My prayer to the TV gods when the pilot of I Love Dick screened was “please, let it not suck!” My concern was mostly for the author of the book of the same name on which it is based – Chris Kraus. I want people to read her books. Fortunately, the TV version turned out to be its own, different, interesting thing. Hopefully Amazon will order more of it and turn it into a series. Hopefully it will steer a few more readers to the book on which it is based.
I felt a bit protective of it, for no justifiable reason, but because I wrote the afterword to another book by Kraus, and hence had spent some time reading all of her work. Her books include two collections of writing about art: Video Green (Semiotexte 2004) and Where Art Belongs (Semiotexte 2011). Here I want to concentrate on: I Love Dick (Semiotexte 1997), Aliens & Anorexia (Semiotexte 2000), Torpor (Semiotexte 2006) and Summer of Hate (Semiotexte 2012). The first and second are a kind of autofiction, neither novel or memoir. The latter two are a bit closer to the novel form. All center on the character of a woman who may or may not be Chris Kraus. She is called that in the first two, then she is Sylvie Green and then she is Catt Dunlop. These books can I think be read together as a series, a kind of inhuman comedy of the waning days of the twentieth century on into the present. Or so I proposed in the afterword to Torpor (from which I’m going to borrow a bit here).
One could mark out the ethical and aesthetic space in which this writing operates between two questions, both of which occur in I Love Dick. The first is: “My entire state of being’s changed because I’ve become my sexuality: female, straight, wanting to love men, be fucked. Is there a way of living with this like a gay person, proudly?” (ILD186) Here the books respond to both the politics and the daily life of both gay liberation and its aftermath, as well as the writing it produced.
The second question is in the context of fixing up a somewhat mediocre apartment for the incoming renter: “Now they were painting, cleaning, and in three weeks they’d be gone again. What kind of life could they believe in? What kind of life could they afford?” (ILD100) This question has much less to do with the dreams of gay liberation and parallel movements, and everything to do with the kind of cultural obsessions that paved over and erased them: money, class and real estate.
Sometimes reading Chris Kraus is like archaeology. Somewhere beneath the surface of the text are some rich fossil layers. Call it the hyperreal strata of the Anthropocene. Some of it smells like the New York of a certain era, all speed-sweat and peroxide. On top of that layer is something else, something that filled the niche when those punk creatures went extinct. Once there used to be whole separate ecologies of art and fortune. There were poets, performers, artists of a sort. They made their own rules for glory. Then they went away, and after that comes pedigree creatures, sired by great names for brilliant careers.
Among other things, Kraus has written the Domesday Book of the lost wilds and commons of New York. “All of New York’s mystery had long since been depleted.” (TR196) This is perhaps the case with a lot of the cities of what the Situationists so usefully called the overdeveloped world. Kraus: “There is no longer any way of being poor in any interesting way in major cities like Manhattan.”(TR18) As late as the winter years of the eighties, other lives, other communities, other values still survived in neglected corners. But is that still possible? “It’s only rarely that the overwhelming sadness of the city galvanizes into anything like rage. And when it does, this rage is quickly channeled into new careers in the art world.” (TR79)
As people get older they start to think it is all over and the good old days are gone. As a Kraus-like character says of LA: “There’s no alternative hierarchy of glamour here. Those who work outside the gallery system are simply losers.” (TR280) And yet the actual Chris Kraus could still celebrate the brief and brilliant life of the Tiny Creatures scene in LA’s Echo Park: “What all these people do best is collage. They’re all on speed….” (WA25) So while her books are in part like archaeological records, they are also blueprints for how to turn your own quirk and smarts and boredom into its own scene, with its own intensities, if only for a time.
Perhaps this is not the least reason Kraus’ books have a following. They are about working the inside-outside margin. As the Kraus-character says in Summer of Hate: “She saw no boundaries between feeling and thought, sex and philosophy. Hence, her writing was read almost exclusively in the art world, where she attracted a small core of devoted fans: Asperger’s boys, girls who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, assistant professors who would not be receiving their tenure, lap dancers, cutters and whores.” (SH16)
Her books are theory-books, but ones which – uniquely – describe and analyze the means of production of theory, its extraction from situations, from lived time. Her books are read by thinking people who feel their lives have situations, not to mention predicaments. They are especially for those who are “aware of the cost of the freedom to think.” (SH159) Theory for the debt age.
It’s a classic demystification move, all the more stunning for being the obvious one few were willing to make: Rather than theories of subjectivity or the body, how about an assaying of this self, this body, of its affects and effects, but rendered with a certain cool detachment? The example might be this woman’s history (or herstory). This coming of age story, in a New York that was somewhere between the punk and postmodern moments it would now rather forget. But the method can be modeled, repeated, set to work elsewhere. This isn’t memoir or nostalgia or the bourgeois novel. This is Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier for those who lack titles, inheritance, provenance, but have the wit and patience needed for survival in the Anthropocene.
One of Kraus’ genres is picaresque, with herself and her friends as the rascals, rogues and outcasts of late imperial America, a world no less venal than that encountered by Fielding’s Tom Jones. Let’s just consider for a moment the epithets that attach to the Kraus-like characters in her various books: She is a journalist, a New Zealander, a Marxist; but then also a gutter-rat, a weird girl, hunched and introspective; a strange and lonely girl, most intelligent and useful; a small boned, thin, weightless, gamine, crazy and cerebral girl; tall and anorexic, an innocent, de-gendered freak; plain-faced, thin and serious. As her character ages, she becomes default androgynous, a Hippy Intellectual high school teacher, an old punk girl, even punk grandma; shrewish, sharp and haggard, a female monster, a rakish, crazed witch; a hag, ruthless and brittle, who will say of herself with pride: “I’m a kike.”
It’s a hard corner to work. These are not the attributes of heroes. “What do you do with the Serious Young Woman (short hair, flat shoes, body slightly hunched, head drifting back and forth between the books she’s read)? You slap her, fuck her up the ass and treat her like a boy. The Serious Young Woman looked everywhere for sex but when she got it it became an exercise in disintegration.” (TR 178) So what, then, is the concept of that experience?
In the archaeological record of New York there was actually a band called Theoretical Girls, but it was Glenn Branca and a bunch of white guys. The girl is not supposed to have theories. Yes, there may be “Good Girl academics.” (A&A103) But they are supposed to do feminist theory, preferably Lacanian, and confine themselves to theories of the gendered subject. And there are also still lady novelists, but they are supposed to corset themselves to threading the depths of their own interiority.
What is distinctive in Kraus is coming up with a method – actually a series of methods – for conjoining this woman’s experience with the world. One could even call it a certain kind of objectivity, not so much a deep as an expansive one, where showing the means of production of theory becomes a metonymic part of the theory, sparing us the expansive metaphors about the role of the intellectual in history. Instead, impertinent questions: who decides who gets paid to say or write what about whom?
I Love Dick (1997), Kraus’ first published book, is among other things a record of the breakthrough into a method for being a theoretical girl. “Because most ‘serious’ fiction, still, involves the fullest possible expression of a single person’s subjectivity, it’s considered crass and amateurish not to ‘fictionalize’ the supporting cast of characters.…When women try to pierce this false conceit by naming names because our ‘I’s’ are changing as we meet other ‘I’s’, we’re called bitches, libelers, pornographers and amateurs. ‘Why are you so angry?’ he said to me.” (ILD 71-2) In the old New York, Barney Rossett’s Grove Press published the literary dudes who traded on obscenity. Perhaps in their wake there would be a way to make headway by challenging the notion of privacy they left alone. Their women were not supposed to write about their chiseling for money or their nurturing of ‘careers.’
The conceit of I Love Dick is that Kraus finds a way in to writing by addressing letters to an actual person, but one who also functions as a kind of blank screen. If you wanted to get all Lancan-ish about, it: she is writing to the phallus, the master-signifier. Whatever. The interesting stuff engages neither pole, tiny-self or Big-Other, but is elsewhere. “If I could love you consciously, take an experience that was so completely female and subject it to an abstract analytic system, then perhaps I had a chance of understanding something and could go on living.” (ILD 265-6) And: construct a conceit for writing that appeared both everyday and shocking at the same time: “Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form.” (ILD 196)
In writing about the work of others we usually write something about our own. Kraus is clear in her follow-up book, Aliens and Anorexia (2000), about why her work both is and isn’t feminist, as that term is deployed by others as a marker of genre: “Perversely, all this literature is based on the unshakeable belief that the formation of a gender-based identity is still the primary animating goal in the becoming of a person, if that person is a girl.” (A&A 160)
The problem of ‘the girl’ is neither erased nor entirely inescapable in Kraus. In her book of art essays Video Green (2004), she writes of someone else’s work: “It is a self-portrait fashioned from a Deleuzian sense of self, or from the identities held by adolescent fans (same thing): a belief that who you are is never any more or less than who you love, than who has made you larger.” (VG 197) Note in passing the neat hi-lo switch here, from French theorist to fangirl pride, but also self-belief as escape-hatch from the cramped space of that shadow double of The-Name-of-the-Father, the slip-of-a-girl.
You could say that Kraus zeroes in on a fatal flaw in high theory: that it wants to talk about difference, or the minor, or the margins, but it still wants to do so from a position of strength, from the point of view of some universal abstract spokesmodel. Perhaps Kraus reverses the procedure: she starts rather from an apparent weakness, from the less-than-ideal girl, who should not only not be seen much but not heard at all. She makes this the aperture through which to see and feel situations. Not a universal abstract world, but still, more world than most high theory wants to let in. A low theory, perhaps.
The ‘I’ who writes and speaks in I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia is not exactly the confessional first person, baring the soul of a novelistic character or autobiographical self. It is an ‘I’ that scans both perceptions and feelings as modes of clocking situations, more analytic than lyrical. It the ‘I’ of the New York school poets of the late twentieth century, as developed by the (mostly) gay writers of the New Narrative movement in San Francisco, who held storytelling and meta-commentary together as the labile state of being of the marginal experience.
Torpor (2006) changes up the game again. The character Chris Kraus becomes Sylvie Green. Two techniques emerge from the margins of her writing: parataxis and metonymy. To take just former: “Parataxis is a strange literary form…. Old epic stories that had once been handed down by tribal elders pass into the hands of storytellers. Flashing back and sideways, holding back the outcome of events, these tellers fracture old familiar and heroic tales into contradictory, multiple perspectives. It becomes impossible to move the story forward within returning to the past, and so the past both predicates the future and withholds it.” (TR 82)
One usually thinks of parataxis as a poetic form, juxtaposing short phrases, and sometimes Kraus does this. But in Torpor it works also on bigger units, and the emphasis is more on holding back the outcome of events, preventing either personal or historical time from falling into a neat sequence, where each unit of time forms the next. “To organize events sequentially is to take away their power.” TR 137) It is to restore at least a weak power over time that Torpor breaks time into situations which can be combined and recombined, to find ways that time, if it can’t be changed, can at least be known and endured.
Like Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, I take Kraus’ books to be selectively true. As she writes of the Kraus-like character in Summer of Hate, “Having no talent for making shit up, she simply reported her thoughts.” (SH 15) This omits the care that goes into the editing of those thoughts, and the care that goes into finding a rhetorical form through which observation, inflected by affect, can become a concept of its own situation. All the same, I take the ‘Jerome’ character in Torpor to be a portrait of Sylvère Lotringer, one of the most interesting figures in American letters of the late twentieth century. He was the Barney Rossett of the era after Barney. Where Rosset brokered Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs into American literary consciousness, Lotringer gave us Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio.
Like any great publisher, Semiotext(e) has had many lives. Alongside Lotringer’s Foreign Agents Series, which packaged European theory into little black dime store paperback-sized conceptual stealth-bombers, there is also a Native Agents Series – edited by Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti. This started out with first-person non-confessional narrative, but broadened out into a range of writerly tactics for getting a fresh grip on language as the theory-effect started to fade. The Native Agents now also includes New Narrative precursors to Kraus such as Dodie Bellamy and Robert Glück, as well as younger American writers, whose reception by a reading public is in part shaped by I Love Dick, such as Kate Zambreno and Masha Tupitsyn.
Torpor had the quality of a settling of accounts, among other things with a certain kind of French writing, which from Flaubert to Perec still got a certain mileage out of an ironic mode. Summer of Hate, by contrast, is an American novel: it starts off noir-ish, but ends up almost as social realism. Its rather like the films of Laurie Collyer: the struggle of the (mostly) white working class in America, not against the ruling class, but against the poisoned landscape that late capitalism has made. Or perhaps its not late capitalism, perhaps its early something else. Not exactly capitalism any more, but something a bit worse.
The no-future sensibility of punk is now the general condition, which is also one of no-past. “It occurred to Catt that the epistemological groundwork for the war in Iraq had been laid by Paris Hilton’s anal sex video.” (SH 27) The provenance of images is now completely unknowable. Once they exist, they exist. Meanwhile, everyday life is increasingly ruled by what used to be called the ‘repressive state apparatus’. Police-talk infects language: people make statements about incidents involving individuals, present their items as evidence. Heat storms are rebranded as mere heat waves. There’s no need any more for an official ‘ideological state apparatus’, just marketing consultants. “Information was immediate: there was no longer any need for apostles.” (TR 99)
Now that the New York where bohemia met the demimonde is apparently extinct, all that remains are the fringes of the art world. At its center, the art world has become a market for financial instruments that take a singularized commodity form. Like any contract, art still needs the signature; but the artist, not so much. There is little room for the self-created monsters of the past. “Whereas modernism believed that the artist’s life held all the magic keys to reading works of art, neoconceptualism has cooled this off and corporatized it. The artist’s own biography doesn’t matter much at all. What life? The blanker the better. The life experience of the artist, if channeled into the artwork, can only impede art’s neocorporate, neoconceptual purpose It is the biography of the institution that we want to read.” (VG 21) We no longer have dark pasts; we have shiny resumés.
I take neocorporate neoconceptualism to be a joke style name, about as dignified as the contemporary art world deserves. But whatever its problems, the art world might be in better shape than what happened to high theory in the humanities academy. As part of researching this essay, I put my favorite Kraus-quotes on my Facebook wall. This is the one that got the strongest reaction: “What put me off experimental film world feminism, besides all its boring study groups on Jacques Lacan, was its sincere investigation into the dilemma of the Pretty Girl. As an Ugly Girl it didn’t matter much to me. And didn’t Donna Haraway finally solve this by saying all female lived experience is a bunch of riffs, completely fake, so we should recognize ourselves as Cyborgs?” (ILD 181)
God is dead; theory is dad. What that quote got as response was defenses of the Lacan cult. What used to be the theory-world now appears to be organized as a series of father-cults. You can criticize the Lacan cult, but only among followers of the Heidegger cult, and so on. The academy has not crossed into the no-dads world yet, one of the perhaps necessary stages or variants after the punk or cyberpunk no-future. This is perhaps because The-Name-of-the-Theorist functions like brand or genre, as a way to manage uncertainty in the marketplace.
And so there just might be a bit more room around the inside-out margins of the art world than the academy to find ways to know the world. “The story of international contemporary art is now the story of global dislocation. Everybody’s following the money, and the party, and few are ever rewarded. Exclusion keeps the dislocation moving.” (KL 34) Perhaps there’s a way to work on and in its margins as a metonym for the marginal life now to be had in this time after capitalism, this time that just like it but worse. The rage of which the art world is the exclusive agent could be ported back into textual form, where some cooler methods might convert the neoconceptual back into actual concepts.
I think Torpor marks a turning point in Kraus’ work. It can be read either as concluding a trilogy of books, starting with I Love Dick, then Aliens & Anorexia. Or it can be read as of-a-piece with Summer of Hate, and a turn in Kraus’ writing toward a kind of novelistic style, where items and individuals are the building blocks of metonymic sequences of understanding wholes through parts, but where the wholes to be grasped are not the old totalities of high theory but other kinds of objects dictated by the encounter with particular parts: twelve-step culture, a courthouse in Phoenix or Albuquerque real estate.
Since then, Kraus has been working on a book about Kathy Acker, pressing further into the question of what lies between fiction and biography, and perhaps literature and gossip. I have an unjustifiable feeling of protectiveness about that one too, as I knew Kathy, and Semiotexte has published a small book of my correspondence with her. Acker’s work is in some ways parallel to the New Narrative experiments of the eighties, although Acker was always a resolutely singular literary personality. Perhaps her work is in some ways both enabling but also confining for American literature, an artifact of a time and habitat that no longer exists. In some ways I think all of Kraus’ books are a working through of another survival strategy. One for a time when the aura of the writer or artist as mad, sacred outsider is gone.
In Summer of Hate the Kraus character is put on the spot at a public speaking engagement. “Wondering if she’ll have to summon French theory for the rest of her life to explain her brief, girlish adventures, she performs as expected and deflects the question.” (SH149) The joke is that those adventures were never really particularly transgressive or shocking. It was just that the privacy that protected the space around the male artist or writer had been breached. Having brokered the topic of thought’s intimate relation to life, perhaps there’s no going back. We really are going to have to think about what kind of life we can believe in – and afford.
A&A Chris Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia, Semiotexte, Los Angeles, 2000
ILD Chris Kraus, I Love Dick, Semiotexte, New York, 1997
KL Chris Kraus, Kelly Lake Store & Other Stories, Companion Editions, Portland OR, 2014,
SH Chris Kraus, Summer of Hate, Semiotexte, Los Angeles, 2012
TR Chris Kraus, Torpor, Semiotexte, Los Angeles, 2006
VG Chris Kraus, Video Green, Semiotexte, Los Angeles, 2004
WA Chris Kraus, Where Art Belongs, Semiotexte, Los Angeles, 2011