Natural’s Not in It

After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography (Semiotext(e) / Active Agents) BY Chris Kraus. Semiotext(e). Hardcover, 352 pages. $24.

The cover of After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography (Semiotext(e) / Active Agents)


I love that Kathy Acker’s family money came from gloves and a New York butchery.

I love that in a 1991 interview for the “Angry Women” Issue Of The Journal RE/Search, Acker seems to speak entirely in exclamation marks.

I love that when the young, pre–Bikini Kill Kathleen Hanna tracked down her idol at a workshop in Seattle, Acker rebuffed her, saying that her brand of feminism was naive (Sexism destroys men, too, Acker told her) and that she should quit writing and start a band.

She was the hinge for so many of America’s best late-twentieth-century mythologies—Riot Grrrl, cyberpunk, biker gangs—where righteous anger is matched by the modes and means to spectacularize it.

I love that in Kathy Acker’s final years she found such joy performing a version of her 1996 book, Pussy, King of the Pirates, with the Mekons; that in those same years, as she flirted with nascent Bay Area internet communes, she aspired to abandon novels for video games. I love that she attended a Mondo 2000–sponsored premiere of the 1992 movie Sneakers. And that she spent $7,500 on clothes the year before she scoffed at the price of chemotherapy ($20,000), her refusal of which almost certainly accelerated her death from cancer, in a Tijuana alternative-medicine clinic, in 1997, after months of consultations with psychic healers and nutritionists who assured her she was cured. I love that she bought a new motorcycle every time she moved cities and that she acquired apartments in Islington, Brighton, and Greenwich Village, some of which she would never set foot in, or would sleep in for a month or two before abandoning them to some artist-friend’s son to look after.

She led a rich life.

I love that Acker wrote in one of her novels (Great Expectations, 1982), “Dear Susan Sontag, Would you please read my books and make me famous?”

And I love that, some years later, when preparing to send a pile of books to The Strand, Sontag would pick up a copy that Gary Indiana had given her and wave it in his face, saying, “This woman is a friend of yours?”

I love this because it makes me feel a little bit closer to Susan Sontag.

“There was absolutely no way,” Indiana writes in his memoir’s gorgeous traducement of Sontag, “to defend someone like Kathy to someone like Susan. For one thing, they lived ten blocks from each other. If Kathy had been Croatian or from Micronesia, then perhaps . . . ” (I Can Give You Anything but Love, 2015).

“Someone like Kathy” is maybe an aporia, because there was no one like Kathy (not even Kathy). “As for, for instance, the KATHY ACKER that YOU WANT (as you put it), is another MICKEY MOUSE, you probably know her better than I do. It’s media, Ken. It’s not me,” Acker@eworld.com wrote to the Australian theorist McKenzie Wark on August 12, 1995, in a note collected for our eyes in the slim, perfect, evil Semiotext(e) tome I’m Very into You: Correspondence 1995–1996 (2015).

I love that she had to switch to eWorld after AOL expelled her for using profanities in a chat room.

But the thing that I love most about Acker is how well she understood the significance, both in text and body, of the controlled fail. “Bodybuilding can be seen to be about nothing but failure. . . . I want to shock my body into growth,” she writes in “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body,” the best-ever essay on weight lifting. The difference between failure-as-harm and failure-as-becoming is discipline, establishing your limits, making your own anarchies. And is there a more superlative, manufactured failure than the paratactic opening (in a section boldly titled “PLAGIARISM”) of Great Expectations, which sandwiches Acker’s compositions about her family amid appropriations of two masterpieces, the Dickens original and horrifying, viscous descriptions of the Algerian War from her own translation of Pierre Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden (1970)?

“She liked to deflate, to disappoint, to short-circuit sense with obscenity and to undermine narrative with nonsense. A novelty act, in other words, which her partisans have elevated to ever higher levels of intellectual significance,” Indiana would write in 2006 in the London Review of Books. “They may not be entirely wrong.”

Kathy Acker, ca. 1990. Patrick Gorman.
Kathy Acker, ca. 1990. Patrick Gorman.

CHRIS KRAUS DID NOT LOVE KATHY ACKER, did not even “like” her, though love and like are mean props in the perpetual war of letters. Kraus did think that this woman, who had slept with her (eventually ex-) husband (Sylvère Lotringer), was “kind of frightening and awesome.” Lotringer of course founded Semiotext(e), the publishing house that Kraus still helms with him and Hedi El Kholti, which also published Acker’s e-mails to Wark cited above and Kraus’s debut novel (I Love Dick,1997) as well as her most recent book (After Kathy Acker, 2017). “To Sylvère, The Best Fuck In The World (At Least To My Knowledge) Love, Kathy Acker,” reads an inscription in a book Kraus finds in Sylvère’s library in I Love Dick. “Pretty stiff competition,” Kraus says.

Although Kraus was present for Acker’s life, even inspired by her work, she is not what you would call a “partisan,” and because of this she has written the smartest, cruelest, most intimately clinical, which is to say the best, biography of Acker one could hope for. It is, perhaps, a better book than Acker herself could have written had the tables been turned—though the idea of Acker telling a story other than her own seems laughable—and so it may be that this book, like most great books, is both the perfect panegyric and revenge.

One can—many do—speculate on the exact nature of Kraus’s headspace while writing this. (Would they feel the same were it two men?) “Kraus does not clarify her personal relationship to her subject, and so the question of their relation becomes a void into which her tone rushes,” writes Josephine Livingstone in the New Republic. But it’s not exactly a secret, is it? Their “relationship,” while only glancingly entertained inside Kraus’s book—which gives details of Lotringer and Acker’s sex life without ever mentioning that Lotringer and Kraus, too, were involved—is also absolutely frontal. Your eye is directed to it, like writing on a (high school bathroom) wall:


reads the book’s cover, a five-by-five tower caulked with hard velar stops. It is a proclamation and a dare, printed atop a 1998 Kaucyila Brooke photograph of the back of one of Acker’s leather jackets (DISCIPLINE ANARCHY, it reads), suspended ghoulishly from a wire coat hanger, so that it evokes, among other things, the commodifiable performativity of the self, that Mickey Mouse thing, maybe, which Acker and Kraus (and of course Kraus’s famous fixation, subcultural theorist Dick Hebdige) were into. Easily shopliftable. Though if you were Acker you would have had the money to afford it, an aspect of identity fluidity that maybe Acker didn’t always get so well but which Kraus understands very, very well.

Kraus also understands intentionality. “Like the rest of her writing and life, her vulnerability was highly strategic,” Kraus writes, because she knows. “Pursuing a charged state of grace, Acker knew, in some sense, exactly what she was doing. To pretend otherwise is to discount the crazed courage and breadth of her work.”

There are so many Kathy Ackers who vie for control. Somehow none is declared a loser. The Lenox School’s 1964 yearbook committee writes that Acker “practices a studied nonchalance.” An acquaintance, George Quasha, “recalls Acker’s strategic naïveté.” “Her persona was about being the victim,” says artist Martha Rosler, “a kid from the Upper East Side pretending to be a waitress down on her luck.” No one wants to let Acker be vulnerable. They didn’t make the rules. She did. Only it does seem that sometimes her calculated winningness is at heart a lack of aptitude for loss.

Kraus has never met a lack she couldn’t enlarge. In her 352 pages of Acker as a libertine, a vanguardist, a downtown girl coming of age in the New York/London/San Francisco of the 1980s and ’90s, there are only two mentions of AIDS. The first is extradiegetic, when Kraus refers to the small party at the “Nembutal suicide of Danceteria emcee HaouiMontaug.” (Acker wasn’t involved; Madonna phoned in.) The second is boilerplate (“The city was reeling from the AIDS epidemic . . . ). Then it’s back to the news about Acker’s abortions, her pelvic inflammatory disease, her passion for sadomasochism and “unsafe sex,” her dalliances with dykes on the scene. The book’s star looks like a weather girl complaining about a sunburn in the eye of a hurricane. A gang of girl pirates sounds cool and special, but it’s also important to remember that so many cool boys were dying for fucking.

THE ONLY WOMAN, according to Kraus, to achieve the status of “Great Writer as Countercultural Hero,” Acker’s only real crime besides profligacy was “bad” writing, by which I mean a refusal to tell a story straight. Acker of course could be a very “good” writer, in spasms, i.e., in sentences. (Her oft-quoted “A narrative is an emotional moving,” from Great Expectations, is as concise and lovely as a La Rochefoucauld.) Some (many) thought she inflamed narrative because she didn’t have the chops to do it right, but that’s a boring and useless thing to say about a self-made genius. Kraus doesn’t think this at all and even as she pokes and prods she asserts Acker’s brilliance, most thrillingly in a marvelous exegesis of Great Expectations and Acker’s use of the colon: “a slap, a jolt, an epinephrine shot that yanks the sentence—and by extension, us—from grief’s downward drift into the present time.” Her brain could crack moon rocks.

Kraus corrects the record: The age, often disputed, at which Acker died was fifty; she didn’t really study with Herbert Marcuse; Roman Jakobson didn’t really read her college papers; she didn’t really edit an issue of Film Comment when she was sixteen years old, though she was sleeping with the magazine’s eighteen-year-old editor, P. Adams Sitney. Acker often seems to have had more money than she lets on. “The truth,” Kraus writes, quoting Sitney quoting Stan Brakhage, “is always more interesting.”

The lie of the truth, though, is in who gets to tell it.

Around this time last year, when I started working on what may or may not be a biography of Kathy Acker, I imagined beginning the book with the melee at Slim’s Bar, or at the wake, where a group of friends gathered to transfer her ashes from a box to an urn, or at the scattering. To describe these proceedings would be to stage an establishing shot of a movie that uses a single protagonist to traverse an entire milieu. Although she wrote first-person fiction and gave hundreds of interviews in which she was asked to recite the facts of her life over and over again, these facts are hard to pin down in any literal way. Because, in a certain sense, Acker lied all the time. . . . Acker’s life was a fable, and to describe the confusion and love and conflicting agendas behind these memorials would be to sketch an apocryphal allegory of an artistic life in the late twentieth century.

Kraus then goes on immediately to describe these proceedings, to describe them vividly. Of course this analysis of the establishing shot and the cinematization of what is to come, of what “may or may not be a biography of Kathy Acker,” which almost immediately dissolves into the horizon of the “apocryphal allegory of an artistic life,” is the establishing shot, the careful prevarication, so familiar to any habitué of the mighty, wicked Semiotext(e) oeuvre, which helped chart the coordinates for this sophisticated, “schizophrenic” convergence of life and film and literature in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and yon, and whose star might as well be that charismatic stuntwoman who most garishly and deliciously embodied the collision of (American) street and (French) thought. This at a time when “neoliberalism” and its mirror, “theory,” were peaking, filling the hole at the center of the US university system, and when there persisted, thanks to still-useful if attenuating postwar alliances, a fetish for the transatlantic migration of just-démodé (better: fashionably late) “Continental” ideas, a mythic territory that would become the stage for Kraus’s own work. In which sense, After Kathy Acker, while also being a sort of Before Chris Kraus, is a memorial or femmage to an era of big criticism’s great expectations, when maybe a certain playfulness with the morphology of truth could seem noble, beautiful, or at least innocent.

“I MADE A REALLY DELIBERATE DECISION that I was not going to write myself into this book at all,” Kraus says in a Lenny Letter interview with Laia Garcia. “That actually enabled me to become closer to her in a more sublimated and witchy way. There were times in the book where I was typing ‘she’ and I felt like I could’ve typed ‘I.’ ”

In 1997, Acker died and Kraus published the après-Acker I Love Dick, which nearly two decades later inspired a successful TV show produced by Jill Soloway for Amazon Studios, possibly a lodestar in our current golden age of streaming. “No woman is an island-ess,” writes Kraus’s literary cipher “Chris Kraus” in her final letter to Dick. “We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling.” So ends Dick.

Who am I to keep you from falling?

I love Chris Kraus.

David Velasco is the editor of Artforum.