A Reading as part of Wex…
Sunday, November 4, 3pm
Always do what will cost you the most. This seems to be the fundament of Chris Kraus’ work. She has her intelligence, which she guards like a wolf, and she has her willingness to fall to pieces in the work, and she has her aversion to a kind of placid safe-thinking, and with that she has become a household figure in contemporary literature. It is no small matter to become household by saying exactly what you think—to say it in your own words and without compromise. Kraus will read from her latest book, Summer of Hate. It is, like most of her work, a spill of theory, fiction, autobiography, and criticism.
The book was put out in 2012 by Semiotext(e) where Kraus edited the influential Native Agent Series for over two decades. The reading is presented with the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery and celebrates the release of Chris Kraus’ Kelly Lake Store & Other Stories, the second volume of the Cooley Gallery’s ongoing Companion Editions imprint. The book is edited by Stephanie Snyder, curator of the Cooley, and two guest editors Megan Stockton and Kylie Gilchrist. The book will be given away free to all attendees of the event and Summer of Hate will be available for sale. Thanks to Stephanie, Megan, and Kylie.
Where Art Belongs, the title of Chris Kraus’s collection of essays, sounds corrective. As if, instead of in its proper place, art is elsewhere. It has been mislaid, like a cell phone. Or perhaps, like a vase, not so much lost as thoughtlessly positioned. Where is art, and who put it there?
Anyone who has read Kraus’s earlier work can guess who she’ll bring in for questioning. “Until recently,” Kraus wrote in her previous essay collection, 2004’s Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, “there was absolutely no chance of developing an art career in Los Angeles without attending one of several high-profile MFA studio programs,” including ones at institutions where Kraus herself has taught. (Since the late 1990s, she has held teaching positions at a number of schools in California, including UC San Diego, UC Irvine, and Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.) The MFA is a “two-year hazing process” “essential to the development of value in the by-nature elusive parameters of neoconceptual art. Without it, who would know which cibachrome photos of urban signage, which videotapes of socks tossing around a dryer, which neominimalist monochrome paintings are negligible, and which are destined to be art?”
Duly initiated in sock videos, artists graduate to a handful of galleries, where their advanced degrees reassure collectors intending to get their money’s worth. The MFA is a quality assurance stamp, certifying that no matter what a piece looks like on the surface, it is guaranteed to be full of art-historical references. Alternative exhibition spaces are “dead-end ghettos, where no one, least of all ambitious students, from the art world goes.” While curators and professors consider the continuum between MFAs and galleries a “plus”—“what makes LA so great,” chirps one gallery owner, “is that the school program is actually a vital part of the community”—Kraus had her doubts. What “community” were these people talking about? “It is bizarre,” she observed, “that here, in America’s second largest city, contemporary art should have come to be so isolated and estranged from the experience of the city as a whole.”
Kraus—who was raised in New Zealand, where she worked as a journalist before moving to Manhattan in 1978, when she was 21—was made similarly uneasy by local zoning policies. There are, she observes, no stores in LA’s residential neighborhoods. A city that accepted isolation so indifferently seemed to her an apt symbol for the art world of the 1990s, when the slick conceptualism of the previous decade acquired a harder sheen: sliding doors reflect the pool, the pool the sliding doors—walls of glass, the city eternally showing itself to itself. Like Los Angeles’s galleries, the art inside constituted a closed circle of vacuous self-reference. “Preemptive emptiness” prevailed: “the greatest triumph of this art work is . . . the way it references so much, content dancing on the surface like a million heated molecules”—angels on the head of a pin and pixels on a screen—“until you can’t pin it down to any given meaning. As such, it is an embodiment of corporate practice: never put into writing what can be mumbled on the phone.”
In Where Art Belongs, Kraus continues her assault on neoconceptualism’s anticipatory emptiness (or Obliteration, as Stefan Brüggemann—whose work Kraus discusses in the essay “Twelve Words, Nine Days”—titled his series of squiggly, abstract neon sculptures, illegible “scribbles,” exhibited in 2007 beside earlier text works whose words Brüggemann had since obscured with silver paint). But the landscape is never far from her mind. In the same chapter, Kraus describes Baja California’s condo-lined Highway 1, where billboards advertising new housing developments all use “some form of the word ‘life’ in their copy: Life Elevated, Oceanview Life, Live Your Baja Dream . . .“ Trump Baja’s slogan is Owning here is just the beginning. “The beginning of what?” wonders Kraus. “The poetics of marketing: since everything is available, the point is no longer to have things but to use them as stations in eternal flux, leveraging into the infinite.”
The “poetics of marketing” are publicity Esperanto, the universal language that everyone speaks, whether they’re selling a Brüggemann installation or a time-share in Baja. The critics and gallery assistants and freelancers tasked with producing captions and catalog text become copywriters. Their job is “to give [art] a language that translates into value.” But Brüggemann’s original text installations—black vinyl letters stuck straight to the gallery wall—already resembled their own blurbs, art made in the language of the market.
And yet art has newly been spotted somewhere else. “You Are Invited to Be the Last Tiny Creature,” the first essay in Where Art Belongs, begins on “the arterial edge of Echo Park.” Here, in “a new-ish low-rise cement structure” approximately “20 yards north” of the 101 freeway, Janet Kim launched the art gallery/collective/music label Tiny Creatures in 2006. When it opened, Tiny Creatures neighbored an ice truck and a vacant lot; 99-cent stores stretched into the distance. “The American Apparel at the corner of Alvarado and Sunset had yet to be built.”
A few years later, Tiny Creatures had become a sensation, warranting a 2009 photo feature in the Los Angeles Times, where it “looks like a portrait of the new LA: neurosurgeons, fashion designers, visitors from London, curators, musicians, and local artists stand outside with drinks, just a few yards from a spot near the freeway where homeless men still sell oranges.” Unfortunately, this was Tiny Creatures’ farewell party: Kim and her friends had been priced out of Echo Park. When Kraus visited in 2010, the entire office complex was abandoned, except for unit 603, which houses a truck-parcel business serving Guatemala.
The collective efforts of Kim and the others affiliated with Tiny Creatures, most of whom had not attended art school and therefore lacked the credentials and unofficial alliances that granted other artists access to LA’s art scene, created an alternative to the “cluster of fiefdoms ruled by a handful of MFA programs.” Tiny Creatures artists were finally invited to mount shows at galleries dominated by credentialed professionals, marking a small reversal of the trend Kraus had identified in Video Green, which was the “shift that has taken place during the past ten years in how art objects reach the market, how they are defined and how we read them. The professionalization of art production—congruent with specialization in other postcapitalist industries—has meant that the only art that will ever reach the market is now art that is produced by graduates of art schools.”
This is the crux of Kraus’s true dissatisfaction with the contemporary art world: as the lives of artists started to look ever more alike—high school, college, MFA—they decreased in value. “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.”
And so although “You Are Invited to Be the Last Tiny Creature” has something of a happy ending—“when I send [Kim] a draft of this story, she tells me she’s just accepted an invitation to curate a new Tiny Creatures show later this year”—it’s hard to read it as a success story, or even the whole story. Running contrary to Kraus’s enthusiastic assessment of the collective and her analysis of the career trajectories of its artists is the work Tiny Creatures actually produced: Holy Shit frontman Matt Fishbeck’s hallucinatory photo collages, Jason Yates’s psychedelic posters—a glimpse of this work lets you understand how the Los Angeles art world quickly found a place for it. Tiny Creatures’ communal, do-it-yourself ethos might not have aligned exactly with the polished anonymity favored by the art world elite, but that hardly made it antiestablishment.
“Tiny Creatures,” reads the manifesto Kim asked her artists to sign, “glorifies expression and communication, not the ego.” But if that’s the case, then there is nothing assertive or threatening behind such work, no matter where it comes from—nothing that might mean its interest in and presentation of personal experience would pose a danger to, or be radically or even slightly different from, that of a branded artist like Brüggemann, where the ego is contained in familiar credentials and the fatuous cant of the artist’s statement. The “artist’s statement”! So like the college applicant’s personal statement, where the teenage supplicant appeals to institutions by formalizing confessed, “unique” experiences, in the same moralistic language used by every other high school student in America.
The real threats are artists who refuse to stop there—who move from confession, which describes a situation, to analysis, which seeks to explain it. If someone foolishly insists on making his—or her—life known, institutions have words for discrediting it. This candidate can’t be admitted. As Kraus declared in Video Green:
I think that “privacy” is to contemporary female art what “obscenity” was to male art and literature of the 1960s. The willingness of someone to use her life as primary material is still deeply disturbing, and even more so if she views her own experience at some remove. There is no problem with female confession providing it is made within a repentant therapeutic narrative. But to examine things coolly, to thrust experience out of one’s own brain and put it on the table, is still too confrontational.
If the sufferer describes a pathology that is socially approved, because privately felt, personally inflicted, and guiltily accepted as such (anorexia, addiction, sexual misadventures of all varieties), great. If it is socially determined and experienced by a person who knows she is sane and lucid and doesn’t want to get well—who will not even identify as sick—well, that’s not so cool. If it’s not her problem, then whose is it?
“Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?” Kraus wonders in her first novel, 1997’s I Love Dick, which—like her other novels, Aliens and Anorexia (2000) and Torpor (2006)—is an attempt to do exactly that. (All three are mixtures of criticism, autobiography, and fiction that explicitly include and describe Kraus’s efforts to convert her biography into fiction.) Female artists who refuse to enter “the realm of abject memoir/confession” and insist on talking about their private experiences—about sex, pain, drugs, and the ordinary, universal nuisance of living inside a body—will be called “immoral” anyway.
In Video Green, Kraus cited the case of Jennifer Schlosberg, who was a 26-year-old art student at UCLA when she produced 78 Drawings of My Face, “an alphabetized dossier” of “the history of her interactions with everyone at school.” Everyone at school? Not anonymous sexual partners? Not even generic art world archetypes? Students and faculty members were furious. Professors refused to work with her. “Why do you make yourself so scary?” asked Schlosberg’s adviser, the conceptual artist Chris Burden, the same man who made his career by filming himself being shot with a gun and nailed, in front of a crowd, to a Volkswagen. “Artists,” Burden explained to his young student, “have to do their own work. Art should not be based on social interactions.”
Schlosberg’s nearly accidental stumbling into reality, and social reality, as the unnameable thing—as fundamentally scandalous—cuts to the heart of Kraus’s quarrel with MFA programs. When Kraus offered an elective on diary writing at an art school in California, the students who signed up were “mostly girls, of course, who’d drifted foolishly into art, thinking art might be a medium for change or self-expression. . . . Unlike the girls who’d go on to good careers making videotapes of lawn-sprinklers, the diary-writers wondered why there were no senior female faculty at the school and why the Institution’s only black employees were security guards and secretaries. The diary-writers wondered why the institution’s only class on ‘feminism’ was perennially taught by men.” Looking around the curriculum, Kraus noticed that the “confrontational, conceptual female artists who were Burden’s prominent contemporaries” had been corralled into single-semester electives or pushed off syllabi entirely.
Kraus associates the disappearance of most of these women artists—from reading lists and libraries, from our chronology of the end of the 20th century, with the erasure of radical feminist intellectuals like Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex. (Firestone, writing about her hopes for artists in 1970: “Within the next decade, we may see [female art’s] growth into a powerful new art . . . that will, for the first time, authentically grapple with the reality that women live in.”) Out of print for many years, Dialectic was reissued by FSG in 2003, thanks to the efforts of the younger feminist Jennifer Baumgardner. Now it’s out of print again. “As a teenager,” Kraus writes, “Dialectic was my favorite book, and I’d always wondered what had happened to Shulamith.”
What had happened is that, after years of trying to tell the world the truth, she spent over a decade “shuttling in and out of New York City public mental hospitals,” an experience she finally documented in 1998’s Airless Spaces, a series of “very short and barely fictionalized observations.” Like Where Art Belongs, it was published by Semiotext(e), where Kraus has been an editor for over two decades.
At Semiotext(e), Kraus shares editorial duties with Hedi El Kholti and her ex-husband and Semiotext(e) founding father Sylvère Lotringer. Born in France to Polish Jews who fled Warsaw in 1930, Lotringer spent much of his childhood in hiding outside Paris. After the war, he moved to Israel with his family, then returned to France, spending several years as a member of the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair before entering the Sorbonne in 1958. He completed his graduate work at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he wrote an unusual dissertation on Virginia Woolf under the supervision of Roland Barthes. Columbia University hired Lotringer as a professor in the early 1970s—as he dates it, “just a few months after the publication of Anti-Oedipus“—and, in New York, he quickly established the journal Semiotext(e) “as a bridge” by which the work of Deleuze and Guattari and other exemplars of the newest French theory might be imported to America.
Despite a nominal university affiliation, Semiotext(e) was subsidized largely by Lotringer and his staff, which included Kathryn Bigelow—the Hurt Locker director got her start directing a twenty-minute short featuring two men punching each other, while Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky analyzed the action in voice-over. They had published several issues when they began organizing an ambitious “Schizo-Culture” conference on prisons and madness. Guattari persuaded Deleuze to accompany him to New York. Foucault, who was teaching in Brazil, agreed to stop by on his way back to Paris. (At work on The History of Sexuality, he was enticed by the prospect of examining a rare Jesuit education manual held by the New York Public Library.) In 1975, the 2,000 attendees who descended upon Columbia’s campus witnessed what Foucault called “the last counterculture event of the ’60s.” Lotringer recalls:
As for Deleuze, he managed to present an outline of his concept of the “rhizome,” which had not yet been discussed in print—but in French, very slowly, while drawing diagrams of root systems and crabgrass on a blackboard. Foucault, who was already known in America, looked on while his paper on infantile sexuality, an attack on radical academics who mistook their verbal pronouncements against repression for political action, was read aloud by a friend in English. When the lecture was over, members of Lyndon LaRouche’s Labor Committee instantly created havoc by denouncing Foucault (and [R. D.] Laing) as undercover CIA agents. In this climate, Semiotext(e) came into being as a cultural venture, and not just a semiotic outfit.
And Semiotext(e) permanently transformed the landscape of American thought. Both the magazine and the books series, which Lotringer established in 1983, played “a pathbreaking role in the early diffusion of French theory,” François Cusset writes in French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. The small, black, inexpensive paperbacks published by Semiotext(e)‘s Foreign Agents imprint introduced a generation of American students to a number of French authors, among them Paul Virilio, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard. (The first title in the series—an excerpt adapted from Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation—sold more than 20,000 copies.) Lotringer imagined these complex but unacademic volumes as how-to books: what they taught you was “how to think with your own mind . . . how to eroticize thinking, make it a pleasure of the senses.” It was, he declared, “philosophy for the boudoir.”
Lotringer has famously called French theory an “American invention.” At the least, it was a collaborative effort. French soixante-huitard theorists, prone to futurism, prediction, and occasional grandiose exaggeration, wound up telling the truth about what it felt like to live in hypercapitalist, postindustrial America, which embodied—and responded to—their ideas with more enthusiasm than France ever would. To American literary people (and university literature departments), theory felt vital in a way that novels no longer did. It was the inheritor of modernism’s “many-sided ambitiousness,” as Terry Eagleton put it—a certain capacious, cosmopolitan dissidence, a restless spirit that could not be satisfied or expressed in any of the old ways.
Meanwhile, another void was waiting to be filled—in the art world, where neo-expressionism was on the way out. The launch of the Foreign Agents series in 1983 corresponded with the rise of neoconceptualism, whose advocates and practitioners championed self-reflexive art, work that absorbed consumer society in order to critique it. Barthes, whose Mythologies everyone had read in art school, was a major early influence, but it was Baudrillard—visionary theorist of the consumer society—who became their hero. Artforum put him on its masthead. (Nobody checked with Baudrillard, who was surprised to see himself listed as a contributing editor.) When the Whitney invited Baudrillard to give “A Distinguished Lecture on American Art and Culture of the Twentieth Century” in 1987, a competing Anti-Baudrillard show was organized downtown. Lotringer arranged a third event: a lecture at Columbia University, where Baudrillard announced that many of his avowed followers had misunderstood his work entirely.
The art scene’s “deadly embrace” of Baudrillard confirmed Lotringer’s suspicion that French theory had become “dangerously popular.” Intended in part as a symbolic burial of theory—in the very place it was born—the 1987 Columbia lecture was also an acknowledgment of the fact it had taken on a zombie afterlife of its own. So, as armies of the undead continued to buy its backlist, the question pressed: besides serve as the executor of its own estate, what would Semiotext(e) do? Who would recall it to life?
Kraus—who had met Lotringer earlier that decade, when she was working to make a name for herself as an artist and filmmaker in the downtown circles in which he was revered—suggested Semiotext(e) turn to face America directly and recover the original, unpardonably forgotten contribution the United States had made to intellectual life in the years after 1968, namely, feminism. This recovery took the form of the Native Agents series. When the imprint was launched in 1990, with Kraus as editor, Foreign Agents had never published a book by someone who wasn’t a white man. Semiotext(e) had “missed out” on the feminist movement entirely. “It happened,” Lotringer told an interviewer, “and I wasn’t aware of it.” He hadn’t published women, Kraus explained, “because the only women he knew writing theory were doing psychoanalytic theory, which he wasn’t so interested in.”
Native Agents sought to recover a different line of feminism, publishing female authors who used what Kraus described as “the same public ‘I’ that gets expressed in these other French theories . . . a personal ‘I’ that is constantly bouncing up against the world—that isn’t just existing for itself.” Its first titles were Ann Rower’s If You’re a Girl and Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by the actress and downtown activist Cookie Mueller. Mueller had inspired the title of John Waters’s 1974 “bad taste” masterpiece Female Trouble. When Mueller was hospitalized with pelvic inflammatory disease, Waters visited and asked her what was wrong. “Just a little female trouble, hon,” she quipped. Neither Mueller nor Rower shied away from the taboos of the female body in their writing, which addressed the mysterious, atmospheric shyness when it came to women’s lives. “It seems weird how all these embarrassing female type stories seemed to be popping into my mind, and then into my writing,” Rower explains in the very first paragraph of If You’re a Girl. “[S]tories about sex, abuse, rape, abortion, marriage, divorce, infection, kids. I want to make a collection of them and call it If You’re a Girl.” A few other titles were proposed; people took offense to all of them. “Touchy subject,” Rower admits. “But then all the interesting subjects were touchy. Or taken.”
What united the Native Agents authors was the way their work combined elements of theory, fiction, and biography, explicitly refusing to identify absolutely with any single genre. The last lines of If You’re a Girl could have served as Native Agents’ call to arms: “Can I help it,” Rower wrote, “if I wanna put back the lie in Li(t)erature, as in Li(f)e? Go ahead, Plato, make my day.” It was a challenge that other Native Agents writers like the novelist Lynne Tillman, and Eileen Myles—whose poetry small presses had been publishing since the late 1970s—had been issuing for some time. Tillman started writing “critical fiction” in the early 1980s, when she was asked to produce a piece to accompany an exhibition of Kiki Smith’s drawings. What she came up with was a first-person account narrated by the sort-of-fictional, sort-of-art-critic Madame Realism, who watches TV, goes to dinner parties, and muses on Dalí. In the final paragraph of “Madame Realism,” Madame Realism looks at herself in the mirror, pets her cat, turns off the TV. A story, she decides, is “a way to think.”
Because of Semiotext(e)‘s cachet, Native Agents offered these authors a chance their work might find—and be taken seriously by—a wider audience. In 1992, Semiotext(e) brought out The Madame Realism Complex, a collection of Tillman’s critical fiction, or fictional criticism, including the original “Madame Realism.” Amplified, Tillman’s voice—and Myles’s (her 1991 collection Not Me was Native Agents’ third book), and Firestone’s in Airless Spaces—reached new ears. Their style and method influenced younger Semiotext(e) authors, including Michelle Tea (The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, 1998) and Veronica Gonzalez (twin time: or, how death befell me, 2007).
As it turned out, the most gifted practitioner of Native Agents’ nonpsychoanalytic first-person mode proved to be Kraus herself. “To be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. . . . Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form. . . . If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal,’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?“ she wondered in I Love Dick, in which she aimed to do exactly that.
The novel begins with “Chris Kraus” falling suddenly and electrically in love with “Dick [Hebdige],” an English cultural critic and friend of her husband “Sylvère Lotringer.” Like Kraus and Lotringer, “Chris” and “Sylvère” met on the New York art scene of the 1980s, where he was an established figure and she an aspiring director. Over the years, “Sylvère’s” star seems to burn increasingly bright, while her projects fail to find funding or an audience. Like her, they simply are not taken seriously: “Because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one”—meaning none of Sylvère’s friends in the upper echelons of the art world or academia—“expects too much from her.” With Dick, things go similarly. They have sex, then he rebuffs her advances and dismisses her writing—first the letters she sends him about their encounters and her subsequent fantasies, then the stories she writes about sending those letters, and finally the ones about publishing those letters and stories.
“If I could love you consciously,” she declares, “take an experience that was so completely female and subject it to an abstract analytical system, then perhaps I had a chance of understanding something and could go on living.” Exegesis begins in eros; interpretation is not simply a method but an instructive technique. “Love is like writing,” reflects Kraus, and, immune to boredom, the lover is the ideal critic, her attention happily and effortlessly held. Meaning shines from the most mundane details, which Kraus connects into constellations of particular and luminous significance. It is possible, she finds, to turn on in ourselves the bright light of the interrogation room—to willfully and willingly aim our minds at ourselves; to expose all experience always to direct and sustained evaluation. Through the intentional, perpetual effort to comprehend it, existence is transformed from a series of events lived through into a whole and single life—and therefore the world in which it is lived into something within our power to comprehend. As long as we question our authority to evaluate the universe, the universe remains a question not only open but inscrutable. What is known to us tells us what there is to know: what it has the answer for—and all that it has to answer for.
I Love Dick ends with a FedEx package sent by Hebdige to the address “Sylvère” and “Chris” share: inside are two envelopes, one for Sylvère, the other for Chris, who has been waiting to hear from him. She opens the one for Sylvère first: “I should have,” Dick has written, “been absolutely unambiguous in my response to the letters you and Kris [surely a contender for the most perverse sic in the history of sics!] sent over the following month instead of opting for bemused silence. . . . I still enjoy your company and conversation when we meet and believe, as you do, that Kris has talent as a writer. . . . I do not share your conviction that my right to privacy has to be sacrificed for the sake of that talent.” Then she opens the envelope addressed to her—and finds a photocopy of the same letter. The gesture is a masterstroke of indifference. More than a personal rejection, it is a dismissal of Chris as a person, as an individual worthy of engaging in conversation, or even correctly identifying.
Shortly after I Love Dick was released, New York magazine reported that Hebdige had attempted to block publication of the book on grounds that it invaded his privacy. “I don’t like reading bad reviews,” he said, “and this book reads like a bad review of my presence in the world. . . . If someone’s writing gets read because it exploits a recognizable figure, then it really is a despicable exercise.” Kraus defended her project on the grounds it “explod[ed] the ‘right of privacy’ that serves patriarchy so well.” Hebdige scoffed: “A feminist issue? Tell her to take it up with Princess Diana.”
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Hebdige, author of the classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style, who—in the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook twilight of the 20th century—understandably assumed intimate facts about his existence would never be made public. Even today, we generally trust we will be the ones in control of the broadcast. Wouldn’t we behave differently if we really, truly believed we weren’t? Our lives, not quite ours, would go in part unlived.
But privacy is a feminist issue, one that underlies so many others. As the labor movement made questions of “private” property and private time into public issues, women’s liberation swung open the door of the home to reveal the political dimensions of childcare and domestic labor. It was a door that had long been locked: domestic work was not really uncompensated labor, the assumption went, because love paid the wages. The natural affection a mother felt for her child set parenting apart from other kinds of activity. A similar logic ran through 19th-century America’s arguments against giving women the vote, or property rights: all men, first as sons and then as husbands, were privately influenced by women. By exerting this influence, women were as good as represented. Private relationships constituted, or compensated for, public recognition. Women held the key to no kingdom: they belonged outside the public sphere, and yet were denied a private life of their own.
Historically, privacy has not defended the autonomy of women, but perpetuated the lie that they are already free. It becomes clear that even what sounds like a positive guarantee of privacy actually denies it to women if one listens closely to the words of one of the most famous defenses of a woman’s right to privacy, Roe v. Wade. Writing for the majority, Harry Blackmun declared that “the right of privacy, however based, is broad enough to cover [a woman’s decision to have an abortion]; that the right, nonetheless, is not absolute and is subject to some limitations; and that at some point the state interests as to protection of health, medical standards, and prenatal life, become dominant. . . . The woman’s right to privacy is no longer sole and any right of privacy she possesses must be measured accordingly.” Until then, abortion was to be considered “a medical decision,” responsibility for which “must rest with the physician.” In his concurrence with the majority opinion, William O. Douglas specified that the privacy protected by the ruling was not a woman’s, but “that between physician and patient.” A woman’s right to privacy, in other words, was contingent; at a certain point in time, it would cease to exist. Until then, it resided in her relationship with her doctor.
What the pretense of privacy often does is protect us from reality. It is called on to conceal the fact that there are two realities: the world as it is lived in by men, and the world of women, which has historically been exiled from political and philosophical consideration. It has been regarded as beneath such consideration, its truths narrowly and inescapably personal—rather than universal—and therefore inevitably trivial. Hence Hebdige’s invocation of Princess Diana: a woman’s life, presented in public, was always the stuff of tabloids. She should be glad not to have it exhibited, and ashamed to exhibit it herself. (“Why,” wonders Kraus in I Love Dick, “does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our debasement?”) Placing domestic and intimate relationships outside the boundaries of legitimate public interest in this way condemns them permanently to the status of intractable nature, or “frivolous gossip,” discouraging intervention and thereby preserving invisible practices of domination. After all, only social problems have social solutions. It is no coincidence that feminism’s furthest advances have been made in spaces already considered public (offices, voting booths), while the demands it places on “the private sphere” (like those concerning the division of household labor and childcare) face enduring resistance.
If privacy is defined in such a way that it handicaps the ability of certain people to enter freely and equally into public life, it is not only a meaningless concept but a despicable one. When Kraus exploded privacy, what she demolished was a house beyond repair—sweeping away “privacy” in its present contradictory state so something that could be enjoyed, for the first time, equally and freely by both men and women, might take its place.
As Kraus writes in I Love Dick:
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, changing names and insignificant features of their identities. The “serious contemporary hetero-male novel” is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy. While the hero/anti-hero explicitly is the author, everybody else is reduced to “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.
Bitches, libelers, whatever word you want to use: the point is they are naming names: mapping out their individual consciousness means recognizing the other individuals that shaped its borders, and acknowledging them as such. The purpose of such personal details is to represent a shared reality—to capture the familiar feeling of never feeling like yourself, but a series of selves, whether past, present, potential, or imagined by others—but also perhaps to change it. This, Kraus explains in the essay “May ’69” in Where Art Belongs, was the utopian intent of the liberation movements of the late 1960s and ’70s and in particular the British sex magazine Suck, whose “editors routinely invaded their own and each other’s privacy,” appearing nude in the paper and writing openly about their sexual experiences. “Sexuality and daily life were seen as the locus of politics”; the public exposure of traditionally private behavior “a means of disrupting the social order.” Who today believes “it might be possible to live differently,” or even wants to?
In the end, Kraus agreed to cut Hebdige’s last name and other identifying details from the final draft, and I Love Dick was published.
Over the years, I Love Dick has become a cult classic, as have books by other Native Agents authors, including Bernadette Corporation’s Reena Spaulings and Eileen Myles’s Not Me. Like Kraus, Myles is well-respected and devoutly admired, as are many of the series’s writers, Howe, Tillman, and Kathy Acker among them. (Where Art Belongs is the first of Kraus’s books to be published by a different Semiotext(e) brand: the Intervention Series, established in 2009, publishes “polemical texts,” whose authors—Kraus so far has been the only exception to this rule—are men or, potentially, unnamed or anonymous female members of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee.) Yet Native Agents has never attained the incendiary authority wielded by Semiotext(e)‘s other, earlier branches. After Semiotext(e) cut ties with the publishing collective Autonomedia in 2000, it found a new distributor in MIT Press, which was enticed by the strength of Semiotext(e)‘s backlist of French authors and Lotringer’s professional contacts. Then editor-in-chief Larry Cohen had to be talked into taking on the fiction.
In the years since, Kraus’s—and Native Agents’—star has grown brighter. Yet both remain on the periphery of academia, which so warmly embraced the first generation of Semiotext(e) authors. François Cusset, who in French Theory spends many pages rightly and lucidly praising the work of Semiotext(e) and Lotringer, dispenses with Native Agents in a single, subordinate clause, describing its titles as “political autofictions and collections of lesbian short stories.” Kraus is identified as Lotringer’s “companion.”
Cusset’s account of the Schizo-Culture conference in 1975 is similarly unsatisfying: “Deleuze, for whom this was the one and only trip across the Atlantic, was interrupted in his debate with Ronald Laing by a far Left militant feminist, Ti-Grace Atkinson, who worked her way to the front and began to insult them, calling them ‘phallocrats’ and preventing them from continuing.” If only Deleuze’s American vacation hadn’t been ruined by that crazy woman! You wouldn’t know from Cusset’s account that Atkinson had actually been invited to participate in the conference. (And surely Atkinson deserves at least to be the “far Left militant feminist,” on the basis of her extensive, ambitious, and pivotal historical role in US radical feminism, of which it is still professionally acceptable for historians to be blithely unaware.) Instead, the wording accuses her of those particularly feminine crimes, shrillness and irrationality. What is this woman talking about? Why can’t she just shut up?
Other reports have cast Atkinson’s behavior at the conference in a somewhat less fearsome light. In one possible past, a crowd of supporters boos Guattari off the stage for allowing a band to set up behind him just before Atkinson is scheduled to speak. What a twist! It’s like finding out that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a version of “A Scandal in Bohemia” in which Irene Adler steals a photograph from Sherlock Holmes. The story is the same, but the characters have switched places. The man we thought was Deleuze is actually his double, Guattari, and the crime he’s charged with—preventing someone else from speaking—is exactly the one Atkinson is accused of.
When I Love Dick was reprinted in 2006, Eileen Myles contributed a new introduction in which she characterized Kraus’s fusion of fiction, autobiography, and criticism as a successful turning of the tables. “Not on a particular guy, ‘Dick,’ but on that smug impervious observing culture”—“the male host culture,” which she forces “to listen to her describe the inside of those famous female feelings.” The inside: like the inside of the desk drawer, where one’s unsent letters are kept, or the inside of the envelope, which holds the unread letter.
And the letter—in some cases, the fax—is the foundation of I Love Dick: first with Sylvère, then on her own, Chris writes hundreds of letters to Dick documenting and analyzing her feelings for him. And she writes them in full knowledge of the fact that letter-writing has long been considered a female occupation. By the 1870s, the stereotype had congealed firmly enough that Flaubert could satirize “epistolary style” as “reserved exclusively for women” in his Dictionary of Received Ideas. For well over a century, women had been rigorously trained in the art of writing letters while being praised for their “natural” letter-writing abilities: it was, declared one Frenchman in 1665, “an art that they have learned without thinking about it.” The invention of what Katharine Ann Jensen calls the “Epistolary Woman” effectively excluded all women from the sphere of serious male conversation. Although women played a crucial role in the Republic of Letters and the development of Romantic philosophy—think, for instance, of such female salonnières as Germaine de Staël, whose writing introduced France to German philosophy and Romanticism’s exaltation of enthusiasm as the emotion on which knowledge and happiness most depended—they found that the boundaries of that Republic were ultimately drawn such that their letters were excluded.
Rousseau’s Julie, Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, even naughty Fanny Hill: the earliest novels consisted of letters from women, writing always and only about love. But men, of course, were the ones writing these novels. If, as critics have suggested, the epistolary novel was the crucible of modern consciousness—of third-person narration in fiction (“the person most girls use when they want to talk about themselves but don’t think anyone will listen,” reflects Kraus in I Love Dick—after, it’s worth noting, she’s switched over to the first person), of our every and own thoughts in life—the female mind it molded was built to hold thoughts of love. “Eventually,” writes Kraus, Chris and Sylvère “would title [one section of their correspondence] Does the Epistolary Genre Mark the Advent of the Bourgeois Novel? But that was later, after another dinner with some noted academic friends at Dick’s,” when a “poised and glamorous” curator calls Chris’s project “so bourgeois” and cites Habermas. (That would be the Habermas of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which he will attribute not to salons—steered and attended by women, located inside private homes—but to newspaper reading in coffeehouses, where women were not welcome.) Chris, silent, barely touches her food.
Like I Love Dick, Kraus’s semiautobiographical novel Torpor is narrated by someone who is perceived by many of the people she encounters to play a nonspeaking role. Set in the early 1990s, Torpor tells the story of Sylvie—an aspiring filmmaker—and her partner Jerome—a French academic—who, with the (ultimately unfulfilled) goal of adopting a Romanian orphan, embark together on a doomed voyage across Eastern Europe. The journey includes a stop in Berlin, where Jerome has a summer fellowship. When two German poets putting together an anthology of American countercultural writing ask Jerome to serve as their third coeditor, Sylvie insists on attending the meeting. This is, after all, her area of expertise: like Kraus, Sylvie edits “a fiction series for Jerome’s press”; like Native Agents, its authors are mostly women who do not so much let the reader in as announce themselves as “a female public I aimed outwards towards the world.”
At the meeting, while discussing possible contributors, “the three men reel off the names of other men. All white. Sylvie finds the reality of this unbearable. Finally she says: ‘You know, there aren’t any women on this list.’ . . . She’s been around this world for 15 years and knows that there are never any women on the list, unless someone consciously decides to put them there.” She suggests a few but “no one in the room has heard of any of these writers. . . . The men just gape as Sylvie mounts a passionate defense of how female lived experience can be channeled through poetic avant-gardist forms, but in the process changes them.“
Why, she demands afterward, didn’t Jerome—who knows little about the kind of writing that’s to be included in the anthology—just tell the Germans she should be their collaborator, since in all likelihood she’ll end up doing most of the work? It’s his name they’re paying for, he tells her, and he’s right. Sylvie may share a “wealth of philosophic-literary references” with Jerome—and, in effect, a transposition of the real Sylvère’s name—but “in terms of opportunities,” she’s poorer than him. Why don’t their investments pay off the same?
For so long, so many lives refused to be lived like books! Because the books, in turn, were not truly like lives. One way in which they failed to account for female experience was by not acknowledging that failure to account for female experience—that constant feeling of being told, you are telling your life the wrong way. You are taking your life personally, which is to say: not like an artist. In I Love Dick, Kraus quotes a letter Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, after he read La Servante, a poem about a young woman who, like Colet, loves books and a writer who scorns her: “You have made Art an outlet for the passions, a kind of chamberpot to catch the overflow of I don’t know what. It doesn’t smell good! It smells of hate!” Her poem was not so much a bad poem as a bad review of his life, to use Hebdige’s phrase. Colet’s description of universal experience had not thoroughly enough been scraped of her personal experience and was therefore not universal.
But what was the universal? At what point did an account of human experience spill over into the trivial? Female experience constituted art up until the point it ceased to be identical with male experience. (Flaubert to Colet: “You are a poet shackled to a woman!”) And so to live one’s life as a woman was at odds with living one’s life as if it were a work of art—not just because certain elements particular to female existence tended not to make their way into most novels but because most novels, if they were good, refused to acknowledge that the world maintained such crucial distinctions. There should always and only be the human—and we all wanted to be human.
Kraus’s decision to “explode privacy” is nothing less than an attempt to make books equal to life, so that we may have books to live by. If theory filled a void left by the novel, work like Kraus’s takes up where both left off. The truth about life must be told, in one form or another, and Kraus offers another way of telling. Flaubert, quoted by Kraus in her introduction to the Barnes & Noble edition of Madame Bovary, writes: “Work is still the best means of getting the better of life”—and so lives must be allowed to count as work before they can be gotten the better of.
Could it be, then, that what Kraus is at work on is a kind of philosophy, philosophy that simply goes unrecognized as such? (It’s happened before. Terry Eagleton suggests one reason American philosophy departments failed to embrace French theory was that it simply did not sound like philosophy.) As Kraus knew it would be, which is perhaps the point, or part of it: “What hooks me on our story,” Kraus tells Dick, “is our different readings of it. You think it’s personal and private; my neurosis. . . . I think our story is performative philosophy.” She has another name for it, too: “American first-person fiction.” And that insistence on the first-person, that ever-developing “I”: who does Kraus sound like here so much as Thoreau? Thoreau, with his famous ironic and then sincere statement, early in Walden: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.”
“IS THE UNREPRESENTED LIFE WORTH LIVING?” wonders Lynn Tillman’s Madame Realism. “NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION.” Yes, the whole country has always had female trouble! And it ails us still. Torpor begins with a quotation that describes how to identify sugar maples, taken from the 1936 edition of Clarence Moores Weed’s field guide Our Trees, How to Know Them. (“The following pages,” Weed touchingly explains in his introduction, “are intended to furnish an opportunity for a more intimate acquaintance with our American trees.”) Life—here, now, on this continent, in all its prosaic particularity—is something that can be known, is something we might reasonably be said to have knowledge of. There is nothing in the world without a name, or to which we might not give one, should we deem it worthy. What Thoreau, for instance, found worthy was his own life, as lived by him, in America. As a writer, editor, and publisher, Kraus takes up this native tradition, which historically has been best obeyed by those who defied it—by those who understood its meaning, and so sought to redefine it. Both her writing and the Native Agents series as a whole attempt nothing more or less than to cure us of our female trouble by making Thoreau’s treatment available to women, to whom it has so often been denied. To let, in other words, women treat themselves as worth treating, as Kraus does in I Love Dick: “She was an American artist, and for the first time it occurred to her that perhaps the only thing she had to offer was her specificity. By writing Dick she was offering her life as a Case Study.
Elizabeth Gumport’s essay “Female Trouble” ran in Issue 13 of N+1. Gumport is a senior editor at N+1.