THE SHOCK WE EXPERIENCE reading Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment is, ironically enough, less than the shock its narrator is forced to endure. Finley’s landmark 1990 collection of percussive performance monologues, fractured prose, and gnarly cartoonish sketches — reprinted in an expanded edition for the 25th anniversary — is all about the shock of living. It relays the horror of learning that, as a woman, your body will simultaneously be read as a site of pleasure and abjectness, your reproductive rights dictated by the straight white men in government. It is about the pain of seeing your friends and lovers deteriorate and die, ravaged by the modern-day big plague with the small name while those in power stand idle. It is about the shock of “nothing happening,” even after, as Finley tells us, you “dieted,” took “prescription pills,” and “voted for Jesse Jackson.” With Shock Treatment, Finley engages an apt irony: with its stories of failed abortions, images of rotting corpses, and leaking bodily fluids, her book is an attempt to “shock” readers but instead only confirms the grim reality of living in America today.

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In the introduction to 25th anniversary edition of Shock Treatment, Finley writes about life as a female artist in the 1980s, “While men were finding artistic triumph on the road, those spaces were impossible for most women, whose fears of violence and attacks of all kinds were real.” Finley felt angry and alienated at being disenfranchised by an art community (as well as a society at large) that privileged the narratives and stories of white (straight) men. Finley put her experience as a woman disempowered by this cultural and political time to words and the end result was Shock Treatment.

Thanks to her tutelage under acclaimed feminist writer Kathy Acker (of Blood and Guts in High School fame), Finley learned to feel what is it like “to lose control while being in control.” Finley discovered under Acker a vocabulary of language chaos, text appropriation, and the power to collage. Finley came to utilize these techniques to disrupt, collapse, and revise the meanings of being and power in her writing and performance art.

Her early performance pieces during the early to mid-1980s were about taking control of the female body — a political site of paradoxical abjection and sexualization — in an attempt to chip away at the prevalent cultural archetypes of women, such as the hysteric, the heathen, or the “slut.” Reclaiming female sexuality and embracing the pleasures of the female body were aims Finley sought to reconcile with her art. 

Around the time of the book’s original publication, Finley became known as one of the “NEA Four.” These were four performance artists whose proposals to the National Endowment for the Arts grants were blocked for reasons of “indecency.” John Frohnmayer, then the chairman of the NEA, was the mouthpiece that vetoed their candidacy for the grants. The decision provided metonymy for an electric time — the clashing culture wars of the 1990s. With the rise of so-called “indecent” artists condemning the regressive politics of 1980s Reaganism and the powers that be ignoring vital social issues — notably, the HIV/AIDS crisis — conservative political pundits took to denouncing the work of these emerging artists who critiqued the sexist capitalist system that ravaged their country. 

After the furor died down, Finley’s ire ignited as she consolidated her ties with arts and advocacy work for HIV/AIDS causes. Her importance in queer arts was notably recognized by director Jonathan Demme, who chose her to act in his 1993 film Philadelphia. In the film, Finley played the doctor that informed Tom Hanks’s character of his AIDS diagnosis. Finley’s role in the film is (much like her writing) slightly ironic; one of the “notorious” NEA performance artists, well-known for her critique of the US government over its handling of the AIDS crisis, she plays a doctor — a figure representing the medical establishment — and delivers the deadly prognosis. The artist that spent so much of her writing and performance work talking about the erasure and silence covering the AIDS crisis is the person that vocalizes the diagnosis.

After her prominent media presence in the early 1990s, Finley moved on to recording performance monologues to music and released a number of CDs in the mid-’90s, including The Truth is Hard to Swallow (1987) and A Certain Level of Denial (1994). More recently, Finley has produced museum exhibitions, including Sext Me if You Can (2013) at the New Museum in New York, examining the rise of “sexting” and its blurring of lines between commerce, sex, and photography. Finley also recently presented a retrospective performance of her early AIDS writing from the 1980s and 1990s in Buffalo, including performing a series of AIDS-themed poems from Shock Treatment.

It's only art_from Shock Treatment-Karen Finley

Quotes..drawing from Shock Treatment by Karen Finley

Drawings from Shock Treatment, by Karen Finley

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Karen Finley participating in her performance and installation 
Sext Me if You Can at the New Museum in 2013.

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Shock Treatment, Finley’s watershed work of anger and uncertainty, was published during a time in recent American memory when fervent culture wars played out across government and media in America. Feminism, reproductive rights, and the legitimacy of arts in public life took center stage in these debates. 

During this time, Americans bore witness to the loss of millions due to the HIV/AIDS crisis as an apathetic conservative government mostly ignored these deaths. (Finley writes that many fathers called the death of their sons from AIDS “accidental.”) Despite Finley’s most searing, critical, and condemnatory words, for the most part, “nothing happened,” and nothing continued to be done for HIV/AIDS during this time. Nothingness — an idea that feels somewhat overused in poetry and literature — is reiterated over and over again in Finley’s work as she tries to grapple with death, grief, and alienation.

With Shock Treatment, Finley tells of the insidious and yet very public way our modern world debilitates with its toxic homophobia, rampant misogyny, and abject take on the female body. Twenty-five years on, this book remains a passionate attempt to reinstate a sense of humanity and identity to the female, queer, and diseased body that America either abjected or eliminated from its cultural and political discourses.

Blood, shit, menstrual blood, and semen — these have all been politicized as symbols of abjectness, disease, or death. Finley tells us that “blood” is abjectness, maternity, or AIDS. Finley tells us that “shit” instantiates disease, fear, and queerness. In her poems, Finley attempts to take ownership of these words for abjected human fluids; with her long lists and her repetitious and percussive use of these words, she offers them as incantations, words for us to repeat and to redefine. They are our words to reclaim, according to Finley.

While the collection is made up of monologues, poetry, or fragmented “found” essays, each chapter of Shock Treatment opens with a childish drawing. Paired with the title of the book, the implication is that these are images drawn by “patients” who have undergone “shock treatment.” And yet these are of course the work of Finley. The crude style of the drawings suggests that they could just as easily have been drawn by a child with a permanent marker as scrawled by the artist. A number of them are fantastical, such as a poorly drawn mermaid with multiple breasts standing, statuesque, as small fish swim by in a murky sea. The fish have a confrontational appearance — all skeletal shapes and hollow bodies — adding a touch of irony to the text; it is as if Finley is directly telling the American political bodies that mitigated and mediated funding for the arts that this is art — take it or leave it. Childish drawings, barbarous words, and naked mermaids are the art you and your government are going to get. 

The titles that often accompany these drawings offer insights as to who the illustrator may be. For example, The Constant State of Desire depicts an ominous eye looming heavily in the sky. Finley’s drawings add to the sense of uncertainty and precariousness so vigorously generated in her writing. Whether or not a child, someone who literally had undergone “shock treatment,” or simply Finley drew these, the ambiguous owner adds to the overriding sense of senselessness that defines so much of this book. 

What becomes clear is that playing with language — specifically pointing out the arbitrary structures so normalized in the English language — is an important agenda in Finley’s work. Finley disrupts patriarchal language structures, often describing images of castration immediately after imitations of the male figures in her life. In one passage, in the fictional chapter The Constant State of Desire, Finley describes her father masturbating to images of children from a “Sears catalogue,” immediately after he has told her that he loves her. (It is important to note that Finley’s father never molested her. He did, however, commit suicide.) This disturbing contrast jars the reader. Later we learn Finley’s father has hanged himself. Finley intentionally confuses and entangles the role of daughter, father, mother, and lover in this performance piece. Here she also suggests that her father had repeatedly molested her. By breaking down these familial roles, Finley expresses the confusion resulting from horrific sexual abuse inflicted by father on daughter. Finley ends the scene with, “And by now you can tell that I prefer talking about the fear of living, as opposed to the fear of dying.” Finley’s blurring of being both daughter and lover to her father shows how her identity has been so violated — so much so that she (ironically) interchanges the terms of daughter and lover in the passage.  

What The Constant State of Desire demonstrates is how the female body — even at an early age — is controlled by the terms of a patriarchal world. In this instance, the father is the embodiment and literalization of our patriarchal world. In the piece, Finley is fictitiously abused by her father and is forced to confront the mocking sight of his erect penis, the physical and figurative vehicle that raped her, after she discovers his hanging dead body. Finley assumes her father’s voice, and repeats, “Whatever turns you on, girl. / Whatever, whatever turns you on.” Here she aggressively takes back her own voice, negated by her father’s abuse. 

As a girl, she tells us she was silenced and forced not to share the pain of her rape; when she imitates her father’s hushed and heavy moans, she violates the premise of the trope unspeakable: she speaks. Finley goes on, telling her father, “Don’t worry, I won’t mention your name. Don’t worry, I won’t mention your name.” By talking to her dead father — who cannot hear her words — Finley shows how she has achieved some autonomy and power in this situation. She dictates what is said, how it is said, and who says it.

In the first series of monologues, Finley also pairs these violent images of incestuous rape and back-alley abortions with small domestic issues, collapsing the experience of “shock” as one both familiar and domestic, but also, again, unspeakable.

The shock readers experience reading through these passages of a father violating his daughter directly contrasts an experience relayed just prior about Finley’s mother. We learn Finley’s mother is unable to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for her family because her own mother has died. The mother goes to the funeral parlor and, yelling at the director, screams, “Keep that bitch alive a few weeks longer!” Finley’s collapse of these significant transgressions against the family order — the rape of the daughter; the lack of reverence shown to the dead — demonstrates her disassociation from the heterosexual family unit, which has so abused and mistreated her. 

Voice is important. The opportunity to self-represent and vocalize unspeakable acts of violence functions as an important linguistic tool for Finley. One of the strongest performance pieces in Shock Treatment is Common Sense, in which she imitates a question-and-answer exchange, presumably experienced with a psychiatrist. The effect may have been different when Finley performed this piece onstage, but its cutting attitude comes across noticeably in print. The parody between a patient and a psychiatrist indeed mirrors the “shock treatment” metaphor underpinning much of the book. This is especially true since shock treatment was often a tool to treat patients who experienced delusions, fantasies, and hallucinations, often of a perverse and fantastical nature.

The “doctor” opens the exchange with, “It was really Freud’s problem to begin with.” Once more, it seems that a male figure will open Finley’s performance and seemingly dictate the parameters of the exchange, but not this time. Finley is quick to invert the gendered politics of this Q&A session, as she tells her male doctor that she suffers from “bad headaches” and experiences paranoia. The irony is rich here as Finley ends the performance with a digression on how millions of men and women are dying from HIV/AIDS and that she is riddled with headaches because she is emotionally and physically exhausted from attending so many funerals of her former lovers, all killed by a “plague” that no one appears to be interested in acknowledging. 

The doctor’s attempt to pathologize her — “The truth is harsh. You don’t want me to be a liar do you?” he tells her at one point — fails as Finley takes control of the conversation. “Let me tell you about power. Being gang raped by a group of youths at the age of fifteen,” she says. Finley’s words are searing and raw, demonstrating how self-actualization is more often achieved in personal monologue (the very performance that this particular piece would embody). Finley ends with, “We all discussed our psychological disorders.” The implication is clear: self-representation — as a woman, as a queer, as someone stigmatized or shamed — is necessary in a world refusing to listen.

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In one performance contained in Shock Treatment, titled It’s Only Art, Finley tells us that all the art in America has been destroyed. Jasper Johns’s art was thrown away “for desecration of the flag,” Michelangelo’s because he “being a homosexual,” and Jeff Koons’s for “offending Michael Jackson.” Since his “Confiscation of Art” began, Jesse Helms invited some guests over from Europe to visit America. But a problem arose when the lures of Disneyland and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Coney Island did not greatly appeal to these Europeans — they wanted to see American art. But alas, there was no art. Helms wanted his European cronies to think he was “cool” so he recruited the likes of George Bush, William Buckley, and Donald Wildmon to help him “make art” to show these Europeans. Finley’s performance text continues with Helms and his band of art-makers working busily for 13 days straight making art, only for them to be tragically busted by the “Confiscation Police.” By making art, they broke their own law. Helms is soon executed as the ringleader and his final words are, “It was only art.” 

Unlike the art generated by Helms and his merry band of artists, Finley’s Shock Treatment is more than just “art.” It remains a searing and necessary indictment of America, a call to arms, a great protest against the injustices waged on queers and women during a time in recent American history where government intervention and recognition was so desperately needed. Twenty-five years on, Finley’s work continues to shock and provoke readers and audiences, demonstrating the powerful cultural and political impact her work has had on modern American art and performance art. Finley’s recuperative readings of her own body and sexuality, coupled with her violent and confronting passages of rape and the destruction wrought by the AIDS crisis, reify the unspeakable.

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Nathan Smith is a freelance writer and graduate student at the University of Melbourne, Australia, specializing in queer and cultural studies.