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State What: The Anarcho-Conceptual Syndicate’s Politically Responsible Conceptual Writing

I will admit, as most “readings” of conceptual poetry must also admit, that I have not read Scaffold in its entirety. But I should like, at this point in my digestion, to share with you readers my first feelings about the text and the way that it engages with the existing literature of conceptualism. My first reaction was one of such extreme affective engagement with the text that I had to turn away from my screen some four pages into it. Scaffold is moving, jarringly so, in a way that other conceptual pieces about violence—in particular Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts—are not. In earlier posts on conceptualism I referred to Statement of Facts as a sensationalist text that bombards its readers with traumatizing and then desensitizing violence. Scaffold does not tend towards the same sensationalism. These speakers rarely recount the violence of their actions that brought them into the penal system, nor do they dwell on the violence of execution that awaits them on the other side of their speeches. Rather than a book that restates the voices of those in power—for example, guilty parties in sexual violence cases who are appealing their guilty verdicts—Scaffold presents apparently guilty parties in the position of victims of a larger violence by a larger and more powerful guilty party, the American government. It even gives this power a name, though never a voice. He is Warden, Chaplain, an anonymous but omnipresent masculinist figure that stands between the sentenced and his or her loved ones, his or her victims, and the outside world. The Carceral Voice, the preface names it, too. The repetitive carceral narrative that meets violence with violence.

The figure of the Warden becomes a kind of character throughout the work, supplanted occasionally by the Chaplain in statements where the speaker appears particularly Christian. These are unsurprisingly common; after all, this is America and these are people who have faced their impending deaths with a knowledge we can never have and with the persistent call of the penal system to repent and to plead for forgiveness for their sins. In the preface to Scaffold, the Anarcho-Conceptual syndicate makes clear that the image of the Warden must serve as a symbol for the overarching power (of violence, of government, of a typically white male voice that insists on the power and importance of the conceptual text), even though he was not put there intentionally. As the preface indicates, “[u]ncannily, a repetitive story emerges over the course of the document, featuring its own unique conventions and characters (such as the omnipresent, yet ever-silent, Warden). Here though we hope that strength in numbers can overcome the Warden.” In some ways, by allowing these voices to aggregate and to collect, Scaffold works to overcome the figure of the Warden that would have these voices silenced.

This uncanny repetitive story is clearly marked by the affirming refrain of the inmates speaking a Molly Bloom-esque “Yes I do,” presumably a response to the Warden or Chaplain figure (who, without voice in these “exchanges” can only ever be a figure whose presence seeps into the shadows rather than looms above us). It comes in many forms—“Yeah,” “Yes, Warden,” “Yes sir,” and many more iterations, though it is usually “Yes I do.” These inmates, these victims of what the text’s preface terms a “racially motivated state violence,” are finally—quite finally—offered the chance to speak into and through the conceptual text. It’s, as far as I know, the first time these voices are interpolated and integrated into the conceptual poem; it does however bear significant resemblance to the names of the lost victims inscribed onto the watery surface of M. Nourbese Phillips’s Zong.  The “Yes I do” also recalls the call-and-answer motif that pervades writings from Black North America for the last century; a call-and-answer trope with a history in oral poetry, African literature, and Caribbean song (to name a few sources). But in this case the question(s) posed by institutions of power are not included; instead we get a barrage of responses, to voices that reach beyond their finality. Their repeated “Yes I do” affirms the right to speak against a state violence that disproportionally murders black perpetrators. Their “Yes I do” resonates.

The primary goal of Scaffold is to give a voice—or to point to the already existent, already speaking voices—of the oppressed, the silenced, the criminals cum victims of a state violence. As the text’s preface states adamantly at its close, “Rather than reading the autopsy report of yet another black civilian, anarcho-concepts restore words to the mouths of the dead, of the jailed, of the silenced. Anarcho­-concepts seek out a better future: a future in which everyone commands a voice and a platform and a poetry” (emph. in original). As an anarcho-concept, Scaffold refuses to let its conceptualism treat language as “stuff,” will not sit back and watch scholars read into its politics (or worse sit back and pretend the text has no politics).

In this one-sided call-and-answer, the responding voice is resoundingly irreverent in places. Some voices repent, atone, and apologize for transgressions. Still others maintain an innocence that feels all the more painful following the period that ends their sentence(s) and ushers in a new “Yes I do.” But what is most fascinating about the statements included in Scaffold is the ones that remain irreverent; that do not concede to ceremony, to religion, to the power of the Warden or the system that supports this figure. Some effort is made to silence these voices still, as on pages seventy-eight and seventy nine where two separate profanity-laden statements are redacted with square brackets. There is a statement between these two apparently too profane statements but it follows the conventions of the rest of this collection (“Take care of yourselves. I love you. Tell my kids I love them” [78]), but the two that have to be censored demonstrate an irreverence that is both fascinating and disturbing. The first maintains the speaker’s innocence with an anger and a cynicism one can only assume comes from the length of his incarceration with the full knowledge of his impending execution. He speaks:

The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man—convicted to a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return—so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. [Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.] (78)

The second is decidedly more angry, more irreverent, refusing to make a coherent statement in the manner that Scaffold presents repeating over and over in a brutal parade of state violence. This speaker maintains his/her innocence in a heartbreaking and painful response that refuses to atone or to ask for forgiveness:

Statement to what. State What. I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family’s money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker. Murderer. [Portion or statement omitted due to profanity] Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back. (79)

When the next “Yes I do” comes it’s heartbreaking. It hurts. And it hurts because as the reader you’re the Warden. Not like in Statement of Facts where you’re the jury; not like Soliloquy where you’re everyone else in Kenneth Goldsmith’s world. Reader, you put that period. Reader, you ask the untyped question. It’s not a perfect analogy, but in a way it’s true.

 

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