“When [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves”—Plato, Phaedrus
With implications we are in no way yet able to understand – because we are so fully in it, and “it” is changing so fast – the digital world is transforming the relationship between speech and writing and, simultaneously, body and text. For all that Plato could apparently theorise Tumblr, or at least suggest that concern with the way digital texts get “tumbled about” without context is nothing new, his notion that writing is a child without an active parent, that a text is sent out into the world without a “real-life” person directly connected to it, seems quaintly analogue. When writings are “maltreated or abused” today, they have more than parents; they have legions of child-minders to defend and protect them. Recently, a young woman wrote a blog critical of author John Green, and an entire army of Nerdfighters – as well as Green via his own Tumblr account – were available to address or deflect criticism, record personal pain and variously showcase the human attached to the text.
I read and write about fanfiction – stories written about characters, personae and worlds invented or owned by others – largely as it appears on the internet. In the past decade or so that I’ve spent reading around in the digital archives and communities where people share these stories, I’ve noticed some distinct shifts in the way writers, bodies and texts interact online. What began as people extending textual selves that behaved with a degree of autonomy separate, often blessedly so, from their embodied lives has, by degrees, given way to a dramatic shift in the opposite direction.
A decade ago, internet relationships formed in the absence of visible or disclosed demographic details created the illusion of a shared, often disembodied culture, a community of pure if often questionable and much-derided taste. For many, this anonymity had its roots in shame (You really like a show called Buffy? You really write erotica about fictional teens?) and sometimes in a well-founded fear of ramifications should these online lives spill over into “real” professional or family worlds. For others, online interactions offered the genuine rush of not having interlocutors see and judge appearance first, or even of being able to control what that appearance was and exactly what it said. A first impression might say only “Star Wars fan” rather than “disabled” or “D-cup”. Yet veterans of these earlier iterations of internet culture will tell us that what first seemed a temporary break from an often defining (bodily, ethnic, sexual) specificity gave way to feelings of marginalisation or invisibility. These disembodied anonymous communities came to presume “default settings” (often straight, white and female for fanfiction writers) that elided or even derided the lived experience of many in them.
Today, the details of embodiment intersect online with tastes and enthusiasms in an atmosphere of all but compulsory disclosure. Total anonymity is increasingly seen as a posture of bad faith, the first refuge of scoundrels. Identity specifics – names and especially addresses – are often still withheld in online profiles, but we are likely to know at first glance not only that someone is a Doctor Who fan, but also that he is comfortable with the gender he was assigned at birth and prefers romantic relationships with men but doesn’t really like them to get sexual. Furthermore, it is not only this kind of information that is no longer at arm’s length, it is also our access to it that has grown more intimate. It has been a long time since online lives were available to us only at the remove of a computer screen. People sharing stories on the internet today carry these stories with them in their pockets – recently, even on their wrists. A fanfiction writer is likely to receive notifications of responses to a story at every hour of the day. A reader following a story gets these notifications as soon as an update posts. These alerts may make themselves known as a buzzing against the body, pressing covert availability throughout the day in all the lived situations of “real life”.
I have written fanfiction myself, but more often I teach and write about it professionally, and not everyone in that community likes that I do. Because people are so connected to their texts – real people, who see comments, who see hit counts, who feel that they write for specific audiences however public the stories may be – there are those in both the scholarly and fanfiction communities who feel that fanfiction writers and their stories should be treated as “human subjects” in the full medico-sociological meaning of the word. Fans and their works should not be discussed outside their (public, textual) communities without permission, or even the “informed consent” sought from participants in medical trials.
I should say I disagree. I think texts marked as fiction that are publicly posted in searchable archives are public, and may be taught in fiction courses and written about by critics. I think that if we fail to teach and understand such texts – as fiction, as writing – we are missing very important aspects of the way fiction is being written and read today. Once a story is put out in the world and read, I resist the notion that this story can be retracted or controlled in part because of the way stories and texts get “tumbled about”. I resist the notion that a story might enter the world, have an impact on other writers and readers perhaps far in excess of what the writer ever imagined or even wanted, and yet critiquing, studying or even mentioning this story or its effects should be taboo. Authors may continue to be much more connected to their texts than Plato ever imagined, but that does not mean they are more in control of the effects they have on readers and other texts than they ever were.
I assert all this, and I believe it, but the digital presentation of texts makes it all more complicated. When a fictional text is housed on a platform on which people are also posting intimate details of their lives and bodies, or political beliefs, denunciations and cries for help, and all this gets “tumbled about” with fictional texts, on the same screen, in the same font, under some of the same tags, well, what then? This does seem more like personal information, even if it was shared freely. Say I do teach a story from this platform, say I seek and am granted permission by its author: is that enough? What if in the “tumbling”, in the reblogging and tagging and commenting, the fictional story leads to personal information about yet another person’s life, whose permission was not sought?
I have seen it suggested that quoting blogs or tweets without permission is akin to publishing quotes from personal conversations overheard in public spaces. In other words, what I’m encountering as text – because it looks like printed words, though it’s digital – is more properly to be understood as a kind of speech, a digital utterance. And yet it is a very different animal from the speech that disappears as we speak it. These “digital utterances” stick around and venture into new contexts their parent-authors never intended and yet have no power to stop them from going to. If “digital utterances” are speech, the speaking situation resembles a dinner party in a Buñuel film – you think you’re talking to a small circle of friends until a curtain goes up, revealing a large audience you never dreamed of, much less invited to your home.
It happens like this when fanfiction writers wake up one morning to find themselves the butt of late-night comedy jokes, journalistic take-downs or the amateur sociological musings of the actors who play the characters these stories are written about – or, for that matter, find themselves on a college syllabus. It’s distinctly uncomfortable. But fanfiction writers are not the only ones supping at Buñuel’s new internet table.
Fanfiction is hardly the only community in which writers presume a coterie audience and shared references, and largely operate within a gift economy. The same may be said of the poetry world. Unlike fanfiction, the poetry community also relies on the ritual of the public reading, of the text made speech. Audiences for poetry readings are usually small, made up of other poets and students of poetry. They tend to be intimate spaces where people are likely to know one another; more people write poetry than read it. But the poetry community is increasingly, and uncomfortably, interacting online, and that means the digital curtain can go up at any time there, too.
This past March, the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who is white, read as a poem a minimally edited version of the autopsy report of Michael Brown, a black teenager killed by a police officer. Seventy people were at the reading. Discussions and accounts of this reading have been shared and reshared digitally and in major print publications almost from the moment the reading began, although the poem’s text was not published. The debate turns on issues of voice, race and body, on the right of one body to take in another body, to claim authorship of another body and hold it up for credit, as the poet and critic Philip Garcia’s reaction makes explicit: “[Goldsmith] should accept that we might look at him and only see another white man holding the corpse of a black child saying, ‘Look at what I’ve made.’” The critique is one of presence and bodies, but it has taken place in the singular absence of both, as well as in the absence of the text in question.
The fact of a medical text describing an actual murdered body re-presented as a poetry performance pushes our already destabilised experience of proximity between text and body close to its limit, and the fact of the demographic identities of poet and autopsied body pushes it right over. I have encountered no one who is comfortable with this poem that no one has read and only a tiny audience has ever heard. Some critics of the unseen, unread poem claim that more than discomfort, the poem has caused them harm. If the fact of the poem, the knowledge of the event, is enough to do such harm, is every person and publication that spread awareness of the poem responsible for expanding that harm? If Goldsmith is responsible for the potential harm of 70 people, how much more responsible are the editors of the New Republic that expanded the scope of this knowledge with its wide circulation and cultural clout? Is the potential harm that knowledge of the poem can cause mitigated by the knowledge that the New Republic’s poetry editor doesn’t like it? Would anyone argue that Goldsmith, a writer whose work was suddenly shared far beyond the audience he intended and who certainly receives no monetary compensation for the increased attention, should have been asked for his permission for this debate to take place?
An equally bitter conflict played out recently in a fanfiction community I won’t identify because of the intensely personal, non-fiction stories of trauma that were shared in the course of the debate. The debate was about the potential harm caused by explicit material thematising rape or dubiously consensual sex, a debate that long predates the internet (I often teach it in 18th-century contexts). This debate expanded to include sexualised scenes involving television characters reimagined as anthropomorphised animals – which may seem far from anything approaching “real life” or actual bodies, but for the people discussing the implications of such stories, the way fiction and fantasy can harm lives looms large, sudden and intractable. No actual children, animals or celebrities are harmed in fiction, the opposing argument counters, and (real-life) abuse victims often work through trauma in stories. Yes (the argument continues), but your fantasy life, even your recovery, is not worth helping to normalise or making “cute” dubious consent or the rape of actual, real people. Lives are at stake.
Nothing is more effective in dehumanising the “real people” behind questionable texts than the assertion that these texts have harmed other, more vulnerable “real people”. In fact, it seems a necessary component of internet debate – in a world where texts are understood to carry the full force of bodily harm, someone’s harm must be rendered immaterial or at least a worthy sacrifice in the cause of bringing harm’s perpetrators to justice.
All this makes me uncomfortable, although I would not say it harms me. But is what we really want of writing that it be harmless? I think texts can cause harm, but this harm is surely categorically different from the kind of harm a policeman’s gun can do to an unarmed teen’s body or that a rapist can do to mine. It horrifies me when those distinctions are blurred, perhaps because I have been abused and I have read Sade, and these are not the same experience. Yet as our lived lives are increasingly textual and these texts are worn with increasing proximity to our bodies, it is not clear that boundaries between text and self are being drawn anywhere where I grew up understanding them to be. §
Max Greis, Naturalism, 2014. Courtesy the artist