Category Archives: Kathy Acker

Normalizing The Obscene: Kathy Acker’s Transgression.

When we read any kind of fiction, we are meant to suspend our disbelief and enter the world that the author has created. For a time we allow the author to alter the way we think even as our own notions make intermittent appearances. For the most part, authors tend to align themselves with the morals and beliefs of the society they inhabit, making it easier for the reader to enter the world the author has created. In some cases, however, the author creates a completely new world both in representation and in morality. In Lolita, for example, the reader is stuck in the narrator’s head, forcing the reader to look at the fictional world from his moral view (albeit frequently disagreeing or questioning his views).  In Kathy Acker’s “Rape By The Father” we are put in a situation where the author does not attempt to take us out of our own world, but instead infuses the obscene with the mundane; this act normalizes the obscene forcing the reader to reconsider ideas about the appropriate, the beautiful, and the normal.

            One of the first instances of this is on the first page of the story. The narrator introduces her grandmother by beginning with the extremely mundane and working towards the jarring or obscene. The description beginning with the phrase: “she’s my father’s mother” ends with the statement that “she wasn’t going to prostitute her whole life.” The narrator flippantly presents the information as if every grandmother makes that decision at some point in her life. Acker shakes the reader out of the mundane. The reader no longer knows whose world they are occupying. Is Kathy Acker creating a new moral world where having a prostitute for a grandmother is completely normal? Or is Acker helping us morally recalibrate our world. It also has to be noted that once the narrator mentions this, she does not take time to qualify the statement or explain. The grandmother is a prostitute and the reader has to accept it and move on. This occurs again as the narrator moves into a description of a young boy named Alexander. The narrator describes Alexander: “This boy, almost as beautiful as a strand of my grandmother’s cunt hair…” The sentence occupies a weird space because it is at once jarring but in a moment that you could miss if you didn’t read carefully; in fact, the reader might be in such disbelief that they didn’t believe in what they saw. In this description Acker forces the reader to consider the obscene as beautiful. Acker does not allow the reader to question whether the grandmother’s pubic hair is beautiful. We have to accept it or remain separate from the world of the novel, a world where perhaps pubic hair is beautiful. The entire premise of the excerpt ascribes to this method of transgression. The excerpt is titled “The Rape By the Father.” The title is disturbing, and instantly jars the reader out of their world. The reader is primed for a transgressive text, but when it begins the narrator launches into a description of her grandmother (a highly maternal, benign figure). The obscene and the normal are not contrasted but flowing into one another.

These moments are transgressive because the narrator puts them alongside the overall normalcy of the story. The reader cannot separate the obscene from the normal. This normalizes the obscene, an act which in and of itself is transgressive. The reader has to consider the closeness of the mundane and the obscene as well as the beautiful and the obscene. By the end of the excerpt, I’m not nearly as struck by the obscene in the novel. I look at it as a normal part of the story. Acker succeeds in forcing me to reconsider and recalibrate.  


-Queen MAB


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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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