The Mapping of Desire at bianca's Smut Shack
In "Sex and death among the disembodied" Sandy Stone refers to "the primacy of play in interactive virtual environments" (Stone, 245). When considering the virtual environment of the Web, one site that embodies this sense of interactivity and play is bianca's Smut Shack, an almost entirely text-based erotica web site patterned on the metaphor of a mapped "shack" where guests can visit its different rooms, actively engage in chat sessions and "write on the walls," or passively explore the established framework of the shack, reading the words that other guests have posted and inserted to its meaning. In her article Stone also comments that:Usually sex involves as many of the senses as possible. Taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing -- and, for all I know, short-range psychic interactions -- all work together to heighten the erotic sense.
Yet in the virtual world the immediacy of such a range of sensory experience is - owing to its limitation to text and, increasingly, graphics and sound - almost entirely absent. Or is it? Stone continues with a discussion of phone sex in its relation to cybersex:It also seems clear that what's being sent back and forth over the wires isn't merely information, it's bodies -- not physical objects, but the information necessary to reconstruct the meaning of body to almost any desired depth and complexity. In general, the idea of body is part of the idea of erotic interaction and its concomitants, and the erotic sensibilities are mobilized and organized around the idea of a physical body which is the seat of sensual interaction.
In what way is "the information necessary to reconstruct the meaning of body" present in electronic spaces? To begin to answer this question we must first ask, through what means is the body represented in the virtual world? Currently, two of the most obvious sources for the virtual representation of the body are the Web and MUD and MOO environments. The Web provides a world of static yet navigable "pages" filled with graphics and text. In this space, bodies - both in the physical sense of individual human bodies and in the more abstract sense of political, organizational, or communal bodies - can be represented both through literal images (such as pictures) on the screen and through the overall "embodiment" that a home page offers in attempting to link and piece together the fragments of a distended identity. MUDS and MOOS differ from the Web in that the worlds they create are dynamic, interactive, and constructed solely by text; here, behind each fictional, textually constructed "body" lies an individual human body typing away at a keyboard. Yet due to the invisibility of the biological body in its textual representation in cyberspace, the MOO environment can readily be used as a space in which to experiment with identity, and can serve as a point in which to imagine alternatives and to extend beyond the biological "determinism" of given male and female gender roles.
In general, both the Web and MUD and MOO environments provide spaces for representation and discourse that range from academic and theoretical, to flirtatious and playful, to erotic and pornographic. bianca's Smut Shack, with its literal, navigable image map of the shack and its current emphasis on writing rather than graphics, is not unlike a slightly more static Web version of a MOO environment such as LambdaMOO or BayMOO; in its flirtatious and exploratory nature it serves to reconfirm Stone's notion of "the primacy of play in interactive virtual environments," especially in the way in which it maps human desire into the virtual community and onto the image of bianca and her Shack, and also in the way in which, as a predominantly text-based environment, it serves as a possible alternative space for sexual interaction.
Communal Body of Words:
bianca bases her site around the idea of an interactive community; in a welcome "Love Letter from bianca and her Trolls" she tells us that "The shack is not just a place to visit - it is a place to create, it is a place to breathe, it is a mood and a feeling that is hard to find among the whirling electrons of the Web," and that, "to answer the common ‘what the hell is this' question, bianca's Smut Shack is your home!"
One way in which the Shack works to maintain its sense of community is through its introspective nature. The site is constructed almost entirely of internal links, so that guests can browse for hours without becoming distracted by a random tangent, and without losing a sense of location within the Shack's virtual walls. Yet like a number of Web sites, the world of the Shack constantly changes, and thus works to draw its growing "community" of visitors back on a continual basis. On February 26, 1996 the site asserted that "we are now getting 1,000,000+ hits a day and 35,000+ hosts a day," claims that are substantiated by the sheer number of new postings and chat room session transcripts scrawled (OK, typed) daily on the virtual walls of every room of the Shack. Unlike the majority of sites found on the Web, the continual changes occurring here are produced by the guests themselves, in transcripts of various chat sessions, question and answer bulletin boards, and various postings throughout the different rooms. This fluid relationship between the virtual body of the Shack and the physical bodies of those who visit its site works to blur the boundary between cyber-textual body and human physical body, and to undermine traditional categories of text, author, and reader.
At present (meaning April 1996) the site's smut appeal exists in the dirty talk, flirtatious innuendoes, sexual fantasies, and curious questions that visitors post on its walls. Although every so often, in the "corner" of one of the rooms, we may come across some actual graphic pornography, bianca overtly premises her site on the possibility of all visitors leaving written messages on her walls. She welcomes us: "Come on in! Write on bianca's walls, read from her books. Learn and contribute! bianca likes to accommodate all her guests as best she can." This invitation also raises the question of what we are to make of the fluid bodily relationship between the Shack and bianca "herself." In their initial sense the two appear to be constructed as separate virtual entities or identities, where bianca acts as a virtual mistress of the mapped space of the Shack (graphically pictured as a house whose rooms we can "enter" and "exit" with the click of the mouse button). Yet the phrase "Write on bianca's walls" immediately dispels such a clean separation, and renders the Shack as the body of bianca herself, or the body of a woman that we - women and men - can navigate and occupy, or an object on which we can leave our mark.
Navigating bianca and her Shack:
As a standard disclaimer, bianca warns us up front that "if you want to come in, you must be at least 18 years old," and she then provides variable means by which to navigate the body of the site. The "map o' the shack" links to an image map giving entrance to the various rooms, the "quick reference index" provides a text list of links to the very same rooms, and "bianca's HeartBeat" gives direct entrance to chat room sessions and transcripts. Each of the three options serve as different points of departure from which we can navigate through the shack in much the same manner of navigating through the textually constructed spaces of a MOO environment, only here the action is point-and-click as opposed to typing textual commands.
The virtual rooms through which we can travel include: the foyer, which gives an introduction and welcome; the alter, where visitors can make sacrifices "to bianca, or to smut. Speak of the sacrifices you will perform. bianca loves sacrifices;" the fairly tame guest room, or "Guest Parlor of Love and Information" with such services as "The Sexual Q+A;" the movie room, which links to underground movie reviews and image clips, and which also houses a bookcase that links to "Book and Magazine Reviews" and "bianca's Book of Poetry" (as with all rooms of the shack, here guests can submit their own "review," poem, complaint, or comment on whatever they desire); the bedroom which provides sex toys and bianca's personal diary; the kitchen and its cookbook, where all are invited to post favorite recipes (those listed range from romantic to sexually-fantastic to claimed aphrodisiacs to pornographic concoctions); the closet (bianca's own "flower garden" page . . . no further comment necessary); the pantry, or an archival space where her "embarrassing records" are stored; as well as a cafe and a bathroom. Each room gives a description of its virtual space and links to related objects and chat rooms.
One of the most prominent features of the Shack is our ability to view the literal writing that others have left on its (her) walls through the course of the day. Transcripts of chat sessions are found upon entering each of the various chat rooms, and previous bulletin board postings are found at the posting sites. One effect of these postings is that it gives visitors to the Shack a variety of options by which to navigate their journey. At any point a guest can actively post his or her own message; yet a visitor can also opt to spend his or her entire time in the Shack passively traveling through its spaces and reading what has been written "on the walls." Such an act can be seen as fairly comparable to reading pornography or an erotic novel, or looking at the graffiti on a public restroom stall, depending on the messages previous visitors have posted.
Through the way in which it maps human desire and fantasy onto the walls of a virtual body, bianca's Smut Shack provides a virtual embodiment of Stone's notion of "the information necessary to reconstruct the meaning of body to almost any desired depth and complexity." As one genderless visitor to bianca's alter proclaims: "Love is no longer in my vocabulary, at least not now. I have sacrificed my sex life in reality. I want to learn to please on-line."