The Body in Electronic Literature
by: Jonathan Jones
In an era in which new technologies have enabled us to delight in exceeding our corporeal limitations to experience new, virtual realities, the human body continues to be an object of consistent fascination and a source of enduring anxiety. If the body—or more precisely, the feeling of being alienated from one’s own body, of being disembodied—figures as a central condition of the modern subject, new technologies and forms of media in recent years have also emerged that are uniquely equipped to explore this fractured subjectivity. In the emerging realm of electronic literature, Shelley Jackson’s My Body--a Wunderkammer demonstrates that the fragmented environment of the hypertext provides an ideal form for depicting the author’s sense of her own body as a fragmented, alien object.
From the opening page, which displays a crudely sketched, black-and-white self-portrait of the author, whose body is divided into separately labeled constituent parts, this work of “hyperfiction” thematizes the fragmentation of the body. By clicking on the various body parts, the reader is taken by hyperlink to other pages featuring textual anecdotes and meditations on a particular body part, new hyperlinks embedded in the text, and other coarse sketches of the author’s body. The structure, which is made possible by the technology of the Internet, spatializes the text in a way that resembles the fragmented exterior of the body. The reader never has access to the body or the text as a whole within this hypertext environment but, by leaping from link to link, strives for an experience of totality that remains elusive. Jackson, therefore, communicates to the reader her sense of corporeal alienation through textual and hypertextual fragmentation, whose necessary, interactive participation suggests that modern social relations are predicated on a shared sense of disembodiment.
Jackson vividly describes two traumatic episodes caused by her changing adolescent body that led to this condition: the arrival of breasts and the experience of shaving her armpits. Beginning with the grotesque impression of “cartoon dames with […] zeppelin breasts and outsized nipples” in Playboy magazine, her experience is accompanied by the sensation of pain as “the area around [her] nipples began to ache and swell” and the feeling of humiliation precipitated by having to purchase “frilly white” bras “with their arcane, embarrassing straps and clips.” Like all the self-contained accounts of her physical maturation, this one bristles with an irascible tone until her narrative erupts with the self-aware conclusion: “My breasts are making me not me.”
The arrival of underarm hair and the inducement to shave are met with a similar sense of disgust and vituperation. Jackson recounts how her “dry, stainless, odorless child body […] metamorphosed into a stinking, sweating, oozing hulk sprouting hair.” Deodorants “turned my t-shirts yellow under the arms” and ”stung like citric acid in my cringing pits,” which had been irritated by shaving. Although she explains that her attitude evolves over several years to a point where she regrows and appreciates her underarm hair, the author’s comments belie the suggestion that she has truly overcome her alienation. The thicket of regrown hair that she characterizes as “a small animal I carry under each arm” is finally not part of her body but a strange foreign object.
Although the body is not explicitly figured in Stuart Moulthrope’s Reagan Library, another exemplar of electronic literature, the question of embodiment is crucial insofar as it becomes a function of spectatorship. Through a game-like design reminiscent of Myst or Riven, the reader encounters text with embedded hyperlinks as well as virtual panoramic landscapes, which can be traversed through cursor control using the web browser’s QuickTime VR software. As interaction proceeds, Reagan Library liberates the viewer’s gaze from the confines of a purely textual experience and yet forestalls the desire it arouses to explore its virtual realities by limiting the extent to which the panoramas can actually be traversed. The accompanying text does not offer the traditional experience of reading but confounds the reader by presenting ellipses and disordered textual fragments that progressively expand as the reader returns to them via other hyperlinks. If the beginning of a page of text, for instance, promises a narrative (“It was midnight on the last day of March, shortly before my eleventh birthday.”), that promise initially remains unfulfilled and the text often confronts the reader with perplexing questions and statements like “Will this ever make sense?” or “Please don’t read this.” In similar fashion, the hyperlinks frustrate the usual web browsing experience by not necessarily supplying a logical result, but rather more mysterious panoramas and disjointed text, which the viewer himself must struggle to make sense of. Following the link in the sentence “I saw a white cone [underline indicates hyperlink] hollowed out and filled with stars,” for example, does not promptly clarify the meaning of the luminous white cone encountered in several of the panoramas. The viewer is, therefore, suspended between fascination and frustration, between his real body sitting at the computer and his virtual self navigating an alien environment that both opens up new frontiers and closes them off. Like the game world that inspired it, Reagan Library presents itself as a kind of riddle, but not one whose solution is either the point or would offer the pleasure expected at the completion of a game. Instead, its construction of different conditions for looking amounts to both an instantiation of and comment on modern spectatorship as a fractured, disembodied state of being.
Whether the terrain to be explored is a new world in Reagan Library or the fragmented, estranged body of the author in My Body--a Wunderkammer, that terrain remains uncharted and both works of hyperfiction incomplete without the participation of the reader/spectator/user. While they mobilize the technological possibilities of new media to make that participation possible, they also continually emphasize the conditions of mediation that are operative in the exploration. In a world of technological possibilities that continually tries to conceal those conditions, to ensconce us in a unified, enclosed illusion, Jackson and Moulthrope reinstate the material reality of the body and the condition of being embodied as the fundamental source of knowledge.