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The Post-Post-Modern Things: Björk, Kathy Acker, and the Astral-Disappearing Act (11-17/53)





11. From Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978): “The plants in her room cast strange, beautiful shadows over the other shadows.  It was a clean, dreamlike room.  He fucked her in her asshole cause the infection made her cunt hurt too much to fuck there, though she didn’t tell him it hurt badly there, too, cause she wanted to fuck love more than she felt pain.”[1] Raped by her father (like so many of Acker’s heroines), Janey, the 10-year old protagonist of the novel, burdened with a nasty case of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, enters into attempted dialogue with this hyper-sexualized, phallocentric world that abuses her through discursive appropriations that collocate the defining absences of her world into a mélange of ventriloquist quasi-prose—poems in Persian, a book report on The Scarlet Letter, an encounter with French writer Jean Genet, dream maps and picture books, the Chase Manhattan Bank of North America, Erica Jong—all made to speak through the voice of the disassociated woman-child Janey.

12. We read the faces that grace Björk’s album covers as similar to (Gottfried) Helnwein faces—pictures that often look nothing “like” the subject:  From the bejeweled innocence of Debut (1993) to the dim swan-of-the-evening star signs of the Vespertine cover (and beyond), where our heroine reclines over a backdrop of smooth stones jammed into a gravelly plane—her left arms sleek like liquid caught occupying a temporary mold, bent at a right angle to shade her stardust eyes.  She wears her infamous swan dress as an animal “familiar” spirit might have cuddled its astral body against the flesh of a human host.  The overcome-movie-star pose suggests that Björk prepares herself to be ravaged against the backdrop of an illuminated beach in one of those “untitled” Cindy Sherman stills.  Emerging from the feathers of her dress like a spectre body, this “true” soul of the artist, a ghost swan (a drawing superimposed on the photograph) adorns itself in ferns, dribbling the word “Vespertine” from its mouth.  The clash of the two images, the picture of Björk in swan dress—perhaps dead, sleeping, in any case lush, but immobile—and the ghostly apparition of the animated afterlife swan—create a picture space set slash and burn somewhere between its two dominant frames.  The world of the cartoon, of drawing, of deliberate artifice becomes opposed or perhaps reconciled with the world of the photograph, the “reality”—in this case staged with the same urge to denature.  For this fifth album after Debut, Björk has died somewhere among the acknowledged artificiality of her image; she no longer looks directly at the viewer.  As early as the fragmented, quasi-cubist cover of Selmasongs (2000) her body has become an amalgamation of its previous versions, a ghost in the machine “becoming animal,” sharing the same breath as the computer-imaging equipment.  It is in this context that the syntheses of Björk’s popular image serves as just another meta-album cover for her legions of fans.

13. The typeface of Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School is equally transient; it shuttles between the mundane expectations of the traditional literary “read” and the experimental techniques of the “marginal” literary landscape; oversize fonts compete for the picture space with “pornographic” drawings and Persian script.  Many critics see the struggles of Acker’s texts as a validation of the poststructuralist connection between body and word:

“In Acker’s/Janey’s world, the fiction of the self, as founded on Freudian premises, is contaminated on all sides, afflicted . . . with the rush of discourses—historical, political, psychoanalytical, literary, punk-porn-pop—that, “heard” together (in pastiche), constitute a kind of semiotic babble.  What this suggests is that the self, in such a text, is indistinguishable from the mother’s cut-up body, the self is indistinguishable from the text.“[2]

14. Aside from singles (which have possessed only incidental correlation to the pop-chart), Björk’s album tracks offer a similar collapse of the body and the text/music.  On “Headphones” (from Post), Björk’s paean to a mix tape Graham Massey (a Post producer and a member of 808 State) gave her, the mix tape “saves” her life; Björk speaks of the disjunction between the “text” of the song and the “text” of the body that implies, on the plane of juxtaposition, their connection: “I like this resonance/it elevates me/I don’t recognize myself/this is very interesting.”  Still, it would be naïve to assume that the “text” of her work is only the music.  Critics seem obsessed with Björk-as-celebrity, alternately celebrating or critiquing the “Nordic elf” qualities with which the press imbues her figure: “People expect me to be some sort of Icelandic freak who eats bugs for breakfast,”[3] or “How can a Viking be so small?  Björk is tiny, a lithe creature . . .”[4] or another Saturday Night Live parody (from May 5, 2002):  Guest host Winona Ryder plays Björk in a hyperbolic version of “Celebrity Jeopardy,” producing the exaggerated spectacle of Björk as a manifestation of full-on elfin, bizarro ice magic.  Ryder-as-Björk-as-“Jeopardy”-contestant mumbles through a series of monologues on the prevalence of music in everyday life (re: the factory noises in Dancer in the Dark), before Will Farrell’s Alex Trebek bellows: “Are you Icelandic or retarded?”

15. Critic Larry McCaffery maps the familiar terrain of pro-Acker academics, but he also pushes Acker’s work beyond merely a writerly manifestation of the avant-garde.  For McCaffery, Acker fits a “punk” aesthetic that transcends the written word; “punk” becomes a style set against the hegemonic discursive practices that marginalize the radical artists:

“At the heart of punk aesthetics is a challenge to the conventions governing traditional artistic forms—conventions that, by analogy, apply to other areas of life.  In particular, punk art emphasizes power, obscenity, passion, incoherence, delirium, pure sensation at the expense of refinement, order, logic, beauty.”[5]

16. Though Björk infrequently defines her work as political, she refuses (like Acker) to accede to the demands of the innovative “persona” in a more than cursory manner.  Her cover image mutates from album cover to album cover.  Unless a band endeavors for the numbing repetition of an AC/DC-like song catalog, such media morphogenesis is required by the complexes of a culture intent on consuming the constantly new, even within the marginalized topography of the “counter-culture.”  Thus, if the temporal factor in the evaluation of non pre-fabricated pop depends upon the evolution of musical personas across a continuum of relative acceptability to the market (particularly when a mainstream label such as Electra Records is the distributor), the possibility of music that undermines this system, as in McCaffery’s “punk” aesthetic, cannot ignore its own connection to the idea that the author or artist figure is encapsulated at all moments by her (relative) distance to the debilitating mainstream of the culture industry.  Björk’s “refreshing” freedom from musical cliché (attributed so often to the “sum” of her creative mixtures), is perhaps not so easily located in the space of “hybridity,” as in the addition or exponential multiplication of “weirdness.”  Rather than increasing the dissonance between the norm and the margins (two very problematic terms) so as to produce “more” that is “different,” Björk has deployed a clever détournement.  An astral-disappearing act.  Her re-situation of signs and meaning into new contexts functions always through reference to her own media image—through negation—instead of through the “positive” accretion of meaning offered as the “synthesis” of marginal elements by way of an “innovative” style or persona.  Revolutionary material can be absorbed and replicated into a production system that strips revolutionary potential from an artist’s production—as a furniture dip bath might strip away formidable layers of paint—just as quickly as it is produced, so we must view Björk’s work not for what it is, but for the illusion of what it deliberately is not.  Perhaps a clue to Björk’s negation strategy lies in not merely the primacy that she invests in her “voice,” but in the relation between the primacy of “voice” and the pre-linguistic organization of sound-becoming-language.  As Benjamin argues along his somewhat messianic, Marxist line, it is the translation of languages (the product of “voice”), “which catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language.”[6] For Björk, such “renewal” would imply a proto- or Ur-language that the slippages of her production actually speak against:

“It’s syllables and noises.  Ahh eee ech crmpfmeeo.  First, I only sing noises, then I slowly go into Icelandic and then do hints of English.  I always write in Icelandic, and when I translate it to English it adds to the song and then maybe I translate back to Icelandic and then back to English.“[7]

17. McCaffery offers what appears to be collage of Acker criticism as a way of critiquing the accretion of meaning demonstrated by the academic press.  In amalgamating separate terms in this equation, this collage simultaneously offers a clue to the “core” persona attributed to Acker while simultaneously problematizing a “renewal” of this persona through the medium of language.  A small sample from a small collage of samples:

“foul mouthed . . . street tough . . . visionary experimentalist . . . French Symbolist dreamed of . . . Marxist underpinning which . . . the gold front tooth and spiked hair immediately signal a . . . dada . . . jouissance [ . . . ]“[8]

[1] Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1989), 21.

[2] Karen Brennan, “The Geography of Enunciation: Hysterical Pastiche in Kathy Acker’s Fiction,” in Gendered Agents: Women and Institutional Knowledge, eds. Silvestra Mariniello and Paul A. Bove (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998), 410.

[3] Lorraine Ali, “Björk: Iceland’s Ethereal Pop Princess Breaks the Ice,” US Weekly, October 1995: 84-85. Reprinted in Björkland, < http://www.flexdax.org/m-net/bjorkland/r-ether.shtml&gt; (3 September 2003).

[4] Bunbury.

[5] Larry McCaffery, “The Artists of Hell: Kathy Acker and ‘Punk’ Aesthetics,” in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, eds. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989), 220.

[6] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Schoken Books: New York, 1985), 74.

[7] Jonathan Van Meter, “The Outer Limits” Spin.  December 1997: 98.

[8] McCaffery, 219.

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