Strange and Intimate Encounters With Kathy Acker

Strange and Intimate Encounters With Kathy Acker

Strange and Intimate Encounters With Kathy Acker

In Philosophy for Spiders, McKenzie Wark revisits Acker’s work to fashion a different kind of literary theory—one more personal and erotic.


McKenzie Wark met Kathy Acker in Sydney in 1995 at a reading for 21C Magazine, a publication both wrote for at the time. That evening, they ended up sitting next to each other at a dinner party. Kathy began talking to McKenzie and, just like that, the rest of the room fell away. At the end of the night, McKenzie drove Kathy back to her hotel, idling momentarily at the entrance until Kathy asked impatiently, “Well, are you coming up or not?” Quickly and unceremoniously, their clothes came off and they found their way to the futon. There was a lot of sex and then some talking about the sex. As in her writing, Kathy invited sexual frankness.

They spent the next few days together exploring Sydney before Kathy returned to the States. Despite the brevity of their relationship, the two sometimes struggled to convey their mutual desire for one another: “[It] did not occur to me that she wanted my company to continue…. I thought very little of myself,” Wark later reflected. “But she took it to mean I thought even less of her. The common language that divided us.” McKenzie hadn’t read a lot of Kathy’s work yet, and this was in part why Kathy was attracted to her: She firmly believed that one should never sleep with their fans. It’s ironic, considering that Wark has gone on to become not only a scholar of Acker’s work but also to play a crucial role in preserving her legacy.

It was McKenzie who drove Kathy to the airport when she left Sydney. They exchanged contact information and the two picked up a prolific e-mail correspondence, a novelty of the time. Their e-mails have since been compiled in Wark’s book I’m Very Into You. They saw each other only once more, taking a trip from San Francisco to New York City together, before Kathy’s untimely death in 1997.

Acker was a writer who meant many things to many different readers. She’s been described as a feminist theorist, avant-garde novelist, punk writer, queer writer, porn writer, kinkster, plagiarist, poet laureate of young girls with daddy issues, and most recently, in Wark’s Philosophy for Spiders, a critical theorist and trans writer.

She’s a writer whose persona is as crucial to her work as her words themselves, it seems. A writer who insists on a sometimes-uncomfortable intimacy between reader and text by baring it all. In interviews, biographies, and reviews, it’s as if writers can’t help but share a few strange encounters they had with her, almost as if to assert their place in her mythology.

Wark is known for writing on many subjects, too—capitalism, cyber-hacking, a memoir on transness—but Acker appears to be a subject that captivates her most intimately. Now in Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker, the newest book on Acker’s legacy, Wark has written a study that not only luxuriates in her brief, passionate love affair with Acker but also attempts to burnish her legacy through a contemporary recontextualization of her work, including a trans reading of Acker’s writings, exploring the ways her fictions abjured gender binaries or even the assumption that her voice emanated from a cis woman.

Wark endeavors to create a new text from Acker’s old ones, to imagine a literary theory that feels tangible and erotic, blurring the line between what is considered intellectual and sexual. In her construction, Wark flouts the critic’s tendency to avoid the subjectivity of the writer and instead leans into the corporeal as a place of knowledge and experience worthy of theorizing about.

What takes shape from this idea is a gloriously difficult book to categorize. Wark begins her book with both a content and form warning:

CW: This book contains the language of sex, violence, sexual violence, and spiders.

FW: This book has elements of memoir and criticism but is neither.

Just as Acker inhabits many selves, Philosophy for Spiders flirts with many forms: It is part romance, part memoir, part queer theory, and part literary criticism told through various fragments from the expanse of Acker’s published work. The result is something reminiscent of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, another experiment in criticism via memoir and romance, but feels rooted in Acker’s sensibility, in its provocation and insistence on expressing intellect through the language of sex—an ideology of holes, cum, and penetration.

The book is split into two parts. The first, “The City of Memory,” is most akin to memoir and details McKenzie’s romantic relationship with Kathy: We meet Kathy as lover, Kathy as e-mail writer, Kathy as storyteller and bender of truth. Full of the little anecdotes that proliferate in the wake of a brief love affair, this is the most affecting portion of the book. For instance: how they lay on the couch thousands of miles apart, waiting for each other’s e-mails; the way the sunlight flooded the kitchen the mornings they spent together in San Francisco; a trip to the strip club, and the sex that followed. It is also replete with wonderful tidbits of Kathy herself, lovable details like how she was kicked off AOL for asking if there were any dykes in the MTV chat room, or the many stuffed animals she kept on her bed (among them a tarantula, Woofie the wolf, and Ratski the rat).

The latter section of the book introduces Wark’s opinion of the philosophical project in Acker’s writing, the titular “low theory,” which comes from Acker’s published works rather than memoir. Not only does Wark collage snippets of Acker’s texts together, but she renders their meaning more cogently, through a distillation of themes with headers that organize the philosophies into credos such as “Time,” “Women,” and “Inheritance.” Wark defines low theory as “a philosophy for brutes: women, slaves, beasts. A philosophy whose skill is threading words together as its own kind of more carnal love,” and positions it against “philosophy in which gentlemen discourse on the nature of the beautiful, the good, and the true.” In plainest terms, low theory might be defined as a philosophy with no allegiances to the patriarchs of philosophy, a theory which is bound to flesh, to the praxis of simply living.

It is also in this section that readers are introduced to the overarching metaphor of the book: the spider weaving her web, which aptly describes Wark’s process of concretizing Acker’s worldview, in which Acker provides the silk, and Wark performs the weaving. The result is a sometimes confusing but likely purposeful slippage between Acker’s work and Wark’s interpretations. In the philosophy of “Desire,” Wark collects lines from Acker’s books Literal Madness, My Mother, and Eurydice in the Underworld that explicitly reference the mentions of desire in her work, creating a sort of reference guide to the different ways that Acker described desire across her books. Using Acker’s quotes as source material, Wark points out that some desires are described as greed, an endless addiction to want, while other desires, especially sexual desire, are described as an awakening, but these also have the ability to consume. Acker’s philosophies of desire might be considered low theory because of this dual interpretation of desire as an intellectual pursuit as well as a bodily hunger.

Perhaps this is what Acker’s low theories do best—presenting the intellectual as equal to the bodily—thus defining a specific form of critical theory that favors both experiences. It is the broadest of theories, like “Love,” that benefit most from Wark’s crystalline language, and by no coincidence, feel the most resonant. In the section on “Love,” Acker’s words appear in italics to denote lines from Acker’s work, while Wark’s words, which analyze and connect the texts, appear in standard font:

“Love is the topic where the Acker-text is most turbulent. Without you I am nothing.… Ackers need some other to know they exist, their gaze reflected back in some other’s eye. Love makes time and life. But is love even possible? Love does not just affirm the self, but also impinges upon it. You can’t bear to have anyone love you. You can’t bear another person’s consciousness. And yet Ackers can’t help themselves…. All romanticism is stupid. If sex is hard, love is harder, and maybe impossible. Ackers look for it everywhere.”

Through Wark’s rereading, Acker is transformed from provocateur porn writer, punk poet, and literary theorist to someone much more resonant: a vulnerable Acker shed of her leather jacket, of her sometimes-bratty persona. This is the Kathy that wants McKenzie to spend another night at her hotel but doesn’t know how to ask, who assumes McKenzie thinks little of her. It is rare that critical theory shows us these naked moments. Theory aims to unlock for us what we already know to be true in our bodies, but sometimes the language of the academy robs us of that visceral experience. But low theory is where these ideas of self-knowledge can breathe, in its devotion to the pleasurable, the gritty, its reconfiguring of the everyday.

Fittingly, love remains at the heart of Philosophy for Spiders. If weaving an Acker web is the intellectual project of the book, the emotional project is certainly to give new life to Acker’s legacy, both as a lover and a writer, and there’s hardly anything that feels more like love to me than what Wark has done: given new breath to Acker’s life and work, providing her a new frame in which to keep living.

Kathy’s own fear of being forgotten haunts this book: “The one thing I remember us talking about is whether anyone would care about her writing when she was gone,” Wark writes. She goes on to describe Acker’s work floridly but can’t tell if she’s been convinced. “I told Kathy she would be remembered, but the crucial question was not so much whether or not she would be remembered, but by whom.”

I remember the first time I heard of Acker. I had just finished high school, and an older woman had given me Blood & Guts in High School as a courting gift. She told me I’d feel pressure to idolize the Beat poets in college, but “girls like us” idolized Kathy Acker. I carried it around campus the entirety of my freshman year as though it were the objective correlative to my desires. I laid on the lawn in front of the gender and sexuality studies building hoping to be seen by other dykes, of which there were very few. I’m not sure I even really liked Blood & Guts the first time I read it. I doubt that I understood it at the time, as I hardly understand it now. What I knew, though, is that I loved the way Acker looked on the book’s cover. She had high cheekbones and a buzzcut and wore lipstick and a leather jacket. At this point, my understanding of queer visibility was limited to the butch/femme dynamic, and neither felt particularly attainable. Kathy seemed to offer a different solution—flirting with the complex in-betweenness of gender, of sexuality—that I desperately wanted.

In the afterword, titled “Dysphoric,” Wark argues for an addition to the many adjectives used to describe Acker. Alongside the “transgressive, postmodern, cyberpunk, feminist, conceptual, revolutionary, new narrative, sex worker” Acker we might also find a trans Acker. Or rather, an Acker who may or may not have been trans, but whose work nonetheless can be read as trans lit. According to Wark, it is not only Acker’s body of texts and her nonnormative writing style but the bodies (specifically the dysphoric body) described in Acker’s work that might situate her in the trans canon. “A low theory after Acker seems to me particularly well adapted to the needs and desires of the dysphoric body, a category that maybe overlaps a lot with the trans body but is not ever identical to it,” Wark writes.

Kathy remains a sort of lodestar not only for me but for any person who feels otherwise at odds with themselves, with the establishment, their body, or the symmetry of their desire. I still haven’t found a writer whose work so explicitly addresses the anxieties of inadequacy, resists categorization, pushes against the confines of what is considered “literary,” and seems somehow perennially ahead of her time.

Perhaps this is the real testament to what Wark has been able to make of Acker’s memory as a writer and a person: that, nearly 25 years after her death, Acker’s work continues to twist our understandings of language and gender, warranting new ways of reading. Instead of closing, Philosophy for Spiders simply expands. Wark is able to suggest a new Acker who does not overshadow or negate previous Ackers but provides depth to them, Acker’s web growing even more intricate.

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