Kathy Acker

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Maureen Howard (review date 9 November 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Don Quixote, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 9, 1986, p. 6.

[In the following review, Howard offers a tempered assessment of Don Quixote.]

Kathy Acker's work is not outrageous. That is what first comes to mind reading the abortion scene that launches her new novel, Don Quixote. We have all been there—not to the bloody chamber of horrors she describes—but to the highly fabricated world of this story. Unless we have been wrapped in cotton wool or sent to the nunnery, we are fully prepared for the sexual and political extremes with which Acker purposes to alarm, amuse, and, at times, anesthetize the readers of her fiction.

Described rather nervously as punk, postmodern, or even postpunk, her novel is not all that hard to classify. It is fashionably self-indulgent Lower East Side Lit Major. Happily, Acker is better educated, more thoughtful and more talented than most of the practitioners of LESLM. Starting with her title, she leads us into a world in which rip-off and pastiche are common currency just as they are (we can't miss the parallel) in our helter-skelter, image-ridden culture.

In Acker's earlier Great Expectations, she used a parody of Dickens' famous opening lines to set the flip-to-feisty tone for the autobiographical Bildungsroman that followed. In this new work, she re-imagines Cervantes' romantic knight as a woman. More precisely, Acker gives herself, via Cervantes, a new first name: "As we've said, her wheeling bed's name was 'Hack-kneed' or 'Hack-neyed,' meaning 'once a hack' or 'always a hack' or 'a writer' or 'an attempt to have an identity that always fails.'… So, she decided, 'catheter' is the glorification of 'Kathy.' By taking on such a name which, being long, is male, she would be able to become a female-male or a night-knight."

This little passage is a fair example of what Don Quixote holds for the reader: a highly personal performance full of modernist tricks—with Acker, the willful impresario, always in sight, always playing with language and literary forms, switching tenses and voices. Any attempt to convey what transpires in Don Quixote is likely to make the reader feel like a chump. Still, it is to Acker's credit that those whom she manages to engage will, almost as a point of honor, want to have a go at the intention of her hip, fragmented novel, for, despite her embrace of the irrational, she does grant us a skeletal, throwaway plot.

After Don Quixote's abortion, she and her "sidekick cowboy," Saint Simeon (early Christian Bishop-Martyr?) descend into madness, troubled dreams of the polymorphous-perverse variety, and deep disillusion before setting out to find "love in a world in which love isn't possible." Thus, this first and shortest section ends in unoriginal nihilism: "It's not necessary to write or be right cause writing's or being right's making more illusion. It's necessary to destroy and be wrong."

The second and most successful "chapter" of Don Quixote—a chapter entitled "Being Dead, Don Quixote Could No Longer Speak. Being Born Into and Part of a Male World, She Had No Speech of Her Own. All She Could Do Was Read Male Texts Which Weren't Hers"—takes us on purely literary adventures. A feminist rewrite of the classics is not a fresh idea, but Acker is funny and savvy with some of her appropriated material, which ranges from Russian Constructivism to Shakespeare, Milton, Genet, a few lines of Dante and more. I cannot help but stress how literary Acker's work is. She is like a graduate student in comparative literature gone looney-tunes under the...

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pressures of orals.

Sometimes the clowning pays off. One of the best bits tunes in on a man and a woman who toss around the gossip of current literary theory ("Do you think there's something fishy in the semiotic theories, especially in Deleuze's and Guattari's?") like Mike Nichols and Elaine May in their "Bach to Bach" routine.

But these brilliant flashes are rare in Acker's long, bewildering trek toward self-definition. There is a tedious precis of Visconti's "The Leopard," which is supposed to function—Acker is often our instructress—as a romantic distraction from memory and pain. There is a replay of scenes from Frank Wedekind's "Lulu," with Acker written in.

Acker is smart. German Expressionism of the 1920s is a natural for fiction that proceeds in a cartoonish way against the background of name-brand plenty and our supposedly disposable culture. "I am a pirate," she insists upon many occasions, openly adhering to the mighty fashionable notion that the authors of the dear old masterpieces are dismissable if not dead, and that therefore she can appropriate any text, no matter how sacred or how profane, for her writing machine.

Indeed, there is a computerese sequence in Don Quixote in which the same paragraph, stuck in a retrieve, is printed two and three times over. But Acker is no Mac-Write freak, interested in the medium without the message. No, she is angry, childish, strident and boring in her repeated howls at what seems for much of this book no more than a creaky notion that the poor battered bourgeoisie is enemy No. 1. Or is it men? Or our monetary system? Or the New York Art World? Or the rotten autobiographical business of her mother's suicide and a broken marriage, both of which thread their way through Don Quixote?

Acker's characters are literally dehumanized. St. Simeon, woofing, turns into a dog, the better to play out his degraded adventures. Think brutal animal cartoons—Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry—and you have a lead into the Acker aesthetic. She assigns Nixon and Reagan the pronoun it. Her obliteration of sex leads to a tiresome use of she (he) and him (her), bollixing up one of her tales. We are told what to think about all this, of course: "For when there is no country, no community, the speaker's unsure of which language to use, how to speak, if it's possible to speak. Language is community. Dogs, I'm now inventing community for you and me."

But Acker's explanation does not make up for the slack repeat of one-liners, the undisciplined tick of naughty four-letter words, a warmed-over '60s political rhetoric, a dabbling in Gertrude Steinian ex cathedra pronouncements—in sum, for a lack of true invention.

The final section of Don Quixote is a long harangue against the evil empire—a hideous British-American landscape of corruption and decay. Unlike the young writers out of too many university workshops who publish perfectly controlled, cool stories, this novel may be a jagged cry from the heart of Kathy Acker. It is too bad that her prose is no more shocking than the cover of a heavy metal album, that she cannot, would not want to, sort out her good work from stuff as campy and ephemeral as a plastic flamingo or a giant Gummy.

Acker is a hit in England where she now lives—chic, a cult figure, a wild American, an exotic. After all of her flamboyant piracy, she echoes Whitman in a few precious moments of searing honesty, but without an ounce of Whitman's celebration or a drop of his innocence: "City, owner of me. When you want paint out of me, you throw me amidst your bums…. When you want joy out of me, you make me famous, for I'm the baby, you're my only parent, and fame is your nipple." In Europe, Acker takes her prose on the road with a rock band. She's coming to America for a national media tour. We can half-guess the coverage in L.A. Style and Interview. But perhaps what lies so heavy on the page will be happily lost in the performance.

David Van Leer (review date 4 May 1987)

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SOURCE: "Punko Panza," in New Republic, May 4, 1987, pp. 38-41.

[In the following review, Van Leer discusses the form, content, and literary intent of Don Quixote.]

It was only a matter of time before the postmodernists got around to rewriting Don Quixote. In their attack on modernism's lingering romanticism and cultural elitism, Cervantes's novel has taken on a privileged status. Perhaps as a very early novel, the work seems uncorrupted by that cultural accumulation glorified as "the literary tradition." Or as a Spanish work, it seems an alternative to the mainstream of English, French, and German literature. Or in the very quixotism of its ironic quest, it seems the perfect vehicle for anti-essentialist criticisms of absolutes such as "self" and "presence" that modernism left unchallenged. For whatever reason, Don Quixote has become the inevitable starting point of postmodernist literature. Nabokov made it the center of a lecture series. Borges imagined as his prototypical metafictionist an author who in the 20th century rewrites Cervantes's novel verbatim. And Robert Coover actually began such a project with the Cervantesque "prologue" placed midway through his collection of "fictions" Pricksongs and Descants.

Nor is it surprising that Kathy Acker should be the author to assume the role of neo-Cervantes. Combining the high rebelliousness of postmodernism with the low rebelliousness of punk, Acker's preferred method in her novels is, to use her own term, "plagiaristic." She moves at random through a wide range of borrowed voices, from the Latin poets to Patti Smith and the modern French feminists. Her novels are often (at least on their title pages) pseudonymous, claiming to be written by their protagonists—"The Black Tarantula," "Henri Toulouse Lautrec," "Pier Paolo Pasolini." Even Acker's two previous books, though published under her own name, bury authorial identity under a host of borrowings. Blood and Guts in High School draws extensively on Hawthorne and Genet (as well as on a Persian grammar book), while the ironically titled Great Expectations, after an initial nod to Dickens, proceeds in a most un-Dickensian way in imitation of Mme de Lafayette, Keats, Melville, Propertius, and various French pornographers.

Acker's Don Quixote grows out of her previous "plagiarisms," particularly Great Expectations, grafting its author's feminism onto a more traditional denial of the mimetic character of literature. While maintaining a basic allegiance to the Spanish original, Acker superimposes on Cervantes voices borrowed from Biely, Moravia, Shaw, Wedekind, and Céline, peppering these with passing echoes from Shakespeare, Brontë, Dante, Duran Duran, and numerous historians, pornographers, and Marxist theorists. Here is a sample of the style, from a section titled "The Selling of Lulu" (but imitating Pygmalion), in which Schön/Higgins tries to persuade Lulu/Eliza to be his guinea pig:

Schön: By George, the streets will be strewn with the bodies of men shooting themselves for your sake before I've done with you…. Think of this: You shall marry a socialist politician who controls the arts. His father, who's a conservative member of Parliament, disinherits him for marrying you. But when he finally realizes your exquisite beauty, your fine manners, your dinner parties, his Lordship….

Lulu: Shit.

Schön: What?

Lulu: Shit. I gotta shit.

Schön: Oh. If you are naughty, and idle, you will sleep in the kitchen among the black widow spiders and be hit by my chauffeur with his huge car rod.

Acker's Quixote is a woman who in the midst of an abortion "conceives" her mission: a quest for love in its full unrealizable insanity. After her Sancho Panza, an androgynous character called St Simeon, leaves early in the novel, Quixote's general quest is transformed into the specific attempt to find this lost friend—who has perhaps been transformed into one of the many tale-telling dogs she meets during her travels. Dying due to a loss of faith in humanity less than a fifth of the way through the novel, Quixote is, in the long second section called "Other Texts," robbed of her own speech, and thus reduced to a condition in which "all she could do was read male texts which weren't hers." In the third and final section, Quixote regains her voice and travels to Nixonian America to continue the search for St Simeon. After more lectures on politics and sexuality, for which Quixote serves largely as silent audience, the novel ends in a double vision of despair. Killed once more by a loss of faith, Quixote dreams that God "Him- or Herself" denies the possibility of meaning: "There are no more stories, no more tracks, no more memories: there is you, knight. Since I am no more, forget Me. Forget morality. Forget about saving the world. Make Me up." Reborn a final time, Quixote discovers before her, like Eve at the end of Paradise Lost, a world of presence and possibility. But this hope may itself be delusory, and Quixote only awakening to another dream.

This non-narrative is presented as a collage. The sections, themselves divided into many shorter subsections, are interrupted by graphics, plays, letters, poems (in English and Latin), historical analyses, literary paraphrases, and Marxist critiques. Chronology is abandoned: Thomas Hobbes aborts the lovemaking of Mr. and Mrs. Nixon by arguing with Puerto Rican tenants, and Quixote's quest for St Simeon stands still while an unidentified voice supports Prince for President. Nor is there a unified theme. The book attacks everything from sexual stereotyping to high rents in the Village. And, as everywhere in Acker's work, this vision of chaos is glimpsed through a patina of violence and degrading sex.

Still, the novel! is not just an exercise in neo-Dadaist high jinks. Although the book's content is self-consciously trivial, its politics of mockery is serious indeed. Experimental fiction of the 1960s reduced all cultural signs, high-brow and low, to the same level—what Donald Barthelme called "the trash phenomenon." Post-modernists of the '80s feel this reduction to be politically irresponsible, and Acker intends, in her references to pop culture and historical events, not to trivialize tradition but to overturn it. The idea is to correct the ahistorical aestheticism of the postmodernist fascination with cultural images by giving those images some political content: she wants to show how they have functioned to restrict human possibility—how they have sent messages that are ethnocentric, anti-feminist, or whatever. But at the same time she wants to avoid the received version of cultural history; to regard history as a linear progression—from Washington to Reagan, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf—is simply to reinforce society's own self-serving account of its past. Thus, in Acker's work, randomness—discontinuity and anachronism—is meant to guard against the danger of celebrating tradition in a vacuum. The problem, of course, is that one mélange of cultural signifiers looks pretty much like another. It is not that easy to tell politically informed anachronism, as in Don Quixote, from politically mindless eclecticism, as in Philip Johnson's disembodied Chippendale scrolls floating above the skyline.

Since the conventionality of language is understood to make all writing a political act, controlled not by a single narrative voice or author (vestiges of that discredited fiction, the "self") but by the "power structure," plagiarism is the most innocent form of writing. As Acker puts the matter in Blood and Guts: "All culture stinks and there's no reason to make new culture-stink." So in this novel, with the breakdown of social coherence, her knight (now "night") ends in "mourning": "I wanted to find a meaning or myth or language that was mine," she says," rather than those which try to control me; but language is communal and here is no community."

The real problem for Acker is less history or literature than the false notion of individualism that she sees as underwriting them. Denying the romantic model of the poet as individual, original genius, Acker offers a model of art that is … Arabian:

Unlike American and Western culture (generally), the Arabs (in their culture) have no (concept of) originality. That is, culture. They write new stories paint new pictures et cetera only by embellishing old stories pictures … They write by cutting chunks out of all-ready written texts and in other ways defacing traditions: changing important names into silly ones, making dirty jokes out of matters that should be of the utmost importance to us such as nuclear warfare.

And as a replacement for this exploded fiction of "original genius," Acker poses Woman—the eternal Other who has been historically denied her independent voice by a power structure that is exclusively male.

It is easy enough to understand the intellectual and political point that Acker would make, and to recognize its source in the philosophical skepticism associated with French poststructuralism, especially deconstruction. Post-structuralism began the business of dismantling the concepts of "history," "nature," "self"; deconstruction continued the job by showing language—even the language of people who want to criticize social arrangements—to be itself simply the product and reinforcer of existing power relations. But it is hard not to feel with this, her eighth novel, that Acker's method and message are both wearing thin. Lacking the exhilarating experimentation of Blood and Guts and the manic lyricism of Great Expectations, Don Quixote seems somehow familiar, and predictable. Given the political heat the novel generates, it is more than slightly ironic that Acker shows so little interest in the culture whose masterpiece she too quickly makes the vehicle of a patently Franglo-American intellectual debate. Nor does the conflation of feminism and deconstruction seem politically effective. At best the identification of Woman as Other recreates the very Romantic model of the exiled prophet that attacks on the self are meant to undermine: we have merely exchanged Jeremiah for Cassandra. At worst the mythologizing of Woman as Outcast implies that sexual discrimination is not a political act, specific to certain times and cultures, but a necessary and inevitable aspect of Womanhood. Thus good literature would make for bad politics.

Finally one wonders if the whole attack on the self makes philosophical sense. Even if the idea of individualism, and the excesses to which that idea has contributed in Western culture since Romanticism, really is so dangerous as to be best discarded, the postmodern form of this rejection is fraught with its own contradiction. For in the end, the attack on the self subtly affirms what it would deny. Fragmenting or plagiarizing the narrative voice does not "deconstruct" the self. It only refocuses attention where Acker least wishes it—back on the author. Certainly, as all the blurbs tell us, Acker's own voice is "unique." It may be a pseudonym, but it is never anonymous.

Maybe the trouble is much simpler indeed. Whatever they think of the matter as a philosophical problem, all—from Hume and Emerson to Noël Coward and Miss Manners—agree that self-examination makes for dull conversation. It is hard not to hear attacks on the self as inverted egotism, as a last cry of the Byronic soul for attention. Between the analysand trying to define his personal space and the postmodernist trying to deconstruct it, there does not seem to be much to choose. Even if Foucault was right to predict that individualism is a concept written in sand, to be washed away by the next historical wave, that is no reason for postmodernism's endless up dates on the state of the psychic continental shelf.

Aleka Chase (review date July 1987)

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SOURCE: "Breaking Patriarchal Myths," in New Directions for Women, Vol. 16, No. 4, July, 1987, p. 18.

[Below, Chase provides a favorable review of Don Quixote.]

Kathy Acker's Don Quixote is a witty, irreverent and pained collage that explores a woman's search for identify and sexual love, exposing patriarchal myths and institutions in the process. In this story Don Quixote is a contemporary woman, a knight whose adventures take her, as she recovers from an abortion, through landscapes of geography and psyche. In predatory, nihilistic New York and London former lovers are remembered, dogs become people of indistinct or changing gender, American history is rewritten and transformed with little conventional narrative and no plot, much dialogue and many stories within stories. Through it all Acker mocks, questions and breaks apart conventions of gender, sexuality and power.

The book focuses on sexual love, power and violence and the chasm that separates women's experiences and desires from those of men. It addresses the violence that men do to women and that women do to themselves because of men. It makes parallels between sexual and other violence; it equates maleness with war and destruction. It explores the connections between sexuality and identity and women's search for sexual relationships outside the power relations offered to them. There's a lot of sadomasochism in the book, with an attempt to understand it through grappling with the intense, conflicting emotions and relationships it involves. Acker discusses the conditions of love—usually involving a sacrificing of freedom—and of being a victim—that is, not being loved.

This is a dense, complex, intellectual book, full of observations from many disciplines—sociology, political science, economics, semiotics—with Acker's own redefinitions tossed in.

Acker also intersperses bits of feminist theory throughout the book in an often funny, always accessible, and sometimes too pointed manner. A subheading for the second part of the novel reads: "Being born into and part of a male world, she had no speech of her own. All she could do was read male texts which weren't hers." Part of me applauds this as instructive to initiates of feminist theory, while another part feels preached at and condescended to: The entire book is clearly about reacting against male texts and the statement of the obvious is somewhat insulting to the reader's intelligence.

The subject of abortion, which opens the story, tends to be suspect in women's writing. Much recent fiction by women has focused on the intense guilt and depression women experience after having an abortion; and their inability to find any subsequent meaning in their lives. Some of these stories read almost like "Right-to-Life" pamphlets. Fortunately, Acker treats the matter more broadly. Abortion becomes representative of women's ultimate aloneness and betrayal in love. Don Quixote asks herself, "Why do I have to love someone in order to love? Hasn't loving a man brought me to this abortion or state of death?" The abortion seems to be detached from circumstance; her friend and presumed lover asks "Who caused the abortion?" No one claims responsibility for or connection to her pregnancy, and no friend or lover consoles her after its termination.

Going beyond the contrast of intimacy and aloneness, love and betrayal, Acker metaphorizes abortion as well. Toward the end of the book Don Quixote says: "So I am a mass of dreams, desires which, since I can no longer express them, are fetuses beyond their time, not even abortions. For I can't get rid of unborn dreams, whereas women can get rid of unwanted children."

Accessible Though Off-Beat

Don Quixote is structurally and syntactically quirky, off-beat enough to remind us that Acker is deliberately questioning and reforming grammar and language, yet it's accessible. It does get tedious in places, and many of the word plays (night/knight, mourning/morning, eye/I) seem clever to no real purpose. But overall the language and structure reiterate the book's intent.

Don Quixote—as the title itself makes clear—is engaged in breaking that control by breaking apart patriarchal myths and language. Everything that happens or is said in the book reinforces this. Don Quixote voices what Acker moves toward: "I wanted to find a meaning of myth or language that was mine, rather than those which try to control me."

Michiko Kakutani (review date 30 December 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of Literal Madness, in The New York Times, December 30, 1987, p. C20.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers a tempered critical evaluation of Literal Madness.]

In such previous books as Great Expectations (1984) and Don Quixote (1986), Kathy Acker not only set out to work variations on classic literary texts, but also to subvert all of our traditional expectations concerning causality, narrative form and moral sensibility. The effect is like reading William S. Burroughs while watching an avant-garde theater group perform to the sounds of a punk band—if you happen to like that sort of thing. Characters exchange identities with the ease of snakes shedding skins; and bits of myths, folk tales and older novels also turn up transformed—juxtaposed, in a sort of post-modernist collage, with political screeds, dream-like hallucinations and strange, comic exchanges. The language is nervous and skewed; the authorial stance, adversarial and abrasive; the world view, cynical verging on the nihilistic.

Given these attitudes and techniques, one can see why Ms. Acker must have felt an affinity with Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian film maker, poet and novelist who was murdered in 1975. Pasolini defined himself as a "pasticheur"—someone who plucked themes, ideas and styles from a variety of sources; and his work (including his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew) frequently served as a commentary of sorts on older stories and legends. His last movie Salo; 120 Days of Sodom translated the Marquis de Sade's novel to Fascist Italy, and in doing so created a bleak, thoroughly repugnant picture of a dehumanized society in which power and authority remain the sole medium of exchange.

This view, which seems compatible enough with Ms. Acker's own angry vision of society, is developed at considerable length in the centerpiece of this volume, My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Narrated at least in part by the film maker himself (whom Ms. Acker has resurrected in order that he may conduct an inquiry into his own death), the novel features a host of characters who share a nihilistic despair. Like their counterparts in Ms. Acker's Don Quixote, these people have come to believe that love and romance are simply euphemisms for sex, and that sex is less an expression of passion than another instrument of domination in an eternal war for power and control.

Indeed this is a world where "the tyrant takes whatever he wants," a world where "the pig struts into the bedroom and eats the child in the cradle" and "madness goes everywhere." Beliefs are revealed here to be no more than illusions; morality is replaced by random chance, and language itself becomes a meaningless tool of deception.

When Ms. Acker sticks vaguely to Pasolini's story and his philosophic concerns, her narrative possesses an energy and drive that derive in large measure from the confluence between the film maker's ideas and her own. Much of the time, however, My Death My Life simply seems like a hodgepodge of verbal and metaphysical riffs—some are cleverly executed; others are pretentious, poorly written and grossly sensationalistic in an adolescent sort of way. Whereas the structure of the quest lent Don Quixote a semblance of order, this novel ends up devolving into a seemingly random collection of set pieces, including intermittently funny parodies of Hamlet, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice; a series of obscene letters from Emily Bronte to her sister Charlotte, and a mini-drama starring Robespierre and Danton.

As for the other "novels" in this volume, Florida is really no more than a one-joke short story based on characters from the movie Key Largo, and Kathy Goes to Haiti is mainly of interest as an early example of Ms. Acker's fiction. Written in 1978 and published previously in a limited small-press edition, Haiti demonstrates few of the author's experimental techniques; rather, it stands as a fairly conventionally told story about a girl named Kathy, who visits Haiti and becomes involved with the son of a wealthy plantation owner.

Many of the author's favorite themes though are already in evidence; a preoccupation with the fallout of love and sex, and the war between men and women; and a need to come to terms with an absent mother and father. Like later Acker heroines, Kathy is a disillusioned romantic—a woman who's been brought up on the ideals of love, but who's been hurt or deceived so many times that she now equates love with obsession. "Someday," she thinks, "there'll have to be a new world. A new kind of woman. Or a new world for women because the world we perceive, what we perceive, causes our characteristics."

All the men in this story emerge as stereotyped cads—male chauvinist pigs, who see women as whores, disposable objects to be used and abused. They are caricatured to such a degree that any feminist message on the part of the author is thoroughly obscured. Similarly, the graphic sex scenes, which are presumably meant as a comment on men's exploitation of women, are so numerous and repetitious that they simply end up reinforcing the notion that pornography ultimately numbs the reader to the point of becoming frigid or impotent.

From time to time, Kathy lets her ferocious defense system down to show us a touching vulnerability. At such moments, the tension between her real feelings and her behavior is revealed, and we feel an old-fashioned (and, in Ms. Acker's view, probably unfashionable) sympathy for her plight.

James R. Frakes (review date 17 January 1988)

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SOURCE: "Ooh Ooh. And Then Again, Ah Ah," in The New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1988, p. 14.

[In the following review, Frakes offers a generally unfavorable assessment of Literal Madness.]

In order to set the mood for this collection of three novels, let's begin with some key statements from My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini: "Language is more important than meaning…. Burn the schools. They teach you about good writing. That's a way of keeping you from writing what you want to." "I like this sentence cause it's stupid." "Language is making me sick." Shall we dance? The program is announced early. "I, Pier Paolo Pasolini, will solve my murder by denying the principle of causation and by proposing nominalism." The few subsequent references to this quest include: "(Pasolini died by suicide.)" and "The British killed Pasolini in order to keep control of their Empire."

Otherwise we novelty-famished readers are treated by Kathy Acker—whose previous novels include Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School and Don Quixote—to calculatedly disconcerting pastiches of Dickens, Melville, Woolf, Joyce, the Brontes, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Shakespeare (Macbeth as an interminable I.R.A.-vs-England farce, and a Hamlet in which "All these characters stink and have lousy motivations"). We are also reminded (for better or worse) of William Burroughs, Gilbert Sorrentino, Robert Coover, Gertrude Stein, Ring Lardner (his marvelous nonsense plays) and a very corrupt Pee-wee Herman.

Kathy Acker's lilting leitmotifs include unwanted runaway children, suicidal mothers, incest, transsexualism, violence ("Why am I violent? Because I like violence"), as well as the President and AIDS ("President Reagan's using AIDS to control the American populace," or, as Shakespeare's Portia explains it, "Doctors aren't civil: they're murderers. By inventing penicillin, they've caused AIDS"). Many styles are at uncivil war, from hip put-downs to banalities. One gripping paragraph consists of 31 repetitions of the word "On"—at least it sounds affirmative. Judge not, trapped reader, for the narrator advises that if you just let what is be what is and stop judging, you'll always be happy. Content yourself with the funky penguin who recites the plot of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil.

In Cole Porter's song "Katie Went to Haiti," the result was that practically all Haiti knew/had/made Katie. Ms. Acker's Kathy undergoes similar experiences: "The first day I was in Port-au-Prince, I got seven marriage proposals, not to mention the other propositions." Originally published in 1978 in a small press edition, Kathy Goes to Haiti should be subtitled "And Has Dysentery and Lots and Lots of Sex." Kathy, a writer from New York, admits she's "kind of weird" and is occasionally rough on herself: "You're a demented abortion on God's earth … all of you is one mass of squirming and totally disgusting worms that squirm against each other hate each other."

Time is not only very very slow in Haiti, but, as the Haitians tell Kathy, "The people … are all gentle and good" and "There's no violence in Haiti. Anybody can do anything they want." Kathy does, however, try to give her main tireless stud, Roger, lessons in social justice in the midst of the most graphically pornographic and stunningly dull sex passages—a juxtaposition that I find one of the few comic touches in all three works, even if not redemptive. I'm at a puritanical disadvantage for a reviewer in not being able to cite much of the dialogue except maybe "Ooh. Ooh. Ah. Ah," with such elegant variations as "ahaah" and "ooooh."

Some of the extended scenes have the pace and obscurity of fever dreams. But at what faint point does deliberate tedium stop filming over your consciousness and start pulsing alarms, as in the work of Harold Pinter for instance? Not, I fear, in Kathy Acker, although her grim descriptions of Haitian slums and a voodoo con game threaten to do so.

Florida may be the best "novel" of the three, since it's only 14 pages long. A spooky sendup of John Huston's Key Largo, it does feature the Claire Trevor character but, sad to say, without her pathetic rendition of "Moanin Low." The Lauren Bacall character goes on like this. "When I was two years old, I refused to drink milk. My parents … were scared I was going to die. My father started to take a camera apart. Only when he started to break the camera, would I drink the milk." Is language making as all sick? I usually admire risk-taking and convention-flouting in fiction—when the rebellious gestures work. Not many work here. As the critic Robert Scholes has put it, "It is only in literature that all experiments are deemed worthy of publication."

R. H. W. Dillard (review date 16 October 1988)

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SOURCE: "Lesson No. 1: Eat Your Mind," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1988, pp. 9, 11.

[In the following review, Dillard offers a favorable assessment of Empire of the Senseless.]

In Kathy Acker's novel My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, she made the suggestion that "everything in the novel exists for meaning. Like hippy acid rock. All this meaning is the evil, so I want to go back to those first English novels: Smollett, Fielding, Sterne: novels based on jokes or just that are."

Ms. Acker's new novel, Empire of the Senseless, which her publisher describes tentatively and hopefully as her "most accessible novel to date," is in many ways directly related to those 18th-century novels and the even earlier ones of Defoe. In it, Thivai, a would-be pirate, sets forth on a quest, guided only by this code: "GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND." He and his female partner, Abhor, a "construct" who is part human and part robot, explore the chaotic and dangerous world of an apparently near future, one cluttered with the dead and deadly artifacts and ideas of our culture. They are looking for the drug Thivai requires, for love, for some kind of freedom and even for their maker—or at least a construct named Kathy ("That's a nice name. Who is she?"). They are, above all, forcing the reader to look at the question of meaning with the intensity of a Wittgenstein and the double vision of someone who has just suffered a severe metaphysical concussion.

"The demand for an adequate mode of expression is senseless," Abhor decides at one point. And appropriately—in the light of the paradoxical nature of this complex, high-speed, intensely intellectual, intensely offensive, post-modernist, pained and painful, punk, fantastic, fictional construct and elaborate tattoo of a novel—she adds, "Then why is there this searching for an adequate mode of expression?"

One way to look at the novels of Kathy Acker in general and this one in particular is to see them all as the log of her almost desperate search for an "adequate mode of expression" for a time and a world whose center will not only not hold, but hasn't been able to hold her so long that the very idea of a center seems itself to the absurd. Even as she denies the legitimacy of the struggle, she wrestles in her work as directly as any writer has ever done with the actual language of literature. Distrusting it almost completely, but nevertheless completely dependent on it, she attacks it, twists it, deconstructs it and distorts the cultural values implicit in its structures, seeking always to make a literature "which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified."

The first of her novels to make a mark on the American literary scene (at least above ground), Blood and Guts in High School, seemed in 1984 to be the work of a comic, foulmouthed, punk William Blake (complete with startling pictures rendered by the author), attempting a shotgun wedding of heaven and hell designed to turn contemporary literary consciousness inside out as well as upside down. But the brilliantly difficult language and form of My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which appeared in the same year in England, gave stronger evidence of the seriousness of Ms. Acker's purpose, even to doubters who felt she was being read and admired only by those excited by the idea that a woman could talk as dirty as a man.

Ms. Acker tipped her hat appropriately in My Death My Life to Gertrude Stein, another celebrated (and celebrity) writer whose work attempted to take literary language (and language itself) apart at the seams and reconstruct it for new, revolutionary purposes. It was Stein, remember, who in "Tender Buttons" (1914) uttered the imperative, "Act so that there is no use in a center." And it was the linguistic act that she meant.

Kathy Acker has taken up Gertrude Stein's challenge, uniting radical form and forbidden language in a slashing and subversive literature that attempts at least to make it possible to live without a center in the empire of the senseless. The books that have resulted from her efforts have proven as difficult and disordered as the mad world from which they spring: a rock 'n' roll version of "The Critique of Pure Reason" by the Marquis de Sade as performed by the Three Stooges.

Empire of the Senseless takes place at some time in the future and, as its many references to Ronald Reagan and yuppies and multinational corporations indicate, now. It describes a world in which the "rich who have suicided in life are taking us, the whole human world, as if they love us, into death." It is a senseless world, one in which "imagination was both a dead business and the only business left to the dead." It as populated by pirates and mad doctors, bikers and sailors, whores and terrorists, and Algerian revolutionaries who take over a decadent and helpless Paris at the very time the C.I.A. is attempting to take advantage of their revolution. "In such a world which was non-reality," Thivai concludes, "terrorism made a lot of sense."

He and Abhor set forth on their odyssey, veering radically through geography, history and politics as well as the fragmented pages of literature. Ms. Acker's equation of blacks, women and all oppressed (and repressed) people takes on narrative substance as Thivai and Abhor repeat and transform the closing scene of Josef von Sternberg's "Morocco" and enter for a time the pages of the "Thousand and One Nights." The very funny and brilliant penultimate section of the novel is a retelling of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," with Thivai and a brutal biker appropriately named Mark taking the roles of Huck and Tom as they abuse the imprisoned Abhor (Jim) with their absurd attempts to free her.

Finally Abhor takes her life and the novel out of men's hands and into her own as she writes her own story; her hilarious attempts to understand and act upon a driver's manual, "The Highway Code," bring both her odyssey and Ms. Acker's dissection of the meaning of language to an end. That end is not a rational conclusion but a visual emblem, a tattoo design, Abhor's portrait of herself: a dagger driven through a rose, with the motto "Discipline and Anarchy." That paradoxical design sums up Abhor's quest for herself, but it also stands as an emblem for Ms. Acker's dilemma as a radical artist forced by her yearning for freedom to reject and subvert the constraints of the patriarchal language of the tribe, yet forced by her need for an "adequate mode of expression" to use the very language she rejects.

Empire of the Senseless is a difficult and upsetting novel, one that insults and may even injure its readers. But they will not be disappointed by it, and they will learn, as Thivai does in the novel, that, "In an unreasonable world, reason isn't reasonable." And that in such a world, the most reasonable and meaningful novels may well be, like this one, "based on jokes or just that are."

Roz Kaveney (review date 19-25 May 1989)

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SOURCE: "Darkness on the Edge of the Text," in Times Literary Supplement, May 19-25, 1989, p. 536.

[In the following review, Kaveney assesses Young Lust.]

It is impossible to read in a way that is not implicitly political; but the methods of Kathy Acker's fictions aim to make possible radical readings, avoiding the closed and the directive, the authoritarian gestures that would seem paradoxical in texts that celebrate the aspiration to freedom and variety. The novellas included in Young Lust are early work; in them Acker feints at a number of styles without definitely opting for any one. Kathy Goes to Haiti is both an exercise in genre pornography and a deconstructive parody of it, in which the sheer tedium of a life lived for sexual gratification alone is spelled out in some detail—though the story itself does not ever quite become boring; it is also an exercise in structure, in which chapters at opposite ends of the text quote, reflect and fold into each other. Acker also engages in some savagely misandric satire on the way the constantly tumescent males of a pulp porno novel talk in the cliches of the singles-bar pickup; the Haiti of this novel is in large measure a piece of scenery with the wires and struts showing—this is how people are anywhere, if you choose to notice them acting this way.

Yet there is more going on than schematic games. Pages of conversation with Betty, the wife of the rich stud Roger, force us to realize that there is life inside the bored masks, even if it is a form of life which thinks John Fowles a profound novelist; and occasional hints at the realities of a Haiti which is not the subject of pulp fiction save the book and the reader from irresponsible exoticism. The final "obligatory" scene of local colour with the voodoo soothsayer conveys a sense that there are depths and mysteries which this mode of fiction chooses not to engage with rather than ignores. Sex lacks mystery here, a matter of exclamations and ejaculations and instruction-book procedures, but there is darkness beyond the edges of the text.

Florida improvises an accomplished set of variations on characters and themes from the film Key Largo; it moves between voices in a way that can only confuse the inattentive, but in doing so makes a serious point about the interchangeable nature of female identity in a world dominated by men. It is one of the most conventional things Acker has ever done; and it disposes for good of the imputation that she works in experimental modes from lack of talent rather than serious-minded choice.

The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec is a set of exercises with identity and genre that adds up to more than one expects when reading it. A place that is neither the New York City of punk days nor the Paris of the belle époque provides the setting for a series of couplings and deaths; film stars and gangsters move past each other's lives, and both are mere masks for discontented young artists. Amid the arrogantly displayed lack of affect is a scathing attack on Henry Kissinger; the refusal of good manners which Acker describes in her preface as "writing as badly as possible" is a slap in the face of American letters, an avoidance of the Cool which makes one an accomplice.

Douglas Shields Dix (essay date Fall 1989)

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SOURCE: "Kathy Acker's Don Quixote: Nomad Writing," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 56-62.

[In the following essay, Dix examines nomadism, revolutionary subversion, and the possibility of personal affirmation and social transformation as portrayed by Acker in Don Quixote.]

"This is the time to escape."

"The sexual is the political realm."

By loving another person, she would right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong: she would put herself in those situations so perilous the glory of her name would resound.

Kathy Acker's Don Quixote is on a quest: she sets out to perform the now almost impossible act of loving another person; however, she realizes that this can occur only by changing the nature of our society. To make love possible, she must create the necessary conditions for mutual human respect and love to exist (acceptance of the other, of the other within oneself, of "otherness"). But what revolutionary method should she adopt for her quest? It is clear from the first section of Don Quixote that Acker rejects standard conceptions of revolutionary transformation. If we are to escape, we must become schizoid—we must become what the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari term "nomads," for only then do we initiate the movements necessary to escape from those parts of ourselves determined by this society. In a society where materialistic, hyper-rational, capitalist instrumentalism reigns, love is nearly impossible, affect is nearly impossible, consequently, love is subversive. My intention is to bring into conjunction the thought of Deleuze and Guattari (hereafter D & G) and the fiction of Kathy Acker, in order to explore the possibility of what I will term, after D & G, the literary "war machine"—a machine that takes upon itself the process of escape.

A realization of the flux of identity is the first step in this process. As a schizo, or nomad, Don Quixote is (must be) unaffiliated with any revolutionary group—she rejects their methodologies because such groups, in the process of setting themselves up as groups, directly risk recuperation by the bureaucratic or state apparatus. The lines of flight created by their revolutionary activities become caught up in the segmented lines of the socius, as soon as any attempt is made to gain, direct, and maintain power. Acker parodies precisely these problems in the first section of her book; as she suffers from an infection caused by her abortion, her friends—a leftist, a liberal, a feminist—discuss methods of revolution over her prostrate body. In all these portraits, Acker is revealing the tendency of any revolutionary group to fall into the hegemonic practices it is combating—a problem created by the need to maintain a group identity through codes of behavior and "politically correct" thought. The need for this apparatus recreates new segmentations to replace the old, and consequently recreates new forms of limitation and oppression.

Unlike these opposition groups, Acker grounds her own revolutionary force directly in her feeling, or affect. As D & G might see her, she is embarking on a nomadic line of flight, attempting to break out of the social segmentations of her society through her own molecular becomings; in short, Acker sees the connection between the personal and the political, and sees that to escape the rigid segmentations she must remap the lines of her own body through the intensities of her affects. The intense subjectivity of Acker's prose is itself a weapon of becoming: rather than allowing herself to be identified on the molar level as a member of a group, she subverts these segmentations through her intense emotion, the intense suffering that she expresses as a result of the pain the various social/political assemblages are causing her. This line of flight is a pure scream that exceeds any possibility of recuperation through rationality ("The only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense"). Acker forces her body to undergo such becomings as a way to overload her own social encodings—reaching a point of excess where the intense becoming of her molecular organization breaks through, via a line of flight, to the outside. The affective intensity of this process—a process that reaches beyond such terms of affect as "love" or "sexuality" (terms already too segmented to be utilized without caution), breaks through not only social codings, but also genetic codings, resulting in a "sickness" ("Real love is sick. I could love death"). This explosively uncontainable force is the fuel for her transformation, for it is a force that cannot be overtaken by the bureaucratic apparatus.

Any segmentation at all implies a binary structure, and any binary structure implies hierarchy. The history of women that Acker explores (HISTORY AND WOMEN) is the segmented entrapment of women in a hierarchical power relation to men; however, there is a possibility of moving beyond these segmentations: "'It's not history, which is actuality, but history's opposite, death, which shows us that women are nothing and everything.' Having found the answer to her problem, Don Quixote shut up for a moment."

Death is history's opposite because it represents the outside, the void, the absence of the values that have created history to begin with. In the war between the genders that makes up this history, the alternatives seem to be to join the social order or to be annihilated by daring to step outside it ("So either a woman is dead or she dies"). Confronted with the repressive power of the social assemblages, Don Quixote is forced to capitulate to the social norm—namely, in the form of MARRIAGE ("Worse than being shit and dead, Don Quixote knew she was no longer a knight but shit and dead, that is, normal. Better to be a businessman").

The result is the failure of her quest—her line of flight is captured and normalized, and her own molecular affect is used against her: the molar segmentation of marriage has "killed her," insofar as it has stifled her becomings to the point where she must exist, if she is to exist at all, outside the socius. Being segmented, being brought back in line with the socius, is DEATH, in that the molecular level of the individual is staticized into a frozen form of socialized (molar) being. Facing the choice between being dead and dying, Don Quixote chooses to die, which is not to say that she is dead: she is dead to the social order (to whom she may as well be dead, as well as anyone else who does not fit inside the norm), in that she has moved to the outside, where she faces the risk of actual death or madness.

Although the first part of the book ends with the "death" of Don Quixote, another line of flight emerges, a line of flight centered on a particular kind of writing—a writing of destruction. The second part of Don Quixote exhibits this writing of destruction, displaying its mechanism immediately in the subtitle of the chapter:


The first technique is to take texts from the canon of Western literature and to deconstruct them so that she is able to extenuate parodically their politically salient characteristics, simultaneously opening up the host text to the "outside" of her own social field, and opening up her own text to the outside of the aesthetic/historical fields. She has chosen texts that already have a capacity to serve as war machines: Andrei Biely's Petersburg (and the poems of Catullus), Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Godzilla movies, and Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays, to name a few of the more obvious ones. As she indicates, these are "male texts" that to some degree have gone very far in attempting to open themselves up to the outside, but have much further to go in the process of "becoming woman."

Acker's second technique is to place "on the same sheet" with these deconstructed texts her own intensely subjective experiences. However, Acker holds no illusions about individual identity or the self. The function of these subjectivities is not the representation of feeling, but the utilization of affect as a weapon of the war machine. This is why Acker's emotional representations have such an intensity: her affects—expressions of anger, rage, grief, suffering, and pleasure—are nomadic weapons that reach beyond her own introceptive feelings; they explode out of her interior onto the plane of exteriority that is this text, representing her becomings and velocities as she traverses the various social, political, historical, and aesthetic fields of our society. Her writing "refuses"—destroys—by deconstructing the binary distinction between interior and exterior, self and society, subjective and objective, the personal and the political.

This deconstructive section of the novel ends with the hope that she might be able to locate other nomads who have moved beyond the limits of social segmentations ("Now I must find others who are, like me, pirates journeying from place to place, who knowing only change and the true responsibilities that come from such knowing sing to and with each other"). The last section continues the process of escape in still more complex directions.


"Where shall I go?" Don Quixote, wandering, woofed questioningly to nobody. "Is anywhere in this world of despair, this post-war endo-colonization, somewhere?"

In the third section of the novel, Don Quixote attempts to confront the "evil enchanters" who are responsible for the current social situation ("'As soon as we all stop being enchanted,' Don Quixote explained, 'human love'll again be possible'"). Much of this section is a search for a revolutionary method that does not fall into the traps of power.

Acker's analysis is very incisive: she sees the contradictions behind the claims of the "land of opportunity," as well as how America deploys its values in such a way that increasingly fewer people can direct their complaints at the system itself. As the Angel of Death explains to Nixon: "The only English (or language) is despair. Americans don't even bother to bark anymore. The only way Americans can now communicate is pain. Most of them don't dare."

Don Quixote must admit finally that nothing has changed since the beginning of her quest. The other dogs question her motives ("So how can you, a member of the elite, destroy the elite? Why do you want to save the world? To throw it to the dogs you're drawing away from? Are you mindless, or an idealist?"), and another dog explains that her "maddest characteristic is that you take your madness so seriously. No one gives a shit about what you do, night. Why don't you just have some fun?" Her response is her despair: "I've lost my beliefs. I've nothing left. I can't get married. I'll have to make myself into something."

In her despair, Don Quixote connects herself to a dog, who explains to her its experience of HETEROSEXUALITY, another segmentation that has entrapped Don Quixote. She learns that what happens on the individual level is connected directly to what happens on a wider, political level: they each end up practicing the oppression they wish to escape, just as revolutions end up being caught up in the bureaucratic apparatus ("'All stories or narratives,' the dog barked, 'being stories of revolt, are revolt'").

Don Quixote realizes that revolution begins with the revolution against parents—parents as agents of social control and normalization. No longer can a split be made between the psychological and the political, so that the reactionary can explain away revolutionary fervor as simply a child's response to his/her parents: the interior is the exterior, so that the familial structure is the site of the implementation of society's norms and values.

In "Reading: I Dream My Schooling," a new type of learning is envisioned, based on the possibility of human connection, rather than a destruction of the other caused by normalization. This learning process begins with the body: rather than subjecting the other to one's own point of view—the endpoint of rationality (an endpoint that results in sadism, the text Acker reads "through" in this section), the students are taught to understand their own experience of pleasure. While Don Quixote does find value in this vision ("… the knight decided she preferred the fictional dog school to the ratty girls' school she had had to attend when she was a girl"), she herself has already reached a dangerous edge on her own line of flight.

Don Quixote is on the edge of the abyss, for she realizes that her stance as a revolutionary has brought her to a place where she is trapped by her own desires to change reality into something better:

There's no way out of any appearance because an appearance is only what it is. The room was my nightmare or jail. I, a night, want to escape: I want to stop being a knight, the night, I want to escape myself.

How can I escape being? How can I do myself in?

As seen above, this is the dangerous aspect of any line of flight: on one side rests the danger of being overcome by the state apparatus, and on the other side there is the possibility of "falling off the edge," where the schizo (nomad) runs the risk of losing control of her becomings, and consequently yields herself up to either the control of others (by going "insane"), or death.

Don Quixote recognizes that this self-destruction must be avoided, for it does not lead to existential free choice or escape from determination, but rather maintains the cycle of pain she is trying to escape to begin with. What she undertakes instead is another becoming—this time a becoming that lets go of the goal-oriented idealisms of her revolutionary fervor, and replaces it with an affirmative acceptance of the night, of the irrationality and horror that go along with the joy and happiness of the day:

If I can't escape from the room by killing myself, I must be able to escape, if I can, by being happy. By embracing and believing myself, just appearances, the night. By embracing, and believing, my deepest being which is not knowing.

Therefore my vision has ended.

She comes to the realization and acceptance that she is unable to know anything for certain. What she embraces is a type of affirmative madness: Don Quixote has gone mad, and her language is the language of madness, or nomad language. It is a language based on her individual vision: it is the language of this text, which strives to communicate her reality outside of the conventions of her society—a language that breaks down all the orders, without replacing them with new orders.

We are approaching the end of the night (knight): the moment when this dream is over, and Don Quixote will face the day. Her madness will then be concluded, at least "until this book will begin again." What she comes to realize is the possibility of affirmation, even if revolution is impossible:

"It is necessary to sing, that is to be mad, because otherwise you have to live with the straights, the compromisers, the mealy-mouths, the reality-deniers, the laughter-killers. It is necessary to be mad, that is to sing, because it's not possible for a knight, or for anyone, to foray successfully against the owners of this world."

It might seem that the book closes with a failure of any transformative possibility and the death of any idealistic yearning, much in the way the original Don Quixote repents his adventures and leaves his fantasies behind him. To some extent the book does suggest the impossibility of revolution, but in this last section, it is clear that the book does not end without some sense of affirmation and the possibility of transformation. Although she cannot change the society itself in some final way, she can become a nomad, increase the velocities of her lines of flight, and disrupt the hegemonic control of the state apparatus. She can deploy the war machine that is this text, with its multiple becomings, its "mad language" ("Nomad language") which destroys the dualities between self and other, interior and exterior, individual and society, subjective and objective. By setting herself against this—by not segmenting herself in the forms given to her, but by taking on herself the lines of flight necessary to her own becomings, her own process and movement—her becomings will automatically work as a form of social transformation, for the text that contains these becomings will be a powerful war machine.

Ellen G. Friedman (essay date Fall 1989)

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SOURCE: "'Now Eat Your Mind': An Introduction to the Works of Kathy Acker," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 37-49.

[In the following essay, Friedman provides an overview of the intellectual, cultural, and literary contexts in which Acker's fiction, according to Friedman, is "designed to be jaws steadily devouring—often to readers' horror and certainly to their discomfort (which is part of the strategy)—the mindset, if not the mind of Western culture."]


      —Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless

In A 1984 Artforum article, "Models of Our Present," Kathy Acker summarizes some current models of time and knowledge in theoretical physics and applies them to personal time and personal knowing. These theories, including the principle of "local causes," quantum mechanics, and the Clauser-Freedman experiment, interrogate, according to Acker, the dominant way of knowing, the way of apprehending the world, which depends on Newtonian causal relationships. She asks, "what possible experimental model doesn't have the form, 'If I do x then x1 happens'?" She offers two alternatives, gleaned from interpretations of quantum mechanics. The first is the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which implicates the observer in the phenomenon observed: "Whenever a choice is made in the universe between one possible event and another, the universe splits into different branches." That is, "If I do x, then x1 and -x1 and … happen" (ellipsis in original). The second, also involving the observer in the observation, is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which proposes that "the model is not the reality"; "any model's utility depends on the experience of the experimenter." Both interpretations assume a non-Newtonian and relativistic model of causality. Acker's interest in these "models of our present" is clearly reflected in her fictional world, which is informed by them. It is a world filled with sets of disrupted moments over which not even discontinuity rules since Acker's texts, constructed of fragments, generally have a central persona embarked on a quest, although that persona is often metamorphic and fades in and out of the narrative. Indeed, instability and unpredictability provide a liberating context for Acker's works, all of which are profoundly political. As a character in The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula asserts, "I can see anything in a set of shifting frameworks."

Description in such a model of the present cannot be objective; rather, it is always an interpretation. This insight helps to explain the directness of Acker's fictional method. Invoking the words of the English physicist David Bohm, Acker suggests that "Description is totally incompatible with what we want to say." In this view, the link between description and the described is tenuous, if not broken. Description is neither an approximation of, nor a substitute for, the described. Acker questions the motives in describing since description is a mode of control, a way of gaining authority over the object described. She writes, "The act of describing assumes one event can be a different event: meaning dominates or controls existence. But desire—or art—is." Description interprets; it does not replicate. She illustrates her theory by asking her reader to "examine the two statements, 'Help!' and 'I need help.'" Making the point that "The first language is a cry. The second, a description," she explains, "Only the cry, art, rather than the description or criticism, is primary. The cry is stupid; it has no mirror, it communicates." In offering the emotion itself, without a description or interpretation of it, Acker attempts to bring fiction closer to unmediated experience, also thereby relinquishing authorial control over readers' reactions.

In a second Artforum example, Acker illustrates the direct engagement with (and often assault on) her readers that her fiction attempts by contrasting two images that she entitles "Past Time" and "Time Renewed":

Past Time

For Women's Wear Daily Helmut Newton photographed two women, their legs against a grand ancient city street. The women, being fashion models, are desirable and untouchable. This is that time which is separate from the observer, that time which is enclosed: time gone.

The past's over. It's an image. You can't make love to an image.

Time Renewed

Now in color: In front of an orange yellow street, female long red stockinged legs in black pumps're nudging female long blue stockinged legs in black stilt heels. Touching me. This is our time cause we're making the world. This is a description of Honey, Tell Me …, 1983, a painting by Jenny Holzer and Lady Pink.

The difference that interests Acker between these two images may be described with the distinction Roland Barthes makes between the readerly and the writerly text. "Past Time" is a readerly text: conforming to traditional codes, it is complete, closed, culturally determined. Since its function is to exhibit products, the relationship it establishes with the viewer is formal and distant. Any desire the image wells up within the viewer is formal and distant. Any desire the image wells up within the viewer must be satisfied outside the frame of the image. "Time Renewed," on the other hand, is a writerly text, experimental, open, and incomplete. The viewer is involved with the image; they are in a relationship of play. The image is erotic, suggestive, inviting the viewer into its frame. It violates cultural norms and promises danger. With its disturbing signposts—e.g., strident colors, suggestive relationship of female legs—it undermines complacency, extends to the viewer the hope of risk and ultimately self creation. As a mystery, it inspires desire for itself.


It is important to emphasize the intellectual contexts of the work of Kathy Acker because her work does not feel quite "literary," despite her frequent adaptations (appropriations, plagiarisms and cannibalisms) of literary works from Shakespeare to Beckett. Although her works are writerly, Acker eschews the rhetoric of ambiguity so valued among literary critics, particularly since the advent of modernism. Her surfaces are almost anti-literary, despite their allusiveness, deliberately assaultive and overt. She hopes to make the abstract material, physical. In Empire of the Senseless, she pleads, "It seemed to me that the body, the material, must matter. My body must matter to me." She makes explicit her treatment of the body as a desiring and desirable "text": "If my body mattered to me, and what else was any text: I could not choose to be celibate." Her works offer many justifications of this position. Through the words of her female Don Quixote, for instance, Acker proffers one explanation of her emphasis on the body: "All the accepted forms of education in this country, rather than teaching the child to know who she is or to know, dictate to the child who she is. Thus obfuscate any act of knowledge. Since these educators train the mind rather than the body, we can start with the physical body, the place of shitting, eating, etc., to break through our opinions or false education." The language of the body in Western culture is taboo, therefore not as thoroughly constructed by the cultural powers as the mind.

Thus, the body, particularly the female body, becomes the site of revolution. In this regard, Acker, perhaps more directly than many other women writers, creates the feminine texts hypothesized by Helene Cixous in essays such as "Castration or Decapitation?" Feminine writing, according to Cixous, should be rooted in the woman's experience of her body, her sexuality. In The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, Acker connects writing and sexuality in a way that Cixous would approve: "My work and my sexuality combine: here the complete sexuality occurs within, is not expressed by, the writing." Such writing creates an erotic and thus, for Acker, subversive text: "Every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of putting to question the established order of a society." Like Acker, Cixous feels that women must overthrow their education, the metalanguage of their culture, in order to really speak: "Stop learning in school that women are created to listen, to believe, to make no discoveries…. Speak of her pleasure and, God knows, she has something to say about that, so that she gets to unblock a sexuality…." The return of this repressed language of female sexuality would, according to Cixous, "'de-phallocentralize' the body, relieve man of his phallus, return him to an erogenous field and a libido that isn't stupidly organized round that monument, but appears shifting, diffused, taking on all the others of oneself." Through the delirium of her protagonist Abhor in Empire of the Senseless, Acker offers an iteration, though qualified, of Cixous's insight:

A man's power resides in his prick. That's what they, whoever they is, say. How the fuck should I know? I ain't a man. Though I'm a good fake lieutenant, it's not good enough to have a fake dick. I don't have one. Does this mean I've got no strength? If it's true that a man's prick is his strength, what and where is my power? Since I don't have one thing, a dick, I've got nothing, so my pleasure isn't any one thing, it's just pleasure. Therefore, pleasure must be pleasurable. Well, maybe I've found out something, and maybe I haven't.

For Cixous, reorganization of education to unblock female sexuality would not only expand possibilities of expression, but in revolutionizing narrative—the way we construct our world—would also transform modalities of thought. Acker, as the last sentence of the above-quoted passage suggests, is less sure of the ramifications of "de-phallocentralization," though her narratives relentlessly indict law by the phallus. Both Acker and Cixous define the obstacles in the way of such reorganization similarly. In Cixous's words, it would be "very difficult: first we have to get rid of the systems of censorship that bear down on every attempt to speak in the feminine." These systems imply not only the metalanguage of education, but all the metalanguages that direct individual and group thought and action, values and goals in Western society.

A particular system of censorship of the kind to which Cixous refers has been vigorously applied to Acker. She is a media figure in England, where she now lives, called upon to represent the interesting or evil, but definitively crazy fringe, the extreme by which the public measures its distance from the edge. Thus defined as the products of the devil or madness, or at least eccentricity, her books—as far as the public is concerned—have no authority and are thus disarmed. Applying a different system of censorship, some mainstream feminists, particularly in England, take her work seriously enough to condemn it as pornography. Since her language is often crude—not just "fuck" or "shit," but "cunt juice," for instance—and she graphically depicts sadomasochistic sexual acts, they view her work as misogynistic; the pornographic sequences typical in it, they argue (quite correctly) would not be tolerated in the work of men.

Acker's texts are, however, marked by radically feminist positions and attitudes. In the following passage, Acker slides from truism to profundity as she describes the power of language to work the ends of masculinist culture:

Traditionally, the human world has been divided into men and women. Women're the cause of human suffering…. Men have tried to get rid of their suffering by altering this: first, by changing women; second, when this didn't work because women are stubborn creatures, by simply lying, by saying that women live only for men's love. An alteration of language, rather than of material, usually changes material conditions….

Acker sometimes renders her sense of the patriarchal grip of culture in lashing, gutter metaphors. For instance, she has her feminist protagonist Hester Prynne declare: "The most important men in the world decide it's their duty to tear the mother away from her child. They want to keep the child so they can train the child to suck their cocks. That's what's known as education." Since she habitually casts feminist positions and attitudes in brutal language that is a cry, those feminist literary critics intent on smoothly executed social reform have generally not taken up the challenge of her texts. Feminist narratives such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaiden's Tale and even such a feminist classic as Erica Jong's Fear of Flying seem mild in comparison with Acker's terroristic cultural assaults. Most readers would agree that Atwood's work is not intended to challenge certain progressive ideals of marriage, motherhood, and childrearing. She would simply like to see society live up to them, provided that women have equal opportunity to develop full personal and professional lives. Such a goal in the context of patriarchal cultural incarceration seems to Acker (who views cultural oppression as crushing) simply delusionary. Jong, on the other hand, does seem, as Acker suggests, rather self-congratulatory as she triumphantly describes male genitals and seems self-promoting as well in her self-consciously "daring" descriptions of sex from the "woman's point of view." Thus, she has perhaps earned the satire Acker executes in Hello, I'm Erica Jong, which begins "Hello, I'm Erica Jong. I'm a real novelist. I write books that talk to you about the agony of American life, how we all suffer, the growing pain that more and more of us are going to feel" and ends with "My name is Erica Jong. If there is God, God is disjunction and madness. Yours truly, Erica Jong."

In Acker's works, sadistic men victimizing slavish, masochistic women represents conventional sexual transactions in society, the underlying paradigm for normal relationships in patriarchal culture. In this scheme, de Sade is the quintessential lover. In one of her many metamorphoses, the protagonist of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula dreams herself into Laura Lane, a murderer who will do anything for her lover: "I descend into slavery, I let a man drive his fingers into my brains and reform my brains as he wants." Abhor, in Empire of the Senseless, exclaims, "No wonder heterosexuality a bit resembles rape." Insofar as the culture constructs individual experience by interpreting experience, Acker presents women as accomplices in their own victimization. In an exchange of letters, for instance, Charlotte Bronte writes to Emily that "All rapists who come to my door are lovers."

Acker frequently embodies patriarchal domination in sadistic, cowardly father figures (often adopted or step-) and embodies women's relation to the patriarchy with self-destructively dependent daughter figures. Part I of Empire of the Senseless, which relates a quest for a new, saving myth, is entitled "Elegy for the World of the Fathers," in which the first chapter remembers, by savaging, the world of the fathers; its title is "Rape by the Father." On the third page of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, the sixteen-year-old protagonist tells the reader, "When my (adopted) father suspects I've been sleeping with my future husband, he slobbers over me. Rape." Fathers in Acker's work literally control with their phalluses. Acker's fathers practice rape and incest and then abandon their daughters. In these moves, they are identified with the phallogocentrism of the culture: "My father is the power. He is a fascist. To be against my father is to be anti-authoritarian sexually perverse unstable insane…." The daughter's weapon of revolt is irrationality and desire, the feminine language that as it writes the female body, defies the law of the father. However, in rare narrative moments, false fathers (that is, adopted or stepfathers) are contrasted with ideal (thus nonexistent) fathers. In the following passage from My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Acker depicts the father as himself a victim of thought control. The ideal father would have been the city of art, but this possibility has been killed by the stepfather, society.

To think for myself is what I want. My language is my irrationality. Watch desire carefully. Desire burns up all the old dead language morality…. My father willed to rape me because in that he didn't want me to think for myself because he didn't think for himself. My father isn't my real father. This is a fact. I want a man. I don't want this man this stepfather who has killed off the man I love. I have no way of getting the man I love who is my real father. My stepfather, society, is anything but the city of art.

A recurring and sometimes complex metaphor for patriarchal oppression in Acker's fiction is abortion: "Having an abortion was obviously just like getting fucked. If we closed our eyes and spread our legs, we'd be taken care of. They stripped us of our clothes. Gave us white sheets to cover our nakedness. Led us back to the pale green room. I love it when men take care of me." In Acker's Don Quixote, the abortion with which the novel opens is a precondition for surrendering the constructed self. For Acker, the woman in position on the abortion table over whom a team of doctor and nurses presides represents, in an ultimate sense, woman as constructed object. The only hope is somehow to take control, to subvert the constructed identity in order to "name" oneself: "She had to name herself. When a doctor sticks a steel catheter into you while you're lying on your back and you do exactly what he and the nurses tell you to; finally, blessedly, you let go of your mind. Letting go of your mind is dying. She needed a new life. She had to be named."

The acquisition of a new life and a name is the quest erratically and erotically pursued in several of Acker's works, including The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, Blood and Guts in High School, and Don Quixote. The means of acquisition are outside, unavailable in a culture locked in patriarchy. In order to constitute the self differently, the quester is required to find an alternative site for enunciating that self. Acker moves her protagonists toward this site through the appropriation of male texts. As the epigraph to Part II of Don Quixote reads: "BEING BORN INTO AND PART OF A MALE WORLD, SHE HAD NO SPEECH OF HER OWN. ALL SHE COULD DO WAS READ MALE TEXTS WHICH WEREN'T HERS." These texts represent the limits of language and culture within which the female quester attempts to acquire identity. Once inside the male text, the quester, by her very posture, subverts it: "By repeating the past, I'm molding and transforming it." In Don Quixote, she explains the subversive effects of plagiarism through Arabs, who in incarnating an "other" of Western culture are comparable to women:

Unlike American and Western culture (generally), the Arabs (in their culture) have no (concept of) originality. That is, culture. They write new stories paint new pictures et cetera only by embellishing old stories pictures…. They write by cutting chunks out of all-ready written texts and in other ways defacing traditions: changing important names into silly ones, making dirty jokes out of matters that should be of the utmost importance to us such as nuclear warfare.

Like the motives of artist Sherrie Levine, who creates nearly identical replicas of well-known art and photography, Acker's are profoundly political. With their plagiarisms, Acker and Levine propose an alternate explanation of the sources of power than the classical Marxists. With Jean Baudrillard they believe that power is held more by those who control the means of representation than by those who control the means of production. Plagiarism undermines the assumptions governing representation. That is, in plagiarizing, Acker and Levine do not deny the masterwork itself, but they do interrogate its sources in paternal authority and male desire. Levine justifies her replicas on polemical grounds: "I felt angry at being excluded. As a woman, I felt there was no room for me. There was all this representation … of male desire. The whole art system was geared to celebrating these objects of male desire. Where, as a woman artist, could I situate myself? What I was doing was making this explicit: how this oedipal relationship artists have with artists of the past gets repressed; and how I, as a woman, was only allowed to represent male desire." By locating the search for modes of representing female desire inside male texts and art, Acker and Levine clearly delineate the constraints under which this search proceeds. However, Acker's plagiarism, while intent on subverting the notion of the master text, is often allied with the political messages of particular texts. In her appropriation of The Scarlet Letter, for instance, she updates its politics to show its relevance for her contemporaries.

Moreover, in Acker's texts, the subversion is always incomplete, the remolding and transformation of textual appropriation provide only limited success. She has a more pessimistic, perhaps more practical sense of humanity's cultural imprisonment than Cixous, whose theory-inspired imagination proposes that writing of the body, l'ecriture feminine, will lead to radical cultural transformation. Acker's questers' searches for identity and a new healing myth lead to silence, death, nothingness, or reentry into the sadomasochism of patriarchal culture. As she said in an interview, "You can't get to a place, to a society, that isn't constructed according to the phallus." The attempts to subvert male texts and thus male culture result in revelation rather than revolution; the path to an alternate site of enunciation blocked by the very forces this path is meant to escape.


Acker's constant target is the infrastructure of Western patriarchal society, the government, business, education, and legal institutions that construct identity and which the oppression of women serves to sustain. Acker is often polemical in her attack: "Civilization and culture are the rules of males' greeds." In applying elements of The Scarlet Letter to contemporary society, she records the degradation of values since the nineteenth-century society that Hawthorne's narrative indicted:

Long ago, when Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, he was living in a society that was more socially repressive and less materialistic than ours. He wrote about a wild woman. This woman challenged the society by fucking a guy who wasn't her husband and having his kid. The society punished her by sending her to gaol, making her wear a red "A" for adultery right on her tits, and excommunicating her.

Nowadays most women fuck around 'cause fucking doesn't mean anything. All anybody cares about today is money. The woman who lives her life according to nonmaterialistic ideals is the wild antisocial monster, the more openly she does so, the more everyone hates her….

[A] reason Hawthorne set his story in the past (in lies) was 'cause he couldn't say directly all the wild things he wanted to say. He was living in a society to which ideas and writing still mattered. In "The Custom House," the introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne makes sure he tells us the story of The Scarlet Letter occurred long ago and has nothing to do with anyone who's now living. After all, Hawthorne had to protect himself so he could keep writing. Right now I can speak as directly as I want 'cause no one gives a shit about writing and ideas, all anyone cares about is money. Even if one person in Boise, Idaho, gave half-a-shit, the only book Mr Idaho can get his hands on is a book the publishers, or rather the advertisers ('cause all businessmen are now advertisers) have decided will net half-a-million in movie and/or TV rights. A book that can be advertised. Define culture that way.

You see, things are much better nowadays than in those old dark repressed Puritan days: anybody can say anything today; progress does occur.

In Don Quixote Acker portrays a society so blind to its own incarceration by greed and corruption that it requires an outside perspective to sort out what is even human. In a passage in which she allies the "rational" with deadening social institutions, she proposes Godzilla as providing such perspective:

Total destruction is rational because it comes from rational causes. Why are human beings still rational, that is, making nuclear bombs polluting inventing DNA etc.? Because they don't see the absolute degradation and poverty around their flesh because if they did, they would be in such horror they would have to throw away their minds and want to become, at any price, only part-humans. Only Godzilla who not only isn't human but also wasn't made by humans therefore is unidentifiable and incomprehendable to humans can give the human world back to humans.

Godzilla provides Acker with a more complex perspective than her flip presentation of it suggests. Designed by Japanese filmmakers to make big bucks with a cheap monster movie pandering to the 1950s atom bomb and cold war fears, Godzilla represents the exploitation and commercialization of those fears. It represents the degree to which taste, judgment, and critical issues are held hostage by materialism and paranoia. The fact that Godzilla, a creation of atomic waste, was constructed by the Japanese only a decade's distance from Hiroshima and Nagasaki gives more resonance to Acker's description of Godzilla's creators as "non-human" than a stab at Western bigotry. In creating Godzilla, Japanese filmmakers sacrificed the meaning of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to greed and accepted the acts of their destroyers in order to make money—for Acker, an obscenely transcendent (that is, outside the human) act of self-prostitution. Through the lens of Godzilla, as the cardboard Tokyo is crushed and torn by a greed-inspired terror, Acker suggests that the devaluation of the culture and humanity's fall from sanity and its own best ideals come into focus.

Populated by outlaws and outcasts, her texts provide subversive glosses on convention. "Only excreate" was Stein's advice in Tender Buttons, an experiment in nontraditional linguistic structures to yield what she though of as contemporary composition—linguistic structures that are democratized, non-hierarchical, without center—and to release signifiers from signifieds. As Stein excreated traditional linguistic grammar, syntax, and modes of meaning, Acker deconstructs social grammar, syntax, and modes of meaning. She perceives Americans as having become so thoroughly roboticized by their institutions that the hope for love, for an authentic life and identity, can only be reimagined in some other space, outside of institutions, outside of society, outside the law. Acker writes, "I'm trying to destroy all laws, tell you not to follow laws, restrictions." Pirates, murderers, Arabs, terrorists, slave traders and other Acker permutations of the extreme (sometimes a fantasy) outsider for whom society is a field for illicit and, above all, selfish harvests and who, besotted with death, theft, hypocrisy, paranoia, and ugly sex, give back a portrait of society horrifyingly consistent with their values.

Just as appropriating male texts results in subversive disclosure, crime and criminals propose sites where the bondage of self to the culture's deadening prescriptions may be demonstrated, and perhaps more important, where liberating strategies may be tested. In a section on The Scarlet Letter in Blood and Guts in High School, Acker writes, "In Hawthorne's and our materialistic society the acquisition of money is the main goal 'cause money gives the power to make change stop, to make the universe die; so everything in the materialistic society is the opposite of what it really is. Good is bad. Crime is the only possible behaviour." For women, any attempt to achieve power (equated with money) puts them outside the law: "For 2,000 years you've had the nerve to tell women who we are. We use your words; we eat your food. Every way we get money has to be a crime. We are plagiarists, liars, and criminals."


Like William Burroughs, who greatly influenced her, Acker has embraced the stance of cultural outlaw not only in her narratives, but has adopted it for her life. For example, when middle-class college students in the sixties were intent on "sexual revolution," she tested the meaning of this revolution by performing in 42nd Street sex shows, an experience which led to her first published work, Politics. Although she describes the time as "schizophrenic," living in two cultures—hippie (which she views as middle class) and Times Square—she also implies the experience gave her a window onto social hypocrisies, particularly class divisions and sexism, disguised by the free love rhetoric. In practice, Acker suggests, there were disturbing similarities between the two cultures. Alienated from her family and living as an American expatriate in London, she embodies the perspective of outsider and outcast that she cultivates in her fiction. Raised on 57th Street and First Avenue in New York City, child of upper-middle-class Jewish parents, Acker, now over forty, is heavily tattooed and a bodybuilder.

The tattoo, in fact, is the central image in her most recent narrative, Empire of the Senseless, a work dedicated to her tattooist. A precise metaphor for her writing, the tattoo is an outlawed, magical language written directly on the body, becoming part of the body, the body turning into text, an audacious rendering of Cixous's writing the body. In a short history of the tattoo, she discusses its semiotic function, as well as its association—crucial for Acker—with criminals:

The tattoo is primal parent to the visual arts. Beginning as abstract maps of spiritual visions, records of the "other" world, tattoos were originally icons of power and mystery designating realms beyond normal land-dwellers' experience.

The extra-ordinary qualities of the tattoo's magicreligious origin remain constant even today, transferring to the bearer some sense of existing outside the conventions of normal society.

In decadent phases, the tattoo became associated with the criminal—literally the outlaw—and the power of the tattoo became intertwined with the power of those who chose to live beyond the norms of society.

As this passage on the tattoo confirms, Acker obsessively explores the territory of the taboo, claims it as the proper domain from which to launch attacks on Western culture—an empire of the senseless. In Empire of the Senseless, she systematically summons every taboo she can think of—including incest, rape, terrorism, vomit, shit, menstruation, homosexuality, a very long list—rendering them in vivid, forbidding, hallucinatory prose ("I remembered the scarlet pigeon nibbling at the blood seeping out of my cunt"). In an explanatory passage, Acker offers her most lucid defense of the use of taboos in her fiction:

That part of our being (mentality, feeling, physicality) which is free of all control let's call our "unconscious." Since it's free of control, it's our only defence against institutionalized meaning, institutionalized language, control, fixation, judgement, prison.

Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning.

But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions.

What is the language of the "unconscious"? (If this ideal unconscious or freedom doesn't exist: pretend it does, use fiction, for the sake of survival, all of our survival.) Its primary language must be taboo, all that is forbidden. Thus, an attack on the institutions of prison via language would demand the use of a language or languages which aren't acceptable, which are forbidden. Language, on one level, constitutes a set of codes and social and historical agreements. Nonsense doesn't per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes.

In The Newly Born Woman, Catherine Clement argues that "every society has an imaginary zone for what it excludes," a zone located on the "fault lines" of the culture. She and Cixous, her collaborator on the book, propose that "women bizarrely embody [that] group of anomalies showing the cracks in the culture" through which the silenced of culture exerts its pressure, makes itself known—the cracks through which the repressed returns. In Acker's political translation and transformation of this idea, the repressed is embodied by figures and concretized as acts outside the social code—outlaws, outcasts, taboos—that threaten it. In unlikely partnership with Emily Dickinson, she says madness is divinest sense: "No to anything but madness." She sees the culture in the same position as the dying animal whose leg is caught in a trap: in order to escape, it must chew through its leg. Similarly, for a chance to transform contemporary culture from the deadly trap it is, Acker cautions you must "eat your mind," which has been so completely constructed by the phallus, so thoroughly written by society's metalanguages, that there is no room, in her terms, to truly name oneself. Acker's narratives, in their subversive appropriations of master texts, their aggressive assertions of criminal perspectives, their relentless interrogations of art, culture, government, and sexual relations, are designed to be jaws steadily devouring—often to readers' horror and certainly to their discomfort (which is part of the strategy)—the mindset, if not the mind, of Western culture.

Naomi Jacobs (essay date Fall 1989)

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SOURCE: "Kathy Acker and the Plagiarized Self," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 50-5.

[In the following essay, Jacobs examines Acker's postmodern experimentation with authorial identity and literary history.]

Postmodernist fiction differs from its modernist precedents less in specific narrative techniques (such as the "nodality" and "paratactics" which David Hayman identifies in writers from Joyce to Sollers) than in the theoretical perspectives from which it employs such techniques. With varying degrees of rigor, American postmodernists have drawn upon post-structuralist theories of language and identity both as the basis for technical experiments and as a frequent topic in their works. If all perception, all knowledge, all emotion and experience is mediated and distorted by arbitrary linguistic structures, the artist's desideratum is to convey a radically unmediated, unstructured, and decentered fictional experience that will abolish "all distinctions between the real and the imaginary, between the conscious and the subconscious, between the past and the present, between truth and untruth" and, it might be added, between self and other, writer and reader, book and life.

The destruction of these dualities is hardly new; we are nearing the end of the century which saw, early on, the work of Heidegger and Wittgenstein in philosophy, Joyce and Stein in fiction. But there are ways in which postmodern fiction looks and feels new. Perhaps the most characteristic is what Richard Martin has called the "decreation of history," a process foregrounded by the conspicuous presence of historical figures. In mimetic fiction, the empiricist respect for fact and for the concept of coherent identity has discouraged the mixing of historical figures ("real," "true" or factual) with more purely fictional characters. The post-structuralist view of the radical contingency of language, with its implications that both history and identity are textual, leads inevitably to an anti-mimetic, non-representational use of historical figures. The works of Kathy Acker demonstrate in particularly challenging form the complex relationships of the historical figure to postmodern concepts of text, of identity, and of the authorial self. Her very titles exhibit her ambiguous identity and author/ity: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula; Great Expectations; The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec; My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Don Quixote, which was a dream. Through semantic and stylistic crudeness, pastiche-appropriations of famous literary texts, and outrageous manipulations of historical and literary figures, Acker attempts simultaneously to deconstruct the tyrannical structures of official culture and to plagiarize an identity, constructing a self from salvaged fragments of those very structures she has dismantled.

Acker's habit of disclaiming authorship by attributing authorship to her titular subject has the effect of placing the entire work in quotation marks, creating an invincibly ironic "as if" which crucially skews the reader's attempt to interpret, logically or emotionally, the extreme states of mind represented in the book. The "author" of the novel is a part of the title, a part of the "made up"; where then is the "real" Acker in this fiction? Is the entire narrative to be read as parody? The covers of any book are, in a sense, quotation marks, delineating the boundaries between what someone—traditionally, the author—"said" and a larger context, a world, in which that statement is made and has meaning. But mimetic fiction encourages us to experience the book as both a world in itself and a pure representation of "the" world, rather than a controvertible statement about an idiosyncratic experience. Acker's authorial impersonations emphasize the derivativeness of all texts, their mediated, unreliable and quite probably falsified status, and remind us that only a fool expects to encounter some author, some great soul, some "reality" in a work of fiction.

Acker's technique of quotation and cross-quotation equally forbids us to identify with her fictional characters. What are we to make of a female narrator named Henri Toulouse Lautrec who recounts the life of her brother Vincent Van Gogh while searching through Paris with Hercule Poirot for clues to the murder of Melvyn Freilicher, a real person documentably alive in the "real" world of documentation? What of the whore Giannina's erotic reminiscences of the American poet Ron Silliman? This undifferentiated use of figures from history, literature and contemporary literary circles merges all realms of language in which meanings reside, and thus destroys meanings by destroying the contexts which focus them. Brought into forced conjunction, these irreconcilable contexts split open and spill their constituent parts into a formless intertext.

Despite the seemingly illimitable license of Acker's pornographic imagination, one senses always a "holding back" in her habit of quotation and plagiarism, an unwillingness to own—in the sense of admission as well as of possession—her work. Think of Toulouse Lautrec's bedtime story, a perfect imitation (theft?) of the confessions magazine genre, in which a girl overcomes the fear of sex caused when her brother, a crazed Vietnam veteran, raped her; or think of the long section evoking and parodying sentimental movie magazines as it traces a love affair between James Dean and a prepubescent Janis Joplin. When the rape victim recovers from her trauma—"with the help of the man I love, I have become at last a real woman"—or when Jimmy and Janis find true love, Acker only provisionally admits to her narrative a sweetness and innocence which she would not, it seems, acknowledge as one of her own voices. The narrator's judgment that the confessions story is "trash" is superfluous, for stylistic parody and patently ludicrous premises have already judged or placed in quotation marks the longings and sorrows expressed in those stories. Of course, the book as a whole is similarly bracketed. But Acker uses such double-distancing much less often where the narrative speaks for enraged, offensive, almost obscenely needy personae that seem closer to Acker's own public persona as former actress in live sex shows, queen of punk, the libidinous Kathy who "Goes to Haiti" in another of her works.

Yet even this marginally coherent persona is engaged in a terrified flight from identity; "If I don't keep throwing myself into the unknown, I'll die," says Giannina. Such death is preferred, even required, by "the Boss" that rules Acker's cybernetic wasteland; at one point Don Quixote decides to throw herself out a window, so that "The Boss'll begin to recognize and respect me. Once I'm dead, I'll be someone." Only a fixed and thus dead self is recognizable; only a recognizable self is useful, locatable, controllable in the world of work and wages. The alternative is to have no identity, to be no one, at which point one can "do anything I can be anyone one day and the next day do be anyone else, even the same one." This state is simultaneously exhilarating and frightening, for it implies a radical isolation from others, a refusal of the human contact which affirms finitude or boundary: "Without the touch of another human, I'm nothing. For, being untouched, I can do (be) anything (one) and so, am nothing." Complete lack of definition is nothingness; but it is also perfect potentiality, complete freedom to redefine, to experiment, to live in what Cixous has called "permanent escapade." The Acker protagonist, then, embarks upon an anxious search for balance between the isolate nothingness of no-identity and the death of fixed identity. Impinging upon and shaping this quest are the vectors of gender, of culture, of politics, represented here by characters plagiarized from literary and historical texts.

Particularly intriguing is Acker's play with gender in the naming of certain of her narrators and in passages such as the long "Heterosexuality" section of Don Quixote. In transforming herself, equating herself with the male figures of Toulouse Lautrec, Pasolini, and Don Quixote, Acker might seem to reject the female self to which she is born. But what becomes explicit is that this renaming of a female experience actually validates it. In the "womb of art," Don Quixote comments, the male artist sees all women as either pirates or slaves—dangerous brigands or loathsome victims. Acker redefines, even conflates, female sexual adventurism and female vulnerability by attributing these qualities to male figures. In our minds, the historical Toulouse Lautrec is more genius than monster, though his crippled body made the latter definition dominate his own sense of self. We see him as bold, smiling, gregarious—vibrant as the dancers and racehorses that he loved to paint. Acker makes him a woman, whose self-hatred echoes the sense of woman as monster that has led Acker's work to be described as "abusive" to women. This Toulouse Lautrec is a site of deprivation, of ravenous hunger; so deformed that only money will buy her either sex or love, she narrates her self-abasing yearnings in painful detail. That the character is female makes it possible for us to believe this unqualified vulnerability; that the character is Toulouse Lautrec makes it impossible for us to dismiss the pain as female hysteria. Thus female pain, legitimized by the still-male locus of the name, is transformed from a merely pathetic and even embarrassing phenomenon to one of gravity, to be pitied and seriously examined. Proper noun and pronoun conflict, the devalued female pronoun pointing to a valorized referent that remains male in our minds, and so the characterization annuls grammar—that formalization of difference—and gender at once. Simultaneously, other valorized male referents are degraded by female associations: Paul Gauguin is the local cleaning woman, Rousseau and Seurat are teachers who train whores.

Similarly ambiguous is the gender of the title character Don Quixote, a woman who becomes a knight on a noble quest to love "someone other than herself" and thus to right all wrongs. "She decided that since she was setting out on the greatest adventure any person can take, that of the Holy Grail, she ought to have a name (identity). She had to name herself." Since knights are by definition male, she must name herself for a man—become a man—before the nobility of her quest and the dangers of her ordeals will be esteemed. Once again through grammatical terrorism, the clash of pronoun and noun, Acker effects a revaluation of female experience. A series of famous literary works are then plagiarized, paraphrased, rewritten, as the only way of talking about Don Quixote's condition as woman "born into and part of a male world." Raymond Federman has argued that "imagination does not invent the SOMETHING NEW … but merely imitates, copies, repeats, proliferates—plagiarizes in other words—what has always been there." Such a plagiarizing or re-imagining imagination is original only in its omissions and inaccuracies, the absences surrounding its inclusions, the forgetfulness around its remembering, the seams where plagiarized texts come together and redefine each other. "What has always been there" becomes visible in this process of selective, disruptive repetition.

It is with historical/literary characters that these seams of conjunction become most visible in fiction. The specific language of a plagiarized source might or might not be recognizable; the characters that inhabit it are always attributable and thus patently stolen. Of her plagiarism, Acker has said that "by taking these texts and just putting them there as simply as I can, and not making anything of them, not saying anything, not doing anything, I'm doing something that … really feels good and has joy in it." But the tactic can never be so simple; to "take" a text and not make anything of it is impossible. Surely it is no accident that Don Quixote's reading list includes the Brontës, who complexly render female madness and desire and the punishment for those transgressions; Paradise Lost, that mythological justification for the ways of man to woman; Romeo and Juliet, which dignifies the equation of death and love. Surely it is not by accident that Acker conflates Wedekind's femme fatale Lulu with Shaw's Eliza Doolittle, whose "depressing and disgusting" speech is eradicated by the man who shapes her to his desires and to his own language. Like the stylistic parodies and authorial impersonations of Toulouse Lautrec, this plagiarism of literary selves again suspends the meaning of Acker's narrative, placing quotation marks around these melodramatic expressions of sorrow, madness, degradation.

Acker also practices plagiaristic rewriting upon the texts of history, for Thomas Hobbes appears as "the Angel of Death," "woofing" to an equally canine Richard Nixon about how nasty, brutish and short is a dog's life. History as an organized and organizing structure has evaporated, leaving only fictions. The effect is ludicrous, particularly in passages from Hobbes where the disjunction between elevated diction and canine referent cancels the sobriety with which we normally receive official discourse, philosophical or political. Such distortions and misrepresentations of historical and literary figures are, like distortions of grammar, necessary to the postmodern project. Says Don Quixote to the dogs who howl around her, "I write words … to you who will always be other than and alien to me. These words sit on the edges of meanings and aren't properly grammatical. For when there is no country, no community, the speaker's unsure of which language to use, how to speak, if it's possible to speak." These fictions are also located at the edges of meaning, the edges of grammar, the edges of gender: a place where the emptiness and the fullness of the undefined personality coexist in a vertigo of antireferential reference. Just as her character the Black Tarantula copies favorite pornography books in order to "become the main person in each of them," Acker dismembers and recombines literary and historical selves in a frantic effort to define, however temporarily or conditionally, a functioning self. Nothing is finally delineated but "the nonpresence at the center of the work of art," the writing creature doomed to repetition and replication, and so the next novel "by Kathy Acker" seems likely to be again pseudonymous, as indeed any fiction—any self—is pseudonymous in the postmodern crisis of identity.

Robert Siegle (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Kathy Acker: The Blood and Guts of Guerrilla Warfare," in Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 47-123.

[In the following excerpt, Siegle offers an overview of Acker's literary significance and a critical reading of Don Quixote.]

"Reading Kathy Acker is like reading the subway walls." "If my mother saw what I was reading, she'd die." "I never thought I was a prude until I opened this book. I was reading it outside between classes and I found myself holding the book half-closed so the people sitting around me wouldn't see the illustrations." "My roommates couldn't believe I was reading this book for a course!" Well, there is some truth to these minority-opinion gasps from the fiction class to whom I assigned Acker's Blood and Guts in High School. Reading Acker does take you close to a voice not often heard from the suburbanized media of American culture, one that is full of pain, rage, and lacerating barbs of social commentary. Her work does offend mothers, particularly those who serve unreflectively the patriarchal establishment that determines mother-daughter relations as, shall we say, problematic. And we do discover in reading Acker's work internalized regiments of repressive and oppressive codes we may well not have been conscious of harboring as part of the heavily contradictory cultural chromosomes in our psychological DNA. And though my student's roommates were probably surprised at the language and drawings of this pivotal novel, they might well have wondered how a regularly offered college course came to feature a book that critiques so relentlessly the ideological functions of the educational establishment.

Unfortunately, much of the critical response to Acker's work has not gotten very far beyond these first comments of my more conservative students. As Acker commented to me, most accounts "have left some or many concerns out, usually the political, and most fetishize the sexual." She knows that the culture works on its members most subtly and most profoundly by colonizing the libidinal aesthetics, turning desire into the most productive means of channeling, normalization, and, even if by pure distraction, social control. Much of her work does confront directly the sexual material of the culture in order to carry out her most basic project. "[T]he center of my writing, if there is a center, is a search for value, or lack of value," she wrote me, and the play between "search" and "lack," between "center" and the iffiness of the very idea of a structure with center, is precisely what is finally at stake in Acker's fiction. Trying to understand a pathological culture and to locate some potential for freeing the body from the hold of that culture means confronting sexuality but also all the concerns that mainstream American writing typically prefers to omit.

Acker's own comments in a radio interview upon the critical tendency to "fetishize the sexual" are perhaps the most telling:

When you write sexual material, I mean, you know, pornographic—I hate the word "pornographic" for this—but direct orgasmic material, it's almost like pure writing, it's really rhythm, you've got to get those rhythms exact. It's also a way that you know there's a direct connection between you and the reader. And if you mix that really hot kind of connection next to political material, you're doing a very violent number. And that's interesting. But sex is also a way—it's a little like Jean Genet's The Slaves—it's also a way of looking up from the bottom to see society in a different way. The sexual material of a society is very revealing.

Pure writing, the direct connection, the interaffiliation between the sexual and the political, and the desire to "see society in a different way"—these utopian impulses play constantly alongside the most devastating narrative critique of Western culture to appear in American literature. The resulting mix of the sacred and the profane, the utopian and the despairing, carries us far beyond the titters and thrills of the first-time reader to a profoundly moving, detailed, and instructive analytical critique of the cultural processes precisely at the point from which they are experienced by the Other of the culture—children, women, the poor, the trapped. Acker's work moves steadily toward an imaginative demolition of the oppressive dimension of our cultural machinery. Indeed, a former Village dweller who now writes in rural Virginia came to campus one day to meet me. "I knew it must be the end of the world," she said by way of opener, "when Kathy was being taught in southwest Virginia." No such luck, I think to myself. But now that Grove Press is giving Acker's work a wider distribution than was possible for the TVRT Press, which published her earliest work, perhaps we are moving at least a bit closer to the end of a certain kind of world for which genocide, a first-strike policy, poisoned ground water, and irradiated children are daily news.

Acker's career as a writer began in the early seventies. Disowned by her parents, she worked a number of different jobs supporting her involvement in the arts revolution brewing in Soho at the time. There were a number of reviews, readings, collaborative projects with various visual artists, and, beginning in 1973, the emergence of a series of hard-hitting novels which was fully steeped in the intellectual ferment of the period. Her own way of answering Tom Vitale's question, "What are you like?" directly puts the cultural intersection at which we find these works: "I think I'm basically a painter who uses words. And I'm pretty influenced by a lot of political semiotic theory. And I like rock and roll." Her work has the immediacy of the visual that Richard Prince likes in painters who write; it is indeed quite shrewd about the ideological implications of both social and artistic patterns, and it takes the dare to position itself in the outlawed voice of the cultural other, so much so that she is sometimes called a punk novelist. I wonder whether the real punch line there is that to be a real novelist now, one must risk the violence some experience as "punk."

Acker's work taken as a whole carries its central importance not only because she was among the first downtown writers and remains the most extreme one, but also because of what her work achieves. It is a postmodern narrative Being and Time with a streetwise poststructural footing. Her phenomenology is that of bodily experience rather than Germanic speculation; her Alltäglichkeit is not Heidegger's anesthesia but a predatory death cult; her dasein is confused by complexly interlocking forces of history, economics, politics, media, and gender, rather than by the business of life distracting her from her true Being; and her focus is less on Being-toward-death than on a Being-for-life. But however different her assumptions, she is as serious as Heidegger in understanding the worldness of the world, dispersing the active force of traditional thought, exploring "care as the being of dasein," and recognizing Understanding as the fullness of ways in which we live rather than as some kind of knowledge either apart from the world or compartmentalized within some particular discipline. Acker matches wits with the most brilliant of contemporary theorists and leads us through a career whose stages reprise the intellectual revolution that the last two decades have wrought in our thinking about Being and history.

After some survival time during the radical politics of the sixties, Acker produced a trilogy of novels pushing the limits of appropriation to document the plagiarized Being to which we are consigned. To look in detail at these novels is to identify the starting assumptions from which this entire revolution in narrative takes off. Indeed, the first of these, along with Constance DeJong's Modern Love, struck with tremendous impact a generation that had not yet begun to find its own narrative voice. Her books take, as she puts it in talking with Vitale, "the society as a series of texts…. And using new additions, new renderings in the texts to attack the society. First of all to find out how it works and then attack it." Hence we must look closely at The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, the first volume of the trilogy, and at the also important The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec. (The middle volume is I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac Imagining and is not now readily available.) In Kathy Goes To Haiti and Blood and Guts in High School, Acker turns the language of the body against hegemonic forms and institutions of every description. Building upon the earlier works' appropriation tactics, these two books offer a bruised and bruising portrait of coming of age. In the early eighties a pair of works, Great Expectations (1982) and My Death, My Life (1983), both now also published by Grove Press, rethinks the problem of language as it affects Acker's enterprise to work beyond the theoretical impasse of the radical writer working within the culture's sign systems. Finally, in Don Quixote and Empire of the Senseless, Acker carries us to a profound vision of the contradictory nomadic life she prescribes for those who desire more than "the grey of yuppy life." At midlife, in other words, Acker has already achieved a career of major proportions, both in its ambitions and accomplishments, and it is no wonder that she is on most observers' list of figures most instrumental in the emergence of the narrative sensibility that this book addresses….

Don Quixote's Insurgent Writing

This section might well have been called "Night, Knight," both as Acker's facetious sign-off from her London expatriation and, more importantly, as the pun she relentlessly works. The pun places her female Knight of La Mancha in the Night of the American soul, dreaming the female imaginary as it has been constituted and attempting to glimpse something about the resolution of its contradictions. The knight's "crazy" vision is that of finding love, "love" serving as the sign for the knight's utopian vision (or, perhaps, utopian glance, because something less than a social blueprint emerges). Her vision is crazy because it requires a radical revision of what counts as "whole" or "sane." The book's mood is richly evoked at a high point of the section "I dream my schooling," in which Acker gives a desublimated version of one woman's cultural education. In attendance are her teacher (the "old creep"), her nomadic associates (the pirate dogs), and the corpse of Duranduran (who, dying, asked the creep to cut out his heart, perhaps an indication of the self-evisceration of the pop generation). The novel opens with a quote from the teacher:

"The political mirror of this individual simultaneity of freedom and imprisonment is a state of fascism and democracy: the United States of America.

"What is your choice?"

I was stunned. "I have a choice?" I asked, though I had no idea what I meant by what I was saying, for I was stunned.

"Since you have no choice and you must choose," the old creep answered, "this is what being enchanted means—tell me: who are you?"

"Who can I be?" I looked at the victimizer and his victim, who were tied to each other by friendship. I have started to cry and I cannot stop crying,

for those who, having nothing, homeless,
would flee,
but there is nowhere to flee;
so we travel like pirates
on shifting mixtures of something and nothing.
For those who in the face of this mixture
act with total responsibility:
I cried so much I bothered everyone around me.


Upon hearing this, all the dogs barked.

"She who can tell us who victimizers are, She who can see and tell us because She's loony because She has become the ancient art of madness, or literature. She is in front of us right now."

Having to choose when there is no real choice is Acker's analysis of her characters' existential double bind and what they struggle, though stunned, to articulate. Having to flee when there is no utopian space to reach, driven to the cultural piracy of appropriation in order to speak at all, proceeding not on the solid ground of authoritative truth but rather on the "shifting mixtures" of sensory and historical somethings and the nothings of cultural fictions, the knight becomes the one whose crying texts disturb everyone around her. But she is also the one who can name the victimizers, the enchanters by whose brutal logic she appears "loony" and against whom all her outlaw techniques (appropriation, pornography, fragmentation, transforming narrators, mixed genres, and so forth) are the only resources. Avatar of "the ancient art of madness," Acker's Don Quixote is mad only by the lights of the logic she opposes and frequently transgresses.

In the section "Texts of Wars for Those Who Live in Silence," Acker defines the logic of the enchanters through an ideological reading of a film in which Megalon meets Godzilla, among other elements floating through (a somewhat fuller version, called "Scenes of World War III," is in Richard Prince's collection, Wild History). Before the rewrite of that film gets underway, Catherine reverses roles with Heathcliff and is the one in Wuthering Heights to go off adventuring for "life." A type of Acker's Don, Catherine is clear about what she wants: "The liberty for love, the liberty for instinctual roamings, the liberty for friendship, the liberty for hatred, the liberty for fantasy: all of these have faded." She knows that "males dumber than nonhuman animals're running the economic and political world," and her own motto is that "civilization and culture are the rules of males' greeds."

In the middle of reading the film, the narrator imagines a dialogue between Megalon and Godzilla, who become types for Reason—"the monsters created from human beliefs and acts will no longer follow human orders," but instead become an all but invisible regime under which "those who live in silence" must labor unconscious of the regime within. Arguing that "all qualities have been and are reduced to quantitative equivalences," the monsters conclude that "this process inheres in the concept of reason." Although reason "signifies the idea of a free, human, social life," at least in the intentions of its more benign champions, it also "adjusts the world" and "has no function other than the preparation of the object from mere sensory material in order to make it that material of subjugation."

The monsters then collapse the distinction between a beneficent reason and its more sinister form:

Instrumental or ossified reason takes two forms: technological reason developed for purposes of dominating nature and social reason directed at the means of domination aimed at exercising social and political power.

This tendency … now pervades all the spheres of human life: this exploitation or reduction of reality to self-preservation and the manipulable other has become the universal principle of a society which seeks to reduce all phenomena to this enlightenment, ideal of rationalism, or subjugation of the other.

The Don is the voice of that subjugated other, and what she contests is precisely her reduction to a "manipulable" silence. The novel's cacophony is the disruption of that ideological silence and a voicing of the heteroglossiac multitudes within. "Who can I be?" we saw her asking a bit ago; the answer throughout Don Quixote is one who carries on despite the contradictions we found emerging from our look at My Death, My Life. She tilts with the windmills of an "unchanging" culture in which reason is so naturalized an invention that is barely possible to budge it aside in order to let other human dimensions share the scene of consciousness.

The Don know that "International finance (that is, American finance) is a war strategy" fought not just in international trade but against and within the silenced ones. The Don, who opens the novel in another one of Acker's gruesome abortion scenes, uses the image of abortion several times to represent lives cut short both existentially and in terms of their levels of awareness. "The bloody outline of a head on every desk in the world. The bloody outline of alienated work. The bloody outline of foetuses." We are all aborted foetuses. The Don's job is to discover the many forms of this state, hence she uses the image differently for herself. As the outlaw who is aware because she has voiced so much from her marginality, she passes the point at which the languages available to her allow her to say directly what she finds on her quixotic quest. Hence "I am a mass of dreams which, since I can no longer express them, are foetuses beyond their times, not even abortions."

However restless some reviewers may have become with Acker's fiction of indirection, its strategy is essential if readers are to experience in reading the breaks, fissures, and contradictions within Western reason's ideological arrangement of reality. Appropriation leaps from Wuthering Heights to Megalon, from Shakespeare to Hawthorne, from Baudrillard to de Sade, precisely because crossing their textural margins performs in the reader the same quilt-work reassemblage of ideologemes which the Don attempts. Jamming the mini-essays into the middle of a stream of narrative bubbles teaches "those who live in silence" how to speak for themselves. Assaulting reticence with steamy sex scenes is not a way to reclaim sexuality as a subject for realism (that was D. H. Lawrence's project in modernist days), but to awaken bodily readers' awareness of internal censors whose operation should be no more silent than the "subjugated other" of the culture, and no less examined, managed, and conditioned than alienated workers. If the multiplicity of voices streaming out of the Don's mouth is a disorienting evocation of the fragmentation of self, Acker's technique is not designed to recover any nostalgic fiction of a premodernist unified subject. Given fragmentation of the self, given the internal estrangement of those fragments from one another, given the lack even of much knowledge of their forms and trajectories, and given the organization of these fragments according to a Lyotardian socioeconomic "performativity," Acker's simultaneities, fragments, juxtapositions, and rewritings nested within appropriated pieces all function to reclaim this basic multiplicity for ends other than those that Lyotard so gloomily determines.

Although cultural conservatives might feel a bit uncomfortable with the assertion, there is nonetheless something to the claim that Acker is almost sacramental in her approach to individuality and to the world, that her ends are profoundly therapeutic, that her values are radically demystified forms of mythologized metaphors become Megalons, and that her practice of fiction is an attempt to regain for narrative a voice and a form that are commensurate with our information age but capable of performing, against that age's colonization of its "processors," the novel's quite traditional function of renewing the possibility for fresh subjectivity. If fiction that still looks familiar is bound to reruns of the same symptoms we have learned to recognize in the etherized patient of modernism, Acker's work breaks up the surface of an increasingly mandarin cultural page and puts into motion what lies beneath. And if the most important fiction of each age demands that we retrain a bit as readers, certainly Acker is among those writers who impose the most drastic requirements upon us to think differently. That difference, not coincidentally, requires suspension of precisely those categories of thought most implicated in the exercise of power and violence. And it encourages the development of skills and habits that lie at the heart of the feminist program of writers such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Gayatri Spivak.

In her classic "This Sex Which Is Not One," Irigaray speaks of "the condition of underdevelopmentarising from women's submission by and to a culture that oppresses them, uses them, makes them a medium of exchange, with very little profit to them. Except in the quasi-monopolies of masochistic pleasure, the domestic labor force, and reproduction." Acker says this about a dog's life: "The maintenance of a dog's life or of dog-like life depends on unequal (power) relations between subjects or dogs. In this case, the relations are those of ownership and desire…. The condition of the dog is a condition of war, of everyone against everyone: so every dog has a right to everything, even to another dog's body. This is freedom." Or at least "freedom" under the regime that Irigaray and Acker oppose.

Cixous, in her equally classic "The Laugh of the Medusa," calls for "the invention of a new insurgent writing" that "will return to the body," that "will tear her away from the superegoized structure in which she has always occupied the place reserved for the guilty," and that will enable the writer "to forge for herself the anti-logos weapon." Acker's is one version of that fiction of insurgency, shrewd and perhaps more engaged with its problematic aspects than most varieties. But exploding the logic of what Cixous calls "superegoization" is the aim of Acker's fiction, and developing the "anti-logos weapon" is the project of its transgressions of traditional form. Cixous and Acker resonate at far too many points to enumerate here, but Cixous's description of the "propriety of woman" comes strikingly close to the self-sacrificing quest on which the Don is engaged: "It is … her capacity to depropriate unselfishly, body without end, without appendage, without principal 'parts.' If she is a whole, it's a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble, a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros, an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that's any more of a star than the others." My description of Acker's work with fragmentation and multiplicity recounted the fictional realization of this depropriation. It is precisely the abandonment of the logic of "principal 'parts'" which lies behind each formal tactic of Acker and which most offends the unsympathetic among her reviewers. To think of her fiction as "a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble" is to recognize its kinetic form and the ongoing productivity of the endless connections we can make among the textual bits that she provides.

Even at the literal level, the relationship between Cixous's "propriety" and the Don's career is striking. If, as we have seen, the Don's ideas are "foetuses beyond their times," then the abortion to which she submits at the opening of the novel is the means by which she forces her insights into a language and a formal medium that can never be fully her own. "I had the abortion," she explains, "because I refused normalcy which is the capitulation to social control." The Don ends the silence of "normalcy" by aborting the overdue foetuses of her angry critique, thereby converting the "sickness" of her life experience into the "knightly tool" of fiction. "I want love," she continues. "The love I can only dream about or read in books. I'll make the world into this love." Body without end, she keeps writing, keeps encountering the disciplinary mechanisms of the culture in a long series of beatings, rejections, angry encounters, and episodes of the sort of "masochistic pleasure" of which Irigaray spoke. The novel's first part, "The Beginning of Night," consists of these violent encounters in the Don's quest. Its title refers to the cultural night of the female soul as the social pathology that the Don turns into her strongest weapon. A guerrilla fighter, she takes on the "partly male" role of knighthood in order to turn its discipline against the "dualistic reality which is a reality molded by power" and to make possible for human beings what the "bitch" already knows: "All being is timelessly wild and pathless, its own knight, free."

To succeed in her attempt to remake the world into love requires remaking the texts of which that world is composed, and in the second part of the novel, "Other Texts," the Don carries out this textual version of her strategy. Using strategies and insights consistent with those we have already seen, she refabricates four very different cultural texts, culminating with a version of Frank Wedekind's Pandora's Box in which Lulu escapes triumphant at the end, looking for "others who are, like me, pirates journeying from place to place, who knowing only change and the true responsibilities that come from such knowing sing to and with each other." Drawing upon the therapeutic energy of Eros, as Cixous suggests, the Don generously goes on in the third part to pour herself into the effort to teach her dog friends how society works and to serve as an "anti-logos" to its logic. More problematic is the Don's attempt to open possibilities for a different kind of Being that, as Irigaray says of Woman, "is indefinitely other in herself," not in the alienated and estranged way that the Don finds to be characteristic of life in the Nixonian times that she anatomizes, but rather intimately "in touch," in Irigaray's rich sense of the phrase.

In the autobiography of the Don's dog friend, which takes up an important portion of "The End of the Night," the dog tells of her complex experience of love amidst gender roles that switch sometimes in the literal sense of transvestite experiences and sometimes in the more figurative sense of role-shifting. In one section, the dog recalls reading about Juliette, a student at a girls' school, who is led by her teacher Delbène into the graveyard one night, past the coffins of schoolgirls, and down into a room white, we suppose, to connote the absence of any cultural markers in this hidden space that lies literally under the sign of death. Delbène has blindfolded Juliette so that she must "trust" her teacher's guidance over the uneven pathway, a guidance that becomes more than a literal passage when Delbène begins to lecture: "What we do in this room is be happy. With our bodies. Our bodies teach us who've been poisoned." "Since these [patriarchal] educators train the mind rather than the body, we can start with the physical body, the place of shitting, eating, etc., to break through our opinions or false education." What follows this descent is Juliette's initiation into both vaginal and anal orgasm. The episode is a female parallel, perhaps, to the reading that Bakhtin offers of Rabelais's use of "the plane of material sensual experience" as the means by which "official medieval culture" was labeled "false education," as Delbène puts it. Bakhtin argues that such an episode in Rabelais "destroyed and suspended all alienation; it drew the world closer to man, to his body, permitted him to touch and test every object, examine it from all sides, enter into it, turn it inside out, compare it to every phenomenon, however exalted and holy, analyze, weigh, measure, try it on." Characters in Don Quixote are engaged in a similar process of groping their way beyond an abstract and oppressive metaphysics. Acker's women have all found logic, morality, and social hierarchies to allot them a near-medieval "place reserved for the guilty," in Cixous's phrase. And their attempt is precisely to rediscover the world from a perspective less determined by a totalizing logic that, for them, has functioned with all the omnipresent oppression of the "official medieval culture."

In Don Quixote, sexual pleasure comes to involve Delbène, Juliette, and the other schoolgirls, and Juliette realizes that "watching these sexual actions which I couldn't actually feel made me feel my own physical sensations less. My decreasing sexual abandonment let me feel a more general spreading or less focused sexual interest." Far more than a pornographic primer, the passage takes us back to Cixous's discussion:

Though masculine sexuality gravitates around the penis, engendering that centralized body (in political anatomy) under the dictatorship of its parts, woman does not bring about the same regionalization which serves the couple head/genitals and which is inscribed only within boundaries. Her libido is cosmic, just as her unconscious is worldwide. Her writing can only keep going, without ever inscribing or discerning contours.

Cixous's language keeps sexuality, politics, and writing tightly paralleled in a way that Acker's fiction appears to understand quite tangibly. It is as if Juliette must learn what is her being first by unlearning the logic of "principal parts," as Cixous puts it, and then by learning through her body.

Hence her friends try to lead Juliette into a realization of what she has experienced against her best efforts to block them—"I'm too young to know," she responds, taking the defense of the ingénue. "I haven't any experience of this," she tries again, taking the defense of the overly sheltered. But one of her friends comes back aggressively: "I'm not asking you about your overlays of memories, like the overlays of culture in Europe, culminating in a decayed seaside hotel whose walls peel away from themselves into the literature they think is supporting them. I'm asking you what you know. What do you know, what do you perceive?" Cultural memories, culminating in the psychological locales of sentimental romances in the Harlequin mode, peel away once we critique the patriarchal logic sustaining those overlays.

Juliette, who is confused over a mixture of pain and pleasure her mates find highly significant, finally opens up this experience to analysis:

I'm too scared to talk to you because I'm too scared to talk to anyone, especially older people: I'm scared because I have or know no self. There's no one who can talk. My physical sensations scare me because they confront me with a self when I have no self: sexual touching makes these physical sensations so fierce. I'm forced to find a self when I've been trained to be nothing. Therefore, I perceive that physical pain, if it doesn't scare me because it's happening without my expectation and consent, helps out and enlarges sexual excitation.

The passage is both alarming and, in a sense, promising. It is a frighteningly blunt description of why Irigaray perceives "masochistic pleasure" as the "quasi-monopoly" of women. If identity is painfully etched, then pain recalls the moment of inscription and the noncultural memory of flesh before the cut of the pen. With no self that Juliette knows of as hers, with no "one" voice that is hers to use, she can only fear talking, especially with those whose age has, in her experience, allied them with the institutions of mastery. Like Bakhtin's Rabelaisian Man, like Cixous's insurgent writer, she encounters in her mixture of pain and pleasure, of focused and cosmic Eros, "a self when I have no self." Promising, but problematic, as the rest of the section suggests (its narrator makes love to Laure but is aghast at the pain she inflicts, the unnaturalness of her dildo, and the pleasure of her own orgasm—the mixture makes clear the ambiguities of trying to realize fully this episode's more utopian promises).

An equally agonizing venture is the Don's attempt to turn language to the ends of her quest. She explains her poetry fairly straightforwardly to the pirate dogs:

I write words to you whom I don't and can't know, to you who will always be other than and alien to me. These words sit on the edges of meanings and aren't properly grammatical. For when there is no country, no community, the speaker's unsure of which language to use, how to speak, if it's possible to speak. Language is community. Dogs, I'm now inventing a community for you and me.

This audacious program attempts to place beside patriarchy an alternative community informed by the Don's "mad" vision, but it does not have the luxury of making this effort in a cultural vacuum. The dogs are creatures of their culture, however much they wish to escape its norms. The Don can define art as to "dream publicly," but some of the dogs at least are mainly disappointed when the Don does not simply collapse and thus provide them "fresh (dead) meat." She continues, instead, but the stress of her project shows in the near-paradoxical hopelessness with which she perseveres. She joins a voodoo service where "all ways were allowed: all cultures: aloud" and in which everyone sings "songs of desire" in communal warmth. But her response to the experience is mixed: "It is necessary to sing, that is to be mad, because otherwise you have to live with the straights, the compromisers, the mealy-mouths, the reality-deniers, the laughter-killers. It is necessary to be mad, that is to sing, because it's not possible for a knight, or for anyone, to foray successfully against the owners of this world."

Mad singing of the sort we find in Acker's fiction is no doubt one way to respond to the "owners." Dispirited, the Don wishes an apocalypse of the "malevolent" upon the suburbanites and sadly concludes that "'I wanted to find a meaning or myth or language that was mine, rather than those which try to control me; but language is communal and here is no community.' Having concluded, Don Quixote turned around and started walking home, although she had no home." What she does not realize is that whereas she has no home in the sense of a recognizable space in the culture surrounding her, she has achieved a different sort of textual place. That is, though she did not find language and meaning wholly her own, and though she forged no community on the order of the great nineteenth-century communes, she did weave a crazy quilt of songs, narratives, outbursts, and essays which inspired her listeners. The dogs realize their hunger; "this was the first sign of their having language." Then they recognize that their homelessness is caused by landlords, and that only landlords call terrorism "useless." The dogs' own "mad" song weaves bits and pieces of bad family life, oppressive working conditions, and this recognition of the slave culture behind such pieces: "It is you, city. Market of the world, that is, of all representations. Since you're the only home I've ever known, without your representation or misrepresentation of me I don't exist. Because of you, since every child needs a home, every child is now a white slave." There is no home, no freedom, no "I" without the "history and culture" that they label "the world of death" near their song's conclusion. Such consciousness is apocalypse in the eyes of the landlords, but for the dogs "the work and the language of the living're about to begin."

The dogs' journey off into the adventures of a pirate band does not include the Don, however, for she is a self-confessed "freak" still poised between the need for "a home" and a fear of "the bickerings and constraints of heterosexual marriage." She still faces the conflict between loneliness, when "I don't touch anybody so I'm immersed in my own selfishness," and the knowledge that "as soon as I'm married, I'll be a prisoner; I'll be normal. I'll have to stop having the dreams by which I now act." The novel winds to its conclusion in a dream in which God confesses her imperfections: "Since I am no more, forget Me. Forget morality. Forget about saving the world. Make Me up." It is, perhaps, the Don's farewell to the concept of Messianic quest that she has held throughout the book and an implicit recognition of the more diffuse effect that her work will have. Not God, but effective fictions; not morality, but values. "I thought about God for one more minute and forgot it. I closed my eyes, head drooping, like a person drunk for so long she no longer knows she's drunk, and then, drunk, awoke to the world which lay before me." That world seems not to have been so available to her before, as if the intoxicating mission of taking on the "partly male" qualities of knighthood had, perhaps, enabled her to experience what Cixous calls the "vatic bisexuality which doesn't annul differences but stirs them up, pursues them, increases their number." The Don has conceived the suspension of such absolute limits as God, and she has provided the material for what Acker's dust jacket calls a "collage-novel" of stirred-up, increased textual and existential differences. If she is left feeling the full set of contradictions revealed by her analyses, it at least leaves her awake to the world's realities and to the problematic but hopeful possibility of "Make Me up." That is a great deal to hope for from the language community forged by the novel. "Eye/I" say the piratical dogs as they weigh anchor.

Martina Sciolino (essay date April 1990)

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SOURCE: "Kathy Acker and the Postmodern Subject of Feminism," in College English, Vol. 52, No. 4, April, 1990, pp. 437-45.

[In the following essay, Sciolino examines Acker's hybrid synthesis of poststructural theory, postmodern fiction, and feminist discourse.]

By conflating her own lover's discourse with seemingly mutually exclusive productions such as canonical literature and pornography, by using performative prose to launch political and aesthetic diatribes, Kathy Acker's narrative methods are exemplary for postmodern feminism. Materially didactic in its decompositions, any fiction by Acker engages a poststructural skepticism regarding the constative efficacy of language. Aware of its late capitalist milieu, her fiction replicates consumer dynamics in its own narrative cycles. Engaged with her social context, she typically includes the debris of an information age in montage that forces associations between material culled from radically different registers. Acker writes hybrid texts—part narrative, part essay. Her fiction enacts a critical imitation of literary moments by putting them alongside what the academy has traditionally, if tacitly, bracketed off from the literary.

The identity of every term is tenuous in these liminal productions signed by a woman. Contesting conventional boundaries by closely investigating difference activates both poststructural theory and postmodern fiction. But boundary ambiguity has a specific resonance within feminist theory, where it is often used to acknowledge the peculiarities of female individuation.

There has been a great deal of theorizing literary postmodernism, almost always in terms of male writers—as if postmodern literature, an understanding of which is almost impossible without considering the modalities of desire, has no obvious relation to gender difference. As the supposed progenitor of postmodernism, Joyce feminizes narrative, but those who are said to write in his wake are rarely female. (See, however, Hayman and Anderson, who include Helene Cixous' experimental prose.) On the other hand, feminist literary theory coincides—not always harmoniously—with poststructuralism, a discourse that is itself still a dissonant score-in-progress. When postmodern fiction is put in dialogue with poststructural theory (by major critics in this field, such as Ihab Hassan and Jerome Klinkowitz), feminist voicings are left out, left over. Subsequently, writings by women become dangerously supplemental to the theorization of postmodernity. This omission produces a field that is alongside, or submerged beneath, the scene of postmodern canon formation.

To invoke a Freudian metaphor despite its binary axis, the latent content of feminism (typically repressed through the dream-work that is criticism) may explode upon the manifest content of postmodernity and expose it as a state-of-the-art patriarchal discourse by glossing the fantastic aporias of male desire, exclusive fantasies that seem as operative in contemporary canon formation as ever. Kathy Acker's writing is already inserted between these latent and manifest postmodernisms, challenging their separation in a constructed dream-work of her own. A writer of innovative narratives that converse with theorists as diverse in their constructions of desire as Georges Bataille and Andrea Dworkin, Acker creates fictions that are theories-in-performance, speculative fictions that act out the suppositions of both poststructuralism and feminism.

If we take a moment to isolate and compare some of these suppositions, however, we might understand how Acker's performative project is saturated with impossibility. Take, for instance, the issue of the subject. In poststructural discourse, woman is the male subject displaced by the throes of desire (operant in écriture)—a process of figurative feminization that Alice Jardine calls "gynesis." One may trace this displacement in Derrida's works, particularly Spurs and Glas, as Gayatri Spivak does in "Displacement and the Discourse of Woman." There Spivak remarks that the male writer's displacement from the privileged site of subjectivity, his dislocation by postmodern writing or poststructural reading into the philosophical category traditionally marked feminine, doubly displaces women.

So how does Acker write postmodern prose as a woman? In addition, as desire is always operative in her writings, how can it affect a character who would be construed by Spurs and Glas as "indifferent" to "difference"?

As I have already suggested, a postmodern discourse that performs feminist critique would gloss male desire as such. The question arises: where is female desire? Still taking place in a poststructural absence privileged as enviable by male writers sensitive to the end of patriarchy? In a sense, Acker glosses Glas. Her fiction displays female desire as a process whose vicissitudes impede a reader's attempt to distinguish between two master narratives about female desire. The first is made of local narratives which constitute or enable the female subject as an absolute entity—as she is understood in existential, utopian, or bourgeois discourse. (Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics indicates where such assumptions inform Anglo-American feminist theory.) The second master narrative of female desire includes local narratives that deconstitute or prohibit a woman's being in favor of becoming. This register offers problems of its own, for Acker's fiction not only demonstrates consciousness in a rhetorical medium, it shows that "coming to be" is full of gaps, folds, and disappearances. A narrative becoming requires strategic decomposition, in reading and writing.

First of all, Acker works her reader through a deconstruction of the female subject; the phrase "female subject" is here understood through social conventions that still operate to predicate a woman in American culture. This is a fundamental project in all of Acker's early work, especially Blood and Guts in High School, and it reaches its fullest disclosure in Don Quixote, where Acker dialectically thinks through the myth of romantic love as organized by monogamous, heterosexual conventions. This dialectic is worked through dialogues between Don Quixote and her dog. Here, as in Great Expectations. Acker considers how a woman's desires are already constituted by various myths—narratives of being—that fully inform the speaking subject even as she speaks. Thus, how can one write a revolution to find a space for her own desires when she is already written by patriarchy? Don Quixote has internalized patriarchal discourse in the very process of learning her craft, an apprenticeship that necessitates reading: BEING BORN INTO AND PART OF A MALE WORLD, SHE HAD NO SPEECH OF HER OWN. ALL SHE COULD DO WAS READ MALE TEXTS WHICH WEREN'T HERS. It is from this dubious position that Don Quixote speaks, and Acker writes, the discourse of female desire.

While art for Acker is resistant to dominant culture, seeking to emancipate the writer and the reader, such an existentialist perception of art often rests upon a humanist theory of subjectivity. Here is another point of divergence between Anglo-American feminist theory and French theorists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, whose writings position the subject in a fluid rhetorical play. Although Acker envisages her art pragmatically, as a weapon, she challenges the view that the individual subject results from violent mastery as supreme or autonomous: it is this limit that creates desire. Whether the writings that speak to her are as marginal as Burroughs' or as fully established as Thoreau's, all "present the human heart naked…. This human heart is not only the individual heart: the American literary tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, even Miller, presents the individual and communal heart as a unity. Any appearance of the individual heart is a political occurrence."

Acker puts these values into play when she returns to the opening scene of Dickens' Great Expectations in her novel of the same name. The condition of being an orphan like Pip suggests a fantastic autonomy, and the suggestion is supported when Pip goes on to name himself. However, his name is a misprision—a reading of his parents' tombstone, a revision of "the name of the father," Phillip Pirrip. (Not that it matters in Acker's version of Great Expectations, because the speaker soon becomes a young girl. Here Acker indicates the tenuous relations between name, gender, and identity while simultaneously exposing the sequence that a reader engages to orient herself in narrative.) Finally, both Dickens and Acker deny their respective characters escape and bind them in their relationships to others, thereby demonstrating exactly how the desire for individual autonomy is fantastic, wishful, a dream that constitutes and deconstitutes character.

Again, Acker's writing acts out the suppositions of poststructuralism and feminism while critiquing both in relationship to one another. Differences between and within each field are put into operation here, so that the relationship between poststructuralism and feminism would seem to imitate the love/hate relationship that is a source of endless drama in Acker's fiction. Through her desiring characters, she wonders: where does love become hate, adoration, rivalry? Sometimes poststructuralism and feminism exist in mutual adoration, sometimes in mutual exclusion. Feminists are new subjects of history. What dissonance sounds between the death-throes of the humanist subject and the birth-pangs of new historical subjects?

How can a woman be heard in this noise? From what position can a woman write and claim her experience when authority is under erasure? Acker responds to this contemporary positioning of the woman writer through a technique of plagiarism/autoplagiarism.

In a recent interview, she describes her early fiction as thematic engagements with identity enabled by experiment in autobiographical narrative. In The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining, and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, she "put autobiographical material next to material that couldn't be autobiographical." By so doing, Acker problematizes any simple relationship between female experience and the writing of fiction and leads us to examine the claim of experience that often justifies scholarship of women's writing. Perhaps writing actually unravels the knot where experience and authority are conventionally bound—bound, that is, by conventions in feminist reading. In such reading, it would seem that Acker's fiction has a signature weave composed of specific preoccupations and repeated reference to events—rape by the stepfather, suicide of the mother, work in a sex show. However, the equation of Acker's writing and her experience is impeded by the fact that Acker is not an autobiographer but an autoplagiarist (a term Beckett used to describe Proust's fictionalization of his biography in A la recherche du temps perdu). The autoplagiarist takes the phrase "life-story" literally—as a literary term.

Acker's experiments with plagiarism include Great Expectations, Don Quixote, My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the most recent Empire of the Senseless. In the latter, Acker makes characters that are projections of herself, but not original creations. A dialogue between Abhor and Thavai demonstrates the difference. Thavai (a male character) is looking for "Somebody who knows something. Whoever he is, the knower, must be the big boss." His partner Abhor (who Thavai says is part robot, part black) answers: "'All I know is that we have to reach this construct. And her name's Kathy.'"

'That's a nice name. Who is she?'

'It doesn't mean anything.'

Thavai wants an author, a stable source, an originator. Instead, Abhor, a construct, describes a maker who is herself made.

Acker's experiments in plagiarism take issue with the notion of artistic authenticity underlying conventional authority. Like Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida, she celebrates the death of the author, the beginning of writing, of textuality as coproduced by reader and writer, the idea of reader as writer. Yet, Acker's cheery wake over the Author's corpus is informed by a feminist imperative. In "A Few Notes on Two of My Books," she writes that no one creates anything because "no one … is more powerful than the world":

Only the incredible egotism that resulted from a belief in phallic centrism could have come up with the notion of creativity.

Of course, a woman is the muse. If she were the maker instead of the muse and opened her mouth, she would blast the notion of poetic creativity apart.

Acker has spoken of her affinity for Sherry Levine's photography, which decontextualizes and re-represents photography by men: "When I copy, I don't 'appropriate.' I just do what gives me pleasure: write." Because she exposes the nature of possessive signing as patriarchal, especially at the start of Great Expectations, Acker's technique would seem to interrupt the suppositions of Showalter's gynocritics, which assumes relatively stable relationships between signature and gender, writing and a woman's experience.

Showalter's sometimes useful division between feminist critique and gynocritics often perpetuates among those who employ it an a priori assertion that women's writing and men's writing are constituted differently. Due to the simultaneity of plagiarism/autoplagiarism in Acker's fiction, identity is plastic. It mutates in Acker's innovative characterizations; gender is often, finally, in indeterminate relationship with identity. Moreover, both identity and gender are social constructions, works-in-progress whose very indeterminacy enables a politically motivated interruption. And in Acker's fiction, interruption is activated by montage—the cutting up of other writings, removing them from their original contexts to place them in new and unexpected relationships.

The question of whether women's writing and men's writing are constituted differently cannot be answered in any general way, although one could deduce as much if one considers the poststructural conflation of writing and reading alongside feminist theories of reader response. If gender is a social construct that informs reading in crucial ways, and if reading and writing are simultaneous activities as Acker's plagiarisms demonstrate, then gender would seem to affect writing just as emphatically as it affects reading. Certainly one may dispute the premises here, but another problem is locating exactly where gender informs writing, especially if I produce the text while reading it. If I cannot say where writing ends and reading begins, I cannot say exactly where any document marks itself as a woman's or a man's; in fact, if I'm doing the reading, they are all women's texts. And yet both Acker and de Beauvoir remind me that, as a woman, I am made and not born. The point is that gender difference is not immediately or adequately marked by signature alone. But of course we cannot speculate finally upon the differences between works signed by men and women until canons are reconstituted to include both.

So it seems that the poststructural elements of Acker's fiction do not automatically mesh with American feminist literary theory. As for the deconstruction of presence, of authority, of the priority of speech over writing—what about the status of the spoken word in women's and artists' communities, in most excentric communities that make texts out of earshot because our dominant discourses are document obsessed? (The term "ex-centric" is Linda Hutcheon's and indicates marginal discourse; however, Hutcheon defines postmodernism to include only ex-centric discourse, no matter what the writers' circumstances are. When she wished to designate the productions of non-white non-males, Hutcheon uses the rather unfortunate phrase "minoratarian discourse"—unfortunate because it rhymes with and therefore brings to mind "authoritarian discourse.") In The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, Acker records (that is, makes) the speech of female characters who are marginalized by the male artists they desire. These speakers are therefore at the periphery of a periphery. But here Acker glosses the Parisian art scene of Vincent Van Gogh by imagining women there speaking to each other: "Sure we're waitresses. We're part of the meat market. That's how we get loved." And by making Lautrec a woman, Acker brings the already marginalized communities of artist/men and prostitutes/women together as if to say that a cultural heritage that would honor one must honor both. (A similar repositioning occurs in the "Seattle Art Society" story of Great Expectations).

A more recent example of speech in Acker's fiction begins Empire of the Senseless when Thivai tells us Abhor's life story, which—he says—Abhor has told him. Thus even when Acker refers to an oral transmission, her very writing of it separates the speaker from her narrative (which, by the way, repeats the events of Acker's "life-story").

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Acker's experimentation with plagiarism and autoplagiarism makes gynocritics and feminist critique simultaneous rather than separate activities. The female writer whom feminist critics may want to claim for their own project hides in, is composed through, the play of textuality—the active material between herself and other readers/writers—including texts made with women, with men, and sometimes with texts not written at all but photographed, televised, spoken.

Acker's narrative techniques interrupt our tracing any source or event absolutely based in the author's experience. Fortunately, she also puts reading/writing on the same ontological level as experience. A ceaseless confessional marks all of her fiction, makes it one text, an autoplagiarism in progress. Says the character "I" in My Death My Life:

I keep trying to kill myself to be like my mother who killed herself. I kept working on the "Large Glass" for eight years, but despite that, I didn't want it to be the expression of an inner life.

Even at this moment of (apparent) full self-disclosure, Acker is speaking through the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose cubist painting "The Large Glass" was produced through years of interrogating the gaze.

Acker's (auto)plagiaristic technique foregrounds issues that are crucial to critical theory. One debate (carried on, for instance, by Fredric Jameson and Henry Louis Gates) attends the conflict between the deconstruction of the humanist subject (which demystifies authority as functional and fictive rather than absolute and essential) and the power of utterance desired by new subjects of history. Feminist criticism is a new historical discourse. Again, what seems desirable by feminist critics often entails a conceptualization of identity and authorship that poststructuralism questions.

For instance, feminist challenges to the academic construction of modernity and postmodernity necessitate a compensatory criticism that, in turn, risks privileging signature. Happily, this risk has its rewards. In Feminist Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern, Patricia Waugh reads female authors whose narratives perform a subjectivity that is neither traditionally humanist nor deconstructed. What Waugh describes, through Woolf and others, is a relational subject who coexists in narrative relations to other subjects. Character made in this way is never completed nor stable; its integrity depends upon otherness.

This relational subject articulated in Waugh's compensatory criticism may allow us to note finer distinctions within excentric traditions of modernism and postmodernism. For instance, Acker imagines a relational subject through narrative experimentation, as does Gertrude Stein. Stein is an autoplagiarist herself, most certainly in The Diary of Alice B. Toklas, where she makes a cubist I, an I formed through several perspectives grafted onto one another so that they happen simultaneously, as if in a visual field. But in Gertrude Stein's America, Stein appears to propose a rather utopic text that proceeds without any linkage—in fact without any subject, without a speaker, without a referent. "Language should move, 'not just moving in relation to anything, not moving in relationship to itself but just moving.'" Because this line is offered in the indeterminate frame of quotation marks, it would be a mistake to take it at its autotelic word.

Similarly interested in the possibilities of writing a moving text, Acker's Great Expectations speculates a narrative subtle enough to express the state of being in between states:

There is just moving and there are different ways of moving. Or: there is moving all over at the same time and there is moving linearly. If everything is moving-all-over-the-place-no-time, anything is everything. If so, how can I differentiate? How can there be stories? Consciousness just is: no time. But any emotion presupposes differentiation. Differentiation presumes time, at least BEFORE and NOW. A narrative is an emotional moving.

A narrative moves because a character is a work-in-progress: engaged in a ceaseless process of negotiating selfhood through relations to the world, to time, to other characters. Thus, the difference that constitutes identity is contingent—interrelational and contextual. In a word, that difference is moving, as moving as the subject who desires.

Stephen Schiff (review date 22 June 1990)

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SOURCE: "Rimbaud and Verlaine, Together Again," in The New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1990, p. 11.

[In the following review, Schiff provides a generally unfavorable assessment of In Memoriam to Identity.]

The characters in Kathy Acker's nine novels are far less intriguing than the character on some of them—on the book jackets, that is. There one finds Kathy Acker glaring provocatively into the camera, her hair platinum and butch-cut, her lips poised somewhere between a pout and a slurp, her underwear exposed and with it her mighty bi, tri and quadriceps, festooned with snarly tattoos.

The pose is manifestly defiant; it hints at the sort of avantgarde, fervently underground credentials that Ms. Acker has earned with such novels as Great Expectations (1984), Don Quixote (1986) and Empire of the Senseless (1988)—the sort of credentials more youthful writers, however hip, can never quite summon these days (Ms. Acker, who has also been a stripper and a performance artist, is now 43 years old).

Since the late 1970's, she has haunted those seamy fringes where the literary culture meets sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and her more sympathetic readers have hailed her as a "punk writer." If I understand the punk-rock movement of the late 70's and early 80's, the term is accurate. Punk musicians generally had a great deal to say, and a fearsome yen to say it; what distinguished them from their mainstream coevals was chiefly their inability to play their instruments. Likewise Ms. Acker, whose erudition is incontestable, whose ferocity is unmistakable and whose prose, I'm afraid, is unreadable.

Her new novel, In Memoriam to Identity (catchy title), provides a case in point. Like most of her work, it's a mix of affectless storytelling, graphic but oddly remote descriptions of sex, snatches of gnarled political diatribe (mainly feminist, anti-establishment, anticapitalist), collage effects (sometimes reminiscent of the cut-and-paste experiments of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) and lots of jangled grammar and syntax. In Memoriam is a good deal statelier than some of Ms. Acker's work (her first book, Blood and Guts in High School, features her own swell drawings of penises), but her fans will still hail it not only as "punk" but as "post-modernist" fiction. And this, too, is apt. For among the techniques favored by post-modernists is "appropriation"—the borrowing of themes, styles or images invented by earlier artists.

Ms. Acker appropriates like crazy. In Memoriam to identity begins with a peculiarly fractured account of the early life of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, parts of which seemingly take place during the Nazi occupation of France (by which time Rimbaud had been dead for a half century); there are also showy references to Bloomingdale's, AIDS and other up-to-date phenomena. Long swatches of dialogue are devoted to Ms. Acker's own quirky translations of Rimbaud. Where Rimbaud recalls (in "Délires II"), "I wrote of silences, of nights," Ms. Acker gives us: "I wrote silences, nights, my despair at not seeing you and being in a crummy hotel next to you." Which, no doubt, is what Rimbaud really meant to say.

Presently the biography gives way to a pair of vaguely parallel contemporary stories. The first is about a woman named Airplane who is raped and then kept by her rapist, and who soon becomes a stripper doing sex shows in a dive called Fun City. Literary detectives will quickly identify her as Ms. Acker's version of Temple Drake in William Faulkner's "Sanctuary." Next we follow the odyssey of a girl called Capitol, whose desire for sex flummoxes her family (including a brother named Rimbaud). Capitol falls in with a passive, well-to-do young man named Harry and becomes a performance artist employing various "smashed dolls" in her act—by which point those literary detectives will be waving their withered arms and screaming, "Faulkner again! 'The Wild Palms!'"

Of course, Ms. Acker knows better than to think that tossing together a salad of literary references and dirty talk will yield that devoutly longed-for whatsit, the post-modernist novel. What she's really trying to do is imagine herself into her favorite literary archetypes—to give Don Quixote, for instance, the qualms Ms. Acker herself had as she faced her own abortion—or, in In Memoriam, to invest Rimbaud with the desires and frustrations of a female renegade in love with a married bourgeois. This approach ought to kick her characters alive, but it doesn't because Ms. Acker's linguistic experiments smother them before they can draw breath. Alienation is not so much her theme as it is her method; her very language is alienated, her rhythms benumbed. Amazing things happen to her people and Ms. Acker describes their responses in excruciating detail, but she commits the cardinal dramatic sin of telling instead of showing. The result is drier than the driest history lecture.

Witness this description of the tempestuous relationship between Rimbaud and his married lover, the poet Paul Verlaine: "After a particularly sadistic scene, V's wife took her child and ran away to the south of France. V told her and R that he would do anything to avoid permanent separation from his wife. V asked R to leave him. V asked R to leave Paris. V drank more. R didn't want to do what V was telling him to do. V was taking away not only V—his only family—but also his only home."

That's one action-packed passage. And I defy you to read it in anything but a monotone.

Tom Clark (review date 12 August 1990)

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SOURCE: "Homage to the Great Punks of Our European Heritage," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 12, 1990, pp. 1, 8.

[Below, Clark reviews In Memoriam to Identity.]

In previous books like Don Quixote and Great Expectations, Kathy Acker has patented an audacious, irreverent, provocatively highhanded method of recycling classic literary texts in a manner variously reminiscent of Dadaist and surrealist procedures, Burroughsian cut-up and the "appropriation" tactics currently in vogue in the visual arts.

Effecting an arresting tacit critique by wrenching original works out of context and re-scaling them to purposes quite distinct from their authors' intentions, these collaged "ready-made" novels also manage to generate a formal modality and impetus all their own. It is a technique uniquely suited to Acker's radical aesthetic strategies, central among which are the subversion and redeployment of language as an instrument of power.

Here, in her ninth novel, Acker explicitly identifies her sources in a candid closing note: "All the preceding has been taken from the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, the novels of William Faulkner, and biographical texts on Arthur Rimbaud and William Faulkner."

Acker's piratical plunderings of the public domain are comparatively less manifest in the case of the latter author—from whom she merely adopts her book's structural template, lifted out of "The Wild Palms," and a major character, Quentin, one of her several, relatively faceless and disposable male protagonists, transplanted out of The Sound and the Fury and put to appropriately degenerate uses as the suicidally demented hero of the third of the three obsessive, interrelated romances which make up In Memoriam to Identity.

The image of an androgyne-prole Rimbaud, on the other hand, not only supplies a hero for the first of these romances but also hangs like an enigmatic totem of Freedom and Bad Attitude over the entire book. "I a man other"—as Acker quotes Rimbaud at one point—could serve as epigraph to her unsentimental farewell to identity, though even as she implicates the poet in the explosive fission of her various selves into a sort of electric sexual plurality (her heroine is actually several separate female characters, who share a single voice), she is careful to note that "Rimbaud wasn't a woman…. Perhaps there is no other to be and that's where I'm going."

"Pushing the emotive perceptive and rational capacities beyond their limits," a faithfully Rimbaudian motive, is the compulsive project that makes Acker's explorative, libidinous heroines go—and come, over and over and over. Somewhere here it is casually stated that to have fewer than two orgasms a day should be seen as a pathological symptom. "Sexuality must be closely tied to reality," Acker proposes. "You can't lie to yourself sexually." Her prose assaults social and cultural taboos with all the subtlety of a helicopter gunship, employing the graphic shock-tactic grammar and four-letter vocabulary of a relentless language of genital revolt.

Acker puts forth, with no little vigor and seriousness, a hard eyed view of human relations in our "insane society" as ultimately reducible to the model of the act of rape. In her fiction, the inevitable counter-exploitation of the perpetrator by the victim, the rapee turning upon the rapist, and reifying back at him with a vengeance, is seen not only as a defensive survival tactic on the woman's part but also—and, in moral terms, it must be said, somewhat more gratifyingly—as a poetic turning of the tables.

"I'm always scared," declares Acker's alter-ego heroine. "That's true, but everyone in their world's scared and most of everyone are zombies. I learned that this world is insane. There aren't any roles in an insane world. A world of power. It has something to do with sex. And men have the power, within all the fear; those men who deny this, lie…." Taking back that power, the alienated but highly resilient and self-reliant multiple-identity woman of her tale "had decided to survive. Somewhere in sexuality was her strength…. She would survive."

Largely plot-free, wanderingly picaresque, naive and superficial in its characterizations and finally less-novel-than-revolutionary tract, In Memoriam to Identity is a weird, violent, searing, angry work, full of pain, dislocation, desire, hate and the raging drive of resistant creation. Acker writes out of open rebellion—against, among other things, God, love, America, the hierarchic structures of patriarchal societies, middle-class values, humanitarianism, history, Harvard, television, Freud, Santa Claus.

"Do you prefer," she challenges her reader and herself with characteristic aggression early on in these pages, "do you think it's better to accept everything that you have been taught, that society has taught, to accept what is considered truth in the circle of your family, friends, and world and what, moreover, really comforts and seems proper? Or do you prefer to strike new paths, fighting the habitual, what goes against questioning? Do you prefer to experience the insecurity of independence and the frequent wavering of one's feelings and moral decisions, often having neither anyone to support you nor consolation, but only having this vision, this mental picture called 'truth'?"

Kathy Acker has invented a form of secret historiography, a language of shock and sensation that provides a vivid, disruptive, unsettling readout on the psycho-social trauma of our time.

Kate Braverman (review date 22 March 1992)

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SOURCE: "An Exercise in Public Drowning," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 22, 1992, p. 8.

[In the following review, Braverman offers an unfavorable assessment of Portrait of an Eye.]

Kathy Acker has achieved cult status in the small-press world, presumably for the graphic sexual content of her fictions and the nasty bad-girl attitude that fuels them. She is, fundamentally, an experimental minimalist. This collection consists of three mini-"novels" (two of them are fewer than 100 pages) which were previously self-published in the early and mid-70s. And one wonders at the wisdom of bringing forth such raw and marginal early efforts.

The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula is a series of disparate fragments, fantasies and meditations by a protagonist who may or may not be imagining that she is turning into a large black insect without feelings. There are unconnected sequences in which the protagonist inhabits the consciousness of murderesses and prostitutes, offers scenes from her childhood, decides to "revolt against the death society," reads pornography, masturbates, engages in public sex acts, discusses her boredom, wonders why she can't kill her parents for their money, hangs out in leather bars and concludes that she is too shy and gentle, too artistic to get a job.

I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining also is a series of disjointed fragments about a woman determined to be an artist. At one juncture, she says, without apparent irony, "I'm a poet and what I do is sacred. The people who keep me from the few lousy instruments I need to disseminate this crap are evil."

The protagonist philosophizes about abstractions such as the nature of substance and time. Cliché litanies adorn this section like land mines, blowing the serious reader away. The author reveals the "real evil." It is, among others, the secret combination of Rockefeller and Pentagon, fake shortages to raise prices, Standard Oil Co., coffee, IBM, CBS, Metropolitan Life, Allied Chemical, Kimberly-Clark, AT&T, American Express, Con Edison and the Chase Manhattan Bank.

This second collection of fragments is awkward for numerous reasons. Acker repeats entire sections word for word, like a broken movie projector or a kind of psychic stutter. This spasmodic feeling is amplified by unpunctuated sentences. In essence, the reader is encountering what seems to be a compendium of effects without a coherent central mechanism to make it run. It's like discovering you have deciphered the blueprint for a dead machine.

The Adult Life of Toulouse-Lautrec by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec consists of fragments that are simultaneously more conventional in both structure and content. Paradoxically, these sections are also less interesting than the more vivid and confused previous scenes from adolescent hell. Here, the author tries to sustain her ideas but the ideas prove to be pretentious and trivial.

In one piece, Toulouse-Lautrec is envisioned as being a sex-starved woman in a kind of mystery story set in a Paris slum that resembles contemporary San Francisco. There is a mildly amusing section about a 9-year-old Janis Joplin having an affair with the young James Dean. This is intercut with dialogue from the film Rebel Without a Cause. Interspersed throughout these jagged fictions are political diatribes and apparent revelations about the history of capitalism and the role of multinational corporations on global affairs.

In point of fact, these "novels" are without narrative, character or plot. They have no structure or dramatic line and nothing coalesces or resolves. These fragments lack even a minimal guiding sensibility or unifying principle, if only the manic and demonic passion and outrage of, say, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Burroughs maintains a consistent sense of fury, and Naked Lunch is composed of, at the very least, fully realized vignettes.

In contrast, these pages read like a writer's journal littered with powerful story ideas and descriptions of real events that have yet to be transformed into fictions. They are not viable stylistic assaults on the traditional forms. The author is clearly in touch with chaos but unable or unwilling to tame and orchestrate it. There are elegant passages here and spasms of real lyrical clarity, none of which are developed or shaped. This dereliction of direction is not a new art form. Rather it is like watching the captain jump from her ship, over and over again. This is an exercise in public drowning.

These "novels," textured in layers of self-indulgence, deliberately oblique and willfully solipsistic, have produced a curious anomaly. This is a kind of novel in reverse. Rather than creation, this is a literary autopsy where the reader is forced to sift through the severed pieces of what goes into making art.

The elements of novels are here and they are wasted. This is, at it's core, a coolly deliberate pseudo-literature. And these are anti-novels presumably for anti-readers.

Greg Lewis Peters (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Dominance and Subversion: The Horizontal Sublime and Erotic Empowerment in the Works of Kathy Acker," in State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, edited by Nicholas Ruddick, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 149-56.

[In the following essay, Peters explores the narrative techniques and language of dominance and submission employed by Acker to subvert patriarchal hierarchies and conventional notions of sexual identity.]

Cosmo Landesman, in his (unfavorable) 1984 review of Kathy Acker's novel Blood and Guts in High School, describes her writing as having "the gothic perversity of Lautremont [sic] mixed with the glory and the gore of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Others have been less kind. Acker has been accused of being everything from merely irritating to the most evil person in the world. She is a tattooed feminist punk linguist who writes possibly the most subversive novels in contemporary American fiction. In Blood and Guts in High School (1978), Don Quixote (1986), and Empire of the Senseless (1988), Acker goes to war with the oppressive patriarchal worlds of politics, language, and sexuality. Her novels are Derridean time bombs that seek to escape the prisons of language, narrative and proscribed sexuality. She escapes traditional authorial limits by creating entropic, funhouse texts of exploded narrative, nonspecific signification, and fantasy. Her characters escape their own limits through an often frightening process of simultaneous assimilation, capitulation, and destruction, actions that reflect two seemingly exclusive modes of empowerment: a romantic sublime redefined by contemporary feminist theory as "horizontal"; and the violent, forbidden path of erotic dominance and submission.

Acker's novels contain some of the most stylistically difficult writing of recent times. The narrative voice, as well as the setting in time and place, typeface, page layout, language (portions of Blood and Guts and Empire of the Senseless are in Persian) have a fragmented quality; the characters' histories, sex, and even species change without warning or explanation. The aggressive, confrontational intertextuality of her novels is arresting and disturbing: "Kathy Acker" often puts in an appearance, as do many famous works of fiction from the "real" world, such as Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, the original Don Quixote, Lampedusa's The Leopard, Wedekind's Lulu plays, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and even the love poems of Catullus.

For Kathy Acker is an unashamed plagiarist. Taking the postmodernist axiom of the death of the author to its logical (and absurd) extreme, Acker in "her" Don Quixote claims to create no new texts, just refiltered combinations of "male texts which weren't hers." If, as Derrida holds, no word can ever be equated to the idea it purports to represent, and if, as Kristeva notes, any "textual segment" is the product of "the intersection of a number of voices, of a number of textual interventions," then any "new" "written" "creation" must be read as an un/conscious recombination/interpretation of, and capitulation to, previous texts.

Acker's work is a clear and deliberate exploration of these ideas. She not only denies authorship of her material, but she also refuses to let the words she appropriates represent their accepted meanings. By rewriting stolen texts and weaving them into her own explicitly brutal writing, she creates a new kind of language in which meaning—of both the revised/plagiarized novels and the individual words themselves—can only be achieved through context and association. Acker's novels are self-/extra-/ultra-referential, discontinuous, circular, non-linear; that is, they possess all those qualities associated with what Hélène Cixous used to call feminine writing, but what she now calls "a decipherable libidinal femininity which can be read in a writing produced by a male or a female" but which I here will continue to call feminine writing (and by extension) reading.

Acker takes Cixous's concept of "writing the body" very seriously indeed. Her texts are attempts to make the abstract physical through ("through" meaning literally in one side and out the other) the body, giving a visceral form to the feminine writing hypothesized by Cixous and Luce Irigaray. As Abhor, the half black, half robot hero/ine of Empire of the Senseless says, "It seemed to me that the body, the material, must matter…. If my body mattered to me, and what else was any text: I could not choose to be celibate."

Acker's fictional world is one in which civilization's only remaining relationship is one of dominance (and conversely submission), or D/S: dominance over nature, desire, instinct, need, love, another person, culture, or idea. Patriarchy has resulted in a self-aggrandized humanism, in which power comes only with destruction as its and of its other, and women are reduced to and referred to in terms of their most significant physical differentiating characteristic: cunts. The women in this masculinist world, cognizant of their own desires, are nonetheless forced to function as submissive objects in the Freudian dialectic of sexual power and difference.

Janey Smith, the ten-year-old protagonist of Blood and Guts, is forced away from home when father—who is also her lover, the patriarchy often being represented in Acker by weak, incestuous fathers—finds another woman. Janey flees to New York City, where she joins a gang and is eventually kidnapped and sold to a Persian slave trader, who "t[eaches] her to be whore" and locks her in an empty room with only a pencil and scraps of paper. Janey begins to write:

It's possible to hate everything that isn't wild and free…. My father told me the day after he tried to rape me that security is the most important thing in the world. I told him sex is the most important thing in the world … everything in the materialistic society is the opposite of what it really is.

Janey knows what she wants, but she is restrained at every turn. Her language means nothing to the men around her, so she teaches herself Persian and writes love poems to her captor "because she had nothing else to feel"—remembered and exploded lines by Sextus Propertius, and "slave poems":

List of my slave duties:

(1) Body slavery … my body likes sex and rich food and I'll do anything for these.

(2) Mind slavery … I live in a partially human world and I want people to think and feel certain ways about me. So I try to set up certain networks, mental-physical, in time and space to get what I want…. These networks become history and culture (if they work) and as such, turn against me and take away time and space.

Janey is beginning to fit into the D/S structure. Her captivity engenders desires that can only be fulfilled by an Other, a Master who will recognize her as his Other. Also typical of D/S is Janey's acknowledgement that her "networks" will "take away time and space"—that is, they will eventually allow her to free herself from objectification. At this point, however, Janey is a classic "submissant," craving at once recognition from her Master and freedom from his domination of her.

A submissant, unlike a masochist who receives gratification from being controlled, receives pleasure in being recognized, even if it is as Other, and in the act of allowing his/her boundaries of selfhood to be broached. A strict boundary of Self produces a sense of isolation and makes it difficult to accept another person as real; yet recognition of and by others is necessary for effective human functioning: this is the paradox of Freudian recognition theory and of the D/S relationship. The easiest way out of the paradox is for the dominant partner to assume that the submissant is not autonomous, that they are completely controllable. That they are not is what makes the relationship "work".

In Acker's Don Quixote the eponymous sixty-year-old heroine comes to understand this paradox just as she is about to undergo an abortion:

In order to love, she had to find someone to love. "Why," she reasoned to herself, "do I have to love someone in order to love? Hasn't loving a man brought me to this abortion or state of death?

"Why can't I just love?

"Because every verb to be realized needs its object. Otherwise, having nothing to see, it can't see itself or be. Since love is sympathy or communication, I need an object which is both subject and object: to love, I must love a soul."

Only in higher levels of its development is "Self" defined not only through autonomy but also through communality with others. In the early, arrested state that Acker's fiction explores, the search for Self is exclusionary only. In the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave, self-definition depends on being able to affect others by one's actions. To exist for oneself, one must exist for an Other; in desiring an Other, one seeks to be recognized. One realizes the desire through action, but if the action consumes or destroys the Other, the Other can give no recognition. Thus the alternative is enslavement. In Blood and Guts, Janey's self-knowledge dawns during her enslavement to the Persian. In Don Quixote, Quixote, who has named herself k/night in order to be able to love—since only men can love—realizes the hopelessness of the D/S relationship at the end of her first adventure when she writes to herself at the moment of her death:

For me alone you were born, and I for you. We two are one though we trouble and hurt each other. You're my master and I'm the servant. I'm sick to death because I tried to escape you, love. I yield to you with all my heart or mind. This mingling of our genitals the only cure for sickness. It's not necessary to write or be right cause writing's or being right's making more illusion: it's necessary to destroy and be wrong.

How can Acker's female protagonists reconcile their desires for love and selfhood with their participation in misogynistic, self-abnegating sexual and political relationships in which their only role is Other? How can Acker herself write the body and express her creations in feminine language while operating within a sociosexual and literary discourse that allows only submission as a woman's role? There seem to be two possible answers: to fight domination in order to break away from it and stand alone, or to give in to it.

The erotic component of D/S can be viewed in Georges Bataille's terms as stemming from a maintenance of the violent tension between life and death, or continuity and discontinuity. In other words, the fear of death and dying, coupled with the human attraction to whatever is taboo (and death is the greatest taboo) creates a natural tension. Death is continuity, in that the return to the earth, the actual decay of the body, is a threat to the psychosexual self: how can I be an autonomous being when I am destined to return to the dust? Sexual passion, in Bataille's view, is "a miraculous continuity" in that the boundaries of Self are temporarily dropped when joined with the Other. The erotic attraction of the D/S relationship lies in teasing death. For the submissant, this involves opening up boundaries and approaching continuity; for the dominator, it involves consolidating autonomy by controlling an Other without allowing any of the dominator's own boundaries to be violated. Of course, if the transgression of boundaries goes too far, the result for the submissant is total continuity—that is, death.

It is this total continuity that Acker's protagonists seek through bizarre rituals of self-abnegation and violence. In Empire of the Senseless Agone, a Cuban sailor who, like all the characters, searches for his selfhood in a world where taboo is unknown, first approaches continuity while getting tattooed by a new method: his flesh is pierced and raised with a knife into a three-dimensionaltattoo. During the piercing, Agone identifies the tattooist as his Other and for the first time in his life feels sexual desire. The relationship between the traditional tattooist and his subject is analogous to that between the traditional (male) author and the paper he writes upon.

In Acker's revision, however, the tattooist literally enters the body, not just with a needle, but with a knife. The sexual symbolism is obvious, if the tie to feminine writing is not. Yet after the piercing is complete, Agone's tattoo will consist not only of the raised flesh, but colors and threads run through the piercings themselves. This is "writing the body" in its most precise and extreme form: not writing about or on the body, but through it, creating new textures from it and ornamenting them to create a personal and social statement of the body. The irony of the metaphor is that Agone cannot achieve self-knowledge without the aid of an Other, the tattooist, a dominant master to whom Agone entrusts the ultimate violation of physical boundaries—the cutting of his own flesh. Even then, the tattooist does not go to the desired point of total continuity for, as we have seen, total continuity means death.

In Acker's world, getting close to continuity is not enough. To be empowered, her characters must transgress the boundaries of Self even to the point of death and become continuous with all life. It is this "all," as Luce Irigaray writes, that is at the heart of feminine writing:

This "all" can't be schematized or mastered. It's the total movement of our body. No surface holds: no figures, lines, and points; no ground subsists. But there is no abyss. For us, depth does not mean a chasm. Where the earth has no solid crust, there can be no precipice. Our depth is the density of our body, in touch "all" over. There is no above/below, back/front, right side/wrong side, top/bottom in isolation, separate, out of touch. Our all intermingles. Without breaks or gaps…. Stretching out, never ceasing to unfold ourselves, we must invent so many different voices to speak all of "us," including our cracks and faults, that forever won't be enough time.

Patricia Yaeger interprets Irigaray's words as calling for a new form of literary empowerment, a horizontal "female sublime," which does not involve conquering the Other and internalizing it, as does the traditional romantic sublime. For male poets and novelists, the sublime moment, the sudden influx of power, comes when the Other—be it mountain, animal, demon, or woman—is faced and beaten. The (male) persona identifies with the Other and thus creates a unified ego that, in effect, destroys the Other's otherness.

The horizontal sublime, as its name implies, is not a phenomenon of dominance, but of expenditure. The moment of empowerment is the same, as is the realization that a door has been opened and a new plane of existence is within reach. But in this revised sublime, the Other is allowed to remain alien and sovereign, and the witness does not transcend his/her humanity by becoming "more than human" but instead becomes "more human" through a spreading multiplicity of awareness. Yaeger cities, as an example of the horizontal sublime, "The Fish" (1946) by Elizabeth Bishop, in which the aged, wily fish is captured but released: yet the narrator still becomes empowered by the rainbow that fills her boat. Another example, familiar to most moviegoers, is Obi-Wan Kenobi's death in Star Wars (1977). Kenobi turns off his light saber and submits to the dominant Darth Vader, letting his physical boundary be violated unto death—and he is suddenly everywhere within the fabric of the universe.

In Acker's work, the horizontal sublime is used as a way out of the double-bind of patriarchal, D/S society. Language is too implicated in the power structure to be of any use to women, as is sexuality, which is valid only as a component of D/S. Letting go and returning to continuity is the only recourse available. So Janey in Blood and Guts develops cancer and is released by the slave trader. She finds a ticket to Tangier in the street, goes there, then wanders the desert in the company of Jean Genet until both are thrown into prison. There Janey, near death, prays: "Please night take over my mind." Night has come to represent to her the final boundary to be broken—not death, or suicide, but that trace second before, when the submissant finally lets go.

Janey gets released from prison and dies in Luxor, Egypt. The novel closes with two pictographic narratives, "The World" and "The Journey," intertextual atlases of objects and movements corresponding to the passage of Janey's soul into the continuum. The narrative becomes non-sequential, discontinuous with what we have read already, with what indeed we might consider narrative at all, unless we read this section as occurring all at once, as the movement of Janey into "all": "Soon many other Janeys were born and these Janeys covered the earth."

Don Quixote, realizing that to search for love through the two ways allowed her—language and sex—is to feed herself into the same D/S machine that keeps her from finding love, escapes herself by "being happy. By embracing and believing myself, just appearances, the night. By embracing, and believing, my deepest being which is not knowing. Therefore my vision has ended." She rejects patriarchal language and logic and trusts only her vision of irrationality and not-knowing, a vision/language that breaks boundaries at the same time as it prevents others from being raised.

In Empire, Abhor, like Janey and Don Quixote before her, is imprisoned linguistically and sexually as well as literally. She is eventually freed from literal prison to form her own, one-cyborg motorcycle gang. In this world without patriarchy and taboo, she creates chaos by attempting to drive on the highway according to the rules of the Highway Code, computing stopping distances and measuring speed while other vehicles crash all around her. She is metaphorically learning the codes of a language that has no semantics to accommodate her. Just as Acker explodes patriarchal language by reinventing/plagiarizing its sacred texts, so Abhor's actions reveal the fundamental uselessness of any male code to express a specifically female experience. That both Acker and Abhor reject the spirit of the codes while working within the letter of them is one more form of capitulation, but a reasoned capitulation that is subversive in intent.

Destroying the myth of difference has been an important goal of contemporary feminist theory for to define female language, sexuality, and spirituality only as that which is not male reinforces the sexist binary dialectic. Acker's fiction collaborates with this project. Her use of the horizontal sublime in her novels characterized by exploded language and male texts that have been reread, re-experienced, and rewritten, offers a way at once to subvert the power structure, confront the dark side of sexuality, and create a new diegesis of empowerment that acknowledges the role of Other while celebrating the infinite and continuous possibilities of Self.

Ellen G. Friedman (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of My Mother: Demonology, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 213-4.

[Below, Friedman offers a favorable review of My Mother: Demonology.]

The themes in Kathy Acker's newest book will not surprise followers of her delirious prose. Schizophrenic juxtaposition again organizes her text. A section entitled "Rape by Dad" begins: "In the following paragraphs I would like to try to highlight various recollections from my childhood. My parents were nevertheless very kind. They never beat me." These sentences are followed by the father's rape of the narrator. Also many of the obsessions that are the signature of her texts recur. A catalog of these would include: the father as patriarchy: "For me the past sits in the form, the actuality of the father: I don't want to meet my father. He left me before I was born." Appropriation of other texts: One of Acker's little jokes on those who criticize her for plagiarism is that she plagiarizes lines from Eliot's The Waste Land—"The Fire Sermon / 'When lovely woman stoops to folly and Paces about her room again, alone'"—that Eliot had plagiarized from Goldsmith. Pirates: "These pirates, a combination of uneducated English, mulattos and gauchos who for many years had been fomenting other forms of discontent … couldn't have cared less about political doctrines and indoctrinations." Contemporary politics: Here is Bush beginning a speech on abortion: "God, if these masses of flesh that we call the women of this country—in particular, my daughter, her blood, this part of me that is diseased, whom I've just raped—were made by You." (Thatcher and Mayor Koch are also characters.) The body: "STORYTELLING METHOD: THE ACT OF BODYBUILDING PRESUPPOSES THE ACT OF MOVING TOWARD THE BODY OR THAT WHICH IS SO MATERIAL THAT IT BECOMES IMMATERIAL."

Other obsessions exemplified in the novel include clinically described sex, sadomasochism, incest, detailed body parts, bodily excretions, toilets and toilet paper, tattoos, Catholic school girls in little pleated skirts, and Nazis. Here, as in so many of Acker's books, she depicts a quest for the beyond of identity. Yet rather than seeking that beyond on the other side of culture, as occurs elsewhere in her canon, My Mother: Demonology turns at the end suddenly quasi-mystical. Its last line has the narrator seeing "a reflection of [her] face before the creation of the world." Despite the fact that the narrator sees this reflection in a roll of toilet paper, the statement is the closest Acker has come to a discourse of inclusion, to a statement of individual identity in the world. Yet this hesitant, self-mocking affirmation is only a resting place at the end of a text whose tone is better summed up in its epigraph: "After Hatuey, a fifteenth-century Indian insurrectionist, had been fixed to the stake, his Spanish captors extended him the choice of converting to Christianity and ascending to Heaven or going unrepentantly to Hell. Gathering that his executioners expected to go to Heaven, Hatuey chose the other."

Rod Phillips (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "Purloined Letters: The Scarlet Letter in Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 35, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 173-80.

[In the following essay, Phillips explores the significance of Acker's allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in Blood and Guts in High School.]

In the years since critics first took notice of Kathy Acker, considerable comment has been made on her use of other writers' language and plot lines in her fiction—and rightfully so. Acker has taken literary "borrowing" to its most bizarre extreme. Large portions of her books are undisguised reworkings of earlier writers' fictions; often such passages are used verbatim with no clue as to where the borrowed material ends and Acker's own language begins. Her 1982 work, Great Expectations, has as the title of its first section a single word: "Plagiarism." The novel's first few lines do indeed live up to the title:

My father's name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Peter.

In her earlier works, Acker chose to supply her readers with footnotes or authorial credits when she made use of other writers' words; but as her career progressed, she dropped this convention and has since borrowed, paraphrased, and plagiarized from the words and ideas of others with impunity. Ironically, plagiarism—the negation of another writer's trademark—has become one of the most distinctive trademarks of Acker's own fiction.

In fiction as experimental, fragmented, and disorienting as Acker's, these moments of familiar text can provide brief comfort in an otherwise very uncomfortable body of work. As critics, we are trained to look for "keys" to a text's "meaning," such as allusion, influence, and symbol. This is, no doubt, why so many of Acker's critics have made mention of the element of plagiarism in her art. As critics trained in the analysis of more traditional forms of literature, we may feel uncertain of how to approach many aspects of Acker's writing: her multigeneric style, her merging of visual art with text, and her shifting, often unreliable, narration. But we recognize Dickens when we see it (and Hawthorne, and Jong, and Genet), and we feel compelled to make use of these familiar handholds as a way of making meaning within Acker's fictions.

But, unfortunately, most critics have done little more than note that plagiarism is an element in Acker's writing; little analysis has been done of how it functions in her work. Poet and critic Ron Silliman (himself a character in Acker's novel The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec) has offered an oversimplified equation for what he calls the "persistent formula" for Acker's fiction: "plagiarism + pornography = autobiography." Other critics have been almost as dismissive in their remarks on Acker's borrowings. Larry McCaffery, one of the first critics to deal seriously with Acker's work, also has put forth a rather limited view of the purpose and function of Acker's plagiarism of earlier, more well-known texts:

Part of the point behind such strategies is to foreground textual jouissance, to insure that readers perceive that the "unity" found here is not produced by the questionable concept of an authorial ego or character "identity," but results from a confrontation with a consciousness presenting moments in its experience-in-practice.

Both critics are correct—at least in part. Acker's plagiarism is, as Silliman suggests, one of the ways in which she talks about her own life. And it is also, just as McCaffery points out, a means of unsettling reader expectations about authorial identity. But there is more to Acker's extensive use of plagiarized material than either critic's explanation can afford.

Acker's 1978 work, Blood and Guts in High School, may offer some answers concerning the purposes, and the effects, of her plagiarism. The novel deals with a ten-year old's journey through a dark world whose most distinct features are the absence of love and the presence of sexual perversion. Janey, Acker's protagonist, is the victim of first, her father's incest and second, his rejection. Forced to live on her own in New York City, Janey enters into a life of drugs, gratuitous sex, and violence—culminating in her kidnapping and captivity at the hands of a "Persian slave trader."

Like her other fictions, Blood and Guts contains a number of borrowings from other texts and from popular culture. The figures of Erica Jong, Jean Genet, and Jimmy Carter, among others, drift in and out of Acker's text like players in a nightmare. But the authorial presence most clearly felt in the book, except for Acker's of course, is that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. While Janey is being held captive by the Persian slave trader, she lives in total isolation, with no outside contact except for daily visits from her captor—visits in which she is "taught to be a whore." "One day she found a pencil stub and a scrap of paper in a forgotten corner of the room," Acker writes. "She began to write down her life." What follows is a lengthy section entitled "A Book Report," in which Janey writes, ostensibly at least, about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. From the start, however, it is clear that Janey is indeed "writing down her own life" as much as she is engaging in a book report. "We all live in prison," she begins. "Most of us don't know we live in prison."

The question arises: Why select Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter as the fictional device with which to describe Janey's life? What qualities make Hawthorne's novel, written over one and a quarter centuries earlier, suitable collage material for Acker's postmodern, punk fiction? One answer, certainly, lies in the similarity of the two protagonists. Both are female outsiders who violate societal rules. Both are victims of male oppression, and both are in some way imprisoned. Most importantly, perhaps, both are "prisoners" of their own desire to be loved.

The popularity and high regard of Hawthorne's novel may suggest a second reason for Acker's use of the book. Few books can be considered to be universally known by Americans, but The Scarlet Letter is certainly one of the most widely taught novels in American schools. It follows that if Acker were seeking a work to use as a source of symbol and meaning, she would select a well-known text like Hawthorne's. Beyond this instant recognition, however, Larry McCaffery suggests a more perverse reason for using the novel in Acker's work. He notes the punk penchant for "crossing images together unexpectedly." Often this is done, McCaffery writes: "by profaning, mocking, and otherwise decontextualizing sacred texts (Johnny Rotten blaring out 'God Save the Queen,'…) into blasphemous metatexts." The Scarlet Letter, with its high position in the canon of American literature, is ripe for this type of approach. What, after all, could be more unexpected than a juxtaposition of Puritan and punk cultures? This may be at the root of Acker's choice of Hawthorne's "sacred text."

Early in her "book report," Acker's Janey engages in the kind of image crossing that McCaffery speaks of. By joining together thumbnail sketches of Hester Prynne's world and Janey's, Acker is able to discuss the current position of women in American society:

Long ago, when Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, he was living in a society that was more socially repressive and less materialistic than ours. He wrote about a wild woman. This woman challenged the society by fucking a guy who wasn't her husband and having his kid. The society punished her by sending her to gaol, making her wear a red 'A' for adultery right on her tits, and excommunicating her.

In the next paragraph, Janey abruptly shifts from her "book report" on Hester's life and times and focuses on the realities of her own:

Nowadays most women fuck around 'cause fucking doesn't mean anything. All anybody cares about today is money. The woman who lives her life according to nonmaterialistic ideals is the wild antisocial monster: the more openly she does so, the more everyone hates her.

Clearly Acker is engaging in social criticism by using the borrowed text as a touchstone for Janey's present reality. By attempting to assimilate Hawthorne's world, Janey tries to understand the forces of history that have led to what she sees as the near collapse of her society:

The society in which I'm living is totally fuckedup. I don't know what to do…. If I knew how society got so fucked-up, if we all knew, maybe we'd have a way of destroying hell. I think that's what Hawthorne thought. So he set his story in the time of the first Puritans: the first people who came to the northern North American shore and created the society Hawthorne lived in, the society that created the one we live in today.

But Acker's use of Hawthorne's text allows for more than just a simple critique of American society; it also gives her a device with which to discuss the powers and the limitations of literature. Locked in her cell-like room, Janey uses a series of images—Hawthorne's novel—to describe her condition, to "write down her life." Soon after, however, she finds a Persian grammar book and begins to learn to write and compose poetry in Persian. The language system of her captor, the Persian slave trader, replaces, for a time at least, the language and plot of Hawthorne's tale. Unstated, but implicit in this plot development, is the idea that we adopt—perhaps without knowing it—the language of our oppressors. Just as the slave trader's grammar book has colored and shaped Janey's thinking, so have Hawthorne and all those who have contributed to the "fucked-up-culture" to which she belongs.

Janey, unlike Acker, seems quite unaware of the power that the literature of her oppressors has over her. She negates the power of the written word—claiming it to be a part of a much older time. Hawthorne, she says, "was living in a society to which ideas and writing still mattered." Janey sees her position as a writer as nearly meaningless—because literature is treated as a commodity:

Right now I can speak as directly as I want 'cause no one gives a shit about writing or ideas, all anyone cares about is money…. A book that can be advertised. Define culture that way.

You see, things are much better nowadays than in those dark old repressed Puritan days: anybody can say anything today; progress does occur.

Blind to the power that literature has had over her, Janey believes her own pen to be powerless. Unlike Hawthorne, who had to cloak "all the wild things he wanted to say" because his society valued ideas, Janey can say anything she wants because ideas no longer matter.

Janey's comments on the commodification of literature may point to another reason behind Acker's use of other writers' texts. In a time when the only ideas that count are those that "will net a half-million in movie and/or TV rights," perhaps Acker's borrowings from Hawthorne and other writers is a radical denial of literature as property. McCaffery has noted that deeply ingrained in the punk aesthetic is a distrust of the "conventions which govern traditional artistic forms"—a belief that "the traditions and language of Great Art had derived from the same elitist, authoritative sensibility that had elevated profit and reason at the expense of human needs and feelings." By using Hawthorne or other writers, as the basis for her own text, Acker may be rejecting the notion that art can be turned into property, and in turn may be rejecting the entire system that has tried to do so. Under such a mindset, plagiarism is not stealing because that which cannot be owned cannot be stolen. Words and ideas then, are not property but are free-floating objects that (like the title of the Poe story which I've used as the title for this essay) can be used freely by all.

For Janey, this characteristic punk distrust of literature and culture is an enigma. She faces the Catch 22 of wanting to rail against her culture but finding that she has no means to do so except those that are culturally prescribed (i.e., a book report on Hawthorne). Later, in her "Persian Poems," Janey again faces this problem. One of her poems, written in Persian and translated, reads:

     Culture stinks: books
     and great men and the
     fine arts
     beautiful women

Written in the language of her captors, the poem—like the book report—is a product of the culture that Janey so violently hates.

But the possible reasons for Acker's use of Hawthorne that I've outlined so far—forum for social critique, symbol for male literary dominance, and subject for punk literary anarchy—may prove to be secondary to what I believe to be the main effect realized by the author's borrowings from The Scarlet Letter. Above all, I think, the sections of the novel dealing with Hawthorne allow a radical feminist reworking of the story of Hester Prynne—a kind of "taking back" of a woman's story from a male author. By removing the story of Hester Prynne and her daughter Pearl from the limits of Hawthorne's text and placing them in Janey's consciousness, Acker both modernizes and feminizes the novel.

The Scarlet Letter section of the book is not the only part of Blood and Guts in which Acker voices the desire to revise male texts along feminist lines. In the section of the novel in which Janey travels with French novelist Jean Genet, she notes a passage from Genet's autobiographical novel Le Journal du Voleur in which the author describes his masochistic joy at being "beaten up and hurt" by his male lovers. Janey's response is not one of recognition with her own situation as a woman who has had similar experiences; instead, it is one of disgust at his lack of understanding for the true position of women in a male-dominated culture:

Genet doesn't know how to be a woman. He thinks all he has to do to be a woman is slobber. He has to do more. He has to get down on his knees and crawl mentally every minute of the day. If he wants a lover, if he doesn't want to be alone every single goddamn minute of the day and horny so bad he feels the tip of his clit stuck in a porcupine's quill, he has to perfectly read his lover's mind, silently, unobtrusively, like a corpse, and figure out at every changing second what his lover wants. He can't be a slave. Women aren't just slaves. They are whatever men want them to be. They are made, created by men. They are nothing without men.

The passage is a telling one concerning the authenticity of texts written by men about women. Genet, although perhaps closer in his experience to what Janey sees as the position of women in society, still lacks the necessary emotional, physical, and social conditioning to portray accurately the experience of being a woman. In Janey's view, Genet has the wrong mind-set, the wrong genitals, and the wrong social status to do anything more than play-act the role of woman.

The type of feminist correction to which Janey submits Genet's text is also at the heart of her treatment of Hawthorne's novel. The story line of the book is taken back from Hawthorne and his omniscient narrator as Janey and Hester merge in Acker's text. The structure of Acker's text becomes more confused and fragmentary as Janey's isolation and illness change the form of her discourse from a standard high school book report to a hallucinatory stream of consciousness:

       Everything takes place at night.
     In the centres of nightmares and dreams,
     I know I'm being torn apart by my needs,
     I don't know how to see anymore.

I'm too bruised and I'm scared. At this point in The Scarlet Letter and in my life politics don't disappear but take place inside my body.

As Janey's assimilation of Hester's character becomes complete, all punctuation that might have separated the quoted material of Hester from Janey's speech disappears. Janey seems to melt into the character of Hester Prynne, voicing openly the desires of the heroine from Hawthorne's novel. But the words she uses also fit her own situation; it is a speech that could be addressed to either Hester's Reverend Dimmesdale or Janey's absent, incestuous father:

I want to fuck you, Dimwit. I know I don't know you very well you won't ever let me get near you. I have no idea how you feel about me. You kissed me once with your tongue when I didn't expect it and then you broke a date. I used to have lots of fantasies about you: you'd marry me, you'd dump me, you'd fuck me…. Now the only image in my mind is your cock in my cunt. I can't think of anything else.

I've been alone for a very long time. I'm locked up in a room and I can't get out…. I don't know how to talk to people, I especially have difficulty talking to you; and I'm ashamed and scared 'cause I want you so badly, Dimwit.

Critic Linda Hutcheon has written that the type of postmodern intertextuality that we see in passages such as this is a "manifestation of both a desire to close the gap between past and present for the reader and a desire to rewrite the past in a new context." The two texts—Hawthorne's and Acker's—ricochet off each other, creating, if not great art, at least a brief moment of recognition in the reader's mind concerning their connectedness. Such a text, Hutcheon writes:

uses and abuses these intertextual echoes, inscribing their powerful allusions and then subverting that power through irony. In all, there is little of the modernist sense of a unique, symbolic, visionary "work of art"; there are only texts, already written ones.

Clearly, in the section of Blood and Guts dealing with Hawthorne, Acker attempts, as Hutcheon says, "to rewrite the past in a new context." But in Acker's novel, such a revision of older texts does not just involve the addition of a feminist subtext or the inclusion of pornographic elements to the original work: it also involves experimentation with language that strives to break free from traditional genres (like the Romantic novel) and move toward a more meaningful form. "TEACH ME A NEW LANGUAGE, DIMWIT," Janey writes, "A LANGUAGE THAT MEANS SOMETHING TO ME."

One passage that illustrates this quest for a "new language" occurs when Janey engages in a "lesson" with another voice in Acker's text. Prefaced with the line "Teach me a new language," the passage involves an exercise in repetition of simple phrases, first uttered, presumably, by a male voice (perhaps Hawthorne's Reverend Dimmesdale) and then repeated by Janey. At first, Janey repeats the lines verbatim; but as the lesson continues, she begins to alter the phrases—subtly at first, and then radically:

     "The night is red."
                                "The night is all around
                                    me and it's black."
     "The streets are deserted."
                            "I can't even see the streets
                          from my room; how would I
                             know if they're deserted?"

The passage is emblematic of the entire section of the novel dealing with Hawthorne. It begins with an acceptance of the male voice (Hawthorne's text) but finally Janey begins to question and ultimately reject the syntax and logic of her teacher's voice. What began as a straightforward exercise in repetition (plagiarism) ends in a complete rejection of authority and a further blurring of "sanity and insanity":

"The children in the city
are going insane."
"How can I tell the
difference between sanity
and insanity? You think in
a locked room there's
sanity and insanity?"

The "new language" that Janey strives for, this departure from the traditional, male-dominated form of the novel (represented by Hawthorne and Dimmesdale), takes many forms in Janey's reworking of The Scarlet Letter. Often, her ramblings seem almost incoherent, as in this prose paragraph that melts suddenly into poetry:

     Sex in America is S & M. This is the glorification of S & M and slavery
     and prison. In this society there was a woman who
     freedom and suddenly the black night opens up and
     fucked a lot and she got tied up with ropes and
     on upward and it doesn't stop
     beaten a lot and made to spread her legs too wide
     the night is open space that goes on and on,
     this woman got so mentally and physically hurt
     not opaque black, but a black that is extension
     she stopped fucking even though fucking is the thing to do.

On its surface, the poem seems a jumble of images, without any real relation to the rest of the text. But at work here is one of the "new language" systems that Janey speaks of. By reading alternate lines of the poem, a new meaning emerges: one that has considerable relevance to the stories of both Hester and Janey:

     In this society there was a woman who
     fucked a lot and she got tied up with ropes and
     beaten a lot and made to spread her legs too wide
     this woman got so mentally and physically hurt
     she stopped fucking even though fucking is the
     thing to do.

For Kathy Acker, the rejection and subversion of the traditional forms of discourse that have been dominated by males seem as important as the subversion of their meanings. Her fictions may begin with what seem to be borrowings, extensions, or plagiarisms of male works; but they move quickly beyond these original works—into new meanings and new forms that their authors could never have imagined. Larry McCaffery has called Acker's work "fiction to slam dance by." Acker at times also seems to downplay the complexity of her work: "Everything is surface," she writes, "that everything is me: I'm just surface: surface is surface." But her work is more than just "surface," more than just simple "plagiarism," more than just punk "fiction to slam dance by." Acker's Blood and Guts in High School, with its strange and complex reworking of Hawthorne, offers a new and powerful perspective on literature and gender in postmodern America.

Alev Adil (review date 14 November 1997)

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SOURCE: "Breaking to Build," in Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1997, p. 24.

[In the following review, Adil offers favorable assessments of Eurydice in the Underworld and Bodies of Work.]

To observe that Kathy Acker's writing refuses to seduce is not to denigrate her work. There is method in her madness; her hysteria is an aesthetic strategy. Her fiction is difficult, driven by an ethical fervour that denies us the pleasures of naturalism and narrative. The reader is so often shouted at that it is easy to become deaf to the sophistication and technical virtuosity with which Acker composes her symphonies of screams. The simultaneous publication of her essays and stories is an opportunity to listen, to reappraise a misunderstood writer.

When Eurydice in the Underworld, a collection of Acker's short fictions written between 1981 and 1997, is read in conjunction with the essays and articles in Bodies of Work, it is easier to understand both why she writes, and why she writes the way she does. Acker is fearless in seeking to destroy the unifying illusions of subjectivity and narrative. Her critical writing doesn't so much clarify her intentions as mark her place on an intellectual map. Her formal strategies are the aesthetic imperatives of postmodernism. The fractured, halting crudeness of her writing does not mask, but rather displays her knowingness. She is grounded in the linguistic philosophies of Lacan and Lévi-Strauss. Her points of reference are Foucault, Irigaray, Cixous, Deleuze, Guattari and Judith Butler, but she claims her literary descent from the "other tradition" of Sade, Baudelaire, Genet, Bataille, Burroughs and Ballard.

The political charge of Acker's aesthetic comes from the theory that the ideology of patriarchy and capitalism is maintained through the notion of the autonomous subject, that "phallic identity's another scam that probably had to do with capitalistic ownership." For Acker, a subject constructs its identity through exclusion. The dualism of the mind and body calls into play chains of related dualisms (man/woman, white/black, reason/madness). Like Cixous and Irigaray, Acker sees the subversive, liberating possibilities of trying to defy the symbolic economy of language by writing from a place beyond meaning. She celebrates flux, transformation, "the languages of wonder, not of judgment," contradiction, nonsense—because "meaning begins in difference." "Above all: the languages of intensity. Since the body's, our, end isn't transcendence but excrement, the life of the body exists as pure intensity." It is the process and intention involved in making art that matter to Acker, not the artefact. From the Conceptualists she appropriates the idea that "prettiness is, above all, despicable." Ugliness becomes a mark of purity; her search for textual authenticity takes place in an urban landscape where "cold winds sweep over our dead rats; a dead terrorist's heart sits on dog shit. Mutilated police calls. Advertising leaflets spell SOS."

Acker's fiction is as theoretically driven as her essays, but "there is more freedom in fiction." Her writing here is more supple and assured, deftly manipulating bewildering and vertiginous shards of narrative, mythic and modern discourses on the nature of subjectivity and art. "The Birth of the Poet" begins in a nuclear power plant in New York at the end of the world, then explores the classical and contemporary relationship between Cynthia the whore and Propertius the poet. We are then faced with a series of disjointed phrases laid out in Arabic script, with its phonetic equivalent and an English translation. Within a sentence Acker evades the reader's complicity, the desire to understand and identify with the world she creates.

Her deconstruction is driven less by the pleasure principle than by the death wish, by the need to destroy old pleasures in order to gain new meanings: Acker disdains novels that strive to entertain. She rejects writing that merely takes pleasure in language as the preserve of privilege, and does not trust stories unless they continually shock or break the rules. Writing that is "violent, even disgusting, upsetting" participates in the "struggle against patriarchy." This can make for tedious reading; a thorn is a thorn is a thorn just as surely as a rose is a rose is a rose. The body is the site of pleasure as well as pain, and her descriptions of such pleasures are often more mechanical or abstract than sensual. The language of orgasm in "Seeing Gender" ("clear our forest water animals plants spout up twigs move twigs in lips go down under liquid") is dreamy, but it is removed from both physicality and rationality.

The essay which gives its title to the collection, "Bodies of Work," uses Wittgenstein's concept of the language game to explore body-building. "In order to break down specific areas of muscles, whatever areas one wants to enlarge, it is necessary to work these areas in isolation up to failure." The body-builder's musculature and the avant-garde artist's use of theory can both be defensive, constructing a carapace, a body of work that repels criticism, intimacy, penetration. But Acker is not guilty of this. She lays herself on the line, writing on the body as well as with it. Her body has both a textual and a physical presence. It is the place where culture and nature meet; a site of contradiction, strong yet vulnerable, pierced, tattooed, scarred—and yet soft, penetrable, mortal.

The criteria for judging the success and failure, the limits of her writing, assert conflicting demands. Acker is no Scheherazade, subverting through seduction; she is a Cassandra, a furious prophet. She values urgency and intensity over aesthetics, and yet in her story "Eurydice in the Underworld" her writing is an urgent and beautiful discourse on death. Like all her work, it is a difficult, intelligent and formally inventive fiction. Eurydice lies on the operating table, her navel and tongue piercings taped to avoid electrocution, awaiting a mastectomy. Her journey through cancer and love is a bricolage of texts, plays, diaries, letters and dream-like communications from the Underworld. Faced with the implacable certainty of death, Eurydice's hope is salvation through love. The intimate domestic narrative of illness and of the failure of a love affair is mirrored through myth: Orpheus abandons Eurydice to the Underworld.

In the essay "Critical Languages," Acker quotes Hannah Arendt on the need to write as though addressing a friend. At times, Acker's writing shouts as at a dazed, uncomprehending child. But in her work she makes important observations about ways of saying and seeing. The integrity and beauty of her writing become apparent when, as in "Eurydice in the Underworld," she addresses the reader with a fierce intelligent intimacy, as a friend.


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