This essay was updated on 6 March 2013.
This display was located on the third floor of Hamersley Library at Western Oregon University during Spring 2007. Co-curated by David Ensminger and student Bryan Beck, the show was meant to compliment two other exhibitions on campus, including the Punk and Beat Generation show, Bop Apocalypse to Blitzkrieg Bop, which highlighted LPs, gig fliers, and books/fanzines from each era, and the design show XXX: The Power of Sex in Contemporary Design, which focused on images of sexuality represented in various forms of contemporary media, like print advertising and CD art.
By extending the dialog and contributing an additional catalog of images, we hoped to explore how unbound sexuality permeates fine art, corporate rock’n’roll design (usually made by commercial design firms) and Do-It-Yourself handmade punk art traditions (usually made by self-taught artists). The show did not attempt to resolve complicated, controversial, and complex questions about representation, including the tensions that can unfold when viewing these works as liberating libidinal expressions, misogynist fantasies, gender bending visions, or crude art objects. It was just a survey of images to generate further questions, not ultimate answers.
Some of the “tantalizing” objects included in the show consisted of well-known Black Flag gig fliers by Raymond Pettibon, an authentic Runaways poster from a 1978 show in Austin, TX, an early 1980’s Penthouse featuring Blondie on the front cover, and album art for the bands Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Jesus Lizard, Roxy Music, David Bowie, and Scared of Chaka. Also included were many singles (45 RPM 7″records) by Devo and others, a rare bootleg LP featuring a live performance of Patti Smith, and an original 1980s promotional “flat” (a display unit used on record stores walls, printed on both sides) featuring Madonna, and a new promotional poster for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Sex Bombs and So-Called Anarchy: Punk, Porn, Profits and the Culture of Terrible Beauty
“to disgust us a little more with ourselves
for being this useless body
made of meat and wild sperm”
“We are dreaming of sex,
…of huge thighs opening
to us like this night.
…All I want is a taste of your lips.”
Punk has never been a monolithic, united community. For decades, participants have struggled to balance the cooked and raw tendencies of the genre. On one side, bands stoke a stubborn Dionysian impulse, reveling in the rank, grotesque, and filthy, like GG Allin or the Dwarves, who seemingly sought to epitomize the squalor and self-destruction bred into punk’s nihilism. Others maintained an adamant intellectual critique, perhaps borne from garrulous nights of leftist social realism, criticized as pompous “political correctness” by detractors, and perpetuated by bands like Crass (whose fans were decried as Crassholes), Propaghandi, and Limp Wrist, who symbolically tried to smash sexism and homophobia at punk gig spaces and in punk discourse.
Consequently, punk’s response to porn has been mixed and contradictory. As others in the popular and academic press analyze the punk community’s links to the sex industry, the time is ripe for us, in a frank manner, to examine the mingled history of punk and porn.
The two communities, both formerly marginalized and shunned, have converged since the mid-1970s and fissured notions of discreet bodies and hegemonic beauty. Such irreverent mingling helps shape and illustrate an ongoing sense of participatory Do-It-Yourself community building while also signifying unstable notions of the carnivalesque – the ritual rejection, liberation, and deviance from orderly society and “normal” practices, as Bakhtin asserts. Yet, even subversive and ironic products may benefit exploitative economic systems as well. What is good for Joanna Angel and Bad Religion is good for business — the laissez-faire economics of music and sex industries – as well.
Though these global industries have sometimes appropriated and incorporated motifs, personas, and production values from both punk and porn, a significant portion of each community remains underground, restless, procreative, and defiant. Like fuzzy notions of “riot grrrl” ideology and the so-called politics of transgressive sex, the boundaries between Do-It-Yourself and mainstream industry aesthetics have blurred. Living in the uneasy era of alt porn, in which misogyny and liberation may co-exist, we should understand that examining both of these communities, including Shawn Kerri, illustrator for the Circle Jerks, Germs, and Hustler magazine, sex-positive activist Annie Sprinkle, and Joanna Angel, “Madame of Punk Rock Porn,” are only the beginning of a conversation.
Before We Undress, Let’s Talk Theory
Mirroring the sentiment of feminists like Catharine MacKinnon, some punks insist porn will always be misogynist and hetero-patriarchal; it represents “real … rape and abuse of women.” In contrast, Judith Butler stresses, “Other feminists can understand the ‘real’ as a variable construction”… relating to “fantasy, the unthinkable, the unreal” (qtd. in 2000: 98, 488).
The punk-infused site Cyber-Dyke, which markets its product as real sex videos featuring edgy, punk-looking performers offers a “strategic real that is meant to participate in the … dynamics of community and identity building… that appears transparent.” Yet, we do not really know the sexualities of the producers, only view the mobilized “recognizable markers of dyke subculture (butch bodies, tattoos, and piercings), which are not the ‘norm’ that many queer women “accept or identify with” (Russo). The “real” may not be simulated, but it may not be the truth either.
Likewise, Lauren Langman stresses that porn exposes tension between social control and agency and empowerment, offering “a critique of patriarchal codes of morality and adornment in which the body becomes a basis of empowerment and authenticity” (2008). This is also likely the case with Courtney Trouble’s Reel Queer Productions, also subsumed by punk aesthetics, which advertises itself as “authentic, queer, smoldering, and diverse.” This “authenticity” is countered by hetero alt-porn, including the new version of New Wave Hookers, in which alt porn girls use “performative mechanisms to denaturalize gender” – such as acting out “clichés,” according to Katrien Jacobs, that “Make viewers aware of the constructed nature of the sex …”
By 2005, the conference The Art of Netporn convened, which attempted to pave the way to “awaken media activism and intellectual sharing” and “immersion in pornographic networks” while averting “hysteria” and a “climate of narrowmindedness.” For these participants, netporn is a nexus where “major political tensions and gender wars come to light” amid a progressive desire for a “post-utopian quest for pleasure and media awareness.”
They strip away much of the cliché modifiers we often employ to describe porn. As such, it is neither a “beckoning commodity” nor “queer counter-culture” but sheer “data that can be modified by social actions, communications and relationships… in DIY online eroticism” with literary and cultural roots reaching back to Bataille, Rabelais, and de Sade. Overall, the activists foster certain tenets, summarized below:
- Porn culture is a breeding ground for alternative body tolerance and amorphous queer sexuality – or gender morphing and cross-voyeurism – a willingness to “try” a subculture, like being “butch.”
- Porn fosters “performative mutations” or “multilayered parodies of gender” – such as Buck Angel, female “bear.”
- Porn provides a series of interesting, nuanced, and layered works of art and writing.
- Porn is an evolving, democratizing zone housing autonomous sex communities or places for self-activated sex workers to decode, subvert, and re-encode signifiers and produce workers who are “creative, dynamic, and unexploited” that may undo the “colonial gaze”(Miller-Young).
- Porn is an evocation of grotesque sex and punk activism.
- Porn is a space to “execute … project of ownership, design and control of images … a loci of the cultural labor of self-authorship against, or in friction with, hegemonic real and virtual views…” (Miller-Young)
- Porn is a transformer of queer identities and an active contributor to minority (sexual, ethnic, etc) social networks.
- Cyberporn is a “cultural technology of racial desire and disavowal”—a networked of matrixed cultural codes and cybertypes – “transcripts of fetishized Otherness” (Nakamura and Miller-Young)
On the Sex/Punk Streets : A Narrative Infused with Punk Porn History
As I slunk down into my green hooded sweatshirt yesterday and entered the dank “adult bookstore” that sits besides the highway overpass behind a strip club on the far corner of town, the connections between punk and porn, the two engines that fuel an interest in radical body politics, appeared like voltage in the night sky. The woman behind the corner, who was a tad angry because I didn’t pay my membership fee, was wearing an MDC shirt, the former Austin/San Francisco hardcore band that has waged a musical guerrilla war against every government administration since Ronald Reagan. I didn’t dare ask about the T-shirt, since she slipped off very quickly to clean the booths, places I don’t enter in the low-lit neon backrooms, where the bodies of uncles, priests, immigrants, and college kids loiter at 7:00 a.m. in body hunger, mesmerized by video screens chock-full of squirting erections and basketball sized breasts or somebody’s mouth between their own legs. My own interest goes back almost twenty years, when I first nabbed a peek at the sordid underbelly of Hollywood, the same Hollywood that reared bands like the Germs, X, and Joan Jett. This was the other side that didn’t show up at the Academy Awards, the one that heaved up Traci Lords, the sometimes voracious, (supposedly) drugged-out, titillating, and puckered-mouth 16 year old porn problem that uncovered a modern 1980’s teenage wasteland in all of its un-glory before mainstream movies like Less Than Zero showed Robert Downey Jr. in a desperate sex worker fiasco.
Lords ended up with a flimsy pop career, a guest appearance on a Ramones record (Acid Eaters), and a cameo on the sitcom Will and Grace. However, in terms of limited limelight, she’s never got far beyond her early skin flick infamy, and although people like outsider film director John Waters tried to resurrect her for an art-house audience, most of the men I know were/are still much more fascinated by her curvature than her campy acting. By the way, the punk connection to John Waters is infamous, since he hired Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys for his middle class midnight movie schlock fest Polyester; meanwhile, Iggy Pop showed up in his spoof Cry Baby, which, coincidentally, also features Traci Lords. The Queers, the epitome of surf-pop-punk, played a show (dubbed “Sex Night”) at Chet’s Last Call in Boston, MA for a night including films by Russ Meyer; meanwhile, The Saints released the tune “Porno Movies.” So punk, porn, and exploitation films forged a trajectory that crossed paths in the journey to explore fertile bodies of the night.
Mudhoney, the band name for the still running Seattle proto-grunge garage heroes, is the title of a 1965 Russ Meyer film, the notoriously heavy-handed director often recognized for his DD sized starlets and C-movie, sexploitation, boob-a-rama skinema. He was the director whose work Malcolm McLaren and Julien Temple basically re-created as The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. The project actually began as a script called Who Stole Bambi? co-written by movie critic Roger Ebert (who also penned Valley of the Dolls, which became lyrical fodder for a Generation X song). The film experienced a stillbirth after two days worth of shooting when the funding plummeted. Still, the idea of punk’s long-time influence on porn became cemented in my mind when I nearly bumped into the Betty Vicious Punk Slut Sex Doll (replete with pierced nipples and short, choppy, dyed plastic hair), produced by Hustler, which was staring at me from a wire shelf in the middle of the same shop where seagulls stood silent and dumb outside and the MDC shirt behind the counter first triggered my concepts.
For those of us that have been staring with eyes wide open into the history of punk long enough, the pithy playground and wicked ways of punk and porn seem linked like umbilical cords. Il Duce, the sneering, slobby, meathead singer of the Mentors worked at a porn theatre, as did one member of Devo. The song “Electrify Me” by El Paso’s exiles The Plugz introduced the infamous film New Wave Hookers. Their music can also be heard in The Devil in Miss Jones 3 and 4 alongside music from Gleaming Spires (known for their tune “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls”), featuring members of Sparks. Damon Edge from the San Francisco acid-punk band Chrome found his music a brief home in 1970’s porn, while former Sex Pistols and New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren worked for a soft-core French porn company in Paris before managing Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow (whose 15 year Burmese singer Myant Myant Aye, rechristened Anabella Lwin, was coaxed by Malcolm into posing scantily for several 45 and LP sleeves) . Lydia Lunch from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks experienced a pistol inserted in her vagina in Richard Kern’s brutal black and white short film Fingered. Much earlier, Genesis P-Orridge, one of the founders of the noise-wave band Throbbing Gristle, staged the exhibition “Prostitution” at the Institute for Contemporary Art in 1976. Alongside his then girlfriend Cosey Fanny Tutti (later of Chris and Cosey industrial music fame), he displayed used tampons and porn magazines featuring 40 layouts of Tutti herself (who was featured in nude layouts in soft core porn throughout the 1970s) that were instantly decried by MP Nicholas Fairbairn, whose comments were featured in the Daily Mail next to the picture of Siouxsie Sioux.
Porn stars Jeanna Fine and Taija Rae ended up on the first two front covers of Chemical People records and the band enlisted the help of Jack Baker (famed for his Dark Bros. produced porn films) for back-up vocals, though one of their song titles, “A Pornography,” gives the connection solid footing, cameo or not. Lastly, the book A Misfit’s Manifesto, by Donna Gain, a sociologist, writer for the Village Voice, and all-around punk pioneer herself, wrote that some punks she knew in the 70s and 80s were involved in the sex trade, mostly as strippers, or in the case of Dee Dee Ramone, (“53rd and 3rd”) as hustlers. So, if street level kids were popping up in both worlds, it’s worth noting that Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons did a Hustler layout, Blondie was the front cover and main feature in an issue of Penthouse, the Dead Kennedy’s were the focus of a Playboy article, and Wendy O. Williams offered a nude pictorial for Hefner’s rather mainstream magazine too, replete with shots of her posing thousands of feet in the air on a trick airplane. From the low to the high of punk hierarchy, sex trade and music trade commingled, sometimes uneasily, sometimes cocooned in conjoined “sin,” or better yet, resistance and effrontery.
Simon Reynolds’ book Rip it Up and Start Again does not shy away from revealing the warts and all side of bands like Devo, who are most noted for their “Whip It” video and its timeless images of half-clothed new wave honky-tonk. Reynolds, a former editor at Spin, quotes singer Mark Mothersbaugh as saying, “Porn is important to the lower economic levels, simply because they can’t afford real sex.” As a keen and eagle-eyed writer trying to unfold the crinkles of post-punk, he doesn’t gloss over the “plain misogynistic” edge of the band, who loved “pornography, whether it was Bataille’s avant-garde version or Hustler’s mass-marketed hardcore,” even deciding that much of Duty Now for the Future “sounds like a robotic version of the Knack’s sexually pent-up ‘My Sharona,’ all choppy New Wave guitar and frantically pelvic jack-off rhythms.” Or, better yet, perhaps it mines and mimics the territory of The Vapors “Turning Japanese,” with it supposedly not-so-veiled homage to masturbation and equally quirky, lean beat. Also, punk devotees can point to songs like “Whip in My Valise” by Adam and the Ants and “O Bondage Up Yours” by X Ray Spex to draw their own conclusions about punk and new wave’s ties to S/M, bondage, and underground sex culture, where fetish and masturbation go hand in hand.
References to porn in punk rock abound, both positive and negative, partly because it is a topic that sends people into the boot-camps of their ideologies, unwilling, I suppose, to get their feet and conscience sullied by the other side. In the mid-1980s, right when porn home video had overtaken the cliché era of sleazy men in raincoats sizzling in Times Square/back alley bookstore exploration, the “new” Clash toured America and hit places like Detroit, where Joe Strummer was apt to say, “Pornography is rape,” partly to offset the endless hedonism of rockers like Motley Crue, who relished teenage girls loaded up on speed and beer in their laps. To be more precise, a Creem magazine interview with Joe from October 1984 includes the writer Bill Holdship admitting, “I’d rather hear Joe Strummer telling a crowd of Detroit teenagers that “Sex Mad War” is dedicated to ‘a time when a woman can walk alone in the park at midnight with being afraid—which is her divine right’ anytime over Motley Crue’s ‘We love fucking girls in Detroit because their pussies taste so good!’” In their own words, Motley Crue told Penthouse in May 1992 that “That’s what we like– fat girls will do anything. We let ‘em on the bus, and we just started partying…all of us banging these chicks. We stayed in front of that 7-Eleven for like two hours…we’re drawing on them, fucking pentagrams on their nipples.” Coincidently, this interview is in the same issue that features proto-feminist porn filmmaker and photographer Suze Randall (of Newave Pictures) careful camera lens documenting and exploring beloved porn star Terri Weigel, a former Playmate of the Month who is still in the business. But back to the Clash, whose pretend roadie in Rude Boy worked at a porn shop, as evidenced by the film itself. Strummer does not careen through the shop, smashing the shop’s dildos and raw color-splashed magazines; furthermore, what did Strummer think of the famous Bob Gruen photograph of bassist Paul Simonon with a Playboy in his outstretched hands or the Sex Pistols’ American tour photos, especially the one with Johnny Rotten and the sex doll on the bus? Was this the precursor to Betty Vicious, the Punk Slut Sex Doll? Perhaps.
One might recall X’s song “Adult Books” or the Dicks “Saturday Night at the Bookstore,” which is, to some degree, an unflinchingly ode to glory-holes. The same godforsaken glory-hole spectacle figured in a story told to me from a member of another prominent Texas punk band on tour. The trope of the glory hole in punk songs is no simple passing reference, but part and parcel of homoerotic candor, not unlike later queer core bands like Pansy Division who would write singles like “For Those About to Suck Cock,” “Nine Inch Males,” and “Touch my Joe Camel.” Over a decade earlier, at least one Big Boys poster, featuring a naked cowboy on the front, nearly got Raul’s shut down in Austin.
Punks from the 1980s regularly recall lawsuits and problems associated with HR Giger’s penis art from Dead Kennedy’s Frankenchrist album. Undoubtedly, penis, porn, and glory-holes abound in the punk tradition, threatening good taste and overturning the rules of the body politic, in which mainstream culture tries to reign in the body, or at least keep it in neon alleyway backroom stalls, where the price of happiness is risk and temptation, the dualities of illicit sex that make one’s backbone buzz as the sound of toilets gurgle and morality is flushed down the pipes. Perhaps that is why, when John Candy starred in the terrible comedy Armed and Dangerous, the director chose rock’n’rockers and punks to hang inside and outside the porn store where Candy and Eugene Levy seek shelter and don the gear of transvestites and leatherboys. These two “normals” or “squares” masquerade in the bowels of the beast, which is not too distant from Italian film director Federico Fellini using an all-girl punk band to stir things up in his surreal, some say plot-less, 1980 work City of Women, which inspired a Playboy pictorial highlighting the film and spurred Gang Of Four to write the song “Woman Town.”
When my band played the rock club Cocodrie down the street from Chinatown and Little Italy in San Francisco in 2001, our lady-punk guitarist and singer disappeared into the booths at the strip club Lusty Lady, a cavernous cocoon across the street, where the screen popped up for a few minutes and a skinny, tattooed young girl shimmied, slinked, and snaked to an endless beat emitted from nowhere. In the periphery, we could see a bodacious black women with her legs arced in the air, but this grrrl smack dab in front of us was engaging. My band mates brought me into the booth, and we had as much conversation with the girl as possible between the semen smeared plastic walls. But soon after popping off what amounted to a giddy, impromptu question/answer session, the stripper became embarrassed, covered her chest, and told us how many bands appeared in the booth before or after gigging next door. So, in the spirit of free sexuality and sex worker appreciation, we gave her a CD, or simply left it at the counter and begged the guy to give it to her. Then we waited, hoping she might venture over to talk with us before we went south to San Jose with our Ford van with a broken back light. She never did, but the strip club motto: “Every day is a good day for masturbation” resides with me forever.
The walls between punk, fetish, porn, and stripping are flimsy, so it never surprises me when the adult film industry, which for years has been featuring studs whose tattoos reveal their punk proclivities (an anarchy tattoo is a dead giveaway, of sorts), ended up releasing punk, skateboarder, and gothic-themed DVDs, some even featuring bands like D.I. Alas, “Johnny’s got a problem and he’s outta control…” now could include taste buds beyond the common saliva of quick meth fixes and petty crime. Yet, whether or not this represents some kind of insurrection remains to be debated. As Rachel Hall insists in the Independent Weekly: “The sex industry sells the familiar, the routine, the ritual, the stereotype, the role-play: In the words of Radiohead, no alarms and no surprises, please. Though it may claim to provide encounters with the alien and the outré, on one fundamental level its mediated exchanges are as exotic as McDonald’s. In times like these they have to be. The participants–in this culture, each of us, to some degree–apparently insist on it.” Yet, while I agree with part of this, she seemingly only examines porn’s bland, homogenized, face-lifted mainstream side, its normalization and gentrification via Jenna Jameson, as if this represented the whole slate, including S&M, midget, fatty, hirsute, and elderly sex films, which I don’t believe is true.
Look back at films like Candy Goes to Hollywood and you’ll glimpse a woman, later named Wendy O. Williams, shooting ping pong balls out of her vagina or later on cavorting with animalistic adorned women in 800 Fantasy Lane, never having sex but always a kind of peripheral, otherworldly, and untamable creature. When I saw her smash TV sets and attack cars with chainsaws on ABC’s Friday night music program aptly titled Fridays (the same show who hosted the Clash for four songs…though I may be confusing this with her appearances on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, which also featured the Clash), I knew this mohican woman, gruff and distorted as Maggie Thatcher in a Jamie Reid Sex Pistols poster, with electrical tape on her nipples, was every bit as volcanic and insidious as Iggy Pop slicing himself with broken beer bottles on albums like Metallic KO. This was punk recognizing the body as ground zero for the revolt against the Christian-Judaic-Islamic notion as the body as some kind of God’s temple chained to guilt and original sin. It was howling primitivism, the epitome of filth and fury spat out in a theatre of cruelty with a soundtrack as raw and “dis-chordant” as Detroit factories married to the sound of tribal drumming with a uncanny dose of noise musique, all attached to the hip of black bodied rock’n’roll guitar.
Anarchic Asides: A Digression to Discuss Kathy Acker
This following texts are not meant to convey the signature of a dissertation, nor the arid echelons of academia; instead, I hope they offer a sense of embodied practice and in-process archives. Keeping looking back to discover how these sections might mutate and differ, recalibrate and repeat, over the next few months.
Maybe I should start by delivering this song, an ode to writer Kathy Acker. I distilled the first section from the opening stanza of the curt poem that beats it wings on the back pages of her seminal text Blood and Guts in High School. The song became my way to reckon with Acker, my attempt to weigh and imitate her, to form my own literary insurrection, to mark my adulthood with a crease made by her, where I fold my life. I tried to grip, subvert, and re-project her sentiments, though likely I only end up producing an intertext.
Blood and guts in high school
This is what I know
Parents teachers boyfriends
All have to go
Some boys give me scars
Some boys move their hips
Some boys tell me lies
Some boys tingle my lips
Blood and guts in high school
Thighs open in the night
We dream of dead thieves
see devils taking flight
Some boys are born poets
Some fall in rivers and die
I am swarmed by snakes
Yet they never cry
Some boys like wild horses
Some forget to touch
Some boys smell like weeds
Gimme Genet tonight
The song can be heard here as well:
By the late 1980s, Glenn Harper opined, “Kathy Acker’s discontinuous compilations of pornography, plagiarism, and autobiography display the dismembered corpse of everyday life rearranged according to a desire unfettered by social norms” (SubStance 1987 : 44) Ten years later, upon hearing of her death, he scribed this tribute as well: “One of Kathy Acker’s most scandalous techniques was her manipulation of pornography, a body of material that put her at odds with the Dworkin / MacKinnon anti-porn wing of the feminist movement. Her attitude toward pornography reflected her conviction that sex was a central, undeniable element of everyday life” (1997, 2011). In Acker merged the corrosive world of punk and sex, intellectual acuity and manipulative effects. If the petit-bourgeois constructed the intellectual, she turned it into shrapnel, dismantling the masculine image-system. Yet, in “Oedipus Meets Sacher-Masoch: Kathy Acker’s Pornographic (Anti-Ethical) Aesthetic,” Suzette Henke, asks, “Does Acker’s fascination with sexual violence and sadomasochistic practices inadvertently replicate the kind of sensationalism she deliberately attempts to exploit, satirize, and defuse?” Henke asserts, rather mildly, that Acker reinscribes the male prerogative and gaze, liberating very little in her discourse, which becomes akin to form of collusion. She does not puncture the master narrative, the dominant culture paradigm, even if her flourishes seem antithetical on the the surface.
For me, Acker represented a high priestess of punk that actually presaged the actual genre and social/musical movement. An arbiter of rebel yell tastes to come, she offered texts of eruptive ennui, reeking with steel-toed language. In her later photos, perhaps no more than a punctured persona, she looked part Penelope Houston (The Avengers) and part Richard Kern model, a choleric starving New York artist that disrupted Me Generation banality and softness in the 1970s while embodying, or parading and parodying, a post-modern fixation on deconstruction. She disassembled and dis-articulated the language of propriety and restraints, of reason and seasoned discourse deployed by canonical writers, academic peons, dusty old transcriptions, and emerging small press media. She inherited, reworked, and stole texts from Genet or travel brochures, 8 mm porn loops and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Language, fierce and rapid, was tattooed on her sense of being. Her work had the dented patina of futility and disgust, loathing and truncated hope, queer resistance and fiery polemics. She mimicked, at times, the rhythm and diatribes of William Burroughs, including his use of reworked shredded sentences, stolen narrative twists, incessant Control issues, and his sex-and-violence cocktails and cock-tales.
“Acker is always oscillating between worlds – bourgeois and bohemian, narrative and avant garde, couture and biker,” insists Amy Scholdet, writing in her pithy introduction to Essential Acker, “Inserting porn into the literary, she refuses to choose sides. What cannot be overestimated is the pleasure Kathy took in writing porn … sexuality in Acker’s work is a site of confusion – and it’s within that confusion that her female characters come alive … They are victims who crave and get revenge. Sexually voracious … ravenous, humiliated, and victorious all at once” (Grove Press, 2002). Kathy married those elements in taut, pitched, nervy elements, warehousing them like a post-feminist car dump. She did not echo with commonplace solidarity but with a sense of the solitary, a paint-tattered turf of her own. People might mock her invectives, her endless old tricks, the chipped-tooth customary rage, the horrible berserk three chord blur of her sentences, but most have to admit that even in her early stages, that composure and compulsion were not feigned counter-cultural composites. They embodied authentic seizure and insistence:
“Like any other rebel slave, perverse rebel, I resolve, now and forever, with total desperation, always to go to all lengths,”
“If pornography,’ mused the night, ‘ is that which incites its listeners to degeneracy, violence, and rioting questioning, what you’re telling me is pornographic. You don’t even know how to speak properly.’
‘All stories or narratives,’ the dog barked, ‘being stories of revolt, are revolt’” ( Don Quixote: 146).
In the late 1970s, she tossed off Kathy Goes to Haiti as a kind of last ditch, ‘gimme formula or give me death,’ Nancy Drew porn book-meets-travel journal. Dismissed by Acker herself as trivial, inconsequential, and even worse, flat-out dull, it was one of the first texts I thumbed at length, along with the collection Portrait of An Eye, during the mid-1990’s fetid humidity in southern Illinois. According to Acker, she wrote the dumbest book possible in order to sell, and profit, from the text: “I took the formula of the porn novel, and a made a structure, a mathematical structure … It was the most boring thing in the world to write…” (“IRT” 281-82). Yet, critics still flock to that work, including Marilyn Manners, who pictures the character Kathy as a “parodic emblem of postcolonial relations as distilled in the tourist industry … serving as a sort of traveling Western-culture lending library…” in “The Dissolute Feminisms of Kathy Acker” (105: 2000). The editors summarize Manners’ intercession as a way to navigate the literary tension inherent in Acker, who collapsed distinctions between “parody, popular cultue, pornography and’ punk [grrrl] lyricism’” (17) and illustrate Acker’s “dissoluteness” and unstable “rubric of feminism and femininity.”
Kathy Acker supposedly once spoke of performing in pornographic movies, which she left after mobsters and the corporate investors ruined the fun. Throughout her work, that sex body remained intact, probed, pondered, permeating with meaning from Blood and Guts in High School — (“my cunt red ugh”) — to “I become Helen seferis, and then, Alexander trocchi”— (“I touch myself again alone I know who I am; I experience strength pulse the muscles between the arms of my back … I feel alone and strong.”) Nicola Pitchford complicates this sense of viscera and pleasure zone, this power and pain, suggesting Acker actually become like an “idealized critic of pornography: one is haunted by the awareness of arousal taking place elsewhere, in the previous lives or original intentions of these images and these words … as she has asserted, women are not supposed by conventional discourse to have autonomous sexual desires.”
“Acker’s sexual scenes are not pornographic,” she argues in “Flogging a Dead Language: Identity Politics, Sex, and the Freak Reader in Acker’s Don Quixote” : “their primary purpose is not to arouse the reader … Their language evokes how women tend to speak in heterosexual pornography — that is, in texts conventionally aimed at male ‘one-handed readers,’ where female sexual desire (or a male vision of it) is welcomed and is articulated openly, greedily, and continually … Only somewhere in the interplay between all three of these implied readers – academic insider, female freak, and male masturbator– can the text in pastiche yield a new life, one that offers a voice to articulate female desire and agency for change” (2000, Fordham University).
This is the place you demand an upwelling of argument, utterance, trained soliloquies, and truth-giving. You demand a return to the process, not post-process, situated wisdom. You want me to explain how Acker refuses to die. How other species besides punks and art-bohemes have marked her a designated area, repaired her reputation, bred her stock in peer-reviewed assails. You want me to deconstruct their pedagogical practices, re-annex her back to margins, back to wounded solitudes. Make her feral again. They have banked on her, engineered her, polluted her, incorporated her, punished her with language-cement. Bottled the gas wafting from her embers. Collaborations with the publishing industry have supplanted her actual corporeality. She has become slushy, a byproduct, innervated, oxidized, factory cured, even mega-pixelled. Scholarly chairmen/women no longer doubt her strokes of genius: they ship her prestige to global intellectual consortiums. They churn and spit out buckets of her in waxen leaden theory. Yet, their limitless supplies of cold soil cannot contain her.
Acker was fully trained in the autopsy and cannibalization of the novels that sat beside her, like an arsenal. She was doggedly irrepressive, making those who were not privy to her style and excess shudder with stupidity under her glare. For her, language was not uneventful, un-evolving, or a stodgy rule-book. Language was imperative, action, dizzyingly repetitious, divorced from the rigid lock-step grandiloquent narratives. Her daydreaming was foul and foisted upon the night. Her sentences evoked rough, searching, blemished, unfinished, and hard-boiled style. Where other writers chose to be placid, mechanical, quiet, and patient with both tame narration and suspended audiences, Acker was akin to the theatre of Artaud and alienation — those who send subjects into a story made and unmade, indefinitely. Subjects spurred and spurned. While many post-feminist readers adore her inner-pedagogy of post-structuralism, the allure of applied theories, I see her work slam-dancing alongside William Burroughs, John Rechy, Henry Miller, Jim Thomson, and Arthur Rimbaud. Though, in her pencil flash and typewriter muzzle, the male gaze is torn from its stable and predictable process into a polyphonic pastiche. She rejects and embodies, inters and disinters the gaze simultaneously: “fuck” becomes a mantra and critique. Her body is a map of knowledge, dialogic, a terminus of suffering, and the agenda calculator.
In Acker’s forays, the role of the body is indeterminate. It exists, wanton and serialized, writing itself into the narrative, a hermeneutic vessel, triangulated between the text she steals and appropriates, on behalf of the writer persona-slash-guise she builds and maintains. The body and identity ricochet between the fleshy, mutinous, vilifying, punk grammar of the physical being and the spirit.
Acker has long ceased to exist independent of the externalist conception of her: she is/became the public language she deployed. The post-death orientation now holds sway: she is theoretical enterprise, meaning-maker, collaborator with endless thesis papers and dissertation baggage, a transmission unit, a repertoire of book jacket images, inventor of cultural production not quite her own, warden of social-process antithetical post-feminist rhetorical inquiry, situated in the pedagogical imperative that asks: how should she be taught? How should she be mastered? One wonders how students can depict and decipher her, in the midst of rejecting mastery, in a lens already fractured, enormously slippery … one, like Acker, truly unable to be fossilized in any inductive, deductive, or “right” way.
Was she “now-centered,” a punk avatar, unwilling to be co-opted and commodified? Acker effectively deranges the language-users, the master narratives, that have become part of the environment of hipster vocabulary, culture vultures, and the elite canons. Her dissection and mixology of major works, from Don Quixote to Egyptian tales, is a response to their public structures, their architecture of meaning; she embodies a kind of intersubjectivity – each piece of narrative jolts with self-conception, each represents flux. She internalizes Genet (not unlike Patti Smith doing the same for Keith Richards, Rimbaud, etc.), who abandons her; these one-to-one mentorships with dead men help her create autonomous zones. Acker invokes heteroglossia, many tongues, rogue identities, always intertwined with others’ texts, shredding epistemology, coded in sentences that break, deliver, and devour. Acker is the image-runner. She finishes the texts that others thought they completed. Under her spell, the “mutant” hybrid texts exude hallucinogenic toxins. Her writing syndrome is further inflamed by Xerox flyer cut’and’paste lexicons. She is also an ophiophile, snake lover, who hisses, sheds her skin, and mimics the allure and severity, the coil and slippery intensity of the creature.
Her language is tough as teeth, packed-tight as tattoos on a biker’s sleeve, afflicted by impurities.
Shut up before I bitch-slap you with my syntax, she infers.
Ancient writing is an immersion in wine, sheep dung, scorpion luminescence, thorny fruits foul as damp rotting onions, cinnamon dust, standing stone sculpture, milk-sweet odors, air-cured hams, deep lands of bruxas (witches), bouquets of wild honey, kernels and potshards, tarantulas with urticating hairs and abdomens shattering like porcelain, custardly pulps, shell and bone mirth, solstice burial ferns and cinder cones, swallowed baby birds, rabbit curd, typhoid misgivings. Acker hauls these texts forward into strychnine, cauterization, copious profanity, quack cures, brute roughshod climaxes in surly nights, cryotherapy, saltpeper, neurological venom, bufotoxins, maladjusted horticulture, spinal taps, serum sickness and rash, rancid poultices, permanent dread, air-conditioned impotence, air-freighted cultivars, Egyptomania redux, glottal fry, vertical business DNA, digitized cum-shots, viscoelastic memory cells, fertilizer bombs, microchip skyscrapers, seismic zones, hypermusic, musculoskeletal disorder, illustrators-cartoonists-saints-mongrels, autistic hotspots, military-industrial prototypes, and carbolic acid fumes.
She presents an unabashed, rangy hand chopping at intricately patterned plots. She treks all the Oscar Wilde codes, all the Futurism clientele, all the James Joyce palettes, and the Appollinaire aplomb with her, in rubber mold and plastic resin grammar. Erudite cultural values, now all choked with contemporary 21st century cholesterol, become a last hurrah in the digestive track of her efforts. All that was civil, sheltered, jolly, impish, clever, generous, curated, enthralled, gnome-like, and patronly becomes leveled, squashed, saw-toothed, dispelled, voided, microwaved, and dehydrated into the raw-food of her meaning-making.
Critics, though, in their blue veined ways, will offer up their stiff platitudes.
- Acker’s hubristic volatility is unbearable.
- She represents bellicosity schtick.
- She is a prostitute-devil-poet.
- Her neurotic tics masquerade as deformed ouvre.
- She is no more than a rapacious Lower East Side lounge lizard.
- She deals in stock-in-trade grotesquerie.
- She is culturally promiscuous, fatally hysterical, and smeared in crudity.
- She converts truckloads of college readers into clones spouting her ire, farcical scorn, and flawed and flayed methodology.
- She is a bygone Baudelaire bitch, endemically immature, with a sell-by date of 1981.
- She is no more than an aggregator of postmodern fuss, a squeezebox, a compressor unit, and a liquidator.
- She is a she-punk huckster, an armchair raconteur.
- She turns high culture into fecal material.
- She styles herself as the Great Refuter, but she is a windbag.
- She repackages one-dimensional counterculture, for her own half-baked fame.
- She is a defibrillator, resuscitating dead foreign cultural theories.
Against this backdrop, this noise and fury signifying nothing, Acker still maintains her hold, tenaciously. Barely a year ago Katie Muth delivered her fine-etched assessment “Postmodern Fiction as Poststructuralist Theory: Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School,” which explores Acker’s role as vendor and vaudevillian, weaving writers like Cixous, Hawthorne, and Mallarme, Tantric collages, folklore and parables, mini-narratives, and alinear dream-maps (emblematic of biopolitics, narratological aporia, and sadomasochistic play) into her own lair of the white worm. Acker’s anti-plots soak and spout abjection and oedipalization with dizzying fury, both undermining and enforcing phallogocentrism, Muth suggests. She places Acker under anesthetic just long enough to comb through the literary-social-cultural-political detritus with finesse, exposing Acker’s still-fresh aesthetic martyrdom.
Still, I’ll let her grind the academic freeze fractured flint stone, and supply this denouement instead — a poem I keep re-carving over the last ten years.
The Rented Body
For writer/poet Kathy Acker
(who died of cancer while
seeking alternative treatment
in Mexico on my birthday, 1997)
Because the body is not clean enough
because the body will not hold still,
it is not a Chinese jar,
I see myself,
slipping out of my skin,
nosing towards the city’s hull,
over tollbooths, oil refineries,
dead rail tracks, fast food
garrisons, spools of elongated
suburbs anchored under
marred florescent suns,
painting the tar and asphalt
with my belly’s blood.
If the body was given over to us,
but it is not given
we are given such small places,
the muscle and tissue
might not attempt to swim
through broken mirrors
of medical mishaps.
Instead, we stoke a worming
desire to survive, in the eye of some
godhead, path, or parchment.
Some remedy already
inscribed like a tattoo
under our soft skin.
Can we surprise this body?
Develop another kind
of mind, like Artaud, or
others, blood heavy as milk,
heart scarred, hemmed by skin.
Mutate us from mewling hunchbacks,
swooning everyday people,
an aristocracy of filth
and abandon, into pussy freedom.
We lick lips, smack with pink
torn from withering hibiscus
buried in pubis … remnants
of stale lipstick.
Come, she says. Breathe in these
rank fetish towels, these
bathhouse murals, these
blackened late-night loiters.
The sizzling electricity fills us.
Let pores, capillaries,
and mucus dance. Live in
the infirm body built for death’s
haiku. Stumble on its sweet droning
If the agility were granted you
to break free from no money hopes,
weary scraps of time code
stubborn, swarming cross-breeds
or your squelched pores
she asks, her eyes narrowing
into slits like obsidian daggers,
would we dare be altered,
re-gendered, made again,
as she too changed,
into the cancerous shape
we dread in the night
made from a moth’s whir…
How do you poach and
plagiarize in the void
that’s like an exploded
Mexican lottery ticket?
You lost, welcome to
Tijuana. Welcome to
D.H. Lawrence’s leftover
serpent, to the senile skeletons
of Posada, to John Reed’s
to the ghost piano of Paul Bowles,
to Zapata’s black mask,
to Octavio Paz’s workshop of
similes and Kahlo’s caterpillar
The whip of your tongue dissolved men.
You hosted parasites. Language
was your bitch. Body was your
Now the great compass of your life,
the mandala of the meat wheel
of conception, has been re-arranged
Somewhere you greet infidels
and misfits with a wink…
Gabriel tries to pierce you
with a sword that you turn to
tepid water and dump into Lethe.
For cancer, you were re-born.
You cried to the body
and heard the reply:
“Die like an assassin
or an insurance man. The
music is the same.”
Yet, you tasted mortar fire,
tongue zoos, brine and silt
of dead poets,
swollen black lungs of
punk rock joy. Buddha
said you were born to die,
but you never saw anything
beyond the rook of his
lap. Or did you…
Tonight I give you, she says,
a place to migrate to-
a city of the ear, a place where all
stations are accidental, where skin
meets skin in rough geometry.
A place where poetry is
violence, and stars bite down
For if the body were pure enough,
she says, like Michelangelo’s body emerging
from a rock carved by Michelangelo
in the form of a slave, but it is
not, you would have to admit
heaven and hell, desire and loss
are the same.
On the hem of the last mystery that is
not a mystery, in the brute eye
of old lacerations, names, and urges,
she looks into our eyes, glazed with
need, and the agony of not needing,
saying, “I’m not vanquished, in
this body’s atrocity exhibition.
Not torn apart. I am, become…”
Against the slag heap of
the bankrupt world, she shows us
how to eat the mongrel poem
at the heart of things, all while
she is forever bunked in the kingdom
of Babel’s dust, from which we are
banned, till we taste her lips. Girl,
we just want to taste your lips.