Article body

Shelley Jackson’s electronic novel Patchwork Girl (1995) takes us to a grave side, that familiar scene of gothic writing, in which Victor Frankenstein once sought with “profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame” (Shelley 82). Night has fallen, the moon hangs pale in the starless sky, casting long shadows from the headstones. But this grave dates from the late-twentieth century, not the early-nineteenth, and the body buried here is not that of the male monster that Victor brought to life, but that of the female monster which he once contemplated creating but then prematurely destroyed. Her headstone reads: “Here Lies a Head, Trunk, Arms (Right and Left), and Legs (Right and Left) as well as divers Organs appropriately Disposed. May they Rest in Piece” (headstone). The injunction to let these bodily parts “rest in piece” is more than a simple pun; it is indicative of the text’s critique of those narratives of self, so familiar to readers of the bildungsroman tradition, that proceed in a linear or sequential fashion and privilege the ideals of organic unity and ontological coherence. Each of these “pieces” are not so much parts of some former whole, the singular narrative or life story that we as readers are invited to reconstitute. They are rather nodal points in a reticular design that is materially shaped and formed by the reader’s interactions: passing our cursor over and then clicking on “Head,” “Trunk," or “divers Organs,” leads us to different lexia, or fragments of text and images, which tell the story, or better yet, stories, of Patchwork Girl, a monstrous assemblage of male and female body parts made, she tells us, every bit “as strong as my unfortunate and famous brother, but less neurotic!” (I Am). Clicking on “Left” leg, for example, we learn that before being grafted to Patchwork Girl, this limb had belonged to Jane, a woman who worked as a nanny, but had spent her youth consorting with sailors at the docks. “Nanny knew some stories that astonished her charges, and though the ship on her thigh blurred and grew faint and blue with distance . . . she always took the children to the wharf when word came that a ship was docking, and many a sailor greeted her by name” (Left Leg). Patchwork Girl, then, is not simply a character in a novel, she is the novel: moving from link to link, and from story to story, the reader assembles the narrative from the “scrap bag” of fragmentary narratives, apocryphal anecdotes, personal memoirs, and extensive quotations culled not only from Shelley’s 1818 novel, but from Frank L. Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), and references to Lucretius, Derrida, Cixous, and a host of other sources. These materials constitute the discursive body of the text, its organs, limbs, muscles, and tissues. The corpse buried here is also the corpus, the material form of a creature that disturbs the conventional distinctions between the animate, and inanimate, the authentic and the inauthentic, the born and the manufactured.

Texts such as Jackson’s that employ computer technology to allow the reader to move in an associative manner, proceeding from link to link, as opposed to from page to page, are referred to as hypertexts. The term was first coined by Theodor H. Nelson in the mid-sixties; he defined it as “non-sequential writing—text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen” (2). While a small coterie of experimental writers such as Jackson have sought to explore the literary potential of this medium, it has become most associated with reference texts, such as encyclopedias, library catalogues, and aircraft repair manuals, where the facility of linking allows for quick text searches and easy cross-referencing. In this sense, one might consider the internet, with its associated search engines and hot links, one vast, ever-evolving hypertext. Literary critics such as George Landow, Gregory Ulmer, and Stuart Moulthrop, have seen hypertext as a kind of testing ground for many post-structuralist theories of textuality. One particularly important touchstone in this regard has been Roland Barthes’ conception of the text as a “methodological field” (57), or “network ” (61), that the reader does not so much read in the manner of a conventional “work,” as “traverse ” or “play” in the sense that a musician plays a score. Where a print-based text might allow the reader to interpret its meanings differently from reader to reader, or from reading to reading, hypertext allows her actually to assemble the materials of the text, to decide its sequence, its shape, and form. In so doing, the computer seemed to realize Barthes’ desire for a textuality that transforms the reader from a passive consumer to an active producer. “[T]he Text requires an attempt to abolish (or at least to diminish) the distance between writing and reading, not by intensifying the reader’s projection into the work, but by linking the two together into one signifying practice” (62). Barthes, of course, is not referring here to electronic texts, but those print-based narratives, such as the “nouveau romans” of Sollers, Duras, and Robbe-Grillet, that arrest the ready transit from signifier to signified and force the reader to encounter the materiality of the signifier itself. But Landow insists that “Barthes’ distinction between readerly and writerly texts appears to be essentially between text based on print technology and electronic hypertext” (5). Hypertext, in this sense, is something more than a novel way of organizing textual materials; it is a means of liberating the reader from the linear determinism of the codex book, resulting in nothing less than a “revolution in human thought,” a fundamental “paradigm shift” with “profound implications for literature, education, and politics” (2).

Described by Robert Coover as “perhaps the true paradigmatic work” of the “golden age” of hypertext literature, Jackson’s Patchwork Girl manifests many of the qualities that Landow ascribes to hypertext. In the first instance, it undercuts conventional notions of authorship. Jackson’s narrative has no single point of origin, no stable site of identity outside or prior to its inscription, that might confer order and meaning on its disparate parts. It is not an expression of some a priori will or intention. Its title page attributes the text not to “Shelley Jackson,” but rather to “Mary/Shelley & Herself,” an act of what N. Katherine Hayles calls “distributed authorship.” Mary Shelley provides more than a source of narrative materials, themes, images, and characters. She is, rather, a kind of co-author of this text. “When Jackson re-inscribes Shelley’s text in hers, the act is never merely a quotation,” writes Hayles. “Rather the citation of Shelley is a performative gesture indicating that the authorial function is distributed across both names as the nominative they share between them would suggest (Mary Shelley/Shelley Jackson)” (“Flickering Connectivities” 38). This act of distributed authorship, however, foregrounds not only the role of these two human writers, but that of the text itself, “Herself” referring to “Patchwork Girl,” the network of links that plays a significant part in what the text may become as either Mary Shelley or Shelley Jackson. Patchwork Girl is her own author, or at least of one of her own authors.

This attention to the part played by the text in its autogenesis, however, serves to call into question Landow’s sense of hypertext as providing the reader with a range of narrative objects from which she may freely choose, and, in so doing, liberate her from the strictures of the codex book. In positioning the reader as another Victor Frankenstein, one who must toil, in Mary Shelley’s words, “among the unhallowed damps of the grave” (82), the text presents itself as more than a variety of malleable materials to be arranged at will; it has a robust alterity that persistently draws attention to itself, which addresses the reader, and compels her awareness of the text as a productive force in its own right, calling itself into being as much as it is called into being by either author or reader: “I am buried here,” reads an early lexia, “You can resurrect me, but only piecemeal. If you want to see the whole, you will have to sew me together yourself” (Graveyard). Reading here is not simply a process of interpretation, in which the mind pursues the text as Victor pursues nature “to her hiding places” (Shelley 82). It is rather a physical activity, one in which bodies engage with other bodies, each leaving the mark of its passing on the other. “Burdened with body parts,” reads another lexia, “your fingernails packed with mud and chips of bone, you slink out of the graveyard. A kind of resurrection has taken place” (Out). Jackson thus shows us that electronic texts do not so much passively respond to the interests and choices of the reader as interact dialectally with her, shaping those interests and choices even as it forms itself out of them. We do not escape the graveyard of reading without some taint or stain, some mud packed under our fingernails, to mark our struggle to bring meaning to these words. This attention to the somatic dimension of technology, to its ineradicable otherness, and its capacity to affect the reader directly, is the point at which Patchwork Girl is most emphatically a gothic text, one that signifies the ghostly presence of the corporeal as the condition or ground of all signification. In what follows I want to further explore the gothic nature not simply of this particular work of hypertext literature, but of the activity of reading electronic texts in general, to explore the ways in which what Jackson calls “the banished body,” the monstrous materiality of subjectivity, haunts not only the eighteenth-century faith in the rational powers of intellection, but our own post-millennial dreams of transcendence.

* * *

The critical reception of Mary Shelley’s first novel provides an illustrative case study of the threat that the gothic posed to Enlightenment ideals of subjectivity. In a notable contribution to the Quarterly Review, one writer lashed out against the novel’s style, declaring that Frankenstein “inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated . . . it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and only adds to the store, already too great, of painful sensation” (Croker 385). Frankenstein is depicted here as a novel not of sense, or even sensibility, but of sensation; the danger it poses is not simply that it abjures its responsibility to teach lessons of “conduct, manner, or morality,” but that it excites the body, that it can somehow by-pass our “understanding” and touch us more deeply, at the level of nerves, muscles, and tissues. The review thus concludes that the reader is left “after a struggle between laughter and loathing, in doubt whether the head or heart of the author be the most diseased” (Croker 385). As a literature of somatic affect, the gothic troubled the Cartesian belief that the mind and body were mutually exclusive substances, the mind being exempted from the dictates of nature to which the body must conform. Such a separation was the cornerstone of Enlightenment philosophy, as it was only by divorcing the mind from the body that one could construe Nature as an object of analysis, a place of hidden secrets into which the mind of man might venture. As Elizabeth Grosz writes, “Descartes . . . succeeded in linking the mind/body opposition to the foundations of knowledge itself, a link which places the mind in a position of hierarchical superiority over and above nature, including the nature of the body” (6). The gothic, as the writer for the Quarterly Review makes clear, threatened this hierarchical privileging of mind over body, by heightening our awareness of our corporeal nature. The “struggle” the reviewer fears is precisely that of the body asserting its role in the formation and maintenance of the subject, not as its occulted other, but as the very condition of its being.

The danger that the gothic posed to the mind/body divide was of particular concern to female readers. As “feeling creatures” whose capacity to respond to the distress of others was often held to be their distinguishing characteristic, women were thought to be constitutionally ill-prepared for the psychic shocks and nervous excitements afforded by the novels of Beckford, Lewis, and Radcliffe. Women were too easily touched by such narratives, too quick to identify with the emotional plights of their characters. In so doing, they might not only entertain false expectations that their own lives might be as rich in sensation and feeling, but might become dangerously addicted to the physical stimulation such tales afforded. Novels, in this sense, were not so much “read” by women, as “touched,” “felt,” or even, in one particularly recurrent trope, “ingested.” As Ina Feris argues, the “striking thing about the characterization of female reading is that it makes reading an act of the body rather than the mind” (37). Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century the novel “came to be seen as an agent of seduction in the most literal ways”:

A magazine-article of 1797 stigmatized novel-reading as ‘a Cause of Female Depravity’, in 1806 Edward Barry placed novel-reading among ‘incentives to seduction’ and the Edinburgh Review considered female novel-readers ‘upon the borders of prostitution’, in Adam Sibbit’s Thoughts on the Frequency of Divorces (1800) novels, particularly Werther and the ‘profane lessons of the Monk,’ are blamed for the collapse of family life, and The Evils of Adultery and Prostitution (1792) causatively links an ‘increase’ in adultery and prostitution to novel-reading.

Pearson 110-11

If the gothic, in this sense, was something that one ingested, it was not that form of “nature” which the mind masters through the act of incorporation, that is to say, by making it part of itself. It is, rather, the means by which the mind is returned to the body, giving itself over to its seductive needs and satisfactions.

Little wonder, then, that the perils of novel-reading were often depicted as not simply spiritual or moral in nature, a threat to one’s eternal soul, but physical. The clergy, medical practitioners, and social critics of the period argued that excessive reading, and especially of those kinds of books, of which the gothic was a primary exemplar, that excited female passions, could result in severe bodily and mental ailments: paleness, moodiness, irritability, fatigue, and nervous exhaustion were among the common disorders thought to most often result from novel-reading. The “excess of stimulus on the mind,” writes one contemporary authority, that are “peculiar to novels, affects the organs of the body, and relaxes the tone of the nerves” (qtd in Feris 39). Such dire warnings were not restricted, however, to medical journals and the popular press. Like modern cigarette manufacturers who purposively advertise the dangers of their products, giving over much of their packaging to graphic depictions of the diseases that may follow from smoking, gothic novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were keen to include vigorous denunciations of the very pleasures with which their texts were most closely associated. In Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, St Aubert instructs his daughter to beware of any source of sensation:

“Above all, my dear Emily,” said he, “do not indulge in pride of fine feeling, the romantic error of amiable minds. Those, who really possess sensibility, ought early to be taught, that it is a dangerous quality, which is continually extracting the excess of misery, or delight, from every surrounding circumstance. And since, in our passage through this world, painful circumstances occur more frequently than pleasing ones . . . we become the victims of our feelings, unless we can in some degree command them.”


But it was of course precisely the aim of the gothic to overcome the tentative hold which sense had over feeling; through its seemingly unmediated appeal to the nervous system, it could unleash the body’s repressed energies, and remind women that they were more than disembodied spirits, more than mere angels whose innocence and purity secured the masculine claim to the social and political spheres.

The affective dangers of novel-reading, and most especially of reading arcane tales of the uncanny and the supernatural, might be thought to have little place in the era of computer-mediated communications. The virtual realm inhabited by readers of electronic texts has been consistently troped as the fulfilment of the Cartesian desire to divorce the mind from its material substrate. Indeed, such dreams of transcendence are central to one of the founding texts of the emergent cyberculture, and the one in which the term “cyberspace” was coined, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984). Its protagonist is a computer hacker named Case who pursues his craft “on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (5). In contrast to “the bodiless exultation of cyberspace,” Case deplores his body as only so much “meat,” and fears the day he becomes trapped in the “prison of his own flesh” (6). Case’s attitude toward corporeality has become increasingly common in discussions of the ways in which social relations are now increasingly conducted in virtual environments. As Hayles argues, it is now conventional to conceptualize cyberspace as “a disembodied realm of information that humans enter by leaving their bodies behind. In this realm, so the story goes, we are transformed into information ourselves and thus freed from the constraints of embodiment” (“Boundary Disputes” 34). Reconstituted as a sequence of binary digits over which the user has complete control, the body is understood in such narratives not so much a site for the production of meaning as a threat to it, that which must be jettisoned in pursuit of the dream of pure information.

Texts such as Jackson’s, however, suggest that the capacity of the gothic novel to seduce its reader, to draw her into an emotional exchange negotiated at the level of the body itself, persists even in the “disembodied realm” of cyberspace. Where Victor Frankenstein forms the materials at his disposal into the shape he wants, much as Landow imagines the hypertext reader “freely” choosing which links to pursue in an electronic document, Jackson compels us to acknowledge both the materiality and the alterity of the bodily parts we stitch together to form this narrative. These are not just arms and legs, but Eleanor’s arm, and Jane’s leg, their stories are not effaced in the act of adding them to some new body, but are rather inscribed indelibly on its surface. Patchwork Girl imagines holding a microphone to her skin and being able to hear “the tinny distant voices of other personalities, of which I am a chord, or discord.” Such voices, she insists, are not mere potentialities, or literary types, “[t]hey’re people, thinking and talking about it. They’ve got a sense of history, dense and disappointing” (miked tripes). Moreover, if these trace selves persist in Patchwork Girl, she imagines a time in which she will persist in them:

And yet I think my parts will remember me, as I remember those they left behind. Judith and the rest will draw together, bound by a hidden figure that traverses them all. I will still act, dispersed as I am, catalyzing group actions, tics, a stitch in the side. My erstwhile foot, returned to its owner, will know the tango and teach its slower fellow . . .

My fingers will write sonnets in the family Bible and political tracts in my embroidery hoop. Derrida will come home mumbling about a she-monster who beset him in the woods, and James the Dismembered will wonder at how far his toe has wandered from its resting place.


Thus where the critics of the gothic sought to defend the originary innocence of the female subject, Jackson asks us to understand the subject as an ongoing process of ontological contestation, not between such stable and recognizable entities as the “self “and its “other,” but between a whole network of textual citations and transformations. To this end, the Storyspace software in which the text is written provides a facility for saving the specific path or sequence of links that has constituted a particular reading, and for adding margin notes to individual lexia. The reader can thus add herself to this text, not only by creating different arrangements of its individual parts, but by contributing her own writing to its body, grafting parts of herself to the emerging narrative. “Keep in mind,” the text informs us, “that on the microscopic level, you are all clouds. There is no shrink-wrap preserving you from contamination: your skin is a permeable membrane . . . if you touch me, your flesh is mixed with mine, and if you pull away, you may take some of me with you, and leave a token behind” (hazy whole). Like the global hypertext that is the internet, Patchwork Girl is ultimately less as an identity, singular and enclosed, than she is a point of transit through which bodies and texts freely miscegenate.

Kelly Hurley describes such deviant bodies as that of Patchwork Girl as representative of the gothic genre’s obsession with the “abhuman.” “The abhuman subject is a not-quite-human subject characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other” (3-4). The unease posed by the abhuman is not, however, simply the affront it poses to notions of aesthetic proportion and physical beauty, but its capacity to reveal the degree to which form and matter are deeply imbricated in one another. As the body loses its distinctive shape, its coherence and unity, we are compelled to confront the possibility that form is not the natural state of matter. The shaping of the world into identifiable patterns is less the spontaneous or organic realization of some design that is inherent in matter, than it is an effect produced by and mediated through our discursive technologies. In the world of the gothic, Hurley concludes, form is “shifting, variable, revealing itself as ‘structurality’ (a tendency toward shape and meaningfulness) rather than structure (a stable ordering of things)” (31). As Victor Frankenstein learns, hunted to the farthest reaches of the earth by the creature that he made from dead bodies, there is no escaping the "thing-ness" of matter.

Jackson’s abhuman text exposes the ineradicable materiality of the body by foregrounding its “structurality,” its perpetual state of becoming as opposed to being. The opening graphic depicts Patchwork Girl with a dotted line slashing across her abdomen. To enter this text we must choose to click on one side or the other of this scar, and to create, in effect, another scar by that very act of stitching these two lexia, these two portions of skin, together. “My real skeleton,” the monster announces, “is made of scars: a web that traverses me in three-dimensions. What holds me together is what marks my dispersal. I am most myself in the gaps between my parts” (dispersed). It is not the contents of the individual lexia, the fragmentary stories and citations from canonical and not so-canonical works, that constitute Patchwork Girl’s being, but rather the links that allow the reader to traverse the text from point to point. In one particularly poignant scene, Patchwork Girl is reunited with Mary Shelley and the two, now lovers, enter into a secret pact to sew portions of their skin to one another. Mary chooses to cut out “a piece of skin Percy would likely never miss,” but Patchwork Girl faces a problem in choosing what to offer her in return. “I wiped the piece of skin off the blade onto a bit of cotton and set the sharp edge of the knife against the knotty scar that crosses my thigh to meet my groin. We had decided that as my skin did not, strictly speaking, belong to me, the nearest thing to a bit of my flesh would be this scar, a place where disparate things joined in a way that was my own” (join). Identifying herself in her scar tissue, in the join that brings together her disparate elements while still signaling the very fact of their disparity, Patchwork Girl acknowledges that the subject is always already technological, an effect produced by the act of linking, of writing, of stitching. The ghost is not in the machine, it is the machine, the haunting presence of the network which, like the embedded hypertext mark up language tags and java script codes that make up any document on the internet, serves as the condition and the ground not only of our reading, but of our becoming.

* * *

“Writing,” argues another of Patchwork Girl’s bodily parts, Jacques Derrida, “is . . . a living-dead, a reprieved corpse, a deferred life, a semblance of breath. The phantom, the phantasm, the simulacrum of living discourse . . . is like all ghosts: errant. It rolls this way and that like someone who has lost his way, who doesn’t know where he is going, having strayed from the correct path, the right direction, the rule of rectitude, the norm; but also like someone who has lost his rights, an outlaw, a pervert, a bad seed, an adventurer, a bum” (143). To which we might add, a monster. If writing, in Derrida’s description, resembles the archetypal gothic narrative of an originary plenitude haunted by a ghostly absence, it is perhaps because the gothic is not so much a literary genre, as it is a recurring moment within the history of modernity, that point in which the material substrate of signification, whether it takes the shape of the book or a computer-mediated network, is momentarily visible, when it has not yet become so much a natural fact of our reading practices as to disappear from view. What Ruskin calls the “nature of the gothic” might be rethought as the deep and unsettling recognition that the technological is the formative ground of subjectivity, that it shapes our identities even as we shape it. The fragmented, multiple, and dispersed body of Jackson’s Patchwork Girl suggests something of the enduring presence of the body in the age of wireless internet connections, text messaging, and video iPods. It is not a metaphor for the constitutive role of language in the project of identity, but its very enactment, an improvisatory collaboration in the course of which such distinctions as reader and text, self and other, are both acknowledged and increasingly dissolved. “When we have business with language,” claims Patchwork Girl, “we are possessed by its dreams and demons, we grow intimate with monsters. We become hybrids, chimeras, centaurs ourselves: steaming flanks and solid redoubtable hoofs galloping under a vaporous machinery” (it thinks).