:: Article

Tiny Acts of Witchcraft: A review of Aase Berg’s Hackers

By Laura Joyce.

Hackers review

Aase Berg, Hackers, translated by Johannes Göransson (Black Ocean, 2017)

Wanting to get close to one’s abuser is no sickness. Wanting to create a cocoon of normalcy when one is subjected to a crime is no syndrome.” This line comes from the poem ‘Stalkers’ and is voiced by Bibiana, an imagined alter-ego of Natascha Kampusch, one of the main subjects of Aase Berg’s latest collection, Hackers. The real Natascha Kampusch was held captive in a basement in Austria for more than eight years, before escaping in 2006. Kampusch-as-character narrates that: “For the next seven years Bibiana would become my new identity, even if the perpetrator never completely managed to eradicate the old one.” Berg’s insistence on the personhood of Kampusch is essential to her complex understanding of gendered violence and its multiple harms. Kampusch, or Bibiana, is not “sick” to want “a cocoon of normalcy” by developing an intimate relationship with her abuser, but in fact this is framed as a creative response, an act of radical self-care. Berg refuses to accept the common view of Stockholm Syndrome as a binary of victim/abuser, and rather portrays Kampusch-as-Bibiana as having agency, even in such constricted circumstances.

Hackers was first released in Swedish in 2014 and translated this year by Johannes Goranssön for Black Ocean press. The collection is presented in the style of a Loeb classical text, with facing pages containing the original Swedish and the English translation. By reading the poem titles, the thematic and ideological concerns of the book become clear: ‘Penthesilea, rasa’, ‘Motormännen // The Motor Men’, ‘Sexkonst och ridkonst // The Art of Sex and The Art of Riding’, ‘Hyperparasiter // Hyperparasites’, ‘Stalkers // Stalkers’, ‘Hackers // Hackers’, ‘Konsten att tala med hästar // The Art of Speaking With Horses’, ‘Hård omstart // Hard Reset’. This combination of the technological and the biological speaks to the “hacking” concept that characterises the book. Hacking here means disrupting and resetting technological systems, but it also means hacking patriarchy, hacking binaries. Hacking can be understood as an agricultural term, as in hacking crops, or as a violent one, as in hacking to death. This evocation of violent death is not accidental, and the central conceit of voicing Natascha Kampusch is clearly intended to show the proximity of toxic masculinity to computer hacking and online cultures.

Before the first poem, ‘Penthesilea, rasa’, there is a standalone introductory poem, titled simply ‘This is a threat’, which incorporates the Anonymous slogans “We are Anonymous. We are Legion.We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect usalways” that have some overlap with Chan culture. This juxtaposition of the Anonymous collective with a section narrated from the multiple-first person perspective of “the woman trap” sets up a hostile opposition, whilst indicating a parasitic relation between the bodies engaging in the “spiralling fever pitch” of “the women’s rights movement” and “the slop-fleshed parasites” that they sustain. The ecologies of online terrorism, Berg suggests, are sticky and enmeshing. It is hard not to read this invocation of Chan culture as anything other than a comment on the codification of male white supremacy. But the narrator is also a “woman trap”, “a hostess animal” offering both terror and solace, the challenge, the game. Berg’s final lines in the section – “Our machines are fine-tuned into a frozen gaze” – finds a shattering contrast in the first poem, which deals with the violent literality of the male gaze.

Berg begins her collection by recalling the story of the female warrior Penthesilea, who according to legend, was murdered by Achilles. The Penthesilea Painter’s vase painting from 470-460 BCE depicts Penthesilea and Achilles with their eyes locked at the moment of her death at the tip of his spear. The vase painting offers the salacious viewer voyeurism of two kinds, by combining the moment of death with a moment of lust. In this forensic split second, Achilles both kills and desires his prey. This moment of her death is captured in the line “red trickles behind, in front of the eyelid”. The clean simplicity of the vase painting is ruptured by the cumulative descriptions of violence on the battlefield: “battlefield molossoids, giant elephants, the smoke from war stallions, patterns from chest supports and diaphragms pressed in the skin, shivering thighs that tighten, inner muscles, sunk into seat—”. Simultaneously, the mythic quality of Penthesilea is destroyed when Berg tells us that she “would never—repeat, NEVER!—cut off her right breast
to make it easier to carry arms”. This dual obliteration of the cleanness of male violence, and the mythic unreality of Amazonian aberrance, begins to break down the aesthetic tidiness of the myth of Penthesilea, bringing it back into the realm of the “smeared body” and “intestinal parasite”, of biological rupture, and cannibalistic relations. The conflation between hacker/hag is applicable to Penthesilea, who is both categorised as a witch-like figure, almost supernaturally skilled in battle, and is literally a hacker, using her spear in battle. Through these tiny acts of witchcraft in a collection that both reproduces and interrogates patriarchal violence and its necrotising effect, and the hags/hackers who are revitalising these dead zones, Berg’s collection manages to offer some small hope. This portrait is a hacked hagiography, reclaiming Penthesilea’s mythology as a precursor to the compassionate retelling of Kampusch’s story later in the collection.

‘The Motor Men’ signals very clearly the division between predator and prey, opening with a quotation attributed to Natascha Kampusch, that could equally be applied to the relation between Achilles and Penthesilea: “You only fall in love with the prey to whom you can feel superior.” The dangerous line between love and obsession, and the lethal consequences of the latter, are evoked through descriptions of mental illness and drug abuse where “the abuser’s ruthlessness turns into a manic trance, from which he increasingly fears waking up” in a town where there is deadly “Black ice”, and “People in sweatpants
No busy men
Amphetamine & spice”. Here the environmental danger of “black ice” is replicated in the lethal legal highs that dominate the town’s post-industrial landscape, in the “factory town” which acts as the farthest edge of Kampusch’s incarceration, surrounding the house in which she is imprisoned.

Yet Berg turns this banal horror into a fantastic one, where there is the “friction of slowly petrifying lava. A horse grazes next to the highway, sap dissolving in its warm intestines. Inflated and hovering along foraging paths, the horse devours the world’s calm.” The figure of the horse, which recurs throughout the book, is a reminder of a body, which is kept alive only while it is useful, and only while it, has been tamed. A wild horse, like a hag or a hacker, cannot be safely assimilated by those who would dominate it, and an “unhealthy animal” either mentally or physically, is not to be condoned: “If you’re an animal here you are either alive or dead. Either healthy and hearty or a bullet in your forehead.”

The breaking of a horse is the only way to develop the “art” of riding, and it is no accident that this invocation of riding is so proximate to sexuality in the next section, ‘The Art of Sex and the Art of Riding’. In an echo of the psychological trauma inflicted on a tamed horse, Bibiana recounts how her expectations, desires, and dreams have changed under her long capture: “And I began to feel grateful to my captor. Toward the end of the year he would satisfy one of my strongest desires: a moment beneath the bare sky. I am very, very happy. So please, hit me.” This extract paraphrases the relationship that Bibiana has with her captor, a man who has reduced her world so completely, that she is grateful for the moment he allows her “beneath the bare sky”. Yet there is a parasitical opposite hidden inside this message, which we are invited to read in earnest as well as ironically – the ability to truly feel joy in a “moment beneath the bare sky” is almost unintelligibly lost to many of us, incapable as we are of detaching from our networks long enough to perceive this reality. That this moment is bought by such extreme violence shows its potential impossibility. The universality of this anxiety is explained as Berg states that, “The human race is worried.
The big questions is: Can we make it? 
16 Gigabyte insane memory?
Through the blood-brain barrier, reconfigure the signal substance?” The scale and complexity of the problems that face the human race on an individual and collective basis are shown as hybrid: “Gigabyte” juxtaposed with “insane” and “blood-brain barrier” contrasted with “reconfigure the signal substance”. These grotesque cyborg natures are rendered formally in terms such as “Slimeringslickfishsmirrs” in crystallised scenes where “the fur boils
in the glowing dusk” and in the “Hyperparasites” section:

Nanoblack horses, vantablack net-fishing for the Polaris pearl. A hard, dull, synthetic pearl. Or Pinctada margaritifera-cumingi, grown in mussels in Tahiti. Local pollution gives the pearl its color. But the core of the true pearl from Bahrain is not a grain of sand. Small holes in the oyster shell indicates a parasite. In the soft parts in the slow-slacking intestinal flora of the hover- horse. Along the silk roads of the ocean, the blank pearl of the motor men’s helmets whirl in the same moonlight, same foam.

This extremely beautiful section combines contemporary ecological horror – “local pollution gives the pearl its color”; “small holes in the oyster shell indicates a parasite” – with anxieties around global capital “along the silk roads of the ocean” with its echo of the online black marketplace Silk Road perceived as a place of business for weapons, child pornography and even contract killings.

‘Hackers’, which is rendered in the same way in both the Swedish and English versions, also presents the speaker, Kampusch/ Bibiana as an object available on “the free net and the dark one” where her attributes include:

body parts
scattered in the relief of 
Incredible Deniability 
You have no idea
what beautiful breasts I have 
What pale hands
slink sensually through nets 
The free net and the dark one 
eternally lonely
in my algorithmic sequence 
a misconfigured 
open proxy server 
Watch it
or I’ll call you scriptkiddie
smoked in the fumes of contempt, 
you will no longer
be a starfish

This melding, of the human and the technological, is neatly encapsulated in the image of the starfish, a weird sea creature that can auto-graft new limbs when violently ruptured and rebuilding itself under only the most intense trauma. In ‘Hackers’, Berg reminds us that “[t]here are three ways of handling danger: Fight, 
Flight or Play Dead”. This serves as a subtle gloss on rape narratives, where survivors are disbelieved if they cannot prove that they fought, even though playing dead is the response most likely to offer a chance of survival. Rape, of course, is less clear-cut than this formulation accounts for, and in the cases of serial rape, intimate partner or familial rape, or date rape in particular, the issue is lack of consent, or coercion, rather than imminent and immediate physical danger. “Playing dead” can encompass a range of emotional labours and protections from harm, and the “playing” can turn into something more insidious, the necrotic trauma zones that become unreachable, locked, dead.

The fantasy that Berg offers in her final poem is that of the ‘Hard Reset’, the chance to start from scratch. The battlefield of the first poem is re-introduced, along with the ruined images of horses:

Death-horses, bluing death-horses, their bellies cut open, soldiers, always motor men without soup, carve their way in, protection against the cold among still fuming, snaking intestine, the meat-uterus’s meaningless return to rot, breaths dance across the snow field, dead field.

This battlefield is full of a “meaningless return to rot” with no option for the parasitical or the fungal eruption of new life to thrive. Here is a “snow field”, a “dead field”. While on the surface this appears to be a limiting strategy with no hope of renewal, in fact, taken in conjunction with the poem’s title, it is clear that the lack of bio-futurity, and the removal of the symbiotic and parasitic relations, mean that this is indeed a ‘Hard Reset’. Anonymous, also, are given a hard reset, with their slogans made over by the character of Natascha Kampusch: who ends her part in the book by saying: “I wanted to go out in life like a grown woman. I do not forgive. But I do forget. I am not Here, not Before. I am: an Other.” By taking the individual hacked hagiography of Penthesilea, and adapting it for Natascha Kampusch, Berg offers a hard reset on rape culture and online misogyny, and she finishes the book with a short manifesto that encapsulates this work: “Forced Conclusion: Take over man’s violence, one can queer it, go down in the end. But down below there is: Cunning, Cleverness, Foresight.” This collection does not offer the possibility of the erasure of all gendered violence, but it does offer ways to queer, hack and reset the dominant narratives that produce rape culture.


Laura Joyce

Laura Joyce‘s work focuses on the intersection of landscape, gender, and violence. She has published three books: The Museum of Atheism (Salt, 2012), The Luminol Reels (Calamari Press, 2014), and Luminol Theory (Punctum, 2017). She has two forthcoming critical books: Domestic Noir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and Contemporary Deadly Landscapes: Occupying Ovid’s Locus Terribilis (Bloomsbury, 2019). Her short fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in SporkPLINTH, The New Gothic (Stone Skin Press, 2014), Murmurations (Two Ravens Press, 2011), EntropySuccourMetazen, and Montevideyo. She was project coordinator of the Global Queer Cinema network (2012-2013). She currently teaches at the University of East Anglia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 24th, 2017.