Humanizing the Avatar (Part 11: Uncanny Cyborgs and Avatars)

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

Figure 1 – Pablo Picasso’s 1911 illustration “Mademoiselle Léonie” (From Max Jacob’s Saint Matorel. The Amica Library)

Let’s consider a few instances where technologies – especially human/machine hybrids – have been considered uncanny in order to demonstrate that considering avatars to be uncanny is not without precedent. The Second Life (SL) avatar, as a technology that merges the human and the technological, is a contemporary instance of what Bruce Grenville describes in the introduction to The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture as a long standing “cultural anxiety” surrounding the interaction between bodies and machines: an anxiety stemming from at least the seventeenth century when Descartes and William Harvey begun thinking about the body mechanistically (Grenville 13). In the early twentieth century, cubist works such as Pablo Picasso’s “Mademoiselle Léonie” (1911) [See Figure 1] and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase no.2” (1912) [See Figure 2 below] “which depicted bodies as mechanistic structures, and were recognized as “threats to the popular perception of the human body and its physical limits” (Grenville 18). In reference to “Mademoiselle Léonie”, art critics have noted Picasso’s use of “partial circles, rectangles, and trapezoids” to “dislocate the figure’ anatomy” and convey “mechanical distortions” (Franciscono 141). Léonie’s “shoulders, hips and breasts – seem to emerge and then retreat into the choppy matrix of lines and plates that comprise the figure” (Schulman 129).

Figure 2 – Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 “Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)” (Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Twentieth century photography also played a major role in reproducing the body in mechanistic ways. For example, Edward Muybridge’s chronophotography (circa 1870), whose genesis lies in the settling of a bet over whether there was a point in a horse’s gallop where all its feet left the ground, expressed a “desire to capture a heretofore intangible aspect of human nature”: the machinic, consistent, and repeatable nature of the body (Grenville 17).

Duchamp, via works such as “Nude Descending…” considered the “notion of the machine as a distinct entity that invades, embraces, and reforms the modern human body” into something machinic, whereas Muybridge was concerned with revealing the body as already machinic (Grenville 19). Again the question emerges: does technology reform the body as Duchamp appears to have argued or does it reveal something formerly unnoticed about the body as Muybridge appears to have argued? Cubism can be seen as a reaction to the flow of contemporary life or as an aesthetic technique aimed at revealing the flux and fragmentation always inherent in things. Thus, Grenville, who draws on the Freudian uncanny, argues that the cyborg is uncanny not because it is unfamiliar or alien, but rather because it is all too familiar: bodies doubled by the machine “allow for the return of the repressed in a controlled medium, in an imaginary form that allows us to disregard its real presence” (Grenville 21).

Other twentieth and twenty first century artistic instances of this cyborg uncanny include Jacob Epstien’s Futurist “Rock Drill” (1913-1915) [See Figure 4 below] where the bottom half of a human torso is the bottom half of a drill, evoking the castration complex and the “repression of sexuality and procreative forces”, and Gary Hill’s “Inasmuch as it is Already Taking Place” (1990) [See Figure 3 below], where the body is displayed as dispersed or fragmented across a series of monitors (Grenville 22, 37).

Figure 3 – Gary Hill’s "Inasmuch as it is Already Taking Place". 1991. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Epstein and Hill present bodies mutilated by the violence of modern life and new technologies, however both works reveal cyborg forms that have raised the issue of some fundamental aspects of human identity, whether it is the cyborg’s virility, or, “the hidden core to which the components of the body are attached [which] serves as a metaphor for a human being’s invisible, existential center: the soul” (Moma). Thus, the new, the unfamiliar, the mutilated, can serve to reveal the contours of that which is closest to us. Note: One is reminded here of Martin Heidegger’s claim in Being and Time that the essence of a thing, in his example a hammer, can be discerned when it is broken. When broken, we can discern the hammer’s “hammerness”. We “discover the unusability [of the hammer] not by looking and ascertaining properties, but rather by paying attention to the associations in which we use it. When we discover its unusability, the [hammer] becomes conspicuous” (Heidegger, Being 102). When something appears inoperable or broken it can be de-naturalized, becoming simply an object in relation to all others. A simple way of thinking of this is that in order to use an object we must bracket its complexity. Heidegger refers to this bracketing as “withdrawing”. “Withdrawing” refers to the state where the hammer is naturalized and becomes “readiness-to-hand” (Heidegger, Being 87). In order for something to be ready-at-hand the complex “thingness” (in the case the “hammerness”) of the object must withdraw. The hammer, as “ready-at-hand” becomes an extension of our own arm, and we bracket the complexly designed and shaped metal and wood.

Figure 4 – Jacob Epstein’s “Rock Drill” 1913. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

These ‘uncanny’ works of art, like avatars, are creations that draw on contemporaneous mediums, themes and ideas to explore – or reveal – aspects of the human self. The bodies depicted through these contemporary mediums, themes and ideas are indeed products of a particular time and place, however despite this particularity, they reveal a certain generality. The cold, almost turquoise, head of Epstein’s “Rock Drill”, staring blindly into the horizon, is less a postmodern cyborg revelling in its present time and place than an alienated modernist lamenting transitioning into what Epstein himself called “the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into…” (Epstein 56).

Kazuhiro Aridian, a SL user whose avatars usually involve customized robot exoskeletons, explains:

when I look at things of metal, it feels sharp, painful. I created that avatar as a response to that…It is painful, skeletal, ethereal, and almost human, but things like the inverted knees and elongated hands make it not human at all. Even with all this painful metal, it retains a human face, almost as a mockery of humanity (Rymaszewski et al. 74).

In his statement about the rationale behind the creation of his avatars, Aridian explains that a “human face” peers through the “painful”, “metallic”, exoskeleton. From an uncanny viewpoint human desire peeks through the painful, skeletal and prohibitive exoskeleton, mocking the possibility that his desire can ever be free from Oedipal prohibition. Aridian’s avatars, clad in the robot exoskeleton of an imagined future, reveal the continuation of prohibition – whose genesis lies buried in the past.

This interpretation is echoed by recent scholarly studies such as Siân Bayne’s “Uncanny Spaces for Higher Education: Teaching and Learning in Virtual Worlds” that emphasize the uncanny attributes of virtual worlds and games requiring an avatar. Bayne emphasizes the capacity for these virtual worlds to blur the boundary between reality and fantasy, activate our fear of death and ghosts, question the nature of selfhood and the double or doppelganger, and create situations of intellectual uncertainty (Bayne 1). The avatar possesses an in-between status, it is a “doll invested to some extent with the interactional and personality characteristics of the real user” (Bayne 2). The ability for the user to automate movements and create scripted animations foregrounds this in-betweenness of the avatar (Bayne 2).

Drawing on Freud’s assertion that automata and dolls can be uncanny, Bayne notes a student named Eleanor’s reflection that “[a]vatars are nothing but corpses. So, somebody comes along and will fill those dead corpses with something that is believed to be identity or feelings? For me they are artificially normed identities, perhaps even desires…” (Bayne 1) Between 1998 and 2002, many young people used a social network called ICQ. The network was eventually abandoned, as users moved to networks that offered a greater degree of identity-creation. Upon logging into my ICQ avatar for the first time since 2002, the virtual world dead and lifeless I wrote:

Returning to my old dwelling place, logging on, and entering the ICQ framework now evokes a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Here I encounter what may be one of the first major Pompeii’s of the digital world. A chill runs of up my spine. Why do I feel as if this were a real place…that I have stumbled upon the scene of some massacre? I know I am looking at patterns of information and binary code, but I don’t care. What once was a thriving community, a fertile dwelling place, is now barren and devoid of all maintenance and human agency. What exists is the infrastructure: the roads, plumbing, and power lines. What remains, in states of suspended animation, are the shed lifeless sarcophagi of users who have altered their digital bodies (2006).

Dustin Mabellon hanging from a virtual gallows. (Personal Screenshot from SL)

Bayne notes descriptions of virtual worlds emphasizing their “deathliness”. Another student observer, “Maisie”, describes the experience as similar to what she imagines dying might be like: “sort of like a physical death only to awake in the other world with one’s senses intact” (Bayne 3). From the standpoint of the Freudian uncanny, a user discussing their virtual double in the context of death and deathliness is revelatory of our still active primitive fear of death. For example, one could argue that by interacting with these doubles the user acts out a virtual death in order to deny the shrouded mysteriousness that surrounds physical death. But in no case does physical death lose its importance; indeed from this point of view the experimentation with virtual deathliness has the mortal and corporeal body as its motor.

For many users, one of the more uncanny aspects of the SL avatar is the impossibility of fixing the identity of the users with which one interacts (Bayne 2). This raises the issue of uncanny “intellectual uncertainty”, an idea explored by Freud’s contemporary Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 paper “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”. It is unnerving to be perpetually unsure of the identity of the avatar with whom one is interacting, or to not know – in the case of bots – whether the avatar is being manipulated by a human at all. Note: Definition of bot: “An AI-controlled player in a computer game (especially a first-person shooter such as Quake) which, unlike ordinary monsters, operates like a human-controlled player, with access to a player’s weapons and abilities”. According to Jentsch, confronting something outside of our habitual routines, or looking at it in a different way, causes it to become “uncanny” (Jentsch 4). For example, under normal circumstances the rising of the sun is not uncanny, but “when one remembers that the rising of the sun does not depend on the sun at all, but rather, on the movement of the earth…” one experiences the sunrise in an unusual, uncanny, way. Similarly, encountering familiar others through the medium of the avatar can feel quite unnerving and strange. While becoming accustomed to SL in 2006, I wrote this note, which conveys a sense of uncanny intellectual uncertainty:

I am able to modify my avatar in nearly any way imaginable, from the color of his socks to the size of his body to the shape of his hair. And I am not limited to a his, I can be a her. I am not limited to the colors and types of clothing within SL as I can upload graphics into the virtual-world and fashion a photo of myself in the real-world or an atomic mushroom cloud into a vest. Like a child I begin to learn how to navigate the virtual-environment, a progression from looking, to walking, to running and even flying. My first observation is how unique each avatar is, an array of faces and bodies. My second is how colorful and lifelike the forest environ I find myself within is. While learning how to navigate I innocently clicked the ‘remove button’ and in an instant I was standing naked for the SL community to see. What occurred to me was that I felt ashamed and frantically tried to cover myself back up, clicking fervently at the mouse in the same way that I might embarrassedly fumble with my fly in front of a group of strangers. Following the incident I teleport (the equivalent to airtravel in SL) myself to another piece of the Second Life landscape, a pyramid like island where an amoeba-like-creature and group of avatars dance with a number of bellowing cows. Music, possibly composed by one of the avatars, blares as I draw close to the group. I stand for a minute watching, roam around the island, and return to the spectacle. The national anthem for this pyramid island of dancing avatars might as well be appropriated from Donna Haraway’s prophetic essay: ‘Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’. As the group of avatar cows, amoebae and humanoids had not ceased dancing all that I can think of is how still their real-world counterparts likely are (2006)

During these early experiences in SL, I felt as though I had comprehended reality from a radically different perspective; both the real world and the virtual world felt unreal.

For those users who are comfortable with avatarization, encountering the self and others on SL is acceptable, but others can become disoriented and unsure. Bayne quotes from the weblog a student named “Margaret”: “We like to experiment with the appearance of the avatar and through experimentation I think we can gain some understanding of who we really are…I would say that our identities are more real when expressed though an avatar” (Bayne 5). But, for another student named Joe, the uncanny disruption between copy and original, self and double, is a deep disturbance to his religious security:

The bible…teaches that we are made in God’s image and that if one adopts the image or looks of an animal that s/he is adopting an image of an idol hence s/he is practicing idolatry. It is even worse in cases where a person considers the animal face to represent their identity better than their real face (Bayne 6).

When a new user logs into SL for the first time they are taken to Orientation Island, where they learn to control their avatar and the virtual world at large. As a long time gamer, my first experience at Orientation Island was not highly unusual, however I can image the disorientation that my grandmother, for example, would likely experience. I am used to being represented in virtual space, whereas she would likely ask me “why would I want to look like an animal, or a robot, or something other than me!?” This unusual way of looking at her self would surely startle her. Note: Likewise, Jentsch notes that there are “among adults…sensitive natures who do not like to attend masked balls, since the masks and disguises produce in them an exceedingly awkward impression to which they are incapable of being accustomed” (Jentsch 6).

In “Play Dead: Genre and Affect in Silent Hill and Plainscape Torment”, Dianne Carr explains that the uncanny can be amplified when we watch bodies in motion on film. It is even further amplified in video games where we operate and navigate 3D avatars (Carr 6). Laura Hoeger and William Huber’s “Ghastly Manipulation: Fatal Frame II and the Videogame Uncanny”, also notes that the 3D video game uncanny is not simply a derivative version of the filmic or literary uncanny, but is, rather, a “distinctively designed affective experience in which textual elements are deeply entwined with the mechanical and spatial aspects [of the virtual game or world]” (Hoeger and Huber 152). Note: Hoeger and Huber explain that the uncanny can result from the “imperfect simulacra of living bodies”. This type of uncanniness was noted by Masahiro Mori in the 1970s and termed the “uncanny valley”. Mori claimed that when confronted with a double that was nearly human, but not quite, we reach a point of anxiety and disquiet – a valley. A feeling of repulsion or horror arises when a certain threshold of resemblance is crossed (Hoeger and Huber 153). They refer to moments (animaltions, scripts etc…) where the user can control the avatar, but the avatar has independent activity (Hoeger and Huber 155). It can be “spooky to have this control momentarily taken away then thrust back”.

Stuart Boon and Christine Sinclair’s “A World I Don’t Inhabit: Disquiet and Identity in Second Life and Facebook” also considers the disquiet associated with SL. They explain that SL is “…a new kind of experience, a new metaphor, a new world in which to re/create ourselves, re/imagine our relationships to others, and re/evaluate the real and the unreal” (Boon and Sinclair 16). While SL is liberating for some users, “not all will find the experience so positive. From the outset SL necessitates a commitment to the unreal, going so far as to make it impossible for users to use their own names … this stripping of real identity can be frustrating and unsettling” (Boon and Sinclair 20). They discuss the uncanny disquiet associated with simulating a self in three dimensions that has an “utterly variable identity” and is “artificiality writ large”, a “fabricating, and in some cases a digital form devoid of personal significance – that can be a problem for many users”.

=>Bayne, Siân. “Uncanny spaces for higher education: teaching and learning in virtual worlds”. Alt-J. 16.3 (2008): 197-205 (Page Number’s co-respond to PDF available at>

=>Boon, Stuart and Sinclair, Christine. “A World I Don’t Inhabit: Disquiet and Identity in Second Life and Facebook”. Sixth International Conference on Networked Learning, Halkidiki, Greece, 2009

=>Carr, Diane. “Play Dead: Genre and Affect in Silent Hill and Plainscape Torment” Game Studies 3:1 (May 2003)

=>Epstein, Jacob. Let there be Light. AMS Press, 1985

=>Grenville, Bruce. The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2001

=>Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1955

=>Hoeger, Laura and Huber, William. “Ghastly Manipulation: Fatal Frame II and the Video Game Uncanny” Situated Play: The Proceedings of the DiGRA Conference, 2007.

=>Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny ” Trans. Roy Sellars <>

=>Moma – Museum of Modern Art: Gary Hill. <;

=>Mori, M. “The Uncanny Valley”. Trans. K. F. MacDorman & T. Minato Trans. 2005 (1970) from

=>Rymaszewski, Michael et al. Guide to Second Life – 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2008

=>Schulman, Daniel. “Mademoiselle Leonie” Graphic Modernism. Eds. Susan Rossen and Brandon Ruud. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2003


~ by dccohen on April 15, 2011.

One Response to “Humanizing the Avatar (Part 11: Uncanny Cyborgs and Avatars)”

  1. […] hypothesis called the Uncanny Valley – which I have written about elsewhere – might offer a clue here. It states that when confronted with something nearly human, but […]

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