If you’re queer, if you’re punk, particularly if you’re a riot grrl, chances are you’ve read Blood and Guts and High School. If you’re none of the above, Kathy Acker likely falls into that category of people-you-know-you-should-read-in-order-to-score-a-date-with-a-hipster-chick-on-OkC. Like many women continually searching for literary role models in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I spent my late teens and early 20s in awe of Kathy Acker. I didn’t want to write like her and I didn’t really want to be her, but I did find myself enthralled by her work, which was more aggressive and more vibrantly raw than anything I’d read before (and most things I’ve read since). Readers who encounter her now may find themselves unimpressed by her experimentalism and willful perversion, but this is only because her interventions as a radical/queer/punk writer have come into vogue.
To read Kathy Acker is to be at once revolted and turned on, and these were also the emotions that surfaced in reading I’m Very Into You, a collection of her emails with MacKenzie Wark, who is currently a professor of media studies at the New School. I’m Very Into You is a book that has generated some controversy: people seem to agree Acker wouldn’t have wanted these emails published, but she is unable to protest or consent, having died in 1997. (It’s difficult to track down her haunting, disturbing Guardian article “The Gift of Disease” but well worth the effort, unless someone you love is dying of cancer, in which case you should not read it at all, ever.)
The book feels intimate, both because of its content (a post-fling crush) and because of its format (email). Or perhaps email only used to be intimate. It is frequently startling, when reading this book, to realize that except for the last email, the entire correspondence took place over the course of two weeks. Wark and Acker sometimes write as much as six times a day, partly because they’re fascinated with each other and partly because it’s 1995 and they’re fascinated by email. Sometimes the newness of the medium causes problems—they occasionally struggle to use attachments and find earlier messages in their correspondence, and the use of the subject field is haphazard throughout. Sometimes the newness of email provokes more of a meta-narrative—at one point Wark describes his use of email as “cavalier.” It turns out a less common use of the word is “aristocratic,” which is weirdly fitting—I’m Very Into You is a dialogue between literary anti-aristocrats, indulging in a new crush and also a new medium, a new way of writing and emoting and staging identity.
In a book that is partly about Freud’s penis and partly about email, Jacques Derrida diagnoses archive fever as a condition of having “a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” With its desire and nostalgia, I’m Very Into You exposes us to a two-week bout of archive fever, a shared obsessive syndrome of self-awareness and confession and immediacy. The emails comprising this book aren’t the same limp, monotonous emails you send at work or to find furniture on Craigslist or to coordinate with friends, but the emails you send because they’re just asynchronous enough to allow for rhetorical flair while still documenting the fluidity of dynamic relationships. Kathy Acker remains elusive and transient in this book, which is for the best, but email reasserts itself as romantic, emotive and feverish.
– Jessa Lingel is a robot masquerading as a librarian masquerading as a scientist.