ARA: How did you begin to think about our need for new fairytales?
AJA: I took a long break from living with a smart phone after mine was stolen, and I was struck by the difference in how I perceived and communicated. Aside from the phantom-limb like instinct of residual anxiety from being on constant alert to it, my focus shifted outward to my surroundings. As time passed, I experienced some boredom and loneliness, and knew I was missing out on some ways of connecting to loved ones across the world, but I felt a lot of freedom and relief. I started to wonder about the gaps in our social fabric beneath the sometimes toxic, sometimes affirming barrage of communication. While it feels good to take a break, there’s no return to a life without the virtual.
The pastoral dream that most fairy tales represent is far behind us and inaccessible. We need to acknowledge that we exist in these virtual modes, as well as physically in tight populations, requiring a new set of moral codes. There is no Davey Crockett of New York City. No matter how different the pieces of magic are, Germanic fairy tales constantly show us the same world. If we change that magical world to be more in harmony with our own, would we still have, for example, single-being deities? Or would we return to sprites, numerous and everywhere? There could be a goddess of the bodega on every block. We could tell stories of patron saints local to the communities that gave rise to them.
America has its priests and priestesses in celebrities: we look for heroes and elevate them into cultural icons and mythological figures. But while mythology is about a hero who is -not- you, fairy tales provide a bare bones outline and you have space to enter into them. They enchant us. They appeal to us in subtle ways. We crave them. It is possible that we are right now generating and improvising these new fairy tales without any monolithic center to the project. If so, how do we explore and share these? I think we need to begin by acknowledging our desire for them.
ARA: Can you say more about the link for you between story-telling and community, specifically the community of women?
AJA: I believe every story is told from a position within at least one community. If a story pretends to come from some universal, neutral ground of human nature, it is hiding something (such as privilege), and suppressing something else (such as epistemologies of the oppressed). We’ve had a tendency to elevate certain stories as more worthy, more interesting, or more beautiful than others. But virtual platforms are changing the map. Now the challenge is to discern the boundaries and bridges between the many perspectives being voiced. It is easy to get overwhelmed, or worse, feel shut out and isolated by the sheer volume and constantly shifting voices.
I’ve noticed that people in suppressed identity groups develop strong communities through their stories and demonstrate a capacity to adapt, celebrate, grieve, and thrive. I hope for that strength in the wide-ranging communities of feminism, which can feel fractured, especially when some groups break rank to align with other power structures, in a way that allows them to reject the community of women. This is where fairy tales come in for me—by holding on to an old form, we are passing on transgenerational traumas of distrusting not only our own instincts, but each other. I think that could be turned around.
ARA: Given the instructive nature of fairy-tales, what do we learn from the conventional form?
AJA: In his book, The Uses of Enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales, Bruno Bethlehem explains that “Unrealism is a device that implies interior processes rather than external reality.” I love, for instance, how dialogue is stilted and to the point–not realistic—and how the plot is magical rather than causal. The unnamed characters allow projections of the reader. Bethlehem explains one motive for the fascination with this form, “Every man wants to experience exceptional ordeals and gets them from fairy tales.”
Fairy tales are often considered to be for children with the exception of sci-fi (fairy tales about the future with realistic elements), for young adults and older readers. To paraphrase from Ricklin’s “Wishfulfillment and Symbolism in Fairy Tales, ” fairy tales are supposed to help us incorporate and cope with painful experiences — stories to protect and heal psychic wounds. This is particularly relevant, when we consider fairy tales as sexual education: preparing men and women for the potential psychic damage of sexual treatment, reproduction, and marriage. They create a baseline or kind of magical contract for the division between women, sabatoging our ability to create community and normalizing demands of patriarchical power.
For example, there’s a story about a family out in the woods somewhere. There’s a father, a stepmother, and two girls each from the other marriage. There are many stories that follow this format, and sometimes there are two daughters from the wrong marriage, and the one we’re told to root for is the daughter from the first marriage, the True Daughter. Anyway, there comes a moment in this family where the daughters experience a trial of some kind, usually to demonstrate moral virtue vis-a-vis marriageability as well as to determine a higher goodness between the two daughters. One is pure, trusting, and victorious, and the other is sarcastic, and ultimately defeated. A modern reading might reinterpret this daughter as feisty, confident, and honest, but in this context she is bad, and she either dies or suffers in some way.
We have two moral codes being communicated in this story form. The first is that a woman should neglect her own better judgment in order to trust some unknown man. In this stories, I see the other daughter not as an outsider but as the doubt a woman experiences navigating her patriarchal world. It divides the woman from her instinct and teaches her that it is not to be trusted. Because look! it all turned out okay in the end. The second instructional moral code here is that a community of women is an adversary. This household has three, maybe four women, and it’s immediately drawn in half because of the placement of the stepmother as the false head of this community. Our True Daughter therefore is aligned with the father. The trial is also usually instigated by the stepmother, removing her totally from a place of solace as the daughters embark on this trial. She is the curse to overcome, not a community to seek safe haven within.
These reinterpretations demonstrate one possible counter-theory to the prevalent traditional or even Freudian interpretations, in which the True Daughter is a sexual rival with the stepmother. They’re important reinterpretations because these fairy tales still play a role in our cultural indoctrination. The thing about magic beans and suitors who arrive as a strong gust of snow, or as a snake in the grass, is that they are laughable to argue with. But it’s also how they get so close: these structures of unrealism convince you that this is your own consciousness interpreting a disorganized world even though we know it’s presented under very specific, controlled conditions. The fairy tale wants you to think it’s more about you than it is the person, or the zeitgeist, that created it.
ARA: What would be one feminist reception of conventional Germanic fairy-tales? What might be a feminist re-imagining of fairy-tales as form?
AJA: We need to re-examine these stories, to seize their powers, and to rewrite what our civilization has claimed to be human nature. Fairy tales use confusion to the advantage of a nefarious moral agenda: keeping women in their place and marking any woman with self-possession as an enemy.
We see in fairy tales how power can make any identity its shell. Men in Euro-Germanic fairy tales are vessels of power. They often escape critical scrutiny because we encounter them in a genre designed for children, to be retired from consideration by puberty. But on second glance patterns emerge. In particular, patterns emerge in which women are only victorious when they maintain their innocence. Okay sure it has been observed that woman in Eurocentric narrative structures can only be the virgin or the whore. She exists to serve as a means for the self-actualization of the hero, in these cases.
What side effect this has on little girl readers is to cast themselves as the innocent, and every other woman malicious. That must change. Right now, communities of women are turning their attention to other magical objects and symbols — such as tarot and astrology — which could be a useful reference point. These are complementory belief systems that allow us to subvert exclusive power structures and find each other again.
As a woman navigating fairytales, I have to bring my own insticts rather than receive them as authoritative texts on human nature. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that readings other than my own are possible and important.
ARA: You are a woman working in the tech world. What is it like to navigate a space you also help to create?
AJA: For me, a substantial part of interacting with the physical and virtual world as a woman involves acknowledging my experiences — my difficult feelings, my physical discomfort, depression, insomnia, hypocricy, joy, excitement — that there isn’t often a safe place for. Sometimes I enter into a space and I understand it is not going to make room for what I value in my experience as a material being. Interacting in the professional sphere as a woman is a challenge, because we are often asked to compromise our own instincts for the good of the company, for instance. This is a common critique of capitalist-feminism, which recommends ‘leaning in’ to the demands of labor.
I’ve been working as a software engineer in the tech industry for five years now, and we have an especially acute problem in this domain of negating our needs, as workers. This applies to everyone, not just the kind of woman that I represent—as a white woman. We have this collective fantasy that we are at our best when we perform like machines: when we leave our feelings behind, and when we process information consistently, efficiently, and predictably.
Navigating this industry, I find myself constantly challenging the idea that my value is measured by how machine-like I can be. I believe my value depends on how human I can be. People are becoming more vocal about their own experiences as bodies in this techno-scape, challenging machine-fantasies. The relationship between the machine and the human is being re-negotiated, although haltingly. We’re still in the beginning phases of this transformation, and many people still experience an inner conflict between their beliefs and how they perform on a daily basis.
It’s tempting to see the techno-scape as respite from the cruelties of the world, and it is, but it has its limits. The Hacker Manifesto was a celebration of that, and I felt it too when I first came to software. Ah, I could breathe; I could accomplish something on my own, with no limits. I could free myself from existential anxiety. I am worth something. Unfortunately, power structures can’t help but recreate themselves, and it also makes no space for the parts of ourselves that we have learned to acknowledge and celebrate.
ARA: Reflecting on early manifestos on technology, gender, and culture, what can we build on? Specifically, Donna Haraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto, and MacKenzie Wark’s 1986 Hacker’s Manifesto?
AJA: Haraway describes the cyborg as a combination of machine and organism, and predicted that we are all cyborgs. She describes her project as “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.” It was part of an almost ecstatic moment of technological possibility. She addresses how existing with technology so closely will affect our thinking: “These machines are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals...imminently portable and mobile. They are as hard to see politically as materially. They are about consciousness—or its simulation.” I would like to go to a different future than the one she predicts, even though part of her vision has already been realized.
I think the Cyborg Manifesto transcribes unspoken beliefs held by many working in the tech field who would like to support bodies as rights-bearing entities but who are drawn in a different direction, in order to survive or succeed. That direction is ingesting the myth of the cyborg to evade the problems of interacting as bodies.
We seem to struggle when translating socio-political ideals into personal professional practice because of the enchanting myth of becoming a perfect machine.
MacKenzie Wark’s “The Conscience of a Hacker” (also known as “A Hacker’s Manifesto”), was published under the handle The Mentor, right after her arrest more than thirty years ago. She recently gave an interview, “How to be a 21st Century Marxist”, in which she revisits a few of her earlier ideas. She addresses our need to return to decisive moments in our social development with a mind to opening up the field of possibility, “To think of the past as a maze is to imagine the future as contestable.” This relates both to the ways we navigate the tecnological world and the stories that underlie our choices.
Wark condenses the tension between our machine-fantasies and physical experience, “Whatever this emerging or emergent mode of production is, it treats everything as reducible to information. So to what extent do bodies become known in detail?”
We have an evolving discourse contributing to a new common moral understanding.
It doesn’t resemble fairy tales formally, but is a shifting pattern of what is considered mainstream. The fairy-tale is the techno-scape itself, not a story about a family in the woods. There is a growing discomfort in the historical gatekeepers of social powers related to the shifting foundations of our values. We are revising moral codes by engaging in them: we are changing our landscape even as we occupy it. This is an important moment where the future is contestable: our symbols, our stories, our choices all have a chance to matter.
Andrea Applebee is a writer living in Athens, Greece. Her second book “Mercy Athena” has just been released in the Cahiers Series with Sylph Press. She has a forthcoming chapbook of poems, “Anemones”, from Magra Press.