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Kathy Acker: Empire of the Senseless

This might be the first book that an author has dedicated to her tattooist but that is not what it is about (though it is not entirely irrelevant). Though there is still plagiarism, it is not as key as in her earlier books. However, the title of the first section – Elegy for the World of the Fathers – and of the first sub-section – Rape by the Father – show that her themes are the familiar ones. Abhor, part human and part robot, and her male partner, Thivai, wander through Paris in the near future. It is a Mad Max landscape of chaos and death and destruction. Algerian revolutionaries have taken over Paris. Dr. Schreber, the boss of Thivai and Abhor, sends them out on a mission to find the code to a construct called Kathy. According to Acker, we are all constructs – we are what our environment made us – whether we are characters in a novel or the author of a novel.

They do find the code, which is GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND whose meaning is clear. Acker is calling for a new way of thinking and acting. Getting rid of the patriarchal ways of thought, of course, is important but she is referring of course to removing all authority and hierarchy. Abhor does do so, by killing Dr. Schreber and becoming a sailor, dressing up as a man to do so. (This is where tattoos come in, as Abhor watches a gay sailor have a new kind of tattoo.)

The final section is back to pirates, one of Acker’s favourite themes (she wanted to be a pirate when she was a child) and one that clearly symbolises freedom for her. Here we are back to plagiarism, with Huckleberry Finn the source this time. With Thivai and his friend Mark playing the roles of Huck and Tom and Abhor, the woman, playing the degraded role of Jim, the slave, Acker again attacks traditional roles of control. Abhor escapes to found a motorcycle gang but, again, the male control forces prevent her from realising her dream. Acker ends with a drawing with the legend Discipline and Anarchy.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by Grove Press