“Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.”–Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless
As you may have noticed, faithful Filthy Dreams readers, it’s been awhile since we’ve obsessively gushed over our many filth elders in our ongoing Role Models series. In order to make up for these months of role model-lessness, we’re going to celebrate one of our favorite Filthy Dreams heros: the ultimate “plagiarist, liar and criminal” herself, Kathy Acker.
Excuse me, ever patient Filthy Dreams readers, while I get a little nostalgic for a moment, but I remember the first time I ever caught a glimpse of Acker on the cover of Blood and Guts in High School as a college freshman. Androgynous, defiant and undeniably beautiful, Acker’s personal punk aesthetic alone captivated me. Then, I opened the book and was hooked.
“Never having known a mother, her mother had died when Janey was a year old, Janey depended on her father for everything and regarded her father as boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement and father,” writes Acker, shaking gendered familial foundations with just the first sentence (7).
Later in Blood and Guts in High School after taking on the character of Hester Prynne, Acker writes, “TEACH ME A NEW LANGUAGE, DIMWIT. A LANGUAGE THAT MEANS SOMETHING TO ME” (96).
If anyone taught readers and future writers a new language, it was Kathy Acker.
Labeled as a literary terrorist, a title which she unquestionably earned through her transgressive novels such as Don Quixote: Which Was A Dream, Great Expectations, Empire of the Senseless and her final and probably best titled novel, Pussycat, King of the Pirates, Acker’s singular and subversive writing style mixes plagiarism–a rewriting and destabilization of classic literature, revolutionarily graphic and pornographic descriptions of sex and frank autobiography, throwing anything and everything from identity to language itself into question.
While Acker cannibalizes the classical canon of authors as varied as Charles Dickens, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Erica Jong and Nathaniel Hawthorne, her own literary influences tend toward the rule-breaking and cut-up texts of William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet (it’s no small coincidence that the protagonist of Blood and Guts in High School’s name is Janey). In addition, Acker was also clearly well-versed in philosophy, particularly the French feminists and post-structuralists who delved into the masculine nature of linear narrative and language.
Born to a wealthy New York family, Acker struggled under the strictly defined gender roles in their upper-middle class, Upper East Side life, finding freedom and escape through writing.
As she explained in an interview, “Writing for me is about my freedom. When I was a kid, my parents were like monsters to me, and the world extended from them. They were horrible. And I was this good little girl–I didn’t have the guts to oppose them. They told me what to do and how to be. So the only time I could have any freedom or joy was when I was alone in my room. Writing is what I did when I was alone with no one watching me or telling me what to do. I could do whatever I wanted. So writing was really associated with body pleasure–it was the same thing. It was like the only thing I had.”
Inexorably linked to the D-I-Y punk Downtown literary scene of the 1970s, Acker published her first texts under the pseudonym Black Tarantula, including her first novel The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses.
Fearlessly describing taboo sex, violence and sexual violence, Acker’s writing attempts to create a literary space where women’s experiences and sexuality can be imagined independent of the repressive heteronormative and patriarchal language. Acker’s works define sex and female desire as a radical and, like Leo Bersani, self-shattering act.
As Acker writes in Empire of the Senseless, “Perhaps if human desire is said out loud, the urban planes, the prisons, the architectural mirrors will take off, as airplanes do. The black planes will take off into the night air and the night winds, sliding past and behind each other, zooming, turning and turning in the redness of the winds, living, never to return.”
While this fearless depiction of sex and desire earned her accolades and many devotees, it also led to some pearl-clutching from more conservative audiences. For example, her breakthrough novel (and my personal favorite) Blood and Guts in High School was banned in Germany. Ever the plagiarist, Acker published the German court transcript in the subsequent Hannibal Lecter, My Father.
Acker sadly passed away from cancer on November, 30 1997.
Even almost exactly seventeen years after her death, Acker remains one of the most difficult, rewarding, inspiring, terrifying and dangerous writers. Acker showed us and continues to prove that everything can be taken, stolen, transformed and transcended. Nothing is stable and everything can be subverted.