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Kathy Acker (1944 - 1997)

Lifespan: 1944 - 1997

Related: transgressive fiction - Grove Press - American literature - cut-up writing - post-feminism

Blood and Guts in High School (1984) - Kathy Acker
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Kathy Acker was an American underground writer, whose works were first ignored in the 1970s. Acker's works achieved counter-culture prominence in the underground publications of the mid 1980s American art scence (Re/Search, Rapid Eye). Acker's work was aesthetically and culturally raw, and presented a lurid, personal sexual vision which has been compared to William S. Burroughs's sexual writing. [Dec 2006]

Kathy Acker's pseudo-plagiarism is a method she uses in which she appropriates texts from different sources and proceeds to then deconstruct them by playing with them, modifying them, layering, rearranging, rewriting and fragmenting the original texts. She takes apart the texts, cuts them up and inserts them into different contexts, swapping genders and disordering the sequences. But neither is Kathy entirely alone in this endeavour, for example William Burroughs' "Nova Express" includes cut-ups from Shakespeare, Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac. --Robert Lort


Kathy Acker (April 18, 1947 in ManhattanóNovember 30, 1997 in Tijuana, Mexico) was an experimental novelist, prose stylist, playwright, essayist, poŤte maudit and sex-positive feminist writer.

Acker's first work appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York literary underground of the mid-1970s and her first writings were profoundly influenced by her experiences working for a few month 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. 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, William S. Burroughs), and the Fluxus movement, as well as literary theory, especially 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 Kathy Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer, and began to undergo treatment. 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. What appeals to her is that instead of being an object of knowledge, as in Western medicine, the patient becomes a seer, a seeker of wisdom. Illness becomes the teacher and the patient is 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

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 B.A. from the University of California, San Diego in 1968; there she worked with David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg and Herbert Marcuse. 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 actress. During the 70s she often moved back and forth between San Diego, San Francisco and New York.

She married twice, and divorced twice, and though most of her relationships were with men, was openly bisexual throughout her lifetime. In 1979 she won the Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979." During the early 80s she lived in London, where she wrote several of her most critically acclaimed works. After returning to the United States in the late 80s 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. She died in Tijuana, Mexico in an alternative cancer clinic where she was being treated for breast cancer.

Ackerís 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 Burroughsís 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 in an intoxicating cocktail. 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. Ackerís novels also exhibit a fascination with and an indebtedness to tattoos.

Although associated with generally well respected artists, even Ackerís most recognized novels, Blood and Guts in High School, Great Expectations and Don Quixote receive mixed critical attention. Most critics acknowledge Ackerís skilled manipulation of plagiarized texts from writers as varied as Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Marquis de Sade. She quite clearly has a grasp on poststructuralist theory as well as a profound familiarity with literary history. Many critics, however, find her non-linear plots needlessly incoherent and difficult to read.

Feminist critics have also had strong responses both for and against Ackerís 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 1978 she published a collection of three novels. Florida parodies John Hustonís 1948 Film Noir classic Key Largo, Kathy Goes to Haiti details a young womanís relationship and sexual exploits while on vacation, and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec provides a fictional autobiography of the 19th century French artist.

In 1979 Acker finally received popular attention when she won the 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 Dickensís classic of the same name. It features Ackerís usual subject matter, including a semi-autobiographical account of her motherís suicide and the appropriation of several other texts, including French pornography. That same year, Acker published a chapbook titled Hello, Iím Erica Jong.

Despite the increased recognition she got for Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School is often considered Ackerís breakthrough work. Published in 1984, it is one of her most extreme explorations of sexuality and violence. Borrowing from, among other texts, Nathaniel Hawthorneís 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 and South Africa banned it completely. Acker published the German court judgement against Blood and Guts in High School in Hannibal Lector, 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 Ackerís version of Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote becomes a young woman obsessed with poststructuralist theory, taking it to a nihilistic extreme. She recognizes the worldís 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 Twainís The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the plagiarism is less obvious. 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 previously published works Kathy Goes to Haiti, My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Florida.

Between 1990 and 1993 Acker published four more books: (1990), Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991), Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (1992), also comprised 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 Ackerís 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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathy Acker

In Memoriam to Kathy Acker, A Deleuze and Guattarian Approach (1997) - Robert Lort

Postmodern writer Kathy Acker died on November 29, 1997 with a body destroyed by cancer. She died at a clinic she was attending in Mexico for alternative medicine. Only recently she had had a double mastectomy and for various reasons, including financial ones, she had turned away from modern treatments including chemotherapy and breast replacement and instead chose natural therapies.

Kathy Acker was born in 1944 and grew up in New York in an affluent German-Jewish family. Her father deserted her mother before she was born, the outcome of which made the relationship between her and her mother an uneasy one, which inevitably left her out of place in a bourgeoisie family. At 18 she found herself no longer supported by her family1. In the early sixties she attended university in Boston and California studying literature. She then based herself in New York and for a time worked in that city as an erotic dancer to help support herself financially. While working as an erotic dancer she was equally dedicated to the St. Mark's poetry scene. The incompatible combination meant that she found herself always split between the two, living a double life, in two different selves. During this time she found herself marginalised from the burgeoning hippy culture, which detested anything that looked like it had to do homosexuals, drug dealers, transvestites, whores and other deviates. She instead listened to the Velvet Underground, and working as an erotic dancer on 42nd Street, she found herself never too far from the Andy Warhol scene and the general Factory crowd. Her mother who had later remarried, committed suicide in the mid seventies. The effect of which seemed to reverberate not only through her writing but also through herself for some time. In the early seventies she was living in San Francisco, then New York and in the mid eighties she moved to London. There was a brief fiasco when she was accused of plagiarism over a story she had written about Toulouse Lautrec in "Young Lust", which included a small section that had been deconstructed from "The Pirate" by Harold Robbins. In 1986 her novel "Blood and Guts in High School" was banned in Germany on the basis that it was considered harmful to minors. Apart from the incestual and sado-masochistic elements in the novel, what seemed to equally frustrate and disconcert! the censors to the point of shock, was the novels supposed inability to make sense ; the incorrect grammar, the drawings, the typography, the fragments in Persian, the indiscernibility between dream and reality and the overall incoherence of the narrative. On her return in 1990 to New York city, she became abruptly aware of how the experimental and avant-garde art scene she had grown up in, had now disintegrated and decayed under the pressures of political conservatism and the demands of the commercially interested art establishment. This once overly white and male dominated art scene, which she had criticised on that basis, was now largely gone, disheartened, she later moved to San Francisco. Throughout her career she managed to have published a multitude of successful and influential books, including, "Empire of the Senseless", "Don Quixote", "Great Expectations", "Kathy goes to Haiti", "Pussy King, of the Pirates" and others.

Kathy Acker's contribution as a post beat writer and feminist is a unique and irreplaceable one, if sometimes unacknowledged one, that always manages to make so much of everything else look like foolishness. Kathy remained always out on her own, a strange girl blown out towards the thresholds of language and thought, an intense and anomalous depth of tangles and alterities. She stood nonpareil in a time so marked by the rescinding of new thought and intellectual decay. She was to die in the same tragic year that saw William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg also pass away. [...] --Robert Lort, Paroxysm, http://www.calarts.edu/~acker/ackademy/lort.htm [2003]

Blood and Guts in High School (1984) - Kathy Acker

Janey is a little girl wandering through a fantasy landscape of men who reject her-- her father, Jean Genet, the Persian Slave Trader, Tommy. This is a book communicating a world of pain-- the dialogues in the beginning between Janey and her father as he prepares to leave her for someone else carry the weight of the agony of someone being betrayed by someone so close and all the little lies and tricks we use to pull closer and push away. It's also a book about illness. Janey constantly has pain and infections and disease that cripple her, but she always pushes the physical pain to one side to focus on the men who she knows from the beginning are going to leave her.

It is not the easiest book in the world to read-- the emotion, rather than the plot, is the thread that ties the book together. There's a section in the book which is a series of drawings by Janey that provide a map to her dreams. I used this map to give the reading experience a kind of structure and I found that thinking about the book as a dream landscape made the lack of narrative much less jarring. -- frumiousb for amazon.com

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