A few weeks ago, I wrote about Nandi Loaf's and Amanda Horowitz's show "I <3 My Emergency” at Springsteen Gallery, wherein both artists seemed to broadly address identity and the internet. While Loaf’s work was about the Nandi Loaf brand (in particular her collection of Slipknot fan art and merch) and was, in some ways, a critique of the contemporary art world, Horowitz’s work explored a female archetype through sculpture and poetry, but her video piece ‘Revenge Poem’ was able to flesh this out more fully. The gallery described the video’s intention like this: “the female is constantly being addressed, accounted for, rewritten, and repurposed. Like a JPEG she has become pure data traveling through cyberspace, losing sharpness and becoming a lo-fi, genderless image.” In the video, this female character is a stand-in for women living under patriarchy, generally speaking, but she also dramatizes the experience of “being” on the internet.
This transformation, where women are written over and spoken for, of course, goes much further back than the beginnings of the internet. In Anne Carson's essay "Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity," she traces the ways that women were written about (and the way they wrote themselves) in classic Greek literature. She cites Hippocrates and Aristotle, among others, who define women as wet and malleable, compared to male dryness and steadiness. "In myth, woman's boundaries are pliant, porous, mutable," Carson writes. "Her power to control them is inadequate, her concerns for them unreliable . . . She swells, she shrinks, she leaks, she is penetrated, she suffers metamorphoses."
At the end of the essay, Carson quotes Sappho's fragment 31, which has been interpreted by some as the unveiling of a bride to her groom on their wedding day, told from the perspective of the woman holding the veil. Here, Sappho, as the speaker, becomes "transparent" in her own poem because she centers the scene upon her own feelings about it and "confirms everything we have been listening to the Greeks say about the female, namely that she plays havoc with boundaries and defies the rules that keep matter in its place."
This lack of boundary and definition can cause anxiety, which the Greeks demonstrated well, and it's comparable to this archetypal girl in Horowitz's video. I watched that video over and over and while I was looking up more information about it online, I found myself on the poet Ariana Reines' blog, where she'd posted a video called "Monica Lewinsky On The Internet's Reputation Shredder." After watching the transformation of the nameless, boundless character in 'Revenge Poem' it made sense to consider Lewinsky in this video, her fourth public talk ever—from the Forbes Under 30 Summit in 2014. Bravely and nervously, she recounts what it was like to be the first woman to be publicly shamed online: "Overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publicly humiliated one. I was patient zero. The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the internet."
I was about 7 or 8 years old when that "scandal" surfaced, and I remember my dad bringing it up in conversation to my brother while we drove through St. Augustine, Florida, on vacation. All I knew was that this woman had done something shameful and wrong, because that was the nature of the discussion, that's how it was framed. Americans projected (and continue to project) certain words onto her, like opportunistic, home wrecker, tramp, whore. In that video, Lewinsky refers to the shattering of her reputation by others as "being publicly separated from your truth," or creating an identity that you don't identify with, which creates anxiety, depression, and shame.
Similarly, Marie Calloway's "what purpose did i serve in your life"—a memoir-ish collection told through Calloway's own essays, screen shots of Facebook and text messages, and hateful comments on the internet about her—creates a composite image of the author. Though it is all about her and her experiences, the story at varying points makes Calloway herself disappear, leaving us with an opportunity to project what we think of her. People hate her because she writes vividly and candidly about sex, sex work, BDSM, abuse, and more; some see her disaffected, nearly robotic tone as anti-feminist, saying that it perpetuates the idea that women want to be abused, women want to be treated like dirt. But her "views" read more like stream of consciousness; they change, they are conflicted.
In the chapter titled "bdsm" a passage appears in italics, after screen shots of texts and conversational vignettes between her and people she's been sexually dominated by, and it describes how women who write about sex are presumed to have "daddy issues." "[A]nd i was really scared of being assigned with that label so i shied away from discussing or even allowing myself to think about those things. but i realize this is really important to explore, kind of at the core of my whole project. and men are going to say these things anyway why should i give into it why should you let men control the conversation the conversation of yourself and your own sexuality. it's scary that being tarnished by a label can make you too afraid to even think about something."
Calloway walks us through her process of owning and disowning herself, where readers aren't really sure where the boundaries are or what she thinks. I would like to hear Anne Carson's thoughts on Calloway. In another essay, "Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God," Carson again writes about that Sappho fragment. Here, she interprets the poem differently, calling it "spiritual" the way Sappho's "perceptual abilities" spiral out of her, putting herself, the observer and speaker, into the poem's spotlight. Carson links Sappho to 14th-century writer Marguerite Porete and 20th-century Simone Weil; all three, Carson contends, essentially wrote about why it's necessary to vanquish/demolish oneself so that one can have a better relationship with a god or some other spiritual higher power. (The word "decreation" was coined and loosely defined by Weil as "to undo the creature in us.")
Giving up the self in order to serve some sort of god more fully is a major tenet of several religious beliefs, but the way these three women go about it creates a paradox. Carson notes: "To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction." We can claim coyness, anonymity, uncertainty, but creating things is what stakes us in the world and makes us real.