Flogging a Dead Language: Reading, Sex, and Pastiche in Acker’s Don Quixote

Nicola Pitchford, Fordham University

Presented at the Modern Language Association Convention, 1998. San Francisco.


Pastiche is central to the resistant politics of Kathy Acker's writing--yet she would appear to agree with Fredric Jameson's influential critique of pastiche as "the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language" (17). Her 1986 novel Don Quixote is all about having to speak "in a dead language" in the absence of a more "healthy" norm. It begins with the death of the protagonist, a female version of Cervantes's knight, who then goes on to narrate much of the subsequent story. Acker explains, "BEING DEAD, DON QUIXOTE COULD NO LONGER SPEAK. BEING BORN INTO AND PART OF A MALE WORLD, SHE HAD NO SPEECH OF HER OWN. ALL SHE COULD DO WAS READ MALE TEXTS WHICH WEREN'T HERS" (39). The novel then proceeds by plagiarism and pastiche, as Quixote goes on a quest--for a heterosexual love unsullied by patriarchal power relations--through fragments of numerous existing texts. Quixote rereads and pieces together a whole range of textual scraps, from Machiavelli's The Prince to a Godzilla movie. What becomes clear in her eccentric survey of (primarily) Western culture is that the lost, healthy linguistic norm is more than unhealthy for female readers--indeed, it is deadly.