Acker Wark I'm Very Into You cover[Semiotext(e); 2015]

I’m Very Into You archives and offers up an email exchange taking place over some two weeks in 1995 between the writer Kathy Acker and media theorist McKenzie Wark. Their exchange constitutes a negotiation of the emotional, political, textual, digital, and physical territories that lie between the two of them following a three-night stand in Sydney. The first fragile emails are sent from the depth of “compound hangovers” and in Acker’s case, jetlag. From what follows emerges an ever-surprising epistolary interrogation of the possibility and recognition of the “radical difference” between one and other.

Publishing an email exchange brings about various important confusions — or to borrow a phrase from Wark — “slippages” — which Acker, with her notorious love of puns, picks up. This idea runs through I’m Very Into You, back and forth between them; a point of known unknown which is returned to again and again.

This work is not the outcome of a single will or intention but rather a discursive spiral, borne out of desire and loneliness. Reading it I encounter the products of collision and caress. I bask in the crossfire. Reluctant to “identify” themselves by any means or terms, categories such as you and I, top and bottom, sub and Dom, man and woman, student and teacher, straight and queer are played with, turned inside out, discarded in the hope of achieving some kind of mutual recognition in the cracks between. Acker and Wark read each other, sometimes as if their lives depend on it and indeed, much of what common ground they have seems predicated upon a mutual passion for the practices of reading and the new ways of doing so afforded them by email. They crush on the medium as much as the message.

This little book might seem, from the outside, almost absurd in its arbitrariness, in the tininess of the time and space it describes and in the intimacy of what is bound within it. There’s a shamelessness here, a glorious exposure of the fragile email-space of a so clearly personal politics. The book must be read, not simply as the sum of its contents but also as a gesture, a choice. This is an offering but also a calculated spectacle; its publication is a framing that allows an opening up of a very specific kind. Whose gesture it is, ultimately, is obscured and presumably strategically so. Safe to say though, that everyone involved knows their Situationism.

The book is published by Semiotext(e) and begins with a foreword by Acker’s executor, and the book’s editor, Matias Viegener in which his own thinking behind the decision to publish is laid out plainly enough, though whose idea it was in the first place is not revealed. McKenzie Wark’s “agreement” to the publication is made clear. Copyright is assigned to both Wark and The Kathy Acker Literary trust. Of how Acker would have felt about it, Viegener writes:

I’m sure Acker would never have agreed to [the emails’] publication were she alive but she is dead. What is it exactly that an executor does, other than answer queries and sign contracts? Perhaps we will know her differently now, and him as well. A dead writer can only exist in words and I publish these letters less in the spirit of total revelation than total text: everything in Acker’s life was text including her death.

Such confidence suggests what authorship/plagiarism there is here rests with or has been shouldered by Viegener; himself referred to in the emails by Acker as “like a brother to me,” though it is clear that he has not had to make the decision alone. Writing in The Believer, Chris Kraus, of the book’s publishers, Semiotext(e), and whose “critical biography” of Acker is forthcoming, welcomes I’m Very Into You‘s “truly awkward” awkwardness as the key to its “contemporaneity.” This awkwardness is as notable in the structures producing the book as it is in its content and affects. It should also be noted that this is not the first time that Acker’s correspondences have been posthumously published. In 2004 Dis Voir of Paris published the British writer and artist Paul Buck’s Spread Wide, described as a collaboration between himself and Acker, “using as source the raw materials of their correspondence from the early eighties when Acker was writing Great Expectations and trying to leave America For London.” Buck describes the project as his “homage” to Kathy, done “to reflect my sadness at her death, and also to continue with aspects of mischievous behaviour that both she and I liked.” Buck had to seek permission from Viegener on behalf of Acker’s estate to publish Spread Wide and found that Viegener “responded immediately with pleasure, kindness and his permission, understanding the spirit of this project.” Both Buck and Viegener seek to honour Kathy by resisting the ossification of her image, by multiplying the possibilities of her texts.

The publication of I’m Very Into You and its significance in the emerging posthumous narrative of the life and work of Kathy Acker — the specificity of the texts it contains — needs to be read between the lines, across the time-zones and date-lines that fracture its narrative linearity (the entries are ordered by date so Wark’s emails sent from the other side of the date line sometimes don’t appear until after Acker’s reply to them) but also across propriety and and binary difference. As Buck writes in his post-scriptum to Spread Wide, “Part of the project was always the knowledge that one was playing with contentious aspects, with people who are known to a public, with the private becoming public. Something Kathy blew apart from the start.” I think that Viegener is right to frame the book as honouring Acker’s work, as a tribute to the creative processes she set in motion in the world rather than as considerate of what she might have wished. There is here as there was with Spread Wide an acknowledgement that Kathy Acker is many, that her text is also part of the experiences of, and therefore part of the fractured selves of, others. I’m Very Into You continues her work, uses her words as she used those of others, to conjure something new through which we may, as Viegener writes, “know her differently now.”

And what of McKenzie Wark? How will we know him differently now? I came to the text with less knowledge of him than of Acker though I knew of The Hacker Manifesto and had occasionally encountered his theories of media archaeology. My hazy impression had been that of a figure of a certain techno-optimism, albeit a critical one but proving no exception to my general feeling about those working in such fields, (for what it’s worth) that they lack the rage I find necessary to love someone’s work. Reading I’m Very Into You doesn’t completely dispel that first impression but his obvious smitten-ness — which I mean “in the strict sense,” to borrow a phrase he uses himself in order to qualify a description of Acker as “adorable” — is infectious. In 1995 Acker was already a legend and one gets the feeling he knows he’s stumbled on gold here, he’s careful and attentive, with a palpable desire not to squander this, while she’s messy, sometimes drunk, sometimes angry, and her emails carry an urgency his do not.

For years I struggled to read Acker. I couldn’t find a hold in the text. For me she belonged to the philosophy boys who told me about her, whose brains I was trying to devour and for whom she was the Great Exception, the dead girl writer they were all in love with, the cool girl who got it all and I could never be and who, being dead would never disappoint them. It was a struggle for me to get to the point of being able to take Acker’s texts on their own — or at least on my own — terms. It’s hard to avoid pegging Wark as one of these, and one lucky enough to have been with her while she was alive. Wark comes across as smart and confident but he must have been terrified of screwing this up. Somehow though, his tentative and attentive responses to her win my sympathy. There’s no way to read this book without being reminded of the gulfs between an individual and their work and between their work and their public image and the Wark one encounters here is playful and endearing, goofily excited about early episodes of The Simpsons. The vulnerability of exposure suits him. I suspend my cynicism in honour of the lifting of the veil this text privileges me with.

Wark describes himself in an email to Acker: “I’m an artist and my chosen materials are the media.” With this in mind even the relatively passive decision to allow publication must be understood to be conforming to a deliberately constructed personal brand, or persona. What is the significance of this move for him? Of course one hopes or assumes, giving the benefit of the doubt here that there is something of Viegener and Buck’s wish to honour Kathy but the sexual nature of the relationship troubles this a little at least until it’s been read through, when the constant emphasis on resisting such normative categorisation does become clear. Many of the emails discuss Wark’s fantasy of public self-sacrifice, his wish to be the “whipping boy.” There is an ironic something-of-the-kiss-and-tell-story about the idea of this book prior to reading, with Wark, as the younger of the two, and still living, to some extent here taking a subordinate role with Acker as the rock star conquest. However, as both Acker and Wark emphasise in their emails and Viegener, Kraus, and John Kinsella (who provides the afterword, an email addressed to Wark which functions as a counterpoint to Viegener’s more Acker-oriented foreword) are all at some pains to explain, none of the roles here are solid; everything is subject to slippage. There’s a sense of wish fulfilment, as Wark wants not only to have played this role but also to be seen to have played it, but perhaps, given what the reader also stands to gain from reading, one can be glad that this is the case and thank him, as Viegener does, “for all his braveries.”

The content of the emails is remarkable, central is a discussion of Acker’s “favourite old shoes” Bataille and Blanchot, particularly Blanchot’s Unavowable Community and the reader is treated to a ferocious exposition of her reading of these. This is tied through Wark’s thoughts on Elvis and Dionysian ecstatic sacrifice, his longing for exposure extending to wanting to be “torn apart by maenads” in a disavowal of the category of man. Also fascinating is how Acker and Wark articulate their geographically located experiences of culture and their perceptions of America and Australia from both within and without and the slippages between them. While both try to resist nationalistic identities they also crucially allow themselves to use the images which create them anyway, as an acknowledged-as-already-failed attempt to describe the view from where they stand. It is their understanding of the incompleteness of communication that allows them to use this failure to tell its own story, to continue to read through fractured and discarded-as-soon-as-written thoughts to each other.

I’m Very Into You is not a story of true or tragic love in the sense of normative romance, though in a very queer sense it is both those things. I’ve not come across such a tender intellectual dialogue with such a commitment to articulate and maintain a relationship since reading Virginia Woolf’s correspondence with her sister Vanessa Bell in the collection of Woolf’s letters Convivial Spirits. The two writers’ very different attitudes toward physical sex has meant that the similarities between Woolf and Acker’s lives and works go often unremarked on but in their correspondence it is striking. The humour and tenderness with which they approach communication is similarly goofy, vulnerable, and at times sharp and to the point. In 1995 being able to send someone in Sydney six messages a day must have been an extraordinary experience, though certainly the Bloomsbury group’s use of the postal service and in some cases telegram and messengers meant that they were in just as frequent contact with each other and at as much length and intellectual depth. What changed with the availability of email is not so much the effect of time as that of space on communication. As such I’m Very Into You might be seen as a chronicling of the conceptual collapse of distance between one and other in a time when that could be read as it happened. It is Wark’s book Virtual Geographies that Acker reads on the plane from Sydney to San Francisco. What happened to proximity and intimacy at that time in the world is a narrative still becoming. With the publication of I’m Very Into You a very necessary part of the text of that narrative has been made available.


 

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