Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker
McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker met in June 1995 at a launch event in Sydney’s Ariel bookstore for the now defunct 21C magazine, of which I was editor. Both Wark and Acker were contributors, and it fell to me to introduce them. Wark was at the time a rising star in Australian intellectual circles. Acker was at the height of her cult celebrity status as a feminist literary icon and her infamous novel Blood and Guts in High School had appeared in 1984, cementing her reputation as a transgressive experimentalist.
Wark seemed shy meeting Acker who, dressed in black leather and sporting a peroxided crew cut and piercings, was, despite her petite physique, an imposing figure. She was friends with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and was the subject of a portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe. She was quintessential New York in the flesh.
Wark appeared with Acker for breakfast the next morning, both clearly sleep deprived. Thus began a tumultuous years-long relationship, conducted mainly via email. Wark was 34, Acker was 48. Wark has since transitioned, which is in large part what this book, Philosophy for Spiders, is really about.
In 2015 Wark published a somewhat redacted book of their email correspondence titled I’m Very into You: Correspondence 1995-1996. Philosophy for Spiders is, thankfully, a different beast entirely.
The first section of the book will be considered by the more prudish as pornographic. Holes are penetrated and prostheses are attached. It is undeniably graphic and extreme, yet it is also tender and brutally honest. As a man who has always felt comfortable in his heterosexuality, it perhaps gave me a powerful glimpse into the need, desire and trauma of going through the process of transition. By Wark’s recounting, Acker was gracious and patient with Wark’s hesitancy in the bedroom, and more than a little imaginative. In short, it gave Wark confidence down the track to begin her transition.
Then Wark gets down to analysing Acker’s thoughts and works into philosophical and sociological frameworks, ranging from post-capitalism to the mythological. It’s a fascinating journey into Acker’s mind, although just how accurate a journey is anybody’s guess. Acker died in 1997 from cancer, but she left an indelible mark on anyone who met her, including myself, and indisputably on McKenzie Wark.
Duke University Press, 216pp, $36.75
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 9, 2021 as "Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker, McKenzie Wark".
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