Weather Permitting:Shelley Jackson's Snow and the Ecopoetics of the Digital
If experimental literature consistently challenges us to think through the relations between language and the social, how might experimental electronic literature likewise challenge us to think through those relations within the context of the digital in particular? What unique critical purchase might the experimental dimensions of electronic literature provide on the political, and moreover on the politics of the digital? In this paper I pursue these questions through Shelley Jackson's Snow, an ongoing work consisting of images that Jackson has posted to the social media site Instagram since 2014. Each photograph in Snow (of which there are 428 at the time of this writing) documents a single word carved in snow by Jackson; taken together, these words form the beginning of an as-yet-unfinished story, thus far largely comprised of a girl's monologue describing different types of snow.
I suggest in this essay that Snow is a slow-media intervention into the temporal dynamics of technology and ecology. Jackson's slow publication of the text subverts the normative temporality of social media, locating and implicating it within the longue durée of geologic time. Collapsing text and image, her multilayered inscriptions take snow as both message and medium, and as suggested by the gaps, pauses, and delays in her feed—moments where there is no snow to write in and photograph—the project's implication of social media is not only narrative but also material and ecological. On one hand, these images capture and preserve a series of profoundly ephemeral inscriptions, words written in snow that are otherwise deeply subject to the contingencies of local and global climate change. Yet viewed in light of the increasing ecological impact of data centers built by major technology corporations, this digital preservation is itself an ecologically fraught practice. In an uncanny double bind of the digital archive, the preservation of snow within Jackson's project—every image, every like, every comment—cannot be separated from the ecological depletion of that same snow. I situate Snow at the intersection of critical thinking about ecological change, electronic literature, media studies, and experimental writing, arguing for the ways in which the inscription that Jackson's work exemplifies serves as a critically productive means for thinking through ecomedia aesthetics and the stakes of the Anthropocene. At the overlap of these multiple complementary practices, Snow stages an urgent engagement with the relations between text and image, heat and cold, nature and infrastructure.
TOWARD A POLITICS OF DIGITAL POETICS
Is all electronic literature also experimental literature? The scholarly tradition around this genre, focusing on how the capacities of computing technology allow for effects including nonlinearity, interactivity, multimodality, and readerly play, certainly suggests as much.1 Loss Pequeño Glazier draws this connection at a foundational level in Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries, the first book-length study of digital poetry. Glazier situates digital literary experimentation within a lineage of experimental authors interrogating the medium and materiality of writing: "From Blake's investigation of image and text … to Ezra Pound's typographic imagination, to the efforts of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan to argue the relation between the typewriter's machinations and the work itself, materiality is key to understanding innovative practice" (2002, 22). For Glazier, this concern with materiality is a crucial prehistory for the emergence of digital poetics. His focus on materiality—the ways in which the physical affordances of a work's medium relate to its meaning—opens the door to a capacious theory of digital textuality as intrinsically experimental in its material workings, or at least potentially so. [End Page 67]
Indeed, while it would be erroneous to understand every unit of digital text—every email, every text message, every tweet, and so on—as experimental, they are all, in the terms of this special issue, profoundly lively words. N. Katherine Hayles suggests that the emergence of digital textuality in the late twentieth century produced "an important shift in the plate tectonics of language" (1999, 30). Building on the instabilities of Lacan's floating signifiers, she understands all digital writing as composed of "flickering signifiers, characterized by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and dispersions" (30, emphasis original).2 Hayles's theory here responds both to the overall workings of digital textuality and to the first generation of electronic literature authors who deployed these workings for literary effect, including Michael Joyce (Twelve Blue, 1996), Talan Memmott (Lexia to Perplexia, 2000), Brian Kim Stefans (The Dreamlife of Letters, 2000), and Shelley Jackson (Patchwork Girl, 1995). Of this early wave of electronic literature, Jackson's work is the most foundational: Patchwork Girl remixes the Frankenstein myth as a way of thinking about the implications of digital textuality for narrative, gender, and the body, combining excerpts of Mary Shelley's original novel, L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz, and Jackson's own fictional writings detailing the relationship between Shelley and her female monster alongside text by Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, and others. Patchwork Girl is not only a "culminating work for the classical period" of electronic literature (Hayles 2008, 7) but also the beginning of Jackson's career-long unfolding of the material, literary, and embodied relations between text and technology. As I demonstrate in greater depth below, Jackson's work is crucial in making clear that while print writing might be disruptive, unstable, and open-ended at the discursive level, digital writing is, at the material level; the digital tends toward the mutable, toward disjuncture, in a way that is not always the case for print, even in its most experimental incarnations. In contrast to most print inscriptions, digital text exists unstably in real time: it is both material and malleable, interactive, mobile, distributable, simulacral, ephemeral.3
As with a certain strain of its print experimental predecessors, then, electronic literature necessarily figures the relations between language and textual materiality, yet it does so moreover precisely through the instability and mutability of digital information itself. Given this condition, how might electronic literature consequently also serve as a means of immanent political critique? Since its emergence within mainstream literary and academic discourse in the [End Page 68] early 1990s, electronic literature has often been dismissed for reasons similar to those that face experimental literature, seen as too taken with the abstract, apolitical bells and whistles of new media's form and functionality to allow for meaningful political intervention. This special issue both marks and extends a recent return to reading literary experimentation in relation to politics, undergirded by an urgent understanding that experimental practices are at once both newly relevant and newly necessary within and against the backdrop of an expanding neoliberal world order. If experimental literature consistently challenges us to think through the relations between language and the social, how might experimental electronic literature likewise challenge us to think through those relations within the context of the digital in particular? What unique critical purchase might the experimental dimensions of electronic literature provide on the political, and moreover on the politics of the digital itself?
In taking up these questions below, I argue that electronic literature's purchase on the political is possible precisely because of its focus on formal experimentation rather than in spite of it. Just as electronic literature's lively experimentality derives from the specific formal conditions of its technological materiality, so too does its political potentiality. Caroline Levine has recently argued that literary and cultural critics should see structure and infrastructure as closely intertwined: she suggests, for example, that "racism is … as much or more infrastructural than the electric grid or water supply" (2015a, 600). For Levine, reading for form (particularly as it is understood in the case of the realist novel) provides a powerful tool for understanding structure, infrastructure, and the political forces that derive from their interdependence. "Forms," she writes, "are the stuff of politics. … Attending to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power" (2015b, 3, 7, emphasis original). If we understand the internet as perhaps the crucial infrastructure of the twenty-first century, then electronic literature is uniquely suited to provide critical purchase on infrastructural and political questions precisely because it is inextricable from that infra-structure—not only from the information on our screens, but also from the whole system of undersea cables, data centers, server racks, satellites, wireless towers, special economic zones, factories, supply chains, e-waste graveyards, and other objects and sites, all urgently in need of political critique. Indeed, while literary form can be about infrastructure, as Levine suggests, digital form in particular is [End Page 69] inseparable from that infrastructure in a unique way. While a print book requires the infrastructures of print publishing to find its way into our hands, once we obtain it, we no longer need those infrastructures to consume and engage with it. Yet without a complex and constantly changing set of digital infrastructures (hardware, software, and network connectivity, to name just a few overarching categories), many digital texts run the risk of becoming inaccessible, obsolete, and in some cases all but nonexistent. Digital literary form has the potential to be the stuff of politics, then, precisely because infrastructure, with all of its profound political implications, is the stuff of digital form.
In this essay, I consider Jackson's ongoing project Snow (2014–present) as an experimental work of electronic literature that self-reflexively experiments with form, interrogating its own status as digital writing in order to consider the ecopolitics of digital technology from the microscopic scale of the word, the typographic character, and the byte, to the macroscopic scale of global media and planetary climate. Snow consists of images that Jackson has posted to the Instagram account @snowshelleyjackson over roughly the past four years, beginning on January 22, 2014, with the most recent post as of this writing on November 17, 2018. There are 433 images to date, each of which documents a single word carved into snow in a serif font, presumably by Jackson herself (see figures 1 and 2). Taken together, these words form the beginning of an as-yet-unfinished story, thus far largely comprising a monologue describing different types of snow, delivered by an unnamed girl who cries snowflakes. This monologue details a kind of magical realist catalog, not by way of anthropologist Franz Boas, who is credited with originating the cliché of Aleutians having many words for snow, but rather by way of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, the fictional Chinese encyclopedia of arbitrary, incommensurable categories imagined by Jorge Luis Borges. Much as Borges divides animals into categories including "(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids" (1952, 231), and so on, in Snow there are snows made of clock faces and circular slide rules, of the unread letters of unloved lovers, snow made of the golden crumbs of sleep, snow that sings like a million meadowlarks when it falls in an avalanche, snow that conceives of a more perfect snow and thus itself never falls.
Snow exemplifies an emergent moment of critically and self-critically engaged digital literary production that provides an urgently [End Page 70]
needed response to the wide-ranging social and political implications of global computing.4 In Snow, Jackson self-reflexively traces the relations among digital textuality, visual culture, narrative form, media infrastructure, global warming, and geologic time. Her project rigorously interrogates its own materiality and its own ecological implications, not only through textual content, or even [End Page 71]
through form in the conventional print literary sense, but rather through digital mediation—in Snow, she engages technology in order to engage ecology, and moreover to engage technology's place within and impact upon that ecology, imagining the stakes of the digital within the Anthropocene. In this sense, the project mediates between the politics and poetics of experimental writing that give this special issue its name and the discourse that Brian Larkin describes as the politics and poetics of infrastructure. Larkin suggests that attending to the poetics of infrastructure "allows us to understand how the political can be constituted through different means. … It also means being alive to the formal dimensions of infrastructures, understanding what sort of semiotic objects they are, and determining how they address and constitute subjects, as well as their technical operations" (2013, 329).5 For Jackson, imagining the poetics of infrastructure is inseparable from imagining the infrastructure of poetics—both reside within the configurations of physical apparatus that sustain her project as well as the seemingly uncountable global traffic in digital information. Thus in its critical poetic engagement with infrastructure, Snow also contributes to a growing body of work in ecomedia, a genre that includes both critical and creative practice, and that encompasses works of media [End Page 72] art that engage questions of ecology and environment as well as interrogations of the environmental impact of media technologies themselves.6
In the sections that follow, I show how Jackson connects the domains of aesthetic form, materiality, infrastructure, and ecology in Snow. In doing so, I work to forge corresponding connections among ecocritical thinking on the Anthropocene, media theory and media archaeology, and the study of experimental literature, arguing for the ways in which the inscription that Snow exemplifies serves as a critically productive means for thinking through ecomedia aesthetics and the stakes of the Anthropocene. By approaching inscription as a common concern across these domains—as a materialist literary practice, as the storage and circulation of digital information, and as a means of interchange between human and nonhuman agents in the global environment—I suggest we might not only see these domains and their connections more capaciously, but also begin to see avenues of critical response and engagement within the intersections among them. I begin by considering how Snow's experimental work as an intermedia text deploys form to imagine the politics of time and the planetary within a digital context: situating the piece within the context of Jackson's work since the 1990s as an experimental media author, I show how the project mediates between print and digital aesthetics and textual and visual modalities. These interstitial practices, I argue, bear upon the temporality of both reading and writing in the project, and in doing so they serve as a foundation upon which Jackson foregrounds Snow's contingent and complicit position as a microscopic digital text within the macroscopic scale of global warming and planetary time. In the following section, I turn to the relations between inscriptive form and global media infrastructure within and around Jackson's project. I locate Snow within an uncanny, self-reflexive ecological double bind of the digital archive, in which its operations of digital preservation and memory cannot be disentangled from operations of depletion and the incremental warming of the global climate. Scale is again a crucial category of analysis here: tracing this tension from Snow's singular images to the wider reaches of digital infrastructure and planetary ecology, I argue that Jackson's project exemplifies a crucial kind of Anthropocene inscription, with a past defined by deep time and a future defined by profound uncertainty.7 Finally, drawing on the work of Jane Bennett and Karen Barad, I read Snow as a text of nonhuman entanglement that figures the ecological and political [End Page 73] connections among human inscription, digital materiality, and ecological change. To understand Jackson's work along these lines, I suggest, is to understand ecological criticism and experimental writing through one another; such a dialogue allows us to expand the scope of how we might understand experimental writing in ways that grant us greater sensitivity to the inscriptive and climatic relations between humans and their environment.
Through my consideration of Jackson's work below, I suggest that while electronic literature's experimental dimensions might provide valuable critical purchase on any number of political questions, the ecological implications of digital technology itself are at once both electronic literature's most immediate critical target and perhaps its most urgent one. Demonstrating this concurrence, Jackson offers in Snow a model for experimental media writing that is critically engaged not only with ecology broadly understood, but also with the ecological impact of digital media infrastructure. At the overlap of multiple complementary practices—experimental writing, electronic literature, and ecomedia—Snow stages an urgent engagement with the relations between text and image, heat and cold, nature and infrastructure. By reflexively situating digital production within its environmental context, Jackson imagines a poetics of the digital that is acutely, critically aware of its own ecological impact precisely because it can never step outside of it.
INTERMEDIA AESTHETICS, INTERMEDIA TEMPORALITIES
Jackson has long been considered a foundational figure in electronic literature, and has continually returned to the politics of text, language, and inscription in her work. If Patchwork Girl crystallizes the technological and literary concerns of the first generation of electronic literature, her project Skin: A Mortal Work of Art, launched in 2003, might well be seen as exemplary of what Hayles describes as the "'contemporary' or 'postmodern'" second generation of electronic literature (2008, 7) characterized by the increased multi-modality and circulation of digital content made possible by the widespread adoption of networked computing and web browsing. Skin consists of a narrative that exists as single-word tattoos on the bodies of over two thousand volunteer participants. According to the rules of the project enumerated on Jackson's website, volunteers (who apply to be selected by Jackson for participation in the project) must tattoo the word assigned to them by her on their body [End Page 74] in a classic book font. While such a project seems at first to be decidedly old-media in its preoccupation with ink and codex-based print culture, Skin at the same time also relies on a decentralized assemblage of information and bodies that echoes the emergent networked social protocols of its moment.8 As visualized on Jack-son's website through a Google map marked with pins for the location of each participant, Skin's narrative exists not as a sequence but as a network, distributed irregularly and nonlinearly across global space and held together by uncanny, invisible resonances across silicon circuitry and fiber optic cable.
In many ways, Snow builds directly on Patchwork Girl and Skin as precursors, extrapolating and unfolding their concerns with inscription, storage, and network structure into a contemporary moment defined by always-on computing. Indeed, if Jackson uses formal experimentation in Patchwork Girl to consider questions of file organization, interface, and the operating system that dominated the early years of the personal computer, and in Skin to consider questions of communication and connectivity within the early internet, Snow engages the questions of visuality, temporal immediacy, and the social feed that dominate the contemporary culture of Instagram. As in the case of Skin in particular, Snow traffics between print and digital modalities in complex ways. Each post, composed of a single word etched into snow and occasionally accompanied by a punctuation mark, digitally captures the results of an inscriptive moment steeped in print aesthetics: again, each word appears in a book font, almost always a serif font in particular. Saturating the surface of the digital screen—an environment usually populated by sans-serif fonts—with the serif type usually associated with print books, Jackson strikes an uncanny tension between these two technological modalities. But the meticulousness of these markings, the precision with which Jackson carves them into the snow, makes clear that this is not a simple, straightforward archaeological resurrection of print as such within the digital. On the contrary, her marks constitute a strange kind of manuscript print aesthetics, letterpress type rendered as if by hand. This gesture (in both the literal and figurative senses of that term) combines three epochs of media, tracing an aesthetic of the digital that is simultaneously cutting edge and archaic, each image layering and compacting the digital camera, lead type, and the scribal tool within one another. And yet the scribal hand is palpably absent from the project: reading across these images, we have to reckon with the complex commensurability of [End Page 75] the project as at once both intimately tied to and produced by the body and also almost wholly devoid of the body, that of the author perhaps most strikingly of all.9 Whereas the body plays a fundamental role in Jackson's earlier work, whether as subject, substrate, or both, in Snow it is most present in its absence. This absence sits uneasily within the profoundly embodied context of Instagram's public sphere, populated as it is with selfies, consumption (culinary, material, and otherwise), and the broader documentation of lived experience. Even the text published to date pushes its only character to the margins almost immediately: it begins, "'To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,' said the girl who cried snowflakes," and then turns solely to this girl's enumeration of types of snow—all speech and almost no speaker. Jackson thus advances a profoundly depopulated digital aesthetic in Snow. Her synthesis of the project's content and context, however, makes this absence of the writing body something more than merely a heightened instance of the Derridean trace—staging the relations between technology and ecology outside of the body, Jackson imagines a kind of ahuman (as opposed to posthuman) inscription, a literature that traces the contours of a landscape almost wholly barren of signs of human life.
I turn more fully to the relations between technology, ecology, and writing in Jackson's project in the sections below, and to the question of ahuman inscription in particular in the final section of my essay; before I do so, I consider here its engagement with the relations among text, image, and time in contemporary digital culture. By publishing the text of Snow on Instagram (as opposed to, say, in a traditional print book or in an art gallery setting), Jackson simultaneously sets it within the context of smartphone photography and online visual culture more broadly and upends that context through the project's textual focus. Thus what seems on the surface like Snow's knee-jerk self-referentiality at the level of form and content—a story about snow, written in snow—ultimately points toward a more complex and critical engagement with medium itself. In a kind of higher-order extrapolation of The Treachery of Images—René Magritte's 1929 painting of a pipe with the caption "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," or "This is not a pipe"—Jackson leverages the friction between hand-printed text and digital image to interrogate the affordances and the social and technological implications of each form. As D. N. Rodowick says of Magritte's painting and Foucault's extended analysis of that painting, Jackson's disturbance of the division between figure and text "does not simply mean that the text contradicts the [End Page 76] figure or vice versa. Rather, it is a question of a chiasma between the two orders of signs" (2001, 61). For Rodowick and Foucault, another exemplar of this chiasma is the calligram, an often handwritten subset of concrete poetry popularized by Guillaume Appollinaire's 1918 collection Calligrames.
Yet whereas the calligram crosses its two orders of signs—an image made of text, or text in the shape of an image, hence Rodowick's invocation of the chiasma—Jackson's posts in Snow collapse the two within one another, somehow both incommensurable and inseparable. Each post is simultaneously both an image that has to be alphabetically read and a word that has to be visually seen—this is not a hybrid work of text and image, but rather a liminal, interstitial practice of text as image, image as text. Jackson's first post on March 2, 2014, self-reflexively announces this interstitiality, pairing a lower-case "a" carved in the snow in the foreground with an upper-case "A" formed by one end of a seemingly discarded construction sawhorse further into the field of the image (figure 3). The cognitive need for visual closure that inclines us to read the image of the sawhorse as a typographic letter draws our attention to the converse status of Jack-son's etching as an image; we necessarily read and see both figures. Her practice here foregrounds the problematic Rodowick describes as "not a question of the primacy of print or visual media but a fundamentally new stratification of the audiovisual archive with implications for both expression and reading" (2001, 68). Within Snow, this stratification is paradoxically characterized by simultaneity. We cannot see Jackson's posts as image, then text, nor vice versa, but only as both at once. And yet also, even more paradoxically, as neither. Writing of text-message-based public art installations as works that are "neither formalizable as 'electronic literature' nor reducible to a singular medium," Rita Raley argues that these works imagine "expanded textual practices that are not-electronic literature, not-print, not-codex, not-mobile messaging, not-game, not-conversation, not-algorithmic instructions, not-data mining, not-collaborative content creation, but that which is situated in the interstitial field" (2013, 8). While Snow certainly bears numerous differences from the works that Raley refers to here, it nonetheless shares with them the condition of multiple interstitiality. It is not-text, not-image, not-networked, not-digital, not-literature, and not-narrative, at the same time that it also is all of those things.
For Raley, imagining digital works as generically and materially interstitial "allows us to think across media, platforms, and genres [End Page 77]
and to articulate a discourse on textual practices that are sited, social, and live" (2013, 8). How, then, might Snow allow us to articulate a discourse on the textual practices of Instagram? Part of such a discourse would have to speak to questions of temporality—even the site's name, after all, suggests as much. By using snow as a substrate, Jackson imagines a kind of crystallization or freezing of the usually liquid flow of the social media feed. Her slow, gradual, irregular posting schedule pushes and stretches the always-on temporality of the feed toward a kind of extreme seriality, resituating it within the longue durée of geologic time. This practice resonates with other works of art that hinge on extended duration, such as Douglas Gordon's 1993 video installation 24-Hour Psycho, which slows the 109 minutes of Alfred Hitchcock's film to a full 24 hours, or Mark Sample's digital project Disembargo (2013), which releases one character of his doctoral dissertation online under a Creative Commons license every ten minutes as a critique of the constraints that embargoed academic publishing places on scholarly conversation.10 Yet Snow differs from these works in its use of open-ended source material. Gordon and Sample are extending pre-existing texts, distorting them from their original temporal frameworks. There is no guarantee this is the case for Jackson's work: as followers, we have no way [End Page 78] to know whether Snow is the slow-media publication of an already finished text or an extremely protracted act of writing in real time, word by word over days, weeks, seasons, years. I would suggest that the truth is somewhere in the middle: that Jackson is not writing the text of Snow word by word in pace with its publication, but that it is nonetheless still a work in progress, unfinished, halting and shifting pace with the climate around it. Either way, the extreme seriality of the project produces an unsettling uncertainty for readers, raising a range of questions that bear on mortality and ecology as well as on temporality. How long is Snow in total—is the currently published text half of the full work? One tenth? One hundredth? When will this work be fully published? Will we live to the end of that publication? Will Jackson? How long can the environment sustain these acts of digital reading and writing? The project's bio line on Instagram—"A story in progress, weather permitting"—deepens these questions rather than answers them.
This climate-dependency—the "weather permitting" of the account's bio—makes for a staccato, uneven pacing of publication. In some portions of the text, Jackson posts multiple words on a single day. For example, the content of the first three days of posting reads as follows:
"To approach snow too closely (January 22, 2014) is to forget what it is," said the girl who cried snowflakes. "Through a microscope one discovers that there are many kinds of snow: (January 28, 2014) those made up of tiny paintings of shipwrecks in the style of Bonaventura Peeters, those made up of miniature bowls of wax fruit, very beautifully and realistically formed, except for the size; those made up of the fingernail clippings of babies; and those made up of the trimmed and tattooed scalps of shrews, used as money by certain native peoples of the southern Urals.(February 12, 2014)
Across this section, each day's finished clauses shape the text almost as a poem, with each unit of language end-stopped not within the space of the line and the page but rather within the temporal unit of the day. By contrast, a more recent string of text operates over a much starker gap of nearly a year, as Jackson writes of
snows that, addressing (March 20, 2017)us at (March 21, 2017)a (March 22, 2017)myriad points, (March 23, 2017)compose (March 26, 2017) [End Page 79] from (March 28, 2017)these transactions (January 6, 2018)a (January 7, 2018)comprehensive (January 10, 2018)whole[.] (January 11, 2018)11
In addition to this section's smaller temporal gaps, we also have to reckon with how Jackson's publication is suspended for nearly ten months between "from" and "these transactions," unable to move forward without the right weather. To parallel the end-stopped poetics of the previous example, we might see this passage as a series of extreme enjambments, running not merely over lines but over days and months. To what extent, though, does it make sense to understand Snow in terms of poetic form, or even in terms of genre at all? Jackson approaches genre interstitially: Snow is, to borrow Raley's formation, not-poem, not-story, not-monologue, not-novel. The impossibility of locating Snow within these categories ultimately opens onto the larger challenge of locating it geographically and ecologically. Jackson deploys form in these passages precisely in order to throw into relief the extent to which the work's form as a whole is site-specific: regardless of how much she chooses to publish on a given day—one word, or two, or more than sixty—as a Brooklyn resident subject to the climate of the northeast United States, she can only carry out that publication when there is snow to write in. The contingency of Snow, then, seems to consistently figure and foreshadow its own foreclosure: Jackson writes toward the moment when she no longer can, when our environment can no longer sustain the snow that sustains the text. Every gap between posts, the ones that stretch for a year but also the ones that stretch for a day, sketches the possibility that the moment of the next post may not come. Like the dynamics of the weather itself, Snow vacillates between predictability and unpredictability; in this sense, Jackson distorts not only the speed of social media, but also its continuity and consistency, folding it within and rendering it powerfully subject to the larger climate around it.
Snow's temporality of reading is also deeply indeterminate. Read as a single isolated work outside of its original context within the fluid streams of Instagram—starting from the bottom of the account's page and reading upward—the text's 433 words as of this writing take perhaps five minutes to consume. Yet to read it this way is to strip it of its condition as part of a fluid, constantly moving stream of visual information online, reifying it as a fixed, stable text in ways [End Page 80] that violate the specifics of its digital materiality. Indeed, as much as the conceit of Jackson's project serves to distort and distend the speed and flow of social media, those effects necessarily hinge on its location within that flow. While Snow is not interactive per se in the hypertextual, multilinear manner of Patchwork Girl and its late twentieth-century contemporaries, its formal work nonetheless hinges on its material instantiation in a networked digital environment. As such, it ceases somewhat to be a work of digital literature when read in isolation, becoming instead more like a work of print literature (albeit one produced through images) presented onscreen. Here it is crucial to acknowledge Jackson's work as literature written for Instagram, constructed within and attentive to the platform's material and technological affordances, rather than literature published on Instagram. However, reading Snow within the situated context of the Instagram feed, a few words on a given day at most, often with months between posts, is paradoxically no closer to a true integration with that context, given the work's opposition in its slow publication to the accelerated, always-on temporality of the social media feed. This incongruity verges on the sublime: how can we read a story that is stretched out so slowly, so contingently, with no markers of completion or context in sight? At what point does it become impossible to comprehend Snow in the literal sense of that word—to hold together the work's narrative shape, or even its language, in one's head over time? What does it mean to read, or to read for, a single word amidst a constantly refreshed, never-ending feed of thousands of images? It seems as difficult to read Snow within the context of Instagram as it is to divorce it from that context effectively. Like snow itself, Jackson's work seems impossible to hold onto, and at the same time changes state as soon as we touch it; neither a concentrated reading nor a protracted one allows us to fully grasp the complex, fugitive relations between language and networked technology traced by the text. Its opening lines seem self-consciously to gesture toward this question of reading practices: "To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is," Jackson writes. But what is reading "too closely" in this instance? Taking the work out of context for fixed, microscopic study of the whole? Painstakingly trawling the sweep of the social feed in hopes of catching a single new word? Both? Raising these questions in the text's opening warning but leaving them unanswered, Jackson points us instead toward the question of scale itself—an approach to digital analysis characterized not by distant reading but rather by a kind of reading that attends to distance over space and time. [End Page 81]
Such a turn to scale in how we read Snow dovetails in its formal and ethical contours with the turn to a more deeply planetary conception of modernity theorized by Timothy Wientzen. Wientzen argues for a model of the planetary that operates on a much larger scale than that recently utilized by scholars such as Wai Chee Dimock and Susan Stanford Friedman to complicate and expand theories of the global. For Wientzen, "while 'global' phenomena are those that are spatially or geographically extensive, 'planetary' ones have temporal duration on a geological scale," yet, as he notes, scholarship to date on the planetary has tended to "examine literary texts within scales of time stretching to some thousands of years—roughly 0.0000004% of the age of Earth, or 1% of the age of modern humans—far from the geological timescales of a planet" and thus remaining perhaps less fully engaged in the planetary itself than it could be (2018). I argue that Jackson turns this seeming historiographic limitation on its head: Snow engages the planetary precisely because of its recency and immediacy rather than in spite of it, leveraging these characteristics in order to consider duration within the geological scale that Wientzen calls for. As Allison Carruth notes, this leverage is the unique opportunity and challenge of ecomedia practice:
a field sited at the convergence of ecological problems and digital humanities methods should strive to interlace the timescales of "deep and recorded histories" with the compressed temporality of the digital (as in the real-time cadence of rapid prototyping, database querying, and media streaming) and to recognize not only the bodies of species and institutions of capital but also the virtual networks that connect, track, and animate both.
Answering this challenge, Jackson's work asks how texts and technologies seemingly situated within the global temporality of capital flows and accelerations might also fit into and intervene within a much larger and more inhuman planetary temporality, and thus how such entities might also be complicit in humanity's problematic position within and impact upon the planet and planetary time.
ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS: INSCRIPTION, PRESERVATION, EPHEMERALITY, INFRASTRUCTURE
Given the ways in which Jackson's work has consistently played literary form and technological materiality against one another, it is important to consider how both Snow's ecopolitical intervention and its complicity within ecological trauma hinge on questions of [End Page 82] preservation and ephemerality—that is, on the complex ways in which technological form and materiality relate to time. Throughout Jackson's work, preservation and ephemerality have been complexly bound up with one another in a range of ways. For example, Eastgate Systems, the publisher of Patchwork Girl, did not update Jackson's work for the better part of a decade, leaving a defining work of electronic literature available well into the 2010s only in a CD-ROM format that required an operating system from the mid-2000s to open it. In this instance, the ephemerality of the text—its near inaccessibility and obsolescence past a certain point in time—is a simple matter of the inability of boutique publishers of electronic literature to keep up with the product cycles of the world's largest technology corporations, a temporally charged instance of the infrastructural embeddedness of electronic literature I discuss above. Jackson's more recent works deploy ephemerality as an integral part of her thinking about and through infrastructure. In Skin, the inscription of the work's text on the living body is also necessarily inscription on the mortal body. As she writes on the project website, "as words [her term for participants in the project] die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words" ("Skin Guidelines," n.d.). Jackson builds the tension between preservation and ephemerality directly into the workings of Snow, amplifying it in the reverberations among the project's text, the substrate of snow, and the infrastructure of the global network. In this sense, the work's most charged experimental lever is a material one: this is not just a text about snow written in snow, but also one that photographically preserves snow in the face of global warming at the same time that it also contributes to global warming, the circulation of its data generating heat that diminishes and melts that snow. Indeed, Snow's deep embeddedness within digital ecology means that archival preservation cannot help but paradoxically push ever so incrementally toward environmental depletion.
In order to more fully understand this paradox, we also need to consider more closely the affordances of snow itself as an inscription surface. Drawing from design theory, Levine defines affordances as serving to "describe the potential uses or actions latent in materials and design" (2015b, 6).13 This language of affordance shows us, among other things, "the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford. … Rather than asking what artists intend or even what forms do, we can ask instead what potentialities lie [End Page 83] latent—though not always obvious—in aesthetic and social arrangements" (6–7). What happens, then, when the form in question is not a literary or cultural one but rather an ecological one—as I have suggested above, not prose or poetry, or even text or image, but snow itself? What are the aesthetic and social potentialities of frozen crystalline water? Compaction into other shapes and the coverage of ground, to be sure; writing—carving or etching, to be more exact—seems less immediately evident. To write in snow is to reimagine and expand its affordances, experimenting with ecology and inscription by integrating them within a single authorial practice; Jackson reimagines snow as an inscription surface at the same time that she imagines writing as a direct, material engagement with the environment.
As an inscription surface, snow affords for opacity; for contrast between its opaque whiteness and the material it covers (a quality that varies across Jackson's posts, from the stark black-on-white of snow over concrete to something closer to white-on-white); for texture around the edges of a character; for just the barest suggestion of depth, given that Jackson largely carves her words into thin ground cover rather than deep drifts. As a mode of preservation, it is largely ephemeral—less so than water, but more so than ice. Writing of nineteenth-century attempts to come to terms with the sublimity of the poles through both literary and scientific means, Hester Blum claims that "if polar expeditions have … functioned historically as a mechanism for generating narratives, writing on ice (and about ice) in the Anthropocene may be scarcely more legible than writing on water. Our present planetary moment demands new modes of knowledge" (2016). Perhaps Jackson's writing in snow about snow imagines one of these modes. Yet in comparison with the sublime material of the polar ice cores Blum discusses, massive repositories that bear epochs of planetary history, snow is mundane and banal. While polar ice is (relatively) stable in space and time, snow appears increasingly unpredictably and vanishes easily—it is a means of inscription and preservation characterized not by durability and permanence but by fragility and ephemerality. Yet if there is a sublimity to snow (and thus to Snow), it is one of scalar difference, of the unspoken acknowledgment within Jackson's work that the microscopic unit—the byte, the pixel, the flake, the degree—inexorably accumulates to the macroscopic totality of entities such as big data and climate change.
As much as Jackson's work preserves snow, it also necessarily depletes it. Indeed, it depletes precisely by preserving, a stark [End Page 84] irony delivered at microscopic scale. Given that Snow's preservation of photographic material online relies on the global mechanics of digital storage and circulation for its own persistence, this preservation cannot be separated from the strain it puts on the environment. Every moment of preservation, every capture, storage, and circulation of an image in the work—indeed, any action taken upon any image or other information online—places pressure on digital infrastructure, producing heat through the data center of a major technology corporation that in turn warms the global climate. At first glance, this might seem an outlandish claim. After all, it is precisely the nature of the digital to seem almost infinitesimal in its small, incremental nature—how much damage can come from a single social media post, an email, a text message? Yet it is also precisely the nature of those infinitesimal bits to add up: according to one 2016 report, sending sixty emails a day is the energy equivalent of driving an average-sized car one kilometer; sending thirty-three emails, each with a 1MB attachment such as a small image, to two recipients each, consumes enough energy to drive that car 1,000 kilometers (Hood 2016). Data centers are at the crux of this consumption, particularly as the traffic in global data rapidly increases: electricity consumption in data centers accounted for roughly two percent of global demand in 2012, and is expected to rise as high as thirteen percent by 2030 (Greenpeace 2017, 17). Yet these sites, owned by major multinational corporations and operated in remote locations with little transparency, are dialectically bound to rising consumer demand for data circulation, each producing and produced by the other. Scale is a key ecopolitical hinge here again: what Carruth terms the micropolitics of energy, "the planetary ramifications of minute individual practices that are fueled by cultural values of connectivity and speed and that rely, above all, on the infrastructure of server farms," is at the same time, inescapably, a macropolitics (2014, 343–44).
In an effort to counterbalance the heat generated by increasing data traffic, major tech corporations are increasingly choosing to locate their data centers in cold locations: Facebook is currently building its second data center in Luleå, Sweden, just outside of the Arctic Circle in an area punningly known as the "Node Pole," while in 2011 Google built a data center on the Bay of Finland in Hamina, Finland (figure 4). Housed in a paper mill from the mid-twentieth century—a site rich in media-historical implications—the Hamina data center employs a cooling system that relies on both the cold [End Page 85]
climate of the location and the Bay of Finland, circulating seawater through the building in order to dissipate heat. Locations such as Luleå and Hamina seclude the operations of global data circulation from easy view, yet they also weave that circulation into our global ecology in increasingly intimate ways. They exemplify how "the need for cooling is shaping the geography of global Internet distribution" (Starosielski 2014), but also how that distribution of heat from the internet conversely shapes the ecological landscape of ice and snow, both locally and globally. Snow is recursively, self-reflexively bound up in this reshaping, and thus paradoxically in its own depletion, as its visually cold images generate heat that in turn diminishes the very material the project seeks to document and preserve, closing a feedback loop that tends ever so microscopically toward an uncertain macroscopic end.
WINTERNET POETICS: ON NONHUMAN ENTANGLEMENT AND AHUMAN WRITING
Like global warming itself, the macroscopic reality of the global traffic in data seems somehow unthinkable from our localized position. We can understand a single post or image online, or a single warm [End Page 86] day in January, but we cannot understand the roughly ten trillion gigabytes of data consumed globally each year (Greenpeace 2017, 17) or the erosion of the icecaps and the rising sea level. Perhaps both entities constitute what Timothy Morton terms hyperobjects. For Morton, a hyperobject is something "massively distributed in time and space relative to humans": a black hole, the Everglades, nuclear material, Styrofoam, plastic bags, "the sum total of all the whirring machinery of capitalism," or global warming itself (2013, 1). As this list suggests, Morton employs the concept of the hyper-object as a means for thinking the stakes of ecological catastrophe and the place of humans and nonhumans within the Anthropocene. In Morton's analysis, reckoning with the massive scope of hyperobjects destabilizes our common sense around scale: rather than seeing local weather as a concrete manifestation of the abstraction of global warming, he suggests, we need to see the opposite, namely that local weather is an abstraction of the far more real, concrete effects of global warming. "Global warming is not a function of our measuring devices," he writes. "Yet because it's distributed across the biosphere and beyond, it's very hard to see as a unique entity. And yet, there it is. … Like the image in a Magic Eye picture, global warming is real, but it involves a massive, counterintuitive perspective shift to see it" (49). If global warming is a hyperobject, perhaps the global traffic in data is as well, both in terms of the sublime amount of information circulating every year and every moment as well as in the distant, secluded workings of data centers and undersea cables. Like global warming in Morton's understanding, the digital is viscous, impossible to detach from; it is nonlocal, so massively distributed that it becomes impossible to see the totality from any single location; it is at once both difficult to grasp in an immediate physical way and yet also eminently real.
Morton writes that "in some sense, modernity is the story of how oil got into everything" (2013, 54), and we might also say the same thing of data today. Indeed, a May 6, 2017, article in The Economist proclaims in its title that "the world's most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data," calling for greater regulation and antitrust oversight, and the idea that "data is the new oil" is a truism that dates back over ten years. While data has by no means supplanted oil as the dominant regime of capitalist modernity, it has certainly joined it, and the two are closely interrelated and interdeterminate. Situated at a charged crux between the local and the planetary, the micro and the macro—the hypo and the hyper, as it were—Snow [End Page 87] leverages the status of data as a hyperobject toward a multilayered critique: just as Jackson's project is bound up in its own involvement in global warming, just as we as twenty-first-century humans cannot get outside of oil, neither can we get outside of data. Understanding the ecopolitics of the digital in this way profoundly implicates us—in the literal sense of the term, folding us in—but it also offers us the opportunity to see the global digital system as an entanglement in the sense used by Karen Barad. Barad writes that
to be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating.
Jackson offers an intimation of this entanglement among the human, the digital, and the ecological in some of the most recent posts to Snow, within the sequence I quoted earlier. Over a period stretching from March 20, 2017, to January 30, 2018, she writes of "snows that, addressing us at a myriad points, compose from these transactions a comprehensive whole, a sort of winternet." Her catalog of snows breaks off after this, seemingly beginning a new paragraph in the monologue of the girl who cries snowflakes, as indicated by the open quotation mark before "'Of" in the next post on February 3. While "Winternet" perhaps invokes Wintermute, the artificial intelligence in William Gibson's foundational cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984), Jackson leaves the question of what a winternet is provocatively unanswered in Snow's text to date. Yet her portmanteau seems to imagine snow as a vibrant object as described by Jane Bennett, a "vivid entit[y] not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set [it], never entirely exhausted by [its] semiotics" but rather instead always mobile and material, possessed of its own agency (2010, 5).14 Understood as vibrant in this sense, snow becomes visible as possessed of self-organizational, transactional, and inscriptive agency because of its entanglement with digital infrastructure rather than in spite of it. "Winternet" invokes the aleatory accumulations of infinite different snowflakes just as it invokes the adjacency and interpenetration of cold seawater and warm server racks in the Bay of Finland. Jackson's neologism imagines snow as a network, as part of the internet just as the internet is now inextricably part of it. [End Page 88]
Just as Jackson's language here imagines snow as part of a vibrant distributed agency, so does her project's larger media practice, suggesting a new approach to understanding questions of inscription, experimental writing, and the politics of ecomedia in the Anthropocene. In concluding, then, I want to use Jackson's project to unfold several facets of the ahuman inscription I discussed briefly above. In perhaps the most fatalistic understanding of the term, we might find a dystopian tonality in the composition of Jackson's images, seeing their haunting beauty, so largely devoid of human presence, as conjuring a kind of writing left behind after the disappearance of the human—postapolcalyptic marks on the earth that testify to the ramifications of global warming in their emptiness and bareness. At the same time, Snow's ahuman dimension also makes it possible to see the fragile materiality of the assemblage of infrastructure and ecology. Here Jackson's body serves as a structuring absence that raises questions of power and labor. In registering her absence, we also must attend to the absences and invisibilities of other laboring bodies that sustain the workings of global data and digital infrastructure: the miners who extract the rare metals that line our digital devices; the factory workers who assemble those devices by hand; the non-male, non-white bodies excised from both the dominant history of computing and the contemporary governance of the technology industry; and the laborers across the globe who break down digital devices to their constituent parts once users in the developed world deem them obsolete.
If we extend our scope further, we might see in Jackson's disembodied writing on the landscape a reminder that transformations of the landscape are themselves a kind of ecological writing from within, the construction of a longue durée archive that is in part due to human hands, but at the same time also perhaps outside of our control and our comprehension. Shannon Mattern's conception of "the geologic field itself, and strategically selected samples of it, [as] archival documents" (2017, emphasis original) offers one useful framework for understanding ecology as writing, as does Blum's suggestion that ice is a sublime record of planetary deep time, telling "stories that are hundreds of thousands of years old. Those who study pale-oceanography (the history of the ocean) and paleoclimatology (the history of the earth's climate) can read in ice core samples narratives of past volcanic eruptions, forest fires, rising seas, and flowers" (2016). If this special issue seeks to expand the ways in which we [End Page 89] understand the politics and poetics of literary experimentation, one way in which we might do so would be to expand our understanding of the category itself. While the visual, the multimodal, and the digital as I have considered them above contribute rich new possibilities to how we understand the literary and its experimental potentiality, perhaps we need to look further: what might we learn if we see the cracks of glaciers calving as writing in the way that Mattern and Blum suggest, or the heat waves rising from secluded data centers, or the arrival of snow, or its disappearance, or its absence? While they are certainly not devoid of anthropogenic influence, these deeply experimental inscriptions go far beyond the alphabetic, the textual, and indeed the human; what kind of poetics might we see in them, and what might they tell us about time, history, politics, sustainability, futurity?
Expanding the archive of experimental writing in this way calls for a rethinking not only of writing but also of the experimental itself, both etymologically and geologically. The inscriptive events I have suggested here push the experimental dimensions of writing toward a kind of uncontrolled science, unknown practices with uncertain results. Theorists of the nonhuman such as Bennett, Barad, and Morton challenge us to ponder who and what might be the author of such writings, asking questions we might ask of Jackson's work as well. Snow occupies the space between the human inscription of the writing body and the ahuman inscription of the environmental entities entangled with that body; its isolated words escape the former, but can never be the latter. Yet if Snow can only ever glimpse something outside of the human, never fully leaving behind its anthropocentric core, the crucial attention it gives to inscription—to material markings of all sorts on the surfaces of the page, the screen, and the earth—surfaces a deep, and deeply textual, entanglement of the human, the technological, and the ecological. In Snow's absences and silences, Jackson writes to and on an Anthropocene earth that is conversely writing back to us, albeit in languages and forms we have only begun to attend to and understand.
PAUL BENZON is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Skidmore College, where he also teaches courses in the Media and Film Studies Program. His research explores the intersections of contemporary literary experimentation, technological and textual materiality, and media history. His work has appeared in PMLA, Narrative, electronic book review, Media-N, and several edited collections. His essay in this issue is drawn from a project on experimental print textuality and dystopia.
I am grateful to colleagues who provided feedback on earlier versions of this project at the 2017 Northwestern University Ordinary Media Symposium and ASAP/9, The Arts of the Present, and to Shelley Jackson for generously allowing permission to reproduce her work. Image of the Google Data Center, Hamina, Finland, can be found at: https://www.google.com/about/datacenters/gallery/index.html#/.
2. See also Wendy Hui Kyong Chun for a similar, if more skeptical, diagnosis of the materiality of digital information: "Digital media is not always there. We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear. Digital media is degenerative, forgetful, erasable" (2008, 160).
3. Of course, there is no reason why print might not also be understood as having most if not all of these qualities, although even experimental authors tend to treat it as such relatively rarely; the lineage Glazier traces (2002) is a notable exception. See Garrett Stewart (2011) for one study of experimental literature focused specifically on mediation and materiality in relation to print.
4. Other examples of this political turn within electronic literature include the genres of netprov, "networked improvised narrative" performed live and in interaction with members of the reading public on the social media website Twitter (Berens 2015), and the proliferation of protest and activist bots on Twitter. On netprov, see Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig (2012); on political bots, see Mark Sample (2014).
5. Jussi Parikka offers another useful governing concept for my work here in his theory of the "geology of media: a different sort of temporal and spatial materialism of media culture than the one that focuses solely on machines or even networks of technologies as nonhuman agencies," incorporating ecology, climate, and geology as well (2015, 3, emphasis original).
7. I borrow the term "Anthropocene inscription" from Jesse Oak Taylor's article of the same name (2016), and moreover from Kristin George Bagdanov's response to it (n.d.). Bagdanov writes, "literary forms mediate ecological crisis via multiple scales and materialities—climate change is not inaccessible, as some have argued, but merely illegible when we confine our investigation to any single literary period" (emphasis original). It is worth noting that scholarly conversations around the Anthropocene have themselves focused on the question of time and periodization—of precisely when such a period began, if indeed it has, and what the political and geological ramifications of a given periodization might be. See Simon Lewis and Mark A. Maslin (2015) for one version of this periodization.
8. Jackson (n.d.) refers to participants in the project as words, collapsing the gap between embodiment and inscription: "They are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed text, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text."
9. Several images in the project capture whole or partial bodies of other people, although it is unclear whether they are companions or passersby. Potential traces or fragments of Jackson's body appear in two images: the word "of," posted on January 27, 2015, is carved on the toe of a boot that may be the author's, and the word "blood" (itself the signifier of a bodily trace) appears in an image posted on March 4, 2014, accompanied by a shadow that may be Jackson's. Each of these images, though, is notably inconclusive and ambiguous.
11. While I include the dates for each string of text in this quotation and the one above as a means of tracing the temporal rhythm of Jackson's publication, this notation also has a performative end in itself, suggesting by way of volume the extent to which a poetics of the timestamp defines Snow.
12. I acknowledge that Carruth refers here to digital humanities rather than to media studies; while the relations, overlaps, and differences between these two fields are beyond the scope of this essay, their shared interest in technology, data, and social critique suggests that scholars of media studies might engage ecomedia with goals similar to those of digital humanists. For a fuller discussion of the relations between the digital humanities and media studies, see Gold (2012) or Carruth's article itself (2016).
13. The concept of affordances also has a resonance in recent media theory; see, for example, Matthew Kirschenbaum's claim that "like the vertical filing cabinets of a previous era, contemporary information storage devices have distinct affordances that contribute to their implementation and reception" (2008, 4).
14. Bennett writes that "if matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated" (2010, 13). Her understanding of matter as lively here closes many of the circuits I trace in this essay, suggesting that lively words such as Jackson's have vibrancy as objects as well.