All posts by M.E. O’Neill

Perspectives of Womanhood in Motion and Pieces of Herself

This week’s readings explore issues of womanhood, from the mundane grievances experienced by suburban housewifes to the horrifying reality that human trafficking victims face. Motions by Hazel Smith, Will Luers, and Roger Dean deals with the latter. Immediately, this piece confused me. At the start, text appears, telling me I’m on a train. The audio tells a different story—I hear the whining engine of an airplane and the distinctive ding of a fasten seat belt sign. 

Soon, images appear, but they don’t clear things up; the pictures are up close, or blurred, or too abstract to make out. Lexias in different formats are arranged over the visuals: there’s plain white font, centered over blackness; white boxes with black borders, filled with plain black text; and large, floating, blue-gray words in different languages. The way the presentation of text switches, particularly the appearance of languages other than English, makes the reader feel a foreigner.

The content of these lexias adds to the puzzling experience. Some passages read like poetry, while others present statistics on human trafficking. The perspective shifts, too—distant third person recollections of facts and figures inform the reader about human trafficking on an academic level, while haunting first person accounts of abuse make the issue personal. There’s some second person, too, and lines like “Why did you agree to go with him?” sound almost accusatory and portray an attitude of victim blaming. 

Like the text, the audio changes; hectic, fast-paced piano music plays, building to a suspenseful crescendo before it suddenly stops. Occasionally, harsh distortions accompany the text and images. The sounds create feelings of urgency and anxiety in the listener. All of these elements (the sound, the text, the images) make the readers feel—to at least a small extent—like they are trafficking victims going through a harrowing and confusing experience.

While Pieces of Herself by Juliet Davis can also be confusing at times, this text gives the reader a lot more agency and control of the narrative. In this piece, the readers travel through different rooms in a house, choosing the order in which they visit each location, and they can click and move certain objects on the screen. Interacting with certain images prompts audio, such as speech or music, to play. All of the manipulatives on screen are “pieces” that make up the woman whose silhouette keeps readers company throughout each room. 

While the setting is more mundane than the heavy themes presented in Motion, the issues explored in Pieces are no less important. The piece contains commentary on a wide range of issues. For instance, an animated drop of blood over an American flag raises questions about our country’s checkered past (and present); a double helix strand of DNA in front of a child’s playground demonstrates the importance of passing parts of ourselves down to future generations; and a pink fetus over a cross portrays the conflicts between women’s rights and religion. 

The most prevalent themes, however, are related to the many facets of womanhood. In the kitchen, which is traditionally a female space, there’s audio about pastry recipes that are passed down from mother to daughter and spoken reminders like “Don’t forget to wash your hands.” In the same room, clicking a birthday cake prompts audio of Marilyn Monroe’s sensual rendition of “Happy Birthday.” All of these audio files point to the wildly different expectations that are simultaneously placed on women: women must provide food and comfort, and they must teach their children how to behave, but they should also look their best while doing it.

There’s obviously so much more to explore with this piece, from the conundrum of being a woman in the workplace that’s touched on in the office room, to the exorbitant amounts of money women spend on their appearances that’s mentioned in the living room. However, the one thread that was present throughout was just how overwhelming, aggravating, and anxiety inducing being a woman can be. 

The text depicts these frustrating feelings through a few incessant sounds. Occasionally, I’d click something, and the audio just wouldn’t stop. The drip-drop of water from a sink, or the splash of a spill in the kitchen, or, very bizarrely, the ribbit of a frog under the bedsheets followed me through the entirety of the piece. To be honest, I’m not sure what the deal is with the frog. Together, though, these sounds create a frustrating cacophony that reflects the overwhelming responsibilities and expectations that bombard women every waking moment of their lives. 

Weirdly, this aspect of the piece reminds me of an episode of the Netflix show Bojack Horseman, in which Princess Carolyn, a cat who recently adopted a baby porcupine (just bear with me here, guys), struggles to find a balance between keeping her career and taking care of her new child. The sounds of her daily chores (feeding the baby, taking out the trash, making phone calls, etc.) join together to create a unique but stress-inducing soundtrack. If you’re interested, you should watch the full episode, as it has some great commentary on the struggles working mothers face, but if you’re not looking to binge a new show, here’s a brief clip illustrating what I mean. (The relevant bits are from about 7:50-8:30.)

Overall, Pieces of Herself and Motion are both deeply moving and thought provoking texts that explore very different perspectives of the struggles women face. Despite some confusion and frustration, I enjoyed reading the powerful themes present in both pieces. 

Mindfulness and Awareness in Window and Ask Me for the Moon

This week’s readings were a reminder to be mindful and aware of issues both big and small. I’ll start with Window by Katherine Norman, which focuses on the small issues. I was slightly disappointed when I tried to view this piece, as I could only access the video of the it and not the website for the work itself. Just as I did last week while reading Bots and Trope, I questioned the best way to preserve electronic literature without stripping it of its meaning. The video shows the basic functions of the piece and demonstrates how to navigate it, but the interactivity of electronic literature is a big part of what makes it unique and significant, so viewing passively via video prevents the reader from discovering the full depth of meaning. 

Despite these limitations, I found a clear message in Window: be mindful and present in each moment, and find beauty in the mundane. As its name suggests, the piece centers on an ordinary view from a window, with ambient background noise as its only audio. The reader can mouse over the white dots that litter the glass or move them across the screen. 

When the dots are manipulated, text appears, describing everyday events and sounds. For example, phrases like “the spoon against the bowl” or “a cat, demanding” appear as lines of poetry, suggesting there’s meaning in the mundane. (As a side note, as soon as “a cat, demanding” popped up on my screen, my own cat jumped onto my desk to beg for attention. She really likes looking out windows, so she was a big fan of this poem.)

Towards the end of the video, some longer lexias appear, describing simple acts like making bread or commonplace images like a “nameless tree.” These detailed descriptions in conjunction with the sounds emanating from the window force the reader to take note of everyday pleasures and to recognize their importance.  Oftentimes, our lives are so busy and hectic that we forget about the little things that make living worthwhile, so Window is a good reminder to take time out of the day to be present and enjoy the moment.

Ask My for the Moon by John David Zuern is a lesson in a different kind of mindfulness; this poem raises readers’ awareness of the plight of the indigenous workers in Waikiki, Hawaii. The poem immediately orients readers in space with an image of the neighborhood’s simple white skyline over a pitch black background. The dark color, so different from how most people would imagine beautiful and sunny Hawaii, sets the poem’s mood. White words flash across the screen—if you look away, you might miss the message. This construction is reflective of one of the major themes of the poem; it’s easy for tourists to remain ignorant of the laborers’ plight if they’re not actively seeking to confront it.  

When the words disappear from the screen, a row of green images appears. Readers can click on these pictures to find new lexias of flashing white words interspersed with the occasional academic or philosophical passage. Lines such as “the sign of your arrival is your ebbing hope” create a melancholy tone and suggest Waikiki has a dark underbelly.  Excerpts from Karl Marx suggest that the capitalist tourism industry is taking advantage of the hospitality workers who make Waikiki such a popular destination, while other passages explore the negative effects of colonization on native Hawaiians.  

Throughout the poem, there’s a strong anti-colonial sentiment. Lines like “fragment of a world burgled / its greetings looted” suggest that Americans have stolen Hawaii’s land and beaches and appropriated its people’s customs and traditions. In another line, Zuern writes, “guest approaches host.” The word “host” conjures images of a parasitic relationship in which the tourists are sucking the life from the land and its people.   

It’s difficult to find the end of the poem; at one point, I reached a lexia I’d already seen, so I thought I’d read everything. Of course, there was still more poetry to explore, even after I was directed back to the home page. When I clicked “revisit” at the bottom of the webpage, I discovered still more lexias that I hadn’t seen my first time around. Does this structure of endless possibilities and exploration connect to the themes in the poem? Perhaps the endless loops reflect the endless cycle of abuse that oppressed peoples experience. Regardless, this poem heightened my awareness of the major issues facing the people of Waikiki.

Questions of Permanence and Significance in Bots and Trope

It turns out I was an unwitting connoisseur of electronic literature long before I began taking this class. I’ve seen plenty of bots on social media sites like Reddit and Twitter; I just didn’t realize they had any literary value. My personal favorite is Magic Realism Bot, which generates intriguing microfiction in tweet form—for example: “A polyamorous butler falls in love with the end of the world,” and, “A heart falls from the sky. An archaeologist says: ‘This is how it ends.’” 

I was a little disappointed when I didn’t see this bot (which I’ve been following for a while on my personal Twitter account) appear on the list in the ELC, and its absence made me wonder: What makes a text literature? At first glance, none of the bots I reviewed struck me as literary. In fact, I used the word “nonsensical” in my notes to describe at least five of them. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed reading them. My notes are also peppered with words like “cute” (directed at ✫ tiny star fields ✫) and “hilarious” (how 2 sext has some gems), but I struggled to find meaning in a lot of the texts. 

 Maybe that’s the point. These bots take reader-response theory to an entirely new level—the authors’ textual involvement ends after they finish coding, so the “writers” of the public facing portions are unfeeling algorithms. The onus is on the reader to make connections between seemingly random non sequiturs and create a deeper meaning. 

I found myself searching for this meaning unconsciously. For example, I scrolled through Pentametron until I found rhyming couplets, and then I read them all in a row like they were one continuous poem. I sought traces of satire in Two Headlines, and I made note of poignant verses from poem.exe. These bots expose our need to make connections, and they reveal the human condition: an endless search for meaning in our random, unfeeling universe. (Or maybe I’m overthinking it; sometimes a sexting Twitter bot is just a sexting Twitter bot.)

Not only did I question the significance of literature while exploring these bots, but I also questioned its permanence. Literature is timeless; I can read words from centuries ago that still feel relevant and meaningful. Electronic literature, however, can have an expiration date. Some of the Twitter bots have had their accounts suspended or deleted. Even the ones still up and running can’t last forever; what happens when Twitter follows in Myspace’s footsteps? 

These questions plagued me while I read Trope, as well. When I tried to access the text through Second Life, I received an error message saying that “conVerge Island” no longer exists. Based on the authors’ description, interacting with the work seems to be a key part of discovering its meaning. I can’t imagine that simply watching the video does the piece justice. 

The video itself raises even more questions. The first time I attempted to watch on my desktop, I was treated to eerie sounds and voices emanating from a pitch black screen. After reading some other blogs, I realized there should’ve been images to go along with the audio, so I switched to my iPad to watch. Now, the creepy whispers brushed through trees in a white forest, the clips of songs and static blared from a radio at a dance party, and the rapid explosions lit the night sky with a colorful fireworks display. Seeing the images in conjunction with the audio completely changed my reaction from utter confusion to—well, still confusion.

I couldn’t quite make sense of the story, but I had new questions to ask about the relation of the audio to the video and the meaning of some of the visuals. The difficulty of viewing Trope made me wonder about the accessibility of electronic literature. With traditional literature, I can run to the library, crack open a book, and read words that were written before I even existed. Electronic literature is tougher—you need the right software (such as QuickTime to view Trope) and the right device (like the Oculus headset to get the most out of Queerskins), and even then, you may miss out because the piece has been taken offline.

Does electronic literature exclude those who can’t read it at the right time or with the right technology? How can this type of writing be preserved and shared with everyone? Reading Trope and exploring the Twitter bots made me question the meaning and permanence of traditional literature in comparison to the reader-created significance and fleeting nature of electronic literature. Who knew Twitter bots could be so thought provoking?

Analysis of the Emotions in Queerskins

I didn’t think I’d enjoy Illya Szilak’s Queerskins as much as I did. Truthfully, I expected reading it to be an academic exercise in which I could better learn to navigate electronic literature and begin making critical observations about the genre’s structure and form. Instead, I found myself swept up in Sebastian’s emotional life story the same way I become engrossed in traditional novels. 

One reason this novel resonated with me so much is because it deeply explores meaningful themes. For example, Sebastian’s struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his religion is a major conflict in the work. His intense Catholic guilt is present in almost every sexual encounter he recounts in his journal entries. He describes dancing “worshipfully” in gay bars, he visits men with stained glass windows in their homes, and he compares performing oral sex on a man to the saints sucking the pus from lepers. Sebastian’s thoughts about his homosexuality are inextricably tied to his feelings on religion. 

His mother’s religion is another major piece of the narrative; the journal entries repeatedly mention her shrine to the Virgin Mary and how often she kneels to pray. This devout Catholicism prevents Mary-Helen from accepting her son’s sexuality; though she clearly loves him, she willfully ignores his coming out. When he dies, she agonizes over whether her homosexual son will be accepted into heaven. She struggles immensely with religious guilt just as Sebastian does. 

Mary-Helen not only suffers from the same Catholic guilt as her son, but she is also influenced by another one of the story’s major themes: toxic masculinity. Her husband Ed seems to abhor emotion and femininity. In addition to his disgust with Sebastian’s sexuality, Ed also cheats on his wife and ignores her emotional needs. For instance, after euthanizing their family dog, Ed only seems annoyed when his wife is crying. (As a side note, I think we can all agree that anyone who doesn’t cry when a dog dies is objectively an awful person.) Ed’s callous treatment of his wife diminishes her. Sebastian writes that if his father’s head exploded, Mary-Helen would “kneel down obediently and start cleaning it up.” Instead of standing up for herself, getting angry, or reacting strongly, Sebastian’s mother internalizes her emotions. She only allows them to pour out when she’s on her knees in prayers and penance.

I was fascinated by this novel’s themes of Catholic guilt and toxic masculinity, but I also enjoyed analyzing the structure of Queerskins. The videos and pictures of landscapes, news reports, music, etc., create the mood and tone for each page and immerse the reader in the chapter’s setting, while the audio files and journal entries offer glimpses into Sebastian’s life from the perspective of multiple characters. These perspectives highlight the author’s use of unreliable narrators; there are instances where different characters recount different versions of the same events. This raises questions about whether we can ever really know the truth of anyone’s story. 

I was so caught up trying to figure out the true version of events that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the journal entries and audio files can be moved across the screen. This effect creates a deep connection between the reader and the narrative, as it feels like the reader is rifling through mementos and memories from Sebastian’s personal, private life. As immersive as the desktop version of the novel is, I wish I experienced it in virtual reality (my husband actually has an HTC Vive, but unfortunately, the website says the story is only available on Oculus).

Whether experiencing Queerskins in virtual reality or not, the reader can feel more immersed and in control by manipulating the audio files to create a more unique experience; one can lower or raise the volume or allow audio from previous chapters to continue playing even after advancing to the next page. Personally, I prefer reading the journal entries (I’m not a fan of audiobooks), but most of the voice actors do an excellent job of injecting strong emotions into their characters’ testimonies. After reading chapters of vocal testimonies mixed with Sebastian’s writings, I was gutted when I finally reached a page with only audio. The lack of journal entries were a constant visual reminder that Sebastian is gone.

Although Sebastian’s passing is tragic, the novel appears to end with a message of hope. In the final video, a televangelist has a clear message: “God loves you.” Sebastian’s final journal entries echo this sentiment with what is one of my favorite quotes from the novel; he writes, “Even if you were to pull down all the shades and hide under the covers, the sun will still shine…. Likewise, even if the recipient cannot or will not receive it, the offering of a divine love will never be revoked.” Although he is a sinner in the eyes of the church, Sebastian reclaims his faith; he is loved by God, and he is loved by the friends and family who share their perspectives on his life story.

Sebastian’s life story is filled with intense emotion, crippling Catholic guilt, and strong relationships with diverse characters. Queerskins is an experimental and engaging piece of electronic literature, and the story it tells is packed with important themes and emotional experiences.

Navigating Twelve Blue

Exploring Michael Joyce’s Twelve Blue was a unique and intriguing experience. After reviewing some of the other blog posts about this week’s readings, I realized that some people encountered stories and characters that never showed up during my interactions with the work. This lends credence to the idea posited in Jessica Pressman’s article “Navigating Electronic Literature” that in hypertext fiction “there is no story at all; there are only readings.”

My own reading of Blue was fascinating, if a bit confusing. Even after reviewing Pressman’s article—which makes it clear that, in hypertext fiction, readers have the ability to choose the order of the narrative—my initial instinct was to read the text the “right” way, going in the correct order to get the full story. I started by clicking a hyperlink labeled “1” and then continued to click on links within the text.

Sometimes, when no hyperlinks appeared, I had to click the panel on the left of the screen. I wondered whether clicking on a different thread would bring me to a different story, or if the varied colors and lines were simply an illusion of choice; this line of questioning also relates to the broader points made in Pressman’s article about whether the reader of electronic literature creates significance, or if all meaning is pre-programmed by the author. 

The meaning of Blue—whether it’s pre-determined or created by the reader—is tough to find while navigating the branching, non-linear narrative. Joyce sums up my confusing, haphazard reading experience with some clever meta passages, such as a section which gives the reader varied and circuitous directions to Route 9. One character—whose name, of course, I can’t remember—laments, “It is hard to keep the names straight.” She’s not the only person I lost track of: Who is Ed Stanko? How many people are named Javier? Who is the drowned boy? It’s tough to keep up when you can’t just turn back a few pages to reread a confusing passage.

In another seemingly self-referential lexia, Joyce writes: 

“In retrospect she realized that the illustrations in the children’s classics were almost surely tied to some episode or chapter but she knew she never really saw them as such. Instead they seemed another story in each story, wordless and isolate, as secretive as icebergs.” 

michael joyce, twelve blue

This passage perfectly encapsulates my experience with Blue; I could see that there was a deeper, hidden, overarching narrative, threaded together by recurring characters and motifs, but instead of piecing it together, I enjoyed the individual stories. 

Oftentimes, I grew attached to one of the individual narratives and wanted to stick with it, reading it chronologically until its conclusion. For example, I wanted to find out what happened to the family who bought an old carnival ride. According to Pressman’s article, though, that may not even be possible; she states that some hypertext fiction pieces “continue in endless loops of lexias,” leaving the reader to decide when to finish the story.

For me, the stopping point came after reading for a little over an hour. I refused to quit until I reached a passage without a hyperlink, so I could at least pretend there weren’t still endless narrative possibilities I hadn’t explored. I bookmarked the address of the last page I visited in the hopes of continuing the story; I’d like to find out if the second read will be as unique and intriguing as the first.