rhizomes.01 fall 2000

The Madness Outside Gender: Travels with Don Quixote and Saint Foucault
Carol Siegel

[1] In Kathy Acker's Don Quixote, physical pain produces delirium through which the narrator gains access to the "truths" underlying her experiences in a series of deluded and delusional cultures. Moving through worlds where cultural horrors are visited on the body and learning from the "saints" who passionately embrace such experiences, she finds an identity in the momentary conjunction of passion and death. The intensity of her masochistic climaxes burns up the binarity of gender. Consequently, it is paradoxically through the body that Acker's narrator escapes the biological femaleness that always threatens to engulf her. My essay will explore this paradox in relation to the feminist debate with Michel Foucault over the significance of physical experience in the formation of gendered subjectivity, as that debate is staged in the writings of Judith Butler. To begin I will look at some of the ways Acker's politicizes love. ("Foucault... was always on the outside.")

[2] What may be at once the most conventional and the most transgressive of the many strange narratives contained in Don Quixote is its recounting of a fragmented love story. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it performs a postmortem on one, as befits a tale that begins with an abortion. But who are the lovers? The novel's characters change name and form as they momentarily inhabit the large number of texts that Acker "plagiarizes." For instance, the convergence of Lulu, Pygmalion, Wuthering Heights, Paradise Lost, Godzilla, Waiting for Godot, and Don Quixote in the section "TEXT 4: WEDEKIND'S WORDS," repeatedly transforms the protagonist so that she may speak disruptively from within numerous discourses. However, two characters remain, if not stable or consistent, at least identifiable as the main actors in the novel: Don Quixote and St Simeon. His omnipresence in the novel and his role as catalyst for the novel's meditations on love -- and sadomasochism -- seems seriously underestimated in the critical commentary Don Quixote has so far received.

[3] The first reference to any specific love object is to "Simeon, Don Quixote's cowboy sidekick" (13). Because of Acker's much reiterated interest in the 1960s New York art scene, this evocation of the iconography of male prostitution as captured in Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey's Lonesome Cowboys (1969) -- not to mention John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) -- immediately associates St Simeon with gender role transgression. Parker Tyler identifies the Lonesome Cowboys' "pre-Raphaelite" beauty as well as their parodic performance of Romeo and Juliet as important components of "the Warhol anti-culture machine," as is Viva's enactment of Juliet "in a formal riding costume" who stands in for "any woman who might" misread their beauty and self-absorption as an indication of homosexuality or "mistake it for heterosexuality" (188-89). As a "cowboy" St Simeon enters the novel defying fixed placement in either one of the two conventionally opposed genders.

[4] As is ordinary for male prostitute "cowboys," St Simeon has had, from an early age, to submit to being used sexually in order to survive. At boarding school he quickly learns that for a teacher to give tea and sympathy is prohibited as "wrong," but that beating boys is an acceptable form of sexual expression (13). His response is, "I want to be wanted. I want to be flogged. I'm bad'" (14). This story precedes a retelling, from Cervantes, of the mad knight's attempt to save a boy from being beaten by his master, which, in Acker's version concludes, "The boy tried to enjoy the beating because his life couldn't be any other way" (15). This passive resignation both attracts and repels the narrator. The latter reaction is provoked by St Simeon's inability to take responsibility for his contributions to her sufferings under patriarchy, as when "the saint" asks who is to blame the abortion that has caused her infection. She responds, "Now either you actually don't love me or else you are so insane, you don't realize how much you've hurt me" (15). Yet still she values him because "St Simeon had taught her how . . . to consider someone of more importance than herself" (18). As the novel goes on to show us, this miracle was accomplished through her complete identification with him -- "the dog (or saint) and I're two peas in a pod" (102). Irreparably wounded, masochistic, angry, self-absorbed, and, in the terms of reasonable society insane, St Simeon is her mirror image, and the more so in that his gender identifications fluctuate with his moods and circumstances, as becomes even more apparent when he comes back to her in the form of a dog.

[5] Loving this elusive and unplaceable being carries Don Quixote outside sanity, as it necessarily carries her beyond what the dominant culture of her era (or ours) recognizes as appropriate, rational attachment. The knight remarks, "It's sick to love someone beyond rationality, beyond a return (I love you you love me). Real love is sick.'" In deciding to actualize the "real love" she knows from books, "Don Quixote transformed sickness into a knightly tool." The next thing we are told is "one day St Simeon went away. Don Quixote couldn't bear to live without him" (18). "The Coming Of Night" is brought on by Don Quixote's awareness that the one she loves does not love her (101). St Simeon's return as a dog causes her to begin to see the human world from a radically alienated perspective and to analyze it rather than merely reacting to it. She identifies him as "the love of [her] life" and claims, "Evil enchanters such as Ronald Reagan and certain feminists, like Andrea Dworkin, who control the nexuses of government and culture're persecuting and will continue to persecute us" (101-02). Her identification of the enemies of her love as a cultural feminist and a president who went much further than most in fostering a capitalism based on "family values" is especially telling here. Obviously Dworkin, who argued explicitly that male and female experiences of masochism are utterly different and that all modes of male masochism are equally oppressive to women (150), would not support Don Quixote's efforts to understand St Simeon through attention to their shared experiences and sexual proclivities. Likewise Reagan is a foe to Don Quixote's attempt to transcend the capitalist mindset through acceptance of her love for St Simeon, perverse, materially disadvantageous, and nonfamilial as it is, as "real love."

[6] "Don Quixote's First Battle Against America" begins with her recognition that she can own nothing (104). "An example of my not owning St Simeon is that now St Simeon is living with someone else" (105). Her recognition that she cannot possess even her "slave," her "dog" is gradually transformed from a source of tragedy to a source of joy, as it helps her to let go of a too constricting understand of love as an exchange in which whatever one invests must be paid back by the other. Archaic saintly practices oppose the current fusion, in the name of sanity, of capitalist, religious, and feminist values like those argued for in Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women where the regulation of sexual expression is urged in order that women may own themselves. As Karmen MacKendrick observes, "In its construction of the erotic as the handmaiden of the procreative, contemporary Christianity lines up startlingly well with both Freudian biologism and capitalist culture--and even . . . with the traditional feminist demand for equal time in gratification" (66). MacKendrick shows in Counterpleasures, her study of the pleasures associated with the reception and infliction of pain, "In the everyday (non-ecstatic) economy of investment, expenditure is loss (and desire is lack . . .) . . . This is precisely the economy of productivity . . . The transgressive economy of excess links joy to desire such that one cannot increase without the other" (126). "Asceticism, of all of the counterpleasures, is most spectacularly ill-suited to consumer culture" (MacKendrick 71).

[7] St Simeon's asceticism seems initially misogynist because he speaks for a value system in which the physical, and with it the feminine, are debased. St Simeon philosophizes: "Traditionally the human world has been divided into men and women. Women're the cause of human suffering. For women are so intelligent they don't want anything to do with love." He goes on to speak from feminist theory on romance as a patriarchal construct ("Men have tried to get rid of their suffering . . . by simply lying, by saying that women live only for men's love"), but also to voice troubadour-like complaints about women's cold denial of love to men (27). In this mood he resembles what was probably a model for Acker's creation of the character, St Simeon de Stylites, perhaps as dramatized in Luis Buñuel's 1965 cult film, Simon of the Desert (Siméon le Stylite). In this postmodernist, anachronistic retelling of the saint's life, Claudio Brook plays a contemporary man trying to relive the life of the saint by becoming a pillar-sitting recluse in the Mexican desert. Tempted by the Devil in the form of a woman (Silvia Pinal), he ends up defeated, cynically observing the young in a disco. This St Simeon, like his original, manifests sainthood through withdrawal from the world, but in Acker's novel how much that form of self-torture (or any other chosen pain) is actually experienced as unpleasure is questioned by her emphasis on the perverse delights of masochism. "It is common but trite to see in asceticism or in s/m a hatred of the body, some pathological rage against physicality. Instead we should see here an intensified awareness of the physical and especially of physical sensation; and even for asceticism, a joy in that sensation" (MacKendrick 153; emphasis hers). This is certainly the case in Acker's representation of the abortion and the quest as ways to get beyond the normative channeling of eroticism into capitalist modes [1].


[8] Don Quixote's concern with the politics of its times is obvious. The novel is not only filled with commentary on contemporary issues such as the rise of multinational corporations, environmental pollution, and the nuclear arms race, in the section entitled "DON QUIXOTE IN AMERICA, THE LAND OF FREEDOM," Reagan, Nixon, and Kissinger are repeatedly invoked. In this respect Acker is not particularly radical, however. She is merely telling the majority of her audience what they already believe: that conservatism is immoral. Surely few, if any, supporters of the conservative regimes of Reagan or Thatcher would have been attracted to Acker's work in 1986, before it gained the semi-respectability it currently enjoys as part of the newly made canon of literary postmodernism [2]. But Don Quixote also covers what was then, and remains now, far more controversial political territory, the politics of poststructuralist readings of the psychoanalytic. These controversial aspects of the text are strongly articulated in its treatment of intersections of masochistic sexuality and gender identifications. Here pervasive references to sainthood make up another level of political engagement in the novel.

[9] Acker marks Cervantes's Don Quixote as the pretext, in both senses of the word, for her novel. But considering other versions of Quixote's story that directly precede hers helps illuminate how she situates her tale in relation to contemporary political debates. The prior production least possible to ignore is Man of La Mancha. Acker's subtitle of her novel, "which was a dream," and its framing as the narrator's dream, along with continual references to and meditations on dreams and dreaming, echo the musical's hit theme song, "The Impossible Dream." The song's idealism reflects 1960s liberal politics, resonating with Martin Luther King's famous, "I Have a Dream" speech, but also evokes images not of righteous resistance, but of the sort of 60s well-intentioned liberal vagueness that punks like Acker despised. As with the 1960s War on Poverty, addressing capitalism's contributions to the sufferings of the poor is carefully avoided in the song. By the 1980s it could as easily be understood as a theme song for the mindless optimism of Reagan's "Morning in America," or George Bush's "thousand points of light" campaign to achieve social reform through individual acts of charity. La Mancha's Don Quixote is transformed from a saint whose actions and beliefs are mad, that is do not accord with reasonable, practical behavior, into a cheerful force for attainable social good.

[10] It is tempting to imagine Acker's novel also responds to another revival of the Don Quixote tale in somewhat the same vein. In 1973, the same year as the release of the original cast recording of Man of La Mancha, Oxford University Press reprinted Charlotte Lennox's 1752 parodic romance The Female Quixote, which would subsequently be carried into academic popularity by the sweeping feminist revision of the literary canon in the 1980s. The Female Quixote portrays a protagonist rendered ridiculous and self-endangering by her belief in the conventions of courtly romance. Like much feminist theory, from Mary Wolstonecraft to American feminism's so-called second wave, Lennox's novel dismisses both heterosexual erotic passion and courtship rituals in which men abase themselves before idealized women as threats to gender equality. The text can be read as a cautionary tale inspiring women to resist being put on a pedestal and turned into domestic saints, but it also tacitly endorses eighteenth-century regulation of gender and sexuality through arranged marriage and wifely submission. The Female Quixote like The Man of La Mancha emphasizes dreaming of felicitous resolutions rather than the impossibility of reconciling desire and reality. In both cases irrational love is opposed by "Ronald Reagan and certain feminists," in spirit if not in fact.

[11] Possibly the most evident precursor to Acker's Don Quixote is Jorge Luis Borges's story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." One of the most striking overlaps between Borges's story and Acker's is Menard's inspiration to rewrite Don Quixote by the disgust he feels about a novel that anachronistically presents "Don Quixote on Wall Street" (48). To both Don Quixote seems quintessentially anti-capitalist. A rebel even as imitator, menard rejects mere mimicry of Cervantes and instead decides "to continue being Pierre Menard and to arrive at Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard" (49). His partial achievement of this goal delights the literary critic narrator because it allows for an entirely new mode of reading, in which any text can be recontextualized in defamiliarizing ways -- for why wait to see it actually rewritten by another author? The narrator ends his consideration of this revolutionary approach with the question, "Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?" (55).

[12] Yes, we may wish to answer, and equally so the attribution of Don Quixote to Acker, especially since her Quixote, like Cervantes's, inhabits a world infused with religious irrationality, mysticism, and the mysterious behavior of saints. One way for Acker to explore this world would be from the perspective of contemporary norms, beginning from the premise that saintliness is a form of madness. That sort of exploration would entail agreement with some foundational ideas in psychoanalytic theory which Acker's text instead aggressively attacks in the style of her cultural heroes Foucault and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Interrogated (or analyzed) by "the family doctor," the dog attributes its suffering to being "locked" into a little room by the family. This is strongly reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's criticism of psychoanalysis for "shutting sexuality up in a bizarre sort of box painted with bourgeois motifs" (Anti-Oedipus, 49), as well as their extended commentary on the failure of Freudian and Lacanian theory to understand desire and subjectivity except in the context of the family drama, which reinforces the dual capitalist doctrines of individualism and lack. The dog suffers because her family has forced her to live "according to beliefs which're false," and so to deny what she knows experientially: "The physical and the mental aren't separate, for there's only the body" (153). This forbidden knowledge, based in physical experience, makes it impossible for the dog to distinguish between visionary dreams and what the sane regard as exterior reality. For the dog/Acker there can be no authoritative pronouncements from the outside world, no efficacious psychiatric intervention from exterior reality. As Lacan states, in a burst of anti-Foucauldianism, the analyst's recognition and transmission of "truth" is central to the return to Freudian practice (118). Not so for Acker to whom the body's truth opposes that of the doctor.


[13] Acker's narrator, like Menard, reaches Don Quixote through her own experience. Acker's quest to discover a mode of being Don Quixote without imitating Cervantes also resembles Foucault's exploration of the history of encounters between madness and the discourses of rationality in Madness and Civilization, where he scrupulously avoids translating insanity into a reasonable account. In discussing Acker's commitment to the politics of the punk movement, Larry McCaffery emphasizes its skeptical attitude about official and authoritative discourses: "punk art is a response to the awareness that the orderly exchange of goods, the legal and political systems that produce this exchange, the academic institutions inculcating the values and meanings of society all tightly control what is and is not the "proper" or acceptable nature of linguistic expression (just as language via legal definitions of what constitutes a drug' or sexual abnormality,' controls what is proper' to do with our perceptions and our bodies)" (227). Acker's novel continually reiterates that taking this attitude about discourse, and especially about psychoanalytic discourse, has everything to do with what it can mean to be a female Quixote and with the gendering (and ungendering) of impossible dreaming.

[14] Foucault concludes Madness and Civilization by remarking that "the world that thought to measure and justify madness through psychology . . . [now] must justify itself before madness" (289). Imagining two different readers of this passage opens the question of how Acker's Don Quixote can be read both as commentary on what we can learn about gender from Foucault and as a defense of Foucault's opposition to the psychoanalytic project of explaining madness in rational terms. The first imaginary reader is one who would concur with Butler's pronouncement, in The Psychic Life of Power, that the time has come to reconcile the Foucaldian approach with the psychoanalytic. This reader would agree with Butler that, "one cannot account for subjectivation . . . without recourse to a psychoanalytic account of the formative or generative effects of restriction or prohibition" (87). Consequently, this reader will probably understand Foucault's conclusion, and perhaps the whole study that it concludes as well, as evidencing his refusal to give sufficient importance to the way bourgeois subjectivity takes form, his misguided interest in the babblings of misfits, and his resistance to psychoanalytic truths. The second imaginary reader is Kathy Acker herself.

[15] While it's difficult to say whether Acker's Don Quixote was directly influenced by Foucault's discussion of the book in Madness and Civilization, she left no doubt of her interest in his work. In discussing with Ellen Friedman her early life in "the art world," Acker talks about how "the punk movement" gave her a sense of community for the first time. Her community is one of sexual outlaws; "We were fascinated with Passolini's and Bataille's work, but there was no way of saying why or how" (15-16). Her introduction to the work of Deleuze and Guattari "and somewhat Foucault" gave her a language for expression of her group's ideas and values, "For the first time we had a way of talking about what we were doing" (16). But this reliance on philosophers to help her articulate punk concerns did not cause Acker to feel any affinity with the academic world: on the contrary she observes, "I absolutely hate it" (20). Her main complaint against English departments is that she understood "the work of Foucault and Deleuze [as] very political; it was about what was happening to the economy and about changing the political system." She observes that "the American academy" later took out the politics and made the theories a means "to uphold the empire in terms of representation as well as actual structure" (20-21). Her Don Quixote might be read as an assault on that practice and a move to free her Foucault (and her Deleuze and Guattari) from academic misapplication.

[16] In Madness and Civilization, Foucault posits an opposition between art and psychology. Foucault reads literary texts not as affirming psychology's vision of human thought, emotion, and behavior, but as calling it into question. He sees the transgressive writings of authors like Artaud as especially apt to serve this function. Yet it is in the name of feminism and demonized sexualities that Butler, along with other less famous and influential theorists, calls for the augmentation of Foucauldian theory with psychoanalytic concepts. Examining Acker's readings of Foucault on madness and Don Quixote reveals the complexity of her opposition to psychoanalysis as generative of the master narrative of sexuality and gender identification, and thus offers a defense of the antipsychoanalytic Foucauldian method.


[17] Why the Foucauldian method should need to be defended to feminism was perhaps most influentially explained by Teresa de Lauretis in Technologies of Gender, which still serves for many as an introduction to the constructionist position on gender, and the title of which is a direct response of Foucault's discussion of "technologies of sexuality" in The History of Sexuality. Lauretis objects to the distinction he makes between bodies and pleasures and sexualities in the discursive production of sexuality. She quotes his conclusion that "[t]he rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality [by institutional powers] ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures'" and then judges it "at best paradoxical . . . as if bodies and pleasures existed apart from the discursive order, from language or representation. But then they would exist in a space which his theory precisely locates outside the social" (36). At this point in Lauretis's reading of Foucault, it would seem that the question of what, if anything, exists outside the social is raised. To consider that question from within Kathy Acker's punk aesthetic might bring us to think of Patti Smith's song, "Rock N Roll Nigger," "Outside of society, if you're looking,/ that's where you'll find me." Acker's admiration for Smith makes her enthusiasm about Deleuze and Guattari easy to understand, for their two volume work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, also conjures up a vision of an outside: the deterritorialized zone, an uncharted zone of "madness," what cannot be articulated within discourse. To de Lauretis such turning aside from the social in Foucault's work signifies an avoidance of the issue of gender as a construct, since she sees gender as socially constructed. His work therefore cannot be seen as useful to feminism without modification.

[18] The same disjunction in concepts of where it is possible for experience to occur characterizes Butler's responses to Foucault in The Psychic Life of Power. Butler focuses on Foucault at his most compatible with Deleuze and Guatarri, whose Anti-Oedipus, volume one of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, he introduced and whose ideas he frequently praised. Deleuze and Guattari are never cited in The Psychic Life of Power but their theories haunt the text like a ghost interlocutor to which many remarks ostensibly about Foucault seem addressed. For instance in the introduction, while critiquing the emphasis on the ongoing effects of encounters with various time bound and situational cultural discourses in the "Foucauldian postulation of subjection as the simultaneous subordination and forming of the subject," Butler argues that psychoanalytic focus on early childhood as the most important (and invariable) determinant of subjectivity is justified because "this situation of primary [passion in] dependency conditions the political formation and regulation of subjects and becomes the means of their subjection" (7). This certainly sounds more like a response to Deleuze and Guattari's anti-Oedipal politics than to anything directly said by Foucault. As she later remarks, "Foucault is notoriously taciturn on the topic of the psyche" (18).

[19] Can there be, as Butler claims, "a Foucauldian perspective within psychoanalysis" (87: emphasis hers)? Where she most departs from Foucauldian methods is in her self-confident assumption of the role of one who knows. In explaining the "truths" of sexual interactions Butler's book is characterized by certainty. For example, she asserts, "debates about the reality of the sexual abuse of children tend to mistake the character of the exploitation," and then goes on to universalize and posit as inevitable "the adult sense of humiliation when confronted with the earliest objects of love -- parents, guardians, siblings and so on" (7-8). She concludes, that "no subject can emerge without this attachment formed in dependency, but no subject, in the course of its formation can ever afford to see' it" (8). The reasoning here seems to be that all children are dependent upon and passionately attached to their parents and that all such love because it is unconditional is humiliating. All unconditional love is apparently understood by Butler as humiliating because "there is no possibility of not loving" (8) and the horror of this lack of volition is compounded by the eroticism of passionate attachment, since in her language, as in the discourse of incest recovery therapy, "sexual contact" and "abuse" are interchangeable terms. Furthermore, underlying her sense that one can only love one's parents masochistically, is the unspoken assumption that masochistic feeling is so shameful that it can never be brought up into consciousness. Thus subjectivity is always split, with the unconscious always the repository of sexual secrets about the parents. In this instance what Butler seems to consider merely an addition to a Foucauldian approach becomes a contradiction of the critique of the "repressive hypothesis" presented in The History of Sexuality.

[20] Where Foucault agrees with Deleuze and Guattari that the sex-secret filled interior of the psyche is a construct of the discourses of psychology and psychoanalytic theory, Butler follows Melanie Klein and offers a theory of love as inevitably radically conflicted and for that reason formative of the unconscious. She argues that loving itself is a humiliation to the point of the loss of selfhood which summons up aggressive impulses which are in turn inhibited from expression except in the form of guilt (26-27). That some people are not particularly inhibited about expressing aggression within sexual relationships and that such expression need not be destructive to the relationship within which it occurs is never considered, presumably because sadomasochistic intercourse is not seen by Butler as a possible mode of experiencing satisfactory erotic connection.

[21] Interestingly she also fails to imagine that anyone might not defend against a universalized "absolute fear" by interiorizing societal and cultural ethical norms, with "suppression of bodily life" dependent upon endless fascination with regulation of body as the dual, paradoxical results (42-43, 53, 57). Foucault's argument that repression serves to "proliferate the domain of the bodily beyond the domain targeted by the original restriction" can be used as a ground for resistance is dismissively deemed by Butler a "utopian gesture" (59; emphasis Butler's). She claims that only "the psyche . . . exceeds the imprisoning effects of the discursive demand to inhabit a coherent identity, to become a coherent subject. The psyche is what resists the regularization that Foucault ascribes to normalizing discourses" (86). She attacks Foucault's view of "the psyche [as] an imprisoning effect in the service of normalization" asking how "he might then account for psychic resistance to normalization" (87). My answer would be that psychic resistance does not seem very interesting to him. At its most conscious, psychic resistance to normalization resembles the French Resistance of Is Paris Burning?, a film which celebrates the Parisians for secretly disliking the Nazis as they expediently wait to fight until the American troupes are outside the city, rather than the active resistance of the drag queens and transgendered people in Paris Is Burning [3]. Unconscious resistance seems of even less political value.

[22] Despite the crucial role performance plays in Butler's theory of gender, her understanding of how gender is manifested has become, with each successive book's articulation of her theories, more focused on the involuntary and the unconscious. And in what is perhaps the most troubling development for feminists attempting to follow Butler's recommendations is her increasing elision of heterosexual object choice and absolute social conformity. In The Psychic Life of Power "a firm heterosexuality" (signifying a rigid disavowal of the possibility of same sex attachment or of identification with a person otherwise gendered), "heterosexuality" (tout court) and being "straight" (not having a same sex partner) are basically treated as three synonyms (136, 146). Because most people do make heterosexual object choices, this turn in her theory suggests a world in which conscious resistance of any kind to gender normativity would be impossible for the vast majority.

[23] Butler speculates critically that "if, for Foucault the subject is not the same as the body from which it emerges, then perhaps the body has come to substitute for the psyche in Foucault" (94). This substitution emphasizing sensation and action over thought, outer life over inner, seems troubling to Butler, perhaps because she presumes an intractable level of conformity in all people. She claims, "We cannot simply throw off the identities we have become, and Foucault's call to refuse those identities will certainly be met with resistance" (102). In her view, attraction to "normalization" and "domestication," brings up "the question of masochism" (102), which she seems to read here and throughout her work as a sort of joyless compulsive conformity to the will of others, rather than, as in Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari -- and Acker -- as a strategy for expressing resistance through bodies and pleasures.

[24] Foucault's self-described hagiographer, David Halperin, finds central to the philosopher's thought his exhortation that we "make ourselves infinitely more susceptible to pleasures," by seeking out new sexual experiences even, or perhaps especially, when this means venturing into realms deemed mad by our culture's reigning medico-juridical discourses [4]. As Foucault argues in Madness and Civilization, such enactment of madness returns the actor to an earlier understanding of it, like that of Cervantes, in whose Don Quixote Foucault claims madness is the ultimate liminality, beyond moralizing and disciplinary control, where we experience erotic love as both loss and indissoluble union, and also as "the imperishable life of death" (33).

[25] While Butler follows Freud in urging her readers to look into the psyches of those who conform in order to see how gender "inevitably" takes form, Acker, through her mad history of masochist saints, provides what is literally another vision of the construction of conventional gender identities and a radically different understanding of how they might be resisted. Her novel's emergence from the overlapping 1980s punk and s/m scenes gives it a take on bodily sensation, sexuality, and gendered subjectivity that is necessarily differently politicized than Butler's investigations into gender constructions of the mainstream and its less demonized subcultures. Like Foucault, who was also at times immersed in the same counter cultures, Acker historicizes the formation of subjectivities in ways psychoanalytic paradigms preclude. Now that academic feminist theory has begun a return to the psychoanalytic, led by influential figures like Butler, it seems time for a reappraisal of Acker's contribution to the debate over the liberatory possibilities of "insane" uses of the body.


[26] Most of the criticism written on Acker's Don Quixote looks at the function of masochism in the novel.  And the differing interpretations of that function can tell us quite a bit about how Acker's politics fit into or disrupt specific politics of reading. Ellen Friedman notes the dismissal of Acker's work as "madness" (40), but claims that it is organized according to a different system than intellectual argumentation, or even thought. She describes the shocks Acker's taboo-breaking provides as intended to work directly on the body, re-evoking physical experience of emotions (39). Friedman sees this as part of Acker's quest for "an alternative site for enunciating that self" than society (43). "She perceives Americans as having become so thoroughly roboticized by their institutions that the hope for love, for an authentic life and identity can only be imagined in some other space, outside of society, outside the law" (45). This conclusion resembles McCaffery's that "The only resolution' in her works is like that produced in the aftermath of an explosion: with all familiar structures destroyed, one must begin reassembling the elements of existence into newer (and hopefully more liberating) patterns" (218). For both Friedman and McCaffery masochism is one among many means through which Acker pushes beyond the boundaries of socially sanctioned being. It is important because it is physical and transgressive, not because of any other intrinsic characteristics it might have.

[27] In contrast, Terry Brown focuses on "the politics of pain" in Don Quixote. Reading through a Lacanian framework, Brown equates masochism with hysteria, since both the masochist and the hysteric are understood psychoanalytically as beings whose deepest desire is "to remain unsatisfied" (168). Consequently, Brown glosses Acker's assertion that "Masochism is now rebellion" (158) as meaning that "masochism is rebellion insofar as it subverts the traditional nostalgic story of loss, by supplanting the desire for restitution with the desire to remain in painful loss" (175). In short, as the DSM IV says, masochism is "self-defeating behavior," not effective political resistance. Brown notes that the dead body of the mother is "an image which is variously repeated, like the return of the repressed, throughout the narrative of Don Quixote's quest" (167), but it seems more significant than he seems to recognize that we are introduced to the corpse, "my suicided mother," as an amphetamine addict who "used to take dexedrine so that she could diet," while in contrast to this body-diminisher, Acker herself was a body builder (Don Quixote 94). This implicit comparison suggests that the autobiographical narrator returns not to the image of an absence but to the memory of something concrete (a corpse) that remained despite the mother's culturally determined attempts to make it disappear. The deadness inscribed on the mother's diminished (but not erased) body by her complicity with societal dictates contrasts sharply with the wounds and scars that cover the built-up body of the daughter. This contrast literally marks the difference between the feminized (negated, suppressed, starved) body of a past womanhood and the degendered (male, female, even dog and monster) body of the protagonist [5]. Brown claims that "Acker typically roots her language in the body which belongs to the rhetoric of the real," and that it is thus "ironic" that the female bodies that ground the text are seen to be both "in pain" and "in pleasure" (176). For this reason, Brown concludes that "laughter in her novels always reverberates with the nervousness of madness" (177). But who is nervous here? Bourgeois listeners often receive grotesque tales like Acker's with nervous laughter, possibly because, as Foucault claims, such tales demand that "the world . . . justify itself before madness."

[28] In an even more extreme version of calling the mad text to account before the tribunal of the psychoanalytic, Richard Walsh castigates Acker for the immaturity of her gender politics. He objects to Don Quixote's offering as "the only model for heterosexuality's salvation" the gender "ambiguity . . . central to the story of Villebranche and De Franville" (150). But even worse than this particular instance of an irrational valorization of "mutual confusion of sexual identities" is "the arrested emotional development of its incompletely differentiated characters," who "all share a sensibility in which obsessive sexual and emotional need is held in a constant and necessary state of frustration" (152). Walsh characteristically makes value judgments presumably based on the same bourgeois, utilitarian vision of love that the novel strenuously rejects. The paradoxical pleasure in pain of masochism is in Walsh's view no more than a wrong-headed refusal to live in a sensible way that allows one to experience appropriate, reciprocal pleasure. "The novel does not affirm any possibility for equal sexual relations" (161). He describes the novel's "alienation from everyday life" (152), raising the question whose everyday life?

[29] It is in answering that question that Walsh most interestingly, although seemingly inadvertently illuminates how the novel's portrayal of extreme and transgressive eroticism constitutes a political position. To Walsh "this is the adamant naiveté of adolescence, when the confrontation between self and society is at its height, when desire and the libidinous are new and as absolute as the repressive social and political codifications that impinge upon them in every social and sexual interaction" (153). This judgment entails that erotic love will no long seem absolute when one reaches maturity and that maturity precludes rage against social and cultural restrictions on expression of sexual feeling. He goes on to claim that, due to their "refusal to compromise their emotional integrity" (presumably an attitude that falls away with maturity), "the protagonists of Don Quixote" find "[s]ocial integration is impossible" (153). Walsh understands Acker as looking for an alternative to "conventional sexual relations" by trying out "convoluted paths of sexual inversion and experiments in sado-masochism" but says, "The strategies against the dominant sexual power relations that the novel explores -- gender confusion, sexual deviancy, lesbianism--are all ultimately failures" (159).

[30] Moreover "the rejection of materialism by Don Quixote and the novel's other central characters alienates them from authority and places them in a state of perpetual rebellion. This estrangement from social values is extreme; Acker's characters are absolutely unreconciled, in a way that would be impossible to sustain against the forces of social reality" (Walsh 153) Impossible? His article, like Butler's Psychic Life of Power seems to be set in a world where resistance is truly futile and every adult conforms. Thus, in a mode that looks forward to Butler's account of the formation of subjectivity, he reads the book as a dream of what we all must repress when we achieve unavoidable "assimilation" into the social world (153-54). To Walsh community seems to mean simply conformity to the mainstream, since in his view, "the nonconformity of the quest denies the possibility of community upon which communication depends" (166).

[31] As Arthur Redding observes, "Problems of community and solidarity among outcasts have long troubled theorists" (292). In his view Acker's deployment of "masochistic processes" in "a ruthless search for a potential freed of the strictures of conscribed identity" does not place the novel outside of reality and into a place of immature fantasy, but rather outside conventional understandings of human experience, including the psychoanalytic privileging of unconscious, inner life (283-84). He argues that the masochistic subject inhabits "a world of sexuality not bound by the usual grave laws of diminished possibility or responsibility" (282). Redding agrees with Foucault about the "subversive potential to masochism," and identifies that potential as especially opposed to the construction of gender identities sanctioned by mainstream culture (284). While "humiliation . . . constitutes the only sense of self" for the subject under patriarchy, masochism represents control of that humiliation, abjection is not denied and repressed (as in the Butlerian melancholic's denial and mourning of unacknowledgeable loves and identifications) but instead embraced and enjoyed. That enactments of masochism can be directly political is evidenced for Redding by Acker's depiction of her masochistic characters as combining the seeking of pain with pursuit of "radical transformation" of the body socius (285). While, "[f]or the masochist the open body is the theater of the imagination," its performances take place in the actual world. He relates the spaces opened by masochism (in the imagination, in the text, in the body) to Foucauldian "heteropias," where "all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted" (291). To Redding Acker "fabricates another world, spawned of the bodily intercourse of pain and pleasure" (292). "What masochism perhaps permits is the heterotopia of the body" (300). Here, in shudders of pleasure-pain, biological femaleness can shake off gender codings as well as resignifying them.

[32] David Brande provides another interpretation of Don Quixote as an explicitly feminist, political work. Beginning with Acker's assertion that "Masochism is now rebellion" (158), Brande reads the novel through Deleuze and Guattari in order to explain how it maps "masochistic practice in order to destabilize phallocentric structures of gender, by attacking the status and privilege of the subject -- the very foundation of any recognizable gender code" (192). Brande sees the novel as effecting a "literally painstaking cultivation of asubjectivity through the use of masochism as a strategy to temporarily shed identity or individuality'-- an individuality that is constructed by and essential to the various operations of state power" (193). In Don Quixote "suffering becomes the vehicle . . . by which desire is liberated from the familial prison of the Oedipal triangle" and the processes of subject construction entailed in Oedipalization (194). According to Brande, above all else the book opposes the regulation of sexuality and pleasure in service of the state (199).

[33] What is at stake in such a project is perhaps best covered by Douglas Shields Dix's seminal essay applying Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the nomad to Acker's Don Quixote. Following Deleuze and Guattari, Dix reads the text as the site of a highly politicized battle over what meanings will be assigned to "emotion" and "interiority." Dix draws on Maurice Blanchot's concept of "the outside' . . . as that point where the segmenting lines of the socius break off" (62, N9). He claims "Acker rejects standard conceptions of revolutionary transformation, " and instead makes love revolutionary, because "In a society where materialistic, hyper-rational, capitalist instrumentalism reigns, love is nearly impossible, affect is nearly impossible: consequently love is subversive" (56). Acker's perfromance of masochism is essential to this project in order "to overload her own social encodings--reaching a point of excess where the intense becoming of her molecular organization breaks through, via a line of flight to the outside." Acker fights her battle onto death, but unlike her more normative critics Dix does not see her as a casualty of this war. The novel shows that "Death is history's opposite because it represents the outside, the void, the absence of the values that have created history to begin with" (57). Rather than marry and assume the position of wife as it is territorialized by her culture, "Don Quixote chooses to die, which is not to say that she is dead; she is dead to the social order (to whom she may as well be dead, as well as anyone else who does not fit inside the norm)" (58). Through its explosive expression of affect, "Her writing refuses'--destroys--by deconstructing the binary distinction between interior and exterior, self and society, subjective and objective, the personal and the political" (59).


[34] What is apparent in all of these readings is a conflict that has also emerged in feminist theory. Since the rise in the 1970s of various versions of feminism that reinscribe binary difference and supports conservative attempts to regulate sexuality, a crucial determinant of how one understands feminist praxis has become whether or not one finds bourgeois domesticity bearable. If so, then the political expression of feminism can be envisioned as the achievement of a happy and successful marriage of two economic/domestic partners who both earn income and both do household chores. But if bourgeois assimilation is held to be intolerable, then feminism must look to other modes of sexual expression than the now conventional capitalist egalitarian partnership. As Dix demonstrates, Acker was at least as avant-garde in her feminism as she was in her writing style. As if anticipating Walsh's later essay, Dix discusses Don Quixote's conscious recognition that no "split [can] be made between the psychological and the political, so that the reactionary can explain away revolutionary fervor as simply a child's response to his/her parents: the interior is the exterior, so that the familial structure is the site of the implementation of society's norms and values" (60). Dix comments that, "What she comes to realize is the possibility of affirmation. . . . Although she cannot change the society itself in some final way, she can become a nomad, increase the velocitiers of her lines of flight, and disrupt the hegemonic control of the state apparatus. She can deploy the war machine of the text" (61). In this sense Acker's Don Quixote is not only autobiography but bildungsroman.

[35] This reading is supported by the text's references to Virginia Woolf's fanciful auto/biographical story of the development of a writer, Orlando. A few allusions suggest that like Orlando as androgynous artist lover of the androgynous, unfaithful object Sasha, who can only exercise agency through withdrawal and escape, Don Quixote is made into an artist through an impossible love. St Simeon's double, De Franville, is initially described as looking like a beautiful girl with "Russian eyes" and pale hair like "the fur hat, camouflaged by snow, of a Slav princess" (128). Such references to Woolf's exploration of the development of the artist who refuses stable gender identity crucially contextualize Don Quixote's abortion. Orlando finds resolution to her gender role conflicts when she obeys the nineteenth century imperative to marry and procreate while she still resists compulsory heterosexuality to the extent of preserving her primary identification as artist. Don Quixote fails to order her life, to prioritize her desires. As Don Quixote writes in the (anti-)climactic poem that parodies Orlando's epic "Oak Tree" poem in Woolf's novel: "I am a mass of dreams desires which, since I can no longer express them, are foetises beyond their times, not even abortions. For I can't get rid of un-born-able unbearable dreams, whereas women can get rid of unwanted children" (194). Orlando can integrate into the society of the 1920s because of its greater flexibility about gender but also because she wants things that have always been socially acceptable for mainstream males and almost always for women under capitalism: useful work to do, home, partner, and child. She wants to live in the daylight world that all recognize as real. Don Quixote wants to live in nighttown, the city of night, the world where ecstasy and desire blend without rationality or reason. "This, my first and final dream, is not the dream of capitalism" (206).

[36] Becoming an author who can articulate a vision of the New Women who want to take on some of the gender attributes of men, but without rejecting all foundational values of the mainstream, is a project that demands logic and rationality. Orlando and Woolf's narrator spend a substantial part of the novel reasoning out Orlando's challenges to traditional gender identifications by showing how, while never altering in essence, she can function in society with interchangeable success as a man or as a woman. Acker faces a much more difficult task, for to show how a person can function as an improvisationally gendered writer and lover outside society, she needs recourse to the mad zone outside discourse.

[37] If we look at the novel's quest from this perspective, nothing about Acker's choice to cast her protagonist-narrator as Don Quixote seems accidental. In Madness and Civilization Foucault claims that writers like Cervantes communicated madness at the historical moment before its silencing, "Outside of time, they establish a link with a meaning about to be lost, and whose continuity will no longer survive except in darkness." Linking this madness to what will later be deemed masochism and "the death drive," Foucault goes on to say that in "Cervantes, madness still occupies an extreme place, in that it is beyond appeal. Nothing ever restores it either to truth or to reason. It leads only to laceration and thence to death." (31). To Foucault this mad life is not in itself finally sad, but what follows is when "madness leaves these ultimate regions where Cervantes and Shakespeare had situated it" and enters into medico-judicial discourses. Then madness is pressed into service, "authoriz[ing] the manifestation of truth and the return of reason," as those terms are defined by society's authority figures. From a sublime outside the very presence of which throws all of society into question, madness descends to inhabit the narrow confines of moral "error" (33).

[38] Before the Renaissance madness gave access to another reality of greater status than that of the quotidian; it conjured up "the presence of imaginary transcendences." By "the classical age," madness has been transported to a lesser, subordinate plane: "for the first time madness was perceived through a condemnation of idleness and in a social immanence guaranteed by the community of labor. This community acquired an ethical power of segregation, which permitted it to eject, as into another world, all forms of social uselessness. It was in this other world, encircled by the sacred powers of labor, that madness would assume the status we now attribute to it. If there is, in classical madness, something which refers elsewhere, and to other things, it is no longer because the madman comes from the world of the irrational and bears its stigmata; rather, it is because he crosses the frontiers of bourgeois order of his own accord, and alienates himself outside the sacred limits of its ethic" (58). Because madness was no longer balanced by a transcendent, religious truth, but was subordinated to the mainstream as if inferior to it, "[i]t was no longer the presence of the truth that determined the cure, but a functional norm" (177). To reinfuse madness with its former power to challenge the bourgeois order, not merely escape into its despised fringe, to resignify it as an alternate source of vision rather than a miserable failing to achieve normalcy, Acker must resanctify madness.

[39] Acker's emphasis on physical passion seems in part determined by Foucault's recognition that it has long acted as a force to combat the discourses of reason as "the meeting ground of body and soul . . . the locus of their communication" (86). Acker shows us from the first mention of Don Quixote's love for St Simeon, "The possibility of madness is therefore implicit in the very phenomenon of passion" (Foucault, Madness 88). The moralistic denaturalizing of such behavior is also well represented in the novel. Foucault claims that as madness was seen increasingly not as a hazard of passion but as the result of voluntary giving in to temptations and excesses, "abuse of things that were not natural," the mad person began to be understood not only as a sufferer of "nervous diseases," but as one who brings it on him or herself. This new way of thinking gave "madness a new content of guilt, of moral sanction, of just punishment" (157-58). Foucault argues that since the nineteenth century the major concerns of those treating the mad have been to determine the extent of their guilt and to assert their immaturity so as to justify their control by the law in loco parentis, so Freud's attempts to have an exchange with the mad ended in confessional monologue where, "the formulations he hears are always those of transgression" (262). The physician of the mind became: "Father and Judge, Family and Law" (272).

[40] Foucault describes Sade as one of the most notable opponents to this trend, "Through Sade . . . the Western world received the possibility of transcending its reason in violence, and of recovering tragic experience beyond the promises of dialectic" (282). After Sade, Foucault sees the relation "between madness and the work of art" as "much more dangerous than formerly . . . Theirs is a game of life and death" (286-87). For it is through this game, this contest between what is articulable and what lies beyond it that "a work that seems to drown in the world, to reveal there its non-sense, and to transfigure itself with the features of pathology alone, actually . . . provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself" (288).

[41] Nowhere is Don Quixote's madness more evident, nor its power to make the world question itself more in force than in its treatment of the gendering of love. When St Simeon indicts women for their too rational denial of erotic love, Don Quixote is moved to respond, "we have to deny you. Why? Objects can't love back" (28). Consequently, she reasons, she can achieve the goal of her quest to feel love "only by becoming part male" (29). So she refuses to let St Simeon beat himself to death in her name, and instead chooses to "die" sacrificially to save him. But this rationally determined course of action costs her his love, for if her deepest desire is to be a subject, his corresponding desire is to be an object (of love), and to truly understand him she must embrace suffering, as he does and learn to hate subjectivity, as he does.

[42] In the section entitled "HETEROSEXUALITY" Don Quixote reaches this goal. Here her dog companion, speaking in two voices, tells the tale of Villebranche, a dominant female who cross-dresses as male, and De Franville, a submissive male who cross-dresses as female. Hearing how Villebranche is driven into a towering rage by De Franville's passivity and finally throws herself on him slapping him and handcuffing his wrists, Don Quixote has sort of Deleuzian epiphany, remarking, "This must be how sexual desire tears down the fabric of society" (137). As Villebranche assumes complete control of him, which she sees paradoxically as loss of control of herself ("Villebranche had lost control" "Villebranche was out of control" 137) and as gaining control ("I was too in control to be upset,'" "I not only was totally in control, I also had to be in control, for love controlled me and this world isn't dualistic'" 139), De Franville feels loved and wanted for the first time in his life. He responds by demanding that she never "deviate, falter, or alter in the slightest way,'" lest he destroy her (141). Within the confines of their inflexible contract, then, woman can be a subject but can never be the beloved object, as that place is reserved for the male who has now successfully escaped the demands of masculinity as constructed by the fathers. Subjectivity is thus deromanticized for Don Quixote. At last she is ready to experience story-telling not as a form of therapy through which the writer, like Woolf's Orlando, gains insight into her place in society but as entrance into a space outside society. She can create her own narrative of masochistic passion knowing that although, "My family protests the way I am. The fact is that I am this way. I'm conscious that my refusal, my refusal upon refusal, my double mutiny that mutiny, this momentary attempt of mine to be a whole human being, renders me liable to their penalties. Like any other rebel slave, perverse rebel, I resolve, now and forever, with total desperation, always to go to all lengths" (146). From this viewpoint, like Pierre Menard's, "All Story-Telling Is Revolution" (147).


[43] That the Conclusion of Don Quixote returns the knight one final time to the project of narrating her MALE double's life seems important. When Don Quixote is at last ready to understand St Simeon neither as her "master" nor her possession, she is at last able also to understand her mad love not as a curse but as a source of creative power. She is now ready for her story's final revelation: that she is her own master and can make up her own god. She is ready to leave her feverish dreams of loss and abandonment, or inferiority and deprivation, and awaken "to the world which lay before [her]" (207). At last Don Quixote and St Simeon become as indistinguishable from each other as her mad love led her to fantasize they were. They meet in a place beyond the complaints and competitions determined by binary, masculine-feminine gender identifications. MacKendrick argues one of the primary "aim[s] of asceticism [is] the refusal of finitude, exhaustion, and limit--all through the body. Which is, of course, impossible" (70; emphasis hers). Don Quixote stops being a foolish woman querulously and resentfully in love with a man, with all the cultural and social baggage that position entails and begins to be like St Simeon at his least rational, a mad ascetic and saint, living always within the impossible dream of physical sensation more powerful and endless than thought. To move into this position means moving away from anything the dominant culture can recognize as sanity because our culture "increasingly regard[s asceticism's] excess as pathological" (MacKendrick 71). It also means attaining to some extent the community of "freaks" beyond gender for which she yearns. As long as she tries to speak in socially recognizable and legitimated languages to the k/night that she inhabits and to the pirate-dog-masochist-misfits who share it with her, Acker's protagonist can only reiterate the alienation she feels due to being biologically relegated to the role of woman, but when she stops trying to communicate reasonably she can relax into companionable closeness to Rocinante and a covenant with her degendered deity, for "Mad language is consciousness in myth'" (192). And "Language presupposes community" (202).

[44] In Saint Foucault, David Halperin praises the use, in Butler's earlier work, of Foucauldian genealogy as an example of how "a number of lesbian and gay critical and cultural theorists" refuse to debate "homophobic discourses . . . of psychiatry, sexology, criminology, and social science" and instead analyze the construction of the discourses, "their subjects and objects" (43). My aim in this essay has been to show that when feminist theorists of gender follow this Foucauldian path, they can provide readers with an approach that allows access to spaces outside society and its constructions of gender, as they are illuminated by mad texts like Acker's Don Quixote. But to incorporate the psychoanalytic understanding of subjectivity into the genealogical tracing of any contemporary gender identification means obscuring the revolutionary novel's violent evocation of an outside to mainstream societies and also means silencing its ability to demand an accounting from those societies.



[1] Another possible allusion is to Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), an important precursor to socialism whose writings on feminism were recognized by a segment of the French women's movement calling themselves les saint-simoniennes.

[2] Other political commentaries likely to be well-received by Acker's admirers include her advocacy of the poor and disenfranchised, her scathing portrayals of literary critics who valorize The Great Tradition, and her condemnations of crude sexism throughout the text.

[3] In her discussion of Paris is Burning (in Bodies that Matter), Butler recognizes the drag performances as " "an appropriation that seeks to make over the terms of domination, a making over which is itself a kind of agency, a power in and as discourse," but seems uninterested that each performance achieves its (limited) success in the actual world whether or not it does so within the psyches of the drag performers. In this discussion she makes no distinction between bringing into the open genders and desires that transgress mainstream norms and secretly feeling differently than the mainstream.

[4] Halperin provides this translation from an interview with Foucault by Jean Le Bitoux et al:. "De l'amiti comme mode de vie: Un Entretien avec un lecteur quinquagnaire." Le Gai Pied 25 (April 1981); 39, qtd. in Halperin 81.

[5] See Arthur Redding for an excellent discussion of the distinctions Acker makes elsewhere between the naturalizing approximation of an ideal femininity though dieting and the "pointedly artificial masochistic" creation of a new self through body-building (289).  



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