Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown”: How a Poem Meant to Illuminate Racism Ended Up Performing It

Last Friday, at a Brown University conference titled Interrupt 3, MoMA Poet Laureate Kenneth Goldsmith read from the St. Louis County autopsy report for Michael Brown, which he had appropriated and lightly edited for a poem he christened “The Body of Michael Brown.” The audience reaction, according to one report, was “fairly subdued.” The Twitter reaction was not. Since Friday, several writers, including Saeed Jones and Roxane Gay, have expressed exasperation or frustration or anger with Goldsmith. (Some of these tweets are compiled here.) The Mongrel Coalition, a radical group that pits itself against the white, colonialist bent of conceptual art and poetry, issued a response. On Saturday, Goldsmith received a death tweet from Cassandra Gellig, who has since been discharged from the social network. A couple of writers, too, either defended Goldsmith or aired muted admonition. One of these was Jacqueline Valencia, who admits to the poet’s influence on her own work.

You may know Goldsmith as the founder of the digital crate UbuWeb, or simply as a conceptualist and “uncreative” poet who has thrived for decades, for better or worse, on the mutual ignorance of the art and literary worlds. Or you may recognize him from the pages of The New Yorker, where he sometimes adumbrates developments in online poetry for an audience that is too busy reading The New Yorker to spend time reading online poetry. Goldsmith took to Facebook on Sunday to explain how the appropriation of Brown’s autopsy report fits within his “practice.” Here it is, as Goldsmith might say, lightly edited:

In the tradition of my previous book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, I took a publicly available document from an American tragedy that was witnessed first-hand (in this case by the doctor performing the autopsy) and simply read it. Like Seven American Deaths and Disasters, I did not editorialize…The document I read from is powerful. My reading of it was powerful. How could it be otherwise? Such is my long-standing practice of conceptual writing: like Seven American Deaths and Disasters, the document speaks for itself in ways that an interpretation cannot. It is a horrific American document, but then again it was a horrific American death.

I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary. I indeed stated at the beginning of my reading that this was a poem called “The Body of Michael Brown”; I never stated, “I am going to read the autopsy report of Michael Brown.”…I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature, for that it [sic] what they are when I read them. That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing…

Notwithstanding this self-defense, Goldsmith, as of yesterday, asked the university not to release the video of his performance. He also donated his speaker’s fee to the family of Michael Brown:

I am requesting that Brown University not make public the recording of my performance of “The Body of Michael Brown.” There’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more. My speaker’s fee from the Interrupt 3 event will be donated to the family of Michael Brown.

Is this all over now? In some respects, it would seem to be, although I can’t shake the feeling that nothing has been resolved. And by “resolved,” I don’t mean that someone should have brokered a truce. My worry is that Goldsmith and those who would defend his practice somehow believe that the offended parties are clueless about the aesthetic and political radicality of their enterprise. As far as I can tell, Goldsmith hasn’t retracted his defense, and he certainly hasn’t suggested that he’ll relinquish his status as a fearless post-historical wielder of Duchampian readymades. If anything, his request that the video not be shown is on par with his belief that “if it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.” By not showing the video, Goldsmith believes — even on the theoretical level — the problem will simply disappear.

Although I certainly believe he is sorry, I’m not convinced that Goldsmith thinks he’s done anything wrong. As far as I can tell, this is all a part of his “practice,” one that relies on what William James called “metanoia” (itself an appropriation of the Greek and Christian term), or the changing of mind that comes with a shifting context. In this case, he believes that he has defamiliarized the autopsy report by shifting it to a new, “literary” context. For a succinct version of what he hopes to accomplish, look at this description of his book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, to which his new poem belongs in spirit:

While we’ve become accustomed to watching endless reruns of these tragic spectacles—often to the point of cliché—once rendered in text, they become unfamiliar, and revealing new dimensions emerge. Impartial reportage is revealed to be laced with subjectivity, bias, mystery, second-guessing, and, in many cases, white-knuckled fear. Part nostalgia, part myth, these words render pivotal moments in American history through the communal lens of media.

Under this rationale, Goldsmith’s reading of the autopsy report as a poem, as a performance at Brown, should have revealed “new dimensions” of the text. The problem, though, is that it didn’t.

One issue here is that the autopsy report is already, in many ways, a racist document. It is already an act of violence perpetrated by a racist state. (Or, if you like, it’s the product of an act of state violence.) So by shifting the language of the report to a new context, under a new title of his own creation, Goldsmith wasn’t revealing new dimensions of the text. In the new context — under the triple aegis of Goldsmith’s name, title, and literary-art world cachet — the document doesn’t escape white appropriation or find salvation under the blessed light of the literary. On the contrary, the report is plunged back into whiteness: Goldsmith’s whiteness, literary whiteness, the whiteness of an elite academic institution. This means that Goldsmith could not have been defamiliarizing or dramatizing the report’s latent, institutional racism: he could only perform it anew. And that’s exactly what he did.

The second problem is one endemic to much of conceptual and digital art practice (and, increasingly, poetry): it often fails to see that words and bodies are linked. Or, in this case, it seems that Goldsmith failed to care. He knew enough of what he was doing to title the poem — inexplicably, provocatively — “The Body of Michael Brown,” but he doesn’t seem bothered (overmuch) by the brute fact that the language of the autopsy report is inextricably linked to the body of an innocent black murder victim. He fails to understand that, when lives and bodies are at stake, not all acts of appropriation, not every context, is equal.

This is not to suggest that all conceptualist poetry is doomed. One recent work of poetry that incorporates conceptualist practice, in fact, puts Goldsmith’s failure into relief. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which collects stories of casual racism and folds them into its profound lyric, is firmly opposed to Goldsmith’s poem in its relation to bodies:

Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.

And it was Citizen that first came to my mind when I read what Goldsmith had done. Or rather it was a line written by Zora Neale Hurston that Rankine quoted, absorbed, and refreshed (for me), a declaration and injunction that I hope flashes through the mind of any writer or artist would appropriate black life unthinkingly: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”