Flogging a Dead Language: Identity Politics, Sex, and the Freak Reader in Acker's Don Quixote
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Flogging a Dead Language:
Identity Politics, Sex, and the Freak Reader in Acker’s Don Quixote

Pastiche is central to the resistant politics of Kathy Acker’s writing—yet she would appear to agree with Fredric Jameson’s influential critique of pastiche as “the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language” (17). Her 1986 novel Don Quixote is all about having to speak “in a dead language” in the absence of a more “healthy” norm. It begins with the death of the protagonist, a female version of Cervantes’s knight, who then goes on to narrate much of the subsequent story. Acker explains, “BEING DEAD, DON QUIXOTE COULD NO LONGER SPEAK. BEING BORN INTO AND PART OF A MALE WORLD, SHE HAD NO SPEECH OF HER OWN. ALL SHE COULD DO WAS READ MALE TEXTS WHICH WEREN’T HERS” (39). The novel then proceeds by plagiarism and pastiche, as Quixote goes on a quest—for a heterosexual love unsullied by patriarchal power relations—through fragments of numerous existing texts. Quixote rereads and pieces together a whole range of textual scraps, from Machiavelli’s The Prince to a Godzilla movie. What becomes clear in her eccentric survey of (primarily) Western culture is that the lost, healthy linguistic norm is more than unhealthy for female readers—indeed, it is deadly.

The novel is motivated by the idea of both reading and speaking “in a dead language”—but “flogging a dead language” seems a more apt description of Acker’s strategy, in more ways than one. For both the reader in and the reader of the novel, the act of rereading that pastiche entails can seem like flogging a dead horse, in the sense of merely covering once again the familiar ground of the already said. Of course, the same has been said of any reading in postmodernity where all language may well be dead, having belonged properly to a previous historical moment that gave it life and from which it has now been dissociated by forces of commercial appropriation and cultural amnesia. But this generic deadness that Jameson identifies as inherent in postmodern writing is not quite what I wish to explore.

Rather, I want to attempt to account for what I see as a particular familiarity, and perhaps a particular tendency toward exhaustion and redundancy, that accompanies reading Acker’s texts from this period in her career, a period characterized by Acker’s extensive use of pastiche or what she frequently refers to as “plagiarism.” In what follows, I look at what happens to and through the act of reading, to ask how reading is connected to agency. Despite the considerable difficulty of Acker’s experimental novels, reading them can become an activity weighed down by a certain deadening obviousness. I want to suggest that this lifelessness derives from Acker’s attempts to construct, through pastiche, a community of readers defined by their opposition to traditional literary culture. I want also to argue that her deployment of pastiche in specific contexts—especially sexual contexts—in fact complicates and undermines the static and oversimplified role that she sometimes seems to offer her reader. In such moments, a complex interplay of various possible readerly identifications creates a contingent and particular version of agency.

In a chapter on Acker in his recent book on literary celebrity, Joe Moran has suggested that in both her public persona and her work, Acker “puts forward two contrasting views of identity—one textual and one essentialist” (142). While he locates these competing versions in Acker’s characters and in her own public performance of the (death of the) author, I wish to extend his observations and apply them also to the modes of reading suggested by her texts, and by this novel in particular. The “textual” version of identity, generally celebrated by those critics friendly to Acker’s work, is readily apparent in the cut-and-paste technique of Don Quixote, in which borrowed textual fragments are reanimated by their juxtaposition. Here, language (my metaphorical dead horse), along with the social identities it produces, is like Quixote’s skinny nag Rocinante, who by all rights should be dead but who keeps lurching doggedly...