Between Screen and Skin: “Touchy” Subjects, Precarious Identities, and Electronic Literature as Haptic Media

What:
Talk
When:
1 hour
Where:
Discussion:
0
In this presentation, I argue that we should “mind the gap” between screen and skin, especially where it eclipses the precarious identities vulnerable within our hegemonic cultures. The contact zone where users interface with electronic media is actually constructed out of far more political scaffolding than people often recognize. Though “user friendly” assumptions reinforce the invisible logic of idealized interfaces open to all, the realities of social conditions which contextualize those technologies should make us rethink who the “user” really is. How has the threshold of the interface become a barrier for them? My presentation will investigate how precarious identities, such as the indigenous and the queer, must navigate the contested boundaries of language and embodiment through electronic literature as haptic media.

I begin by considering how Jason Edward Lewis plays out politics upon the surface of the touchscreen. With help from Lori Emerson’s critique of the iPad, I argue that Lewis’s Poetry for Excitable [Mobile] Media is furthermore Poetry for Ephemeral [Maintainable] Media, as it relies upon digital technology vulnerable to what Terry Harpold terms the “upgrade path” and its movements toward eventual inoperability. I argue that this feature is an intentional subversion on Lewis’s part (himself part Cherokee, Hawaiian, and Samoan) as an aboriginal design practice which explores through the medium’s ephemerality an aesthetic of materialized erasure—the erasure, that is, of aboriginal cultures in the face of forced assimilation into Canadian cultures. As Lewis poetically performs the precarity of identity-through-language upon precarious platforms that kill more electronic literature than they preserve now, we are left with only the fleeting sense of touch that connects (soon to be only connected) us to his appoems.

I then consider the just as ephemeral haptics of Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive. As a beautifully brutal examination of escape from toxic cultures, Porpentine’s Twine game literally escapes the confines of the screen as it encourages players to draw symbols upon their skin that correspond with the narrative beats. Beyond just the quick clicks of hypertextual interaction, players actually have to feel the physical prick of inscripting themselves, and join in the game’s cycle of pain. Combining the work of Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett on toxic geekdom with Jaishree K. Odin’s on feminist hypertext, I consider Porpentine’s precarious identity as a trans woman game developer in artistic opposition to a digital climate of “Gamergaters.” Her work reaches outside of norms and touches where other texts flatly cannot go. I draw in Diogo Marques’s claim that our skin is just as much interface as screen to finally consider the ephemerality of Porpentine’s text as well, once the hand-drawn markings are washed away. The embodied art fades, and the Twine game’s intoxicatingly violent world of language remains.

Ultimately, my presentation ends to question how we are similarly just as ephemeral as the gestures and drawings of these electronic literary texts. The “touchy” subjects between screen and skin that these works explore highlight the precarious identities that cultures often aim to erase. Electronic literature as haptic media helps us to get in touch with these overlooked lives, and to not only mind the gap, but to stick our fingers in it.
Participant
University of Florida
PhD Candidate

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