Humanizing the Avatar (Part 9: Through an Oedipal lens…)

The Ninth part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.

The next few posts will consider the uncanny qualities of the Second Life (SL) avatar. They focus on Sigmund Freud’s assertion that the uncanny designates a return of the repressed, or a coming out of concealment of something primitive and familiar. Through the uncanny we can understand the SL avatar as an anxiety-creating uncanny double that reminds us of a forgotten past of infantile fragmentation and castration.

My task is to consider the effect that repressed ideas and emotions inhering within the unconscious have on the user’s engagement with their avatar. The unconscious, which acts as the “omnipresent background to consciousness”, will – in keeping with Freud’s sustained usage of the term “fate” and his esteem of poetry and tragedy – be referred to as the Oedipal dimension of the self (Freud, “Drives”); (Macintyre 50). We might think of it as a general characteristic of the self through which all the rich specific characteristics of the self are inflected. In an earlier post I explained there are two related ways – Epimethean and Oedipal – to consider the self: the Epimethean way regards the self as a function of discursive processes and contingent historical conditions; the Oedipal way argues that some sort of continuous self, full with emotion and depth, remains operational. Within this Oedipal perspective we locate psychoanalysis and its analysis of the unconscious aspects of the self.

According to Freud “who each of us is concerns how we live the historical conflicts that characterize our early life. Although the particular character of those conflicts is unique to each of us, there is a general pattern that all of them follow” (May 6). This dimension of the self can be considered akin to a set of preprogrammed stages through which human beings pass. The bedrock of the self is constructed as the human being moves from infancy through childhood. During these early years the child develops through stages that structure its psyche. This general pattern begins with an “oral” stage, moves into an “anal” stage and then into the Oedipal (or for girls Electra) stage and its resolution. (Freud, Three Essays 39-66)

Note: For example, the infant, during the stage of “oral eroticism”, takes its mother – specifically the mother’s breast – to be their original object of sexual desire (Mullahy 17). By suckling the mother’s breast the child learns about their sexual instincts. But suckling also involves the ingestion of food. Now two instincts are at work: a hunger instinct and a sexual instinct. During this stage the infant wishes to repeat the act of taking in food without demanding food. The set-up for libidinal satisfaction is constructed in the infant at this point. The child begins to yearn for libidinal, or sexual, satisfaction. During the “auto erotic” stage the infant replaces the mother’s breast with a part of his or her own body (usually the thumb, tongue, or genitals). This allows the infant to find objects of sexual interest in their own body.Soon psychic forces begin to develop “more or less spontaneously; they are organically determined” and form the “psyche” of the infant (Mullahy 18).

According to Freud, children pass through other, pre-determined, early stages. For example, boys believe both males and females have male genitals. When the boy discovers the female does not have male genitals he tries to deny what he has seen as the idea of being without genitals is unthinkable and inconceivable. The girl’s genitals, he believes, must have been removed, initiating his intense fear of losing his own genitals: the castration complex. Note: Girls experienced this, according to Freud, by wanting to have a penis and are disturbed by their lack of one. As Samuel Weber points out in The Legend of Freud, the rejection of perception (of the horrific castration) ushers in the story of castration. Here castration is “the title of a story that children of both sexes tell themselves, but from a single point of view – that of the male child – in order to render the perception of sexual difference compatible with the ‘expectation’ of male identity” (Weber, Legend 5).

The child’s curiosity does not abate. He becomes fixated on issues related to sexual life such as the mystery of birth. This bolsters the child’s idea that the father plays an important role in sexual reproduction. While coming to respect the father’s authority, the mother remains the child’s original and most powerful sexual object. The little boy’s attachment to his mother causes him to become jealous of his father, who, he worries, will castrate him. Thus, in the face of this horrific possibility the little boy represses awareness of the mother as his primary sexual object. He is forced to look for other sexual partners, but not to violate the incest taboo and provoke his father’s wrath. How the child resolves the crises of its early years impacts his or her life tremendously. This “family” drama Freud calls the Oedipal crisis.

The figure of Oedipus appears Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams during a discussion of “psychoneurotics” [Note: Psychoneurotic: a term no longer in use that “designated a mental or personality disturbance not attributable to any known neurological or organic dysfunction”], where he pays close attention to the role that a patient’s parents have in the formation of psychoneurotic symptoms (Freud, Interpretation 155-168). He notices that patients have a common orientation toward their parents: they “fall in love with one parent and hat[e] the other” (Freud, Interpretation 155). This psychoneurotic tendency, Freud claims, is not limited to psychoneurotics, but is active in “the majority of children” (Freud, Interpretation 155). In fact, these parental roles form a part of the “permanent stock of the psychic impulses” (Freud, Interpretation 155).

Freud  argues that psychic impulses are not, at their most fundamental level, historically contingent, but, rather, have accompanied human beings throughout the centuries; indeed they are evident in the work of the ancient Greek tragedians, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Woody Allen’s films. Freud asserts that contemporary human beings harbour these “impulses”, and that “antiquity furnished us with legendary material which corroborates this belief… the profound and universal validity of the old legends is explicable only by an equally universal validity of the…hypothesis of infantile psychology” (Freud, Interpretation 155). This “legendary material” is summarized by Freud as:

…the legend of King Oedipus and the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles. Oedipus, the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta, is exposed as a suckling, because an oracle had informed the father that his son, who was still unborn, would be his murderer. He is rescued, and grows up as a king’s son at a foreign court, until, being uncertain of his origin, he, too, consults the oracle, and is warned to avoid his native place, for he is destined to become the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother. On the road leading away from his supposed home he meets King Laius, and in a sudden quarrel strikes him dead. He comes to Thebes, where he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, who is barring the way to the city, whereupon he is elected king by the grateful Thebans, and is rewarded with the hand of Jocasta. He reigns for many years in peace and honour, and begets two sons and two daughters upon his unknown mother, until at last a plague breaks out- which causes the Thebians to consult the oracle anew. Here Sophocles’ tragedy begins. The messengers bring the reply that the plague will stop as soon as the murderer of Laius is driven from the country. But where is he?
Where shall be found,
Faint, and hard to be known, the trace of the ancient guilt?
The action of the play consists simply in the disclosure, approached step by step and artistically delayed (and comparable to the work of a psycho-analysis) that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, and that he is the son of the murdered man and Jocasta. Shocked by the abominable crime which he has unwittingly committed, Oedipus blinds himself, and departs from his native city. The prophecy of the oracle has been fulfilled (Freud, Interpretation 155-156).

Freud will later call the story a “tragedy of fate”, where the will of the gods trounce the vain efforts of human beings (Freud, Interpretation 156). The legend of Oedipus conveys a fate “laid upon us before our birth”, and is “constitutive of the human conditions” that individuals in Freud’s twentieth, and indeed our present twenty-first century, share with the ancients (Freud, Interpretation 157); (Lear 180).

Following his summary of the Oedipal legend, Freud notes that his own patients’ sexual impulses are often first directed toward their mothers, and their first violent-aggressive impulses are often directed toward their fathers. While most of his patients came to “withdraw” their sexual impulses from their mothers, or “forget” their fathers’ jealousy, it is the psychoneurotic who reminds us that we share, often in a muted way, the Oedipal desires that nature has forced onto us. It is important to note that in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud does not waver on this issue, insisting that reading about Oedipus’ fate makes us aware of “our own inner selves, in which the same impulses are still extant, even though they are suppressed” (Freud, Interpretation 157).

According to Jonathan Lear there are a few general insights that can be drawn from the Oedipal crisis (Lear 180-184). One is that children are born helpless and have a fundamental dependency on some parental or nurturing agent. This is, for Freud, the mother, who is the first, and primary, caregiver. Due to the deep bond between child and mother, the child regards any third figure as an intruder into the mother-child dyad. This third figure is the father, who distracts the mother’s attention from the helpless and dependent infant who loves her deeply. As a result, the infant becomes aggressive toward the father, and is happy when he is away. This is discernable when infants or young children tell their mother’s they want to “marry them” etc… (Mullahy 26). But the boy, terrified of castration, and the authority of the father, is prohibited from actually carrying out his desire. He comes to renounce his desire; however, it “persists in an unconscious state in the id and will later manifest its phylogenic effect” (Hamilton 274). There is no resolution of the Oedipal stage, only the modification of desires through repression.

This discussion of an Oedipal self is perhaps the best way of illustrating Freud’s core assertion that there is an immensely influential inner part of the human self closed off from our consciousness. Freud calls this aspect of the self the “unconscious” or “id”. Although he repeatedly revises his views about the function and nature of the unconscious, he retains the view that some “thing” inheres within us, returns to plague us without our consent, and often disquiets and disturbs us when we intuit its presence.

Freud appears to have considered the mind mechanistically as a series of hydraulic pumps and gauges. This mechanism can be thought of as having three distinct areas (the “unconscious”, “preconscious” and “conscious”) however a firm, yet porous, barrier divides the unconscious from the preconscious and the conscious. The unconscious is a tempestuous broth of “primary processes”, ideas, emotions and wishes that the individual repressed throughout their infancy and early childhood (Freud, “Repression” 37). While this is but “one part” of the unconscious, it is the one that will occupy our attention for the reminder of these posts (Freud, “Unconscious” 49). Thankfully, while these ideas, emotions and wishes “retain their original character” in the unconscious, the conscious aspect of the mind cannot access them directly (Freud, “Unconscious” 49); (Macintyre 69). This does not, however, mean that the conscious aspect of mind is not affected by the repressed emotions, memories and wishes that comprise the unconscious. As was noted a moment ago, the division between the conscious and unconscious exists, however psychic traffic flows between the two. The unconscious is ever searching for new outlets to vent the noxious fumes of repression as they generate pressure. A normally functioning mind, for Freud, releases (abreacts) those fumes in ways that do not compromise daily functioning. Dreams, where we are only barely conscious, offer a means of releasing these fumes. The neurotic, by contrast, does not properly release those fumes and thus the fumes penetrate his consciousness in ways that intrude his or her daily functioning.

Nevertheless, the unconscious is the “background” link between infancy and adult life and exerts a “causal influence on conscious thought and behaviour” (Macintyre 66). For this reason we  note that an Oedipal, or psychoanalytically inflected, study of avatarization would not be overtly concerned with whether one’s avatar is like them physically or acts like they do in the real world. Neither are we overtly concerned with determining whether the user’s motivation is to create an avatar similar to or different from the real lives they lead. Rather it would direct its attention to a deeper level of intention, one more difficult to locate, yet discernable through the user’s comments about, and behaviour with, their avatar. The only way to get at this deeper level of intention, however, is through an analysis of surface conditions: there is no x-ray device suited for this type of analysis; one has to proceed from manifest symptoms. One can listen to a user claim that they create an avatar to “escape from reality”, or to “act out who they really are”, but these claims can lead toward an understanding of the unconscious motivation at play. It is possible to discern the workings of this unconscious dimension of the user’s subjectivity through a consideration of the phenomena of avatarization. This method of analysis allows us to note another dimension of intention co-present, and co-responsible for the success of virtual worlds such as SL.

So what role does the Oedipal complex play in the phenomena of avatarization? One way of answering this is to note the uncanny aspects of avatars and virtual worlds. User’s repressed pasts, something “old and long familiar”, can be understood as motivating their engagement with their avatar(s). The characterization of the avatar as something new and yet also somehow reflective of the user’s deeper true self has a parallel in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny”. In that essay he defines the uncanny as anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier stages in our psychical development, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species. Freud’s concept of the uncanny acknowledges that human beings possess some psychical structure, and that this structure, assembled throughout our childhood, leaves behind permanent residues and traces. In this view there exists some psychical interiority we are capable of remembering, however obliquely, through the residues and traces that follow us into adulthood.

SL users have the ability to control and radically manipulate their avatar body. Let’s establish three ways this manipulation occurs: first, the user can purchase, freely obtain, or, if they are savvy enough, design, entirely new avatar-bodies. A second form of manipulation is a less radical customization of a given avatar body. Third, a user can, in certain instances, choose to detach or reattach an aspect of their avatar body. In the next post I will discuss the uncanny aspects of these methods of avatarial manipulation. What will follow is an attempt at an Oedipal investigation into the relationship between the user’s psychical interiority and the three processes of manipulation and customization of a technologically mediated body listed above.


Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
—. Dora. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997 (1963)
—. “Die Verdrangung” [Repression] in Freud, Sigmund. The Unconscious. Trans. Graham Falkland. Ed. Adam Phillips. London: Penguin Books, 2005
—. The Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere. New York: WW Norton and Co. Inc., 1960
—. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. AA Brill. London: Wordsworth, 1997
—. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey.New York: W.W. Norton, 1965.
—. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 2000 (1962)
—. “The Uncanny” The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
—. “The Unconscious” in Freud, Sigmund. The Unconscious. Trans. Graham Falkland. Ed. Adam Phillips. London: Penguin Books, 2005

Lear, Jonathan. Freud. New York: Routledge, 2005

Macintyre, Alasdair. The Unconscious. New York: Routledge, 2004 (1958)

Mullahy, Patrick. Oedipus: Myth and Complex. New York: Grove Press, 1955

Weber, Samuel. The Legend of Freud. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000


~ by dccohen on April 1, 2011.

One Response to “Humanizing the Avatar (Part 9: Through an Oedipal lens…)”

  1. No great genius is without an admixture of madness.

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