Entanglements: an exploration of the digital literary work FISHNETSTOCKINGS

Floating and Flickering


Electronic literature in general [See “Fellow Fish” and Jessica’s “Ocean as Interface– mermaids in and for Elit"], and FISHNETSTOCKINGS in particular, invites us to consider anew how racial information is encoded and processed. How, for example, does e-lit help us to think differently about race as a floating signifier? Or to borrow a term from Katherine Hayles, is race a signifier that simultaneously flickers and floats? What FISHNETSTOCKINGS suggests vis-à-vis the mermaid is that racial fetishism provides an essential bridge between digital and analog signifiers of race. For Black Studies scholar David Marriott, racial fetishism establishes a “perverse relation to difference” by adopting stereotypes as “a defense against more intolerable forms of anxiety, while allowing subjects to enjoy this fear” of the other (216). Paradoxically, because the object of this anxiety is formed out of the stereotype itself, it “is in fact standing [in] for a fear of disintegration” caused by the shameful recognition of “the other within us” (Marriott 218). We inhabit a fetishized relationship to ourselves and to defend against this realization, the stereotype-as-fetish allows us to act as if the source of our anxious relation to difference originates from somewhere other than our own perceived lack. More importantly, because the stereotype relies on a model of difference that is at once fixed and repeatable, and attractive and repulsive, the enjoyment it imparts derives from its ambivalence. Rather than destabilizing racist thought, these seemingly contradictory or ambiguous signifiers are the very means through which racism is enjoyed.

So, what does this mean for Hayles’ flickering signifiers? For Hayles, traditional signifying systems are based on analog definitions of language in which the signifier floats in a network of differentially produced signifieds. However, because information technologies operate through a dialectic of pattern and randomness rather than presence (e.g., signifier) and absence (e.g., signified), the signifier is indeed linked to a signified albeit one that is a material-informational entity. At the same time, racial fetishism suggests that racial signs are treated both as material-informational entities and as patterns of presence and absence, where “the perception of blackness as the sign of race relies on the visual continuity of color inscribed on the body’s surface as a mode through which to ‘read’ or process the information of race” (Laiola 253-254). By drawing implicit connections between digital and racial information processing, FISHNETSTOCKINGS makes room, however briefly, for the racial unconscious of technology to surface.

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