Friday, May 05, 2006

From scholar to word

I love it. As I'm leaving, maybe for good, my life as a literature scholar, I get invited to be part of a work I've studied, one of the few I felt really invested in. This is amazing news, and I know it has nothing whatsoever to do with science, and I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition, but shut up, I'm excited.

Okay, let me back up. For a long time I've been doing work on the Skin project, a "mortal work of art" by pioneering hypertext author Shelley Jackson. The work is a sort of radical expansion of the freedom of hypertext, one that gives the words themselves life. "Skin" is a short story, but you haven't read it, and in the usual sense you probably won't: it will only be published word by word as tattoos (though the tattoo-ees will get to see a full version). Once a participant is assigned a word -- you can choose to decline it, but not to change it -- he or she gets that word tattooed, in a classic book font. The most important thing, from a theoretical perspective, is this, from the call for participants:
From this time on, participants will be known as "words". They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.
Words are, from what I've seen, very passionate and interesting people; I know two of them, and I've corresponded with a few more. And I had resigned myself, being a scholar and therefore necessarily rather dry, to examining this work from the outside. I gave a paper on it at the Society for Literature and Science conference last year, and met up with a word while I was in Chicago, thus probably being the only academic in history to have coffee with part of the text she'd just presented on (except, of course, in the lonely and figurative sense). But I figured that would be the closest I got to the project.

Shelley came to Maryland last month and gave a really inspiring talk, not to mention holding her own against dull and obtuse academic questions in a small discussion. I'm not only praising her because she unwittingly supported some of my "Skin"-related conclusions in front of a professor who'd doubted and challenged me (although come to think of it... haha! Take THAT!). This is a woman who is probably a mile ahead, conceptually, of anyone else working in fiction today. She's an excellent writer, which is a rarity in people who experiment with form, but she's also constantly thinking about the limitations and expectations of her medium. In short, she's cool. So we got to talk a little (I was of course a little star-struck), and I emailed her my paper and my Powerpoint from the conference. And I didn't say hardly anything in the email to point out that I really really really wanted to be a word. Maybe just a little, but I think I was very polite about it.

But I did, and now I can, because she wrote back with the release form, and holy shit. In a certain sense this timing is perfect... I'm leaving the academy partly because it enforces such distance from the text, so being accepted into a text could not come at a better time. And as I'm leaning more and more towards writing careers, which I've always resisted, it seems very appropriate to be able to define the trajectory of 1/2095th of a story. And of course I'll get to read the story in its entirety, once the words are all mailed out... and even though my theoretical commitment is to the idea that the original story doesn't matter, I'm pretty damn curious.

I get to be a word. People who know me will know how thrilled I am about this. If you don't, just know that I read Shelley's email half an hour ago and I am still weak in the knees. Now just wish me luck in not getting "poo" or "cabbage" or "flabby" or something. Luckily Shelley chooses her words carefully, and almost all the ones I've seen have been lovely, except maybe "swelling" but I think even that could be great once you think about it. Oh I wish we had a working printer, I would print out the form right now.


robin said...

Wow. As someone who DOES know you well, being your mother and all, I can just imagine how excited you are about this strange and wonderful new development. Actually I don't have to imagine -- your excitement crackles off the page (the screen? the skin?). But I must say, I can think of a lot of words worse than "cabbage" for you to be assigned. Even good writers have to end up using ordinary, or even ugly, words occasionally. Here's hoping it's a beautiful one!

5/06/2006 10:23 AM  
jess said...

Worse than cabbage, for a tattoo? Keep in mind that anyone who's not aware of the project is going to think that you've chosen the word for its personal significance. What's worse than "cabbage"? "Brisket"?

I'm pretty sure the story is not about food cooked by your mother, though, so I think I'm safe on that front. Still, I've seen a lot of words' tattoos, and the only one I'd have balked at would be "Larger" (the person who got it balked too, but reconciled with it). That said, a lot of the rejected ones have been reassigned, so maybe that's where all the cabbage is.

5/07/2006 4:23 PM  
Casey said...

Personally, I would love to be "cabbage" because it is a word much like "bees" for you and Dan,but for me and my former friend Justin. We used the word "kapusta" which is slovak for cabbage. I hope you wind up being "bees" just because. >_> Now...a link to the project would be nice. Ever since I heard you talk about it down at Dan's, I've been enamoured and am considering becoming a word. I hope for something insane or innappropriate, just for kicks.

Have a good week!

5/09/2006 9:50 PM  
jess said...

Now...a link to the project would be nice.

It's up there! But since you ask, here it is again:

I should consider making my links a slightly lighter color; it's easy to lose them.

I guess I was a little unfair to cabbage. It's an endearment in French. A little picture of a cabbage might make a nice tattoo...

5/10/2006 5:22 PM  

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