Why Kathy Acker Now?

By Ralph ClareMay 2, 2018

Why Kathy Acker Now?

Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

AT A RECENT DISCUSSION at the CUNY Graduate Center with the writer Chris Kraus, the first question came from a protestor. Kraus was there to talk about After Kathy Acker, her excellent new biography of postmodern lit’s enfant terrible. But the question was not about the biography or Acker’s fiction or even Kraus’s own remarkable novels. Instead, the questioner asked why Semiotext(e), Kraus’s publisher — and at one point Acker’s — was hosting a reading with Kraus at the gallery 356 Mission in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Boyle Heights, a historically Latinx neighborhood, is currently engaged in a struggle against gentrification, taking on that seemingly naïve first wave of cultural pioneers: the artists, gallerists, and musicians who often head out to the frontier of what are often lower-income, nonwhite neighborhoods in search of urban grit, inspiration, and, most importantly, cheap rents. Why, the questioner asked, would Kraus and Semiotext(e) contribute to such gentrification? Semiotext(e), a long-standing publisher of radical continental leftist theory, politics, and fiction, would be directly contributing to gentrification.

After a brief impasse, the usual questions begin, with Kraus answering one on politics by pointing out that while Acker was no activist, her work held a subversive edge. Acker, Kraus explained, was political in terms of her art, her personal life, and her theoretical understandings of semiotics and culture. Kraus’s response, though a fair defense of art as politics, falls a little flat. It seems somehow unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, Semiotext(e) canceled the Boyle Heights event shortly thereafter. It is into this complex interrelationship of politics, culture, and economics that the resurgence of interest in Acker has arrived. With the recent publications of the first authorized biography of Acker by Kraus, a compelling edition of letters between Acker and media theorist McKenzie Wark in I’m Very into You: Correspondence 1995–1996, and a new edition of Blood and Guts in High School — released in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Acker’s death — the question of Acker’s legacy is both timely and telling.

Back in the postmodern day, a protest like the one at the CUNY Graduate Center would have been all but unthinkable. Not only was the political and cultural landscape different (art’s participation in gentrification had just begun), but Acker also had cachet as a transgressive writer. She broke taboos of authorship and ownership by plagiarizing and appropriating literary works, trash, and pornography into her own texts. She wrote explicitly about all kinds of sex, about full-frontal family romance, and about S&M. She radically challenged the notion of a single and stable identity, and called attention to the increasingly powerful role of images in media and daily life. Finally, Acker broke any and all generic constraints and narrative conventions in her collage-like novels or, better, literary assemblages.

But times have changed. As Kraus remarked in a recent interview, “Transgression has become so banal.” In turn, the once daring S&M themes in Acker’s work do not have the same charge they once did, finding themselves comparatively gray-scaled down in a Fifty Shades culture. Nor is Acker’s once cutting-edge deconstructive critique of image culture as trenchant as it once was. Furthermore, postmodernism has long been out of fashion, its once canonical works increasingly ignored by scholars, and its supposedly radical politics questioned as art has become not simply more commodified than ever, but a primary engine for capitalism itself (as in the case of gentrification or “revitalization”). In short, it is perhaps not the most fortuitous moment — if there ever is one — to reconsider an experimental and transgressive writer like Acker. So the questions we might ask in the midst of this would-be revival are obvious: Why Acker? Why now?

Grove Press’s corrected edition of Blood and Guts in High School (the last two sections were mistakenly switched in earlier publications) puts all of Acker’s literary and cultural “transgressions” on display. Completed in 1978 but not published until 1984, the novel is arguably her best, and it serves as a strong case for why Acker still matters. Blood and Guts is a twisted künstlerroman, tracing young Janey Smith’s relationship with and escape from her father/lover to the dirty downtown of late 1970s New York; her capture by a Persian slave trader; her friendship with Jean Genet in Tangiers; and eventually her journey to Egypt and into another (dream) world via her poetry and several fantastic dream maps, which Acker pens in detail.

The novel’s fragmentation and genre play — the story line hopscotches through blocks of prose, play-like transcripts, poems, a creative book report, pornographic drawings, folktales, quotations by literary theorists and philosophers, and more — make it a romp through time and space. The nonlinear and nonrealist story of Janey’s time on earth is frightening, at times poignant, and even very funny. The novel is also unforgiving in its depiction of raw desire and sexuality and includes a brutal abortion section of the “On Demand and Without Apology” sort, so rarely seen or heard of in today’s abortion-rights-slashing United States. For all the sex in Acker’s work, relationships of any kind are never easy. “Abortions,” Janey says, “are the symbol, the outer image, of sexual relations in this world. Describing my abortions is the only real way I can tell you about pain and fear … my unstoppable drive for sexual love made me know.”

Such dizzying genre shifting helps Acker to challenge the notion of a secure, unified self. Since Janey’s world is always rapidly changing, so too is what she thinks of as “herself.” For Janey must learn that the self is a kind of fiction, one that, though it often comes pre-scripted, is always capable of changing genres. As the novel puts it, “You, the thing you called ‘you,’ was a ball turning and turning in the blackness […] every time the ball turns over you feel all your characteristics, your identities, slip around so you go crazy. When the ball doesn’t turn, you feel stable.” Of course, nothing is stable in Blood and Guts, yet the novel’s compactness and focus on Janey’s story make it less jarring than other comparable novels in Acker’s oeuvre, such as Great Expectations (1982) and Don Quixote: Which Was A Dream (1986). As Kraus aptly notes in her introduction to the new edition, Blood and Guts is “a disjunctive but emotionally continuous work.” Acker’s blending of such opposites shows a masterful touch.

There is also something perfect about the angst-ridden “teenage” or “high school” vibe of Blood and Guts. Because Janey is an angry, rebellious, fucked-up teenager, Acker’s angry, rebellious, fucked-up novel feels entirely appropriate and not at all like the experimental fiction it is. High school holds a special place in the American psyche, and this positioning allows Acker to tap into a reservoir of collective nostalgia, resentment, and dark desires. Janey’s frustration and alienation play particularly well in this venue. “Parents stink,” the novel’s first section begins, and therefore so does Janey’s attitude. She painfully negotiates the nuances of difference between sex and love, works a shitty job, and even joins a gang of disaffected, delinquent youth, THE SCORPIONS, for a brief period. But Acker never lets us forget Janey’s physical and emotional vulnerability. As Janey writes in her feminist reading of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, “The society in which I’m living is totally fucked-up. I don’t know what to do. I’m just one person and I’m not very good at anything. I don’t want to live in hell my whole life.” For Janey, this hellish waking life — the world of school, work, family and societal expectations — means not being in “the vision-world, the world of passion and wildness.” She thus inverts the “real” and dream worlds, since “disconnected from dreams[,] I was psychotic.” In the end, Janey’s dream journeys allow her to realize that “[r]eality is just the underlying fantasy” and to imagine a world and a self different from her own.

Janey’s role as antiheroine, however, is complicated. To Acker’s immense credit, she never settles on a single packaged image or idea of woman in Blood and Guts, or in any of her works. No comforting or commodifiable image of a rebel girl emerges. Instead, Acker relentlessly explores the process of becoming a rebel and becoming a woman through Janey. Since altering such images does not necessarily result in changing the underlying reality, Acker is not interested in merely substituting a bad image with a badass one. Even today, from the new Mad Max to Wonder Woman, these compensatory, supposedly feminist representations of women do little to change systemic gender and sexual inequalities or to prevent sexual abuse by men, from the groper-in-chief on down. For Acker, such received ideas make dubious essentialist claims about what a woman is or ought to be.

Blood and Guts thus privileges experience over received knowledge and culture (culture is always a bad word — the enemy — in Acker). Yet it does so in a way that subverts the traditional (male) bildungsroman. Experience for Acker’s “innocent” protagonists is a continual process of consciousness and the body moving through a world of images and attempting to dream beyond them. And so, even Janey’s teenaged angst and nihilism can pass into the lyrical:

A girl is wild who likes sensual things: doesn’t want to give up things being alive: rolling in black fur on top of skin ice-cold water iron crinkly leaves seeing three brown branches against branches full of leaves against dark green leaves through this the misty grey wanders in garbage on the streets up to your knees and unshaven men lying under cocaine piled on top of cocaine colours colours everything happening! one thing after another thing! … you keep going, there are really no rules: it doesn’t matter to you whether you live or die […]; if you get stuck that’s OK too if you really don’t give a shit […]! Loving everything and rolling in it like it’s all gooky shit goddamnit make a living grow up no you don’t want to do that.

Here is an openness to the flow of experience in full. Consciousness becomes a permeable membrane letting in both the world’s horror and beauty. Knowledge, then, is never something transcendent, settled, or settled upon. Everything is in flux. Personal development is less about building one’s self up so much as it is about disassembling the self that society provides its readymade templates for.

Nevertheless, there is a politics to Acker’s fiction that goes beyond her critique of identity. This politics can be glimpsed in Blood and Guts via Janey’s writings in two seemingly disparate ideas: “[P]olitics don’t disappear but take place inside my body,” and, “The only thing I want is freedom. Let me tell you: I don’t have any idea what that means.” The first quote, of course, could in many ways be taken as the rallying cry of identity politics. One’s racialized, gendered, or sexed body is a site where real political struggle takes place. The second, however, is concerned with how we define freedom and what kind of politics would best guarantee it. The two strains come together, of course, because the body is engaged in political struggles. But in Acker, things are more complicated than they seem.

As Acker’s atypical feminism suggests, identity politics is not exactly her thing. The body is certainly at stake, but it is not a starting point for addressing standard political issues. Acker seeks a “freedom” prior to those “freedoms” guaranteed by, say, the state, a constitution, or the law. It is not that she would have been “against” fair and equal treatment for all under the law. But consider, for example, some of the real-life characters who appear in Acker’s novels, such as Jean Genet in Blood and Guts or Arthur Rimbaud in the underrated In Memoriam to Identity (1990). They are not reimagined as tragic or latent hero figures, or proto-activists for gay rights — as a politically correct(ive) historical novel or film of today might have it. Instead, Acker figures them in the same way she does other similar real-life characters (from Antonin Artaud to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec). They are social, artistic, and sexual outlaws, deviants and criminals whose struggles to forge new forms of art and life are an affront to the very idea of society, not a call for inclusion. From the point of view of liberalism, this is both a reckless romanticization of the marginalized and their very real plight and an avoidance of pragmatic politics. Seen from another view, Acker is offering an anarchic challenge to the state and society.

The traditional politics of liberalism is a dead end for Acker. She counters it with a politics that ties the body together with a notion of a freedom that, like Janey, we “don’t have any idea what it is”: freedom as an endless process, not an end product — even if it means creating more “rights.” Take the ending of Blood and Guts, when we enter into Janey’s dreamscape world and are told of “ancient books” in which “humans can become something else.” Most important of these is a “book on human transformation.” Janey asks in the book’s final words, “Shall we look for this wonderful book? Shall we stop being dead people? Shall we find our way out of all expectations?” Continually challenging expectations — literary, sexual, political, or otherwise — is Acker’s forte. And she does so not for the shock value of transgression but to test our understanding of freedom’s limits.

Blood and Guts’s anarchic politics is set resolutely against a (neo)liberal humanism of the left or right’s variety. The left’s version of neoliberalism has marketed its commitment to diversity quite well over the last couple of decades without adequately addressing underlying issues such as income inequality, sexism, or racism. Acker, in contrast, is not interested in celebrating diversity if it means adding to a drop-down menu of identity choices. She wants to preserve the notion of diversity before it is tamed by an acceptable category. Thus, her works question and defy categorization itself. Nor, however, does Acker end up blindly equating “freedom” with the “free market,” which comprises the right’s justification of neoliberalism. True, Acker lived in soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhoods and cultivated a hip, edgy image (portrayed on many of her books’ covers) that played into the fame game. But even as her onetime cultural capital has been devalued, the work itself remains truly radical. Ironically, today we must look past Acker’s seductive rebel image in order to grasp what is essential in her novels.

For Acker reveals how literary forms (genres) are like forms of life (genders, among other forms). Genres in Acker are a shifting kaleidoscope of forms that, like facets of identity, are not stable and mask the crucial fact that, like the unified “you,” there is no comforting master narrative. Acker wants to keep open the questions — in both art and life — of what a human is and what forms of life we might potentially create ourselves. To be sure, such aspirations can be seen in Acker’s later life in her brief correspondence exploring queer subjectivity with Wark in I’m Very Into You, as well as in her introduction to the 1990s lesbian/dyke culture in San Francisco. It is no surprise then that Acker’s admirers include the likes of Maggie Nelson and Avital Ronell, both of whose works often blend art and activism, theory and praxis.

Art and literature can no longer be naïve about their direct or indirect complicity with gentrification and capitalism. The protest against Kraus’s Semiotext(e) reading was right on the money in this case. Yet it doesn’t follow that experimental or non-mainstream work that may have contributed to or emerged from gentrification can’t provide a compelling critique of neoliberalism’s notion of market-driven freedoms. Acker’s work and Semiotext(e) still have crucial things to offer when thinking about subjectivity and freedom, even for those who protested the Kraus reading.

Capitalism and its discontents won’t just disappear from marginalized communities when the art galleries and high-end coffee shops do. Then the real work must start. And, of course, anyone with the means or authority to draw lines between the included and excluded will need to provide a list of essential qualifications to divide what belongs from what doesn’t. No matter how worthwhile the cause, such a project comes with obvious dangers. Not for nothing does Janey write her book report on The Scarlet Letter. Recall, too, that Trumpism peddles a false yet effective image of the true red-blooded, white, blue-collared worker who single-handedly Made America Great.

In a world in which liberal democracy is itself in crisis, Acker’s work is more relevant than ever. Change the political genre, fight for something new, Acker’s work urges us, because conventional politics in the post-factual, image-driven age is failing and unable to evolve. Blood and Guts in High School reminds us that freedom is endless becoming and potentiality. We don’t have to play extras in our current postapocalyptic zombie-movie world. And our present reality, like our politics, is only as limited as our imaginations let it be.


Ralph Clare is associate professor of English at Boise State University. He is the author of Fictions Inc.: The Corporation in Postmodern Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

LARB Contributor

Ralph Clare is associate professor of English at Boise State University. He is the author of Fictions Inc.: The Corporation in Postmodern Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace (Cambridge University Press, 2018).


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