Kathy Acker, “Empire of the Senseless” (1988) – No less a figure than Sarah Schulman praised Kathy Acker big-time as the sort of transgressive, innovative figure you don’t get in the arts these days, as both cities like New York and San Francisco and the minds of their inhabitants take on capitalist bourgeois values. Schulman depicts Acker’s death in the late nineties as a great tragedy for American letters, the cutting off of a great young voice… It says something that you can still be “young” in literature at fifty, about the age Acker was at the time (she was vague about when exactly she was born), but Acker could be said to have “written young” – energetic, transgressive.
Certainly “transgressive,” if by that we mean “depicts things people would rather not have depicted, generally in less-than-easy-to-scan prose.” We come out the gate with pedophilia, incest, apocalypse. Thivai and Abhor, outlaws, cyborgs, sometimes-lovers, wander semi-post-apocalyptic Paris. We’re not sure exactly what they’re doing – that would be sensible, and that’s not the empire we’re in, as the title reminds us – but they’re after something and meet all kinds of characters whilst they’re after it.
Here’s the deal: it’s hard to shock people who grew up with the internet, or anyway, hard to shock them with –content–. You can sometimes get a content-tone combo, some disjunction, that can do the trick. I don’t claim to be unshockable. But writers like Ackerman at the tail end of the twentieth century who wanted to be shocking and relied on weirdness, edginess, or just randomness to do so… that doesn’t age well. As the back blurb of “Empire of the Senseless” puts it, “Navigating the chaotic city, they encounter mad doctors, prisoners, bikers, sailors, tattooists, terrorists, and prostitutes…” Terrorists, sure, you might not want to encounter. Mad doctors… well, depends how mad. The rest of them? Who sees tattooists as especially edgy or noteworthy these days, anymore than any other craft worker, like a chef or a bricklayer? I imagine you could drop this book in a high school library in many parts of this country, and if you alerted the school committee to its presence, they might put it on the list to ban… but they might not bother, either.
There’s also the way the first few chapters include basically part of the plot of “Neuromancer.” The characters join with youth gangs of “Panthers” to do a cyber-heist to aid an AI with a name based on “Winter-something.” Pretty blatant! Supposedly, this is the sort of thing Kathy Acker just did, a sort of “intertextual” practice, and there’s interviews with both William Gibson and Acker and Gibson doesn’t seem to mind. Still and all… kind of seems like New York artsy writers ripping off genre writers and getting high-class plaudits for it. Granted, this was a period where some from the critical establishment were trying to take on board the existence, and effervescence, of science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Both cyberpunk as a literary movement, and the sort of theory-inflected cool-kid vibe the cyberpunk-theorists were trying to pull off, dissipated into the general cultural churn soon after, but it was definitely a thing…
All told, not sure what to make of this. Acker definitely is doing something and she definitely had chops. But it’s hard to react to this as much other than a time capsule. I’m a historian- I like a good time capsule. But I don’t think that’s what Acker was trying for, and there’s limits to how much time capsule qua time capsule can hold my attention. I’ll try some more Acker sometime, especially as I don’t think I’m letting go of fin de siecle literature and history as a topic any time too soon. ***