Portrait Kathy Acker
When Kathy Acker first appeared in the art world of the late 70s, she quickly became notorious as a risk-taker and literary outlaw. In the seventeen years since her premature death she largely disappeared from the map, but now her books are once again circulating among a new generation of readers. Chris Kraus writes about the renewal of interest in this controversial punk icon.
Kathy Acker died on November 30, 1997 at an alternative cancer treatment center in Tijuana. She was 50 years old. She’d published eight books in twelve years since 1983, when Grove Press editor Fred Jordan discovered her self-published books in a pile of submissions. Jordan – also the editor of William S. Burroughs and Samuel Beckett – decided that she was just what the legendary avant-garde publishing house needed to carry its tradition forward into the 80s. Written in the late 70s, her collaged, confrontational novel "Blood and Guts in High School" meshed perfectly with the grim post-punk zeitgeist of the Reagan era when it appeared in 1984.
Within the poetry and art world circles she emerged from in the late 70s, Acker was considered to be extraordinarily strategic, competitive, and media-savvy. At the outset of her career, she ridiculed "hippy male poets" and second wave feminism. Later, she’d embrace queer theory and declare herself the bisexual, spiritual daughter of "hippy male poets" like David Antin and Charles Olsen. But by the end of the 80s, Acker had arguably ceased to be the best judge of her own writing and image.
By 1995, the writer who was known as "America’s most beloved transgressive novelist", as per Spin magazine, had become less than enchanted with her own persona. As she wrote to media theorist McKenzie Wark, who she’d met on tour in Australia that summer: "… the KATHY ACKER that YOU WANT is another MICKEY MOUSE, you probably know her better than I do. It’s media, Ken. It’s not me. Like almost all the people I know … I’m part of a culture that doesn’t want me. … Our only survival card is FAME."
As she entered middle age, rather than distance herself from the physicality and sexual content she’d become known for, Acker had chosen to amplify it in both her writing and life. Citing the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima as an influence, she dedicated herself to weight training, tattooing, and body modification.
Published in 1996, her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, was, in its time, not well received. As an anonymous writer snarked in Kirkus Reviews: "her interest in bodily fluids persists, as does her thematic concern with incest, whoredom, cross-gendering and death. In Acker’s tiresome world, homeless people, masturbation, body piercing, and S&M are good; patriarchy, rationality and morality are bad." The New York Times review concluded that she had "raised literary masturbation to an anti-art form".
Seventeen years after her death, through no particular efforts of any publicity or digital marketing machine, Acker’s work has begun circulating again, largely among people too young to have read it the first time around. Her name pops up on Tumblrs and Favorites and influence lists. The chromium urban-decay covers of her Grove Press books can be spotted in young women’s hands at gallery openings, on buses and trains. Writing on Dazed Digital this summer about how her aspirations changed from being a writer’s muse to being a writer, Gabby Bess, the founder of the online zine “Illuminati Girl Gang“, urges her contemporaries to "read Kathy Acker". In a recent informal survey of contemporary writers about "books that changed my life" conducted by n+1, Acker’s name recurs as a primary influence. Enough time has passed that her extravagant biography – which was by turns her best asset and worst liability – has faded, leaving only the work.
Acker’s compositional strategies – her juxtaposition of conversational transcripts, real and fake correspondence, a roving first-person narration, and characters bearing art-world friends’ and acquaintances’ actual names – are not very different than strategies used by Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, Sheila Heti and other contemporaries who’ve been hailed as avatars of the post-Internet age. Acker’s advancement of a contradictory feminist subject who’s not necessarily seeking "empowerment" also resonates strongly with Kate Zambreno, Ariana Reines, and Dorothea Lasky. And Acker’s brutal self-humor resonates powerfully with what theorist Anna Watkins Fisher calls the "adolescent drag" of artists like Amber Hawk Swanson and Ann Liv Young. Acker’s writing is aggressive, disjunctive, contemporary; and, perhaps most importantly, she does not always appear as a likeable character. The debate that she stages in "New York City in 1979" could easily take place today:
“Bet – […] We’ve to start portraying women as strong showing women as the power in this society.“
“Janey – But we’re not.“
And she continues on the next page:
"Janey has to fuck. This is the way Sex drives Janey crazy: Before Janey fucks, she keeps her wants in cells. As soon as Janey’s fucking she wants to be adored as much as possible at the same time as, its other extreme, ignored as much as possible. More than this: Janey can no longer perceive herself wanting. Janey is Want.“
This, together with about half of her fiction work, was composed and independently published over a decade before her commercial debut with Grove. Acker dropped out of Brandeis University and married Bob Acker, a graduate student when she was 19. Together, they moved to San Diego, where the University of California, San Diego, was, for a brief moment, establishing itself as a post-68 cultural mecca, like the École Pratique des Hautes Études in France. She became friends with David and Eleanor Antin, who were both teaching there.
In his poetry workshops and classes, Antin obliquely discouraged his students from writing naïve autobiographies by urging them to appropriate freely from other autobiographical texts. Acker’s first published work, “The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula“ (1973) is heavily drawn from the university library: dusty nineteenth-century tales of convicted murderesses, juxtaposed with pulp and porn fiction, modernist novels, and her own diaries. As she wrote to the poet Bernadette Mayer from San Francisco the following year: “I figured out that I’m nobody (i.e. I’m everybody) until I have to answer questions, take a stand. [T]he trick is to take stands in ways that deny any possibility of answers.“ She was seeing “possibilities for all kinds of language: poetical and mathematical & propaganda etc. … Why not be polemic? Why shouldn’t writing be everything?“
While textual appropriation, cut-ups, and the deployment of chance were by then twentieth-century tropes, Acker’s work stood out, juxtaposing seduction, directness, political diatribe, and poetic truth into a seamless picaresque style with charm and aggressive wit. Eleanor Antin had just completed “100 Boots“ (1971–73), a series of postcards mailed to about six hundred names in the art world. Acker borrowed the list and sent out serialized zines of her books. By the time she moved to New York in 1975, people knew who she was. Sol LeWitt, William Wegman, Ted Castle, and Leandro Katz teamed up to produce bound editions of two Acker works, “Black Tarantula“ and “The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec“ (1975). As Katz recalls, "The people I frequented liked her work. I adored her irreverence, and in many ways, there was much affinity with my work as a poet, making texts with dictionary definitions and working with Charles Ludlam, who would compose full stage plays with appropriations from movies, plays, ads, dirty jokes."
As her career progressed during the 80s, Acker sought out sci-fi writers like William Gibson as friends, and set out to write more deliberately narrative books, adopting an often somber, mythopoetic style, drawing from Japanese fables, the lives of Rimbaud and Verlaine, and ancient Greece. The sexual content of her work became more Bataillean, removed from the daily lives of herself and her friends and pitched towards the realm of the "sacred sacrifice". As she told Sylvère Lotringer in a 1989 conversation, while her novels were still built from other texts, “[t]he irony is gone. I’m not so interested in pulling them apart. … I want to learn from them about myth.“ She was seeking a sense of wonder, and through intense physical training, body modification, and tattooing, she was using her body as text. “I WANT ALL THE ABOVE TO BE THE SUN“, she wrote in “New York City in 1979“. “The idea“, she remarked to Lotringer of her earlier work, was “that you don’t need to have a central identity, that a split identity was a more viable way in the world“.
And this, as the renewed influence of her work seems to prove, remains true.
Chris Kraus is a writer and critic based in Los Angeles / ist Autorin und Kritikerin und lebt in Los Angeles.
Among the most important of Kathy Acker’s books are "Pussy, King of the Pirates", (1996); "My Mother Demonology", (1993); "Hannibal Lecter", "My Father" (1991); "In Memoriam to Identity" (1990); "Literal Madness", (1989); "Empire of the Senseless" (1988); "Don Quixote" (1986); "Blood and Guts in High School" (1984); "Great Expectations (1983).