Culture Machine, Vol 5 (2003)

CM2003 Article: Ulmer

Ackeracy in Reporting (Last Supper in Santa Barbara by Paolo Veronese

Gregory L. Ulmer

PAOLO VERONESE: I have experience with dinners of this scale. They seem intimate at the time but this illusion is relative to the kind of space involved. In this case, a commission to render the evening when Larry Rickels introduced Greg Ulmer to Kathy Acker. Santa Barbara. A place catering to vegetarian tastes (California, in short).

CRITIC: They permit motorcycles to be parked at the tables?

VERONESE (FROWNING): Ontology asks and answers two related questions. What are the categories of the world? What are the laws that govern these categories? Ontology concerns itself with everything there is, irrespective of whether it is concrete or abstract. The end of metaphysics has not to do with the end of ontology as a project, but with the end of categories understood in terms of individual things and their properties. Ontology is open to the possibility of other kinds of entities, and other categories, other modes of gathering, containing, and relating. The evening included the motorcycle.

CRITIC: This reasoning extends to the undead as well? Hence the vampire?

VERONESE: You are mistaken, milord. That is Professor Rickels.

RICKELS: My secretary led me to believe that doing email was extremely complicated. She does all my email. Do you have a problem with that?

ACKER (ENTHUSIASTIC): Just before the end I really got into MUDS and MOOS.

ULMER: You got a character in MOOville. We were going to collaborate.

CRITIC (DELICATELY): The patina if that is what it is? The skin, I mean, if I am not taking things too literally. Yet whether or not they are clothed...?

VERONESE: Tattoos.

CRITIC: And the faces?

VERONESE: I had just seen the remake of Moby Dick.

CRITIC: Queequeg?


CRITIC: It's deja vu, paisan. Will you never learn? It was not fitting, at the last supper of the Lord, to paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities. Why does it seem more appropriate in the case of this tableau of a quiet evening in Santa Barbara?

ULMER (TO ACKER): I'm from Florida, and Veronese seems to have transferred the atmosphere of your Florida (the text collected with my favorite, the one by Pasolini) to the treatment, don't you think?

ACKER (QUOTING FROM MEMORY): Maybe you're dying and you don't care anymore. In the nothingness, the gray, islands almost disappear into the water. Black ovals the shape of leaves hide the crumbling of the universe. Key West Islands disappearing into the ocean. You don't have anything more to say.

CRITIC (READING FROM TOURIST GUIDE, SMUG TONE): As the topographical tail of the United States, Key West dangles off the end of the Florida Keys chain, an island of unfettered freedoms and capricious charms. It is a nonchalant, end-of-the-road kind of place where people who never want to grow up feel right at home. It is crazy, indulgent, uninhibited and hip, full of small town gossip and big city panache... (SLAMS THE BOOK SHUT). These cannot be the same place!

VERONESE: The paints, something to do with the air pollution, things went muddy.

ULMER (TO ACKER): I wrote an article about your text on Goya, the one in Art After Modernism. But my favorite is the Pasolini book. The instructions to the students were: invent a cheeky criticism, and here is your relay. Acker provides an alternative mode of critical analysis. Find out how it works, take the parts you can use, extrapolate to another object of study, and to your own concerns. It was a graduate class, but one woman refused the assignment because the book violated her Christian principles.

CRITIC: A woman of principle!

ROGER CAILLOIS: She was taken in by the mimicry of sexuality, despite the fact that resemblance plays only a minor part in intimidation, which is Kathy's strategy. Fucking in her books is not unlike the ocelli on butterfly wings which, in fact, resemble eyes, but which do not inspire fear on that account. I might almost say, on the contrary, eyes are frightening because they resemble ocelli.

CRITIC: Those two giant spots then are ocelli! I thought they were the Florida Keys?

VERONESE: Neither milord; Italian Pizzas. It's what's for dinner.

CAILLOIS: It is not true, as has been asserted, that the butterfly known as Caligo prometheus frightens because it is impossible to believe that an insect would have such eyes. It is not a question of eyes, but of something shining, big, motionless, and circular, carried by a living creature and which, in effect, seems to be watching even though it is not an eye.

CRITIC (RIGHTEOUS) What about this? (reads): Lesbian Guerrilla Army all gunned up enters stage. DYKE LEADER: OK girls. Here we are (they look around the factory). Not much here to put up our cunts. SPARROW CUNT: Not even a cock to chop off.

CAILLOIS: Intimidation. Ocelli cunts

ACKER (LITTLE-RED-RIDING-HOOD-DRESSED-UP-LIKE-A-WOLF LOOK). The difference between the liposuction/anorexic behavior of certain women, and women who get tattooed is: the first class of women are just looking to come as close as possible to certain norms that they've internalized. They've taken an image out of a magazine and thought, This is how I should look; this is how I should be. Whereas the second class of women are actively searching for who to be, and it has to do with their own pleasure, their own feeling of identity--they're not obeying the normal society. They're looking--it's very different. And when you look, you know you're failing, you know you're inferior. There's always something missing. And it's interesting when there's something missing.

ERNESTO LACLAU and LILIAN ZAC (CLOSE HARMONY, RECOGNIZABLE AS EARLY EVERLY BROTHERS). The alienating character of the act of identification is also maintained, in so far as there is no supersession of the subject/object duality. A basic consequence follows: If the objective fills my originary lack, this filling can only take place in so far as what is objective is external to me. Through the act of filling my lack, the objective does not lose its externality; it is not assimilated to an identity that was already mine. On the contrary, its alien character is precisely what allows it to function as a filler. Its magic filling can operate because the subject is originary lack of being. But if the subject is originary and ineradicable lack, any identification will have to represent, as well, the lack itself. This can be done by reproducing the external character of that with which the subject identifies itself, that is, its incommensurability vis-a-vis itself. It is because of this that the acceptance of the Law--that is, the principle of organization as opposed to nothingness--is the acceptance of the Law because it is Law, not because it is rational.

CAILLOIS: Just my point: the fucking concerns this magic filling.

VERONESE: Identity is always a remake, another version. One appropriates an existing model and then decorates it as one sees fit and according to one's talents (there was room for many figures in the Feast at the House of Levi, for example--I had to fill 42 feet of wall space).

ULMER (LITTLE-JACK-HORNER-DRESSED-UP-AS-BILLYGOAT-GRUFF LOOK) (TO ACKER). Your work makes me rethink choragraphy (which I used to spell chorography). Perhaps I was too hasty in settling on chora as the basis for a critique of the rhetorical tradition of invention, with its commitment after Aristotle to topos as the places for storing or rather for classifying arguments and commonplaces. My use of the Derrida-Eisenman project for the Parc de la Villette made me overlook to kenon, a substantivation of the adjective kenos (empty), according to Jim Carrey (just kidding). The occurrences of the term in Greek philosophical texts, as Keimpe Algra (an anagram, I suspect) shows, suggest that to kenon denoted emptiness as such; a specific empty (x): an empty space or place; an empty thing. This explanation would at any rate account for the fact that in Greek philosophical discussions of the void we encounter basically three different conceptions of to kenon. I don't know enough about it to formulate the appropriate term for the spatiality organizing your work (although ignorance has never stopped me from offering a theory). Kenography, perhaps?

ACKER: No, because everyone immediately will assume Barbie is part of the deal: Barbie 'n Ken-ography.

VERONESE: Yet the notion does begin to justify my design.

RUMI: All day I think about it, then at night I say it...

CRITIC (INTERRUPTING). No! No! This is too much...

RUMI (IGNORING THE INTERRUPTION): Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?

CRITIC: I can accept the French and Germans being in the scene, given the sort of things these people read. I cannot admit a Sufi.

RUMI (BLISSFULLY): I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there. This drunkenness began in some other tavern. When I get back around to that place, I'll be completely sober. Meanwhile, I'm like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary. The day is coming when I fly off, but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice? Who says words with my mouth? Who looks out of my eyes? What is the soul? I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks. I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

CRITIC (DISMAYED): Is he dancing?

VERONESE (TO CRITIC, PROUDLY): Whirling, swirling. But cannot you grasp the relevance of the tavern metaphor?

COOKIE MUELLER: You didn't know Kathy stripped for a time?

VERONESE. Nor is Kathy entirely undraped in my representation. She wears an uluri.

ACKER (TO ULMER, SWEETLY). I guess everybody makes a choice, somewhere down the line: that they're going to abide by society's rules and hide in their nice suburban house and do just what they're told and they're not going to step out of line--and maybe, just maybe, they'll be safe.

ULMER. You got me pegged. Although when I was in college I pretended to want a motorcycle in order to get my folks to let me buy a Triumph--TR3. Used, of course.

RICKELS: An uluri? Yes, that makes sense. Still, I overlooked it.

VERONESE: I was borrowing from the pars pro toto figuration of certain non-Western traditions, to allude in the portrait of Kathy to her refusal of the conventional displacement upward to the facial expressions of matters more directly concerning the genitals. Interpelvis rather than interface metaphors are the issue. I learned this device from a Brazilian Indian illustrating the uluri, the minuscule feminine attire. In order to show how it is worn, the artist had to refer to the woman's body. In his figure both the vagina and the anus are indicated by simple circles over which the string of the uluri passes.

CRITIC: I thought you said those were pizzas?

RICKELS (TO VERONESE). You Italians! It looks like something Versace could have based a whole line on.

VERONESE: It is a matter of how much shaving one tolerates (not an issue for the native peoples). In any case, the treatment is an analogy to the discourse of orifices in Kathy's literature, as well as an allusion to string theory in physics and in fashion.

PETER SLOTERDIJK: If I had been invited instead of Theweleit perhaps there would be less mystery now about the dog in the foreground.

KLAUS THEWELEIT: I was out of town with my family or I would have been there in fact as well as in fiction. My son was fascinated with the surfing.

SLOTERDIJK: It seems obvious that Acker works in the tradition of Ancient kynicism, in whose cheekiness lies a method worthy of discovery. In kynismos a kind of argumentation was discovered that, to the present day, respectable thinking does not know how to deal with. Can it be called anything other than vulgar when Diogenes lets a fart fly against the Platonic theory of ideas? And what is it supposed to mean when this philosophizing town bum answers Plato's subtle theory of eros by masturbating in public?

ULMER (GETTING AN IDEA): The argumentum emblematicum!

CRITIC (PLEASED WITH HIMSELF): I could use a TUMS right now.

ACKER (TO HERSELF): Academics--I feel a confusion about academia. (TO ULMER). I've seen too many English Departments destroy people's delight in reading. The last time I did a visiting stint I had the students make their own zine.

SLOTERDIJK: With Diogenes there emerges a low theory that pantomimically and grotesquely carries practical embodiment to an extreme.

CAILOIS: As camouflage...

SLOTERDIJK: The significance of cheekiness is easily shown. Since philosophy can only hypocritically live out what it says, it takes cheek to say what is lived. In a culture in which hardened idealisms make lies into a form of living, the process of truth depends on whether people can be found who are aggressive and free (shameless) enough to speak the truth.

ULMER: I became interested in cheekiness when I wrote the mystory Derrida at the Little Bighorn. Chief Gall turned up in my popcycle. Gall was one of the battlefield chiefs who led the counter-attack against Custer. The method requires us to pursue such figures as words and as things. One of the meanings of gall is cheek. It was just that insight that prompted me to teach My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

SLOTERDIJK: Only in the last few centuries has the word cheeky (frech) gained a negative connotation. Initially, as for example in Old High German, it meant a productive aggressivity, letting fly at the enemy: brave, bold, lively, plucky, untamed, ardent. The devitalization of culture is mirrored in the history of this word.

CRITIC: The Germans are here in force. And the dog, since by now it is clear that the restaurant did not actually admit pets?

SLOTERDIJK: Kynic, the dog philosophy (kyon is dog in Greek), kynicism, cynic.

ACKER: One of my roommates had a dog named Magic who just loved genitals, both male and female. What we want is illumination! We don't just want to work like dogs.

GILLES DELEUZE. Rereading Diogenes Laertius' most beautiful chapters, those on Diogenes the Cynic, we witness the development of a curious system of provocations reminiscent of Kathy's texts.

CRITIC (DESPERATE): Am I alone in thinking anachronism is a problem?

DELEUZE: On one hand, the philosopher eats with great gluttony, he stuffs himself; he masturbates in public, regretting that hunger cannot be so easily relieved; he does not condemn incest with the mother, the sister or the daughter; he tolerates cannibalism and anthropophagy--but in fact he is also superbly sober and chaste. On the other hand, he keeps quiet when people ask him questions or gives them a blow with his staff. If you pose abstract and difficult questions he will respond by designating some bit of food, or will give you a whole box of food. Yet he also holds a new discourse, a new logos animated with paradox and philosophical values and signification which are new.

ACKER: A lot of women are into dieting. They're basically anorexic. Whereas I eat like a pig, but I body-build. What I was really looking for was a myth to live by (as a little girl I resented the fact that I couldn't be a pirate).

DELEUZE (BEAMING). This is a reorientation of all thought and of what it means to think: there is no longer depth or height. The philosopher is no longer the being of the caves, nor Plato's soul or bird, but rather the animal which is on a level with the surface--a tick or louse. The philosophical symbol is no longer the Platonic wing, or Empedocles' lead sandal, but the reversible cloak of Antisthenes and Diogenes: the staff and the mantel. What are we to call this new philosophical operation, insofar as it opposes at once Platonic conversion and pre-Socratic subversion? Perhaps we can call it perversion, which at least befits the system of provocation of this new type of philosopher--if it is true that perversion implies an extraordinary art of surfaces.

ULMER: Once again the signature theory will out! When the spellchecker encounters Deleuze it suggests delouse!

CRITIC (SARCASTICALLY): It is hard to tell whether that thing in the foreground is mammal or insect.

ACKER: This strategy of perversion as an alternative to conversion or subversion is something some feminists have not been able to accept about me.

DELEUZE: They need to imagine someone, one-third Stoic, one-third Zen, and one-third Lewis Carroll: with one hand she masturbates in an excessive gesture;

ACKER: I cannot stand to have my clit touched; it hurts! Whereas if I get spanked it doesn't hurt as much.

DELEUZE. Can you spank yourself?

VERONESE: This is a stupid question.

DELEUZE (FLUSTERED): ...with the other she writes in the sand the magic words of the pure event open to the univocal:... (HE PAUSES, DRAWING A BLANK). I forget this part.

RICKELS: It didn't work anyway. You need to revise that bit. Also, magic is becomng repetitive.

DELEUZE: Anyway, she makes the energy of sexuality pass into the pure asexual without, however, ceasing to ask What is a little girl?--even if this question must be replaced with the problem of a work of art yet to come, which alone would give an answer.

CRITIC: Yet to come? So at least you are not saying that Don Quixote, for example, is this very work?

DELUEZE (CONFIDING TONE): my examples tend to be as lame as my theories are brilliant. Better to leave a blank for others to fill. (LONG PAUSE). For example (PAUSE) the emoticon!

VERONESE: A motif! (I mean the filling part).

RUMI: The Mullah Nasruddin I believe was a great influence on that character.

CRITIC: You are thinking of the one by Cervantes.

RUMI (VERY HAPPY): And the one by Kathy Acker.

ACKER (LOOKING BUFF): And not a word about plaigiarism for a change. This is a pleasant evening!