The play’s the thing. (Hamlet II.ii.617)

The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. (Debord 12)

I find no absolution in my rational point of view.
Maybe some things are instinctive, but there’s one thing we could do:
You could try to understand me; I could try to understand you. (Rush)

The Electronic Proscenium: Developing Posthuman Drama

Today’s technological achievements, especially in the areas online connectivity, begin to further narrow the distinction between real life and virtual reality. As computer technology develops and proliferates, access to the Internet and a multiplicity of cyber communities offers a rich and diverse assortment of interaction for growing numbers of cyber denizens. Along with this technological growth and increased utilization of the Internet, cultures of hackers, crackers, and cyberpunks plug-in and manipulate the existing technological fringe to form communities and make connections. In forming these VR collectives of “criminals, outcasts, visionaries, or those who simply want freedom for its own sake,” RL’s marginalized population often form meaningful VR bonds that inform, and may perhaps improve, their troubled RL existences (Frank).

While Hayles suggests that the privileging of information over embodiment of that information, we have become posthuman—a necessarily dangerous position, especially for feminists—the access to, use of, and dependence on technology and computers grows. However, this fact, I argue, does not in itself dispel the reality of embodiment. Those of us who use computer technology as an integral part of our daily lives treat them like a prosthetic limb we have come to depend on rather than a container for consciousness. This being the case, RL embodiment still provides (and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future) the structuring of all VR activity.

Virtual Embodiment: The MOO Stage

Juli Burk, in her essay “The Play’s the Thing: Theatricality and the MOO Environment,” suggests that MOO space is inherently constructed by theatrical elements of character, location, and action (233). While traditional theatre still maintains its Aristotelian penchant for the Oedipal tragic narrative that relegates women to inferior positions, MOOs have the potential for breaking down this structure and its “patriarchal definition of femininity that upholds its oppressive power relations” (Burk 233). In Burk’s vision of MOOs as a theatrical space, participants have the opportunity to enter an anonymous sphere, unlike embodied actors in film, TV, and radio, “that may or may not relate directly to the physical body or lived experience of the performer” (234). The ability of players to construct characters of any physical build, gender, temperment—anything that they want want, seeing their are no limits in most MOOs—allows what Turkle calls a “physcological moratorium” to escape from their sometimes lackluster RLs.

Yet, Turkle makes clear that this escape is like a sanctioned place and time for adult play—like a scheduled vacation, or a “mode of experience necessary throughout functional and creative adulthoods” (xiii). These experiences help adults to develop different facets of their personalities away from their quotidian jobs and social lives. Amy S. Bruckman calls MOOs “identity workshops” where activities like gender swapping provide an “extereme example of a fundamental fact: the network is in the process of changing not just how we work, but how we think of ourselves—and ultimately, who we are” (Bruckman 446).

Who we are is governed by many forces and constrained by those same forces: physical realities that sanction and define how we are perceived by others and how we perceive ourselves. Certain collective truths—by no means universal or essential—remain at the center of popular understandings of social order. These truths, whether generated by the autonomous individual or what Minh-ha calls the “ruling ideology of the ‘well-written’” (29), affect how we stage and act out our lives. The narrative of the white, middle-class, heterosexual professional occupies the conceptual reality of each member of the social order, just as the impoverished, minority gang member has its place. While individuals’ readings of these classifications may vary, they maintain an a priori staging of society.

These social realities, however, slowly metamorphose under the influence of information technologies and access to them. Haraway states that this change has already made us cyborgs: “the cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation” (191). A cyborg, perhaps a positive simulacrum of social change, is a new political myth—a hybrid figuration of animal and machine that attacks boundaries, problematizes categories, and rewrites how we construct social reality.

What is this social reality the mythically constructed cyborg attempts to rewrite? By what is this reality informed? I content that reality is a construction of theatrical fictions. Our lives are defined by the roles we play, the performances we give daily to our teachers, students, bosses, spouses, children. We base the real character we play on the reality informed and constructed by theatrical perfromances. The performances—the fictions—are the real. As Haraway states, our ontology is the cyborg, and the technology of the theatre is moving from the theatres to the bedroom to the microchip.


They killed him for acting badly. Witnesses say that the perpetrator, Mr. Bungle, entered the living room dressed as a clown, and forced several occupants to sexually service him and each other. He laughed evilly as they forced him from the room, and had his final revenge by compelling another to violate herself with a knife and eat her own pubic hair. After an informal trial, he was quietly killed.

These events are the subject of Julian Dibbell’s book My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, in which he describes this incident in LambdaMOO and his subsequent entrč into the VR reality of MOO culture. Dibbell himself was not a witness to the Bungle episode or the following events that he relates in Life’s first chapter, “A Rape in Cyberspace Or Tinysociety, and How to Make One,” and he describes the events as if they were a performance. The living room provided the “stage” for the violation; Bungle’s costume suggested his intentions: “a fat, oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in cum-stained harlequin garb and girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle bore the quaint inscription: ‘KISS ME UNDER THIS, BITCH!’” (13); the props consisted of a voodoo doll, the already mentioned piece of kitchen cutlery, and a ’gun of near-wizardly powers”; the “actors in this drama” were computer programmers and university students; and the theatre was LambdaMOO: where what you see “is a kind of slow-crawling script, lines of dialogue and stage direction creeping steadily up your computer screen” (15).

Dibbell’s essay questions the reality of these events: whether or not a rape can occur in VR. The characters who witnessed this incident were violated emotionally, and if Bungle performed these trespasses in RL, he would be severely punished. What should the punishment be for a VR character who molests other VR characters and causes them to suffer a very RL-feeling degradation? Dibbell suggests that in a MOO ontology, events that occur are “neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true” (17). In a world of textual staging, where the embodied RL existence presupposes and supports the imaginative VR embodiment of the MOO, violations can occur. Even if the reality is digital code and scrolling text, that ontology cannot fully escape the RL and its coding, or the violence that writing sometimes conveys and perpetrates.

Legba, one of the characters violated by Bungle, wrote shortly after the incident: “I am requesting that Mr. Bungle be toaded for raping Starsinger and I. I have never done this before, and have thought about it for days. He hurt us both” (Dibbell 18). Toading does just that: turns the character into a toad, destroying access to it, effectively killing it; toading may only be performed by a wizard. Following the theatrical trope, the wizard could be likened to the stage manager, one who would have the ability and authority to make decisions that influence the drama. In this case TomTraceback, one of LambdaMOO’s wizards, made the decision after a town meeting—a meeting attended by the victims, witnesses, interested parties, and the perp himself. When asked why he did such a thing, Bungle replied: “I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called thought-polarization, the fact that this is not RL simply add to heighten the affect of the device. It was purely a sequence of events with no consequence on my RL existence” (23). TomTraceback toaded the psychotic Bungle. But while the character of Mr. Bungle is no more (his digital self has been literally deleted), the memory of the incident lives on in the RL minds of those who hear the story.

Since the actors in a MOO build their own stages, props, and costumes with words, does the flow of imaginary actions expressed textually count as rape? Is Bungle protected under the First Amendment? The First Amendment was written to preserve the freedom of speech, yet the boundaries between RL and the symbolic representations of it seem to break down in VR. We have entered the realm of Haraway’s cyborg where boundaries are vague and permeable—where distinctions such as RL and VR become less dualistic and seem to flow in and out of one another. The First Amendment supports an outmoded dualism of an enlightenment philosophy; the new drama is staged the with the reality of symbols that represent extensions of ourselves that have moved in to new areas of being and becoming.

As Dibbell states, when the keyboard is pressed, much like when a gun’s trigger is pulled, things happen—and sometimes violently (28). When speech equals action in a MOO environ, and the programming of objects that do things textually effect others, then the question of how we act becomes paramount. Like RL, how we act dictates our freedom as it does our lack of freedom. How we play something and how that act is perceived determines, I suggest, the experiences of life. Yet, the act is sometimes forgotten by the actors with dire consequences—the performance, then, becomes the real—having physical and sometimes mortal effects. In a MOO, as in the playhouse, the act takes center stage, so to speak. The RL participants are reminded of the theatricality of MOO space: words flicker and scroll in a heteroglossia across the computer monitor, especially when many characters are interacting; our interaction is determined by our ability to type and read—one can never suspend disbelief because typos, hand cramps, eye fatigue, and other difficulties remind us physically of our acting; access determines VR movement: the more codes, or commands, one knows, the more that can be done—just the act of getting connected to a MOO requires knowledge, much like getting to the physical playhouse. Commands (codes, words) become the prostheses by with we stand in MOO space. By using these words/actions, we cannot forget the performative nature of what we are doing. In this way, MOOs, like the theatre, might help us to realize that the play’s the thing we cannot forget, especially in an age of increasing technologically assisted interaction.


Contrary to what Bungle suggested about VR having no affect on his physical life, it seems that increasingly our RL embodiment must be influenced by technological interactions. Embodiment in RL both influences our VR constructions and may itself be improved by the technology, as Braidotti and Haraway suggest. How we play in MOOs is not separate from embodiment—i.e., it does not distance or negate our physical bodies—but is necessarily influenced by the conditioning of those bodies. The psycho-social influences that construct our RL embodiment cannot be dismissed just because we enter a VR realm. Indeed, our VR embodiment will—must—still function as a product of our RL milieus. By living a dual RL and VR existence, the latter, because of its anonymity, may help players “refine their sense of who they are” (Turkle xi). In a VR environment, players may indulge in an identity play that can influences their conception of their RL selves. But this VR identity play still maintains figurations defined in and influenced by RL.

MOOs maintain traditional, self-defining categories, such as gender, and even though a male might play a female in a MOO, his conception of that role will be influenced by his RL experience of that role. Yet, by playing another constructed identity, like another gender role, we might learn a little something of our own constructed roles and how they affects others. This is not to suggest that isolating gender in a MOO session relates to the complex interactions of other social constructions, e.g. race and class, but it could provide a crucial step in making the imaginary boundaries between those theatrical/mythic constructions less clear. “To write is to become,” states Minh-ha, “Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intransitively” (19).


4/28/99 - gerald/r/lucas