On Kathy Acker’s Umbilical Ties to New York’s Downtown

Kathy Acker.jpg

V[erlaine] and R[imbaud] entered Brussels (which resembled the New York City of July 4, 1988, by some quirk of time). … One evening I descended into the  hip-hop of Broadway, tiny skeleton watches sold in every dime shop, when funk bands on every corner gave me their names, the new work, under a skyless night, no longer able to escape the myth which told me who I was.

--- Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity (my itals)

Vis-à-vis this year’s Acker Awards, there has been some questions about Kathy Acker’s ties to the New York Downtown scene. Reading about her offers little help. Perhaps, I haven’t read enough but no writer I’ve looked at who has discussed Acker, from book reviewer to academic, has the slightest idea of what her work was about, I mean even in the barest outlines.

Two things are particular deficiencies in these writers:

I. No understanding of her relation to the New York punk rock milieu

II. No idea of why she used unacknowledged borrowings from other writers.

Let me say a few words about this, referring only to her first few books: Life of the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac, and   The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec,  because these are where she forged her style. (And I am not writing this to pose as an expert, most people I’ve discussed this with know something of her New York heritage, though they haven’t put it into print.)

I. Punk Themes

In discussing early punk rock, I will not repeat the arguments I made about hip-hop’s birth my preface to Cochise’s The Street Gangs of the Lower East Side. Suffice it to say that punk (like rap music) is not a variation on existing styles but a radical new creation of a musical form and that, I believe,  such fundamental shifting of the building blocks of sensibility can only come from the street since street culture (unlike middle class musical culture) is untethered to the constricting, dominant forms. Further, as both these massive musical births took place in New York City: rap in the South Bronx, punk on the Lower East Side around bands such as the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Television and others that played at CBGB’s, it will be useful to see how Acker’s innovations also draw on this city in definitive ways.

Now punk music with its violent simplification of existing rock structures parallels Acker’s simplifying of narrative, but that is not paramount here. Rather I want to point to her adoption of three core punk themes.  (And, mark well, I am not saying these are Acker’s only important themes, since gender identity and sexuality might well be considered her main emphases, but here I’m looking at those that link her to punk music.)

Punk themes begin with the common coin of adolescent rebellion but then move in a political direction. They can be put:

1)) I hate my parents. (simple rock meme)

2)) I hate them because they are hypocrites and Puritans in conformity with their hidebound community (advanced)

3)) I hate the community because it relies on and fosters a criminal state and economics (new)

The first theme is a byword in early rock, the second visible in some early British Rock, but the last could only be found (till punk’s advent) in blues, not rock. (And, for those interested, I discuss the philosophy of country blues, drawing on R.A. Lawson, in my essay in From Somewhere to Nowhere.)

Acker not only embraces these themes, as I am about to show by quoting from her texts, but deepens them in a specific way, particularly via her use of appropriation. First some quotes:

1)) I hate my parents

I am an aristocrat. I was born to be able to do whatever I want. When I’m barely two years old, unable, of course, to fend for myself, my parents cast me out on the street. (87)

Life of the Black Tarantula

But my downfall came. My parents kicked me out of my house because I wasn’t interested in marrying a rich man, I didn’t care enough about money to become a scientist or a prostitute. (96)

I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac  

“According to Janis,” said the social worker, “She having a nervous breakdown. Her parents are psychotic and she’s been trying to break away from them. “I don’t want parents,’ she told me. ‘I was born from nothing.’ And even though she’s told her parents to stop calling her, they now call her and hang up the phone when she answers.” (270) 

The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec

 2)) And parents are part/parcel of corrupt, hollow, exploiting consumerist community.

My mother’s neighbors soon showed my mother they would accept no bastard weirdoes in their robot town.  (18)

Life of the Black Tarantula

I was a nice shopgirl, working in Barnes and Noble eight to nine hours a day answering phonecalls. Eighty dollars week take-home. I was a nice girl earning nice money. Nice money doesn’t exist. I needed a lot of money. I figured I could sell my body, a resource opened to most young women, not for a lot of money, but at least for more than eighty dollars a week and less than eight hours. [Now note] My friends were all respectable (i.e. had minimum money): I couldn’t ask them shit. (143)

I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac 

3) Yet none of this degradation is conceivable outside a capitalist, semi-authoritarian democracy that burns and trivializes the poor and minorities. Forces of oppressive control include:

---Vicious politicians




Life of the Black Tarantula

---depraved professors and educators

[To reveal their true characters] I replace the heads of the universities with jackals. (85)

Life of the Black Tarantula

(By the way this disdain for the academy is one of Acker’s recurrent themes, as, for instance, this from In Memoriam to Identity.)

           I didn’t know any men except for professors and they were monsters. (100)

---the financial sector

All of Paris will be there: the artists who know nothing [and] rich bankers who prey on the blood of the poor (111)

---hospitals, police, welfare agencies

Fifteen children and two parents lived in another room: they were allowed to live there free because the father did the janitoring for the building: they couldn’t get Welfare because the father worked as janitor; since he didn’t actually make any money, they were starving. In a hospital for the poor an old man sat too sick to walk from his wooden chair to the curtain which was the doctor’s booth; a half hour later we saw a policeman tell [the] old man “no loitering here” throw him on the street. (115) 

--- the elite

I’m not talking about brothels, stupid, but the real evil: the secret combinations of Rockefeller and Pentagon who bring [themselves] to popularity while they cause the takeover of Chile and massacre of Chilean people, [and the] largest dope-smuggling poison-cut smack heroin in history. (148)

I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac 

--- money-grubbing landlords

Cats run thought the collapsing railings [of] the buildings landlords have burned down to collect insurance, their tenants can no longer pay rent so why not burn down everything. (217)

The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec

 I believe all her descriptions and comments here reflect crucial punk rock themes.

Certainly, New York City is not the only place that has given birth to vast displacements in the streams of music. New Orleans (with jazz), Seattle (grunge), Chicago (urban blues), Washington, D.C. (the go-go blend of funk and R&B); each had its day, with New Orleans’ contribution being the most titanic of all. Still, it could be said that for that moment, in the early 1970s when both hip-hop and punk emerged, New York City deeply trademarked all pop music that would come after.  

Many of punk’s attitudes, such as its FTW attitude, disdain for shallow professionalism (i.e., scorn for poseurs), and political awareness, seem preeminently New York, giving its ultimate direction a very downtown feel. Something of that also appears in Acker. Let’s read more of her early writings.

 I move to New York to write and want to meet writers. I have no money, no way of getting money, no friends in New York, no parents. I get Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, walk into Columbia Presbyterian clinic: woman vomits blood on the floor. (81)

Life of the Black Tarantula

I had come to New York to be an artist: I thought I had to go to New York to be an artist. It was summer. The air became hotter and hotter. People, driven crazy by heat, hit each other over the heads and piss on each other’s faces. To relax: they steal cars. (138)

New York City is beautiful like an Italian saint. A yellow sky reflects mirrors marks a thousand thousand towers, steeples, bell towers who stand straight, stretch their limbs, rear up or falling back heavily, widen themselves, become bulbous like polychrome stalactites in boiling effervescence, a vermicelli of light. … All roars. All cries. Hairy men jerk off in the streets. Winos hock their clothes. Small old men sell chestnuts which are scorched. A bearded cop rests on a huge sword. (168) 

[both quotes from] I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac 

The landlord … tried to burn down the building. He realized he couldn’t keep collecting rent from people who had no more money and were going through garbage cans, looking for food. He decided to burn down the building to collect city fire insurance. One of the neighborhood leather boys who lives in the building caught the landlord starting the fire. He rushed at the landlord, shiv in hand. This started the largest gang war that’s occurred in years. … [Someone comments] “The cops never interfere … They’re too scared they’ll get burned. They don’t even clean up the dead bodies: the rats can do that.” (223)

The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec

Most of these quotations specifically refer to New York, but even for those that are not directly referencing the city, like the very last one, which purportedly references Paris,  I think any New Yorker will answer in the affirmative if I asked her or him, “Sound familiar?” And beyond the concrete details is the sassy, saucy, nasty, no-prisoners  New York state of tude.

 II. Appropriation

While Acker took up, amplified and played with these three punk schemata – and I emphasize again these were only some of her concerns – she detected a certain weakness in punk thought. Simply put, even if punks had an acute awareness of “the poverty of artists’ lives”( to adapt a phrase from Situationism), they were lacking in a forceful historical understanding on which to base their reading of the present. They were, without necessarily naming themselves as such, anarchists, but did they know anarchist history? They saw how the U.S. bulldozed its way into third world countries, but did they grasp the history of imperialism?

Acker’s reasoning, as I see it, was that a lack of historical insight would weaken the revolutionary thrust, which, at least in imagination, in 1974 she saw as on the horizon. Indeed, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac describes in thoughtful detail such a mass uprising against the corporate state.

To correct this imbalance, Acker would (using the term loosely) “smuggle” into her expressions of the punk sensibility, discussions of anarchist history, of working class revolt, and of the underpinnings of an inequalitarian capitalist system by appropriating hunks of text that provided an historical background to the current misery as well as endorsing solidarity with previous struggles and battle cries, such as those of the Paris Commune.

So, cases in point.

I believe it was in sketching out a tactically complex revolutionary movement in I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac that it became clearer to her what was lacking in the punk milieu. Contained in one section of this book is a blow-by-blow account of an uprising against the powers that be. She puts it like this:

It’s the beginning of the revolution. I think that I’m in love with Peter a tall light-haired revolutionary who wants to get rid of leaders and money. Thanks he can with others do this. Because he’s so involved in his work, his underground sabotage, his electronic work, he never has any time to eat, much less see me. (164)

The revolutionary vocation is a hazardous one. Acker explains:

Peter has been gone three weeks. He didn’t tell me where he was going for fear the Rockefeller government, using various chemicals, would force the information out of me. I’m scared of pain. (165)

The underground activity gives birth to a full-scale civil war. “I get in with a group of soldiers who at first don’t trust me. The news over the radio reports violence all through the United States.” (166)

Although so often Acker’s narrators chose love, their idea of love, over everything else, even life itself, in this story, love is trumped by revolutionary solidarity.  At a moment of truth, the narrator says, “This is the first time I have to choose between desire to find Peter and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. I can’t possibly do both. … I pick up the ammunition box.” (166)

Next, let’s look at how Acker uses appropriation in her following book.

(As an aside, I should note that Acker used appropriation in many different ways, even deeply humorous ones. In the aforementioned  In Memoriam for Identity, she first, using his poems and journals, describes Rimbaud in the tumultuous years of his “mad love” for Verlaine. The book then shifts to a reworking (and consummation) of the love between Quentin and Candace (here called Capitol) as it appeared in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But, get this, then she moves to (in the Faulkner novel) the sadistic relation between Jason and the female Quentin, whose money Jason has been secretly stealing. But now, in Acker, Jason morphs into Rimbaud, but not the previous, lyrical Frenchman, but the African Rimbaud, a gun-trader and exploiter in the same mold as the scheming, small-minded Jason Compson!) 

To return to The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, (1978)  her next book, I speculate that, after having completed her revolutionary fantasy, she began thinking about the need to give a proactive, anti-capitalist direction with historical ballast. Lefebvre (in his Everyday Life in the Modern World) points out that one of the key ways that (what he calls) neo-capitalism undermines  dissent is by blacking out historical memory. He writes, the economic system  undertakes “the simultaneous liquidation of the past and of historical influences.” (42).

Working from a similar premise, the need to deepen her punk audience’s knowledge of historical reality, Acker began interlacing raw historical sources into her narratives. And don’t’ forget, she would later point out that this “borrowing” underlined her contempt for private property. In a scene in In Memoriam where the protagonist is being sued for plundering another artist’s work to put in her own creations, the spokes-lawyers for the artist, says he is suing her, not only for “using a rich famous person’s work,” but for “hating ownership” and “publically hating an ignorant therefore unjust society.” (261)  In short, this is the origin of her infamous appropriation technique.

As noted, the proto-anarchist punks didn’t have a solid understanding anarchist history, so in her following book, she borrows material to bring up the 1886 Haymarket bombing and subsequent show trial of Chicago of eight anarchists activists. This is a key moment in radical history and to tell the tale Acker quotes liberally from the trail transcript.

             The D.A.: The defendants are to remain seated.

             (All the anarchists stand up and scream.) (205)

 Later she extracts from a political science discussion, which ironically is an encomium to Henry Kissinger, but expressed in a way that, in praising him, the author is diagnosing the current fraught political climate. 

The days when America would pay any price, would bear any burden would meet any hardship, would fight any foe to achieve the defense of liberty had made for a certain public spirit and elan, but, in retrospect, they led to overcommitment, to useless loss and destruction around the world. (257)

And this appropriation sets the stage for an in-depth extraction in which she reveals the underpinning of the mentioned “overcommitment,” which are rooted in imperialism. She is drawing from a book about the English, turn-of-the-century economist Hobson, who first argued that capitalism leads inevitably to imperialism.  

But, said Hobson, if [in an advanced, industrial country] the mass of people are already having trouble buying all the goods thrown on the market because their incomes were too small, how could the capitalists sell their new products?

Overseas. Imperialism is “the endeavor of the great controllers of industry to broaden the channel for the flow of their surplus wealth by seeking foreign markets and foreign investments to take off the good and capital they cannot use at home.” (277)

Readers may not recognize, by the way, but it was Hobson’s book that was the germ Lenin developed for his more famous study of imperialism

Thus, at least as I see it, Acker’s notorious use of appropriation directly stems from her sororal critique of the punk sensibility.

Again, this is hardly to say that gender identity and sexuality were not, after all, the crucial concerns of her writing, but it is to argue that her immersion in New York downtown punk scene was decisive in shaping her outlook and even consequential in some of her literary innovations. In her early use of appropriations, she became not only the (indirect) chronicler of the punk scene but its tutor.

III. Conclusion

Steve Cannon once told me -- and I would say he was right - that not being black I could never fully fathom his experience as a black man.  

Might we say something similar about Kathy Acker? That no one can really understand all dimensions of her writing unless the person has lived a long time; a long, deep time, in downtown New York City.

I end with her words from In Memoriam to Identity.

New York City was freedom not because ….  no one cared about the things that didn’t matter  (revealed in an awkwardness due to a directness which seemed uncharming, even desperate to Europeans, an awkwardness due to inability or refusal to be charming in clothes or in manners, awkwardness that above all seemed part of innocence ….) But because [for the protagonist] for the first time, she was being given a way to be a person. … The material movement of the heart or the imagination, which is also the world, in this simultaneously angelic and rotten city … formed a community not otherwise found in the world . (227-228)

And this

[For the protagonist] The main thing was money. She didn’t have any. She had almost finished off the seven thousand dollars and she wasn’t going to do a straight job … because she was married to something called art. New York City understood. (229)