Chris Kraus, author of the novels I Love Dick, Torpor, Aliens & Anorexia, Summer of Hate and the collections of art writing, Video Green: Los Angeles and the Triumph of Nothingness and Where Art Belongs, discusses her new work, After Kathy Acker, a critical biography of the late American post-punk writer, due to be released in the UK at the end of August 2017.
Writing the stories of her own life in playfully intimate and candid ways, Kraus’ critical gaze turns as much in on herself and her relationships, as on the sociopolitical structures which enable and limit us. Her work, hailed as a new form of philosophy by the art world and academia, has gained something of a cult following since the release of her first novel I Love Dick in 1997. Establishing the editorial directorship of Semiotext(e) ’s Native Agents series in the early nineties she created a significant space for the publication and circulation of radically subjective and restless works by her then underappreciated friends or colleagues such as Eileen Myles, Cookie Mueller and Lynne Tillman. Most recently Chris Kraus has transitioned into the literary and broadcasting mainstreams with the re-publication of a number of her novels, and the adaptation of I Love Dick into an eight-part series for Amazon Videoby director Jill Soloway and playwright Sarah Gubbins.
Laura Edbrook: I want to start by asking you about your approach to what you describe as critical biography, but first I’d like to talk a little about the context for this project, about writing about Kathy Acker. How does this extend, or shift, your autobiographical approach to fiction and criticism?
Chris Kraus: It’s funny because when I told the writer Eileen Myles that I was going to do this project she said, of course, it’s totally natural that you would do this because you’ve always done biography as autobiography! And that seems true. In Aliens & Anorexia, I’m writing in real-time about my disastrous experience of making a feature film, but also digressing into the lives of the artist Paul Thek and the philosopher Simon Weil. I kept moving between my present and their past, getting into their skins as fully as possible. In Aliens, there’s one point where I start to trip out about becoming Paul Thek. He wrote in his diary about looking at himself naked in a mirror when he was 45, out of shape… and I started to fantasise about what it would be like to inhabit a man’s body, being literally inside his flesh. There’s always a kind of transference that happens in writing.
LE: Would you say then that the Acker biography functions as a case study in the same way as you might describe the self as functioning as a case study in I Love Dick or Simone Weil in Aliens & Anorexia?
CK: Oh absolutely. I always saw myself using Acker’s life, in part, as a marker to trace a line through the artistic movements she’d been part of, beginning in 1971 and ending in 1997. By then, on the cusp of internet culture, the publishing industry had already become highly corporatised. Acker’s fantasy of becoming a Great Writer and culture hero in the vein of William S. Burroughs was already redundant. And she’d achieved it, and she was really the only woman to have done so. But I found that extremely poignant—outliving one’s dream.
LE: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, published in 1973, was the first book Kathy Acker describes as having written ‘seriously’. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, she states her aim of disintegrating the centralised ‘I’. This idea of ‘I as another’ reminds me of what Mckenzie Wark writes in the Afterword to Torpor, that ‘in writing about the other, we write about the self’. In her book, Acker, parodying autobiography, sets the authentic and the fictional in juxtaposition and concludes that language doesn’t express anything, but creates something new. I was hoping you could talk a little about Acker’s approach to autobiography in this case, compared to your own interest in the performative nature of writing?
CK: Especially in her early work, like Black Tarantula, Acker approached writing by setting herself formal problems. That doesn’t make the autobiographical elements any less true. But, as you say, she was intent on dissolving any notion of a central and integrated identity. She wrote about this, and she wrote toward it, and through it. When I started writing in 1997, the diffusion of ‘self’ was already sort of a given. I do see writing as essentially performative, but the issues are different. My approach is less aggressive. Writing Acker’s biography, I decided to never use the first person. Consequently, the connection with her is more covert and charged. There were many times when I felt I could have typed ‘I’ instead of ‘she’.
LE: I wanted to talk a little more broadly about your writing practice, which synthesises autofiction, art criticism, theory, biography, autobiography and draws upon notions of ‘real life’ and the everyday, often offering your own life, and own subjectivity, as a case study. In Aliens & Anorexia you write that ‘women have been denied all access to the a-personal,’ and that it seems the ‘straight female ‘I’ can only be narcissistic, confidential, confessional’, that it’s ‘impossible to conceive a female life might extend outside itself.’ I wonder if you can talk a little about your presentation of an autobiographical female public ‘I’ as an a-personal political intervention and how this strategy functions with biography?
CK: Creating a space for a more public, female ‘I’ was my impetus for starting the Native Agents series in 1990. I loathed the idea that female first person writing was always read as memoir. The writers I published were all giving an account of the world, through their own perceptions. By 2000, that project was finished. I’d done enough, let someone else pick it up. Hedi El Kholti, Sylvère Lotringer and I now work jointly on the Native Agents imprint. The books have something in common, though it isn’t quite as definable. Still, Semiotext(e) ’s fiction books always mirror ideas that appear in the fiction list, bringing them down to the level of lived experience. Natasha Stagg’s Surveys , for example, describes post-internet subjectivity and celebrity culture. It’s a perfect analogue to the Italian economic theory we publish.
Writing about Simone Weil in Aliens & Anorexia, I picked up on Weil’s idea of radical empathy. Writing about Acker’s life, I tried to transport myself, and the reader, back in time, to imagine what it might have been like to live through her times, in her body, with her desires.
LE: I’m interested in the ethics of self-care in your work. I want to quickly draw on a lecture given in 2013 by post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak. She says, ‘when we think of the ethical in a human being in general, we think of being directed toward the other rather than toward the self.’ And in discussing the practice of subjective writing, Joan Didion raises similar concerns. She says, ‘[women] are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves,’ and that we are ‘taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing.’
The act, or insistence, that all sorts of experience—romantic obsession, dependence, and desperate pursuit, stereotypically identify as ‘female’ states of abjection, holds universal significance, and, in my understanding, extends the proposal that there can be no good politics without care of the self. Here I’m returning to some of your earlier works again, often reductively regarded as narcissistic. I wonder if you could talk about your thoughts of self-care and resistance to psychoanalysis noted in your fiction. You mentioned in a talk you gave earlier in the week that I Love Dick was credited as a kind of self-help book.
CK: It’s a strange thing. I realise now that I Love Dick reads as a female creative-class bildungsroman, though I was totally oblivious to this when I wrote it. I thought I was writing about other things! But, as Emily Gould recently wrote, if a man writes a book about something, he’s writing it for the world, whereas a woman is always seen to be writing about her own problems. I’ve tried to walk a fine line throughout the resurgence of I Love Dick, and the Amazon show: not recanting or denying the ‘self-realisation’ aspect of that book, but also trying to shift the conversation to other issues. Obviously, female subjectivity is still pathologised in the same way that it was in the nineties, or the book wouldn’t have found its new following.
LE: That really leads me on to my next question; you first published I Love Dick in 1997, by a press that was at the time best known as your then-husband, Sylvère Lotringer’s project. Following I Love Dick, your other works were also published by that press. What has your experience been in working with a new publisher distributing your work to a somewhat new readership outside the USA?
CK: I’m grateful to have been able to ‘self-publish’ my work over the years with Semiotext(e), because the hardest thing in writing a book is to imagine its destination. And I didn’t have to worry about that. I knew my work would be read among Semiotext(e) fans in the art world.
Still, for a long time, I felt badly that my books weren’t considered within the literary world. The new publishers have definitely changed that. Now, for better or worse, I’m invited to literary festivals, and I’ve started to miss the instant comprehension you get in the art world.
LE: This idea of the context we work out of is really interesting. You’ve spoken a lot about the context Acker was working from and I’d be keen to hear of the cultural lineage you see yourself as being influenced by and how that might have shifted?
CK: I share a lot of Acker’s cultural lineage. Seeing our shared influences pop up across my research was more electrifying than discovering we’d slept with some of the same people! Both she and I were involved with the St. Marks Poetry Project in our early days. Acker deliberately sought to distance herself from the poetry world once she knew she was writing fiction. Friends of Acker’s, like Robert Glück, who was in Glasgow recently, were tremendously important to me as writers.
LE: Something that’s already come up, but that I’m hoping we can talk a little more about, is the significance of social capital in your work and in particular the Native Agents project; how critique is not only intertextual but becomes sociable. How do you consider the role of illegitimate information or marginalia, or the place of conversation and gossip, in your work? It’s something that seems very present the biography of Kathy Acker as well. How do you feel this has influenced both the visibility or invisibility of your practice?
CK: Yes, gossip is definitely something I have in common with Acker—and with all the New Narrative writers. And I think the ‘gossip’ aspect—which is so rich, and so deep, and loops all the way back to the ancients—is definitely a reason why it’s taken so long for New Narrative writing to gain critical traction. People aren’t always terribly diligent or informed—they read things at face value. They think gossip is lazy, or trash talk, and don’t consider that it loops back to Japanese court writing, the French 18th century, Propertius, Catullus. Finally I think the world has become more aware that there’s an art in this ‘artlessness.’
LE: To me it seems a key concern is privacy’s relationship to power, who decides who gets to speak, as you ask in I Love Dick. Could you talk a little about what it means to be writing Acker’s story and the ethical paradigms of this project? I’m interested in your relationship to Acker and how much the friction between you both is documented throughout your books and the Semiotext(e) archives. What does it feel like to be the voice of Acker’s story now?
CK: I couldn’t start the book until 2014 for exactly those reasons. Before then, since we’d moved in similar circles and we’d both had important relationships with Sylvère, it all felt too incestuous. There was no right way to do it, until I decided write a critical biography, using the distance between us to investigate her writing strategies. Luckily, I’d done a lot of key interviews shortly after her death. They were candid and raw, and this was incredibly helpful. But if I’d written it then, it would have been too fawning, too falsely empathic, too self-conscious. Writing through distance solved all of those ethical problems.
Questions from the audience:
Audience: You mention that Acker lied a lot. In connection to speaking about depathologising in your fiction, how did you approach these lies, or her lying, within the biography?
CK: I never thought it was my job to call Acker out on her lies. My job was to identify them, and try to understand what purpose they served her. Sometimes, apparently none. And this was interesting. Inconsistency and contradiction aren’t particularly gendered, they’re human. So if you’re going to tell the story of a person’s life honestly, you’re going to have to grapple with their perversities. Ethically, in the course of the book, whenever Acker started looking particularly bad, I’d try and counter that perception with something else, softer and more sympathetic. Which I think is also truer to how we experience people.
Audience: I was wondering if Kathy was a Gemini?
CK: No, she was an Aries, April 18th.
Audience: I really like how you are honouring Acker and I wondered what you thought about the way you have chosen the two book ends of the biography and focused very powerfully on her body and her bodily remains. I wonder, are we ever going to be free of women’s bodies? I think the way you write is critically engaged with women’s bodies: it’s an urgent thing to be able to make language adapt to women’s bodies. It interests me that you evoke French feminism; a lot of people seem to think it’s over and we’re not interested. I am not among them. I wondered, do you follow what Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous are saying these days or do you still mine the earlier seventies and eighties French feminism in relation to the body?
CK: The prologue and epilogue, where I describe her friends’ attempt to mourn her and dispose of her ashes, and the epilogue, describing the last months of her life, where she was fleeing her diagnosis of cancer, these are all very social. They’re as much about the friends’ (and by extension, everyone’s) confusion around someone’s death when there’s no immediate family, no proscribed rituals. ‘The body’ was a huge concern of Acker’s, especially in her later writing. I’ve never been drawn to that as a subject. I have always been more interested in context.
Audience: What are you working on next?
CK: For my next book, well, most writers for their first book write about their growing up, or their family’s history and I’ve really staved off that, I’ve always felt that it would be something I wouldn’t touch as long as my parents were alive. But now I might actually work on something that has to do with my family history.
Audience: I was wondering about I Love Dick being adapted, is that true? How do you negotiate your relationship to this material?
CK: It is true. Not just in Cosmo and Marie Claire, it’s going to be a TV show!
Audience: How do you feel about handing it over to a mainstream production? Especially given the material is super personal?
CK: The book is not really me anymore. I wish it well but I don’t relate to it in that way anymore.
Audience: I was wondering about the idea of doing harm through dropping the disguises that you play in a public context through the revelation of the inner voice in your writing. You were talking about the shift from I Love Dick to the [Acker] book and the removal of the first person and it sounded like a positive story about the evolution of your writing. But I wonder if you can comment on the harm that can be done through writing another’s story or writing your own story in the form of another?
CK: I don’t like to think of it as evolution—really it’s just more moving from one place to another. My third book, Torpor ,did move to the third person, but only because it was more personal than my first book. I Love Dick, a lot of people say it was confession, but what’s personal about it? Who hasn’t had an affair or left a husband or had a stupid romantic obsession?These are really common experiences. In Torpor I look more at the back-stories of the couple, and that involved Sylvère’s background as a child survivor of the Holocaust, and that becomes very sensitive and very personal. I thought I couldn’t write about that, so I had to turn the characters into clowns to make it work—they had to be caricatures of themselves. It would have been so vulgar to do that in the first person and so I abandoned the first person there. Likewise in Summer of Hate ,the book isn’treally about me, it’s about Paul Garcia, the guy from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who’s getting out of jail. It’s about the criminal justice system in the US presently and in the recent past. So I had to throw a character like me in there kind of as a joke so that people in the art world would read it, otherwise they’re not going to be that interested. But it was never really the point. It’s not to say I won’t write the first person again, I think one can go back and forth.
Laura Edbrook is an editorial director of MAP and a lecturer in Fine Art Critical Studies at The Glasgow School of Art
Chris Kraus read from After Kathy Acker (then a work in progress) at The Glasgow School of Art [GSA], 19 May 2016, followed by a conversation with Laura Edbrook and questions from the audience. This event was presented by GSA in collaboration with the Creative Writing department in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow. With thanks to Colin Herd, University of Glasgow
After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, published by Semiotext(e) Native Agents in the USA, will be released by Allen Lane, Penguin Books in the UK on 31 August 2017
 I Love Dick, the TV series adapted and directed by Jill Soloway and produced by Amazon Studios, was aired in the UK in May 2017