How are the categories of literary forms decided and who is the one making the decisions? Looking at the work of Chris Kraus and its initial reception, Rebecca Jagoe considers the conflation of the personal with the philosophical and a text's refusal to adhere to one genre.
I had wanted to know what happens when forms of writing melted into each other, when writing defied the boundaries of different literary forms. I had wanted to talk about when the personal is used alongside the theoretical, the resulting attachment of shame that seems to persist, and how emotional investment is read as lowering the tone. So I began.
Monstrosity: the self as a machine. The Blob, mindlessly swallowing and engorging, rolling down the supermarket aisle absorbing pancake mix and jello and everyone in town.[i]
Her first book had been panned by many upon its release in 1997. When he wrote about it, he stated the text to be ‘[m]asquerading as a novel’, entirely rejecting the fictional framework she had established for her text. It could never have been constructed with intention or intelligence, he said: it was regurgitated, diaristic catharsis. He used words so often associated with female writing: ‘crazed’, ‘spillage’, ‘secreted’, ‘vomiting’[ii]. He wrote that she had erupted onto the page without control: of course he did.
With such a strong following as she had, I found it odd to think of a time where her written voice had not been not respected. Even he, I was sure, must have grudgingly admitted that he had performed a gross oversight by writing her off so quickly.
Oh. Don’t worry
No really. This guy just pushed into me and I kind of fell.
Ha. Honestly it’s fine
I’ll get you another one. What are you drinking?
No it’s fine. If I get thirsty later I can just suck on my jumper
Well that’s grim
It was a. A joke.
Anyway, this place is nuts. Right? Can you believe they have a live saxophonist and xylophone player just, I don’t know, jamming?
Is that the right word? Jamming? Strange that I just said that. I don’t think I’ve ever used this word. It sounds like something someone would say in the forties.
Hey I’m 42
No THE Forties, you know, the era
Anyway the xylophone guy is great, right?
I don’t know. He’s fine
The woman ignored by the intellectual elite was a leitmotif across her novels: at dinner parties and social events, the protagonist would be overlooked or underestimated by a group of thinkers who had deemed her to be the ‘dumb cunt’.
Because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one expects too much from her and she is used to tripping out on layers of complexity in total silence.[iii]
Theoretical language as a yardstick for intellectual weight, of a person, of a text: this was the measure he had used. Underestimation. Underestimating her intelligence, as the protagonist had been underestimated herself. He said the ‘“novel” is a book not so much written as secreted’[iv]. The quotation marks were stinging needles, the word ‘secreted’ a deeper cut.
It was a particularly unpleasant word, I thought. It suggested text oozing out in a pus-like fashion, no authorial control over what was revealed, an embarrassing discharge that could not be stemmed. Biologically and semantically speaking, such a reading would have been aberrant. Secretion is the process by which substances are produced and discharged from a cell, gland, or organ for a particular function in the organism. Not an accidental leakage, I noted, but an intended emission. Still, his implications could not have been clearer. Indeed, if I had been pedantic I would have said that he perhaps meant that the book was excreted.
Secret is found within secretion, and they are indeed etymologically aligned, from the Latin secernere: ‘to set apart, part, divide, exclude’. When I read again his words in these terms, I could see him thinking that her book was written not through a process of selection but an incontinent gushing, an embarrassing puddle of secrets that she had not wanted to reveal.
I had heard her speak about the fact that when men use their lives as material it is termed autofiction, whereas when women do so it is termed memoir. In a different interview, she talked about the idea of the Universal ‘I’ as something that men only have access to: when anyone outside of the white hetero male category uses ‘I’ it could only ever be personal, never fictional. The problem, I realized, was the idea that there could ever be a Universal ‘I’: this was the so-called ‘default’, impartial voice of literature that invariably seemed to be white, heterosexual, male.
He wrote her off as an inferior pronoun.
Aristotle tells us that the wet is that which is not bounded by any boundary of its own […] woman is to be differentiated from man, in the ancient view, not only as wet from dry but as content from form, as the unbounded from the bounded, as polluted from pure [v].
I thought of the line running through Classical Greek texts, the line that created a binary of man and woman as essentially different. Man was warm and dry, woman was cold and wet. Along with Aristotle, Hippokrates wrote of man as fire, woman as water. Wet. Woman had to be contained, hemmed in, poured into domestic structure and kept separate from the public. Left to her own devices, the amorphous blob of female sexuality could not have been contained, least of all by the woman herself. She could have polluted others or been polluted herself.
It is the consensus of Greek thought that the soundest condition for a human being is dryness […] Wetness of mind is an intellectually deficient condition [vi].
In Antiquity, then, the idea of femaleness became synonymous with liquid, and the idea of liquid became synonymous with a lack of self-control, a lack of intellectual rigour. These three points became inextricably linked, and there was shame in moisture. I found the residue of this shame in his pithy remarks about her. Spillage, secretion: wetness of mind was a weakness. I thought about the term juicy gossip, as though someone would be pressed, squeezed by a confessor and seeped out a truth unwillingly. Then too, another phrase sprang to mind: verbal diarrhea.
No, come on, he’s more than fine. It’s GREAT
You seem a little. Hmm. Overwhelmed by everything
No, I’m not
The enthusiasm of youth then. I suppose
Oh that’s a little patronizing
Well you are very young
I’m not as young as I look. It’s kind of frustrating. I find it difficult to be taken seriously because I look young. I’m just. I look forward to being an age that if I say something intelligent people aren’t surprised. Although. Maybe there is something in that. The ability to surprise people. It’s just. Just frustrating that I would need to have to prove myself. Or feel that I would need to. Maybe that’s more social anxiety than anything. It just makes me think of Chris Kraus and what’s that phrase she uses. The Dumb Cunt.
He wrote her off as an inferior pronoun.
Writing I Love Dick, I understood that women have been denied all access to the a-personal […] As if a revelatory female self cannot be anything but compromised and murky. It’s a very Catholic word, ‘confession’.[vii]
It was disclosure, not confession. Key here, was that she had remained in control of the text. She had revealed, she had imparted, but she had done so on her terms. There was no spillage of secrets, it did not leak out: not that leakiness would have been something to be ashamed of, anyway. And it was all a fiction she had created, even when it was based on actual events. Still, it did not sit well within the confines of this limiting term, ‘fiction’, and perhaps this was where a further discomfort arose.
What really fucks with everyone’s heads is when women, gay men, combine graphic first-person sex stuff with quote-unquote objective, analytic cultural thought. There’s a deep pity and horror of female sexuality behind this, as if it’s this mushy botanical subordinate thing at total variance with the dynamic integrity, the “masculinity” of analytical thought [viii].
It was that word, ‘spillage’, that I could not shake, that word he had used to talk about her book. She had spilled, in his eyes, first because she had revealed too much. And she had spilled again because she moved fluidly between registers of address, sliding from literary and theoretical references to descriptions of sex; moments of art criticism merging into conversation. But as with what she chose to reveal, how she chose to move between forms of writing was executed with control: fluidity and self-regulation were not mutually exclusive. Not every liquid is a spillage.
Later on you run your index finger outside my cunt, not into it. It’s very wet, a Thing Observed, and later still I think about the act of witnessing and the Kierkegaardian third remove [ix].
I knew she had focussed on these words, she had said how she wished for them to appear in proximity, a desire not to debase Kierkegaard but to highlight his coexistence on the same plane as cunt. I found a pleasing assonance to the words that allowed them to mutually bleed into each other, performing on a microcosm what the book performed as a whole. I wanted to tell him: to refuse the predetermined categories offered to writing is a form of protest. Text that is fluid is not aberrant, talking about the personal is not lowering the tone, and to be aroused is not a failure of intelligence. And what is so wrong with wetness? I wanted to ask. To lick, to be licked, these are things that require moisture.
I imagined him basing his opinions on approval by the canon.
I had never met him, but I could hear him saying to me: I am not sure why you are writing about this, when she is universally loved now. My words have been overwhelmed by the cacophony of praise she now receives, and she has been accepted and recognised as a pioneering writer. I accept I did overlook something important.
I imagined him basing his opinions on the approval of the canon. I became angry, and I tried to suppress it. I typed out quickly:
Entrance into the canon does not validate an author as worthwhile: it validates the canon as a worthwhile yardstick, and the archaic hierarchy, which places philosophy at its peak, is reinforced.
And then I deleted it: it felt too forthright, too obvious, a point well-known, which it was, of course, but its repetition seemed important as reinforcement. Still, I wanted to couch my anger in theoretical terms that supposed impartiality, until I realized I was performing a violence on my own writing that he had performed on hers.
You were witnessing me becoming this crazy and cerebral girl, the kind of girl that you and your entire generation vilified. But doesn’t witnessing contain complicity? “You think too much,” is what they always said when their curiosity ran out [x].
Withdrawing my emotional investment would have resulted in astringent words. I wanted voluptuous paragraphs and pillowy text. Bodies pouring into text pouring into bodies without shame.
Or maybe. Maybe you’re just highly strung
It just makes me angry. I was in Foyles today and who they include in the different sections makes me angry. The philosophy, who is philosophy, what this has to be. What is put in this section gender studies.
You probably need to calm down. Do you party?
Well I’m here
WEED. Do you smoke
Oh God no. No. I get really paranoid
Maybe just you know. You know
When was the last time you did?
That’s. Hmm that’s really not your business.
Or get a dog
Dogs are great for relaxing
Very licky. He ran his tongue across his lower lip suggestively.
To lick, to be licked, these are things that require moisture.
[i] Kraus, Chris I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1997) p.218
[ii] Rimanelli, David ‘I Love Dick’ Artforum, March 1998
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/I+Love+Dick.-a020572924 [Accessed 29th May 2015]
[iii] Kraus, Ibid, 1997 p.21
[iv] Rimanelli, Ibid, 1998
[v] Carson, Anne ‘Putting Her in Her Place: Woman, Dirt and Desire’ in Halperin, David, Winkler, John J., Zeitlin, Froma (Eds) Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1990) p153
[vi] Carson, Ibid, 1990 p.137
[vii] Kraus, Chris in Frimer, Denise ‘Chris Kraus in Conversation with Denise Frimer’ The Brookyln Rail, April 10th 2006 http://www.brooklynrail.org/2006/04/art/chris-kraus-in-conversation-with-denise-frimer [Accessed 2nd June 2015]
[viii] Kraus, Ibid, 2006
[ix] Kraus, Ibid, 1997 p.161
[x] Kraus, Ibid, 1997 p.155