I just read a whole shit-ton of books. I’m probably gonna work my way backwards, trying to talk about each of them at least in some detail. The most recent thing I read was not Aliens & Anorexia, but I kind of wanted to start with it since it really stuck with me.
Aliens & Anorexia is Chris Kraus’ second novel in a trilogy that she wrote in the late 1990s/2000s, the first of the set being I Love Dick (probably the most well known of the trilogy) and the last being Torpor. They are all mostly autobiographical; I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia are explicitly so, whereas Torpor uses thinly veiled pseudonyms. These novels are seen as pivotal feminist texts, for good reason; Chris Kraus is critical not only of the patriarchal institutions around her, but also of the ways that her feminist peers have built up similar institutions that are exclusionary in their own ways.
Beyond the way Aliens & Anorexia talks about these issues, I think what makes it so compelling is Kraus’ ability to make her arguments feel personal and scholarly simultaneously. Throughout most of the book, she seems to be working through the failure of her first feature length film Gravity & Grace by exploring questions about failure, decreation, sadness, and loneliness. These arguments are resolutely grounded too: I was pretty surprised to find at the back of the book a full works cited list, giving references to every text she mentioned, even an obscure book of prints in which she first discovered Paul Thek’s work.
The flow of the book, and the way Kraus moves between topics/people/ideas is worth noting as well. She has no reservations about talking in depth about Simone Weil’s biography for 5 or so pages directly after an anecdote about she and her husband taking LSD in southern California, that itself is interspersed with anecdotes of Walter Benjamin smoking hashish in France. This style of writing can become a labyrinth if not done carefully, but Kraus counteracts this by inserting certain phrases, stories, and dialogues that continue to pop up throughout the text, like beams of light illuminating an intricate spider web from different angles until the whole thing is clear in front of you.
This is probably the first book I’ve read in quite a while in which I was actively underlining parts of the text. Here are a few of my favorite lines (some of them not even by Kraus):
“A man whose family had died under torture,” [Simone Weil] wroter later on in London, “who had himself been tortured for a long time in a concentration camp, or a 16th century Indian, the sole survivor after the total extermination of his people, such men, if they had previously believed in the mercy of God would either believe in it no longer, or else they would conceive of it quite differently. I have not been through such things. I know however that they exist, so what is the difference?“
Weil was driven by a panic of altruism, an empathy so absolute she couldn’t separate the suffereing that she witnessed from her own. She wanted politics to a be a fairy tale, an attempt againsts all odds to make things right. Sometimes when the headaches hit, she looked inside. Pain marked the meeting place between her soul and body, the center of the nervous system. Always, she was terrified that she might waste her life.
Kraus refers to Simone Weil’s state as a panic of altruism throughout the book, a state in which she is incapable of seeing the difference between her own suffering and another’s (I think Kraus uses the term “radical empathy” as well). I was and still am struck by the brutal simplicity of Weil’s own expression of this panic in the first quotation; I feel like this logic has become incredibly valuable especially among many debates and issues within and about identity politics right now (e.g. sure, I’m not a black person but I can see that they have suffered a great deal collectively, so why should this not move me to action?)
Throughout the 20th century, chance has repeatedly recurred as the basis of artistic practice among groups of highly educated men … In Zurich, 1917 Hugo Ball and Tristin Tzara made nonsense poem of glossolalia … In New York during the early 1960s, John Cage and Fluxus members made random compositions out of sound and gestures … These men were crocodiles in clubchairs, conductors of controlled experiments in chaos. In the interest of a greater science they were prepared to gouge out pieces of their own non-porous skin. Girls, on the other hand, are less reptilian…
I just love that phrase, “crocodiles in clubchairs”. Really captures that moment. I don’t really have much more to say on this than that.
Weeks passed before I got around to opening the box. And when I did … a pile of books: the writings of the Dadaist Hugo Ball, some books in French by Antonin Artaud. Plon’s first edition of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, in French, La Pesanteur et la grâce. The writings of Ulrike Meinhof, including Meinhof’s screenplay translated into French as Le Foyer. I bought a dictionary, started reading.
This passage just kind of bonked me on the head; I’ve sat around with random books in other languages and gotten worked up into inaction, thinking, “What’s the point? I won’t understand all the idiomatic stuff and there’s probably just a translation if I look harder.” And then Chris Kraus comes along and lays it out in all its simplicity. Just buy a dictionary, you dummy.
“Everything,” [Paul Thek] said that year, “is beautiful and ugly simultaneously. We accept our thing-ness intellectually, but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.”
I read an essay by Hito Steyerl at some point over the summer all about the importance of being able to choose to be an object (rather than a subject), and this line really drove home what I think she was getting at (her essays left me a bit confused at times). Paul Thek is a really interesting character, and worth exploring, if you’re interested in the precursors and concepts behind installation art. At one point, Kraus makes a brilliant argument about his conception of installation, drawing more parallels to theater than visual art, and ultimately claiming that his practice was a drama in which his objects became actors. The above quotation is more in reference to his earlier works, which were mainly sculptures of amputated limbs in a grotesquely realistic manner.
Thek, who was ambivalently homosexual, was arguing for a state of decreation, a plateau at which a person might, with all their will and consciousness, become a thing. “The chief element of value in the soul is its impersonality,” wrote Simon Weil. Among people who reject the mystical state, the only yardstick left for measuring the will-to-decreate is sadomasochism. Thek, a male acting upon wax, Swenson thought, must be sadistic… just as Weil’s detractors saw her, a female, acting on herself, as masochistic. Though neither of them really saw the world through these polarities. They were someplace else, arguing for an alien state, using subjectivity as a means of breaking out of time and space-
A big part of the novel deals with Kraus forming a long distance S&M phone-sex relationship with a big-budget movie producer located in Africa, while she works through the pain of Gravity & Grace‘s failure in the Hamptons (Long Island). Much of this occurs later on, but the groundwork for talking about S&M is laid down early in her analysis of Simone Weil and Paul Thek, as in the above quotation. Kraus’ approach to S&M begins with the notion above (i.e. decreation to become a part of something larger than oneself); she fine-tunes this later on, pointing out the parallels to many older traditions of theater like Noh, Balinese Dance or commedia dell’arte, which all draw upon “a stock repertoire of stories, bits, and lines and gags” (some kind of S&M pun?), which when performed, decreate the self by replacing it with these stock elements and connect it to something larger. She also takes this decreation-as-subsummation argument even further later on, in describing sadness and how its self-destructive force connects her to all the sadness that ever existed in the world, or as she puts it, “a hyperspace, a second set of neural networks becoming active in the body”.
I came to think of coincidence as harmonic overtones of occurrence and twilight guideposts. (Simone Forti)
“If it was written by a human being, then it must be possible for another human being to understand it.” (Chev, one of Kraus’ friends in NZ)
Things happened but they never added up, there were countless conversations but no exchange of information, that moment when you feel your words and gestures enter someone else’s field.
The fact that someone’s listening makes it possible to find words.
As with the earlier quotation about “crocodiles in clubchairs”, I just really like all the quotations above. “Twilight guideposts” just stuck in my memory, even though I’m still not really what the speaker meant. The second one is something I think I have actually said almost word for word to somebody once, so to see that in writing was pretty weird. I love the third quotation’s explanation of conversation as being something beyond speech; a permeation through some kind of barrier… which the last quotation nicely expands on (at a completely opposite end of the book, no less).
Sometime during the second night of non-stop crying my father called and said You’d better stop, and so I did, because I’d been crazy once already in New Zealand, and I remember, crazy women hardly ever get to speak, let alone make movies.
This line is just so devastating. I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Carson recently (will be posting about her pretty soon), and came across some music scholarship about crazy (hysterical) woman this past year while working on a paper about Monteverdi (Susan McClary, Suzanne Cusick); all three writers in one way or another have forced me to question certain tropes; gave me different perspectives on these tropes ranging far and wide throughout all of history; and then Chris Kraus comes along and (again) bonks me on the head. These kinds of biting lines pop up throughout the book, and never fail to bonk.
The Tao of Dereliction: wanting to attain a state in which you may be porous: mobile, lost and penniless and constantly alert.
There is a medieval mystical tradition which defines the self as a “foul stinking lump” that must be broken down. Weil takes this one step further, as a woman living in the mid-20th century: it isn’t just the second-person self she’s seeking to destroy. She’s starting with the one she knows the best, her own.
She want to lose herself in order to be larger than herself . A rhapsody of longing overtakes her. She wants to really see. Therefore, she’s a masochist.
I think that a big part of why I identify so strongly with this novel lies in Kraus’ acceptance and non-dismissal of self-decreation as a legitimate stance. Kraus talks a lot about Simone Weil and her body-denial (Weil starved herself for long periods, ultimately leading to her early death), essentially making the argument that anorexia can be a rejection of the cynical culture that we typically consume alongside our food. What’s really interesting is that each person that Kraus talks about (even herself) comes to deal with the question of decreation-as-subsummation for very different reasons. Simone Weil is “tripping out on content” (another phrase I really love) and as a result of giving herself up to the panic of altruism, starves herself. Paul Thek is decreating in order to savor being an object rather than a subject. Kraus herself decreates both as a result of Crohn’s disease, which makes it very difficult to eat, as well as her own emotional reactions to Gravity & Grace‘s failure. I’ve thought in the past about the rejection of certain things like technology or sex as means of rejecting (what I perceive to be) their cynical cultures, and I’ve separately thought about the whole decreation-as-subsummation question, especially with respect to artists/authors/composers that seem to be able to decreate and give their work an authorless quality, like Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, or David Foster Wallace (the first four stories in Oblivion in particular). Kraus somehow weaves both these threads into one all-encompassing tapestry full of diverse perspectives, and the result, as I’ve already probably made clear, is incredibly compelling.
There is almost a bit too much to talk about with this book, and as I’m writing this, I think of more and more to say, but I think it’s probably just better to leave it here and recommend the hell out of Aliens & Anorexia, and really anything else she’s written.