25 July 2006

Kathy Acker's Life & Work

This isn’t the review of a small-press book that Ted has challenged us to post (which I hope to be doing soon), but a recommendation pf a book on Kathy Acker that I've recently had the pleasure of reading. Lust for Life: On the Writing of Kathy Acker, ed. Amy Scholder, Carla Harryman, and Avital Ronell (Verso: London, 2006), collects eight papers that were presented in November, 2002 at a symposium on Acker at Fales Library at NYU. Will Kathy Acker’s work live on after her death? In About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, Samuel R. Delany notes that the making & perpetuation of a literary reputation entails numerous factors, which are indexed by what he calls “markers.” Among these markers, the development of a body of literary criticism of the writer’s work ranks high. Obviously, when a wide spectrum of scholars and critics pay serious attention to a writer, other scholars and critics, previously unfamiliar with the work, will be drawn to write about it, too. But perhaps less obviously, criticism of writers who are considered “difficult” or “alternative” serves an even more important function, that of making the work intelligible to those who would otherwise dismiss it as unreadable or meaningless, of stretching the limits of mainstream literary discourse to accommodate work that was previously marginal.

Accordingly, in her preface to Lust for Life, Amy Scholder writes:
The sophistication, prescience, and innovation of Acker’s work make it prime material for scholarly interpretation and academic study. My hope is that with this collection of essays, we set the stage for further inquiry into Acker’s project, and that general readers, students, and scholars take note of the myriad ways to penetrate and interact with this vibrant work.(viii)

The eight essays complement one another. The first, “Kathy Acker,” by Peter Wollen, provides an intellectual biography of Acker’s writing life. He notes that although most people assume that Burroughs was the greatest influence on Acker’s work, the context in which she first “read Burroughs had already been set by the cultural formation that she had received in San Diego”—where she followed Herbert Marcuse from Brandeis & came to know David Antin (who told her “Don’t be afraid to copy it out”), Eleanor Antin (who “provided a role model for Acker as a female performer and avant-gardist”), and Jerome Rothenberg.
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 not only with a methodology but also an example of how a literary technique could be given a political twist as a mode of resistance, envisaged as a way of subverting the control system inherent in verbal discourse, expanding the possibilities of writing, ceaselessly creating the new out of the old.(4)

Wollen cites Sarah Crane’s observation (in The Transformation of the Avant-Garde) that
because novels sell at a much lower price than paintings or other artworks, the market for literature is therefore 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 elite 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, whereas best-selling writers tend to write “in the tradition of the realistic novel” and avant-garde writers cannot realistically hope for much commercial success.”(7)

This observation resonates with the more personal account Avital Ronell offers in the next essay, “Kathy Goes to Hell: On the Irresolvable Stupidity of Acker’s Death,” which Ronell characterizes as a eulogy that attempts to “scan the resistant complexities of an unreadable friendship” (15). Ronell not only talks about Acker’s work, but also about their friendship (including Ronell’s wish for her to be friends with another close friend, Jacques Derrida) and her continuing bereavement five years after Acker’s death. Ronell is the first of the essayists to give us some idea of what it would have been like to have had a friendship with Acker. In doing so, she elaborates on what, for her, a “good friendship” is or is not:
It is imperative that good friendship be unbound from the yoke of understanding—who would be so deluded as to claim to understand the friend? Who would demean the beloved friend by finding her transparent or readily intelligible? Good friendship demands a strong measure of rupture in reciprocity or equality, as well as the interruption of all fusion or confusion between you and me. Born of disproportion, it is evidenced, claims Nietzsche, when you respect the other more than yourself… The good friendship, borne [sic] of disidentification, enables you to see your friend.(28)

The most painful, irreducible fact for Ronell is the “stupidity” of Acker’s death:
She remained unsheltered, teaching more or less as an adjunct [at UC-Santa Barbara], bereft of the benefits that would have pulled her out of her medical crisis. I will never get over the fact that Acker had to suffer the refusal of medical benefits. Like many Americans, she was uninsured. No one or no institution should get away with the degradation that was visited upon her, determining her fate.”(15)


Carla Harryman’s essay, “Acker Un-formed,” was, for me, the most illuminating piece in the book. She warns of “the traps Acker’s novels lay for anyone who tries to write about them” that chiefly arise from they way in which Acker’s characters function in her fiction.
The reader of an Acker work suspends her own interpretive coherence; self-identity in reading multiplies, expands, pixelates, contracts, is undone: the reader becomes to herself a multisensory/sensibility of the text, a further anarchic layer of the text and/or obstruction. Reading further crowds the text. “I” am interference.(36)

Harryman focuses particularly on what she calls the “architecture, or anti-architecture” of Acker’s later novels, noting: “The overlays of edifice and openness are related in her later works to childhood as both an institution and as unformed states of being that allow the text/world to be revealed and learned rather than known.” (38) And she points out that Acker’s novels recite stories the way children do.
Power of choice, power to do adult things, to give birth, to destroy things, to chatter about death and love without repression, and to find love outside the family are part of the dialogues and narratives that children make up when they play house and play with dolls…Refined diction along with words and phrases learned from fairy tales and movies are mixed with unsophisticated phrases. This is the language of the child’s mingled knowledge and wishes.”(42)

Robert Gluck’s “The Greatness of Kathy Acker” relates the anguish he feels when reading Acker’s fiction, “in which a marauding narrative continually shifts the ground of authority, subverting faith in the ‘suspension of disbelief’ or guided daydream that describes most fiction.” (47) In the end, he says, “judgment itself is worn down and falls away in favor of a kind of astonishment.”(49) Gluck places Acker’s work in a larger context of literary aesthetics, then concludes, “Kathy Acker had the highest ambitions: to reorient literature in a true relation to the present and to crack that moment wide open.”

Barrett Watten zooms out, to place Acker’s work in a larger, historical context. He begins by regretting that although Foucault was a devotee of avant-garde texts early in his career and made use of what he calls their “negativity,” he apparently ceased to read such texts in the early 1970s. Watten asks: What if Foucault had read Kathy Acker’s novels? If he had, Watten hypothesizes,
its genealogy would in his view not originate with the propriety of Pamela’s virtue but descend from the criminality and sexuality of Moll Flanders. Triangulating Acker’s work between Moll Flanders and Pierre Riviere allows one to disclose her formal motives, which are to undo and reinvent the novel as an inversion of the historical crisis of its negative, excessive origins.(58-59)

Fleshing out this delightful flight of speculative fancy, Watten offers a fascinating reading of Acker’s early work against a “chronology of the rise and destruction of the Symbionese Liberation Army,” which, he says, “provides a ready-to-hand index to the period, easily discernible in both the form and content of Acker’s writing.”(67)

The sixth essay, Laurence A. Rickels’ “Devil Father Mine,” interested me the least, probably because its style is heavily allusive. “The writing Acker summons demonologically must be reclaimed from projection. The secondariness or reactivity of projection in the wake or place of first contact…turns around in this process into new writing—original screen text—along lines long associated with the Devil.”(78-79)

Nayland Blake’s “Kathy Acker:‘Because I Want to Live Forever in Wonder’” tells the story of the author’s early infatuation with Acker’s work, his disappointment when Acker wrote an essay for the catalog of the author’s gallery show in 1990, his subsequent friendship with Acker, & his rereading the essay after Acker’s death & seeing that Acker had indeed “captured much of what I have become as an artist.” As for Acker’s work, he offers this distillation:
What marks Acker as an artist of her generation is the way she combined formal editing strategies that had previously been used to produce and effect of intellectual distance with content of overwhelming intimacy.(104)


Leslie Dick concludes the volume with “Seventeen Paragraphs on Kathy Acker,” which resonates with most of the previous seven essays. She notes that “Acker rewrote her texts eight times: once for sound, once for meaning, once for ‘beauty,’ once for structure, once in the mirror for performativity, etc…” She says, “Kathy’s generosity to unpublished writers was legendary. In the end we feel out. It was inevitable. Nevertheless, I won’t forget her generosity to me.”(113) & she, too, tries to get at the heart of Acker’s writing:
The relation of words and things, writing and life, is a relation that never quite matches—its asymptotic, as Lacan says, the je and the moi (asymptotic always sounds to me like asymptomatic, like chlamydia, but anyway)—and it is in that gap between words and things, in that rupture, that desire lies. Put bluntly, need is a material reality, like hunger or love, and demand the speech act that repeats that need in words. In the difference between them, a difference that can never be evaded, given the infinitely incommensurable mismatch of things and words, bodies and ideas, in the difference between need and demand, in that impossible subtraction, desire cmes into being. Kathy Acker’s work is located there.

Kathy got at that space partly by refusing the distinction between art and life, words and things, by mixing it up to the point where every text undoes the proper and proprietary boundaries between the author and her very own text. This presumed author, singular in its authority, dissolves in Kathy’s writing, vanishing into a rapid sequence of possible others…Kathy shoved it all together… In the collision, in this mix, the space between words and things starts to open up, to come apart, to break down into something else: into a text of desire, always marked by the shadow of the lost object.(113-114)

As such books should do, it made me want to read the novels by Acker I haven’t yet read & reread the ones that are marked indelibly in my memory. & that, of course, is its point.

2 comments:

Lostcheerio said...

I get the point about the importance of critical work in explicating difficult work, but there's also something to be said for running across it when you're very young and have no idea what you're holding in your hand -- the old boot to the head effect.

Experiencing Acker via criticism takes away some of the immediacy and that "holy shit what is she DOING" reaction that you get if you're not... properly informed.

Lance Olsen said...

Thanks for this great synopsis of the pieces in Lust for Life, Timmi. It's terrific seeing Acker's work continuing to continue.

And it's funny, lostcheerio, I know what you mean about that initial aestheto-existential jolt her writing provides, but I don't find criticism taking that away from me.

All I have to do to experience it again is open a novel like Blood and Guts in High School, my favorite, to find myself again shocked back into wonder.