To Hack, To Become Immune: An interview with Aase Berg
[To celebrate the recent release of Hackers (Black Ocean, 2017), Paul Cunningham and Aase Berg met up somewhere in a dark, twisted matrix to talk horses, parasites, translation, revolution, and, of course, hacking. Introduction by poet Rachel Zavecz.]
Battlefield opens to Penthesilea. The breastless Amazonian of the Bibliotheke is killed by swift-footed Achilles, while the Penthesilea of Kleist becomes the killer. A continuous reversal of violence. This is a woman in flux. This is not beside the point. When the butterfly parasite cracks her queen-body open like a muddy chrysalis, what emerges wet and seeing is something new and much more dangerous. Aase Berg reveals a woman “Who would never– / repeat, NEVER!– / cut off her right breast / to make it easier to carry arms” (11).
It is tempting to imagine Aase Berg’s Hackers as the creation of a shadowy and separate world, a dangerous and strange landscape haunted by the fatal attraction of the woman trap, shifting power structure of black net spiraling into black roads black box surveillance and mutative hacker code, but I am held tight by my own roiling guts to familiarity of the black hole darkness, a recognition of our own rapidly advancing and suppressing Civilization. This is a harsh reality in the cyber world of the new cyber reality. It is a harsh, recursive light shone on a world of oppressive masculine power structures and self-insufficient owners suckling at the blood-seep from a cultivated subjugation. But the woman trap is real. The woman trap is legion: “The bars are re-sharpened / into a vagina with teeth” (177), the dark horse sizzling along black highway intestines just empty enough for motormen parasites, and a ten-year-old girl named Natascha Kampusch held captive for eight years inside a sound-proof, 54 square foot cellar.
Hackers hums at strange frequencies. Images begin to resonate across a vast, self-replicating network of complex code. “The parasitical line reports to the system operator” (113). I do my research, apply these facts to the text: Natascha Kampusch sits and eats breakfast with her captor every morning. She educates herself. She is beaten and starved. She gardens. Chooses to be known as Bibiana, patron saint of the mentally ill and tortured. This is a martyr who is strung up and left for the scavengers. This is a martyr the animals won’t touch. After her escape, Natascha Kampusch is the new face of animal rights, PETA in Austria. Her captor Wolfgang Přiklopil throws himself in front of a train rather than be apprehended. This is the reality. “You can wake / in the middle of the night / into my eyes / without a future” (73). I return to the text. I come to ask: who here is the hyperparasite? Who hacks whom?
The language of Hackers fractals and twists, each idea and image-node shattering in.out.up.down through the infinite depths of unfathomable, mirrored nets: “The free net and the dark one / eternally lonely / in my algorithmic sequence / a misconfigured / open proxy server” (121). From this vast multi-planar source, parasite and hyperparasitic host proliferate to: manipulation hypothesis of Taxoplasma gondii, Trojan Horse, Glenn Close in the style of stalker, infected black-lip oyster, lustrous trematode… The Hackers code is layered with meaning. The word Polaris exists level one, automobile corporation; level two, human trafficking advocacy organization dedicated to ideal of freedom; level three, guiding star, North. Transcendent intricacy creates Aase Berg’s own Silk Road, a path no single line can map, only endlessly replicating oceans of encryption and decryption.
What I do come to know: the hagg strikes back, because THIS IS A THREATENING TEXT. THIS IS A THREATENING KIND OF WOMAN. The abuser, the owner, the master, the rider, the motorman, the masculines, and all of your sadistic power structures: hear the warning bell! “There is a female freedom. The drone will boil. The rabbit in Le Creuset” (131). Aase Berg knows that your gate is weak and the horse is already inside, clanging.
Paul Cunningham: Today, a violent and masculine forcefulness against women’s bodies still persists. Rape culture persists. I think there is a necessary counter-forcefulness in Hackers. Male bodies become the host bodies for parasitic, cyber-witchery. Is this book your own manifesto in a way? A call to anti-body? To de-program? To hagg?
Aase Berg: Yes, as in every system, the patriarchy can be hacked. The older I become, the more obvious it gets that physical revolution has to be intelligent and based on psychology. At the moment, in a new piece of work, I am hacking the advertisement business. (The working title of this collection of poetry is Sellout). I study copywriting. My teacher said in a lecture: “If you know how to analyze advertising, you will become immune.” So why not teach everyone this? To know your enemy better than yourself. I like having enemies, as long as I don’t have to get into physical fights. Advertising is very interesting, because it’s totally possible to hate your target while you manipulate him or her. You have to get under the skin of a person that you want to sell something to, but you don’t have to like this person. I would say that the case is the opposite. This means that being a cynic is connected to empathy in a way. You have to understand the enemy’s needs and motives, even if you don’t agree. The hacking metaphor is perfect for my purposes.
PC: I feel as though the horse has always been such a prevalent image in your writing. Even as far back as With Deer’s “I lerans hemska land” (“In the Horrifying Land of Clay”). In that poem, the horse that the speaker rides is both male and evil. “There was an evil horse that galloped through the horrifying land, an evil and dark horse with manhood and musculature, and I was thrilled to have him as my enemy.” In Hackers, the horse is a Trojan horse. A “nanoblack” horse. A program and an ambush. The speaker is no longer just a body riding another body (like in With Deer), but a body whose substance expands to inhabit other bodies. A body that has penetrated the evil musculature. (Maybe reaffirming the value of the abject?) I guess what I’m trying to ask is: why horses?
AB: My view on horses has developed through the years. When I wrote With Deer, it was merely an intellectual image, but later on I started riding and had my own horses and I realized that the practice of communicating with a horse is poetry without words. You have to grow into the horse’s body to be able to ride. It’s like dancing, or sex. But the horse is also a symbol of the oppressed. It’s oppressed in itself—the humans control the horses completely—we control their reproduction, their food, their space. And the horse is always protesting in some ways—destroying the fence, running away, sometimes refusing to do what you ask them to do. But it’s a mild protest. If they wanted, they could easily kill you. It’s a communicative protest, not an aggressive one. That fascinates me.
Then, on another level, the horse is a symbol of female oppression. When men got cars, they suddenly got tired of horses and let women take over the use of horses (at least in Sweden, it’s probably different in the United States. You have the cowboys and the prestigious macho ranches, we had the war horses, the German discipline, and, nowadays, the majority of activities regarding horses are performed by women. The use of horses became softer, since they are unpredictable. Men prefer machines). It was a loss of status, as is every male activity dumped on women. (When men got bored of the romantic disease “melancholy” some hundred years ago, it became a merely female diagnosis instead—now under the not very sexy term “depression”).
But above all, the horse is a mystery. It’s a way of reading your thoughts through the slightest movement of your eyes, your body. The horse is a precision instrument. And of course the Trojan Horse was a beautiful invention.
PC: Is Hackers more autobiographical than your previous collections? I only ask because you not only mention Njutånger (a village where you used to live), but there’s also a strange moment in one of the poems: “My name / is Ice Berg /冰山.” Your name is often mispronounced by English-speakers as something more akin to “Ice Berg.” Is this moment an example of you imagining your life and work as ice berg-like? As a voice that “perforates” in different ways across different languages? You include the untranslated Chinese characters (“冰山”)—which Johannes also left untranslated. Are you charging us to contemplate how identity or authorship mutates when it’s translated across languages?
AB: Yes, I am. Translation is a kind of hacking. My poetry is considered to be more or less untranslatable, and still, Johannes succeeded to interpret it and give it life in English. Sometimes I think it’s even better in English. It has to do with letting your text be out of control. I start a process in Swedish. I don’t take responsibility for it’s growth. That means I’m free to use any language I like. I use the Chinese (I don’t speak Chinese) because I wanted to focus on Chinese hackers, and parts of the collection are taking place in Asia. But also because language is organic.
And yes, I feel like an Ice Berg. Hackers is autobiographical, but on the other hand, all my collections are, even if I write from the perspective of a lemur or whatever. I can’t write from a lemur’s point of view without becoming a lemur. The organic process of writing is, in a way, a shaman practice, although I highly reject the New Age. Again: know your enemy better than yourself. I can’t say I like the ice berg, but I know how to hack into it and, in a way, “understand” it. I’m very interested in understanding the cold. The unfriendly materials. The unfriendly creatures. It’s like existing in a H.P. Lovecraft universe. Complete indifference. The opposite of Disney, the opposite of swimming with dolphins. I am very inspired by the movie Grizzly Man—I don’t identify with Timothy Treadwell seeking love and friendship from the bears, I identify with Werner Herzog when he says that all he finds in the eye of the bear is “the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
PC: I was thinking of Valerie Solanas’ life and work as I read Hackers. I thought of her many selves and I thought of survival. I thought of her play Up Your Ass and a line of dialogue from the character named Russell: “The two-sex system must be right; it’s survived hundreds of thousands of years.” Bongi replies: “So has disease.” Bongi is likened to a “desexed monstrosity” and near the end of the play she says her only consolation in life is her selfhood. She later fantasizes about women who enter a room like a “blinding flash” or women who resemble a “neon light.” It seems Solanas’ ideal woman is one who can travel like electricity. A bodiless woman. An infectious substance. Similarly, you are working with your own threateningly poetic “language of air, irrational particles.” Is the poetry of Hackers something closer to an airborne disease?
AB: This is interesting! Of course I’m inspired by Valerie Solanas—she doesn’t follow the rules of logic. I’m inspired by her despair and her aggression. And yes, I want Hackers to get under the skin of the reader, to change the reader. An interesting thing with the Swedish reviews was that they hardly mentioned the computer hacking angle at all. Since the critics are insecure of what I’m actually doing. I don’t know computer science myself, I don’t know the practice of computer hacking, but I got at lot of help from a friend who knows everything about this. I wanted to start a hacking process in the book that even I myself am not fully aware of. So maybe the book is doing something with the reader similar to a disease—we can’t fully grasp it. I hope it’s like toxoplasmosis. You know: it’s a parasite that forces the mouse to act domesticated towards the cat. It takes away the mouse’s fear, then the cat easily catches it. Then the parasite turns the wild animal, the cat, into a pet, and there you are—the toxoplasma gondii has access to human beings. Research is in progress, but the researchers think that toxoplasmosis can create depression, schizophrenia, and even suicide. It’s also said to make men more stupid and women more beautiful. I wanted to create a parasite like this in language, that might grow on its own—like a meme. Hubris? Yes! But, still, no narcissistic validation. Because I will never know if it succeeded.
PC: “Private Manning trojanizes, then changes sex in jail where she will spend the rest of her life for aiding the enemy. There is a female freedom.” How did you respond to the news of Chelsea Manning being pardoned back in January?
AB: Society needs whistleblowers, more than they can imagine. Otherwise, society will finally destroy itself. Hacking is healthy. It’s not only a disease, it’s also a cure. To keep your minds free, instead of turning into idiots.
PC: Are you setting up a relationship with womanhood and disappearance in the way very specific words (“beforesses,” “disappearesses”) are being feminized? What is it that’s being “boiled” away?
AB: Among other things, the nuclear family is being boiled away. Capitalism and patriarchy grows on it. The norm of behavior attached to being a woman. When Glenn Close is boiling the rabbit in Fatal Attraction (I reference this in the book) she is also boiling the expectations of being a woman. The expectations of motherhood, being a good wife and so on. The nuclear family is pure evil.
PC: Is the “barn environment” of Hackers a synthetic landscape? A place where source code “pecks” its way into the deepest darkness of the net? Is “server” another word for “farm”? What is being grown in this darkness?
AB: In a way, yes. The countryside is in a way beyond civilization. It’s an insecure space. Since I’ve been living in the “barn environment” for almost ten years, on a farm in the north of Sweden, in the middle of nowhere, I identified with the vulnerability. You are very vulnerable against nature, against the weather conditions. That means there are spots of real danger, things out of one’s control. Like the real cold. Like, when it’s 30 degrees below zero and you get stuck in your car somewhere without mobile net. It’s dangerous, you may freeze to death. Or when electricity just won’t work for a couple of days due to some storm. Then you don’t even have water.
To be able to hack, you need vulnerable spots. Living in nature is a way of identifying them, in yourself and in others.
PC: The language of your poetry often puns in very dynamic ways. What value do you think punning has in poetry?
AB: The punning means that you are splitting yourself into pieces, many different angles at the same time. This also goes for language. You are able to say five contradicting things in one word. And these contradictions will start fighting each other inside the word, and that’s what makes it dynamic, gives it a life of its own.
PC: What has your relationship been like working with Johannes Göransson over the years? Are you working on any new projects of your own? Are there any contemporary Swedish poets you’re currently reading?
AB: Johannes does what he wants with my poetry, I totally trust him. We have also become friends and we spent a lot of crazy days together. Traveling with him, I learned a lot about the USA, about people and traffic and your—sometimes a bit strange—behavior. Maybe this knowledge is not always totally accurate.
At the moment I am studying copywriting, as I mentioned, to become immune against it and to hack it, and that might turn into poetry. I’m also writing a lyrical essay on the status of political fear in Sweden (quite similar, I guess, to the political fear in the rest of Europe and even in the U.S.), together with Niklas Wahllöf, another critic, from Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. It’s an aggressive and funny book, and it’s an interesting process to write an essay together. This book will be released in the fall.
As for reading, my favorite poet at the moment is Helena Boberg.
Aase Berg is the author of seven books of poetry in Swedish as well as various works of fiction and prose. Three of her books of poetry—Hos Rådjur (With Deer), Mörk Materia (Dark Matter), and Forsla fett (Transfer Fat)—as well as Remainland: Selected Poems of Aase Berg have been translated into English by Johannes Göransson.