Kathy Acker is one of those writers who will easily get under your skin. Discussing sexuality, masculinity versus femininity, semiotics within social life, and narratology at a time when many writers and thinkers were beginning to redefine and push the boundaries of both prose and verse writing, Acker is one of the most notoriously risqué writers of her historical moment. At her peak, she was active from the 1970s to well into the ’80s, though she surrounded herself with writers, theorists, and artists from the 1960s onward. She wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know what that meant exactly. Was being a writer a lifestyle choice or was it to understand oneself as a long scroll and body of language?
Two new books, by Chris Kraus and Douglas A. Martin, explore Acker’s life, work, and legacy. Kraus’ After Kathy Acker (Semiotext(e), September 2017) could be characterized as a formal biography – though it’s much more complicated than that — while Martin’s Acker (Nightboat Books, October 2017) is a series of fragmented mini-essays and ruminations about Acker’s work. In reading these two books, one can only wonder: How far and impactful was Acker’s reach? What kinds of reactions did her writing elicit? And who, if anyone, can be considered an appropriate spokesperson to bring forth the ideas of language so deeply rooted in every word Acker expresses? Martin quotes Charles Olson: “to write about something is academic, and to do it in your writing is visceral.” Kraus and Martin perfectly represent this dualism. While they are both bound to the rules of their chosen genre (which ironically, their subject systematically defies and rejects) each author has a very different relationship to the subject. Martin, who did not know Acker personally, is writing at an academic remove; conversely Kraus and Acker were part of the same community of artists and writers.
Although Kraus’ proximity to Acker is obvious (her partner, writer and theorist Sylvère Lotringer was Acker’s lover at one point, which Kraus discusses in her book), her exploration of that closeness is lacking. She never discusses her relationship with Acker. Nor does she specify her reasons for undertaking this work. Yet her intentions are clearly to work through the writing of an author who used her sexuality as a weapon to bring fire to her words, regardless of any personal affinities she may have for the author. Kraus finds herself writing the story of Acker’s life by way of literary criticism and traditional biography, as would a novelist and her subject. Interestingly, Acker did the same; she started to write by using methods of appropriation, extracting passages that spoke to her from novels written by others and repurposing them in her own writing. In her novel Don Quixote, Acker turns a canonical work of fiction into a narratological text that explores the creation of the characters and their awareness as characters in novels. (She writes, “I have no self … Don Quixote’s narrator declares. … I’m forced to find a self when I’ve been trained to be nothing.”) Her characters are iterations of herself that she systematically fictionalizes for the sake of her genre. Similarly, in Kraus’s book, Kathy is her character, yet the events Kraus describes to her readers are real. This is where Kraus’ mastery of writing becomes a highly complex and enthralling experience.
For a writer whose life was so enmeshed with the experiences of being seen and talked about, Acker never truly established a fixed identity outside of language. Her identity was formulated by and in language, through the stories told by and about her, and the ways in which she used her body to manipulate the language employed to characterize her.
As Martin explains,
Identity is consolidated in this way, lines are drawn in desert or sea sand, and we may feel boxed in ourselves…You are this one thing, before you are this other, you are told. Identity in Acker is in a tension with the reductive, what is seen, what is said.
An I: the idea of any stable identity becomes for Acker the field to derange or rearrange, the constituent points and poles of which can and might be moved and refigured, for a number of pages.
The anxiety of influence that loomed over all of Acker’s work made it difficult for her to find a true “I” to relate to, a true moment in which she felt comfortable with herself as herself and not as a projection of someone else’s language. As Kraus perfectly summarizes: “Conjunction, disjunction. Husserl, Melville, Descartes. She was hoping to write herself into a void: a state of hollowness she felt inside and out that might still lead to all possibilities. And yet— the anxiety to name it constricts.” Both Martin and Kraus characterize this void as Acker’s desperate desire to take up space in the literary community, to be known, read, understood, purchased, made love to, abused, loved, hated — and the list goes on.
Kraus believes that it took cancer for Acker to understand the value of friendship, love, and the precarious nature of life — though she never entertained regrets. It was meaning that she longed for. According to Kraus, “Meaning, to Acker, had always meant power. It was a protection against chaos and failure.” Writing was a way of life for her; interactions and relationships could be rearranged in the same way that words could be. Martin elaborates this point, stating, “words are ready-mades to be re-curated and re-fused. Some words become little areas of pain, intensified or attenuated by the mosaics within which they are then dropped.” This gave her a sense of control over her life. Kraus excerpts from a letter Acker wrote to poet Bernadette Mayer:
Why not be polemic? Why be always the fucking same thing? Why do many poems “look” & sound alike whereas when I go into a bookstore I see all the kinds of shit & the writing don’t look the same. Why shouldn’t writing be everything?
And writing was everything for Acker. She introduced critical theory to the London punk scene, used the texts of theorists prominent at the time, and applied their work directly to her prose. Martin explains:
[Y]ou could take a bite from Cixous, some form from Kristeva, a swell too from Irigaray, as how Acker approaches these women in theory: in further parts, inserting them into her own texts. There she lays them and plays with them, to see what happens when she holds them in her sights. She moves around their various angles and orientations with her own. Just as well as one could dress up as a stripper, you could dress your writing up with a theorist.
It’s all a waiting game for Acker: who will be the first to identify which theorist her books render narratological? For Martin, she’ll always find ways of dressing up a theorist’s work with more language. For Kraus, it’s about understanding the writer, the text, the reader and the characters. How do you make the distinction between all of these roles? Should we?
Though Kraus and Martin come from distinct backgrounds and bring to the table varying sets of knowledge, craft, and experience, they are both interested in the ways in which Acker revolutionized the erotics of writing through her constant integration of language in all aspects of every day life. These two books are remarkable contributions to the critical work written about Acker and should serve current and future generations as inspiration to push the boundaries of what is linguistically sound, to eroticize the mundane, and to never stop being a character in a story.