When In MOOville...

Asterisk: the figure of a star used in writing and printing as a
reference mark or to indicate omission, doubtful matter, etc.

MOOville is the name of the text-based virtual reality whose material location is on the servers of the IBM computer lab in Rolfs Hall at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, Florida, U.S.A. In its current incarnation MOOville is a multi-user domain with object oriented programming. The history of such writing environments is now well-known: they began as electronic versions of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game preferred by the hackers who were in the process of inventing the online internet world. Educators recognized the possibilities such environments offered for supporting learning interactions quite different from those seek-and-destroy motifs of the game. Universities all around the United States began developing their own MUDs and MOOs. The commercial online services followed suit. The result is nothing less than a fundamental new form of human interaction.

My office is on the fourth floor of Turlington Hall, a building housing classrooms, auditoria, and the offices of numerous departments of Arts and Sciences disciplines. This building is legendary for the labyrinthine design that makes it difficult for new students to find the office they are looking for. The numbering system of the offices seems to have been borrowed from the map of Tokyo, as described in Roland Barthes, The Empire of Signs. Next door, abutted directly onto the side of Turlington, is Rolfs Hall. Two years ago IBM granted my university one million dollars worth of equipment to establish a UNIX networked writing environment. The university contributed another half million dollars to refurbish Rolfs, which now possesses five classrooms equipped each with thirty XWindows workstations. Some 2600 students each semester are enrolled in writing classes, learning how to compose in hypertext markup

language (html) and dig in MOOville.

Here is the problem confronting me--a disciplinary problem. How to design information in such an environment? I cannot say: how to write--for that phrase does not exactly fit the experience. Finding one's way through the screens of text that constitute MOOville is more complex than finding my office in Turlington. If the cognitive map my students have of a "building" does not quite work for negotiating Turlington Hall, their cognitive map of a book is even less useful for negotiating the information paths in MOOville. The added difficulty is: these students must not only learn to read MOOville, but to write it. I do not pose this question directly to MOOville, for the tool in question is a moving target. Even as I make my way from the fourth floor of Turlington to the fourth floor of Rolfs things are changing. Mike Conlon is at his Xterminal

programming a doll's house in MOOville. The rooms in this doll's house may function just like the rooms in MOOville proper. One possible function for this doll's house is as the site for the old version of our MOO, now two years old and at a maximum of its useful capacity. The old MOO will be this doll's house in one room of the new incarnation of MOOville. A character may pick it up and carry it around, enter and leave it, living in the mise en abyme structure of e-space.

The evolution of MOOville only begins here. Randy Fischer is at his Xterminal investigating the code available for merging a MOO with the WorldWideWeb (W3) to make a WOO. Everyone wants MOOville to be a WOO, to add the graphics and data functions of the Web to the object-oriented programming (OOP) functions of the MOO. Object-oriented programming allows me to add functionality to strings of text, to produce robots, containers, broken typewriters, slide projectors, and the other furnishings of MOOville. Craig Freeman is at his workstation developing Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) projects to supply three-dimensional images for this potential WOO. Kathy Acker has a character named Ratty in MOOville, inhabitant of some virtual basement, learning the arts of digging so that her next postmodern novel will be in MOO.

Someone has to be the Aristotle of this scene, I say to myself. I do not go so far as to decide that I want the job (I know the wages of hubris). This Aristotle needs his John the Baptist (to acknowledge both sides of the Western tradition), someone to put out the call, to make the job announcement. No need for that, perhaps, since the invention is already underway. In my case, MOOville in particular, and the Networked Writing Environment (NWE as it is known in Gainesville) in general, is the perfect place to test the principles of the electronic rhetoric/poetics--choragraphy-- proposed in Heuretics (Johns Hopkins, 1994). MOOville in this frame is not a product, not an example of a new writing, but the place (chora) in which this new writing may be invented. As I walk up the stairs to the fourth floor of Rolfs (but why am I bothering to show up physically in the classroom, other than to meet the

expectations of the print institution?), I imagine that I am climbing the stairs to Montmartre in Paris during the era of the invention of modernism and the avant-garde. When we log on to MOOville, we begin in a virtual replica of Rolfs Hall, a layout that provides an immediate orientation for the students. If the door to our classroom is on the north side of the room, so is the exit from the virtual classroom to go to another room in MOOville. Once in my classroom, however, the words tell us we are virtually in MOOmartre, the Paris of Gainesville. As important as are all the technological innovations underway associated with MOOville, they are useless without similar innovations at the level of methodological practices. We need an electracy that is to MOOville what literacy is to the book.

The Euclidean spatial interface metaphor quickly breaks down, to be replaced by a relationship among the rooms that has more in common with the architecture theorized by Deleuze and Guattari in their study of Kafka. "But we might begin by saying that these blocks, instead of distributing themselves around a circle in which only several discontinuous arches are traced, align themselves on a hallway or a corridor: each one thereby forms a segment, which is more or less distant, on this unlimited straight line. But that doesn't yet bring about a sufficient change. Since they persist, it is the blocks themselves that have to change their form, at the very least by moving from one point of view to another. And, in fact, if it is true that each block-segment has an opening or a door onto the line of the hallway--one that is usually quite far from the door or the opening of the following block--it is also true that all the blocks have

back doors that are contiguous. This is the most striking topography in Kafka's work, and it isn't only a 'mental' topography: two diametrically opposed points bizarrely reveal themselves to be in contact" (Kafka: Toward a Minor LIterature, Trans. Dana Polan, Minnesota Press, 1986). MOOville is literally kafkaesque in this sense, in that any two rooms, no matter where they are in the Euclidean structure, may be directly connected by an entrance-exit. Two Bohemias line up here--the literal one in which Kafka lived (he worked for the Workers Accident Insurance Company in the kingdom of Bohemia) and the figurative one of Montmartre-- creating a pattern of confirmation.

I am interested in the design problem in at least two ways: first, the process itself of inventing a new writing; second, the specifics of a choragraphic design. Much may be learned about both aspects from the short history of "cyberspace". "Cyberspace" began as a concept in a science fiction novel, Neuromancer, embodied in what commentators have described as an adolescent boy's wet dream. The technology imagined as cyberspace allowed a "cowboy" techie to project his virtual self into the body of a souped-up hyperninja woman, and to simultaneously be himself and experience everything this woman thought and felt. This fantasy, however sexist it might be, is irreducibly as important a part of the invention process as the technological and design responses to the possibilities of "cyberspace" extracted from the fantasy by architects, engineers, and futurists of all sorts. This example, and the research I had done on the history of

invention in general, indicated that solving the discipline problem posed to me by the NWE could not be accomplished by discipline means alone. Discipline of course had much to offer: the theorists of cyberspace had already concluded that virtual reality, to the extent that it retains the Euclidean point of view of the human sensorium for its interface, is too limited, too attached to the traditions of realism, to exploit fully the n-dimensional potentials of virtual space-time. Deleuze and Guattari show how literature may be mined as a source for alternative models of space-time.

The electronic tools being packed into Rolfs Hall (with many new ones scheduled to be added) are sometimes described as "visualization technologies." My problem is to design a fit between mental visualization capacity--the imagination--and these technologies. I begin by imagining that we are in MOOmartre, to evoke the bohemian atmosphere associated with the studios in Paris in which Picasso and many other vanguard artists revolutionized the arts. The entire record of the historical avant-garde supplies an archive of experimentation that is a major resource for MOOville. This interface metaphor has several levels of application. It suggests first of all in the bourgeois mind a scene of license, all-night parties, free-love, and other fantasies of a lifestyle practiced by those who have thrown off the oppressions of the alienated industrialized society. The expectation fits because the MOO is indeed a very playful

environment. It is nearly impossible not to fool around and improvise with language while interacting in real time with other characters online. It also works by calling attention to the reality of the paradigm shift contextualizing a change in the technologies of memory and language. Along with the change in technology and authoring practices comes a change in the nature of human identity itself.

At another level, the avant-garde drive for innovation fits our need to invent a new kind of writing and reasoning. The special fit of the avant-garde concerns the problematic of primitivism. I am teaching the mechanics of invention (heuretics: the logic of invention), and the avant-garde constitutes an archive of recipes for innovation. Vanguardists such as Picasso not only defined themselves in Contrast (the C of my heuristic generator whose acronym is CATTt) to the conventions of realism established in the Renaissance, but also by Analogy (the A of the CATTt) with the conventions of the nonWestern preindustrial civilizations not yet alienated from their bodies and from nature. From these so-called primitive cultures the avant-garde borrowed not just a new style, but a new function for Western arts: aesthetics would no longer be a "representation" of the objective world, but a "participation" in it by

analogy with the practices of magic and ritual. Critics of the historical avant-garde have argued persuasively, however, that primitivism simply inverts the racist stereotypes of imperial colonialism; simply celebrates the wild sexuality of the savage that the Eurocentrist points to as evidence of Western superiority.

Primitivism in my bohemian interface is the name of a design problem. MOOville is a postcolonial chora whose vehicle is a colonialist technology. In principle MOOville is global. To party and brainstorm with the inhabitants of MOOville one need not come to Gainesville, let alone Paris, but may log on from anywhere. I say in principle because as the critics point out sixty percent of the world's population still lack basic phone service. And that is just the beginning of the difficulty, considering that English has emerged as the Lingua Franca of the internet (as it is of science), and American popular culture the reference point of choice. There is no point in denying this persistence of colonialism in technology transfer, nor in refraining from participation in order to avoid being compromised. On the contrary, the time for invention of a postcolonial site of invention is now. MOOville is a scene of secondary

encounters, relayed from the first encounters of colonization in which were born various pidgin languages to permit trade and general communication. The name for the writing taking place in MOOville is "cyberpidgin." This analogy with pidgin language guides the design of a virtual bohemia in which peoples of heterogeneous cultural contexts may collaborate in a syncretic creativity that is mutually beneficial.

The nature of the tools make certain demands upon the design process. MOOville affords the opportunity for a large number of individuals to interconnect their intelligence and experience, to create a kind of parallel processing across civilizations that could produce a new dimension of awareness. I call this the "collective page" project. The history of literacy shows what the written page made possible for the individual, beyond the initial fact that it enabled individualism as such. Now the MOO offers to groups of people a collective version of the
analytical reflexivity that the page offered to a self. How might the MOO foster such a group intelligence? Of course MOOs are collective and collaborative in essence, at the level of the technology. Individuals may come at any time and "dig" or "write" screens of text to represent everything that we now do with narrative and argument. The diggings of one

individual are linked to those of others working in the same MOO, so that a visitor moves through the whole without knowing necessarily who authored what. To achieve a similar effect in print would require the creation of a composite literature so that one might read not Faulkner, say, but "American letters" (a text in which one might move seamlessly through the worlds of Faulkner and Cage).

The MOO discourages the old divisions of genre and mode, and provokes people to formulate hybrids of narrative and argumentation--to introduce visitors to conceptual arguments organized by means of narrative settings. For example in MOOmartre visitors enter the Moulin of the CATTt where they are encouraged to learn the dance featured in this cabaret by following the pattern traced on the floor. Each of the steps of the pattern, however, is itself a room, but a room themed this time as a concept rather than as a drama. To walk through the steps is to review the "steps" of using the CATTt heuristic to generate a poetics. In addition to digging these semi-permanent screens of text, visitors may converse in real time with anyone else present, whether they live in Florida or Australia.

How does cyberpidgin guide this scene of secondary encounter? How would you and I collaborate in MOOville? The current experimental poetics is "fetishturgy," replacing the interface metaphor of "homepage" with "fetishscreen." "Fetish" originated as a term in the Portuguese pidgin language that arose along the west coast of Africa in the 1500s. American Black English is said to have as much if not more in common with this pidgin as with British English. In any case, "fetishism" is perhaps the best extant example of a dialogical word--a word that is a site of struggle for meaning. To do full justice to the evolution of this term would require a complete history of both modern theory and the avant-garde arts. In fetishturgy the WorldWideWeb is "front stage" and the MOO is "backstage". I design a W3 site that evokes my fetish. Recall that the Portuguese traders used a term referring to practices of witchcraft to name

indigenous African objects that appeared to be worthless, in capitalist terms, but which the natives esteemed more than any other because of their magical powers. This investment of a trivial quotidian item with spiritual energy motivates the design of the web site.

Marx recognized that the commodity functioned in our economy exactly the way a fetish functioned in pre-industrial economies. He did not like this fact. Nonetheless, fetishturgy has much to learn from advertising about how to work magic online. Specifically, keeping in mind the function of American popular culture (especially Hollywood) as one of the principal ingredients of cyberpidgin, fetishturgy tends to explore the makers' identifications with media stars. My fetish, for example, is the tin star worn by Gary Cooper in High Noon. I show this fetish to the world online, without expectation of being understood. Like the disc shot into outer space by the United States, engraved with the outlines of a man and woman, along with a few other cryptic insignia, my fetish screens simply signal the existence of a sentient being behind this URL. My fetishscreen exists as an asterisk in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, the MOO is the backstage of my W3 fetish. To visit the MOO is like looking at the back of a tapestry, to see the secrets of the weave. Guiding the layout of the rooms in the MOO is the attempt to map the inference paths--the discourse network--of the culture that produced the individual fetish screens on the front stage. This discourse network is collective, is the Symbolic Order of my society. I cannot know it directly myself by introspection. The goal of the MOO design is to capture, inscribe, and make legible, accessible to consciousness, this Unconscious reasoning of the collective. We know theoretically how the Symbolic Order works--it is that ideologically informed complex of behaviors that we have classified according to the preferences of our society in the traditions of nation, race, sex, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, and so forth. The norms of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant

Heterosexual Male Capitalism are inscribed in my body and mind and reproduced in the institutions I live in. The values and ideals of these norms form a mood, an atmosphere of attunement that orients all my assumptions. The vanguard artists who innovated under the sign of primitivism reproduced these norms even as they protested against them. Within the print apparatus it was easy enough to learn how to analyze each of these orders of subjectivation in isolation, but next to impossible to grasp how they all worked together in a hybrid synthesis. Students could quickly learn how to locate a category bias in a narrative or argument, but were unable to continue the analysis beyond these interpretations into their own founding moods, their own subjections to the ambitions of competitive individual selfhood that constituted their identities.

In the collective page plan, MOOville becomes first a map of the inference paths of the Symbolic Order. Beyond that, the designers may overlay the alternative paths of Deleuze and Guattari's minor literature. Another way to state this possibility is that over the narrative and logical paths of Western discourse may be inscribed the patterns of the remainder (as described by Jean-Jacques Lecercle in The Violence of Language, Routledge, 1990), of the lyric devices of aesthetics, tracing the not-yet outlines of the choices suppressed by the dominant culture (Black African Pagan Bi-Sexual Female Anarchism, for example, as well as any permutation and combination of these arrangements). What the recording of these inferences makes possible is the understanding of the behaviors that follow from certain traditions. Different religions, ethnicities, classes, and the like, promote different systems of values and conduct. Different

ideologies have different consequences in the real world. Nor is it possible to predict or plan exactly what formations the syncretism of cyberpidgin might produce as it evolves into a creole. Even less is it possible to determine in advance the effects on behavior of this level of collective reflexivity.

What is clear at this stage is that cyberpidgin is structurally rhizomatic in the sense theorized by Deleuze and Guattari: it consists of two interdependent constellated networks (like the networks of the wasp and the orchid): American popular culture; the states of mind or moods specific to the Symbolic Orders of the different civilizations of the globe. A unit of meaning in cyberpidgin consists of a star icon linked with a state of mind informing a given historical period, which Fredric Jameson referred to as an "ideologeme" (whether dominant or subordinate, official or minor). The ideologeme of the nineteenth century, for example, Jameson identified as "ressentiment" (Nietzsche). We might speculate that the ideologeme of twentieth-century America is "cynicism." In cyberpidgin these ideologemes become writable, just as do the icons of the star persona. They separate from their historical location, become abstract, and circulate as signs in

an open system. Thus the states of mind of other cultures become available to Americans at the same time as American icons are appropriated abroad. In my experiment with fetishturgy, the samba feeling of saudade in Brazil is juxtaposed with the tin star in High Noon (evoking duty) and offered up on the internet as a point of departure for negotiation in a secondary encounter. It is, in short, a discourse of mood (MOOd-e-sign)

MOOville and the NWE, then, are sites of experimentation, places to learn a new mode of thought, an opportunity for engaging in new kinds of work and play. Now it is your turn to show your fetish, both its front and back versions, and link them with the fetishes in Florida. Browse the
NWE. Telnet to MOOville and login as guest. Does it matter whether or not you have misunderstood what it means to show your fetish? No, because the pidgin analogy indicates that fundamental mutual incomprehension is not an obstacle to communication. Will a new global discourse emerge from such a practice? Yes: the sheer fact of linking our screens gives rise to the event of secondary encounter. Will electracy bring about a better world than the one created within literacy? That question remains open, without guarantee. Mark it with an asterisk.

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Gregory L. Ulmer