A CONVERSATION WITH KATHY ACKER
_SPEED_ (Benjamin Bratton): I have always found that part of what makes your texts so engaging is the way they are always about their own construction, as well as the way that the literary apparatus produces myths about itself. How do you see "myth" operating in your work?
KATHY ACKER: The way I talk about myth is in terms of narratives. I was never interested in narratives until fairly recently when I started writing _Empire of the Senseless_ and I realized I could come to an end. I think that I see not only writing, but all that is presented to us, in terms of text. Until _Empire of the Senseless_ I was basically interested (except in my very early stuff), in taking texts apart to see how they worked when meshed together with other bits and pieces of writing. I had come to the end of certain areas of what's called "Postmodernist theory." I began thinking that there is enough taking apart already. The society in which I grew up, the very hypocritical society of the 50's, is over with, and now everything is very surface, knowable. So, there's no reason to have to constantly take things apart and investigate them to see how they work. What we really need is some kind of instruction. I greatly distrust the usual bourgeois linear narrative of the 19th century, where the reader identifies with the character and the character goes through various moral crises. So I was searching structurally for a new kind of narrative, and that's when I became very interested in myths. Myths were narratives that were presented prior to that whole bourgeois structure.
BB: But it's part of it as well.
KA: Well, not really...
BB: There are bourgeois myths. One of them is some kind of notion of the transparency of narrative depiction that you were talking about.
KA: I'm using myth in another sense. I was trained as a Classicist and I was brought up on the old Greek stuff. In the tradition I was taught--the classical Greek drama--the way myth operated bordered on "community." The play started with the sun coming up and ended with the sun going down, and it worked with the natural time of the whole collective, who would all come out to partake of the event. Even the slaves were allowed in to go through a catharsis, which was something that was not true in bourgeois society. There were very different relationships between art and community. I've always seen art as being something active (or hopefully so, god knows we're marginalized out of existence these days). Ideally, art and the political processes of the community should be interwoven. Of course, it's not, but I was looking for models where it was, and one was where you had certain narrative structures called myths. I don't think you can say the same thing about bourgeois society. In my mind the great bourgeois heroes are in a lineage that starts with Rimbaud, which is about the alienation of the artist from the political processes. That's what Baudelaire was announcing in a very loud voice. This is also, of course, based on the patriarchy of the society. So I was looking for these kinds of narrative structures, what do they look like? Could I use them? I mean obviously I'm living in a bourgeois or post-bourgeois world. It seemed to me this was about daily life. I'm not just some "me" that's separate from the community. Myths need to be a way that we can all talk to each other, that makes sense, and yet don't reek of total nihilism.
BB: Because communities, or what pass as communities, are composed of people who face the similar problem of trying to organize meaning from fragmented bits of texts? You said that in the move back to narrative, or myth, you didn't want to begin where the bourgeois narrative left off, with a certain kind of connection between the reader's intentions and the text's intentions for that reader. But at the same time, more and more of us live amongst those fragments and are forced to put them together, to find models. What then are the possibilities of the reader identifying with your characters' mechanics of constructing meaning, as part of that search for a model?
KA: I think it's more radical than that, and it is easy when you have other theoretical discourses, because I don't talk through theory, I talk through fictional process. There's a different sort of language. I think any text works on a triangular relation between writer, reader and text. I simply think the triangular relationship in a bourgeois narrative is very different from the triangular relationship in a non-bourgeois narrative. In a bourgeois narrative the text is supposedly a mirror of that which is outside the text, so the reason that you identify with the character is that you believe the character goes in this mirror version of your life, and comes out with some bit of knowledge. This idea, which is basically impossible after Roland Barthes, is that you can know, that you can read a text, that you can learn something, that you can in a way possess knowledge: you are a centralized identity, and you as this centralized "I" are capable of knowing it. I mean it's based on Descartes. I don't live in that kind of world, so I would never go to a piece of art thinking that I can get a moral message from it, and that I'm in that much control. I think the real relations are very different.
BB: And yet perhaps beyond that kind of mythical and aesthetic discourse of art, your texts do demonstrate a kind of strategy of being-in-the-world.
KA: Some of us are trying to find other identities besides the centralized "I." It's the old thing of seeing something, and emerging from the process of seeing as another "you." So there's not a relationship of going to text and emerging a better "you." There's no singular "you" that's going to the text that could emerge as "better." So then, another "you" comes out after the reading of any text and the relation between text and reader is much more elaborate than two separate identities called "text" and "reader." And then there's the question of where the writer comes in. I suppose we're dealing far more with mythical magic than we ever thought.
BB: Well, part of where the writer comes into that process is the choosing of texts that will be appropriated, the moving of them from the past into the future. How do you chose the passages to include in your work? I mean this in the sense that each passage, being familiar to a previous context, functions for the new text, and for the writing apparatus itself, as what might be understood as "memory."
KA: First, there is no one "way." It's what my intention is at any moment. Sometimes I take texts that I know very well. The more I write the more I think that writing is really about time, and so it's a play between chance and what we think of as clock-time, or between chance and intention, where chance meets some morally ordered universe. Sometimes I like to take passages that I have very little idea about how to use. Something will be operating in me, informing my choices, but I don't have a rational clue what it is, or why I'm doing it, like "ooh, it looks pretty" or "I want that one." I don't know. Other times, I know full well what I'm doing, and I have a whole theoretical rational scheme. Often it's a matter of circumstance. For instance, Rimbaud was sorted out. I was living in England at the time, and there had been talk about there being no government support of any art institution, or any institution that supported pro-homosexual work. A lot of us were protesting. I decided that I wanted to deal with it, and also in a perverse way with some of the feminism that was in England at the time, Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, to write only about gay men. And so I decided I was going to write a fictional bio of Rimbaud. So is that taking from a fictional text? A lot of people do fictional biographies.
BB: They do, and that is always a means of approaching problems of time.
KA: Think of pornography and porn writing. The sex sections have a very very limited vocabulary. In fact, it's almost saying nothing. You read "ooh" and "aah." It's at the edge of sense. What it's really doing is working the reader rhythmically, and that fascinates me, and I think that writing, the way phrase works with sentence, the way rhythm works, the way sound works, is about music.
BB: Memories work as rhythm too. The passages that you take, since they're familiar to another context as a memory, are familiar to another context as personal experience. How would the passages function for the text and, perhaps, for the writing apparatus itself as something that might be understood as "memories" that work rhythmically?
KA: When you're writing, you're working rhythmically. When I take different texts, my memory of those texts is really different than yours is. We haven't read the same things. So there's no way I can plan for a reader what is going to be the play between the text and the reader's ability to understand. People read my books and they recognize different stuff. There's no way in hell that I can really play with that, because we don't live in a culture where everyone has the same culture. When I teach a class, my students come in and I don't think there's one single book that I can pick that every student has read. We don't have a common culture anymore.
BB: In terms of your working with mythologies, are you interested in imagining a something like a "common" language?
KA: The way I think of it now, yeah. But I wouldn't think of it as common. I don't think my stuff is that open to people. What I'm doing in my new work is making stories for girls, and that's the truth. I think I'm writing far more for women than for men right now. That's what's in my mind, to make stories for girls. To make the real stories you grow up on.
BB: Elsewhere you've talked about tattooing in ways that are not dissimilar to how you've described myth--as a kind of myth-writing that obviously has a very different relationship to publicity than a book does, at least at the level of ownership. That process of writing of body-as-text suggests two points: the process of writing as marking, and the process of remarking, remaking the text and the re-mythologizing, not in a reactive mode but as coursing alternatives.
KA: Tattooing fascinated me because it was a way that one person would do his or her art work on another person's body, which seems to me totally rad and totally interesting. When you're dealing with tattooing, you're remaking the body. On the other hand, you're going in and listening to the body, and it's not so much remaking the body as it is finding out about the body, finding out what's there, and the two processes come together in the same process called tattooing. If some tattooist just goes in and does whatever, it's not going to work. Ed Hardy is one of the best tattooists in the world and the way Ed works is to really get interested in the person, to ask a lot of questions, to try to find out what they're about. A good part of the body is the imaginary. He tries to find out what the body looks like as a whole, how's the whole tattoo going to fit into the body as a whole. He's in there trying to learn about the body. The process of tattooing for him is learning about someone's body, which is learning about someone. He's not going in there to re-make the body in terms of some model that's outside that body. It's the difference between listening and making. When you listen to something you're not imposing your shtick on whatever you're making. For me, it's like writing, using other texts the way I do now. It's changed over the years. To learn to work a text is partly to learn to listen, so that it's not just me having my little autobiographical story, and stamping it on everything that comes along, but it's me going into to Faulkner or Rimbaud and trying to listen to them. When I emerge, I'm some kind of conglomeration between them and me. It only works as kind of a challenge.
BB: That's interesting because I think that cuts across two different paths that form a renewed interest in the body as a text which can be remade. That is, this interest seems to be working in two contradictory directions. On the one hand, the borders of the body and the functions of the body are changing quite a bit, so there seems to be a need to rediscipline the body in order to rediscover an older kind of stasis for it. On the other hand, there seems to be an embrace of the revealing of important avenues for freedom that the transformation itself might ultimately entail. Both of these also work different desires to find some kind of freedom *through* the body, and desires to find a very different kind of "freedom" *from* the body.
KA: Those desires are very complicated too. I'm not just remaking the body as text. I'm fascinated about what they're doing with cloning experiments, etc., but I'm not really interested in saying, "bad body, I'm going to remake you." I'm really fascinated with what's there. Like when I do body-building. I'm fascinated with the capacity, and what can I do with *this*. I'm interested in going in and learning what is there. That's the fascination. Why would I want to sit there and totally remake myself with some idea that I'm never going to die, that I'm going to be forever beautiful? That's ridiculous. I am going to die, I am getting towards old age, I'm not going to be forever beautiful if I am now. I don't *have* a text outside of the body that I want to impose on the body in some kind of fascistic way. I grew up in a society where the body was excluded, and in a very major way women's bodies were and are excluded from the society. Women are only allowed in the society if (and this goes back to de Sade) women become substitute men, and then they are libertines, or if they are there as organs for men. Yet, the body is always connected to the imaginary, and whatever that is for women's bodies, that imaginary does not exist in our society. That is *major* to me, especially as I grow older, to try to find out what that imaginary is--try to locate the body, get in there, listen to it and find out how it could possibly exist in the world. A lot of women now are working around the question of "what's our sexuality," "what's our imaginary," "what's our body?" It's coming from theorists, people like Susie Bright, it's coming from all over the place. So why is the body central? Because our bodies have been denied, because maybe Gloria Steinem is allowed to say that we should be equal to men, but when it comes to menstruation it's "hide that dirty pad!"
BB: Right, sure. You've always foregrounded literary theory as part of the language that might help reveal that imaginary. How do you see the hybridization of theory and fiction as part of that future imaginary, and also the future imaginary of "writing?"
KA: I find most fictions writers in this country don't foreground theory at all. I find that there are few fiction writers in this country who talk theory. Well, when people ask me about the future I usually go "well, it's good and it's bad. The world's going to die, so fuck you!" But there's all this cool stuff around! Were getting better and better about people wanting to write to find out about themselves. I guess I'd say that about writing in general. People are always saying that people aren't going to read anymore, but people are reading more than ever, but they may be reading different things. Pictures, images and words are going to come together even more. There's going to be a breakdown of genre, there will be an overlapping of genres like essay and fiction, with fanzines getting it all mushed up. It goes on. I think that old 19th century thing of Samuel Richardson, with the women reading audience--you know, (of course, middle- or upper-class women) curled up with a big, fat novel and lulling away the day reading--is over with. None of us lead those sorts of lives. There aren't going to be these huge numbers of middle- and upper-class women (huge comparatively in terms of the reading audience), who are going to curl up with books. 600 page novels are only for those who take airplanes. Society changes, form changes, what people want changes. I just see the present, where there's energy pockets now, where people seem excited about stuff, what might happen quickly.
BB: And the body has always been, in your writing, the site of tremendously anamorphic changes. This parallels the confusion of the animate and the inanimate in more institutional re-makings of the body, I'm thinking of bio-medical engineering and the textual space of the laboratory as...
KA: Yeah, I mean I'm not sure what's animate and what's not animate. The disciplines that interest me are things like meditation disciplines, breathing disciplines, which relate to the body. I'm very fascinated by the relationships between breath, language, and the body. Those are the disciplines I work with. When I work in areas, like this business about women not having bodies in society, what interests me is exploring the female imaginary. I'm never clear what's animate and what's not animate. If you put a piece of metal in your body is it animate or is it not animate? I don't know. I don't know if a tree is animate or not. In my sexual relations, my main sexual relation is with my motorcycle. I just got my labia pierced and two little pieces of metal going through a tiny part of my body, just a pinch, is a major experience, a major change. Are you saying that this is inanimate? I don't know *what* it is. It's literature. It's definitely within the myth's sexual realm.