|Title:||"Re: The Fact That I Am Fiction": Mary-Anne Breeze, Her Avatars, and the Transformation of Identity|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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"Re: The Fact That I Am Fiction": Mary-Anne Breeze, Her Avatars, and the Transformation of Identity
vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2004
"Re: The Fact That I Am Fiction": Mary-Anne Breeze, Her Avatars, and the Transformation of Identity
Code poet Mary-Anne Breeze, whose work has attracted a great deal of praise and critical attention, uses a series of avatars that problematize our notion of the single, unified author whose social and political identities are stable. In her work, Breeze plays with and conceals her real-world identity, a transformative act that gives her the freedom to express controversial intellectual and political viewpoints, to challenge the hegemonic forces that seek to regulate and control communication online, and to establish new communities with other avatar-wearing participants who define themselves rather than allow themselves to be defined by others.
In less than a decade, Australia's Mary-Anne Breeze has emerged as one of the most innovative and influential poets working in the new artistic spaces of the Internet. Along with Alan Sondheim, Ted Warnell, Ted Andrews, Talan Memmott, Jodi, and others, Breeze is a member of an international school commonly known as the codework poets: "writers and programmer-artists . . . playing with the confusions and thresholds of machine language and human language, and . . . reflecting the cultural implications of these overlaps" (Cramer, par. 19). Several of the codework poets' creations, such as Talan Memmott's "Lexia to Perplexia" or Ted Warnell's "Poem by Nari IO," conflate ordinary written language and the idiosyncratic elements of computer programming and visual design to construct new poetic languages. But it is Mary-Anne Breeze's contribution to this school which has attracted the most critical attention. Breeze is the inventor of a paratactic hybrid of English and computer code which she calls "mezangelle." Texts written in mezangelle break apart words by inserting other words, letters, or non-alphanumeric symbols which multiply the meanings and connotations that an utterance carries. For example, in a collaboration with Talan Memmott titled "Sky Scratchez," Breeze takes the lines "My neck contracts / and brow beats into tattoos" and "mezangelles" them to read "[meye [kne]e.ck[ronic paine] con[ned].tract[ov teXt]z N br.OW!! bee[hiVez]att:z N-2 tat[telletailz]2z." Mezangelle takes advantage of the reader's ability to hold more than one thought (often a contradictory thought) in mind at a time as he or she reads—an intellectual skill that hypertext and online literature emphasize and often require.
Most of the critical attention paid to Breeze has focused on her use of her mezangelle communication mechanisms. N. Katherine Hayles argues that Breeze's works are "not content to let code remain below the surface but rather show it erupting through the surface of the screen to challenge the hegemony of alphabetic language" (372). She likens the act of reading mezangelle to experiencing "a world in which language is inextricably in-mixed with code and code with language, creating a creolized discourse in which the human subject is constituted through and by intelligent machines" (378). Komninos Zervos explains mezangelle in terms of its paratactical effects: "[Breeze's] parataxis of syllable and letter, within words themselves, sets up a poetic experience where the words clash within themselves, their internal workings in opposition, disrupting the way we read as language and forcing a closer examination of the text, creating new meanings with the text" (par. 43). Stephanie Strickland compares mezangelle to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry with its "fluid spacing, bracketing, and ambiguous punctuation to obtain a simultaneity of reference that tests fixed neuronal patterns," and notes that mezangelle "also tests these, simultaneously, through choreographed and random kinetic oscillations of the Web environment, re-converting the process of reading to a process of action, perhaps somewhat akin to what oral cultures undertook when print first spread through them" (par. 14).
Breeze's code poems and website installations—her "net.wurks," as she prefers to call them—represent a point at which codework praxis and poetics meet, for not only has Breeze been extremely prolific in creating and distributing her code poetry net.wurks, but her net.wurks have evolved over the last few years to form an impressive collection of manifestos and political-poetic theories demonstrating how the use of online environments might re-shape the activity of interpersonal communication, especially in terms of how we [de]construct authors, their messages, and their audiences, redefining the roles of "author" and "reader" in such a way that has important implications outside the domain of literature. In addition to her invention of mezangelle, Breeze notes that her most important contribution to codework poetry has been an examination of how "Identity swapping . . . constantly shifting name-tags, ["n.vokes"] an avataristic & collaborative approach [and] net.wurked formulation" leading online participants to construct new identities and form communities based on an ambiguous and fluid sense of self (Currents interview).
Breeze swaps identities through the use of avatars. Like mezangelle, which simultaneously reveals and obscures the words that are mezangelled, Breeze's avatars both obscure the author's offline self by concealing her name, but also reveal and render more explicit the authorial position from which Breeze is working. Breeze has invented a vast array of avatars since she began posting her net.wurks online, so many that she rarely uses her given name, "Mary-Anne Breeze," while online. Often when critics discuss Breeze or her work, they refer to her most common avatar, "Mez," but this might be placing too much significance on a single avatar of an author who uses a great many avatars. In any case, in this paper, I want to examine Breeze's relationship to her avatars and her use of avatars as a method of literary and political expression, thus it makes sense to distinguish her "[meat][m][body version]"—as she calls it—"Mary-Anne Breeze," from the "[net.wurker ][wo][manifestation]," "Mez," or one of her many other avatars.
Breeze complicates identity by exploring how avatars can be used to construct new means of interfacing with rapidly evolving—and sometimes ephemeral—information technologies and then simultaneously exploiting this use of avatars so that the author is free to explore new avenues of literary creation. Because Breeze's net.wurks emphasize the importance of community formation and function, this new form of poetic creation, in turn, has political consequences. Mezangelled texts, like many forms of code poetry, generally have been described as the "contamination" of human language by computer code (Raley, par 18). Since technological and social advances are placing people and information technology in closer and closer interaction, this sort of contamination almost seems inevitable. But with respect to Mary-Anne Breeze, we might reverse the course of this contamination to read human language as the source of the contamination rather than its recipient. Breeze contaminates the languages of information technologies with human language, pressing programming languages into the service and support of her own artistic and political agenda, an agenda which does not always correspond with the objectives of the original computer programs. Like a linguistic trojan horse, mezangelle disrupts and destroys the efficacy of computer code by revealing its potential for linguistic play, a kind of play which ultimately is fatal for the computer program but which leads to enhanced creativity for the human interactor, whose basic human need for creative expression through language cannot be fulfilled by current information technology alone. Breeze's use of mezangelle offers a strategy for engaging and protesting the offline threats to human identity posed by sources such as bio-engineering, cloning, and the increasing corporate and government control over intellectual property rights and artistic freedom.
Breeze began her online career in 1995 with a net.wurk titled Cutting Spaces. Cutting Spaces is a combination of prose and poetry littered with hyperlinks and multi-colored text that chronicles a young female writer's two obsessions: the search for a collaborative writing partner online and the act of self-mutilation. Cutting Spaces announces several of the themes and issues that Breeze develops in later net.wurks, especially the idea of altering one's identity through the use of avatars in order to reflect the attitudes and opinions that one adopts or expresses while participating in online environments. Cutting Spaces begins with Breeze re-naming herself through a series of avatars. Ostensibly, Breeze wears the avatar "Ms Post Modemism" (as the subtitle of the net.wurk, "fleshwords by Ms Post Modemism" suggests), but we learn that this avatar "has gestated inside others" such as:
These three avatars, as well as the avatar "Ms Post Modemism," obviously rely on the connotations that these colorful names inspire in order to construct each avatar's identity and communicate that identity to Breeze's audience. However, only the new avatar, "Ms Post Modemism," seems to fit the new online medium which Breeze was beginning to explore at this time (in fact, it is difficult to imagine a writer with such a name working offline).
Cutting Spaces illustrates how avatar construction is much more than the innocent and effortless selection of a name. Changing identities in this net.wurk is enacted through self-mutilation, implying an analogy between the avatar and the physical self. A section in Cutting Spaces subtitled "Incision down the left side of the face" describes Ms Post Modemism using a knife to cut her skin along the liminal region of the hairline surrounding her face—in effect, she is attempting to cut out her face as the first step in exchanging her old identity for a new one. Naturally, it is a bloody, painful act, which Ms Post Modemism describes for us in detail, but when the pain becomes too much for her to handle and she stops, she discovers that "she has her story control again." Altering her identity generates a surge of creative inspiration that allows Ms Post Modemism to write.
We witness this transformative activity in some of her more recent postings to listservs. Breeze will sign her posts with a mezangelled avatar construction, an identity which often foreshadows the title or subject matter of the rest of the post. For example, in a post from December 2001, Breeze adopts the avatar ".][depth][f.Unction" above a subject line which reads, "][d.][...splay my...][opia][". Variations on the name of this avatar are repeated like a refrain through the post: "function," "][d.][function," ".][deep][fun.ction," and finally ".][depth][function." Sometimes Breeze will use mezangelle to fuse her identity with another's, just as she uses mezangelle to sometimes fuse her words with other words. In a post dated 11 June 2000, Breeze mezangelles a passage originally written by Diane Ludin, and then inserts her own name into Ludin's by signing the mezangelled work "Di[mary-]an[n]e Ludin"—an illustration of how authorial identity may be transient and easily altered. Using avatars is an essential part of Breeze's creative process, allowing her to mezangelle her own self in order to find an authorial identity from which she can create.
For Mary-Anne Breeze, the construction of an avatar is not strictly a metaphoric or "virtual" donning of a mask, but often a physical act of extreme intensity, for it violates and re-defines the ostensible borders that keep us apart from the world around us and from other people. We tend to assume that our physical bodies have boundaries that separate us from the rest of the physical world, although we may disagree on exactly where those boundaries lie (at the level of skin and hair? at the level of clothing? at the level of scent or sound or sight?). When such boundaries are penetrated—or in this case, cut—we "bleed" either figuratively or literally, transgressing the pre-assigned boundaries and perhaps venturing into new, previously forbidden or inaccessible territories. However, these boundaries are further complicated in cyberspace, where the avatar or new identity that one creates seems to be separated from one's human body and confined in a body of metal and plastic and silicone (the computer's hardware)—a body which seems far less vulnerable to the natural world than one of clothing and skin, but which is still accessible to the minds and thoughts and avatars of other online participants.
Breeze's major net.wurk from 2000, The Data][h!][bleeding Texts, continues on the course set by Cutting Spaces. Many of the texts in this collection express the desire to revel in the new possibilities for identity construction that entry into an online virtual environment affords one. For example, in part two of The Data][h!][bleeding Texts, a section titled "Loggin On2 Netwurk," Breeze, now writing under her more familiar avatar of "Mez," demonstrates how she can virtually transform her new cyber-body at will:
An online avatar's body is not composed of flesh and bone, like our human bodies, but, ultimately, it is composed of nothing more than language. Since online interaction takes place in an environment that is, at its core, a textual, coded environment, the avatars are not bound in flesh bodies but are instead purely symbolic bodies consisting solely of language and programming code. Wearing an avatar makes one much more aware of how important a tool language is to the creation of one's offline identity and one's sense of self. One quickly discovers how simple manipulations of language have the power to transform one's identity into whatever one wants it to be. Language is no longer perceived as a rigid set of rules, but a fluid, highly connotative mass of possibilities. Ultimately, as this new function of language is gradually taken for granted in online communities, just as it is usually taken for granted in offline communities, the transformative power that language has upon identity also is taken for granted. When Breeze transformed herself into Ms Post Modemism, she felt obligated to represent that with a description of a physical act of self-mutilation: cutting out one's face so that it can be removed and replaced. Today, when Breeze posts to listservs, she posts under avatars that only exist for a few weeks or a few days, often reflecting a political or social issue on her mind, before she finally discards that avatar for a new one. The process of transforming her identity seems mundane and easy, just as it seems to anyone else who participates in these online environments long enough.
Breeze's own avatars are sometimes masculine and sometimes neutral in their gender, but most remain feminine. Her feminine avatars such as "Ms Corruption," "Miss User," and "tech.no.whore" entail feminist-oriented themes and critiques of the traditionally male-dominated medium in which she works. Her mezangelled writing itself is a means by which she may assault the phallogocentrism from within, a deconstruction of the implicit or inherent patriarchal allegiances that have formed between technology and the written word. Breeze argues that, for women, the use of avatars in cyberspace is almost a necessity if a woman wants to be taken seriously in what still remains a male-dominated technology and environment. She has stated, for example, that the avatar "Passe Parvenu" was "governed by the way I wanted . . . [the] work perceived by a larger audience; I kept it gender-nonspecific and conceptually geared so people would actually have no pre-conceptions of the work they were about to see" ("Real Mez"). So Breeze's avatars give her the ability to move freely across gender and other socially-constructed boundaries. An article that Breeze wrote and published in the spring 1997 issue of the e-journal Cybersociology illustrates the difficulties that women face in gaining acceptance to online communities. Breeze's article describes her participation in an online gaming community in Australia. She writes,
While some of Breeze's avatars are obviously feminine, others, such as "mezflesque.exe" or "e-mauler," are ambiguous in their gender. As Breeze described to Helen Whitehead in a February 2000 online interview, she prefers to play with the idea of gender so as to explore how gender expectations shape the way that readers perceive texts:
In the case of her adventure into the world of online gaming, Breeze found that avatars truly do either suspend or provoke regression towards assumptions based on the stereotypes (in Breeze's case, gender stereotypes) that online participants already possess upon entering the virtual environment. So, despite the fact that choosing avatars can sometimes seem mundane, avatar selection is a process that one should not take lightly, for the connotations that it communicates and the identity it establishes really does influence how others will respond to that avatar and the person behind it.
As Breeze switches her avatars, the frequency with which she does so not only allows her to experience many different identities, it also allows her several authorial positions from which she can present a variety of texts and points of view to her readers. Avatars grant their users a space in which they may use their imaginations freely and creatively, without worrying about facing judgments from other people, since the other people that one encounters online are themselves wrapped up in avatars. But when one's real-time identities do become known—when one is unmasked, so to speak—one may be left vulnerable to the judgments of the other participants. In a sense, one identity is exchanged for another, and these identities not only represent our own opinions of ourselves, but they also reflect others' opinions about who we are and what roles we should play in both offline and online communities. Furthermore, while the communities that we construct in the physical world are defined and limited by such things as geography, economic status, career, religion, race, and political affiliation, online communities have the potential—albeit limited by issues of access to technology—to transcend these boundaries. Language, and the ability to communicate effectively through language, becomes the paramount factor in online community participation and formation.
Although the use of avatars is often a positive way of alleviating the lack one feels in one's offline identity by being able to experience and assume new identities, Breeze writes of how other technologies—not just information technology, but medical and scientific technology—reveal a potentially sinister form of identity transformation. When this powerful idea of transformation leaves the purely symbolic realm of language or programming code and enters the offline realm of flesh and bone, the uneasiness and shock that we may have felt when reading about Ms Post Modemism's mutilation of her face pales in comparison to the alarm that these other forms of identity transformation can inspire. Breeze's online installation, The Clone-Alpha Project offers an imaginative visual demonstration of humanity's hubris with offline transformative technologies. This net.wurk consists of a series of images of cherubs which are replicated and distorted, ultimately resulting in the creation of unrecognizable lumps of flesh with wings, cherubs with multiple heads, and other grotesque imagery. In our desire to play god through the technology of genetic engineering and cloning—to make supermen and angels out of ourselves, and then narcissistically replicate that new creation—Breeze shows how humans risk unleashing undreamed-of horrors. In a short text piece collected in part four of The Data][h!][bleeding Texts titled "Po[E].ST War[ning]," Breeze goes even further in her condemnation of genetic engineering, likening it to the eugenics programs of Nazi Germany:
Such technologies offer a radical transformation of the physical body, a transformation, one might argue, that resembles the notion of avatar construction, except that it brings the construction of a new identity out of the realm of the symbolic and into the realm of the physical. But Breeze clearly demarcates an ethical line between the symbolic and the physical in her endorsement of identity transformation, a line that she apparently is unwilling to cross. One form of transformation is ethically taboo and the other is not because the first instance represents a drive towards homogenization, a drive encouraged by elements of culture which are threatened by uncontrolled freedom of expression and assembly. The actual transformation of our offline flesh-and-bone bodies is usually a result of the desire to be like everyone else. Breeze's analogy of the Nazi eugenics programs and the emerging technology of genetic engineering underscores Breeze's suspicion of those who desire to normalize populations, making it easier to rally them around programs and policies with as few dissenters as possible. Cloning, genetic engineering, and similar technologies do not simply resolve a lack in one's self-perception as avatar creation might, but, instead, promote the resolution of a lack that capitalist institutions try to persuade us exists. Encouraging people to transform themselves—whether it be the clothes they wear, their hair, their weight, skin color, etc.—in order to conform to a proposed standard of "normality" can make it easier for corporations and governments to manipulate the wants and desires of vast groups of people.
This examination of how Breeze uses information technology to serve as either a literal or symbolic replacement for one's human body would seem to prompt the age-old dichotomy of body versus mind. In the case of information technology, this would imply that computer hardware may be analogous to the body, and that software and programming is therefore analogous to the mind. That one's body may be transformed into a compact, solid, seemingly impenetrable assemblage of plastic, metal, and silicon is an idea that might be reassuring to some and disturbing to others—depending, perhaps, on the intensity of one's sense of lack with respect to one's human body. The analogy has more promise when we think of computer software as analogous to the human mind. With respect to the mind-software analogy, Geoff Cox, Alex McLean, and Adrian Ward have compared generative computer code and its effect on computer hardware to the effect that poetry has on the mind:
To carry the analogy still further, we might say that linking hundreds or thousands or even millions of computers together by way of the Internet links hundreds or thousands or millions of minds together, forming a vast community of intelligence unlike any other in human history—a community that can transcend traditional boundaries, whether they be geographical, political, racial, religious, or gendered.
But this analogy begins to break down when we consider that, although computer hardware and software may symbolically represent one's body and mind, electronic information technology and human beings are different in far more ways than those which are at first obvious. Jean-Francois Lyotard offers a more operable analogy that might better describe how some forms of codework poetry, including Breeze's net.wurks, are intended to function. Lyotard writes that while "The body might be considered the hardware of the complex technical device that is human thought," the "software, human language, is dependent on the condition of the hardware" (133). The "code" of human thought is human language, but while human language may be altered and new languages invented and learned, the language that is used to operate computer hardware is very different—and has very different objectives—than the language that operates human hardware. Computer programming languages are heavily dependent on strict rules which direct the way the software is received and read, but the operation of human software (human language) upon human hardware is very different: "In what we call thinking the mind isn't 'directed' but suspended. You don't give it rules. You teach it to receive. You don't clear the ground to build unobstructed: you make a little clearing where the penumbra of an almost-given will be able to enter and modify its contour" (137).
Although Breeze's codework poems resemble programming code, mezangelle does not actually function as a computer program. John Cayley argues that codework poetry should not only function aesthetically, but it should also function as a program as well, and that if "the code embedded in the interface text has ceased to be operative or even potentially operative [then] [t]he breakdown of its operations eliminates one aspect of its proposed aesthetic value and allure, its native performative efficacy" (par. 24). Some codework poets actually do try to create works that are both aesthetically pleasing and which also can function as operable computer programs. But for Breeze, mezangelle's lack of operability makes an important statement about the relation of human beings to information technology. Breeze's net.wurks "suspend" rather than "direct." They are deliberately incomplete, open-ended, and flawed. The input of Breeze's net.wurks does not determine a particular, predictable response that will be universal when read by all of the readers of the text in the same way that a computer program is expected to generate the same output in each machine that runs the software. Breeze's mezangelled net.wurks are not designed according to strict, logical rules, but are constructed connotatively. Taking a word like "syntax" and mezangelling it to form "s][onorous][y][i][n.ta][ct][x" requires that both the author and reader share the necessary linguistic and cultural context that will allow them to reconstruct the original word from clues in the mezangelled text, and then deconstruct it by way of the bracketed extra letters and syllables, finding connotations and associations within the rest of the text and piecing them together to arrive at a similar but not necessarily identical interpretation. As explorations of the interpretive process, Breeze's net.wurks do not aspire to a single, intended "output." If Breeze's net.wurks can be compared to programs at all, then they are programs designed to operate the human mind, not a computer. Thus, as Rita Raley argues, mezangelle is "precisely opposed to the value of functionality," conforming more to an "aesthetics of disruption and interference" (par. 26).
One of the paradoxes of Breeze's work is that even as mezangelle causes "disruption and interference," Breeze nevertheless regards interactive collaboration as an important part of creating her net.wurks. To return to Cutting Spaces, once Ms Post Modemism regains her "story control" after painfully mutilating herself—a metaphor for an author's need to set aside a space in which she will be free to write and create—the new identity formed in the self-mutilation (avatar establishment) has the freedom to act without the constraints that the original identity experienced. The story she writes is about a "Wounded Man," who, bleeding profusely, enters a bar and orders a drink. Ms Post Modemism begins the story but leaves the rest of it unfinished and posts it online, inviting other writers to contribute and finish the story. Unfortunately, no one contributes, and Wounded Man is left bleeding in the purgatory of the bar indefinitely. Without collaboration, the story cannot be told.
Despite Ms Post Modemism's failure to attract a collaborative partner, Breeze views the possibility of collaboration between online participants as one of the most exciting avenues for creation that information technology offers. The idea of an artist possessing exclusive control over his or her work is an anachronism in cyberspace where the ideas and products of human imagination may be held in common by a vast online community. Ms Post Modemism describes her audience/collaborators as "we/ .she. + .he. + .me." and demands that they "explode the myth of individualized artistic ownership and requirements of chronological progression" (Cutting Spaces, part 3). Breeze reminds us that, even offline, all human literary endeavors are nevertheless linked together; every text is in real or potential correspondence with every other text, creating an all-inclusive network of language and communication. The use of hypertext may draw attention to observable collaboration, but the potential for collaboration as an important tool in creative writing has always been present. Online information technologies are simply better equipped to make creative collaboration possible. Breeze explains that "'Deadtree media' [e.g., paper-based communication] cannot m.brace the collaborative & immediate rite-of-reply that email texts can" (Currents interview). The illusion of individual literary creation is advanced by the conventions of written and printed "deadtree" media.
In cyberspace, collaboration is easier because the traditional boundaries of geography or nationality or even time are more easily transcended, making texts more immediately available to readers. And because of the interactive nature of online technologies, both the creation and reception of texts emerge as events shared by a new, larger community. As we have seen, the formation of these new communities also offers the chance for the participants to adopt new identities through the use of avatars, giving participants the confidence and freedom to express themselves and "2 adopt a projective quality that both obscures and n.hances multilogue-authorship & polyvocal ownership" (Currents interview). Breeze's mezangelled net.wurks invite—even demand—that her audience participates actively with respect to her texts, not only reading them but also assisting in their creation. Breeze says that readers "can decide to re/deconstruct the work itself, or interact via immediate feedback, or simply rewrite the work as they see fit. The poetic boundaries are revamped substantially in terms of this type of potentially 'active' readership" (Currents interview).
The act of mezangelling computer code amounts to hacking into a system of language in order either benignly to explore previously inaccessible or forbidden regions of networked systems, or to disrupt and destroy those same systems from within. But the act of mezangelling carries a clear ethical and political dimension, which, like the words and messages that mezangelle seeks to reveal, lies just beneath the surface of her net.wurks. Longstanding rules of grammar and punctuation are forced upon—and even enforced by—online participants, so openly defying these rules by mezangelling language is not simply an act of parody or deconstruction; it is also be a political act, an act of resistance. Rebelling against these rules threatens to overturn previously held notions of communication and community, but such rebellion also clears a space for new and potentially better forms of communication and community construction.
Breeze explains how this is possible in her "noncon" piece from her 2001 collection, ][ad][Dressed in a Skin C.ode. By donning an avatar online, one is transformed into something that Breeze calls an "E-Mote" (as opposed to a Flesh-Mote—one who lives entirely independent from the Internet, an identity which is extinguished at the E-Mote's birth). The E-Mote works within a very different set of communicative parameters than the Flesh-Mote, such as "the abbreviated sp][g][eek, the nuanced sign][age][, the un.ending.banter.torque, rewriting of geosyncratic platitudes." For E-Motes, cyberspace is a site of mythic displacement in which one "can b all, another not an .other." by re-inventing one's identity and altering it to suit the fluctuating circumstances of online communication. However, Breeze argues that the freedom and innovation that accompanies this displacement is often in direct conflict with the representatives of monologic institutions that seek to establish order and authority over "the pri.mo][dem][r.dial][up][ soup" through a determination "2 swa][m][p the limboesque with capital][ism][" ("noncon"). Avatar creation threatens the usual methods of assigning pre-conceived identity constructions favored by governments or corporations: permanent names, identification numbers, and demographic information. These identities can then be used to manipulate and control populations. A similar threat also comes from many ordinary Internet users who
As a result of these normalizing intrusions, ".the net.wurk is undercurrented. undermined. understat][d.][metned. e][rased][choed in the geophysical pull" ("noncon").
"Netorbit," the last item in ][ad][Dressed in a Skin C.ode, serves as a sort of manifesto—a literary form in which Breeze occasionally indulges—that makes the case both for linguistic freedom and, by extension, the freedom for participants to use language to reconceive their identities while participating in online communities. In "netorbit" Breeze defends the imperfect nature of Internet communication as the very thing that drew her to online communities in the first place:
Breeze celebrates the anarchic nature of those early days, which she now believes are irretrievably consigned to the past as "others rushed to quantify, anal.][e][y][e][se & rati][onalize][fy it........smooth it in2 satis.Factory communication corners" ("netorbit"). In other words, a battle between the advocates of linear, rational, monologic institutions and thought and the advocates of artistic innovation and freedom is being fought, and it is a battle Breeze wages every time she does something as simple as send an e-mail or post to a listserv. Breeze fears that if regulatory controls are established upon the use of language online, then the consequence will be to shut "the door on a multi][log][tude of prospective actualities, we are cutting off the avenues that make the net.wurk a place worthy of creative x.pansion" ("netorbit"). These regulatory controls are, in essence, an attack on Breeze's mezangelle itself.
Ironically, "netorbit" itself submits to the very hegemonic expectations it criticizes. It consists of two texts combined into one: the first is Breeze's mezangelled text, and the second is a plain English "translation" of that mezangelled text, a translation that Breeze says is "drenched in the very stench of this terror-vision of the concrete, the conflagration of the predictable, the x.plainable, the acceptable, the *ma][i][*n.if][then][est." Breeze's work celebrates the chaos of creation and the misunderstandings that arise from imperfect communication. Near the end of "netorbit," she writes with some nostalgia: "i weep 4 the mis][b][gotten phrase, the typo, the flame-bait that isn't, the nudge that is bypassed in terms of readability & community function."
Breeze has faced this normalizing impetus from even the most unlikely sources. For example, in March 2001, Breeze was temporarily "unsubscribed" from the *recode* listserv as punishment after the *recode* administrator, Julianne Pierce, determined that Breeze's "latest collaborative and interactively constructed work, [Col][Lab [C]Logging: Agency of The N][arratively fractured][etwurk was inherently 'spam'" (Markoff). Breeze's treatment sparked a debate among the other listserv subscribers about censorship and freedom of expression in listserv communities. Breeze herself, alternately using the avatars "Mez" and "Phonet][r][ix," defended posting her net.wurks to the listserv by appealing to the interactive nature of her work, that other *recode* subscribers "not only read & ][in some cases][ enjoy this type of ][net.][text construction, but also actively *produce* the work/*participate* in it via an open sourced mode that actively n.courages ppl 2 respond.....the work is actually developed via this process of n.gagement, rather than simply posted 2 the list as a work in progress 4 persual..a very different thang ][oviously I would have thought][." Breeze was banned because her mezangelled posts were judged to be a violation of the rules of this particular listserv. Breeze attempted to violate those rules, to use language in her own individual way, and was punished for it.
To cite another example, one of Breeze's more controversial listserv posts to date was a response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In a listserv post dated "12 Sep 2001" (evidence of just how quickly Breeze works) with a subject line that reads "trauma networks vs bloodlust demeanors," Breeze criticizes the television news media's coverage of the event, coverage which unified many around the world, especially here in America, in support of a dangerous policy of scapegoating and further violence and war. Breeze, using the avatar, "pre.verse][1:chpt 2.1][", writes, "x.tremist N d.ranged media outlets drown in personalized life-loading" and "home videoed heros suck big bucked glory::war rhetoric meets m][ilitary][elodrama::cliches ab][cessing][ounding on CNNesqued TV::blank][et][ coverage][of war][" and she mezangelles President Bush's line, "we will find these ppl and they will s][b][uffer][the tragic][". Her post alienated some of her readers and attracted unfriendly criticism, but it demonstrated Breeze's willingness to challenge the prevailing opinions of the political moment in order to undermine the hegemonic forces that stifle freedom of thought. For the most part, however, Breeze's crusade against the slow suppression of freedom of speech and assembly online has targeted more mundane, though no less pervasive, institutions. In particular, Breeze has argued against an adherence to the rules of grammar and punctuation, rules which define how one must write in deadtree media in order to be accepted by the hegemonic institutions that still control much of communication offline. Breeze's avatars make it possible for her to communicate freely through the various information technologies at her disposal.
Mary-Anne Breeze's political and ethical stance toward the different kinds of identity transformation is primarily informed by the high value she places on individual expression—and this individual expression is often the result of the use of avatars which celebrate the idiosyncracies in individuals. Wearing an avatar can give one a sense of freedom from a cultural indoctrination that values the "standardization" of language and thought mandated by hegemonic institutions in their attempts to control communication and information dissemination. Breeze's resistance to the standardization of language use in online communities reinforces the power of avatars to effect intellectual innovation in individuals and communicate those innovations to others. For Breeze, this resistance manifests itself both in her avatars, which grant her permission to express herself and do things that she might never do outside of online networks, and in her mezangelled texts, which open up language to myriad subjective possibilities, blasting the linear text apart into multiple, often delightfully contradictory threads.
John Reep is a teaching under a pre-doctoral fellowship at Saint Louis University where he also is finishing his dissertation on the on the intersection of speech and writing in the work of Gertrude Stein. His teaching and scholarly interests include American modernist and post-modernist literature and hypertext literature. He can be contacted directly at email@example.com.
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