A few years ago, I took part in a research study at an institute of parapsychology, an underground sub-field of psychology that deals with psychic abilities. I did not think I was a psychic, but I was in my second year of university and could have believed anything. The man who conducted the study led me into a windowless room with a hulking and unbranded pre-millennium computer. He said that I would have twenty minutes to complete a series of tasks on the computer; if I did so, I would receive $8 and a chocolate bar. He gave no other details.
When the program started, I solved basic math equations, spotted animated foxes hiding behind animated trees, and matched virtual shapes into virtual holes. The room seemed airless and it felt like I was being watched. Occasionally, the screen would freeze, but would quickly unfreeze when I double-clicked the mouse. The whole thing took thirteen minutes.
I felt proud until the researcher told me that swift completion of the program was inversely related to my psychic ability. These psychic abilities were not conscious, he clarified—like whether or not my mind could enter the mainframe—but rather the magnitude of my subliminal register: whether the wavelength of my anxiety, stress, and frustration limit could disrupt the computer system, negative affect converted to appliance-level electrical interference. They had embedded some glitches in the program to amplify confusion, but were looking to see if my subconscious could glitch it more profoundly. He confirmed that I did not seem to have these abilities. But ever since, I’ve wondered—did I imagine the screen freezing? Was that a glitch, or some old silence in me finally making itself known?
There are other things I now pay attention to. My neck inheriting a persistent crick many days in a row. The intermittent, unsourceable hum within the wall I hear when lying down, or an unnamable hunger for a rotted cucumber softened to semi-liquid state. This morning, by the river, I brought stale bread to feed some ducks that flew away at my approach. Today is stuccoed in white, made brighter because of the enveloping clouds that leave no variation between the color of the light and the sky.
One of the ducks stayed at a distance, solemn and strong-eyed. Instinct told me that this was my grandmother. It was probably not all of her, the way a spirit once released is not coextensive with one thing, but maybe the swirling memory of her knee or her questions about the Apple Store. I wanted to call out: “婆婆, is that you? Why have you left your body?”
There is a word in Mandarin for “glitch,” but as most translations go, it does not neatly correspond to the English meaning of the word. Google Translate says the Mandarin equivalent is 毛刺. Going back and forth, we get to a different place. Translated into English, 毛刺 means “mechanical burr.” A mechanical burr is an unwanted, deformed edge of metal turned outward, askew after grinding or drilling has taken place. To smooth and correct this, the metal piece undergoes a process called deburring. A glitch is similar in that it is a failure in a minor key, a moment of slippage when the code or the machine blunders and produces an unintended, random output.
I believe almost everything today can be described as a machine. A machine is a family, is a city, is a nation-state, is a person, is a Toyota Camry. The structuralist account insists that language is the machine preceding all other machines, as it allows the phenomenal world to be abstracted and given a face, which is to say that language, on a cognitive level, makes possible the experience of phenomena. Paul de Man, of the latter school of deconstruction, wrote, “If not for novels, no one would know for certain that he is in love.”1
With language, we get the idea of red that enables a chromatic impression to strike our minds; she or I are pronouns that discover personhood from a set of cognitive functions. In this sense, to be alive and conscious is to enter a machine of consecutive hallucinations put forward by words.
In one machine is my grandmother; in another is me. My grandmother lived in my auntie’s house, in a small room, and I left Singapore when I was five. Of the two languages she spoke, I never learned Hokkien and only recently started learning Mandarin.
My grandmother’s capacity for English extended only to the shrapnel phrases she picked up before dropping out of primary school. In English, she was a happy woman. Back then, I was nameless, referred to simply as “Boy!” When she came to visit us in New Zealand, a trip she took only once for burden of the redeye flight and the rasping winter winds, I skirted the edges of rooms and conversations, a gap-toothed insect of a boy who could not speak or be spoken to.
It’s true that when I speak of machines I also mean dimensions.
Because I cannot make it back to Singapore for her funeral, various family members recruit me to make a video of my grandmother for the church service. I choose Teresa Teng for the backing track, the only Cantonese singer I know.
All day I have received photos from unfamiliar phone numbers, photos spanning the last seven decades. I don’t know most of the people in the photographs. One has her as a teenager, holding a chicken. I linger on the avian connection between the chicken and the lone duck by the river. Three other people in the photo are also holding gormless chickens, their fingers interlaced under the breasts and thumbs pressing down on the spines like how you might press air out of a ball. There was a sepia note of joy on everyone’s faces. What was the significance of the chicken?
My sister calls me later and tells me there is a problem. After the funeral, the casket holding my grandmother’s body went to the cremator. My family was directed down a sequence of corridors to the Ash Collection Centre, where they entered a door with the sign, in bold font, PLEASE COLLECT HERE. Inside, a man came out holding a clear plastic bin, about double the size of a shoebox, which he set down on a piece of cloth.
In the box lay an irregular assortment of white fragments: bones, some ground to the size of rice grains, but most of them larger, scaled approximately to cherry leaves, the clacking of calcium giving the impression of building blocks. The man seemed nonchalant and produced a white jar. He told my family to put my grandmother into the jar, piece by piece. Not the facial bones, he said, selecting a few delicate shards, noticeably thinner than the rest. These were meant to go at the top of the pile, an order which follows the alignment of the body.
No one was prepared for this. Some bones were yellowed. Someone murmured that it was the quantities of tea that she drank in her lifetime. My auntie put her hand into the box and withdrew a piece of my grandmother’s femur and placed it in the jar. My sister picked up a piece of the pelvis and placed it in the jar. The man took a long metal utensil and pressed down heavily, mortar-and-pestle style, because my fragmented grandmother, loosely arranged, was spilling out of the jar. Her cheekbone, or maybe her forehead, was forced below the lip of the container, compacting the air between parts of her body that had never touched before.
Then, there was dust on the cloth. “Isn’t that my grandmother?” my sister asked. “Yes,” the man said, and shook the dust into the jar.
I end up calling the crematorium, midnight, because of the time difference, and reach a customer service operator at the National Environmental Agency. He was surprisingly amiable when I mentioned the bone fragments, the plastic box, the non-pulverized remains. “Oh, I see—you were expecting a powder? I’m sorry.” Then, he transferred me to another switchboard where another guy told me that the crematory machine can only break things down to minor parts. Any further processing needs to be done manually.
I think about this as an equation, what goes in and what comes out, and the transfiguration between the two ends. A kind of release. But it bothers me: What happened to the smoke? I start the habit of leaving my window open at night.
When she was alive, most of the stories I heard of her were negative. The visions of her that I’ve been told are of a woman alternatingly stubborn, severe, irrational, and helpless. She was a single mother who beat her children, sometimes with a chain. She told everyone her husband had died to avoid the humiliation of a divorce. She washed vegetables on a stool next to the toilet. She hoarded everything—trinkets, newspapers, fabric. She stashed the bounty in the broom closets of her daughters’ houses. She carried plastic bags of groceries in the rain because no one offered help. She kept things to herself. She was alone a lot.
I saw her once every few years, and after I started learning Mandarin, we called each other once every few weeks. I could sense a thin wire being established under an ocean. But the problem with learning from a textbook is that the discourses available to you are limited by subject chapters, which tend to be narrow, almost surgically specific. Chapter Three was about an automobile accident where no one has insurance. Chapter Nine was about the president having a scandalous affair.
My Mandarin developed an uneven topography, ad-hoc glossaries from which I could express a crude ethical position. I learned to say things like, “Single-use cutlery is a cheaper option for street vendors, but excessive usage will damage our global future.” Or, “I believe that people who illegally download music are essentially thieves.”
Then there are the words I only learned when my grandmother used them: sunlight, press, password, knee, appetite, pain, gushing, river carp. I can’t remember the exact situations each word refers to or when they came up. That they are listed in my notebook means they have acquired a second skin. Even now, I’m surprised at going so long without noticing the clear and buoyant kinship between these objects and feelings.
The popular pedagogy for learning Mandarin is similar to most language classes—endless repetition, as if only by brute force can a new word be branded into the eye and the ear. I spent enough days copying out characters over and over for this to become a ritual indistinguishable from knowing. Across the page, I’ve written: 阳光 阳光 阳光 阳光. Or: sunlight, sunlight, sunlight, sunlight.
If we believe Nietzsche2, when we speak of the truth we are merely repeating worn-out figures of speech that are themselves just remote distillations of an impossible original. He is suspicious of the illusory nature of language—the concept contained within the word “tree” does not correspond to the reality of a tree. Everything that is spoken and can be spoken is merely a figurative term we use to nominate the unnamable, an inventory of “metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms” that we have mistaken for the real and fixed. All we have is language and we cannot get beyond it.
The problem with the machine as a metaphor is that it is claustrophobic; all that passes through and out of it is accounted for by a precise and unrelenting algebra. The machine always gives out the same thing, again and again. This means that if I begin in one position, I will always be out of time with something else.
I often catch myself tempted to fix things into code, an insistent force that resides in me, to firm glottal noise into interpretable meaning. But more, I want to linger on the ecstatic surface where my senses betray me, to vanish into the skew of mishearing, misreading, doubled vision, the half-step.
Rosa Menkman, the inaugural glitch theorist, proposes an art form of corrupted images and aesthetic disturbance. In the Glitch Studies Manifesto3, she writes, “The glitch is a wonderful experience of an interruption that shifts an object away from its ordinary form and discourse… But once I named it, the momentum—the glitch—is no more…” For Menkman, the glitch cannot be described or it ceases to be what it claims; it is a lack, a break in the pattern of meaning that forces its own opening.
I’ve developed a certain tenderness for the glitch: the riddled, dysfunctional thing that evades the conditions of what might be expected and what might be known, rupturing unfamiliar territories, or maybe a glimpse into a second reality that has been there all along. I see the deer swallowed by thick, black tarmac. I listen to the kitchen tap dripping out a lament. I wake up in darkness to sounds, angular and weightless, like words sketched out of lost feeling coming out of myself. It’s a bit like dreaming, which is always a bit like remembering.
She called her smartphone the small machine, the small machine that is inside all my memories of her. Even the older models outstripped her understanding of the technological world. To her, the phone was a sullen, elusive thing always withholding answers; the normal flow of the machine and its algorithms exceeded her analog sensibilities. If she had problems with her phone, she called me, because everyone else had grown tired of her repetitive questions. Whenever we saw each other, she insisted on convening in small, cold rooms in order to study her phone. I spent long, soft afternoons trying to decipher her questions as she relayed between the bathroom and the television. “Is it sent? How to throw away? Done?”
Once, when we met in Hong Kong, she got locked out of all of her social media accounts because she had forgotten the passwords. I began to piece together an oblique organization of profiles, a circle of mirrors bearing her English name—Shirley—created as her faulty memory sealed off each previous profile. One account profile showed her gazing upwards at a multistory Christmas tree, a photo I had taken. Another profile picture so zoomed in, her face took up most of the square. Online, I’d only connected with one of the Shirleys, the profile I created for her.
She peered into the screen and scribbled intently in her little blue notebook. I noticed she was not writing words, but drawing miniature pictographs, sketching images of the buttons she should press. She said she was a poor student. When she practiced and forgot which button to press, she frowned, then laughed and looked at me with querying eyes.
I downloaded a translation app for her, which she treasured for the way it ingested her words and returned a script she could not understand, but others could. As she learned the combination of buttons to make this work, anything seemed possible and everything communicable. She began using this as a second mouth, with a garbled, joyful lyric. Glancing about furiously in the middle of the street, she whispered into the phone, the small machine, and gripped my arm tight, her fingers making like a bruise, the other hand holding the English translation for me to read: Boy, do you eat yummy things and do you not swell? Do you know that we had eaten too much the other day and she spit and I now have to be careful but smiling? I don’t remember much but I will remember for a long time. Everyone is happy and happy.
We were walking along the waterfront with a family friend who spoke only English. Our friend asked my grandmother why, if not spurred by religious belief or vegetarianism, she chose not to eat beef. I had never thought to ask her a question so personal. My grandmother blinked, surprised. “When I’m young, I see the cow work in the field every day,” she said. “Working very hard, all the time. Still cow gets eaten.”
When my family is going through my grandmother’s belongings, they come across a stack letters she received from her father, living in Malaysia. I try to read the letters but I cannot read the cursive script. Some friends try to help me translate it, but they can only make out some phrases due to the antiquated syntax: “Sometimes, I secretly cry for you.” In another letter: “Any other woman would have killed herself. I hope God takes pity on you.” At the end: “Life is just a dream.” No one finds any of her letters that prompted these responses.
Grief can feel relentless, like brutally efficient automation, something you cannot get out of until it is done with you and you are not what you were when you entered. At times, I’ve tried to go in reverse. To take the thread and go backwards. Instead of thinking of the mouth as a machine, love as a machine, distance as a machine, loss as a machine, I think of the machine as a mouth, as distance, love, loss—that is, that each of these things may be indistinguishable, or in some way, all the same thing. If you pass what you already know through the words you are learning, it may be possible to end up elsewhere.
Of disidentification, the poet and critic Fred Moten says: “The way you put yourself together every day is the way that you take yourself apart every day.” In this interview4, he talks with the artist Wu Tsang about the ritual of identity, where putting together oneself is synonymous with tearing oneself apart. There is a tendency to seek wholeness and continuity as conditions of a narrative, like a mountain only witnessed from a distance, but Moten is convinced of the value in small and wondrous acts of separation—how they may surface wayward objects and moments that do not connect, fugitive pieces that can be claimed into the self.
Wu Tsang replies: “What limbs can we sever, or momentarily conjure, to constitute our place in this world?”
I am starting to see sparseness as a condition of its largeness; that what appears as the limit, the approximations and the grasping quietness, was in fact its own tender opening. My grandmother had three smartphones when I last saw her—someone’s misguided ploy to solve her technological bewilderment with sheer volume. We were at a hotel with free Skittles that she liked to heap on a plate and suck on one at a time. You could see the sky heaving like a long white belly, dismal overhang, a shimmer of umbrellas rippling upward, then rain.
She wanted to tidy up her shipwrecked contact list, and asked me to go through them individually: Ah-Ching was dead, as was Cheng-Lo. Helen, He ren and HeLen T were the same person, also deceased. When she said they had died, it was like they were on holiday. She had forgotten how to use the translation app. I noticed that she was sketching on the page opposite to her sketch of the same icon from the previous year. She laughed when the mechanical voice translated the word for grandmother as “old wife,” like it did last time, and I did, too, an infinite loop we were caught in.
I told her I liked her “chili sauce,” a new word I had learned, and this made her happy. When I read the word now, I’m struck by a stray part of the rightmost character—又, a radical for which there is no direct translation, but depending on context can indicate the repeated continuation of an action or the coexistence of multiple situations and properties. Somehow, when stitched to other characters, this becomes the word for chili sauce.
Night, like a net, collected the calls I missed due to time difference. Each one brought with it a question or a revelation. Other times, malfunctions. I’d wake up beached, my body stirring, sand tracking in me. My cousin told me about how my grandmother live-streamed by accident, grappling with one of her new phones. A fifteen-minute portrait of a frowning, elderly woman scrolling down her news feed in silence.
I called her back later in the morning, her night. She said, yes, that there was a lump in her neck, but because it was soft and not hard, she had heard it was not dangerous. She didn’t want me to worry. Instead, she called to talk to me about her phone, which she said was too big and defective. None of the drawings in her notebook matched any of the apps on her phone. She said that her WhatsApp had been deleted. After I hung up, I noticed that in the past week, she had called me three times on WhatsApp and left me several voice messages.
It occurred to me that maybe she understood more than she was letting on.
A few weeks after she passed away, I rebooted my old phone to look at the things I’d stored there. Once it switched on, the old phone synchronized with the frequency of the present, a shell reanimated. Everything that had been sent to me in the past six months was regurgitated, an open drain turned inside-out onto the street, a bloated flotsam mass of photos, messages, missed calls.
Hnng, hnng, hnng, the old phone vibrated for half a day, jerking suddenly every few minutes to reenact the conversations of the recent past, struck thunderously by the return of another memory. My mother fought with me on our holiday in Japan. Friends complimented my new turtleneck. I had the feeling of being a ghost, how people responded to me like I was speaking back in real-time, even though I was motionless and silent, even though I was sitting in my bedroom in the future. When your eyes are closed, the movement of the wind around an object can describe its shape.
Over and over again, my dead grandmother messaged me about her new phone. “The machine’s broken.” Then, a week later, “I think the machine’s broken.” And then, “Maybe machine’s broken.” I saw that, by some strange glitch, the old phone was showing my grandmother’s status as active now. It was when I saw this that I stopped worrying.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.
3. Menkman, Rosa (page 5). Glitch Studies Manifesto. 2010. http://amodern.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2010_Original_Rosa-Menkman-Glitch-Studies-Manifesto.pdf↩
4. Tsang, Wu; Moten, Fred. “Interview with Wu Tsang and Fred Moten.” 356 Mission. September 2016. https://356mission.tumblr.com/post/150698596000/interview-with-wu-tsang-and-fred-moten↩