Decollage of an Iconic Image

Decollage of an Iconic Image

by
Daniel Schulz
2018-05-30

Even as the first biography of Kathy Acker appears, we have word of a newly assembled Acker archive in Cologne, under the curatorship of Daniel Schulz. The gist of which, could be to re-orient Acker’s personal relationships to “the politics inherent in Acker’s life.”

It is true that Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker, due to Acker’s path in life, is nothing but a tour de force for any reader. Indeed, Kraus’s book contributes a great amount of new information to ongoing research on Kathy Acker, offering us insight into letters, journals, and some of Acker’s works. However, it seems that through the image of Acker “laid bare” by Kraus we are caught up in another image, which itself is in dire need of deconstruction. The legitimate choice of writing a biography that focuses on Acker’s personal relationships, after all, excludes the politics inherent to Acker’s life, and the fact that: “Coming out of that early feminism the personal and the political is one for me.” (Acker “Bookworm” 0:09:37) Consequently, had Acker not been political during her life-time, there would have been no counter-cultural image of hers to mythologize or cultivate. This is not to neglect the self-stylization of her identity. In Acker’s edition of Bernadette Meyer’s Moving, Acker had stamped her address 46 Belvedere San Francisco under the name she was destined to make for herself: “The Black Tarantula” (Stamp in: Mayer, Inside Front Cover)

Having been gifted to the English Seminar of the University of Cologne by Matias Viegener in 2015, the handwritings, 47 letters, and other sources found in the 6054 books, magazines, and other papers of Kathy Acker’s personal library give further insights into her life. An addition, six donations, and five specific audiotape recordings, excluding the music collection contained within the Reading Room, must also be made note of. As such, four books signed by P. Adams Sitney have been found of which three are books by Charles Olson; the poet Sitney made Acker familiar with when she was a high school student at Lenox (Kraus 35 et seq.). She was deeply affected by Olson as shown by two lines of one of his poems copied into an edition of Selected Writings by Sören Kierkegaard belonging to one Kathy Alexander: “ ‘Hail & beware of the dead/for they will talk life until you are blue in the face’–Olson’ ” (Acker “Handwriting” in: Kierkegaard 79) A book of images by Max Ernst was even dedicated to her by Adams, calling her by her nickname “Cassandra” (Sitney “Handwriting” in: Olson Front Page), a nickname found in her yearbook (Kraus 42).

Repeating Ralph Clare’s words, the insight given into Kathy Acker’s childhood by Kraus is fascinating, though it is not clarified why she was nicknamed after a clairvoyant of Ancient Greek mythology to whom nobody listened. For scholars the influence of Charles Olson on Acker’s work might further provide an interesting ground for research not only because she possessed 15 books by Olson, but also because, as Acker, by her own admission, edited her texts by breathe (Acker “Phoenix Bookstore” Side B 0:22:39), a technique she probably learned from Olson.

As self-described in the short story “Dead Doll Prophecy” Kathy Acker had been a poet in her years at Lenox High School: “As a child in sixth grade in a North American school, won first prize in a poetry contest.” (“Dead Doll Prophecy” 20) Dedicated to her by her teachers Jean St. Pierre and Taylor Bacon she received an edition of Emily Dickinson’s collected poems, Final Harvest, which she signed her own name into April 8th 1963. Jean St. Pierre, who was mentioned in After Kathy Acker (Kraus 44), also signed an edition of Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead that she gifted Alexander with. Believing in her intelligence Jean St. Pierre encouraged a teenage Kathy Alexander to grow and learn, all the while nourishing a self-esteem that was not encouraged at home. No wonder that the school year book that Kraus cites imagines the young graduate returning as a poet laureate, while at the same time mentioning that some may consider Kathy a beatnik, something Martha Rosler also describes Acker as when she first met her (Kraus 52).

It is, in this sense, absolutely true that Acker had Hippie roots, as the street she was living in with Peter Gordon was near Haight-Ashbury:

“I was living in Frisco with Peter–Peter Gordon–in the Haight-Ashbury section right after the hippy period. […] According to the guide every bar at the time was gay, but it wasn’t quite true. It was this ambiance in which everyone was androgynous. You weren’t gay. You weren’t straight, it was very loose. And everybody changed their name, everybody dressed up all the time, everybody wore make-up.” (Acker “Devouring Myths” 1)

As such, the writer who by then was going by the name of the Black Tarantula was inhabiting queer social scenes. Though it is emphasized that the Black Tarantula was bisexual, the biography, by omission, censors most of Acker’s queer identity. In an article copied from the Berkeley Barb, the first successful underground newspaper of the 1960s US counter culture, as found in the Acker Library, Loren Means analyzes The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula remarking on the queering of identity in Acker’s work: “Kathy’s characters are extremely fluid, sometimes even changing sex mid-sentence, giving rise to the kind of dynamic confusion Burroughs generates.”(Means 13) Mentioned in one sentence with William Burroughs in the Berkeley Barb in 1975, it becomes very clear why a writer like Kathy Acker would become a counter-cultural figure. With the sexual revolution becoming a commercial revolution of sex, Acker stayed more true to herself becoming punk – another queer movement – than the hippie movement did to its own ideals of sexual freedom. Clare might be right that the groundwork of her critique of the sexual revolution might have been laid out within her personal relationships with others as much as in her work at sex shows.

What must be disagreed upon is Clare’s evaluation of how accurate various art scenes are depicted in Kraus’s book. Clare, here, misreads Kraus contextualization of Acker’s work and in depth biography with a more broad and general description of various art scenes. Though we are given an in depth narration of Acker’s friendship with David and Eleanor Antin and her involvement with St. Marks’s Bernadette Meyer, Kraus narrative focuses on the personal relationships of her subject, not in the actual politics and infrastructure of the various art scenes. As such, The Blue Tape is contextualized in depth (Kraus 100), while the CBGB is mentioned only once (127). The Mudd Club is mentioned five times by comparison, two mentions being of literary nature. The first mention of the Mudd Club, then, is a mere description of who visited that scene (Kraus 149 et seq), not necessarily what kind of scene it was nor how Acker met her friends there and what brought them together. For sure, Acker being part of the Punk movement had become one of the images in which her reputation found itself entrapped and stereotyped, so concentrating on St. Marks instead of the CBGB, the Max’s Kansas, and the Mudd Club is a welcome shift of focus. But simultaneously, as Daniel Kane made clear in “Do You Have a Band?” there was a connection between the CBGB’s punk scene and St. Marks. Kane thus makes note of a fundraiser for St. Marks at the CBGB’s, which took place between the 26th and 28th of October 1978, and at which Acker read (170, 174). And we can also add that a napkin of the Max’s Kansas was found in a book by Doris Meyer on Victoria Ocampo (Napkin in: Meyer 102 and 103), so Acker, as is probable for the scene, city, and the time, was also there.

The biography also mentions that Acker stayed with Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles in 1975 (Kraus 118 et seq), but it does not mention that Acker collected pamphlets and books published by Fluxus in the 1960s, of which six are contained in the Acker Study, plus two books by Jackson Mac Low, who once was part of Fluxus. Pamphlets like these are also contained at Duke University, and a young Kathy Alexander might have seen Fluxus in Manhattan in the 60s, as that was not only when they returned from Europe as a famed avant-garde group, but the time in which these pamphlets were published. In her 1992 interview with Michael Silverblatt, Acker even mentions Knowles’s The Big Book being an influence on her conception of what a novel could be (Acker “Bookworm” 0:03:53). At the same time, while the name Charles Olson is dropped in the biography, it is not made clear in how far he, like Fluxus, influenced her approach to art. This is not necessary for a biography of personal relations, but to generalize singled out relationships and anecdotes as an accurate depiction of the downtown 1970s and 1980s art scene is just as misleading as claiming that the contexts Kraus provides us with are general depictions of art scenes. Far from it, Kraus depictions are meant to provide the reader with an orientation and insight into what made Acker’s works click the way they did within a specific milieu and literary context. After all, Kraus focus is more on Acker than on the art world. As such, it is only partially explained how her various collaborations and friendships in the early eighties came about. If one, however, reads Marcus Boch The Mudd Club, it becomes very clear that when the names of Bette Gordon, Kate Simon, Marcus Leatherdale, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Betsy Sussler –people Acker worked with at one point or another– are dropped that the central node of the downtown NYC art scene was the Mudd Club. Kraus, accurately mentions three of the names above amongst others (149), testifies to having seen Acker perform on the 14th of February 1980 herself (185) and mentions the launch for Great Expectations having been celebrated there (195). However, this is all the reader is provided with and knows of the scene.

Belltown Seattle, described as containing a hand full of galleries (Kraus 188), but not for being a community of artists in Seattle, is rendered to us more scarcely. Two postcards found within the Acker Study confirm that Acker indeed lived in 111 Bell Street with Jim Logie as noted by Kraus, while further research has revealed that she also lived with artists Buster Simpson, Heather Ramsay, architect Ann Hirshi, and photographer Randy Ericksen in 123 Bell Street in 1979 (Reid February 12th 2018). She also became a patron of the Louie Rosco Gallery, of which Larry Reid was in charge of at the time. (Reid January13 2018). An in depth description of various art scenes this is not. Kraus objective was not to write a book of art- and literary-scene history, but to write about a writer’s life, and as such a narration it has enriched us with a vast number of names that Acker has been affiliated with. To state anything else means to misrepresent Kraus’s work.

Agreeably, the biography does dismantle the persona of Kathy Acker in contrast to her personality and provides a ground for further research. The problem, however, remains that the personal for Acker was political and vice versa and that her literature and impact as a writer cannot be separated from the background of her time. Self-cultivated as her persona was, the image of the same became something else, as Therese Grisham already noted in Seattle, 1989: “Unfortunately, many of us in Seattle only see her as what has come to be called ‘punk,’ a writer who is hip and dirty, someone who’s cool because she’s ‘avant-garde.’ This is an inevitable part of the process of commodification.” (Grisham 7) The other side of the coin in turn then is, for Grisham, the political: “In her writing she plagiarizes, gossips, and responds to political events and regimes like Reaganism and Thatcherism. She challenges other writers such as Susan Sontag, Erica Jong, and Andrea Dworkin. In these and other ways, Acker creates a community as much as a written text.” (Grisham 7) In February 1988, Acker amongst others, such as Roz Kaveney, Neil Gaiman, and Derek Jarman, published an article against censorship in Samizdat, an inlay of Heartbreak Hotel #2. The title Samizdat invokes a Russian form of self-publication, a Russian method of resisting state censorship, thus giving comment to the Thatcherite politics in Britain. According to The Guardian, Acker also hosted a chat-show “Clause and Effect” on the 16th of June 1988, dealing with the repercussions of Clause 28 (The Guardian “June 16th 1988” 37), a British law that forbade homosexuality be promoted as normal in school as well as the idea of homosexual couples being able to form families. According to the memoir of Roz Kaveney, which Kraus often quotes, Acker was also part of Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia (AARGH) (Kaveney 8).

In addition to this, she, like many other writers, defended her friend Salman Rushdie when Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwa for Rushdie’s execution on the 14th of February 1989 in reaction to his book Satanic Verses. This in itself might not be remarkable, as she belonged to hundreds of authors who signed the “World Statement Supporting Freedom of Expression and Opinion” in TheGuardian on March 2nd 1989 (25), and belonged to the authors that argued on Rushdie’s behalf in The New Statesmen on the 31st of March 1989 in the section “Words for Salman Rushdie” (24). What is interesting, though, is that she was part of the original line-up planned for an event that took place July 4th, 1989, in Conway Hall, London, called Voices for Salman Rushdie Against Fundamentalism for the Right to Dissent:

“It was an event bringing together progressive artists, activists and feminists in support of Salman Rushdie. Our aim was to show how the issues of blasphemy and censorship were also feminist concerns since feminism has always been in the business of dissenting against patriarchal orthodoxies. The voices of ordinary women and feminists, especially from black and minority women were getting lost in the media clamour that followed.” (Patel March 12th 2018)

Kraus did not have this specific piece of information, as the letter by woman’s rights activist Clara Connolly was coincidently found during the inventory of the Kathy Acker Study, and no press coverage of the event has been found yet. Further research might reveal that Acker was involved in political engagements of this kind more than once.

The two weeks of courses, readings, and workshops that Acker gave at the University of Moscow, Idaho in September 1994, which are remarked upon in the biography (Kraus 257), provide a last and fascinating example of how her work and impact was indeed political. Here, a student reacted to one of Acker’s readings by publishing an article in the local college magazine that not only should her work be banned but Kathy Acker herself, as an author, too. (Peradotto “Icono-Clash”) Acker reacted to what had happened in an article titled “Proposition 1,” which on November 2nd of that year in Moscow Idaho, was a Proposition which, had it been voted for, had, amongst other things, banned homosexuals from libraries and made it possible to refuse homosexual persons public funding for undertakings and projects. Acker’s essay therein is interesting as it critiques a phenomena, which still plagues the United States up to date: “the religious right” (“Proposition One” 37). A sketch of the article, handwritten by Acker, was found in an edition of a book of collected poetry, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine. Acker can, indeed, not be called off as a neoliberal dupe. Not only does her work not lend itself to this interpretation, neither does her life.

To turn her life, especially the cancer she died from, into a moral tale of how postmodern “irrationality” can be dangerous, though, is self-righteous. Acker’s life is not an episode of Quincy. Going through Acker’s personal library one is able to find four books published in the US lacking an esoteric background:

  • Kushi Michio, The Macrobiotic Approach to Cancer: Towards Preventing and Controlling Cancer with Diet and Lifestyle. NJ, Wayne, Avery Publishing Group, 1982.

  • Kushi Michio; Alex Jack, The Cancer Prevention Diet: Michio Kushi’s Nutritional Blueprint for the Prevention and Relief of Disease. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

  • Michael Learner, Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer. MA, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1994.

  • Patrick Quillin; Noreen Quillin, Beating Cancer with Nutrition: Clinically Proven and Easy to Follow Strategies to Dramatically Improve Your Quality and Quantity of Life and Increase Chances for a Complete Remission. OK, Tulsa, Nutrition Times Press, 1994.

The list reproduced here is a complete list of cancer literature she was reading. Though Acker pursued esoteric and spiritual concepts of healing, these are only partial aspects of alternative ways she was seeking out to fight cancer. To write her off as merely irrational is to be as naive as to believe in the rationality of the most unregulated medical market of the world, of which Mylan Pharmaceuticals is a good and present example of. Acker was not necessarily turning her back on medicine, but on the state of medicine in the U.S., which is largely coerced and controlled by the free market due to a lack of regulation, i.e. the lack of a state framework of fairness through which neoliberalism originally stylized itself as the embodiment of democracy. The easiness with which postmodernism is made the scapegoat of neoliberalism’s sins is in itself neoliberal ideology insofar that postmodernism is the Christ nailed to neoliberalism’s cross. Postmodernism dies for neoliberalism’s sins, precisely because only a dud can be its messiah.

In addition to this, I agree with researchers such as Georgina Colby that Kathy Acker was a modernist writer and not a postmodernist writer. Acker, like the modernists, was writing on the level of the morpheme, the smallest unit of language. She was engaged in finding a new language, in fact languages of the body, as she herself wrote: “In our culture, we simultaneously fetishize and disdain the athlete, a worker in the body. For we still live under the sign of Descartes. This sign is also the sign of patriarchy. As long as we continue to regard the body, that which is subject to change, chance, and death, as disgusting and inimical, so long shall we continue to regard our own selves as dangerous others.” (Acker “Against Ordinary Language” 150) The sign of Descartes is, of course, the signifier of rationality, which separates the mind from that which it is a part of: the body. A Cartesian gap can, thus, be found in the review between Clare’s praise both for Kraus novelization of Acker’s life and her critique of Acker’s self-stylized image. It raises an interesting question though: is After Kathy Acker truly a de-mythologization of Kathy Acker’s life?

Towards the end of the book there is a strict critique of Acker’s self-stylization, which strikes a somewhat odd tone: “While she was in London writing Empire and posing for glamour photographs of her newly tattooed arms and back, her old friends Catherine Texier and Lynne Tillman were publishing their first novels […] to much acclaim.” (Kraus 238) On page 240 to 241, she however quotes a letter to Ira Silverberg from 1986 in which Acker complains that Grove is not paying for her tours. These two segments need to be read in context, because Acker herself admitted that she made no money off her books but did get 1500 to 2000 dollars per performance (Acker “Astrologist Conversation 3” Side A 0:21:23), something also mentioned at her reading at the Phoenix Bookstore in 1993 without precise mention of her pay (Side B, 0:20:56). If her publisher payed for her flight tickets, she would thus be able to pay her rent. Stylizing her own image, using photographs for advertisement, thus, was also a necessity to pay the bills, even if she did not live a frugal life of modest appearance. Kraus depiction of this self-stylization in this context seems rather one-sided in its critique.

The same can be said of her comment on Acker’s own financial crisis in the 1990s, after the Harold Robbins Affair: “She was in free fall. And, for the first time in her adult life, it went unrecorded.” (Kraus 2017 p. 244). Within this sentence Kraus absolutely disregards the first 50 to 100 pages of her own biography, in which Acker worked at sex shows and was couch surfing through New York City, precisely because she had separated herself from her husband, and thus had neither money nor support from home. Alan Sondheim, whom Kraus also interviewed, had already narrated in Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker? how Acker was rejected when she asked her mother for financial help: “And her mother said something like: May the city bury you alive.” (Caspar 0:24:09) Should Acker, instead of using supportive networks, have starved on the streets of New York City in the 1970s? Should she, in a city which was plagued by unemployment in the 1970s have gotten a job? It is a weird demand that Kraus has of Acker. If this biography reads as an autobiography, as Clare says, what does this say about its author? We are to be very thankful for such a reflective review on his part, which has the sense to praise the cult-image of Chris Kraus for self-criticizing the cult-image of Kathy Acker in such a thoughtful fashion.

 

Sources Quoted from the Kathy Acker Study, English Seminar, University of Cologne

Acker, Kathy, 2nd September, 1993: Reading. Phoenix Bookstore, Audio Cassette, 1993. (Q15/S4)

Acker, Kathy “Handwriting: Proposition One Sketch” in: Charles Baudelaire; Arthur Rimbaud: Paul Verlaine; Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse. Joseph m. Bernstein (ed.), New York, Citadel Press, 1977, Front p. (N12/S3)

Acker, Kathy; Taylor Bacon; Jean St. Pierre; “Handwriting” in: Emily Dickinson, Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems. MA, Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1961, Inside Front Cover. (I7/S2)

Acker, Kathy “Handwriting” in: Sören Kierkegard, Selections from Writings of Kierkegaard. NY, Garden City, Doubleday, 1960, p. 79. (M11/S3)

Acker, Kathy, Untitled Tape 2: Astrologist Conversation September 1994, Audiotape,September 1994. (Q15/S4)

Conolly, Clara, “Letter to Acker” in: Philip K. Dick, A Handful of Darkness. London, Grafton, 1988, p. 50 & 51. (O13/S5)

Grisham, Therese, “Why I Like Kathy Acker” in: ArtsFocus, Seattle, June/July 1989, p. 7. - Donation by Larry Reid, Received March 6th 2018. (Q15/S5)

Michio, Kushi; Alex Jack, The Cancer Prevention Diet: Michio Kushi’s Nutritional Blueprint for the Prevention and Relief of Disease. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994. (O13/S4)

Michio, Kushi, The Macrobiotic Approach to Cancer: Towards Preventing and Controlling Cancer with Diet and Lifestyle. NJ, Wayne, Avery Publishing Group, 1982. (O13/S1)

Learner, Michael, Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer. MA, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1994. (J8/S5)

Max’s Kansas Napkin, in: Doris Meyer; Victora Ocampo, Victoria Ocampo: Against the Wind and the Tide. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990, p. 102 & 103. (J8/S5)

Means, Loren “Kathy’s Genius” Copy from: “Berkeley Barb, Issue 24 (516), Vol.21 July 4-10, 1975, p.13” in: Leroi Jones, The Dead Lecturer. NYC, Grove Press, 1964 p. 68-69. (O13/S4)

See also: Means, Loren “Kathy’s Genius” in: Berkeley Barb, Issue 24 (516), Vol.21 July 4-10, 1975, p.13. On: Independent Voices. http://voices.revealdigital.com/cgi-bin/independentvoices?a=d&d=BFBJFGD19750704.1.13&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN—————1, 12th May 2018, 19:07.

Sitney, P. Adams “Handwriting” in: Olson, Charles, Call me Ishmael. NY: Grove Press, 1947, Inside Front Cover. (M11/S6)

St. Pierre, Jean, “Handwriting” in: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead. New York, Dell, 1959, Inside Back Cover. (L10/S6)

Quillin, Patrick; Noreen Quillin, Beating Cancer with Nutrition: Clinically Proven and Easy to Follow Strategies to Dramatically Improve Your Quality and Quantity of Life and Increase Chances for a Complete Remission. OK, Tulsa, Nutrition Times Press. 1994. (I7/S5)

Further Sources Quoted

Acker, Kathy, “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body” in: Bodies of Work. Essays by Kathy Acker. London, Serpent’s Tail, 1997, p. 143-151.

Acker, Kathy, on “Bookworm” August 31st 1992, http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/bookworm/kathy-acker, 12th of May 2018, 17:32.

Acker, Kathy “Dead Doll Prophecy” in: The Subversive Imagination. Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility. Carol Becker (ed.), London, Routledge, 1994, p. 20-34.

Kathy Acker in: “Devoured by Myths (interview)” in: Hannibal Lector, My Father. New York,Semiotext(e), 1991, p. 1-24.

Acker, Kathy, “Proposition One” in: The Artist in Society: Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities. Carol Becker; Ann Wiens (eds.), Chicago, New Art Examiner, 1995 p. 36-45.

Acker, Kathy, “Words for Salman Rushdie” in: New Statesmen and Society. March 31st 1989, p. 24.

Boch, Richard, The Mudd Club. Port Townsend, Feral House, 2017.

Caspar, Barbara, Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker? 2007. Airing on Arte recorded on, DVD, 2:00, May 2012.

“Clause and Effect”-Advertisement, in: The Guardian, London, “June 16th 1988” p. 37

Kaveney, Roz, “Some Years With Acker,” Word File, 2007. Received February 12th 2018.

Patel, Pragna, Correspondence to Schulz, March 12th 2018.

Peradotto, Nicole, “Icono-Clash; Visiting Writer Shocks, Disgusts Some People With Her Books Contents” in: Lewiston Tribune, ID, Moscow, Oct. 7, 1994.http://lmtribune.com/icono-clash-visiting-writer-shocks-disgusts-some-people-with- her/article_adcb6b58-7633-5678-b924-25363138042c.html , 12th May 2018, 17:44.

Reid, Larry- Phone call with Daniel Schulz 13th January 2018, 1:43-2:30AM (German Time).

Reid, Larry, Correspondence to Schulz, February 12th 2018.

“World Statement Supporting Freedom of Expression and Opinion” in TheGuardian, London, March 2nd 1989, p. 25.

Literature

Kane, Daniel, “Do You Have a Band?” Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City. New York, Columbia University Press, 2017.

Kraus, Chris, After Kathy Acker. London, Allen Lane, 2017