What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Bodies of Work
by Kathy Acker

Field-Tested by Ben Greenman

in New York City, New York and San Francisco, California

It is strange to be in America these days, inside it, watching the big gears turn. I’m thinking primarily about the presidential race, as is everyone else, and specifically about the way that Barack Obama’s associations with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and David Ayers have tarnished his candidacy. Obama may have met the men and spoken to them, but the controversy was minted and circulated by talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, ideologues with narrow missions and broad audiences. I am not necessarily an Obama supporter. I haven’t, from the first, thought that his bandwagon looked sturdy. But I’d prefer to either accept or reject him as a solid candidate rather than as a symptom of America’s fear of black people and sixties radicals.

I don’t want to make a political point here. I want to make a literary point, and to make it by making a personal one. The other day, my wife told me to get rid of some books. I went to the bookshelf intending to do so. But when I touched a volume, any volume, my memories of that book, or my thoughts about that author, or my unanswered questions about the sentences and paragraphs, went through me like a not entirely unpleasant current. I didn’t get rid of any books. Instead, some books came down from the shelf and became objects of eager rereading. One of those books was Kathy Acker’s Bodies of Work, a collection of her essays from the late nineties.

I once read Kathy Acker all the time, when I was a teenager in Miami, when what her work, to me, was mostly strong writing, clear thought, and taboo. I’m not sure how carefully I had read Bodies of Work the first time through. I’m guessing I skipped around. This time, amid the considerations of Sade and Delany and Colette, two essays stopped me. The first was the first, which is partly about William S. Burroughs, but includes this observation about America: “For in its cultural, social, and political behavior, the United States resembles a giant baby, perhaps mongoloid, almost uneducated and increasingly uninterested in questioning and eduction, who not maliciously but unknowingly breaks everything it meets as it walks around in chaotic paths.”

I laughed when I read that, and then I thought that Acker had left something out, which is that the baby is likely to hurt itself. Then later in her book, I noticed that she had not left it out. There is an essay called “Some American Cities” in which she paints portraits of New York, using as pigments such phenomena as urban rot, disease, and police corruption. San Francisco is offered as counterweight; she wonders if the city’s gay lifestyle — which she defines not by sexual orientation alone but as a certain unconventional streak — protects it from the corporate considerations that have bloated and disfigured New York.

I was in San Francisco recently. The lines weren’t as clear as they are in the essay. Still, she’s right: there is a corporate, meaning-making world (she says art and publishing, but let’s throw mass media in here, too) that has no connection with outsider thought and unconventionality, never wants to, never will. The thought I had, reading Bodies of Work a second time, carefully, ten years after I should have (but probably couldn’t have) read it carefully the first time, is that there’s no way over that gulf, and that the water’s rushing in one direction only. Meaning: Kathy Acker, or whoever Kathy Acker is today, may well know about Sean Hannity, but Sean Hannity doesn’t know a thing about Kathy Acker, or whoever Kathy Acker is today. Those sitting in power are not learning from the other powerful teachers. This is a very radical sentence, and it is not always how I feel, but it is how I feel when I think about what’s lost when important conversations become one-sided. In the final essay in the book, which was written in 1996 and is about the future, Acker confronts mortality — she was dying of cancer — and, along with it, power, sex, gender, and desire. The text for her here is Crash, both J.G. Ballard’s novel and David Cronenberg’s film adaptation. She focuses on one moment in the film where Cronenberg shows the naked genitals of a man and a woman. “What interested me the most was that, contrary and probably antagonistic to all porn conventions, the cock is not hard...A slap in the face of the white Western world.”

I am in that world, I guess (as is Cronenberg), but I am thankful that someone is slapping it in the face to keep it awake, accountable, non-monstrous. Who wants to sleep and dream that it is entirely free of responsibility? A baby.

Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including Superbad, Superworse, and A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both. His work has appeared in several publications you’d recognize, and several you wouldn’t. He lives in Brooklyn.

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