s h a t t e r

 

 

 

 

 <inside/outside internet>

identikits

If identity=various simultaneously existent identities + any of myriad other intertexts, who can adequately describe what it is to say ‘identity’? When life experiences have shattered notions of self, how do the languages and technologies with which we are surrounded affect the endless (re)formations of identity? Can identity be extricated from its innumerable intertextual associations?

In order to explore these questions I wrote notes which eventually became part of ‘multimedia.html’ (one paragraph of a new media collaboration, Imaginative Reading V).1
In Imaginative Reading V, a narrator imagines the future, textually, for her newborn child – a baby both carried and born while its mother was embroiled in the enormous undertaking of writing her experimental PhD thesis within the constraints of a western academy. She writes that for her child:

There will be intertextuality everywhere in a world of innumerable multi-media productions.





(in that private place where readings are assimilated in all their shimmering intertextualities -- where signs can sing and shout and leap like ocean breakers, never considering what they were supposed to mean, once, somewhere ...).

'That which is fabricated inside readerly space' is both readings of particular texts or events and that reader's experience of her/his various selves. The mother imagines her daughter being overwhelmed with information, but the child is able to assimilate them into herself without the dictates of either dictionaries or academies. French theorist HélèneCixous asks:

[What is the] book of the world? a dictionary, everything is in the dictionary, loving is in the dictionary, everything is ordered, described, dictionaried, known, my body is in the dictionary,
oh my love, we are in the monster's mouth and it has thirty-five thousand teeth.
2


If 'identity=various intertexts', the child's identity can be fashioned with freedom from constraint and with fluidity as its hallmark. Neither the signifier, 'identity', nor any other signifier is any longer bound by a measurable set of signifying possibilities, but rather an infinite array.

The 'child', as type, reappears in travels towards, in which an imagined train traverses an intertextual assemblage of Virginia Woof, Rimbaud's poetry, Patrick White's writing, snippets of Shakespeare's Tempestuous last play, Petterd's digital imaginations and Diane Caney's poetry and prose. The narrator says of the woman riding in the train:

She stares at a
small faded
child

disappearing
into the
landscape.
a tiny typed
asterisk
set against a
sea
of bleached
yellows.

The "child" might be read as "the fragile" in identity, but she is also cunning, the one who eludes constriction. In the hypertext version of travels towards, each of the above rectangles of words only remains on the computer screen for a matter of seconds. The text is evasive. It seeks to escape, not wanting to remain long enough to be pinned down.

But as Cixous writes, a text can only ever 'become' by 'passing through' 'the person whose name is You'.3 There is an exchange which takes place between a reader's identity and the texts being read during any reading process. There can be no strict distinctions drawn, however, between what is INSIDE and what is OUTSIDE reader-occupied space. Any contact with the world (of texts, with ANY THING, even consciousness) results in a cacophony of responses – with countless intertextual strands that coalesce and fly away ...

New technologies have exploded the possibilities of authoring. Already the various processes of reading, practised when reading non-electronic texts, are beginning to dissolve into a medley which involves readers in the activities of intertextual assemblage, editing, filtering, interrogating, desiring, requiring more or less of (inter)texts ... The reader-as-author arrives replete with her/his own indentikits.

If identity is a series of fragments, off-cuts, imaginary ideals, celluloid remembrances ... and so on, if it is an ever-moving intertextual collage, then there is a flow between and across and through ... there is an intertextual exchange which surrounds all entities involved in the reading process, including that entity which is encased inside the sensation of being alive within a body.

Given that readers are not immobile spaces upon and into which are transmitted various intertexts, all discussion of intertextuality must assume that texts (once they intermingle with a reader's mind/body) are imbued with an unquantifiable degree of intertextual input from the reader, whether conscious or not. Outside both myself and my writing is always a 'you', a reader with an array of identities.

Julia Kristeva argues that any 'addressee ... is included within a book's discursive universe only as discourse itself'.4 I am only discursive to you, then, as you assemble me from an intertextuality of yourself, other texts and this text; and vice versa. Participating in online list discussions and chat-rooms foregrounds the discursive status of readers and authors even further. The reader/author replaces the traditionally understood author and reader as roles are exchanged continually in a dynamic discursive interchange.


<P>

gathering the splinters

Both readings and the people assembling them, are then, similarly shifting. Readings are transient moments when a variety of intertexts aggregate and sit together within an ‘infirm’, virtual, reader-inhabited space until something happens to end that particular momentary gathering. The lines of flight surrounding the process of reading intertextually might resemble those imagined by the daughter in Imaginative Reading V:

She will draw and write about the lines of flight that might be taken by bees or blow-flies or meandering birds. The unpredictable lines will be metaphors for the ways in which texts and readers intersect. Rather quaint and Dickinsonian, she'll know. But after careful thought she'll decide that when her mind assembles readings it bumbles along, usually, from text to memory to intertext to thought, to phone-call to baby to nice-view-out-window to interrupting thought to clothes-line and then to complete interruption upon which the incomplete and unstable intertextual reading has to be shelved (or more likely thrown in some corner) until an opportunity arrives at which time it might be re-begun.5

The precarious nature of both texts and readings is foregrounded by the activity of Net-surfing. Every visit/experience/interaction/reading can be an arbitrary journey across a wide variety of sites (many of which are in a state of continuous reworking). This property of reading intertextually, and its similitude with the haphazard processes of experiencing everyday life and the assemblage and dissolution of identity, is not as obvious when reading books and other so-called hard-copy artworks. Nonetheless, the parallel is there as well. Hélène Cixous points out that:

Each (word or) sentence of a text has survived the shipwreck of two hundred pages. The process of writing is to circulate, to caress, to paint all the phenomena before they are assembled, crystallized in a word. ... [A]t times what writing does well is this meticulous work that one does not have the time to do ... when one is not writing [/authoring/assembling texts]. Such that in the end we will not have lived these innumerable intimate events that constitute us because we will not have recognized them. In a book [or on a screen], sometimes, all of a sudden, we see the portrait of a palpitation pass, the portrait of an instant of which we ourselves have been the lead character, without being able to detain it. This is what the ... [text] gives: this (re)cognition that had escaped us.6

The text, then,
writes us, even as we assemble,
distil and embroider an (inter)textual entity
from the enormous array of signifiers
ever confronting the immense expanse,
both inside and outside our various sensations of self. There is the shipwreck of the text and the selfwreck – the notion of identity shattered into a thousand pieces. Janet Frame, the New Zealand writer who was saved from a leucotomy in the 1950s because she won an award for one of her short stories, writes:

What could I do if I couldn't write? Writing was to be my rescue. I felt as if my hands had been uncurled from their clinging-place on the rim of the lifeboat. . . . I comforted myself by remembering that in my years in hospital, when I clung to my copy of Shakespeare, hiding it under my straw mattresses, having it seized and scheming for its return, not often reading it but turning the tissue-paper-thin pages which somehow conveyed the words to me, I had absorbed the spirit of The Tempest. Even Prospero in his book-lined cell had suffered shipwreck and selfwreck; his island was unreachable except through storm.7

Both reading texts and assembling notions of self can evoke a variety of emotions as people interact with their notions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. These transactions, though, do not take place exclusively in some theoretical (inter)textual space outside readers. There is a continuous play across – text, image, screen, person, air, intellect, film, emotion, view out the window, imagination, theory, creativity, editor, desire – the list does not end ... travelling over and through the vastness of what can be called intertextuality. Janet Frame welcomes the infiltration of the words and worlds of The Tempest, though, as familiar ... as self ... as shattered pieces of a portrait she recognises.

Of the child who can recognise its own mirror-image, Jacques Lacan writes that:

in a series of gestures ... [s/]he experiences in play the relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates – the child's own body, and the persons and things, around [it].8

Lacan refers to an actual mirror, but for the child who has been abused, however, the symbolic mirror of self, the trusted other, is not recognisable. The person who should reflect her tiny self as faithful mirror-image becomes a monster. And the perceptions of the tiny self seen in actual mirrors are equally untrustworthy. The intertextuality of experience, shame, incomprehension, pain and sorrow will not form into either an image or a coherent narrative. They become a jigsaw which will not assemble.

Written stories in the form of books (which are whole) resist the fragmentation that the child sees. Film might be able to mirror the fragmentation with its ability to assemble conflicting image, sound and still, but the viewer cannot control its sequence, cannot create the splinters. The Internet, however, is a medium with which both authors and readers can interact, plotting their own courses, editing, erasing, fracturing or seeking some kind of unstable conglomeration of meaning. By browsing hypertexts the child can simultaneously navigate several different narratives. She can even enable them to inter-relate in ways not previously possible.

The title of travels towards can be read as a summing up of all reader/text interactions. Both entities can only ever travel towards one another. Cixous writes:

[i]nsofar as the literary text speaks about something, when literature is a means of crossing over towards the signified, where fiction is a way of inventing new meanings, the text is thinkable in accordance with an operation whose activity is double [or multiple]: I read it by means of a critical-philosophical reflection, and push it to the threshold where its newness seduces me and yet undoes me (Cixous 'First Names' 31).

I would argue that this process is not only applicable to reading fiction, but to all texts. We travel towards 'readings', looking through windows as we go ... and there are always after-blurs. In travels towards a digital mosaic of greens, blacks and shades of blue rushes by outside the virtual train window as the following words appear slowly line by line:

Upon closed eye-lids there is an after-blur
of squarish windows turning blue and red,
telegraph poles of memory ...
reminiscent of scattered mosaics:
overhead tramwires and sky;
alchemy and the earth, nubile
and rich in blood; the young Rimbaud
and the absolute certainty of death ...

When the hotlink for the word 'death' is hit, the rushing digital display stops. The implication of this seizure is, for me, that interpretations which seek closure halt what might have been a perpetual dynamic intertextual interaction, an endless 'travelling towards'.


<P>


blurring the semes9

In order to describe intertextuality, Barbara Johnson refers to ‘infiltration’ and ‘violations of property’, and suggests that ‘[i]ntertextuality’ designates ‘the multitude of ways a text has of ... being traversed by otherness’.10 One dictionary describes ‘traverse’ as

[t]o run across or through; [t]o run (something) through with a weapon, to pierce, stab ... to penetrate ... [t]o cross (a thing) with a line ... or anything that intersects ... [t]o be crossed with lines ... to pass or journey across, over, or through; to pass through (a region) from side to side, or from end to end; also to pass through (a solid body), as rays of light etc ... [t]o go to and fro over or along; to cross and recross.11

Making an intertext of this dictionary description of ‘traverse’ with other words Johnson uses to describe intertextuality, invites readings of texts and intertexts that include many metaphors.12 Words and phrases like ‘infiltration’, ‘violations of property’, and ‘traversed by otherness’ in Johnson, and ‘stab’, ‘pierce’, and ‘journey’ in the dictionary description, invite readings of the intertextuality of texts as bodies of land that have been purchased, or invaded during acts of war; animal or human bodies that have been penetrated and/or injured; and/or land or living bodies that are being crossed over and over, either with or without permission.

There are transgressions and allusions to violence, which bring with them connotations of illegality and/or war. Is intertextuality a process whereby a text is repeatedly invaded by an alien text, damaged, broken, violated? Must intertexts be thought of as alien? Do intertexts cause violent disruptions to other texts? And, if so, how do these interpretations allow for the similarities often inherent in intertexts, and also for harmonious intermingling? Must there be a binary opposition between violence and harmony?

There are disruptions when any text is traversed by another (an ‘other’) text, but to think of that textual upheaval as necessarily violent, or even as potentially violent, assumes that texts are ordinarily stable and whole, and that after acts of intertextual reading those texts are somehow plundered, vandalised or transgressed. Material texts such as books, videos, compact discs and journals can be held in consumers' hands. They appear to be finite. Even though what is seen/read/heard as they are 'read' might seem less tangible, their containers speak of wholeness.

The Internet, however, is an immeasurable, shifting intertextuality which only visits our screens for a time. Revisiting a site may mean finding it either completely altered or missing, with the only archive of past visits being memory. Traversing the Net can mean accessing a mélange of sights, sounds and words. For survivors of abuse, the intertextuality which constitutes 'identity' can also be a bizarre collage of conflicting texts. Their bodies might have been violated, their minds traumatised. The Web is a textual medium which can metaphorise the sense of having no boundaries, of not feeling capable of being a finite entity, even though our bodies might have physical borders. No longer does the survivor sense that s/he is unusual in her/his fragmentation because there is a text which mirrors the endless replays, the interruption and disruption which is often associated with post-traumatic memories.

The Internet invites us to see texts as unstable conglomerates of various textual media that invite disruption, that thrive on disruption, that cannot survive without disruption. And identities, even those which have not been shattered by abuse,
are similarly haphazard,

eddy and swirl


Diane Caney, 1999
© all rights reserved


Bibliography
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1969.
Barthes, Roland. ‘The Death of the Author’. Twentieth Century Literary Theory. Ed. K. M. Newton. London: MacMillan, 1988. 154-57.
Bass, Ellen & Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal. Harper & Row, New York, 1988.
Caney, Diane & Robin Petterd. Imaginative Reading V. http://www.otheredge.com.au/prj/imaginative/
Cixous, Hélène & Mireille Calle-Gruber. Hélène Cixous, rootprints: Memory and life writing. Routledge: London, 1997.
Cixous, Hélène. Stigmata: Escaping Texts. Routledge: London, 1998.
Cixous, Hélène. 'First Names of No One'. The Hélène Cixous Reader. Ed. Susan Sellers. Routledge: London, 1997.
Cixous, Hélène. 'FirstDays of the Year'. The Hélène Cixous Reader. Ed. Susan Sellers. Routledge: London, 1997.
Frame, Janet. An Angel At My Table. London: Paladin, 1987.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Johnson, Barbara. A World of Difference. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins U P, 1987.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Léon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, & Léon S. Roudiez. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
Kristeva, Julia. 'Word, Dialogue and Novel'. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Trans. Seán Hand & Léon S. Roudiez. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
Lacan, Jacques. 'The Mirror Stage'. A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Antony Easthope & Kate McGowan. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993.
Petterd, Robin & Diane Caney. travels towards. http://www.overthere.com.au/travels/.
Roudiez, Léon, S. ‘Introduction’, in Julia Kristeva. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
Simpson, J.A., & E.S.C. Weiner, eds. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1989.

References

1 View ‘multimedia.html’ at: http://www.otheredge.com.au/prj/imaginative/9.multimedia.html

2 Hélène Cixous, 'FirstDays of the Year', The Hélène Cixous Reader, Susan Sellers (ed.), Routledge: London, 1997, p. 185.

3 Hélène Cixous, Stigmata: Escaping Texts, Routledge: London, 1998, pp. 49-50.

4 Julia Kristeva, 'Word, Dialogue and Novel', p. 37.

5View ‘draw.html’ at: http://www.otheredge.com.au/prj/imaginative/11.draw.html

6 Hélène Cixous & Mireille Calle-Gruber, Hélène Cixous, rootprints: Memory and life writing, Routledge: London, 1997, pp. 18-19)

7 Frame, Janet, An Angel At My Table, London: Paladin, 1987, p. 128.

8 Lacan, Jacques, 'The Mirror Stage', A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, Antony Easthope & Kate McGowan (eds.), Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993, p. 72.

9 'blurring the semes' is an online poem which is included in the online version of this essay at: http://www.overthere.com.au/digital/blurring2.html.

10 Barbara Johnson, A World of Difference, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins U P, 1987, p. 116.

11 J.A. Simpson, & E.S.C. Weiner, (eds.), The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

12 I use the words describe and description rather than define and definition when referring to the range of meanings attributed to terms because I want to avoid the notion of essences. I see words as part of a signic flux, as unstable entities. I consider what is signified by words as transient and affected by cultural contexts, intertexts, textual contexts, and individual readings. It would be illogical, therefore, for me to attempt to fix the meanings of words by "defining" terms.