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The Whitest Boy Alive: Witnessing Kenneth Goldsmith

By Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

“There are times when scandal feels like the sun that race revolves around.” –The Racial Imaginary

“The white writer feels injured in this moment—misunderstood and wounded—and believes it is the reader, the person of color, who has dealt the injury.” –The Racial Imaginary

“I want to draw a map, so to speak…” –Playing in the Dark

I would like to make it clear that I am going to talk about race. Again. I would like to make it clear that my writing about race, like myself, is a collection of incomplete moments in time. It is clear, too, without my needing to make it so, that I bring largely the tools of my personal bodily experience, my limited breadth and depth of reading, to this complicated conversation. I come here with complicity, with limits, with the limits of complicity. I come here, perhaps, completely colonized. I do not trust—cannot trust—that I will not injure in my attempts. I am drawn to attempt none the less. Perhaps that is complicity, that is privilege. Drawn to an attempt that I can indeed make. (Yes.)

For some time now I have been thinking and rethinking about what occurred on March 13, 2015 at the Interrupt 3 conference at Brown University, about what keeps occurring and ricocheting. (“Ricochet” sounds like “crochet,” like this is a weaving with needles.) At Interrupt 3 there was a fire and no one ran for an exit, no one pulled an alarm. No one found a way out over all those structured and claustrophobic chairs. That is: Kenneth Goldsmith read “The Body of Michael Brown,” an “appropriation” (read: massage) of one of the autopsy reports of Michael Brown, who was shot to death by officer Darren Wilson. Among the elements of “massaging” the text includes, apparently, rearranging the autopsy report to place the examination of the genitals as the last line, presumably for poetic effect.

Like Toni Morrison, I am interested in “what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from” and “in the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them” (Morrison). In his piece for Apogee Journal, Joey de Jesus asks “Is he [Kenneth Goldsmith] aware that his appropriation of black death contributes to a long and living history of racism? Probably.” But perhaps probably not? I suggest this not as a potential platform for defenses or excuses, but to suggest, as suggested in the introduction to The Racial Imaginary, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap (Fence Books, 2014), that “That’s their injury, that their whiteness has veiled from them their own power to wound, has cut down their sympathy to a smaller size, has persuaded them that their imagination is uninflected, uninfiltrated. It has made them unknowing” (emphasis added).

The same injury, I might suggest, is being played out this very moment on Vanessa Place’s Twitter feed: using Hattie McDaniel as Mammy as her avatar while tweeting (as she’s been doing for a while now) Gone With the Wind, line by line; her nonchalance at the outcry over the obviousness of the “thoroughly serviceable, companionably ego-reinforcing, and pervasive” “American brand of Africanism” deployed for white freedom. It is the case that Goldsmith’s “appropriation” of this text follows directly in line with his systematic appropriation of other significant texts regarding significant events. And yet, try as one might, none of his appropriation, his selection of texts, comes without signification. (There would be no point to the project without signification of events and texts to begin with.) Given his oeuvre, his corps de travail, it was perhaps only a matter of time before he hit upon Black-death-as-national disaster. But as de Jesus points out, this is a “long and living history”—a living history of death. A living history of Black death. Black people are living Black death in a neoliberal neoslaveocracy. (#TweetAboutIt?)

“This could have been the eighth American death and disaster.” (Goldsmith, via Facebook, emphasis added.)

This is more than Kenneth Goldsmith perpetuating “a narrative that white representations of blackness should prevail over self-representation” (de Jesus). It is that white representations of blackness function as the operational vector for white self-representation. White self-representation through white-mediated representations of blackness occur at all levels: writing, art-making (see Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woodford project; or, don’t), music-making (see Miley Cyrus; or, don’t), from the most public to the most intimate spaces. At the core of this is the centrality of whiteness. Whiteness presumes accessibility to all spaces and people. That whiteness presumes transcendence into a pure and untouched imaginative or conceptual space is perhaps its most obvious and potent operational aspect. That, and whiteness believes in itself, and it believes in the ability to change itself into something other than it is. It believes foremost in transcending race because it believes it can transcend the self. Therefore, whiteness presumes not only to represent blackness in art and/or as art—the black body on stage in a performance of white access to Others—but in the process enacts its centrality to its own interrogation and supposed dismantlement.

How do we get from Michael Brown’s death and autopsy report to the poem, or rather the performance, of “The Body of Michael Brown”? It is possible that this gesture looks like this:

Where, in its simplest manifestation MB is Michael Brown and KG is Kenneth Goldsmith. Or, MB is the death of Michael Brown (and consider this MB to be a planet of significant mass and gravitational force, with many things in its orbit) and KG is the poem/performance of “The Body of Michael Brown” (and consider this KG to be a planet of significant mass and gravitational force, in its orbit being things like the notion of “conceptual poetics”, etc.) I present this equation as if I know for sure what the variables stand for! But somewhere there is a force, the nature of a vector, carrying the death of Michael Brown to Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown.” I suggest this force to be whiteness operating in the system of literature, which is but a microcosm of how it operates generally. The violences continue: Michael Brown the person is objectified into Michael Brown the body object is flattened into Michael Brown the image projected behind a white man becomes Michael Brown the vector carrying whiteness–as concept, race performance, affect, and power–from one knowledge point to another. Both points are situated on a line of self-reflexive thinking and powerful reinscription. Whiteness (and its associated privileges and assumptions) within the field of itself. Even in its attacks on itself, as internet responses often show, serve to re-inscribe the power of its centrality to itself. The vector it rides on (blackness) influences its attitude toward its position (sympathetic, antagonist, empathy unwittingly being antagonistic, and so on…), but never alters the position itself. Turning one’s head doesn’t mean moving one’s feet.

“It is a horrific American document, but then again it was a horrific American death” (Goldsmith, via Facebook.)

No. It was a horrific Black American death.

“The document I read from is powerful. My reading of it was powerful. How could it be otherwise?” (Goldsmith, via Facebook).

But for whom? I do not doubt that the document is powerful. Nor do I doubt that it takes a certain amount of vulnerability (as unaccountability) to read the words, to take them into one’s body, and repeat them. I do not doubt that for Goldsmith, this was a powerful experience. It was full of power, no doubt, as being on stage often is. The assumptions underlying his defense seem to be that the “powerful” for a single individual equals necessity or powerful for all. This idea isn’t particular to literature or art, but here such conventions seem much closer to the surface. The assumption that because it is powerful, because it is conceptual and resists and/or transcends “editorializing,” because it is interesting (and not “merely” so)—that it is somehow beyond the capacity to be blindingly racist (in the way whiteness makes it possible), hurtful, and gross. This is not true.

I am interested in the forces that bring these things together, that make certain writings and readings possible. (I am interested, too, in the pressure of “poetic effect” on “conceptual poetics,” a troublesome but productive alloy in the deployment of such projects.) This matters to literature because, to apply Morrison yet again, because this is about the ways “writers transform aspects of their social grounding into aspects of language…” and in this case, it is white hegemonic and heteronormative power at work in a literature that perceives itself to constitute the foundation of national imagination and aspiration.

“How could it be otherwise?” –Goldsmith

“It requires hard work not to see this.” –Morrison



The Whitest Boy Alive was a German electronic music group.

Texts consulted include: The Racial Imaginary (Fence Books, Eds. Rankine, Loffreda, King Cap) and Playing in the Dark (Vintage, Toni Morrison).

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, May 18th, 2015 by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram.