This essay explores a notable trend toward issues of social justice and civic engagement in 21st-century book-length poetries, exemplifying Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American lyric (2014) as a text that creates links between socially oriented poetries and forms of civic action and dissent. Using modernist rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s modes of persuasion, attention is given to the specific ways in which Citizen as socially-oriented poetry can encourage readers towards forms of civic engagement. Specifically in relation to linguistic frameworks, this essay also assesses the impact of Citizen in the public sphere, building on scholarship on rhetorical poetries by Rachel Galvin, Dale M Smith, Jeffrey St Onge and Jennifer Moore.
Keywords: Poetry – poetics – rhetoric – social change
Poetry and civic engagement in the 2010s
The 2010s have been punctuated by grassroots movements across the world, including Occupy,1 Black Lives Matter,2 the Strike of Polish Women,3 and the Together for Yes campaign.4 These movements contrast with the rise of right-wing populism, evidenced by the election of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen’s political gains in France, and the Brexit vote in Britain. In poetry, there has been a notable trend toward issues of social justice and civic engagement, particularly in 21st-century book-length poetries, for example and among many others, Solmaz Sharif’s Look: poems (2017), Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (2017), and CD Wright’s One with others (2010), Rising, falling, hovering (2008), and One big self (2007). My discussion of civic engagement follows from Dale M Smith’s use of the term in Poets beyond the barricade: Rhetoric, citizenship and dissent after 1960. Smith suggests, ‘… poetry after 1960, when used to respond to public situations, intervenes to engage our awareness, to challenge our assumptions about civic space and civic action, and to provoke us to act on behalf of our convictions’ (2012: ix). My formulations of ‘civic engagement’ and ‘civic action’ draw further on the Oxford English dictionary definition of ‘civic’ and its etymological roots in relation to the Latin corona civica, ‘denoting a garland of oak leaves and acorns given in ancient Rome to a person who saved a fellow citizen’s life’ (OED online). This article is similarly concerned with the ways in which individual and community action bolster social movements, which in turn may potentially transform ideological positions in a given society. Those ideological shifts are discussed herein using the term ‘social change’.
Indeed, heightened activity on both ends of the political scale brings forth a renewed focus on civic engagement, posing questions about connections between poetry, rhetoric, and social and political space. Elsewhere, I have argued that recent book-length poetries by Wright, Claudia Rankine and M NourbeSe Philip introduce new possibilities for audience through their hybrid form (Morrissy 2016). Further, Vernon Shetley notes that, ‘… poetry of engagement [asks] us to share the sentiment the poem expresses, or [aims] to produce a specific feeling, even to catalyse action, in the reader’ (2016: 33; my emphasis). How then can socially engaged poetries contribute to forms action in the public sphere, or even perhaps to activist movements? Exemplifying Rankine’s Citizen: An American lyric (2014), this essay considers its rhetorical modes of persuasion, and assesses the book’s suasive impact in the public sphere. In doing so, attention is given to the significance of poetry as a rhetorical act during moments of increased conflict and/or civic engagement, thus building on scholarship by Rachel Galvin, Smith, and Jeffrey St Onge, and Jennifer Moore.
Smith cites Allen Ginsberg as ‘… the last poet of protest held in regard by a mass audience’ (2012: 1). Although not yet to the same extent as Ginsberg, the publication of Citizen, a book-length poem about the pervasive nature of racism, has notably moved Rankine toward a mass audience. Citizen was met with immense critical acclaim, and has been celebrated internationally by mainstream media outlets (Hume 2016: 79). Its thematic resonances complement social movements such as Black Lives Matter, and owing to unprecedented public protest to the Trump presidency, seen in the Women’s March on Washington, a new moment of resistance may be upon us in which rhetorical poetries can be reinvigorated as part of the civic framework. As will be explored in the next section, Citizen advocates a role for poetry not solely as a tool of dissent, but also as a means through which readers can develop judgment about civic duties and intervention. Juliana Spahr notes it is best to think of poetry as ‘… part of the ecosystem of antagonism, not [as] the actual antagonism’ (2015). Nonetheless, Citizen sometimes acts as both part of the ‘ecosystem’ and as ‘the actual antagonism’, and I argue that rhetorical poetries can contribute to networks of action surrounding social movements. By investigating modernist rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s modes of persuasion in relation to Rankine’s Citizen, this essay investigates the manner in which the microaggression sections of Citizen illuminate various subject positions, and the circulation of racist ideology in daily life. Finally, I will explore engagement with the text on social media and in direct protest.
According to Burke, ‘… an act of persuasion is affected by the character of the scene in which it takes place and of the agents to whom it is addressed. Thus, the same rhetorical act could vary in its effectiveness, according to shifts in the situation or in the attitude of audiences’ (1969: 62). It is important then to note the increased attention on racism in the 2010s when considering the ‘character of the scene’ at play in Citizen, particularly arising from Black Lives Matter, the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, and the subsequent election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Rankine’s book arrives at a pertinent cultural moment in terms of audience and persuasion. Burke proposes two distinct modes of persuasion, namely pure persuasion and the rhetoric of advantage. The mode of pure persuasion is a motivational force that ‘… delights in the process of appeal without ulterior purpose’ (Burke 1969: xiv). In pure persuasion the poet does not urge the reader or auditor toward any particular action arising from the poem. Burke describes this mode as ‘the moment of motionlessness … It is uncomfortably like suspended animation’ (1969: 294). Though the suasive impulse is present in this moment of suspense, the speaker does not imagine a specific action in response. Burke’s rhetoric of advantage, on the other hand, ‘… attempts to move readers … to act in some way based on a sense of shared motive’, with the speaker having a realisable purpose in mind (Smith 2012: 48). Such specificity of purpose is recognisable in Citizen, which blends anecdote with public encounters of racism in order to confront racist ideologies on personal and institutional levels. Rankine says, ‘I wanted to enact the ways in which … daily, almost invisible racism develops a mindset that then allows people to go on and do more unacceptable things’ (2015). In another interview, she reiterates:
… one of the questions I often hear is ‘How did that happen?’ as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice – the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. (2014a)
In Citizen Rankine chronicles her own, and collected experiences of daily racism in an effort to identify, expose and change racist behaviour (2014b). Thus, Citizen outlines specific routes toward enacting change in relation to racism.
The rhetoric of advantage in Citizen
Citizen is written against the backdrop of frequent police killings of African American men and women in the 2010s, the subsequent acquittals of those responsible, and several other public instances of racially motivated violence, oppression, and discrimination, which are outlined in the book. For example, Citizen explores the murder of James Craig Anderson, an African American man who was intentionally run over by a pickup truck in Jackson, Mississippi in 2011 (Rankine 2014: 92-95), tennis player Caroline Wozniacki’s imitation of Serena Williams’ physique (36-37), and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (82-87). The book focuses on the racial dynamics of the 2000s, but always with regard to the historical context of slavery and racial oppression in the United States. Rankine’s poetic landscape blends image and text, with the juxtaposition of lyrical and documentary impulses acting as a primary device in its rhetoric of advantage. Indeed, Citizen foregrounds specific situations that require public intervention in order to enact change. One of its most notable features is the second-person lyric used in short passages, which explore personal encounters of everyday racism. This second person address of the anecdotal or microaggression sections of Citizen are significant because they build identification, but also implicate and call upon the reader to act. The term “microaggression” was first used in 1970 by W Hallermann but was subsequently credited to psychiatrist Chester M Pierce (‘Words we’re watching’ n.d.). Pierce describes microaggressions as ‘subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are “put downs” of blacks by offenders. The offensive mechanisms … often are innocuous’ (n.d.).
The word ‘microaggression’ is significant due to its heavy association with Citizen in journalism and scholarship, perhaps owing to Rankine’s own use of the term. Explaining the origin of the anecdotal passages, she explains: ‘I asked a lot of friends and people I’d meet, “Can you tell me a story of a micro-aggression5 that happened to you in a place you didn’t expect it to happen?’” (Rankine 2014b). This personal element establishes the shared motive of advantage, moving readers toward specific action in response to microaggressions experienced in their own lives. One such passage begins, ‘You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’ (Rankine 2014: 10). In these lines, and in each of the microaggression sections, Rankine situates her reader in very ordinary, if not mundane, scenarios in which racism interjects without warning. The second person address immediately interpellates the reader, cultivating an intimate atmosphere in which Rankine is speaking directly to them: ‘When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t’ (2014: 43). These passages play on the subjectivity of the reader, creating parallels with Burke’s identification and the Althusserian notion of interpellation, which poses that individuals are constructed discursively (Derkatch 2016: 48). The second person address of Citizen is important to the rhetoric of advantage as it calls particular attention to language as an oppressive force.
Further, the microaggression sections simultaneously implicate the aggressor and validate the subject’s position, with the second person address projecting positions for participation in the poem (Altieri 2011: 130). Charles Altieri notes, ‘[such poetry] comprises an effort to clarify the forces to which author and audience both must respond’ (130). Rankine creates dual positions of identification or subjectivity and consequently, the Aristotelian epideictic mode of praise and blame works in tandem throughout the microaggression sections by considering the roles of both aggressor and victim. For example, a section in Part III reads, ‘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’ (Rankine 2014: 49). However, in Citizen readers can be wrong-footed depending on their subject position. For example, readers beginning Citizen may understand the second-person address as a technique to allow them to imaginatively enter that position. In fact, Rankine’s unique use of the second person means the ‘you’ does not necessarily reflect a universal experience. This is not immediately obvious at the outset of the book:
When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degree depending on the destiny of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as a metaphor. (Rankine 2014: 5)
The speaker then describes a childhood memory from school in which a girl asks to copy her answers. There is no indication of race in this second stanza. However, the third stanza begins, ‘You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person’ (2014). As the microaggression passages continue, non-marginalised readers may find their behaviour more closely aligns with representations of the microaggressor than with the second person ‘you’. As Ann Keniston observes in relation to Maxine Kumin’s poetry, the second person address creates ambiguity with the result that ‘… the poem’s readers must determine who is responsible, what transgressions have occurred, and what the implications of these violations are’ (2016: 205). Citizen calls upon readers to consider their own positionality, and to re-evaluate their daily encounters and transgressions when it comes to racism.
The victim’s exasperation at microaggressions is also extensively explored: ‘As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said’ (Rankine 2014: 10). This focus on the victim’s response perhaps also encourages possibilities for the victim to intervene, rather than driving ‘straight through’ the incident. Later, the speaker says, ‘Another friend tells you you have to learn not to absorb the world. She says she can sometimes hear her own voice say-ing [sic] silently to whomever—you are saying this thing and I am not going to accept it’ (2014: 55). By exposing the inner thoughts of the subjects, Rankine prompts readers who have experienced such marginalisation to reconsider their own silent acceptance of microaggressions, and urges towards different responses in subsequent encounters with racism or discrimination. As outlined, Burke’s rhetoric of advantage requires the establishment of a shared motive through language, with a realisable purpose in mind. The dual subject positions of the microaggression sections of Citizen, exemplified above, and the corresponding appeal from pathos, powerfully call on both victim and aggressor, allowing each to re-evaluate their roles in social interactions and consider how those interactions perpetuate racist ideology. As Lynn Keller notes in relation to Spahr’s ecopoetry, this type of poetry can position the reader ‘not just as audience … but also as participant in the analogous experience provided … by the poem’ (Keller 2016: 50). The microaggression sections expose racist behaviour at the level of the individual and the everyday in order to effect change at a structural level, thereby gesturing to the ‘realisable purpose’ of advantage. Further, the dual subjectivity in the microaggression sections outlines potential adjustments for each person in the interaction, thus exposing private feelings and public events in a manner that reinforces communities, which may influence larger political issues, as Smith suggests (Poets: 51). The second-person address in Citizen is a powerful rhetorical tool in building the shared motives required for advantage, which may potentially lead to change or action.
The microaggression sections of Citizen also illuminate the significant impact of the book since its publication in October 2014. The term ‘microaggression’ appears ubiquitously in writings about the book, and it is difficult to find a review of Citizen in a major publications that does not mention it. Such articles span from November 2014 to January 2016, including the Los Angeles Review of Books (Uddin 2016), New York Times (Lee 2014), New York Times Sunday Book Review (Bass 2014), Financial Times (Munshi 2017) and The Guardian (Khorana 2014). The increased visibility of the term is noteworthy, especially in circumstances in which it has not been routinely used in mainstream publications. Psychologist and professor Derald Wing Sue has written extensively on the topic, including in his book Microaggressions in everyday life, published in 2010. Outside of scholarship, however, the term has been widely used by minoritised communities for some time. For example, Vivian Lu and David Zhou’s website microaggressions.com, also founded in 2010, publishes accounts of microaggressions submitted those who have been systematically marginalised (‘Frequently Asked Questions’), thus demonstrating that the term is well-known and understood amongst minoritised communities. However, as noted by Sarah Hampson in her 2016 article for The Globe and Mail, “only now is the label gaining cultural currency. Google pulls up more than 8,000 mentions in professional papers, media and blogs” (n.p.). Further, in December 2015 Merriam-Webster online published an article on ‘microaggression’ in ‘Words we’re watching’, a section specifically designed for words increasing in use. The article states, ‘[the term] has shifted from academic jargon to common parlance only in recent years’ (‘Words’ my emphasis). In February 2017 ‘microaggression’ was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary and has since been added to the Oxford dictionaries, where it is defined as, ‘A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority’ (‘Microaggression’). The term’s rise in popularity and its addition to these dictionaries denotes its mainstream recognition in recent years, coinciding with the publication of Citizen in 2014 and with Rankine’s consistent use of the term when discussing her book.6
In addition to the news articles mentioned above, there is also evidence of ‘microaggression’ having entered popular daily discourse without reference to Citizen. In January 2017 Jamelia, a British pop star, was interviewed on Channel 4 News about a racist incident she experienced. Jamelia explained that a fellow-passenger in the first class carriage on a train asked her what kind of ticket she held. While Jamelia was not the only young person, nor the only mother travelling with a child on the train, she was the only black person. She comments, ‘These microaggressions happen on a daily basis, not just to me but to thousands and thousands of people every single day’ (Jamelia 2017). As a woman of colour, it is likely that Jamelia was already familiar with the term prior to Citizen. However, her appearance and usage of ‘microaggression’ on Channel 4 News demonstrates that the term is now understood by wider, non-marginalised audiences. Given Citizen’s global acclaim and Rankine’s position as a prominent thinker on race both amongst academic and non-academic audiences, it is likely that Citizen has contributed to the increased and broader use and understanding of the term ‘microaggression’ in popular discourse. This increased use is significant for the rhetoric of advantage because it aids understandings of the issues, thereby helping to create a shared motive for action against racist micro (and macro) aggressions. Elizabeth A Frost observes that ‘[a] primary concern in Citizen is to embody the language of race’ and indeed, the book provides a renewed linguistic framework that broadens understandings of racist encounters by bringing language that is already well understood by members of marginalised communities into wider usage (2016). Citizen’s contribution to the momentum of the term ‘microaggression’ therefore bolsters a community of speakers who challenge the circulation of racist ideology in their quotidian lives by naming and denouncing these incidents, just as Jamelia did. Importantly, and as Rankine notes, these sections draw attention to the invisible nature of racism resulting from white privilege (Rankine 2015). Thus, the rhetoric of advantage in Citizen encourages readers to identify and understand how racism manifests at an everyday level and to reassess their actions according to their positions, whether that means an increased awareness about their own power and privilege, or a change to behaviour in confronting imbalances in power as a marginalised person.
However, arguments about the relationship between poetry and social change frequently cause tension in literary scholarship. Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick specifically argues against the assumption that increased visibility necessarily leads to change or action. She poses that such ‘faith in exposure’ suggests that ‘to make something visible as a problem [is], if not a mere hop, skip, and jump away from getting it solved, [it is] at least self-evidently a step in that direction’ (2002: 139). She interrogates the basis for the assumption that these expositions will surprise, disturb, or even motivate readers (141). I agree that exposition alone does not necessarily result in change and indeed, the expositions of white supremacist ideologies in mainstream society explored in Citizen will not shock a majority of readers. Nonetheless, I would argue that the element of shock is not where the impact of Citizen lies but instead, in the ordinariness of the micro and macro aggressions represented therein. Exposition is certainly a heavily relied-upon strategy for focussing awareness on social or political issues but it is by no means the only or best strategy. To return to Spahr’s quotation at the outset of this article, poetry can contribute to ‘an ecosystem’ of social change or action. However, and from my own experience in successful activist campaigns, exposition is one tool amongst many others in the ecosystem, which together can create multiple identification points, offering a variety of ways to act and participate in social change. Again, the crucial element is the network of action to which Spahr alludes, and as explored further in the next section, through its various exposure strategies, Citizen builds a network of actors around the book by delineating different ways of engaging with the text, which are in conversation with activist movements to fight racism.
As outlined, Rankine’s detailed exploration of personal interactions prepares individual readers from a variety of positions for future specified encounters with racism. However, the book is not confined to personal encounter, and also draws on public instances of racism in sport, politics, and law enforcement. The book’s relationship with the term ‘microaggression’ demonstrates the ways in which Citizen aids understandings of linguistic frameworks that help to identify and combat racism, but there are other visible effects of a shared motive arising from the poem. The book has been publicly engaged with in a variety of other ways, including online. Lynn Neary of NPR notes that lines from Citizen were shared widely on social media in the days after the police killings of Philando Castile (Rankine 2016), a black man fatally shot in July 2016 in Minnesota after a routine traffic stop (Worland 2016), and Alton Sterling, a black man who was fatally shot during an altercation with police in Louisiana, also in July 2016 (Chan 2016). These instances of online sharing are forms of public and civic engagement, thereby demonstrating that members of the public use the text as a form of commentary, dissent, protest and civic intervention. Social media has become a powerful tool in activist movements, particularly because it provides avenues for attention and publicity that circumvent the biases of mainstream news reporting. For example, Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds used her phone to live-stream the aftermath of his shooting by a Minnesota police officer on Facebook. The stream showed the police officer standing outside the car with his gun drawn while Castile lay dying inside the car (Ritchin 2016). Millions of people saw and shared Reynolds’ broadcast, including Black Lives Matter activists (Stelter 2016). Evidently, digital connectivity holds ever-increasing importance as a tool of civic intervention, and therefore the online engagement with Citizen should not be overlooked as a means of dissent and, possibly, mobilisation.
Citizen has also been invoked in direct public protest. At a Trump campaign rally at the end of 2016, spectator and student Johari Osayi Idusuyi took a copy of Citizen from her handbag, raised the book in front of her face and began reading (Figure 1). Idusuyi visibly displayed the cover of Citizen throughout then candidate Trump’s speech, and her act of defiance went viral (WITW Staff 2015). She explained that Trump supporters had begun bullying members of the audience, and she felt that his reaction lacked empathy:
And that’s when I was like, I am now genuinely not interested in your speech. I wanted to leave but I came, I’m in the middle [of the row], I’m on camera ... I’m not going to waste my time listening to someone who I can’t respect anymore, so I started to read. (Idusuyi 2015)
In this instance, Citizen acts as a document of dissent, but also bridges the gap between Rankine’s own expression of dissent and the broader possibilities for poetry as a tool of public dissent by others. Idusuyi’s actions bring together her personal discord and Citizen’s role as a document of dissent, once again placing the book in the centre of the movement for racial equality in the United States. In exploring the ways in which Rankine’s poetry contributes to change through private acts taken in public places, Frost suggests, ‘This is how change happens – on a small scale, in acts that forge community … [by] acting under the most ordinary circumstances, individuals have the power to reclaim citizenry’ (2016: 189). As outlined at the beginning of this essay, the ultimate objective of the rhetoric of advantage is to move readers toward specific action. The second-person address, the microaggression sections and the shift between public and private realms in Citizen create shared motives and understandings of how racism builds. The book-length structure renders the sequential connections clear, thus illuminating specific ways that readers might challenge racist ideologies in their own private and public lives. By building a strong rhetoric of advantage, paired with appeals from logos and pathos, Citizen creates avenues for readers to take action, regardless of their status in society, and calls on individuals to dismantle white supremacist ideology in their daily lives.
Through its distinct mode of persuasion, Citizen contributes to frameworks for resistance and social change, thereby emphasising a role for poetry that goes beyond the parameters of literary study, and that extends into the social and political realm. Burke says that pure persuasion is ‘… the pause at the window, before descending into the street’ (1969). While certain socially oriented poetries are better understood as the ‘pause’ at the window preceding action, Citizen more readily aligns with the descent into the street. As Adalaide Morris outlines, these hybrid investigative poetries reconsider the categories through which culture narrates, remembers, and adjudicates the incidents, allowing poets to bring oppositional resources to their readers (2017: 82). Citizen engages awareness of racist ideologies and shapes public space with new vocabularies and understandings, sometimes even resulting in moments of civic action. However, Adrienne Rich’s thoughts on political poetry remain pertinent: ‘To look in a poem for immediate political function is as mistaken to try to declare immediately what a particular protest or demonstration “accomplished”’ (qtd in Popova). While there is no direct line to draw from Citizen to a specific accomplishment, my above analysis demonstrates that the book is in active conversation with social and political struggles in relation to racism. Rankine’s contribution in this regard need not be overstated, but it is important to recognise the rarity of that contribution, and its significance in investigation the rhetorical impulse of poetry, and its place in the realm of dissent, protest, democracy and social change.
- 1. ‘Occupy Wall Street is a people-powered movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District, and has spread to over 100 cities in the United States and actions in over 1,500 cities globally. [Occupy] is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations’ (‘About’)
- 2. ‘Black Lives Matter is a chapter-based national organization working for the validity of Black life. [BLM] are working to (re)build the Black liberation movement. [They] are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state’ (‘About Black Lives Matter Network’). Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013.
- 3. ‘On 3 October 2016, women wearing black clothes and waving black flags demonstrated across Poland, boycotting their jobs and classes as part of a nationwide strike in protest against a new law that would in effect ban abortion’ (Christian 2016).
- 4. The Together for Yes campaign comprised the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Abortion Rights Campaign, and the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, which is an alliance of over 100 organisations including human rights, feminist and pro-choice organisations, trade unions, health organisations, NGOs, community organisations and many others. Campaigners worked for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which equates a pregnant woman’s life to that of a fetus, making abortion illegal and unconstitutional (‘Who we are’). The Eighth Amendment was repealed by referendum on 26 May 2018, and officially removed from the Constitution on 18 September 2018. However, at the time of writing, abortion remains illegal and criminalised in Northern Ireland.
- 5. The term is sometimes hyphenated, though Hallermann’s original use is unhyphenated. I use the unhyphenated version, as per Merriam-Webster.
- 6. For examples, see ‘Using poetry to uncover moments that lead to racism’ (Rankine 2014c) and ‘Claudia Rankine on blackness as the second person’ (2014b).
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