The Debasement Tapes
Chris Kraus’s disarmingly direct fiction
In Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor (2006), the protagonist Sylvie remarks to an all-male group of intellectuals, including her husband, that there are no women on the list of writers they’re putting together for a cross-cultural literary tour. No one knows any of the “dowdy” lesbians that Sylvie has put forward, so they settle on Kathy Acker. There is little debate. “Of course, thinks Sylvie, if there has to be a woman, Acker would be it. Her books seduce and challenge heterosexual men; her photos just seduce them. . . . Why could the famous artist men be friends, the women just competitors? Was sex still the only passport to success if you were straight and female?”
Acker, Sylvie decides, understood that artistic success is based on creating a myth, and “female myths don’t run in groups”—they come as tokens. For the past thirty years, Kraus has dedicated herself to making room for more than one woman to be onstage. In 1990, she founded the Semiotext(e) Native Agents series to publish literature by women—including Cookie Mueller, Eileen Myles, Fanny Howe, Lynne Tillman, and Acker herself—that crossed poetry, fiction, criticism, and theory. (Before Native Agents, Semiotext(e) had only published men.) Female subjectivity was not just worthy of being theorized; for the Native Agents, it was already a body of theory.
In 1997, Kraus published I Love Dick, her first novel, under the Native Agents imprint, followed by Aliens & Anorexia (2000), Torpor, and the newly released Summer of Hate. All four feature disarmingly direct female narrators, who relate the author’s own thoughts,