Humanizing the Avatar (Part 6: The Performative Avatar?)

The Sixth 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 (2) The Performative Avatar:

One approach to theorizing avatars stresses their performative, theatrical, and role playing dimensions. This is a categorization found typically in the popular press where virtual worlds like Second Life (SL) are often characterized as a place where individuals can role-play, or explore an aspect of their personality that real life denies them. While the tendency to regard SL as a theatrical, or performative, space is often poorly articulated and sensationalized in these popular sources, a number of scholarly articles explore how we perform our selves and identities in these virtual environments. Unlike the “Posthuman” and “Posthuman Capitalist” categories outlined over the last two posts, this “Performative” category does not overtly focus on avatars as a prosthesis or extension of our self, nor does it regard the avatar as a simulacral symbolic body that consumers “consume for its own sake”. Rather, articles that develop a theory of cyber-performativity are grounded in Judith Butler’s post-structuralist claim that the gendered subject is constituted through the performance of their gender. Note: Butler is not, however, oblivious to the difficulties of performativity and asserts that it is not simply a matter of going into the closet and deciding which gender one want to be (Hall 126). It would be an error to believe that the subject is ever in a truly ‘free zone’ of performativity.

The production of gender, for Butler, occurs via performative acts of language, illocutionary acts such as naming that constitute us each time we utter them. We apply identity categories to ourselves. One could claim “I — am a…teacher, woman or lesbian” (Butler, “Decking” 17). Speech acts produce a fiction of unity, but there is always a disjunction. Each time the subject contextualizes him or herself there is also, implicitly, a decontextualization. This moment of openness and instability potentially offers a moment of possibility and change. Note: To explain this continuous instability and possibility one might look to Jacques Derrida’s notion of “différance” in Margins of Philosophy (Derrida 3-27). He proceeds from Saussure’s claim that language is a system of signs whose meaning is never present. If one were to try and find meaning in the sign ‘Rock’ I would go to the dictionary. But this endeavour would provide me with multiple definitions and within these definitions terms and figures of speech such as ‘Hard’, ‘Mineral’, ‘Crack-Cocaine’ and ‘Rock the Boat’. If I were to look for the meaning of any of these terms I would find another multiplicity of signs. Derrida however, “…elaborates that the meaning of any, apparently ‘present’ sign is nothing but the  relationship between all the absent meanings the term is not” (Deutscher 30). Derrida uses différance to demonstrate that a sign such as ‘Rock’, or ‘Organic’ cannot be autonomous and stand isolated. It is derived from the French verb ‘differer’ which translates to “defer” and “differ”. Différance is “not the difference ‘between’ terms but the passage of infinite, endless differentiation giving rise to apparent identities between which one might then argue there is difference” (Deutscher 31). As such, a sign’s meaning is deferred in an endless process. It “…is never present in and of itself, in a sufficient presence that would refer only to itself” (Derrida 11). The signified concept is slippery, indeterminate and always in a process of deferral, leaving it perpetually open to a change in context and new linguistic possibilities. For Butler we are not stable subjects who go about our lives taking on acting roles. While some of us are freer in our constitution than others, the act of performance literally constitutes who we are (Butler, “Decking” 18). There is no internal actor who takes on her roles: “…this ‘I’ does not play its lesbianism as a role” (Butler, “Decking” 18). She is reconstituted as a lesbian each time she names herself, in the process of mimesis and repetition. The “I” becomes a string of constitutive performances. The subject emerges in this flux of performance-identities. Butler does not deny that a subject exists, writing that “[t]he denial of the priority of the subject is not the denial of the subject” (Butler, “Decking” 24). By this she does not jettison the subject but redefines it as something that is always in a process of reconstitution. She denies the primacy of the subject as a discrete entity outside of its performative roles. In other words, the ‘I’ exists; however it exists only through repeated expressions of its identity and identifying labels. There is, importantly, no do-er behind the deed.

In “Playing Dress Up: Costumes, Role-play and Imagination” Janine Fron et al. consider dress up and fashion in MMORPGs. They describe digital dress up as a transformative kind of play where users take on new roles and learn about themselves in order to play with and against gender (Fron et al. 13). Their analysis relies on Butler’s assumption that “gender is always a doing, though not by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed… There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constructed by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Butler, Gender qtd. in Fron 15).

Another article that deploys a performative reading of the avatar by considering role-playing, theatricality and performance in virtual worlds is Jacqueyn Ford Morie’s “Performing in (Virtual) Spaces: Embodiment and Being in Virtual Environments”. Morie claims that the user is subsumed in a “created space-for-becoming”, an “opening for a new interrogation of the world and ourselves and consequently the possibility of imagining other kinds of space, other possible ways of being a body-that-becomes-space” (Palumbo qtd. in Morie 134).

Most virtual worlds, SL included, adopt a third person point of view. In this third person point of view the avatar appears out in front of the users’ “physical and imaginal locus” (Morie). Morie focuses on the theatricality of virtual worlds – a theatricality whereby we watch ourselves perform in the third person (Laurel qtd. in Morie). To explain why we would want to watch ourselves perform, Morie notes the etymology of the term “theatre”. The term derives from the Greek “theatron”, which designates “a place for seeing, not simply in the sense of watching but also in the deeper meaning to see – to grasp, to behold, to understand” (Morie 134).

Morie uses this analysis of theatricality to touch on a paradoxical aspect of virtual reality environments. The Head Mounted Display used in virtual reality, which, for the purposes of our discussion, could be considered as analogous to the 3D avatar in virtual worlds, acts as a “mask that removes other masks” (Morie 134). By “other masks”, Morie is referring to the personas through which we perform our specific social roles. The avatar, like the Head Mounted Display, is a technology that creates the conditions where our social masks are no longer necessary, allowing the user to explore a “private and more personal self” (Morie 134). Thus, the theatricality (understood as “theatron”) of virtual worlds involves the avatarial mask: this mask allows us to grasp, behold, and/or understand our private and more personal self.

Curiously, Morie follows up her discussion of masks that remove other masks and the etymological significance of “theatron”, with the quote: “posthuman theorists maintain that interaction with our technologies allows us to gain new understandings of ourself” (Morie 134). Here we see the conceptualizations of the “Performative” avatar and the “Posthuman” avatar are often quite similar. The two categories regard virtual worlds, and the avatarization that occurs therein, as conditioning or allowing for the user to become a qualitatively different sort of self than so-called real life permits.

One slight exception to this is artist Mark Stephen Meadows’ book I Avatar – The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life (Meadows 37). Similar to Morie’s analysis of the root “theatron”, Meadows emphasizes the etymological significance of the Greek term “persona” (Eng. “mask”) which does not designate that which hides one’s face, but what one really is. Thus, rather than the avatar initiating a qualitative shift or radical extension of the posthuman variety, the avatar as “persona” (Gr.) returns us to a less protected and human version of ourselves.

Meadows, however, still can be placed in the “Posthuman” category. Fascinated by the new, his book begins by describing, “a strange migration into… machines from which the driver [the user] can peek out, squinting through alien eyes, and find a new world…” This migration also allows the “driver” to “…look inside himself, as if gazing into his navel, and find a new landscape inside as well” (Meadows 37). Confusingly, Meadows describes the avatar as the user’s inner-heroand, at other times, calls it “the usher of a posthuman era”. As the user of the posthuman era, Meadows refers to the avatar as a “psychological prosthetic” that “teleports our psyche” (Meadows 93). This sentiment is expressed most clearly when he suggests that in fifty years man may look back and note this as the period where “our bodies became obsolete, replaced by [the] more flexible, interesting, transportable, replicable, controllable prosthetic of the Avatar” (Meadows 94). In his argument, there is no human left to be extended into technology; this new body is built as much as it is born. Meadows, sounding like a New Age shaman, announces that “this is not science fiction but ‘progress’, it is how we grow into our imaginations and how our dreams become real” (Meadows 95). Note: Critics such as Paul Virilio lament this type of body. See the chapter “From Superman to Hyperactiveman” in his Art of the Motor for an exceptionally frightening account of where this type of body may end us up. (Virilio, Art 100)

In a section of I Avatar titled “Where there is ID, there will be EGO” Meadows discusses the users “inner hero”. He informs the reader: “you are the trunk of the identity tree, your avatars are the leaves” (Meadows 96). Given his prior comments about the avatar as the usher of the posthuman era, it remains unclear, however, whether he feels there is a discrete thing called the “I”. If not, how can there be an “identity tree”? Meadows cites the work of Dr. Volcani, who stresses the fact that the avatar allows us to control an aspect of our personality in a similar way that a child uses a doll to externalize an inner hero (Meadows 96). But where does personality, personhood, or the drive to externalize an inner hero come from in the first place? What generates the desire to see the hero succeed? The questions and contradictions multiply as Meadows explains Dr. Volcani’s argument that the avatar allows us to “experiment with new worlds, new versions of ourselves, and rehearse for life” (Meadows 96); (Brown 138). Are these “new worlds” and “new versions” of ourselves closed off to us by the limitations of real life? Or are these worlds and versions of our selves something new altogether?

Meadows argues that our avatars are us “in transformation. Being able to watch ourselves [in a sort of play therapy] creates a reflective state that’s good for us” (Meadows 96). Some of the tensions in Meadow’s work are resolved when he calls the avatar an “auto portrait”. A portrait is always a combination of “realism and the techniques artists use to communicate the subject’s personality” (Meadows 9). An auto-portrait possesses these qualities, but is also interactive. These ideas square well with his other assertions that the avatar remains “deeply attached to the psychology of the user” (Meadows 8). Understanding the avatar as an auto-portrait, deeply connected to the psychology and real life of the user, but necessarily, and simultaneously, enmeshed in social techniques answers some of the contradictory assertions found in Meadows’ book.

In an identically titled article, “I, Avatar: Constructions of Self and Place in Second Life and the Technological Imagination”, Donald E. Jones argues that SL avatars allow users to partake in types of creative activity that might not be available to them in real life (Jones 19). He also explains virtual bodies are capable of “extending the real body into virtual space” (Jones 22). This virtual extension, however, extends us in ways conditioned by our real lives. For example, users often seek to model their avatar on a “culturally accepted beauty or fantastical transcendent (mysterious) figure” (Jones 22-23). According to Jones, virtual worlds are spaces where users can construct either normalized (i.e. highly gendered, with certain ideal physical beauty traits) or fantastic (i.e. strictly performative, like a “furry” that allows the user to conform to their mental image) avatars (Jones 23-24).

Similarly to Meadows and Morie, Jones claims that, “…in the imagination world of SL, the material flesh is transcended [into] new configurations of self that fulfil wishes and fantasies” (Jones 25).43 Note: One is reminded here of Rita Koganzon’s claim in her article “The World Made New” that SL seems to be a rehearsal of social behaviour in an unpressured low stakes environment, rather than taking responsibility for the self we are given. (Koganzon) For another spin on this see Paul Virilio’s comments in The Art of the Motor about cyber-sex, which, claim nearly the same thing – albeit from a darker point of view. This “low stakes environment” seems to be a space where we are free to let our imagination have its way with others, without concern for their flesh or embodiment. But, what are we transcending? For instance, when a child rebels against her parents by getting drunk, tattooed, and pierced, does she transcend their parental authority? Obviously not; the tattoos, drunkenness and piercings actually qualify and call upon that parental authority. If my body does not meet the culturally proscribed criteria and I turn to an imaginary world that allows me to create a body that does meet those criteria, my unacceptable physical body remains unacceptable. Indeed, my unsatisfying body is the impetus, foundation, and motor for my so-called transcendence. Jones’ claim that the “material body is transcended” in imaginary play is suspect as the limits of the user’s material body are actually the necessary ground for the user’s choice to look at an imaginary-elsewhere.

Jones claims that we ought to think of the SL avatar as a “performative extension of the self without losing sight of its groundedness in actuality and embodiment of the flesh” (Jones 28). He continues: “a true understanding will ensure that, instead of being distracted by godhood and monstrosity, we can ever seek the human in whatever form it takes” (Jones 28). In the idea that we simultaneously enter into new performative extensions while being “embodied in the flesh” there is an unresolved schism in Jones’ article, a schism evocative of many theories of role-play, theatricality and performativity when they attempt to theorize avatarization.

There are, I insist, limitations to this “Performative” category of research on avatars. Recall that the Greek “theatron” designates “a place for seeing, not simply in the sense of watching but also in the deeper meaning to see – to grasp, to behold, to understand”. Similar to the root “theatron”, the Greek term “persona” (or “mask”) does not designate that which hides one’s face, but rather, what one really is. SL, understood as a theatre where users adopt personae, then, provides the ability to grasp, behold, or understand, what one really is. Following the theories of the “Performativity” category, this is done by rendering explicit the fact that the user really is not a fixed subject behind a mask, and does not exist outside of its masks.

When facing their screens, users construct and reconstruct their masks, rendering explicit that there is no actor outside the role, confirming that the “I” exists only through repeated expressions of its identity and identifying labels.

Thus, the “Performative” – like the “Posthuman” categorization of the avatar – can generally be thought of as anti-subjective and demonstrative of the contingency and flux of selfhood. SL, in this context, provides a space for the self (understood via performativity) to experiment with the possibility of change. Each new performance, or utterance that the avatar undergoes constitutes a sense of self within the user whose presence is always deffered.

The “Performative” avatar helps the user to understand self as a performance, and consequently, to engage with the engenderment of new selves. Each performance demonstrates the constant defferal and flux that comprises the self. When Morie explains that “virtual environments proffer exceptional insights…” (Morie 134), one wonders what, exactly, these insights illuminate? When she speaks of “new landscapes” we suspect that this “newness” has been brought into being performatively. What one grasps or understands, is not what Columbus experienced on finding the New World but something closer to the feelings of the engineers who artificially constructed the Palm Islands in Dubai. The user does not behold a previously unknown, unchanging core-self, but, rather, a self in flux that blossoms in new and newer ways. For this reason, Meadows explains that the avatar allows us to play, and “experiment with new worlds, new versions of ourselves…” (Meadows 96). Theorists of cyber “performativity”, along with the “posthuman” theorists, assert that the “interaction with our technologies allows us to gain new understandings of ourself” in transformation (Morie 134).

The “Performative” categorization of the avatar, however, seems to want to have it both ways; it seems unclear as to whether – despite performing endless new identities – there is some interiority, some “identity tree” that generates the desire for an “inner hero” to succeed. Like the “Posthuman” category, this category focuses too heavily on what virtual worlds such as SL allows users to become. Here, the term “avatar” continues to connote a transubstantiation the user undergoes in order to enter a space where the limitations of real life can be overcome.


+Brown, Steven D. “Electronic Networks and Subjectivity” Cyberpsychology. Eds. Angel J. Gordo Lopez and Ian Parker. New York: Routledge, 1999: 146-167
+Butler, Judith. “Decking Out: Performing Identities” Inside / Out: Lesbian and Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991
—. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990 qtd. in Fron, Janine; Fullerton, Tracy; Morie, Jacquelyn Morie; Pearce, Cella. “Playing Dress-up: Costumes, Roleplay, Imagination”. Women in Games Conference, University of Wales, April 19-21, 2007
+Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
+Deutscher, Penelope. Derrida. London: Granta Books, 2005
+Fron, Janine; Fullerton, Tracy; Morie, Jacquelyn Morie; Pearce, Cella. “Playing Dress-up: Costumes, Roleplay, Imagination”. Women in Games Conference, University of Wales, April 19-21, 2007
+Hall, Donald E. Subjectivity. New York: Routledge, 2004
+Jones, D.E. “I, Avatar: Constructions of Self and Place in Second Life and the Technological Imagination” Gnovis, Journal of Communication, Culture and Technology, 2006:6.
+Meadows, Mark Stephen. I Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. Indianapolis: New Riders Press, 2007
+Morie, Jacquelyn Ford. “Performing in (Virtual) Spaces: Embodiment and being in Virtual Environments”. International Journal of Performance and Digital Media 3(2&3):123-138
+Palumbo, M.L. New Wombs: Electronic Bodies and Architectural Disorders. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2000 qtd. in Morie, Jacquelyn Ford. “Performing in (Virtual) Spaces: Embodiment and being in Virtual Environments.” in International Journal of Performance and Digital Media Vol 3(2&3): 123-138


~ by dccohen on March 15, 2011.

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