"Nothing that's quite your own": Vanessa Place Interviewed
Interview by Edmund Hardy
Photo credit: Alex Forman
"Vanessa Place killed poetry." (Anon., via Twitter)
Vanessa Place writes poetry, prose and art criticism; she is also a criminal lawyer and co-director of Les Figues Press. Her most recent work is available in French as Exposé des Faits, and in English as Statement of Facts, Statement of the Case, and Argument (Blanc Press 2010-2011). A work of non-fiction, The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law, was published by Other Press in 2010 and Notes on Conceptualisms, with Robert M. Fitterman, by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2009. A full bibliography is at EPC.
"Vanessa Place is writing terminal poetry." (Rae Armantrout)
EH: The idea of the 'infra thin' seems crucial to your body of work – Duchamp's list of infra-thins; sameness as production; equivalences; those moments when the distance between writer and material becomes threadbare. How do you think of the infra-thin? Is this one way in which "The medium is the meeting point"? (Notes on Conceptualisms)
VP: And the meeting point is the medium: in this way, all that is is the infra-thin, that Venn diagram of time and space in which a kind of communication fails at utterly failing. Just as production is sameness, and there is no meaningful difference between writer and material, or between materials. Differently and similarly put, I make no distinction between the stuff I make and the stuff I take, and eventually, all that there will be of me are these places in which the infra-thin of "Vanessa Place" exists.
(Proust being now "Proust," for example, as well as "Proustian." Which he may also have been then.)
EH: The talk on Echo and your Statements of Fact publication speak of the 'infra thin' of violence, "if the phoneme is the infra-thin distinction between statements, the infra thin of violence is its meaningless facticity" – the statements of fact in this work seem to show very clearly that this is is without moral end. In this mimesis, is there a power you find of freedom ("idiotic literality"), in the sense of freedom being a fact of reason which is seized only by appropriation?
VP: Yes. Though the fact of reason is unreasonable, as noted. However poignant.
EH: Why did you decide to follow the 3 parts of an appellate brief for your Tragodia?
VP: The three or triology is a typology common to multiple forms of rhetoric, not the least of which are evidenced in Christianity, psychoanalytic theory, and legal argument. The form of the epic is of great interest to me, most famously Dante's, which provides the contrapuntal template for Tragodia. First, the terrible narrative, that which exists famously without hope save for its context. ("Con" is important in this.) Second, the procedural place, where the Real is transitioned, like blood encased as sausage, into the Symbolic via the law of the case. Third, the grander order, where the music of the spheres plays on. Which is most overtly a rhetorical argument, like poetry. There are some surface similarities, such as 33 cantos per volume, such as the allegorical turn and the turnabout being fair play. Too, there is the notion of the mysteries that must remain mysterious in both divine and secular law. Though allegory is less material than materiality in Tragodia, Just as just is justice in Dante but not in Place, just as a tragedy is just a story of suffering told for others' entertainment.
EH: I'm interested in how quotidian details in institutional or brutal settings seem to flash or connect outwards – for example in a footnote on page 16 of Statement of Facts, "Appellant testified he was not a chef but a 'worker' with pastries". Do you recognise this kind of 'flash' as a reader yourself? And how do textual details figure in conceptualism as allegory?
VP: The detail is always immaterial. The detail is always proof, therefore, of immateriality. The detail is also the punctum, the point at which rank pointlessness is made manifest. Naturally, this becomes the point seized upon—the point of recognition, of communion—for meaning-making. Thus, the Real becomes Symbolic. Note the lack of preposition. The allegorical imperative of conceptualism is only procedural.
EH: You write of rape as "irresistibly symbolic" (The Guilt Project) – to this extent, Statements of Fact works with irresistible material for poetry, or the irresistibly immaterial, only perhaps to try to puncture this history with pointlessness manifest? How do you relate to the history of rape in literature – is this a necessary reflective break?
VP: It is a necessary reflective extension. Possibly a terminus, if we are very lucky.
The difficulty is to continuously invite meaning while always avoiding meaning-making. To be a cogito-tease. Though again it should be noted, that in Statement of Facts, for the first time in poetry, a rape is a rape is a rape.
EH: The search for what is could be traced through different poetics – at each point conditioned by ideological and historical structures. Is it that the this is this is this has to be continually reinvented, so the history of lyric poetry is also in part the echoing history of these attempts, or do you think there was a 'break' at some point, say with Stein, a truer peeling back to materiality / immateriality and surface, or has something else happened?
VP: Epistemic contextualism is embedded in every material form insofar as that form is the product of both an articulation and a reception. That said, repetition (which may or may not differ from appropriation) provides an optimal site for reinvention via reception in a way that its thick-thumbed cousin may not. Put another way, this may be a matter of valence: the lyric tells you now to think about then now, the now coming after the then; the conceptual is you now, thinking you now.
Stein had something to do with this, though so did Schwitters.
EH: How did Arthur Golding's Ovid 'change everything'? Are there 'sobjects' in procedural loops to be found there?
VP: Nothing but. This is properly a dissertation; my response will be stupidly reductive. But to itemize some saliencies: there is the metamorphosis within Ovid itself, where essence mutates via existence to betray both the immutable nature of essence itself and its potential mutation (as a sidebar example, consider the way in which the language used in transgendering often assumes a core gender identity, so that while the corporeal fact of gender is capable of metamorphosis, its internality, its fundament, is more fixed; i.e., there is something called a "woman" that one can become or already is—i.e., woman exists, although we all know that she does not); there is the metamorphosis of poetic narrative or narrative poetry and the nesting-dolls of re-told tales that enact the shifting repetitions within the vignettes themselves, often to contrary ends; there is the way that the discursive is all that there is (metamorphosis as variations on an ongoing theme, not unlike all repetition and difference); there is the Christian metamorphosis enacted on Ovid by Golding (in which the notion of the eternal return becomes something else entirely, or maybe); there are the, as you note, "procedural loops" played repeatedly throughout –god rapes human, human becomes something other than god or human, something with an essentially object nature, which is how rape rends its subjects, something with an essentially subject nature, which is why it is rape. As I have noted elsewhere, the one unchanging fact is that all gods rape. The bothersome bit in this is that we make all gods.
EH: Your book 'The Guilt Project' is focused on how to make justice meaningful, through its being applied – actually and not just in name – to all, including "the daddy who rapes his son". This would seem self-evident but seldom in evidence. You focus on sex cases which serve as "conceptual weak links". Could you say more about how these cases are weak links, and how they specifically relate to a failure of the idea of the 'public' in the face of a 'privatization' in law?
VP: We tend to look at law like medicine, in the way of the applicability of taxonomies, etiologies, and cures, though the latter is far more singular in the law. That is to say, law is only (may only be) proscriptive, not pre-. As negation is its base, negation is its remedy. Negation of time in a sentence, negation of life in a capital (US) offense. Long sentences being death, as I've said before, on the installment plan. That said, like medicine, or, for that matter, like any narration, or meta-narrative, law is a louche beast. The entire job of the law (as noted) is to stuff ooze into prefabricated forms, to take unwieldy facts and act as if they are, like fiction, calculable, disposable in the sense of consumed by its functional use. The weak link is the case that exposes the inutility of the legal process qua processing plant, where ontology meets the dérive. I.e., that this disposability is not a question of utility or perfect consumption (facts in, law out) but rather of immateriality, the writing-off of what can't be written (raising the question whether it is the law itself that is the excrescence, or its undigested bits). The public pretends, or must believe, and arguably rightly so, that this misfit has got nothing to do with them, that laws come pat, like bricks of butter. The privatization of law—emblematized by the goddish ascent of scientific evidence and the apostolate expert—or, depending on one's mood, the view of victimization as a private phenomenon with a group explanation—simply avoids the horror of this. So that in all this, there is no public in the sense of no witness. Which is where poetry, also stupidly, comes in.
EH: You also talk of a responsibility to "calculated mercy" which seems to be a kind of hospitality, ineluctably political – set against a false politicisation of guilt. Part of this responsibility is to act towards 're-individualising', as individuals facing ourselves. I read this as a kind of humanism? Is this also a moral case for mimesis in writing?
VP: I would say a radical mimesis, fully frontal. Where there is scant pleasure in transgression, and no tenable arc. Where the rhythms are dull and desperate, and there's no redemption save bottles and cans. This is not a moral case, but rather a brutal ethics. Put in its crudest and most revealing terms, it would require faecal fidelity as such. My most humanistic gesture is thus my devotion to Wikipedia.
EH: So it follows that your 'futurepoem' entry, which is I think a copy of the Wikipedia definition of poetry circa April 2010, is for you literally "poetry" as well as a gesture of humanism?
VP: I submitted a Wikipedia entry on Poetry to the futurepoem book contest because it is the poetry of tomorrow today (the day of its web-gleaning), because it is the poetry of the people, the true channelling of the modernist meld of quote and quotidian, hi and lo Kunstwerk, the postmodern polyvocality and attempted post-colonial consciousness, but mostly because it is entirely poetry, nothing but. The history and purpose of the entire medium, complete with pictures. In fact, it is the greatest book of poetry ever written. Containing, as it does, all poetry and all poetic possibility. For isn't poetry the universal art of the mind, the true mirror of the real nature of the world and life, nearer to vital truth than history, the most powerful of all the arts. One should always be a poet, even in prose.
EH: Your mention of "faecal fidelity as such" reminds me of Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document – intersubjectivity reflected through acts of archiving. With its use of Lacan's diagrams and its mimesis, has Kelly's work been important to you?
VP: Kelly is a model of theory + praxis; she once beautifully concisioned: "Well, language is culture, right?"
EH: Your artist's statement for the text object Die Dichtkunst finishes by quoting an answer in a quote from a quote, ending with the idea of wresting from helplessness a faint "and yet" – does this relate language to the infinite, to its own failure? How does lyric poetry reach or embody "and yet"?
VP: By persisting in its pathetic and ridiculous attempts at ongoingness and ontology. As if sunrises or sunsets had significance. And yet—
EH: As a criminal appellate defense attorney ("I represent indigent sex offenders and sexually violent predators, all on appeal from felony convictions in the State of California"), you state that – answering a common question put to you – you don't or can't live with yourself. I can imagine that the next question would be, Where do you live?
VP: Many places.
EH: Beckett wrote that "we have our being in justice I have never heard anything to the contrary" – what do you think?
EH: I'm interested in your tweets and Facebook status updates – finding new meeting points which online publishing methods open out. They also allow for new kinds of publication-duration. What attracts you to these mediums?
VP: Primarily that they are unstable mediums. Like sculptures made of lard, they give the appearance of solidity or some sort of existence, but they do not exist. Or rather their existence is wildly contingent. More contingent, it seems (and I hope) than paper. Of course, the Gone With the Wind twitter project depends on a certain amount of contingent failure, while the facebook project is a bit of an homage to Fénéon, which implies clerical fidelity.
EH: Only the erasing hand can write – erasure seems to literally enact what all writing does?
VP: Pace Rauschenberg viz de Kooning. That's a tip.
EH: You've produced several different works from the text of Gone With the Wind and its master / slave discourses. Through these returns you seem to be developing a poetics of the slave's discourse of which you write, a poetics of the "kernel of excess" – an "empearling". What if, though, the existence of a surplus is the very form of the power relationship itself, guaranteeing and structuring it?
VP: Could it be any other way?
EH: Possibly by misunderstanding the "enveloping third", the "open reflection" in your argument as a path towards autonomy in language, or even the thought of an outside?
VP: Possibly. But wouldn't this trigger in turn another closure, and another opening? Perhaps the more personal point is that I'm more interested in this ongoingness than in the prospect of overcoming.
EH: If, as a formal medium, conceptualism's own allegorising of the allegorical encompasses the failure of language, and knows itself as nothing, can conceptual writing fail (and not triumphantly, perhaps finding, instead of too much, too little?) – or "to put it another way", can it do anything other than embody failure?
VP: I hope not. Failure is its own reward. For only through failure is there hope of trying again. And then failing again. Though unlike Beckett, I wouldn't advocate failing better. Fail worse. Try harder.
EH: Your book La Medusa seems to take a human brain as its mise-en-scène, its concept is the identity of world and brain. I'm tempted to see the brain here as another infra thin – a membrane between two exchangeable forces, the inside and outside, the book preceding like a glance from within the skull of one encountered. In this it seems like your most purely Lacanian book?
VP: That's it. Thus far. And thus all tied up in the language of itself.
EH: Is a "sobject" a kind of knot?
VP: Yes. Kind as in nature. If we grant that Lacan was foisting a conceptual structure on the Real for purposes of fashioning his three-way knot of the subject, and that while this structure was absolutely necessary for imagining the knotted self, it was not in the least appropriate as any kind of representation of the Real itself, then "sobject" would be that kind of knot. Or could be. Personally, I see it more as a bleed. Something slithering.
EH: Justice is that which has to be rendered?
VP: Like fat.
EH: What's 'dumb materiality'?
VP: Dumb materiality is the site where the surface is so opaque that it becomes purely reflective. "UUUUUUUUU" e.g., or "3838383838383838383."
Dumb materiality is contrapuntal to the baroque; this implies shared secondary qualities and the mandate (or at least the argument) of a larger textural and figural corpus, some manner of cantus firmus. Hanne Darboven is a breath-taking model of this. As was Malevich, and, for what seemed to be a period of throat-clearing, Rauschenberg.
EH: I wanted to ask you about nothing – you write that conceptualism "offers a formal medium to enact the possibility and impossibility of testimony, of ontology itself." Possibly true, impossibly grounded in witness, you state that testimony "frees everything from the contingency of time and place, order and location." Why is the poetry here in a state of perpetual ontology, though?
VP: Because it can never cease being insofar as being is always becoming. Badiou said something about being meaning being-said, but this seems wrong in terms of tense. Being meaning being-saying, though we don't have a suitably elegant infinitive. Why retinal poetry is so popular is that it says something about saying as building at the same time it is saying something else. Why biographies are so believable is that we want to believe that articulation is found in nature, like a well-cut clavicle. Conceptual poetry exists in a futur anterior, so that any saying includes the contingency of being-said as being-saying. I'm making another knot here, but that's also part of the point. I wrote a piece on Lady Gaga in which I cast her as the perfect screen—not the Warholian silver screen of projection, but the computer screen of sculpted projection/reflection. A matter of affinities and metonymies. Like the sobject. Being being in progress, not progression.
Nothing is often used as a antagonym. Which also suits being.
EH: The existence of conceptual poetry in the future perfect suggests this loop: a needful faux originary archaeology or prehistory of the present moment's spectral afterlife – how does this situate the temporality of the texts in progress, being-saying? How is time fed through dumb materiality?
VP: Rather endlessly and not at all. These kinds of works often bear no markers of time that is of any significance, that is to say they are not situated in any meaningful textual fashion, which allows them to maintain their position as a site for something, such as a future reading, pondering, or ignoring. The only time that serves as fodder is future as fixed and unfixed. This invokes, in turn, connotations and conditions of imminence and immanence.
EH: Lady Gaga as the mouldable lack of affect – presenting allegories of allegories? Which leads me to the question of how allegory and history cross in any historiography with brute materialism as its knot – the ordering and organising of the past and the production of the future caught up in these reinscription machines?
VP: Not so much how, but how come. Not so much past, but recent past, the venir de, the "just" –another play on words—not so much future, but future perfect, which is a separate thicket. I've said before (and after) that it's not the allegory of something but the allegory of, and there the sentence ends. Thus there is no melancholy, just facticity. Maybe status. With luck, updates.
EH: It's fun to think that everything out there expatiates even while I do this, type on a screen. Then we would just have to 'tap in'. Goldsmith's choice of Brooklyn Bridge poems, and your piece on this event, almost seems to valorise this expatiation by proxy – poetry as machine, though deadly, or playful. Is there a kind of inverse Platonism creeping in here, though, in the "no ontology beyond facticity" line - thing-as-thing, the shadows exist and throw back the idea of ontological forms? Can machine poems process themselves?
VP: These two questions are unrelated. I would put a small slice on top of your shadow, however, so that the shadow is the shadow-image of something that remains unseen but for the idea of the form cast by the shadow. Just as the light in Rembrandt's Raising of Lazarus comes not from The Light of the World, but the light of the world, and illuminates just another woman. The self-processing machine poem is fully possible. The question is whether it will be interesting. The question is always whether it is interesting.
EH: Your Factory series seems poised to produce Vanessa Place as the voided signature effect – but also, if we pass behind the contentless light of authorship, isn't every signature the effect of signature networks - what is the idea behind the series? I like it especially as the same idea as Warhol's factory.
VP: It is the same idea, only more so. After all, Warhol was still overseeing actual production, still producing things that operated as signature-pieces within a signature network: they were "Warhols" as much as Rembrandts of the Rembrandt School may be forever and rightly considered Rembrandts. Of course, Rembrandt is another excellent model, as he encouraged independent copying of his work, then sold the copy as authorized by him. To extend these practices, I authorize works not authored by me or by those I authorize to author my work—copies of copies of absent authority. Like citation, the referent betrays a fundamental lack of authority on the part of the citing author. Unlike citation, there is no authoritative source. It's a rank imitation of "Vanessa Place" as "Vanessa Place" is rank imitation.
EH: To return to the phoneme as the 'infra thin' of poetry – this seems, after Jakobson, to be an equalising movement within poetry, "word boundary equals word boundary, no boundary equals no boundary" (Jakobson, 'Linguistics and Poetics') – perhaps in your view the evaporation point of immateriality? Could this be the most radical of all mimesis – evaporating like the world, language itself where anything sequential is a simile?
VP: It could be. Though I doubt it will be a linear terminus. More horizontal, which is the shape of the infra-thin, which is always a horizon.
Two examples: in Die Dichtkunst, the "u" is untranslatable as a boundary. In Le vierge..., the "383" is untranslatable as no boundary. A third: the all-as-nothing and nothing-at-all of Black Square.
EH: I hear you're busy at the moment with some kind of mammoth project circling around certain keywords? Care to expand?
VP: Let's suppose art could be divided into metaphor, metonymy and mimesis. Let's suppose we could subdivide these categories into certain imperatives. The rest is a matter of search, save, and sculpt. Which is simply the contraction and dilation (or exaggeration and negation) of subject matter. Like a combine.
EH: We must talk about evil – as far as I follow your idea of a poetics of 'radical evil', this is developed from a 'slicing' of Kant's moral arguments, that is, without the sin at one end and the transcendence at the other. Kant argues that when motivations are corrupted away from good ends, this perversion is in itself evil. But I think I've flattened this out – how does radical evil work as a poetics?
VP: Radical evil as a moral thesis is the intentional will to do evil, despite the option/imperative of the good. Radically evil poetics is a poetics that wilfully does evil to poetry as a poetics. Whereas Kant saw radical evil as irrational and essentially (or rather existentially) individualistic, radically evil poetics is a logical group aesthetical and ethical progression. In this sense, it is also Duchampian, though without the redemptive possibility—or conversion factor— of the artist/saviour. In this sense, it is also strictly Kantian, insofar as it hones to the Kantian imperative of duty as the only good, and the duty of poetry to dumbly churn out something called poetry.
What is poetry? Poetry is that which is not not poetry.
Poetry sans signifier, poetry after the end of poetry.
EH: Kant's insistence that we only know appearances also seems to underlie your arguments based around the ratiocination of a moral calculus, a faith grounded in practical reason – to pretend to pierce this faith, to experience essences directly is dangerous. Am I getting morally a little warmer?
VP: If it was a snake, it would bite you.
EH: Not not poetry. If an art form dies, its ghost emerges or just becomes more visible. If not impurities then what do you find in the archives of historical rhyme, lyric, pastoral, epic, geographic song?
VP: Pure pleasure.
And isn't that the point? What does art have to commend itself if not its fitted pleasures?
EH: What unworld is seen on the water's surface?
 Series Editor Chris Hershey-Van Horn is my Gerard Malanga.
 So that, for example, on June 21, 2001, Steve Giasson, a Montreal-based poet, read Vanessa Place's "SCUM Manifesto" at the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Angers as "Vanessa Place," introduced by event organizers with Vanessa Place's bio.