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  • “I Can’t Get Sexual Genders Straight”: Kathy Acker’s Writing of Bodies and Pleasures
  • Annette Schlichter (bio)

The essay explores Kathy Acker’s reconfiguration of heterosexual practice and identity in her “novel” Don Quixote. The essay shows how the production of dissident heterosexualities forms a radical critique of sexuality by situating Don Quixote in the controversy over what Michel Foucault has called “bodies and pleasures,” the counterdiscursive concept he distinguishes from the reigning system of sex-desire. 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 force that the notion of sex-desire has offered feminist critics of the construction of the subject. Acker queers the conditions of representation by deploying the oppositional potential of “bodies and pleasures.”

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.1 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.2 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:

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)

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).3 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.

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...

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