THE EMPATHY MACHINE, Part Two by Kelly McQuain text version • Cleaver Magazine
THE EMPATHY MACHINE, Part Two Text Version by Kelly McQuain 1. Tweet No Evil In an effort to get my head around what I consider the purpose of art-making, I attended three writing conferences during summer 2015. The first was at U.C. Berkeley and was supposed to commemorate the influential 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference fifty years prior, inspired by a student Free Speech Movement earlier that year. But poet Vanessa Place’s inclusion on the bill caused the commemoration to implode. Place, whose current project uses Twitter to disseminate instances of the “n-word” from Gone With the Wind, has been the subject of controversy before. Place’s name on the Berkeley schedule caused many invitees to drop out in protest. The organizers canceled the conference and replaced it at the last minute with Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Poetry Conference. I made it from Philadelphia in time to attend the last day. There was a lot of talk about colonization theory, and at the end of the day people sat in circles discussing race and their feelings in ways that were careful not to offend. I learned that the organizers kept notice about “conference 2.0” largely on the down-low out of fear of protests. Ironic, I thought: How do you create a platform for change when safety concerns the conversation to members of the Berkeley phone tree? What I know of Place comes from her controversies and the strange fact on the Internet she likes to pose for pictures in Salvador Dali drag with pineapples. Like Goldsmith, Place has become another poster child in the debate over who is allowed to say what. Cathy Young, writing for The Washington Post about the dangers of appropriation, recently observed, "When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding." I agree in principle, but I don’t think it applies to Vanessa Place or Kenneth Goldsmith.
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