Kathy Acker & McKenzie Wark
Semiotext(e), 2015, 152 pp.
I'm Very Into You presents an exchange of emails between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark over a period of not much more than two weeks in August 1995. They met, liked each other, recognised something in each other, had a brief affair and tried to make the most of what they had chanced upon. This can seem promising in many ways: well-known bad-girl iconoclast writer meets antsy lefty-intellectual media philosopher.
On the other hand, these are just emails. Like most casual emailing, they indulge much rhetoric that is either flat or hyper with not much in between: not exactly measured. Both of these writers are known for their shock tactics and sudden compressions, revelatory shifts of perspective and quick dialectical reversals of order.
In the overheated verbal exchange, something surprising and exciting can happen. One of the immediate effects is the experience of “compression”. Not so much compression of expression, or a sudden increase in philosophical intensity, as the compression of occupying the singular space of their shared world at this time.
Typical lovers’ avowals and disavowals abound, along with reflection on the pressure and anxiety of the times, viewed through the grid that their personalities and their sexualities present. Of course, typical, or “straight”, is anything but how the two see themselves. At times, they go to great pains to insist on being beyond definition or category.
After a while, these email exchanges become fairly addictive to read. I say “after a while”, because I would probably not have read more than a few pages if reading for pleasure. The initial effect is one of numbed boredom. But, as a reviewer with a task, I pushed on. Past the pain. You need to read them with about the same irregular attention you give any email.
Acker and Wark live in different hemispheres. This means the emails cross each other, and are sent late at night or early in the morning – and are attended to in this same out-of-synch way. Both are hard-working, Acker is often a little drunk. The communications are an attempt to set up the relationship on the grounds that give them what they thought they saw in each other: a chance to be accepted, understood, liked or loved, for what they were and could be.
A great deal of energy – some of it a rather rote, default shucking-off of stereotypical roles and identifications – is spent in reaching for quasi-utopian self-definition, often in attempting to gain it through successive changes of hyperbolic drag identifications with uber femme or macho characteristics, in a play of rhetorical extremes. Sexuality remains topical in almost any age, but Acker and Wark’s ploys and poses, moves and performances, defer to the 1980s and early 1990s – when sexual identities were announced as credentials or expressions of status within an agreed Nietzschean ficto-realm.
Similarly of its time is the reduction of almost all power (the state, the family, the economy and the military) to the prism of sexual identity. Still, the problems that seemed at the heart of a long politics of emancipation and Marxist-materialist vision have not been disproved so much as displaced by the more immediately contingent issues of the quickly deteriorating environment, extreme inequality of wealth, and the clash of fundamentalisms.
I’m Very Into You is amusing as an insight into the headspace of that time and interesting because these two heads were so high-powered. Both are preoccupied with the looming, all-controlling state. Wark was a gadfly, specialising in media analysis. Acker was a well-known author, a sort of development of Burroughs, punk and semiotics. Acker’s pronouncements tend to be emotional before they are logical. Mckenzie Wark’s come from deep involvement in that formative succession: Marxism, poststructuralism, Deleuze and Foucault.
Acker is clearly impressed and a little daunted by Wark's brain, much as he is impressed by the daring of her insurrectionary thinking and literary expression. Both talk as though they are part of a hunted “underground” at a time of war. Of course, they are right: there always is a war going on somewhere. And, in the name of that war – in the name of what that war was always going to be fought for (economic dominance, and the maintenance of privilege) – there is the ongoing war of the conservative powers and institutions against the anarchy free-thinkers like Acker, McKenzie Wark and all libertarians, feminists, and feral activists.
Ken Bolton is a poet and critic. He manages the Darkey Horsey Bookshop at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide.