Conceptual Coda / Vanessa Place

Get Traumatized: Reading Statement of Facts as Binge-Watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

As with my second plateau on Goldsmith, I am interested in the ways that the reader of Statement of Facts is made less free in the process of his or her reading. Obviously, this argument is a controversial one; after all, conceptualism is predicated on the lack of intention on the part of the author, and thus the openness of the potential readings available to the reader increasing his or her freedom of interpretation and experience. Throughout my work I have come to understand that the reader of these more recent conceptual projects, with Goldsmith and Place as the most popular writers, is actually made much less free in his or her reading process. Where I argued that Goldsmith’s looming presence in Soliloquy functioned as a “man-behind-the-curtain” curtailing reader freedom, my problems with Place’s presence in Statement of Facts are decidedly more frustrated. What I would essentially like to argue is that this text is, at its core, sensationalist, and it requires that the reader engage with and experience the text in a certain more or less unavoidable way. The collection is designed to bombard the reader with the juxtaposition of detached legal jargon and violent personal trauma that leave us both desensitized to the sexual violence and traumatized by it. We are meant to be shocked by these moments of detachment, increasing our affective response to the text just like the deadpan stare of a psychopath in a horror film would; his (or her) lack of empathy is inversely proportional to our own increased emotional response. And it is through this sensationalism and affective trauma that we find Statement of Facts vastly more readable than Soliloquy—I wonder what this says about us as readers psychologically, but that is far beyond the scope of this project.

What I am trying to say, first and foremost, is that the reading of Statement of Facts is traumatic and emotionally exhausting. While I can only truthfully attest to this feeling through my own reading experience, the trauma of reading this book is also evident in the responses to it. For example, in her review of Statement of Facts for the American Book Review, Anna Moschovakis may not come right out and say that the reading felt like an extended binge-watching of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but her tone throughout the review indicates a clear bombardment by the emotional charge of the text. She writes:

The book’s 430 pages contain tale after tale of touching, sucking, forcing, cutting, binding, stalking, hitting, whipping, burning, cajoling, drugging, abducting, imprisoning, deceiving, crying, apologizing, and raping, raping, raping. The victims are mothers, daughters, students, neighbor boys, wives, cousins, infants, employees, prostitutes, and the elderly. The appellants are gang members, pimps, drug dealers, dropouts, respected teachers, former police officers, members of the military, and psychologists.

Moschovakis’s exhausting and exhaustive list reflects the repetition inherent in the conceptual text, but this kind of listing is markedly different from Goldsmith recording movie listings as part of his project, Day. She demonstrates that the reader of this book cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the trauma recounted therein. This, coupled with the knowledge of the fact that this is a compilation of appealed guilty-verdicts alongside Place’s position as the legal defense of the appellants (so-called throughout the text), suggests that this repetitive trauma is by and large the intended result of the reading process.

There is also, I would argue, an element of the confessional in Statement of Facts. It may seem obvious, but I must point out that the text is clearly produced as an almost therapeutic response to the guilt Place as lawyer feels throughout her job. Hers is not an easy position, defending the accused in these cases. Occasionally, it appears that the accused is not morally guilty of a crime, as is the case in one scenario where a sex tape that appears to involve some violence in the consensual text is used as evidence for a sexual offense without charges laid by the victim. But, for the most part, the reader is positioned to side empathetically and politically with the victims of the crimes as opposed to the accused. In this way, the text is produced as a way of dealing with Place’s guilt resulting from her legal work. There is also, I suspect, some degree of guilt placed on the reader of the text, who cannot help but empathize with Place who must deal with the repetition and emotional strain of this work on a daily basis. We as readers need only to put down this book to escape the difficulties of reading these narratives, but because of her job Place is not afforded the same breaks. As a reader, I can only imagine the difficulty of this job; as a critic, I cannot help but consider the fact that Place uses Statement of Facts as a piece of confessional poetry, too, communicating and—to some degree—expressing the emotionally difficulties of her position to the reader who experiences a kind of catharsis through the repetitive strain of its reading.

Additionally, the effect of transposing these legal briefs from the appeals court and into the realm of poetic art/text is that the author (as producer) draws attention to the ways in which the legal text is not meant to be an affective text. For this text to work as it should, it relies on a degree of scepticism about the supposed impartiality of the juridical system as well as the requisite shock that accompanies the defamiliarization of narratives of trauma into a deadpan tone. The transposition of these narratives into the realm of poetry without the emotional appeal that traditionally accompanies these narratives results in the traumatic shock of real, lived, personal violence not being treated as such. Part of the defamiliarization comes from the air of impartiality inherent in the tone of legal briefs, but part of it also comes from Place’s treatment of these emotionally relevant documents as pure materiality, as dead language appropriated like Goldsmith steals the New York Times for Day or the weather, traffic, or sports broadcasts for his American Trilogy. In her review article, “The Death of the Text: Kenneth Goldsmith at the White House” for Harriet: A Poetry Blog on poetryfoundation.org, Place reveals her understanding of the dead (or dormant) materiality of source text used to produce conceptual poetry. She writes that, essentially, “the text says nothing but what is fed through it. The text is machine, not mirror. In this sense, text is screen: not a mirror of us, but for us, and thus, us for it.” This kind of treatment of language as stuff, as a thing rather than a living voice reflecting the lived experience of the individual speaking, may seem like the innocuous statements of an average conceptual artist, but as Marjorie Perloff’s dangerous statements at the 2010 “Rethinking Poetics” conference indicate, this treatment walks the dangerous line of bringing to light the inherent difficulties of expression, and working to silence minority and victim voices[i].

Indeed, as Steven Zultanski observes in his review of Statement of Facts, this treatment of the court briefs as dead language may expose the potentials of language to function as pure materiality, but it also opens the door for a dangerous moral relativism that allows Perloff to denigrate victims voices and disregard the lived experiences being appropriated for the conceptual text. Zultanski writes:

Because, according to Place, conceptual writing presents the inertness of the text, it can be re-framed in any way one wishes, insofar as an inert, inutile text is not self-reflexive, and does not make its own meaning. Because of her repeated statements of this sort, Place’s ‘any reading is a good reading’ stance loses its provocative appeal (in which the author simply refuses to give the readers what they want), and instead becomes a rationalization of a realist relativism (in which a flimsy ontology serves as a crutch for cynical postmodernism).

What this points out is that Statement of Facts does not open the doors for readers to come away with “any reading” that could be classified as a “good reading.” Instead, though I welcome potential disagreement with this point, I believe that the reader is forced to grapple with the idea that this politically and emotionally charged language could ever effectively be rendered as pure materiality, as merely ink on a page. As “radical mimesis” (a term Place uses in “The Death of the Text”), Statement of Facts is not a machine that says nothing; it is a confessional piece, a sensationalist piece, and an affectively engaging piece that often reads more like true crime than like a detached conceptual collection of dead language. And because of this, I fail to see the opportunity for the reader to come away feeling as though he or she had the freedom to produce any good reading. The text acts upon its reader, carrying him or her through the traumas of these narratives, and in this sense I worry that rather than radical activism, the text is at best unaware of its actions and at worst a promulgation of the sensationalism of sexual violence in popular media.


 

[i] Steven Zultanski says this of Perloff’s comments: “[A]t 2010’s Rethinking Poetics conference, Marjorie Perloff caused the audience to collectively gasp when she claimed that what Statement of Facts reveals to us is that the victims of rape are ‘at least as bad as or worse than the rapists.’” Stephanie Young provides some good responses to the talk in her report of the conference, available here. She also includes Perloff’s letter sent to her in response to her report, available here.

4 thoughts on “Get Traumatized: Reading Statement of Facts as Binge-Watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

  1. Hmm. Overall, I like the plateau, and I think your discussion of the sensationalism in Place’s text is provocative and also quite accurate. But I’m not convinced by your discussion of Place’s feelings of guilt. Is it fair to say that this authorial guilt is necessarily inherent in the text? Or is that something that you (we) as reader bring to the text and project onto it? I guess my misgivings swirl around the possibility that you’re inscribing authorial intention onto a text that you suggest (quite accurately, I think) in your last plateau as one where Place refuses to contextual the text–which means, doesn’t it, that she also refuses to explain her intentions? So I think you might be on thin ice here; that doesn’t mean you have to scrap or even change your argument–but I think you might need to acknowledge this problem, if only to argue against it and thus reaffirm your point.

    Also, I don’t want to essentialize, but is there a difference between men reading this text and women reading it? As I recall, all of the appellants/abusers are male, and almost(?) all of the witnesses/victims are female. Does such a strong gender divide in the text lead to a noticeable gender divide in the reading community? I know that you can’t answer such a question, but do you have any thoughts on it? This seems like a rare opportunity to possibly discuss gender in relation to postanarchism?

    • “Also, I don’t want to essentialize, but is there a difference between men reading this text and women reading it? As I recall, all of the appellants/abusers are male, and almost(?) all of the witnesses/victims are female” — Yeah, so this is something I was thinking about reading the text. I think the sampling of cases in Statement of Facts does a good job of demonstrating the obvious ways that gendered power dynamics play into sexual assault cases, but also always giving other situations where this power dynamic is more complicated (the sex tape one is the first one that comes to mind, but there are others). I agree that I’ll need to address the gender dynamics at play here.

      And you’re right — guilt does presuppose authorial intention. I think that such a reading is invited by the understanding that these documents come out of her real life day job. Had they been other randomly chosen court documents, I think that such a reading would be invalid. But I do think there’s some guilt at play… I’ll have to substantiate that further, though.

      I think there’s probably a way to deal with this through the double meaning of guilt at play here — guilty parties and personal feelings of guilt — but in order to do so I’d definitely have to read Place’s The Guilt Project (http://www.amazon.ca/The-Guilt-Project-Rape-Morality/dp/1590512642) which I simply don’t have time to do right now.

  2. I somehow overlooked the double meaning of guilt when I was reading your plateau–oops! That’s definitely something to discuss.

  3. Pingback: State What: The Anarcho-Conceptual Syndicate’s Politically Responsible Conceptual Writing |

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