Humanizing the Avatar (Part 3: The Human in the Posthuman; Oedipus behind Epimetheus)
The Third in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.
The Avatar through a Subjective and Humanist Lens
Over the next posts I will be interested in the interaction between the user’s sense of self or subjectivity and their Second Life (SL) avatar through the lens of the psychoanalytic theorists Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. I will ultimately side with the Lacanians Bruce Fink and Slavoj Žižek who insist that the aim of psychoanalysis is to understand the functioning of the largely unconscious drives that comprise our complex humanity. Note: That is, Fink and Žižek as opposed to Lacanian/Post-Lacanian literature that reads Freud and Lacan “through the lens of Foucault” as proto post-Structuralists. (Powell) Readings common to cyberculture studies appear, at times, to misread the project of psychoanalysis as a denial of the human subject – a reading that ignores Lacan’s lifelong engagement with the subject. Unlike the largely post-Structuralist position of cyberfeminism, which comprised a great deal of the groundbreaking cyberculture studies of the 1990s, “Lacan was never interested in the ‘death of man’, which he ridiculed as a straw man tactic in his seminars of the mid-1960s, nor did he bracket out all questions of the subject as consistently as Michel Foucault. Thus, Lacan never reduced subjective agency to … the transpersonal insistence of power” (Powell). Bruce Fink is at pains to remind the us that Lacan was not a post-Structuralist who sought to deconstruct and dispel the notion of the human subject, rather Lacan’s work questioned what it meant to be a subject and the failures associated with becoming one (Fink, Lacanian ix). For Lacan, then, otherness does not threaten, but is in fact the support for, the subject. This is the view that Fink and Žižek push throughout their interpretations of Lacan, and one that I share. Over the next few weeks I will be offering an intervention into understanding the relationship between the new media of virtual worlds and selfhood and subjectivity using a “subjective” Lacanian framework rather than an “anti-subjective” one (Mansfield). In the face of “Anti-subjective” analyses of virtual worlds carried out primarily by Foucauldians, Deleuzians and Cyberfeminists, I want to know what a properly psychoanalytic, subjective, analysis of virtual world avatars might resemble? That is to say, against the abundant post-Oedipal, post-modern, post-gendered, post-x (etc…) interventions into virtual reality and cyberspace, I will deploy concepts like the Freudian uncanny (“unheimlich”) and call on the assistance of the psychoanalytic concepts “lack”, “desire”, “the object petit a”, and the “fragmented body”, which tend to occupy the fringes of contemporary cyber-discourse.
Avatars are not exclusively graphical representations that allows users the ability to navigate a virtual world, technological overcomings of our human condition, extensions/prostheses of the self, or radically decentered dispersals of the self into multiple selves and subjectivities. The conceptualization of the avatar that I am attempting to convey does not entirely dismiss post-Structuralist (i.e. Foucauldian, Deleuzian and Cyberfeminist) claims that we are encountering new modalities of selfhood and subjectivity as a result of our encounters with virtual avatars. It does, however, raise questions about the view that avatarization can be explained with exclusive recourse to these “becomings”, ever new “rhizomatic” connections, and “machinic assemblages” noted throughout works like Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. It raises questions about regarding cyberspace as a necessarily affirmative space where the body is no longer constrained by the Symbolic authority of what Lacan calls the “master signifier”. It also raises questions about characterizations of the avatar as a performative tool for the discursive creation of new modalities of self.
I want to move theoretical debates about avatars away from technophilic (and phobic) discourses, toward a more humanist engagement. I take seriously, but not exclusively, the humanist wisdom found in the Old Testament book of “Ecclesiastes”: ‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecc. 1:9) and attempt to fuse it with a study of new media technologies. Despite having quoted Koheleth’s lamentations in “Ecclesiastes”, the humanist approach toward the study of new media articulated throughout these posts is not entirely a conservative one. As Tom Boellstorff suggests, it is not true “that there is nothing new under the virtual sun” (Boellstorff 5). As such, I insist that the so-called new “posthuman” changes wrought by new media technologies, such as SL avatarization, ought to be thought together with how those technologies interact with something that is indelibly “human”. Note: In declaring the cyborg to be post-Oedipal, Donna Haraway, for example, imagines a new type of subjective arrangement. But others, such as Paul Virilio, have concerns about the loss of phenomenological “appearance” (Virilio, Open) and can be understood as focusing their attention on the complexities of some human condition. An inspection of the launchpad of human subjectivity ought to be in order before blasting off into posthuman space.
The Epimethean Dimension of Human Being
I introduce this posthumanist humanism by juxtaposing two mythical figures: Epimetheus and Oedipus. Heideggerian philosopher of technology Bernard Steigler remarks in Technics and Time Vol.1: The Fault of Epimetheus, that our contemporary technoculture can glean much from the ancient Greek myth of the brother gods Prometheus (forethought) and Epimetheus (afterthought). In Plato’s Protagoras, Epimetheus is given the task of rationing out qualities for all the earth’s creatures so that each may exist in harmony. It happens that Epimetheus, concerned only with afterthought, forgets to give humankind positive qualities. This is obviously a problem, for without these qualities humans would be consumed by predators and utterly lost. Plato continues, explaining that Prometheus “…came to inspect the distribution [of qualities] and found that man alone was naked and shoeless and had neither bed nor arms of defence”. Unsure of what else to do, Prometheus steals the mechanical arts of Hephaestus and Athena – along, of course, with fire to utilize them – and gives them to humankind. Stiegler reads this myth as a parable about humanity; we are in a constant search for our inherent humanity, and, as a result we continually interact with techniques, perpetually re-negotiating modalities of selfhood. Epimetheus’ forgetfulness denied us a stable foundation, and, as a result constant transformation becomes, paradoxically, our essence. This ancient, yet prescient myth tells us that human nature involves fabricating and re-fabricating our selves. In this view there is nothing more natural than artifice and flux. I call this the Epimethean dimension of the human being.
The Oedipal Dimension of Human Being
But, this is not the end of the story of what we are. In The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche intuits that the ancient Greeks held another co-existent view of mankind. This view is evidenced in the tragedies of playwrights such as Sophocles and Euripides and asks what lies behind, or beyond, the technological prostheses with which we are forced to endlessly re-negotiate ourselves. Note: If one reads Nietzsche as primarily a ‘genealogist’ then he certainly belongs alongside Epimetheus. But here, I am considering the ‘Dionysian’ Nietzsche. My reading of Nietzsche is not that of a “Nietzschean reference of post-structuralism” (Žižek Sublime, 172) but rather, Nietzsche’s sense of the Dionysian ‘will’ as the terrifying ‘real’ thing standing behind the Apollonian principium individuationis. For what I take to be Nietzsche’s basis for this idea see the concept of the “Will” as it is used throughout Arthur Shopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms. This view holds that there are forces, or structures of some kind, that govern man, in spite of his ever-transforming – or Epimetheian – essence. Nietzsche dwells on Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, which elucidates this later, Dionysian, dimension of self, a dimension of structural inescapability and fate. Note: The Dionysian designates the chaotic, intoxicating, instinctual, destructive, orgiastic, excessive – yet nevertheless structural – aspect of the human being. Greek tragedy, it must be emphasized, developed out from the cult of Dionysius: the spectator became aware of the gulf between the frail, corporeal, and needy human and the continual fertility and orgiastic robustness of the natural world. In Oedipus Rex, source of the psychoanalytic “Oedipal Complex”, Oedipus fulfills the premonitions of the Oracle at Delphi that Jocasta’s son will murder her husband Laius and, in turn, sleep with her. Oedipus goes on to unknowingly murder a man who turns out to be his father Laius and finds out that his wife is, in fact, his mother Jocasta. Nietzsche asks, “Oedipus, murderer of his father, husband of his mother, solver of the riddle of the Sphynx! What is the significance of the mysterious triad of these deeds of destiny?” (Nietzsche, Birth 30). Sigmund Freud resuscitates Oedipus’ fate early in the 20th century to offer an answer to Nietzsche’s question about the largely “unconscious” desires and currents that structure our sense of self. Note: Although it is disputed how much he read or how well he read Nietzsche. Nietzsche is not a Psychoanalyst before the letter and Freud is not a Nietzschean. But neither did Freud deny that his idea of ‘the id’ came from Nietzsche. The most we can say is that interesting parallels exist between psychoanalysis and Nietzscheanism. (Chapelle 13) For psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, these unconscious forces and structures inhere at the core of the subject. Of importance here is the articulation of a tragic, or Dionysian, dimension of the human closed off from conscious, or deliberate, intent: we are not the masters of our own house. Note: “…all the celebrated figures of the Greek stage – Prometheus, Oedipus, etc.- are but masks of this original hero, Dionysius. There is godhead behind all these masks; and that is the one essential cause of the typical ‘ideality’, so often wondered at, of these celebrated characters.” (Nietzsche, Birth 34). Furthermore, let us note that Dionysius is less a God than he is Necessity. Regarding Euripides’ tragedy, the question has been asked “What God, we want to know, no matter what provocation could make a mother dismember her son and still retain her Sophia?” (Euripides 150). The divinity of Dionysius as the “incarnate life-force itself, the uncontrollable chaotic eruption of nature in individuals and cities…amoral, neither good nor bad…” (Euripides 149). Euripides’ The Baccae, described as a “mysterious, almost haunted work, stalked by divinity and that daemonic power of necessity which for Euripides is the careless source of man’s tragic destiny and moral dignity” (Euripides 149).] I call this the Oedipal dimension of the human being.
The Epimethean and Oedipal Dimensions of Human Being
When we combine Epimetheus and Oedipus, as articulated by Plato (via the Heideggerian Stiegler) and Sophocles (via Nietzsche/Freud/Lacan), we arrive at the seemingly paradoxical claim that human “essence” is contingent and technological (the lesson of Epimetheus), but also inescapably structured and governed (the lesson of Oedipus). Note: Fragments attributed to the pre-Socratic Heraclitus reveal that this paradoxical claim is a quite ancient one. I want to spend a moment with Heraclitus as his ideas have been extremely influential in my resurrection of Oedipus and Epimetheus. Heraclitus’ fragment “We step into and we do not step into the same rivers. We are and we are not.” reveals that he considered “being” and “becoming” simultaneously. In other words, “everything flows, but it flows systematically” (Osborne 91). The river water, and all the creatures and life forms that move through it, are in states of constant transformation. But there are factors such as the riverbed and the banks of the river that, while also in constant transformation, provide a systematic form that is identifiable as a “river”. Now, transfer Heraclitus’ example of the river to selfhood. Ones sense of self is the product of both “river water” containing all the ideological and historical forms that move through it, and a needy, corporeal and mortal “riverbed”. Of course, in both the example of the self and the example of the river, it is possible that a river can cease to be a river, and that a self can cease to be a self. Contemporary culture is rife with emphasizing the contingency of both the river and the river bed, the self and the body, without asking the question of what wisdom stands behind the seemingly paradoxical claim that “changing, it rests”.
The inability, and in many cases downright aversion, to acknowledge a role for both Epimetheus and Oedipus has resulted, as Nick Mansfield suggests, in two broad categories of contemporary theories of subjectivity: (1) “…those that attempt to define the nature or structure of the subject (its ‘truth’), and (2) those that see any definition of subjectivity as the product or culture of power” (Mansfield 51). This tension is expressed by (1) psychoanalysis (i.e. Lacan), on the one hand and (2) poststructuralism (i.e. Michel Foucault), on the other. Contemporary postmodern theory, however, has abandoned balancing these two forms of subjectivity; the symbolic reminder that we are not masters in our own house has been largely neglected in favour of analyses of selfhood that focus on the factors responsible for the construction and endless maintenance of the house. Regardless of what side of the postmodern fence one stands on neither Friedrick Jameson’s account of a self embedded in the cultural logic of late capitalism nor Jean-Francois Lyotard’s deconstructionist account of a self incredulous toward grand, or meta, narratives has time for Oedipus. One could argue that there has been a deliberate attempt to abandon any remaining supports for “humanism”, and pose a radical “anti-humanism” in its place. Note: See Louis Althusser’s For Marx and Foucault’s The Order of Things. The idea is summed up quite nicely in a collection titled Posthumanism edited by Neil Badminton. This academic “anti-humanism” finds itself materially reflected in pursuits such as the Human Genome Project, and in biotechnologies, which allow for gene therapy and germ line interventions. This sentiment can also be located in the wild success of MMOs, such as SL, where the buying and selling of virtual body parts is normal and routine. As will become clear throughout these posts, much of the academic work done on virtual worlds such as SL consider them to be spaces where users, via their avatars, rehearse for a coming posthuman era, when the body will no longer possess any psychical interiority, as it will be wholly textualized, informatic, changeable and malleable. Rather than the cryptic Socratic maxim “know thyself”, the postmodern theorist recites the maxim: change, or (re)create thyself. In contrast, I believe that we continue to harbor psychical interiority despite our encounter with so-called postmodern technologies and social patterns.
The effect that the generally post-Oedipal era of postmodernism has had on our understanding of the interaction between the self and virtual media technologies demands serious attention. We can learn much from academic work on virtual reality and online identity produced throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. This work generally takes two directions: one optimistic, the other pessimistic. The more optimistic strand tends to be influenced by theorists such as Judith Butler, Donna Haraway and Giles Deleuze. Note: Theorists who in turn, appear to rely heavily on Foucault’s indictment of movements such as psychoanalysis as privileging some truth of our innermost being. This theoretical tradition, privileging difference, and challenging the very idea of making generalities is best expressed by Foucault, whose works proclaim: “we are not generalities”…“we are not merely instances of a larger human character…immune to the contingencies of changing history …regardless of culture’s particular experiences/histories” (May 10). It is not some universal human being that makes me what I am, proponents of this view purport, but the “temporal movement” of a changing, and unpredictable world that “leaves its stamp on me”, that “makes me what I am” (May 11). While “themes” such as “discipline, normalization, bio-politics etc…” can be discerned through the study of history, history itself, according to Foucault, is not directed by any outside teleology or dialectic, nor does it correspond with any universality internal to the subjects produced by it. The bodies of these subjects can be thought of as “docile”, or wholly “subject to formation imposed from outside” (Siegel 619). “Who are we” is not what Foucault is after; rather, he is after “Who are we now” (May 22). The other, more pessimistic strand of postmodern theory addressing virtual reality and online identity is found in the writings of Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Jean-Francois Lyotard (Virilio, Art); (Baudrillard, Ecstacy); (Lyotard, Inhuman). The celebratory perspective on cyberculture characterizes virtual worlds as spaces where users can be liberated from their biological determinants, “perform” their identities and “cycle through” multiple selves (Turkle, “Always”). The more pessimistic perspective sees the new post-Oedipal era as a nightmarish development, where “the network of simulacra elides the old Lacanian categories of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real” and conflates them into a depthless hyper-real (Flieger 397). Both positions, libratory and hyper-critical, however, have a shared foundation: they function either by revising and watering down Oedipus, turning him into a theoretical straw man, or tossing him into the historical trash bin altogether.
At this point I will acknowledge some broad aspects of Deleuze and Guattari’s influential anti-Oedipal position and let the reader know why I do not find it persuasive or appealing. Deleuze and Guattari accuse psychoanalysts of using Oedipus to route desire in constraining ways corresponding to the Oedipal triad of “mommy-daddy-me”. This is because they regard desire as “positive” and “productive” while the Oedipal story is premised on the “lack” of the mother and regulated by “law” of the father (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti 3); (Ross 63). Thus, rather than a constrained “lacking” or “regulated” form of desire, Deleuze and Guattari champion an entirely positive form of desire free to form connections with other bodies and the outside world. This positive desire is premised on continuous mutation and transformation, and thus, does not reduce the “multiple forms that desire can take to those forms that can be referred to by the personal identities of the Oedipal triangle.” (Lorraine 190). Now, I agree with Deleuze and Guattari that the Oedipal triad of the Jocasta (mommy), Laius (daddy), and Oedipus (me) is a constraint on the most radical arrangements of bodies and subjectivity; however that does not cause me – like it does them – to seek a move beyond the Oedipal triad. In calling for a form of life beyond constraint (i.e. negativity, lack, prohibition), the anti-Oedipal position moves us into a wholly posthuman, wholly Epimethean, territory.
As will become clearer throughout ensuing posts, the claims I present on Cybject advocate a positive and connective reading of the avatar only insofar as it is integrated with a negative, Oedipal, reading. The avatar, in my account, is not representative of a Deleuzian self endlessly “being born of the states that it consumes and being reborn with each new state” but rather is representative of becoming and difference that does not exist outside the auspices of the negativity and lack that the Oedipal triad represents (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti 16).
What Can Old Oedipus Teach us New Media?
Rather than ignoring old Oedipus and flinging myself into a posthuman investigation of technology, I believe he has much to tell us about the variability, contingency, and possibilities opened up by contemporary technologies of avatarization. Thus, while “[Deleuze and Guattari] urge mankind to strip itself of all anthropomorphic and anthropological armoring, all myth and tragedy, and all existentialism, in order to perceive what is nonhuman in man, his will and his forces, his transformations and mutations” (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti xx) I am interested in the interaction between man’s all-too-humanness and his capacity for transformations and mutations. For this reason, I do not align myself entirely with Oedipus or Epimetheus: I do not advocate becoming carried away with a dark, repressive, lack and slogging through life like the plague stricken flagellants in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, nor do I advocate for the day when, the subject wills itself into a state of purely positive and transformative desire, endlessly “defined by the states through which it passes.” (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti 20). Note: Finally, whether undermining the position of the human, or (as Foucault puts it) being “anti-homo”, is an ethical response to the threat presented by the horrors of fascism is a difficult matter. Suffice it to say that the articulation of an utterly non-fascist form of subjectivity without recognition of where the human begins and ends risks being equally as vicious as a fascist form of subjectivity that is certain of where the human begins and ends. Frankly, I do not care for extermination, whether one pure ‘I’ exterminates another ‘I’ or whether the ‘I’ is exterminated in order to be monstrously connected to other ‘I’s and the natural world.
A taste of what’s to come over the next few posts
I am especially wary of positions that regard virtual worlds such as SL, for better or worse, as spaces where users rehearse for a time when the body becomes wholly malleable and dynamic. This wariness is the impetus for considering virtual world avatars through the prism of a humanist Lacanian psychoanalysis. Although several psychoanalytic concepts will be explored throughout these posts, including the “Oedipus complex” and the “uncanny”, for Lacan, the irreducible lack at the heart of the subject is of prime significance. This lack, first theorized as the subject of the Imaginary in his paper on the “Mirror Stage’ (1949 though first delivered in 1936), never leaves us, in spite of the fact that it is later subsumed under the more linguistic identification with the Symbolic. In the virtual world of SL users must create and re-create their avatar – rendering explicit aspects of their self that tend to be obscured in real life. I will look to the much discussed SL economy from the perspective of an economy of desire, whereby real currency is spent in order to catch a glimpse of our desires in action. From this perspective, the avatar itself is a desiring-thing organized around what Lacan calls objet petit a (Lacan, Sem XI). For Lacan, the Other, which can be considered akin to the (m)Other in the Oedipal drama, represents that to which we are always striving to return. Thus, the objet petit a, is derived from Other – Autre in French – as the little Autre, literally, little Other. Note: While notoriously difficult to define, objet petit a might be thought of as the remainder of the child’s relationship to its (m)Other, or more specifically as representing the child’s fantasy of the (m)Other’s desires which comes to structure the child’s very being. It is this imaginary relationship – I claim – that is made explicit in our interactions with our avatars. The interactive reflection of the avatar makes explicit the subject as an endlessly desiring thing, one that for Lacan is both an effect of and movement through language.
Thus, it is no coincidence that SL has been featured in the news for its increasing integration with real life: the avatar in SL is a virtual reflection of what has always been at the core of the subject, a reflection that, like our original encounter with the mirror during the mirror stage, reveals the alienating virtuality at the heart of subjectivity. Through this prism, the role and significance of the avatar differs notably from both optimistic and pessimistic post-structuralist and postmodernist formulations. These posts will attempt to elucidate and explore some of these differences. Put differently, they will look for what is uncanny about avatarization. What if the avatar body – that excessive, perpetually incomplete, double with which the user engages on their screen is not an overcoming of the Symbolic, but a working with something that is constitutive of our very humanity? Such a formulation would lead to a conceptualization focused on the uncanny element of the virtual avatar, or of the avatar user as “traversing” the “fundamental fantasy” laid down to cover over the trauma of primordial repression provoked by “castration” (Žižek, Plague 30). Thus, these posts seek to consider the object petit (a)vatar. My aim is not to close down readings that emphasize new openings and new becomings, but to insist that avatars, often heralded as harbingers of the posthuman, do continue to “mark time on an Oedipal calendar” and remain subject to what is “old and long familiar” (Haraway); (Freud, Uncanny). I am interested in articulating a cyborg subject who does, playing on Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, uncannily “re-member the cosmos…[of] Oedipal symbiosis” (Lacan, Ecrits 77); (Haraway 151).
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