer is white, white supremacist. By that logic, any representation of racism would be racist. The study of racism would become impossible. At best, the study of racism could proceed only by further inflicting or exploiting the pain of what it studies.
I work in a school, and worry about codes of behavior that might stand in the way of doing schoolwork. However, Tweeting Gone with the Wind represents racism for the purposes of art, not academic study. John Keene suggests that Place’s work occupies a “limit point of conceptual practice” in the arts, a point at which the artist’s voice becomes indistinguishable from the voices she appropriates, with the result that her work has the status of racist speech rather than art.7 Place agrees with this assessment to the extent that she denies herself the alibi of fair use. She is not parodying, adapting, or studying Gone with the Wind; she is just tweeting it. She calls this act “radical mimesis, direct representation of the thing itself” (Place, “Artist’s Statement”).
I am not sure what “mimesis” means in “radical mimesis.” It sounds like the opposite of Aristotelian mimesis. In one of the oldest theories of representation in art, Aristotle establishes a frame separating images from the things they represent:
All human beings take pleasure in imitation. We have evidence of this in actual experience, for the forms of those things that are distressful to see in reality — for example, the basest animals and corpses — we contemplate with pleasure when we find them represented with perfect realism in images. For this again the reason is that the experience of learning things is highly enjoyable, not only for philosophers but for other people as well.8
People enjoy looking at representations of things even when they might not enjoy seeing the things themselves in the human lifeworld. The unbearable scenarios of Sophocles’s tragedies, Frankenstein’s monster in Shelley’s fantasy, scenes of casual racism and systematic oppression in Rankine’s American lyrics — all are sources of enjoyment in art. To explain this fact, which I take to be indisputable, Aristotle postulates a fundamental “pleasure in imitation.” He believes that people are naturally curious about everything, even ugly and painful things, and enjoy the opportunity to look closely at them while being protected from actual contact. (Like me, Aristotle thinks that the motives behind scholarly study might be the same as the motives behind making art, although, unlike me, he thinks that the former is a superior kind of learning.)
Keene calls the pain caused by representing racism a problem for the limits of conceptual art. I would add that any art that depicts ugly and painful things has the same problem. The best solution that I know of is Aristotle’s, which is to assert a boundary between art and the world. Art represents the world, and therefore is not the same as the world. Not even the anti-Aristotelianism of Brecht’s theater disturbs this boundary, but strengthens it in order to discourage the spectators from losing themselves in aesthetic objects.
There are, to be sure, other ways of coordinating art and the world. Allen Grossman once imagined a tragedy of “radical humanism” lacking the frame of the aesthetic — perhaps this is what Place means by “radical mimesis”? — in which, therefore, “no one goes home”: Hippolyte dies, Phèdre dies, and everyone in the audience dies with them.9 Such a tragic vision would surely be a limit case in the history of art, conceptual or otherwise. Without the frame of the aesthetic, it would no longer be art — not a tragedy, but a massacre.
As well, there are other ways to explain the fact that people enjoy representations of ugly and painful things. Some people might not think these things are painful. Some people might be drawn to Gone with the Wind because they want to own slaves; others, because they want to learn about slavery, or about the mind of a person who likes slavery, in order to resist its oppressive legacy. Others might be interested in judging the artist’s skill or lack of skill, or patterns of sound, or the structure of the plot. All of these people still belong to the aesthetic tradition following Aristotle, in which people take pleasure in representations. What doesn’t fit into this tradition is the judgment (on which, again, both Place and her accusers concur) that some subjects are too ugly or too painful to be represented in art. By virtue of its subject matter, art becomes a carrier for ideology, no longer art but blasphemy or obscenity or propaganda or hate speech. Judgments where the frame of representation does not contain the violence of what is being represented might seem to patrol the boundaries of art, but actually reject the foundations of aesthetic value. They are all ways of not liking art.
Aesthetic judgment involves making discriminations between values within works of art. Some representations are more enjoyable than others. Many readers have enjoyed Citizen, where Rankine meditates on varieties of racism in American history. Many readers have been pained by Tweeting Gone with the Wind. Readers are responding to the strategies that Rankine and Place use for representing racism, but both poets are representing racism, which means that they are aestheticizing racism, turning it into an object for readers to enjoy.
I want to stress this point. Any antiracist art worthy of the name needs strategies for the depiction of racist language and images. This is different from the problem of having the right attitude. It’s a problem for an artist who already has an antiracist attitude. That is to say, it’s an aesthetic problem. The failure to find an effective strategy is an aesthetic failure.
* * *
What could it mean to say that the failure of Tweeting Gone with the Wind is aesthetic? How can I say that Tweeting Gone with the Wind is poorly written if Place isn’t writing anything new, but merely transcribing what Mitchell already wrote? Several writers have demonstrated that it is possible to evaluate Place’s project in terms of aesthetics. Trisha Low argues that “the provocation is really actually too easy — painfully easy.”10 The project is easy because it involves no original composition, just the transcription of an already existing work. Even more — this is the heart of Low’s criticism — Place’s thinking about the project seems rather vague and careless. What is her argument? What is she saying about contemporary racism, or about the history of the systematic oppression of black people?
Similarly, Keene makes the point (which would be difficult to dispute) that Place’s project is redundant for the most obvious features of the source text it transcribes. Keene’s thoughtful, detailed analysis of a different project of Place’s (also based on Gone with the Wind) is worth quoting at length:
As if [the power relationships Place aims to expose] are not already legible in the very fact of who wrote the novel and the screenplay, and who directed the film, let alone the life experiences of any black American person living in the United States in the era in which the film was set, or was made! Quite a few people reading Mitchell’s novel, or watching the film, or reading Place’s poem, realize quite clearly ‘who is pulling whose strings.’ The question is, who doesn’t? Or who isn’t even being considered — who is being elided and effaced? — in the conceptualization Place’s poem engages and enacts? (Keene, “On Vanessa Place”)
Note that Keene’s interpretation of Gone with the Wind is not substantially different from Place’s. Keene and Place see the same racist attitudes in the text of the novel. Keene gives Place no credit for having this understanding, or for dedicating an art project to communicating this understanding, because he isn’t evaluating her attitude, but rather her art. Place’s project is worthless, Keene argues, because it discovers nothing new in Gone with the Wind, but only reiterates a racism that should be obvious to any reader of the novel, this time in a frame calculated to heighten the offensiveness of the language.
Cathy Park Hong has a somewhat different account of the aesthetic failure of Place’s project:
I am sick of reacting, because yet again, we have been relegated to the role of chorus. Even if Goldsmith or Place is being put on trial . . . they are still the center of the drama.
Because really, are we talking about the gross representations of black servitude in GWTW, or the copyright laws that Place writes of *so eloquently* in her statement? No. We are talking about them. We are talking about them and *free speech.* Goldsmith and Place have perfected the art of the scandal. . . . A scandal is an occasion, that is, it has a convenient time limit. How easy that race can be an occasion for these poets! How easy to stir up a weeklong cycle of outrage before they saunter off to the next *taboo* issue!11
Like Low and Keene, Hong sees a glaring indecorum in Tweeting Gone with the Wind. Racism is a serious problem, and Place’s writing is not appropriately serious. Unlike Low and Keene, Hong sees that Place is serious about something. According to Hong, Place is the author of simple machines that want attention. With reference to most people, the statement, “She will say anything to get attention,” could not be meant literally. Most people, no matter how hungry for attention they may be, will draw the line somewhere. For example, they would not want the attention of being denounced for complicity with white supremacy. Place appreciates this kind of attention. She might prefer other kinds of attention — she might really want to be taken seriously as an intellectual — but she appreciates the denunciations too.
Low, Keene, and Hong are not looking for flaws in Place’s thinking about race. Their ideas about race are apparently not that different from hers. What’s different about Place is her aesthetic strategy. That is where they are looking for flaws. They are trying to figure out why her project failed. We have a robust record of its failure. Or we would have such a record, if the thousands of AWP members who signed the petition to have Place removed from the AWP subcommittee had said that she was a bad writer rather than a racist.
In the end, Low and Keene repeat the accusation of racism, and so does Hong, albeit in more ambiguous terms. My point is that the aesthetic judgment is a stronger intellectual position than the moral judgment.
* * *
This year we have seen waves of denunciations of the racism of a writer whose ideas about race are pretty much identical to those of the writers who are denouncing her. What, then, motivates the charge of racism? I have three thoughts about that.
1) This controversy occurs during a time of increased public awareness of the systematic racism and violence of U.S. law enforcement, and consequent organization of antiracist protests online and in city streets. Place’s accusers associate her with a racist system, and see themselves extending the protest movement to the domain of literary politics.
2) Place’s accusers either don’t understand power, don’t like power, or are pretending not to like power. Based on my observations, I’m going with the third option.
Ostensibly Place’s accusers speak on behalf of the powerless, and are powerless themselves. Meanwhile they associate Place with the power structure of white supremacy and with the elite institutions (AWP, the University of Colorado, the University of California, and the Whitney Museum) that sponsor her appearances. From a position of seeming powerlessness, Place’s accusers leveraged the cancelation of most of her appearances in May, June, and July. I call that power. In fact, I call it an abuse of power.
Some of my readers, thoroughly committed to the idea that power runs in straight lines from subject positions, will be skeptical of the claim that Place’s accusers have some power. Try putting it this way. By using the little bit of rhetorical power that they have, they are showing what they would do if they had other kinds of power. It isn’t pretty. One thing they would do, clearly, would be to stop her from presenting her work in public ever again.
This is not a winning strategy. Even in the short term, Place’s accusers have miscalculated: By attacking her personal liberty, they have given additional power to her writing, which, taken on its own merits, would seem very weak indeed. Ultimately, such abuses of power do nothing to help the cause of antiracism. They also do no good for poetry. As a poet, I find that significant too.
3) Place’s accusers prefer to call her a racist rather than a bad writer because they are afraid of making aesthetic judgments. This fear, which may be the most pernicious legacy of conceptual writing, ultimately bespeaks a lack of poetic ambition.
* * *
The real question is: Why did Place choose poetry as her vehicle rather than some other art? I don’t think she knows or cares very much about the history of poetry, but she seems to have some attachment to it.
In Sol LeWitt’s conceptual art, value inheres in ideas that are “machines” for making art.12 But conceptual poetry as practiced by Place is not a discourse of value. She does not try to create repositories of values such as beauty, adventure, humor, expression, or creativity, even at the level of the concept. Nor does she try to demonstrate her skill as an artist — which she would disavow as a guilty possession, since, she says, mastery is an attribute of the subject position of whiteness.
. . . such explanations are demonstrations of mastery, which is another feature of both artistry and whiteness. This mastery is the presumption of authority over form, content, and interpretation. (Place, “Artist’s Statement”)
In the story that Place tells, no poem is any better than any other. Creativity and expression are illusions. No poet ever brought anything new into the world. Poets who pretend to express themselves are no more original or sincere than Place, who is superior in that she is more honest about her lack of originality, just as she is more honest than other white people about her complicity in white supremacy. In the absence of a good reason for preferring one poem to another, all that remains is a cynical contest for social recognition, a game that hardly seems worth the candle, given the limited public circulation of poetry.
Here, again, Place and her accusers are in agreement. For the calls to denounce Place are also not a discourse of aesthetic value. No one is saying that the poor quality of her work makes it undeserving of the resources and attention it has received. Instead people are saying that these honors are undeserved because they are a function of her white privilege. Nor is anyone saying that these honors should be given to artists who are doing better work. Instead they are saying that these honors should be given to oppressed artists in the name of justice. Place and her accusers seem to agree that no one is doing better work than Place, and that there is no such thing as better work. The notion of values specific to art seems inconceivable.
If Place wants social recognition, poetry is a strange place to look for it. Her accusers seem equally misguided. If justice is what they want, aren’t there more efficient ways of getting it than writing and criticizing poetry? If you didn’t care about poetry itself, would you attend a poetry reading in hopes of snacking on the cheese and crackers that might possibly be served afterwards? Wouldn’t the poetry reading make you impatient? Couldn’t you think of more efficient ways of satisfying your hunger — other social gatherings where you wouldn’t have to hear any poetry, and the cheese and crackers came out right away?
The real masterpieces of conceptual poetry tell a different story. In “Via,” Caroline Bergvall transcribes English translations of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno. In Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Insomnia and the Aunt, Tan Lin writes a fictional autobiography using journalese from the obituary and cooking pages of The New York Times in place of personal information. The source texts lend a shape to these works, which is unity; meanwhile, the tension between different translations in Bergvall’s work, and between Lin’s life and the stories adapted from the newspaper, create a gallery of changing shapes, which is variety. Despite my familiarity with the source texts, Bergvall and Lin show me something in them that I had not seen before, which is novelty. In other works, such as M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Christian Bök’s Eunoia, the poets revel in their ability to express complex ideas using the resistant material of limited vocabularies; they are delighting in their own skill, and “delight in skill” is William Morris’s definition of art.13
I am not the only one who finds aesthetic value in some conceptual works. Robert Rauschenberg called Duchamp’s bicycle wheel “one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture I’ve ever seen.”14 Joan Acocella dismisses Sally Silvers’s anti-humanist, anti-expressionist, “egghead” theory of dance, and celebrates the human possibility that Silvers’s dance expresses: “I don’t care what she thinks, as long as she goes on dancing.”15 Michael Fried, in conversation with TJ Clark, enthusiastically responds to Malevich’s white square on white ground, “God! I was wrong about these pictures. I thought they were extremist gestures, and they really are paintings!”16 In a rare moment of agreement with Fried, recorded in an interview with Joan Retallack, John Cage affirms that figure and ground interact so that Malevich’s painting is no longer merely its materials: “It’s different. It really is a painting.”17 (Only the values have been inverted: For Fried, it’s better to be a painting; for Cage, it’s better to be a gesture.)
Most of all, I think of Sianne Ngai’s crucial insight: Adventurous art is driven by “minor affects” whose expression demands “new aesthetic categories.”18 Conceptual art seems affectless not because it successfully defeats expression but because its passions are not the traditional ones. In her excellent essay “The Denunciation of Vanessa Place,” Kim Calder works with a related insight when she identifies the punk rock aggression behind Tweeting Gone with the Wind.19 I obviously do not share Calder’s sense of the value of Place’s writing, but, at least, like Low, Keene, and Hong, she is talking about aesthetics.
My concern here is not to defend particular aesthetic choices that I think are important, not even values as fundamental as creativity, expression, and skill. Nor am I concerned with the defense of the basic humanist value that any idea that a human being bothered to record in writing is worth saving, and thus the library should include the bad poems as well as the good ones, the bad ideas as well as the good ones. I am defending the notion of aesthetic value. When we judge a work of art, we should judge its aesthetics, and the introduction of other values is a way of devaluing aesthetics.
* * *
What I just said about art in general can also be said about representations of racist language and imagery in art. It may be socially useful for poets to have the ideas about race that are the most up-to-date consensus views of the intellectual left (although that is debatable). But the value of such ideas for expression in poetry would never be as great as that of an idea that no one had thought before. The possibility of a genuinely new idea about race seems very slight as long as poets keep repeating Butler’s ideas.
This means that some great poetry might express ideas contrary to the current views of the intellectual left. Or it might express other ideas that you do not like, and it might
be beautiful nonetheless, and you might love it. To be perfectly clear, I am saying that great poetry might not only use racist language and imagery, but also might express racist attitudes. Some poets write good books but have weird ideas, and the strangeness of their ideas is part of their aesthetic value.
I know this from long experience. (I study Milton’s poetry, but I am not a Christian, and I certainly don’t practice the peculiar variety of Christianity that Milton advocated.) I suspect that both Place and her accusers have had experiences similar to mine, simply because they care about poetry. Although I am discouraged by Place’s refusal to make a positive statement about values in poetry, and by the refusal of most of her readers to evaluate her writing as bad poetry rather than bad ideology, I find it mildly encouraging that Place and her readers have an inexplicable commitment to poetry, despite the fact that they have never found what they say they are looking for there.
Consider CA Conrad, a poet who has been especially vocal in denouncing Place’s art for ideological reasons, but who is nonetheless fully capable of making aesthetic judgments — even positive aesthetic judgments — of ideologically questionable art. This example is not chosen at random. I am proud to call Conrad a friend, and fondly remember two weeks in 2009 spent in a car with him and Magdalena Zurawski. I count him among the poets whose writing I esteem most highly. His use of Elvis Presley as an agent of literary history in Advanced Elvis Course has been particularly important to my writing and thinking. I hope that he will take my remarks, which will be as frank and generous as I can make them, in the spirit of friendly debate.
But what about his use of Elvis? For decades, the reception of Elvis’s music has been clouded by suspicions that his entire musical career was, in the words of the petition to remove Place from the AWP subcommittee, “at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist.” The logic of these suspicions puts Elvis in a structural relationship to black musicians. Elvis is said to have exploited the work of black musicians, both directly, by covering songs they had originally composed and recorded, and indirectly, by adapting a black sonic iconography (to use Mendi Obadike’s phrase) for a white audience.20
My point is not to suggest that Conrad should disavow his abiding passion for Elvis’s songs. Conrad is committed to the aesthetic criteria by which he determines Elvis’s songs to be great music, despite the questions about Elvis’s racial politics. Faced with Tweeting Gone with the Wind, however, he appears to lack faith in art. He isn’t certain that Place is a bad writer. He has so little conviction in the value of poetry — which is to say, his own values, since Conrad has dedicated his life to poetry — that he can’t bring himself to use aesthetic criteria to judge Place’s work. At the same time, he is so assured of the value of politics that he confidently judges her political opinions to be inferior, despite the fact that his political opinions may not differ significantly from hers. To denounce her writing for ideological reasons suggests that she would be a better writer if only she had better opinions. To attempt to remove her writing from public view suggests a lack of faith in the ability of the public to judge it.
I would make the same point about Conrad’s recent campaign to devalue the poetic achievement of Walt Whitman. “Instead of reading Leaves of Grass,” Conrad offers, “consider reading the poems in Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life. It is by far a much better book for our lives!”21 I liked Dawn Lundy Martin’s book Discipline, and I am excited to learn that her new collection Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life includes poems that are superior to “The Sleepers,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and “Song of the Broad-Axe.”
But, on second thought, that isn’t quite what Conrad is saying. His claim is not that Martin is writing better poems than Whitman, but that her poems are “better for our lives.” In other words, Martin has better opinions than Whitman, who, Conrad shows, speculated about eugenics in some of his letters, and wrote poems arguing in favor of the Native American genocide. Conrad says to Whitman:
“I see you much clearer now old man, and you are just like the other white supremacists where I grew up. Fuck your poems!” It was like a library I loved had burned down and I poked around the charred wreckage but soon realized I was going to be fine without it.
Choosing to read Martin rather than Whitman would thus be an act of cultural redemption.
Conrad, don’t you see that this choice devalues not only Whitman’s abilities as a poet, but also Martin’s? For one thing, you’re separating Martin from a potential source of energy. Martin might find Whitman’s poetry useful. Poems are made out of other poems — the conceptualists are right about that — and if Martin’s poetry needs Leaves of Grass, she’s going to want to keep that book in the library. Burning down the library can never be good for poets. For another thing, Martin is ambitious enough that she should be measuring her achievements not only against the works of her enlightened contemporaries, but against the entire history of poetry, even though poets of the past thought very differently.
Anyone can have enlightened opinions. Anyone can support an antiracist political agenda. One would like to think, at least in theory, that any reasonable person can be convinced by a good argument. One would like to think that even entrenched racists such as Conrad’s childhood neighbors in Pennsylvania could be converted by a good argument. But not everyone can write a good poem. Whitman and Martin are unusual in that they know how to do that. Most people do not.
The knowledge of how to write a good poem depends on gifts that are personal and circumstantial. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to depend on social privilege, any more than it has to do with advances in technology, although it seems to fare better in some societies than in others, and, if anything, it seems to be stifled rather than nurtured by state support. Hard work counts for something, but, in the end, the art of poetry may be a truly unworkable inequality. It’s unfair. But it’s the best way to judge Place. She doesn’t know how to write a good poem.