My Body: material metaphor

A “wunderkammer,” the subtitle of Jackson’s hypertext My Body, is a cabinet of curiosities. The cabinet is an invention of the Enlightenment age: an encyclopedia that collects and represents the variety and vastness of nature in small pieces, specimens. Think of it as Wikipedia, or indeed, the entire web, before there are computers.

That said, we might begin to think of Jackson’s admittedly strange text as both very new and all too familiar. The new is the digital mediation. A hypertext is one in which the narrative has multiple pathways, is non-linear, and some sort of linking mechanism. In digital format, this is most any page on the web; Wikipedia, again, is a massive hypertext encyclopedia. In print form, one version of a hypertext would be the ‘choose your own adventure’ series of books.

But isn’t this text, in its interest in collecting and representing the life of the author, in its most immediate and essential place, the body of the author, also classically autobiographical? Here is Jackson’s description of the cabinet “metaphor” she uses to organize her text:

In the course of writing these reminiscences, I increasingly began to conceive of my body as a great cabinet of curiosities. Some of those many recondite drawers slide easily out and whack you on the shins, some need a little wax and sandpaper. Inside the drawers are folded sheets of cheap blue-lined paper, pages from journals or school reports, with pictures and diagrams pasted in. There are drawings, biological specimens with neat labels, inscrutable items with no labels, stains from bygone experiments, stoppered bottles and broken vials and their spilled, dried contents, in which a squadron of tiny fruit flies met their sticky deaths. There are slips of paper referring you to other drawers, unlabelled keys (you may despair of finding the locks they fit), and there are drawers within the drawers, behind sliding panels or false bottoms. I have found every drawer to be both bottomless and intricately connected to every other drawer, such that there can be no final unpacking. But you don’t approach a cabinet of wonders with an inventory in hand. You open drawers at random. You smudge the glass jar in which the two-headed piglet sleeps. You filch one of Tom Thumb’s calling cards. You read page two of a letter; one and three are missing, and you leave off in the middle of a sentence.

Intricately connected. No final unpacking. This is a point where Jackson’s metaphorical discussion of her writing about her body (her body represented as a cabinet of specimens) blurs into a focus on the intricate relation between her writing and her body. And that relation, we see, extends to our reading and to the form, or medium, in which we view/receive/read the body of writing. The critic Katherine Hayles, who writes about hypertext and other forms of digital literature, refers to this as “material metaphor.” It seems to me a synonym would be metonymy. So one way to make sense of Jackon’s text is to consider its (her) considerable interest in the materiality of a body being represented materially in writing.

Jackson elsewhere, in an essay about her hypertext novel Patchwork Girl (a revision and remediation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), discusses her particular interest in hypertext writing in terms of her inability to write in conventional ways, where logic is ordered and sequential, where things are final and contained. So, I envision this interesting but equally odd autobiographical text to be representative of her writer’s mind and body.

Benjamin Franklin, you might recall, does the same–not as much discussion of bodily fluids, to be sure. Is Franklin’s how-to guide of an autobiography (how to become Ben Franklin) in publishing oneself so different from the self-publishing potential of the web today? Consider the web project Collected Visions. Here the medium is both older and new: photography and digital mediation. And so is the idea: imagine yourself in someone else’s experience.

Jackson’s “My Body” is archived along with lots of other electronic texts of various sorts and genres (texts, in other words, created with and for some sort of computer mediation) at the Electronic Literature Archive.

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