Kathy Acker’s 4H Club


Tattooed, mastectomized, pierced, body-built and crew cut, Kathy Acker rode her motorcycle along the wet seam of the posthuman, defying and pirating the traffic of literature in her leather jacket and sunglasses. Acker was a mythographer, rewriting the corpus of literature, rewriting the body, writing through the orgasmic body and writing on and into the body with penetrating, permanent ink. As much as Acker denied being a ‘theorist’, her interviews (with Angela McRobbie for the Institute of Contemporary Art, for example) tended to reveal Acker to be intimately familiar with, and concerned with literary theory, its seductions and coercions. Acker’s body of work, an anti-Oedipal S&M revisionist corpus that can hang as easily with the superficial groupies of punk rock as it can with, say, Foucault, Helene Cixous, the Cyborg Manifesto of Donna Haraway, or Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman, and that body - the ambivalent feminism, the amorphous tattoo line between discipline and anarchy that she embodied - she firmly believed could affect the world. Language, literature, theory, art and aesthetics were the source of an elite cant that was simultaneously the expression and corruption of power. Language, text, was for Acker the abstract means to concrete revolution. It could fall into the wrong hands in a bad way: the tedium and hegemony of the bourgeois novel, certain tyrannies of classicism, the literature of authority; or it could fall into the wrong hands in a good way: into the cum stained palms of transvestite pirates. So, the history of the victors could be rewritten by the untouchable, and by the abjected creatures emerging from the tenements of postmodernism and punk, and from academic slumming, and polymorphous perversion. Acker was also unique in our civilization for being capable of literally masturbating over Charles Dickens novels. Acker’s body is resolutely posthuman, which is to say it is – like culture itself – prosthetic, mediated. In the words of queer theorist Judith Jack Halberstam in Posthuman Bodies (1995): “Posthuman bodies are the causes and effects of postmodern relations of power and pleasure, virtuality and reality, sex and its consequences. The posthuman body is a technology, a screen, a projected image; it is a body under the sign of AIDS, a contaminated body, a deadly body, a techno-body; it is, as we shall see, a queer body.” Nowhere in Acker’s work is this posthuman (dis)embodiment under the sign of AIDS  more forceful than in her 1988 novel Empire of the Senseless.


It tends to go unnoticed in the sensational prose or the critical thrill of uncovering Acker’s literary sources for the Empire of the Senseless, notably William Gibson’s cyberpunk ur-text Neuromancer, Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers, and C.L.R. James’ history The Black Jacobins, (Angela Naimou’s work on Conflation, Decolonization, and the Zombie in Empire of the Senseless, published in Polina Mackay and Kathryn Nicol’s Kathy Acker and Transnationalism is illuminating on this last) that Acker’s textual choices, those that she will rewrite, articulate a deliberate, specific point about the body ‘under the sign of AIDS’. Empire of the Senseless twins the (post) colonial revolutionary landscapes of Haiti, Algiers and Paris. Lest we forget, in the early 1980s, between the CDC and the gutters of the medical mind, that disease was abortively named both GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and - essential to the construction of Acker’s novel – it was also called  ‘4H Disease’ – so coined because it was believed that the principal communities vulnerable to infection were Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, Heroin users, and Haitians. As a disease that made a mockery of the species barrier – from Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), through Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) – AIDS is not only the quintessential posthuman disease – as Acker says: “All humans and animals now sail over the same seas” - but its gross characterization as 4H Disease gave Acker specific subcultures that she could deploy in the double dystopia (theoretical and physical) of her novel. Acker’s pre-AIDS Haitian connection goes back to at least 1978 and Kathy Goes To Haiti. The skin of Empire of the Senseless is punctured repeatedly with needles: tattoo needles or the ‘derms’ Acker steals from chapter 5 of Neuromancer (blood transfusions are also vital to Gibson’s fiction). As for the rest, the reader doubtless requires less explanation. But nothing was arbitrary in Acker’s writing. It was considered, consistent, forensically plagiarized, even theorized. With regard to the use of Neuromancer, Acker’s approach is as linear in 1988 as it was fifteen years earlier in the various piracies of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Acker insinuates herself into the text. I have italicized Gibson’s words:

“A transparent cast ran from her knee to a few millimeters below her crotch, the skin mottled by blue purple and green patches which looked like bruises but weren’t. Black spots on the nails, finger and toe, shaded into gold (Gibson says “shading into ugly yellow”). Eight derms, each a different color size (Gibson says “size and color”) and form, ran in a neat line down her right wrist (Gibson says “left wrist”) and down the vein of the right upper thigh, A transdermal unit (Acker omits the Akai brand name and cuts “lay beside her”), separated from her body, connected to the input trodes under the cast by means of thin red leads. (Gibson says “its fine red leads connected to input trodes under the cast”) A fine construct.” – Empire of the Senseless, p. 33

The posthuman condition, explicitly embodied in Empire of the Senseless, is essentially inter-textual, and porous. It occurs at the breakdown of mythic humanist categories, at the collapse of human subjectivity as defined as autonomous and rational. The old myths of ‘tool use’ or ‘language acquisition’ no longer serve to differentiate the human from the animal or the machine. The posthuman condition recognizes the cybernetic feedback between human, animal, machine, genetic/machine code, data (made) flesh, simulation, schizophrenia, prosthesis, text, that screams across our amplified mediated bodies. Posthuman subjectivity informs us that schizophrenia, plurality, and even autism are more authentic and informative than the romantic heroism of the singular non-porous humanist self.The posthuman condition is one of the body interrupted – the once autonomous humanist reorganized in terms of its new reality: a media interface, an interpenetrated self, a technological cultural construct.

This is Kathy Acker.

And therefore, this goes some way to explaining Acker’s ambivalence vis-à-vis feminism. Certainly she was a feminist of sorts: an anti-Dworkinite for whom Erica Jong was a bestselling anachronism, etc. As second wave feminism flourished in the 1970s, Acker seemed to have recognized (as had Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1818) that the Self had – even from and before the prosthetic use of Adam’s rib to make Eve from dirt – always been a mediated taxidermy, a golem, a zombie, a robot: a cybernetic inter-textual creature. In literature/simulation and reality, there never was a discrete human, as it had come to be understood. For Kathy Acker, the humanist dialectic that made feminism and anti-feminism possible was the exception, not the rule. Kathy Acker’s corpus is a vindication of the rights of the posthuman.


James Reich is the author “I, Judas” (Soft Skull Press, 2011), an adjunct faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and a founding member of the post-punk band Venus Bogardus (“World class” – BBC Radio). He has written for SleepingFish, Headzine, Fabric, and The End of Being.com among others. The band has recently recorded music for the soundtrack of the forthcoming movie “The Endless Possibility of Sky” by Todd Verow. James was born in England, but has lived in New Mexico since 2009.  He is currently working on his second novel. His website can be found at www.jamesreich.net and the band can be found at http://venusbogardus.bandcamp.com/
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