McKenzie Wark interviewed by Porochista Khakpour
Porochista Khakpour: Where did you first get the idea to do this book? It can be seen as a follow-up to I’m Very into You but it also holds its own as a sort of manifesto and treatise and meditation, as well as a partial memoir too.
McKenzie Wark: I knew Kathy Acker, slightly and briefly. Her literary executor found our email correspondence in her papers after she died. He wanted to do them as a book, which is how I’m Very into You came about. After that I started getting asked to speak about her work at events. When I met her, I had read one of her books and respected her as a writer but I wasn’t a fan. I think that was in part why she was interested in me. After our correspondence was published I thought I should know her work better so I read all of her books. Among other things, I started to find the way Kathy handled gender was helpful to me. I was struggling with coming out as trans later in life. Rereading our emails I find a lot in it about two people with nonstandard genders trying to figure that out as well as each other. Philosophy for Spiders grew in part out of thinking through my own problematic gender and Kathy’s together. We were together a very brief time but it was an encounter that was very important in my life. More than I knew at the time.
PK: What do you think has been missing in depictions of Acker these days? Is this book a reaction to that in part? It always feels like there is something more to add and explore with her somehow. It never feels like we are quite done.
MW: The mark of an important writer is when they sustain a lot of divergent readings across time. I really think Kathy’s work is doing that. In the back of Philosophy for Spiders I list the major anthologies she’s been in and it’s remarkable how many important literary movements found kinship with her. The conceptual writers, and the New Narrative people, and so on. She was able to intuit and gesture toward all these possibilities for writing. On the other hand, she is that rare avant-garde writer whose work also has something to which readers can directly and viscerally connect. The abject, erotic, vulnerable, messy, emotionally raw body—the body coded feminine—the way Kathy wrote that is immediately recognizable to a lot of readers.
PK: When did it first occur to you to highlight Acker in a trans lens and create a rather novel entry into trans lit? You discuss approaching your own trans experience during the writing of this book but I did wonder how you felt compelled to do something that now seems rather logical to me even though I would have thought of it as risky: taking a cisgendered queer woman and examining her through the lens of trans identity?
MW: Maybe we could take away the assumption that she was a cis woman. That’s what a trans reading does. What if we stop assuming we know the gender of a writer? Maybe to even be certain kinds of writer is to exceed the bounds of the gender one was assigned. I think of Flaubert saying “I am Madame Bovary.” So there’s some general thing about trans reading as a protocol for reading that’s emerging. I’m drawing on work that does that. Of course it’s trans readers who most want to read that way, although it really would help cis readers too if they want to think about what they simply assume about gender without much thought or attention. Kathy is a good candidate for this kind of reading as there is a lot going on with gender in her texts. It’s very mutable. It’s already an experience and theory of gender that takes away certain assumptions. I wouldn’t use a phrase like “trans identity” however. Kathy hated all identities. If there’s a politics of selfhood in her life and work it is about escaping all identities without losing yourself entirely. So my reading is about trans-ness as possibility, not imposing a “trans identity” any more than she would have wanted a “queer identity” or any other.
PK: I often think about what Acker would have made of today’s issues and debates and dilemmas. How do you see her as engaging our world today? What issues, what concerns?
MW: Kathy was experimenting with the internet in the last years of her life. She was hardly optimistic about it. I found a short magazine piece she wrote that was supposed to be “my favorite websites” in which she makes up five that are scarily prescient versions of today’s social media hellscape. She might not have done well with the liberal diversity discourse that is everywhere this century but I think she would have been energized by social movements such as Black Lives Matter. I hope she would have rethought some of the Rimbaud-inspired romanticizing of the non-Western other that runs through her work—already a dated note in her time. People in her circles were already transitioning in recognizably contemporary ways in her time and I think she would have been cool with my transition, for instance. She is our contemporary on a lot of things: on how fine art became a financial instrument. How major cities like New York and London became data factories. How sex work came out of the closet. How this became something like post-capitalism, but worse than capitalism. How anti-colonial struggles created their own internally-colonizing states. How troubling the concept of nature would become.
PK: I am also interested in the very construction of this text. You create an actual theory of Acker from multiple perspectives and vantage points, something no one has really done—the Kraus and Martin books which I reviewed did something wholly different and much more straightforward. In fact, I’ve never seen a book that is part very intimate memoir and then evolves into layers of phenomenology and philosophy and sort of multiphonic abstract exploration of an artist from every angle of their own inquiries.
MW: I wanted a book that would play with form as much as hers did but which would not be an imitation. I had to write differently to articulate what’s different about her. I wanted to document as much as I remember about how we fucked—of all the gossip passed down about writers from those who knew them, who writes about that? In this case at least, I think it matters, as she was among other things a careful writer of the experiences of the body, including the sexual body. So the order of the book is: my rather imperfect memories, then Kathy’s own writing on the experience of her own body, then her theory of desire, the other, relationships and all that. Finally, how those practices—of fucking, loving, writing—produce for her broader concepts, about the city, class, post-capitalism, resistance to it, and so on. The book ends with a coda that draws out how all those things relate to trans-ness, how knowing about the mutability of the sexed body is a kind of knowledge. One on which someone can build a whole worldview. Whether Kathy was “trans” in any sense is not interesting, but that she made space for trans thinking, writing, becoming—that matters. And not just to trans people. Really, to anyone obliged to inhabit a gender. So, yeah, getting all that into two hundred pages took some creative work about form.
PK: Do you feel like there will be a moment when you will be “done” with Acker? I think so much of great artists who were known not just for their art but for their partners, their collaborators, even their enemies, and I wonder about what these associations do to our audiences as well as us. I think for me at least when I hear Acker’s name your name is the next one that comes to mind—not just because I know of your encounters but because of these books you’ve put out that sort of forever connect you to each other.
MW: Certainly wasn’t my intention that Acker would be associated all that much with me. She fucked a lot of people. I’m just an incidental example. I think it’s worth broadening our idea of which writers are allowed to have fucked around. Didn’t Edmund Wilson keep a diary of the women he fucked? With ratings and measurements? We hopefully got over the big swinging hetero dick image of the writer. Gay male writers offered an alternative and I think that’s in part why Acker was drawn to them, to Rimbaud, Genet. And it makes her kin to contemporaries like Bob Glück, Dennis Cooper, her frenemy Gary Indiana.
I’m glad to see there’s an Eve Babitz revival. Cis women who fuck—that’s an anthology I'd read. It maybe gives a little cover to trans women who fuck, and write. For a long time we had to be demure and sexually “normal.” But you know a lot of us were, or in my case tried to be, fags before we came out. So it’s more that I want to get beyond this literary culture that’s actually become a bit too restricted in its relation to sexuality. Where you can be any sexuality or gender but don’t be too slutty about it.
I do different things every five years or so. I like being naïve as a writer. I might do Acker events when invited but in one way I am “done.” I probably won’t write about her again. That’s the book I have to offer on that topic. But in another way I’m never done. Meeting her was a key moment in my life, as a writer, and as someone who, in a different way to Kathy, had to struggle with gender, who couldn’t take it as given.
PK: As a former raver, I am deeply interested in rave and nightlife culture in general. So many writers I love are. You of course are doing substantial work in this area. Can you say something about this new work too? I often think of people like “day people” and “night people” and I relate only to the latter. I would put you and Acker in that category too.
MW: When I went on hormones I lost the ability to write anything more ambitious than an article. Philosophy for Spiders is the last thing I had substantially written before that. Transition was already changing my writing. I think you can see that in Reverse Cowgirl and Philosophy for Spiders. But for a while early on with hormones I just couldn’t write at all. So I went back to raves. I feel a lot better and less dissociated these days but there’s still a certain unresolvable dilemma of the flesh as a transsexual. And raves help with that. Particularly if the music is techno, which I think of as a music not made for humans at all. So I don’t feel especially alienated in it compared to anyone else.
Turns out my timing was good, as there’s an interesting queer rave scene in New York. During the lockdown we were reduced to rooftops and parking lots. There was some risk to that but trans people are in a world where a lot of things are trying to kill us, not just Covid. So it’s about balancing different risks. Isolation is a big risk for queer and trans people with distributed networks of emotional and sexual life. (And yes, Acker was a night person in that sense, perhaps.) So, anyway, for the last few years I’ve been back in rave culture, after a twenty-year absence. In some ways it’s better than I remember the ’80s and ’90s raves.
And it helped me learn to write again. The next book is just called Raving, and is for a sort of crossover series on “practices” for Duke University Press. I like where the writing has ended up. It’s more embodied. I can actually be an embodied being in a way I couldn’t outside of getting high and fucking. Reverse Cowgirl was the story of taking those moments of gender euphoria in sex and learning from them. Raving is having really learned to be flesh, and finding the practice I need to sustain that—which involves being at some “undisclosed location” at four in the morning with a few hundred other people being pounded by techno. So that’s the next book. After that, I don’t know. Trying to decide between trying my hand with trade publishers, or if I should just keep doing my weird, trans, formally odd little books wherever I can get them out.
McKenzie Wark is an essayist and philosopher. Her most recent book is Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker (Duke University Press, 2021). She is professor of culture and media at The New School and director of the Gender Studies Program there.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of the novels Sons & Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion and the memoir Sick. She is a journalist, professor and contributing editor at Evergreen.