"Thus the compulsions, repressions, symptoms, etc., are nothing more than the dialectical supersession of lack by reason, by reason as syntax, as language."
"Revolt--its face distorted by amorous ecstasy--tears from God his naive mask, and thus oppression collapses in the crash of time. Catastrophe is that by which a nocturnal horizon is set ablaze, that for which lacerated existence goes into a trance--it is the Revolution--it is time released from all bonds; it is pure change."
Georges Bataille's extravagant description of life torn from the homogeneity of productive existence could be a description of the scenario of Kathy Acker's 1988 novel, _Empire of the Senseless_, though Acker is considerably less sanguine about the possibilities of revolt than Bataille. Like Bataille, however, her fictions employ transgressive sexuality and violence to explore the limits of the homogeneous codes of a society which fetishizes order and reason and construes these impulses in forms which extend the dominion of violence in the many names of the Law of the Father.
It is Acker's belief that the relation between subjectivity, language and the desiring body is best explored at the borders between the rational and the transgressive. In _Empire of the Senseless_, the site for her experiments in structure and subjectivity is a near future Paris, in which the ostensible collapse of patriarchy shatters the unity of the social and releases effects which promise both crisis and opportunity for subjects dislodged from their former identities.
One of Acker's tasks is to identify the traces of normative patriarchy as they emerge in the manufacture of gender and subjectivity and become inscribed in the libidinal economy of the subject. Another is to attempt to imagine the limits of oedipal desire and to pose an alternative myth for contemporary subjects. Essential to each task are strategies for using concepts of identity in ways which demonstrate that oedipal desire belongs to a "culturally and historically determinate Other--to a particular symbolic order, and not one which is universal or absolute." (Silverman, 192) Acker believes that the limits of this "symbolic order" can be highlighted by bringing it into confrontation with transgressive and oppositional values that are unredeemable in the symbolic economy of patriarchy. Following Lacan, Acker thematizes subjectivity within a semiotic problematic, in which the body is imagined as a text organized by the coercive significations of oedipal desires, scripted within the gender and power producing mechanisms which appear foundational in the structure of the family and society.
Acker's account of the gendering of the body represents it as a coercive process for both male and female subjects. It is clear, however, that for Acker most oedipal logic is particularly and unremittingly hostile to female subjects, and that it inevitably subjects women to the threat of male violence and patriarchal domination. However bleak this vision, it is precisely for these reasons that women have more potential to construct means for the criticism and transgression of the taboos built into patriarchal social processes.
The social function of taboo is thus articulated in the subject's relation to her own body and her own desire. For Acker, desire plays a double game. In its oedipal mode it constantly reinforces, even motivates, normative subjectivity. The subject thus described is always "subject to" phallic scenarios of ideological interpellation: subjectivity becomes an endlessly recursive algorithm by which the subject calculates her own lack and its pervasively negative valuation, leading her to seek an imaginary fulfillment in the delusory plenitude of phallic significations.
But the body becomes the privileged site in Acker's work not because it is easily regulated and circumscribed by oedipal interpellation, but because it is not. The narrative stages of subjectivity culminating in oedipal determinations--in theory--take place with a great and unlikely precision, telling a story which relies on a specific and unidirectional flow toward socialization and submission to the dictates of mandated social identities. Resistances to these determinations are firmly censored in the form of repressions and taboos within the family--primarily the incest taboo, which regulates the exchange of women's bodies--and in the larger social laws which mirror and regulate the familial economy in the "name of the father."
The repression of alternative subjectivities and the language-practices by which Acker seeks to represent them are the foundation of her purposeful linking of body and text. The image of the subject as the focus of multiple and conflicting social texts is doubled by an image of the body as the seat of equally incommensureable pleasures--creating the potential for "heterogeneous" conjunctions exceeding the normative prescriptions of "homogeneous" society. This heterogeneity of the relation between subject and body provides the warrant for her assault on identity in its rationalist and subjectivist forms. In _Empire of the Senseless_ subjugation is shattered by "criminal" languages, desires and pleasures, and the unitary subject explodes along multiple vectors of language and sensation in a splitting which finally begins to defy recuperation within the dialectic of castration which produces gender and identity as its product. The uncertainties and paradoxes of identity become, in _Empire of the Senseless_, tools for imagining resistance and freedom.
Acker's early fiction addressed questions of identity in the crucible of the authorial subject. Characterized by fragmentation, plagiarism and a radical suspicion toward the subject-effects inherent in narrative, Acker's literary methods--from _The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula_ to _Great Expectations_, _Don Quixote_, and _Blood and Guts in High School_--can be read as experiments "about identity in terms of language," leading to the conclusion that identity is "a false problem because its a thing that's made...I was splitting the I into false and true I's and I just wanted to see if this false I was more or less real than the true I...and of course there's no difference." (Acker, _Hannibal Lector, My Father_, 7) Despite this contention, in an environment still dominated by the regularities of traditional "authority," Acker's "calving" identities and plagiarized, composite subjectivities remain a key strategy in her later writing.
As such her seeming hostility to identity does not lead to the potential cynicism of (for instance) a Baudrillard, and a subject dissolved in the white noise of corporate postmodernism. For Acker, loss of identity is a condition, not a proposition--therefore opposition must be enacted utilizing the tools made available by the fact of this loss. Acker accepts the dictum of French poststructuralism that the logos to which contemporary identity must be referred is in "crisis"; that this may represent a crisis of Western rationality and its forms of civilization in general; and that the subject is sutured to the concept of identity only through the endless recapitulation of oedipal codes and processes. As this crisis becomes a feature of self-reflection, the stable identity of mythic self-hood becomes a wavering mirage, causing the subject the immense pain and confusion of desire infinitely deferred. But amidst this infinite mortgaging of self, Acker argues that the very ex-centricity of our regime of dislocation and absolute difference presents new opportunities for the construction of previously impossible narratives of new desires and, therefore, new kinds of subjectivities.
In _Empire of the Senseless_ Acker initiates an experiment in narrative and subjectivity. In her previous work, narrative had been considered as the property of the domain of phallocentric authority. Strongly influenced by William Burrough's "cut-up" writing, Acker deconstructed the hegemonic complicity of authorship and narrative in experiments with plagiarism designed to shatter social syntax at the site of signification. These works are, in the terms of Deleuze & Guattari, purely "rhizomatic" arrangements of "variously formed materials, of various dates and speeds" (Deleuze & Guattari, _A Thousand Plateaus_, 2), implicating and renovating canonical and transgressive texts on complex literary bodies. For Deleuze & Guattari, all books are potentially rhizomes, and "hence unattributable" to a subject, because the attribution of a book inserts it into an identitarian mode of cultural reception, a "functional...means of classification" (Foucault, 123) which allows interpretation to return comfortably and repeatedly to scripts of closure available within the patriarchal economy of knowledge. For Acker, the rhizome becomes a writing practice addressed to the task of a new reading of social relationality. One efficacy of thinking the rhizome is that interpretation under its sign refuses the blockages and one-way streets of oedipal attribution and its redundant determinations in order to focus on "relations of exteriority" among a given work's diverse materials. Acker's early works, with their "decentralized structures" which the reader "can read wherever they want" (Acker, _HL_, 15) echo Deleuze & Guattaris' conception of the "multiple entrances" of the "map or rhizome" (D&G, _On the Line_, 32), though her emphasis on re-making identity rather than denying its existence absolutely remains at odds with the radically stochastic impetus of Deleuzian metaphysics. Both take as their goal the confounding of the "Oedipal and paranoid formations" which characterize traditional productions of narrative subjectivity, but Acker's experiments attempt to move this task one step farther by seeking practical opportunities and images for the new formations that might be built on the ruined sites of oedipal phantasms.
In _Empire of the Senseless_, however, Acker requires narrative for the production of alternative stories of subjectivity. Combining the anti-oedipal strategies of her earlier work with the oedipal risks of narrative often makes for a language practice of formidable complexity. Acker makes narrative work against itself as a tactical carrier-wave for an attempt to "make the kind of myth that would be applicable to me and my friends." (_HL_, 18) Such a myth would enact a kind of "guerilla warfare" to "see what makes sense at the moment." (17) If in its hegemonic form narrative is a stabilizing agent which repeats, reinforces and inculcates the desire for identity and unity, Acker's usage makes it only one element among many--a tool, not a paradigm--in her "attempt to find a myth, a place, not the myth, the place." ("A Few Notes on Two of My Books," 35) The ultimate goal of such a myth would be to imagine life in a non-logocentric world of difference which not only does not depend on the validation of the Law of the Father but which refuses, as much as possible, the pressure of the oedipally mandated identities imposed by the "property structure of reality" (_HL_, 23) and communicated in the expressive structures of language and desire.
_Empire of the Senseless_ is set in what is presumably a near-future post-revolutionary Paris, in which, in Robert Siegle's description, "the much-prophesied apocalypse of Western Culture has already happened, but Suburbia didn't notice." (107) The first major section, entitled "Elegy for the World of the Fathers" pieces together a representation of that world from strands of family melodrama, violence and scandal. As Acker describes it, the purpose of this section is "the description of the society defined by the oedipal taboo." ("A Few Notes," 35) The plot introduces and describes Abhor, the novel's female protagonist, and her male partner and adversary, Thivai and represents the beginnings of the death of oedipal society in a vision of revolution carried out by Algerians in Paris. In this section, Acker explains, her goal is to write "an elegy for the world of patriarchy. I wanted to take the patriarchy and kill the father on every level. And I did that partially by finding out what was taboo and rendering it in words." ("A Few Notes," 17) Themes of family relations are written in terms of prostitution, incest, and sadism, and Acker's language continually slashes at and interrupts the narrative structures she considers complicit with patriarchal reason and oedipal violence.
In the second part of the novel, Acker confronts the formidable task of imagining the post-revolutionary world and the new forms of subjectivity that might be engendered by such an event: "The second part of the book concerns what society would look like if it weren't defined by the oedipal taboo." ("A Few Notes," 35)
Acker's attempt to represent post-oedipal relationships, is, however, blocked by the intercession of an new oedipus also apparently freed from the dialectic of identity, content to operate on the post-subjective "digital" realm of the signifier/signified relationship while human subjects repeat oedipally mandated scenarios of violence and loss in the absence of any "reason" to do so. As Acker continues, "Unfortunately, the CIA intervenes: I couldn't get there. I wanted to get there but I couldn't." ("A Few Notes," 17) The CIA represents and enforces the impossibility of imagining a world outside the codes of representation which structure every social aspect of the subject's corporal existence. The CIA becomes the police force of multinational capitalism and the leader of the Algerian Revolutionary Police, suggesting that revolutionary desire is always recuperated by its own oedipal structuration. Though "The Algerian revolution has succeeded" (_ES_, 109), it becomes immediately evident that "the Algerian revolution had changed nothing." (110)
The final stage in the novel's anti-oedipal project involves the construction of new myths to replace or circumvent the signifying prerogative of oedipus. This is the subject of "Pirate Night," the novel's final section. Against the impossibility of completely effacing patriarchy's desire-writing of subjectivity, Acker constructs new myths for autonomy clustered around bodies imagined as multifarious and desire imagined as productive and explosive. Images and stories of pirates, tattoos and criminality represent attempts to redirect subjectivity on a tangent to oedipal closure and to imagine a anti-logos of the tactical, a myth for making-do through the construction of "derelict spaces" (Massumi, 104) of freedom and autonomy, if not privilege and signification. The world of the subject in the indifferent regime of the "unending growth of multinational capitalism" is reduced (or rather expanded) to "just tactics, to how." (_ES_, 126) Acker is no longer interested in a utopian claim of success or closure for her experiment in senselessness--such a claim would merely constitute a new regime of sense and homogeneity. Thus the novel ends witht he achievment of ambivalence: in Acker's words, "with the hints of a possibility or a beginning: the body, the actual flesh, almost wordless, romance, the beginning of a movement from no to yes, from nihilism to myth." ("A Few Notes," 36)
Acker's book is a series of suggestive category-errors: a novel which simultaneously inhabits and refuses narrative emplotment; a writing which is also a stealing or borrowing from other writing; an assemblage of ill-fitting parts which exist to generate absolute contradictions in an open-ended play of false identity and non-identity. Contradictions are not exposed to be subsumed or transcended, but remain in motion on the surface of the work as enactment of her anti-identitarian language game. In the terms of Deleuze & Guattari, _Empire of the Senseless_ is a rhizomatic desiring-machine rather than an "arborescent" or identitarian one. It is dependent for its motive force on the destabilization of the very categories of self-hood and desire around which normative subjectivity is oriented.
What emerges from the experience of _Empire of the Senseless_ is a sense of a resistance to codification which forces the reader to take pleasure in the understanding that singularity and contradiction exist unresolved and proliferate in productive ways even within the constraining grids of an overcoded world. Acker's tactical practice provides a rich store for imagining new beliefs (for, as Deleuze states, belief and desire are always linked), among them the belief that it is possible not to desire one's own oppression. This is one aspect of the politics of anti-identitarian writing: that disbelief in the dominant symbolic economy is possible, and that a refusal of belief can create more than a specular image of hegemony, in a new register for subjectivity where desire is freed from the architecture of the paradigm and into the tactics of pathfinding. The question to ask of Acker's writing is not "does it work?," but rather, "does it *do* work," does it instigate new relations, fewer conclusions, more and more partial models of synthesis and disjunction--is it pragmatic? In my final section I attempt, somewhat paradoxically, to represent how some of Acker's images function to destabilize identity in language and to indicate some of the parameters of her complex and ambivalent struggle to supercede the dictates of the oedipal code.
"The whole world," Abhor writes to Thivai near the end of the novel, "is men's bloody fantasies." (210) In _Empire of the Senseless_, these fantasies are often miraculated on Abhor's body, from which blood flows freely, on many occasions, throughout the novel. Penetrations and cuts generally induce the flow of blood, which is in turn linked to pain and desire. Often such bodily insults are the result of "oedipal" or patriarchal violence, but the link between desire and pain and control creates a situation in which Abhor, of necessity, must create self out of conditions made available by catastrophe and brutality. Since for the oedipal subject, (in the words of Abhor's male partner Thivai) desire and pain are the same, the beginning of a post-oedipal subjectivity hangs on the problem of using desire/pain in such a way as to begin to recognize pleasures not caught in this circuit of bodily abjection. Any technique for imagining alternatives to oedipal self-hood requires, as Abhor comes to understand, that "I, whoever I was, was going to be a construct." (33) By imagining this construction as a self-authorization rather than ideological interpellation, Abhor begins to imagine subjectivity as something taken rather than something which occurs or is mandated, a becoming rather than an object of signification.
The problematic of construction is one of exteriority posed against the interiority of the oedipal subject, and of an awareness of the gap that exists between the internalization of the desiring-economy and of an exteriority saturated by oedipal determinations but which it is possible to detourne in the name of a kind of freedom or autonomy. Abhor plays in the irreconcilable gap between ideological interiority and its exterior determinations. A scene in which Abhor is raped by her father makes a image bundle of these themes: "After he put the phone receiver down on the table, he put his cock up me." (12)
The matter-of-fact realism of Acker's representation of the rape in a quotidian narrative syntax exemplifies a view of social grammar in which any action might end in some form of rape. In this syntax, there is a subject using an object--in this case, the object quality is extended to the mediation of the phallus itself--the father uses the phallus to discipline the female child.
But Abhor under-"cuts" the violence of the scene, referring its closure to her own body: "There was no more blood than a period." Blood becomes a manageable function of Abhor's female body. Her evaluation of the act of rape begins by multiplying the function of blood--"deterritorializing" it from the scene of the violence of penetration and freeing it, as an image, for use in other contexts, nonetheless retaining and stabilizing its partial function as a signifier of male violence. Ambivalence becomes, in some sense, a productive function of the sign at particular moments with particular force. Far from debilitating the subject in search of some construction of identity, the ambivalence of signs becomes a token of a nascent freedom of desire.
In Acker's text meaning is cut--certainly "senselessness" begins by reflecting knowledge, but its unfolding in different contexts sets in motion a series of effects which are not contradictory, but incommensureable with the meanings, the oedipus, which still calls to it from the other side. To say at this point--'you're just talking about castration again" describes a possible world, but does not describe the only such world. For such a world would tolerate non-meaning only insofar as it remains a negative image, a contradiction, the mere outlaw which reinforces the presence of the Law. But to drag each singular denial of the rational back to oedipus is tantamount to a philosophical claim that non-rationality only occurs in one relation to the rational, in one variety of anti-meaning: this is the dialectical claim, par excellence. It seems that Acker's position is that possible worlds do not exist in dialectical suspension only. Rather, they proliferate through a variety of strategies of differentiation, and so it is with Acker's texts.
To make a new subject, we must knock the binary down to a level where it is only one of many possible worlds of meaning, even if we can only begin to understand what that might imply. To undermine dialectical semiology is to question the restriction of desire to a negative image of subjectivity--Acker's project is precisely to free desire from its oedipal/genital determinants, which is a different thing than saying that such determnants do not exist, or that they do not exert force on subjectivity. Yet we can, through Acker's struggle with language and Abhor's struggle with the laws of desire, begin to imagine, even anticipate, a subjectivity that is something taken, rather than something that fills an inert form only to empty it out over and over again. Identity in this imagining is neither the fixation of identity nor its anarchic pulverization, but a self which partakes of a scavenger ethic: old tools released to new uses, in a series of unanticipated worlds united only by a strategy of continual differentiation, freed from the homeostatic entropy of the Freudian death drive.
When we link the blood in the scene recounted above with that of an earlier violence, the motion of Acker's signifying becomes, in a sense, traceable, if not "realistically" imaginable:
"He taught me a final trick. He showed me how to insert a razor blade in my wrist just for fun. Not for any other reason. Thus, I learned how to approach and understand nature." (9)
The violence of the father in this scene writes a gratuitous discipline on Abhor's body, but it is a discipline immediately appropriated by Abhor to initiate a process of "understanding" rooted in pain and death as both inevitable outcomes of her relations with men (for the male subject, "desire and pain "re the same" ) and as limit experiences which enable a movement toward complexity exceeding oedipal dictates: "Daddy left me no possibility of easiness. He forced me to live among nerves sharper than razor blades, to have no certainties. There was only roaming...I trusted him for this complexity." (10) "Understanding nature" becomes a parodic, but productive reading of male violence and its presumed naturalness in "the order of things" but at one and the same time, Acker disconnects it from its oppressive function, reconnecting it in another series of signs, one which begins with Abhor's claiming of her grandmother's "stubborness and determination" for herself.
As we have seen in Abhor's grandmother's case, the play between signification and appropriation, oppression and something which might move toward pleasure and freedom exceeds the realm of hegemonic signification. The possibility of freedom is, in the radically ambivalent semiosis of the novel, the "complexity" into which Abhor's violent victimization frees her. The scene of incestuous rape serves multiple functions in the death of the father, and serves them simultaneously. The incest, which is socially repressed precisely for its implication in the field of oedipal desire, indirectly causes the death of Abhor's father because it violates social norms, not because of its violence to Abhor as a person. However, in terms of Abhor's subjectivity, it instantiates both the virtual and, for that, no less "actual" status of oedipal violence within her field of perception. The result of this is a gap separating Abhor's understanding of the imaginary and oppressive nature of the law of the father and the rape which supposedly violates that law, but which only desublimates its violence and links it to the structures of heterosexual desire as described in the field of the father. The rape ends with Abhor's profoundly ambivalent insight into this problematic, which drives her subjectivity through this gap in the law: "Part of me wanted him and part of me wanted to kill him." (12)
Abhor's fragmentation--the cuts in her wrist as well as the penetration of rape--initiates a complex series of signs which resist reading narratively, that is to say, morally, for such a reading demands a juridical evaluation--perhaps even a readerly revenge fantasy--which Acker's language refuses to enable. What Abhor feels for her father is both paradoxical and true. While the "cuts"--the writing of the body from the "exterior"--begin a sequence in which self-oppression is as likely an outcome as freedom for Abhor, it is these logics of social determination and fragmentation which provide Abhor's only tools at hand for the pursuit of "pleasure"--which "only gathers in freedom." (12)
These tools are of use only at the cost of patriarchal society, for such a society would mandate Abhor's victimization and assimilate her from the dysfunction of her family's law into the larger social symbolic economy in a perverse play on oedipal subjectivation. As a woman, this process would remove her from the status of her father's chattel to the Father's chattel, as, in the Freudian scenario, oedipus ends for women as it begins, with the desire for the father "in all his disguises." Acker's project places pressure on this circuit in order to articulate something different, and it is through the ambivalence of the "cut" that this difference may be partially articulated.
The scene of rape is followed immediately and improbably by a dream. In this dream, "blood lying over the ocean" (12) becomes a light source allowing Abhor to see "visions" of freedom which extend the possibility of pleasure and prophecy, or possibly enact, the revolution which results in the death of the fathers:
"After years of regular torture, boredom replacing all other metal activity, continuous fear, forgetfulness of all dreams to the point of the inability to dream, to have visions...suddenly the people in this city were free. They were free to experiment." (13)
Contained within the dream, as if in parentheses, is a critical "aphorism" in which Abhor names the problematic of reason and freedom as the stakes of any subjectivity, as well as a version of romantic critique of that problematic which echoes, albeit abstractly, the story of Alexander and Nana:
"The German Romantics had to destroy the same bastions that we do. Logocentrism and idealism, theology, all supports of a repressive society. Property's pillars. Reason which always homogenizes and reduces, represses and unfies phenomena or actuality into what can be perceived and so controlled...The subjects, us, are now stable and socializable." (12)
The situation is familiar, though we have been using a different set of terms for it. This paragraph seeks a "revolutionary" resolution which arises from the operation of desire and identification:
"Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified...The German Romantics sung brazenly, brassily of spending and waste. They cut through conservative narcissism with bloody razor blades. They tore the subject away from her subjection to herself, the proper, dislocated you the puppet: cut the threads of meaning; spit at the mirrors which control." (12)
Two things to note in this paragraph: it takes place in an historical past, but in the terms of mythic collectivities of hegemony and opposition; and, as per Acker's description of mythic narrative, where "people aren't sure they can define their genders. That's the way you feel in mythical stories." (_HL_, 23), Abhor dreams of the liberation of female subjects, a liberation which certainly does not occur in the "historical" record defined by the story. Indeed, perhaps most importantly at the novel's diegetic level, is that, for all the cutting and slashing, patriarchy and reason did not fall either, for they exist, on Abhor's body, even as she dreams. Torn away from its triumphal rhetoric, the story of the German Romantics becomes an occasion for the assessment of tools, a place to begin and not an alibi for an ending, as the whole narrative thrust of the paragraph would have us read. The story becomes an image of thought, with successes and failures built into the structure of its telling--an instruction manual for the use of razor blades and mirrors, not a road to follow to a pre-destination.
Thus, the ecsatasy of Abhor's vision cannot be trusted to escape the violence it releases, and Abhor realizes, in her dream, that her vision of a collective impulse to freedom is not entirely utopian, but that freedom is the name of a process which begins, if at all, on the body always already subjected to the symbolic regime of oedipus:
"There was no such thing as rescue. There could have been no reality. I had only myself to save myself. I couldn't save myself...Inside my mind I scream aloud; inside my mind, the world, I scream aloud. Somewhere I am female and I have long hair and that hair is floating over soil so dry, for centuries, that nothing ever grows in it." (13)
When one begins to talk of cuts, the current of critical signification flows all too quickly toward images and signs clustered around themes of castration. Acker's work with the image, as I have begun to explore it, does not deny the valence of castration, but incorporates it in new series of meanings, while turning it against itself in an implosive procedure of over-coding. Castration move from the position of dominant meaning in this series to the debilitated level of self-parody. As Acker teaches us to read complexly--to cut ourselves off from "easiness" of meaning in the name of imagining tactics of language, we can see castrations working against themselves, in unexpected directions, providing opportunity and violence, and meaning and a motor for new, pleasure-oriented desires. Castration becomes at once polymorphous and irreducible--that which, even in its de-centered, Lacanian forms it cannot be and retain its rhetorical privilege, a privilege which I believe Acker writes as nominal, not necessary.
It is an interesting and often paradoxical choice, imagining the operation of cutting both as an aspect of the Lacanian "castrations" which produce meaning and reason, and the Freudian castration which constitutes a clearer image of violence and threat. Images of cuts, penetrations and cracks are persistent in the philosophical texts of French poststructuralism, and are generally linked to castrative moments and themes. However, the analyses which accompany these images often repress the threat of the cut in favor of a bloodless textuality. Derrida's use of this image in the text "The Scission," in _Dissemination_ seems a typical theoretical reading of this image:
"Castration--always at stake--and the self-presence of the present...But the pen, when you have followed it to the end, will have been turned back into a knife. The present can only present itself as such by relating back to itself...only reach itself if it breaches itself, (com)plying with itself in the angle, along a...[brisure]: in the release of a latch or the trigger. Presence is never present...Such will have been the relation between presence and castration in play and at stake." (302-3)
If indeed it is not possible to dispense once and for all with the hegemony of the Signifier it is because the movement of castration persists in both time and space--in the imaginary self presence of text. This is where we can locate Acker's simultaneous reversal of and reliance on post-structuralist theorizations. If Derrida and his others rely on the bloodlessness of the textual to enact theories which diligently analogize text and body, it can be argued that Acker makes a counter-claim on this analogy to show the results of the "textuality" of the body as blood and pain and struggle, not symbolic castration and lack.
Luce Irigaray formulates the problem of the cut in a way which remains rather abstract, but which gets us a little closer to the use value of the image of the cut, if still in a "castrative," critical formulation:
"So there is, for women, no possible law for their pleasure. No more than there is any possible discourse. Cause, effect, goal...law and discourse form a single system. Women's enjoyment is--for them, but always according to him--essentially anarchic and a-teleological. Sexual pleasure is engulfed...in the body of the Other. It is 'produced' because the Other, in part, escapes the grasp of discourse. Phallicism compensates for this discursive crisis, sustaining itself upon the the Other, nourishing itself with the Other, desiring itself through the Other...A barrier, a break, a fantasmatic cutting-out, a signifying economy, an order, a law, govern the enjoyment of the body of the Other." (95-8)
Certainly, Irigaray's formulation offers one sense to Acker's cuts. My reading of this passage is extremely selective, but once again we see the patriarchal anlysis of the "cut" as a surgery or removal which allows "phallicism" to desire itself through the body of the other, thus creating a symbolic economy through which the female subject on the oedipal circuit has no desire other than the Father's. "The only person I wanted was my father" (10) says Abhor at one point. The play between the Father and father creates the diegetic situation in _Empire of the Senseless_ in which the father, by violating Abhor, breaks the Law of the Father as it is instantiated in the family, creating a cut which on one side is described as "Part of me wanted him" and on the other as "part of me wanted to kill him." This semantic cutting plays back Abhor's "razor blade" complexity on either side of the oedipal divide: part of me wanted him is part of the censored oedipal scene; part of me wanted to kill him is another part.
But on this latter side of the sentence, the potential violence against the father is a first step, but only gets the subject so far, as exemplified in the story of the German romantics as I have read it. The father's violations--by razor and by phallus--free these impulses: the father eventually falls to the product of his own violence. But what counts for Abhor is, ultimately, the oscillation between two impossible desires and her blood which flows between them; the existence of the paradox on her body, and the clarity with which she is led to oppose Thivai's "desire and pain're the same" with her own "pleasure gathers only in freedom." As embodied in this dualism, Abhor begins to seek pleasure through freedom, not oedipally mandated desires, and certainly not the "normal" regime of sexual desire, though certainly such desire always already inhabits her body:
"It's just that every time a guy's screwed me more than twice, he's thought he could tell me what to do. Since I had to fight the fucker for my own power, my life: I either gave up the fuck or gave up myself. Usually myself cause I like fucking so much...I don't want to be fucked up, no more, thank you, sir...In order to live again, I had to stop fucking the fucker." (126-7)
"No wonder," Abhor continues, "heterosexuality a bit resembles rape." (127) As she struggles to enunciate her own pleasure, Abhor begins to define her own female pleasure in a way which, following Irigaray's critical construction of the hegemony of law in sexual pleasure, produces anti-sense, or a sense outside the binary cutting of patriarchy:
"Physical pleasure can only be pleasurable if it is pleasurable, not the cause of fighting and suffering all the time...A man's power resides in his prick. That's what they, whoever they is, say...what and where is my power? Since I don't have one thing, a dick, I've got nothing, so my pleasure isn't one thing, it's just pleasure. Therefore, pleasure must be pleasurable. Well, maybe I've found out something, and maybe I haven't." (127)
The recognition of the separation between pleasure and desire serves as another "cutting out," but it is also--in a mock Lacanian movement--a construction of a site of subjectivation, an entry into a certain level of meaning. If this revelation is ambivalent (maybe, maybe not), we can recognize it as an aspect of Acker's practice: she won't attach herself to any dialectic for too long. The tautology "pleasure must be pleasureable," with the parodic logical operator "therefore" constructs a useable proposition for Abhor, but one which oscillates between the registers of parody and resistance and disallows any conclusion, any final closure to the problem of pleasure. Pleasure remains a problem for Abhor, no more natural or liberatory in its opposition to pain than any other tactic. It is not, however, located in a "dick," but must be sought and struggled for in, what is for Abhor, a territory without maps.
As Abhor struggles to construct pleasure as the motor for her "progress" as an autonomous, though fragmented self, Thivai plays out scenes of desublimated male subjectivity. He imagines himself as a terrorist, a criminal, a rapist; but only the last category captures the persistence of patriarchy in the novel. The relation between Abhor and Thivai becomes a sort of "fort/da" game played with Abhor's body, as Abhor escapes only to return or be "rescued" by Thivai:
"Why do you want to find a woman?
Because I had Abhor on a string and the string was tied around my little finger...I need to pull strings.
(My cock got hard. Thinking about it.)" (61)
For Thivai, thinking is always related to a "hard cock" and to violence, and reason serves as the alibi for the narcissism which makes Abhor the property through which Thivai recognizes himself and his desires. Though, there are "no more bosses," Thivai continues to live out their traits and stories: "What are we going to do now there are no more bosses?" he asks Abhor, but, without pausing, enacts the very impulse on which the regime of the bosses is erected: "I've got you. Now, I'm your owner." (82)
In the fort/da game, it is in the opposition between "here" and "gone," and the string pulled by the little boy that desire is, in Lacan's terms, raised to "a second power" in the realm of language and the symbolic:
"If the child now addresses himself to an imaginary or a real partner, he will also see this partner obey the negativity of his discourse...he will seek in a banishing summons the provocation of the return that brings the partner back to his desire. Thus the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing, and this death constitutes in the subject the eternalization of his desire." (103-4)
"Our code was death," Abhor interprets; but for Abhor, unlike Thivai, the symbolic game presents no subjectivist benefits: 'I needed new instructions.' (56) Her encounters with Thivai convince her that 'the Algerian revolution had changed nothing,' and it is this realization which allows her to play against Thivai's desiring game, as she becomes more autonomous--less death driven--with each escape. Once again, such escapes are always provisional, and rife with recidivism and struggle. These escapes put Abhor into contact with a series of mythic stories and images, many related to the "cuts" elaborated earlier, through which Abhor gains some degree of autonomy and freedom through the articulation of the 'smooth space' of a desire imagined as productive and affirmative. In Deleuze and Guattari's terms, the products of such desire are life affirming rather than death driven--they are the products of a "nomadology," not a subjectivity.
For Acker, there is no simple rejection of patriarchy, for it inhabits the body in the form of subjectivity, just as there is no simple rejection of the sense-making forms of language:
"Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy languages which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning. But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions." (134)
Here, the language of the cut privileges its patriarchal usage: nonsense cuts language in two in a general, rational way, constructing nonsense as the "other," as the counter-body on which rationality depends. However, this passage is embedded in one of the novel's most profound "autonomous zones," in an analysis of the relation between pain and pleasure in the "cutting" of a tattoo into skin. This image is only witnessed by Abhor, who retells the story of a sailor and the tattooist in terms which stress the voluntary exchange of pain and art which enjoin the two in a gift relationship; a voluntary and mutual signification:
"As the other man and he backed away from each other, as if they were engaged in a ritual, they drew closer to each other. The expectation of the pain the other man would be giving him, a gift, made Agone able to rely on the other man. The complicity of friendship is pain." (136)
Acker leaves this image in a relatively unformed state. She is not necessarily prescribing that everyone get a tattoo--this narrative serves as a "mythic" image of relationality, and an extension of Acker's dictum that "body is just more text." The relation between the two participants is complex and specific--as an aesthetic, it cements the relation between artist and an art "object" imbued with consciousness and autonomy. It is mutual, participatory and binding, requiring a high degree of trust--a symbolic, rather than an economic exchange. The tattoo is the aesthetic conferral of a mutual and collaborative signification which is constituted and continually reconstituted in an "infinite succession of local operations." (D&G, _Nomadology_, 55) This both from the point of view of the tattooist, who enters into multiple exchanges, and in the tattooed, who re-invents his or her life in the outlaw status of this continual and mobile signification--which always signifies from a new "site" of expression and subjectivity, and always enters into new constellations of relations, creating a tactical space of communication on the body. The tattoo, as Acker's mythic image of thought, initiates an infinite series of imaginative and potential realizations of subjectivity--actualizations which do not return obsessively to patriarchal signage.
Acker emphasises her intention that this signification be non-phallic by describing the encounter in terms which explicitly deny the closure of patriarchal narrative and sexuality:
"...the power of the tattoo became intertwined with the power of those who chose to live beyond the norms of society. In the same manner, normal society had ruled that he shouldn't touch another man, but he was, that he shouldn't love another man, but he was. The realm of the outlaw has become redefined: today, the wild places which excite the most profound thinkers are conceptual. Flesh unto flesh. Mouth on mouth. Cock on cock. Agone pulled away from the tattooer before either of them came because he didn't want to reach any port." (140)
This scene echoes Deleuze & Guattari's notion of the "plateau," a non-narrative site of continual intensity, reaching no end, desiring no "little death," but only the pleasures of mobility and continuation. This is Acker's conception of an image of self-hood not enslaved to oedipal determinations, of a concept "desire" which creates a new space outside the to and fro of desire and lack:
"He was amazed how indirect his human soul was: how there were goals of desire, objects of desire, resting places, beds, and he never sailed to these places directly. There were no straight routes, except by chance. Rather the soul travelled in such turns and windings, that a world was found defined. The soul created out of its own desires." (136)
The cut is translated from oedipal violence and masochism to an exercise in self-discipline which finds its ultimate unfolding in the extensive and interpersonal discipline of trust--and the multiple cuts--of the tattoo. This is one of the things that might happen when we disconnect the cut from its investment in the castration series of meanings--though these meanings coexist with the others I am speaking about, in a certain register of interpretation, it would be perverse to prioritize this interpretation in view of Acker's apparently anti-oedipal stance.
Roland Barthes' formulation of the "cut" provides a reading possibly more appropriate to Acker's conception in the dual proximity it affords to the explicit concerns of the themes of _Empire of the Senseless_, especially to the relation between text and body, desire and pleasure. Barthes, in reference to a text of Sade's (a writer Acker cites as a primary source of oedipal "intertexts" for _Empire of the Senseless_ [_HL_, 18]), writes a passage which could have been written about Acker:
"...pornographic messages are embodied in sentences so pure they might be used as grammatical models. As textual theory has it: the language is redistributed. Now such redistribution is always achieved by cutting. Two edges are created: an obedient, conformist, plagiarizing edge (the language is to be copied in its canonical state, as it has been established by schooling, good usage, literature, culture) and another edge, mobile, blank, (ready to assume any contours), which is never anything but the site of its effect: the place where the death of language is glimpsed. These two edges, the compromise they bring about, are necessary. Neither culture not its destruction is erotic; it is the theme between them, the fault, the flaw, which becomes so." (6-7)
For Acker, we remember, the "body's more text" (_HL_, 21), a proposition, which, in the case of Barthes, once again serves to privilege text as the source of erotic pleasure. In Acker's text, however, the flow is reversed, and the body is the degree zero of cultural inscription--the death of language, the blank edge. The compromise, however, implies a juridical bearing which moves away from Acker's work toward the mobile edge of the outsider, of the heterogeneity of the body, of language, and, therefore, of the subject.
It is through the many forms of the cut in _Empire of the Senseless_ and their diverse symbolic functioning that Acker begins to articulate the potential for a new economy of subjectivity. In everything above, cuts produce meaning, cuts produce language--but they never are referred to pain, or to the blood of the Other who is their repressed victim. Acker will not allow the body to undergo the conflation of pain and pleasure in the symbolic economy of desire. The pain of the cut must be re-directed toward the flight from pain, the ascesis of endurance--it must become an anti-oedipal motor. By the end of the novel Abhor has learned that desire and pain are do not, in fact, need to be the same, and that this ambivalent knowledge is one possible pathway to "a society which wasn't just disgust." (227)
Acker's experimentation in _Empire of the Senseless_ shows evidence of the modulations of a language which reveal its construction as a trait or rhetoric of exteriority; her theories work through several models of opposition, to contest as many of the "many vectors that define the abstraction process" (De Landa, 177) as possible and multiply analytical levels in the pursuit of "killing the father on every level." This is a brand of "molecular" politics that seems well suited to contesting the changing faces of power in the many names of heterogeneity.
Acker, Kathy. _The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula_. New York: Grove Press.1973.
Acker, Kathy. _Blood and Guts in High School_. New York: Grove Press. 1984, c1978.
Acker, Kathy. _Great Expectations_. New York: Grove Press. 1983, c1982.
Acker, Kathy. _Don Quixote, Which Was a Dream_. New York: Grove Press. 1986.
Acker, Kathy. _Empire of the Senseless_. New York: Grove Press. 1988.
Acker, Kathy. "A Few Notes on Two of My Books" in _The Review of Contemporary Fiction_. Vol. 9, No. 3 (Fall, 1989): 31-36.
Acker, Kathy. _Hannibal Lecter, My Father_. New York: Semiotext[e]. 1992.
Barthes, Roland. _The Pleasure of the Text_. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang.
Bataille, Georges. _Visions of Excess_. Trans. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1985.
De Landa, Manuel. "Policing the Spectrum," in _Zone 1/2_. Ed. Crary, Feher & Kwinter. Cambridge: MIT Press, (1986): 176-93.
Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. _On the Line_. Trans. John Johnston. New York: Semiotext(e). 1983.
Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. _Nomadology_. Trans. Brian Massumi. New York: Semiotext(e). 1986.
Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. _A Thousand Plateaus_. Trans. Brian Massumi. Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.
Derrida, Jacques. _Dissemination_. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1979.
Foucault, Michel. _Language, Counter-Memory, Practice_. Trans. Donald Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1977.
Irigaray, Luce. _This Sex Which Is Not One_. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1985.
Lacan, Jacques. _Ecrits: A Selection_. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1977.
Massumi, Brian. _A User's Guide to Capitalism & Schizophrenia_. Cambridge: MIT Press/Zone Books. 1992.
Siegle, Robert. _Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing & the Fiction of Insurgency_. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. 1989.
Silverman, Kaja. _The Subject of Semiotics_. New York: Oxford University Press. 1983.