Individual Work
My Body — a Wunderkammer

Shelley Jackson’s 1997 web-based hypertext, “my body—a Wunderkammer” employs many of the same strategies that make her celebrated Patchwork Girl (1995) so conceptually interesting, albeit on a smaller scale. With its asynchronous mode of storytelling, its vivid images, and its layering of different texts, all of which need to be explored, re-mixed, and assembled by the reader for any coherence to emerge, “Wunderkammer” has much in common with the way a reader must stitch together the disparate pieces of “the monster’s” story to make sense of Patchwork Girl.

“Wunderkammer” has one organizing image, a naked female body labeled with parts, which operates not so much as a table of contents but, as its name suggests, a cabinet of wonders. Rather than multiple images on different screens, the image of the body is layered with squares and rectangles that are suggestive of a chest of drawers. Each section of this image links to a chunk of text, which is itself paired with a stand-alone image of the part described. For example, the upper section of the body—the head—links to the html pages “brain,” “eyelid,” “nose,” “ears,” and “lips.” Each of these pages is, in turn, illustrated with the part of the body the text describes and peppered with links to other parts of the body (for example, the page “eyes” links to “nose,” and the page “nose” links to “hands”) and/or to different pages about experiences and events that do not always connect back to the initial portrait of the body.

This mode of organization puts the body at the center of the composition and creates an immediate and visual concordance among its disparate parts. The result of this arrangement, one that refuses to present the body as a smooth exterior, is that each part of the body functions in a synecdochic manner to reveal the protagonist’s identity. Rather than being reducible to one essential identity, she is revealed through parts and parcels of her physical form, which are semi-permeable and coextensive with her interior life. Composed as it is not only of body parts, but of labels, links, texts, and nodes, “my body—a Wunderkammer” suggests a taxonomy of relations between text and image, part and whole, body and soul.

Jackson’s style of writing offers a vivid textual complement to this visual mode of organization. Her sentences are descriptive but concise, and each chunk of text functions as a snapshot of the body part in question and links to other, related parts, as in, for example, the following sentence from the page “neck”: “When I strain in a certain way a tendon in my neck pops across something, another tendon or a bone spur perhaps, and snaps back into place. When this happens, the right half of my tongue goes numb for a few seconds.”

Just as this page is embedded with a link that will take the reader to another html page that highlights a different body part (“nose”), the appearance of the word “neck” is situated within a cluster of other words that emphasize its bodily relations (tendon, bone spur, tongue) and sensations (strain, snaps, pops, numb). This piecemeal presentation of the body is achieved not only through conventional modes of storytelling, i.e., by Jackson’s writings and etchings, but by taking advantage of the formal features of hypertext markup language.

A reader could read the entirety of “Wunderkammer” as html source code, by linking from anchor to anchor, without ever seeing the consequence of the markup, i.e., the display. While the feature that allows the reader/browser to oscillate between the code and what the code displays—i.e., between what is “hidden” behind the window and what is “revealed” on the screen—is a possibility inherent in any page of html, it works thematically for a coming-of-age story in which interior and exterior identity are so suggestively intertwined.

By clicking “command u” to view the page source and read the streamlined html that Jackson uses to structure the work, the reader will discover many things that might complicate and/or enhance her initial encounter with the work. For example, if she knows that an anchor tag with an “href” attribute enables a chunk of text to link to a different page, then when she reads the highlighted link “I roller skate” on the “arms” page, she will learn that the name of the target page, “phantom limb” (one of a handful of pages to lack an accompanying illustration) is not the same as the link highlighted on the screen. From the “phantom limb” page a differently titled link, “roller skate,” will take the reader back to the “arms” page. It is on this page—“arms”—that Jackson hints at her affinity with the protagonist by depicting the tattoo of an ampersand she has on her upper arm, an affinity that is made explicit on the pages “tattoos” and “skin.” After all of these lexia have been read, the image of the ampersand takes additional prominence, functioning not only as a mark upon the body but as an authorial signature. When read retroactively, this mark adds a layer of meaning to the opening page of the work, as well as to the initial image of the body where the ampersand features prominently.

In fact, taking note of the html’s expression of the ampersand on the introductory page will offer two additional (or alternate) titles of the work, bringing the total possible titles of “Wunderkammer” to at least three. The first is the somewhat cryptic title that is presented on the screen when the reader loads the page. This reads, “my body—& a Wunderkammer.” The second is the title element that displays on the top of the browser window: “‘my body’—a Wunderkammer & (Shelley Jackson).” The third is the way that the title reads within the title tag of the source page itself (note the hyphens in the following html code for an ampersand are for display purposes only and do not appear in Jackson's html):

'my body' - a Wunderkammer &-a-m-p-; (Shelley Jackson) (see images of each of these titles below).

That there are at least three possible titles, each with something to recommend it as “the” preferred title, as well as three possible texts (the html source, the display text, and the browser titles), two potential narrators (Shelley Jackson and the unnamed protagonist), and two potential authorial signatures (Shelley Jackson and “&”) suggests that rather than one stable narrative, “Wunderkammer” functions as a treasure chest of related textual curiosities.

The open publication format of “Wunderkammer”—it is is freely available online, both on the ELO’s Collection of Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1, and the ALTX Online Network—allows the reader to explore all of the different versions of these texts, any time, anywhere, provided she has a computer, an Internet connection, and a current browser. To the reader interested in exploring Jackson’s early hypertext, “Wunderkammer” offers an excellent point of departure.

All of the issues that this piece raises—issues of access, embodiment, and authorship—are consistent with the discourse surrounding information technology and aesthetics of the mid-nineties, with its preoccupation about the diminished status of the human body in the burgeoning age of information (a preoccupation that N. Katherine Hayles, in How We Became Posthuman, historicizes and underscores). Jackson’s striking presentation of the body distinguishes this text from other work that emerged during the same time period. Rather than taking advantage of hypertextual features to imagine a virtual, bodiless existence, “Wunderkammer” makes use of digital storytelling techniques to express a fragmentary narrative in which an unnamed female protagonist, quite possibly Jackson herself, comes of age by sketching and assessing the pleasures, perils, and puzzles associated with having and being a human body. For these reasons, “Wunderkammer” remains relevant to the continuing conversation about digital culture and aesthetics, even as we see the focus of this conversation shift towards issues of materiality, code, organicism, and affect.