Wunderkammer: a Hyper-Cabinet

Dan Stein

Shelly Jackson's My Body is not your ordinary exhibition. As Wayne Huang describes it,

Shelley Jackson's piece, My Body, comes off as voyeuristic and exhibitionistic, but not in the traditional senses of these words. Like a voyeur, visitors of the site can see Jackson's "body" without her knowledge, undressing her with a simple click of the mouse and gai! ning intimate knowledge of her experiences with her body. Like an exhibitionist, Jackson can expose her body for all the world to see"

The idea of the Wunderkammen, or "Wonder Cabinet" is not a new one. In fact, it dates all the way back to 1550.

The first Wunderkammer was established in Vienna in 1550; for perhaps one hundred years such collections flourished, but by the middle of the seventeenth century they were rapidly vanishing. As early as The Advancement of Learning (1605), where Bacon calls for the "substantial and severe collections of the Heteroclites or Irregulars of nature," wonder-cabinets were derided as "frivolous impostures for pleasure and strangeness." (source)

Does Jackson imply, by using the word, Wunderkammer, that the body which she presents to us is a collection of "Irregulars of nature"? She certainly seems to present the pieces of her body as irregular, or least in an irregular light.

In my mind's eye I was a leering giant, gesticulating and capering around the little people, making them laugh, just one jot off a Frankenstein monster. My parts didn't match; I couldn't even make them move smoothly together when I thou! ght I was being watched. I scrutinized myself in the shop windows on my way home from school and cringed at my hustle, the way my butt stuck out so I could take big steps, the way my jeans strained over my thighs, the funny bulge someone might take fo! r a penis where my jeans bunched up in front.(source)

Whether or not Jackson meant that her body-parts are irregular, there is a more important reason for why this web should be labeled a Wunderkammer. Why not a museum? A collection? There is a fundamental difference between the Wunderkammer and the m! useum that directly applies to Jackson's My Body and even to the use of hypertext as a medium through which she presents this body.

...a wonder-cabinet is not a museum, not even a vague or half-formed gesture towards one. Its relation to later forms of collection is a discontinuous one, even when the objects displayed were themselves preserved and carried over... Th! e museum as an institution rises from the ruins of such collections, like country houses built from the dismantled stonework of dissolved monasteries; it organizes the wonder-cabinet by breaking it down--that is to say, by analyzing it, regrouping the! random and the strange into recognizable categories that are systematic, discrete, and exemplary. The museum represents an order and a categorical will to knowledge whose absence--or suspension--is precisely what is on display in a room such as Cope's [wonder-cabinet]... No system determines the organiztion of the objects on display or separates one variety of the marvellous from another. We are surprised when upon entering the room, but our surprise is occasioned not so much by! the individual items we encounter, impressive as they are, as by the immediate, even immoderate familiarity thay show for whatever joins them. These are things on holiday, randomly juxtaposed and displaced from any proper context; the room they inhabit acts as a liberty or sanctuary for ambiguous things, a kind of half! way-house for transitional objects, some new but not yet fully assimilated, others old and headed for cultutural oblivion, but not yet forgotten or cast off. Taken together, they compose a heteroclite order without hierarchy or degree... (source)

This description of the Wonder Cabinet almost seems to be describing the entire genre of hypertext writing -- stressing the lack of order, hierarchy, and categories, and highlighting the links between the objects on display. Clearly, Jackson needed! to paint a multi-faceted picture and I believe she found the perfect canvas -- a digital one.

Discussion of Patchwork Girl Overview Screen for Website Body and Self Theory