The writer Lynne Tillman still remembers the electrifying impression made by Kathy Acker the first time Tillman saw her read in the late 1970s, in some long-gone Third Avenue joint. Acker was sitting cross-legged on a table, whispering into a microphone, making eye contact with people in the crowd, exposing intimate information about certain members of the audience — “especially a guy or two,” recalls Tillman. “I remember feeling very disoriented when I left, because it was so intimate. The material was delivered as if you were on the phone with her, and she was whispering into your ear.”
Bravado and shamelessness became part of the Acker persona, part of the oeuvre. She first made her reputation as a novelist by combining sexually transgressive content and postmodern technique in works like Blood and Guts in High School. As she herself might have described it, her work was a quest to discover what it means to be a cunt. She remains a cult figure, a sort of proto-Riot Grrrl who is probably more influential than she is read.
Acker died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 50. She wrote 10 novels, according to her New York Times obituary, which also got her age wrong. With the recent publication of two early manuscripts, Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and The Burning Bombing of America, I count 16. Dennis Cooper, co-editor of the new Essential Acker, says 17. But it’s hard to even know how to classify some of her texts. Acker’s work sends all the categories right out the window — and this before you’ve analyzed page one.
People can get lost if you don’t find a slot for them. That’s a major motivation behind this week’s New York University symposium, “Lust for Life: The Writings of Kathy Acker,” organized by Amy Scholder, Avital Ronell, Carla Harryman, and Marvin Taylor. “These were concerns during her lifetime as well, that she didn’t have an identity that would kind of protect her,” says Ronell, who will give a keynote address. “She subverted everything to such an extent that there’s always the risk of her disappearance, because she hasn’t been really named or labeled. It’s very hard to locate what it is she did.”
Acker was a novelist with little interest in making up a story. She always said that she plagiarized, but she messed with whatever she pirated. She rewrote Shakespeare, Dickens, and Cervantes. Her Don Quixote needs an abortion. Her Romeo believes only in nothingness. As a rule, Acker threw away plot, but added political screeds, graphic sex, bad dreams, what appear to be overheard conversations, and throwaway philosophical observations. (“If God has made all of us in His image, part of this image is pain and hell.”) Certain motifs recur: the mother dead from suicide; the father (husband) (friend) who abandons; the attraction born as much in hatred as in love. Narrators mutate and narratives dangle. In her Don Quixote, for example, only a ghost of the original classic remains. And as usual, her version refuses to behave like a good read.
Yet there is a focus. Her female characters always struggle with dependence on two things they can’t trust: language and love. Acker is part of a century-long tradition of writers, from Dadaists to deconstructionists, who rail at the limitations of the word. Her heroines seem interchangeable from book to book, different names tagged to the sound of one voice raging — obscene, cynical, bewildered, and demanding to fuck. They find their only truth in the body, in sexuality. As Acker once told an interviewer: “I think I see the world through a sexual lens, like Genet. The idea that you exist to please men. That is almost relentlessly my subject.”
In the mid ’70s, Acker met artist (and symposium participant) Carolee Schneemann, the foremother of work around the expressive female body. Schneemann had already made Fuses, a film of herself and a partner making love, and in 1975 she performed one of her most famous pieces, Interior Scroll. (Standing naked, Schneemann pulled a 36-inch strip of paper from her vagina and read it.) Acker was still unpublished at the time, writing pamphlets and distributing them to a mailing list of a few hundred people, Schneemann among them. Acker had found a kindred spirit, someone who used “lived erotic experience as a territory of inquiry.” In the ’70s, such an inquiry (for women, at least) was thought trivial. Or obscene.
Says Schneemann: “Kathy’s greatest themes have to do with the body as a kind of metabolic source, both as a language and as the force field that goes out in the world. What happens to the body then becomes the source for what happens with language and history. Because she’s able to uniquely weave literary history back into the body of Kathy — or her persona.”
Acker used her persona, her dramatic self-presentation — spiky or bleach-blond hair, tattoos (before they were fashionable), either chic or tough clothes — as a kind of armor. One could easily miss the fact that this “punk” read both Greek and Latin and had once been Herbert Marcuse’s teaching assistant. But the image fit a core idea in the books: that identity itself is an internalized fiction.
She was always rethinking representation, and this certainly fit the visual art of the ’80s: Sherry Levine’s appropriations, Cindy Sherman’s masquerades, Barbara Kruger’s disrupted representations. Sometimes Acker seemed more at home in the art world than in the literary world. Few female novelists have addressed these issues so directly.
Artist Nayland Blake (also a symposium participant) says his work “was my response to her work. In terms of directness, in terms of retelling stories, in terms of reconfiguring things that were already there.” Somehow, that turned into a stainless steel workstation, for example. Acker then wrote a catalog essay for him, somehow coming up with a riff on Hansel and Gretel. He then built one of his better-known recent pieces, a gingerbread house. What mattered in this “dialogue,” says Blake, was Acker’s attitude, “how she constructed a model of her own thought. It gave me a kind of permission to figure out what type of artist I could be.”
Sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s, Acker did a workshop in Seattle. One of the participants was Kathleen Hanna, now of Le Tigre, then a college student ditching a class and taking a Greyhound to meet someone who was “a huge huge huge part of my brain.” Acker gave Hanna some advice: “If you want to be heard, why are you doing spoken word? You should be in a band.”
So, says Hanna, who will read from Acker’s work at the end of the symposium, “I went home and started a band.” Eventually this became a really important band: Bikini Kill. And Hanna went on to be one of the founding Riot Grrrls.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must add that Acker was a dear and much missed friend who included me in her will. I knew her to be a feminist by instinct, at war with feminist orthodoxy. (She fought all orthodoxy.) But I’ve come to think of her as a Riot Grrrl ahead of her time.
“Lust for Life: The Writings of Kathy Acker” takes place November 7 and 8 at NYU’s Fales Library. Other participants include David Antin, Richard Foreman, Diamanda Galas, Kim Gordon, and Sarah Schulman. The event is free, but attendees must register.