Humanizing the Avatar (Part 5: Avatars as Evocative of Post-Industrial Capitalism?)
The Fifth part 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 (1a) The Posthuman (Capitalist) Avatar:
Similar to the “Posthuman” consideration of the avatar discussed in Part 4 is consumer researchers’ Handan Vicdan and Ebru Ulusoy’s article “Symbolic and Experiential Consumption of Body in Virtual Worlds: From (Dis)Embodiment to Sysembodiment”. While the “posthuman’ consideration reflects cultural critics, philosophers and authors such as Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche and JK Huysmans who noticed existential and aesthetic changes occurring in social patterns and habits, Vicdan and Ulusoy’s analysis draws on shifts in contemporary political, economic and technical habits and practices. These patterns, commonly referred to as movements toward “post-industrial society” or “late capitalism”, acknowledge the shift from Fordism to post-Fordist flexible accumulation, an industrial to a service economy, the tendency toward working with immaterial information rather that material objects and the ensuing proliferation of images and screens that accompanies these trajectories (Bell); (Jameson); (Harvey). This perspective holds that the social trajectories noted above undergird the postmodern.
The ground of postmodernity, according to critics such as David Harvey, is intricately tied to contemporary capitalism and forms of labour. Harvey specifically notes the shift from the stability demanded by the rigid Fordist mode of production to the flexibility demanded by the post-Fordist mode of flexible accumulation (Harvey, Condition 147, 302). Aside from flexible accumulation, the post-Fordist period saw the rise of neo-liberalism, which typically celebrates ephemerality and, as a result, created a disposable and flexible worker by tactics such as short term contracts (Harvey, History 166). Unsurprisingly, flexible accumulation and neo-liberalism, together creating an environment of permanent innovation in order to accommodate ceaseless change rather than the control demanded by Fordism, has engendered a “flexible personality” amongst individuals living in post-Fordist societies (Holmes 2, 7). This “flexible personality” emerges not only in response to casual labour contracts, but also to other traits of post-Fordism including its just-in-time production, its informational products and its absolute dependence on virtual currency circulating in the financial sphere…. [as well as] an entire set of very positive images [such as] spontaneity, creativity, cooperativity, mobility, peer relations, appreciation of difference, openness to present experience (Holmes 2).
Anthony Elliot likewise argues that the postmodern self is subject to the “disorienting effects of new capitalism”; it is a self that is constantly in motion and does not commit itself to long term employment (Sennett, Corrosion qtd. in Elliot, Concepts 138). These effects produce modalities of selfhood that do not privilege stability. The “Postmodern (Capitalist)” consideration of the avatar assumes that selfhood mirrors the development of the economy from a series of “rigid, hierarchical organizaion[s]” to an economy of “corporate re-engineering, innovation, and risk”; the “durable self” gives way to a “fragmented, dislocated one” (Elliott, Concepts 138-140). According to Richard Sennett, identity becomes “pliant”, a “collage of fragments unceasing in its becoming, ever open to the new experience” under the flexible regime of new capitalism (Sennett, Culture 14).
Thus, postmodernity is – according to this point of view – evocative of “the relatively stable aesthetic of Fordist modernism [having given] way to all the ferment, instability and fleeting qualities of a postmodernist aesthetic that celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle and the commodification of cultural forms.” (Harvey, Condition 156). According to this position it is in this context that digital technologies and “interconnected global communications networks” (together comprising a virtual world like Second Life SL) are to be considered as postmodern techniques (Harvey, Condition 171). Note: One way of theorizing the postmodern self is that it is engendered by contemporary forms of labour and modes of production include the “protean” (Lifton), “saturated” (Gergen) or “flexible” (Martin) subject. Gergen, for example, regards the self as saturated: “the ego as a hollow tube through which, under different circumstances, different parts of our personality – each time a different one – find expression” (Filiciak 64). These ideas are related insofar as their view of the self co-responds to new social positions and practices demanded of our bodies by the capitalist mode of production. These formulations resonate with contemporary descriptions on the Left about labour and current modes of production (i.e. post-Fordist, Toyotism) that call for the emergence of a ductile, flexible subjectivity (Brown 92). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire exemplifies an analysis of new political powers (Empire) and contemporaneously unrealized subjectivities and relationships between people (the Multitude), and provides a rallying cry for the emergence of a new body able to harness this to its advantage and render itself discontinuous with contemporary regimes of control – in other words, to use flexibility against itself. They write: “We certainly do need to change our bodies and ourselves, and in perhaps a more radical way than the cyberpunk authors imagine. In our contemporary world, the now common aesthetic mutations of the body, such as piercing, tattoos, punk fashion and its various imitations are all initial indications of this corporeal transformation, but in the end they do not hold a candle to the kind of radical mutation needed here”. (Hardt and Negri, 216). The postmodern body, labouring in call centres positioned throughout the globe or designing new software and upgrades, is inserted into these hyper-technologized systems of production.
Critics also note that the new capitalist sensibility, marked by non-allegiance and malleability, fosters a “self identity [that] is free from the stain of gender, class, and race” (Elliott, Subject 142). Vicdan and Ulusoy classify the SL avatar body, which users (re)construct for its own sake, as a phenomenon of life in postmodern and post-industrial culture. They insist that the popularity of virtual worlds and their capacity for the creation of avatars is part and parcel of a postmodern urge to be a self “independent and free of nature and any particular way of being and living” (Vicdan and Ulusoy 17). In other words, they hold that the user engages with a flexible and nature-free ‘sign’ body without a ‘referent’. To “Posthuman (Capitalist)” critics this ability to leave the referent behind in order to be free of “any particular way of being and living” is often naively taken to underscore some liberatory potential of contemporary capitalism.
In “Hyperidentities: Postmodern Identity Patterns in Massively Multiplayer Online Pole-Playing-Games”, Miroslaw Filiciak argues that MMORPGs realize the postulates of a postmodern culture of simulation and fascination with new ways of defining one’s self on a scale previously unseen (Filiciak 88). He acknowledges that the sense of self one finds in MMORPGs is premised on the user’s desire to shape their own self into something that real life social, sexual, or racial limitations prohibit; this view resonates with Michel Foucault’s claim that we possess no inside self, no essence that makes us what we are. Note: According to Foucault, one’s subjectivity, or sense of a coherent identity, is the effect of being subjugated by social factors and forces. This subjugation is carried out by discourses, which order certain types of thought and behavior. Foucault is interested in creating a “history of the different modes by which, in our [Western] culture, human beings are made subjects” (Foucault, “Subject” 208). For him, subjectivity is a contingent, socio-historical construct of power and domination, and therefore subject to change and modification. There is no absolute, transcendental stance from which to grasp a fixed subject. As such, for Foucault, the self is a discursive, and temporary, construction (Filiciak 93). Contemporary practices and techniques, in line with the capitalist desire to render the body wholly flexible, responsive and malleable are not aimed at merely disciplining the body of the consumer; rather, they are aimed at experimenting upon the user’s body and identity, transforming them, and rendering them commensurate with contemporary habits of consumption. Note: Foucault considers these techniques and arrangements of technologized shaping of the body and self, or “bio-technico-power” (locatable in genomics and gene mapping, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, networks of surveillance et cetera.) to be “technologies of the self” insofar as they have an effect on the self in a way that prior “disciplinary” techniques did not (Dreyfuss and Rabinow xxvi); (Foucault Discipline). It is in this context that Filiciak writes optimistically of MMORPGs as materializing the postmodern dream and that “thanks to computer networks we have the possibility to freely form our self (Filiciak 100).
Another observation made by critics articulating the traits of postmodernity is that life in 21st century post-industrial countries is oriented toward the consumption of signs rather than objects (Baudrillard, Simulacra). Note: The most obvious example of this is the shift from physical-analog to digital-binary: we work with objects reducible to the 1s and 0s of binary code, objects qualitatively different from those understood as a myriad combination of physical and chemical properties. This is evidenced in contemporary life where the attention of consumers is increasingly fixated on abstract or symbolic (sign) value rather than attaining the object (referent) itself. In describing “the most advanced state of th[e cotemporary global information] economy”, Manuel Castells explains that “the products of the new information technology industries are information processing devices or information processing itself’” (Castells 67 qtd. in Holmes). Note: Steven Shaviro, David Harvey and others write of the re-organization of capital that has occurred over the last forty years, explaining that “production is subordinated to circulation, instead of the reverse. Money, the universal equivalent, has become increasingly virtual (unmoored by any referent) over the past half century, and everything is decentered or unmoored in its wake” (Shaviro 129).
Jean Baudrillard, who calls these signs “simulacra”, claims that we are witnessing the creation of a new order of objects and bodies that no longer exist in the real of physical materiality, but in the order of the symbolic immaterial code. At this nihilistic stage of Western culture signifiers refer only to other signifiers and we lose the ability to comprehend binaries such as “signifier” and “signified”, or “real” and “unreal”. Note: The placement of Baudrillard here might confuse some readers of Baudrillard, and demands an explanation. Given Baudrillard’s ever-changing perspective, he need not be considered, ultimately, as a theorist concerned with Capitalism and its effects. Capitalism comes to be merely one facet of Baudrillard’s investigations and certainly does not remain the prime- mover of history throughout his career. Primarily, for Baudrillard, it seems that something ominous has happened to the West’s relationship to, and interpretation of, the world. While this change is clearly recognizable in the realm of economics and finance, the economy does not govern that change. In other words, for Baudrillard post-modernity signals the end, or exhaustion, of the trajectory of modernity. Capital gets sucked into the nihilistic void of post-modernity, but it was not capital that caused that void. Rather, modernity’s liberatory promise (the telos of the Enlightenment) has been fulfilled: we are now living with having liberated everything (including the commodity form). This explains the title of his essay “After the Orgy” (Baudrillard, Transparency, 4). After the “orgy” of modernity we have nothing left to liberate and so, in lieu of anything new to liberate, we have turned to simulating objects to liberate. On these conditions, in relation to the intellectual project of Modernity having come to fruition, does Baudrillard consider the technologies and techniques of capital. On these grounds “what has been liberated has been liberated so that it can enter a state of pure circulation, so that it can go into orbit… the goal of liberation is to foster and provision circulatory networks” (Baudrillard, Transparency 4). It is following this “orgy” that we find phenomena such as virtual economies. These are economies that, true to the dark promise of acompleted Modernity, are emancipated, or liberated, from real economies. For this reason, I stress that Baudrillard’s ideas can support a “Posthuman” and/or “Posthuman (Capitalist)” consideration of avatarization. We now work with models of the “real” and the “true” that only refer to other models of “real” and “true”. Often misunderstood as illusionary, the simulacra is completely real. In what Baudrillard refers to as “third” and “fourth order” simulacra it is not the territory that precedes the map, but the map that precedes the territory. The map does not represent the territory, but as “simulation generates meaning from models that pre-exist experience and perception of the ‘real’”, it comes to constitute the territory (Pawlett 82). Thus, simulation comes to “have no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard, Simulacra, 6). Note: Baudrillard locates this type of simulation in “…the omnipresence of code in the West – DNA, binary, digital – [which] enables the production of copies for which there are no originals. Unsecured and cut adrift from the ‘reality’ which representation has for centuries prided itself on mirroring, we are now in the age of simulation” (Berry and Pawlik).
We are governed, Baudrillard claims, by the “code”, or “structural law of value”, an era of “sign exchange value” as the principle of equivalence. Only things transformed into code are meaningful, and the world is modeled on general equivalence. Things are reducible to their code, to their always re-constructible patterns. Note: Following Katherine Hayles, we have moved from thinking of objects (and increasingly ourselves) in analog terms of “presence and absence” to thinking in digital terms of “pattern and randomness” (Hayles 25). The “hyper-real” self, according to Baudrillard, represents a self that exists in an environment where everything has become transparent and explicit. The body undergoes transmutation in endeavours such as genetic cloning and the self, in turn, is crushed. Our selfhood is no longer that of an active “player”, but more of a passive “spectator”. We are no longer selves who stand dialectically against the object, but selves whom the object has rendered “lifeless, bored, drained and atomized”. (Elliot, Concepts 150). Postmodern selfhood exchanges a modernist sense of self (such as the Freudian one) with some hidden, concealed depth or interiority, for a self that has no repressed element or “depth of meaning”. (Elliot, Concepts 151) The hyper-real self, for Baudrillard, is passive and thinks in accordance with the “code” of dominant symbolic systems. (Elliot, Concepts 151)
The SL “consumer”, Vicdan and Ulusoy allege, plays with its flexibility and capacity for (re)creation, consuming via the (re)creation of “symbolic selves” (Vicdan and Ulusoy 2); (Martin “Use-Value” 18). Note: One might look to Jean Baudrillard’s For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign as well as Jennifer Martin’s article “Consumer Code: Use-value, Exchange-Value, and the Role of Virtual Goods in Second Life”, an exploration of virtual worlds through modern theories of consumption which suggests that “use-value” (based on physical-material needs/the ability to fulfill a need) has been overridden by “exchange-value” as well as “sign-value”. From this point of view users consume symbolic-meanings (i.e. individuality, power, status, community belonging) in relation to the virtual world of SL. In their characterization of the SL user as “creat[ing] symbolic selves” Vicdan and Ulusoy are working with a resolutely postmodern framework: SL users consume the symbolic simulacral sign. SL avatars provide the ability for consumers to work with a simulation of their bodies. As signs are not necessarily tied to the consumer’s real body or self, avatar bodies and identities are celebrated as being “beyond constraints” and harbingers, par excellence, of the so-called “friction free” utopia to-come. Under this schema, through their technologically mediated simulacral double, a visually manipulatable symbolic scripted/image-body, the user feels that they can dictate who and what they are, free from the limitations of physicality and the signified.
Within virtual worlds users interact with and (re)construct symbolic bodies: SL consumers are, truly, in light of this discussion, a “cult of the hyperreal”. (Vicdan and Ulusoy 17) This cult is concerned less with buying, selling and interacting with material objects (that had use-value) than they are concerned with immaterial objects (that have symbolic value). Vicdan and Ulusoy celebrate this burgeoning consumer cult of the hyperreal by citing celebratory consumer reactions to the so-called bodily and subjective freedom of SL. Their study documents consumers who “want to be something else” and who want to get to know people “quickly and easily, ‘cause you’re not so worried about your appearance as you might be in real life” (Vicdan and Ulusoy 9). A consumer named Raven explains with fantastic naïveté:
We’re born with set bodies. They look a certain way; they will always look a certain way and that’s it. My mind doesn’t have those constraints. Raven is a woman that my mind projects as me. I guess if you’re given the opportunity to be anything, to think outside the box like that why stick with what you are in real life when you could be an animal you admire, a beautiful fish (Vicdan and Ulusoy 8-9).
This desire to be beyond constraint is, of course, ludicrous: aging, sickness and death befall the body irrespective of whether we think we have mentally overcome them. To simply ignore them is to ignore an entire history, and tradition, of tarrying with these, fundamental, negative aspects of the human condition. Furthermore, this desire peaks to the fantasy of having originally had a stable body or identity that is disrupted by new techniques.
One might, however, situate this consumer glorification of an “opportunity to be anything”, against the horizon of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim in Anti-Oedipus that human beings are increasingly becoming “transformations and exchanges of information” (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti 458). This has led their commentators, such as Brian Massumi, to articulate modalities of indeterminate selves. Massumi writes favourably of a simulacral “…pool of virtuality, [with the ability] to create a yet unseen amalgamation of potentials” (Massumi). New virtual technologies, no longer moored to a fixed referent or signifier, produce a new body or territory from which there is no turning back…, whereby we “becom[e] realer than real in a monstrous contagion of our own making” (Massumi).
Summary of the (1)”Posthuman” and (1a) “Posthuman (Capitalist)” understanding of avatars: “Posthuman” and “Posthuman (Capitalist)” analyses have much to tell us about the context of our second lives: they are indispensable in articulating the political and economic conditions that might compel a user to spend hours each day with their virtual avatar. A discussion of these (historical-political-economic) conditions is symptomatic of an Epimethean understanding of the effects of technology. But because such an understanding does not adequately consider Oedipus, the category runs into severe limitations. The starting point of the “Posthuman” category is a fantasy that the avatar represents some deviation from what once was a core or autonomous self. The very term “posthuman connotes that there once was a human, a self, or a subject that virtual avatarization (as a phenomena reflective of changing historical structures) has moved us beyond. Note: It is not coincidental then, that this position often involves creating a strawman of figures paradigmatic of modernity and the early modern period such as Descartes without adequately contextualizing their arguments. Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject, for example, is concerned with returning to an interpretation of Descartes’ cogito that differs tremendously from the cogito endlessly strawmanned and blamed.
Following the myth of Epimetheus, however, the human was always posthuman; it was always historical, and its essence has always been wrapped up in technique. The “Posthuman” category functions paradoxically: on one hand the posthuman avatar represents the next phase of a human that has little or no interior human essence, and on the other hand, it clings to the fantasy that the avatar represents the next phase of a human that did – at one time – have an interior human essence. Because this tension is not adequately resolved, “Posthuman” critiques tend to rely on articulating the avatar as an example of emerging subjectivities, new formations of self, and denizens of a new world of symbolic creation with immaterial signs, where we are naively told we can be what and who we want to be.
This “Posthuman” sense of the avatar resembles the Hindu and Judeo- Christian connotations of “avatara” and “incarnation”. It holds that once we were human, now we are moving beyond-the-human; but in its desire to theorize what comes next, the category does not adequately, or care to, inquire what the human was. As such, it is no coincidence that the category continues the idea that the avatar is a discarnation, a reversal of incarnation. The avatar is a posthuman self that is no longer bound in the ways that the human self was bound; it inhabits a world without limitations. The drawback of this way of thinking is that it leads to the fantasy that that once cut adrift, rendered discarnate, or posthuman, we are liberated from the weight, mass, and inertia of what was once our human condition. Such a dualistic way of thinking, between the human and the posthuman, only serves to perpetuate a limited understanding of the avatar as a form of transubstantiation.
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+Martin, Jennifer. “Consuming Code: Use-Value, Exchange-Value, and the Role of Virtual Goods in Second Life” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1:2 (2008)
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+Vicdan, Handan and Ulusoy, Ebru. “Symbolic and Experiential Consumption of Body in Virtual Worlds: From (Dis)Embodiment to Sysembodiment” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1:2 (Nov 2008)
+Žižek, Slavoj. Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. New York: Verso Press, 2009 (1999)