Jason McBride on Kathy Acker

It is difficult to write a biography — to assmeble the traces that somebody has left behind them, and use those traces to reconstruct, in words, the person in question. It is very difficult to get to know another person, even if they are still alive and you are close to them. It is even more difficult, once the person is dead. But it is equally difficult, albeit for different reasons, to know oneself. The immediate acquaintance I have with myself, in the first person, is always filled with distortions and blind spots. The attempt to know myself is inevitably bound to fail — although the effort might in fact lead me to transform myself, which is perhaps a more important thing than to know myself.

These dilemmas are central to Kathy Acker’s writing; and they are also central to Jason McBride’s new biography of Acker: Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker. There are many reasons why Kathy Acker, who died just about twenty-five years ago, was one of the greatest writers of her time, and why her work remains so relevant today. One of them is that Acker’s novels involved cotinual explorations of, and challenges to, the very idea of personal identity. Acker understood our world to be one in which originality of any sort is rare and difficult (a situation which is ironically expressed through the exaltation of originality and innovation in every domain of social and cultural life). This is part of the reason why Acker’s own texts are continually engaged in the appropriation, remixing, and reworking of previously existing texts; but the “texts” in question here are not just books that Acker had read, and movies that she had seen, but also her own familial and personal history. None of these fragments are “true” and “authentic” in their own right, but the very process of working through them produces something that, in its very provisionality and mutability, might be described as truer and more authentic than any more literally accurate statement could have been. For all of Acker’s mystique as a punk feminist rebel, she was also deeply literary, deeply committed to and embedded in the processes of reading and writing. The hard thing is to grasp how these two aspects are not in fact radically opposed, but different aspects of the same molten process (in something of the same way that, for Spinoza, mind and body are two aspects of the same substance). Acker’s tattoos and bodybuilding and sexual adventures were forms of writing, and her writing was a form of being embodied in the world.

Acker’s novels and other texts still exist for us, and they certainly haven’t been taken up, appreciated, and reworked in their own terms as they deserve to be. Bur I cannot dissociate them, at least in my own mind, from the person who Kathy Acker was, and who passed a quarter of a century ago. I only knew Kathy Acker casually, and not deeply or well; but she is the only person I have known in person (writer/artist or not) of whom I could say (as Norman Mailer said of William Burroughs) that she “may conceivably be [or, in this case, have been] possessed by genius.” The phrse is right, because genius is not something that anybody has, but something that a few rare people may be possessed by, at certain occasional moments in time. It is tied up, not with identity — there is a reason why Acker titled one of her novels In Memoriam To Identity — but with how it slips aside and transforms, so that it is never whole and accomplished, but also never negligible or inexistent either. It is not a something, but not a nothing either (as Wittgenstein might say). It is always both consolidating and slipping away; it cannot be grasped substantially, but it also cannot be grasped dialectically — but only obliquely. To quote Wallace Stevens (a poet in whom, as far as I know, Acker was not in the least bit interested), the author must escape from being “too exactly himself” [sic], and instead somehow manage to utter “speech we do not speak.”

In all this, I am saying both too much, and not enough. I think that what I have written above is fairly accurate, as far as it goes, about Kathy Acker; but it only says the tiniest part of what she was about, or what she made, what her texts do and say. Though I have written about Acker’s texts before, this is not a task to which I feel adequate. Yet I think that Jason McBride’s book definitely helps in this regard. It is hyper-aware of all the issues that I have been raising — issues that are front and center in Acker’s own texts — and yet it gives us some sense of who Acker was, what she was like — despite the acknowledged difficulties of apprehending either other people or oneself. It seems to get the facts mostly right, as far as I am able to be aware; my only corrections are extremely picayune. Beyond that, it does give me something of a sense of Acker’s living presence (even if that phrase can only hold partially and ironically, for reasons that I have already said).

If Kathy Acker had not died twenty-five years ago, she would be seventy five years old today. While I do not believe that wisdom somehow comes with age (at least not in my own case), I cannot help missing what Acker might have said, had she still been among us in this schizophrenic time. Not a month goes by when I do not think of her (or think of her absence), and McBride’s biography has made me feel this all the more intensely.