She passes through a sheet of bloody glass. On the other side, she is being born. – Catherynne M. Valente
My self began with words, which were stories.
It’s always important to understand that words do not belong to the digital. Nor do they belong to the physical. Words belong to people. People are in both. Nevertheless: my first overt experience of the digital was in words. Words have always been my playthings; I was always a storytelling child. They have always been a means of performance but more for the benefit of myself than anyone else. I have always engaged in a dialogue. Who am I? What do I want to be today? We create mythologies with extraordinary explanatory power. We cannot separate ourselves from our stories.
I have words. In the end they are all I have.
I don’t remember my first moment online. That part isn’t saved, isn’t crystallized, isn’t retrievable data. This is not true of everything that came after, and these are things I remember. My first connections with others in this space began with the stories that we told each other, about who we were, what we wanted; I now know that much of this was not true, but you must decide for yourself how important true really is.
All of our stories are, to a greater or lesser extent, perfectly true.
From ourselves we created others, or we pulled others from stories that were not ours but which became ours. We created a complex weaving of fiction and roleplaying. We created journals for these characters, for ourselves. We created story-as-interaction; turn by turn we threaded out what we wanted the world to be. Sometimes things slipped out of our control, because our stories are also never truly ours once they come into the world. Often this slippage was embarrassing. Overly emotional, too intensely attached. I lost friends when our words meant too much to us, but for so many of us, smashing head-first into adolescence and freshly lonely in new places and new bodies, it was all we had.
Words are fluid. They are slippery. They do not behave. I remember that at some point, my words began to feel genderless. The part of me that consists of bits simply was. This was social construction before I knew what social construction meant. Everything I am now comes from the point at which the digital and the physical and I and me and we all together collided in the stupidity that is high school and I had to decide what to do with the pieces.
I have a record of all of this, that I do not read. Sometimes I have to forget that it exists at all. But that never works very well; I can’t forget who I am.
We need to believe that fiction and nonfiction are not the same. We need to believe that digital and physical are not the same. We need to believe that online and offline are not the same. We need to believe that past and present and future are not the same. Some of the most heated arguments I had with my parents as a teenager were over whether or not words on a screen actually meant anything. Over whether or not I had a right to them.
When we tell ourselves certain stories over and over, it’s important to ask why. It’s also the question that no one really wants to hear. People have been excommunicated for less.
My handwriting has always been terrible. It’s also painful. Two minutes of it and it’s too uncomfortable to continue. I don’t hold the pen the right way; perhaps I simply never learned how. The words I produce are often illegible even to me. They don’t come fast enough. My brain races ahead and what doesn’t hurt is endlessly frustrating. It’s like being gagged.
Keyboards gave me my words.
When I was small I would type out nonsense sentences on my father’s Kaypro and print them and make him read them aloud, and I would laugh hysterically, because I had the power to create nonsense, which felt like real power indeed. I could disorder the world. Later I ordered myself through a digital conversation that has been going on for the majority of my life.
We had this conversation before the internet, before Livejournal and Blogspot and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. The what doesn’t ever really change. It’s the how to which we need to pay very close attention. It’s the how that determines who can converse and who is abandoned to older silences.
I ran away from Facebook. I’m not proud of this. But some of the reason, I think, was that it felt as though it was forcing the river of me into narrow concrete channels. It wasn’t letting me play.
I am not comfortable with that kind of collapsing of worlds. I contain multitudes. So do we all, but please understand how loud mine are, how I found them, how they grew. I gave them names that had no legal reality. There is nothing more political than the power to self-identify.
I could have found a way to work within it, I think. It wasn’t really as narrow as it felt. But sometimes we run because we have to. Sometimes we never find a way to go back.
A cyborg created many masks to amuse themselves, and behind each mask a face came into being, for when we create spaces for things those things are always filled in the end. The masks had power, and through each the cyborg was able to tell a different truth, and all truths were equally true. The cyborg was happy. Also confused. Also contradictory. These were things that had always been so, but now they had solidity and reality; they could be framed in a mirror and seen beyond abstractions.
As the cyborg’s faces grew in number, some found this unsettling. No, they said. No, you should have only one. We should only be able to see one. Cast off your other masks and give the one that remains a name and wear it always for us so that we will always know where to look.
Of course the cyborg refused. It couldn’t do anything else.
This is not a surprise ending. You already know this story.
I don’t read my old Livejournal entries. They are there, I can’t delete them, because it feels like dishonesty. But when I summon the courage to look back at any of them, it feels like being skinned alive. I was so raw and foolish; to read the words that came from that person is to be that person again. But of course that person is already me. If we create boundaries where no boundaries were, we lie to ourselves. But please understand that lies are stories which are also real enough to matter.
In those old stories are too many voices. They drown me out. I have locked them away; no one can see them but me and again, I hardly ever look. Like the face of an Old Testament god, I can only see them in fragments before they start to burn out my eyes. It is also true that I live, a little, in fear of discovery.
I also have a paper diary. I never read that either.
The characters I roleplay online have always been men. They have always been the same kinds of men, hurting, looking for someone to fill all the gaps, needing to care and terrified to care in equal parts. When I was very small and lost in worlds of let’s-pretend, this was also true. Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend that we can be this and we are this and when I talk to this thing that is sometimes you I become more myself. I am faceless but I have avatars that are also me. I build masks and place people behind them. You believe because you want to but also because it’s all true.
I will never be entirely sure whether I was already a transgressor of the gender binary and that’s why I told myself the stories I did, or whether the stories I told myself pushed me into transgression. I will never be entirely sure if it makes any difference.
Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. – Audre Lorde
Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. – Donna Haraway
I still roleplay. I still inhabit characters that were not born as mine but I make them mine when I wear their masks. One cannot do this with bodies. One has to forget bodies, for a little while. One is still in a body, but the body is the interface. The body must disappear.
I am still telling myself stories about myself, about who I was and about who I will be. I can’t separate any of this from itself and still make any sense of it at all. I am not internally consistent. I am not sure why I am supposed to be. My body is disciplined but I want to fight this; can words on a screen help me fight this? Where are the master’s tools? Did I seize the words or was I given them? How do I move freely within the code when I know the code is not neutral? The code is never neutral. The code has never been neutral. Someone else sets the rules. We can only do so much to break them.
The cyborg made gods of their masks and tore those gods down and put them to the fire. The cyborg collapsed their many gods into one god and gifted it a single name, but while others fell down and worshiped this one god, the cyborg could not, because they knew too much to believe.
Every story requires a suspension of disbelief. The cyborg is monotheist, polytheist, atheist. The cyborg recognizes that everything contains a spirit, the cyborg invokes the ghost in the machine and makes of it a digital animism, the cyborg understands that all of this is superstition. The cyborg knows that the world is haunted by many demons. The cyborg is haunted by themselves.
All of this is a frame through which I meet others, myself, the world. Screens, touchpads, numbers, bytes and bits. My eyes; my glasses restrict my field of vision but years ago I stopped being aware of this except at certain times and in certain places. It is the world, now.
I mean frame in the social theory sense and I mean frame in the sense of: here is something around a picture and the picture is always changing, and: here is a looking glass hung on a wall and everything you see through it is running backwards forever and ever.
But you can, if you wish, step through. Unless you are already on the other side and looking back at me.
Interfaces are the point and they are also distractions. The best interface is the one that disappears.
The cyborg turned at last and faced themselves, their many-faced self. They opened their arms and embraced each one. Each one was immediate, ever-present, flesh made words and unignorable. They were sharp and as the cyborg danced with them they cut the cyborg’s feet to ribbons.
You are all me, the cyborg said. There is so much pain but I love you.
I want to believe that the existence of all of these memories and all of that pain and all of that hopeless teenage awkwardness is a net good. That these are stories about myself told to myself that will tell me something about the future. I want to believe in the essential collapse of the temporal. I want to believe in self-integration, and I want to believe that self-integration is never necessary. I want to believe that no one will blame me for any of this. I want to believe that later I won’t have to regret anything. I want to believe that all of my digital masks are equally me and that all of my digital ghosts mean me no harm, but that, like all ghosts, they simply have business that remains unfinished.
I don’t know if I know too much for this.
I am always turning toward a painful past that becomes a painful present. I am always stepping through the looking glass, I am breaking through the frame. On the other side is always me. This is always true.
I have words. That is enough.
Sarah is endlessly pretentious on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry.