Entanglements: an exploration of the digital literary work FISHNETSTOCKINGS


Entanglement, Environment, Matter, and Meaning

We offer this Scalar book as critical entanglement with FISHNETSTOCKINGS, an immersive work of digital literature. This work emits a siren call that compels readers/viewers/users to immerse and submerge in a multimedia projection of text, image, and dance. The resulting experiential and embodied performance centers around mermaid imagery and narrative, an entanglement of ancient mythos and modern feminist reconsideration that promote critical attention and appreciation. 

In her seminal book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, feminist and theoretical physicist Karen Barad establishes the importance of “entanglement” as a guiding concept for understanding matter and materiality. Barad argues, “Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge thorough and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (iv). Matter and meaning are thus inherently entangled. Entanglement is a natural state of being, the condition for making meaning. This condition permeates from physics to poetics, as FISHNETSTOCKINGS makes clear; the work presents meaning-making as embodied action and interaction in ways that demonstrate Barad’s concept of “intra-action.” Barad introduces “intra-action” in contradiction to “interaction”:

“’intra-action’ signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. That is, in contrast to the usual ‘interaction,’ which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action”. (33)

If we recall that “interaction” was a central term in the development -- and debate -- around defining digital art and literature, we see the importance of this entangled concept to this history of electronic literature.  “Interaction” became a banner term of what was called “new media.”  Critical texts, such as Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, offered “interaction” as a key component of what would distinguish the innovative literary text (or cybertext) based upon its ability to respond to input– to interact. Aarseth’s now-canonical book helped establish the field of “game studies,” but it did so around the centrality– dare say, fetishism– of interaction. Barad’s theory of intra-action shifts our focus away from genre (e.g., games) or readerly activity (e.g., interaction) to environment.

A shift from object to context, and from text to environment, is a vital shift in critical perspective. FISHNETSTOCKINGS promotes this shift in orientation by aligning its major components with those of the emergent field of Blue Humanities. From the oceanic voyages of Pacific Islanders, to the creation of sustainable fisheries, and to the ongoing water contamination crises of Flint, Michigan, water has organized and continues to organize our relationships to the wider world. Indeed, as we confront the ecological challenges of the twenty-first century, the ways we understand water - as myth, metaphor, medium, and material - have taken on additional significance. By attending to water’s fluid aesthetics, the inter- and intra-actions that give it meaning, and its social-scientific frameworks of theorization, the Blue Humanities lure our terrestrial engagements out to sea. 

For Steve Mentz, in Ocean, this means changing our vocabulary in order to change our ways of thinking. He asks “What if instead” of using the term “field,” instead “we redescribe the adventures of thinking as currents, as rates of flow and change? Why not emphasize movements and connections between or through difference?” (xvi). Or more precisely, “What happens to ’grounded’ metaphors when everything solid becomes liquid?” 

The answer for Melody Jue in Wild Blue Media: Thinking through Seawater is that “oceanic environments challenge some of the most ingrained and sedimented concepts in media history: interface, inscription, and database storage” (xi). Water changes our ability to see just as submersion demands changes in orientation. So too does language– the shift from “field” to “current”-- change everything. FISHNETSTOCKINGS not only registers and aestheticizes these shifts, but also allows us to confront our attachments to texts, meanings, and concepts that no longer hold water. 

It makes sense then, that in a moment of unsettling cultural shift, we read a work about mermaids. The mermaid appears when contingencies change, when media platforms shift, and when cultures begin to react to these transformations. Her presence serves to reorient our vision– to focus on the mermaid is to see the context surrounding her. We can thus look to the mermaid as a formal device to recognize shifting contexts for knowledge production and meaning-making. Indeed, her presence illuminates cultural and historical contexts such as the rise of Western imperialism, colonialism and slavery; emergent capitalism; the codification of gender roles and concepts of sexuality, and new communication technologies and experiences with them. 

In this Scalar book, we offer an entanglement of methods and approaches that generates a collective and close reading of FISHNETSTOCKINGS. From our individual points of embarkation - literary analysis and media studies (Jessica), critical code studies (Mark), and environmental humanities and black studies (Diana) - to our current collaboration, our aim was to build a dynamic text that reflects the bold and lively experience of encountering FISHNETSTOCKINGS. Flow and swim through its contents as you will, following the paths that pull you or making your own way through the waters. 

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