|Can I call you Dick?
I Love Dickis the first book in ages I've wanted to proselytise. Something about the fervency of first person narrative brings out the zealot in me. I've been giving copies to my friends, convinced that exposure to Chris Kraus' raw-nerve-ending style will provide the catharsis necessary to anyone existing within any kind of "art scene", and certainly to anyone who needs help coping with their heterosexuality.
I Love Dick is primarily an epistolary novel addressed to the absent Dick. In fact you might say it's a tongue in cheek actualisation of penis envy in all its highly self-conscious "hysteria." The central protagonists Chris Kraus and Sylvere Lotringer, seem to be closely based on the real Chris and Sylvere; a married couple, he a prominent French theorist in his late fifties, she an experimental film maker (ex-Kiwi to boot) turning forty and freaking out. They meet the "cultural critic" Dick Hebdidge (a would be "private" Dick; due to legality his last name is never mentioned but his real identity is already urban myth). Believing Chris and Sylvere to be a friendly and sophisticated frat couple, Hebdidge invites them into the inner sanctum of his deserted country abode. Dick flirts with Chris in what he assumes is a harmless fashion. What Dick doesn't count on is that Chris will take up the challenge implicit in his mandatory sexualisation of their male/female encounter. Dick becomes the all-consuming cipher for Chris' passions, not the mention the salve for her agonies. And he does so without even being there.
Like some kind of absent paternalist God, as the addressee for Chris' letters and diary entries, Dick becomes a metaphor for every kind of spiritual quest. (Like the Hindu worship of Shiva through the form of an erect penis - Lingam - whether it be in the architecture of a giant temple or as a sacrificial phallus-shaped altar which has milky liquid rubbed into it as a regular oblation, so Kraus choses to intellectually worship someone whose loaded name symbolises the apotheosis of the sexual). "You're shrunk and bottled in a glass jar, you're a portable saint. Knowing you's like knowing Jesus. There are billions of us and only one of you so I don't expect much from you personally. There are no answers to my life. But I'm touched by you and fulfilled just by believing." (As a parable of faith I Love Dick can also be compared to Lars von Trier's controversial Breaking the Waves, a film which disturbed many "feminists" because it centred around an extremely vulnerable and naive woman who sold her body in the blind hope that it would save her husband's life. But whereas von Trier is a Catholic convert, Kraus' faith does not shine through triumphant in the end. In fact, everything turns to shit; like the angel that becomes a devil in Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, Dick's a chimera at best. At worst he's a representation of the evil patriarchy that thrives on stamping out difficult women).
I Love Dick is an exercise in astute masochism. In Angry Women, Kathy Acker thanks the intellectual that first slapped her while they were having sex. (Could this have been Sylvere? In I Love Dick, Kraus reveals Acker as one of the many daunting inscriptions in Sylvere's library of conquests.) On the same kind of journey, Chris learns that to seek and control certain debasing circumstances can lead to a higher physical state, becoming its own kind of liberation. I Love Dick is also a female appropriation of a male genre - love poetry from Boccacio to Shakespeare in which the literary form is contingent on the silence of the (generally female) love object. Or, just as Greta Garbo was directed to be blank so that her face could become a screen for (generally male) projected fantasies, so Dick becomes the tabula rasa for Chris' desire and intellectual rapacity. The emotional torment that Chris chooses to put herself through is a birthright, like claiming the right for women to smoke cigarettes and drive cars (cause just like men they have every right to fuck their bodies and every right to fuck the planet).
In many ways, I Love Dick is the most deeply religious book I've read for a long time, where the author is on a genuine and permanent quest to work stuff out in a continual acknowledgement of the processes of living. But there's more to I Love Dick than cringe-making honesty (check this, "And I wonder if there'll ever be a possibility of reconciling youth and age, or the anorexic open wound I used to be with the money-hustling hag that I've become.") Running parallel to the femmo-Judaic self-debasing humour are some wickedly clever games. Kraus manages to undermine everyone, not least herself and Sylvere as the postmodern couple from hell ("Because the two are no longer having sex they maintain their intimacy via deconstruction"). Although surprisingly, what endures is a picture of a very strong and very intense marriage, where communication never lets up, with Sylvere assimilating Chris' questions and desires, just as any good academic's or artist's wife should do.
What I admire most about the book is its daring. Coming from a reasonably comfortable position, Kraus and Lotringer are like a couple of credible enfants terribles, licensed to ill by the establishments that keep them employed. But Chris goes beyond those boundaries in I Love Dick. "Chris considered using her studio visits at Art Center to testify about Dick, exhorting all the students there to write to him. "It will change your life!" She'd write a crazy tract called I Love Dick and publish it in Sylvere's school magazine. Hadn't her entire art career been this unprofessional?"
I try to imagine the import of this literary event with a local cast of characters. It reminds me of the time I sat in on an American Poetry lecture given by Wystan Curnow at the University of Auckland. Wystan was introducing the work of Ron Siliman, and so read a piece by Kathy Acker in which Acker talks about picking up Siliman, taking him home and giving him an uninspiring blow job.
I was always amazed when Acker used real people's names, and it was hard to imagine what kind of a relationship she really had with Siliman. It was an outrageous form of literary radicalism where anything was possible - forget technology, overuse of TRUTH (a substance like any other) is still the biggest mindfuck available. Anyhow, Wystan was thrilling to the modicum of shock he was causing, and certainly no one else in the faculty would have heard of the piece, let alone had the temerity to read it out to a lecture theatre full of students.
But what bugged me about Wystan's delight was its safety. He could enjoy Acker's genius from a remove, but how would he cope if he was written about in such a manner? Wystan, a great poet and critic, attractive for his age, with a penchant for Kathy Acker at her raunchiest, was just the kind of guy who was ripe for a bit of gentle "ribbing for her pleasure". And yet Wystan, the happily married man with four sons and a house and rambling garden in a quiet North Shore suburb, like most academics the world over, would scream blue murder and vilify any woman who wrote him into her sordid literary experiments. Which is exactly what Dick does to Chris; disdain and lawsuits hang pendulous over the action, but this only ever serves to empower Kraus' narrative.
OK, here's another story, with perhaps even more pertinance to this issue of LOG as well as I Love Dick. Originally, Giovanni Intra, an artist and critic who should need no introduction in these pages, was to be the guest editor of LOG 6. Giovanni chose the theme, "Abuse of Substance" meaning the issue as a good excuse to fling some dung straight back at the sacred cows. But Giovanni was too busy with his Art Center programme (where, thanks to the support of Chris and Sylvere, he has been firmly ensconsed for the last couple of years) that he had to renege on the guest spot in LOG. However, we decided to stick with the theme, ever partial to a little dung-flinging. It occured to me though, that Giovanni himself had at times been on the receiving end of this kind of art terrorism, and that even in hindsight, unravelling the meaning in acts of critical violence is awful hard.
When Giovanni was turning 21, there were a bunch of wannabe artists who were pissed off that Giovanni was a better artist than they were, and the fact that despite being neither queer nor a junkie (at the time), he could still make works that were far more transgressive than their knee-jerk "smear a crucifix with faeces" kind of stuff.
So they turned up to his 21st party with a bag of tricks, and started filming things in his living room, stuff like Brent Hayward shoving objects up his own arse. This shocked and disturbed most of the people present, mainly straight young art students, and it really upset Giovanni, who even called the talkback radio station the next night when rumours of the party spread like wildfire. Brent Hayward recorded Intra's radio debut (in which he came close to tears) and released it in a CD simply entitled Giovanni. For the perpetrators, it was a case of justice served. Freaking out the artwankers is a job that always needs doing, and indeed, Giovanni went on to make a career of weeding out pseuds (check out his wicked attack on Derek Cherrie's transgression-by-numbers in Monica 1).
It's always going to be a matter of degree. On one level, Giovanni got what he deserved, what he was inviting with every radically conceived and executed work of art. On the other level though, the bad boys were the artwankers, the psueds who thought that simply dilating one's rectum confered automatic artistic credibility. As a "writer" I find I'm forever offending my audiences, either for "selling out" or for being too brash and gauche. In a karmic sense, Kraus has started something revolutionary and potentially very dangerous. Imagine the end of all "objectivity". Imagine if every newspaper article and every theoretical text was written in the first person. What chaos that might cause and yet how much narrower that might actually make the chasm between signifier and signified. Kraus writes: "Now I can't stop writing in the 1st person, it feels like it's the last chance I will ever have to figure some of this stuff out." It's not a great big melting pot that we need, it's a crap incinerator.
I was so sure that the first person revolution was nigh, that when I got asked to write a response to the 11th Biennale of Sydney for Artspace, Sydney, I went ahead and gave them a bunch of diary entries. After all, the Biennale was entitled, Every day, and in the catalogue essay curator Jonathan Watkins went to great lengths to be "unpretentious". But I found out that responding in such a concrete fashion, making my text conform to the same thematic as the one that was informing the artwork, was considered undesirable, and my essay was dropped. Kraus: "Because emotion's just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form." The world, or at least Artspace, wasn't ready for the Krausian model and what they did publish was a bunch of same-old same-old pseudo-theoretical stuff in which each text segued into the next cause without putting themselves into the mix the writers had just become the homogenous "voice of authority".
Kraus uses her correspondence with Dick as an outlet for her myriad ideas about feminism and criticism of female artists. Importantly, Kraus re-visits some long-dormant models of feminism that have been regarded as "unfashionable" for far too long. For example, she re-valorises Hannah Wilke's project as being intensely relevant to artists today. "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 could be 20 years too late but epiphanies don't always synchronise with style."
Ironically, as Kraus outlines this familiar conspiracy of silence and gifts Dick with some killer prose about inequity, her texts are doomed to his scorn. Better yet, she apes massaging Dick's ego (Reflecting Men at Twice Their Natural Size) when in fact she's quoting her own writing as Dick's (again for reasons of legality). She makes out that her forthcoming Aliens and Anorexia is something that Dick has already published and then says, "This's one of the most incredible things I've read in years."
Hebdidge, who occasionally solicits the reader's pity for the unfair (and seemingly pretty random) plight of being Kraus' object of intense adoration, comes off in the end as being nothing but a great big stiff. His lack of humour and generosity towards Kraus' project reveals a closed kind of intellectualism. In Dick's world, it's fine to own and discuss Kathy Acker books, but not to actually indulge in the kinds of sado-masochistic relationships she outlines as both metaphors and as valid ways of working through things. As Quentin Crisp put it, Dick's way is "sucking life through a straw" rather than skulling for all you're worth as the metaphysically thirsty Chris does. Sylvere too emerges as someone who is willing to take emotional risks, and this, in the context of I Love Dick, augments rather than diminishes his intellectual stature.
There's nothing wrong with Dick's model of closed comfort, except that it presupposes a distinction between art and life, and the insanity of the rare few that are committed to dissolving this distinction. As Kraus says to Dick: "If we want reality to change then why not change it." Read I Love Dick. "It will change your life!"
Copies of I Love Dick are available for $24.95 from Brick Row Books, PO Box 100-057, North Shore Mail Centre, Auckland, or from www.amazon.com