Open Sauce: A Critical Conversation

Open Sauce Featured Writer Sophielle Open Sauce Facilitator Nor

Open Sauce Featured Writer Sophielle discusses the Open Sauce project with facilitator Nor, in this conversation held in an online chatroom on 28 March 2011.

They discuss how the project has evolved so far, as well as critially examining how it relates to queer and feminist theories of writing.


The scene:

Welcome to the chat room, Sophielle and Nor. This is a FREE-SPEECH room. If you are easily offended you should not be here!

Lasophielle (New Member) joined the room

Lasophielle: Hi. Well, I'm Sophielle. According to my Twitter profile I'm a "scribbler. queer. anarchorevolutionary. dancer. cyborg." I know you, Nor, the creator of Open Sauce, and I've entered into the project more intimately as a kind of 'featured writer' and hopefully, too, a future collaborator in the different forms it will take.

So to me, Open Sauce is a new, challenging sex-positive scribbling wall and activist project. Open Sauce is a Mills & Boon based mosaic under creative attack from all sides. Open Sauce is where you come to read and participate in the making of collective porn. Would you quibble with any of that?

Nor: No, I think that's a good introduction! Though I know the project means different things for different people.

Open Sauce grew out of my interest in free culture and copyright - or, more specifically, copyleft. I wanted to investigate the erotic dimension of the idea of the 'remix', and of releasing work under open source licenses. There is something about the blending and appropriation involved in this process which is erotic to me. I wanted to see if a text which is 'erotic' in the traditional sense could also be made erotic in this more particular sense, too.

This eroticism is process-based: the aim is not really to 'improve' the porn, although this is a pretext I've used to make it accessible. (In fact, it pokes fun at this idea of collaborative 'improvement' because it will never work for everyone.) Rather, it highlights the way that people's desires encounter one other, clash and possibly blend harmoniously. The Mills & Boon-style story is a 'ground' for this to happen.

There are also, of course, a wealth of feminist and queer implications in the idea of taking a text and laying it open to alteration & subversion. So I'm interested in your perspective as a feminist and queer writer.

Tiziano (Pinnacle of Awesome Lvl. 10) joined the room Tiziano left the room

Lasophielle: Absolutely. As its name implies, Open Sauce is open source and saucy not only because it deals in sex and fantasy, but because it allows you to write over and modify the fantasies of others. It is a wiki, and it has been constantly evolving since you launched it ... how long ago now?

Nor: It has been live since 14 March 2011 (today is 28th) and so far it has had...

Nor: ...just checking...

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Nor: ...around 17 different edits.

Lasophielle: Right. Actually, I just want to say, as an aside: I'm quite interested in the dynamic of the forum where we're having this conversation. As we've started this dialogue, a user has entered and exited our purpose-built 'room', and I've had an advert for Adult Personals pop up on my screen! So, before we launch in, really, I want to acknowledge our surroundings - we're in quite an exhibitionist environment.

Nor: Yes, it seems an appropriate place to have this conversation.

Lasophielle: I had to tick, as I created the "room" we're inhabiting, a box to determine whether the discussion - which is vetted - should be moderate, dirty, or 'free'. How would you say this virtual space compares to Radical X's Open Sauce wiki?

Nor: Firstly, I think it sums up the current state that the WWW is in, culturally. The idea of filtering, vetting, etc, is becoming more prevalent. For example, people are getting smarter about hiding their profiles on Facebook, etc. And yet there is a paradox there, in that these forums are essentially public - the servers they live on are out of our control, and the software is often closed-source. So there is a strange and delicate balance between this increasingly dated, utopian idea of the web as a 'free for all', and a more controlled environment. And of course, that environment is increasingly facilitated by closed, proprietary software. I hope that Radical X responds to this, and stands in contrast to it.

Lasophielle: Interesting. It immediately coincides in my mind with difficult questions about the "free world" in the so-called "free market" economy: questions about enclosures, utopian collectives, and their relationship with the infinite collective.

amigo (Super VIP Member Lvl. 6) joined the room

Lasophielle: We've hit upon the doubleness in-built into the notions 'public' and 'private', I think, of which the British tradition of the "public school" (the most elite form of private institution) is a great emblem.

amigo left the room

Lasophielle: What you said about the servers and software proves to what extent we operate on *private* property on the Internet. But those fora are conceived of as "private" in the other - intimate, personal - sense whilst simultaneously serving as public social zones.

Nor: Yes, and this is why I think the interface between feminism - which has long mapped the links and divides between 'public' and 'private' - and free culture, which is concerned with both preservation of privacy and at the same time 'openness' - is such an interesting one.

Donna Haraway wrote in the 80s about the 'fabrication of our imaginations', and the importance of getting in on this social 'coding' as activists. Copyright prevents this, in quite concrete ways. The things which fabricate our fantasies and notions about the world - e.g. Mills & Boon stories for women - are considered to be private property, despite their power to dictate social ideas, mores, narratives. They are 'viral', culturally, and yet mutation is forbidden.

And so these powerful discourses become, in some senses, off-limits except to powerful publishers. There is no ability to 'talk back'. This is obviously a feminist issue - and yet every free culture event I go to is dominated by men. It is still associated mainly with new technology and legal scholarship. Where is the fleshly, sexual application of free culture?

Lasophielle: When I gave a presentation on Haraway's most famous text, The Cyborg Manifesto, recently, I wanted to start it off with a less academic perspective. I said that some of the things I think make me a feminist cyborg are simply these: I have an Implanon under my skin, I eat a lot of cooked food, and I like to write creatively, seeing writing as "pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs".

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Lasophielle: ...That last bit about writing is a quote from the 'Manifesto', which I saw as a very radical concept for "thinking together". Haraway says "cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism."

So if writing is a free technology in Haraway's formulation, a "cyborg" one for not-necessarily-men, then there are serious, non-trivial ways in which things like the No Rights Reserved principle, and the hybrid forum of a wiki, and the monstrous, sometimes unattributable growth of a text like Open Sauce, are "feminist".

I think the "imperfect communication" we've seen in the embedded, hybrid dialogues taking place between Open Sauce wiki editors has been quite cyborgian.

Nor: Yes. There is a certain utopian discourse (which, as I said, seems increasingly dated) which predicts, or predicted, that the internet will blend and fuse subjects seamlessly. Yet what I've seen with Open Sauce is more like bad sex, where people try to interface and it's a bit clunky, no one's quite sure where to put what. And, as one blogger who commented on the project at the start predicted, there are 'fantasy wars' where people battle to get their fantasy accepted by others. When it's deleted, they work it back in again.

I'm interested in this tension, which you have in all collaboration, which to me is inherently erotic. The tension between seamless union and messy individuation. We always seem to want it both ways - or at least, we hover over the border. That is a tension inherent in open source working methods and, like I said, I wanted to make explicit the erotic dimension of that creative struggle between subjects.

Lasophielle: How fascinating. And y/our website said of itself, upon its birth into the world, that it "celebrates the way that sexuality blurs the boundaries between one person's inner life and another. It playfully questions the notion of 'plagiarism' and embraces the erotics of cross-fertilisation, blending and borrowing."

So the sense we have in all interactive things, of a push and pull, a collaborative yet individually combative/assertive war, is inherently erotic to you. I'm just thinking about whether that sounds almost primitivist to me, whether it reminds me of views I don't like about human nature being dog-eat-dog, red in tooth and claw, unable to consense, and largely given to mutual domination...

Nor: Not at all, I think that there is forever a tension between the two. We are never fully autonomous, and we are never fully merged. The point at which we hover between the two is, for me, the definition of eroticism. The 'interface' with an other, if you like. I like this definition of the erotic because it expands to include the political and the spiritual, too. And so, to try and create such an interface in the writing of porn seems like a fitting way to tackle the subject of sexuality.

rocky1690 (Respected Member Lvl. 4) joined the room

rocky1690: hi Lasophielle

Nor: We expect erotica to be an escape - people even talk of 'using' porn, as if it's a tool. And yet, the movement for more realistic erotica that appeals to women - e.g. that which includes 'real' emotions, people, etc. in some senses contradicts this wish for an escape.

rocky1690 left the room

Nor: The process, which is happening in Open Sauce too, is, as I said, messy. It's more like real sex, where you actually have to confront other people's desires and decide whether to incorporate, ignore or adapt them. Perhaps it's less of a turn-on, but perhaps there is more power in it than 'plugging into' a pre-fabricated fantasy.

Lasophielle: On that note - by the way - I was just oscillating on the cusp of saying hello to rocky1690. Interesting that s/he didn't want to speak to you, Nor.

Nor: (Yes - I think it's because I set my gender to 'male' whereas you are claiming to be 'female'! I guess that is a good example of the 'filtering of fantasies' we were just discussing.)

Lasophielle: That way of defining an interface between two humans, and that way of defining the erotic, makes a lot of instinctive sense to me. Escapism versus realism is also an extremely pertinent line of apparent conflict to bring in. In many spheres of representational life - advertising, film, fiction - "feminism" seems to carry with it a certain injunction against the divine, the extra-human, the aspirational of fantastical. It carries with it visions (still! in 2011!) of hairy legs (which aren't coded as all that great) and above all of compromise.

chris99999 (Respected Member Lvl. 4) joined the room chris99999: wow! Nor: hi chris :-) chris99999: hi!

Nor: go on Sophielle

chris99999: way way over my head here

Nor: how would you define 'the erotic', chris?

chris99999: me? i wouldn't

Lasophielle: What bores me most of all is the idea that adventure, madness, frenzy, scandalous, active, knock-about sex isn't good for women. Sex for women is - by implication - snuggly, breathy, perhaps even a bit hippie/pseudo-tantric ...

Lasophielle: Hi Chris!

chris99999: hey las !

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Nor: (This is exactly what i mean - this is becoming like a complicated threesome!)

Lasophielle: The "feminism" of that vision is - presumably - that the hetero male involved compromises on his desires for all kinds of adventures, in order to reach his lady.

Nor: Yes - M&B tell their writers that the heroine has to subdue the hero, ie seduce him into domesticity.

chris99999: wow i think that happened to me

Nor: yeah?

chris99999: sounds a whole lot like marriage

Nor: ?

chris99999: seduced him into domesticity

Lasophielle: The feminism I find interesting is a libidinous, monstrous, polymorphous kind ... I'm personally kind of interested in submission, Mills & Boon would be pleased to know. I'm learning how to trust myself sufficiently to subdue and awe my lovers ...

chris99999: bye guys, have fun

chris99999 left the room

Lasophielle: Bye Chris! Sorry this wasn't so much you cup of domestic tea.

marisha28 (Super VIP Member Lvl. 6) joined the room

Lasophielle: oh boy. Marisha. We're discussing feminism and the erotic.

marisha28: whats opensauce?

marisha28: oh cool

Lasophielle: Hi!

marisha28: hie sophielle

Nor: take a look -

marisha28: okie

Lasophielle: Brilliant. We'll keep on discussing then - feel free to dip your fingers in to the discussion!

Nor: This forum is great Sophielle, I think your instinct was right.

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Nor: There's a saying that sex is like getting someone else to blow your nose for you. I think using these open fora to try and articulate something sexual really illustrates that - whether it's chat, like this, or a wiki like Open Sauce. You start to get into the groove, go off on a tangent, and there are all these interruptions. The reality, and the otherness, of the other always intrudes!

Lasophielle: So actually, re: that, can we discuss masturbation? When reading Open Sauce with all its revisions and edits, I am reminded of mutual masturbation or masturbation performed in company. As a writer or reader, you can - as you say - get into the groove for a while. Then someone's fiddle or edit will turn you off, or the awareness of someone else's gaze will suddenly strike you in the wrong way, and you'll want to shift your face aside impatiently and keep going, or close your eyes, hoping that when you open them again, it'll be your particular kink that is flourishing again.

marisha28: sorry to have interrupted you apologies, but i have to leave now. have a class.

marisha28: you two take care =)

Nor: bye

marisha28: love this room

marisha28: bye

Lasophielle: Bye Marisha - enjoy Open Sauce, and edit it, if you like!

marisha28: okie

marisha28: take care

marisha28 left the room

Nor: ?

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Lasophielle: And basically, I wanted to propose that non-solo masturbation is a better way in, a better way in to the hybridity we're seeing that can be so annoying in Open Sauce, which makes people (or makes me, at least, but I can sense that I'm not the only one) more likely to despise or want to ignore and overwrite other participants, than respect and cater to them.

Sex itself carries the requirement of simultaneous mutual gratification, whereas pleasuring yourself in someone else's company and they can watch or not, enjoy it or not, but they have to be present and bear witness somehow *that*'s the difficult dynamic of erotic interface

Nor: Yes. Although I'm interested in challenging this division between solo/duo that is oven invoked in discussions about masturbation/pornography. I very much agree with those theories of the text which propose that reading is, itself, a collaborative act. Even if you're not a post-structuralist, you have to accept that when you look at porn you are going along with someone else's fantasy. You are interacting with it, mentally and possibly physically too.

Although Open Sauce tries to make this explicit, it happens all the time - who hasn't read an erotic story and, in their mind, tweaked the details to suit them? It's these small changes that interest me. E.g. changing someone's clothes from trousers to a dress, or changing the position that the characters are fucking in.

Open Sauce, I hope, makes explicit the way that even masturbation is never purely solo.

Lasophielle: Yes. And/but whilst you're "going along with it" you're also not, because "it" doesn't have a direction - it only springs into flux through the flesh-endowing factory somewhere between our retinas and our brains. A text especially. But even a moving image only acquires meaning in transmission.

Masturbation not "ever" being solo is a more provocative point, from my point of view.

To solipsistically use myself as a reference, I VERY rarely appeal to others, or to scenarios at all, in my masturbation. I actually considered this an anomaly and possibly a defect of the imagination, for a long time. You see, it is typically with me a semi-spiritual, entirely self-centred matter between my second and third fingers, my clitoris, my closed-eyed smile, and all my nerves.

But everything in 'culture' told me that I ought to be picturing myself - constantly "picturing"! not writing, or being! - and putting things in a frame that would get me off on the idea of myself. I just never managed (or remembered ) to actually do that. I disliked the idea that I was a feminine stereotype in this, though. Because by refusing to enjoy the object of myself - and by emphasising the less "visual" and more tactile and sentimental subject of myself - I had a paranoid idea that I was conforming. Because that's a strong message we get too, about porn.

Nor: It's interesting what you say about masturbation as a kind of self-contained solo meditation. You're right, there is an enourmous pressure to engage with an Other in order to be considered properly sexual. Very much related to the notion, I guess, that masturbation is not actually a legitimate sexual activity (the idea of 'saving oneself', etc).

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Lasophielle: /nods

Nor: ...and i wonder how that relates to Open Sauce?

Lasophielle: With the theorists of "écriture féminine", enjoying oneself as an activity just as legitimate as engaging in free play with others, seemed important as far as I understood it. But that's enjoying your self, not just "enjoying yourself" as the common phrase goes, which usually means involvement from the environment and the Other. I am raising this because there is something about typified, scripted masculine sexuality that is so service-minded. As well as being so stuck in self gratification.

I mean: it's somehow unable to tap into itself, caress itself, inhabit itself - it's often seemingly compelled always to be impressing/caressing/fucking/servicing the partner - and unable to be with the Other's sexuality either, in a "reading together", collaboratively sense. So simultaneously all about 'getting its rocks off' - grrr - and never really 'being' with those rocks while they get off. Oh that was a terrible bit of imagery.

But the thing is, that's also fun. As a thing. As an option. The vulnerability of meditative awareness of oneself isn't necessarily always a desirable imperative. As a slightly gender-dysphoric, or perhaps gender-restless, person, I really love inhabiting a Sophielle who is male, who doesn't dissolve ecstatically upon orgasm "like a girl", who grunts and roars, and who is kind of emotionally unreachable.

papovich (Respected Member Lvl. 4) joined the room

Lasophielle: And writing, especially this kind of online writing, enables this!

papovich: heyz

Nor: hia

Lasophielle: Look - papovich has just come through the door - hey

papovich: hows it goin?

Lasophielle: We're discussing collaborative erotic writing - it's a project Open Saucehere

Nor: did you want to say more sophielle?

Lasophielle: Well to use papovich as an example - you can in this forum pass a mouse over the name and discover a certain profile ("Male / Dunno / 22")... but on Open Sauce you don't have that.

papovich: ohh not my kinda thing cyas

Lasophielle: bye

papovich left the room

Lasophielle: And to me, the very very simple fact of not having gender tags,

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Lasophielle: is fantastic. Feels more natural. Feels like my kind of world. And, perhaps this is astonishing given the amount of conditioning we have, I really don't or haven't speculated about the sex or gender identification of the O.S. editors (whereas I have speculated about their sexual politics ...).

Nor: Yes, I spent a long time trying to decide how much information about authors to gather. There was a temptation to gather statistics so that I could make crass statements like, 'women tended to add words such as...' etc. But I'm not sure what that would have added, and I think pseudo-statistics like that is its own kind of project and would need to be on a larger scale, with a wider pool of data, to be convincing in any way.

What you said earlier about masculinist sexuality being characterised as what we would call 'masturbatory', and yet at the same time avoiding reference to the body of the masturbator, is interesting. I guess with Open Sauce you can't do that - you have to own up to the bits you are adding and why. You are exposed. You can't, as in conventional porn, enter a fantasy where you get your rocks off via the characters/narrative presented to you, without much self-awareness being asked of you.

Like in mainstream porn, the man's body is usually positioned to the edge of the frame (or the edge of the narrative, in text-based porn) and the attention is on the woman's body. We are supposed to focus on her, to imagine that we are fucking her, and we don't see the man's body, just as we don't really see our own body.

Open Sauce is more self-reflective. So perhaps it's not 'porn' really - perhaps it is a kind of cybersex. I like dissolving this boundary.

Lasophielle: Actually, though, one thing I found quite bizarre about my first edit - which was on the 'virgin' text - oh just look at that loaded word!- was how automatic and unconscious it appeared to be as a writing process. It just tumbled out like I was already watching or consuming it, rather than creating it.

Your reference to gonzo porn - porn that really tries to give the impression the viewer IS the fucker, in the room, fucking the fuckee - that was, I suppose, close to how I was relating to the text under my own self-direction. I established myself on the periphery of my own gaze and awareness of the scene, and I just made the text turn into what I wanted it to be. To deliver me my goods.

Nor: That's interesting. I'm glad that as a participant you noticed that feeling - of wanting the text to 'deliver your goods'! This is exactly the point of tension that Open Sauce seeks to highlight. And this, despite the fact that (in the example of Open Sauce) the very fantasy you are engaging in is mostly borrowed from the previous participant.

I hope that other participants will experience and notice this dilemma too: do I engage with the person whose fantasy I'm writing into, or do I bend the text to the desires I brought with me? And I hope that the utter textual mess that the story evolves into will reflect this awkwardness and this struggle.