Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Friday, December 25, 2015

On Goldsmith, Perloff and Race

I am hopelessly behind on many things. I teach and am currently attending yet another graduate school, this time to get my second Master’s degree – in English. This means that I am working or in class 14 hours some days and the days I do not spend in that way I spend my time grading or writing papers. So apparently there has been a whirlwind blowing up about Marjorie Perloff, Kenneth Goldsmith, and race that I am behind on. Having been out of the loop on this, I nonetheless had a few thoughts as I read Jen Hofer’s account as well as the portion of the transcript that she had published. I don't know that I have anything shockingly new to add to the conversation, but since when did that stop anyone, especially me, from commenting?


I just read Marjorie Perloff’s statements about Michael Brown, made at an art festival ¬¬in Demark At that festival, in a Q&A, she talked about Michael Brown as “scary” and she started saying that we shouldn’t always equate victimhood with innocence. According to a transcript from Hofer and published in this online article, Perloff then went on to talk about victims of the holocaust as not so innocent and if you look into their backgrounds, many were (probably) really terrible people.

All this would be fine if the Michael Brown incident were isolated and not a product of persistent racism stemming not just from a history of slavery, or segregation and discrimination that were all part of our past, now that we are “post-racial,” and not part of persistent racism that occurs on a daily basis in the 1990s and 2000s in America. If there were not a report released on 14 US cities where only black Americans were killed by the police this year. The comments would be fine if what happened in WWII Germany had not been the result of persistent anti-Semitism for centuries and had reared its ugly head again in the recent decade(s) leading up to WWII. If these things were not a part of an ongoing pattern and were simply things that happened to a few morally ambiguous individuals.


In both of these comments, Perloff comes off as sounding like Kenneth Goldsmith himself, being intentionally provocative while maintaining an Alfred E. Neuman-like “What, Me?” stance. While I admire much about Goldsmith’s work, I can also see the flaws in his approach and the “radical artifice” in his attitudes. I find much of Goldsmith’s work to be said with a wink designed to get people’s hackles up and there really are no limits, as he has shown by his use of “found materials,” repurposing non-poetic materials to his non-poetic (wink wink, nudge nudge) ends.

I think the thing that unites all of this work, Perloff’s statements that many perceive as racist, her continued advocacy of “white male” poets and a while male avant-garde, and Goldsmith’s appropriation of Michael Brown’s autopsy report is not necessarily an inherent racism, but moreover, the belief that the “canon” of literature can and should somehow be a-historical. That somehow it shouldn’t comment on our times, but should rise above the specific historical context is something that only a privileged few – mostly white men and some privileged white women – have the luxury to do. The rest of us are struggling with our historical moment as women and non-white males.

For many of us, we do not have the luxury of being a-historical, and frankly, neither did many of the best previous avant-gardists of any era. Andre Breton and Louis Aragon were deeply embroiled in the politics of their era. Tristan Tzara worked for the French Resistance and Robert Desnos died in a concentration camp. Breton was in Haiti as the Haitian revolution broke out and it has been suggested that his presence hastened that revolution. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were involved in revolutionary politics and harbored Trotsky. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece brought unapologetic attention to the politics around women’s bodies. There are countless examples of artists and poets in the avant-garde who did not hide behind their art, even if they were white males, but used their art, their free speech, to push their politics and the art was enriched by their politics, rather than being impoverished by it.


Does being a victim of an atrocity erase any previous misdeeds? Does being a respected and at times revered literary theorist or poet insulate you from social criticism of your work and your comments? It seems to be that these two situations may be equivocal.

In Hofer's transcript, Perloff gives us the usual critique of the younger generation: “Back in my day, we didn’t do that.” Abe Simpson’s voice rings clearly in my head.

“When I went to school I was taught you say “Ah, this is good, but might he have not done this, or there could be more of that,” or you know, you attacked politely” when I went to school I was taught you say “Ah, this is good, but might he have not done this, or there could be more of that,” or you know, you attacked politely (Perloff qtd in Hofer). Perloff blames this on internet culture and incivility. And certainly there are uncivil things being said on the internet. But this emphasis on “being attacked politely” is also part of the assumption that academia should be a nice place where people don’t discuss things that they feel strongly about or that involve strong passions? Where does the line between outrage and incivility get drawn?


I have not seen Kenneth Goldsmith’s piece, but I do know a lot about his work and his detached persona. That is not an inherent part of the avant-garde. He could have used the autopsy to bring attention to the injustice that is being done to African-Americans throughout the country. Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, Minneapolis, etc. etc. Perhaps that is what he intended to do in his “objective” hipster way. I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt on some of this. But Perloff is on dangerous ground not only with her comments about Michael Brown and of victimhood vs. innocence, but in her insistence that the work of anyone that is not white, privileged, and male is not worthy of her notice.

1 comment:

Fluffy Singler said...

Here's another article about Perloff and her comments: