Tyrone Williams: “Radical Mimesis: Conceptual Dialectics and the African Diaspora”

This paper was given at the Celebrating African American Literature conference at Penn State, October 26, 2013.

As used by Judith Goldman in her Postmodern Culture article, radical mimesis serves as an umbrella term for the various modes of citation and reframing theorized in critical texts like Kenny Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing and Rob Fitterman’s and Vanessa Place’s Notes on Conceptualism as well as the modes of conceptual writing practices exemplified in Christian Bok’s Eunoia, Goldsmith’s Day and several of Fitterman’s and Place’s individual books. In general, Goldman analyzes the disjunction between these writers’ theories of conceptual writing, which she finds problematic, and their practices of conceptual writing, some of which, for her, exemplify radical mimesis as cultural criticism under the hegemony of late capitalism. In thus arguing that the critical theories put forth by Goldsmith, Fitterman and Place misread the radicality of conceptual art practices even as she adopts some of their critical lexicon, Goldman deconstructs their misreadings of conceptual art theory in general, the Duchampean readymade in particular, while realigning their actual practices along the axis of information theory critique.[1] Detaching conceptual writing from conceptual arts, Goldman reminds us that conceptual writing has not always been and will not always need to be dependent on other media within the fields of cultural production.[2] Most pertinent for my purposes, Goldman’s argument suggests that to the extent conceptual writing practices precede their theorization (the reverse of conceptualist art practices), they remain relatively independent of their absorption into, and possible reduction to, a nomenclature. While the debate within these conceptual fields turns on the relationships among the optical, the readymade and language, I want to widen the scope of Goldman’s argument by demonstrating how the concerns of conceptualism in general, that is, in the plastic, visual and verbal arts, are analogous to the concerns of some Negro, colored, and even black writers[3] from the 18th to the mid-20th century in the United States, not as conceptual aesthetic issues per se but as flawed and inadequate “representations” of the African human.

The possibility of valorizing the “non-retinal” (the value shift from the optical to the conceptual) by turning to or foregrounding the role of language in the plastic and visual arts had long been an ethical, cultural, political and aesthetic concern regarding the relationship between the “lived experience” of African Diaspora writers and the English language. From the point of view of European descendants unable to fathom the possibility of subjectivity on the part of Africans, the African who spoke English “well” may have been a novelty, capable of mimicry, but the African capable of writing English well was, by definition, a protest novelty. Whereas the ability to speak English could be, and often was, attributed to the propensity for “imitation” among Africans (connected to their “innate” talent for music and dance), the ability to write English suggested the ability to reason and think, that is, to forge original thoughts. The demonstration of these skills thus offered a counterargument to, a protest against, the general belief that Africans were incapable of the reasoning attributed to Mongoloids and Caucasians. In the context of Enlightenment philosophical values, the African capable of writing could only constitute a protest novelty, the exception that, for someone like Thomas Jefferson, proved the rule. But the African writing in English was also a protest novelty in the precise, if polemical, sense that James Baldwin meant when he criticized Richard Wright’s “protest novel”: an appealing index of impotency, a titillating plea to white readers for understanding, if not approval, of the black “plight.” Titillation as an effect of novelty could not be circumvented by any African writing in English in the 18th century.[4] Given that Phillis Wheatley, for example, was “proven” to have the ability to write poetry, and thus, the ability to imagine and think, the grounds of judgment of Africans had to shift, for Jefferson and others, from ability to proficiency Yes, Africans could write, could think, but could they write and think well? Jefferson, of course, infamously wrote that Wheatley’s poems “were below the dignity of criticism.” To be fair, it should be noted that the response to Jefferson was swift; white abolitionists in England (where her first and only book was published) and in the United States rushed to Wheatley’s defense. But these defenses were often predicated on the appreciation for how well Wheatley had drawn attention away from her skin, that index of her “natural” inferiority.[5] For both her supporters and detractors, “nurture” was the pen that wrote over, the stick that drove back, “nature.”

Thus Africans capable of reading and writing in European languages had to concern themselves with questions of the optical and linguistic vis-a-vis the readymade, that is, vis-à-vis the African body.[6] To wit: despite her visual appearance as an African, a readymade presumed inured to nurture, to learning (as opposed to mimicry), Wheatley proved herself able to overcome the handicap of the optical, and thus her “nature,” by emulating in writing the English poetics of the 18th c. So baffling was her achievement, the shock of the new to 18th c. Bostonians, Wheatley had to undergo an oral defense of her work before eighteen esteemed gentlemen of the city. In what sense, however, can I claim that her poems, however novel, registered protest? In what sense can some of her poems be understood as enacting torqued mimicry or radical mimesis?

Mimicry of the European in form, mode and apparent “message” was believed to be the best proof that the interior life of the African was not an effect of the exterior, debased sign of the skin. But mimicry, as imitation, was already on the wane as a positive aesthetic value in the 18th c. as the doctrine of originality, intimately connected with the social, cultural and political revolutions in Europe and its various colonies, began to seize hold of the European imagination. It is this value that Jefferson deploys to disparage Wheatley. As applied to the writing of Africans, free or enslaved, originality was tantamount to another revolution, as destabilizing to the European world view as the Copernican one, since it implied that African and European subjectivity might be indistinguishable from one another.

Of course, it would be ethically and historically irresponsible to claim that Wheatley, Equiano, and others sought to critique capital commodification via mimesis, the underlying motive of much conceptual art and writing, especially since, in the 18th c., we are still near the “beginning” of capital formations via the expropriation of lands and peoples. My point is that not only the general anxieties attendant to representation of the self as well as others but also the tools that would later serve as the tenets of conceptualism were already available to African American artists.[7] Thus I believe that it is possible to argue that mimesis, as deployed by certain artists, at certain moments, did serve to critique hegemonic cultural values. I don’t have time to offer a substantial reading of Wheatley’s most famous, most anthologized and, according to Henry Louis Gates, the most reviled poem in African American letters, “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”[8] I just want to note that Gates follows a long line of critics who read this poem simply and superficially as an expression of Christian gratitude and submissiveness. However, Wheatley relies on her ability to manipulate grammar and syntax to turn the tables on her Christian enslavers. She torques the language and grammar of her benefactors to create a space for an African subjectivity presumed to have been fully suppressed by her enslavement and subsequent exposure to “good” values.

Within the sphere of 20th-century literary poetics the career of Gwendolyn Brooks offers one example of this dialectic at work. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems, Annie Allen, Brooks’ blurring of the boundary between parroting and mocking high modernism precedes and foreshadows Melvin B. Tolson’s practice in Harlem Gallery: Book I: The Curator. Brooks’ tightrope procedures retrospectively rewrite the so-called Mockingbird School of Poetry largely attributed to Negro women poets during the Harlem Renaissance. Later, in her poetry of the Sixties and Seventies, Brooks takes up the possibilities and limitations of the Black Arts Movement and its concomitant commitment to a black aesthetic, culminating in two important collections, In the Mecca and After Mecca. In this respect Brooks’ career differed from that of younger protégés like Carolyn Rodgers and Haki Madhubuhti, whose published works reveals few, if any, “breaks” in form or content as radical as Brooks’. That being said, Brooks’ work can also be viewed as a continuum that bridges her pre-and post-Sixties poetry if we regard her as an early conceptual poet whose formal procedures subsume her “traditional” and “innovative” poetics. Because this mode of conceptualism relies precisely on the parrot/mockingbird paradigm, it subsumes a great deal of the African American poetry produced at certain critical times in the history of American poetry in general. Insofar as Brooks’ work is the subject of several papers at this conference, I will not focus on the procedures she deploys to reconceptualize what it means to be first a Negro, and then, a Black poet and woman. Were there time enough it would be possible to demonstrate that Brooks follows the conceptual model laid out by Phillis Wheatley—another alleged “mockingbird”—in manipulating traditional European forms for decidedly “African,” “North American,” and “North African American” purposes. Instead I will try to show how the poetics of Melvin B. Tolson attempt to reproduce the dialectics among modern painting, modern literature and modernity. Tolson’s last book, Harlem Gallery., is specifically about the tensions among the optical, language and race as, in my conceit here, the readymade. In short, Tolson interrogates identity politics as an epiphenomenon of majority and minority groupings. For Tolson, radical mimesis, if pushed to its limits, can effectively fracture the house of mirrors of reality from which racial essentialism (“black feelings”) and empirical essentialism (“lived experience”) derive their potency.

The problem of language, opticality and the readymade orients Melvin B. Tolson’s Harlem Gallery: Book 1: The Curator. In taking on both Pound’s and Eliot’s modernist techniques of collage and allusion, Tolson mocked through mimicry his predecessors. As Dan McCall points out, Tolson’s irreverent laughter at high modernism via radical mimesis, which we may call burlesque, is not only a deconstruction of European cultural pretensions but also the index of a culture to come.[9] But what might that future look like? Harlem Gallery takes on the competing claims of both Black Nationalism and the assimilationist tendencies of the black bourgeoisie. A more positive version of this vision had been articulated by Tolson in 1953 in his Libretto for Liberia, a commemorative poem the country’s United Nations cultural attaché had commissioned him to write. By the time Tolson published Harlem Gallery in 1965, however, the complications of Negro and black life in the United States and elsewhere had tempered the optimism underwriting the Libretto. Eliot’s nostalgia for a general unified sensibility, endorsed in its Pan African version in the Libretto, is exploited with glee by Tolson as his over-the-top citations demand a reader so idealized that his or her existence is a historical impossibility. That glee is a recognition of, if nor disillusion with, the magnetic pull of ethnic and racial cohesion. Still, the desire for an ethno-racial commons, a unifying sensibility, cannot simply be mocked into irrelevance. Echoing Harold Cruse and the Black Arts Movement, Dr. Nkomo (one of the central figures in the poem) insists that it is the artist who must create the new consciousness of “the people” even as the debates between himself, the Curator, Mister Starks and Hideho Heights underline the difficulty of such a uniform racial consciousness. Harlem Gallery remains a conceptual workshop of forensics, a site for debates concerning the responsibility of the artist to aesthetics and the world at large.

What makes Harlem Gallery an example of radical mimesis is Tolson’s turn to the idea, and even ideal, above and beyond the classical Graeco-Roman cultural artifacts, Latin epigrams, and black slang and dialect he uses. Yoking together the alleged ephemeral and eternal, Tolson demonstrates that in terms of historical knowledge there is no difference between these discourses for a historically situated reader. For Pound and Eliot, of course, this simultaneity of discourses was an index of cultural decline and moral evisceration. For Tolson, the dissemination of discourses is a sign of a progressive future in which ideology is trumped by miscegenation and miscegenation is trumped by the dialectical play of the mind. The means to these ends are not, however, bloodless. As his parable of the sea turtle and shark demonstrate, the African, swallowed by the European will eat its way out, but in doing so will find the European inside itself. This conceit predicts the effects of both slavery in the Americas as well as colonialism in Africa. Tolson follows Jean Toomer’s industrial readymade—the Southern Negro forged by slavery and Reconstruction—and tracks it to its next stage of cultural development—the Northern Negro of the Harlem Renaissance. However, Harlem Gallery makes it crystal clear that cultural sophistication alone cannot remove the stigmata of skin color. Indeed, both Dr. Obi Nkomo and Hideho Heights are tempted to reverse racial stereotypes to valorize skin color and race from the other side of the coin: black skin as an index of racial superiority. Thus Tolson sets his wide-ranging debate about art, philosophy and American history within an art gallery, the site of the optical par excellence. At the same time, the gallery is also the site of class privilege. At the beginning of Harlem Gallery, Tolson draws an analogy between the déclassé origins of the first colonists and slavery: the American is intrinsically an ignoble type.[10] This type, an apparent readymade, is, in fact, an effect of ideology. When Tolson invokes the optical leitmotifs “Black Boy,” “White Boy” and “Black Boy, White Boy” in the last third of Harlem Gallery, the effects are multiple. The first phrase, “Black Boy,” was a familiar term of derision that Richard Wright, in another display of radical mimesis, turned against its racist history. The second, “White Boy,” was just coming into usage among black militants in the Sixties in another display of radical mimesis. For Tolson, however, both terms are empty signifiers insofar as they refer to no material reality. Biologically and culturally, there are no “black” or “white” people. However, to the book’s repeated questions “Who is a Negro” and “What is a Negro,” the structure of the book makes it clear that insofar as the Negro is miscegenation writ large—that is, not only biologically but also socially and culturally—every American is perforce a Negro. This argument thus undercuts the optical. For if we are all Negroes, then identity cannot be reduced to phenotype. Nonetheless, as Tolson makes clear, “Black Boy” and “White Boy,” however empty as signifiers, have real material effects. Thus he moves back and forth between criticisms of these terms as such and deploying them as if they could stand on different sides of the forensic exercises he stages among the primary characters of Harlem Gallery: Dr. Obi Nkomo, a Pan-Africanist, Hideho Heights, a poet, and the Curator, art critic and owner of the gallery. In general, the subject of the debate is the relationship between aesthetics and the problem of representation. Nkomo stands for the social activist who believes that art should serve the people while the curator dedicates himself to aesthetic innovation irrespective of its social or political utility. Hideho Heights, as his name suggests, is split between these two modes of responsibility. Thus when the Curator brings a drunk Heights back to the latter’s home he discovers that the self-styled “people’s poet” has secretly written aesthetically innovative poems: “He didn’t know/I knew/ about the split identity/of the People’s Poet–/the bifacial nature of his poetry:/the racial ballad in the public domain/ and the private poem in the modern vein.” (335) “Poor Boy Blue” finds himself trapped between the “Color Line, and the Party Line,” between “the Great White World/and the Black Bourgeoisie.”[11] Dr. Nkomo, however, has already reminded both the Curator and Heights that immanence precedes transcendence: “A work of art is a domain/ (mediterranean)/ of this race,/if that time,/of this place,/of that psyche,/with an Al Sirat of its own…” (289) The razor-thin bridge between earth and heaven, between the immanent and the transcendental, is an apt metaphor for the practice and risk of radical mimesis, for whatever differences obtain between an “original” and its replication, those differences, however radical, may well be so minute that they are invisible to a reader or viewer. When one cannot be bothered with differences that appear infinitesimal, the tendency to simplify—Melvin B. Tolson was a poet who tried, and failed, to emulate Pound and Eliot—is all too tempting. As a shield against this, all we will ever have is our own interminable rereading, reviewing, replicating—with a difference—every interpretation, every exegesis, “viewed” or “read”.

tyronewilliamsmd[1]Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of five books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002), On Spec (Omnidawn Publishing, 2008), The Hero Project of the Century (The Backwaters Press, 2009), Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres Press, 2011) and Howell (Atelos Books, 2011). He is also the author of several chapbooks, including a prose eulogy, Pink Tie (Hooke Press, 2011). His website is at home.earthlink.net/~suspend.

1. Judith Goldman, “Re-thinking ‘Non-retinal Literature’: Citation, ‘Radical Mimesis,’ and Phenomenologies of Reading in Conceptual Writing.” Postmodern Culture, Volume 22, Number 1, September 2011. back

2. That is, Goldman criticizes dependency formulated as a simple isomorphic relationship between conceptualist art and conceptualist writing. On the other hand, Kent Johnson criticizes American conceptualist writing precisely for is abandonment of the political and historical models of the avant-garde in general. See his “Notes on Safe Conceptualism” on the Lana Turner blog. For two other attempts to pose the actual practices of conceptual artists against those by conceptualist writers, see Jeffrey Side’s blog dated Tuesday August 5, 2013 “What’s in a Name?: The Art & Language Group and Conceptual Poetry.” and Robert Archambeau’s “Charmless and Interesting: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks and What It’s Got” on the Harriet blog. back

3. Even because, despite the important work of Aldon Nielsen in Black Chant and the recent collection of essays on Russell Atkins, it may still be difficult to convince the literary establishment that African American writers not only have long used conceptualism from early on up to and including writers who saw certain modes of conceptualism inseparable from a black aesthetic (not necessarily the one formulated by Stephen Henderson). back

4. Novelty is thus the antithesis of a tradition constituted by a critical mass, a certain, if unnamable, figure of population. Olaudah Equiano’s narrative thus paves the way, so to speak, for Frederick Douglass narrative, but it is likely there were other texts published by Africans in the period that tended to drain the novelty from the work of these two better-known writers. back

5. By “natural” I mean intellectual and emotional, but not moral. Jefferson, like other Enlightenment figures, believed that the moral sense was innate to all humans. It could be suppressed but never extinguished. Thus Jefferson, like other slave owners, regarded slavery as a necessary evil. Having inherited the institution, he could observe the suppression of the Africans’ moral sense, which made them dangerous and untrustworthy. That sense could only be repaired through emigration to a new country since Jefferson also realized that, after centuries of slavery, the Africans were no longer “African.” back

6. Obviously I am using Duchamp’s “readymade” as a trope for the African body “manufactured” by slavery or, for the freemen, European culture, humanistic and religious. Thus the readymade v. the handmade (the European body remaking itself under humanism) may be understood in terms of utility v. uselessness, the Kantian distinction that insulates the beautiful and sublime of superior art from inferior art. The Duchampian readymade became “art” by virtue of his signature and relocation from the world of utility to the institutions of non-utility. For the African body under slavery the reverse was true: that body was transferred from uselessness (the freedom of primitives) to utility (slavery). back

7. By available I mean to suggest that these tools, as well as the general anxiety over representation, precede the African Diaspora. back

8. See Gates’ NEH lecture, “Mister Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley,” on the organization’s website. back

9. Dan McCall, “The Quicksilver Sparrow of M. B. Tolson,” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn 1966), 538-542. back

10. Tolson thus begins with a political position that echoes that of a number of black organizations (The Nation of Islam, Republic of New Africa, etc.) at the beginning of the Black Power movement: it is the white man who is an inferior type. That his technique blinded his critics to these similarities is instructive. Whereas radical mimesis defines Tolson’s methods, if not his motifs (“I will sail a land unvisited by Mr. Eliot,” he boasts), critics like Sarah Fabio Webster could only see mere parroting. back

11. This is a point made by both Dan McCall and Ronald Lee Cansler. Cansler is particular ly sensitive to the dilemma on which Tolson’s character, and Tolson himself, is impaled. See Cansler’s “’The White and not-White Dichotomy’ of Melvin B. Tolson’s Poetry,” Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Winter 1973), 115-118. back