19 August 2011

Halpern on Acker

In his introductory preamble last Sunday, Rob Halpern used the writing of Kathy Acker to frame how a conceptual interest in pornography could be used to understand his "own desire to write." My notes from the afternoon didn't quite captured how Rob subtly used Acker to frame his workshop at Naropa and his own work in Music for Porn, so I asked if I could post his notes. The following is Rob's opening gambit:

It may have been with Kathy Acker that I first began thinking about porn in relation to my own desire to write. One passage in Acker’s early novel The Life of the Black Tarantula in particular was extremely salient and I’ve been living with it for a long time now. In a chapter called “The Story of My Life” Acker assumes the persona of the Marquis de Sade, and pilfers, appropriates, collages, from Sade’s writings, together with passages from W. Lenning’s biographical Portrait of Sade, and in doing so, she constructs a meditation on the contradictions and impasses around what she calls “personal life”:

“I’m trying to get away from self-expression but not from personal life,” she writes, “I hate creativity. I’m simply exploring other ways of dealing with events than ways my lousy habits—mainly installed by my parents and institutions—have forced me to act. At this point I’m over-sensitive and have a hard time talking to anyone. I can fuck more easily.”

What the narrator here calls “self-expression” is one of those lousy habits, a bad fiction sanctioned by the institutions she’s resisting. Acker’s writing struggles against a range of institutions—gender, family, money, law—together with the division of labor, and the whole economic system whose interests these institutions protect. “Self-expression” implies a kind of spontaneity that fails to recognize the way expression is constructed and mediated by the institutions she most abhors. Within this framework, we might understand how Acker sees identity as yet another institution whose violent strategies themselves masquerade as “self-expression,” whereby identity appears natural and true. We might also begin to understand how her writing aims to undo that violence.

For Acker, identity and self-expression obscure something else, something even more “real,” something she refers to in this passage as “personal life,” which may have less to do my “my self” and more to do with the impersonal forces—those institutions— that condition our individual lives, and constrain our collective possibilities. In other words—and this is probably obvious—personal life is social life.

Acker’s language refuses to countenance the common sense assumptions that block our engagement with the real conditions of these lives and possibilities. Hers is a language of negation, a language “which describes yet refuses to be a language that is socially given” (that’s what she writes about Goya’s visual “language” in her essay “Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution”). This is a language that wants to get at “the connections between the ‘real’ events, and the holes, the silences…the interstices through which all of us fall.” Moreover, it’s a language that wants paradoxically to articulate “places where language cannot yet be,” like “chaos, or the body, or death.” (These passages come from “The Killers,” which appears in Biting the Error.)

I began thinking of Acker as a kind of realist insofar as her writing embodies the crisis of security. (If boundaries aren’t stable, how are we to distinguish between the valued thing to be secured—be it the self, or the nation—and everything else that appears to threaten it?) Her work shows how the boundaries upon which security depends are always the effects of various fictions. This realism makes the self legible as a mutable set of stories; and rather than disavowing these stories, Acker embraces and displays their mutability, as well as their ability to register the contradictions that make them what they are.

Finally, Acker’s work is not the record of an individual, but rather register the scandal of our own social pathologies: the determination of our tiny, fragile egos to keep otherness out by walling ourselves in; the way we reproduce social separations and divisions by immuring ourselves—taxonomies of identity and hierarchies of class, genres and genders, nations and rogues, etc.—all in the name of that “social good” called security. Acker’s work stages this so-called “social good” as social violence, and in doing so her writing goes where socially sanctioned language can’t go.

Years later—which was still some years ago now—and without consciously noting the connection, I decided to call the poems I was writing Music for Porn. Something I’m able to acknowledge now, without having registered it then: Acker’s insights informed how I was beginning to think about porn, pretty expansively, as any regime of representation where one’s most intimate relations – be it to one’s self, to one’s body, of to the body’s of others—are mediated by the most impersonal images and discourses: “and to see them / is to know ourselves”, as George Oppen might have said) that is, in order to begin sensing the social composition of a self—whatever that might be—requires that one reckon into one’s perception—or the very organ of sensation doing the perceiving (in this case, a lyric poem)—the most impersonal forces, social dynamics, images, discourses, whatever—all of which disable what we might think of uncritically as spontaneous expression.

Upon first reading Acker, I referred to this as the violence of identity: the forging of a self thru endless processes of subjection, or more quietly, subjectivization, a violence submerged in any expression of a self that disavows the social relations that make that self what it is.

I realize now, that my early invocation of Porn to refer to something my poems might be doing in relation to those social dynamics and processes is rooted in my reading of Acker, and these were whole apparatuses of representation I imagined my lyric both to be “accompanying” and “exchanging” itself for porn (Like Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness), but I also wanted to think about my lyric (music) as being also for porn in the sense of being in support of insofar as I think the “pornograph” has the potential to do a particular kind of critical work. For porn, too, in the sense of helping porn, transforming it, returning to it its power to profane.

As I’ve already suggested the other end of my thinking, there was a haunting specter Oppen’s Of Being Numerous: “There are things / We live among ‘and to know them / Is to know ourselves’” and somewhere in the thinking that my poems were just beginning to enable, there was another realization, and that is that those things Oppen says we must know in order to know ourselves are bodies, bodies reduced to the status of things, often dead bodies, bodies withdrawn from view, bodies that can’t be seen, the circulation of whose images has been proscribed and rendered taboo as a matter of socio-political policy.

In order to know myself, or whatever it is I might call myself—and in the case, the self as the subject of a lyric poem—I must “know” these things, these expendable bodies, having become things, reified and withdrawn, and yet ready to be used for ends not my own, like prostheses of a social body that is nonetheless of me, in me, for me, a social body whose organs of sensation have atrophied, seemingly beyond repair. But “to know” here might mean nothing more than to restore to subjective relation: to activate (resurrect?) whatever residues of living labor cling inside a thing seemingly void of subjectivity. To restore to relation requires needs lyric’s commitment to subjectivity against the mirroring of dead and “undead” forms, whose mere reflection fails to relate.

To write lyric under such circumstances and constraints, then, is to create organs so that these bodies might be perceived, located in (impossible, submerged) relation to my own.

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