Sexed Language and Verbal Play
Kathy Acker is in the company of many erotic literary writers with the exploring of the often taboo desires and turn-ons that occur with language and verbal play. I think that because of the base sexedness and pornographic/erotic charge of such writing, there is not a lot of discussion on the sexed nature of such narratives. Mostly literary and psychological theorists will talk around the desires, never getting into the dynamics of sexed word play and language.
In my book The Switch I take on subversive and perverse desires: verbal sex language and play, also known as dirty talking, is one such aspect of desire.
Acker’s writing discloses the tenuous and fragile intersections between what is natural and unnatural, what constitutes normality and the abnormal. Ambiguous spaces of relationship, family, connection, love, order and disorder, subcultures, sex practices, and the body weave continually through the written texts and bodies of this blazoning author. These spaces and themes function as axes where Acker provides a viewing into:
the relationship between erotic acts and erotic identities … the status accorded to the genitals in defining sexual acts … the fine line between virtue and transgression, orderly and disorderly homoeroticism … the relationship of eroticism to gender deviance and conformity … the relevance of age, class/status, and ethic/racial hierarchies to erotic relations … the division between public and private sexualities … the differences between concepts of erotic identity, predisposition, and habitual behaviors … the dynamic of secrecy and disclosure, including covert signs, coding, and open secrets. (Valerie Traub, 133-34)
Switching Pornographic Moments
While all of Kathy Acker’s narratives consist of an experimental writing style, Blood and Guts in High School has many additions to the pornographic, troubled narrative as well as many more switching moments: drawings of female and male genitalia and naked bodies move from being object to subject; maps and diagrams depicting dreams move to visions with both hyper-descriptive words in tiny print and drawings to accompany the story-telling; a hyper-large, hand-printed poem consists of Persian and then English translations, the language switching every line, with Janey attempting to teach herself Persian; and a multitude of different typesets and narrative formula such as repeating the same paragraphs and words, “no,” for example, which communicates both an adamant refusal and openness.
For example, Acker switches from narrative story to the hyper-sexed “SUCK ME” for paragraphs or sections of text in bold type (Blood and Guts in High School, 109-10). There is an intimate instruction to please and do which speaks to an aspect of desire that is often not theorized. Acker creates a scene of action, verbal sex play that includes word cues, possessiveness, connection, and role play. The use of “honey” and the familiarity of the scene with “I love” imply a past encounter and/or the language is used to bring a familiarity forth; too add, “how you turn yourself around and upside-down inside-out for me just for me” also implies a familiarity already in existence (Blood and Guts in High School, 109-10).
Hidden, Deviant Desires & The Language of Pornography
The not speaking about it keeps the desires hidden: the desires and practices stay hidden and people stay silent. The idea that conversation stops at desire and sexuality renders a silence around desires and sex—this is apparent even with those that are dominant: a quiet, demur-turn ensues, as if to cast a quaintness to the sexual act, saving “good women” from being perceived as “whores” or “sluts” and “gentlemen” from being perceived as “predators.” Verbal sexting/dirty talking is not the language of “making love” and so becomes relegated further and further outside of the speaking of a culture despite the fact that sexual pleasures and the different ways the mind clocks desires is made manifest and clear, like all things, via communication.
There is a quiet that almost invades the conversation when it comes to expressing sexual wants/desires. The impact of this silence is that shame is experienced instead of embracing a turn-on or desire—self-expression and self-knowing is limited—seeking the desire out, which is inevitable, manifests itself in ways that are not powerful. One becomes the affect of what one resists, rather than embracing and/or at the very least accepting, the human desire to explore sex, sexuality, and desires through language, words, and Dominant/ Submissive/Masochistic verbal play.
And so it is with literature: we skirt around the pornographic, cautious and perhaps a little scared. Acker repeats pornographic words, which are trigger/cue words of desire: the giving of instruction and the act of even talking about the giving and receiving of instruction, is part of the nature and turn-on of this connection and language of desire and playfulness. There exists a lot of switch-hitting in Acker’s writing. A topping from the bottom that might exist for many characters as she utterly destabilizes the pornographic edge of the instruction and chosen trigger language.
Switch spaces side by side are what brilliantly Acker excels at, yet how easy it would be to miss the intimacy and, for some, the raw sexiness of these scenes by focusing on the abruptness or unlyrical, untempered aspects of her writing. To add, if one comes to Acker’s language of pornography with limited interpretations/points of view, much of the above can be missed. In her “Introduction” to Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker Amy Scholder adds that Acker “discovered a political use for pornography, a way of disrupting polite society;” further she is “always oscillating between worlds—bourgeois and bohemian, narrative and avant-garde, couture and biker. Inserting porn into the literary, she refused to choose sides. What cannot be overestimated is the pleasure Acker took in writing porn, finding the exactly right cadence and rhythm: using language, pushing limits, turning on” (xiii).
The Unliterary Erotic Makes Good Company
It is precisely in this tradition of “turning on” that Grove Press published and Kathy Acker wrote: to sidestep the pleasure of the text, the joy and turned on factor of the text, is a silencing not worthy of our scholarly rigor of upturning and delving into. As Barney Rossett, the owner of Grove Press from 1951 until he sold it in 1985, would assert, in his 2008 interview with Newsweek: “he printed erotica because it ‘excited me’” (quoted in The New York Times, February 22, 2012). This is enough, for him and for us: after all, why do we write, teach literature and writing: in some manner, we find the writing process and the reading, that voyeuristic activity, pleasurable, exciting, and life giving. If we read Acker in the tradition of other erotic and/or pornographic, taboo, and/or BDSM writing, the content and/or writings of the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, and Pauline Réage and Anais Nin are similar and a sexiness is revealed beneath what could be missed, hidden, and/or interpreted as crass, undisciplined, or unliterary. Acker’s writing style and subversive pornographic content in Blood and Guts in High School, as well as the psychology and perverse boldness of her characters, illustrate an experimental, avant-guard writing that is worthy of continued scholarship.