Kathy Acker is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I have long known of her work, her reputation, but I’ve only ever read short pieces or heard about her by proxy.
If I’m honest, I’ve always associated her with a certain American intellectual tradition of writing that wanted to ride the transgression wave over the Atlantic from France but in a way that felt largely performative and ineffectual…
The Semiotext(e) crowd. Enamoured by the French but too American to immerse themselves fully in that otherness — that internal otherness.
And yet, here, today, wandering around the retrospective of Acker’s work at London’s ICA, I am fascinated to discover I could not have been more wrong and more right.
Upstairs, in the final room of the exhibition, there is a vitrine which shows off an interview with Acker in On Our Backs, a magazine for the “Adventurous Lesbian”, in which Acker recalls her first foray into trying to get her work published.
Working as a stripper, travelling from club to club with a car full of girls, she writes down all their stories, retelling each one in the first person so as to appear less like “a sociologist”. Sending them to a prose magazine editor on the recommendation of some friends, she eventually receives a response that declares she “should be in an insane asylum!”
It was this, says Acker, that began her fascination with schizophrenia and the literary power of “I”.
This interview is the last thing read in the exhibition, buried in the last room, but I already felt that fascination. Not just in reading Acker’s “I” but feeling it resonate with the dreams I’ve long had for my own.
In the first room of the exhibition, she tells the story of her life. Dates chronicle a beginning of teenage angst cut up with diary entries from 1777 recalling her imprisonment in Vincennes. A Sadeian woman indeed. Not that this biographical fragment is cited with any reference made to its source. No, because she is de Sade.
And I’m shocked. Here I am reading Kathy Acker for what feels like the first time on the walls of a gallery space but I already know her. She’s the embodiment of my own bookshelf. Every which way I look I see cuttings from Bataille, Deleuze, Iriguray, Blanchot, Burroughs, Kristeva, Quin.
But Bataille more than anyone. He reverberates out of the walls and yet is also so buried. Because everything is Acker. Pointing to the men and women that lie in her literary wake says nothing of their obliteration at the hands of her “I”.
I think about Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation:
For it is remarkable how degraded a discourse can become when it is marked by the obsessive reiteration of the abstract ego, mixing arrogance with pallid humility. The chronic whine that results — something akin to a degenerated reverberation from Dostoyevsky’s underground man — is the insistence of a humanity that has become an unbearable indignity. ‘I’ am (alone), as the tasteless exhibition of an engogenous torment, as the betrayal of communication, as a festering wound, in which the monadic knitting of the flesh loses itself in a mess of pus and scabs, etc. etc. … (You yawn of course, but I continue.)
There is a video upstairs which shows Acker along with a host of other women discussing a new trend for tattoos, branding and scarification amongst women. Women who seem, on the surface, to be “respectable” and “normal”, hiding histories of abuse and mistreatment and malignment. Perhaps they have already learned to self-harm in order to cope. And yet here, ritualised communal exercises in pain and healing demonstrate a powerful reclaiming of their narratives. It is the epitome of a Freudian expedition beyond the pleasure principle through communication with your fellow woman.
Acker herself appears strung up in the white cube, literary barbs piercing her flesh, her bookshelf ripping her apart. Jesus wept. But we are nonetheless present for the writing of her disaster.
I think this is the subconscious reason why I have avoided her for so long. Now that we have met, I feel like I have always known her. I’m left wondering what else there is to add? She embodies — fully, wholly, entirely — a spirit that has long been the engine for my own writing.
Acker’s form of schizophrenia is at once hers and all of ours. Or, at least, most specifically, every American’s. It’s what has fascinated me about American history so much over the last year. It is a mentality that feels wedded to the American penchant for culturally absorbing the world.
It is this that Acker embodies, for better and for worse. The American. And now it crashes on the shore of her utter encapsulation.
And where can you possibly go from there? Where can I go? After Kathy Acker?
Apparently, I need to ask Chris Kraus. Perhaps then I’ll reevaluate by default cynicism regarding the Semiotext(e) set.