After section in Second Life, I transported my avatar, JHow, accidentally into the seedy underworld of the erotic sections of Second Life. JHow instantly caught the attention of another avatar who after a short chat, realized that I was a ‘newbie’ and a cybersex virgin. I had yet to become a subject in the totality of Second Life; I had yet to surrender myself to the virtual/physical existence of JHow and me. Through cybersex in the erotic space of Second Life, one becomes a subject: an avatar that has managed to shorten the gap “between the virtual and the real” (Dibbell 16). Cybersex, an exchange, allows one to cognitively map the economy of Second Life.
For Dibbell a newbie (a term which stands in for user/Avatar), becomes a fully formed subject through cybersex: the “first taste of MUD sex is often also the first time he or she surrenders wholly to the quirky terms of MUD ontology” (17). What’s at stake in cybersex is “the suppression of distance” (Jameson 351). The newbie becomes cognizant of the interconnectedness of the mental space and the virtual space; sexual arousal and emotions in the physical world occur as result of a virtual sexual act. Cybersex becomes “the imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her real conditions of existence” with the real conditions being sexual and emotional arousal. The avatar begins to represent something that is not quite real but not quite virtual.
What is key to understanding how the formation of the cyber subject through cybersex leads to cognitive mapping of the space of Second Life is exchange. Dibbell draws on Foucault’s assessment of exchange through sexual acts when he suggests that “the body in question is not the physical one at all but its psychic double” (17); in all sexual acts, the body that is most acted upon is the mental image that one has of oneself. The exchange that occurs is not only that of bodily fluids but of emotions. Sex at its core is not about the corporal but about the mental and imagined. Because the body at stake in sex is not the physical but a mental concept of body, “sex is an exchange of signs” (17).
Exchange through cybersex most adequately is described as the exchange of social capital since there is no money involved (although an avatar can prostitute oneself for the exchange of Lindens, virtual dollars, which are purchased with U.S dollars). What one newbie gains through cybersex is becoming an avatar subject; one becomes a combination of the physical and digital. Cybersex causes the formation of a real/digital subject, the goal of the economic totality of Second Life. “What exactly is an avatar in Second Life?...An avatar is a digital persona...It’s you-only in 3-D” (“What”, SecondLife.com). Cybersex, an exchange, comes to represent the totality of Second Life, the creation of a [second] life through digital social exchange. Cybersex becomes a way to cognitively map the economic totality of Second Life.
What is typically inherent in Jameson’s assessment of cognitive mapping is that the need for a part to stand for the whole is caused by a “gap between the local positioning of the individual subject and the totality of class structures in which he or she is situated” (353). Because of this gap, the part allows the subject to imagine the totality. However, in the situation of the avatar grappling with the Second Life economic exchange through cybersex, the avatar embodies the exchange through cybersex. The avatar becomes a subject that is not quite physical and not quite virtual representing the purpose of Second Life, the creation of a [second] life. The distance between the subject and the reality of the totality is shortened because the avatar embodies the economic exchange.
Cybersex becomes the exchange that suppresses distance in two ways. The distance between the virtual avatar and physical self becomes shortened because cybersex involved real life emotions in the virtual. The distance between the subject and the totality is suppressed because the avatar embodies the economic and social reality of Second Life. The avatar fully becomes part of the totality of exchange, complicating Jameson’s concept that there is distance between the social reality and subject. The avatar becomes a part of the economic totality as much as it represents this totality.