Language rules

Language rules


geniwate writes along with sexless software agents and dismantles the gender politics of the programming man and his machine.

Sand resounds as long as a whale song
passed along and around the waters of the
world. Like a motherchild, she/they
both threatened and succored by the
coasts. Alone in the bay, rolling over and
back beneath the moon, as

“whale.html” from The ballad of Sand and Harry Soot (1999) by Stephanie Strickland and Janet Holmes (

Sometimes we don’t know what we author. Sometimes our authoring tools do a lot of writing on our behalf. In The ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, there were probably three authors: the html editor being the third. Software is a genderless author: sexless but not without cultural implications and stereotyped assumptions. Networked and programmed media are as open to the striations of gender debates as any other type media. However, the peculiar and intense engagement with language which underscores networked and programmed media perhaps casts the production of such media in a new light.

Deena Larsen and I created a Flash-based interactive narrative called The princess murderer (2003). Because the work is highly interactive it required a lot of action scripting (the programming language incorporated in Flash). Increasingly we found the programming code seeping into the surface text. It couldn’t be helped: the world we created simultaneously existed on two levels: a surface narrative about an insatiable Bluebeard and his ferocious princesses, and a semi-subliminal narrative about performative textuality and world-creation. The act of writing code infested the act of writing narrative and vice-versa.

Could this have been a feminist act? To a certain extent, the surface narrative is a feminist one, an explosion of surreal sex and violence couched in a game/narrative with no real resolution. However, my own sense of The princess murderer as a “transgressive” text did not seem to be derived from the narrative. Rather I felt that I was treading on a male preserve - programming code - and appropriating it to “perform” the narrative. It was at that point that the programming code started to infest the narrative itself - any attempt to separate them seemed superficial.

What did end up becoming more explicitly a feminist act - the appropriation of programming code - became even more so after conversations with Christine Wertheim at CalArts, who drew to my attention a long tradition of women who used writing and language for private communications beyond the male domain. My appropriation of programming code had taken on ontological elements; not only did the code create a programmatic, computer based universe which users could interact with, but it referred to, and reprised interesting traditions in women’s spirituality. The medieval mystic tradition that Christine alluded to seemed to have come full circle in the semi-medieval narrative of The Princess Murderer.

Fear of reifying the machine as an entrée to metaphysical hermeneutics aside (which, as Victoria Nelson (280-284) points out, is an element of recent rhetoric surrounding the Internet and other computer-based media), the experience of creating The Princess Murderer leads me to speculation about women’s experimental uses of language.

Mez (aka Mary-Anne Breeze) ties experimental language to avatar creation and collaborative networking to explore complex and often contested political and social themes. The originality of her approach with its rich integration of the various aspects of her praxis has repercussions beyond aesthetics:

When Breeze transformed herself into Ms. Post Modernism, 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. (Reep)

Mez’s precursors in print fiction include Kathy Acker, Among other works, Kathy Acker’s Empire of the senseless. whose surreal and terrible prose seems to have been semantically dismantled by Mez’s more technologically engaged praxis. Both stretch language and genre until only thin tendrils of reference to mainstream literature remain. These thin tendrils are even more nebulous in Mez’s case, since she distributes her work, and indeed, shares “ownership” of her work, in ways that exist beyond the scope of the capitalist print fiction industry.

Brian Kim Stefans and Darren Wershler-Henry raise the question about whether complexity of structure decreases a work’s ability to impart politically engaged messages. Stefans’ answer in part suggests that the energy and thematics of a text can be more greatly explored when a work is subjected to processes that challenge its discursive coherence (18). Such an approach seems common to many experimental women writers, both in and out of print. The obscurely exuberant femin/ism/ity of The Stream of Life (1989) by Clarice Lispector is a case in point. “The text is tragic but without despair,” writes Hélène Cixous in her introduction (xiii). There are ways of writing that can extend text into the universe; each of these authors finds her own way to achieve this.

Diana Reed Slattery’s print and online project, The maze game, is another example of women’s experimental use of language. The Glide language is described and depicted in the book, but it is also possible to compose poems via a Shockwave platform on her website ( (unfortunately it is a little difficult to use). Glide is a hieroglyphic language, and thus becomes specifically suited to the affordances of the Internet:

The lily expressed its gratitude by teaching the Glides a secret, silent language. Breathing the raw pollen, day after day, the Glides listened as the lily bespoke itself through three shapes based on the gestures of their cupped hands at work: curved up as they scooped their pollen; curved down as they emptied their palms into the baskets, and joined together in the gesture of the wave. (Reed Slattery 2)

The combination of print and website promote the Glide language to the status of a virtually living language.

According to Ross Gibson, artists need to practice an “agile programming” which is “a method of writing and designing for ever-changing and complex needs and so you can evolve the operationality according to present, immanent and longer term probable needs” (Gibson [my paraphrase]). Writers and artists have worked out ways to manipulate both natural and formal languages to create a liminal “in-between” language/universe that is neither wholly programmatic nor wholly natural. This language affords the “agile programming” with the space to create a future not wholly beholden to the present. The existence of such space is perhaps an achievement in its own right, although how it relates to politics is unclear.

Unfortunately the myth of gender difference beyond the biological remains prevalent in the post-millennial, global culture. Whether the myths should be explicitly refuted and thus perhaps accidentally perpetuated, or whether engaging in an art practice which, by tangential example, hopefully reveals the shallowness of gender stereotypes is an issue that exercises my mind. At least in this context, I am taking the former option. Thus, I want to raise some of the gender stereotypes that seem to float about in talk about networked and programmed artforms:

* women like to build community; men are goal-directed

This rhetoric particularly flavours discussion of women and computer games. Apparently The Sims and EverQuest are “female” games unlike Doom or Quake because the former games allow women to explore community and interpersonal relationships.

* women like characters, psychology and narrative; men like interactivity, shooting stuff and puzzle solving

As a result, women are supposedly less inspired by programmatic worlds that are more interactive than psychological.

* men are early adopters

Consequently, computer games and mobile phone companies gear their media to meet the demands of a young male with significant free time and spending power.

* women write prose and men write programming code

This distinction hearkens back to schooling stereotypes, in which women excel at humanities and men at the sciences.

* Men are “logical,” women are “emotional.”

It is indeed unfortunate that we must continue to celebrate examples of women who flout these stereotypes, but it seems that in our burgeoning media landscape, every time there is a new development, phallocentric ideology is there to appropriate it.

One of the most beautiful web-based projects I have recently viewed is In the white darkness by Reiner Strasser and M.D. Coverley. Inspired by victims of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, the work explores “the fragility and fluidity of memory from a subjective point of view.” The authors continue:

From the pulsing dots of the background-interface different events can be started, played (and combined). In this process the experience of remembering and loss of memory can be re-created in the appearance and disappearance of words, pictures, animations and sounds. (Strasser and Coverley)

Gender issues dissolve in the face of this coherent, elegiac, interactive environment with almost hypnotic appeal and pacing. I guess my idealistic hope is that one day we won’t need to write articles such as this one.


Acker, Kathy. Empire of the senseless. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

Geniwate and Deena Larsen. The princess murderer. The Iowa Review (2003).

Gibson, Ross. “New models of collaboration.” Panel: Empires, ruins and networks: art in real time culture, ACMI. Melbourne, 2-4 April 2004.

Lispector, Clarice. The Stream of Life. Foreword by Hélène Cixous. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989.

Nelson, Victoria. The secret life of puppets. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University P, 2001.

Reed Slattery, Diana. The maze game. Kingston, NY: Deep Listening publications, 2003.

Reep, John “Re: the fact that I am fiction: Mary-Anne Breeze, her avatars, and the transformation of identity” in Post Identity 4.1 (Spring, 2004)

Stefans, Brian Kim. Fashionable noise: On digital poetics. USA: Atelos, 2003.

Strasser, Reiner and M. D. Coverley In the white darkness. non_finito. 2004.

Strickland, Stephanie and Janet Holmes. The ballad of Sand and Harry Soot. Word Circuits, 1999.