Kathy Acker Interviewed by Larry McCaffery
When Kathy Acker smiles, her face shifts 2000 years in time, from Periclean austere to postmodern punk.
Embedded in one of her front teeth is a jagged chunk of bronze.
She is her own text, her own gallery. She’s a body builder in more than the usual way: her muscles animate spectacular tattoos. She has seized control over the sign-systems through which people “read” her.
You may also read her books. In Empire of the Senseless (1988) she systematically kills the patriarchal father, tries (but eventually fails) to imagine a society freed from Oedipal considerations and all taboos, and introduces a file of outcast myths—cyberpunk, modern primitive, pirate, motorcycle gang—to explore control over one’s life and the use of signs to create the meaning of that life. In Memoriam to Identity (1990) inhabits literary and historical materials—the work of Rimbaud and his relationship with Verlaine, Heian court writing, Faulkner—to present a contemporary version of the myth of romance.
During her expatriate years Acker became a major figure in postmodern and feminist fiction. Her novels (with spectacular Robert Mapplethorpe photographs on their covers) were attacked from right and left. Some feminists were made queasy by Acker’s depictions of emotional and sexual masochism, her obsession with obscenity. Some loathed her analyses of political and cultural repression; others, her takes on 1960’s Hippie utopianism. After a dicey decade in London, Acker moved back to the states, specifically San Francisco, where she teaches writing at the Art Institute.
Past mistress of the cunning juxtaposition and the Fine Art of Appropriation, her writing betrays a multitrack outlaw intellect. And she doesn’t shrink from mining outlaw “low culture” genres like SF, pornography, and detective fiction. The net effect of her work is not merely to deconstruct, but to decondition.
Acker is passionate and articulate, energetic and authoritative. Laughter and self-irony punctuated her rapid-fire presentations delivered in a heavy New York Jewish accent.
MONDO 2000: You took up residence in England permanently in the early 80’s. You’ve said somewhere that money was one of the main reasons—you couldn’t make a living here in the U.S. What brought you back?
KATHY ACKER: One reason was that my publishers were taking The Adult Life of Toulouse-Lautrec off the market because they were afraid Harold Robbins might sue me. I had told them that I use other people’s material—I appropriate—and this was not plagiarism. Plagiarism is using somebody else’s materials and representing it as your own. I’ve always liked the idea of using other people’s materials and having them use mine. [They] made my life hell for two months—calling me up with threats… What if I were ever seriously attacked while I was living in England? Despite all the bullshit going on right now here in the States, about censorship and the N.E.A. and so on, this country is still very anarchic—there’s a Bill of Rights, and artistic communities support their own. But what if I were in England and anything seriously political ever happened to me? I could see how vulnerable I’d be. I’d be screwed.
M2: Your work seems to draw on a pretty eclectic range of writing and critical theory—everything from Don Quixote, Great Expectations, Faulkner, Rimbaud—to cyberpunk SF and the most advanced stuff being written by post-structuralists. I like the way you pillage “low” art—those despised genres you mentioned—SF, pornography, detective fiction. What features of these forms interest you in terms of your own work? Let’s take a form like detective fiction, which at first glance seems to be more epistemological than political in its orientation. What might draw you to this particular form?
KA: It was a very epistemological notion, this idea of trying to find out who did something—and how and why—by writing an Agatha Christie version of Pasolini’s murder. [Editor’s note: her fictive version was published as My Death, My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini.] Of course, it didn’t work out the way I planned. I didn’t want a political way of solving the murder, so I chose three categories that seemed appropriate—sex, language and violence—and then let myself just go off in whatever direction I wanted with each one. Once I really got into those categories, I found that I wasn’t so much interested in solving his murder—that was impossible, because everything was so completely covered up—as in his life and his work.
M2: You’ve been doing more things with SF recently—Empire of the Senseless, for example, uses a variety of SF motifs generally and appropriates materials out of William Gibson specifically. What was the source of interest in SF there?
KA: In the case of Empire, my interest in SF had to do with having read Neuromancer, which excited me enough that I actually wrote Gibson a fan letter—which I never do. By the time I was working on Empire I had already worked through several different traditional genres, and I was wanting to move into current genres, expand my muscles in a way. Do I like SF? Sometimes, sometimes not. But I do like cyberpunk, especially Gibson.
M2: As you said, you began writing your books back in the 70’s, before the term “postmodernism” was popular. But obviously even your very earliest works seem to contain features that later on would be called postmodern. How do you now situate yourself in this area?
KA: I certainly had no idea what the term meant when I started writing. When I started out, I didn’t know about the work of Foucault or—what would be more important to me—Deleuze and Guattari. I knew I wanted to plagiarize, but I didn’t have a clear theoretical justification for what I was doing. So I just started finding these different texts and putting them together.
They were afraid Harold Robbins might sue me. lose other people’s material—I appropriate. This is not plagiarism
M2: That kind of textual juxtaposition and manipulation sounds a little like what Burroughs was doing with the cut-up form.
KA: Burroughs has been a major influence on my work. But what I was doing wasn’t really the same thing as cut-up. Actually the main impulses in my work early on were coming from outside literature altogether. I was very influenced, for example, by Bob Ashley’s music. What I wanted was a “de-narrative,” if there is such a word. You see, there was no way I could really talk about it until the punk movement came along and I met Sylvere Lotringer. That was about 1976. Sylvere introduced me to the work of Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, and (somewhat) Foucault. Those were the main ones for me. Derrida was never as important. And I never took to Baudrillard’s work. But it was only then that I began to find a language for what I was doing, especially in the ideas of decentralization, different notions of sexuality, and the relation of sexuality to language and politics. Reading Kristeva’s Powers of Horror—that was another step.
M2: Did you identify yourself as “postmodern”?
KA: As you can tell, I was “plagiarizing” and doing other non-narrative, intertextual experiments well before I discovered the discourses that began to attach themselves to the term. Honestly, my main response when I began to hear the word postmodern was, “Oh, now that people have this word postmodernism—which lets them pin a label on what I’m doing—they’re not saying I’m a pornographic little shit!” [laughs] But you know, there’s a sense to why I do what I do—it gets frustrating to hear your work described so often in irrelevant or condescending terms.
M2: Do you yourself identify what you’ve been doing with the term “deconstruction”?
KA: Sure, but I did so mainly from Great Expectations until Empire of the Senseless. That’s the period when I was taking texts and trying to see what they were really saying in a social, political and sexual context—essentially the program of deconstruction.
M2: Give me an example of what you are talking about.
KA: For instance, I’d often take texts that were either sexual or political—usually fairly hot texts, like the beginning of Great Expectations, where there’s that incredible Pierre Guyotat text—and I put these next to the stuff about my mother’s suicide. Now one speaks about one’s mother’s suicide in a certain way. And one speaks about sex during wartime—which is what the Pierre Guyotat is about—in another way. I put them both together as if they were the same text. Doing that uncovered a lot of stuff.
M2: And part of the point of this is…
KA: There really wasn’t a “point,” at least not in an abstract sense that I was doing this deconstructive activity trying to bring out specific content or ideas. See, that was when I was working intuitively, introducing different materials that just felt right. If I was doing that now I could have a theory about what I was doing—I could talk about women’s roles, what my mother’s suicide was, why I had to stick that next to a war text, why I wouldn’t deal with it sentimentally. And what the function was of including that kind of sex, which a lot of feminists would call very sexist—to say the least. Placing those Telweit texts on Nazi fantasies next to the Guyotat text is very interesting from a theoretical standpoint, right? Because according to a certain brand of feminism they’re the same text.
EXCESS & BLACKNESS
M2: Let me trace a certain lineage: Sade, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Jarry, the Surrealists and Dadaists, Bataille, Artaud, Genet, Burroughs, Johnny Rotten, Patti Smith, Charles Bukowkski. Is that pretty much the lineage you see yourself working out of?
KA: If someone tries to place me in another lineage, they’re mistaken! As to how my work relates to what they were doing, I’d say one thing we all share is a deeply sexual perspective, which insists upon the connections between power and sexuality. There’s also the use of language and imagery involved with areas of the mind which are non-rational. It’s almost like we all have the same favorite color—black.
Now that people can pin that word ‘postmodern’ on me, they’re not saying I’m a pornographic little shit!
M2: That lineage doesn’t only share “blackness,” but also a kind of imaginative excess—that desire we were talking about earlier in regard to Kristeva’s Power of Horror to defy the limits of ordinary perceptions, a shared sense that daily reality is a lie covering up emotions and sexuality. And you focus on the body.
KA: I very much agree that their art was finally always about transcending limits. Certainly Bataille was very much about the opposition between the daily, workaday world and the transgressive or the ecstatic world—and the balance between these worlds. In a sense, Bataille was trying to set up a stable form of transgression, where you can go back and forth. They were all concerned with that idea in one way or another. Which makes for political stances.
M2: Right. It’s no accident that Sade is writing 120 Days of Sodom while he’s a prisoner in the Bastille during the French Revolution. What he’s writing really is a specific response to the beginning of the rise of industrialism and rationalism.
KA: Absolutely. In a very deep and profound sense, Sade was attacking rationalism. His work is profound partly because its excesses create all those emotional responses that make it impossible to argue about his work successfully. Being an upper-class boy, Sade created a wonderfully diabolical machine for attacking rationalism, especially political rationalism (which is what post-industrialism is) and capitalism. And this machine works so bloody well that nobody can touch it. He never allows you to rest in any meaning. It’s not like poetry, where you’re apart from meaning—you’re just not allowed to be comfortable, intellectually, with the meaning he gives you. And, of course, Sade is truly, profoundly, shocking.
M2: And this demolition includes not only rationalism but our pretensions to spirituality, too. It’s like he’s using the tools of rationalism to reveal what we really are—meat puppets governed by the realities of bodily functions. And by our mortality.
KA: But he takes even the body away, as well. Because the body in his works is always a machine. That’s all. And so all his sex is orgy, mathematically arranged, absolutely mechanical. Love? Emotions? These have no place in Sade’s work. They’d gum up the machinery.
M2: Your own books always return to the site of the body: as a source of power, as a center of struggle for power, as the place we finally exist in, as opposed to our thoughts. Why generally are you so interested in the body?
KA: When reality—the meanings associated with reality—is up for grabs—which is certainly Wittgenstein’s main theme and one of the central problems in philosophy and art ever since the end of the nineteenth century—then the body itself becomes the only thing you can return to. You can talk about sexuality as a social phenomenon, so that’s up for grabs. You can talk about any intellectual concept and it is up for grabs, because anything can mean anything, any thought can lead into another thought and thus be completely perverted—you get to Baudrillard’s black hole. But when you get to the actual physical act of sexuality, or of bodily disease, there’s an undeniable materiality which isn’t up for grabs. So it’s the body which finally can’t be touched by all our skepticism and ambiguous systems of belief. The body is the only place where any basis for real values exists anymore. Something like Mishima’s Sun and Steel is fascinating because he returns again and again to the body.
M2: You’ve said that you felt at home in the New York Punk scene of the mid-70’s. But that scene has pretty much disappeared. Hasn’t it been more difficult for you personally and aesthetically, as our culture has become more and more conservative during the last decade? I mean, given the fairly sensationalized way you were presented in England—the Mapplethorpe photos, the association with punk, not to mention your literary reputation—didn’t you find it difficult to find some kind of scene where you could feel comfortable?
KA: It’s been hell sometimes, all right. I don’t know if I’m an unreadable writer, but I’m a pretty difficult writer. If someone had looked at my work a dozen years ago they’d have said, “Oh, she’ll never be commercial.” Well from a purely practical standpoint, whatever fame I received in England, what that meant for me personally was my books would get published, and would keep being published. In other words, it meant survival.
That flamboyancy which led to my fame in England wasn’t manufactured by me but by my publisher, Picador. It was reinforced by a few journalists who knew about the punk stuff, which Picador didn’t know about. The Mapplethorpe photos certainly helped a great deal. All that made it possible for me survive, which I’m grateful for, because it let me do what I want. But from a personal standpoint my image as this flamboyant punk figure has mainly just been a bloody nuisance.
M2: Is there a niche or scene that you’re comfortable in today? I’m asking this partially because of The Empire of the Senseless, which I felt was very much a book about trying to find a niche or a myth to live by. I was wondering particularly about the tattoo or bodybuilding milieu which has a pretty strong sense of community. I suspect that even in the usual art scene, you’d wind up feeling a bit like everybody is gawking at your tattoos. Or they wouldn’t be able to relate to the body-building thing.
KA: My problem isn’t so much being stared at as of finding who to hang out with. All my old art friends either went dead or rich! [laughs] I certainly do feel comfortable in that milieu of body builders and tattoo people. But I always needed to be able to move a lot, so I like to have at least five milieus that I can go back and forth to. So it’s not like the bodybuilding scene, say, is my only thing these days. Bodybuilding, of course, also concerns my work, because it’s work with the body. I like the atmosphere when I’m hanging out at the gym. There’s an almost zen-like focus people have that’s kind of pleasurably stupid, mindless. You find the same thing with tattooists and motorcyclists. To my mind these are still the outlaw factions. And I like that feeling.
M2: Another outlaw faction is the drug scene that drew earlier generations of artists—the Beats, Burroughs, the 60’s rock scene, punk—for some of the same reasons you’re talking about.
KA: Yes, but even though I have a taste for low life, I’ve never been attracted to the drug world—and only slightly to the sex world. I’m more the loner, outlaw type. James Dean, hanging out. There’s bit of genuine Americana for you: James Dean types.
M2: Even though your work deals with sex a lot, its effect rarely seems erotic to me. Are you at all interested in turning your readers on?
KA: You never know what might turn some people on, but mostly I can’t see how people would get aroused by the sex I’m describing in my books…
But my general view is erotic or sexual. I think I share this with writers I feel I’m working out of—Genet, Sade, Rimbaud, Bataille. I agree with what a friend of mine, Simon Watney, said: “There are those people who think that sexuality deeply determines their identity.” Since I’m very much interested in this issue of identity—both the textual and personal aspects of it—I’ve had a constant concern with sex and power, how they join and reinforce each other. As a woman, but also just as a person looking around at the way things operate, it’s hard for me not to be concerned with these things.
M2: You say somewhere that “My father is not my real father“—the implication being that the basic problem women have isn’t necessarily with men, per se. That the “real father” isn’t necessarily the awful, power-wielding tyrant who keeps fucking over (and fucking) your women characters. It’s an anti-essentialist view—that, again, I suspect gets you into trouble with some feminists…
KA: I don’t think the problem is with men. Take Cixous’s argument against Kristeva, with Cixous saying that our problems all have their source in genital difference—so the fact that men have cocks is what makes them evil. This being so, the only thing to do is escape from men. She’s a separatist and Dworkin’s position is the same basic thing. Kristeva’s argument that the real problem has to do with role models makes a lot more sense to me. This may not be a politically correct thing to say, but I like men. I don’t have any problem with guys. But I have a lot of problems with society.
See also Writing “Blood and Guts in High School” — Excerpt from “After Kathy Acker” by Chris Kraus