Monstrous Genres: Inverting the Romantic Poetics in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl

in Screen Bodies

Abstract

This article revisits questions of embodiment (screen and otherwise) with regard to one of the most representative first-generation hypertext fictions—Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl—in order to show how this new genre’s search for identity takes the form of a programmatic inversion of the principles underlying the Romantic poetics and imagery and of a conscious identification with the forms that established views of literature exiled from its realm. The analysis follows the train of metaphorical oppositions deriving from the contrast that Patchwork Girl sets up between book and hypertext by presenting itself as a derivative of Mary Shelley’s novel embodied in a monster (re)born from discarded pieces (of prose or flesh) as opposed to the beautiful and harmonious body that is the book.

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995), one of the earliest hypertext fictions and a classic work of the emerging canon of this genre, remains a notable example of the kind of conceptual negotiations that occur at the meeting point between traditional and innovative literary forms. As the established name1 for this type of experimental works indicates, the difference is not as much a matter of genre, since such artistic creations can be assigned to the general category of fiction, as of medium: traditionally, works of fiction are circulated through books, while this particular form of writing not only exists in a specific digital and screened environment, but also exploits its characteristics for aesthetic purposes. The claim to a place in the field of literature made by such early works is much stronger than in the case of later ones because they maintain a more or less explicit intertextual relation with its products and resort to contemporaneous theories of textuality in order to define their specificity as the embodiment of ideas which in the medium of print can only function in a figural way. To understand the stakes of this particular hypertext, which presents itself both as a book unbound and as a dismembered body, grafting a series of concepts born in the old literary medium to the new media, one must perform a double examination, with the instruments provided by established literary criticism and theory and with the conceptual apparatus of new media studies.

The first reading is justified by the complex net of intertextual relations this hypertext purposefully maintains with the field of literature, drawing on works of fiction and literary theory not only to define itself as a new genre by way of contrast but also to weave into its body of text carefully designed patchworks of quotations. The time span of its selective literary references extends from antiquity to its immediate contemporaneity. Thus, the text invokes theories of writing from Plato to Derrida, views on textuality from ancient rhetoric to contemporary theories on hypertext, set in connection with long-standing interpretations of a marginal and problematic area of literature, namely pattern or figurative poetry, and the poetics of Romanticism with its double-sided incarnation, exemplified in the works of the two Shelley—Mary and Percy: prose and poetry, low genres and high genres, feminine writing and masculine writing.

One may ask what it is this hypertext finds relevant for its self-definition in such theories elaborated in and for a different medium. In the field of print literature, the issue of the characteristics of the medium is indirectly explored through the debates over the good and bad writing initiated by Plato, the frequently invoked rhetorical analogy between the body of text and the human body, the strategic way in which various types of visual poetry draw attention to their concrete appearance on the writing surface, and, on a more general level, the philosophical issue of the relation between spirit and matter that preoccupied the Romantics in particular. In terms of content, Patchwork Girl is a highly self-referential text that relies on images and topics drawn from these sources in order to discuss the characteristics of its own material condition.

Previous readings of this work and similar early hypertexts are usually guided by the intention to highlight their novelty in terms of medial specificity and to explain their unique manner of using various medial features for aesthetic purposes. However, these readings tend to downplay the literary connection claimed by the hypertext itself, which can provide valuable insights into the conceptual changes that favored and accompanied its development.

Reading Patchwork Girl against a traditional literary background is also in accordance with historical approaches to e-literature, which focused on providing evidence of its connections with a variety of experimental works, starting with the early avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. This perspective was encouraged by the fact that, at the early stages at least, e-literature did not claim absolute novelty but was preoccupied with finding precursors and precedents in the field of literary practice and theory. At the time when Patchwork Girl was created, the academic discussion of electronic writing revolved around the association between hypertext and poststructuralist literary theory (Kirschenbaum 2008: 165). Moreover, such literary references were actually inscribed in the program in which the hypertext was produced. Patchwork Girl was written in Storyspace, a program informed by numerous and very different sources: “Storyspace emerged out of a thick tissue of influences and ideas that included literary experimentation and postmodern theory (notably that of Eco), but also interactive computer fiction, artificial intelligence and story generators, word processing, desktop publishing and the then-new GUI conventions of the Mac, hypertext systems research, and interactive videodisc technology” (177).

The second reading of new media and hypertext screen situations relies heavily on the insights into the nature of this writing program Matthew Kirschenbaum provides in his book. His perspective is particularly suitable for the analysis of this work for two reasons: first, because it takes media studies to a new, that is deeper level; and second, because it offers “the first detailed record of the development history of the Storyspace software” (20) underlying this hypertext.

His typology of the current state of new media studies reflects Kenneth Thibodeau’s (2002) definition of digital objects, whose ontology involves a three-layered manifestation: conceptual (the objects we deal with in the real world), logical (data interpreted by the software), and physical (the signs inscribed on a medium). In his view, the critical and theoretical literature on new media, especially at its earliest stages, was inclined to focus mainly on the conceptual level, in other words, on the phenomenological manifestation of a work on the screen. The main drawback of this perspective is that it is prone to what Nick Montfort has termed “screen essentialism” (2005), which implies the tendency to overlook the other layers of the computer storage media and instead regard the screen as “a synecdoche for ‘the computer’ as a whole” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 35). More recent contributions, such as Aarseth’s (1997) or Manovich’s (2001), move one step further and describe the new media in terms of the interaction between the logical and conceptual layers. As far as Kirschenbaum is concerned, his approach aims to give an account of all three layers of the digital medium, with particular emphasis on the physical level. This intention makes him return to the literary field, more specifically to textual studies (bibliography, textual scholarship, and the history of the book), whose careful and nuanced consideration of books as physical objects earns them a place among the most advanced branches of media studies. This enduring tradition based on parchment and paper scrutinization provides useful concepts for similar investigations in the digital domain, which Kirschenbaum combines with the most recent developments in computer forensics.

The archival history of the Storyspace software that Kirschenbaum reconstructs for the first time, the same way a historian of the book would highlight the contextual particulars of codex production and circulation at a specific time in its history, is complemented by a close reading of the most famous and discussed work created with it—Afternoon, whose author, Michael Joyce, was also involved in the development of the writing program. Kirschenbaum’s reading compares all the versions of this hypertext the same way a textual scholar would compare successive editorial manifestations of a printed text in order to track the conceptual changes behind them. It also provides the most adequate background for this reading of Patchwork Girl, which aims to bring forth the differences in the way the two authors use the features of the software for specific purposes that reflect their personal aesthetic views.

In sum, this double reading is an attempt to build a bridge between disciplines—literary criticism and theory and new media and screen studies—since the two tend to move in parallel: the first are too closed inside their traditional circle to follow related pursuits beyond their own field, while the e-literature studies are too detached from their literary sources and ignore the interpretative possibilities that these ones still offer.

Book/Hypertext/Typographical and Hypertextual Bodies of Text

The contrast Patchwork Girl sets up between book and hypertext by presenting itself as a derivative of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, is accurately anticipated by Derrida’s distinction between book and text:

The idea of the book, which always refers to a natural totality, is profoundly alien to the sense of writing. It is the encyclopedic protection of theology and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing, against its aphoristic energy, and, as I shall specify later, against difference in general. If I distinguish the text from the book, I shall say that the destruction of the book, as it is now underway in all domains, denudes the surface of the text.

(1974: 18)
Or, to continue his thought, it makes way for the hypertext. What underlines this opposition is in fact the age-old conflict between two meanings of the notion of writing. Since Plato, throughout the Middle Ages, and up to Romanticism, the metaphorical sense of writing was given precedence over writing proper according to a worldview that privileged spirit over matter. In the figural sense, writing was understood as the reflection of the divine spirit into the human soul. Writing in the literal or material sense was disregarded by the philosophical trends of Platonist descent as it was considered an artificial imitation of the authentic act of communication, which was believed to take place on a purely spiritual level. Another key difference between the “writing of the soul and of the body” (18) is that the latter is imagined as a conglomerate of dead letters, while the first is placed in analogy with the power of giving life.

This opposition can be taken one step further as it provides an explanation for the contrastive evaluation of figural writing in relation to writing proper. If, throughout the ages, the first is highlighted as the right mode for the circulation of ideas, while the second is constantly viewed in a negative light, this contrast is because they correspond to two distinct forms of incarnation: the incarnation of the divine or poetic spirit in the mind of a human receptor and the subsequent recording of this process in writing respectively. The first event requires the physical presence of the poet, whose mind becomes the screen on which such reflections are projected; the second consists in their toilsome transposition onto the page, during which a considerable part of what takes place in the poet’s mind is lost. Writing, in the literal sense, is thus at a double remove from its origin. Its embodiment of thought proves to be a highly imperfect form of intermediation. However, it is this writing only that survives the poet and grants him a form of immortality, despite the fact that it constitutes a poor replacement for his bodily presence. Consequently, his written poem becomes the transcription of a voice from beyond the grave or the equivalent of an epitaph. The text itself is seen as nothing more than the corpse of meaning. In transposing his thoughts into writing, the poet builds his own mausoleum.

Such conclusions concerning the flawed nature of writing as a means of communication are summed up in Shelley’s famous assertion from “A Defence of Poetry”: “when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet” (2002: 656). In his statement, inspiration stands for figural writing, while writing proper is indirectly referred to as composition.2 Shelley’s description of the compositional process anticipates Derrida’s assertion about the disruptive force of writing. Far from claiming that the written poem embodies a natural totality, Shelley’s comment shows his conscious awareness of the fact that the apparent wholeness of any text is an illusion whose strength depends on the poet’s skill to weave together the inspired and fabricated fragments:

I appeal to the greatest poets of the present day, whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labor and study. The toil and the delay recommended by critics can be justly interpreted to mean no more than a careful observation of the inspired moments, and an artificial connection of the spaces between their suggestions, by the intertexture of conventional expressions; a necessity only imposed by the limitedness of the poetical faculty itself (656).

Under these circumstances, a major objective of the romantic poetics was to find some means of compensating for the eclecticism resulting from the dual manifestation of writing in both inspired and fabricated fragments. One way of reaching this goal consisted in making the literal meaning of writing slip into oblivion by developing a theory of reading from which the initial stage of the visual perception of the letters was removed. Instead of looking at the text, the alphabetized reader was expected to understand its meanings instantaneously and not to dwell on the visual appearance of the letters. As Friedrich Kittler shows in Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1990), pedagogy, poetry, and philosophy concurred to produce a systematic forgetfulness of the printed matter resulting in the equation of the act of reading with a conversation: “When defining Poetry they [the philosophers] forgot, fundamentally, that the poetry in front of them had been written and printed … [which] made poetic writing so easy that philosophers could call it speaking” (112). Or, “if in 1800 letters were consistently thought to be unnatural, becoming a Poet was a matter of perceiving what was written as a Voice” and of devising a method that would answer the question “how the voice that was originally Nature can be made into a book, without having the vision collapse into letters” (80).

The second solution was to rely on the symbolic power of the book to counteract the fragmentariness of writing. Such power resides not only in the idea of the book, but also in its material form: “La forme du livre joue le rôle d’un effet de rhétorique matérielle” (“The form of the book plays the role of a material rhetoric”); its “pouvoir fédérateur, totalisant, universalisant” (“federalizing, totalizing, universalizing power”) makes up for any discursive discontinuity:

Là où le discours est rompu, le livre le raccommode. Il est comme une toile de fond qu’on applique aux fragments de fresques qui se détachent pour les consolider et les réintégrer dans un espace solide et fermé. La forme du livre remplit les trous des discours qui, sans elle, s’écrouleraient. (When the discourse is torn, the book mends it. The book is like a canvas which is placed over fragments of frescoes about to get loose in order to consolidate and integrate them into a solid and closed space. The form of the book fills the gaps of the discourse, which would collapse in its absence).

(Melot 2006: 42)

Patchwork Girl’s self-reflective quest starts with a deliberate reversal of such romantic values and symbols. Instead of a perfectly woven fabric, it is the patchwork the title puts forward as the defining image for this new genre. Writing (or reading) a hypertext is an act of intertexture whose specificity arises not only from acknowledging the artificiality of the connections among its components by allowing the “stitches” to remain visible, but also from granting them a defining role: “I am a mixed metaphor. Metaphor, meaning something like ‘bearing across,’ is itself a fine metaphor for my condition. Every part of me is linked to other territories alien to it but equally mine. … The metaphorical principle is my true skeleton” (metaphor me). Furthermore, the second half of the title reveals both the material and the final object of this combinatorial activity: the hypertext is figured as a feminine body which the unfolding of the narrative shows to be a monstrous assemblage of bits and pieces of corpses. This alternative metaphor indicates this hypertext’s willingness to take on yet another aspect that could not find its place in the conceptual system of the literary tradition: the explicit (gendered) association with the bad form of writing, which consists in amassing dead letters together. In fact, the (hyper) text—corpse analogy functions on three distinct levels in this work. First, on the narratival/thematic level, Patchwork Girl reveals the story of the feminine monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, aborted from the novel, but reassembled and resurrected in the hypertext. However, the clear-cut identity of the main character is blurred by the hotchpotch of remains the hypertext recycles as they are proven to be formed not only of discarded pieces of flesh but also of abandoned fragments of text: “Indeed, there were remains—unused lengths of venous plumbing, fatty trimmings, deleted passages, a page that blew off a table in the garden where a rock imperfectly anchored an untidy slew of manuscript. … Percy himself excised parts he found blemished” (basket). Thus, the monstrosity of the character is attributable not only to the multiple origin of her body parts but also to the fact that she is endowed with both a body of flesh and a body of text. Second, the patchwork aspect of the body of flesh is mirrored by the intertextual nature of the body of text, where the writer’s own segments of text are interspersed with excerpts from various other sources. Third, the dual-embodied analogy serves as a means of exploring figuratively the main characteristics of the medium itself. It is the implications of some of the metaphorical oppositions set up in this work between hypertext and book as forms of embodying ideas that this article explores further.

Lifeless/Alive

In Percy B. Shelley’s account of the creative process given in “A Defence of Poetry” the privileged moment of inspiration is presented as the manifestation of an external and superior force that exerts its influence on the artist’s mind, alighting its poetical faculty. A much lesser version of this process forms the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor’s corporeal experiment mimics the original act of creation, but is carried out in competition, not in collaboration with a divine source. His work is entirely based on “labour and study,” as the poet put it, and implies a wholly artificial as opposed to the natural way of giving life. It is not a spiritual but an electric spark that brings Frankenstein’s creature to life. In Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, the artist’s shift from a perspective that favors inspiration toward an ars poetica relying completely on composition is complete. Mary Shelley’s fictional journal, which constitutes the second section of this hypertext, displays not only the equation of art with craft—“I had made her” (written), but also the actual or literal means of this making—writing. The embodied work of the hand takes precedence over the work of the mind: “I had made her, writing deep into the night by candlelight, until the tiny black letters blurred into stitches and I began to feel that I was sewing a great quilt” (written). Similarly, Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not only the result of a scientific experiment in the fictional world of the book, but also the product of Mary Shelley’s act of writing. The author of Patchwork Girl, in turn, employs a similar technique in a different medium: “Assembling these patched words in an electronic space” (this writing). Writing, in this feminine interpretation, becomes a means of giving life, in marked contrast with the dominant view of the major romantic poets, for whom the process of inscription is an anticipation of death: “by confiding himself to the inscribed stone [or page], by transferring himself into the space of literature, that is, into one of those structures the excited spirit builds mainly for itself, the poet has already departed. He gives himself that death he fears” (Miller 1987: 112).

The dreaded connotations of writing are partly attenuated by the redeeming force attributed to reading. It is through the intervention of an external agent that the lifeless writing on the page becomes animated. However, the development of new media throughout the twentieth century has progressively consolidated the realization that such a resurrecting act will remain forever figural within the limits of the book. For a literary critic and theoretician such as Paul de Man, the “fiction of the voice-from-beyond-the-grave” (1984: 77) or book is “a rhetorical rather than an aesthetic function of language” (1986: 10). It is, in a word, a prosopopeia. A theoretician of new media, however, does not hesitate to call this figure by its clinical name—hallucination.3 For example, Friedrich Kittler’s description of the reading process in 1800, perceived from the point of view of the discourse network of 1900, insists on the fact that “Instead of hearing the factual occurrence of speech, ‘one seems to hear what one is merely reading.’ A voice, as pure as it is transcendental, rises from between the lines. When the written lines become so ‘meaningful that they seem to gaze at one out of clear eyes,’ the hallucination becomes optical as well as auditory” (1990: 65).

In the romantic metaphor of the text as a corpse it is easy to read the reference to the immobility of print, which has often been contrasted with the presumably characteristic instability of the digital text. But, as Kirschenbaum points out, this contrast looks valid only as long as one compares the behavior of the text on the screen with its behavior on paper. While it is true that only on the screen do the bits grouped into strings of data assume forms that are recognized as writing by the human reader, such a comparison is misleading because the actual equivalent of the basic act of inscription is represented, in the digital environment, by the pattern of magnetic tracks on a disk. Since the human eye cannot read such patterns, just as the non-alphabetized readers are unable to read the letters, it is not difficult to see why “electronic writing’s first generation of theorists turned their gaze toward the illuminated screen rather than the inscrutable disk” (30) and defined electronic textuality in terms of the phenomenological manifestations on the screen. This screen tendency is reinforced by the fact that computer storage is less immediately perceivable, which furthers the illusion that the electronic text has achieved the immaterial or disembodied state the written text dreamed of for itself. The illusion is maintained by the error-checking routines of modern digital technology, which automatically correct the errors that appear mostly at the juncture between the hardware and the software, thus allowing the physical materiality of the computer to sink into oblivion. Under these circumstances, Kirschenbaum argues, “the opposition between the sepulcher-like ‘solemnity’ of the immutable printed page and the playfully impermanent (one might say impertinent) electronic text that is always (re)making itself anew” (166) is an instance of what he terms “medial ideology,” namely a reductive way of looking at electronic textuality.

Among the instances of medial ideology he quotes, one finds Jay David Bolter’s “fractions of a second” and “evanescent electrons” or Katherine Hayles “patterns of blinking lights” and “flickering signifiers” (43). These examples are particularly telling as Bolter was Michael Joyce’s main collaborator in the design of Storyspace, while Katherine Hayles is one of the researchers who offered a careful reading of Jackson’s hypertext in a chapter entitled “Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl” (2005). Both of them have since refined their research: Bolter published a new and revised edition of Writing Space in 2001 and Hayles developed “what is probably the most extensive argument for materiality and embodiment” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 44) in the same book in which she analyzed Patchwork Girl. Yet the question of how evanescent or flickering this electronic text actually proves to be should not be dismissed entirely but discussed both in terms of the effects on the screen and of the less overt characteristics of the software, which condition the reader’s response.

The idea of textual mobility is actually related to a long-standing literary quest and theoretical debate regarding reader empowerment. In this sense, Bolter and Joyce designed Storyspace as a tool for what they called text processing, following “Eco’s theories of the open text and the idea that a literary work was a field of relations in which a reader could be invited to intervene and interact in a controlled or calibrated manner” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 172). The aim was to give readers the possibility of forming an idea about the creative process by designing an environment in which they would be able to explore alternative paths in a literal way.

As the readers of Patchwork Girl soon discover, their intervention is limited to moving from link to link in a more or less constrained manner. This progress is often straightforward as the option they frequently are presented with is to follow the single link a particular fragment allows or return to the previous fragment. Nevertheless, even in this simple form of combinatorial liberty, the interaction with a text consisting of unvarying lexias means that the readers can and most probably will actually build a new, though incomplete, corpus during each reading session. From a traditional perspective, these partial bodies of texts may look monstrous and so may their interpretations: “without shape, without end, without story. Or with as many stories as [they] care to put together” (this writing).

Just like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, Patchwork Girl is infused with a strong self-reflexivity, which is particularly visible in the discussion of its own reading. Although this hypertext does not entirely dismiss the possibility of “traditional narrative progression” (lives), this is not the type of reading it is meant for: “I don’t doubt that if I had a continuous life or a block or printed past, Proust for example, I would read it all from start to finish. There’s only one way through it and that’s the way I’d go” (flow). Patchwork Girl consists in a multitude of textual blocks of various sizes in ever-shifting relations, which discourage the attempts to encompass the text in its entirety. The alternative ways of traversing the text include: hopping from link to link at the speed of a chase—“I hop from stone to stone and an electronic river washes out my scent in the intervals. I am a discontinuous trace, a dotted line” (hop); “a haphazard hopscotch” (this writing); or simply breaking into a run without pausing to take in the content: “because to pause on a given screen … is an interruption of the flow. The flow which turns out to be the main point. … I will be pure particulate flow, an electronic speedster gunning it through a cloud chamber” (flow). While such metaphors seem to favor a superficial or partial approach to the text, they confirm, in fact, a central point of reader-response criticism, namely that every interpretation is ultimately an act that can be only relatively complete. The hypertext gives this idea a literal and manifest form. However, the author does not deny its readers the possibility of gaining easy access to the text as a whole. In Afternoon, the typical Storyspace map views are disabled so that “there is no

Figure 1
Figure 1

Patchwork Girl. Screenshot of the Storyspace map for the section “body of text.”

Citation: Screen Bodies 1, 2; 10.3167/screen.2016.010204

experiential sense of the text as a whole or gestalt, only individual screens that inexorably accumulate as the mouse clicks and clicks” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 167). In Patchwork Girl, the story maps are active and with their help readers can get a quick and clear picture not only of the number of individual fragments that compose a certain section of the hypertext, but also of the way in which they are linked. Thus, even if there is no privileged reading order, readers whose habits have been shaped by traditional print media can still make sure they have read the whole text.

While readers’ interaction with the text and images on screen may give them a sense of active engagement, this impression diminishes with each reading as readers are repeatedly returned to the same lexias or discover that a certain sequence can be followed only in a particular order. It is at this point that their liberty is restrained by the authorial control, which is made manifest in the formal materialities of the program, such as the link paths. Since these links remain stable, one may wonder if Hayle’s revised metaphor—“flickering connectivities”—is actually an improvement on “flickering signifiers.” In fact, neither the signs nor the links are changeable. Their mutability is only an impression created at screen level, which is easily dispelled by tools like the story map.

Unblemished/Scarred

Despite acknowledging that the connections between inspired and conventional expressions in a poetic text are artificial, Shelley also implies that this artificiality must be attenuated by means of the careful observation of the first in order to make the second as similar as possible. If the poetic text has to remain an intertexture of diverse moments, at least the seams that link them should be made invisible. When Patchwork Girl overtly identifies its particularity with such visibly corporeal sutured interstices—“But my real skeleton is made of scars: a web that traverses me in three-dimensions. What holds me together is what marks my dispersal” (dispersed)—it consciously assumes a textual condition that dominant literary theories born in the wake of Romanticism dismiss as faulty: “Being seam’d with scars was both a fact of eighteenth-century life and a metaphor for dissonant interferences ruining any finely adjusted composition” (seam’d).

However, the hypertext’s discontinuous aspect results not merely from the combination of more or less inspired scraps of text, but more so from the appropriation of excerpts from different books, recalling how the monster is built of body parts cut from various individuals with specific and even incompatible personalities. This hypertextual feature is especially visible in the section entitled “crazy quilt,” which is mainly based on a collection of quotations of variable length, meaningfully put together. The patchwork quality of this section is highlighted by assigning a different typeface to each source (regular, italic, bold) or by underlining it. Consequently, the hypertext’s openly declared adherence to the principle of composition is not simply a description of its artistic credo, but also its performance: “Biological parcels moved across and up and down as if they were endless lists without copulas. We will passical the classical. You organize writing spaces by grouping them together on the screen, and by placing writing spaces inside other spaces, and one thing so presupposes another that whichever way you turn your patchwork, the figures still seem ill-arranged” (composition). Patchwork Girl does what it says it does, combining, in this fragment, sentences from four different sources: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Barbara Maria Stafford’s Body Criticism, L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz, and Getting Started with Storyspace, in which the designers of the program offer instructions on how to use the software for creative writing.

The textual units that Bolter and Joyce finally named “writing spaces” were initially labeled using a bodily metaphor—“cells.” Except for the figural term, the description of the structure of the program and the corresponding writing technique are almost the same, as the report to the Markle Foundation, which provided support for this project in 1985, shows: “The program currently represents structure as a map or network of rectangular cells and straight lines. Cells are units of text that may range in size from one character to 30,000. The author creates cells, labels them, positions them on the screen using the mouse, and attaches text. Stacking cells inside other cells indicates hierarchical relationships, while drawing and labeling lines from one to another indicates associate links. The author may then use the created structure to control or review the presentation of the text”: (Markle 4, quoted in Kirschenbaum 2008: 172).

The biological metaphor also brings into focus the fact that the hypertexts created in Storyspace organize the information in two equally important ways: both hierarchically and as networked structures just as the cells that form the human body are not simply interconnected, but are grouped into organs, which in their turn form higher systems that constitute together the three-dimensional organism. This structure suggests, at least at this early stage, that the hypertext did not abandon the aim for the natural totality that characterizes the book but was simply meant to highlight the difficulty and relativity of its achievement. Both Patchwork Girl and Afternoon ultimately allow readers to experience a sense of relative completeness. However, the accessibility of the Storyspace maps and charts, as well as the analogy with the human body, both discursively and structurally, make this experience more overt in Patchwork Girl. In Afternoon, though, the author’s options make the tree-like structure much less visible than the nodal one and its popularization as the epitome of the first generation of hypertexts actually was accompanied by a theoretical bias toward a simplified definition of the electronic text as an essentially networked structure, which for Kirschenbaum is another instance of medial ideology contradicted by the inner workings of the program. The links that connect the fragments of text follow both the random order of the network model and the logical order of the hierarchical ways of organizing information: “Storyspace has significant grounding in a hierarchical data model that is absent from, or at times … presented as overtly antithetical to, the rhizomatic networks of postmodern hypertext theory” (173).

Another important issue reactivated by the intertextual technique concerns the concept of originality—another product of the Romantic age, which comes down to “representing the author as a specially gifted person able to produce from the depths of personal experience an organically unified work of art” (Rose 1993: 132). Such an act of creation was believed to involve the transfer of something of the author’s personality into the text and therefore granted him the right of property over the outcome of his work. If, as Mark Rose explains, a work was generally understood as “the objectification of a writer’s self” (121), which caused a “blurring of categories …, a slide from a statement about a property to one about a proprietor,” made explicit “in the comparison of an original work to a unique human face” (125), the question arises as to what extent the personalities of the initial authors are present in the hypertext and to what extent the meanings belong to them. One answer to this dilemma is given thematically when the she-monster is pictured reminiscing about the lives of the women from whom her body parts were taken while trying to “detect their diverse personalities in [her] multiple parts” (names). She discovers that she is neither an “absolute multiplicity” nor a “redoubtable whole” (double agent). Character traits of each individual linger in the new organism, but the whole organism’s identity is given by their often-conflicting coexistence. Another answer can be found by taking a closer look at the way in which the quotations are cut and sewn together. In this context, it seems highly appropriate that each of them should be given a different typeface to mark their distinct origins. The self-referential fragment that describes the technique of composition in the most explicit manner is itself a combination of corporeally marked citations:

Thoughts are the limbs of a composition, and must be surgically excised from their contexts. I was there with my big pair of scissors, and as soon as I saw myself overlapping, snip, I cut, I adjusted, I reduced everything to a personage known as “a proper woman.” But with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s still-masterful report on phantom limbs, amputations could henceforth never be considered perfectly clean cuts. Willy-nilly, the body extended its lines of force toward the lost extremities, and movements in phantom limbs were often experienced as normal, requiring voluntary effort (phantom).

(emphasis added)
A different lexia allows the reader to see how the cuts are performed and what changes of meaning they effect: “Scraps whispered: ‘I’ve aspired to homogeneity. I was there with my big scissors, and as soon as I saw myself overlapping, snip, I cut, I adjusted, I reduced everything to a personage knows as ‘a proper woman’” (therapies; emphasis added). The same sentence takes on a different meaning in each context. In the first case, it is integrated into the discourse of the author and serves as an explanation of her artistic methods. In the second, it remains alien to the artist’s faith and this alien nature is indicated not only by the quotation marks but also by the inclusion of a previous statement—“I’ve aspired to homogeneity”—which is contrary to the creative principles professed by this hypertext.

The form of intertextuality developed in Patchwork Girl, which abandons the allusive manner of traditional literary texts in favor of conglomerates of borrowed phrases, anticipates a feature of new media genres that will become more and more common: the tendency to replace created text with ready-made text. In such works, the meaning does not reside in the text itself; it is the result of the combinations and recombinations of its components or of a series of recontextualizations.

Beautiful/Monstrous

It is the incomplete assimilation of the individual voices of the past that renders the body of flesh or the body of hypertext monstrous, as opposed to the text located in a book, which is believed to embody a unique, coherent, and distinct personality. But the same criterion that serves to distinguish the hypertext from the book was invoked approximately one century earlier in order to oppose the book to another hybrid textual form—the newspaper. In “The Book, Spiritual Instrument,” Stéphane Mallarmé analyzed the difference between the two media and on the fourth page of the newspaper, which used to be dedicated to various announcements, he found the same “incoherence of inarticulate cries” (2001: 2) that fills the memory or the writing spaces of Patchwork Girl. The fascination and amazement such techniques exercised on the reader were not far from the effect that the contemporaneous spectacle of féerie4 had on the common people. It was such enchantment for its own sake that the ancient art of rhetoric condemned as monstrous when imagining the discourse as an artificially embellished body by means of cosmetics or of excessively decorated garments.5 The old rhetoricians were wary of any figural adornments that would cloud the thoughts and prevent them from taking a clean-cut form:

So let us give as much attention to Elocution as possible, so long as we understand that nevertheless nothing should be done for the sake of words, because words were invented for the sake of things, and those words are most acceptable which best express our thoughts and lead to the effect we want in the minds of judges. They must of course produce speech which arouses admiration and delight, but an admiration very different from that which we bestow on monsters, and a delight derived not from unseemly pleasure but from pleasure combined with honour and dignity.

(Quintilian 2001: 323–325; second emphasis added)
However, for Mallarmé, the incompleteness and incoherence of the newspaper speak also of the mobility and the combinatorial potential of a genre that has not ossified into a rigid form, which leaves room for experimentation: “the sheet in itself, having received the imprint, exhibits, to the highest degree, crudely, the casting of a text. This usage, proximate or previous to the finished product, certainly has conveniences for the writer: posters joined end to end, proofs, which restore improvisation” (2001: 2). But the opposition book/newspaper is not absolute: there are certain aspects of the interaction with the book the poet also finds abhorrent, namely the violent sacrifice evoked by the carnal gesture of cutting the pages:

The unopened virginal book, moreover, ready for a sacrifice from which the red edges of ancient books bleed; the introduction of a weapon, or page cutter, to establish the taking of possession. How personal the conscience previously, with this barbarous sham—when it would become participation, with the book purchased from here or from there, varied in likeness, divined like an enigma—almost remade by itself. The folds will perpetuate a mark, intact, inviting the sheet to be opened or closed, as the owner wishes. So blind and petty a process, this assault which is committed, through the destruction of a fragile inviolability. Our sympathy might go to the newspaper which is not exposed to this treatment.

(3–4)
The poet’s marked preference for the symbolic value of the fold finds its echo in the hypertext’s great esteem for the dotted line: “The dotted line is the best line: It indicates a difference without cleaving apart for good what it distinguishes. … In three dimensions what is separate can be brought together without ripping apart what is already joined, the two sides of a page flow moebiusly into one another” (dotted line). Mallarmé’s meditations on new approaches to reading bring him closer to the poetics of the hypertext. The alternative form of bodily participation in the act of reading—“the separation lifted up by the finger” (2001: 2)—contains the suggestion of a variation of rhythm that could bring about new ways of progressing through the text, “several of which … maybe nobody has thought of since reading existed” (1). Such potential textual itineraries, departing from the linear course, are seen as means of animating the book—both on the physical and on the linguistic level. In the hypertext, they have become the privileged manner of traversing the text, of marking the beautiful/monstrous interrelation.

Masculine/Feminine

In Theories of the Symbol, Tzvetan Todorov recalls how for the ancient rhetoricians, most notably Quintilian, the genre of the discourse is masculine, namely simple, explicit and to the point, and any unjustified or excessive figural ornamentation is associated with effeminacy (1984: 74–75). Moreover, the criticism of Cicero’s stylistic Asianism is a condemnation of the hideous appearance that the discourse is given through the use of rhetorical figures without other justification than that of embellishing one’s speech in order to impress the audience: “Such an elimination of masculine characteristics leads to monstrosity” (75). It logically follows that feminized discourse, understood as resorting to unnecessary and artificial means of persuasion, is monstrous.6

Shelley Jackson’s work plays with such connotations both on the thematic and on the conceptual level. Thus, in Patchwork Girl, the main character—the monster—is given a new genre in both senses of the word: this is the story of the feminine counterpart of Frankenstein’s creature, interred in Mary Shelley’s book and resurrected in the hypertext.

But the contrast masculine-feminine evokes a second pair of opposites: the problematic distinction between poetry and prose. The object of Percy B. Shelley’s famous defense was poetry in particular, which was considered the supreme genre according to the new hierarchy established during the Romantic period. Prose, most specifically the novel—a hybrid and degraded derivation of the ancient epic—represented the genre of choice for the feminine authors of the time. The hypertext as a new-media genre is loosely associated with prose. However, Patchwork Girl claims a double descent: not only from Mary Shelley’s novel but also from poetry, that is, from a specific form that has long remained on the outskirts of the literary area—pattern or visual poetry. This is not the only marginal genre Patchwork Girl relates to. Its title is actually borrowed from a book for children—L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Also, this hypertext shows strong ties with a popular, basically non-literary, genre—the newspaper. In short, Patchwork Girl points more or less directly at several forms of writing. It identifies itself with all sorts of forms that the so-called high literature disparaged and exiled from its circle and borrows different aspects that can serve its search for its own identity.

Here, the question of the significance of the relationship between hypertext and visual poetry deserves a closer look. One reason why pattern poetry was condemned to roam the frontiers of literature derived from the principles stated by the ancient art of rhetoric, which stressed the functional role of the figures and rejected all forms of superfluity. Since it was believed that the graphic image involved merely doubling the semantic content by means of a material that belonged to a different art, such hybrids were excluded from both: “The impious intermarriage of graphic symbol and letter bred teeming monsters of language” (at the mirror). The hypertext’s author is well aware of the negative perspective that hung over such experimental associations throughout the centuries:

This basically phraseological skill—gliding from corporeal syllables to sentences—averted the creation of tortuous somatic monsters whose parts did not belong. Analogously, Joseph Addison (1672–1719) disparaged as the creations of false wit the use of obsolete words or barbarisms, rusticities, absurd spellings, complicated dialects, and the outlandish construction of poems made up of concrete objects. The essay on “True and False Wit” took to task “tricks in writing” and decadent signs of “Monkish” taste. These were evinced in the visual turning of one set of terms into another and resembled “the Anagram of a Man.”

(typographical)
And yet, she identifies her writing with this peripheral tradition: “Tricks in writing resemble the Anagram of Man” (this bad writing). In fact, Patchwork Girl actually employs such simple figurative means in order to illustrate some of its key features. Thus, the image of the head, which provides access to the section appropriately entitled “body of text,” may be seen as the digital equivalent of such an anagram—this time of a woman. The brain map markedly evokes the networked structure of the hypertext:
Figure 2
Figure 2

Patchwork Girl. Screenshot of the image entitled “phrenology.”

Citation: Screen Bodies 1, 2; 10.3167/screen.2016.010204

In addition, this feminine anagram is reconfigured several times in ways that powerfully capture the quality the hypertext claims for itself in contrast to the book, namely its recombinant character in the absence of a unique and prescribed order. If the book is designed in analogy with the human body, the hypertext is its anagram in the literal sense—a reorganization of parts—whose results may look monstrous:

Figure 3
Figure 3

Patchwork Girl. Screenshot of “hercut2.”

Citation: Screen Bodies 1, 2; 10.3167/screen.2016.010204

Furthermore, the link with visual poetry goes even deeper as the discussion turns full circle to Derrida’s distinction between the good and the bad writing. Visual poetry was excluded from the realm of poetry because it drew attention to the materiality of the signifier, to the immutable corporeality of any textual existence. According to Romantic poetics, this characteristic brought it in the vicinity of the lesser arts—architecture or sculpture—in which the Spirit could not find but an imperfect manifestation. It did not facilitate the pure dialogue from Spirit to spirit that music or high poetry aimed at but destroyed the illusion that an actual dialogue occurs when reading the book of nature or the leaves of a book: “It thus realizes Schleiermacher’s [or any romantic’s] nightmare: namely, that a real optics would render superfluous the imaginary, imaginal aspects that meaningful words suggest to alphabetized readers” (Kittler 1990: 258). However, from a medial point of view, visual poetry is the highly self-conscious genre of print literature that reflects on its own technical means at the same time as it uses them for its aesthetic purposes. It was this aspect that deconstructive theory also revealed when criticizing the romantic perspective, perpetuated in subsequent theories of interpretation, for its figural tangle, which was meant to hide the fact that the Romantic visionary realm had no substantial existence and that the only material manifestation actually belonged to the signifier:

The materiality … that is thus revealed … is not the materiality of the mind or of time or of the carillon—none of which exist, except in the figure of prosopopeia—but the materiality of an inscription. Inscription is neither a figure, nor a sign, nor a cognition, nor a desire, nor a hypogram, nor a matrix, yet no theory of reading or of poetry can achieve consistency if … it responds to its powers only by a figural evasion which, in this case, takes the subtly effective form of evading the figural.

(de Man 1986: 51; emphasis added)
The hypertext can be read as a performance of this deconstructive act. However, in claiming a relation with pattern poetry, it does not only uncover “the figural evasion” of the graphic aspect of the text but also highlights the complex relationships between the medium and the linguistic content.

What de Man (1997) calls “figural evasion” or “aesthetic ideology” bears close resemblance to what Kirschenbaum terms “medial ideology.” Both involve mistaken representations of the medium—typographical in the first case, digital in the second. Both are related to misguided visions of writing. It is not impossible to draw a parallel between the way in which literary thinking more often than not obscured writing proper behind various metaphors and a similar tendency in new media theory to associate writing with the immaterial behavior of the text or image on the screen, ignoring the fact that even the electronic writing starts with the act of leaving traces on a material surface, although a human reader cannot interpret these marks. Such views are accountable for the reductive and sometimes distorted definitions of textuality in both media. If, as Kirschenbaum explains, “the tendency to elicit what is ‘new’ about new media by contrasting its radical mutability with the supposed material stolidity of older textual forms is a misplaced gesture, symptomatic of the general extent to which textual studies and new media theory have failed to communicate” (2008: 166), there is a similar communicative failure between textual studies and literary studies. This failure can be remedied through a more nuanced definition of the text that would take into consideration not only its formal materiality, understood as the manipulation of symbols, but also its forensic materiality (70), which involves the manipulation of matter, whether this means ink on paper or markings on a disk. Patchwork Girl’s core analogy between the text and the human body and the references to visual poetry represent one way of exploring these issues discursively and indicate a greater awareness of the medium’s materiality on the part of the artist than on the part of critics in general.

In Conclusion: Shelley/Shelley/Shelley

This essay has attempted to bring forth some of the theoretical debates that preoccupy both literary and new media studies as illustrated in Shelley Jackson’s hypertext, which establishes a straight link with Mary Shelley’s narrative and a subtler one with the conceptual framework behind the artistic productions of her other namesake—Percy B. Shelley. These aspects are summed up in another self-defining dialogue, entitled “interrupting D,” which takes us back to where it all started, that is to Plato’s perspective on writing, which needs to be interrupted and amended in view of the changes brought about by the diversification of media.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Patchwork Girl. Screenshot of “interrupting D.”

Citation: Screen Bodies 1, 2; 10.3167/screen.2016.010204

Notes
1

Since the relatively new phenomenon known as electronic literature is in continuous expansion, the identification of its genres can only be provisional at present. But such a classification is under way and has made considerable progress as Katherine Hayles (2008: 5–30) shows.

2

The avoidance of the word “writing” seems to be common practice for the romantic poets. Lennart Nyberg also notes its frequency in Wordsworth’s (2009: 30) texts.

3

In fact, de Man also notices later the hallucinatory effect of the romantic trope: “prosopopeia is hallucinatory. To make the invisible visible is uncanny” (1986: 49). He then adds that writing represents the only “element that is not hallucinatory. Every detail as well as every general proposition in the text is fantastic except for the assertion … that it is écrit, written” (51).

4

As Carrie Noland (1999: 49–53) shows, this was a particular form of popular entertainment that used all sorts of stagecraft technologies available at the time in order to give its public a sense of wonder. It also took hold of the imagination of poets such as Rimbaud and Mallarmé and drew their attention to the material aspects of the artistic act.

5

A discussion of the most important stages in the long history of the metaphor of the body and of the changes in meaning it underwent along the path that leads from ancient rhetoric to present-day textual studies can be found in Deac (2014: 148–154).

6

See Hayles (2005: 155–156) for another view of hypertext as femininely embodied.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
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  • ThibodeauKenneth. 2002. “Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in the Coming Years.” The State of Digital Preservation: An International Perspective. Washington DC: Council on Library and Information Resources. https://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub107/thibodeau.html (accessed 30 November 2016).

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Contributor Notes

Eliza Deac earned a PhD in philology at the Faculty of Letters of Babeș-Bolyai University in 2016, where she presented a dissertation on the transformations of the poetic language in response to the development of new media, as illustrated by the experimental literary trends of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Screen Bodies

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Experience, Perception, and Display

  • AarsethEspen J. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • BolterJay David. 2001. Writing Space: Computers Hypertext and the Remediation of Print. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

  • DeacEliza. 2014. “Between Dismemberment and (Dis)embodiment: Defining (Hyper)text in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.” Studia Universitatis Babeş-Bolyai. Dramatica 59(2): 147167.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • de ManPaul. 1984. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • de ManPaul. 1986. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • de ManPaul. 1997. Aesthetic Ideology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • DerridaJacques. 1974. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • Hayles N. Katherine. 2005. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Hayles N. Katherine. 2008. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

  • JacksonShelley. 1995. Patchwork Girl [CD]. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems.

  • KirschenbaumMatthew G. 2008. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • KittlerFriedrich A. 1990. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Cullens. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MallarméStéphane. 2001. The Book Spiritual Instrument. Ed. Jerome Rothenberg and David Guss. Trans. and visually interpreted by Michael Gibbs. New York: Granary Books. http://www.granarybooks.com/books/rothenberg/rothenberg5.html (accessed 30 November 2015).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ManovichLev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • MelotMichel. 2006. Livre. Paris: L’œil neuf éditions.

  • MillerHillis J. 1987. The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • MontfortNick. 2005. “Continuous Paper: The Early Materiality and Workings of Electronic Literature.” Nickm.com January. http://nickm.com/writing/essays/continuous_paper_mla.html (accessed 30 November 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NolandCarrie. 1999. Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • NybergLennart. 2009. Bodies of Poems: Graphic Poetics in a Historical Perspective. Bern: Peter Lang.

  • Quintilian. 2001. The Orator’s Education. Bks. 68. Ed. and trans. Donald A. Russell. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • RoseMark. 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • ShelleyPercy B. 2002. “A Defence of Poetry.” In The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley ed. Bruce Woodcock635660. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ThibodeauKenneth. 2002. “Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in the Coming Years.” The State of Digital Preservation: An International Perspective. Washington DC: Council on Library and Information Resources. https://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub107/thibodeau.html (accessed 30 November 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TodorovTzvetan. 1984. Theories of the Symbol. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.