The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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FEB 2019 Issue

Kathy Acker: Get Rid of Meaning

Kathy Brew, Portraits of Kathy Acker, San Francisco, 1991. © Kathy Brew.

Karlsruhe, Germany
Badischer Kunstverein
October 5 – December 2, 2018

Kathy Acker is a writer whose readership has never gone away, even after her death at age 50 in 1997. There’s some strange margin of the literary world where queers, punks, riot girls and avant-gardists have found reasons to keep turning to her. This marginal presence got a boost from Chris Kraus’ biographical study, After Kathy Acker in 2015. Since then, Acker material keeps coming. In February 2019 alone there’s the release of Kathy Acker: The Last Interview from Melville House and a reissue of one of her most satisfyingly structured books, Great Expectations from Grove Atlantic.

It’s also a moment when care and attention to her work is passing from people who knew her personally to people who didn’t, who were kids or unconceived notions at the time she died. The Kathy Acker: Get Rid of Meaning exhibition and symposium at Badischer Kuntverein laid out a series of nested contexts: work by precursors, work by Acker, interactions with contemporaries, and appropriations and reflections by younger artists and writers. Co-curated by Anja Casser and Acker’s literary executor Matias Viegener, Get Rid of Meaning also put her writing practice in the context of her interventions in visual and audio-visual media. “Kathy thought extra-textually,” as Viegener said at the symposium.

Two of the precursors who provide a context for Acker’s work are Carolee Schneeman and Lynn Hershman Leeson. Schneeman’s film Fuses (1965) combines images of a couple fucking (and their cat watching) with formalist montage techniques. From 1974 to 1978, Hershman Leeson deployed a fictional persona called Roberta Breitmore, a character created out of a distinctive wig, make-up and clothing. Roberta acquired a driver’s license, went on dates, and went to work. She was later replaced by three clones, three other women who used the same accoutrements to perform Roberta. The mash-up of formalist porn and the multiplication of selves are two key preoccupations that Acker brings from the art context into writing.

The first room of the show centers on Acker’s early text The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula. Both original spiral-bound notebooks and copies of notebooks are here. Get Rid of Meaning contained some rare originals but did not make a fetish of them. They were not the center of the show. Acker was a writer, not an artist. Like most writers, she wanted to see her work mass produced in editions running into the thousands rather than as singular auratic objects.

Book cover by Jill Kroesen, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, Viper's Tongue Books, 1975.

The Black Tarantula text was at first self-published, in tiny, hand-made editions, which were distributed via a mail art list put together by Eleanor Antin, another important precursor and in this case direct influence. The show includes each of the successive editions that worked their way up through the various niches of the publishing industry. It can now be found included in Hannibal Lecter, My Father, from Semiotext(e). The early editions are now collector’s items, but the text is now in a trade paperback, as Acker would have wanted.

Acker’s publishing trajectory did not stop with prestigious niche publishers like Semiotext(e). Her major works were all published by Grove Press, the creation of the legendary Barney Rosset, who had a genius for finding the sweet spot between high literature and the mass market. The main room includes a selection of editions of her books in various languages—of variable quality. Most, it has to be said, with terrible covers, with the possible exception of the ones that used Sue Coe illustrations.

A whole section is devoted to Acker’s crafting of her own appearances. The 1984 documentary made for British television by the Southbank Show plays on a monitor, and there one can see Acker in a tomboy mood working with Robert Mapplethorpe. She worked in a more collaborative way under the direction of photographer Michel Delsol. The production of images was not entirely incidental even if it was not central to her practice. Kathy Brew took perhaps the most iconic image, of a topless Acker on her motorbike, looking over her shoulder. Here we see that frame in the context of two from the same shoot. In one of them, she smiles.

Acker never much cared for the Mapplethorpe images of her. The one in which she is headless, topless, and in sexy black boots and tights was in somebody’s slides at the symposium, but not in the exhibition. The most challenging images are by De La Grace Volcano of Acker, topless again, after her mastectomy. And then she is gone: Kaucyila Brook photographed selections from the wardrobe, on simple wire hangers against a white background, haunted by her absence.

The work that was the biggest revelation to me consists of two videos of Acker reading the same text, from In Memoriam to Identity. These were on a pair of side by side monitors, so you could move from one to another. One is a live reading with an audience, in which Acker works the room. The other is a recording without an audience. Jonathan Dawson made it on her 1995 Australian tour. Here one can hear how much she wrote for the voice, how the language is always rhythmic, with strategic breath points, how the sound of the sentences snake together. She had a magnificent reading voice, sometimes pitched just a little higher than her rather deep everyday voice. The videos are a master class in how to write for the voice. As she once said in an interview: “Well, a comma’s a breath, and a sentence is a thought, and a paragraph is an emotion… You’re always working the paragraph against the sentence.”

The main room also featured blown-up reproductions of the dream maps included in Blood and Guts in High School. These are fascinating but hard to follow when squished down to paperback book size. Across a whole wall, you can really seem them as intricate spatial recordings of dream or dream-like spaces, events, avatars. Their straight-line precision is deeply strange.

Kathy Acker, Dream Map 2 (Ausschnitt), 1977. Kathy Acker Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Casually left lying about were color photocopies of some of Acker’s journals through-out the show. Looking through my other phone photos of the notebooks, in one I find this description of writing method: “How do we find narrative? Emphasize the word find. That which is real to us. The most personal. Now. (1) Change dreams. Analyze. (2) Bring analysis back. Write story. (3) Write story from your own dream. How? Genet p. 270-274 → from personal to non-personal. Cixous, P. 106. To use dreams, find the demon. P. 107 mention to use the unconscious, find ways. WHO AM I? p. 121. End: use dreams to look for one’s origins.”

Most of the key elements of the Acker mode of production were in the show. Her library, from which to appropriate material, and her notebooks, in which to mix found material and diaristic writing. There was a photocopier if you wanted to make your own copies or collages or whatever. While Acker worked in the era of the photocopier, today’s gallery-goers simply snapped pictures on their phones. There was a rare spirit of openness and trust about the audience’s relation to the work. One of Kathy’s stuffed animals—a tarantula—simply sat on a vitrine. People took selfies with it.

A thousand books from her personal library were arranged on shelves for people to leaf through. Her books now reside at the University of Cologne, where Daniel Schulz has diligently catalogued them all. Quite a few have annotations in Acker’s hand. As Schultz pointed out in his gallery talk, Acker’s library contained literature, philosophy, and a fine selection of trash. Interestingly, it also contained extensive selections of books by Donald Goines, Chester Himes and Octavia Butler. Her relation to Black American writers and indeed to African writers as well is a largely unexplored topic.

There were a few rare items, including photographs from 1975 of a naked Acker in a performance work by Lil Picard, in which she had the audience spit wine at her. (Acker spat back.) And there was a check for a million dollars, made out to The Black Tarantula by Leonard Neufeld, Acker’s boyfriend for a while. Needless to say it had not been cashed.

Of the works by younger artists, the one I spent a lot of time with is by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, called I Want (2015). You sit on bean bags and watch a performer (Sharon Hayes) in a two-screen video, both shot from more or less the same position, of the same performance, but independently. The images zoom in and out at different times, focus on different details. In the performance, Hayes sits on the floor and relays a text that is a mash-up of Kathy Acker and Chelsea Manning.

This seems like a key connection to make. Manning is something like an actual manifestation of a politics of mediation that Acker prefigures: the marginal subject, the subordinate, the woman, for whom the world of law and property is something other—and who steals from it. Acker’s work uses appropriation, or as the Situationsts would say détournement, from high and low literature, and were made by copying out in handwriting, or photocopying, cutting and pasting. Manning’s were from classified military computers, and copied onto cd-rom.

At the symposium, we heard from Jason McBride, who will soon publish a fuller biography of Acker. He shared a section on her college and sex worker days in the sixties and seventies. Acker arrived at Brandeis in 1964, the year Hebert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man came out. A portrait emerges of an emotional and imaginative young woman, free from her distant stepfather and from her mother. One of her early boyfriends described her mother as a “bitch on wheels.” Others recollect the young Acker variously as androgynous, motherly, and as a girl with a “reputation.” She was writing Sappho imitations, taking cinema courses, shoplifting books, but was not all that political.

Acker studied classics rather than literature. The English Department at Brandeis was like many at the time passing through the vogue for New Criticism, with its close reading of canonic high literary texts, teasing apart elegant ironies. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso came to read, which indicated another path. As Acker recalls in the Southbank Show interview, the “big Jewish male novelists”—early Mailer, Malamud, Roth, Updike—meant nothing to her. She took her cues from Ginsberg, Kerouac and in particular Burroughs.

At Brandeis, Kathy Alexander (as she then was) met Bob Acker. “A character from Zap comics,” McBride says, a “brainy badboy.” They hooked up when a previous boyfriend, Peter Gould, was off in Europe. Gould later wrote a novel called Burnt Toast that imagines an Acker-like character as a domestic hippie mamma. How little he knew.

McBride fills in the details about a particularly key time in Acker’s life: her brief encounter with sex work. She and Lenny Neufeld acted in porno short films for Bob Wolf, “lord of the loops.” They made $100 per film. None are known to survive, but McBride reports that the poet Ron Silliman saw one at Fun City in Times Square in which Acker was flogged with lettuce leaves. For a while Acker and Neufeld also did fake sex shows for $200 a week. Sometimes she performed with Mark “Mr Ten and a Half” Stevens, who was later photographed by Mapplethorpe. She would write at Tad’s Steakhouse during breaks. From sex workers, Acker acquired a “street politics” that never left her or her work. Her books are populated with marginal women trying to survive on their wits, trading on their charms, but constantly subjected to violence and imposition.

Douglas Martin, who wrote a very fine study simply called Acker (Nightboat Books), spoke about In Memoriam to Identity, a book which started out being about the poet Rimbaud and his relationship with the poet Verlaine, but which veered off into something else due to Acker’s disgust at the colonial gun-runner Rimbaud later became.

Instead, she ended up making a book that is a new kind of myth, one for people like us. As the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard once said, it’s a function of modernist literature to write not for an existing audience but for one that doesn’t exist, and call it into being. She wrote for the radical, queer, trans, precarious reader to come. If books are dolls we put ourselves to bed with, this is the doll for those who want to cut and glue their Barbies into monsters. Books made by remaking other books.

“Sometimes I work with books I hardly know. And sometimes ones I know very well,” Acker wrote. Karolin Meunier talked about work she was doing with Kerstin Stakemeier on the marginal note in other’s book as a literary form. For example, in her copy of Liz Grosz’s, Space, Time & Perversion, Acker wrote “I’m up for no reality cause I (id) want repudiation.” As Leslie Dick said in discussion, “Books were like sculptures for her.” Or as Viegener put it: “She abused them.”

Paris-based scholar Claire Finch talked about how Paris appears in the Acker landscape as a city of hierarchy, and of colonial and patriarchal power. But in the “oriented logic” of her texts, the city is also a “fuckable surface.” In and against which she tried to craft a kind of ficto-theory of the “non-reductive cunt” for a “construct cunt feminism,” using a writing of “femme excess.” Acker closely read the psychoanalytic feminist writing that sprang from French into English in the eighties (Irigary, Kristeva, Cixous) as many have noted. But she also drew from the more materialist lesbian feminism of Monique Wittig.

Finch connected Acker to a younger generation of queer writers, including Paul B. Préciado, who name-checks Acker in his book Testo Junkie. What they share is a reluctance to treat the gendered body too reductively, but also a reluctance to treat it only as a construct of language, representation and performance. Both are interested in body technics: hormones, in Préciado’s case; body-building in Acker’s.

And for both—dildos. Both are much less interested in the puzzles of the Lacanian phallus and more in some silicon cock action. Which prompted Viegener to note the opposition in Acker between cunts and robots, where the robot repeats itself, but cunts are multiplicities that diverge. As Acker wrote in Pussy, King of the Pirates: “rose, a rose unfolds again and again until the nerves drive the flesh into pure nerves; they are—I’m closing again (becoming rigid)—these are the rhythms of the labyrinth.” Sometimes roses are vaginas in Acker, sometimes assholes, sometimes neither. A kind of poetic excess in writing returns to open the body itself to being mapped and touched otherwise. Which for Finch points to the problem being to create a body-technics for multiplying cunts, or what Précado calls a counter-sexuality.

In her introduction to the recent reissue of Empire of the Senseless, Alexandra Kleeman describes it as a book to be used as a hammer, to break things, but maybe also to make things. Taking a cue from that, Hanjo Berressen presented it as a book not only about but as a tool for enduring life in a control society, where we are told there is a “level playing field,” but it actually slopes steeply against us, and where nobody really meets as equals. All relationships are modeled on S&M relationships, where cruelty on the one side is best met with a disinterested coldness. The book breaks open the apparent relations of self to world and makes in its place a swarm of selvings and worldings.

Empire of the Senseless is also a book that is a kind of “dermographics,” a manual for tuning the surfaces of the body into frequencies unknown to the logics of Oedipus and Capital. Using Félix Guattari’s quadrant diagrams, Berressen showed it as a text where subjectivity fluctuates between identity and dispersal, and where this fluctuation corresponds to two aspects of a world outside of the subjective, of rhizomes and flows. Empire of the Senseless is, among other things, training in how to slip out of the symbolic order without entirely losing one’s mind.

Anja Kirschner also reads an Acker for those who must contest reality in order to exist. She picks up on the parts of My Mother: Demonology that pull apart and rework Dario Argento’s film Suspira (1977), based on the myth of the quest to kill the bad witch mother who is the head of the coven. According to Kirschner, Argento set this and some of his other films in a world where the Nazis won the war, which is one way of reading a lot of Acker books as well.

Kirschner also connected Acker to Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter, for whom “Caliban's woman” is a figure from who's vantage point a radically new conception of being human can and must be generated. In parallel to Berressen there’s a reading here of Acker as finding techniques for reversing or destabilizing myth in the sense Roland Barthes gave it, of the formal, and apparently timeless structures of ideology. Could there be myths that are about something other than the heroic agency of man against the world?

As Ruth Buchanan noted, “archives are engines. Archivists don’t know when someone will start them up.” Georgina Colby started up the Acker collection at Duke University. Alongside Kraus and Martin, Colby has written one of the best books on Acker, her Kathy Acker: Writing the Impossible (Edinburgh University Press). Her point of departure is composition studies, with its interest in the practices of writing, or what book historian Joanna Drucker calls “performative materiality.”

Looking at the page proofs for Blood and Guts in High School, Colby is interested in their repetition of the techniques of the avant-garde, from hand-writing to cutting up magazines. She spoke about the “Persian Poems” sequence, which read like the homework of a student of the language. The actual Farsi textbook Acker used for these exercises was in the exhibition. Acker took the risk of including her beginner’s Farsi language learning exercises. It is a language without gendered pronouns, through which the book’s Janey character, if she is a character, can write herself into and out of a language as something other than gendered.

Dodie Bellamy also drew attention to how language works in Acker-texts. I was particularly interested in the series of sentences she pulled out of Acker that hinge on the word “because.” As in this sentence, also from Pussy, King of the Pirates: “Pirate sex began on the date when the liquids began to gush forward. As if when equals because.” Linear causality is always somewhat fragile and suspect in the Acker-text, as her uses of “because” make clear. Bellamy also gave us this vivid image of Acker leaving America and arriving in London: “think of Dracula sailing to England, but with crates if books instead of dirt.”

Both the exhibition and the symposium were studded with impressions Acker left on others while she was alive. Bellamy noted that she was “still able to seduce on her deathbed.” Leslie Dick that she “seemed to know how to have a lot of pleasure in her unhappiness.” Viegener than “Kathy treated other people as books. She tried to read as many as she could.” In the joint performance Leslie Dick did with her daughter Audrey Wollen, I felt as though there was a particularly artful passing of the mic to the next cohort of Acker readers and re-writers.

For Dick, Acker was a writer who refused to live as if in a garret, and saw writing as part of a public and social world. Dick met Acker in New York in 1982, and they were friends in London after both had moved there. Dick met the British film maker and film theorist Peter Wollen after his relationship to Acker had ended. Acker generally stayed friends with exes, so the three of them were hardly strangers. Dick says that Acker “cracked something open in Wollen.” But then, for Acker, “all forms of love are drag,” and she at one and the same time loved life and desired to not exist.

Dick’s presentation was interspersed with video-taped pieces by Audrey Wollen, daughter of Leslie Dick and Peter Wollen. “What doesn’t kill you only hurts you a lot,” she declares. The narrative hook is a story in which Kathy Acker gives Peter Wollen chlamydia, which he in turn gives to Leslie Dick. It’s a piece about a sexually transmitted disease and how it might be read allegorically. “What’s the difference between a book and an STD?” Both are things you catch, that are trouble, can be lethal, boring, scaring.

Wollen pointed out that Acker’s writing is often mistakenly read as “sex-positive” simply because of its sexual frankness, ignoring her repeated attention to a street politics of sexual violence, rape, unwanted pregnancy and STDS. Being female is often a state of disgust in Acker, even if over banal things like pelvic inflammatory disease or a urinary tract infection. Wollen: “Sex only exists in the trouble it leaves you with.”

Wollen: “What’s the difference between a book, an STD and a baby?” After Acker, Wollen presents heterosexuality as a mode of contamination and love as scarification. Among other things, this seems to me an excellent figure for the passage of Acker’s legacy beyond those who knew her. There’s lots of queer sex in Acker, but she is also one of those rare writers about heterosexuality for whom it is a central preoccupation but also a bad idea. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, in Acker heterosexuality is common but that doesn’t mean it is normal.

Acker was always interested in transmission as difference, how old books become new books, but in aberrant ways. Like all writers she had a library, and one that looks remarkably like the ones her contemporaries would have had. The difference was how she used it. Which poses the challenge of making new texts out of Acker that don’t simply repeat her or recuperate her into a more acceptable literary coterie—arguably the problem with Olivia Laing’s Crudo, in which Acker reappears as a respectable literary wife in our own times.

At one point, Leslie Dick said that Acker “was destined to be the most extraordinary old lady.” One can only imagine how cranky and interesting that could have been. Instead, we’re left with Acker as a literary chlamydia, a bacterium passed through intimate contact with contagious texts. It’s an image which is both abject and honest, not just about Acker but about literary transmission in general.


McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark is the author, among other things, of Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e), 2019).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

All Issues