On The Meaning of the Confederate Flag: William Pope.L and Robert E. Lee (An open letter to Southern Culture from an accidental exile)
I: Vexillology of The Incestuous Cannibals
A flag is a lake of madness on a map. A flag doesn’t have borders, it creates borders. No flag flies. Birds and bullets fly. And yet flags “fly.” The flag does not fly over the capitol, the capitol anchors the flag. That is the point of a flag: it is a claim to the life territoriality makes possible, before and beyond any particular territory. To have a flag is to insist to exist, in the face of opposition. Who would do such a thing? Who would need to? The flag is humanity’s worst attempt to control the wind. A murder kite. An invitation to war. The Rainbow no less than the Jolly Roger says what the Texans’ say: “Come and Take It.” One flag or another may be at peace for a time, but flags cannot choose peace for themselves, not even those who love them can choose that: their enemies choose that for them. America has been so strong so long that we can tend to forget that. When there is no more war there will be no more flags. Every flag has its war.
The Confederate Battle Flag is, among other things, the flag of embattled White Southern Culture, and both belong in, and to, the past: they should fly behind glass in museums, like the skeleton of a reconstructed pterodactyl. At its best, Southern Culture is neither provincial nor racist, but Confederate Flags are both.
Most flags are like jokes: someone may get credit for a particular iteration, but true origins are obscure. The Confederate Battle Flag was not the first or last flag of the Confederate States of America. The first was the “Bonny Blue Flag” which was simply a white star on a blue field. It was celebrated in song by Harry Macarthy which laid out the rationalized rationale for the war in a few pithy lines:
“We are a band of brothers and native to the soil
Fighting for our liberty with treasure, blood and toil.
And when our rights are threatened the cry grows near and far
‘Hurrah for the bonny blue flag that bears a single star.’”
The most critical phase of secession took place under this flag. But once secession was complete, there was a push for a flag to be designed that represented the new political reality in a more consciously considered, less spontaneous way. A committee chaired by the arch-secessionist William Miles of South Carolina took up the issue and set out to design the flag in Heraldic terms, with colors bearing symbolic value: red for valor, white for purity, blue for truth . . . but in reality, the main debate was how closely the new flag should resemble the stars and stripes, with a powerful chorus of voices arguing that the confederacy should not concede the national flag to the union, rather simply to update it with fewer stars. A compromise which ultimately satisfied no one was a circle of stars on a blue field joining three stripes: red, white, red). At the time it was called the “stars and bars,” a name which most people now associate with the Confederate Battle Flag. Unfortunately for Miles and his committee, unless a high wind was blowing, it looked like the stars and stripes, which was operationally problematic on smoky and chaotic fields of battle. Back to the drawing board it was. It is all but forgotten, then, that in reality – despite a spate of designs and variations – among the most popular flags of the confederacy was the flag of union.
The saltire of heraldry–the x shape- has a curious ability to concentrate the attention, as though the intersection of diagonal lines in a central termination or origin were itself an uncanny abstraction of cathexis. According to Miles the saltire suggested progress and strength, invoking the latin verb to leap: “salto.” The cymbal crash, the rising sun, the target, the cross-slash, the hex–a shape and a direction invoking, now, the greasy engine sound of electric guitars, the shriek and squeal of fiddles, the bagpipes, and the rebel yell—all magically bound, conjured by an emblem.
The Union Jack of Britain consists of the English cross of St. George combined with the Scottish cross of St. Andrew: x + t. It would not be insane to assume that separating the x while keeping the stars and colors would invoke a kind of ur-disunion of previously united British subjects. But there is no evidence that Miles and his committee consciously sought to evoke the symbolic disunion of the Cross of St. Andrew from the Cross of St. George. In fact, the south actively sought the recognition and support of Great Britain, and it would be unlikely they would have risked such proto-punk provocation. But many of those who fought under the flag were thoroughly indoctrinated with Scotch-Irish tradition, and all had grown up celebrating romantic notions of Scottish culture, from the work of Sir Walter Scott to traditional games, and for many of them the saltire was indisputably the cross of Wallace and Bruce. Nevertheless, it is a curiosity of history that Miles’s preference in the revision conference was for the classic t shape, the cross of St. George, and that he was persuaded by Charles Moise, who described himself as a “southerner of Jewish persuasion,” that the saltire would better support the continued separation of church and state, no less important to the Confederacy as it would be than to the Union as it was, apparently.
White Southern Culture is not unique in finding its identity in war, but it joins a subset of national identities in finding an identity in defeat. It is unique only in that this identity of defeat is inseparable from the events of the American Civil War, and yet there are many different kinds of defeated nations. Strictly speaking, White Southern culture did not begin with these events, and it did not end with them, but the war remains as central to its identity as the Nakba does to Palestine. To be clear, I do not mean to draw any equivalence: equivalences are impossible in history. Every moment is unique. Some things are made in the breaking. The Nakba is the name the Palestinians give to the 1948 war that established the state of Israel; after that, to be Palestinian meant having a connection to that event. The Civil War is the only thing that unites all the states of the South; that’s how we define it. In contrast, however, unlike Palestinian perceptions of the Nakba, in which a somewhat better “before” was wrenched away and replaced with a nightmarish, unending “up to now,” the Civil War is embraced, even and especially the defeat it represents, as the potential foundation of a perfectly satisfactory “forever.” Only the hardest of hard core racists seriously believe the world would have been better had the South won, and serious students of the war may play with counterfactuals, but there is virtual unanimity that whatever it might have seemed like in its midst, when the numbers are added up, the outcome of the war might as well have been a foregone conclusion. Armed secession was, at best, a bad gamble. White Southern Culture holds on to this crisis not because it declines to accept losing, but precisely because losing created it. Always losing the Civil War is a perfect grievance upon which to found an identity: it is bittersweet, consequence free, always already resolved. It is stasis and stability, it is a frozen moment, a tableaux. One specific reason the Civil War itself is so important is that the Ante Bellum period, in which racialized slavery was virtually unchallenged in the states of the Confederacy, cannot be yearned for openly: one can fetishize The Lost Cause in ethical ambiguity, but day dreaming about a slave-owning society is indisputably unethical. The flag, in this way, is more tasteful than a hammock, julip and whip.
Of course . . . of course . . . this satanic trinity of accessories used to mock the South in the British and Northern press before the war does not describe the circumference of Southern Culture. Of course, there is a Southern Culture that transcends and unites races. Many White Southerners are quick to point this out and quietly assert (or reassure themselves) that negative judgments of Southern Culture come from a place of misunderstanding, ignorance, or prejudiced ill-will. It is true that there exist (inseparable) Black and White Southern Cultures; but while the roots intertwine and graft rhizomatically, and the Venn diagrams overlap significantly, the fact of shared culture does not in any way mitigate the inequities and disjunctions resulting from the effects of slavery and ongoing institutionalized racism. White Southern Culture cannot be forgiven its transgressions, however genteel they may seem.
Why not? White Southern Culture is a case of European mercantile colonialism predicated on an idea of cultural and racial superiority that was no less present in Plymouth than in Perth, no less odious in Prince George, Canada than in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Post Colonialism spares no colony or colonizers, but these White Cultures, so long as they cede special claims to political power, will (probably) still be allowed to exist without the controversy-unto-death; it’s hard to predict the demonization of the Maple Leaf. But the South is special both because of the uniquely strict binary quality of its black/white organization, and because it was the last holdout. Not only was slavery abolished in most European empires and their former colonies in many cases decades earlier, only in the South did one part of a nation attempt to establish an independent existence by force of arms not merely to preserve the “honor of a slave-owning people,” in Miles’s words, but to establish a radical interpretation of the nation-state itself: racialized, yes, but also composed of autonomous, heavily-armed, agrarian kinship societies, free to associate, dissociate, emigrate and colonize at will, totally at odds with the universalized modern western liberal democratic states emerging in Europe and the North. Instead, they would found a club of Texases. This arrested social and political development continues to form the substance of White Southern Culture, even as the possibility of its ever coming to full fruition has become vanishingly improbable. The naked brutality of Jim Crow apartheid and the slow-motion horror show of its dismantling state by state under threat of federal military action, revealed both the power and the perversity of an idea that refused, and refuses, to die gracefully. We still hear murmurs of “states’ rights,” we still find tattered copies of the grand theory.
In American schools children are obliquely taught, if they are given a coherent narrative, that there were two Americas in the colonial period: a Pilgrim/Puritan experiment born of a British Republican tradition that was briefly ascendant during their civil war and then purged, its righteous experimentation exiled to these shores; and the other, a seedy commercial enterprise based on slavery and located in the South that it took a civil war to bring to heel. In this dualism the South is supposed to have been loyalist/royalist, anti-democratic, and a kind of accidental vestigial scurf of a culture left over from the bad old impulses of colonialism and mercantilism that the noble experiments of the North stood against. In this narrative the North was the enlightenment incarnate, and Boston’s revolution dragged the other colonies kicking and screaming into a modernity the America of Locke and Rousseau has never stopped becoming the fountain of. But this is false. It ignores the existence of Classical Liberalism as if Modern Liberalism sprang fully formed from the forehead of John Adams.
First of all, when Locke actually designed a government, it was supposed to be instituted in the Carolinas. John Locke, under the watchful eye of his patron the Earl of Shaftesbury lovingly crafted religiously tolerant constitutions which enshrined secret ballots and other innovations that sought to create slave-holding hereditary meritocracies (as if such were possible) with preposterous titles such as Cazique, Landgrave, and Leetman. These constitutions were rejected by the colonists, many of whom were British aristocratic adventurers who at the time belonged more clearly to a Caribbean British tradition than to a North American one, and who were not prepared to surrender any existing rights as Englishmen for speculative ones as Carolinians. But historical “accidents” aside, this reveals the real division between the North and the South: the character of their aristocracies. Secession is the vice of the nobility.
White Southern Culture attempts to define its uniqueness in precisely these terms, but it leans more heavily on the supposed tranquility of the plantation than reality can support. In traditional Southern casuistry “The Peculiar Institution” survived so long because American Slavery was purported to be unusually benevolent: a kind of enlightened slavery. These apologists can point to statistics that show far lower mortality rates and significantly fewer rebellions than in any other system of New World slavery. It sounds like preposterous rationalization because it is. Exceptionalism is always rationalization, whether it is Southern, American, British, Russian, or Chinese. What it reveals is not simply denial and excuse-making, though. It reveals that the American South saw itself as a unique and noble experiment in the possibility of a kind of republic that we can no longer even contemplate. Most of us find it difficult to believe anyone believed in a republic in which property was more important than democracy itself: property over people. Ownership as government. Capital above all but force. What would that even look like? Well, it was supposed to be an aristocratic, oligarchic, racially exclusive aspirational republicanism, in which a military caste – an officer class – would aggressively expand this system throughout those climates that suited its specialized export economy by means of acquisitive military adventures (such as the Creek and Seminole Wars, The Texas Revolution, and the war with Mexico). When the model was rejected by the rest of the Western World, they exploded.
That is the one thing that makes a student of history so confused by the invocation of heritage to defend the display of the confederate flag as emblematic of an existing culture: there is nothing left of what the people who fought under it wanted to preserve. Dixiecrats, The Ku Klux Klan, and a whole host of racist organizations and individuals have embraced the Confederate Battle Flag, successfully linking nostalgia or fellow feeling to their political objectives . . . the irony is that the leadership of the Confederacy would have crossed the street to avoid the fringe-clinging rabble rousers that have emerged from the rubble to take up the banner. While Slavery was as central to the South as Whaling was to Nantucket, the idea that the odious pseudo-scientific racism spouted by some bloviators like the flag designer William Thompson was the central project of the Confederacy, and that by extension the Confederate Battle Flag should serve as the symbol of Racists – or anyone who refuses to read anthropology while insisting on interpreting modern biology according to antediluvian biblical principles — ignores the fact that the Southern aristocracy did not drag the South to war to promote Whiteness, but to aggrandize itself. Theoretically, the aspiring conquerors would have cultivated a meritocratic nobility related to but distinct from the British model wherever they possibly could, let those from amongst the rabble clamber up a slope of skulls to join them if they dare and if they survive. There are families that remember this time with some romance, but very few of them actually benefitted from it, and none of them carry on that way of life. They couldn’t without slavery. Chattel slavery was explicitly central to this project, and its disappearance brought this Ante Bellum Southern culture to as complete a destruction as the sowing of salt on the plains of Carthage. The system was destroyed by conquest and occupation, and its most fervent believers died on the field of battle or by their own hands: Stonewall Jackson predicted his own death, then sought it out. Edwin Ruffin committed suicide when he learned of Appomattox. As John Brown wrote with tortured punctuation: “the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with blood.” Of course this was true of martyred Abolitionists, but reading history one gets the sense that riding the tiger of that kind of evil, the Confederacy rather agreed with him. The end of that world would mean the end of their lives. As Lunsford Lomax, a confederate officer, said: “I feel that I must go. I regret it very much and realize the whole thing is suicidal.” A nation committed suicide rather than change.
But a people remained. A defeated, embittered, bewildered, chagrinned, relatively impoverished people, and not one at all unconvinced of their special place in history. Indeed, from Mississippi to Maryland and from San Antonio to St. Augustine, a difference emerged from this awareness of their singularity, not new, exactly, but transfigured in the crucible of disaster: White Southern Culture.
Should White Southern Culture exist? Perhaps not, but it does. Will it continue to exist? That remains to be seen, but White Southern Culture has always had its own doubts about its future, even before the Civil War. How do we know? It has told us so. It has never stopped telling us so. The true art form of the South is storytelling – narrative literature. This literature is always about the ambigraphic, eternal moment of life becoming death, or, of life becoming in death. Paradoxically, this moment never ends. Something always remains to destroy. But to remain is to grow, because life is growth. Life requires decay? No. Life continually emerges from amidst its own decay. From Edgar Poe to Faulkner, from Kate Chopin to Flannery O’Connor, from James Dickey to Richard Ford, White Southern Culture has always been about destroying itself, looking about at the smoldering wreckage, and discovering that one is still, somehow, master of all one surveys, uselessly, cruelly, beautifully, like a little girl kissing her dead brother. The central emblem is incest. So powerful is the emblem, it is believed–erroneously—to be a feature of the culture rather than a window on its soul. The Fall of the House of Usher is about incest. Faulkner’s incestuous families are The Fall of the House of Usher painted on the vast, mad canvases of a psychedelic history. Dickey’s Georgia hillbillies rape the Atlanta city boys incestuously before and after they rape them homosexually: a culture at war with itself, obeying ungovernable desires, obsessed with force, incapable of remaining whole and entering the future simultaneously. Dickey’s Deliverance survivors obey Nietzsche in killing the lesser self. Richard Ford’s suicidal complacencies are the final and palest incest: oedipal masturbation. Ford’s tamed Southern man is permitted to destroy nothing but himself, one beige pleasure at a time. Assimilated. Toni Morrison, from the Little Dixie region of Oklahoma and Maya Angelou, from the crypto-Confederacy of St. Louis, are also Southern Literatures about the destruction of White Southern Culture. There is in them the incandescent indignation of a people forced to struggle for their existence under the yoke of oppressors whose greatest obsession is their own self-destruction. Self-destruction as a way of life: a bible that rejects the world so completely it hopefully awaits its end, guns that clear the field, whiskey that clears the mind to the vanishing point of perspective. Southern Culture does not look back and it is not backwards. At its finest and truest it captures the moment, harnesses the power, of life totally and completely exposed to the end, where it begins. As Holderlin says: “Where the danger is, also the saving power grows.” Southern Culture says, “We create ourselves where we are destroyed.” Southern Culture discovers itself in the place it should not be. It is transgressive.
What then does the Confederate Battle flag mean? Well, it is a battle flag. A trope of racism is that crime is the asymmetrical warfare of lesser races. But this is disingenuous to say the least: at the heart of racism is the idea of eternal war. Crime is war without flags. But war is a crime. War is a legal crime. War is a crime against legality itself. Yet the law is made possible by war. We fight wars for the right to create our own laws. We fight wars to defend our laws. We commit crimes to defend our laws. Crime is war against the law and the law is at war with crime. War is eternal and universal. “War is the god of all and father of all, some it makes kings and some slaves,” says Heraclitus. Every nation is born in blood or stillborn. Every nation is born of crime, the suspension of law in the name of the creation of law. The law is the will of a people, or the destruction of a people. Or both. The South is not unique in any way except every way. It is a direction, a place, a people, and nothing. It never was, and yet it will not disappear. It is not dead, and yet it will not stop dying. This, in a sense, is its victory. How can you kill what is/already/never/was? And what about people who claim the flag in its modern iteration, who have no real cultural or historical investment in its origins, and who seem blissfully unaware of that flag’s true fate, or worse, welcome disaster? Those who know it is abrasive and use it to abrade? For them the Confederacy seems to be wherever a white man holds a gun and will not let it go, whether he knows it or not. The Confederate Battle Flag is still at war: with the law, with the nation, with the idea of nations. It is a tribe that does not recognize itself, ready at every moment to schism, to rebel in the name of fictional traditions, nonsensically, spasmodically.
As has been said, at the heart of the Confederate Battle Flag is the cross of St. Andrew. The Scottish Battle Flag. A Scotland that no longer existed by the time of the civil war, swallowed up into the Union Jack, and saying so is assuming such a place ever really did exist: was a concatenation of transnational nobles endlessly manipulating ceaselessly homicidal clans themselves agglomerations of the offspring of Viking rapists and Pictish hillfolk a nation? Their kings couldn’t control it, no one Christian denomination could ever end the bloodshed, and its people rejected each other. Even if it did exist, that Scotland was wiped out slowly, slowly then all at once on Culloden Moor in 1746. That was when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Army of Highlanders – who twice defeated larger and better equipped English forces on a dash to London – were cornered and wiped out. It was the end of the Clans and the end of a way of life, the people themselves atomized into an untold number of outlaw emigrants, madmen, poets, failures, pirates, cowards, heroes. Perhaps not coincidentally, this apocalypse came at the conclusion of a rebellion that took them closer to victory than their inevitable defeat should have made possible. It was the flag of a people loyal to nothing but their own sense of loyalty. Ready to perform the most insane acts of depraved bravery in the name of preposterous honor. That doomed Scotland is now little more than a historical dream, but it remains powerful. Ask Mel Gibson. The Flag of St. Andrew, “Scotland” the idea (as opposed to the real country with real people who do not all care to be so fetishized), holds a similar place in many people’s hearts and minds as the Confederate Battle Flag, with the crucial difference that those who suffered the most at the hands of the Scots were the Scots themselves.
But the South is not an idea, and not simply because of its material facts, but also because notional Southern-ness stands just outside the realm of the intellect. It may even appear anti-intellectual, but this is not true. Poe invented the detective story, Faulkner and Dickey illuminate Continental philosophers in ways those old Nazis and Communists never could. If it is anti-intellectual, it is anti-intellectual in the way war is: it respects no idea but what appears to be irreducibly true, which can never be a pure idea. Although it is constantly on the defensive, it disappears into a million phantasms with every attack because it is indefensible, and yet it is born anew with every hung-over morning: the drunk may die but drunks are forever. Because it is, it cannot cease to exist. And yet it destroys itself and is destroyed and destroys itself and is burned and burns everything it touches. And when people who are not from the South – racist, redneck, or simply confused – fly the flag, they reveal they are at war. Perhaps foolishly, perhaps joyously. There is a war at the heart of existence, not simply the South’s existence. A war at the heart of your existence. And mine. We will never win it.
Cormac McCarthy, the Cuckoo’s egg of Southern Culture, born in Rhode Island, raised in Tennessee, having fled to the Southwest to escape the South’s and his own self-destruction only to recognize in the desolation of those wastes the final vortex of American history, is the prophet of these truths. What begins in Blood Meridian (in which McCarthy leaves the American South) and ends in The Road (in which McCarthy returns to the American South-East) is in part an examination of the fate of Southern Culture no less, and perhaps more ambitious than Faulkner’s: Southern History and Culture as a simulacrum of The Fate of Humanity. McCarthy imagines a nation of cannibal tribes, stalking the ruins of its own empire. No less in Blood Meridian than The Road.
And because Southern History and Southern Culture are not separable from American history and American Culture, neither are their flags, neither are their fates. The Stars and Stripes . . . The Stars and Bars . . . Different flags do not have different meanings. All flags mean something different to everyone, and that is the point. A flag must mean a cause to one person and a different cause to another, and these people divided by the flag may be on the same “side” of the flag, united beneath it and nowhere else. A flag must mean the perfect safety of home to one person and be a skull-and-crossbones poison symbol to another, and be perfectly innocuous, or romantic, or even zany to others. Flags do not ask for your allegiance, they reveal it. Flags do not become symbolic only when they lose their connection to specific geographic, political, or legal claims, they render those claims symbolic of the culture that makes them: they create a personality from the disparate activities of a people. But what a flag means can also be deadly simple. A flag can have as distinct a meaning as a Hazardous Waste symbol, and mark those who fly it as contaminated. To those who do not fly it.
How can you tell someone what a flag means to them? You can only ask them, then call them a liar.
II: William Pope.L and Robert E. Lee
The Stars and Stripes on a giant car dealership flag, with an extra star, “For you,” blown to shreds under the power of sound stage windstorm fans, illuminated by Hollywood premiere search lights. William Pope.L’s flag reaches into your head and takes your flag out. The Chicago-based artist’s work may seem presciently relevant, but then, that is the nature of relevance. True relevance always seems prescient.
In Wandering “Trinket,” William Pope.L’s show at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, this past June just days before Dylann Roof added another nine murders to the flag’s tally, Pope.L’s flag performance almost totally obscured the projection of Reenactor, his 2012 installation and video in which 185 minutes of languid, dreamlike images follow Black children and young adults around the campus and environs of Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee. They happen to be dressed in the chintzy, confederate general-officer costumes of some contemporary White Southern theme-wedding parties. They wear cheap felt cowboy hats with tiny square confederate flags affixed to the front. They are a gestural approximation of historicity that the hard-core reenactors of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic would find offensive. And yet they evoke the childhood play of so many White Southern children perfectly. My play as a little boy growing up in the South was haunted by the Civil War, and a trip to any battle field from Pea Ridge to Antietam will reveal a gift shop filled with toy weapons and other paraphernalia intended to facilitate just such childhood fantasies. And fantasies that do not end with Childhood. Pope.L’s young people visit grocery stores and bathe infants like interdimensional travelers from a universe where this makes sense, wandering affectlessly through the halls of the campus, pretending to be dead or taking a nap, you choose, on a sun-dappled lawn.
It is not for me to tell you what all that means. See it for yourself. See William Pope.L destroy the American flag, my flag, not with fire, but with wind. Stroking it to pieces with its native element. Look at it long and hard. My daughters gasped, then quite got used it, aged two and four. Does adding a star make it a work of art? No; it is the performance, the destruction, which all observers participate in, becoming a part of the information, of the transfer, of the event – it is the event that is the phenomenon.
It occurred to me that Jasper Johns, born in Augusta, Georgia in 1930, and most famous for his American Flag paintings, could not/would not have been an international artist had he painted Confederate Battle Flags. Whatever his American flags “meant” to some people, ultimately they were facing mirrors of abstraction, an ambiguously representative representation of a symbol, shapes and colors, paint, encaustic. Finally, they are a phenomenological experience, and the nation they reference is an adjacency, dislocated. The Confederate Battle Flag is too historical, too specific, for such a treatment. It calls too specifically for an interpretation before it can be seen. And this is not unique to Johns. High Art, especially by Southern artists, does not represent the South, even if it may come from experiences of the South. It must leave it behind, like Faulkner did, and be explicitly modern, unambiguously universal, to be art. Like Joyce leaves Ireland behind even as his work exclusively inhabits only one of its cities. Behold the fate of provinces. The Confederate Battle Flag dooms its sincere supporters to one or another stratum of provincialism.
It is not impossible to imagine that a White Southern Artist could have created the central conceit of “Trinket” with a Confederate flag, but instead of seeming like a bizarre glamourous daydream tinged with sentimental irony and extravagantly self-destructive whimsy, it would have seemed, to everyone, including those who love the Stars and Bars, toxic, defiant, venomously problematic: the doomed flag of the doomed being blown apart by time made manifest, or the hideous banner of hideous racist diehards flying to pieces under some malevolent vehemence . . . contemporary art, especially conceptual and performance art, must defy interpretation but simply to stand beneath such a phenomenon would be impossibly fraught. An artist might do it, but MOCA would be foolish to house it.
On the way to “Trinket,” my brother and I talked not about flags, but about Vanessa Place. Vanessa Place is a humanities luminary, cruising at the highest altitudes of literature, a co-director of the High Culture Les Figues Press, a graduate of Amherst and Antioch with a Boston College JD to go along with her MFA: she is a practicing activist criminal appellate attorney. (Off the top of my head, I don’t know of anyone else who can say that), a conceptual poet who quotes Duchamp with authority, and whose work explores what you think you will read before you have read it. It turns out that despite explicitly and aggressively wishing to fight racism and racist literature, even unto the courtroom, she is vulnerable to accusations of racism. How? Although the appropriation of “Mammy” images was the trigger, perhaps it was because it is no longer possible to touch White Southern Culture without seeming racist.
She decided, something but nothing like the Borges character who writes Don Quixote again, to retweet Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. 140 characters at a time, she dutifully worked her way through the entire novel, changing not a word, at least not on purpose. To be clear, this was not some sort of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — Place did not occasionally throw in explicit sex scenes or any such gimmick. Nor was this some ponderous annotation. She did not tweet a sentence and follow it with analysis. It was submitted tweet by tweet without commentary. Just the text.
I did not subscribe, not because I didn’t approve. I felt that, having heard the idea, I knew all I needed to know. Atomized, out of context, some lines would appear almost abstract, like standing so close to a Velasquez painting that you only see brush strokes. And of course, the racism: retweeting Gone With the Wind would magnify the banal and ineffably entitled racism of Margaret Mitchell’s plot writ large, and syntax chopped small. Racism would be hopping like a lumberjack along the logjam of clauses. One would be able to follow it like the bouncing ball of sing-along subtitles. The image she chose to hook her followers with was Hattie McDaniel, and a song-book caricature of a stereotypical Black female slave (one that bears a striking resemblance to McDaniel), presumably to let the reader know that this atomization was absolutely not some worshipful invitation to luxuriate in the splendor of the craft of 1937’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This was a minute accounting of every clogged pore. This was excruciating.
But what exactly does it mean, to retweet Gone With the Wind? It can’t simply be about revealing and criticizing racism that hides in plain sight, Place could have only retweeted the choicest, most racist passages. There must have been some sort of exploration of textuality itself. Then, of course, there is the hall of mirrors of intellectual property law, fair use, and the litigator’s dream of provoking a law suit, which win or lose, would become conceptualist poetry itself. Can you imagine such a courtroom? Place would have treated the Mitchell estate’s lawyers like the roadrunner treated the coyote. It is hard not to think she would have started repeating everything they said at some point, like a child mocking parents. She has hinted that the proceeds of such a racist book should go to reparations for slavery, but one wonders how that would be achieved legally. Through a counter-suit, presumably? Once again, the idea of such proceedings instantly outstrips their actual potential. And yet, once conceived they must be midwifed into existence, or else they are not poetry. It is their existence that matters. I think . . . but I don’t think about it.
Another conceptualist poet, Kenneth Goldsmith, (who also got in big trouble for trying to fight racism so hard he turned out to be really, really racist) once said his work is better thought about than read, but going a step further, I find that the work of conceptual poets is best when you don’t read it, and then also don’t think about it.
But for Vanessa Place it was the image that ultimately proved to be the most controversial choice. When I first heard that there was some trouble, I thought, how very perfectly post-modern for the project to be hoist with its own petard. Did she plan this? But very quickly I realized people were not merely wrinkling their noses: they wanted blood. Vanessa Place was persona non grata. She lost her position choosing panelists at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, (AWP) which hosts a conference every year where many people with MFAs preen to be seen.
The group most responsible for her ostracism was MCAG, or the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. It is not for me to tell you what that means. They don’t accept that people like Place are on their side. If you want to be on their good side, don’t try to convince them she is. As their website proclaims (all caps are original):
“MEMBERSHIP IN THE GROUP MEANS A PERMANENT ALLEGIANCE TO THE TARGETING OF OUR TARGETS. WE ARE NOT YOUR RACE TUTORS. WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF EXCLUSIVITY.”
Good to know.
When an interviewer from The Stranger asked Vanessa Place what the optimal outcome of the whole disaster would be, Place replied, “I don’t have an ideal outcome. That would require imagination. Or a utopian vision.”
She got me. I didn’t expect her to somehow, though I’m not sure how, take a shit on imagination.
So here we are in the present: we have high priests of culture who don’t care if you read them retweeting the racist work of other authors they don’t want you to read being career-assassinated by insurgents so angry they don’t care to be read by anyone who might disagree with them, nor do they want anyone who might disagree with them reading anything they might disagree with. It is not about cultures or Culture at all, really, except where they are about power. Explicitly. Vanessa Place may have kicked the hornet’s nest by trumpeting Mitchell’s attempts to write the dialogue of slaves phonetically, but the fact remains that if she’s not welcome at AWP, neither is Gone With the Wind. In Atlanta, a capital of the New South, Gone With the Wind has long been considered the New South’s best foot forward in presenting the peace it has attempted to make with the past. If it is unacceptable even as the butt of postmodern post-ironic attacks on racism, the past of White Southern Culture has no future.
So confusing for so many White people, especially from the South, is that as the sham universality of modernism implodes, as it becomes impossible to agree on anything, to transfer information without someone’s judgement, to even give context as the judgement without a judgement of your selection of context, as all this radical semiology collides with cultural relativism, why don’t they have a right to the idiosyncrasies of their own idiosyncratic culture? Alas, in the absence of false universality we are not left with total freedom, rather, we are left with the actual messiness of real injustice and the yawning hungry firestorm raging in our society where justice was supposed to be, sucking up anything not nailed down into a growing inferno-maelstrom of offense-taken, names named, and hypocrisies and vanities whooshed onto the blaze. What does the Confederate Battle Flag mean in this world? A suggestion: When George Zimmerman adopts a symbol, it is probably time for everyone else to abandon it. The question is existence. If we deny someone the right to fly their flag, we deny them the right to exist. We ask them to disappear . . . or hide. Sometimes, this is as it should be.
Meanwhile Gone With the Wind continues to be read. In The People’s Republic of China, for example, it is far and away one of the most popular English language books. I taught English in China ten years ago, and was surprised that student after student, almost always young women, would express a fascination, with a hint of guilt for the brick of closely-lettered newsprint they carried, sometimes with a kind of reverence. In many schools in China it is customary to adopt an English-language name as part of your study, and I started to notice that many young women had named themselves Scarlett and Vivian. But I soon realized there was a kind of left handed function to the book’s strange ubiquity and popularity. In a nation in which media and especially books are carefully guided by state policy and direct intervention, the Party promotes Gone With the Wind both because it rhymes quite well with feudal-era melodramas that feature long-suffering noblewomen as heroines, and because of the overt racism, which allows them to portray the United States as crypto-Feudal and racist. The young women who I talked to about it seemed to genuinely like it, though they might have been being polite. I think I can speak for us all when I say, we probably don’t want our culture to consist of propaganda own-goals.
In our own country the time is coming for some kind of accounting. I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t tell you what the trend lines are, but we all sense tensions rising and I don’t see any prospect for them diminishing. Any way this shakes out, White Southern Culture is in for a bumpy ride, but one that is richly deserved. Flying a Confederate Flag on private, let alone state property, even as a memorial, is foolish. White people who care about the South, people who believe that Southerners can contribute to global human culture, must stop being White Southerners. We can love our culture, but we must also heal it.
For his part, Robert E. Lee, in declining an invitation to speak nostalgically about the war, said that it would be “wiser . . . to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”