Short statement in five parts on 'Statement of Facts'

A review of Vanessa Place's 'Statement of Facts'

Statement of Facts

Statement of Facts

Vanessa Place

Blanc Press 2010, 430 pages, $45 (in hardbound, $25 in paperback), ISBN 9781934254189

1. Context

Vanessa Place composed Statement of Facts through the deceptively simple act of “reproducing some of her appellate briefs and representing them as poetry.” Because she’s a lawyer who represents sex offenders, the book is basically a reframing of victims' narratives used as evidence in sex crimes cases, and is, as you might expect, a “disturbing” read. Already the book has generated strong reactions, and these reactions have dictated the content of most interpretations.

Most publicly, at 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.” An Internet controversy erupted over the sensitivity and accuracy of her reading, and Perloff responded by claiming that she of course did not mean that rape victims are bad, but that the socioeconomic conditions that allow for rape are bad. Such a response only further infuriated everyone who was already furious because it wrongly implies that rape is a “lower-class” problem.

So from this comment sprung a short-lived Internet controversy (which took place mostly in the comments boxes of Steven Fama and Stephanie Young’s blogs, respectively, and on Facebook) regarding the politics and ethics of Statement of Facts. You can Google this yourself, but it concluded with some people asking Place to publicly explain the intent of her work, so as to clear up any ethical dilemmas that might have arisen for the readers. Place, of course, refused to do so, which has partially allowed for the book’s retention of its initial provocative appeal. Now in 2012, opinions are still sharply divided, and the focal point of the conversation, when it comes up, remains Perloff’s comment. Because of this, I’d like to read Statement of Facts in terms of its reception, and attempt a conclusion that doesn’t conform to what I consider’s Perloff’s relativism, the naysayers’ moralism, or Place’s realism.

2. The relativist’s position

Now let’s just say what we all know: Perloff is a conservative critic, and her statement bears witness to that conservatism insofar as it suggests a world in which the positions of oppressor and oppressed are interchangeable. By saying the victims are just as bad as the rapists, she recreates a certain argumentative form that is meant to make oppressive violence seem natural: for example, “Israel might have used have disproportionate force, but they were responding to terrorism!”; or “The police’s reaction may have been excessive, but black bloc pushed them to violence.” These sorts of things are always justified in terms of rather abstract contextual circumstances: “socioeconomic conditions,” “a long and complicated war,” etc. What’s common to this form of argument is that the position of oppressor and oppressed is exchangeable due to a supposed mutuality of guilt. Of course I’m not suggesting that Perloff literally thinks that victims brought rape upon themselves, but she does seem to think that because the victims are not totally innocent, their position as victim is in itself relative. And this relativity is, for Perloff, a sad consequence of the way things are, i.e. of a “social problem,” which must remain abstract in order for this relativism to function. And to repeat in the name of clarity: when I refer to relativism I mean it in the particular sense of imagining the primary work of the work of art to be the questioning of facts and facticity, not simply to complicate the world of meaning, but to relativize the social order.

But that said, I don’t want to spend this whole essay tearing apart Perloff’s statement once again; many people have already done that, and her claim is so obviously off the mark that it hardly seems worth it. What I find more interesting is an attempt to think through how her remarks were possible in the first place, in terms of the text. One response would be to read through the book and simply conclude that Perloff’s reading is nonsensical — that it has very little to do with the actual poem, and that Place’s work is certainly not racist or classist or conservative. Another response would be to take Perloff seriously, and to condemn Place, regardless of her intentions, for the creation of a text that spawns such readings.

A third way is even worse than those two — to accept that “any reading is a good reading,” and that readers take away from a poem anything they bring to it. This has been Place’s position on the matter, and in many ways it’s a completely understandable position to take as an author; but from the position of a reader or a critic it must be rejected. Rather than acquit the work of any “bad” political value, we must assume that the seed of the “bad” reading lay somewhere in the work — Marjorie Perloff is not a crazy person, after all, and she’s not hallucinating a conservative reading onto an otherwise obviously radical text. Perloff’s reading, in the end, is not so wild or even imaginative — it’s a completely legible relativist response to a difficult work. 

3. The moralist’s position

I define as the moralist position the demand to see Statement of Facts re-signified by its author in terms of an ethical Good. For example, Juliana Spahr’s suggestion that Place reveal to us the intention of her work, so that we may more properly judge it; similarly, all the dismissals of the work which rely on guilt by association, in which those people who are critical of Perloff use their criticisms of her to function as criticisms of Place’s book. What these positions have in common is the fantasy of a well-intentioned work of literature, which will somehow announce its good intentions via the author’s statements. Those who are unwilling to differentiate between the author and the work are unwilling to read.

After all, contemporary readers are comfortable with the notion of fictionality being the ground of speech, and familiar with artworks that question the idea of facticity and reality. The issue here, then, is a discomfort sparked by the idea that the facticity and reality of the speech of victims might be questioned. This, remember, is precisely what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak addressed in ye olde “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in which she critiques both Foucault and Deleuze for assuming the speech of the oppressed to be automatically truthful by virtue of its author’s social position. In other words, the subaltern cannot speak in the context of Western thought because we, as Westerners, grant the words of the other a truth-value that, strictly speaking, cannot belong to language. If we hold Spivak’s critique in mind, the relativist reading of the book is hardly shocking, insofar as it attempts to deal with the deadlock between the supposed truth of the victim’s narrative and the inherent fictionality of language by generalizing that fictionality to the point of meaninglessness: everything means something different to anyone else anyway, etc. Furthermore, by “reproducing” the cases without commentary, and displaying them as poetry (which in the eyes of the law is never fact, but fiction), Place’s project, from the very first, questions the relationship between trauma, law, and truth — and such an act of questioning will always court the easy relativist answer, which will in turn court moralistic ire.

But isn’t that the laziest (and most academic) critical move? To say that a work “questions” something without articulating the specific questions asked or the possible answers?  So let’s be clear: Place’s project, by reframing the “real” speech of victims as poetry, presents this real speech as fictional — necessarily and generically. Furthermore, the book points to a division between the traumatic event and the narrative of a traumatic event. This is not to say that traumatic events are not real, but it is to say that they are not necessarily reported in terms of what we would call factual accuracy (see: Freud, or anything else written in the twentieth century). Thus, what is “real” is not the brute fact of the violence itself, but the relationship of that brute fact to its symbolization:

Suze is Nikki’s mother: when Nikki was a teenager, Suze told Nikki’s principal that Nikki was a habitual liar and a drama queen. Nikki lied about abuse, and thought she saw humans with bird heads. According to Nikki’s mother, at the time of her testimony at the preliminary hearing and trial, Nikki no longer lies:  from her participation in the Dorothy Brown School, counseling, and getting off medication, Nikki is “a new person.”

Place’s book is about this process of symbolization in two senses. Firstly, the victims’ speech is more or less true, and more or less factually descriptive. That is, it’s not always clear that the victim is “right” (for example, there are cases in which a victim claims not to remember what he or she had previously told the police, or in which children try to make sense of what’s happened to them). Secondly, these are not the direct reports of the victims, but the reports that have been transcribed by the police and by lawyers, and so the reader must make a leap of faith, and believe everything that the police say, if he or she wants to understand the victims as bearers of truth.

Thus, the book questions the notion of legal truth and factuality through its very form, by reproducing a discourse (that of the interrogation and the courtroom) which most of its academic-lefty readers would be otherwise inclined to approach with skepticism. But the trick is: instead of its “questioning” taking a destructive form, in which the reader might be confronted with the gaping aporia in legal language, the book presents material that almost dares the reader to disbelieve, and forces him or her into a far more uncomfortable position, as in: yes, I believe what is reported here, even though I disbelieve the state apparatus which reports it.

What the ideology of the Law asks of us, after all, is to believe in its truth (which is often presented as the truth of its victims), even if and when we disbelieve. It performs this asking by presenting us with bare facts, the sort of facts that cannot be contested without insensitively calling a victim’s very victimhood into question. In this way we learn to accept (and even enjoy) the force of the Law’s truth, even as we perform our skepticism. Think of the TV show COPS, which can be read as a distilled version of this function: even though one watches the police make impulsive and improvisational choices, one is put in the position of nonetheless cheering them on as they arrest the abusive husband, the drug dealer, the man with the concealed weapon, etc. To fail to cheer them on is to feel complicit or sympathetic to the perpetrator of unquestionably real assaults.

4. The realist’s position

Part of the problem with reading Statement of Facts is Place’s recent insistence that “ontology is facticity” and that conceptual writing is the practice of radical mimesis, in which the mute materiality of the world (its stuff-ness) is displayed in all its stupidity. As she says in her essay “The Death of the Text,” “it is nothing more than dumb materiality, a mute object that can serve, like other hunks of stuff, our man-made need for talismans.” Or, in a recent interview: “The stuff of conceptualism, the textual thing, is the most static of objects, inert, inutile. Dead as a doorknob. Its representations are radical mimesis because they do not represent, just present.”

The supposed static nature of conceptual texts is what lends them to contemplation, as opposed to reading, in the strong sense. 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).

Let’s be clear: the idea that “ontology is facticity” is totally insane. I can’t pretend to know where Place is getting this idea, but even if one were to, say, refer to Badiou’s argument that “mathematics is ontology” (which is very different from saying that “ontology is mathematics,” btw), one would find the emphasis not on the mere counting (and accounting) of the world of stuff, but on the formalization of that which is not-counted, the inscription of the not-all, or the void, or whatever. Similarly, a phenomenological concern for facticity (as in Heidegger) is not a concern for inert stuff, but for the unfolding of stuff, and the hermeneutics of said unfolding. This might seem like mere grad student blather, but it leads to an important point: any good materialist theory has involved the negation of vulgar materialism that understands the world as dead matter. Marx’s pejorative name for this stance was “contemplative materialism,” which he define as a philosophy that understands the world as matter, as opposed to movement: In other words, it sees things as they are, as opposed to in flux: “The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.”

Much materialist thought is aimed precisely at negating this mistake, as the theoretical consequence is a definition of the world as a series of objects, the collapse of the subject-object dialectic, and the reduction of thinking (as part of the movement that brings being into being) to the contemplation of “what is.” From Lukács to Derrida to Badiou, the emphasis of materialist thinking has been directly counter to its vulgar counterpart, which always presents itself as realistic (what could be more “realistic” than matter?) and therefore natural.

This is why Place’s position is not simply relativist, but “realist” (not of course, in the sense that, say, Lukács or Silliman understood realism, as the movement of history, but in the simple sense of the presentation and belief in reality). While it masquerades as a theory of radical inauthenticity and performativity, Place’s statements belie a faith in reality as that which “is” and presents the deadness of the world — the inherent meaninglessness of the stuff all around us, its “dumb materiality.” This position encourages and engenders the relativist position, insofar as it frames the text as an object of contemplation to which any reading might apply, insofar as any and all readings are as inauthentic and inert as the text itself, just another object in a world of objects.

5. Anti-context

Full disclosure: I count Vanessa Place as a friend, and I admire Statement of Facts. Though I disagree with her theorization of her own work, I understand the work itself to be extremely valuable, probably precisely because it exceeds attempts to render it relative, moral, or realistic. It is this excessiveness that is disturbing, which maintains the book’s provocation and ambiguity. As opposed to other framings of conceptual writing, I’d argue that it’s not the concept that defines the work, but the specific way in which the work veers from the concept, or fails to be identical to it. This failure is conceptual writing’s way of rejecting closure, by founding itself on its non-identity with itself. If the work were defined by a graspable concept, we’d be back in the inert world, in which a concept were an object, as opposed to a movement of thought. So instead of creating a legible context for the work, which much writing on conceptualism attempts to do, we should go about highlighting the failure of the context to become the concept: this will lead us back toward a dilemma, as opposed to freeing us of it.

As such, we must be brave enough to read Statement of Facts without succumbing to the temptation to wash it clean of all ethical dilemmas. Instead of writing a book which presents itself as already ethical (which most poetry does, insofar as it “reveals” the ethical Good of the reader in the attention he or she gives to the sensuality of the text), Place has written a book that presents itself as a conundrum. It confronts us with a deadlock: to approach as fiction that which we most desperately, with all of our moral fiber, want to regard as irreducible reality. 

We cannot simply justify Place’s provocation, or our justification will remove that provocation as an obstacle. That is, we cannot assume that Place is writing from a radical position, or that she does not bear the conservative and relativistic intentions of interpreters such as Perloff. Nor should we be so quick to forgive Place for the book because she “actually wrote it” in the day-to-day of her work. Statement of Facts is not, after all, a book about having a day job.

Nor is it a matter of resisting interpretation: it’s a matter of resisting prefabricated interpretations that would be quick to get the book off the ethical hook. If this book is good for anything (and it is) it’s good for putting us back on that ethical hook, as readers, and letting us dangle there, daring us to take a stance we find abhorrent in the interest of truth which we might find equally abhorrent. And isn’t this, in the end, simply the classic Brechtian ethic? Not to present to the viewer a fully formed position with which to identify, but to present to the viewer a real ethical dilemma and thereby activate criticality?

What the skirmish around Statement of Facts ultimately “shows us” is that the book doesn’t “show us” anything. If the book, as a cause, does not effect a particular reading, this is not because it simply “means anything the reader wants it to mean” or some such nonsense, but because it presents a genuine paradox: if we believe the truth of victim’s speech, but distrust the law that records it, we must take the facts of the victim’s speech, as reported by law, to be false, in order to stumble on its truth: regardless of the factuality contained herein, the book is still not true.

This is the case (as in Spivak’s example) not just because of the inherent fictionality of language, but because of the social structure which grants an erroneous truth value to certain acts of language as a means of control: if certain acts of speech are always already authenticated by the social position of the speaker, then that social position is maintained as a natural fact, which, like all natural facts, are merely materials to be managed by the state.

So: Statement of Facts will be praised by realists who like its semblance of reportage, and by relativists who like its calling into question of facts, and will be dismissed by moralists who fear that the book may not share their politics. But there is another position, one which does not relativize facticity, and yet argues that the form of facticity is related to its symbolization, and thus that some facts (facts which are facts for the police) foreclose the possibility of their relationship to truth. The uncomfortable thought, then, is the necessary untruth of anything that comes out of the Law(yer)’s mouth; and it is in confronting this impasse (and not simply in its disturbing content) that Statement of Facts is truly difficult.