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Where’s the Booty?: The Stakes of Textual and Economic Piracy as Seen Through the Work of Kathy Acker

by Paige Sweet
20 Dec 2009 • Comment (0) • Print PDF
Posted: Pirates and Piracy [5] | Article

“Once upon a Time, Not Long Ago, O…”: The title of the Preface to Kathy Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates at first may seem almost as trite as its pirate heroes. Almost, but not quite. Acker’s perverse juxtaposition of these sing-song fairy tale words with one of the most notorious female masochists of all time (O, of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O)[1] indicates from the outset that this story will be both familiar and foreign to the reader’s storybook sensitivities. For in the timbre of “Ago, O…” one hears the telltale tremors of trouble: “uh-oh…”

Kathy Acker (1947 – 1997) drew inspiration from the Western literary canon as one draws blood from a body: to extract, study, and experiment. Many of her stories are appropriated from well-known writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century including Charles Dickens, Daniel Hawthorne, Cervantes, Celan, and many others. She also mined content from stories told by fellow strippers, popular romance books, and pornography. As the title to the Preface of Pussy indicates, Acker’s technique is an unequal and impure combination of cut-up, mash-up, transposition, and transfusion. Through this technique Acker makes the first moves toward the betrayal of established literary standards.

Exhibiting her penchant for piracy both in her methods of plagiarism and the bountiful pirate figures that populate her books helped her to earn the label “literary terrorist.” Acker shamelessly copied character names, plots, and even the exact language from any discursive field that interested her. She would change the location of the story or the setting of the scene, but she never hid the sites of her pillages. On the contrary, because she practiced piracy with a purpose, her intent was to reveal the spurious nature of ownership and property with an eye fixed on how these ideas are embedded in language and how language is implicated in them. Piracy, her self-described writing style, valorizes plagiarism as a technique which challenges the legal categories that protect and even sanction one kind of thievery (that which operates on behalf of capitalist accumulation) while criminalizing another (such as copyright infringement). One might thus read her piracy as a kind of taking back, a reclaiming of a previously stolen good. But it is not merely a restorative gesture. Rather, analyzing Acker’s stylistic and thematic tributes to piracy serve as a productive entry point into analyzing the relationship between ownership and property on the one hand and the social, political, and legal aspects of literary language on the other. Acker renders explicit the violence, perversity, and economic inequalities that are implicit in the texts she pirates. In this way she produces a literary event that is able to illuminate the injustices of the historical and political circumstances that inspire much of her fiction. Her piracy thus works to expose the hypocrisy of social norms and values that act in concert with literary traditions in masking the violence and perversity of economic and political inequalities.

By examining the implications of the themes of piracy and her piratical style I aim to approach the question of whether the fictionalizing of revolt against economic and sexual inequality provides a means to understand historical forms of resistance and fashion a response to their contemporary counterparts. Rather than positing the question of whether her fiction mirrors, reproduces, or intensifies the violence it critiques, I am interested in navigating Acker’s textual seascapes and exploring what pirates as outlaws and piracy as a tactic can show about the treasure hidden within the bloated belly of global capital.

The Lure of the Pirate: Stealing and Styling

Kathy Acker demonstrated more than a cool recital of the observation, which has become something of a truism of postmodern literature and poststructuralist theory, that all writing is a form of re-writing. The concomitant intertwining of reading and writing implied in this observation is manifest in Acker’s process of composition. But Acker had no anxiety about influence, which also means that she did not exhibit the appropriate deference to literary tradition. Rather than politely absorbing literary tradition into her stories and demonstrating masterful composition through oblique references or literary inside jokes, she irreverently turned the stories inside out. Instead stitching her stories seamlessly into an ever-forming intertextual unconscious, she harnessed her vast knowledge of literature to place into the foreground the ubiquitous patterns of sexual, economic, and political violence that lie just beneath the surface of the most revered narratives and myths of the West as embodied in the Western literary tradition.

Acker’s piratical method takes various forms. Her novels Great Expectations and Don Quixote are clear about who and what they plunder. Alternately, plagiarism invades identity and generic form in her books The adult life of Toulouse Lautrec, My Death, My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Hello, I’m Erica Jong where she challenges the assumed authenticity of memoires, mocking the notion that they tell a truer story than novels and highlighting the textual production of identity. Her novel Blood and Guts in High School exemplifies her writing technique. Here the main character, Janey, is modeling Acker’s re-reading and writing strategy in the form of a book report on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. The authorial persona represented by the grammatical “I,” however, is torturously and continuously in question as the subject of the book report slips back and forth between Janey and Hester Prynne:[2]

I want to fuck you, Dimwit [Dimmesdale]. I know I don’t know you very well you won’t ever let me get near you. I have no idea what you feel about me. You kissed me once with your tongue when I didn’t expect it and then you broke a date. I used to have lots of fantasies about you: you’d marry me, you’d fuck me, you were going again with your former girlfriend, you’d save me from blindness. You’d. Verb. Me. Now the only image in my mind is your cock in my cunt. I can’t think anything else.[3]

This retelling of The Scarlett Letter brings to the surface not the scandal caused by Hester Prynne; rather, it explodes the social norms that insist on the containment of women’s sexual expression within the institution of marriage. In this sense, The Scarlett Letter is but one articulation of a dominant cultural narrative about women’s sexuality. This crass and concise version of the story also updates Hawthorne’s tale. By intensifying the sexual vocabulary, shrinking the plot to its most basic elements, and contracting the words to near grammatical and linguistic nonsense, Acker’s version demonstrates that the moral and social condemnation of explicitly sexual women has not completely abated. That is, if part of Hawthorne’s purpose was to reveal the lingering Puritanism in New England Society, Acker’s is to disclose the dirty secret that it lingers still. Defying the enduring contemporary mores that constrict women’s sexuality to a few erotic venues, most of which are still tethered to reproduction, marriage, and heterosexuality, Acker’s texts reveal how feminine desire as masochism is culturally valued while disavowing the erotics of blood, pain, and filth on which it depends.

By making her version of the story about Hester’s sexuality (rather than about the moral and symbolic aftermath of her affair) Acker also exposes the prurient pulse that is enclosed within and drives the reader’s interest toward texts sanctified as classics. That is, in order to pass inspection of the unspoken literary laws that govern narrative propriety, so-called good literature is expected to abide by certain standards of sanitation; it is expected to purge any tasteless stimulation. As Acker explains,

[t]here were two kinds of writing…: good literature and schlock. Novels which won literary prizes were good literature; science fiction and horror novels, pornography were schlock. […] Schlock’s content was sex horror violence and other aspects of human existence abhorrent to all but the lowest of the low, the socially and morally unacceptable.[4]

Acker not only rebuffs the idea that low literature is immoral whereas high literature is good and morally upright. Instead, she demonstrates how “good” literature harbors the same impurities as “bad” literature, but it disguises them in more socially acceptable linguistic signs. The way to unveil this sham, in Acker’s view, is to show how the language of “good” literature not only depends upon the same vulgar narratives and cultural codes as schlock, but also how they reinforce social and structural inequalities. For example, Acker states that she constructed her first story “by placing mashed-up texts by and about Henry Kissinger next to ‘True Romance’ texts. What was the true romance of America? Changed these ‘True Romance’ texts only by heightening the sexual crudity of their style.”[5] Acker maintains that turning the volume down on plot and amplifying the sexual undertones it seeks to keep at bay effectively exposes the way that plot conventions often function as a flimsy cover for the same kind of banal pornography endemic to dime store romance novels.

The piece in which these explanations appeared, “Dead Doll Humility,” was written by Acker in response to the demand made by Harold Robbins that she publically apologize for plagiarizing his work.[6] As reasons for her refusal to apologize Acker listed the fact that she did not feel any guilt, there was already a large body of criticism on her work and others who used plagiarism as a method, other writers were flattered by her pirating of their work, and that such appropriation is central to her political project. Acker argued, “if the writer or critic (deconstructionist) didn’t work with the actual language of these texts, the writer or critic wouldn’t be able to uncover the political and social realities involved.”

At issue is a scene from one of Robbin’s books in which a rich white woman walks into a disco, picks up a black boy, and has sex with him. Acker, in her fragmented, cut-up mode, explains it in this way:

[When Robbins' book had been published years ago, the writer's mother had said that Robbins had used Jacqueline Onassis as the model for the rich white woman.] Wrote, had made apparent that bit of politics while amplifying the pulp quality of the style in order to see what would happen when the underlying presuppositions or meanings of Robbins’ writing became clear. Robbins as emblematic of a certain part of American culture. What happened was that the sterility of that part of American culture revealed itself. The real pornography. Cliches, especially sexual cliches, are always signs of power or political relationships.

By extracting Robbins’ language and isolating specific linguistic cells Acker reveals the delivery system responsible for transmitting sexual and racial codes into narrative form: language. Consequently, Acker observes that the demarcations among various textual and linguistic systems (various genres from high to low) are quite fuzzy. Drawing on post-structuralist insights, in which just about anything can be read as a text, Acker’s comments disclose the secret of Robbins’ method: a raid on the textual body of Jacqueline Onassis and a foray into social codes about race and sex permit a mild transgression of the color line for the sake of sexual excitement. This transgression is acceptable because it is but a flirtation with taboo rather than a challenge to racial or sexual logic that underwrite it. (It is also worth pointing out that while Jacqueline Onassis was the model that Robbins used to construct the white woman, the fact that the black boy does not have such a model points to the fact that “black boy” is itself the prototype for the scene Robbins in constructing.) Thus, although this scene may play with the complexities of racial, sexual, or gender dynamics, Robbins uses them to heighten sexual tension, which, in the end, reiterates and reinforces social inequalities. In contrast, Acker’s mash-up challenges the social and linguistic codes that make such a scene sexy.

Acker’s appropriation of Robbins’ work is threatening because its defiance of property law is accompanied by a defiance of the laws of propriety. Although “Dead Doll Humility” is itself a brilliant mash-up of artistic techniques, which include the construction of various dolls by an artist named CAPITOL,[7] autobiographical elements, a quote from a Rilke letter to Cezanne, and conversations with her publishers, agent, and solicitor, the heart of the matter is crystallized in the following statement: “Deconstruction demands not so much plagiarism as breaking into the copyright law.”

The distinction between plagiarism and copyright law is the difference between taking something and having that taking codified as a crime. The simple definition of plagiarism designates plagiarism as the passing off of another’s work as one’s own. This understanding of plagiarism derives from the intersecting ideologies of eighteenth century Romantic ideas of the genius and capitalist logic of the commodity. Romantic writers (specifically English Romantic writers building on the philosophies of Rousseau and Kant) held that authors were guided by their intuition and were divinely or naturally inspired. Ideas or artistic creations were believed to originate in an individual person; talent was not something one could learn or absorb from one’s environs. Although many tenets of Romanticism strove to oppose capitalism, it nonetheless shared capitalist ideas about private property. The shared scaffolding of private property linked the Romantic genius to capitalist logic and tether both to the commodity form. Over time, the laws that protected private property were adapted to protect the much less tangible products of the intellect, which contributed to the idea of intellectual property that underwrites copyright.[8]

Prior to joining forces with Romantic genius theory, copyright had functioned to ensure that printers maintained the rights over the works they published. Although the long and complicated history of copyright passes through many legal forms, it has consistently proven to benefit the printers (or publishers) to a much greater extent than writers. Despite the material form of the book, copyright, historically, has sought to establish ownership over ideas.[9]

The prototype for copyright was property rights, which, traditionally recognizes the possession of something by one to the exclusion of others. The logic that analogizes property rights to amorphous materials such as language is faulty yet revealing. Firstly, ideas are not alienated in the same way as property. One person’s use of an idea does not preclude another person from using the same idea, which raises the question of whether an idea can really be stolen and, if so, what’s the damage? Moreover, ideas and their manifestation in various media (art, literature, music, film, digital code, etc.) are products of specific cultural moments. They are therefore inherently social, collaborative, and collective. But the extension of private property to include ideas is telling in another respect. To consider John Oswald’s motto, “if creativity is a field, copyright is the fence,”[10] is to recall the great enclosure of land, particularly agrarian farmland, that played a key role in primitive accumulation in early capitalism.[11] Thus, to the extent that copyright bears any comparison to property rights, that is, to the forcible or fraudulent enclosure of a resource for one person’s exclusive use, copyright infringement (i.e., plagiarism, literary piracy) steals back the goods of an earlier theft.

Piracy on the high seas and piracy of artistic work both have a foothold in theft; however, there is a crucial distinction. Whereas maritime piracy steals goods for sustenance or material gain, copyright infringement is more concerned with the distribution of the stolen goods. Even as this difference highlights the fact that piracy does not produce its own goods,[12] it also illuminates the crude reality that copyright is primarily concerned with who can legally reap the profits of trade and distribution. Although “aesthetic merit” has ostensibly taken prominence over the concept of “originality,” copyright remains a mere cover for the protection of private property and profit margins—for capitalist thievery.

Clearly, from Acker’s perspective, the crime is the idea that language is a property that can reside in any one person’s possession. By undermining the notion that anyone can enclose language in categories of property, Acker interrogates the nebulous boundaries etched around language, the pretensions of such linguistic commodities, and the legal fictions that sanction this charade.

To call copyright infringement “piracy” is to join the moral panic that renders equivalent the copying of language (or other media) and thievery on the high seas. Although there are certainly similarities between the two, there are important differences as well. The word plagiarist, which derives from the Latin word plagiary and means kidnapper is mobilized to conflate the stealing of language with the stealing of a person. Although the semantic cousin of plagiarism, “pirate,” was first used in reference to printed works in the early seventeenth century (the first entry in the OED dates it at 1603), it morphs into a different beast when nurtured on the jurisprudential milk of the state. Piracy defined as copyright infringement functions as the legal protection of property on behalf of capital. Although definitions of plagiarism vacillate between framing it as an affront to aesthetic values or an attack on profits, the law is clearly more attuned to the criteria associated with economics rather than bad writing or deficient talent.[13]

One could valorize Acker’s writing practices and link them to an impressive aesthetic genealogy including William S. Burroughs, the surrealists (especially Tristan Tzara), T. S. Eliot (whose compositional style Burroughs cited as an influence), and Julio Cortázar (especially his novel Hopscotch). But it should also be remembered that ideas about plagiarism are also linked to a long history of attitudes toward mimesis: Plato barred copying in the name of the good, the true, and the beautiful; neo-classical writers championed copying on behalf of enhancing the modern world with gems from the ancient world; the Romantics shrouded the genius in a cloak immune to the influence of copying; and modernist (and post-modernist) writers from T. S. Eliot to Borges explored various methods of copying.[14] Moreover, imitation has been the primary rhetorical pedagogical method at least since Aristotle. Creativity has always been polluted with aesthetic antecedents; every literary (and scholarly) tradition is predicated on some methodological form of appropriation. As Acker says succinctly in a random heading in the middle of a chapter, “The Beginning of Poetry: The Origins of Piracy.”

Although legitimate appropriation is rendered through citation, quotation marks, or some other gesture of attribution, Acker’s sources are often recognizable by virtue of their canonical status—would anyone confuse her Don Quixote with Cervantes’? But more than a simple copy or mere methodological exercise, Acker rips passages from such a wide range of sources and leaves the seams exposed as she stitches it into her own pattern; she unravels the authority of the author in order to re-author authority. Thus, while she plunders the conceptual foundations of intellectual property, piracy as a mode of composition also shows how the given (textual) materials must be broken down and reconfigured.[15] The proliferation of pirate characters in her texts furthers this objective by reduplicating the stylistics of piracy in piratical motifs. Acker’s texts thus become archeological sites open to the reexamination of piracy in all its sordid and assorted forms. Through her texts the pirate reemerges to proffer other perspectives on already-familiar stories. Her pirates call to mind a history of imperial relations with deep roots in maritime trade and a proliferation of inequalities spawned by global capital.[16] Acker’s complicated figuration of piracy invites us to reexamine the buried remnants of a different economic structure, alternate modes of circulation, and a radically different conception of social organization. The pirate forces law to confront its outside. Whether as the law of the father in a psychoanalytic sense or the Law of the Father(s) as codified in the juridical system, the pirate reveals (as Derrida has also demonstrated),[17] that the logic and legitimacy of the law is tautological. The law self-referentially establishes its legitimacy, and, ultimately, law is always exercised through force of one kind or another.

The encounter with the pirate, a figure on the juridical horizon, provides a way to re-examine how law establishes its own legitimacy and how it legitimates its use of force. In fact, maritime piracy occupies a unique legal category. Until recently, piracy was the only crime that fell under universal jurisdiction.[18] The idea of universal jurisdiction is premised on the idea that the crime is universally recognized as extraordinarily heinous.[19] What distinguishes piracy is that it is committed on the high seas (beyond the twelve nautical miles that extend a nation’s border) by actors seeking private, economic gain. This definition excludes actions by governments (which distinguishes it from military operations) and actions with political motivation (which differentiates it from terrorism). Although the definition proffered fails to clarify how piracy is different from plain old robbery, it is often the case that pirates either do not claim any nationality or they are citizens of countries with relatively impotent governments. In the first case, pirates historically exhibited primary allegiance to the sea and to their fellow pirates. As Marcus Rediker notes, “[t]hough evidence is sketchy, most pirates seem not to have been bound to land and home by familial ties or obligations” (260). Moreover, despite popular images of anarchy and chaos, pirates exhibited what Rediker calls a “highly developed consciousness of kind” (275), which was strikingly communitarian. They often cooperated with one another, rarely attacked other pirate ships, collectively made decisions, avenged the abuses perpetrated by merchant sea captains, and distributed booty according to a pre-capitalist share system.[20] Secondly, given the absolute exclusion of pirates (or often their countries of origin as well) from the protection or enforcement of international law, piracy becomes one of the few response mechanisms available to crimes committed by more powerful countries on less stable ones (i.e., poaching of fish or dumping of toxic waste, two factors said to contribute to the rise of Somali piracy in the past fifteen years).[21]

Even from this brief sketch it is easy to see why pirates, as a figure for all social outcasts, appeal to Acker. But as Thivai comes to understand in Empire of the Senseless, the violence and thievery that fertilized the early seeds of capitalism have now come full bloom into the sterile, technocratic rationality of the multinationals that run the world: “By murdering raping and looting men get gold ’n jewels ’n engraved stationery ’n corporations ’n hospitals” (186). Empire tells a dystopic, futuristic tale set in Paris. Thivai, a pirate, and Abhor, his sometimes girlfriend and partner (who is part robot, part black), are revolutionaries involved in the takeover of Paris by the Algerians. The seizure of Paris is one way of re-writing the repeated drama of primitive accumulation, which began in the colonial period but reduplicates itself in ever newer guises. But there is also the slow realization that the shift in the seedy methods used by the multinationals to amass resources, wealth, and power require new tactics by the (literary) revolutionaries. As Abhor says, “Ten years ago it seem possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning. But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions.”[22] Although Abhor’s words at first seem to go against Acker’s piratical style by questioning the efficacy of the cut-up method, they actually demonstrate a deeper engagement with the same ideas. Acker exhibits this in two ways.

First, in the section of Empire called “Pirate Night,” the focus shifts from the manipulation of language to its codes and, specifically, to the breaking of the code. The code is comprise of the atomic linguistic units that support and are supported by culture. The presupposition (as put forth by Levi-Strauss) is that the incest taboo is the thread that stitches the code together; the incest taboo is believed to be universal and essential for the birth and continued existence of culture. Moreover, it is specifically the circulation of women beyond the family that secures the functioning of the code. Acker tests this theory by injecting incest (usually, but not only, father-daughter incest) into her narratives and assessing the consequences. The violence and mayhem of her stories may seem to support the thesis that civilization does indeed collapse when the incest taboo is violated. A closer look, however, reveals that while civilization as we know it may have fallen to ruins, another culture or civilization may still be possible.

Like all pirate tales, this story also fantasizes about hidden treasures. The route to the treasure in this novel requires that the Algerians succeed in taking over France (they do). They then must become terrorists and criminals, but “[t]his criminality, being not the criminality of the businessman or of society, but that of the disenfranchised” is only another phase of their journey.[23] Finally, they become pirates. As Michael Clune argues, in this novel the transformation of terrorists into pirates is the “movement from no to yes.”[24] Piracy is figured as a hybrid identity assembled from the linguistic scraps and left-over detritus of the post-industrial ruins of civilization. It is a subjectivity posterior to a terroristic zone of degree zero; it is, as Clune also argues, the transformation of nihilism and negativity into affirmation. The pirate becomes the antidote to capitalism, the one who witnesses and assists in its dismantling. The pirate uncovers the treasures that capitalism has stolen, and steals them back.

The second way that Acker intensifies her language play is illustrated by the penetration into the body. Pussy, King of the Pirates, for example, features a different route to lost treasure. Rather than traversing national territories attempting to right the wrongs of colonialism, O and Ange’s search for the pirate map, which requires that they traverse the (dead) body of Ange’s mother. When they find the key to her box, they must then find the box. Ange opens the box, “the threshold of the unknown”.[25] If there is any doubt that this box is a double for the body of Ange’s mother, or the female body, one need only recall a similar scene at the beginning of the novel where O opens her mother’s jewel case, which “had insides of red velvet. O knew that this was also her mother’s cunt”.[26] Although Acker’s penchant for displaying what good girls should keep hidden (menstrual blood, tampons, bodily scents, prostitution, desire for pain), was well established by the time Pussy was written, what becomes more pronounced in this novel is a kind of disemboweling of the body. Blood and Guts in High School (1978) actually pales in comparison to Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996) in terms of the display of all that comes out of the body. For example, a section in Pussy titled “Dreaming Reality,” contains a poem by Ange (“cause poetry is what fucks up this world”) in which she writes, “the moon cracks my cunt” next to an image that ostensibly illustrates her point. There are cracks through the poem and throughout this chapter:

The whole rotten world
come down and break
and I’m crawling
through these cracks.
While the world cracks open
and all the rich men die,
and all the fucks who’ve sat on my face,
those sniveling shites.

We come crawling through these cracks, orphans, lobotomies;
if you ask me what I want I’ll tell you
I want everything.

whole rotten world come down and break.
let me spread my legs.[27]

The cracking of the code has far-reaching metaphysical implications. The crack rips through the woman’s body (“the moon cracks my cunt”), it cracks the world, which releases her along with orphans and lobotomies, and it splits open the moon breaking open the heavens. The woman’s body oozes (so impolitely), it spreads its legs and demands recognition of its guts. But in addition to the shameless excretion of bodily fluids, it is also the birth of the world—how not to think of Courbet’s L’Origine du monde? Finally, the poem evokes everything that orbits around the moon: the feminine, death, night, and creativity. Its placement in the narrative relative to Ange and O’s search for the pirate treasure, and in the context of the theme and style of the text, also suggests this cracking, which is ultimately the cracking of the code, results in the releasing of the rejected, the outlawed, and the abject—the repressed, disavowed, imprisoned, of abandoned fragments of the semiotic, cultural, and corporeal code.

This pirate language is ripped from various sources, pasted into syntactically torturous fragments, punctuated erratically, spliced with fluctuating fonts, illustrated with drawings or maps and seems bent at times on refusing any semiotic or epistemological cohesion. Set against the textual seascape of Acker’s novels, such linguistic experiments can extract the ubiquitous violence that works through real time historical situations. It can also isolate the variables involved in the cultural production of knowledge. These variables may involve naming (whore, criminal, Pussy); they may mark territorial boundaries around linguistic units, geographical space, and appropriate behavior; or they may express degrees of power, force, or fraud. In her view, “an attack on the institutions of prison via language would demand the use of a language or languages which aren’t acceptable, which are forbidden. […] Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes”[28]. Speaking the taboo: the language of pirates.

Acker’s piracy and her pirate characters generate a textual and imaginative space in which to analyze conditions that are at once remote and intimate to Western readers. Remote because pirates, whether historical, contemporary, or fictional, are often viewed only as spectacle; to the Western gaze they are but inert images always situated elsewhere. Intimate because piracy laws, as they pertain to copyright and maritime robbery, fortify relations of dominance and submission that underpin all notions of property writ large (global capital) and small (erotic relations). Literary piracy is not equivalent to historical piracy, but there is a logic common to both that pulls on ideological, juridical, and rational presuppositions that often go unanalyzed. The textual, sexual, economic, and epistemological systems of global capital invade (Acker’s) pirates and piracy as ubiquitously and insidiously as blood flows through the body. Yet Acker’s pirates persevere. Refusing to cede belief in a buried treasure, they scrape together an identity and existence from remnants of the blood, guts, and debris found among the ruins of civilization.


1. O could also refer to Orpheus, Or, Poe, Jell-O, Joan Crawford, Ostracism, or Antigone. At one point in the novel Acker explicitly associates O with many other characters, no one in particular, but all conspicuously women: “Her name’s not important. She’s been called King Pussy, Pussycat, Ostracism, O, Ange. Once she was called Antigone…” Ange is mostly likely short for anger. Acker was fond of dropping letters or reconfiguring them to draw out multiple possible meanings. [↑]

2. In another section, with regard to the pronoun “I,” Janey says, “I wish that there was a reason to believe this letter” (108). Acker was already using such mash-up and cut-up methods to explore the schizo and multiple forms of identity when she discovered Deleuze and Guattari. But, as she discusses in her interview with Sylvère Lotringer, Deleuze and Guattari’s thought, especially Anti-Oedipus, explained to her what she had been doing and thinking all along. [↑]

3. 95 [↑]

4. Acker, Kathy. “Dead Doll Humility.” Postmodern Culture 1.1 (1990). [↑]

5. ibid. [↑]

6. Incidentally, the title of Robbin’s book is The Pirate[↑]

7. The form of “Dead Doll Humility” is one of two intersecting and dialogic stories: one documents the Harold Robbins issue, the other presents the situation (always told in all caps) from the perspective of CAPITOL. This style of presentation emphasizes the confrontation between the law and art. It also shows that while they seem to use the same language they use it in radically different ways, which reveals their different stances on the relationships among language, politics, and reality. [↑]

8. This paragraph and the next are indebted to an anti-copyright piece titled “Copyright, Copyleft and the Creative Anti-Commons” by “Anna Nimus.” [↑]

9. In its early manifestations, copyright focused on the form that the writing took rather than the actual content because the writer’s way of communicating his or her idea is what distinguished it from previous ideas. Although contemporary copyright law retains some sense of these Romantic filiations to originality, it shifts the legal protection to the content of the artistic expression rather than its form. [↑]

10. Quoted in Anna Nimus  [↑]

11. Enclosure primarily means “surrounding a piece of land with hedges, ditches, or other barriers to the free passage of men and animals, the hedge being the mark of exclusive ownership and land occupation. Hence, by enclosure, collective land use, usually accompanied by some degree of communal land ownership, would be abolished, superseded by individual ownership and separate occupation” (G. Slater quoted in Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004): (122 n. 24). Thanks to Morgan Adamson for this reference. For a detailed discussion of enclosure and early capitalism see also Jane Whittle, The Development of Agrarian Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Also, in his book Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), Marcus Rediker discusses how enclosure and dispossession contributed to the influx of men into cities and, specifically, into maritime labor and, later, piracy. [↑]

12. Rediker also makes this point (285). [↑]

13. For a longer discussion of the aesthetic and juridical aspects of plagiarism in various historical incarnations see Marilyn Randall Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit, and Power. (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2001). [↑]

14. Nicola Pitchford offers a compelling account of how Acker’s style is useful for feminist and postmodern politics. See Tactical Readings: Feminist Postmodernism in the Novels of Kathy Acker and Angela Carter (London: Bucknell University Press, 2002). [↑]

15. For an analysis of the specifically gendered aspect of intellectual property and Kathy Acker’s work see Caren Irr. “Beyond Appropriation: Pussy, King of the Pirates and a Feminist Critique of Intellectual Property” in Devouring Institutions, Ed. Michael Hardin (San Diego: San Diego State University, 2004). [↑]

16. For an analysis of how the history of piracy and property relations are deeply interwoven into current trade policies see Vandana Shiva’s essay “The Second Coming of Columbus: Piracy Through Patents” Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically About Global Issues, Ed. Paula S. Rothenberg (New York: Worth Publishers, 2006). [↑]

17. See Jacques Derrida, “The Force of Law,” Cardozo Law Review (Vol. 11 (1990). [↑]

18. Universal jurisdiction allows states to claim criminal jurisdiction over crimes that were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, regardless of nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting country. It is premised on the idea that the crime committed is erga omnes (in relation to everyone), which any state is authorized to punish. [↑]

19. For a critique of the concept of universal jurisdiction and piracy as exceptional (rather than just another form of robbery) see Eugene Kontorovich, “The Piracy Analogy: Modern Universal Jurisdiction’s Hollow Foundation,” Harvard International Law Journal, 45.1 (2004). [↑]

20. Rediker presents a meticulous account of how piracy looked from the inside with particular attention to how the social organization of pirate life developed in contradistinction to traditional forms of authority. [↑]

21. Images from the recent kidnapping of Captain Richard Phillips by Somali pirates perversely show the power differential. Size may not be the determining factor in such standoffs, yet the images do offer a brutal metaphor of the economic and military disparity. The USS Bainbridge (charged with the rescue mission) is about 509 feet, six inches in length; the Somali pirates operated from a 28-foot lifeboat. [↑]

22. Empire 134. [↑]

23. Empire 124 [↑]

24. Michael Clune. “Blood Money: Sovereignty and Exchange in Kathy Acker.” Contemporary Literature. 45.3 (2004), 486. Clune offers a provocative analysis of monetary theory from a range of perspectives and Acker’s notion of blood as money (in Empire of the Senseless). However, by over-literalizing Acker’s rich language, he misses the vast network of metaphorical associations bound up in the notion of blood, which leads him to conclude that Acker’s (linguistic and consanguineous) economies are commensurate with capitalist economies in advanced form. A more productive analysis of blood, circulation (of various kinds), and value, in my view, would be to examine the alternate economies (à la Bataille) created in Acker’s work. [↑]

25. Kathy Acker, Pussy, King of the Pirates, (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 64 [↑]

26. Acker, 4 [↑]

27. Italics in original. The image of the cracked moon comes after the second line in the first stanza. [↑]

28. Empire 134 [↑]

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Paige Sweet is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Her research examines literary experiments with punctuation and themes of forgetting in late nineteenth and twentieth century French, Brazilian, and American film, literature, and poetry. She really digs theories and histories of typography, punctuation, and language; theories of memory and forgetting; critical theory and cultural studies; gender, feminist, and queer theory; aesthetics and politics.
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