Maria Angel and Anna Gibbs
The Futures Of Writing:
Experiments In Digital Exscryption
Paragraph 1 follows:
We begin with Vilém Flusser’s concern that if we don’t engage in the interpretive, evaluative reading that has characterised the Humanities as we know them, we might as well leave all reading to artificial intelligences. We could then also give up writing (2011: 81). Yet elsewhere, he writes that ‘A fully enlightened consciousness no longer needs to be intelligent, to be about extracting meaning. It can concentrate on creative amalgamation. This transition from the old ways of reading to the new involves a leap from historical, evaluative, political consciousness into a consciousness that is cybernetic and playful, that confers meaning. This will be the consciousness that reads in the future’ (Flusser, 2011: 85). We’re interested in the tensions between these projections of a future, and in their implications for the practice of writing as well as reading.
In his recent book, Scripting Reading Motions, Manuel Portela argues that reading is an effect of an embodied interaction with a perceptual field taking on different characteristics with different material modalities or what he calls ‘reading fields’ (in this case the different fields produced by the codex and those generated by newer electronic forms). He argues that both printed ‘page and electronic screen [are] exploratory reading fields designed for a perceptual experiment with the dynamic nature of textual form.’ For Portela reading is a performative or writerly engagement with distributed material surfaces. He writes that ‘reading is defamiliarized by means of constellations, fragmentations, aggregations, superimpositions, combinations of verbal and pictorial signs, and other verbivocovisual techniques.’
In this way we can see that reading as a form of writerly performance takes the form of a creative amalgamation of different temporal and spatial fields. This is particularly pronounced in digital contexts where the framing surface of the screen appears as a mobile space in contradistinction to the stable surface of the page. In this context, Portela once more reminds us of the engagement of the human body with these media:
Surfaces of inscription offer themselves as sites for complex visual searches and perceptual queries. These self-conscious movements show the signifying productivity of reading as a function of the signifying dynamics of the visual and tactile field created by material forms actuated by reading events […] in which meaning is a probabalistic distribution resulting from moment-to-moment interactions with material codes. (25)
This focus on the role of human bodies and materiality in mediating digital and typographic experience owes a huge debt to feminist scholarship on embodiment and the theorization of gender and difference. The history of scholarly feminism is both a history of the refusal to dematerialize corporeality and a history of insisting upon possibilities for dynamic re-configurations and re-patternings of living matter.
It is possible to see this history as a genealogy which unravels from contemporary feminist digital writers (artists such as VNS Matrix, Stephanie Strickland, Fiona Templeton, Shelley Jackson, Petra Germeinbok and Barbara Campbell) back to Ariadne and her thread. Along the way, this thread weaves its way through the texts of writers and thinkers like Ada Lovelace, Mary Shelley, Carolyn Guertin, Anna Munster and others. Developing the concept of exscryption, our current work aims to recover and remake a feminist history and epistemology based on the concept of the ‘thread’ which today holds a new relevance to the understanding of digital works as they transform print-based modes of textual engagement.
Perhaps one of the most significant changes between typographic and digital textual form that affects forms and fields of both reading and writing is the seemingly ‘ephemeral’ or ‘immaterial’ nature of digital text, it’s capacity to appear when summoned forth by a search, and to be instantly digitally replaced or augmented by other texts. However, the digital capacity to resolve the ‘problem’ of material space and distance through the hyperlink has its drawbacks, especially in relation to the reproduction of memory.
The relatively stable form of the typographic book enables, as Walter Ong often noted, the capacity to ‘backscan’ – that is, the ability to constantly and repeatedly find the linear order of the same text and the same place in the text. This gives typographic text, as a form of iterable memory or knowledge, a certain stability. Digital textuality confounds this, both technically and aesthetically. The common experience of the difficulty of archiving and retrieving searches attests to the privilege of immediacy over memory and history (not to mention the disappearance and/ or migration of web’ pages’ after a prolonged temporal gap between searches, or the incapacity to read, over time and through the constant updating of software platforms, text archived on disks).
As part of the developing ontologies and epistemologies of digital media, digital art and literature, too, celebrate an ethos of immediacy, performativity, and open-endedness as is evidenced by many of the works we have previously written about (Angel and Gibbs 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014) and which we reference below. However, we bring to these technical and aesthetic transformations a feminist skepticism about the ends of subjectivity, a skepticism derived from our experience of the effects of the predicted ‘death of the subject’ in the poststructuralist work of the 1980s.
While the logic of the hyperlink takes us directly from one time-space or one point to another, we see what we call ‘exscryption’ as a kind of de-cyphering of digitised time by unfolding in space, a moment of ‘en-planation’ which works against the idea of the vector. Drawing on an epistemology and ontology derived from the history of women’s work and mythology, we could think here, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have done, of the epistemology of ‘patchwork’. They make special note of the ‘nomadism’ of the first settlers of the ‘New World’ who left Europe and developed the technique of patchwork quilting, a technique inseparable from the ‘trajectory’ and the representation of ‘speed or movement in an open space’ (477).
The notable difference of the ‘patchwork’ from the linearity of the ‘vector’ is its materialisation as a bricolage of scraps and leftovers forming a connective tissue of ‘stitched’ or networked architectures of memory and sensation. Shelley Jackson’s early digital work Patchwork Girl is exemplary here. Using the figure of Mary Shelley’s monster as an archetype for creative appropriation and amalgamation (‘If you want to see the whole’ she writes ‘you will have to piece me together yourself’), Jackson brilliantly articulates the work of patching together a body, a story, and a feminist history of authorship from other sources. Patchwork Girl, an early ‘multi-media’ hypertext, uses the figure of the assembled body as an epistemology – the process of patchwork itself renders both a methodological process of composition, and a body of knowledge.
This form of connectivity has important implications for the workings of memory which has to be remade through the use and reuse of external mnemonic systems. In oral cultures these tended to be elements such as landscape (for example, the song-lines of indigenous cultures), or images (the memory palace). In codex cultures memory was aided and externalized in stable linear archives (books) from which it could be retrieved. Today it resides in the network and cannot simply be retrieved but must be repeatedly performed to come alive. Memory is no longer conscious recall, but is rather immanent, belonging to realm of habit, so that technology disciplines bodies around forms of ritual in everyday use, eliciting gesture and movement in ways that are intimately bound up with capital and its operations in the wider world.
In digital contexts writing is re-ontologised as image, rising again from the flatbed of the book not only to stand upright on signs as Walter Benjamin saw it, but comprising a virtual surround materialized in spatial form as in the GPS-based works of Jen Southern, Jen Hamilton and their collaborators, dictionary works of Charles Sandison, John Cayley’s CAVE experiments, or Lewis Lancaster’s ‘Blue Dots’ (a project which integrates the Chinese Buddhist Canon, Koryo version Tripitaka Koreana – 166,000 pages of rubbings from the wooden printing blocks constituting the oldest complete set of the corpus in print format – into the AVIE system, creating an architecture to be walked through). Writing now unfolds itself into external environments, creating new, flexible architectures which might also exhibit their own behaviours, changing shape and form in response to human exploration.
Therefore, rather than treating digitality as a technological end in itself, we concur with Brian Massumi when he observes that ‘[t]he digital is sandwiched between an analog disappearance into code at the recording and an analog appearance out of code at the listening [or seeing] end’ (138). Digitised information only makes sense through analogic experiences such as reading and writing – and experiences of viewing can also be interpreted in this respect as a form of reading.
As Massumi notes, using the example of word-processing, what is processed by computers is not words, but code that gives shape and form to the text and images that we see on screen. It is the analogic process of reading that makes words and their worlds – as we ‘read’ we transform the coded operation of words on a screen into the traces of sound and speech, or images associated with meaning. While digitality and the hyperlink mean that words, images and their worlds can be ‘linked’ (‘sandwiched’ by digital technology), so that a reader or user can jump from one time-space to another, the digital works that we explore here operate by producing the human body in its relationship to time and space. The digitised connectivity made possible by the hyperlink (its stitching together of disparate pieces) is only sustained and experienced (threaded together) through human time and human bodies.
The works we discuss here perform the unfolding of time and space through movement, or else draw attention to the work of digitality through the disruption of movement (as durational consciousness). This movement in space and time turns out to be crucial to the performance of individual and cultural forms of memory.
Memory and distributed agency
1001 Nights Cast, a durational performance project by Sydney artist Barbara Campbell, exemplifies this process of creative amalgamation in the performance of memory through distributed agency. Memory here is no longer the work of an individual consciousness but instead finds expression in forms such as those of large-scale aggregation, emergent collectivity, or synthesis – forms identified by Johanna Drucker (2012) as those superseding the individual voice once cultivated as the acme of the literary.
In 1001 Nights Cast, Campbell scanned the media for stories about the Middle East each morning, selected a word or short phrase to serve as a prompt for a writer, hand-coloured it and posted to the website in the hope that by that afternoon, she would have a story for webcast at precisely sunset, wherever she was in the world. Campbell was a contemporary Sheherazade, needing to be fed stories by writers to fend off her own death, made more immediate by one that had already occurred: that of her partner, artist Neil Roberts, in a tragic accident. Her live performances were mediated by the image of her mouth alone, all that appeared in the small window opened in the middle of the screen each night at sunset.
The work’s creation of an a-synchronous real-time allows us to think of the listeners at remote locations as engaged in a kind of parallel processing by means of fictions that address, directly and indirectly and sometimes by denial, disavowal or repression, the news of the day as it involves that quasi-fictional, phantasmatic western construction, the ‘Middle East’, home to the story of the original Sheherazade.
‘Processing’ becomes not simply the treatment of information, but takes on a more emotional cast, as when we speak of processing trauma. The prompts already perform something of this, working as a kind of cut up writing making explicit something of our relationship to news media – the way in which attention will often be caught by a fragment or detail containing in itself a multiplicity of reference that reaches us as if torn by a gust of wind from its context of story, and is deposited in the lap of our own everyday life. We follow its wind blown trajectory as it takes us elsewhere, creating links and associations, making the Middle East resonate through new contexts as it catches on them and attaches to them, generating ever more story in the process and suggesting the capacity of events to touch and affect at a distance even the lives of those of us who have no family connections to that part of the world.
The work doesn’t exactly represent a global response to the situation of the Middle East, but perhaps suggests a concerted effort to think and speak a trauma which is unthinkable and unspeakable – yet which demands action (also) in the form of thought and speech. The network of writers, audience and stories the work creates subtly transforms our image of cognition, revealing it as an affective process, composed of both human and nonhuman elements, for stories form part of that externalised cultural reservoir of cognitive and affective memory that enables the replication, revision and transformation of knowledge as a way of being and doing. (The frame story of the original Arabian Nights, as a story about the power of story, makes this explicit). The Middle East comes to condense the problems of the contemporary world: the stories effectively disseminate it across place and time, without ever reducing it to a metaphor so that it loses its own specificity and merely stands for something else.
Campbell’s frame story acts as a loosely co-ordinating gesture pointing towards a distance that remains open, since the gesture dictates no limit, nor any specific goal except that of survival. The virtual ‘space’ of experience onto which the gesture opens is entirely emergent, unfolding in the course of the experience of participants and audience, and, as a space is, of course, ultimately untotalisable.
Campbell’s performance seems to reverse the possibility suggested by Beirut-based writer and filmmaker, Jalal Toufic (2006), that a contemporary Sheherazade could be cast as a psychoanalyst. He writes:
I could envision a contemporary version of The Thousand and One Nights without the frame story at the beginning and where we would be dealing not with the relationship between an insomniac and a storyteller, but with that between a Buñuelean compulsive dream narrator and a psychoanalyst, the king nightly threatening Shahrazâd, now a psychoanalyst, with “the Absolute Master,” death, were she to refuse to listen to his dreams of the previous night and to try to interpret them, the analysis revealing first the trauma of his betrayal by his wife, and then, after hundreds of narrated dreams as well as free associations to them, the more basic trauma whose symptom was his infertility (this symptom itself played a part in his betrayal by his wife) – with the result that the king ends up having one or more children.
Instead, Campbell recasts Sheherazade as an analysand who must ventriloquise not so much the voice of her own unconscious as the voices of ‘the culture’ (not reducible to Australia, nor the art scene, nor even, at the limit, to a community of writers). In producing Sheherazade this way, Campbell offers back to the culture the possibility of self-reflection through a process of ‘exogeneity’ (cf Rotman, 2002), and thus, perhaps of cure, or at least, understanding. Other voices speak through her; she speaks through other voices in a reciprocal ventriloquy, making possible a process of cultural analysis in which voices can be heard precisely because they are mediated through the body of the artist, functioning culturally in a way analogous to what David McNeill refers to as ‘Mead’s Loop’, where one’s own corporeal gestures are taken as objects in social interactions and thus have the capacity to enhance cognition (Denham, 2009).
The reflexivity of some stories in particular underlines the analogy: stories by Marina Warner (#206), Sam Ghattas (#888), Miriam Taylor Gomez (#352), Mark Wakely (#315), Kate Richards (#613), Bagryana Popov (#574), Abraham Rabinovich (#824) among others, all thematise story-telling in different ways. Story #999 is composed entirely of earlier prompts stitched together into a semblance of story recapitulating the frame and casting Sheherazade as a kind of Cassandra figure, also literalises the idea of the prompts as cut up writing. This exogeniety provides an antidote to anomie (an attention disorder in which everything seems equally worthy of attention and distinction is impossible), a means of filtering information – especially about ongoing events in the Middle East, and especially at the time of the work in Baghdad, once the centre of the Islamic empire stretching from China to Spain.
The shared space created by Campbell is also complexly layered, as individual stories transport individual readers to other spaces that may only be incompletely shared by other readers. If the design and shape of the hand-coloured prompts reference postcards – described by Ann Stephen in story #991, ‘suspended in anger’, as the ‘quintessential products of the 20th century: images without auras, language stripped to blurts, mementos of separation’ – the stories themselves and the project as a whole can be read as an attempt to restore plenitude to writing and the images and experiences (including those of place) it generates. Time here is crucial to the experience of space, which cannot be simply surveyed in a single glance from a distance.
Performance, of course, is a time-based medium. The frame story of the Arabian Nights is inherently suspenseful, but the performative elements of suspense, interval, duration are all also critical in Campbell’s reworking of the 1001 Nights. Two major traditions of performance art represent time as interval and duration respectively. On Kawara’s ‘Date Paintings’ and Teh Ching Hsieh’s ‘One Year Performance (Time Piece)’ work in New York (in which he punched a Bundy on the hour every hour round the clock for a year) instance the former, while the feminist body-oriented works of the 1970s (Julie Rrap, Jill Orr and Jill Scott in Australia and any number of Americans) instance the latter.
The feminist works insist on duration as endurance, as going on being in extremity, and Campbell’s work can be understood in part as revising this idea, by casting mourning as endurance, as going on being in the face of death. Because it also has its own orientation to interval (the daily exchange of prompt for story and the performance at the precise moment of sunset wherever Campbell was in the world), the work can be seen as bringing two distinct traditions into new relation with each other, revealing interval not simply as a mark of duration, but as a trace of transience, a reminder of death in the sustaining rhythm of everyday life.
If what we call ‘exscryption’ is the characteristic aesthetic dimension of the digital, it is also the case that new forms of art practice implicitly acknowledge the importance of creative amalgamation and distribution in the constitution of being, that is, in the constitution of objects, subjects and things. As in the composition of Jackson’s patchwork girl and Campbell’s Sheherazade, this new emphasis on creative amalgamation makes visible the processes of becoming. For the entities created by this process can only exist as separate and discrete when one cuts them out of the relational or networked and continually evolving field that produces them.
In her study of time and evolution, philosopher Elizabeth Grosz argues that when we isolate material systems, processes and objects, as the result of practical thought, ‘we cut them out of the lived continuity in which they occur, we transform them and enable them to be schematised, outlined rendered manipulable, to become the objects of scientific knowledge and predictability’ (197). Or perhaps this process of the cutting out and isolating of elements, taken as a methodological habit, is the first step in the potential for creative amalgamation and the performative redistribution of agency. Frankenstein’s monster, after all, is an amalgam of other appropriated bodies.
In Mary Shelley’s version, unlike the scenarios in Jackson’s Patchwork Girl where the body parts have former lives, the histories of these constitutive elements are lost, and it is perhaps this missing genealogy which best characterises the character of monstrosity in Shelley’s allegorical tale. Shelley’s monster is devoid of self reference commonly thought of in terms of self-consciousness, a receding interiority, a core ‘inner’ being, if you like, laden with meaning. However, self-reference and meaning are always caught up in extrinsic relations. In Shelley’s tale the monster lacks the usual markers of self-reference made through extrinsic filial lines. He has no parents (other than his ‘maker’), murders children, and above all wishes for a partner made of the same stuff as himself in order to alleviate the pain of his singularity. The monster is an emblem of the isolated material object, ‘cut out of lived continuity’, as Grosz puts it above, devoid of its history and genealogy, and the recognition that its intrinsic meaning is constituted by extrinsic relation.
Translated into the Flusserian anxiety with which we began this paper, meaning as such is not performed within a text but instead becomes an issue of relation. Meaning, defined as the hermeneutic resolution of intrinsic elements characterised by the question ‘who is this?,’ is replaced by the question ‘what is this and what does it do? These inquiries are not mutually exclusive but the foregrounding and unfolding of relation and amalgamation surely enables the making of a different kind of intelligence, one at home with the idea of the thread which traces, sutures, and ravels the ideological unity of the object.
Angel, Maria and Gibbs, Anna (2014). (2014), ‘The ethos of ‘walking’ : digital writing and the temporal animation of space’, Formules, vol 18, pp151–163 .
——— (2013) ‘At the Time of Writing: Digital Media, Gesture and Handwriting’ Electronic Book Review, Special Issue: Electrifying Literature (eds Joe Tabbi & Sandy Baldwin).
——— (2011) ‘Geospatial Aesthetics: Time, Space, Agency and Movement in Electronic Writing’, Sprache und Literatur, 108, 42.
——— (2010) ‘Memory and Motion: The Body in Electronic Writing’, Beyond the Screen: Transformation of Literary Structures, Interfaces, Genres, Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla (eds.), Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript,
——— (2009) ‘On Moving and Being Moved: Writing and Corporeality in New Media Art’, Literature and Sensation, Anthony Uhlmann, Helen Groth, Stephen McLaren (eds.), Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Campbell, Barbara (2005-2008) 1001 Nights Cast, archived at http://1001.net.au/
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari (1988) A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, London: The Athlone Press Ltd.
Denham, Ben (2009) Gestural Sense: Art, Neuroscience and Linguistic Embodiment. Diss. Sydney: University of Western Sydney.
Drucker, Johanna. “Beyond Conceptualisms: Poetics after Critique and the End of the Individual Voice”. 2012. Poetry Project Newsletter. April/May 2012. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet /2012/04/conceptual-writing-was-intriguing- and-provocative/>.
Flusser, Vilém (2011). Does Writing Have a Future? Translated by Nancy Ann Roth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Grosz, Elizabeth (2004) The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely. Crows Nest NSW: Allen and Unwin
Jackson, Shelley (1995) Patchwork Girl, Eastgate Systems.
Masumi, Brian (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Ong, Walter (1982).Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.
Portela, Manuel (2013) Scripting Reading Motions: The Codex and the Computer as Self-Reflexive Machines, The MIT Press.
Rotman, Brian (2002) ‘The Alphabetic Body’, Parallax vol 8 no 1 pp 92-104.
Toufic, Jalal (2006) Reading, Rewriting Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’—In Your Dreams, Beirut: Ashkal Alwan.