After Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker’s influence over an entire generation of disaffected young women has yet to be fully explored, but with Chris Kraus’s new biography, Acker’s importance as a writer is finally being acknowledged. In the mid-1980s, as one of these disaffected young women myself, I picked up a copy of Acker’s (in)famous Blood and Guts in High School. I’d already decided that literature was no longer my passion and that the Canon held no meaning for someone like me. But Acker’s writing was visceral, brutal, and just what I needed to read to convince me that words could be as powerful as the angry punk and post-punk music making up my then daily soundtrack for living. Acker’s words screamed off the page: she understood lust and fear and disaffection like no one else I’d ever read. She was decidedly “one of us” or, as Acker wrote in a 1974 letter, “I refuse to let structures of a society I didn’t pick to be born into determine how I relate to people.” Her statement reads as an erudite expression of the central ethos of punk.
While Acker’s work is essential reading to anyone studying mid-century experimental writing or early artistic expressions of punk/post-punk gender identity, Chris Kraus’s biography of Acker is also essential reading for those interested in Acker and for those who should be. Kraus presents myriad excerpts from Acker’s letters, postcards, emails, journals, literary works (published and not), and also opinions and apocryphal stories from people who knew Acker at various points in her too-short life. There is also a certain amount of close reading of Acker’s texts that may be useful to those who have not yet read her work. But there are also elements missing in the text; this lack may be both a symptom of the difficulty of the subject and perhaps an indicator of the strained relationship between Kraus and Acker. Acker was a myth-builder, a self-described “liar,” and a woman intent on questioning definitions of anything and everything: language, narrative, sex, identity. She is not a woman easy to pin down into a standard narrative.
This past September at The New School in New York City, Kraus read and fielded questions from New School professor McKenzie Wark, who co-authored along with Acker I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. One question arose that has been repeated in various coverage of the book: why does she never mention that a central figure in Acker’s life and the biography’s narrative also happen to be Kraus’s ex-husband, Sylvère Lotringer. In her review in The New Statesman, Suzanne Moore states that the poet Eileen Myles once said that Kraus was “entirely obsessed…wanting to be Kathy.” Whether or not this is a valid statement, there is certainly an element of this in the biography. Throughout the text there is an underlying tension, a sort of negative hum that left me feeling deeply frustrated with Kraus and defensive on Acker’s behalf. Perhaps this tension comes from Kraus’s failure to be more forthcoming of her own connection to Acker or perhaps it is a competitiveness that Kraus seems to feel is central to the relations between women writers.
In this heavily researched text, Kraus continually references Acker’s promiscuity, her purported inability to maintain friendships or “romantic” relationships, and often focuses on Acker’s physical appearance (clothes, makeup, hairstyle, breasts) almost as if these are more important than the work. It’s certainly true that Acker was a study in self-presentation and an early practitioner of body modification and representation in many forms (punk fashion, body piercing, tattoos, body building), but it’s also true that Acker understood the difficult work of being a woman and a writer interested in not only moving beyond society’s proscribed available roles for women but actually blowing them up and re-creating a new space for her art and herself.
Kraus presents many details about Acker’s life: her fears, anxieties, desires, and several instances of former friends or lovers describing what a difficult person she was to be with, what a terrible houseguest she was, what an obsessive or inconsiderate lover. Kraus also seems ambivalent about Acker’s desire for fame—almost as if, as a woman, this should not be something she should desire. In one passage, Kraus compares Acker somewhat reductively to other contemporary women writers, none of whom were working in the same milieu and certainly none of whom understood the conjunctions of punk rock and post-punk (sub)culture and experimental writing in the ways Acker so expertly embraced and exhibited. Acker was, as Kraus states, interested in being both “Great Writer” and “Countercultural Hero” and while Kraus acknowledges that Acker achieved both, she also includes a not-so-subtle critique of this desire: Acker didn’t just want to be a great artist and subculture hero but “desperately craved” both. There is also present a certain degree of mainstream critique of the woman-as-slut, or woman as filled with inappropriate desires that Kraus writes into her representation of Acker’s life.
Given that this biography is subtitled “A Literary Biography,” I expected the focus to be primarily on Acker’s work. There is much here that does focus on Acker as writer, Acker as woman struggling within a hostile literary publishing world, and again, there are presentations of Acker’s work for those who have not yet read all of her varied publications. In her work of pushing against the strictures of literary hegemony and the societal constraints of what it means to be “female,” Acker enacted a sort of discipline on herself and her work: writing every day, using sex as a means to achieve a new mode of expression, using words (often through cut-ups, appropriation, and outright plagiarism) to access her own form of “women’s writing” (or if we’re being literary, “écriture feminine”).
Like many people active in the creative community of New York in the late 1970s–1980s, Acker was more than just a “liar”—she was a myth-maker. She rewrote herself from the child of a wealthy New York Jewish family into a cultural anti-hero, a feminist punk icon so cool she toured with the Mekons, so vibrant Neil Gaiman created one of his Sandman characters in her honor.
The literary world and the punk world in the 1980s were both dominated by men. Acker charged through that world with a burning intensity, a power that only somewhat appears in the pages of Kraus’ biography. Reading Acker is never a comfortable experience and Kraus does admit the importance of this discomfort: “perhaps the greatest strength and weakness in all of Acker’s writing lies in its exclusion of all viewpoints except for the narrator.” It’s this voice that captured my attention as a young (post)punk in the 1980s, just as it caught the attention of the rest of the varied scenes in which Acker was famous. But as Kraus writes her, Acker’s physical appearance often overshadows the importance of her work, which is sort of like saying that punk and post-punk were just about fashion and not about music, art, and politics.
The biography is structured roughly chronologically although there are moments when stories overlap, repeat, and backtracking must be done to catch the narrative thread. There is also a persistent use of imprecise language that clearly represents the difficulty of writing a biography based on incomplete archives, hearsay, and one-sided anecdotes. In some moments, Kraus writes Acker “must have,” “probably,” “likely,” and various other synonyms that lead to additional tension and feed into an ambivalence and the problem at the heart of biography: despite all the research, how can anyone really know what Acker felt, thought, meant, or did.
Kraus’s depiction of Acker’s illness and death are well-written and as sympathetic as this text gets: while expressing the frustration of friends who tried to help Acker, her alienation from nearly everyone in her life, and her refusal to follow traditional medical advice there is also a degree of compassion that colors these passages. The book opens with Acker’s funeral, an event that shows both pathos and farce, and ends with Acker’s death in an alternative treatment center in Mexico, a final vindication of Acker’s importance as a writer. Kraus states Acker’s influence on contemporary first-person fiction although with a caveat, “contemporary texts owe a great debt to the candor and formal inventiveness of Acker’s work and the work of her peers and progenitors.” The final paragraph of the biography is a non-sequitur quote from a conversation Kraus had with Martha Rosler (a not-as-famous-artist as Kraus assumes - much like other names she drops throughout the book). Rosler references the competition between women artists and then suggests “We’re all the same in a way.” But we’re not; they’re not—Acker was and remains as Suzanne Moore states, “herself alone. The real thing.” She had no peers. Or to put it in the language of 1980s–1990s subculture, Acker was “totally punk rock” and redefined what it means to be a woman and a writer in the world much more so than any of her contemporaries.