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Blood and Guts in High School saved my life.
What I mean by that is, Kathy Acker’s novel helped me not kill myself.
What I mean by that is, this novel about a 10-year-old girl that was banned in West Germany and South Africa, a novel that may as well have been banned in America, since it only existed in a kind of subterranean, black market underworld if you were by chance a young woman reader, this novel about the psychosexual identity formation of a girl body that travels the world and is in turn transgressed by the world, this novel was the central most articulate and precise piece of literature I read during the decade in which I most wanted to kill myself.
Being born a girl is always already a death sentence, because the body of a girl is colonized by culture the moment she arrives.
The decade during which I most wanted to kill myself contained coming to terms with my father’s transgressions by embarking on a sexually frenzied odyssey, a drug-induced epic world tour of counter-cultures, free-flowing abortions and aberrations and unending altered states, an abysmally failed marriage, flunking out of college, a self-loathing crescendo culminating in a daughter who died the day she was born.
For this reason, Kathy Acker’s book saved my life.
The plot is only a means by which a reader moves through the body of a girl. Inside the plot, the reader experiences incest, sexual pleasure, pain, transgression, gang life, prostitution, slavery, several different modes of incarceration, resistance, rebellion and liberation, cancer, and death, all by and through the body of a girl. So much through the body of a girl, that you could say this girl’s body is allegorical. The novel is about how being born a girl is always already a death sentence, because the body of a girl is colonized by culture the moment she arrives.
That likely sounds bleak.
In Kathy Acker’s books, a girl body is the site of irreducible resistance.
What was the opposite of bleak, was this. The girl in this story had more agency and voice than any girl I’d ever read or would read in my entire life, and more than any girl I knew in real life. And this: I identified with her story. My father had transgressed the colony of my girl body. Catholicism had ravaged my self story. School was fast destroying my self-esteem, funneling me into some weird cult of good citizenship rather than mutant girl rebel, and this novel literally mapped out a resistance narrative for me. This book, this author, this girl body said: Make art.
A girl is born and we make a story of her. Daughter. Lover. Wife. Mother. In Kathy Acker’s books, a girl body is the site of irreducible resistance.
And not just any art.
Use poems, drama, letters. Use artifacts, photographs, twigs, thistles, blood and sweat. Use dreams and drawings. Use anything you can find to interrupt the narrative traditions handed to you that silence the story of your body. There is no other writer I learned more from. No other kind of writing gave me more inspiration or hope. And since I had the weird and bent luck to cross her path and briefly know Kathy Acker, I can say this too: I choose Kathy—wrecker of realisms and paternal orders, plagiarist, fabulist, and gender pirate—as my literary mother.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the national bestselling author of the novels The Small Backs of Children, and Dora: A Headcase, and the memoir The Chronology of Water, as well as three books of short fictions, and a critical book on war and narrative, Allegories of Violence. Her writing has appeared in publications including Guernica, Ms., The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Another Chicago Magazine, The Sun, Exquisite Corpse, TANK, and The Rumpus. She writes, teaches and lives in Portland, Oregon with the filmmaker Andy Mingo and their son Miles. She is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award – Reader’s Choice, a PNBA award, and was a finalist for the 2012 PEN Center USA Creative Nonfiction Award.
On August 2, 1978, the same year Kathy Acker copyrighted her “post-punk porn” novel, Blood and Guts in High School, ABC and CBS broadcast news stories alerted the American public to the environmental and public health catastrophe at Love Canal. The early coverage of the disaster, according to Andrew Szasz, was mostly informative, giving the basic background information. Hooker Chemical & Plastics Corp. had dumped roughly 21,000 tons of liquid hazardous waste at the Love Canal site in the 1940s and 1950s, and in 1952 the sludge was covered up and a residential neighborhood built on top. Heavy rains in the 1970s caused the liquid to rise to the surface, and residents began complaining of illness. Szasz reports that “[f]ederal and state officials confirmed the presence of eighty-eight chemicals, some in concentrations of 250 to 5,000 times higher than acceptable safety levels. Eleven of these chemicals were suspected or known carcinogens [..]” The news coverage, however, did not end there. Love Canal, toxic waste, and the political response to the problem of waste management became major focal points in mainstream news outlets for the next two years. As Walter Cronkite reported, “The problem of hazardous chemical waste drifts across this nation these days like a bad dream.”
Prior to the Love Canal calamity, hazardous waste management was a marginal political issue, something of concern to environmentalist groups or specific locations where toxic waste affected individuals directly, but by 1984, public opinion developed and hazardous waste politics and policy became a populist cause. Even Glamour magazine devoted its reader poll to Love Canal in August 1980, indicating just how widespread awareness of the issue was. Legislative action was swift, and in 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, better known as the Superfund legislation, which President Carter felt was his most important environmental initiative. Szasz attributes the hasty ascension of toxic waste in public discourse, in part, to the rhetoric employed in these television news stories, which he compares to the devices “often found in horror movies, [conveying] a sense of insidiousness, of benign everyday life suddenly becoming a nightmare.” Soon, dread of contamination became pervasive, leading to disputes over the siting of toxic waste disposal facilities.
Six years after its copyright date, in the midst of a discourse preoccupied with waste, pollution, and purity, Blood and Guts in High School was finally published, a novel that plays with precisely these same concepts, both in their material and metaphoric forms. The novel itself, some might argue, is filthy, containing not only numerous examples of “objectionable” language, but also sketches of sex acts and genitalia that recall the zoomed-in images of pornography. The plot is no less lewd. It follows the life of Janey Smith, who, at the novel’s opening, is ten years old and in a sexual relationship with her father, who is about to “leave” Janey for another woman. Janey moves to New York City, engages in promiscuous behavior, has several abortions, moves to the slums, gets raped, gets kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, is diagnosed with cancer, moves to Tangier, lives a life of crime, and, at the age of fourteen, dies. Besides being dirty itself, the novel is in many ways about waste: ruins, garbage, human waste, and, more figuratively, the wastes of patriarchy, capitalism, and postmodernism.
Many scholars have focused on the form of the novel, calling attention to its collage style and Acker’s strategic use of plagiarism, which often gets called “recycling,” but despite the novel’s engagement with urbanization, waste, and “wildness,” ecocritics have entirely ignored it. This is perhaps not surprising, as very little scholarship exists on Blood and Guts in High School, and what has been written has focused on the novel’s engagement with postmodern theory and/or its radical feminist themes. This oversight by ecocriticism in general, and ecofeminism in particular, is unfortunate, as Acker’s novel clearly deals in many of the same tropes we have seen in the discourse surrounding the environmental and social justice problem of waste management, particularly the cultural repulsion and dread felt in response to too-close proximity to wastes of all kinds. In particular, I argue that Blood and Guts critiques entropic systems in general, by giving voice to the wastes of patriarchal capitalism in the form of Janey. By applying ecological systems theory, I will show how Acker both critiques the production or categorization of waste and embraces the revolutionary destructive potential of literal and figurative garbage. In particular, I want to investigate how the problem of siting toxic waste treatment and disposal facilities correlate to spatiality in the novel, particularly Janey’s movements from Mexico to New York to Tangier. Janey, the novel’s avatar of waste-writ-large, is extremely mobile, but rather than signifying freedom, Janey always moves after she has been used up and tossed aside. A waste herself, she makes visible the physical wastes of consumer capitalism by occupying the marginal spaces to which refuse is relegated. Acker’s novel successfully joins the widespread discourse about waste with a critique of patriarchal capitalism, by making visible what those systems seek to conceal: the garbages on which they depend.
Dread and the Public Perception of Waste
In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency polled American residents to determine their attitudes toward having a national toxic waste disposal site located near their neighborhoods. At that time, years before Love Canal, almost sixty percent of residents said they favored or strongly favored the siting of a national facility within five miles of their homes, believing that such a facility would have no impact on or would increase property values. A similar poll was conducted in 1980 with drastically different results. Szasz claims, “By 1980, attitudes toward hazardous waste disposal sites had come to resemble closely post-Three Mile Island attitudes toward nuclear power […]” At that time, only twenty percent of respondents favored locating a disposal site within five miles of their homes, and sixty percent said they would only favor such a facility at a distance of at least 100 miles. This change is not surprising; the catastrophe at Love Canal illuminated the health concerns associated with hazardous waste. But in order to understand how Blood and Guts in High School intervenes in the discourses surrounding waste management and disposal facility siting, one must first consider how these discourses are structured and how they proliferate.
Benjamin Miller, author of Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York the Last 200 Years and former director of policy for the New York City Department of Sanitation, notes that while “hazardous waste” had not entered the popular lexicon until 1978, the modern environmentalist movement that developed in the 1960s “emphasized […] that industrial activity pollutes the ‘ordinary’ environment everywhere and, in the process, threatens people’s quality of life, even their health.” Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) alerted the public to the dangers of pesticides, and the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 contributed to a sense of urgency surrounding the issue of pollution, leading to the establishment of Earth Day in 1970.
Beginning in the early 1970s, environmental concerns over waste management slowly began to gain momentum. Since the turn of the century, Americans had voiced support for building waste incinerators, but like the NIMBYs that would follow, most opposed having them built in close proximity, and by mid-century, it became widely known that “smokestacks were not simply the signs of a healthy economy.” Miller reports that in 1952, four thousand Londoners died of smog inhalation, “more than had died during any comparable period of the German blitz.” For these reasons, the number of incinerators in the United Stated dropped from a high of over 300 to just 67 in 1979. Municipalities had to do something with their wastes, and the number of landfills, “leaking a steady stream of contaminants into the groundwater, and emitting, on a per-ton-of-garbage basis, more than a dozen pounds per year of pollutants into the air,” increased to about twenty thousand by 1970. New York City had eleven landfills spread across every borough except Manhattan. Miller reports that each year, these landfills emitted fifty thousand tons of greenhouse gases, thousands of tons of nonmethane polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and hundreds of tons of chlorinated organics.
In addition to the problem of pollution, New York, like many American cities, was struggling with the sheer magnitude of its waste. As the population increased exponentially, so did the amount of garbage produced, even as the amount of space available for landfills was decreasing. In addition, the ideology of consumer culture, according to Susan Strasser, fetishized disposability. She argues that, in the early twentieth century:
Like efficiency in the factory, convenience in the home was intended to save time and wasted effort, but the concept went further. Convenience […] was used to suggest that products could liberate housewives from troubles that ranged from annoyance to hard labor. Modern products offered release from the responsibility of caring for material goods, the stewardship of object that characterized the traditional relationship to the material world.
Disposability, then, prevented wastes of energy by housewives by freeing them from the labor (washing, mending, etc.) that reuse demands, but in preventing energy waste, it created increasing quantities of material waste. After World War II, disposability became increasing tied to freedom in marketing campaigns. Packaging became a marketing device of its own, leading to more elaborate packaging and more waste. Planned obsolescence, an idea borrowed from the auto industry, began to be implemented in the manufacturing of consumer goods in general.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, waste also became less visible during this period. Strasser notes that the modern landfills that rose to popularity during the twentieth century differed significantly from the older methods of disposal, such as swine feeding and open dumps. Unlike the open dumps, the waste was covered over daily with a layer of dirt, which controlled the smell and discouraged vermin and made the trash more inconspicuous. The garbage may have been “out of sight, out of mind,” but it didn’t go away. Strasser writes of a city engineer in Bismarck, North Dakota who, in 1965, found that even paper was not decomposing in the landfills, illustrated by the grocery receipts he uncovered from the 1920s which were still legible. Covering the garbage with dirt also discouraged scavenging, so that even trash that could have been reused was not. Garbage disposals also increased in popularity, largely due to the concern over cleanliness in modern consumers. The disposal “offered ‘convenience,’ contributed to a level of hygiene previously impossible, and turned food that once would have been reused into sewage.” The garbage disposal both removed the need to deal with kitchen wastes directly and expanded the category of waste. The introduction of these waste management technologies meant that the average consumer could increasingly dissociate him/herself from the waste s/he produced, and waste management became the responsibility of the government. The less consumers had to face their wastes directly, the more revolting and stigmatizing it became, and waste in general began, as I will discuss further on, to assume an uncanniness.
As everyday wastes during the twentieth century became more disgusting, hazardous and radioactive wastes became downright terrifying. In the mid-1970s, nothing was known about the amount of industrial wastes being produced, how they were disposed, or what their environmental or public health impacts were. In 1974, the EPA sought to determine the amount of industrial waste produced in the United States. That year, it reported that 10 million tons of hazardous waste were produced each year. Two years later, they raised their estimate to 37 million tons, and by 1979, they reported that roughly fifty-six million metric tons were produced annually, an amount that vastly exceeded expectations.
Following the initial EPA findings, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, despite the fact that hazardous waste disposal would not become a popular issue until two years later. This legislation was meant to “assert regulatory control over and assure safe disposal of hazardous industrial wastes.” The debate surrounding the legislation before it was passed centered on the question of whether to regulate production or disposal. Democrats proposed regulation that would reduce the amount of waste produced by excessive packaging, for example. Manufacturers and labor unions united against any regulation of production, however, fearing that such government control would threaten profits and jobs. This view held sway, and the effort to regulate the production of waste was replaced with regulation of its disposal. Even after Love Canal, the public outcry centered on safe disposal of toxic waste. The Superfund law, probably one of the most significant political victories for environmental justice, holds owners and operators of contaminated sites responsible for cleanup costs, but it does not reduce the amount of hazardous waste that is produced.
The primary problem surrounding waste, both hazardous and nonhazardous, is that as production of waste continues to increase, public disgust toward and dread of waste also increases. As mentioned above, television news broadcasts about Love Canal fueled fear of hazardous waste in the American imagination. These stories often focused on images of children and reported heavily on the birth defects and miscarriages suffered by residents, and polls confirmed that the primary opposition to hazardous waste facilities is concern for the health and safety of one’s children. Szasz that the most ubiquitous images in these news stories were depictions of “community lands […] that ought to be green […] but instead show only sparse, half-dead plant cover, punctuated with holes filled with unnatural-looking chemical soup,” indicating the fatal threat of seeping ooze through fittingly gothic visual rhetoric.
In 1980, Love Canal again became the central news story when the EPA released a study stating that eleven of residents tested had chromosome damage, which could cause cancer, miscarriage, and birth defects. This round of news stories made heavy use of pathos, interviewing residents with cancer or whose children were sick or dying. The residents became so desperate that they held two EPA officials hostage for five hours, forcing President Carter to declare a national emergency and to provide temporary relocation for 700 families. These local stories were accompanied by scope stories, analyzing the national problem. Szasz says that “[t]he EPA was reported at various points to have estimated that 638 sites needed attention; that ‘more than 800’ represented a serious threat to public health; that there may be ‘as many as 2,000’ that would need Superfund cleanups […]” The volume of stories devoted to hazardous waste is significant, but the way it was represented speaks to the problem of siting disposal facilities and dread in public perception. Most of the journalism surrounding hazardous waste employed provocative, near-apocalyptic rhetoric, despite the inconclusiveness of the scientific reports. Using phrases like “nightmare,” “witch’s brew,” and “ghost town,” these stories contributed to the uncanniness of hazardous waste, which seemed to wreak unimaginable horrors in bodies and communities but could do so without being seen. The stories also emphasized that this “could happen again—to any of us.”
The widespread panic over hazardous waste contamination spawned the NIMBY movement and significantly complicated the siting of disposal facilities. In Whose Backyard, Whose Risk? (1994), Michael Gerrard investigates the causes and results of this opposition. He reports that “[S]everal public opinion polls have shown that nuclear power plants, [radioactive waste] facilities, and [hazardous waste] facilities are all lumped together as the most feared land uses, far more feared than, for example, chemical plants, oil refineries, or coal-fired power plants.” The result, he claims, is that instead of building new, safer disposal facilities, older ones are being expanded, which is less safe and efficient. When new facilities are built, they tend to be imposed upon poor neighborhoods with little political power.
Gerrard compares the fear of hazardous waste to previous cultural dreads, such as leprosy, smallpox, and polio, and he says that each successive dread has resulted in disputes over siting. Drawing on the work of sociologist Kai Erickson, Gerrard argues that though toxic wastes should perhaps be considered “naturally loathsome,” there are two characteristics of hazardous waste emergencies that intensify this natural dread. First, they are formless and largely indiscernible, making them “ghostlike and terrifying.” Second, the damage they cause is not immediate, “the very embodiment, it would seem, of stealth and treachery.”
Of course, all waste, hazardous of not, creates siting problems. This is because “waste” is a product of social sorting or categorizing. Trash itself is a dynamic category, as dumpster diving or the cultural shift away from the “stewardship of object” and toward disposability make apparent. Strasser claims that different classes sort trash differently because the rich can afford to be more wasteful, whereas the poor must reuse items and are more likely to scavenge or buy used goods. The ideological practices that create categories of waste also designate appropriate locations for them. Strasser explains:
Sorting and classification have a spatial dimension: this goes here, that goes there. Nontrash belongs in the house; trash goes outside. Marginal categories get stored in marginal spaces (attics, basements, and outbuildings), eventually to be used, sold, or given away […] Indeed, disposal takes place in the intersection between the private and the public, the borderland where the household meets the city, the threshold between the male and female ‘spheres’ of the nineteenth century.
Generally, the more harmful or repugnant the waste is, the further it is located from living spaces, so that the most repulsive wastes are immediately flushed away from homes and into the sewers. These categories and practices may seem entirely natural. Certainly, wastes do have empirical effects on health and well-being, either through contact with the waste itself or due to the unsanitary conditions waste creates (e.g., disease-carrying vermin). The hierarchical sorting of populations (by class, ethnicity, gender, etc.) goes hand-in-hand with the waste sorting. Those with the least means tend to live closest to disposal sites or in slums with sanitation problems. Since household wastes have traditionally been part of the domestic sphere, it has traditionally been women who were responsible for dealing with them (cleaning, mending, etc.).
The entire practice of sorting and siting waste cannot be explained without considering ideological systems. One particularly relevant example of this is the account Strasser gives of the rise in popularity of disposable sanitary napkins. Even as disposability was becoming effective for marketing, women in general resisted switching to disposable sanitary napkins. Their concern, in addition to being skeptical that a mass-produced item could fit their bodies as well as something they made themselves, centered on the issue of disposal. Women worried that by creating this new kind of waste, they would be leaving evidence of their menstruation, causing them considerable embarrassment. “They wanted a product they could flush down the toilet.” It was not until Kotex began printing instructions for “how to put a used napkin through the plumbing” that disposable sanitary napkins became popular, even though Kotex proved to be far less flushable than advertised, causing “a great deal of plumbing trouble.” Here, the level of potential harm caused by the waste does not correspond to the strong desire to hastily distance oneself from it. In fact, the desire is not for distance so much as invisibility, a result of the cultural taboo surrounding menstruation.
John Scanlan investigates the cultural desire for the invisibility of waste in On Garbage (2005), and he claims that the cultural significance of waste is in its uncanniness. Categorizing something as “waste” is a banishment, a severing of identification between the waste object and the self, which is what gives it a sense of the uncanny. But waste, according to Scanlan, can only threaten psychic annihilation if it is made visible. “If left unacknowledged ‘on the edge of non-existence and hallucination’ the abject becomes the ‘primer’ of culture. And this is the role of garbage.” Consumer products, including food and nuclear energy, due to their utility or the desire they arouse, transcend their material forms. Once they have been consumed, however, they lose this aura and become dead, abject, merely matter. This, Scanlan points out, is the fate of every consumer product (and, I would add, our own bodies). “In general terms, however, the development of civilization removes us from encounters with the abject. Instead, we leave garbage to be dealt with by others.” Of course, despite indoor plumbing, garbage disposals, and curbside pickup, waste never disappears.
In order to understand the role of waste in the radical politics on Blood and Guts in High School, it is helpful to consider the role of waste in systems theory. Scanlan describes the modern experience of waste :“We have arrived at this situation because the sheer amount of garbage […]eventually became so intolerable that the city […] fought back so successfully that garbage has now been pushed into these half-existing zones that no one ever sees.” While waste may not be avoidable, the massive amounts of waste produced indicate some inefficiency in the system. Rather than being reused in a negative feedback loop, the modern system and its production of wastes uses positive feedback loops, in which resources are extracted from the hinterlands, converted to energy through labor, and eventually wasted. This is an entropic system, and the greater the abundance of waste, the more entropy it has, leading to exponential growths in potentials for ecological chaos, as seen in the case of Love Canal.
Waste, then, is dangerous to the order of a system. Scanlan argues that the image of the city, its very topography, represents “an ideal of order,” which “overcomes specters of degeneration.” So the invisibility of waste is necessary for the maintenance of order, both physically and ideologically. However, because available space for disposal is decreasing as production of waste increases, it is becoming increasingly difficult to displace the entropy produced by the system. In a less material sense, “waste,” as William A. Cohen explains, is that which “threatens the categories we use for the normal conduct of social business.” So wastes increase the entropy in a system, whether material (in the form of environmental pollution, threats to health, etc.) or ideological (by threatening ideals of order, hierarchical categories, etc.).
In Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker seems to embrace entropy as a model for enacting radical political change. Rather than disavow the wastes of patriarchy and capitalism (two ideological systems that are linked throughout the novel) Acker embraces them and their disruptive, chaotic potential. She is not interested in making these systems “more efficient;” she wants to change the systems themselves, and she critiques all material and ideological systems that make waste of objects and individuals. Her project, then, has much in common with those environmental activists working toward sustainability who are critical of consumer capitalism. Acker’s novel delves into the most disgusting places and practices of modern life and finds that everything (culture, books, parents, even Janey herself) “stinks.” Acker makes waste visible, and in so doing, finds unexpected hope for radical change.
At the novel’s opening, Janey and her father, Johnny, are living in Merida, Mexico, which is described as “clean, big, cosmopolitan, as the Mexicans say, un-Mexican.” For Acker, Merida represents a space that is peripheral in relation to American hegemony, but it is still implicated in the capitalist-patriarchal system. Janey emphasizes the cleanliness of the town multiple times, and the descriptions of the land, in stark contrast to the other locations in the novel, are lovely, peaceful, orderly. Merida represents the best that can be hoped for, capitalism and patriarchy at their most “efficient” and fundamental.
As a postcolonial space, Merida brings into relief the historical antagonisms inherent in the “myth of progress” by setting up comparisons between the Mexicans and the Mayans. The town itself is stratified: “Merida, the city, is built in the money of the hemp-growers who possess one boulevard of rich mansions and their own places to go. Otherwise the poor.” The capitalist Mexicans profit by exploiting the labor of the “thin and little” poor and spend their money in “European-type” restaurants, a detail that represents the reproduction of colonial bourgeois attitudes and practices in the postcolonial nation.
The Mayan villages, on the other hand, are described as:
[i]ncredibly clean, round thatched huts, ducks, turkeys, dogs, hemp, corn; the Mayans are self-contained and thin-boned, beautiful. One old man speaks: ‘Mexicans think money is more important than beauty; Mayans say beauty is more important than money; you are very beautiful.’
At this point, it seems as though the Mayans might offer an alternative to capitalism, as the novel shows, both the Mexicans and the Mayans engage in malevolent systems of exchange. Janey describes Sunday events in a Mayan village, where the men, “normally gentle and dignified, get drunk.” One man is identified as the “head man,” though it is never explained how this hierarchy is established. Janey explains that he will receive the first newborn girl. He will give a pig in return. Women equal pigs. This “primitive” barter system, Acker seems to suggest, is the historical precursor to capitalism, and both systems rely on the objectification and exploitation of women. As the novel will show repeatedly, feminine subjectivity (which for Acker is inextricable from feminine sexuality) cannot be recognized in patriarchal capitalism and is thus the toxic waste product of this system. Female identities are silenced, marginalized, made into nothing as their bodies are used, wasted, and discarded. As this deal is brokered and the men continue to get drunk, the women watch silently from the periphery. In this section, Acker devotes one page to a drawing titled “Merida.” It depicts a penis, the head of which disappears into a zippered piece of clothing (a jacket?). A female hand with a wedding ring points to a spot in the pubic hair. The town is “mapped” via the phallus, representing the extent to which the place is organized by patriarchy, such that the very topography is thought in terms of male power, which the female subject, the one who points, must negotiate.
Though the town is exceedingly clean, waste is present in the form of ancient Mayan ruins, and the novel describes them at length. Unlike the “self-contained” present-day Mayans, the ancient Mayans are defined by their expansive ruins, built on a scale so huge as to cause fear. In contrast to the drawing of Merida, the description of the ruins invokes images of the female body: two very tall structures with “low low land in centre” and “thick green leafage.” At the top of the taller structure, there is “nothing, nothing but a small stone rectangle containing an empty hole. Every now and then a huge monster rattlesnake sticks its head out.” The female body, on the one hand, is that which this great, robust civilization is built on. It is also that which the civilization’s only remaining waste, and this is where the novel first establishes the connection between women and garbage.
But as the rem(a)inder of the vanished civilization, these ruins take on the same uncanniness that Scanlan claims is felt in association with all waste, the same spooky, menacing quality of the news stories about Love Canal. The “vast and fearsome” buildings seem to be built with intimidation in mind, covered in tall, tiny steps that lead to hazardous heights. The connection between these monstrous ruins and both global capitalism and Janey’s personal life is made explicit:
All of the structures are the same way. Heavily ornamented and constructed so beyond the human scale they cause fear. Ball parks that cause fear. What for? Why does Rockefeller need more money so badly he kills the life in the waters around Puerto Rico? Why does one person follow his/her whims to the detriment (deep suffering) of someone that person supposedly loves?
For Janey/Acker, the ruins represent the inevitable harm caused by these social-economic systems, systems that are coded male by reference to ball parks, Rockefeller, and Janey’s father. Her question, “What for?” seems to have no satisfactory answer, for what makes the ruins uncanny is that their very presence signifies absence, death, the vanishing of a once-thriving civilization that is eerily similar to our own. Because no one “really knows anything about these ruins,” the agent of death is unknown, but the novel seems to suggest that entropic systems eventually collapse, disintegrating into disorder precisely because of their hierarchical sorting.
As Janey’s childhood home, Merida also signifies “normal” female subjectivity under patriarchy. Janey Smith, daughter of Johnny Smith, is meant to be everywoman, making the incestuous relationship between her and her father that much more disturbing. Janey is entirely dependent upon her father (her mother died when she was an infant), and it is ultimately this dependency that makes Johnny hate her. Like the Mayan women, she is helpless when her father decides to dump her for Sally. Just as the Mayan daughter is traded for a pig, women thus commodified can be traded in for newer models.
In the middle of a conversation between Janey and Johnny about Sally, Janey says to herself, “Fresh meat, young girls. Even though I’m younger, I’m tough, rotted, putrid beef. My cunt red ugh [emphasis added].” As she is being discarded, Janey begins to describe herself in the abject terms of waste. The explanation of their break-up in many places recalls Gerrard’s discussion of garbage. For example, Johnny says that what originally attracted him to Janey were the characteristics that now repel him. This is not unlike what happens when styles change, and older models are disposed of in favor of newer ones. What makes old styles repellent, as Gerrard points out, is that those objects were once markers of identity. Like a detached limb, waste is disturbing because it was once associated with the self, resulting in the strong desire to distance oneself from it. Janey and Johnny are tightly connected through her dependence and their long “relationship,” so that once he has used her up and decided to discard her, she begins to “terrorize” him.
Janey moves to New York City, but she continues to stay in contact with Johnny over the phone. Even this is not distant enough for him, and Janey asks, “You said ‘Get away from me’ and I went to another land. How far around the world do I have to go?” They decide that Janey will wait in New York for Johnny to decide whether or not he wants her to come back, and he will pay her rent in the meantime, but the Merida section ends: “Mr. Smith puts Janey in school in New York City to make sure she doesn’t return to Merida.” Like the most abject and hazardous wastes, she must be located very far away and made invisible.
New York City
At the center of the novel, taking up the textual space, is New York City, the cultural and economic center of the novel’s universe. Janey moves through several distinct spaces within the city, each move signifying a drop in social status. Despite the book’s title, almost none of the action takes place in school. Instead, the section opens with a description of Janey’s gang, The Scorpions, desperate kids who engaged in all manner of illicit activity. As such, the first setting described in the New York section is an abortion clinic. Janey claims not to remember who she had sex with for the first time. “I do remember my abortion. One-hundred-ninety dollars.” Janey/Acker links abortion to capitalism and consumerism, representing the horrendous experience first and foremost through monetary value. In the description of her second abortion, which took place two months later, she say of the doctor, “He killed 32 to 48 babies and netted 1,600 to 2,400 dollars a day.” The clinic is clean and orderly, and groups of women are ushered through the procedure together, groups Janey calls “factory lines.”
The descriptions of the dehumanizing intake process, the sex education that places all the burden of reproductive responsibility on women, the degradation at the hands of the nurses, and the “screams pouring out of the operating room” make visible the gruesome reality of abortion, something that is rarely discussed in polite society except in the abstract, a word that signifies less the process Janey goes through and more a political arena. Though appalling, Janey claims to want a “permanent abortion,” explaining that she feels more comfortable at the abortion clinic than in the outside world. “Having an abortion was obviously just like getting fucked. If we closed our eyes and spread our legs, we’d be taken care of.” The novel creates an interesting tension between the description of the process, which makes it impossible for the reader to think positively of abortions, and Janey’s willing submission to such a dehumanizing experience. This section is shocking not only in its detailed imagery, but also in its assertion that Janey wants to be submissive, to forfeit her subjectivity. It is only by giving up her will that she can hope to be loved by a man. As Janey explains, “I’m not trying to tell you about the rotgut weird parts of my life. Abortions are the symbol, the outer image, of sexual relations in this world.” She explains that she had the abortions because she was desperate to have sex “so I could finally get love.” For Janey, sex is a kind of currency which can be exchanged for that which she most desires. Of course, by becoming a sexual object, Janey ensures that she can never be a subject, and thus can never receive love.
This economic exchange creates an unspeakable waste. It is interesting that Jane never uses the term “fetus,” always using the more troubling word “baby.” In the middle of the abortion section, Janey tells the story of a girl in her class, Penelope Mowlard, who gets pregnant but is “too stupid to know what was going on,” unlike the other girls who “knew better than to get visibly in trouble [emphasis added].” Penelope herself is repellent and identified with human waste: “Her face was scrunched up, covered with snot, partly eyeless, and her hair was full of puke.” No one wanted to tell Penelope that she was pregnant because they enjoyed watching such a repulsive person suffer. Janey concludes the story:
Early one morning the janitor, an old man, found a bloody bundle in the bottom of one of the basement garbage cans. Later that day we saw Penelope’s stomach had disappeared. The principle couldn’t suspend her ‘cause she had to do everything she could to prevent a scandal.
The system of sexual relations, then, is like many systems of capitalistic production whose wastes must be disavowed, made invisible, lest they threaten the orderly structure of the system. In this example, the principle serves the same purposes as the managers of Hooker Chemical, who knew as early as 1946 that Love Canal was contaminated with hazardous waste, when Ansley Wilcox, Hooker’s counsel, was “distressed to find that the water […] of the canal was contaminated and served as the local swimming hole for children.”
Janey, lacking sufficient money for food, decides to get a job in an East Village “hippy” bakery, leaving behind the lawlessness and promiscuity of The Scorpions. Her tenure at the bakery is short, but Acker uses this section to satirize the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and implicate it in the ideology of consumer capitalism. In this section, with the dialogue written in the form of a play, Janey is called “Lousy Mindless Salesgirl,” and she accurately captures customer-service: “I am nobody because I work. I have to pretend I like the customers and love giving them cookies no matter how they treat me.” The customers are caricatures of consumer desire, grabbing at cookies and demanding service without bothering with social niceties. One man even begins crying, complaining that Janey isn’t paying enough attention to him, saying that in the old days, “[p]eople used to take care of me.” Janey claims sarcastically that “hippies have ideals and sell good cookies cheap,” but those ideals have themselves been cheapened and commodified. The hippies are obsessed with purity and healthy living, but the very nature of working for money makes this purity inaccessible to Janey. In the presence of customers, she must make herself “nothing” until she ceases to feel or think anything at all, and she is kept too busy helping customers to even learn much about the bakery itself. Eventually, Janey is ostracized and isolated from the rest of the workers. If scheduled to work with another girl at the counter, “the moment she saw me she retreated in to the back room.” Once Janey is merely a source of labor for turning cookies into profit, detached from any recognizable humanity, she becomes abject and must be quarantined from the rest of the bakery.
In the section titled “Janey Becomes a Woman,” she chooses to move into the slums of New York City, a marginal space within the center of American culture and financial system, full of the material wastes of capitalism and social “trash.” As the novel progresses and Janey descends into lower social orders, each setting becomes progressively more chaotic, and the slums of New York depict the whole system’s corroding center. The prostitutes, pimps, junkies, bums, poor families, struggling artists, and a few white students who live in the slum are forced to live in unsanitary conditions in crumbling buildings where “roaches and rats cover the inside walls and ceilings” during the summer and have no hot water or heat in the winter. The apartments here have three rooms, one of which is appointed with a toilet, a tub, and a stove, so that residents cook their food in the same room in which they eliminate it. Many cannot afford to pay their rent. The slum itself “stinks. Garbage covers every inch of the street. They few inches garbage doesn’t cover reek of dog and rat piss.” The only market that operates within the slum buys rotting food from other groceries and “sells this food double-price.” Janey recounts the story of a landlord who burned his building down for the insurance money while two families and a pimp were sleeping inside it. The landlord made even more money by selling the lot to McDonald’s. “This is how poor people become transformed into hamburger meat.” The marginalized and destitute are literally consumed.
In addition to the structural decay, the slum is a site of crumbling social protocol. The residents, for amusement, loot the nearby hospital, presumably for drugs, “whenever there’s a holiday.” The local police want nothing to do with the slum and are “scared of the dangerous streets.” Rather than engage with the poor, the cops sit in the “expresso joints” and converse with Italian gangsters, probably because they represent a higher social class than the residents.
Janey explains that, despite the filthy living conditions, the people here are not unhappy, at least not any more unhappy than rich people. Consumerism depends on the idea that material consumption will make one happier, and the more one consumes, the happier she will be. But as Janey sees it, “most people are what they sense.” The poor are used to their living conditions, and everyone they know lives the same way. Without something to compare it to, the residents are not unhappy to be living in the slums. There is no minimum level of accumulation for happiness.
It is in the slum, surrounded by garbage and filth, that Janey becomes her lowest form of waste. Two men break into her apartment, beat her, tie her up, trash her room, and carry her through the streets “as if she were a doll.” Janey, victimized and denied her humanity, can only resist internally. “Her mind wouldn’t admit defeat. It kept flying and flying.” As they are driving her out of the slum, she observes, “Garbage was slowly replacing the water of the East River, only the garbage couldn’t manage to live,” as if the outer world were mimicking Janey’s situation. She is taken to a room and a Persian slave trader, Mr. Linker, tells her that she will be forced to stay there until she has learned to become a whore. If she doesn’t do everything she is told, he will kill her. When she is ready, she will be expected to bring all the money she earns back to him.
Here, the narrative is broken by a textual collage, consisting of a “book report” on The Scarlet Letter, which is interrupted by a section called The Persian Poems, a series of poems that are supposedly translated from the Latin poet Sextus Propertius, all of which devolve into a ranting free-form pseudo-poetry, and ends with “Janey’s Slave Poem.” This section signifies a turning inward as a result of the incredible suffering she endures, and by focusing inward, on herself, rather than on what is being asked of her by others, Janey, having hit bottom, becomes a real person. By reflecting on her situation, she gains important knowledge about herself and the world. For example, in the book report, she tells her story through the story of Hester Prynne, and explains them both this way:
All of them even the hippies hated Hester Prynne because she was a freak and because she couldn’t be anything else and because she wouldn’t be quiet and hide her freakiness like a bloody Kotex and because she was as wild and insane as they come.
As women with sexual desires, Hester and Janey are incompatible with patriarchal capitalism, and their desires, their subjectivities must be dispensed with and made invisible like the most repellent of garbage. For Janey, wildness is opposed to entropic systems like patriarchy and capitalism, and Pearl, Hester’s child, embodies this wildness: “Pearl […] runs around in the forest and makes no distinctions between what’s outside her and her dreams. On the whole she doesn’t make many distinctions.” In other words, wildness is opposed to the social sorting that makes distinctions between self and other, between rich and poor, between an object of utility or desire and waste. In the poems that follow, Janey realizes that “politics don’t disappear but take place inside my body.” She comes to see herself as a slave, not only in her immediate predicament, but in society, and her description of her “slave duties” sounds like a description of everyday life:
[…] I try to set up certain networks, mental-physical, in time and space to get what I want. (I also set up these networks to get money.) These networks become history and culture (if they work) and as such, turn against me and take away time and space. They tell me what to do.
In these epiphanies, Janey begins to see herself as a real person, deserving of love, whose desires are valid, and she begins, inside herself, to fight back against the social imperative to repress herself. “Janey was learning to love herself.” Just when the slave trader decides that Janey is ready to be a whore, she is diagnosed with cancer, and he discards her as everyone else has before, though she begs him to marry her. But rather than being tragic, the cancer gives Janey a kind of negative agency. “Now she could do something about the pain in the world: she could die.” Though she has been subjectivized, there is nothing Janey can do within the given social structures, because those structures cannot account for her desires. Freed from slavery, Janey decides to go to Tangier, the only move she makes in the novel of her own volition.
If New York represents the crumbling center of the entropic system of patriarchal capitalism, Tangier represents the “wildness” of the novel. A place of treason and criminality, Tangier seems to offer an alternative to the dominant systems, and Janey, calling it “a place of magic,” has high hopes for her life there. A kind of Deleuzian “smooth space,” Tangier represents the optimism of postmodernism, and Janey immediately takes up with Jean Genet, the postmodernist writer. Here, traditional distinctions between man/women (Genet is a homosexual, making their relationship nonsexual) and self/other (Janey and Genet are phonetically similar) begin to disintegrate.
Soon after Janey and Genet come together, she tells him the story of her last weeks in New York, which helps to explain her motive for leaving the country. During this time, she begins and affair with President Carter, who is both “the pillar of American society” and, by far, the most physically revolting character in the novel. Janey describes him as worn out, covered in feces and urine, and sexually perverse. “President Carter’s centre is an enormous HOLE. This HOLE’S DIAMETER, COLOUR, and ODOUR resemble a NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY TOILET that hasn’t been CLEANED for THREE weeks.” Janey meets President Carter at a club, where Janey is on the floor and Carter kicks her too hard and asks, “Do you want to fuck me, scumbag?” He beats her when they have sex because she has asked him to. As things between them start to cool, Janey notes that Carter doesn’t care about her; the only thing he cares about is that there is “political disruption in the air.” Here, the narrative is broken by a short meditation on terrorism, followed by a mediation on love. Janey comes to the conclusion that “[e]very position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of putting to question the established order of a society,” thus the connection between love and terrorism. As a women and a “bum,” Janey’s desire is inconsequential, a waste product, and she begins to see the radical power of her unauthorized desire. Due to the inconsequence of Janey’s desires, she never becomes fully subjectivized. Instead, she exists purely for others. In her relationship with Carter, this relationship to others becomes fully realized:
Each person is an asking, a peculiar kind of hole asking some very definite energy from Janey. Janey is very sacred of people because she’s scared she’s going to hurt someone. So what? She has to give a lot of energy to giving each person the exact right kind of energy. By the end of the evening she is nothing.
This is the clearest description of Janey’s wasting, which occurs because she is an object of desire rather than a desiring subject.
After Carter leaves her, Janey writes a letter to him, which explains her movement away from the United States. Though she describes him as “her home” and now she “has no place to stay,” she finds this preferable to stasis. In a mock public service announcement (which reads more like Janey’s manifesto), Janey explains that even the poor have basic needs: sex, love, health (“free hospitals”), and food (“one unpoisoned meal a day”). Furthermore, she argues that the rich and the poor are in the same predicament (“madness”), but the rich can afford distractions. The basic problem, as Janey sees it, is that “we can’t figure out how to be always different (without habits),” which is highly suggestive of Deleuze and Guattari’s “body without organs.” While America is “a place to stay,” Tagier is imagined as a “smooth space” for movement and “madness.”
Janey quickly finds, however, that even this space is built on the degradation of women. She wants Genet to teach her how to be a writer, but what he teaches her is the same lesson she has been learning throughout the novel. “The more she tries to be whatever he wants, the more he despises her.” He degrades her, abuses her, calls her ugly, and make her memorize the following hierarchy: “Rich men/poor men/mothers/beautiful women/whores/poor female and neo-female slut-scum/Janey.” In order to learn, Janey must be emptied of everything. Eventually, Genet “hands Janey some money and tells her to take care of herself.” Finally nothing and again discarded, she dies.
The end, however, is rather unexpectedly positive. Though Janey dies, “[s]oon many Janeys were born and Janeys covered the earth.” Acker’s solution to entropic systems, then, is not to make them more efficient or more fair. Rather, her vision is more anarchist, more deep-ecologist. Only by identifying with trash, by making visible the wastes of the system, i.e. female subjectivity, will the system change. Because of the changes in attitudes toward waste and toxicity in the late 1970s, there is something empowering in the rhetoric Acker uses, where there might not be such power before. Garbage is not just disgusting, used-up, unwanted; it is also dangerous, and this insight is at the foundation of Acker’s vision of entropic revolution. Just as the public debate about the problem of waste arises, Acker makes use of that same rhetoric to ask what is to be done about the overabundance of human waste. Just as the earth is seen as productive raw materials for capital (as seen in the comment about Rockefeller in the Merida section) rather than a thing-in-itself, women are reduced to sexual objects and the poor are reduced to labor, rather than being desiring subjects. A system’s waste is dangerous to the system itself. Though a singular Janey can be discarded, pushed to the margins of society, made invisible, the entropic system of patriarchal capitalism continues to create more. Waste threatens the order of things, and making the system more efficient, decreasing the amount of waste, only helps to maintain a hierarchical system. Opposed to any categorization of “waste,” desiring “wildness,” Acker anticipates a moment when culture’s trash will reach a critical mass and plunge the whole system into chaos.
Department of English
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
-  Andrew Szaz, Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 42.See in Text
-  Szaza, 45.See in Text
-  Szaz, 55.See in Text
-  Szaz, 43.See in Text
-  Szaz, 14.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Benjamin Miller, Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York the Last 200 Years (New York: Four Walls and Eight Windows, 2000), 38.See in Text
-  Miller, 233.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Miller, 234.See in Text
-  Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Owl Books, 1999), 183.See in Text
-  Strasser, 266-75.See in Text
-  Strasser, 272.See in Text
-  Szaz, 12.See in Text
-  Szaz, 23.See in Text
-  Szaz, 43.See in Text
-  Michael B. Gerrard, Whose Backyard, Whose Risk? Fear and Fairness in Toxic and Nuclear Waste Siting (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 100.See in Text
-  Szaz, 44.See in Text
-  Szaz, 47.See in Text
-  Szaz, 51.See in Text
-  Gerrard, 99.See in Text
-  Gerrard, 102.See in Text
-  Strasser, 9.See in Text
-  Strasser, 6.See in Text
-  Strasser, 166.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  John Scanlan, On Garbage (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 165.See in Text
-  Scanlan, 166.See in Text
-  Scanlan, 157-8.See in Text
-  Scanlan, 154.See in Text
-  William A. Cohen, “Introduction: Locating Filth,” in Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life, ed. William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 5.See in Text
-  Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (New York: Grove Press, 1978), 13.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 16.See in Text
-  Acker, 17.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 17.See in Text
-  Acker, 18See in Text
-  Acker, 27.See in Text
-  Acker, 31.See in Text
-  Acker, 32.See in Text
-  Acker, 34.See in Text
-  Acker, 32.See in Text
-  Acker, 33.See in Text
-  Acker, 34.See in Text
-  Acker, 35.See in Text
-  Acker, 33.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 34.See in Text
-  Craig E. Colton and Peter N. Skinner, The Road to Love Canal: Managing Industrial Waste Before EPA (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996), 152.See in Text
-  Acker, 37.See in Text
-  Acker, 38.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 40.See in Text
-  Acker, 56.See in Text
-  Acker, 57.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 57.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 60.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 61.See in Text
-  Acker, 65.See in Text
-  Acker, 93.See in Text
-  Acker, 97.See in Text
-  Acker, 111.See in Text
-  Acker, 116.See in Text
-  Ibid.See in Text
-  Acker, 119.See in Text
-  Acker, 122.See in Text
-  Acker, 124.See in Text
-  Acker, 125.See in Text
-  Acker, 126.See in Text
-  Acker, 121.See in Text
-  Acker, 131.See in Text
-  Acker, 130-1.See in Text
-  Acker, 140.See in Text
-  Acker, 165.See in Text
- Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. New York: Grove Press, 1978.
- Cohen, William A. “Introduction: Locating Filth.” In Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life, edited by William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.
- Colton, Craig E. and Peter N. Skinner. The Road to Love Canal: Managing Industrial Waste Before EPA. Austin: U of Texas P, 1996.
- Gerrard, Michael B. Whose Backyard, Whose Risk? Fear and Fairness in Toxic and Nuclear Waste Siting. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
- Miller, Benjamin. Fat of the Land: Garbage in NewYork, the Last Two Hundred Years. New York and London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000.
- Scanlan, John. On Garbage. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.
- Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Owl Books, 1999.
- Szasz, Andrew. Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.
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