Annie Abraham’s web-based hypertext, “Separation/Séparation,” begins with a completely blank screen. All one needs to read the text is a basic computer with an internet browser. The interactive text requires the user to click the screen in order to reveal the words of the piece. One word appears for every click of the mouse, and each word contributes to a poem that exposes the meaning behind the exercise. After several lines of the poem emerge, a box pops up, interrupting the user’s reading and train of thought and instructing her to do a particular exercise for a short period of time. After the exercise is complete, one may then continue clicking on the screen to reveal more of the poem. If one begins to click too swiftly, a box will pop up letting the user know that his/her attention to the computer is incorrect and then providing a list of examples of why this could be:
If this happens, the poem henceforth can no longer be revealed unless the user starts over completely. As more lines of the poem appear, so do the possible meanings behind the poem. The poem tells a story of a difficult and painful relationship between two beings, although it isn’t revealed until the very end that poem is actually referring to the relationship between a computer and its user. The meaning behind this seems to be that some humans rely too much on the computer and are unable to perform well without it. Using it constantly, however, causes mental and physical strain on the body and makes it painful to use. In other words, the poem suggests that it is painful to live with or without it.
The point of the activity itself is to direct the mind away from the composition for short periods of time and bring attention to the body (see screenshots).
As soon as the reader’s attention becomes more focused on the poem than the body, this exercise causes the individual to take the attention off the computer screen and focus it towards the facial muscles. As easy as it is to get lost while reading something on the computer, it is important to keep some amount of attention on the body, which is the point of the various exercises that the reader is told to do throughout the piece. The exercises focus on facial movements, tightening and loosening of certain muscles in the shoulders and neck, etc. Each exercise is reflective of the preceding line in the poem. These exercises take the reader out of the trace-like state most people experience while reading off a computer screen. If a stanza refers to feelings of anguish and frustration, the exercise will be to make a certain facial expression and hold it. One of lines contains the word “caress,” and the exercise that follows is to bend one’s arm and caress the back.
This piece of electronic literature is extremely relevant to our generation and the constant need to be by our smartphones and tablets. The obsession with social media that this work highlights is so relevant to contemporary youth culture, in the sense that we harm ourselves by using it constantly, but find ourselves unable to function comfortably without it. We harm ourselves mentally and physically. Mentally, we limit our intellectual abilities because technology makes things like problem solving so easy (i.e. using a cellphone’s calculator to check simple math, or storing information rather than recalling information from memory). Physically, we harm ourselves by constantly straining our eye muscles when looking at a bright, tiny screen. The message from this web-based hypertext echoes this paradoxical problem. The poem demonstrates how reliant some beings can be on a machine such as a computer. The exercises this text instructs the reader to do while reading the poem is made to bring you back to life and out of the cyber world. According to the description of this piece, the authors designed it for patients diagnosed with RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). This injury happens to those who spend so much time on the computer that the constant strain of the eyes and back muscles causes them actual pain. The injury experienced from our generation is more mental. We enable ourselves to become so reliant on texting and social media, that we often lack the verbal interactions that shape our personalities and relationships with others.
Rebecca Desjarlais was a student of Dr. Lisa Swanstrom for a course in Literary Theory taught at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring term of 2014.