the cosmic internet

scan of Jenny Hval's typographic representation of a cosmic internet

Is there a difference–or, how big could the difference really be–between a defunct network that may have stuttered along for just a year or two, thirty or forty years ago, and a fictional network that never existed at all? If the late 20th century and 21st century have taught us anything at all it’s that the boundary between reality and fiction is constantly eroding, despite our best efforts, which also means that the boundary between what we call ‘history’ and fiction is equally eroding.

I have been collecting examples of “other networks” (networks that preceded the internet or that existed or that still exist outside of the internet) for about six years now. No surprise, the closer the network is to the present moment, the more it stands as a kind of blasphemous gesture to “the” internet. As Jenny Hval puts it in her novel Girls Against God, “Blasphemy protects us against the moral fables with grew up with; blasphemy renounces anything that requires our submission. It shows us a crack in this reality, through which we can pass into another, more open meeting place.” And while I’m now also convinced by Legacy Russell’s observation in Glitch Feminism that “Using the Internet to play, perform, explore still has potential. Giving ourselves this space to experiment perhaps brings you…closer to a projection of a ‘sustainable future'” (23), suggesting that there’s still room to blaspheme on the network you’re reading this blog post on, I’m equally convinced by the potential of imagining something just completely other.

So then why not turn to experimental fiction for yet more other networks? As it drifts across time periods and musings about capitalism, patriarchy, communes, witches, and the power of anger, hatred, the body and filth, Hval’s Girls Against God also dips into imagining another internet. Early in the book she describes it as a form of “intimacy through the body’s waste and secretions. A self-constructed network between bodies.”

By the last third of the novel, the network has become “the cosmic internet”–the first fictional other network I’ve come across. I quote it at length below.

“What began as a mere sensation is beginning to take form, the form of another internet. We’re starting to hear the drone more clearly now, inside echoing sound effects and programs with compilation errors, far down the deep web. And we hear it from other places too. It calls to us when we water the tomato plants near the modem. We’ve started to notice little formations and signs in the steam from the teakettle…as if all around us new life forms are emerging. We notice that when we see these signs, the ordinary internet becomes difficult to use. The router blinks yellow, is interrupted or made useless by a hellish mess. Spam flows unfiltered into the inbox and videos we didn’t search for start playing on the screen, like a poltergeist throwing things around inside our machines.

Terese, Venke and I christen this internet the cosmic internet.

Dear god, you can’t touch this, says Terese.

And then we switch the internet off…Instead, we daisy-chain our computers and create a communal text document, a hex dialogue between them. This time we’re going to track down the cosmic internet ourselves. We’ll summon it side by side, at the kitchen table in the witches’ den.

The cosmic internet communicates through noise, we note in our dialogue. It creates confusion, poor connections, pixelated images and digital one-way streets. If it’s discovered, it’ll be banned immediately, but since the government will never be completely sure it exists, within the existing definitions of existences, the legislation will have to be abstract and ineffective, incorporated with grew writing in the documents’ annoying and disruptive grew areas, meaning margins, notes and footnotes…

The cosmic internet can hardly be used for money transfers, shopping, credit checks or advertising, Venke writes.

But it will be possible to transit cosmic internet signals through the bank’s fibre optics, making money straight up disappear from their numeric systems, I argue.

Or maybe transform the numbers to a stinking mass of fat, oozing from the USB ports, Terese suggests, inspired by her sourdoughs.

USB-pores, I reply.

The cosmic internet is an ancient witch commune, don’t you think? Venke writes.

Sounds a little esoteric, I type back. Couldn’t it be for everyone?

It’s an open network, Venke replies immediately.

It can be fuelled by human matter, and the electricity from our own bodies, Terese replies, and I add that that’s at least how my heands feel right now.

We agree that in the long run, when it trusts us, the web will evolve into a fleshy peer-to-peer network, where a small part of your flesh is always seeding.

It won’t hurt, but you’ll feel it in the form of connections and sensations occurring in the body…

It shouldn’t distinguish between body and data, or living and dead, Venke writes, and presses the point even though she can hear Terese giggling next to her.

We agree that in the most extreme instances, you should be able to log on to the cosmic internet and exchange small pieces of flesh with other bodies out there in the hereafter, and then feel a leg or an arm snatched at, as your body comes into contact with the half-composted dimensions.

…That’s where we can meet. There’s where we can write. That’s how I want to write. Now, I’m writing.” (149-151)

Jenny Hval, Girls Against God: A Novel