A letter speaking to Chris Kraus about the writings of Audre Lorde, dealing with themes of gender, sexuality, competition and subjectivity
Dear Chris Kraus,
I am moved to write to you in my attempt to think through that which has fixed in my mind after re-reading Aliens and Anorexia, and returning to I Love Dick also, ideas that are difficult to fix into writing. Many of the recurrent compulsions in your writing; female sexuality, putting the repressed into language, theorising the personal, I have come to understand through the words of Audre Lorde (1934-1992) – “black, mother, lesbian, poet, warrior”. I want to speak to you about her writings (like yours, they have had lasting influence on me), and consider what is shared and disparate between you. I am not sure what it means to do this, only that it feels compelling in my own struggle to work through how I think – personally, theoretically, and creatively – about female subjectivity, embodiment and sexuality, and about transforming silence into language and action through creative practice.
Audre Lorde says that “the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority…women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence”. You, like Lorde, recognise that that which has been subjugated by patriarchal power structures must be a threat to their continued function and dominance, and as such may be reclaimed as a strategy of resistance. “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”, but taking back the tools which the master has hidden has potential. In I Love Dick you do philosophy by theorising your feelings of infatuation, and interweaving this with close readings of theory and art. In writing from the position of arousal and rejection, you are consciously and subversively performing the obsessive, narcissistic female stereotype constructed by the patriarchal system. You recognise that there is knowledge in the abject and shameful. When we pay attention to it “not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society” (Lorde, p.30). This is an understanding of the erotic beyond sexuality, as an innate and creative form of female knowledge and power residing in the body, which emerges in the sharing deeply of any pursuit with another person. It has been deformed in its orientation around male desire, and must be reclaimed as a way of knowing – differently.
Lorde’s description of the Erotic is my answer to your question, Chris, “Is there a way to dignify sex, make it as complicated as we are, to make it not grotesque?” (I Love Dick, p.35).
The erotic is not confined to human intimacy, it may be accessed through shared creative labour. You felt this when you started writing to Dick collaboratively with your husband Sylvére Lotringer. Here pleasure was found in the practice of writing itself, in the sensuality between you and the page, in the shared exhilaration of putting these forbidden thoughts into words, a “masturbatory passion” (I Love Dick, p.18). In articulating these feelings, sensations, theorisations of personal experience, you are transforming silence into language and action (as Audre Lorde insists we must). I understand this not just as writing, but as performance. To performatively channel art criticism and philosophical theory through the prism of your own subjectivity, through the ‘I’. What performative writing is to you, poetry is to Audre Lorde; “the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought” (p.8). Observation becomes language, becomes idea, becomes tangible action. In your study of Simone Weil you recognise that “the child Simone experienced the world as a rush of passionate sensations. The philosopher Simone, after studying epistemology, came to call these sensations knowledge” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.140).
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
(Audre Lorde, Litany for Survival extract)
You write about your inconsolable grief after the death of your dog, Lily, with the same care and attention as you would write about the philosophy of Simone Weil. “Grief is information” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.126). When you articulate your realisation that you must now stop crying and go back to work, “because crazy women hardly get to speak, let alone make movies” (p.126), you encapsulate so much feminist thought and shared pain amongst women. It is a relatable statement in the most profound sense.
“I’ve fused my silence and repression with the entire female gender’s silence and repression. I think the sheer fact of women talking, being paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive, but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world” (I Love Dick, p.194). These might have been the words of either you or Audre Lorde. However, in a talk in 2017 you said that this memorable quote couldn’t possibly be true any more, in the age when social media as a shared platform for personal expression has spiralled out of control, and “everyone should just shut up”. This to me highlights that what you and Lorde are both articulating and advocating for is not word vomit or a stream of confessional writing. It is far more crafted than that, even strategic. I think people miss that sometimes in your work, how consciously constructed it is. In successful creative practices critical rigour is essential. “A work of art is not ‘blabbing on’”, you say in that interview, there must be an agenda, a criteria. Artforum missed that when they described I Love Dick as a book “not so much written as secreted”.
You reveal your standards of judgement with your obvious scathing for your German host Gudrun Scheidecker’s shallow fondness for Sophie Calle, “‘She’s just like me!…sometimes I like to walk around the streets and look for good looking men. I test how long I can follow them without them seeing me’ I looked at her in horror” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.30). I like to imagine the hearts of many young women at art college sinking in self-recognition as they read this, realising that following men around might not make the cut for radical art in your eyes.
This agenda, the concept which motivates your writing, is more important than literal truth. You occupy the position of the unreliable narrator, change characters, muddle narratives, even put aside ethics. You have said that as soon as you write something down, it becomes fiction (would Audre Lorde agree, I wonder?). That the process of fictionalisation is one of selection, of what gets told and why. In creative practices there is a greater truth than fact at stake. (Yes, I think she would).
I want to think carefully about your urgency to consider female work as transcendent of gender, as apersonal. You return to this repeatedly, “why should women settle to think and talk about femaleness when men were constantly transcending gender?” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.103). I question whether this is in conflict with Audre Lorde’s description of power within the female body; “As women, there is a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises…within these deep places (we hold) an incredible reserve of creativity and power” (p.8). Her words suggest that treating the female body as a cage to escape would be extremely dangerous (and Simone Weil died trying to starve herself out of her body). However you continue to push against the body’s limitations through S&M, as Simone Weil did through celibacy, and condemn the pathologising of such behaviour, “it’s inconceivable that the female subject might ever simply try to step outside her body, because the only thing that’s irreducible, still, in female life is gender” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.162).
I must make clear that I am not trying to unify or synthesise yours and Lorde’s ideas, I want only to bring them into conversation with each other, while allowing space for the differences between them. What we are chewing on here cannot be reduced to a unified narrative. However, it does trouble me to think whether gender should be thought of as a boundary to overcome, or as a source of power and knowledge to be closely examined.
By ‘woman’, I am confident that Lorde means self-identified women, and does not intend to essentialise gender binaries. She speaks to all the marginalised, “there is no hierarchy of oppression.” Lorde makes clear that these are strategies for reducing the threat of the Other, for connection across difference, and that the information articulated through close attention to internal feelings and sensations is legitimate.
So perhaps, when you say “Why is female vulnerability still only acceptable when it is neuroticised and personal, when it feeds back on itself? Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?” (I Love Dick, p.191), you are speaking more to the reception of womens’ ideas, rather than how they were realised.
This is not in conflict with Audre Lorde, who takes this articulation of experience as seriously as philosophy also.
Your protest is against women’s art always being reduced and confined to personal expression, dismissed as ever speaking to the universal. Simone Weil’s ideas as always being seen as those of an anorexic virgin, not simply as philosophy. She laments; “The body is a lever for salvation, but what is the right way to use it?” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.49). I think that Lorde is insisting that through the theorising of personal experience, a universal truth emerges which must be respected as such. Perhaps our bodies are the only spaceship, vehicle of transcendence, available to us.
I am conscious of the chasm between transforming silence, speaking from the conditions of your life, and actually being heard. “Who gets to speak, and why?”, is really, who gets listened to, and why?
I have so much work to do but I don’t want him to leave. We lie in bed and reads it to me out loud.
I don’t think the poignancy of this is diminished by its obviousness
Lorde describes rejection from her academic peers; “Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you” says the white woman at the conference (p.108). When she experiences racism in her profession her response is anger, which she recognises as an emotion which may be utilised, “anger is loaded with information and energy” (p.111). Were you angry at the failure of your film Gravity and Grace, at the constant rejection and dismissal? At having to pay extra for a better time at that film festival, then trudging through the snow hand delivering invitations, and still having few people attend? What about at being made to feel like an “academic groupie” for being married to Sylvére Lotringer? You speak of shame and frustration, but rarely explicitly of anger. So often your voice feels more uncertain, more ambivalent that Audre Lorde, who preaches her truth. So often you are left waiting, waiting for a reply to your letter to Dick, or your email to Gavin, waiting for a positive response to your work. You write from within the waiting.
I felt your confusion and hurt when your friend David Rattrey, with whom you had spent hours on the phone helping with his book, gives just a cursory glance to your script after weeks of having it, and then only corrects some spellings. When I told my friend, a peer and performance/conceptual artist, that I wanted to make a piece from the audio I had made of my boyfriend reading Aliens and Anorexia out loud to me in bed, fascinated by the little adlib comments he made, she responded ‘hahahaaahahahha’.
It’s a different phenomenon in the art world, to being rejected from opportunities, when your own peers stop to recognise and support your work. Competitive tension sets in post-college, friend-contemporaries gradually stop sharing upcoming opportunities with each other. There’s not enough to go round, so silence and secrecy settle.
The relationship with your contemporaries is something that affects the work you make, however an artist’s output is often considered as entirely individual, independent of the environment in which it was made. I saw an exhibition last year in Ireland’s National Gallery ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’, it brought the slightly alarming realisation that there were a whole group of 17th century Dutch artists painting people softly lit by window-light, in rooms with chequered floors. What conversations were these artists having? Why did the canon choose Vermeer?
You tell how Paul Thek’s controversial sculpture ‘Tomb’ was lost or destroyed because he never picked it up from the shipper. I love that he has either forgotten or chosen not to collect it, and that act has changed the course of art history. It’s the kind of thing that often remains unnamed, it’s more glamorous to say that the work was simply lost, or that the artist destroyed it in a fit of self-loathing, than that they were busy running errands that day and simply forgot. My point is that theory and art are considered as though made in a sanitised environment, as a pure distillation of the artist or writer’s thought. But making and writing never happen independent of the conditions in which they are submerged. Deleuze gets anorexia right, knows that it’s not anything to do with lack, because his wife had it (Aliens and Anorexia, p.182). Barthes theoretical writing on photography cannot evade his grief at the death of his mother, her ghost permeates everything (Camera Lucida, 1980).
The conditions of the artist/writer’s life affect the material reality of the work. Sometimes the painting is blue because the paint shop was closed and the painter ran out of yellow the day before. Mary Kelly made Postpartum Document by meticulously recording the first six years of her son’s life. This is both a considered examination of maternal intersubjectivity and ambivalence, and evidence that recording her maternal labour was the most practical art she could make, because it filled her days. I don’t think either is more important than the other.
For philosophers, philosophy happens in more than the pages of their most seminal text.
It happens in these moments of rupture, the pause of disappointment, of shame, uncertainty, insecurity. Is not all art observation and communication?
I cannot conclude.
Will write again.
Holten, E. (2019). Chris Kraus Interview: Changing Lives. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pa-pG9UCTyI [Accessed 5 May 2019].
Kraus, C. (2018). Aliens & Anorexia. London: Tuskar Rock Press.
Kraus, C. (2016). I Love Dick. 3rd ed. Croydon: Serpent’s Tail.
Lorde, A. (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You. 1st ed. UK: Silver Press.