“I think collaborations are an especially important reminder that all authors are really co-authors, co-conspirators in an ongoing series of thefts.” —Kristina Marie Darling
Ghost/Landscape, a poetry collection co-authored by Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher, was published in 2016 by BlazeVox. We took this opportunity to discuss the book and its inception/creation, hauntings, exorcisms, hybrid forms, lyric trespassing, the multiverse, and the ghost line.
Virginia Konchan: How did you conceive of the idea for this collection? Can you speak a little bit about the compositional process, and how it unfolded over time? I’m particularly curious about the titling, and the arrangement of the poems.
Virginia Konchan converses with Lina ramona Vitkauskas on her new poetry collection White Stockings and identity politics and United States/global politics, particularly in the Ukraine.
Virginia Konchan: As a first-generation American of Lithuanian descent, you describe feeling a degree of alienation from your relatives who were born in Lithuania or Ukraine—or who had been through the war. Can you speak a little bit more about your generational perspective, particularly in regard to the difference between what your relatives endured?
Virginia Konchan: In both of your recent books you explore the semiotics of fashion in different ways. In 1967, Barthes made the connection, in Elements of Semiology, between text and textiles, describing the text as an interwoven fabric of quotations drawn from culture, rather than from any single reading experience. Referring to textual production as a “garment system,” Barthes describes the act of speech as comprised by “all the phenomena of anomic fabrication” or of individual style—tracing the very origin of the word “text” to the Latin past participle texere, to weave or fabricate. The author’s successor, the scriptor, exists simultaneously with the text, not in a subject/predicate relationship, dislocating the text’s meaning to “language itself” and the effect on the reader.
From the punk band Glamour Kills to the relationship between fascism and fashion (a symbolic code too often replacing signification through speech or writing for women with a codified language—literalized through semaphores such as sex bracelets worn by middle-schoolers indicating what sex acts they perform, or a diamond ring signifying a woman’s unavailability as well as cultural “worth”), the idea that “clothes make the man” takes us to the metonymic conflation, in “polite society” between a well-dressed or spoken individual and his or her character.
Can you speak to the semiotics of fashion (as a signifying system) in your two books, which present female speakers with various degrees of agency, as well as to silencing? I’m especially curious how you relate the semiotics of DANCE, Lightsey (la geste rather than logos, as signifier) to female agency.
Psychoanalytic discourse (Winnicott’s “good enough” mother, the devouring mother, etc.) haunt the Western imaginary, wherein parodies of our socio-cultural schism (virgin/whore) are attenuated by iconic representations of gender (Madonna, Gaga). Here I explore with writer Janice Lee the fine line between these mythic representations, the work of mourning and lived generational narratives. We also consider contemporary memes, such as the “feral feminism” of The Hunger Games, eating disorders, infertility and other symptoms of cultural malaise, and the damaging myth of a woman who has (or does, as an extenuation of capitalist production values) it all. Rage on. —Virginia Konchan
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.
“Pop matters,” declares Los Angeles-based writer, performer and transmedia artist Kate Durbin—“What we hear in the mall, in our cars, on YouTube, makes the world around us, which is to say that it makes us.” Author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), E! Entertainment (Blanc Press, diamond edition, forthcoming) and five chapbooks, Durbin is the founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, a blog whose curated contents are forthcoming as a book. Her projects have been anthologized and featured by Poets and Writers, Salon.com, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Spex, NPR and many others.
Shattering the halo of iconicity surrounding the celebrity maudites of our era (Anna Nicole, Lindsay Lohan), Durbin examines the paradox of how reality stars are both commodified by celebrity culture as well as in control of their own market share. Resisting the complicit passivity of spectatorship, scopophilia, the fetish, and the gaze, Durbin’s art engages with the politics of consumption within a culture industry that minimizes the contributions of women effecting social change—treating them, according to Sheila Rowbotham, as an “amusing incongruity, titillating commodity, easily consumed.”Shot through with neologisms (“cinesexuality”), Durbin’s work posits a playful beyond to academic feminisms and postmodern memes (multiplicity, lack), wherein attempts to formulate a politico-ethical position (or narrate a representation of self or other informed by race, gender, or ethnicity) are seen as universalizing gestures, as if a neutered, class-based solidarity were the only social praxis left.
Unafraid of excess, sentiment, kitsch, and risk, Durbin offers a riposte to today’s countervailing aesthetic of disinterest, harnessing the plasticity of L.A. culture yet adamantly focused on the miasmic “real” (“I’ll take the grit of earth, facedown, any day”). Durbin’s recodings of the shifting signifiers of our time (music, fashion, femininity, labor) position her at the liberation front of a lived art born of reflection, subversive engagement with the “Big Other,” interconnectivity, and passion.
In an age when individual freedom is increasingly packaged as consumer choice, and endless opportunities are offered for aesthetic rather than political or ethical self-fashioning, Durbin’s work incites a return to conscience, as well as consciousness, and agency, for icons, and ourselves.
Virginia Konchan: Your work flaunts binary distinctions between queer/hetero, butch/femme: What relationship does “femme” play to other transgenre feminisms such as the gurlesque?
Kate Durbin: From my understanding, the gurlesque radicalizes femme as site of sinister threat to the patriarchy: A knife in the heel of a Chanel shoe. I love the idea of the femme and the sinister co-mingling and think that the gurlesque is a potent way of realizing the femme, but the gurlesque has its limitations, as all theories do. I am not sure I agree with the idea that all things we label femme possess an inherent special violence, as some gurlesque notions imply—other than the violence all things possess by nature of existing. I am interested in our anxiety around the femme. This anxiety seems a major aspect of the gurlesque, actually. It’s like we still have this second-wave feminism hangover. We can’t just be okay with glittery baubles, or, in the case of the gurlesque (at least in many of the primary gurlesque theoretical texts), it appears we can be okay with glitter as long as it’s fighting against patriarchy (even if it’s fighting abjectly, i.e. passive-aggressively). But what if the femme also has a life of it’s own on other terms?
In an increasingly neoliberalized literary market, “surface” readings constitute today’s most prevalent form of cultural criticism within and beyond the academy. In pop as well as literary culture, amid critical dispositifs of disinterest and “zaniness”—described by Sianne Ngai as an aesthetic of laboring and playing under the new “connexionist” spirit of capitalism—the pressure to trade in nuanced perspectives for shallow punditry or personal diatribes subtends what Avital Ronnell calls our “default of the political.”
For writer Anne Elizabeth Moore, the evasion of national and global crises, in order to maintain the status quo through unexamined obsequies or the revalorization of the private sphere, is a problem for all capitalist subjects, particularly for those seeking to find voice and form for radical critiques: “Nestled within these difficulties is a particular (although not exclusive) challenge to the female of the species, relegated to a gender role rewarded for silence and prized when emotional…. As a culture we value niceness, particularly in women, even at the expense of truth.”
I caught up with Moore to discuss her current multi-media installation for the School of the Art Institute’s “Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” exhibition (70 collected works of witness memorializing more than 100 reported cases of torture by Chicago Police from 1972 to 1991); her current and upcoming projects; and her post-election response to questions concerning U.S. free trade laws, labor politics and censorship in a neoliberal market.
Virginia Konchan: In your election-day speech on the 19th amendment at the Defibrillator Gallery in Chicago, you argued that merely participating in patriarchal institutions isn’t necessarily an actual gain, if those systems don’t represent through a governing body or in the private interests they serve, the needs of women for safety, civil rights and economic development. What are some guerilla tactics for women to change the system (or, ourselves, as you suggested), from within?
Anne Elizabeth Moore: That election-day piece will be published in a book on inauguration day, but if you can’t wait I do have an audio version of it here.
This interview series began with graduate work I am undertaking at the University of Illinois at Chicago on aesthetics, labor, contemporary poetics, and the 20th-century history of the professoriate within the American university, an institution that neoliberalized following wholesale privatization over the last 30 years, and the financial crisis of 2008.
Today, market exchange is commodity exchange: the prices fixed by the neoliberal market on intellectual capital (DNA, art, patents), human beings and human capital (a system subtended by unpaid domestic labor and exploited wage labor) must be reevaluated, beginning with an alternative structure to aesthetic/commercial production beyond corporate creditism, and a return to a labor theory of value. Institutional critiques and conversations across artistic disciplines are necessary, lest enthusiastic rhetoric surrounding the mass democratization of education, cyberspace and literary publishing drown out awareness of the profiteering models of the corporate state, as well as intellectual property-rights issues of increasing salience in a tech-driven culture of citizen-consumers whose increased investitures of time, labor and cultural products (what Rodrigo Toscano calls “aesthetic volunteerism”) yield steadily diminishing returns.
Virginia Konchan: In your essay “I am a poet and I have” in the Poetic Labor Project, you compare the American university system to a sharecropper estate whose laborers are either tenure-line teacher-scholar-writers or “sharecroppers” (adjunct teachers and graduate teaching assistants).
The working conditions of sharecroppers are horrific as you say: an adjunct teaching three sections of a course at $2,000 each earns $6,000 a semester. Spread over 15 weeks this equates to $375 a week, and when factoring in course preparation, teaching, grading and student conferencing, adjunct professors’ hourly rate is far below the national minimum wage and rarely includes health insurance or retirement benefits: graduate TA’s often make even less.
Context is everything, relativistic linguistic and cultural theory remind us, and yet contemporary poets continue to be exploited by corporatized structures in which the “investment” of a degree or two in poetry is bought, after which many work as contingent faculty for less than a living wage. Public forums (e.g. The Adjunct Project) and unionization efforts name many culprits (the corporatization of higher ed; wage-labor capitalism; neoliberalism).
What larger system in your opinion undergirds the sharecropper estate?
Cathy Wagner: I had a long talk with a taxi driver, an Ethiopian-born US citizen, as he drove me to the Denver airport last January. He had lost a sales job in the downturn in 2008 and after nine months, he found work as a taxi driver. His cab license costs $600 a month. He rents the cab itself from Yellow Cab, which is a huge French company (all those yellow cabs, one company). He and his fellow drivers are not employees of Yellow Cab; they are independent contractors. Yellow Cab offers drivers no benefits, and the fees the drivers pay the company rise all the time. The law says that taxi drivers must take breaks but if my cabbie does not drive twelve hours a day he cannot afford to live and pay for his license and cab. It’s an exploitative situation, and dangerous for drivers and passengers because the drivers are overworked and tired.
This situation — laying off permanent employees, making employees into independent contractors — has repeated itself in every industry including university education, where adjuncts now teach 70 percent of credit hours as you know. Obviously the practice has led to worse conditions for workers (the lack of bathrooms for truckers working out of the Oakland port is one example). It’s made a nonsense of the eight-hour workday. It also makes it difficult to organize activism: everyone is an independent contractor, atomized, out of touch.