Chris Kraus is the author of four novels: I Love Dick (1997), Aliens & Anorexia (2000), Torpor (2006) and Summer of Hate (2012), and two collections of essays, Video Green (2004) and Where Art Belongs (2011). Her newest book, After Kathy Acker is a literary biography of the counterculture hero who died in 1997. With her collaborators Hedi El Kholti and her former husband, Sylvère Lotringer, she is the major engine behind the influential press Semiotext(e), where she founded and edits the “Native Agents” imprint. We met to talk about the legacy of Kathy Acker, S/m as an “emotional technology”, and the “whole clusterfuck of influence”.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): In Video Green you have a little essay called “Shit On My Sleepmask” (2001) in which you talk about carrying around three of Kathy Acker’s notebooks before they went into her archives at Duke. From that I take it you’ve been working on this book for a long time.
Chris Kraus: I tend to work on things for a long time, a long gestation period. It’s been twenty years with this book—since 1997. I Love Dick had just come out, and Kathy died, and the confluence of those two things affected me strongly. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and Sylvère was coming to visit Kathy as she was dying in a clinic in Tijuana. Even though I didn’t personally visit her there, I went down with him a couple times, so I saw the situation. It was devastating to see her life end that way—I don’t think there is any possible happy death of cancer at the age of fifty. That kind of radicalized me, and I wanted to write her biography right away. Luckily, I did interviews then, in San Diego with people she’d known when she lived there in the ’60s and early ’70s. I talked with Mel Freilicher, and David and Elinor Antin, Martha Rosler, Len Neufeld in New York—all those early friends, lovers, and associates—twenty years ago, when all the antagonisms, rivalries and feuds were still fresh in people’s minds. I gathered incredible material, but it sat in the closet because I couldn’t see a clear path toward writing the book. Did you notice how different the tone of that essay, “Shit On My Sleepmask,” is from the biography? Back then I was just wildly empathizing with Kathy and my first impulse was to write it in a rush of complete identification. That didn’t go very far. I hit a wall, and realized that coming so close on the heels of I Love Dick, with all of our mutual friendships and associations, there was something a little too incestuous about it, and it would probably be better to just get on with writing another book. So that’s what I did.
After Summer of Hate came out I wasn’t ready to start another novel. Someone in the U.K. invited me to write an academic monograph about Kathy. That made the material interesting and available to me in a new way. Suddenly, writing it as a biographically infused critical work, or critical biography, I thought, Oh yeah I can do that! It’s not overwhelming. When I got into it I realized it was a lot more than a monograph, because I still wanted to go deeper. But the suggestion that I write it from a more distanced vantage of a critical reading changed everything and made it possible: I found working on the book with that distance was, paradoxically, the best way to come closer. You can only identify with another person in the first degree so far until it becomes false. Somehow, reaching back in time through the construction of her work helped me to channel Kathy in a primary and witchy way—to the point where sometimes I’d type “she” but felt like I’d typed “I”.
Rail: Of all your writing, on the surface this book seems to have the least to do with “Chris Kraus” as a character, but I felt your presence reading it. Actually some of the descriptions you use for Acker’s work seem to mirror your own concerns as a writer, like when you say, “Disinclined toward conventional narrative […] Acker worked and re-worked her memories until they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became Myth.” Did writing this book give you a different perspective on your own writing?
Kraus: Our writing is very different, but of course there are similarities. Like Kathy, I was stumped and repulsed by the idea of writing conventional narratives with made-up plots and invented characters—but then again, so are a lot of people. We each found our own ways. Acker is a much more psychological writer. I’ve never written about my childhood or family background, and those were the primary building blocks of her work. She goes back to these stories over and over again. My writing draws from real-life events, but it’s highly constructed and edited. Unlike Acker, I don’t have recurring fugues that migrate between novels. She shares that in common with William S. Burroughs. It could be I’m finished with writing from life, and working on Acker’s biography is kind of a bridge to the next thing.
Rail: I’ve wondered about that, because as your books proceeded from Dick and Aliens to Torpor and Summer of Hate, they’ve become increasingly distanced on the level of form. In the first two the protagonist is named “Chris” and it’s told in first person. In Torpor and Summer of Hate, what would have been the “Chris” character is now named “Sylvie” and then “Catt,” and other characters come into focus.
Kraus: The real key is that the first books were written in real time, and the later ones weren’t. In I Love Dick and Video Green, everything flows from an account of the real time of writing: I am sitting here and looking outside my window and the phone rings and it’s blah… So the writer is the protagonist. In Torpor, Sylvie and Jerome’s stories are equally weighted. It’s about two people’s lives, with their subplots and backstories. I was very conscious of working with tense, and it became a way out of writing in real time. The strange use of tense in Torpor was appropriate to the book’s subject, historical trauma. I remember discovering the Romanian poet Mikhail Sebastian’s diary, written during the German occupation, and discovering this great line:
Look in my face, my name is Might-have-been. I remember Sylvère using this strange, “would have been” tense, and he mentioned that many of his old friends who’d been hidden as children in France used it also. The futur antérieur, a future that’s been foreclosed by the past. Tense became the whole structural key for writing that novel.
It’s funny, people say my work is so personal, but the form is everything. The form is really how I arrive at how I’m going to write and what the book is going to be.
Rail: I see your entire body of work as a dissection of our fantasies of “the personal.” It makes me think of the early books in the Semiotext(e) Native Agents series you edited, which have been really big influence on me as an artist and a writer—especially Cookie Mueller’s Walking in Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, Lynne Tillman’s Madam Realism Complex, and David Rattray’s How I Became One of the Invisible. These are people writing in the first-person but it’s not about them.
Kraus: Exactly. The presence of the narrator leads you through other material. The New York School poets did this, and they took it from the French poets of the 1920s, who in turn grabbed it from the ancients. There’s a long tradition of first-person narration, that has nothing to do with memoir. When I started Native Agents in 1990, I was trying to assert a public “I” that was mostly female. At the time, and even still, the female “I” is always considered to be an involuted, self-interrogatory, memoirist’s “I”—rather than an “I” that’s burning through the world.
Rail: How did that series originate, and how has it evolved?
Kraus: First I published my friends! When I got to the end of that list, people arrived through mutual friends and connections. Eileen Myles introduced me to Michelle Tea, and said, you have to publish this book, and I did—The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America (1998). By 2001, that mission felt finished, at least for me. When Hedi El Kholti joined us at Semiotext(e) things changed. Hedi brought in some classics of gay liberation from France in the 70s, and new international writers like Abdellah Taïa. Since then, we’ve had a much broader vision of what Native Agents should be. Hedi and I work on that list together, with contributions from Sylvère, who’s more focused on theory. What we do now is very particular, although harder to put into words than the initial idea. The books all feel like manifestations of larger issues, as they play out on an individual level. You’ll notice we don’t publish any domestic dramas about the dilemmas of life on the Upper West Side. (laughs).
Rail: Early in Video Green you say, “Whereas Modernism believed the artist’s life held all the magic keys to the reading of works of art, neoconceptualism has cooled this off and corporatized it. The artist’s biography doesn’t matter much at all. What life? The blanker the better. The life experience of the artist, if channeled into the artwork, can only impede the artist’s neocorporate, neoconceptual purpose. It is the biography of the institution we want to read.”
Kraus: I think that’s still pretty accurate.
Rail: In that sense, writing this biography of Kathy Acker seems almost like an intervention in a certain kind of art discussion.
Kraus: I don’t know. People will always write biographies of writers. My friend Robert Dewhurst is writing an extraordinary biography of the poet John Wieners. Robert mentioned to me, “you can tell on the first page what the focus of the biography is going to be. If it starts with the birth and the lineage of the parents and early childhood, it’s probably going to be a psychological biography.” I knew right away I didn’t want to do that. Of course Acker’s family background and childhood come into play, but the real juice is, how did she invent herself and create herself as a writer? So I begin when she’s twenty-three living in New York, keeping her first notebooks and training herself to be a writer.
But, you mentioned the role of biography in art criticism. I don’t think you need to know an artist’s biography in a literal way, to consider their work. But you do want to understand their intentions. Looking at an artwork, I’m always trying to penetrate the presence of the artist within it. Behind presence, of course, is intention: Where are they trying to go? What are they trying to do? To understand that, you need to situate the artist in place, time, and context. Writing about Paul Thek in Aliens, I described his projects and collaborations in a pretty conventional, art critical way, but then came to a point where I began to imagine him in his loft south of Tribeca in the 1970s, looking at his soft, flabby, 45-year-old body in the mirror. He wrote about this in his diary, and I leapt into it.
Rail: That discussion of Thek was particularly striking. Something I’m always curious about is the persistent problem of what it means to write about other people’s lives. What are the limitations and how do we register them in our writing?
Kraus: You can speculate. Writing about R. B. Kitaj’s paintings in I Love Dick, I didn’t know anything about him, and we weren’t in touch, so I just made up a story, based on what I saw in his work. Now that I’m more of a quote unquote “professional” art writer, I do things on commission, and work in collaboration with the artist. I always try and talk with the person. Sometimes our dialogue comes into the text directly, and sometimes it flows underneath it. I think the artwork itself is always an artifact of a process—and that’s why we like it.
I’m always intrigued by the backstory. Writing the essay “You Are Invited To Be The Last Tiny Creature” in Where Art Belongs, I set myself up as the group’s chronicler—I sort of volunteered for that job. There were dozens of conversations. Eventually, my own point of view enters into it. For example, I was fascinated by the difference between Jason Yates’s artworks, and most of the others. Jason had done an MFA at Art Center, while the others had come to art in a more naïve way. Looking at these works side by side, there’s a visceral difference. What is it? The difference seemed fascinating to me, and somehow definitive. Even within this level playing field of a collective gallery, the work of someone who declares himself an artist is more powerful than someone who hasn’t. A matter of intention, I think. So the chronicle is ultimately pretty subjective.
Rail: What is so nice about that as a strategy is that a “chronicle” gives you a structure that allows the story to unfold. Conventional art criticism, like a “review,” doesn’t often have that kind of narrative pull.
Kraus: Of course there’s a difference between a long piece like “Tiny Creatures”, and a catalogue essay. Still, people always make work in a context: not just of their personal, family and relationship histories, but their choice of peers and their influences. You have to explore that context to really appreciate the work.
Rail: That’s what I found most impressive about your Acker biography—how sensitively you describe the people around her and the layered dialogue that fed their work.
Kraus: I definitely wanted to knock out the singular myth of the “great artist” myth that biography often supports and perpetuates. I was always looking for shared culture, shared influences. Kathy ghosted Catullus in several books—but she wasn’t the only one to discover him! He’d been newly translated in the late-1960s, and his explicit, direct, first-person poetry was read pretty widely. Likewise, her use of phenomenology—she got it from Alan Sondheim, who got it from Keith Sonnier, who got it from Robert Smithson! This doesn’t detract from her genius. But it’s important to write context into the picture. There’s a whole clusterfuck of influence going back decades, generations, and centuries. One of the ways we falsify and mystify the biography of the artist is to believe that their invention is so completely singular. Yes, in some ways it is, and that’s what makes it important and interesting, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As you say, there was a large group of people talking about ideas then, at a very high level—these ideas were in the air among an extended group of friends in New York, and other cities.
Rail: “A whole clusterfuck of influence” would be a great subtitle for this book, actually. The other thing that is so brilliant writing a book like this about Kathy Acker is that she herself, through her strategy of incorporating appropriated text into her own writing, already acknowledges and enfolds the complexity you’re talking about.
This is a detour, but I can’t resist: in Aliens & Anorexia the Chris character makes small talk at a party mentioning that she’s the great grand-niece of Karl Kraus. Are you really?
Kraus: I don’t know. I’d like to think so. It’s possible: my father’s side of the family came from the same outside-of-Prague neighborhood that his family came from. Anyway, he’s a spiritual great grand-uncle.
Rail: Like you say, there are very few things about your early life in your books. I’m curious, when you first started engaging literature, and what was an important early experience with language?
Kraus: My father taught me to read when I was three. He didn’t go to college but he would have loved to be an intellectual. He worked for Cambridge University Press and brought books home for us. He subscribed to The New York Review of Books. He trained me to be very precocious, so I was always a huge reader. Which is probably why I postponed writing for such a long time—it was so expected. But I couldn’t find the right way to do it until I Love Dick.
I had very powerful experiences with literature. In New Zealand I inhaled the writings of New Zealand modernists like John Mulgan, Janet Frame and James K. Baxter. Reading their books on long bus trips and looking out at the same landscape they were talking about. Reading was always the way I could be most alive. George Eliot’s Middlemarch had been a childhood favorite book. One of my first art projects in New York was a performance piece adapted from Middlemarch. When Sylvère and I got together he introduced me to a lot of French literature, theory and culture.
Rail: Can you describe the Middlemarch performance?
Kraus: I was studying with Ruth Maleczech, of Mabou Mines, and this piece was the precursor to my 1980 play Disparate Action/Desperate Action. Mabou Mines had this brilliant acting idea of “tracking”—using one text as the subtext, completely opposed to the text that you’re speaking. The subtext determined your gestures, your moves and demeanor. I used Ulrike Meinhof’s famous Stammheim prison letter as the literal text, but was playing Dorothea Brooke under the surface: her walk along Yew Tree Lane when she realizes she’s made a mistake, marrying Causabon. I think I imported that acting idea into writing. The idea of tracking, which probably started with Brecht, seemed incredibly powerful. It made acting seem truer, because in real life it’s never one thing—it’s always this confluence of things at the same time, so to perform that confluence, rather than to pretend perform a singular thing seemed genius to me.
Rail: How did you explore trying to translate that into writing, the contradictory confluence of a text and subtext?
Kraus: Maybe not literally, but definitely I feel that each book I’ve written comes through a “character mask.” I guess they’d call it “voice,” if we were in an MFA program. But it varies from book to book, and it can take a long time to find it. That’s why I don’t bang out book after book—so far, every book has come from a different place, and I have to discover who’s telling the story, and to whom, and for what purpose?
Rail: I re-read Middlemarch last summer—it’s one of my most beloved books. What’s so striking is the highly nuanced moral and ethical sense that the characters have, that Dorothea has. There are scenes later in the book where I get an almost an erotic thrill from the morality of her actions. I feel like there is similarly an elaborate sense of ethics and morals in your writing, even as the characters are mostly interested in being outsiders. How do you understand the moral universe of your writing?
Kraus: It’s true! My work is so 19th century. But the question of ethics has always been important to me. Channeling the Platonists, Simone Weil writes about her search for The Good. I think a lot of the action in my books entails people trying to find their way toward The Good, the right course.
Rail: I was fascinated by the point you make about Acker’s early books, that they had a secret, vitally important, male interlocutor, and I couldn’t help but think of that in relation to I Love Dick.
Kraus: I didn’t see Kathy and Alan Sondheim’s Blue Tape until years after I’d written I Love Dick, but there were strong similarities. Kathy crushed heavily on Alan, and they made a video about it. Definitely writing to “Dick” made it possible for me to become a writer. I’d made half-hearted attempts before that, but it wasn’t until I had a real addressee that the gates opened and I felt like I could go on forever. And I’ve continued writing secretly to a person, or a few people. It’s another acting technique—the “silent partner,” someone from your own life who you superimpose over your scene partner. And then you use whatever emotion comes up. Acting is super relational, but so is writing. I Love Dick is relational in a really direct way, but still keeps that sense of talking to someone.
Rail: I asked you about your early reading, but I’m curious about what early important aesthetic experiences you had.
Kraus: I used to love seeing plays, and would get crushes on certain actors. The empathy loop between actor and audience is incredibly powerful. And then, in New York, I guess it was poetry. Even though I wasn’t writing, most of my friends were poets, and I worked for a while at the Poetry Project. I went to the readings, read all the books, and adopted their snobberies.
Rail: One of the things that you write about in the Acker biography is the elaboration of her public persona. On the one hand, she probably rightfully believed that fame was necessary for her to make a living, but it also seemed like it took a toll on her reputation.
Kraus: That was the dilemma. She knew that her work was extremely difficult and non-commercial, but she wanted to be commercially published, she wanted to be famous. So, reinforced by her editors and publishers, she constructed an elaborate, flamboyant persona that she believed would carry her work to a larger audience. And in some ways it did. But it turned out to be a devil’s bargain, because an image becomes frozen in time. She was known as the mid ‘80s post-punk princess, and by the ‘90s it began looking dated. Penguin’s new Classics edition of Blood and Guts in High School does not have a glamour photo of Acker on the front cover. It’s a more distanced and haunting image of an anonymous figure. Twenty years after her death, people can start separating Acker’s image from her work. Even the first round of scholarship was very fixated on her image. Of course, at the same time, Acker loved her own image. She loved dressing up and being photographed. She wasn’t exactly a victim.
Rail: How have you related to your own increasing notoriety, or the image of “Chris Kraus” in the world.
Kraus: I’m trying to duck it.
Rail: Well, unlike Kathy Acker, you’re not taking photographs of your back tattoo wearing Victorian lingerie. But because your work uses “Chris” as a character, it seems unavoidable.
Kraus: I’ve always loathed the idea of art stars and media icons. It mystifies culture, makes it much less accessible. And it’s gotten worse, carried over into the literary world. There’s a deluge of coverage for a few heavily promoted titles, and then a next round of stories on the phenomenon—coverage of the coverage. I think people should be as transparent as possible about how this happens. And about how artists and writers actually support themselves. The adaption of I Love Dick for TV makes the “Chris Kraus” character unavoidable. I’m not going to recant it, or trash people for reading things into the book I’d never intended. But I need to live without being locked into that image. Images are antithetical to the present, and what writing does is give you the present.
Rail: Something that appears in different ways throughout your writing are people taking care of other artists’ work after they die. That happens very literally in the essay “Posthumous Lives” on Penny Arcade and Jack Smith, but it recurs in different ways, for instance in your writing about Paul Thek. Writing a literary biography seems like another form of that. I’m wondering what you think we owe our friends’ work when they are no longer in world?
Kraus: Starting the book, I put the Voltaire quote, “We owe nothing to the dead but the truth,” on my corkboard. Corny maybe, but that’s what I was going for.
Rail: I’ve spent a lot of time with your film How to Shoot a Crime (1987), which includes footage of Sylvère interviewing two dominatrixes, Mademoiselle Victoire and Terrence Sellars, because I’m writing about Sellers, who died last year. It’s such a terrific little portrait of her.
Kraus: Yes. There’s a great scene towards the end when, after talking for a long time, they get into a spat. Sylvère asks Terence, “Why do you have to be right all the time?” and Terence says, “Don’t you? Twenty years from now there’s only going to be this videotape of me when I’m thirty years old, talking.” At that moment, you see her taking herself seriously as an artist, in a way that escapes him.
Rail: Am I right in thinking that your interest in BDSM was artistic and intellectual before it was something you explored sexually for yourself? You’ve written about some of your experiences in your novels and essays and they appear to begin after you move to LA.
Kraus: It was more of a sexual and social interest.
Rail: How did becoming involved in S/m change your relation to the early avant-garde writing and theory that valorized it? Or the transgressive writing you published?
Kraus: I didn’t go there. Maybe someday I will, that kind of delirious and sensuous description—Acker went there, and that’s the part of her work that I relate to the least. She became involved in writing about “sacred sexuality” in this the kind of Batailleian way. For me S/m was more practical. When I moved to LA, Sylvère and I were still involved—we were still legally married and each other’s most intimate relationship. I wasn’t looking for a husband and there didn’t seem to be a lot of arenas allowing for the kind of sexual friendship in the same way that S/m does. Especially in the LA art world! People were so primitive about relationships—what they meant and should be—which was always terminal, leading toward moving-in together and getting married. In the straight world there are not the same nuances that you have in gay male culture, of overlapping friendships and sexual relationships. BDSM didn’t lead to intimate friendships, but at least within the brackets of “play,” the contact was extremely connected—it wasn’t like having drunken bar sex and never seeing the person again. There was a real exchange and listening and intimacy that doesn’t usually occur with other kinds of casual sex. People who are drawn to it tend to be really smart but crippled in other ways—often being a Dom is a brilliant compensation, being extremely present in one arena when you can’t be present in others. It also helped me revise my presence and image. I was trying to get out of the “serious young woman” role that I write about in I Love Dick, toward a sense of myself that would include sexuality—it’s so problematic for someone who grew up as a feminist. Turning sex into a game, or character-mask, was incredibly helpful. The Doms I would play with were engaged in this project of making me more conventionally femme—the costumes, the hairstyles, demeanor. It was more palatable to me as a game. Really, it was genuinely helpful, a kind of therapy. Although lately, I’ve started thinking about the aspect of grief that’s involved in S/m. I was already working on Torpor when I started having these adventures. I was dealing with grief and historical trauma, and many of the people I played with then had experienced recent grief, recent losses. I’m sure that has something to do with it … that S/m is an indirect means of working through grief.
Rail: That’s fascinating—and makes sense to me emotionally. I really liked the way you describe S/m as “emotionally high-tech” in your essay “Emotional Technologies.” There is something about playing out those power relations directly, as opposed to masking them behind other social and institutional structures, that can be very liberating.
Kraus: I agree. Many people are tourists in that country, but some become natives.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is a monthly series of intimate conversations between Jarrett Earnest and leading writers and critics.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.