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Kathy Acker
Born Karen Lehmann
18 April 1947(1947-04-18)
New York City, New York, United States
Died 30 November 1997 (aged 50)
Tijuana, Mexico
Occupation Novelist, playwright, essayist, poet

Kathy Acker (née Karen Lehmann) (18 April 1947 – 30 November 1997) was an American experimental novelist, punk poet, playwright, essayist, postmodernist and sex-positive feminist writer. She was strongly influenced by the Black Mountain School, William S. Burroughs, David Antin, French critical theory, philosophy, and pornography.

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Biography

Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Manhattan, New York City, Acker took her last name from her first husband, Robert Acker; though born as Karen, she was known as Kathy by her friends and family. She studied classics as an undergraduate at Brandeis University and aspired to write novels but moved to San Diego to further pursue her studies. Acker's first work appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York literary underground of the mid-1970s. She claimed that her early writings were profoundly influenced by her experiences working for a few months as a stripper. She remained on the margins of the literary establishment, only being published by small presses until the mid-1980s, thus earning herself the epithet of literary terrorist.[citation needed] 1984 saw her first British publication, a novel called Blood and Guts in High School. From here on Acker produced a considerable body of novels, almost all still in print with Grove Press. She wrote pieces for a number of magazines and anthologies, and also had notable pieces printed in issues of RE/Search, Angel Exhaust and Rapid Eye. Towards the end of her life she had a measure of success in the conventional press—the Guardian newspaper published several of her articles, including an interview with the Spice Girls, which she submitted just a few months before her death.

Acker's formative influences were American poets and writers (the Black Mountain poets, especially Jackson Mac Low, Charles Olson, William S. Burroughs), and the Fluxus movement, as well as literary theory, especially the French feminists and Gilles Deleuze. In her work, she combined plagiarism, cut-up techniques, pornography, autobiography, persona and personal essay to confound expectations of what fiction should be. She acknowledged the performative function of language in drawing attention to the instability of female identity in male narrative and literary history (Don Quixote), created parallelism in characters and autobiographical personas and experimented with pronouns, upsetting conventional syntax.

In In Memoriam to Identity, Acker draws attention to popular analyses of Rimbaud's life and The Sound and the Fury, constructing or revealing social and literary identity. Though she was known in the literary world for creating a whole new style of feminist prose and for her transgressive fiction, she was also a punk and feminist icon for her devoted portrayals of subcultures, strong-willed women, and violence.

In April 1996 Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. In January 1997 she wrote about her loss of faith in conventional medicine in a Guardian article, "The Gift of Disease." In the article she explains that after unsuccessful surgery, which left her feeling physically mutilated and emotionally debilitated, she rejected the passivity of the patient in the medical mainstream and began to seek out the advice of nutritionists, acupuncturists, psychic healers, and Chinese herbalists. She found appealing the claim that instead of being an object of knowledge, as in Western medicine, the patient becomes a seer, a seeker of wisdom, that illness becomes the teacher and the patient the student. After pursuing several forms of alternative medicine in England and the United States, Acker died a year and a half later from complications of breast cancer in an alternative cancer clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, where she had gone to seek treatment with laetrile. She died in Room 101, to which her friend Alan Moore quipped, "There's nothing that woman can't turn into a literary reference."[1]

Literary overview

Born and raised in New York City, novelist, poet and performance artist Kathy Acker came to be closely associated with the punk movement of the 1970s and '80s that affected much of the culture in and around Manhattan. As an adult, however, she moved around quite a bit. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of California, San Diego in 1968; there she worked with David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg.

She did two years worth of post-graduate work at City University of New York but left before earning a degree. While still in New York she worked as a file clerk, secretary, stripper, and porn performer. During the 1970s she often moved back and forth between San Diego, San Francisco and New York.

She married twice, and though most of her relationships were with men, she was openly bisexual for at least part of her adult life. In 1979 she won the Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979." During the early 1980s she lived in London, where she wrote several of her most critically acclaimed works. After returning to the United States in the late 1980s she worked as an adjunct professor at the San Francisco Art Institute for about six years and as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Idaho, the University of California, San Diego, University of California, Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Arts, and Roanoke College.

Acker’s controversial body of work borrows heavily from the experimental styles of William S. Burroughs and Marguerite Duras. She often used extreme forms of pastiche and even Burroughs’s cut-up technique, in which one cuts passages and sentences into several pieces and rearranges them somewhat randomly. Acker herself situated her writing within a post-nouveau roman European tradition. In her texts, she combines biographical elements, power, sex and violence. Indeed, critics often compare her writing to that of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Genet. Critics have noticed links to Gertrude Stein and photographers Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine. Acker’s novels also exhibit a fascination with and an indebtedness to tattoos.[2] She even dedicated Empire of the Senseless to her tattooist.

Although associated with generally well-respected artists, even Acker’s most recognized novels, Blood and Guts in High School, Great Expectations and Don Quixote receive mixed critical attention. Most critics acknowledge Acker’s skilled manipulation of plagiarized texts from writers as varied as Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Marquis de Sade.

Feminist critics have also had strong responses both for and against Acker’s writing. While some praise her for exposing a misogynistic capitalist society that uses sexual domination as a key form of oppression, others argue that her extreme and frequent use of violent sexual imagery quickly becomes numbing and leads to the degrading objectification of women. Despite repeated criticisms, Acker maintained that in order to challenge the phallogocentric power structures of language, literature must not only experiment with syntax and style, but also give voice to the silenced subjects that common taboos marginalize. The inclusion of controversial topics such as abortion, rape, incest, terrorism, pornography, graphic violence, and feminism demonstrate that conviction.

Acker published her first book, Politics, in 1972. Although the collection of poems and essays did not garner much critical or public attention, it did establish her reputation within the New York punk scene. In 1973 she published her first novel The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses under the pseudonym Black Tarantula. In 1974 she published her second novel, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining.

In 1979 Acker finally received popular attention when she won a Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979." She did not receive critical attention, however, until she published Great Expectations in 1982. The opening of Great Expectations is a clear re-writing of Charles Dickens’s classic of the same name. It features Acker’s usual subject matter, including a semi-autobiographical account of her mother’s suicide and the appropriation of several other texts, including Pierre Guyotat's violent and sexually explicit "Eden Eden Eden". That same year, Acker published a chapbook titled Hello, I’m Erica Jong.

Despite the increased recognition she got for Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School is often considered Acker’s breakthrough work. Published in 1984, it is one of her most extreme explorations of sexuality and violence. Borrowing from, among other texts, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Blood and Guts details the experiences of Janey Smith, a sex addicted and pelvic-inflammatory-disease-ridden urbanite who is in love with a father who sells her into slavery. Many critics criticized it for being demeaning toward women, and Germany banned it completely. Acker published the German court judgment against Blood and Guts in High School in Hannibal Lecter, My Father.

In 1984 Acker published My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini and a year later published Algeria: A Series of Invocations because Nothing Else Works. In 1986 she published Don Quixote, another one of her more acclaimed novels. In Acker’s version of Miguel de Cervantes' classic, Don Quixote becomes a young woman obsessed with poststructuralist theory, taking it to a nihilistic extreme. Moreover, the Don's insanity that causes her to wander the streets of St. Petersburg & New York City was caused from having an abortion. She recognizes the world’s many lies and fakes, believes in nothing and regards identity as an internalized fictional construct. Marching around New York City and London with her dog St. Simeon, who serves as her Sancho Panza, Don Quixote attacks the sexist societies while simultaneously deflating feminist mythologies.

Acker published Empire of the Senseless in 1988 and considered it a turning point in her writing. While she still borrows from other texts, including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the plagiarism is less obvious. However, one of Acker’s more controversial plagiarisms is from William Gibson’s 1984 text ‘'Neuromancer’' in which Acker equates code with the female body and its militaristic implications. The novel comes from the voices of two terrorists, Abhor, who is half human and half robot, and her lover Thivai. The story takes place in the decaying remnants of a post-revolutionary Paris. Like her other works, Empire of the Senseless includes graphic violence and sexuality. However, it turns toward concerns of language more than her previous works. In 1988 she also published Literal Madness: Three Novels which included three previously published works: Florida deconstructs and reduces John Huston’s 1948 film noir classic Key Largo into its base sexual politics, Kathy Goes to Haiti details a young woman’s relationship and sexual exploits while on vacation, and My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini provides a fictional autobiography of the Italian filmmaker in which he solves his own murder.

Between 1990 and 1993 Acker published four more books: In Memoriam to Identity (1990); Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991); Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (1992), also composed of already published works; and My Mother: Demonology (1992). Many critics complained that these later works became redundant and predictable, as Acker continued to explore the same taboos in a similar fashion. Her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, published in 1996, showed signs of Acker’s broadening interests as it incorporates more humor, lighter fantasy and a consideration of Eastern texts and philosophy that was largely absent in her earlier works.

Posthumous reputation

Acker's work has been acknowledged by a number of younger writers working in an experimental style, including Stewart Home, Stevan R Hergraves(author, poet, musician, political writer], Barry Graham, Anna Joy Springer, Tribe 8 singer and writer Lynn Breedlove, Tamil novelist Charu Nivedita, Noah Cicero, Travis Jeppesen, and Salvador Plascencia. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Kim Gordon, co-founder of Sonic Youth have also acknowledged her influence.

Three volumes of her non-fiction have been published and re-published since her death. In 2002 New York University (NYU) staged Discipline and Anarchy, a retrospective exhibition of her works,[3] while in 2008 London's Institute of Contemporary Arts held an evening of her films.[4] Recently (2007) Amandla Publishing has re-published Acker's articles for the New Statesman from 1989 to 1991.

Quotes

  • "We don't have a clue what it is to be male or female, or if there are intermediate genders. Male and female might be fields which overlap into androgyny or different kinds of sexual desires. But because we live in a Western, patriarchal world, we have very little chance of exploring these gender possibilities."[5]
  • "Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified."[6]
  • "The students who come to my class are very closely related to all the evil girls who are very interested in their bodies and sex and pleasure. I learn a lot from them about how to have pleasure and how cool the female body is. One of my students had a piercing through her labia. And she told me about how when you ride on a motorcycle, the little bead on the ring acts like a vibrator. Her story turned me on so I did it. I got two. It was very cool. I'm very staid compared to my students, actually. I come from a generation where you've got the PC dykes and confused heterosexuals. No one ever told me that you could walk around with a strap-on, having orgasms."[7]

Published works

  • Politics (1972)
  • Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula By the Black Tarantula (1973)
  • I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974)
  • Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1978)
  • N.Y.C. in 1979 (1981)
  • Great Expectations (1983)
  • Algeria : A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works (1984)
  • Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
  • Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986)
  • Literal Madness: Three Novels (Reprinted 1987)
  • My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini
  • Florida
  • Wordplays 5 : An Anthology of New American Drama (1987)
  • Empire of the Senseless (1988)
  • In Memoriam to Identity (1990)
  • Kathy Goes To Haiti (1990)
  • Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991)
  • My Mother: Demonology (1994)
  • Pussycat Fever (1995)
  • Dust. Essays (1995)
  • Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)
  • Bodies of Work : Essays (1997)
  • Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (Reprinted 1998)
  • Redoing Childhood (2000) spoken word CD, KRS 349.
  • "Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective" (pub. 2002 from manuscript of 1973)

See also

Further reading

  • Kathy Acker and Transnationalism, ed. Polina Mackay and Kathryn Nicol (Cambridge Scholars, 2009)
  • Lust for Life: On the Writings of Kathy Acker, ed. Carla Harryman, Avital Ronell, and Amy Scholder (Verso, 2006)
  • Devouring Institutions: The Life Work of Kathy Acker, ed. Michael Hardin (Hyperbole/San Diego State University Press: 2004). DEVOURING INSTITUTIONS
  • "no one can find little girls any more: Kathy Acker in Australia" , (1997). Documentary film by Jonathan and Felicity Dawson. Griffith University, 90 minutes. Footage from this film is included in* Who's Afraid of Kathy Acker? A documentary by Barbara Caspar

References

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Kathy Acker (1947-04-181997-11-30), born Karen Alexander, was an American experimental writer.

Sourced

  • For 2.000 years, you've had the nerve to tell women who we are. We use your words; we eat your food. Every way we get money has to be a crime. We are plagiarists, liars and criminals.
  • I am as closed-up and fucked-up as everybody else. I am hell. The world is hell. "No, it isn't", I scream, but I know it is. Hell. Hell. Hell. Hell. Help. Help me. Help me. Love me.
    • Blood and Guts in High School (1978)
  • Teach me how to talk to you. WANT. Is my wanting you so bad, wanting your cock so bad, wanting the feel of your lips on my lips just me being selfish and egoistic? Teach me a new language.
    • Blood and Guts in High School (1978)
  • It's all up to you, girls. You have to be strong. These are the days of post-women's liberation. You have grown up by now and you have to take care of yourself. No one's going to help you.
    • Don Quixote (1986)
  • Even a woman who has the soul of a pirate, at least pirate morals, even a woman who ... has constraints to heterosexual marriage, even a woman who is a freak in our society needs a home. The only characteristic freaks share is our knowledge that we don't fit in.
    • Don Quixote (1986)
  • The German Romantics had to destroy the same bastions we do. Logocentrism and idealism, theology, all supports of the repressive society. Property's pillars. Reason which always homogenizes and reduces, represses and unifies phenomena or actuality into what can be perceived and so controlled. The subjects, us, are now stable and socializable. Reason is always in the service of the political and economic masters. 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.
    • Empire of the Senseless (1988), Elegy for the World of the Fathers, Part I, Rape by the Father, p. 12
  • You create identity, you're not given identity per se. What became more and more interesting to me wasn't the "I", it was text because it's text that create identity. That's how I got interested in plagiarism.
    • Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991)
  • At a certain point I realized that the "I" doesn't exist. So I said to myself: If the "I" doesn't exist, I have to construct one, or maybe even more than one.
    • Interview with Sylvere Lothringer (1991)
  • My nutritionist read my pathology report and said, "There's only one way you can beat your cancer."
    "What's that?"
    "You have to find out what caused it."
    • The Gift of Disease (1996)
  • I had been confused why I had gotten cancer. Three weeks later, I saw the network of causation so clearly I wondered why I wasn't more disease-riddled. My healer reminded me that if health is based on forgiveness, then I had to forgive ...
    • The Gift of Disease (1996)
  • Every book, remember, is dead until a reader activates it by reading. Every time that you read you are walking among the dead, and, if you are listening, you just might hear prophecies. Aeneas did. Odysseus did. Listen to Delany, a prophet.
    • "On Delany the Magician", a foreword to Trouble on Triton (1996) by Samuel R. Delany, and reprinted in Acker's collection Bodies of Work (1996)
  • Women need to become literary "criminals", break the literary laws and reinvent their own, because the established laws prevent women from presenting the reality of their lives.
    • Bodies of Work (1996)
  • We come crawling through these cracks, orphans, lobotomies; if you ask me what I want, I'll tell you. I want everything. Whole rotten world come down and break. Let me spread my legs.
    • Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)
  • The students who come to my class are very closely related to all the evil girls who are very interested in their bodies and sex and pleasure. I learn a lot from them about how to have pleasure and how cool the female body is. One of my students had a piercing through her labia. And she told me about how when you ride on a motorcycle, the little bead on the ring acts like a vibrator. Her story turned me on so I did it. I got two. It was very cool.
    I'm very staid compared to my students, actually. I come from a generation where you've got the PC dykes and confused heterosexuals. No one ever told me that you could walk around with a strap-on, having orgasms.
  • We don't have a clue what it is to be male or female, or if there are intermediate genders. Male and female might be fields which overlap into androgyny or different kinds of sexual desires. But because we live in a Western, patriarchal world, we have very little chance of exploring these gender possibilities.

Quotes about Acker

External links

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