XY: Happy Valentine’s Day, XX. I feel as though I want to write all sorts of terribly sexy things to you. I’ll start, however, with two questions for our review—because this book, I’m Very into You, which brings into print a brief, intense email exchange between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark during 1995-96, has been very much on my mind lately.
Wark, the author of A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007), and more recently some interesting stuff on Situationism, is a public intellectual who maintains a fairly high profile from his perch at the New School in New York. But back in 1995 when he met Kathy Acker he was a young upstart with one book, Virtual Geographies (1994)—which she read on the plane home following their encounter—and a lot of polemical essays in the Australian press. Acker was more famous, having established her reputation for radical theory-fiction mashup-cutups: books like Blood and Guts in High School (1984) and Don Quixote (1986). She was in many ways the face of the queer underground in America in the eighties and early nineties. When he visited her in San Francisco at the end of their brief correspondence (two weeks!) she signed a copy of the galleys for her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996), and gave it to him.
And yet it seems to me that Ken wore the cock first, so to speak. He set the tone with his first couple of emails, signaling a desire to continue whatever they’d started in Australia. In the opening email he wrote: “I’m glad you came; and I’m glad you came”. Then in his second letter—I prefer to call them letters, don’t you?—he quoted Acker’s writing back to her: “Hot female flesh on hot female flesh … the cunt opens and closes, a perpetual motion machine, a scientific wonder, perpetually coming”, and so on. He was quite forward. Did she seem a bit hesitant at first to you, perhaps being older (48 to Wark’s 34)? Did you see some role reversal happening as the dialogue went along?
Another question: We all indulge in a bit of sexting—or its ancestor, sex emailing—from time to time. Did reading I’m Very into You change the tenor of your lusty growl, or cause you to pepper your filthy imaginings with snippets of postcolonial theory?
XX: Hi XY. Fuck Valentine’s Day.
To start with sexting, I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever done it. Is that strange? Something about seeing all those lovely filthy words cramped on a tiny screen puts me off dreadfully. I want them spread out, luxuriating. And don’t call sex emailing the ‘ancestor’, I feel like a dinosaur! Even with technology, I want sex drawn out and at ease. It feels right in emails—or what you call ‘letters’. You’re right, ‘letters’ it is.
Were you looking for some postcolonial theory along with your fantasies? I’m fresh out, but I can offer you some Barthes to tide you over … I’m still feeling you out, you know, and I don’t know how you think about me either. Do I belong solely in the box marked ‘sex and books’?
XY: Barthes will do fine. And I wouldn’t dare try to put you in a box, XX—although if I did you could do worse than ‘sex and books’.
Seriously, one thing I loved about this book was the sheer vivid enthusiasm for reading and ideas that they both shared. Did you see that? If you were a pessimist I suppose you could see 1995 as the twilight of intellectual society, before the internet took over. On the other hand, it was fun to recall the early days of email. The ‘aol.com’ and ‘eworld’ addresses. The faxes. The email accounts that are anchored to one computer. Remember when Acker asked, “Can my phone ring when I’m on this?”
XX: You said that Ken wore the cock first. But was it planting seeds or simply shaking out what was left? I don’t think that it’s forward once you’ve had sex. It’s like extended pillow talk. I thought it was interesting that Kathy didn’t directly acknowledge that line “ … I’m glad you came” but focused almost solely on talking, presence. Age? I hope you don’t mean some insecurity there. I would have thought if that existed, then it would have disappeared when they had sex—it certainly sounded like some wonderfully mutual validation of body and mind. There’s always some hesitation before you dive into the pool of deep intimacy. You ought to know. We were both quite polite in the beginning. Who drew out whom? We read each other.
And what you also call forward—quoting her words back to her—for me, it was what he said afterward: “There are reaches of me that I can only put in language as feminine, and those reaches exposed themselves to you …” That’s not forward, it’s pure exposure. Gorgeous nakedness. What I also like is when he says: “I forget who I am. You remind me of who I prefer to be.” Other selves. You mentioned that yourself once.
XY: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
XX: Can you be all the selves you wish to be with one person?
XY: I try to keep it simpler than that—one mask for each person.
XX: And a different truth for every mask? Acker talks about “slipping roles … going high low, power helpless even captive, male female … space totally together and brain-sharp …” Maybe that’s this ‘all selves’ idea making sense. Forget role reversal, be everything. That’s play, that’s fluidity as freedom—and it’s sexy. She knows it.
Leonora Carrington said: “The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.”
XY: You’d need a wandering eye for that.
XX: It can easily apply to others as well as ourselves—and especially email conversations. You want to remain mysterious and I want to see you both as the far off constellation, dreamlike, and still dissect your words minutely to be closer to the man? If we are least ourselves when we speak with no barriers (and by that I take it as meaning face to face), one wonders what kind of people have been the audience. Maybe this—this white page—is a safe space.
Ken says as much to her: “And now to you … this is a bit different. A bit special … it will be safe with me.” And then, strangely Oscar-like, he says later: “All I have are diagrams. My love, my power, my wit, my sex – all diagrams.” Flesh and mind are reassembled here in lines—I am digitally declaring myself.
XY: I like that. Now in the book—did you notice a genuine excitement in the exchange around shock and subversion? They’re always competing to out-queer each other. It’s all fistfucking and genderflipping—to the point where they almost protest too much and I find myself wondering if they’re really very queer at all. Fear of vanilla.
But I think it’s actually a reflection of how exciting the idea of queerness still was in 1995. There’s a bit by Acker where she starts talking about ‘straight guys’ and ends up defining queerness: “I ask [straight guys] to whip me and they tell me I’m Satan. Straight women are worse. What do I mean by straight? I don’t exactly mean “straight” versus “gay.” This is where “queer” comes in.” What did you make of all this? I must admit it made me terribly nostalgic.
XX: I don’t think I ever had that conversation in the nineties, mainly because we were too busy doing, but in fairness we were young and probably not terribly intellectual. I had some definitely straight friends where there were these boundaries of accepted sexual behaviour, and anything outside of it was like looking at an exotic animal in a zoo. You might find it interesting to visit, but you’d never want one in the house. But then I had another group of friends where in regard to sex, we just did anything and everything.
In those situations the question never came up if it was different or shocking or belonging to a particular set of norms. Interestingly I found that openness leads to openness outside of sex, and always found it really freeing, not having to justify my sexual self. I suppose the great argument here is promiscuity, but really, it’s a misreading of fluidity and openness. I think sex and ‘sides’ notwithstanding, repression is a tourniquet. I guess it’s that I see less of it and more communication with queer. I don’t see how that could ever be a bad thing. Am I nostalgic? Yes, I am. Because as I’ve gotten older people seem to slip into a norm—they think it’s what you should do as an adult. It’s hard to find someone who wants to be in a fluid relationship, completely open but who understands that you can still love each other wholeheartedly—have that person be ‘the’ person.
XX: The ultimate concept of normal ought to just accept that there isn’t one—each of us is so different that we’ve got nothing in common except being. Ken says, “I like this idea of a refusal to be called other. As normal as the next human …” The people I’ve thought of as ‘normal’ in my life, I’ve almost always found that they’ve got something hidden inside that contradicts whatever that original assumption was. Even people who do what they’re supposed to in the way they’re supposed to … most of the time, they long for something else. They just don’t think it’s possible. Or allowed. Again, constraints—that tourniquet in action. I suppose it reads like competition, but maybe that’s just what it’s like when you connect with someone on such an intense level.
In our abnormalities, we are normal. It’s the curse of human nature to want to be the same but different all the time, rather than understand that the importance actually lies in the reverse: being different but the same.
XY: Some of the conversations in this book remind me of that scene in Annie Hall when Alvy and Annie meet at the tennis club and then drive back to her apartment. They’re trying to impress each other, and they both feel like frauds, as you see from the subtitles conveying their thoughts while they speak. He says, “The … the medium enters in as a condition of the art form itself” and you read: “I don’t know what I’m saying – she senses I’m shallow.” I was reminded of that when I read one of them say something like: “Perhaps what you are saying in regards to immanence is true within the area of patriarchy …”
XX: I do get that. But don’t you think some people flourish at higher levels of language? I don’t speak like that, personally. And if someone spoke to me like that, I suppose it would make me uncomfortable—not because I didn’t understand, but because I felt that despite what was being said, they weren’t reading me. I think that’s terribly important in close communication—language empathy. It’s easy to dismiss that kind of conversation as somehow rarefied, but I think they speak the same language in the book. They couldn’t have kept it up otherwise. And there’s only so far you can go if you’re both playing it up, before it collapses. It’s also an indicator of what you’re seeking from life or how you see it, when you (genuinely) use a particular level of language, or register I guess it’s called.
XY: My favourite thing about this book is the vulnerability. Fragility runs through the whole exchange. Acker is particularly raw, and she knows it. She hates being open to heartbreak, powerless to desire, and yet at times—most often when she comes home outrageously drunk—she throws herself headlong into the raw openness that only two strangers can share. Is that what makes this book worth reading?
XX: That’s exactly it—she exposes herself. It isn’t so much confessional, because that suggests a one-sided unburdening. She might seem to hate being seen as open or powerless, but she knows, as we all do, that you can’t ever receive the truly beautiful things if you aren’t open. That’s the terrible trade-off. But I understand it so well, I do the same—well, maybe not the come home drunk and email part—but sometimes, with rare people I do completely reveal myself. And even while I do it, I wonder to myself, why—I know full well I could be setting myself up for heartbreak, or not romantically speaking, disinterest—but part of me wants to know if there are others out there that connect.
XY: Yes—“a deep desire to connect” is how the Afterword describes it. I think that’s right. I would be tempted to go so far as to say that vulnerability, the desperate search for intimacy with another person, the depiction of that head-rush feeling right after you meet someone and you’re swept up in sex and wild conversations … all that heart stuff is really the heart of this book, more than all the poststructuralist theory or the period details.
Then again, with Acker you really can’t separate life and theory, can you? She was one of that heroic breed of radical theorist, like Foucault—they’re usually French—but also Wilde, who live their theories as art, or something. What did you take away from it—head or heart, or both?
XX: You need to ask? Both, of course. Isn’t that the beauty of reading, writing real correspondence? When you have that connection, you think and feel deeply. There’s a kind of equilibrium about it that you don’t get with the average conversations you have with others. It’s brave, because you know what comes to head and heart can be let go, knowing there is an audience that really wants to know all of you. It’s liberating and empowering to have that kind of audience, to realise that they feel and do the same. To live it might be the bravest thing of all, because you’re non-stop. You’ve made a choice to never get off the path to rest. Most of us can’t do it. It takes a particular kind of determination that we haven’t the energy or the nerve for.
XY: So much of Acker’s life, I felt—all of our lives—was spent inside the hard shell of a persona. She wrote in one letter that “dressing like a guy and living among gym geeks and motorcycles makes me feel safe.” But she also seemed desperate to escape that shell, to get at something emotional and vulnerable and raw. And of course she was in love, or crushing hard. We all hate email now, it’s annoying and banal, but could this exchange have happened if each letter took a week to travel between the US and Australia? What does it say about the impact of electronic communication?
XX: I think it could have happened, of course it could. I think you just can’t imagine the patience that we once were possessed of before our lives were more or less digitally dictated …
XY: It’s getting harder to imagine everyday. It predates Facebook’s memory machine.
XX: … But do we hate email? Or is it that we just hate it when we have to waste time using it for banal purposes? Work emails are so boring but necessary to our days, of course. Yet there is the other side, this side. Is what we do boring or banal? Do you see a new letter from me and say to yourself, oh, not XX again … do you sit there in front of your screen and wrack your brain to find something to say to me? Presumably not, as we keep filling page after page each day. And persona: sometimes I think you wear half a mask with me—although you say a mask for each person—so I wonder what truth is mine? I simply accept you, XY. What you say, is. I let you in, and by doing so, I must trust you.
XY: That’s sweet, XX. I guess I don’t hate email—not when it means I can talk to you. Didn’t you find it so poignant when she wrote: “Life’s too short not to be lived as fully as possible. Wonder what’ll happen next?” And then the next year she was diagnosed with cancer, and the year after she was gone. What are we all doing if we’re not living and communicating as fully and honestly as possible, right now?
That was twenty years ago, and Kathy Acker has become something of a mythical figure. But Ken Wark, well, he’s in my Twitter feed. Isn’t that strange?
XX: He is in mine as well. But Kathy’s online presence is just as strong—in fact, there are days when hers is stronger. I like to think that if she was still alive, they’d be carrying on a version of their correspondence on Twitter. That, I would have loved to have seen.
XY: It’s been a pleasure, XX. Always is. If you lived in San Francisco and I was visiting from Sydney, would you make me sleep on the sofa, or invite me to share the bed?
XX: Bed, of course—I’d need your brain within my immediate reach … but I think you knew that already, XY.
XX and XY are previous contributors to minor literature[s].
I’m Very into You: Correspondence 1995-1996 is published by Semiotext(e).