The Kathy Acker That You Want: Reading I'm Very Into You
Review of I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. 2015. Kathy Acker & McKenzie Wark. South Pasadena. Semiotext(e). ISBN 978–1–58435–164–1
“I just want to say there are no words” (Acker & Wark 2015, p. 19).
So ends McKenzie Wark’s first email in the collected correspondence of I’m Very Into You. The back story that led to the collection: in 1995 Kathy Acker, cult writer and performance artist, was in Australia on a book tour where she met new–media theorist Wark. The two engaged in a long weekend–length tryst. What follows this initial email is a two–week flurry of electronic correspondence in which we witness Acker and Wark grapple with the boundaries of the still–fresh virtual medium of email within the after–effects of a travel fling. Their conversation blends cultural criticism, pop culture, and gender theory with sexual politics, tales of old and current lovers, gossip, and flirtation. What is fascinating in reading, is following these two undeniably intellectual figures struggle with the arguably un–intellectual folly of lust.
I’m Very Into You proves a difficult text to analyse – the theoretical conversation between Acker and Wark, veers and circles back again, as their various topics of discussion intertwine and peter off, driven by the sub–textual ebb and flow of attraction. The book is edited by Matias Viegener, Acker’s close friend in life and the executor of her estate. In terms of structure, Viegener’s work of assemblage is a practical attempt at chronology rather than an artful endeavour. Reading I’m Very Into You is like opening a random portion of a lover’s diary – a seductive act that feeds curiosity, but that is ultimately unfair to judge or found any kind of argument upon. Let’s take it then, as a testament to both its unknowing participants and to its time.
The text falls into the curious genre of posthumous private writings. Often these writings are made up of the collected correspondence, notebooks, or journals of the creative figures who’s public persona mythologised them into defining totems within our culture. Prior to reading I’m Very Into You, I had never considered the questionable ethics of these publications, nor my attraction to them. I own and love Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals, have paged through Kurt Cobain’s notebooks, have pored over the letters of Virginia Woolf. What do we get out of reading the personal writings of deceased writers? Is it merely gossip, a literary form of a celebrity photo hacking? Or does it speak to an intrinsic wish to to know these people who have affected us so deeply?
Upon reading, I wondered why these emails were the catalyst for my reconsideration of the genre. The introduction is penned by Viegener. In it, he recounts the reaction of an unnamed writer, who declined the request to provide a preface. His reasoning – the emails felt too personal, like “rooting around through someone else’s underwear drawer” (Wark & Acker 2015, p. 5). Indeed, there was an overwhelming feeling of intrusiveness that overcame me in reading these emails. Perhaps it is because one of the parties is still alive, or that the immediate nature of email reveals a greater tendency towards unedited, raw emotion than paper correspondence. Maybe it was that I could better identify – my own love missives I shudder at now, buried deep in my inbox. In her Paris Review article, “Love Stories,” Phoebe Connelly recounts her experience of epistolary courtship in the virtual space. She describes her and her lover’s literature–filled correspondence as “long, complicated letters in which the subtext was always desire” (2011, par. 3). This idea that the exchange between Acker and Wark has acted fundamentally as a veil to very real, delicate emotion, is particularly evident towards the end of I’m Very Into You, when Acker confronts Wark about her issues with their exchange. Interestingly, this confrontation is foretold in their writing styles – Wark seems more polished and careful, almost calculated in the way he projects himself. Acker is more unguarded. She barrels forward, her emails a barrage of stream–of–consciousness run–on sentences detailing her daily troubles and mishaps and a more free admission as to how she feels about him.
If private writings service a more complete view of the writer, they are published and read at the potential defacing of the authorial persona’s altar. Viegener admits that had Acker been alive, she would never have agreed to the book’s publication (Acker & Wark 2015, p. 14). He qualifies his decision to publish the exchange by noting that not only was the play of the personal and found material the driving force behind her work, but also that Acker actively “deployed both her life and her body in a sort of performative persona” (Acker & Wark 2015, p. 7). This persona that inhabited Acker’s texts resulted in what Naomi Jacobs calls the proliferation of Acker’s “authorial impersonations,” a continuation of the Avant–garde movement’s use of the body within their work (1989, p. 51). In her recent Paris Review interview, Acker’s contemporary and poet Eileen Myles likens this use of the author’s body as a dare (Lerner 2015, p. 44). On the use of her own name in her poetry, she states that “I have turned my own name into a fake name that inhabits my fictions” (Lerner 2015, p. 45). Acker promoted her iconic persona, not only in her work, but in public life, garnering her both cult fame and cultural capital. However, Viegener points out that towards the end of her career, this persona began to plague her personal life, particularly when it came to potential lovers (Acker & Wark 2015, p. 8). We see this wariness in I’m Very Into You. Within their exchange, Acker, knowing that Wark is familiar with her work, attempts to dismantle the constructs of the public image that precedes her. She warns Wark: “the KATHY ACKER that YOU WANT (as you put it), is another MICKEY MOUSE, you probably know her better than I do” (2015, p. 47). In dressing and re–dressing within the context of flirtation however, both Acker and Wark form and reform new double selves. I couldn’t help noting that the correspondence is an embodiment of what Hélène Cixous refers to as “the theatre of human life” (Cixous 2008, p. 4). Throughout Acker and Wark’s exchange, we see the dichotomous narratives of male/female, butch/femme, dominant/submissive played out, thrown out, and fallen back into. The two participants undress and redress, observing themselves perform the idealised selves they wish to project on the other, note this and attempt to dismantle it, analysing the processes of their drag selves. Each reveals their frustrations with their public personas, while admitting their own hands at creating them.
If we want to know the real Acker, then she is located somewhere in between the friction of these emails and her work. In White Ink, Cixous comments on the impossibility of locating the ‘real’ self, stating that: “I ‘am’ also the sum of ghosts that bear my name in the fantasies of people near or far. We are imagined imaginers” (2008, p. 33). The self resides somewhere in midst of who we think we are, who we’d like to be, how we’d like to be perceived, and how we are perceived. Perhaps this is why, much as we try to avoid them, we inhabit the roles of myth and theatre before us, drawn to echoing familiar gestures to their foreknown conclusions.
In the creation of her persona, Acker’s bravery was in her willingness to use her body and make a monster of the self. This graphic use of the body in Acker’s work has a purpose: the female/queer body’s reclamation. In “A New Myth to Live By,” Amy Nolan quotes Acker in Bodies: she is searching “for the body, my body” (2012, p. 212). Why are we so intrigued by the self outside of the work? Claire MacDonald, writing about Acker’s last work before her death, Eurydice in the Underworld, comments that in the writer’s death, the boundaries between the public and private spheres disintegrate, and “the death of the author liberates the reader into an intimacy with the totality of the writer’s life; the writer belongs to her readers as she is reshaped in the life of their imaginations” (1999, p. 110). This notion is echoed by Viegener, who notes that “everything in Acker’s life was text, including her death” (Acker & Wark 2015, p. 15).
We devour F. Scott Fitzgerald and Saul Bellow’s letters, Jack Kerouac’s notebooks. What are we searching for? A confirmation of madness or traces of genius? In writers’ diaries we want the first drafts, the jotted–down notes, the half–formed seedlings of ideas. We want this because we want the schematics of process, we want to see what potential genius looks like, what didn’t make the published page, we want the author’s fallibilities laid bare so we can measure them against our own. But we also want the burnt–up life, the affairs, the gap between the life and the work. For the titillation of gossip, the seeing of the thing we aren’t supposed to see. We are hungry for the moment when the figure before us believes they have slipped from our gaze. We are especially hungry for this in our icons, whose very bodies become metonymic backbones within their work and our culture. Acker’s work plays with this idea, in both a reclamation of the body and an othering of that body. In the very publication of I’m Very Into You, we see the sacrifice of giving your body over to your art, and grappling with a public who believes they own stock in it. If this text completes this trajectory, then The Blue Tape (1973), is its anterior. A collaboration with Alan Sondheim, it features a documentation of their love affair and a sexual encounter. In texts published while living, Acker was her own producer, controlling both the camera and inhabiting its gaze. I suppose that is what’s intriguing about a text such as this: Acker is no longer in control. In I’m Very Into You we have located a narrow bridge between her public and private selves. We cross that bridge to see how the icon measures up to the self who is finally unaware that we are watching.
Acker, Kathy and McKenzie Wark. 2015. I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e).
Cixous, Hélène & Sellers, Susan. 2008. White Ink: Interviews on Sex, Text and Politics. Stocksfield: Acumen.
Connelly, Phoebe. “Love Stories”. 2011. Parisreview.org. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/10/20/love-stories/.
Jacobs, Naomi. 1989. “Kathy Acker and the Plagiarized Self”. In Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 3: 50–55.
Lerner, Ben. 2015. “Eileen Myles: The Art of Poetry No. 99”. In The Paris Review, Fall: 35–61.
MacDonald, Claire. 1999. “Requiem for the self: Kathy Acker’s final work”. In Women Performance: a journal of feminist theory 10, no. 1–2: 105–116.
Nolan, Amy. 2012. “A New Myth to Live By: The Graphic Vision of Kathy Acker”. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 53, no. 3: 210–213.
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