Kathy Acker: A Late Modernist
Volume 6, Cycle 3
Living and writing in Reaganite America, Kathy Acker’s fiction is a sustained interrogation of the feasibility of classical revolutions in neoliberal late capitalism. This reading of Empire of the Senseless (1988) traces some of the overlooked affinities between Acker’s “punk feminism” and the feminist strand of futurism that challenges the Italian futurists’ anarchic and imperialist vision of technotopias. Instead of passively accepting subjugation by a programmatic utopia that promises progress and perfection, Acker’s fiction brings about critical utopias through desiring-production. Acker’s rewritings of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) in Empire of the Senseless identify ways to maneuver around different organizations of power that limit our desiring-production and debilitate our power to act. While Acker claims that she “didn't know about the work of Foucault, or—what would be more important to [her]—Deleuze and Guattari” when she started writing fiction, Empire of the Senseless is an introduction to a nonfascist life, which is also how Michel Foucault characterizes Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. Reading Acker’s work alongside feminist futurism, Foucault, and the modernist technique of collage, reveals new convergences in the network of theoretical and artistic influences of the author.
A Factory of Desires
In a rare analysis of her own writing titled “A Few Notes on Two of My Books,” Acker remarks, “I live in a world which is at least partly defined by the multinationals, the CIA, etc.” In the last decade of her life, Acker’s fiction relentlessly confronted and exposed the brutality and inequality of neoliberal late capitalism. Empire of the Senseless is a picaresque science fiction that traverses a near-future corporate America and a fictionalized Paris taken over by Algerian colonialists. In the novel, Thivai and the “part robot, and part black” Abhor circumvent the restrictive powers of a biopolitical economy by fabulating a surrealist dreamscape of piracy. Acker’s biopolitical economy can be understood as parallel to Foucault’s theorization of biopolitics. Using US neoliberalism as a representative example of biopolitical governance, Foucault proposes that the concept of human capital objectifies people as “abilities machines” that obligatorily offer their capabilities as “capital ability.” As the boundary between workplace duties and private desires becomes blurred, autonomy is denigrated to what Herbert Marcuse terms “automatization.” This breeds an internalized subordination, as an individual all too willingly becomes a self-serving “economic man” (homo economicus) in the name of responsibility and fulfillment.
Foucauldian biopolitical practices were developed and practiced extensively in interwar Europe, especially in Italy. Different political factions, from the nationalists to the fascists, applied emerging social technologies of “statistics, sociology, social hygiene, and social work” to manage the fertility and procreation patterns and practices of the Italian population. By turning the national population into discrete units to be managed, the state commanded a utopian fashioning of ideal citizens and workers of vitality to be integrated into the sweeping technological and industrial advancements. In a study of the modernist precursors of cyberculture, John Potts observes, “Previous artists had represented technology, but the futurists went further: they sought to absorb the properties of the machine into their art.” The Italian futurists led by F. T. Marinetti interpret national progress in terms of a forceful amalgamation of the inexhaustible rigor of the “new man,” unceasing motion of machines, and unbridled expansionist policies. In “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909), Marinetti declares, “We wish to glorify war—the sole cleanser of the world—militarism, patriotism . . . and scorn for women.” The hybrid of chauvinism and militarism as an expression of the forceful confidence in a technological future is challenged by feminist futurists like Valentine de Saint-Point and Mina Loy. These artists were simultaneously attracted to and skeptical about the violent imagery of mechanical speed, social progress, and cultural rejuvenation. Yet early twentieth-century mainstream feminism also repressed and denied female desires and sexuality. While Italian futurists blamed female lust for the degeneration of men, the puritanical suffragettes of mainstream feminism decried the figure of the erotic woman as an invention cultivated and manipulated by the patriarchal culture and mass media for male gratification. In response, the suffragettes adopted a reformist approach to femininity that promoted maternity, reason, and purity as pillars of female superiority and dignity.
In “Aphorisms on Futurism” (1914), Loy seems to align herself with Marinetti’s movement that is dismissive of the feminine: “ACCEPT the tremendous truth of Futurism / Leaving all those / Knick-knacks.” Loy urges her female readers to dispose domesticity and marital duties and to embrace “the appreciation of oneself” as independent of male approval (64). This statement is followed shortly by the “Feminist Manifesto” (1914), which reveals a progression in Loy’s feminist stance. She distances herself from both the Italian Futurists and suffragettes in her call to “demolish . . . the division of women into two classes—the mistress, & the mother.” Loy traverses the dichotomous categorical markers of woman and disavows mainstream feminism’s aversion to female sexual desires, which were considered as a form of degradation. Loy concludes, “There is nothing impure in sex—except in the mental attitude to it” (95). Her pioneering sex-positive feminism posits the analogous artistic and sexual powers to create as “an intelligent curiosity & courage” (95), a potentiality that does not necessarily entail procreation and motherhood.
Although the multifaceted artist Saint-Point still insists on the oppositional nature of female instincts as either that of the “mother or lover” in the “Manifesto of Futurist Woman” (1912), she later published the “Futurist Manifesto of Lust” (1913) to defend sexual desires as a life force of self-realization. Anticipating the Surrealists’ integration of the libido and death drive, Saint-Point characterizes lust as a bodily sensation of ecstatic pain: “It is the painful joy of wounded flesh . . . a union of flesh. It is the sensory and sensual synthesis that leads to the greatest liberation of spirit.” And like Loy’s celebration of the feminine power of creativity, Saint-Point proclaims, “Flesh creates in the way that the spirit creates,” dismantling the gendered Cartesian humanism that privileges Reason and the mind over bodily sensations as the foundation of knowledge and subjectivity (39). In this sense, Loy and Saint-Point celebrate the generative powers of the irrational, sensual, and even violent impulses of women conventionally regarded as inherent flaws of the female sex.
In Empire of the Senseless, the female characters’ disinterestedness in the maternal suggests a continuation of the “aggressive, futurist vitalism” originating from the erotic agency of the female artist-creator embodied by Saint-Point and Loy. And like Loy who dismantles the mother/mistress dichotomy, Acker does not romanticize the female lover. Graphic depictions of sexual violence and cruelty in the novel remind readers of the pain inflicted by men on female bodies in the name of pleasure. Moreover, while the female characters in the novel are motivated by eroticism, their transgression fails to empower them. The deliberate search for an outsider community free from patriarchal control only results in prostitution and ghettoization in slum brothels, an institution of the exploitative libido economy. Furthermore, commercialized pornography remains the predominant language used by the sexually transgressive female characters in the novel to articulate their desires. In “Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde specifically targets pornography for its cold and mechanical repetition of oppressive and homogenous sexual practices. While pornography originated as a sociopolitical subversive form and genre that uses lewd and obscene scenes of sexual transgression to veil and deliver criticism of the status quo, it also simulates and stimulates a death of affect concealed by scripted emotions and programmed sensations.
Facing the demoralizing prospect of an always stunted liberation, Acker proposes that any possibility for change lies “in the tactics of guerrilla warfare, in the use of fictions, of language” (Acker, Bodies of Work, 5). In Empire of the Senseless, traumatic experiences of incarceration, iniquity, and death compel the characters to make a desperate attempt to enter piracy and outlawry, however imaginary, in order to persevere in a hostile environment. Examples include the part Black, part robot Thivai’s fantasies of piracy during incarceration and Abhor’s reveries of joining the Algerian terrorists. The novel suggests that there is a political potential in collective imaginings that expands the individual’s power to act, which is an integral part of one’s conatus or the capacity of endurance and perseverance. Alex Houen notes, “Like her cyberdrag, [Acker’s] literary piracy writes not just one's self but one's body other . . . unlocking transgressive worlds of female creativity and sexuality.” The excessive eroticism of Acker’s characters suggests a rare opening to transform the passivity and delirium in a hypermediated late capitalism into desiring-production. Proposed by Deleuze and Guattari in their anti-Oedipal criticisms of the postwar hypermediated late capitalism, desiring-production is a process of channeling libidinal energy into the creation of reality, just as labor power is translated into social-production. This opposes all levels of homogenizing and hierarchical power organizations, ranging from nationalism to the nuclear family, that denigrate desire as lack in structures of psychic repression and social oppression.
Lines of Flight
In a discussion on the form of science fiction, Fredric Jameson observes that authors eschew the reliance on a real, objective outside world as the unifying structure of narrative and employ existing mythologies as referents. However, when static mythologies are insufficient as an organizational device, the remaining option is what Jameson terms collage. Collage “bring[s] into precarious coexistence of elements drawn from very different sources and contexts, elements which derive for the most part from older literary models . . . or of the newer productions of the media (for example, comic strips). . . . It operates a kind of foregrounding of the older generic models themselves, a kind of estrangement effect practiced on our own generic receptivity.”
Collage as an artistic practice was popularized by the modernist avant-garde, from cubist assemblages, Dadaist photomontage, to the exquisite corpse technique of Surrealism. Questioning the ideal of the Romantic genius of inspired originality, collage artists pride themselves for working within the confines of found images to create new meaning out of startling juxtapositions. In Empire of the Senseless, Acker practices verbal collage in her plagiarism and rewriting of existing texts, including writings by Jean Genet, Sigmund Freud, and most notably William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Brian McHale criticizes Acker’s incorporation of episodes from Gibson’s novel as “pointless,” “apart from . . . producing the ‘sampling' effect itself.” But as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. points out, McHale’s dismissal of Acker’s textual piracy as a stylized postmodern gesture fails to consider “why Acker should be attracted to Gibson to make her ‘blank parodies’ and sentence violation.” In a 1991 interview, Acker explained her incorporation of science fiction into her collage novel: “In the case of Empire, my interest in SF specifically had to do with having read Neuromancer, which excited me enough that I actually wrote Gibson a fan letter (which I never do) . . . I do like cyberpunk, especially Gibson” (McCaffery and Acker, “An Interview with Kathy Acker,” 87–88). Jameson positions Neuromancer as the prototype of cyberpunk, which is “a general period break which is also consistent, not only with the neo-conservative revolution and globalization, but also with the rise of commercial fantasy as a generic competitor and ultimate victor in the field of mass culture” (Archaeologies of the Future, 93). In the novel, Acker rewrites the Sense/Net library in Gibson’s Neuromancer into a state and corporate conglomeration of biopiracy that houses and trades in biodata. According to Donna Haraway, the human genome library project is a blending of genetic and computational codes instrumental for profit-making and mass surveillance. And like the Panther Moderns’ simulated terrorist attack in Neuromancer, The Moderns in Acker’s version are hacktivists who destroy the bio-code library. In “Postscript of Control Societies,” Deleuze traces the historical transition from Foucauldian disciplinary societies characterized by penal measures of confinement to control societies of constant surveillance made possible by information technologies of instantaneous textual and visual communication. In the novel, digital piracy expands the possibilities for politics, direct action, and solidarity by utilizing the inhibiting “inner networks of global communication and information” in order to work against “the object-world of late commodification” (Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 394).
Interestingly, Acker’s engagement with science fiction through the modernist artistic strategy of collage serendipitously echoes the centrality of bricolage in Gibson’s Count Zero. Mysterious collage boxes created by a robot artist contain fragments of technological and vintage oddities comparable to the boxed assemblages by the reclusive American artist Joseph Cornell. Gibson cites Cornell as an influence on how he structures his fiction: “All that business about the collage boxes, Joseph Cornell . . . come from the metaphorical attempt to explain to myself how I make books, because I really don't have a strong narrative flow.” While Acker is acutely aware of the function of a disruptive literary style as a micropolitical strategy to effect change in 1980s America steeped in civil strife and inequality, M. Keith Booker observes that Gibson’s fiction “seems to lack both this feeling of crisis and the belief that it can contribute to a transformation of society,” and that the cyberpunk author’s description of the absence of narrative flow in his stories suggests “an inability to envision historical sequence at all” (Booker, “Technology, History, and the Postmodern Imagination,” 80).
Utopias Imaginal and Critical
In “Electric War: A Futurist Vision-Hypothesis” (1915), Marinetti envisions the future city of the twenty-first century as a post-scarcity utopia powered by an unlimited supply of electricity. The future utopia is an information society where “unbounded human intelligence reigns everywhere.” In today’s digital age, Marinetti’s dream seems to have come into being. However, this is challenged by Acker’s Empire of the Senseless, which highlights the complicity of finance capitalism and control societies in the manipulation of desires in a digital political economy. As Bill Ashcroft observes, “All utopias are critical. The distinguishing feature of all utopian visions is the critique of those present conditions that make utopia necessary.” Reflecting on the failures and complacencies of the utopian liberalism of counterculture “revolutionary” projects in affluent postwar societies, Acker writes, “I realized, as I did years ago, that the hippies had been mistaken: they had thought that they could successfully oppose American postcapitalism by a lie, by creating a utopian society” (Acker, Bodies of Work, 125). In the novel, Acker shows the “impossibility” of revolution in the classical sense in a contemporary capitalist society. The Algerians’ short-lived occupation of a near-future Paris ends up as a reversed imperialism of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62). The occupation is ultimately overthrown by the CIA backed by monolithic corporations.
Although Empire of the Senseless does not provide a blueprint of a perfect society, it is not an antiutopia but a critical utopia. David Bell notes that while a state utopia is a space of enforced collective moral good, a nomadic utopia “unfolds immanently and increases the capacity of those present in a space to act.” In contrast to the restrictive and hierarchical statist utopia of negative freedom, a nomadic utopia is realized when an individual’s power to act is increased, thereby expanding the collective’s power. The always ongoing process of creating a critical utopia is a political myth composed in terms of transindividuation in Spinozist philosophy. As Chiara Bottici explains, “What makes a political myth out of a simple narrative is not its content or its claim to truth, but first, the fact that this narrative coagulates and produces significance, second, that it is shared by a group, and third, that it can come to address the specifically political conditions in which this group operates.” In the ontology of transindividuation, individual things can only exist in an affective relationship to other things. The distinctions between the self and the other, the individual and the social are therefore collapsed, as existence is always measured in terms of connections. In Empire of the Senseless, piracy as a social organization dismantles sexual taboos and offers an alternative understanding of the capacity of relational bodies to produce desires that deviate from the normative. In this sense, the novel celebrates the power of the imaginal, defined by Bottici as “the space where our capacity to imagine displays itself by showing the transindividual nature of the unconscious itself.” This capacity when exercised realizes what Paul Patton terms “critical freedom,” which emerges when normality is no longer viable. It is only in precarity that an individual has the urgency to form a new subjectivity of affective relationality. In Empire of the Senseless, the ability to do so becomes a matter of survival in technotopias.
The author gratefully acknowledges the editors of this special issue, Adam Stock and Miranda Iossifidis, for their patience and generous advice, especially on the topic of critical utopia and Chiara Bottici’s work on political myth, and the two anonymous readers for their encouraging feedback.
 Margaret Henderson, “Kathy Acker’s Punk Feminism: A Feminism of Cruelty and Excess in More Liberated and Liberal Times,” Contemporary Women's Writing 11, no. 2 (2017): 201–20, 217.
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 Kathy Acker, Bodies of Work: Essays (London: Serpents Tail, 1997), 13.
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 David Horn, Social Bodies: Science, Reproduction, and Italian Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 4.
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 David Bell. “Playing the Future: Improvisation and Nomadic Utopia.” Nomadic Utopianism. Accessed 7 January 2020. https://nomadicutopianism.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/playing-the-future-improvisation-and-nomadic-utopia/.
 Chiara Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 14.
 Etienne Balibar, “Spinoza: From Individuality to Transindividuality,” in Mededelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis (Delft: Eburon, 1997), 27.
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 Paul Patton, Deleuzian Concepts: Philosophy, Colonization, Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 54.