I wrote this to Jacqueline Valencia in response to her thoughtful and insightful commentary on the controversy surrounding conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith's recent reading at Brown University where he read as poem which was a version of the autopsy report of Michael Brown (who was killed in Ferguson by a police officer). I first want to acknowledge and remember the pain and the outrageous racism that is at the centre of what happened to Michael Brown.
I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful blogpost regarding Kenneth Goldsmith. I'm glad of an engaged yet considered approach, one not ready to pillorize someone immediately.
I don't like how these things usually go down on social media. It disturbs me how quickly people judge simplistically and ungenerously. And how quick to ad hominem (or ad conceptualwriting) attacks and bringing in other things which, I think, aren't directly related. Even if what someone did was insensitive or misguided or ill-considered. Or even just plain wrong. And I'm not certain how I categorize KG's reading exactly.
I did want to share a couple thoughts with you. The first thing that I wondered about was the fact that it was an autopsy report. I asked my wife (a criminal lawyer) who often must read such documents what she thought. I'd mentioned how KG ended with the part about the penis. I thought that it was a foregrounding of the racist tropes about black men being primitive, oversexed, etc. Exactly the kind of thing that might have been on the mind of the cop who shot Michael Brown. My wife said that they always write about genitalia in reports and when she reads them she also finds a particular pathos and humanity when the report turns to the genitals. She is struck always by how humanizing this mention of this intimate and private part of the anatomy is. So I thought (and for the moment turning aside issues of appropriate and the "unracialized" narrator) actually, ending the piece with a turn to this trope and a turn to this very intimate detail was, I thought, inspired.
Of course the whole thing is ugly. The murder of Brown was ugly.
My impulse is to read the text as text and not to interrogate KG's intentions (though of course part of the text is to read his racialized body and privilege.)
I wondered if the text could be read exactly as a white guy appropriating the whole thing, appropriating the issue, appropriating the death and its representation. So KG was deliberately standing up their and usurping (erasing, eclipsing) from his place of privilege the representation of this act by people of colour. Indeed reading the report was an interrogation (a problematization) of how the discourse (media, court system, culture, police, etc) privileges subject positions such as his (white, middle class, privileged) over people of colour. When KG wrote on FB, "Ecce homo" meaning "show me the man" and referring to how Michael Brown was a Christ-like sacrifice, actually it could be read as KG doing that. He is representing himself as a white appropriator doing exactly what the autopsy and the system it is part of is doing, in order to engage in a discussion of appropriation, master discourses, erasure of racialized perspectives, etc.
I know that there are many things in the discourse that may have clouded such a reading, but I still think it is a worthwhile take. A more meaningful positive way forward. A way of trying to understand how it is possible to engage with this issue as someone who isn't a person of colour, a way of addressing the complicity and complexity of the involvement of white people.