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Kathy Acker's Astrologer Told Her She Would Meet Somebody--and That Was Me
A conversation with McKenzie Wark, one of our most dazzling contemporary theorists, about what we can learn from one of America's most dazzling post-modern writers
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McKenzie Wark is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at The New School in New York City. Originally from Australia, she has written twenty books and too many articles to count and maintains a kick-ass Twitter feed. Her most recent, Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker (Duke University on Friday, September 17, 2021), picks up where Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e), 2020) leaves off: a sexual bildungsroman in which Wark is making her way towards a trans sensibility, this time in the company of the path-breaking writer Kathy Acker. But the book then shifts into a second register, as Wark re-imagines what she learned from Acker in a short, intense relationship as a way of being that Acker’s work makes available to all of us.
Claire Potter: Let’s begin where the book begins--your relationship with Kathy Acker.
McKenzie Wark: I should start by saying: that relationship was incredibly brief. She had a lot of them. It is the kind of thing she did: fall massively in love with somebody. It would last a few weeks, as it did in my case.
I think we got together in part because I did know her work. Blood and Guts in High School (1984) was a well-known book. She was a writer I respected, but I wasn't a huge fan.
There were people in Sydney who were huge fans, people who wanted to meet her and probably have sex with her, but she was sort of avoiding that. And so, I think I was someone who knew her work, respected it, but wasn't hugely invested in some image of her. And so, yeah, we met at a dinner party. Her astrologer told her she would meet somebody, and that was me.
CP: It seems to have changed your life.
MW: Yeah, it left very little imprint on her work at all but was significant for me. Kathy was from San Francisco, and there was a sort of sophistication about how gender and sexuality were thought about there in the eighties and nineties, one that utterly confused gender and sexuality.
If I may be vulgar, Kathy was the first cis woman who fucked me, and I was like: "Oh wait, this just solves everything." I realized this was a thing: it made me feel like a girl, but I liked girls. I had tried and failed to be a gay man several times, but I didn't like men all that much. So, I thought: "Awe, that's awesome. More of that, please."
The relationship wasn't sustainable, but it was the beginning of a solution for me.
CP: What did it lead you to, specifically?
MW: I'm a theorist. I like to like generate concepts out of experience: a concept is a thing that you can look at it and go, "Oh yes, that's an abstraction that applies to my life and helps me think about the world in relation to my own experience."
I wanted to think of penetrability as an access point for thinking about sex and gender. It wasn’t quite top and bottom, or dom and sub, because it doesn’t neatly map onto those categories. It's not male and female in the end, although I had it confused with that for a while.
So yeah, my question was: to what extent are bodies penetrable, and what's the phenomenology of that? I didn't publish a whole lot about this at the time. But I thought about it for years and then started to write after I transitioned. In the year that I decided to go on hormones, I thought, well, it's probably going to fuck up my writing life along with everything else since a lot of trans women kind of lose it for the first year. Then, I just had an instinct that Kathy's writing, as well as my memories of her, were the key to all that. I had a sabbatical: I decided to work through all her books and ended up with a project on Kathy Acker.
CP: You also published a volume of correspondence between the two of you. Tell us about that.
MW: I met Kathy in Sydney in, I think, 1995: we had this very intense thing for a week, and then there was this email correspondence. Remember, email was not a common thing in 1995; only around 3% of American households had it. So, we were very privileged, exceptional people to be sending intimate emails then.
We reconnected in San Francisco and again in New York after that. I don't know why, but I printed out all our emails and sent her a copy after we broke up. Kathy's executor, Matias Viegener, found it in her papers and contacted me about ten years ago about a book.
And Kathy's correspondence with everybody should really be a book: she was a great correspondent. But I was very reluctant to do it at first. So I asked Chris Kraus and Lynne Tillman if they thought it was a good idea to do it. Chris said yes, Lynn said no. So I went with the majority of three opinions, the third being Matias.
CP: Philosophy for Spiders has a very deliberate design that sucks the reader with an intensely erotic connection and then tells the story of a young, queer, Australian Marxist without much money and who is traveling in the orbit of a wealthy woman with tremendous cultural power. And then, in part two, you hit us over the head with a ton of theory.
How did you decide on that structure?
MW: The first part was an outcome of a previous book, Reverse Cowgirl (2020): sexual memory was one of its projects. And I took the Kathy bit out: I thought I wanted to do something else with it, and it was overpowering the book.
Then I thought: there was a way that these two could go together. I had a knowledge of her and she of me, and I wanted that to be a key to reading her texts. I thought that if I just did the theory bit, it would be like, "Why am I so obsessed with her phenomenology of the body?"
I was troubled about this, though. So I wrote to Matias, who's a friend, and said: "Matias, I'm doing this thing on Kathy, and the first parts are all fucking. Is that okay?"
Matias just said, "It's Kathy." Which is true. She wrote directly about people she fucked in several books--sometimes with their real names attached, and while they were alive. She wanted to know: how is sexuality a form of knowledge? How is that foundational for imagining a knowledge of the world? There's even a philosophy of nature in Kathy Acker that comes out of that: one of its foundations is masturbation. She's a great writer of the hand job and could write and jerk off simultaneously. I was a witness to that.
CP: Wait a second. Was she writing with a pencil, or was she typing?
MW: No, with a pen, I think, with the notebook in her lap, cross-legged on the floor with her other hand, you know where.
CP: This gets to something I loved about the book: the constant blurring of art and life articulated as a method for experiencing the world and reproducing it in art. But you also name a category of person, Ackers, which articulates Kathy Acker as a plural subject and template for certain human qualities.
MW: That means two different things. One reflects the fact that Kathy Acker wasn't interested in being a coherent subject. This was in the 1970s, `80s, and `90s, and pulling apart the fictional coherence of the subject is her whole project. She wrote in different voices, and there are many readings of Kathy that pull out one voice from the chorus.
So, if the authorship is floating, there can be many different Ackers, and you can pull out different ones. Even using the word “her” is not appropriate: she was all the pronouns, and actually was, in the texts. Then, there are the Ackers, who I think were boys, who you would now call nonbinary, but at the time, there wasn't a word for that. These are the ones that are all about the physical experience of being a woman. She's often read as only that, which leaves out all the bits that were other genders.
Then, Kathy came from a certain world of privilege. She had a private income, and I loved it that she exaggerated that rather than downplaying it. She wasn’t one of those writers who pretended to be a son and daughter of the soil. It was like, "No, I'm from Sutton place." She was aware of how Jewishness inflected that, and she was aware of having access to the world in a certain way. I think there's a tension in Kathy’s work between class and being read as a woman: she had truly abject experiences with men--but they also weren't.
And there's a way in which class inflected our relationship. I'm a perfectly petit-bourgeois middle-class provincial, but I had none of that cultural capital or inheritance that Kathy did have and lived on. So, there was a power relationship. You do meet people who do interesting things because they have access to money and cultural capital. We have students like that, and I'm like, stop beating yourself up or pretending to be poor. Do something interesting with the access you’ve been given to the world.
That’s what Kathy did, and her biographers tend to criticize her for it. She would buy apartments and then change her mind about living somewhere and lose money on them. It's just a way of being in the world where you don't have that petit-bourgeois, money-grubbing bullshit sensibility that I cannot free myself from, frankly.
CP: How did you feel about that at the time? Here you are, you're stuffed to the eyeballs with Marxism, and then you meet this woman. She's rich. She doesn't give a shit. She wears it well.
MW: Oh honey, by the time I met Kathy, my bio read like a Marxist in the pay of Rupert Murdoch. I always liked the good life. I'm not ascetic. I really was a--what would you call it? Prosecco proletarian. My father was an architect. I'm from a mining district, but I had a very middle-class upbringing.
Class is real. I think people are marked by it in ways that we don't talk about anywhere near enough. But, on the other hand, Kathy did make sense to me as someone who liked spectacular outfits and really didn't think twice about saying: "Let's have a fine meal.” Or “Let's get on the bike and go to Napa because it's a nice day."
So yeah, I wasn't that troubled by it, quite frankly.
CP: What do you hope that people who read the theory section of the book, which is beautifully written and very accessible, will bring to Kathy's work?
MW: Sarah Schulman once made a case for why Kathy is a genius and then said: "But she was emotionally average." People whose writing we admire don’t have to be great about everything else. And Kathy was a difficult person. I loved her, but she was a piece of work—and I don't want that to overshadow her intellect. She was working through how to think through a non-identity and build a set of practices out of the body. There's a whole philosophy of intersubjectivity in her thinking.
People tend to think only about Kathy's personal stuff. But she had an interesting take on what she called “post-capitalism” because she'd lived in the three places where the political economy we're in now was being invented: New York, London, and the Bay area. She saw something coming. When I was with her in the 1990s, I met all these people making hacker culture in the Bay area. She did a series about capitalism based on her experience of certain industries. Kathy was also really good on the connections between cultural work and sex work, working from a 1970s understanding that those things aren't just adjacent; they're continuous.
So, there are many good books on Kathy, and some not good ones, that make a case for her as a writer. But to me, she's a theory writer. She had clearly read her Marcuse, her Baudrillard, and all the French feminists and processed it in a unique way that's outside of what Chris Kraus calls “good girl academic feminism.” And that to me was very appealing.
I don't want to claim that Kathy was trans, but we can take away the claim that she was a cis person or that she had a consistent, gendered identity at all. I think she makes a space for trans people, and we have so few spaces in canonical works of literature. So there are a lot of gender-variant, gender-nonconforming, and trans readers and writers who find things in Kathy.
And I wanted to honor that and make a space for it.
CP: That sounds like an invitation to another kind of work that stands on Acker's shoulders. If so, what does that space look like?
MW: Oh, that's interesting. I did a conference on “Trans/Acker:” it was the first thing I did after I came out, bringing together trans writers for whom Acker is a reference point. I wanted that space to complicate things. There's a way that queer theory seemed to open space for being transgender, but it could only be playful, and it pushed aside the figure of the transsexual.
I'm part of that little cultural pocket that wants to reclaim transsexual: I always say that's what I am. I've medically modified my body, but I do not feel obliged to fit entirely into the constraints of femininity as the old gender clinics would have defined it.
I want Kathy to be available to the genderqueer stuff that she partly rubs up against, like the gender non-binary. But I dread the reading that straps Kathy to nonbinary as an identity. I think there's space for her to be that, but for her to only be that is a limit that she wouldn't want. And I don't want it for her. I want her to be there for readers of all sorts of genders.
CP: You are also speaking to the point that gender and identity have been almost exclusively tied together through politics and not through theory. So, what would it look like to reject identity and the ways that it mobilizes people?
MW: Strategic essentialism only gets you so far. So yeah, what would a common front against fascism look like? How would you center mass incarceration and policing as a thing that affects people who are likely to be people of color and working-class, who are likely to be trans or gender non-conforming, who are likely to be sex workers--but where no one identity is going to reveal entirely who has been subject to those things?
And let's not forget identities are mostly things that the state wants. So why are we celebrating those categories? I'm wary of that. And the other side, of course, is identities are things you can market to. So, of course, it's hard to make this argument and, at the same time, insist that we still need to pay more attention to and center the voices and leadership of Black people, of women, of trans people, of the undocumented.
So, we should concede that, but also insist that it's not about the identity: it's about those experiences. And Kathy is a key to thinking like that because she shredded, or juxtaposed, identities. She was famous for writing directly autobiographical stuff and then shoving in a fictional account or a story she picked up backstage at the strip joint. It all became one story, with a bit of her in it.
Identities are not helpful political categories. And at the end of the day, even if it's a place where you start to build connection, that can't be where you end.
CP: What do you hope Philosophy for Spiders will accomplish?
MW: I think Kathy Acker has a shot at being a canonical American writer. It would be worth it to nudge a few of the guys, like Philip Roth, a little bit sideways. To put a woman there, a non-binary person there would be to put someone in the canon who was much more connected to the broader twentieth-century American culture and reading what was happening intellectually in the rest of the world.
So, the book partly came out of the politics of who's in the archive and who's on the reading list. I think we're almost on the verge of seeing Kathy as someone you can understand post-war American culture through, and I really wanted to be a tiny little part of that.
CP: I also think, Mackenzie, that with this book, you've expanded the notion of what an archive is because much of Kathy was archived in you, in your body, in your memories, and your feelings. The way the beginning of the book functions is not to establish yourself as the expert but to establish yourself as part of the archive, one that can be a guide into the rest of the archive for the rest of us.
MW: Oh, thank you. I wish I'd thought of that and put it in there.
CP: Well, if you were Kathy Acker, you would steal it and put it in your next book. So I invite you to do that.
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