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The Female Arab:
Physical and mental lust were eating out my body at the same time I knew there was only loneliness. The CIA had treated loneliness in that city and made the sun into a piece of ice. I decided either I can die or I have to refind emotion. . .
I left New York City the way one leaves a lover’s bed when one doesn’t give a damn about the person one’s just fucked and it’s 5:00 in the morning and the pavement’s crawling like a dead cat.
The Male Arab:
The USA has destroyed all that we call human life and substituted religion. This religion is the worship of money and blind faith in stupidity. . . .The USA has substituted learning how to be controlled and the rote memorization of facts for any education in living. Every aspect of the USA’s life is now fit for death. Fucking leads only to disease. The USA is a cancer on the flesh of reality. All Americans are born diseased and live writhing.
The Female Arab:
Peace to the dead and the death-bringers. Peace to my sick home, city of AIDS or the death of love. (Empire 168)
As evidenced in this selection, Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless screams postmodernism with a blatant rejection of grammatical conventions and linear tradition and an impassioned engagement with contemporary political issues. But more importantly, it screams with an angry despair.
Acker says in “A Few Notes on Two of my Books,” that she writes with a sense of the “immediate” in an attempt to “present the human heart naked so that our world, for a second explodes into flames” (117). Acker’s novel launches an angry terrorist attack upon the senseless bourgeois-patriarchal “world of our fathers” to illuminate a darkened, fringed edge of society that she will contend is not so marginal (Empire 2). Acker employs bisexual terrorists Abhor and Thivai–a part robot, part black female, and a white, male pirate–to weave a discursive narrative through a Parisian dystopia of the near-future where the Algerians are waging a revolution “of the non-existent against their economic controllers” (Empire 6). They navigate their way through a society of brutal violence and forbidden sex in an overtly satirical model of contemporary America and the conundrum of the alienated masses attempting life under a government and in a society that makes it impossible to live.
Empire emerged from an America in the early stages of the AIDS pandemic. Published in 1988, it followed by months President Reagan’s first public mention of HIV, yet the disease had held the attention of the world for over 7 years (Global). By 1988, the virus had killed thousands and infected millions worldwide and was rapidly breaking its early definition as a disease of homosexual men, yet in 1987, to strong urging from the White House, Congress passed the Helms amendment “banning the use of federal funds for AIDS education that promotes, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” (Global). Acker’s voice rings with fear of a government controlling, directly or indirectly, through an unnatural selection–a homophobic government controlling the bloodstream of the people through the use of a viral agent (Clune 2). In the artist communities of San Francisco and New York City, friends were being killed off by a disease that infected through love but transmitted economic segregation and social alienation leaving lives shattered and fragmented: senseless.
Written in fragmentary, nearly-prosaic language filled with background noise and foreground violence that makes conventional reading impossible, Empire of the Senseless imparts upon the reader a frantic loss of meaning through two dramatic sensations. The first is a feeling of absence where expected but absent meaning has left a void or negative space. The second is the spectral presence of an indefinable, nearly intangible but definite shattered meaning–the ghost of meaning. Essentially, the text presents a corporeal presence of meaning’s absence (Glotfelty 250). This demands the reader reject the notion of a self-contained work and engage the text with historical context and theory in order to create meaning from the fragments (House 460). While elements of Empire can be seen to both support and attack tenets of every theoretical approach, Acker’s sense of urgency suggests a frame with a practical, political goal.
Thivai highlights the value of Marxist theory as an illuminating agent for Acker’s work with his statement that “the dominated classes’ ideological structures, obviously, determine whether or not they’ll continue to be dominated” (Empire 125). By applying traditional Marxist theory and its focus on ideology as a frame, one can recognize the urgent anti-capitalist message of the work and clearly reveal a strong support of Marxist philosophy. However, in looking at the failure of the frame as it is shaken by individual desire and an unconventional language, one can understand Acker’s rejection of traditional theory even as it carries a complementary message giving voice to the same exiled masses that she speaks for. With an understanding of Marxism’s failure to this novel, one can reshape Marxist theory into something that will accept the individuality Acker demands and flex with the elasticity of this novel and of postmodern culture.
Many Marxist theorists feel that postmodern texts work against Marxism by being too difficult to follow to stage an effective attack on subverting ideologies, yet others argue that the fragmentary presentation of the postmodern text accurately reflects the violated, alienated characteristics of the oppressed and supports Marxist readings more appropriately than traditional works (Tyson 63). At the 1999 MLA conference in Chicago, Andrew Hoberek of Columbia University defined postmodernism as the “incomplete, deeply contested globalization and digitization of capitalism” (Hoberek 32). Acker’s narrators illustrate exactly this deep resentment of the global explosion of capitalism:
The nature of bosses is to get whatever and whoever they want however they have to. One would expect the disenfranchised to revolt against the rich and the bosses. Those who don’t have should know they don’t have, that there are those who do, and that those who have are controlling them. Sure. No man wants to be a worm. Have a boss. But it was precisely the wretched masses in Germany . . . who helped put Fascism into power. And it was that class in the United States who are moving from middle-class splendor down to lower-class or, rather, no-class stagnation who put Reagan, for instance, in power and gave way to Multi-Nationals. (Empire 124)
Abhor and Thivai explain the plight of the masses as being pinned between a worm-like self image and classless alienation. Blinded and oppressed by ideological programming, Acker’s characters and their story support the Marxist interpretation of ideology and in some ways exemplify the exploited masses.
Karl Marx defined capitalism as “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions” (Marx 127). On capitalist exploitation, Marx and Acker are congruent. Through Abhor, Acker explains capitalism as an “accurate picture of God: A despot who needs a constant increase of His power in order to survive. God equals capitalism. Thus God allows a smidgen of happiness to humans. His victims. For He needs their love. Humans who do not love (God) suffer” (Empire 46). For Acker and for Marx, capitalism is a dangerous religion which blinds the masses to their plight and leaves them exploited and victimized in its wake. However, in seeming contradiction, Acker explains God both as ideological charade and as cruel dictator. It is precisely this contradiction that signals her deliberate turn and the beginning of her shaking of the Marxist frame.
Acker’s disagreement with theory over desire becomes startlingly clear through a return to her treatment of religion:
I questioned to the point of obsession whether other humans are naturally evil, and if so why. Unable to answer this question, I prayed to God about whom they had told me. God is He who is unknowable. My sister was so malicious and my nightmares were so violent that I knew any Creator must be a sick pig. I named God ‘Sickpig’ and ‘Turdshit’. Everytime I saw a dog shit on the street, I thought of God. (Empire 30)
Marxist theory coincides with Acker on religion to a point. Terry Eagleton calls religion an “immensely powerful ideological form . . . capable of operating at every social level” (Eagleton 2244). Yet Acker diverges from Marxism in acknowledging God as a possibility rather than only as an ideological fabrication. Acker’s desire to target a cruel deity outweighs not only concern for self-contradiction within the novel but her allegiance to Marxist precept as well. Desire takes over.
Empire of the Senseless becomes truly problematic for a Marxist reading as it deals with individual desire. For Acker, the problem with following theory or “with following rules is that, if you follow rules, you don’t follow yourself. Therefore, rules prevent, dement, and even kill the people who follow them” (Empire 219). In contemporary economic theory, the individual is interpreted as a “choosing or utility-maximizing agent” (Hodgson 364). In the Marxist view, desire feeds the oppressive ideology of the American dream by keeping the individual occupied in acquisition and attempting to satisfy limited, material desires (Tyson 53). Thus, Marxist theory has little place for individual desire. It is a dangerous tool shifting focus onto the self and away from the individual’s relationship to society. But for Acker, desire is “limited neither by a solely material nor by a solely mental reality” (Empire 65). Desire is everything.
With the horror of AIDS raging through San Francisco unchecked by medical science and unrecognized by the government, sex and sexuality became an impossible situation as reflected in Empire. Fear reinforced bourgeois taboos resulting in even more invasive control. As a result, Abhor and Thivai violate social taboo against homosexuality, bisexuality, sadomasochism, and incest with regularity and familiarity. Abhor describes herself as “masochistic to the point of suicidal and, actually, physically damaged” (Empire 31). Yet Acker explains “Masochism [as] only political rebellion” (Empire 58). This presents a problematic dichotomy of desire for control and desire to be controlled as Abhor uses being physically controlled through masochism to challenge social mores in a rejection of societal control. Acker’s contradictory desires reflect her elevation of desire above all else. For Acker, desire is paramount and is “like having an endless orgasm. You just go and go and go” (Interview). Rather than reject or suppress desire, Acker chooses to attack constructed patriarchal-bourgeois perceptions of desire. But to do so, she must attack the framework upon which they stand: language.
In dealing with language, Acker fuses together the context of the author, and the world of the characters. Thivai protests, “All I know is we have to reach this construct. And her name’s Kathy” (Empire 34). In inserting herself to bridge the traditional gap between the fictional world and the author’s reality, Acker draws the reader to mesh their own context with the world of the text. To accomplish this thoroughly, Acker rejects the traditional narrative guideposts that define Wolfgang Iser’s separation “between the explicit and the implicit, between revelation and concealment” (Iser 1676). Thus, the meaningless background noise proves to be an essential element of Acker’s method. Iser elaborates on this loss of meaning saying, “the lack of a common situation and a common frame of reference corresponds to the ‘no-thing,’ which brings about the interaction between persons” (Iser 1676). Epitomizing this relationship, Acker completely removes any hope of a common frame of reference and leaves the reader to fill gaps with contextual information. With this fusion of text and context, author and audience, Acker can fully involve the reader in her rejection of patriarchal language and alienation with a call echoing Karl Marx to “let our madness turn from insanity into anger” (Empire 169).
Acker recognizes the patriarchal literary tradition as the key to societal perception of desire and, accordingly, the destructive destabilization of bourgeois control. Thivai says, “the library was the American Intelligence’s central control network, its memory, what constituted its perception and understanding. (A hypothesis of the political uses of culture.)” (Empire 36). In a now familiar use of contradiction, Acker announces literature as her weapon against the oppressive system as “literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified” (Empire 12). Acker prophesizes that to overcome alienation is to attack the presiding linguistic system and resulting bourgeois literary memory or tradition. Through Abhor, she says,
Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning.
But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions . . .
Language, on one level, constitutes a set of codes and social and historical agreements. Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks down the codes. (134)
Acker seeks to replace patriarchal language with a forbidden, reciprocal language and a resultantly new literature. Eagleton writes that literature itself “is an ideology” (Eagleton 2243). By reversing the rules of the presiding language and the resultant literary ideological system, Acker smashes convention and destabilizes reason for “in an unreasonable world, reason isn’t reasonable” (Empire 169). By replacing language with the socially unacceptable and rewriting literature in the voice of the alienated, Acker replaces the meaning upon which modern literature was founded. In a philosophical chain reaction, ideology, perception, desire, knowledge, and experience deconstruct and reconstruct themselves continuously as Acker brings the reader along for the ride. As Acker says, “when two people fuck, the whole world fucks” (A Few Notes 120)
The traditional Marxist frame can account for the alienation and the oppression experienced by Acker’s characters, but it falls short of incorporating the intricacies of desire that create individuality. The frame seeks to critique on the assumption that the medium of communication through which the message is transmitted is sufficient. Acker proves that in the current system with the current code the “demand for an adequate mode of expression is senseless. . . . Since all acts, are inter-dependent, paradise cannot be an absolute. Theory doesn’t work” (Empire 113). Yet just as Acker constructs her novels on the remains of those novels that her attack on language discards, the Marxist frame can be used to build anew. By looking at the frame and the weak joints where it has been shaken loose by desire and language, one can revise and renew it alongside Acker’s revised reality.
The breadth of Acker’s anti-heterocentric, linguocentric, classist attacks proves the inability of a traditional Marxist frame to view the text, but by replacing the fixed, static points where desire and language push against the frame with pliable, dynamic ideology, the frame can be made usable with the postmodern text. Contemporary, common usage of the term “anarchism” is that of a philosophical system free from law or responsibility and plagued by violence and destruction (“anarchism,” def. 1). But this definition is woefully short sighted. 20th century Italian revolutionary Errico Malatesta wrote extensively on anarchism and described the anarchist spirit as a “deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic of self-declared anarchists but inspires all people” (Malatesta). Employing this Malatestian vision of anarchy in a literary sense offers a new perception as conventional conceptions of fixed personal truth fall to a flexible sense of individual choice. In this realization of human truth as an ever changing construction of desire rather than a law, readers can erase the ideological fallacy that the human element is natural and redefine the ideological framework (Quigley 307). Applied to Marxist theory this expresses the relativity of human experience and human desire and the need for a change to the dynamic. To accommodate this flexibility, the theoretical frame must be turned from a shaky, nailed wooden form into a nearly-amoebic, flattened bike tire.
Echoing Marx’s transformation of socialism from an abstract concept into a detailed blueprint for revolution, Acker allows for a practical redesign of theory and its application (Postgate 124). However, unlike Marx, Acker recognizes that people without individual desires–without individual hopes or dreams–are easy to control. Thus the question becomes, is it more appropriate to employ a shaky frame which professes to undermine authority but exposes the individual to its own rigid control or to adapt the frame’s rigid points to flex with the individuality of desire and the ambiguity of language?
The necessary adaptation of the Marxist frame must allow for the elimination of alienation even from itself. Functional portions of the Marxist perspective such as the recognition of ideologies and of socioeconomic forces underlying societal changes can be pulled from the rigid frame and melded with the dynamic view of individual truth and desire of anarchism to form the new frame. The discipline of theory injected with anarchy will allow for contradiction and for language that revises, reverses, and reinvents itself in an ongoing rejection of control. The anarchistic application applied to society forces recognition that “our racist, sexist, classist mores have to change or we will all kill all of us” (Empire 154). Acker’s hope is for a changed world viewed through a changed frame where we could accept the seemingly fragmentary voices of previously denied individual desires. These voices would tell a new history for a new literature telling the story of a “human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Empire 227).
Acker, Kathy. Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1988.
—. “A Few Notes on Two of My Books.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 19.3 (1989): 117-122.
—. Interview with R.U. Sirius. io magazine: the digital magazine of literary culture. 2 Dec 2006 <http://www.altx.com/io/acker1.html>.
“Anarchism.” The Oxford Essential Dictionary. American Ed. 1998.
Clune, Michael. “Blood Money: Sovereignty and Exchange in Kathy Acker.” Contemporary Literature 45 (2004): 486-515.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Leitch 2243-2249.
The Global HIV/AIDS Timeline. 16 Aug 2006. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 18 Nov 2006 <http://www.kff.org/hivaids/timeline/hivtimeline.cfm>.
Glotfelty, Cheryll. “The Riddle of Ghost Towns in the Environmental Imagination.” Western American Literature 41.3 (2006): 244-265.
Hoberek, Andrew, et al. “Twentieth-Century Literature in the New Century: A Symposium.” College English 64.1 (2001): 9-34.
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. Rev. of The Theory of the Individual in Economics: Identity and Value. By John B. Davis. Economica 72 (2005): 364-365.
House, Richard. “Informal Inheritance in Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless.” Contemporary Literature 46 (2005): 451-482.
Iser, Wolfgang. Interaction between Text and Reader. Leitch 1673-1681.
Leitch, Vincent B, ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The Communist Manifesto: and Other Revolutionary Writings. Ed. Bob Blaisdell. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc, 2003.
Malatesta, Errico. “Errico Malatesta, Italian anarchist, agitator, and theorist.” The Anarchist Encyclopedia: a Gallery of Saints and Sinners. Dec 2004. Recollection Books. 28 Nov 2006 <http://recollectionbooks.com/bleed/gallery/galleryindex.htm>.
Postgate, R.W. Introduction. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The Communist Manifesto: and Other Revolutionary Writings. Ed. Bob Blaisdell. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc, 2003.
Quigley, Peter. Coyote in the Maze. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1998.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1999.
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