Polymorphous Perversity and Texts


A mother’s casual hand on her daughter’s head as they stand at a bus stop; a man’s arm around his partner’s shoulder as they enter a restaurant; one awkward teenager leaning against another on the sidelines: We reach out without thinking, just to maintain contact, to remind ourselves that there is an other there—not as separation, but as contact. We are who we are in relation to the we.

I knew someone who lived several hundred miles from her lover. The separation was temporary, but months long. In the evenings, they opened Skype sessions and just left the channel open while they went about their evenings, a ghostly but very real presence in each other’s lives.

Researchers call it “ambient awareness.” As Mimi Ito (2011) puts it,

When you first look at these text message logs, it seems like they are completely content free. It's a lot of what you see on social network sites for US teens. Yo what up, I'm tired, this video rawked. This is why adults look at this kind of communication and think that it is a collossal waste of time. Why bother to even send messages like that? But the important thing to understand is that this isn't about sharing information or content. It's about sharing presence. It's about being together—even when you are apart. These are messages that say—hey, I'm here, I'm thinking of you, and we're together. It's about inhabiting what my colleagues in Japan are calling a full time intimate community.

That connection remains difficult to describe; it's there even when the only virtual presense is your own; the self on screen feels more real than the self sitting in front of the camera. After all, the self on screen is interacting with objects. Virtual objects, but they seem more real than unreal. As Ito (2011) adds, "They need to have the media that represents themselves close at hand."

Take this interactive video system I built with Processing, which uses a simple Webcam and a few thousand lines of code to create a hybrid space: user inside of text.

[soundtrack note]

Obviously, I'm not really inside of the text. I've engaged in a skirmish at the boundaries of the text, temporarily building a space where my avatar and the text coexist on screen. But this minor event can be useful in helping us think about the relationships among bodies and texts. Although we occasionally pay attention to the role of embodiment in writing, we do not do so often nor deeply enough. I’m not the first one to say this and I won’t be the last. I want to sketch out one small section of this: The role the body takes when the boundaries between virtual and physical start to slowly fall away, when texts become interactive in ways not previously thought of. Not simply mouse click, but hand wave, jump, crawl, and nodded head. More: what happens when texts not only allow us to take them apart, but invite us: they come with their own making and un-making manuals. More: What happens when our texts begin watching us, counting, accumulating, suggesting, gossiping about us. Polymorphously perverse, in other words.

The things I have, the demos and the video, all relatively simple, either out there right now or in the wings. We need ways to think about them, think with them, use them to think and be with one another.