Vanessa Place is a so-called conceptual writer*, one of those who disparage the old claims of the imagination and embrace instead the avant-garde’s aestheticization of reality and post-structuralism’s denial of authenticity by repurposing as art various found texts and objects in a gesture somehow meant to be “advanced” despite its being older than my nonagenarian grandmother.
I have very little sympathy for Place’s artistic project in general, let alone any particular manifestation thereof. I once wrote a review of Blake Butler’s Sky Saw, and in the review—which I should post online someday—I insisted on the superannuation and exhaustion of the avant-garde. I was originally tasked with reviewing not only Sky Saw but also Butler’s collaboration with Vanessa Place, a novel called ONE, in which, according to its promotional copy,
From the room inside the room, from the house inside the house memories of a one-legged father and various acts of jurisprudence haunt the mysterious creature who writhes in somatic isolation from one waking nightmare to another. Here, two writers have produced textual bodies, one speaking for the interior and the other describing the exterior, while a third writer has assembled these two bodies into a single grotesque symphony of chimerical language. A hitherto unprecedented collaborative experiment, ONE defies categorization and heralds a new approach to exploring the boundaries of authorship and narrative.
But I returned that novel to the editor unreviewed and mostly unread; I didn’t want to read more Blake Butler for all the money in the world, and since I wasn’t being paid any of the money in the world, I decided to do no more than to leaf through the lawyer Place’s addition of “various acts of jurisprudence” to Butler’s sub-Burroughsian body-horror stylings.
Place has a Twitter-based project ongoing in which she is apparently Tweeting Gone with the Wind in its entirety, with the goal, I gather, of showcasing the continuing presence of its racist ideology in the present. Essentially, she is recontextualizing a seemingly obsolete model of racism to show how it continues to inform the present. As for her purpose with this conceptual practice, I will let her artist’s statement speak for itself:
In May 2009, I was in Berlin, where the multifarious reminders of Nazism seemed more properly to be Germany’s historical focus, rather than the Holocaust. For the Holocaust was an event, a singular horror, whereas Nazism was the formal manifestation of anti-Semitism as sociopolitical philosophy and ethical/aesthetic modus operandi. Similarly, slavery is not the issue for the United States today as much as racism is as ever was and ever will be, at least historically. This piece—the gleaning of all passages in Gone With the Wind in which “nigger” features prominently (omitted are other racial epithets or denigrating enactments), then set in a block of text, a slave block—aims to remind white folks of their goings-on and ongoings. Self included, for there is personal guilt there as well, given my family is not just Caucasian American, but Southern, Virginian, as they say, “by the grace of God.” And God’s grace carries with it a certain responsibility for the error of blind loyalty (see, Abraham & Isaac). Too, GWTW is still a very much beloved bit of Americana (Molly Haskell recently published a book on Scarlett O’Hara as feminist icon, and last year’s Best Actress Oscar was announced to the soaring strains of “Tara’s Theme”), with very little attention paid to its blackface, or that its blackface is blackface. Or that, in such texts, characters are to people as people may be to property. So I have stolen Margaret Mitchell’s “niggers” and claim them as my own. In a funny way, I am replicating Huck Finn’s dilemma/conversion: to understand that keeping (not turning in runaway) Nigger Jim is stealing, for which one may well go to hell, and to do it anyway.
I am skeptical about this mode of art. For one thing, if you’re going to create an avant-garde statement on race, you should try to do better than unwittingly becoming the butt of an old Daniel Clowes joke. For another, this is the laziest kind of ahistorical thinking, so often replicated in race discussion in imitation of Faulknerian Gothic: the past is not dead, it is not even past. Which may be true, but the present is not simply, not identically the past, and recycling the most cartoonishly racist imagery from the past is if anything an evasion of investigating the forms racism takes today—a mission for which I feel underqualified, admittedly, but one on which I at least claim no expertise. Such works as Place’s should be called non-conceptual writing, since they seem to me to be void of ideas, or cogent ones anyway.
In short, I do not admire Place’s overall aesthetic project, and I certainly do not admire this iteration thereof. Place is moreover not looking for admiration but for a certain kind of revulsion.
With which she has been rewarded, to say the least. A group of writers has judged Place’s Gone with the Wind project to be indistinguishable from the racism it ostensibly critiques. I agree with this judgment, more or less; it is the natural consequence of the work’s tedious lack of ideas and banal shock tactics. These writers have accordingly created and distributed a petition to have Place removed from the AWP Conference Committee. Here is the language of their petition:
We find it inappropriate that Vanessa Place is among those who will decide which panels will take place at AWP Los Angeles. We acknowledge Place’s right to exercise her creativity, but we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist. We do not believe it is right that she have a hand in deciding whether panels having to do with race and identity will be a part of next year’s AWP. Her 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. Indeed, she herself claims to be constructing “a slave block” with the work. AWP’s stated desire for inclusivity and diversity in the panel makeup requires an atmosphere of trust on the part of POC, LGBTQIA, and Differently Abled panel applicants, and Place’s racially insensitive, if not downright racist, projects violate that sense of trust. She furthers her career on the backs of Black ancestors–the hands that filled the master’s pockets now fill hers. We ask that you remove her from her position of authority over writers of color.
Again, I am not unsympathetic to the overall verdict being rendered here, but may I, with the best will in the world, suggest that Place’s Tweets do not have the power to “re-inscribe” anything into “the flesh of every descendant of slaves.” The conflation of language with action, such that certain instances of language are made literally equivalent to physical violence, invites the institutions that police action to police language (besides being plausibly insulting to those who have suffered from more than Tweets and conceptual poetry). Likewise, making institutional participation contingent on “an atmosphere of trust,” which institutions are obliged to safeguard by evaluating the extra-institutional speech of their participants, begs for an expansion of state and corporate control over language. To these writers who think that language and violence are literally equivalent, one wants to ask a few questions: Do you think that you will be exempt from the judgment of texts as actions? Do you think your ideological enemies will refrain from claiming injury under the criteria you devise? Do you trust administrators and other bureaucrats unschooled in your hermeneutics to be able to adjudicate who does and does not have the right to claim injury? And is the work of an avant-garde poet intended as anti-racist practice, however complacent its execution, really the best battle to pick in this questionable war to regulate language institutionally?
Some of the answers to these questions are suggested by the decision made by the AWP Subcommittee, which has indeed decided to remove Place. Here is the extraordinarily revealing language of its statement:
AWP has removed Vanessa Place from the AWP Los Angeles 2016 Subcommittee.
We did so after taking into consideration the controversy her Twitter feed has generated. Place has been tweeting the text of Gone with the Wind and using a photograph of Hattie McDaniel as the profile picture. The context of this and similar work is explained by a few literary theorists and advocates of conceptual poetry, such as Jacob Edmond and Brian M. Reed.
AWP believes in freedom of expression. We also understand that many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations, along with the images on her Twitter page.
AWP must protect the efficacy of the conference subcommittee’s work. The group’s work must focus on the adjudication of the 1,800 submitted proposals, not upon the management of a controversy that has stirred strong objections and much ill-will toward AWP and the subcommittee. Perpetuating the controversy would not be fair to the many writers who have submitted the proposals.
Did you catch that? The subcommittee, plainly annoyed at the Twitter activists and passive-aggressively rebuking them with links to learned explications of Place’s project, declined to judge that Place’s work is indeed racist or otherwise harmful. They dismissed her on the basis of the controversy itself. That is, creating a Twitter controversy is grounds for dismissal, whatever the content or context of that controversy. Judgments of Place’s work come to seem beside the point: it’s not clear that her accusers, were they members of the committee, would not be dismissed on the same grounds. The decision is all the more chilling because the members of the subcommittee do not seem to agree with the activists over the nature and value of Place’s work. They are nevertheless sufficiently cowed by the crowd that they decline to stand behind her. If you think that you are safe from being dismissed on the basis of creating Internet controversy, you should probably think again. As the Right appropriates the tactics of the Left, let us see how long Saida Grundy keeps her place.
The Twitterati are unleashing a force that they will not be able to control: employing collective agitation to demand that businesses, governments, and the institutions of civil society take a more interventionist hand in punishing persons for speech and writing deemed unacceptable, unacceptable according to ever-shifting criteria that often include such troubling and little-remarked ideologies as cultural nationalism and anti-intellectualism.
I think that it is time for writers, teachers, and intellectuals to re-examine the commitment to illiberalism that follows from our attachment to radical thought—if only out of self-interest, since I believe we are all under threat, very much including people of color (consider again the case of Dr. Grundy). And I think it is past time to re-evaluate Twitter. If we are artists and critics, if we are the stewards of patient thinking and the other side of the story, if we are wary of coercive totalities and forced consensus, then what on earth do we want with a platform so plainly hostile to our values?
*I much prefer Ted Gioia’s sensible use of the label “conceptual” for imaginative writing structured by ideas rather than by characters, plots, or styles—a usage of the term that productively embraces everyone from avantists such as Burroughs to masters of literary speculative fiction such as Delany to genre/pulp mavens such as Heinlein. My own doubts about the conceptual in art, which I regard as a bizarre capitulation to Hegelian historical teleology, can be found here.