Q&A: Chris Kraus

questions posed by Selah Saterstrom, August 2006

SS: You have spoken—in fierce, necessary, and articulate ways—about the female first person, the "I"—about how the invocation of the female "I" has been repeatedly ghettoized by terminology which polices the possibility of the revelatory female voice (for example, the female "I" is rarely seen as a "cultural intervention," but is often labeled "confessional"). You have said, "Female intellectuals of the more professional sort have always been quite circumspect, never brining any sign of the physical being into the text."

A lot of women writing today sense the conundrum, a kind of: "damned if you do/damned if you don't." If you leave the body out you are promoting the continuation of the Cartesian split, and if you include it you're held in suspicion.

As someone who has spent time with this issue of body/voice—how and where it appears, and the subsequent consequences—what advice do you have for women writing today? If you could say something to these women, what would it be? What are the limits women writers should go to, if any at all, to avoid certain scrutinies? In what do you source your own bravery?

CK: To really answer your question, I have to go back to the time in my life when I started writing I Love Dick. I was 39 years old, an experimental filmmaker who’d been very earnestly pursuing a kind of punk formalism that I liked to call Lonely Girl Phenomenology with no recognition, no credibility. For a long time, I didn’t think I was writing a book. The writing came out of my life. I thought my head would fly off. I didn’t know “how” to write, I didn’t know any other way of writing. The only thing I thought I could offer was a willingness to report on my subjective experience with some precision.

Since I’d spent a great deal of time reading literature, history, philosophy, “my subjectivity” included all of those things, but only as channeled through my own body. Before making films, I’d studied performance for several years with the visionary theater artists of Mabou Mines, The Wooster Group, and The Performance Group. And as I wrote, I found myself deploying many of the conceits I’d learned in acting and film—the use of montage, speaking through masks or personas, a very high slapstick routine of shifting identities. If I was going to be accused of stalking said “Dick,” well then, I’d play the part of the stalker. One of the most important things I learned in studying theater is to seize the impulses that arise during performance, and then move with them. A gesture turns into a mask. So I turned myself into a lab rat. I was very naive. I thought I was doing a high giddy job of performing philosophy. Naturally this writing was very physical, and I was terribly shocked when it was widely perceived at face value, as a cheap confession. Because in the book I talked over and over again about operating at a Third Remove, using a Kierkegaardian sense of irony when dealing with the banal facts that comprise straight female life: the Crush, when will he call me?

The writers I most admired mostly wrote through this logic of excess you mention, though on less banal topics. I thought I was playing a very high joke: to channel the drek of straight female life, and thereby give it some claim to being a-personal. Well, perhaps the joke was on me, although maybe it wasn’t.

I don’t think it would be possible for me to recapture this kind of unmediated, intense directness again. It was all circumstantial. For better or worse, I’ve become more of a “writer.” But I don’t think anyone should back off from using these kinds of strategies. It’s important to follow the trip wherever it takes you.

SS: Your writing celebrates the awkwardness that haunts humans attempting to come to terms with the painful voids that haunt living. When this awkwardness is given such clarity, it helps me to love the struggle more than before. There is something in the act of seeing things—as they are—that enables one to feel compassion in a more profound way.

How do you define compassion? What is its relevance in your work and your concerns?

CK: I’ve never seen compassion as an abstract noun. If you accept that we’re all composed largely of other people we’ve known, then compassion becomes a form of self-love. Compassion, composition. Awkwardness and grace live side by side. There’s a great line in a poem Ted Berrigan wrote about Anne Waldman:

"If she is awkward at moments/Then those are awkward moments."

If all the best writing is actually reportage, then the awkward moments have to live alongside of the grand ones. You have to stumble around for a while to get anywhere, and I try not to delete too much of the stumbling. It’s a performance idea: much of the pleasure is in watching the actor arrive at the mark, not just hit it. Compassion is also a kind of emptying out, so that new things can come in. Becoming very porous, receptive. The danger is to let that shiny luminous state become an affect, and I think that occurs when the awkwardness gets edited out. I’m very distrustful of uncut lyricism.

SS: In your art-writing ("ficto-criticisms," I've heard them coined) you detail the ways we seek to escape and/or numb out to various voids, and also detail how those voids might be engaged with, all the while illuminating how, in particular, "art stars" turn such voids into a commodity. I believe you once said something in an interview to the effect of, "The art world mirrors the larger one, rather than presenting an alternative to it."

Do you sense a similar paradigm in the world of contemporary literature? What is the difference between "mirroring" and "presenting alternatives," and what kind of value do you place on presenting alternatives?

CK: Actually, I was quoting something the critic Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe once wrote, that I wholeheartedly agree with. There seems to be much more freedom and flexibility in contemporary visual art now than in literary fiction. The publishing industry is so hegemonic, that the "big books" of next season have all been determined two years in advance. It’s very depressing to imagine a small group of tastemakers determine what we’ll all think and discuss two seasons later. The art world has more cash in its lower echelons. This is largely because contemporary art is so wonderfully opaque that no one knows how to read it, and so power moves more arbitrarily. In that sense, the art world mirrors the chaotic flows of global capital. Branding in the art world occurs very quickly, through curatorial genius or folly, while the literary world lags behind, paying lip service to the old humanist myths of the Great Writer. The cynicism of the art world is very close to the surface, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Within it, there’s still a much better chance to do something marvelous.

SS: With your new novel, Torpor, you've discussed that you work with what in French is called the "future anterior"—a tense unique to trauma in which the past is not cast in the realm of "was," but rather: "it would have been"—a statement which reveals the present and future's complex, painful relationship to the past.

In what ways does trauma rupture language into new forms so that language might speak loss, absence, erasure, silence?

Having worked with this theme in great depth, what have you learned about the nature/fabric of language in terms of the awful, shitty things that humans do?

CK: In Torpor, I dealt with the experience of a child survivor of the Holocaust navigating his way through the last days of the avant-garde, in the late 1980s, early 90s. There’s a great deal of comedy in this. The language of trauma has been discussed in great detail by 20th century thinkers like Maurice Blanchot, Cathy Caruth, Georges Perec, Dorie Laub. The comedy is to transpose the torpid language of trauma to more banal situations—fame, resentment, glamour, ambition. Jerome, in the book, straddles both worlds. But then I look at whole parts of the late 20th century world that are completely enmeshed in trauma’s negative entropy. Ancient nationalisms in eastern Europe largely determining which of the new “free market” nations would be winners and losers. The nations that clung to their traumatic histories most fiercely turned out the big losers. The traumatic tense of the “future anterior” is unable to move completely forward, because it’s always held back by history. “It would have been …”—a future with one foot in the past. Romania, in the year 2000, was like a cluster of medieval fiefdoms struck by mad cow disease. I’m stunned by the transposition of micro to macro: the way the very personal experience of trauma can destroy the infrastructures of entire countries. So banality—in the form of global homogenization—saves the day. Flaubert saw it all coming. In Madame Bovary, the dreamers end up poisoning themselves, and their children are sent to the poorhouse, while the grubby pragmatic Mrs. Hommais “goes on to win the Legion of Honor.” Cupidity and avarice will always triumph.

>> Read an excerpt from Torpor

Chris Kraus is the author of the novels Torpor, Aliens & Anorexia, and a collection of essays about the Los Angeles art world, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. She has written on art, poetics, and theory for academic anthologies and art magazines. Kraus is the founding editor of Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint.