Monday, June 7, 2010


Last year I was working for a criminal defense attorney. This is the first time I’ve written about that time, to try to make sense of it. I sat in the DC jail with a man who, already under for life, was back in court under a new accusation of homicide and conspiracy. I listened with him to the hours of jail calls (tapped as a matter of routine) which had been provided to counsel during discovery. It took me some time to get over the embarrassment of sitting there, even as part of his defense, in order to do what amounted to sifting through his personal life. When he shared a raunchy joke with his best friend, was I supposed to enjoy the joke there in the concrete chamber with him or pretend I had not heard in order to give him some slight measure of privacy? It was mainly my job to facilitate: it was up to him to listen for anything incriminating. I had a hard enough time just parsing the D.C. accents, much less deciding what was and was not incriminating speech. And after all, it all sounded like gossip and chitchat to me.

In all of the hours of tape, neither he nor I detected much of anything. But what the prosecutors had pieced together was a bewildering narrative of secret codes and backhanded signals. The splice jobs they had done with the tapes was astounding. It was like they’d taken a Connect the Dots that was clearly meant to be a hippopotamus and drawn a crimescene on it.They alleged, variously and contradictingly, that the people in these conversations a) did not know that they were being listened to and so were being candid about their malevolent intentions (even though there is a canned warning at the beginning of every call that alerts the speakers to the fact of its recording), and b) that the speakers knew they were being recorded and so were using an elaborate system of signs and codes to evade understanding. Nicknames became codenames. In-jokes become conspiracies. Slang words completely commonplace to black DC workingclass people became suspicious activity. When one person would ask when another was making bail, that too become “conspiracy”. All signs of curiosity about or communication between (now!) accused persons was conspiracy. Actual content was slight; it was the communication upon which the charge of conspiracy seemed largely to rest. It was as though anything that wasn’t crystal fucking clear to the middle class jury and the white prosecutors was a code. It was bizarre to me at the time but now, rereading Ranciere, I begin to wonder if there isn’t something literal in the way the prosecution went about their jobs.

If policing is, as Ranciere suggests, the literal manifestation of class war, then coterie is literally conspiracy. It is literally not permitted to have more than one name, to speak in a way that could not report on the 10 o’clock news (think of the bizarre but common falsehood that newscasters all speak with an Iowa because it is the most “neutral”? Neutral to whom? How did the accent of this man come to work against him in the court of law and the accent of the person who reports the crime come to be neutral? And how’s my grammar here: do I need an inversion somewhere?) It is literally not permitted to speak with any but the clearest legibility—that is, to a particular ear, to a particular eye. To be unclear is to be, at best, useless to one’s masters, and at worst, planning insurrection. To be asking when someone is getting out of jail is to be anticipating an end of servitude—a violation that still reeks of slavery. Aristotle, by way of Ranciere: “slaves understand language, but don’t possess it.”

While experimental poetry is partially protected by the invisible veneer of privilege that clings to it (the more privileged you are, perhaps, the more likely your illegibility is to be viewed as an aristocratic eccentricity) I hope always to keep in mind that I am fighting for ALL kinds of illegibility. Or, better: more kinds of legibility. More legibilities, plural. The Nonsite Collective’s Draft proposal states that:  The work of cultivating and deepening our conversations involves building a shared vocabulary and syntax for situating the links between a range of aesthetic projects, social practices, and really existing worlds. And I do believe this is true, but we must also be better at seeing out of two eyes at the same time, while we are being watched with the eye of One/billions. With our brown eye: the world as it might be. With our blue eye: the world as they see it. If I could have anticipated the prosecution’s psychotic reconfiguration of reality, for instance, maybe I could have been of use. As it was, I wasn’t, and someone went away for life. For the 2nd time.

There may have been murders, but there was sure as hell never any conspiracy. Or rather, there was definitely, literally, always conspiracy.


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