Manuela Rossini's interview with Dizaina Studija

[without pictures]
Riga, July 2007
Questions for „Design Studio” about lecture „Weaving the posthuman
subject: Shelley Jackson`s Patchwork Girl”.
Interviewer: Illiana Veinberga
Interviewee: Manuela Rossini
1. Can you describe s.c. „traditional” comprehension of what is
text and textuality?
Traditionally, a text is understood to be an immaterial mental entity created
by the individual genius and textuality refers mainly to style and sentiment
as the key components of a literary work. These abstract notions of the text
and textuality go back to the early 17th century when these definitions were
closely related to a view of the writer as authoritative and autonomous, and
used as an ideological tool to limit what counts as ‘proper’ literature:
‘proper’ literature is ‘clean’; i.e., it has no physical basis in anything material
such as paper or ‘dirty’ ink. This dematerialised understanding of the text is
highly gendered, insofar as it finds a correspondence in the idea that the
creative spirit is masculine (giving birth to books) whereas women’s
creativity is in her body only (giving birth to children). Most significantly, the
assumption that a textual product originates from one single mind denies
the collaboration between writers, readers, designers, printers, machines,
etc. that together produce a literary work.
2. Shelley Jackson`s Patchwork Girl - how does it change the
traditional idea of text writing?
Composed of so-called lexia (text boxes) that are connected by multiple
links, Patchwork Girl (and hyperfiction in general) visualises the text as a
network or, in the words of Shelley Jackson, as a “fabric of relations” – a
patchwork precisely. Authorship is seen as distributed: the writer can only
compose fragments of text (and with it the main character, the Patchwork
Girl) into a whole with the help of the computer and with the active
participation of the reader. On the structural level, Patchwork Girl breaks
above all with the linearity of writing that characterizes most print novels,
with the definition of the story or narrative as having a beginning, middle,
and end. This is not the order that hypertexts follow, but Patchwork Girl
cannot be said to be nonlinear either. Rather, we can observe multi1
linearity: there are multiple beginnings, no middle but passages and lines
in-between parts, and each end is always a new beginning, leading again
to a different end. Writing the textual corpus or, by analogy, the human
body in such a way fosters an awareness that meaning or identity is never
singular and fixed, but plural and constantly in process.
3. Is there really a concept of Text as human identity builder – how
does it work?
The basic idea connected with the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ is that human
beings are born into a world structured by language. Words, symbols,
images (in literature, film, the arts) determine what it is possible to be, think,
do, whom we should make love to, how we die, etc. In other words, texts
have a material impact because people really live by texts. This situation
can be both oppressive and liberating: if we are created by texts, then we
can also create texts that offer different modes of being. I love to quote
Donna Haraway in this respect: “Anthropologists of possible selves, we are
technicians of realizable futures.”
4. Is this kind of writing really that innovative or it has some
historical prelude? What legitimizes this kind of writing-practice
after all?
Many contemporary authors have experimented with non-linear narratives.
The most famous example is probably the novel Rayuela by the
Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar with its open-ended structure and the
possibility for jumping around between chapters rather than reading one
after the other. In an interview, Jackson tells how she has always
composed her writings in hypertext fashion without needing a computer:
“I’ve never written anything from beginning to end, but always in the round,
or in snatches that I later stitched together into a pattern.” So, we can
conclude somewhat schematically that the technology is new but the
practice is not. What motivated Jackson’s use of the digital medium,
however, is to make this way of writing in related fragments and with no
specific design in mind more explicit and to let a pattern emerge through
the computer rather than imposing it herself. This is also the vision of our
network e-t+t: to use technology as a tool in order to enhance the
distinctive qualities of existing arts, design and writing practices but, at the
same time, to also regard technology not merely as a passive instrument
but as a co-agent in the production of a text and its meanings.
5. Reading and understanding – how do these two change due to
the new writing practice?
With hypertexts, reading also becomes writing in a way because the reader
has to construct the plot and the characters out of the available but as yet
disconnected bits/bytes and pieces, as the female monster says: “If you
want to see the whole, you will have to sew me together yourself.” As far as
understanding or sense-making is concerned, it can be argued that how a
text means also changes what it means. One important inisght we can gain
from dealing with electronic textuality is that navigating in this digital
territory does not lead us to any hidden meaning or truth but is itself
producing meaning. To put it differently, the set of functions offered by the
programme affects our reading performance of a text and, thereby, what
that text signifies. Reading thus becomes a matter of doing the activities
provided by the hypertext – or of ‘undoing’ by not carrying out a specific
action. Moreoever, with digital literature, the screen design, graphics
(including colour, size, font), animations and another material components
are as important as the syntax and punctuation in creating a work’s effects.
6. Talking about understanding – what happens with the role of
content in this new text writing-reading practice? How are the
important „keep in mind and think over” issues brought up in
this case?
With Patchwork Girl content and form are interwoven: the structure and
design of the interface and the operations one has to carry out really enact
the central arguments about identity that Jackson makes. I don’t know
whether this is generally the case with hypertexts, but it can certainly be
said that this technology-enabled writing-reading practice provides a more
corporeal encounter with textuality, engaging not just the mind but our
bodily senses. This intensity makes one “feel” the content, and thereby one
thinks about the important issues that Jackson addresses more intensively
also. This is my experience at least.
7. What important issues does Patchwork Girl bring up?
Many ... (laughs). I discuss Patchwork Girl primarily as a paradigmatic
example for how the new forms of subjectivity that we see emerging in the
real world (and that I label “posthuman”) can be represented and also
designed with digital media. As such, the work offers a model for imagining
identity beyond the binary logic of self/other, man/woman, human/animal,
etc. The Patchwork Girl herself postulates that her true self is to be found
between socially fixed poles: “I am most myself in the gaps between my
parts.” Intersubjectivity and intercorporeality replace the traditional notion of
identity as the self-same. Patchwork Girl, by the way, is the female monster
that Dr Frankenstein (in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein of 1818)
destroyed before animating it. Jackson resurrects her, assembling her from
body parts pertaining at once to other women, yet also to other men as well
as to animals. This idea of the human as an assemblage (rather than a
unitary and autonomous entity) echoes the endosymbiotic theory of
microbiologist Lynn Margulis which claims that human animals owe their
existence to bacterial cells and still contain within themslevs remainders of
other nonhuman life forms. This implies that the human body has always
been not quite human, but chimerical: hybridity or ‘patchwork existence’ is
the norm, rather than the exception. With her explicit turn to the “new
biology” in Patchwork Girl, Jackson joins a growing number of feminists
who begin to take biological factors seriously in constructing subjectivity
alongside and in interaction with cultural influences. This endeavour to
think beyond the nature/culture divide finds a parallel in Jackson’s aim to
theorise and offer a textual model for a non-instrumental notion of
subjectivity by exploiting the specificities of new media. I have pointed out
before that with the hypertext medium, the computer does no longer merely
function as an instrument (object) to be used by the human writer or reader
(subject), but is also an active participant in the creative process. This
machine/human interaction then becomes a non-hierarchical model for
thinking relationality in general.
8. How is it possible to speak about interrelations of text body and
human body?
Let me first say that it is crucial to insist that there are not only interrelations
but also differences between symbolic, biological and technological bodies
for ethical reasons: a machine is not ‘alive’ in the same way as an organic
being is, we cannot switch our sex or skin colour as easily as a human
body in a SF novel is able to, and the creation of a textual body is always
limited by all sorts of conventions and an interpretative matrix that remains
largely binary. Now, to address the interrelations between the textual body
and the human body in Patchwork Girl: with this text, and most of
Jackson’s other work as well, we see that stiching text or flesh together to
form a new ‘body’ are both monstruous practices; both produce a new and
somewhat ‘alien’ entity out of old and familiar parts. Just as Jackson takes
written pieces from other philosophers and writers to create her textual
corpus, so she (with the help of Mary Shelley and the computer) sews the
various body parts of ‘other’ creatures together to form a ‘self’. With ‘the
other’ always being a part of the ‘self’, the ‘outside’ always being ‘inside’,
there is no hierarchical difference between self/other but only a relation of
mutual dependency. There are further analogies: The hybrid nature of the
human organism as described before with the help of Margulis, for
example, finds a parallel in how the ‘organism’ of a hypertext functions.
Digital technology makes the textual body a multiplicity: information moves
across the interface of the screen and the encoding/decoding operations
are distributed between the writer, computer, and reader. In the process of
this collective action, the body of the user literally merges with the textual
body when activating links or following the scars of the monster to trace her
many origins via a mouse-click. There is a constant traffic between all
these various organic and non-organic bodies: through the body (graphics)
we reach text and from the text we go back to the body again, which allows
for a three-dimensional experience – and a heightened sense that this text
does indeed have a body – rather than the one-dimensional one we have
when reading words on a book page. Again, we are constantly moving from
outside to inside, inside to outside, etc. like the ants on Escher’s famous
Moebius strip. In short, Patchwork Girl is not just textual in a traditional
sense but shares the qualities of textiles, and reading it becomes a
weaving practice rather.
9. Why does the term „textiles” appear in this case? Doesn`t it
make all more stirred up as it is? 
The link between text and textiles is not far-fetched at all, whether we deal
with a hand-written letter, a print novel or a digital work. In fact, the word
“text” comes from Latin textum which denotes a woven cloth, a web, a
fabric as well as a composition (in speech and writing). More broadly
speaking and if we look back in time, we see that humankind has always
conceptualised the world as a web and ‘encoded’ materials (textiles in a
large sense) with all kinds of texts (also understood in a large sense as
encompassing nonverbal signs). For my concern with “weaving posthuman
subjectivity,” I draw especially on Roland Barthes’s emphasis on the text as
a tissue that has to be made through “perpetual interweaving”. In this tissue
the human subject cannot be a discrete individual cut off from others but
dissolves into the web. There is a strong analogy here between
interweaving, intertextuality, intercorporeality and intersubjectivity which –
as already mentioned – are the central concepts also in Patchwork Girl. In
this hypertext, the links resemble threads and the lexia look like cloth
patches, especially in the section “Crazy Quilt”, where the text boxes are
also coloured. Like Jackson, I pick up the thread offered by Deleuze
(through Leipniz) and see the world (and myself) as a complex texture of
infinite folds and fibres that transversally weave through compressed
space-time in a continuous movement of becoming.
10. By now it all seems more like an intellectual challenge ... Is there
any applied necessity to speak about the human in such form?
You are right, the attacks on the Enlightenment ideal of ‘Man’ started with
anti-humanist thinkers and was above all an intellectual enterprise,
motivated by the atrocities and denial of basic human rights carried out and
legitimated in the name of that ideal. There still is an urgent necessity not
only to rethink but also to remake “the human” if we care to do justice to all
those living beings which have historically been excluded and suffered –
and who continue to suffer – because of the androcentricism,
ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism of the dominant paradigms of “the
human.” A second major reason for talking about becoming-posthuman
(rather than being human) is that under the impact of information and bio
technologies driven by global capitalism, the boundaries between
human/animal/machine are also literally breaking down: closely tied to
computers and cell phones and metal or animal organs replacing their
broken hips or hearts, humans become cyborgs (animal-human or animalmachine hybrids). Of course, these boundaries have always being
precarious, but in the age of technoscience, we experience our lives as
cyborgs much more radically. Many people are scared of the posthuman
future but I think that a nostalgic defense of an essentialist human nature (à
la Francis Fukuyama, for example) is not a remedy. Rather, I prefer to
follow Jackson and create texts that deal positively with the growing
technologization of our habitat by recognizing the potential for different
figurations of humanity based on the principle of connectedness and an
ethics of sustainability.
11. What are the future perspectives of posthumanist "world-
reading"? Will it have any "real", "touchable" impact?
Unfortunately, I cannot see into the future, but let me express what I hope
will change and what are my motivations for contributing to a so-called
“critical posthumanism” – in theory and practice. This mode of thinking and
acting stresses living bodies’ corporeal interconnectedness to the world as
a network and to other actors as spiders – whether these are humans,
animals or machines. To use another metaphor: we all sit in the same boat
and we better row together as the survival of each depends on interaction
and collaboration. So, my greatest hope for the future is that such a
posthumanist world-reading and, more importantly, world-making will unfold
a world in which the acceptance of the fact that we live a ‘patchwork
existence’ leads to more empathy, intimacy and solidarity between all
inhabitants of this beautiful planet. Dream on … More realistically perhaps
and to come back to your first question, this brand of posthumanism is very
much in support of one of the major premises of ett, namely to promote an
understanding of “text” as produced by a network of forces (not all of them
“human”), and, more significantly, of its vision to bring into transdisciplinary
(even post-disciplinary) collaboration a variety of creative makers who still
mainly work in discrete institutions – writers, artists, scholars, scientists,
programmers and … designers.