Kenneth Goldsmith and the Writ of Habeas Corpus

I know I’m late to this party, but The New Yorker just ran a profile on Kenneth Goldsmith, which many have stayed silent on–and when they have been willing to talk, it’s been outright hostile. The National Book Critics Circle Board retweeted one person’s plea to the editor of Poetry Magazine to retweet the article, which was followed by responses like, “So the lesson here is be a lazy racist and get a lot of press?” and “trash.” One response I found particularly disheartening came from Justin Daugherty, founder of Sundog Lit and editor of Cartridge Lit, who wrote in a now deleted tweet, “KG [Kenneth Goldsmith] is a garbage human.” Now maybe Daugherty and others have had a chance to meet Goldsmith in person and found him to be “trash” and “garbage.” It’s well within the realm of possibilty, but I think, more so, Daugherty is referring to Goldsmith’s poem “The Body of Michael Brown,” which remixes the autopsy report of the young man shot by police whose death served as a catlyst for activism and riots in Ferguson, Missouri. While I think there’s an argument to be made that such an act was “too soon,” social media and the literary blogosphere took a different approach: a shitstorm of moral outrage and indignation. Most arguments against Goldsmith’s performance, from Joey de Jesus’s essay at Apogee to Flavorwire, focused on the act itself, rather than the actual text. And you’re probably wondering: Where can I read/see this? The short answer, ironically during banned books week, is you can’t. And just about none of Goldsmith’s critics have had the chance either. So how, exactly, have so many determined so much based on so little? Don’t we need a text to criticize, to scruntize, to determine whether it was racist or not, as so many have claimed? Shouldn’t analysis and interpretation be based on textual evidence? Probably what I find most distressing is that these writers and editors, who have uniformly condemned Goldsmith and his poem, should know better. They are, first and foremost, artists, and we have all seen plenty of challenges to our freedom in the past and present. But also these are men and women with MFAs and PhDs from the best schools in the country, where the faculty are active scholars who have faced the rigors of peer review, who, presumably, expect the same focused, logical, detailed, thorough analyses from their students. So how, then, have things gone so wrong?


In rhetoric and composition studies, we often talk about the rhetorical triangle, which is the connection between the writer, the audience, and the message. This, of course, is framed within a certain context. Most schools of literary criticism place greater value on one of these facets. The New Critic emphasizes intent. The Reader Response Critic focuses on audience. The Freudian psychoanalyzes the author. The New Historian privileges the context. None of these, I would say, are any more useful than the other. In fact, this is one criticism’s biggest flaws–especially as of late. These things, individually, don’t bring us any closer to meaning. They need to be recognized in concert with one another.

Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse.

Due to the increasing influence of identity politics, both the author and the context are all that matter. The text, it seems, has become irrelevant. We don’t care what was actually on the page. That should worry any serious artist or critic. As T. S. Eliot once wrote, “[A] critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact.” But this current trend ignores or disregards evidence which may be contrary to the critic’s conclusions, which often means the diction choices, the form, the imagery, the structure–all of it has been reduced to some irrelevant detail. Critics claim that a text is a vehicle through which our gender roles, class system, and structural inequalities are reinforced rather than challenged. When–and why the hell did this happen? To that, I don’t really have an answer, but I can say that such a trend should be unnerving to any artist, regardless of his or her politics.

First of all, what artist is a complete shill for society? I couldn’t give a fuck about how good or bad he or she may be: Artists are free-thinkers. We’re independent. We have empathy, logic, humanity. We recognize the beauty and benefits of all things–even those we hate. That’s our job. Otherwise, we’re not looking at a poem or a story or a painting, but a didactic piece of shit that our audience will find more alienating than enlightening. Isn’t it OK to be OK with some of the ways that society operates? (This is not a tacit endorsement of racism or sexism or anything of the like, but more so a way to say I don’t entirely mind free markets as long as they’re regulated pretty heavily.) Secondly, I’m not fond of the deterministic philosophy which underpins much of this approach. Whether it’s Tropes vs. Women or an article in the LA Review of Books, the assumption is that society is racist, sexist, and heterosexist, even when it’s actively fighting against it. They preach to us that it is inescapable, but they, of course, have the power to point it out. They are the Ones. They can see the Matrix that you and I can’t. Only they can see, as bell hooks puts it, “the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” And while I respect hooks as a rhetorican, I find her conclusion suspect. Let me say, there are absolutely inequalities that exist, problems that exist, but the suggested cause is far too simplistic, as, much like today’s literary criticism, it ignores a lot of contradictory evidence in favor of the ancedotal. Worse still, the solutions are far, far too vague (reform? revolution? change behaviors? change literature?). These issues will not be solved by preachy art: They are solved at the ballot box. (If you became a critic to “make a difference,” try running for office instead.) Art isn’t overly concerned with the right now: It uses the specific to tell us something about the universal.


So where do we go from here? I think we need to return to the “scientific” approach proposed by Ransom all those years ago in “Criticism Inc.“–with some caveats, of course. We have to do a thorough close reading of a text in order to discover the intent, but we also need to stress the other points of the rhetorical triangle as well. The message is important, but so is the ways a text undermines its own theme, the constant battle of binary opposites. We, too, must recognize the biases of the reader and the author and the time and circumstances under which it was produced just as we recognize the importance of “the text itself.”


So I’d like to leave you with a lie I tell my literature students every semester. I say: In this class, there are no wrong answers. I know that’s not true, but I say it because I don’t want them to be afraid of analysis, to fear interpretation. However, I realize there are “wrong” answers, invalid answers. You can’t just pull shit out of your ass and say it is: You must demonstrate it through a preponderance of textual evidence. This is the cardinal rule of criticism. Yet as my students’s first paper (on poetry no less) approaches, I let them in on this little distinction between valid and invalid arguments. It would appear that many of Goldsmith’s critics skipped that day of school.

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