Humanizing the Avatar (Part 4: Avatars as Harbingers of the Posthuman?)
The Fourth in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.
Three kinds of categories emerge in scholarly literature dealing with avatars:
(1) The “Posthuman” Avatar and (1a) The “Posthuman (Capitalist)” Avatar,
(2) The “Performative” Avatar,
(3) The “Human” Avatar and (3a) The “Human (Psychoanalytic)” Avatar.
In this post, I will discuss (1) The Posthuman Avatar:
Several studies of Second Life (SL) argue that avatars are technological extensions or prostheses that create new types of posthuman beings. Virtual bodies, these studies contend, act as harbingers of a time beyond the human. In their article “Embodied Narrative: The Virtual Nomad and the Meta Dreamer”, Denise Doyle and Taey Kim explore narratives of embodiment in virtual worlds and web 2.0 environments. The two researchers communicate with one another using the monikers Wanderingfictions (for the researcher in SL) and Dongdong (for the researcher using web 2.0 environments). Wanderingfictions explains to Dongdong that she acts and moves as if her “non- human” (SL avatar) body and identity were real (Doyle and Kim 214). Dongdong, interested by Wanderingfictions’ suggestion that her virtual-body is tied to a non-, or post-, human form of identity, agrees, stating that “…we are all becoming posthuman”. The researchers are interested in the radical posthuman freedom that accompanies the loss of one’s human identity and body within 3D virtual worlds. Wanderingfictions expresses a Katherine Hayles-inspired posthuman reflection on the nature of virtual selfhood: “I am being defined as pattern, not presence. I have the experience of embodiment, although I know my body is virtual. There is little true form here, only a series of associations” (Hayles 25-26); (Doyle and Kim 214). Note: While reading their discussion, I am reminded of cyber-optimist John Barlow’s claim that “Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” (Barlow)
Theoretically, Doyle and Kim’s posthuman rhetoric bears traces of both Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the fate of the “aura” amidst technological reproduction in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Marshall Mcluhan’s notion of the changes that linear, or “Guttenberg”, man undergoes in technologically mediated acoustic and non-linear environments (Mcluhan). Mcluhan and Benjamin articulate an early kind of technologically informed posthuman self-identity; in one case human beings are affected by a world that no longer has a sense of the “auratic”, in another case human beings are affected by a world that no longer operates on principles of “linearity”. Consider the following claim by Dongdong:
We are evolving ourselves with communications and the creation of expression towards this blurry world we exist [sic]. Text will expand in every direction. We will not live in a horizontal timeline any longer. You will be able to create nameless nations and unauthorized territories, paradoxical zones like the Taj Mahal without India in your virtuality (Doyle and Kim 214).
A clear relationship exists between the decline of Benjamin’s aura and “the Taj Mahal without India”, or Mcluhan’s non linear electronic community and the idea of no longer living in a “horizontal timeline” (Benjamin); (Mcluhan 55-56). The virtual Taj Mahal, comprised of virtual scripts and codes, deployable and removable at the click of a mouse interrogates the authenticity, and awe, that the real Taj Mahal once inspired. The world itself no longer demands our attention and focus in the way it did earlier. Linear narratives privileging horizontality lose their importance as the simulation saturated world demands different types of non-linear narratives that privilege a de-centered and heterogeneous directionality.
Studies of online identity, one of the most famous being Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen, often work with Benjamin’s insight that “even the most perfect reproduction is lacking in one element: its presence in space and time, its unique existence at the places where it happens to be” (Benjamin). Turkle explains that “in simulation identity can be fluid and multiple, a signifier no longer points to a thing that is signified, and understanding is less likely to proceed through analysis than by navigation through virtual space” (Turkle, Life 49); (Turkle, “Beyond” 646). Here, virtual simulation does something to our identity, it creates a new sort of self, one whose outward appearance – via its mechanical reproducibility and its inhabiting of non-linear environments – is no longer necessarily tied to a stable referent. Likewise, for Wanderingfictions and Dongdong, the avatar appears to radically interrogate an autonomous, or core “I”. This “I”, prior to contemporary technologies, was a seemingly fixed and assured Archimedean point of subjectivity which Descartes declared in his Mediations to be “certain and unshaken” (Descartes 17).
Social theorists, philosophers and novelists have long noted the tendency for modern technologies, and technocratic ways of living, to alter our sense of self and what it means to be an “I”. Doyle and Kim’s posthuman conversation piece can be located alongside antecedents as varied as philosopher Martin Heidegger and novelist J.K. Huysmans; both of whom recognize, in their own ways, that the belief in an unchanging human self (as a unitary, solid subject) is being radically interrogated and challenged by new technologies and social practices.
Heidegger’s considerations of the effects of modern technology on human subjectivity can assist in our analysis of Doyle and Kim’s posthumanism. In “The Question Concerning Technology” and “The Age of the World Picture” Heidegger considers the changing status of the self amidst modern technology. Tied to this changing status is his assertion that modern technology displaces the “wordliness” of the world and puts a human-world in its place. He uses the term “enframing” to explain the way humans, as users of modern technology, have come to relate to (and literally “frame”) the world (Heidegger, “Question” 19). To demonstrate the characteristics of this modern technological “Enframing” of the world Heidegger contrasts a windmill with a modern hydroelectric power plant. In describing how the windmill differs from the type of “revealing” that characterizes modern technology, he explains that the “old windmill’s…sails do indeed turn in the wind; [but are] … left entirely to the wind’s blowing. …the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it” (Heidegger, “Question” 14). The windmill only transfers motion, it “reveals” wind energy, but does not commandeer nature’s energy or store it for future use (Mitcham 49). In contrast to a windmill or a wooden bridge that joins one bank of the Rhine with the other, a hydroelectric plant is set in the current of the river. Note: In the “Question Concerning Technology” Heidegger comments:
The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity.” In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. (Heidegger, “Question” 16)
The bridge, in his argument, preserves the Rhine’s intrinsic value: the river retains its own value, we simply cross over it. “The bridge”, Heidegger writes “lets the stream run its course” (Heidegger “Building” 150). The power station, on the other hand, transforms the Rhine into a very different object and its value becomes a human value. Even from the vantage of an observer: staring out at the bridge one sees the river running beneath it, its flow unobstructed, unimpaired by the bridge that stands across it. The bridge does not direct the flow of the water. On the other hand, an observer of a hydroelectric power station built into the Rhine witnesses a different sort of river, one whose flow is obstructed, impaired, and directed by the power station. The river itself, when impacted by the hydroelectric plant, appears under the command of human beings. The hydroelectric plant challenges the energies of the Rhine, stores them in a non-sensuous abstract form whose value is discernable by, and exclusively for, the will of human beings. This, in turn, gives humans a different view of the Rhine. This “challenging-forth”, rather than “bringing-forth”, substantiates Heidegger’s claim that the world has been turned into “standing-reserve” as a result of modern technology. The challenging:
…happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is, in turn, distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing. But the revealing never simply comes to an end (Heidegger, “Question” 16). (Emphasis mine)
His argument throughout “The Question Concerning Technology” that there was a different way of revealing called techne that aimed to bring things forth and let them appear that pre-exited our own method of technological “switching about” can be considered one form of a posthuman argument. Doyle and Kim’s posthuman conversation piece occurs within a worldview that believes modern technology has done, and continues to do, something drastic to how we live and what we are. This view regards virtual technologies, and the types of identities and selves conditioned by them, as thriving in an environment of constant switching-about where objects are challenged forth as standing-reserve. The virtual world of SL, where users’ online personae have no anchoring point, no gold-standard to refer their identities to, is paradigmatic of the Heideggerian claim of being switched about ever anew. This position contends that the modern individual, considered a functionary of Enframing, is less and less subject to the “wind’s blowing”, and increasingly under the purview of an anthropocentric will to (technological) power. Following the logic of Enframing one comes to consider the posthuman body as one fabricated entirely by, and for, the will of human beings.
While in SL, I often ask other residents whether they feel there is a typical SL body. Some of the time I am told that the fact that there is no typical SL body is one of the reasons the user was drawn to the virtual world in the first place. Doyle and Kim lucidly convey this position and preference. While many users do have avatar bodies that resemble their own, they often assert that they do not feel a sense of authenticity and normalcy, that there is no interior subject or substance; their self is dispersed and endlessly switching about. Their avatar-bodies are always potentially – or virtually – a canvas for something else. Most SL users I have encountered do not find the idea of an anchoring, or normal, SL body intelligible. In fact, all the objects in SL, constructed of geometric prims, Note: “The basic building block of Second Life… All in-world objects are constructed from primitives. A prim is a basic shape (such as a box, sphere, cylinder, etc.) that can be manipulated, stretched, cut, twisted, hollowed, and otherwise mangled into various forms. A builder can link a collection of prims together to form one cohesive object.” (Puritans). are examples of standing reserve that have no inherent value of their own apart from the value that human users bestow upon them. Note: i.e. “…As this historical transformation of beings into resources becomes more pervasive, it increasingly eludes our critical gaze; indeed, we come to treat even ourselves in the terms underlying our technological refashioning of the world: no longer as conscious subjects in an objective world but merely as resources to be optimized, ordered, and enhanced with maximal efficiency (whether cosmetically, psychopharmacologically, genetically, or even cybernetically)” (Thompson 5). If all things are transferable, offering the maximum possible use, so are the avatar-bodies who call SL their home. If modern technology has “changed our taste or sense of the world”, it has also changed our taste or sense of the body, what it means to be a self (Wrathall 101). Novelist J.K. Huysmans associates this state of being without inherent form with human beings rendering themselves aesthetic objects in a post-Copernican era. Note: That is, symptomatic of living in a culture drifting away from the niche carved out for it by the Aristotelian cosmology where bodies, by their very nature, were understood as having a natural way of moving (Aristotle). As Des Esseintes, the aesthete-dandy protagonist, and modern-man par excellence, of Huysmans prophetic 1884 novel Against Nature foresaw: while the self was once thought to possess a fixed place and nature, it is increasingly losing that place. Des Esseintes suffers from a terrible stomach ailment. Due to his illness his meals are prepared in the form of a Peptone enema. He comes to enjoy the enema so much that he begins preparing enema-meals for himself and ends up revelling in the experience. Such an unorthodox manner of nourishment may revolt us, but for him, “[t]he experience…was, so to speak, the crowning achievement of the life he had planned for himself; his taste for the artificial had now, without even the slightest effort on his part, attained its supreme fulfillment. No one would ever go any further; taking nourishment in this way was undoubtedly the ultimate deviation from the norm…” He revels in the aesthetic and artificial, and this incident is no exception. Reflecting on the Peptone enema he thinks to himself: “What a slap in the face of mother nature, whose monotonous demands would be permanently silenced”. In the present day we do carry much of Des Esseintes appetite for the artificial around with us, especially in those increasingly common instances where our bodies become the canvases for works of cosmetic surgery. Esseintes’ aesthetic attitude transpires, he admits, in a self “beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of ancient hope” (Huysmans 221) Likewise, the Copernican revolution (initiated by the decline of Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian cosmology), has been followed by immensely significant historical shifts such as Darwin’s anti-teleological theory of natural selection, Freud’s relocation of the unconscious into the post-Enlightenment mindset, Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, and two World Wars, that, taken altogether, stain the belief that human beings have a circumscribed place in the cosmos and can be developing toward a teleological endpoint of History. We no longer regard ourselves as creatures whose bodies and thoughts have a pre-determined role in the cosmos. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche conveys this post-Copernican sentiment: “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?” (Nietzsche, Gay 181).
Wanderingfictions and Dongdong claim that virtual worlds like Second Life are doing something to us: “we are shrinking, growing, expanding, deforming, deleting, creating, modifying and metamorphosizing, and disappearing” (Doyle and Kim 218). They write as if their sense of “I”, their sense of selfhood and subjectivity is undergoing a radical transformation. Wanderingfiction explains that her SL body needs to be changed; she feels “very fluid”, “changes all the time”, and is “free of form” (Doyle and Kim 218-219). By focusing on technical extensions and prostheses as responsible for altering what it means to be an “I” Doyle and Kim’s article clearly demonstrates a posthumanist engagement with SL avatarization.
In the next post, I’ll discuss The “Posthuman (Capitalist)” understanding of avatars…
+Aristotle. On the Heavens. Trans. WKC Guthrie. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960
+Barlow, John. “A Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace” 9 Feb 1996. <http://wac.colostate.edu/rhetnet/barlow/barlow_declaration.html>
+Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1986
+Doyle, Denise, and Kim, Taey. “Embodied narrative: The virtual nomad and the meta dreamer” International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 3:2-3 (December 2007).
+Heidegger, Martin. “Age of the World Picture” The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977
—. “Question Concerning Technology” The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977
—. “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstader. New York: Harper Collins, 1971
+Mcluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: Extensions of Man – Critical Edition. New York: Ginko Press, 2003
+Nietzsche, Friedrich. Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kauffman. New York: Random House, 1974
+Thompson, Iain. “What’s Wrong With Being a Technological Essentialist: A Response to Feenberg” Inquiry 43:4 (December 2000):429–444
+Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995
—. “Looking Toward Cyberspace: Beyond Grounded Sociology” Contemporary Sociology 28:6 (Nov 1999): 643-648
+Wrathall, Mark. Heidegger. London: Granta Books, 1998