When it appeared in 1937, Margaret Mitchell’s sole novel, Gone with the Wind, was a publishing sensation, selling one million copies in its first six months and winning its author that year’s Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, as the fiction category was then known. The book would sell even more copies after the movie version, starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, appeared in 1939 and won its own spate of highest honors, among them Academy Awards for Leigh as Best Actress for her portrayal of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara; for Victor Fleming as Best Director; and for Selznick International Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer as the Best Film of the Year. The Academy also broke new ground by nominating, for the first time, and awarding the Oscar to an African American, actress Hattie McDaniel, who reprised Mitchell’s novel’s “Mammy,” who was not just a character in the novel and film but a social archetype and offensive stereotype, with deep roots in the white Southern and broader American racist imaginary. That stereotype, it cannot be emphasized enough, still resonates today.
The film remains an icon of American cinema, its characters, its quotations, and its portrayal of the Civil War and its aftermath seared into the national–and international–consciousness, much like its ideological predecessor, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, based on white supremacist and arch-segregationist Thomas Dixon’s novels, had done with the Reconstruction period in the South. It is not going too far to say that Gone with the Wind’s images, its themes, and its revisionist master narrative, like other forms of racist ideas, and visual and material culture, including Blackface minstrelsy, have suffused American popular culture, and exist just beneath the surface of a good portion of what we still see today onscreen and in books. Both Mitchell’s novel and the film Gone with the Wind are racist and revisionist in ideological terms, infused with a “Lost Cause,” anti-Unionist perspective that can be traced directly back to its author’s and the larger Southern society’s belief in and justifications for the Confederacy. As that seditionist state’s former Vice President, Alexander Stephens, underlined in his Cornerstone Speech of May 1861 in Savannah, Georgia, “[the Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” There you have it, white supremacy and anti-black racism in distilled form, from the viper’s mouth itself.
Gone with the Wind, in its cinematic version, retains many aspects of the novel, down to direct quotations of the text, but it is one thing to watch Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Ashley, Mammy, and Prissy, among others, cavorting on screen, often beguiling, sometimes cringe-inducing as the entire spectacle, especially the latter characters’ scripted, stereotypical and caricatured actions may be, and it is another to read Mitchell’s written text, which brims over with her historical revisionism, grotesque depictions of the enslaved African Americans, and her flawed renditions of black speech, including liberal use of the n-word. In 1937, such characterizations and language would have provoked few to no negative responses from white or many black readers, as the book trafficked in white American literary and cultural conventions; today, in a novel or story collection, they would, I trust, spark criticism from critics of all races. That is, unless they were part of an ongoing “conceptual” project that mostly flies under the public radar, with some versions appearing in literary journals, and others in extended, durational form on social media platforms, in which case until someone noticed and paid attention to them, little if any criticism or critique might arise. Then all hell would break lose.
Conceptual art, or more accurately, conceptual artistic practices, have a long provenance that one might date back to various antecedents; from the perspective of Euro-American art, one could point back to Plato’s ideal forms, or Kantian formalism, or various experiments in music, the plastic arts, or Medieval and Early Modern forms of group and appropriative writing, or to performances by Modernist and post-Modernist figures on multiple shores of the Atlantic, with the various iterations of Yves Klein, Happenings, Fluxus, socially engaged projects in the US, South America, Europe, and elsewhere, and more formal dematerialization practices and performances of the late 1960s through the 1970s marking “conceptual art” as an established category. In its many guises, conceptual art underlines one of Plato’s central aesthetic insights, which is that art gains its power in part because it can be a vehicle for ideas and practices, which is to say, that ideas themselves can be incredibly powerful, and, as Plato warned, dangerous.
However you chart the genealogy, conceptual practice remains a valuable path in contemporary imaginative culture. Not every conceptual project or action succeeds, however, and none exists outside a given framework or frameworks that do not automatically endow and invest it with value and meaning. Content, form, style, and the project’s originators and practitioners (if there are any) matter as much as the contextual frame of the conceptual piece. For example, a conceptual project that plays on the idea of unspeakable but publicly objectionable ideas has a different meaning in a society in which types of speech are banned or criminalized by possible imprisonment or death than it does in a society in which all types of speech are possible, though liable to social sanction. To put it another, self-evident way, no conceptual project is value-free, and all are political in some manner or fashion.
In the case of Kenneth Goldsmith’s March 16, 2015 Brown University performance, in which he “remixed” and “read” Michael Brown’s autopsy report, the very fact that he, as a wealthy, socially privileged cis-gender straight white male, chose to appropriate and perform the remixed report, within (and despite) the broader and longstanding social and political context of the crisis of police harassment, the prison-industrial context and the New Jim Crow, and the state-sanctioned murder of black people, especially black men, made it an overtly political act. That he remixed it, ending with a riff on the murdered black man’s genitalia, to entertain a mostly white audience at one of the nation’s most elite universities, underlined the political valence of the performance. The dismemberment and display of black bodies before white audiences has an ugly history in the US, such that one might view Goldsmith’s performance as a form of symbolic lynching. Here the appropriate practice was neither “uncreative” nor apolitical; in its commodifying and reifying action-as-spectacle, it reinscribed the violence of Brown’s (and other black people’s) tragic death and its aftermath, and the erasure of his humanity, in an effort at ironic, clever entertainment. It was thus an act of oppression-as-art that fits well with the logic of white supremacy as it has long functioned in American society. It also broaches the question, beyond this specific conceptual act, of what is the formal manifestation of the sociopolitical philosophy and ethic/aesthetic modus operandi of anti-black racism and white supremacy, and aren’t there many such manifestations? Don’t we see them all the time?
To perform such an act is Kenneth Goldsmith’s right, as an artist and person. He and anyone else should be able to and ought to do whatever they feel brave enough to do. I do not know him, but I would imagine that even if he did not realize that his actions would brook harsh criticism, once the critiques began he recognized that they weren’t going to end, especially if the videotaped version of his performance aired, which is perhaps why he asked that it not be. Perhaps he even has considered the implications of his performance, and asked himself why he did it, why he felt it was necessary, and what he believes it contributed, to the Brown community, to the larger body of art in the US and the world, to his own oeuvre. Meanwhile, since Michael Brown’s murder last year and Goldsmith’s performance, at least several dozen black people, including Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Tony Robinson in Madison, Eric Harris in Tulsa, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, have been killed by police, and the system that makes such murders possible has not changed, though concerted protests all over the country strive to effect the changes–as opposed to the sloganeered “Change”–we badly need and are literally dying for. Perhaps Kenneth Goldsmith has thought about this as well, as have his supporters, who defended this work or remained silent in the face of it, which is, of course, their right.
Every artist takes such risks if she or he dares to do something truly transgressive, but certain forms of transgression are easier and less fraught than others. Given the racist and white supremacist history of the United States, and the ongoing systemic and structural forms of racism that still exist in what some commentators have been pushing to label a post-racial–if not post-racist–society, especially since the first election of Barack Obama in 2008. So it is with attorney, author and artist Vanessa Place’s apparently ongoing conceptual project–and I am characterizing it as such, though she may view it differently–involving variations on Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the subsequent film version of Gone with the Wind. Although I have contributed reviews to and periodically read Drunken Boat, I had missed her 2006 work of “fiction” in the journal, “Gone with the Wind.” A trip to Germany and encounters with the “multifarious reminders of Nazism” sparked this fiction. In her own words,
This piece—the gleaning of all passages in Gone with the Wind in which “nigger” features prominently (omitted are other racial epithets or denigrating enactments), then set in a block of text, a slave block—aims to remind white folks of their goings-on and ongoings. Self included, for there is personal guilt there as well, given my family is not just Caucasian American, but Southern, Virginian, as they say, “by the grace of God.” And God’s grace carries with it a certain responsibility for the error of blind loyalty (see, Abraham & Isaac). Too, GWTW is still a very much beloved bit of Americana (Molly Haskell recently published a book on Scarlett O’Hara as feminist icon, and last year’s Best Actress Oscar was announced to the soaring strains of “Tara’s Theme”), with very little attention paid to its blackface, or that its blackface is blackface. Or that, in such texts, characters are to people as people may be to property. So I have stolen Margaret Mitchell’s “niggers” and claim them as my own. In a funny way, I am replicating Huck Finn’s dilemma/conversion: to understand that keeping (not turning in runaway) Nigger Jim is stealing, for which one may well go to hell, and to do it anyway.
There is so much to criticize here, from the idea that this text will remind “white folks of their goings-on and ongoings”–really? did this text have this effect on any of its white readers?–to the personal guilt which elides the larger social and historical guilt, violence and trauma not only of chattel slavery, but of Civil War and post-bellum violence, forms of debt peonage and forced imprisonment, Jim Crowism and de facto and de jure segregation, redlining, and on and on. The elision of the societal and social in favor of the personal is a common liberal gesture, and it fits with a perspective that can call out individual racist moments or events (which is a good thing), but maintains naieveté and innocence before the systems and structures of racism and white supremacy that make white (skin) privilege and power possible, and does not seek to dismantle them.
Moreover, who must be elided or erased for GWTW to be a “much beloved bit of Americana”? Whose graves and bodies must be trampled on, without a second thought? And, as I need not say, not only is it deeply disturbing to hear a queer white woman talking about stealing Mitchell’s “‘niggers'” and claiming them as her own–in the process commodifying and reifying them–but placing herself in the affective space of the naïf Huck, with his partial “innocence” of the fact that, at one level, as Jane Smiley has pointed out, he was taking his “friend” into ever greater danger, made literal when Jim was re-re-enslaved in Arkansas. In other words, she was reproducing the very power relations she allegedly aimed to be critiquing.
Another version of this project appeared in the July/August issue of Poetry, in which “Miss Scarlett” appears. I will not quote the piece here, but I will reprint the note beneath the poem, which reads as follows:
NOTES: Taken from Prissy’s famous scene in the movie version of Gone with the Wind, Place phonetically transcribes the “unreliable” slave’s words, which are then set in Miltonic couplets. Through the simple act of transcription, Place inverts our relationship to Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling and beloved American epic by prioritizing the formal aspects of language over Mitchell’s famous narrative. With this deconstructive move, Place illuminates the many subtexts embedded in the text concerning plays of power, gender, race, and authorship. By ventriloquizing the slave’s voice as well as Mitchell’s, Place also sets into motion a nexus of questions regarding authorship, leading one to wonder: who is pulling whose strings?
Again, so many issues. A conceptual, which is to say formalist white-gaze gesture, involving the screenplay version (whose authors included the white screenwriters Sidney Howard, Oliver Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, and John Van Druten) of racist author Margaret Mitchell’s rendering of purported black speech, is supposed to represent a “deconstructive move” that reveals subtexts in the text concerning power, gender, race, and authorship. As if those are not already legible in the very fact of who wrote the novel and the screenplay, and who directed the film, let alone the life experiences of any black American person living in the United States in the era in which the film was set, or was made! Quite a few people reading Mitchell’s novel, or watching the film, or reading Place’s poem, realize quite clearly “who is pulling whose strings.” The question is, who doesn’t? Or who isn’t even being considered–who is being elided and effaced?–in the conceptualization Place’s poem engages and enacts?
Which brings me to the most recent manifestation, in my viewing, of this project, Place’s durational tweeting of Mitchell’s novel’s text. As part of this effort, Place replaced her Twitter avatar with an image of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, and featured an image of a minstrel “Mammy” featured on the cover of the sheet music for Martin Saxx’s 1899 song “Jemima’s Wedding Day,” visible on Brown University’s online library depository.
I do not follow Place on Twitter, so I had missed it until I noticed that the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo not only had rightly called attention to it (and has forcefully critiqued the entire Gringpo biz, as have others in academic and non-academic forums), but was seeking to get the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to rethink Place’s role as an official arbiter of the panels at next year’s annual AWP conference in Los Angeles. Many others joined in the effort, on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. (This effort, and a Change.org petition initiated by Tom Volpert, appears to have succeeded.)
As I noted on Twitter, I believe Place, like Goldsmith, has the right to post such things, and if she feels compelled to continue doing so, she should. Their supporters should continue to support them, and make arguments on their behalf as they see fit. I do not believe in censorship, and she or anyone else ought to say whatever she likes, however offensive to one or many groups, with an awareness of what the effects of such behavior are, as well as the potential consequences might be. In the case of the tweets and the petition, it struck me as valid to call AWP’s attention to the fact that someone engaging in repeatedly replicating racist speech, whether singly or in multiple forms, whatever the vehicle, might not be the right person to make judgements about the panel submissions of people targeted by or whose panel topics, ideas and themes were the targets of the racist speech, but that was a decision for AWP and any organization to make.
Most importantly, though, I think it is crucial to call racist speech what it is and not dance around it, and as I stated at the Thinking Its Presence conference at the University of Montana in Missoula, it is especially incumbent upon white people, especially progressive white people and allies in the anti-racist cause, to publicly call out not just personal instances of racism, but to actively critique white supremacy and its effects. Even at the cost of the privileges and power it conveys. While it might be theoretical or conceptual to some people, I and many millions of other people have to deal with the reality of racism and white supremacy as part of our daily life experiences. An onslaught or even single instance of racist speech–or homophobic, or sexist and misogynistic, or ableist speech, to give other examples–whether spewed by a human being standing before you or appearing daily in a Twitter feed, on a news website, on blogs, or wherever, is quite different for people who are the targets and objects of such invective.
What is the limit point of conceptual practice of this sort? Does such conceptual acts really and truly represent a counterstatement or argument to the implicit ideological violence and trauma of the source idea–and text, in the case of the projects–when it reinscribes and commodifies that violence and trauma? How does it undermine or deconstruct the social, political and economic relations that make such violence and trauma possible? Let me ask again: what is the formal manifestation of the sociopolitical philosophy and ethic/aesthetic modus operandi of anti-black racism and white supremacy? Are not the multiple forms of literary and cultural apartheid today, among other tangible artifacts, so frequently and casually deployed and allegedly unintentional, not part of the larger American ideological matrix whose corollary was the Nazism Place rightly noted to be still evident, in various ways, in Germany? What is the terminus in terms of extremity? These are not questions with easy answers, but if we are exploring the possibility of conceptual aesthetics, we should be asking them.
They come down once again, I would argue, to the factors I enumerated above, chief among them to the social, political and cultural contexts in which the concept act or project is enacted. Under what contexts would reading Michael Brown’s autopsy report have been acceptable, or the reinscription been acceptable? And to whom? You could say that if a member of Michael Brown’s family, or protesters speaking against his murder, made the decision to perform a verbal re-autopsy, you might have a case that would stand up. That is not what happened in the case of Goldsmith. What about retweeting Gone With the Wind? Place, in her book Tragodia 1: Statement of Facts, for example, presented horrifying accounts, drawn from real court transcripts, of sex crimes cases. Did this text go too far? Or did the justifications of Place’s aims for this material and project suffice?
I also was wondering whether another artist’s next step, after Place has exhausted the storehouse of Gone With the Wind, would be another text from the vast trove of racist Americana, with black Americans or black people in general, as its target, which would be in keeping, as I said above in relation to Goldsmith’s text, with this society’s white supremacist and anti-black racist social and political logic. Would it even be ironic in the face of the revealed phantasm–how many more black people have to be shot dead by cops? How many attempts at striking down voting laws need to be pushed and passed by state legislatures, and ratified by the US Supreme Court? How much resegregation, disinvestment and displacement through gentrification needs to occur?–of post-raciality (if not post-racism). Indeed, since Place sought to call attention to racism by enacting it in her Drunken Boat poem, if she or someone else wanted to continue along this trajectory, would not another anti-black racist text be appropriate? Why not go to one of the American fonts, like Thomas Dixon, or William Pierce themselves?
Or could the textual target be other racial or ethnic minorities in the US? Would it be mixed race people, who have long been a hobbyhorse of white supremacists? Would it be Asian Americans, or Arab Americans or Indigenous peoples, all of whose bodies have been historically subject to state violence, repression and oppression in the US? What about other socially or politically targeted or marginal people in the US, like LGBTIQs, or undocumented people, or differently abled people, especially people of color intersectionally embodying more than one of these categories? Would it be a text that parodied or singled out religious minorities, like Muslims? Would not any of these targets, if not as easy as going after black people, nevertheless be expected?
Would any of the conceptualists dare engage in the very anti-Semitism whose “formal manifestation” as sociopolitical philosophy and ethical/aesthetic modus operandi, as Place pointed out in her Drunken Boat “Artist’s Statement,” was Nazism? Why would anyone feel the compulsion to do this, and how would she explain it? Would a conceptualist dare tweet or make “fictions” or poems from Mein Kampf, or the extreme racist text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Would this represent a limit point, and how would not just the artist, but supporters and friends react to the certain criticism to follow? Would any mainstream national or international institution hesitate, even for a second, to respond to such a provocation? Would that close the book on this strain of conceptual practice temporarily, or for good?
Originally appeared on the author’s blog, J’s Theater. Reprinted with permission by the author.
Photo: Wall Mural, Long Branch, NJ: Street Scene, “1939” by Tony Fischer
Copyright © John Keene, 2015