- Kathy Acker entered the public stage in the 1980s as a countercultural author to emerge in the 1990s
as an icon of dissident postmodern literature. Much of the critical literature on her complex works engages Acker's
deconstructions and re-representations of gender, the body, and female sexuality, but her critique
of heteronormativity and her rethinking of heterosexuality have been addressed only rarely. This is surprising insofar as Acker's public performances
and her writings are so keenly interested in the specific queer fusion of
poststructuralist critiques of identity with attacks on the social regulation of sexualities. Yet
the artist seems at odds with the contemporaneous discourses that lay claims to a critique of sexuality. To
begin with, her critique of normativity does not emerge from a history of gay and lesbian struggles; while
Acker expresses her queer identification as a perverse straight woman, she also proactively states her
difference from lesbians and gays:
By mobilizing perverse identifications, Acker's work demonstrates the possibility of a queer
critique through the representation of dissident heterosexuality. While staking not only a
queer but also a feminist critical position, Acker rejects radical feminist
readings that interpret heterosexuality as a form of sexual alliance with the patriarchal
enemy: "heterosexual women find themselves in a double-bind:
If they want to fight sexism, they must deny their own sexualities. At the same time, feminism
cannot be about the denial of any female sexuality" ("Introduction" 130).
Acker explores, as
Catrin Gersdorf explains insightfully, practices of resistance outside "the non-heterosexual
paradigms of opposition against patriarchal structures." This project considers "the
literary expression of the will to resist traditional power structures while acknowledging the
legitimacy of female heterosexual desires" (154, my translation). As I show in this essay,
Acker articulates a resistance against heteronormativity through the reconfiguration of
heterosexual practice and identity. Her re-thinking of heterosexuality de- and re-constructs
discourses of sexuality and gender, thereby exposing and pushing the limits of queer and
feminist critiques of normativity.
A gay friend said something interesting to me. I asked her if she differentiated between gay and
straight women, and she said, "Yes, women who are gay are really outlaws, because we're totally
outside the society--always. And I said, "What about people like me?" and she said, "Oh,
you're just queer." Like--we didn't exist?! [laughs] It's as if the gay women position
themselves as outside society, but meanwhile they're looking down on everybody who's
perverse. Which is very peculiar." ("Interview Juno" 182)
- In order to show how the textual production of dissident heterosexualities forms a radical critique
of sexuality, I discuss Acker's contribution as an intervention into the controversy over the meanings of
what Michel Foucault has named "bodies and pleasures," the counter-discursive concept he distinguishes
from the reigning system of sex-desire. In that debate, scholars of sexuality tend to welcome Foucault's
claim for the counter-discursive function of "bodies and pleasures," proposing that particular queer
sexual acts should be read as oppositional practices. In contrast, gender theorists have been skeptical
about the critical potential of Foucault's suggestion, especially about his reliance on a supposedly
"genderless" notion of "bodies and pleasures." By situating Acker in this controversy about "bodies and
pleasures," I hope not only to illuminate the theoretical dimension of her fiction, but also to advance
the discussion of critical strategies of counter-discourses to heteronormativity.
Bodies, Pleasures, Knowledges
- Let me begin the discussion of the meaning of "bodies and pleasures" by presenting once
more the short passage toward the end of volume 1 of Foucault's History of Sexuality
that has generated such conflicting interpretations:
The different interpretations of Foucault's somewhat enigmatic remark result predominantly from their
different foci: in particular, some depend on constructions of sexuality--in the sense of sexual acts or
practices--while others emphasize gender and/or sexual difference. Those foci entail not only contentions
meaning of "bodies and pleasures" but also over strategies for critiquing sexuality. As feminist
thinkers who are also theorists of sexuality, Teresa de Lauretis and Judith Butler agree that the system
of sex-desire is based on heteronormative structures that need to be transformed, but they are both
critical of Foucault's "romantic break" (Butler, "Revisiting" 11) with the system of sex-desires.
Concerned with the utopianism of "bodies and pleasures," they both read the break as a problematic symptom
of the disregard for gendered bodies and of the role of sexual difference in a hegemonic symbolic
order. However, by relegating Foucault's concept to a non-normative utopia, those critics not only
isolate it from his use of the notion of critique but also reinscribe problematic binary figures
into the counter-discourse of sexuality.
It is the agency of sex that we must break away from, if we aim--through a tactical reversal of
the various mechanisms of sexuality--to counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies,
pleasures, and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance. The rallying
point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but
bodies and pleasures. (157)
- De Lauretis's Technologies of Gender, one of the earliest feminist critiques of
the notion of "bodies and pleasures," accuses Foucault of a denial of
gender in the name of combatting "the social technology that produces sexuality and sexual
oppression" (15). While she is right to argue that because of his disregard for this important
socio-cultural difference, he can only repeat the patriarchal notion of sexuality as "an attribute
or a property of the male" (14), the conclusion she draws from that observation seems overstated. To
her the notion of "bodies and pleasures" is only a convenient way to shift "the sexual basis of
gender quite beyond sexual difference, onto a body of diffuse pleasures"; those pleasures
invoked by Foucault must exist "apart from a discursive order, from language, or
representation" (36). Situating the concept "outside the social," de Lauretis reads it as an
obstruction to critiques of gender as social relation and to feminist attempts to reconfigure
sexual politics (36). She sees an absolute difference between a (real) feminist
intervention into the social through the concept of gender and an asocial, pre-discursive notion
of bodies and pleasures which she finds problematic. The sense that Foucault's
approach is situated in a completely different space from feminism's disregards the potential
for reconfiguring identifications pointed out by queer scholars. De Lauretis's insistence
on "sexuality as construct and as (self-)representation . . . that does have both a
male form and a female form" alerts us to the necessity to make gender visible as one of the
foundational categories of identity in the analysis of heteronormativity, but it also
reinscribes its power (14). If sexuality comes, as the feminist scholar claims, in "both a male
and a female form," does that mean that these forms incorporate binary norms to
determine sexual identifications? Is form to content as "gender" is to "sexuality"? Making gender a visible
"form" to an unspecified "content" tends to establish it, again, as a normative
and privileged category of analysis. Are there specific "contents" to those "forms," and if so,
what is the relationship between "form" and "content"? Are reconfigurations of the visible
"forms" possible though different "contents"? Or, would gender as a "form" of "sexuality" have to
remain the dominant aspect of analysis, the one that contains identity? De Lauretis intends to
articulate a feminist critique of the social that includes an attack on institutionalized
heterosexuality, but her gendering of sexuality through the binary of female and male
"forms" cannot avoid a heterosexualization of that critique.
- While de Lauretis opposes a feminist
critique of the social to an asocial notion of bodies and pleasures, Butler's discussion of
Foucault's proposal stages an absolute temporal break between a time of the disciplinary regime of
sex-desire and the utopian future of unrestrained bodies and pleasures. Butler interprets "bodies
and pleasures" as "the names given to the time that inaugurates the break with the discursive
regime of sexuality" ("Revisiting" 16). Like de Lauretis, she is aware of the
dangers of foreclosing the possibility of thinking sexual difference in critical discourse. She
even argues that "the pleasure of [Foucault's] utopian break is derived in part from the disavowal
and repudiation of sex," and correspondingly, from a break with a discourse of sexual difference,
or a disavowal of feminism (18). More sympathetic to and engaged with the critical possibilities
of Foucault's rethinking of sexuality than de Lauretis, Butler nevertheless cautions queer studies
scholars against a too-quick and enthusiastic shift from the system of sex-desire to "bodies and
pleasures." She is particularly critical of what she claims to be an opposition of "sex-desire"
and "bodies and pleasures," describing it as a "strange binarism at the end of a book that puts
into question binary opposition at every turn" (16-17). Here, Butler senses a potential loss
for critiques of heteronormativity, insofar as the "the intense teleological and heterosexual
normativity that ['sex-desire'] brings with it is vanquished by the politics based on the rallying
point of 'bodies and pleasures'" (18).
- In De Lauretis's and Butler's critiques of Foucault's genderless bodies and pleasures we can
detect traces of feminist critiques of the representation of gendered bodies. Because
phallogocentrism is, as feminism has argued, central to re/producing intelligible bodily
subjects as we know them--through the system of sex-desire, for instance--questions about bodies must
often be posed as questions about the conditions and possibilities of the representation and
representability of bodies. The construction of "bodies and pleasures"
as a spatio-temporal "other" of the socio-symbolic order of sex-desire indicates a fear of the critical
impasse that could result from the disregard of phallogocentric representational
structures within heteronormativity. I agree with Butler--and with de Lauretis for that matter--that
it might not be productive for a critique of institutional heterosexuality to ignore the role of
phallogocentrism in the formation of subjects, especially if we want to undermine the apparatus of
"sexuality" or heteronormativity, to use queer theory's term. However, the idea that there is a
categorical difference between the normative model of "sex-desire" and a utopian vision of "bodies
and pleasures" manifests a paradox in feminist discourse on gender and sexuality. While Butler sheds the essentialist undertones of gender concepts--concepts that de
Lauretis continues to produce--her reading of Foucault continues against its own will to protect the
heteronormative site of identity formation, the exposure of which it requires for the analysis of the production of intelligible, i.e., gendered subjects. So her argumentative
strategies reiterate the normative figures that the critique of sexuality wants to rethink. Butler reads Foucault's attempt to offer a critical alternative to normative thinking back into
the sphere of normativity, a move that seems to contradict her own understanding of the critical
potential of his writings. While in another essay she brilliantly describes Foucault's form of
critique as "that perspective on established and ordering ways of knowing which is not immediately
assimilated into that ordering function" ("What" 308), her comments on "bodies and pleasures"
occupy themselves with the business of ordering, i.e., with the (re)integration of bodies and
pleasures into the order of gender.
- In order to avoid dominant categories of identification shaped through notions of gender,
desire, and sexual identity, theorists of sexuality such as queer historian David Halperin and
Karmen MacKendrick turn to Foucault in order to claim specific sexual acts as
"counter-pleasures." They embrace the
alleged oppositional character of the notion of "bodies and pleasures," locating its potential
resistance in sexual practices developed by communities of abject bodies, e.g. gay
men, butches, or S/M tops and bottoms, figures around which anti-normalizing discourse-practices cluster. In their assessment of such practices, they
agree with Foucault's own interpretations of fist-fucking and S/M as "extraordinary counterfeit
pleasures" (qtd. in Halperin, Saint Foucault 89). In several interviews, Halperin
emphasizes the innovative role of S/M as "the real creation of new
possibilities of pleasure" (Foucault, "Sex, Power" 165), which in turn functions as an important
force of "de-subjectivation" and of the production of new cultural forms (Foucault, "Social
Triumph"; "Sexual Choice"). Following this lead, Halperin enthusiastically advocates the
political efficacy of "the transformative power of queer sexual practices [such as
fist-fucking and S/M] that gay men have invented" (Saint Foucault 96). He suggests that those newly developed pleasures entail
One wonders, however, whether it is enough for Halperin to will to reconfigure the subject for him to
leave behind the identity categories he so vehemently criticizes. Foucault's de-gendering of sexuality,
which feminist theorists so convincingly problematize, is replicated in Halperin. His promotion of
exclusively gay male sexual acts as resistance to heteronormativity suggests instead that he remains bound
to the identitarian concepts he rejects. In addition, his attempt to leave behind the heteronormative
binary structure of gender and the dualism of hetero/homosexuality results in an unwilling masculinization
of resistance. As in Foucault, "bodies and pleasures" derived from gay male sexualities remain socially
and symbolically masculine. Because these theorists reference only gay men as the agents of sexuality,
they not only reproduce rather conservative notions of gendered sexuality but also reinscribe dominant
representations of the symbolic genders of sexual acts. By excluding lesbian and straight women's sexual
agency in these sexual practices, this work leaves anality, at least, firmly coded as gay male practice, and neither Foucault's nor Halperin's writings offer a way to feminize
it. It seems possible only to rearrange male bodies and their pleasures into oppositional ones, while
female bodies are denied the possibility of resistance; the gendered and sexualized symbolics of the body
remain untouched. Moreover, by occluding gender as a formative force in the heteronormative production of
subjects, this discourse also obscures the status and function of heterosexuality as an identity position
that "is divided by gender and which also depends for its meaning on gender divisions" (Richardson 2).
a tactical reversal of the mechanisms of sexuality, making strategic use of power differentials,
physical sensations, and sexual identity-categories in order to create a queer praxis that
ultimately dispenses with "sexuality" and destabilizes the very constitution of identity itself.
- The disappearance of heterosexuality is also significant, albeit in a different manner, in
MacKendrick's revealing book Counterpleasures. MacKendrick
relies on a notion of "bodies and pleasures" (although she does not use the term) when she argues,
for the political validity of a range of sexual practices, such as asceticism or the restraint of
the body and its domination in S/M, as acts of resistance against the cultural imperatives of
efficiency and productivity within a capitalist (libidinal) economy. Thus she describes the
bottom's body in S/M as always already resistant, because restraint maximizes the power
that leads to the body's triumph against its own subjection--against subjectivity and disciplinary
productivity, i.e., against a "natural" and "moral" order (107). Meanwhile the top, who overcomes
the resistance to control and pain (in order to impose them), "(declines) productivity in
controlling and restraining against gratification" (131). As in Halperin's readings of
fist-fucking and S/M, Foucault's term "bodies and pleasures" does not signify a future of new
sexual practices, but a range of already-practiced acts that contribute to the transformation of
libidinal and social systems by resisting the heteronormative economy of gendered bodies and
desires. More nuanced in regard to gender issues than Halperin (or Foucault), MacKendrick argues
that S/M queers heterosexuals through gender role-reversal and role-playing that result in a
subversion of identity:
By claiming a de-subjectifying potential for S/M, MacKendrick shows how the shift of
perspective to "bodies and pleasures" can explain sexuality as creative social
practice that exceeds the system of normative identifications,
making possible a transformation of both the subject and of social relations.
In the present-tense utopia of counter-pleasures, sexual identification is displaced through the dynamics
of a queer collective drawing on various "perverse" practices. Straight perverts, male and female,
are integrated in that community. Yet this rather seamless integration of heterosexuality
into the range of queer locations becomes problematic. The question remains whether the identification of
critical agency with specific sexual practices can account for heteronormativity's production of intelligible and abject subjects.
Dominant women may enjoy dominating other women as well as men and it seldom seems that trading
roles with men, with its echoes of vengefulness, is a primary motive. More often the pleasure of
such role trading is that of not having to continue to be (solely) oneself, a pleasure that may
serve (though it need not) as a starting point for a more radical disruption of any subjectivity
at all. (96)
- This unintended reconfiguration of heterosexuality as a gendered concept indicates a crucial
methodological difference between the enthusiastic queer readings of "bodies and pleasures" and
feminist objections to it. Halperin's and MacKendrick's arguments not only turn away
from binary, gendered representations of sexuality toward the notion of sexual acts;
they also shift from (the gendered subject of) representation, which they critique, to a model of
discourse-practices that form and discipline the subject in competing ways. Yet the queer
scholars' insistence on specific practices as subversive pleasures seems to circumvent some fundamental methodological issues. They do not, for instance, make explicit the
relationship of body and knowledge, which arises from Foucault's counter-sexual discourse
of "the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledges in their multiplicity and their
possibility of resistance [my emphasis]" (History 157). Foucault's phrase
suggests that the
production of new knowledges--while emerging from bodily practices--cannot occur without attempts
to represent the technologies from which it is derived.
- As I show in the following, Kathy Acker's novel Don Quixote offers an
intervention into the stand-offish relationship between celebratory readings of "bodies and
pleasures," which obscure the workings of normativity, and the objections to it in the name of gender
and sexual difference, which tend to reproduce heteronormative representations of gender. By queering
representational and sexual norms, it takes
into consideration and exceeds both positions. Through its claim to represent and legitimize
excessive, perverse female heterosexual desires, Don Quixote reimagines socio-sexual
relations through "bodies and pleasures" without giving up the critical power of the "intense
teleological and heterosexual normativity" that "sex-desire" brings with it. I will refer to Acker's
critical strategy for queering the conditions of representation by using the oppositional
potential of "bodies and pleasures" as "semio-somatics." Semio-somatics articulates a critique
of the relationship of the gendered body and its signification in phallogocentric representation, while shoring up different practices of signifying bodies and their pleasures that
undermine gendered representation as a condition of the construction of intelligible
The Semio-Somatic Work of Acker's Don Quixote
- Acker's critique of sexual and gendered normativity is particularly powerful because it is
related to the attempt to de- and reconstruct dominant regimes of representation, in particular
that of narrative form. As feminist and queer critics have noted, narrative structure
in and tends to reproduce a gendered heteronormative symbolics of sexual difference. Teresa de Lauretis,
for instance, reads the story of Oedipus as paradigmatic of Western narrative.
She argues that narrative pattern follows the male hero's desire for self-knowledge, (re)producing
a male subjectivity in a universe of sexual difference (Alice
Doesn't 112). Developing de Lauretis's argument further, Judith Roof shows that the Oedipal
logic of sexual difference establishes a heterosexual model of narrative, or what she describes as
a "specific reproductive narrative heteroideology" (xxvii). Acker's novel is directed against a
phallogocentric, heteronormative symbolic that does not provide spaces from which to re-represent
non-normative sexual subjects. Don Quixote challenges the dominant "heterologic" of
narrative through the representation of perverse practices that trouble gender identification
in a tale of straight subjection and of attempted opposition to it.
- The novel deploys and undermines representational regimes by inscribing
perverse abject subjectivities and their pleasures into a phallogocentric representational
ontology of "sexuality." This "sexuality" occupies different registers of
signification in Acker's text: first of all, its refers to an institutionalized (hetero)sexuality,
around the complex of sex-desire that constitutes normalized, gendered subjects. As a story of
subjection, it exposes the continuous workings of sexual and textual normativity on the gendered
subject, as well as the struggle against "the submission of subjectivity" (Foucault, "Afterword"
212). Second, the simultaneous inscriptions of non-normative desires form a counter-discourse
producing a new knowledge of (hetero)sexualities--a knowledge that can be named "bodies and
pleasures." Thus Acker's attempts to represent what cannot be contained within the binary,
normative model of gendered identities requires and produces the denaturalization and
destabilization of gender. That semio-somatic approach is manifest in the novel's deconstructive
interrogation of the notion of "femininity" within the framework of a quest for
(heterosexual) romantic love, which of course turns out to be an impossibility. Leading the reader
through the history of Western culture and into the United States of the late twentieth century, the
quest also becomes a journey from female heterosexual to queer self-positioning, or as the novel
puts it, to the position of "freak." The process of resituating the protagonist produces a textual
queering of the history of the representation of female bodies and their desires and affirms the
female body's outlaw
pleasures. Acker's specific "cuntextuality," marked by the objective to inscribe a perverse
female heterosexuality, denaturalizes heterosexuality through various
representations of gender transgression, S/M practices, and fetishism, and through identification
with the socially marginalized. In the following reading, I focus on a sequence of scenes
that demonstrate the semio-somatic strategy to simultaneously queer dominant sexual positions and textual
forms by inserting "bodies and pleasures" into a dominant narrative of sex-desires.
- From the very beginning of the protagonist's delusional, often paradoxically narrated journey, the
novel shows that the cultural conception of femininity as biological destiny opposed to the masculine
rational subject is a function of subjection, since it projects an ideal--and one that Don Quixote finds
impossible to fulfill. The novel begins with a scene that problematizes the separation of mind and body
which defines woman as body and object against a masculine subject. In a clinic, the
still-nameless protagonist is waiting to have an abortion. Subjected to a separation of intellectuality
from sensuality, Don Quixote uses the abortion to transform the suffering that results from the mind-body
dualism into resistance to normalization. As a painful but liberating break from the limitations of
physis, for Don Quixote the termination of pregnancy "is a method of becoming a knight and saving the
world" (11). With the decision to save the world through her search for love, the mad anonymous "she"
reconstitutes herself as Don Quixote, "knight-to-be" (10). The story also changes Don Quixote's
object of love, the young man St. Simeon, into a dog who turns out to be a bitch. With these
reconfigurations of her companion, the text constantly shifts the sexual identity of its protagonist, who
randomly admits that she "cannot get sexual genders straight" anyway (159). Those shifting sexual
identities already demonstrate Acker's intricate treatment of the related problems of gender and
representation. Don Quixote critiques the quest novel, a genre that structurally requires a
male hero and situates "Woman" as his other, and at the same time disrupts the heterologic of this
representational system. By rewriting Don Quixote's quest as an interrogation of (the feminine) gender and
of heterosexual love from the "other's" perspective, Acker subverts the heteronormative imaginary of
sexual difference. Such a non-identitarian politics of gender and sexuality presents an attack on what
Judith Butler famously called the "heterosexual matrix," i.e., "that grid of cultural intelligibility
through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized" (Gender Trouble 151, n. 6).
- The Oedipal narrative is a foundational story of identity formation in Western culture, and it is
therefore a privileged object of Acker's critique of master narratives of gender and of normative
heterosexuality. Acker's attack on the Oedipal narrative is exemplary for her critical discourse: it shows
that her intervention affects both the content and structure of the narrative of subject formation and
results in a reconfiguration of narrative itself. The novel provides various descriptions of the nuclear
family as a site of the victimization of children through parental violence (115-17). It also includes a
variety of anti-Oedipal stories told from the perspective of those child victims of parental domination,
thereby breaking up the linearity of (hetero)normative narrative. The story of Don Quixote's life, for
instance, significantly titled "HETEROSEXUALITY," is told to the Knight by her companion, now the dog, who
speaks in the first-person. One of the dog-narrator's mottos is that "all stories or narratives of revolt
[are] stories of revolt" (146). The revolutionary gesture is repeated in the novel's alinear "dream-text"
structure, a montage of metonymically related scenes arranged into three parts. The dream-text form is
crucial for Acker's multilayered method. It exposes the mythic conditions of the Oedipal production of
the figure of "woman." Moreover, by undoing the meaning of "femininity" and critiquing institutions that
produce gendered subjects, such as the nuclear family, heterosexual marriage, state politics, and
capitalism, the novel as dream-text provides a form for a critique of representational and sexual norms
and for the inscription of abject desires.
dream-text of Don Quixote offers itself as an alternative to
the hegemonic narrative representation of subject formation in order to circircumvent the censorship of
socially undesired practices of pleasure. It literalizes Jean Laplanche's and J.B. Pontalis's notion of
"psychic reality" as a rejection of the separation of fantasy, and reality and stages their idea of
fantasy as realm of a desubjectivized subject. As a dreamer, the protagonist is in the place of
such a subject of fantasy, who is present only "in the very syntax of the sequence in question"
(26). The analysts' characterization of fantasy as the
"setting" of desire helps describe the novel's strategy of desublimation as an intervention
into the regulation of bodies and desires. As Don Quixote, agent and object of her dream, remarks,
"our only sexuality is imaginative. I am imaginatively saving the world" (154). At the same time,
the novel also questions the potential of fantasy for social intervention: "Fantasy is or makes
possibilities. Are possibilities reality?" (53). This ambiguous "setting" of desire--in
fantasy--becomes the condition of possibility for telling revolutionary anti-Oedipal
stories of "bodies and pleasures." As I argue in the remainder of this essay, Acker's
attack on sublimation uses local tales of sexualities that emerge from and affirm
formerly repressed, perverse desires in order to make visible alternative regimes of
identification and of sexual pleasures.
- In Don Quixote, narratives of gender transgressions and S/M role-play denaturalize gender
and manifest the struggle against dominant forms of subjection. In the life-story
of Don Quixote, for instance, the dog narrator identifies as the boyish young woman Villebranche,
who cross-dresses as a man and meets her counterpart in Franville, an unbelievably feminine man:
"There was no way this man could be male" (128). These abject characters trouble gender, paradoxically,
in order to counter the complete dissolution of their existence. Neither de Franville's nor Villebranche's
androgyny is freely chosen. It is rather the sign of a "sexual void" (129), the result of the repression of
physical desires demanded by the parents, who reproduce the dominant logic of gender identity (133). However,
it is precisely the ambiguity of sexual identity that becomes the basis for their mutual attraction. While de
Franville and Villebranche recognize each other as masculine and feminine, they manage to reorganize their
libidinal economies through gender transgressions in a sadomasochistic scenario. Villebranche finds new
dominating the now submissive de Franville, who experiences the force of a pleasure yet unknown to him. Under
the socially negated regime of love expressed through pain and violence, the characters' strategic inversion of
gender-specific roles in sexual acts (an active masculinity versus a feminine passivity) leads to their
physical and emotional assurance. As Don Quixote herself would have it, the scene demonstrates "how sexual
desire tears down the fabric of society" (137). The representation of de Franville's and Villebranche's
transgressions disrupts the heteronormative re-production of gendered subjectivities and thereby the notion of
the subject, whose intelligibility depends on its coherent gendering.
- The strategic relevance of this complex representation of gender and sexuality to a counter-discourse of
sexuality becomes clearer if we read it in response to Butler's reflections on the role of phantasmatic
identification in a heteronormative order. As protagonists of one of Don Quixote's anti-Oedipal
narratives, de Franville and Villebranche resemble the "feminized fag and phallicized dyke" whom Butler has
described as "two inarticulate figures of an abject homosexuality" within a heteronormative Lacanian symbolic order
("Phantasmatic" 96). Butler writes that the threat of castration is the foundation of the Oedipal scenario, which
"depends for its livelihood on the threatening power of its threat, on the resistance to identification with
masculine feminization and feminine phallicization" (97). In that context, the construction of the figures "feminized
fag and phallicized dyke" assumes that the "terror" over what is here a false identification
guarantees the regulation of sexed positions--of heterosexuals--in the symbolic order (96). In other words,
these figures embody abjection through castration as a result of failed identification.
- Acker's anti-Oedipal naarrative stages Butler's argument, with some crucial differences.
First of all, it rejects the imaginary figuration of an abject homosexuality by
heterosexualizing modes of identification improper to homosexuality. Butler is also aware that the "kind of
complex crossings of identification and desire" is not limited to those two figures of abjection,
that, indeed, "the binary figuration of normalized heterosexuality and abjected homosexuality"
forecloses the range of identificatory possibilities ("Phantasmatic" 103-04). By
presenting the failure of normative (gender) identification through the gender-inverted straight
characters de Franville and Villebranche, Acker's novel opens up a perspective on that range of possibilities.
The protagonists embody a form of queer straight identification that trespasses the boundary
between normalized heterosexuality and abject homosexuality. Secondly, as an abject practice that
"saves" one from emotional-psychic death, gender-bending is a successful failure of identification
that does not respond to the threat of castration as punishment. It rather offers an
alternative signification of bodies, thereby attacking the "defining limits of symbolic exchange"
that curtail the production of intelligible subjects (104). And finally, it is doubtful whether the staging of
bodies and pleasures in the scenario titled "HETEROSEXUALITY" is organized around the
phallus. While the staging of bodies and pleasures can be seen in the reorganization of de Franville's and
Villebranche's pleasures, these pleasures are not organized according to the law of the phallus. The experience of temporary emotional self-affirmation (albeit not a
necessarily happy one) does not only emerge from the inversion of gender roles but also from the
discourse-practices of S/M, i.e., from a libidinal economy, that, as MacKendrick convincingly
argues, does not fully depend on the absence/presence binary of the phallus. The
staging of Villebranche's infliction and de Franville's endurance of pain leads to a communication between the two
and finally to a transformation of their subjectivities in love--which, as de Franville claims, "doesn't need human
understanding" (141). Thus Acker's fictional anti-Oedipal scenario offers a textual vision of
bodies and pleasures, which stages and exceeds Butler's interrogation of the relation between gender
identification and desire. Acker's and Butler's writings complement each other and form a
counter-discourse on sexuality.
- However, Acker's text does not suggest that the bodies and pleasures of S/M can completely do
away with gender or sexual difference as constraints of subject formation. I therefore disagree
with Carol Siegel's argument that S/M practitioners can resist gender, when "in shudders
of pleasure-pain, biological femaleness can shake off gender codings as well as resignifying [sic]
them" (par 31). It is obvious that Acker critiques the hegemonic regimes that discipline bodies
and desires and that she aims to reconfigure the conditions of the formation of subjects, but
Siegel's analysis of Don Quixote tends to override the novel's ambivalence about the possibilities of oppositional practices. Acker certainly makes, as Siegel argues,
strategic use of masochism to destroy dominant conceptions of gender and sexuality by representing
alternative uses of the body. Yet Siegel overstates the issue when she claims that the novel's
representation of the insane use of masochism allows for an "entrance into a space outside
society" (par 42) from which to resist heteronormative gender constructions--and that it is the
inscription of such a space that gives the text its value as a "revolutionary novel" (par 44).
- Such a reading ignores, for instance, the meditations on (and the possible defense of) heterosexuality
as the narrator's "initial sickness," her preference for men who treat her badly: "what was
it--raving and raging in me--that allowed me to change or descend into what I wasn't?" (126). The
text performs an explanation of this "sickness" through "archetypes" of masculinity and
femininity: the attraction to men is explained as a desire to be rejected because "man
always rejects: his orgasm is death" (127). Sexual relations with women do not offer her
a viable perspective: "Being with another woman was like being with no one, for there
was no rejection or death. Therefore I didn't care" (127). Because Acker's writing does not reduce
sexuality to heterosexuality and inserts its characters into various relationships with partners of
different (unstable) genders, heterosexuality in her sexual-textual universe becomes a synecdoche
rather than a metaphor for sexuality.
- However, Don Quixote's "initial sickness" is also tied to the dominant order, though the protagonist's desire for
debasement is a constant cause of frustration and self-doubt. In distinction from Siegel, Arthur
brilliantly the role of masochism as an ambiguous strategy of critique in Acker's "heterotopia" of the body:
The scene "HETEROSEXUALITY," which opens the representation of bodies and desires up to possible
recodings, remains ambiguous about the oppositional possibilities of masochism. The labor of
reconfiguration represented through the two characters Villebranche and de Franville undermines
normative gender constructions of masculine activity and feminine passivity, but it does not
evacuate the binary, heteronormative construction of gender. Villebranche's and Franville's story
cannot be a celebration of liberation through sexual practice or a movement to an "outside" of
society. Rather, the text represents the struggle against dominant notions of gender
identification--as one of the regimes of straight subjection--and affirms perverse practices, queers
gendered subjectivities, and performs non-normative heterosexualities. At the same time, it also
makes clear that de Franville's and Villebranche's sexualities cannot be fully disconnected from
the mechanisms of social regulation. Because a total reordering of gender codes does not seem
possible--since, in other words, the system of sex-desire is still at work--the narrative lets its
protagonist Don Quixote finally turn into a woman who prefers "loneliness to the bickerings and
constraints of heterosexual marriage" (202). The attempt to resist forces of straight subjection
results in the protagonist's self-reconfiguration as freak. Through her identification as "freak,"
Don Quixote situates herself with a group of unspecifically marginalized existences, a collective beyond
masochism emerges from the dominant sexual order and represents a colonization of the feminine
imagination . . . . Masochism involves a theatricalized confrontation with the violence at the
root of sexualization in this world; but what may emerge from that confrontation is open to a
continual rewriting of the bodily and textual word. (300-01)
- Don Quixote's situation as unmarried female freak is not to be read as an hysterical repression of
physicality but as a political rejection of the heteronormative laws of domesticity. In an illuminating
interpretation, Siegel relates this celibacy to the novel's allusions to asceticism, expressed in figures of mad saints like St. Simeon. Following MacKendrick's theorization of counter-pleasures, she
interprets asceticism itself as one of the novel's oppositional pleasures because it aims at "the [impossible]
refusal of finitude, exhaustion, and limit--all through the body" (qtd. in Siegel par 43). Yet Don
Quixote's situation also entails a sense of loss: "That sexual ecstasy of orgasm which appears out of a
simultaneous overcoming of the hatred, which is fear, of men and out of actual play with the myth of rejection
is no longer mine" (206). Instead of having sex, Don Quixote resorts to the power of memory, while
questioning its transformative power:
Emerging from physical experience, these memories, like fantasies, offer a
glimpse of a livable future. The space for such a vision is opened by the deconstruction of
dominant systems of gender and sexuality, while at the same time Acker's inscriptions of sexual
and/as textual perversions denaturalize gender and de-normalize sexual identities. Through the
reconfiguration of its protagonist, Don Quixote, Acker attacks narrative as one of
the conditions of the formation and disciplining of subjects and their desires, while articulating alternative
configurations of subjectivity. At the same time, the opposition to the hegemonic
through alternative visions of sexualities, "bodies and pleasures," provides the critical energy
to deconstruct as well as reconfigure those hegemonic regimes to produce a c(o)unt(er)-knowledge of
I remember. But is what I remember this ecstasy which comes from a mixture of pain and joy, a pure
joy? Are my memories, whose sources might be unknown, actual glimpses of possible paradise?" (206)
- Acker's ambivalent sexual/textual politics does not produce affirmative subjectivities. I
have emphasized the text's ambivalence about its own critical strategies because this ambivalence is a symptom
of its desire to resist fully cohering readings. Acker should therefore not be read as a follower
of any specific "school" of thought. While she presents a
powerful critique of hegemonic institutions, her texts, as Gayle Fornataro claims, do not
"coagulate into a set of centralized ideas" (85). Rather, she helps herself from the arsenal of
postmodern thinking and avant-garde writing, which she confronts with feminist and queer
perspectives and sensibilities. Through her deconstructive engagement with phallogocentric
discourses, such as the system of sex-desire, and her affirmations of abject sexual
practices, Acker illustrates Beatriz Preciado's claim that an effective counter-discourse
of sexuality requires a critical double-perspective. In her Manifeste
Contre-sexuelle, the Spanish queer-feminist philosopher advocates a "counter-sexuality"
(contre-sexualitè), which "plays with" two
Within a double-layered attack on heteronormativity, feminism's critiques of representation
intervene in the first framework of time (another name of which might be
"phallogocentrism"), while queer practices, such as Preciado's examples of "dildo technology,"
have to be situated within fractal time. Acker's semio-somatic writing occupies both
temporal registers at the same time. It expresses the complicated relationship between the
phallogocentric symbolic, which contains the system of sex-desire, and a range of socio-sexual
practices, among them a notion of perverse "bodies and pleasures," which are the instruments and
the effects of its eccentric critique. Acker is not the only author committed to the critical
strategy of semio-somatics. Some lesbian writers and theorists such as Monique Wittig or Nicole
Brossard also engage in semio-somatic forms of critique. Yet Acker performs in a fictional scenario the process
of a critical queering of heterosexuality from within heteronormativity,
thereby undermining its foundations. Her "cuntextuality" demonstrates that the political project
of a critique of sexuality cannot remain the sole task of lesbian and gay thinkers but that it is
a responsibility of straight (feminist) writers as well. Through her cuntextual critique of the
normative structures of narrative Acker also provides perspectives on straights' possible
disidentification from heternormativity. It is in this sense that her text opens up a
counter-discourse that might be called a "queer heterosexuality."
First, a slow temporality, in which the sexual institutions never seem to have been subject to
change. In this temporality, sexual technologies appear unchangeable. They take on names such as
"symbolic order," transcultural universes," or just "nature." Each attempt to change them is
regarded as a "collective psychosis" or as an "apocalypse of humanity." This level of unchangeable
time is the metaphysical foundation of each sexual technology. Each counter-sexual labor works
against this temporal framework, intervenes in order to operate there. Second, a time of the
event, in which every actuality escapes linear causality. A fractal temporality, made from a
multiple "now," a time, which cannot be a simple effect of the truth of sexual identity or of the
symbolic order. This is the real field, on which counter-sexuality incorporates the sexual
technologies, but also the bodies, identities, practices derived from it. (13, my translation)
Department of Comparative Literature
University of California, Irvine
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1. For a helpful historicization of Acker, see Moran
and Pitchford (Tactical Readings; "Floggin").
2. A notable exception is Carol Siegel's complex
reading of Acker's Don Quixote. I come back to her text in my discussion of
3. Pitchford describes Acker's
ambivalence towards feminism insightfully in terms of an ambivalence towards identity politics, which
reflects a split in 1980s feminism itself.
4. See for instance the impact of sexual difference
feminism and its critique of representation on both Butler and de Lauretis. In Gender
Trouble, Butler criticizes the role of feminism as a movement that tries to accomplish
the representation of "women." Luce Irigaray, who articulates a critique of the phallogocentric
representational order, functions as an unacknowledged authority of Butler's own critique. De
Lauretis's early and influential feminist text, Alice Doesn't, is motivated by
the question of the possibility of a representation of women in a phallogocentric symbolic
order. In Technologies, she theorizes "the subject of feminism" in relation to
representation and to the non-representability of gender (Technologies 26).
5. Elizabeth Grosz's reading of bodies and pleasures
is potentially more productive. She argues that bodies and pleasures are "themselves produced
and reproduced as distinct phenomena, through, if not forms of power as such, at least various
interlocking economies, libidinal, political, economic, significatory, which may congeal and
solidify into a sexuality in 'our' modern sense of the word, but which also lend themselves to
other economies and modes of production and regulation (218). So "bodies and pleasures" can be
read as a signifier of a potential critical point of view, which would allow us to see the
problems of the existing apparatus of "sexuality" and inspire the reconfiguration of libidinal economy. Grosz,
however, does not work on that claim further.
6. Counterpleasures is the title of
7. In his more recent work, Halperin cautions against
a "very familiar and uncontroversial and positivistic" notion of bodies and pleasures
(How To Do 26).
8. As Diane Richardson writes, "the anus as a part of
the sexualised body is predominantly coded as a gay male body" (6).
9. See Warner and Berlant.
10. Lee Edelman's notion of "homographesis" is an
important exception. It is significant that Edelman mobilizes deconstruction, and
that he refers to works of poststructuralist feminists in order to develop his complex theory
of the writing of homosexuality.
11. I am not claiming that Acker is the only
writer/theorist of a "queer straightness." Early queerings of heterosexuality "from within"
can be found in Sedgwick ("White Glasses" and "A Poem Is Being Written") and in Silverman
(Male Subjectivity at the Margins, New York: Routledge, 1992). For more recent
attempts, see Siegel, New Millenial Sexstyles and the edited collections by
Fantina and by Thomas. However, I am particularly interested in Acker's counter-discourse of
heterosexuality through a critique of representation.
See also Redding's excellent use of Laplanche/Pontalis for a reading of masochism in Acker.
13. For Acker's use of theory, see Kocela's
interesting assessment of her relationship to Butler's work in his excellent essay on female
fetishism. The essay traces affinities between the two writers but suggest that Butler's
philosophical thinking remains too constrained for Acker, who "follows the methodology of a
fiction firmly grounded in the impossible" (par 18).
14. Siegel refers to Redding, but she does not
translate the ambiguity that Redding points out into her own reading.
15. Some Deleuzian/Guattarian scholars tend to
project their theoretical preferences on Acker's literary texts in order to create a
methodological coherence that does not do justice to Acker's labor of decentralization. See,
for instance, Brande, whose passion for the Body without Organs dominates his interpretation
of Acker's Don Quixote.
16. While Preciado does not explicitly refer to the
term "bodies and pleasures," her idea of "contresexualité" provides a notion of new
libidinal possibilities indebted to Foucault's thinking.
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