Stitch Bitch: The Hypertext Author As Cyborg-Femme Narrator
Some of the most interesting hypertext work of the present moment isemerging from the computers of masterful women who develop their workoutside the normal channels of institutional support.
One of these women, the writer and artist Shelley Jackson, holds an AB in studio art fromStanford University and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University but for the last few years has been working in a San Francisco bookstore.
Without the backing of a tenure-track American university gig or some well-funded European "art" center, she has managed to publish two complex, groundbreaking hyperfictions including the acclaimed Patchwork Girl (Eastgate, 1995) and the recently published My Body.
Her work was just featured at the Guggenheim Soho's first symposium devoted to digital artand, in October, she gave a major presentation of her work, called StitchBitch at MIT's Media inTransition project.
She is also a short story writer and illustrator of children's book. In this Amerika On-Line column I'd like to share a recent dialogue I had with her that revealed a playful poet whose sensuous introspections provided some surprising feedback on topics ranging from writerly method to the connection in her work between textuality and sexuality.
How did you first get involved with writing hypertext? When did youstart writing Patchwork Girl and what sort of creative process wasinvolved with its creation? Was it hypertext from the word go or, likemany other hyperworks, did it start out by jotting down some conceptualframework followed by some straight-ahead writing and just morphed into ahypertext?
Shelley Jackson: Patchwork Girl started as a drawing on a page of my notebook, a nakedwoman with dotted-line scars. (It was 1993 and I was listening to GeorgeLandow talk about hypertext and critical theory.) I wrote most of the text in fragments in my notebook. I was planning to write a hypertext, so you could say I was predisposed to a meandering course, but in fact I'venever written anything in a straight line from beginning to end, but always in the round, or in snatches that I later stitched together into a pattern (usually after staring at them for a very long time).
I had no conceptual framework for Patchwork Girl until very late in the process, what I had was a disorderly tangle of ideas, bits of narrative, quotes and drawings, all multiply interconnected in my own mind. At one point I sat down at the computer and began to try to simply reproduce this pattern ofrelationships by means of links, in hopes that something graceful and self-evident would emerge. It didn't. So I snipped everything apart again and started over. The structure of Patchwork Girlrose up out of this carnage; I found family resemblances within the bits, and grouped like parts together. Places where I contradicted myself or found myself drawn in two directions at once became the branch point for parallel structures, rather than a chatter of static I needed to resolve into one clear note. Once I began to see a sort of architecture emerge, I could work in relation to that. I began to think about what was suggested and what was missing. The graveyard section began, for example, as a rhetorical trope in the course of a long, looping mediation. But working in Storyspace, I persistently saw the rectangular corrals with their enclosed plots of smaller rectangles as cemeteries I was privileged to hover over, resurrecting text from this grave or that at will; an accident of resemblance, but a beautiful one. Hence the section of Patchwork Girl that is structured like a graveyard, where you dig up body parts and learn their histories. Of course these rectangles full of rectangles also brought to mind a quilt. Which is not unlike a graveyard, since traditional quilts are often machines for reminiscence, bringing together scraps of fabric, once in use, that memorialize family membersand important times. And is also very like a Frankenstein monster (these multiply determined metaphors kept turning up). So I made a quilt, where each patch is itself a patchwork (in crazy-quilt style) of quotes from divers sources. The hardest bit of Patchwork Girl to write was the "story," which is also, and deliberately, the most like a conventional novel, even though it comes in two versions that meet and diverge and meet again. But even this part was written in fragments and strung onto atime line later on. So I suppose the short answer to your question is that hypertext permits me to write the way I ordinarily would, in related fragments with no overarching design, but then to allow a structure to arise out of the inclinations of the material itself, instead of imposing a linear order onto it--which is an interesting exercise, but not the only one worth trying.
What were some of the exciting discoveries you made composing withlinks and screen shots instead of standard narrative devices associatedwith print culture?
Shelley Jackson: I think in things: complicated ideas come to me in flesh, concretemetaphors with color, heft, stink. So it is easier and more pleasing forme to think of text as a thing or things, arranged in a place, than as astory told by a storyteller, or a piece of music, or a journey, or one ofthe other more linear metaphors for fiction. Hypertext makes it easy toplace things side by side, rather than one after another, so it makes"thing" and "place" metaphors much easier. I guess you could say I wantmy fiction to be more like a world full of things that you can wanderaround in, rather than a record or memory of those wanderings. The quiltand graveyard sections, where a concrete metaphor that resonates with thethemes of the work creates a literary structure, satisfy me in a verycorporeal way. I salivate, my fingers itch.
Why did you glom on to the Frankenstein myth as your primary subjectfor PG and what led you to give it that major twist that turned themonster into a kind of storygrrl?
Shelley Jackson: I was thinking about hypertext fiction, what it could do, what wouldbe different about it, and my patchworked girl monster emerged out ofthese more abstract concerns as a metaphor for a fragmented anddispossessed text that nevertheless had a loud, triumphant voice. (Baum's PatchworkGirl, by the way, is always pleased with herself, carefree, a bit addled, and greatly amused by the seriousness of others.)
I wanted to write about the liberating potential of that unseatedness, that lack ofclear boundaries or a native ground. The stitched-together monster is aneasy metaphor for any text, but especially hypertext, as the still uneasyoffspring of a new technology and an old one: books, literature. (Notethat Mary Shelley's original monster, brought to life by "a machine ofmysterious complexity," essentially installs a human, humane soul into hisinhuman frame by reading a small collection of books. He too is across-breed.)
But Frankenstein had been scratching a sore spot in the back of my brainfor some time already. I like to think about Mary Shelley, age nineteen orso, hanging out with these oh-so-sensitive, even hysterical young poets(Byron, I seem to remember, used to get himself worked up into such atizzy over a seance that he ran around the house wild-eyed and had to betied down). I imagine they treated her with some condescension. She wasnot a writer, yet. A general challenge was issued, but it was Mary Shelleywho stuck with it, and wrote a novel that became the quintessential modernmyth, anticipating the nightmares of a century still to come. At the sametime, Frankenstein is a strange book. The monster is a baddie for sure. Heshouldn't exist, he's unnatural, a glitch. At the same time, he is apowerful, eloquent, confident, tragic figure, while the narrator isshort-sighted, poor in empathy, cowardly, irresponsible, an all aroundshifty character. It's clear which one Mary Shelley prefers. She likesmonsters; she birthed one, after all. Or rather, two--but Mary Shelley'ssecond child, a patchwork girl as big andbad (as in baaad) as her brother, was ripped apart before the last threadwas knotted. Which may have been a mercy killing: in the world Shelleyknew, there could be no happy monsters. But only because of bad dad. Amotherless monster with a shiftless dad runs amok, but what about amonster with a loving mother? I took up that inquiry, but--theFrankenstein monster having brought his tragic trajectory to a fieryend--I was more curious about Mary's second child. I might believe thatwomen have a little more experience in growing up monstrous and stillgetting by. My monster is crucially more adaptive, wry, and made strong aswell as handicapped by her monstrosity. (There's no point sitting aroundwishing we were all human.)
Like so many hypertexts that eventually get published, there are somethreads in PG that make a clear connection with theory -- and I think thishas to do with the fact that with books, we're so used to the medium thatwe tend to get lost in the transparent realism that so many novelistscreate for us whereas with computer hypertext, you can't help but feelthat the medium is at least somehow part of the message, which then leadsthe writer to go "meta" on you -- what do you think? Are you stillinterested in theory and finding ways to use it in the development of yourstories?
Shelley Jackson: I think you're right, though part of my motivation for writingPatchwork Girl in the first place was to interrogate hypertext in terms ofits relationship to the rest of literature, so it was a foregoneconclusion that my hypertext should have one foot in theory. But I'm notinterested in transparent forms, language that dissolves and leaves adream of the real world: in books as well as in hypertexts, I like to runup against the written thing, bruise myself on its edges. I like writingthat's a little hard to swallow. And I'm not impressed by the differencebetween theory and fiction, anyway. All ideas about reality are fictional,and some of them are beautiful, too.
Do you think hypertext fiction is ultimately tied to the academy as afield of research and study, or does it actually have commercial potentialand if so, how will it fulfill that potential? I mean, don't you wanna bea glam hypertextualized rock star?
Shelley Jackson: I'm so uninterested in commerce that it's hard for me to think aboutthe future of hypertext in that light. But leaving money out of thepicture for the nonce, I can't see any reason why hypertext can't be aspopular as books have been, though most serious readers are still stuck onbooks, and for good reasons as well as bad--hey, the greatest literatureever written was not created for the computer screen. And most readers arereading for a familiar kind of experience, one that hypertext does notprovide. In fact, much of the most interesting literature of this centurydoesn't provide it, and readers still haven't caught up. A mass conversionto hypertext fiction would mean a mass relinquishing of treasured habits,and that's not going to happen all at once. On the other hand the internetis making the experience of following links pretty ordinary for a lot ofpeople.
But yeah, of course I want to be glam and all that. I'd like to dress upin spangled platform boots and plug that novel into a really big amp.
One of the problems with finding an audience for more playful yetcomplex hypertexts like the ones you write is that even some of our mosteducated readers have difficulty understanding what a hypertext is andsome of the more conservative cultural critics even refuse to openthemselves up to learning how to navigate through a link structure. Doyou think this will change as more and more young people becomecomputer-literate and if so, how will this change the average liberal artsstudent's perception of what literature is?
Shelley Jackson: Regular web-users already understand implicitly how to read ahypertext; they may not be accustomed to thinking about what they've justread as akin to novels and stories, but they will. I'm not sure what theaverage student's perception of literature is, but I suspect it has moreto do with a vague image of leather-bound volumes in a wood-paneled roomthan with any immediate experience of reading, not because they haven'tread, but because "literature" has become more of a dignified insigniathan announ in everyday use. If that noun expands to include hypertext, that'sgood news, because that image of leather binding and gold leaf will floatback to Masterpiece Theater where it belongs and what's left will bewords, sentences, paragraphs, a pattern of relationships.
Your recent web-work, MY BODY, integrates autobiography, illustration, the wunderkammer modeland hypertext into one of the more exuberant web-fictions on the Net. Howdid you come to use yourself or, better yet, your body, as a surface toexplore the connection between textuality and sexuality? It's a themethat resonates in both PG & MY BODY.
Shelley Jackson: I don't know whether to answer this as someone maturely wielding thetools of my trade or as the partly-perplexed observer of my ownpsychology. As I said above, I relate to language, ideas, in terms of veryconcrete imagery. Thinking is a kind of controlled synaesthesia for me; Iunderstand things by scrutinizing my own metaphors until they come intosharp focus, until I could stub my toe on them in the dark. You might alsothink of the memory palace, that Renaissance discipline of rememberingthings by encoding them in imaginary objects (generated by puns andpersonal associations), permanently stashed in particular niches, drawers,wardrobes in imaginary but well-mapped castles. Only in my case it's notan exercise in codes and concentration but the way my mind works on itsown; I see things. So language and thought already relates to my body, tomy senses, and it gives me a visceral pleasure tomake the connection explicit, by naming a piece of text "my foot" or "myfingernail."
Writing is like shedding skin, no, because it's livingflesh, though writing is not like having babies, I've never quite takento that metaphor (maybe because I've never had a baby), it's more likestitching together a monster out of bits of your self and bits of otherstuff and sending it out to do things for you. It's a fetch, a demondouble, neither you nor clearly separate from you. And it goes and pressesitself on people, it infiltrates them. But this relationship works inreverse, as well: texts are like bodies, but bodies are like texts, too.They aren't simple, self-evident things, they're composed.http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/3/3193/
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Das Böse der Banalität: "Der Hobbit: Smaugs Einöde" von Peter Jackson