Cyborgs and the Hypertextual Identity

Laura Lee

"I am a monster, because I am multiple, and because I am a mixture."

Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl is a meta-character that is so ambiguous sexually, so powerful, that it transcends the traditional definition of "woman" and becomes defined as "monster." Modeled after Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jackson's Patchwork Girl is a wonderful exploration of a "female" body expressed within a hypertextual environment. The patchwork girl, a modern cyborg Frankenstein, is made "like a quilt," pieced together from multiple parts, and becomes a hybrid of the most interesting proportions and characteristics. A being without "fixed or repeated morphological outlines," the patchwork girl threatens Classical ontological definitions of "self" by condensing images of both spiritual and physical reality.

In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Donna Haraway describes traditional Western science and politics as "the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism," founded upon the separation of the body and soul, where "the relation between organism and machine has been a border war" (p. 150). The cyborg, however, rejects these boundaries and separations; it is a post-gender creature that exists outside of traditional conceptions of male and female, denies the myth of original unity and separation of Genesis. Haraway claims that "The cyborg incarnation is outside salvation history" (p. 150), and is therefore subversive to Western teleology and religion.

In Patchwork Girl, Jackson's cyborg character embodies the position Haraway describes above, subversively existing beyond the boundaries and limits of Western teleology/religion. She is neither male nor female, but a hybrid mix of both genders. She is considered a monster because of this hybridity, because of the inability of her character to be classified in the traditional sense within a gendered, taxonomic hierarchy. This hierarchy, created by the strict categorization of people within culturally-specific definitions of human ontology, is specific to Western philosophies of thought. In "Angels," Jackson attacks conceptions of classical wholeness integral to systematic Western classification in the description of angels, which are "harmonious... [maintaining] slight smiles in spite of the violence of their actions, like a water-ballet troupe." Jackson depicts a creepy world in which "angels" might act cruelly, with exact precision, and absolute belief in their own goodness. It is interesting to see Jackson's interpretation of how platonic notions of the ultimate, whole good and evil give way to such fanatical violence. She goes on to describe in detail her stance on "classical wholeness" in a sequential lexia:

Classical wholeness and taxonomic self-knowledge is harder and harder to believe in. Maybe even for angels, though they don't seem reft by racial and cultural differences, and seem to believe in hierarchy, in assigned moral parking lots as if souls acquired goodness stepwise... Notches, tax brackets; Thrones, Powers, Seraphs."

Jackson seems to suggest that classical wholeness works primarily to construct a power-based gender hierarchy that denies the actual, hybridian self. As "we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, monsters, chimeras... we grow intimate with monsters." Becoming "intimate" with the patchwork girl, and therefore the "monster," Jackson's story is an expression of her rejection of this gender hierarchy. It denies the separation of polar opposites, male/female, good/evil, which thrive on the belief in platonic absolutes.

Patchwork Girl and The Body both work textually to reconfigure the relationship between traditionally polar absolutes. Equating the separation of "body" and "soul" with the linguistic separation of "form" and "content," we see how both of the hypertext fictions redefine, bring together, and blur the distinctions between the two concepts. Using the body as a map of the human experience, we see in the hypertexts how the physical comes to represent the spiritual, and visa-versa. As the form of the hypertext fiction comes to symbolize and bring the reader into revelation of the content, an implication is made of the capacity of the body to symbolize and represent the soul itself. Jackson states, "you could say that all bodies are written bodies, all lives pieces of writing." As she equates life to "written bodies," she is taking physical reality and tying it to spiritual, internalized experiences. For example, in The Body, lexias such as "shins" work as physical representations of the narrator's memory and emotional experience. In the lexia "masturbation," physical sensation manifests as a hyper-awareness of one's entire body, not simply a localized, limited sexual part of the self. Acceptance of the body as a medium in which evokes memories, brings a new kind of self-awareness that does not reject the physical as part of the spiritual self. In Patchwork Girl, the scars on the cyborg's body create this physical and spiritual map: "...but my real skeleton is made of scars: a web that traverses me in three dimensions." In these two hyperfictions, the body becomes the self, the self becomes the body, there is no distinction between the two.

The political implications of this new "cyborg feminism" is that women are no longer defined in any traditional, categorical sense; they have no predisposition towards one personality or another, "There is nothing about being 'female' that naturally binds women" (Haraway, 155). The fear of this new perception of gender lies within the fear of deconstructing our power hierarchies, our economic and social constructions of identity, which would leave us with no standards by which to judge and classify people. Hence, the patchwork girl is a "monster." But a monster in the sense that monsters have always come to represent that which we do not understand, that which we fear for its lack of clear delineation. As Haraway points out, "Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations" (p. 180). Indeed, insomuch as we can sympathize and identify with the hybridity of monsters, we can no longer deny that we have nothing to do with those strange realities that remain waiting on the "other" side.

Discussion of Patchwork Girl Patchwork Girl Overview Screen for Website Body and Self Theory