Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Place’s book Boycott (Ugly Duckling). Recorded June 18th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: I have questions about the book’s origins. That might seem counter to conceptualist emphases upon reader reception, but could you give some background on your preceding engagements with (or provocations by, or responses to) these canonized feminist source texts? Do you see Boycott crystallizing tendencies latent within these texts? Did the decision to replace female-gendered terms with male-gendered terms simply start as an intuitive gesture that happened to work out well, or did you arrive at this plan over time? If I seem to be searching for an originary myth to a form of writing that precludes one: for me the pleasures of reading conceptual books often do involve this triangulated apprehension/projection of what a specific poet deliberately has done with a particular discourse or idiom or anterior project. So feel free to intervene in that triangulation however you see fit.
Vanessa Place: In terms of this specific manuscript, I don’t know if you could call it intuitive, as much as I had absorbed Lee Lozano’s fascinating Boycott Piece—executed at the same time as second-wave feminist texts were being promulgated right and left. Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone and Angela Davis published celebrated books around that time, even as Lacan delivered his Seminar XX, where he says la femme n’existe pas (the Woman doesn’t exist). To my mind, if you combine these contemporaneous claims, taking Lacan at his word while reading those iconic feminist texts, you can’t help but understand their main topic was men. They don’t address women. They address the male imaginary. So to literalize this operation. . . for her part, Lee Lozano literalized the operation by refusing to speak to women, refusing to recognize them, which produces its own revelations. Likewise, my first Boycott intervention, Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto, seemed to reveal both more and less than the original text. That became fully clear when I started working with de Beauvoir. I felt thrown into some kind of ontological abyss by the easy essentialism, the easy gender constructs. As an undergraduate I had minored in gender studies, so I had read these books over and over, yet suddenly they became unfamiliar. I couldn’t tell if I considered certain sentences true, even provisionally. When I would read, in de Beauvoir, for example, “it’s the dream of every young girl to become a mother,” I could accept some part of that sentence, at least historically. But when this sentence became “it’s the dream of every young boy to become a father,” suddenly the gendered aspect seemed thornier. Reading about puberty as a male trauma raised related questions. Of course, I still could default to the notion of pure constructivism you’ve described, throwing questions back onto the person encountering my Boycott text, such as: do I believe this assertion? Did it originally refer to a woman rather than a man? Why do I care about that? What part of ontology (everybody’s biography) is simply the failure of symbolism, the failure of the Woman as such? S.C.U.M. Manifesto has this great line: “Women don’t have penis envy, men have pussy envy.” Through my Boycott that became: “Men don’t have penis envy, men have dick envy,” which sounds much more accurate. Latent intimations and revelations kept bubbling up, but these don’t come from Solanas’ text. They completely derive from my reception. They remain, like gender, interior to me. An older male poet has called this project a feminist screed, yet I consider it quite the opposite—not because it’s anti-feminist, but because it reopens basic questions of gender.
AF: And how we define feminism.
VP: How feminism gets defined, and what are its stakes? Not just for “we” in the general, but “we” in the specific. What’s my stake in this? What does it mean for me to become the author constructing gender all over again? Or for an audience to do so? People laugh when I read from Boycott, but why does it sound silly? If gender is a joke, it’s an awful gag.
AF: One big surprise throughout your book is that this economical mode of defamiliarizing attention points towards any number of authoritarian discourses lurking within these liberatory classics. Gender, as you say, constantly gets reinforced by the source texts, even as they supposedly question its parameters. Then, at the same time, Boycott somehow humanizes these mythological figures, these authors I too read in college. We see them as individuals trying to negotiate a difficult bind—resorting to rigid classifications, to a rapacious anthropocentric focus. Perhaps most obviously, Mary Wollstonecraft’s professed desire to uphold the patriarchy, her primitivizing take on Islam and patronizing comparisons between refined women and crass military men stand out. Of course, such conflicted feminist assertion has produced a long history of divisive results regarding questions of race, class, sexuality. And the Firestone piece develops its own problematic relationship to “common people,” while Solanas closes Boycott with a stirring genocidal appeal to “the elite of the elite.” In each of these instances, your boycott practice hints at a Nietzschian approach to gendered categorization, less an earnest opposition to this polarizing rhetoric than a hollowing out of a priori distinctions, a revaluation of inherited terms. So how do you envision this conceptual treatment reshaping our reception of these texts? Would renewed critical attention to questionable rhetorical positions and connotations provide one appealing outcome? Would the construction of new idioms, new shapes of syntax, new argumentative strategies?
VP: That all sounds great, though here I’ll revert to type and resist. Outcomes don’t interest me. I maintain a Kantian disinterest, in the sense that I have no final preference. I believe I’ve succeeded in presenting a problem, puzzle or proposition which can proceed in different ways, depending on who receives the text. I expect some readers would have the same response you had, where they critique these source texts in terms of counter-ideologies that bubble through once the main gender argument gets effaced. On the other hand Boycott does, I think, in the Nietzschian way you’ve described, also make such identity categories not irrelevant, but immaterial—or dematerialized. Here I wonder if part of the project may point to a post-structuralist hangover, as opposed to a holdover. That is to say: ’80s French feminism as dutifully imported to the U.S. raised a difficult language issue, given we don’t have a gendered language in the same way. This hindered the importation, I think, or should have exacted a tariff. With Boycott, English became much more gendered once I’d subtracted a second gender. For what remained gendered felt even more problematic, because gender itself became the sex that is one. And one, as Badiou maintains, is an operation. For example, I couldn’t simply replace pronouns. After that first gesture, I still had to remove all exclusively female phenomena. Thus I had to conduct an internal debate about whether pregnancy remains distinctly female, whether breasts are sexed. I decided I could keep pregnancy and breasts. But I couldn’t keep menstruation.
AF: I think abortion becomes castration.
VP: Right. Menstruation becomes ejaculation. P-Queue published two de Beauvoir chapters, “The Mother” and “Childhood,” which became “The Father” and “Childhood.” The “Childhood” chapter produced interesting formulations like “The first ejaculation is very traumatic for the young boy.” Again I read this and wondered if it seemed accurate. But beyond questions of factuality, this sentence’s medicalizing aspect became more apparent. Its Cartesian aspects get amplified. Similarly, I found it fascinating that even someone like Judith Butler, still considered quite contemporary, conducts a Cartesian way of thinking.
AF: Could you explain that?
VP: In order to position gender as entirely a construct, you have to imagine an entity called mind separate from an entity called body. But this construction of the body needs to include such rudimentary factors as hormones and spatial occupation, which should suggest a more cyclical or soupish engagement. Yet Butler maintains an old idea of physiognomy, of intellect, where I can step outside, I can apprehend my corporality and the corporality of others.
AF: While my grammar can stay stable enough to articulate this position to you.
AF: But when you say you’d pause to consider whether a boycotted sentence sounds true, can you explain why that seemed significant? Did you just find it interesting that such a question came to mind?
VP: I don’t care much about that specific question. As an attorney, by “true,” I mean plausible. More accurately, I mean this as an example of various ontological trigger points. Over and over I’d reach points of resistance, oblivious of my preconceptions until confronted by their negation. Different readers will face different questions, and find other points of plausibility.
AF: Here could we turn back to the many male/female substitutions that arise, such as castration for abortion, and cocks for chicks? Or why the deliberately Borgesian bent to replacing the Medusa with the Minotaur? Does a systematic concept or theory dictate these substitutions? Did a more personal, pragmatic, experiential process play out?
VP: A sentence would pose a problem. Its solution would introduce a new constraint. Once I’d decided abortion represents an intervention specifically into feminine reproduction, I had to find an analogous procedure, a compromising of male fertility. Castration made sense because it could be voluntary or involuntary. Castration, like abortion, has picked up a charged political valence—various connotations of socialized, or criminalized, or state violence.
AF: So as with some theories of translation, one chooses between presenting a straightforward verbal equivalent, or producing a comparable function within the new language?
VP: Yes, for Medusa I wanted a combination of man and beast, like Minotaur. Also, the labyrinth of Medusa’s hair, like the Minotaur’s labyrinth, proves deadly, yet each monster is murdered by a hero.
AF: You also select another three-syllable word starting with “M.” But more generally: Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, with their circumspect attempts to construct a non-totalizing discourse, came across as the most amenable to your project—in the sense that fluid pronominal substitutions seem to advance, to exemplify their claims, rather than to challenge them. I don’t mean to suggest that these boycotts succeed more than others, though I’m curious if particular authors, for whatever reason, don’t work as boycotts, or particular pieces by authors you did choose.
VP: Certain authors presented more difficult cases—Cixous, for example. “The Laugh of the Medusa,” I think, ends up working reasonably well. But other texts by her did not. Haraway stayed difficult since she tries so hard to depart from gender. Still gender remains fundamental to the text, and “Simians, Cyborgs and Women” is my cosmic e.g., so I wanted to include that piece in particular. For Chandra Talpade Mohanty, from what I remember, the footnotes became the focal point. I omitted footnotes for a lot of these texts. Though for “Under Western Eyes,” I wanted to foreground footnotes as literalizing and confounding the multiple, beneath a text that calls for multiplicity. De Beauvoir impressed me, given her historical context, for staying consistent in citing both male and female authority. Whereas “Under Western Eyes” posits much male authority.
AF: Sometimes footnotes did stand out—as a boycott’s most expressive quality.
VP: The curatorial hand gets heavier. The difficulty becomes framing a pattern without providing an interpretive argument.
AF: With conceptual texts, I’ve long been intrigued by what happens once a reader “gets” a project, knows what’s happening. What means of attention come after that? What space for critical reflection remains? If we take, by contrast, Stein’s The Making of Americans, this book always does something new, producing an endless variety of tactile reading pleasures. And I’m not saying all conceptual texts lacking such shifts become problematic, but it interests me what follows once this sense of surprise and difference fades away. So I’m curious here if your construction of a quasi-anthology deliberately provides for greater variety of idiom, of localized intervention—allowing the project to proceed in divergent ways yet maintain a conceptual unity.
VP: Well I do hope to complete a full boycott of The Second Sex. I’ve done four chapters already. But here I wanted a feminist history, a historiography actually. Second-wave feminism and most subsequent feminisms have foregrounded the anthological form. Still I didn’t want this project just to seem some pointed critique of second-wave feminism. I sent my friend Susan Faludi the Backlash chapter, and she generously said that its Boycott version made the argument she’d been trying to make all along.
AF: Sure many of these source texts position themselves as standing on the shoulders of preceding feminist arguments—absorbing, consolidating, rearticulating and redefining the terms of their predecessors in order to reinvigorate a broader tradition of thought.
VP: I’ve mentioned this too often, but I do believe that successful conceptual pieces present the allegorical. Here an obvious allegory about gender and feminism and history plays out. Or you could place this boycott anthology in relation to Eliot’s somewhat thin “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” How do later feminist texts, and even later boycotts, alter what came before?
AF: Could you also speak to how these separate boycott projects inform each other once placed side-by-side? They don’t appear in chronological order, correct?
VP: They come in clusters, again throwing back onto readers evaluative questions, such as which do you like best? Which ones work for you? What fails? What fails worse? Ideally this provides for a self-critique. To me, the main point of interest isn’t so much a critique of those texts themselves, but of our encounters with the texts, our preference for this one over that one. Here we don’t interrogate gender so much as we track our affinities to different types of discourse. Still each of these feminist, egalitarian projects does become authoritative—by definition. And the problem remains that once you posit an epistemology of gender, then you’re sunk. So the best option, to my mind, is to eliminate one of the terms. To change, in a word, the language game.
AF: On that elimination, could we address the erotics of this new idiom you’ve constructed? I thought of Roland Barthes’s passage “The Goddess H,” in Pleasure of the Text. The Goddess H stands for hashish and homosexuality. Barthes describes his principal pleasure of experiencing more and more and more of something. And of course Boycott’s male-saturated idiom can seem claustrophobia-inducing, as when Kate Millett’s account of female-to-female rivalry gets regendered as Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau—suddenly taking a more violent twist. But more often campy pleasures arise as the male monochrome abounds. I’ll give one example, from Wollstonecraft: “Nowadays the King of England still considers it part of his royal male role to sport as much of the family jewelry as he can manage at any one time on all public occasions, although the male monarchs have escaped such showcase duty, which devolves exclusively upon their husbands.” As this new male object-hood corresponds to historical projections of male power, your boycotts suggest that broader arenas of gender (defined by institutional discourse, by the binary of man and woman) long have showcased contests between men, by men, for men, ultimately about men. Here the proverbial, predatorial male gaze of feminist criticism aligns itself with Narcissus. Men gaze at men.
VP: Boycotts teach you everything about men. Men become brave and valorous, but also trivial and flirtatious. Men only care about money. Men only care about household objects. When Lacan says the Woman doesn’t exist, he uncovers a foil for the Man, so that the male finally can recognize himself. This comes through clearly. And however campy these lists of male attributes, they again ring right, yes? Who doesn’t know the flirtatious man? Who doesn’t know the man obsessed with money? The boycott becomes a great leveler. On the one hand, you could make a somewhat easy Sedgwick-inspired argument about the epistemology of the closet and all that. On the other hand, in a stupidly reductive way, the boycotts trace this fundamental truth that what we really want are gender categories. That’s the desire.
AF: You mean for all involved?
VP: For all involved, including the authors, the readers, the subjects, contexts and language of these texts. This categorical imperative seems quite different from what Kant had in mind. But then, after realizing that, what do you do? Here’s my main question. Because no escape seems possible, which is why direct outcomes don’t concern me. Each of these texts presents a philosophical trap, and when you sense such a trap you should walk into it.
AF: One last topic that might seem dumb. The Haraway piece contains elisions or compressions. I couldn’t tell if all pieces do. But every time I searched online to compare one of your boycotts to a source text, Google took me to the Marxist Internet Archive. Did you want to explain your history with this site?
VP: The compression part sounds easier, and probably more humiliating. The fact is I want people to read these boycotts—unlike some conceptual projects. I don’t need to revisit that discussion. But I mean for readers to finish these pieces. If you grasp the intervention, that’s all well and good, but when you progress through the texts you really see how they work.
AF: And the serialized, comparative nature of these boycotts also requires that a reader finish each text efficiently, so that it can linger as a trace memory for subsequent chapters.
VP: For similar reasons I tried to find the most revealing passages. I would flip through The Female Eunuch for example and sense no single chapter worked better than the rest. In fact, the basic point of this book depends upon approaching the book as a whole. So curatorial questions of selection arose. That’s where the humiliation lies. Did I stack the deck? Did I thumb the scale? Probably.
AF: I don’t think so, since your elisions break the apparent rule. They complicate the reading procedure. I get lulled into projecting a verbatim transcript with minimal interventions operating according to an explicit code. Then I have to rethink the ways in which this reading experience has been carefully shaped and constructed for and by me.
VP: Which again returns us to personal predilection. For example, with S.C.U.M. Manifesto, I wanted to include the “‘Great Art’” section. But that particular text contains lots of repetition. I cut of a bunch of material. Then for that Marxist website: the dumb answer is I hoped to avoid retyping everything. That becomes physically grueling, in a way you wouldn’t expect. So as a final gesture embedded in this piece, though I could have taken from other websites, I had more fun stealing from the Marxists. After all, who better to steal from than Marxists?
Of Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms, Mary Kelly said, “I learned more about the impact of conceptualism on artists and writers than I had from reading so-called canonical works on the subject.” Kenneth Goldsmith said Vanessa Place’s work is “arguably the most challenging, complex and controversial literature being written today.” Rae Armantrout said, “Vanessa Place is writing terminal poetry.” Bebrowed’s Blog said Vanessa Place is “the scariest poet on the planet.” Anonymous on Twitter said, “Vanessa Place killed poetry.”