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


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.






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 (Note 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."





(Don Quixote 94)



 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?




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).



 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).

(Walsh 153)



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.









 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).





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).

(62, N9)