Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless and the Construction of Reality

In Kathy Acker’s “Empire of the Senseless,” Thivai struggles with perceptions and construction of reality as he wades through the setting of a post apocalyptic world. Reality and memory in this context are influenced by trauma both through violence and through rape. This is first described in “Raise Us From the Dead” when Thivai switches from describing his constructed pirate scene to describe his captivity under Xaintrilles (23). In this passage he realizes that he is “no longer free” an therefore says that he “recognized despair enough to open up my senses only inside me” (23). In this passage his external senses shut down as Xaintrilles asks him “Maybe you can’t hear anymore?” He then goes on to describe his hair being cut violently , with “my flesh peeled off my head and tip of my ear.” This trauma causes Thivai to wander in his memories as he lapses into talking to his “Mommy” and remembering Veronique. In this scene it appears as if Thivai does not know the objective reality around him and instead is living in a dream world of memories characterized by his youth and his references to his mother and sister. The previous trauma of the hair cut is now transformed into childhood rape. This lapse into memory is described by Thivai as “Useless. My memory was as dead as my desire used to be” (32). Therefore, although Thivai is forced to lapse into memory, it appears not to have the ‘use’ of explaining the present reality.

The problem of constructing reality is related to the “non-reality” of the present postapocalyptic world where “terrorism made a lot of sense” (35). In this new world, the past conception of reality is unable to cope with the current system, making memory ‘useless.’ Indeed in the world, humans are instead described as “constructs,” half machine and half human, which can be paralleled with a reality that is ‘constructed.’ It is through “constructs” that one can “know” reality. For example, on p. 34, Thivai says “Somebody knows something. Whoever he is, the knower, must be the big boss.’ to which Abhor responds, “All I know is that we have to reach this construct. And her name’s Kathy” (34). Therefore the true “knowledge” in this piece is centered around a “construct” or a false reality.

Beyond the question of an objective reality in this new world, language is questioned as a way of displaying and constructing this reality. Thivai says, “For a long time I had remained apathetic. So sure that my words meant nothing to anyone that I no longer spoke unless circumstances forced me to” (33). This distrust of words also relates to the “moderns” perhaps targeted at Modernism, where “the Moderns talked too much. Their talk, or rhetoric, was blab; they didn’t care who heard them; they would happily explain anything to the tiny parrots who shitted on the record discs as they flew around” (36). The ‘Moderns’ language therefore appears to be meaningless, in fact it can be related to the repetitive nonsense of the parrots they talk to.

Out of this dual inability to both understand and relate a ‘true’ reality, Acker includes the image of the lobotomy as a historical and medical connection to this issue (30). The use of the term Lobotomy could be seen as a way of combatting the madness in the novel, however Acker views it more as a dulling of the senses, changing the human into “A block, a dunderhead, a lump of cement, a lobotomized mongoloid” (40). Thivai is also described as being “even stupider than a lobotomy case” (32). In these uses, the lobotomy shows an inability to understand or respond to external stimuli, or understand object reality. Throughout these different tropes, Acker questions the role of language and “true” perceptions of reality within a trauma driven world where rape and violence are commonplace. Reality is instead defined by the “construct.”

By Nora

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