Thursday, June 17, 2010

response from Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff requested that I post her response to my report.


  1. I’ve been going back and forth on whether to respond to this one. I think some of the questions I am having are ones that make me sad and I keep not wanting to be sad so I keep avoiding asking them and then I wake up in middle of night and there they are, staring at me.

    I heard your original comments at the conference as being about how the victims of rape and the rapists both are stuck in stories that have, as all stories do, moments of tenuous relationships to facts. I think it was that the rape victims might be “worse” that felt disheartening. But I’m not sure the “worse” was really the point of your talk. Or I am assuming not.

    But I somewhat want to retreat to the content question here. Does Vanessa’s book mean to suggest that rape is largely a socio-economic problem? Does it intentionally, or even unintentionally, tell a story that might leads readers to conclude that rape is largely something poor people, mainly Latinos, do? Is it bad information that might put people at risk? (I am thinking here—does she by presenting only certain legal cases, such as ones that she has been involved with, lead us to think she is saying something larger about rape? Is there a representational question?)

    One more question is just that around genre. When a book has complicated content about human beings and its intent is to make a point about genre (if you are right that what matters about the book is the question of whether it is “a limit case”?), is that ok? Is it ok to use the stories of poor people to make a point about genre?

    I have had this feeling again and again about various conceptual projects. (Vague memory here of Dworkin’s piece on short lived Claudia Rankine web project that juxtaposed pictures of abducted girls with sex workers? Am I remembering right? It is lost in internet cloud to me.) And I am interested in this question. Does this conceptual work finally get us back to issues of content? I confess, I like content.

    I guess I am wondering what Vanessa might say here. And if I should be arguing with her or with you about Latinos and rape or not. This is complicated for me because I do not have an advance copy of Vanessa’s book. So I can’t yet argue with it, can’t yet adore it. Maybe she could shout out? Would love to hear her here.

    --Juliana Spahr

  2. Juliana, I'm glad you responded.
    First, let me note that Vanessa has another book, just out or about to come out, called THE GUILT PROJECT: RAPE, MORALITY, AND LAW in which she describes exactly what the situation is--the forensic evidence, the trials, etc. She makes very clear that these are hard-core offenders who have already been convicted; she's an appeals attorney so there's no question of guilt. But it's also clear that most of the rapes occur within complex interfamilial settings where sometimes the rapist has come just to steal and then, not finding money, rapes the girl who's there. Is rape more common among poor people? The answer is yes, if we take cases that come to trial, but the others may just be more hushed up?

    Is V using the stories of poor people to make a point about genre? No.
    She was assuming this was conceptual poetry because she works now within that institution (Les Figues Press, etc.) . I was the one questioning the genre. But why is it wrong to use the stories of poor people to make a point about genre? Would it be OK to so use rich people? I don't understand what you're getting at.

    You can read STATEMENT OF FACT or chunk of it on UBuweb. And the GUILT PROJECT is Other Press, NY, 2000. It brings together a wealth of information from over 10 years of work in the field.

    I don't know the work by Craig D you mention--have never seen such a work so can't comment on that one.

    Anyway, read the books and then I'd love to have your take. I myself did not expect to like STATEMENT OF FACT since there are endless disgusting and explicit sexual accounts that are painful to read. But I felt that I was seeing something with quite new eyes.
    Best wishes, Marjorie

  3. Rethinking academic poetics, then.

  4. MP writes: "Cases that come before the court occur primarily within certain interfamilial situations involving poor people--in LA mostly among Latinos--in "families" that live in terribly cramped conditions: a step-uncle may be sleeping on the living-room couch and his cousin from another marriage is sleeping on the floor; they get drunk and next thing you know, the 16-year old girl in the next room is attacked. ... In other words, it's a horrible socio-economic situation within which often mothers refuse to give evidence in support of their daughters because, as illegal immigrants, they fear deportation, and so on."

    This is why when I'm about to be raped I always ask to see their papers first!


    David Buuck

  5. MP: "But it's also clear that most of the rapes occur within complex interfamilial settings where sometimes the rapist has come just to steal and then, not finding money, rapes the girl who's there."

    totally. like how the other day i went to a rethinking latina poetics conference to appropriate some culture, but when there was nothing to steal, I raped them.

  6. But here is the thing Marjorie, if your reading of Vanessa's book is right--that it leads us to think of rape as something poor people, mainly Latinos, do--then I don't want to read it because it is wrong; it will be giving me false and racist/classist information. And because it is damaging. I need the poetry that I read to not suggest things that are untrue or damaging about poor Latinos. And it feels painful to me to be giving any attention to something that might suggest this.

    Again, I'm having trouble believing that this is what Vanessa's book says. But again, I at this point need Vanessa to talk some about her intentions, her alliances. Or if not, I just give up.


  7. The notion that rape happens disproportionately among poor Latino families in L.A. who live in heaps and thus a state of diminished responsibility and foggy judgment seems like satire, not analysis. A satire of analysis.

    For the record, over the years I've heard through my social network of a fair number of rapes, child molestations, and the like - and not one occurred in such a heap.

    Does the conceptual project lend itself to such errors? Is it a 'Freakonomics' approach to writing? We've lived through a torrent of 'conceptual economics' that has applied itself to the real world with the confidence of theory and abstraction, and resulted in breakdown at almost every level.

    What I am curious about with respect to the forthcoming Vanessa Place book is whether it has a critique with regards to its own power as a representation. If it consists of stories about poor people, how does the text account for and struggle with its own power to (negatively) define its subjects? Does the conceptual frame allow the text (and readers) to back away from those problems? The conceptual frame as an automaton that removes history. (I think that is why it seems 'Freakonomics' to me.)

  8. I really don't know how to respond to the Latino nonsense Marjorie Perloff wrote, really. It's basically a big paradox that somebody who represents close reading reads so poorly the problem of rape and instead of recognizing its complexity throws racist comments on Latinos. What is happening? Seems we need to rethink what we thought was "poetics". But I may be wrong, you know I'm mostly Latino and close to Los Angeles, so I may be raping somebody right now in my intrafamiliar setting.

  9. (posting this in sections b.c. it exceeds blogger's comment characters limit)

    I understand arguing that rapists are "victims" in the sense that, in order to become a monster, one must undergo a monstrous social process; in order to dehumanize your victims to the degree that rape requires, you must somehow have been transformed from smiling baby with tiny hands and wide eyes into something barely human...crippled, blind, enraged, pathetic.

    I understand focusing attention on the "culture of rape," the ideological and material forces at the root of the problem. These are the machine that churns out rapists faster than an equally nightmarish prison industrial complex can lock them up (at even the slim rate it does). "Justice" in her flowing robes isn't waiting at the end of that conveyor belt; there's only more sadists, rapists of a sort themselves, and a bunch of janitors slinging bloody mops.

    But turn the violated victims into cogs in that machine? Sorry, I can’t. Maybe it's that 15% of all rape and sexual assault victims are under the age of 12, and 29% are between 12 and 17. I think I get her point when MP says, given the horrific situation surrounding rapists, "they are not always «worse» people than those in the larger network involved." But who are "those people"? MP really only mentions two "players" in her scenario, the rapist and the raped, so it's easy think she’s saying the other complicit party is the victim. That can’t be what she means. No one but rapists and rape fantasizers think "She was asking for it." Nor do I think MP is saying that, if the victim was a junky or a prostitute or simply a poor young girl in a dysfunctional family, she’s somehow less a victim, less traumatized.

    Still, her point is murky. It's hard to know if that is encouraged by VP's text, or results from the bits that MP chose to highlight. Either way, as JMS notes, there's something dangerous about using anecdotal evidence (especially in works of "art" that tend to maximize conceptual/emotional impact while minimizing any burden of proof) to make broad political/ethical points.

    For instance, MP seeks to qualify or problematize oversimplified (lefty? activist?) views of rape by using the case of a Latino boy (and making general comments like "Many of the «victims» are young boys, not women"). This can lead the reader to conclude that there is a higher incidence of rape among Latinos, and that the rape of boys undermines easy feminist critiques of male violence.

    But, moving from the anecdotal to the statistical, we have the following:

    *An estimated 91% of victims of rape are female, 9% are male, and 99% of offenders are male.
    *When it comes to kids, almost all forcible rapes (99%) involved female victims. And, in the later juvenile years (ages 14 to 17), the female victimization rates are at least 10 times greater than the male rates for similar age groups.

    *81% of rape victims are white, though the rate of rape is *very slightly* higher within other races groups.

    *whites 3.5 per 1000
    *blacks 4.5 per 1000
    *hispanics 5 per 1000*

    [*the rate for hispanics is probably more in line with the others; their figures include male and female victims, the others only female.]

    So, anecdotally, we could waste a lot of time trying to understand rape by focusing on statistically insignificant "facts."

  10. continued:

    I think MP is less diversionary when she says "the culture of rape is largely a socio-economic problem." There is a definite societal trend here. About half of all rape victims are in the lowest third of income distribution; half are in the upper two-thirds. Not a vast difference, but notable. And other studies, maybe unsurprisingly, show that your risk of being raped decreases as your income increases. While some of this is due to the fact that upper income women have better access to the security that come with privilege, it's safe to say that poverty does a better job at producing rape.

    Whatever random case studies VP's uses, and whichever of those MP chooses to mention, a broader view suggests that the race of rape victims is evenly distributed (which is not to deny the disempowerment that accompanies race), that the gender of race victims is absolutely disproportional (not to diminish the horror of male-on-male rape), and that class does make a difference.

    The only reason to have this discussion is because rape sucks and must stop. It's not an academic debate. So the projects ahead are:

    *Combat and undermine the logic and power of male supremacy in all its ideological and material forms.
    *End poverty. Distribute social wealth is.

    There's really no other conclusion. If this is just a clever academic back-and-forth to see who can problematize things with the greatest finesse...well, uh, I guess I say, have a nice life and send me a recording of your final death-bed thoughts on the topic.


    Flip Wilson

    ps: One more thing regarding the dangers of the anecdotal. In (I think) her story of the weed-smoking Latino boy who got raped, MP noted that "the rapist got something like 30 years." When she corrects the misapprehension that she's supporting the rapists, she says, as noted above, it "doesn't mean the rapists aren't guilty; of course they are and have already been sentenced." Both points imply that the rapists, fucked up by their poor dysfunctional families/cultures, were then dutifully crushed by the full extent of capitalist "law". One more anecdotal/statistical tango: “Only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail” (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network,; and “Only 2% of rapists are convicted and imprisoned” (US Senate Judiciary Committee 1993). Now, I ain't gonna pretend that the prison industrial complex offers any useful solution to the rape issue, but the rhetorical device of claiming that every rapist has been "dealt with," however one defines that, isn't very helpful either.

  11. stephanie;

    thank you muchly for your wonderful report, which helped me clarify my thinking upon both the conference& the issue. my (lowly undergraduate) take on both (and a mini response to you) after the link, should you be interested.

    -trisha low.

  12. I wasn't at the conference. Many of the points in your report resonate for me Stephanie, as an experience of attending conferences in general. The Perloff comment as reported seems inflammatory and I appreciate her response/clarification. Vanessa's book seems to have people thinking about the fact of rape though, which is I believe the point. Or one of the points, no? When is the last time a poem dealt with rape in a way that evoked such a response?

    I find the work deeply disturbing. I think that is the intention. Rape and the social scaffolding around it, is disturbing.


  13. What Vanessa's book shows, by the sheer evidence of the police reports and court documents is that the culture of poetry is largely a socio-economic problem. Poems are written primarily within certain interfamilial situations involving middle class white people--in the US mostly among those interested in certain formal questions--in "families" that live in terribly cramped conditions: a literary critic may be sleeping on the living-room couch and a poet who needs a blurb is sleeping on the floor; they get drunk and next thing you know, the 16-year old girl in the next room is attacked so that she feels unable to be a writer. Many of the «victims» are young poets, not middle class white poets; for example, there is the account of the 13-year old poet who goes down the street to read a few poems with the literary critic and then the literary critic rapes him. DNA evidence proves violation etc. The literary critic gets a promotion and a sabbatical. But the poet himself may have committed similar crimes. And so on. In other words, it's a horrible socio-economic situation within which often more established poets refuse to give evidence in support of their own involvement because, as poets, they seem to be only able to take seriously questions of craft and so on. It's a horrific social problem. Read the book! That doesn't mean the literary critics aren't guilty; of course they are and have already been sentenced. But they are not always «worse» people than those in the larger network involved.

    --Catalina de Lima

  14. Marjorie Perloff could not be more wrong in her assumptions, from the very start. She writes at the start of her comment, "[Place] makes very clear that these are hard-core offenders who have already been convicted; she's an appeals attorney so there's no question of guilt (italics added). Actually, since Vanessa Place is an appeals lawyer, her job is specifically and directly to QUESTION and CHALLENGE guilt.

    As to the substance of the comments, regarding rape victims, I've previously at Silliman's called Perloff's comments on rape victims "fucking outrageous" if she said what Stephanie Young said she said. And from Perloff's comment here, it appears she did indeed say it. So, there's no question for me now. Buuck's pointed satire here, and Yepez's astonishment, very much resonate in me.

    Place's text -- and I've read all that's so far available -- is another topic entirely. Spahr's questions about it are important ones. Now that Place has published another huge chunk of self-appropriated legal work (430 pages or so, available at Lulu), perhaps I'll have time sometime this year to read that, then maybe write something about it.