CONTENT WARNING: Sexual and emotional abuse, strong sexual content, themes of physical and psychological violence against women.
In class, we’ve spoken a lot, both directly and indirectly, about the male gaze, and how a variety of the women we have studied have made efforts to push back against it in order to take the power of perception away from men and restore it to the subjects of the photographs themselves. This struggle for women’s agency and control over the perception of their own bodies is, of course, nothing new. The Victorian era in particular is one in which these questions of women’s agency and sexuality were at the heart of the works of many novelists and visual artists alike. Today, however, I would like to examine a more recent novelist, whose approach marks an interesting shift in how this problem is addressed.
The person to whom I am referring is Kathy Acker. No stranger to controversy during her tragically short life, Acker is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating literary figures of the past fifty years. For those unfamiliar with her or her work, Kathy Acker was a notable member of the punk scene in the 1970s, and pioneered a particularly visceral and iconoclastic brand of feminism. She also described her novels as “collages”, which were made up of poetry, prose, excerpts from other literary works, and her own sketches, which accompany the text as illustration.
The novel I want to focus on is probably her most famous work, Blood and Guts in High School, mostly because of the way the aforementioned sketches interact with the text. I won’t post any of them in this post, as most of them may be too distressing for some people, and I don’t want to catch anyone at unawares with an image that may make them uncomfortable. To be quite frank, though I am interested in Acker’s work and am a great admirer of her fictive and theoretical writings, I can never quite bring myself to enjoy her work.
In my opinion, this is entirely by design. Blood and Guts in High School is a novel that seems to want to make its reader uncomfortable, regardless of who they are. It’s excessive, it’s disgusting, and frankly, it’s almost unreadable (as with all of Acker’s novels, I had to put it down several times just because I was overwhelmed by it). But this mixture of revulsion and terror that the novel generates is exactly what makes it so effective at combating the same violent misogyny that it depicts. The story centers around Janey Smith, a young girl who has a sexual relationship with her father at a young age until later in the novel, where she moves to New York, is abducted, sold into sex slavery, escapes, enters into an increasingly abusive relationship with a notable French writer, is arrested, and subsequently dies without any sort of happy ending. Accompanying the text are rough sketches of the things being described by the narrative, which almost always take the form of nude bodies, specifically close-ups of male and female genitals. One could say that the human body is being objectified in this way, but Acker twists it into something grotesque, using a lack of detail to create nude images that serve to make most readers (at least those I have spoken to) more uncomfortable than anything. The implication is that the way we look at the body, particularly the female body, is in some way akin to the violence that Janey undergoes throughout her tragically short life.
One sketch, for instance, is called “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, and depicts a nude woman, legs together and hands up, with both her ankles and her wrists bound together. Taking this classical/romantic reference and distorting it (or, rather, unveiling it) into this image of a bound, physically and psychologically abused woman has a particularly disturbing effect on the viewer. The way Acker depicts the female body is the same way she depicts her protagonist: violently oppressed, subjected to the male gaze almost to the point of breaking. There is no attempt at liberation in the traditional sense: we see the pain induced by misogyny, but not its abolition, which makes this text all the more difficult to read (or indeed, even to look at).
The photos that stand out to me, however, are those of men’s bodies, which almost always depict the viewpoint of Janey herself as she looks at them. One that I found particularly unsettling is one called “You Are the Black Announcers of My Death” depicts a man’s penis from the point of view of a person (presumably Janey) staring it headlong, with her hands holding it (it is obvious from the image that she is about to engage in oral sex).
This image, and others like it, forces upon us a “female gaze” of sorts, wherein the male body is seen through the eyes of the women who are forcibly oppressed by and subjected to it. Unlike the traditional male gaze, wherein the subject is exploited and subjected to a kind of visual violence, here the reader is subjected to this same thing. Acker forces us to see the world through Janey’s eyes, and the results are painful to say the least. The novel forces empathy upon its reader. Not the traditional empathy that we so often use interchangeably with pity. This is a vengeful empathy that makes the reader (especially, I would assume, the male reader) undergo the same cruel visual torture that women undergo socially and physically. These images of men and women are not a disruption or resistance to the male-gaze, but an active attempt at a counterattack? Of course, nothing could ever truly replicate the psychosexual horrors that Janey undergoes, but through the images that accompany her story, Kathy Acker creates the illusion that it can.
This leads me to wonder: how is this accomplished? Why do we become so tied to Janey’s experiences against our will, but other feminist texts do not prompt this same reaction? I would say that this is a result of the novel’s status as a sort of collage-like texts, weaving together different fragments of texts and images to form something altogether new. The reader is constantly being bombarded by images and text, which, when combined, create a sensory overload that emotionally and intellectually dominates the viewer. We are never quite comfortable reading this text, as we never know what kind of literature, what kind of image, or even whose work (Kathy Acker openly admitted to occasionally plagiarizing the work of others in her text in order to best serve her own writing) we are going to encounter. The power of visual consumption is taken away from us, and we are placed at the mercy of the author.
Though I cannot show you the images contained within the text (those that aren’t obscene are actually quite difficult to find online), I would like to take a look at the most recent edition of the cover, which, while not designed by Acker, fits perfectly with her style. It is a photograph of Acker, taken by Michel Delsol, seemingly torn in half.
The simultaneous suggestion of nudity and fracturing of her face and body has a similar (albeit slightly less shocking) effect on the viewer. We are forced to ask: is Acker being torn in two, or patched together? Perhaps both. The effectiveness this image is in how it both destroys and rebuilds Acker’s image. In viewing this fragmented portrait, we somehow have less access to her. Note how the tear in the image runs right through the eye. Acker is not only tearing the image in half, but also interrupting the viewing experience. The destruction of Acker’s own image and body serves as a sort of reclamation of feminine identity and perception. Much like in her novel itself, Acker perpetuates the cycle of violent oppression and objectification of women, but takes control of this process herself, making the viewer (including any potential male readers) more of a bystander who is forced to watch this self-destruction in shame, without the ability to enforce it himself. The image above is one of many that contribute to the sensory overload that seeks to destroy the visual history of femininity that has been constructed by a male-driven literary culture, and in doing so allow women to reclaim control over how their bodies are perceived (or, failing to do that, level the playing field a bit), albeit in an incredibly visually violent manner
Acker is, however, not without her critics, both in and out of the feminist community. Many of these critics argue that women are never quite empowered in her novels, and that she is simply repeating an oppressive history of women without ever truly liberating her heroines. Still others say that Acker is more interested in playing out revenge fantasies than in actually engaging in conventional resistance to patriarchal culture (as we see in the works of Julia Margaret Cameron and some of her contemporaries). I certainly see some merit in these criticisms, as it is at times hard to claim that her novels quite empower women in the black and white terms that we have become used to discussing these themes in. However, there is also a reason for which Acker has become the rebellious feminist icon that she is considered to be today, with many contemporary writers having drawn inspiration from both her novels and her essays. Blood and Guts in High School is an experiment in visualization as a form of gender-based combat, one whose effectiveness may be called into question but that I think nevertheless needed to be conducted.
Frankly, however, I’m a bit out of my depth in regards to this discussion, so I’ll end it here. What do you think? Is there something to be said about images actively offending the viewer’s sensibilities rather than passively guarding themselves? Does this approach ultimately do more harm than good?