Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Chapter 4: Kathy Acker or Catheter the Hack

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Chapter 4: Kathy Acker or Catheter the Hack

Article excerpt

I. Introducing aborted identity and the narrative non-sequitur

Kathy Acker kickstarts her Don Quixote with a striking piece of dream logic, which is simply a more pronounced version of the free association whereby "episodes" are linked in earlier work -

The wheeling chair would be her transportation. She went out to look at it. (Sly substitution has occurred.) It was dying. It had once been a hack, the same as all the hacks on grub street; now, as all the hacks, was a fulltime drunk, mumbled all the time about sex but no longer not even never did it but didn't have the wherewithal or equipment to do it, and hung around with the other bums. That is, women who're having abortions.

[...]

As we're said it, the wheeling bed's name was "Hackkneed" or "Hackneyed", meaning "once a hack" or "always a hack" or "a writer" or "an attempt to have an identity that always fails". Just as "hackneyed" is the glorification or change from non-existence into existence of "Hack-kneed", so, she decided, "catheter" is the glorification of "Kathy". By taking on such a name which, being long, is male, she would be able to become a female-male or a male-knight.1

By this lexical bricolage,2 the metonym for the aborted self, the "wheeling bed" or "chair" becomes vehicle and a catalyst for the voyage into the country of Plagiat, in a quest for hyphenated, improvised identities. Catheter leads to catharsis, which "is a way of dealing with evil".* * 3 This kind of ludic détournement, an unmooring of the signifier from habitual signifieds and a travelling out, a riding out of the pun, albeit through discontinuous spurts (Acker's wheeling chair -> Hackney cab -> hack (horse) -> hack writer -> writer Kathy 'glorified' as Catheter -> catharsis), is an important motor of textual movement in Acker's work, even if it is not everywhere so trumpeted. Here the joke of course is that we couldn't be further from the Aristotelian aesthetics of cathartic art. It is an excellent demystification of authority: in the decomposition of the author's name semiotic energy converts to narrative movement. From "acker" and "kath" we get a ride to mock catharsis - a "glorious" catheter indeed.

It is tempting to claim that everywhere Acker romantically marks up this pirate navigation, the tactics of the rebel, the outsider, the freak, the outlaw, the biker, the tattooed (the latter well before the resurgence of fashionability of tattoos after the 1990s), the hooker, the junkie, the criminal, making these her anti-heroes, at least in episodes that stand in for narrative progression, in what can only be called a self-travestying narrative structure. But, through its relentless formal shattering, her work utterly frustrates any sustained romantic identification of the reader with the outsider du jour. This formal shattering is not simply achieved by the montage of cut-ups, of found and pastiched texts from different genres, subgenres and modes; it is further compounded through its mixture of text and image, with line drawings, diagrams, fantasy maps, and schemata. As with an early modernist like Lautréamont, but even more flagrantly, "interiority" is only textually manufactured and flagrantly shown to be a site of endless splitting; if shards of "subjectivity" scintillate in the textual flux, the subject or "character" is always an unstable collective, perpetually on the make, on trial and in degeneration, as much as it is in productive process, riven by contradiction and interruption, and by virtue of the textual mosaic, it hosts a crazed polyphony with no "originary" voice.

"Janey", the protagonist of Blood and Guts in High School, itself is an empty shell of a signifier, a name willed as banal as a "character" in a school reading primer, or as in Janey Smith's "Persian Poems", which use the grammatical exemplar (with the Persian script opposite the English) to mock the phallic regime's reduction of female sexuality to the blank, unmarked, the zero: "see my cunt / my cunt is empty / my cunt is red / this is my cunt". …

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