Kenneth Goldsmith Says He Is an Outlaw
To be a black man in the United States of America is to be in a constant state of war and I am tired, I’m just so tired of the war. White people want me to be dangerous, scary or sexy, they never want to know who the real Etheridge is and I bet white people would like me if they could just relax and see past their fantasies of me.
—Etheridge Knight, Philadelphia, 1988
In August 2014 an 18-year-old unarmed black man named Michael Brown was shot six times and killed by a white police officer named Daren Wilson on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. His blood-soaked body remained in the street for four hours waiting for investigators to arrive. Wilson was acquitted several months later, keeping with the historic judicial results of white police brutality against minorities in the United States such as violence against Eric Garner, Rodney King, Fred Hampton, Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk and many, many others. Brown’s death and Wilson’s acquittal brought citizens onto the streets for nationwide protests.
In March 2015, just a little over a week after the U. S. Department of Justice cleared Officer Wilson of all charges of Brown’s death (therefore approving before the world of putting six bullets into an unarmed young black man), poet Kenneth Goldsmith participated in the Interrupt Conference at Brown University where he read a document which he calls “The Body of Michael Brown.” Goldsmith says of his conceptual poetry practice of taking preexisting texts and remixing them, “I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature….” In the case of “The Body of Michael Brown” he slashed and cut into county autopsy reports, essentially the language representing the bone and flesh of the slain young black man. Goldsmith’s rearrangement of his chopped and hacked pieces of Michael Brown’s body ends with the young man’s genitals.
The outrage from poets could be heard everywhere in the United States. As a result Goldsmith asked Brown University to withhold the video of his performance because, as he wrote on Facebook, “There has been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more.” When I worked with Kenny at MoMA in 2013 he appeared apolitical at best, but now he was in a position to be humbled and seemed sincerely sorry for causing pain. Then he regained his strength on Twitter, hash-tagging Michael Brown’s name and saying that “the left is the new right.” Hash-tagging “pen,” hash-tagging “freespeech,” spinning himself into the victim like a Bush administration Neocon deflecting attention from his actions and branding all who opposed his racist “art” enemy combatant censors.
The poet Lucas de Lima then showed me a recent interview with Goldsmith in Switzerland on the Campus der Künste website where he calls himself an outlaw. So now you are an outlaw Kenny Goldsmith? Would an outlaw poet be granted an audience with the president of the United States? Highly unlikely, but yet you had such an audience. And if an outlaw poet were granted this time with the president would she read him a Walt Whitman poem as you did, or would she object to his ordering the 30,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan in 2009? By the time of your 2011 White House poetry reading the bloodshed and chaos inflicted on Afghanistan was so severe that researchers from the Reuters Foundation revealed the country to be the most dangerous nation on our planet for women. But of course you won’t dare question true authority when you have the chance, making you into our modern day Court Poet. How difficult it must be to appear edgy while grabbing your ankles for the empire.
Kenny Goldsmith, I have known outlaw poets. Etheridge Knight who started writing poems in prison, a man who said one night after a reading in Philadelphia as we walked out onto the street where cops were frisking some kids, “WE ARE IN THE BIG PRISON NOW CA!” Or my friend Jerome Robinson, an amazing poet from the motorcycle club Wheels of Soul who was gunned down in West Philadelphia a few blocks outside the Green Zone of where you teach Kenny at the University of Pennsylvania. Or my friend Carlos Soto Roman cuffed and detained by police on his way to his own poetry reading in Philadelphia while they checked to see if he was “an illegal immigrant.” Or Margaret Randall who was stripped of her U. S. citizenship and sent back to Mexico where she had been living, the director of the INS stating, “Her writings go far beyond mere dissent.” Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg arrested for protesting at Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility. Essex Hemphill who died of AIDS after years of protests in the street. Talib Kweli detained and interrogated by the FBI and CIA for downloading a Stokely Carmichael speech. Outlaw, Kenny Goldsmith needs to be made clear to you it seems, and these are some examples for you to consider. As Lucas de Lima said to Frank Sherlock and I when he first told us of your sad-eyed claims of Outlaw for the press in Europe, “Kenny Goldsmith is NOT an Outlaw, Kenny Goldsmith IS THE LAW!”
On your appearance of NPR’s show “Radio Times” Kenny you played the audio clip of the reporter and bystanders on the street when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. After the clip of anguished voices ended, the NPR host interviewing you said it was terrifying. But then you said in a breathy timbre, “Well it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful language and on the page it’s more like Gertrude Stein than anything else.” If you do not understand how such trauma is anything but beautiful then maybe your racism at Brown University should hardly be a surprise. It is as if you want to embarrass those of us who give a shit about the world, like you are too cool to care and we are a bunch of losers for caring. Are you serious about being our outlaw-hero because now is the perfect moment when we have a frightening hyper-militarized racist police force on the streets of America and a tyrannical American military on the streets of Arab nations. What we need are concepts to resolve these problems where real human bodies are at stake because the meanness you possess is a form of decadence this world can no longer afford. What can we do to change the tide of violence when our military is committed to attacking “enemies” in six different nations, seven if you count our own police at home? On the Campus der Künste website you were also asked to discuss what you are currently working on and you said, “Trying either to dig myself out of the very deep hole I find myself in or else surrender to the darkness.” Have you made your decision yet?
Below are responses I solicited from poets throughout the United States: Anne Waldman, Bhanu Kapil, Brian Evenson, Cathy Park Hong, Christian Hawkey, Collestipher Chatto, Dara Wier, Dawn Lundy Martin, Eileen Myles, Francesca Capone, Fred Moten, Janice Lee, Jennifer Tamayo, Julia Bloch, Juliana Spahr, Kevin Killian, Kit Schluter, Kyoo Lee, Layli LongSoldier, Lucas de Lima, Loma, Marcella Durand, Michael Anzuoni, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Oki Sogumi, Oliver Strand, Raquel Salas Rivera, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and Saeed Jones. Four of the poets were in the audience during the Brown University performance: Francesa Capone, Kit Schluter, Michael Anzuoni, and Oliver Strand. Many thanks to all the poets who contributed to this document against White Supremacy Poetics and to everyone everywhere who agrees that this is a world worth fighting for.
I was not present, but by all reports what we seem to have is a solipsistic clueless bubble of unsupportable “art” attitude and privilege. What was Kenny Goldsmith thinking? That it’s okay to self-appoint and perform the autopsy report of murdered black teenager Michael Brown and mess with the text, and so “own” it and get paid for his services? No empathy no sorrow for the boy, the body, the family, ignorant of the ramifications, deaf ear to the explosive demonstrations and marches? Reeks of exploitation, of the “racial imaginary.” Black Dada Nihilismus is lurking on the lineaments of the appropriated shadow of so much suffering.
The brilliant Eunsong Kim said: "Colonization and body memory." (In her talk on Kenny Goldsmith at &Now.) Her words have stayed with me through this mixed Spring. I repeat them to others. I am repeating them now.
I didn't attend the Goldsmith performance (though saw most of it through a student's cell phone recording), but do have strong feelings about it. It's easy to theorize anything, and that's something conceptualism, particularly the Goldsmith school of it, has taken advantage of. But I think it's really curious the way in which conceptualizing rigor has been replaced by the desire to be a provocateur in a kind of dandyist/dadaist sense--or rather a sort of weird combination of racism and dadaism--and yet it still claims the pretense of a rational, rigorous theorizing behind the conceptualization. I think that that's become too often an alibi for work whose theorization is profoundly faulty, and think that's certainly the case with Goldsmith's Michael Brown autopsy report.
Cathy Park Hong:
To Vanessa Place’s naïve white defenders, she has become the face of Charlie Hebdo. No matter how insignificant the property or word (including, yes, the "n" word), white people love to demand their right to it if they are feeling denied. They say it’s a matter of freedom of speech. They say, are we not *allowed* to appropriate Gone with the Wind? Are we not *allowed* to say what is and what isn’t racist? We feel restricted! We are being policed! Why can’t we write about race? (And to answer your question, of course you can write about it! As a friend Roger Reeves once said, “You invented it! Write about it!”). Then they dismiss us as an “outraged mob.”
How convenient that when a writer of color speaks out, she is often dismissed as being “outraged.” Implied in that: we are hysterical, reactive, emotional, not capable of nuance and reason. But I also speak with deep frustration that in the wake of Kenny Goldsmith and Vanessa Place’s antics, we are also called upon to respond, to react. 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, as their defenders like to accuse us of doing, 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. As Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffredo said we are most comfortable “talking about race in the language of scandal. We’re all a little relieved by scandal. It’s so satisfying, so clear, so easy.” 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! We, unfortunately, have to live with it.
I want to use this space to point to the already existing responses to Kenny Goldsmith, which are incredibly rigorous and smart and spot on: 1) Why Are People So Invested in Kenneth Goldsmith, or Is Colonialist Poetry Easy, by Amy King; 2) Thoughts on Kenneth Goldsmith and Michael Brown, by Jaqueline Valencia; 3) On Hearing a White Man Co-opt the Body of Michael Brown, by Rin Johnson; and 4) a brilliant anticipatory 2014 essay by Sueyeun Juliette Lee: Shock and Blah: Offensive Postures in "Conceptual Poetry" and the Traumatic Stuplime. And most importantly: DECOLONIZE OR DIE!
Kenneth Goldsmith's usage of Michael Brown's autopsy report creates a piece of cathartic release. It has made Brown's death a sort of scapegoat for the Euramerican nation to purge itself of its transgressions. The so-called "cut-up" of the report is representative and symbolic of the call for the public to dissect the body of systematic racism today. Slice the body, bloom its innards, and dig deep to uncover the ailments and inflictions so the clues will lead to discussions about what can we do as a society to be more egalitarian and compassionate to one another.
The public reading of an altered text of Michael Brown’s autopsy proves how heartless, and lacking depth goes the trajectory of the conceptual work Kenneth Goldsmith has pursued; it has reached a point of no return, it seeks its own poisonous ground. The callous, cruel, useless publicity stunt does not interrogate its document or interrogate art or interrogate the artist or interrogate us. No one needs to be subjected to the conceptually lame theater of it and to object to it is to recognize Michael Brown’s humanity and to ask KG to return to his.
RONALDO: The reiteration of whiteness as a given, especially how it is rendered into our consciousness: whites surround in all shapes, locations, times, and situations. In Starbucks, a slew of old white looking ladies and gents in an antique print, ghosts of a Carmel past. In the world of now, I am surrounded by versions of the same, a repetition of white bodies (at leisure) below white bodies (in print) that “found” the building, maybe even the town.
DAWN: Is another person’s grief able to be integrated into whiteness? If whiteness is in its most holy contexts, like here in Carmel-by-the-Sea where whiteness persists in obstinate resistance to anything but itself, the mother on her knees bent over her murdered son is merely a text--something mineable. Or the most mineable text is the murdered black.
RONALDO: Annette & Tom Bruce smile at us. How might we reframe them, “integrate” white exhaust, its persistence: the murdered black, here and not, is at least in us. Annette and Tom Bruce in The Carmel Pine Cone, reveal a “magical setting, 2.4 acres on the 12th green, 7 bedrooms/ 7.5 baths, 8300 sq. ft. for one nigger rib, or $22,000,000.
DAWN: They served us a delicious plate of nigger ribs last night. We licked our fingers as the pianist played and a neighborhood blonde sang, “I want to be on Broadway!” There’s a freedom here where casual whiteness gathers itself: “I only played a few holes this morning…” Etc. Or the illusion of freedom until the black text wanders into the wrong scene, takes a turn, is obliterated, ends up “unedited” on a ivy league stage.
All I think Kenny ought to do is say "I'm wrong." It was a massively stupid gesture & kind of privilege blind. So I guess beyond the fact that he did it I wish he saw the way to say he fucked up rather than to act like he's the new underground man.
Goldsmith's performance referenced the Hottentot Venus, a very well known atrocity that exploited South African Saartjie Baartman’s body. It is often referred to in postcolonial art scholarship. The Hottentot Venus atrocity is widely agreed to have been sexist, racist, and colonialistic. KG must not have realized this was the canon he was writing/performing into, which seems aloof. One of the principle problems with KG’s performance is that though he attempted to use conceptualism to address racism (which we should all be working to address and heal through our practices and in our daily lives), his performance lacked empathy and instead it polarized his audience around racial problems, doing nothing to help heal them. Healing is really the work that needs addressing.
I think you know you fucked up. But do you know why you fucked up? And do you know how you fucked up? Do you know that why you fucked up and how you fucked up are totally entangled? Do you know that entanglement is given in the raciality of the concept, as such? I wish I could be convinced that you’re thinking right now about how and why you fucked up. I wish I could convince you that the continued existence of human life on this earth depends upon you thinking about why and how you fucked up.
Everything is increasingly too much and not enough.
Life is a series of breaths: to see a perspective only when the seer and the seen are perfectly aligned. That is, to be in a position to be able to see and to want to see. A lunar eclipse occurs only when the sun, earth, and moon are aligned in syzygy, our home planet’s shadow creeping across the moon until the moon appears red because our atmosphere acts as a filter for the sun’s light. The constant expansion and rotation of bodies.
and that we must learn for ourselves how to say NO and teach our beloveds how to say NO, like a NO beyond under the breath, or a NO just at our homes with friends or on our blogs or posts days later, and that the instinct to shout and spew NO NO NO in the moment and without hesitation (because our critiques have become so lucid and so fierce) becomes a reality, the expectation. in the same way we expect ourselves to listen to each other, we expect ourselves to spout NOs unapologetically when the moment arrives as it always does
I keep coming back to the way many of us in North American poetry circles have been trained to believe there is no someone who appropriates language; we’re trained to look only at the act of appropriating that language. But poeisis, making, happens by someone’s hand, and that hand is structured by multiple ideological systems of meaning. Isn’t it imperative to acknowledge how power inheres in the author’s making? We have an archive of this. As Margaret Christakos tweeted in March: “Brossard, Scott, Philip, Moure, Acker, Zolf, all brilliant orchestrators of the multiple, the taken and marked text, reversion-performances.”
There’s that piece that Brian Droitcour wrote where he calls Kenneth a troll. I thought about this piece when Kenny tweeted this the other day: “The left is the new right. #pen #charliehibdo #freespeech #MichaelBrown” Like everyone and because so much has been said, I’ve got my moments of agreement and disagreement with this discussion. I’m not a fan of KG’s piece. It’s massaged but not nuanced. And yet I keep having these moments where I want not to forgive it really, but to see it all as a mistake, as a sort of blindness that we can all learn from. Or to say, but he didn’t really mean to do it. But then KG reminds again that it was written to troll the left. And instead of seeing it as a mistake, I’m forced back to seeing it as aggressive. Again.
In rough order felt surprise, wonder, exasperation, affront, fright, shock, horror, revulsion, antagonism, hostility, doubt, schadenfreude, fury, abandon, pity, regret, confusion, jumpiness, disbelief, anger, mortification, suspense, uneasiness, fear, alienation, paranoia, rage, outrage, inertia, agony, anhedonia, hatred, judicious pruning, determination, superiority, pride, camaraderie, community, fellowship, inspiration, excitement, awe, queer feeling, weakness, loneliness, despair, impotence, elation, anxiety, panic, nausea, terror, shame, alarm, embarrassment, guilt, anticipation, enmity, hurt, timidity, headache, dejection, weariness, hypnotic throb, doubt, remorse, resolution, ambition, detachment, apprehension, panic, fire, mortification, ritual, annealment, insecurity, depression, ennui, grief, wanderlust, homesickness, spite, calm, isolation, apathy, hope, tenacity, challenge, resolve, uncertainty, humiliation, gloom, culpability, engagement.
"Brown & A Board of Poethic Education:
A Voice from the Archive Called Future"
2. Everyone’s Dead, Autopsy 2Morrow
5. Body, Brown @ Brown, Board, Bore
6. Which B?
8. A Line between Life & Death or The
9. Breath-taking—or taken?
10. An Image, Two Bodies, Three Gazes
Time & again, as “it is at death that disease and life speak their truth” (Michel Foucault), nothing & noting but the truth of nothing that life & death has become, today reached by poetree so far, we might be seeing something of a forensic turn in, to, U as “I, an eye
to yours on each finger,
a place, through which I
can wake myself toward you,
hungercandle in mouth.
(Paul Celan, “By the Undreamt,” Breathturn into Timestead)
Whereupon you make a U turn, screen to street, street to screen, for “Where do the gone things go?” (Kimiko Hahn, “In Childhood”) if not to that voice watering the crime scene.
I mean to discuss invasion: land, gutting mountains, nuggets extracted. Drilling. Sucking and pumping deep pools, wells, veins, sweet waters, blood oil. Blasting. Pummeling, re-shaping buttes, forests. River channels, siphoned. What I mean about invasion is people. Corralling, relocation. Bodies and feet shuffling, bewildering dislocation. Minds pummeled, blasted. A sucking of culture, appropriation. I’m discussing original languages, shame and dismissal, subsequent translation, institutional publishing. Invasions that my father, my child and I were born to, we live under. I’m discussing a super-sense—our ability to recognize the signs, methods, forms, and claims to rights to continue. I’m saying, Dear American Poet, who “massages” “dry [BROWN] texts” into “literature,” I see you, know you already. Your name, a drill in the gut: Invader.
Lucas de Lima:
Goldsmith's replication of anti-black state violence could never enlighten me. I’d never thank him, as others have done, for reinscribing pain. By acting as if the truth of society were in his hands, Goldsmith only sustains the avant-garde’s colonial fantasy. His embodiment of this fantasy required Michael Brown’s disembodiment, the cancellation of black suffering through self-possessed language. Goldsmith’s failure to renounce control—and grieve beside himself—is the refusal of an entire poetic tradition to exit the master’s house by imagining the latter’s destruction. What is it like to be given over to the hands of others? Decolonization is the question they won’t entertain.
We write to survive and avenge this failure.
Your silence and complicity we also write against.
After Kenneth Goldsmith tastelessly used Michael Brown’s body as a prop, from which to make profit, he returned to his thrown within academia. A few weeks later, Jasmine Richards was protesting (in solidarity with Michael Brown, Anya Slaughter, and others.) Richards was arrested for two outstanding warrants on terrorist threats. Bail was set at $90,000… I hate the thought that Kenneth Goldsmith is comfortably at home right now. The English Department at UPenn needs to release a statement condoning Kenneth Goldsmith’s actions. Also, they should host anti-racist workshops for their faculty. At minimum.
The problem was that he stayed with the institutional
document testifying death, that static storyline.
This is not where poets like Will Alexander
and M. Nourbese Philip stay: They travel toward life,
hearing what voices cut short are saying,
rather than staying with what the institution
tells us. The problem was that he began
with death and then dissected the dead
even further, declaring the body mute,
staying with the stillness of a dead body,
silencing Michael Brown and only allowing one voice--
Kenneth Goldsmith's--to comingle with the voice of the
institution that had taken away Brown's life,
declared Brown a body and nothing but. No other voices.
Instead, where he started was already the end, there is
no poem when the poem begins and ends
exactly where it started.
As I watched Kenneth Goldsmith violate the corpse of Michael Brown, I realized that conceptual poetry itself was a corpse. But this corpse was a revenant brought back to life with each mangled phrased cooed by the kilt-clad Goldsmith. And so I prayed to a dumb god that there would be a mercy killing—that someone would stand up and interrupt this supposedly un-interruptible ritual. And I understand that person could have been me, but I was paralyzed with spectacle and anger. So while I have been allotted one hundred words, I know only three will suffice: Disgust and regret.
“I don’t like thinking about Kenneth Goldsmith.” It’s important to me that this remains my first declarative sentence in this whole affair as it was the day I posted my reaction on Facebook on March 15th, 2015. This was about two months ago and nothing has changed.
Yet I still feel that I have to think about him and his supporters, how aesthetics and power structures are leveraged and weighed, how art is made, and how brown and black bodies are erased in the servitude of this art, or what people think is art, who has the right to critique art, and who feels they are being silenced/hated just because they make art even though no one has said their name.
Nothing has changed. The hashtag tombstones continue to roll on. I will continue to hate thinking about Kenneth Goldsmith, and the silence and selfishness of his supporters. I don’t know really what to say at this point except that we are being killed in a diversity of ways. I don’t believe for a second that what he did had anything to do with art. There are many hidden cemeteries in this country that are being obfuscated. But if you move the grasses and the concrete back, we’re still there. Unmarked or not, maybe someone will notice.
A clown dons a suit and reads an autopsy. A clown fakes a disappearance, in his clown suit, reading an autopsy. A death clown “plays,” while doctors and poets and poet doctors and doctor clowns and clown poets argue about “art.” Some people point at the clown, the autopsy he has cut up, clutched in his hand. The clown cries big fake tears that drip and soak his clown suit. The scissors still sharp and hidden in his suit. The makeup smears down his face, gets all over the doctors trying to soak them up with their sleeves. Others wait for him to melt.
Why did Goldsmith think the autopsy report was his poem?
Why did Goldsmith redact the descriptions of the cranial cavity and spinal cord at the end of the autopsy report? Why did he stop reading after the description of Michael Brown's genitals?
Emergency: why did Goldsmith project an image of Michael Brown above the stage?
Did Goldsmith practice reading the text out loud? He faltered at the medical diction. No identity, no responsibility?
Privilege commodifying murder, brutal and systematically racist state power as shareable content--Goldsmith's conceptualism is late capitalist poetry, American imperialist poetry that believes it owns whatever it wants.
Raquel Salas Rivera:
Brown University: It seems like everyday another person of color is killed by the state. It seems like everyday their killers are acquitted. This is what you do when you look the other way: you acquit Kenneth Goldsmith. You condone his opportunistic, violent appropriation. You say, “We too, like the state, give him our blessing, our silence.” I address you, institution, as a singular subject, because I know that within your walls there are many who—joined in their silence and complicity—have kept you whole, while the body of Mike Brown was being dissected; kept you whole, while Kenneth Goldsmith stated there was nothing intrinsically “political” about his “performance”; kept you whole, so that those who kill us in and outside the university may keep an unstained record.
I pity him, honestly. If Goldsmith has taught us anything about the miracle of being writers in the 21st century, it is that though we have so much access to information for our work—wisdom clearly has not been bestowed on all of us.
- Anne Waldman
- Father Death Blues
- Kenneth Goldsmith
- Lisa Robertson
- Eileen Myles
- Marcella Durand
- Marxist study group
- Bhanu Kapil
- Fred Moten
- Zinc Bar
- Julia Bloch
- What is Poetry?
- Kevin Killian
- Al Filreis
- Christian Hawkey
- Cedar Sigo
- Dara Wier
- Denise Low
- Cathy Park Hong
- Katha Pollitt
- Janice Lee
- Samuel Frederick
- Juliana Spahr
- Angkarn Kalayanapong
- Kit Schluter
- Stefania Heim
- Dawn Lundy Martin
- Kathi Inman Berens
- Brian Evenson
- HL Mencken
- Ronaldo V. Wilson
- Kate Robinson
- Jennifer Tamayo
- Saeed Jones
- Yari Yari
- Carlos Soto Roman
- Emanuel Xavier
- Lucas de Lima
- Morgan Library
- Francesca Capone
- Occupy Oakland
- Etheridge Knight
- New York Art Book Fair
- Michael Brown
- Sophia Cleary
- Collestipher Chatto
- Kyoo Lee
- Layli Long Soldier
- Michael Anzuoni
- Nikki Wallschlaeger
- Oki Sogumi
- Oliver Strand
- Raquel Salas Rivera
- Jerome Robinson
- Abu Usama al-Gharib
- Robert Rauschenberg
- Elmaz Abinader
- Victor Díaz
- Diem Jones
- Experimental Response Cinema
- Poetry for Robots
Poet CAConrad grew up in Pennsylvania, where he helped to support his single mother during his difficult youth. Influenced by Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, Alice Notley, and Emily Dickinson, he writes poems in which stark images of sex, violence, and defiance build a bridge between fable and confession. In a 2010...