ESSAY: "Re-Acting Woman"
Introduction: Language Acts
When we read, we receive. Is this the case?
In Literary Interest: The Limits of Anti-Formalism, Steven Knapp examines Plato’s Ion, in which Socrates argues that literary representation is mere techne, a tool for explaining to the reader what reality is. The poet describes, the reader understands. (Moreover, says Socrates, the poet is a failure in this task, since one learns better how to cook from a cookbook than from a Homeric description of a celebratory feast. In other words, better to dispense with poetry and receive knowledge simply – straightforwardly, easily – from technical instruction manuals. But more on this later.)
Is the Ion correct? Or do we do something when we read? Are we performing an action when we read? Are we acting?
Knapp combats the Platonic argument by claiming that what makes a literary work unique is its ability to generate a certain kind of interest in the reader, an interest that takes the form of the reader feels herself to be actively participating in the making of the literature even as the literature is being presented to her for the first time. Knapp refers to this as the Longinian argument, a way of thinking about the reader’s involvement with the text and the text’s effect upon the reader which began with Longinus and was taken up by Coleridge and I.A. Richards, among others. Here is Knapp summarizing Richards on the subject: “As [the separable meanings of the poem] come together, as the reader’s mind finds cross-connexion after cross-connexion between them, he seems, in becoming more aware of them, to be discovering not only Shakespeare’s meaning, but something which he, the reader, is himself making. His understanding of Shakespeare is sanctioned by his own activity in it” (69). Here is Coleridge on the subject: “You feel him to be a poet, inasmuch as for a time he has made you one – an active creative being” (69, emphases added). If Knapp, Longinus, Richards, and Coleridge are to be believed, part of the magic of literature is its ability to invite the reader into the imaginary world constructed by the author so completely that the reader experiences the world just as vividly as the author does, engages with the world as the author does, and tells the story to herself at the same time that the author tells the story to her. The reader is a reader and a sort of second-author simultaneously.
Re-Reading, Re-Acting Woman
To Knapp’s concept of the actively engaging reader, who co-authors the text she reads, let us now add a concept worked out by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. Butler’s interpretation of writings by feminist critics Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig gives us the idea of a reader who does not just engage with the language of a text, but who subverts, radically transforms, or posits an alternative to that language.
This Knapp-Butler reader, then, if we combine the two concepts, is not just a receiver but a performer (performativity being the cornerstone concept of Gender Trouble [xxv]), and is not just the acted-upon object of heterosexist, masculinist language but has the potential to make herself the subject of language, to displace the figure of Man by changing language. Earlier, we asked, does Knapp’s reader, the co-writer of the text, always write the same text that she reads? Butler, Irigaray and Wittig propose that readers who re-write the texts they read, who re-work the language they inherit, are among the great combatants of oppressive discourse.
So, if reading is an action, how can one re-read texts, re-act to them in a way that re-writes them, or re-writes the discourse they serve? One way is through literature, and art that incorporates text. We now turn to two texts whose approach literalizes this re-acting. They are hypermedia fictions by women authors that appropriate pre-existing texts and, by virtue of the medium and format in which they are written, force the reader to experience the authors’ re-actions, re-acting-of, the original works, using hands and eyes and mouse/touchpad and keyboard. The reader of these hypermedia works experiences a reading (the hypermedia authors’) of prior works, and at the same time reacts (in the way that Knapp suggests) to the hypermedia text in front of her, so there is a doubling (or tripling, for the original work is a factor in the reader’s experience as well) of the performativity, the act of, reading.
The two texts we will examine are Shelley Jackson’s 1995 Patchwork Girl, Or a Modern Monster by Mary/Shelley and Herself, which is a re-acting to/of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and Anne-Marie Schleiner’s 2004 OUT. OUT consists of both a modification of (Schleiner’s playing-around-with) the video game Full Spectrum Warrior (released in 2004) and a performance piece that projected the game mod in public spaces.
Now let us turn to the question of turning-around, or, to put it another way, inverting. Inversion is a strategy of subversion-through-writing that Butler detects in Wittig’s The Lesbian Body:
the book “can be understood...as an ‘inverted’ reading of Freud’s
Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality....Only the
“invert,” the medical classification invoked by Freud for “the
homosexual,” fails to “achieve” the genital norm. In waging a
political critique against genitality, Wittig appears to deploy
“inversion” as a critical reading practice, valorising precisely
those features of an undeveloped sexuality designated by Freud
and effectively inaugurating a “post-genital politics.” (36).
Here I choose to take up a term introduced in Butler (reading Wittig), in this case “‘inversion’ as a critical reading practice,” and use it to describe a practice at work in both of the hypermedia fictions mentioned above, although Patchwork Girl provides the most useful examples.
Within minutes of launching into Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, the reader has a sense that Jackson is subverting (and by this, I do not mean “rendering-invalid” or “disparaging,” but more “unsettling” or “cracking-open”) the well-known Mary Shelley story through inversion, specifically an inversion of gender. Instead of a male creator and a male monster, Jackson gives us a female creator, named Mary Shelley, and a female monster. This tactic alone throws several aspects of the original Frankenstein into question: Is Frankenstein, a story about the technologically-assisted creation of human life, about a man creating a man, expressive of Man’s anxiety over women’s reproductive power (as has been argued by numerous literary critics)? Is the antagonistic relationship between the creator and creation inevitable? What personal insecurities, about herself as a creator (of prose fiction, very related to the poetic creating which her husband famously practiced) or as a creation (the daughter of renowned early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whom, in effect, Mary Shelley killed by being born), might Mary Shelley have been expressing in telling this story of a male creator who hates what he makes? By this simple inversion, by giving the reader Mary Shelley-as-Frankenstein, and a female monster rather than a male one, Jackson’s Patchwork Girl makes us re-think, mentally re-read, the original work.
Then, there are other inversions that occur in Jackson’s piece. Mary Shelley’s female monster, it turns out, is the being that Victor Frankenstein creates at the insistence of the male creature, the so-called “bride of Frankenstein” (she is not called this in the text of Frankenstein, but later readers/co-authors of the story have authored this name into popular being) whom Victor destroys before he animates it. Victor explicitly fears the potential reproductive power of this immobile, lifeless female: he destroys her (the female) because he is afraid that she and the male creature will breed together. Jackson explores this brief moment in the Frankenstein narrative and refuses to let the lifeless, torn-apart body of the female creature lie. What was dead in Mary Shelley’s story becomes the living center of Jackson’s version. Moreover, what was hated and despised in Shelley’s story becomes the object of love in Jackson’s, as female artist/maker and female artwork/monster form an affectionate bond that evolves until it borders on the sexual. Jackson’s Patchwork Girl ends as Frankenstein does, with the creature taking flight, but the Shelley character applauds her creation’s journeying off to the new world as an act of liberation, in contrast to Victor Frankenstein’s resolving to hunt his creation down and murder it, even unto the ends of the earth.
Another inversion: what was shredded into pieces by Victor’s hands is sewn together, literally and figuratively, by Mary Shelley in Patchwork Girl. “I had made her, writing deep into the night by candlelight,” Mary Shelley writes in what Jackson establishes as her private journal, “until the tiny black letters blurred into stitches and I began to feel that I was sewing a great quilt.” The monster is the girl-patchwork of the title, and the graphics and stitched-together interlinking quality of the hypermedia work itself is a patchwork (the navigational graphic is a body of a woman, with dotted lines delineating and demarcating the anatomical parts), and so are all narratives a patchwork, a combination of what the author makes and what the reader makes of it, by making connections between the story and “real life,” or her own personal life, or other stories she has read, or simply between the words she reads and other words she knows, as we now believe all of language works. Also of interest is that Shelley Jackson’s Mary Shelley re-makes what Victor made once: Victor first put together parts of different dead beings to create the female creature, and Jackson’s Shelley puts the various pieces together again, in a different configuration. In Patchwork Girl, Shelley does the creative work of re-making what someone else has already made, as Jackson re-makes what someone else (Shelley) has already made.
When we read Patchwork Girl, we do more than consume it. Knapp and Butler believe that every time a reader reads any text, she co-authors and performs the text (Butler would say: sometimes performing effects in line with dominant discourse, and sometimes subverting those effects). Hypermedia works like Patchwork Girl do not put the reader in a new position, but the technology of hypermedia draws the reader’s attention to her active participation, her active choosing and co-making, co-acting-out-of, the text, since she has the ability to read whatever section she likes in whatever order she chooses (though the options are often obscure; the reader has no foreknowledge of what each section contains when she begins it). We sense ourselves performing Jackson’s reading of Mary Shelley, and Jackson thus highlights the performative aspect of her reading, and of any reading. The disjointedness and linking mechanisms of hypertext makes us hyperaware of the disjointed-but-linked way that Jackson reads Frankenstein, the way she inverts its tropes and constructs, both on the surface and under it, and turns it into her own quilt of associations. Jackson reads against Shelley’s text, and (re)places the female writer’s authorship, power and anxiety at the core of her story, thereby surfacing what Jackson sees as the hidden intensities about feminine creativity lying dormant, like the monstrous bride of the monster, in the source text.
If there is something right in Beauvoir’s claim that one
is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that
woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing
that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. As an
ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and
resignification....Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of
repeated acts within a highly regulatory frame that congeal over
time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of
being. A political genealogy of gender onotolgies, if it is
successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender
into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts
within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that
police the social appearance of gender (Butler, 43-44).
Anne-Marie Schleiner’s projects tackle the genealogical work that Butler describes in the paragraph above, though they are not historical inquiries in the manner of Foucault or mobilizations of feminist psychoanalysis and philosophy in the manner of Butler. Instead, many of Schleiner’s works point up ways that gender gets “congealed,” “sustained and regulated” through “repeated stylization[s] of the body” in military-style video games. Schleiner produces “game mods,” modifications of first-person shooter video games that counter the narrative of U.S. military operatives (almost always male) overwhelming enemy troops with violence. One of her works, the 2002 piece Velvet-Strike, allows players to enter into the landscapes (military compounds, dark alleys) of the popular game Counter-Strike and, instead, of contributing to or witnessing the endless enactments of force that constitute the source game, Velvet-Strikers insert their own pacifist “sprays” onto the walls and floors (or grounds) of the scenes of combat. (Go to http://www.opensorcery.net/velvet-strik
Schleiner is even more explicit about her mission to provide alternatives to military video games that are among “the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender” in her 2004 work, OUT. Writes Schleiner in the “Info” section of the OUT website,
OUT takes its name from MOUT, a military term for Military
Operations in Urban Terrain. Many military simulation computer
games implement MOUT. For example, the U.S. Army-developed
game Full Spectrum Warrior trains gamers in MOUT combat.
OUT is a criticism of the increasing militarization of civilian life
which has been implemented in the U.S. and elsewhere since 911.
The Patriot Act, surveillance of public libraries, and the increased
powers of government to hold citizens in military custody without
trial are instances of these increased powers of government
instigated by the Bush administration. In an endless spiral war of
terror a government is at war with its own citizens, with soldiers
in the midst of the fabric of ordinary life, as has been the case for
a while in terror alert cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
OUT, says Schleiner, stands for “Republicans OUT of New York. The United States OUT of Iraq and the Middle East. Escalating worldwide Militarism and Violence, from whatever source, (right wing oil hungry U.S. capitalists or wealthy Islamic fundamentalists), OUT of Civilian Life. The U.S. Army and Pentagon computer game developers OUT of the minds of prepubescent gamers.”
The way out of all of these reified identities for U.S. citizens, the identification of “U.S. citizen” as militaristic, violent, greedy to conquer other nations and their natural resources – this identity congealed by a wave of acts (performances) and policies (what Butler calls “regulatory fictions” or “policing”) by the current administration – the way out of this identity that Schleiner posits in OUT is through performing the feminine and the playful rather than the masculine and violent. Schleiner’s mod of Full Spectrum Warrior depicts the warrior avatars doing the moonwalk, breakdancing, and performing other absurd movements instead of killing their targets, and OUT consisted of a pair of women wearing Lara Croft-style outfits walking the streets of New York City on August 28, 2004, during the Republican National Convention, one “armed” with a laptop, the other with a digital projector, stopping in various public spaces and projecting Schleiner’s FSW mod for passers-by to view. Schleiner more than hints at the performativity of her subversive re-reading of military game narratives; in OUT, she stages her re-reading, re-writing, re-making as a performance, literally putting women (her live avatars) in charge of taking over the narrative of destruction and death and turning it (inverting it) into something else. Schleiner’s game players wandered through Manhattan as Full Spectrum Warrior’s soldiers wander through various Middle Eastern locales and replicated the soldiers’ motions – they found appropriate targets, aimed their machinery, and launched their projectiles. But their projectiles were images, images of warriors acting as buffoons, rather than bullets, grenades, or explosives.
Schleiner’s game mods, and public performances of her mods, are attempts to resist the congealing of identities, especially masculine identities in the U.S., around a core ideology of military-sanctioned violence. She intervenes again and again in the seemingly straightforward narrative endlessly repeated in these games (Level 1: Seek and Destroy, Level 2: Seek and Destroy, Level 3: Seek and Destroy...) and de-stabilizes the plot. In doing so, she continues to remind her readers/users/viewers that when we play/use/perform militaristic narratives, we make them a part of our “becoming.” We still have the option, Schleiner seems to say, to “become-woman,” both in the sense that Beauvoir means (endlessly creating ourselves) and in the sense that Deleuze means (“becoming-woman” as the first step in “becoming-minor,” coming to understand the Other). We still have the option to become-pacifist. There are still ways to perform ourselves without performing the role of the soldier-Man. Schleiner’s appropriations of military games are attempts to keep possibilities of identification, even within the overwhelmingly powerful discourse of militarism promoted by the government, fluid and evolving, open and in-process, rather than congealed and rigid.
Conclusion: Active Readings
Jackson, Schleiner, and other women hypermedia appropriator/artists like Natalie Bookchin and Isabel Chang offer their alternative readings of texts, and ask us to read differently. Their inversions and de-congealments, their subversions and interventions, demand that we perform with them, that we enact the very possibility of alternative readings, by playing their readings like we would play a game, or like we would play a part. We navigate their maps (re-mappings) of texts by clicking and scrolling and choosing, and re-enact their own process of touring through their source texts, selecting the features they wanted to draw attention to, the features they wanted to turn against, or turn into a different kind of text.
This paper has focused on the ways that both authors undermine the way their source texts cause readers/use to perform gender identities, asking us to call into question certain aspects of the Frankenstein narrative or the Full Spectrum Warrior narrative that seem inevitable and “natural.” The question they want us to ask is, “What if...?” What if Victor Frankenstein had been a woman? What if being a “warrior” meant being a woman braving the streets of Manhattan in skin-tight shorts and performing a video art piece? What if the man-as-creator-of-man story were turned into a woman-as-creator-of-woman story? What if being a Man in the U.S. had more to do with dancing than killing?
The larger question Jackson and Schleiner want us to ask with them, as we read their readings, is, What does it mean to be an active reader, a thinking, responding reader? It would mean not accepting the “regulatory fictions” that we encounter without considering making trouble. It would mean recognizing our power to make the stories we read our own stories, to respond to each discursive, linguistic production with a performance of our own.
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