- Blood Money:Sovereignty and Exchange in Kathy Acker
I thought that, one day, maybe, there'ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn't just disgust.Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless
In 1989, as the institutions of an earlier radicalism began to crumble in Eastern Europe, Kathy Acker reflected on her sense of the possibility of a new radical literature: "Perhaps our society is now in a 'post-cynical' phase. Certainly, I thought as I started Empire, there's no more need to deconstruct, to take apart perceptual habits, to reveal the frauds on which our society's living. We now have to find somewhere to go, a belief, a myth. Somewhere real" ("Notes" 11). In that novel, Acker represents this "movement from no to yes" as the transformation of terrorists into pirates. The scene of this transformation is a multinational, post-historical Paris, a city where forms of domination and oppression from every time, from slavery to a futuristic form of mind control, are wielded by shadowy masters against the alienated and dispossessed multitude. This is a world where "the right-wing owns values and meanings" (Empire 73), where every aspect of society, every form of social relation, has been infiltrated and thoroughly polluted by a malevolent, multiform sovereignty. The oppressed masses, represented by Acker as the postcolonial Algerians, turn to terrorism in protest against these conditions and "arranged for the [End Page 486] poisoning of every upper-middle and upper-class apartment in Paris" (77). The blank nihilism of these terrorists, who advance no positive program but seek only "to kill the city of perfection," anticipates Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's description of contemporary Islamic terrorism "not as the re-creation of a premodern world, but rather as a powerful refusal" of sovereignty (146-47). The Algerians' goal is not to re-form society, but to enact a total refusal of the social order: law, family, religion, even language. But unlike Hardt and Negri's fundamentalist bombers, for Acker's Algerians, this is only the beginning; "revolutions usually begin by terrorism" (Empire 75). Once the social norms and rules that hosted an oppressive sovereignty have broken down, no new structures are proposed; instead, the Algerians' revolution rapidly assumes the character of a corporation engaged in an anarchic version of capitalist competition, a pure war for ownership. Nihilistic refusal cedes to a new, positive motive: "The Algerians had taken over Paris so they would own something" (83). In a radical inversion of the socialist vision, Acker's Paris is reborn not as a society without a market but as a market without a society.
At first, this doesn't look like a happy ending. But throughout Acker's late work, free-market profiteers, operating outside and in defiance of society, appear as the specters of a radical liberation from a postmodern society of control: "As soon . . . as sovereignty, be it reigning or revolutionary, disappeared, . . . all my dreams . . . would be shattered. 'And then,' the fortune-teller said, 'you'll find yourself on a pirate ship'" (Pussy 10). For Acker, the pirate is the revolutionary subject of an entirely economic social world, with the free market imagined as the open sea, the horizon of the possible. Subjective desire is freed from any limit but the economic, and all interpersonal relations become market relations: "They're on the march; as much as they ever do anything together; they're after booty. Ownership" (112). Acker's vision of a pirate ship as the "myth and the place" of a new radical literature reflects her realization, "as I put these texts together, . . . that the hippies had been mistaken: they had thought that they could successfully oppose American postcapitalism by a lie, by creating a utopian society" ("Notes" 13). By 1989, the sad failures of the "hippies," from her old teacher Marcuse to the elderly children in the Kremlin, prove that [End Page 487] "[I]t is impossible . . . to live in a hypothetical . . . society if one does not actually inhabit such a world. One must be where one is" (12). Early in Empire of the Senseless, Acker develops a creation myth for...