Hypertext is Bad (bad meaning good) Writing

There is a line from the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the 19th century (in his essay “Nominalist and Realist”), long before digital hypertext, that makes me think of some of the issues raised and provoked by Shelley Jackson. Here is Emerson:

“No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie; Speech is better than silence; silence is better than speech;–All things are in contact; every atom has a sphere of repulsion;–Things are, and are not, at the same time;–and the like”

This notion of truthful fragmentation is where I start to make some sense of Patchwork Girl: Jackson’s interest in hypertext writing as a resistance not just to traditional views of narrative or novel, but to conventional definitions of writing as such. In “Stitch Bitch” Jackson connects her understanding of the feminine, “banished body” at work in hypertext and at play in her novel with “what we learned to call bad writing.” So hypertext is a kind of writing that traditional (masucline) literature has edited out: a body and its loose aggregations.

This suggests to me that we are supposed to spend our time looking at this body (and multiplicitous embodiment) of writing; and are greatly helped in resisting the tendency to look through it, which is to say, look past it. She goes on to use the word ‘composite’; think how this resides in ‘composition.’ Jackson also links this in to the machinery of argument: where traditionally readers are not to be given a choice.

In a text like this, gaps are problematic. The mind becomes self-conscious, falters, forgets its way, might choose another way, might opt out of this text into another, might “lose the thread of the argument,” might be unconvinced. Transitional phrases smooth over gaps, even huge logical gaps, suppress contradiction, whisk you past options. I noticed in school that I could argue anything. I might find myself delivering conclusions I disagreed with because I had built such an irresistable machine for persuasion. The trick was to allow the reader only one way to read it, and to make the going smooth. To seal the machine, keep out grit. Such a machine can only do two things: convince or break down. Thought is made of leaps, but rhetoric conducts you across the gaps by a cute cobbled path, full of grey phrases like “therefore,” “extrapolating from,” “as we have seen,” giving you something to look at so you don’t look at the nothing on the side of the path. Hypertext leaves you naked with yourself in every leap, it shows you the gamble thought is, and it invites criticism, refusal even. Books are designed to keep you reading the next thing until the end, but hypertext invites choice. Writing hypertext, you’ve got to accept the possibility your reader will just stop reading. Why not? The choice to go do something else might be the best outcome of a text. Who wants a numb reader/reader-by-numbers anyway? Go write your own text. Go paint a mural. You must change your life. I want piratical readers, plagiarists and opportunists, who take what they want from my ideas and knot it into their own arguments. Or even their own novels. From which, possibly, I’ll steal it back.

Some unconventional stuff for a writer to write, sure. But at the same time, there is in this, strange as it sounds, the hear of what we do in the conversation of academic writing.

Hayles, in her analysis of the novel and in her contextualizing of its interest in 18th century discussions of authorship and copyright, provides a rationale for understanding the body of writing and the body of bodies. She connects Jackson’s interest in the (multiple) bodies of her text (author, character, novel, computer) to her argument for media specific analysis: it matters, Hayles asserts, which textual bodies we are dealing with when we write and read. Jackson goes even further: the bodies we write and read with matter as well.

I am curious, reader. Do you also view bad writing as bodily–as those elements of your writing that are in some way too physical, in need of surgery? Do you think, as Jackson seems to think, that we read with a body I wonder, certainly, where this finds us: we, in a composition and literature course, working on our writing and reading. And I wonder, I speculate, that engaging Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, with better attention to this sense, these senses, of an embodiment of writing and reading, will allow us to make more sense of the text. I would suggest that this way of making sense is one version of what Hayles means by “cyborg reading practices.” This is not about becoming plugged in, as in the cyborg of film; it is to recognize that we already are. In other words, I think much of what we experience today with ‘web 2.0’ (as it has been called), the read-write capability of many digital applications and sites, can be likened to the characteristics of bad writing as traditionally viewed.

And, Birkerts, in his use of ‘process’ as a pejorative, as something that good writing should not reveal, would agree. See my next posting: process and privacy.

So, if you think Patchwork Girl is in some form bad writing and are having difficulties with it, you might be on to something.

By the way, for those interested, here is an electronic copy of Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of the many sources/intertexts/bodies that are taken up in Jackson’s composite. [thanks to Joannafor the reference] There is an original copy in the Sophie Kerr room, if you want to browse through it.


patchwork girl: story

Some responses from my most recent reading of Patchwork Girl.

Spending time in the “Story” section of the narrative. And that word points to the problem: this doesn’t read like a narrative; we don’t get a story to follow. Instead, we get the writing of a story (back to process, to the foregrounding of writing). And right away in this section, if we choose to see it, we get something of the wreading of a story. For example, notice the number of links from the space “birth.” Does it matter which path we take?

It does matter if the reader wants to stay within the section. Some links take me to spaces outside, such as “graveyard.” Others stay within. In other words, the links move away from what Birkerts calls “narrative thrust” and thrust us toward some sort of database: pieces that are here, but also elsewhere (where every elesewhere is also here, in computational space, as Hayles reminds us). A database of spaces that then require the reader to make some sense. Though not completely a database logic, since the links are provided by the author. We are just leave more to ourselves than we might like.

Does this sound familiar? Notice what we hear when we get to “plea” [here I return to the Story section/web, but this time aim to stay within it, and do this in using the storymap view to go space by space. The creature talking to Victor about his desire for him to create a being: so that he may become “linked to the chain of existence and events from which I am now excluded” and live in “communion” rather than in solitude. The creature has no story of his own (or in Jackson’s version, her own); communion comes only through communication (Birkerts, recall, opposes these two terms), through the workings of the database, the quilt. A story can be made; it won’t be found.

In “filthy work,” we hear again Shelley’s text echoed in Jackson’s creation; and in doing so, in linking the process of Victor into the process of this text–its hideousness–I think Shelley Jackson offers insight into the original novel: that Mary Shelley’s process of creation is also part of the story; hers, too, is a database struggling through the work of her hands toward a narrative.

“she”: the female monster speaks in a parenthetical, and illuminates the material metaphor of ‘linked to existence,” and extends the idea of the recombination at work (resemble, reassemble) to the word ‘web.’ By the way, a note on duration and slow reading. I agree with SB that these are important for critical reading and writing. I disagree, from my own experience, that such is excluded by reading in a networked environment. This section tonight is a small example. I am slowing down with this text: in part, because I have smaller spaces to work with; in part because of the lateral associations (a pejorative used by Birkerts) that Jackson makes with her words. In a word, the links move me sideways (if not thrust me forward); but the sideways move slows me down. Moving sideways, in this sense of association, can also–dare I say can better–cultivate understanding.

Isn’t this what Emerson means: all thinking is analogizing and it is the use of life to learn metonymy? Or try Jackson, from “Language, Voices”: “Everything I’m made of speaks up from the dead.” Think of the attention this gives to the langauge we read in this text; the language is the story.

A link to Jackson’s hypertext narrative (what seems to be more autobiographical) titled “The Body”

A link to Jackson’s website, Ineradicable Stain

An article on Web 2.0 storytelling; Patchwork Girl is more 1.0 (as an original hypertext, not built for the web); but it contains components that are key to what these authors call web 2.0: microcontent (chunks of information) and social collaboration. In both cases, one could argue that such storytelling resists traditional definitions of narrative. One might also argue that it takes narrative back to its oral roots.