Hyperrhiz 10: Special feature: e-lit reviews

A Reading of Sharon Daniel's Public Secrets from the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2

Caroline Godart

Rutgers University


This paper was presented at the roundtable "Reading the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2," as part of the graduate conference "Intermediality in the Digital Arts" held at Rutgers University on March 2, 2013.


Daniel, Sharon and Eric Loyer, Public Secrets. Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2. Electronic Literature Organization, 2011.

Internet users tend to gravitate towards familiar sites. Yet one of the great joys of the web, and one of its most innovative qualities, is to give us immediate and unrestricted access to milieus other than our own. On blogs and websites, whole worlds unfold from the inside, and in a matter of seconds, the dreams and concerns of groups as disparate as U.S. transgender teenagers, recent North African immigrants, or feminist Christian mothers become reality. We can witness conversations among peers, get a sense of a movement or a community not only through its present, but also through its history, and get a glimpse of what its future may hold — in other words, the internet has the unique capacity to bring humanity much closer to itself.

Such is the work that Public Secrets accomplishes. It is a stunning, if heart-rending piece of electronic literature composed by Sharon Daniel and designed by Erik Loyer, which consists of a series of interviews with female inmates of the CCWF, the Central California Women's Facility. As is well-known, the California State Prison System is in dire straits: in 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that California's prison system was so bad that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, an infringement of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. "Public Secrets," which was first published in 2007 , plunges us into a labyrinth of invisible corridors and dark, overcrowded prison cells; into a world where common law has ceased to apply, even though this is the very epicenter of the U.S. legal system; into a universe of despair peopled by women whose lives have been torn to pieces by the blind cruelty of a mushrooming carceral apparatus that has completely lost its sense of direction.

The site opens with an oral introduction by Sharon Daniel herself. Daniel works as a legal advocate for Justice Now, a human rights organization. She describes the space surrounding the carceral facility that she is visiting to record the voices of its inmates, insisting on mentioning the three-million-dollar fence and the manicured lawns that surround the prison. She points out both the separation between the outside and the inside that is at the very heart of the concept of the prison, and the illusory nature of that separation, as the prison is in fact surrounded by impoverished communities of color whose members make up the majority of its population. As she speaks, the Manichaean screen becomes divided between two surfaces (black at the top and white at the bottom) that are composed of moving square shapes. These lend a visual rhythm to Daniel's voice and they seem to refer to good and evil, to the racism that underlies the prison system, and to the alienating machinery that entraps inmates. The soundtrack is marked by a cold, worrisome melody, unidentifiable human voices, and the occasional sharp sound that evokes a prison door. As Daniel stops speaking, the sounds, too, come to an end and the images finally stabilize, splitting the screen into two immobile areas, black at the top and white at the bottom. Zones of text emerge, which we understand to be excerpts from interviews with prisoners. For instance: "See, people don't commit crimes just because that was on their list for the day, you know," or "Inside and outside in-determine each other," or "Women are getting slammed with more time than men for the same crimes." If our mouse stays above one of these zones of text, we can hear the voice of a female inmate for a minute or two. If left untouched, the blurbs rapidly disappear into the void, conjuring up the fate of the many prisoners who become lost in the system when their cases are not reexamined as they are supposed to be. By clicking on the text, we can read what we are hearing and click on 'More,' which then brings us to another page with related topics, or to more excerpts from the same woman. On this new page, another box will say 'More,' which will open yet another page, itself featuring a box saying 'More' — it quickly seems that there is no end and no escape.

The testimonies are brutal and lucid. For example, an inmate by the name of Jane Dorotnik remarks that, "If you self-abuse, you are destroying state property. And it's a very clear message that your body, any part of you, is state property. I mean it's very ugly. There's no acknowledgement that it's your body, it's state property. They — I've — I have actually known women who have inadvertently become severely sunburned out in the sun, and they have been given a 115 for damaging state property. Yeah. I could name names. Yes. A 115 is — that's the title of it. It's a disciplinary action. It can net you loss of time, thirty days longer here."

Testimonies such as this one are crushing for the system they indict, and also for the rest of us, who realize by-and-by how tacitly complicit we are in the horrors of the carceral world. For what we find is nothing but the very public secret of the title: indeed, this oxymoron reverberates the initial tension between the inside and the outside, and comes to evoke the absence of a public conversation around a topic that everybody knows about but that people prefer to ignore — that of the inhumane yet exploding prison system in California, and beyond it, throughout the United States. The secrecy is, as Daniel reminds us, reinforced by the fact that it has become extremely difficult for inmates to make their voices heard: since 1993, the California Department of Corrections has forbidden the media access to all its facilities, after a series of news stories revealing the ghastly conditions in which inmates are kept. (Daniel was only able to record these testimonies because she works for a human rights organization).

Further, the author draws out the contradiction between the licit and the illicit. Common sense would have it that the prison is the space in which the law would apply its own rules to the highest level, while keeping criminals from hurting law-abiding people. Yet the line is blurred between the perpetrator and the victim, between what is right and legal, and what is wrong and illicit: an inmate remarks that a lot of women are incarcerated because they fought back against an abusive relative; another one attributes all crimes to an initial lack of love, and evokes the many cases in which women have found themselves arrested for being with partners who were criminals; yet another prisoner, who was a nurse before her incarceration, suggests that the majority of the inmates suffer from mental illness.

On the other hand, all of them detail in vivid terms the cruelty of the prison system and describe it as a zone in which human and civil rights are systematically disrespected. Sordid, unbearable facts abound, perhaps none so grueling as those that pertain to the inmates' health: they are left in a state of permanent hunger and exhaustion resulting from lack of food and space (in each cell, each night, eight women must try to fall asleep in a room designed for four). Hygiene is deplorable and toilet paper usually absent. But it is the medical apparatus itself that is the most appalling. Several inmates report that the system deliberately obstructs patients' access to care: they describe doctors refusing to look at charts that are before their eyes; others fiddling with results to deny patients their medication; and gynecologists abusing their patients sexually. A prisoner suggests that pharmaceutical companies are testing drugs on them. Many inmates have very serious diseases: HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, diabetes. Most shockingly, the rate of cancer is extremely high in this prison, and appears to be linked to the deliberate neglect that took place when the jail removed asbestos from its walls in the 1990s: inmates were made to go to lunch through the contaminated dust, without protection. Daniel shows that in Californian prisons the arbitrary reigns, which is the very opposite of our conception of law as the realm of reason. Abuse is pervasive, either from guards or from other inmates, and recourse is nonexistent (guards will punish you for speaking up and inmates will beat you up).

The site contains not only testimonies from prisoners, but also facts and philosophical reflections related to the carceral system. These are presented in the exact same format as that of the testimonies, foregrounding the equal value of these different kinds of texts. We learn, for instance, that the California prison system has grown extremely rapidly in the past thirty years. The website explores the economic and political ramifications of this carceral boom: "The California Department of Corrections spending has exploded, from just under $300 million in 1984 to the current $5.7 billion a year. More is spent on the prison system than on education. This expansion has transformed remote, rural and financially struggling towns into thriving economic hubs in the prison industrial complex [...] The prison guards union is a political behemoth that contributes to both Democratic and Republican governors and legislators. Since prison populations are disproportionately comprised of people of color, these communities become effectively disempowered in the political realm". Indeed, as Angela Davis notes, "Prisons are about the transformation of imprisoned bodies, which are in majority bodies of color, into sources of profit." Above all, at the core of Public Secrets is Giorgio Agamben's concept of "bare life," which suggests that a prisoner is reduced from political life, which includes rights and an identity, to naked, biological life — a life deprived of human rights and dignity. Prisoners are, as Daniel points out, ideologically acceptable victims of maltreatment, neglect, and abuse. The website thus walks us through a carceral universe in which the concept of rehabilitation has become extinct, and in which human lives are thrown to the mercy of a philosophy of punishment and domination, as well as the devouring appetite of capitalist expansion.

And yet, Public Secrets is very absorbing. I spent hours wandering through the website, getting lost in the sea of testimonies, awed by the cleverness of its organization, which is so apt at making one feel without escape, and deeply troubled and enraged. This unexpected tension between browsing pleasures and the pain that they trigger invites a reflection into the site's appeal. In the first instance, we are drawn in by the format of the testimonies themselves, which are short enough to keep our attention, but long enough to make a point. Further, we cannot multi-task (or break free) because the written statements disappear if the mouse doesn't stay on them. But most importantly, the site seduces us through its masterful integration of different media, and in particular through its play on the visible, the invisible, and sound.

One of the most distinctive features of Public Secrets in this age of pervasive visual excess is its absence of images. As mentioned before, Daniel informs us that she was not able to film her subjects because it has become illegal to bring a camera into California State Prisons. Yet she could have inserted pictures from other sites, or even illustrations — the ignominious public secret is public precisely because those images are, in spite of all, widely available. Who hasn't seen shots of chained prisoners or of dismal prison cells? Therefore, the visual absence must not only be seen as a legal constraint but also as a deliberate choice, the effects of which need to be examined.

The site is articulated around an aesthetic line, marked by the stark graphics and sound effects, that reflects the cold, cruel logic of imprisonment and bare life. We never see any of the women whom we hear speak. Yet paradoxically, the fact that we cannot see them renders them more accessible. We are not distracted by the physical distance that vision would establish between them and us: we would see the prison uniform, the signs of fatigue, the squalor, and perhaps attitudes or gestures that would mark them as different from us — all these elements would probably make us feel safe, insurmountably different from the inmates. Instead, the prisoners are terribly close to us: from their voices to our ears, between the computer and us, there is only a short invisible thread. They have invited themselves into our apartments and our houses. In other words, they come into our intimacy as much as we gain access to theirs. The carceral world extends itself, and as Daniel remarks as we try to exit the labyrinth, we never want to realize how much the two worlds are enmeshed — which is why the public secret is so well kept. Only the voice, separated from the image, can bridge the gap between them and us, as the distance of vision is replaced by the inescapable nearness of the other's timbre.

It will not come as a surprise, in this context, that these women's voices are often singularly deep and gentle, even as they are raging at their abysmal living conditions. This melodiousness produces a sense of closeness and intimacy that is so paramount to the site's purposes that one is almost tempted to believe that Daniel has selected the participants for the richness of their voices. The embrace of aestheticism does not stop there, as turns of phrase are often, yet always unexpectedly, poetic (for example, one inmate says that "this prison is full of people who've been lost in love"). Life, not naked, but full and artistic, thus infiltrates the narratives, as a testimony to the irreducibility of the human and, to a certain degree, to the failure of the State to turn these women into bare life. In sum, by stripping us of vision, Public Secrets replicates the prison's harrowing mission to take away freedom. Yet it also shows that jails fall short in their devastating endeavor — what remains is the depth of sound and of our common humanity.


Works Cited

  1. Public Secrets first appeared in Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, Volume 2, Issue 2 (Winter 2007) («http://vectors.usc.edu/projects/index.php?project=57») and is now anthologized in Electronic Literature Collection Volume 2http://collection.eliterature.org/2/works/daniel_public_secrets.html»).

DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/010.s01