Books: The cannibal and the pirate

Bodies of Work: essays by Kathy Acker Serpent's Tail, pounds 11 Life and Death by Andrea Dworkin Virago, pounds 6.99; One's a puritan, one an outlaw. Yet the pole stars of US feminism connect, says Sue Golding
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These two books by two leading American feminists are, if nothing else, works of survival. Their pace is relentless and the tone of each defiant. And those who choose to read them will be flung smack into that gaping wound of survival, so nonchalantly called "life". Through searing testimony of endless battles - against sexism, racism and homophobia, or else just downright stupidity and fear - each author documents her own paradoxical and often self-destructive moves in the face of it all.

No one comes out clean in this dirty little game between mortality and death, sex and love, porn and rock 'n' roll. With echoes of "the personal is political" ringing off every page, both choose autobiography as the secret purpose to their writing. In a candid remark that could have easily been written by either, Andrea Dworkin lays out her cards: "The character made me do it, most writers say. But the truth is that one starts out with a blank page, and each and every page is blank until the writer fills it... with the mind as scavenger and plunderer, one cannibalises one's own life... Writers use themselves and they use other people."

Yet despite their common ability to trawl every debasement that patriarchy tattoos on to all its subjects; and their common weaving of theories on aesthetics, language, sexualities and feminism, one cannot imagine a more peculiar coupling of writers in a review. On the one hand is Andrea Dworkin, our woman in charge of the anti-porn-strict-moral-guidelines feminist brigade; on the other, Kathy Acker, our woman in charge of the post-hippie- sexual emancipation feminist brigade. They are not usual bedfellows, at the best of times.

Dworkin searingly catalogues and mounts her wounds of rape (starting at age nine), of prostitution ("I was so smart I could become a prostitute, which at least was interesting"), and of hideous battery in the stench of a pathetic marriage to a moron (she fights a real fear of reprisals to this day). On every page, her responses turn on the battle cry of a permanent revolution: to search out and destroy violent Evil as embodied by Men and "Pornographers". (Later, this is reduced to the sadly simplistic Men = Pornography = Violence = The Root of All Evil).

Acker takes a decidedly different tack. She chooses to mount her wounds with the strategy of a brilliant pirate, stranded on land and embroiled in a fight-to-the-finish game of chess. Here, the rules are made to be broken, sucked on, checked and check-mated. The point for Acker is not to search out (and destroy) a community of Evil, pitted against two sexual genders (male against female). Instead, she takes the freedom to wander in a pluralist community - of multiple genders - forged out of those who have nothing in common, perhaps, but the language of wondering, seeing, dreaming.

With each book, we have a peculiar set of ethics presented just before the precipice of despair. That set of ethics is nothing less than the political techniques, or strategies, of risk: either by witnessing or documenting, getting angry or even, getting organised or carrying on. At a time when so many suggest the end of the millennium is but a crummy little euphemism for rearranging the chairs on that sinking ship called History, Dworkin and Acker hold out the promise of hope for a future - if only because they are still standing after all those bloodstained, rape-ridden, hit-below-the-belt years in the ring.

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