“Discourse Is Not You” But Was Its Life Yours?

Caroline Bassett (University of Sussex), ‘“Discourse Is Not You” But Was Its Life Yours? An Archaeology of LambdaMOO’

This paper makes an archaeological return to LambdaMOO, a particular form of Multi User Domain. The intention is to consider a moment of engagement between a moment of specific (media) theory generation and the (historically specific) material formations that supported it or that gave it a particular salience. And to contest how this moment is ‘consigned’ to history (or the archive) as historical and technical horizons change.

Lambda was a virtual world, made of text but with a ‘real’ topography, which was for a time notorious as a site for multiple forms of gender and identity experimentation. To return to Lambda is to re-open a world of fascination, a world in which we were newly, as Foucault put it in a different context, ‘like the grin, without the cat’.

In its day LambdaMOO attracted cyber-feminist interest – not least because the text based selves emerging ‘from the closet’ into the hallways of Lambda, seemed to be very literally making of identity a performance. Theories of gender non-essentialism, specifically those of Judith Butler, based on doing ‘things with words’, and focusing on the potential for queering gender through a politics of iterative performance, found fertile grounds here.

Gender theory moved on. Technology developed. The temptation is to view LambdaMOO as an ‘early version’ of later digital practices of the self, and/or as a pale shadow of the more ‘material’ engagements with digital spaces now afforded. And to treat in a similar ways the accounts of gendered identity that circulated around it: These days, or so it is argued, more ‘accurate’ and ‘nuanced’ understandings of what it means to be digital/to be a digital being, are to be found. Identifying this tendency as a mode of generational correctionism, and pursuing it through an excavation of Lambda, I call for a different return to be made, one that does not gauge the past only on the terms of the technological present.

Caroline Bassett is Professor of Media and Communications and Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab at the University of Sussex. Publications include work on gender and technology, medium theory, digital humanities, science fiction, sound and silence. She is the author of The Arc and the Machine: Narrative and New Media (Manchester University Press, 2007). She has recently published on Perec and the ethics of writing history (Edinburgh, 2017), and is completing a monograph exploring Anti-Computing.

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