issue 35: march - april 2003 

 | author bio

Sue Thomas

Note: Before or after reading this essay, try typing the following into the address bar of your browser: telnet://lambda.moo.mud.org:8888. When the plain black and white telnet screen appears type connect guest. After that you’re on your own. You might begin by typing help.


LambdaMOO is a virtual world which runs on a programme called Telnet, a very simple text-based system that allows you to log into remote computers and type/talk in real time with people around the world via a plain black and white screen. Telnet can be used to access public databases (such as university libraries), but it also provides access to hundreds of virtual worlds, each one providing a permanent and constantly growing imagined environment rather like the ‘consensual hallucination' described by William Gibson in Neuromancer. LambdaMOO is one of those worlds, and it’s also the birthplace of the spivak gender.

The programming code for a MOO was developed by Pavel Curtis at Xerox Parc in Palo Alto, California, from the code for a MUD, first developed at the University of Reading, England. MUDs provide an online environment for sword-and-sorcery type games, whereby the participants play out stories and adventures by adopting prescribed roles, e.g. Wizard, Warrior, Queen etc. The characters inhabit worlds and own properties which are realised via the text-based environment of Telnet, enabling gamers to roleplay online in real time. Think of a game like Dungeons and Dragons, where you're given a character to play and various powers and objects to go with it - to be able to be invisible, for example, or to own a magic saddle (if you think that could ever possibly be useful). Now imagine playing this game with other people not around a board in someone's front room but on a computer network. Imagine that the forests and castles you fight and frolic in are pre-programmed so that they're always there, and your character remains yours for ever, so every time you log on you go back to where you were before with the same spells, clothes, possessions, and other accoutrements.

"To adopt the spivak gender means to abjure the gendering of the body, to refuse to be cast as male, female, or transsexual."

Now imagine a similar world but one where you don't choose pre-designed characters - you invent your own. And you design your own body. And your own buildings. And belongings. And every time you log on, there it is - you just slip into it like a familiar suit of clothes. And of course there are other people moving about in the world too, and generally they're all anonymous. This is a MOO, and the mother of all MOOs is LambdaMOO. Instead of asking, like the Microsoft ad campaign, ‘Where do you want to go today?’ LambdaMOO asks, in effect, ‘Who do you want to be today?’.

What sets both MOOs and MUDs apart from the multimedia hustle and bustle of the World Wide Web with its RealAudio and webcams and Quicktime movies and Flash animations is that they are created solely out of words. There are no pictures. Everything that exists there is built out of text alone, and indeed it’s sometimes hard to decide which is more real - the player/character, or the flesh bound typist who services their needs.

It's an everyday experience for most MOOers to be several people at once; to carry on several conversations and several different types of relationship; to have several different genders and inhabit several different bodies - and to do all of these simultaneously. Many even keep windows open to several moos and so may be a princess in one and a frog in the other. And in one window, if they are very brave, they can take on that most terrifying of all personalities - the 'real' one.

These multiplicitous bodies are called 'morphs'. They are variations upon the original, or default, body, and each has its own name, gender and description. Sometimes the description sounds astonishingly real, at others it may be utterly obscure, but most generally fall into one or another of a number of universal archetypes. The virtual player, however, does not need to be a theorist in order to appreciate the delicate manoeuvres between one morph and another, and the morph bodies are often adopted instinctively as the player moves from one mind state to the next.

To get the most out of virtual life one must subscribe to the consensus that nothing is real and yet everything can be believed; that the world around you is a deliberate lie and yet you admire its artifice; that its bodies are invented and yet you can 'really' touch them. It might seem that this move into accepting fantasy as being 'true' must be damaging and disorientating, and no doubt a few people do sink into it so deeply that they become trapped inside the hive imagination, but for most players it simply becomes yet another useful transferable skill. After all, IRL (In Real Life) we adopt different personalities all the time - one for our parents, another for our lovers, yet more for our colleagues, teachers, bosses and neighbours. So why not create an identity which breaks loose from the body, which challenges the usual physical conventions? Why not, for example, try a new kind of gender, or even no gender at all?

Some MOOers use online gender play as a toy but many others have used communities like LambdaMOO as a serious trial ground for a new sexual identity which, once it has stabilised a little, can be gently transferred to physical existence. Countless gays, lesbians and transsexuals have come out in the physical world as a result of the liberation of the online world, although it is a tender irony that occasionally typists who have come online to escape the constraints of meat life find that all they have done is build yet another identity prison for themselves. They often try to escape yet again by returning to the MOO as a guest, thus freeing themselves of the character which had originally liberated them from their own flesh.

Some gender identities, however, are less transferable to the flesh although they do have physical resonances. The best example of this is what’s known as the spivak gender. Spivak is more representative of an emotional and intellectual state than of a physical configuration. And although the sexuality available to a spivak is a bonus online, it’s not the raison d’etre. Rather, it’s a subtly gender-free condition. It’s not androgynous. It’s not unisexual. It’s simply ambiguous.

To adopt the spivak gender means to abjure the gendering of the body, to refuse to be cast as male, female, or transsexual. I have been registered at LambdaMOO since 1995, and during that time I’ve presented as female, as male, as neuter, as plural (e.g. a shoal of fish or flock of birds), and as spivak (ambiguous). Of all of those, spivak has proved the most comfortable. Male did not feel right, and neither did neuter. Female corresponds to my real-life physical configuration but I’m not convinced it fits with my real-life mental configuration. When spivak came along, it seemed to somehow correspond with my own sense of who I am and how I define my priorities. And just to get the record straight, spivak does not mean asexual. On the contrary, it offers more, not fewer, erotic variables, although there is no requirement to explore these and many spivaks use the gender as an indicator of celibacy, or lack of interest in any kind of sex.

The definition of spivak has an interesting history. It was first coined by the mathematician Michael Spivak in his book The Joy of TeX: A Gourmet Guide to Typesetting with the AMS-TEX Macro Package published in 1986 by The American Mathematical Society. Spivak introduced this somewhat obscure volume with a statement that would prove to be one of the most enabling notions of the new lifestyles that are developing on the internet:

Since TeX is a rather revolutionary approach to typesetting, I decided that a rather revolutionary approach to non-SeXist terminology would be appropriate in this manual. I myself am completely unprejudiced, of course. As Mark Twain said, or should have said: ‘All I care to know is that a man or woman is a human being--that is enough for me; he or she can't be any worse’. But I hate having to say ‘he or she’ or ‘his or her’ or using awkward circumlocutions. Numerous approaches to this problem have been suggested, but one strikes me as particularly simple and sensible. Just as 'I' is the first person singular pronoun, regardless of gender, so 'E' will be used in this book as the third person singular pronoun for both genders. Thus, 'E' is the singular of 'they'. Accordingly, 'Eir' (pronounced to rhyme with 'their') will be the possessive, and 'Em' (rhyming with 'them') will stand for either 'him' or 'her'. Here is an example that illustrates all three forms: E loves Em only for Eir body.

(http://www.aetherlumina.com/gnp/references.html, accessed April 2001)

Entering circulation just when the very first online communities were coming to life, the spivak gender proved to be just what was needed in virtuality. Inhabitants of the fast-growing online world were exploring an identity liberation which had never before been available. Most commonly, they were switching between male and female (principally male to female, it has to be said) but it quickly became apparent that this was only the tip of the iceberg. If typed text was your only medium, and if there was no way for your fellow conversationalists to find out whether you were telling the truth or not, then why stop there? If you could conceal your gender by lying, why not simply refuse to reveal it? Why not adopt a new identity, one which permits you to opt out of the gender thing altogether? Could it ever be possible for individuals to fully relate to each other without knowing their real-life genders? Michael Spivak’s category for ambiguity offered the chance to do some interesting experimentation and so it was that his revolutionary approach to typesetting became adopted as a revolutionary approach to gender.

The LambdaMOO programmer responsible for writing the code and creating the spivak gender is called Rog. He did not realise at the time that his experiment would have a hugely important impact on LambdaMOO society by making life as an ambiguously-gendered individual a real possibility for those who preferred to sail a little farther away from the shore. I asked him how the spivak gender came about, and somehow it came as no surprise that this unusual little identity was created as a snippet in order to test the system, but instead of being tidied up and recycled into the database it was left lying around for anyone to pick up. And pick it up they certainly did.

The short story is that, at some point back in '91 (hmm, has it really been that long?  yikes...) when I was overhauling the pronoun_sub code --- what's now $gender_utils was duplicated in about 10 different places and this offended me --- I needed to test it out and so I created a bunch of extra, fake ‘genders’.  And when I was done, I left them in place, figuring that just having the usual male/female/neuter was boring, anyway.  The spivak set was something I half-remembered from a random textbook of his; though when I went back to check it, the only place I could actually find him using them was in the AMS-TeX Manual, which had a slightly different set from what I remembered (I distinctly recall him using 'hir' for the possessive, but the AMS-TeX book has 'eir' so that's what it is, now...). And then, for some reason I can't quite fathom, the spivak one caught on while the rest have been mostly ignored.

(Moomail from Rog to Lig, 26 August 01)

Today, over a decade after Rog gave it life, the LambdaMOO command help spivak generates the following information:

The spivak pronouns were developed by mathematician Michael Spivak for use in his books. They are the most simplistic of the gender neutral pronouns (others being ‘neuter’ and ‘splat’) and can be easily integrated into writing. They should be used in a generic setting where the gender of the person referred to is unknown, such as ‘the reader’. They can also be used to describe a specific individual who has chosen not to identify emself with the traditional masculine (male) or feminine (female) gender. The spivak pronouns are:

E - subjective

Em - objective

Eir - possessive (adjective)

Eirs - possessive (noun)

Emself - reflexive

(Generated by the command: ‘help spivak’ at LambdaMOO, accessed April 2001)

Although the spivak gender caught on and spread to other MOOs as well, it is not always the easiest gender to inhabit. This is not a complaint – the option is always open to switch genders or morph into another body at any time. But so many people actually object to it that being spivak can become a political act. Other users, who may refuse to interact unless they know your RL gender, force it into the area of politics and then it becomes necessary to defend one’s right to maintain ambiguity. Note that this is not about the right to remain anonymous (this is universally accepted at LambdaMOO); it is simply about the right to define a gender identity. After all, the argument becomes ridiculous anyway since I could always ‘reveal’ a false ‘real’ gender. So the determination to maintain a spivak persona can grow into a dogged nonconformism when all you’d really intended to do was play around with it a bit. The act of identifying as spivak is often interpreted, by those who choose to do so, as a deliberate and aggressive invisibility, but it is seldom intended to be. (Although of course it can be used as such should the need arise.)

How can one explain this simply?

I presume you accept that you have a face of some kind (mouth, nose, eyes etc) even though you have never physically seen it? By the same token, the spivak assumes that another person will take for granted that e has a virtual presence even though they have not been shown a physical facsimile of it. Is it not enough that e is clearly ‘there’, clearly communicating? That somewhere there is a typist behind the spivak presence who is performing the keystrokes necessary for em to speak?

"Online, I am described not by flesh
but by text."

The challenge for more fixed beings when they encounter a spivak is to decide how far they can accommodate so much unknowing. And yet we already accommodate so much unknowing in our lives – why should this be any different? Consider your colleagues at work or at school. The data which is so difficult to obtain from a spivak is easy to get from them. Just being in the same physical space makes it simple. One can (usually, but not always) ascertain their gender from their bodies – facial hair, breasts, the bumps of a penis and balls – but also from the clothes themselves since in most cultures these are dictated by gender. The sounds of their voices, and sometimes their movements, also quickly inform us of their gender; and scent, whether natural or applied, will provide signals which might enter only via the unconscious but which are nevertheless conveyed loud and clear. Similar data conveys age, class, culture, race, physical condition and so on.

A meeting with a spivak online deprives us of most, if not all, of these signals, but this does not make it a null event. Far from it. As I type out a conversation with another spivak and e replies, I might absorb a sense of an energetic yet gentle being. E has a sense of humour. E remains courteous in the ebb and flow of conversation and can talk easily about the most delicate matters. I feel myself warm to em. Or perhaps e is aggressive, irritable. Maybe e does not pay attention to what I’m saying. Eir typing may be messy and chaotic, full of careless typos, capital letters and curses. I get an instant sense that I dislike this individual. Are these encounters incomplete? Or are they simply a different kind of meeting?

The last time I went for a haircut I confronted my physical features there before me in the mirror and encountered the very powerful realisation of just how spivak I actually look these days. Until recently it has always been more of an internalised sense of being neither gender, or both, or something else entirely. But age is changing that. And with my short grey hair, and wearing a black protective hairdresser’s cape tight around my neck that flowed across the form hidden underneath, it was as if I were lifted altogether away from my genitalia. My face floated above a constellation of silver clippings scattered on the dark nylon, and I wondered what the hairdresser was thinking as e snipped eir way across the planetary landscape of my skull. But then, from eir vantage point, I suppose this is nothing new. Before the salon glass, we are all reduced to this.

Online, I am described not by flesh but by text. My looks are how I portray myself in realistic mode, or simply how I come across as a person. I am created in your mind, and you, my reader, may dress me as if I were a character in your own fiction. I will wear whatever you think I should wear, be whatever you think I should be. I see, I sense, I compute, and I respond. Think of it in terms of a computer programme – if / then / else / goto. Or think of it simply as a different kind of body language. The language of the moment. The body of the now. You, a collaborator in my identity.

Sometimes I have taken my picture with a webcam. You can always recognise that kind of photo. There’s something about the upraised eyes reluctant to turn away from the screen for too long. It’s the traditional pose of the self-portraitist, trying to look at the projected image on the screen/canvas at the same time as staring into the camera/mirror. Sometimes, too, when the light is right, I see my face reflected in the computer screen itself. I’m my own genie in the lamp.

Online I am a spivak. My gender is ambiguous. And as for the rest – have you not sensed me enough through these typed words? What other data do you need?

© Sue Thomas 2003

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author bio

Sue ThomasSue Thomas was born in England in 1951. Both her parents were Dutch but made their home in the UK and her interest in cultural outsiders – physical and virtual, android and androgynous – probably stems from those somewhat confused beginnings. Her books include the novel Correspondence, a mix of flesh and machine, short-listed for several prizes including the Arthur C Clarke Award (London: The Women's Press, 1992; New York: Overlook, 1993); Water, a novel of fluids, imaginations and passions (New York: Overlook, 1994; UK: Five Leaves, 1995) and an edited anthology Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories By Women Celebrating Women (New York: Overlook, 1994; London: Vintage, 1994). She is Founder and Artistic Director of the trAce Online Writing Centre an international organisation for writers working online based in the Department of English and Media Studies at The Nottingham Trent University, England, and providing research, project management and online courses. Her web-based work includes a reconfiguration of Correspondence at Riding the Meridian; and Lines at Lux: notes for an electronic writing. With Teri Hoskin, she co-edited the Noon Quilt website and book. Most recently an excerpt from Correspondence has appeared in 'Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture' (MIT Press, 2002). Essaying Virtuality, a recently-completed non-fiction book from which Spivak is taken, aims to reconcile the virtual and the physical through their landscapes and bodies.
email: sue.thomas@ntu.ac.uk
web: http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/suethomas/


 tbr 35           March - April 2003 

-Short Fiction
      Alexei Sayle: Barcelona Plates
      Laura Hird: The Happening
      Barbara Lefcowitz: Medea, The Girl from Albania, The Walking Tree
  picks from back issues:
      Des Dillon: The Blue Hen
      Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
and Stars and Losers

      Gretchen McCullough: March 2003: Letter from Cairo

      Sue Thomas: Spivak

     with Scottish author Laura Hird

     All About Books
      Answers to last issue’s Graham Greene quiz

-Book Reviews
      Adios, Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría
     Strictly Casual: Fiction by Women on Love, edited by Amy Prior

-Special Links
      writers speak out on the issue of war

-Regular Features
      Book Reviews (all issues)
      TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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