Kathy Acker: Three “Sexts” you must read
It was Oscar Wilde who said that ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.’
It was Kathy Acker who proved this to be true. Whether you’re a fan or a critic, or completely new to her world, Acker’s punk philosophy has always provided an explicit exploration of erotica that exposes the inseparable relationship between sex and power.
Coming from a wealthy family and entering the world of literature via the academic route Acker seemed to be drafted for success in the world of classics and traditional literary canon. However, this was not to be the life nor career path, that Acker pursued, instead she found herself among the weird and wonderful poets, artists and even choreographers of 70s New York who were taking on the avant-garde and disturbing formalists with their rejection of the rules. Following the words of David Antin who Acker described as a father-figure in her early life, she disowned the world of academia in pursuit of finding her own literary voice.
Yet leaving a world of classics and structure left Acker with no qualifications, jobless and poor. Forced into the sphere of sexual labour, she worked sex shows in New York and wrote to keep her sanity. She described this period in her life as a “schizophrenia that never tore [her] apart though almost at time did”. Cue her alliance with the New York punk scene which came from the need to have a voice in a society where she was both poor and middle class.
Acker suggested that this lifestyle, which revolved around the sexualisation of her body, quickly politicised her. This link between sex, power and politics is evidently the basis of most of her work, using the framework of the underground punk aesthetic offered Acker the chance to talk about “things” as she saw the world. The focus on this nexus of power and politicised body aimed to expose readers (quite easily apparently) to what they complicity consumed but never criticised. Yet despite this intention, her experimentation with a “cut and paste” style mixed with erotica and sprinkled with defilement often found itself in the firing line of many criticisms from the repulsed structuralists of ivory tower businesses to feminist theorists such as Andrea Dworkin. In the light of her commentators, her readers must ask themselves: can you really “get off” on the work of Acker or is her use incest and debasement a viscerally ingenious way of breaking down taboos and societal norms? The answer is of course the latter.
Acker’s life seems to have been built upon a series of opposite binaries from taking inspiration from structuralists and post-structuralism to writing about purity in filth, and even listening to both punk and jazz. This battle between two sides, just like the battle for power in sex, functions to fight for the decentralisation of universal truths. Her use of the erotic was to do exactly this, and saw Acker taking the gritty snippets of cheesy true-romance tales and using them to penetrate the elitist culture of the literary canon to find her voice. NME’s Duncan Webster perfectly described this style in his review of her novel Don Quixote in 1986 in which he claimed she combines “overblown and embarrassing romanticism (the tortured, alienated mad artist) with a reduction of culture (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Oedipus, Jane Eyre) to banality. It’s like reading some lecture notes … written by a bored student, with genitalia and ‘I love Peter’ doodled in the margins.”
Blood and Guts in High School is perhaps her most well-known novel in UK and most frequently aligned with this idea. But she didn’t become a maverick of the underground literary scene for just one novel, oh no her punk library is a vast plethora of strange tales not written for the faint hearted. In the UK these texts are seemingly harder to get hold of, unless you want to pay a fortune for international shipping, however some should be searched for. Here are three “sexy” texts of Kathy Acker’s which are not widely known in mainstream literature here in the UK but are worth the hunt.
THE END OF THE WORLD OF WHITE MEN (1995)
Located in a book titled Posthuman Bodies lives a short story, or fictional essay, by Acker, that begins as every good feminist punk narrative should: ‘It was the days when men were cutting their c**** off and women were putting on strap-ons’. This opening line provides a pretty good synopsis of the story that is to follow, shoving themes of sexuality, gender relations and power struggles right in yer-face from the start.
The origins of the story come from her novel Pussy King of the Pirates, where a version was used as a preface to the novel and was first titled ‘Once upon a Time, Not Long Ago, O’. The version that we are talking about follows the socio-economic and sexual struggles of two young voices: one from the female protagonist O and the other from her male counterpart Artaud. The short-story uses these voices to explore the effects of unhealthy relationships sexual, emotional and financial against a backdrop of the three big P’s: prostitution, patriarchy and poverty.
As one of her later works, it’s safe to assume that feminism plays an important part within her writing since it was only in her later life did she aligned her own beliefs with feminist ideology. And with an ending that sees its female protagonist standing at the edge of the new world with her sexuality intact, after a lifetime of abuse, trauma and search for a father figure to fit the Electra Complex, Acker fully welcomed the sex positivity promoted by third wave feminisms.
PUSSYCAT FEVER (1995)
Pussycat Fever is another erotic short story by Acker. In this tale she iconically incorporates art and poetry into her narrative, taking on lots of different mediums in a small space. Using surrealist techniques and dream narratives this story is a contorted coming of age tale that looks at the sexual experimentation and entrance into adolescence experienced by teenage girls. Focusing on education and the family home (a common motif of Acker’s) the nameless narrator gives its reader an insight into what it feels like to be both carnal and suppressed by pressure to conform to notions of what it means to be a “good girl”.
Profane and brutally honest, her explicit surrealism and side by side illustrations (by Diane DiMassa) makes for an immersive read into the both the awakening and embrace of female sexuality (no matter how deviant or bloody it may be). Thus, while the story consistently chops and changes its style, it always sustains the same message that “All us girls have been dead for so long. But we’re not going to be anymore.”
IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY (1990)
In Memoriam to Identity is a one of Acker’s longer novels and isn’t the easiest sit-down read. Broken into four parts, the novel’s main intention is to scrutinise and dissect how we create notions of the self and how we formulate our own identities. In her efforts to do so, she firstly considers the life of poet Rimbaud by rewriting his biography as smutty melodrama chocked full of sodomising adulterers, pinning wives and Parisian streets filled with filth. It considers what it means to embrace our own desires how this fits into the lifestyle choices we make, which in Rimbaud’s case was the desire to have sex with his male lover Verlaine while having to consider his responsibilities as a husband, father and upper-class citizen.
The second and third parts look into the lives of two major female characters: one (Airplane) whose survival in Acker’s dystopian America relies on her boyfriend – the Rapist – and eventually leads her to a painful life within the sex trade; the other replicates Faulkner’s style and follows the life of Capitol a woman whose true desire lies within the forbidden attraction to her brother and her subsequent consumption of men as a result of her suppression of this one true desire.
The conclusion of this piece, in the fourth part, seems to suggest that sex is at the core of how we construct or present our identities. It is the starting point of what we choose to show and what we choose to hide. Acker shows her reader with this novel that sex has power and that there is always power in sex: it has power to reduce someone to nothingness or has the power to make someone else the alpha.
While this is only a small insight into Acker’s “sexts”, it is certain that not only was it a medium for Acker to explore her own literary voice but to also unearth humanity for what it is and not what it pretends to be. She’s worth the read.
Words by Aimee Williams-Maynard