Last weekend I attended “Interrupt 3,” a conference on poetry and digital media at Brown University in Providence. I was in the audience Friday night when Kenneth Goldsmith read the autopsy of Michael Brown, the teenager who was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.
An image of Michael Brown—his graduation picture, which many used as Facebook profile pictures to honor his memory and counter the images spread by the media to portray him as a delinquent—was projected on the screen above the stage as Goldsmith read, rocking and pacing, delivering the autopsy as an incantation. The rhythms and inflections of his reading brought out the repetitions in the report, transforming their formality into ritual. The medical examiner’s repeated designations of the condition and coloring of Michael Brown’s body parts as “unremarkable,” save for the wounds made by Darren Wilson’s gun, resounded as a rebuke to Wilson’s racist imagination, where Michael Brown appeared as a “demon,” as Wilson said in his grand jury testimony.
Word of what Goldsmith had done hit Twitter and the rumor of it rapidly spread. It was met with outrage: How dare he? How could he, a white man, use black suffering—the murder of a black teenager by a white cop—as raw material for his own work? Many revisited the critiques that have been leveled at Goldsmith for excluding poets of color from the history he writes to frame conceptual poetry—a poetry that repurposes non-literary texts as literary ones—as a contemporary avant-garde. Against this background, Goldsmith’s choice to read Michael Brown’s autopsy was especially galling. He was swiftly and viciously condemned.
Goldsmith has encouraged the spread of a work’s reputation through rumor for years as an approach to the conceptual poetry produced by him and his cohort. Conceptual poetry can be intimidating to the reader because the texts are long; they retain the tics that appear in straight transcription and the boredom of official documents. For these reasons they often go unread, and any fame the poet has depends on the circulation of his works as secondhand accounts: “Kenny retyped an entire issue of the New York Times,” “Kenny recorded all the movements his body made in 12 hours,” “Kenny transcribed the first media responses to deaths considered national tragedies.” It’s like the way paintings and sculptures become known through reproductions.
But just as standing before a painting is a very different experience than looking at a reproduction of it, so it is with conceptual poetry. When you learn about Goldsmith’s work through the circulation of summaries it sounds like an incredibly dull affair: the poet’s disappearance into the machine, an embrace of technological knowledge. But when you read the text, or see Goldsmith read it with his dynamic body and lively voice, what matters is the fissures between the embodied experience that was recorded and the recording technologies used. The poet comes back out of the machine to show what the machine can’t know.
And so, any one of Goldsmith’s works is really two works: the work itself and the concept of it, which travels easily as a story. While both invite judgment, by Goldsmith’s own design, I think critics should be responsible for at least acknowledging the differences between them.
Goldsmith avoids addressing the duality of his writing. He has said little of the experience of reading his books, but talks constantly about the mobility of his concepts by issuing trollish aphorisms on Twitter: “If it can’t be shared, it doesn’t exist.” I’ve come to see his public behavior as a tacit acknowledgment that some aspects of art are cheapened by attempts at articulating them, as well as an emulation of his hero, Andy Warhol. Goldsmith’s reluctance to sincerely reflect on his own work is Warholian. But unlike Warhol, he’s a professional academic, so he has to speak about it. And he chooses to mislead.
After Goldsmith read at Brown, members of the audience discussed the reading. Many criticized it for being too poetic, too aestheticized. While Goldsmith’s lilting inflections brought out the repetitions, they seemed somewhat out of place. At times they seemed to disguise his discomfort with the text and his mispronunciations of medical terms. The last lines Goldsmith read were a description of Michael Brown’s genitals; later fact-checking confirmed suspicions raised by the audience that the report had been altered to make it end there. It was a dramaturgical gesture to make for a “satisfying” ending, but the audience didn’t want that tawdry satisfaction. It wasn’t worth the violence done to the text and to the memory of Michael Brown. It was a grave misstep.
Style conventions would suggest I refer to the reading as “Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Body of Michael Brown (2015)”—giving the title Goldsmith announced at the start of his reading—but I’d rather write “Goldsmith’s reading of the autopsy report.” I’m not comfortable with the possessive, the transformation of a body into a title. This was another misstep.
I write “misstep” but the word is weak. Still, I prefer it to “mistake” because it’s shaded more strongly with intent and culpability. Goldsmith’s choices are not accidents. He made them from a position of underexamined privilege.
I’ve cringed when seeing white protestors lie motionless in public places, imitating Michael Brown’s corpse in the street in Ferguson, or chant “I can’t breathe” while miming the chokehold that Daniel Pantaleo used to murder Eric Garner. They are play-acting at being victims of violence that doesn’t threaten them.
I’ve felt disgusted by Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford project, in which he passes off his own paintings and sculptures as the work of a black woman, acting out a delusional fantasy that a “politically correct” art world would receive his white art more generously if his body were black and female.
I’ve seen comparisons of Goldsmith’s reading to Scanlan’s project, but I couldn’t have arrived at that conclusion on my own. Goldsmith didn’t pretend to feel what Michael Brown felt, or use his body as a proxy. Instead, he occupied the position of the medical examiner, giving his body to the autopsy’s anonymous, institutional words. Anyone who followed the news of Michael Brown’s death, of the ensuing protests, of the grand jury that failed to indict Darren Wilson, was looking—looking with horror, looking with fascination. The medical examiner’s report is an account of another kind of looking, with a physical proximity and emotional remove that inverts the looking of those who followed the news from Ferguson at a physical distance but with an emotional immediacy. In reading the autopsy, Goldsmith imagined switching those positions and collapsing the distances, intensifying the affect particular to his own position as a white onlooker.
Can white poets write about the deadly violence of white supremacy? Danez Smith has said yes, and I’d like to think so too-silence can be respect, but it can also be complicity. But how should it be done? The Paris Review published a poem by white poet Frederick Seidel, “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri,” which was roundly panned as maudlin embarrassment. Goldsmith ended on the crotch but Seidel begins there: “A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.” He identifies the black penis as a threat and a liability. It gets worse. He tells us he wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County and reasons with doggerel: “Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game. / Skin color is to blame for Ferguson, Missouri.”
Goldsmith’s way of writing has an advantage over Seidel’s. He doesn’t try to inscribe sentiment in the text, where it can come out wrong when read. Rather, in conceptual poetry sentiment comes out on its own when the text is activated by the reader and the listener. This is what gives Goldsmith’s performances their strength.
But conceptual poetry is at a disadvantage, too, because it results in two works. In one of them, sentiment is produced through a prolonged act of reading, while in the other it’s an immediate reaction to an idea. In the latter case there’s often little sentiment. Many of Goldsmith’s works are perceived as merely interesting. But the reaction to the story of the reading at Brown (“Kenny read Michael Brown’s autopsy report at a poetry conference”) was powerful, and because in this case, as before, Goldsmith took no responsibility for the affective content of the concept, it spun out of his control and worked against him.
“Interrupt 3,” the conference at which Goldsmith read Michael Brown’s autopsy report, was an overwhelmingly white conference. Most of the featured presenters were white men, myself included. Over the course of Friday’s presentations several old white men invoked Ferguson as a political justification for the poetics of embodiment that they favored, in a way that struck me as superficial and opportunistic. So when Goldsmith began his reading, I thought: Finally—someone is giving this topic more than lip service. And yet, one of the few women of color present at the reading raised her hand after it was over and called it a “cop out.”
Goldsmith is known for courting controversy, but it tends to be trivial. He “printed out the Internet” for an exhibition in Mexico, provoking hand-wringing about the waste of paper (never mind the carbon resources consumed by data centers) and taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” He relishes retweeting angry responses, and in those cases it is easy to laugh off people who made fools of themselves by responding to his silly provocations. Goldsmith is a clown and a troll, and so for some the very idea that a poet like him would touch material like this—the deadly violence of white supremacy—was unacceptable. But when so many artists of his stature just produce more of what they’ve already done, isn’t it a good thing for him to venture into new territory-to take a risk, to the extent that a man in his position can?
I’ve mentioned the missteps that Goldsmith made in conceiving the piece. After the reading was over he made more.
He did not field questions from the audience following the reading. The poets who had planned to perform after him felt that their readings would be inappropriate at that time, so instead they moderated the discussion of Goldsmith’s reading while he sat in the audience, listening silently.
Goldsmith, who eagerly uses the words of others in his work and has created a pirate archive of poetry, film, video, performance and sound art on Ubuweb, exerted authorial control over his own work by asking the conference organizers not to release the video of his reading.
On Sunday Goldsmith posted a statement on Facebook that addressed the response to the reading but did not specify the nature of the criticism or acknowledge its validity. Instead, he wrote that this is what he does, that he has done it before, that others in the past have been “uncomfortable with [his] uncreative writing.” But what outraged people was not so much his method as his choice of a text and the particular steps he took in order to, in his words, “massage a dry text into literature,” and he neither defended these actions nor apologized to the people who were hurt by them.
His choice to read Michael Brown’s autopsy at a conference that was overwhelmingly white might have been conceived as an intervention in that whiteness, but in retrospect I suspect he was taking advantage of it as a “safe space.”
I wanted to think that Goldsmith was brave in taking an artistic risk but he was full of fear.
Twitter fosters the formation of ad hoc communities, as users come together around an idea or a feeling. Grief, anger and righteous disgust are shared and become stronger in their unity, amplifying voices that would otherwise go unheard.
A work of art can form a community, too—an audience that can be as ephemeral and dispersed as the communities that take shape on Twitter. But an audience is rarely united in one feeling as a Twitter community is; instead, it shares a common experience refracted through the disunity of individual perspectives. Conflicted or complex reactions to a work from any one viewer proliferate in the collective, where consensus can form around ambivalence rather than a singular affect.
The concept of Goldsmith’s reading has been judged by a community united in outrage. Their voices have been heard; I don’t need to add mine to them. But so far the voices of the audience members—the people who had access to the performance of the work as well as the concept of it—have hardly traveled beyond Providence. I can only speak for myself, but having been present at many public and private conversations in Providence I know that my experience wasn’t unique, that it was shared by others.
“If it can’t be shared, it doesn’t exist,” Goldsmith has said. The experience of an audience is hard to share beyond its limits. But it does exist, and it’s also worthy of recognition. That’s why I wrote this.