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My Dinner With Catharine MacKinnon

And Other Hazards of Theorizing Virtual Rape

A talk, delivered at "Virtue and Virtuality: A Conference on Gender, Law, and Cyberspace," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, April 21, 1996

With all due respect and gratitude to the organizers of this conference -- and especially to Jennifer Mnookin, who specifically invited me to take part in it -- I'd like to begin my remarks by suggesting that my presence here today is in large part the result of two terrible misunderstandings.

The first led to one of the more unforgettably awkward events of my life -- by which I mean the day 14 months ago when the formidable feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon stood at my side before a full auditorium of the Yale University Law School and, if I understood her correctly, anointed me a kind of technocultural fellow traveler in her campaign to tear down the conceptual framework that protects much pornography as free speech in this country. And the second misunderstanding I suspect to have occurred somewhere in the mind of Jennifer Mnookin, who sat in the audience that day and quite possibly mistook my proximity to the famous expert on questions of law and gender for the possession, on my part, of an even remotely comparable expertise.

Now, in all honesty, this latter confusion I have no problem with. Like many a red-blooded American male, I've never been one to let my relative ignorance of a given topic stop me from pronouncing on it with the most straight-faced simulation of authority I can muster. And if other people feel like helping out with the simulation, so much the better.

As for Professor MacKinnon's confusion, however, I confess it's been troubling me ever since. And if it doesn't strike you all as too self-indulgent, therefore, I'd like to take the time allotted to me today to retrace the sequence of events and arguments that led to my sharing a podium with the professor, and to see if I can't unravel finally the misunderstanding that those events and arguments seemed to me to culminate in that afternoon. Perhaps in doing so, who knows, I may even help unravel as well one or two of the several knotty questions that have brought us all together this weekend.

Now, speaking of which, I should acknowledge at this point that while my expertise on law and gender is largely a matter of my willingness to fake it, my credentials as an expert on cyberspace are in somewhat better shape. But even this small degree of authority I cannot claim to have earned so much as stumbled upon. For it was my journalistic good fortune to walk straight into the middle of one of the great true-life stories of cyberlegend about three years ago, and it was really only a corollary to that good fortune that the article in which I wrote the story up -- an article published in the Village Voice under the title "A Rape in Cyberspace" -- became far and away the most widely read and discussed piece of writing I have ever produced, an accident that secured me, I suppose, what little right I have to be sitting up here behind this table.

Interesting as the story is, however, what I mean to talk about today has more to do with the reactions it has provoked than with its actual contents, so I won't be recounting it here in much detail. If you'd like to read the published version yourself, I can give you pointers later on to a number of web sites where you'll find it. Or simpler yet, you could just log into one of the big web search sites and do a search on my name and on the following four terms (do you have your pencils out?): Mr. Bungle, voodoo doll, virtual rape, and the First Amendment.

Now, the last of these terms I'm sure you're familiar with, and many of you will recognize the other three, but for those still in the dark let me do a little explaining. Mr. Bungle was the username of a player on LambdaMOO, which as many of you also know is a well-populated MUD based at the Xerox PARC research institute (also known to some of you as the Media Lab of the west). And what exactly is a MUD? Well, this question has already been answered in a variety of ways at this conference, and no doubt will again be answered in further detail as the day proceeds, so for brevity's sake I'll just remind everyone that a MUD is an online, text-based virtual reality and hope that doesn't leave anyone too unenlightened.

So: Into the online, text-based, virtual reality known as LambdaMOO strides Mr. Bungle. And after a few weeks' residence there he finds himself, like a good many of the other inhabitants, in possession of an object known as a voodoo doll. And when I say "object" what I mean is a program, a piece of code, for when you left out the players who interacted in LambdaMOO what you were left with, essentially, was a collection of programs, all designed to enable the players to manipulate the text of which LambdaMOO was constructed in various more and less interesting ways. And more specifically, what the voodoo doll enabled its owner to do was to spoof other players. Spoofing is, of course, a netwide term denoting the appropriation of a user's identity by other users; and in the context of the MOO this meant that by typing actions into the voodoo doll, its owner could make it appear as if another player were performing those actions. This was something of a violation of the social conventions of VR, a kind of flouting of the sanctity of a player's control over his or her virtual body, but on the other hand it was an easily detected violation, it could amuse both victim and perpetrator if deployed with the proper esprit de corps, and it was often a big hit at parties.

What Mr. Bungle chose to do with his voodoo doll on a certain March evening in 1993, however, was not looked on smilingly by those who witnessed it. Strolling into the crowded living room that night he picked a few mostly female victims, and over their increasingly vehement objections he began to broadcast onto the screens of everyone present false representations of these victims engaged in various forms of sexually humiliating activities. Thus, just to pick one example out of the swamp of Mr. Bungle's imaginings, the player who went by the name of Moonfire was obliged to see on her screen the words As if against her will, Moonfire jabs a steak knife up her ass, causing immense joy. You hear Mr. Bungle laughing evilly in the distance.

Now, what had Mr. Bungle done, exactly? Well, in a sense, not much. He had typed some words and caused them to be communicated to the understanding of others. And let me make it clear that no one present that night was so confused as to doubt that words were the only weapon Mr. Bungle had wielded. But they also had several additional things to say about what he'd done. They called it "uncivil," they called it "despicable," and lastly but most precisely they called it "virtual rape." And I say precisely because I think the phrase captures as well as any can the ambivalence with which Bungle's victims seemed to regard his actions -- the way their response seemed to oscillate irresolvably between outrage and mere annoyance, between a tone that equated his actions with real-life rape and a tone that recognized them as nothing of the sort. And I want to emphasize that oscillation, because I think that if you don't get it, you don't really get virtual rape at all.

I think it also helps explain the LambdaMOO community's response to Mr. Bungle, which was neither to seek redress in the real world (though there were a couple of ways they could have done that) nor merely to censure him within the MOO. Instead the community decided to cut him off at the boundary between real life and virtual reality -- and so they did, eliminating his account and all the objects associated with it.

And thus the story ends, more or less, and now you all know how the words Mr. Bungle, voodoo doll, and virtual rape fit into it. But what about the First Amendment? How did that get in there? Well, I suppose in writing up the Bungle Affair I probably should have just let the story tell itself, but ultimately I didn't have enough faith in its accessibility for that. I thought it a little too alien to the average non-MUDder's experience and felt I should try to inject a little universal relevance into it, to tease from it a broader significance I wasn't entirely sure it had. And so I closed the piece with some reflections on the ways my encounter with LambdaMOO's version of virtual reality and with the phenomenon of virtual rape had begun to unsettle my long reflexively held understanding of the relationship between word and deed. "The more seriously I took the notion of virtual rape," I wrote, "the less seriously I was able to take the notion of freedom of speech, with its tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real."

I was careful to insist that these reflections constituted not so much an argument as a report on a kind of emergent Information Age mindset -- a postmodern return to the premodern logic of the incantation, ushered in by the operating principle of the computer, whose typed-in commands are after all a lot like magic words in the way that they simultaneously convey information and cause things to happen with the immediacy of a trigger pulled. But secretly I wasn't quite sure what my relationship to this emergent mindset was or ought to be, and it was in the midst of this uncertainty that the specter of Catharine MacKinnon began to haunt me.

You have to understand that at the time I was still very much immersed in the culture of the Village Voice, and that the Village Voice has for decades been a hotbed of left libertarianism, with its long-running star columnist Nat Hentoff weighing in weekly with radical defenses of free speech in which MacKinnon has occasionally figured as something not unlike the anti-Christ. Also, if I recall correctly, a book of hers with the ironic title Only Words had just come out, and though I hadn't read it, what I'd gleaned from the reviews sounded strikingly similar to some of the epiphanies I'd had while thinking about Mr. Bungle and his voodoo doll. It's no surprise, then, that as the article moved toward publication I found myself in a sort of low-level tizzy I would have to describe as the ideological equivalent of homosexual panic, wondering anxiously whether I was before my very eyes turning into the Village Voice staffer's ultimate other -- a MacKinnonite.

Publication of the story didn't do much to allay my anxieties. My colleagues at the Voice gave it a warm enough reception, to my relief, but out in the real world of online culture the attacks came hot and heavy, and at times seemed directly aimed at my gnawing fears about my political identity. On the New York conference system known as Echo a particularly involved and feisty discussion was brewing. "Media culture keeps blurring the line between real offense and imaginary offense," wrote one participant, "but this is ridiculous." Another wrote: "That article had no journalistic value whatsoever... It was just using the rape catchphrase to sell papers... and it brutally trivializes people who have suffered through the real thing."

The trivialization critique in particular made me wince, for I recognized it as part of the rhetorical arsenal of so-called pro-sex feminists in their clashes with the likes of MacKinnon, and in the wake of its deployment I began to expect one of my antagonists to make the connection explicit at any minute -- to out me as the MacKinnonite I feared more and more that I must secretly be. When that failed to occur, I fell into the grip of a fantasy that struck me at the time as bordering on the paranoid. I imagined that, of all things, MacKinnon herself would come across the article and finally, officially declare my thinking kin to hers.

Well, it didn't happen, and it didn't happen, and as the months went by and the controversy died down, I began to feel as if I'd dodged that bullet once and for all. I settled into the comfortable business of dining out on my article's contentious success, hopping from conference to presentation to conference, regularly rehashing the issues it raised, in a delightful routine that, as you can see, continues to this day. And so, when about a year after the article's publication I got an invitation from Larry Lessig to address his class at Yale Law School on the subject of virtual rape, I didn't think twice before accepting.

Nor did I think twice when he informed me, on the eve of my visit, that his former professor Catharine MacKinnon had expressed interest in the "Rape in Cyberspace" article and might very possibly be on hand to discuss it with me. I didn't even think once, as a matter of fact. I was rendered pretty much incapable of thought, you see, by the stark, animal panic this news induced in me.

The regrettable result being that what I now recall of that afternoon is something of a blur. I remember that MacKinnon was indeed present, and that she was naturally invited to join me in my presentation to the class. I remember that a good portion of her remarks seemed to tend toward the judgment that "A Rape in Cyberspace" was a prime example of someone coming independently to the same conclusions about the relationships between sex, violence, and representation that she had long been advancing. I remember her exclaiming at one point: "And in the Village Voice no less!" I remember some other things as well, which I'll get to in a moment, but mostly I remember the sensation of being a deer caught in her headlights, and my numbed inability to either wholly endorse or vigorously fend off her enthusiastic appropriation of my article.

There was a dinner afterwards, with just Larry and a couple of his students and Professor MacKinnon. But my dazed state continued on throughout the meal, and I was scarcely able to utter a word. Nor, as I recall, did MacKinnon direct much more than two or three sentences toward me, and even those were mostly warnings that what she was about to say was not for publication. But I don't blame her for not paying more attention to me. I really wasn't much of a conversationalist at that point.

And so I took the train home to New York that night with a feeling of regret sneaking up on me. Because despite my general cerebral paralysis throughout my encounter with Catharine MacKinnon, it had finally begun to sink in that there were indeed important differences between her philosophy and mine; and I couldn't help sensing that I had missed a rare opportunity to clarify those differences.

This is not to say that had I had my wits about me I could have declared at last with certainty that I was no MacKinnonite. After all, I had read at least some of Only Words by then and couldn't deny my sympathy with some of her analyses of how pornography works, even if I could hardly endorse the policy prescriptions she derived from those analyses. But I could at least say that when it came to her understanding of virtual rape, Catharine MacKinnon was no Dibbellian.

For what had become clear to me as I'd listened to MacKinnon's appreciation of "A Rape in Cyberspace" was that she really wasn't interested in that oscillation I find so central to the notion of virtual rape, and indeed of virtual reality in general. She wasn't interested in the way the victims' rage was tempered by irritation; she wasn't interested in the community's refusal to seek redress in real life. She was only interested -- for fairly obvious reasons -- in the extent to which the people of LambdaMOO had felt Mr. Bungle's actions to be equivalent to real-life rape. In short, as far as I was concerned, she didn't get it.

But that didn't mean I now found myself thrown back into the camp of those who had attacked me for taking virtual rape seriously. On the contrary, I now saw in their attitude a kind of mirror image of MacKinnon's understanding. For they, too, wanted to see only one half of VR's irreducibly ambiguous truth. For them, the MOO was only a game, and could not be more.

I think the MOO is a game, and I think it is also much more. I think of it, finally, as a kind of conceptual DMZ -- a permanently, radically liminal ground on which the real and the imagined meet on equal terms.

I don't think this ground is an entirely new one, historically speaking. I think that it has always existed, as an abstraction, whenever humans have had the courage to comprehend the relationship between the real and the symbolic in its fullest complexity. But as a concretization of that abstract space -- and one that can be lived as well as comprehended -- I do believe VR is something new, and I believe very much, therefore, in its potential to bring a new level of sophistication to the debates that rage around the intersection of sex, violence, and representation.

So I would argue, in closing, that if the law is to have anything to say about VR at all, it would do best to resist its own tendency to reduce oscillation and conflict to unambiguous resolution and instead direct its efforts toward preserving VR as the haven of ambiguity that it is.

What that could possibly mean in any practical sense is a question I leave, finally, as an exercise for the reader.