A writer, film-maker and co-editor, with Sylvère Lotringer and Hedi El Kholti, at the influential press Semiotext(e), Chris Kraus founded the Native Agents series to publish often subversive works by the likes of Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles and Lynne Tillman. In 1997, she used her real-life infatuation with a cultural critic and friend of Lotringer, then her husband, as the catalyst for a seminal book, I Love Dick, equal parts criticism, memoir, performance art piece and epistolary novel. Kraus moved to California to teach in the 1990s and, as well as the novels Aliens & Anorexia and Torpor, has published incisive books on the art scene in LA and elsewhere. Her latest novel, Summer of Hate, is set in a bleak American south-west during the Bush years.
LIDIJA HAAS The word “confessional” still dogs women who use their own lives as material. You’ve suggested that while many people are happy to read about women’s personal lives, they can’t stand female writers treating the subject analytically, “at some remove”. Is that just misogyny (“It talks!”), an assumption that female experience can’t be universal, can’t be literature?
CHRIS KRAUS Definitely there’s a prejudice against writing that confounds expectations: strong or weak, butch or femme, analytic or intimate. Everyone is supposed to stay in their places!
LH But your arguments went further – there was a political valence to the idea that “privacy” might be to female artists in the ’90s what “obscenity” had been to creative men in the ’60s. Telling “secrets”, naming names – what was the force of that when you and others did it?
CK Yeah, that’s true. I was so shocked when I read that Claes Oldenberg had blocked Hannah Wilke from using her own photographs in her own show. That just didn’t seem possible. So much straight-male literary fiction is à clef, with just the names changed, but anyone who cares to can know who the characters really are. And everyone thinks that’s legitimate, but the use of real people’s names – which necessarily forces you to be more circumspect – is considered aggressive, offensive. Straight women seem to be blamed more for this than anyone else. Uh, I wonder how come? This seemed so retrograde and wrong, the only thing to do was blow it up.
LH In I Love Dick, you talk about what you’re doing as a sort of “performative philosophy”. Is that an idea that still interests you?
CK The “performative philosophy” idea was really important in that novel. I was turning myself into a “case study”, so whatever happened within the frame of the book would function as evidence. Aliens & Anorexia continues along these lines. Like I Love Dick, it’s written in the first person, in real time. The action seems to be taking place as you read it, which makes for a close connection between writer and reader. It’s heady but also physical. In Torpor, I switched to the third person, and became very aware of the emotional colours of different tenses. The simple past versus the more nostalgic and tragic future anterior: It would have been… In the last several years, I’ve written a lot about visual art and culture. Because I no longer have to fight so hard to be heard, my persona is no longer central.
LH You seem increasingly interested in class as well as sexual politics. Summer of Hate raises questions about privilege, how ingrained it or the lack of it is in people’s lives. There’s a sense that poverty often robs people of access to other frames of reference, to certain kinds of metaphor, even?
CK That is probably the most important point the novel is making. The way lack, shame and poverty affect people on a cellular level. It’s like the famous marshmallow experiments giving five-year-old kids a choice: one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later. All the rewards in life come to the waiters, who also of course mostly turn out to be the upper-middle-class children. When I lived in the American south-west, I was stunned by the absence of any culture, any process of imagination or association among the underclass people I was hanging around with. The whole idea of a working-class culture, or even a working class, is so far in the past. Everyone’s too busy surviving.
LH You’ve always paid attention to practicalities: how exactly do strip club earnings work, for example? How much does it cost not to have to think about money all the time? Why is it important to you to look at those mechanics?
CK Money is the last taboo in our culture! You can confess to anything sexually, and you’re just making conversation. But money creates the underlying structure to how everything works. Lack, shame, permission, entitlement. The “Chris” and “Sylvère” characters in I Love Dick both come from lower-middle-class backgrounds and are acutely aware of the cost of not having to think about money. Their dream is to enjoy this intangible privilege that most of their friends in the art world grew up with. As a teacher, I constantly see how hard it is for someone without independent means to enter the art world and speak to the culture. When outsiders slip through, it’s almost a miracle. Spending time in northern Mexico in the past decade, I’ve become friends – fallen in love with, really – a group of artists in Mexicali who are affirming their working-class background rather than trying to flee it. Their work is bi-cultural, not just in terms of language, but because these artists are equally fluent in street and high-art international culture.
LH There seems to be a resurgence of interest in books that display their use of real-life material. Is there any relationship between that and the first-person writing you published in the Native Agents series?
CK I think the Native Agents books we did in the ’90s share this bi-cultural quality, moving between high and low very freely. If you look at them carefully, that’s the common denominator. The real-life question is so distracting. I mean, what isn’t? Very few literary fiction writers make everything up. People forget that it’s composition, not subject, that makes something literature.
LH Semiotext(e) famously brought French theory to the US. Don’t know if you heard that clip recently in which John Searle claimed Foucault had told him you had to make at least 10 per cent of your writing incomprehensible or no one in Paris would take you seriously (and, supposedly, when Searle put that to Bourdieu he said it was more like 20 per cent)? I guess I’m wondering what you think the place of theory now is – there still seem to be occasional waves of theory-bashing…
CK Theory is very important! This theory-bashing, it’s mostly for people writing their coming-of-age novels about student days in the ’80s at Brown… Sylvère and Hedi have introduced a series of new theory books from Italy, some of them post- Autonomia, that have been very well timed: Bifo Berardi, Toni Negri, Christian Marazzi, Maurizio Lazzarato, Paolo Virno... all of them deal directly with the economic and psychic conditions of what Bifo calls “semio-capital”.
LH In some of your work the art world appears as a hideous microcosm of the rest of society, a conformist rat race. But there’s also the sense that it might be a haven for subcultures and for certain kinds of creative work. Are both things true?
CK In Video Green, I was writing about competitive MFA programs and how toxic they are for the 75 per cent of students who won’t go on to have art careers. But I’m more interested now in the possibilities. Definitely the art world has become the refuge for other cultural forms – literary fiction, independent and documentary film, even theatre and music – that no longer have much distribution. In those other arenas, it’s all or nothing. Even given the trend towards mega-galleries such as Gagosian and David Zwirner, there’s still a chance in the art world to start an alternative space and have it mean something. I was really impressed this year, visiting Felicia von Zweigbergk’s west Amsterdam gallery Lost Property. It was so cool. She supports the space partly with her work in a brewery called Butcher’s Tears, where she’s one of three partners.
LH You’ve written about BDSM: does that interest you because of the element of performance, or perhaps because of the fixed rules and roles? Are there connections between the BDSM scene and other more or less closed worlds, like the arts or academia?
CK The writing I did about BDSM was in relation to the disconnectedness of LA. I arrived there in the mid-1990s, was living alone, and BDSM play seemed like a magical antidote to the loneliness of the city. I realised I wasn’t going to have friends there in the same way I did in New York… people who, I thought, were just like me. Instead, it was more bricolage: activity partners, people you’d see at galleries, a larger number of people you’d share just one thing with. BDSM was like extreme bricolage, with the added attraction of intimacy. Because it’s so boundaried, people who are absent from most of their lives are able to be very present. Obviously I was a sub…
LH Summer of Hate nods in the direction of a genre thriller before going elsewhere. Still, the idea of the death wish, or allowing yourself to be taken advantage of or punished, remains. Is there something about doing well in America now that seems not quite forgivable?
CK There is a queasiness to it, for sure. But to me, it seems less about guilt than disillusion… that feeling you get once you’ve attained something that, before you had it, seemed so desirable. It’s the last frames of the otherwise pretty despicable Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty: the Jessica Chastain character has obsessed about this assassination for decades. And when it’s done, she just feels empty. §