Death (and Life) of the Author

Peter Wollen on Kathy Acker

Writing about Goya’s Black Paintings in Art After Modernism , a collection of essays published in 1984 by the New Museum in downtown New York, Kathy Acker wrote: ‘The only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense.’ She once said she didn’t expect anyone to read any of her books all the way through from beginning to end: ‘even in Empire of the Senseless , which is the most narrative book, you could read pretty much anywhere.’ In other words, you could make your own montage, you could appropriate and re-order, just as Kathy Acker had appropriated and re-ordered the writing of others – Harold Robbins or Cervantes or Ian Fleming or Propertius. Recently, on the radio, Leslie Dick remarked that Kathy Acker’s writing was an extension of her reading, that her plagiarism was a way of reading, or rereading, appropriating and customising what she read, writing herself, so to speak, into the fabric of the original text. Acker used to read her own texts too, each one eight times, re-drafting it after each reading: once for meaning, once for beauty, once for sound, once to the mirror to see how it looked, once for rhythm, once for structure, and so on. Writing and reading became as confused and mixed up as sense and nonsense, male and female, self and other, the sexual and the political. Writing about Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath , Kathy Acker commented on its nihilism, as she saw it: ‘The sexual is the political realm. There is no engagement.’

Barbara Kruger paid outrageous homage to Acker by rewriting – or, rather, parodying – her work that same year in the New York art journal, ZG. To Kruger, herself well-known for her appropriation of pre-existing images, Kathy Acker’s writing seemed that of a nihilist, rather than a critic. No engagement. Nonsense. Nothing. ‘Your quick-change artistry is a crafty dance of guises, cover-ups for that which you know best; nothing. And all the books, sex, movies, charm bracelets and dope in the world can’t cover up this nothing. And you know this very well since you are a librarian, a whore, a director, a jeweller and a dealer.’ In the end, it all boils down to baby talk, to unbearable nonsense: ‘Goo goo.’ It is more complex than that. Kathy Acker drew on an extraordinarily wide range of sources and a very complex methodology in order, not so much to express herself, as to dissolve herself into a torrent of textuality. This is far from nihilism or nothingness, even if it constantly rejected being for becoming. She was a ceaseless explorer of the disorienting potential of language, its directness, its capacity to drag the reader right into the text, ‘because that’s the only way you can take the journey’. Acker’s work, more than that of any other writer I can think of, challenged the traditional lines of demarcation between poetry and novel, between high culture and popular trash and, perhaps most important of all, between literature and art world. In all these respects, her work signalled the tremors of a deep cultural shift, as she sought to negotiate a new relationship between avant-garde artist and popular entertainer, between esoterica and pulp, between conceptualism and narrative.

‘Bookworm parrot Legba biker orphan pirate poet.’ Like Kruger, when I once jotted down a kind of capsule version of Acker’s work, I began with the love of books, with the ceaseless consumption of books. ‘Parrot’ of course goes with pirate – parroting texts, pirating texts, two ways of speaking about plagiarism, or appropriation, as it is more discreetly known. Détournement , perhaps, to use the Situationist term, or ‘re-functioning’, to use Brecht’s, re-functioning by re-contextualising, by making strange. ‘Parrot’ also meant ‘love-bird’ for Acker. She had two love-birds called Legba and Eulalie, after two figures in Voodoo mythology (Kathy Goes to Haiti ), which she also called her parrots. They were parents as well as pirates. Parents were the generative source of Kathy Acker’s private mythology, constantly bubbling up into the public domain – the parents who died, abandoning her, leaving her an orphan. Great Expectations is all about the orphan whose great expectations are destroyed, who is forced to run away, to get as far from home as possible, to become a sailor or, better still, a pirate. Pirates are outlaws too. They go with bikers, the wild ones, the rebels. But Acker’s rebels always had a cause; art always went together with politics, writing was a way of subverting the words of the parents, the authorised version, the authoritarian text. Like Burroughs said, it was a way of destroying the word-lines, storming the reality studio. It was a way of escaping the double-binds imposed by the structures of family and society – sexual, textual, ontological. Who am I? What is the meaning of ‘I’? What kind of a word is that, what kind of a trickster?

When Kathy Acker died, I was depressed by much of the obituary coverage in the newspapers. I could not help remembering what she had said about England when she talked with Sylvère Lotringer: ‘In England it was absolutely horrible … the media image is so much this kind of sexual image. I’m very well-known there and I get tons of work, but to say that they like what I do, no, I wouldn’t say that. They fetishise what I do.’ She had become an object of virtu, or perhaps I should say, of vice. She was seen as a fascinating and mysterious icon, an agent provocateur sent from some alien realm. I remembered something else she had said too: ‘I’ve always hated the English view of the novel … that there should be irony … distance … a very fine cool style, a very conservative way of writing a novel.’ I was glad when I found Diamanda Galas’s tribute on the Internet – ‘I once had a conversation with her late one night in Switzerland, and I was astonished to discover not only a provocateur but an extremely rigorous thinker with an encyclopedic knowledge of her craft.’ Galas identified her as ‘a keeper of the flame of our blood brothers, Nerval and Artaud and Baudelaire.’ She ended by quoting, in farewell, a stanza of Baudelaire’s about a sailor setting out on a voyage. It was one dimension of Acker’s work – the tale of the damned, the voyager, the outsider – but not the whole story. In some ways, it is very simple to understand where she was coming from.

Kathy Acker’s aesthetic and political stance (once again, it is hard to separate the two) was set for life in San Diego, where she went as a student toward the end of the Sixties. Born and brought up in New York, she had first attended Brandeis University, and it was because Herbert Marcuse left Brandeis to become a Professor at UC. San Diego that Acker left to follow him out west to Southern California. Then, in San Diego, she not only continued her academic relationship with Marcuse: she also encountered Conceptual Art. In fact, very early on, she fell under the aesthetic influence of another mentor who introduced her to the European avant-garde, to Black Mountain poetry and to conceptualism – David Antin. Antin’s interest in conceptual art, as well as his use of improvisation as a mode of literary composition and writing as a performance form, stayed with her through every twist and turn of her career. Talking about Kathy, David Antin once told me about teaching creative writing to students. They felt they should write from their experience of life but he knew they had not really had any experience of life, so he would say to them, ‘don’t be afraid to copy it out ,’ to find it in a book and work with that. ‘Kathy really took that ball and ran with it,’ he said. Later she could find a different, deeper rationale for copying it out, for plagiarism (although, as she always argued, it wasn’t really plagiarism because she was quite open about what she did).

She was also influenced by Jerome Rothenberg, a poet who was loosely attached to the Beat writers, but whose profounder sympathies were with the European avant-garde, especially French Surrealism and German Expressionism. Thus the influence of Marcuse, with his radical neo-Freudian emphasis on the role of eros in politics converged with an equally radical artistic avant-gardism. Acker was active in Students for a Democratic Society and also worked as a teaching assistant for Marcuse, as did Martha Rosler and Alan Sekula, two fellow students who went on to become prominent radical artists, combining photography, conceptual art and political militancy, as Acker combined documentary writing with conceptualism and leftist politics. Equally, if not more important, Eleanor Antin (David Antin’s wife) provided a role model for Acker as a female performer and avant-gardist, one of the first women to make her mark as a conceptual artist. William Burroughs is usually mentioned as the single most important influence on Acker’s writing, but, although he plainly was extremely important to her, the context in which she read Burroughs had already been set by the cultural formation that she had received in San Diego.

Talking to Sylvère Lotringer, in 1991, Acker said that David Antin had not only been her mentor and introduced her to the early conceptual artists, Dan Graham and Joseph Kosuth: he had taught her that ‘you just don’t sit down and write, you have to know why you write and why you use certain methodologies.’ In this context, she found in Burroughs a prose writer who ‘was dealing with how politics and language came together … Burroughs was the only prose writer I could find who was a conceptualist, oh he’s very much of a conceptualist.’ Burroughs’s cut-up technique provided Acker with a methodology and an example of how a literary technique could be given a political twist to become a mode of resistance, a way of subverting the control system inherent in verbal discourse, of expanding the possibilities of writing, ceaselessly creating the new out of the old. Acker went on to describe how she later made use of sections from Burroughs’s book The Third Mind ‘as experiments to teach myself how to write’. The Third Mind, produced in collaboration with Brion Gysin, was a work that used cut-ups and collages, structured on an elaborate grid system. Created in Paris in the mid-Sixties, it was not published until 1978, by which time Acker had returned east to New York. It was not one of the master’s more straightforwardly literary works – The Naked Lunch, for example – which intrigued her the most, but a much more formally extreme and experimental text, composed in concert with Gysin, a visual artist with a background in the Lettrist International, an avant-garde movement whose own roots combined Dada and Surrealism with an interest in pictography, concrete poetry and imaginary languages.

Kathy Acker was deeply committed to this avant-garde tradition, a tradition which was much stronger in the visual arts. She used not only cut-up but also incorporated calligraphy, self-drawn dream maps and Persian and Arabic script in her books. She simply added these new techniques to her ongoing concern with experimental writing. In San Francisco, where she lived after her graduate studies were finished, she had distributed her writing in serial form as part of a mail art network, another spin-off from conceptualism, this time in the form of a mode of distribution rather than production, one with its own political spin as the model for a decentred community, based on reciprocity and a culture of the gift, rather than the commodity. She sent her work to anyone who asked for it, free. When she arrived back in New York towards the end of the Seventies, she quickly abandoned the world of the St Mark’s Poetry Project, her first port of call, for the downtown art world. It turned out that her mail art writings were already known to artists in New York and this, in turn, led to her first true publications, the chapbook editions of her ‘Black Tarantula’ writings and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec , with drawings by William Wegman.

Both publications were subsidised by Sol LeWitt, another leading conceptual artist, who had them printed by a small artist’s press in association with Printed Matter, the leading outlet for conceptual book art. Acker recalled:

Sol went to Ted Castle and Leandro Katz – Ted is an art critic and Leandro a film-maker [and a gallery artist] – and he said he wanted to print these texts as real books. He basically became my patron. I didn’t know who Ted and Leandro were – I thought they were part of the St Mark’s poetry scene – so I came back to New York and lo and behold it wasn’t that scene at all. They had a party for my book and Joseph Kosuth and Keith Sonnier were there. I was absolutely flabbergasted ‘cause I’d been reading ArtForum regularly and worshipped these people. I don’t think I could open my mouth all evening [a startling confession on Kathy Acker’s part]. From then on I was just in the art world.

Artists in New York – Barbara Kruger, Sherry Levine, Richard Prince, David Salle – had begun to purloin images; and here, too, Acker found parallels for her own techniques of appropriation. On the Lower East Side others began to cross-hatch avant-gardism with porn, pulp and schlock, the lower reaches of popular culture, in the birth-pangs of a vernacular Post-Modernism. This was the milieu of ‘No Wave’, successor to punk, of the Mudd Club, Raw Magazine and underground performance.

Soon she was part of a group of younger artists, peers rather than idols, father-figures like Kosuth or LeWitt. She was writing for Bomb, Top Stories , Between C & D , places where artwork and writing by downtown artists were published alongside writing by downtown writers – Constance De Jong, Gary Indiana, Lynne Tillman. Their enthusiasm underlines how important art world ideas and practices were to Acker, as she struggled to import a virulent contemporary avant-gardism into the world of literature. Even the poets at St Mark’s, considered an avant-garde mecca for Modernists, were baffled by her approach to writing. An added difficulty, in their case, came from her insistence on writing prose rather than poetry. Acker’s debt to Black Mountain – to Charles Olson, in particular, whose work she had known since she was still a schoolgirl – is quite clear and it is strange that this should have gone unrecognised, at least as she saw it, because she was not considered to be a poet. She adapted his concern with writing as language-driven, with a certain kind of incantatory text, based on the physical cadence of the breath, while introducing these preoccupations into the writing of prose rather than poetry. Acker’s immense debt to Gertrude Stein has also been largely overlooked, perhaps because poets see Stein as a prose writer and novelists see her as a poet. Acker continually stepped across genre lines (as she did across gender lines) and caused confusion in both camps. The only poets among her contemporaries to whom Acker became at all close were the Language Poets, celebrated, though also criticised, by Fredric Jameson – she contributed to their journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and both collaborated with and borrowed from the leading woman exponent of the school, Carla Harryman. In England, she made contact with Michael Horovitz, advocate both for avant-garde poetry and live performance.

In The Transformation of the Avant-Garde , dealing with the history of the New York art world from 1940 to 1985, Sarah Crane reflects on the differences between success in the literary marketplace and success for the visual artist. Because novels sell at a much lower price than paintings or other artworks, the market for literature is much greater and commercial success comes from volume of sales. For visual artists, on the other hand, it comes from selling, for a high unit price, to an élite of collectors and museums, who are guided in their opinions and tastes by currents they pick up from within the art world itself. As a result, rich and successful artists are often militantly avant-garde in their commitments or their general approach, whereas bestselling writers tend to write ‘in the tradition of the realistic novel’ and avant-garde writers cannot realistically hope for much commercial success. When it does come, as it did, to some extent, in Kathy Acker’s case, it is because of the content rather than the form. The success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas had much more to do with its vivid pen-portraits of celebrities from the art world, than with Gertrude Stein’s experimental writings, even though these were inspired, to a considerable extent, by those very same artists. Virginia Woolf became famous and successful long after her death because of public fascination with the Bloomsbury life-style and because of the attention paid to women writers by the women’s movement. Joyce, Lawrence and Burroughs all had to undergo legal prosecution for their work before notoriety could be translated into celebrity, marginality into the mainstream.

For novelists, inevitably, the art world became a model of avant-garde possibility. All the writers I mentioned had close connections with the art world. Stein was both a collector and a close friend of Matisse and Picasso. Woolf’s circle was directly responsible for the launch of Matisse and Picasso in England, as well as the beginnings of abstraction in British art. Joyce’s supporters in Paris, Crosby and Jolas, saw his work primarily in the context of Picasso and Brancusi, Dada and Surrealism. Wyndham Lewis became better known as an artist than as a novelist. Lawrence exhibited as an artist and even had a show closed down by the police. Yet their place in literary history has been assured thanks to their insertion into the narrative of mainstream Modernism, in terms either of feeding into it or of branching out from it, rather than as a result of their postulating a specific avant-garde tradition or even option. The latter course, as we have seen in Acker’s case, would mean breaking down the barriers between the history of art and literature, a task for which neither side has shown itself especially enthusiastic or, indeed, prepared. Avant-garde writing has been seen as a necessary phase of experimentalism which, in the carefully chosen words of Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, ‘made its way by spectacle, establishing its practices and its norms, asserting its distinctive significance for the times’, before its achievements were absorbed into a wider current, ‘the Modernist impulse transcending, often, the tendencies which had pushed and forced forward new modes, new presumptions’.

Sexual radicalism was always the third element in this particular story. Stein and Woolf were lesbians, and although they never overstepped the line of literary propriety, even in Lifting Belly or Orlando , they came very close. Early Modernism was intimately entangled with sexual radicalism and the series of scandals and court cases which punctuated its progress were central to its whole project, rather than occasional sideshows. In this respect too, Kathy Acker’s work is in the ‘great tradition’ of literary avant-gardism. In her case, the presentation of sexuality is always bound up with issues of power, violence and pain, whether explicitly through sado-masochism and rape or implicitly through a generalised oppression. Women, in Acker’s books, are both sexually exploited and sexually voracious, an antinomy which generates a cascade of complex discourses, crystallised in the figure of the outlaw heroine, both flaunting her independence, defying her oppressors and bolting in desperation, abject and humiliated. At the same time, the origin of the heroine’s sexual confusion and bitterness is always to be found in the nuclear family, in the complex of hollow but unremitting patriarchal authority, resented and yet supported by the desperately submissive mother. The father is a personalised ogre, rather than a Lacanian instance of the Law, and the mother is a tragic ruin, rather than a figure of imaginary identification.

After Marcuse – the authoritarian personality and the socialised repression of eros – Acker turned to the work of Laing and Cooper, with its emphasis on the repressive dynamics of the family, the entrapment of the child and the validation of madness as a mode of escape. Acker’s adventuresses are always, in some sense, child-women, whose frightening demeanour and impermeable armour vanish to reveal a terrified orphan child, wide-eyed, crumpling up, going ‘Goo goo’, bereft of meaningful words. Then, at the end of the Seventies, she was introduced, belatedly, to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, and found, especially in their Anti-Oedipus , a powerful armoury of concepts which she could understand as validating, not only the content of her work, but also her rejection of conventional narrative as the reification of desire. Later, she became interested in myth and turned to De Sade and Freud as the founding fathers of our primal myths of patriarchy, seen as a machine for generating hysteria and violence. In Acker’s work, however, family romance is always inextricably involved with language. Her methodology of writing is worked out within a totalising discourse in which she speaks from the position of the child, trapped within linguistic double-binds and subject to linguistic imperatives which cast her whole identity into doubt. Society is a macro-family of powerful rulers and powerless subjects, terrorising and terrorised, driving and driven mad – an extreme projection of the psychotic family, and its values, across the whole landscape of inter-personal relations.

In her early writings, the problem facing the heroine and narrator is that of the first-person pronoun, the ‘I’, the linguistic index of identity. Acker appropriated other people’s texts, mainly things that had been told to her by friends or, for a brief but crucial period, by fellow workers in go-go dancing joints, and mixed them in with aspects of her own experience, all told in the first person, because, as she put it later, ‘I didn’t want to be like a sociologist.’ She also changed the genders of her narrator, switching between female and male, between the prison of femininity and the joy of being a pirate. Pirate stories are a constant element throughout her work, childhood fantasies which never lost their charm as she plunged into a world of escape, defiance and sexual confusion, reinforced by historical research into such heroines as Annie Bonney, the female pirate whose gender was only discovered after her death. As time went on, she began to cast herself in a wider, more ambitious variety of roles, as the poète maudit , the doomed artist or orphan, the wanderer, the vagrant, the victimised – Toulouse-Lautrec, Pip in Great Expectations , Don Quixote (transformed into a dog), or, more directly, as Cathy from Wuthering Heights or Laure, the masochistic lover of Souvarine and Bataille.

‘I became very interested in the model of schizophrenia. I wanted to explore the use of the word ‘I’, that’s the only thing I wanted to do. So I placed very direct autobiographical – just diary material, right next to fake diary material. I tried to figure out who I wasn’t and I went to texts of murderesses . . . I was doing experiments about memory.’

Acker’s way of writing evolved into a complex mix of Burroughsian cut-ups and ‘cut-ins’, dreams, diary excerpts, foreign-language primers, plagiarism, other people’s memories, her own memories, all reduced to the same level of language, told as if by the same narrator, but constantly decomposing the identity of the heroine, changing names, erasing the distinction between the true ‘I’ and the false ‘I’, between the remembered and the invented and the discovered, the text as ‘found object’, the same text repeated in a different context – ‘the idea that you don’t need to have a central identity, that a split identity was a more viable way in the world.’ In fact, a kind of multiple identity, which could be likened, as Steve Shaviro has suggested, following Klossowski, to demonic possession. Hence, perhaps, the title of Acker’s My Mother, Demonology , in which she takes on the being of her own dead parent, in a rite of exorcism.

Throughout this process of textual experimentation, Acker stuck fast to her conceptual practices: ‘I wrote so many pages a day and that was that. I set up guidelines for each piece, such as you’ll use autobiographical and fake autobiographical material, or you’re not allowed to re-write. I really didn’t want any creativity. It was task work, and that’s how I thought of it.’ In another interview she explained that her book Kathy Goes to Haiti was ‘mathematically composed: every other chapter is a porn chapter; each chapter, except for the central one, mirrors the facing chapter.’ Once again, the construction of a text through a pre-determined methodology – cut-up or a mathematical procedure or a set of guidelines. As she notoriously confessed, or exaggerated, in conversation with Lotringer, ‘I don’t have any imagination . . . I’ve used memories, but I’ve never created stories by making things up.’ The fantastic elements of her writing are generated textually, rather than by acts of creation – the author is divested of her authority, mediumistic in relationship to a text generated through impersonal methodologies. The narrator, the ‘I’, herhimself, becomes a construct of that text, rather than the other way round. Acker exaggerated her own absence, but she was speaking from a clear historical and theoretical position – in the background, lurked Mallarmé’s throw of the dice, Roussel’s compositional procedures, OuLlipo’s generated texts, Picasso’s collages, Duchamp’s objets trouvés, Rauschenberg’s combines, De Sade’s endlessly rotating tableaux, Olson’s distaste for the Romantic ego, Burroughs’s cut-ups, Breton’s ventriloquy, LeWitt’s plans and modules, Kosuth’s art as idea as idea, Foucault’s death of the author.

After she moved to England, in the mid-Eighties, Acker’s writing changed again as she turned towards myth as a structuring device – a return to narrative in some ways, but in the form of an impersonal story, belonging to a community rather than to an individual. Acker had studied classical literature as a student – Greek and Latin – and so, once again, she was in a sense returning to San Diego. Myth had always been there before – voodoo myths especially and then there was her fascination with Bataille – but it took on a new centrality now as a device for structuring the narrative. To Acker, the world of Greek myth was filled with sexuality and violence, a sense of the marvellous and the inexplicable, of the ‘Other’, with an approach to pain and trauma which she could associate with the rituals of sado-masochism or tattooing – ‘rites of passage’, as she called them, ways of mastering emotional pain through bodily pain, ways of textualising the body itself. In her most recent text, Eurydice in the Underworld, published in 1997, myth is a way of exorcising the fear of death itself. In a theatrical fragment, she cast herself as Electra in a bizarre society drama, set in Sutton Place, her childhood home on New York’s affluent and fashionable Upper West Side, and woven around her mother’s suicide, which had taken place there twenty years before, yet remained the most emotionally painful event of her life. The author of My Mother, Demonology had finally come to terms with the betrayal she felt.

As Acker once put it, ‘If you scratch hard, you find I’m a humanist in some weird way. Well, humanist, you know what I mean!’ In her last books, Bodies of Work and Eurydice in the Underworld , we find her taking issue with Kojève about the end of history, offering her vision of a non-linear narrative time whose chance rhythms offered more than the Hegelian teleology she rejected, agreeing with Hannah Arendt that writers wrote, not to express themselves, but to communicate with a scattered community of friends, finding more hope in ‘the meaningfulness of the world’ than she had in the past. She was able to abandon the fixated role of traumatised orphan, to die at peace with the worst of her demons. Her voyage was finished and she had found the buried treasure. A particular journey was over, but the stories were to go on, the responsibility for reading and writing them carried now by unknown friends, new incarnations of Eurydice and Pip and Janey and the Black Tarantula and all the others. ‘So the doves cooed softly to each other, whispering of their own events, over Janey’s grave in the grey Saba Pacha cemetery in Luxor. Soon many other Janeys were born and these Janeys covered the earth.’