Wednesday, April 18, 2018
For Kathy Acker: Pirate, Bodybuilder, Motorcyclist
A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.
Kathy Acker died in room 101 of a hospital in Tijuana. Author Alan Moore reportedly commented on this fact: “There’s nothing that woman can’t turn into a literary reference.”
She was born on April 18, 1947, around the time George Orwell began writing 1984.
She published her best-known work, Blood and Guts in High School, in 1984—the same year that William Gibson published his seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer.
She plagiarized Neuromancer for her 1988 novel, Empire of the Senseless.
Kathy Acker’s world was a world of words, and she made it so in the circuits she wrote, the connections she wrought, the passages she tattooed in print between the worlds that came to her: “For the poet, the world is word. Words. Not that precisely. Precisely: the world and words fuck each other.”
I’ve not read as much Kathy Acker as I would have liked to by this age (I’m thirty-one; by the time she was thirty-one she had already published several works). Her style is one of targeted plagiarism, a strategy of smash and grab appropriation, stealing everything from passages to plots. Writing of Acker’s style in a marketplace of postwar masculinity (driven by names such as Saul Bellow, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy), Martina Sciolino asks “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.” Acker reclaims women’s literary power through an irreverent betrayal of authorial sanctity. She lyrically activates the impropriety of language itself, its ownership by no official. The social regulation of language gives rise to the Beat writer’s speed, the black writer’s “lower frequencies,” the punk writer’s profanity, the queer writer’s desiring, the woman writer’s “languages of the body”—all rhetorics of piracy, of quiet rebellion.
“‘Marginal,’ ‘experimental,’ and ‘avant-garde’ are often used to describe texts in this other tradition. Not because writing such as Burroughs’s or Genet’s is marginal, but because our society, through the voice of its literary society, cannot bear immediacy, the truth, especially the political truth.” Acker’s prose is a scalpel that exposes the indifference beneath the skin. Language doesn’t care what race you are, what gender. Language reveals what those in power already know but don’t want to know they already know: that it—that language—is always beyond their control. It obeys their commands only insofar as it abides in the possibility of disobeying them. Language’s being is not in the regularity of socially acceptable speech, but in the intractable contingency of the unspeakable: “I was unspeakable,” Acker writes, “so I ran into the language of others.” Her prose is the prose of piracy, of stolen phrases, coopted vernacular.
Contemplating her childhood fantasy of being a pirate, Acker writes “When I was a child, I knew that the separation between me and piracy had something to do with being a girl. With gender. With being in a dead world. So gender had something to do with death. And not with sight, for to see was to be other than dead. To see was to be an eye, not an I.” Acker’s words radiate meaning but not transparency. They shine a light that is blinding. If we can say that ideas in Acker’s work are seen (idea, from weid, “to see”—to see eidos, the form of something, its contours), then her prose stabs at the cornea of thought: “Literature,” she writes, “is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.” Her novel Empire of the Senseless is not a vision of the dystopian future, but of the utopian present, of insurrection through words: “GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.”
Get rid of meaning? In her stylish challenge, Acker calls our attention to the politics of reading. To what we, as readers, do when we read. As a man, I am constantly wary of imposing my perspective onto her worlds, onto her words. It is easy to look for waystations of meaning, for places where the white male tradition of Western theory rears its head: Derrida, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Foucault. Yes, I think, over and over again, Acker speaks this language. And yes, she does—but this is not where the power of her prose resides. That power begins where theory ends, where even those who sought to criticize cultural hierarchies could not help but perpetuate them. In their effort to dismantle the systems by which the West established its superiority, these theorists denied the power of mythic creation to all—the entitled and the marginal, the ruling and the ruled. Acker’s fiction rises from the ashes of what is known in academia as deconstruction, in whose wake women’s voices could only predicate themselves on a radical silence. Acker writes to fill this silence with new noises:
When I wrote my first book, Politics, I was living in a society that was politically and socially hypocritical. According to the media back then, politicians were men who said sweet things to babies and neither adultery nor drug abuse ever came near a middle-class white American home.
Perhaps our society is now in a “post-cynical” phase. Certainly, I thought as I started Empire, there’s no more need to deconstruct, to take apart perceptual habits, to reveal the frauds on which our society’s living. We now have to find somewhere to go, a belief, a myth. Somewhere real.
I wonder if she would say the same thing today, knowing what we know, what Acker also knew but no doubt dreamed of surpassing: that gender sanctions sexism, that color sanctions violence. I wonder if she would say we no longer need to deconstruct when we’re building ideologies on the foundations of white nationalism, directed against the perceived threats of anti-religious feminism and unpatriotic intellectualism, and with the tactical weaponry of fake news.
I believe I know her answer, and it’s an answer that academics are grappling with—to deconstruct, yes; but to reconstruct as well. “Alternative facts” are the harvest of what critical theory has sown. Without “somewhere to go” we are now going everywhere. Acker voiced what academics in the 1990s already knew but had failed to communicate. That language, cunningly and skillfully—lyrically—directed, can resist the machinations imposed upon it by those who seek to control what can be said; but language turned loose, language carelessly deployed, collapses back into its old patterns, the easiest inclinations of human degeneracy:
· “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
· “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there.”
· “Our great African-American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.”
· “If I were running The View, I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say ‘Rosie, you’re fired.’”
· “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!”
· “I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”
· “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.”
· “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.”
· “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
· “Such a nasty woman.”
Kathy Acker’s power lies not in her refusal to use such language (I shiver to think what she would have done with Trump’s rhetoric), but in her sheer shamelessness at doing so—at picking up the words of her oppressors and slapping them against her own skin, feeling their weight like actual garments, their scrape like cheap fabric. She takes what is not hers because she knows it’s no one’s. But unlike the men before her, those theorists who sent language to the limits of its dis-ownership, she holds onto it tightly, embraces it, shapes it, turns to it not for its power to degrade those around her, but for its power to lift her beyond their vitriol: “I have become interested in languages which I cannot make up, which I cannot create or even create in: I have become interested in languages which I can only come upon (as I disappear), a pirate upon buried treasure. The dreamer, the dreaming, the dream.
“I call these languages, languages of the body.”
I wish Kathy Acker was still alive. She would be seventy-one today, and sharp as ever, devoted to the refashioning of order into what makes us feel electric—not merely surviving, but alive. Even now, her prose has more life than the living man who speaks. It breathes a deeper rhythm. It vibrates along a more profound existence. It was always going to outlive her. It was always going to outlive us (yes, even you).
Kathy Acker died in room 101 on November 30, 1997. She was born on April 18, 1947. And she is reborn every day—because the world and words fuck each other.