The (Dis)Embodied Voice: A Response to Kenneth Goldsmith

Editor’s Note: Last Friday, conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith presented his latest piece at Brown University’s Interrupt 3, a digital arts conference named for its practice of allowing panelists to interrupt one another. Requesting that he not be interrupted, Goldsmith read from a new poem he called “The Body of Michael Brown,” repurposing the St. Louis County autopsy report to end with a remark on the deceased’s ‘unremarkable genitalia.’ In the days following, Goldsmith’s poem has provoked considerable controversy as word of his performance has spread, and Goldsmith has now refused to let Brown University release a video of his reading.

The following is a critical reflection on Goldsmith’s performance, as presented by poet Aaron Apps on the final day of Interrupt. Apps is the author of three collections of poetry, including a recent prizewinning intertextual engagement with 19th-century French hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin’s memoirs titled Dear Herculine. He was specifically asked to read at the conference after posting this widely circulated response on Facebook, attached to a brief recording of Friday’s event:

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The (Dis)Embodied Voice

Here is my disembodied voice. Here is something I wrote late last night while my eyes were burning: with tiredness, with anger. Here is a haunting. I will not let you conceptualize the voice off of the subject position that committed the act. I am everywhere, my body is everywhere. I am there in the mass of violence that opens up before the angel of history. Avery Gordon describes haunting as “a frightening experience. [Haunting] always registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present. But haunting, unlike trauma, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done… haunting is the domain when things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away, when something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done.” I hope my voice opens into a haunting. As Goldsmith read his racializing penis and bullet hole fetish poem, I could only think of how this act did little more than co-opt Michael Brown’s corpse in a move that rhetorically replicates a violent history of medicalized and privatized black bodies, a history of violence that is always being enacted by white masculine subject positions. Goldsmith simply reinforces this, simply, dumbly, reinscribes it. There is no political intervention happening within this space: who here hasn’t seen that photo before? Who here wasn’t, on some level, invested in the grand jury decision, even if tangentially, even if poorly, even if in a way that made you feel like a shitty and disinvested person? The image, the death, is ubiquitous. Lyricizing a racialization of Brown’s corpse is horrific. Why would one do that in this space? Wait, that question isn’t interesting. Goldsmith’s piece isn’t provocative, it is explicitly invasive. To turn this toward the personal for a moment, I can’t help but think of the texts I often spend time with, texts by or involving intersex bodies, bodies like my own body, texts not for blank appropriation, texts that haunt, texts that involve bodies being cut up, refigured, pulled toward suicide, because white masculine subjects have decided the biological sex of those bodies doesn’t quite live up to certain expectations. How dare you make poetry porn out of a medicalized, dehumanized body. How dare you. How dare you present it in this space filled with privileged people playing at radical politics at the site of formal interventions in poems and lines of code. How dare people sit in the audience and talk about how important it was that they sat there and listened to it. How dare someone enact a microagression against me when I entered the conference. Real questions I have: What would that piece be like if Ronaldo Wilson read it? Would Claudia Rankine read it? How many people of color were invited to be keynote speakers at this “experimental” conference? How many people of color are on faculty in Lit Arts? How many people of color are in the room? 2? 3? 4? 5? How many truly, economically precarious bodies? 0? 0? 0? Who is more politically significant: Macklemore or Kenneth Goldsmith? How are you helping anyone in a disadvantaged position be an advocate for themselves rather than just engaging in faux political positioning in a room full of people playing around on computers? Are your feelings hurt? Are my feelings hurt? What are you eating for lunch? You should, like Bhanu Kapil once told me, not eat the Chiquita Banana or drink the Coke or ignore your complicity, but maybe you’re hungry, and I’m hungry too, but I’m also haunted. Listen to the voice. You’re dying. I’m here, I’m dying too.

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