Chris Kraus: After Kathy Acker (2017)

On Chris Krau’s Parasocial Relationship with Kathy Acker

Me talking about Chris Kraus talking about Kathy Acker talking about Bernadette Mayer is like Camille Paglia talking about Susan Sontag talking about Simone Weil talking about Jesus Chris.

Me talking about Chris Kraus talking about Kathy Acker talking about Bernadette Mayer is like Camille Paglia talking about Susan Sontag talking about Simone Weil talking about Jesus Christ—it’s not a comparison that I find particularly favorable to me. Yet here we are. Kraus and I have never met and never spoken and yet it’s clear that we both care deeply about the parasocial and we’re both willing to take an excess of liberties about it. We force ourselves into one-sided relationships will people a few rungs above us, the heroes about which we are uneasily ambivalent, in ways that allow us to become the other person or sometimes even self-fulfill into a real, lived connection after we fantabulized it on the page.

Kraus’s new book is After Kathy Acker, which “may or may not be a biography of Kathy Acker” (14). In quite the same vein as Kraus, I did it with a collection of love letters and hate mail to the ghost of Andy Warhol, and felt a bit of slippage in my sanity in doing so, which I then inscribed on nearly every copy I signed as a spoiler just in case it saved anybody from going off the deep end: “Beware / congrats — everybody becomes Andy.” So I don’t really know Kraus and she’s surely never heard of me. But I know her because of Eileen Myles. Miles wrote the forward to Kraus’s book, I Love Dick (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents, 2006). That’s a pretty good recommendation. So I read it and it was the hottest book I’d read in a long time—not because of the sex scenes. It was because I Love Dick understood itself. I dig the deliberate and the self-aware, and in reading that book, I admit that I felt a kinship with Kraus, which in turn means I may owe some kind of debt to Kathy Acker.

How many people would make the list of everyone that Acker has fucked? I’m not on the list. Is Kraus? Acker died when I was 16 years old. In the most literal sense, my entire body of published work takes place after Kathy Acker and honestly, I feel I absolutely dodged a bullet there—because I would be on her list if we had met, because that’s the type of person Acker was. You would just get sucked into the vortex and there was nothing that you could ever do about it. If you said yes to Acker you were unquestionably doomed. You’d have a few days of bliss and then a few months of confusion or misery, but you were ultimately doomed by that decision. And if you said no to Acker? Oh my God, what blasphemy! Who would say no to Kathy Acker?

Who on Earth could deny her anything she ever wanted? That right there is part of the problem—that it was extremely difficult not to enable Acker. This is not only true of the brief amount of time where she was actually famous, but really her whole life people said yes to her—and yet something in her mind made it seem as though people were always saying no to her. That’s another thing I don’t understand about Acker: it’s not just a competitiveness; there’s almost a paranoia there. There’s this very bipolar “everyone loves me or everyone hates me” extremist, narcissistic, antagonistic viewpoint toward the rest of the world. Everything is a power trip, in the bed and out of it.

Kraus never speculates on whether Acker may have actually been mentally ill. Is it anti-feminist of me to wonder whether Acker maybe could’ve been much happier had she sought a legitimate biochemical assist? I get it: she’s Medusa, she’s the ultimate creature of écriture feminine, monstrously profane as an act of political subversion. I do feel a kinship with her on that level. It’s just also that she so often seems to do things without deliberation or intention, like she never bothered to grow up or be at all responsible. I stopping messing with people like she messed with them when I was maybe 22 or so. Has Kraus stopped? Am I just getting uptight, being happily married and having a steady teaching job, generally embodying the ideal stability of one’s late 30s? I’m not trying to stomp on her agency; she just seemed to exist in a feedback loop of misery. You can be highly intelligent and extremely intentional about your work and still be mentally ill.

I’ve tried reading Acker’s books several different times in several different phases of my life, but I can never get past about page four because the truth is that by page four, you know everything that’s going to happen in the book—and I use the word “happen” very loosely because these are not narrative books; they’re cut-ups of some of our most belovedly phallogocentric literature combined with random diary entries and collections of Acker’s correspondence with all her millions of married lovers, plus pornographic fantasies that she’s had and pulp novels that she’s slashed to pieces. I’ve got my own heavily annotated copies of the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, and still couldn’t tell you the difference between Acker’s Don Quixote book and the Great Expectations book and the Pussy, King of the Pirates book. Every time I try to read them, no matter what phase of life I’m in or how open I try to be to the process of reading Acker, something just stops me dead at about page four and I can’t go on because it’s boring.

It’s occasionally hot, but for a story that never has any plot, ultimately the outcomes are all very predictable—and this is also true of the life of Kathy Acker, that the outcome of it was sort of a foregone conclusion. I don’t mean to imply here anything along the lines of “she got what she deserved” or that it was some sort of karmic feedback loop upon her, but no matter what stage in her life, no matter how famous or how wealthy or how in tune with her family or with her community she was, ultimately the story of Acker is the same. Or wherever you go—the story of Acker in San Francisco, or in New York, or in London, or the occasional jaunt to Paris or Seattle or Chicago—they all sort of end in the same way, which is always with Acker’s self-sabotage, usually immolating herself over the end of a romance with a married man. But more than it’s sad, it’s just very tedious.

In the bookcase in my office, there’s one shelf devoted to authors that I deeply admire. There are a lot of books that I enjoy but there are few authors I admire—and out of the number of authors I admire, there are an even smaller percentage of authors who I might like to be. Actually, I have an entire shelf on my bookcase that is filled with the works of writers I admire very deeply as people who nevertheless serve as a kind of counterexample of what not to do—because some of the writers I most admire are very unhappy people. They are pioneers in their work, or even famous in the literary world, but they are not living their best life.

Acker was maybe writing her best books, but at what cost? There’s a big part of me that just really enjoys being high school English teacher who is extraordinarily happily married with a normal nine-to-five schedule prohibitive of the type of escapist travel and drug abuse and general romantic melodrama that defined Acker’s private life (and I use the word “private” there as loosely as possible). As much as I admire what Acker was able to accomplish in her 50 years on this planet—even if I can’t get through a single one of those books myself—and as much as I suppose other people find a lot of her work very pioneering or interesting, I just don’t want my life to turn out like her life. I think it’s a counter example—a sad, tedious counterexample of how not to be.

Many people reading this article will no doubt think, “how dare Megan Volpert compare herself to Kathy Acker” but the truth is: this is what Acker always did to everyone else. She was a master of parasocial relationships. So no, I never met Acker and of course the trajectory of my career is utterly different from hers—and thank God that it is—but I feel like comparing myself to Acker is something that Acker hoped and expected other women would do. It’s unquestionably what Kraus ought to acknowledge she’s doing by writing a book that purports to be Acker’s biography in the first place, because let’s face it: there’s an awful lot of overlap there to consider After Kathy Acker something that is definitive or critical or objective.

Stated plainly: the spectre of Kathy Acker is the other woman in Chris Kraus’s marriage to Sylvere Lotringer for the decade that they were together. And now, in order to write a book about Acker, Kraus has to start with the seedling of each of Acker’s books by making this very long list of people that Acker has fucked, which includes the man Kraus ultimately married. And yes, Kraus is likewise a master of constructing parasocial relationships. After all, that’s a big part of what the entire I Love Dick book was about. In a lot of ways, I guess Kraus is actually the perfect person to write Acker’s biography. We can even say that Kraus is carrying the torch of Acker—or (less nicely) carrying a torch for Acker—or (with more fanfare) that she is the intellectual heir to Acker’s work.
I don’t know Kraus either, but there’s a lot of big bad voodoo charm in what it is she’s trying to do, in the hall of mirrors she’s trying to construct, and I really hope for Kraus’s own actual sake as a human being that the decisions she makes will work out better for her than they worked out for Acker. It seems like Kraus is probably entering her imperial phase just now—but it’s what comes after the imperial phase that is perhaps more interesting. Ask Bret Easton Ellis about that.

Originally, this article —that may or may not be a review of After Kathy Acker—had about 700 additional words in it that I culled directly from the text. A lot of the quotations were from Acker herself and some were Kraus’s analysis. In the end, a greater depth or specificity of detail here seems so far beyond the point as to hinder any reflection on the real implications of the book. Here’s what I can say: I read After Kathy Acker cover to cover—which is more than I can say of any book written by Acker herself. Acker is one of those writers who will always be more widely discussed than actually widely read. Kraus is so close to this material that it seems a little unfair to think of her as a secondary source. A truly parasocial relationship is in some kind of gray zone between primary and secondary sourcing. It’s often said that a biography is just as much about the biographer, and I have never felt this to be more true than of Kraus’s stab at Acker. And I use “stab” here very deliberately.

RATING 7 / 10