(1) Adrienne Rich's association of politics and "location" has increasingly appeared as the logical next step beyond deconstruction's often wearying analysis of metaphysical convolutions. Today, literary and cultural critics routinely speak of the need to take account of the "location" of the critic, text, and subject as the basis for a more positive and socially involved critical praxis. Most of these critics have recognized, however, that speaking of "location" as a simple, empirical fact fails to question the objective thoroughly. Lyotard's theory of "the local," which is offered as an alternative to the "master narratives" that were the means of legitimating knowledge in the past, instances this complex understanding of location. While we may no longer be able to speak with confidence about large historical and philosophical issues, Lyotard argues, we can attend to individual locales that act as "islands of determinism" whose scope are strictly delimited.1 Treating location as an "island" emphasizes the incomplete and temporary quality of such spaces, a quality that in turn can be traced back to the discourses that "swarm" around the object to be known.2 Foucault, for example, describes how the presupposition of an "origin" creates a space for inquiring into an historical object or period: "From the vantage point of an absolute distance, free from the restraints of positive knowledge, the origin makes possible a field of knowledge whose function is to recover it, but always in a false recognition due to the excesses of its own speech. The origin lies at a place of inevitable loss, the point where the truth of things corresponded to a truthful discourse, the site of a fleeting articulation that discourse has obscured and finally lost."3 Contradictions between and within discourses can be analyzed at some locale, but such locations themselves arise out of the contradictions and clashes within the discourses–they are, as Foucault writes, "site[s] of fleeting articulation." Similarly, Teresa de Lauretis refers to the female subject as a site because it is the point at which discursive systems clash: "I see a shift, a development . . . in the feminist understanding of female subjectivity: a shift from the earlier view of woman defined purely by sexual difference (i.e., in relation to man) to the more difficult and complex notion that the female subject is a site of differences; differences that are not only sexual or only racial, economic, or (sub)cultural, but all of these together, and often enough at odds with one another."4 The result of this theory of local sites is a critical praxis that emphasizes concrete political location while recognizing that such locations are constructed as much as found.
(2) As much as the language of location has its roots in Rich's writing, many feminists have felt that "local" criticism is so self-limiting that it jettisons the essential notion of systems of gender inequality. Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson exemplify this attitude particularly well in their widely-reprinted essay, "Social Criticism without Philosophy." "Suppose," remark Fraser and Nicholson, "that one defined that object [of social criticism] as the subordination of women to and by men. Then, we submit, it would be apparent that many of the genres rejected by postmodernists [i.e. metanarratives] are necessary for social criticism. For a phenomenon as pervasive and mutlifaceted as male dominance simply cannot be adequately grasped with the meager critical resources to which they would limit us."5 For Fraser and Nicholson, male dominance cannot be understood fully by attending to individual local sites, since this dominance makes sense only because it has "pervasive and multifaceted" manifestations. Fraser and Nicholson end their discussion with what has become a rather conventional conclusion about totalizing theory. They call for a pragmatic, open-ended use of theory: "In general, postmodern feminist theory would be pragmatic and fallibilistic. It would tailor its methods and categories to the specific task at hand, using multiple categories when appropriate and forswearing the metaphysical comfort of a single feminist method or feminist epistemology" (35). As common-sensical as such a view appears, it fails to confront the essential challenge of poststructuralism's insistence on deferral and the impossibility of self-presence. As Judith Butler argues, postmodern feminism cannot merely be a matter of choosing one's foundations wisely and admitting their relativity. Rather, insists Butler, such narratives are "taken from elsewhere" and "instituted through a subversive citationality and redeployment."6 Butler suggests that as much as postmodern feminism seems to need to join together individual sites of analysis, any criticism that constructs a narrative–no matter how explicitly "fallibilistic"–will remain blind to the source and motivation of that narrative.
(3) Can we describe a "local" criticism sensitive to the connections between discrete sites of analysis that does not posit a narrative of their unity? In this essay I would like to analyze the operation of sites where representation is staged and interrogated in the fiction of Kathy Acker. Acker's understanding of such sites strives both to exploit the circumscription of this space and to establish connections between individual sites. She accomplishes this by drawing on an important issue in recent gender studies–the nature of the "materiality" of the (female) body and its ability to interrupt representation. An interest in representational sites appears over the course of Acker's career as she attempts to move beyond the linguistic deconstruction of her early writing towards a more representational style in her recent fiction. From her earliest novels, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973) and I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac (1974), to her recent In Memoriam to Identity (1990) and My Mother: Demonology (1993), Acker's writing is fragmented and self-reflexive. Her recent works, however, present more complete characters and have a formal structure that the earlier works lack. The turning point for this development seems to be her 1988 novel Empire of the Senseless, which I will discuss in this essay. I will argue that the method of textual construction that Acker discovers in this novel and the way that she uses sites to stage the process and conflicts of representation illuminates the critical use of sites of analysis. Acker's interest in sites is important not only because she is a fresh voice at the meeting point between poststructuralism and feminism, but because her novelistic emphasis on how such sitesconstruct fictional objects draws our attention to an issue often ignored in "local criticism." The strict boundary that critics construct "around" certain locations is partially a product of their acceptance of the distinction between critic and object of knowledge. If one's analysis begins with a given object to be known, one can reflect upon one's own biases, as well as on the metanarratives that conflict in trying to articulate this object. Rich uses her "location" within her body in this self-reflexive way: "To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitoris and uterus and breasts. It means recognizing this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go."7 In her fiction, Acker must construct both the textual object as well as the site in which it is articulated, in the process complicating the boundary that can be drawn around these objects. Acker challenges us to consider if we should not also see the critical use of the site as "materializing" the objects that it circumscribes. Fiction's more complex referential status draws into question criticism's naive belief in a distinct (if contradictory) object of analysis articulated through the site, and forces us to reconsider the status of the material within such sites in general.
Language and Objectivity
(4) Empire of the Senseless tells the story of Abhor and Thivai's problematic romance. This romance is used as the base on which Acker more generally examines the female Abhor's attempt to negotiate Thivai's male world and its demands. Like all of Acker's fiction, Empire draws on and rewrites past fiction. In this case, Acker's two most explicit sources open and close the novel: Gibson's Neuromancer and Twain'sThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.8 In the former Acker finds an example of a cybernetic romance, a relation between men and women mediated by technology and the designs of multi-national corporations to the point that their bodies themselves become constructs. This general human concern is sharpened by the specifically female problem of how male hegemony contributes to this objectification, climaxing in Abhor's taking on the role of the slave Jim in Huck Finn. Like Twain's character, Abhor becomes caught up within the plots of Thivai and his Tom Sawyerish friend who keep her in prison in the hopes of making her a great female writer. For Acker, female identity is always the product of male power and subject to more general economic systems. As Robert Siegle writes of the novel, "The female body becomes a valued object to be protected or stolen; it is nature itself and hence to be possessed."9
(5) Acker has claimed that this novel's less fragmented style develops out of her interest in "myth." Myth provides a model for human society that rejects this patriarcho-consumerism, but also promises a fundamentally different way of understanding textual meaning. Acker makes this connection between a social model and her less-fragmented recent style in an interview, in response to the question "What is the new direction you've taken inEmpire?": "The search for a myth to live by. The purpose is constructive rather than deconstructive as in Don Quixote. What I particularly like about Empire of the Senseless is the characters are alive. For instance, in Blood and Guts, Janey Smith was a more cardboard figure. But I could sit down and have a meal with Abhor."10 Acker concludes by remarking that, while the novel fails to provide readers with an image of a whole society freed from patriarchy and its supporting taboos, it does offer a "myth" or model in the sailors–a group that defines itself by its ex-centric and antisocial position. Siegle describes the function of the sailors as follows:
Bred in poverty, the sailor does not marry its binary opposite [the wealthy] as Nana did, but rather suspends the dialectic of wealth and privation with which the state of poverty encloses the individual's perception of social possibilities. To live in "material simplicity" means to displace commodities as the determining signifiers and to create the possibility for something other than "poverty of the heart."11
The sailors here stand outside of consumerism and the power structures it supports. Critics have naturally focused their attention on the sailors, as Acker herself encourages us to. But if we are trying to define the origin of Acker's move towards a more "constructive" fictional style, we are immediately stymied. Why should the development of a "myth" based on the rejection of consumerism and the hegemony behind it produce a new fictional style? At first we might be tempted to see Acker's concern for the sailor myth as the kind of empowering "myth of political identity" that Donna Haraway describes in her "Cyborg Manifesto"–an ironic fiction capable of challenging traditional oppositions between human and machine, imagination and the material, body and world.12 Acker has suggested, however, that myth interests her because it implies a fundamentally different relation between text and reader. Acker remarks in an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, "That's the way you feel in the mythical stories. You don't know quite why they act the way they act, and they don't care. . . . The reader doesn't own the character. There's a lot of power in narrative, not in story."13 In this passage, Acker contrasts traditional stories with a more elemental and mysterious mythical narrative. Acker, then, means two related but distinct things when she speaks of the importance of "myth" in her recent writing. First, she speaks of a particular myth that functions as a model for living; second, and more important, she describes a style of writing that is "mythical" in how it presents fictional objects to the reader. Such a mythical style recognizes the "power in narrative" and tries to avoid creating textual objects to be "owned" like the traditional story does. I would like to suggest that ownership is interwoven with conventional language use for Acker, and that before we can understand Acker's sailor myth, we must understand why language usually creates objects to be owned.
(6) Language is important to mainstream society because it conceals the problems in the conventional concept of individual identity. For Acker, identity is known by its continuity within time, yet individuals are trapped temporally, and hence unable to glimpse this continuity. This problem is clear in Abhor's meditation on time: "Of course time cures everything. Human. It does because that time which will come, the future, is never present. Since everything will happen in the future: the present, me, was null."14 For Acker, individual identity can be defined only through time in patterns of consistent actions, responses and beliefs, thus locating coherent identity at some future point from which such patterns can be observed (hence "everything will happen in the future"). Individuals, however, themselves are trapped perceptually within the present and severed from this retrospective coherence (hence "the present, me, was null"). Because of the problems that time creates for identity, individuals are driven to define identity independently of the individual knowledge and perception problematized by time. Acker's early novels see idealized "images" as the transpersonal basis of knowledge. Acker suggests this in her first novel, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, where she writes, "I call up images of myself, or just images. They are ëmy' images and yet, they extend my knowledge. I usually hear that other people have the same images, and I know we are all connected."15 This passage suggests that identity is problematic only for those estranged from the "images" that society uses to cover over the fundamental gaps within identity. Acker's introspective, disenfranchised heroines are left without any such "images" or are forced to operate within artificial and "impossible" positions. As she writes in Empire, "I'm playing with only my blood and shit and death because mommy ordered me to be only whatever she desired, that is, to be not possible, but it isn't possible to be and be not possible" (51). As a result, Acker's female characters are painfully aware of the limitations in our current ways of bridging the gaps within identity.
(7) Acker's more recent novels have moved away from a concern for "images," and have settled on language's apparent ability to reference distinct objects as an even more fundamental way of easing the problems of identity by providing seemingly transpersonal knowledge. For Acker, language references distinct, fixed objects. At one point in Empire, Acker has a character make the seemingly nonsensical comment that "In French, ëflesh' is ëchair.' The flesh made real" (66). Flesh as an undefined physical substance becomes "real" (otherwise it is "intangible" ) only by being objectified by language into a single, easily namable thing that, like a chair, is taken for granted–mere furniture. Acker distinguishes here between the objects defined by language and a more amorphous, less conventionally meaningful materiality. This tension between defined objects and a more problematic, "painful" materiality is clear throughout Acker's writing. Don Quixote, for example, contrasts a comforting aesthetic detachment based on objectivity ("Each thing by itself was beautiful. Each thing had no meaning other than itself, or meant nothing"16) to the dangers of physical contact: "My physical sensations scare me because they confront me with a self when I have no self: sexual touching makes these physical sensations so fierce."17 That this detached objectivity is specifically a product of language in Empire is clear in another scene. Speaking of a seller of "prosynthetic limbs and other works of art" (39) Acker writes that "His latest work-of-art, his newest find, find-and-keep so-to-speak, is a [human] head. . . . Despite the obvious value of this work of art, its humanity, not being a humanist, I advised Ratso to get rid of it" (40). Acker puns on the term "humanity," playing off its use in art criticism (speaking of a work's "humanity") and its more literal meaning as being "of" a human. This passage slides from the latter to the former, from a concern for the physical origin of the part to an assertion of its artistic quality as an object. This shift suggests a general tendency to read back into the flesh the qualities associated with the person as an object–humanity. Language offers us the concepts of a human and of humanity–terms charged with political and social implications–and in the process ignores the ongoing, material relation of individual and world. Acker suggests that this is a calculated mistake that eases discontinuities within the world for those who occupy privileged positions within the society. As someone disenfranchised by the hegemony supported by language and its objects, Acker will seek to understand this painful materiality.
(8) Although at times Acker seems to treat the materiality of "flesh" as a simple pre-linguistic, pre-objectified substance, other passages suggest that she has a more complex understanding of this materiality. Indeed, Colleen Kennedy has criticized Siegle's reading of Empire on the grounds that he attributes to Acker a concern for pre-linguistic materiality:
In direct contradiction to Baudrillard, Siegle sees the culture's best writers as those able to distinguish between simulation and reality; what is real is what is tactile, what is painful, what reminds us of the body–the inscribed upon rather than the inscription. . . . Acker suggests, however, that the "blood" (accessible only as a metaphor) is no longer pure; the body cannot with any assurance be the untainted site of some reinscription of culture.18
Kennedy's critique of the naive belief in access to pre-linguistic materiality is a valuable warning, but we must also recognize that Acker sees materiality as not simply unretrievable, but as manifesting itself in the context of these inscriptions. Acker is clear in Empire to define the physical as dependent on the mind: "Mentality is the mirror of physicality. The body is the mirror of the mind. A mirror image is not exactly the same as what is mirrored" (65). This passage suggests that, rather than taking the body (as flesh) as a pre-linguistic base to be objectified and made meaningful by language, we should recognize that this materiality is at least in part a product of this process, this mirroring. Acker asks in Don Quixote, "Is there a split between mind and body, or rather between these two types of mentality?"19 clearly implying that whatever materiality we might oppose to the objective is itself a mental product. More specifically, we can say that the material arises as a kind of trace left behind by one's relation to a (linguistically) defined object, a trace that reveals that object's constructed and artificial quality. Typically, Acker's heroines are most aware of their own physicality through their desire for some "other" (a romantic interest usually, but, more generally, something outside of the self that can only be understood as an object).20 The first section of Don Quixote, for example, opens with the heroine "conceiv[ing] of the most insane idea that any woman can think of. Which is to love,"21 and ends with her "battered and bruised and couldn't rise out of her bed due to a severe infection,"22 of which she metaphorically "dies." Continually in Acker's writing, desire for some other leads not to the acceptance of the realm of social objects, but to the recognition of the gap between material and object; as she writes in Great Expectations, "Desire makes the whole body-mind turn on itself and hate itself."23 In this sense, Acker joins with many feminist writers who have sought to theorize bodily materiality in contrast to the traditional philosophical opposition between subject and object. Elizabeth Grosz, for example, picks up Merleau-Ponty's notion of "flesh" as a model of materiality that undermines these traditional oppositions:
Flesh is the term Merleau-Ponty uses to designate being, not as a plenitude, self-identity, or substance but as divergence or noncoincidence. Flesh is no longer associated with a privileged animate category of being but is being's most elementary level. Flesh is being's reversibility, its capacity to fold in on itself, a dual orientation inward and outward.24
For Grosz, this concept of "flesh" is a model for a "corporeal feminism" that seeks to escape the belief that bodies and minds are separate, a belief that she argues founds a whole system of patriarchal values. Such a concept of flesh implies a greater interaction between individuals and the outside world by undermining the traditional boundaries of the body: "Between feeling (the dimension of subjectivity) and being felt (the dimension of objectuality) is a gulf spanned by the indeterminate and reversible phenomenon of the being touched of the touching, the crossing over of what is touching to what is touched."25 Acker shares with Grosz the attempt to complicate the body/mind and self/other oppositions, but sees this materiality as far more dependent on the "plenitude, self-identity" of such exterior objects to define it. For her, the material is not an alternative to this opposition between self and world, but is rather something produced out of the individual's desire for this object-like "other." In this sense, the material is always a retrospective construct, always partially mental–although it is a construct with the potential to critique the identity of mental and linguistic objects.
(9) This understanding of the material as something produced out of one's relation to social and linguistic objects has increasingly interested Acker, and her recent, "mythical" style can be seen as an attempt to account for this materiality in her writing. Such an interest in the "materiality" of writing is not (at least directly) a Marxist concern for the economic conditions reflected in the text, but rather a more philosophical concern for the nature of fictional objects and how they participate in the traditional "self-identity" of exterior objects. As Grosz has already suggested, the body is the "object" that most directly and forcefully challenges the "objectivity" of all objects, and it is for this reason that Acker describes a more complextextual materiality through the model of bodily materiality. Acker remarks on her interest in the material in an interview conducted shortly after the writing of Empire:
The Western attitude towards the body in the twentieth century has to do with the fact that when reality (or the meanings associated with reality) is up for grabs–which is one of the central problems ever since the end of the nineteenth century–then the body becomes the only thing you can return to. You can talk about sexuality as a social phenomenon, so that it's up for grabs; and you can talk about any intellectual thought and it will be "up for grabs" in the sense that anything can mean anything else and hence be completely perverted. You get to Baudrillard's black hole. But when you get to something called the actual act of sexuality, or the actual act of disease, there is a kind of undeniable materiality which isn't up for grabs.26
For Acker, materiality is not a fixed substance that we can recover, nor is it a pre-linguistic state of the non-objective. Rather, this "undeniable materiality" is an act–what I have described above as a desirous moving towards an object which reveals the material. In developing a new style of writing, Acker must come to terms with the "objectivity" of the language she uses and find a way to reveal the material at work in the background of that act of creating textual objects. Acker makes the connection between her emphasis on materiality and her attempt to redefine the linguistic medium of fiction in a recent interview. To the question, "what is realism for you?," Acker responds:
It's the text. It's the body, it's the real body, which is language, the text. The actual words, that's what's real. Then there's the reality of the reader reading it…the reality of the writer writing it. . . . A sign is signifying something, but it also has its own aspects of sound, sight–its own materiality. It's always negotiating between its materiality and what it signifies.27
Acker's association of language with the body ("the real body, which is language" ) clearly suggests that her text not only references/creates specific fictional objects, but also constructs a materiality that runs counter to that objectivity. In the past, as Ellen Friedman suggests of Don Quixote, Acker has used her fragmented texts as a kind of self-consciously adopted irrationality to revolt against language and the conventional society it supports.28 Acker's recognition of language's ability to construct a kind of materiality out of its own reference suggests that such a directly confrontational style will no longer be appropriate. Acker's recent "mythical" style of writing, then, must find a way to harness the power of the materiality created by conventional linguistic reference in order to reveal the objectification at work in such reference within the literary text.
The Space of the Material
(10) As a model of how to live, the sailor myth represents an attempt to escape linguistic and commercial objects for the sake of involvement in the material. Acker has suggested, however, that her interest in the sailors as a model of how to live gradually develops into a method of writing.
In an essay on her own writing, "A Few Notes on Two of My Books," Acker makes this connection: "After having traveled through innumerable texts, written texts, texts of stories which people had told or shown me, texts found in myself,Empire ended with the hints of a possibility or beginning: the body, the actual flesh, almost wordless, romance, the beginning of a movement from no to yes, from nihilism to myth."29Acker implies here that mythical writing is somehow material ("the actual flesh"), and that Empireand its story of the sailors develops towards this mythical style ("almost wordless, romance"). For Acker, these two goals dovetail because recognizing the material involves coming to terms with language, of finding a way to attend to both objects and materiality in any language use. As both Acker's and the reader's entree into mythical writing, the sailor myth must, then, model this new form of literary representation. Let us consider the sailor myth in more detail.
(11) Sailor life is principally described in spatial terms. This is clear in the first description of the sailors, which comes from one of the sailors themselves:
This ship is our philanthropic association, our place of safety, our baby crib. Since they have enough dough to be our charity donors, all the people outside it, all the people outside us here, are our enemies. Since we live on this ship, we're orphans. Orphans are dumb and stupid. Since we're stupid, we don't know how to conduct ourselves in decent (monied) society and we kill people for no reason.(22)
Like most of the philosophical reasoning in Acker's novels, this statement is partially ironic. Nonetheless, it implies that being a sailor is a matter of self-consciously occupying a certain type of space. This space is naturally adversarial to mainstream society, but arises as a product of that society. Orphans in this sense are part of social reproduction, but fit nowhere within the traditional image of the family. They are literally the excess, and Acker's sailors rightly reverse the language of philanthropy to suggest that orphanages are ways to protect the hegemonic image of the complete and sufficient nuclear family. This space is not a simple marginality, a nomadic space outside the pale of society. Rather, by adopting the position of orphans, the sailors achieve a defined location that is conceptually necessary for the larger society–the place in which reproductive excess (kids without parents) is stored so it cannot disrupt the traditional image of the nuclear family. Acker is explicit in associating the critique of conventional society with the ability to occupy these contradictory conceptual places: "The realm of the outlaw has become redefined: today, the wild places which excite the most profound thinkers are conceptual" (140). Such spaces are not accepted as "real" since they have no place within conventional society, yet they can be traced back to specific social causes, thus taking on a peculiar concreteness and specificity. Acker hints at the same sort of quasi-existence when she describes the lives of prisoners as "imaginary, imaginary as in ëimaginary number,' not rationally possible" (148). Such objects are self-canceling, even though they have a logically necessary role within the system to which they can be traced. This helps to explain why Acker stresses that the sailors occupy negated locations. Several times Acker mentions that "no roses will grown on a sailor's grave" (117), and thus that sailor life is antithetical to the fixed, commemorative locations of traditional burial plots. Even more explicitly, Acker summarizes the sailor myth in their motto: "any place but here" (156). The sailors inhabit a non-place with a temporary and self-negating but nonetheless real and precisely defined existence.
(12) The connection between this peculiar space and the materiality that Acker hopes to recover still remains vague. As I have suggested, the sailors make sense only because they model a way of negotiating language and objects ultimately worked out most fully in Acker's attempt to develop a "mythical" style of writing. To explain this model, we must turn to the sailors' own form of representation: the tattoo. Interpreters have routinely granted tattooing a signal importance in the novel–as Acker encourages us to. Not only has Acker illustrated the novel with tattoo-like pictures, but the longest single scene in the novel is that in which Agone gets a tattoo, a scene that Acker herself has mentioned in interviews as the most positive in her career to that point.30 Agone goes to the tattooer looking for advice and to have his fortune told, but quickly finds his basic assumptions of individual choice and identity challenged by the tattooer and his art. Siegle sees the tattoo scene as a whole as raising the problem of identity for Agone:
Agone is initially "caught between the rock of a false self-sufficiency," much like the illusory self that Thivai maintains, "and the rock of a need to go beyond his identity," as Abhor succeeds in doing. But he and the tattooer share first an uncertainty about their relationship and then, through that uncertainty and "insufficiency," what is for Agone "the first time in his life he began to feel something sexual"; that is, something sexual beyond the phallomorphic (and sadomasochistic) sense. Agone is taken beyond his traditionally male identity, one so formulaic and prescriptive that even he is alienated from it.31
This challenge to "traditionally male identity" initially involves homosexual desire, but more broadly means recognizing that individual identity is not "self-sufficient" and instead depends upon the interaction of self and other–what I described above as a painful materiality in contrast to a detached objectivity. Critics have recognized that the tattoo embodies this challenge to identity (according to Arthur Redding, for example, as a fetish that emphasizes the masochist's belief in the malleability of the body32) and have shown how it summarizes the goals of the sailors (imagination and freedom for Siegle33), but have largely failed to consider the implications of tattooing as a positive model of representation. Agone's male body is clearly an object that usually functions unproblematically–that is, without a trace of materiality–within hegemonic society and its representational systems. As a transformation of Agone's male body, the tattoo complicates a hegemonic object to produce a materiality essential to how Acker's female characters experience their bodies. As a form of representation, the tattoo undercuts the "objects to be owned" that Acker has associated with traditional stories, and instead reveals a materiality essential to her mythical style. It is appropriate, then, that Acker describes tattooing on the male rather than female body, since for her tattooing is a form of representation that has the power to reveal the material where it might otherwise go unnoticed. Attending to the process of tattooing, which Acker describes in great detail, reveals that the tattoo achieves a more material, less object-dependent form of representation by exploiting the same kind of conceptual space that we have associated with the sailors. In the tattoo Acker models a type of representation which is not inherently "female," not a kind ofÈcriture fÈminine, but which rather redefines textual engagement in general to account for the materiality of which her female characters have been particularly aware.
(13) Tattooing progresses in two stages–drawing the outline and filling in the colors. Critics have seen the tattoo as an attempt to undermine boundaries, "the epidermal borders between the internal and external" according to Redding,34 but close analysis of the scene suggests that this distinction between outlining and coloring is important to the tattoo. Outlining defines a distinct space within which the act of coloring will then function:
The tattooer began to fill in the outskirts of the drawing on the flesh that was the most sensitive.
The far seas contained paradises. There, people lived harmoniously with themselves and their environment. Their writing was tattooing or marking directly on their own flesh.
At the far edges of the ship's sails, the roses' petals turned into snakes. Medusa's hairs writhed through holes in the skulls of innocent humans and ate out their brains. There were the realms of danger. (138-39)
Acker associates the outlining of the tattoo with the historical origins of tattooing itself–particularly the tattoo's ability to represent the exotic, the "other" of European civilization. The second stage, the coloring of the tattoo, shifts to treat the tattoo as a produced object and to emphasize the materiality of the tattoo: "The first colour was red. The first colour was blood. The ship's sails were crimson. Blood makes the body move. Blood made the ship's body move. Blood changed the inhuman winds into human breath" (139). Whereas outlining is a temporal, historical process, filling in color emphasizes the products of the tattooing and how they resonate with the physical medium in which they appear. This two-part nature of the tattoo allows Acker to "narrate" the appearance of the tattoo as an object. That is, because she defines a space (through the outline), she can then watch the appearance of objects within that space and reveal their dependence on a materiality (the skin and blood) that supports and infuses them. That the tattoo attempts to recover a materiality normally hidden by the objective is clear in the anecdote with which Acker ends this scene. Having discussed the use of red and brown in the tattoo, Acker turns to blue:
The third colour was blue. The same substance was below and above the ship. It was inhuman. It was inimical to and separate from humans. Its colour was blue and its shape was that of a dragon. In the seventh century, a young warrior was carrying a jewel to her government on a ship. This jewel controlled the tides. The Dragon desired to steal the jewel. Just as he was about to grab her, to touch living human flesh, she slit open the skin between her left-side ribs and inserted the jewel into her hole. Since dragons will not touch dead flesh, her dead body was able to float until it and the jewel reached her land. (139-40)
Just as Acker has suggested that the female body is naturally more aware of the materiality behind social objects by virtue of its marginalization from these objects, she turns to a female warrior's awareness of the contradictions of materiality to explain how the material can be "saved" from the hoarding dragon of objectification. Acker treats the material as always moving towards an objectification that renders it meaningful within human society. The sea begins as meaninglessly material ("inimical to and separate from the human") but becomes anthromorphized into the more meaningful and conventional figure of the dragon, which in turn is repelled by the material ("the dead flesh"). This circular, even contradictory, story repeats the irony we have seen throughout. The material cannot be understood in and of itself, but appears only by moving toward the objective–as the meaningless sea becomes the discrete entity of the dragon. Like the female warrior, the tattoo saves the material by exploiting this movement. Just as the warrior hides the jewel within the cast-off dead flesh, so too does the tattoo exploit the materiality ignored by social objects. If, in real life, the material does not exist in quite so simple a sense before its transformation, this parable nonetheless embodies succinctly the representational strategy of the tattoo.
(14) The space that the tattoo defines thus becomes a stage upon which Acker narrates the coming-into-being of objects, thus softening their fixity and suggesting a broader materiality. Above we saw that Acker's heroines, by virtue of their marginalization by language and its social objects, are frequently aware of this materiality. In complicating and temporalizing the seemingly simple object of Agone's male body, the tattoo provides a model for representation that draws attention to materiality for the less disenfranchised, and that makes the materiality obvious in the female body somewhat more meaningful through its necessary relationship to objectification. This space closely parallels that of the pirate ship, which similarly owed its existence to social and historical systems, and thus can be seen as a summary of the representational implications of the sailor myth. And like the ship, the tattoo's space is self-canceling. After all, once the outline is complete the process of coloring begins which, in turn, destroys that empty space for the sake of a produced image. The sailors use the self-consuming space of their motto ("anywhere but here") as a way to avoid getting caught up in consumerism and its dependence on objects to be owned; so too, the tattoo undermines unconscious acceptance of objects by continually pointing back, through the physical medium on which it was inscribed, to the tension between objectivity and materiality.
One or Several Sites
(15) The sailor myth, I have argued, is Acker's way into the larger "mythical" style that her writing develops in and after Empire of the Senseless. The sailor myth and its embodiment, the tattoo, attempt to reclaim representation from language's dependence on distinct objects. This use of a temporary, conceptual space has much in common with the "sites" frequently referred to in contemporary criticism. This should not be surprising, since both Acker and such critics are searching for an alternative model of knowledge in the wake of deconstruction's suspicion towards language. The local has been popularized by Lyotard as a response to the disintegration of traditional "master narratives" and the authority they granted to knowledge in the past. The local, Lyotard suggests, is an intentionally delimited space in which a certain type of knowledge can be produced, with the cancellation of these conditions constantly hovering on the horizon. Practically, critics have used the notion of the local site as a concrete spot in which larger social representations and metaphysical systems conflict and reveal their limitations, offering their concreteness and narrow scope as a worldly, socially involved reworking of deconstruction. Thus, for example, when Foucault refers to the body as a space to be "mapped" in Discipline and Punish,35 he implies that the body is a concrete site in which we can observe various representational systems at work. Theorists of the site have recognized that they cannot assume that such locations exist in any a priori way. Elspeth Probyn suggests this in her characterization of the site as dependent on, but more than, discourse: "the concept of ëlocale' will be used to designate a place that is the setting of a particular event. I take this ëplace" as both a discursive and nondiscursive arrangement which holds a gendered event, the home being the most obvious example."36Sites appear not independently of the representational systems that they help to reveal, but out of their very conflicts. Nonetheless, they retain a base in the real world as recognizable, concrete entities: the home, the body, and so on. The peculiar concreteness that entities such as the body and the home have appears only because of this clash of systems. Clearly, such spaces exist in some sense before any discursive investment, but they only appear as "concrete" to the extent that they can be defined in contrast to the smooth functioning of linguistic and social systems. Thus, for example, the body in Foucault takes on the privileged position as the concrete basis of criticism because it marks the point of clash between a variety of competing systems of knowledge: "The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated Self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose the body totally imprinted by history and the process of history's destruction of the body."37 Acker makes the source of the concreteness of the site even more obvious in her own writing, recognizing that materiality appears only by staging the construction of objectivity. Like the concrete site (the body for Foucault, the home for Probyn), Acker's tattoo is material by virtue of its reflection on the representation at work within it.
(16) Acker's principle departure from the site as it is normally discussed in critical theory is to formulate this materiality not simply as a quality of such sites (the sense that they are "concrete"), but as a product of them every bit as real and significant as the objects they define. This departure is motivated by her thinking about the fictional medium in which she works. Unlike the body, whose concreteness can be understood naively to be independent and even the source of these representational clashes, the materiality that will appear within the literary text must be produced out of representation (language) itself. Materiality in this sense takes on a greater and more positive role within Acker's version of the site. Acker's departure on this point from the site of Foucault's Discipline and Punish period can perhaps best be approached through Acker's affinity for the writing of Deleuze and Guattari. We should be circumspect in associating Acker with these thinkers; Acker, after all, notes that her reading in Deleuze and Guattari, like that in Foucault and others, merely confirmed her original artistic impulses.38 Nonetheless, we can note a broad difference between the site and the "rhizomatics" of Deleuze and Guattari. Both are concerned with the creation of temporary spaces of conflict and exchange. Deleuze and Guattari's use of such spaces is clear in their best-known concept, the "Body without Organs": "The BwO [Body without Organs] is not a scene, a place, or even a support upon which something comes to pass. . . . The BwO causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree–to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced."39For all its differences from the site, this description of the Body without Organs relies on a space constituted purely by the temporal movement of forces across it, just as the site is normally understood to arise temporally out of contradictions. But much more than the formulations of the site that we have considered above, Deleuze and Guattari are concerned with how these spaces open up in new directions and give rise to "lines of flight." Glenn Harper describes the role of desire in Acker's work in just these terms: "Desire, the only means of resistance or renewal in Acker's work, follows the subterranean paths of Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomes, undercutting any light-of-day, rationalized paths in creating a network with no priorities other than its own, circumventing any politicization of desire that would simply redirect it into new dichotomies."40 Deleuze and Guattari make clear how such "subterranean" flights depart from the notion of a self-enclosed site elsewhere in discussing the Body without Organs: "Machines attach themselves to the body without organs as so many points of disjunction, between which an entire network of new syntheses is now woven."41 Deleuze and Guattari's spaces always open outwards, creating "new syntheses" that exceed any defined space. Deleuze has argued that Foucault's later writing moves towards an interest in such syntheses,42 and the recent work by Probyn and others has begun to formulate sites in such open-ended terms.43 We can see Acker as applying the site to her art, but also as similarly fighting against any self-contained understanding of such sites. By formulating her understanding of the open-endedness of the site in terms of how it produces a materiality that is not "contained" within the site, Acker begins to answer the challenge of interrelating sites with which I began this essay.
(17) As Acker's interview comments on the importance of the material in her writing have suggested, this more positive concept of materiality is related to how her "mythical" style of writing is able to transform the role of readers in texts. One of Acker's most commonly discussed comments on the relation between the text and its readers occurs early in Empire, as Abhor plans with Thivai:
"I don't know who's backing him." Abhor turned around to face me. She must have woken up. "All I know is we call him 'boss' and he gets his orders. Like you and me."
"Somebody knows something. Whoever he is, the knower, must be the big boss."
"Look . . . . All I know is that we have to reach this construct. And her name's Kathy."
"That's a nice name. Who is she?"
"It doesn't mean anything." (34)
As critics have recognized, Acker rejects the humanist notion of the author as a stable origin of the text, and implies that her "authorship" is created out of the progression of the text itself.44Acker suggests that, like the site, this novel moves toward a "construct" that ultimately has little to do with the work's real origin or effects ("It doesn't mean anything"); such an object-like construct is implied by the traditional image of the "knower" who writes or reads the text. Acker makes this understanding of storytelling somewhat clearer in her more recent novel, My Mother: Demonology, where she associates the writing of her novel with bodybuilding: "STORYTELLING METHOD: THE ACT OF BODYBUILDING PRESUPPOSES THE ACT OF MOVING TOWARD THE BODY OR THAT WHICH IS SO MATERIAL THAT IT BECOMES IMMATERIAL."45Bodybuilding transforms the body into an object, but seems to bring some awareness of the materiality of the body along with it. Given Acker's own interest in bodybuilding, and her penchant for drawing connections between bodybuilding and her writing,46 we should take this passage seriously as a statement of how she attempts to construct her novels. Acker suggests that the reader's movement through a novel written in her "mythical" style is "material" in contrast with this objective end goal. This is illuminated by Acker's association of maps and desire in My Mother: "Maps are dreams: both describe desire, where you want to go, but never the reality of the destination."47 Acker sees the map's failed reference to a destination as a more desirous, material relation with the text. That Acker's main characters are so often travelers,48and that she associates herself with sailors only makes the connection between maps and Acker's novels obvious. Indeed, Acker has associated her mythical style of writing with the attempt "to go into the space of wonder"49 and thus, by implication, to pursue the desires contained within this space. Mythical writing, then, repeats the goals of the site by virtue of its ability to set into play desires that represent a materiality counter to the objectivity of the final product of the story. Like the tattoo, the novel can only accomplish this by creating a distinction between an exterior boundary and an interior materiality. A novel that recognizes this potential mythical involvement of the reader can open up a space for desires only by virtue of its eventual reference to some "immaterial" object, some totality that the text creates as its goal. To return to Acker's interview comment about the materiality of text, reader and writer, we can see such novels as capable of balancing object of reference and material desires by virtue of the reader's position asexternal to the text. Only because the reader can view the text as an object–as a map with some eventual wholeness and reference–can the text open up a material play of desires en route to that object. More importantly, however, these desires move beyond the text itself. Indeed, Acker's novels refuse to stay within a single plot and constantly find themselves occupying other texts. In an interview conducted shortly after completingEmpire, Acker notes that she appropriates texts not for parodic or structural purposes, but because they "describe the particular place I want to get to."50Given Acker's description of the novel as a kind of map, we can see these referenced, inserted, and rewritten texts as the product of just this sort of desirous relation to the developing text, a relation that spins off into other texts and overflows the final "construct" of the novel.
(18) How does this image of the reader's always-incomplete place within the novel translate to the critical use of the site, and how does it address the problems that critics such as Fraser and Nicholson raised at the outset of this essay? Let us note that the theories of the site and of materiality are explicitly at odds with each other. The obvious example is Judith Butler's rejection of local criticism on the grounds that it fails to recognize that the basic objects to which it seems to limit itself are the end-product of a process of "materialization." Butler discusses the critical "I" as such an end product:
But it is clearly not the case that "I" preside over the positions that have constituted me, shuffling through them instrumentally, casting some aside, incorporating others, although some of my activity may take that form. The "I" who would select between them is always already constituted by them. The "I" is the transfer point of that replay, but it is simply not a strong enough claim to say that the I" is situated; the "I," this "I," is constituted by these positions, and these "positions" are not merely theoretical products, but fully embedded organizing principles of material practices and institutional arrangements, those matrices of power and discourse that produce me as a viable "subject."51
Objects such as the critical "I" serve power relations in often hidden ways because it is only by accepting such relations that these objects achieve "materialization": "The process of that sedimentation or what we might call materialization will be a kind of citationality, the acquisition of being through the citing of power."52 For all that Butler's critique points out assumptions made by theories that take the "site" as a simple location that can be occupied self-consciously, her own writing leaves unanswered questions about our ability to be conscious of the process of materialization. As Seyla Benhabib asks, "What is it that enables the self to 'vary' the gender codes such as to resist hegemonic discourses? What psychic, intellectual, or other sources of creativity and resistance must we attribute to human subjects for such variation to be possible."53 To put Benhabib's challenge in other terms, we might suggest that Butler ultimately lacks apositive understanding of materiality, one that would allow individuals to understand and make use of limitations of the objects produced through the process of "sedimentation." This is exactly Probyn's recent complaint about Butler's theory: "if Butler does an admirable job of dislodging sex as origin, she does not quite manage to shift desire from its Lacanian position as that which circles endlessly and compulsively around its constituted object. Here, desire 'misses' its object, as in the French, son objet lui manque; it misses and lacks its originary object."54 Butler's critique of the concept of the local site, we can say, relies on a theory of materiality that has its roots in deconstruction, and that must be understood as a kind of slippage problematizing social objects without giving individuals the tools to put this slippage to creative use.
(19) Acker has offered a model of representation that strikes a balance between theories of the local site and theories of materiality. In one sense, Acker agrees with Fraser and Nicholson that critics must construct narrative entities like "male dominance" since, as she has suggested, this process of objectification (what Butler calls materialization) is inevitable. At the same time, however, her "mythical" style of writing suggests that we must not be content with traditional narrative construction and its reliance on objects "to be owned." Rather, she has found in mythical writing entities that draw attention to the fact that they cannot be simple, complete objects. Such objects always construct a materiality that exceeds their position in their "stories" and that drives the writing on, beyond its current "location." Acker develops this positive theory of materiality by virtue of the very thing that Butler denies: the site in which the process of materialization occurs. Only by distinguishing between "materialized" entities and the sites in which they appear, Acker suggests, can we achieve a nuanced understanding of our engagement in, but also partial freedom from, the objects that have been "sedimented" through the citation of power. In this we could say that Acker offers us an understanding of discursive materialization based not on Butler's deconstructive theory of lack, but rather on the kind of excessive physicality that Grosz described above. Grosz's understanding of Merleau-Ponty's theory of "touch" argues that bodies always extend beyond themselves and that they only have being by virtue of the temporality of their interactions with the objects that surround them. Acker suggests that applying such a model of materiality to the functioning of discourse allows us to speak about how we can be aware of and use the limitations of hegemonic objects. Such objects will always extend beyond themselves, will always reference backwards to their histories and forwards to other articulations as the very condition of their functioning as objects. Such references, we can say, define the "site" in which these objects exist. To return to Fraser and Nicholson's example, we can say that critics must, indeed, construct entities such as "male dominance." But a "mythical" approach to this construction will also inquire into how this critical entity came into being by virtue of certain historical changes–in the nature of English studies, in literary canons, in the demographics of advanced academic study and teaching–and, more importantly, how it also depends on and demands future articulations. Butler's recent critique of the term "woman" as the core of feminism,55 after all, can occur only because of a disciplinary site (gender studies) that could not have been founded without this and supporting metanarrative entities like "male dominance." Like the pirate ship, such disciplinary positions are always self-consuming; the less we try to retain ossified sites and entities the richer and more energetic these transformations will be. And if new articulations grow out of problems in these earlier entities, Acker has helped us to see that what compels us to investigate such problems are the contradictions in our own role as readers and critics, a role that requires us to negotiate between the object of analysis and the "map" of our progression towards it. The very gap between site and object, then, is the source of the energy and endlessness of these transformations.
(20) Acker suggests, then, that critics are always already engaged in an historical continuum that constructs, deconstructs, and transforms the entities that they take as the basis of their analysis. If critics can never be fully self-conscious, they can recognize this transformation as creative and embrace its endless movement to "anywhere but here."
- Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 59. back
- Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 50. back
- Michael Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 143. back
- Teresa de Lauretis, "Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms, and Contexts," Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 14. back
- Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson, "Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism," Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 26. back
- Judith Butler, "For a Careful Reading," Contingent Foundations: A Philosophical Exchange, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1995), 141. back
- Adrienne Rich, "Notes toward a Politics of Location," Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), 215-16. back
- On Acker's reworking of Gibson, see Brian McHale,Constructing Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1992), 233-36. back
- Robert Siegle, Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 108. back
- Ellen G. Friedman, "A Conversation with Kathy Acker," Review of Contemporary Fiction 9.3 (1989), 17. back
- Siegle, Suburban Ambush, 114. back
- Donna J. Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 173. back
- Kathy Acker, "Devoured by Myths: An Interview with Sylvère Lotringer," Hannibal Lecter, My Father (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 23. back
- Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless (New York: Grove, 1988), 113. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text. back
- Kathy Acker, Portrait of an Eye (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 67. back
- Kathy Acker, Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (New York: Grove, 1986), 190. back
- Acker, Don Quixote, 171. back
- Colleen Kennedy, "Simulating Sex and Imagining Mothers,"American Literary History 4.1 (1992), 182. back
- Acker, Don Quixote, 46-47. back
- Typical is a comment in Don Quixote: "I want you . . . . I donít want just another affair, fantasy. All that romance, cause the mind always changes its thoughts, is peripheral. I want something beyond. I want you" (134). Passages such as this clearly suggest that the romantic strivings of Acker's characters ultimately rest upon the larger philosophical problem of the gap between self and other. back
- Acker, Don Quixote, 9. back
- Acker, Don Quixote, 15. back
- Kathy Acker, Great Expectations (New York: Grove, 1982), 70. back
- Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 100. back
- Grosz, Volatile Bodies, 100. back
- Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with Kathy Acker," Mississippi Review 20.1-2 (1991), 93. back
- Rebecca Deaton, Interview with Kathy Acker, Textual Practice6 (1992), 280. back
- Ellen G. Friedman, "Now Eat Your Mind": An Introduction to the Works of Kathy Acker," Review of Contemporary Fiction 9.3 (1989), 42. back
- Kathy Acker, "A Few Notes on two of My Books," Review of Contemporary Fiction 9.3 (1989), 36. back
- Friedman, "Conversation," 17. back
- Siegle, Suburban Ambush, 121-22. back
- Arthur F. Redding, "Bruises, Roses: Masochism and the Writing of Kathy Acker," Contemporary Literature35 (1994), 294. back
- Siegle, Suburban Ambush, 122. back
- Redding, "Bruises, Roses," 295. back
- Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), 78. back
- Elspeth Probyn, "Travels in the Postmodern: Making Sense of the Local," Feminism/Postmodernism, 178. back
- Foucault, "Nietzsche," 148. back
- Acker, "Devoured," 10. back
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 153. back
- Glenn A. Harper, "The Subversive Power of Sexual Difference in the Work of Kathy Acker," Sub-Stance 54 (1987), 49. back
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 12. back
- See Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seàn Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988). back
- See Elspeth Probyn, "Queer Belongings: The Politics of Departure," Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism, eds. Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn (London: Routledge, 1995), 1-18. I would like to thank Kate Cummings for drawing my attention to this more open-ended, Deleuzeoguattarian model of the site in Probyn's recent work. back
- Martina Sciolino, "Kathy Acker and the Postmodern Subject of Feminism," College English 52 (1990), 440. back
- Kathy Acker, My Mother: Demonology (New York: Grove, 1993), 110. back
- Acker, "Devoured," 23. back
- Acker, My Mother, 37. back
- See Karen Brennan, "The Geography of Enunciation: Hysterical Pastiche in Kathy Acker's Fiction,"Boundary 2 21 (1984): 243-68. back
- Acker, "Devoured," 23. back
- Friedman, "Conversation," 17. back
- Judith Butler, "Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Questions of 'Postmodernism,'" Feminist Contentions, 42. back
- Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993), 15. back
- Seyla Benhabib, "Subjectivity, Historiography, and Politics: Reflections on the 'Feminism/Postmodernism Exchange,'"Feminist Contentions, 100. back
- Elspeth Probyn, "Queer Belongings," 4. back
- See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). back