The Biopolitics of Electronic Literature: On the Writings of Mez Breeze, Kent Aardse

The Biopolitics of Electronic Literature: On the Writings of Mez Breeze

Kent Aardse (University of Waterloo)

This paper explores biopolitics, a thread of posthumanist thought, as it intersects and emerges from electronic literature. Posthumanism marks a specific moment in time wherein the human’s immersion in a diverse ecological network can no longer be ignored. As Janez Strehovic explains, the current work in posthumanism marks a “cultural shift in contemporary philosophy, where the linguistic, discursive and textual give way to the material, biological, life, event-driven, and post-political” (np). As will be shown, biopolitics identifies a shift in how government operates, specifically at the level of managing the bodies of citizens. The critical thinkers I discuss in this paper––Michel Foucault, Georgio Agamben, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri––explore biopolitics and the topic of “life”: what is life, how is it defined, and whom has the power to control it? In what follows, I argue that the presence of language in electronic literature not only points to the role of language in biopolitical power (or biopower), but also affords electronic literature the ability to act as a site of aesthetic resistance (following Hardt and Negri) operating within and against biopolitical regimes. In particular, I will illustrate how ‘codework,’ a form of electronic literature which integrates natural and programming languages to create its surface-level language, provides a tool from which to think through and work against biopower.  For this, I turn to the writings of Mez Breeze, an electronic author working primarily with codework to explore questions of subjectivity, embodiment, and power in electronic literature.

A quick note here on the terms biopower and biopolitics, as both terms are shifting and dynamic, and have been appropriated by various thinkers in different ways. In fact, even the terms biopower and biopolitics are used in significantly different ways by Foucault throughout his career. Although his name is primarily linked with biopolitics, that term was used sparingly by Foucault; biopower, by contrast, was a term he used often. Foucault writes that, in the era of the industrial revolution, there “was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the begging of an era of ‘biopower’” (The History of Sexuality 140). Biopower is, for Foucault, a top-down form of administration, subjugation, and control, yielded by those with political power and thrust upon the bodies of its population. Hardt and Negri further the development of biopower, also characterizing it as a form of top-down control. They write, “Biopower stands above society, transcendent, as a sovereign authority and imposes its order” (94). Although not its opposite, “biopolitical production” arises as resistance to biopower. Biopolitical resistance is “immanent to society and creates social relations and forms through collaborative forms of labor” (94-5). As William Bogard sums in  “Surveillance assemblages and lines of flight,” “[b]iopower is the new form of empire, whereas biopolitical production is the new form of resistance to empire” (113). I argue, then, that the role of language in electronic literature, and the marked distinction which characterize the playful use of language in codework, operate effectively as sites of biopolitical resistance.

Michel Foucault and Biopolitics

Although the history is somewhat skewed, Michel Foucault’s work is often described as the first and most influential discussion of biopolitics, especially for the current theorists of the biopolitical, such as Wolfe and Agamben. For Foucault, biopolitics marks a shift in the role of life and death in the nation state. Although difficult to trace or determine the exact rupture, biopolitics for Foucault is a specifically modern regime of power. Foucault's work analyzes how “life” itself is brought to the fore of any and all political thought and action; thus, biopolitics marks a specific politics in which the very biological existence of humans lies at the core of biopolitical action. What this means, then, is that governments turn to natural and health sciences in an effort to control and exercise power over citizens. Foucault writes The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (1980),

For the first time in history . . . biological existence was reflected in political existence.
. . . But what might be called a society's "threshold of modernity" has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies. For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question. (142-3)

Modern politics, for Foucault, relies on a fundamental ordering and controlling of life through various apparatuses of power (dispositifs). These dispositifs excursive their control over bodies through biopower.
Biopolitics and biopower enter Foucault’s work in his lectures delivered at the Collége de France in 1976 and more explicitly in his book The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (1980). Prior to modern biopolitics, which for Foucault emerged during the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 18th century, sovereign power reigned supreme. Foucault notes that biopolitics works in the form of deduction, of withholding items and rights from people. Foucault observes that sovereign power had the ability to dispose of the life of the subjects. Characterized as a “right to life or death,” it “only existed in a rudimentary form and with considerable qualification” and “symbolized the extreme point of a form of power that essentially operated as a right to seizure” (ibid., 35). Observing the technical, medical, and social breakthroughs of the 18th century’s industrial revolution, Foucault marks this moment as exemplifying the shift from sovereign to biopower. The ability now existed to control life, in the sense of not only individual bodies but also the population as a whole, which was put to use by governments for the very purpose of creating a more unified political social body. In“Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity”(1977), Foucault writes,

The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful, and conversely. (137-8)

Seeking a “more obedient” population becomes an example of normativizing, a term which becomes extremely important for Foucault. “Normalizing” society marks for Foucault––and this is where biopolitics leads into its deathly double, “thanatopolitics”––a schism from sovereign to biopower.

Foucault’s normalizing society essentially creates a culture of the norm, rather than a culture of the individual. In other words, sovereign power dictates the right to life or death and hinges this right on the law; biopower, by contrast, emphasizes the collective social body, working to homogenize this body for the purpose of maintaining power. Foucault’s social body is separate from a legal or political entity; it is, rather, as Lemke states, “an independent biological corpus . . . characterized by its own processes and phenomenon, such as birth and death rates, health status, life span, and the production of wealth and its circulation” (36-7). This, for Foucault, is the modern element of biopower, that which surveys, records, and quantifies the social body. Foucault writes in The History of Sexuality:

It is not longer a matter of bringing death into play in the field of sovereignty, but of distributing the living in the domain of value and utility. Such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierachize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendor; it does not have to draw the line that separates the enemy of the sovereign from his loyal subjects. It effects distributions around the norm. (144)

Sovereign power, for Foucault, is murderous, as it exercises the right to life and death and holds the power to destroy life at will. In contrast, biopolitical power promotes a normalizing society, promoting life through health and social sciences; this normalizing, though, always leaves a remainder, an other, an outsider which supposedly cannot be normalized.

This normalizing leads to institutionalized racism, and this is where Foucault’s biopolitics turns into thanatopolitics. If a portion of society is normalized and cared for, a break is ultimately created between those normalized and those not; thus, the apparently affirmative biopolitics of Foucault’s necessarily creates its negative opposite. Biopolitics fosters life, creates a non-normalized ‘other,’ and thus thanatopolitics emerges. I cannot delve into a detailed account of Foucault’s work on racism (cf. Lemke 2011), but the conception of thanatopolitics—a term which Foucault never himself uses––allows us to transition into the work of Georgio Agamben and his discussion of bare life versus political existence.

Agamben, Bare Life, and Political Existence

Georgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher, whose work has been central to biopolitical thought. With the publication of his book Homo Sacer in 1995, Agamben’s work picks up on Foucault’s own work in biopolitics, but ultimately Agamben extends biopolitics into realms unforeseen by Foucault. Not only this, but Agamben simultaneously celebrates the rise of biopolitical thought via Foucault while at the same rejecting and disagreeing with Foucault on how and when biopolitics operate. Ultimately, Agamben sees the core problem at the heart of biopolitics hinging on the concept of bare life and its relationship with political existence.

As stated, Foucault observes a rupture around the late 17th century and the early 18th century, wherein the industrial and agricultural revolutions led to a differently organized society, and sovereign power shifted to “governmentality” and biopolitics. Agamben, though, rejects this rupture, instead insisting that there is a connection between sovereign power and biopolitics. Indeed, Lemke writes in Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction (2011), Agamben believes that “biopolitics forms the core of the sovereign practice of power” (53) and that, according to Agamben “the constitution of sovereign power assumes the creation of a biopolitical body. Inclusion in political society is only possible . . . through the simultaneous exclusion of human beings who are denied full legal status” (53-4). Exclusionary politics, then––and this is where Agamben’s work launches from Foucault’s normalizing society and racism––becomes the central tenet of Agamben’s contribution to biopolitical thought. Agamben traces this exclusionary politics back to Greek antiquity, bringing into the conversation the very language used by the ancient Greeks in their own discussion of political life.

Agamben remarks that the central binary relationship of the political is not the creation of an “us-versus-other” relationship, but rather the schism between bare life (zoé) and political existence (bíos). Agamben sees zoéas the very basic biological existence of life for humans. Bare life is natural being, a person living in the world. By contrast, bíos signals the entry of human beings into the political superstructure; bíos is protected and cultivated, then, as political life is that which is normalized and fostered within the biopolitical regime. This distinction, then, this dichotomy between a bare life and a political existence, is amplified in biopolitics, but for Agamben it very much exists in the former sovereign power.

Agamben illustrates the dichotomy between zoéand bíos through turning to a figure he borrows from Roman law: homo sacer. Lemke writes that Agamben’s homo sacer is a person whom one could kill with impunity, since he was banned from the politico-legal community and reduced to the status of his physical existence” (54-5). Homo sacer, then, is that which lies outside of political existence. Homo sacer has been “othered,” forever resigned to an existence of bare life. The sovereign decision is that of choosing between life and death, which of course has dire consequences for those beings deemed to exist outside of political existence. Zoéand bíos are not only products of sovereign power and decision-making; indeed, for Agamben, this dichotomy is pervasive and carries through to biopolitics, which is forever marked as a thanatopolitics symbolized by the Nazi concentration camps of World War II.

Alongside the zoéand bíos, Agamben is noted for his discussion of the “state of exception.” For Agamben, the Nazi camps and the state of exception are forever intwined. In essence, the state of exception marks a form of governmentality that systematically suspends the rights of its citizens in the event of an emergency or tragedy, all while under the guise of protecting these very rights. The state of exception provides the opportunity for the creation (and subsequent destroying) of “bare life.” The Nazi camps are a prime example of bare life production, but for Agamben the camps become not only a moment in time wherein thanatopolitics is observed; rather, the camps exist as the symbolic border between bare life and political existence, a border that still operates today. Indeed, in Homo Sacer, Agamben writes that “[t]he camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the norm” (168-9, emphasis in original). For Agamben, then, bare life exists at the biopolitical center of modernity, and the state of exception is constantly observed in contemporary political existence (for example, in the recent revealing of the U.S. government’s incredibly pervasive surveillance program).

Agamben certainly has his fair share of critics, including Thomas Lemke. As Lemke will note, Agamben seems to be purposefully negligent to historical tendencies, as well as to the role of various technological and scientific developments in the rise of biopolitics. Indeed, remarked by Lemke, Agamben fails to note the difference between sovereign and modern states, sciences, and the relation of biopolitics to capitalism. This lack of any engagement with capitalist production provides the space from which the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri emerges. As I will show, biopolitics for Hardt and Negri characterizes the latest stage in capitalist production, which inextricably relies on human bodies.

Hardt, Negri, and Cognitive Capitalism

In their cowritten Empire (2000) and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), literary theorist Michael Hardt and philosopher Antonio Negri discuss biopolitics. In their terms, biopolitics is less about rules and the state of exception, but rather reflects a new stage of capitalism, wherein previous distinctions between economics and politics, and production and reproduction, are no longer useful. What is important, then, for Hardt and Negri, is to link biopolitics to contemporary issues of capitalism, production, identity and subjectivity, and most notably the Marxist tradition. More to the point for my work, though, is Hardt and Negri’s insistence that the very same forces which have led to a shift in capitalist production also opens up a space of political resistance, which I will then argue, in turn, can be illustrated in terms of aesthetic resistance in the genre of electronic literature.

If Agamben is most noted for exploring the figure of “homo sacer" and the “state of exception,” Hardt and Negri are critical to current biopolitical theory through their recognition of “cognitive capitalism” and “immaterial production.”  Cognitive capitalism is distinguished by a move away from a manufacturing economy into one based on information, similar to Jameson’s construction of the era of late capitalism. This process leads to a decisive transformation in the working subject. For Foucault, capitalism was always an integral element of biopolitics, but one he did not explore in detail. Indeed, in The History of Sexuality, he writes that “bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (140-1). Capitalism operates via the controlled production from bodies, in this case. Hardt and Negri see cognitive capitalism, though, as contingent on information technology, shifting the site of capitalist production from the material world of factories and hard manual labor, into the virtual, immaterial world. Indeed, in order for cognitive capitalism to exist, a new form of labor deemed “immaterial labor” is observed. Both forms of labor, material and immaterial, rely on human action, be it virtual or material.

Primarily of note in the work of Hardt and Negri is the link between biopolitics and information technologies, leading to an immaterialized capitalist production system. Of course, in the field of electronic literature, one element that has been constantly theorized is the immaterial, virtual nature of the work. If biopolitics marks a shift in capitalist production, contingent on the virtual and immaterial, then surely electronic literature provides an exploration of biopolitical themes. Indeed, as Lemke writes that “the paradox of biopower . . . comes from the fact that the same tendencies and forces that maintain and preserve the system of rule are at the same time the ones that weaken and have the potential to overthrow it” (72-3). Thus, if we take it as a given that biopolitical production is reliant on information technologies and a new form of capitalist production characterized by immaterial production and cognitive power, these very same apparatus of the virtual can provide the means of questioning, weakening, and possibly overthrowing a negative biopolitics. It should be noted here that, certainly for Hardt and Negri and the Marxist tradition from which they emerge, biopolitics is most certainly negative, as even cognitive capitalism will contribute to a flawed system wherein only a selectively small percentile of people benefit in any significant way, the distribution of wealth is still absurdly uneven, and the exploitation of the working class proceeds unfazed.

Literature and Resistance

Before I directly engage electronic literature which explores the relationship between language and biopolitics, I will begin by exploring the very idea of biopolitical resistance and its various (possible) incarnations. Firstly, I turn once again to the work of Michel Foucault. While Foucault’s work lacks any direct engagement with literature or art, he nevertheless theorized a space of resistance within biopolitics, operating at the level of the very life that biopolitics calls into question. Foucault encouraged an understanding of life as a work of art, of a symbolic way of living which has the potential to resist biopolitical naturalizing. Foucaults’ work explores how we can understand human life rather as a "work of art,” theorizing life as a space of an “aesthetics of resistance.” This aesthetics of resistance is a site of play which could be utilized by anyone, in any given political system, in order to resist control. This “art of living” would, as Foucault claims, operate outside the supposed truths of “governmentality,” which sought to quantify and qualify life as such. Furthermore, Foucault turns to the Stoics’ techniques of “self writing,” which allows an individual to self-actualize and, hopefully, resist certain biopolitical control.

Perhaps not so for Foucault, Hardt and Negri believe that the very same technics of power on which biopower strives can contribute to methods of resistance. In the article “Sovereignty, Biopolitics, and the Use of Literature: Michel Foucault and Kathy Acker,” Alex Houen discusses the possibilities of aesthetic resistance for Foucault, Hardt and Negri, and Eric Alliez (who has co-authored works with Hardt). Houen focuses on writing as a tool for aesthetic resistance, offering up a critique of Foucault and Hardt and Negri in the process. For Houen, these theorists do not reach far enough in their discussion of aesthetic resistance, as they fail to fully explain techniques and forms which can contribute to biopolitical resistance. Houen writes that, for theorists like Hardt and Alliez, “art or writing can thus construct discrete zones of sensation that stand outside the battlefield as a haven for an individual to dwell within” (np). But, in a Foucauldian turn, Houen goes on to ask, “might not an individual's capacities for aesthetic sensation and expression be contaminated already by the very effects of biopower that s/he seeks refuge from?’” (np). Certainly this question is apparent for Hardt and Negri, who discuss the role of language for biopower. Language and biopolitics feed off one another in a symbiotic relationship, language being a key technic for the structures of power to operate. How, then, might language serve as resistance? Houen, discussing Hardt and Negri, writes that “art and literature cannot be seen as inherently autonomous havens in relation to power; rather, they would need to be developed as specific techniques of combat against power” (E, 404). As Houen then remarks, Hardt and Negri do not specifically address how this linguistic resistance would operate. Houen, though, turns to the experimental writing of Kathy Acker for “adopt[ing] new forms of self-potentializing through literature” (np). Building on Houen’s work with Acker, then, I now turn to the role of electronic literature in providing aesthetic resistance to biopower and biopolitical language.

For my purposes, the following discussion of biopower and biopolitical production is inextricably bound within the capitalist framework. This is to say, the works of electronic literature I will discuss act as aesthetic resistance toward capitalist means of production, identity creation, and marketing; biopolitics is linked with capitalism to the degree that all use of biopower strives to normalize a society for the purposes of creating a productive, cooperative workforce. Indeed, as Janez Strehovic writes in his essay “The E-Literary World and the Social,” the present time is “defined by capitalism, which does not leave anything outside of its influence,” and thus “there is also no point in leaving the e-literary text outside” (np). Strehovic fixates his argument on the fact that criticism and theory absolutely must pay attention to post-industrial means of production in exploring electronic literature, but as I will argue here, the authors of electronic literature are already doing so. As argued by Raymond Federman in “Critifictional Reflections on the Pathetic Condition of the Novel in Our Time,” what is needed in our current time is “writing that resists the recuperation of itself into distorted or false figures and images” (169); in other words, writing that pushes back against the overwhelming forces of capitalism. Authors such as Mez Breeze explore various ways in which electronic literature and hypermedia provide possible outlets for thinking outside of the capitalist sphere.  Capitalism and biopolitics should be thought of in the same breath, then, and artistic activity should always be thought of as operating within and thinking through the dominant “isms” of the time. As Negri writes in his 2001 book Art and Multitude, “artistic activity always exists within a specific mode of production, and that it produces it - or, more exactly, that it produces it and contests it, that it suffers and destroys it” (108). Here I explore, then, how electronic literature produces, is produced, contests, suffers, and destroys capitalism and biopolitics.

Mez Breeze and the (Bio)Politics of Identity

Mez Breeze, or MEZ, is the pen-name (or code-name?) of Australian web-based poet and artist Mary-Anne Breeze. MEZ is a seminal and foundational member of the electronic literature community, not only because of her prolific writing career, but also because of the depth, complexity, and thematic concerns found in her work. MEZ’s is perhaps most noted for her pioneering of “codework,” a genre of electronic literature which intermixes natural language with programming code. In her book My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (2005), N. Katherine Hayles touches on this link between natural language and machinic code. Hayles writes that “the creative writing practices of ‘codework,’ practiced by artists such as MEZ, Talan Memmott, Alan Sondheim, and others, mingle code and English in a pastiche that, by analogy with two natural languages that similarly intermingle, might be called a creole” (60). The purpose of the is creole is not to create a language which could actually be read by a machine; codework does not operate as a functional programming language.

Just as Alan Sondheim labels his own codework as “codewurk,” Mez Breeze employs her own style of codewerk called “mezangelle,” and in the authors own words from her introduction to _the data][h!][bleeding texts_ (2000), is a “polysemic language/code system” which “means to take words/wordstrings/sentences and alter them in such a way as to extend and enhance meaning beyond the predicted or the expected” (np). Furthermore, mezangelle works “with notions of language play, software n.vocations and identity swapping being the key to comprehension.” What we see here, then, and has been said before, is the purposeful and meaningful application of computer languages onto natural language. Ideally, what we shall see in Mez Breeze’s work, is a greater reflection on how codewurk and mezangelle can help us better understand the human’s imbrication in networks, be they informatic, economic, or political. Florian Cramer writes that “the beauty of mezangelle is that it uses elements of programming language syntax as material” (ibid), and it is exactly this question of materiality which is key to electronic literature’s importance as a literary genre/movement in an increasingly globalized, virtualized, and immaterialized world.

Codework and Politics

Codework, in its various instantiations, serves as a means of aesthetic resistance to the language employed for the purposes of biopower. In her article “Interferences: [Net.Writing] and the Practice of Codework,” Rita Raley writes that “codework’s politics derives partly from its approach to writing as a complex, collaborative, multi-faceted activity, one practical component that allows for the claims for codework as an emancipatory aesthetic-political practice” (np). The role of language in codework serves to interrogate the language used for biopolitical purposes. What I mean by this is that language is key to the “power” of biopower; in order to bring together and separate (which, as we have seen, is brought out in biopolitics via the processes of immunization and exception) various groups of people. Biopower is enforced through language. We need only look at the various propaganda used throughout World War II: the best way to “other” the enemy is through visual and written rhetoric. As mentioned above, the current form of biopolitics is, in many ways, less malevolent than that which led to the Nazi death camps; today’s biopower is more forcefully enforced through capitalist institutions. Indeed, the various language used in marketing serves to normalize populations via products, products which serve to reinforce binaries across the board, not the least being those of gender binaries.

Mez’s writing features a certain preoccupation with exploring these gender binaries through the use of codework. Her innovative use of natural and programming language serves to explore the various ways in which language creates identity, subjectivity, and the body. The role of politics in codework has not gone unnoticed in previous criticism and theory. Indeed, pioneers of the genre, including Mez and Alan Sondheim have explicitly discussed the politics of language and representation in electronic literature. Rita Raley has discussed codework’s politics at length:

Sondheim and others also suggest that codework’s politics are clearly manifest in the genre’s thematization of subjectivity, identity, and the body. They raise the issue of gendered agency, for example, or theorize text as flesh and introduce the problematic of abjection in order to think through the permeation of the boundaries between texts and discourses, or violations of the threshold between code and text. (np)

I will discuss below precisely how Mez uses her language to interrogate the body, subjectivity, and identity, but for now I want to focus on the potential for aesthetic resistance in electronic literature. Certainly codework can be seen as as a space for which to engage the role of language in biopolitics; a playful mixture of natural and programming language allows the author to confront preconceived notions of the body and identity in a networked world.

Electronic literature, I argue, is particularly primed for these interrogations of biopower, due to its dynamic and ephemeral quality. Of course, literature and art has always been a site of aesthetic resistance. In his book Narrative Care: Biopolitics and the Novel, Arne de Boever advocates for a pharmacological theory of art, extending Bernard Stiegler’s work on pharmakon and the importance of care in the networked world. For de Boever, following Plato’s thoughts on writing and Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the pharmakon, “if one believes that art has the capacity to make people worse, then one must believe that it has the capacity to make people better; and vice versa” (14). Both de Boever’s and the work of Christopher Breu highlight the vitalist turn—and this is forcefully represented in the work of Cary Wolfe and Jane Bennet––in contemporary theory, a decided move away from the postmodern world of ephemerality and virtuality. Despite its instantiation in digital media, I read electronic literature and codework as being inextricably linked to this vitalist turn, particularly in the work of Mez Breeze. Janez Strehovic, in “E-Literary Text and the Social,” discusses the political power of contemporary digital art practices. Strehovic’s work illustrates the myriad of ways in which electronic literature can help to explore the reliance of language for the construction of subjectivities and bodies:

A glance at contemporary art can even be challenging and productive for contemporary political theory (e.g. subversive affirmation, hactivism [sic], activism), while contemporary artists - including new media ones - can gain a lot from a dialogue between their practices and contemporary social theories. Also a glimpse at e-literature reveals that this is a biopolitical activity which demonstrates striking forms of hybridization of language and bodies, occurring in the textual events organized as the performance (e.g. within events of reading and performing of e-poetry). (np)

In my reading of Mez Breeze’s _the data][h!][bleeding texts_ (2000), then, I illustrate how electronic literature in general, and codework in particular, encapsulates this biopolitical activity emphasized by Strehovic. Mez, following the pioneering work of fellow electronic literature author Shelley Jackson, explores the complexity inherent in language for its role in representing the body, identity, and subjectivity.

_the data][h!][bleeding texts_

Mez Breeze’s _the data][h!][bleeding texts_ (2000) is a work of electronic literature composed of various email “performances.” Like much of Mez’s writing, it is directly lifted from email conversations she had with other members of the electronic literature. A central preoccupation in Mez’s work is the role and agency of the network for writing. Mez, like many other authors and theorists working at the turn of the millennium, having directly witnessed the rise of the internet and the world wide web, sees an emancipatory space opened up by the dynamics of an active network. Much like her mezangelle writing, the internet is a space for creative play, play which serves the function of exploring the limits of language, dualities, and representation. Rita Raley writes that mezangelle “suggests a pointedly feminist aesthetics and praxis of linguistic mutilations,” that is decidedly “concern[ed] with the bio-politics [sic] of the body” (np). With these concerns, Raley suggests that there is a “striking resemblance between Mez’s aesthetics and those of noted hypertext author Shelley Jackson” (np). Indeed, Jackson’s pioneering works of electronic literature, Patchwork Girl (1995) and My Body ––a Wunderkammer (1997), couples literary writing of metafiction with visual collage, creating a recombinant text relying heavily on the theories of deconstruction and gender studies. Jackson pointedly explores the role of language for constructions of the body and subjectivity. Indeed, as Eric Dean Rasmussen writes in “Senseless Resistances: Feeling the Friction in Fiction,” hypertext pioneers such as Shelley Jackson and Michael Joyce, “revitalize our relationship to ordinary language by revealing it to be an inexhaustible, readily available, and theoretically universal technology for transforming everyday existence” (np). Mez Breeze’s _the data][h!][bleeding texts_, then, carries forth this insistence on the inexhaustible nature of language, adding programming code to interrogate the various ways in which our language structures our experience, identities, and subjectivities.
Mezangelle reflects the theory of Hardt and Negri that sees the same capitalist forces of biopower as opening a space for political resistance. As we know from Foucault, biopower operates at the level of normalizing the population, and this normalizing is inextricably connected to capitalist modes of production and consumerism. Further, code now infects various levels of our lives: our shopping habits are tracked online, new items to purchase are recommended to us via algorithms which track our those previous purchases, our social connections are codified and quantified, and our own banking is primarily done either online or in the digital networks of various financial institutions. Indeed, as we have seen in the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008, markets are now regulated and controlled via digital operations. Adrian Mackenzie and Theo Vurdubakis write in their article “Codes and Codings in Crisis: Signification, Performativity, and Excess,” code and codings are routinely tied into a production and maintaining of instances of crisis. Although not mentioned by the authors, the various instances of crisis discussed are all primary examples of Agamben’s state of exception which, according to Davin Heckman, “crises provide the pretext for the selective interruption of liberty, allowing so-called ‘democratic’ societies to maintain the illusion of human rights while violating them at their whim” (np). For Mackenzie and Vurdubakis, code is now so pervasive to infect every aspect of contemporary life, and thus contributes to maintaining the state of exception. Indeed, they write that “[e]ver since the October 1987 (Black Monday) stock market crash, computerized ‘black box’ trading has been accused of destabilizing the markets by increasing stock volatility” (16), a practice repeatedly blamed for contributing to the housing market bubble bursting and the world economic collapse of 2008. Mezangelle and other codeworks are not executable, they do not compile and cause any programs to run, but they do infect natural language with programming language, which ultimately serves to render strange our everyday language.

_the data][h!][bleeding texts_, and other pieces by Mez Breeze, focuses on the role of the network in our everyday existence; for her, the network has a certain muted agency, an ability to reshape subjectivities and identities for its users. Furthermore, the network provides a a site for collaboration, which Mez often deploys in her work as she creates recombinant texts from email threads and conversations. According to geniwate (aka Jenny Weight, an experiment electronic literature author also from Australia), in her article “Language rules,” Mez Breeze “ties experimental language to avatar creation and collaborative networking to explore complex and often contested political and social themes” (np). Indeed, Mez creates many different identities and personalities in her own work: some of the various pen names she uses include her real name, Mary-Anne Breeze, as well as authorial names, such Mez Breeze, MEZ, and mez. In a work like Mez’s Cutting Spaces (1995), she takes on many different avatars, including the names “Ms Post Modernism,” “Ms Corruption,” and “GoddessAeon.” Indeed, in _the data][h!][bleeding texts_, Mez shirks the first-person pronoun “I” in her writing, instead opting to use “/me.” Mez’s preoccupation with nebulous identities is further illustrated when the text asks the user to “..share with me your childhood or secret][ed][ name.” Identity, for Mez, is not a fixed or stable entity, and in this sense her writing carries forth this theme from deconstruction and postmodernism. Indeed, geniwate claims that Mez is closely linked to a very seminal and preeminent postmodern author:

Mez’s precursors in print fiction include Kathy Acker, 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. (np)

Indeed, Mez fully embraces the collaborative nature of the network, opting to share all of her work on the internet. In this sense, Mez’s work does indeed “exist beyond the scope of the capitalist print fiction industry.” As mentioned above, in our present age we cannot think biopolitics without capitalism, and as Alex Houen has argued, Acker has very pointed “interest in Foucault,” which means “her writing present a particularly clear indication of the directions in which ‘self writing’ and ‘self governance’ can turn” (13). Thus, if we agree with geniwate that Mez and Acker are closely related, we can see how Mez turns to codework in an effort to resist various biopolitical forces.

_the data][h!][bleeding texts_ encourages the user to recognize the agency of the network and of code in our daily life. As mentioned above, programming code regulates and underlies much of our contemporary existence; in _the data][h!][bleeding texts_, Mez encourages a finely tuned understanding of this symbiotic relationship between user and network. In the following passage, Mez stresses an understanding of nodes and access points, of the identity and sanctity of the network from which we cannot escape. In this particular passage, my childhood nickname, “Kenton,” appears, as I entered it in at the prompt to start the work; this implicates me in this active network. I am a node in the network. The passage:

/me waits, wanting the n.des to catch on/up, comprehending nothing, regurgitating everything ][please][
/me had thoughts uncoded by the sanctity of the network. The sanctity was profound, the data-traffic lost. The rhythm broken. How to convince the nodes of their existence/resistance?
[Clue insert:You, Kenton , dear c.-auth.r and reader, are the nodepoint. The point in the fluid. The point that flows between, behind, before....comprehension critical/crucial.] (An Electroduction_)

The nodes are both network and people, in this case. When Mez writes, “How to convince the nodes of their existence/resistance?” she not only refers to the active network, the identity and agency of digital access points, but also to the reader who, by the very nature of the digital text, is a member of the network. We are not only being convinced of our implication and imbrication within the system, but also encouraged to think of various resistances against this network. Mez seeks to resist various digital capitalist enterprises through the use of her various avatars, as well as exploring language and its role in creating both physical and digital bodies.

Much of the text that makes up _the data][h!][bleeding texts_ engages the ethereal nature of the internet, using language to explore the myriad of possibilites for identity creation in virtual environments. Bearing in mind that this work is from the year 2000, Breeze’s work is connected to early hypertext and digital media theory,  with its characteristic utopian predictions for the internet. I would add, though, that Mez’s work interrogates the role of language for our everyday existence, not only for virtual life. Biopower and biopolitical production relies on language, and Mez interrogates this language through mezangelle. In part two of _the data][h!][bleeding texts_, a section titled “LOGGIN 2 NETWORK,” explores the role of language in constructing bodies and identities:

/me torques masculine, feminine traits n.stead of
absolutes, jigsaws instead of gen][re][ders

/me resets the Gender _Distinct.ion_ Button

/me wishes 4 a genderless ID, identic.caul
twinned balances and life
n r gees

/me carves a sexless frame from jen’s air, a
sculpture of both faces,
act.u.all

/me molds a ivory stamp with the letters “Print
Writers” backwards, mea washes her brow less
face, her n.oh.sent code

/me confers, her body light and silicon bright

Mez searches for a genderless existence, recognizing the unfortunate and sometimes dire consequences for females in a biopolitical society. As Foucault notes, biopower works through regulating norms, through normalizing and regulating the body, which women are far more frequently the target of.

Through an exploration of identity in online spaces, Mez turns to the transformative powers of language play in order to highlight issues of power and gender, much like feminist writers like Kathy Acker. Although writing in a digital environment, Mez’s writing recognizes the materiality of not only language, but also of our bodies. Words such as Fleshtronic, textsenze, and wurdskin call to mind the blending of the body blending with the text, the materiality of writing. Furthermore, this connection between the language and the body insists on the return to materiality in contemporary writing, as observed by Christopher Breu in “The Insistence of the Material: Theorizing Materiality and Biopolitics in the Era of Globalization.” He writes,

While much of the materialist work on embodiment emphasizes the way in which the opposition between language and the material body can be undone, I want to lay stress in the other direction: that in order for us to fully attend to the materiality of our bodies, we need to insist on the ways in which the materiality of language and the materiality of the body not only interpenetrate and merge (particularly in the construction of our imaginary bodies), but are also importantly distinct and sometimes form in opposition to each other. (6)

Mez is crucially aware of this connection, and in turning to mezangelle, she stresses the importance of language for constructing bodies, in virtual and “real” spaces. Mez sees an emancipatory power in the network, in the ability to construct a multitude of identities online. Furthermore, through infecting language with programming code, Mez is pointedly aware of how code operates on all levels of everyday life.

Lastly, I want to discuss biopolitics as it is explicitly introduced in _the data][h!][bleeding texts_. Breeze explicitly discusses genetic engineering in a section of part four entitled "Po[E].ST War[ning].” Part four is ostensibly about gods, devils, angels, and demons; the link here is in our apparent desire to play god through technology of genetic engineering and cloning. In his article “Re: The Fact That I Am Fiction”: Mary-Anne Breeze, Her Avatars, and the Transformation of Identity,” John Reep states that “Breeze goes even further in her condemnation of genetic engineering, likening it to the eugenics programs of Nazi Germany” (11). This occurs in the aforementioned part four:

/Post Awe­ganic..........
[1 gets their teeth knocked bac + N­other buttered by baron wingz + nother
victim of a chant resplendent in a nazi gooze[hop & bashe &]bumpish step]
[mbedded in2 a schemata of hate = awareness lost N licked by the gellmass
core.poor.8 = stitched uppe suitez & sue[t]ings commonplace::
IF ewe = suit s[l]ick, then + ————­+ + + +==== Ignore::displacement, devil.ution, desperation Mbrace::slick IT regurgitation, eek[!].o[g]nomic augmentation.

This passage illustrates Breeze’s suspicion of current biotechnologies which only seek to further normalize the population. Just as her codework utilizes language to interrogate identity, so too does her writing explore biotechnologies which ultimately serve to further construct identities and subjectivities. Here I would like to turn to John Reep again, in detail, as he effectively sums up the link between Breeze’s suspicion of genetic engineering and its role for biopower:

Breeze's analogy of the Nazi eugenics programs and the emerging technology of genetic engineering underscores Breeze's suspicion of those who desire to normalize populations, making it easier to rally them around programs and policies with as few dissenters as possible. Cloning, genetic engineering, and similar technologies do not simply resolve a lack in one's self­ perception as avatar creation might, but, instead, promote the resolution of a lack that capitalist institutions try to persuade us exists. Encouraging people to transform themselves—whether it be the clothes they wear, their hair, their weight, skin color, etc.—in order to conform to a proposed standard of "normality" can make it easier for corporations and governments to manipulate the wants and desires of vast groups of people. (12)

Thus, codework for Mez becomes a way in which to resist normalizing, a process of biopower which as been co-opted by capitalist institutions in order to sell products that are supposedly needed by the mass population. Mez creates a multitude of identities, and posits codework as a way of interrogating normalizing language, in order to resist this very same process. If a nebulous, diverse identity is possible in digital environments, it becomes much harder to normalize this diverse set of people. Of course, biopower is not only executed by code via tracking our online identities, but also in the various ways in which surveillance has become the norm in our contemporary, digitized world. I will now turn to works of electronic literature which explicitly illuminate surveillance and its impact on bodies.

Surveillance and Biopower

In late 2012, an anonymous source asking to be called “Cincinnatus” contacted the journalist Glenn Greenwald, stating that there were “sensitive documents” which needed to be revealed. Following this, in January of 2013, Edward Snowden contacted documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, after having read an article written by Greenwald about Poitras’s film about NSA whistleblower William Binney, wherein Greenwald’s article stated that Poitras was then made a “target of the government.” Finally on 20 May, 2013, the initial articles based on Snowden’s information were published, on The Guardians website. Although this is not the place for an in-depth history of the Snowden leaks, it is important to state the key revelations. Snowden’s information documented the existence and various reasons behind classified surveillance programs, operating within a global surveillance network, composed of the United States’ NSA, Australia’s ASD, the United Kingdom’s GCHQ, and Canada’s CSEC.

The first program revealed was PRISM, which allows for a “court-approved, front-door access to Americans’ Google and Yahoo accounts. According to the summary on Wikipedia, the “initial reports included details about NSA call database, Boundless Informant, and of a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand the NSA millions of Americans’ phone records daily.” Further, in his first interview published by the Guardian on June 10, and transcribed in a Greenwald article, Snowden says of his job at the NSA, “I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” Key to the NSA’s surveillance, then, and detailed by Snowden, is the role of digital technology in these surveillance programs. The online presence of Americans and, presumably, people from all over the world, appears to be fair game for government surveillance programs. If digital media makes it easier to destroy our privacy, then certainly digital media artwork can provide an “aesthetic resistance.” Of course, as Houen has argued, “aesthetic practices are clearly weak as forces to use as means of disrupting actual networks of biopower and sovereignty. That said, they can provide potent means of fighting the effects of these networks within ourselves” (np). A work like Andy Campbell and Mez Breeze’s #PRISOM, which I will discuss below, provide this sort of aesthetic response as a means of fighting the effects of these networks of digital surveillance; in this case, fighting these effects come in the form of educating an audience, for the purpose of creating a more discerning, critical group on individuals.

The link between biopolitics and surveillance is found in the desire for control over the bodies of a population. As we have seen, the control of the population is contingent on digital technology. As many aspects of our lives are inevitably located within virtual and online spaces––be it in the way we shop or share information with friends––it is certainly easier to codify our behaviour, making it easier to track our movement and growth as a population. Indeed, in the article “Surveillance and Biopolitics,” Btihaj Ajana discusses the various digital technologies and the codification of bodies and parts within this system:

Electronic technologies are seen to be intensifying the ‘capacity’ and ubiquity of surveillance creating ‘new’ forms of social control. Not that the newness of the current modes of surveillance is to be regarded from a merely ontological vantage point and especially not as ‘a shift to a new type of society’ (Rose, 1999: 237) per se but more so from the epistemic informationisation [sic] and hybridisation [sic] of control and monitoring facilitated by the spread of digital technologies which lend to the emerging trends of surveillance their label of newness while sustaining the existing status quo of society. Examples of these technologies include DNA fingerprinting, electronic tagging, drug testing, health scans, biometric ID cards and passports, smart closed circuit television, etc, all of which rely on algorithmic techniques as well as ‘body parts’ in order to perform their function of surveillance. (np)

Thus, the digital technology which is constantly sold to us under the guise of improving our lives through simplifying our day to day activities, allowing for more free time, all the while providing the means of tracking and controlling our behaviours. Surveillance, then, is a form of biopower as governments systemically remove the privacy of its citizens while maintaining the illusion of freedom and security. In what follows, I will discuss #PRISOM, a work of electronic literature which interrogates the role of surveillance in our lives, portraying a bleak future in which the status quo is a world in which everything is transparent and privacy no longer exists.

#PRISOM and Privacy

#PRISOM, created by Andy Campbell and Mez Breeze, places the user in a 3D environment via a regular browser or a download of the program, and with very little instruction asks users to explore a virtual world. The creators call the work a “Synthetic Reality Game where a player is set loose in a Glass City under infinite surveillance” (#PRISOM website). The work has proved to be quite successful for the creators, winning a Digital Humanities 2013 Award for Best DH visualization or infographic. The strong presence of written text within the work, as well as Mez Breeze’s strong in the field, allows me to classify this work as a piece of electronic literature, one which takes full advantage of the digital medium in order to forcefully deliver a message. Indeed, electronic literature must be understood as doing something more than just replicating print literature, and that is exactly what #PRISOM can be said to do. The work is a strong argument against the systemic stripping of civil liberties in the United States, of which the Snowden leaks made the general public aware of.

Edward Snowden’s leaking of information revealed the existence of PRISM, a “clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program launched in 2007 by the National Security Agency (NSA)” (Wikipedia). PRISM collected stored information from internet communications, collected via demands made on major companies such as Google and Yahoo. #PRISOM, then, is a direct response to the Snowden reveal; indeed, the term PRISOM is a portmanteau created by combining PRISM and prison. Furthermore, the name calls to attention the prismatic nature of our supposedly secure communications online. #PRISOM takes this virtual surveillance as its groundwork, creating a virtual game wherein the player wanders through an actualized, “synthetic” world composed of tall, transparent glass buildings. Everything is visible in #PRISOM at all times, as everything in the world is made of glass. Privacy does not exist in this prison, then, and the user is made to wander through this virtual environment confronting various thematic scenarios involving surveillance, sousveillance, propaganda, drones, and CCTV security systems. In what follows, I will explore #PRISOM in detail, arguing that the work makes use of digital technology in order to deliver an argument against biopolitical surveillance and the current, pervasive ‘state of exception’ which repeatedly sees the stripping away of civil liberties in the name of freedom.      

#PRISOM begins with the player’s avatar placed on a barren platform, watching a strange, hovering transport ship fly away into the grey sky. The player is surrounded by various marionettes: mannequin-like, featureless beings, marked entirely in black. Unable to interact with these other “prisomers,” the player is prompted to press “H” for help. Doing so, the following text appears. I reproduce this text in length here, as it provides the context from which this game was born:

 #HELP
So you need help already, huh?
That didn’t take long.
Let’s face it: we could all do with some help at this point in history, with rampant removal of civil liberties, awful privacy violations, increasing surveillance and widespread totalitarian-leaning propaganda masquerading as media. Really, it’s no wonder you want help…
But #PRISOM isn’t the place to turn to for help.
It’s part blinding maze and part prison. #PRISOM is the place we’ll all end up if we continue to ignore the systemic stripping of our rights as human beings.

The work directly responds to the PRISM program, then, but it never states that it will help. Rather, the creators provide a virtual representation of the various privacy violations happening daily on the world wide web. With a program like PRISM, our digital lives are exposed, and we are all blind marionettes walking in a city of glass, our experiences visible by anyone intent on watching. As the player walks down the only path available, it is apparent that this location functions as a prison of sorts for those operating against the force of the sovereign “ConTROLLers.” As the player quickly learns, there is no way out of this prison.

If #PRISOM were to only accomplish one thing (and to be clear, it accomplishes much more), it is to foster a more discerning, critical player; in this case, the goal is for the user to walk away from the experience more aware of her interactions and experiences online, and more critical of various user tracking algorithms which are irrevocably pervasive on the internet. The reality here is that there is only a small step from Google tracking your search history in order to provide more individualized ads, to the rampant invasion of privacy when this information is accessed by the government. Not only should we be hyper-aware of how our social networking is repeatedly commercialized and quantified online, but now too we must realize that our own liberty and freedom is at stake. In a passage which must be replicated at length, Mark Andrejevic discusses the commodification and quantification of social networking and why we should be alarmed, in his article “Control over Personal Information in the Database Era”:

The burgeoning popularity of social networking sites replicates this logic: it represents the migration of increasingly popular forms of socializing and communication into commercially owned and operated network infrastructures. This is not to diminish the new and clearly popular forms of socializing such networks make possible. Rather, it is to  point out that they represent the galloping privatization of realms of social life that were once, for the most part, beyond the monitoring gaze of marketers and the state agencies that seek access to private sector databases. It is also to point out that the new frontiers in socializing pioneered by social networking sites and other networked forms of socialization take place within a commercial model based on the collection of comprehensive data about whom users stay in touch with, whom they contact most frequently and how. Such networks make possible the construction of comprehensive data portraits of our social lives. They also facilitate the commercial saturation of our social interactions. The Royal Mail does not insert targeted advertising appeals in our personal correspondence – and it does not track the details of our prose in order to target those ads more effectively. Google does. (324)

These are the precise issues which #PRISOM aims to make us aware of. Not only this, the work encourages us to not be complacent with this repeated stripping away of liberties. Ultimately, it is easy to brush aside the ability for Google to personalize advertisements based on our search history, for instance, but this is only the tip of the iceberg, the rather benevolent instantiation of our ongoing degradation of privacy. The fact that the US government (among others) has access to this information is alarming, but if we are to properly take issue with this we should also begin with the source: that is, the systemic and pervasive tracking of our digital lives.

As #PRISOM is a game, there are certain experiences that the player must encounter if she wishes to see an ‘end-game’ scenario. There are several locations scattered throughout the virtual world which allow for interaction. These locations can be broken into two distinct types: (1) laptops scattered throughout the world which allow the player to look through a drone’s camera and, (2) various propaganda billboards which, when approached, offer a scenario requiring the player to input an ‘answer.’ Let me first start with discussing the scattered laptops. When approached, a prompt appears stating that the player can take on the point-of-view of various drones throughout the world by pressing the buttons 2 through 9 (with the 1 returning the player to the regular view mode). Each individual drone is accompanied by a small poem-like text discussing the role of drones and surveillance. Pressing 2 brings up the following text:

PRESS 1-9 TO EYE-JACK DRONES
_ENGAGING GEOMONITORING SEQUENCE…
_WHISTE BLOWING DAMPENERS: ENGAGED.
_ACKHANISTAN WAR DIARY: SANITISED.
###############################################
#EYEJACKING COMPLETE WELL DONE, EYEJACKER. #
###############################################
[WHEN THE CONTROLLER FORMATTERS COME FOR US, WE’LL BE…
LIVING IN NON-SURVEILLANCE LUDDITE HEAPS]

In the world of #PRISOM, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden are the target of droned surveillance, presumably ‘dampened’ out before they have the opportunity to speak out. The purpose of these Eye-Jack stations is ambiguous, though; were they left there by the ConTROLLers? Or, rather, does the presence of the final two lines, which discuss the rejection go digital technology as the only means of escaping pervasive surveillance, are the drones being hacked by some sort of group of freedom fighters? Unfortunately, we never do find out, but our interaction with the laptops is limited: we can only look through these various screens, observing what the drones see but never able to fully control them.

The other areas of interaction in #PRISOM are those that first appear as simple billboards with propaganda messages. Those billboards ask those ‘citizens’ of the Prisom not to engage in any sort of resistance, as the ConTROLLers are simply limiting privacy for the greater good (FIG 1).



Fig. 1. Image of #PRISOM. This billboard suggests that the role of Prisom is in “Securing your privacy; one liberty at a time.”

This billboard is, of course, a direct response to the US government’s reasoning behind programs like PRISM. That is, in order to properly provide security for its citizens, a government must systemically remove certain liberties. This access to information is what, according to the government and its various security programs, allows better protection and, thus, citizens should not be so concerned with the removing of liberties.

As players get closer to these billboards, a holographic projection appears underneath. These projections, and there are many of them in the game, offer up a scenario and request input from the player. According to the “Resources” pages found on #PRISOMs website, these scenarios “stem from real-life scenarios, including the ongoing unconstitutional treatment and [in some cases] incarceration of those keen to expose the nature of heavily surveilled and overtly monitored societies.” The inclusion of these real-life scenarios further illustrate the pervasiveness of surveillance in our current world, made all the more prevalent by the ubiquity of digital technology. When confronted with these scenarios, the player is offered a choice, and presses either the Z or X key to choose an answer. It is painfully obvious which choice should result in a  positive outcome for the player; each scenario presents one choice which favours on the side of the ConTROLLer, and one which reacts against. These situations serve to illuminate the nature and pervasiveness of surveillance for contemporary American life. More to the point, though, these scenarios all provide examples of how those citizens who speak up and out against these controlling forces are usually silenced, in one way or another. For example, Edward Snowden is currently in exile in Hong Kong, in a country that will not extradite him to the United States. Although it has not been made explicit, it is apparent that Snowden would be prosecuted for whistleblowing should he return to the United States. This is precisely the issue: we may have become aware of these injustices perpetrated by various governments throughout the world, but speaking out and reacting against these forces puts us in further danger of losing our individual freedoms. The scenarios portrayed in #PRISOM are all based on real-world events, and should give us pause when thinking about current digital surveillance. Figure 2 illustrates one particular scenario found in the game:



Fig. 2. Image from #PRISOM. This scenario asks you to think of yourself as running an email service which falls under the purview of the ConTROLLer’s surveillance. Pressing ‘Z’ has the player giving in to the demands of the sovereign power, while ‘X’ has the player resisting the ConTROLLer’s authority.

The above scenario is just one example, but the player is confronted with a number of different situations. It quickly becomes clear that choosing the Z option should lead to a better end-game scenario for the player, while choosing to rebel against the authority might lead to further incarceration of the player’s avatar. Ultimately, though, the ending of the game is extremely bleak no matter the answers selected.

At the start of the game, there is a number five in the bottom right-hand portion of the screen. If the player chooses the pro-authority ‘Z’ option, this number decreased by one. If the player reacts against authority, the number increases by one. When the number gets down to either one, or up to number ten, a backwards, translucent “321” appears on the screen and the end-game voiceover begins. Regardless of the path taken and choices made by the player, the player will always end up as ConTROLLer 123. There are subtle differences between the three voice-overs that make up the three different endings of the game, but ultimately the player is reduced to being another cog in the biopolitical surveillance machine. In what follows, I will reproduce the three different voiceovers as heard from each different pathway through the game. These transcriptions were provided by Mez Breeze in an email communication I had with her during the time of my writing, as I wanted to make sure I was seeing all the possible endings myself. Breeze outlines the three different endings as such:

1. ConTROLLer-angled ending: “You have now successfully completed the Re-Education process through your interactions in Prisom. Congratulations. Your indoctrination is now complete. Your reward is a permement upgrade to ConTROLLer status through an irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-laden, exclusive, perpetual license to revoke all your remaining personal rights and all associated civil liberties. Welcome, ConTROLLer123.”
2. ResisTOR-angled ending: “Your Re-Education session is now finished. Your attempts to revise your ResisTOR status have been unsuccessful through your interactions in Prisom. Your punishment is a permanent upgrade to ConTROLLer status through an irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-laden, exclusive, perpetual license to revoke all your remaining personal rights and all associated civil liberties. Your consciousness has now been claimed as part of the ConTROLLer Drone Mind. Welcome, ConTROLLer123.”
3. Finishing-all-posters-angled ending: Your Re-Education is now terminated. Your attempts to revise your ResisTOR status have been only partially successful through your interactions in Prisom. Your punishment is a permanent upgrade to ConTROLLer status through an irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-laden, exclusive, perpetual license to revoke all your remaining personal rights and all associated civil liberties. Your consciousness has now been claimed as part of the ConTROLLer Drone Mind. Welcome, ConTROLLer123.”

There are subtle differences between these three endings. In complying with the Prisom program, the player is lauded and congratulated for joining the ConTROLLer ranks. The final two answers, then, are heard when the player resists the Prisom program; now, the player is still relegated to the role of ConTROLLer123, but this time it is a punishment for not perpetuating the system, for not maintaining the status quo. Indeed, as soon as your avatar is dropped into the game world, a hovering drone approaches you and lights up with the number 123. In this system, you will be broken, no matter your actions; you are ConTROLLer123 before you make any choices for yourself. For Campbell and Breeze, then, the ongoing elimination of civil liberties and freedoms will ultimately lead to a world in which everyone is indoctrinated, remaining civil rights and liberties are revoked, and the biopolitical power of the authority cannot be challenged or destroyed.
The final message of #PRISOM, then, the apparent bleak forecast provided when the player is always relegated to the position of ConTROLLer123, is that if you are complacent in Prisom-like systems, which for Mez is “currently happening in Australia and has already manifested elsewhere in so-called democratic countries” (e-mail conversation), there is very little chance and hope to remove yourself from this surveillance system. Despite this bleak final message, there is a snippet of hope found in the game. This embedded hope is found in the “Tips” screen via the Help menu. The “Tips” screen reads as follows:

Walk your dog. If you don’t have one, walk your neighbour’s dog [with permission, obviously]. Learn your neighbour’s names [when you offer to walk their dog?]. Absorb. Get decent sleep. Learn their lyrics. Discard all of the previous advice occasionally and just tilt. Listen. Be responsible. Love the small[nesses]. Share. Smile at strangers. Help anyone or anything you can, for no reason other than their presence. Dream. Listen some more. Laugh frequently. Nurture your emotional intelligence as much as you do your intellect. Imagine. Create. Play. Empathize. Learn constantly. Read, especially the fine print. Hell, read any non-propagandized print that’ll help you understand how insidious the removal of civil liberties can be, and how to combat the process. (np)

According to Mez, again via an email conversation, the tips text “indicates the level of micro-connectedness, via community and simple interactions/intentions, that can help (or at least fundamentally alter) these types of scenarios from occurring.” These are only a small sample of ways in which these biopolitical surveillance scenarios can be combated. Indeed, #PRISOM’s website provides a list of online resources such as “NSA Surveillance: A Guide to Staying Secure.” There is hope, then, and this hope is dispersed through the proliferation of education and knowledge, on making citizens more discerning, critical agents.

#PRISOM provides an illustrative example of the ways in which electronic literature can utilize digital technology in order to effectively render an argument. While still keeping written textuality at the heart of the work, the gameplay is familiar to anyone who has played a First Person Shooter (FPS) video game before. FPSs are one of the most popular video game genres, but #PRISOM subverts many of the traditional characteristics of the genre. The usual level of control for the player is not found in #PRISOM. Indeed, the game is extremely clunky and the player’s avatar is difficult to control. Platforms which rapidly shoot the player across the world, or up into the sky toward the top of one of the buildings; the player is unable to seamlessly control the avatar, which of course is a cardinal sin in video game development. This lack of control represents the apparent real-world lack of control and agency in a post-industrial, biopolitical society. In a surveillance society, we are all reduced to faceless mannequins, unable to positively impact the world around us in any meaningful way. In essence, the game of #PRISOM is really less of a game and more of a digital literary experience which thrusts upon us the opportunity to think through the future of our digital (and physical) lives. I feel it best to end with the words of electronic literature author Alan Bigelow’s online review of #PRISOM: “This is a most ambitious work . . . with a piece that delivers a political message within the framework of a game that is actually no game at all - it’s the serious business of where do we all go from here.”

Works Cited

Agamben, Georgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Ajana, Btihaj. “Surveillance and Biopolitics.” Electronic Journal of Sociology (2005): np.
Andrejevic, Mark. “Control over Personal Information in the Database Era.” Surveillance & Society 6.3 (2009): np.
Bogard, William. “Surveillance assemblages and lines of flight.” Theorizing Surveillance. Ed. David Lyon. New York: Routledge, 2011. np. Online.
Breeze, Mez. _the data][h!][bleeding texts_. 2001. http://netwurkerz.de/mez/datableed/complete/index.htm                           
Breu, Christopher. “The Insistence of the Material: Theorizing Materiality and Biopolitics in the Era of Globalization.” Globalization Working Papers 12.2 (2012): 1-20. http://globalization.mcmaster.ca
Campbell, Andy and Mez Breeze. #PRISOM. (2014)http://dreamingmethods.com/prisom/.
de Boever, Arne. Narrative Care: Biopolitics and the Novel. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Federman, Raymond. “Critifictional Reflections on the Pathetic Condition of the Novel in Our Time.” symploke 12.1-2 (2004): 155-170.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.
—. “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity.” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: The New Press, 1994. 163-175.
geniwate. “Language rules.” electronic book review. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/writingpostfeminism/programmed (accessed 10 March, 2015).
Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Heckman, Davin. “Literature in a State of Emergency. electronic book review. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/emergency. (accessed 10 March, 2015)
Houen, Alex. “Sovereignty, Biopolitics, and the Use of Literature: Michel Foucault and Kathy Acker.” Theory and Event 9.1 (2006): np. Online.
Lemke, Thomas. Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 2011. 
Mackenzie, Adrian and Theo Vurdubakis. “Codes and Codings in Crisis: Signification, Performativity, and Excess.” Theory, Culture & Society 28.6 (2011): 3-23.
Negri, Antonio. Art and Multitude. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.
Negri, Antonio and Michael Hardt. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
—. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
Raley, Rita. 2002. “Interferences: [Net.Writing] and the Practice of Codework.” electronic book review. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/v3/servlet/ebr?command=view_essay&essay_id=rayleyele (accessed 10 March, 2015).
Rasmussen, Eric Dean. “Senseless Resistances: Feeling the Friction in Fiction.” electronic book review. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/fictionspresent/gathered (accessed 10 March, 2015).
Reep, John. “Re: The Fact That I Am Fiction”: Mary-Anne Breeze, Her Avatars, and the Transformation of Identity.” Post-Identity 4.1 (2004): np. Online.
Strehovic, Janez. “E-Literary Text in the Nomadic Cockpit.” electronic book review. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/cockpit (accessed 10 March, 2015).
—. “The E-Literary World and the Social.” electronic book review. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/social (accessed 10 March, 2015).

Refbacks

  • There are currently no refbacks.


Penn StateOpen Access