Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Affect Feature—Issue 55, July 2015)

Lauren Berlant
Interview with Claudia Rankine

An excerpt from the interview published in Bomb Magazine.

CR:One of the ways your book Cruel Optimism works for me is that it talks back to the unreadable or unbearable encounter. Like Baldwin, you offer pathways to consider, sidestep, and groove into disruption. The images in Citizen were intended to work in a similar way. I was attracted to images engaged in conversation with an incoherence, to use your word, in the world. They were placed in the text where I thought silence was needed, but I wasn’t interested in making the silence feel empty or effortless the way a blank page would. In your Sex, or the Unbearable, you say the experience of “any non-knowledge is not usually a blockage or limit but is actually the experience of the multiplication of knowledges that have an awkward relation to each other, crowd each other out, and create intensities that require management.”

The first image in Citizen is a 2007 photograph taken in a suburban subdivision in Flowery Branch, Georgia, of Jim Crow Road. When I first saw the image I wondered if it was photoshopped, but it’s an actual road curiously named after a James Crow (why not stick with James?), according to local lore. The photographer, Michael David Murphy, has a series entitled Unphotographable, in which he writes about photos that, unlike Jim Crow Rd., he couldn’t take for one reason or another—text stands in for the place of the image. In this case, his image stands in place of my text. … Jim Crow Rd. comes after a piece about being in middle school. Presumably the school is on a road; here is another road. All these roads make up the country.

LB:I had wondered whether you thought something like that—that the images in Citizen could show what was exhausting/unbearable to witness once more in speech about the ordinary violence and world-shaping activity of American racism. A desperate desire is at work there for something to be self-evident, the force of which would change a situation. But Citizen lives meditatively enraged in a world where truth cannot be spoken to a structure. It emerges only in the spaces in which structure reveals itself in form—in each other, in other people’s storytelling, in aesthetic mediation, in indirection. One wishes that talking back (in an internal monologue or into the air, for example) at the television, grabbing its lapels with the screen grab, as you do, will do something, will shake up something structural and change it beyond the solidity of the snow-globe fantasy of the white good life (which insists that black subjects have good manners and remain convenient).

But in Citizen, “speaking truth to power” always amounts to a local encounter; therefore it always carries with it the pathos of the incremental, however powerful the representational act is. So it’s notable that in Citizen the linguistic event of conversation is always excoriating, even among friends, and not just white friends like me; whereas the image archive demands shortcuts to the real. There’s something consoling in the interruption by the image in your text, even when the image itself is a sudden punch. The image forces things to stop for a moment. It forces the reader to reinvent breathing so that the eyes can again focus.

We haven’t said yet how expressive the shocking whiteness of the paper you’ve printed the book on is—as if citing the Zora Neale Hurston sentence you reprint in the image of Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background). The image resonance of the text, and the images themselves, create the ocular stress of an unfinished contextual shift.

Yet the image you describe, of the quiet sign at Jim Crow Rd., is also muted, like the landscape on a humid day—still, airless. The camera is dead- pan. It just shows a thing. There is no soundtrack melodramatizing our affect for us, it does not allow us to be passively taken up by the flow of an orchestration. We are left there with our nervous system, if we take the time to look .... We are left there with the atmosphere of encounter pressuring a disturbance in us.

There are no bodies in the image. The purpose of Jim Crow Rd. is to make certain that no bodies are on the lawn, the lawn is a defense weapon. (Citizen contains quite a few lawn stories, of black bodies out of place in the privileged suburbs where you live inducing a trigger-finger white fear and loathing that thinks it can erase itself with a “sorry” explanation.) But there are no white bodies on the lawn, either; and the photographer decided not to represent landscape workers (no doubt workers of color) fouling the zoning fantasy of the street name.

I love what you say about street signs, that they always represent the lines that interconnect us in the space of the citizen (even when we are not citizens, presumably); also, they mark a fork in the road, a decision about the world. In relation to them, we are always in movement, even when we are also stuck. If only the impacts of each other and what we see took us singularly down straight lines. But no. The book is an archive of simultaneously organized and disorganized observational and affective activity; of reactive moments and simultaneous counter-movements.

And so it goes until the vista includes only displacement of feeling back into the body, which gave birth to feelings that don’t sit comfortably inside the communal.

You smile dumbly at the world because you are still feeling if only the feeling could be known and this brings on the moment you recognize as desire. Those moments of desire are the miracles of Citizen—however mixed, they are also always in proximity to happiness. The epigraph, from Chris Marker, predicts as much: “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” It was a test, I felt, Pay attention to my desire for things to work, for that’s where intimacy works. The image archive resists that: its images—for example, of a lynching, of Carrie Mae Weems’s Blue Black Boy—tend to register the violent effects of the structural pleasures that white people enjoy. But there is also here the pleasure of beautifully executed art, of being stopped in one’s tracks. There is the pleasure of composition, the forcing of a different attention. There is controlling the referent and the desire for relief from the immediate pain of the encounter that your sensorium wakes up to every day.

Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers, which seals you shut though you are feeling sick to your stomach about the beginning of the feeling that was born from understanding and now stumbles around in you—the go-along-to-get- along tongue pushing your tongue aside. Yes, and your mouth is full up and the feeling is still tottering—

CR:I was drawn to the one screen grab, which was taken from Jayson Musson’s ART THOUGHTZ: How to Be A Successful Black Artist on YouTube, and documentary photos in the book because they seem to go beyond illustration of the moment that spawned them. In addition to depicting a controversial “news” moment, they performed affect or underlined historical excess. The conversations they invoke spill over, staining the moment being photographed. For example...the women on the Rutgers basketball team who were insulted by Don Imus exude a disgust (am I reading into this?), though their mouths are all closed. Please, they all seem to be saying, without saying anything. Their feelings, as I am reading them, flood their decorum of silence, which is, in part, the subject of Citizen. Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions are notable for their successes in depicting the recognizable outrage and disbelief performed routinely and silently by black women’s bodies given their historical relationship to power, the moments when they “throw shade.”

...I always intended to include Newsome in Citizen, but the Rutgers women’s performance of shade trumped the reenactment of it. I don’t know if you know his work; I’m a great fan because he enacts Ralph Ellison’s definition of freedom as “knowing how to say what I got up in my head.” Ellison was referring to the act of writing, but Newsome suggests that our body’s stance is all the articulation we need.

Roland Barthes in Theory of the Text makes the claim that, “The classical sign is a sealed unit, whose closure arrests meaning, prevents it from trembling or becoming double, or wandering. The same goes for the classical text: it closes the work, chains it to its letter, rivets it to its signified.” The use of images in Citizen is meant in part to destabilize the text so both image and text would always have possibilities, both realized and unimagined by me.... Consequently, I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image, a form where the text’s stated claims and interests would reverberate off the...visuals. Another way to think about this would be to invoke...Barbara Johnson’s discussion, in A World of Difference, of how the dynamic of intertextuality differently energizes a text. It, she writes, “designates the multitude of ways a text has of not being self-contained, of being traversed by otherness.” She describes the text as “traversed by forces and desires that are invisible or unreadable to those who see it as an independent, homogeneous message unit, a totalizable collection of signifieds.” This resonates partly because I feel that the entrance of the black body works like that in the American landscape. You can have a seemingly predictable conversation on the phone, and then you enter the room and your image derails expectations for public decorum and decency: I didn’t realize you were black.

In The Female Complaint, you write, “sometimes a person doesn’t want to seek the dignity of an always already violated body and wants to cast hers off, either for nothingness, or in trade for some other, better model.” I was thinking about this when I saw the work of the artist Nick Cave. His Soundsuits initially struck me as wishful thinking, they were fanciful garbs, but reading Robin D.G. Kelley, specifically Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, which makes the argument that change comes out of the surreal, and that we have to find pathways there, helped me to value the stealth of Cave’s suits. Later I read that he started making them in response to the beating of Rodney King.

The opposite of the surreal dream is the lying down in the stereotypes in an attempt to throw them in relief. Pope. L, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Jayson Musson, aka Hennessy Youngman, all do this for me. All their layering and super-imposition and running alongside and multiple utterances render the idea of realism mute when it comes to self-consciousness around race. It’s impossible to just see what’s there as a single thing or to speak all that you see. All the double destinations allow consciousness to be “charismatic and mobile,” as my friend Juliana Spahr would say.

Another friend, the poet Cole Swensen, kindly wrote about my previous poetry book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, in her collection of essays Noise That Stays Noise, and she suggested that the language was simple and direct in order to perform truth-telling. This reading of the style of the book surprised me because I worked hard for simplicity in order to allow for projection and open-endedness in the text, for a sort of blankness and transparency that would lose the specificity of “the truth.” I even added notes to say that the truth, as in the facts, are in the back of the book. I am not interested in narrative, or truth, or truth to power, on a certain level; I am fascinated by affect, by positioning, and by intimacy, as I know you are. What happens when I stand close to you? What’s your body going to do? What’s my body going to do? On myriad levels, we are both going to fail, fail, fail each other and ourselves. The simplicity of the language is never to suggest truth, but to make transparent the failure. The linguistic failures are dis- appointing and excoriating, as you say, and the images don’t exactly recoup or repair—they are a form of recess, which is its own kind of movement, including both the break from and passage back to the unbearable.

Kate Clark’s Little Girl and Wangechi Mutu’s Sleeping Heads were both important for me to get the rights to use in Citizen because they performed, enacted, and depicted something ancient that I couldn’t or didn’t want to do in language. In African-American literature it’s the moment the ancestor shows up in a corner somewhere, a direct descendant of slavery. They are both, in a sense, collaged pieces insisting the viewer bring together that which does not live together. They are disturbing because they are “wrong” and yet familiar on a certain level. Perhaps your word, extimate, could live and function here. The incongruity, the dissonance, revolts and attracts. Unheimlich comes to mind—you want to look away and can’t look away because it’s your doppelganger that’s been shadowing you.

Clark uses taxidermy to create her sculptures. In the particular piece I used in Citizen, she attached the black girl’s face on this deer-like body—it says it’s an infant caribou in the caption—and I was transfixed by the memory that my historical body on this continent began as property no different from an animal. It was a thing hunted and the hunting continues on a certain level. So when someone says, “I didn’t know black women could get cancer,” as was said of me, I see that I am not being seen as human, and that is fascinating to me, even as it is hurtful in a more superficial way, since my stomach hurts more from the chemo—or is it the diagnosis?

Mutu’s works confuse that which is desired with that which is imposed upon a body. They feel violent and intimate instantaneously. They are ancient and contemporary. They acquiesce and rebel all at once in their willingness to expose the collaged moment. Her work refuses the simplicity of the final read; relationality is complicated shit, I am reminded again, as her work floods my body.

I made a conscious decision to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book in the sense that the middle-class life I live, with my highly educated, professional, and privileged friends, remains as the backdrop for whatever is being foregrounded. Everyone is having a good time together—doing what they do, buying what they can afford, going where they go—until they are not. The break in the encounter wouldn’t wound without the presumed intimacy and the good times. While the images themselves are disturbing, they belong to an elite world of museums, galleries, and private collections. They are exquisitely made and pleasurable even in their disturbances. The book ends with Turner’s Slave Ship, because it seemed funny that those trips across the Atlantic would have us disgorging still.

Maybe the disgorge is a form of storytelling. The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway. Good times.