The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive


the clarity of darkness:

some older texts concerned with virtual worlds - these are still
valuable; they have an 'uncanny' clarity I think I'm lacking at the

For Nicanor Parra

I came into cyberspace
in order to look at myself. I would
stand aside from myself and from my fingers.
I would look at language in orderly rows
coming from my mouth. A woman would flow
and she would create a thing. I would rush
into familiar words and at times
in the middle of a conversation
I would run into a conversation. A general
would appear carrying swords and knives and
a warrior. The white screen would never
beckon the dark, nor the grey, the color of
death. Colors poured into a vise a carpenter
would build with letters. The first building
was the building with letters. I have traced
you back, computer through computer, tool
behind tool, entire genealogies at work until
the very beginning. Here, I found
hand-axes starting to strike
metal. The metal was a dagger or a knife and I
could hear speech in the dagger, colors
glistened in the knife. Later,
there would be a wheel, and later, a pulley.
On a ceiling a pulley turned where belts
connected steam to tools milling shanks
for motors, electric relays, turned carbon
for telephones and lamps. Someone spoke
beneath the lamp and all was lost. Electrons
rushed in vacuo; things started turning and
memorized the axe into this space. Then,
I would watch this space, looking for signs
of me. I would look at myself and a woman.


I want to take up the idea of voice in chats as embodiment again, from a
relatively simplistic viewpoint. The voice, its granularity, is intimate
with the body, produced directly by the reconfiguring of tissue. To the
speaker, it appears unmediated; even language itself streams forth, as if
without impediment or processing. When an avatar represents a player on a
visual chat, there is a split in embodiment; however, the body is adept at
what Polyani calls _tacit knowledge,_ the ability to invest in, cathect
through, an other, implement, terrain, etc. The human organism exists
within a symbolic field with physiological consequences; physiology and
communication are intertwined, as aphasias, etc. demonstrate. So the split
between visual avatar and verbal language, or even visual avatar and writ-
ten/textual language at the bottom or adjacent to the image, is ultimately
no great difficulty, no matter how theorized. The _practical_ element is
something else again, however, with the text covering up the its embedding
space (including the presence of other avatars) in ThePalace for example.

If one wishes in fact to study the _cyborg_ at this point in time, the
avatar itself, as dissemination from the physiological body, constitutes a
dominant site. The avatar is articulated in dialectic among software, par-
ticipant, and communicative space (the give and take of the on line commu-
nity at hand); it is simultaneously organic and machinic, self-operated
and remotely "run." It is susceptible to upgrading, software variants,
etc. And ultimately, it represents, not an exterior shell, but the interi-
ority of the participant's body, morphing according to intention, command,
and drive.

It's interesting to watch someone beginning with WorldsChat, moving a
clumsy body around a constantly (and clearly) reconfigured space; there is
always a kinesthetic sense involved, interference for example indicated if
and when one of the figures comes between two others apparently (who
knows?) engaged in whispered conversation. And this occurs with minimal
clues of course. Even the early mouse movements leave one feeling as if
she or he were _propelled_ through the space, tentatively or violently
moving from group to group in blind search. In spite of the fact that (at
least the surface) conversation is reasonably inane, WorldsChat provides
a clear example of future cyborg existence. It's already here, inhabited,
dependent as usual upon consumption, fast machines, and the lucky me who
has access to a T1 line.

It's _money_ all the way.

The Plain

My Gothic grammar states that there is almost no literature available in
the language; most of what one knows stems from the New Testament
translation done by Ulfilas in the fourth century, through sixth century
Italian copies.

In Mandeville, the images of the Khan remain with me, mobile capitals on
mobile plains, nomadic. In the Utgarda-Loki section of the Prose Edda,
Thor turns around, and the castle has disappeared; there's nothing but
the plain.

The plain is the locus of power, the site of a part-object tentatively
connected to Goths, Visigoths, Saxons, the Golden Horde. It's criss-
crossed, temporary. Distance is measured by civilization, the rings of
stationary dwellings, agriculture, surrounding, encroaching on the desert
which proceeds to devour them. As today.

Territories extend indefinitely, carrying nothing with them. Simmel's
stranger glances, walks on. It's always a situation of strangers; reading
Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, there are Goths who are enemies, and a Goth
who buys the house.

Investments are made in the form of the project/production. Imagine the
brightness of the stars in the evening, the fair regularity of the cycles
of weather. One can gallop up and down almost indefinitely. You can hear
the sounds of the horses at a distance. There are always the skitterings
of small mammals in the underbrush. Firelight is the source. There's a
smell of meat. There's the sound of stringed instruments and sometimes
dancing in the distance.

These are the spaces of cyberspace, holes, temporary encrustations, in-
tensities. These are the spaces where fantasms appear, burn into the eyes,
turn inward or outward, disappear once again. Try as I might, these spaces
defy description. They're not nomadicisms in the Deleuze/Guattari sense;
there are no lines of flight. The spaces are self-similar, but _locally_
intense, everywhere, with the currents of micro-ecological niches. You
can't forget the ecology, ever; you can't forget the claims of nations,
colonialisms, geographic economies. Boundaries are always already in flux,
just as they are, say, in the WorldsChat emptied spaces which look some-
thing like enormous boxing rings.

WorldsChat in fact provides an example: _What anchors the avatars to the
simulated ground?_ Nothing, of course, except for programming which
occasionally is faulty, sending figures flying. The screen, not the de-
lineation of planet, is the final arbiter. And the screen is nowhere; it
is the eye, the stain or residue of the gaze.

The screen is naught; the screen carries a sense of boundary, outline.
Outline disappears in the literal maze of links, multiply-connected topo-
logy that always returns to itself, frays at the edges. It's as if culture
is the _objet petit a_ somewhere else; who/what pulls the tongue from the

The body is never found. The voices are always at a distance. You can't
see the animals for the underbrush. The animals are stases; they know
where they are. They aren't agents, of anything, anyone. It's not as if
they're "there" either. The "it" is a neutral inscription. It doesn't
mean anything in the sense. It doesn't have any location. Nor does it
move on; there aren't vectors.

But it's not all negative. It's the plain. It's where you can draw figures
or cut them into the grass. It's where they appear as if they're _some-
thing_ in the midst of, that is, between, seasons. They're ignored because
you can only see them from the air. Airplanes haven't been invented yet
but the kids are having a good laugh and you can hear them clear across
the plain.

(There's so _little_ of Gothic left to read/hear. Almost all of it is
translation from the Gospels, as if others are speaking through their
tombs. Colonialization circulates among itself. Logos takes over, hard
inscription. The Bible is the Book. The Book is the Bible. The world goes
flat with forgetting. Each and every world is a plain. Cyberspace is all
the world there is.)

Entering, Rites of Passage, Characteristics

Hey, what's the entrance to the software? The other day I was on Worlds-
Chat and there was this avatar with the signboard on its head reading
n******basher, and I'd never seen anything like that. I tried to blow him
out of the space, but you can't do that; I ended up just getting the hell
out of there as fast as I could. I felt doubly violated, not only because
of the overt racism of the name, but because in general, these things
don't appear in the environmental chats. For one thing, when you log on
as a guest on a MOO, ThePalace, etc., you're given a guest designation -
you've got to do an @request on the former for a character. Because of
this - the simple matter of @request - there's a rite of passage that's
involved, which makes literally all the difference in the world, just as
there is a rite of passage into an email list, as opposed, say, to a Use-
net newsgroup. With that rite comes responsibility, designated or not;
one's acted intentionally, thought about joining, cooperation, even if
one's aim is ultimately very different.

But on WorldsChat, you can pick any name you want immediately; it's with
you, a sign of terror, just as you can violate within IRC, or a talker
for that matter. True, a talker takes a password, but you can change that
any time - it's your responsibility, not the sysadmin's. And you do that
when you log on, not later. It's the _delay_ then that establishes the
entrance into an email list or a MOO (or ThePalace for that matter) as a
rite - a rite then is something that proffers liminality, that in-between
state framed by inscriptions. The delay designates temporality, trans-
forms short-term into long-term memory, changes occasion into event.

There's also something to be said about the textuality of the delay - the
proper name begins to assert itself, binds itself to the circumscription
of the body, the participant using the software. This is very different
than jumping into chatlines, IRC, or other forms in which identity is
often amorphous, changing momentarily (it is true you can morph in a MOO
of course, but that requires programming, keystrokes beyond a click in
MIRC) - changing in fact in a way that can decathect language from its own

Be that as it may, delays, rites of entrance, inscription, liminal states,
all play a role in the character of these spaces. Not enough attention is
paid, in any of the accounts I've read, to the welcome message and initial
operations required to enter a space - things which are ultimately taken
for granted, forgotten, circumvented, but which nonetheless create in
part the character of the communications framework itself.

As I pointed out elsewhere, then, there are innumerable elements in such
a framework (these are given in no particular order):

1. The player's client software;
2. The program software (including issues of quota, buffering, etc.);
3. The program aura (contacts outside the program);
4. The sysadmins', wizards', or moderators' decisions and powers;
5. Various rites of entrance and exit;
6. Assumed quality and conditions of governance;
7. Assumed quality and conditions of privacy and distinction of public/
    private spaces;
8. Ability of the player to transform his or her character on a formal
    level (i.e. set descriptions);
9. Ability of the player formally and in terms of individual knowledge,
    to transform the environment itself;
10. Async/sync aspects of the environment in relation to each other;
11. Types of speech possible (first-person [ytalk] / third-person [MOO]),
     (packaging of emotions/emootions), (paging, telling, yelling, whis-
     pering, asking, exclaiming, saying), (echo on / echo disabled), etc.;
12. Types of speech tolerated, use of toading, kill, delete, filtering,
13. Issues of network and software lags.

All of these play a role in the quality of communication; the framing of
flaming; the ability to carry on sustained conversations among partici-
pants; the ability to carry on sustained conversations continuing across
various login sessions; the manifestation of desire and sexuality in
various modes of privacy; the manifestation of a certain political econ-
omy in relation to ownership and privatization of spaces, software, and
generic objects; and the very real questioning of the loci of power in
relation to wizards, administrators, server ownership and mandates, and
so forth.

There is much work to be done in regard to these issues, work which lends
itself naturally to creating a phenomenological approach for the consid-
eration of future seamless virtual realities.


Living alone in my loft, there is an entire phenomenology of entering and
exiting; the external world literally floods my presence when I _emerge_
into the light. The rite of passage in signing on to a MOO is different;
one is already on-line, and the passage may occur among various
applications, including ytalk, IRC, and so forth.

The threshold in fact occurs with the initial logging-on, a trivial act
in itself. The community then appears, with the secondary log-on in its
entirety; ontologies shimmer, epistemologies crash, and so forth.

It's difficult for an outsider to understand this transformation occurring
with the movement of a few keys. The body remains in place. Nothing floods
the room, and it's the flooding that ordinarily separates interior and
exterior - along with the relative lack of ownership and privacy the ex-
terior occasions (which is more problematic in cyberspace), and so forth.

This is where prosthesis, the uncanny, projection/introjection, and the
like come into play. The user is at home or in the office; the mind is
moving fast-forward elsewhere. It's going to seem useless, artificial,
non-existent. It's going to be incomprehensible from the outside, and so

The space is dry. Nothing is illuminated. Words crack either darker or
lighter than background, light background flattening the screen, dark
background an illusion of inconceivable depth; Pascal comes to mind, and
so forth.

In dreams real and virtual coalesce, ascii-dreams, livid dreams, maroon
dreams of womb interiors, dreams of classification, conflagration. They
flicker in and out of the preconscious, lists of sexual graphemes and
regions centered around the penis, perineum, anus, nipple. I wake in the
middle of the night, fingers half-inserted, erect, sweated; there are
monsters. The image: cuneiform word-lists, transliterated and translated,
sharp spikes penetrating the body, mouths held open. There are no screams
in cyberspace, not even with Iphone's advent; there is the collusion, the
_substance_ of the computer, and it's this _substance_ as well which
remains untranslatable to those unfamiliar, and so forth.

Circulating among the home pages, one rarely runs into community; language
is pasted onto signboards, even on those refreshable chat sites. Crack the
Web, split it open, and words, neighborhoods seethe forth. I resist this,
this splitting, even the surface, resist the Net; for me, totally succumb-
ing to its narrowed modalities is the sign of death, hungering for too
long too near the screen. But I understand the promise in this hungering
as well, the ability to achieve satiation, find commonality. I have to
remind myself constantly that I'm a freak, that the lure of the threshold
is the lure of paste compared to the flood of the out of doors, and so

It's a litany of occasions, events, each with their temporal horizons,
subjective projects, relevances, avatars, sublimations, repressions,
identities, political and monetary economies. As I said last night to the
interviewer from NPR (not broadcast), humans will find communicative and
communal possibilities in any ecological niche; there are Iphone and IRC
societies as well as those in MUDs, MOOs, newsgroups, email lists, and so
forth. Communication in this fashion parallels capital and late capital-
ism, extending and expanding through all those devices of -jectivity, hy-
steric embodiment, that I've documented elsewhere. So there are thresholds
and rites of passage, there are communities and projections, there are hy-
sterias and issues of governance/framework/political economy, and there
is a majority off-line public out there, meeting explanation with bewil-
derment, uncomprehending of community external to the obdurate existence
of bodies, trails, buildings, streets, and so forth.

And so forth into the night of the darknet, day of the real, vacillating
among illuminations, uneasy dreams, sexual-depressive twists of the body,
corporate-celebratory twists of the machinic, and so forth.

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