Messing with the beholder

Claudia Rankine's 'Citizen' and embedded Conceptualism

Reproduction of Adrian Piper's 'Calling Cards' (undated). http://www.spencerart.
Reproduction of Adrian Piper's 'Calling Cards' (undated), which Piper distributed when racially insensitive statements were made in her presence. Calling cards also addressed sexual harassment and other issues.

Dear Divya,

You conceived this forum in the midst of attacks on Conceptualism for being a pain machine wielded by and for white people. I wondered whether your goal was salvific: could Conceptualism’s reputation and potential be rescued, could its soil be aerated and fertilized, could histories, lineages, practices, and ideas not normally associated with the current branding of Conceptualism become part of our sense of it. I felt a pang thinking: why’s it have to be on Divya to do salvific work with and for Conceptualism? I suspect, though, that you don’t want to save it but rather to transform it.

In the late 1960s, Conceptualist artists were turning toward “self-conscious investigation of … themselves as embedded participants in the social context.”[1] So said Conceptualist artist and philosopher Adrian Piper. Fifty years later, Conceptualist works by white writers on racism are being called out as racist projects — justly, in my view, despite what I hope to be the writers’ good intentions — and Piper’s account of embedded Conceptualism seems once again relevant. It encourages artists to acknowledge that their interventions emerge from positions in the social field that are unevenly empowered and unevenly audible, and that histories and contexts touched by Conceptualist artworks will release different charges depending on artists’ positions in the field.

Some of Piper’s work uses direct address to interfere with projections of the racial imaginary onto her body. A light-skinned woman of African American descent, Piper printed “calling cards” announcing “I am black” to be given out when racially insensitive statements were made in her presence (calling cards also addressed sexual harassment and other issues). And in 2012, Piper retired from being black in a letter addressed “Dear Friends” posted in her website’s “News” section and accompanied by an obviously darkened photograph of herself. These works are addressed to generalized others, to yous who are particularized in the encounter, invited to pay attention to the racial imaginary that their perceptions of her animate. Piper’s projects, in Fred Moten’s phrasing, “mess with the beholder”[2]: the works theatricalize interaction, drawing attention to all participants’ positions in the social field.

Affirming a representational poetics that contrasts starkly with 
idea-oriented Conceptualist interventions, Claudia Rankine has said that what interests her personally ... is the rendering of whole human beings.[3] But RankineCitizen: An American Lyric[4] bears a family resemblance to Conceptualism in several ways. As an archive of appropriated anecdotes about racist microaggressions, Citizen is kin to Conceptual archival works such as Kim Rosenfield’s I’ll Be Seeing You or Kristen Gallagher’s We Are Here. Also, you have suggested, Divya, that Conceptualism might be understood as “a devotional practice, a revisitation, a reengagement with the same text over and over again.”[5] Citizen insistently returns to scenes in which a distressing racial imaginary erupts into polite ordinary life. “I wanted,” says Rankine, “to communicate what it means to have these things accumulate in the body.”[6] The repetitions are an intimate ritual acculturation that, as Hilton Als’s blurb says, “comes at you like doom.”

Rankine’s project, like Piper’s work, hinges on interaction, and more specifically on intimacy. Though Rankine has said that she associates intimacy with lyric tradition, Citizen, subtitled An American Lyric, avoids most lyric conventions. It is mostly in unlineated prose; it employs appropriative strategies, which are not a convention of lyric practice; and it almost entirely avoids the pronoun most strongly associated with lyric, the expressive “I.” Citizen’s emphasis on second person is perhaps its most important revision of lyric convention. My friend Kelly Morse, a poet and translator and once my son’s babysitter, emailed me a few months ago wanting to talk about how Rankine’s work operated as lyric (she was working on a piece about Citizen and hybrid form),[7] and I sent her this:

To: Kelly
Date: February 27, 2015, 7:40am

… ok so lyric is a mode that operates doubly — it derives from song, that’s in the name (lyre, a song to accompany a lyre) and then it’s come to refer to an expressive song, from the heart, typically a song that apostrophizes or mourns an absent beloved. Any writing has apostrophe sort of embedded in it anyway because it is a communication that takes place in another place and time from the time when it will be read. So the situation of writing is fictionally microcosmed in lyric and that’s why it makes sense that many lyrics are songs of absence or loss and are concerned with issues of address.

I think this is what Rankine is thinking about when she calls her books “lyrics,” especially Citizen, which is deeply concerned with the way the “you” works and what an “I” can be. She uses second person to try to get around a problem she explains in the passage on the video art of Hennessy Youngman [a.k.a Jayson Musson]:[8] that a marked and stereotyped body — what Piper calls an “ethnically stereotyped art commodity” — is a difficult space from which to project subjectivity. “‘Race’” is “not only a system of ideas but an array of ascriptive racialising procedures which structure … social life” (in Chris Chen’s useful definition). Given the racial imaginary that we move through as if under water, “no amount of visibility,” according to Rankine, “will alter the ways in which one is perceived.” Wherever the “I” of a raced speaker is read as performing blackness, perpetuating the invisibility of the speaker, aesthetics and politics converge on the level of the pronoun. Rankine’s use of second person exposes the invisibled “other” as an experiencing subject.

The “you” in Citizen obviously refers to a person of color. But the particularities of the anecdotes only apply to “yous” of color in a general way. Rankine is and is not this you (she gathered anecdotes from many people); many or all black americans are this you — and the microaggressions experienced by this “you” can be multiplied millions of times for millions of experiences we are not given access to through this book, experiences that remain private and unregistered. And when white readers inhabit (in their imaginations) this “you,” they have to be uncomfortably aware that their real bodies in the world do not face these microaggressions — that they can feel the feelings of this you only in their imaginations. The “you” in the book takes the place of the lyric “I” — it is the experiencing zone, the place of feeling and expressing — but the “you” can’t map perfectly onto the experience of any one reader. That’s strategic and important because while we “feel”/are given access to the experiences of this “you,” we also feel our difference from the you. Some readers will think about the additional microaggressions they’ve experienced (and recategorize them as political — Rankine’s addition of “American” to “Lyric” inscribes intimate microaggressions in the public sphere). Others will recognize that they haven’t had these experiences at all, or not from a poc’s pov. So the lyric gesture of address becomes, very subtly and accretively, a consciousness-raising device.

Blah blah blah
Hope not too late
Miss you love you

I essentialized lyric, not to mention writing, pretty hard there, and I’d rather go with a more historicized and contingent definition of lyric like Virginia Jackson’s and Yopie Prins’s.[9] But let’s assume that Rankine is playing around with conventional understandings of lyric that developed in the twentieth century. Rankine, who has been thinking about lyric for a long time,[10] may have avoided the lyric “I” partly because she’s aware of the differential history of lyric in which white men’s feelings are given more space and valued more. Rankine’s point-of-view shift elegantly disorients conventional lyric postures. In Northrop Frye’s definition, “the poet, so to speak, turns his back on his listeners.”[11] Citizen doesn’t turn its back. Instead, it sets up a version of lyric that that addresses you directly, interpellates you. “So to speak”?

At the end of a poem in the middle of the book, in a reference to the Middle Passage, Rankine shifts subtly for a moment to first-person plural: “each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads.” The “heads” here are those of people brought across the Atlantic from Africa through the slave trade, but also those of their descendants, and of the people who don’t descend from them as well: the waves of the Middle Passage crash on all “our” heads. But on what resistant or porous surfaces do the emotions associated with those waves crash? Will their address be heard?

The last poem in Citizen shifts to first person, a more traditional lyric point of view. In it, Rankine tells a story about a microaggression to her son — an anecdotal framing of a first-person instance of the microaggression anecdotes we’ve heard many times by now. The poem invokes another familiar lyric convention: if lyric address (as Mill had it) is “overheard,” audience is also addressee. Rankine reminds us of this when she ends the book with the sentence “It was a lesson.” She’s talking about a tennis lesson, but she’s also claiming the harmful experiences compiled in Citizen as warnings, information for her son and for herself. On another level, Rankine is boldly hinting that the book may be taken as a lesson by its readers. Such a lesson might well crash inaudibly on the beach of historically constructed difference — unless it is felt. The book’s second-person accretive strategy is calculated to help its readers understand and feel it.

Questions of address bring up questions of care, questions about how we are participating in reframing and redefining the potentialities of relation.[12] Who are we talking to and how. To be honest I am not right now interested in whither Conceptualism. I am interested in whither care. Audre Lorde described care as an act of political warfare.[13] She was talking about self-care, but caring for others is political warfare too, because it messes with the systems in which white supremicist patriarchy embeds us. Meantime — please take care — and warmest regards,


1. Adrian Piper, “The Logic of Modernism,” in Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stinson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 548.

2. Fred Moten, “The Resistance of the Object,” In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press),235. The chapter helped me understand how Adrian Piper’s work shares with Citizen a “concern with finding, elaborating, and enacting objections to the various ways of averting one’s gaze” (234).

3. Claudia Rankine, “Claudia Rankine: Citizen, An American Lyric,” interview by Michael Silver on Bookworm podcast, March 9, 2015.

4. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2015).

5. Divya Victor, interview with Troll Thread Poetry Collective by CAConrad, 8-POINTED STAR: poet interviews (blog). Victor is no longer part of the Troll Thread collective.

6. Rankine, Citizen.

7. Kelly Morse, “Embracing the Painfully Possible in the Human Heart,” Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, April 21, 2015.

8. The passage also appears in Lana Turner 6.

9. See Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

10. Rankine organized a conference with Allison Cummings on the topic: “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women,” April 8–10, 1999, Barnard College. She also coedited two anthologies of women’s poetry subtitled “Where Lyric Meets Language.”

11. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 250.

12. See Trisha Low’s Compleat Purge (Kenning, 2013),which she calls “post-conceptual,” or Chris Kraus’s I LOVE DICK (Semiotext(e), 1997), for provocative and unsettling explorations of address in epistolary form that target class and gender.

13. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” (Quoted by CAConrad in a blog post the day I finished this piece.) Audre Lorde, Epilogue, A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1988), 131.