Object Three | Hysterical Literature, Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’

3. Hysterical Literature is a video art series by Clayton Cubitt. The series shows us a clothed woman sitting behind a table while she reads, and an assistant distracts her under the table with a vibrator.

Multimedia guide (Narrated by Jemma Dixon)

How do we conceive and make sense of the archive if the product of that archive is mass deception? Is Mass Deception just another word to describe how Reader-Response Theory plays out in the lacunas between cognitive appraisals and understanding? Why is this problematic?

In Andrew Witcomb’s essay ‘The Materiality of Virtual Technologies: A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums’, Witcomb quotes Roger Miles and references that modern multimedia exhibitions reflect not the international world of museums as repositories, but the external world in which museums now find themselves (Witcomb, 35). In this post-industrialist society, Miles observes we are a pluralistic culture in which the boundaries between high art and mass culture have broken down (Witcomb, 35). This remark suggests that multimedia permits this breakdown by disseminating art to the masses, and the internet has significantly changed the relationship between curator and viewer (creators and consumers.) However, according to Reader-response theory, the interpretive spaces between a virtual and tangible ‘normative’ museum must necessarily generate different lacunas in the peripheral spaces where listener and watcher actively construct meaning rather than passively consume it. According to this theory, we create a work of literature, art, or an archive in the process of engagement, and this itself is a kind of self-deception –  accordingly, the end problem of archival research lies in the construction of its meaning. Applied to Hysterical Literature, where the medium of the archive is presented sonically and visually, we can question the challenges of how we decode the archive and reflect upon the conceptual divide between those who digitally curate and those who consume. Firstly, in a normative museum, it is not likely you would reach over 60 million views if women performed live exhibitionist readings at the local art gallery. The digital object thus makes the archive extremely accessible, yet problems arise from this accessibility.

An issue of archival research that arises from digital material is what Donna Haraway questions in her seminal work, “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1984); if we combine with technology, can we escape control? (Cameron, 84) As Fiona Cameron purports, through cyberspace accessibility, the web reflects the divisions and prejudices of Western society, and questions, is the virtual body emancipated from gender and culture? (Cameron, 84). These ruminations touch on our conceptions of what ‘bodies’ are and how they are perceived in different spaces – virtual or otherwise. This archive posits that the female body responds to the reading of a text and vibrator. According to Reader-response theory, what I see are two or more erotic bodies (the viewer is included) responding relationally to one another; Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is corporeal, it is an archive within an archive, it opens and closes, its spine is its skeleton, we can tear the text and wet it so it bleeds, we can imbue it with the same potentialities we give to the body and voice that speaks and experiences that text to the point of orgasm. In this interpretive space, a lacuna is formed when we attempt to construct meaning: the product of the digital archive is far reaching, and responses are varied. I question, what is a text, really? What is a body, really? What is an archive, really? If archives purport to be objective sites of memorialisation, but the archive can be relayed through a human body, text or document, where do we draw the line between art, archives, and archives as art? The archive is limited by the people who use and appraise it. What does the archive offer the researcher but a reflection of their own biases and cognitive appraisals?

In Literary Theory: An Anthology, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno allege in their essay ‘The Culture Industry as Mass Deception</ that the culture industry can be explained in technological terms; millions participate in it, and yet No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest (Horkheimer, Adorno 1242). What does this archive reflect that it does not explicitly address? Mass dissemination via technology is buttressed by ideological economic underpinnings. If media reflects and spreads ideas that can control or liberate our individual and collective consciousness, what responsibilities should the archive hold outside social and corporate interests? Hysterical Literature is free to watch – what price do we pay?

I reason the absent lacuna in the archive lies in the representation and interpretation of its content, which has largely been constructed with an underlying socio-economic basis in mind. Let’s investigate the use of language: As Gordon Sullivan considers the dichotomies inherent within Hysterical Literature, he references “Aural Pleasure: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound”, a work which questions that the sonics of female pleasure is less prohibited and more publically represented than the money shot (i.e., ejaculation, which ‘proves’ the sex is real) (Sullivan). What is in the phrase money shot? In a culture where women have been defined by their bodies, the female voice stands in for the pleasure we are denied access to visually – this archive situates a woman’s pleasure in her sound (Sullivan.) These ideas call into question the concept of what the archive doesn’t show us, and that the archive’s power endures in its deceptive nature as both artifice and performance –  in the unseen but heard. However, representation does not necessarily resemble appraisal.

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