Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Violent Acts, Volatile Words: Kathy Acker's Terrorist Aesthetic

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Violent Acts, Volatile Words: Kathy Acker's Terrorist Aesthetic

Article excerpt

A day is a blank sheet of paper. Bound up over a year, these sheets make a book which bears the title The Past and contains no lessons for the future. --Cedric von Halacz, explosive terrorist in a psychological test (1)

Only process matters. --Acker, "Critical Languages" (83)

"the greatest work of art"

The title of this article immediately puts into proximity terms that generated international scandal for musician Karlheinz Stockhausen when he referred to the events of 9/11 as "the greatest work of art." The moral outrage that suffused Western media from Stockhausen's analogue of catastrophic destruction with aesthetic innovation--a relation at the heart of this inquiry--at once signals and yields insight into the dimensions of a new sociocultural paradigm that has arisen since the World Trade Center attacks: what Baudrillard in effect describes as a culture of terrorism. It also provides a useful lens through which critical questions about intersections of language and power--specifically how Western hegemony is shaped and disseminated by normative narratives--can be refrained in a post 9/11 context. Indeed, while the dispute about Stockhausen's statement continues to remain centered on questions of representation (i.e., what was said vs. what was meant), little consideration has been given to why an aesthetic evaluation of a terrorist act catapulted a musician into the political limelight. Why and how did Stockhausen's statement create such an impact? What does the public's reaction to his choice of language reveal about normative interpretive models and the discursive operations that are at work to corral them into shape?

Kathy Acker is no stranger to the stakes raised by these questions and the potent reaction that can be provoked by the intersection of art and violence. Her transgressive fictions--Blood and Guts in High School, My Mother: Demonology, Empire of the Senseless and Pussy, King of the Pirates (to name just a few)-in fact often deploy terrorist characters, themes, and what I will argue is a terrorist prose style, in order to exacerbate and exploit just this relation. Indeed, where the furor over Stockhausen implicates anecdotally the power by which normative discourses constrain subjectivity, Acker's project is specifically designed to examine (and undermine) the formidable processes that are at work maintaining discursive integrity. Why her project deploys terrorism as an essential mode of critique, however, requires specific attention to, as Judith Butler might say, how "we do things with language ... produce effects with language, and ... do things to language," because "language is the thing that we do" (8, my italics). In this regard, Acker's interest appears to lie in how language promotes as well as prevents access to power--how language is "done" to marginalized subjects--and how shifts in power occur at all.

"When I use words, any words," Acker writes, "I am always taking part in the constructing of the political, economic, and moral community in which my discourse is taking place. All aspects of language--denotation, sound, style, syntax, grammar, etc-are politically, economically, and morally coded.... The only possible chance for change, for mobility, for political, economic, and moral flow lies in the tactics of guerilla warfare, in the use of fiction, of language" (Postmodernism 4-5). Acker's "guerilla" or "terrorist" use of fictional language takes on multiple forms throughout her prolific body of writing. Her renowned use of plagiarism, for instance, attacks fundamental precepts in the tradition of the humanities: specifically the authority, if not the originality, of the artist. As Sylvere Lotringer notes in an interview with Acker regarding her use of Harold Robbins' The Pirate (and the uproar that ensued), "Hijacking a copyright, no wonder they got upset.... Terrorism in literature" ("Devoured by Myths" 13). Yet it is Acker's use of explicit, often violent, sexual content to "break," as she claims, "the rational mind" that has perhaps caused the greatest shockwaves within the system of literary discourse ("Algeria" 117). …

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