“You create identity, you’re not given identity per se. What became more interesting to me wasn’t the I, it was text because it’s texts that create the identity. That’s how I got interested in plagiarism.” (Kathy Acker, Hannibal Lecter, My Father)
When I was moving books around on one of my bookshelves today I noticed, for the first time in a long time, my Kathy Acker collection. It’s been years since I’ve read Acker, and I’m sad to say that these days I don’t think about her as much as I used to, but it’s always surprising to notice the amount of books of hers that I own and have read – pretty much most of her catalogue. This was because, from the middle to the end of my undergraduate, I went through a serious Kathy Acker phase.
I first encountered Acker, at the end of my second undergraduate year, in the University of Western Ontario bookstore with the book In Memoriam To Identity. This was during a time when I tended to purchase and read a book due to combination of availability, author blurbs, the publisher, a cool sounding title, and whether or not the first and last sentence of the book in question were interesting. In Memoriam To Identity possessed blurbs from Burroughs and Winterson, was published by Grove, had a neat title, and had an intriguing first and last sentence (“Why didn’t I have a scorpion?” and “Since all the rest is unknown, throw what is known away.”). So I went through a serious Acker phase, that only ended halfway through my MA because I ran out of Acker books to read. Hell, I even ended up owning the soundtrack – that Acker made with the Mekons – of her last novel Pussy King of Pirates. Indeed, I first encountered her in the year that she died – too young and because of cancer.
Despite the fact that, years after having read all of her novels (and owning most of them), I’m a different person than the undergraduate who first picked In Memoriam To Identity out of a university bookstore, when I really reflect on this period of my life I cannot help but recognize its significance. Acker was the feminist post-Burroughs US avant garde novelist that anyone who went through that Burroughs phase in high school needed to read when they grew up: she represented, in so many ways, the completion of a particular kind of American experimental fiction. That is, following the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up experiments we had the Acker iteration of this experiment that functioned according to a plagiarist cut-up of fiction and theory where intentional plagiarism of texts that the author despised was spliced into similar plagiarisms or translations of texts the author liked so as to produce a set of literary contradictions.
With all of these interspliced plagiarisms, that Acker usually referenced at the end of chapters, I ended up being introduced to a variety of authors and theorists. For example, it was because of Acker that I first encountered Antonin Artaud. But most importantly, it was because of Acker that I found the basis of my “gateway drug” out of Anarchism and into Marxism… This was not because Acker was a Marxist but because, at the time (around the third year of my undergrad), I was reading Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and for a while thinking it was the coolest thing since margarine, but then ended up reading an essay by Acker where she attacked Baudrillard’s nihilism in favour of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which she saw as a foundational theory to her fiction, which caused me to pick up Anti-Oedipus. Indeed, my initial undergrad interest in Deleuze and Guattari was because I’d heard about it from Acker… And because I temporarily lost myself in the D&G rabbit-hole I ended up locating myself upon a Marxist route: from Anti-Oedipus to the autonomists, to the kind of Marxism I adopt today.
When reflecting on Acker I also remember a third year literature course that I took as an option (one of those non-philosophy credits I was obligated to take in my undergraduate) where I tried to convince the professor to let me write an experimental essay on Acker’s work. The course was called something like “Literature of Protest and Transgression” – and was also important because it was where I first read Brecht, namely Saint Joan of the Stockyards – and my idea for an essay was to write about Acker’s novels and method according to her method and novels, i.e. by doing a plagiarized cut-up of her writing in the form of an essay. That is, I proposed an essay that would consist mainly of creative plagiarism of Acker, which I would note at the end, in a way that was blurred completely with my own writing. Unfortunately, the professor didn’t like the proposal and I ended up doing something different that had nothing do with Acker but that I can’t remember… Weird that I remember what I proposed and not what I actually wrote, but these days I can’t remember most of the essays and assignments I wrote during my undergrad.
Kathy Acker is one of those authors who possessed an experimental antipathy to the literature of her social context. The motivation for her method of appropriation and detournément (she never used, to my memory, the term detournément, but she did start writing about the same time as the Situationist International) was based on a love-hate relationship with the literature of her social-historical context. USAmerican literature is trash, she declared multiple times, and because of its anti-intellectual puritan roots – which were also roots of violent colonialism and slavery – Acker claimed that the US possessed no worthwhile literary tradition. Hence she made the corollary claim that the only “worthwhile” USAmerican literature was an avant garde tradition that played with the trash literature of colonial puritanism, challenging its assumptions by disarticulating its narrative form. Her literary heroes in her social context were people like William Burroughs who wrote according to transgression and cut-up, as well as a handful of science fiction authors who attempted to make literature by embracing genre “trash”, but otherwise everything was pulp and pornography. With this pseudo-literary basis in mind, the point for Acker was simply to play with the trash that was at hand, replicating it into rearrangement so that, in its disarticulation, it was turned upon itself.
Acker was both the heir and replacement of Burroughs but, unlike Burroughs, she was more aware of the literary environment in which she operated. The fact that she interviewed Burroughs, was named a literary successor by Burroughs, and delivered a eulogy at his funeral establishes her lineage in the American avant garde tradition. But more importantly she transcended Burroughs, and should be seen as far more important than Burroughs ever was in the avant garde and experimental milieu, because she was able to theorize her operational environment and develop a literary machinism that thought through the meanings of producing literature in her social context. Unlike Burroughs, Acker thought through the multiple problematics of class, race, gender, sexuality, and etc. in order to generate a literature that was not only conscious of its anti-literary environment but could embrace it in an ironically political manner, thus transforming it into something wild.
“It is here that literature strikes, at this base, where the concepts and actings of order impose themselves. Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.” (Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless)