Repetition in postmodern fiction


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Repetition in postmodern fiction the works of Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo
Physical Description:
2 v. (v, 385 leaves) : ; 29 cm.
Dooner, Richard Anthony, 1961-
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Subjects / Keywords:
American fiction -- History and criticism -- 20th century   ( lcsh )
Postmodernism (Literature)   ( lcsh )
Repetition in literature   ( lcsh )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1993.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 375-384).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Richard Anthony Dooner.
General Note:
General Note:

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University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 001952399
notis - AKC8964
oclc - 31276597
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I would like to thank the members of my committee,

Brandon Kershner, John Leavey, Elizabeth Langland, and

Ofelia Schutte, for their helpful comments and willingness

to read this dissertation in the middle of their own work.

Without their patience and cooperation I would be at a loss,

namely of a doctoral degree. The depth of my debt to my

advisor, Daniel Cottom, I find inenarrable, although I am

able to say that his clarity of vision has helped me not

only to compose this text but to compose myself well enough

to complete it. Finally, I would like to acknowledge that I

have had the benefit of a vast support group of friends and

family, and though I can scarcely find the words to thank

them now, their encouragement made possible all of the words

that comprise this text.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS....................................... ii

ABSTRACT.................................................. iv

PREFACE.... ......................................... .. 1
Notes............................... ..... ......... 13

Plagiarizing Sources ............................... 20
Plagiarizing Self................................ 28
Plagiarizing Institutions......................... 78
Plagiarizing Myth.................................. 112
Notes.............. .. ....... ...... .. ........ 135

FRAGMENTARY AGE ....... ............................ 144
Fragments and Separation........................ 158
Fragments and Re-situation....................... 194
Fragments and Re-integration...................... 229
Notes............. ..... .. ........... ........ ... 254

Polar Extremes .................................. 264
The Echo Effect................................... 273
The Knot......................................... 301
Consuming Mystery................................ 329
Notes................. .......................... ... 368

BIBLIOGRAPHY ..... ................ .......... ...... ..... 375

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.................................... 385


Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Richard Anthony Dooner, Jr.

December, 1993

Chairman: Dr. Daniel Cottom
Major Department: English

This study examines the fictions of Kathy Acker, Donald

Barthelme and Don DeLillo in light of the body of creative

and critical practices that have come to be known as

"postmodernism." It is motivated by the assumption that any

alleged radical break from a dominant cultural perspective

in the fictional strategies of a "new" era necessarily

involves some degree of reduplication. Thus, exploring what

constitutes the postmodern self through fiction unavoidably

involves considering the cultural politics of repetition.

This study contends that Acker, Barthelme and DeLillo

realize that the seeming unity behind realistic fiction's

depiction of the subject has always been a pose. Thus, they

see the need to address the self and, almost simultaneously,

to readdress it. The first address mimics the realistic


novel's ploy of asserting an unequivocal self; the second

re-images that self as a tenuous construct.

In sum, Acker's methodology calls for her narrator's to

attempt to embrace, critique, and then explode by excess the

cultural roles allotted the female subject within a

patriarchy. Barthelme attacks the integrity of the subject

as formed within a patriarchal totality by exposing the

hidden fragmented nature of the parts that compose that

totality. And DeLillo attempts to unravel the syncretic

narrative of social and technological progress underlying a

postmodern capitalist totality by exposing how that totality

actually denies the personal fulfillment that it contends to



What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

For the past two decades, the polemics of postmodernism

has dominated the cultural and intellectual scene. Much has

been made, for example, of what exactly constitutes

postmodern discourse and whether it is a continuation or

radical break from modernity (these debates succeeding

similar debates concerning attempts to locate and define

modernity). I do not pretend to be able to address

sufficiently whether a social change large enough to warrant

the name of a new age has occurred. However, I am confident

that enough of a change has occurred that writers in the

last two decades have forged new strategies for intervention

in the social sphere.1

Yet if there is any truth behind the quotation from

Eliot, defining postmodern practices will necessarily

involve a retrospective analysis of the modes of knowledge

and representation found in the periods generally recognized

as preceding it, such as modernism and romanticism. While

one could conceivably follow this regress back indefinitely,

a more compelling option is to realize how any alleged

radical break from a dominant culture involves some degree

of repetition. In other words, defining oneself against a

system inevitably will reproduce some qualities of that

system. This inevitability is perhaps why the modernists'

defiance of consumerist culture, characterized by an

insistence on the primacy of the will, led in one loathsome

variant to fascism, a politics of total domination.2 And

this is also why postmodern writers need to concern

themselves with the cultural politics of repetition.

Perhaps foremost among the issues raised because of the

reduplicating power of culture, then, is the question of

autonomy. Arguably, autonomy becomes a concern after a

protracted transformation period in Europe during which the

West came to realize "that society must form its own

practices and grounds apart from any external determinants

or influences" (PMAC 4). This shift to an internal

determination gave rise to two extremes of autonomy: that

of the social order, in which the actions of individuals

should be tied to the totality; and that of the individual,

who is understood to be free only when she chooses her own

ends and methods for obtaining them. The result of this

shift is the rise of internecine battle grounds as a

normative function of culture.

For example, let me paraphrase John McGowan's

description of the development of what he calls "autonomous

spheres." At some point, individuals find themselves poised


against what they see as a dominant culture and attempt to

protect themselves against excessive social control. When

these individuals make alliances with those who share common

interests, systems within culture develop to protect those

interests, and these systems compete with each other.

Finally, within these systems individuals come to compete

against each other to determine the common interest, re-

enacting the large scale battle in miniature.3 In other

words, autonomy leads to inevitable fragmentation, arising

from the idea that there can be a common good. This process

can be seen historically in the continual movements to

restore cultural unity, such as romanticism and modernism.

As I see it, the postmodern turn in this process of

repetition is the recognition of the apparatus of the

totality, the recognition of the assumptions that make

social coherence dependent on fragmentation. Coupled with

this awareness comes the insistence, based on the critical

scrutiny likely to accompany such an awareness, that the

totality, because it must be all inclusive, actually

promotes continual reformation and so invites strategies

that can radically alter it..

In other words, postmodernism asks us to embrace a

paradox, that repetition can be radically altering, in order

to disrupt a paradox, that alteration can be radically the

same. This paradox returns one to the question of how much

control individuals can exert over their destinies. In

effect, the realist cornerstone of concrete reality is gone,

replaced by the postmodern fragmentation of shifting sands.

And this move is not merely one of theoretical sleight of

hand. Postmodern writing's association with the demise of a

stable referent for concrete reality has been hastened by

sweeping tides of events--global wars, for example--that

call to question the stability, especially as it connotes

"sanity," that allegedly underlies reality. By virtue of

extensive communications media, we have become daily

witnesses of the inhumanity of people toward one another

that makes "reality" seem unreal, leading many to question

the fabric of reality. For example, after accounting one

particularly gruesome news story, Philip Roth writes:

And what is the moral of the story? Simply this:
that the American writer in the middle of the
twentieth century has his hands full in trying to
understand, describe and then make credible much
of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it
infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of
embarrassment to one's meagre imagination. The
actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and
the culture tosses up figures almost daily that
are the envy of any novelist.4

Roth puzzles over what elusive or non-existent moral

foundations mean to the contemporary writer and suggests

that literature must address an increasingly "unreal"

reality if it is going to contribute to the reality of the

subjects within. And, indeed, the literature of the latter

half of the twentieth century seems to have made qualitative

differences in the assumptions regarding the self and the

real. For example, the works of Samuel Beckett, the rise of


the anti-hero in the novel, and the unapologetic

infiltration of the author or the absurd into seemingly

realistic novels all point to the difficult, even

questionable, synthesis of the self into daily society. In

other words, in the postmodern novel, selfhood begins as an

issue, not an assumption.

The condition of the self as a point of contention

underlies my interest in Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme and

Don DeLillo. These writers see the need to address the self

and, almost simultaneously, to readdress it. The first

address mimics the realistic novel's ploy of establishing a

concrete reality by asserting an unequivocal self; the

second disrupts the context of that alleged reality by re-

imaging the self as a tenuous construct. In effect,

postmodern repetition confirms the doubt about the viability

of the realistic self and by doing so opens up new ground in

which to explore the self as construct.

Simply put, Acker, Barthelme and DeLillo offer readers

the postulated self. This self-conscious construct is an

appropriate literary heir to the realistic self because it

exposes that subject as always having had many forms

throughout history, its seeming unity having always been a

pose. Change is written into its evolution as a safeguard

to ideological stability, as in the quest hero who attempts

to restore social unity by advocating a liberating autonomy.

The liberated then become unified behind the liberator, re-

inscribing cultural unity by valorizing the notion of a

guiding principle. The various types of quest narratives,

each aligned to a subsystem of interests, make cultural

diversity seem possible, even natural. Yet the individual

remains under the yoke of a guiding principle, in whose

service he becomes a resolute robot or diaphanous desire for


As Acker, Barthelme and DeLillo envision the postmodern

world, a new order spurred by changing technology sets the

system through which knowledge is gained above the self,

threatening its primacy. The integrity of the individual

subject is threatened by making it merely a component of a

system, and the rationality of the individual is threatened

through its complicity in its own dissolution.

To change its ends, the postulated self must travel a

radical road towards self-knowledge. For Acker, this means

taking flights away from the beaten path of identity. She

takes the subject along a course that it is not meant to

travel; she deliberately tries to transgress the bounds of

the journey through which identity is affirmed. That is why

her narrators include murderesses (the Black Tarantula), mad

questers (Don Quixote), and females role-playing as historic

males (Pier Paolo Pasolini). Finally, she hopes that these

continued transgressions can open up a place for an

authentic feminine voice in narrative.


Barthelme prefers to beat the path itself. He disrupts

the course of the journey to self-realization with his

fragmentation bombs. The subjects of his parables, fairy

tales, and fables then fall into the holes he creates,

conspicuously fracturing their illusions of an integral

identity. These holes are plays on the notion of the

"whole" narrative, which he believes is never actually whole

but always trying to disguise itself as such. Barthelme

hopes that by disrupting the whole narrative, he can prevent

it from shielding its holes, and so can reshape the subjects

formed within that narrative.

DeLillo begins his novels by taking his narrators along

a conventional narrative path, but as they travel that path

he makes its extreme points come together. His narrators

end up going up and down between beginnings and ends

(representative of tradition and progress) to the point that

their own ends become indeterminable. DeLillo demonstrates

that the desires of this indeterminate self are knotted

beyond conventional recognition, and he exposes how in this

condition it is prey to the strategies of postmodern

capitalism. The saving grace for his narrators is that the

confused subject finds the mode of questioning to be more

natural than that of complacency, and Delillo's narrators

ultimately question the politics of the paths they travel.

Of course, if Acker, Barthelme and DeLillo have thrown

their characters "off course," the question remains: where


did they go? What in the fragmented world shapes their

identity? The popular image of the realist subject has it

standing in a unified world, one with philosophical or

religious certitudes. When these certitudes were

threatened, it fought to reclaim them, insisting not so much

on a particular version of truth but on the form in general.

Since the breakdown of the postmodern self is accompanied by

the breakdown of the moral certitudes suggested by

philosophy and religion, Acker, Barthelme and Delillo

anticipate what replaces these certitudes.

In effect, all three of them see the emergence of a

more subtle form of totality. For Acker and Barthelme, this

totality is patriarchy. The primacy of patriarchy in

western cultural history makes "subtle" an unusual term to

describe it. But Acker and Barthelme see patriarchy not as

a principle in and of itself but as an attachment to systems

that perpetuate principles. In this way, they see

patriarchy as aligned with natural reason and common

knowledge at all historic moments, even as the political and

social climates change. Patriarchy never allows itself to

be reduced to the advocacy of specific rational, political

or spiritual positions and so becomes the image for

reclaiming unity when these systems reach a crisis.

For DeLillo, the totality is capitalism. David Bell,

the narrator of DeLillo's first novel, Americana, grows up

the son of an advertising legend; Bell's entire childhood is


a lesson in marketing strategies. These markets and

strategies remain a dominant image throughout DeLillo's

texts: for example, the characters in Great Jones Street

are always in pursuit of "the product," and much of the

action in Players occurs on Wall Street. The extent to

which DeLillo implicates capitalism as a detriment to actual

personal autonomy increases as his work continues, until in

White Noise advertising is quite literally in the background

everywhere, distorting the actions and interactions of all

its characters.

The growth of capitalism into a monolith is

historically easier to chart than the growth of patriarchy.

Its rise between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries

breaks down the popular nostalgic narrative of traditional

communities, based on religious devotion and family

interaction, and replaces it with a narrative based on

economic values. In other words, economic desire is

substituted for traditional truth, hunger for satiation.

However, capitalism is not antithetical to traditional ideas

of community. McGowan describes how capitalism separates

the economic sphere from both the public and private

spheres, the fields of agency. It is dependent on these

domains, but faces different criteria for success than

religion or philosophy. Capitalism need not explain itself

nor human worth; it needs only to supply a stable framework


in which daily life can continue. It has only to produce

and not to disrupt, and so it comes to be seen as natural.5

Acker, Barthelme and Delillo all attempt to disrupt the

totalities they see. Each rejects the narrative of natural

order and rationality in which that totality is formed,

especially as that narrative insists upon the evolution of

social and technological progress. For example, in Great

Expectations, Acker disrupts romantic expectations, her most

visible strategy being to break down the time lines she

provides to frame the novel's action. In the same vein,

Barthelme attempts to kill off the lineage of the Dead

Father and DeLillo unravels the history of math, a system he

sees as paradigmatic of progress.

These disruptions leave behind a residue. Acker and

Barthelme find that they carry this residue over in the

violent and imperialistic strategies they appropriate from

patriarchal history. DeLillo finds himself mimicking the

cunning rationality of postmodern capitalism as he attempts

to sell to his readers a new postmodern self.

Thus, Acker, Barthelme and DeLillo all come to reject

totalizing critiques of culture. In their later works, they

strive instead to re-articulate the self through decidedly

limited strategies. This re-articulation involves an

acceptance of a nightmare unified world, and in Acker's

Empire of the Senseless, Barthelme's The King, and DeLillo's

White Noise, such worlds provide the daily reality of the


protagonists. Within these worlds, as vast and

technologically complex as the postmodern condition

suggests, the protagonists seek ruptures in the totality

that will allow an institutionally sanctioned home for ideas

designed to disturb the monolithic structure. In Don

Quixote and Empire of the Senseless Acker creates narrators

who are questers, seeking a legitimized position in the

narrative of mythic logic. In The King, Barthelme violates

Arthurian myth, hoping to tamper with the overdetermined

history suggested by the prophecy of Merlin. And in White

Noise, DeLillo re-markets consumer mystery in an attempt to

replace the "reality" of protracted longing inspired by

postmodern capitalism with a satiating "fiction" that turns

longing into critique. These attempts fall in line with a

postmodern denial of the ability of any critique to liberate

fully because of the decentered, fragmented, and plural

nature of the contemporary world--a "nature," of course,

that critics of postmodernism would describe as "specious,"

"irrational" and "nihilistic."

In general, Acker's methodology calls for her narrators

to attempt to embrace, critique, and then to explode by

excess the cultural roles allotted women within a

patriarchy. I call this strategy "plagiarism" because Acker

seizes narratives that depict femininity aid claims them for

her own, violating a law to challenge a system of laws.

Since Acker sees patriarchy as firmly entrenched, she


repeats her plagiarisms both within a single text and from

text to text. And because she sees patriarchy as expansive,

she conducts her plagiarism on multiple sites and undertakes

multiple journeys.

Barthelme attacks patriarchal systems by exposing the

hidden fragmented nature of the parts that compose them.

His writings break apart the textual history of patriarchy--

its myths, fairy tales, and fables--and insinuate that there

is a more plausible, less oppressive, way of rearranging the

resultant fragments. In his later works, Barthelme is

especially concerned about re-appropriation, the possibility

that patriarchy always already anticipates its need to be

reformed. Thus, his works demonstrate a growing fear of the

monologic, and perhaps a deference to it that constrains his

ambitions toward seeing patriarchy moderated or, as he

writes in The Dead Father, "turned down."

In Americana, DeLillo explores the possibility of

spiritual transcendence. He exposes this romantic view as

bound up in the distinctly mundane ideas of progress and

correction. When he shifts his attentions to the

impossibility of transcendence, he mimics a strict

scientific realism that allegedly opposes spirituality and

exposes it as complicit with romanticism in perpetuating the

guiding principle of rationality in culture. He finds in

the union of the romantic and the rational a launching point

for modern capitalism, especially in the way it enables a


selective marketing of the technologies that come to pass as

progress. In his later works, DeLillo attempts to unravel

this syncretic narrative of progress at the same time that

he feeds back to that narrative a "fiction" that combats the

mysterious way capitalism advocates both progress and lack

of fulfillment.

At one point in their bodies of writing, Acker,

Barthelme and DeLillo all question the success literature

can achieve by adopting and adapting strategies of radical

political critique. As an alternative, they turn to the

importance of "fictions" for combatting a monolith that is

real, if it is real at all, only because of its ability to

perpetuate fictions about the stability of its foundations.

Acker, Barthelme and DeLillo suggest that if life seems

unreal, then in the unreal we may find more plausible models

for life.


1. Here, I am paraphrasing John McGowan's description of
modernity in Postmodernism and Its Critics (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1991, hereafter cited in the text as
PMAC), 4.

2. See Frank Kermode's discussion of the parallels between
modernist writing and fascist mythology in The Sense of an
Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).

3. This history is provided in the first chapter of
Postmodernism and Its Critics.

4. Quoted by Marguerite Alexander in Flights from Realism:
Themes and Strategies in Postmodern British and American
Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990) 21.


5. McGowan's description appears in Postmodernism and Its
Critics, 14.



Not as oneself did one find rest ever
--Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

In order to proceed with an examination of the legal

anatomy of plagiarism, K.R. St. Onge finds it necessary to

define the purpose of language: "It is the process by which

humans develop a model of their universe in their heads

[emphasis St. Onge]. The concurrent purpose is that the

model allows manipulating that universe symbolically."'

Kathy Acker considers plagiarism in legal terms as well, at

least to the extent that law anticipates transgression.

Acker's plagiarism can be seen as a response to the

"symbolic manipulation" of language she has witnessed.

Acker sees this manipulation occurring in line with the most

dire implications of the term and thus leaving one no

recourse outside of a lex taleonus model of transgression.

From Acker's perspective, the "use" of language has produced

a hegemonic model of the world in which one patriarchal

paradigm replaces another and by doing so inscribes and

glorifies western theology, philosophy, and capitalism while

marginalizing the voices of difference, historically those

of women and minorities. Throughout her works, Acker tries


to use narrative against itself, to question, challenge,

complicate and disrupt the way previous discourses have

manipulated the model of the universe. Her strategy relies

upon complex applications of "plagiarism" to various source

texts; plagiarism becomes an important image of the text,

both exposing the myth of the original text (and of origins

in general) and foregrounding the violations necessary for

that myth to come to be represented as such.

Acker counts on the assumption that plagiarism is

recognized as a part of culture and yet not really a part--

rather, an anti-part, a crime or violation. She can make

this assumption work for her because when she plagiarizes a

source text, her art calls forth the contradictions within

the distinctions between original and plagiarized. Thus, to

borrow an image used by Jacques Derrida in "Choreographies,"

plagiarism can dance around the rule in the text it

recognizes.2 For Derrida, the image of the "dance" is that

of a constant reconfiguring between two positions of

writing. For Acker, these positions are the normalizing,

proper sense of writing culture, and the disruptive

transgressive, sense of writing or thinking difference. By

calling upon both, Acker hopes to force the reader into

reconciling the plagiarism to the text and thus into

recognizing the function of the transgressive within


Acker's use of a common source text works to prevent a

facile dismissal of her plagiarized text as unrecognizable,


seemingly out of culture; at the same time, her complex use

of plagiarism works to prevent her plagiarized text from

being too easily appropriated, becoming a bastion of

culture. She critiques the integuments of culture with a

plagiarism layered within itself, resulting in manifold

plagiarisms of both popular and obscure, simple and

recondite texts--and also in layered plagiarisms of her own

writing. In fact, these latter plagiarisms, "authorial

violations," sum up what her texts suggest about all

discourse: that because culture can accommodate any

discourse, it is only in the way a discourse violates a

seemingly "given" culture that it becomes identifiable.

In fact, it is the way a discourse violates a given

culture that determines how identity is recognized. Acker

sees identity as having always been informed by a climate of

violence. She attempts to take that violence and redirect

it through various plagiarisms, both "literal"--she

frequently lifts actual texts--and "figurative"--she just as

often lifts textual and cultural practices. Consequently,

this distinction between the literal and the figurative is

itself transgressed.

Throughout her corpus this practice of plagiarism

evolves. At first she uses plagiarism to help her locate

identity formations within a culture. When this focus shows

identities to be radically flawed, she shifts her attention

to cultural institutions and how they inform identity,


applying her plagiarism to those institutions and their

practices in an attempt to "unlearn" identity. And now, in

her most recent efforts, she has switched from

deconstructing identity to relearning it. Broadly speaking,

then, Acker's texts can be seen as attempts to locate,

unlearn, and relearn practices that inform identity.

Typically, Acker measures her textual success against a

historical reality that she sees as "mythic," and that she

criticizes by emphasizing its contingent nature and

undermining its relation to "truth." In fact, her novels

often rely on mimicking the logical discovery of truth. As

her narrators move through her narratives, they "discover" a

possible truth that might help them find a more authentic

identity. At this point, however, the novels test the

viability of that solution, and of logic, as they play out

their own versions of narrative truth. It is in this

testing that her "plagiarism" is at its most complex.

In playing out their versions of narrative truth,

Acker's narratives struggle to unlearn mythic truth. Hence,

Acker sees recognizing the operation of cultural myths as

essential for initiating cultural change. As Acker sees it,

the problem is that modern cultures do not recognize their

own relation to myth. For example, Claude Levi-Strauss

observes that myth is related to questions of a culture's

origins, yet in modern cultures divorced from its day to day


operations. To illustrate this degeneration, he uses

certain myths on the origin of constellations:

Now something irreversible occurs as the same
narrative substance is being subjected to this
series of operations: like laundry being twisted
and retwisted by the washerwoman to wring out the
water, the mythic substance allows its internal
principles of organization to seep away. Its
structural content is diminished. Whereas at the
beginning the transformations were vigorous, by
the end they have become quite feeble. The
phenomenon was already apparent in the transition
from the real to the symbolic, and then to the
imaginary, and it is now manifest in two further
ways: the sociological, astronomical and
anatomical codes, which before functioned visibly,
are now reduced to a state of latency; and the
structure deteriorates into seriality. The
deterioration begins when oppositional structures
give way to reduplicatory structures: the
successive episodes all follow the same pattern.
And the deterioration ends at the point where
duplication replaces structure. Being itself no
more than the form of a form, it echoes the last
murmur of expiring structure. The myth, having
nothing more to say, or very little, can only
continue by dint of self-repetition.3

According to Levi-Strauss, myths do not die out--they only

lose an internal logic meaningful to a particular culture.

As a matter of fact, Levi-Strauss claims that by the process

of appropriating other myths, myths extend. It is at this

point in the modern culture that we become alienated from

the meaning of the myth as we appreciate its ever-changing

form. In effect, by recognizing its transformation, we are

reminded of our own evolution. Thus, the primacy we give to

the rational order that has replaced the mythic order and

helped us see the myth for what it "really" is, a story, is

still somehow derived from myth.


Yet Levi-Strauss also contends that there is an

"underlying coherence" often concealed behind the

"complexity" (Levi-Strauss 129) of the extending myth.

Acker sees this coherence when she observes an unbroken

succession of patriarchal paradigms presiding over western

culture. This succession, born out of the structure of

myth, now justifies itself in the logic of rationality.

Acker sees it as continuing as long as we reject the

significance of mythic structure. She sees the rejection of

mythic importance as the key to maintaining control over

cultural systems of representation. Thus, she wants to

expose the rejection of myth for rational structure as a

myth itself, one that represses identity, especially female


Acker's strategy for this exposition is plagiarism. In

a legal sense, plagiarism is a crime that attempts to cover

up a violation. This violation denies repetition: it

attempts to pass as new a text that is already situated

within a culture. This cover-up is what Acker sees cultures

themselves doing on a larger scale, especially through their

textual histories. These documents that seem to reflect

cultural change, and, in a western teleological sense,

cultural growth, Acker sees as covering up the repetition of

oppressive dogma. My use of the term "plagiarism" will

frequently encompass practices that can more particularly be

described as "burlesque," "satire," "revision," and "irony."


However, to Acker, it is important not to rely on these

terms as culturally understood, because they are understood

as parts of textual history. For example, a satirist, like

Moliere, is frequently appreciated because he is seen as

writing from a clearly defined corrective perspective.' It

should come as no surprise, then, that, more recently,

Donald Barthelme, a writer noted for his irony, has been

criticized for his lack of a centering perspective, and in

one critic's words "waives the right to be taken

seriously."5 Since terms such as "satire" and "irony" are

critically routine, to Acker they are complicit in myth-

making. Thus, I suggest that Acker attempts to "plagiarize"

such terms as she "plagiarizes" an entire meaning-making

monolith that has been suppressing its own interest in

rational succession.

Plaqiarizing Sources

Up through Blood and Guts in High School, Acker

concentrates her use of plagiarism on helping her to stake

out an area for identity in a non-linear world. She

describes the process around creating her first published

novel, 1973's The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by

the Black Tarantula, as relying on "the idea that you don't

need to have a central identity, that a split identity [is]

a more viable way in the world."6 Her use of the word

"viable" suggests a political dimension to her works. Thus,


it is useful to point out that Acker's narrative style,

which constantly changes narrators and defers narrative

authority, is a response to theoretical work becoming

popular at the time, such as Jacques Derrida's work on the

decentered self and deferral of meaning and Jacques Lacan's

psychoanalytic theory of language and subjectivity.

However, concurrent feminist studies, such as Kate Millet's

Sexual Politics and, later, Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology, which

focus on practice more than theory, and attack theory as a

masculine discourse contributing to feminine oppression,

also inform Acker's writing and color the area she stakes

out for identity examinations in a distinctly feminist hue.

Thus, Acker's narratives are aware not only of the problems

of subjectivity, but also of the problems inflicted on the

historical female subject.

One might say that Acker begins writing at a time when

she finds one problem imbedded in another--the question of

female identity located inside the question of identity as a

whole--and investigates them in kind--by imbedding other

narratives in her own. This broad schema is the germ of

Acker's plagiaristic strategy. Within it, the post-

structural influence is played out as the narratives

constantly uncenter themselves, always running into the

trace elements of previous narratives that have informed

them and deferring to narratives that succeed them before

they reach closure. The feminist influence is developed in


both the flickering selection of narrators Acker adopts and

the markedly excessive narrative style she employs. When

the narrator of The Black Tarantula explains that she must

"redo"7 herself, she points to the heart of Acker's early

plagiaristic strategy, which is to redo the self in such a

way that it can resist forces of patriarchal hegemony and

adapt to forces of decentered subjecthood.

I have stated above that Acker uses plagiarism to

locate identity, and, more particularly, female identity, in

a non-linear world. This is not to say that she asserts the

primacy of subjectivity in interpreting "reality" and,

accordingly, insists on locating female subjecthood's

rightful spot within such an interpretation. Rather, Acker

acknowledges that the female subject is, like any subject, a

construct--but, in the case of the female subject, a

construct historically on the subordinate end of a

patriarchal social structure. Thus, all her novels attempt

to shuffle the social forces and institutional practices

within a patriarchal social structure that shape identity,

with a particular emphasis on the possibilities for change

such a shuffling offers for the female subject.

Such an undertaking is not new. Alice Jardine has

observed that with a slightly different emphasis than

Acker's, the re-rendering of the female subject has been the

connecting thread through modernity.8 If so, then what

Acker does is simply carry on in the tradition of the


"putting into discourse of 'woman'" (Jardine 33). And if

this tradition has its genesis in modernity, it has reached

maturity in postmodernity. Both in creative and critical

writing, if we care to hold to these distinctions, writing

"woman" has become an important consideration, one that

spans both theoretical and pragmatic criticism and includes

both male and female writers. Even today, critical terms

frequently conflate women and writing. For example, Mary

Daly rewrites "chrone-ology," Jacques Derrida speaks of

invaginationn," and Helene Cixous explores the possibilities

of 4criture feminine.9 On the creative side, from Monique

Wittig's Les Guerillbres to the erotic poetry of Audre

Lourde, female identity is the issue and the woman's body is

the map on which it is explored. The notion of remapping

identity is prevalent in rethinking woman.10 The

importance of Acker as author/cartographer lies in how she

reaches for little examinined areas of the map, taboo and

transgressive places of sexuality, and attempts to

incorporate them into the discourse of female identity.

This concentration on the transgressive quality of the

feminine is consistent throughout Acker's work. In The

Black Tarantula, borrowing from Jean Genet, she describes it

as the "love of lonely criminals and thieves" (BT 40); in

other words, a love of the identity forced to live (and, if

possible, thrive) on the political margins of society.

Acker's alignment of female identity with the transgressive


places her texts within the designation of the "avant-garde"

and gives them a considerable historical background.

Susan Suleiman points out that avant-garde movements in

western art can be traced back at least as far as

romanticism, reaching a particularly full elaboration this

century in the Surrealist movement.11 She provides a

cogent explanation of their purpose:

The hallmark of these movements was a collective
project (more or less explicicitly defined and
often shifting over time) that linked artistic
experimentation and a critique of bourgeois
thought and desire for social change, so that the
activity of writing could also be seen as a
genuine intervention in the social, cultural, and
political arena. (Suleiman 12)

Suleiman's synopsis agrees favorably with a line from Andre

Breton's "Manifesto of Surrealism" in which he suggests that

future surrealist evolution is secondary to contemporary

surrealist impact: "Far more serious, in my opinion--I have

intimated it often enough--are the applications of

Surrealism to action.'12 For Breton, such actions involve

the domains of theater, philosophy, science and criticism,

to name a few, to the extent that eventually "a new morality

must be substituted for the prevailing morality, the source

of all our trial and tribulations" (Breton 44). Acker

assumes a similar posture in defending her own

"experimental" fiction. Prefacing a discussion of her works

in Review of Contemporary Fiction, she argues that attacks

against experimental literature exist "because our society,

through the voice of its literary society, cannot bear


immediacy, the truth, especially the political truth."13

Acker's equivalent of Breton's new morality is to take and

reshape representations of identity from the repressive

voices of literary society: "by using each other, each

other's texts, we keep on living imagining, making, fucking,

and we fight this society of death" (Notes 31).

This similarity in approach leads to a similarity in

subject matter. Erotica, violence and sadism dominate both

the surrealists' and Acker's depiction of the world. The

difference between their positions might best be described

as one of choice--the surrealists sought out and embraced

the margins of a patronizing political society as the most

effective position from which to conduct their critique,

while Acker sees herself as having been pushed to those

margins by a hostile political community. Thus, Acker sees

her sex as victimized by the historical application of the

approach she adopts for redress. One can follow her

reasoning by examining the use of female subjects by

surrealist artists, themselves almost exclusively male, in

their works. Suleiman argues that only the artists

themselves are subjects, subjects who obsessively employ the

female as object of their work in their attempts to alter

representations of their subjectivity. These "uses" of the

female as object are a violence against her of form and

content. They help constitute the political community Acker

encounters, where one is given only a male subjectivity to


explore. Hence, in a reversal of the surrealist process,

Acker begins with the female object and does her violence,

in the hope of altering her subjectivity.

Acker treats the romance novel form of the late

nineteenth-century novel with the same combination of

reverence and disdain with which she treats the avant-garde.

Perhaps this is due to her identification of creativity with

a bourgeois ideology that "made a capitalistic marketplace

for books" (Notes 33). It displaced the politics of

creativity at least ostensibly designed by the romantic

poets to rebel against a stagnating, logical society. Acker

sees this rebellion as co-opted, normalized, and turned into

the production of the very images of society that have made

her rebellion necessary. Hence, part of Acker's desire for

rebellion aligns her with the forces she sees as oppressing

her. Her fuckingg" with a source text is also a "making

love" to that text, to the extent that she desires to use it

to breed change and, in fact, must use it to do so.14

However, it is also a threat to the source text, since by

using it she hopes to eradicate its power.

Similarly, from the romanticism displaced by the rise

of the novel, Acker draws a model for her transgression.

She sees romantic rebellion as having aligned transgression

with cultural transcendence. Acker works to fulfill that

identification--but in the hope that by doing so, she will

make it unrecognizable. Thus, her first heroines are


"Murderesses" who, after killing off their oppressors, must

kill off their own identification as murderesses. This

process of erasure and self-erasure becomes especially

prominent in Great Expectations and the books that follow

it. With romanticism as with Surrealism, then, Acker's

relation to her literary sources is highly ambivalent. Her

texts are both akin and a kick to their historical sources.

Acker is similarly ambivalent about her critical

influences. In them she sees a binary split between

practice and theory that is historically real, in that

scholars recognize it, but politically false, in that it

naturalizes what she considers to be a cultural and

political construction. Arleen Dallery, for example, sees

such a split when she argues about the differences between

American and French feminisms. American feminism, she

notes, rooted in behavior, seeks to "reconstruct the

everyday life of women," while French feminism, rooted in a

philosophical, linguistic, and psychoanalytic tradition,

believes that "a new woman's writing of discourse is

necessary to retrieve the repression of feminine unconscious

in western discourse and models of subjectivity."15 The

difference is practical and theoretical, and Acker works

both but embraces neither. She sees the split as an

organizing scheme symptomatic of the very oppression she

fights. Hence, Acker employs various everyday lives to

rework a discourse of subjectivity; she attempts to write a


new woman who can withstand a husband's conscious masculine

violence before retrieving her own feminine unconscious.

Her novels depict lives that are representations of a

discourse that posits a "body" that is realized only in

terms of phallocentric codes--but that receives pain that is

nothing like a disembodied code.

In this way, Acker rejects binaries while conceding

that the issues suggested by terms such as "practical" and

"theoretical" are valid. Thus, in Acker's view, critical

discourse is not divorced from responsibility for

contributing to the problems it addresses. Therefore, Acker

treats it very much as she treats her literary sources.

Part of the purpose of using it is to change it. And so

Acker's use of criticism and critical theory is frequently

fast and easy, in order to knock it off its perch, and then

imprecise, or out of context, in order to change it.

Regardless of what form it takes, the history that comes to

her must change, just as she realizes the history she hopes

to recreate will also be bound to change.

Plagiarizing Self

It is difficult to provide a summary of any of Acker's

novels. Their consistencies have less to do with plot

continuity than with continuity of style and motif. For

example, the synopsis of The Childlike life of the Black

Tarantula on the back cover of Portrait of an Eye, a reissue


of Acker's first three novels, describes the novel as

consisting of a "brash and sexy female voice" that "steps

into the biography of a Mississippi murderess who falls in

love with a famous lawyer." This is true, as far as it

goes. But it excludes the half-dozen other murderesses

Acker's voice speaks, not to mention the ostensibly

masculine voices of Alexander Trocchi and William Butler

Yeats. It would be more beneficial to provide a synopsis of

The Black Tarantula's strategies, strategies re-employed

throughout her work on identity.

Acker's first strategy of individual plagiarism

involves the link of femininity and the female subject to

violence. She makes this link the nexus of her work in her

very first published novel. The Childlike Life of the Black

Tarantula begins with an account of "some lives of

murderesses" (BT 3). The Black Tarantula states her purpose

as to "become a murderess by repeating in words the lives of

other murderesses" (BT 2). This purpose serves a dual

function: it links the idea of violence to a burgeoning

notion of female identity, and suggests that part of the

threat of this identity, part of the violence, occurs on the

semiotic plane. Plagiarism, then, described above as the

repeating of words that results in one's becoming a

"murderess," operates as a conduit between the developing,

"childlike" life of the Black Tarantula, as she enters into

the metaphorically violent world of language, and the world


of the female subject, as she enters into the historically

violent world of subjecthood. During this process a

metaphoric murder occurs, the murder of the "pure" female

subject and of "pure" language. Thus, the "childlike" life

of the Black Tarantula loses its innocence (if it ever had

any) and enters into a life of both physical and semiotic

violence. By its entrance into language the subject

theoretically loses its innocence in the same way as the

text of The Black Tarantula stylistically loses its

innocence by its entrance into the graphically sexual and

violent language it associates with questions of gender and

identity. Violence lies behind the imposition of identity,

both human and textual; it is a "plagiarism" and reworking

of a never realized original identity. Thus, violence

connects gender and texts to questions of human origin.

Of course, this innocent state of origin, this state

prior to that of becoming murderess, is also prior to any

identity and state of subjecthood we can experience. It is

the apex of western culture's pyramidal epistemology, and as

such the point from which we believe we derive our social

structures. But this point is so distant we can never see

it. Like the peak above the nimbus surrounding the crown of

a mountain, we assume it is there; but, as opposed to what

one finds with a real mountain, there is no possibility of

scaling it for proof.16


Acker views this pyramidal epistemology as paradigmatic

of mythic logic. She particularly sees its workings behind

narrative. Narrative combines with patriarchal institutions

and social practices to shape an all too real "model" of the

universe, a model routinely adopted for instances of

rational explanation, such as the one I referred to at the

beginning of this essay. Thus, Acker's second plagiaristic

strategy is to disrupt mythic narratives by appropriating

them for her own examination of identity. For example, the

Black Tarantula begins her first narrative by describing a

"happy childhood" during which she worships her father. The

father is described by the narrator as "a great and wealthy

man, a tall man, whom I look up to" (BT 3).

Implied by the stature of the father is the importance

ascribed to being male, an importance re-emphasized in

western culture by Freud's reading of the Oedipal myth.

While the boy secures his identity by sublimating his desire

for the mother and identifying with the power of the father,

the girl gains her identity by never completely severing her

connection with the mother and identifying with her to the

extent that she, also, desires to bear a child of the

father. This scenario aligns men with control and women

with desire, while conveniently keeping men in control of

the reproductive cycle, in control of the issue of desire,

and thus in a position to ensure the continuation of mythic

logic. Julia Kristeva explains the male's control of


reproductive logic by pointing out, "The father originates

and justifies reproductive desire."17

Following reasoning similar to Kristeva's, Acker uses

father myths as a way of tentatively locating both male and

female identities. She finds the Oedipal myth particularly

useful because, as she explains it, "it was one of the two

or three major myths that I was baby-fed" (HL 18). Acker

sees patriarchal myths as having been force-fed to us since

birth, shaping the way we think with a violence to which we

are frequently oblivious. She hopes to use these myths with

a considered violence of her own, one of which we cannot be

unaware, to violate them, to try to redo them as they have

redone the selves they have helped inform, so that should

they be spoon-fed to a future generation of readers they

would be digested in a considerably altered form.

For Acker, the question remains, "What can you do with

a patriarchal form that will not simply result in yet

another patriarchal paradigm?" She does not address this

question by giving the patriarchal paradigm the legitimacy

implied by its historical acceptance. Rather, she

demonstrates just how violent mythically informed

conceptions of identity and gender are by hammering her

audience with them in all the gauche trappings of their

history. In this manner she makes them seem inadequate to

fulfill their own labelling task; she attempts to explode

them by excess. In one way this process itself is one of


"plagiarized" renaming. Acker takes the ideas of excess and

loss of control that have been woman's lot in a Freudian

reading and uses them to discredit that reading. The

"encore" that Lacan sees as woman's essential signifier is

followed so thoroughly in Acker's texts that it disrupts the

biological model. For instance, within the first five pages

of The Black Tarantula, the narrator has gone through four

identities, moved through three countries, described two

graphic sexual encounters, been raped once and gone mad.18

This litany of excess works both in number and degree--the

number of events keeps increasing as does the depth of

description. Quickly one comes to a tension over whether

the narrator can represent a "real" or "rational" subject of

any kind, which works for Acker as a metaphorical wiping

clean of the identity slate.19

By insisting on an historical specificity that locates

identity according to mythic codes emphasizing Freud and

Sade, Acker anticipates unavoidable consequences. The most

obvious is that the inescapable symbol of identity will be

the phallus. Acker takes this idea and makes it metaphoric;

hence her works excessively display the primacy of the

phallus. A second consequence is that since the phallus

operates in a Sadean fashion, the sex Acker describes will

be violent. In the Oedipal society, sexual violence is the

metaphor for identity, including its social and political

dimensions. For example, Acker explains why she finds the


Marquis de Sade so useful: "He shed so much light on our

Western sexual politics that his name is still synonymous

with an activity more appropriately called 'Reaganism'"

(Notes 35). The violence she sees behind the formation of

contemporary identity she also sees as shaping contemporary


As the example of Sade demonstrates, since

transgressivee" practices can cloak political norms, the

transgressive writer must be under constant vigilance not to

become predictably transgressive. She must constantly

rework rhetorical strategies, burning her transgressive

bridges behind her. For Acker, this chameleon

transgressiveness is her third plagiaristic strategy--the

maintaining of a constant flight away from traditional modes

of authority and a constant undoing of her own narrative

authority. The term "flight" is borrowed here from Gilles

Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose Anti-Oedipus Acker admits

in an interview to first admiring because "it was very

political; it was about what was happening to the economy

and about changing the political system."20 It is likely

the anti-myth sentiments of Anti-Oedipus inspired Acker's

own politics and encouraged her strategy of decentering

Oedipal myths of identity to bring about feminist change.

In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari further

elaborate on a schematic for challenging mythic political

systems by detailing a "rhizome" community. A rhizome


community, they write, "connects any point to any other

point [It] is reducible neither to the One nor the

multiple."21 Should it prove feasible, the advantages of

such a model for Acker are clear. It would allow her to

refer to an image of community without the uniformity of a

patriarchal, mythic community, such as Aristotle's political

community of man. Thus, it would provide her with a model

for plagiarizing the idea of a community.

Accordingly, Acker's narrators are constantly going on

flights away from the traditional community of man. For

example, in The Black Tarantula, the narrator (or

"narrators," since the authoritative, masculine narrator is

one of the norms fled) flees from an abundance of

sanctioned behaviors and norms: law, sanity, mythically

constructed identity, compulsory heterosexuality, and,

ultimately, narrative coherence. These flights are

developed via the narrator's choices of subject matter,

style and tone (categories which, of course, spill into each


Acker's flights from traditional masculine narrative

are also attempts to discover the possibilities of feminine

narrative. Cixous uses a similar imagery of discovery in

"The Laugh of the Medusa":

Almost everything is yet to be written by women
about femininity: about their sexuality .
about their eroticization, sudden turn-ons of a
certain minuscule-immense area of their bodies;
not about destiny, but about the adventure of such
and such a drive, about trips, crossings, trudges,


abrupt and gradual awakenings, discoveries of a
zone at one time timorous but soon to be
forthright." (LM 885)

She suggests that patriarchal mythic tradition has made

women believe theirs is a Medusa history--too horrible to

behold. Hence, subjects specifically and graphically female

have been excluded from consideration in mythic

institutions, such as philosophy and literature. Cixous

suggests that there is a beauty to be uncovered behind the

mythic horror of the Medusa. Similarly, Acker chooses to

address the "subject" of femininity by looking the Medusa in

the face, by examining the life of the murderess to see what

she desires and if she threatens. By doing so she breaks

taboos associated with the examination of the female body.

Acker's style, with its frequent and vertiginous breaks

and chronological breakdowns, also violates taboos. Not

fitting into a linear, patriarchal logic, her style

frequently reads as a form of nonsense. Acker herself will

pun on making "non-sense" and teaching "un-knowing" in the

course of her texts. She sees "non-sense" as challenging

mythic logic, similar to the way Susan Stewart, writing in

Nonsense, sees it as transgressive: "It becomes apparent

that nonsense must of necessity be a kind of taboo behavior.

First of all, it involves the constant rearticulation of an

anomalous aspect of social life."22 Nonsense is the domain

supposed to be away from sense. Without a strict "real


life" correlative, it is a constant state of exploration.

Its potential for discovery represents a threat to

established social hierarchies. Stewart observes, "While

nonsense is contingent upon the procedures of common sense,

as any category is contingent upon its not proper for the

definition of the entire range of its significant

attributes, nonsense also involves an undermining of the

basis of the procedures used in manufacturing common sense"

(Nonsense 88-89).

Acker's tone, at once flippant and understated, also

constitutes a disregard for and a flight away from

propriety. Her characters can maintain a virtual disregard

for the most extreme acts of violence, an attribute that

makes them disturbing as both mediators of experience and

symbolic participants in experience. They manage to take

what is emphasized in the text, de-emphasize it, and so

emphasize it once again. Thus, their flight away from

violence, by ignoring it, underscores it once again. This

cyclical treatment of violence complicates the politics of

violence. Instead of offering a prescriptive solution such

as "violence is terrible and we should stop it," Acker

illustrates how the most extreme violence can become so

commonplace that there seems to be no need to stop it. In a

similar vein, Acker's narrators also play fast and loose

with critical thinkers such as Lacan, Foucault, and

Baudrillard, frequently making references to them in asides


or as exchanges between degenerates, in order to undermine

their authority. Finally, Acker will use humor and language

play excessively, especially when they seem inappropriate.

Her fondness for the pun is especially interesting in terms

of taboo. Avital Ronell points out that throughout history

"the pun was always considered 'loose' or 'on the

loose' so the pun has always been slightly feminized,

homosexualized, having to do with anal eroticism, being two-

faced.123 Acker's humor, then, by its alignment with the

feminine or non-sanctioned, is a flight away from patriarchy

and patriarchal norms. This flight is continued in the way

she will address many of her most "important" ideas via a

feminine discourse, one that includes puns, exaggeration and

inappropriate word choices. Indeed, both her challenges

addressed to masculine logic and her own positions of

advocacy can be represented by a "feminine," "nonsensical,"

discourse. This discourse is a non-logical approach for the

un-doing of patriarchal logic.

An interesting comparison to Acker's approach to

rebellion can be found in the work of Marguerite Duras. In

a series of conversations published in 1974, Duras explains

to Xaviere Gauthier the lack of a firm, oppositional stance

to society in her works. Susan Suleiman's gloss of the

conversation describes how Duras tells Gauthier there is no

"putting into question" of society in her writing because

"to put society into question is still to acknowledge it .


. I mean the people who do that, who write about the refusal

of society, harbor within them a kind of nostalgia"

(Suleiman 15). She characterizes her own position, again in

Suleiman's terms, as one of "total estrangement" (Suleiman

15). However, there is a certain nostalgia to Duras's own

position. For one, as Suleiman observes, it is similar to

the position of "complete nonconformism" (Breton 47) offered

by Andre Breton at the conclusion of the first Surrealist

Manifesto. This fact gives her work a history in the very

society she disavows. For another, it sees revolutionary

discourse ideally as occurring outside of society, placing

it, to refer back to my earlier image, atop the mythic

epistemological mountain, amounting to "pure nonsense" and

thus already very well within the most oppressive and

nostalgic machinations of society. Yet, Duras is expressing

a concern for the same problems of identity, myth and

appropriation that Acker encounters in The Black Tarantula.

Acker chooses to address the problems not by postulating an

improbable world beyond society, but by destroying the

nostalgia behind acknowledging society.24

Nostalgia softens the edges of its object. Hence,

Acker's strategy is to sharpen her memory of society by

emphasizing the violence behind its identity myths. Thus,

she must embrace identity at the same time she tries to kill

it off. She is embracing/killing-off both the identity

society has coded within her through its myths and the


identity she forges for herself as she plagiarizes those

myths. The inclusive, both/and logic in this critique of

the identity myth is her line of flight from patriarchal


To see how her strategy works, consider the beginning

of The Black Tarantula marked by the epigram, "Intention: I

become a murderess by repeating in words the lives of other

murderesses," and the chapter title, "Some Lives of

Murderesses" (BT 2,3). Becoming a murderess is accepting

the woman's role as provided by myth. It is acknowledging a

woman's position as threat, as other, and sanctioning the

patriarchy's logic for oppressing and controlling that

threat. Becoming several murderesses adds a paranoid

dimension (in psychoanalytic terms, itself grounded in the

masculine fear of lost control) to the castration fear

evoked by the murderess: so many women, so many threats.

However, the emphasis on "becoming" (the chapter's sub-title

is "I become a murderess") also coincides with many

contemporary theoretical uses of the word.25 These

becoming, then, also suggest positions not readily

accountable for within the woman's role as dictated by

mythic logic.

Thus, in The Black Tarantula, one part of the narrative

chronicles the experiences of the mythic woman, this

murdering "other." In one of its dimensions, the chronicle

can be complicit with the myth, as the narrator is usually


with or looking for a lover or husband and she will

frequently define herself in terms of her ability to appeal

to and please said lover or husband; or critical of its

abuses, as she is often traded among or captured by

potential husbands and lovers and endures physical and

sexual abuse. In either case, the story repeats familiar

themes in a familiar manner. Thus, at one point the

narrator will lament, "I'm not yet fully planning every step

of my future life, but grasping to [a] man who can feed me

and clothe me and hold me warm" (BT 11), acting out the

submissive role of the successfully contained woman; while

at other times, she will be more aggressive, as, for

example, in the following description: "I meet the Duc de

Bourbon in the house in Piccadilly and become his mistress.

Almost the entire rest of my life I devote to His Royal

Highness, who I do not love, but use" (BT 12). These

examples may present the extremes of a spectrum between

passive and active femininity, but they still depict a

spectrum in full accord with patriarchal explanations of


A second line of the narrative undertakes a critique of

the mythic woman and of the social forces that create her.

Its terms are more consistent with feminist theory that

prescribes rewriting woman from an ostensibly female

perspective. Frequently, they would not make "sense" in a

linear narrative since they include asides, annotations, and


other intrusions that embrace a marginal position. One of

the goals behind these intrusions is to reject the notion of

the law of the father by rejecting the biological claim in

which mythic logic grounds that law. For example, caught in

a forbidden romance, the narrator writes, "When my

(adopted) father suspects I've been sleeping with my future

husband, he slobbers over me. Rape" (BT 4). The word

"adopted" displaces the father's mythic authority and

suggests that the violence done to the female as a result of

her relation to the "father" is illegitimate, even under the

terms of its own logic. But the criticism goes even deeper

than that: in its very style it challenges the patriarchal

logic. Putting "adopted" in parentheses locates the

criticism of the mythic father on the far edges of the

structure of the sentence, deliberately occupying a

marginalized position to effect critique. This embrace

stands in contrast to the marginal position women have

historically been forced to occupy by the patriarchy in

order to limit their capacity for critique; it is a practice

of "ecriture feminine."

A similar strategy occurs when the narrator, while on

the lam, describes how she remains inconspicuous: "I can

appear to be sane (a robot)" (BT 8). Sanity is described as

a "robot" condition; here depicted as a state of stagnation,

even death.26 Thus, rationality is challenged as the mode

through which "mankind" can reach its highest form of life,


a sanction it has had since Aristotle's contention that

reason is the highest quality to which man should aspire.

Perhaps the most important task of the parenthetical

asides is to discredit idiolects. After her husband

discovers her relationship with the duke, the narrator

confesses, "I begin to become monomaniacal and learn about

the nature (nonnature) of reality" (BT 15). "Nature," then,

is the product of a monomaniacal, masculine, perspective on

reality. As such it is both acquired and oppressive, and

thus "unnatural" in two important senses of the word. To

learn about nature is to learn the ideology of patriarchy.

This is, of course, "natural" within the patriarchy.

However, from the margins, "natural" calls forth its

opposite, and to learn about nature is to learn the

unnatural. "Unnatural" is "natural" rewritten, or "natural"

plagiarized, as the notion of community was plagiarized

earlier. Now the word is written to contest the capital "N"

granted to "Nature" in patriarchal logic. Acker's texts

suggest that all such idiolects need to be challenged in

"reality" in order to remove their assumed transcendental


A third dimension of the text acts out the threat of

woman. Part of this enactment assumes the conditions of the

mythic logic. The masculine virtue of control is replaced

by the feminine fault of hysteria as the text jumps between

narrators and narrative time. Within the narrative, control


is also lost since desire rules in Acker's libidinously

charged prose. However, Acker does not merely present

images of femininity gone amuck; she attempts to transform

them into a text previously unheard. Susan R. Bordo writes

that feminist literature on hysteria and feminine disorder

is "that of pathology as embodied protest--unconscious,

inchoate, and counterproductive protest without an effective

language, voice, or politics--but protest nonetheless."28

Acker attempts to provide a voice and politics to that

protest by making a text from images of hysteria. In the

spirit of what Catherine Clement calls the "accusing"

hysteric who makes a "mockery of culture,"29 Acker writes,

"These are my insanities" (BT 7), and she proceeds to

chronicle accounts of hysteria that serve as flights away

from the "meaning" produced by "rational" narrative and

toward a critique of that meaning. These flights frequently

involve the narrator in sexual intrigue, provided in great

detail, effectively "embodying" the text, once again, in an

attempt to write woman.

This attempt threatens the masculine subject,

attempting to efface masculine meanings as it sorts out its

own desires. Consider the following passage:

(I come out of the bathroom buttoning my pants I
ask him to put on the T.V. my left hand touches
his shoulder he suddenly turns toward me I've
wanted him to turn toward me quickly I feel wet
lips tongue in the center of my mouth the sudden
change from dream-fantasy to reality makes me
unable to react he lifts my body over his body on
to the bed I feel his tongue enter my mouth the


sudden change from fantasy-dream to reality makes
me unable to react we both lie on our right sides
I in front of you your cock touches the lips of my
cunt enters the wet canal your arms tightly clasp
my body around the waist warm fur up and down my
spine your cock slips out I bend my body until my
hands almost touch my toes though I lose warmth of
your skin I can feel your cock moving inside my
skin skins I can begin to come the muscles of my
cunt begin to move around your cock my muscles
free themselves swirl to the tip of my clit out
through my legs the center of my stomach new newer
muscles vibrate I'm beginning to come I don't know
you.) (BT 7)

Here, a prose that mimics both the heat of desire and

language of hysteria concentrates on the female fulfilling

desire. As she does so, she forgets the male with her, the

phallus becomes unimportant. The "beginning to come" may

also be read as one of Deleuze's states of coming into

being. In this case, the coming into being is made possible

by the de-emphasis of the phallus and the emphasis on

fulfilling the desire of the "hysterical" text. This desire

can only be fulfilled if the text can speak of the cuntt,"

of the clitt," of the areas of the body hidden, yet

fetishized, by masculine versions of female sexuality.

However, it is not only threats in line with the mythic

narrative that are tendered in The Black Tarantula. Acker

poses threats not accountable for in that economy as well.

As she has attempted to rename nature, so she attempts to

rename the "natural" threat that woman presents. In the

examples above, I argue that Acker attempts to challenge the

mythic narrative's depiction of woman by exaggerating the

threats they pose so that those designations no longer work


as restrictions. This challenge, however, still remains

within the traditional dominion of male/female imaging.

Acker also works at exploding this dominion and the

masculine systems of logic that sustain it. This attempt

requires rejecting dichotomies, such as male/female, that

serve as the foundation of that logic.

Acker's tendency to interchange narrators begins such a

rejection. It blurs the authority of the narrative by never

sanctioning a fixed narrator and denies origins by

suggesting an interdependency between narrative voices that

cannot be traced back and arrested at the "beginning" of the

text. If anything, the beginning of the narrative exists as

a shared experience located outside the logic of identity.

Not surprisingly, most of the subjects outside that logic

are female. All of the murderesses in the first chapter of

The Black Tarantula are female. Historically, females have

been designated as "other" but recuperated (and

subordinated) into masculine logic by that same designation.

But in Acker's text, "other" cannot exist as a unified

female subject because a subject in her texts can only exist

as a whole when interconnected with a series of others. The

result is that men can become murderesses, too. As a matter

of fact, Acker is careful not to exclude male presence from

the "outside" of mythic logic and thus to end up with her

own form of essentialism. Beginning in the third chapter,

the flickering narrator will occasionally adopt a male


persona. Such is the marriage of Lacanian semiotics to

Guattari and Deleuze's rhizome community, a community

Deleuze claims connects any point within it to any other

point and that is "always in the middle, not at the

beginning or end" (DG 21).

However, indeterminacy of identity is not a sufficient

rejection of either/or logic. Thus, at one point in The

Black Tarantula the narrator informs us, "Now I'm two

people" (BT 11). Taken literally, such a happening

dramatically increases the permutations one must undergo in

order to recognize or fix an identity historically. No

longer is identity a question of a succession of personas,

but a combination of them. This depiction forces one to

adopt a both/and perspective in order to understand

identity, a perspective not condoned within the mythic

logic. Taken metaphorically, the two-person identity

recognizes how finding a new depiction of femininity will

necessarily be a two-person equation for women, since their

identities have been so thoroughly informed by masculine

systems that their current identities are, in Irigaray's

terms, "self-representative of a 'masculine subject'"

(Irigaray 74).

The "threats" I have described above challenge

patriarchal notions of identity by manipulating depictions

of identity until they are unrecognizable within the

patriarchal logic. However, Acker has an additional tactic


that strikes primarily at the core of that logic. If one

accepts my reading of the text thus far, Acker introduces a

female identity defined within the logic of a patriarchal,

mythic narrative and uses her own narrative to challenge the

historic representation of that identity. The text becomes

a process, introducing ways one can practice 4criture

feminine. However, the text-book implications of such a

process might locate the novel back within the confines of

patriarchal knowledge by suggesting that a mastery of this

process can be attained. Thus, Acker's text would have a

logic of its own, a teleologics, of inscribing a different

way of writing woman. Coming to "know" the process would be

part of experiencing the text. In this way the world of

patriarchal oppression might yield to the world of feminine

liberation. Text would become history, and, conversely,

history would privilege journeys of experience via

literature as one of its manifestations.30 However, Acker,

in an attempt to avoid recuperation, never completes her

journeys, never lets them fall back into a categorization as

history. Thus, the journey of the Black Tarantula is

repeated and arrested in I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac:

Imagining and Peter's journey in Great Expectations recurs

in My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini. These journeys

must be retaken, lifted from one context and put into

another, to leave open the possibility for change. They

must be plagiarized, just as notions of community and nature


have been plagiarized, precisely because once put into a

text they have a value as history and need to show history

as that which must always change.

Thus, Acker retains the theme of the journey. In fact

in the interview that begins Hannibal Lecter, My Father she

insists, "I want the reader to come right into the text

because that's the only way you can take the journey" (HL

15). However, as the notions of "nature" and "community"

have been redefined, or plagiarized, so must the notion of

the "journey" be redefined. Acker takes the road the

character and the reader travel and collapses it in on

itself. For instance, in The Black Tarantula, the first

chapter begins with the narrator born into the patriarchal

role of "murderess," moves through a process of

deconstructing that role, but ends with the narrator

screaming louder and louder and telling us she is

"hysterical," returning her to another female designation.

The second chapter subsequently begins with another

murderess born. Acker sees the need to make the journey

cyclical, and only slightly open-ended, to give it an image

other than that of patriarchal progress.31 This repetition

works both to demonstrate how difficult the process of

deconstructing millennia of masculine codes will be and to

emphasize that all knowing must also call up its opposite

and be an unknowing lest it remain in mythic logic.


Journeys of unknowing become increasingly important to Acker

in her later works.

The process for solving the problems about identity

suggested above relies on not viewing problems in terms of

linear successions such as question/answer or cause/effect.

Repetition must be radically altered; process must be done

and redone and must be redefining itself all the while. It

must not be reducible to a simple rule or method. This is

Acker's interpretation of "practicing difference":

difference itself must be self-different. In other words,

from the beginning of her career, Acker has been sensitive

to the criticism levied against what Howard Felperin terms

the "institution of deconstruction" that an "anxiety arises

[in it] out of its own uncertain potential for

institutionalization, the questionable capacity of a

practice so profoundly oppositional, skeptical, and anti-

systematic to turn into a transmissible, teachable program

in its own right."32 Acker voices her concern about the

institutionalization of critical theory in her interview

with Ellen G. Friedman: "When I was first introduced to the

work of Foucault and Deleuze, it was very political; it was

about what was happening to the economy and about changing

the political system. By the time it was taken up by the

American academy, the politics had gone to hell. It became

an exercise for some professors to make their careers"

(Conversation 20-21). She realizes the danger of a text or


an approach remaining still. In her own works she suggests

that in order for change to occur one must take and retake

the narrative journey, within a single text, and from text

to text. In this manner, she hopes to make one respond to

the accruing changes that make the same journey different,

never giving time for radical acts to settle into

institutional routine.

That is why certain recurrent questions haunt both The

Black Tarantula and the rest of Acker's work. They are re-

asked and re-answered, inciting change both by accruing

expanding shades of meaning and reworking "old" meanings

through new terrain. For example, in the opening of the

second chapter of The Black Tarantula, the narrator says,

"My father hates me All he wants to do is rape me" (BT

23), and part of the chapter proceeds to critique the

Oedipal myth in a manner similar to the one introduced in

the first chapter. However, the narrator also says:

(I work hard I still can't sleep with who I want
(1) I get refused (2) I'm too shy to speak to
anyone if I work harder get famous then everyone
will sleep with me I won't have to be so shy I'm
tired I want to be the Virgin Mary with a steel
bar stuck against my bloody cunt inside of me are
red cocks like dogs, animals whiz down midnight
buns on diamond motorcycles I start yelling.) (BT

This passage enhances the critique of myth in a number of

ways. First of all, the narrator's critique, though it

occurs in parenthesis--inside the margins--compromises those

margins by enumerating its concerns in linear, numerical,


fashion. By embedding a symptom of mythic logic within an

objection to it, Acker parodies the idea that rational order

underlines all problems as well as casts an accusing finger

at herself by demonstrating how oppositional positions can

easily become complicit in their own reappropriation by

relying on traditional forms for presentation. Secondly,

the mythic image has been refigured. Although sexuality is

still graphically detailed, the narrator replaces the

Oedipal myth with the Virgin/whore dichotomy as the paradigm

for cultural violence towards women. This example expands

Acker's critique of mythic narrative from historical

readings of the Oedipal myth to include popular

understandings of religious dogma. Third, the degree of

excess is escalated both in degree, by the drawn out and

graphic image of the "bloody red cunt," and in offense, by

that image's near sacrilegious apposition to the "Virgin

Mary." Acker expands the range and degree of possible

offense in her critique as a way of mimicking the escalating

violence in the lessons of history as well as a way of

practicing self-difference.

If one wants to look for markers of progress in Acker's

cyclic journeys, the moments of expanded critique are the

closest one can get. In The Black Tarantula, each chapter

offers at least one such expansion. The third chapter

expands the notion of the compound identity. The chapter

begins, "I'm two people and the two people are making love


to each other" (BT 29). In the first chapter the narrator's

identity claim was restricted simply to being two people.

Now, those two people further complicate the identity

question by destabilizing their compound identity through the

act of love. One way of interpreting this additional action

is to read the lesbian love story that follows

metaphorically and to see the couple as the "I," as an image

of, in Irigary's terms, the sex which is not one. This

image is consistent with the plural view of identity Acker

has presented thus far in the text as well as a movement

away from the narcissistic image that Acker and Irigaray see

in the sex which is one.

However, following, and in contrast to, the lesbian

encounter in chapter three, a male narrator describes his

sexual exploits. His tone is relentlessly masculine; he is

objectifying and adversarial toward the women with whom he

engages, he is performance oriented, and he identifies

himself with his cock. But he is also the single "I"

narrating the section, just as there was only a single "I"

narrating the previous section. Thus, the two people making

love, the two people identified as constituting the subject

"I" of the chapter, might be the sexist male and the lesbian

female. However unlikely this coupling, it provides an

accurate image of Acker's plagiarism--a union of a male text

with a text with strictly female concerns.


This coupling works toward a solution by appropriating

mythic logic. Its very form forces the formation of new

subjects by insisting on a violent coupling, as Acker

suggests mythic sexuality does. Acker's appropriation is

thus doomed to fail unless it can redirect the violence it

employs away from traditional results of violent identity


The narrative points to its own tenuous position.

Recurrent references to the narrator reading the works of

the Marquis de Sade suggest an awareness of the sadistic

violence behind the "sex" it advocates. This violence is

not overt in the descriptions of the sex between the

characters, but it may lie in the orchestration of the

scenario that could create the "hybrid" identity referred to

above. "Making love" is clearly a euphemistic description

of the sex between Acker's characters, since what she

details is a violent clash of texts and ideologies. Such a

narrative strategy, however, is close to Sadean, and, as

Barthes has shown, the Sadean character always possesses a

control of language relative to his victim. Here, that

control is suggested by the narrative that wants to make

violent sex work for its ends, and we are its intended

victims. Acker is probably aware of Deleuze's observation

that sadism basically has a patriarchal structure. Thus,

she needs to plagiarize it, as she has tried to do with

nature and community, to make it work for her. She must ask


herself if even by employing a sadistic strategy she prompts

recuperation. This possibility is addressed in the text

when the narrator says, "I'm trying to make someone else's

fantasy, fantasy caused by fears, my reality so I can deal

with my fear. I can do it but I don't want to. Can I do

it?" (BT 39). The remainder of The Black Tarantula tests

whether Acker can plagiarize the sadism that mythic

"fantasies" of identity have turned into real subjects'

fears. To accomplish this task the narrator must equate sex

and writing in a Sadean manner and then plagiarize the

result. She will test her solution in a text that, while

amenable to change, is all too aware of the strident voice

of the patriarchy it challenges. Thus, the narrative spends

considerable time tracing the development of sexual violence

through mythic narrative.

As a way of prefacing her discussion of mythic

narratives the narrator asks herself, "Why do I still fuck?"

(BT 41). Her only answer lies in her observation, "All I

have left is my writing" (BT 41). Writing and fucking are

metaphorical equivalents for Acker. They can both lead to

creation--of a subject and a text--but each is inauthentic

from Acker's perspective: subjects are plagiarized mythic

identities while texts are plagiarized mythic ideas. In the

vulgar sense, Acker suggests one can get fucked by engaging

in either act. Thus, both are a violence done to one, just

as one contributes to a violence while performing either.


In a text that is a montage of written sex and violence, the

narrator has good reason for asserting later on in the

chapter, "My work and my sexuality combine" (BT 50).

Both work and sexuality can be transgressive, and both

creative, but each of them can leave one vulnerable. Acker

is concerned about vulnerability, especially with regard to

her work's susceptibility to recuperation, or, in my words,

to the complications that beset her working solution. In

The Black Tarantula, these concerns are crystallized in

juxtaposed sexual reveries that refer to the combination of

work and sexuality. In the first, sexual union merges


Again I feel the complete joy of giving myself,
myself fully since I don't know this man, to
another person and having the person equally, for
both our pleasure and pain, give himself to me. A
person who I will never see again, not recognize,
so no ties can interfere with our delight. As I
come again and again, his lips working softly
against my clit, I again rejoice that I have no
personal friendship, I dream, fantasize, awake
briefly to meet someone and come, to worship my
own coming. I'm almost asleep. I want to make
myself become/put down everything before they try
to destroy an anomaly such as me. I hate the
robot society I know. (BT 46)

This excerpt accomplishes what Acker's strategy of

plagiarism sets out to do. The lovers give and take for

each other in a way that takes them out of mythic logic--he

is unrecognizable, she has no ties. They merge in a flight

away from mythic Cartesian identity in a remaking that in a

Deleuzian manner celebrates its own coming, both sexually


and into being, as it opposes itself to the rational,

stagnant, "robot" world.

However, there is a contrasting reverie that sees

desire and accounts of desire as co-opted by mythic logic:

I don't want to escape now. My revolt against the
death society collides with my desire to be
touched I have no identity. I can feel the hand
softly running up and down my leg inside the leg .
I rise there against the new lover there is
only this and my account of this I immediately
begin to come, I see a frame around me: my space.
The rest is blackness, money-death-necessity
coming to destroy my tentative beginning human
sex, I rub my body against P. I become a parrot.
O.K. (BT 48-49)

In this passage, the narrator gives into desire as it is

defined by the masculine world around her, a world where she

must love "P" (the phallus, Peter), and so a world in which

she has "no identity." Thus, she sees a frame around her--

her designated jail within the patriarchy. Around her the

elements of the patriarchy--money, death, and necessity--

destroy what creativity, her "beginning sex," could

accomplish; and her account of this experience, the account

that is "real" in patriarchal language, she acknowledges as

a mere parroting of words already provided for her, a

parroting to which she agrees.

Acker has posited that because of a Sadean method of

forming identity, the historical female self is a male myth.

In The Black Tarantula, the chapter entitled "i explore my

miserable childhood. i become william butler yeats"

explores that myth in terms of sexual identity and


creativity. The dual title names one chapter, suggesting

that on one level it names one thing--the history/childhood

of the female that is still the story of a male. The

chapter proceeds as "evidence" (the chapter's sub-title) of

this contention. Much of the evidence is familiar. For

example, the narrator is told by her mother that, "[her]

"father" isn't [her] real father" (BT 64), again suggesting

that the "truth" of this childhood is illegitimate.

Nonetheless, to Acker, it is historical. At the end of the

chapter she lists her sources as The Autobiography of

William Butler Yeats and herself. These sources, like the

chapter's title, name distinct elements--the narrator and

William Butler Yeats, one male, one female--that combined

refer to one subject, the masculine subject, the only

subject that historically has existed as a source under

mythic logic.

The story behind creativity, the milieu in which Acker

hopes to challenge identity, is itself a story that has

oppressed the feminine, especially with regard to a writer

like Yeats who set out to foreground myth in politics.

Acker needs a flight from Yeats' history, his masculine

time-line. The final chapter of The Black Tarantula is

entitled "the story of my life." In it Acker presents a

chronicle that begins by referring to her "autobiography,"

but soon flees from the "truth" behind her story. She

presents a chronology not consistent with the facts. It is


a chronology that takes her both into the future and into

the past, a chronology that suggests that any autobiography

that presents the more or less verifiable account of a life

presents in Acker's view the more or less verifiable

lifetime of feminine oppression. Thus, Acker plagiarizes

the notion of autobiography, which to her always repeats

versions of the same story:

1952-1957 Educated by private tutor, the Black
Virgin Mary, and I teach her to suck my cunt. She
corresponds with many famous poets. My mind, my
sole repository of freedom, is beginning to be
born. (BT 78)

This passage declares itself to be a plagiarized

autobiography by declaring itself to be a story beginning to

be born. To begin anew it must move away from the myths

that have informed previous autobiographies. Thus, Acker

takes the Virgin Mary and makes her black. This alteration

aligns the Virgin Mary with the Black Tarantula, the

murderess who is attempting to rewrite identity. By

"dirtying" the virgin in form, Acker can dirty her in

content, in the vulgar sense, by having her perform acts

that Christianity eschews but which nonetheless physically

keep the virgin a virgin. The result is a Virgin Mary who

can inspire a becoming because she can perform a sexual act

that is not violent. However, to Christians, such a

depiction of the Virgin Mary is a violence to their

religion. Yet while Acker recognizes her violence to

Christian myth, she suggests that the Christian community (a


mythic community) does not recognize its violence to

feminine identity.

Acker's autobiography violates the rules of mythic time

and the institutions of mythic structure. It leads her not

to her own end, but back to her novel's beginning, as she

takes stock of her "life" and asks, "Am I really a

criminal?" (BT 80), a question seemingly answered when the

Black Tarantula first asserts, I become a murderess" (BT 3).

This cycle can suggest both that the murder of mythic

identity is no longer a crime, that her plagiarism is a

success, and that her murder of mythic identity is complete,

that her plagiarism must be redone. Both suggestions are

valid because of Acker's inclusive both/and perspective.

The Black Tarantula concludes her narrative by bringing

it back full cycle. She leaves open the question of whether

her project has worked. She observes that she is still

"constantly terrorized and starved by laws" (BT 90).

Acker's suggestion here is that these laws can take over her

narrative and starve it of its impact, that her story is

murdered instead of murdering. This return to mythic logic

is the down side of her cycle. Acker's subsequent two

novels, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining and The

Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec,

continue her cyclical examination of identity and continue

to explore problems, such as reappropriation, that her


narrators have discovered as important. However, they find

even more terrorizing laws.

It would be naive of Acker to believe that one trip

through her perverse wonderland of identity would be

sufficient to accomplish the plagiarizing project laid out

in The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. As a matter

of fact, it would go against one of the tenets of that

strategy--that the narrative journey must all the time be

retaken to ensure that it does not stay the same. Thus,

Nymphomaniac and Toulouse Lautrec must be both the narrative

journey retaken and a different narrative journey. This

demand requires the both/and logic that The Black Tarantula

introduced, a logic reaffirmed in the first half of the

epigraph to Nymphomaniac, which reads, "This is very

nonpolitical, therefore reactionary." 33 At the same time

the task requires a process of advancement, a Deleuzuan

becoming, for instance, an intention suggested by the second

half of the epigraph, which asks "But what would the world

have to be like for these events to exist?" (NI 94). Both

Nymphomaniac and Toulouse Lautrec mirror The Black Tarantula

by suggesting that such an existence means overcoming the

violence that historically has been behind mythic formations

of identity. The ostensible goal of Nymphomaniac, the task

of the nymphomaniac searching for the beginnings of desire,

of which in the masculine economy she has too much, is

ironically equivalent to that of The Black Tarantula, the


murderess looking for identity, which she threatens or

destroys. And the goal of Toulouse Lautrec, to solve "the

case of the murdered twerp,"1 also points to a violence

lying behind the narrator's identity.

To confront and reapply the violence directed against

them, the narrators of these texts must appropriate mythic

forms of logic. For example, in Nymphomaniac, the chapter

"i find an object for my desire" precisely repeats a party

seduction scene four times. This repetition calls to mind

the progression of mythic time that has seen one masculine

paradigm replace another. But by taking it to the extreme

of exact duplication, Acker is able to challenge the mythic

code. Under mythic logic, the primitive myth, with its

emphasis on explaining unknown origins, eventually gives way

to the rational novel, with its emphasis on exalting

purpose. In effect, the mythic story becomes teleologic: it

seeks the limits of rationality. Primal repetition, getting

bogged down in one's past, is disdained as waste or

stagnation; moral repetition, pursuing the rational quest,

is lauded as exemplary. Acker reverses the logic. When her

text repeats itself, literally gets bogged down in its own

past, it is developing. She makes the growth of the text

contingent on the fact that at some points it will remain

the same. And when Acker's protagonists pursue a quest,

they challenge rationality and morality by embracing

hysteria and engaging in acts not historically seen as


moral, particularly acts that foreground female sexuality.

As this sexuality, primal in its energy, grows, the

possibility for the female self existing beyond the

ligatures of masculine notions of propriety grows.

Toulouse Lautrec also appropriates mythic logic. The

murder investigation, a mythic form of discovery, is modeled

after a popular detective story genre--Hercule Poirot

presides. But Poirot discovers that he must look for

"another type of murder" (TL 223). His discovery is

significant because in the violent worlds Acker depicts,

murderous violence is the basis for identity. Thus, asking

who kills is as pointless as asking who eats or defecates.

The more vexing question is who was killed, a question that

draws attention to marginalized subjects, such as women, who

are effaced in patriarchal politics.

In order to make the appropriation work, Acker must

move it away from mythic configurations. In Nymphomaniac,

the flight away takes the form of a revolution. However, it

is a revolution that disassociates itself from conventional

images of armed uprisings. She includes a chapter

significantly entitled "distrust" in Nymphomaniac where she

describes the mythic revolution and where she sees its


If I trust you
A Revolution will happen.
If a revolution's fight guns
No thing good or new.

Today's society makes us


Murderers liars assassins.
If I trust you
A revolution will happen. (NI 161)

The revolution of guns--the historical revolution conducted

in phallic terms--brings "no thing good or new." However, a

revolution conducted by the murderers, liars and assassins--

Acker's marginalized subjects from The Black Tarantula--

offers at least the possibility for revolution.

Toulouse Lautrec also offers a mythic reconfiguration.

As Poirot proceeds to look for another type of murder, the

text presents a Genesis story, narrated by Peter, that

describes how the present murdering phallic economy came to

be. This story describes how a "hairy baboon" devours the

world. Within that story, a small frightened cat watches

and avoids the baboon. While the cat sleeps, she dreams her

own genesis in a forest where animals cohabitate rather than


In fact, Nymphomaniac and Toulouse Lautrec follow The

Black Tarantula in structure and design as well as theme.

The layered narrative of The Black Tarantula is repeated in

Nymphomaniac when Peter's story occurs within the story of

the nymphomaniacal narrator, and again when the cat's dream

occurs within the Peter's story of the creation of the

world, which, itself, is occurring within Poirot's murder

investigation. Even the working solution/test-of-solution

pattern is followed. In Nymphomaniac, Peter-time, the time

behind Peter's creation of the world, must be unchronicled;


and in Toulouse Lautrec, the "other" type of murder must be

solved. Both novels also end with their solutions possibly

reappropriated: the narrator in Nymphomaniac, with Peter

Gordon and the Black Tarantula, ends up sentenced to "a

lifetime punishment in a small cell" (NI 190) in Folsom

State Prison, and Toulouse's and Poirot's murder

investigation is swallowed by a series of other genre

stories--true-story confessionals, cinema, and popular

novels--that re-inscribe the mythic creation of the world.

Through the course of her works Acker finds it

increasingly difficult to plagiarize mythic stories

successfully; or, in the terms of her images, to keep the

baboon's story from swallowing the cat's. This difficulty

is crystallized in Acker's use of autobiographical material.

As she progresses through The Black Tarantula and

Nymphomaniac, Acker incorporates increasing amounts of

autobiographical material, frequently highlighted, as in the

sub-chapter title "(More details about my actual childhood)"

in the "i explore my miserable childhood. i become william

butler yeats" chapter of The Black Tarantula.

However, the designation "actual" only refers to an

historic Kathy Acker, whose identity, as the chapter

attests, is informed by masculine representations of

femininity. Cindy Sherman uses similar masculine

representations of femininity in a series of

"autobiographical" photographs and Eileen O'Neil discusses


how such claims of autobiographical authenticity frequently

disrupt what is alleged as authentic:

In Sherman's work an ambiguous reference to the
artist/agent disappears in the midst of a
proliferation of representations as: sex-symbol,
coed, working girl, ingenue, and so on. The
images entice us to say that if anything is
denoted it is a female stereotype. As a
paradigmatic case of postmodern art, these images
do not represent a particular woman but the
problematic of representation itself what
seems to be given as a sexual offering is
forthwith deconstructed.35

In her "autobiography," Acker tries to replace the actual

mythically constructed self with a self remade by weaving

her autobiographical material through her plagiarizing text.

Since in this manner the autobiographical material is

continually reframed, the reader is forced to note that no

particular representation of Acker can "really" be she.

This uncertainty is what Acker hopes to have seen as

"actual," since it opens the possibility for other than

mythic representations of femininity to be seen as "real."

However, the optimism of Acker's autobiography is

challenged by the autobiographical fact of Peter. Peter,

modeled after Acker's first husband, Peter Gordon, is also

an historic microcosm of the "peter" in every woman's life,

not necessarily as lover but certainly as influence.

Peter's functions are manifold. Among them, he serves as

the oppositional voice to Acker's plagiarism, the mythic

male subject that plagiarism needs to "murder" or

"unchronicle," and the politically empowered subject through


whom Acker can speculate on the working of the institutions

that inform him. However, once Peter's story is introduced,

it begins to devour the narrator's story.

Significantly, Peter is introduced in a chapter

entitled "i find an object for my desire." This title plays

on Laconian semiotics and ultimately puns on the name of the

"object," Peter. The play of the title operates on the

level that in a masculine economy the object of the desire

is the female, and to the extent that this object desires,

she desires the phallus. In Acker's version of this

scenario, the female does desire the phallus, the "peter,"

but Peter is also the object of desire. To some extent both

the "I" who desires and the object desired are masculinized

and castrated in a anatomical rendering of both/and logic.

Acker begins to examine the patriarchal myth in

politically real terms in a chapter called "peter's story."

In many ways it is the story of patriarchy. It begins

predictably. Peter admits, "I was born evil and became more

evil by chance" (NI 127). Acker alludes to the violence

behind patriarchal formulations of identity and also asserts

that this historical condition is not a necessary one.

Peter's story is a chronicle heavily concerned with his

past, how one becomes a "peter." It is especially critical

of the institutions that shape the "real" male. For

example, Peter describes his school days as isolated: "My

schoolmates respect me, even worship me, and stay away from


me" (NI 127). This near transcendent isolation, called

"individualizing" by Muriel Dimen,6 is a cultural ideal

emphasizing rational control, the code of the Marlboro man,

who may want others but will not need them. Dimen adds that

it also "makes us hate to resemble women, whose very

interest in relationships and intimacy seems mired in the

mud of need" (Dimen 41). Acker suggests that this code is

institutionalized in schools, and, of course, we can

recognize it in the various popular media--movies,

television, music, the media--that supplement our education.

Acker's suggestion is that this is the code that leads to

phallus worship. Peter's phallus worship is imaged in the

text when he makes love to his only friend--Peter Gordon.

Acker attempts to break the narcissistic cycle of

Peter's phallus worship by merging Peter's story with actual

autobiographical facts about her stint working in a live sex

show. Acker suggests that the woman performing sex on

demand for a predominantly male audience is an unvoiced

double of Peter's phallus worship. She merges the effete

classical myth with the visceral personal disclosure as a

way of exposing the politics behind the myth. After this

merging, Peter once again encounters his double:

This was not me: this was Peter Gordon. Unlike
me he wore no mask nor cloak. I thought he was me
as he stood there, the most beautiful man I've
ever seen shining as a light. "You have
conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforth art thou
also dead--dead to the World as it now exists and
as you hate it. In me didst thou exist--and, in


my death, see by this image, which is thine own,
how utterly thou has murdered thyself." (NI 142)

The description above might be the fulfillment of the

plagiarizing task. Peter is dead to the historical world

and remade as a shining new hybrid subject. However, this

romantic ending, as doubly emphasized by the use of

antiquated prose, is framed within the logic of patriarchy.

Once again, Acker pulls back from claiming victory,

acknowledging it is only easy to kill off history

metaphorically, and that metaphorical killing is compromised

by its reliance on patriarchal form. It is interesting to

note that the romantic style and content of the passage

quoted above is Acker's failure at the same time that it is

a successful romantic ending in the high romantic style of

gothic romance. Acker is relying on our recognition that

romantic endings are frequently seen as "feminine," to

suggest that such depictions of femininity are failures.

The chronicle of Peter works to plagiarize his identity

in form, but this form is restricted to the novel. Thus,

Peter is also associated with a broader scheme, a scheme of

time. This time of patriarchy, "peter time," is treated as

more complicated than Peter's story in the text because the

time of patriarchy is more complicated than the form of it.

It is easier to rework the form of Peter in the time of the

novel, the fictional time, than in the time of the novel,

the political time in which it is produced. Since that

latter time is male, "peter," time, Peter's relationship to


time is complex--it includes both the fictional time of the

novel and the historical time in which the novel is

produced. For example, the narrator of the "i find an

object for my desire chapter" reflects on her relationship

with/to Peter:

(1) Peter precedes me; or I precede Peter. (2)
Peter and I occupy together; and Peter disappears,
I remain. (3) Peter only: Peter moves, changes
color, etc. Or me only: I move, change color,
etc. A present duration supposedly means no
change. Consider (2). In (2), Peter's and my
durations overlap: overlapping is the essence of
duration. Because duration must be more
complicated than (1) which can be presented by a
series of dots on a time line. (3) is continuity:
(2) and (3) are the ingredients of duration (or of
the present). Apply this notion to duration to
another individual: that of identity. My
identity at any time depends on (my) lacks of
stabilities. (NI 118)

This formula is difficult to decipher. One way to look at

this definition of time is as a critique of essentialist

time--the time of Peter--as opposed to plagiarized time--the

time Acker hopes to realize through her text. Essentialist

time, labelled "(i)," is the historical chronicle that

Acker's journey attempts to undo. The first step in

plagiarizing this time is to form a dual identity, labelled

"(2)," where Peter and the narrator are occupying time

together, but to have the "peter" dominance in that co-

occupation disappear. This co-occupation is what the

narrator calls "overlapping," an image of merging, that she

believes is the "essence of duration." The term "duration"

suggests "endure," and the narrator suggests that the only


way that the female can endure is if she can disrupt peter

time. Ultimately, this means making the time of the novel

endure outside of the novel. Identities forged in such a

time would depend on instabilities, not remain anchored in

masculine logic. This conception of the successful

plagiarized project, of course, incorporates a built-in

self-critique, since it is introduced within the numerically

structured form of patriarchal logic.

Peter has a conception of time, too, one which

addresses specifically what endures in the world:

Say there's two theories of time. Absolutist
theory of time: the world is in time. The world,
events occur in moments. These moments can be
mapped on a time line. Relativist theory of time:
time is in the world. Time is the temporal
relations of events. An event can be earlier
(later) than or simultaneous with another event.
The first theory suggests that individuals
(subjects) are the true substance. The second
theory suggest [sic] that temporal characters are
the true substance of the world. (NI 136)

Despite the either/or logic of Peter's vision, a logic that,

being, Peter he cannot avoid, his vision presents

conceptions similar to those of the narrator above.

Absolutist time is the time of our history, where people are

real subjects and real subjects are singular and male. The

"second" theory suggest that temporal events are real, and

temporal events include a simultaneity that might allow for

the compound subject. Once the compound subject is enacted

in time, the resultant "real" history of time can be

chronicled differently, perhaps unchronicled. Peter says,


"I is a (predicate) relation" (NI 138), suggesting that it

is a construct relying on the past and of the past, and,

hence, the "I" who is always male, always Peter, may come to

be a subject of the past.

However, Peter's story proves difficult to unchronicle.

In the final chapter of Nymphomaniac, both Acker and Peter

wind up incarcerated as "dykes" in Folsom State Prison.

From one perspective, Acker celebrates her textual victory,

having transformed the masculine subjects into feminine. On

the other hand, these subjects are still imprisoned--and the

prison turns transgressive identity into male fantasy. For

example, the first two dykes described in the chapter are

engaging in lesbian sex described in the manner of a

confessional magazine. And within the prison the dykes who

wield power are not-so-coincidentally male dykes. Thus,

even within a community populated by dykes, feminine gender

concerns occupy a secondary position on the agenda of the

privileged subjects of the community.

The problem Acker realizes is that Peter has never

been the controlling agent in Peter's story. Her image of

the masculine as monolithic has been too singular. Peter is

a prisoner, too. And the prison he occupies with the

narrator controls its population by classifying prisoners.

Prisoners who resist classification are sent to the

"adjustment center" where they are reclassified.

Reclassification conceals a mythic type of violence. Acker


writes that it includes a "program" involving "aversion

therapy including electric and insulin shock, fever

treatments, sodium pentothal, anectine (death-simulating

drug), [and] antitestosterone injections (to neutralize sex

hormones)" (NI 177). When two prisoners write a letter

urging prison reforms, they have it confiscated as

"revolutionary writing" and get reclassified.

In effect, Acker envisions a world where both male and

female subjects are trapped by an institutional power that

controls representation. While it will take a transgression

against the rules of the institution for anyone to get out,

it will take a double transgression for a female "dyke" to

get out, since the male dyke is still privileged within the


Such a stranglehold on the apparatus for change will

exist as long as change is seen in mythic terms, as for

example in a romantic escape inspired by the mythic logic of

justice versus injustice, as Acker's prison setting

suggests. Furthermore, within such a setting the female is

twice convicted: she is both guilty of her sex and guilty of

her desire, especially if that desire includes the desire to

discredit her guilt. While the logic of patriarchal

institutions make us all guilty of an "original sin," which

we seek to atone for by creating just institutions that

inevitably imprison us, females are guilty of an unspeakable

sin, in the sense of degree and the sense that justice does


not speak of it nor let it speak itself. The sentence for

this sin is to remove the feminine from the institutional

power structure, and thus to keep that power structure

mythic. Change, such as the change Acker describes in her

text where all prisoners are dykes, is simply a means of

reclassification, applied where the sentries of mythic

justice deem fit.

This is why plagiarizing Peter does not disrupt the

power of Peter's story. In Toulouse Lautrec the murder that

must be solved occurs at the genesis of Western culture and

its conception of identity. In the novel's terms, it is the

murder that lies behind "the creation of the world," the

title to the chapter that follows Poirot's search for

another type of murder. The chapter "the creation of the

world" contains several stories of genesis. It is concerned

with the link between the representational and the

institutional with which Acker concluded Nymphomaniac. In

it, Acker's Peter returns and "rubbing his sore red cock"

declares "I'm going to tell the first story tonight" (TL

226). Out of Peter's story springs the oppression of

religion, coeval with the first story. This scenario is the

scenario for murder. Representation becomes institution.

Peter essentially masturbates a story out of himself. It is

an original "sin" of sex that can create only "men" in a

masculine culture. It is a murder of diversity. From

Peter's spilled and one-sided seed springs a first story, a


first institution. As that seed/story spreads, other

stories, other institutions, get created and passed along

via the various mediums for telling stories. Ironically,

Peter's sin does come back to haunt him as these mediums

become shaped into a masculine culture that imprisons Peter,

as well as any other subject. Acker's test of her working

solution in Toulouse Lautrec explores the way in which

various contemporary media perpetuate Peter's first murder.

The final four chapters of the novel explore the ways

patriarchal culture reclassifies subjects based on the model

of the devouring baboon. Peter's story is significant in

the way it describes the workings of the murder culture.

The story is about a cat's unrequited love for a big hairy

baboon. Though the baboon will not love her, he uses her

for favors. The cat brings the baboon all the food in the

world, which he swallows. Then he asks for control over all

the snakes, whom she captures and brings to him. But when

he asks for power, the cat hides away and watches as the

baboon gains power himself by continuing to swallow up all

opposition to himself until "there exist three balls, earth,

baboon and moon" (TL 229). The story's form is not new to

Acker. The feminine becomes increasingly marginalized as

the masculine consumes, turning itself into nature and even

making that nature transcendent. As the story continues, it

reflects another of Acker's concerns. The cat returns and

now the baboon loves her. This scene represents the threat


of appropriation. The baboon attempts to claim the

marginalized qualities he has labelled as "feminine" by

attempting to be sensitive. He claims that he realizes the

need to "open up," insists on his vulnerability, claims that

he is afraid of being hurt. In this way his love will

swallow the cat. Nothing has changed, however. When the

cat rejects him, the baboon laments, "I don't understand

love, it's not rational" (TL 230), retreating to the mythic

"masculine" logic of the culture he represents.

Meanwhile, opposed to the baboon's reality, is the

cat's dream. She begins a dream that seems idyllic, a

counterpoint to the baboon's world, but this world is soon

transmogrified into depicting the violent and consuming

reality of the baboon that exists. Two salient critiques

arise from this dream. The first is that the dream of a

matriarchy replacing a patriarchy is itself a useless

romantic notion in need of plagiarizing. The second is that

appropriation can occur even in the place of marginalized

"female" desire, since even these desires occur within the

broader framework of masculine culture. The cat's dream is

still a part of Peter's story even if it is a dream that

attempts to exclude the baboon. The imbedding of stories is

not restricted to the baboon and the cat. It is a motif

throughout the novel. Peter's story occurs in Acker's

novel, which may also occur in Peter's story. Acker worries


that she will ultimately be the cat dreaming a reality that

gets killed off before it can ever exist.

This fear is realized when various other genres devour

Acker's murder mystery, in effect, reclassifying it. Among

the more striking of these reclassifications are plagiarisms

of Lolita, tabloid pop culture, via the romance of James

Dean and Janis Joplin, and finally the movie Key Largo. The

characters frequently reappear from text to text, getting

reclassified to suit their new role. (This reclassification

is an ironic appropriation of Acker's sentiment that

"overlapping is the essence of duration.") Acker's fear is

that no "new" role is new--it is merely a version of what

came before because all the possible identities are plugged

into the representational apparatus of mythic culture.

Peter is no longer a personal quilt but an institutional

one. The baboon is no longer Peter the individual, but a

story worked through various representational forms that

have swallowed him.

Acker sees the surreptitious elements of American

government as the contemporary version of the devouring

baboon. Thus, her novel concludes with the CIA interfering

in the business of Johnny Rocco. The CIA is a prime example

of an institution created by mythic logic that now devours

the "baboons" who created it.37

Rocco is one of those baboons, a narcissistic male who

preys on women and profits at the expense of his friends.


But Rocco, like Peter before him, is also trapped. By the

time he understands that the CIA oversees his operation and

he attempts to flee, he realizes that he has "no idea where

to go" (TL 310)--he is already dead as an autonomous

subject. And dead, too, is Acker's interest in the personal

subject per se--she finds her political aspirations made her

envision the world too personally and so blinded her to the

sight of what Judith Butler describes as "the multiply

contested sites of meaning"3 where the challenge of

rethinking postmodern identity lies.

Plaqiarizing Institutions

At the end of The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, the

narrator is thoroughly frustrated by her inability to gain

access to an "individual" who is not thoroughly mediated by

the political apparatus. She is left, like Johnny Rocco,

running with no idea where to go. Finally, Acker determines

that she must go beyond considerations of the individual in

her examination of identity. Beginning with Blood and Guts

in High School, Acker's narratives move toward plagiarizing

what lies behind identity--the institutions and politics

that inform it. She does not abandon her use of violent and

sexual images as critiques of identity; she strategically

redirects them. In a way, she is absolutely consistent,

since she has maintained all along that a journey must

continually be retaken as it changes. She is still


following the map of unrealized desire she first laid out.

Her first novels are a journey here.

Blood and Guts in High School might be Acker's most

ambitious, if unfocused, work. It takes all the

frustrations she accumulated from her considerations of

identity--the expanding critique that encompasses politics,

various social institutions, such as the family and

religion, and representational media--and attempts to

translate them into a form that she can include in a single

text. The novel's formal range--it includes poetry, prose,

parable, translation, graffiti, drawings, calligraphy and

cartography--is a response to the range of unresolved

representations of self that thwarted her plagiarisms in

Toulouse Lautrec. Her venue, high school, is the

appropriate place to learn to "read" these various

representations, and her novel gives a section, a class, as

it were, to each one. High School is also an appropriate

place for her to begin formulating her critique of

institutions that inform identity, and as Acker expands that

critique, high school becomes symbolic of many such

institutions. These institutions--public education, the

family, the church, the government (to name a few of the

more notable)--are models frequently seen as enabling but

through which Acker sees identities violently forged. Thus,

the blood and guts found in Acker's high school is similar


to the murderess found lurking behind the childlike life of

the black tarantula.

Blood and Guts in High School is a novel of learning

and flights away from it. Its protagonist, Janey Smith, is

a Jane Doe, a young girl whose identity is entirely

dependent on males because of the formidable patriarchy

within which she lives. Janey is a type, a character cut

off from her matriarchal roots (she never knew her mother)

and so described as one who "depended on her father for

everything."39 Acker acknowledges Janey's status as a

type, calling her "a cardboard figure" (Conversation 17) in

her interview with Ellen G. Friedman. Her concentration on

types arises from her disdain with examining individual

identity. Because it lacks dimension, the type steers

attention to the forces that created it, suggesting that

they are initially responsible for creating subjects whose

potential is limited.

Not surprisingly, then, high school teaches "type-ical"

learning, and high school is not strictly a school, but any

place where one learns how to behave formally, or in

accordance to the "polite murder society," as it is called

in Toulouse Lautrec. The father takes on all identities of

importance to Janey, and indeed he represents all

institutional representations of importance to her, from

entertainment to economics. Her artwork while in high

school--depicting women with penises, women fondling


penises, phallic structures--suggests the phallic domination

of institutional thought. As for her own body, it must be

rejected. Janey's sole drawing of a female is an

enlargement of a vagina with the label "My cunt red ugh" (BG

19). The school, then, is the place where women learn to

internalize mythic logic. Acker strives to free women from

that logic by taking Janey through an altered curriculum

that insists she know her body. For example, Janey endures

sexual abuse, undergoes an abortion, translates Persian

poems about her cunt, and survives cancer. Acker's new

curriculum in Blood and Guts in High School is similar in

design to the new murderess she attempts to create in The

Black Tarantula, the difference being the emphasis on the

schooling rather than the schooled.

In the end, however, to free herself from high school,

Janey must take flights away from institutions. Blood and

Guts in High School concludes with a section entitled "A

journey to the end of night." Acker tries to make this

journey work by constantly shifting its destination to

various exotic, unspoiled locales, such as Tangier, and,

finally, in Janey's dreams. However, she still finds

herself retreating to the mythic logic of purity--Janey dies

as a sacrifice so that many other Janeys can repopulate the


Despite her attempts to adapt her plagiarizing strategy

to institutions, Blood and Guts in High School comes across


as a grand failure--it tries to do too much, and by so doing

accomplishes very little. Acker concedes as much when she

describes its primary accomplishment as its ability to start

"really using plagiarism, with the Genet stuff" (HL 10) at

the end of the novel. She comes to believe that the best

journey away from mythic logic can be made by pirating a

mythic text and concentrating on plagiarizing the

institutions that inform it. The image of the "pirate," the

taker of transgressive voyages, a figure both literally and

figuratively on the margins of the world, becomes

increasingly important to Acker as she concentrates on

violating the institutional behavior codes of culture.

Great Expectations40 continues Acker's interest in

pirating a text. It is her first "stolen" title, and this

theft links the text to its narrative past while insisting

it will not be passive in the face of that past. In fact,

Great Expectations steals not only its title but also the

expectations that title suggests, shifting them from the

progress Pip must conceptualize in order to earn his place

in society to the irrational, disjointed journey Acker's

protagonists must take in order to gain recognition in

theirs. At the end of Blood and Guts in High School, Acker

proposes a romantic view of recreating journeys. In Great

Expectations, she seems to realize that this recreation can

only work to remodel identity after the ideology of

"romance" has been plagiarized. The romance novel is the


high school of Great Expectations, from which her characters

must unfind their way.

To some extent, the first section of Great

Expectations, entitled "Plagiarism," sets down the initial

strategy of plagiarism through which Acker's protagonists

must find their way. This strategy is transgressive--it

attempts to break historical expectations by violating a

supposedly proper and integral origin. Indeed, the first

two paragraphs of Acker's Great Expectations are stolen from

Dickens', with only the substitution of the name "Peter" for

"Pip" in the Acker text. This substitution works to suggest

how romance begins with "peter" logic while at the same time

it violates the "peter" logic by inserting a new element

into it in order to gain access into the dominant narrative.

The name gained, "Peter," suggests the relationship between

identity, physical procreation, and property and authority

under mythic logic. The violence of the theft, the

plagiarism, is inextricably linked to sex, or the violence

of making an identity. This entire process is bound in the

romance narrative. Since Peter gets the authority for his

name from the combined influences of a tombstone and his

sister, that authority is both steeped in tradition

(carrying with it the inscription of the past) and

traditionally engendered (at least to the extent that it is

a family member, and a substitute mother, who provides the

assurance for the name).


However, it is also significant that Peter's sister is

a substitute mother and that she had her own name effaced,

as she is now known as Mrs. Joe Gargery. She has had a male

name imposed over her own and gets this name only because

she has acceded to a tradition that works, as Luce Irigaray

puts it, "to eradicate the difference between the sexes in

systems that are self-representative of a 'masculine

subject.'41 The romantic journey Pip in Great Expectations

is to undergo is replete with such systems that efface the

feminine. These are the systems Acker hopes her journey can

unrecognize. To some extent, then, the violence of Acker's

plagiarism can be seen as a response to a violence that

preceded it. However, Acker's journey hopes to do away with

the game of finding origins and assigning values and blame,

since such tasks rely on binary distinctions that buttress

the dominant narrative and can only lead to replacement

narratives that bring with them their own forms of

oppression. Thus, she complicates both the normative and

disruptive sense of her text.

For example, beneath the section title "Plagiarism" is

the chapter title "I Recall My childhood," under which are

the plagiarized paragraphs from Dickens. The word

"childhood" looks back to the past from which Acker borrowed

this textual "childhood," while also suggesting that all

texts have recollected childhoods that are "plagiarisms" in

this sense. Of course, "I Recall My Childhood also


describes what Acker's protagonist does. Complicating this

title further is the possibility that the plagiarized

childhood referred to in the paragraph may be either the

childhood of Peter the usurper, who steals his way into the

Dickensian text, or Peter the usurped, who may be, like Mrs.

Joe, burdened with the male name (a possibility made even

more pronounced when in the subsequent paragraph the

protagonist's voice is female).

In this context, it is important to recall that "Pip"

is not the "real" name of Dickens' protagonist. It derives

from his childish mispronunciation of "Philip Pirrup," and

yet it is also a name forced upon him, in a sense: when he

receives his great expectations, one of the conditions is

that he keep this childish nickname. Thus, the suggestion

that the violence of the name, here related to the violence

of identity, goes deep into the cultural systems through

which we realize our expectations, and that while these

systems are complex enough for us never to be able to know

them (as Pip was not to know Magwich), they are simple

enough for us to recognize them as indispensable to our


This seeming contradiction is the genesis of Great

Expectations, as Acker made clear when she explained how she

approached the novel's production:

I thought that I didn't need a centralized plot or
centralized characters so I started doing my
own version of Great Expectations, cutting it up,
not even rewriting, just taking it and putting it


together again, like playing with building blocks.
(HL 15-16)

Because of the novel's decentralization, plot structure is

not an adequate measure of its development. Acker believes

that the linear plot needs to be unwoven because it

concentrates on building toward a conclusion that inevitably

reinscribes the dominant narrative. Accordingly, she

emphasizes internal repetitions that forestall that

inevitable ending, and she concentrates on the way

fragmented, isolated desires are formed and resolved. These

desires can make hers a plagiarized journey, one that moves

to undo what linear narrative does--or at least seems to do

when its violence goes unrecognized, seeming to peter out

into romance and myth. The image of this undoing is that of

the "peter" repenetrating the text. It is developed both as

Acker plagiarizes the source text, violating it in the way

it has historically violated subjects, hoping to inform it

anew, as she examines how rich texts have penetrated human

lives, constantly reinforming us and creating us "anew"

within changing patriarchal paradigms.

Beginning by assuming the prevalence of Freudian

fathers, Acker suggests that since women have been spoon-fed

the Oedipal myth, their past is a plagiarized past. This is

represented at the start of Great Expectations by the death

of mothers: "On Christmas Eve 1978 my mother committed

suicide and in September of 1979 my grandmother (on my

mother's side) died" (GE 5). Subsequently, Peter narrating


Great Expectations gives way to a generic female narrator

whose female origins have died and whose important questions

for the future revolve around love and future boyfriends.

This narrator seeks out a male, Terence the seer

(reminiscent of Tiresias), to help her uncover her identity.

He tells her that the image of her mother is "blocking

consciousness"; in other words, that an image of femininity

prevents her proper development of femininity. This is the

logic of romance, and, under its auspices, regardless of

what journey one undergoes, one goes as a male subject.

Terence, then, is a punk Freud with Tarot cards. His

influence can be seen in many of the depictions of women at

the beginning of the text, as in this reflection by the

narrator upon her dead mother:

Because I am hating my mother I am separating
women into virgins or whores rather than believing
I can be fertile.
I have no idea how to begin to forgive
someone much less my mother. I have not idea
where to begin: repression's impossible because
it's stupid and I'm a materialist. (GE 6)

This Freudian hodgepodge operates as mythic "natural"

reasoning and blocks the possibility for growth in women by

making women seem inadequate by natural reason. The

deleterious effect of this logic can be seen in Acker's

images of women held by women. For instance, in her next

description of mothers, the narrator begins by recognizing

superficial values allotted them--and then gradually

proceeds to transmogrify them:


My mother is the most beautiful woman in the
world. She has black hair, green eyes which turn
grey or brown according to her mood or the drugs
she's on at the moment, the pallor of this pink
emphasizes the fullness of her lips, skin so soft
the color of their cheeks is absolutely peach no
abrasions no redness no white tightness. This in
no way describes the delicacy of the face's bone
structure. Her body is equally exquisite, but on
the plump side because she doesn't do any exercise
and she wears girdles. She's five feet six inches
tall. She usually weighs 120 pounds even though
she's always taking diet pills. Her breasts look
larger and fuller than they are because they sag
downwards. The nipples in them are large pale
pink. In the skin around the nipples and in the
tops of her legs you can easily see the varicose
veins breaking through. The breast stomach and
upper thigh skin is very pale white. There's lots
of curly hair around her cunt.
She has a small waist hands and ankles. The
main weight, the thrust, the fullness of those
breasts is deceptive, is the thighs: large
pockmarked flesh indicates a heavy ass extra flesh
at the sides of the thighs. The flesh directly
above the cunt seems paler than it has to be. So
pale, it's on the edge of ugliness (GE 9)

By recognizing the cultural value allotted them, women come

to recognize ugliness. But while ordinarily this ugliness

is internalized and reapplied to the woman's body as

judgement, Acker hopes to expand the ugliness into critique.

Thus, Acker's prose borders on the "edge of ugliness." In

fact, it strives for it. Kathleen Hulley observes of

Acker's prose, "It surpasses the obscene. This is language

scraping as close as possible to an unspeakable, and

obliterating 'Real'" (173).42

Hulley finds Acker's prose voicing an "unspoken"

culture, which, according to Hulley, "shows the workings of

a disingenuous narrative strategy which supports the


prevailing distributions of power" (TG 176). However, I

think it is more accurate to say that Acker's texts take the

propriety of culture, which shows itself in formal

categories such as "art" and "literature," and exposes those

proprieties as masking something vile and ugly, not the body

of woman, but the expectations around it that reduce it to a

slab of flesh. As she does with the description above,

Acker hopes to take the master narrative's great

expectations of that body along a course they do not

ordinarily follow, to and beyond the "edge of ugliness."

This is Acker's second mode of plagiarism--a remapping--the

charting of an unjourney that attempts to deconstruct "ugly"

institutions of representation by articulating the unspoken

regions of desire.

In these unspoken areas of desire Acker hopes to open

up a new territory in which the female body can operate more

free of patriarchal expectations. Cixous advocates a

similar course with a similar metaphor in "Laugh of the

Medusa" when she tells woman to write in order to "give her

back her goods, her pleasures, her immense bodily

territories which have been kept under seal" and "tear her

away from the superegoized structure in which she has always

occupied the place reserved for the guilty" (LM 880).

(Cixous's use of the verb "tear" also anticipates the

violence of Acker's plagiarisms.) Together they share a

belief that such violence reflects a truer history of women


experiencing their place within a patriarchal hierarchy. As

previously noted, one of Acker's central examples is the

"mother" figure, a figure whose history in narrative she

sees as fragmented and always plagiarized, coming to her

from diverse but predominantly patriarchal scripts that keep

her under the yoke of the "Father." Thus, Great

Expectations consists of numerous narratives of women broken

by men's great expectations. It challenges the narrative

continuity of one masculine paradigm succeeding another not

by developing its own narrative continuity but by

continuously critiquing the narratives that have seemed

continuous, and have thus become "history."

Acker's text does not seek to resolve its fragments.

According to Acker, closure is masculine. Therefore, her

writing reworks fragments, making them seem inadequate as

explanations for the types they ostensibly describe. For

example, in Great Expectations the mother image remains as

fractured as the narrative, but in the unjourney these

fragments come to represent a "whole" woman. This is

reflected in Acker's narrative style, which fractures the

female narrator, suggesting (once again in the words of

Cixous) that "if [woman] is a whole, it's a whole composed

of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a

moving, limitlessly changing ensemble" (LM 889). In Acker's

text, this change takes the mother image through a new

plagiarized history, an unjourney, that acknowledges the


domain of patriarchal narrative history while hoping to

topple that dominance by twisting it until "the whole world

and consciousness revolves around [the] mother" (GE 14).

Male characters are also presented as types, but far

from being "changing ensembles," they are presented as

stagnant caricatures. Their identity taints the "childhood"

world of the narrator, the world forged by the dominant

narrative, with a bestial, ugly, and relentlessly devouring


At camp: males string up tents along a
trench filled with muck: slush from meat refuse
vomit sparkle under arching colorless weeds .
two males tie the animals to the rear of tents, a
shit-filled-assed teenager squatting over the
salt-eroded weeds pants dust covers his face his
head rolls vacantly around his shoulders his
purple eye scrutinizes the montage of tents, a
brown curly-haired soldier whose cheeks cause
they're crammed full of black meat are actually
touching his pock-marked earlobes crouches down
next to a little girl he touches her nape his hand
crawls under the rags around her throat feels her
tits her armpits: the little girl closes her eyes
her fingers touch the soldier's grapejuice-smeared
wrist, from the shit-heaps a wind-gust lifts up
the bits of film and sex mag pages the soldiers
tore up while they were shitting clenched the shit
burns the muscles twisted by rape. (GE 11)

So all of the "children" in the "I Recall My Childhood"

section of Great Expectations, males and females alike, have

been formed by a plagiarized past. This commonality is one

reason why generic designations, such as "mother," "father,"

"soldier," are favored over proper names. For example, the

couple (for want of a better term) described in the rape

scene above are referred to throughout the section as "young


girl" and "brownhaired." All "types" need to go through an

unjourney, but the male types are more resistant, having

reaped (and raped) the benefits of thousands of years of

patriarchal order.

The disparity suggested above leads to a conflict

between "types." This conflict is what men and women must

work through to attain their expectations; it is explored by

Acker in a section entitled, appropriately enough, "I

Journey to Receive My Fortune." The following dialogue

between "Hubbie" and "Wife" illustrates how the subjects are

mediated through cliched representations of femininity and


WIFE: You louse! You lousy louse! Mother always
said you were a louse and, besides, she has more
money than you! I don't know why I married you I
certainly didn't marry you for your money.
(Starts to sob)
HUBBIE: Stop it, dear. (Doesn't know what to do
when he sees a woman crying. It makes him feel so
helpless.) The children'll see and think
something's the matter. (GE 20)

Here, the mythic logic is obviously intact: the

husband is challenged on the grounds that he is not

fulfilling his role as breadwinner, and he tries to calm his

wife's hysterics with reason. The scenario has the

characters and feel of that modern source of myth, the TV

situation comedy of the 1950's: nagging wife, befuddled

husband, the threat of an overbearing mother-in-law. This

scenario is so familiar to us that we expect the comedic

resolution that reinforces the values of the American


family. However, Acker gradually twists the character's

responses, leading to a mix of sit-com and political


HUBBIE: It's always my fault. Everything's
always my fault. When your dog dies when you were
four years old it was my fault. When Three Mile
island was leaking away Mother threw out her new
General Electric Microwave cause she said it was a
UFO Martian breeding ground: I caused that one.
Your commie actor friends're telling me I'm not
political enough cause I won't stand on street
corners and look like a bum just to hand out that
rag (SEMIOTEXT(e)) they call a newspaper that a
bum wouldn't even use to wipe his ass with, some
communism, and then they say I'm responsible for
the general state of affairs. All I do is work
every day! I never say anything about anything!
I do exactly what every other American middle-aged
man does. Everything's my fault.
WIFE: (soberly): Everything IS your fault. (The
wife starts to cry again.) (GE 20)

Here, the husband's speech combines exaggerated and

contrived comedic references with bigotry and earnest

politics to the point where one is not so relaxed about or

familiar with the result. After all, it is easy to ridicule

1950's sit-coms as "unreal," but Acker is concerned to make

a more complex criticism. These "types" suddenly recognize

and allude to a disparate array of references that defy the

frame of sit-com simplicity. Thus, the wife's rejoinder

about her husband's culpability may be a retreat to a

cliched sit-com stock phrase, or it may be Acker's

plagiarism of that stock phrase, giving it new vitality as a

censure of patriarchal logic, which in fact implicates

"every American middle-aged man." The recognizable response


becomes complicated to expose the dimensions of rhetorical

possibility kept contained by stereotype simplicity.

Acker resolves her domestic dispute in a manner that

cross-channels the simplicity of a sit-com resolution with

the violence and indeterminacy of postmodern existence:

HUBBIE: Bam. (Shoots down a four-year-old girl
who's wearing a baby-blue jumper. Her junked-out
mother is too shocked to scream. It begins to
snow.) Guess it's gonna snow for Christmas.
WIFE: Oooh, I'm so glad! Now aren't you glad you
stayed home for Christmas? (GE 22)

The dialogue is disjointed, the logic tenuous, and the

subject matter undisciplined. (Where do the girl and her

junked-out mother fit in?). Nevertheless, the story has the

form of a happy ending for the principals; but after the

dialogue ends, the narrator asks the rhetorical questions,

"Is there anything else? What is to know?" (GE 23).

Certainly, it seems to us that the romantic resolution, the

snow job, cannot efface the violence, of both substance and

form, that preceded it. A harmony beyond the local harmony

of the principle is lacking. But this lack is the state of

mythic logic Acker has been addressing all along in her

argument, that master narratives, with all their violence,

have been "snowing" us into believing in the naturalness of

romantic resolutions.

"Hubbie" and "Wife" are types used to demonstrate the

difficulty of communicating in a world where stereotype

responses are the matrix of personal responses. To provide