Kenneth Goldsmith’s Formalized Injustice

(cover image-screenshot via @soulellis/Twitter)

Of all the furor following Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of “The Body of Michael Brown,” I really like P.E. Garcia’s piece. It’s well worth reading on its own, even in isolation from the controversy. Its first section, on visiting Helena-West Helena, AK, before he addresses Goldsmith’s work at all, is a vivid meditation on the role of art, and the artist’s role in shaping what’s real.

That first section is made up of despairing, surreal images of Helena, crushed under a feeling of historical vertigo, racial atrocities: ants he hadn’t noticed on his foot, a random man’s small-talk of weather and apocalypse, invasive kudzu that swamp plantation houses.

I like the conclusion of this section — the images of Helena recur, with question marks, as he holds them in this inconclusive limbo. Garcia explores out loud if he has any meaning worth giving them, if there’s any space for him, as an artist and an outsider, to shape what’s there in words and metaphor.

I don’t know, I’m not sure a resident could write it any better – they might have more to speak of, a deeper well to draw from, but Garcia captures this feeling succinctly, and with a raw eye. Even if he worries he’ll annihilate the reality of what he saw under his words, I like them anyway.

I think there’s a hidden answer here to his concern, of whether he has a right to use this town for raw material: artists can’t avoid re-shaping what’s real. No one can, when all experience occurs in subjectivity, and to communicate experience, even to ourselves, necessitates re-casting it in language. How could we ever look at an experience, a sensation we get of an object and say, “There, that’s where I, my consciousness ends, and unmediated reality begins.”

P. E. Garcia’s best argument against Goldsmith comes on the same grounds, that an artist can’t escape themselves: “Simply put, for Kenneth Goldsmith to stand on stage and not be aware that his body–his white male body, a body that is a symbol loaded with a history of oppression, of literal dominance and ownership of black bodies–is a part of the performance, then he has failed to notice something drastically important about the ‘contextualization’ of this work.”

It’s been suggested, too, that Goldsmith was being deliberately provocative, seeking attention. I think it’s more likely he hadn’t expected anyone to get upset: that his whiteness wasn’t an issue for him; that it seemed invisible, at least irrelevant.

I don’t value an artist’s intent at all in reading a work of art – that said, it’s clear from his Facebook defense, Goldsmith wished to remove himself from the text entirely: “I did not editorialize; I simply read it without commentary.” (Although some criticism of his performance hinges on the fact that he did alter the text – rearranging sentences to, as he puts it, make it “more literary” – this is missing the point; he’d still be white, after all. It does make it more difficult to claim his authorship is negligible.)

It’s undeniably a mistake to think the author’s race doesn’t matter to the piece—on the contrary, his whiteness opens up a stronger reading. It deepens its potential meaning.

The killing of Michael Brown is a brutal, painful story about being black in America. The sad, frustrating story of its aftermath – the media reports, the backlash to the backlash, the search for an “official” story – has more to say about whiteness in America.

Immediately, the call went up in white America, “We must collect the facts.” By this, it was not meant we should pay attention to the prime, self-evident, and only necessary fact, that Brown was unarmed but dead – no: Was he the man seen on camera stealing a Black & Mild? What were “his actions” that led to this “confrontation?” Eric Garner, was he resisting arrest? What will an autopsy say?

One dichotomy of facts was elevated above all others: Did Darren Wilson feel threatened, or were Mike Brown’s hands up? Mainstream and media discussion swung on this binary—one way would be unjust, the other permissible. But take a close look at the language at play: subjective experience was asked of the white cop, objective proof for his black victim.

In the broader context, we focused on finding race-delineated numbers for police shootings—surprise, none were being collected. Candice Lanius covers this search for statistics on Cyborgology, in her article “Fact Check: Your Demand for Statistical Proof is Racist.” It offers some contextual analysis and history on the purportedly neutral use of data. “Statistics are used when personal experience is in doubt, because the analyst has no intimate knowledge of it. Statistics are consistently used as a technology of the educated elite to discuss the lower classes and subaltern.”

I’ll resist my urge to quote the whole article: “Anything approaching a ‘post-racial society’ would not require different types of evidence to tell our life stories: anecdotal evidence for white people, statistics for black people.” For illustration, she says, an old white woman can say a neighborhood is “sketchy,” and we’ll nod, OK. Black men say they fear interactions with police, and the call goes up for numbers, to verify that lived experience.

This is the story of the aftermath of Ferguson, as it pertains to whiteness: the construction of an “official story,” which buries, or “re-contextualizes” the truth under a mountain of factoids. The same technique we saw exonerate Wilson before he could stand trial.

The language of an autopsy – read out loud to an audience, as it was never meant to be – lays bare this formalized injustice. The words are a brutal alienation, in the strictest sense; they take Mike Brown’s body away from him, re-shaping it as an object of study. The scientific, “impartial” diction it uses creates a disconnect between what the audience hears and what they know happened, mirrored by the image of Brown in his graduation gown, projected above the reading. A dissonance exists between the dry lifelessness of those words and raw, moral-drenched reality.

“The Body of Michael Brown” is art made out of the response from white America to his death: the search for “evidence,” obscuring reality; “objectivity” that annihilates truth, which is always felt subjectively; the poem re-enacts the official process that shapes raw, unfiltered reality into something more manageable, something rational, with a hand that’s meant to seem invisible. And it contains the inevitable failure of that language to address reality.

Isn’t it this nature of the text that explains the “subdued,” troubled reaction from the people who heard it? Goldsmith’s race, regardless of intent, amplifies this message—a message, primarily, about whiteness, about the way it makes people suffer, and deprives us of what’s real.

De-contextualization isn’t just the mistake Goldsmith made—it’s the message.


Adam Jordan writes poems and other things and tweets (@bonecamaro). 

Submit a comment