Cecily (Yujiao) Chen

Wolf Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow

20192020 Forum on Kinship

Cecily (Yujiao) Chen

English; History of Art

CAS, 2020

Cecily is a senior pursuing a double major in English (with a concentration in Literary Theory and Cultural Studies) and History of Art. She is currently working on her honors thesis in English on the works of Kathy Acker, and their discussions of sex, intimacy, vulnerability, and desire. Her primary academic interests are the intersection between writing and visual arts, affect theory, identity politics, the body, and the representation of feminine desire in art. You can usually find her in an art museum, at a concert, or playing with the cat at the Last Word Bookshop. Her academic writings have been published in the Kunstkammer: Princeton University Undergraduate Journal of Art and Columbia Journal of Art History. She has previously worked at the San Francisco-based independent punk rock zine RE/Search Publications, as well as the Philadelphia-based literary journal bedfellows, which publishes contemporary poetry about desire and intimacy.

Feeling Good about Feeling Bad: Kathy Acker’s Politics of Joy 

Kathy Acker’s freely experimental and boldly irreverent style of writing, which incorporates translation, pornography, collage, and plagiarism, has earned her the reputation of being “unreadable” among critics. Yet, coterminous with the disorienting density of her text is also a rich and often profoundly tender emotional dimension, which is left unremarked in most scholarship. The writing of this thesis was driven by the ambition to attend fully to both the theoretical lineage of Acker’s work as well as its affective potency. My thesis is divided into three parts. First, I pull from Acker’s unpublished manuscripts housed at the Kathy Acker Papers at Duke University and examine her engagement with the Feminist Sex Wars. Secondly, I turn to her 1984 text Blood and Guts in High School and focus on her descriptions of masochism, and how they differ from more common or political associations with the term. Thirdly, I provide a reading of Acker’s more explicit scenes of sexual encounter, both textual and visual, in order to more roundly understand the affective relationship between novel and reader. In Acker’s novel, I see an attention to the feelings and sensations of desire—both sexual and otherwise—which often go unnoticed in the language of “essayists, theorists, and politicians.” as Acker puts it. By tracing the multiple textures of desire, Acker levels the moralizing discourse of sexuality and in turn imagines a new mode of sexual politics that is alive to affect.