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Claudia Rankine reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Claudia Rankine – Citizen

(Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Paperback, 160pp, $20; forthcoming in UK from Penguin Books in 2015)
 

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

 
‘…You both 
experience this cut, which she keeps insisting is a joke,
a joke stuck in her throat, and like any other injury, you
watch it rupture along its suddenly exposed suture.’ (42)
 
Citizen: An American Lyric is the autopsy of Kenneth Goldsmith and the conceptual poetics for which he stands. Documenting the lived experience of ‘this cut’ of racist microaggressions, in language and gesture, Claudia Rankine speaks with and through what’s ‘stuck in [the] throat’ of white America. What appears to be language, a throwaway quotation from the vernacular, is a weapon, one that manages always to strike where there is already a scar. She paraphrases Judith Butler’s idea that to be human is to be intervulnerable, and that language is one connector that allows us to wound or heal. ‘We suffer from the condition of being addressable,’ she says of Butler’s concept, ‘Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways in that you are present’ (49). Presence in Citizen – embodiment, attention, affect – is pain. To be open is to be an open wound. ‘Rupture… suture’: the possibility of healing is refuted by the chiming Latinate words whose scientism disguises real harm to real bodies. 
 
Co-extensive with and an embodiment of the Black Lives Matter campaign, Rankine’s book-length multimedia prose poem is exactly about matter and mattering; the text and image reconstitute each other as matter, as bodily. They de-abstract the framework in which each is read separately, as the words give flesh to the TV images, and the images enact the black text on white background. Thus, Rankine refuses the dichotomy of conceptual/conventional, taking up – in an ethical, materialist and expansive manner – the space of experiment, challenge, and innovation that conceptualism had abrogated (and narrowed), denying its authority or originality. As Anthony Reed writes of Rankine’s earlier work in Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing (published in 2014 before Goldsmith disgraced himself), 
 
 
Though one can certainly read… Rankine through the terms of [Craig] Dworkin’s polemic [in the introduction to the anthology he co-edited with Kenneth Goldsmith, Against Expression, which includes Rankine among its contributors], ‘originality’ has a different meaning vis-à-vis African American critical and poetic practice, often rooted in a quasiethical sense of obligation (or assumption that one has been faithful) to one’s own experience that one expresses, which any analysis of originality must account for. (102)
 
 
That obligation, in Rankine’s work, is realised through an insistence on the materiality of that which Goldsmith’s performance dematerialised – not only an individual life, that of Michael Brown, murdered by a white police officer, but of lives dematerialised by the imperialist, racist, sexist structure of English language and of EuroWestern culture. 
 
It really is that wholesale: every aspect of language – both rhetoric and poetics – is engrained with white supremacy. Rankine’s book takes seriously (and takes apart) Fredric Jameson’s idea of Formalism and Structuralism’s ‘prison-house of language’, rematerializing what Jameson abstracts. If (post)language is a prison, it is so unevenly, and black bodies and minds are subject to mass incarceration within it, and the daily violence that accompanies imprisonment. For Reed, the ‘ideology of the stable voice, typified by a certain critical hermeneutics of “the” lyric, is one backdrop against which black experimental writing works, seeking to break the common sense link between poetry as personal and group expression without claiming some reified notion of the “universal”’ (97). 
 
Never has the universalising EuroWestern print convention of black text on a white background been more put into question, or better deployed. One third of the way through the book comes the first of four double-page reproductions of visual images. Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background, 1990-91) is an 80x30 inches panel (which can currently be seen in Nottingham), a diptych featuring two phrases repeatedly stencilled in black oilstick, the text becoming increasingly smudged close to the bottom of the panel. The left hand panel’s phrase reads ‘I do not always feel colored’ and the right hand panel’s phrase, quoting Zora Neale Hurston, reads ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’. 
 
Across her oeuvre, Rankine has appropriated, refigured and deconstructed the lyric subject – transformed in Citizen from ‘I’ to ‘you’ – and innovated mise-en-page and a formal language that (dis)integrates verbal languages and visual images, often taken from TV, that comment on each other. Incorporating colour images of work by African diaspora artists as well as remediated and reframed television news images, Citizen brings together Rankine’s multimedia commentary with her work as a filmmaker and as a curator, translating her skills as editor of three volumes of contemporary experimental poetry (two focusing on women writers) to speaking collectively with and advocating for a wide range of visual artists.
 
‘Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out
the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown
you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the
larynx.’ (7)
 
Inescapably, the concatenation of parts of the body and parts of speech resonates with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book length multimedia work of (m)other tongues, DICTEE (1982), a study of the choking, percussive effects of racism and the insistent deracination demanded by the American academy and American poetics. In an interview in jubilat in 2006, talking about her book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine cited DICTEE as a model, ‘because of its freedoms, its willingness to go wherever it needs to go in order to document the kind of strife present in the creation of her Korean identity’, particularly going into the minutiae of embodiment at its most painful.[1] Don’t Let Me Be Lonely demands to be read in tandem with Citizen, both a precursor and part of a diptych, in its insistence on ‘freedoms… to go wherever it needs to go’ as writing from and about the surveillant hysteria of the Bush era. Particularly concerned with the medicalisation and medication of anxiety, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely prefigures Citizen’s cry for an impossible healing of systemic injury, as well as sharing its hyper-aware charting of embodied responses. This is documentary at the level of the pore, the cell: of the limb and organ as part of the body politic.
 
Rankine’s postlyric hybrid practice is part of several genealogies that also interweave with Cha’s, including those she has charted in the three anthologies, which include work by Susan Howe and Mark Nowak, differently practitioners and champions of documentary poetics. Defining the practice (not genre) in 2010, Nowak wrote [2] that it: 
 
has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital… Documentary poetry tends to pack a lefter-than-liberal, social-Democratic to Marxist political history (grounded largely in WPA-era poems ranging from Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead to Langston Hughes’ “Johannesburg mines” and photo-documentary texts such as Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices). As Martin Earl mentions in “Documentary Poetry and Language Surge,” documentary poetry has a deep international tendency (I’d additionally add to Earl’s list works by writers such as Ernesto Cardenal, Alfred Temba Qabula, Nancy Morejón, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and others). And documentary poetics, though present in poetry, is currently more widely and, in my view, fully leveraged in visual culture (film, photography) than the language arts (which has a lot to learn from its praxis in other fields).
 
Citizen is grounded in and grounds this tradition, its diasporic in-gathering suggesting a root for documentary poetics in Psalm 137, known as ‘By the Rivers of Babylon,’ in which the speakers document their collective situation by reflecting on their inability to sing or speak of it. It was pointedly quoted by Frederick Douglass in a speech given on 4th July, 1852, where he excoriated his hosts (the Rochester Anti Slavery Sewing Society) for asking him to perform (and specifically to speak about freedom on a day marked and marred by the unequal freedoms afforded to Americans), saying: ‘Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?,’ before quoting the psalm as a ‘parallel’. 
 
Like Douglass – like the exiled Jews – Rankine sings of the impossibility of singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land. From the first page, Rankine is watching herself in the dissociated persona of ‘you.’ The opening line ‘When you are alone and too tired to turn on any of your devices’ is both an echo of William Shakespeare’s ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ (as a source of lyric subjectivity) and a pointed reference to surveillance and self-publication. Who is watching and knowing ‘you’? Or is ‘you’ the way that we refer to ourselves in the deferred/differed space of our ‘devices’. Left to them and by them, Rankine’s subject ‘fall[s] back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor’ (5).
 
But the ‘associative’ process hymned from William Wordsworth to TS Eliot and beyond is not universal and unmarked: ‘reconstructed’ implies Reconstruction, the transformation of the Southern United States from 1863-77, which would see some of the freedoms Douglass called for extended after the South lost the Civil War. To ‘fall back’ into the past for black American writers and readers is, on the one hand, to bear witness to the rupturing of fragile sutures, and on the other, to see clearly that history is a ‘reconstructed’ narrative always writing out its errors and challengers, lived experience transmuted into language. ‘Emotion recollected in tranquillity’ is impossibilised. If America is a ‘metaphor’ – that which is carried across – it is carried on and in the bodies of slaves. 
 
‘Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two 
men waiting for the others to arrive, you hear one say to
the other that being around black people is like watching
a foreign film without translation.’ (50)
 
Rankine’s poetics are documentary in a second, but not secondary, sense. Citizen contains scripts for what she calls ‘Situation videos… created in collaboration with John Lucas’. These follow the documentary poetics of Charles Reznikoff in compiling testimony around historical events; for Rankine, quotations from CNN during Hurricane Katrina; across the media in memory of Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, and the Jena Six (all murdered by white men and failed by the justice system); and from TV commentary during the inedine Zidane’s final game in the World Cup, mashed up with quotations from Franz Fanon, Ralph Ellison and others, set between images from the game arranged in film strips that cross the page and are criss-crossed by a greyed out ‘watermark’ reading Black-Blanc-Beur. 
 
The Situation videos thus move towards the filmic, from the presentation of textual quotations in the Katrina video – which, unlike in Reznikoff’s work, are fused and mixed up, presenting the endless rupture of racism rather than honouring white words as testimony – towards the full-colour (irony intended) rewriting of Zidane’s final game, which is implicitly in conversation, and contestation, with Douglas Gordon’s documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Rankine appropriates the frame-by-frame technique that Gordon has used elsewhere (for example, in his 24 Hour Psycho), and shifts it from the screen (and the apparatus that immerses us in the image) to the page, where it becomes part of text – but also reanimates that text, connecting it to body and event. It is through the conversation with documentary as a film practice that Rankine finds ethical routes to emplot violence as lived experience within the lyric mode.
 
The book opens with an epigraph from one of the best-known alternative documentarians, one of the founders of the essay film tradition, and a committed anti-colonial filmmaker, Chris Marker, subject of a famous essay by Susan Howe, ‘Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker,’ republished as a pamphlet two years ago by New Directions. Rankine’s epigraph is a line from the opening voice-over of Marker’s best known feature-length film Sans Soleil, in which the female narrator reads from letters purportedly by fictitious cameraman Sandor Krasna, the name under which Marker made the film. The film begins with a short piece of video footage of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965 (the year of Martin Luther King’s marches from Selma to Montgomery), cutting to footage of military jets on a troop carrier. The narrator says that the filmmaker is struggling to juxtapose the first footage – his image of happiness – with anything else, and proposes to put it at the beginning of the film followed by black leader. Over a cut to black, she says ‘If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.’
 
In relation to a later image in the film, which looks repeatedly at the moment a woman on a ferry in Guinea-Bissau turns away from the camera, Kaja Silverman writes in Threshold of the Visible World that Marker’s film language ‘engages the Western viewer in an exemplary self-estrangement’, a practice that Rankine furthers in Citizen through the tension between the critical documentary gaze and the lyric subject, enacting what bell hooks calls ‘black looks’. In one of her best-known essays, ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,’ hooks describes her entry into spectatorship as a child in the segregated South. She recalls learning that slaves could be punished for looking at white owners, so that the black gaze is ab initio an act of defiance and even deconstruction. 
 
Rankine applies this most evidently to her minute and brilliant reading of the ways in which tennis player Serena Williams has been racialised and contained by the media, set in relation to Hennessey Youngman’s satirical video essay on how to be a black visual artist. The gaze here is not only oppositional but – in a new and radical way – dialectic. The use of second person for the book’s address and the academic presentation of this section in continuous prose are clearly tactics of distantiation as well as manifestations of dissociation as a post traumatic symptom; yet the use of Williams’ experience as channel or mirror for the writer’s own acts not as a further deferral but as a galvanising jolt into the body and the operations of post-traumatic memory. 
 
‘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’ (28). Rankine’s body records each ‘call’ to which Williams’ body is subjected, by umpires and commentators, the ‘call’ of interpellation by white speakers of a black subject, to which Williams mostly refuses to supply the expected response – and is punished when she follows the script written by others. The attention that Rankine pays to Williams is a reversal of this objectionable interpellation: it is love.
 
‘ “The subject of so many films is the protection of the vic-
tim, and I think, I don’t give a damn about those things. 
It’s not the job of films to nurse people. With what’s hap-
pening in the chemistry of love, I don’t want to be a nurse
or a doctor, I just want to be an observer.”
 
As a child, Claire Denis wished to be a nurse; she is no
longer a child. Years have passed and so soon we love
this world, so soon we are willing to coexist with dust in 
our eyes.’ (155)
 
Vic-/tim: the line break implies the possibility of vic-tor, loser and winner drawn from the same etymological root. On the final page of the book, just a few pages after this quotation, ‘I’ appears, wrapped in the arms of a ‘he,’ who asks for a story. The speaker relates a microaggression in which a woman (white, implied) refuses to park alongside her, but rather than interrogate the moment, she goes to play tennis. ‘Did you win? He asks. // It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson’ (159). Love match and match as competitive sport coalesce and describe each other across the book; to play against is to be bound to, to contest is (or should be) to learn from. In the insistence of second person, Citizen argues for our intervulnerability, for our entanglement with each other – and for persisting in an openness to it.
 
The insistent second person, only interrupted by this final page, kept reminding me of a single phrase from a song: the repetition of the word ‘you’ three times in a monotone. As I was writing this review, several people posted, on various social media, a video of Tracy Chapman covering ‘Stand By Me’ (a song that argues for nothing if not a persistent intervulnerability at times of the greatest wounding). It clicked: ‘you you you’ is a line from ‘For My Lover,’ from her eponymous first album. ‘Two weeks in a Virginia jail for my lover, for my lover,’ the song opens; it may refer to the criminalisation of either an interracial or a lesbian relationship, or both. It’s a visceral reminder that love is not neutral but unequal, and policed. Some loves lead to jail, medication, destruction because of class, race, gender, ability. Love is itself historically materialist; the ‘you’ of the love lyric needs to be de-universalised.
 
Citizen, striated by families, children, husbands, and questions of desire and eroticisation, both is and is not a love poem. Its ‘you’ is both singular and plural, speaking to and with (rather than for) the person or people whose story Rankine is telling in a given stanza. It is not a displaced  or dissociated ‘I’, then, but a diffuse one: one that refutes the dualism of I/you, self/other, crossing the boundary through a politics of love. Bearing witness to others’ stories is an act of community building and of self-love, an affirmation that you (I) are (am) not crazy: this happened, it had (shared) meaning. 
 
While love (not least via the elite canon of EuroWestern lyric) is often feminised as sentimental, indulgent and ornamental, Black feminists have recuperated it as radical. Audre Lorde famously wrote, in the epilogue to A Burst of Light, that ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ As Sara Ahmed discusses, this declaration runs counter to earlier statements by Lorde concerning self-realisation as a form of narcissism that detracted from activism.[3]
 
In Citizen, Rankine suggests that undertaking self-care in the second person is the way out of this conundrum. Her litany of racist micro aggressions echoes Lorde’s own ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, delivered in 1981.[4] Lorde uses the second person in her lecture to address white women – ‘You avoid the childhood assumptions formed… the acute message of your mommy’s handerkerchief spread upon the park bench because I had just been sitting there’ – while Rankine shifts her address to interpellate, in the first instance, black female readers. In caring for ‘you’ – a black woman with whom she identifies but for whom she does not speak as ‘I’ – through lyric, the poetic speech mode of the first person, she can both realign the poetic form as inclusive rather than exclusionary and controlling, and remake self-care as a collective act.
 
The echo of the love song in the ‘you’ allows for the possibility of love, against state and institutional mechanisms that would deny it. To love this world with our eyes, however dusty, is an act of resistance. Reed argues that Don’t Let Me Be Lonely examines ‘where one may be healing oneself for a capitalist racial order that wants to figure itself as without gaps and devour you whole’ (109). Nursing is a form of complicity with a normative discourse of healing. Looking is what there is instead.
 
Being an observer like Denis may occur, as hooks describes, in the cut, the split between the self positioned by/as the universal Enlightenment subject and the specific, embodied racialised, gendered, classed and/or abled object of the exclusory dominant gaze. The wound is where the non-dominant look from; the eye is a wound and the wound is an eye, held open. The split that, just for a moment, enmeshes and inverts vic/tim and vic/tor, whose stem is vincere (Lat.): to conquer, overcome. Compressed into Citizen’s density, its entire revisioning of language and form, is the power to alter meaning, to strip away conquest and foreground an ethical form of victory. We have not come that far, Rankine says, but we shall overcome.
 
 
[1] http://www.jubilat.org/jubilat/archive/vol12/
[2] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/04/documentary-poetics/
[3] http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/
[4] http://www.blackpast.org/1981-audre-lorde-uses-anger-women-responding-racism
18 May 2015