Avant-garde artist and author Shelley Jackson has been working on the fringes of mainstream publishing and print culture for nearly 20 years. She is the author of the seminal hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, two print books, and a short story that is currently being tattooed on volunteers, among other projects. Jackson dissects, experiments with, and reinvents ideas about Web- and print-based writing, often focusing on the role of the body and how that space is interacted with “as if each organ, fluid, and membrane . . . have their own agendas.” Jackson’s career is multifaceted, and she continues to branch into new directions, from static print to hypertext fiction to the literal tattooing of her writing on others.
Due to the amount of mainstream coverage it has received in the past few years, “Skin” is likely the work of Jackson’s that readers of The Quarterly Conversation are most familiar with. Called “a mortal work of art,” it is short story that is being tattooed, one word at a time, on volunteers’ bodies. By the time the project is complete, over 2,000 people will have participated in it, and only those who have a word tattooed on them, which Jackson herself assigns, will ever see a copy of the complete short story.
The project was inspired by a book tour where she scratched words on rocks and fence posts, planning to leave directions to the words online. Realizing that tattooing was already a form of “publishing” on the skin, Jackson connected the idea to her earlier concept, and soon thereafter she put out a call for volunteers in the summer of 2003. Since then over 10,000 volunteers have sent emails asking to participate. “Skin” is a truly mortal work: as participants die over the years, the story will gradually change, with no complete version ever appearing. According to Jackson, some volunteers have even come forward to ask if they could will their word to their children after they die.
Born in 1963 in the Philippines, and now a resident of Brooklyn where she teaches at the New School, Jackson is a graduate of Stanford and Brown University. While at Brown she was taught by Robert Coover and George Landow, two of the leading e-lit advocates in the university system, and it was there that she was first inspired to create hypertext fiction in 1993. During a lecture on hypertext and critical theory given by Landow—author of influential books like Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology and Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization—she began to draw “a naked woman with dotted-line scars” inside of her notebook. This drawing would be expanded eventually into what is now as the exploratory hypertext novel Patchwork Girl.
The first time I engaged with this work of Jackson’s I was reminded of Arthur Danto’s essay “A Future For Aesthetics.” Danto describes some of Robert Hooke’s engravings from the 17th century and comments on how they are an example of one of John Locke’s theories,
in that they are composed of parts which belong to the gross anatomy of more or less commonplace creatures . . . a bit from here, a bit from there, exemplifications of compound ideas fabricated of simpler elements, themselves derived from experience.
Jackson’s focus often lay on “creatures” like bras, scars, dolls, and other coming-of-age domestic or feminine objects. This is done using the memoir genre, very popular in hypertext fiction, or using semi-autobiographical writing. These creatures become the ground with which larger theoretical issues can be explored and closely examined.
Finished in 1995, Patchwork Girl remains Jackson’s best-known e-lit work. Called “important and impressive” by e-lit scholar N. Katherine Hayles, this hypertext fiction reimagines Mary Shelley’s science fiction novel Frankenstein for the Internet age. Combining text from Shelley’s original novel, the writing of L. Frank Baum, and theoretical inspiration from Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, and the cyborg manifesto of Donna Haraway, Jackson’s work allows the female companion in Mary Shelley’s famous book to displace Victor Frankenstein as the protagonist, even though in the original story she was torn to bits by Dr. Frankenstein when he imagined his creations reproducing. The companion is rebuilt by Shelley, who then begins an affair with the monster. Jackson writes of the female companion that her “birth takes place more than once. In the plea of a bygone monster; from a muddy hole by corpse-light; under the needle, and under the pen.” She is Shelley (Mary), (Shelley) Jackson, and (Shelley) (Shelley) all at once.
Notable in Patchwork Girl is the running visual and textual metaphor that uses the idea of a stitched-together female body to question ideas about gender and identity. This is a perfect text for such explorations, since in Frankenstein almost every woman dies, whereas the monster is put together and lives. In her creative response to the original, Jackson uses the map of the body as a metaphor for the subjective impression of culture on an individual’s identity. Much like hypertext itself, Patchwork Girl pieces together different texts to create the geographical—but also ideological—space within which the novel resides. This identity is never fixed; rather it is built on what is appropriate as the reader navigates the work.
The narrative and structure are broken into five separate segments for readers to explore, and they brings up feminist concerns, theoretical discussions about authorship, and other issues as readers navigate through the text. “Body of Text” focuses on the monster’s narration and theoretical concerns. “Graveyard” tells the story of those whose parts make up the creature. “Story” includes annotated passages from Shelley’s original text. “Journal” is exactly that, a journal Shelley keeps about her time with the monster. And finally, “Crazy Quilt” contains excerpts from Baum’s “Patchwork Girl of Oz.”
The monster in Patchwork Girl observes that her scars are “the nearest thing to a bit of my own flesh . . . a place where disparate things are joined in a way that was my own.” Via the medium of hypertext links, the relationship that language has with the body—epitomized here by the scars—is given a much more literal metaphorical presentation by Jackson. This “metaphor for the ruptured, discontinuous, space of the hypertext,” as Hayles puts it, reveals the text as a place where postmodern meta characterization clashes and collides with Victorian fiction. Here, the text and body of the monster become a geographic space that comments on both the restrictive, and liberating, aspects of these spaces. Hayles argues later that readers free the text because their link clicking decisions allow the entire work to be a gigantic scar, perhaps a play on Victorian ideas of the text as real estate—or the mammoth castles of the Gothic—where Shelley and Jackson come together and overlap. 1
Jackson has also written hypertext novels for the World Wide Web. Most prominent amongst those is 1997′s hypertext novel My Body, which merges autobiography, mapped illustrations, and hypertext links. Similar to Patchwork Girl, My Body maps out a body for readers to click through as they read the text. For example, clicking on the hyperlinked illustration “breasts” leads to a long string of text (called a “lexia” in hypertext-speak) filled with many clickable links discussing a young woman’s development:
But the arrival of breasts was traumatic. A few months before they showed up I swam in the river in my cut-offs with no shirt on and nobody cared. Then the area around my nipples began to ache and swell, and my mother gently suggested I keep my shirt on. That summer I was spending a lot of time in a tree house a few blocks from home, over the wall at the back of the parking lot behind the church. One day I needed something, string or wire or a knife, and I started running home. I had to stop; my breasts hurt with every step. I couldn’t run without pressing my forearms to my chest.
To the right of this lexia is a Jackson illustration of a very sensitive looking pair of nipples. Much like Caitlin Fisher’s These Waves of Girls and other hypertext memoirs, My Body “an autobiography, plus lies” uses autobiography to consider issues of identity, sexuality, and memory.
The Doll Games, written with Jackson’s sister, Pamela, explores the role of dolls in girls’ development. The work is broken up into 11 sections, each of which offers encyclopedic information about the subject of the section. For example, clicking on “artifacts” leads to a long list of doll accessories, children’s toys, and other ephemera from childhood. The entry for “padded bra” offers a glimpse into the narrative world of The Doll Games, a world:
of molded white gum adhesive covered in white medical gauze, with straps of yellow telephone wire. The practice of building prosthetic breasts and penises out of clay probably arose in response to the needs of the “sexy” games of the early late classical period, rather than out of a more general concern with anatomical correctness. Either way, clay parts were nearly universal in the later Doll Games, as no male doll was originally endowed with a penis, and female leads Aina, Mara and Melanie had the smooth torsos of the pre-adolescent Skipper and Fluff. This removable prosthesis is particularly interesting for the way it highlights the fundamentally theatrical nature of gender, which like this breast-laden bra can be donned or discarded at the dictates of desire and story line.
Unlike previous works that contained numerous hyperlinked lexias that led to other lexias, The Doll Games contains some hyperlinks, but also photos. For instance, clicking on “padded bra” leads to a picture of a doll wearing a padded bra like the one described in the entry.
It is interesting to note Jackson’s progression from focusing on objects like scars and bras that act on the body to actually making fiction that, as a tattoo, acts on the body. This progression makes sense given that literature can, and should, not only leave the bounded text and find a home on the electronic screen but also become immersed in the world around us. “Skin” is one of what New Media theorist Jill Walker-Rettberg has termed “Distributed Narratives,” narratives that “send fragments and shards across media, through the network and sometimes into the physical spaces that we live in.” 2 These narratives include sticker novels, online games such as Online Caroline, which allows users to interact via email and video with a fictional character being manipulated by a corporation, and writing on the body like “Skin.” 3
Like her mentor Coover, Jackson has a foot placed in both the print and electronic literary worlds. As Coover transitioned from the static world of print to the more fluid world of electronic literature, Jackson has gone in the opposite direction, publishing two novels with major New York presses after these e-lit pieces. The most prominent of these printed novels is 2006′s Half Life; compared to works by Borges and Nabokov, it tells the story of a conjoined twin, Nora, whose sister, Blanche, has been comatose for fifteen years. Due to radioactive fallout this has become very common; growing remorse over the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II has led to the United States repeatedly bombing itself in Nevada starting in 1951.
This fallout leads to an increased amount of conjoined twins, known as “twofers.” Nora has been carrying around Blanche, who is in a sort of persistent vegetable state, for fifteen years while living in San Francisco, where the twofer subculture has become very prominent. Likewise, Nora’s mother is involved with a twofer religious movement. Even Audrey, Nora’s roommate, believes she is a twofer in a “singleton’s” body. After traveling to the United Kingdom to have Blanche removed (an act that kills her), Nora finds that her body begins to act out beyond her control. This leads her to believe that Blanche may be trying to communicate with her from the beyond. Like Doll Games, there are numerous encyclopedic entries including a reference manual for Siamese twins, which includes numerous definitions, catalogs, and information about twofer fetishes.
Half Life is a mostly straightforward novel that has some aspects and influences from Jackson’s previous electronic writing. Between some chapters are entries from “Siamese Twin Reference Manual,” which take on the form of lists, definitions, or encyclopedic entries. The novel moves linearly as characters are introduced and Nora’s story progresses, although Patchwork Girl is recalled in the numerous references to Lacan. Blanche’s acting out and going out of control is similar to the protagonist’s breast development in My Body and the unruliness of distributed narratives like “Skin,” which take writing outside of the book and bring them into the world surrounding us. Radioactivity literally acts on the body in Half Life, causing it to change and mutate much as tattoos change and rewrite the body. Though the book isn’t all that hypertextual, it is highly influenced by the ideas and themes that Jackson has approached previously, and given its acquisition by a mainstream publisher and coverage in mainstream papers, Half Life demonstrates that the aesthetics of electronic literature can potentially crossover into popular culture.
Shelley Jackson has had a multifaceted career that has taken her along the intersections of print and electronic literature, the avant-garde, and into new experimental forms of publishing. She’s influenced an entire generation of electronic writers who continue to dissect and reinvent previous assumptions about the Web, print, and beyond. Among those works influenced by Jackson is Implementation, a work on fiction written on stickers. Implementation, currently being prepared for publication as a coffeetable book, was written in 2004 by Scott Rettberg and Nick Montfort, two of the most prominent authors and theorists of electronic literature. The work was produced in eight installments, each consisting of three sheets of Avery office stickers. Readers were told to print their own copies of the stickers and place them in the outside world, documenting them via photos. Readers then submitted their photos to the Implementation website (nickm.com/implementation) where Rettberg and Montfort curated the photos. Implementation made an important leap off of the Internet, where both Rettberg and Montfort had written hypertext novels and interactive fiction previously, and immersed their literature in the world around them. As a participant in Implementation, I found my own campus flooded by these stickers. Some were placed haphazardly, others used the lexia on the sticker to comment on what it was adhered to. By taking literature off of the screen, the entire world becomes writeable; our surroundings and bodies are a canvas to write on, adhere, and mutate.
No matter what format her writing takes on, her focus on the body continues to push the boundaries of what form literature can take on. Jackson has rewritten canonical texts, taking the crumbs that Shelley left and expanding them into their own world. She has pioneered Web-based hypertext writing, moving from more static CD-based literature to the fluid world of the Internet. Her writing has further broken away from print culture by expanding onto our bodies and into our world, always with an eye on monstrous mutations of the body, whether Patchwork Girls’ literal monster, puberty’s mutations in My Body and The Dolls Games, or the writing on the body, and entrance into the world around us, in “Skin.” Acceptance in print culture world has further mutated her own writing, as she moves from the more fluid hypertext to static print. Hopefully, whether in print or bits or ink, Jackson’s writing will mutate the reader’s expectations and give them a desire to engage with her other writing, be it on a screen, in a bound book, or on their own and other bodies.
William Patrick Wend is adjunct faculty in the liberal arts department at Burlington County College in Pemberton NJ. He can be found online at wpwend.com and @wpwend42 on Twitter.
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