Anonymity and the Privilege of Uncreative Writing

Photo Credit: © Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Kenneth Goldsmith, © Cameron Wittig (Walker Art Center)

On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.

Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.

In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):

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 […] 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, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.

Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:

You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:

Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.

In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally: 

Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:

In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.

Mia You responded with the following question:

In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?

This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.

It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.

I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?