'Let Her Speak'

The (not-so) quiet revolution of the reproductive, performative, and civic body

At right: Michele Battiste (top) and Pravithra Prasad (bottom) read from 'Let He
At right: Michele Battiste (top) and Pravithra Prasad (bottom) read from 'Let Her Speak' in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013.

Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate

Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate

Counterpath 2013, 212 pages, $25 ISBN 978-1-933996-44-8

In American politics, as well as arts and letters, the mind-body schism of Western dualism (dialectical materialism) rages on between “rational” or cerebral thought and syncretic understanding, normative and “non-normative” bodies and subjects (female, non-Caucasian, gay, trans, queer), and the rights of individual, collective, and state bodies. Injunctions against female self-representation in private and public (to say nothing of the right to labor or own property) dates back to the Greek polis, where women were considered domestic slaves. Loss of power in so-called representative democracies, according to Hannah Arendt, is a matter of stakeholding and usury wherein what is promised (representation: literally, ownership over one’s body) is withheld, while what is extorted or given (human capital, surplus value) serves to keep the elite in power. Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic:

In all republics with representative governments, power resides in the people. That means that the people empower certain individuals to represent them, to act in their name. When we talk about loss of power, that signifies that the people have withdrawn their consent from what their representatives, the empowered elected officials, do. Those who have been empowered naturally feel powerful; even when the people withdraw the basis of that power, the feeling of power remains. That is the situation in America.

Like children, women are conditioned to be seen and not heard, as objects, and, if heard, not to make language or meaning, but to parrot preauthorized scripts rather than respond to or reject male authority, let alone create discursive, symbolic systems apart from men. For structural injustice to be corrected, there must first exist fluid epistemologies, what Shoshana Feldman calls in The Scandal of the Speaking Body, a text yoking philosophy, linguistics, and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the juridical importance of the speech act (the taboo of a woman saying “I”) as a signifying agent in public discourse.

Overconceptualized sexism in academic feminisms, postfeminist declarations that despite unequal pay, labor exploitation, and violence and sexual commodification, women’s rights have been won, and reiterated, performed male imaginaries in pop culture are all tendencies that preserve the Cartesian split between mind and body. As conceptualized in Susan Bordo’s work, this continuing split is a cultural indictment of late capitalism, evolutionary theory, racism, sexism, homophobia, adoption rights, and the impact of contemporary media. The ontological debt women face as objects of patriarchal, feudal, and now commodifed market exchange is that of all subjects rendered ontologically void, a priori, by a dominant power: defined only by exchange- or use-value (child-bearing, sexual objectification, underpaid or unpaid labor) rather than particularized selves, and punished for attempts at signification and dissent. As Karl Jaspers said: “We are guilty of being alive … For we could survive only by keeping our mouths shut.”[1]

On June 25, 2013, Texas senator Wendy Davis filibustered the Texas State Senate to prevent the passage of a law intended to severely restrict access to abortion in Texas: the abortion bill Davis fought restricts abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy and puts in place regulations so strict that only a handful of clinics in Texas could continue to perform abortions. Republican leaders have said the people’s filibuster was a form of “mob rule,” and argue it won’t happen again, believing that the bulk of Texans support anti-abortion laws and will show their opposition to Davis at the polls. At the filibuster, law enforcers confiscated tampons, glitter, confetti, and bottles and jars “suspected to contain” paint and feces from those trying to sit in the senate gallery: protesters staged sit-ins, sang, chanted, and chained themselves to the railing in the senate gallery as senators discussed the measure.

Davis’s filibuster lasted eleven hours (the bill was reintroduced and passed later that summer). In Let Her Speak, a complete transcript of the filibuster, Counterpath presents a document that indexes American history: the struggle of minorities, women, and immigrants to achieve civil liberties and opportunities for education, citizenship, state services, and legal protection against labor, housing, and other forms of discrimination. Let Her Speak includes testimonies from a variety of Texas constituents speaking out against HB 16 and HB 60 (the latter restricting access to abortion services, and which makes the treatment of ectopic pregnancies, reported as emergency abortions, difficult and expensive), and a lengthy exchange between Davis and Republican Texas senator Bob Deuell. Online descriptions of the filibuster, such as that at RHrealitycheck, go into explicit detail about the performance, including mention of Davis’ adherence, in running shoes and back brace, to the strict filibuster rules in Texas prohibiting eating or drinking in the Senate chamber and forbidding the member to sit, lean, or use a desk or chair in any way or take a restroom break. (These conditions are stipulated within an already exclusionary clause denying filibusters to a range of constituents with mobility and medical limitations, such wheelchair users and persons with hypoglycemia).

The publication of Let Her Speak fuels the question of what it means to “speak” rather than being spoken through, by false ideology, bourgeois consciousness, or lyric possession, and is based on sobering facts. Since budget amendments were passed in the Texas house in an effort to attack Planned Parenthood, sixty-two million has been drained from family planning, moving all Title 5 and Title 10 money to other allocations, a long-term plan to siphon money for family planning from community clinics to county and city health departments. Abortion statistics from 2012 reflect a total of 825,564 abortions performed (self-reported data from central health agencies of forty-five states). The Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) reported a total of 1,212,400 based on data from direct surveys of abortionists, and of the roughly 60,000 abortions performed this year in the US, 562 of them were of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.[2]

While any correlation drawn between the number of abortions performed legally or illegally and the availability of family planning resources and birth control is tenuous (even with access to birth control, most methods are not 100 percent effective), Davis’s protest underscores the reproductive right to sex education and birth control as well as legal, safe abortion (of any unwanted pregnancy). Reproductive choice is a human rights issue rather than a gendered gambit: Davis’s filibuster exposes the rhetoric accusing low-income women of using abortion as a form of birth control as occluding questions of access and affordability, rather than irresponsibility. The filibuster also debunks the idea that abortion and female pregnancy are ‘merely’ domestic issues, ‘problems’ that should be dealt with privately, if at all.

To be granted permission or to demand the right to speak, as Senator Davis did, cements the fact that for women and all subjects, speech acts effect symbolic representation (including “art,” however confessionalist or essentialist), acts that often detail stories of trauma and oppression. The rhetoric of the animal liberation movement protests the death and exploitation of animals for consumption, apparel, scientific research, and entertainment: animals, not having personhood, are to date denied protection under law, and need a human voice to argue for the end to their suffering as sentient beings. Conversely, the entire structure of representative democracy is based on the political expediency of a representative speaking on behalf of a constituent, or a paid attorney, on behalf of his client: as regards democratic subjects, or female adults, this system of representation can hinder, not help, and also systemically disable the process of self-representation and authorization. In the so-called criminal justice system, crimes can be exonerated or sentences lightened with a well-paid attorney and congressional bribing of judges: in electoral politics, not only are the actual needs and desires of constituents unmet and tax and union monies spent padding congressional pockets, but the right of women to seek redress against crimes and lawlessness publicly is undermined by social stigma (whistle-blowing) and by law: the amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women, equivalent to French President Jacques Chirac’s Observatoire de la Parité, is not yet implemented, to our nation’s shame, having failed to receive the requisite number of ratifications since being introduced in 1923.

Publishing filibuster transcription engages with the same marketing dilemmas as publishers of multimedia or non-mainstream genres. Let Her Speak asks us to examine narratives of the female reproductive body and its policing by the state after the traumas of unwanted pregnancy, poverty, death from back-alley abortions, and gender-based discrimination are repressed in public and literary culture and the voices of women without access to education or political power bastardized or ignored as inaesthetic. Thinking through the anxiety of genre and canonicity as symptoms of masculinist history, the political and legal issues surrounding authorship, representation, and copyright are also herein roused: Wendy Davis is not the author of Let Her Speak; the transcript, belonging to the public domain, was compiled by workers via Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The full video of the filibuster is on the Texas State Senate website, and the material is public (no copyright or permissions issues). “Anyone can make a transcription of the video, and we know of at least one other person who has,” said Counterpatheditor Julie Carr. “We did not contact Wendy Davis for permission in advance of making the transcription since it is public material.” According to Carr, the idea for the book came about shortly after the actual filibuster. “We had been watching it online and were hit by the importance of the event and of course by the dramatic courage, strength, and force of the filibuster as a performance,” said Carr. “Of course this is a huge human rights issue — very important to focus on at this time in our history, as reproductive rights are being attacked all over the country. The work (meaning the filibuster itself as well as the transcript and the reenactments) is a political intervention — and one we hope has a continued life.”[3]

The transcript was read aloud over eight hours by over thirty participants at Counterpath headquarters in Denver; there have been many other full readings of the transcript around the country. Counterpath editor Tim Roberts said: “We’d done one small transcription project (of Mark Sanford’s apology after his “Appalachian” affair) a few years ago, but the idea for this came up a day or so after the filibuster actually happened in June of last year (and before it was clear that Davis would ride this wave of popularity that seems to have happened). It was during the transcription process that it became clear that we would want to have marathon readings, and that it would be great to invite others to have readings as well.”[4]

Let Her Speak is also to be distinguished not only from memoir, auto-fiction, and ethnographic novel, but also from literary texts that repurpose language and public documents for political ends (e.g. Timothy Donnelly’s “The Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” a metapoetic fiat lux composed of words taken from successive pages of Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” and randomly from the 9/11 Commission Report, sec. 13.5, “Organizing America’s Defenses in the United States”). Christopher Higgs marked the book on the 2013 National Book Award longlist at HTML Giant, calling it “An important work of conceptual/performance art and an important work of radical political action against the war on women.”

Higgs’s response to the text as art reengages with Walter Benjamin’s argument: fascism aestheticizes politics, to which Communism responds by politicizing art. Today, late capitalism responds by making a commodified spectacle of apolitical pop art, most commonly seen in the framing of political resistance as performance art, or tragedy, brutality, or self-annihilation as a purchasable (or free, in social media) fetish. If aesthetics cannot exist without ethics, nor ethics without aesthetics, then the question of how to classify Let Her Speak pales beside the question of whether art is in fact dead anyway, after Duchamp (the exquisite corpses of the author, literature, and the living word), or according to Hegel, to say nothing of the death-knells on lyric poetry pronounced by Adorno after Auschwitz.

Poetry has since the Greeks been a purposeful act, pedagogically and historically, as ars memoria (or momento mori) to transmit rather than interpret or reinvent culture: traditions of reciting or copying a sacred or cultural ur-text frame the metapoetic act of witness, spectatorship, or, in times of war, solidarity or compassion (Greek for “to suffer with”). Anthologies such as Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting protest the wiped slate of history in the name of neoliberal or Fukuyamian post-history, as well as the cross-cultural significance of the act of witness. The poets in that anthology hail from five continents: Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Robert Lowell, Charles Simic, and HD from the US, as well as poets from Africa (Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus), Asia (Bei Dao and Duoduo), the Middle East (Ali Ahmad Sa’id and Yehuda Amichai), and Latin America (Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo). The postconceptual theorization of speech acts (the sentence as juridical ruling and measure of thought) and the act of witness (faux-objectivity and observation bias of a flawed mirror) is complicated by structuralism and Lacanian theory: by assigning guilt, one exonerates oneself. And yet, if suffering remains mute (unrepresented, unlegislated, unredeemed) it ceases to “matter” (be taken into account or seen): the reality is that the women most affected by anti-abortion legislature are low-income, whose short, brutish lives are as “absolute” (concrete and particular) and thus erasable as the absolutist value judgment a representative democracy and conceptual poets (militating against any authoritative or universalist subject or reading) rail against.

Let Her Speak is distinguishable from literary transcriptions “framed” as conceptual art (e.g. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic): these poets reify documents or public broadcasts, from radio weather reports to The New York Times. Conceptual poets aren’t the first cultural pundits to frame the quotidian as “art” (or declare, as did Arendt, evil banal): Seinfeld was notoriously a show “about nothing”; Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets, culminating in the architectonic, neosurrealism of John Ashbery, made an aesthetic out of incorporating free and indirect discourse and juxtaposing high art with the detritus of the commonplace.

Other conceptual poets have made a lifework out of transcribing historically epic events, such as Robert Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum (Veer Books, 2011), composed of sets of captions from photographs in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC; Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and Holocaust; and Heimrad Bäcker’s Transcript. Vanessa Place’s Tragodia trilogy is a contemporary text that reappropriates court documents, forcing the reader to examine the role of witness and the act of testimony as a poetic conceit with its roots in legalistic (patriarchial) law, transgression, and the meting out of guilt, punishment, and death: “War is a discourse, genocide is rhetoric with a body count. Transcript does not make a memorial that risks becoming a monument. But it does reuse and reframe, and in so doing, regurgitates the awful glut and smutch of language that, with the corpses it produces, is history’s compost.”[5]

Self-identifying as a wife and middle-class woman, in Let Her Speak, is Paula: “The proposed legislation is an assault on poor women, probably most often poor women of color … I can’t even begin to imagine how this feels to a young African American or Latino woman who is hearing this from old white legislators … who despite their partisan leanings, have taken an oath to represent us, all of us, and vote our will, not theirs.”[6] Aesthetic questions pertaining to dadism and the dream of verisimilitude aside, a documentary poetics that purports to witness the experience of the abject other instead aestheticizing violence and suffering can be as ethically suspect as the labor exploitations and sleight-of-hand, tax-payer-funded drone wars without constituent consent in a so-called representative democracy. Whether sworn to uphold the law of man, or God, the decisions of an electoral college, University trustees, Supreme Court judges, and cultural elite are shaped not only by identitarian “biases” but also, when power is corrupted, nepotistic underhandedness and the reflexive safeguarding of hegemonic and institutionalized (white, male, monied) perspective.

As documentary poet Claudia Rankine said in a Poetry Daily interview, “As a black person, I am interested in keeping blackness a present and active part of the world because it is a present and active part of the world. As poets we keep the field reflective by acknowledging who we are in the world — by coming clean with that. This is all the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were asking for: to understand that language is constructed around certain investments, certain sets of privileges. If you read Juliana Spahr’s work, it is clear she is conscious of being a white woman in America. As a reader, you know she is aggressively thinking about what this allows her. She makes statements from her perspective and her understanding of what it means to be her. I think that is the most honest place a writer can begin from … simply I am here; here has a history.”[7]

Contemporary poets Mark Nowak, Juliana Spahr, Francesco Levato, Philip Metres, and Martha Collins are among those also writing, publishing, and speaking publicly on the history of documentary poetry, the long poem, and topics ranging from labor and LGBT politics to Appalachia and Chernobyl. In a Poetry Foundation article, Nowak describes documentary poetics as “not so much a movement as a modality within poetry whose range I see along a continuum from the first person autoethnographic mode of inscription to a more objective third person documentarian tendency (with practitioners located at points all across that continuum). Documentary poetics, it should be said, 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’s “Johannesburg mines” and photo-documentary texts such as Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices).”[8] Noting poets outside the US such as Martin Earl, Ernesto Cardenal, Alfred Temba Qabula, Nancy Morejón, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nowak also notes that the documentarian tendency can lend itself more readily to visual culture (film, photography) than the language arts. The question of whether political demonstrations can be considered performance art, and the many fissures of documentary, historical revisionism, and political poetics, call into question the legislative and apotropaic power of appellate and propositional speech acts (appositive “statements” of “fact” and intention, and the new sentence of conceptual poetry versus the lyric line), and suggest a healthy irresolution to these questions, aesthetically: the new “fissure,” so to speak (like the elliptical poets or a resolution to the antimonies between bipartisan parties or Marxist/capitalist systems), rather than an expansion of the capacious boundaries between fact and myth, testimony and art, text and event.

If finding an outside to capitalism (the collective desire of anarchist movements, from Occupy to Freeganism to post-language aesthetics) is the only means of achieving autonomy from market-driven aesthetics, flattering or serving technocracy through marketing (procedural) as well as product mimesis, occupying not just ideological but literal space outside a state/corporate/university context is the goal of contemporary art, as well: for unheard voices of resistance to find, as Nowak says, room “outside of AWP and art galleries and instead locate itself (or organize its potential location) on factory floors, in union halls, at political rallies, in collaboration with institutions and organizations working to shift the Draconian policies under which conservative school boards, Tea Partiers, and neoliberal politicians of the world (unite!?!) seek to police the rest of us.”[9]

The hemorrhaging of state and federal funds from family planning, health, and social services for low-income women and children to pad Congressional pockets, pay off Wall Street debts, and fund the pharma-medical and industrial-military complexes is one that can be addressed only when political activists such as Davis are not only in office (the 2014 gubernatorial race between Davis and her chief GOP opponent, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, is under way) but in well-salaried positions, with benefits, of legislative authority, hiring (and firing) capacity, and control. In overturning and righting any gross inequity or human rights atrocity or scandal, numbers and statistics (e.g. the Vida Count) must precede language.

As Edward Sharp-Paul notes, Davis’ eleven-hour filibuster “requires us to radically expand our definition of art” as well as audience response, voyeurism, and expurgated conscience as a function of durational art’s spectatorship (in pop or high culture). “Firstly, it’s a bloodsport: When reading about or observing such a performance, our first thought is for the performer. Oh, they’ll suffer. Can they do it? Will they make it? … This is a role more often played by athletes in contemporary society: the avatar, exploring the outer limits of human possibility, planting a flag on our behalf. It feels good to see someone put themselves through the purging fire, and for that person not to be you. If there’s a toe-tapping tune to go with it, all the better.”[10] Abramovic: “I have found that long durational art is really the key to changing consciousness… not just the performer, but the one looking at it.”[11] Collapsing boundaries between the recitation of history and the event horizon (the ghosts of a once-emancipatory modernism clanking their chains), Let Her Speak is a “made thing” as bounded performance and transcribed text that is, in the end, less a commentary on the relationship between reality and representation, or transcription and art, and, but, rather being and event. The publication of this historic artifact cordons off for our examination, and re-reading, the messy, context-bounded process of learning how (or legislating for “permission”), to speak, in time.

1. Karl Jaspers, Questions of German Guilt, 2nd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 66.

2. Guttmacher Institute, 2013.

3. Julie Carr, personal email, January 12, 2014.

4. Tim Roberts, personal email, January 14, 2014.

5. Vanessa Place, “Transcript,” BOMB 111 (Spring 2010).

6. Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate (Denver: Counterpath, 2013), 115.

7. Claudia Rankine, interview with Jennifer Flescher and Robert N. Caspar, Jubilat 12, reproduced by Poetry Daily.

8. Mark Nowak, “Documentary Poetics,” Harriet, April 17, 2010.

9. Ibid.

10. Edward Sharp-Paul, “Origin Stories: A Brief History Of Duration Art,” Junkee,April 10, 2013.

11. Ibid.