Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Empire of the Senseless
by Kathy Acker
Does the deconstruction of an extant paradigm of privilege, does a devastation of the oppressor, necessarily indicate the ascendance of the underprivileged themselves? That is, are the repressed actually “liberated” upon the disentitlement of the repressor? Also, how does one express such issues while utilizing the conventional narrative tools of entitlement? The answer, at least to the last question, is that you don’t. Postmodernism, as well as various strands of literary theory, attempts, at least in part, to reverse and deconstruct traditional modes of power. Yet, in some capacity, the proponents of such ideological shift originate from and remain within an entitled position. One of the pleasures of reading Kathy Acker lies in the manner she addresses such a problematic situation. She writes from displacement, confronting deconstruction both as a reaction against hegemony as well as a symptom of hegemony. The spasmodic narrative and transgressive content of her novels is reminiscent of William S. Burroughs, but Acker is not as dismissive of literary theory as he is. Rather, Acker’s relationship to deconstruction and intellectualism is much more complicated, and in many ways more intriguing.
Take “Empire of the Senseless,” which was published in 1988 and remains a favorite amidst her prolific oeuvre. The novel is set in a futuristic vision of Paris – that is, a vision, instead of a representation. The reader follows a young woman who, significantly enough, is first introduced to us through her lover Thivai, a young man who asserts his identity in relation to his power over her, “…Abhor, who’s my partner, part robot, and part black…” Abhor, even from this introduction, is shown to be entirely marginalized, either due to her submissive role in her relationship, her inorganic partiality or her race. She is a partial being due to how society depicts her. Abhor is a cybernetic being, and in this regard as well as nominal others, Acker’s novel is a work of science fiction, yet such genre categorization will only disservice a reader while confronting “Empire of the Senseless.” One’s consumption of the novel should, instead, be a great deal more porous. The book could be labeled science fiction in its concern with marginalization; as science fiction is a marginalized genre, “Empire of the Senseless” is a novel of the marginalized. The veracity of any traditional science fictional “world-building” is negligible; for instance consider Acker’s description of Dr Schreber, who is “…paranoid, schizophrenic, hallucinated, deluded, dissociated, autistic and ambivalent. In these qualities he resembled the current United States President, Ronald Reagan.” The novel is set in a futuristic vision of Paris, but it is ultimately a Paris operating outside of time in a negotiable space.
Paris, or the very concept of an urban space, is a tumultuous space. In fact, only the body as a site of massive conflict rivals the city. There are visions of destruction, “Outside the windows Paris was in chaos. Thousands of Algerians were walking freely. Ragged. Dirty. Sticks. Dolls. Voodoo. Blood flowed out eyeballs.” The blacks, Paris’ unseen inhabitants, force themselves into visibility through revolution and violence. The oppressed, black “…Algerian women… [are] forcibly sterilized by the French” white oppressors, and the Algerians respond in kind, under the aegis of a one-armed revolutionary, “…Mackandal [who] arranged for the poisoning of every upper-middle and upper-class apartment in Paris.” Yet this shift of power roles is only the ritual reversal of a typical carnival, as the CIA and a cabal of white Americans maintain the real political power over this upturned future Paris. Conflict and aggravation precipitate a nigh-constant upheaval of values, as one character notes “This nothing society this nothingness, being every possibility, heralds total carnival!” This is a nothing time of conflict and assumed notion. Are conventional values and roles ever actual contested?
Kathy Acker writes of “Empire of the Senseless” that “This book is dedicated to my tattooist,” and as mentioned above, the body is one of primary contested zones of the novel; a site where power is sought and exerted. When Thivai enters a tattoo parlor, “...he felt himself to be in a ‘mysterious region,’ a place more precious than any he had ever visited. Here must be his sexual desire.” The tattoo is a collapsing of unspeakable physicality with semiotic sign. Acker writes that tattoos continue “…to have ambiguous social value; today a tattoo is considered both a defamatory brand and a symbol of a tribe or of a dream.” This mention of dream is very important, as it ties the art of tattooing with the novel’s other great means of “escape” from hegemony – becoming a pirate or sailor.
Thivai tells the readers “As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a pirate.” Pirates are a recurrent figure in Acker, reappearing in her last novel, “Pussy, King of the Pirates.” A pirate is an individual who contests their role in nature and asserts their power, much like Sade’s “unique” beings, such as Dolmance or Dom Severino. A further connection between Sade and Acker is found in her lucid description of what constitutes a sailor, “…a human who has traded poverty for the riches of imaginative reality.” This emphasis on the imagination aligns Acker with Sade on a level infinitely more profound than that simply of explicit content. This insistence on the transcendental possibilities of the imagination also harkens to William Carlos Williams, as he writes; “only the imagination/ is real!” This affirmative trust in imagination courses throughout Acker’s work, her desire “…that, one day, there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust.” is an incendiary, almost Whitmanian vision of a hopeful future seen with no false sentimentality. In this regard, Acker’s ties to the vibrant American poetic community are apparent. Acker, of course, studied with poets David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg (another great poet of imagination), and her earliest work consists of poetry written under the assumed name of the Black Tarantula.
Acker brings a poet’s concern to language and communication to “Empire of the Senseless.” There is a healthy skepticism in the ability of language to act as a window into an objective reality, she warns us “Don’t believe in human speech as anything but a stuff of time,” and illustrates this early on as one character, Fatty, “…replied ‘I promise’ since he never meant anything by these words. Elsewhere, a character admits “The word free means nothing to me,” though even the word ‘nothing’ is a source of great contention throughout. Words, language, are a contested agent in a landscape of upheaval. As subjugation and conventional gender roles reiterate themselves as the novel moves to its conclusion, Acker seems to ask where even a revolution actually causes any realignment of signs and values. That skepticism, one never bogged down by cynicism, illuminates the novel.
Earlier I mentioned Acker’s debt, or at least affinity to William S. Burroughs, though I admit it’s a comparison often over-emphasized in the face of her neglected influences. Europeans such as Deleuze, Sade and Genet are of course affinitive, yet any consideration of Acker must acknowledge her debt to the American poetic underground, particularly that of the Black Mountain Poets. Jackson Mac Low’s procedural and chance processes are certainly on display throughout “Empire of the Senseless.” Furthermore, when comparing Acker to Burroughs, it would be a disservice to her to simply position their difference as “generational,” as her work in many ways presents a conceptual progression and conversation.
Acker seems to address this as she writes, “Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language 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… Thus, an attack on the institutions of prison via language would demand the use of language or languages which aren’t acceptable, which are forbidden.” Per the carnival time reference earlier, one is also reminded of the nonsense-speech of a harlequin or fool who becomes “king for a day” over the course of a festival, or even the assumed Tom O’ Bedlam “inanities” of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” As far as matters of narrative sense and poetic sense, I’m reminded of an interview William Carlos Williams includes in a later book of “Paterson,” where he says that “there is a difference of poetry and the sense… Sometimes modern poets ignore sense completely… but it says more…” Again, this aligns Acker with a poetic sensibility, even if the aesthetic of her work also hearkens to the more prose-based concerns of the Nouveau Roman of Robbe-Grillet and Duras. Ultimately, such ambiguities of boundary within Acker’s work attest to how her work admirably refutes any categorization.
That Acker’s work does not assist the conceits of a genre category mirrors the itinerancy of the displaced seen throughout. Language is a tool of subjugation. She writes, “Nothing is enough, only nothing.” Yet as value shifts in a carnival-time of displacement, “nothing” begins to signify a “something.” That language and roles of power are presented through mirrors is also significant. “Mentality,” Acker writes, “is the mirror of physicality. The body is a mirror of the mind. A mirror image is not exactly the same as what is mirrored.” Then, when she writes of “War, you mirror of our sexuality,” she is not saying they are directly correspondent, but that a discrepant affinity occurs whose cracks are perhaps not entirely comprehendible. This mirroring though, this assignment of imperfect correspondence, creates a visibility, as it is the invisibility of the oppressed that is truly dangerous, that negates the subjugated. Mirroring, then, is creative instead of representational or perfectly correspondent. “Since the only mirrors are distorted; all is secret,” yet Acker here in “Empire of the Senseless” combats this distortion, or utilizies it against burial, and uncovers what was indoctrinated.