Unless you’re extremely married, I bet you can find two particular kinds of message in your email: the last sent to you before you finally slept with your correspondent, and the first sent afterward. They’re always so funny to read side by side, these two. They sit so close beside one another in the inbox, but they’re communiqués from different worlds. Of course, sometimes there’s no after-message, but that’s a story for another day.
I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995-1996 is a new volume of old emails passed between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark. You might know her by her silly soubriquet “literary terrorist,” him from media theory class, if you know them at all. Both of their bodies of work have retained a degree of hip obscurity. Acker and Wark are secret-society types: if you want people to think you’re smart and inaccessible you could do worse than dropping either of their names without any explanation, as if everybody should know. Kathy Acker isn’t famous, exactly, and Wark isn’t theory canon. But Acker and Wark’s niche fashionableness informs their relation to culture, and that is where this book derives its strange, urgent pertinence.
In 1995, Acker was touring in Australia, almost all of her major books already done. She was big in the way that avant-garde artists can be big: she was culty, glam, and cool. Acker embodies a lot of the things about 1990s femininity that are bang on trend right now: she was a tattooed confesser in silver jewellery and clompy boots, vocal about sex and vocal about vocalizing. In ‘95 Blood and Guts in High School and Great Expectations were selling pretty well. Wark was (and still is) a professor who thinks about screens and globalization and the way that we perceive events happening very far away via the little screens that are so close to us all the time. In 1995, Wark had just published Virtual Geography: Living With Global Media Events, a landmark achievement in media theory that made his name internationally, at least as far as such fame can go for an academic: one review was very positive, but referred to Wark as “she” throughout. Wark and Acker met in Sydney that year and, like so many human beings before them, didn’t stop at a kiss on the cheek. Two cool kids, tangled up. Plus ça change!
This book collects the after-messages following that short romance. The dialogue only spans a few weeks. Each email is timestamped, with Acker and Wark’s nerdy ‘90s email addresses repeated over and over again, page after page. They map the unwinding and rewinding and unwinding again of tension, attention, and affection, telling the story-about-nothing of the first truly great collection of electronic love letters.
In the first pages, you can tell that Wark and Acker can still remember each other very clearly, so they are confident with their emotions:
Date: Tue, 8 Aug 1995 00:14:31 +1000 (EST)
From: McKenzie Wark <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Kathy Acker <email@example.com>
Subject: greetings from hooterville
But I certainly won’t forget that I enjoyed being with you. The shared intimacies of body, mind and spirit: it’s such a fleeting thing, so singular. I think we’re probably both pretty solitary in our own ways, but for a slice out of time we were singular together. There are no words. I just want to say there are no words. I’m glad you came; and I’m glad you came.
Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 19:13:00 -0700
Subject: Re: greetings from hooterville
It’s so great coming home to your message, more precisely, coming home to find out that luggage was missing until the next plane, then the checks I got in Australia for work all can’t be cashed ‘cause they’re non-negotiable and I have ten dollars in the bank, and then and then, oh jetlag, so your message is changing the day — or is it the night? — around.
What exactly is it, that memory of intimacy that fades so quickly? It only stays undented for a day or so before the anxiety starts to creep in. You start to forget how easy things were, you start to remember to doubt. Writing back and forth, our two correspondents each transform slowly back into totally separate beings. This is the paradox of love letters. Each correspondent is separate and whole, but the project is about contemplating the event in which they are together, and thus not their whole, independent selves. The emails start to divide the correspondents more than they bring them back together. They do not really know one another.
Kathy Acker is better at avoiding self-consciousness than Ken Wark, so she’s a funnier correspondent. She snaps right back into herself. Just six days into the email exchange, Acker’s dreaming about how “Rudi used to wave hundred dollar stacks in front of my face and boast ‘cause he was buying me a falaf…I can’t spell it…fuck red wine… sandwich.” This is sparkly diary-writing, to nobody! “Oh well, Best to stay in one’s garden,” she signs off. “Voltaire was a boring writer and sex is one of the greatest things there is. I better get off I’m so drunk.” She’s self-assured and luminous.
Wark remembers to doubt more quickly. He retreats into self-conscious politeness. “Have a great trip! I can’t imagine being *revived* by long distance motorcycling,” he writes. For god’s sake! you want to cry. Loosen up! But he is a sweet writer, keenly responsive to Acker’s disclosures and reading her attentively. He responds, responds, responds. Wark never leaves Acker’s questions unanswered, almost refusing to abandon the formality of dialogue even she tugs the conversation towards its precipice:
shit, Ken, it’s fucking three in the morning and I’m happily reading about K. Mansfield and instead I’m emailing you as if you’re my junk…nearest I ever got to the stuff…I’ve got to stop this…one email a day…what the fuck is going on?…I don’t recognize what I’m feeling or why I’m acting like this …XY said just let it go until it gets so bad that you know what’s going on…guess that’s good advice…I’m so unused to anything but overwork and lust that I wouldn’t recognize a cat if I fell over it…well, just be my friend…maybe this is some weird disease or something and will pass and I’ll cool down and be a great normal friend…why Australia?
Come with me into abandon, such messages say. They speak the things we all write when we are drunk to people whose emotional lives we want to access. But that’s freedom, in a way. It’s very liberating to send that vicious drunk text, and think fuck it, it’s done now. But if Acker is more free, Wark is kinder. Very kind, even. Two different people! Communicating! How can something so obvious be so marvelous? How can something so simple feel so rare? It was brave of Wark to consent to these being published.
Date: Wed, 9 Aug 1995 01:46:51 +1000 (EST)
From: McKenzie Wark <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Kathy Acker <email@example.com>
Tuesday night. Put the Portishead on. I’ll associate it with you now. Funny how music becomes an external memory code.
I hope yr bath was a pleasant one. What are your stuffed animals called? Bummer about the checks (or as one would write here, cheques). Asynchronous conversation.
Strange, trying to translate an understanding of communication premised on your presence into one premised on yr absence—writing.
But it’s not a good idea to get too self-conscious…
It doesn’t occur to anybody to discuss self-consciousness unless they’re self-conscious already. But self-conscious people are often funny, and Wark is funny:
Cocks. Yeah, well there have been times when I’d rather not have one. Irigaray was right. They take over, they *centralise*. They’re like the toys they advertise on TV: less fun than they look.
In choosing to publish these emails some twenty years after he wrote them, Wark has made himself vulnerable in a very active, powerful way. For that, I admire him. Less laudable, I think, is Acker’s executor Matias Viegener, and his decision to publish these emails. “Is this a terrible mistake?” Viegener asks in his introduction to the book, and it’s a good question. By publishing a correspondence that he himself acknowledges Acker would never have wanted to be made public, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion Viegener has acted unethically, that he may have even betrayed his dead friend. He has also brought something very beautiful into public view. These two facts haunt my reading of I’m Very Into You. It’s dodgy, dodgy ground.
Acker actually mentions Viegener in the emails, but you’d only notice if you were paying attention:
(oh, I told you about Matias; he works with Dick Hebdige; actually he studied with Derrida, but keeps this quiet. He’s really fun to be with and his boyfriend’s a cutie.)
How funny, to edit a volume of correspondence that contains a final, public assertion that you did in fact study with Derrida, but you don’t like to talk about it! It sounds like Acker and Viegener were great friends—he is her literary executor—but it is hard to swallow his justifications for publishing emails that he directly admits she would have wanted to stay private. Viegener’s chief defense is an insistence that Acker’s “mining of autobiographical information persisted throughout her life.” She ceaselessly wove her personal life into her public works and thus, Viegener suggests, we ought to treat the life and letters of Kathy Acker as a single, total tapestry-text. Indeed, he notes, “Sexual desire, seduction and romantic obsessions are at the core of many of Acker’s texts, just as they formed a through-line in her life. She filtered her daily life throughout her manuscripts. This wasn’t ancillary to her work; it was its very fiber.”
There’s certainly some truth to this. A few months ago I went to a screening of The Blue Tape, a film in which a very young Kathy Acker has sex with Alan Sondheim in grainy black-and-white. The room was packed with college-age kids, many of whom appeared to be on dates. The film is very rarely screened and little written-about, so it came a surprise to most of us to see Acker go down on Sondheim on screen while he monologues, attempting and failing to maintain the equanimity of his voice, making a pitiful squeak as Acker’s face fully disappeared out of shot.
Viegener says that the publication of these emails is specifically interesting because Acker was a “confessional” female author who made her sexual life into her work. This is a red herring. Kathy Acker spat upon on the line in the sand that divided the apolitical private action from the political public work, and made that spat-on line the work itself. But this habit does not constitute a feminist pretext for mining her private correspondence.
Perhaps Acker should have seen it coming, if she was so smart. People have always liked to nose around in other people’s love letters. Think of Vita Sackville-West’s outrageously gorgeous letters to Violet Trefusis, or James Joyce’s frantic notes to Nora. Nobody wants their dirty laundry aired while they’re alive, but it isn’t exactly unprecedented for it to get stuck in a book once everybody’s safely dead. We like to root around in the most salacious private letters that scholarship can unearth, so why would email ever have been thought to be off limits?
The reason must be that the rules of privacy have never been codified with sufficient stability in the realm of electronic communications for expectations to get solid. Of course, I don’t expect anybody to read my private email. But what about emails between TV personalities? I’ll read those. In our time, the meaning of privacy in personal communications is—I don’t know what it is. Nobody does, yet.
This ambiguity means something important for way we read the emails of writers who are also public figures. Read in this light, Acker and Wark’s correspondence becomes something really quite formally interesting; it’s email, but it’s literary. The messages are salacious and fun, but highly intellectual. One correspondent is dead, one of them is alive. Both of them write like hasty but intelligent bloggers, but—here it is! A bunch of flirtatious emails, bound in a paperback with Semiotext(e) printed on the spine. It’s an undeniably cool thing to happen. But I’m Very Into You is also a terrorizing book: the fear comes in that bunching of the guts that accompanies the realization that what we perceive to be the private realm just isn’t, at all. Sure, that feeling is getting familiar. But a paperback volume feels like too much to stomach.
But therein lies the value. I’m Very Into You is absorbing precisely because of where it sits in the history of epistolary culture. In a way, Acker and Wark are another Heloïse and Abelard, repotted for the millennium’s end. It’s no devotional pissing-contest, but I’m Very Into You does plug into the deep, mysterious, and magical genre of the erotic epistolary. Acker and Wark play their emotional hands very close to their chests but talk directly about fucking. Such are the horizons of erotics in the 1990s.
In another century, maybe they could have been Emma and Charles Darwin or Balzac and Countess Haska. In that sense, this collection represents a resurgence of interest in something very old: the gulf that separates lover from lover. How pre-deconstructionist of them, how charming! No medium, no matter how immediate, can breach the gulf. It’s a hard thing to face all over again.
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