Virginia Konchan with Vanessa Place

Vanessa Place
Vanessa Place

The Conversant likes to publish multiple interviews with a single artist. Vanessa Place also appeared in a piece from our May issue.

“I embrace my not understanding. To the point of overlaying my ignorance with yours. Yours meaning ours. There’s no reason to differentiate, after all, leather-bound as we are by the blessing of eternal hate. I don’t mean hell, of course. Just the indoors. Domestic violence, some say, as if there’s any other. Oh, I know all about war, countries going at each other like blood brothers. But honestly, and just between us, there’s enough mutual disregard and self-concern to supply a marketplace of bombings. Between us meaning between them, of course.”

—From Vanessa Place’s ONE (with Blake Butler and Christopher Higgs)

In the work of Vanessa Place, the constituting effects of regulatory power on the subject’s body and mind occur within either self-referential or indexical (world-oriented) language—not mimetic, per se, but a language whose referent is the outside, or the other, assuming an exterior phenomenological reality or other even exists. Place’s texts don’t confront the law of the father: They explode it, by treating participatory dialogue as an a priori “infelicitious utterance”; by differentiating between an “act of rhetoric” (law and poetry) and a “rhetorical act” (nullified verdict); and by manifesting language’s total and real subsumption by capital. Place’s ironized forms, post-avant allegories and formal strategies of appropriation, collage and proceduralism deploy legal performatives (citation, witness statements, documentation) to parody and critique civil exigencies.

In her anti-or ante-epistemology, there is no “possible truth, just things that could be true” or that have an “appearance of truth”—a rejection of empiricism as much as a concession of finitude.

“One” begins to wonder: How can a subject position of dissent (“My register lies in objection. Constant objection”), or a negative or reductionist dialectic (her Bataillian-inspired “a-poetics of radical evil”) evade the sound and fury of a Hegelian bad infinity? If the text’s motor isn’t self, or world or even other texts, how does Place reflect on her own process (e.g. the Tragodia series), as well as on representatives, in the courtroom, and books, of the defendant/Law/author/Authority?

A poet, fiction writer and criminal appellate attorney, Place is the co-director of the Los Angeles-based Les Figues Press, a regular contributor to X-tra Art Quarterly and has lectured and performed internationally. Her published works include Dies: A Sentence (Les Figues, 2006), the epic post-conceptual novel La Medusa (FC2, 2008) and the experimental prose trilogy Tragodía (Blanc Press, 2010). Newly published by P-queue Editions, The Father & Childhood is a selection from a second serial work, Boycott Project, with the complete work, Boycott Project, forthcoming this year from Ugly Duckling Presse. With Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Brown and Teresa Carmody, Place collaborated on the recent anthology, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues Press).

Virginia Konchan: “I am a font of stories,” you say in The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law (Other Press, 2010), a book describing your experiences as an appellate defense attorney prosecuting rape while withstanding the temptation to judge even convicted rapists from a stance of moral absolutism. In your inter-genre trafficking as a writer, poet, attorney and performer whose work elides categorization, do you find narrative, as a system of equivalents and metonymies, more yielding to the neutering language of legalese than poetic language, and, if so, does it also contain a greater potential for hard or soft subversion? I’m thinking of Barthes’ quip in Elements of Semiology that narrative is “legal tender,” subject to contract and economic stakes, as a form of saleable merchandise.

Vanessa Place: All language is currency. There is no one conversation that is more or less capable of either carrying one along or serving a measure of tendresse.

VK: If the legal system is to have any integrity, you argue in The Guilt Project, everyone, including convicts, must have access to the same due process of law, a right often denied those appealing a sex-offense conviction. (In the worst of cases, you stated in an interview, “The system itself is on trial.”) In her book Polylogue, Julia Kristeva refers to “the subject in process,” to signify the motility of the subject as evolving rather than fixed as a positivist theoretical neutrality (dynamic rather than static logic).

Is the fallible logos of the criminal justice system connected for you to the potential rehabilitation of those who commit atrocious crimes? And, if so, is the “cut” of judgment and the subsequent sentencing an unavoidable element of the judicial process, despite the possibility of erroneous condemnation?

VP: There is absolutely no causal or effectual connection between the logos or topos of the criminal justice system and the potential rehabilitation of criminals. Any criminals. First, this would imagine a quality of “crime” rooted in a conceptual failure on the part of the “criminal,” rather than on the part of the structure of the system itself. Insofar as crime and criminal are symptomatic, the structure is itself a symptom, one with perhaps a more panoramic ideological display. If we were to imagine a localized symptom for which an individual could be reformed (noting the exact form of my preposition and leaving aside the harrowing aspect of such an imaginary), it is not the criminal justice system that would do so but some other system that would intersect at this point—mental health, perhaps, or public education, or viable job training. To the degree this could ever apply to the egregious offender it would betray the fundamental ability of the law to speak. For the law only speaks to condemn.

In other words, if an offense is “atrocious” because of its nature, and the offender thus an “atrocity,” it is the nature of the offender who is outlawed—his desire for violence (here I will elide the difference, which could be otherwise discussed, between sexual violence and other forms of violence) is itself proscribed and punished. How could you rehabilitate that desire without reconstituting the law itself as something other than the law of prohibition? Or reinscribing the subject as such? (E.g., The Penal Colony.)

VK: One more question from The Guilt Project. You state in a chapter about the parapsychology of guilt: “Monstrosity should be measured in human terms, very clinically and currently, with the ability to recognize that most statistical deviation—the monster who becomes a man.”  Is your conception of a monster becoming man (rather than a man becoming monster, to follow the Rousseauean argument that it is society that corrupts) that of 19th– and 20th-century colonial and post-colonial narratives (Maupassant’s The Horla or Jean Paul’s The Devil’s Confession to an Eminent Official) about monsters becoming men, or do you mean to suggest a kind of “pre-condition” of perversity or will-to-harm?

VP: Neither. I mean there the far more prosaic notion of reform. Though I suppose I also imply an even more pedestrian notion that the man who is monstrous is still man. Still as in birth, with this possibility of quickening.

VK: In Haiti, nearly 370,000 people remain in displacement camps after the 2010 earthquake and only since 2012, in large part as a result of advocacy by KOFAVIV, PotoFi and other grassroots groups, have there been convictions—more than 60 to date, although an unlikely reflection of the actual number—for rapes that occur in the tent camps. The systematic rape of women, such as what occurred with Muslim women in southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 90s or the Tutsi women during the Rwandan genocide, brings international attention to rape as a crime of war, but rape, torture and sexual exploitation are ongoing global crises.

Do you think the apoliticism of consumer capitalism, governmentally, or the indifference of cultural relativism contribute to an international culture of silence or is the reason for frequent non-interference from the U.S. and U.N. scripted by military alliances? What slows the criminalization of sexual or domestic violence in the penal code of developing countries?

VP: I do not imagine that cultural sensitivity or over-sensitivity to other cultures’ concepts of difference motivates much politics. In other words, your first paragraph rather answers your second. Men rape. Not all men, certainly, but there is this persistence/insistence.

VK: The rotating queue of social masks we wear today were also endemic to many ancient cultures (the “masks” of shaman, hunter, hermaphrodite), often serving a tribal function of warding off evil, or marking or celebrating the transitivity of self and soul. Are the dangers of essentializing language or a stable correspondence between sign and referent linked for you to the dangers of dualistic thinking?

VP: I see no dualisms save the ones we adore. I see no essentializing save that we wish for. These are obviously all in retrospect, yes? Where vision is repeatedly frozen.

VK: In your essay, “Why Conceptualism is Better than Flarf,” you make a compelling (and hilarious) argument for conceptualism’s superiority to flarf: “Flarf is never about anything other than poetry itself, whereas conceptualism is allegorical; flarf is composition; Conceptualism is composed; the best flarf is virtuosic; the best conceptualism is failure.” “Created” by the assemblage of Internet-derived cultural detritus, flarf denies both authorial “copyright,” as well as accountability. Does the taxonomic structure of your and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms reclaim “[co]-authorship” on the level of form?

VP: Evidently.

VK: Notes on Conceptualisms takes its place in 21st-century poetics within the slipstream of post-avant/emergent/post-deconstructive poetic practice. While it recycles manifesto art of the previous century, you’ve said you’re not “trying to communicate” in or through this text, whether as critique or endorsement of the culture industry. What are the limits of an institutional critique that parodies and take advantage of the art market, but whose content remains recombinatory or “undone”?

VP: Infinitude, which cuts both ways.

VK: A frequent traveler to and former resident of Paris, what are your allegiances to the French intellectual tradition? What antimonies for you mark French feminist discourse (Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous, Wittig) from the French maîtres à penser (Lacan, Barthes, Derrida)?

VP: I am perhaps fundamentally Cartesian in this, or at least this is my bent. As an American, I am not fundamentally bound to that same l’œil du père—my influence is less anxious as the mirror is more inexact.

VK: You’ve named Lacan, Shakespeare, Beckett, Kant among your influences: What are your formative non-literary or extra-canonical influences?

VP: Hanne Darboven, certain Moscow Conceptualists, Bert Williams and the blackface minstrel show, Carolyn Walker Bynum, Western European medieval materialism and iconography, the Socratic method and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

VK: “Sometimes it is not enough to confess to a crime,” you’ve said.

Before confessional poetry, the confessional genre was mostly a male writer’s game; I’m thinking of Confessions of St. Augustine, Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt, Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit and Chateaubriand’s Memoires d’outre tombe, Newman’s Apologia. As an attorney, is your relationship to “confession” as an illocutionary act versus “admission” of guilt informed by genre?

VP: As an attorney, I advise against confession. Though, it could be noted, the legal distinction between a confession and an admission is that an admission does not admit to all the elements of the crime.

VK: “There is only one man who has the right to be an anarchist,” said Stéphane Mallarmé. “Me, the Poet, because I alone create a product that society does not want, in exchange for which society does not give me enough to live on.”

How does this anarchical pride in the “non-value” of cultural capital take shape in conceptual poetry (e.g. the figuring of the auteur as a poem-making machine or vision of the text-as-machine)?

VP: Perhaps it is better to ask why.

VK: You’ve attributed the “sense of enormous freedom,” in L.A.’s archipelago of micro-cultures to the dominant presence of mainstream culture, “predicated on the simple fact of no one caring.” For you, is this flattening of affect a purposeful stance, a form of defeatism against capitalism’s entrenchment, or a version of Kantian disinterest?

VP: Manifestly Kantian, and thus, Duchampian—that is to say, without prejudice.

You say “allowing,” which is very interesting to me, this idea that we permit others to have selves. I think you are right in this, though our permission is inconstant and comes in fits.

VK: Is this in/difference in any way a result of successive psychic “shocks,” as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine? If so, how can art resist aestheticizing the spectacle of our own dehumanization and disembodiment?

VP: Should it?

VK: “Vanessa Place is writing terminal poetry,” said Rae Armantrout.

A line is not “broken,” in prose: but when it is, terminally, in the poem, the poem “ends.” Is the “end of the poem” for you textual or extra-textual, given your work in other media, such as art and performance, and defense law—that is, considering the valuation of linguistic indeterminacy over appositional “statement”?

VP: It must be both and neither. See below.

VK: Was John Cage making terminal music?

VP: Violently terminal music.

VK: “A statement is always an event,” you’ve said; in what sense? As an iterable or performative speech act? Do you place more faith in prose rising to the occasion of “language-as-event” than poetry?

VP: As speech act, yes, of course.

I have no faith in either prose or poetry as such, only as sites.

VK: You mentioned an interest in neurology, apropos to La Medusa. What are some developments in neuroscience that inform your work (embodied cognition, image-schematic cognitive mapping)?

VP: Let’s be entirely medieval here and think about materialism and the ways in which material becomes progressively de- and im-materialized, then reified and, more glorified, depending on the symbolic significance attached to the material in question. Why bone is spirit, pace Hegel, why art is the movement of pieces eating each other, pace Duchamp, why if you look at anything long enough, it absorbs all its meaning, pace Warhol. Why there is and isn’t woman. i.e., when we talk about specific neuro-scientific developments, as tourists, we are speaking allegorically about our relationship to the meat that makes us murder.

VK: Your latest work, Tragodía, draws from your appellate briefs and the witness statements of physicians, forensic psychologists, private detectives and lab technicians, and is divided into three parts: Statement of Facts (criminal evidence); Statement of the Case (the case’s procedural history); and Argument (claims of error and the defense’s counterarguments and experts of perceived authority). This “triology” form is rhetorical and traces back to Christianity, psychoanalytic theory and legal argument, and you’ve claimed the epic form, specifically Dante’s, as providing the contrapuntal template for Tragodia.

What Plato feared most of all was the sophistic binary established by Gorgias, who pitted persuasion or eloquentia, the highest rhetorical art, against truth. Truth was not something one could be “persuaded” into believing: One believed in the truth because it was real. How can the facts of human suffering and criminality become “real” to a witness or outside observer? Can decouplings of empirical “fact” from rhetorical exegesis ever become an obstruction of “justice”?

VP: What is justice if not rhetorical exegesis? Put another way, what else should be done with the real?

VK: I’ll Drown My Book is an anthology co-edited by yourself, Laynie Brown and Caroline Bergvall. In the Afterword you state that what appears on the surface of the page is “pure textual materiality,” and that in conceptualist writing the context (rather than the text) is the primary locus of meaning-making. How can the transposition of significance from text or product to context or process still carry a putative or mutable meaning if evacuated of authorial intent (vouloir dire) or desire?

VP: How can it not? It is received, after all, in a context, in a conversation. Prosaically, reading a set of instructions in Japanese while a box of parts is in front of you at home is a different discursive engagement than reading a set of instructions in Japanese while a Japanese language textbook is in front of you in a classroom, which is a different discursive engagement than reading a set of instructions in Japanese printed on silkscreen in a gallery wall in front of you, which would discursively differ from reading the same thing printed on latex. We move from utility to university to aesthetics to some sort of mastery. To my mind, it is only when things become useless that they are potentially dangerous, and the idea of authorial communication each-to-each is still in the register of dull utility.

VK: Amid today’s dispositifs of distance and disinterest (Latour’s “flat reading”), where is a desire not mediated by consumer capitalism located, if not in the preferential, subjective “judgments” of a (bilingual, bifocal, bitextual) “I”?

VP: You tell me.


Vanessa Place is CEO of VanessaPlace Inc., a trans-national corporation whose sole mission is to design and manufacture objects to meet the poetic needs of the human heart, face and form.

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