Humanizing the Avatar (Part 1: Secularizing Avatāra & the Real in the Virtual)
The first in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.
The Etymology & Contemporary Usage of “Avatar”
While popularized by Neil Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, the term “avatar” is etymologically derived from Hinduism, specifically the Sanskrit term “Avatāra”, which refers to the incarnated form of an incorporeal Hindu deity. Avatāra also designates a “descent”, a “downcoming”, usually of a Hindu god. Note: In Sanskrit the verb “tri” designates “to cross over, attain, save”, the prefix “ava” designates “down”. “Ava”+”tri” designates “descent into, appear, become-incarnate”. “Ava”+”ti”+”a” designates the “appearance of any deity on earth, or a descent from heaven” (see Parrinder 19). The term “avatar” is similar to the term “incarnation” familiar to Western theology as both the Western “incarnation” and Eastern “avatāra” designate the downcoming of a deity whereby that deity undergoes transubstantiation allowing it to participate in the affairs of sublunary life.
In the context of computerization common throughout popular culture, the meaning of the term “avatar” has retained the original theological emphasis on transubstantiation, but reverses its connotation from a “descent” to the corporeal or an “incarnation” from spirit to flesh, to an “ascent” by the corporeal body to the immaterial or incorporeal cyberspace or – in Stephenson’s terms – “metaverse” (Stephenson 3). Note: The term “metaverse” has, since the release of Stephenson’s novel, come to designate an online, virtual world in which there are no specific goals or objectives. This appropriation and reversal of the Sanskrit term from its emphasis on embodiment (to be incarnate) to laying the emphasis on disembodiment (to be discarnate) is sensible when understood against the broader contemporary cultural and historical context.
This context includes the Platonism of cyberpunk literature such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer where individuals leave their earthly and imperfect corporeality behind in order to enter a world of heavenly mathematical-digital “Forms”, science fiction films such as The Matrix that assume a Cartesian mind/body dualism, and common references by individuals such as Bill Gates to cyberspace being the site, par excellence, of a quasi-divine realm of “friction-free capitalism” (Gates 180). The etymological heritage of the term “avatar” leads us to the presumption that some sort of change in substance – or sublimation – occurs when the embodied user adopts a virtual avatar. As such, the term itself often acts as a mystification of the processes occurring when a user adopts a virtual avatar. This may be because the term leads us to believe that by engaging with an avatar the user becomes something radically different, or other, than what that user physically is, and who that user psychologically is. For example, the most optimistic of cyber theorists take this understanding of the avatar to its logical conclusion, promising virtual worlds as utopias where users can leave their real-world identities and lives behind; these critics yearn for a day when human consciousness, rendered (or “transmuted”) informatic and no longer subject to the corporeality of the body, can itself be uploaded into machines or virtual communities themselves (Kurzweil, Singularity); (Kurzweil, Age). These fantastical claims are all the more reason to critically interrogate and demystify the term “avatar”.
Demystifying the Avatar: The Real in the Virtual
One way of considering this demystification is to think of it as secularizing a religiously charged idea. Rather than regarding avatarization as a transubstantiation (the impetus for which is the presumption of some sort of bifurcation between radically different heavenly [virtual] and terrestrial [real] realms) I suggest secularizing the virtual, and will demonstrate that the virtual is fraught with the mass and inertia that comprises the real. I suggest, via this secularized reading, that virtual worlds can be regarded not as spaces for interactions of an entirely novel nature, but that they externalize reality in a form different from how it appears in day to day life.
The avatar is better understood as an alter-ego rather than a representation. An understanding of the avatar as a representation (re-presentation) suggests that avatarization is a means of turning oneself into a new, or different, medium. As is well documented, when an object is re-presented it adopts new qualities based on its representational medium and looses certain of its more limiting, or “auratic” qualities. Note: In his influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin writes of the changes that works of art are subjected to when they undergo processes of mechanical reproduction. These processes of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin claims, transform the spectator’s relationship to the work of art. What once was interpreted as “auratic”, or “authentic”, about a work of art dissipates as it is reproduced mechanically and removed from its unique place in the space, time and the fabric of tradition (Benjamin). In this regard it is easy to see why terms such as “representation” and “transubstantiation” make such fine bedfellows: the avatar user, formerly a creature of physical (or real) reality, is re-presented as a creature of virtual reality. Rather than interacting with a qualitatively different self, an understanding of the avatar as an alter-ego (Latin for “the other I”) does not dwell on the notion of representation, rather, it considers the avatar to be “a very close and trusted friend who seems almost a part of yourself” (Wordnet definition). An alter-ego, then, is not a representation of the user, but something that (while either physically the same or different) is psychologically close to a hidden aspect of the user’s personality. Thus, considering the avatar as an alter-ego, a “second self”, acknowledges a kernel of the real user’s self remains immune to the seemingly different and transformative qualities offered by the virtual medium.
Second Life (SL), for example, allows us to discern this in a way that other virtual spaces do not. Unlike traditional virtual worlds, which are almost entirely designed by programmers and developers, SL is almost entirely user-generated. In SL there are no levels through which to progress or goals to achieve unless users collectively build and design a game within SL and create their own levels and/or goals. Not surprisingly, the avatars found in SL are far more diverse and varied than those found in other recent virtual worlds and online roleplaying games like World of Warcraft. Without an overarching framework providing narratives, and spatial and/or temporal coordinates, SL users are less likely to feel constrained in their participation; one would be hard pressed to locate a coherent, and overarching, aesthetic or narrative within SL. By not having an overarching aesthetic or narrative, or demanding users adorn themselves with armour and identities that fit the developer’s criteria, one is confronted by a virtual world that often, but by no means always, reflects the real world. In this light, SL is a so-called virtual space where terms such as “avatāra”, or “incarnation”, hardly apply. The real does not lose ground, or give way entirely, to something virtual.
In SL users are not called, a priori, to role-play. While role-play does occur, users do not necessarily have to become someone or something else. In SL, the avatāra–inspired sense of the term “avatar”, with its emphasis on transubstantiation, hardly functions as a description of avatarization. Indeed, the conditions of SL give us an opportunity to understand the term “avatar” in a different light. This is because, as noted, SL is a space whose architecture is comprised of the real and the imaginary unreal: Reuters images of the genocide in Darfur, scale virtual models of the World Trade Center towers, and structures that stand despite having non-Euclidean dimensions (Guest). The avatars that populate these spaces are similar to this hybrid architecture. They are, themselves, qualitatively positioned between the virtual and real. For example, it is not uncommon for a user’s virtual avatar to possess many of the physical traits of its creator(s), while being equipped and adorned with objects that violate the laws of gravity and physics on planet Earth. This hybrid-architecture of real and imaginary illustrates that the emphasis we place on a sort of avatar transubstantiation (whether from incarnate to discarnate or discarnate to incarnate) is highly problematic. Upon logging into the virtual world of SL, users do not abandon their flesh and transmute into a virtual avatar. My goal over the next few posts is to demystify aspects of the term’s theological etymology, and humanize the avatar.
-Guest, Tim. Second Lives: A Journey through Virtual Worlds. New York: Random House, 2008
-Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Intelligent Machines. New York: Viking, 1999
-Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking, 2005
-Parrinder, Geoffrey. Avatar and Incarnation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970
-Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam, 1992