- Situation, Occasion, Encounter: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Lyric Theory in the Historical Present
At a rally in Springfield, Illinois, on November 9, 2015, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered his speech in front of a racially diverse audience. By “in front of,” I do not mean “before” or “facing.” The stage was not a proscenium, but in a now-common configuration for televised political campaign speeches, a platform in the center of stadium-style seating. The audience visible on-screen was not in front of the candidate, facing him, but seated behind him as a strategically positioned, demographically curated backdrop of listeners, about half white and half people of color. The mise-enscène: a clumsy illusion of diverse populations backing Trump. Following the rally, images of the event circulated on social media, but not because of the commonplace hypocrisy of a politician deploying for political gain the very bodies he rhetorically denigrates (a posture we might call racist fidelity rather than racist irony). Instead the scene went viral because of an unusual disruption in the background: the reading of a book of poetry at a political event.1 [End Page 515]
In the upper-right corner of the frame, Johari Osayi Idusuyi, a black, twenty-three-year-old student, reads a book, pausing briefly to exchange heated words with a white couple who seem to instruct her to put her reading away. With a flourish, Idusuyi raises the book back in front of her face and directly to the camera. The book is unmistakable: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), with its high-contrast cover photograph of contemporary artist David Hammons’s sculpture In the Hood (1993). The cover photograph stands out against a page whose color Lauren Berlant describes as a “shocking whiteness,” and one of Citizen’s multiple citations of Zora Neale Hurston’s line, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (Berlant). Hammons’s sculpture resembles an executioner’s hood as well as the severed hood of a sweatshirt, overlaying the empty hoods of murdered black youths with a metonym for the unhooded executioners who kill them with impunity. The doubleness of being “thrown against” a white background implies both contrast and contact, and Citizen’s cover animates not only the sharp pain of racial interpellation, but also the intimacy of racial conflict. In pulling focus to the background of the Trump rally, Citizen troubles the conventional pattern through which figure emerges from ground, text and image from page, speaker from backdrop, event from context.
Reading contemporary poetry is not typically considered a public, political event. Conventional accounts of lyric describe poetry as a solitary, silent, and brief engagement with the expressive voice of a poet or the fictional utterance of a poetic speaker. Even contrary views on poetry tend to depart from this basic model of lyricism. Theodor Adorno, for example, describes lyric’s seeming withdrawal from society as a utopian refusal of commodity fetishism (39–43). More recent debates in lyric theory and historical poetics have reconsidered the historical eventfulness of poetry, but few among these new approaches address contemporary lyric or the history of poetics in the present. Modern Language Quarterly’s 2016 special issue “Historical Poetics,” for instance, includes no discussion of poetry after the nineteenth century. This gap between lyric theory and contemporary literature might at first seem intransigent―another example of the broader difficulty of historicizing the present and recent past. As Amy Hungerford observes, scholars of the contemporary often worry that more “focal distance may . . . be necessary [End Page 516] in order to see the past clearly” (418). Yet as Citizen demonstrates, contemporary poetry and the idea of “lyric” continue to act in the world without waiting for lyric theories to catch up.2
This essay aims to introduce a new lexicon for lyric theory in the historical present, in the spirit of Rankine’s appreciation for scholarship that generates “a vocabulary to understand incoherency” (“Claudia Rankine on Blackness”). Reading Citizen, many have turned to another essential addition to the language of incoherence: the “microaggression.” While the term helpfully points to what Heather Love calls...