The challenging subject matter and demanding style of Kathy Acker’s work have elicited considerable debate among critics. Perhaps more striking than their content—which includes sadomasochism, prostitution, incest, terrorism, homosexuality, racism, revolution, abortion, suicide, and murder—are her works’ use of a variety of techniques that disrupt novelistic conventions. Acker often interrupts the narrative with anticapitalist and antipatriarchal passages and self-reflexive commentary; combines and alters texts from both pop culture and high art in a collage fashion; introduces historical figures and famous fictional characters; creates surrealistic and apocalyptic scenarios; undermines chronology and consistent characterization; revels in foul language and pornographic imagery; shifts genre; and inserts autobiographical material. Because of its combination of anguish, hope, irony, and rebellious defiance of tradition, her work has been called postmodern, experimental, punk, and postpunk.
Acker considered herself to be part of an alternative tradition of literature; she traced her literary heritage back to Marquis de Sade, Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, Gertrude Stein, and William S. Burroughs. Her technique generated contention among critics: whereas some admired her deep enmeshment in textuality—the situation in which every text, for example, a novel, manifests the existence of previous texts and, therefore, is not autonomous and self-contained—others viewed her work as merely plagiaristic. Acker viewed her work as illustrating the relationship between sexuality and power, as foraging into nonrational areas of the mind, and as rejecting the notion that art could or should reflect reality through objective, descriptive narratives.
The daughter of Donald and Claire (Weill) Lehman, Kathy Acker was born in New York City on April 18, 1948. There is some question as to her year of birth, however: the Library of Congress lists her birth year as 1948, a few sources have listed 1947, but most obituaries state that she was born in 1944. The pregnancy was unplanned, and Donald Lehman abandoned the family before Kathy was born; Acker’s relationship with her domineering mother even into adulthood was fraught with hostility and anxiety because Acker felt unloved and unwanted. Her mother soon remarried, a union that Acker later characterized as an essentially passionless marriage to an ineffectual man, and Acker was raised in her mother and stepfather’s respectable upper-middle-class Jewish home on New York’s Upper East Side.
As a girl, Acker was expected to act with ladylike propriety in this oppressive, well-to-do environment, yet she was fascinated by pirates, a fascination that continued until the end of her life. She wanted to grow up to be a pirate, but she knew that only men could be pirates. Thus Acker experienced early the limitations of gender. However, she found that reading about pirates was a way of running away from home, and she turned to books as her reality. She associated reading and writing with bodily pleasure and remained a voracious reader throughout her life.
Acker acknowledged that she included autobiographical material in her work, which suggests that her stepfather may have attempted to rape her when she was an adolescent. During her teenage years, Acker managed to escape her family by becoming involved in the New York City art scene. When she was fifteen, Acker’s boyfriend, the filmmaker P. Adams Sitney, introduced her to the underground filmmakers Stan Brakhage, Stan Rice, and Gregory Markopoulos; the Fluxus group; and to the work of the Black Mountain poet Charles Olson.
Acker’s exposure to the second generation of the Black Mountain poets influenced her first attempts at writing. The Black Mountain School espoused using free-verse forms based on the poet’s feelings during the composing process. Olson’s theory that the breath and bodily rhythms, rather than set metrical schemes, should create the rhythm of verse inspired Acker’s interest in writing to accompany bodily rhythms. However, the advice of poets who emphasized the importance of “finding one’s voice” seemed beside the point for Acker personally because she did not believe her work had a particular “voice.” She began to search for other ways of writing, principally by improvising from other texts. She would, for example, copy a previous text and then juxtapose it with memories and the experiences of her friends or simply alter the existing text to reflect her own interests. She also rejected the Romantic notion of the artist as a creator of something unique. Her difficulties with these conventional tenets of literature contributed to her experiments with combining different voices in the same text.
During her years in high school, Acker became interested in studying Latin and especially enjoyed reading the works of the Latin poets Catullus and Propertius. In 1963 she left home to attend Brandeis University in the Boston area. At age nineteen she married Robert Acker, a poor friend, and changed her surname from Alexander, her stepfather’s last name, to Acker. Acker gave different reasons for her marriage to Robert Acker. She may have been trying to get a scholarship at Brandies or financial support from her parents. In any case, Robert Acker’s influence on her life seems minimal, and they soon divorced. No longer supported by her parents, who had wanted her to marry someone wealthy, Acker spent the next years of her life struggling financially.
At Brandeis, Acker studied with Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist and revisionist Freudian whose Eros and Civilization (1955) theorized the importance of erotic and economic liberation from powerful capitalist elites; Acker’s examination of sexual and political oppression in capitalist society certainly reflects Marcuse’s impact. When Marcuse left Brandeis (which was withdrawing support for leftist professors) and moved to the University of California at San Diego, Acker followed him and worked as his teaching assistant. Acker studied Greek and Latin and received a B.A. in classics in 1968.
In college Acker was involved in Students for a Democratic Society, but she considered the student left movement to be too elitist. Acker first heard of feminism while in college; however, her understanding of it did not develop until she left the academic environment. Acker was familiar with the horror stories of women who had self-induced abortions because abortions were illegal at the time. Acker and her friends used to help raise money to enable friends to obtain abortions from a doctor who would perform them more safely. Her participation in feminist politics, thus, was primarily at the personal level. While living in San Diego, Acker also became aware of conceptual art—in which artwork is a realization of a particular concept—and met the poet, artist, and critic David Antin, who introduced her to conceptual artists and taught her about conceptualism’s emphasis on artistic creation based on intention rather than “inspiration.”
After she finished her bachelor’s degree, Acker returned to New York City and began a doctoral program in classics and philosophy at New York University and the City University of New York. Still struggling financially and suffering from an illness, she worked in a variety of jobs, including performing in live sex shows on 42nd Street for six months—an experience that sharply raised her awareness about sexual politics and class differences.
During this time, Acker met the poet Jerome Rothenberg and became involved with the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, which was founded in 1966 to promote the development of innovative poetry. Although Acker referred to the poets Olson, Rothenberg, and Antin as her first writing teachers, she preferred to write prose. This put her at odds with the St. Mark’s people, who found her writing in prose and engagement with conceptualism strange. For her part, Acker considered the attitudes of the East Village poets toward sexuality hypocritical, for they both embraced “free love” and denounced any deviants such as homosexuals and transvestites. Deemed a freak by the St. Mark’s poets because of her involvement with the sex industry, Acker experienced these two worlds—the elite poetry world and the dingy world of the sex industry— as comprising a double life that she could only connect through politics.
When she was twenty-one, she began writing a book of prose poems called Politics, which was self-published in 1972. During readings at St. Mark’s, she read parts from the lengthy diary section of Politics, in which she used what she called “cut-ins”—material, such as dreams, political commentary, and her life as a sex worker, “cut in” abruptly to interrupt one narrative with another, creating a collage effect. With Politics, Acker began her conceptualist writing experiments in earnest, imitating William S. Burroughs’ innovative work The Third Mind (1978) and extensively borrowing his cut-up technique, which is the seemingly haphazard reorganization of sentences and sometimes large passages.
At the time, Acker felt Burroughs was the only prose writer working in a fashion similar to conceptualism. She discovered that his methods allowed her to create “environments,” similar to those generated by experimental music, rather than meaningful narratives. Initially she was not aware of how these techniques could be used to undermine language. Later she found his use of language as a method of resisting the control of language germane to her own work. According to Burroughs, conventional language is a method of social control that enforces normative behavior; therefore, to undermine what he considered to be a totalitarian system, one must subvert language itself. In addition, Burroughs’ subject matter—his focus on sexuality, violence, and extreme states of consciousness—influenced Acker’s content. In this early work, Acker was motivated to perform antinarrative practices primarily out of anger toward male literary authorities and the conventional narrative tradition, although she did not understand the theoretical reasons for her attacks on the sign system (the organization of language according to rules and conventions accepted by a community that reflects the community’s interpretation of reality).
Acker discontinued her graduate work after two years, and in the early 1970s she left New York and moved back to San Diego, where she lived with the experimental composer Peter Gordon. In San Diego she adopted the name “Black Tarantula” and apprenticed herself to Antin. When Gordon began his graduate studies at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, Acker and Gordon moved to the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco. Acker became interested in the androgynous theatrical scene, adopted the name “Rip-off Red,” and began to write her first novel, Rip-off Red, Girl Detective (published posthumously, in 2002), a mystery with pornographic elements.
She then became involved in a mail-art network, which allowed her to distribute her works to other members of the network for free. She began the first of her works in which she experimented with the notion of identity, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973), and sent off the first section, which received a positive response from the network. Encouraged, Acker began to write it as a serial novel. Through the free distribution of her work, Acker gained an audience. In the early 1970s she began to publish her works—Politics, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, and I Dreamt I Became a Nymphomaniac! Imagining (1974)—with small, independent presses.
Acker and Gordon returned to New York in 1975. This time in New York, Acker did not consort primarily with poets; her newest home was the avant-garde art scene on the Lower East Side. Acker was invigorated by finding people her age, to whom she could relate, who were mixing high culture and pop culture, pornography and art, and she attended gatherings in which cross-dressing and other forms of gender play occurred. Although Acker felt out of place because she was not a visual artist, she discovered in the appropriative artworks of Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, and David Salle visual parallels to her own work.
Not long after she arrived in New York, the punk movement began to develop. Punk particularly attracted Acker because of its emphasis on using a disturbing, anti-art style and abject content to shock people out of their complacency. As a counter to the idealism of the 1960s hippie culture, punk offered a nihilistic alternative that paraded the anguish and disgust of its members. Although anti-utopian, the punk movement did exhibit a profound desire that change could be enacted through extreme measures. In the art world, this meant desecrating sacred texts and shaking up cultural commonplaces through bizarre juxtapositions.Combining punk’s celebration of anarchy with her own experimentations with decentralizing and disrupting narrative, Acker found a niche.
Punk’s performative aspect also created venues for Acker to read her work. Along with the writers Lynne Tillman and Constance De- Jong, Acker began to perform in bookstores and clubs like the Kitchen, the Mudd Club, and CBGBs. This group of writers also published their work in the magazines Bomb (which Acker’s friend Betsy Sussler ran), Top Stories, Evergreen, Benzene, and Between C & D. Women had a strong role in the punk movement—other notable figures of this major artistic movement included the performance artist Lydia Lunch and the singer Exene Cervenka. Acker’s fidelity to this punk aesthetic is evident in the punk personae that she continued to present to her audience long after the movement itself had ended.
During the punk movement, Acker felt her work was at last corresponding with that of others around her; still, she was not able to explain what she was doing in her writing. When Sylvère Lotringer came to New York in 1977, bringing with him French theory, Acker was exposed to the ideas of the French poststructuralists Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze. By talking with Lotringer and reading Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Acker learned a language with which she could discuss her work, the language of deconstruction. In particular, she could verbalize why she was rejecting linear narrative, why she often changed the genders of her characters, and why she was placing so many disparate texts together. Once exposed to the theories of deconstructionism, Acker began to use them in her novels.
Acker’s personal life during the late 1970s was undergoing upheaval. She married Peter Gordon in 1976, but the marriage deteriorated after two years, at which point they divorced, apparently at Gordon’s request. During the same year as her divorce, when Acker was thirty, her mother committed suicide, an event that had a profound emotional impact on Acker and her subsequent work. During the same period, however, Acker continued to publish and develop as a writer. Florida, Kathy Goes to Haiti, and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec all came out from small presses in 1978. In 1981 Acker’s short story “New York City in 1979” appeared in Top Stories and won the Pushcart Prize for that year. “New York City in 1979” expressed Acker’s growing disillusionment with the New York scene. Acker had lost her interest in scrutinizing identity and turned instead to her trademark method, appropriating others’ texts. She determined that texts, as products and makers of culture, are just as real as life experiences; therefore, by playing with texts and improvising from them, she could explore and remake culture.
Acker had been honing her craft throughout the 1960s and 1970s; wider success came at last in the 1980s, when she became something akin to a celebrity. After publishing the novel Great Expectations (1982), in 1984 Acker had her first work, Blood and Guts in High School, published by a major company, the London-based Picador. Launching her career as a writer on the forefront of the avant-garde, Blood and Guts in High School was the first book in which Acker used plot, albeit an episodic one, as a structuring device.
Because she felt she could make more money as a literary figure in London than in the United States, Acker left for Britain in the mid-1980s. Acker became a public figure in London; her work was promoted at a show in the South Bank (the art and museum district along the Thames), and she contributed to the New Statesmen and made guest appearances on television programs.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Acker’s works were being published by Grove Press, which was more prominent than her previous American publishers. As the author became more famous, Grove reissued titles by Acker in editions that often featured full-cover close-up photos of her that emphasized her “tough rebel” image. In these photos, Acker often dressed androgynously, wore her hair very short and bleached, and displayed her tattoos and long earrings. Although the image was selfconsciously projected, it was in many ways a genuine reflection of the author: Acker was in fact an avid motorcycle enthusiast, a body builder, and an aficionado of tattooing.
Given this persona, Acker was considered to be something of an American primitive by her British audience. Although Acker believed there were more opportunities for a writer in London and felt accepted as a writer, she thought that her image was obscuring her work because readers and critics tended to fetishize the sexual aspects of her work and overlook the political. Nonetheless, her British critics and readers had forced her to become more politically aware by demanding to know the political reasons for her artistic choices. While in London, Acker produced several of her best-known works, Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986), Empire of the Senseless (1988), and In Memoriam to Identity (1990).
Acker’s work went through some changes during her time in England. In the early 1980s Acker had been primarily interested in deconstructing texts; she was intrigued by how texts from different contexts would interact with one another and reveal their assumptions. Acker not only placed these texts together, but she manipulated and dissected them. She mostly experimented with texts that had established cultural currency because these texts reveal much about society’s operations. For example, Acker used Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote, which she took with her to the hospital where she was having an abortion, as a model for her own Don Quixote.
After she wrote Don Quixote, however, Acker grew tired of her deconstructive techniques; in 1988, with Empire of the Senseless, Acker shifted to myth as her primary structuring device. Her shift from deconstruction to mythmaking stemmed from Acker’s realization that there was nothing left to deconstruct; it was obvious who had power and how that power was maintained. She also felt that deconstruction was too reactionary because it necessitated focusing on and reiterating what one despised. Instead, she wanted to discover a way to get outside of the various power systems—such as sexism, racism, and the class system—her works had revealed. She believed that narrative provided this way out. She found myths useful because they are not personal narratives but rather refer to the story of a culture. Increasingly Acker demonstrated an interest in rituals and rites of passage.
Acker’s attitudes toward feminism also shifted while she was in London. In the early and mid-1980s, Acker had attacked feminism for its alliance with conservative positions. Acker considered the feminist anti-pornography movement led by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, for example, to be counter to the liberationist ideas of feminism. At first Acker’s books were generally received unfavorably by feminists; however, more feminist critics began to embrace her work. With the waning influence of the anti-pornography feminists in the late 1980s and the growing number of feminists that supported her work, Acker came to identify herself more with feminism, although she was loath to label herself a feminist. The feminist theorists Acker claimed an affinity with were Luce Irigaray, who critiques Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and the masculine construction of “woman” as a support for Western philosophy; Julia Kristeva, who examines the radical political ramifications of avantgarde literature and whose concept of the “abject” intrigued Acker; and the queer theorist Judith Butler, who argues that gender is not an inherent quality of male and female bodies but a cultural construct that comes into being through its performance by individuals.
Along with the fame Acker received in Britain and America came notoriety. In 1986 a German court banned Blood and Guts in High School for being a threat to minors and objected to the novel’s apparently meaningless nature and lack of artistic merit. Acker also faced a plagiarism charge, which motivated her decision to leave London. The British publisher Pandora produced a collection of her earliest works, including The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec. The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec has a section, about two thousand words long, taken from Harold Robbins’ novel The Pirate, a best-selling soft-porn book. Under pressure from Robbins’ publisher, Acker’s publisher agreed to stop further publication and told Acker to write a public apology. Acker, who had openly discussed her appropriative techniques in interviews and in the introduction of this collection, felt she had not plagiarized. She believed that she was putting a text in a different, ironic context. Although she did write the apology, Acker resented this accusation and later discussed in essays her belief that copyright laws were a relic of bourgeois individualism and capitalism.
When Acker returned to America in the early 1990s, she found that, on a political level, the art scene in New York had turned more commercial and conservative. On a more personal level, many of her friends had died of AIDS. Discouraged, Acker decided to move back to San Francisco. Once in the United States, she published Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991); Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (1992), including The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining, and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec; My Mother: Demonology (1993); Pussycat Fever (1995); Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996); Bodies of Work: Essays (1997); and Eurydice in the Underworld (1997).
Although Acker promoted her work through literary events and readings, she discovered other outlets that would allow her work to be performed. In 1985 she produced (with Richard Foreman) her novel My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (which had first been published, by Picador, in 1984) as a play at the Theatre de Bastille in Paris, and she wrote the libretto to Peter Gordon’s opera The Birth of the Poet, which was performed in 1985 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Acker wrote the screenplay to the film Variety, which was directed by Bette Gordon and released in 1985. In the 1990s, Acker read her work publicly with two rock bands, the Mekons and Tribe 8. With the Mekons she produced a compact disc that included readings of sections from Pussy, King of the Pirates. In 1997 Acker wrote the libretto for the three-act opera “Requiem,” which was commissioned by the composer Ken Valitsky and the American Opera Project in New York City.
In the early 1990s Acker received some support from academia. Beginning in 1991 she worked as an adjunct professor of writing at the San Francisco Art Institute. She also worked as a visiting professor at the University of California at San Diego, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Idaho, all in 1994. As academic critics began to view her work more seriously, Acker took advantage of this forum created by academia to discuss her work and ideas.
In 1996 Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Because her teaching position as adjunct did not provide her with medical insurance, Acker faced exorbitant medical bills if she elected to undergo chemotherapy. Disenchanted with her experience with Western medicine during the diagnosis of her cancer and its removal, Acker opted instead for nontraditional forms of healing.
When Acker wrote about her cancer in newspapers, many of her friends and critics felt that she was setting a bad model for other women facing breast cancer by naively accepting New Age methods of healing, but Acker was firm in her belief in the mind-body relationship and wanted to treat her illness in a holistic fashion. She died on November 29, 1997, at an alternative treatment center in Tijuana, Mexico, still in the prime of her life.
NOVELS OF IDENTITY
In the trilogy of early novels reprinted in the 1992 collection Portrait of an Eye—The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining, and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec— Acker teases apart the concept of identity. In The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula she plays with first-person narration by combining autobiographical and textual material. At the beginning of this work, the narrator claims that her intention is to become a murderess “by repeating in words the lives of other murderesses.” Acker mixes entries from her own diary with accounts from the lives of murderesses and other historical and fictional figures, giving them all the position of first-person narrator. In this manner, Acker demonstrates how texts create identity. Her experiments with “I” also circumvent the notion of art as self-expression because here the “self” is an amalgam of various texts.
In addition, Acker tracks the parallels between her life, the episodes of which are often enclosed in parentheses, and those of these historical and fictional figures to demonstrate the effects of sexism, capitalism, and institutions on women’s personal lives; chiefly, her comparisons indicate how various forms of deprivation, such as poverty and discrimination, force destructive countermeasures. The narrator expresses her distaste for the banality of work and her fear that various institutions are attempting to turn her into a robot, that is, a productive member of society. Robert Siegle argues that the “black tarantula” of the title refers to the narrator’s voracious sexuality, and, he further argues, the title also suggests the author’s appropriation technique, with which the narrator brings all of these characters into her web of shifting identities. The narrator struggles between a desire to escape the “death society” that would make her conform to its strictures and a desire for sexual and social connection, which could compromise her autonomy.
I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining again explores the confrontation between the narrator’s desires and repressive systems. It also presents autobiographical elements, sometimes blatantly, sometimes in disguised form. I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac exhibits Acker’s early experimentation with techniques such as repetition, metafictional commentary, and shifting narratives, which allow her to investigate the nature of language and the way in which repetition and memory affect meaning.
Early on, the novel’s narrator refers to herself as “Kathy Acker” and tells in pornographic language of her sexual relations with two male artists. Then the narrator recounts a dream that lasts for approximately two pages and is repeated verbatim three times. This repetition technique disrupts the linear narrative and replaces it with a cyclical narrative. A second, longer narrative is repeated, beginning with the narrator’s attempts to become a writer and ending with her affair with Peter, a male transvestite that she, disguised as a man, meets at a ball. This section concludes with a discussion of time’s relation to identity and of the different narrative possibilities depending upon the configuration of the characters.
At the end of the novel, the narrator expresses her longing for her lover, Peter, who is an anarchistic revolutionary fighting against money and leaders, and she describes her involvement with this fictitious anarchic rebellion, which is taking place in northern California. The chapter catalogs the types of prisoners at Folsom Prison and tells the stories of several of them. Among the prisoners are fictionalized versions of people in Acker’s life, including Peter Gordon and David Antin. She also includes her persona, “the Black Tarantula,” who has become a Native American imprisoned in solitary confinement apparently without cause.
By making these people in her life, who were experimental artists, into revolutionaries and prisoners of conscience, Acker counters the charge implied in the novel’s epigraph that art and personal/sexual experiences do not have political meanings. The epigraph begins with a man’s condemnation of a work (perhaps the work it precedes) for being “very nonpolitical, therefore, reactionary,” to which the writer/ narrator responds, “But what would the world have to be like for these events to exist?” This epigraph introduces Acker’s contention that relating one’s personal experiences and engaging in formal experimentation can critique society. Her presentation of figures from her life as countercultural revolutionaries operates metaphorically to defend this contention.
In The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Acker experiments with genre; by trying on different genres, the novel assumes different identities and frustrates attempts to assign it a label. The novel’s epigraph, from the realist novelist Henry Fielding, instructs that the writer should “make sense” and “tell the truth,” but the narrator rejects the claim of empiricism that reality can, or should be, objectively recorded and argues that she does not want “to make sense.”
In Acker’s novel, the French impressionist painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is imagined as a deformed woman who craves sex but is denied it because she is ugly. Her need for sex distracts her from her painting. This transformation of Toulouse-Lautrec into a woman allows Acker to point up the even greater degree of marginality that women artists suffer in comparison to male artists. Acker uses the novel to develop a mutation of the murder-mystery genre, in which Toulouse- Lautrec—together with her friend the painter Vincent van Gogh—becomes embroiled in the aftermath of a murder that has taken place in a Paris whorehouse, as the Agatha Christie detective Hercule Poirot attempts to solve the murder of a young girl.
As the novel progresses, Acker continues to experiment with different genres. In the telling of other narratives, Acker borrows generic conventions from beast fables, soft-core porn, and women’s “true confessions” magazines from the 1950s. Acker leaps to another cultural artifact, the 1950s Hollywood film Rebel without a Cause, when she portrays van Gogh’s daughter Marcia as a nine-year-old Janis Joplin who has an affair with James Dean, also known as Scott. The situation of the female artist, the singer Janis Joplin, and the male artist is again compared through the story of their relationship. When they are first dating, they discuss the difficulties of being an artist; James Dean is unable to recognize the added troubles that Janis will face as an “intelligent,” independent woman. As well as chronicling this Hollywood affair, Acker intersperses a detailed critique of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic decisions and their relationship to the development of global capitalism. According to Robert Siegle, Acker splices these two apparently disparate textual orders together to illustrate how the operations of global capitalism leave “bums” like Janis/ Marcia even poorer and give more power to the already privileged.
The final chapter, titled “The Life of Johnny Rocco,” is a deconstruction of the gangster genre that makes the connection between the individual characters and larger sociopolitical events more evident. Johnny Rocco is a mobster helping the CIA. A “dame” tries to infiltrate Johnny’s business and claims that she is not a woman; thus, she is attempting to play the man’s game rather than being its victim, yet she still gets beaten up by Johnny and murdered by the CIA. A friend of Johnny’s explains that America gives him and people like him the privilege to be powerful—hence, to use and abuse others. This, it seems Acker is saying, is both the American way and the man’s way. However, Johnny is nearly killed during a government raid. Siegle argues that this situation illustrates how the power of the individual is subsumed by institutional power; thus even male privilege is limited. Nevertheless, in The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, Acker consistently stresses the disparity between men and women.
Acker’s next important work, the novel Great Expectations, begins with a section called “Plagiarism,” indicating Acker’s shift from her emphasis on identity. In addition to the novel by Charles Dickens, Acker also borrows from John Keats’s poetry, the Roman poet Sextus Propertius, the pornographic novel The Story of O by Pauline Réage, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Acker starts her novel with the introductory sentences from Dickens’ Great Expectations. This plagiarism, however, is not exact. Acker alters the protagonist’s created name from “Pip” to “Peter,” a possible allusion to her former husband. As well, the name of Pip’s mother is conspicuously missing, perhaps suggesting, as Martina Sciolino has argued, that the “protagonist’s self-naming will occur in a masculine register,” referencing the fact that conventional literary texts typically reserve for male characters the position of active, selfcreating subject, whereas female characters are merely supporting figures for male protagonists.
Before this male protagonist’s bildungsroman can start, Acker presents another protagonist and story, this one of a female. By abruptly cutting off the familiar narrative of a young male protagonist’s attempt to establish his identity in the world, and wrenching Dickens’ text from him, Acker questions patriarchal modes of selfassertion and the claims of ownership that identity permits. The unnamed female protagonist she introduces here is consulting tarot cards after facing her mother’s suicide a year previous. Acker places the young woman in a restricted position; her future seems determined because she is trapped by her mother’s influence. Her only escape appears to be working through her mother’s legacy.
This narrative is yet again interrupted, this time by various scenes of intercourse amidst the carnage of a battlefield. This imagery implicitly compares war and sex, yet the narrator confesses her “want” that the master-slave dialectic of these scenarios can be overcome through new combinations: “every part changes (the meaning of) every other part so there’s no absolute/ heroic/dictatorial/S&M meaning.” As these two narratives interchange with one another, the narrator slips in commentary on her aesthetic choices: “that’s why one text must subvert (the meaning) of another text.” These statements introduce this novel’s examination of the power of language and the power of memories— whether of mothers or fathers—and the desire to write oneself into existence, despite one’s past. This hope forms the essence of the female narrator’s “Great Expectations,” which she cites at the end of the first chapter. At the same time, the reader’s “great expectations”—presumably for a conventional novel—are dashed.
The novel’s second section, “The Beginnings of Romance,” follows the narratives of the two protagonists, Peter and the female protagonist, now known as either Rosa or Sarah. While the female protagonist is obsessed with her mother, Peter fixates on his father. Sarah attempts to solve the mystery of her mother’s death—she believes she was murdered—and to find her real father. Acker cuts in parallel narratives, including a domestic drama in which a husband and wife bicker, and a plagiarism of the sadomasochistic The Story of O, with Anwar Sadat making a brief appearance. Acker relates O’s childhood rape by her father and the girl’s fear that her father’s desire will overcome/become her. As well, Acker interjects a critique of the Seattle Art Society, implicitly comparing the vicious networking that takes place in the art world to the machinations of big business and French court life.
In the final section, “The End,” Propertius, who regrets the fact that women have emotions, carries on a tumultuous affair with a woman named Cynthia. Their battles are written as a drama. Acker again depicts the largely unequal yet shifting relations between men and women; eventually, Propertius rejects Cynthia, who gives herself to madness. Although as a male Propertius has power in the personal realm, as an artist whose work is subject to Imperial censure, he is relatively powerless. The Roman Empire, speaking through the voice of Maecenas, criticizes his poetry for being too “emotional” and not fulfilling its role as state propaganda. The narrator compares herself to Propertius; both have their works condemned because they deal with unreasonable topics such as sex and violence. Acker concludes with the female protagonist’s agony about her mother’s suicide.
Alongside these various stories, the narrator continues her self-reflexive commentary on writing and language. For example, she questions the naming of things because this activity is unable to encompass the changing nature of those same things; she urges herself to “get as deep as possible” in order to create the “least meaning”; and she defines sexuality as “that which can’t be satisfied” and is, therefore, comparable to her own writing, which defies conventional expectations. The novel’s conclusion comes in medias res with the words “Dear mother,” as if to demonstrate that there is no end to the quest for understanding pain or to the mourning that this society engenders, particularly for women. The cycle of expectation continues, as one would expect from a moving language, in which “questioning is our mode.”
BLOOD AND GUTS IN HIGH SCHOOL
The 1984 novel Blood and Guts in High School may have the most coherent narrative of Acker’s works because it recounts the adventures of a single protagonist, Janey Smith, a ten-year-old girl who is having an affair with her father, Johnny. Like Great Expectations, Blood and Guts is a bildungsroman that begins with the absence of the mother. After losing her mother when she was one year old, Janey relies on her father for all of her needs. Johnny represents not only a biological father but also the paternal function of society, which dictates the limits of female desire and self-actualization.
Janey’s adventures commence when her father rejects her for another woman, a WASP—Janey is a Jew. Acker alternates Janey’s conversations with her father and his friend Bill—which are often rendered as portions of a script—with fairly primitive drawings of male and female genitalia accompanied by captions. Acker also uses the repetition technique she deployed in Nymphomaniac, but with shorter passages interspersed between a fairly straightforward narrative. Several passages including the word “LASHES” telegraph Janey’s masochistic compulsion to torture herself for alienating Johnny. As in previous works, Acker includes passages of cultural and political commentary, mainly critiques of capitalism, and interjects self-reflexive statements.
After Johnny unburdens himself of Janey by sending her from her hometown, Merida, Mexico, to New York City to attend school, she falls in with a gang of disaffected youths, the Scorpions, finds employment at a hippie bakery, leaves high school, and then gets kidnapped by two thugs who are working for a white slaver, Mr. Linker, also known as the Persian slave trader. Mr. Linker is a fervent proponent of Greco-Roman culture and literary classics, no doubt an ironic statement on Acker’s part about the relationship between high art and hegemony, a critique that is underlined by a drawing of a headless, naked woman whose feet and hands are bound—the drawing is titled “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” Several pages of associational drawings called “dream maps,” presumably Janey’s, and a beast fable interrupt the narrative of Janey’s entrapment and comment upon her obsessions with rejection, being indoctrinated into patriarchal thinking by the overwhelming presence of her incestuous father, and the possibility of freedom.
At a point in the novel where Janey is in prison—where she is being trained to become a prostitute—Acker presents her first significant plagiarism, that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Janey revises in a book report. Janey relates her plight to that of The Scarlet Letter’s defiant Hester Prynne. Janey views Hester as a fellow “freak,” who has also learned self-hatred: “How do you feel about yourself when every human being you hear and see and smell every day of your being thinks you’re worse than garbage? Your conception of who you are has always, at least partially, depended on how the people around you behaved towards you.” Janey sees the wildness of Hester’s daughter Pearl as an alternative to the stifling nature of contemporary culture, particularly its scripts for women.
Janey decides to learn Persian; thus begins “The Persian Poems by Janey Smith.” Janey again revises source material, perhaps a grammar text, by turning the Arabic alphabet to her own obsessions; for example, as she demonstrates various grammatical constructions, she refers to herself (“Janey stinks”) and creates apparently illogical statements that reflect her understanding of reality (“the peasant is the street”). Janey tries to learn a “new language.” In the process of breaking that language down to its grammatical components and then putting it back together so that it reflects her view of life, Janey (and, perhaps, Acker) tries to defy the conventions and assumputions that culture has inculcated in her.
In yet another appropriation and revision of source material, Janey translates the poems of Propertius, rewriting them as poems from herself to the Persian slave trader. Again Janey’s version mutates the originals, not only by altering their content but also by distorting their stylistic qualities so that they reflect her own viewpoint. At the same time, Janey’s translations demonstrate that “nothing’s changed” in the past two thousand years; males and parents still wield power over women and children. Once he discovers she has cancer, Mr. Linker frees Janey; twice rejected (by Linker and her father), she travels to Tangiers.
Acker’s second obvious plagiarism, that of the playwright Jean Genet’s The Screens, begins in this third section, titled “A Journey to the End of the Night.” Janey becomes an exploited colonized worker who helps stage a rebellion against the white landowners. Janey meets Genet and begins to prostrate herself to him as literary mentor and man. Genet appears to be a counterpart to Janey: as a gay male artist who consciously adopts a feminine perspective—he enjoys behaving sexually like a woman—he seems a sympathetic figure; however, he only appropriates the female position for his pleasure, and Janey realizes that he does not comprehend women’s subjugation in real-world terms. Although he accompanies her through the desert, he too abandons her—he has a staging of one of his plays to attend. Thrice deserted, Janey dies in Egypt. In this section, Acker again contrasts the lot of the female artist with that of the male artist; even the homosexual male artist, however marginalized, fares better than the female artist.
The epilogue of Blood and Guts consists of two pictorial series, “The World” and “The Journey,” which have been interpreted variously as Janey’s dreams, as the split second of consciousness she experiences before her death, and as her afterlife. Like the visionary dream maps, these drawings demonstrate a partial escape from the overdetermined material world and an attempt to reach something akin to the spiritual. “The Journey” concerns a voyage to attain a book that will transform one from a human into a bird (the soul?). The book must be stolen from the Roman poet Catullus; this situation is reminiscent of Acker’s and Janey’s own “thefts” of culturally valuable texts in order to make personal, artistic, and political transformations.
The novel ends with the statement that “soon many other Janeys were born and these Janeys covered the earth”; at this closing, Acker also offers a short song akin to a high school student’s irreverent anthem. The cyclical, rather than linear, structure of the novel suggests that Janey’s story is not unique to her and that many versions of her life will surface, as both exemplars of patriarchal culture and evidence of its rejection.
Of all her works, Acker’s novel Don Quixote has garnered the most critical commentary. Subtitled Which Was a Dream, Don Quixote begins with a woman’s preparations for an abortion and her decision to take on a quest: “By loving another person, she would right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong.” She adopts the name “Don Quixote,” thereby becoming the female version of Miguel de Cervantes’ questing hero from the seventeenth- century Spanish novel of the same name.
Several parallels between Acker’s Quixote and Cervantes’ are apparent. Both are readers of previous texts, both are idealists whose quests appear mad to those around them, and both decide to destroy their enemies, the “evil enchanters” who represent a threat to their causes. Like Cervantes’ novel, Acker’s work is metafictional in its references to the processes of reading and writing. Unlike the relatively straightforward quest in Cervantes’ novel, the female Quixote’s quest is cyclical and is continually disrupted by counternarratives. Acker’s Quixote dies at the end of the first section yet is once more alive at the beginning of the final section. She dies again in the final section but is still able to write. These deaths and resurrections of the hero defy normal narrative movement.
The novel’s first part, “The Beginning of Night,” is set in London at the abortion clinic where Quixote “conceive[s]” her quest. On one level, her decision to love is an insane project because reciprocal love is not possible between men and women in a materialistic society in which people treat each other as objects. More specifically, her resolution to love represents her defiance of the literary conventions of novels, which render the female an object rather than a subject; to love is to be an active being, an agent. This quest is “mad” because within the narrative tradition female characters who express their desire and pursue love often come to an end that entails either insanity or death. Indeed, Quixote faces the dilemma of having to choose between two deaths that will symbolically “kill” her subjectivity; she can marry, and therefore no longer be an active being because she would be succumbing to narrative and heterosexual expectations for women, or she can be an outcast and face ostracism from the community. She must also confront the difficulty of expressing female desire without those expressions (which are already largely culturally conditioned) being co-opted by patriarchal notions of desire.
The critics Marjorie Worthington and Nicola Pitchford have each expressed views that Quixote’s decision to become a “female-male or a night-knight” is an attempt to straddle both gender roles so as to circumvent the limitations of being either masculine or feminine and, by extension, to defy systems of thinking that divide the world into value-laden binaries, such as black and white. Christopher L. Robinson, however, argues that her position illustrates how becoming male-identified fails to free one from patriarchal models. At the end of the first part, Quixote “dies” because she renounces her visions and her writing, her search for love.
The second part, “Other Texts,” represents Quixote’s inability to speak her own story because only male textual representations of women are treated as valid and demonstrates Acker/Quixote’s interventions into these texts, similar to Janey’s revisions. As in Acker’s other works, the colonization of the female mind by masculinist representations of women is a key theme. The first section, called “Text 1: Russian Constructivism,” is ostensibly a description of St. Petersburg and an allusion to Andrei Biely’s pre-revolutionary symbolist novel, St. Petersburg, which portrays this city as a kind of character. Acker’s rendition of this Russian city is more like a version of New York City. Acker’s inclusion of letters to Peter, a possible reference to her former husband Peter Gordon, turns New York City figuratively into “Peter’s burg,” which may be a testament to her obsession with the end of their marriage. In this section Acker also parses a portion of a love poem by Catullus, printed in its original Latin, and then shifts to commentary and deviant translations of this poem. In the second section, Acker uses Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a novel about the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class in Sicily as a result of the unification of Italy, to discuss memory. She concentrates on the death of the principal character, the Prince of Lampedusa, who muses on love, decadence, the pain of memory, and the meaning of his life.
The third section of “Other Texts” is titled “Texts of Wars for Those Who Live in Silence.” This section combines a summary of the plot of a Japanese science fiction film with histories of the various wrongs committed by the American government in the name of materialism, whose ultimate realization is multinational capitalism. This situation is discussed in a dialogue between two monsters created by the Western concept of reason, Megalon and Godzilla. For the fourth and final section, Acker combines Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” plays with George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion to create a drama in which a lower-class Lulu is subjected to patriarchal determination at the hands of adoptive and biological fathers. Lulu, like Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, is a “creation” of male language; her only speech is that which is man-made, yet she manages to escape and become a pirate.
The novel’s third part, “The End of the Night,” returns to Don Quixote, focusing on her antagonism toward the evil enchanters, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who are represented in the novel as dogs. Acker explores various myths of America, particularly the myth of freedom, by tracing modern forms of governmental control back to their roots in American history. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes appears in Nixon’s bedroom to announce the logic behind capitalism and materialism; in a dog-eatdog world, the objectification and exploitation of the less powerful is justified. The third part also examines Quixote’s attempts to form a community with a pack of dogs, who appear to represent various marginalized groups. Quixote realizes that communication requires a community— that it requires others who can share its meanings.
One of the dogs, a “bitch” named Villebranche, tells several stories of her sexual adventures and her miserable childhood as a freak. Villebranche’s tale of her transgendered and transvestite affair with an effeminate male, De Franville, implies another possibility for heterosexuality. Villebranche also relates her rereading of a scene from Marquis de Sade’s Juliette in which Juliette is educated into sadomasochistic sexuality. Acker changes Sade’s text by removing all of the male figures. Christopher L. Robinson and Richard Walsh have read this section as an indication of the dangers of women appropriating masculinist sexual practices, for this merely helps bolster patriarchy; conversely, Siegle, Pitchford, and Douglas Shields Dix view it as potentially positive, for it demonstrates a more empowering form of education in which the body and its pleasures, rather than the set of knowledge instilled by culture, are privileged. In other words, Villebranche may either represent hopeful alternatives to normative heterosexuality or unsuccessful perversions.
Although the dogs decide to become pirates, Quixote once again wavers between becoming “normal,” through marriage, and therefore being accepted into a community, and going mad in her solipsism. She relates the idealistic hopes of the Spanish Republic to her own desire for a community that is not determined by hierarchy. In the midst of Quixote’s despair, God intervenes, declaring his/her death to humankind and the necessity of creating one’s own meaning despite the fact that there is no source of meaning or ground for asserting one’s meaning.
EMPIRE OF THE SENSELESS
Acker’s next novel, Empire of the Senseless, is considered a departure from the novels of her plagiarism period because Acker endeavors to be more constructive in her approach to narrative. She takes the oedipal myth and attempts to imagine a reality without that myth. Acker primarily employs the works of Sigmund Freud and Marquis de Sade as guides to her understanding of this myth, which she presents as sadistic in its dualistic construction of reality. Empire of the Senseless alternates between the experiences of its two first-person narrators and protagonists, one of whom is a female named Abhor who is also “part robot” and “part black,” and the other a male named Thivai, who is a psychotic drug addict in need of an enzyme to survive.
Part 1, “Elegy for the World of the Fathers,” suggests the end of the oedipal narrative in which the father, or patriarchy, has absolute authority and the language system is intact. In the section called “Rape by the Father,” Thivai relates Abhor’s childhood, in which her father teaches her to be docile and to find pleasure in her denigration. Abhor’s name suggests her situation as an abject being, one who arouses horror and fascination because she does not fit into any clear category. Being a cyborg and of mixed race, Abhor troubles the strict binaries upon which the oedipal narrative depends; for example, the separation of the “natural” from the “manmade.” Thivai is also a child of the postmodern era—he is largely apathetic about the lack of meaning in the world—however, he is still affiliated with patriarchal power, as is evident in his attempts to control Abhor. Acker borrows from William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer in her depiction of Thivai and his relationship to Abhor. She also clearly references Freud, for example, in her representation of their boss, Dr. Schreber.
Dr. Schreber sends Abhor and Thivai on a mission: they must try to find the code to a “construct” named Kathy. Like their author, they are constructs; that is, their personalities, including their most intimate desires, have been largely determined by society, which disseminates its dictates through various forms of representation, such as literature, language, and the media, and through its institutions, such as the family, religion, and the educational system. During their search, it becomes apparent that old methods of subverting authority are passé. Thivai explains that the former outlaws, known as the “Moderns,” used destructive means to rebel; however, new outlaws must learn the operations of the system. When Abhor and Thivai discover the code, it proclaims: “GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.”
Although this code would seem to suggest that one defeats one’s societal encoding through self-destruction, Abhor discovers that, in a postmodern world in which the oedipal narrative is no longer operative, the postmodern quest to “get rid of meaning” is moot because meaning has already lost its place. Abhor also realizes that one can no longer point to a central authority, such as the president of the United States or one’s father, as the source of all evil because power is dispersed. Hegemony is a transnational, postcolonial empire in which networks of power crisscross.
When Paris is thrown into chaos by an Algerian takeover, the impotence of old methods becomes more apparent. Even after the colonized have been liberated from the colonizer, the conflicting sociopolitical duality of powerful and powerless endures, allowing protean institutions like the CIA to manipulate the situation to their own ends. Although all of the sexual taboos that controlled the oedipal society are broken, gross injustices related to power imbalances thrive. Thivai takes advantage of the mayhem to satisfy his sexual proclivities. In the meantime, Abhor, who has already killed off Dr. Schreber, the last vestige of clear authority, sets off alone on a nomadic quest for “an adequate mode of expression” that can grant the world a provisional sense of meaning.
She decides to adopt the sailor’s life, for the sailor rejects the worship of material goods and embraces meaning as an unfolding possibility. Dressed in drag as a navy lieutenant, Abhor finds meaning when she watches a gay Cuban sailor, Agone, receive a new kind of tattoo. The relationship between Agone and his tattoist represents a nonphallocentric form of sexuality, one in which the experience of the whole body is involved and in which the dominantsubmissive dynamic is circumvented. The tattoo itself demonstrates an alternative form of knowing, bodily subjectivity, and suggests an embodied writing akin to Acker’s. In a monologue on the disruption of hegemonic language, Abhor argues for the significance of the unconscious, albeit a fictional one, which hosts all that is forbidden. She discerns that reactive nonsense, like deconstruction, cannot challenge the empire of the senseless; only taboo knowledge, that which is expressly prohibited, can undermine conventional epistemologies.
“Pirate Night” illustrates the clash between Thivai’s patriarchal thinking and Abhor’s new knowledge. Acker plagiarizes from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and focuses on the myth of freedom that is so prominent in that text and in America. In effect, Abhor’s vision of freedom is subjected to the reality of oppression. Thivai takes on the role of Huck, his friend Mark is the mischievous Tom Sawyer, and Abhor suffers as Nigger Jim. Mirroring events in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Thivai and Mark make sport of Abhor’s imprisonment through their ludicrous pretensions of freeing her.
Abhor, however, composes a letter in which she denounces Thivai and Mark for their adherence to a system created by Western masculinist thinking, she escapes, and she then tries to form her own motorcycle gang, against protests from Thivai that women cannot be in a motorcycle gang. At first she attempts to follow the rules of the road as designated in the official highway code, but she discovers that they are flawed, like most codes, because they cause her to disregard her instincts. Thivai, Mark, and an Algerian police officer catch up with her, effectively ending her fantasy of a life as a lonely rebel. This reminder that freedom is contingent upon the behavior of others causes Abhor to wonder if there can ever be a better world.
Acker ends this novel with an illustration, one among several interspersed throughout its text. This final illustration is of a tattoo, a rose pierced by a dagger with the words “Discipline and Anarchy” underneath. According to R. H. W. Dillard, “discipline” symbolizes the fact that the response to hegemony cannot be nonsensical, for communication must take place in order for change to be effective. The writer, therefore, must demonstrate discipline in her craft. Discipline also reminds one of the reality that the self has been disciplined by hegemony. “Anarchy” refers to the hope for freedom that one must pursue despite the fact that one is disciplined.
IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY
The 1990 novel In Memoriam to Identity demonstrates Acker’s continuing interest in myth as a structural device. In this work, she investigates the myth of romance, which promises to bridge the separation between the self and the other through love. This myth, however, often also maintains this separation because romantic partnerships are conventionally divided into unequal roles that make real empathy and mutual understanding between partners difficult. The first part, “Rimbaud,” is Acker’s rendition of the early life and works of the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Part 2, “Airplane,” describes the experiences of a woman named Airplane. In her depiction of Airplane, Acker interprets the character Temple Drake from William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary. In part 3, “Capitol,” Acker again borrows from Faulkner; Capitol is a kind of fusion of Caddie Compson, from The Sound and the Fury, and Charlotte Rittenmeyer, from The Wild Palms. The final part, “The Wild Palms,” alternates between Capitol’s story and Airplane’s.
Rather than dissecting her source texts in a deconstructive manner, Acker finds points of connection with them; nevertheless, she initiates a primarily feminist critique of them. In her essay “Poetics of the Periphery: Literary Experimentalism in Kathy Acker’s In Memoriam to Identity,” Catherine Rock suggests that through her interpretation of Rimbaud’s life and works in conjunction with the stories of Airplane and Capitol, Acker demonstrates the limits of his notion of radical alterity, limited because it does not encompass the specific experiences of women. In addition, Rock asserts, Acker revises Faulkner’s novels by giving his female protagonists first-person perspectives and substituting his masculinist point of view with a feminist one.
“Rimbaud” begins by examining the destructive nature of the family and education, which collaborate in the project of disciplining the child into the ways of the world. As well as suffering from a mother that resents his existence (yet another nod to Acker’s own past), R, as he is known, is molested by his uncle, African Pain, and terrorized by his teacher, Father Fist, who wants to teach him to be a sadist. R contemplates joining a German motorcycle gang. However, when the gang’s leader tries to force him to choose between being a victim or a victimizer, R refuses to accept this dualistic choice. Catherine Rock asserts that R, although he may seem to fall into the category of victim, transforms his pain into a method of moving outside himself, of transgressing the self-other binary. Rock further argues that he experiments with bodily and other forms of consciousness that pain grants him in order to write his poetry. The “memoriam to identity” of the novel’s title, therefore, implies a departure from identity defined as a stable self to the reformulation of a self as process rather than product and an acknowledgement of the existence in each person of multiple selves.
The remainder of “Rimbaud” traces R’s relationship with the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, called “V,” and shows the conflicts of the bourgeois (V) against the bohemian (R). In his relationship with V, R attempts to recapture a childhood he never had, one in which pure, sensual experience is unmediated by societal formations. However, R’s desire to escape his milieu are vexed by his mother, who works with V’s wife and mother-in-law to put a stop to their unlawful romance. The siege against the myth of romantic love is manifested in the section titled “R’s End as Poet,” in which V, assailed by the laws of respectability, ultimately rejects R by choosing normalcy over deviance; as R proclaims, “The nuclear family is now the only reality.” At the end of “Rimbaud,” R, like Don Quixote, seems to waver in his quest for love and comradeship and to turn against his poetry. Evidently the pressures of the outside world prove too great for him to continue to pursue his heart’s desire; he determines to make his inner reality accord with outer reality.
“Airplane” narrates the story of a young woman’s “fall” into the sex industry and her attempt to use male power against itself. After she is raped, Airplane allows her rapist to sell her to a sex show called Fun City. A consummate survivor, Airplane uses her sexuality as a means of escape and buys herself out of her position. “Capitol” explores the situation of a young woman overrun by male figures who are scandalized by her sexual promiscuity and who try to define her sexuality and options in life. She is also haunted by a suicidal mother, whose actions seem to predetermine her own. In her incestuous relationship with her brother Quentin, Capitol is subjected to Freudian psychoanalytic moralizing; meanwhile, her other brother, a “reformed” Rimbaud, attempts to profit from her sexuality. Before he can prostitute her, however, Capitol “steals” an inheritance from their mother that Rimbaud had hidden away for his own use, and she escapes from the family home.
“The Wild Palms” shuttles between Airplane’s story and Capitol’s. Airplane’s narrative focuses on her continuing sexual difficulties. At first Airplane lives as an emotional celibate, keeping herself safe from the entanglements and threats to selfhood that romance represents. With a German reporter, however, Airplane reenacts, by choice, what was formerly forced upon her. Through sadomasochism, she finds new levels of self; however, the degree of agency she has is questionable, and it could be argued that loss of identity is a loss of power. Capitol’s struggles revolve around her career as a performance artist and her competition with her boyfriend and then husband, Harry. Her provocative work is met with reproach, and at the same time, Capitol grapples with the possibility of giving herself to Harry, for she sees love as a threat to her art. Through these two stories, Acker underlines how women’s childhood traumas impinge upon their current lives. The novel’s conclusion is ambiguous about the fate of these female characters; however, both Airplane and Capitol appear to be survivors.
The attention of literary critics has tended to converge upon certain themes and techniques within Acker’s oeuvre but diverge in their assessment of the success and value of her work. Many critics disagree about her pornographic representations; although some find her work to be demeaning to women or to reify women’s position as object, others regard her work as accurately portraying the effects of patriarchal Western culture on women. The discussion of Acker’s treatment of women often revolves around her novels’ conclusions. Although most of her female characters seem to “fail,” critics differ as to whether or not these largely ambiguous conclusions necessarily deny the possibility of change. Several assert that the works themselves represent the intervention into hegemony that the characters failed to make. Critics also argue about Acker’s method of conveying her narratives. Some find her writing to be unreadable or tedious or both. Others contend that she commits the writerly crime of telling rather than showing by dictating to her readers what to think. Favorable critics assert that her techniques of pastiche and literary experimentation allow for an empowered reader, one who must create his or her own meanings. They also maintain that Acker is admirable for continuing and expanding the experimental tradition that she claimed as her literary heritage.
WORKS OF KATHY ACKER
Politics. Papyrus Press, 1972.
The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses. San Diego: Community Congress Press, 1973. (Reprinted in Portrait of an Eye.)
I Dreamt I Became a Nymphomaniac! Imagining. San Francisco: Empty Elevator Shaft Poetry Press, 1974. (Reprinted as I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining in Portrait of an Eye.)
The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec. New York: Printed Matter, 1978. (Reprinted in Portrait of an Eye.)
Florida. Providence, R.I.: Diana’s Bimonthly Press, 1978. (Reprinted in Literal Madness.)
Kathy Goes to Haiti. Toronto: Rumour Publications, 1978. (Reprinted in Literal Madness.)
Great Expectations. San Francisco: Re/Search Productions, 1982; New York: Grove, 1983.
Hello, I’m Erica Jong. New York: Contact II, 1982.
Blood and Guts in High School. New York: Grove, 1984. (First published in London in 1984 by Picador as Blood and Guts in High School, Plus Two, including Great Expectations and My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini.)
Algeria: A Series of Invocations because Nothing Else Works. London: Aloes Books, 1984. Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream. New York: Grove, 1986.
Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove, 1988.
Literal Madness: Three Novels. New York: Grove, 1988. (Collects Kathy Goes to Haiti, My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Florida.)
In Memoriam to Identity. New York: Grove, 1990.
Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels. New York: Pantheon, 1992.
My Mother: Demonology. New York: Pantheon, 1993.
Pussycat Fever. Illustrated by Diane DiMassa and Freddie Baer. San Francisco: AK Press, 1995.
Pussy, King of the Pirates. New York: Grove, 1996.
I Don’t Expect You’ll Do the Same, by Clay Fear. San Francisco: MusicMusic Corp., 1974.
Persian Poems. 1978; New York: Bozeau of London Press, 1980.
“New York City in 1979.” Top Stories, no. 9 (1981).
Implosion: Three Short Plays. New York: Wedge, 1983.
The Birth of the Poet. Performed in New York City at Brooklyn Academy of Music, December 3–8, 1985. (Libretto for opera; music by Peter Gordon.)
Variety. Produced by Renée Shafransky. Directed by Bette Gordon. Horizon Films, 1985. (Screenplay.)
Hannibal Lecter, My Father. Edited by Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1991. (Short works. Includes the stories “New York City in 1979,” “Lust,” “Translations of the Diaries of Laure the Schoolgirl,” and “Algeria”; a fragment from Politics; the play The Birth of the Poet; an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, “Devoured by Myths”; and the text of the German censorship trial of Blood and Guts in High School.)
Pussy, King of the Pirates. Quarterstick/Touch and GoRecords, 1996. (Compact disc recorded with Mekons.)
Bodies of Work: Essays. New York: Serpent’s Tail Books, 1997.
Eurydice in the Underworld. London: Arcadia Books, 1997. (Short works. Includes the drama Eurydice in the Underworld; “New York City in 1979”; the short story “Lust”; The Birth of the Poet; the short story “Translations of the Diaries of Laure the Schoolgirl”; Algeria; a transcript of the German censorship trial; and “Requiem,” a three-act opera commissioned by Ken Valitsky.)
Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker. Edited by Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper. New York: Grove, 2002.
Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and the Burning Bombing of America. New York: Grove, 2002.
CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES
Brennan, Karen. “The Geography of Enunciation: Hysterical Pastiche in Kathy Acker’s Fiction.” In Gendered Agents: Women and Institutional Knowledge. Edited by Silvestra Mariniello and Paul A. Bové. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. Pp. 396–422.
Castricano, C. Jodey. “If a Building Is a Sentence, So Is a Body: Kathy Acker and the Postcolonial Gothic.” In American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative. Edited by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998. Pp. 202–214.
Dillard, R. H. W. “Lesson No. 1: Eat Your Mind.” New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1988, pp. 9, 11.
Dix, Douglas Shields. “Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: Nomad Writing.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 3:56–62 (fall 1989).
———. “‘Now Eat Your Mind’: An Introduction to the Works of Kathy Acker.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 3:37–49 (fall 1989).
Kennedy, Colleen. “Simulating Sex and Imagining Mothers.” American Literary History 4, no. 1:165–185 (spring 1992).
McCaffery, Larry. “The Artists of Hell: Kathy Acker and ‘Punk’ Aesthetics.” In Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Edited by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Pp. 215–230.
Moran, Joe. Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America. London: Pluto Press, 2000.
Pitchford, Nicola. Tactical Readings: Feminist Postmodernism in the Novels of Kathy Acker and Angela Carter. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2002.
Redding, Arthur F. “Bruises, Roses: Masochism and the Writing of Kathy Acker.” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 2:281–304 (summer 1994).
Robinson, Christopher L. “In the Silence of the Knight: Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote as a Work of Disenchantment.” Yearbook of Contemporary and General Literature 47:109–123 (1999).
Rock, Catherine. “Poetics of the Periphery: Literary Experimentalism in Kathy Acker’s In Memoriam to Identity.” Lit: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 12:205–233 (June 2001).
Sciolino, Martina. “The ‘Mutilating Body’ and the Decomposing Text: Recovery in Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations.” Textual Bodies: Changing Boundaries of Literary Representation. Edited by Lori Hope Lefkovitz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Pp. 245–266.
Siegle, Robert. Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Walsh, Richard. “The Quest for Love and the Writing of Female Desire in Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote.”
Critique 32, no. 3:149–168 (spring 1991).
Worthington, Marjorie. “Posthumous Posturing: The Subversive Power of Death in Contemporary Women’s Fiction.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 2:243–263 (summer 2000).
Friedman, Ellen G. “A Conversation with Kathy Acker.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 3: 12–22 (fall 1989).
Juno, Andrea. “Kathy Acker.” In Angry Women. Edited by Andrea Juno and V. Vale. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1991. Pp. 177–185.
McCaffery, Larry. “The Path of Abjection: An Interview with Kathy Acker.” In Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors. Edited by Larry McCaffery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. 14–35.
Perilli, Paul. “Kathy Acker: An Interview.” Poets and Writers 21, no. 2:28–33 (March–April 1993).
Sears, Julie. “Kathy Acker” en American Writers. A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement XII (ed. Jay Parini). 2003. 1-20