Response Assignment # 10

For next week, please read the handout I gave you all in class:powerbook.jpg

  • Winterson, Jeanette. (2001) The Powerbook. Vintage: London. Read pages 1-97.

Write about whatever most takes your attention in this narrative OR what most took your attention within the film we saw in class: Natural City.

Also, be sure to bring your copy of Winterson’s The Powerbook to class next week, as we’ll be doing some close-reading of her narrative.

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18 responses to “Response Assignment # 10

  1. Wow. This was amazing. It’s by far my favorite piece of literature that I have read in this class thus far next to Brave New World. It’s definitely not like a traditional narrative at all. She switched a lot between “you” and “I” especially in New Document chapter. There were points in that story where I got really confused at who was talking, for example when they described how they made love:

    “You took my breasts in both hands.” “I slid you out of your jeans.” “You don’t wear knickers.” “You keep your breasts in a black mesh cage.” “Lie down with me.” “Get on top of me.”

    I wasn’t expecting her to be narrating at all and then all of sudden she joined him in the narration out of nowhere. It definitely caught me off guard but that was the cool thing about it. All of the stories went along so fast and switched up situations and dialogue so much I was very closely reading each word very fast trying not only to keep up with the story but to find out what happens next. I also noticed a theme of infidelity in 3 of the stories, Open Hard Drive, New Document and Search. One of the people in those relationships seemed to always be married and I found that very interesting. Each story seemed to be written differently and conveyed different emotions. For example,
    A Terrible Thing to do to a Flower definitely had a dark comedic undertone while Search and Great and Ruinous Lovers seemed to have a very serious, somber and epic fairy tale feel to them. I was also really intrigued at how the reader is snapped back into reality at the end of the stories by the e-mail factor. It was like waking up from a very vivid, engrossing and realistic dream. The very beginning of the whole book also felt like a dream but the beginning part of one. Overall I really really really loved this piece of literature and I definitely will read more of her stuff. Hopefully I didn’t mix up any of the story names.

  2. I would have to agree with Aliza when she started with wow. Wow indeed. There is certainly some emotionally jarring stuff in there. This group of stories is odd in the way that it can flow so naturally at one point, and then suddenly halt into a paragraph of disjointed thoughts or some startling line of dialogue. The switching of 1st and 3rd person, as well as the swapping of narration is definitely not the norm, but I think serves the narrative appropriately. In the chapters with the characters chatting online, the author delivers an accurate portrayal of the quick, short, precise sentences people use online. Not wasting any time or words. And this style of communication is carried over to some of the conversations in the stories-within-a-story. The “online author” in the story took the other character’s wanting to be transformed as a sign that she wanted to do something she couldn’t or wouldn’t normally do. That is, she wanted something forbidden, something taboo. People want things they can’t have. People want people they can’t have, it’s just human nature. Forbidden things instantly become more appealing. So that’s what the author gives her. This group of stories goes along with the topic of virtual reality that we have been discussing recently. The character wanting to be transformed is the user in this case, and the author delivers her these false or virtual realities. However in this case the author is the one who becomes obsessed with the virtual worlds, and coincidentally, becomes obsessed with the person in which they are writing the stores for.

    I would have to agree with the consensus that Natural World was a bit difficult to follow. I got the idea behind the film, and I like stylistically how it was filmed (definitely borrowed from movies like Blade Runner), but I’m certain there are many details that went over my head. If I had to pick out a theme, I’d say the film was about a desire to live. It’s obvious that the Doctor’s motivation was to essentially do away with his (or her) own morality. But it also had to do with the androids’ desire to live. In the film, the androids had a shelf life (around 6 years?) and then they would malfunction to the point of being useless to their owner. I assume this was a safeguard put in place to discourage an android revolution. But one thing the film never really established is the androids’ sentience. Did the androids feel emotions? Did they fear their imminent death? Did they resent their makers for giving them such a short lifespan? The film never really tells us (that I could tell), but the fact that the humans called the androids, “dolls” could indicate that they do not. The biggest question I have for the film is what motivation the Doctor has in taking over the city. It might be an obvious plot point I missed, but it didn’t seem to support the narrative (other than to deliver some nice action scenes and suspense).

  3. I also found this reading to be one of my favorites so far. I agree with all of the above. After getting to the end of the story, I am able to look back and notice how the authors’ stories were an addiction. The writing style plays the most important role with expressing the obsession. The first two stories begin with a somewhat simple beginning. There is a quick description for the location, and soon following is simple dialogue, setting the scene, which isn’t the most important part of the story. As soon as the author begins to get into the story, the “scenes” become more descriptive. This usually happened as soon as the stories became sexual, especially when describing non-sexual objects. “I found myself a well-formed fat stem supporting a good-sized red head with rounded tips. I nicked it at the base with my knife and the juice covered my fingers”(p12); “The artichoke arrived and I began to peel it away, fold by fold, layer by layer, dipping it. There is no secret about eating artichoke, or what the act resembles. Nothing else gives itself up so satisfyingly towards its centre. Nothing else promises and rewards. The tiny hairs are part of the pleasure.” The authors’ obsession seems to be so deep that their gender role doesn’t even matter, when before the second story he tells the user that their gender doesn’t matter because it’s the virtual world.
    The author ends with saying that he warned the story might change, but forgot that the storyteller changes too. I found this to be the most powerful description for the authors’ character.

  4. I found that this reading shares a commonality with cyberspace in the sense that both are extremely flexible narratives. The perspectives switching on the fly struck me as a feature of a cyberspace narrative. Paper narratives tend to be pigeonholed into sequential storytelling because of the physical limitations of the paper. The changes in perspective are disorienting in the text on paper because we have a sense of what came before because we can just look to the paragraph that preceded it. Had the text been a hypertext document, we would separate each change in perspective because odds are each change would be accompanied by a new hypertext page.

  5. Paul Sernatinger

    The question that The Powerbook brings up is how much is our identity shaped by how the world perceives us. Constantly there is this refrain to the idea of a “bare skeletal structure,” the essence of what humanity, separate from gender, is. The frequency with which the text changes point of view from 1st to 3rd person and the differing vantage points within the 1st person narrative all play up this disjointed sense of identity. We as readers are given the opportunity to try on the identity of either person, we are encouraged, forced even. And this is precisely how the content of the story is. Here we have these people in cyberspace, with the opportunity to start over, to reinvent themselves, just for the sake of it, or maybe because they want to get it “right” this time. The line “freedom, for just one night” says the most, perhaps. Identity vacation. Then they are encouraged. Not encouraged exclusively externally either, internally and from themselves as well. Finally, because of the interactive nature of their encounter, comes the forced part. The forced change, the forced re-reckoning with identity. This is one of the things that makes cyberspace a utopia. You don’t have to wake up everyday and assume the roles and responsibilities that you went to sleep with. You can let them go. It’s like how children do imaginative play during their developmental years, while they are discovering who they are. There is a rough age where this kind of play stops, due to constraints put on my society. You can’t play cops and robbers, you have a job. But who says that the development of the identity is complete, or if it can even ever be complete. Just because we have stopped the exploration doesn’t mean that it is time to disembark. Cyberspace proves this, and Winterson packages it up for us in an amazing mash-up of contemporary form and traditional literary medium. If we were finished discovering ourselves, we wouldn’t have the kinds of internet communities that we do today. At one point in the text, Tulip asks for Ali’s gender, and Ali won’t respond, yet they fall in love. The implication here being that we sensor our emotions based on what we believe that others find appropriate. The aforementioned “bare skeletal structure” is the ultimate personality of a person. Like knowing a drag queen that has the same sense of humor when dressed up as when not. If part of why you love that person is their sense of humor, you love the essential, non-gendered part of their being, and you could even fall in love with them for it, even if you don’t find them physically attractive when either dressed or not dressed in drag. This is something that humanity is not really familiar with, something that we haven’t been confronted with before. For some people this will be threatening, for others it will mean freedom where none would have existed before. For most I hope it will give them an avenue to further explore themselves in way that fosters better understanding of the self and through that, further understanding and tolerance of each other. I can’t wait to see what happens when technology becomes so ubiquitously available that, for example, people in religiously extremist countries start logging on and taking on opposite gender roles. I think that’s what the book is saying is possible, and is already happening, but not to the idealist example that I have set forth, not yet anyway.

  6. I think what most interested me with the film is how remarkably “unhuman” the androids were, esepcially given how technologically advanced the society was in Natural City. They had the technology to simulate different surroundings, different environments, but they couldn’t simulate humans? Sure, they looked like humans, but their mannerisms and actions showed otherwise. They were either portrayed as lethal killing machines or servants to actual people. Both iterations of the androids Surely with the kind of technology they had, they could have made the androids a bit more realistic, right? That fact definitely made it hard for me to believe anyone could fall in love with one of them. Not to mention that the relationship seemed to be a one-way thing and not mutual in that R was the only one doing anything about their situation. Ria’s desire to still dance showed that even in the distant future, androids lack the mental capacity to function anywhere remotely close to a human being.

    The movie was enjoyable, but I think Blade Runner was much more believable and that was done how long ago?

  7. Sorry I hit enter, before I finished a sentence. What I meant to say was: Both interations of these androids (the combative and the servants) are emotionless, Ria included.

  8. The thing that took my attention the most in Natural City, besides the obvious Blade Runner similarities (as Christian mentioned), is how big a part of society they were. While they may not have acted very human, they were all around the city. They performed menial jobs. They entertained in many different capacities. Their expiration dates were announced over loudspeakers. I think of the idea of R falling in love with an android. He was not in denial of what Ria was. He knew full well that she wasn’t real, yet he was prepared to take a human life to extend her lifespan or whatever you want to call it. This was an extreme version of attachment. The cook, who had an android that was expiring, was merely bummed that he had been around for six years and had to get a new one. He was just used to the old one. I kind of think that the attachment was based on the fact that the androids were so human like. People want their mechanical help to have human attributes. Typical programming language and execution would be brash if delivered in a systematic way. Just the other day, I walked by an ATM on State that had a display on the screen: “Sorry. Due to service, I am currently unavailable.” Apparently. “Out of Order” or a screen that simply displayed an error code for a technician might be construed as mechanical coldness and upset the masses who would then go to an ATM that was nicer. Just a ramble.

  9. I found it interesting how in the Powerbook starts with a simple narative, and then evolves beyond once the subject gets the narrator to begins to create the story instead of simply retelling one. “All right, but if I start this story … It may change under my hands.” (pg30) Once the narrator is given freedom, it redefines the freedom of the other person. Originally, she wants freedom… but what is meant by that is never defined. It seems that what she ends up needing to give up freedom to the narrator in order to get what she wants.

    In the end it seems to be a struggle between freedom and control. And once you start to give up control, you end up with a crazy story when all you really wanted to do was disconnect.

  10. I’d have to agree that The Powerbook shared some similarities to a hypertext. Oddly enough, it seemed as though it might in fact be easier to read in that format. It was occasionally hard to tell which character was speaking, or they were speaking from the “outside” of the scenario, i.e. in the chatroom. If they had been separated by links, or clicking, or something, it could have been clearer. On the other hand, I did enjoy it a great deal.
    On another subject, the story A Terrible Thing to do to a Flower brought me back to our days of talking about cyborgs and gender. From the beginning, Ali speaks of acting as a boy so that her family could survive. Later, when the flowers transform her, she is turned into what she has be pretending to be for a very long time. The changes is not so much a physical one as a shifting of the world to accommodate her.

    A note for Sean:
    Blade Runner is actually an adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick story called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a good read, I recommend to everyone that you give it a try. It ties in with this class very well.

  11. What struck me was how layered Winterson’s narrative is. And although each story occurred in a very different setting and had a different mood/tone, there are some consistent themes that appear throughout the entire narrative. The first—this one reaches out and punches you in the face—is love, in all its many forms—erotic, devotional, forbidden, transcendent, etc. There is something to be said about the way in which Winterson’s narratives stir the emotions…the way she writes about love is extremely powerful and seductive, and I think we can all see a bit of ourselves in many of these characters. But love is only at the surface of what The Powerbook addresses thematically.

    What is real? The Powerbook encourages the reader to look past objectivity when searching for the answer to the ubiquitous question. Winterson persuades readers to be attentive to the transcendent fibers of their reality, to imagination, and to open possibility. Take this exchange between the Turkish Captain and Ali for example:
    “…You will live in this world as though it is real, until it is no longer real, and then you will know, as I do, that all your adventures and all your possessions, and all your losses, and what you have loved—this gold, this bread, the green glass sea—were things you dreamed as surely as you dreamed of buffalo and watercress.’
    ‘Am I always sleeping?’
    ‘Neither sleeping nor waking. Only the body sleeps and wakes. The mind moves through itself.’
    The use of dialogue reveals much in these stories, and places somewhat lofty concepts into the context of human experience. The statement, ‘The mind moves through itself,’ draws attention to that ‘nonspace’ of the mind, the plane of reality on which human consciousness operates—a place physical bodies can not go. Storytelling has its origins in imagination. In The Powerbook, imagination is significant because it is immaterial yet still real, and it contains a certain potential, even if what people can imagine is physically impossible.
    In regards to the potentiality of all things, The Powerbook relates to our ‘best’ (or should I say ‘most accurate as-far-as-we-know’) understanding of reality—quantum physics, which tells us that we can only know the probability or the likeliness of something to happen. It further tells us that nothing happens unless it has been observed, which brings about a fundamental problem.
    This
    explanation of Schrodinger’s cat is helpful (scroll down to the, ahem, Schrodinger’s Cat heading). Winterson mentions quantum physics within the text: “In quantum reality there are millions of possible worlds, unactualised, potential, perhaps bearing in on us…(63).” She goes on, “I can’t take my body through space and time, but I can send my mind, and use the stories, written and unwritten, to tumble me out in a place not yet existing—my future (63).” So Winterson offers her own solution to that fundamental problem—our imaginations are where those unfulfilled potentials lie (lay? I don’t know). All the infinite possibilities, events that happen and never happen, are all encompassed in narrative, and further, in imagination. Winterson sees that the inifinite nature of potential is unfolding, right here, right now, just not in physical reality.
    Don’t tell the physicists this, but we may never know the nature of our reality, especially in this lifetime. Even so, there are things we know are beautiful, things we know are universal, like love. Stories help us to somewhat exonerate our curious existence, and Winterson quite clearly sees the beauty in that.

    Some other mentions of the future and reality:
    - Turkish Captain: “There will be a future. We believe in our unreality too much to give it up (Winterson 21.)”
    - From ‘New Document’: “The Talmudic layering of story on story, map on map, multiplies possibilities but also warns me of the weight of accumulation. I live in one world—material, seeming-solid—and the weight of that is quite enough. The other worlds I can reach need to keep their lightness and their speed of light. What I carry back from those worlds to my world is another chance (Winterson 64.”
    - ‘New Document’ again: “Nothing is solid. Nothing is fixed. These are images that time changes and that change time…(Winterson 52).”
    There are so many more examples—it seemed like every time I turned the page there was some philosophical morsel to be found somewhere.
    Take this little loaded statement for example, “The heart. Carbon-based primitive in a silicon world (Winterson 46).” Or this one, “I am my own master but not always master of myself (55).” Or this one, “This is a virtual world. This is a world inventing itself (73).” Or perhaps this one, “’What happened to the omniscient author?’ ‘Gone interactive (31).’ I mean, it borders on absurd how loaded this text is. Chock-full of content.

    Other themes, in brief:

    - Memory and reflection are heavy hitters in this story. The way in which the past affects people, in which people’s histories shape their existence is mentioned throughout. There is an existential feel to the story, like Winterson’s assertion in the beginning of the text, “I can change the story. I am the story (5).” Memories are always strong within the characters—this happens across all the stories in The Powerbook. Open Hard Drive: “…I am always there, in that room with her, or if not I, the imprint of myself—my fossil-love and you discover it (25).” New Document: “That’s how I remember her, laughing at me, on a wooden bridge in Paris (49).” Search: “I fell in love with her then, and I have never been able to stop loving her, or to stop my body leaping at the sight of her (86).”
    - The tension between two viewpoints in New Document was amazing. This section of dialogue really says it all:

    “’You are an absolutist then.’
    ‘What’s one of those?’
    ‘All or nothing.’
    ‘What else is there?’
    ‘The middle ground. Ever been there?’

    Everyone can relate to the perspectives embodied here: the hard-line, the upright, the decision-maker, and (in contrast to) the contemplative, the spontaneous, the subjective. Even explaining it this way I feel like it is a bit reductionist but all in all, life is complicated. These are ubiquitous forces that exist in our life—this is why politics are so terrible and decisions are hard to make sometimes. It’s as Winterson herself put it, “The trouble is that in imagination anything can be perfect. Downloaded into real life, it [is] messy. She was messy. I was messy (55).” Although we never reach perfection, to strive toward it, to struggle for it is what is important—Winterson mentions this twice in the story, “Only the impossible is worth the effort (65, 90).”

    This tension culminates in a passage on page 55, where Winterson uses a totally different scene (a man exercising Dalmatians nearby) along with the colors black, white, and red to represent the different forces of inner and outer turmoil in the character. Yes, there are black and white (right and wrong), but red, which represents passion/emotion, steps in and muddles what was once thought a clear choice between the two.

    Annnnnnnd this is long, so I’m going to stop there.

    –Mindy

  12. I think what most got my attention in Natural World was the casual tone between robot and human. The world these characters lived in was so comfortable with the presence of cyber and other types of robotic personalities. In the nightclub especially where the dancers are all robots and the owner talks about how he has to replace them like their light bulbs. If we had anything like those robot dancers their price tag would be so high that if one malfunctioned so much it would be a big ordeal to have a new one ordered. I think the expiration date on all of the cyber was pretty interesting too. We figure that if something is machine and can be fixed that it could potentially live forever but in this case the machines are only expected to be around for 3 years or so and that’s it. That’s what these people in this civilization expect. Just the scale of money and production on a single robot it so large now that it’s funny to think of a society that can shoot out such life like robots in about as much time as it takes to fill out a order for one….

  13. I find it interesting that we’ve been talking all semester about cyborgs, and what determines whether one is or is not a cyborg, and all semester long we’ve only asked ourselves what sort of mechanical or inorganic qualities does one need in order to be a cyborg. Of course, part of that is because being a cyborg kind of implies a mechanical, inorganic aspect. But I would argue that the main character in the story in “Open Hard Drive” is a cyborg, or at the very least very similar to one.

    To begin with her identity is based on how she was raised, in disguise as a boy. While she knows that she is not a boy, neither is she fully a female because she was not raised as one. Instead she “became a spy,” raised “in disguise, to see if I could bring any wealth to the household.” (p. 11) Her identity is based on her role as a spy. Her gender has very little part in her identity, much as a cyborg has no gender.

    Secondly, her body is augmented, rather crudely, when her mother crafts the garment (or holder, perhaps?) for the tulip bulbs she’ll be concealing. The bulbs are sewn together and then hung on a leather strap that ties around the main character’s hips. A tulip is then added to this garment to be “The bit in the middle.” (p12) It is only later that this augmentation seems to take root (pun intended) when it functions as the real deal would. During a crucial encounter with the princess her “disguise come[s] to life. The tulip began to stand.” (p 25) When the audience tells the storyteller that it “was a terrible thing to do to a flower”, the storyteller comes back with “you said you wanted to be transformed.” (p 29)

  14. I thought the most interesting, and obvious, message from “Natural City” was the danger of becoming emotionally attached to a machine. I seem to recall at one point the cook (or somebody else) explicitly warning R not to get too attached to Ria.
    The cook was abusive towards his android, and that makes the viewer uncomfortable, but maybe that’s actually a more ethical way to deal with your servant machine than loving it romantically. R caused all sorts of trouble for himself and those around him when he let his feelings for Ria get out of control.
    Should we treat androids with more dignity than other machines just because they look like people? Is it more sick to verbally abuse your android than it is to abuse a washing machine or a car? Is wanting to spend eternity with your washing machine even more sick?
    Personally, I think the value of loving and respecting anything has more to do with one who is doing the loving than with the object or person who is being loved. For me, I fell would try to project more positive energy towards my android, just because of the effects on my own mind. Whether or not your android can feel sad when you abuse it, you’re also degrading yourself by degrading what’s around if you, even if it is just a machine.

  15. While reading The Powerbook, I was very struck by ‘Search’ and everything following it. It pulls together the other stories, and I think it really hits home. It speaks truth- it really is easier to die than to love. Love is something that absolutely everyone craves, yet fears. We cannot let ourselves have what we want most in the world.

    The stories in general, and the vignettes in between them, reminded me of the various ways we’ve seen people advance in the internet in books. It’s like ‘jacking in’, or like creating an avatar in Snow Crash’s Metaverse. You can be anyone you want. You can look any way you want, be any gender, anyone in the entire world.

    I enjoyed the dialogue throughout the stories. It was very minimal explanation; it was pure dialogue. In a way, it almost resembled an instant messenger conversation, which again brings us into the cyberworld. I enjoyed that. YAY.

  16. What I find interesting in “The Powerbook” I thought it was well done for narrative. At first I thought it wasn’t going to be a great narrative. It was very descriptive as the narrator talks. What spoke out to be is that there was no gender in this story. Actually the narrator did think it matter weather the narrator was a he or she in the beginning when the question was asked if the narrator was a he or she. The narrator responded what does it matter weather if I’m a he/she. The Princess was very interesting that she would sleep a total stranger and the fact that she is married. I thought that was kind of wierd. In the Natural City I thought it is a world where people fall in love weather they were married or not. I find in Jeanette Winterson she talks about sex. She specify what each of the couples are doing. It is something how what would write on e-mail justl like Ali. Also they would write just like message boards or on blogs. Some people who make it very person that can be very seductive. In the book, Winterson used certain titles like they were used in the Cyberspace world as if they were hypertext. Example would be “Open It” that was one of the titles. The book is another way of use of the Cyberspace world, but instead of clicking on it, we would read the page what it says.

  17. the style of writing was variable and sometimes difficult to understand exactly which character was speaking. the writing was layered. i found it interesting that there was no names used to identify characters; which makes me ask why? the want for a night of freedom seemed to be what the character was out to find. however, the girl says that he wants just whatevery one else wants which suggests freedom however, she says everything and he agrees. disguises are talked about alot…the body being a disguise, being in different cities as a disguise, “structures without cadding” are liked by the girl because they have no disguise because you can see through it? I also found it interesting when he said, “what happened to the omnicent author.?” “gone interactive.” this is interesting because of cyberspace and the idea of narratives being more than words…they are becoming more and more interactive.

  18. I’m really digging this movie. It’s like a blend of Casshern and Ghost in the Shell. Although I think I got distracted during a key scene or something because I’m confused on a few parts (but I can’t remember what they are because it has been too long since last class).

    I might be misremembering and/or blending themes from too many movies but it seems like the whole “limited life” thing crops up pretty often in movies with androids. Sometimes as a safety measure and sometimes as a limitation. The “I want more life” line from Blade Runner is an all-time classic; on the level of “My god, it’s full of stars.” Roy, fearing his own mortality seeks out his maker in an attempt to prolong his life. Has anyone read 2001: A Space Odyssey and/or 2010: The Year We Make Contact? It’s complicated but the plot also revolves around the AIs (HAL and SAL) and their knowledge of their own mortality. I’ve always been fascinated by the line at which sentience and self-awareness create the fear of death.

    P.S. I saw Blade Runner: The Final Cut this weekend at the Music Box and it was excellent.

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