From Reader to Witness: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

First, an excerpt:

Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. You can feel everyone lean in. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.

For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please. (Citizen, p. 49)

This passage serves as both a statement and a demonstration of the poetics of Citizen. In the first paragraph, the speaker recalls Butler explaining what makes language hurtful: that we are exposed to the “address” of another. To be addressed necessarily makes us vulnerable, because it calls for “emotional openness.” Here Bulter is summarizing some observations she makes in her book, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. In that book, she also points out that we are addressed before we are able to address: it is only through being spoken to that we acquire the ability to speak. She concludes that language is ultimately social, dependent upon being available to others.

Born of address, language “navigates” our dependence and vulnerability. As the speaker points out, all speech, but especially racist speech, renders its addressee “hypervisible.” Hence its power to hurt: its ability to “exploit all the ways you are present.”

But this “intimacy of address” is also what gives language the capacity to move and transform. It is for this reason, I’d like to suggest, that Rankine employs the second person throughout most the book, including the passage under discussion. In terms of actual reference, “you,” for the most part, is a stand-in for the speaker, but in a sense, the referent doesn’t matter. In fact, I’d argue that a nuanced parsing of “you” in Citizen is merely a way of avoiding something very simple and obvious: all those “you”s make the reader visible, self-conscious, and somewhat uncomfortable. At least that’s my experience, and I’m not alone. On Twitter, poet Daisy Fried wrote that Citizen is the “Best use of the second person I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe ever. It is completely stressing me out & I’m only on p.13.”

Rankine’s use of the second person has been noted in many reviews; less so, her use of the present tense. As you can see in the first paragraph above, even though the event happened “not long ago” in the past, it is discussed in the present tense, as is most of the rest of Citizen. The effect is remarkable: it makes much of the book feel like live reporting, “this is happening now,” not after-the-fact narration. The lack of narrative “tells” is unsettling. It’s as if the speaker never knows what will happen next, and the reader inhabits this uncertainty.

In the second person and in the present tense: in other words, you, the reader, have nowhere to hide. This is poetry of witness as described by Carolyn Forché: it is “not a translation of experience into poetry but is itself experience.” This book is filled with anecdotes of what might be called passive racism, involving simply not seeing another (it opens with one; see also pp. 7 and 77). Citizen reclaims the mechanisms of language that racist speech exploits—demanding your presence and rendering you hypervisible—but for a very different purpose: you are no longer a reader, anonymous and distant, but a witness. You are responsible for another.** You are seen and are therefore obliged to see. You are called upon to respond to the address of this book. 


**Interestingly, both Butler and Forché, in the respective pieces cited in this post, draw heavily on the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. This is not a coincidence, since he spent virtually his entire career investigating “the ethical relationship to the other” and related concepts, such as “witness.” I suspect reading Citizen through a Levinasian lens would yield some interesting insights.  

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