Humanizing the Avatar (Part 12: Interactive Mirrors and the Fragmented Body)

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

In “the Uncanny”, Sigmund Freud describes an incident involving a double that jarred him. He was in his cabin on a night-train. The train lurched forward and the toilet door swung open. At that moment Freud caught sight of an elderly man who came into his room, replete with dressing gown and travelling cap. Assuming the elderly man had lost his way returning from the toilet, Freud went to direct him back toward his own cabin when – to his astonishment – he realized the ‘lost’ old man was a reflection of himself displayed on a mirror hanging on the inside of the, now wide open, toilet door. Freud’s own image confronted him as “unbidden” and “unexpected” (p. 162). This incident reminds us of the unpleasantness that something as benign and intimate as our own reflection can produce; individuals have to acknowledge their reflection as themselves in order to overcome the initial alienation of their own bodies. In this case, Freud is not unsettled by the uncanny animism of something like dead souls et cetera., but, rather, it is his own self, which has become strange (Gordon 54).

Note on the Lacanian “Mirror Stage”: Jacques Lacan explained that human beings are born pre-maturely. As a result, during our neonatal months our relationship to our bodies is a fragmented one, and marked by poor motor-coordination; there is no time before our alienation from our bodies, no Edenic point of wholeness or totality that we ever can have known.

An infant, during its neo-natal months, comes to view itself in a mirror. In contrast to other animals, the human infant recognizes that the mirror reflection bears a relation to the sensation of its own body. Strictly speaking, the infant identifies with the image outside of himself; but now, problematically, one’s identification is in the place of the Other. For this reason Lacan considers the ego to be an imaginary crystallization of images. The fluidity and sense of wholeness that the specular image possesses exists in stark contrast to the fragmented neo-natal body of the infant. The infant is delighted to view its reflection, but this delight is bound up with aggression, as the specular wholeness is contrasted with the infant’s fragmented body. At the point of encountering its own body in the mirror, or recognizing the body of its (m)Other as separate from its self, the infant forms the binary of “fragmented” and “whole”. But prior to this binary, the infant is not concerned with its fragmentation. This dialectic of (mis)recognition forms the genesis of what will become a lifelong sensation of irredeemable lack.

There is no healthy, or universal, ideal-ego. The ego is an image internalized by the infant that did not exist prior to it.  Both Freud and Lacan recognize the ego as a construct that must mediate between the infant’s newly bifurcated sense of reality. It is less the recognition of selfhood than a mis-recognition. In other words, the ego is characterized not by a solid “I” but an alienated “I”, whose constitution is an endless series of mis-identifications.

During the formulation of the ideal-ego we are initiated into the false, yet necessary, binary of self and other. We begin to grasp the idea that others exist outside of our Imaginary “I” construction. The key here is that otherness structures our sense of selfhood; it is by way of others that we formulate a notion of self. Self is, following Lacan, actually an other that I misrecognize as myself. Lacan terms this identification a (mis)recognition since any such identity-solidifying recognition is founded on an error, albeit a necessary one. It is only when the child is able to conceive of herself as an “I” that she can understand herself in relation to others (and to the Other).

Thus, for Lacan “…the self exists in a state of unrest as a result of an unresolved encounter with alterity” (Hobbs 3). This state of unrest, characteristic of the Imaginary, is a continuous one. From the onset of the mirror stage the infant “…enters into a continuous process of staging and restaging his/her identity, a process that situates him/her as elsewhere forever” (Hobbs 4).

If our Imaginary sense of the ideal-ego should collapse, we may experience bodily fragmentation and disintegration. Lacan describes the fantasy-of-the-body-in-bits-and-pieces which often surfaces in dreams and typically shows the “body of the mother as having a mosaic structure like that of a stained glass window” or a “jigsaw puzzle, with the separate parts of the body of a man or an animal in disorderly array” (Lacan, “Some Reflections” 13 qtd. in Silverman, Threshold 20). Lacan also describes the fantasy of the fragmented body as “…incongruous images, in which disjoined limbs are arranged as strange trophies; trunks [are] cut up in slices and stuffed with the most unlikely fillings, [and] strange appendages [are] shown in eccentric positions” (Lacan, “Some Reflections” 13 qtd. in Silverman, Threshold 20). This fantasy is clearly related to the originary motor incapacity the infant recognized, and repressed, during the mirror stage.

The similarities with Freud’s articulation of the uncanny are clear here: “the disturbances of the ego” articulated in Hoffman’s Sandman, “involve a hearkening back to single phases in the evolution of the sense of self, a regression to times when the ego had not yet clearly set itself off against the world outside and from others” (Freud, “Uncanny” 143). This could be considered a characterization of the infant Lacan describes as the “I” in its primordial form, before being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other and before language disciplines it into its function as a subject (Lacan, Ecrits 77).

Note: What Freud calls the uncanny, Lacan refers to as the “extime” or “extimacy”, neologisms combining “exterior” and “intimate”/”intimacy”, and designating the blurring of subject and object, interiority and exteriority, mind and body, where intimate interiority to coincide with the exterior. The “extime” designates the interruption of the Real into the “homely” commonly accepted reality, shattering known divisions. Lacan describes it as the recognition that “the other is something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me” (Lacan, Sem VII 71). The double, for example, “initiates a crumbling of the subject’s accustomed reality and often arranges things to turn out badly, by realizing the subject’s hidden or repressed desires” (Dolar 11).

So, how, in the context of the Lacanian mirror stage, is the Second Life (SL) avatar an extimite object? In an earlier post I mentioned 3 ways that SL users manipulate and customize their avatar bodies. Whether users are (1) rendering new avatar bodies, (2) customizing their current body, or (3) detaching/attaching limbs or appendages, the user is encountering (and engaging with) a body resistant to the orthopaedic stability of the ideal-ego that results during the mirror stage.

Figure 7 – Male Skins for Purchase. (“Second Life Male Shapes by Dimension Skins” Dimensions Online)

1. The rendering of new avatar bodies: Most SL users purchase new bodies from SL shops using the SL Linden (L$) currency. The new body, also called a “skin”, is then deposited into the user’s inventory. The user selects the new skin – say that of a favourite celebrity, or that of a clunky 1950s robot – and drags it from their inventory onto their avatar. [See Figure 7] Upon releasing the mouse button the user’s avatar will morph into the chosen body. This reveals, and challenges, the ideal-ego, the “I”, that we mis(identified) as our self. Through  the rendering of new avatar bodies the user interacts with his or her alienated ego, and plays with the recognition that while there was no “I” before the other was (mis)identified as self.

Figure 6 - Screenshot of SL Rezzing. (Paradox Olber. “Screenshot of Rezzing”. Spindrift, in SciLands Second Life Blog.)

Often the process of rendering one’s body requires a wait while the new body renders. During this time the avatar may spend a moment or two in an awkward transitional phase where dull grey spots appear, designating areas where the new body has yet to render. [See Figure 6] Of interest here is the limbo where the embodied user sees their avatar in three simultaneous states: as avatar-body-1, an undifferentiated and yet unrendered grey, and as avatar-body-2. The rendering, or “rezzing”, grey goo between avatar-body-1 and avatar-body-2 might be considered the ectoplasm of the digital Real: a high tech residual reminder of our early encounter with the undifferentiated Lacanian Real: a state of existence prior to symbolization.

In these instances the user is confronted not only with two reified selves (avatar-body-1 and avatar-body-2) but the undifferentiated grey Real that hides beneath the self. The rendering of new virtual bodies can be seen to stir the traces and residues of infancy that remain throughout our life and act as the ordering principles of the ego. Teleporting mishaps in SL also can, through a psychoanalytic lens, be considered evocative of the undifferentiated state of pre-Oedipal symbiosis. These mishaps occur when multiple users teleport into a small space, often piling on top of one another, or in immediate proximity to one another, resulting in another sort of virtual grey goo. Note: Important to consider is that since this grey goo is itself a symbolization,  representation that a user can capture with the “screen shot” feature, it is closer to an approximation or analogy for thinking about Lacan’s framework than it is an actual encounter with the Real.

Let us note, as well, that this surely links to our mystified relationship to technology as well. Most users do not understand the technology behind the virtual worlds in which they participate. Both Jentsch and Freud discuss the uncanny effects associated with the “bafflement regarding how the conditions of origin for the achievement in question were brought about” (Jentsch 7). Jentsch also notes that a sense of uncanniness can arise in darkness or semi-darkness, when where one is uncertain of the terrain. Most users are in a “state of darkness” when it comes to understanding the hardware and software of SL (Jentsch 9).

2. The ability to customize one’s avatar bodies using the SL “appearance window”: Once the user selects the appearance window their avatar turns and faces them. (Any other SL users in close proximity are aware that the user is editing their avatar, as the words “Editing Avatar” hovers above it.) Within the appearance window, the user is given the ability to customize nearly every aspect of their avatar, from the density of their body to the color and thickness of their eyebrows. These adjustments are effected by moving one of the hundreds of customizable “sliders” in the appearance window. Dragging a slider slightly to the left or right will make minimal adjustments in the avatar’s body; dragging it entirely to the left or the right will result in either the disappearance of the trait associated with that slider, or a wildly exaggerated version of that trait. Users can also upload and utilize their own hair and skin textures from images already saved on their hard drives.

This “slider-self for the age of Techne” (Boellstorff), a radically manipulatable, customizable and flexible self is, by virtue of the SL interface, always a few mouse clicks away from uncannilly re-experiencing the original Lacanian dialectic between fragmentariness and wholeness. This also allows us to return to Hoffman’s “The Sandman” and interpret Nathaniel’s automaton lover Olympia differently from Freud‘s reading of her as a symbol of narcissistic, compulsive love. A Lacanian reading might emphasize Olympia as symbolic of the uncanny fragmented body: she becomes an obsession for Nathaniel due to her automatic responses, her mechanical demeanour and movements. Olympia, in this Lacanian reading, re-awakens Nathaniel to the bedrock of fragmentariness that constituted the ego; thus she is an uncanny reflection of his undifferentiated state prior to, and existing beneath, the dialectic established during the mirror stage. In SL, the primordial discord, malaise, and lack of motor coordination stemming from the neonatal months that forms the Innenwelt of the human organism are presented here in a seemingly posthuman way.

Both Jentsch and Freud insist that the uncanniness of mechanical processes provide:

the dark knowledge… that mechanical processes are taking place in which he was previously used to regarding as a unified psyche…For the epileptic attack of spasms reveals the human body to the viewer – the body that under normal circumstances is so meaningful, expedient, and unitary, functioning according to the directions of his consciousness – as an immensely complicated and delicate mechanism. This is an important cause of the epileptic fit’s ability to produce such a demonic effect on those who see it (Jentsch 14).

In SL, glitches regularly occur in the software that can cause avatars to drift out the user’s control, and shoot mechanically out into the virtual world. When these glitches occur, the user has very little control over their virtual-self. Control can usually only be regained by teleporting to a new location or rebooting the SL client; without turning to the authority of the teleport or the exit buttons, the user is left to anxiously confront their alter-egos uncannily careening off into virtual space, outside of their control.

From another, related, angle, we might consider Freud’s assertion that “loss of teeth”, “beheading”, “baldness”, and “haircutting” are representations of castration in dreams, as capable to telling us much about the customizability of the avatar body in the dreamlike world of SL (Freud, Interpretation 236). In this case, the SL appearance window and the adjustments offered therein do not create new bodies without reference to the user. Indeed, the control over things like “head shape”, “hair patterns”, etc… can be thought of, as Freud suggests in his dream interpretations, as a return to the Oedipal threat of castration.

Figure 8 - Experimenting with body shape, size, sex and gender.

3.  Detaching/attaching virtual limbs or appendages: In instances where the user interacts with an avatar body that is entirely customized, this process entails something akin to the amputation of a limb. A user would employ the “detach” feature when, for example, traveling from a “mature”portion of SL where they had been engaged in sexual activities requiring the attachment of genitalia, to a “PG” portion of SL where uncovered genitals are not tolerated. Note: There are ‘Mature’ and ‘PG’ (parental guidance) portions of SL where certain adult behaviours are, and are not, tolerated. A user can “re-attach” any body part they choose by dragging that part from their “inventory” back on to their avatar. Traveling to any of the adult themed sex areas or “orgy pits” in SL one will encounter a number of lifelike sexual organs and phalluses, some capable of realistic ejaculation, that can be attached and reattached at the user’s whim. [See Figures 8 and 9] (During an academic conference I attended a participant teleported in and had forgotten to detach his erect virtual phallus; other conference participants were typing his name and trying to alert him, in a nice way, to “conceal” himself.) This feature of genital attachment and detachment evokes something akin to symbolic castration. This symbolic castration allows us to contextualize, in the constructed world of SL, the narrative that began with our childhood recognition of sexual difference.

Figure 9 - Attaching and detaching genitalia.

The ability to detach and re-attach body parts and appendages in SL presents the user with a self that can appear coherent and stable, but is only one mouse click away from a rehearsal of its primordial fear of castration at any given time. Looking to “The Sandman” as an example, there are instances where the fragmented body, something once familiar but since tucked away, becomes explicit and even frightening. Thus, a Lacanian reading of Hoffman’s story suggests that Nathaniel’s encounter with castration leads to the fear of the loss of bodily totality. As we encounter our limbs unanchored from bodies or strangely juxtaposed organs, interiority and exteriority coincide. Freud refers to the uncanniness of detached body parts, “a severed head, a hand detached from the arm…feet that dance by themselves” which evoke in us primal fears of castration and dismemberment (Freud, “Uncanny”). In The Interpretation of Dreams, he explains that, in addition to “timeless” symbols of castration (i.e. snakes, lizards etc…), new symbols, based on new technologies such as the aircraft, are constantly coming to remind us of castration (Freud, Interpretation 236). As  noted earlier, Jentsch and Freud’s senses of the uncanny raise the theme of mechanical motion. When the SL user experiences their self as machinic, mechanic and fragmented, they encounter something familiar in an unexpected way; in the way that Jentsch describes “old accounts of journeys [where] someone sat down in an ancient forest on a tree trunk and… to the horror of the traveller, this trunk suddenly began to move and showed itself to be a giant snake” (Jentsch 8).

Summary: There is something timely and untimely about the avatar, something described by Freud as both familiar and unfamiliar. The historically dated apparatuses featured in Hoffman’s “The Sandman do not hinder the modern reader from gleaning the atemporal dimension it manifests in Nathaniel; peering out through the brazier, the machinic clockwork of the automaton Olympia, Copolla’s lenses etc., is a reminder of the repression that inheres at the core of the self. In Concepts of the Self, Anthony Elliot mentions the role that mirrors and reflective surfaces play in constituting the Lacanian self. For Lacan, it is this “visual or optic genesis of narcissism” that acts as our condition of selfhood (Elliott, Concepts 61). It is clear that the originary encounter with the mirror or screen provides the infant with an orthopaedic meconnaisance ; the infant’s stable “I” is a misrecognition. Elliot explains: “the mirror is, in fact, profoundly imaginary, because the consolingly unified image it presents is diametrically opposed to the lack of physical coordination that the child actually experiences. In a word, the mirror lies.”

Interestingly, our newest machines feature interactive screens and screen doubles. But, as has been suggested, virtual worlds seem to be different kinds of mirrors; as a result of the interface and properties of the medium, they can put us in touch with the opposite of an orthopaedic meconnaisance. Thus, what we encounter is not something that lies, but rather, we encounter something evocative of the fragmented Real. The interactive screen of SL where we encounter our avatar(s) does not lie, and this is what makes it uncanny. It provides us with an opportunity to comprehend our interaction with the psychical residues of fragmentation remaining from a time of  “dyadic unity”, prior to the distinction between self and (the maternal body of the (m)other (Elliott, Concepts 61). For this reason there is no better term than “uncanny” to describe interactive virtual worlds and their avatar bodies, which enable new forms of interaction and yet are simultaneously revelatory of an aspect of the user’s true self.


+Elliott, Anthony. Concepts of the Self.Cambridge,UK: Polity Press, 2008
+Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. AA Brill.London: Wordsworth,1997
—. “The Uncanny” The Uncanny.London: Penguin Books, 2003.
+Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
+Hobbs, Peter. “The Image Before Me.” Invisible Culture. 7 (2004)
+Hoffman, ETA. Tales of Hoffman. Trans. RJ Hollingdale.London: Penguin Books, 1982
+Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny ” Trans. Roy Sellars
+Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink.New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
—. “Some Reflections on the Ego” in Silverman, Kaja. Threshold of the Visible World.New York: Routledge, 1996


~ by dccohen on April 20, 2011.

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