For Manuel Arturo Abreu, the best conceptual poet I know, in thanks for calling me out on a bad metaphor
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” – John Cage
the silence of stock ticker tapes circulating at the bottom
of TV screens – an economics of
morbidity – a market that demands
an endless supply of unremarkable names –
like Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.
like Amadou Diallo
like Sammy Yatim
like Fredy Villanueva
like Kathryn Johnston
like John T. Williams
like Yvette Smith
like Jeffrey Reodica
like Sean Bell
like John Joseph Harper
like Oscar Grant
like Chavis Carter
like Jordan Baker
like LaTanya Haggerty
like Jean Charles de Menezes
like Rumain Brisbon
like Ramarley Graham
like Kajieme Powell
like Miriam Carey
like Husein Shehada
like Jonathan Ferrell
like Victor White III
like John Crawford III
like John Adams
like Tanesha Anderson
like Darrien Hunt
like Aiyana Stanley-Jones
like Jack Lamar Roberson
like Ezell Ford
like Matthew Dumas
like Michael Brown
like Eric Garner
like Tamar Rice
like Jermaine Carby
like Neil Stonechild
Are you tired yet?
Then set your aesthetics aside. There is no originality in these pages. The same old stories out there mean the same old stories here, so this will stop being cliché when that stops being cliché – when clichés are no longer scripted in blood stuttering like last breaths along sidewalks.”
– David James Hudson, “Another Unoriginal Poem about Police Brutality”
The essay that follows is a hopefully respectful critique of Kenneth Goldsmith’s essay, Displacement is the New Translation, in order to raise questions about the relationship between politics and conceptual writing, and the avant-garde in general. I am in between avant-garde and other approaches to poetry, having recently written a work unabashedly celebrating lyric as the character of internet-based literature – but I want to highlight that I see myself as a practitioner as well. It concerns something that many poets wrestle with – the limits of language – but specifically zeroes in on problems raised by a certain class of metaphors. If we assume that our language has some analogue to our political situation, what are the conditions of our poetry? Goldsmith’s notion of “displacement” is a metaphorical repurposing of displacement of a political fact for the purposes of new forms of poetry. It speaks loudly and echoes much of the energies of our current artistic and literary climate, but is its formulation sufficiently engaged with the political stakes?
“Displacement is the New Translation” is well-crafted essay, brimming with enthusiasm and no small amount of mischief in its celebration of the ruptures and hybrid forms that characterize life on the internet, life in the time of the supposed anthropocene. It made me laugh with its opening comparison of translation to slow food – suggesting that for all of our anxiety about the politics of translation, its as much a liberal fantasy as our desire for a well-cooked organic meal, a la Michael Pollan. Goldsmith invites us to picture a world of linguistic rupture, where most of what we see is untranslatable and inescapable. I want to highlight at the outset that the essay is imaginative and funny, extending Goldsmith’s earlier thought into ‘the world’ in ways that I find interesting. Goldsmith reminds us that we live in a world where surgical implements may be left in our bodies, a world where beaches may be beautified by unexpected litter, a world where unwanted sound and text files appear on our computer. Goldsmith celebrates how nature puts things dramatically out of context, and his debt to John Cage’s humor and attention to the noisy everyday is apparent. This essay is a product of some lessons well learned, offering yet another way that conceptual writing might speak to the world around us.
Unfortunately, the world that the essay presents is as much one of fantasy as it is reality. Many of the phenomena and works pointed to are very real, and very striking, but moments in the essay seem to be, well, wishful yearning for a Blade Runner-style mishmash of cyborgs and untranslated kanji menus. The emphasis on hybrid forms and pride of place for an ascendant Asia suggest, at least to me, that the essay is waiting for our gritty cyberpunk future to arrive already. All of this is fine – the realistic parts addressing ecology and data flow are effective, while the fantastical aspects encourage us to reflect on one of many potential futures.
What’s troubling about it is that the central concept – displacement – borrows metaphorically not just from poor-quality data files, but displacement of people. Displaced persons never appear in this text, and I argue that they haunt Goldsmith’s political claims. A relevant example of displacement not included in Goldsmith’s essay is the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem. Since the Six-Day War, East Jerusalem has been under Israeli control, with its Palestinian population being assigned immigrant status – even those born after the war. It’s a bizarre state of affairs, as strange as Goldsmith’s example of a tree grown into a nearby fence, with the difference being that there are human rights issues at stake in how we talked about these ‘displaced’ people, issues that are all too often forgotten in discussions of conflict in the region. Other forms of displacement – political refugees, migrant labor, and human trafficking. Residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; residents of the island nation of Kiribati in the next decade of rising sea levels. Immediately after the Second World War, survivors of liberated concentration camps were termed “displaced persons.” I would be very surprised if Goldsmith did not know this. Is these forms of displacement less appealing than the forms extolled in the essay?
There is something somewhat strange happening here. The text rhetorically stages itself as realistic about the material conditions of displacement, while refusing to address the actual form of displacement at the core of it. A metaphor and a silence. I suggest that there is a structure to this that pervades avant-garde writing (a tradition long-steeped in radical politics), where forms of oppression are used metaphorically in ways that erase their provenance. This structure, especially now, needs to be clarified.
Goldsmith, thinking as a conceptual poet steeped in the avant-garde tradition (especially its most media-savvy participants) is absolutely right to seek something structural at stake conditioning our experience, such that our writing might be adequate to it. Goldsmith gestures to the political dimensions by celebrating our being forced to encounter languages other than our own – a foreign-language food menu with no translation, an academic talk with unexpected interjections in Spanish. That’s the challenge for us to take on, but something in the treatment of displacement in the essay troubled me. It seemed that the metaphorical weight of displacement, as concept, depended on the brute and ugly fact of actual displacement, without any regard or place for those stories to be told. Further, that this world of displacement, apparently free of displaced persons, is something to celebrate. Do we depend on the lives and traumas of displaced persons to generate exciting new linguistic forms? What are the political stakes of this? Goldsmith writes,
Displacement is a shift away from linear models of political orientation: neither left nor right, progressive nor reactionary, but swirling and sideways. The right tries to seal borders and legislate displacement out of existence, oblivious to the flows that whirl freely around it. Meanwhile, the left still holds out hope against hope for translation — can’t we all just get along? Displacement, instead of responding to difference with understanding and consideration, responds to difference by swallowing it whole.
A discerning reader might notice some patterns here: a supposedly middle ground between opposed positions, an insistence on certain abstract claims as describing the real world, a claim to be neither politically left or right (covertly a claim to not be political at all), and an internal logic that absorbs everything into itself. All of these a part of what people call neoliberalism, the contemporary form that capitalism takes and the dominant ideology of our present moment. I want to be charitable, in that I don’t intend for this to be a knotted diagnosis of a ‘crypto-capitalist’ logic – I don’t make any claims about Goldsmith ethically (he’s very friendly and affirming based on our interactions on the internet), but I think it’s fair to call a spade a spade here. In celebrating the workings of displacement along these lines, he’s also celebrating them inasmuch as they follow the script of the market. This essay is not about ‘capitalism’ per se, but rather about how Goldsmith appears to be unwittingly endorsing the dominant political order (free market capitalism) in the sublimated form of art, while the absent figure of the displaced person looms unaddressed.
Returning to displacement of people, the most haunting example is recounted in a conceptual text Goldsmith is undoubtedly familiar with, having anthologized it – this text is Zong!, written by M. NourbeSe Philip. It tells of the Zong massacre of 1781, where around 140 African captives destined for slavery in the West Indies were thrown overboard the slave ship Zong, after running out of potable water. It is one of the most visibly brutal murders imaginable, all the more horrifying because it reminds us that the worst of the transatlantic slave trade was never preserved. It is only documented because these captive human beings were insured as property; M. NourbeSe Philip creates her work from the text of the resulting trial, not over whether the crew of the Zong committed murder, but over whether they were owed compensation over lost property. The resulting poetry, a masterwork of experimental writing, is so devastating because it fights to commemorate these real people who died, against the people who considered them to be property, against the people who would sooner forget that they existed.
If we’re talking about displacement, this is it. The transatlantic slave trade was perhaps the founding displacement of the economic system called capitalism, in providing the necessary material wealth to jump-start the factory system in the European mainland. It depended on not merely the kidnapping, murder and enslavement of millions of Africans, but also on our pretending that these people were not even people at all. It was much easier not to see it.
This is not a matter of Goldsmith being “un-PC,” but rather that for all its care in writing, all its evolution in how conceptual writing can be carried out, it’s working within a conception of the possibilities of art that is squarely in line with our tech-savvy, optimistic and privilege-blind status quo. This would be “ok,” in the shrugged admission that people can do what they want, but the issue cuts more deeply. Too much work these days attempts to engage the political and fails, staging an open complicity with existing power structures under the guise of self-reflexive commentary. Brian Droitcour brilliantly critiques publications K-Hole and the apparently defunct Jogging in his essay, “Young Incorporated Artists,” identifying how artists embrace the corporate language of branding with all the appearance of a critique, while generally profiting from it. How many reflexive layers does it take to make profiting off of an unfair system a critique?
Most pointedly – I think about the recent controversy surrounding Net Artist Ryder Ripps’ piece, “ART WHORE,” in which Ripps hired sex workers to make art for him, in a project that remains under Ripps’ name. Ostensibly, the piece serves as a “commentary” (in his words) on the “prostitution” of the artist in contemporary art markets, staging the artist in between producer and consumer of sex work. Whether the piece respected the sex workers involved, raised awareness of sex work, or adequately critiqued the art world – all of these I’m willing to suspend judgment on for the purposes of this essay, in order to highlight a more crucial point. Ripps is spared the violence and persecution faced by sex workers, while remaining able to use their struggles to narrativize his privileged position within the art world and in the world at large.
What do all of these have in common? Each implicitly depends on the erased experiences of the marginalized and the discourses of radicality, without having a clear commitment to either. What lingers is a metaphor whose concrete signified remains erased. This erasure presents a political and ethical aporia that is only scantily addressed by the 60s and 70s theorists so many artists rely upon to contextualize their work. This is the theoretical problem underlying Goldsmith’s essay; for all the late avant-garde reflection on the limits of language, there is still an intractable problem with the metaphorical usage of political problems as an aesthetic form. To understand this, some historical context is in order. Susan Buck-Morss’ astonishing little book, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, reminds us that Enlightenment-era discourses about freedom and democracy utilized slavery as a metaphor for understanding their political situation, while remaining painfully complicit in slavery as it was undergoing its single greatest expansion.
The Dutch separating from Spanish rule in the 16th century, Locke and Rousseau in creating the underpinnings of democratic thought – all invoked slavery metaphorically to describe the evils of royal tyranny. Likewise, all ignored slavery as it was actually practiced. The Dutch were key players in the slave trade. Locke and Rousseau, as the record shows, were aware of slavery’s cruelty and did not address it. Democracy’s first flowering took place at the same time as the transatlantic slave trade, and there is good reason to believe that the former was based on the latter.
Slavery, as a metaphor divorced from its real signification, exploits labor above and beyond the harvesting and processing of sugar cane (Adam Smith, who also decried slavery, was a notorious sweet tooth and was an avid consumer of West Indies sugar). Displacement, as a metaphor for data flows, textuality and ecology, is also based on a form of exploitation when it ignores the lives of those displaced. There is a way to move forward with this. In the last decade or so, there has been a turn in Africana studies known as “Afro-pessimism” that describes the dynamics of black erasure. Taking inspiration from Frantz Fanon, resurrecting finally the horrifying stories of the slave trade, and speaking to contemporary realities of sanctioned police violence against African-Americans, this line of scholarship and theorizing reminds us, bluntly, that Western definitions of blackness are in its “fungibility” – it can be exploited and erased because the people it impacts aren’t seen as people. I’ll repeat it, anti-blackness and other forms of marginalization are produced by our dominant social order as a way of defining who “counts” as a person. This line of thinking must be engaged, and we owe Saidiya Hartman, Joy James, and Hortense Spillers (among others – I’m learning alongside the reader here) a debt of gratitude repaid by reading. Claudia Rankine’s haunting new book, Citizen, speaks to this:
In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.
Blackness is defined by its ability to be erased by whiteness. Poet Manuel Arturo Abreu suggested, in a series of tweets following the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s killer, that the beauty of blackness lies in its ability to survive that erasure. This is the state of affairs, and to celebrate a world-picture that is built on ignoring it is an astonishing and disheartening form of complicity with existing power structures. All the more so for its claim to speak to how things are. This is also how things are. “I really didn’t see you…”
We should see this as an opportunity to re-invigorate our thinking about the relationship between politics and the formalism of the avant-garde – they’ve always been related, despite what appears to be an across-the-board failure to address them in recent popular forms of avant-garde and conceptual practice. Specific to conceptual writing, the writings of the Language poets inform Goldsmith’s allergy to a poetry based in ‘sentimental’ notions of identity, meaning and subjecthood. The Language poets, we may recall, enacted what I believe to be one of the most striking syntheses of avant-garde writing and political practice. Drawing upon Marx and post-structuralist contributions to the “linguistic turn” of critical philosophy in the 70s and 80s, many of the Language poets were themselves activists, working in alliance with organized labor, prison reform, feminism and early queer movements, an activism reflected in their aggressive, confrontational texts. Crucially, many of their accomplices in queer and feminist poetics (often identified as the parallel “New Narrative” movement) did not share their linguistic and conceptual concerns. Though Language poetry is now canonized, all of these Bay Area avant-garde poetic movements shared an interest in fragmenting the speaking subject for political purposes. When they attacked overly simplistic notions of identity, it was because they were attacking a privileged and exclusive form of identity, restricted to the creative writing workshop.
Today, to write about oneself in the context of avant-garde practice is a struggle, especially if you are female, queer, trans, or a person of color. Whatever “identity” means, its erasure in the name of a either post-structuralism or neoliberal economics makes the “I” a battlefield. What is the role of “identity” in experimental writing? Elizabeth Alexander reminds us in her essay, “New Ideas About Black Experimental Poetry,” that the erasure of blackness means that black writing is by definition experimental. Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer are perhaps the more “experimental” of the Harlem Renaissance poets (despite being much less often taught in the context of experimental writing), but Alexander reminds us that Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Brooks, writing sonnets, are equally experimental in insisting that black voices can be heard in these historically white genres. Black erasure makes black writing a form of avant-garde practice.
In my final comment before turning to another voice, I want to point to John Cage, an artist at the heart of Goldsmith’s thinking – and for good reason, as he still has a lot to teach us. Cage was not a leader on race (see his dismissive comments on jazz) but his artistic practice can indicate how conceptual writing can serve as a form of attention leading to care and empathy. Namely, that Cage’s love of noise over artificially constructed musical sounds translated into every other medium, as well as his conception of political practice. Cage was motivated by noise as a model of liberation. Having listened to videos of Goldsmith delivering Cage’s “Lecture On Nothing” in full, drawing on Cage’s thinking in his writings on uncreative writing, I can’t imagine that this dimension is lost on him. It just might have to be more carefully thought through.
In the wake of the non-indictments, following one after the other, I’ve seen a lot of remarkable posts on Tumblr, many of which by artists and poets, most not. Motivated by a belief that this was also a form of poetry, I attempted for a few weeks to make Internet Poetry a platform among many where these posts might be reblogged, with somewhat spotty results. Tumblrs where it has been treated more consistently and successfully are Artists Against Police Brutality, Black Contemporary Art, as well as a variety of personal blogs. One post by Brianna King, originally on instagram, remained with me as I was writing this. Its poetry is in repeating something we still can’t seem to hear enough. Are our ears in the proper condition? I close with it:
Michael Hessel-Mial is a poet and scholar of comparative literature based in Atlanta. He is the editor of Internet Poetry and the author of mspaint and heartbreak, as well as the forthcoming VITA NUOVA II. He is currently creating an epic poem in image macros titled greatest poet alive.