by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

Maybe it happens like this. You are sitting at a cluttered desk, in a stuffy, dimly lit room, somewhere in Seattle. It's night. It's very late. Everyone else must be asleep by now. If you leaned out the window to take in a breath of fresh air, you might see Jupiter and Mars gleaming in the constellation Scorpio. But the window is closed, and the shades are drawn. You are sitting in an uncomfortable office chair, hunched over a small terminal. Despite the awkward posture and the stifling atmosphere, you remain just as you are; you don't even consider getting up. Modem lights blink, the hard drive whirs, lines of text scroll across the screen. Occasionally, there is a loud beep. Your eyes squint at the small print; your fingers move frantically across the keyboard. You notice you've made a typo, and groan in disgust. Meanwhile, new incoming messages keep on arriving. You feel a sense of hysterical overload, as your brain strives to process five separate trains of thought at once. You're wondering how much longer you can keep it up, addressing your replies correctly, typing all those puns and sly allusions and heartfelt pleas and properly formatted commands, while at the same time reading the incoming lines as quickly as possible, before they scroll off the top of the screen. Until, all of a sudden, you hit a lag. None of your commands are executed, and nobody else's input appears on your terminal. Twenty-five seconds that seem like an eternity, as you wait impatiently for something--anything--to happen. Frustrated, irritated, you wonder if this isn't the time to call it a night. But you know that if you quit now, a vague sense of dissatisfaction would linger, and you'd never be able to fall asleep.

Or maybe it happens like this. You've been wandering for hours through the Lambda mansion and its luxurious grounds. You took a swim in the pool, grabbed a snack in the kitchen, read some books in the library, and fell through a mirror into a dingy old tavern. You entered an alien spacecraft, and fiddled around with the controls. You wandered through the cubes of a tesseract, trying to work out the geometry of its intrusion into three-space. You tried your luck in a gambling arcade, and lost all your money at the video slot machines. You climbed a rose trellis and found yourself on the roof of the mansion; you took in a breath of fresh night air, and saw Jupiter and Mars gleaming in the constellation Scorpio. Now you're sitting in a hot tub, sipping a beer, trying to relax and think about it all. But things have only gotten faster and more frantic. Close to twenty people are packed into this one space. You feel a sense of hysterical overload, as you try to follow five separate conversations at once. It's hard even to keep track of your companions, as their names keep changing, while their bodies metamorphose from one gender to another. Some dude is playing power chords on his guitar; another is inhaling outrageous tokes from a seven-foot-tall bong. A helicopter buzzes overhead; the pilot leans out and waves. This one jerk keeps whispering dumb pick-up lines and sexual insinuations into your ear. Someone else dunks you under the water, just for fun. Meanwhile, you're trying halfheartedly to flirt, in hurried whispers, with this cute guy you've just met. Until, all of a sudden, you hit a lag. Everyone seems to have gone into a catatonic stupor. Twenty-five seconds that seem like an eternity, as you wait impatiently for something--anything--to happen. Frustrated, irritated, you wonder if this isn't the time to call it a night. But you know that if you went home now, a vague sense of dissatisfaction would linger, and you'd never be able to fall asleep.

Just another evening at LambdaMOO. Two alternative descriptions of the same series of events. But whose life is this, anyway? What does it mean to say that I was simultaneously here and there, both wandering the grounds of LambdaMOO and sitting quietly at home? Just what kind of a place is a text-based virtual world? Is the landscape of a MUD or a MUCK or a MOO somehow more real than that of a novel or a movie or a sexual fantasy or a Sega video game? Or must I concede that the first of my descriptions--sitting in front of the terminal--is literal, material, embodied, and actual, while the other--lounging in the hot tub--is merely fictive, figurative, disembodied, and imaginary? Then RL ("real life") would be to VR ("virtual reality") as experience is to its mimetic representation. Or as an author (or a reader?) is to a fictional character. Or as the physical body is to the body in Freudian fantasy. Or as what semioticians call the "subject of the enunciation" is to what they call the "subject of the statement." How else could one possibly make sense of all this?

But when you're caught up in the vertigo of MUDs and MOOs, such distinctions no longer make sense. Try it yourself if you don't believe me. Spend some time in a virtual world, and you'll be amazed how real it can be. We fight, we fuck, we sing and dance, we take drugs: "though initially loosing consciousness from matter, MUDs end up producing a curious twin body, a doppelgänger that explores, wrestles, hugs, and laughs" (Erik Davis). Total strangers become intimate friends or lovers, almost overnight. Jealousies develop, and quarrels break out, followed by mutual avoidance, or by tearful reconciliations. The sense of tactile, corporeal presence, throughout it all, is overwhelming. Yes, that was indeed my body, sweating, grunting, straining its eyes, furiously typing. But that was also my body, relaxing in the hot tub, drinking a beer, splashing, casually flirting, sorting out sexual responses, and reeling off lame one-liners. All these events occurred together, in real time, in the same stream of consciousness, along the same continuum of bodily sensations. I got tipsy on that virtual beer; the warmth of the water in the hot tub merged with the stifling heat of the air in my study. For reality is a matter, not of essences, but of effects; my actions have continuing reverberations and consequences in LambdaMOO, just as they do in RL. Deleuze writes of a hallucinatory "excess of presence, that acts directly on the nervous system, and that makes representation--with its putting-in-place or putting-at-a-distance--impossible." In this sense, LambdaMOO is a fully present, actual world--and not just a vicarious representation of one. For all that it's made out of binary code in a mainframe and words scrolling on a screen, LambdaMOO is as vividly concrete and detailed as the room from which I access it, and as engaging and crowded, as friendly or as menacing, as the bar down the street.

At LambdaMOO, we like to talk about the differences--but that also means the solidarities--between VR and RL. One doesn't exist without the other. Indeed, it gets tricky at times. Each player on the MOO has eir own pseudonym or 'handle': so that unless you choose to tell me, there's no way I can find out who you 'really' are. Anyone you meet online is playing a role, adopting a persona; but isn't that the case when we meet in RL as well? It's not that I know you less well in VR, but that I come to know you in a radically different way. I may become quite intimate with someone, spend hours with em every night, and yet not have the slightest idea what eir voice sounds like, or what eir RL body looks, feels, and smells like. Thanks to pseudonymity, the space for deception may well be larger in VR than in RL. But the space for experimentation, invention, and discovery is also larger, by the same logic. Inhibitions are lowered; the most unlikely and unexpected patterns emerge. "Erotic interaction in cyberspace," as Shannon McRae puts it, "requires a constant phasing between the virtual and the actual, the simultaneous awareness of the corporeal body at the keyboard, the emoting, speaking self on the screen, and the existence of another individual, real and projected, who is similarly engaged. Far from producing a mind-body split that allows for the projection of an intact ego, self-awareness must be doubled, multiplied, magnified, to an extent that the 'self' is rendered incoherent, scattered, shattered." Are all these exciting and excruciating transformations 'real'? You'd better believe it.

Or take, as another example, the phenomenon of lag: a perpetual annoyance to every MOOer. Too many people are logged in, trying to execute too many commands at once: the server at Xerox PARC is overloaded. Even in the electronic global village, sometimes you just have to wait. Lag is clearly an event in RL, caused by the physical condition of the hardware. It happens as I sit in front of my monitor, waiting for more lines to scroll. But lag is also integral to VR: not a limitation upon it, so much as an aspect of it, something woven into its very texture. Lag is a feature of my VR life, even as incessant rain is a part of my RL in Seattle. There's a lag-meter in the Lambda living room, just as there's a barometer in my Seattle living room. As legba said the other night, we even talk about lag in LambdaMOO in much the same way we talk about the weather in RL. Virtual, then, does not mean 'imaginary' or 'unreal.' As Deleuze says, the virtual is altogether real in its own way; it should never be confused with the merely 'possible.' Indeed, philosophically speaking, 'virtual' and 'possible' are almost opposites. The imaginary and the unreal are subsets of the possible. A logically impossible object, like a square circle, cannot strictly speaking be imagined. On the other hand, whatever we can imagine is possible, no matter how unreal. Teleportation, for instance, is easily imaginable in RL, and hence possible, although the technological difficulties in making it work are probably insurmountable. But things are quite different in VR. Here, teleportation is an actual fact, not something you imagine. After all, it makes no difference to the LambdaMOO database whether I walk out from the hot tub onto the deck, or transport myself directly from the hot tub to the library. Objects in VR, then, are real and impossible, instead of being unreal and possible. They are not fantasy representations; they are simply more fluid, more open to mutation and metamorphosis, than their RL counterparts. After I left the hot tub, I stared at a painting in the library, trying to scrutinize the details of its brushwork. Before I knew it I was inside the painting, transported into another world. I was alone. The scene was bucolic, yet an unspoken feeling of menace floated almost palpably in the air... As in an H. P. Lovecraft story, I can't quite remember what happened next, nor do I recall just how I finally escaped. But like the narrator of a Lovecraft story, I remain firmly convinced that it all really happened, even though the physical evidence has somehow mysteriously disappeared.

Michael Heim traces the term virtual back to Duns Scotus, who used it "to bridge the gap between formally unified reality (as defined by our conceptual expectations) and our messily diverse experiences." Virtual Reality, you might say, is the actual mode of being of the inessential, the epiphenomenal, and the nonconceptual: of all that is unpredictable, unexpected, transitory, contingent, or exceptional. VR is then not metaphysical, but 'pataphysical. We imagine and represent unreal possibilities, but the real itself, in its messy diversity, is unrepresentable and unimaginable. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: once you've eliminated the possible (that is to say, everything that can be imagined, but that doesn't really exist) then the virtual, however improbable or outrageous, is what remains. VR thus includes those anomalous quasi-existences painstakingly catalogued by Charles Fort: rains of blood, strange hybrids, stigmata, spontaneously combusting bodies, perpetual motion machines, poltergeist girls, falls of fishes from the sky. But VR also includes everything that is banal, everyday, and boringly unremarkable: the "nine tenths" of our life that goes on without will or conscious thought (Robert Bresson), the "dirt under the fingernails" for which a Platonic Idea is lacking (Deleuze). Such a combination of the remarkable and the insignificant, the singular and the trivial, is familiar to anyone who hangs out in MUDs and MOOs. We might do well to adopt the logic of Fort's research program for our own postmodern explorations of virtual worlds: "there is, in quasi-existence, nothing but the preposterous--or something intermediate to absolute preposterousness and final reasonableness... Infinite frustrations of attempts to positivize manifest themselves in infinite heterogeneity: so that though things try to localize homogeneousness they end up in heterogeneity so great that it amounts to infinite dispersion or indistinguishability."

Life in LambdaMOO is just such a quasi-existence. Far from being an imaginary, mental structure, it is actively composed of precisely those things the mind is unable to grasp. I'm continually blown away by LambdaMOO's "excess of presence," meaning both its psychedelic 'too-muchness' (what Deleuze would call its "intensity") and its ungrounded superfluousness (what Fort would call its preposterous "externality"). We attempt to homogenize this experience, but we are continually thrown back upon Fort's "infinite dispersion," or upon what William Gibson calls the "unthinkable complexity" of the Matrix. Gibson defines cyberspace, or any form of VR, as a "consensual hallucination." Both words in this definition merit extended comment. LambdaMOO is indeed a hallucination, a simulacral construct; but then again, so is everything else that we perceive or experience as "real." To encounter the real, as Nietzsche says, is to be "necessitated to error." The senses themselves "do not lie"; but "what we make of their testimony... introduces lies." The direct, intense stimulation of my sensory neurons provokes the construction of elaborate simulations in the perceptual centers of my brain. And it is these simulations, in turn, that endow external objects with their ring of authenticity and truth, and that guide and facilitate my bodily engagement in the world. Awake or asleep, we are always simulating and hallucinating. This doesn't mean that reality is a somehow a product of our minds. On the contrary: we are bound to hallucination, necessitated to error, exactly to the extent that reality is objective and external: inescapable in its presence, yet irreducible to our representations and refractory to our desires. Like it or not, it's there. Thought is never spontaneous; it requires a body to provoke it and (as Lyotard says) to make it suffer. Even in VR, objects have a definite existential integrity: they are more dense and solid, more user- and perceiver-independent--more objective in short--than you would ever imagine. For a postmodern sensibility, the world is a fictional construct, not in spite of its apparent presence and immediacy, but precisely because of these. Excess, delirium, anxiety, sublimity, preposterousness, undecidability, the mise en abîme of binary oppositions, the breakdown of representational order: these are all consequences--or better, hi-tech "special effects"--of presence itself, and not (as the deconstructionists too simply suppose) of the critique or deferral of presence.

So you could say that my RL apartment in Seattle depends upon a "consensual hallucination," every bit as much as do such virtual, abstract entities as subatomic particles, the American legal system, and LambdaMOO. In all these cases, the hallucination is shared, public, and objective, just because it is consensual. As Wittgenstein insisted, there is no such thing as a private language. Even your fantasies, dreams, and inner psychotic delusions must forcibly be rendered into the dominant reality. Gibson's word consensual implies a constraint far stronger, and far more sinister, than the mere legal notion of a formal acceptance by all parties. It's more like what the Mafia calls "an offer you can't refuse." The ultimate proof that something is "real" is that it imperiously demands my assent at every moment. Seattle and LambdaMOO both exist independently of my will; it's for that very reason that I am required to torture my will into conformity with them. As Guattari once said, politics precedes ontology. The exercise of power, according to Foucault, is "a set of actions upon other actions... it is always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action." That is to say, power always implies the separation or "freedom" of its victim. This is what behaviorist psychology was never able to grasp. It isn't enough that I am "determined" by the "laws" of nature, or culture, or language. No, I also must be led (induced, seduced, coerced, cajoled) into giving my "free" consent to all of these laws. Just as workers in service industries today can't get away simply with performing their tasks efficiently; they are also required to exude team spirit, and to grovel and smile obsequiously before their customers. It's an old story: you encounter it everywhere, from software licensing agreements to social contract theories. Merely by opening the package and removing the disk, you've agreed to all sorts of dubious contractual obligations. You may not like them, but your consent is the price you must pay in order to be able to run a computer in the first place. Similarly, social contract theories (and their more recent descendants, like Lacan's account of the Symbolic order) tell you that, simply by virtue of being a functioning member of society, you have freely consented to abrogate your own freedom. But of course, there's no alternative to this freely willed choice: for it's only insofar as you are a socially constituted being that you have the occasion and ability to make free choices at all. Catch-22. And so it goes with everything real: withholding consent simply isn't an option. We are always collaborating in the construction of our own prisons, straining our imaginations in thrall to the dictatorship of the real. Even suicide, as Blanchot sadly notes, is still an exertion of the will, still a consensual affirmation of reality. The deaths of Kleist and of Kurt Cobain--painfully honest as these acts may have been, beautiful protests against the tyranny of the real-- alas only ensured that their authors would continue to be abusively misunderstood.

VR offers us no escape from this tyranny: it's far too real for that. Virtual worlds are anchored by a concrete sense of place: in this they are utterly different from utopias, which literally are nowhere. However idealistic their programmers' intentions, MUDs and MOOs always seem to end up reinventing the bad old RL power relations. Cliques spring up, social classes develop, unequal privileges accrue, tricksters run scams, boys act just like boys, and some players have even been raped. Why am I not surprised? It reminds me of some graffiti I once read, in those old days before the Internet, when VR could only be attained through drugs: "Reality is a crutch." -- "And fantasy is a broken leg." Think of VR as a kind of prosthetic device. I use my computer to talk and to listen, to feel and to touch, just as I use my eyeglasses to see. Electronic circuitry, as McLuhan says, is "an extension of the central nervous system," even as "the wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, and clothing is an extension of the skin." Virtual worlds are best understood as what Foucault calls heterotopias: other-spaces, or spaces of otherness, in contrast to utopian non-spaces. "The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place... But it is also a heterotopia insofar as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy... The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there." Heterotopias, unlike utopias, have bulk, weight, and friction; they are never exempt from the power relations and constraints of the societies that spawn them. Indeed, heterotopias express these relations and constraints even to excess: they are "capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible." But in so doing, they map out points of fracture in the fabric of their culture; they twist the social forms of which they are composed into strange new ungainly shapes.

Foucault cites pirate ships and brothels as exemplary instances of heterotopia in modern Western culture: virtual spaces, as it were, for a time before computers. (It's no accident, I think, that such spaces play so prominent a role in the brilliantly subversive novels of Kathy Acker). May not VR, with its shifting subjectivities, its incompatible juxtapositions, its nomadic displacements, its piratical hackers, and its surprisingly intense netsex, become just such a space of messy, risky cultural innovation? Not utopian social engineering, but experimentation and bricolage--with all the silly and obnoxious, as well as useful and beautiful, consequences that may ensue. Pavel Curtis, the chief programmer and wizard (system administrator) of LambdaMOO, urges anthropologists and sociologists to study MUDs and MOOs as prototypes of new forms of social interaction. And that's only the beginning. Allucquere Rosanne Stone foresees, in the not too distant future, a proliferation of MUDs and MOOs "in which the objects talk to each other and evolve in a Darwinian way even when no biologically based people are logged in." As VR extends and accelerates our perceptions, it may well foster the evolution of new sense organs that change our sense of being in the world so radically, that we can no longer recognize them as our own. But there's no stopping it, in any case; we are all already cyborgs, as Donna Haraway reminds us. So we may as well strap on our prostheses, and join the party.

Here's how Foucault describes the heterotopia of the pirate ship: "a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea; and from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens... The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates." In a time when, as Acker also writes, dreams have withered, and it seems no longer possible to be a pirate, isn't such heterotopic longing the real driving force behind our passionate embrace of VR? The space of piracy, as Foucault charts it, has a paradoxical structure. On one hand, it is intensely private, like the space of dreams: it is separated, closed off, and self-contained. But on the other hand, it is at the same time amazingly open: it enters into direct contact with infinitude, with the Outside, with the furthest reaches of the Universe. The pirate ship's very excess of closure detaches it from its initial context, and gives it an unlimited freedom to wander and explore. As Deleuze says, explicating Foucault, "an inside deeper than any internal world" immediately encounters "an outside more distant than any external world." There's no mediation here, no middle term reconciling or linking the extremes. Isn't this very much like what Mark Dery oxymoronically calls the "interactive autism" of VR? I shut myself in my room, I lock the door; I am all alone, with only a computer and a modem for company. But this privacy allows me to explore the secret gardens and brothels of cyberspace, to glean the rarest fruits and make the most intimate contacts. And that's how my body can find itself in two (or more) places at once. Michael Heim similarly describes "the erotic ontology of cyberspace" in terms taken from Leibniz: "monads have no windows, but they do have terminals." Every monad is a world unto itself, "an independent point of vital willpower"; no common space unites them, and they "never meet face-to-face." But don't think of this as some sort of alienation or absence; for the absolute closure of each monad is precisely what allows them all to be on-line together, in the same virtual space, on the same network. "In electric systems," as McLuhan puts it, "communication is by gaps, switches, and transistors." Sparks fly across synapses and through logic gates. We have scarcely begun to explore the erotics of these sparks, these transfers, the compelling immediacy and intimacy of contact at a distance.

The pirate ship's nomadic trajectory, like that of the MUD dweller or the Internet voyager, rips apart the fabric of linear, homogeneous, visual, perspectival space. We move, as McLuhan says, into a space that has become audile-tactile instead of visual: interactive, simultaneous, heterogeneous, discontinuous, multidirectional, diversely textured. MUDs and MOOs, at this point, are still text-based and low-bandwidth; but as Curtis argues, that only makes them "cooler" as a medium, more inclusive, participatory, and tactile. As the phonetic alphabet scrolls rapidly across my screen, it at long last loses the tyrannical privilege that it has possessed since Gutenberg. For "language was the last art to accept the visual logic of Gutenberg technology, and the first to rebound in the electric age" (McLuhan). I learn to read and write in a new way, one more suited to a postmodern, postliterate culture. New habits gradually form, new perceptions, new sexual kinks. Every new medium, as McLuhan says, "affects physiology as well as psychic life." We feel sensations in our prostheses, just as amputees do in phantom limbs. Yes, that was me you saw at LambdaMOO the other night. And as my @description file must have told you, I was awake and looked alert.

Return to DOOM PATROLS Table of Contents

Go to my homepage

Read my new book in progress, Stranded in the Jungle.

email me: