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Tove Solander
“Creating the Senses”
Sensation in the Work of Shelley Jackson
Umeå Studies in Language and Literature 18
Department of Language Studies
Umeå Centre for Gender Studies, Graduate School for Gender Studies
Umeå University, 2013
“Creating the Senses”
Sensation in the Work of Shelley Jackson
Tove Solander
Umeå Studies in Language and Literature 18
Department of Language Studies
Umeå Centre for Gender Studies
Graduate School of Gender Studies
Umeå University 2013
Department of Language Studies
Umeå University
SE-901 87 Umeå
Umeå Centre for Gender Studies
Umeå University
SE-901 87 Umeå
This work is protected by the Swedish Copyright Legislation (Act 1960:729)
ISBN: 978-91-7459-558-1
Cover illustration: Mats Tusenfot http://www.tusenfot.com/
Cover layout: Hans Karlsson, Print & Media
Electronic version available at http://umu.diva-portal.org/
Printed by: Print & Media
Umeå, Sweden 2013
Distributor: eddy.se ab, Visby
To Shelley Jackson, for writing stuff (and encouraging others to steal it).
Table of Contents
Abbreviated Titles of Jackson’s Works
Primary Material
The Literary Sensorium
Minor Writing for Queers to Come
Visual Realism
Object Writing
Body Writing
Disposition: The Sensorium of Shelley Jackson
Smelling Sense: The Stink of the Real
Undead Smells
Odor di Femina
The Smell of the Beast
Rank Fecundity
Reading as Becoming
Tasting Texts; or, “I can’t say it, I won’t chew it”
Tasting as Knowing
Eating Books or Licking Language?
An Aesthetics of Distaste
Phantom Tastes of Fat and Sugar
Reading as Licking
Touching Thoughts: The Heft of Writing
Doll Games
Tactile Metonymy
Exquisite Corpses
Conceptual Intimacy
Reading as Playing
Seeing Sight: The Anatomy of Vision
Anatomising the Eye
Anatomising Sight
In the Virtual Museum of Writing
Reading as Auto-anatomisation
Hearing Voices: Writing as Ventriloquism
Hearing Voices
The Stuttering of Language
Body Language
Singing Language
Reading as Singing Along
Coda: A Phantom Tail
Works Cited
Works by Shelley Jackson
Works on Shelley Jackson
Other Works Cited
Naturally I wish to thank all those without whom this dissertation would not
be what it is. I take full responsibility for its flaws but not for its strengths.
First of all, thanks to my supervisor Maria Lindgren Leavenworth for bearing
with my irregularities, for careful close readings with an editor’s eye and for
stimulating conversations on fan fiction and other unrelated interests.
Thanks also to my second supervisor Gabriele Griffin for agreeing to
supervise me twice, for insisting I read Bartlett and Carrington, and for your
humour, precision and high demands. Thank you Jane Elliott and Jenny
Sundén for your invaluable comments on my work in progress as special
readers at my mid and final seminar. Thanks to all of my colleagues at the
Department of Language Studies, especially to the participants in the English
literature seminar for engaging seminar discussions and meticulous
feedback. I must also thank my seminar group at the Gender Research
School with seminar leader Sara Edenheim, as well as fellow PhD students
from the research school such as Tamara Andersson and Petra Green, for
sharing the joys and troubles, mostly troubles, of dissertation writing.
Special thanks to InterGender for arranging the very best courses and for
putting together the D09 PhD network led by the always supportive and
inspiring Nina Lykke and Cecilia Åsberg. In that vein, thanks to truly great
teachers on PhD courses such as Judith Halberstam and, especially,
Elizabeth Grosz, without whose smittening enthusiasm for Deleuze (and
barnacles) this PhD project might have taken a very different turn. Thank
you Mats Tusenfot for graciously allowing me to adorn my dissertation cover
with your art, and for even asking to read the darn thing. Many thanks to
friends and a special mention to those of you who have been through PhD
hell yourselves, such as Annie Mattsson. My warmest thanks to my family for
putting up with me all these years and especially of course to Linn Saarinen
– now it’s my turn to see you through your PhD.
Abbreviated Titles of Jackson’s Works
Angel: “Angel”
Body: My Body
Cat: “The Cat’s Meow”
Church: “Here is the Church”
Consuetudinary: “Consuetudinary of the Word Church”
Doll: The Doll Games
Early: “Early Dispatches from the Land of the Dead”
Flat: “Flat Daddy”
Friend: “My Friend Goo”
Gallows: “(the gallows)” 1
Hagfish: “Hagfish, Worm, Kakapo”
Half: Half Life
Hook: “The Hook”
Husband: “Husband”
Ineradicable: Shelley Jackson’s Ineradicable Stain
Interstitial: The Interstitial Library
King: “King Cow”
Melancholy: The Melancholy of Anatomy
Memorial: “Short-Term Memorial Park”
Musée: “Musée Mécanique”
Moth: “The Moth Duchess” (Front Page Stories)
N: “’N’”
Original: “The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin”
Patchwork: Patchwork Girl
Pollen: “The Pollen Letters” (Front Page Stories)
President: “The President’s Mouth”
Putti: “The Putti”
Stitch: “Stitch Bitch”
Swan: “The Swan Brothers”
Tour: Tour Diary
Word: “Word Problem”
1 The actual title of this short story is a picture of a gallows.
[A]rt forms take shape around our ability to perceive beauty, but our ability to perceive beauty also
takes shape around what forms become possible. Hypertext is making possible a new kind of beauty,
and creating the senses to perceive it with. (Stitch) 2
How does the contemporary American author and multimedia artist Shelley
Jackson achieve her “body writing,” which not only deals thematically with
the body but employs a “bodily” style and seems to address the body of the
reader (this reader, at least) more than most forms of writing? This is the
driving question behind this dissertation, and in order to answer it I turn to
sense impressions and the literary techniques used to evoke them. I argue
that references to the senses and to sensory qualities work to create what I
term “phantom sensations” contributing to the experience of the written
work as a sensible material object. Thus, I do not consider literary
representations of the senses primarily as representations but as linguistic
performances potentially rewriting and prosthetically extending the sensing
body of the reader. Devoting a chapter to each of the Aristotelian five senses
in turn, I consider the literary techniques used to evoke sensations and the
specific functions of such sensations in the literary work, but also how they
relate to, interplay with and differ from sensations in other sensory
modalities. I briefly compare literature to art in different media and discuss
how the relative sensory poverty of the literary medium (the visual
uniformity of linguistic signs compared to for example paints or musical
notes) relates to the phantom sensations it can nevertheless produce. By
“phantom” I do not mean to imply a phantom of something; literary
phantom sensations as vague and disembodied echoes of “real” sensations.
Rather, I wish to indicate the intense realness of phantom limb phenomena
in spite of the absence of a concrete limb to provide the sensory stimulus.
Drawing upon Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on literature, I argue
that literary phantom sensations are virtual sensations which could only
exist in literature, being dependent upon the material of language as actual
sensations are dependent upon sensory stimuli. As such, they cannot be
disconnected from the referential aspect of language, from cultural
discourses or literary traditions surrounding the senses, although they
ultimately exceed and elude these. 3
2 I henceforth refer to Jackson’s works by abbreviated titles; see the list of abbreviations and the reference list
for full bibliographical information.
3 Other art forms produce their distinct kinds on phantom sensations, related in similar ways to their
respective materials.
Primary Material
I think more about literature than art, not just because I love it, but because it needs me more. I want
to force its borders open, and so I call myself a writer, and will probably keep on doing so even as I get
further and further from what most people would call writing. Because literature is so tightly
circumscribed, one can import just about any question from conceptual or performance art and get
something new in response: (Jackson in Rettberg, “Written”)
Jackson’s literary works consist of the hypertexts Patchwork Girl (1995), My
Body (1997) and The Doll Games (n.d.; co-authored with her sister Pamela
Jackson), the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy (2002), the
novel Half Life (2006), three works of illustrated children’s fiction and
numerous short stories published in various anthologies and magazines. My
dissertation treats Jackson’s œuvre as a whole and posits her experiments in
different forms and media such as hypertext as part of her larger artistic
project. It deals with all of her major works, apart from her children’s books,
and with most of her short stories and essays. 4 Besides body writing, I would
characterise Jackson’s work as a form of “object writing” in which the
distinction between literature (conventionally perceived as a narrative art
form) and the visual arts is troubled. Jackson’s prose resembles poetry in
that it experiments with objects, juxtapositions and perceptions rather than
being plot-driven, although what she terms “story” is important to it too.5
Using Jackson’s literary works as my primary sources, I consider questions
imported from her experience with art in other media: language as the
artist’s material and the literary work as a conceptual piece.
Jackson’s writing may be characterised as postmodernist metafiction
drawing attention to its own fictionality, playing with literary conventions
and borrowing the styles of non-fictional genres such as manuals,
pamphlets, encyclopaedias and articles. Her stories have also been
categorised as “fabulism” and included in anthologies for new fabulist
fiction, that is, non-realist literature influenced by magical realism, gothic
horror, science fiction and fantasy without fully conforming to the
conventions of any of those genres. What sets Jackson’s writing apart from
most other work within either fabulism or postmodernist metafiction is the
sensory vividness and intimate ambience of her writing. I do not mean that
4 The exclusion of the picture books is partly a pragmatic limitation and partly due to the distinct genre
conventions in writing for young children. I have not aimed for completion but for an overview of Jackson’s
œuvre, and have selected the works most relevant to my inquiries.
5 Jackson celebrates the multilinear structure of hypertext because it allows for a different kind of literary
work than the codex format which tends to support the (mono)linear narrative form of the (realist) novel. In
“Stitch Bitch,” she argues that “[t]he novel has become the golem, the monster that acts like everyone else,
only better, because the narrative line is wrapped like a leash around its thick neck” and that “[p]lot
chaperones understanding, cuts off errant interpretations.” While critiquing narrative conventions for
creating predictable and conventional texts, however, she still promotes telling stories (in the plural) as a way
of reanimating historical facts and working against the “death” of closure.
these genres are minimalist, clinical or hardboiled by definition, but in my
experience many other contributions to anthologies for fabulist and
experimental fiction, for example, are. That Jackson’s are not is a question of
style in the Deleuzian sense. Even in the shortest and most overtly, ironically
paper-thin piece of fiction, she manages to make her fictional universe
vividly, palpably convincing. Partly, this has to do with stylistic devices such
as writing in the first person (singular or plural) and directly addressing the
reader, thereby infusing the text with a strong presence and sense of
intimacy. Like many feminist authors and contemporary writers of “autofiction” she mixes fiction and autobiography (or auto-ethnography) in works
such as My Body and The Doll Games, and employs autobiographical
rhetoric in several of her other works as well. In particular, she uses precise
descriptions of physical sensations in order to make the most fantastic
settings and circumstances appear recognisably real. Thus, the reader
identification which makes her fiction engaging is not so much emotional as
sensory, based upon the phenomenological experience of perceiving and
relating to things, which I term “conceptual intimacy.” This ties back to my
characterisation of her fiction as object writing and motivates my sensory
Patchwork Girl; or, A Modern Monster by Mary/Shelley, & Herself, is a
hypertext created in the program Storyspace and published on CD-ROM. Its
unnamed protagonist, referred to as “the patchwork girl” in my dissertation,
is the aborted female mate to Frankenstein’s monster. In Jackson’s version
of the story, she is both written and stitched-together by Mary Shelley, with
whom she has a sexual relationship before moving on into the world on her
own. The text consists of five parts: “a graveyard,” telling the stories of some
of the previous owners of the patchwork girl’s body parts, “a journal,” Mary
Shelley’s journal entries about the patchwork girl, “a quilt,” a version of the
story made up entirely of quotations from other texts spanning from L.
Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz to Hélène Cixous’ “Coming to
Writing,” “a story,” the main narrative of the patchwork girl’s life from
creation to the present day (or rather narratives, as part of it is split into the
parallel storylines “mistress” and “monstrous”), and “broken accents,” where
the patchwork girl reflects metatextually on the hypertext, which is conflated
with her sutured body.
My Body & A Wunderkammer is a freely available online hypertext. 6 Its
title page is a nude self portrait in black and white, hot-linked to lexias about
different body parts, including a tail and a phantom limb. On her website,
Jackson refers to this work as an “autobiography, plus lies.” It repeats the
concretisation of the body of text as the narrator’s own body from Patchwork
6 The title is usually given as “My Body: A Wunderkammer & –,” but I interpret the ambiguous placement of
the ampersand on the title page differently.
Girl, and adds to that the figure of the body as a cabinet of curiosities to be
The Doll Games is an autobiographical collaboration between Jackson and
her sister Pamela Jackson, freely available on Jackson’s website. The work is
structured like an online archive of doll games, featuring for example
transcribed conversations between the Jackson sisters, journal entries where
they reflect on their relation to each other and to their dolls, presentations of
the dolls and other toys used in their dolls games, a glossary and “photo
essays” – thematically arranged series of Polaroid photographs of dolls. It
also includes a, presumably now defunct, invitation to readers to contribute
their own doll game memories, and a few such contributions. Parts of the
text are provided with mock-academic commentary by the fictional editor “J.
F. Bellwether.”
The Melancholy of Anatomy is a short story collection paraphrasing the
title of Robert Burton’s 1620 treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton
attempts to encyclopaedically anatomise melancholy but finds that
everything is related to melancholy somehow and that there is an
overwhelming wealth of conflicting information about its types, causes and
treatments. Jackson picks up on Burton’s eccentric early modern mixture of
medicine and magic, science and folklore, nature and culture, body and soul,
in stories externalising, inflating and animating various body parts and
fluids. Few of the stories are conventional short stories with a clear plot;
many of them imitate the style of manuals, textbooks, newspaper articles,
pamphlets, ethnographic studies or legends, often switching between
registers within the same story for example by including fictional clippings
or appendixes. The collection consists of thirteen stories, apart from the
opening story “Heart” arranged in threes under the headings of the four
humoural temperaments: “Egg,” “Sperm” and “Fœtus” under “Choleric”;
“Cancer,” “Nerve,” and “Dildo” under “Melancholy”; “Phlegm,” “Hair” and
“Sleep” under “Phlegmatic”; “Blood,” “Milk” and “Fat” under “Sanguine.”
Half Life is a novel set in an alternative present or future where
radioactive pollution has caused a sudden upsurge in the number of
conjoined twins, specifically ones with two heads sharing one body. These
are called “twofers” and form a minority group with their own political
movement. 7 The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Nora, has a conjoined
twin, Blanche, who has been dormant since their teens. Nora wants no part
in twofer identity politics but only wishes to be normal and fears that
Blanche will awaken so that she will no longer have a body and a life of her
own. Attracted to an illegal underground movement promising the surgical
removal of the additional head, she travels from the US to the UK and back
again. Along the way, she is increasingly troubled by tics and hallucinations
7 Non-twins are called “singletons.”
she attributes to Blanche’s unconscious influence. This narrative is
interspersed with childhood memories from when Blanche was still
conscious and with various political, philosophical, and religious documents
on twofers.
Previous research on Jackson deals almost exclusively with Patchwork
Girl, treating it as exemplary of literary hypertexts, or more specifically of
early and/or feminist electronic literature. The most notable example is N.
Katherine Hayles’ article “Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s
Patchwork Girl,” later partially integrated into her My Mother Was a
Computer, in which she draws upon Patchwork Girl to argue for a “mediaspecific analysis” taking the materiality of the literary medium into account,
and against the notion of the immaterial work. Other examples include
Astrid Ensslin’s “Women in Wasteland,” Elisabeth Joyce’s “Sutured
Fragments,” Michael Joyce’s “Nonce Upon Some Times,” George P.
Landow’s “Stitching Together Narrative, Sexuality, Self,” Jaishree K. Odin’s
“Embodiment and Narrative Performance,” Jo Alyson Parker’s “Ejected from
the Present and its Certainties,” Jenny Sundén’s “What If Frankenstein(‘s
Monster) Was a Girl?” and portions of Jay Clayton’s Charles Dickens in
Cyberspace. Most of these works are introductory in nature, providing a
guide to reading hypertext in general and Patchwork Girl in particular
rather than a sustained close reading of it. To my knowledge, the only
research on Jackson which does not focus on Patchwork Girl is Jessa
Lingel’s reading of The Melancholy of Anatomy as a “narrative of
community” in her article “The Body Indivisible.” Thus, my dissertation fills
a research gap in that it covers Jackson’s œuvre and treats hypertext as one
formal experiment among others used to stretch the boundaries of literature.
I look at the mirror and say, “What does it mean?” But it is not an interesting question. (Moth)
In order to work out a methodology which may help to explain how
sensation functions in Jackson’s œuvre, I draw upon the work of Deleuze and
Guattari, as well as that of feminist theorists inspired by them such as
Elizabeth Grosz, Dorothea Olkowski and Claire Colebrook. According to
Deleuze and Guattari, art does not mimic or represent an external reality but
instead creates what they term “percepts” and “affects” specific to its
medium or material. Importantly, percepts and affects are not to be
understood as expressions or representations of the artist’s perceptions and
affections. While perceptions and affections are subjective, percepts and
affects have an objective existence in the artwork as otherwise imperceptible
forces made perceptible through art (Deleuze and Guattari, Philosophy 182).
Deleuze and Guattari provocatively claim that “no art and no sensation have
ever been representational” (Philosophy 193). This is not only true for less
obviously representational art forms such as music or abstract painting but
also for literature, though language in its everyday use is burdened by
commonsense communication and signification (Colebrook, Gilles 106).
Deleuze and Guattari make a distinction between journalistic novels, which
are content to remain on the level of communication and representation, and
literary novels, which “extract from the perceptions, affections, and opinions
of their psychosocial ‘models’” the material composed into unique literary
percepts and affects (Philosophy 188). Artistic composition makes all the
difference, in literature as well as in other arts. Authors must try to attain a
nonsignifying use of language, creating intensities or sensations rather than
sense or signification (Bogue, Deleuze on Literature 114).
Deleuze defines the project of writing as creating a new language within
language which pushes language towards its outside: “outside” meaning not
an external, extralinguistic realm but the non-linguistic outer limit of
language itself (Essays lv; 113). This means that literary percepts are unique
to literature in the sense of being dependent upon the material of language,
but not in the sense of being mere semblances made up of linguistic signs.
For Deleuze, linguistic simulacra, like all other forms of simulacra, are not to
be understood as appearances of something but as appearances as such
(Colebrook, Gilles 6-7). Deleuze’s thinking does not belong to the linguistic
or semiotic turn which has come to dominate cultural theory and which can
be summed up in the view that “there is no outside to language” or that
“everything is text.” As Brian Massumi points out, linguistic constructivism
is inherently humanist even when displacing agency from the human subject
to the discursive structure as such, since language and discourse are viewed
as essentially human (38-9). 8 Important work has been done by for example
Judith Butler, Vicki Kirby, Donna Haraway and proponents of ActorNetwork Theory to complicate linguistic constructivism and redefine
“language,” “discourse” and “signification” to include non-linguistic and
nonhuman forms of coding (see Kirby). For Deleuze, however, signs are not
primarily representational but intensive (Colebrook, Gilles 107-9).
Intensities and forces such as artistic affects and percepts should not be
understood as signifying but as productive, so that the scholar’s task is to
determine their function and not interpret their meaning. I accept the
Deleuzian notion of “positive difference,” that is, the existence of
qualitatively different intensities and modalities (Bray and Colebrook 41).
This means that reality cannot be reduced to language, discourse or
signification, however broadly defined. Matter is neither discursively
constructed nor an inaccessible outside to discourse, but a distinct modality
8 To make an explicit critique of humanism would take me too far from the topic of this study. With its focus
on the human senses, my dissertation is inevitably anthropocentric. However, I attempt not to overemphasise
human agency or contribute to the categorical distinction between (human) subjects and (nonhuman) objects.
co-existing with it in the constant virtual-actual interplay making up the
Before I move on, I need to explain what Deleuze means by the virtual. It
is not to be confused with “virtual reality,” which is merely a simulation with
a weaker link to the Deleuzian virtual than most other arts (Massumi 137-8).
Neither is it to be confused with the possible, which is lesser than and
determined by the actual (Colebrook, Gilles 96-7). The virtual exceeds the
actual: it is real but not actualised in space (Olkowski 110). Objects and
events are both real but objects are actual and events virtual (Olkowski
214-7). In Massumi’s terms the virtual is something happening too quickly to
have actually happened (30-1). While the realisation of the possible follows
the rules of representation, the actualisation of the virtual follows the rules of
difference, dissociation and creation, that is, of evolution according to
Deleuze’s reading of Henri Bergson (Olkowski 122). The virtual is
unrepresentable but can be intuited as a succession of images given all at
once in such a way that the linear conception of time is undone (Olkowski
180). Such intuitions of the virtual can then be figured by writers and artists
as a series of images approximating its flux (Massumi 133-6). It is important
to point out that images are not the same as symbols or metaphors, which
operate according to a representational logic of analogy (Olkowski 185-9).
There is not an actual world which is then represented by virtual images
unique to the human mind (Colebrook, Gilles 87-8). The world is already
made up by images, which are more than representations but less than
things (Olkowski 95-8). This undoes the false dichotomy between reality and
representation: literary percepts are images created to make the virtual
perceptible and as such made of the same stuff as the world. When
successful, they make the virtual emerge into the actual (Olkowski 140-5).
Equipped with a Deleuzian understanding of language and literature, I
approach Jackson’s writing as the experiment of importing insights from the
visual and conceptual arts into literature and treating language as an artist’s
material among others. Such literary experimentation is by no means unique
to Jackson but a major feature of modernism. However, it has too often been
limited to formal experimentation with verbal sounds and graphic signs, by
artists as well as by scholars. Hypertheory, as exemplified by Hayles’
emphasis on the materiality of the medium, has tended to focus almost
exclusively upon the formal differences between electronic media and the
codex (book) format, to the detriment of close readings of individual
hypertexts. The insights borrowed from Deleuze’s work on literature allow
me to take seriously what is going on at the referential level as part of the
same literary experimentation. Despite his critique of representationalism,
Deleuze is not simply a formalist. His understanding of language as a
nonsignifying artist’s material paradoxically includes the referential level, so
that literary experimentation upon language implies experimenting with
things as well as with words. Deleuze has a pragmatic, performative view of
language according to which language does rather than means, but its
“doing” involves the referential aspect usually thought of as its “meaning.” In
a conventional understanding of language, literary percepts could either
have a real existence on the formal level, in the material qualities of
language, or be located on the level of content or reference and as such be
essentially unreal. But according to Ronald Bogue, literary percepts “come
into being when commonsense distinctions between inside/outside,
subject/object, words/things, and so forth, collapse” (Deleuze on Literature
186). I see a radical potential for literary studies in this approach to
language, which takes its concrete intervention in the world into account
without reducing literature to material configurations of letters, syntax,
binary code, electronic circuits, ink and wood pulp.
Perhaps due to the difficulty of reconciling his theories with the dominant
view of language and literature as essentially representational, Deleuze has
had little impact on literary studies. To develop a working method, I instead
turn to film scholars concerned with the sensory aspects of film, such as
Vivian Sobchack, Laura U. Marks and Jennifer M. Barker. Sobchack insists
that “all our senses are mobilized” in the film experience, as shown by the
often highly sensual language used to describe it by film critics and other
spectators (80). However, since film is conventionally understood as a
strictly audiovisual medium, references to other senses are retrospectively
reconsidered as metaphorical (see also Marks, Skin 222; Barker 88).
Sobchack draws upon the linguistic category of catachresis (that is, originally
metaphorical expressions which have become naturalised and for which
there are no “literal” synonyms, such as “arm of a chair”) to suggest that the
film spectator “engages in a form of sensual catachresis.” That is, both in the
immediate, bodily film experience and in the linguistic description of it,
sensual figurations are applied literally, as in catachresis. As a result, the
sensual encounter with the film “is experienced and described as both real
and ‘as if’ real” (Sobchack 81-2).
I do not borrow Sobchack’s term “sensual catachresis” but offer metonymy
as an alternative to metaphor which similarly confuses the hierarchical
distinctions between figurative and literal, fictional and real. 9 The point is
that literary phantom sensations, like the filmic sensations described by
Sobchack, are experienced as simultaneously real and unreal. They are not
the same as literal sense impressions but that does not mean that they are
just figuratively sensory. Sobchack and Massumi stress that all the senses are
active even in apparently monosensual perception, correlating against each
other in order to make sense of impulses. Hallucination happens all the time
9 Olkowski makes a similar distinction between “index” and “icon” in relation to Mary Kelly’s art: an index
stands in a material relation to the thing it refers to, while an icon represents it by resemblance, 207.
as part of normal perception and cannot be categorically distinguished from
it, but usually does not reach consciousness due to the continuous
crosschecking and filtering of perceptions (Massumi 155). Literary phantom
sensations can be considered a form of conscious, controlled hallucinating
triggered not by sounds and visions, as in film, but by language.
The Literary Sensorium
I think in things: complicated ideas come to me in flesh, concrete metaphors with color, heft, stink.
(Jackson in Amerika, “Stitch”)
My dissertation is situated within the growing field of sensory scholarship,
the foundation of which was laid around the turn of the millennium with
historical, anthropological and ethnographic studies of different
arrangements of the sensorium than the contemporary western one. As part
of this, there is work addressing the senses in relation to literature, such as
Sensual Reading, edited by Michael Syrotinski and Ian MacLachlan, Ralf
Hertel’s Making Sense, Sara Danius’ The Senses of Modernism, William A.
Cohen’s Embodied, Kerry McSweeney’s The Language of the Senses and
Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. These works deal with
sensation mainly on a thematic level, with Danius going farthest in outlining
the implications of shifting modes of perception upon literary aesthetics.
Overall, the work in literary studies does not match the impetus in film, art
and performance studies to develop new sensory methodologies. Closer to
this strand of research are works dealing with the power of literature to
evoke mental images, such as Ellen J. Esrock’s The Reader’s Eye, Elaine
Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book and Peter Schwenger’s Fantasm and Fiction.
Esrock defends imaging as an important aspect of the reading experience,
against established scholarly views of it as a subjective activity merely
detracting attention from the text as such, and calls for future
“phenomenographical” studies of literature taking virtual sensing into
account (204). Her call is answered by Scarry and Schwenger, who both
describe the imagination as inherently vague and ghostly. Although these
authors use “images” or “pictures” in a more or less extended sense to
include senses other than sight, their discussions are heavily biased towards
specifically visual imagining which limits their usefulness for dealing with
other senses.
My dissertation also has affinities with the so-called affective turn within
cultural studies, which has a greater emphasis on new theoretical and
methodological approaches following from new understandings of affect.
Percepts are sometimes treated as a subcategory to affects, or as more or less
interchangeable with them (see Colebrook, Gilles 21-5). I would like to
maintain the distinction by emphasising the relation of percepts to
perception, as opposed to affective states. Nevertheless, there are
correspondences between my approach to sensation and Massumi’s
treatment of affects as pre-coded, corporeal intensities, distinct from more
critical analyses of affects culturally coded into emotions, such as Sara
Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion. However, work on affect and
emotion both tend to be included in the affective turn. Individual works such
as those of film scholars Sobchack, Marks and Barker often try to strike a
balance between Deleuze’s affects and phenomenological or even
psychoanalytical theories of emotion. Similar compromises are made with
regards to perception, which reflects my own struggle to make Deleuze’s
work on percepts practically applicable.
I have chosen to read Jackson’s body of work through the lens of the
senses for several reasons. First, because embodied perception is so central
to it, by which I mean a drawing attention both to the perceiving body or
organ in its specificity and to the material specificity of the object perceived.
This would stand in contrast to a more abstract style of description in which
it is unclear or irrelevant who or even which senses gathered the
information, and in which the particular properties of the object described
are clearly subordinated to the plot or narrative. Second, because the senses
have an obvious bodily basis while at the same time pointing away from “the
body” as a static object of description. Since Jackson often presents the body
in pieces, it might seem closer at hand to structure a thematic exploration of
her body writing around commonly appearing body parts or body fluids. The
advantage I see with choosing the senses instead is that they invite
consideration of sensing as a relational process by which the bodies sensing
and sensed are constituted, including the body of the reader sensing the
body of text. Additionally, a sensory approach invites interdisciplinary
comparisons between literature and other art forms addressing different
senses, which suits a study of the multimedia artist Jackson.
The five senses are all part of literary history, but not equally so. In line
with the general audiovisual dominance of western culture, literary
references to sight and sound far outweigh those to touch, smell and taste,
although the exact balance varies between authors, genres and periods. The
audiovisual bias in literature might seem natural, given that on a factual,
material level, language is predominantly auditory (oral language) and visual
(written language). Writers can certainly work with the sonority and visuality
of language as other artists work with the sensual qualities of their respective
media. However, language inevitably has a representational aspect which
complicates matters. On the one hand, Deleuze describes literary creation as
a nonsignifying use of language, a bringing out of the musicality of language
in direct opposition to sense. On the other hand, by the musicality of
language Deleuze does not exclusively, or even primarily, refer to the actual
sound of words when pronounced (Bogue, Deleuze on Literature 164-6). As
Bogue explains, Deleuze cancels the commonsensical distinction between
form and content, including the semantic aspect of it in his consideration of
experimentations upon language (Deleuze on Literature 114).
Deleuze speaks of literary percepts almost exclusively in terms of “visions”
and “auditions,” but these visions and auditions stand in no straightforward
relation to the actual audiovisuality of language. Indeed, literary visions and
auditions cannot be heard or seen as such. It is here that my feminist
intervention into Deleuzian literary theory takes place. Since linguistic
signification complicates the issue of literary visions and auditions, I venture
that it is also possible to think literary tactitions, gustations and olfactions.
As feminist scholars and historians of the senses have amply demonstrated,
the denigration of the so-called proximity senses is intertwined with the
denigration of the body and of the feminine. Although my aim is not to
elevate the proximity senses to the level of the distance senses (a goal
comparable to that of egalitarian feminists wishing to claim the position of
universal Man for women) I see a point in reversing the hierarchy and
starting with smell, taste and touch.
It can be – and has been – argued that there is no language of touch, taste
and, especially, smell. However, it does not follow from the actual
audiovisuality of language that there is a language for the kind of visuality or
sonority Deleuze discusses. In fact, it is part of his point that literary visions
and auditions are invisible and inaudible and impossible to describe in
standard language. They are visualities and sonorities unique to literature
and therefore, as I read it, not dependent upon the existence of terms to
denote them. Thus, a writer should be able to use language creatively to
create literary tactitions, gustations and olfactions as well. Historically,
sound and vision have been especially privileged for the conveying of sense
(perhaps because language, the conveyor of sense par excellence, is an
audiovisual medium). However, since Deleuze considers literature primarily
as a nonsignifying use of language, this is no reason to perpetuate the
privileging of sight and hearing.
Another objection can be made against combining Deleuzian literary
theory with an approach centred on the five senses, an objection based in
Deleuze and Guattari’s rejection of phenomenology (Philosophy 178-9).
However, as Olkowski argues, this does not necessarily entail a rejection of
the “lived body”; instead Deleuze’s theory of perception might provide an
alternative take on it to that of phenomenology (98-9). Rather than rejection,
Colebrook speaks of a “radicalisation” of phenomenology (Gilles 6-7).
Deleuze’s strongest criticism of phenomenology is that, like psychoanalysis,
it is normative and validates the stable subject, which prohibits thought of
change and fluidity (Olkowski 59). Deleuze’s percepts are importantly not
“subjective,” which distances his writing on literature from any kind of
“reader response” theory (Colebrook, Gilles 29). Even perceptions occur
between the perceiver and the perceived, on a more immediate level than
any subjective considerations (Massumi 90-92). Although percepts are not
first and foremost sensory, and rarely occur in a form strictly confined to one
sensory modality, they are made perceptible to the reader by way of the
human sensorium. Rather than of literary percepts as such, this is a study of
the specific ways they are made perceptible as phantom smells, tastes,
touches, sights and sounds.
My separation of the senses might be more compatible with
phenomenology than with Deleuze’s take on perception. This is because
sense organs, like other organs, are a sort of materialised habits, colluding
with mental habits to reduce difference and novelty (Olkowski 116, 148). In
this way, the organism is maintained at the expense of expansion and
change. Because Deleuze’s main concern is change, he is less concerned with
specific forms of perception determined by the human sensorium. However,
because my approach to literature is more practical and less philosophical
(that is, more applicable to the discipline of literary studies) I need to
operate on a more concrete level and divide my topic into workable
subcategories. It is my hope that this can be done without locking the
“sensible singularities” (Colebrook, Gilles 70) released by literature back into
commonsense categories.
Minor Writing for Queers to Come
I’m a feminist writer, emphasis on writer. Those two things aren’t at odds, of course. (Jackson in
Ley, “Women”)
In the chapters that follow, I read Jackson’s œuvre against that of other
authors working within a literary trajectory I have chosen to term “minor
writing for queers to come.” Although their literary treatment of the senses is
the main criterion for inclusion, I feel that these authors share wider
aesthetic concerns with Jackson, including the conviction that aesthetics is a
political issue. Among the writers I discuss alongside Jackson are Djuna
Barnes, Neil Bartlett, Leonora Carrington, Brigid Brophy, Angela Carter,
Jeanette Winterson, Dorothy Allison and Nalo Hopkinson. 10
My choice of the designation “queer,” used in the deliberately
undetermined way it is often used within queer theory, corresponds to the
indeterminacy of minor writing. 11 It indicates an unspecified deviation from
heterosexism which necessarily involves a feminist sensibility. 12 Instead of
10 Dianne Chisholm remarks in a note to her article “Obscene Modernism” that she reads Barnes’ Nightwood
as a case of queer minor literature in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense, as opposed to previous identificatory
readings of it as lesbian minority literature, 198-9, note 19.
11 For an outlining of the tensions and affinities between Deleuze and queer theory, see Chrysanthi Nigianni
and Merl Storr, especially the introduction.
12 Deviations from heterosexism necessarily entails feminism because by “heterosexism” I mean the
interconnected norms of sexed identities and sexual orientations. I am not saying any deviation from
heterosexuality, though the two often coincide, because deviations from heterosexism challenge the idea that
there is such a thing as “heterosexuality.” To define as queer any deviation from heterosexuality risks tying
the literature of a predefined political minority, Deleuze and Guattari use the
concept “minor writing” to designate a revolutionary potential in all
literature, a minor use of a major language which constitutes a political,
collective enunciation (Kafka 16-20). As Deleuze clarifies, such a collective
enunciation invents a minor people to come rather than speaking for an
already established group (Essays 4). Hence, the phrase “queers to come”
emphasises that the type of minor writing Jackson performs is not a
literature “representing” queers or catering to their “identity politics” in any
straightforward way. Indeed, to a great extent it may not seem to be “about”
queers at all. This is part of the indeterminacy of minor writing, which must
continually struggle against its own tendency to become major – the major
literature of, by and for queers, defined once and for all. 13 (I should point out
that the distinction between minor and major literature stands in no direct
correlation to either popularity or canonisation.)
There are obvious affinities between minor writing and écriture féminine.
Écriture féminine has often been criticised as essentialising womanhood, for
example by Monique Wittig, who warns that to connect writing to the female
body is to figure it as “a secretion natural to ‘Woman’” instead of a “material
production” (60). While I think that Wittig is right that Cixous’ equation of
writing with gushing body fluids tends to occlude the work involved in
literary creation as well as its situatedness in a cultural and historical
context, I do not believe that either the “body” or the “feminine” are as
simply essentialised or essentialising. As Verena Andermatt-Conley shows,
Cixous’ thinking was developed in the same historical and political milieu as
Deleuze’s and they influenced each other. They share a critique of
representational and realist literature, of clichés, of identity and of the
psychoanalytic notion of desire based upon lack and the phallus. In lieu of
such notions, they both suggest multiplicity, creative innovation, desire as
productive and a notion of the body in constant becoming (AndermattConley 22-32). 14 In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous writes that “[i]t is
impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an
impossibility that will remain” (Cixous, “Laugh” 340), a formulation
suggesting that écriture féminine might be understood as a minor literature
for women to come.
queer down to normative identity categories such as “homosexuality,” while the point of queer as a theoretical
concept is precisely to elude these.
13 Lesbianism is no longer “the love that dare not speak its name” but a subculture with its own clichés and
conventions. That is one reason why this is not another study of “lesbian literature,” though indebted to such
14 Similarly, Olkowski points out connections between Luce Irigaray’s critique of representation and
Deleuze’s, emphasising Irigaray’s conviction that there can be an improper language which, unlike
representational language, might express multiplicity and fluidity, 124.
Rather than originating in a preexistent feminine identity, then, écriture
féminine would be a “becoming-woman,” another term borrowed from
Deleuze and Guattari. In the essay “Literature and Life,” Deleuze writes:
Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomesanimal or vegetable, becomes-molecule to the point of becoming-imperceptible. […]
Becoming does not move in the other direction, and one does not become Man, insofar
as man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself
on all matter, whereas woman, animal, or molecule always has a component of flight
that escapes its own formalization. The shame of being a man – is there any better
reason to write? Even when it is a woman who is becoming, she has to becomewoman, and this becoming has nothing to do with a state she could claim as her own.
To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find the
zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or indifferentiation where one can no longer be
distinguished from a woman, an animal, or a molecule – neither imprecise nor
general, but unforeseen and nonpreexistent, singularized out of a population rather
than determined in a form. (Essays 1)
I quote this discussion of literary becomings in full because it is central to my
project. In Deleuze’s understanding, writing is “doing” rather than “saying,”
and minor writing is a becoming directed away from “Man” but not directed
towards any predefined goal – it will never “have become.” Becomingwoman is only the first step away from the identity position of universal man
(incidentally the very identity position from which Wittig’s lesbian subject
speaks). Écriture féminine might then be understood as addressing the
question of the becoming-woman of women. Cixous suggests that becomings
will be initiated primarily by women since they have less to lose than men by
abandoning the order of things (Andermatt-Conley 25). The woman
speaking in her écriture féminine is a woman in constant becoming: “I am
spacious, singing flesh, on which is grafted no one knows which I, more or
less human, but alive because of transformation” (Cixous, “Laugh” 345).
Neither the feminine nor the body are stable essences in Cixous’ thinking.
When she describes feminine sexuality in terms of “sudden turn-ons of a
certain miniscule-immense area” and a “thousand and one thresholds of
ardor” (“Laugh” 342), her formulations echo Deleuze and Guattari’s concept
“the body without organs” (BwO), which I explain further in the section on
body writing. When Cixous claims that unlike feminine sexuality, “masculine
sexuality gravitates around the penis, engendering that centralized body (in
political anatomy) under the dictatorship of its parts” (“Laugh” 345), she
describes the ideal body and sexuality of universal man. The contrasting
feminine sexuality is part of the becoming-woman directed away from this
subject position, a becoming by no means reserved for women, though
perhaps more open to them due to the weaker expectations on women to
inhabit the universal position.
I propose becoming-queer as a becoming likewise directed away from
universal man, but more specifically away from the heterosexual binary of
man and woman as majoritarian identity positions, and the
heterosexual/homosexual binary that follows from it. 15 My minor literature
for queers to come overlaps with Terry Castle’s “lesbian fiction,” Mary E.
Galvin’s “queer poetics” and Elisabeth A. Frost’s “feminist avant-garde,”
although it is identical to none. Castle argues that lesbian fiction is an
“undertheorized” category (67) and presents a definition of it as not only
dealing with “a sexual relationship between two women” but as breaking up
the kind of male-female-male homoerotic triangle described by Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick in Between Men (74). While this specific definition is not very
useful for me, it does make an important connection between queer sexuality
and feminist politics, which Castle furthermore associates with a resistance
to literary realism:
By its very nature lesbian fiction has – and can only have – a profoundly attenuated
relationship with what we think of, stereotypically, as narrative verisimilitude,
plausibility, or “truth to life.” Precisely because it is motivated by a yearning for that
which is, in a cultural sense, implausible – the subversion of male homosocial desire –
lesbian fiction characteristically exhibits, even as it masquerades as “realistic” in
surface detail, a strongly fantastical, allegorical, or utopian tendency. (88)
In a similar vein, Galvin argues that queer sexuality and formal innovation
go hand in hand because “the mind which can imagine other sexual
orientations and gender identities can and must also imagine new ways of
writing” (6). I want to retain Galvin’s emphasis on literary innovation, but
without her assumption that a queer or lesbian identity precedes and
informs the writing. Frost proposes her feminist avant-garde as an
alternative to either identity politics or écriture féminine. She is solely
concerned with female-authored American poetry, but her definition of
feminist avant-garde writing as combining radical formal innovation with
radical utopian politics applies to my material as well (Frost xiv). 16
Central to all these forms of minor writing is a rejection of mimetic
realism. Unlike radical writing driven by identity politics, radical writing in
the utopian mode is by definition non-realist, as it does not aim to represent
15 In the sense that becoming-woman is always already a becoming away from phallic (hetero)sexuality, it too
can be described as a becoming-queer. However, I want to distinguish my becoming-queer from the
becoming-woman of Cixous which in my view retains too much of the majoritarian identity of woman as
heterosexual child bearer. Cixous tries to tap into the forces and powers of reproduction and unleash them
into becomings, which is a different strategy than Jackson’s.
16 Galvin and Frost both draw upon Wittig, but as Diana Fuss and Butler have demonstrated, Wittig bases her
lesbian writing upon a liberal humanist notion of the subject, see Fuss 39-53 and Butler 151-74. Despite her
avowed anti-essentialism, for example in her critique of Cixous cited above, Wittig essentialises the lesbian as
a utopian point of origin existing before language and before sex or gender, the point where resistance to the
system of heterosexist oppression originates. What sets Wittig apart from Deleuze is her stress on the
strategic universalising of the minor point of view, which in Deleuze’s terms would make it major. However,
there are interesting resonances with Deleuze’s work on literature in Wittig’s insistence that language be
treated as an artist’s material and made to resist commonsense “meaning” and in her refusal to separate form
from content, see Wittig 65-73. Although Wittig is not one of the authors I discuss at any length in this study,
her fiction, if not her essays, could be read as minor literature for queers to come.
but to rewrite reality. As Castle puts it: “It dismantles the real, as it were, in a
search for the not-yet-real, something unpredicted and unpredictable. […] As
a consequence, it often looks odd, fantastical, implausible, ‘not there’ –
utopian in aspiration of not design” (91). All linguistic and literary
conventions cannot be abolished at once, though, or the result would be
white noise with zero intensity. Minor writers may employ various different
styles and strategies, choosing which rules to comply with and which to bend
or break. While Deleuze favours writers who can be described as minimalist
in different ways, such as Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf,
the authors I study tend to be more maximalist. Their departure from
realism takes slightly different forms, such as Barnes’ antiquarianism,
Carrington’s surrealism, Brophy’s operatic picaresque and Carter’s
Gothicism, but they can all be described as fantastic or fabulist writers.
Regardless of the style chosen, it can in no way be separated from the story
or subject matter. Daniela Caselli writes of Barnes that her style is “not
ornamentation” since “there is no bare flesh to be found once the finery has
been stripped away” (14). Even more radically, Winterson argues in her
essay “A Work of My Own” that style “frees the writer from the weight of her
own personality […] so that what she can express is more than, other than,
what she is” (Art 187). This resounds with the importance Deleuze puts on
literary style as particular but not personal (see Bogue, Deleuze on Literature
39; Colebrook, Gilles 106). In sum, style is crucial to what I term minor
writing for queers to come.
According to a Deleuzian understanding, minor writers resist clichés not
for the representationalist reason that they are negative stereotypes (of
oppressed minorities, for example), but because conventionalised forms and
expressions stand in the way of intensive, that is creative, language use.
Conventional forms are mental habits encouraging easy recognition at the
cost of thought. Olkowsky makes a biting critique of the “universal story”
lauded by literary critics: the idea that readers are supposed to recognise
themselves in universal human traits and feelings even though external
circumstances may differ (130). According to her, and I agree, this is simply
to reduce lived feelings to readymade labels in order to not have to think or
feel. Minority literature is by no means exempt from this tendency, although
its common stories may be presented as local rather than universal. When
catering to identity politics it draws upon realist recognition, mirroring its
audience as a clearly defined minority group.
This critique of literary convention is recognisable as a modernist
standpoint. The aim of modernist art is often described as estranging
perception and jolting the audience out of commonsense assumptions (if
only to perceive more clearly the world as it really is – or as it appears
immediately to the senses, without the order imposed by cultural
conditioning). Danius’ description of high modernism as “a crisis of the
senses” is interesting in this regard (1). According to Danius, modernism
entailed a shift from idealist to materialist aesthetics, meaning that
technological extensions of the human senses were incorporated into art (2).
As periodisation is not really my concern, I simply use the term
(post)modernist with the prefix in brackets to indicate that Jackson’s writing
has strong affinities with modernism without belonging to the modernist era
in a strict sense. I choose not to speak of postmodernism as a stylistically
distinct era superseding it, but consider minor writing for queers to come a
continually renewed continuum.
Jackson and the other authors I discuss in this dissertation recycle various
genres in order to reinvent literary forms. For example, Jackson, Winterson
and Hopkinson flirt with science fiction, while Carter, Bartlett and
Carrington rework fairy tale motifs. The author in many ways closest to
Jackson is Barnes, who likewise found inspiration in early modern authors
such as Burton, paraphrased various literary and scientific genres in a sort of
literary collage technique and illustrated her own texts with black and white
drawings. In Caselli’s words: ”By not being ‘of her time’ Barnes performs an
unmodern, unfashionable, unconventional, and inopportune modernism: a
queerly anachronistic modernism” (4). 17 Winterson argues that modernist
authors were interested in the Renaissance as a period of genre crossing,
invention and experimentation (Art 190-1). While many literary critics view
modernism as a deviation from the realist essence of fiction which produced
great work but which has nevertheless reached a dead end, Winterson finds
modernism to be close to the core of literature: “To say that the experimental
novel is dead is to say that literature is dead. Literature is experimental” (Art
176). This does not mean, of course, that contemporary authors should
repeat the experiments of modernism, which may in turn have stagnated
into conventions. Neither does it mean, however, that innovation is
dependent upon the literary-historical context in the sense that each new
thing becomes old as it is superseded by the new: minor literature remains
eternally new, retaining its power to move new audiences (Colebrook, Gilles
Wittig writes about Barnes that her “text is also unique in the sense that it
is the first of its kind, and it detonates like a bomb where there has been
nothing before it. So it is that, word by word, it has to create its own context,
working, laboring with nothing against everything” (63-4). Paradoxically,
Barnes – as, I would argue, Jackson - achieves her novelty through working
with obscure intertextual echoes of literary history. Minor writers repeat the
past as something new: the virtual emerging into the actual (Olkowski 140).
As Grosz explains, while the possible is identical to the real except lacking in
17 Although Caselli does not reference Deleuze, her formulations echo his concern with “the untimely” and
“the eternal return,” concepts borrowed from Nietzsche, see Colebrook, Gilles 62, 120-2.
reality, the virtual does not resemble the real it actualises through a process
of creative innovation (Grosz, “Deleuze” 227-8). Art provides virtual realities
which act directly upon the actual in unpredictable ways, not blueprints for
social change. Thus, Ian Buchanan describes the literary becoming-woman
as “a machine for releasing utopia, not a representation of it” (113).
Visual Realism
I went to the window, which was round, its smooth wood frame pleasant to touch. I turned to see the
boy stroking the cloth cover of my book with a quickly withdrawn finger. (Patchwork
[story/seagoing/chancy]) 18
Visual realism is a mode of description common to most narrative fiction,
including non-realist genres. As Jackson’s work mainly conforms to it, I
devote this section to explaining visual realism and its implications for
literary phantom sensations. In order to describe how senses other than
sight are invoked through visually realist literature, I draw parallels with the
term “haptic visuality” used in art and film studies. My discussion of a tactile
writing style in the visually realist mode leads up to the following section on
Jackson’s object writing.
I base my outline of visual realism on Scarry’s article “On Vivacity.”
Although Scarry never uses this term, I find her visual bias to be in line with
what Rebecca Scherr, applying perspectival realism in visual art to literature,
describes as visual realism (198). Within this common mode of literary
description, all other sense impressions (except perhaps sounds) are
secondary to, and indeed often mediated through, visual perception. Scarry’s
basic assumption is that the imagination is naturally (audio)visual
(“Vivacity” 7). Using a simile, she suggests that sight and sound can be
reproduced by the imagination, just like they can be technologically, while
touch can only be reported verbally or conveyed audiovisually (Scarry,
“Vivacity” 14). Without accepting her categorical distinction between various
phantom sensations, I take seriously Scarry’s effort to outline a
“phenomenology of imaginary objects” (“Vivacity” 12). I think that she is
right that literature, for various historical and cultural reasons, works mainly
through virtual visuality – the tradition Scherr refers to as visual realism.
Scarry distinguishes between “immediate sensory content,” like sight in a
painting, “delayed sensory content,” like sound in a musical score, and
“mimetic content,” like touch in a novel. It is however not the case that each
art form works through only one of these modes:
Each of the arts incites us to the practice of all three acts: immediate perception,
delayed perception, and mimetic perception. But painting, sculpture, music, film, and
18 When referencing Jackson’s hyperworks, I indicate the lexia (text window) in square brackets. For
Patchwork Girl, I give the relevant section and subsection, if any, separated by a slash, while for My Body and
The Doll Games I give the unique ending of the html address.
theater are weighted toward the first, or (perhaps more accurately) they bring about
the second and the third by means of their elaborate commitments to the first;
whereas the verbal arts take place almost exclusively in the third. (Scarry, “Vivacity”
I find Scarry’s division helpful because it facilitates comparison between
literature and other arts, and suggests that what I term phantom sensations
(Scarry’s mimetic perception) is present even in art forms featuring a high
degree of immediate sensory content. Via a discussion of haptic visuality, I
shall return to the question of how different literary phantom sensations
such as touch and sight may be produced and organised in relation to each
In its most basic sense, haptic visuality indicates a sort of synaesthesia
commonly involved in vision: the ability to see the tactile quality of texture
(Massumi 157-8). Deleuze picks up a more specialised version of this concept
from art historian Alois Riegl, who distinguishes the haptic from the optical
in order to describe two different styles of visual art. The haptic-optical
distinction is not synonymous to a tactile-visual distinction; both terms in
the first pair apply to vision. While optical visuality “sees things from enough
distance to perceive them as distinct forms in deep space” and “depends on a
separation between the viewing subject and the object,” haptic visuality
“tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into
illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture”
(Marks, Skin 162). Perspectival realism in painting is characterised by optical
Marks and, following her, Barker, saves the audiovisual film medium from
the “critique of visuality as bent on mastery” (Marks, Skin 190) by displacing
this critique onto optical visuality, while haptic visuality is described as
inviting a mutual, intimate engagement with the artwork (Skin 184-5; Barker
32-4). To ascribe tactile qualities to visual art is hardly new; art critics from
the 19th century onwards have described how painters tease out what
Maurice Merleau-Ponty terms “the tactile within the visible” (Paterson
83-6). For example, Michel Serres discusses touch in the painting of Pierre
Bonnard (29-38), as does David Trotter in the painting of Edgar Degas
(Cooking 316-8), both positing their tactile readings against visual readings
of these painters’ nudes bound to either indulge in or critique voyeurism.
More recently, some female painters inspired by écriture féminine have
emphasised “the fluid, tactile and sensual properties of paint” (Betterton 92).
Most relevant to Jackson’s writing is the aim of the surrealist avant-garde
to imbue their art with tactile qualities of “reciprocity, decentralization,
contact, and multiplicity” (Mileaf 3). The surrealists’ interest in tactility was
distinct from the “tactilism” of the futurists, in which the artworks were
aimed directly at the sense of touch. Surrealist object art often juxtaposed
found objects with interesting tactile qualities and sometimes let them move
against each other, but according to Janine Mileaf the works “largely eluded
actual tactile contact.” Instead, they relied on visual impressions of for
example volume, texture and friction to produce tactile sensations (Mileaf
16-7). Mileaf’s discussion of tactility in surrealist object art accords with
Mark Paterson’s argument that even sculpture, ostensibly the tactile art form
par excellence, appeals to a tactile sensibility mainly via vision (Paterson 94).
However, the visuality of object art fades into the background as an implicit
result of art world conventions privileging sight over touch and of practical
considerations of durability. These three-dimensional pieces more explicitly
address the sense of touch, although they do so in a visually mediated form.
Applying Scarry’s distinction to Mileaf’s discussion about surrealist object
art, it can be argued that the surrealists were more interested in mimetic
perception than in immediate perception. This is why much of their object
art was not aimed directly at the sense of touch. Instead, they employed
immediate visuality to trigger mimetic tactility, such as when the sight of two
surfaces moving against each other suggests touching. But what exactly is
mimetic perception and how does it work? For Mileaf, the virtual tactility of
object art appears to be synonymous to a desire to touch, aroused by the
visual presentation of alluring textures (189). Following Scarry, I would
redefine it as a compulsion to experience phantom touch, prompted by visual
cues instead of verbal instruction. That the driving force behind the art
experience be defined as desire is acceptable if understood as a productive
desire for virtual sensation, not a frustrated desire for actual sensation. Thus,
I do not agree with Marks’ understanding of virtual tactility as
fundamentally mournful because “as much as [haptic images] might attempt
to touch the skin of the object, all they can achieve is to become skinlike
themselves” (Skin 192).
Scarry’s argument that art (specifically literature) does not mimic
perceptual qualities but the “deep structure of perception” (“Vivacity” 4) is
useful for getting around such conceptions of virtual sensations as lesser
versions of actual sensations. According to Scarry, the successful production
of literary phantom sensations depends upon the text providing its reader
with a set of instructions for “perceptual mimesis” (“Vivacity” 3). The
authorial instruction lends the process an air of “givenness” which makes the
phantom perceptions more vivid than in the case of for example
daydreaming (Scarry, “Vivacity” 17). If art’s “object” is perception as such,
one does away with ´the need for any external perceptual object. Mimetic
perception is as real as immediate perception, though the perceptual
stimulus is virtual, not actual.
Writers working within the dominant mode of visual realism will instruct
readers to construct predominantly visual perceptions, which in my opinion
is why Scarry finds the human imagination to be inherently visual. To
complicate matters, however, other phantom sensations may be mediated by
sight. Thus, the production of tactile mimesis in visually realist literature can
occur as a specifically literary form of haptic visuality. The difference
between literature and the visual arts is that in writing the visuality is virtual
too. This virtual visuality is not necessarily explicit in the text; it is rather
that visual realism posits sight as the default mode of gathering information
about objects described and of imaginatively (re)creating them. In most of
Jackson’s work, as in most narrative fiction in general, sight implicitly
provides a point of view from which to survey the surroundings, in
accordance with perspectival realism. This means that although tactility is
central to Jackson’s work, as I shall detail in the following section on object
writing, it often takes the form of haptic visuality
To clarify how the literary form of haptic visuality differs from tactile
writing unmediated by visual realism, I turn to Scherr’s analysis of Gertrude
Stein’s tactile aesthetics. By rendering objects as they are felt, that is, in a
partial, fragmentary fashion unfolding over time without ever achieving the
overview of perspectivalism, Stein performs an implied critique of the
dominant visual realism in the arts (Scherr 198). “While optical perception
privileges the representational power of the image, haptic perception
privileges the material presence of the image,” Marks writes (Skin 163).
Analogously, Stein privileges the materiality of language above the
referentiality drawn upon in literary realism, and treats words as things to be
manipulated. Her tactile style may appear cryptic and frustrating since, as
Scherr explains, “we don’t yet know how to ‘see’ or ‘understand’ in a tactile
manner, thus lending ‘tactile’ prose, at least on a cursory level, the
semblance of non-referentiality” (199). Stein’s writing is not non-referential
but referential in a mimetic fashion: it mimics tactile interactions and
impressions instead of representing visual knowledge. Jackson’s writing is
similarly concerned with tactility and texture, but her departure from the
visual paradigm is much less radical. The difference is partly that between
poetry and prose: Stein’s experimental poetry directly mimics tactility on a
formal level, while Jackson’s experimental prose employs the conventions of
visual realism to describe tactile objects. If Stein’s textural writing presents
the text as a richly textured two-dimensional surface, the tactile writing
practised by Jackson presents the reader with a perceptibly solid threedimensional milieu.
Object Writing
I think what I have is less a “view” than a feeling, a sort of itch. I feel that language has a relationship
to my body, and I want to make that relationship more literal. Spatializing text makes it more like a
body, or an environment for my body, or both, which gives me something to scratch my itch on. Coming
from the other direction, I think literal bodies and spaces can strain toward a wordless sort of syntax or
story. I love that stretch, and the gap that never quite closes between thingly word and wordy thing.
(Jackson in Rettberg, “Written”)
Object writing might be described as Jackson’s attempt to concretise
language to the point that, like the founder of the Word Church in one of her
stories, she might emit “mouth objects” in place of words (Consuetudinary
145). Unlike in realist fiction, she tends to foreground the tangible worldbuilding over narrative, creating works which are like verbal museum
exhibits. One important aspect of object writing is its spatiality, formally
reflected in the multilinear structure of Jackson’s hypertexts, which lends
them a three-dimensionality absent from monolinear narratives. Another
important aspect is texture, which is not simply offered up for the reader to
traverse with phantom hand and eye. Instead, different textures move
against one another, giving rise to specific tactile sensations of itching,
nudging, prodding and so on. 19 Similarly, surrealist object art presents not
just a lush texture, like a textile or canvas, but particular juxtapositions of
shapes and textures, sometimes in motion. The detail and specificity of these
juxtapositions provide the viewer with visual instructions for the experience
of phantom touch, just like the literary text provides verbal instruction in
Scarry’s model. Like the surrealists, Jackson has an interest not just in
making her art real enough to be touched, but in (virtual) tactility as such.
Instead of employing Scarry’s techniques as a means towards writing stories
set in convincingly concrete milieus, she often reduces narrative to a
minimum, emphasising the milieu and the tactile configurations of objects
making it up.
Jackson applies Scarry’s techniques metatextually, to the abstract
elements of literature itself. For example, the construction of fictional objects
might be explicitly related to the creative process of writing. Furthermore,
Jackson draws attention to the “instructive” quality of literature noted by
Scarry by imitating the style of manuals, as in the excerpts from “The Sky
Writer’s Phrasebook” featured in “Milk” or the passages detailing taxidermy
techniques interspersed throughout “Husband.” If literature is like a manual
instructing the reader to mimic the perception of touch (and other sense
impressions), literal manuals tend to, true to their name, detail how to do
things manually, by touch. Thus, Jackson’s metatextual device concretises
19 In the chapter “Touching Thoughts” I further detail the significance of contact and connection in Jackson’s
the process of literary construction. Instead of allowing the construction
process to recede into the background, discreetly lending the fictional
universe an air of concreteness, she foregrounds it and asks the reader to
experience literature itself as a tangible object. This is not a case of
(post)modernist shattering of the narrative illusion, but a stretching of the
limits of fiction to the utmost. Jackson picks the mechanism of fiction apart
in order to see how it works, but importantly while keeping it going, since
destroying it altogether would defeat the purpose.
By employing realist techniques for making literature tangible in an
experimental, metatextual fashion, Jackson confuses aesthetic categories.
When foregrounded instead of receding into the background, a technical
device becomes what Naomi Schor terms an “insubordinate detail”: a
feminine threat to a masculine hierarchy of principal versus incidental
(15-6). In “Stitch Bitch,” Jackson makes a distinction between supposedly
good (masculine) and bad (feminine) writing which resonates with Schor’s
analysis: “Good writing is direct, effective, clean as a bleached bone. Bad
writing is all flesh, and dirty flesh at that: clogged with a build-up of clutter
and crud, knick-knacks and fripperies encrusted on every surface, a kind of
gluey scum gathering in the chinks.” Jackson chooses not to “weed out the
inessentials,” instead privileging the “clutter” and “knick-knacks” of fiction
to the extent where they become the essentials (Stitch). I do not wish to
overstate the novelty or revolutionary feminist politics of this reversal, which
as Schor points out is characteristic of modernism in general (69-70).
However, I am interested in the connection to tactility suggested by
Jackson’s highly textural language. Presumably, when Scarry’s techniques
for concretisation are used in “good writing,” they are subordinated the
narrative or larger “vision” guiding the work: “The noun trumps the
adjective, person trumps place, idea trumps example” (Stitch). “Bad writing,”
on the other hand, may be overloaded with an excess of tangibles serving no
particular narrative purpose. As the above quotation from Jackson
demonstrates, however, verbal excess does serve the purpose of “texturing”
the text. If “good” writing is “clean” and streamlined, facilitating the smooth
passing of the narrative, then “bad” writing offers a “dirty,” tacky, crusted,
crumpled surface, maximising tactile perception.
In order to clarify Jackson’s tactile (meta)textuality, I now move on to
some close readings of examples from her work. First of all, she likes to draw
attention to the actual tactility of the text; what Scarry terms its “immediate
sensory content.” Scarry argues that texts “are almost wholly devoid of actual
sensory content” and that the sensory attributes they do possess “are utterly
irrelevant, sometimes even antagonistic, to the mental images the work seeks
to produce” (“Vivacity” 2). While I agree with Scarry in principle, I shall
investigate some complicated cases where the “image” made tangible is that
of the text itself. 20 In “My Friend Goo,” a story intensely preoccupied with
the sensory and asignifying aspects of language, the protagonist tries to
capture her experience of the unspeakable with the following statement: “A
book in Braille (I can’t read Braille)” (57). Braille is not only a tactile form of
language, it is, for the majority of seeing readers, nothing but tactile:
asignifying sensation. For those who can read it, on the other hand, its
tactility is likely to recede from consciousness in the same fashion as the
visuality of print does for seeing readers. Only when one does not
understand a language it is perceived as pure sensation. The more it starts to
signify as language, the more its immediate sensory qualities fade. Thus,
Jackson’s reference to Braille confirms Scarry’s argument, although it may at
first glance gainsay it by drawing attention to the tactility of language.
“My Friend Goo” does not argue its point by being printed in Braille, and
paradoxically could only do so if aimed at non-Braille-readers. The case is
different when the text is actually or immediately made tangible. The
Melancholy of Anatomy and Half Life both feature textured covers
appealing to the reader’s sense of touch as well as sight. 21 Of course it is in
the nature of the book as artefact to be literally tangible, but by increasing
the tactile interest of her books Jackson moves them a small step closer to
artists’ books meant to be sensually experienced rather than read. This too
can be understood as an attempt to bridge the gap between word and thing,
or specifically between object writing and object art. Moving from the other
direction, surrealist artists’ books can be understood as object art
approaching literature. Mileaf describes how “the linear reading” of such a
book is “interrupted by [its] aggressively palpable presence” in a disturbing
oscillation between art experience and reading experience far from the
harmonious Gesamtkunstwerk (19). Again Scarry’s argument is confirmed:
when the actual tactility of a text is augmented to the point where it impinges
on the reader’s consciousness, it conflicts with the virtual tactility of the
reading experience. This is not to say that the conflict is not productive; on
the contrary, Jackson, the surrealists and other creators of artists’ books
experiment with putting it to creative use.
While Jackson’s choice of textured covers draws attention to the actual
tactility of her books, she more frequently employs the virtual tactility of
books as part of her metatextual experimentation with literary tangibility.
Partly, this may be because most of her writing is published online or in
literary magazines and anthologies where she cannot affect the actual tactile
properties of the medium. Partly, however, I think this is because virtual
tactility gives more leeway for uniquely literary experimentation: it allows
20 Scarry’s choice of examples shows that the “image” need not be visual and may indeed be tactile.
21 With regards to Half Life, I am referring to the hardback edition, which features a ridged dust jacket. The
paperback edition has smooth covers. I assume that Jackson has been involved in the choice of textured cover
designs based on her interest in the book as object.
her to have the tactile object behave in ways unrestrained by the physical
laws governing actual tactility. In “The Swan Brothers,” Jackson’s rewriting
of a fairy tale, she has a second-person character encounter a book with
shifting physical properties:
You are drawn to the shape, the color, the design of the book before you have made out
the title. It is a durable old Dover paperback, its thick cover leathery with use and still
bright red, except for a pink band along the top where a shorter neighboring book
allowed sunlight to hit it. It is a small, fat, leather-bound book with marbled edges, its
morocco binding glove-soft and chipped at the spine. It is a vintage pocket paperback
with a keyhole on the spine, a map on the back, and a still life on the front: a quill pen,
a bottle of ink, and a spindle.
When you flip through the book, more to feel the thick pages ruffle smoothly across
your thumb, like an old deck of cards, than to check the contents, you find, pressed
between two pages, a feather. It is white, it is black with an iridescent sheen, it is
pigeon-gray, in any case you pin it to the left-hand page with your thumb as you begin
reading, walking on. (Swan 84-5)
According to Jackson’s comment to the story, the alternate descriptions of
the book and the feather found within it are part of her attempt to capture
“the confused sense […] of a compulsive repetition with variation” given by
all the different versions of the fairy tale she encountered as a child (Swan
103). Even the second-person form reinforces this variability, on the one
hand referring to a character within the story and on the other suggesting the
author’s direct address to the reader. The sense that one is meant to identify
with this “you” adds yet another variation to those listed by Jackson: that of
reading the paperback anthology entitled My Mother She Killed Me, My
Father He Ate Me in which “The Swan Brothers” is printed. This adds an
extratextual dimension to Jackson’s metatextual play with variations,
especially since the anthology includes two additional rewritings of the same
fairy tale by other authors. The actual tactile properties of the volume remain
fixed, however, while Jackson is free to alter those of her virtual collection of
fairy tales.
By offering alternative descriptions of the book in quick succession,
Jackson tests the limits of Scarry’s techniques for making literature tangible.
She instructs the reader to mimic the perception of a book and then
immediately to restart the process. The effect is to ask of the reader and the
text how little it takes to initiate perceptual mimesis and how abruptly the
narrative illusion can be shattered without interrupting it. In order to make
it work in a minimal amount of words, it is essential that Jackson give quite
specific tactile cues, such as “its thick cover leathery with use” and “its
morocco binding glove-soft.” Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the aspects
of the scene which do not change are tactile in nature: the pleasure of
ruffling the pages and the act of pinning the feather to the book. These
phantom touches ground the scene and allow Jackson to shuffle other tactile
and visual impressions without giving up the basic sense of fictive solidity.
As a final comment on the tactile effects in the excerpt from “The Swan
Brothers,” I would like to point out the centrality of wear. That the book is
old and worn stays consistent throughout the different tactile descriptions: it
is either “leathery with use” or “glove-soft and chipped at the spine” and its
pages “ruffle smoothly […] like an old deck of cards.” As I shall discuss
further in the chapter “Touching Thoughts,” wear invites a sense of
conceptual intimacy intensifying the phantom touch of the book.
Besides the tactility of the book (and other text media) as object, there is a
tactility to oral language which plays into written language as well. Karmen
MacKendrick finds it “evident that to think of the touch of words must be to
attend to their sound” and goes on to detail the tactile sensations involved in
speaking and listening. Drawing upon these, she promotes what I would
term the virtual hearing of silent reading, and correspondingly, the virtual
vocalisation of writing (MacKendrick 57). Scarry draws a sharp distinction
between poetry and prose, arguing that in poetry unlike in prose there is not
only mimetic perception but also delayed perception (the verbal signs
functioning, like a musical score, as instructions for the production of sound)
and even immediate perception (the distribution of signs on the page
producing visual rhythmic patterns) (4). I do not think that her distinction
holds, since the actual sensory properties of language may play an important
part in prose too. As Marks insists, the sensual, indexical aspect of language
remains inextricably intertwined with its symbolic, representational
meaning, even in writing (Touch 141-2). However, it is still the case that
Jackson’s experimental technique has more in common with the visual
realism described by Scarry than with Stein’s poetic privileging of sonority
above descriptive content.
Jackson thematises the materiality of language in her Word Church
stories, “Consuetudinary of the Word Church” and “Early Dispatches from
the Land of the Dead,” in which the ritual use of oral and written language
emphasises its perceptual qualities. Language is not stripped of symbolical
meaning, but gestural and indexical meaning takes precedence over lexical
meaning, which is often obscured. The aim of the liturgy is to “unspeak” or
speak backwards, swallowing oneself along with one’s words and thus enter
the land of the dead. 22 The following example highlights the oral tactility of
language: “the letters are minute and bristle with serifs like little hooks
(inducing a half-conscious discomfort in the throat-clearing reader)”
(Consuetudinary 133). Paradoxically, the language described is written, not
verbal, recalling MacKendrick’s insistence on the virtual orality involved in
22 In the chapter “Tasting Texts” I discuss the ingestion of language in “Consuetudinary of the Word Church”
from a different angle.
reading and writing. In a synesthetic conflation of sensory modalities, the
fictive reader experiences the visual spikiness of the words as a tactile
prickling in the throat, as though uttering them. In a further twist, the reader
of Jackson’s text may experience the same phantom touch triggered by the
phantom sight of letters, not by the actual look of the printed text.
In “Early Dispatches from the Land of the Dead” disciples of the Word
Church who have successfully “unspoken” report their experiences. The
central concern of this piece is also the central concern of fantastical and
experimental writing, namely, the inadequacy of language to describe
experiences exceeding the commonsensical. Thus, this text provides an
exceptionally clear example of Jackson’s techniques, summing up what I
have touched upon so far. It explicitly addresses the concretisation of
abstractions characteristic of Jackson’s style:
What I would previously have regarded with fair certainty as thoughts – speculations,
deductions, predictions, opinions, dreams, passing fancies: all that ilk – recommended
themselves to my senses instead, especially the haptic. They had scratchy bits, slippery
bits, bits clotting in a thin whey, bits like a stirrup or syrup, flocked bits, beveled bits,
bits that bent and moved against each other with a distasteful grating, bits that
swished, other bits. (Early 92)
In accordance with Scarry, tactility is highlighted as the most crucial sensory
modality involved in concretisation. The narrator reports on the specific
tactile qualities of abstract entities which remain unspecified as “bits.” Thus,
a sort of non-entities difficult to visualise are nevertheless involved in
complex tactile interactions. Since they do not adhere to the rules governing
physical objects, they exhibit an excess of tactile sensations governed by the
“both/and”-principle defining feminine style according to Jackson. For
example, the equalisation of “stirrup” and “syrup” draws upon the virtual
tactility of linguistic sounds rather than any resemblance of actual tactile
In “Early Dispatches from the Land of the Dead,” even negations work
according to the principle of both/and, not either/or or neither/nor. This is
because the principal abstractions made concrete are negations: the land of
the dead is a concretised negative to the land of the living. One of the
narrators describes it in a Beckettian manner as: “Not flicked. Not cinched.
Not ruched. Not fluted. Not cocked. Not felted. Not toothed. Not notched.
Not ribbed” (Early 90). The list goes on. Despite the negations, the amassing
of tactile terms cannot but lend a sense of tangibility to this non-world. The
simultaneous offering and rejection of one tactile term after another creates
the impression of a very specific tactile sensation, although one that cannot
be captured in language, at least not in one word. Instead of describing
nothingness as the absence of sensation, nothingness itself is conjured up as
sensible, and especially tangible: “Nothing was plunged to the pommel in no
chafed whyever-not; no string dangled out of anywhere” (Early 94). When a
narrator states: “I summarized, ‘It is not,’ and it, it, it was not, a plug of
fibers, little seeds, mud, chaff, spit, what you will” (Early 94), “it is not” is not
a negation of “it” but a summoning of “it” into existence, the particular
(non-)existence of fiction. Again, Jackson experiments with reduction:
interrogating the possibilities of fiction to make tangible even such abstract
nonentities as “it” and “not.”
The Word Church stories draws upon the unique capacity of literature to
concretise linguistic abstractions. “Feel the o in no pursing around your
skull” (Early 93) makes tangible the round shape of the written letter O,
drawing upon the roundness of the lips articulating it, the round feeling of
forming it in the mouth and possibly even the round sound of it. By
conflating verbal and written, actual and virtual, senses of tactility, Jackson
draws attention to the indexical, non-arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign.
In the land of the dead, which is also the world of writing, language performs
the indexical function of simultaneously pointing out and creating a thing.
While for actual writers, the tactility of their creations is mainly virtual, the
narrators of “Early Dispatches from the Land of the Dead” stand in direct
tactile contact with every aspect of their verbal inventions. Thus, they may
feel a word “cozying up” to the tongue, the moon as a lump in the throat or a
road make its way out past their tonsils (Early 100, 94). To visit the land of
the dead is to be literally in touch with everything: a conflation of categories
such as virtual/actual, fictive/real and abstract/concrete. To die is to become
everything: not nothingness but total un-differentiation (Early 97).
As Schor points out, a propos the blind protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges’
“Funes, The Memorious,” who is “unable to see […] the tree for the leaves,”
touch unlike sight does not allow for stepping back and taking in the whole
by sorting out irrelevant impressions (xlv). “Early Dispatches from the Land
of the Dead” mimics the non-hierarchical and non-generalising organisation
of touch, but ultimately conflates the distinction between sensory modalities
Even the farthest objects could be touched – could not not be touched. The faraway
spire of a church was a sting in the palm of my hand. A tree in the medium distance
was all over me, and while the trees I remembered were a stippled fog on a stick, here I
felt every leaf. There were 629,533 of them, of which twenty-three were just at that
moment letting go, and when those leaves fell I felt the absence of leaves just as
keenly. (96)
In Jackson’s story, unlike in Borges’, the narrator can take in the tree at a
glance and perceive every single leaf. This reflects the realm of pure potential
which is the utopian starting point for literary creation. Just like the
narrators of “Early Dispatches from the Land of the Dead” could not relate
their experiences if they were fully dead, the writer could not work with
language if it was fully undifferentiated. The word needs a tactile tether to
the world in order to mean.
Body Writing
The banished body is not female, necessarily, but it is feminine. That is, it’s amorphous, indirect,
impure, diffuse, multiple, evasive. So is what we learned to call bad writing. (Stitch)
Jackson’s work can also be described as a form of body writing akin to body
art. However, this is a kind of body writing which does not express, describe
or represent an extratextual body. Rather, it creates a BwO for queers to
come by making new connections, new intensities, new organs. Despite what
the name suggests, the BwO is to be understood as organs without a body
rather than a body without organs. More precisely, it is a provisional
assemblage of parts which does not form an organic whole and does not
sustain a notion of the subject. However, as Grosz is careful to point out, the
BwO still requires “a minimal level of cohesion and integration” and “small
pockets of subjectivity and signification” in order to sustain its intensities
and not obliterate itself (Volatile 171).
Butler describes how in Wittig’s novel Le corps lesbien “language figures
and refigures the parts of the body into radically new social configurations of
form (and antiform)” (170). Similarly, in Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, My Body
and The Melancholy of Anatomy, body parts, bodily substances, inanimate
things and abstract concepts are juxtaposed into assemblages which may
look mostly human but which are not recognisable as unitary subjects or
organic wholes, in short, into BwOs. The political impact of such literary
BwOs is not that they represent possibilities which may then be realised
outside the text. Rather, such BwOs are already real, though virtual instead
of actual (see Colebrook, Deleuze 60).
The specific forms the BwO takes in Jackson’s writing are informed by the
humoural body of early modern anatomy. Gail Kern Paster suggests that the
humoural body may be considered a BwO in the sense of an assemblage
provisionally involving various meteorological and other natural phenomena
in its functions (Humoring 21-2). In this understanding of the body, the
affects and desires interiorised within the psychoanalytical paradigm are
instead “dispersed and redistributed to a sympathetically answering object
world” (Paster, Humoring 42-3). Paster is careful not to conflate the early
modern conceptualisation of the body with the BwO, pointing out that the
humoural body is a body with organs fulfilling specific psychophysiological
functions (Humoring 149). I would add, as an even more central distinction,
that the humoural body (and each of its organs) has an essence and is ruled
by a system of natural correspondences between essences, while the BwO is a
temporary assemblage based on nonessential affinities. Crucially, however,
both differ in a similar way from the modern psychoanalytic body, viewed as
a vessel for an interiorised individuality generating affects and desires. The
humoural body was a precariously balanced, open-ended system which did
not have a psychological “interior.” Jackson picks up notions of dispersed
agency, magical correspondences and a body opening onto the world from
humouralism and integrates them into her body writing. She presents a body
which is intimately familiar in all its strangeness and which never really
belongs to the human subject.
More specifically, Jackson’s body writing takes its cue from the blazon
genre.The standard meaning of “blazon” is a formalised, verbal description
of a coat of arms, considered to be a more accurate representation of it than
any individual pictorial rendering. An “anatomical blazon,” sometimes
spelled “blason,” is a genre of poetry devoted to the description of usually
female body parts. While originally celebrating the beauty of the part, there
are also “counter-blazons” condemning the ugliness of less than ideal parts.
Jonathan Sawday connects the Renaissance fashion for poetical blazons to a
larger “culture of dissection” also evident in the emerging anatomical science
(191-3). This culture of dissection in turn goes back to an older Christian
tradition of partitioning the body in such practices as dispersed burial, the
adoration of holy relics and the worship of Christ’s sacred heart and wounds
(Sawday 99-100; Vickers 7). In the following, I shall discuss how the body
parts frequently appearing in Jackson’s work relate to the blazon genre and
to the larger anatomical and religious traditions of partitioning. I use the
term blazon in an extended sense to refer to any literary renderings of body
parts. My Body, Patchwork Girl and The Melancholy of Anatomy all use a
body in parts as their central structuring device, and like traditional poetry
collections of anatomical blazons (see Vickers 7-9), the two former works
include illustrations.
Blazons of female anatomy have often been compared to the mapping,
dividing and colonisation of “virgin” territory (Sawday 22-8, P. Parker 150,
Harvey 315-6). In Jackson’s work, blazoning spatialises the body and turns it
into a terrain for the reader to explore, but as the terrain is animate and
moving any definite mapping is impossible. As a case in point, the patchwork
girl’s naked body portrayed on the cover page of Patchwork Girl (Patchwork
[her]) reappears in randomly shuffled pieces as frontispiece to each different
section of the work (Patchwork [hercut], [hercut2], [hercut3], [hercut4]),
except the “broken accents” or “body of text” section, which is illustrated by
her head divided into phrenological sections (Patchwork [phrenology]). The
use of phrenology evidences a cartographic drive and a fascination with the
literalness of mapping abstract mental traits onto concrete areas of the skull.
But a phrenology chart is not a legitimate mapping of the body within
contemporary science and cannot produce adequate knowledge of the
patchwork girl’s body or mind. There is no discernible system to the named
areas of her head and only a few of them are linked to specific lexias. Most
take the reader on to a lexia titled “this writing” in which the patchwork girl
Assembling these patched words in an electronic space, I feel half-blind, as if the
entire text is within reach, but because of some myopic condition I am only familiar
with from dreams, I can see only that part most immediately before me, and have no
sense of how that part relates to the rest. (Patchwork [body of text/this writing])
The protagonist does not have a complete overview over the story of her life,
and neither does the reader. The figure of anatomical mapping and
partitioning fails to provide the text with any clear and coherent structure.
Instead of demonstrating the body’s systemic integrity – and analogously
that of the body of text – the anatomisation carried out in Patchwork Girl
shows the body as a reconfigurable assemblage of parts mirroring the
In “Musée Mécanique,” the topography of the body is similarly impossible
to map. The assertion that “[y]ou never see any of the girls whole and
separate” may suggest the blazon genre’s partitioning of interchangeable
female bodies (Musée). However, here the girls’ collective anonymity means
that they elude any controlling masculine gaze. The “neat, surgical parts in
their hair” indicate that they may figuratively dissect themselves as they
please (Musée). Thus, the protagonist Herman Godfrey is powerless to
observe them other than in pieces. He describes intimate details of their
anatomy in terms oscillating between the “neutral” language of science and
the lyrical language of the blazon genre: “He saw the downy brown hairs
stand up on the tender bulge below the navel. The skin was darker there.
Where it stretched over her hipbone it was white with red and blue sigils”
(Musée). The allusion to court culture and heraldic blazons implicit in the
colour notations and choice of the word “sigils” notwithstanding, Herman is
in no position to authoritatively blazon the female body. Being a diminutive
mechanical toy created by the genius girls, his field of vision is overwhelmed
with confusing glimpses of their anatomy:
[T]he big girl thighs came churning closer, affording glimpses of furred chalets and
fuzzy dells, downy towns and hairy ingles – such was the confusion of scale that one
moment he thought he saw innocent alpine meadows and desert peridot mining
operations, a cottage industry here, a potato crop there, and the next moment the
bitter slits of aphids or the prehensile cloaca of those ill-tempered dust mites. (Musée)
The confusing particularities of scale and point of view prevent Herman as
well as the reader from assuming the surveying view from nowhere of the
anatomist or blazon author.
Throughout Jackson’s work, the body of text is presented not as a flat
geographical or anatomical chart to survey visually, but instead as a
labyrinthine architectural structure, such as a cabinet of curiosities. Sawday
describes how allegorical depictions of the body as a house into which one
might enter to discover its divine design were common before the Cartesian
mechanistic model separated body from soul and deprived such allegories of
their didactic credibility (160-8). Thus, when Jackson reinstates the body as
an architectural space into which the reader enters, she subtly gestures back
toward a pre-Cartesian union of body and soul. Viewed as a landscape rather
than a building, the body in her work is not the conquered territory of the
anatomist-as-colonialist, but the animate nature of humouralism, in which
the borders between human and inhuman, matter and spirit, are not
distinctly outlined. As in such Renaissance works as Burton’s Anatomy of
Melancholy, the body Jackson blazons is not strictly the body of anatomical
science, but a humoural body with agencies, consciousness, history and a
host of cultural meanings attached to it.
Unsurprisingly, the blazon genre has been critiqued by feminist scholars
as part of a more general male objectification of women. Patricia Parker
describes the rhetorical techniques it employs to commodify the female
body: dividing and itemising it in order to increase its value and displaying it
as merchandise (128). Likewise, Sawday gives a highly negative view of the
blazon genre as part of a misogynistic male court culture. According to him,
the artfully blazoned female body provided a legitimate object of male sexual
desire thinly veiling the homoerotic competition for which it was a mere
excuse. In some rare cases a male or, even more rarely, female poet blazoned
a male body, while rather more often male poets anatomised their own
literary personas, but Sawday treats all such variations as exceptions proving
the general rule (191-212). Generally, Sawday depicts the Renaissance
culture of dissection as a matter of male anatomisation of female (or
feminised male) bodies, but his empirical evidence provides a somewhat
more nuanced image. Anatomists and poets were overwhelmingly male, but
it is not at all clear that the paradigmatic anatomised body was female or
feminine. That assumption, apparently based on a later period’s rigid activepassive and subject-object dichotomies, has nevertheless come to dominate
feminist accounts of the anatomical science.
When feminist authors take on the blazon genre, they tend to redeem the
blazoned female body in all its particularities and imperfections, rather than
return the favour by blazoning the male body. 23 One such example is
23 When the male body is blazoned in my sources, the blazoner tends to be male as well. A case in point is
Skin Lane, where the relation between male anatomist and male anatomised body is explicitly eroticised. Mr
F. “stares at the hair curling over the nape of the boy’s neck, and at the exact way the individual vertebrae
show through the skin just above his collar, and the way that the corded muscles on the side of his neck are
just beginning to show as he cranes it forward and slightly to one side” with a simultaneously admiring and
anatomising gaze, as though in preparation for a nude study, 122. The authority Mr F brings to the encounter
is that of a furrier and not an anatomist, which tints his observations with an particular interest in “the exact
colour and texture, the density and lustre, of the dark hair curling on the back of the boy’s neck,” Bartlett, Skin
123. Like an anatomical illustrator lavishing loving attention upon muscles and tendons, Mr F focuses his
desiring gaze upon the hues and qualities of skin and hair are to the extent that gender and even species
Winterson’s Written on the Body, which has been critiqued for adopting the
language of anatomical conquest and discovery. Elizabeth D. Harvey argues
against this critique, claiming that Winterson effectively infiltrates the
blazon genre (337). Instead of conquering the body of the female lover, the
indeterminately sexed narrator proclaims her/himself conquered by and lost
within it. Winterson turns to the technical language of anatomy in order to
explore the female body in intimate detail, individualising and eroticising
those interior aspects of it known only to anatomical science (Harvey
The blazoning of the entire body, including interior aspects left out of
traditional blazons such as the viscera and skeleton, invites comparison with
Wittig’s Le corps lesbien. In an article about Wittig and Cixous, Diane
Griffith Crowder emphasises the wholeness of the female body as a
corrective to the fragmentation of the blazon tradition. She berates Cixous
for writing the female body piecemeal if at all, and for sharing the male
blazon writers’ (and, I might add, anatomical illustrators depicting women
only in order to illustrate the female reproductive organs) preference for the
most thoroughly sexed parts of female anatomy (Crowder 133). Wittig, on
the other hand, eroticises the entire female body down to the viscera and
other parts traditionally considered ugly or disgusting (Crowder 120-2), a
strategy shared by Jackson. Crowder, however, goes on to applaud Wittig for
refusing the metaphorical language of the blazon genre, since according to
her metaphor denies the material reality of the female body, replacing it with
something it is not (121). Against this, I would argue that there is more to the
body than crude materialism, and that the archaic, mythological settings of
Wittig’s body writing remove it from any clinical naturalism, even if she
abstains from overt similes. Like Winterson (see Harvey 341), Jackson
applies the metaphorical language of the blazon genre to body parts not
traditionally blazoned: “Their feet looked like fruit, like fleshy tropical
flowers” (Body [feet]). Contrary to Crowder’s argument, such similes do not
cancel out or detract from the physicality of the feet, but invites the reader to
view these “ugly” parts in a new way.
In another reading of Wittig, Kym Martindale argues that “Wittig’s project
is to dismantle the authority of Vesalius and the myth of the empirical body
of medical discourse.” Wittig’s method for doing so is universalising not the
female but specifically the lesbian body like classical anatomy universalises
the male. To Crowder’s observation that Wittig deprivileges the reproductive
organs (a strategy shared by Winterson, see Harvey 338), Martindale adds
become secondary. In Hopkinson’s “Something to Hitch Meat To” (a reference to the skeleton), the
anatomising gaze of the protagonist Artho is instead coloured by his profession as a retoucher of pornographic
photographs. Used to staring at the intimate details of naked bodies all day long, his first thoughts about a
man with a shaved head are: “There was something sensuous about the baldness, like the domed heads of
penises. Cute,” Hopkinson 28.
that she instead privileges the clitoris as an organ of non-reproductive sexual
pleasure (Martindale 349). However, Martindale finds it problematic that
Wittig repeats the authoritative gesture of the male anatomist, replacing the
normative ordered, desexualised male body with a normative disordered,
sexualised lesbian body (351). For her it is a regrettable mistake that Wittig
should present an authoritative, universalising view of the lesbian body,
denying plurality in the sense both of individual self-definition and inclusion
of non-lesbians (Martindale 353-4), while for me this is at the core of
Wittig’s project. This is not denying the particularities of lesbian – or female
– existence but creating a utopian vision in which lesbianism is naturalised
as permeating every fibre of the body, in the same way as the reproductive
function was seen to permeate the entire female body in classic anatomy.
While the above readings of Winterson and Wittig highlights the feminist
reconstruction of a conscious and complete female body out of the
objectified fragments of a male tradition, Jackson tends to move in the
opposite direction and take the fragmentation even further. The patchwork
girl is sewn together out of disparate body parts which fall apart again at the
end of the story. My Body is a self-portrait in pieces which more or less add
up to a whole, while the body parts lending their names to the individual
stories in The Melancholy of Anatomy would make a strange anatomy
indeed, something like the photographic composite bodies created by Connie
Imboden using reflections and darkroom techniques.
In her appropriately titled essay “The Body Indivisible,” Lingel describes
the structure of The Melancholy of Anatomy as “a parallel to the objectifying
gaze of the male view” and a “disturbing abstraction of bodies.” What saves
Jackson as a feminist author, according to her, is the thematic concern with
the “femininity” and “repressed potency” of the body, which places Jackson
alongside Cixous in the tradition of écriture féminine (Lingel 79-80). Thus,
as in Crowder’s critical reading of Cixous, the femininity of the body
permeates its parts. Annabelle Dolidon presents an alternative reading of the
political implications of fragmentation, which I think can be fruitfully
applied to The Melancholy of Anatomy. Analysing filmic close-ups of bodies,
she argues that they can be used to “abs-tract bodies, not in order to
dematerialize them, but, instead, in order to ex-tract them from the ‘Straight
Mind,’ by depriving the viewer of the certainties offered by vision” (Dolidon
80). In other words, fragmentation can be used to queer the body by
liberating body parts from their sexed context. Here, “abstraction” is not
used in Lingel’s negative sense of generalisation or objectification, but
indicates the liberation of bodies from (hetero)sexist recognition. In The
Melancholy of Anatomy, Jackson works with a similar technique of zooming
in on body parts and denying the reader the overview of conventional
understandings. Many of the body parts and fluids blazoned are sexed, and
most of those feminine, but their femininity is queered by their removal from
the body of a woman.
I disagree with Lingel’s view that a feminist recuperation of the blazon
genre necessarily entails a concern for the integrity of the body and a critique
of scientific “objectification” of its parts. The feminist critique of such
objectification assumes a natural bodily integrity violated by fragmentation,
but this is not the view of the body presented in Jackson’s work. Instead, the
body appears as an assemblage of parts each with their own agenda, mostly
inaccessible to consciousness. Jackson might more properly be accused of
anthropomorphising body parts than of objectifying the human body (which
never did belong to the subject). Thus, hands are compared to dogs trained
by their human masters, showing through “their essential bewilderment and
their willingness” a “soul” or “humanity” impossible to detect in the whole of
the socialised, subjectified body (Body [hands]). Even more radically, the
organs and fluids appearing in The Melancholy of Anatomy act as separate
entities with no indication that they result from the fragmentation of a larger
organism. Lingel’s negative use of the word “abstraction” to indicate their
separation from a human subject is inappropriate to describe their concrete
particularity and agency as characters.
Generally, it appears that queer and feminist rewritings of the blazon
genre take their cue from anatomical science and include parts of the body
not normally seen. Instead of selecting body parts conventionally considered
beautiful or sexually alluring, they explore and eroticise the entire body
including its insides. This tends to make feminist blazons more brutal in tone
than their traditional counterparts, in which the violence of severing a part
from the rest of the body is obfuscated. As an example, Jackson employs
clinical language to blazon a leg seen from underwater:
My eyes never tired of looking into that luminous space into which objects were
abruptly born from above, sometimes only piecemeal: a leg punched in up to the knee
seemed amputated, sutured to the elastic blanket of the undersurface, which was an
oily, undulating sheet, a pewter-greasy blue. (Body [feet])
The surgical references underscore the physicality of the leg. By detailing the
visual conditions under which it appears severed from the rest of the body,
Jackson denies the abstract partitioning of the classical blazon form. At the
same time, the beauty of the passage makes it closer to poetry than a medical
textbook. 24 In a similar way, the description of the patchwork girl’s guts as
“pretty pink coils unwinding like streamers” and blood as “rich triumphal
spurts, […] generous parabolas, sublime verticals, optimistic horizontals, and
24 Again, Jackson’s writing recalls the eerie beauty of Imboden’s photography. In Imboden’s photographs of
bodies partially submerged in water, the water’s surface appears as thickly material as in Jackson’s
description, functioning to amputate, double (through mirroring) and suture body parts into strange new
devious spirals” combines anatomical carnage with the language of courtly
poetry (Patchwork [story/falling apart/diaspora]).
While actual dismemberment is a violent and fatal affair, the same rules
do not apply in fiction. The patchwork girl disintegrates but somehow goes
on living, like the “bodies which should be dead but which ‘live’ in a
perpetual state of fragmentation” in Wittig’s Le corps lesbien and in
Renaissance anatomical illustrations (Martindale 350). What is remarkable
about Jackson’s work in relation to this tradition is the agency of separate
parts. Even in the original blazon genre, body parts tend to take on a life of
their own, being addressed and not just described by the poet (Vickers 4),
but Jackson takes their animation further. The patchwork girl somehow lives
to describe her disintegrated body parts: “They looked relaxed and casual, in
good taste. They looked relieved. Disposing themselves in varying patterns,
as if trying to reassemble someone, trying a foot on a neck, with the good will
of dogs humping the wrong end” (Patchwork [story/coda/falling apart]).
Again, human body parts are compared to dogs, which in Jackson’s work is
not demeaning as dogs are rather nobler than humans. The death of the
human subject liberates the inhuman agencies of the body.
Catherine Waldby describes Frankenstein’s creation of the monster as a
“reverse anatomization” in which a body is assembled instead of
disassembled. Grave-robbed body parts are viewed as only provisionally
dead, awaiting a new infusion of life. Frankenstein sees the value in this
human offal, carefully selecting the most beautiful parts to put together into
a superman, but runs screaming from the mismatched monstrosity of his
finished creation (Waldby 31-33). When Jackson picks up this theme in
Patchwork Girl, it is in order to redeem the reanimated monster and remind
the reader that all bodies are recycled from fragments of other bodies.
Although Mary admits to “a fleeting horror on beholding in intimate
quarters the details of her anatomy” (Patchwork [journal/scars/shy]), she
admires the variegated beauty of her creation:
I noticed what I could not have seen in the dim light of my laboratory, that the various
sectors of her skin were different hues and textures, no match perfect. Here a coarser
texture confused the ruddy hue of blood near under the skin, there smooth skin
betrayed a jaundiced undertone, there a dense coat of fine hairs palely caught the light.
Warm brown neighbored blue-veined ivory. (Patchwork [journal/she stood])
This blazon of the patchwork girl’s skin(s) suggests that she embodies a
collection of anatomical blazons: a lose assemblage of beautiful parts making
up a rather grotesque whole (see Vickers 8-9). By stitching together the raw
matter of blazon into a body and animating it, Mary literalises the blazon
writer’s transformation of the dead matter of language into poetry (see
Harvey 338-9). Metatextually, it posits Jackson’s piecing-together of the
hypertext as a stitching-together of a living body where the seams never heal.
In Deleuzian terms, the desiring connections keeping the BwO together are
not permanent: at any moment the assemblage might rupture and
reconfigure itself. Thus, I do not consider Jackson’s flirt with anatomical
blazons a partitioning of “the” body, as if it were ever whole, but a making
and unmaking of new desiring connections.
Disposition: The Sensorium of Shelley Jackson
Meanwhile those sensations I had once consigned to my body, sometimes calling them “lower,” as if I
personally cleared my own head by some inches, appealed now to my reason: referring and negating,
proposing and refuting, and changing from moment to moment. (Early 92)
The analysis chapters which follow are structured around the Aristotelian
five senses, devoting a chapter each in turn to smell, taste, touch, sight and
hearing. On the one hand, applying the five senses as a structuring device to
Jackson’s sprawling body of work is imposing an order alien to it. On the
other hand, the quaint rigidity and neatness of the five senses as a
structuring device resembles Jackson’s own formal devices, such as
structuring her short story collection around the four humours. In other
words, the very gesture of applying a structuring device alien to Jackson’s
work is anything but alien to it. The choice of the five senses is somewhat
arbitrary and risks suggesting a subject – predetermined, unitary, ablebodied – at odds with my Deleuzian theoretical framework. My intention is
not to naturalise these five when in fact there are other ways of perceiving,
more senses, complex multisensory interplays and beings doing without one
or more of the five. I understand the five senses as a cultural and literary
tradition (just think of the common writing workshop advice to make a text
come alive to “all five senses”) shaping, though not determining, human
perception. In order not to conform too closely to this tradition, I have stood
the hierarchy of the senses on its head, starting with the undertheorised
proximity senses smell and taste. In this way, I hope to avoid some
preconceptions about perception based on the audiovisual bias, and to arrive
at the dominant senses of sight and hearing from an unexpected angle. I
conclude each chapter by tentatively outlining a more general, sense-specific
model for reading based upon Jackson’s work. Hopefully, these may be of
interest and use to other scholars looking for theoretical work on literary
In “Smelling Sense” I argue that Jackson tends to use generic terms such
as “smell” or “stink” to designate what she terms “the banished body,”
consistently enough to evoke a uniquely literary phantom smell of the
feminine, composed of both olfactory and non-olfactory components.
Throughout the chapter, I trace different aspects of this phantom smell
through a Deleuzian becoming starting with becoming-feminine and moving
on to becoming-animal and becoming-vegetable, arguing that literary
phantom smells have the potential to draw the reader into literary
becomings, since the affective and bodily response to smell creates a
pornographic proximity between reader and text.
In “Tasting Texts” I draw out the implications of taking seriously gustatory
figures such as aesthetic taste, reading as consumption, and of learning as
suckling the Alma Mater. Jackson’s various concretisations of edible
language emphasise the printed text as consumable object, on the one hand,
and play a part in what I term her aesthetics of distaste, on the other. Like
Barnes, Jackson draws upon the rhetorical figure of dilatio, associated with
dilated female bodies and bodily orifices, to develop a feminine aesthetics of
distaste. Stylistic dilation and texts saturated with sugary and fatty phantom
tastes create a distaste of surfeit, where the visceral feeling of distaste draws
the reader in close to the text. Aesthetic distaste is not a simple matter of
rejection (as in spitting or vomiting); it may instead lure the reader in to
savour its many different flavours. The reader is invited to lick language and
taste dilation, a uniquely literary phantom taste made piquant and
compelling by distaste.
In “Touching Thoughts” I draw upon the phenomenology of doll games
outlined in The Doll Games to argue that the doll functions as a prosthetic
extension of the playing girl, literally putting her in touch with fiction.
Though the discrepancy of scales prevents her from being fully immersed in
the doll world, she enters into it through what I term “tactile metonymy.” I
then go on to argue for a virtual form of tactile metonymy by which the
reader makes prosthetic connections with the fictional universe of literature.
Jackson’s works invites such an approach because they are often structured
as a box of toys or cabinet of curiosities filled with linguistic objects for the
reader to manipulate. The virtual tactility is enhanced by “conceptual
intimacy,” a notion borrowed from visual art, where it denotes an impersonal
yet intimate form of tactile relating to objects. As the central form of touch in
Jackson’s work is play, understood as a hands-on model for creative
experimentation, the resulting model for reading is doll games.
As vision is such a dominant sense with a wealth of material related to it, I
devote the chapter “Seeing Sight” to a specific instance of sight in Jackson’s
work. Based on the overview of anatomical blazons in this introduction, I
describe how the anatomising gaze turned back upon itself, taking the eye as
its object. Jackson resists the abstraction of the gaze by drawing attention to
its specific embodiment in two eyes combining their slightly different
perspectives into a three-dimensional image. She details the idiosyncrasies
of sight such as visual impairments and optical illusions, dwelling especially
upon the rare occasions when the eye sees (parts of) itself directly. Imagining
has often been understood as imaging with the “mind’s eye,” an example of
how sight is abstracted into a general model of cognition, but Jackson
specifies even phantom sight as eyesight rather than vision. In her
comparison of writing to taxidermy, the taxidermical displays provide a
mirror in which the viewer sees her own mortal body. More broadly, the
reader is encouraged to turn the anatomising gaze back on her own anatomy.
In “Hearing Hallucinations” I employ ventriloquism as my guiding figure
in order to narrow down the scope of the most privileged sense after sight. I
argue that writing can be understood as ventriloquism in several different
ways: as the reader, the author and language itself throwing their voices and
speaking through the mouths of one another. Like language may erupt in
senseless sonorities, so the body may erupt in non-linguistic sounds ranging
from more to less communicative, expressive or voluntary, such as sighs,
laughter, hiccups and digestive noises. Biological and mechanical body
noises provide an important part of the soundscape in Jackson’s work and
can be described as the inhuman, asubjective voices of the body speaking in
another form of ventriloquism. Through a close reading of a musical
performance in Half Life, I discuss singing as a machination, queering and
becoming-animal of the voice, and as an additional form of ventriloquism in
which music itself sings through the singer. Furthermore, Jackson’s
intertextual incorporation of an actual piece of music into a virtual musical
performance works as a form of ventriloquism or sampling. In conclusion, I
argue that Jackson’s introduction of nonsense sonorities, body noises and
music into the text instigate what Deleuze and Guattari term a
deterritorialisation of language away from its communicative function and
invite reading as singing along.
Taken together, these sensory models for reading suggest that all literary
genres are potential “body genres,” that is, genres intending to bodily affect
the audience, such as pornography, horror and melodrama (see Dennis 97-8;
Williams 5). Erotica and pornography only bring out what is true for
literature in general: that phantom sensations are not neatly contained
within fiction but spill out onto the reader. This “pornographic potential” of
literature is too often bracketed in literary studies concerned solely with
linguistic meaning, despite being what makes literature meaningful in the
sense of engaging and worthwhile.
Smelling Sense
Smelling Sense: The Stink of the Real
Speech is a wind produced by a body, and thus may be called a body odor; likewise odors may be
considered a kind of speech. (Consuetudinary 147)
Within literature, smell commonly figures extratextual reality: that which
escapes or exceeds words. Jackson consciously employs the power of smell to
signal realness when she has the narrator of “The Putti” say: “No doubt I will
speak strangely at times. It is my conviction that if I do so, it will not hobble
my presentation, but add to it that stink of the real which makes of fact,
understanding.” Here, the “stink of the real” is ironically provided by strange
speech and not by an actual smell. Keeping to one sensory modality, Jackson
might have expressed a similar notion with “that noise of the real.” That she
chose smell instead is, I argue, telling of the particular position smell has as
representative of the non-signifying, non-discursive aspects of sensation.
Being posited furthest away from the more heavily symbolised and codified
senses of sight and hearing in the sensorium, smell is a good place to start a
Deleuzian exploration of literary sensations as intensities exceeding
In Jackson’s work, smell tends to stand in not only for reality in general
but more specifically for what she terms the “banished body.” In her paper
“Stitch Bitch” she claims that the “real body” is “denied representation” but
“knows stories we’ve never told” and “reports to us in stories, intensities,
hallucinatory jolts of uninterpreted perceptions: smells, sights, pleasure,
pain.” She describes the project of writing as the project of dissolving the
“tumor” of the mind which shuts out the excess of embodied experience.
Jackson’s concept of the banished body can be connected to the tradition of
écriture féminine via her definition of it as “not female, necessarily, but […]
feminine” (Stitch). It clearly recalls Cixous’ call for a writing which “will give
[woman] back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily
territories which have been kept under seal” (“Laugh” 338). While Jackson’s
and Cixous’ formulations both suggest giving voice to a prediscursive body or
feminine unconscious which has been culturally repressed, I am more
interested in how their writing creates this feminine body. Understood in
light of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming, the banished body is not
simply a material thing, but rather a tendency to become-body which the
masculine-coded mind guards itself against.
Smells are particularly suited to play a part in a literary becomings due to
their liminality, pervasiveness and contagiousness. They are difficult to
contain, able both to travel through the air and to cling to things. Like
viruses, they are airborne and transmittable from one object or living being
to another. They even permeate the boundary between material and
immaterial, being made up of invisibly small particles evaporating from
various substances. A quotation from Half Life captures the perceived semisubstantiality of smells: “The smell was a rectangular solid, more or less the
dimensions of the shed, but ambitious, straining against the walls” (Half
263). Jackson further describes the intuitive reluctance against breathing in
such strong smells, a reluctance connected to historical conceptions of smell
as “vapour” or “miasma,” present in her work through intertextual
connections to Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and other older
literature. While in the contemporary west smells are believed to have
mainly psychological effects, causing nausea or arousal at most, scholars
from Antiquity up to the Renaissance debated the materiality of smells and
argued that food smells could actually nourish and bad smells cause illnesses
(Palmer 63). I connect such conceptions of smell as substantial and
contagious to Marks’ Deleuzian understanding of smell as a sense of
chemical contact and interspecies affinities (Touch 135).
In order to capture Jackson’s literary phantom smell of the feminine, I
trace an olfactory becoming throughout this chapter from becoming-dead via
becoming-woman and becoming-animal to becoming-vegetable. This
division also provides something of a historical overview of smell in
literature, as corpses, women, animals and flowers have often been described
as particularly smelly. There is no wealth of smell references in Jackson’s
work, but I have identified the most important functions smell plays in her
writing, specifically in Patchwork Girl, “Angel,” and selected stories from
The Anatomy of Melancholy. To flesh out my discussion of these functions, I
turn to other sources: most prominently Barnes’ Nightwood, Bartlett’s Skin
Lane, Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and
Hopkinson’s Skin Folk. As previously indicated, what I term minor writing
for queers to come often revises older genres. In this chapter the emphasis is
on fairy tales, a genre abounding with transformations which might be read
as becomings. Carter pioneered feminist revisions of fairy tales with her take
on for instance Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding
Hood. Feminist versions of Little Red Riding Hood have almost become a
genre of their own, much thanks to Carter; an additional example is provided
by Hopkinson. While there are fairy tale elements in Bartlett’s previous
novels, Skin Lane is an outright queer revision of Beauty and the Beast.
Gabriele Griffin has identified fairy tale themes in Carrington’s short stories
(96), though The Hearing Trumpet draws more upon religious legends and
folklore. Apart from an overt reference to Little Red Riding Hood (Barnes,
Nightwood 71), Nightwood implicitly parodies Sleeping Beauty, according
to Judith Lee (210). Jackson participates in this tradition with “The Swan
Brothers,” her contribution to My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate
Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (which I shall however not discuss in this
chapter) and with various fairy tale references scattered throughout her
Smelling Sense
The devaluation of smell in contemporary western culture makes it
suitable as a metonymical stand-in for the body and the feminine. Smell is
not unrepresented, however; it does have a cultural history and a literary
tradition, as outlined in Hans J. Rindisbacher’s The Smell of Books, Janice
Carlisle’s Common Scents and in Hertel’s Making Sense. In his chapter on
smell in the contemporary novel, Hertel suggests that “smells introduce an
archaic, preverbal principle into texts” and that “the nose, with all its
inexpressible smells, exemplifies the role the senses play in literature: it
creates a resistance to representation.” He cites findings from cognitive
science to support the idea that smells are inherently resistant to
verbalisation and conceptualisation because smell perception operates on an
immediate, instinctive level. Because of their subconscious, affective
immediacy, smells also escape all aesthetic expression or judgement, which
require a certain disengagement (Hertel 128-9). Trotter similarly describes
smell perception as immediate and invasive, destroying the boundaries
between smeller and smelt and giving rise to intense sensations like nausea.
He argues that the literary genre of naturalism draws upon this power of
smell and that “[b]ad smells were Naturalism’s great contribution to world
literature” (Trotter, Cooking 210). Smell was also important to symbolist
authors, who were interested in synaesthesia and mystical correspondences
between sensory qualities such as odours, colours and musical notes:
While the naturalists and realists used detailed descriptions of smell as a literary
device to imbue the environment with a moral atmosphere or to enrich the
verisimilitude of their works, the Symbolists used smell in suggestive, mysterious, and
expansive ways to dissolve barriers between subject and object, individual and
environment. (Fleischer 105).
What the symbolists valued about smell (and the other proximity senses)
were basically the same qualities drawn upon by writers in other genres:
their evocative power and evasiveness to rationalisation.
Without accepting the naturalising and universalising aspects of Hertel’s
and Trotter’s arguments, I concur that smell currently fills the function of
evoking preconscious, instinctive immediacy. As Constance Classen points
out, smells are perceived as “more physically intrusive than visual
presentations,” so intrusive, in fact, that the olfactory reality effect is rarely
employed except mediated by non-olfactory art forms (Color 152). According
to classic aesthetic theory, literature might draw upon intense sensations
such as the stench of carnage to attain the sublime, while in unmediated
form the proximity senses of smell, taste and touch are necessarily excluded
from the realm of exalted aesthetic experience (Korsmeyer, Making 59).
Recently there have been some attempts to transgress this tradition and
involve immediate olfactory elements in art (see Banes), but such
experimentation mainly takes place on the fringe of commercial perfumery
and fashion, leaving art galleries mostly deodorised even when exhibiting
explicit and provocative visual art.
Brief references to proximity senses like smell have a much stronger
power to evoke phantom sensations than references to the distance senses.
Consider the difference between “I could smell it” and “I could see it.” While
the latter requires a qualifying description of what exactly is seen, the former
can stand alone. In the literature on olfaction, smells are often said to defy
description, either because they cannot be consciously retained and
scrutinised at all, because smell experiences are so idiosyncratic that there is
no common frame of reference, or quite simply for lack of an olfactory
terminology (see Carlisle 30; Classen, Howes and Synnott 3; Hertel 126;
Rindisbacher 10; Miller 67-8). I am suspicious of the frequently repeated
claim that there is no language for smell since it risks precluding any serious
scholarly effort to discuss smells. As Rindisbacher points out, unlike the
senses of sight, hearing and, to some extent, taste, the sense of smell is not
generally educated (12) and this lack of olfactory training is reflected in
scholarly assumptions about the impossibility to conceptualise and verbalise
smell. Odours might not have many words of their own, but a qualifying
term metaphorically transferred from a different sensory register is not
necessarily vaguer or more idiosyncratic than a term originally meant to
describe the sense in question; i.e. the meaning of “strong” or “bitter” scent
is as evident as that of “loud” noise or “sweet” taste. While verbal
descriptions of scents might be inexact and dependent upon comparisons, so
are verbal descriptions of for example sounds and music, despite the
specialised terminology. 25
Furthermore, I agree with Classen that “although an explicit olfactory
vocabulary is lacking in the west, olfactory codes are nonetheless in place”
and that such codes need to be studied (Worlds 10). 26 As Christopher Looby
points out, the “repression of olfaction” does not preclude the fact that smell
is simultaneously “elaborately cultivated and socially constructed, with
different smells marked as pleasant or unpleasant, disgusting or exalted,
pure or filthy – or some double-binding combination of such antithetical
values” (292). Carlisle explores the unspoken olfactory codes of the Victorian
era and historicises the assumption that smells are difficult if not impossible
to convey in language by drawing attention to the Victorian conviction that
words and pictures do trigger sense impressions, including smells (Carlisle 7,
21). This notion is confirmed by Looby, who writes that 19th-century authors
like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville actively attempted “to produce
olfactory sensations in the reader’s body in seeming defiance of the nearly
25 “The problems of language in describing sensations or works of art and the difficulties in communication
so readily admitted for odours and perfumes, generally apply to all forms of fine art,” as perfumer Edmond
Roudnitska points out, 9.
26 For an extended version of this discussion, see Solander, “Signature” 302-5.
Smelling Sense
odourless nature of the printed book” (295). I take their lead instead of that
of scholars like Hertel insisting on the unconscious and unrepresentable
nature of smell.
To me, the relative absence of olfactory art and aesthetics suggests
intriguing possibilities for the virtual olfactions of literature. While smells at
this point in the history of western art might appear too real and immediate
to be creatively employed to any great extent, language on the other hand is
often conceived as too abstracted and mediated. Literary references to smell
can be interpreted as signifying “realness” on a strictly textual level.
However, I am more interested in how smell references function to gesture
towards the unsayable and open up the text to the non-signifying. In this, I
am inspired by Marks’ multisensory approach to film. Marks argues that
film, despite strictly speaking being an audiovisual medium, engages all the
senses. Analogously, I argue that language can be used in such a way as to
create phantom sensations relatively independent of the actual sensory
modalities of the literary medium.
Intriguingly, the abundance of words to describe visual, auditory and
tactile sensations might stand in the way of what Deleuze terms an intensive
usage of language (see Bogue, Deleuze on Literature 165). Even when they
do not actually coin neologisms, creative writers constantly have to invent
words anew in order to create literary intensities. What is unsayable about
sensations is not necessarily made more sayable by the existence of
established terms with conventional connotations. Such terms might rather
work to obscure non-signifying intensities with commonsense meanings,
though they may also be creatively employed against their own
communicative function. While the idea that there is no language to signify
smells can be questioned, Deleuzian percepts really do defy linguistic
signification. Literary percepts are created in and through language, used as
an artist’s material, but they are not “described,” “represented” or
“referenced” in the text. What I term phantom smells are not pure percepts
but the sense-specific forms literary percepts take in order to become
perceptible, and as such partake of the cultural meanings attached to sense
perceptions and to the words used to describe them.
When Barnes writes that Jenny in Nightwood “seemed to be steaming in
the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the
mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality) of a woman
about to be accouchée” (59), she directly describes what I would term a
phantom smell. Jenny does not actually smell of death or birth; her odour is
purely virtual (though in my terminology, it does have reality). Still,
something about the atmosphere surrounding Jenny makes its presence felt
specifically as smell, even if it is a “purely mental smell.” Barnes is at pains to
make the reader perceive this phantom smell, so it would be unfair to reduce
its olfactory component to an arbitrary metaphor for something essentially
abstract and non-sensual. Furthermore, she insists that phantom smells
exist outside of literature as a sort of non-linguistic, olfactory concepts which
may be attached to things lacking a smell as such. I think that this is the case
and that a phantom smell of the feminine, for example, is not confined to
Jackson’s work although it may take a specific form there.
While Jackson does not use detailed or original descriptions of smells to
create “smell pieces” on a par with the tactile and visual text-objects in her
works, simple but strong words like stink, stench and reek have an important
function as metonymies for what she calls the banished body or the
feminine. My argument is not that Jackson employs smell as a metaphor for
the feminine. There is not an abstract idea of the feminine first which is then
compared to a concrete smell in order to make it clearer or to give it greater
impact. Rather, the feminine is always already bound up with the smell of
the feminine and the femininity of smell. Ideas are not abstract at all but
charged with affects and perceptions of which they cannot simply be
purified. Smell stands in a metonymic rather than a metaphoric relation to
the feminine, in which each is part of the other. Jackson employs this
metonymic relation to make the feminine smellable in her work, not as some
actual, particular smell associated with the female body but as a phantom
smell of the feminine itself which has a virtual existence in literature.
Undead Smells
You go for the morbid stuff, don’t you, the fetid breath of the beyond? I thought so. Bleeding bowls,
leech jars, cupping kits, fleams, lancets, saws, you gotta love it. (Half 240)
In this section, I shall introduce the liminal function of smell in Jackson’s
work by way of discussing the literary phantom smells of death and decay. In
Hertel’s words, there is “a long tradition of linking smell to decay – death
stinks” (127). While Hertel’s examples of authors working within this
tradition are relatively recent – Thomas Mann and Ian McEwan – it can be
traced back to the Renaissance belief in infectious miasmas exhaled by
rotting bodies and culminated in the “Romantic fascination for the odors of
excremental and cadaverous putridity,” as Alain Corbin puts it in his
paradigmatic study of the history of smell (200). Within humoural
pathology, smells were ascribed great powers to heal as well as harm since
they were believed to carry actual qualities of the substances from which they
emanated directly to the brain through the nostrils (Palmer 63-7; Classen,
Howes and Synnot 60-1). Miasma theory was based upon a conception of
“smells as vapours emanating from bodies in a state of change, putrefaction,
liquefaction or evaporation” (Palmer 65). Thus, smells occupied a liminal
position between the substantial and the insubstantial, and miasmatic smells
in particular occupied a liminal position between life and death. In Deleuzian
Smelling Sense
terms, carcasses might be said to emit molecules of death, infecting others
with their becoming-dead.
The connection I make between early modern beliefs and Deleuze and
Guattari’s concept of becoming is inspired by Paster’s connection between
the permeable body of humoural pathology and the BwO. Paster forcefully
argues against metaphorical readings of the ascriptions of affect to inanimate
objects or the identification of humans with animals in early modern
literature, insisting that passions and humours were perceived as elemental
forces permeating humans and nonhumans alike (Humoring 24-6). The
mind-matter distinction did not apply in its contemporary fashion: humours
were both temperaments and body fluids, extending outside the body
through affinities with elements, climates, celestial bodies, animals, plants,
minerals and so on. For example, the miasma generated by stagnant water
was mirrored by a form of inner miasma in which the stagnant fluids of the
spirit engendered pathogenic vapours (Paster, Humoring 72-6). The object
world, including bodily organs, was animated by character traits and
agendas not uniquely human As such, the humoural body is the opposite of
the Cartesian machinic body, which is finite and logical in its operations. I
am interested in how the concept becoming can be related to humouralism’s
affective affinities crossing borders between species and kingdoms.
Traditionally, the smell of death already occupies a liminal position
between the physiological and the psychological due to its intimate
connection with the “stench of sin,” a Medieval Christian concept surviving
its counterpart, “the odour of sanctity” (Classen, Color45-60). 27 In Gothic
novels, contagious and nauseating smells of death can hardly be told apart
from equally dangerous smells of sin and evil. For example, in James Hogg’s
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a demonic
figure has breath “like the airs from a charnel house” (90) and in Matthew
Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, the Satanic evil of the plot is shrouded in a
“pestilential air of corruption” (205) and “poisonous vapour of the dungeon”
(19). Bram Stoker’s Dracula might serve as the epitome of this Gothic
olfactory convention in that the foul smell surrounding the monster in this
novel is so obviously material and immaterial, literal and metaphorical at the
same time: “But as to the odour itself, how shall I describe it? It was not
alone that it was composed of all the ills of mortality and with the pungent,
acrid smell of blood, but it seemed as though corruption has become itself
corrupt” (304-5). The very battle over the vampire victims’ lives and souls
27 While smells of corruption might figure less prominently outside of Gothic literature, I would argue that
the association between bodily and moral corruption persists. Within contemporary crime fiction, the
intolerable smell of human remains serves to emphasise the intolerable evil of murder. Body odour tends to
be considered a moral affront in the west, and idioms such as “I smell a rat” and “there’s something rotten in
the state of Denmark” (a slight misquotation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, act 1 scene 4) serve to reinforce a more
general association of bad odour with moral badness.
are fought with smells: Professor Van Helsing’s therapeutic garlic flowers
versus Count Dracula’s horrible stench of death and blood.
Frankenstein, the Gothic intertext in Patchwork Girl, does not partake in
the Romantic fascination with putrid smells. The smells of decaying matter
involved in the creation of the monster are left entirely to the reader’s
imagination, and neither Frankenstein nor his creation are described as
tainted by the stench of sin for the crime against God as sole creator of life.
That the monster’s foul smell is not just decorously left unmentioned is
demonstrated by the fact that he is able to befriend a blind man (Shelley
152-3). Obviously, when the monster’s horrid visual appearance is unseen,
no other sensory attributes get in the way of sympathising with him. It is a
cliché of modern culture that appearances can be misleading, while on the
other hand smells, as demonstrated by the “stench of sin,” are commonly
perceived to convey essences. Thus, the silence surrounding smells of death
and evil in Frankenstein is a speaking silence, conveying the essential
innocence hidden beneath the monster’s horrifying appearance. 28
With Patchwork Girl, Jackson makes a gesture of correcting the
scentlessness of Frankenstein. She lets the patchwork girl comment upon
the character of her author Shelley:
[S]he embeds her tale in a double thickness of letters and second-hand accounts, as if
every precaution were needed to secure the monster behind those locks and screens,
or as if she placed a soiled cloth in an envelope and then a reticule so that it should not
graze her fingers, pretending that smeared rag did not reek of her private parts.
(Patchwork [story/M/S/real M.])
The rag reeking of Shelley’s private parts which she hides inside a Chinesebox structure of narratives is supposedly the true story of her and the
patchwork girl, who is portrayed as her illegitimate offspring and illicit lover.
On the meta level, the smeared rag is also Patchwork Girl: the smelly text
about a smelly monster that Shelley never wrote. While this metatextual
assessment might be true in comparison to the deodorised Frankenstein, it
does appear somewhat self-congratulatory: Patchwork Girl is hardly a text
reeking of private parts.
Rather, despite her critique of Shelley for disguising and disowning her
“reek,” the patchwork girl too struggles to cover up her scent. She describes
having any body odour at all as a failure to live up to a feminine ideal: ”My
actual body was damp, even gooey or gummy, and at times it smelled. My
28 The monster’s innocence is not just conveyed by the absence of smell but also by the novel’s few smell
references: his enjoyment of “a thousand scents of delight” from budding spring flowers (Shelley 132)
demonstrates that he shares the refined sensibilities of his maker, who inhales “the most delightful scent of
flowers and hay” from the picturesque shores of Lake Como, Shelley 132, 225. Monster and maker both
partake in the Romantic cultivation of subtle sensual pleasures derived from nature described by Corbin,
Smelling Sense
imagined body was dry, except for a water-thin, odorless slick of neutral fluid
in its two mouths” (Patchwork [story/falling apart/craft]). It is typical for the
majority of smell references in Patchwork Girl, as in Jackson’s work in
general, that the unwanted body odours are not specified. Instead, the
generic “smell” is put up against non-smell and aligned with what Jackson
calls the banished body. I shall discuss how this relates to the feminine in the
next section, but for now I read the patchwork girl’s struggle against her
body odours in light of another statement she makes: “The past was like a
smell. You could ignore it, you could cover it up, you could try to outdistance
it, you could go to the source, rip up the rotten linoleum, douse it with toxins
floral and citrus” (Patchwork [story/falling apart/cut and paste]). What
starts as a simple comparison between smell and the past gradually turns
into their conflation. Since the patchwork girl’s past is embodied in her
scarred and stitched-together body, it is literally smelly. Specifically, it is the
odour of corruption surrounding the undead monster. Her efforts to erase it
entail acts of covering up her undead body (with clothes), ripping it up (with
scissors and files) and dousing it (with more or less toxic beauty products).
Unlike in the Gothic tradition, the smell of death is not associated with
evil in Patchwork Girl. Rather, it is odourlessness and adversity to smells
that are negatively figured. In both of the diverging “mistress” and
“monstrous” storylines, the patchwork girl loses a foot in a carriage accident.
The incident gets press attention and the foot is given a public burial. In
“monstrous,” the patchwork girl digs up her foot and remarks upon opening
the child-sized coffin that it smells “of tobacco, of flowers, and faintly of
corruption” (Patchwork [story/séance/patchworking]). The smell of
corruption informs her that she needs to hurry with sewing it back on, while
the inclusion of the other two smells indicates her composure and provides a
rare example in Jackson’s work of atmospheric smells to set the 19th century
scene. 29 In the “monstrous” storyline, the patchwork girl accepts her
monstrous heritage and simply tries to get by, and accordingly the horror
commonly associated with the smell of corruption is strongly played down.
In “mistress,” on the other hand, the patchwork girl tries to control herself
and pass as a proper woman, and in this storyline she responds to the
trauma of losing a foot by ripping the leg off a robber and claiming it for her
own. Here, the only smell reference is an interjected “(the stench)” serving as
motivation for burning the clothes bloodied by the stolen foot (Patchwork
[story/séance/repairs]). The brevity, italics and choice of the word “stench”
instead of Jackson’s preferred “smell” all emphasise the patchwork girl’s
affect. Unlike in “monstrous,” she is too desperate to register any other
smells than that of the severed foot. Importantly, however, it is not the smell
29 Flowers and tobacco are the most frequently mentioned odorants in Victorian novels, so the choice of these
particular smells is a rather clichéd specification, see Carlisle 14.
of corruption as such that is so negatively connoted, even in “mistress.” On
the contrary, it is the patchwork girl’s failure to accept her undead nature
and the smells of corruption it entails which drive her to a morally corrupt
deed, and this is why the smell of blood haunts her in an olfactory variation
of the literary tradition of Lady Macbeth’s bloodstained hands.
By the end of Patchwork Girl, as the patchwork girl has come to terms
with her undead body, she is more tempted than repulsed by the thought of
affirming her own smelly corruption. She sometimes feels an urge to rip
herself apart and “dry into hard shreds of jerky with an insinuating stink,
divvied up by ants” (Patchwork [story/rethinking/afterwards]). As the
patchwork girl was never quite alive she can never die: she is an undead
assemblage embodying the idea that life precedes and exceeds the individual
organism. Jackson affirms this idea by reconfiguring the “smell of death”
into a “smell of undeath.”
The lure of dead smells is also present in Half Life, where the protagonist
Nora finds the smell of animal carcasses “not unpleasant, just stirringly rich
and brown” (177). Ignoring her conjoined twin Blanche’s complaints that
“[i]t smells funny,” she lies down among the carcasses collected for their
“Dead Animal Zoo” and plays dead (Half 182). When later in the narrative
the twin sisters disguise themselves in the hide of a dead cow, Nora does not
want to come out from “its thick, sour, berry smell” since there is “a lot to
think about in that smell” (Half 381). Through inhaling the smells of dead
animals she enters into a becoming-dead which should not be confused with
simply dying since it is essential that she remains alive to experience it.
When the smell of the cow hide attracts a vulture which might mistake the
sisters for a cow carcass and devour them, the threat of literal death prompts
Nora to abort the experiment (although it is unclear whether she simply fails
to stop a terrified Blanche from moving). Thus, similar to the smell of
undeath in Patchwork Girl, the smell of death in Half Life marks a liminal
state of heightened awareness rather than the cessation of life.
In “Angel,” a short story about a taxidermist’s encounter with the body of
a dead boy in a park, the smell of death stands in for the banished body in
art. Sight, associated with abstracted artistic vision, is juxtaposed with smell,
associated with visceral responses. The taxidermist practises the artistic
vision taught to him by his father and sublimates the sight of the dead body
into an aesthetic experience: “He unfocused his eyes to the point that the
complications did not show, and sat at peace in the dark with only a tangy
smell to offer specific information, information in this case about substances
that had leaked from the shape, as substances will” (Angel 20). As is evident
from the quotation, he cannot, however, abstract or sublimate smell. While
visually a corpse might be reduced to a “shape,” the smell of it insists upon
the particularities of its state of decomposition. The taxidermist struggles to
reconcile the mind/body dualism and accept the material aspect of human
Smelling Sense
subjectivity: “How strange, he thought, that we are meat, and that meat rots,
and so we begin to stink when we die, like anything left out too long” (Angel
30). Smell is firmly associated with death, as bodies are only described as
smelling when “left out too long,” that is, when being reduced to meat upon
the departure of consciousness.
By the end of the story, after the protagonist has used his dubious
taxidermy skills to turn the dead body into an angel by attaching a pair of
chicken wings to it, he accepts that his art will not magically transform the
object. Abstraction is impossible: the corpse remains a corpse, with all the
material particularities this entails. However, the story ends on a note of
celebration of the capacity of the creative imagination to take available
materials and rearrange them into works of art. The taxidermist muses: “If
the angel flew, he was going to have to fly with the available equipment,
raising his untranscended flesh on chicken wings, dropping bugs on the faces
of the faithful. There would be a smell” (Angel 32). As in Patchwork Girl, a
generic “smell” is used metonymically to invoke material particularity. In
both cases the unspecified smell emanates from dead bodies, simultaneously
drawing upon the visceral intensity of the stench of decay for, and wresting it
away from, its negative connotations.
The stakes involved in reclaiming smells of death and decay for feminist
body writing require some explanation. As I shall discuss at length later on,
the smell of the feminine tends to be figured – and abhorred – as a smell of
natural fecundity as well as natural decay. Within the Christian tradition, the
bodies of virgin saints “uncontaminated by the corrupt fluids of coitus” are
the only female bodies preserved from the foul smell of corruption (Classen,
Color 51). In The Hearing Trumpet, Carrington mockingly conflates the
smell of death, the stench of sin and the odour of sanctity in the scene of the
Abbess Doña Rosalinda’s death in supernatural childbirth after congress
with a heathen god or demon. According to the priest witnessing her death
by explosion, “[p]ungent fumes so heavy as to resemble a thundercloud, and
with a most dreadful stench filled the death chamber.” Ironically, these
fumes are then “turned into a heavy and most exquisite perfume, like Musc
and jasmine” which is taken for an “Odour of Sanctity” and contributes to
the abbess’ canonisation (Carrington 99). As it turns out that the lascivious
abbess is not really dead but an immortal fertility goddess, Carrington writes
these archetypal smells into a feminist refusal of the static, incorrupt,
virginal ideal of Christianity. Although the patchwork girl temporarily tries
to attain this timeless, odourless feminine ideal, Jackson affirms the smell of
undeath in her feminist body writing.
Odor di Femina
I was mostly struck by the smell of blood, which was strong and old and weakened my legs and brought
the feeling of Sally close at hand. (Melancholy 152)
According to Deleuze and Guattari, becoming-woman is the first step away
from a majoritarian identity as Man. This is true even for women, as
becoming-woman does not imply a naturalised female or feminine identity
(such a majoritarian female identity might rather be described as Woman, a
special instance of Man partaking in some of its privileges). In this section, I
shall discuss “odor di femina,” or the smell of female body fluids, as part of
the olfactory becomings in Jackson’s work. Specifically, this section deals
with smells of milk and menstrual blood, most centrally in “Blood” from The
Melancholy of Anatomy.
By naming a short story “Blood,” Jackson aligns herself with humouralism
in which blood was one of the four main humours of the body. However, the
kind of blood Jackson generalises as part not only of the human body but of
the earth itself is a specifically sexed form: menstrual blood. Due to their
liquid state and excretion from the body, body fluids are already liminal, and
the smells emanating from body fluids are doubly liminal. Thus, while
menstrual fluid leaks out of the female body, smell leaks out from the fluid,
further reinforcing a conception of the feminine as becoming-woman.
The history of smells in literature is largely a history of smelling men and
smelly women. According to the Victorian “osmology” Carlisle delineates,
male protagonists are ideally scentless, while female characters are
associated with floral fragrances. Many of the works Rindisbacher and Hertel
discuss, such as Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Italo Calvino’s “The Name, The
Nose” and Roald Dahl’s “The Bitch,” deal with men obsessed with the smell
of women. The association of smell with women is not confined to literature
but reflects a more general cultural conception of women as simultaneously
the more fragrant and the fouler-smelling sex (Classen, Worlds 87-90). In its
latter aspect as rank, ripe body odour, the odor di femina harks back to the
smell of corruption discussed in the previous section; thus, the menstruating
Nora in Half Life attracts a fly and asks: “Do I smell dead?” (Half 344).
Freud speculated that “man” had renounced the olfactory sexual
stimulation of female genital smells in favour of visual attractions when he
began to walk upright (cited in Gallop 26-8). The sexologist Havelock Ellis
placed this renouncing at the turn of the eighteenth century, when women in
the west ceased wearing heavy, musky perfumes to accentuate their body
odour and instead began masking them (cited in Corbin 73-74).
Psychoanalyst Michèle Montrelay used the term “odor di femina”
(mentioned in passing by Jacques Lacan) to describe the intense body
odours of the mother, the memory of which must be repressed and replaced
with less intense visual representations in order for the subject to function
Smelling Sense
socially (cited in Gallop 27). More generally, odor di femina has been used to
denote the smell of women, specifically the smell of the female sex but also a
supposedly effeminate atmosphere surrounding someone or something.
While I am not using the term in its psychoanalytical sense, I recognise that
psychoanalytical notions inform écriture féminine and that Jackson’s
banished body conforms to the model of the repressed feminine. Hence,
“odor di femina” captures the smell of the feminine, figured as culturally
A version of odor di femina which emphasises fertility rather than
sexuality is the smell of milk. While historically perceived as impregnating
women’s bodies whether they had given birth or not (Corbin 36), in
contemporary literature it is mostly confined to nursing mothers. In A. S.
Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia,” the “suppressed, furtive-seeming birth-smells,
milky and bloody” of his wife’s delivery make the protagonist William feel
“huge, dirty, bloated, wrong” (70). She is portrayed as being in her natural
element when surrounded by the smells of birth, while he finds them
alluring yet alienating. In Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, a woman suffering
from postpartum depression rages against men for putting women in this
position: “This is just how they want you, an animal, a bitch with swollen
udders lying in the dirt, blank-faced, surrendered, reduced to this meat,
these smells…” (287). The feminist critique in this quotation is based upon
an association of birth smells, implicitly including the smell of milk from
“swollen udders,” with animality, and a rejection of this animality as a
subhuman existence. Being reduced to smelly meat means being deprived of
human agency and rationality, as women have been throughout history.
Jackson employs the opposite strategy of reclaiming the association of
women with nature and the animal in her feminist politics. This reclamation
does not, however, take the form of a celebration of a femininity permeated
with the smells of childbirth and nursing, as in Cixous. When Jackson figures
the smell of the feminine as a milky smell, she tends to displace it from
female bodies and denaturalise the connection between women and
motherhood. This is the case in “Milk,” where milk replaces water and the
landscape is permeated with its smell, from a “pleasant tang in the air” to the
“stench of sour milk” (Melancholy 157-8). This is also the case in “Here is the
Church,” where the phantom smell of the story is a “thick sweet smell of
evaporated milk” which the protagonist associates with her father (90, 93).
Milk is also associated with fathers in “Flat Daddy,” one of Jackson’s “front
page stories” written using only the words found on the cover of a
newspaper. The narrator’s body odours of milk and cheese (along with blood
on the toilet paper and lack of beard growth) tell her that she is not the son
her “Flat Daddy,” an animate cardboard cutout replacing a father found
lacking in masculinity, wants her to be. Her Flat Daddy threatens to
discipline her with a “father smell,” but she replies that being a cutout, he
has no father smell, and eventually goes to live with her “milk father” in the
“Milk Zone.” I have used the female pronoun to designate the narrator, but
this is assuming too much from her being described as “not a boy” (Flat 278).
In “Flat Daddy” there is only masculinity and its negation, milk. The
representatives of masculine authority are odourless and literally flat
characters speaking in slogans, while milk and its odour suggest écriture
féminine: a more substantial and nourishing kid of writing.
Like she does with milk, Jackson displaces menstrual blood from the
female body and turns it into an autonomous feminine element. “Blood”
humorously depicts a battle between masculine, deodorised civilisation and
feminine, smelly nature in which menstrual blood replaces sewage as the
waste matter accumulating in the sewers of Victorian London. The
protagonist of the story is a so-called “blood-lark,” who used to work
mopping up the blood before it scabbed to make room for next month’s flow.
In the present time of the story, however, town planners have come up with
the radical solution of sealing the earth underneath the city, rendering her
occupation obsolete.
Although set in a fantastic version of Victorian London, “Blood” draws
upon the early modern medical beliefs of Burton’s The Anatomy of
Melancholy. Burton’s humouralism is echoed in the arrangement of the
stories into sections named after the four temperaments corresponding to
the four humours. According to humoural pathology, it is of vital importance
to rid the body of excess fluids, for example through blood-letting and
menstruation. Corrupt menstrual blood accumulating in the body is the chief
cause of melancholy in women (Burton 1:414-9). However, by placing
“Blood” under the “Sanguine” heading and characterising the blood larks as
bold, hearty and amorous to match the sanguine temperament, Jackson
subtly overthrows the sexed hierarchy of humouralism. Sanguinity was
conventionally perceived as a masculine temperament, and the blood
associated with it as hot and quick, while the dark and clotted menstrual
blood was explained as mixed up with phlegm. Jackson instead gives the
blood epitomising sanguinity the specifically feminine form of menstrual
When it comes to smell, “Blood” relates to Burton’s work via the notion of
miasma. Fetid smells were believed dangerous to inhale before Pasteur’s
germ theory was generally accepted by the end of the 19th century, including
smells of organic decay such as faeces, vegetation, earth and stagnant water
(Corbin 33-46). Corbin describes how the earth was perceived as a
dangerous repository of pathogenic vapours which it was of vital importance
to seal in order to keep the vapours from rising and waste from seeping into
the ground, corrupting it further (23-4, 90-1). Jackson draws upon such
beliefs in her descriptions of the Londoners’ decision to seal the earth in
order to stop the blood flow, and subtly alludes to the related association of
Smelling Sense
the underground with forces of evil. While unlike in Dracula, the combined
smells of blood and earth are never described as horrible, their Gothic
connotations are present in horses who “spook at the smell of blood” and
people who find the blood rising “devilish” (Melancholy 149-50). 30 The
protagonist, however, redefines miasmas which according to Burton are
unwholesome and likely to cause melancholy (1:237-41) as vitalising: “The
first whiff of the blood smell always struck hard, but after that we didn’t
notice it, it was not a bad smell anyhow, but strong and natural, like horses
or a good clean pond with plenty of crawlies living in it” (Melancholy 143).
In Deleuze and Guattari’s scheme, becoming-woman is followed by
becoming-animal, which is just one step further away from a majoritarian
human identity. In “Blood,” femininity is associated with animality: the
blood-larks lie “snug as grubs under the city rubbing all its secret passages
clean, working in the dark because we knew where the blood was just by the
sticky feel of it and the smell” (Melancholy 145). The image of “grubs” may
have been suggested by “grubbers,” a slang term used to describe scavengers
in the sewers of London, just like “blood-larks” alludes to the “mudlarks”
scavenging the banks of the Thames. Although grubs might seem almost
comically harmless, the image of them crawling in blood resonates with the
Gothic imagery via the description of Dracula as a “filthy leech” sleeping in
the earth (Stoker 72). The animality of the blood-larks is emphasised by their
reliance on the “animal” senses of smell and touch and their capacity to work
in the dark, like blind worms. Confirming the common association of smell
with natural instinct, the protagonist of “Blood” states that “most of us could
sniff out when a period was coming after just a few months on the job, we
had such a feel for it” (Melancholy 142).
In The Anatomy of Disgust, William Ian Miller suggests that “Freud’s
theory of the final devaluation of smell depended upon putting sewers under
ground” and that “[u]nderground sewers were not an emblem of the
repressed but the repressed itself, a burying of dangerousness” (78). I am
sympathetic to this suggestion, which historicises psychoanalytical theory
and corresponds to my Deleuzian theoretical framework. As a technology,
sewers structure the repressed as bodily waste hidden from sight (and
smell!) underground. This is not just a metaphor for purely psychological
processes of repression. Rather, it is a metonymy linking immaterial ideas
with very material sewage in the common concept of the repressed. Jackson
draws upon the history of sanitation to metonymically replace sewage with
menstrual blood and create a literary phantom smell of the feminine.
30 The fact that the blood is menstrual adds to its evil since folk belief used to ascribe destructive magical
powers to the smell of menstruation, “for example, the ability to render fields barren, mirrors dim, iron rusty,
and dogs mad,” Classen, Worlds 87. More generally, there is a cross-cultural “conception of menstrual fluid as
a kind of putrid blood, combining the danger associated with blood with that associated with excrement,”
Classen, Howes and Synnott 137.
Menstrual blood is relegated to the sewers along with other forms of bodily
waste, and analogously banned from literature. I would argue that as a
literary topic, it is more repressed than any other bodily substance, probably
due to its sexed nature. While excrement might be considered obscene, there
is still a strong literary tradition of scatological humour. The same is not true
for menstrual humour, although some jokes about embarrassing bloodstains
may be acceptable.
As part of the odor di femina, the smell of menstrual blood repulses rather
than attracts. Freud claimed that the distaste for menstrual odour was more
universal and profound than that for the odour of excrement. 31 However, he
considered the repulsion to be part of the civilising process, replacing an
animal attraction to the scent. Hopkinson plays with this animal attraction in
“Riding the Red,” a rewriting of Little Red Riding Hood in which the girl
lures the wolf with her blood smell. The blood is blood in general – the
protagonist recalls being “drunk on the smell of [her] own young blood
flowing through [her] veins” (Hopkinson 2) – but the title of the story and
the theme of sexual awakening suggests a connection to puberty and
menstruation. However, the bestial coupling of woman and wolf does not
follow the pattern of straight sexual awakening: menstrual smells do not
attract man but unleash a becoming-animal. 32 Reinforcing the queer
connection, the indeterminately sexed narrator of Winterson’s Written on
the Body performs one of the few literary odes to the beloved’s menstrual
smell: “When she bleeds the smells I know change colour. There is iron in
her soul on those days. She smells like a gun” (Written 136). The reference to
a gun is positively connoted as part of a hunt in which the narrator is her
willing sexual prey and firing equals orgasm. While Winterson
unconditionally celebrates a menstrual odor di femina, Jackson affirms it
without denying its historical connection to foul-smelling miasmas. Rather
than denying that the smell of menstrual blood may be repulsive, she shows
that repulsion need not rule out attraction. The sanguine blood-larks get
over their initial repulsion and compose carols combining blood and
lewdness into a concoction so strong it brings up the “green bile” for those
not used to it (Melancholy 139). Many of them find lovers among the allfemale community of blood-larks, developing a queer sexuality intimately
related to their smelly, bloody work.
31 As Miller points out, the comparison is unfair since Freud assumes a male subject, meaning that the
imagined faeces may be his own while the menstrual blood must always be another’s, and other people’s
bodily waste is generally perceived as more disgusting, 72-4.
32 The song “Wolf Moon” by the metal band Type O Negative describes a man involved in a becoming-animal
triggered by the smell and taste of menstrual blood. The singer, either a werewolf or simply like a werewolf in
his periodical blood thirst, describes how upon each full moon he enjoys drinking the menstrual blood of his
lover. The song goes beyond mere obscene provocation in its celebration of the romantic symbiosis between
woman and werewolf.
Smelling Sense
By the end of the story, a phallic tower flooded with blood leaking up
through its insufficiently sealed basement is left “stinking and pink” by the
blood-larks called in to drain it (Melancholy 153). The menstrual flow will
never stay completely buried out of sight or smell, but returns to stain and
impregnate civilisation. The juxtaposition of the rhyming words “stink” and
“pink” captures the body as feminine and the feminine as body. “Pink” has
an obvious connection to femininity through being slang for “vagina” and
conventionally designated as a girly – and gay – colour, but it is also the flesh
colour of whites. “Stink,” being less neutral than “smell,” suggests body
odours and the odor di femina. Though both words share a connection to the
body and the feminine, “stink” reinforces the corporeality of “pink” while
“pink” in turn reinforces the femininity of “stink.” In another short story,
Jackson makes the picture of the banished body clearer by adding animality
and decay in her description of the body as a “pink, stinking animal coffin”
(Consuetudinary 137). In the following section, I shall follow the scent trail
on to an olfactory becoming-animal in the work of Jackson, Barnes, Bartlett
and Carter.
The Smell of the Beast
When he bent over to greet us, he put one big, hot, damp hand on the small of our back, and I smelled
his goatish armpits and his rank breath and screamed up into his smiling face. (Half 165)
As already seen, the olfactory domain is generally associated with animality,
and this is especially true for body odours and sexual smells. In this section, I
shall discuss animal smells in relation to the masculine counterpart to odor
di femina – the “aura seminalis” supposedly surrounding pubescent and
celibate men in particular (Corbin 36-7). It is crucial to keep in mind,
however, that the aura seminalis is not simply the sexed opposite of the odor
di femina, and to not construct a feminine-floral and masculine-animal
dichotomy. As seen in the previous section, the odor di femina is strongly
associated with animality too, while the aura seminalis might be
conceptualised as part of a becoming directed away from an ideally scentless
masculinity. In the works I shall discuss, aura seminalis is distinctly queer
and bestial. The protagonist of My Body relates how in puberty her “dry,
stainless, odorless child body had shivered all over and metamorphosed into
a stinking, sweating, oozing hulk sprouting hair” (Body [armpits]). I do not
read this as an instance of odor di femina, as she is contrasted with her
female classmates who do not stink. Rather, I read her “reek” as part of her
queer otherness, more specifically what Judith Halberstam terms “female
masculinity.” Although it is not quite an aura seminalis, it is similarly
associated with bestiality, as the sudden transformation into a hairy hulk
suggests werewolf lore.
The olfactory becoming-animal merely hinted at in My Body is brought
out much more strongly in Bartlett’s Skin Lane, where the middle-aged
protagonist Mr F goes through a sort of belated puberty or queer sexual
awakening wrapped up in a becoming-beast. In some senses, he fits the
description of the masturbating bachelor typically associated with an aura
seminalis in 19th-century literature, who “can’t stand the nighttime smell of
himself” (Bartlett, Skin 136). In an article on the aura seminalis emanating
from 19th-century anti-masturbation tracts Looby suggests that literary
phantom smells refuse to be contained within their rhetorical functions
(300-3). Even when intended as warning, they introduce a pornographic
element into the text, in the sense of provoking physical reactions in the
reader. I take Looby’s lead in considering the animalic phantom smells in the
texts I discuss throughout this section as potentially transmittable and able
to draw the reader into an olfactory becoming-animal.
Since smell is deeply connected to animality and fairy tales are full of
beasts and animal transformations, it is unsurprising that rewritings of fairy
tales should provide unusually smelly texts. This is true for Hopkinson’s
“Riding the Red” as well as for Skin Lane and Carter’s various rewritings of
Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood in The Bloody Chamber.
In several of Carter’s tales there is a becoming-animal of the heroines, who
instead of transforming the cursed beasts back into princes shed the skin of
civilisation and join them in bestiality. Skin Lane is a male queer addition to
a long tradition of feminist revisions of fairy tales. It is primarily a retelling
of Beauty and the Beast, but it also has elements of Bluebeard, most clearly
in a scene where Mr F’s hand is “stained scarlet” by the light shining through
a stained-glass window as he turns the key in his lock (Bartlett, Skin 15). In
Bartlett’s merging of the two tales, Mr F unlocks the door to his own
becoming-Beast. However, this becoming-Beast is always already mixed up
with a becoming-Beauty. As a child, Mr F loved having his father read
Beauty and the Beast to him as a bedtime story, after which he would lie in
the position of Beauty in one of the illustrations and wait for the Beast to
come: “Waits, for the first sound of snuffling in the dark. For the first touch
of bristle or guard-hair on his cheek. For the first hot, stinking breath to
brush against his neck” (Bartlett, Skin6). When this scene is later played out,
Mr F instead takes the position of the Beast, while the young man he has
designated as Beauty “could feel Mr F’s slightly foul breath on his cheek”
(Bartlett, Skin 293-4). Recall that becoming-woman comes just before
becoming-animal in the movement away from a majoritarian (masculine)
Throughout Skin Lane, smells figure as ineradicable stains clinging to skin
and allowing others to sniff one out. Mr F worries about mundane smells like
boot-polish and rubbish sticking to his hands (Bartlett, Skin 276, 338), but
most of all he worries about the distinct odour left by his profession as a
Smelling Sense
furrier: “At the end of the working day, and before he starts to prepare his
evening meal, he wants to get rid of the faint but distinctive smell that clings
to them. It isn’t a particularly unpleasant smell, but it is unusual; dusty,
pervasive, oddly animal – hard to place until you realise what it is” (Bartlett,
Skin 30). The reason the smell is so worrying is that it is contagious:
transferred from (dead) animal skin to skin it invites a becoming-Beast. But
again the smell-stained hands also involve Mr F in a becoming-Beauty where
he is the fairy tale heroine marked by her transgression.
The fairy tale theme of the stain plays a similar role in Jackson’s “Cancer,”
where the protagonist experiences the half animal, half vegetal cancer
growing in his living room as a telltale stain on his life left by some unknown
sin. Without even having touched the “disturbingly womanly” cancer growth,
he feels a need to wash its stain off his hands: “I looked at it, you could
almost say lovingly: what lawless circus beauty. The stink of the big cats, the
glare of the lights! I forgot myself, brought my hands close, almost petting
the hairy fringe. But afterwards ran scalding water on my palms”
(Melancholy 59-60). The simultaneously attractive and repulsive, feminine
and animal other with its specific association to the circus recalls Barnes’
“Tamer smelling like her Beast” (Ladies 60). The cancer exudes a virile
vitality infecting the protagonist and invigorating every part of his physique
including sweat and oil glands so that a “smell of bacterial abandon hung in
[his] armpits” (Melancholy 60). Thus, his smelly and leaky body gradually
comes to resemble the cancer, which leaks a “purple ichor” with a “strong
and sweet” smell (Melancholy 63). The cancer presents the whole line from
becoming-woman via becoming-animal to becoming-vegetable. Like Mr F,
Jackson’s protagonist takes on the role of fairy tale heroine, with the cancer
cast as Rumpelstiltskin: “No matter what I said, stomp stomp and through
the floor he plunged in a brimstone stink, but he’d be back again another
day, the hairy nymph” (Melancholy 61). The “brimstone stink” is of course
the hellish stench of sin, while the description of Rumpelstiltskin as a “hairy
nymph” suggests queer sexual transgression. Ultimately, however, the
protagonist of “Cancer” refuses the becoming offered by the cancer.
Mr F’s attempt to refuse becoming-Beast is more ambiguous. While he
tries to contain the animalic smell of fur by thoroughly washing his hands
after work, the washing as such is part of his becoming-Beauty. After
washing, he uses a perfumed lotion which he rubs in by wringing his hands
in a “strangely intent and melancholic gesture” (Bartlett, Skin 16). This
wringing of the hands, explicitly described as feminine and archaic, picks up
the stylised gestures of fairy tale grief. Furthermore, it replaces the animal
odour with a “faint night-time perfume,” a formulation connoting not only
femininity but vegetal sexuality: the seductive scents of night-blooming
flowers which I shall return to in the following section. By masking his
animalic odour with the sexual smells of flowers, Mr F performs a variation
on a theme from Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride,” in which the Beast masks his
“reek of fur and piss” (Carter 66) with a “reek of purplish civet” (Carter 53), a
perfume ingredient “obtained from the scent gland of the civet cat” (Classen,
Worlds 91). Thus, the perfume used to mask his odour of the Beast is itself a
telltale sign of it, which is true in a more subtle way for Skin Lane as well.
Animalic perfumes may be used to mask or replace body odours, but they
inevitably gain their sexual appeal from being the (refined and diluted) body
odours of animals. In Carter’s “Wolf-Alice,” a girl raised by wolves delights in
“the ancient yet still potent scents of musk and civet” lingering in the fabric
of ball gowns, sensing her affinity with these animal smells (124). Thus,
animalic perfumes might as well induce a becoming-animal in those wearing
or smelling them. This is the case in Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” where
the Bluebeard character’s “opulent male scent of leather and spices” betrays
instead of masks his bestial nature (8). The heroine finds “the source of his
habitual odour of Russian leather” to be the library where he keeps his
sadistic pornography, which aligns it with a masturbatory aura seminalis
(Carter 16). It also forebodes the fate of his bride, which is sealed as she is
forced to show him the bloodstained key to his secret chamber. She describes
how she “felt there emanate from him, at that moment, a stench of absolute
despair, rank and ghastly, as if the lilies that surrounded him had all at once
begun to fester, or the Russian leather of his scent were reverting to the
elements of flayed hide and excrement of which it was composed” (Carter
35). The Russian leather perfume, suitable for a polished gentleman, is only
a fraction away from the “hide and excrement” (or “fur and piss,” as in “The
Tiger’s Bride”) of the Beast. It is as though his perfume itself is becominganimal and sweeping him along with it despite himself.
An olfactory becoming-animal is not just about acquiring an animalic
odour, but also an animal keenness of the nose. As Carter puts it in “WolfAlice”: “Two-legs looks, four-legs sniffs” (119). It is a not entirely accurate
commonplace that humans have a poor sense of smell compared to other
animals. Most humans are not used to orienting themselves in the world by
smell, at least not consciously, but it is possible to develop a discriminating
sense of smell if necessary. William, the naturalist protagonist of Byatt’s
“Morpho Eugenia,” has done so on his travels to collect specimen:
The hunter in him, now in abeyance, had a highly developed sense of smell. There
were jungle creatures whose presence he sensed with all sorts of senses undeveloped
in urban Englishmen, he supposed – a prickling in the skin, a fluctuation in the soft
nasal lining, a ripple in the scalp, a perturbation of his sense of balance. These had
tormented him in London streets, where they had over-responded to fried onions and
sewage, to the garments of the urban poor and the perfumes of ladies. (Byatt 96)
The quotation suggests that a keen sense of smell is redundant and even
burdensome in so-called civilised society, where one is expected to politely
Smelling Sense
ignore most smells. William uses the keenness of his nose mainly to smell
the different body odours of the two women he is torn between: the lady
Eugenia and the governess Mattie. The connection between smell, sexuality
and animality is reinforced by his transformation from a hunter of animals
to a hunter of women.
Mr F develops keen senses as part of his becoming-animal. While his
sense of smell is not explicitly singled out, it is highlighted by the references
to smells and sniffing. The youth referred to as Beauty and the girl he is
secretly dating feel exposed by Mr F and wonder: “Smell us, can he?”
(Bartlett, Skin 97). As in ”Morpho Eugenia,” the protagonist’s keen nose is
mainly used to sniff out the object of his desire. Mr F is described as an
animal in a cage sniffing for the prey it has never tasted (Bartlett, Skin 275),
or as the Beast unable to enjoy his fragrant garden for the missing scent of
Beauty: “Beast that he is, when he lifts his muzzle to the air, it is never to
catch the perfume of the jasmine, or a rose. Every night, he hopes the wind
may bring him fresh news of the one whom all of this has been so cunningly
constructed to lure” (Bartlett, Skin 149). Mr F is imprisoned in a fairy tale
castle of his own making, and like a caged beast knows the world outside
through the smells carried to him by the wind. As in “Morpho Eugenia,” the
urban environment overwhelms his animal sense of smell in a scene where
he gets lost and ends up in a meat market: “That thick sweet smell which is
just beginning to make itself apparent is the smell of meat: cut meat.
Something about this smell feels very wrong; there is too much of it”
(Bartlett, Skin 115). The smell of meat is associated with Beauty, generally as
the scent of prey and as specifically because Mr F’s becoming-animal starts
with a nightmare about a beautiful dead youth hung upside down like a
carcass in the slaughterhouse. Being confronted with it in the daytime
bothers Mr F who, as already shown, wants to compartmentalise and contain
A heightened sense of smell is associated with animality and with forms of
sexuality regarded as regressive or bestial. Rather than denying this
connection as prejudiced and demeaning, the queer writers I am discussing
draw upon and explore it. The scent trail connecting animality to lesbianism
in Nightwood especially has been discussed by previous scholars. Bonnie
Kime Scott was among the first to observe the many animal affinities and
hybrid creatures in Barnes’ work (71-122). Dana Seitler reads the “bestiality”
in Nightwood as engaging with degeneration discourses in which “sexual
perversion” was seen as a form of atavistic lapse into animal behaviour, and
briefly suggests that Robin’s becoming-animal contests sexual identities such
as inversion or lesbianism (530). Carrie Rohman combines Deleuze with
Derrida in a more sustained argument about Robin’s becoming-animal as a
form of posthumanism radically questioning human identities and subject
positions (80-2). Finally, Alex Goody makes a more general claim for the
animal becomings recurring throughout Barnes’ œuvre (164-73).
Robin in Nightwood is repeatedly associated with animals and with the
evolutionary past, a connection made partly through smell. Doctor O’Connor
expresses regret that humans have rejected the keenness of their noses in
order to differentiate themselves from other animals but this is not true for
Robin, who still orients herself by smell (Barnes, Nightwood 107, 50). Her
abandoned husband Felix describes her as having “a sort of ‘odour of
memory,’ like a person who has come from some place that we have
forgotten and would give our life to recall.” This is uttered in response to
Doctor O’Connor’s comment that “[m]an is born as he dies, rebuking
cleanliness” and that a certain lack of cleanliness in life is attractive, “a sort
of earth on which love feeds.” (Barnes, Nightwood 106). Robin’s body odour
attracts precisely because it is not washed clean of any traces of dirt and
therefore harks back to the filthy business of birth as well as to the
unhygienic history of the human race. This reflects Freud’s characterisation
of the sense of smell, body odours, and especially female sexual smells as
“atavistic throwback[s]” (Mavor 282). However, although the association of
smell with a “primitive” past may be commonplace, Barnes’ use of it is not.
According to Rohman, Robin is “figured as a prehuman organic body”
refusing the “organic repression” of the olfactory and of animality ordained
by Freud, and with it the “impermeable and distinct” human subjectivity that
is achieved through such repression (66-7). This resonates with the
Deleuzian argument Marks makes for the films of the brothers Quay: that
they use references to smell to decentre human subjectivity and appeal to
other forms of organic and inorganic life (Touch 127-8).
Using the scientific terminology of the times, Robin’s association with
animality can be characterised as atavism, an evolutionary throwback to an
earlier developmental stage. Seitler is certainly right that Barnes draws upon
available discourses of degeneration and modernist primitivism, though she
is wrong to ascribe a devaluation of the non-, de- or inhuman to the novel
(544). Applying a Deleuzian theoretical perspective, Robin’s becominganimal is a flight from human subjectivity directed not backwards in time
but towards an unknown future. Importantly, becoming-animal is neither
evolution nor “bestial devolution,” as Seitler puts it (550), but, as Goody
points out, involution (172). Like evolution, involution is directed forwards
in time, but unlike evolution, it does not develop through predictable steps
and stages. Involution is creative and has more to do with the symbiotic
relation between species than the descent of a species. (Deleuze and
Guattari, Thousand 263). Seitler’s reading of Nightwood as a “degeneration
narrative” resisting the progress and closure of the traditional romance plot
is interesting in light of this, as her description might as easily fit an
“involution narrative” (555).
Smelling Sense
Perhaps too much has been said about the becoming-animal of Robin, at
the expense of other becomings in Barnes’ work. Even her most Deleuzian
readers, such as Rohman, tend to describe Robin’s becoming as an
individual affair and to focus upon her identification with animals and her
interaction with a dog in the final chapter. But as Goody is careful to keep in
mind, Deleuze and Guattari define becoming as an involuntary, impersonal
process involving a multiplicity “within” the self straining towards a
multiplicity “without” it, with the self being only a provisionally stable
threshold. Rather than a human subject wilfully engaging in an inhuman
becoming, Robin functions as what Deleuze and Guattari term a “demon” or
“anomalous,” the exceptional member of a pack or swarm catalysing
becomings (Thousand 268-9). In an article on the Gothic in Nightwood,
Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik note influences from horror film in the
imagery of the novel and interpret Robin as a modernist reworking of the
vampire (89). I would argue that Robin is vampiric in the Deleuzian sense
that she resists reproduction (refuses to be a wife, mother or child) and
instead proliferates her becomings by infecting those coming into proximity
with her (see Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand 266-7).
In a fantasy sequence in Skin Lane, Beauty takes on the role of demon or
anomalous. Mr F imagines that the stuffed animals in a natural history
museum, which are also the animals whose furs he expertly selects and
matches at work, come alive and gather around him:
Fur flies, guard-hairs sparkle, teeth are bared; the rich, animal stink rises around him.
Then something in him senses another presence in the room. The animals can
evidently feel it too, because they all begin to stir. Hackles rise. Muzzles and snouts are
lifted to the air, scenting for clues. (Bartlett, Skin 254)
The animals’ strong odour and keen sense of smell are both highlighted,
alongside other characteristics such as the colours of their coats and the
noises they make. What they sense and scent for is Beauty approaching as a
sort of fairy-tale king of the beasts:
The smell and the heat are overpowering, but he doesn’t care; down he comes, with his
arms outstretched and a strange, gentle smile beginning to flicker across his face. Oh
yes, here he comes, with his superb arms, his dark hair and his never-so-black eyes;
with his lips, parting in welcome; with his outstretched hands, offering to gently lead
his guest of honour forth into the magic kingdom of everything he has never had.
(Bartlett, Skin 254)
Although not endowed with animal characteristics, Beauty is posited as the
one standing out in the swarm of animals. 33 This role corresponds to that of
the Beast, who is posited in between human and animal and thus provides a
33 On other occasions he is more explicitly identified with animals, as Mr F compares the textures and hues of
his hair to that of various furs.
link to the animal kingdom. Thus Beauty is here cast as Beast, just as Mr F is
sometimes cast as Beauty. While in the original fairy tale the Beast is
returned safely to humanity, in Skin Lane as in Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride”
he instead initiates the becoming-animal of Beauty.
Jackson does a more humorous take on this theme in “Angel,” where the
protagonist’s landlady is portrayed as a crazy cat lady and “compulsive
masturbator” (Angel 22). The link between her as demon or anomalous and
her flock of cats is sexual and olfactory: “The smell of cat pee that permeated
the hall seemed to intensify when she became excited. He imagined, and
gagged imagining, a physical object, something like a cotton wad soaked with
musk and sulphuric acid, tamped into the back of his throat” (Angel 21). In
this the most vivid evocation of smell in Jackson’s work, its substantiality is
emphasised. The smell is thick enough to gag on, forcing its way down the
protagonist’s throat. It corresponds to the landlady’s dispersed excitement as
atmospheric phenomenon. That it is described as revolting is irrelevant; it
nevertheless infects the protagonist. He too becomes a masturbator,
fantasising about his landlady and her cats: “He imagined cats in coitus on
his landlady’s vanity, stuck together and bawling among bottles of unguents,
male cats standing with stiff legs and vibrating tails in the bathroom, hosing
down her towels and dressing gown with musk, female cats crying invitations
from her closet” (Angel 23). The conventional undesirability of the crazy cat
lady brings out what is slightly less clear in Skin Lane: that the encounter
with the demon drawing the protagonist into a becoming-animal is not about
erotic wish-fulfilment.
With regards to Robin’s role as anomalous in Nightwood, there is a
tendency for Barnes criticism to turn into a polarised ethical debate where
Robin is either condemned for failing to reach full human subjecthood or
celebrated for eluding this oppressive humanist imposition. Related to this,
her abandoned lover Nora is either described as maltreated by the
irresponsible and immature Robin, or as confining her to the role of pet or
child within an oedipal family structure (see Rohman 68). As a result of the
need to align becomings with ethics, Robin has been positively revaluated
while other characters remain neglected. No scholarly attention has been
awarded the becomings of the notoriously unlikable Jenny, Robin’s lover
after Nora. Yet she is, similarly to Robin, entering into an animal becoming
via the “smell about her of mouse-nests.” This does not simply amount to an
unflattering character description of her being “like” a mouse in her
penchant for pilfering and hoarding, rather, she is becoming-mouse through
her smell (notably not of mice but of their nests), her behaviour (nervous
twitching) and her appearance (the face of a comedy jester) (Barnes,
Nightwood 87-8). She does not imitate or resemble a mouse, but her
proximity to a series of things that are not necessarily as such mouse-like or
mouse-related launches her becoming (see Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand
Smelling Sense
301-3). Similarly, there is in Barnes’ work a becoming-animal of gossips, who
move in packs to sniff out sexual transgression. In Ladies Almanack, they
are described as “Blowing inland for Trace, and out-ocean for Scent, and
nosing to Ground for Spoor of her want” (70) and in Ryder their leader calls
out: “Muzzles to Windward! Is there not a Stench of the matter in every
Breeze, blow it East, West, North or South?” (24). These flocks of vicious
gossips are certainly not celebrated, but neither is the animal imagery a
simple condemnation of their brutishness. Rather, it is a description of the
mechanism of being swept up in a collective becoming-animal.
Becoming does not stop at becoming-animal: Deleuze and Guattari list
becomings-vegetable, -mineral, -cellular, -molecular, -elementary and –imperceptible among others (Thousand 274, 300). It is easy to morally judge a
becoming-animal since animals are evolutionary close to humans and have
traditionally been used as moral examples, but who would think to moralise
about the behaviour of plants? Becoming-vegetable is a further step away
from human agency and human ethics, and as such might better exemplify
becomings. In the following section, I shall trace the scent trail further on to
a becoming-vegetable in the work of Jackson, Barnes, Carrington and Tom
Rank Fecundity
Reek of pine disinfectant, and she is in the forest. (Swan 92)
In this section I discuss the part played by smell in a literary becomingvegetable which is always on the verge of other becomings. The expression
“rank fecundity” captures the force of water and vegetation to spawn life and
death equally in smelly excess, and ties smells of nature to the feminine. As
Miller explains the shifting meanings of “rankness,” the word began by
denoting “force and vigor in growth,” soon sliding into “excessive growth” in
a pejorative sense, and then “the smell of such excessiveness and the rot and
decay that are its consequences.” Miller sums up its shift in meaning as
reflecting the vital process it captures: “the sense of the word is born in vigor,
health, and forcefulness, flourishes, and then begins to choke itself in luxury
before it sickens amid odors of rot and decay” (167). The disgust associated
with rankness is the disgust of feminine fecundity in its indiscriminate
excess. Like teeming life itself, the rank smells it generates tend to increase
and spread across ever larger areas.
Smell functions as a metonymy for fecundity, being equally pervasive and
difficult to contain. Smells tend to spread out from the thing emitting them,
be carried even further with the wind or with materials they cling to, seep
through barriers, mingle with other smells and linger even after their source
is gone. Furthermore, as Carlisle among others points out, smell perception
is an involuntary and sometimes unwelcome effect of smell molecules
invading the body (Carlisle 43). Strong or unpleasant smells tend to be
experienced as overwhelming and disintegrative, as exemplified by sanitary
reformers’ accounts of the stench of poverty (Trotter, “New” 38). While I do
not agree with Trotter that this is because smells necessarily elude
conceptualisation and even conscious recollection, I am interested in how
the disintegrative and irrational aspects of smell play into literary
As previously mentioned, the early moderns believed smells to be carried
directly to the brain through the nostrils, and to share a natural affinity with
the vital spirits. Therefore, smells had the dangerous as well as therapeutic
power to directly affect moods such as melancholy (Corbin 62). But the brain
was not the only organ susceptible to smell. The womb, for example, was
believed to be drawn to some smells and repelled by others, as demonstrated
by olfactory treatments of hysteria (Palmer 65). The miasma theory
discussed under the heading of “Odor di Femina” is based upon this
understanding of smells as affecting not only moods but the very fabric of the
body. Miasma was especially associated with muddy soil or stagnant water
teeming with life believed to be spontaneously generated by it, in other
words, with rank fecundity. Even though the belief in miasma has been
abandoned, the smells of mud and stagnant water tend to be associated with
disgust and decay. This is shown by John Banville’s description of the
“greeny, fleshy smell” of the stale water in a vase of flowers (101) and by
Woolf’s contrasting of the mainly audiovisual beauty of a seaside garden with
the “gusts of dead smells” from the ground below it in The Waves (41).
Woolf’s description of the “sticky mixture” of moist, slithery creatures such
as worms and slugs, “rotten fruit,” “swollen things,” “excretions” and oozing
fluids “too thick to run” (41) perfectly captures the loathing of rank fecundity
going back in literary history at least to Shakespeare and surviving miasma
theory. It is clear that what disgusts in Woolf’s text is not so much death as
such as what Miller calls “life soup”:
Death thus horrifies and disgusts not just because it smells revoltingly bad, but
because it is not an end to the process of living but part of a cycle of eternal recurrence.
The having lived and the living unite to make up the organic world of generative rot –
rank, smelling, and upsetting to the touch. The gooey mud, the scummy pond are life
soup, fecundity itself: slimy, slippery, wiggling, teeming animal life generating
spontaneously from putrefying vegetation. (Miller 40-1)
The Waves expresses a horror of “dead smells” and a wish to
compartmentalise life into the clean, bright, airy, impressionistic beauty of
the perceiving and reflecting mind on the one hand, and the dirty, dark,
viscous life and decay of the body on the other. Furthermore, this
compartmentalisation roughly corresponds to the traditional division
between “higher” distance senses and the “lower” proximity senses.
Smelling Sense
Unlike Woolf, Jackson affirms the becomings unleashed by miasma and
rank fecundity. However, as smell references in her work are relatively few
and the connection between smell and becoming is brought out more clearly
and consistently by Barnes, the key source for this section is Nightwood.
After making a comparison with Jackson’s use of vegetal and marine smells,
I then flesh out the discussion with a consideration of floral fecundity in
Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet and Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. As I
shall argue, the sexual allure of floral smells draws humans into a becomingvegetable comparable to the sexual symbiosis between flowers and bees.
While Jackson’s “Blood” presents smell as a metonymy for the banished
body or repressed feminine relegated to the sewers and the subconscious,
Barnes’ Nightwood presents a different olfactory map. In place of a vertical
organisation where smells seep up from underground, the smelly
“nightwood” of the novel’s title permeates its urban spaces in a lateral
topography. 34 I take issue with Horner and Zlosnik’s reading of the beast
prowling the nightwood as a figure for the dark unconscious of
psychoanalysis and the Gothic: while there are prominent Gothic elements in
Nightwood, the novel is not structured according to the symbolic topography
of the Gothic novel. Extending the comparison with The Waves, I would
argue that Woolf’s novel is: not only does it relegate rank fecundity to the
undergrowth, as previously noted, it also, as Robin Hackett observes,
implicitly figures lesbian sexuality (though not male homosexuality, which is
explicit and bathed in the sunlight of classical antiquity) as absence,
darkness and submersion (73-4). In “Blood,” Jackson literalises the symbolic
topography of the unconscious as sewers and celebrates the power of rank
fecundity and lesbian sexuality to burst out of its subterranean containment,
but nevertheless repeats the vertical division she mocks. Barnes, on the other
hand, does not figure the night world of queer sexuality as a separate
subterranean space corresponding to the unconscious or the repressed.
Night and day exist on the same level of visibility and seep into each other
seamlessly in a shifting topography. Seitler claims that the night in
Nightwood is atemporal and aspatial (548) and this is true in the sense that
night and day occupy the same spaces simultaneously. A related claim can be
made for the novels’ characters, who do not possess the hidden depths
projected onto them by fellow characters and critics alike (see Singer 55-6).
Robin is elusive not because she carries some psychological secret or mystery
but precisely because, contrary to expectation, she does not: she is quite
simply of the night in the same fashion as Nora is of the day.
While Robin appears as a somnambulist in the world of day and Nora is
unable to follow Robin into the night world, some can pass between the two.
34 See Pike 55-6 for a critique of reductive vertical mappings originating in the Victorian bourgeois obsession
with the subterranean and reproduced in Foucauldian accounts treating bourgeois ideology as unified and
As with Robin’s “odour of memory,” the strategy for doing so is olfactory and
related to (moral and bodily) hygiene. According to Doctor O’Connor,
Americans are afraid of losing themselves completely to the night if they let
go of their diurnal cleanliness and sobriety. Instead, he recommends being
like a Frenchman, who “can trace himself back by his sediment, vegetable
and animal, and so find himself in the odour of wine in its two travels, in and
out” (Barnes, Nightwood 76). The French are not afraid to smell of wine,
neither freshly drunk nor processed by the body and expelled as vomit or
urine, while such smells threaten the American’s identity. 35 What the French
realise, in Rohman’s words, is that “the elements that make up the vegetable
and animal, for example, the particles of wine that enters one’s nose to
produce smell, are the same elements that compose human bodies.” The
“sediment” left by the Frenchman “implies a dispersal of that which
composes the body” and troubles “the hermetic sealing off from other objects
of the human person required to produce the Cartesian subject” (Rohman
73). In order to travel between night and day, one has to acknowledge that
one is of the world, a temporary assemblage of vegetable and animal
particles, and be open to the becomings of these particles. Instead of
scrubbing away the body odours reminding one of one’s animal and
vegetable belongings, one can use those odours as scent trails to follow to
prevent getting lost in a complete dissolution of the subject. Thus, smell
functions both as a catalyst for the becomings necessary to enter into the
night, and as an anchor chain enabling one to return. Of course, Barnes
precedes Deleuze and Guattari and thus cannot be influenced by their
theories, but she takes the humoural model of the affinities embedding
humans in the world and transforms it into something that can fruitfully be
read as becomings.
In the novel’s most elaborate description of Robin’s smell (indeed, of any
smell), diverse attributes are brought together in such a way as to confound
scholars of a symbolical bent: “The perfume that her body exhaled was of the
quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet
is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of
the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire”
(Barnes, Nightwood 31). For Catherine Whitley, the combination of fungi
and amber exemplifies the excess of conflicting meanings characteristic of
Barnes’ style: “One image has been substituted for another so disparate (the
only aspect in common is an appeal to the olfactory sense) that they could
seemingly refer to entirely different characters in the novel” (91). However,
fungi and amber are only disparate when seen as representative of two
35 The description of these two attitudes to smell as ”French” and ”American” is Barnes’ or O’Connor’s, but it
roughly corresponds to an existing difference in perfume tastes: in France it is more common to use classic
fragrances, often heavy, animalic or otherwise “difficult,” from the great old perfume houses, whereas in the
US the fragrance market is dominated by lighter, fresher and more synthetic-smelling scents.
Smelling Sense
disparate sets of imagery – jungle and ocean – employed to shed light upon
Robin’s character. In my view, readings of Barnes concerned with
signification or symbolism impoverish the perceptual richness of her texts.
Such analyses inevitably find that her imagery is obscure and incoherent,
and either go on to analyse this obscurity as a rhetorical strategy, as
exemplified by Whitley, or condemn it as derivative stylistic posing devoid of
Instead, I agree with Rohman’s argument that “Robin ultimately
transgresses the symbolic as a limit upon her phenomenality” (58). The point
of Barnes’ description of Robin is not to present a metaphorically mediated
idea of her character, but to create a literary percept, made perceptible partly
as olfaction. Instead of assuming that Barnes connects two incongruous sets
of imagery with the common signifier “smell,” I propose that she composes a
literary phantom smell. Whitley’s relegation of the olfactory to a parenthesis
is telling of her reluctance to engage with fungi and amber as smells rather
than as symbols. But if the smells of fungi and amber are seriously
considered it may turn out that they have more in common than both being
smells. For example, they might quite simply smell similar: damp and dry at
the same time, vaguely decaying, organic and difficult to place along the
animal-vegetable spectrum. Barnes’ juxtaposition invites the reader to recall
(or imaginatively recreate), compare and combine the two into a phantom
smell. A phantom smell does not “mean” in a symbolical sense, yet it is
meaningful as part of the literary work. Being virtual, it does not simply refer
to or represent an actual smell, but is a composite sensation involving nonolfactory and non-sensory aspects, so that Robin’s smell of fungi and amber
is coloured by the surrounding descriptions of her, including apparent
In order to explain how literary phantom smells are neither literal nor
metaphorical, I turn to Alan A. Singer’s original take on Barnes’ use of
metaphors in A Metaphorics of Fiction. While in traditional narratives, a
stable referential level takes precedence over a variable figural level, Barnes
does not use metaphors to reproduce pre-existent meanings (Singer 60-1,
51). Instead, she employs techniques such as digression to confuse the
referential and figural levels until denotation is destabilised into a variable of
usage (Singer 54, 66). I connect this confusion of narrative levels to the
virtual topography of Nightwood: just as night and day are not separate
realms but shift and seep into each other, so Barnes refuses the categorical
distinction between literal and figurative. Although Singer does not reference
Deleuze and Guattari, his understanding of how metaphor functions in
Nightwood resonates strongly with their discussion of metaphor and
metamorphosis in Kafka. Singer exemplifies Barnes’ repudiation of narrative
levels with a dog appearing first as a figure in the speech of Doctor O’Connor
and then as a literal dog in the last chapter (72). Similarly, according to
Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka does not employ language in the ordinary way
“where the word dog, for example, would directly designate an animal and
would apply metaphorically to other things (so that one could say ‘like a
dog’).” Like Barnes, Kafka works to destroy metaphor, symbolism,
signification and designation so that “[t]here is no longer any proper sense
or figurative sense.” Instead, his images and words are becoming-dog in a
process of (real) metamorphosis opposed to (figurative) metaphor (Deleuze
and Guattari, Kafka 22). This opposition applies to metaphor in the
traditional sense, but hardly in Singer’s sense, which has much more in
common with what Deleuze and Guattari term metamorphosis. The
processes Singer describes as taking place in Nightwood can be understood
as linguistic becomings not merely reflecting on a formal or stylistic level the
novel’s previously noted thematic becomings-animal, but actually
metamorphosing into them. Of special interest here are the olfactory
becomings involving the becoming-smell of the text itself, just as in Deleuze
and Guattari’s description of Kafka’s writing “the words themselves are not
are not ‘like’ the animals but in their own way climb about, bark and roam
around, being properly linguistic dogs, insects or mice” (Kafka 22).
The olfactory becomings in Barnes’ work involve the metamorphosis of
words into phantom smells, but also (on a more “thematic” level) vegetable
and animal metamorphoses following scent trails between species and
kingdoms. Barnes connects fungi and amber through smell, but the elements
making up Robin’s phantom smell are not incongruous as much as
consistently ambiguous. According to Scott, fungi fascinated Barnes as an
intermediate species (74). Scott defines fungi as parasitic plants such as
orchids, an understanding shared by Whitley (90) as consistent with the
artificial jungle setting surrounding Robin and with her flesh being “the
texture of plant life” (Barnes, Nightwood 31). However, I find that Barnes’
description of “earth-flesh” with a damp-dry smell (Barnes, Nightwood 31)
supports an interpretation of “fungi” as referring to moulds and mushrooms:
life forms belonging neither to flora nor fauna and as such even more
intermediate than parasitic plants. Understood as parasite, mould or
mushroom, fungi share an air of morbidity and decay with the description of
amber as a “malady of the sea” (Barnes, Nightwood 31). They suggest a
malady of the earth, or a malady of the flesh in death and decay: the
mingling of the human body with “low” life forms such as worms and fungi
meditated upon in the genre of graveyard literature (see Hamlin 13) and
summed up by Miller as “life soup.”
Like fungi, amber or ambergris has an intermediate belonging, being an
aromatic substance excreted by sperm whales and found in the sea or on the
shore. Whales themselves are ambiguous creatures, eluding early
taxonomists as an intermediate species between fish and animal (Ritvo
46-8), or as mammals in the wrong (marine) element, just like the
Smelling Sense
somnambule Robin is in the wrong element. Ambergris not only originates
in an ambiguous creature but adds to the ambiguity. Although animal in
origin, it requires maturing in the ocean in order to develop its attractive,
ambiguously animalic/marine/earthy/floral fragrance. In Moby Dick,
Melville describes the precious perfume as foul in its raw form and
considered by some “to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the
dyspepsia in the whale” (426), a belief illuminating Barnes’ use of the word
“malady” to describe it.
Barnes’ contemporary readers would be familiar with the use of ambergris
in perfumery (now largely replaced by poor synthetic substitutes). Along
with musk and civet, it belongs to the animalic base notes common in early
20th-century perfumes but now gone out of fashion in favour of “cleaner”
scents. Whether Robin’s smell is to be understood as a perfume is unclear;
the word “perfume” used to describe her body odour captures the
natural/artificial and literal/metaphorical drift of the passage. One possible
reading is that she has anointed herself with “oil of amber” on top of her
naturally fungal smell (Barnes, Nightwood 31). Whether her smells of fungi
and amber come out of a perfume bottle or not, they are denaturalised and
deterritorialised smells of rank fecundity. As previous scholars have
observed, Robin is not identified with nature in the essentialising fashion of
primitivism, but rather presented as an artistic arrangement of nature with
reference to film and painting (see Scott 101; Whitley 90; Goody 172). She
creatively deterritorialises smells, sounds and colours from nature as part of
her becomings, surrounding herself with potted plants, caged birds and
perfume bottles (Barnes, Nightwood 30-2). When the transgendered Doctor
O’Connor borrows some of her perfume, her smell is deterritorialised once
again as part of the novel’s mutating, contagious becomings (Barnes,
Nightwood 32).
The smell of the sea as such transcends boundaries between kingdoms,
being at the same time animalic (fish, crabs, molluscs), vegetal (seaweed,
algae), mineralic (salt) and elemental (water). It is furthermore feminine, in
that it is traditionally designated a female element and in that the female
genitals are often described as fishy-smelling. Again, the authors I am
discussing do not refute this olfactory association as misogynist, which
would only maintain the denigration of fish and their smell and the human
border-policing behind it. Winterson appropriates the notion of female
sexuality as tidal and oceanic in Written on the Body, as part of the
narrator’s ode to her/his lover’s sex: “She smells of the sea. She smells of
rockpools when I was a child” (Written 73). Hopkinson gives the theme a
queer twist in “Fisherman,” where the smell of fish is not a natural female
body odour. Instead, the butch (or trans) protagonist carries it with her from
her work as a fisherman and is afraid to spread it to the sumptuous
furnishings of the local brothel: “I can’t get my fisherman stink all over this
lady [sic] nice bed!” (131). However, the Madame, who does not have to earn
her living at sea, has romantic notions of it and is attracted to the faintly
fishy smell clinging to the protagonist despite her scrubbing. Thus, the smell
of the sea is still involved in female sexuality, but with a difference.
In Patchwork Girl, the divergence of the parallel storylines “mistress” and
“monstrous” is marked by a matching polarisation between sea and sky:
“The ship commenced wallowing on the way out of harbor, rocked by the
wake of another ship, so that I was confronted in alternation with the roiling,
scummy surface of the reeking bay and a high, aristocratic sky of a frivolous
powdered blue” (Patchwork [story/seagoing/revised]). While both sea and
sky are femininely connoted, the sky mirrors the immaculate surface of
conventional feminine beauty where body odours are kept in check, while the
sea mirrors the smelly feminine or banished body of Jackson’s écriture
féminine. The patchwork girl’s affinity with the sea is further brought out in
a scene of nocturnal swimming humorously drawing upon the Gothic
tradition of “malodorous depths” swarming with sea monsters (see Corbin
48). She describes how the sea “stank and sloshed and threw up fragments of
recognizeable [sic] things, fish and furniture,” a description aligning it with
the unformed and boundless element of chaos, in which the finite categories
of civilisation are undone (Patchwork [story/seagoing/swimming]). The sea
is not a metaphor for chaos but rather a metonymy for it, a part of the smelly
wilderness designated as chaos. Neither is the sea symbolic of the patchwork
girl’s inner turmoil. Rather, she is of the smelly sea in the same fashion as
Robin is of her indoor jungle. Instead of interpreting them as characters with
a psychological “interior” rhetorically reflected in an “exterior” setting, I read
character and milieu together in terms of what Deleuze and Guattari term
It should not be thought that a haecceity consists simply of a decor or backdrop that
situates subjects, or of appendages that hold things and people to the ground. It is the
entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate that is a haecceity; it is this assemblage
that is defined by a longitude and a latitude, by speeds and affects, independently of
forms and subjects, which belong to another plane. (Thousand 289)
Becoming is not an individual affair but one in which subject, object, space
and time together form a singular event. This ties back to Paster’s claim that
affective states in early modern literature exceed individual characters:
haecceities resemble humours or elements in their dispersal. To carry the
smell of an atmosphere is to be part of a haecceity, like the fish vendor in
Ryder with her “odour tout le temps of deep-sea matters and changes” (91).
The smell alone (re)creates the atmosphere in a very real way, but it also
stands in metonymically for the semi-material, distinctive yet elusive, nature
of haecceities.
Smelling Sense
The haecceity captured by Robin’s scent is composed by elements from
two milieus commonly associated with rank fecundity: the sea and the
jungle. The sea can be understood as a quintessential instance of what Miller
terms “life soup”: a chaotic feminine element spreading dangerous miasmas.
The same thing can be said of the jungle and its artificial counterpart, the
hothouse, teeming with life and redolent with alluring, potentially
overwhelming, smells of flowers and rotting vegetation: “For this reason, in
Victorian novels scenes of seduction were often placed amid the
concentrated scents of the exotic flowers of the hothouse” (Classen, Worlds
92). Floral smells are already sexual, meant to attract pollinators, and have
traditionally been borrowed by women in order to increase their sexual
allure. From a human point of view, floral perfumes are more subtly sexual
than animalic ones and largely replaced them in the 19th century. However,
even among floral fragrances there is a division between the innocently
virginal scents of the cultivated kitchen-garden and the sultry, seductive
scents of more “exotic” flowers (Corbin 185-6). In Victorian literature, only
faint flower scents naturally clinging to women were considered innocent
enough to make them marriageable while floral perfumes reek of artificial
seduction (Carlisle 44-7, 85-6). Even inhaling the heavy odours of certain
flowers too deeply was thought to make young women lascivious or to
suffocate them in their sleep (Corbin 81, 166; Carlisle 87). Thus floral
fragrances are not as innocuous as they might seem compared to the body
odours dealt with in previous sections.
Carter perverts the lily and rose, symbols of the holy virgin within the
Christian tradition, by emphasising their seductive scents and flesh-like
textures. The roses in “The Lady of the House of Love,” Carter’s rewriting of
Sleeping Beauty, gain “their swooning odour, that breathes lasciviously of
forbidden pleasures” from growing on the buried corpses of vampire victims
(Carter 105). The vampire and her roses live in a symbiosis where the roses
become-vampire through feeding off human flesh and the vampire becomesrose through surrounding herself with their intoxicating odour. Together
they compose a haecceity, so that the vampire cannot be removed from her
rose garden, and the “glowing, velvet, monstrous flower” carried off by the
hero as a souvenir carries something of the vampire with it in its “corrupt,
brilliant, baleful splendour” (Carter 108).
Similarly, in “The Bloody Chamber,” white lilies are associated not with
the virginal heroine but with the sexually predatory Bluebeard character. The
heroine is both repulsed and aroused by their “lush, insolent incense
reminiscent of pampered flesh” and by their “toad-like, clammy” texture
which reminds her of her husband’s skin (18, 22). The white lilies and the
reference to their scent as “incense” brings to mind a (Catholic) church
atmosphere, such as that captured by Banville’s “smell of incense and of
candle-grease, the fleshy stink of lilies” (61). As in Carter (and as in the
previous quotation from Banville), the floral smell is described as “fleshy,”
rendering the supposedly virginal fragrance of the lilies oddly animalic. The
smell of Banville’s church is richly reminiscent of body odours: grease and
flesh. Carter installs this corrupted church atmosphere in the bedroom
where the heroine’s virginity is sacrificed on her wedding night. Again, this is
not simply an atmosphere in the sense of a setting, but in the sense of a
haecceity, in which the Bluebeard character takes on the “white, heavy flesh”
of the lilies (Carter 15) and they in turn are animated into exhaling “the
odour of their withering” the moment his Russian leather turns rank (Carter
37). The heroine is drawn into the becoming-vegetable as the “perfume of the
lilies weighted on [her] senses” (Carter 18) and as her hands are stained by
their pollen (Carter 15). 36
In the Victorian setting of Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia,” Eugenia forms a
haecceity with the “ghosts of jungle smells and the sweet, thick breath of
gardenias” in her hothouse (55). As in the Victorian novels analysed by
Carlisle, the overly seductive scent of hothouse flowers marks her as
unsuitable for marriage. Unable to resist it, William marries her despite
being her social inferior and is “buried in the smells of her fresh sheets and
her fluid sex, her hot hair and her panting mouth,” that is, her odor di femina
(Byatt 96). When it turns out her family was eager to marry her off because
she has an incestuous affair with her brother, William’s discovery of them is
also olfactory: “The room was full of an unmistakable smell, musky, salty,
aphrodisiac, terrible” (Byatt 149). William literally sniffs them out and
despite his abhorrence is drawn into their arousal by the “aphrodisiac” effect
of their sexual smells. However, Eugenia’s irresistible odor di femina is more
than a smell, as William finds himself “inside the atmosphere, or light, or
scent she spread, as a boat is inside the drag of a whirlpool, as a bee is caught
in the lasso of perfume from the throat of a flower” (Byatt 53). The
anthropomorphises them and invests them with agency, while conversely
Eugenia is identified with flowers passively spreading their seductive scents.
Her becoming-flower, in which she unwittingly attracts not only men but
butterflies, incites a becoming-bee in William.
Bees are already becoming-vegetable, as flowers are becoming-animal, in
their symbiotic interspecies sexuality. Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume and
Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, two surreal novels in which smell plays
a prominent part, feature supernatural swarms of bees associated with floral
fecundity and olfactory attraction. 37 In Jitterbug Perfume a mysterious
36 This variation of the stained-hands theme is also used by Bartlett in his novel Mr Clive and Mr Page,
where the protagonist gets pollen stains on his hired suit while waiting for his male date and feels like
everyone can see that he does not fit in, 71-2.
37 Classen, Color 135-6, and Griffin, 95, have observed the unusually prominent position of smell in
Carrington’s work particularly as part of her rejection of human (western) civilisation. However, Griffin only
Smelling Sense
vendor of perfume essences is surrounded by a bee swarm doing his bidding,
and in The Hearing Trumpet the goddess Hecate is incarnated as a bee
swarm forming one giant queen bee. The king or queen of bees functions as
the anomalous or demon through which human characters enter into a
becoming-bee involving the smells of flowers and honey. Carrington’s
rebellious old ladies inhale the vapours of the traditional magical herbs
stramonium (datura) and vervaine (verbena), along with musk, to enter into
a trance and summon the goddess (Carrington 155). When the bee swarm
forming her body is dispersed she leaves a “delicious scent of wild honey”
and a “most delicious perfumed stickiness” behind (Carrington 118, 156).
The smell of honey captures the mutual becoming of bees and flowers, into
which humans attracted by its sweetness are drawn. Carrington makes a
feminist point of the correspondence between the female bee community and
the old women in the retirement home to which the protagonist Marian
Leatherby is confined. “The place creeps with ovaries until one wants to
scream. We might as well be living in a bee hive,” one of the inmates
complains, but Marian feels happiest among the bees in the garden. At the
end of the novel, after the onset of a new ice age, the group of old ladies
belong to the few surviving humans and hope that things will improve for
Earth when “the planet is peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats”
(Carrington 33, 158).
Jitterbug Perfume puts more emphasis on the pollen gathered and eaten
by bees. The plot revolves around a marvellous perfume combined of
jasmine and the unorthodox perfume ingredient beet pollen – the only
fragrance powerful enough to mask Pan’s body odour of rutting goat. That is,
the smell of vegetal sexuality has the potency to cancel out the smell of
animal sexuality. Pollen might be characterised as floral semen, so that “the
pollen-stained teeth of the floral Earth, the sexual planet” (Robbins 313)
suggests oral sex between flowers. Robbins highlights the evolutionary
history of smell and its interspecies attraction: “Lasciviously colored,
scandalously scented blossom after blossom flaunted its genitalia openly,
enticing with visual and heretofore unknown olfactory charms any who
might be inclined to sample its pleasures” (224-5). This accords with Marks’
observation that smell is a basic mode of communication based on chemical
contact and shared by plants and animals alike. For example, pine cones
share their odour with a male sex steroid, transcending the species barrier
between vegetal and animal sexuality (Marks, Touch 135). Barnes’
description of the virile Ryder as having “the heavy odour of pine that was
his body’s smell thick about him” is thus no arbitrary smell designation
briefly mentions animalic smells in Carrington’s short stories and Classen’s main focus is on her surrealist
cooking and the role played by food and taste in her writing.
(Ryder 223). 38 The interspecies affinities created by smell are underlined by
Robbins as well as Carrington: the sweet smells of pollen and honey and the
musky smell of the horned god all have the potential to draw humans into
Bees and pollen recur throughout Jackson’s work, for example in Half Life
(417-8) and in “Word Problem” (145-7), but most importantly in her clearest
reference to rank fecundity, in “Sleep”: “Out of care and duty leaps the
shocking blossom of the new: vibrant, imperious, reeking of pollen”
(Melancholy 131). The choice of the word “reek,” more often used about body
odours, brings out the sexual nature of pollen: pollen as seminal fluid.
“Reeking of” also suggests an amplification corresponding to “bursting with,”
“weighted-down by” or similar formulations, but one which specifically
emphasises smell. Among smell words, “reek” is one of the strongest,
suggesting a smell so heavy as to be almost visible as smoke or vapour in the
air. This corresponds to and augments the substance of pollen itself, which
like smell is airborne and often dispersed enough to be invisible, but which
thickens the consistency of the air and makes itself felt in the nose and
throat. In the presence of the cancer, which as already shown embodies
animal and floral fecundity alike, the protagonist of “Cancer” feels “sunk in a
fog of pollen” (Melancholy 60), and when excited the animate Nefertiti bust
in “Musée Mécanique” emits a substance referred to as “the Bloom”
(historically a euphemism for vaginal discharges) or as “pollen.” This hangs
like a stain in the air, similar to the pollen stains in Carter, Robbins and
In Jackson’s front page story “The Pollen Letters,” pollen infects language,
including the language of DNA, rewriting the genes so that teenagers
“mutate into strange bee women” and “’[s]traw’ and ‘yeast,’ ‘honey’ and
‘herbicide’ will soon be all you can say” (Pollen).The only one taking the
threat seriously enough to propose peace negotiations with the bees in their
pollen language is a schoolgirl named Daphne after the nymph transformed
into a laurel. The intertext of the nymph becoming-tree in order to escape
her would-be rapist, and the teenagers becoming-bees (specifically female
bees) suggest pollen language as a form of écriture féminine. “The heavy
guns of language have historically and conventionally been reserved for
strong men, honey,” says the male military leader who refuses to negotiate
with the bees (Pollen).Daphne retorts that he is already infected with pollen
but “not house-trained for the beehive. Writing the future must be reserved
for those who speak the language” (Pollen). There is no explicit mention of
smell in “The Pollen Letters,” but the pollen contaminating language and
inducing a becoming-bee is an apt figure for the olfactory becomings of
38 In perfumery, vegetal smells of woods and herbs, rather than conventionally feminine flowers, are
frequently used to increase masculine sexual allure.
Smelling Sense
literature. Like the pollen, smell infiltrates language, introducing an
extralinguistic sensory dimension: what Jackson in “Stitch Bitch” refers to as
the “banished body.”
Reading as Becoming
One day, when I fished out the slippery wad, laid it on my desk and teased its folds open with a pen, I
noticed that some of the words seemed changed. I took the stinking page to the library and confirmed my
discovery in the echoing stacks. My vagina had rewritten Joyce. (Body [vagina])
Throughout this chapter, I have traced an olfactory becoming from
becoming-woman via becoming-animal to becoming-vegetable. I have
argued that smell, being conventionally conceived of as immediate and
unrepresentable, introduces a nonlinguistic element into literature. Although
there are olfactory codes assigning various meanings and values to different
smells, smell is not abstracted and conceptualised to the same degree as the
other senses (with the exception of taste). Therefore, smell remains closely
aligned with the body and is particularly suited to stand in metonymically for
extradiscursive material reality.
However, the materiality of smell is complicated. Smells carry particles of
the substance they emanate from, but they do not (re)present their point of
origin in the way sights or touches do. Instead, as with sounds, the sensation
is airborne and cut off from its source. Smells figure materiality as
differentiation by demonstrating the permeability and mutability of the solid
bodies giving off and receiving these semi-substantial chemical phenomena.
A scene from The Hearing Trumpet serves to illustrate this point: “They saw
Rosalinda and the Bishop inhaling Musc de Madelaine and by some process
of enfleurage becoming so saturated with the vapours of the ointment that
they were surrounded by a pale blue cloud of aura which apparently acted as
a volatile element on solid bodies.” Inhaling these potent vapours renders
solid bodies vaporous and capable of levitating. Entire living bodies stand in
for the fat traditionally used in perfumery to absorb the scents of flowers
(enfleurage), and become so fragrant that “the nuns swooned with the
overpowering vapours” they exude (Carrington 79). Though the nuns do not
inhale the Musc de Madelaine directly but only smell it on their abbess, they
too are affected by its aphrodisiac powers. Odours are transmitted from body
to body like a contagion, transforming them in the process. Smelling, in both
the active and the passive sense, is already halfway to becoming.
The semi-substantiality of smell is best captured by the word ”reek.”
Etymologically, “reek” means “smoke” (sharing its roots with the Swedish
“ryka” and “rök”) and it suggests a smell so thick you can (almost) see or feel
it, such as the smelly steam given off by hot living bodies. Although a
chemical reek is conceivable, “reek” tends to be used more about natural,
and especially animal, smells. It has appeared sparsely throughout this
chapter, under the headings of “Odor di Femina,” “The Smell of the Beast”
and “Rank Fecundity.” Tentatively, it seems especially to suggest excrements
and sexual secretions, if the association between sea smells and female
sexual odours is taken seriously, and pollen understood as floral semen.
Thus, “reek” can be taken to indicate not only the olfactory border-crossing
between substantial and insubstantial, but also the erotic crossings between
natural kingdoms incited by this shared system of chemical communication.
Without explicit reference to vapour or miasma, the word “reek”
nevertheless conveys some of the ideas about smell present in miasma
The liminality of reeks also captures the part played by smell in literary
becomings. Developing her figure from Patchwork Girl of writing as
stitching together a Frankensteinian monster, Jackson writes in Half Life
that “all our words are resurrected, though some are whiffier than others
(whiffy, for example)” (354). The word “whiffy” is quite literally whiffy
because its referential meaning carries with it a phantom smell, however
faint. This phantom smell may be intensified by previous associations and
current usage, as may the smelliness of other words, including those not
directly related to the olfactory realm. Jackson imbues language in general
with a stench of death spreading its miasma so that the reader may come to
perceive language as smelly. The affective and bodily response to smells such
as Jackson’s smell of undeath, Bartlett’s smell of the beast and Barnes’ smell
of rank fecundity creates a pornographic proximity between reader and text.
This may draw the reader into becomings answering to those occurring in
the text.
Becomings generate intensity, which is why readers might wish for literary
becomings to play out even when they result in conventionally negative
consequences such as the death of characters. That the intensities released
may be violent and destructive is no ground for ethical judgments of
characters or plots. The reader’s becoming does not mimic that of a character
but goes off on its own tangent – or not at all, as the case may be. There is a
greater risk that the reader guards her established identity against literary
becomings than that she runs all the way towards self-annihilation. The one
ethical thing about becomings is their movement away from majoritarian
Tasting Texts
Tasting Texts; or, “I can’t say it, I won’t
chew it”
Both sides could digest spring leaves, a thorny question, branches of early Christianity. (N 123)
Like smell, the sense of taste is rarely awarded theoretical attention. While
various aspects of orality have attracted philosophical and psychoanalytical
interest, taste is rarely among them. Consequently, previous research such as
Hertel’s chapter on taste in Making Sense, Sarah Sceats’ Food, Consumption
and the Body in Contemporary Women’s Fiction and Maggie Kilgour’s From
Communion to Cannibalism focus on food culture and symbolical aspects of
ingestion rather than on taste as such. Deleuze and Guattari too have little to
say about taste. In an interview, Deleuze professes his profound disinterest
in food and eating, with the exception of disgust-eliciting offal (cited in
Shukin 144). “When Deleuze exposes an exclusive taste for brain, tongue and
marrow, he aligns his physical appetite with a philosophical appetite for
forces,” Nicole Shukin argues (145). She shows how the taste for particular
organs corresponds to Deleuze’s philosophical rejection of the organism in
favour of the BwO and, more problematically for feminists, how his choice of
foodstuffs connotes masculine virility. Furthermore, she discovers a general
preference for the raw over the cooked in A Thousand Plateaus, which
entails a simultaneous dismissal of and dependence upon women’s domestic
labour (Shukin 146-8). This is a relevant critique of Deleuze’s inevitably
masculinist brand of modernist elitism. Deleuze is not interested in “dining
well” or other mundane sensual pleasures, as they do not attain the
heightened sensation of art. Instead, he is interested in the ingestion of
powerful substances.
This is an interest shared by Jackson, who in The Melancholy of Anatomy
describes the magical effects of ingesting milk, fat, sperm, cancer, sleep and
blood. I shall draw upon Elspeth Probyn’s Deleuzian account of eating as a
transformative experience in my reading of this theme. Adding to this, I shall
argue that Deleuze might be overhasty in excluding taste from the senses
which may contribute to artistic percepts. Deleuze’s own interest in
disgusting foodstuffs hints at the aesthetic potential of taste inherent in
distaste. The power of disgust also fascinates Jackson, as expressed in what I
term her aesthetics of distaste. Distaste, considered as a special instance of
taste, generate intensities which may be harnessed in art. Part of my aim
with this chapter is to put taste back into theoretical and aesthetic
treatments of eating. In so doing, I follow Carolyn Korsmeyer in insisting
that taste has well established, although rarely acknowledged, philosophical
implications. By way of introduction, I draw out some of these implications.
First of all, the sense of taste brings out the essentially multisensory
nature of perception. While other sensations are possible to isolate and
experience one at a time, tasting necessarily involves smell and touch. Taste
is involved with smell to the point where the two can hardly be told apart:
without smell, only a few basic tastes can be recognised. However, it is not
simply a question of adding smells to the taste experience since smelling
without tasting does not release the same aromas as when something is
smelt from inside the mouth (see Korsmeyer, Making 3-4). In some
research, the term “mouth sense” has been used to refer to the combination
of “taste, olfaction, chemical sensitivity, temperature, and touch”
(Korsmeyer, Making 83). The touch involved in taste can be further specified
as texture, moisture, weight, irritation and even pain, to which can be added
the sound of the food when sucked or chewed. Even though sight might
incite one to taste, in the actual tasting sight is precluded, since the object
tasted is hidden inside the mouth or at least too close to be in focus. One
might close one’s eyes while savouring a taste in order to shut out irrelevant
sense impressions, but stopping up one’s ears or nose or numbing one’s
tongue would rather detract from the taste experience. In sum, taste is
inextricably intertwined with smell, touch and to some extent hearing.
Rather than attempt to artificially isolate taste as such, I want to make a
point of this multisensory interplay.
Taste is also obviously intertwined with ingestion, which makes it the
most intimate and invasive of senses. As such, it is potentially erotic, violent
and disgusting; three themes that will run through this chapter. The erotic
aspect of taste lies in the fact that the only thing tasted by adults besides food
tends to be sexual partners. While infants explore all kinds of new and
unknown objects through taste (that is, through their full “mouth sense”),
adults learn to restrict tasting mainly to edible substances. As Korsmeyer
puts it, “taste is not a convenient means to explore most objects” (Making
99), partly due to the risk of contagion or poisoning. She further observes:
“The objects of taste are taken into one’s own body: they become one.
Because tasting and eating alter one’s very constitution, their exercise
requires trust” (Korsmeyer, Making 189). Sexual encounters are about trust
and about wanting to intimately know the other to the point of merger,
which opens up for mutual tasting. The sensual pleasures of the “mouth
sense” also makes it particularly suited to be involved in erotic enjoyment.
While erotic tasting is generally benign, involving mutual licking, sucking
and playful biting but no actual chewing and swallowing, there is a strongly
violent side to taste as well. Many feminist writers have critiqued masculine
scopophilia and detached visual mastery, and often proposed the intimate
involvement of touch as a feminine alternative. Seen from another angle,
however, knowing by seeing is benignly non-interfering, leaving the object
seen intact, while touch can, but need not, entail doing violence to it. On the
Tasting Texts
opposite end of the scale from vision, taste requires not just mutual contact
but non-mutual incorporation and even destruction (Kilgour 6-7), which is
perhaps why it has been a less attractive model of knowledge for feminists.
What is tasted is possessed, transformed and often destroyed, rendering it
difficult to share or re-experience sensations of taste. Tasting involves
particularly invasive forms of touch and smell and puts the taster as well as
the tasted at risk, though not equally so. The taster has to open up to the
object tasted, allow it inside, or at the very least stick out the tongue, a
mucous membrane and part of one’s insides, in order to taste it, risking
poisoning, nausea or discomfort in the process.
The risk involved in tasting leads me to the third and final aspect I want to
highlight: disgust. Disgust may act as a safety precaution, causing
indigestible substances to be spat out or vomited. However, disgust is much
more than a reflex. What elicits a disgust reaction is not necessarily harmful
on a physiological level, or vice versa. Often disgust is a moral response to a
religious or social taboo. Even though disgust makes itself felt as an
immediate gut reaction, it is only rarely provoked by the actual content of the
guts. It may come as a belated response to what is already “irretrievably
chewed, swallowed, and become part of one’s own physical fabric”
(Korsmeyer, Making 191). Although disgust may be elicited by other
sensations than taste, particularly intense disgust reactions result from the
fact that taste involves such intimate contact with and even incorporation of
the disgusting substance. However, as I shall argue more extensively later in
the chapter, disgust is not simply a matter of repulsion and rejection. There
are degrees and varieties of disgust, some of which are willingly endured. For
example, disgust may be part of aesthetic enjoyment or add a thrilling
flavour of nastiness to sex.
Paradoxically, disgust is cultivated within gourmet culture, alongside
other aesthetic qualities which would seem to detract from rather than
heighten the pleasures of the palate. In the early modern banquet, as
described by Denise E. Cole, food was dyed unappetising colours and visually
transformed into surprising shapes such as monsters and humans beings. A
roast might appear to be covered in worms, or live animals could be trapped
in coffin-shaped pastries. Some artworks made of foodstuffs were hardly fit
to be eaten, and were instead given as gifts to be preserved, or distributed to
the starving poor. In their surrealist recipes, Carrington and Remedios Varo
picked up the tradition of composing food dishes which were more
conceptually interesting than necessarily delicious (Classen, Color 136).
Contemporary high cuisine may be more concerned with visually appetising
and tasty food, but many of its flavours and textures nevertheless require
cultivation of the sense of taste in order to be properly appreciated.
Gourmands need to get over any initial food aversions and learn to
distinguish between subtly different aromas. Pain or discomfort caused by
hot spices, bitter herbs, tart juices, fermented aromas and rough or slimy
textures may add to the taste experience. This suggests that taste, like smell,
is infinitely more complex than a simple matter of like or dislike. Different
kinds and degrees of distaste may be relished as part even of ordinary eating
habits. Few eat their favourite foods every day and the appetite for variation
drives people to leave their gustatory comfort zones and seek out new taste
experiences not immediately pleasing (see Korsmeyer, Savoring 61-85).
Furthermore, there is “a cognitive dimension” to taste which is often denied
or neglected even in the writings of gourmet culture (Korsmeyer, Making 4).
Thus, the mundane necessity of eating already involves an aesthetic
component of choosing, combining and savouring tastes. However, no
matter how complexly cultivated taste is within food culture, the aesthetic
potential of actual taste is limited by factors such as availability and cost of
foodstuffs, hygiene restrictions, toxicity, individual tolerance, appetite and
hunger. Here is where literary phantom tastes come in. Within literature,
where no actual ingestion – or indigestion – is involved, there is a greater
freedom to explore the aesthetic component of taste. Authors can go further
than chefs in their experimentation with conceptual tastes and distastes,
leaving concerns of edibility behind (see Korsmeyer, Savoring 57). The
phantom tastes I discuss in this chapter are not all strictly speaking tastes,
but involve other perceptions and conceptions surrounding food and eating.
In the first section of this chapter, I explore the notion of tasting as an
intuitive, intimate form of knowing through Jackson’s short story “Egg.” This
discussion then leads on to a special instance of tasting as knowing in the
second section: that of devouring books. Jackson picks up the idea of
language as mother’s milk from écriture féminine and gives it a twist by
adding other, less tasteful body fluids such as vomit. While Cixous
emphasises the flow of oral language, paradoxically in printed form, Jackson
is preoccupied with language in the “stagnated” form of textual artefacts. By
describing books made of cheese (the stagnated, processed product of milk)
and the ingestion of paper and ink, she toys with the conception of books as
ephemeral objects of consumption.
In the final three sections, I draw upon Patricia Parker’s discussion of the
rhetorical figure of dilation and Korsmeyer’s discussion of aesthetic disgust
to propose an aesthetics of distaste. I argue that Jackson, like Barnes before
her, finds inspiration in Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy for her
development of a dilated and distasteful form of feminine writing. The
aesthetics of distaste implies a lack of taste in the abstract sense created,
among other means, through an excess of taste in the concrete sense,
especially such tastes as are considered in especially bad taste, such as fatty
and sugary tastes. This aesthetics function by drawing attention to
distasteful subject matters which affects the reader viscerally and disturbs
the Kantian ideal of detached aesthetic appreciation. As Korsmeyer argues,
Tasting Texts
evoking disgust is a particularly effective means of “bypassing the paradox of
fiction” and making the reader react as strongly to the virtual stimuli of
literature as to actual sensory stimuli (Savoring 56). Thus, the reader is
made to taste – if only through a sensation of disgust - greasy and syrupy
phantom tastes making “reading as eating” more than metaphor. However,
the aesthetics of distaste creates a friction which qualifies the figure of
reading as eating into a reading as tasting: instead of swallowing there is a
virtual licking of the text.
Tasting as Knowing
It was a bit like chewing on my own tongue. It tasted like I tasted, tasting it, like the taste of taste
itself, before it had anything specific to taste. But imagine you had never tasted that before. (Friend
Despite, like smell, being commonly considered a “lower” proximity sense
giving rise to immediate, idiosyncratic reactions rather than aesthetic
satisfactions or intellectual considerations, taste has at least two established
abstract meanings besides the literal one. The first and most obvious is that
of aesthetic taste, the second lies in the figure of tasting as knowing.
Etymologically, the Latin root of the words sapience and sage, sapere, means
both to taste and to know (Classen, Worlds 59). Although in contemporary
English, visual and tactile words for cognitive processes by far outweigh
gustatory ones, the notion of tasting as knowing appears quite frequently in
English literature. As in the case of smelling as knowing, this knowledge is
usually figured as intuition reaching beyond deceptive appearances, rather
than as conscious reflection. An example is Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star,
where a scientist after drinking from an underground river feels “no special
need to see it, photograph it or take samples home to study. He had tasted it,
after all” (373). Tasting the river gives him a deeper knowledge of it than
normal scientific procedures of documentation and laboratory analysis
could, since in tasting the river it becomes part of him on a molecular level.
Tasting can of course give concrete information about the properties of a
substance and has been part of earlier scientific practice, but here the
information conveyed deals with the abstract nature of the river. The taste of
the water is not specified; the concrete qualities emphasised are instead its
temperature, the pain caused by its cold and the factual ingestion. I argue
that such multisensory involvement and hovering between metaphoricity
and literalness is typical of the notion of tasting as knowing. On the one
hand, it is an expression for a deep, intuitive understanding which does not
necessarily have anything to do with the actual taste of the object understood
(which may even be an abstract phenomenon, as in “a flavour of phony”
(Body [fingernails]). On the other hand, literal tasting of inedible substances
is part of infants’ oral exploration of the world and as such a basal, bodily
form of knowledge.
Adults learn not to taste anything but food, except in erotic encounters
where a mutual tasting may occur. Therefore, tasting as knowing is
particularly relevant for the archaic sexual meaning of the word “know.” In
Jackson’s “Angel,” it takes the concrete form of cunnilingus, after which the
protagonist “imagined he could tell her youth (she was nineteen) from the
taste of her, and that she ate well and was not much of a drinker” (Angel 27).
While the information gathered through this tasting keeps to the plausibly
physiological, the erotic form of tasting as knowing is more often
simultaneously abstract and concrete, involving physical properties which
can actually be experienced via taste as well as secrets of the psyche. In
Pynchon’s Vineland, for instance, two men taste each other erotically via the
woman they both sleep with. “You were coming in his face and he was tasting
me all the time,” one of the men tells her, referring both to the literal taste of
his semen and to a more abstract essence of him which her body somehow
communicates to his rival (214). This quotation already brings out the more
sinister connotations of tasting as (erotic) knowing, made even more explicit
in Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations, where a sexual encounter is
described in terms of “tasting, achieving her, pressing, infecting, taking,
joining, learning what she is” (258). In all of these examples, the knower is
male and the known female (or in one case male, with the female reduced to
medium), which invites feminist critique of tasting as knowing.
Indeed, taste has often been figured negatively as consumption, for
example as a masculine devouring of feminine bodies or as the cannibalistic
appetite of capitalist society, consuming ethnic diversity in the form of exotic
foods (Probyn 82). Probyn shows how in Carter’s analysis of de Sade, the
sexual transgressions which have influenced the contemporary western view
of sexuality at large are built upon the idea of treating bodies as meat and
“eating the other” in a fashion which ultimately only serves to “reinforce the
inward-looking, isolated and alienated subject.” This model of sexuality is
reinforced rather than questioned by Carole Adams’ radical feminist vegan
critique of meat consumption as allied with the patriarchal consumption of
female flesh. According to Probyn, Adams’s stance is not ethical since her
“no” to flesh is as puritan in its policing of borders as de Sade’s “yes.”
Instead, Probyn proposes a Deleuzian model of eating and sexuality as
“practices that open ourselves into a multitude of surfaces that tingle and
move,” in which “flesh confuses the limits of what we are and what we eat,
what or who we want” (70-3). 39
39 Probyn provides a convincing critique of Adams’ moral stance, but does not offer an alternative solution to
the ethical dilemma of carnivorism. Her Deleuzian ethics of openness and transformation remains vague
about the exploitation (of humans, nonhuman animals and the environment) involved in food production and
Tasting Texts
I take Probyn’s Deleuzian model of eating as the starting point for my
consideration of the tasting as knowing motif in Jackson’s “Egg.” In an
interview, Jackson expresses a similar interest as Probyn’s in eating as a
liminal process troubling the boundaries between subject and object: “If
consumption is a particularly strong theme in my stories, that's because
swallowing and being swallowed literalize this metaphor of crossing a
boundary between self and other. What we eat becomes us. What eats us we
become” (Jackson in Nunes, “Written”). That consumption is a “strong
theme” in Jackson’s work is no exaggeration: eight of the stories collected in
The Melancholy of Anatomy feature ingestion of the title substance, and all
thirteen feature some reference to food or eating. In “Sperm,” “Cancer,”
“Sleep,” “Blood,” “Milk,” and “Fat” eating entails a quasi-mystical
incorporation of the eaten substance’s qualities. But it is in “Egg” that the
themes of eating as becoming and tasting as knowing are most prominently
explored and problematised.
The central premise of “Egg” is that (human) eggs mysteriously appear
outside bodies and grow to enormous proportions. Going by food-related
names such as “God-pudding,” “the Great Pumpkin,” “the Cheese Ball” and
“the Vegetable Meat” (Melancholy 22), these eggs, like food in general, are
both mystical and mundane. They are made of a unique substance that
cannot be simulated by “a haunch of beef” or “blood and barley” but which
can be put to any purpose from “very passable sandwiches” to fitting
nourishment for convalescents (Melancholy 17, 22, 16). Through eating the
egg, the characters ingest some of its mysterious vitality and come to
increasingly resemble it, becoming plump and rosy and bald. So far, “Egg”
confirms the idea of eating as a merger in which the eating subject takes on
qualities of the object eaten.
However, when looking closer at the protagonist Imogen’s quest to merge
with her egg, the notion of eating as becoming is troubled. Imogen is not
content to resemble the egg; she wants to know it in the intimate sense of
tasting as knowing. Provoked by the fulfilment the egg seems to promise yet
withhold, she is “jealous of the flies that licked its crown, the ants that were
already tasting its effluvium” (Melancholy 21). But when she finally,
ceremoniously, cooks and eats a piece of the egg herself, the taste proves
“linty” (Melancholy 21-2). The answer she seeks is not to be found in the
taste of the egg, or if it is, the message is that there is nothing special about
the egg as such, that it is all in the desires she projects upon it. The tasting
changes nothing for either Imogen or the egg: “The missing piece grew back.
I was unchanged” (Melancholy 22).
consumption. While Jackson’s work does not directly address these ethical concerns, it problematises
Probyn’s account of eating as a transformative experience opening up the eater to the other.
Prior to her encounter with the egg, Imogen used taste to demarcate her
identity. The reference to a “veggie burger” (Melancholy 10) suggests that
she was a vegetarian, in Probyn’s terms a person saying “no” to certain kinds
of food and struggling to uphold boundaries between edible and inedible,
good and bad. In eating a piece of the egg’s flesh “the size and shape of a
minnow,” which “spat and flung itself about like something cooked alive,”
she transgresses her own boundaries of taste (Melancholy 21-2). However,
this transgression is not enough to transform her ingesting body into the
kind of mutating Deleuzian assemblage Probyn describes (17-8). Kilgour
notes that the trope of tasting as knowing often entails a dream of absolute
separation transformed into absolute unity: a subject engulfing an object and
making it part of itself (9). This is Imogen’s dilemma: tired of being a subject
relentlessly defending her identity against influence, she tries to become a
passive object for the egg’s divine manipulations.
Not only does Imogen wish to know the egg; more than anything, she
wants it to know her – to acknowledge her, accept her, transform her,
respond to her efforts, in short, to taste her in turn. She forcibly tries to have
it engulf her by crawling inside it in a gesture resembling a sort of rape or
reversed birth. The erotic connotations of tasting as knowing are evident in
this scene – prior to crawling inside the egg, Imogen even sees it as “a bride
in a beautiful dress” (Melancholy 24). While she is inside the egg, there is an
“intermission” in the narrative in which two films presenting alternative
visions of the engulfing egg are described. In the first, a loathsome old
femme fatale egg devours a little girl, and in the second, a fair maiden is
carried away into the sky in a benign egg. Here, the erotic devourer is
feminine: implicitly the fantasised vagina dentata which is only the flipside
of the same coin as the masculine sadist. 40 Imogen takes on the masculine
role of tasting, probing and penetrating the egg in order to know it, and then
of throwing herself at its mercy and begging it to act the cruel mistress and
devour her: “I would drop my bones in an instant to leap to your mouth in
one soft, elated blob. I could be yolk, albumen, and water; I could be the
most delicate syllabub, scented with rose water and cardamom. I am Turkish
delight. I am marzipan, taste me, take me!” (Melancholy 30). But to
Imogen’s great disappointment, the egg does not taste her, or if it does, it
does not find her taste enough to its liking to digest her. If there is a
response, it is inscrutable, perhaps imperceptible, to human consciousness.
In this, the egg embodies “the inert, the unproductive, and the radically
different: that which cannot be comprehended, enlivened, rendered fertile or
dynamic,” which Colebrook argues has been ignored by feminists eager to
reclaim the body and celebrate material agency (“Becoming” 59).
40 The devouring feminine will be discussed further in the section on dilation.
Tasting Texts
“Egg” brings out the spiritual as well as the erotic aspect of tasting as
knowing. The description of the egg as a bride suggests an alchemical
“marriage” of substances, at least in light of a later, overt reference to
alchemy: “oh how our alchemists must coax and wheedle the thing to kindle
spirit in it, and then whoosh goes the vapour out the chimney, leaving behind
a bit of treacle in a jar” (Melancholy 29). Imogen forcefully tries to “marry”
herself to the egg, but no alchemical transubstantiation or sublimation of
matter occurs. According to Kilgour, “[s]ublimation aims at transforming a
material base on the premise of a division between a lower, outside, bodily
and material form and a higher, inside, mental or spiritual content” (17).
Thus, the concrete experiments of alchemy were still based on a division
between matter and spirit according to which material qualities were clues to
spiritual essences. Similarly, Imogen reads the material qualities of the egg
as clues, hoping to find the secret of transcendental union.
A central form of alchemical sublimation is the transubstantiation of
bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (Morrison 112). Imogen’s
ceremonial ingestion of the living flesh of the egg recalls the ingestion of the
Eucharist. Just like Imogen transgresses her own prohibition against eating
meat for the sake of spiritual union, the Christian dogma of the Eucharist
cancels the taboo against cannibalism (see Morrison 79). The symbolical
cannibalism of the communion, as well as literal cannibalistic practices, aim
to sublimate matter into spirit (Kilgour 17). “While the appearance, ‘the
accident’ of the bread, may seem unchanged by the words in the mass, in fact
the ‘substance,’ the ‘real’ essence of the accidental dough, becomes God’s
body. Our physical body tells us one truth, but the truth of faith teaches us
another reality” (Morrison 80). The point of eating God is to know Him in a
visceral way which leaves no room for doubt, as David Hillman explains:
Christ’s offering of himself as bread, to be incorporated physically into the bodies of
the believers, is the central symbol in Christianity of the mutuality of access to the
interior of the body of the other, whether this other is human or divine. The absorption
of Christ’s body into ours (in the Eucharist), and vice versa – human access […] to the
interior of the Corpus Christi – together obviate the problem of the other, preempting
any skeptical doubt about the possibility of access to the interior: there is literally no
room no space within, for doubt. (Hillman 85-6)
Imogen attempts this with the egg, but in her case the physical proximity
cannot abolish her skepticism and transform her into a believer. While for
some saints, faith might turn the bland taste of communion wafer into the
sweetest flavour, for Imogen, the egg remains linty.
Imogen might have had better chances at a transformative experience if
she had taken the sensual qualities of the egg at face value rather than as
signs to be interpreted. “Egg” can be compared to a passage in The Story of
Mary MacLane where Mary MacLane’s autobiographical persona enjoys an
olive. Here, tasting as such is an intense aesthetic experience. MacLane does
not look for meaning beyond the “bitter, salt, delicious” flavour of the olive
but attends to it so intensely that “[t]he fair earth seems to resolve itself into
a thing oval and crisp and good and green and deliciously salt.” What makes
this exercise in gourmandise stand out is MacLane’s description of her
tongue being ravished by the olive, her stomach singing its praise and her
gastric juices kissing it (60-2). 41 In Jo Croft’s formulation, as MacLane tastes
the olive, it “also somehow ‘tastes’ her insides,” rendering her conscious of
her inner organs (222). While for Croft this operation is carried out by
language, with the olive as a linguistically mediated focal point for
MacLane’s autoerotic self-tasting, I rather see it as the kind of transformative
eating experience Probyn advocates. Eating is for MacLane a meeting and
mingling of substances: morsels of olive and her digestive organs. These
substances are not demarcated as strictly material, however: the olive enters
her “body and soul.” More importantly, body and soul are not distinct parts
of the process, as in alchemical transubstantiation; instead she claims to
have “conscious chyme” in her stomach (MacLane 63-4). This can be
compared to Imogen’s quest for transcendence, which leads her to dismiss
the subtle physical changes offered by the egg as a “spa treatment” while
nevertheless being resentful of others who show signs of them (Melancholy
30, 32).
“Egg” drives tasting as knowing to its logical conclusion. Imogen tries to
make Probyn’s move from eating as “a confirmation of identity” to eating as
losing oneself in “a wild morphing of the animate and the inanimate” (8) but
this proves to be easier in theory than in practice. Probyn might be right that
eating entails physiological processes of expansion and change, but the
question is how such facts work to alter a firm sense of identity. As Jackson
puts it, humans are by nature “curious and fond” and “built to slump, trickle
and run,” but taught to practice obduracy and permanence from an early age.
Imogen is so successful at the encouraged imitation of a stone that can pass
through the digestive system unchanged that she remains “gnarled and
dense, like the pit of a peach” inside the “sweet flesh” of the egg (Melancholy
29). Ultimately, the only way Imogen can have the egg transform her life is
by accepting that it will remain an unknowable other.
Jackson’s achievement in “Egg” is to give the reader a phantom taste of
Imogen’s existential dilemma. By insistently foregrounding the sensual
qualities of the egg, Jackson counteracts the allegorical or metaphorical
interpretation of it. The egg is explicitly presented as an allegorical symbol,
but Jackson tests the limits of allegory by dwelling on the concrete details of
this physical manifestation. She treats the egg’s material properties as non41 As a foretaste of the connection I am later going to make between (dis)tasting and queer sexuality, this
scene can be compared to the protagonist of Winterson’s Written on the Body describing the clitoris in
cunnilingus as a “pungent and green” olive, 137.
Tasting Texts
arbitrary and meaningful, which produces a different effect than allegories
concerned only with ideational content. The procedure may not make the
abstract concepts more comprehensible, but it makes them perceptible as
the fleshy, rubbery, resilient, tepid, slick and sticky texture of the egg. This is
a literary phantom taste in the wide, multisensory sense of taste, heavy on
tactile qualities. The way the egg yields its clear liquid or a piece of its bland
flesh and then heals without a trace gives a phantom taste of Imogen’s
Eating Books or Licking Language?
Little by little, the pages of books were removed and replaced with slices of cheese. (Cat)
A special instance of tasting as knowing is the related figures of tasting
language and incorporating texts. The connection between oral language and
taste is brought out in the common expression “to taste a word.” Although
words have no actual taste, I would argue that this expression is more
metonymical than metaphorical, since the movements of the tongue
common to speaking and eating are part of the mouth sense. While written
language does not have this close relation to taste, the act of reading is
frequently figured as consumption. This figure may simply refer to voracious
reading, but is often used negatively to denote a mindless incorporation of
negative stereotypes, as in Jackson’s reference in an interview to “those
women who have swallowed the notion that they had better devote
themselves to the fuzzy or edible arts” (Jackson in Ley, “Women”). This
statement might seem to echo Wittig’s dismissal in her essay “The Point of
View” of écriture féminine as being “like the household arts and cooking”
(60). However, while Jackson may share Wittig’s lack of enthusiasm for the
“edible arts,” she is very concerned with literature as edible. In her work,
“swallowing a notion” is not used dismissively but interrogated with
fascination as a physiological process. There are at least three facets to this
theme, to which I devote this section. The first is the notion, obviously
inspired by Cixous, of language as mother’s milk. The second is the idea of
writing or speaking as a tasting of language. The third is the figure of eating
books as a literalisation of the consumption of literature.
In “Coming to Writing,” Cixous writes that she was “raised on the milk of
words” and that if she “tasted anything, it was the stuff of speech” (Cixous,
Coming 20). She describes writing as breastfeeding her mother tongue as
well as herself with “the milky taste of ink” (Cixous, Coming 12, 31). Jackson
clearly echoes this rhetoric in the patchwork girl’s statement that “[w]hen I
write my left breast sometimes dribbles the milk of invisible children”
(Patchwork [graveyard/trunk/left breast]). However, rather than simply
repeating Cixous’ ecstatic celebration of writing as giving birth and having
breasts overflowing with milk, she problematises it in the story of the
breast’s former owner, Charlotte, who lost six of her eight children and
“filled a quill-pen at her nipple and wrote invisible letters to the dead babies”
(Patchwork [graveyard/trunk/left breast]). For Charlotte, the “overflowing”
of milk comes at the expense of the dead children, and the writing she does
with it is limited to private letters of mourning, while for the patchwork girl,
the mere “dribble” of milk plays only a minor part in her writing. 42 Clearly,
then, Jackson does not simply endorse Cixous’ model of writing as a natural
emanation from the maternal female body.
When milk appears as a figure of maternal abundance in Jackson’s work,
it tends to be displaced from the female body, as I showed in the previous
chapter. In “Here is the Church,” the nursing relation is denaturalised as a
daughter feeds her sick father milk, and even more denaturalised as the
smell of milk mingles with his body odour so that “she could not now taste
evaporated milk without the feeling that she was taking her own father into
her mouth” (Church 93). “Here is the Church” reads like a condensed,
successful version of the scenario in “Egg”: the protagonist first takes in her
father metonymically through breathing in his smell of milk and then enters
another world through a mouth-like orifice in his side.
“Flat Daddy” is a more obvious rewriting of écriture féminine, in which
milk retains its association with language but not with the maternal body.
Here, the figure of feminine abundance with “milk […] running from his
paper heart” is the narrator’s father, who is described as “a small white
father, a milk father, no big cheese” (Flat 275). Language is figured as milk in
the image of “a mouth running with milk” (Flat 279). This nourishing,
substantial milk language is contrasted to the impoverished masculine
language of power, embodied by the “Flat Daddy” who speaks only in clichéd
catchphrases. The protagonist escapes the Flat Daddy and rejoins her milk
father by squeezing herself “through the hole in the hedge in the hole in the
sentence” of her own writing (279). Since language is figured as milk in the
story, entering an orifice in language implies being swallowed in turn by
what you swallow, the pattern familiar from “Here is the Church” and “Egg.”
Apart from associating milk with the father instead of the mother, “Flat
Daddy” adds a further twist to the milk language of écriture féminine in its
treatment of cheese. “Milk messages run through me, my ABCs are thick and
white. I will spit cheese, eventually,” the narrator states (Flat 275). By adding
cheese to the milk, Jackson emphasises the processed nature of literature
and problematises the idea of language gushing like a body fluid. The
narrator does not just see a mouth running with milk, suggesting oral
language, but also “a page like a slice of cheese, intimate and culinary” and “a
block of cheese called a book,” suggesting written language and especially the
42 In my MA by research thesis I develop the comparison and argue that Jackson performs a clear critique of
écriture féminine in this passage.
Tasting Texts
artefact of the book (Flat 279). Cheese is more densely material than milk
and a more distasteful figure for language, especially when conceived of as
human cheese. James Joyce, whom Jackson references with her mention of
kidney and of a “portrait of the artist as a young cheese” (Flat 278, 280),
wrote of cheese as “[c]orpse of milk” (J. Joyce 110), which fully brings out its
distasteful potential. 43 Thus, when Jackson adds cheese – and “goop” – to
the milk of language, she makes it part of her aesthetics of distaste.
“Egg,” “Here is the Church” and “Flat Daddy” all describe the difficult
passage through the tight orifice capable of expanding to encompass
something seemingly much too large, like a bodily sphincter. The passage
may resemble a (reversed) birth but equally other forms of expulsion or
penetration and is not reducible either to psychoanalytical notions of
returning to the womb or to Cixous’ imagery of feeding the nourishing
mother in turn, though doubtlessly informed by both. I see in Jackson’s
repeated reconfigurations of the engulfment theme a Deleuzian fascination
with what a body can do, with its untested capabilities for sensation and
action. This is no individual, psychoanalytical body with its organs and
erogenous zones clearly mapped out but a provisionally assembled body with
orifices opening anywhere (in language and in the world at large) to taste
and take in. However, Jackson’s experimentations are no simple celebrations
but equally explore the pain and frustration of failed attempts to produce
intensities, such as in Imogen’s encounter with the egg.
Even in a subverted form, the milk of écriture féminine is not the most
prominent form Jackson’s concern with the tasting of language takes. In
“Consuetudinary of the Word Church,” Jackson reverses Cixous’ figure in
two ways: instead of language being described as a bodily emission, bodily
emissions are described as language production, and the nourishing milk is
replaced by considerably less tasteful substances. In Jackson’s take on the
obsolete consuetudinary genre, urine and excrement are defined as “forms of
concrete speech” and vomiting as an “early form of writing” (Consuetudinary
138-9). Similar to Cixous’ milk, this body language is both secreted and
ingested: eating is described as “inward speech” which “should be
pronounced carefully” (Consuetudinary 136). Tasting this body language is
not limited to ingestion, however, since in vomiting it can be tasted in the
emission, like words are tasted when uttered rather than when absorbed.
When Jackson describes how the patchwork girl’s tongue “stirred up a rich
and fishy stew of folly, poetry, gossip, heresy, and the news,” she reverses
this image of vomit as language into language as vomit, although in a more
43 The references are to the famous scene in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom enjoys kidney for breakfast, and to
Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. See also Korsmeyer, Savoring 64, for a discussion of how
disgust is cultivated as part of the gustatory appreciation of fine cheese: “The process of becoming-cheese
releases bad smells, some of them resembling bile, vomit, urine, or even feces – all exemplars of the
disgusting. Moreover, this is not just an unpleasant stage in the process, the traces of which disappear. The
finished product often retains residues of those smells and tastes in all their mordant immediacy.”
covert form (Patchwork [graveyard/tongue/head]). Susannah, the former
owner of the patchwork girl’s tongue used to regurgitate language in
exchange for food: one form of nourishment for another. The
characterisation of this regurgitated language as “a rich and fishy stew”
emphasises its taste rather than its meaning, creating a literary phantom
taste of language. However, Jackson’s phantom tastes are a great deal less
tasteful than Cixous’ maternal milk, more in the vein of Allison’s “River of
Names.” “Dirty water rises in the back of my throat, the liquid language of
my own terror and rage,” says Allison’s narrator in a similarly distasteful
reconfiguration of Cixous’ theme (13).
“My Friend Goo” is an elaboration of the idea of language as something to
be tasted, not understood. The narrator tries to explain her understanding of
language to her lover:
“Mr. Fox, sir, I won’t do it,” I said, “I can’t say it. I won’t chew it.”
“Say it, chew it – as if they were the same thing. The tongue twister is, like, stuff.”
“What stu-hic-uff?”
“Goo. You have to chew it.” You were steering me backwards into your room. “Like the
Goo-Goose,” I added, as you pushed me onto your bed.
“So chew it,” you said, and put your tongue in my mouth. (Friend 52)
The narrator equates speaking and chewing, emphasising the mouth feeling
of language and comparing it to “stuff.” Her lover unwittingly proves her
point by having her speech interrupted by nonsignifying hiccups, and
silences her by giving her something else to taste – a tongue. The tasting of
words gives way to an erotic tasting but to the narrator the two are not really
separate since she conceives of language too as material. The scene resonates
with an erotic encounter between a female and a parasitic male of a species
of marine worms in “Hagfish, Worm, Kakapo”: ”She stammered around me
like an epileptic mouth. She spoke me in: I became Fred Ted Ed, a counting
rhyme or riddle song, the chaff of unmeant words” (Hagfish). The opposite
movements of emitting words and ingesting food are conflated in the figure
of speaking in. The female does not speak the male; she unspeaks him:
stripping him of his individuality and absorbing him as part of her. Language
ceases to signify and becomes stammering, rhyme and riddle, a theme I shall
return to in the chapter “Hearing Hallucinations.”
Through her complex reconfigurations of the relation between language
and taste (vomiting as writing, eating as speaking, saying as chewing),
Tasting Texts
Jackson performs a deterritorialisation of language. In Kafka, Deleuze and
Guattari argues that “language always implies a deterritorialization of the
mouth, the tongue, and the teeth” from the activity of eating (19).
Deterritorialised from the sense of taste, language is reterritorialised as “an
instrument of Sense” in its representational use (20). Jackson again
deterritorialises language by replacing signification with mouth feeling and
other sensory qualities. She also deterritorialises the technology of writing in
her experimentations with putting it to different uses than as a vehicle for
linguistic communication. When discussing how questions from conceptual
art might be imported into literature in an interview, she speculates: “What
if we focus not on the denotative qualities of language but on its mouth feel?
The taste of ink? The properties of paper?” (Jackson in Rettberg, “Written”)
Ironically, most of her experimentation with such questions is virtual,
happening on the denotative level of language in her literary works.
In My Body, the protagonist describes how she took being “a voracious
reader” literally, tearing off the corners of pages and chewing them while
reading. Having a taste for books, as for other substances considered
inedible, is diagnosed “a nervous ailment,” but she refutes this diagnosis. She
simply enjoys the taste of books and becomes “quite a connoisseur of the
different flavours and textures” of paper, some of which are lovingly detailed.
While she understands her urge to ingest books as a token of her affection,
the more sinister aspect of ingestion is brought out by her being labelled “a
vandal and a hooligan” for eating books (Body [vagina]). While a book can be
re-consumed in the figurative sense of being reread, literally consuming it
prevents further consumption in both senses. The protagonist’s urge to
consume books in both senses at once allows her a fuller, multisensory
reading experience, but destroys the idea of the immortal work of literature
surviving in the enduring artefact of a book. The sensory engagement with
the book necessary for reading (holding the book, turning the pages, tracing
the rows of letters with the eyes…) is ideally supposed to leave minimal
traces. While the occasional food stain, dog ear or margin note may be
forgiven, tearing off and ingesting pages is definitely crossing the line. My
Body tests the limits of reading as consumption and draws attention to the
tension between the approved consumption of the immaterial and therefore
inextinguishable work, on the one hand, and the inappropriate treatment of
books as consumable objects, on the other.
An additional tension is created by the fact that My Body is an electronic
hypertext published online, barring the reader from repeating the gesture
and ingesting Jackson’s words in turn. Even if the reader were to print the
text and eat it, the significance of the book as a unique art object with a
history would be lost and the taste experience reduced to the monotony of
fresh printer paper and barely dry toner. Instead of actually tasting the text,
the reader is left to taste it virtually through reading. Jackson explains in an
interview how she employed the electronic hypertext form in My Body to
prevent the reader from getting a clear overview of the work, forcing her or
him to follow links from lexia to lexia in a “blind burrowing,” a “kind of
sexual encounter, in which you are too close to get a view of the whole.” She
calls this “[r]eading as licking,” a figure which emphasises how taste
precludes sight, as the object tasted is either obscured inside the mouth or at
tongue’s length, too close to be in focus (Jackson in “Writing”). Literally
tasting literature prevents reading it, but in My Body Jackson tries to invent
a form of reading-as-tasting by drawing the reader in close to the lexia – or
body part – currently read and prevent her from stepping back and using the
distance sense of sight. The erotic encounter between reader and body of text
staged by Jackson is parallel to Stewart’s description of the “melting words”
of erotic poetry which imply “taste as incorporation” and aim to keep the
beloved “beyond compare,” that is, too close for visual comparison and
accessible to the proximity senses of taste, smell and touch (Poetry 32). In
My Body, the protagonist’s intimate encounters with books do not stop at
the mouth, as she wishes to “taste” books through her anus and vagina too,
reasoning that “[i]t wasn’t a big leap from eating books to sticking them up
me, a page at a time” (Body [vagina]).
While in My Body, the protagonist consumes both the content and the
material of the book as part of her reading experience, in “Consuetudinary of
the Word Church,” the two forms of consumption are severed. The book
appears as a ritualistic fetish object to be chewed, not read. The “Founder” of
the Word Church shares with the protagonist of My Body the juvenile habit
of tearing off corners of books and chewing them to pulp (and the scorn of
librarians), a practice which “primed her for the passage of spirits”
(Consuetudinary 143). In the Word Church, the passing of material messages
through bodily orifices is worshipped and ritualised in ways deprivileging
conscious communication. The bodies of disciples are made to perfect the
pronunciation of incomprehensible syllables, sometimes swallowed as
inward speak, and to materially absorb language. Ink is “placed with
eyedropper on the tongue,” the letters of the alphabet “swallowed with water
every day, like a vitamin” and books “chewed into spitballs” (Consuetudinary
147, 143). The consuetudinary stipulates:
The School shall masticate any book (exclusive of its binding) supplied by members of
the Cheesehill community without regard for content, and shall return to the members
a bolus or spitball from any designated page or, if unspecified, a page of the chewer’s
choice, of no less than one half inch in diameter, to be delivered moist.
(Consuetudinary 149-50)
Such spitballs are significant objects signifying nothing. They draw their
significance from the book’s status as a cultural artefact yet in the chewing
redefine this significance to emphasise physical characteristics (size,
Tasting Texts
moisture) and disregard “content” (the immaterial work, rendered illegible).
What is brought out by this quotation is not “reading as eating,” as eating the
book precludes reading it, but rather “eating as reading”: the body’s largely
unconscious “reading” of the sensory data and chemical properties of the
pulp and the transformation of the material masticated.
Throughout her work, Jackson shows a fascination with the physiological
processes attached to experiences of art and language but not normally
considered part of them. She explores phenomena such as forming sounds
without communicating or eating books instead of absorbing their content.
Simultaneously, she relies on the communicative function of language to
perform these explorations, as the majority of them take the form of literary
texts rather than for example performance pieces or conceptual art. I believe
this is because an artwork consisting of the performance of eating a book
would bring the issue out of the literary sphere altogether and lose the
paradoxical charge of simultaneously challenging and employing denotative
language. The challenge is directed to literature and would be made
irrelevant in an art form already concerned with other, often more overtly
sensual, ways of engaging with a work than reading it. Jackson’s treatment of
the literal ingestion of books is an experiment in importing insights from
taste to literature. By literalising literary consumption, Jackson brings out
the perishable nature of the book as material artefact and contests the notion
of the immortal, immaterial work. This move brings literature a step closer
to the highly transient culinary art, and suggests that actual taste need not be
excluded from high arts and aesthetics just because it does not conform to
the standard of the durable work.
Here’s what I think: she’s buried treasure, tricky with glyphs and gold. She’s salt of the earth, sugar
and spice; she’s a brick outhouse, with curtains; she’s a long stretch of unmarked beach where
something great has washed up. She’s ridged like a palate, and her wet parts are tongue colored, but
she’s not just a rubbery friend for the mouth. Name your pleasure: gobs of honeyed poppyseed, formflattering swimwear, aviaries, a radiant plastic bag flouncing in a tree, rumps being cornholed, sardines:
that’s her. You have no idea how big she is. Even naked she never unfurls all the way, though you
curry her till she purrs. (Gallows)
While dilation has more to do with the result of taste upon the body than
with taste itself, I find the figure of dilatio crucial to Jackson’s and Barnes’
particular aesthetics of distaste. Barnes and Jackson both draw upon
Burton’s dilated treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy in order to create a
style which is distasteful in its dilation. Lingel does not comment on
Jackson’s allusion to this previous literary anatomy in her article “The Body
Indivisible,” to my knowledge the only previous study of The Melancholy of
Anatomy. Instead, she interprets the title as “an emotional response to an
abstraction of the body,” that is, as melancholy caused by the reductive
anatomical mapping of the lived body (81). I understand the title as, besides
playfully reversing the order of Burton’s, paying homage to his humouralist
understanding of melancholy as a temper or affect residing not only in
human psyches but in bodies themselves and even in their anatomised parts.
Rather than viewing Burton as the masculine anatomist whom Jackson
necessarily critiques, I view him as an inspiration for a feminine, dilated
According to Patricia Parker, the Renaissance rhetorical figure of dilatio
was used to capture an assemblage (my term) of textual expansion,
digression, deferral, fecundity, voluptuousness and seduction coded as
feminine. Although dilation was considered a useful tool for “fleshing out”
one’s arguments when used with moderation, it also posed a danger of an
effeminate style; rhetorical handbooks advised readers to put “swelling” texts
on a “diet” and rid them of “grossness” (P. Parker 14). A dilated style was
associated with dilated – fat or pregnant – female bodies with dilated –
unchaste or talkative – orifices.
Within the Christian tradition, women’s appetites for food and for words
have been connected since Eve, who literally ingests forbidden knowledge,
and frequently takes the form of women greedily munching on juicy gossip
(see P. Parker 33; Trotter, Cooking 247). Michèle Roberts provides an
example with her servant women gossiping while preparing food: “They took
any subject and made it manageable. They sucked it and licked it down to
size. They chewed at it until, softened, it yielded, like blubber or leather, to
their understanding” (Daughters 70). The abovementioned Susannah,
former owner of the patchwork girl’s tongue, is Jackson’s take on this figure;
her mouth a dilated orifice promiscuously taking in food and drink and
letting out words. The suggestion that she has sexual relations with women
makes her “dilated” in the sense of being sexually promiscuous too
(Patchwork [graveyard/tongue/head]). These characters are not simply fat
gossips with a taste for food and words alike. The specific figuration of words
as food connects to the idea of tasting language discussed in the previous
section and suggests a linguistic style as rich as the food and as dilated as the
women. In descriptions of women munching, sucking and chewing on
gristle, fat or blubber, aesthetics of distaste and dilation are combined.
Patricia Parker briefly maps how the female embodiment of dilation has
survived the rhetorical figure associated with it, appearing later in literary
history for example in Wallace Stevens’ “Fat girl,” Beckett’s female “Mouth”
and Joyce’s Molly Bloom, whose concluding monologue in Ulysses resists
narrative closure. She also notes how in écriture féminine the misogynist
idea of female speech as dilated has been turned into an object of feminist
celebration (P. Parker 32, 34). Writers of écriture féminine have celebrated
dilation in the sense of voluptuousness and fecundity but not, I would argue,
Tasting Texts
the “grossness” of fat female bodies. Barnes and Jackson, however, explicitly
draw upon Renaissance rhetoric to do just that.
As Kilgour demonstrates, The Anatomy of Melancholy is a hugely dilated
text, full of rambling sentences and digressions, aiming to incorporate all
knowledge on melancholy, that is, all knowledge, since everything is
melancholy. Burton’s relation to his myriad sources is one of eating rather
than stealing: by digesting and incorporating the work of others he allows
them to “have their cake and let him eat it too” (Kilgour 164). The
incorporated material “dilates his own mind and that of his readers” so that
they do not have to feed on themselves (Kilgour 165). But ultimately, after
“having subsumed everything and digested it to a single undifferentiated
lump,” the melancholy mind still revolves around itself (Kilgour 154).
Kilgour sums up the oscillating tendencies of the work thus:
It describes a vision that is intensely incremental, that denies change and refuses loss,
adding more and more material as if it could get everything inside of itself. Yet its only
hope, a hope which it fears is vanishing, is that there still is something it cannot know
and contain, some genuine image of alterity outside the self with which it cannot be
identified, and which has not been contaminated and consumed by melancholy.
(Kilgour 166)
While Jackson and Barnes draw upon Burton, Burton in turn draws upon the
already somewhat outdated genre of the literary anatomy, making his work
similarly eccentric and untimely. Rather than mimicking a clearly delineated
body with its parts explained in logical order, however, he writes an anatomy
“that is huge, open, and structured on a basic ambivalence” (Kilgour 152).
Kilgour describes Burton’s work as “almost medieval, a recreation of a
grotesque body that attempts to recapture an oral tradition” (Kilgour 166), a
description confirmed by Susan Signe Morrison’s assertion that “[t]he book,
like the body, was not seen as ‘closed’ in the Middle Ages.” The marginalia of
medieval manuscripts tended to depict grotesque bodies defecating or
urinating, conflating the borders of the book and the borders of the body
spilling over with waste matter (Morrison 104-5).
Kilgour does not make a connection between the dilated, grotesque
anatomy of Burton’s text and the feminine, but other scholars such as Paster
have shown how the open, leaky body tends to be feminised (Body 23-63).
For Kilgour, Rabelaisian grotesque in Burton’s work functions as a positive
antidote to the melancholy “desire to plug up holes and, effectively, to
idealize the grotesque body” of the book (160). As Paster points out in her
critique of Bakhtin’s influential reading of Rabelais, however, the grotesque
body in Rabelais’ Gargantua is sexed according to Renaissance medical
understandings, and the active, carnivalsque force of Gargantua is celebrated
at the expense of his mother Gargamelle’s passive pain and humiliation
(Body 208-14). In a similar vein, Sheryl Stevenson has shown how Barnes in
Ryder performs a critique of the Rabelaisian-Bahktinian effacement of
sexual difference as an effacement of women and their suffering, while at the
same time harnessing the powers of the carnivalesque to feminist ends
(90-1). I would add that the multiplication of fat and/or pregnant female
bodies in Ryder not only thematises Rabelaisian grotesque but also dilation.
Several scholars have noted Barnes’ eccentric recycling of historical forms
and genres. Caselli employs a discussion of Ladies Almanack to “reconsider
the often-mentioned influence on Barnes of sixteenth-century drama,
seventeenth-century comedy of manners, and Burton’s Anatomy of
Melancholy” (41). She argues that Barnes “fabricates tradition as a ragbag,
by referring to L’Imagerie Populaire, chapbooks, and almanacs” and uses
this genealogy of low, popular genres as “the means to resist the centrality of
author and plot” (Caselli 57, 46). Various mechanisms of the text “point
somewhere else: outside the text (context), towards other media (woodcuts,
music), and towards other genres and historical periods” (Caselli 57), or, as I
would put it, incorporate these “elsewheres” into an open-ended, dilated
work paying homage to Burton’s anatomy. While according to Caselli, Ladies
Almanack refers to historical intertexts which “fail to be the sources of
explanations or revelations” (57), Whitley finds similar mechanisms at work
in the stylistic excess of Nightwood, in which “complex imagery often seems
to point at nothing” (85). Alternatively, they “offer a plethora of signification,
meanings in excess of the reader’s ability to digest them” with much the
same result (Whitley 81). I take this stylistic excess to indicate an aesthetics
of distaste working through dilation in order to create a plethora of
sensations exceeding signification.
Unlike Whitley, Dianne Chisholm explicitly connects Barnes’ visceral style
to the Renaissance discourse of The Anatomy of Melancholy. The connection
is made primarily through the character of Doctor Matthew O’Connor, a
transsexual gynaecologist and obstetrician without a licence who “dispenses
a radical heterodoxy, compiled of a multitude of folk wisdoms – Irish
blarney, queenly drollery, anecdotal gossip – mixed with loose allusions to
Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and other textual sources, most of them
‘obscene’” (Chisholm 191). As Chisholm observes, the doctor’s “dilatory
meditations” do not represent authoritative knowledge and do not present
medical or sexological diagnoses of his fellow characters (176). He might be
read as a critique or subversion of masculine medical authority, but I view
him rather as a fond caricature of Burton’s dilated textual persona. Just as
Burton is carried away by digressions and fails to provide an orderly
anatomy, O’Connor is intensely invested in the bodies he studies.
Analogously, the anatomy of The Melancholy of Anatomy is an interested,
animated and fragmented one.
Jackson tends to describe the excessive, hybridic style of writing she
appreciates and wants to practice in terms strongly reminiscent of the
Tasting Texts
feminine figuration of dilatio. In an interview, she characterises Burton’s The
Anatomy of Melancholy as “a gone-to-seed belle of letters wobbling
voluptuously in the shadow zone between literature and nonfiction, original
and plagiarism, science and religion,” while her own The Melancholy of
Anatomy “aspires to the same territory, though it’s a lot skinnier.” She
further reinforces the implicit association to dilatio by describing sentences
as “mouthfuls” (Jackson in Grant, “Shelley”). Similarly, in her paper “Stitch
Bitch,” she compares “good writing” to “the infamous ‘thin person struggling
to get out’” while “bad writing inspires the same kind of distaste that bad
grooming does” and is “[l]ike flaccid beauties in a harem” (Stitch). In this
figure, Jackson captures the whole assemblage of dilated style: “flaccid”
suggests bodies that are too large and too loose, while “beauties” suggests
that they still have the dangerous power to seduce, underscored by the sexual
promiscuity suggested by “harem,” and finally the harem of beauties in the
plural suggests a general excess. An idea of the feminine as other can
furthermore be read into the orientalist notion of the harem. The feminine
style she describes is certainly other to conventional standards of taste.
Although “skinny” in scope compared to Burton’s three volume treatise,
The Melancholy of Anatomy dilates itself through its intertextual relation to
The Anatomy of Melancholy. It also dilates visceral figures and expressions
from Burton into stories. “Dildo” figures dilation as a dilated orifice, that is,
as an expansion around an emptiness rather than as stuffing or filling out.
Posing as “Excerpts from: A DISCOURSE CONCERNING DILDOES,”
allegedly published in 1678, it consists of bibliographical information, an
“epilogue” and an “index” to the fictional publication (Melancholy 84).
Although only eight pages long, “Dildo” is stylistically excessive with its
paragraph-length title promising “THOUSANDS OF EXAMPLES,” its
archaic, mock-scholarly style citing real and fictive authorities, its
longwinded sentences and its oddly juxtaposed series of examples. A short
actual text dilated around a much more extensive, virtual treatise, it
thematises the dilation of real bodily orifices around the virtual desire of the
dildo. This is not to say that actual dildos are not real or to set up a
real/unreal opposition between the organic and the prosthetic, only to say
that in “Dildo,” dildos function as placeholders for all kinds of fantasies,
pleasures and desires. According to one of its characteristic lists of
A doll may be a dildo, or a pillar of salt; there are dildoes of wrought iron, of brick, of
water, of stitched horsehide packed with straw, of knotted string, ink, and ice, of gears
turned by a tiny water wheel, of hint or innuendo, tar, sugar, and sal ammoniac, of
vanity, of lamb’s wool, of pig’s bladder, of giant blocks of sandstone smoothed by the
passage of time, of stuffed tapirs, sundials, mirrors, or bridges. (Melancholy 86)
Again, as in my reading of Barnes, the dildo does not represent the endless
deferral or disavowal of lack but a dilation of desire to encompass more and
more objects, real or virtual. The hole in the middle of a dilated orifice is not
psychoanalytical but phenomenological, an absence of flesh making the
inside walls into a surface for sensations.
In “Egg” the figure of dilation is a gargantuan egg with “each cell wall […]
healthily distended around a fat globule” (Melancholy 21), encapsulating
feminine fecundity in its perfectly dilated, spherical shape. But the egg also
has more sinister connotations to the engulfing female. Imogen, whose
ambivalent relation to the egg I have already discussed, has a nightmare in
which her friend Cass turns into the egg:
I dreamed Cass grew fat, shiny, red. As she waxed, the egg waned. At last she was
almost spherical, a powerful figure, staring like an idol. The egg was the size of a malt
ball, and she picked it up and popped it in her mouth. Then she turned toward me and
opened her arms. Her sparse hair streamed from the pink dome of her skull, her eyes
rolled, her teeth struck sparks off one another, and her hands were steaks, dripping
blood. Now I knew her. She was the egg. I turned to run, but her arms folded around
me, and I sank back into her softness, and awoke pinioned by my comforter, on the
side of the bed. (Melancholy 33-4)
The dream reflects Imogen’s secret passion for Cass and fear of having her
individuality obliterated by her. Cass asserts her dominant personality
through arbitrary expressions of taste which Imogen conforms to. The egg
presents a welcome alternative of indiscriminate, wholesale engulfment
which Imogen is afraid that Cass will appropriate. But as the dream
indicates, there is also a lurking fear that the egg is not an alternative at all
but merely another version of Cass, as in Kilgour’s pessimistic view of
dilation as subsuming all differences under sameness.
Imogen’s mixed fear of and fascination with the engulfing female might be
read as masculine, in line with Jackson’s tendency to contrast feminine
dilation with masculine loathing or restraint. Examples of such masculine
figures are Boney in “Fat” with “his knees a-clacking, his ribs going rat-a-tattat, and an oboe for a nose” (Melancholy 171), the anorectic George in
“Nerve” who wants to “carve off [his] own flesh in strips, leaving only the
nerves” (Melancholy 79) and the Flat Daddy warring “against milk and
mouths, fat and goop” (277). However, to this sexed dichotomy Jackson adds
male figures of dilation such as seeds “thrusting from a happily split
waistcoat (proud fat men of America!) the pale prong of progress”
(Patchwork [story/seagoing/America]) and “Fatty the Fatman,” a snowman
made of fat whom the female protagonist of “Fat” sinks into and later
devours (Melancholy 170). The most elaborate example is Jackson’s
description of Harvey, a former Little Red Riding Hood doll whom the
Jackson sisters transformed into a lecherous would-be Casanova in their doll
games. Jackson devotes a long journal entry to this doll and particularly to
Tasting Texts
musings on how his grotesque baby doll proportions inform his new
character and vice versa. In a dilated meditation upon his oversized head she
describes it as a “pregnant fleshy pod or sporiferous cap,” a single swollen
testicle,” a “maternal head great with child,” “a big cyst,” an “egg sac,” “the
dry paper balloon of a puff ball,” “a bubble of sour gases, probably
poisonous, or a boil full of toxic fluids,” and, finally, as being “full of helium
or laughing gas” (Doll [fungal]). With such figures of fatness and fertility
who are neither clearly masculine nor clearly feminine, Jackson also queers
An Aesthetics of Distaste
It’s interesting, though, that there are aesthetic satisfactions to be had in, loosely speaking, crap: the
rattle of phlegm in the throat, the shine and firmness of some turds, much nicer than the raggedy look
of others, and fat, too, that offal, is sometimes, oh, marvelous – a trembling, fragile, cream-colored
gateau – while sometimes, I’ll just say (to spare your sensibilities), less marvelous. (Fat 172)
As has been noted in previous research, the works of Jackson and Barnes
deal to a great extent with subject matter considered distasteful and in bad
taste, such as bodily waste. Lingel reads Jackson’s The Melancholy of
Anatomy as a version of écriture féminine working primarily through
abjection and uncanniness (85) to create “sympathetic disgust and
confrontational queerness” (77). According to Lingel, Jackson thematises the
political oppression of queers and queerness by alluding to the related
“tendency towards rejecting what appears to be illegible because it is
distasteful” (87). While I do not wish to dispute Lingel’s description of The
Melancholy of Anatomy as a form of queer feminine writing, I find her
reading of the function of distaste in the work overly reductive to the
symbolical. In order to understand how Jackson employs distaste in a way
not reducible to dominant contemporary models of interpretation, textual or
psychological, it is crucial to consider how she, like Barnes before her, draws
upon historical forms and genres.
Studies of Barnes tend to mention her allusions to historical intertexts as
well as her tastelessness. Jane Marcus, for example, connects the two in
proclaiming Barnes “the female Rabelais” (249). She argues that Barnes
combines Rabelaisian scatology with “the morbid, uncanny grotesque of
Hoffmann” into a form of feminist body writing later taken up by Joanna
Russ in The Female Man and Carter in Nights at the Circus (Marcus 240,
235). Chisholm similarly characterises Barnes’ style as “ejaculations of
libertine gourmandise,” “excremental speech and unconsumable images”
(186-7), descriptions echoing Whitley’s formulation cited in the previous
section. Apparently, something about Barnes’ style – what I describe as her
aesthetics of distaste – elicits such critical gut responses and alimentary
modes of description. Her writing is commonly described as both dilated –
“in excess of the reader’s ability to digest” (Whitley 81) – and distasteful –
“scatological” or “excremental.” 44 In order to elaborate upon the aesthetics of
distaste, I first discuss how distaste and its sibling sensation disgust are
related to art and aesthetics via taste in its abstract as well as concrete sense.
It is my conviction that “taste” used in the aesthetic sense will always
recall, however vaguely, the concrete meaning of “taste,” and that this is true
for “distaste” as well. “Disgust” too is haunted by taste through its shared
etymological roots (from the Latin “gustus”) which, although not necessarily
recognised by English speakers, nevertheless informs the conceptualisation
of disgust. Miller argues that taste has been overemphasised in the
theorisation of disgust due to this etymology (1-2). However, this assumes a
“pure” physical disgust which may be disentangled from its
conceptualisation. While I do not believe that affects such as disgust are
determined by the terms used to designate them, I view affects and language
as mutually constitutive. Therefore, although I agree with Miller that there is
much more to disgust than literal distaste, I think that taste plays a special
role in the constitution of disgust. As a case in point, facial expressions of
disgust tend to mimic the refusal or disgorging of food. In this section, I use
the term “distaste” to isolate the gustatory component of disgust and show
how Jackson and Barnes emphasise it in their aesthetics of distaste.
According to Miller, the notion of “disgust” emerged in tandem with
“taste” in the abstract sense during the Renaissance. The cultivation of taste
is really the cultivation of disgust at “the easy pleasure of the senses” in
favour of more demanding aesthetic pleasures. Thus, taste in the sense of
aesthetic discrimination is dependent upon the visceral sensation of disgust
(Miller 169-70). In “The Endgame of Taste,” Denise Gigante makes another
connection between aesthetic taste and disgust by demonstrating how the
Romanticist cultivation of taste was turned into a modernist existential
disgust in the writings of Jean Paul Sartre and Beckett. Kilgour argues that
the development of aesthetic taste, with its “emphasis on choice and
discrimination” serves to protect against the vulnerability of being
dependent upon external nourishment to survive (9-10). The price of this
protection of individual integrity, however, is a self who incorporates and
assimilates everything, making it palatable (Gigante 188). Sartre and Beckett
maximise the disgust with this all-encompassing self already present in
Romantic poetry, evident for example in John Keats’ distaste for the
“cloying” or “mawkish” sweetness of his own Endymion (Gigante 191-2).
Beckett’s Molloy further satirises the cultivation of taste in Molloy’s
connoisseurship of his “sucking stones” which all taste the same (Gigante
194-5), a satire which can be compared to the protagonist of My Body’s
44 Caselli, on the other hand, insists that Barnes’ intertextual loans are not “specimens resulting from that
‘rank digestion’ satirized by Donne in a passage (marked by Barnes) mocking the poet as meat beggar,” 86.
Tasting Texts
connoisseurship of the different textures and flavours of paper discussed in
the previous section (Body [vagina]).
Trotter, on the other hand, argues that for Sartre disgust, or rather
nausea, is “the very taste of contingency” (Cooking 15-16) and opposes the
sensation of nausea, the idea of mess and the figure of metonymy to the
sensation of horror, the idea of waste and the figure of metaphor in 19th
century literature (Cooking 198-9). For Trotter, disgust is associated not
with symbolisation or meaning, but with the experience of mess, contingency
and metonymical relations. He critiques the psychoanalytical understanding
of disgust as standing in or covering up for desire, and instead proposes a
phenomenological understanding of disgust as a purely negative affect
(Trotter, “New” 40). Sianne Ngai shows a similar understanding of disgust as
pure negativity and posits an aesthetics of disgust based on rejection against
an aesthetics of desire based on inclusion. She cites Derrida’s understanding
of disgust as the absolute other to the system of taste, an avant-garde
negation of beauty which paradoxically partakes in the aesthetic it contests
through its sublimity (Ngai 334). As Probyn points out, “[d]isgust is
understood to violate the abstraction or distance that philosophies of
aesthetics have long privileged” (133). Because of the immediacy and
intensity of the disgust reaction, “it is as if representational distance vanishes
when it comes to writing of the disgusting” (Probyn 138). This is true also for
other immediate, sensual responses to art such as desire or appetite (Probyn
133). Without sharing Trotter’s and Ngai’s naturalising evaluation of disgust
as purely negative, I agree that it is not best understood as a sign of desire,
and that an aesthetics of disgust draws upon the asignifying, visceral
intensity of the affect. In Jackson’s and Barnes’ work, this intensity is a
positive force in the sense of being generative, not a lack or negation.
I base my understanding of distaste mainly upon Korsmeyer’s nuanced
and serious consideration of aesthetic disgust in Savoring Disgust. Instead
of viewing disgust as an extreme reaction of outright rejection, she argues
that disgust, like any other emotion, “has many degrees, gradations, and
subtleties,” though these may not be recognised by language, and that
aesthetic disgust “can be confrontational, disturbatory, pathetic, funny,
gross, erotic, curious, and all manner of additional qualifiers” (Korsmeyer,
Savoring 97, 100). While a lot of art, especially in genres such as horror,
deploys disgust to cause a powerful gut reaction, varieties of disgust can also
be part of a more cognitive art appreciation involving beauty, attraction and
even tastiness (Korsmeyer, Savoring 9). Previous research on contemporary
art suggests that female artists and writers especially tend to turn to food
and eating in order to create artistic effects of taste and distaste. Rosemarie
Betterton, for example, analyses feminist body art dealing with food and
appetite as an investigation of specifically female forms of abjection (138). In
her study of food in women’s writing, Sceats similarly describes the fat
female body as a cultural abject employed for its disruptive potential, though
not unproblematically celebrated, by writers such as Margaret Atwood and
Carter (91).
Sceats as well as Hertel single out Roberts for her gustatory fiction.
According to Sceats, Roberts invokes “a particular female physicality,
sensuousness and sensibility, all profoundly related to food” (129).
Interestingly, Sceats argues that food is connected to a specifically female
form of mess or contingency in Roberts’ work, thus making a similar
connection as Trotter between visceral feelings (disgust or nausea in Trotter;
the sensuousness of cooking and eating in Sceats) and contingency (127-9).
Taken together with Probyn’s argument that gut reactions of appetite or
disgust preclude aesthetic detachment, this suggests that neither taste nor
distaste “means” in the consciously metaphorical way of traditional
aesthetics, or at least that they exceed such meanings. The specific form of
sense they make is of a different, metonymical and contingent, order.
Hertel cites Roberts’ “aim of creating a culinary text whose pages have the
graininess of porridge, or polenta, or purée of chick peas” (144). Sceptical
about the possibility for authors to “evoke gustatory experiences in the
reader,” he suggests that the “gustatory reaction” of disgust is more easily
accomplished through writing than any taste experience (Hertel 161, 149).
He concedes to “a writing informed by the gustatory,” exemplified by
Roberts’ “hungry” syntax with breathless commas replacing conjunctions or
full stops, and colons opening up to engulf the following sentence (Hertel
161, 142-4). Due to the “jumpiness, free association, and sensuousness” of
Roberts’s style, he characterises it as an example of écriture féminine (Hertel
136). While I do not find Roberts’ style more “jumpy” or associative than
many other contemporary mainstream novels incorporating modernist
stream-of-consciousness techniques, I agree with Hertel and Sceats that she
dwells to an unusual degree upon sense experiences and sensory qualities
such as the taste of food, and that this can be characterised as a form of
feminine writing. Her preoccupation with cooking and eating borders on the
so-called “food porn” of cooking shows and cookbooks, a genre which, like
pornography, has the intention of sensually arousing the reader or viewer.
Although it works in a slightly different way from what I term aesthetics of
distaste, arousing more pleasant sensations, it similarly contests the Kantian
high art ideal of aesthetic detachment.
Jackson’s aesthetics of distaste is amply represented in The Melancholy of
Anatomy, as brought out in this diary excerpt from her book tour:
A woman said after my reading, “That was the most beautiful writing about something
completely disgusting I have ever heard.” I was surprised. I am always surprised when
I am reminded that my stories are disgusting, though obscurely pleased. I have
misplaced my own sense of disgust writing this book. Or, I have come to see disgust as
a reservoir of sensation I can use to power my stories, like a battery. (Tour [Day 3])
Tasting Texts
Jackson shows a similar appreciation of the aesthetic potential of disgust as
Korsmeyer. In their view as well as mine, the visceral intensity of disgust
may “power” a work without overpowering it and literally repulsing the
reader. As suggested by the reader reaction cited, Jackson successfully
employs disgust as part of an aesthetics which may also be characterised as
“beautiful” without completely sublimating the former into the latter. 45 What
I term aesthetics of distaste entails the aesthetic appreciation of various
nuanced sensations while crucially retaining the visceral intensity of disgust.
While the most extreme example of aesthetic disgust in The Melancholy of
Anatomy may be “Phlegm,” where people express their emotions through
phlegm bubbling out of a vent in their throats, “Fat” stands out as the story
most obviously joining distaste with dilation. Its protagonist defies her
husband’s notion of taste through wearing a dressing gown he hates, with
roses ”big as cabbages, shameless as a beaver shot” (Melancholy 171).
Everything about this image is dilated: the roses blown up out of proportion,
the cabbages too large to bite and the beaver shot depicting a shamelessly
spread-open vagina signalling voracious sexuality. Besides being tasteless in
the sense of vulgar, the floral pattern resists the aesthetic sublimation of
sensual appetites in its emphasis on food and sex. Jackson does not merely
draw upon bad taste for shock value but performs an earnest literary
interrogation into the possible aesthetic values of substances and
phenomena deemed distasteful.
“Husband,” Jackson’s most sustained and serious experimentation with
an aesthetics of distaste, does however not belong to The Melancholy of
Anatomy. The protagonist of the story describes herself as “a lady drone and
a big eater” defending her “tribe” against the mass of food welling in and
threatening to cover their land (Husband 158). Vaguely humanoid, the
features of her anatomy highlighted are those functional in her task of
“chowing”: her flawless digestive system, muscular jaw, vomit pouch and
sets of prosthetic teeth. In the all-female universe of the story, girth is a
badge of honour showing great chowing skills, and the protagonist looks up
to a retired “chowhound” called “The Doberman” and rumoured to have
saved a whole borough from the “floods of food” (Husband 160). Secretly,
however, she dreams of a “husband,” a sort of skin worn to perform
“husband functions” and preventing its wearer from performing the task of
chowing since its “small mouth cannot admit food that is not first chowed
and spit up to him by a wife” (Husband 164). As in “Fat,” the husband
appears as an embodiment of a masculine principle opposed to feminine fat
and (dis)taste, animated by the female protagonist rather than possessing
any agency of his own. The protagonist of “Husband” resolves the conflict
45 Korsmeyer affirms that “in some cases, even disgust itself lies at the heart of an experience of beauty,”
Savoring 177.
between her secret desire and her devotion to chowing by stuffing her
husband skin with food like “a sort of haggis” and presenting it as a
sacrificial food offering to The Doberman (Husband 166), a gesture which
hardly dispels the tension between conflicting tendencies or provides
narrative closure.
What resonates in the reader upon reading the story is a world almost
entirely made up of the distasteful yet dignified task of eating through
masses of assorted food. The reader is made to marvel with the protagonist
“at the way the body does things on its own,” how it might “imperiously
unfold even further, like a flower in its season” (Husband 165). Her moment
of doubt comes when chewing “a thick mass of gristle” which nauseates her
and makes the bones of her head ache. At first she feels like she is “eating
[her] way toward something,” but the sheer material mass of the gristle
wearies her and prevents her from investing the task with meaning
(Husband 161). Her moods are physical and digestive: moments “swollenbellied and gray” contrasted to a feeling of anticipation “as still and heavy as
a hamper of food on the hatch at dawn awaiting the imprint of a new tooth”
(Husband 164, 159). “Husband” encapsulates the aesthetic deployment of
unsublimated distaste in a specifically dilated form.
In Nightwood, Barnes combines dilation and distaste in an especially
Burtonesque or melancholy fashion. A character in Nightwood who finds
Doctor O’Connor’s speech obscene and disgusting attributes his
disgustingness to melancholy (Chisholm 177). This attribution makes sense
in light of Miller’s description of melancholy as a disgust with life, including
of oneself, which is indulged in rather than feared and avoided. According to
Miller, this misanthropy especially takes the form of misogyny and loathing
of the feminine fertility associated with dilation: “Disgust with sex and
women, with generation, with mutability and transience prompts a black
humor, both in our sense of the term and in theirs as the black bile of
melancholy” (Miller 28-30). In a sense, then, The Anatomy of Melancholy
partakes in a particular form of aesthetics of distaste, disgusted with its own
dilation while dilating itself endlessly in order to perpetuate the disgust
proper to melancholy. Like The Anatomy of Melancholy and The
Melancholy of Anatomy, Nightwood is in some sense a melancholy text, and
as such a dilated anatomy of distasteful subject matters. Like Merrill Cole, I
resist reading the novel as melancholy in the contemporary, psychoanalytical
sense of loss or lack, although I also resist Cole’s recuperation of it in terms
of Lacanian jouissance (400). In my view, the stylistic excess functions as
dilation, not deferral, creating plenitude rather than covering up for lack. It
may be that the plenitude is a plenitude of distaste, but distaste understood
as positivity, not as the negative opposite or absence of taste.
Importantly, neither Barnes nor Jackson employ distaste for shock value
only. For them, distaste does not repel or push away but draws the reader in
Tasting Texts
close to the matter at hand through sympathetic distaste, close enough to
marvel at the workings of the body and its sensations. Barnes’ tender
treatment of distasteful body matters is perhaps best exemplified by
Timothy’s dilation upon the virtues of his “Light-O’-Love”: “Thy sickness and
thinness, thy fat and thy lean, thy gristle and gravy, thy blood and thy bone”
(Barnes, Ryder 133). At such moments, Barnes writing approaches Wittig’s
declaration of love for lesbian anatomy in all of its gory details in Le corps
lesbien. If Barnes’ and Jackson’s aesthetics of distaste is successful, it
succeeds in doing away with representational distance in favour of a direct
sensory engagement with the text. In the following section, I shall investigate
their aesthetics of distaste more closely through a focus on the tastes of fat
and sugar.
Phantom Tastes of Fat and Sugar
When he could not help himself but eat, when it was someone’s birthday and everyone sang and there
were cupcakes with candles on them, he learned how to make himself vomit up the sweet sludge before it
stuck. (Melancholy 74)
As part of their aesthetics of distaste, Jackson and Barnes employ tastes
which are in especially “bad taste”: those of fat and sugar. Some may argue
that fat is not (or does not have) a taste, but Massumi cites research showing
that its perceived “lack is a surfeit” and that it in fact (unlike the basic taste
sugar) stimulates a vast majority of taste buds. This leads Massumi to name
fat “the actual double of the virtuality of taste, its empirically appearing
phantom” (153). Rather than a no-taste, fat is the exemplary phantom taste.
More specifically, fat and sugar suggest feminine (over)indulgence and lack
of control over the body’s appetites and contours: a dilation of the mouth
leading to a dilation of the body. However, it was not until (trans) fat and
(refined) sugar became commonly available and part of a working-class diet
that they were consistently devalued. In the early modern intertexts to which
Jackson and Barnes turn, fat and sugar were valued signs of prosperity, if
also criticised as sinful luxuries.
Fat and sugar are distasteful in a phenomenological sense: by being tasty
they incite to overeating which in turn incites distaste (see Korsmeyer,
Savoring 63-4). As with all foodstuffs, texture plays into the taste
experience, and the textures of fat, when greasy, and sugar, when syrupy,
belong to the distasteful category of the viscous. The viscosity of honey or
syrup is reminiscent of the viscosity of oil or grease, and the richness of both
substances tends to produce fat bodies. Jackson’s expression “honeyfattened water” (Melancholy 129) captures the perceived greasiness of sweet
substances. Grease has, on the one hand, the connotation of being slippery,
of sliding down too easily, and on the other hand, the connotation of being
sticky, of sticking too hard to the body. “Greasing” or “sugaring” something
makes it easier to swallow, but once swallowed it sticks and is hard to get rid
of. As Miller argues:
Fat, oil, and syrupy sweetness structure the concept of cloying. […] We believe our
system not to be particularly efficient as a self-purifier with things that cloy, the very
word attracted by alliteration to sister concepts of “clinging” and “cleaving unto” that
make things hard to get rid of. Fat and sweet stick like glue and like the host of other
nauseating things we think of as greasy and sweet. (Miller 121-2)
In Miller’s account, the literal stickiness of fat is deeply intertwined with the
metaphorical stickiness of the disgusting, a point which Ahmed picks up on
in her analysis of stickiness, arguing that “the sticky surface and the sticky
sign cannot be separated through any simple distinction between literal and
metaphorical.” Unlike Miller, and unlike Sartre who describes slime as
inherently disgusting because sticky, Ahmed is careful not to ascribe a
quality of disgusting stickiness to anything. Rather, she argues that the
stickiness of signs as well as surfaces is created through contact with other
sticky signs or surfaces. As an example of a sticky sign, she mentions
“disgust,” which sticks to the thing designated as “disgusting” with more or
less success depending on that thing’s previous stickiness (Ahmed, Cultural
90-4). Applying Ahmed’s argument to fat and sugar, these substances are
disgusting because they are sticky and sticky because they are disgusting, in
a mutually reinforcing loop between the conceptual and the experiential.
Moreover, the particular variety of disgust or distaste sticking to fat and
sugar is intertwined with dilation and with the feminine. The connection
between fat and dilation should be obvious, while sugar comes into the
picture through the cloying sweetness of sexual seduction leading to the
dilation of bodily orifices (and potentially of the female body in pregnancy).
Furthermore, like “sweet-talk” slips in through the ears, the sticky and
slippery fluids of sexual arousal function like grease to facilitate penetration.
According to Grosz, Sartre and Mary Douglas both associate “clinging
viscosity with the horror of femininity, the voraciousness and indeterminacy
of the vagina dentata,” a figure clearly recalling the feminine embodiment of
dilatio. Like Ahmed, Grosz is careful not to essentialise the connection
between viscosity and femininity, pointing out that “it is the production of an
order that renders female sexuality and corporeality marginal,
indeterminate, and viscous that constitutes the sticky and the viscous with
their disgusting, horrifying connotations.” She cites Luce Irigaray’s claim
that viscosity, fluidity and femininity are all unrepresentable within a
dominant ontology concerned with self-identical and solid substances
(Grosz, Volatile 194-5). Viscosity is not the same as fluidity, however. 46
46 Indeed, this point could be part of Irigaray’s argument about fluidity not being self-identical but
encompassing a sliding scale of differences. However, my point is that viscosity is more ”other” than liquidity
to dominant ontologies. This can be transferred to the discussion of femininity: while for Irigaray, femininity
Tasting Texts
While fluids might contest clearly defined boundaries between entities,
fluidity has a fairly well-defined conceptual position as the opposite of
solidity. Viscosity is more troubling in being in-between the binary
opposition of fluid and solid. The purer and more liquid a fluid, the less
distasteful it is. Water does not stick, stain or contaminate, as more viscous
fluids tend to do. Cixous’ interchangeable fluids milk, ink and language flow,
they do not stick or cling like Jackson’s fat or Barnes’ syrup. If fluidity is
feminine, viscosity queers the feminine.
As my discussion of stickiness and viscosity suggests, I understand the
phantom tastes Jackson and Barnes create as part of their aesthetics of
distaste as tastes in the multisensory sense including tactility. The different
textures of lard, suet, honey and syrup play into the literary phantom
sensations at least as much as fatty or sugary tastes in the strictest sense. In
Jackson’s “Fat”, for example, fat accumulates like dust on every surface,
gradually filling up space unless cleared away, presenting a problem of
stickiness and viscosity rather than of taste as such. Jackson dilates the
matter of fat until it takes over and fills the protagonist’s entire milieu,
popping out her windowpanes and coating her garden. The result is an
intensified sensation of fattiness combining visceral distaste with the shame
of being fat in a fat-phobic society and the defiance developed in response to
the shaming. Crawling around her house “frosted all over with fat, like a
despairing cake,” the protagonist feels “a dog’s satisfaction at obeying
orders” mixed with “spite” at the thought of wilfully overdoing her husband’s
projected image of her as a fat lady (Melancholy 171). She becomes what he
projects, but her becoming exceeds submission and provides her with a
certain pleasure in the abundance of fat, which coats her and leaves her
“shining like a gold medal” (179). “Fat” does not celebrate or reclaim fat in
any easy way, but its amplification – or dilation – of this distasteful subject
matter has the performative effect of drawing the reader into its fat-filled
world. It produces a phenomenological experience of fat in all of its different
cultural, symbolical, affective and sensory aspects.
The reader is made intimate with fat through the gut reaction of distaste.
Neither Trotter’s and Ngai’s description of disgust as producing simple
rejection and distancing nor psychoanalytical descriptions of the dual pull of
desire and disgust are very helpful in describing the aesthetics of distaste at
work in the story. Instead, I agree with Korsmeyer (Savoring 37) and Probyn
is the unrepresentable other to masculinity, represented only as a negation of masculinity and never as true
otherness, I take a more Deleuzian interest in the multiplication of differences in-between. Deleuze and
Irigaray agree that within dominant philosophical traditions there is only difference from (humanity,
masculinity, heterosexuality etc.), but I find Irigaray’s emphasis on the difference between two – masculine
and feminine – limiting. In my view, it mirrors too closely the heterosexual binary it critiques, figuring the
encounter with absolute otherness in the familiar terms of a sexual encounter between human subjects. For
Deleuze, on the other hand, the feminine is the other closest to home, the first step of a process of becomingother involving all kinds of inhuman and nameless differences.
(133) that disgust in itself, rather than an underlying or conflicting desire,
pulls the reader in close to the disgusting through a form of visceral affinity
with it. Disgust or distaste need not be pleasant, exactly, in order for the
reader to affirm the intensity of the affect as part of the aesthetic experience.
Michelle Meagher, drawing on Probyn, argues that the painter Jenny Saville
employs an “aesthetics of disgust” to produce a visceral reaction in the
viewer which alerts her to her own embodiment and precludes viewing the
“disgusting” bodies in her paintings from a safe distance (38). Similarly,
“Fat” reminds the reader that fat is not safely contained in those bodies
designated as “fat.” The audience response Meagher describes works via
identification, however: in being made aware of her own body and of the fatphobic self-disgust experienced by most women, the viewer becomes
sympathetic to the fat bodies portrayed (38). I would argue that in “Fat,” the
aesthetics of distaste works less through identification with its fat
protagonist (though it certainly does not preclude it) and more through a
phenomenological immersion in fat. The text is saturated with fatty words
and figures: “Yes, my fat hat is as tall as your saguaros! Yes, my gown is
oleomargarine and hydrogenated!” (Melancholy 169). A similar, less
identificatory, reading could be made of Saville’s painting, as Saville tries to
make paint behave like flesh (cited in Meagher 37) and thus could be said to
directly confront the viewer’s flesh with the sensation of flesh, rather than
present her with a disturbingly fleshy object of identification which then in
turn prompts her to reflect upon her own flesh.
Burton writes that all authors are thieves who “lard their lean books with
the fat of others’ works” (1:23), and Jackson lards “Fat” with the fat of
Burton’s dilated work through the intertextual connection. The Anatomy of
Melancholy sticks to her story, dilating it and making it fatter than any text
could be on its own, no matter how extensive. But more importantly,
Jackson dilates rhetorical figures such as Burton’s into stories, amplifying
their visceral intensity. When the protagonist of “Fat” addresses her missing
husband: “you who took me for better or for worse, for saturated or
unsaturated, who reveled in the ineffable textures of my lard, and whispered
foul words to me: buttery, oleaginous, pinguid, adipose,” fat accumulates on
the level of form as well as on the level of content (Melancholy 169).
In order to explain how “Fat” is a fat text in more than a figurative sense, I
turn to Ahmed’s definition of sticky signs as both literally and metaphorically
sticky. Fat sticks, as Trotter observes in his discussion of the
“phenomenology of slum textures” presented in the work of George Gissing
(Cooking 255). The fried food emblematic of the (British) working classes is
distasteful not because it tastes bad, but because its grease sticks to people
and become part of them (Trotter, Cooking 243). Of course, the stickiness of
grease is not the cause of the distaste; rather, stickiness and distaste
mutually reinforce each other. Analogously, fatty words are sticky by virtue
Tasting Texts
of being distasteful. They stick to each other, to the things they refer to and
to anything coming into contact with them, such as the reader, who may
experience it as a greasy, bloated or nauseated sensation. It is this visceral
encounter with the text that makes it fat in a more than metaphorical sense. I
would add that stickiness is a textual effect, not a literary technique, though
it can be harnessed as part of an aesthetics of distaste. Sticky signs tend to
amass other sticky signs and generate their own dilation, as in this example
from Jackson’s “Hagfish, Worm, Kakapo”:
Between breading seasons is the time to drill into one fat flank after another and gorge
ourselves to fuel our transformation. With fat globules popping out the sides of the
mouth, we chew from the inside out, and do not neglect to scour the skin of the buttery
layer this side of the scales or suck the bones clean, but we ignore the dribs, drabs and
loose ends, that’s how you get fat, dealing in gross profits and leaving the peskily
evasive snippets for the small fry to go after, abandoning the deflating skins without
regret. (Hagfish)
Jackson says in an interview that she prefers “writing that’s a little hard to
swallow” (Jackson in Amerika, “Stitch”), a statement pointing back to the
“visceral difficulty” Meagher identifies in Saville’s painting (Meagher 24).
Although by “hard to swallow,” Jackson indicates any kind of formal
resistance drawing attention to the materiality of language, stories such as
“Fat” are “hard to swallow” in the specific sense of sticking in the throat. An
aesthetics of distaste involves the risk that the reader refuses to swallow,
disgorging the text through the speech act “That’s disgusting!” which
according to Ahmed functions as a form of vomiting constituting the
disgusting object by separating it from the incorporating subject (Ahmed,
Cultural 94). I would like to point out, however, that the stickiness of the
distasteful prevents the separation from being completely successful. The
reader will have a hard time unsticking herself by sticking the label
“disgusting” onto a text already constituting itself as distasteful.
What I argue about the stickiness of fatty texts is true for some sugary
texts as well, especially those in which the sugary substance is also sticky.
When the protagonist of “Egg,” describes how the “syrup” secreted by the
giant egg hangs from it “in sticky cords” (Melancholy 35), the aesthetics of
distaste at work in the text is very similar to that of “Fat.” However,
sugariness has its own nuances. First of all, sweetness as such is not
distasteful, although it can easily become cloying. In Jackson’s work, it is
positively associated with feminine bounty via the sweet taste of milk. The
milk is however not located in a maternal body, but in the “sweet, clean,
milky-mild” taste of a girlfriend’s sex in “Angel” (27), in the buffalo-sized
sperm producing “thick and sweet” “sperm milk” in “Sperm” or in “sweet
white rivers” in “Milk” (Melancholy 43, 156). In all of these stories, sweetness
is positively connoted. It is only in “Cancer,” where the protagonist wants to
resist the feminine bounty of the cancerous growth in his living room, that
sweetness becomes distasteful. Upon waking up to find a branch of the
cancer growth stuck in his mouth, he relates:
A sweet taste was in my mouth and there was some sediment on my tongue, granular
and faintly chalky, which made my teeth feel unfamiliar. I was breathing peacefully
through my nose. I took the branch out of my mouth. I had hollowed out the cut end
with sucking. Crumbling and dissolving bits like tea-soaked sugar tumbled out of it.
The smooth skin was shiny with my saliva.
I set the branch down on the bedside table and carefully extricated myself from the
bedcovers. In the bathroom I brushed and flossed, penitently, punitively, with a
swollen heart. (Melancholy 67)
While the distaste in this description is mild, it is reinforced by the
surrounding descriptions of the cancer as an alien, hybridic entity, part
woman, part animal, part plant and part disease. The description of the
protagonist sucking on the cancer while sleeping and “breathing peacefully
through [his] nose” positions him as a child in relation to the “disturbingly
womanly” (Melancholy 60) cancer providing comforting sweetness. He is
disgusted with himself rather than with the cancer, feeling guilty and
ashamed of its appearance. As the above passage shows, he cannot allow
himself to indulge in the sweetness the cancer offers, but disciplines his taste
for it through dental hygiene. Presumably, this action restores his teeth to
their familiar state and eradicates the alien sweetness from his mouth.
The comparison of the sweet substance to sugar brings it a step closer to
the distastefully cloying. As an amplification of sweetness, sugariness closes
in on distaste without partaking in the stickiness of syrup. The sugary, or
even worse, the saccharine, is an excessive – and artificial – form of
sweetness. If fat carries connotations of sloth, sugar carries connotations of
“sugar high” and “sugar buzz,” of particularly feminised forms of comfort
food and bulimic behaviours. In the short story “Candyland” by Trinie
Dalton (one of the writers mentioned by Lingel as Jackson’s fellow
practitioners of écriture féminine, 79), the witch protagonist Candy foresees
dying by “sweetheart attack, a.k.a. sugar overdose” after eating her
gingerbread house. Dalton cleverly ties feminine binging on sugary candy to
the witch luring children with sweets and fattening them up in order to cook
and eat them – another figure of dilation. Candy resents her mother’s
cannibalism but cannot resist the sugar addiction that comes with being a
witch: “I hated the house, but I loved its sugar,” she says, “[s]ugary strings
attached us” (Dalton). In its overdose of crumbling sugar, crunching candy
and aching teeth, the story is quite likely to leave the reader feeling sugarsick, even without the sinister connection to cannibalistic witches luring
children with sweets and fattening them up. As such, it presents a sugary
aesthetics of distaste complementing Jackson’s fatty one.
Tasting Texts
Sweetness is generally associated with beauty, the lower, feminine
correspondence to the higher, masculine sublimity within classic aesthetic
theory (Korsmeyer, Savoring 169). According to Winfred Menninghaus, a
surfeit of beauty is sickening, just like a surfeit of literal sweetness: disgust
thus functions as a regulator of aesthetic beauty, keeping it within the limits
of good taste (Korsmeyer, Savoring 50). To describe a style of writing as
sugar-sweet is thus to accuse it of being tasteless: exceedingly, femininely
beautiful. When one of Roberts’ protagonists describes her own voice as
“[c]utesy-pie, gushy and silly,” she sums up a compound of sweets, gushing
body fluids and feminine frivolity to emphasise her self-disgust (Playing
153). Roberts’ formulation is meant mainly to repel, but other authors such
as Jackson, Barnes and Dalton work with a surfeit of sweetness in order to
align their aesthetics of distaste even more closely to the feminine. While
aesthetic disgust in horror and tragedy often borders on the sublime, the
aesthetic disgust produced by a surfeit of sweetness is firmly aligned with the
feminine frivolity of “low” genres such as romance novels.
As suggested by the reference to romance, sugared speech is suspect
because sweet-talking is a method of seduction. As Sidney Mintz explains:
“The Indo-European root swad is the ultimate source of both ‘sweet’ and
‘persuade’; in contemporary English, ‘sugared’ or ‘honeyed’ speech has been
supplemented with ‘syrupy tones’ and ‘sweet-talking’” (116). In a notorious
passage from Ladies Almanack, Barnes maximally exploits the connection
between sweetness and sexual seduction in describing the style of loveletters between lesbians:
Nay – – I cannot write it! It is worse than this! More dripping, more lush, more
lavender, more mid-mauve, more honeyed, more Flower-casting, more Cherub-bound,
more downpouring, more saccharine, more lamentable, more gruesomely unmindful
of Reason or Sense, to say nothing of Humor. Nowhere, and in no Pocket, do such
keep a Seed of the fit on which to sneeze themselves into the fitting, they be not happy
unless writhing in Treacle, and like a trapped Fly, crawl through cardinal Morasses, all
Legs tethered and dragging in the Gum of Love!
And just as some others are foul of Tongue, these are sweet to sickness. One sickens
the Gorge, and the other the Heart. For what can you, an a woman thus leans upon the
purple, and so strews Blandishments that the clear Nature of Facts are either so
candied and frosted to a Mystery, or so bemired that they are no find. Surely it is
admirable to have a Fancy and a Fancy when in Love, but why so witless about a witty
Insanity? It would loom the bigger of stripped of its Jangle, but no, drugged such must
go. As foggy as a Mere, as drenched as a Pump; twittering so loud upon the Wire that
one cannot hear the Message.
And yet! (Barnes, Ladies 45-6)
Ironically, in her critique of the saccharine style, the narrator herself
succumbs to it. 47 This is hardly surprising – sugar is a sticky sign even
though not a sticky substance (unless melted). Once the narrator has started,
the sugary words accumulate as though on their own accord: “dripping,”
“honeyed,” “saccharine,” ”candied,” “frosted”… She describes lesbian lovers
as flies enjoying being trapped in treacle, though it appears that she is quite
happy to writhe in treacly language herself. Ultimately, she has to pull
herself loose, cut the sugary strings attaching her to the text like Candy to her
gingerbread house, through interrupting herself with an abrupt exclamation.
Yet this “And yet!” does not put an end to the saccharine speech but rather
points towards its perpetuation. It can be read as an exasperated “And yet it
goes on!”, despite being in such bad taste. More crucially, merged with this
meaning, I hear “And yet it works!” The lesbian language of love goes on
because it works, because it sticks to its recipients and pulls them in. It traps
them like flies in treacle and they enjoy being stuck even when, as in the case
of the narrator, the enjoyment is mixed with a sensation of distaste.
Scholars disagree on whether Barnes celebrates or critiques a specifically
feminine language with this passage. Susan Sniader Lanser views it as
pervaded with “[s]exual innuendo” providing an alternative model of female
sexuality not based upon castration and lack (162), a reading supported by
the connection between syrupy speech and gushing vaginal fluids. According
to Frann Michel, “[i]rony and parody generate a (feminine) surplus which
cannot be fully reassimilated to any (masculine) system; but the direction of
this surplus in Ladies Almanack seems primarily affirmative; it becomes a
feminist feminine.” The feminine surplus is exemplified by the narrator’s
“And yet!” which exceeds and undoes her criticism of women (Michel 181).
Caselli, on the other hand, resists such celebratory readings, which she
argues overlook the ambiguous position of the narrator, “caught between the
virile rigour of an empiricism which she cannot trust and a lavender
sentimentality, which she cannot avoid reproducing” (52). In my view,
Barnes’ – and her narrator’s – opinions on feminine or lesbian language are
quite beside the point, the point being that the above quotation affirms such
language in performing it. That she performs it in the form of a (self)critique matters less to my argument than the fact that the critical,
supposedly “masculine voice” identified by Caselli (50) is just as stylistically
overwrought as the rest of the text. Much like Burton affirms melancholy by
dilating endlessly upon it in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Barnes affirms the
treacly language of lesbianism in Ladies Almanack.
The passage from Barnes suggests a connection between lesbian sexuality
and the disgust of surfeit, as though two female bodies making love
47 I perceive the narrator as an insider to the lesbian community she describes, and therefore use the female
Tasting Texts
automatically implied a sickening excess of beauty. 48 This connection is
strengthened by Nora in Half Life “throb[ing] with a sickening sweetness”
when she and her conjoined sister Blanche are made love to by a woman
(Half 42), and later describing the same lover’s sex as “silk and syrup” (Half
185). In Allison’s “A Lesbian Appetite,” the protagonist’s taste for women,
marking her as sexually deviant, is intertwined with her taste for unhealthy,
fatty and sugary food, marking her as “white trash” from the American South
(162). In a scene of mixed cooking and lovemaking, the sex of her female
lover is described as “slicker than peanut oil” and tasting “like fry bread –
thick, smoked, and fat-rich on my tongue” (Allison 166). In another, more
sinister, sex scene two lovers force each other to taste and swallow various
body fluids such as vaginal discharge, urine and tears (Allison 169-70). While
erotic tasting is a common literary theme, I bring up these examples because
they are so clearly about what Korsmeyer would term “savouring disgust.”
Unlike Winterson’s protagonist in Written on the Body, who claims that
“[t]here is nothing distasteful” about the body of the beloved woman
(Written 124), these lesbian lovers do not suspend or sublimate distaste. 49
Instead they allow it to intensify the sexual experience and indulge in an
almost aesthetic appreciation of its nuances. An additional example from
Half Life brings out the subtlety of erotic distaste(s): “Her sticky lips
resisted, then yielded to my tongue, and I tasted stale smoke and sleep and
salty butter and sardines and peppermint and her breath like a thought
passing back and forth between us” (Half 184). These texts by Jackson,
Barnes, Allison dwell on the cloyingly sweet and sickeningly fatty phantom
tastes of femininity, forcing the reader to (dis)taste them.
Reading as Licking
I saw something no-coloured shining and flexing way back down, like a second, deeper tongue. The
better to eat you with. Could it taste? (Friend 58)
This chapter started out with tasting as knowing, a trope with erotic as well
as cannibalistic implications closely connected to engulfment. I used “Egg”
as an example of the complex variations on the ingestion theme running
throughout Jackson’s work. The simultaneous fear and desire of being
devoured by the maternal body points forward to dilation, a concept
especially related to fat or pregnant females with gaping, greedy orifices.
Jackson and Barnes both draw inspiration from Burton’s dilated style in
their creation of an aesthetics of distaste. This aesthetics break barriers of
literary tastefulness by drawing upon visceral responses closely connected,
48 After all, ”purple prose” and ”lavender love” share the same hue.
49 To further emphasise the contrast between Winterson’s style and an aesthetics of distaste, the protagonist
dismisses an unwanted female suitor with the words: “I thought of treacle. What would it be like to be caught
in the wallow of Gail Right?”, Written 143.
though not limited, to the sense of taste. In particular, it draws upon an
aesthetics of surfeit, where the text is dilated by fatty and sugary phantom
tastes. Through working with aesthetic distaste resulting from an excess of
(bad) taste, particularly an excess of sweetness, rather than with aesthetic
disgust related to horror, death and gore, Jackson and Barnes further align
their aesthetics of distaste with the feminine. Fat and sugar are doubly
degraded as feminine and as working class, which is strongly brought out by
Allison. The aesthetics of distaste I have outlined conflates the cloying
sweetness of trashy genres such as romance novels with the cloying
sweetness of trashy foods into a queer erotics powered by the disgust
surrounding dilation.
The conflation of reading with eating goes much farther back than to
écriture féminine’s figuration of language as mother’s milk (which in turn
draws upon the older tradition of Alma Mater). When Cixous writes that she
“nourished [her]self with texts” (20), she takes part in a tradition of
regarding “knowledge as the food with which we feed our egos” going back at
least to the Bible (Kilgour 9). As Kilgour suggests, the concrete act of taking
something in to taste it serves as the basic model both for the taking in of
less tangible sensory data and for the taking in of abstract knowledge, from
Renaissance imitatio to Freudian introjection (9-10). In medieval literature
to “eat a work, chew the cud” was portrayed as an alchemical transsubstantiation analogous to that of the Host in Christian doctrine, but as
Susan Signe Morrison points out, “chewing suggests at the same time the
final product – excrement” (114-5). If reading is described as ingesting, it is
only logical to describe writing as excreting, as does the narrator of Brophy’s
In Transit: “I cruise, my jaws wide to snow-plough in the present tense, the
plankton of experience. This I then excrete rehashed into a continuous
narrative in the past tense” (13).
In connection with reading, the idea that “you are what you eat” gives rise
to anxiety, since it is so difficult to control what the mind absorbs (Kilgour
10). Abigail Bray and Colebrook trace a “Cartesian anxiety about the
corruption of mind by an alien matter” in feminist theorists’ pathologising
descriptions of women’s reading practices as passive incorporations of
phallocentric representations. Unfortunately, their critique of “derogatory
alimentary metaphors” for reading does not revise but rather reinforce what
they critique through the repeated use of phrases such as “mindless
incorporation” and “passive consumption” (Bray and Colebrook 53). I would
instead like to propose a non-derogatory alimentary model of reading
inspired by the various configurations of this figure discussed throughout
this chapter. Incorporation might be mindless, but it is not unthinking –
even when the conscious mind is unengaged other intelligences are at work,
reading the incorporated matter. Some parts of a text may be rejected, some
cause indigestion, some may be assimilated and some transformed into
Tasting Texts
creative output. Brophy even reverses the threat of mindless incorporation,
as it is the narrator who is menaced by voracious readers: “That delicate
tongue you palpate me all over with is hollow: a mini-pipette: a drinking or,
to be precise, spitting straw. Down it you dribble on to my flesh droplets of
corrosive enzyme” (221). Readers are addressed as flies dissolving and
absorbing the body of text, in an even more elaborately distasteful figure
than Barnes’ fly trapped in treacle. Instead of the text being sticky enough to
trap the reader, the reader is greedy enough to masticate the text and leave
only crumbs of language: “You suck up my fatty adjectives, ingest my
interjections. You even gobble an adverb” (Brophy 221). Similarly, in
Jackson reading as eating is reconfigured into the ritual chewing of a book
into illegible pulp or a vagina rewriting Joyce.
These authors employ an aesthetics of distaste to complicate the
alimentary model of reading. Confronted by distaste, the reader pauses and
may refuse to swallow. However, aesthetic distaste should not be confused
with the “nonappreciative disgust” (Korsmeyer, Savoring 88) which make
readers reject a text (which would be figured as spitting or vomiting in the
alimentary model). The gut reaction employed in an aesthetics of distaste is
much more complex than a simple rejection or condemnation. Disgust is a
sticky affect involving the one disgusted in a visceral relation to the
disgusting in such a way that one almost becomes it, or becomes disgusted
by oneself. Furthermore, disgust is not categorically avoided. I follow
Korsmeyer in defining aesthetic disgust as “the arousal of disgust in an
audience, a spectator, or a reader, under circumstances where that emotion
both apprehends artistic properties and constitutes a component of
appreciation” (Savoring 88) and further as “a response that, no matter how
unpleasant, can rivet attention to the point where one actually may be said to
savor the feeling” (Savoring 3). Distaste can function as affirmation rather
than negation: as a difficult phantom taste to savour. By creating a certain
friction – or frisson – it invites reading as licking: an erotic rather than
culinary tasting of the text.
Touching Thoughts
Touching Thoughts: The Heft of Writing
We are cleaner than any age before us, and the surfaces we touch are smoother. We know more about
how the world works but less about how it feels. Our hands are, I think, a little starved for the touch of
the world – for its nap, its grain, its tooth. (Original 338)
More than any other sense, touch confirms the reality of the thing touched. If
“seeing is believing,” touching confirms the belief, and if “I saw it with my
own eyes” proves the existence of something, touch-related expressions such
as “tangible” or “solid truth” affirm it to be more than a flat image or
vaporous illusion. I believe that even the frequently criticised ocularcentric
regime of modern western culture is based upon commonsense assumptions
about the primacy of touch. Second-hand information presented in
symbolical, most often visual, form, is posited against and above the direct
evidence of the senses, especially touch. However, this dichotomy does not
deny the importance of touch for more mundane or practical forms of
knowledge such as handicrafts, which continue to exist alongside visual
information. Rather, the visual regime transfers or extends the “solidity” and
“realness” of concrete, tactile knowledge to abstract, visual knowledge.
Critiques of ocularcentrism, from surrealist manifestos to feminist theory,
tend to turn to touch as the favoured alternative to visual abstraction, and in
doing so risk reinforcing the visual-tactile dichotomy and confirm the
association of touch with the supposedly more “grounded” and “genuine”
lives of women, children, manual workers and cultural others. Thus, my
assessment is that the notion of tactility as the primary mode of orienting
oneself in the world and gathering reliable knowledge about it, with visuality
providing an additional, more refined source of information, underlies both
ocularcentrism and the critique of ocularcentrism.
Scarry argues that to make literature feel real is first and foremost to make
it feel tangible, since touch confirms the reality of a thing. She lists a number
of literary techniques specifically aimed at producing what I term phantom
touch. The first is to describe not a finished object but the construction of it,
thereby providing the reader with instructions for virtually constructing it.
The second is to draw upon what Scarry considers to be the
phenomenological properties of imaginary objects themselves, namely to be
“thin, dry, filmy, two-dimensional, and without solidity” (“Vivacity” 11-3).
The ease with which the reader can imagine such a thing, like a ghost or a
gauzy curtain, can then be enlisted to ensure the solidity of its background or
surroundings. The third is to let two fictional things confirm each other’s
solidity, either by having them touch or by having one of them (provided it is
a character) report on the solidity of the other. As Scarry observes, fictional
characters may be unreliable but they “almost never misreport to us the
tactile qualities of their fictional worlds” (“Vivacity” 16).
Although the techniques for making literature tangible listed by Scarry
draw mainly upon realist novels, Jackson applies them to what I in the
introduction described as her object writing. Tactile interactions between
objects, characters and even immaterial entities are frequently described,
and protagonists and narrators tend to be experimenters interrogating and
reporting on the tactile qualities of fantastic objects. A central example of the
construction of fictional objects is the creation of Herman Godfrey in “Musée
Mécanique.” This description also features another stylistic device
characteristic of Jackson: the literalisation of tactile figures of speech.
Touching is closely related to doing – manually manipulating – and provides
active, intrusive models for cognitive processes, such as “grasping,”
“penetrating,” “cutting into” or “getting a grip on.” When Herman is
completed by the addition of character traits, Jackson erases the distinction
between physical and psychological features through her choice of tactile and
gustative figures:
The fairy godmothers bend over the cradle. Going around the circle, they give him: a
stroke of genius, a stroke of luck, a touch of fever, a pang of guilt, a long stretch of the
imagination, a dose of common sense, a dram of hope, a taste of his own medicine, the
tickle of a premonition, a twinge of misgiving, a prick of conscience. The last one gives
him the kiss of life. (Musée )
On their own, the tactility of conventional expressions such as “stroke of
genius” is weak, but amassing them as above draws attention to their
tactility. The fairy godmothers going around and bending down to hand over
their chosen qualities urges the reader to experience the stretching, tickling
and pricking as phantom touches rather than as abstract figures of speech.
The preceding description of Herman’s mechanical construction also invites
such a reading. In light of Jackson’s œuvre, the birth scene suggests an
author’s hands-on manipulation of her medium and a making tangible of the
intangible qualities with which a literary work is infused.
Scherr writes that “as to touch is always, also, to be touched, the tactile
work of art asks its audience to become active participants in the aesthetic
exchange” (173). In Jackson’s work, the most prominent model for such
tactile participation is playing with dolls, as I shall discuss in the first
section. The Jackson sisters’ perform a feminist reclamation of this
neglected, feminine art form in their co-authored The Doll Games. Through
their collaborative memory work, they performatively recreate their doll
games, including friction and sibling rivalry. The work outlines a
phenomenology of doll games which Jackson also proposes as a tactile,
interactive model for writing. Throughout this chapter, I shall elaborate
upon some key concepts in this shared phenomenology of literature and doll
Touching Thoughts
In the second section, I develop the concept “tactile metonymy” to
describe how the playing girl might hook up via touch to the doll world
existing on a different scale. I then go on to argue for works of fiction as
comparable miniature worlds to which the reader might hook up via a virtual
form of tactile metonymy. The Doll Games provides a clear example of this
due to its archival, spatialised hypertext structure, requiring the reader to
sort through the material and thereby creating a sense of tactile interaction
with the work.
“Exquisite Corpses” discuss tactile connections in light of the surrealists’
interest in collage and assemblage. The frequent descriptions of assemblage
and construction in Jackson’s work relate back both to Scarry’s techniques
for making fiction tangible and to the practice of play. I discuss play and
experimentation as models for artistic practices and as instances of what Bill
Brown terms “misuse.” While when objects are used, their sensual and
material qualities tend to recede from view in favour of utility, misuse brings
out the sensation of the thing as such (Brown, “How” 953-6).
Relating back to doll games, I then discuss artistic misuse resulting in
what I term “conceptual intimacy,” a specifically tactile mode of relating to a
piece of art. Conceptual intimacy is an aesthetic effect resulting from the
viewer’s or reader’s tactile familiarity with the object world. I develop this
concept in order to get away from theoretical discussions of dolls and toys in
terms of memory, nostalgia or commodity fetishism. The memory involved
in conceptual intimacy is impersonal and tactile, residing in the skin. It does
not require recognition of the art object; only an appreciation of its tactile
potential. As I argue, conceptual intimacy can be employed to enhance the
sense of virtual tactility in art forms preventing actual touch.
Doll Games
Even though almost any token would serve to anchor a new character (or is it host, or seed, or
springboard? I am not sure how it works exactly, though I am sure it is something like the adoration
of holy relics, icons, or fetish objects), the indigestible aspects of that object, those qualities peculiar to it
as an inanimate thing, clung somehow to the character we invented, adding indefinable nuances
(textures? connotations?) that worked something like an extra personality. A prosthetic personality?
Was the doll a prosthetic body for a character, or was the character an imaginary outgrowth of the doll?
(Doll [stiffness])
Dolls are ubiquitous throughout Jackson’s œuvre: from the doll-dildo in
“Dildo” and nerve dolls in “Nerve” briefly featured in The Melancholy of
Anatomy to protagonists like the mechanical man in “Musée Mécanique”
and the rag doll coming apart at the seams and losing limbs in Patchwork
Girl. In some stories, taxidermy figures as a specific instance of playing with
dolls, since both practices are about (re)animating dead matter. “The
Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin” deals with the eccentric 19thcentury hobby taxidermist Walter Potter, who dressed up badly stuffed
animals and arranged them into whimsical tableaux, the protagonist of
“Angel” stuffs rats and “play[s] with them like dolls” (Angel 24) and the
protagonist of “Husband” wears a “husband skin” akin to a life-size finger
puppet. The nexus of the doll theme in Jackson’s work is the hypertext The
Doll Games, co-authored with her sister Pamela Jackson. When read
through the lens of this work, dolls appear even in texts where at first glance
there were none: the giant fœtus in “Fœtus” shows obvious resemblances to
grotesque baby dolls and the mutilated protagonist of “Short-Term Memorial
Park” recalls doll mutilations.
This brief survey apart, I shall restrict my interrogation of dolls in
Jackson’s work to the richest source for my purpose: The Doll Games. In this
hyperwork combining auto-ethnography with experimental fiction and
scholarly pastiche, the Jackson sisters try to recreate the doll games they
used to play as children. In order to understand this project, one needs to
distinguish between three levels: “the doll games,” meaning the original
games played by the Jackson girls, “The Doll Games,” meaning the adult
sisters’ auto-ethnographic and artistic collaboration around these games,
and “The Doll Games,” meaning the provisionally finished work in hypertext
The Doll Games project, as described in The Doll Games, takes the
tangible material remains of childhood games as a starting point for
exploring problems of memory and autobiography. Pamela writes in her
“doll journal”: “handling the dolls gives me a murky bodily memory (tinged
with nastiness, I must add) of how I might have related to them before” (Doll
[pjournal]). 50 This accords with Stewart’s argument that souvenirs address
the sense of touch rather than the sense of sight because the more “acute
sensation of the object […] promises, and yet does not keep the promise of,
reunion” (Longing 139). Pamela’s body remembers playing with dolls but
the memory is “murky” in that it resists conscious articulation: there is a
sense of immediacy to tactile memory, yet there is not direct access to the
childhood self.
Despite their sense of immediacy and intimacy, tactile memories may be
collective and not just individual (Marks, Skin 201). This opens for art based
on tactile memories shared by the audience, such as Joseph Cornell’s
“dossiers” and “sandboxes” in which the handling of souvenirs collected by
the artist is meant as “a trigger for palpable memory” (Mileaf 159). Cornell’s
art is highly nostalgic in nature, and so are more mainstream examples like
the animated film Toy Story, which according to Barker “calls up its adult
viewers’ nostalgic impulses by appealing to the sensual childhood memories
that reside at the surface of their skins,” more precisely through the “smooth
50 I use “Pamela” and “Shelley” to distinguish between author-personas in The Doll Games, while “Jackson”
is reserved for the author(s) of un-attributed material.
Touching Thoughts
textures and bold colors” of 1950s toys and commodities (45-6). Similarly,
The Doll Games’ minute descriptions and depictions of dolls and their
accessories, often emphasising wear and decay, appeal to collective tactile
memories of adolescence in 1970s western culture, and of playing with dolls
more generally.
Pamela further describes handling the dolls as “handling my child self and
my child fantasy world in the flesh” and her relation to that childhood self as
“one of fascination, if not outright longing” (Doll [pjournal]). In Stewart’s
analysis of souvenirs, such nostalgic longing is dependent upon the gap
between the material presence of the thing and the past experience which it
represents. To close that gap would be to erase the nostalgia, which the
nostalgic does not really want (Stewart, Longing 145). Nostalgia is
understood a case of fetishism, in which a part – in this case a doll –
substitutes for the whole – in this case childhood – in such a way that the
distance between part and whole is simultaneously experienced as a loss and
as a “surplus of signification” (Stewart, Longing 135). In Stewart’s Marxist
understanding of fetishism, the nostalgic projection of authentic experience
onto essentially worthless objects is a negative effect of the alienation of
capitalist consumer culture. I do not agree with this pessimistic view, though
to some extent it reflects Pamela’s own painful doubts about the possibility
of accessing the past through the dolls. Brown proposes an alternative,
insisting that although both Freud and Walter Benjamin cite Marx, Freud’s
understanding of fetishism as an “erotic investment in the object” and
Benjamin’s as “an aesthetic fascination with objects” depart from commodity
fetishism. In Freud’s account as well as Benjamin’s, the desire for objects is
primary to their commodification and does not work according to a logic of
compensation (Brown, Sense 31). I side with this positive view of fetishism,
which is also shared by Marks.
Marks explains fetishism through Benjamin’s concept of “aura”:
Aura is the sense an object gives that it can speak to us of the past, without ever letting
us completely decipher it. It is a brush with involuntary memory, memory that can
only be arrived at through a shock. We return again and again to the auratic object,
still thirsty, because it can never completely satisfy our desire to recover that memory.
Hence the sense that an auratic object maintains its distance no matter how closely we
embrace it: it is distant from us in time even as it is present in space. (Skin 81)
Marks’ description of auratic objects resonates with Stewart’s description of
souvenirs in its emphasis on distance and memory. The crucial difference is
that for Marks, aura is not generated and sustained solely by the fetishist’s
desire, but partly by the materiality of the object itself. While Stewart
understands the meaning of souvenirs to reside entirely in the personal
narrative projected upon them by the nostalgic fetishist, Marks insists that
objects “have a life independent of the human relations they encode, beyond
their discursive and narrative significance” (Marks, Skin 120-1). Thus, the
meaning of objects such as dolls is not reducible to a perceived surplus of
signification resulting from the gap between signifier (doll) and signified
(childhood). The material object itself generates a surplus of meaning
exceeding linguistic and symbolic signification.
Brown describes fetishism as “a social relation between human subject
and inanimate object, wherein modernity’s ontological distinction between
human beings and nonhumans makes no sense” (Sense 30). As Marks
explains, “aura is the quality in an object that makes our relationship to it
like a relationship with another human being” and makes it appear to “look
back at us” (Skin 80). This is exactly how Pamela describes her relation to
her favourite doll: “There is a sense of boundaries crossed when I touch her
or stare too hard, as if it is too intimate, as if I should be careful of her
privacy. I wonder if it is that she is child-me, so that touching her feels like
touching my child self in some invasive and uncanny way, or just that she is a
child and I am not anymore” (Doll [pjournal]). Following Stewart, Pamela’s
notion that she is touching her own child self through the doll would be
understood as nothing but an egocentric projection. However, it might also
indicate a less ego- or anthropocentric form of distributed subjectivity.
Pamela’s sense when she touches her doll that it has part of her soul in it, or
vice versa that she has part of its soul in her, supports Marks’ notion that
“[f]etishistic subjectivity does not inhere in individual souls but rather is
distributed among bodies, objects and places” (Marks, Skin 120). Shelley
expresses a similar sensibility through grafting her face onto the body of a
doll in her “self portrait (as harvey)” (Doll [shellvey]). In the following, I
understand the dolls in The Doll Games as auratic objects in Marks’ sense
rather than as souvenirs in Stewart’s sense. This is because my concern is the
more general phenomenology of doll games outlined in the work, not tactile
memory and nostalgia.
As part of this phenomenology, the Jackson sisters explore how the tactile
manipulation of dolls and their props functions in relation to the games’
aspect of collaborative oral storytelling. The crucial issue is aptly summed up
by Stewart: “The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device
for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative” (Longing 56). In one of the
recorded and transcribed conversations that are part of The Doll Games, the
Jackson sisters discuss how this worked differently for each of them in their
personal games and fantasies:
S: It’s not like I didn’t have fantasies where I didn’t use the dolls, but I found it added a
sense of event and embodiment, if I was able to have the dolls interact with each other,
instead of the diffuse imaginings that lacked such clear parts.
P: That makes sense, but I think for me the dolls started getting in the way once I
became too aware of them as plastic objects and was less able to project myself inside
Touching Thoughts
them. So then it was actually a distraction. The plastic hitting on plastic and the blank
S: I don’t think I carried out those private games as a solo version of the kind of doll
game we would have done together, I think the dolls were more like talismans. I mean
I did make them walk along and meet each other and stuff–
S: At the end of the last tape what I was saying was that in my private sexy doll games I
didn’t exactly act them out like a one-man version of our real doll games, I just kind of
held on to the dolls and used them as—as talismans, as idols, they just focused my
thoughts and made me able to summon up separate entities and interactions and
specific situations a little bit better than in the washy world of my imagination. (Doll
While for Shelley, the dolls function as described by Stewart to embody her
imaginations and make them less “diffuse” or “washy,” Pamela protests that
for her these “plastic objects” fail to embody her imaginary self. She cannot
bridge the gap between her fantasy and the dolls’ material qualities,
especially their tactile ones: “plastic hitting on plastic.” Shelley employs the
language of magic and religion (“talismans,” “idols”) to try to explain how for
her dolls can be simultaneously plastic objects and embodiments of fantasy.
This relates back to Marks’ more spiritual than psychoanalytic
understanding of the fetish as an object “partaking physically of the thing it
represents” and demanding in turn that the subject stand in physical contact
with it in order to partake of its magic (Skin 119). If dolls are understood as
fetishes, it does not matter that their plastic bodies cannot perfectly
reproduce fantasy scenarios: holding on to them is enough to partake of their
creative power.
That the dolls do not perfectly represent the narratives of games and
fantasies does not mean that their tactile qualities are irrelevant. As with
fetishes or auratic objects in Marks’ understanding, meaning is not simply
projected onto them but resides partly in their materiality. Thus, although
the Jackson sisters describe how minimally individuated objects like sticks
or shampoo bottles could be played with like dolls, the intimately familiar
characteristics of their actual dolls informed their games. Shelley describes
in her doll journal how for example the “bendyness [sic] of Phyllis became
part and proof of her frivolous nature” and how “rubbery arms and legs had
a pathos that hard, jointed limbs couldn’t achieve even if (which was true)
they ‘worked’ better and could strike more natural, more expressive
attitudes” (Doll [stiffness]). The connection between bendiness and frivolity
could be seen as an arbitrary one, in which frivolity is metaphorically
understood as a form of psychological “bendiness” and then projected back
onto a literally bendy body. However, taking material agency into account,
bendiness can rather be understood as an expressive and meaningful tactile
quality which exceeds yet informs the notion of a “frivolous nature” into
which it is approximately translated. Brown seems to suggest as much when
he modifies Gaston Bachelard’s concept of “hybrid objects,” that is, objects
with which the subject is so intimate that they take on a sort of subjectivity of
their own. Brown critiques Bachelard’s conception of the hybrid object as a
mere “phenomenological prosthesis” providing “material ground for imaging
the subject” and instead defines it as “a participant in the intersubjective
constitution of reality” (“How” 942). This definition of hybrid objects is close
to Marks’ definition of auratic objects and similarly invites consideration of
doll agency as part of doll games.
To sum up, my reading of The Doll Games differs from the nostalgic
reading suggested in relation to Toy Story and Cornell’s sandboxes in which
tactile interaction trigger personal childhood memories. Following Deleuze
and Guattari, it might be argued that by “playing” with The Doll Games, the
reader enters into a “becoming-child,” or more specifically a “becoming-girl”
(similarly, the Doll Games project could be described as a becoming-girl of
the adult Jackson sisters). This has little to do with memory, which is
“incurably Oedipal” and “brings about a reterritorialization of childhood”;
instead deterritorialisation occurs through what Deleuze and Guattari term a
“childhood block,” that is “the highest intensities that the child constructs
with his sisters, his pal, his projects and his toys.” Via such “childhood
blocks” in art (Deleuze and Guattari base their argument on Kafka’s writing)
the child is “coming to reanimate the adult as one animates a puppet and
giving the adult living connections” in a process quite apart from conscious
recollection (Kafka 78-9). In the following sections, I shall draw upon the
phenomenology of doll games to develop a notion of tactile metonymy which
can also be applied to the reading encounter.
Tactile Metonymy
Who can resist a dollhouse? With working hinges… tiny mahogany doors with tiny brass latches… a
miniature book with only four pages? The dollhouse had two halves that swung open to reveal the rooms
inside. Two dolls could be side by side in the room and the next moment at opposite ends of the house.
How marvellous! The furniture was elegant, if higgledy-piggledy: the sofa stuck sideways in the stairwell
had tasselled throw cushions. Mama stuck the tip of her baby finger in a ceramic potty with paintedblue ducks in the bowl, felt warmth flood her cheeks. (Half 10-1)
A crucial function of touch in the phenomenology of doll games is what I
term tactile metonymy. By this I mean that one form of touch stands in for
other forms of touch which are impractical or impossible, so that for example
the fitting of a finger into a doll’s purse stands in for fitting the whole hand.
Or, it may suffice to touch the doll, directing its hand to reach into the purse
in turn. I argue that touch is an essential part of doll games, not just
instrumental in facilitating the dolls’ metaphorical representation of human
behaviour. Tactile metonymy goes beyond metaphor in that it brings the
player into direct contact with the doll’s world.
Touching Thoughts
In substituting a partial touch for the whole, tactile metonymy is more
specifically a form of contact across scales. The playing girl cannot fully
inhabit the doll’s world, but through tactile contact she can nevertheless gain
more direct access to it than via imaginary identification alone. That tactile
metonymy does not provide complete access is made painfully clear in Half
Life when the adult protagonist attempts to inhabit her old dollhouse by
carrying it like a costume. 51 Nevertheless, I disagree with Stewart’s argument
that in approaching the dollhouse, “[a]ll senses must be reduced to the
visual, a sense which in its transcendence remains ironically and tragically
remote” (Longing 67). Stewart analyses dollhouses and other miniatures as
static tableaux offering up nostalgic bourgeois perfection for visual
consumption. This differs from the Jackson sisters’ and mine interest in
dolls and their miniature worlds as actively toyed with.
I also disagree with Stewart that tactile pleasure is opposed to visual
pleasure. Rather, the kind of vision involved in doll games is the haptic
visuality discussed in the introductory chapter. Haptic visuality is connected
to the miniature scale in that it is a close vision, a caressing gaze moving near
enough to its objects to discern previously unperceived textures and details.
Marks and Barker both use the miniature art of stop-motion animation to
exemplify haptic visuality in film (Marks, Touch 132-3; Barker 137-8). Barker
even argues that stop-motion animation “addresses itself first and foremost
to the fingertips” because its animation of inanimate objects is a form of
“hands-on play” triggering tactile memories of play in the audience (137).
Similarly, I would argue that miniatures such as dolls address the fingertips,
prompting an urge to touch and a tactile mode of seeing. Simply by virtue of
their smallness, miniatures force the viewer to lean in close to see properly,
almost close enough to touch the thing with the eyes. While for Stewart,
miniatures epitomise a distant and disembodied vision in that the small
scale prevents physical access but allows full visual overview, for me,
following Marks and Barker, they epitomise closeness and contact.
Phenomenologically, the miniature is not identical to the larger object it
miniaturises, as Bachelard observes (159-63). Stewart views miniaturisation
as anthropocentric in that is depends on the absolute scale of the human
body (On Longing 56). I would rather argue that miniaturisation moves
away from anthropocentrism in its attempt to inhabit the perceptual worlds
of inhuman, inanimate and even inorganic others. 52 Marks writes that the
animated films of the Quay brothers (another sibling couple involved in
creative collaboration) approach “the point of view of dust, or of the air”
51 This scene echoes the artist Janine Antoni’s photograph “Inhabit” where a woman’s legs are trapped in a
52 “Perceptual world” is my free translation of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s term “Umwelt.”
(Marks, Touch 131). Of course the inhabitation can never be complete; there
is always a clash between human and nonhuman scales.
This mismatch is crucial to the pleasure of the miniature: as Shelley points
out in her doll journal, “what is SO REAL is delightful precisely because it
isn’t quite real.” According to Shelley, “too much perfection” invites a static
form of visual pleasure which arrests the action of the doll games (Doll
[language]). Thus, the doll games stagnate into the static tableaux described
by Stewart, the visual perfection of which is due to the inability of the human
eye to register miniature flaws. In action, however, the form of vision
involved in doll games is closer to Stewart’s description of the grotesque,
partial vision of the gigantic (Longing 88-9). When looking close with the
rowing, tactile gaze described by Marks and Barker, the miniature is
enlarged into gigantic proportions. Miller describes how cinema “magically
enlarges without making pores, follicles, moles, hairs, and blotches more
perceptible,” thus presenting human figures with the proportions of giants
but the perfect complexion of miniatures (56-7). Jackson instead describes
dolls and toys with miniature proportions but the coarse textures of the
gigantic, thereby emphasising tactile interest over visual perfection. If
miniatures were identical versions of larger objects on a smaller scale, they
would appear perfectly smooth and seamless. Since they are manufactured
out of ordinary materials, however, they enlarge the textures of those
materials. As Shelley puts it, “there was a huge excess, a wrongness,
unavoidable, right down to the coarse weave of the clothes” (Doll
[language]). This mismatch of scales (human-sized cloth versus doll-sized
clothes) provides the eye with pleasurable friction and tests it limits of
perception. Furthermore, it tests the limits of dexterity, that of the maker as
well as that of the player. Stitches, joints and irregularities reveal the manual
work of creation, while stains, scratches and fractures reveal the manual
wear of play. Miniaturisation invites the kind of close attention required to
notice such tactile traces and, in Barker’s words about the animated film
Street of Crocodiles, opens up “a world of dirt, dust, flesh, fabric, and
textures that are familiar to us but which the film invites us to see for the
first time” (139).
Doll games transfer objects to the wrong scale and put them to the wrong
use in such a way as to “test the relation between materiality and meaning”
(Stewart, Longing 57). Dolls are miniature representations of humans, but
their material meaning exceeds this representation, which is made clear
when the scale of the doll comes into contact with the scale of the playing girl
in tactile metonymy. Shelley writes about the dolls’ “tiny feet and hands that
seemed to address our own bodies in unclear but troubling ways, that were
just the right size for digging in nostrils or ears or bellybuttons, for
scratching between toes”(Doll [sex]). The doll’s body does not just “address”
the girl’s body in the sense of representing it, but also in unexpected ways
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facilitated by the material clash of scales. Reversely, objects on a human
scale might “address” the dolls differently, so that for example a bureau
becomes a mountain.
Tactile metonymy provides prosthetic access to a world on a different
scale. Pamela describes how the Jackson sisters used their dolls to inhabit
miniature landscapes that were otherwise inaccessible to them:
We thought about landscapes that are the wrong size, or that we can’t enter into, tiny
ones or unreachable ones like the whirlpools under the falls, and the odd yearning,
frustration almost, that we feel toward them. We want to be able to get into them,
enter in all the way, not just look. Maybe doll pleasure has something to do with this.
When we brought the dolls to Arizona with us we always wanted to experience all the
landscapes with their bodies as well as ours. Floating them in the rain buckets, or
making them swim in the bird pond (swimming was always the best. Watching the
dolls swim). There was pleasure there that we couldn’t have with our own bodies: with
the doll we could not only insert ourselves into a landscape but also see ourselves there
— tiny body in clear pools, clambering over rocks, etc. A spatial pleasure, and visual.
(Doll [pjournal])
Pamela describes the pleasure as visual, but I would argue that it is a visually
mediated tactile pleasure: a virtual rather than actual form of tactile
metonymy. In order to prosthetically experience a miniature world through
the doll’s body, one needs to be in touch with it. Even when one lets go of the
doll to watch it inhabit the landscape from a distance, the prosthetic pleasure
is dependent upon one’s previous tactile intimacy with it. Knowing what the
doll feels like stands in a metonymical relation to feeling what it feels. It is
significant that Pamela singles out swimming as the most pleasurable doll
experience, since the immersion in water maximises contact with the
surroundings and literalises the immersion in a world that the exercise is all
The clash of scales prevents the playing girl from being spatially immersed
in the doll’s world. Nevertheless, tactile metonymy provides a mode of
contact across scales unavailable to Stewart’s observer “trapped outside the
possibility of a lived reality of the miniature” (Longing 66). Stewart opposes
the spatiality of the miniature tableau to the temporality of speech and
narrative (Longing 66-7), but doll games combine the setting up of
miniature milieus with dialogic storytelling, unfolding both in space and
time. Acknowledging the difference between static miniatures and play,
Stewart writes that “once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another
world” (Longing 57). This miniature world does not remain enclosed within
the larger world, but rather expands to enclose it. Human-size objects drawn
into the game are imperfectly assimilated to the doll scale and the
awkwardness produces texture and friction.
If miniatures tend toward stasis, as Stewart insists, it is not due to their
perfection but rather due to that friction, which provides enough tactile
interest to make the most minimal narrative – a mere gesture or scenario –
intriguing. Mundane actions such as eating or getting dressed, which rarely
merit a place in fiction, become engrossing when acted out with a doll due to
the tactile pleasure of handling miniature objects. Doll games are to a large
extent about moving the doll bodies around, trying them out in different
material configurations and spatial settings. Although in practice play is far
from static, a lot of the “action” in doll games would amount to description
rather than narration if translated into literature. Narrative is miniaturised
and closely bound to tactile interactions, as exemplified by Shelley’s
reference to “the narrative of a hand on a breast” rather than to a more
abstract narrative of “love” or “sex” or “desire.” Granted, such “minute and
detailed actions […] could only be acted out in the crudest way with a doll,”
which is Shelley’s reason for abandoning doll games and acting out fantasy
scenarios in her head instead. Nevertheless, doll games provide her with the
model for such fantasy scenarios, in which imaginary characters are virtually
moved around and made to interact like dolls. During a transitional period,
“the dolls just lay in position in [her] hand” while she fantasised about them.
(Doll [sjournal]). This combination of actual stasis and virtual movement
recalls Stewart’s description of fantasies set in motion by miniature tableaux,
and supports her grudging admission that “the object in its perfect stasis
nevertheless suggests use, implementation, and contextualization” (Longing
Formally, The Doll Games is structured like an online archive, sharing
with Cornell’s dossiers “a nonlinear organization that requires the viewer to
leaf through concrete ephemera in order to arrive at comprehension” (Mileaf
175). The difference is that with Cornell’s dossiers and sandboxes there is an
actual “tactile encounter of sorting images or shifting sand across a
horizontal field” (Mileaf 188), while the reader’s tactile encounter with The
Doll Games is virtual. To be more specific, the tactility of The Doll Games
involves actual manual interaction with the computer interface, a virtually
spatialised archive of documents and artefacts to “leaf through,” and richly
textured visual and verbal renditions of dolls and other objects. As phrased
in one of The Doll Games’ mock-scholarly notes: “We may ponder, here, the
sense in which the visitor to the Doll Games hypertext ‘handles’ the doll body
as well, exploring with eye and touch the labyrinthine forms of textual body
and fleshly memory” (Doll [pjournal/pj-5]). I argue that the reader handles
the dolls in a virtual sense, and that this phantom touch may serve as a
tactile metonymy putting the reader in contact with the larger world of doll
The virtual world the reader of The Doll Games gets in touch with is a
miniature toy world perceived so closely it is magnified. As Bachelard puts it,
“[a]ttention by itself is an enlarging glass” (158). Bachelard (160) and
Stewart (Longing 47) both observe how the writing of miniature worlds
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tends toward detailed descriptions. In their minute detail, such descriptions
function as a verbal version of enlargement which arrest narrative and
prolong the text. As an example, Scherr observes how Stein’s tactile writing
style “results in a close-up so extreme that the object under observation is
represented out of all proportion or that language and objects are pulled so
near we are given a glimpse of their finest grains and textures” (201). By
attending to every detail without subordinated them to the progress of a
linear narrative, the literature of miniatures approach the inclusive, nonhierarchical structure of the archive. It also has much in common with the
visual arts, predominantly a spatial rather than chronological organisation
and verbal equivalents to techniques such as zoom, pan, focus, close-up,
blow-up and depth of field.
Interacting with The Doll Games can, using a figure from the work itself,
be compared to opening the doll box in the Jackson sisters’ closet,
scrutinising its contents, discarding some and selecting other to arrange
across the rug in their room where the doll games take place. As in Cornell’s
sandboxes, this opening up of the work through playful interaction draws
upon Bachelard’s phenomenological insight that “the contained and
curtailed geometry of the box could be blown open and made animate”
(Mileaf 186). Although in The Doll Games the tactile play is virtual, the
reader animates the static arrangement of the work in a similar fashion to
how dolls are animated by being actually moved around. In the best case
scenario the doll documents in The Doll Games, like dolls in a doll game,
provide access to a miniature world which expands to include the reader. In
a sense, this is no different from any successful reading experience. “The
book sits before me, closed and unread; it is an object, a set of surfaces. But
opened, it seems revealed; its physical aspects give way to abstraction and a
nexus of new temporalities,” Stewart writes, comparing books to
Bachelardian boxes (Longing 37). As her reference to temporality suggests,
the reader enters a world which is not just spatially but temporally
miniaturised. Stewart cites an experiment showing that time is miniaturised
in proportion to the scale of the miniature, so that the smaller one imagines
oneself to be, the faster one will pretend to perform a certain action (On
Longing 66). As time moves faster in fiction in general, this suggests that all
books contain a miniature world which engulfs the surrounding world as the
reader enters into it. The Doll Games, however, explicitly thematises this
through its spatial arrangement and references to scale.
Exquisite Corpses
Isolated incidents suddenly strung themselves together into an argument, a prediction. (Half 72)
The most notable tactile theme in Jackson’s work is that of fitting things
together, exemplified by the pieced-together body and narrative of
Patchwork Girl, the inventions of the “genius girls” in “Musée Mécanique”
and the merged, hybridic objects in “My Friend Goo.” Artistic creation is
figured in terms of invention, experimentation and play involving material
agency, not as the artist imposing her will or vision upon formless matter.
This relates to the “exquisite corpses” (or “cadavres exquises”) of surrealist
art and to the machinic assemblages theorised by Deleuze and Guattari,
which similarly juxtapose incongruous elements in order to produce novel
sensations. An exquisite corpse is a drawing or text created by several
participants who each add their piece without having seen the previous
contributions. I use it in a more general sense to sum up the surrealists’
interest in collaboration, chance and juxtapositions of different materials,
often in machine-like arrangements with interactive and/or interacting
Jackson makes explicit references to surrealism and Dadaism in her
motivation for working with hypertext: “I would like to introduce a different
kind of novel, the patchwork girl, a creature who’s entirely content to be the
turn of a kaleidoscope, an exquisite corpse, a field on which copulas
copulate, the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an
operating table” (Stitch). As each reader follows different links and reads
lexias in a different order, the text moves like a machinic assemblage,
making and unmaking connections. Jackson’s use of hypertext to spatialise
her writing is in line with what Brown describes as “a fundamental strain of
modernism,” that is, “a different mode of mimesis – not one that serves to
represent a thing, but one that seeks to attain the status of a thing” (Sense 3).
In Jackson’s work, exquisite corpses appear not just on a structural level
but also on the level of content, as in the following description of Herman
Parts of him were made of absinthe, antimony, arsenic, bismuth, chromium, cuttlebone, egg yolk, grout, gutta-percha, jute, latex, lead, manganese, molasses, nickel,
paper, phosphorus, plaster of paris, tungsten, wax, wicker, and zinc. But most of him
was tin: the sharp little feet with their unfilled edges, the head with its neatly welded
planes, the curved door on its shoddy hinges which swung open to reveal – what a
contrast of workmanship! – the perfectly formed genitals, soft and rubbery. (Musée)
“Musée Mécanique” sums up several related themes that will run through
this section: play, invention, experimentation, collaboration, connection,
function and fit. Its protagonist is a mechanical assemblage who in his
unlikely combination of building materials resembles an exquisite corpse. He
is invented by the “genius girls” who “have their fingers in everything” and
“who can thrust their hands into space and bring back power, who can tap a
message into the air and bid it go where they will” (Musée). From Herman’s
perspective, the genius girls are the omnipotent creators of the entire world,
yet they cannot make truly novel or original inventions since everything
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there is necessarily resembles something else. 53 Their inventiveness is an art
of mechanical tinkering, of deftly putting together available materials into
functioning entities. They depart from the traditional idea of the creative
genius by the emphasis on craft above artistic vision, and by being a
collective whose individual names and exact number remain unclear. 54
By virtue of being improvisational, collaborative and hands-on, play
serves as a model for avant-garde art practices. For Shelley, doll games are
“like chemistry experiments performed on models (I’m thinking of those
snap-together molecular models with the blue and red balls) to find out how
things fit together” (Doll [sex]). This description emphasises the
experimental nature of play, as well as its tactility: the “fit” refers both to
physical connections and to narrative logic. Similarly, the dexterity of the
genius girls is repeatedly alluded to, as demonstrated by the quotations
above and by Herman’s admiration of “their small deft hands passing
through arcane configurations with the greatest of ease, their wet, agile
tongues creeping further and further out of their mouths” (Musée) In
“Angel,” the “demanding craft, requiring patient, knowing hands” of
taxidermy is favourably compared to the “high art” of abstract painting
(Angel 20). Common to these passages is that “deft” and “knowing” hands
become autonomous agents in the collaborative creative process, quite apart
from the deftness and knowledge of the humans they are attached to. They
are not disconnected from the human organism, as the reference to tongues
responding to the hands’ work shows, but the connection is machinic rather
than conscious.
Brown defines play as a form of creative misuse which brings together
children and surrealists artists in “the aesthetic appropriation of the
everyday, the reanimation of cultural detritus, the recoding of icons” as
emblematised by “spontaneous assemblage, bricolage, collage, camp”
(“How” 954-5). He criticises Toy Story for policing against this creative
misuse and promoting a “proper” use of toys as dictated by commercial
interests (Brown, “How” 963-4). For Brown, to play with toys only in the
specific way intended by the manufacturers is not to play with them at all. “If
the use value of an object amounts to its preconceived utility, then its misuse
value should be understood as the unforeseeable potential within the object,”
he writes (Brown, “How” 956). Stewart makes a similar definition of play,
writing that “[t]to toy with something is to manipulate it, to try it out within
53 From a Deleuzian point of view, the reason the genius girls cannot invent something truly new might be
that they use intelligence rather than intuition. According to Deleuze, drawing upon Bergson, intelligence
operates by categorisation and analogy and thus reduces difference to sameness. It is inventive in the sense of
putting things to new uses, but ultimately reduces everything to functionality, see Olkowski 129-33.
54 Agency is distributed not only among the girls but also among the material objects involved in their
creative endeavours, which can be understood in light of Marks’ suggestion that the sense of nonhuman and
inorganic agency permeating the Quay brothers’ films is an extension of their collective identity as twins and
their “devotion to anonymous craft rather than authorship,” Touch 139.
sets of contexts, none of which is determinative” (Longing 56). By testing
what can be done with a thing such as a toy, misuse brings out the sensual
qualities of it, which tend to recede from view when it is perceived simply in
terms of its use value. The abstraction of “working the permutations, trying
on consequences” is made tangible in doll games, as the limits of the dolls’
materiality are tested (Doll [intros]). When dolls are misused for example
through sex or age changes, the physical characteristics associated with their
use value (or, as the Jackson sisters put it, their “shelf identities”) are either
redefined or modified using amputations and prosthetics. Even the “shag
rug” makes itself newly sensed in the “sore and bumpy” knees and elbows of
the Jackson sisters as it is misused as setting for doll games (Doll [intros]).
Toy Story’s rhetorical defence of use value draws upon the figure of the
sadistic child who picks his toys apart, “demonized as a Dr. Moreau figure
who experiments with toys, torturing them and producing speechless
mutants, bodies and things, body parts jumbled together as frightening
composites” (Brown, “How” 963). In contrast, Barker defines children’s wish
to look inside their toys to see how they work as a normal part of play, yet
her description of it as a “morbid, destructive curiosity about the nature of
the machine” still stresses the pathology of this behaviour (144). Following
Brown, I would like to present a less gloomy picture of this experimental
dismantling. The desire to find out what makes a thing tick is “revealed as a
fantasy doomed to exposure” (Brown, Sense 7) only if that something is
conceived in terms of a specific, mysterious component that can be found
inside it. In Jackson’s work, Imogen in “Egg” is closest to this doomed,
destructive drive to look for meaning inside things, as she crawls into the
giant egg hoping for a transcendental experience. More commonly, Jackson
portrays the search for the animating principle as an experimental
dismantling and trying out of different configurations, in which desire is
regenerated instead of disappointed. Brown writes that “[m]odernity’s child
is sated by surface alone,” having abandoned the urge to look inside her toys
for an animating spirit (Sense 7). Modernist artists, however, are not content
with the use value of toys but (re)animate them by deconstructing and
reconstructing them. Even in Toy Story, the sadistic boy does not simply kill
and destroy his toys, but creates mutants and composites as animate as the
other toys in the film.
Play, as described by Jackson, Brown and Stewart above, is closely related
to experimentation – another activity which has been described as a
masculine, sadistic-voyeuristic drive to pick things apart and look inside. In
Jackson’s writing, characters are often faced with fantastic entities, but
instead of exclaiming in horror about the unfathomable and indescribable
strangeness of these (as in for example Lovecraft), they tend to take a rather
pragmatic approach and experiment on them. Thus, the protagonist of
“Cancer” “out of curiosity” bends a twig of the plant-like cancer growth until
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it wilts and Imogen measures the temperature of the egg and subjects its
surface to alcohol, salt and oil (Melancholy 58, 15). Although they do not
necessarily find answers, their behaviour is driven by an attitude towards
matter as though it were animate, had agency and could respond, if not in a
human tongue.
This idea is elaborated on in “My Friend Goo,” where the protagonist
collects “seashells,” that is, fused objects thrown up by the sea of “goo.” “This
one looked like a doll’s head, its features rubbed away, merged with
something the shape of an egg cup. It was the exact color of my hand and
together they made another object. I held it a moment and pretended we
were fused, but when I opened my hand, we came apart easily,” she recounts
of one of these “seashells” (Friend 49). She takes the colour match as a clue
that she might be part of this hybrid object too, but the fact that it does not
adhere to her hand tells her otherwise. The “seashells” appear to be merged
and smoothened versions of contraptions put together in a television show
popularly called “Slime with Worms.” It is almost impossible to make out
what is happening on the show due to the extremely poor reception, but
what remains when sound (completely) and vision (colour, detail and
sharpness) are removed is movement and tactile interaction:
Nobody could agree on whether it was a science program or a how-to show or some
unfamiliar kind of pornography. The figures were always touching objects to other
objects with strange intensity. Then the camera would swing close to the objects,
which moved furtively against one another for a while. Then something would happen.
Nothing more definite than a little coat being draped over a rail, or a hoof knocking
against a cobblestone. (Friend 54-5)
The description of the action is strongly reminiscent of the Quay’s animated
films, where there is little plot but much intensity of movement and friction.
The possible genres suggested are all based on the display of objects
interacting: the experiments and models of science programs, the hands-on
demonstrations of how-to shows and the bodies in congress of pornography.
The protagonist has a revelation when she gets the essence of the show:
Slime with Worms: it was a show about fitting things together. That was so obvious, I
had missed it! I tried pushing the decoy duck knob into the egg cup, and it snapped
right in, dutter mudded dop. The 8 gear fit on the boomerang grip. I was building
something, I just didn’t know what it was yet. (Friend 59)
The television show provides her with a manual for approaching the
“seashells.” While a connection based on visual resemblance (being of the
same colour) fails to hold, fit makes a strong tactile argument for how things
might work together. There is no need for classification of different parts or a
blueprint to follow: the material knows what it does even though the
protagonist does not. 55 In Henri Bergson’s terms, the experimentation
favoured in Jackson’s work proceeds according to instinct rather than
intelligence (see Olkowski 122-3).
As suggested by the double deformation of the “seashells,” first filtered
through the blur of bad reception and then worn smooth by the “goo,” an
object needs to be defamiliarised and stripped of its common use value in
order to speak for itself. This accords with Brown’s understanding of misuse:
“By misuse value I mean to name the aspects of an object – sensuous,
aesthetic, semiotic – that become legible, audible, palpable when the object
is experienced in whatever time it takes (in whatever time it is) for an object
to become another” (“Secret” 3). The “seashells” need to be unfamiliar
amalgams in order for the protagonist of “My Friend Goo” to discover how
they can be fitted together into a larger assemblage. While these hybridic
objects still partly resemble familiar utensils like eggcups, Herman Godfrey
dreams of completely stripping off the “layers of semblance” and discover
“the thing in all simplicity.” If he succeeds in perceiving a thing as
“completely unfamiliar,” he thinks that “it will all come naturally, cog will
cleave to cog, drive-shafts lock and turn” and he will succeed in inventing
something new. Hoping that his hands rather than his mind will know what
to do, like the dexterous hands of the genius girls, “in secret he clasked his
metal palms together – what a clamor – and in secret he pried and fiddled”
The forming of formless matter might be seen as opposed to mechanical
tinkering and closer to the traditional image of artistic genius, where the
artist imposes his (I use the male pronoun pointedly here) vision upon the
material, transforming it into an original creation. In Jackson’s work,
however, even moulding tends to involve the co-agency of an only seemingly
amorphous material. The appendixes following the story in “Phlegm” details
in scientific terms how “P energy” spontaneously generates structure in the
phlegm which needs the help of a human hand to become a “beautiful form”
instead of “a shapeless mound bristling with little points” (Melancholy 115).
Even though the moulding of phlegm is surrounded by trends and traditions
influencing the choice of form, it is nevertheless described as “a kind of
clarifying and articulating of what was already there” and which cannot be
clarified or articulated in words (Melancholy 122). In “Sleep,” sleep takes
palpable form as warm, golden snow which can be turned into a double and
left behind by a person who wishes to start a new life. Instructions for how to
make this human effigy appear to be embedded in the sleep and inform the
hands of the maker directly: “Even the clumsiest become deft and knowing
as they pat and roll the golden column, persuading it into human form,” the
55 This is even clearer in “Nerve,” where the constructing subject is completely done away with: “Nerve fibers
have a curious property. They organize themselves. They twine, knot, braid, lace, plait, mesh, splice. Some
stringent ancient script takes over,” Melancholy 71.
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protagonist explains, “I could pat it together. My hands would know what to
do” (Melancholy 130, 133).
To connect things is to make a material argument, a concretisation of the
process of making cognitive connections. This is not to say that the machinic
connections in Jackson’s work are reducible to metaphors for abstract and
intangible arguments. Even when they explicitly invite allegorical readings,
there is always a material remainder, a sensual specificity of fit and friction
making its own non-discursive argument. The instinctive logic of
experimentation is privileged above the intellectual logic of categorisation.
As seen in the previous section, this is also the logic of the fetish and the
auratic object, which do not just represent something, but connects to that
something metonymically, or indexically (Marks, Skin 85-6).
Material logic resides in the materials connecting to each other and in the
hands feeling the fit rather than in an organising mind. This point is
powerfully made in “Musée Mécanique” when a door opens in Herman
Godfrey’s chest and a platform juts out which he cannot push back inside by
force. When he places a wooden bust of Nefertiti on the platform, however,
the mechanism responds: “The stage glided smoothly inwards. The doors
swung up in synchrony, beautifully. She slid inside. The doors snicked shut”
(Musée). As in the Quay brothers’ Street of Crocodiles, certain actions prove
effective (certain connections “take”) and lead to certain results, but the
relation between cause and effect is unpredictable and does not correspond
to a natural law of causality. Importantly, the material logic of Jackson’s
writing is not deterministic, as in for example biological determinist
interpretations of physical features, but instead incite multiple connections
and novel sensations.
The role of human hands in making material connections should not be
reduced to a detached instrumentality. Rather, hands are involved as part of
the assemblages they help to create. In My Body, Jackson describes hands as
“tending to things with a kind of earnest helpfulness” (Body [hands]), which
seems to express what Didier Anzieau terms the “attachment drive,” that is, a
desire for pleasurable tactile contact as such rather than for closeness with
another human (or living) being (cited in Barker 39-40). There is an excess
to inventive tool use which demonstrates that it goes beyond the merely
instrumental and involves the multiplication of tactile connections and
Jackson’s writing abounds with prosthetic connections between bodies
and objects. An example among many is the dog leg held hidden inside the
sleeve by the protagonist’s son in “The Hook.” While at first the mother is
shocked and angry to feel a decaying dog paw in place of the expected hand,
by the end of the story the prosthetic dog leg serves to connect mother and
son, so that she can “kiss its darling, darling little pads” (Hook 66). As Grosz
observes, things need to be prosthetically incorporated in order to be used
(Volatile 79-81). A tool user cannot simply manipulate a tool and remain
unaffected, but needs to enter into a prosthetic assemblage for it to work. A
simple example of this is the kind of bodily habits which make the patchwork
girl remark that “[o]ne of my fingers is comfortable enough with a needle,
another seems easier on the handle of a knife.” (Patchwork [graveyard/left
arm/hands]). A more elaborate example is the prosthetic “husband skin” in
“Husband,” which transforms its wearer and enables or disables certain
actions. “There were tasks of grooming and stroking that my hand could only
perform when transfigured by the husband glove,” the protagonist narrates,
“I stretched my fingers in the fingers of the husband, fingers that knew and
had performed those services so long awaited. I pinched myself, and it was
my husband pinching me” (Husband 164). The husband skin appears as a
concretisation of what Ahmed terms “repetitive stress injury”: the
habituation to a certain type of activity which makes it feel given, while other
activities appear out of range (Queer 56-60). Normally, the “husband
function” would take the form of an immaterial property, not a literal skin to
wear, yet it may nevertheless be understood as a prosthetic extension of a
body transforming it in certain ways and allowing it to do certain things.
In Politics of Touch, Erin Manning argues that the senses, and especially
touch, function to prosthetically extend human bodies into Deleuzian
“Bodies without Organs” (xiii-xiv). In this understanding, tools and
prostheses do not complement a human subject, as in the psychoanalyticalphenomenological model where the human body incorporates prosthetic
extensions. Instead, prosthetic connections hook up parts of the body in
intensive circuits with material objects and immaterial forces without
necessarily involving the conscious human organism. This might best be
illustrated by cases where it is not the hand, icon of agency and touch in the
active sense, that does the touching: “My vagina has very long and sticky lips
and sometimes I would stroll pantyless through a store in a short skirt,
brushing nonchalantly against the merchandise, and come out with valuable
items stuck to me” (Body [vagina]). In this scenario from My Body, it is not
the hand – or even the mouth of the vagina – that desires, selects and grasps.
Instead, random items simply stick to the protagonist, forming unlikely
assemblages. Another lexia relates how she chains herself to her writing desk
using her navel piercing (Body [stomach]). There is more obvious agency
involved in the creation of this prosthetic umbilical cord, yet its purpose is to
remove agency. By chaining herself to her desk, Jackson’s autobiographical
persona concretises her link to the writing machine. This way, she stabilises
the assemblage and prevents it from dissembling when she puts down her
pen or rises from her chair to go do something else, that is, when some part
of her not involved in the writing machine strains to enter into a different
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Prosthetic assemblages do not simply connect discrete entities which may
then be disconnected and reconnected to other assemblages. As the
discussion of habituation and repetitive stress injury suggests, each
assemblage transforms the entities involved. In Patchwork Girl, Jackson
insists that to touch something is to mix molecules with it and not to remain
There is no shrink-wrap preserving you from contamination: your skin is a permeable
membrane. Molecules hang in contiguity but are nowhere near as locked in place as a
brick wall, and when they get excited, they take flight! Come closer, come even closer:
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. (Patchwork [body of text/hazy whole])
In this formulation, the contiguity of molecules making up a body assures
that the contiguity of bodies involves some mixture between them. This idea
can be elaborated using Serres’ description of the skin not as a medium
between bodies touching, but as a mixture in which bodies mingle. As a
theory of contact, mediation serves to separate and classify rather than fuse
and hybridise. Against the common notion of skin as a form of envelope
outlining the body and separating it from other bodies, Serres proposes a
notion of skin as a sort of nimbus thinning out until it is unclear exactly
where it ends. As I understand this, it is a conception of the skin as felt,
where sensations of things touched mingle with the sensation of one’s own
flesh and skin, not as seen, where the factual porosity of the skin is on a
smaller scale than the human eye can perceive (Serres 80-1).
Neither Serres nor Jackson makes a strict division between actual and
virtual contact. To be in touch with ideas or fictions is also to enter into a
hybridic assemblage. When some of the components are virtual and not
bounded by material solidity, it becomes even clearer that they permeate one
another as they come into contact, they way consciousness could be said to
permeate synapses and brain cells. In the following section, I deal with
prosthetic connections between authors, readers and literary works and
outline a specific technique for inviting and intensifying virtual tactility.
Conceptual Intimacy
We don’t understand each other, but something understands something, the way one gear understands
the other with which it meshes. (Hagfish)
Jackson describes in an interview how writers, readers and texts enter into
prosthetic assemblages like the exquisite corpses mentioned in the previous
Writing is like shedding skin, no, because it’s living flesh, though writing is not like
having babies, I’ve never quite taken to that metaphor (maybe because I’ve never had a
baby), it’s more like stitching together a monster out of bits of your self and bits of
other stuff and sending it out to do things for you. It’s a fetch, a demon double, neither
you nor clearly separate from you. And it goes and presses itself on people, it
infiltrates them. (Jackson in Amerika, ”Stitch”)
In this section, I am focusing on the connection between reader and text, and
how the virtual tactility of this contact can be increased. A technique which
was briefly mentioned in relation to The Doll Games is inviting the reader to
play. Ludic or interactive aspects of a work posit the reader as an
experimenter making connections. In a metatextual comment on her role as
both author and reader of her own story, the patchwork girl writes that
unread words stagnate into “enclosures of wrought letters fused together
with rust, iron cages like ancient elevators with no functioning parts.
Whereas the read words are lubricated and mobile, rub familiarly against
one another in the buttery medium of my regard, rearrange themselves in
my peripheral vision to suggest alternatives” (Patchwork [body of
text/blood]). Instead of mentioning actual tactile interaction such as typing
or clicking links, the visual activity of reading is described in startlingly
tactile terms, as producing lubricant for the material reconfigurations of
words. This suggests that the hypertext form as such is not enough to turn a
text into a dynamic assemblage, but that active reading achieves this even
with formally monolinear texts.
How is reader interaction produced specifically as phantom touch, and
inversely, how can phantom touch be used to intensify the interactive
experience? In order to address these questions, I develop the concept of
conceptual intimacy. First of all, might writing stand in an indexical and not
just representational relation to touch, as do other art forms like sculpture
(Mileaf 191), painting (Paterson 88-9), photography and film (Marks, Skin
92-3)? Brian Rotman distinguishes between “capture media” such as
audiovisual recording and “notational media” such as writing, but observes
that mainly notational forms such as figural painting, textile arts and
handwriting nevertheless capture traces of the artists’ touch in their
arrangement of brushstrokes, threads or ink (428). Such traces of touch (the
artist’s or that of passing time, for instance), giving the viewer a sense of
standing in physical contact with the work, is what Benjamin referred to as
aura (Marks, Skin 140). In My Body, Jackson’s autobiographical persona
describes how while drawing she is “pressing the soft lead voluptuously into
the paper. A blind person could trace my drawings with her fingertips three
pages down in my notebook” (Body [eyelid]). Here, drawing becomes doubly
tactile, as the artist’s touch is captured not just visually but as a tangible
imprint. Typing and printing does not allow for such direct transmission of
touch, though older methods of writing such as engraved lettering might. As
I shall argue, however, virtual forms of tactile metonymy might achieve a
similar auratic effect.
Touching Thoughts
Capture operates metonymically, while notation operates metaphorically
(Rotman 427). Thus, Degas’ bronze statue Little Dancer refers
metaphorically to a dancing body, but the wig and bodice it is clothed in
refers metonymically to the reality of the stage. ”By incorporating found
objects, Degas established a different (tactile, metonymic) way to be
modern,” Trotter argues, and goes on to describe Little Dancer as “an
important precedent for the techniques of collage and assemblage” (Cooking
300). The surrealists’ interest in found objects and in the indexical aspect of
photography (Mileaf 15) as well as the action painters’ use of painting as a
capture medium instead of a notational medium (Rotman 429) take this
metonymic modernity further. Marks argues, against Benjamin, that film is
auratic (and fetishistic) because it stands in an indexical relation to a real
situation leaving its imprint on the surface of the film. For her, the actual
material contact is what makes the connection metonymical and not just
metaphorical (Marks, Skin 92-3). I believe, however, that virtual, immaterial
connections can function metonymically too, and that discussions of the
mimetic operations of film can be transferred to literature in order to argue
this point.
Marks characterises mimesis as “an immanent way of being in the world”
in which “subjects take on the physical, material qualities of objects, while
objects take on the perceptive and knowledgeable qualities of subjects” (Skin
141). There is a mimetic relation between an artwork and its subject matter
as well as between artwork and audience. In the former relation, mimesis is
distinguished from symbolic representation, but this distinction does not
correspond to the above distinction between capture and notation. Mimesis
would be the artwork performing a gesture instead of representing one. In
the case of film, the notational representation of a gesture coincides with the
captured trace of an actor’s gesture, while mimetic gestures capture the
gestures of for instance photographers more indirectly and often
indecipherably. Translated to literature, neither mimetic nor represented
gestures capture the gestures of the author in any obvious way. Nevertheless,
the mimetic gestures of art operate metonymically rather than
Barker distinguishes the mimetic relation between artwork and audience
from identification as traditionally understood within film theory,
characterising it instead as a “kinaesthetic empathy” between audience and
film (119). The film becomes a prosthetic extension of the viewer’s body, a
“vehicle for movement and action” (Barker 110). I understand this mimetic
relation between audience and artwork as a form of metonymy because
certain gestures in the audience, such as tensing or gasping, stand in for
more comprehensive forms of action and involvement of which they are a
part. Barker argues that when watching the “kinaesthetic comedy” of Buster
Keaton, the audience empathises with his agile attempts to fit into tricky and
shifting spaces and situations, recognising – perhaps in an unconscious,
embodied way – the complicated, partial fit between spectator and cinematic
space (93-7). Similarly, a literary text mimicking the fitting together of
objects (as, according to Scarry, literary realism routinely does in order to
create a sense of solidity) induce the reader to mimic in turn the construction
process and thereby take part in the literary assemblage.
An important feature of modernism is to put the audience in actual
contact with the artwork by emphasising its material rather than
representational aspects. Artistic meaning becomes sensual, processual and
relational, for example in the encounter with the surrealists’ found and
juxtaposed objects (Mileaf 86, 109-10). Literary modernists too
experimented with “the material specificity of reading, of engaging with
things – books – that have ideas in them” (Brown, Sense 9). In Hertel’s view,
electronic publishing precludes this possibility as reading ceases to be a
tactile activity and readers “no longer feel the materiality of texts” (177). But
as hypertheorists have been quick to point out, writing and reading on the
computer involve their own forms of actual tactile contact as well as virtual
tactility, and if anything, electronic literature has intensified (post)modernist
concerns with the materiality of the medium. All literary media are tangible
in some way, yet I think Barbara Korte is right to point out that “what is
significant about literature cannot be touched anyway” (cited in Hertel 177).
The mimetic, metonymical connection between reader and work can be
made virtually tangible quite independent of actual contact, for instance
through conceptual intimacy.
I borrow the term conceptual intimacy from the photographer and art
scholar Åsa Andersson, who used it in a conference presentation to refer to a
certain phenomenological intimacy with objects. Conceptual intimacy differs
from conventional understandings of intimacy in that the subject-object
relation is neither personal nor emotional. Crucially, however, “conceptual”
does not indicate abstract concepts but a connection to conceptual art, where
conceptions are often perceptual and corporeal rather than cognitive.
Conceptual intimacy in art draws upon the unconscious, routine tactile
intimacy with things in order to present unfamiliar objects as though they
were intimately familiar. The removal of an object from its mundane context
and framing of it as a piece of conceptual art simultaneously estranges and
enhances its air of conceptual intimacy. (A similar thing occurs when it is
framed as the object of phenomenological inquiry and the sense of
conceptual intimacy surrounding it is consciously reflected upon.)
An example of conceptual intimacy from visual art would be Franck
Juery’s photographs of miniature models and paper cutouts in the series
entitled Ni-na. This is photography addressed to the fingertips: to the tactile
memory of fiddling with minute things. Through haptic visuality, these
photographs evoke a virtual form of tactile metonymy through which the
Touching Thoughts
viewer can hook up to these miniature worlds. The extremely limited depth
of field obliterates the surroundings and in effect magnifies the miniature
tableaux so that they fill up the entire world of the work. The models and
toys are photographed against squared paper and often posed beside
matches: pictorial conventions for showing scale. However, in a playful
reconfiguration of these conventions, the paper is torn and crumbled into a
landscape where the burnt and crooked matches stand in for trees. Thus,
these would-be reminders of proper proportions are appropriated to the toy
scale. This kind of creative misuse suggests tactile tinkering to see what will
fit where and how, which contributes to the sense of conceptual intimacy.
Artworks evoke conceptual intimacy by addressing the sense of touch,
though as in the example above the tactile contact tends to be virtual and
visually mediated. The viewer’s gaze may be directed to discern tactile traces
in the material, which function as visual instructions for phantom touch.
Important techniques for inviting such a tactile mode of looking are
miniaturisation, texturing and wear, for reasons suggested in the previous
sections. Tactile traces may be for example smudges, stains, fingerprints or
folds which suggests how the object has been touched before and may be
touched again. They may also be clues for handling, such as joints, hinges,
fasteners or openings. Such tactile traces lend the object an air of conceptual
intimacy: that is, of having been intimately known by others and of being
intimately known by the viewer even though no actual touch has taken place.
Conceptual intimacy can be describes as a virtual form of fit: a sense that one
can hook up to an object, create a working connection with it and
metonymically inhabit its world.
Conceptual intimacy is dependent upon, but not identical to, tactile
familiarity. Drawing upon the psychologist William James, Brown makes a
distinction between perception and sensation and argues that “in the routine
of daily life, perception perpetually forecloses sensuous experience in order
to render the material world phenomenal, which means rendering it
inhabitable.” Perception is associated with use (phenomenological
intentionality and the unconscious habits of everyday life) while sensation is
associated with “misuse” (misrecognition and the experience of things as
such, for example in art). 56 Perception and sensation are not opposed;
rather, “the experience of sensation depends on disorientation, both habit
and its disruption” (Brown, “Secret” 6-7; Sense 7-9). What this means,
applied to my discussion, is that conceptual intimacy can only be sensed
when one’s tactile familiarity with everyday objects is somehow disturbed.
When an object is presented as a piece of conceptual art, for example, the
perception instrumental to using the object is stopped in its tracks and
56 Brown makes a third, corresponding distinction between objects and things, perhaps the most important
one for this “thing theory.” As I use “thing” and “object” interchangeably throughout this dissertation, I have
bypassed this distinction in order to avoid confusion.
transformed into sensation for sensation’s sake. Actual use is replaced with
virtual use as the viewer toys with different ways of touching and handling
the object, drawing upon her tactile knowledge of similar objects and upon
visually mediated tactile cues.
Doll games are commonly associated with a particularly personal, highly
emotional form of intimacy dependent upon individual childhood memories,
but I want to consider them as a form of creative misuse in which conceptual
intimacy makes itself felt. The proper use of a doll is to play with it, but play
is close to misuse in Brown’s sense: experimentation with putting things to
new and different uses (“Secret” 3). Because their use keeps changing, the
sensual experience of dolls as material objects tends not to recede into
perceptual intentionality. To the extent that a doll’s shape is functional to the
more specific purpose of manipulating its limbs in a semblance of human
life, it may be comparable to a tool being used, while other objects drawn
into the doll games are more unequivocally misused. However, even the
doll’s use value is conflated with its “misuse value,” that is, the “fetishistic
overvaluation or misappropriation” of a thing (Brown, “Secret” 2-3). Shelley
writes that “the doll games themselves depended on the ability to see things
another way, to animate a stone or forked bits of plastic. Imagine someone
who couldn’t do this, who picked up a doll as one picks up a strange tool,
careful in case there are sharp bits, wiggling the moving parts” (Doll
[uncanny]). In this hypothetical scenario, instrumental perception is
interrupted by the subject’s inability to figure out how to use the object, but
is not replaced by a sensation of the thing as such. Since the object in
question is a doll, to fail to understand its use is also to fail to understand its
misuse, that is, the fetishistic animation which is a crucial feature of play as
well as art. As Shelley explains, playing with dolls made animation as such
approach a perceptual habit, so that “anything could metamorphose into a
prop in a doll game, or even a character” (Doll [uncanny]). Doll games
routinely draw upon the kind of use which tactile habits might help one
figure out (“wiggling the moving parts”) and transform it into a creative
misuse exceeding instrumentality (“to animate a stone or forked bits of
plastic”). Conceptual intimacy, which otherwise tends to recede into the
background of perceptual habits, is foregrounded by this process of
If playing with dolls brings out a sense of conceptual intimacy, this is even
truer for the work The Doll Games. As the reader does not share the Jackson
sisters’ personal recollections of the specific dolls presented, the sense of
intimacy created in the work draws upon a more general tactile familiarity
with dolls. Dolls make for an effective choice of object for conceptual
intimacy, since many readers will have spent hours and hours of their
childhoods intimately handling dolls. Presumably, most reader’s tactile
memories of doll bodies far exceed their conscious recollections of doll play.
Touching Thoughts
Instead of drawing upon such tactile familiarity in order to arouse the
reader’s idiosyncratic memories, associations and emotions; The Doll Games
draws upon it to create conceptual intimacy. A reader with no individual
experience of dolls might bring her tactile familiarity with toys or other
objects to her encounter with the photographs and descriptions of doll
bodies, so that a sense of conceptual intimacy is nevertheless achieved.
The depictions of dolls in The Doll Games enhance tactility and thereby
conceptual intimacy by emphasising wear. The entry for “plastic” in the
glossary details the aging of doll bodies: “Although it [plastic] does not decay
like organic matter, it can become discolored, break, or tear; plastic joints
may wear down, leading to the loss of a limb, and plastic hair, unless molded
to the head, may fray and fall out” (Doll [glossary]). The connection between
wear and life (including death and decay) is brought out by, but not
dependent upon, the doll’s resemblance to a human body. 57 On a more
general level, wear increases tactility in several ways: First, by adding tactile
allure to the material, either polished smoothness or intriguingly tattered
and cracked textures. Second, by being a sign that the material has been
touched and handled often before. Third, by indicating that the material
responds to touch by changing, entering into a process of organic decay
which makes it almost animate enough to touch back. The surrealists drew
upon the potential of wear to intensify tactility by incorporating found
objects into their works of art (Mileaf 85-6), and Jackson practices a literary
version of this technique in which the found objects are virtual.
Marks connects wear in general with aura in her discussion of the tactile
look of stop-motion animation: “All the surfaces in Quay films have a heavy
patina of tarnish and decay, so that even floors and furniture have a sense of
aura, that is, the marks of a long-gone, living presence” (Marks, Touch 132).
For Stewart, the “suffusion of the worn” with aura is nothing but a nostalgic
projection, a mere “metaphor of texture” (Longing 139). This is true in the
sense that the patina of Marks’ example and a lot of other art is a fabrication
of the passing of time. However, even when the surface is not as old and
worn as it seems, the patina does more than metaphorically represent past
presence: it does actually - metonymically - capture the touch of the artist or
manufacturer. Furthermore, regardless of whether the wear is “fake” or not,
it may work to trigger phantom touch in the viewer and create a sense of
conceptual intimacy.
57 In one of their recorded conversations, the Jackson sisters discuss how dirt and decay make the plastic
bodies of dolls more like living, aging, human bodies, see [t3-fall].
Reading as Playing
I was also moved by the image of reading as offering yourself to be wounded by a piece of writing. Like
all tran[s]formative experience, reading at its best does some kind of damage to the envelope in which
you move about. It’s a breach, but one that you suffer voluntarily. You open yourself to it, expecting
and even hoping to be altered by it, without knowing how. (Jackson in Nunes, “Written”)
Throughout this chapter, I have developed the phenomenology of doll games
outlined in The Doll Games into a phenomenology of reading emphasising
the virtual tactility of literature. My line of argument is grounded in a
consideration of doll games as a neglected, collaborative and improvisational, art form. The Jackson sisters describe how they experience the
world on a different scale through the bodies of their dolls, and use their
dolls to gain access to landscapes they would otherwise be barred from.
Drawing upon this idea, I have argued that the touching of the dolls function
as a sort of tactile metonymy, by which for example the fitting of a finger into
a doll’s purse stands in for fitting the whole hand. Through such tactile
metonymy, rather than through purely imaginary identification, the playing
girl gains access to the doll’s miniature world, which does not remain
enclosed within a larger world but temporarily erases or merges with it. I
have further argued that the phenomenology of doll games serves as a model
for a phenomenology of reading in which the reader hooks up to the fictive
world via tactile metonymy. On a very concrete level, the reader gains access
to a fictional universe by opening a book or interacting with an electronic
hypertext. On a more virtual level, Jackson’s rhetorical gestures of calling
attention to the tangible body of text works to create a sense of tactile
metonymy even in the absence of actual touch.
More generally, the form of touch privileged by play is that of fitting
things together and experimenting with various material configurations.
This is a central form of phantom touch in Jackson’s work, related not just to
doll games but to art forms such as exquisite corpses, assemblage and
collage. It has an obvious connection to Deleuze’s conception of desire not as
a want originating in a (perpetually lacking) subject, but as a productive
force making connections. What I refer to as exquisite corpses might as well
be called “desiring machines,” Deleuze’s term for assemblages produced by
desire (Colebrook, Gilles 1-2). As a model for experimental art practises, play
emphasises the material agency and tactile allure of found objects. By
material agency, I am referring to the fit and friction of things, including
immaterial things such as words, which is allowed to play a part in the
creative process. By tactile allure, I am referring to an urge to touch and
make contact which might seem to reside in the skin and hands rather than
in consciousness.
Touching Thoughts
In art forms prohibiting actual touch, tactile allure can nevertheless be
summoned up by what I term conceptual intimacy. While conceptual
intimacy figures most prominently within visual and installation art, Jackson
employs it as part of her object writing, modelled upon surrealist object art.
Conceptual intimacy denotes an impersonal form of intimacy between hand
and doll, mouth and pen, or ear and shell, for example. Because tactile
relating to the world is such an intimately familiar experience, conceptual
intimacy can be suggested by small means such as two shapes which might
fit together or two textures which might create an interesting friction. Virtual
tactility is further enhanced by frequent references to texture, contact and
manual manipulation. Together with Jackson’s metatextual references to the
fictionality and material specificity of the text, this presents the reader with a
phantom sensation of language as a tangible medium to be reconfigured and
played with.
Seeing Sight
Seeing Sight: The Anatomy of Vision
And since to look at something is to resemble it, it is foolish to look too long at anything, unless it is
wise. Anyway, each looking is a likening; each likening an adhesion; each adhesion a little loss, a little
wound, a place on you that used to be, that yearns to be sky, cloud, dung, donkey, another person’s
face. (Early 96)
There is a large body of scholarship documenting the “visualism,” “ocularcentrism” or “scopophilia,” as it is alternately called, of modern western
culture (see Classen, Worlds 5-7). More generally, studies of perception and
sensation in various academic fields tend to lean heavily towards the
(audio)visual. Even critical studies of a panoptical, patriarchal or colonial
“gaze” can be said to partake in the larger ocularcentric tradition in which
iconoclastic scepticism towards visual appearances plays an important part
(see Jay, Downcast 13-16; Crary, Suspensions 2-4). However, some visual
culture scholars argue that the iconoclastic tradition of privileging word over
image and treating everything as “text” has precluded serious consideration
of the visual on its own terms (see Stafford; Bal Reading xiii). Due to the
wealth of material related to sight both in Jackson’s work and in general, I
dedicate this chapter to a very specific motif: the anatomising gaze turned
back upon itself. Jackson’s anatomisation of the eye concretises vision and
prevents it from becoming a disembodied view from nowhere, conflated with
“perception” in general.
Within literary studies, visual description has its own term: ekphrasis.
Although the prime example of ekphrasis tends to be the shield of Achilles
featured in the Iliad, there is a historical increase in literary descriptions of
objects and scenery around the 18th century (Wall 1-6). This increase roughly
corresponds to a shift from rhetoric as the model for the arts, including
visual arts, to painting as the model for prose (Schor 33). The abundance of
visual description in the realist novel does not necessarily fulfil a narrative
function, but instead creates a “reality effect” when taken in at a glance
(Trotter, Cooking 202-8). With modernism, the visual aspect of literature
becomes even more pronounced, as authors experiment with literary
correspondences to new visual technologies such as cinema, x-ray and the
microscope (Jacobs 9-38; Danius 1-24; Crary, Suspensions 6-7; Bal, Mottled
3-4). However, such experimentation might also entail a critique of visuality,
such as the surrealists’ scepticism towards sight, following an alternative
“antipictorialist” trajectory within literary criticism (Tadié 114).
Reading has traditionally been thought to involve the production of virtual
images, which have been discussed to a greater extent than other forms of
literary phantom sensations. A limitation in these discussions is their general
emphasis on a painterly or filmic effects of flatness (see Gallagher 283-5;
Hertel 191-3; Bal, Mottled Screen 2-3). 58 For instance, the basic premise
guiding Scarry’s arguments in Dreaming by the Book is that inner vision
naturally produces transparent, flat, still images which lack solidity and are
resistant to movement. However, Scarry only refers to her own experience to
support this assumption, while experiments with rotating mental figures
indicate that many people (including me) can easily visualise depth and
movement. 59 I would suggest that the type of visual imagination described
by Scarry is inherently readerly, and specifically honed on a canon of
classics. As most of her literary examples are pre-20th-century, it is likely that
their visualisation techniques are informed by visual technologies such as
painting, photography and magic lanterns; technologies corresponding to
Scarry’s view of inner vision as either clear and detailed, but still, or an
ethereal play of light and shadow. Jackson’s literary visualisation techniques,
on the other hand, are reasonably influenced by 20th and 21st century
technologies such as cinema, computer games and multimedia
However, the visual technology I wish to highlight as a figure for the
spatial vision in Jackson’s work is an earlier one: “In the stereoscope, two
visions, each flat in isolation, form a third so real its sideways depths seem to
tilt and open beneath your feet like a chasm. What magic transforms paper
into flesh, a figured surface into room to breathe? The subtle but significant
difference between not quite identical twins” (Half 102). Stereoscopic devices
were all the rage in the 19th century, reflecting a more general interest in
binocular vision (Crary, Techniques 118-20). They do not depict depth but
(re)create it by drawing upon the eyes’ ability to merge two different flat
images into a three-dimensional space. When brought to bear on a literary
text, binocular vision can be understood as the reader’s ability to juxtapose
several different phantom images. While normally these images are given in
sequence, Brophy literalises the idea of writing in stereo by dividing the text
on the page into two parallel columns for parts of In Transit. The narrator
explains that it is “wasteful to direct the two speakers of a stereophonic
system, or the two lenses of a pair of spectacles, to helping two sense organs
to focus on a single object” and that the “true advance of civilization will
come when science enables a human being to see two Veroneses, one out of
each eye, at once or to lend each of his ears to a different opera at the same
time” (93). What this tongue-in-cheek rationale misses is that the doubling
involved in binocular vision (as well as binaural hearing) is not redundant
58 According to Trotter, the seemingly obvious flatness of painting did not emerge as a significant quality
until the impressionists began to draw attention to the materiality of canvas and paint, 292-3, see also Jay,
Downcast 154. Thus, flatness in literary ekphrasis might be counted among the technologically mediated
forms of vision to emerge with modernism.
59 See Esrock and Sacks 220-31 for a survey of scientific debates about the importance of visual imagery for
cognition, and discussions of the great individual varieties as to how voluntary, conscious, clear and detailed
mental images are.
Seeing Sight
but adds a new dimension: depth. Even if the reader could focus on two
things at once, for example in order to read a different column of text with
each eye, it is doubtful whether two flat images should count as “more” than
stereo vision. 60 In my less literal understanding of stereo writing, different
images evoked by a literary work form a whole larger than its constituent
Impracticalities aside, it is not necessary to present more than one image
at once, as the image currently given might be combined with a previous one
in the kind of virtual stereo vision I am referring to. While in actual vision
different aspects of a thing can only be seen one by one in sequence, virtual
vision can present a combined image which is not just three-dimensional but
multiperspectival. Scarry laments that virtual vision tends to be fragmented,
but the form of fragmentation in which a thing is seen from several different
angles at once is only a disadvantage when judged by the standards of
perspectival realism. 61 I connect this multiperspectival simultaneity to the
multimodality of phantom sensation, where things can be for example seen
and felt all at once, without regard for proximity or point of view. As
demonstrated in relation to haptic visuality in the introductory chapter,
there is a similar intermingling of virtual and actual perceptions involved in
apprehending real material objects. For instance, while actually seeing one
aspect of an object one might virtually see a recalled or imagined alternate
view or posture. Jackson captures this phenomenon poignantly: “’Looking
around,’ I said, and it turned out I meant it: around: like when something is
so familiar that you can see it from all sides no matter where you stand.
When it seems to be gripped in a fist of your regard. Or mouth cunt ass”
(Early 97). The “fist of your regard” is a startling figure for a haptic visuality
which grasps the object of the gaze from all angles at once, but Jackson does
not stop there. She adds the “mouth cunt ass,” implicitly of the regard, to
further emphasise the tactile, even erotic, intimacy of seeing – a taking in
which, if taken literally, would obstruct the view, thus a uniquely literary
phantom sight.
“Image” (as well as “picture” etc.) can have a highly abstract and
metaphorical meaning, and when used in a more concrete sense is often
extended to encompass representations in different sensory modalities.
When I discuss images in Jackson’s work, I refer to multisensory figures with
a strong visual aspect. As for the degree of abstraction, I do not use “image”
60 This is not to dismiss Brophy’s experiment in stereo writing, which is effective in presenting a text and its
commentary, parallel strands of thought or alternative plotlines. I am merely pointing out that the formal
device has little bearing on stereo vision.
61 Furthermore, I think that Scarry exaggerates the relative deficiencies of the inner eye. In actual vision too,
only part of a scene is seen in clear detail, while the rest is seen through the blur of peripheral vision. The
impression that the whole scene is seen clearly is created by moving the eyes, changing the focus and
habitually filling in the blanks. It is hardly surprising that inner vision shares the difficulty in creating
complex images in clear detail.
to refer to ideas or conceptualisations, though many of the images appearing
in Jackson’s work can be considered concretisations of abstract ideas. Of
course, few of the (literary) images I discuss are actually visual images, but I
would like to keep the distinction between virtually visual images with an
articulated sensory component, and purely abstract “images” (if such a thing
exists). As mentioned in the introductory chapter, Deleuze mostly discusses
literary percepts in terms of visions and auditions. It is clear that these retain
some connection to ordinary perception: “The finest writers have singular
conditions of perception that allow them to draw on or shape aesthetic
percepts like veritable visions, even if they return from them with red eyes”
(Deleuze, Essays 116). This formulation suggests that although there is no
proper connection between aesthetic percepts and visual images, a
particularly acute or otherwise extraordinary vision might aid a writer in
making perceptible the imperceptible. (Presumably, a writer with a more
developed ear might make percepts audible instead and so on.) The detail of
the red eyes stresses the corporeality of actual seeing even if it is meant
figuratively: it is in itself an example of an idea made visible and may call
attention to the eyestrain of reading. With the aid of Jackson, I want to
reinforce and specify the connections between virtual visions and actual
optical conditions.
If Esrock is right that references to seeing effectively prompts visual
imagining (183), then Jackson’s explicit thematising of sight should be the
best place to start looking for phantom sights in her work. This chapter
opens with a section connecting back to the section on body writing and
anatomical blazons in the introductory chapter. Here, I focus specifically on
the trope of auto-anatomisation prominent in My Body, with additional
examples from the work of Jackson and Brophy. In the following section, I
describe how Jackson, alongside Barnes, hones in this auto-anatomisation
upon the eye, thus turning the anatomising gaze back upon itself. The next
section shifts the focus slightly from the eye as organ to Jackson’s
anatomisation of the sense of sight. By detailing various optical phenomena,
she insists upon the concrete particularity of vision and refuses its
abstraction into a gaze from nowhere. At the same time, neither the eye nor
the sense of sight are understood in a strictly physiological fashion. Like
Barnes, Jackson performs a Burtonesque anatomisation of physical and
psychological aspects of vision wrapped up in one. In conclusion, I describe
how this notion of sight as situated and subjective – as eyesight rather than
vision – can be applied to literary phantom sight. Jackson compares writing
to taxidermy: the fabrication of a vivid image of life out of inanimate matter.
The reader is invited to see herself reflected in the glass eyes of the specimen,
completing the picture by lending them her life while at the same time
recognising her death in their mute materiality. More specifically, Jackson’s
Seeing Sight
anatomised bodies looking back prompt the reader to turn the anatomising
gaze upon herself.
Two breasts look up from the dirt. (Gallows)
In the introductory chapter I described Jackson’s body writing as a revision
of the blazon genre. Traditionally, this genre presents an album of ekphrastic
images of beautiful (or, in the case of anti-blazons, ugly) female parts. Like
Wittig before her, Jackson replaces the static voyeurism of the genre with
blazons of grotesquely fragmented yet living bodies in motion. Like Wittig,
she also draws upon anatomical illustrations and textbooks to describe the
blood and guts of the body in pieces, in a fashion some readers may consider
violent. A more specific convention both authors borrow from early modern
anatomy is that of auto-dissection. 62 The tradition of Christ demonstrating
his wounds, sacred heart and bowels of pity played into the Renaissance
convention of depicting anatomised bodies as alive and performing their
own dissection. In literature as well as anatomical illustration, self-dissection
offered a concretisation of “nosce te ipsum” (Sawday 110-29). This conflation
of physiological and psychological self-knowledge is characteristic of
Jackson’s use of the auto-dissection trope. The female worm in “Hagfish,
Worm, Kakapo” expresses a wish to literally keep an eye on the parasitical
male projecting “images,” “metaphors” and “dreams” into her consciousness
from inside of her: “I envy the man with the pane of glass set in his
abdominal wall so the creatures of science could view the factory in which his
organs labored” (Hagfish). As Sawday points out, to actually look inside
oneself is taboo because potentially lethal (12). However, art, like the medical
imaging technologies it often draws upon, allows for virtual auto-dissections
which simultaneously challenge the taboo and feed off its charge.
Apart from early modern anatomy, Jackson models her virtual dissections
upon “visible (wo)man” toys with transparent skin and/or detachable
organs. The mechanical Herman Godfrey, fascinated by organic life,
visualises a living mouse in this way:
Though he had never seen a mouse he thought it was a mouse, and as he thought this
he imagined the mouse in front of him, as big as a zeppelin, and he could see its
insides through the walls, and it was all red inside, red was like a kind of spell of life,
and it dripped and bubbled and there was a turning and pumping and conveying in
there and a rendering into sludge and extruding and discarding and it was hot with
activity in there, a boom town of mousyness, and all alive-o. (Musée)
62 Martindale describes how the lesbians in Wittig’s Le corps lesbien authoritatively anatomise themselves,
Unlike actual visible (wo)man models, Jackson’s virtual version offers a look
inside the living body. An animated self-portrait on a page of her website
promoting The Melancholy of Anatomy presents the visible woman as autodissection. 63 An arrow pointing at the nude portrait prompts the viewer to
“touch my heart,” indicating the stylised Valentine heart held up in front of
her chest. As the viewer tries to metaphorically touch her heart and perhaps,
as implied by her nudity and her invitation, get to know her intimately, the
picture changes. Even before the heart is touched by the cursor, it
metamorphoses into an interior organ held in front of her suddenly opened
torso. 64 The heart is still stylised, but now in a more naturalistic and
anatomically correct fashion reminiscent of models made out of wax or
plastic. There is no gore; the intestines are clearly defined, dry and distinctly
coloured in the tradition of anatomical illustration (see Sawday 100-1).
Nevertheless, the viewer might feel shocked at the sudden revelation of
intestines, implicated in a violation of the body portrayed and perhaps even
punished for her erotically tinged curiosity. The interactive touch, mediated
by mouse and cursor, might not turn the viewer into an anatomist dissecting
a corpse but it does turn her into a layman opening the flaps of a “flap
anatomy” or removing the detachable organs of a “visible woman.”
Meanwhile, the challenging gaze of the nude, which remains constant and
unfazed as her torso springs open, reminds the viewer that this is Jackson’s
show. Her auto-dissection startlingly demonstrates the literal meaning of
anatomical imagery such as “touch my heart.”
The entire work My Body is a case of auto-anatomisation, if not strictly
speaking auto-dissection. While the work’s illustrations depict only the
body’s outsides, a few of the texts provide a look inside the body of Jackson’s
persona. In one case, she employs a crude technology for visualising her
insides: “Holding up my hands against the sun, or cupping the light of a
flashlight, I looked at the bones inside, a shadow in a luminous mantle”
(Body [hands]). More often, she imagines it: “I can always give myself a
funny feeling by picturing what my skeleton is doing” (Body [skeleton]). Like
Benedetta Bonichi’s x-ray revisions of art history in which skeletons look
themselves in the mirror, embrace or hold up meat in a paraphrase of
Francis Bacon, Jackson’s living skeleton brings together the vanitas tradition
with contemporary medical imaging technologies.
Other passages recall the early modern allegory of body as house: the
protagonist can virtually double and diminish herself in order to travel into
her own body and explore its secrets:
63 The page in question is no longer linked from the main site, but as of 29 Jan. 2013 still accessible at the
following address: <http://www.ineradicablestain.com/melancholy.html>.
64 I should acknowledge that the untouchability of the heart may be due to a simple technical solution – that
of having the entire picture and not just part of it function as “trigger” for the animation. Ideally, Jackson may
have intended for the touch of the symbolical heart to trigger the transformation.
Seeing Sight
While I know that the inside of my body is a dense press of lubricated meats I can’t
help seeing it as hollow space, like the inside of a trunk. Each elusive hint of sensation
from one of my organs is a glint of colored light that reveals the organ hanging there
like a Christmas tree ornament, so it’s never lightless inside, but a warm, ruddy dark.
It is a secret, busy space, and when I imagine myself inside it, I am filled with glee and
self-satisfaction. (Body [internal organs])
The satisfaction derived from imagining her inner organs is reminiscent of
The Story of Mary MacLane, in which the reader is invited to gaze upon the
author portrait and know that “inside the pictured body is a liver, a MacLane
liver, of admirable perfectness” (21). Like Jackson’s, MacLane’s autobiographical persona performs her auto-dissection by way of sensory clues
instead of applying generic anatomical knowledge to her body. 65 Her
conviction that she has her exceptional liver to thank for her flawless
digestion, strong constitution and temperament in general suggests an
almost humouralist understanding of anatomy. That these visions of the
body’s interior are not anatomically correct does not make them less real.
They translate experiential evidence gathered by other senses into visual
images, in a way not wholly unlike how medical imaging technologies
operate. Unlike medical rhetoric, however, these literary auto-dissections
refuse any neat distinction between fact and fiction, matter and mind.
So far, I have been discussing auto-dissections performed with the mind’s
eye or for the benefit of an external viewer (as is the case with Jackson’s
visible woman self-portrait). However, My Body also comments specifically
upon the visual complications of auto-anatomisation, understood as literally
turning one’s eye back onto oneself. The concern with the anatomising gaze
is associated with the work’s illustrations and discussions of drawing.
Although the fairly naturalistic, black-and-white line drawings do not
obviously reference anatomical illustrations, the perspectival realism they
employ is informed by anatomical studies of nude models and historically
even of dissected corpses. Renaissance artists believed that in order to
properly depict a body it should be conceived of as a volume, not a surface,
and its interior structure of muscle, tendon and bone made visible through
the skin (Sawday 85-6). Jackson writes herself into this tradition, as the body
blazoned is seen through the eyes of an aspiring painter, who learns anatomy
from art history: “It took a book to correct my eye and point out that the
neck is a sturdy extension of the trunk, bigger around than most people’s
arms, not a spindly perch for the head” (Body [neck], see also [ears]).
The harshness of the drawings indicates a devotion to scientific objectivity
and a resistance to idealisation, yet their perspective differs sharply from
that of conventional anatomical studies. Several of them are drawn from the
highly subjective point of view of someone looking at her own body. The
65 See also Jackson’s vision of the brain as an architecture (labyrinth or burrow) changing characteristics
depending on what it feels like, Body [brain].
unconventional angles and foreshortened perspectives make the body appear
grotesque, or as Jackson puts it:
When nobody else was around or willing to sit still for me, I drew whatever I could see
of myself: my feet, for example; my legs. What my eyes showed me, though, looked
very strange on paper. […] It was the truth (from my perspective), but what use was it
to art? In my renderings of all-I-could-see, I had better leave myself out, or regard
myself in a mirror, at a safe distance. Look too closely, I noted, and you will see
monsters. Realism, and possibly reality itself, is reticence and fudging it. (Body [legs])
The body of perspectival realism is normalised and has a normalising effect
on the perception of actual bodies in space. In drawing apparently distorted
and disjointed body parts, Jackson aligns herself with painters such as
Alyssa Monks, Jenny Saville and Joan Semmel who render photorealistically
their own and other bodies reflected in mirrors, refracted in water, seen close
up or from odd angles. 66
A literary parallel is the auto-anatomisation performed by the narrator of
Brophy’s experimental novel In Transit in order to determine her/his own
sex, which s/he has inexplicably forgotten. S/he regrets being “imprisoned
inside this I like the tadpole-pupil inside the jelly eye” and unable to see
her/himself from the outside (85). The pun on I/eye brings out the curious
visual bias of her self-perception, as though, much like the reader, s/he were
only given certain partial perceptual clues. Her/his sex-specific parts are
tactile and kinaesthetic blanks, just like they are textual blanks. “Impatiently
I calculated that my problem would be solved in three seconds if only I could
have the privacy in which to rip open that zip and – no matter how cursorily,
provided wholesalely – look,” s/he complains, reflecting the Freudian
obsession with ocular proof of sexual difference (Brophy 78). Being in a
public place (the entire novel is set in an airport) prevents her/him from
undressing, however, and her/his clothes are unrevealing: “If I’d had to go
on the evidence of my trousers alone, I would have been obliged to believe
that an exceptionally long penis took its rise half-way down the inside of my
left thigh and presently curled like coral over the front of my leg towards my
knee” (Brophy 77). Ironically, the privacy and mirrors provided by restrooms
are off limits until s/he has determined whether s/he should enter the ladies’
or the gents’.
While the particular dilemma of forgetting one’s sex might be quite
unique, the public restroom problem is very real for trans people and others
who fail to pass for the sex indicated on the door. The narrator of My Body
also describes “incredulous shrieks in bathrooms and dressing rooms” due to
66 “Photorealism” can mean different things. What I am referring to is primarily that the paintings in
question conform to a photographic truth about perspective. But, like the camera obscura, the camera lets in
light through one opening and flattens perspective compared to human stereoscopic vision. Thus, alternative
ways to render depth in painting might equally well be termed “realist.”
Seeing Sight
her ambiguously muscular physique (Body [arms]). The bodies of other girls
are perceived as harmonious wholes, feminine in every part, while the
narrator experiences her own as a jumble of oversized and mismatched
pieces: “In my mind’s eye I was a leering giant, gesticulating and capering
around the little people, making them laugh, just one jot off a Frankenstein
monster. My parts didn’t match; I couldn’t even make them move smoothly
together when I thought I was being watched” (Body [shoulders]). Seeing
oneself, in the mind’s eye or from the point of view of eyes situated in the
body they are watching, renders the body fragmented, distorted, grotesque.
The narrator of In Transit laments that the reader, trapped in her/his
limited field of vision through first-person narration, might find her/him
unattractive in her/his incompleteness (epitomised by the lack of
determinate sex):
For I cannot shew [sic] you anything of myself in its entirety – no not the simplest
action on my part, not the extending of my arm. I have to shew you the internal
sensation of my muscles flexing, the breaking-into my frame of vision by a segment of
arm I intellectually know to be my own.
And that is, I know, not very appealing. It’s like shewing you a constant dissection,
with a square of skin cut, folded back and pinned down in order to display the sinews.
(Brophy 86)
However, Dolidon points out that fragmenting close-ups also serve to
liberate bodies from their inescapably sexed ideal forms. Despite the
narrator’s protestations, her/his indeterminate sex is what makes her/him
appealing as a hero(ine) in Brophy’s picaresque adventure flirting with the
operatic travesti tradition. The plot of the novel revolves around the missing
penis, but once found it ceases to be of any interest: in the macabre organ
auction closing the novel it is the last item to go. As for Jackson’s persona in
My Body, she lavishes loving attention upon parts, even though they add up
to a monstrous whole. For instance, stretch marks are seen not as blemishes
but as beautiful markings like those in the coat of an animal: “Across my hips
at the widest point are pale striations with a faint sheen to them, like a
crochetted net just under the skin, like the cream curdling in coffee, just a
little, and collecting into pale skeins” (Body [hips]). In the following section,
I shall discuss the anatomising gaze turned to a specific part: the eye itself.
Anatomising the Eye
My eyeballs are wondrously firm and spherical, my vision clear and sharp, my gaze calmly speculative. I
can peruse with equal clarity the finest of print and the faint script of smoke from a distant chimney; I
owe this to Tituba, who loved to read. (Patchwork [graveyard/head/eyeballs])
More than any other sense, sight has become abstracted and disembodied
(see Classen, Color 73). The western philosophical tradition of figuring the
intelligible as the visible depends upon severing the mind’s eye from the
bodily eye and “seeing” with a pure reason unaffected by optical
particularities (Vasseleu 13-4; see also Jay, Downcast 537). In between the
most metaphorical extension of sight to encompass knowledge in general,
and the most specialised meaning of sight as individually variant, there is a
generalised form of (implicitly visual) perception belonging to no eye in
particular (see Paterson 65). When “vision” or “the gaze,” is discussed, this is
perhaps the level most frequently addressed. Foucault’s panoptic gaze, for
example, is itself invisible, like the all-seeing eye of god (Jay, “Rise” 310).
When Jackson describes her genius girls as “one complicated being, with
almost as many eyes as a fly, hence all-seeing,” however, she appropriates
the divinely omnipresent gaze with a difference: instead of a disembodied
view from nowhere this is a dispersed view from everywhere dependent on a
great number of individual eyes working collectively (Musée). As I shall
argue throughout this section and the following, Jackson resists the
abstraction and generalisation of sight by anatomising the eye. As with her
blazoning of other body parts, this takes the form of vivisection rather than
dissection and involves immaterial aspects such as sight. The anatomical
studies of eyes reproduced on the cover of The Melancholy of Anatomy not
only illustrate Jackson’s concern with the anatomy of the eye, but also the
power of eyes and even eye-like shapes decontextualized from any face or
person to evoke a gaze. Jackson alludes to this power in Half Life when she
has the protagonist Nora say: “Your pajamas are staring at me” to Louche
who is wearing a pyjamas “figured with peacock eyes,” that is, a print
mimicking a mimicry of eyes (Half 171). In the case of The Melancholy of
Anatomy, this power is reinforced by the placement of the eyes on the spine
of the book, so that they appear to look out at prospective readers.
When Jackson writes that “vision eclipses the eye” (Putti) and that “an eye
is featureless, when it is your own” (Early 99), she is referring to the fact that
the eye cannot see itself. It can, however, have its gaze returned by another
eye (for example its own reflection in a mirror) which sees it seeing. Peter de
Bolla describes how Enlightenment moral philosophy encouraged autoinspection in the form of an internalised impartial spectator, so that the
visibility of the viewer became an intrinsic part of the more general
fascination with visuality (74-6). I would argue that such auto-inspection is
still very much part of western visual culture, and that it reaches its apex in
the image of meeting one’s own gaze in a mirror, film or photograph.
Although auto-inspection is not limited to the eyes, guarding one’s eyes is
crucial since they are considered uniquely expressive (Jay, Downcast 9-11).
In the Cartesian mechanistic view of the body, the eyes were understood as
literally the points of entry and exit for the soul (Trevor-Roper 152). The
eyes’ expressive capacity creates a tension between seeing and being seen.
While using one’s eyes to see with, the consciousness that they too have
Seeing Sight
visual characteristics recedes from view, until someone meets the gaze and
reminds the seer to guard her appearance.
When the protagonist of My Body scrutinises the bodies of adults, she is
careful not to let them see what she sees reflected in her eyes: “I looked no
higher than their hips because I was embarrassed to look at their faces,
partly out of simple shyness, but also because I was afraid they would read
the curiosity and the passionate disdain I felt for them in my eyes” (Body
[other bodies]). This wish to see without being seen seeing repeats the
pattern of the male poet who is anxious that the female blazoned should not
return the gaze since the exchange of glances between lovers is figured as a
battle where gazes wound (Lobanov-Rostovsky 202-3). Looks do not have to
be hostile in intent in order to be received as intrusions. In “Cancer,” the
protagonist is horrified that the postman witnesses his attempt to evict the
cancer from his house, but even more horrified to discover the man’s eyes
acknowledging what they have seen: “We looked down at the large mass
struggling inside my apron. When I raised my eyes, I was met by such a
grotesquely knowing, indeed sympathetic gaze that I dropped my bundle and
stepped back, setting the door between us” (Melancholy 59). This intimate
exchange of gazes makes it impossible to politely pretend that there is
nothing there to be seen. The protagonist is forced not just to see the
postman seeing, but to acknowledge that he has seen him seeing, and to see
in turn the postman’s shared secrets. Rather than acknowledge what he has
seen in the postman’s eyes, he chooses to forcibly cut off the exchange of
gazes by shutting the door. This inelegant solution cannot save his face or
undo what has been seen, but at least prevents his eyes from seeing or
showing more.
The eyes’ expressive capacity is worrying because it may reveal too much,
but simultaneously reassuring since its opposite, a blank stare, suggests
lifelessness and soullessness. When the founder of the Word Church mourns
a dead rabbit and sees “its glazed eye brighten,” this is a conventional sign
that the rabbit has come back to life (Consuetudinary 140). In Half Life, after
having seen footage of her chronically dormant conjoined twin Blanche
opening her eyes, the protagonist Nora asks herself: “Hadn’t that naked eye
seemed (in the instant before a practically mathematical sense of paradox
made me unable to look) hazy, glazed, unaware? Not an organ of sight but a
memorial to it?” (33). The absence of expression in the eyes entails the
absence of perception as well and reduces the eye to an unseeing object to be
looked at. 67 Because the eye is perceived as a somehow transparent, quasi67 While in Half Life, the perceived lifelessness is reassuring to Nora, who wishes Blanche to remain dormant,
in John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, the vampire’s eyes frighten because they have a dead stare: “Those
who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye,
which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the
inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not
pass,” 27-8. Here, the eyes appear as opaque matter whose very gaze is material and unable to penetrate the
incorporeal medium of gazes, calling attention to its tangible materiality is
disturbing. As Miller points out, the eyes are the one non-disgusting bodily
orifice, emitting the one non-disgusting bodily fluid: tears. Perhaps this is
because the transparency of eyes as well as tears does not make them too
grossly material. Conceived of as severable body parts made up of a jelly-like
substance, blood, membranes and sinews, however, eyes can be intensely
disgusting (Miller 90). Any reminders of the eye’s materiality tend to be
disturbing, such as even minor eye injuries or the unseeing stare of the dead.
Touching the eye is not recommended due to the risk of irritation and
infection, but the taboo against it runs much deeper than with most other
forms of touch or unhygienic behaviour advised against by the medical
establishment. 68
In the lexia on eyes in My Body, the narrator relates her discovery that
eyes are material objects:
To touch the surface of the eye was a forbidden thing, I shrank from it without needing
to be told, and that was probably because the eye was not really a thing, but a visible
soul. Surprising, then, to study our cat’s eyes from the side, one afternoon on the
sunny sofa in my living room, and see that the colored part was a thin membrane,
iridescent as a butterfly wing, stretched across a ball the front part of which I could see
right through, and that the pupil was just a hole in the membrane whose edges
tightened and flared as the light changed. Surprising also to half-open my eyes in the
sunlight and see the rainbow corona in my lashes, and even see the lashes themselves,
complexly cross-hatching the sky. Astonishing to consider that I really was looking out
from between my eyelashes, across the swell of my cheek, down my nose. (Body
It is significant that the study of an animal makes the protagonist aware of
the materiality of the eye. Although animal eyes may be perceived as “visible
soul,” other animals do not communicate with glances in the same ways
humans do and it is not considered impolite not to meet their gaze. 69 This
relative irrelevance of the expressive capacity of the eye opens up for a oneway scrutiny of the eye’s anatomy and allows for the protagonist to see that
the iris is in fact a membrane located some way into the transparent eyeball
and that the pupil is a hole in that membrane. Like Barnes’ description of the
nervous Jenny whose “orifices expand and contract like the iris of a
suspicious eye” (Nightwood 88), the passage from My Body calls attention
to the eye as an orifice letting in light the same way the ear lets in sound
exteriors of things. Like the eyes of the dead, they lack that immaterial spark which would make others
transparent to them while simultaneously turning them into transparent windows of the soul.
68 This is why Janine Antoni’s photograph Mortar and Pestle of a tongue licking an eye is so disturbing. Eyes
are not supposed to be touchable, much less edible. The prospect of having one’s eye licked or licking a live
eye is probably disturbing even to those who routinely eat animal eyes. In the latter case, the eye is safely
transferred to the category of food and the disturbing clash between eye as semi-embodied soul and eye as
piece of meat does not appear.
69 As a matter of fact, cats and many other animals perceive a direct frontal gaze as threatening and tend to
either attack or look away submissively if their eyes are met.
Seeing Sight
waves or the nostril lets in olfactory molecules. The expanding and
contracting (or in Jackson’s words the tightening and flaring) of the iris
recalls the sphincters of more abject orifices which the iris is usually not
associated with at all, but which it gets to metonymically stand in for in the
quotation from Barnes.
Studying the anatomy of the cat’s eye leads the protagonist of My Body to
consider the embodied situatedness of her own eyes. She discovers that
vision does not always eclipse the eye, to paraphrase the quotation from “The
Putti,” but that under certain conditions the anatomy of the eye becomes
visible, for example in the form of eyelashes intruding upon the field of
vision. This is unlike the anatomist whose abstracted and abstracting
scientific gaze, according to Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, depends upon not
seeing oneself mirrored in the eye of the anatomised corpse (197-201). Again,
Jackson performs a literary vivisection rather than dissection, first by
observing the movement in a live cat’s eye and then by auto-blazoning her
eyes as perceived from the inside rather than in a mirror image.
Harvey argues that Winterson performs a similar critique of the
anatomical gaze in Written on the Body, partly by drawing attention to the
narrator’s own eyes (338). However, the mention of the narrator’s eyes is
nothing like the auto-blazoning performed by Jackson’s persona in My Body,
as the only aspect of the eyes the reader gets to “see” is their brown colour.
To be fair, the female lover’s eyes are never blazoned at all, but this omission
might serve to ensure that she is unable to return the anatomising gaze.
Alternatively, it might underscore this feminine character’s lack of erotic
investment in the masculine gaze, as indicated by her wish to strip herself
and her lover of all senses except touch and smell (Winterson, Written 162).
Either way, the relation between a disembodied and desexed yet masculine
blazoner and a female as well as feminine body blazoned remains quite
traditional. “I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes,” the
indeterminately sexed narrator declares, and consequently eludes the
reader’s gaze (Winterson, Written 89). When briefly glimpsed through the
eyes of the blazoned woman, s/he is described as “a pool of clear water where
the light plays,” that is, as a body lacking any physical features interfering
with its function as mirror for whatever s/he looks at or window to the soul
(Winterson, Written 85).
It might be argued that the subjectivity the narrator lets the reader see in
her/his eyes lies not in their physiological characteristics but in the desire
they express, but this too is in keeping with the conventions of the blazon
genre. The “lascivious naked eye” of Winterson’s narrator accords with “the
Petrarchan conceit of the eroticized eye,” in which “the visible world is
embodied as an aggressive beauty, a female eye that does not see but solicits
the male gaze” (Lobanov-Rostovsky 197). Winterson concretises the
convention of being wounded by beauty in bite marks left by the female
beloved and described by the narrator as “easy to see under my shirt,” but
this image only confirms that the narrator’s only visible physical
characteristics are reflections of her/his love (Winterson, Written 118). The
narrator blazons the beloved woman in anatomical detail, but remains unanatomised except on a purely psychological level.
Determined to “recognise her even when her body had long since fallen
away,” the blazoner prefigures the female lover’s death and dissolution by
partitioning and enumerating her body tissues (Winterson, Written 111). But
unlike Nora in Barnes’ Nightwood, s/he does not depict her/his own
“eyeballs loosened” in death and still recognising the beloved (Barnes,
Nightwood 53). Neither is she like Barnes’ Doctor O’Connor with his
“susceptible orbs staring down into and up through the cavities and openings
and fissures and entrances of [his] fellowmen, and following some, and
continuing others, and increasing many, and them swelling and opening and
contracting and pinching like the tides of the sea” (Barnes, Ryder 137).
O’Connor’s eyes are susceptible to the allure of the bodies he scrutinises in
his medical profession because they are of the same flesh. The orifices he
peers into swell like the sea and he too is “a mortal like the sea with [his] ebb
and flow” (Barnes, Ryder 137), formulations suggesting the iris as
contracting orifice. Apart from a sea, the bodies he surveys are described in
terms of a subterranean landscape of tunnels and caverns, contrasting with
Winterson’s pastoral topography of “forests” and “ivory coast” (Written 117).
Unlike Jackson and Barnes, Winterson plays down the political potential of
writing the anatomical body into the blazon genre by using conventional
imagery to sublimate the body of the blazoned woman, and by allowing her
narrator to remain a disembodied desirous eye. 70
Winterson’s preference for the eye as mirror or window to the soul over
the eye as physical organ is in keeping with her critique of the anatomical
partitioning of the body into separate systems, of which detailed attention to
the physiology of vision was a part (see Crary, Techniques 79-81). Barnes
takes a different route and instead merges spiritual and material aspects of
sight, such as in her detailed descriptions of Nora’s “large, protruding and
clear” eyes with the “mirrorless look of polished metals” which “contracted
and fortified the play before her in her own unconscious terms” (Nightwood
47). In this image, the subjective aspect of vision is made visible as a dimmed
and distorted reflection of a sight in the eyes of the beholder. Nora’s eyes are
semi-opaque, or “mirrorless” yet reflective in the way metal is reflective,
adding body to the “clear water” of the narrator of Written on the Body. In a
70 The poetic sublimation is neatly captured in Winterson’s symbolical use of the colours red and white,
which transforms the blood and bone of the diseased, decaying body into conventionally tasteful images of a
beautiful woman’s luxurious hair and pale skin, or a spray of berberis against a marble tombstone. The
problem is not her use of imagery as such, as I argued in relation to Crowder’s anti-metaphorical stance in the
section on body writing in the introduction, but its generic quality and its tendency to gloss over any
disgusting or disturbing aspects of the visceral body while ostensibly paying its tribute.
Seeing Sight
similar fashion, Robin’s eyes are described as being of a “mysterious and
shocking blue” and having “the long unqualified range in the iris of wild
beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye” (Barnes,
Nightwood 33). To the quite conventional note of the colour of the beloved’s
eyes is added a more unexpected qualification which serves at once to point
out an ocular fact – Robin’s distant focus – and an immaterial quality – the
absence of human reciprocal gaze.
Robin is further associated with a nonhuman gaze in a scene at the circus
where the animals in the ring “did not seem to see the girl, but as their dusty
eyes moved past, the orbit of their light seemed to turn on her” (Barnes,
Nightwood 49). Possibly, Barnes is referring to the Galenic theory of
extramission, according to which the eye sends out rays instead of being a
passive receiver of light (see Lobanov-Rostovsky 198-9). As an optical theory
it was discredited in the 17th century, but as Teresa Brennan observes it
lingers on in ideas of the evil eye, mesmerism and the psychoanalytic gaze
(219-21). More concretely, what Barnes describes is the corneal refraction in
the eyes of animals such as felines which extramission theory may have been
based upon, also described by Jackson in a scene of night driving: “In the
huge banks of unblemished dark on each side she occasionally saw two eyes
like shiny dimes, blank as Orphan Annie’s” (Half 38). The circus animals
cannot see Robin because she is in the dark and they are blinded by the same
light which makes their eyes shine. In other words they do not visually
recognise her on human terms; instead their eyes light her up like spotlights,
making her visible to Nora. Like Robin herself, these animals do not partake
in the human exchange of expressive gazes, which facilitates the
anatomisation of their eyes. 71 In a later scene where Nora’s and Robin’s
gazes meet in the dark, their eyes are described as illuminating the
surroundings as though they not just reflected but emitted light (Barnes,
Nightwood 57-8). Unlike the circus animals, they both see and illuminate at
once, and the luminosity of their eyes cannot be explained away as corneal
refraction as there is no external light source.
In Ryder too Barnes conflates psychological and physiological aspects of
sight, and especially in connection with animal eyes. In a sequence where a
rape victim is blamed by a mob of gossips, the “World’s Eye” the fallen
woman is asked to consider is concretised in a list of different eyes: “To the
Oblong Eye of the Deer, is not your Condition lengthened? By the Owl, is
there not purchased a Dreadful Rotundity? To the Shallow Eye of the Fish,
you are but a little staled, but to the Bossy Eye of the Ox, you may ride as
High and Damned as Jezebel. […] To the Myriad Pupil of the Fly, what can it
but manifold your Grievance?” (Barnes, Ryder 25). Although physiologically
implausible, these explanations of how differences in eye anatomy affect
71 Additionally, their blind sensing of Robin suggests an animal alignment with senses other than sight.
vision reflect the 19th century shift from geometrical to physiological optics
whereby vision became subjective and dependent upon the idiosyncrasies of
the eye (see Crary, Techniques 16).
Studies of subjective optical phenomena and even the discrepancy in
perspective between the two eyes called the divine perfection of the eye,
previously employed as an argument against evolution, into question (Beer
90). Barnes makes a mocking intervention into this theological debate when
she has a preacher in Ryder claim that “beasts have the holy look who have
their eyes on either side, for they are apart and contrive not together, and the
one sees not what is seen by the other,” while human eyes are so
“dumbfounded acquainted” that “it’s a terrible time I’m having setting
holiness between them” (187). Apart from referring to the biblical injunction
against impure mixings, this eccentric religious interpretation of the
placement of the eyes suggests that prey are more innocent and therefore
holier than hunters. Like other hunting animals, humans have their eyes set
on the front of their head in order to perceive depth with stereoscopic vision,
while prey have their eyes on the sides in order to maximise their field of
vision and detect dangers behind them (Trevor-Roper 129-30). Translated
into Barnes’ psychological terms, this implies that prey have only
disinterested peripheral vision, while hunters possess an interested gaze
focused upon the object of their desire. In Nightwood as well as Ryder, the
intentionally directed gaze conventionally associated with human encounters
is negatively connoted and posited against vision as a reflexive phenomenon
in the eye. At the same time, any neat dichotomy between human and animal
vision is undone by Barnes’ insistent translations of psychological aspects of
sight into physiological terms and vice versa.
Like Barnes, Jackson demonstrates a fascination with the
psychophysiology of vision exceeding conventional scientific understandings
of it. However, her anatomisation of the eye is less fantastical and more
concerned with how idiosyncrasies of human sight may affect artistic vision.
In the following section, I shall discuss her literary treatment of various
optical conditions and subjective visual experiences as part of her larger
project to anatomise vision.
Seeing Sight
Anatomising Sight
If I really wanted to render what I saw, then I would have to paint a faint nose-shadow just above the
base-line of every canvas. In addition, I’d have to include the white ghosts of nearby shapes looked at too
long and the incompletely joined, not-quite-duplicate views of objects closer to than the subject at hand:
I’d have to learn to render the condition of Out Of Focus. Nothing stayed still and flat and bright like
a picture, not even a picture. Everything was jostling, shimmering, bleaching out or darkening, receding
and then riding forward with a jerk. To stop that hokey pokey for long enough to pick a view and draw
it wasn’t easy. (Body [eyes])
In My Body, Jackson’s autobiographical persona develops a muscle spasm in
her eyelid by straining her eyes studying drawing (Body [eyelid]). This brief
account picks up several concerns from classic aesthetic theory detailing how
the eye might be caught, educated or fatigued by the object of vision (Bolla
69-70). The education of the eye is not simply a figure of speech for the
refinement of aesthetic sensibilities, but involves actual strain upon the
organ of sight – what might be considered a form of repetitive stress injury
in Ahmed’s sense (Queer 56-60). The protagonist of My Body fatigues her
eyes tracing the lines of drawings by Albrecht Dürer and Käthe Kollwitz until
they are familiar enough to recall and copy. The combined interest in
anatomy and aesthetics reflects the previously mentioned shift from
geometrical to physiological optics and the associated change in artistic
theory and practice culminating in the 19th century. Whereas previously
artists were expected to conform to an objective optical truth, the modernist
ideal was to render the world as subjectively seen. However, this still entailed
an education of the eye in order to free it from aesthetic and other cultural
conventions hindering pure perception (Crary, Techniques 82-8). This
parallel shift in optical and aesthetic theories also entails a shift in emphasis
between two conceptions of light: lux and lumen. Lumen, the divine light of
reason illuminating everything there is, was replaced by lux, light as actually
perceived, with its capacity to dazzle, blind or be insufficiently bright (Jay,
Downcast 29-30).
In classical art, lux was transformed into lumen by the camera obscura,
which framed and projected a view in preparation for drawing. Its single
opening letting in light functioned as an ideal objective eye, replacing the two
subjective bodily eyes with their subtly different points of view and flattening
the perspective (Crary, Techniques 46-50). Initially, the protagonist of My
Body is troubled by the discrepancy between her two eyes, which produce
two different potential views to paint: “How could I be expected to draw
things the way they really looked if in any given moment things looked, not
one way, but two?” (Body [eyes]). Having abandoned her juvenile artistic
ambition of faithfully reproducing perceptual reality, however, she instead
presents seeing double as a concretisation of the artist’s visionary power: “I
could let my eyes slide out of focus and see two worlds, slightly out of
register. They were different, but not very. But one day my eyes went out of
focus and for an instant I saw two completely different worlds. I picked one,
but ever since, I have been haunted by the feeling that this world is
insufficiently real. It only happens to be as it is, it might have been
otherwise” (Body [eyes]). In essence, Jackson suggests that the concrete
reality of binocular vision inspires the aesthetic conception of an alternate
More specifically, Jackson’s artistic vision is informed by her experience of
“migraine blindness” (retinal or ocular migraine) and related aura
phenomena described in My Body:
Migraine blindness starts with the funny feeling that I’ve missed a clue, that someone’s
pulling a prank on me. I know what to look for, and I spread my right hand in front of
my face, palm up, and stare at the tip of my baby finger. My thumb disappears. If I let
my eyes stray toward where my thumb should be it will reappear, but fix my eyes on
my pinky again, and it vanishes. As soon as I check, I am aware that I have known of
the problem for some time, but that it has only now reached my conscious attention.
Things have been missing (ears, page numbers, the arm of a sofa) but I have been
filling in for them. Now that I am paying attention, reading becomes impossible; the
ending of a long word disapp . Everyone is one-eyed, smiles are weirdly abbreviated.
Try driving; indeed, try walking in this condition. Objects appear out of gopher holes,
or lumber toward me on half their ordinary complement of wheels, or cross my path
and vanish. (Body [migraines])
The temporary loss of sight in one eye (or in half the visual field) reinforces
the previously mentioned experience of discrepancy between the two eyes
and the related feeling of unreality. While in the previous description of the
eyes going out of focus, Jackson’s persona arbitrarily chooses one visual
reality, in a migraine attack the choice is made for her and half her visual
world stolen. But the migraine not only subtracts from her visual perception,
it also adds a subjective visual phenomenon known as a scintillating
scotoma. That Jackson perceives this as a gift of aesthetic inspiration is clear
from her description of it as a “horrible and magnificent” “chimera” and its
duration as a “ceremony” (Body [migraines]). Her borderline sublime
terminology recalls speculations that the visions of St Hildegard and the
metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico might similarly have been
inspired by migraine auras (Trevor-Roper 143, 150).
The most obvious influence of Jackson’s ocular migraine on her writing,
apart from the passage from My Body, are her references to migraine in two
of the stories in The Melancholy of Anatomy. In “Cancer,” the protagonist
relates: “The cancer appeared in my living room sometime between eleven
and three on a Thursday. I am not sure exactly when, because I suffer from
bouts of migraine, and sometimes I miss things, or see things that aren’t
there, flashing shapes like the blades of warrior goddesses, the vanes of
transcendental windmills.” The fact that the cancer appears sometime during
Seeing Sight
the migraine attack suggests a connection, which is further reinforced by the
transition of visual descriptions from the migraine auras to the cancer, which
is at first “barely visible, a pink fizz, like a bloodshot spot of air” (Melancholy
57). The cancer appears as a material trace of the aura phenomenon,
inhabiting the same sphere between the visible and the invisible, the present
and the absent, before growing to forcefully assert its presence. In “Egg,” the
migraine is more obviously a period of conception for the fantastical
phenomenon giving the story its name, as Imogen goes to sleep with a
migraine and wakes up with “a red dot smaller than a pinhead” in her eye
(Melancholy 12). The dot turns out to be an egg, and when she removes it
from her eye her headache disappears, as though it was a form of birth
pangs. The optical phenomenon of migraine aura is replaced with the more
concrete phenomenon of an irritant in the eye. However, during her sleep of
conception, Imogen has “a dream of effortless energy, purpose, and interest”
reminiscent of Jackson’s description of scintillating scotoma as “energetic
and purposeful” in My Body (Body [migraines]). The optical experiences
associated with migraine are so intense that the ordinary perceptual world
feels unreal in comparison: “When I have my eyes back I am not sure I know
them. The healed real world looks whole, but its colors are a little tawdry, it
turns up at the edges. I keep checking to make sure all the pieces are there,
but if something were missing, could I tell?” (Body [migraines]).
Consequently, in “Egg” and “Cancer,” ocular migraines spawn a fantastical
egg and cancer growth, concretisations of the aesthetic inspiration to be
gained from such extraordinary perceptual phenomena.
Jackson’s use of ocular migraine is comparable to Cixous’ account of the
profound effects of her myopia upon her writing:
I write because I am nearsighted: it’s also, I think, through nearsightedness, thanks to
my nearsightedness, that I love:
I am someone who looks at things from very, very close up. Seen through my eyes,
little things are very big. Details are my kingdom. Some people survey. Some people
who are far-seeing don’t see what is very near. I am someone who sees the smallest
letters of the earth. (Cixous, Coming 109)
While Jackson’s migraine blindness and auras infuse her world with a sense
of unreality, Cixous’ myopia forecloses grand overviews and instead lends
gravity to easily overlooked details, and analogously Cixous’ écriture
féminine has a different quality than Jackson’s body writing. 72 What the two
authors have in common, however, is that they allow their respective optical
conditions to affect not just their visual perceptions but their worldviews in a
72 The myopic writing style might not be idiosyncratic to Cixous. Trevor-Roper speculates that myopia is
overrepresented among writers and can be discerned in stylistic traits such as a focus on details within close
visual range and a heightened reliance on hearing and touch, 31-6, see also McSweeney 172-4.
more general sense. Thus, they both acknowledge an unconscious, even
inhuman, agency of the body.
In “Angel,” visual disorders takes on more sinister connotation as the
protagonist’s father, an abstract painter, voluntarily sacrifices his eyesight to
his artistic vision:
His father had declared many times that he had furthered his art by the little trick of
unfocusing his eyes to study form an composition without getting hung up on details
of rendering. That and squinting. Years of squinting and unfocusing, though, had had
a deleterious effect on his vision, and when he was in his cups he often lamented the
loss of his once-keen eyesight to his friend the poet. Despite this, his father would not
wear his glasses outside the house, claiming to appreciate the play of abstract forms
that the visual world became without the disciplinary lens. (Angel 20)
The price is high: his artistic vision literally becomes the death of him as he
fails to see the car that hits him as he crosses the street. Though drastic, the
story is not so farfetched in light of actual visual artists who preferred to
have their myopia uncorrected in order to avoid the banal naturalism of
perfect vision (Trevor-Roper 36-44). The difference between this blurred
vision and Jackson’s and Cixous’ eye conditions is that his squint functions
as a sublimation and abstraction of vision. Rather than allowing the concrete
particularities of eyesight to inform his art, he attempts to overcome it and
reduce the clutter of visual detail to pure form. That is, he appears to belong
to the school of high modernist formalism, in which motif and narrative
content are irrelevant, while Jackson and Cixous are closer to the
impressionists, whose “emphasis on the fleeting, temporalized, evanescent
glance meant they retained a certain awareness of the corporeally situated
quality of vision,” according to Martin Jay. The impressionists were however
a “way station to the pure, self-referential art” of formalism, since they
“sought to reproduce the experience of light and color on the retinas of their
eyes” and thus treated motif or subject matter as mere occasion for such
optical experiences (Jay, Downcast 154-5). The realists, on the other hand,
wished to render “a visible reality there to be observed” (Jay, Downcast 180).
However, despite the “scopic detailism” (Jay, Downcast 112) of their style,
realists and naturalists were not necessarily interested in visual detail as
such. Schor describes how Roland Barthes’ concept of the “reality-effect” in
the realist novel depends upon a sort of myopic gaze resolving individual
details into insignificant parts of a larger pattern. Thus, the reductive
impulse embodied by the unfocused eye in “Angel” is not exclusive to
formalism but present even in such a seemingly cluttered genre as realism
(or at least in literary theory on realism).
In line with the understanding of the myopic gaze as reducing visual noise,
Cixous might be expected to naturally perceive the larger pattern. Instead,
she chooses to posit her myopia against a surveying gaze and emphasise its
Seeing Sight
function as a magnifying glass lavishing loving attention upon what is small
and near. Similarly, Jackson makes creative use of the visual noise
introduced by her ocular migraines. As I have previously mentioned, Jackson
employs visual realist techniques order to infuse her fabulist fiction with a
sense of vivacity. Thus, she can be said to combine the scopic detailism of
realist fiction with an impressionist or more generally modernist interest in
subjective visual phenomena. While she is not above wilfully squinting, this
is not done to reduce and formalise but rather to introduce an element of
creative ambiguity and unleash the imagination, such as when the eyes’
attempt to make sense of darkness turns it “into meaningful entities, stern or
laughing faces” (Body [eyes]). It is like when the taxidermist protagonist of
“Angel” finally takes, and simultaneously subverts, his father’s advice: “He
could not make out the angel against the dark branches overhead, only sense
something hurtling toward his head. If he blurred his eyes, just for one
moment, he could make believe it was flying” (Angel 33). The taxidermist
needs darkness and unfocusing in order to see something other than the
corpse of a boy with chicken wings stitched to it, but what he sees is not the
pure form his father would like him to perceive. Instead his squinting is done
in the service of his “hopelessly narrative sensibility” (Angel 20) and affords
him a glimpse of the invisible: the virtual life of fiction discussed in the first
section of this chapter. In sum, Jackson’s attitude to optical illusion is closer
to the taxidermist’s than to the patchwork girl’s dismissal of the dimly seen,
such as ghosts: “If one had to squint to see them, no doubt they had little to
show” (Patchwork [story/seance/skepticism]).
In many ways, Jackson’s interest in subjective visual phenomena aligns
her with the modernist concern with an “innocent” or “pure” artistic vision
described by Jonathan Crary in the following way:
Rather it is a question of a vision achieved at great cost that claimed for the eye a
vantage point uncluttered by the weight of historical codes and conventions of seeing,
a position from which vision can function without the imperative of composing its
contents into a reified “real” world. It was a question of an eye that sought to avoid the
repetitiveness of the formulaic and conventional, even as the effort time and again to
see afresh and anew entailed its own pattern of repetition and conventions. (Crary,
Techniques 96).
As already touched upon, this modern form of artistic vision was inextricably
tied to the 19th-century scientific interest in physiological optics, an interest
entailing scientific experimentation as well as a proliferation of optical
gadgets. What these experiments and gadgets showed was that vision is
subjective and that the eye can be tricked into seeing what is not really there.
Rather than attempt to overcome visual idiosyncrasies and achieve an
objectively correct view of visual reality, modernist artists wished to render
the world as perceived through their eyes.
As optical experiments in the early 1800s demonstrated that various
forms of stimulation of the optical nerves all produced a sensation of light,
vision became “redefined as a capacity for being affected by sensations that
have no necessary link to a referent.” This also conflated the traditional
distinction between “inner vision” and vision resulting from external stimuli
into “a single immanent plane” of sensation. In effect, perceptual experiences
were granted the power to produce multiple new realities, rather than just
reflect a given reality more or less accurately (Crary, Techniques 91-2).
Accordingly artists and scientists took a particular interest in visual
phenomena such as afterimages, which were no longer considered ”optical
illusions” but ”optical truth” (Crary, Techniques 97-8).
References to subjective visual phenomena are scattered throughout
Jackson’s work. In Half Life, Jackson describes the sky as “swarming
everywhere with luminous specks, like pond water under a microscope,
absolutely fabulous with cooties” (Half 308). This might describe
afterimages or the eyes’ attempt to make sense of a monochrome area, but
most likely “vitreous opacities,” that is, opaque fragments within the eye
itself becoming visible under certain conditions. In a vivid rendition of a
thunderstorm, Nora recounts how the “afterimage of stripes and teeth
danced in the air before my eyes” after a lightning flash (Half 316). While
vitreous opacities are perceptions of minute objects present in the eye, and
afterimages delayed reactions to visual stimuli, phosphenes are the
perception of light without any actual visual input: “When lying in bed in the
dark I sneezed I saw blue cat-whiskers of light at the edges of sight. When I
pressed on my eyes I saw concentric circles that slid around with my fingers,
circles of blue and muted orange, the very color of pressure”(Body [eyes]).
Jackson’s persona provides experiential evidence for her notion that
pressure has a colour, which is not a metaphor or even a case of synaesthesia
but optical reality according to the modern understanding of vision, in which
visual perception is disconnected from visual stimulus.
Nora in Half Life perceives phosphenes on several occasions as a result of
fatigue during the trip into the desert concluding the novel. They are
described for instance as “black crowdings pierced with tiny stinging lights,”
as “little lights flashing and zinging” and as the sky “going paisley with little
flares and detonations” (Half 396, 419, 423). Alongside such optical illusions,
she also experiences outright visual hallucinations explained as her
conjoined sister Blanche’s dreams interfering with her perception. At the
very end of the novel, however, these illusions give way to a different kind of
optical phenomenon:
Wobbling behind the heat-warped air, the bobbing green and purple retinal bursts, the
old impurities and new scratches in the glass windows of the dollhouse, was something
unlike all these. I had the funny idea it was a city. The dollhouse lurched as I broke
into a shuffle. A tiny book dinged me in the lip, a sofa champed against my chin, and
Seeing Sight
after a while I saw there really was a city, standing upside down on a fault in the sky.
Thin Air! The inverted houses flexed and flared and then steadied and stood firm,
depending from a flake of land that was stuck in the sky like a sliver of mirror glass in
an eye. (Half 426)
In one sentence, Jackson describes three different kinds of optical
phenomena: the concrete obstruction of flawed window glass, phosphenes’
impression of light and colour, and a mirage, which importantly is “no
phantom” (Half 426) or illusion but a distorted reflection of some distant yet
existent thing only visible under certain atmospheric conditions. Apart from
reinforcing the physicality of vision, the disturbing image of a glass sliver
stuck in an eye refers to H. C. Andersen’s tale Snedronningen (The Snow
Queen), in which fragments of a devilish, distorting mirror lodged in people’s
eyes and hearts make them see only evil and ugliness. I do not believe that
this is meant to infuse the mirage with negative connotations, only to suggest
that the atmospheric phenomenon creating it is like a mirror sliver in the eye
of the sky visualising a different reality. In this case, a mirror made of air,
moisture and light showing a real ruin as a shimmering city turned upside
The mirage brings me to conclude this section the same way it began, by
discussing the very condition of visibility: light. Just like sight can be
generalised into a disembodied gaze or embodied by an eye with its
idiosyncrasies, so light can be abstracted as lumen or concretised as lux.
Unsurprisingly, Jackson is mostly concerned with the latter, but the
distinction is not as clear-cut as it might seem. If lux is really taken to be
light as perceived, then it should include subjective visual sensations such as
phosphenes. This move, however, paradoxically abstracts lux by detaching it
from the objective presence of light. If lux includes the subjective sensation
of light resulting from various forms of electrical or mechanical stimuli of the
optic nerves, there is a short step to also include virtual sensations of light
resulting from purely mental stimuli, such as literary phantom sights. Then
how can lux be told apart from lumen understood as the abstract light of
reason illuminating what is before the mind’s eye? The answer is that the
distinction between lumen and lux denotes not a difference between
imagined and real light, but a difference between ideal light and
phenomenological experience. Lumen is a transparent medium of
illumination and clarity, while lux is perceived-light-as-such. It is lux in this
complicated sense that Jackson is concerned with.
Unlike lumen, lux is dependent upon the visual apparatus and potentially
damaging to it, as experienced by early 19th century optical scientists ruining
their eyes by staring directly into the sun, and artists such as Turner painting
dazzling light and its afterimages (see Crary, Techniques 138-41). Jackson
follows their lead in describing light as a subjective sensation, even when
there is an external light source. Waking up prematurely from narcosis, Nora
is blinded by the bright lights above the operating table and attempts to
make sense of her visual impressions in a semi-conscious state:
I pulled on my body like a sock and opened my eyes.
I thought for a moment, Oh, I see, I’m swimming! The light in my eyes was the sun
swinging on the broken surface of the water, and the pinkish blur was Granny in her
funny flowered swim cap. I rose, blowing bubbles. I broke the surface into the familiar
smell of an indoor pool: chlorine, mildew, and decay.
“Granny?” I said, or meant to say, and blinked the water out of my eyes. The chlorine
made my vision blurry, the lights were ringed by great fuzzy haloes, and there was a
swinging shine that was either very large or very close. I set myself to the task of
focusing on the shine, and eventually it resolved itself into a blade. (Half 321)
This scene says several things about optics. First, there is the difficulty of
focusing due to the muscle relaxation of narcosis. Then there is the dazzling
caused by the eye’s need to adjust from the darkness behind closed lids to
bright light. Further dazzling is added by Nora unwittingly staring straight
into the lamp upon awakening. Additionally, the work of the visual cortex to
make sense of the play of light and colour upon the retina is disturbed by her
disorientation. Unable to immediately rationalise the confusing display into
a coherent image, her brain picks up olfactory clues and interprets it as an
underwater scene. This shows that the visual apparatus is quick, sometimes
too quick, to extrapolate from any available impressions. Not until Nora
concentrates on seeing a single element clearly is the illusion dispelled. The
whole episode depicts light not as a medium for making other things visible,
but as a sometimes misleading part of the picture, that is, as lux.
The notion of lumen and the heliocentric tradition of thought in which the
sun represents the light of reason can be critiqued by turning towards
darkness and obscurity, as was done in the Romantic CounterEnlightenment (Jay, Downcast 106-10). Besides this simple reversal,
however, there is an alternative trajectory within literature and philosophy in
which lumen is replaced by lux in the form of a searing, blinding sun, as in
authors like Roussel or Bataille (Jay, Downcast 398, 510-1). This is only the
19th-century acknowledgement that “a glut of light is blinding” (Half 386)
drawn to its logical conclusion. In Jackson’s work, the critique of visualism is
not as strong and consequently lux does not take on such sinister
connotations. It is however dazzling or blinding to a lesser degree, often as a
consequence of abrupt shifts in lighting. This introduces an element of
temporality: the blinding is not absolute, as when staring into the sun, but
relative. The eyes can see in bright light or deep shade, but when moving
between the two, the pupil needs time to dilate or contract accordingly. Thus,
Seeing Sight
upon going inside on a sunny day, one is “sun-blind” with “eyes still jazzy
from the dance diagrams of the sun” (Half 153, 16). A sudden transition from
darkness to brightness, such as when opening one’s eyes or turning on the
light, has a similar effect. “Then the sun broke through, straight into my eyes,
so the car was rubied, and fringed with eyelash-rainbows. My nose was a
shining boomerang hanging over the aisle, Blanche a big blond blur,” Nora
narrates (Half 261). An excess of light does not increase lucidity but creates
interference and reduces visual acuity.
Under certain lighting conditions, otherwise invisible things such as dust,
fine hairs, clear water or plain glass reflect light, as suggested by the
“eyelash-rainbows” mentioned above. This tends to give the impression of
making visible not just the things in question but light itself. These minute or
transparent things lend light a body of sorts, a phenomenon captured by
Jackson’s phrases “pollen-thickened light” (Word 145) and “heathered light
drifting softly down like a vertical current” (Hagfish). While in these cases,
pollen or water lends body to the light, in other cases light appears somehow
semi-solid on its own. The patchwork girl feels “conscious of the light around
me as if it had substance, an amber cube and I the stuck eternal bug”
(Patchwork [story/falling apart/parting]) and Nora feels “weightless,
suspended in a thin but buoyant medium made of heat and light” (Half 422).
The idea of light adding perceptible texture to the air, like a wind or a mist,
might reflect scientific knowledge that light is made up of particles (and/or
waves). Herman Godfrey desperately wishes to be “sure the light was a
steady wind of photons, and not a slather of blond enamel” (Musée). That is,
he wants light to have material presence in the air and not just be a visible
surface effect. He is afraid that what appears to be visible proof of light
reflecting off objects may just be painted highlights. In a strict sense, the
distinction is not viable since forged light effects such as “a slather of blond
enamel” needs actual light in order to become visible and so can be said to
prove the presence of photons. However, such indirect proof is not enough
for Herman who wants to sense light as such. In sum, he wants light to be lux
– minuscule bodies made perceptible under certain conditions – and not
lumen – an incorporeal illumination from nowhere. Through these literary
phantom sights Jackson conditions the reader’s eye to see light as lux instead
of lumen, just like she conditions it to see various optical phenomena which
otherwise might not be consciously perceived.
In the Virtual Museum of Writing
Like Potter, Shelley kept the living lark in mind, but he, too, spent a lot of time fiddling with feathers.
(Original 334)
As described in the introductory chapter, Jackson’s work can be
characterised as a form of object writing in which spatial configurations of
things take precedence over narrative. Some of the virtual spaces favoured by
Jackson are cabinets of curiosities and museum dioramas: specifically visual
arrangements of information. In her essay “The Original Death and Burial of
Cock Robin,” she compares fiction to an exhibition, her specific example
being the taxidermy tableaux of Walter Potter. She draws upon Scarry’s work
on vivacity, but brings out the spatiality of literary images to a much greater
degree. According to Jackson, the kind of referentiality at work in fiction
functions so that words point away from themselves without pointing at
anything in particular: “we do not bother to look out the window” for a lark
mentioned in a poem (Original 333). In order to successfully create virtual
images, writers have to attend to the material aspects of language such as
“the black and white of the page,” while such visual qualities rarely interfere
with the literary phantom sights of the reader (Original 334). Visually,
writing presents a static series of signs which readers animate by “running
our eyes over it from beginning to end […] and in this way the words are
pulled before our eyes at the pace of living,” but the work of the eyes fades
from consciousness (Original 343-4). The virtual image of life produced by
literature obfuscates the actual image of words on a page: as Massumi puts
it, learning to read is “learning to stop seeing the letters so you can see
through them” (139).
Mieke Bal describes writing as a series of snapshots (Mottled 9) and I
agree that due to linguistic as well as literary conventions, writing cannot
mimic the simultaneity or seamlessness of live perception. Instead, writers
(at least most prose writers who, like Jackson, work with visual realism) have
to capture a sequence of emblematic scenarios and rely on the reader to fill
in the blanks. According to Scarry’s argument in Dreaming by the Book, the
gaps in a description mimic, and thereby smooth over, the reader’s difficulty
in visualising the move from a to b. In my view, however, she is mistaking a
generic feature of verbal description for a didactic tool facilitating the
production of mental images. Language is necessarily sequential and may
capture glimpses of movement in more or less detail depending on the pace
of the narration. Jackson claims that readers are generally willing to “see life
where none is,” especially in “fleeting details: A tiny striated rainbow in
eyelashes. Light creaming on a pale breast. The nervous jerk in a red Adam’s
apple” (Original 344). It is hardly a coincidence that she proves her point
with a series of visual details related to optical effects, light, colour and
movement. Scarry spends the major part of Dreaming by the Book detailing
literary techniques for infusing mental images with a sense of motion, such
as adding flashes of light or shadow play, or having a series of static images
replace one another in quick succession. Jackson refers to such poignant
images of lightness and transience as “fiction’s glass eye” which “shines on
the page like life” (Original 345). Her formulation does what it describes, as
Seeing Sight
the shining glass eye of fiction is itself a vivid phantom sight inspired by the
taxidermy theme.
Comparing the virtual image of life created by taxidermy to that created by
fiction, Jackson argues that in fiction the actual image of the text interferes
less “because it’s not as interesting to look at as a dead bird” (Original 334).
It might appear relatively unproblematic that the actual image of a dead bird
interferes with the virtual image of a live bird since based upon visual
resemblance, “a stuffed lark is a better representation of a lark than the four
shapes we agree to see as letters” (Original 333). However, Jackson insists
that “two larks compete for our attention, one of them agile and imaginary;
the other stiff, a little dusty, and visibly dead” (Original 334).
The discrepancy is made especially clear in Potter’s taxidermy tableaux
because he dresses and poses the animals like humans (or like
anthropomorphised storybook characters), but even in naturalistic
taxidermy the animal does not simply picture “itself.” As Jackson puts it,
“what could be weirder than a gull stopped midflap” (Original 335)? The
natural history diorama is always already mediated by pictorial conventions
instructing the viewer to see a virtual image of a live animal in the actual
image of a dead animal (or, to be more exact, in the composite image of dead
animal parts such as skeleton and skin and other materials used to arrest the
process of decay). Scientific imaging techniques tend to obscure the
mediation, naturalising truth as there to be seen by the naked eye and
themselves as the naked eye to see it with (Angel, “Physiology” 20-4). As
Jackson writes about taxidermied animals: “Like porn stars they strike poses
that afford a complete view of what in real life is usually out of sight, and
they offer this view as proof of the real, even as the support of the real – as
the realer real, which both is and represents itself at once” (Original 335). 73
At the same time, the mediated and therefore ostensibly objective eye of
science creates by contrast another kind of naked eye, the unmediated,
subjective eye of the modernist artist indulging in perception for perception’s
sake (Danius 18-9).
Jackson directs such an artistic “naked eye” at the art of taxidermy and
perceives death in place of life. “Angel” thematises this double vision as the
taxidermist protagonist creates an angel by stitching a pair of chicken wings
onto the corpse of a boy found in the park, and then decides to “look hard at
what was really there: a dead boy, the appurtenances of a chicken, his own
sick handiwork” (Angel 32). The story does not settle on this disillusioned
vision, but ultimately, if ambivalently, celebrates the power of art to
transform and animate its material. Invisible things such as angels need to
borrow the body of art in order to be made visible, but the merger with the
73 For a seminal study of the production of “ocular proof” of sexual pleasure in pornography, see Linda
visual qualities of the artists’ medium is never perfect. Thus, the taxidermist
needs to sense rather than see his creation in the dark to prevent the actual
image of a winged corpse from obscuring the virtual image of a flying angel
(Angel 33). The sight of a dead body may, as previously suggested, provide
more interference with what it depicts than the sight of words on a page.
Nevertheless, the same principle applies to literature. The phantom sight of a
flying angel may be produced by the text but does not exist on the same level
as the static signs on a flat page. Thus, “[i]f he flew, the taxidermist wouldn’t
see him. He would fly out of or into the page: the mortal direction, the
invisible direction” (Angel 32).
Life is not just invisible to the taxidermist because he belongs to the
category of inanimate matter (subcategory: literary characters); life as such
is invisible because it is in perpetual motion (Rohman 70). In Half Life, Nora
explains that her and Blanche’s “Dead Animal Zoo,” a collection of animal
carcasses, is superior to an ordinary zoo since live animals run and hide from
view while “dead things are for looking at” (179):
Dying, I had worked out, was a vigorous form of appearing. Living animals draw back
or move at a strategic angle to your line of sight, thereby keeping some of their
appearance to themselves. Dead animals don’t just meet your look squarely, they
spring up to the line of sight and pile into your eyes. You can see more of them, faster,
than you can see anything else. (Half 179)
Death makes living beings visible by arresting the motion of life. But as Nora
goes on to explain, dead animals move too, they “just move a lot slower”
(Half 179). Taxidermy visualises life through ending it and arresting its
motion, but it also needs to arrest the motion of death – decomposition – in
order to freeze the image of life. Viewers are supposed to overlook actual
signs of death such as wear, wires, dust and stitches in favour of the virtual
image of life presented. 74 Trotter describes how perspectivalism in painting
similarly freezes and formalises the motif, obscuring the slow movement of
decay perceptible if one looks hard enough at anything (Cooking 215-9). 75
One does not have to look very hard in order to see death in a taxidermy
display, which makes the example of taxidermy both obvious and unusual in
a culture which tends to render (actual) dead bodies invisible: “By custom,
by euphemism, by the undertaker’s arts, by medical practice, the materiality
of the corpse is kept out of view. When we see it openly displayed, it is
obscene, but also, if we’re honest, a little thrilling” (Original 339). According
to Kylie Rachel Message, drawing upon Jean Baudrillard, the corpse is
74 I do not mean to imply that death is the truth hidden beneath appearances. To see death in an image or
tableaux can also be a matter of convention, as exemplified by the memento mori genre. Taxidermy rarely
presents a virtual image of death, however; the purpose of the art being to make dead animals as “lifelike” as
75 He further argues that Cézanne captures decay in his still lives by breaking the rules of perspective and
having the objects subtly lean into each other or towards the viewer.
Seeing Sight
obscene because it is too real: it unquestionably “means” death, yet “its
meaning is beyond our line of vision” as death by definition eludes
experience (114). For Nora, however, this elusive excess of reality is
The deer was nothing but what it seemed, an unfortunate creature whose life had
ended. It did not lift up its head and speak to me. Though the sand on which it lay
shivered when the water drew back and seemed as dry as if no water had touched it
since the rainy season, the deer was real. It was what I needed. (Half 375)
Unlike the waves in perpetual motion and the sand shifting between wet and
dry, the dead deer does not do anything. In the context of Half Life, this
means it does not produce any signs or clues to be interpreted by the
increasingly paranoid Nora. 76 Death is so real it fixes the carcass to its literal
meaning – “a dead deer” – and suspends the dizzying proliferation of
significance, to Nora’s relief.
Michael Mendelson suggests that the sight of the corpse might aid in
fathoming what cannot be clearly conceptualised or articulated (202), and in
Jackson’s work, the confrontation with the visibly dead often leads to
recognition of one’s own mortality. The absence of life foregrounds the
materiality of the body and offers it up for scrutiny. When the natural history
lesson or anthropomorphising fable fades from view, taxidermy shows “the
stuff a living thing was made of”: “the dust on a fur coat, the light in the shaft
of a whisker” (Original 340). Such visual details invite the spectator to
compare her own mortal body to the dead body on display and to identify
with the stuffed animal instead of the image of life it presents. Reflected in
the mirror of the taxidermy tableaux “I see skin, hair, teeth. I see a corpse-tobe,” Jackson claims (Original 346). Seeing a corpse is the closest one can
come to seeing oneself as one will look like when one can no longer see
(Message 113).
In an interesting parallel to Jackson’s treatment of the taxidermy theme,
taxidermy artist Julia deVille’s contemporary reinventions of Baroque and
Victorian memento moris draw attention to the deadness of the specimen:
she treats dead animals as individuals whose remains she lovingly
transforms into mourning jewellery. There is a strong touch of the macabre
in her respectful transformation of bone, fur and feather into beautiful
artworks. Hair loses its lustre when no longer attached to a living being,
limbs become stiff and brittle-looking; in short, organisms are turned into
objects. As taxidermy makes concrete and explicit, art kills in order to
reanimate and the reanimation is never quite the same as life. As Jackson
puts it in “Stitch Bitch”: “It’s not the same as life, fiction has a funeral flavor
76 I am not referring to clinical paranoia, although some readers might be prepared to give Nora this
diagnosis, but to the mode of critical interpretation Sedgwick terms “paranoid reading” or “the hermeneutics
of suspicion,” 124-46.
to it, no question, a stony monumentality life luckily lacks, it has the
thudding iambic footsteps of the undead” (Stitch). Reviving corpses as
artist’s material like Potter and deVille do, alongside photographers like
Nathalia Edenmont or Joel-Peter Witkin, can open up dizzying vistas. A
perfect example of this would be the anatomist Frederik Ruysch’s memento
mori tableaux, in which foetal skeletons are revivified in expressive poses
lamenting their own deaths: death-portraying-life-portraying-death, all in
order to remind living viewers of their mortality (see Roberts and Tomlinson
290-6). Though not exactly immortal, prepared specimens are quite likely to
survive their audience. In Emma Donoghue’s “A Short Story,” an anatomist
preparing a tiny girl’s skeleton for the Hunterian Museum muses: “She
would stand grinning at her baffled visitors until all those who’d ever known
her were dust” (202).
Holding up a mirror of mortality is the specimen’s way of looking back at
the spectator. Jackson suggests that the stuffed animal might “open its eyes
and see the cracked glass, smell the dust, feel the beetles crepitating under
its skin,” that is, be reanimated into awareness of its own death (Original
344). In a scene fittingly set in the Hunterian Museum, the skull of “One and
a Half,” a boy with a parasitic twin, appears to looks back at Nora:
There was a glint of light in one eye socket. It almost looked like an eye – moist, shiny
– regarding me from inside the skull. My heart lurched. I stared back, I hardly know
how long.
Finally, I dared to step forward. As I did, the pale point of light grew, slid and rippled
and split in two around a flaw in the glass. I recognized my own reflection, and
laughed, relief warming my cheeks. I was the scariest monster there. (Half 189)
Nora’s relieved realisation that she is looking at her own reflection might be
taken to mean that any semblance of life in the specimen can be nothing but
a projection. However, her relief turns out to be premature as the specimen
bursts into song. This foreshadows the full variety act performed by stuffed
six-legged kittens and three-eyed chickens later taking place in the Potter
Museum (Half 237). The rational explanation for these occurrences is that
Blanche’s dream world is interfering with Nora’s perceptions, but this
reminder of her conjoined twin only emphasises Nora’s exchangeability with
the monsters on display. The animated specimens follow her out of the
museum, into the desert in the novel’s climax, prominent among them a twoheaded pig fœtus with “ivory snouts pointing left and right, like a cartoon of
a pig shaking its head” (Half 428) which prompts “a sudden image of
Blanche and myself in the womb” (Half 358). The theme of the natural
history exhibit coming to life appears in Bartlett’s Skin Lane too, and as in
Half Life it starts with the exhibits looking back at the protagonist: “All the
animals are certainly watching him – he knows that. He stares back at them
Seeing Sight
– at all those rows and rows of labels; all those bright, glass eyes” (Bartlett,
Skin 252). For Mr F in Skin Lane, the scenario is a form of wish fulfilment
instead of disorienting hallucinations: “And now this dead menagerie is not
enough; he decides he wants to see them come to life. […] He watches wideeyed as all around him the beasts twist, dig and tear at the pins and wires
they’ve been threaded and maimed with; he smiles” (Bartlett, Skin 253).
Nevertheless, the flock of animals unleashed in his imagination sweeps him
up in a mutual becoming; as the dusty taxonomy specimens turn into
ferocious living animals, so Mr F becomes-beast.
As suggested by the figure of taxidermy mounts coming alive and
following the protagonist around, museum spaces refuse to be contained in
Jackson’s work. They continually seep into real life, such as when Nora hears
of the Museum of Childhood and imagines that her “whole past might be
displayed there, with pornographic candor and a bronze plaque: The NorthAmerican Child, 20th Century, Desert Habitat” (Half 198). Later she is
convinced that she is in a diorama and calls herself “a taxidermy girl in a
wind-up world” (Half 325, 356). Similarly, the taxidermist in “Angel”
describes his paid work as “so dead that day that everyone was just standing
around glassy-eyed” and upon finding straw on the floor he thinks “I’m in a
diorama!” (Angel 31). During an exhibitionistic display in his window, he is
excited by the thought that he might look like “some kind of mannequin or
lay figure from a museum diorama” (Angel 28). The eerie effect is
reminiscent of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s breathtakingly beautiful photographs of
dioramas in which their mundane framing as museum exhibits has been
removed. In the concluding section, I draw out the implications of opening
up the virtual museum of literature to include the reader.
Reading as Auto-anatomisation
Since he spent so much of his time with the dead, the taxidermist sometimes felt like he was dead
already, that everyone was. The past was fixed and everyone was living it, or that shrinking part of the
past that still lay ahead of them. Their gestures weren’t really optional; they would prove in retrospect to
be unchanging, final. Even his thoughts, in their repetitive circlings, would look from any distance like
a fixed point. He, Darla, his masturbating landlady were all mounted specimens, memorabilia of the
future. (Angel 31)
To recognise oneself in the museum exhibit is to acknowledge that one is a
thing that might be put on display. Death only makes human materiality
visible by rendering bodies (more or less) inert and thinglike. The animated
taxidermy animal functions as a transition to identifying with inanimate
matter, as it is easier to identify with something which has once been alive.
Ultimately, however, Jackson treats all matter as corpses available for
artistic (re)animation: as David Tiffany has it, toys and poems alike are
forms of “animated pictures” (21-30). The spectator who looks closely at
Herman Godfrey “to see if the sheen of enamel bears any resemblance to that
of human feeling” will discover her own reflection in “the dot of light on the
raw metal inside back of his skull” (Musée). This might be taken to indicate
that any light of life discernible in Herman is reflected off the onlooker, but
equally that the onlooker sees her own lifelessness in the mechanical toy.
Analogously, the “window” of writing, seen in a different light, turns into
mirror reflecting the reader (Original 346). Instead of identifying with the
virtual view of life seen through the window, the reader might recognise her
materiality in the opaque medium of language. Language, toys and
taxidermy specimen all share the capacity of being animated with human
The reader is prompted to recognise herself in the virtual museum
exhibits through meta-literary devices such as direct address. The narrator of
Brophy’s In Transit reminds the reader: “In your own eyes, I don’t doubt,
you are a very real part of the real world. But please remember that, to me it
is you who are the fictitious – the, indeed, entirely notional – character” (73).
Literary characters and narrators are textual functions but so are, strictly
speaking, readers. From the narrator’s point of view, the lack of
physiological, especially sexual, characteristics which makes her/him appear
unreal and inhuman, is shared by the reader. While the reader may be
reassured by the knowledge of her own sex, she is at least reminded by the
narrator’s auto-anatomisation that she, too, is confined to a partial and
distorted view of her own anatomy and cannot, for instance, see the back of
her shoulders. Literary anatomies such as Jackson’s hold up a mirror to
readers and encourage them to anatomise themselves.
As I have argued throughout this chapter, Jackson’s anatomisation of the
eye conditions the anatomising gaze of the reader in specific ways. The
bodies anatomised in her work are alive and look back, which invites the
reader to see herself reflected in their eyes. As brought out by the trope of
auto-anatomisation, there is no abstract anatomising gaze exempt from
anatomisation. By anatomising the eye and describing various subjective
optical experiences, Jackson embodies and particularises vision. Sight means
seeing, an activity unfolding in time and involving temporal phenomena
such as afterimages. The eye is not a geometrical vanishing point but a bodily
organ – or rather two, working in tandem to produce stereoscopic vision.
Similarly, light is not an invisible medium of visibility but a substance
bouncing off surfaces and outlining objects in space.
At the same time, Jackson is careful not to reduce the richness of the
dominant sense to its strictly physiological operations. Her comparison of
literary works to taxidermy tableaux brings out the virtual aspects of actual
vision: to simultaneously see something else in what is before the eyes. All
art with a visual aspect juggle actual and virtual vision, drawing attention to
or from the visible materiality of the medium. Deleuze has written
extensively on cinema, arguing that the camera and the cutting produce a
Seeing Sight
new form of seeing which is not arranged around the point of view of an
interested human observer (see Colebrook, Deleuze 56-9). I would add,
however, that in order to access this nonhuman eye the spectator needs to
perceive more than light projected onto a screen. What makes literature
special compared to the visual arts is merely that the actual sight of the
written word is so dull that it tends to fade from consciousness, giving way to
phantom sight. As I have shown in this chapter, some of the most vivid
phantom sights in Jackson’s work are dismembered parts still living and
vivisected bodies opening up themselves to display their innards.
Hearing Voices
Hearing Voices: Writing as
A flag clucked against its pole, an almost anatomical sound, like a throat clearing before a speech.
(Half 345)
After sight, hearing is the most privileged sense in modern western culture.
When sight is not posited against touch, as detailed in the chapter “Touching
Texts,” it is often posited against hearing, especially in the Christian
iconoclastic tradition privileging the true word of god above dazzling and
seductive appearances (Jay, ”Rise” 312). Due to the generally dominant
status of the sense and its particular function as carrier of (oral) language,
there is a wealth of material related to sound and hearing in Jackson’s work.
In order to manage this material, I have chosen the figuration of
ventriloquism as a structuring device. It might appear that ventriloquism has
more to do with speaking than hearing, but in my understanding the
phenomena of “speaking in tongues” and “hearing voices” are interrelated.
As Steven Connor shows, the phenomenological roots of ventriloquism are to
be found in infantile onomatopoetic mimicking of the characteristic “voices”
of things. “What is imitated in onomatopoetic voicing is the world’s own
capacity to give voice,” Connor writes, and further “I give the world an
animate life by taking it as a voice” (10). In my understanding, this giving
voice is not an anthropocentric “speaking for” (replacing the voice of the
thing with a human voice implying a human interior) but a particularly
intense form of listening. In The Doll Games, Jackson describes how “the
whole material world used to seem on the verge of humping itself up and
acquiring legs and a pinched, squeaky voice” (Doll [uncanny]). I assume that
humans, like many other animals, are evolutionarily attuned to listen for and
imitate voices. Thus, voicing stands in a similar relation to hearing as eating
does to tasting: they are not identical but intertwined.
The relation between hearing and voicing is brought out by the history of
sound reproduction. During the 19th century, focus was shifted from the
production to the reception of sounds; or, rather, the location of sound
production was shifted from external source to sensing body. Sound began to
be understood as the ear’s translation of certain vibrations potentially
perceptible through other senses as well. Whereas earlier technologies of
sound reproduction had attempted to mimic for example a speaking mouth,
new technologies mimicked instead the workings of the tympanum and
incorporated a vibrating membrane which translated sound waves into
something else and back again (Sterne 2-3). Jackson treats these two basic
modes of sound reproduction as contemporaneous and complementary, for
example by having the automaton Herman Godfrey of “Musée Mécanique”
incorporate both. He finds his makers, the genius girls, “too loud, their
voices battered his wax-paper ear drums, sending white lines of strain across
them” (Musée). Like the earliest technological devices imitating the
tympanum, Herman’s ears translate sound into visible signs instead of
electrical impulses. His voice production draws upon an even older
technology, however: “Herman Godfrey screamed. The Kratzenstein device
successfully reproduced the vowels a, e, i, o, and u by expelling air from
bellows into tubes of different shapes. Herman Godfrey did too. It sounded
like crying” (Musée). The Kratzenstein device was one of the 18th century
speaking machines based on the principle of mechanically synthesising
speech (see Connor 350-1; Sterne 72-7). By describing the sound of
Herman’s voice as “like crying,” Jackson underscores the affective
expressivity of mechanically produced sounds. This is quite typical of the
soundscapes her texts produce: they are full of nonhuman voices and body
noises. Examples from Half Life, the central work treated in this chapter,
include the “quiet gasp” of a prosthetic knee joint (231) and the “long sad
bovine honks” of cars (371).
Perhaps such authorial giving voice to inanimate things is a typically
modernist trait. According to Douglas Kahn, modernism “produced a greater
emphasis on listening to things, to different things, and to more of them and
on listening differently” (9). Kahn connects this to the increasing availability
of sound recording, which turned the voice into concrete sound available as
material for art, and blurred traditional distinctions between voice, noise and
music (8-12). As an example of the distinct sound of modernist literature,
Mina Loy took her cue from jazz to write poetry that “releases the rhythms of
modernity, which are also the rhythms of the immigrant” (Goody 198).
Goody describes how in Loy’s work “word sounds and word-play
(alliteration, polysemy, neologisms, punning, bathos, rhyme) produce an
excess of poetic convention”: a modernist style which, like that of Djuna
Barnes, draws heavily upon literary tradition (197). Discussing Barnes’
intertextual loans from literary history, Caselli argues that “Barnes’s
ventriloquism is an attack against the primacy of voice as the mark of a
natural, or primary state of language” (23). I agree that the (post)modernist
sampling technique shared by Barnes and Jackson expresses scepticism
against orality as a mark of naturalness or primacy. I do not believe,
however, that such literary ventriloquism entails scepticism against orality as
such. Instead, I would like to stress the literality of voice in literary voice and
concur with Winterson’s claims in her essay “A Work of My Own” that “style
has in it many voices” and that it “is not style as collage, it is style as
polyphony, where the past is audible again” (Art 180-1). That “voice” is not
taken to express genuine self-presence does not mean that the audible
resonance of literary voice has to be rejected or resisted. On the contrary:
writing as ventriloquism is all about hearing voices. Winterson insists that in
Hearing Voices
order to achieve voice and style, the “writer has to hear language until she
develops perfect pitch” (Art 172). By applying a musical term to literature
she foregrounds the sonority of language: not its meaning or message but its
rhythms and cadences audible to the inner ear in a style that “reads itself
aloud” (Art 184).
My discussion of literary ventriloquism is developed in the first section of
this chapter, through a reading of works by Jackson, Carter and Bartlett
employing the ventriloquism trope to question authorship. While narrating
the story of Half Life, Nora worries that her words are unconsciously
dictated by Blanche, while the protagonist of Patchwork Girl channels the
voices of her creator Mary Shelley and of the several different persons (and a
cow) whose body parts she is stitched together from. Drawing upon such
literary examples, I show how writing can be understood as ventriloquism in
several different ways: as the reader, the author and language itself throwing
their voices and speaking through the mouths of one another. Writing is
ventriloquism first of all in the sense that each linguistic utterance echoes
previous utterances and each literary work cites previous literary works.
Thus, writers are never the sole and original authors of their texts.
Furthermore, writing may be understood as authorial ventriloquism in that
the reader’s speech organ is unconsciously, silently engaged in articulating
the words. However, the ventriloquism also works in reverse, as the reader
throws her voice and speaks through the text, colouring the authorial voice
with her own timbre and inflection.
Language itself has an inhuman agency preceding that of individual
language users, so that there is an oscillation between “I speak language” and
“language speaks me” (Lecercle, Violence 5-6). In the second section, I deal
specifically with how the voice of language as such is made audible in
nonsense and wordplay. By voiding the text of semantic meaning, nonsense
foregrounds the sensual pleasure of linguistic sonority and invites reading
aloud. Rather than write pure nonsense, Jackson tends to weave wordplay
into her narratives in the vein of écriture féminine and other forms of
experimental writing. Several of her stories, most prominently “My Friend
Goo,” demonstrate the power of language to speak itself and generate
affective intensity in forms such as nursery rhymes and tongue twisters,
where a logic of nonsense rather than sense dictates the text. “Early
Dispatches from the Land of the Dead” and “Consuetudinary of the Word
Church” deal with channelling the voices of the dead through elaborate
linguistic rituals involving mispronunciations, obstructed speech and
stuttering. This recalls Deleuze’s dictum that great writers are those capable
of making language stutter, in order to deterritorialise it away from sensemaking.
The stuttering of language has a correspondence in body noises such as
hiccups and farts which give voice to other agencies than the conscious
human subject. Even the voice involves distinctive corporeal resonances in
excess of communication – what Barthes terms “the grain of the voice”
(Dunn and Jones 1-2). Such bodily sounds are the theme of the third section,
with Patchwork Girl as its most prominent example. The patchwork girl is
haunted not just by voices, but by bodily tics and sounds bursting out in
what resembles a hysterical attack during a séance. Since the patchwork
girl’s body is conflated with the body of text, her hysteria thematises the
modernist hysterisation of literary form, where the text eludes the
authoritative narrator and erupts in senseless sonorities (Kahane vii-xv).
More specifically, this haunted and hysterical hypertext partakes in a
feminist reclamation of the traditional association between female voices
and gushing body fluids (Dunn and Jones 2-4). However, Jackson departs
from the celebration of the organic in écriture féminine through her
preference for the grain of the machine, or the noises made by artificial
bodies. To illustrate this I turn to “Musée Mécanique,” where the bodies of
protagonist and text alike resound with phantom sounds of ticking, creaking,
whirring, clonking and so on.
Song is a central example of when the sonority of the voice overshadows
(although it may also accentuate) any verbal message communicated. Rather
than consider the musicality of literary language, its rhythms and sonorities,
as has been done in studies of poetry, I devote the fourth section to phantom
sounds of music in Jackson’s prose. Throughout a close reading of a
performance scene in Half Life, I pick out various aspects of music which
might function to deterritorialise literature away from linguistic sensemaking. I discuss singing as a machination, queering and becoming-animal
of the voice, and as a particular form of ventriloquism in which music itself
sings through the singer. I also argue that Jackson’s incorporation of an
actual aria into a virtual musical performance works as a form of sampling or
ventriloquism. In conclusion, I propose singing along as a model for reading.
Hearing Voices
In my howls I found some comfort and thus learned my first lesson about language: that one might host
what one could neither master nor become, for in a sob weep all the generations past and to come; a wail
is all words, all languages at once. (Consuetudinary 137-8)
Ventriloquism is often used to figure a lack of originality, as in Kilgour’s
characterisation of Coleridge’s Biographia as a “passive dummy not of truth
but of a host of foreign voices who invade it” (190-1). In this section, I want
to consider ventriloquism without anxiety of influence and treat it as the
normal condition of writing. I argue that writing can be understood as
ventriloquism in several different ways: as readers, authors and language
itself throwing their voices and speaking through the mouths of one another.
Hearing Voices
The starting point for my discussion is Jackson’s explicit thematising of the
ventriloquism of writing in Patchwork Girl and Half Life.
Before moving on to my readings of these texts, I first need to outline the
phenomenology of ventriloquism, as explained by Connor in Dumbstruck:
When animated by the ventriloquist’s voice, the dummy, like the cartoon character
given voice, appears to have a much wider range of gestures, facial expressions, and
tonalities than it does when it is silent. The same is true of any object given a voice; the
doll, the glove puppet, the sock draped over the hand, change from being immobile
and inert objects to animated speaking bodies. Our assumption that the object is
speaking allows its voice to assume that body, in the theatrical or even theological
sense, as an actor assumes a role, or as the divinity assumes incarnate form; not just to
enter and suffuse it, but to produce it. In bald accuracy, it is we who assign voices to
objects; phenomenologically, the fact that an unassigned voice must always imply a
body means that it will always partly supply it as well. (Connor 35-6)
According to Connor, then, ventriloquism depends upon the fact that
disembodied voices are routinely assigned to any plausible body in or out of
sight. Crucially, however, the phenomenological intolerability of bodiless
voices does not make the voice subordinate to the body. Instead, the voice
commands any body it is assigned to, which gives the ventriloquist an
uncanny power to animate objects and direct others. The question running
through this section is how this may apply to literary voices: what kind of
bodies do they summon up or commandeer?
In Half Life, Jackson suggests a phenomenological drive not just to assign
bodies to disembodied voices, but to actively invent voices for inanimate or
inhuman bodies: “We mock up an interlocutor in whatever flurry of
molecules can keep a mask on. We’re ventriloquists in love with our
dummies” (Half 359). This can be understood as the driving force behind not
only ventriloquism but doll games and narrative fiction in general. Merrill
Cole’s description of Robin in Nightwood as “the dummy that makes the
ventriloquists speak” reinforces the notion that who- or whatever does not
speak for itself provokes ventriloquism in others (406). Robin is not exactly
silent: she sings, screams and speaks, but the reader rarely gets to know what
she says and thus she inspires not only her fellow characters in the novel but
numerous critics and academics to speak for her. Connor distinguishes
between an “active” and a “passive” form of ventriloquism, defined as “the
power to speak through others” and “the experience of being spoken through
by others” respectively (14), but as the example of Robin shows, things are
not always so clear-cut. Sometimes “active” ventriloquism is described as a
“passive” experience: a compulsion to speak through or for others. Other
times is it not at all clear who is speaking through whom: when a girl speaks
for her doll in a game, for example, is it she putting words in the doll’s mouth
or the doll putting words in hers?
In Jackson’s work, ventriloquism is connected to twinning. 77 This is
especially the case in Half Life, where the extra head of a conjoined twin
might function as a ventriloquist’s dummy. In one instance, this is literally
the case: the trickster Mr Nickel wears a prosthetic extra head which he
makes speak, not through ventriloquism proper but through recordings of
his voice. This recalls a tradition of associating mechanical “speaking heads”
and automata with ventriloquism (Connor 337-42). Connor describes a
historical shift from religious to physiological explanations of ventriloquism,
which also entailed a shift from conceiving it as a passive, feminine
experience of “speaking in tongues”, to an active, masculine experience of
“throwing one’s voice” (Connor 227-9). With his prosthetic speaking head,
Mr Nickel fits into the latter conception of ventriloquism as virtuoso
entertainment often performed alongside mechanical marvels. However,
even in his case the construction of ventriloquism as active is undermined by
his lack of actual vocal skills and by the fact that technology rebels and
makes his prosthetic head speak incoherently
The protagonist Nora, on the other hand, is fully aligned with the earlier
conception of ventriloquism as giving voice to divine or demonic powers.
More specifically, with its continuation in the Gothic literary tradition, which
according to Kilgour oscillates between “demonic possession” and “neurotic
obsessions,” “so that voices may come from outside, from daemons or God
himself, or from inside, from the human mind, which is prone to ‘hear
things’” (177). Since Blanche is dormant she does not speak through her own
mouth, but Nora worries that she is ventriloquizing through hers via their
shared nervous system. The fact that Nora and Blanche are never
simultaneously conscious means that they cannot talk to each other, which
conforms to the general pattern of ventriloquism:
This is a pattern that remains constant across many different cultural instances of the
doubling of voice, whether in cases of possession, or mesmeric speech, or spiritualist
trance, or multiple personality disorder: not only can the other voice not speak at the
same time as the proper voice, it cannot communicate with it. The presence of one
implies the silence or absence of the other. (Connor 205-6)
This is most obvious in a scene at a restaurant where everything Nora tries to
say comes out as a moo (Half 362-3). Since the mooing silences her own
voice and precludes explanations, all she can do is silence the mooing in turn
by keeping quiet. This scene of vocal takeover is an unusually blunt example
of the novel’s ventriloquism theme. While narrating her story, Nora worries
that Blanche is dictating her words in more subtle ways: “But now,
everything I thought was mine begins to look like hers. I’m lip-synching my
77 By “twinning” I mean doubling in a more extended sense than just literal twinning. Jackson’s work is full of
copies, stand-ins, mirror images and siblings, though perhaps no more so than that of other (post)modernist
writers and artists.
Hearing Voices
autobiography. This fake book, full of spelling terrors. I pore over it, looking
for notes from underground” (Half 366). The problem is, of course, that for
the paranoid mind everything looks like a sign. Every thought, word or
action Nora does not wish to acknowledge as her own, she can blame on
Blanche. Blanche might even be considered a physical manifestation of the
voices Nora hears, if Connor is right that ventriloquism works because voices
supply their own bodies.
Nora’s predicament recalls one of Claude Cahun’s self-portraits: a
manipulated photograph of her with two heads, one whispering in the ear of
the other, which has the air of listening intently. The work is part of an
œuvre of self-portraits where Cahun uses costumes and makeup to take on
different identities, male as well as female. It repeats the doubling from her
famous self-portrait in front of a mirror, but in a more startling and uncanny
way. Crucial to my discussion is the way one head speaks to the other,
concretising the notion of split subjectivity as “hearing voices” and “speaking
in tongues.” This is not to reduce the entire plot and premise of Half Life to a
metaphor for the so-called death of the subject. As I argue throughout this
dissertation, Jackson’s concretisations of concepts introduce a sensual
specificity irreducible to allegory. She employs literature (as well as other art
forms) to think through matter, or think materialistically, about problems
which cannot be fully abstracted.
Nora’s identity crisis is inextricably connected to her embodiment as a
conjoined twin, but it is pertinent for singletons as well. Hearing voices
inside one’s head might lead to the experience of having more than one
consciousness sharing one body, which for Nora is literally the case.
However, Nora can never be sure whether a foreign voice is really Blanche’s
and not just her own split subjectivity speaking. In her paranoid
speculations, she considers the possibility of being “Nora thinking she is
Blanche thinking she is Nora thinking she is Blanche thinking she is Nora”
(Half 373). Ultimately, the distinction breaks down: if Nora believes her
words to be ventriloquised by Blanche, then in some sense it is Blanche
The real question is, if I can write a fake Blanche, then what makes me think I am not
writing the real Blanche? And its corollary: If she can write a fake Nora, what makes
me think this one is real?
Who’s writing this book, anyway? (Half 373)
Nora’s authorial identity crisis brings me back to the question of writing as
ventriloquism. As Nora worries that she is not the author of her narrative, so
does J. F. Bellwether, the “editor” of The Doll Games: ”Is it possible that I am
neither the critic nor the audience, but just the latest dummy of the Jackson
girls—that those pint-sized ventriloquists are throwing their voices out of the
past, not to reveal their secrets, but to play yet another DOLL GAME?” (Doll
[editorintro]). 78 Nora and Bellwether are both right to be suspicious, as they
are in fact fictional characters “played” by the Jackson sisters. However, their
doubts reflect those of actual authors. Writing fiction can be thought of as
ventriloquism in the active form: as the author throwing her voice and
speaking through her characters. Yet it can equally well be thought of as
ventriloquism in the passive form: as the author being possessed by her
characters and speaking in tongues, and this is how the figure is most often
Writing is ventriloquism in the basic sense that each linguistic utterance
echoes previous utterances and each literary work cites previous literary
works. As Kilgour puts it: “Even when circumscribed by copyright, words are
always crossing boundaries, entering into ourselves and others whether we
want them to or not” (185). She shows how this is particularly true for the
words of canonised authors such as Shakespeare and Milton, who are
constantly and often unconsciously quoted and re-quoted without
attribution. Thus, writers are never the sole and original authors of their
texts. The Romantics viewed authorship as the giving voice to others, yet
were concerned with subsuming these other voices under a strong authorial
voice, and introduced the figure of ventriloquism for the threat of authorial
self-loss (Connor 297). Later, the crisis of the subject in the 19th century
brought about a corresponding literary “fragmentation of the speaking
subject” which was eventually formalised in modernism (Kahane vii-xv).
This means that the authoritative narrator of the early novel was replaced by
unreliable, ill-informed or multiple narrators. Hertel traces the continuation
of this development in the contemporary “novel of voices” which emulates
oral storytelling (100). Claiming that “many writers today appear to hear
voices, and their writing appears to be a struggle to lend them a literary
shape,” he emphasises the aural qualities of the resulting prose (Hertel 91).
Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall can be characterised as a
novel of voices: a collective novel of gay male history in which the
protagonists are a sort of gay everymen named only “Boy” and “O.” The
intradiegetic narrator, an anonymous peripheral character, imaginatively
lends his voice to the protagonists and cites monologues and dialogues he
could not realistically have heard. The ventriloquism works on several
different levels, so that O in turn impersonates other gay men in his sleep:
“Sometimes he spoke in a way that reminded Boy of a programme he had
once seen about spirit mediums; like a strange kind of ventriloquist”
(Bartlett, Ready 137). Overt references to ventriloquism such as this invite
78 The doll players throwing their voices out of the past are not twins but sisters, with additional doubles
provided by matching pairs of dolls. Their teamwork provides a different take on the ventriloquism-twinning
connection than the one where one twin speaks through the other (though there is some concern that the
older sister Shelley manipulates the younger Pamela into saying and doing things).
Hearing Voices
being read metatextually as comments upon the nature of authorship, even
when the connection is not explicitly made in the text.
While in Bartlett the ventriloquism is a benign act of giving voice to the
forgotten victims of history, in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber it instead
figures the force of history to repeat itself. Her mythological characters are
directed by ancient scripts, so that even at their most terrible and powerful
they appear lacking in agency. This lack of agency might even make them
more frightening: you cannot reason with a monster any more than with a
ventriloquist’s dummy. The beast in one of Carter’s rewritings of The Beauty
and the Beast, “The Tiger’s Bride,” needs a translator to communicate with
humans: “His masked voice echoes as from a great distance as he stoops over
his hand and he has such a growling impediment in his speech that only his
valet, who understands him, can interpret for him, as if his master were the
clumsy doll and he the ventriloquist” (Carter 53-4). What this passage seems
to suggest is that unintelligible speech is like no speech at all: even though
the statements originate from the beast, it is his valet who is figured as the
ventriloquist in this exchange. The reference to echoes, one of many
positively reverberating throughout the book, also locates the origin of the
beast’s speech elsewhere. An additional example from “The Lady of the
House of Love” makes this thematic even more explicit: “Her voice, issuing
from those red lips like the obese roses in her garden, lips that do not move –
her voice is curiously disembodied; she is like a doll, he thought, a
ventriloquist’s doll, or, more, like a great, ingenious piece of clockwork”
(Carter 102). The vampiric curse is compared to the programming of a
speaking automaton, forcing the vampire to repeat outdated lines. There is
no room from improvisation: when she deviates from the script, she dies. In
Carter, the references to ventriloquism metatextually signal the fairy tale
genre’s inherent resistance to revisions. It is flexible to a degree, allowing for
variations, but if the author wants to fully tap into its literary force she
cannot deviate too far from the formula. 79
Like Bartlett and Carter, Jackson belongs to the (post)modernist tradition
affirming the multitude of voices speaking in any literary text. While her
work fits neither with Bartlett’s quasi-oral novel of voices, nor with Carter’s
close grappling with one particular genre, it has affinities with both. Jackson
reworks a multitude of sources from different genres and historical periods
in order to wring new voices out of them, particularly voices of women,
queers and freaks. Patchwork Girl is an obvious example of this technique,
where the protagonist personifies the text as patchwork of intertexts and
explicitly comments upon it:
79 This is probably why Carter’s often dark and bloody tales remain more effective than many other queer and
feminist revisions which too easily discard the compulsive, formulaic repetitiveness of the genre.
This language I speak, it’s haunted. No, it is a haunting, a possession, an unfamiliar
voice, dogs growling, in my throat. Stuck succubus, I was going to say, because
possession is as sexual as it sounds. A haunting and sexual intercourse/discourse. But
if I don’t own it (and it is unfaithful to me) nobody else does either, or ever did. It’s
just singing, snarling wind blowing through our mouths on its way through time. And I
have as big a mouth as anyone. (Patchwork [story/rethinking/voice])
Rather than express an anxiety of influence, the patchwork girl affirms the
idea of language as speaking through her. It brings about an intimate
encounter with the other which is described in terms of sexual pleasure, not
violation. In place of a pessimistic view of discourse as dominated by certain
strong voices which one has to guard oneself against, the patchwork girl
offers an optimistic view of it as belonging to no one and therefore to
everyone equally.
The Frankenstein intertext for the figure of the reanimated corpse
determines the association of language with death and haunting, but I do not
think that this is incidental. Jackson’s Word Church stories, “Early
Dispatches from the Land of the Dead” and “Consuetudinary of the Word
Church,” also deal specifically with channelling the voices of the dead:
Before we channel the dead voice, we must silence the living one. This is not the same
as simply not speaking. We must practice unspeaking. This is the lively production of a
silent voice. Paper is the familiar medium for the production of your own voice as a
ghost: we practice haunting whenever we write. (Consuetudinary 141)
Writing is described as the ghost of speech, posited halfway to the voices of
the dead. Jackson seems to suggest that because the written voice is already
silent and ghostly, it is easily overtaken by other voices speaking through it.
In writing, one sheds one’s voice and adds it to a vast library of disembodied
voices surviving their authors. This notion is supported by Leigh Eric
Schmidt’s contextualisation of printing among voice reproduction
technologies: “Speaking trumpets, acoustic tubes, ventriloquism, voiceproducing statues, and talking machines all suggested the disembodiment of
the human voice, the transmission of sound from an absent, hidden,
detached, or simulated speaker” (54). In an article on sound poetry, Brandon
LaBelle outlines how the mechanical reproduction of the human voice
inspired modernist poets like Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitter to turn
themselves into “speaking machines” aligned with other artificial recreations
of the body such as Frankenstein’s monster and Bellmer’s dolls (160-1).
Considered as a voice reproduction technology, writing is especially suited to
giving voice to the dead, which aligns it with spirit possession.
The ventriloquism of writing is closely connected to the ventriloquism of
reading. The foreign voices authors try to channel or guard themselves
against are often literary voices confronting them in their simultaneous role
as readers. Lest this discussion becomes too abstract or figurative, let me
Hearing Voices
explain that I mean “voice” as a literary phantom sound. In this I agree with
Claire Kahane, who argues that “whether spoken or written, words bear the
weight of audition; they are ‘heard’ with the third ear even when there is no
actual speaking voice present” (xiii). Writing produces a phantom voice
which needs a body, and the most obvious solution is for the reader to
provide that body. Kahane cites research showing that reading involves a
“silent voicing” unconsciously engaging the speech organs which quite
literally makes writers ventriloquists (xiii). As Hertel points out, the reader
does not speak in the authors voice; she is “an echo with its own timbre” like
an actor interpreting a script or a singer a score (98-9). In a sense, then, the
ventriloquism can be understood as working in reverse: as the reader
throwing her voice and speaking through the text, which again complicates
the active/passive distinction.
Hertel argues that in the quasi-oral novel of voices, “the reader’s attention
is at least partially drawn away from the content of the words towards the
language of the narrator and its material quality as sound” (91-2). This
emphasis on the sonority of language brings me to the third and final form of
literary ventriloquism: the ventriloquism of language itself. By
foregrounding sonority above sense, writers may tap into the inhuman
agency of language: its capacity to generate itself via formulaic expressions,
grammatical structures and sonic resonances. In Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s
words, nonsense expresses a basic linguistic paradox: “I speak language, in
other words I am master of the instrument which allows me to communicate
with others, and yet it is language that speaks: I am constrained by the
language I inhabit to such an extent that I am inhabited, or possessed by it”
(Philosophy 25). In “Stitch Bitch,” Jackson endorses such possession by
language: “If you let [language] be serviceable then it will only serve you,
never master you, and you will only write what you already know, which is
not much” (Stitch). Punning on the multiple meanings of the word “sense,”
she claims that “the careful guarding of sense in language […] promotes
common sense at the expense of all the others” (Stitch). Thus, writers must
give up some authorial control to language itself, admitting it as co-creator of
the literary work, in order to bring out its full sensual potential. Merely using
language to communicate preconceived ideas is not akin to artistic creation.
In the following section, I shall detail how Jackson works with language as
sonorous material through nonsense, wordplay and mispronunciations.
The Stuttering of Language
A noisy noise annoys an oyster, get it? Got it? Good. (Friend 56)
While a quasi-oral narrative style can easily adhere to the visual realism
described in the introductory chapter, other genres emphasising aural and
vocal qualities interfere more radically with visualisation. As Lecercle writes
about nonsense, “the semantic blanks are not meant to be visualised”;
instead “the words sing in our ears, unexpected links are established between
them, relationships of alliteration, assonance or rhyme, of potential
spoonerism […], of leisurely exploration of phonetic similarities”
(Philosophy 24). Like Victorian nonsense poetry, the concrete poetry (see
Leeuwen 3) and sound poetry (see LaBelle 146) of 20th century avant-garde
writers treat language as expressive, even musical, sound. The voiding of
semantic sense in these genres only takes to extremes what all writers have
to work with: “the material of language: the clicks and moos of k’s and o’s,
the lag and lurch of commas and full stops” as Jackson puts it (Original 334).
Although Jackson shares an interest in the sonority and other material
qualities of language with for example Dadaist poets, she does not go as far
in removing linguistic signification. As she puts it in “Stitch Bitch,” she is
“interested in writing that verges on nonsense, where nonsense is not the
absence of sense, but the superfluity of it” (Stitch). Thus, rather than write
Dadaist sound poems, she weaves wordplay into her experimental prose in
the vein of écriture féminine where “the narrative is overcome by plays with
sound” (Crowder 141). The most prominent examples of this technique are
her Word Church stories and “My Friend Goo,” which explicitly deal with the
materiality, and especially the sonority, of language. In all of these stories,
mispronunciations and speech defects are highlighted forms of language
production, such as the “stuttering practice, tongue twisters, silence scales,
and arpeggios” performed as part of the rites to open a channel to the land of
the dead in “Consuetudinary of the Word Church” (Consuetudinary 136). To
render speech defects in writing is an obvious, and for Jackson typically
literal, way of achieving the “stuttering” of language which Deleuze insists
that writers must strive for in (Essays 107-14).
I choose to explicate this technique through a reading of “My Friend Goo”
because it features plenty of wordplay as well as a framing narrative in which
the protagonist theorises about language. 80 The nameless and
indeterminately sexed protagonist can even be said to be language, begot of a
two-dimensional father who speaks only in tongue-twisters and an
amorphous mass of a mother who embodies “goo” in the sense of “an
inarticulate cooing or gurgling sound like that made by a baby” (Friend 51). 81
The tongue twisters were originally meant for the protagonist to practice
proper pronunciation, since s/he first learns to speak from the sea of goo:
Sometimes when it hissed and mumbled, it sounded like words, though not ones that
could be found in any dictionary. This is the first language I imitated, when I began to
80 While the narrative of “My Friend Goo” is interspersed by tongue twisters in various languages, the Word
Church stories thematise wordplay but feature few actual examples of it.
81 “Consuetudinary of the Word Church” also celebrates infantile babble as speech unencumbered by
signification: “She babbled. The Founder often spoke of this period as a Golden Age, in which the universal
Voice had not yet been trussed up in words all too easily mistaken for her own,” 139.
Hearing Voices
speak. Even now, if you’ve noticed, I sometimes sound more like a storm than a
person. When I’m self-conscious, my tongue seems to thicken or flatten into
something like a rudder or an oar, unfit for the fancywork of words. I wuh-wuh-wuhwuh-wuh-wuther, like wind rubbing itself, goo on goo. (Friend 49)
“Wuther” not only indicates the sound of wind (as in Wuthering Heights)
but onomatopoetically imitates it, an effect reinforced by the repeated
syllable. Children learn to speak by repeating vocal sounds and using them
as expressive “sound gestures” before they grasp their referential meaning.
Poetic language combines the expressive and the referential use of linguistic
sounds (Tsur viii). Nonsense and sound poetry takes language to the
expressive extreme, demonstrating that unintelligible speech, like foreign
languages, animal cries and music, can nevertheless be highly intensive and
The protagonist of “My Friend Goo” not only has trouble pronouncing
referential language, but actively rejects it. Embarrassed by the inane
banality of common phrases, s/he expels them with the interjection “P.U.”
(Friend 50), an apparent acronym in which the letters stand for nothing but
their sound onomatopoetically approximating a retch. “P.U.” captures
her/his preference for sound over sense, or for a new sense in sound. With
quasi-scientific method, s/he repeats tongue twisters until new words are
produced through mispronunciation:
Every new word I hit upon, such as “bubby” or “rugger,” I wrote down phonetically. I
used symbols I made up myself, concentric circles, crescent moons, zigzags and little
wizard hats. They were easier to remember than the ones in the dictionary and more
accurate, since a few of the sounds I made were not featured in the English language. I
pored over these words, trying to fit them together. Sometimes I thought I felt a
gladdening inside me, telling me that I’d got something right, a word or phrase, and
those I memorized. I didn’t know what they meant, of course, but I had a feeling that
in this case, not knowing wouldn’t hurt. It might even help. (Friend 53-4) 82
The protagonist hypothesises that ordinary words may be considered
mispronounced nonsense: “Maybe when I thought I was making sense, I
wasn’t. Or if I was, it was insignificant compared to the crucial nonsense I
was making simultaneously and by the very same means” (Friend 56). Such
speculations align the character with so-called fous littéraires who overinterpret literary works or linguistic structures looking for hidden meanings.
According to Lecercle, nonsense as a genre invites such “interpretation gone
wild, but also lucid” since “its dissolution of sense multiplies meaning”
(Philosophy 3, 20). As in the wordplay of children and the arcane analyses of
fous littéraires, sonority takes precedence over signification in authors’
experiments with language (see Bogue, Deleuze on Literature 28-9).
82 Similarly, mispronounced words are added to the liturgy in “Consuetudinary of the Word Church,” 139.
What these linguistic experimentations have in common is a sense that
the sonority of language carries meaning beyond arbitrary signification.
Reuven Tsur describes how poetry draws upon “‘mysterious’ intuitions
concerning speech sounds” such as “the double – hushing as well as harsh –
quality of the sibilants” (viii). For Adam Piette, any affective or other
qualities associated with speech sounds are purely coincidental:
“Onomatopoeia, child-rhymes, doublets, comic riddling are small-scale, local
phenomena in a language. They cannot be used to justify a dark faith in
phoneme demonology” (9). I would argue that although the intuitive
qualities of vocal sounds defy systematisation, their existence is
demonstrated by their effective literary use. As LaBelle puts it, “sound poetry
disregards the notion of the arbitrariness of the signifier/signified relation,
grasping instead the sonic specificity embedded in acts of speech that lace
sound with meaning” (152). Listen to how Blanche is introduced at the
beginning of Half Life: “Blanche: a cry building between sealed lips, then
blowing through. First the pout, then the plosive, the meow of the vowel;
then the fricative sound of silence” (Half 5). 83 The plosive not so much
indicates as performs an uncontrollable outburst of sound, as the fricative
performs hushing. This has nothing to do with the semantic meaning of the
word “Blanche” (French for “white”) 84 but draws upon the felt
meaningfulness of linguistic sounds.
The performative force of sonority is further brought out by a passage in
Half Life where Audrey, who in a parody of transsexualism claims to be a
conjoined twin born in the wrong body and who considers experimental
surgery to attach a prosthetic head, claims to be “a little slip of [Mother
Nature’s] tongue.” Nora counters: “If you’re a slip of the tongue, I’m a whole
fucking speech defect. Buh-body. Puh-person” (Half 367). Her formulation
effectively connects the problematic subject status of conjoined twins to the
agency of language evident in nonsense. The stuttered “buh-body” adds
something to “body” which can neither stand on its own (“buh-“ only makes
sense as a botched attempt to pronounce “body”) nor be extracted without
fundamentally altering the resulting entity (“buh-body” is a whole new word
with a unique resonance in excess of “body”). The reference to speech defects
emphasise the materiality of language; more precisely, its dependence upon
a speaking body whose tongue might slip. At the same time, the idea that
“buh-body,” pronounced by “Mother Nature,” might actually create the
“buh-body” of a conjoined twin, asserts the performative force of linguistic
utterances. Of course, on the meta level, the text of Half Life does create the
“buh-body” of Nora and Blanche, as a phantom body sensed by the reader.
83 In Doll Games, a similar sonic analysis is made of the name “Dawn,” associated with simpering femininity:
“The flat drawl of that long vowel sound, diphthonging unpleasantly and for too long,” [dainty].
84 Although this is also commented upon and might be similarly connected to silence via the whiteness of a
blank page.
Hearing Voices
By calling attention to the sonorities of language, authors reinforce the
voice of language itself speaking through them. This voice is always coloured
by the speaking body, be it human or artificial, which is why sound poets
have often worked with inarticulate noises and technologically modified
voices apart from linguistic sounds (LaBelle 159-162). Much like speech
defects, sound reproduction technologies amplify the ventriloquism of
language by removing agency one step further from the speaking subject.
When Nora’s housemate Trey leaves his voice recognition software on,
language is produced without any speaking subject at all: “Silence spoke a
lushly maternal language. ‘Mommy,’ it said, ‘On a moon oh Mom, on on on
moon, Mommy, om’” (Half 55). 85 In “Early Dispatches from the Land of the
Dead,” Jackson combines physiological and technological forms of stuttering
into the phantom sound of a broken-up recording: “A small drift had nearly
covered the – thing – what – sometimes it is hard to – sound of recorded
voice stammering – downward flame…” (102) In the following section, I
shall discuss the “grain of the voice” rendered audible by coughs, hiccups,
laughter and other asignifying verbal noises interrupting the flow of speech
(see Neumark, “Introduction” xxvi-xxvii), as well as the “grain” of
technological voices.
Body Language
In the quiet of the desert at noon I can hear my body murmuring to me. If I held a small, powerful
microphone to my wrist or thigh you’d hear like interference on a wire the tiny distant voices of other
personalities, of which I am a cord, or discord. I mike my fingernail. I mike my tripes. These voices
aren’t stilled, distilled, iced over, stopped in permalife. They’re not recordings. They’re not potentialities
either, and they’re not “types”. They’re people, thinking and talking about it. They’ve got a sense of
history, dense and disappointing. At times I write down what I hear. (Patchwork
[story/rethinking/miked tripes])
Like language may erupt in senseless sonorities, so the body may erupt in
non-linguistic sounds ranging from more to less communicative, expressive
and/or voluntary, such as sighs, laughter, hiccups and digestive noises.
These body noises have an obvious connection to the historical conception of
ventriloquism as a voice originating from some other part of the body than
the mouth: the Latin “ventriloquist” and the older Greek “engastrimyth”
mean someone speaking through the stomach (Connor 49-50). Originally
such a displacement of the voice was seen not as evidence of ventriloquial
skill but of possession. In the religious ecstasy of early Christianity, the entire
body was possessed by the voice of God, later to be replaced with the voice of
the devil as the church seized control over who may speak for God (Connor
124-5). In order to construct pagan divine inspiration as demonic possession,
85 There is also a passage in “Musée Mechanique” which appears to have been run through imperfectly
calibrated voice recognition software.
Christian tradition insisted that the oracle of Delphi spoke specifically
through her genitals, which forms a direct line forward to the feminine
malady of hysteria (Connor 69-72). Although hysteria may not cause body
parts to speak in articulate language, it involves “disturbances of voice,
vision, hearing, and even breathing” (Kahane xi). Such disturbances have
been read as a secret language to be interpreted by the psychoanalyst
(Connor 41).
As suggested by Kahane, literary modernism brought about a hysterical
dispersal of authorial and narrative voices (vii-xv). In his Deleuzian reading
of modernist authors, John Hughes writes:
Language is affected by invasively expressive, but unsignifying, manifestations of its
sonorous material. This affects both the means and subjects of representation itself.
Speech and body both become disrupted by persistent noises, animal sounds,
crackings, and so on, by sounds partaking of the purely physical. (Hughes 62-3)
Thus, there is a hysterisation of the body of text, which erupts in senseless
noises, and a corresponding hysterisation of the bodies in the text, who cease
to be coherent characters. Jackson explicitly thematises this in Patchwork
Girl, where the protagonist’s possessed and hysterical body is conflated with
the body of text. According to Jackson, hypertext is particularly well suited to
effect a hysterisation of literary form, as it is itself a hysterical body which
“gives a loudspeaker to the knee, a hearing trumpet to the elbow” (Stitch).
Like the body language of hysteria or possession contests the authority of the
speaking subject, the hypertext form abandons the hierarchic structure of
the codex and speaks with many voices.
To reinforce this, Jackson has patched together Patchwork Girl out of
quotations and intertextual references to other works. This mirrors the
patchwork girl’s body patched together out of the body parts of others.
During a séance, these others speak up, first as a belch: “All my neighbors
turned to me, not surprisingly, because the belch had come from my own
throat. Nonetheless, I knew, as one knows one’s intimate sputterings, that it
was not my belch” (Patchwork [story/séance/a spirit voice]). The medium
tries to address the spirit but the patchwork girl’s “sole testimony was a
barrage of belches, burps, rumbles, sniffles, sneezes, hiccups, whines, yelps,
farts, and snorts” (Patchwork [story/séance/a spirit voice]). The other
participants in the séance are not attuned to such corporeal forms of
haunting, and throw her out for offending the spirits. On a different
occasion, the patchwork girl tries to single out Mary Shelley’s voice from “the
hubbub of whispers and broken words” in her head by stabbing a skin graft
from Mary, but its only response is “a blob of ordinary blood” (Patchwork
[story/falling apart/Mary?]). If the voices belong to her recycled body parts
rather than to the persons they used to be part of, it is only logical that they
Hearing Voices
do not speak coherently. As in hysteria, it is body memory speaking without
access to articulate speech.
Possession explains such body language as originating in spirits or
demons, while hysteria explains it as originating in unconscious desires and
repressed traumas. In “Stitch Bitch,” Jackson adheres to the latter
explanation: “In hysteria, the body starts to tell those [repressed] stories
back to us – our kidneys become our accusers, our spine whines, our knees
gossip about overheard words, our fingers invent a sign language of blame
and pain” (Stitch). I would argue, however, that the conflation of hysteria
and possession in Patchwork Girl tells a slightly different story. The
repressed memories of the patchwork girl’s body parts originate in their
former lives and cannot be derived from her psychological interior. Like the
patchwork girl, Nora in Half Life is afflicted by tics originating in a body not
entirely her own. Her condition can be described as a possession coming
from the inside – from parts of her own body – or as a hysteria coming from
the outside – from someone else’s consciousness. The point is that such
interior/exterior distinctions break down, as I concluded previously. On one
occasion, Nora suggests that she might be hearing voices as the result of a
sinus infection: “There was an incessant rustling and chirping inside my
head, though whether this was ghosts or phlegm I did not know and barely
cared” (Half 331). Since Nora’s haunting, like the patchwork girl’s, is so
robustly corporeal ghosts and phlegm might ultimately amount to the same
I understand body noises as the inhuman, asubjective voices of the body
speaking through the human subject. Instead of describing such noises in
quasi-linguistic terms, as sign system, I consider them as expressive
sonorities exceeding communication and codification. What the corpse in
“Angel” says “in a voice of poisoned sighs and whistles” is that it is on its way
to become undifferentiated matter (Angel 30). It cannot speak of the soul or
spirit since it no longer has one; it can only speak of the decomposition
process it is going through. Other body noises speak of life, such as the
hearts which “beat at a slow, nearly vegetable rate, with a deep cluck and
boom” in Patchwork Girl (Patchwork [body jungle]). Body noises may be
expressive, but in a performative rather than signifying sense: they sound
exactly what they do. This is also true for descriptive phrases such as “cluck
and boom” which play on the sonority of language to perform phantom
sound. In My Body, Jackson goes further and provides the text with an
actual instead of a virtual version of body noise: the repetitive sound of
breathing which creates a sense of living presence.
Oral noises like breaths and burps serve as a reminder that even the voice
involves aspects other than linguistic utterances. The unique expressiveness
of timbre, tone, inflection and so on goes beyond the voluntarily cultured or
communicative. Such vocal qualities emanate from the friction and vibration
of bodily substances, being like all sounds collateral (Ihde 72), which
troubles the voice as figure for individual agency (Dunn and Jones 1). Roland
Barthes’ concept “the grain of the voice” famously captures the extralinguistic materiality of articulation, though he makes a rather odd
distinction between breathing and other bodily resonances in the voice.
Through the traditional association of breath – pneuma – with soul, he
aligns it with the representational, communicative and expressive functions
of voice, the opposite of grain. Grain is instead exemplified by the throat and
face made audible in the strictly sonorous aspect of language: the forming of
vowels and consonants in the mouth (Barthes, “Grain” 183). 86 However, as
demonstrated by sound poetry experimenting with various oral noises,
breathing can indeed render audible the materiality of the body (LaBelle
154-5, 158). When Jackson pronounces the word “pneuma” as a stylised gasp
for air in her recording of Herman Godfrey’s birth scene from “Musée
Mécanique,” it hardly gives an impression of breath as disembodied spirit. 87
Modified to include audible breaths – or breathlessness – as an additional
example of grain, I find Barthes’ concept more useful.
What is particularly striking about the grain of the voice is Barthes’
insistence that it is not “personal” or “original” but still “individual: it has us
hear a body which has no civil identity, no ‘personality,’ but which is
nevertheless a separate body” (“Grain” 182). This opens up for a Deleuzian
understanding of voice as particular without being personal, which can in
turn be applied to authorial voices. Stewart argues that “sound production
and reception in poetry always carry an image of the particularity of human
voices” (Poetry 109) and MacKendrick adds that “[t]here is something
irresistibly somatic in textual style, in the recognizable (even when
depersonalized) voice” (151). I agree, and I recognise a strong authorial voice
in Jackson’s writing, but I would like to emphasise that the somatic
particularity of such a voice need not be interpreted in terms of psychological
individuality. This notion is supported by Carolyn Abbate’s application of
grain to authorial voices: “Rather than killing the author, Barthes proposes
the rebirth of an author ‘inside’ the artwork, one that reveals herself in the
‘grain’ of the voice(s) that speak what we read (hear); he eliminates a
specifically male position (the Author), supplanting it with this overtly
female and musical force (the Voice)” (232). Voice is feminine because it is
bodily, and more specifically because the organ of vocal production – the
larynx – is often described in terms of a vaginal orifice (Koestenbaum 211).
86 To be fair, Barthes’ opposition between breath and body stems from the emphasis on the free,
unobstructed flow of breath within “vocal culture” (classical song technique), where the muscle and mucus of
the body tend to be regarded as obstacles to be disciplined, rather than as the material premise of breath and
87 Mp3 files of her readings are available under the heading “Noise” at her website. The excerpt from “Musée
Mécanique” is named “Clockwork.”
Hearing Voices
Like the wandering womb causing hysterical symptoms or the Delphic
oracle’s speaking genitals, the larynx throws its voice from a hidden location
inside the body (Koestenbaum 217).
Grain can be heard in a general authorial voice, but also more locally in
the voices of characters. Authors may perform these voices by directly
rendering the inflections of speech or by describing their particular aural
qualities. The former might seem preferable, as it mimics more closely the
voice in action, but I believe that authors choose the latter technique when
they want to draw attention to vocal qualities without any irrelevant and
potentially distracting content of a statement. Barnes, for example, describes
Robin’s voice as “the low drawling ‘aside’ voice of the actor who, in the soft
usury of his speech, withholds a vocabulary until the profitable moment
when he shall be facing his audience” and Jenny’s as “a light rapid lisping
voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the ‘every
day’ voice” (Nightwood 34, 60-1). Robin’s and Jenny’s voices echo each
other: one low and the other high, one creating pleasant and the other
unpleasant tension. Listeners wait for their “proper” speech to begin, and
Barnes’ text performs this waiting by giving them few actual lines. In Ladies
Almanack, Barnes describes a voice which is not only feminine but
specifically lesbian: “that lamenting Herculean Voice that sounds to us like a
Sister lost, for certainly it is not the Whine of Motherhood, but a more
mystic, sodden Sighing” (31). Although the owner of the voice is shortly
given a soliloquy, her voice is first recognised as lesbian by its sound. 88
The performative and the communicative function of the voice might
coincide in statements which do what they say. Such is the case in Bartlett’s
Skin Lane when Mr F instructs his apprentice Beauty in how to handle furs:
“The voice Mr F used to mutter to himself like this wasn’t particularly soft; it
was quiet, but not soft. It was firm” (104). The almost inaudible words give
the impression that Mr F is talking to himself, yet the quality of his voice
both mimics and incites to touch. Furthermore, they perform his desire for
Beauty, drawing him into a sonic bubble encompassing only the two of them,
aurally caressing him and implicating him in the sensual touching of the
skins. Bartlett’s authorial voice in turn performs a soft yet firm linguistic
caress by emulating a storyteller intimately addressing the reader.
In related fashion, O wards off a homophobic assault on Boy by shouting
“in a voice which he had never heard himself use before, something that
sounded more like a car crashing than a human voice” (Bartlett, Ready297).
Norie Neumark describes the scream as “voice at the extreme of
88 That Robin’s “low” and Bounding Bess’ “Herculean” voices might perform an audible lesbianism
regardless of words is supported by Elizabeth Wood’s notion of “sapphonics.” Wood argues that in opera,
where the lyrics are usually neither lesbian-themed nor even intelligible, a certain type of female voice
crossing the sexed break between registers and timbres might nevertheless resound as lesbian or “sapphonic,”
signification” and as “a vocal gesture” which is repressed in polite
conversation (“Introduction” xxvii). As such, it overtakes O’s vocal chords
and surprises him with its unfamiliar, even inhuman sound. His imperative
has the intended effect thanks to the thrown voice of a crashing car
emanating from his throat. As in Jackson’s “Milk” where “[s]mall peeping
cries seem to help the cloud relax” (Melancholy 160-1), the manner of
vocalisation is more important than the words. Discussions of performativity
tend to focus on linguistic speech acts, but vocal gestures might as well be
wordless (Neumark, “Doing” 96-7). In Half Life, Nora and her two
housemates all work with phone sex, performing vocal gestures of arousal for
a living. Their wordless cries mingle anonymously, disconnected from their
bodies: “The house was always moaning, whimpering, sighing, as if it were
alive and in heat. We called it the House of Voices” (Half 16). As a car throws
its voice and speaks through O, so they throw their voices and speak through
their house, collectively animating it.
These speaking houses and cars bring me to the ventriloquism of
technologically (re)produced voices emanating from things. While today the
technological throwing of the voice has become routine, when recently
invented devises such as phonographs and telephones were perceived as
eerie. Like the speaking body parts discussed above, such speaking things
were associated with spirit possession and with the voices of the dead
(Connor 263-7; Sterne 287-301). Recorded voices are often discussed as
“disembodied,” but as Neumark points out, this is a visualist assumption
since what is missing is the sight of the speaking body and not its sound
(“Introduction” xviii). Rather, microphones and telephones amplify grain
(the body made audible) such as breathing and oral noises (Connor 380-1).
Hopkinson describes this effect in “Something to Hitch Meat to”:
“Something was obscuring Aziman’s voice in the phone, making rubbing and
clicking sounds over and around speech” (Hopkinson 26). It turns out that
Aziman is chewing on hard candies shaped like skulls: the telephone,
designed for communication, instead transmits the body noise of teeth
against (imitated) bone.
Apart from its capacity to transmit and amplify bodily grain, there is a
“grain of the machine” (Sterne 274) making audible its own body or material
specificity. With seemingly anthropomorphising descriptions of a phone
signal “terrible as a scream” (Half 175) or “the attent hush of a live line” (Half
184), Jackson underlines the sensual intimacy of technological grain. When
Nora switches genres from telephone sex to ghost stories, a familiar “click”
tells her that her client has hung up: “’And he carried a stethoscope in his
cloven hoof,’ I said to the dead receiver” (Half 370). Like Hopkinson’s skullshaped candies, Jackson’s stethoscope – a technology for amplifying body
noises such as heartbeats – direct the reader’s attention towards the
sonorous grain of the telephone.
Hearing Voices
“Musée Mécanique,” the text by Jackson resonating most strongly with
grain, merges anatomical and technological grain in typical fashion. The
story is full of the phantom sounds of clockwork: the repeated phrase “tick
tock” and other renderings of machine noises. These are the protagonist
Herman Godfrey’s body noises, as he is an automaton, but they are also the
machinery of fiction made audible. Jackson’s precise descriptions of the
sounds Herman makes, such as “the cartilaginous ball-joint squeaking in his
right knee” (Musée) contribute to a sense of conceptual intimacy. 89 Since
sounds are collateral, there is an inevitable tactility to them: examples like
squeaking joints serve to highlight texture and friction. Such tactile phantom
sounds also comment implicitly upon Jackson’s techniques for making her
fictional universe feel palpably real. The genius girls who have created
Herman have “hair rustling like torn paper” (Musée); the sound of friction
lending them body while simultaneously indicating that they too are literary
creations. When Herman tries to think of the real world he inevitably ends
up with “little figures whirring, stopping, wobbling, turning, clasping,
whirring, tick tock, no, that’s not what I meant to say –” (Musée). “Musée
Mécanique” is a ticking, pinging, clanging, twanging text which draws
attention to the grain of language: its materiality made audible in the
linguistic sounds employed to onomatopoetic effect. 90
Singing Language
A small mammal, freshly killed, is played upon as a bagpipe, holes being punched in the windpipe for
this purpose, and fitted with straws to permit controlled egress of breath. (Consuetudinary 137)
This section circles around the performance scene in Half Life where the
conjoined twin 2-Ply sings an aria from Henry Purcell’s opera The Indian
Queen with one head and raps in a Jamaican accent with the other. My
reading of this scene unravels several different themes which are crucial to
my Deleuzian understanding of the performative force music introduces to
the text: music as transsexual, machinic and animal. Overarching these
themes, however, is the idea of music as a form of ventriloquism parallel to
yet distinct from that of language and literature. I shall argue that music
speaks, or rather sings, through the text: more specifically the baroque voice
of Purcell’s Indian Queen. If my discussion of this voice sometimes brings
me far from the virtual performance in Half Life, this is because the text
resonates with the actual aria.
The emblematic example of music as ventriloquism is George du
Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894), in which Trilby has a great voice but sings
89 Similarly, conceptual intimacy in The Doll Games is reinforced by the tactile body noises of the dolls, such
as the “muted crunch when their knees were bent,” [sex].
90 “Clockwork,” the excerpt from the text read aloud by Jackson to a musical accompaniment of metallic
noises, literalises its sonority. However, I find the sound effects more effective in writing, where they are
integrated into the text rather than competing with it.
incorrigibly out of tune until she is hypnotised by the music master Svengali,
who plays her vocal chords like an instrument and turns her into a famous
singer. As Felicia Miller Frank has shown, Trilby is but one example of
female singing voices which are somehow ventriloquised, mechanically
produced or otherwise disembodied in 19th century literature (114-5). In line
with my previous discussions of literary ventriloquism, however, I am
departing from the negative view of ventriloquism as an oppressive influence
silencing the true voices of women and others. Instead, I am interested in
how ventriloquism can be affirmed as artistic inspiration, facilitating the loss
of authorial control necessary in the creative process. 91 Rather than Trilby,
then, my emblematic figure is Barnes’ street singer from Ryder, possessed
not by a music master but by her own voice:
For a great voice was within her, beating against her heart and her lungs, a windy
brute terror, tearing and strumming the nerves and the arteries of her body like some
monster plucking a prison of harp strings and singing, divinely and terribly, against
her kidneys, so that she could not take her rightful place on the operatic stage, but
must stand athwart the gutters, singing and ***** like a stupendous hound dog, and
her child sitting beside playing tra la la, la la! (Barnes, Ryder 81)
Apart from its description of singing as a form of ventriloquism, this
quotation also captures the sublime force (“divinely and terribly”) of music,
its sometimes violent effects upon the body (associated with animality via
the “hound dog”) and its contagious nature (the child trying to sing along):
themes recurring in Jackson’s treatment of music.
Music demonstrates its ventriloquistic force in the urge to sing along.
Even more strongly than in nonsense and wordplay, the pleasure of
vocalisation takes precedence over any linguistic content one might or might
not want to agree with. Thus, the protagonist of “My Friend Goo” is smitten
by the unintelligible, garbled speech of the TV show “Slime with Worms”:
“Everyone complained about it, but secretly I liked the fog, the indistinct
figures, the humming that rose and fell in tides, and often found myself there
in dreams from which I awoke also humming” (Friend 54). Robin in
Nightwood, named after a songbird, sings tunes which Nora compulsively
picks up: “Sometimes Nora would sing them after Robin, with the
trepidation of a foreigner repeating words in an unknown tongue, uncertain
of what they may mean” (Barnes, Nightwood 51). The songs are literally in
foreign tongues (Italian, French and German) and the words or titles are
never given. What is important about them is the atmosphere they create of
Robin’s leaving. Nora tries to bring her back with language, interrupting the
song with speech, but the musical spell is stronger so that ”the song would be
taken up again, from an inner room where Robin, unseen, gave back an echo
91 This is not to say that artistic creation is not also focused, disciplined and regulated; it is necessarily a
balance of both.
Hearing Voices
of her unknown life more nearly tuned to its origin” (Barnes, Nightwood 52).
It is not so much Robin who is singing as the music which is singing through
her, driving her out on the town.
Jackson emphasises the performative force of music with her many
references to for example religious chants (Anatomy 163) and alluring croons
(Husband 160). In “Here is the Church,” a fictional Nina Simone even
perceives a punk rock cover of her “Mississippi, Goddamn” sounding like “a
hog getting its throat cut and keeping right on screaming through the slit” as
“the gun she had been trying to make” (Church 93). Music is first and
foremost a (performative) doing, not a (signifying) saying, and as such
posited in opposition to language (although literary uses of language are
often described as musical). When literature becomes-musical it partakes in
the non-representational intensity of music. While social Darwinists
consider the communicative function of language primary, and music merely
a playful offshoot of this, Grosz argues instead that the elaboration of voice
as musical instrument of seduction precedes language and humanity (Chaos
30-9). Her account particularly emphasises the seductive power of music,
shared by humans and other animals. This is thematised by Jackson in her
account of the mating rituals of kakapo parrots, written from the female’s
On a moist still night his singing pummels my soul to dissolution. The booming goes
on and on and into the center of it I go homing. The booming and my faithful listening
ear are already love happening. My ear, his dish are rhyming shapes. His voice
penetrates my ear, my ear reels forth his voice. (Hagfish)
This is an entirely musical and aural seduction: the mates have not yet seen
each other and when they do, they find each other homely and ridiculous. By
then the sexual encounter between voice and ear has already taken place, an
encounter which by no means denies the body. On the contrary; when
hearing the male’s call the female “vibrate[s] all over with love of piercing
beauty, like the smidgin of flesh in the throat of a singer” (Hagfish). Musical
seduction involves the whole body. Grosz describes music as the most
viscerally immediate form of art, with the power to move listeners in a very
literal way as its vibrations put bodies in motion (Chaos 29).
Apart from the more common association of music with animal mating
calls, Jackson replaces musicology’s formal anatomy of music with the music
of anatomy. 92 In The Melancholy of Anatomy, songs are performed by,
among others, trained sperm, a seductive egg and an insinuating hair
(Melancholy 38, 25, 124). One of the most elaborate examples are “Nerve,”
where fields of vibrating nerve fibres “hum a particular note” which inspires
92 This denies music its status as specifically human high culture, but it does not deny its sophistication or
people to “work[…] out the harmony on their creaking beds” (Anatomy 70).
This music of the nervous system above all emphasise receptivity and
sensitivity: sensations so intense that distinctions between senses and even
organisms lose their meaning. The nerves are not contained within bodies
but dispersed transmitters of affect assembling themselves into provisory
beings, reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari’s BwOs. The protagonist George
says of his nerve lover: “He was a kind of tuning fork. He vibrated with a
perfect pain. I trued my pain to his and my pleasures fell into harmony as
well” (Anatomy 77). This specific connection between music and sexual
pleasure recalls Pynchon’s woman taking a man’s “erection into her
stretched fork, into a single vibration on which the night is tuning” (Gravity
233) and Barnes’ Ryder bragging about “the merry music I’ve struck up with
my spherical, timbersome pipe of a single stop, the core of the codpiece”
(Ryder 165). The difference is that in “Nerve” the music of sexuality is
neither confined to heterosexuality nor clearly distinguished from other
forms of sensual intensity. George tunes his whole being to his nerve lover,
becoming-nerve in effect.
Similarly functional and contagious are the work-songs of the bloodlarks
in “Blood,” which the protagonist describes as “that tuneful, I still find
myself humming them” (Melancholy 139). Her dead lover, Singsong Sally,
used to sing them so loudly that “you looked everywhere else first to see who
was singing before you came to her mouth moving, and then you was [sic]
amazed to see the tiny figure who put it out” (Melancholy 143). The
discrepancy between big voice and small body already suggests
ventriloquism, which is strengthened by the first introduction of her singing
as “an eerie sound it was to have float up from a hell red hole” (Melancholy
141). Sally’s voice emanates from sewers associated with bodily orifices: most
obviously a menstruating vagina but also “the tubes of a big ear” (Melancholy
145). Apart from contributing to the music of anatomy, this recalls the early
conception of ventriloquism as speaking from different parts of the body
than the mouth: the speaking sex of the sibyl and Jackson’s “Hearing Mouth”
and “Speaking Ear” (Consuetudinary 140).
The anatomical configuration associated with ventriloquism in Half Life,
that of the conjoined twin, stands in a special relation to singing. Jackson
explores the possibility for the doubled voice of a conjoined twin to produce
“a two-note chord” (Half 203). While in speech the voice of one twin usually
silences the other, in song the doubling of voices is an asset. Nora and
Blanche are too conflicted to sing together; instead Blanche sings while Nora
accompanies her on the piano, which theoretically one person could do (Half
80). However, when Nora begins to be haunted by Blanche’s voice she hears
a stuffed two-headed kitten in a museum sing “in a sort of buzz of two voices
that now and then veered apart into harmonies.” While at first the doubled
voice is merely a “noise” like “the hiss of a punctured bike tire,” the
Hearing Voices
separation into distinct melodic lines makes it recognisable as singing (Half
232). 93 This suggests that the two voices at first cancel out each other into
white noise: the musicality lies in their differentiation.
A similar point is made in relation to the artist 2-Ply: when Nora hears
him speak, one twin in BBC English and the other in a Jamaican accent, she
asks which voice is his real one, and gets the answer “Both, neither” (Half
207). With 2-Ply’s background, he can claim either as genuine, and has
chosen to “polarize.” When Nora later hears him perform in a club he
accordingly raps with one voice and sings opera with the other. The music
reinforces the discrepancy between the two voices:
The sample and the vocals drew precariously far apart from each other, but the beat
stubbornly continued, now synchronized with neither. The whole concoction came
loose from the people onstage and seemed to emanate from the walls and now,
actually, from my stomach, a disagreeable sensation. (Half 208)
The two voices as such indicate ventriloquism: two different cultural
heritages speaking and singing through 2-Ply. Furthermore, the two voices
together are “thrown” into the room and takes on a life of their own
disconnected from the musicians. When Nora feels the music emanate from
her stomach it refers to the etymological meaning of ventriloquism. The
feeling makes her sick, which underscores the roots of sound in vibration
and the force of music to physically affect listeners.
One of 2-Ply’s two voices performs what is associated with the genuine
and with roots, while the other performs what is associated with highly
cultured artifice: passing as white, English, upper-class and possibly female.
I do not wish to suggest that the distinct singing and speaking style of the
Jamaican voice is any more “natural”: instead, the discrepancy between the
two voices makes both appear equally artificial and arbitrarily cultivated.
However, in the following I shall focus on the implications of the operatic
voice. That 2-Ply sings in an “operatic falsetto” (Half 207) is already a
distinctly sexed form of ventriloquism. Wayne Koestenbaum cites a 19th
century singing manual describing falsetto as a “species of ventriloquism”
and discusses its condemnation as a false and effeminate form of vocal
production (217-21). Thus, 2-Ply’s operatic falsetto can be understood as the
ventriloquism of a feminine voice. More specifically, it is the voice of Queen
Zempoalla in Henry Purcell’s 1695 semi-opera The Indian Queen, whose aria
“I attempt from love’s sickness to fly” he has incorporated into his
performance. 94 Torn between her lust for power and her unrequited love,
Zempoalla sings: “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly in vain, since I am
93 The noise of a punctured tire and the mediation of a hearing aid also introduces a machination of the
singing voice, which I shall discuss shortly.
94 A semi-opera is a play with interspersed music featuring both actors and singers.
myself my own fever and pain.” 2-Ply appropriates her words for the twofer
condition and mixes them with his own lyrics. 95 That he sings in the voice of
a queen, specifically, points towards the opera queens of gay culture and
reinforces the idea of falsetto as a form of vocal drag.
High voices were highly valued in the early modern era when Purcell
wrote the music to The Indian Queen. 96 The most celebrated voices belonged
to castrati, who retained the high notes otherwise lost during male puberty
combined with the richer resonance of a grown body and the power of
unusually large lungs. Unlike today, high notes were considered heroic
rather than feminine, and opera heroes and heroines sang in a similar
register. Other voice types were used mainly in minor or comic roles, such as
tenors playing old women and basses playing gods. In Italy, most opera roles
were sung by castrati, with female singers competing or filling in (Reynolds
135-8). This was not the case in England, where castrati were not used before
Handel’s time. High treble voices of non-castrated men – countertenors and
boy sopranos – were used in church music but considered too weak for
opera. Thus, the role of Zempoalla in Purcell’s The Indian Queen was
originally sung by a female soprano, as it is in contemporary recordings.
There is however a tradition for countertenors from Alfred Deller to Andreas
Scholl to perform “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly” transposed down to
a lower key. Jackson does not indicate which key 2-Ply sings in, only that he
sings in falsetto, so the reader is free to phantom-hear him sing the original
soprano version. Either way, his falsetto echoes not just a female voice but
the legendary voices of the castrati.
High male voices such as those of the castrati have been highly valued
partly for their capacity to transcend sex and incorporate a feminine
register. 97 Deleuze and Guattari describe them in terms of a “becomingwoman” and “becoming-child” of the voice which “deterritorializes it by
decoding it as masculine or feminine, adult or child” (Bogue, Deleuze on
Music 36). This is not to be understood as an imitation or appropriation of
women’s voices, but as a musical becoming directed away from sexed
identities and human subjectivity altogether. Voices of great singers from the
castrato to the soprano diva have often been described as sexless, angelic or
inhuman, and compared to birds or musical instruments (Miller Frank 4-7).
In “Lessons from a Starfish,” Eva Hayward associates the (relatively) high
voice of Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) singing the lyrics to
“Cripple and the Starfish” (“I’ll grow back like a starfish”) with castration
95 As far as I can tell, the additional lyrics are Jackson’s own and not from an existing song.
96 One might argue that high voices are still highly valued, and indeed sopranos in later opera sing
considerably higher. However, the modern soprano diva competes with the tenor, a relatively high but by no
means the highest possible, male voice. Tellingly, it is taboo for tenors to sing falsetto; they are supposed to
heroically reach their high notes using the masculine chest voice.
97 Similarly, even though female singers are often famous for their high notes, those with castrato-like wide
range and strong lower register tend to be especially admired, see Wood; Castle 200-38.
Hearing Voices
figured not as lack but as opportunity for growth and change. She is referring
to transsexual surgery, not the castration of singers, but the connection is
close at hand. While in the Freudian model castration can only be considered
a traumatic loss, so traumatic that even women are supposed to suffer from
being in a sense born castrated, for mtf transsexuals and castrati singers it
may instead be considered part of a transformative process facilitating the
development of new physiological traits, such as a wonderful voice. 98
Hayward goes on to argue that Antony’s singing performs the rippling
motion of the starfish and of the sea at large. Although she does not refer to
Deleuze, she outlines what in his terminology might be called a musical
becoming traversing becoming-woman and becoming-animal.
On a more sinister note, Carter connects vocal becoming-woman and
becoming-animal in “The Company of Wolves,” her rewriting of Little Red
Riding Hood. In her version of the story, the wolf is a werewolf who imitates
Little Red Riding Hood in a “high soprano” and her grandmother in an
“antique falsetto” (Carter 115-6). Of course, the vocal imitation or
ventriloquism is part of the wolf’s trickery in the original fairy tale, but
Carter’s emphasises it with her precise descriptions of his shifts in timbre.
Furthermore, the werewolf’s vocal skills is specifically connected to his
becoming-wolf through a number of musical descriptions of the wolves’
howls, such as “an aria of fear,” “wolfsong” and “the canticles of the wolves”
(Carter 110-2). Thus, the vocal becoming-woman used by the werewolf to
deceive his victims is part of a larger musical seduction which leads to Little
Red Riding Hood’s becoming-animal.
Since music is often posited as the feminine other to masculine reason,
singing as such can be described as a becoming-woman of the voice, a
deterritorialisation away from linguistic signification on par with nonsense.
In the early modern tradition, music was described as feminine affective
excess ravishing the soul (Brett 11-3; Dunn 55-9) and similar formulations
persist in later writings on the seductive power of song especially.
Paraphrasing Barthes, Miller Frank writes that “the ‘magnetic fluid’ that is
the idealized voice escapes gender identification by participating in qualities
of both”: “at once penetrating, fluid, and diffuse; it abolishes limits, passes
through the skin; it is linked to an internal sensualism, it provokes orgasm”
(105). In sum, 2-Ply’s vocal becoming-woman is not simply drag but a
queering of the voice wrapped up in further becomings and in the feminine
affective force of music itself.
Deleuze and Guattari refer to singing as a “machining” of the voice which
deterritorialises it away from language (Thousand 334-41). This is perhaps
98 This is not to defend the castration of boys, who were often sold to the church by poor parents, but since
the procedure is no longer performed there is little need to condemn it. Some of the contemporary horror
surrounding castrati appears sensationalist and even hypocritical, considering boys are still routinely
circumcised. For a similar argument, see Abbate 233-4, note 17.
especially true of the classically trained voice, which attains the status of a
musical instrument. The sexless impersonality and virtuosic skill of the
castrato’s voice was underscored in compositions where voices and
instruments imitated one another or the sound of birds (Reynolds 137). Later
composers treated the voice of the soprano prima donna in similar ways,
most extremely in the modernist works for electronically manipulated voices
by Luciano Berio (Murphy 168). 99 As for 2-Ply, his voice is not only double
but doubly machined: both operatic and technologically amplified. Instead of
a bird or an instrument, he responds to a passing train (the performance
takes place in a club in an abandoned underground station): “the voices
converged, riding the rattle of the train up to perilous heights” (Half 208).
Machined by the train, both voices reach falsetto heights in unison and the
different lyrics become mashed up. Treating the train as a fellow performer,
2-Ply matches the finale of his song to the climactic noise it makes: “It
peaked with a shout – “Since I am myself my own fever!” – and then skated
down the train’s quick diminuendo with a now almost whispered, “Since I
am myself my own fever and pain” (Half 208). Even though the inclusion of
the train into the performance is planned, it introduces an element of chance
which needs to be improvised around. This gives 2-Ply opportunity to show
off his virtuosic musicianship but ultimately it is out of his control.
In Jackson’s work, there is no opposition between genuine, sensual voice
and artificial, non-sensual machine noise. Nora has a vision of singing, twoheaded chickens “clear[ing] their throats with a shriek like a needle skidding
on a record” and “sound[ing] like field recordings come alive, all seethe and
crackle” (Half 327). The fact that the chickens are ventriloquised by old
recordings draws attention to their fictionality but does not in any way
detract from the sensual intensity of phantom sound. If anything, static and
deterioration adds to the grain of their voices. There is a tendency within
traditional musicology to dismiss sound reproduction as “objectification”
compared to the ideal of improvisatory and collaborative live music, but
recorded sound provides the raw material for a different kind of musicmaking in contemporary electronic music (Hemmett 79-91). The culture of
sampling and digital manipulation treats recordings not as pale copies of live
events or as finite objects but as so much noise available for further
processing. Jamaican popular music especially has been influential in
working with audiotapes and synthesisers to create thickly textured
99 The singing automata in Romantic literature, prefiguring the female automata of modernism, underscore
the “machinic” quality of the virtuosic singing voice: they imitate live women so well that only their excessive
perfection makes them suspicious and potentially monstrous, see Miller Frank 194-5. In “Musée Mécanique
Jackson creates a singing machine who is male but feminine and whose voice transcends sex and species:
Herman Godfrey is “a mezzosoprano” who speaks in “a false baritone” and also “trill[s] like a cricket.” Unlike
female automata like Hoffmann’s Olympia and Villiers’ Hadaly, he not infallible but uses “too much vibrato
on the high notes, to cover up a slight uncertainty of pitch.” This underscores the grain of the machine
discussed in the previous section: the fact that machines too have bodies with unique resonances and defects.
Hearing Voices
soundscapes since the 1970s (see Gibson). 2-Ply’s performance draws upon
this tradition by its layering of samples like “a plaintive horn” and “some
very biological sounds burbling and whistling” into complex rhythms (Half
207). Timothy S. Murphy describes how in experimental electronic music
recorded voices are treated as concrete sound, often distorted beyond
recognition (167) and 2-Ply uses a sample so faint that Nora cannot tell
whether it is “pages rustling” or “tiny voices” (Half 207). This ambiguous
phantom sound performs a double duty as musical and literary sampling: the
rustling of pages is the actual sound of literary voices, the whisper of
Jackson samples not only literary history but musical history as well,
letting music throw its voice and sing through the text. The actual aria by
Purcell adds an extratextual dimension to 2-Ply’s performance for readers
already familiar with it or curious enough to seek it out. Jackson does not
simply quote the text for its content but indicates how the word “fly” is
stretched out “over a whole paragraph of notes” thus: “To fly-y-y-y-y-y-y-yy-y-y in vain” (Half 207-8). 100 For those who have heard the song, the exact
rendering functions like a score for a trained musician, triggering a virtual
hearing of the music. The rising and falling pattern of quick notes in the
musical ornamentation indicates a rather butterfly-like flight, but in
Jackson’s version 2-Ply sings it in time to the train, which makes the flight
much more forceful and machinic. The result is a virtual music only existing
in literary form, yet drawing upon actual musical elements as well as upon
the actual sonorities of words.
Reading as Singing Along
A Shelley Jackson at the peak of her powers is an unforgettable sight. Her baying carries for miles, and
even faraway creatures grow uneasy at their meals of cress and frogspawn and slink into the
underbrush. She has no predator but man.
But what is this? A quiet chirping begins stitching up the ruptured afternoon. Who is the daring
tunesmith? Look down, below the awesome paw, the claws stained with unnameable substances, below
fallen twig and leaf, to a small chitinous individual, rubbing her musical legs together with a secretive
smile. This too is Shelley Jackson.
Lo! A quick flash of wings overhead, an uncouth cry. Shelley Jackson! (Ineradicable [Who IS
Through the figuration of ventriloquism, this chapter has dealt with various
ways of making texts resonant. The first is to concretise the voice in “literary
voice,” for example through explicit references to ventriloquism or speaking
in tongues. The second is to highlight the actual sonority of (oral) language
100 The extra letters match the number of notes closely: in fact there is one “y” too many compared to the
score, but it is a fast passage and difficult to hear. Some singers might in fact add an extra note on “fly” in
place of the first of the two notes on “in.”
through nonsense, wordplay, mispronunciations and speech defects such as
stuttering. The third is to create literary phantom sounds of non-signifying
body noises, so that the body of text bursts out in a hysterical attack of
noisemaking echoing that of the bodies in the text. The fourth is to make the
text musical, which has often been discussed in terms of rhyme and rhythm,
especially in relation to poetry, but which in Jackson’s case is done as a
literary form of musical sampling.
Writers have always tried to use language sonorously and musically, but
their methods for doing so have shifted throughout literary history.
Modernist sound poetry reached the extreme of voiding verbalisation
entirely of linguistic signification. This emphasised the sonorous materiality
of language and showed how it could be used to perform sound gestures.
Though inspired by modernist movements such as Dadaism, Jackson does
not go as far in abolishing referential language. Rather, she works with
referentiality as one of her tools to create literary phantom sounds. This is by
no means unique to Jackson; rather, what is original about her body writing
is how often these phantom sounds are anatomical noises, though often
emanating from inhuman and inorganic bodies.
In Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari write about language as a
deterritorialisation of the mouth from eating: “Ceasing to be the organ of one
of the senses, it becomes an instrument of Sense.” Writers must in turn
deterritorialise language from its communicative function, in order to
achieve the intensity of percepts and affects. Literature shares with music a
deterritorialisation of sound from its formalisation in the “language of sense”
and “organized music” respectively. This does not mean complete nonsense
and formlessness, but rather a working with and against conventions such as
referentiality and grammar to attain “an asignifying intensive utilization of
language.” Deleuze and Guattari’s examples of asignifying sounds which
deterritorialise language from sense in Kafka’s work occur mostly on what is
conventionally thought of as the level of content, which means that unlike
nonsense, the text still makes enough sense to have descriptive content. “Of
sense there remains only enough to direct the lines of escape” they write,
indicating that this might be a more efficient literary strategy than to write
pure nonsense (Kafka 19-22).
In Kafka’s work, references to animal noises direct a line of flight towards
the becoming-animal of the text. In this way, Deleuze and Guattari insist,
distinctions between form and content are undone so that “the words
themselves are not ‘like’ the animals but in their own way climb about, bark
and roam around, being properly linguistic dogs, insects, or mice” (Kafka
22). This means that a text cannot easily be “about” asignifying sounds and
still retain its sense (that is, its formal distance from these noises, its selfassurance that the linguistic noise it simultaneously makes is fully silenced
by signification). Throughout this chapter, I have made little distinction
Hearing Voices
between phantom sounds occurring on the “surface” of the text (that is,
actual sounds of words virtually heard in silent reading) and those occurring
“in” it (that is, references to sound and hearing). This is because I believe
with Deleuze and Guattari that the distinction is a false one, since there is
always more to literature than its letters. Like Kafka, Jackson carries out her
literary experimentation through an ostensibly absurd or surrealist content.
As in Kafka, there is also a connection between asignifying sound and
becoming-animal in her work, although this has not been my main concern
in this chapter. I have touched upon Jackson’s association of music with
mating calls, which is only part of a larger pattern. In the rewritten fairytale
“The Swan Brothers,” an animal cry is the first step of the protagonist’s
animal transformation: “She presses her lips together to keep herself from
crying out and her whole face pouts and tightens. And then she cries out
after all and, amazed by the sound she makes, spreads her wings and hurls
herself through the window into the rushing sky” (Swan 87). The face the
protagonist makes in her attempt to resist the cry becomes the instrument of
the cry, as her pout is prolonged into a beak. Her intention is to “save” her
brothers from their transformed condition, not to become-swan herself.
Nevertheless, her investment in her swan brothers has opened the way for
the becoming, making the call from the animal collective too strong to resist.
As indicated by this story of siblings turned into swans, animals tend to
come in flocks. In “Angel,” the collective cry of cats in heat instigates a
becoming-animal not of the protagonist directly but of the whole house: “The
cats of his landlady sometimes keened all together, a throaty wail that
penetrated his floorboards and rose up in the pipes so that it was sometimes
as though he lived inside a keening cat, a cat in heat” (Angel 22). Like the
smell of cats discussed in the chapter “Smelling Sense,” the sound of them is
airborne and contagious. 101 The collective process of becoming-animal helps
to bring out a crucial aspect of literary ventriloquism: its impersonality. If
ventriloquism in general suggests a stronger (or more politically privileged)
individual speaking for a weaker one, obliterating her or his own voice, the
forms of ventriloquism discussed in this chapter undo such notions of voice
as marker of personal authenticity. Spiritual or demonic possession tends to
involve a host of spirits or demons, and hysteria a host of unconscious
impulses which cannot be said to come from “outside.” Rather than a
silencing of the proper voice of the subject, hysteria and possession
constitute collective enunciations from which individual voices emerge.
Animal collectives embody this principle, such as the humming bee swarm
which Nora encounters in Half Life: “The ball of bees was about the size of a
head, and I had the sensation that it knew I was there. Well, of course it did
101 Sounds are comparable to smells in that they also travel through the air from their sources and provide a
vague and fleeting spatial orientation, see Feld 183-5.
know I was there, collectively. But it seemed about to speak” (Half 418).
While these bees remain perpetually “about to” speak and never do, Jackson
applies the same figure to the genius girls in “Musée Mécanique”: “When
they spoke, there was a generalized humming, like the sound of a swarm – of
course, that is what they were – from which (from time to time) an entire
utterance would emerge, as if borne up by the density of a neutral element”
(Musée). This captures the function of ventriloquism I wish to highlight
better than the figure of the master ventriloquist with his dummy. The
ventriloquist in Jackson’s work is a swarm or an element, such as the
patchwork girl’s recycled body parts or language at large. This might be least
apparent in Half Life, where Nora struggles to distinguish her voice from
Blanche’s, but even here it is brought out by the doubling of doubling to
kaleidoscopic effect. The stuffed chickens and kittens with various numbers
of heads and legs figure the collective voice of ventriloquism in this novel.
Introducing animal cries, body noises, music and wordplay into the text
emphasises sonority above sense and helps to create its distinct “sound”
(what might also be called literary voice) from which characters and
utterances then emerge as secondary effects. The conventional order where
the subject precedes the statement is thus undone: there is no statement to
communicate, only the impersonal activity of noisemaking of which the
author needs to make her/himself a medium. At least, the noise needs to
come before the message if the result is to fulfil the criteria of creative
writing. This leads me to a related point I want to make about the “sound
gestures” (see Tsur viii-ix) Jackson makes. Apart from doing things with
words, as linguistic performativity is usually understood, there is a doing
things with sounds, such as Gertrude Stein drawing upon the tactile,
vibratory aspect of hearing to perform a “linguistic caress” (Scherr 203).
Referencing the folk belief that magical incantations depend more upon
pronunciation than understanding, Jackson writes in her mock-treatise on
dildos: “Be careful when you say the words mildew, Bilbao, bibelot, billetdoux, or even peccadillo, that you do not accidentally summon a dildo, for
truly, you do not know what will answer your call” (Melancholy 87). The gist
is that language use has purely sonorous effects in excess of the intended
message. In onomatopoeia, saying and doing are conflated: “hush” indicates
quiet through a hushing sound. Going a step further, the imperative “ssh” no
longer signifies but simply effects a hushing. In their Interstitial Library
project, Jackson and Christine Hill invent an additional step: “hh,” a hushing
spoken half on breathing out and half on breathing in, which “when
pronounced correctly, does not just name the space between life and death,
and by extension all things, but creates it in the throat of the speaker, so that
when in need of a quick escape, one can actually slip through the tiny
aperture thus created” (Interstitial [glossary]). This indicates the interstitial
spaces in language where the system of signification does not add up and
Hearing Voices
where a line of flight might take off. The sonority of language provides one
such space for deterritorialisation.
I have already discussed reading as ventriloquism, in a mutual interplay
with writing as ventriloquism where it is often unclear who is the
ventriloquist and who the dummy. As the model for reading introduced to
wrap up this chapter, I would like to modify that to reading as singing along.
Ventriloquism might suggest a one-way exercise of power by which the
reader is unconsciously made to mouth the author’s message. Singing along,
on the other hand, indicates a conscious practice of simultaneous listening
and voicing. Unlike ventriloquism it is also a collective activity with some
room for improvisation and embellishments, although one is undeniably
singing someone else’s tune. Finally, it emphasises the sensual sonority of
literature and the pleasure of giving voice to it. Apart from any other sound
gestures literature might make, its most basic gesture is an invitation to sing
Coda: A Phantom Tail
It did look like an alligator, but only the way the wind looks like the wind – you see it from how the
trees react. It was like a sound you can’t place: near or far? (Word 160)
I have chosen to call my conclusion a phantom tail because tails and
phantom limbs both figure in Jackson’s work, and because it suggests more
clearly than the phantom smells, tastes, touches, sights and sounds
previously discussed a rewriting of the body into a BwO incorporating virtual
limbs. Jackson’s minor writing for queers to come not only creates new
sensations but recreates the sensory apparatus to perceive them with. It does
not provide a blueprint for a utopian queer body yet to be realised, but
queers the body in a very real way by adding phantom prostheses to it. I
think the interplay of actual and virtual is succinctly captured by the
concluding statement of “Stitch Bitch”: “A beaker of imaginal secretions
makes us all desire’s monsters, which is what we ought to be.” In the context
of Jackson’s œuvre, the phrase “desire’s monsters” suggests a monstrous
body, an assemblage of mismatched pieces held together by desiring
connections, while “imaginal secretions” evokes the power of fiction to
release actual bodily secretions. In Patchwork Girl, Jackson expands on the
same idea:
There is a kind of thinking without thinkers. Matter thinks. Language thinks. When we
have business with language, 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. (Patchwork
[body of text/it thinks])
Writing about Patchwork Girl, Hayles makes the more modest claim that
electronic hypertexts necessarily create cyborg readers “spliced into an
integrated circuit with one or more intelligent machines” (“Flickering” par.
13). I prefer Jackson’s hybrid to Hayles’ cyborg because Jackson’s figure does
not overstate the importance of the electronic medium. New technologies
create new ways of sensing, but the technology of literature is not limited to
the material specificities of its medium. As Jackson suggests, language too is
an intelligent machine. All literature regardless of medium uses language to
create virtual realities which then form hybridic connections with the actual.
The referential aspect of language adds conceptual complexity to phantom
sensations, while at the same time the nonreferential aspect of sensation
adds performative force to language. Like other forms of art, literature
makes perceptible what is otherwise imperceptible. Specifically, language
allows for literary phantom sensations to be packed with abstract notions
and other things that are impossible or impractical to sense directly. From
the other direction, phantom sensations work to pry language away from
communication, representation, signification and systematisation. They
function as performative gestures employing language to escape linguistic
signification. In the words of that tired old writing advice, they show instead
of tell. Importantly, however, the showing is not just a fancy means of telling
more effectively, which can at any moment be translated back to telling by
literary scholars and critics. As with all other artist’s materials, there is a
sensual excess to language and this is what makes literature compelling.
The “showing, not telling” of fiction can be summed up in the idea of
literary gestures, such as when G. V. Desani (or his fictional counterpart)
identifies his whole novel All About H. Hatterr as “a gesture” on par with
laying a tree across a railway (12). Gestures are a recurring concern
throughout Jackson’s œuvre. In an anecdote from her book tour with Kelly
Link, she expresses a wish to complement her writing with actual gestures:
“David's comment on my reading of Fat is a little shudder. I say, if I could
blurb my stories with gestures, I would use that one” (Tour [Day 14]).
Although gestures are to a large extent conventionalised and culturally
specific, they do not signify in any straightforward way. It might seem
obvious that the abovementioned shudder indicates disgust, but the precise
affect released by the gesture goes beyond such generalising designations.
The absurdity of ascribing absolute meaning to gestures is demonstrated by
the “genuflection dial” invented by the protagonist of “Short-Term Memorial
Park,” which measures and standardises the exact amount of reverence
demonstrated by each bow. As Barker puts it, “gestures are never vague,
although they may be ambiguous or ambivalent. They take specific forms
and have specific meanings depending on their context. Their meaning
depends upon situation and style, that is, upon the ‘situation’ in space and
personal style of the body that makes them” (78). Upon rearranging his
stuffed rats into different tableaux, the protagonist of “Angel” reflects upon
the power of gestures to be intensely expressive even though their meaning is
unfixed and open to interpretation:
The rats were very expressive, but expressive of what? was the question. Whatever he
had the rats doing, they seemed to be in the right, most eloquent postures – it was
instructive how warlike a preening or foraging pose could seem in a new context. Or
how grief-stricken, how merry, how amorous. (Angel 24)
In their expressiveness, gestures provoke yet elude interpretation, giving the
protagonist of “Angel” the impression that the rats are “making demands in a
sign language he did not know” (Angel 24). Relatedly, “The President’s
Mouth” tells the story of how the American president decides to make a
powerful statement by stretching and scarring his lips and tongue until he
can no longer speak. This proves to be a more efficient demonstration of
power than any speech: “On telephone conferences, he listened politely, then
laid his tongue firmly on the mouthpiece. Who could argue with that?”
(President) In the end, however, the president fails to control how his mouth
is perceived and interpreted. Gestures may have more or less firmly
established connotations, but no denotations to check the proliferation of
Rotman, like Barker, emphasises the embodied and situational aspect of
gestures and insists that they should not be reduced to linguistic signs (434).
I agree, with the important reservation that language too is embodied and
situational and not reducible to signification. Barthes describes the language
of lovers as a sort of athletic straining to express the unsayable, which he
terms “figures” and I would term gestures (Lover’s 3-8). In my opinion, this
is not only true of amorous language but of all forms of intensive, that is
creative, language use. As “The President’s Mouth” indicates, gestures can be
formalised and monumental, like official language, but they perpetually
threaten to slip out of their formalisation. In “Hagfish, Worm, Kakapo,” the
bodies of two aged court ladies remembers gestures formalised in “patterns
whose purpose is forgotten” but which nevertheless still carry the power and
dignity of institutionalisation. As always, Jackson is most interested in the
moment where the system of signification breaks down: “But when they
reach each other, what? Play of fans? Euchre? A long hairpin pushed through
the cheek to transfix the tongue like some stunned moth? They can’t recall.
They beg their fans, their garments, the very ground to remember for them”
(Hagfish). As traditions become obsolete, the expressive force of gestures
ceases to be contained and normalised by convention, and suddenly any
gesture appear as plausible or absurd as any other. The president’s decision
to gesturally embody the hyperbole of political jargon has the same
estranging effect, as does Jackson’s invention of religious rituals in
“Consuetudinary of the Word Church.”
Because gestures are related to verbal language, yet more expressive and
less formalised, they serve as a model for performative language use. Barker
argues that films make gestures, not to be confused with the gestures of
actors. The audience responds bodily to these filmic gestures in various ways
which are not reducible to “identification” with a character or with the
camera’s point of view (Barker 78-80). Similarly, literary works might make
stylistic gestures such as revealing, withholding, sprawling, lingering,
repeating, hurrying, caressing, attacking or avoiding. A central gesture in
Jackson’s work is that of demonstration, exemplified by the Word Church
rituals: “Lecture delivered by the silent display of objects held up in sequence
by the Headmistress. Congregation may hold up objects of their own to show
approval, as for example small pieces of wood, dollar bills, dentures, etc”
(Consuetudinary 145). The gesture of display is related to the archival form
of especially Jackson’s hypertexts. In this important instance of what I term
object writing, a text is spatially structured as a museal display of objects,
rather than as a linearly progressing narrative. Even in works with a more
traditional narrative structure, such as Half Life, Jackson often inserts
ekphrastic tableaux:
Exhibit 27. A trio of malformed chicks. Beaked knots of feather and bone, bent
ornaments for a Bedlam Easter hat. Only one had found its footing, standing square
on its four legs, four wings sticking straight out like a biplane’s. It possessed three
eyes, like a symbol from mathematical logic:
demonstrated, but what? (Half 230)
Therefore. Something had been
If anything, this exhibit symbolises the lack of symbolism in Jackson’s work.
These virtual, multisensory images exist for their own sake, for the
perceptual and affective intensities they release. They point toward
something indescribable but do not symbolise it in representational fashion,
as in analogy or allegory.
I would like to highlight pointing as a specific gesture of display, such as
all the pointing fingers in mannerist art and the manicules indicating
important points in medieval manuscripts. Mary Ann Caws describes how
the surrealists picked up the pointing finger from baroque mannerism and
made it their quintessential gesture. The pointing gesture “indicates either
enthusiasm or an estimation of importance” but “refuses possession” and “is
as unrepresentational as possible: it simply is and says so” (Caws 262, 280).
I would argue that such surrealist pointing is central to Jackson’s work as
well, though it rarely appears in visual form. Instead, Jackson uses textual
versions of it: “grammatical deictics such as ‘this’ or ‘that,’ exclamations such
as ‘Look!’ or designating and limiting expression such as ‘only’ and ‘nothing
but’ that demand close attention and posit the object’s relevance” (Caws
Additionally, pointing serves a special purpose in surrealist art and
Jackson’s œuvre alike. “What you point at you can play with,” Caws states in
relation to one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes arranged like a game (231).
Pointing invites the audience not just to look but to pick and choose objects
to do something with. The archival structure invites participation, perhaps
especially when realised in hypertext form: links are pointing gesture saying
“click here.” However, instead of waxing lyrical about the ludic element in
electronic literature, I want to draw attention to the invitation performed by
pointing. Actual interactivity easily grows routine so that clicking links fade
from consciousness the way turning pages do, and the excitement of play
gives way to feelings of boredom and restlessness. A more effective strategy
to retain the excitement is to linger on and intensify that invitation to play,
even when no actual manipulation of the work is possible. Object art and
object writing do this, by creating actual or virtual objects with enough
sensual, especially tactile, appeal to invite play. As I showed in the chapter
“Touching Texts,” The Doll Games enhances the ludic feel of the hypertext
form through an emphasis on the tactile qualities of dolls and other doll
game props, creating what I term conceptual intimacy. This sets up reading,
but also writing, as play: “It is a good model for writing, playing doll games.
The doll as word never loses its materiality; much of doll games consist of
perfecting (with an editorial exactingness) the right arrangement of symbolic
elements” (Doll [language]). In Jackson’s view, the writing process consists
of experimentally rearranging linguistic elements like toys in a game or
objects in a museum display. Ideally, the sensual qualities of language are
given such importance that words attain the status of things. The rituals in
“Consuetudinary of the Word Church” are likewise designed to materialise
language, and it is suggested that “all material objects may be words in a
language of the deader dead” (150).
Jackson does not simply translate immaterial ideas into material
configurations in order to clarify them; she rather subjects immaterial
entities to hands-on experimentation alongside material entities, as the
virtual space of literature enables her to do. Ideas are subjected not to the
logic of rational argumentation but to the logic of concrete connections,
categorisations, and which works metonymically (through contiguity)
instead of metaphorically (through resemblance). To consider literature as a
set of gestures is a means of resisting the urge to interpret: gestures are
untranslatable; they cannot be paraphrased or summarised because there is
no more efficient, exact or eloquent way to express what they express.
The mannerist pointing gesture is not the only loan from the baroque in
Jackson’s work. There is also a more general influence from baroque vision
which can be put in the context of its modernist revival (see Jacobs 7).
Baroque vision is fascinated by the obscure and the opaque and as a
consequence more haptic than perspectival. Through “a bewildering surplus
of images” it “strives for the representation of the unrepresentable” (Jay,
“Rise” 318). The narrator of “Heart,” the emblematic story opening The
Melancholy of Anatomy, embodies baroque vision in her or his quest to
observe invisible entities known as “black hearts”:
Observing, of course, is the wrong word for the patient cultivation of blind spots, for
trying to understand, by the ways in which, yes, I do not understand, what the heart is.
In this investigation, invisibility is evidence, blindness the closest I may come to
insight, the particular shape and tenor of ignorance, a clue and a scripture. When I can
no longer see anything, I will know I am face to faceless with the heart. What, I sit at
my telescope, straining my neck, my fingers numb claws, in hopes of catching sight of
nothing at all? Yes. I will know it when I don’t see it. (Melancholy 4)
In some ways, this description is not far from actual scientific practices of
deducing invisible phenomena from observable traces, speculated
correlations and mathematical calculations. The scientific rhetoric of
visualising the invisible is subtly undermined by the references to blindness,
as well as by the strained neck and numb fingers calling attention to the
subjective, embodied gaze of the observer. The hearts resist visualisation and
can only be “unseen,” so to speak:
We can’t see them, but we know they’re there, fattening.
They give off a kind of light, but it is a backwards light that races inward away from the
onlooker to hide itself from view, so this light, whose color we would so much like to
know (maybe it’s a color we haven’t seen before, for which we must sprout new eyes),
looks more like darkness than any ordinary darkness, and seems to suck the sight from
our eyes, and make itself visible in the form of a blind spot. (Melancholy 3)
Visual technologies extending and transforming human vision are not
enough to see the hearts: one would have to sprout new eyes. Due to its
virtuality, literary phantom sight is the closest one comes to such prosthetic
new eyes. Only in Jackson’s story “Heart” can the black hearts be glimpsed at
all. If, as Tiffany suggests, matter is at its core (the heart of the matter)
invisible and reality made up by scientific images of for example electrons,
then poetic images of the invisible may be on par with science in shaping
reality (4-6). “Heart” adds to reality a literary phantom sight of the invisible,
making the imperceptible perceptible. Invisibility is figured as a darkness,
black hole, anti-light or blind spot, to which Jackson lends heft and vivacity
by describing it as a huge, heavy and even “fattening” “melancholy
behemoth” (Melancholy 3). In the process of “catching sight of” (which can
never succeed) there are specific phantom sights, which is how percepts are
made perceptible.
The central placement of this story before the four sections named after
the four humours invites interpretation of the hearts as “the heart of the
matter”: both the physical heart animating the body and a more abstract
animating principle which scientific imaging techniques can never get at. As
the dark side of the same coin, the heartbeat also signals mortality and the
melancholy in “the melancholy of anatomy.” Although the dead are in a
sense more visible than the living (because static, as suggested by the
specimens preserved in formaldehyde, stuffed animals and mounted
skeletons of the natural history museum), death as such, like life as such,
remains invisible. There is a literary tradition of rendering death as darkness
and having the absence of light stand in metonymically for the absence of life
(Mendelson 195-8). “Heart” fits into this tradition, especially the claim that
the black heart can only be known when one “can no longer see anything,”
that is, when death has extinguished vision. However, to simply state that
the black heart symbolises death would undo its power to visualise the
invisible and unknowable. The black heart does not symbolise; it images.
While symbols, metaphors, analogues and allegories function
representationally, and conform to the spatial logic of perspectivalism, there
are images and figurations which do not. Massumi argues that the virtual can
be figured by a series of images approximating its flux (133-6), which is close
to the above description of baroque vision. Jackson works in this way when
she presents phantom images which are somehow obscure or oscillating, for
example through her common technique of juxtaposing divergent views and
accounts written in different styles.
It is important not to reduce the making perceptible of the imperceptible
to visualising the invisible, as “Heart” might tempt one to do. Literary
phantom smells, tastes, touches, sights and sounds are not strictly speaking
sense impressions, but they address themselves to specific senses in ways
which should not be reduced to metaphor. As suggested by the sense-specific
models for reading I have outlined at the end of every chapter, phantom
sensations need to be particular in order to generate enough intensity.
However, like actual perceptions, virtual perception often involves more
than one sense. It is my hope that my decision to structure my dissertation
around the Aristotelian five has not contributed unnecessarily to the
traditional hierarchy of the senses, or to a normative and ableist conception
of the human body.
If you have phantom smelt, tasted, touched, seen and heard while reading
this dissertation, I think I have succeeded in demonstrating my point. As
Hélène Cixous writes in her essay “Tancredi Continues”: “I am afraid, I won’t
hide it, because I have a secret to tell which is so beautiful it dazzles me, and
if I am not able to dazzle you, I will have committed a crime against
everything that I venerate, life, beauty, desire” (Coming 88-9). With some
reservations about the word “secret,” which indicates psychological depths to
be (psycho)analysed and religious mysteries to be revealed, I agree. This is
not an easy task to combine with the formal requirements of academia or its
ideals of scientific detachment to the so-called object of study. Nevertheless,
the best academic writing does dazzle, I think, as well as fiction. It all
depends on finding a style adequate to the task, a style which cannot be a
readymade disciplinary style “applied” to any subject matter.
Deleuze does not share the common view that language determinates
thought and in extension reality (to the extent that the only reality accessible
to the human mind is that reflected by thought – an idealist view). For
Deleuze concepts are non-linguistic responses to problems posed by the
world. As soon as they are turned into linguistic concepts with a fixed
meaning they lose their usefulness as philosophical concepts; they become
shorthand for thought. This means that concepts cannot be clearly defined,
only closed in on using various words and figurations (Colebrook, Gilles
17-21; Olkowski 92). Deleuze and Guattari are trying to think new thoughts
and say the unsayable, hence their sometimes excruciating jargon. I share
their optimism about the possibility of writing what there are as yet no words
for, and their conviction that this cannot be done simply by coining new
terms and explaining them. I believe that authors write whole books to catch
a glimmer of it (though like all art, fiction catches a glimmer of percepts and
affects rather than concepts). Or, to borrow a less visualist figure from
Marks, to brush against it: “Sometimes it is the inability of writing to capture
experience that is the most evocative. Over some years of attempting to
achieve these translations, the best moments have been when my writing did
not master the object but brushed it, almost touched it (Touch ix).
Ultimately, I hope that with the aid of Jackson and other writers and artists I
have closed in on something not easily summarised.
Denna avhandling är en monografi över den samtida amerikanska
författaren och multimediakonstnären Shelley Jackson. Jacksons verk består
av hypertexterna Patchwork Girl, My Body och The Doll Games
(samförfattad med hennes syster Pamela Jackson), romanen Half Life,
novellsamlingen The Melancholy of Anatomy, bilderböcker för barn och en
mängd fristående noveller samt projekt i gränslandet mellan olika
konstarter. Till skillnad från tidigare forskning om Jackson, som nästan
uteslutande behandlar hennes banbrytande, tidiga hypertext Patchwork
Girl, tar jag ett samlat grepp om hennes produktion. Även om det inte har
varit mitt syfte att täcka in allt så vill jag ge en omfattande bild av
författarskapet, eller snarare konstnärskapet, som helhet. Jag sätter också in
Jackson i en tradition av politiskt såväl som estetiskt radikal queerlitteratur
där bland andra Monique Wittig, Djuna Barnes, Brigid Brophy, Leonora
Carrington, Angela Carter och Neil Bartlett hör hemma.
Frågan som Jacksons verk har givit upphov till och som denna avhandling
försöker besvara är hur texter kan skapa sinnesförnimmelser. Jag slogs från
början av den sinnliga konkretismen i Jacksons stil, som får även hennes
mest metatextuella experiment att kännas levande och verkliga. Ett sätt att
beskriva det är som ett slags ”kroppslitteratur” analog med ”kroppskonst”:
det vill säga att skriva i stället för att skulptera, måla, fotografera eller
iscensätta kroppen. Franska feminister som Hélène Cixous har ägnat sig åt
att skriva kroppen inom vad som kallas ”écriture féminine,” och Jackson har
hämtat inspiration härifrån. En annan inspirationskälla är den tidigmoderna
anatomiska vetenskapen och höviska dikter tillägnade kvinnors kroppsdelar.
Härifrån hämtar Jackson sina ofta groteska kroppar som öppnas och styckas
levande eller rentav dissekerar sig själva inför läsarens ögon. Jag
argumenterar även för att Jackson närmar litteraturen till skulpturen och
installationen genom sina försök att skapa konkreta textobjekt. Ett sätt att
uppnå detta är genom att strukturera texten spatialt snarare än temporalt
och göra den till ett rum fullt av utställda ting i stället för en berättelse som
följer en tidsaxel. Mest konkret blir detta i Jacksons multilinjära hypertexter.
För att besvara frågan om hur litteratur kan ge upphov till
sinnesförnimmelser vänder jag mig till den franske filosofen Gilles Deleuze
och hans samarbetspartner Félix Guattari. Deleuze har utvecklat det
komplicerade konceptet ”percept” för att fånga något i sig icke förnimbart
som kan göras förnimbart genom konst. Enligt mitt resonemang görs
percepter förnimbara genom vad jag kallar ”fantomförnimmelser.” Att jag
använder ordet fantom är inte för att föra tankarna till ekon eller skuggor av
äkta sinnesförnimmelser, utan tvärtom för att indikera den intensivt
upplevda verkligheten i fantomsmärtor: bara för att lemmen inte finns där
betyder det inte att förnimmelsen är mindre verklig. Enligt samma princip
argumenterar jag för att litterära sinnesförnimmelser är verkliga
upplevelser, även om texten inte ger upphov till några faktiska sinnesintryck.
Jag hävdar också att all konst (egentligen all perception) har ett virtuellt
inslag vid sidan om det konkret materiella. Litteraturen står dock i en
särställning genom att själva textartefakten (med få undantag) är så renons
på konstnärligt intressanta intryck. Nästan allt av intresse sker i stället på
det virtuella planet, bland fantomförnimmelser skapade av språket.
Avhandlingen är indelad i fem kapitel, ett för vart och ett av den
västerländska traditionens fem sinnen. Jag vänder på hierarkin och börjar
med det teoretiskt och kulturellt förbisedda luktsinnet. Lukter befinner sig i
gränslandet och låter sig inte fångas, därför förknippas de med vad Deleuze
kallar ”blivanden”. Jag följer ett luktspår genom kapitlet från dödblivande
över kvinnoblivande och djurblivande till växtblivande, och avslutar med att
argumentera för att läsaren kan dras in i litterära blivanden genom
fantomlukter. Nästa kapitel behandlar smaksinnets funktion i vad jag kallar
”avsmakens estetik”. Jag hävdar att Jackson laborerar med kopplingen
mellan svällande kvinnokroppar och kroppsöppningar och (av)smak,
specifikt fantomsmaker av fett och socker, i en estetik som använder äckel
som en intressant och nyanserad affekt bland andra. I det tredje kapitlet om
känsel utvecklar jag systrarna Jacksons fenomenologiska observationer om
att leka med dockor till en lekfull och taktil modell för läsande. Det fjärde
kapitlet handlar om hur det dominanta synsinnet riktas tillbaka mot sig
själv. Av alla fantomsyner i Jacksons verk hör de som skildrar ögats anatomi,
optik och ljusfenomen till de intressantaste. Jag hävdar att detta
konkretiserar synen och förhindrar den från att bli en abstrakt och
metaforisk blick från ingenstans, och att läsaren uppmuntras använda denna
konkreta, kroppsliga typ av seende till att se litterära fantomsyner. I det
femte kapitlet, slutligen, analyserar jag fantomljud som en form av litterärt
buktaleri där det är oklart om det är författaren, läsaren eller själva språket
som talar. Även om olika sinnen fyller olika funktioner i Jacksons verk har
alla litterära fantomförnimmelser det gemensamt att de överbrygger
avståndet mellan textens kropp och läsarens. Denna performativa beröring
gör litteraturen meningsfull.
Works Cited
Works by Shelley Jackson
“Angel.” Trampoline. Ed. Kelly Link. Northampton, MA: Small Beer, 2003.
19-33. Print.
“The Cat’s Meow.” Guernica. Guernica, Dec. 2006. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
“Consuetudinary of the Word Church; or, The Church of the Dead Letter.”
McSweeney’s 31 (2009): 131-50. Print.
“Early Dispatches from the Land of the Dead.” Conjunctions 51 (2008):
88-102. Print.
“Flat Daddy.” Conjunctions 52 (2009): 275-80. Print.
“(the gallows).” Conjunctions. N.p., 2005. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
Front Page Stories. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
“Hagfish, Worm, Kakapo.” Conjunctions. N.p., 1994. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
Half Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.
“Here is the Church.” Black Clock 2 (2004): 88-93. Print.
“The Hook.” The Apocalypse Reader. Ed. Justin Taylor. New York:
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007. 58-66. Print.
“Husband.” The Paris Review 164 (2002): 158-66. Print.
Ineradicable Stain. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
The Melancholy of Anatomy. New York: Anchor, 2002. Print.
My Body & A Wunderkammer. N.p., 1997. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
“Musée Mécanique.” Conjunctions. N.p., 19 Jan. 2000. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
“My Friend Goo.” Massachusetts Review 49.1-2 (2008): 48-60. Print.
“’N’.” Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary Xxperimental
Prose by Women Writers. Ed. Nava Renek. New York: Spuyten Duyvil,
2008. 123-6. Print.
“The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin.” Conjunctions 46 (2006):
328-46. Print.
Patchwork Girl. Watertown: Eastgate, 1995. CD-ROM.
“The President’s Mouth.” Brooklyn Rail. Brooklyn Rail, Sep. 2006. Web. 28
Jan. 2013. <http://brooklynrail.org/2006/09/fiction/the-presidentsmouth>.
“The Putti.” Conjunctions. N.p., 1996. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
“Short-Term Memorial Park.” ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres
of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories.
Ed. Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2006.
194-9. Print.
“Stitch Bitch: The Patchwork Girl.” MIT Communications Forum. MIT,
1997. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://web.mit.edu/commforum/papers/jackson.html>.
“The Swan Brothers.” My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me:
Forty New Fairy Tales. Ed. Kate Bernheimer. New York: Penguin, 2010.
84-103. Print.
“Tour Diary.” Bold Type. Random House, 2002. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
“Word Problem.” Tin House 9.1 (2007): 145-62. Print.
Jackson, Shelley and Christine Hill. The Interstitial Library. N.p., n.d. Web.
28 Jan. 2013. <http://www.interstitiallibrary.com/>.
Jackson, Shelley and Pamela Jackson. The Doll Games. N.p., n.d. Web. 28
Jan. 2013. <http://www.ineradicablestain.com/dollgames/index.html>.
Works on Shelley Jackson
Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth
Century in Postmodern Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
Ensslin, Astrid. ”Women in Wasteland: Gendered Deserts in T. S. Eliot and
Shelley Jackson.” Journal of Gender Studies 14.3 (2005): 205-16. Print.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s
Patchwork Girl: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Postmodern
Culture 10.2 (2000): n.pag. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
---. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005. Print.
Jackson, Shelley. “Shelley Jackson: Anatomist Extraordinaire.” Interview by
Gavin J. Grant. IndieBound. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
---. “Stitch Bitch: The Hypertext Author as Cyborg-Femme Narrator.”
Interview by Mark Amerika. Amerika Online. Heise, 16 March 1998. Web.
28 Jan. 2013. <http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/3/3193/1.html>.
---. “Women and Technology, Beyond the Binary.” Interview by Jennifer Ley.
Riding the Meridian. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
---. ”Writing in the Web.” Interview. !Kung Avantzine. N.p., 2000. Web. 01
Aug 2008.
---. “Written On (And Under) the Skin.” Interview by Rosita Nunes. Tattoo
Highway. Tattoo Highway, Jan. 2004. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
---. “Written on the Body.” Interview by Scott Rettberg. The Iowa Review
Web. U of Iowa, Jul. 2006. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
Joyce, Elisabeth. “Sutured Fragments: Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl in
Piecework.” Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature.
Ed. Jan Van Looy and Jan Baetens. Leuven: Leuven UP, 2003. 39-52.
Joyce, Michael. “Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext Fiction.”
Modern Fiction Studies 43.3 (1997): 579-97. Print.
Landow, George P. “Stitching Together Narrative, Sexuality, Self: Shelley
Jackson’s ‘Patchwork Girl.’” Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New
Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.
234-41. Print.
Lingel, Jessa. “The Body Indivisible: Shelley Jackson and the Feminine
Figure.” Narratives of Community: Women’s Short Story Sequences. Ed.
Roxanne Harde. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 76-93. Print.
Odin, Jaishree K. “Embodiment and Narrative Performance.” Women, Art,
and Technology. Ed. Judy Malloy. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2003. 452-65.
Parker, Jo Alyson. “’Ejected from the Present and its Certainties’: The
Indeterminate Temporality of Hypertext.” Time and Uncertainty. Ed. Paul
Harris and Michael Crawford. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 39-57. Print.
Solander, Tove. “’An Orifice I Can Fit My Whole Body Into’: Dildonic,
Feminine, and Hypertextual Bodies in the Work of Shelley Jackson.” MA
thesis. U of York, UK, 2008. Html file.
Sundén, Jenny. “What If Frankenstein(‘s Monster) Was a Girl? Reproduction
and Subjectivity in the Digital Age.” Bits of Life: Feminism at the
Intersections of Media, Bioscience, and Technology. Ed. Anneke Smelik
and Nina Lykke. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2008. Print.
Other Works Cited
Abbate, Carolyn. “Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women.” Musicology and
Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship. Ed. Ruth A. Solie.
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Studier i språk och litteratur från Umeå universitet
Umeå Studies in Language and Literature
Publicerade av Institutionen för språkstudier, Umeå universitet
Published by the Department of Language Studies, Umeå University
Redaktion/Editors: Heidi Hansson, Per Ambrosiani
Distribuerade av/Distributed by:
eddy.se ab
P.O. Box 1310, SE-621 24 Visby
E-mail: [email protected]
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Elena Lindholm Narváez, ‘Ese terrible espejo’. Autorrepresentación en
la narrativa sobre el exilio del Cono Sur en Suecia. Diss. 2008.
2. Julian Vasquez (ed.), Actas del Simposio Internacional “Suecia y León
de Greiff (1895–1976)”. 2008.
3. Dorothea Liebel, Tageslichtfreude und Buchstabenangst. Zu Harry
Martinsons dichterischen Wortbildungen als Übersetzungsproblematik.
Diss. 2009.
4. Dan Olsson, „Davon sagen die Herren kein Wort“. Zum pädagogischen,
grammatischen, und dialektologischen Schaffen Max Wilhelm
Götzingers (1799–1856). Diss. 2009.
5. Ingela Valfridsson, Nebensätze in Büchern und Köpfen. Zur Bedeutung
der Begriffsvorstellungen beim Fremdsprachenerwerb. Diss. 2009.
6. Per Ambrosiani (ed.), Swedish Contributions to the Fourteenth
International Congress of Slavists (Ohrid, 10–16 September 2008).
Therese Örnberg Berglund, Making Sense Digitally: Conversational
Coherence in Online and Mixed-Mode Contexts. Diss. 2009.
8. Gregor von der Heiden, Gespräche in einer Krise. Analyse von
Telefonaten mit einem RAF-Mitglied während der Okkupation der
westdeutschen Botschaft in Stockholm 1975. Diss. 2009.
9. Maria Lindgren Leavenworth, The Second Journey: Travelling in
Literary Footsteps. 2010.
10. Niklas Torstensson, Judging the Immigrant: Accents and Attitudes.
Diss. 2010.
11. Van Leavenworth, The Gothic in Contemporary Interactive Fictions.
Diss. 2010.
12. Heidi Hansson, Maria Lindgren Leavenworth & Lennart Pettersson
(red.), Regionernas bilder. Estetiska uttryck från och om periferin.
13. Anette Svensson, A Translation of Worlds: Aspects of Cultural
Translation and Australian Migration Literature. Diss. 2010.
14. Mareike Jendis, Anita Malmqvist & Ingela Valfridsson (Hrsg.), Text im
Kontext 9. Beiträge zur 9. Arbeitstagung schwedischer Germanisten,
7.–8. Mai 2010, Umeå. 2011.
15. Nicklas Hållén, Travelling Objects: Modernity and Materiality in
British Colonial Travel Literature about Africa. Diss. 2011.
16. Stephanie Fayth Hendrick, Beyond the Blog. Diss. 2012.
17. Misuzu Shimotori, Conceptual Contrasts: A Comparative Study of
Dimensional Adjectives in Japanese and Swedish. Diss. 2013.
18. Tove Solander, “Creating the Senses”: Sensation in the Work of Shelley
Jackson. Diss. 2013.
Skrifter från moderna språk (2001–2006)
Publicerade av Institutionen för moderna språk, Umeå universitet
Published by the Department of Modern Languages, Umeå University
Mareike Jendis, Mumins wundersame Deutschlandabenteuer. Zur
Rezeption von Tove Janssons Muminbüchern. Diss. 2001.
2. Lena Karlsson, Multiple Affiliations: Autobiographical Narratives of
Displacement by US Women. Diss. 2001.
3. Anders Steinvall, English Colour Terms in Context. Diss. 2002.
4. Raoul J. Granqvist (ed.), Sensuality and Power in Visual Culture. 2002.
Berit Åström, The Politics of Tradition: Examining the History of the
Old English Poems The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer. Diss.
6. José J. Gamboa, La lengua después del exilio. Influencias suecas en
retornados chilenos. Diss. 2003.
Katarina Gregersdotter, Watching Women, Falling Women: Power and
Dialogue in Three Novels by Margaret Atwood. Diss. 2003.
8. Thomas Peter, Hans Falladas Romane in den USA. Diss. 2003.
9. Elias Schwieler, Mutual Implications: Otherness in Theory and John
Berryman’s Poetry of Loss. Diss. 2003.
10. Mats Deutschmann, Apologising in British English. Diss. 2003.
11. Raija Kangassalo & Ingmarie Mellenius (red.), Låt mig ha kvar mitt
språk. Den tredje SUKKA-rapporten. / Antakaa minun pitää kieleni.
Kolmas SUKKA-raportti. 2003.
12. Mareike Jendis, Anita Malmqvist & Ingela Valfridsson (Hg.), Norden
und Süden. Festschrift für Kjell-Åke Forsgren zum 65. Geburtstag.
13. Philip Grey, Defining Moments: A Cultural Biography of Jane Eyre.
Diss. 2004.
14. Kirsten Krull, Lieber Gott, mach mich fromm… Zum Wort und Konzept
„fromm“ im Wandel der Zeit. Diss. 2004.
15. Maria Helena Svensson, Critères de figement. L’identification des
expressions figées en français contemporain. Diss. 2004.
16. Malin Isaksson, Adolescentes abandonnées. Je narrateur adolescent
dans le roman français contemporain. Diss. 2004.
17. Carla Jonsson, Code-Switching in Chicano Theater: Power, Identity
and Style in Three Plays by Cherríe Moraga. Diss. 2005.
18. Eva Lindgren, Writing and Revising: Didactic and Methodological
Implications of Keystroke Logging. Diss. 2005.
19. Monika Stridfeldt, La perception du français oral par des apprenants
suédois. Diss. 2005.
20. María Denis Esquivel Sánchez, “Yo puedo bien español”. Influencia
sueca y variedades hispanas en la actitud lingüística e identificación de
los hispanoamericanos en Suecia. Diss. 2005.
21. Raoul J. Granqvist (ed.), Michael’s Eyes: The War against the Ugandan
Child. 2005.
22. Martin Shaw, Narrating Gypsies, Telling Travellers: A Study of the
Relational Self in Four Life Stories. Diss. 2006.
Umeå Studies in Linguistics (2001–2006)
Publicerade av Institutionen för filosofi och lingvistik, Umeå universitet
Published by the Department of Philosophy and Linguistics, Umeå
Leila Kalliokoski, Understanding Sentence Structure: Experimental
Studies on Processing of Syntactic Elements in Sentences. Diss. 2001.
2. Anna-Lena Wiklund, The Syntax of Tenselessness: On Copying
Constructions in Swedish. Diss. 2005.
3. Fredrik Karlsson, The Acquisition of Contrast: A Longitudinal
Investigation of Initial s+Plosive Cluster Development in Swedish
Children. Diss. 2006.
PHONUM (1990–2005)
Publicerade av Institutionen för lingvistik, Umeå universitet (1990–1998)
och av Institutionen för filosofi och lingvistik, Umeå universitet (1999–
Published by the Department of Linguistics, Umeå University (1990–1998)
and by the Department of Philosophy and Linguistics, Umeå University
Eva Strangert & Peter Czigler (eds.), Papers from Fonetik –90 / The
Fourth Swedish Phonetics Conference, Held in Umeå/Lövånger, May
30–31 and June 1, 1990. 1990.
2. Eva Strangert, Mattias Heldner & Peter Czigler (eds.), Studies Presented
to Claes-Christian Elert on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday.
3. Robert Bannert & Kirk Sullivan (eds.), PHONUM 3. 1995.
4. Robert Bannert, Mattias Heldner, Kirk Sullivan & Pär Wretling (eds.),
Proceedings from Fonetik 1997: Umeå 28–30 May 1997. 1997.
Peter E. Czigler, Timing in Swedish VC(C) Sequences. Diss. 1998.
6. Kirk Sullivan, Fredrik Karlsson & Robert Bannert (eds.), PHONUM 6.
Robert Bannert & Peter E. Czigler (eds.), Variations within Consonant
Clusters in Standard Swedish. 1999.
8. Mattias Heldner, Focal Accent – f0 Movements and Beyond. Diss. 2001.
9. Mattias Heldner (ed.), Proceedings from Fonetik 2003: Lövånger 2–4
June 2003. 2003.
10. Felix Schaeffler, Phonological Quantity in Swedish Dialects:
Typological Aspects, Phonetic Variation and Diachronic Change. Diss.
Umeå Studies in Language and Literature 18
Department of Language Studies
Umeå University, Sweden
How do literary works employ language to evoke sense
impressions? This is the question addressed in this dissertation,
triggered by the œuvre of contemporary American author and
multimedia artist Shelley Jackson. Inspired by the recent wave
of sensory scholarship in the humanities and guided by the
philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theories on art
and writing, this study develops a notion of literary phantom
sensations. Drawing upon Deleuze’s notion of the virtual as
real but not actual, “phantom” is not meant to indicate a
pale shadow of real sensations, but the intensely perceived
realness of phantom limb phenomena. Furthermore, Jackson’s
particularly sensual writing style is described in terms of body
writing and object writing, and put in the context of other
politically experimental writers such as Djuna Barnes, Neil
Bartlett, Brigid Brophy and Leonora Carrington, together
forming a minor writing for queers to come. This dissertation
makes a contribution to literary, cultural, feminist and queer
Department of Language Studies
Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden
Umeå Centre for Gender Studies
Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden
ISBN 978-91-7459-558-1
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