Humanizing the Avatar (Part 8: The Psychoanalytic Avatar?)
The Eighth 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 (3a) The “Human (Psychoanalytic)” Avatar:
In an earlier post, I suggested that the human be thought of as dual, that is, subject-of some unconscious structure (articulated by the ancients in the guise of the mythological figures Oedipus and Dionysius) and subject-to historically contingent practices, techniques and historical themes (articulated by the ancients through the figure of Epimetheus).
While I agree with Tom Boellstorff’s (Epimethean) posthumanism where technology plays a key role in what it means to be human, an (Oedipal) sense of what it means to be human is supplied by psychoanalytic critics. Note: This Oedipal side supplied by psychoanalysis provides the humanism for our posthumanist-humanism. The remainder of these Humanizing the Avatar posts will propose an Oedipal approach to understanding virtual world avatars.
The psychoanalytic approach, as found in scholarly literature, does not overtly advocate the view that users are performing new identities and subjectivities, nor does it advocate the idea that users are participating in a technology acting as harbinger of some radical shift in what the human being is. Rather, an Oedipal approach is deeply tied to a view of the avatar as an externalization of the structure co-responsible, but indispensible, for being human.
The germ of this approach can be found in the ideas of what I earlier called the “Human” theorists such Velleman and Boellstorff, as well as in a doctoral thesis by Kathy Cleland. Cleland introduces the idea that Second Life (SL) avatars can be thought of as uncanny others, between subject and object, living and nonliving, and real and virtual. She speculates about the virtual image reflected back at the SL user and, drawing on Christian Metz, claims that the reflected avatar-image depicts a phantom, or phantasmatic element, of the real object or living being. Note: In psychoanalysis, “phantasy” with the “ph” refers to the unconscious psychic content of the drives. The cinematic, or in the case of SL digital-virtual, imaginary reflects back our “shade, our phantom, our double, our replica, in a new kind of mirror” (Metz 44 qtd. in Cleland). I am – as will be articulated over the next few weeks – interested in this phantom/phantasy-double as an instance of the “shade” that inheres within us as a result of what Freud called primal castration and the fundamental fantasy: it is something like a residual remainder, rather than an extension or Boellstorff’s homo cyber.
I will also develop the idea that virtual world avatars return us to Jacques Lacan’s description of the “fragmented body”, that is, the body “experienced by the subject in dreams of disintegration and disjointed limbs”, an uncanny return of the infants’ body in bits and pieces (Grosz 44 qtd. in Cleland). Cleland considers updating Lacan’s discussion of the mirror stage to “account for the new range of experiences and identifications resulting from new media mirrors” such as SL. She calls this updating of the mirror stage the “mirror of the cyborg”. The following posts will develop this idea that the mirror stage be applied to virtual worlds, and attempts a psychoanalytic intervention into SL avatarization, turning Haraway on her head and articulating a cyborg that cannot escape dreaming of “expecting its father to save it through the restoration of the garden” and whose father is, in the Lacanian sense, certainly not “inessential” (Haraway 151).
SL user Isablan Neva explains her sense of avatarization: “What motivates people to look a certain way is something I wouldn’t even begin to speculate on. Ultimately, your avatar is your representative in-world and can run the entire range of your personality. It’s your second life; be whomever and whatever you want to be.” (Rymaszewski et al. 79). But this view says very little and we ought to probe deeper. The work that has been done on avatarization is tainted either by a fantasy of moving beyond the human, or else attempts to claim the avatar is deeply related to the user by relying on a basic, or surface, analysis.
The Official Guide to Second Life notes that “the vast majority of SL citizens opt to stay human in Second Life…Your avatar choices say a lot about who you are; to the people you encounter in the SL world, your avatar is who you are. It’s true too – your avatar choices reflect your personality and mentality. It’s good to keep that in mind” (Rymaszewski et al. 10). The “Human (Psychoanalytic)” avatar offers one way of investigating what it means to stay human in SL. It allows us to deeply consider claims such as those made by SL user Lillie Yifu, a major player in the SL escort industry, that “avatars, even venues and builds, in the end, become a reflection of the inner person, the one that screams to get out in what we call real life” (Rymaszewski et al. 79). Rather than becoming bogged down in the uniqueness of “who” each individual user is, psychoanalysis suggests this uniqueness is inflected through what we might consider to be Yifu’s “inner person”, or what the SL Guide calls “who you are”. But this inner person whom we really are has an unconscious element, and we must detect its stirrings and effects through claims by, and observations of, users’ activities. I suggest that this repressed, unconscious (or Oedipal), dimension of the human being, plays a tremendously important role in motivating the behaviour of avatar users in virtual worlds. Thus, while this investigation does not rule out the effect that postmodern social patterns and posthuman technologies (the insights of the “Posthuman” and “Posthuman (Capitalist)” categories) have for an understanding of avatarization, it does not entirely explain reduce avatarization under the schema of a shift from modernism to post-modernism, capitalism to late capitalism, Ptolemaic to post-Ptolemaic cosmology, or from the human to the post-human. My investigation does not argue against the idea that users take to avatars in order to act out, or perform (i.e. the “Performative” category), new modalities of subjectivity and selfhood; but neither do I reduce avatarization to an endless engendering and deferral of new subjectivities. The following posts will take for granted that one’s virtual avatar is evocative of who they purport to be in real life (i.e. the “Human” category), but will strive to complicate – and deepen – what real life is. Considering SL psychoanalytically allows us to consider avatarization beyond the face value, which the “Human” category is not suited or, to be fair, intended for.
A category privileging the “Human (Psychoanalytic)” avatar suggests that it is possible to consider user’s comments – say, that their vampire avatar represents their fascination with vampires in real life – as motivated by an unconscious “realm” of repressed emotions and memories (Freud, “Die Verdrangung” 36); (Macintyre 50). It allows us to problematize a user’s comment that “my avatar is me”. For example, SL user Lupus Delacroix explains:
It’s hard to say what motivates me to look the way I do in SL, I have so many looks to choose from. I have a firm belief in tasting everything on the buffet, and being picky like I am, I went for the best of the best. It’s hard to tell what I’m going to be from one day to the next: a magnificent dragon, a bipedal wolf, a vampire, or a really good-looking human… (Rymaszewski et al. 78)
One could relate Lupus’ comments to his sense of who he consciously or explicitly is, but the investigation of the avatar interpreted through the “Human (Psychoanalytic)” category allows Lupus’ comments to suggest another, unconscious, source of motivation is responsible for structuring the very desire to be a dragon one day, a wolf the next, and a vampire the day after that. The “Human (Psychoanalytic)” category does not seek to negate that humans are constantly changing. It suggests, however, that there is something behind, or driving, this change.
I’ll explain this line of thought over the next few weeks.
+Freud, Sigmund. “Die Verdrangung” [Repression] in Freud, Sigmund. The Unconscious. Trans. Graham Falkland. Ed. Adam Phillips. London: Penguin Books, 2005
+Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: a feminist introduction. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990 in Cleland, Kathy. Image Avatars: self-other encounters in a mediated world, PhD thesis, Sydney: UTS, 2008
+Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991
+Macintyre, Alasdair. The Unconscious. New York: Routledge, 2004 (1958)
+Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington:Indiana University Press, 1982 qtd. in Cleland, Kathy. Image Avatars: self-other encounters in a mediated world, PhD thesis, Sydney: UTS, 2008.
+Rymaszewski, Michael et al. Guide to Second Life – 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2008