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Definition: Acker, Kathy from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


Black Tarantula


US novelist, short-story writer and performance artist

She was born in New York. Her work is visceral in approach and influenced by the drug imagery of William Burroughs. I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974) also draws on rock music lyrics and pornography. Her first novel, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1975), was published under the pseudonym Black Tarantula. Great Expectations (1982) and Don Quixote (1986) recall Jorge Luis Borges's "intertextual" adaptations of literary classics. Later works, which reflect her fascination with sex and violence, include Blood and Guts in High School (1984), In Memoriam to Identity (1990) and My Mother: Demonology (1993).

Summary Article: ACKER, KATHY
From Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature


American novelist

Most of Kathy Acker’s novels are written in the first person in a style of an abject dis-autobio-graphical plagiarism. In Kathy Goes to Haiti, for example, she invents an “I” that is a multiplicity of individuals from her life and from literary history and then uses her own “I” to travel through shocking explorations of sex in a deliberately arousing and, at times, disgusting manner. In The Black Tarantula, the inverse happens. Here the narrator becomes the main character in the porn books that she is copying. In The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, the narrator is male for one page, then abruptly becomes female. It is in this book that Acker plagiarizes a passage from Harold Robbins’ The Pirate. She includes it in a section called “I Want to Be Raped Every Night. Story of a Rich Woman.” Acker transforms Robbins’ soft-core, nearly romantic porn and recontextualizes it through intensifying the sexuality of the language, thus revealing the hidden structures of oppression in Robbins’ novel. Later she does a similar shifting of text in Great Expectations, where she reimagines Dickens’ tale and where again her protagonist, Peter, changes sex in order to experience fucking differently. Repeatedly Acker masks her I/eye in order to push past established limitations of sex. She becomes Pier Pasolini as Romeo in order to critique a woman’s loss of subjectivity for experiencing sex. By tearing away at and reconstructing her autobiographical identities, which come through reading as well as experiencing the wor(l)d directly, Acker casts into doubt the image men have constructed for women to obey. Her strippers, her whores, her mothers, her stepdaughters seek new choices and act on them. The myth of romantic love is repeatedly dismantled in order to transform the lives of her characters and her readers alike. In Memoriam to Identity most clearly challenges this myth. Here, as in her other works, fucking is the only way to know that you are alive.

Throughout her writing Acker explodes the Bush-era notion of family values. “DOWN WITH THE FAMILY,” Acker writes in Politics, “THE FAMILY IS THE WORST EVIL IN THIS COUNTRY.” Her characters are haunted by ruptured desires in the family. In I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac Imagining, the narrator recounts a “repulsively hetero” dream four times. While going crazy restraining herself, she seeks always to “do something wilder.” She moves rapidly from one intense sex scene to another. In one she is fucking her sister when her sister’s boyfriend walks in and tells them to do it in the bedroom, out of sight. Mothers reject daughters, fathers abandon daughters, and stepfathers attempt to rape.

But Acker never denies her characters’ desires. She does not simplify the dynamics of desires, and her adolescent female characters have as much desire as the older men who seem to be only using these adolescents. Such a violent dynamic is most clearly created in Blood and Guts in High School. In the opening scene Janey begs her father not to leave her for another woman. Through the rest of the book, Janey battles other institutions that deny her access to power. Don Quixote begins with an abortion, a loss of body and self, but also a renaming of old myths and a staking claim to other desires. The misogyny of male texts is silenced from the outset, and Kathy, the narrator, embarks on a series of sexual escapades that eventually brings her to a feminine poetics of image and language. In this book, Acker literally fucks the writing of the past that had denied her a point of entry.

In her later works, Acker’s main intention is to destroy the Great Tradition of the literary past. She does so in order to make other means of travel possible. In Memoriam to Identity, Empire of the Senseless, and Pussy, King of Pirates all wander across strange nomadic territories that cannot contain desire and language. Much of this is done to escape being caged by phallo-logocentric languages of denial. Even as the assaults on the female body continue in these narratives, Acker makes liberation possible through a language that means something to the female characters.

Acker’s narrators look directly into and through bodies of desire in ways that shock traditions of reading and invent political realities that rage against the law of genre. Her novels, thus, create trouble for traditional approaches. Feminists who want to celebrate her for calling into question patriarchy and its violence against women are disturbed by her “vulgar” language. Postmodern academics blush when referring to her obsessive use of the words “cock” and “cunt” or of her intimate descriptions of perverse sex acts. Readers outside the academy want to celebrate Acker’s riot grrrl punk attitude, which unfortunately allows for a misrecognition of the more profound and provocative nature of Acker’s novels. Still, Acker’s greatest importance as a political philosopher is that her work is read in so many places. Academics write dissertations, punk bands (most importantly The Mekons and Tribe 8) collaborated with her in live and recorded performances, bands of pirate girls publish ‘zines, and gender fuck-ups write in minor languages that Acker’s work made possible. Acker needs to be read as our modern-day de Sade, as a philosopher of the boudoir, who has made books dangerous once again—dangerous not because this is a woman writing explicit sex in obscene language, but because her writing breaks apart the infrastructure of capitalism and patriarchy.


Kathy Acker was born in 1947 in New York City where she was tutored at a private all-girls’ school. After college, Acker worked in the sex industry. Later she taught at a number of art schools. She wrote several novels, three plays, a screenplay, and many theoretical essays on culture, politics, and sexuality. Acker’s writing changed dramatically in the mid-1970s when she was introduced to contemporary French critical theory (especially the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, and Michel Foucault). Her influences include the writing of Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs, Georges Bataille, Marquis de Sade, Antonin Artaud, and Jean Genet.

Selected Works
  • Algeria: A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works. 1984.
  • Blood and Guts in High School. 1984.
  • Don Quixote, Which Was a Dream. 1986.
  • Empire of the Senseless. 1988.
  • Essential Acker: The Selected Writing of Kathy Acker. Edited by Scholder, Kathy Cooper, Dennis 2002.
  • Eurydice in the Underworld. 1997.
  • Great Expectations. 1982.
  • Hannibal Lecter, My Father. 1991.
  • Hello, I’m Erica Jong. 1982.
  • In Memoriam to Identity. 1990.
  • Literal Madness: Three Novels: Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978); My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1984); Florida (1978). 1988.
  • My Mother, Demonology. 1993.
  • Politics. 1972; reprinted in Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation, edited by McCaffery, Larry. 1993.
  • Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula (1975); I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974); The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1975). 1992.
  • Pussy, King of the Pirates. 1996.
  • Pussycat Fever, illustrated by Diane, DiMassa Freddie, Baer. 1995.
  • Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and the Burning Bombing of America. 2002.
  • Variety (screenplay). Film directed by Bette, Gordon. 1985.
  • Further Reading
  • Brennan, Karen. “The Geography of Enunciation: Hysterical Pastiche in Kathy Acker’s Fiction.” Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture 21.2, 1994.
  • Brown, Terry. “Longing to Long: Kathy Acker and the Politics of Pain.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 2.3, 1991.
  • Curtin, Maureen F. Skin Tropes and Identities in Woolf Ellison, Pynchon, and Acker. Forthcoming.
  • De Zwaan, Victoria. Interpreting Radical Metaphor in the Experimental Fictions of Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, and Kathy Acker. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
  • Dick, Leslie. “Feminism, Writing, Postmodernism,” in From My Guy to Sci-Fi: Genre and Women’s Writing in the Postmodern World. Edited by Helen, Carr. London: Pandora, 1989.
  • Juno, Andrea. “Interview with Kathy Acker,” in Angry Women: Re/Search #13. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1991.
  • “Kathy Acker Issue.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9.3, 1989.
  • Kennedy, Colleen. “Simulating Sex and Imagining Mothers.” American Literary History 4.1, 1992.
  • McCaffery, Larry. “The Artists of Hell: Kathy Acker and Punk Aesthetics.” In Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Edited by Friedman, Ellen G. Miriam, Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • “The Path of Abjection: An Interview with Kathy Acker.” In Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
  • Peters, Greg Lewis. “Dominance and Subversion: The Horizontal Sublime and Erotic Empowerment in the Works of Kathy Acker.” In State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film. Edited by Nicholas, Ruddick. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.
  • Pitchford, Nicola. Tactical Readings: Feminist Postmodernism in the Novels of Kathy Acker and Angela Carter. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2002.
  • Redding, Arthur F. “Bruises, Roses: Masochism and the Writing of Kathy Acker.” In Contemporary Literature 35.2, 1994.
  • Shaviro, Steven. Doom Patrols. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
  • Siegel, Carol. “Postmodern Women Novelists Review Victorian Male Masochism,” Genders 11, 1991.
  • Walsh, Richard. “The Quest for Love and the Writing of Female Desire in Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 32.3, 1991.
  • Doug Rice
    © 2006 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

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