Humanizing the Avatar (Part 13: You.0 and Asymptotic Desire)
Second Life (SL) avatars provide an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the our desire in action. Rather than positioning the avatar as evocative of a post-Oedipal, post-lack, desiring machine, as other critics have done, I will argue that the avatar visualizes and renders explicit the lost object, the remainder of our entry into Culture/Language/the Symbolic inhering at the core of the Subject. Through examples demonstrating the SL user’s engagements with their avatars, I will suggest that the SL avatar reflects, and offers the user the ability to engage with, the structure of their subjectivity.
If you’re unfamiliar with Lacanian concepts you might want to read the red NOTE at the end of the post…
The Second Life (SL) avatar can be characterized by endless wandering: the virtual avatar parallels the real desire of the user, which has crystallized out of the impossibility of fulfilment. The terrain of the virtual world, replete with fantastical creatures and vistas, is constructed of the same wandering desire and impossible fulfilment that constitute the real world. Both the virtual world, and the avatar that moves through it, make the functioning of desire more evident than it is in the rush of our everyday lives.
Aside from select roads and waterways controlled by Linden Labs, SL is comprised of a terrain constructed and managed by its users. This means that nearly everything, including the avatars themselves, have been controlled, chosen, and/or manipulated by users. The ability to manipulate and design the world and the avatars therein provides a virtual body to something that is psychical (or phantasmatic). SL prim objects and avatars which have no inherent, biological or organic fullness or completeness, appear on the user’s monitor; they are bodies constructed by human desire, and, as such, should be read as externalizations of the asymptotic nature of that desire. It is no coincidence that one has to build objects out of prims, the raw building blocks of the virtual world have no desire or tendencies of their own: prims can be thought of as the fundamental virtual material that our desire manipulates; or rather, a material capable of externalizing our phantasmatic desire. Comprised of this prim material, SL objects have no inherent place, or organic wholeness; they are always uncertain, always potentially something else. Nothing in SL ever feels complete. The entire virtual world, avatars included, exist as explicitly manipulatable; in SL the user forms an image-ideal, an ideal-ego, but is uncertain of the Other’s desire and keeps on with his or her desirous wandering.
Recall that desire is “based upon lack – not on the lack of any identifiable thing, but rather the lack of what Lacan calls “being”, “presence”, “the here and now” (Silverman, “Subjectivity” 36). Each of us, however, expresses the “impossible non-object of desire” in our own particular way. This explains why SL is such a vibrant world of different objects and avatars. The colourful and complex terrains and avatars can be regarded as comprised of particular and unique expressions of this impossible non-object of desire. Flying through the vast world, one might experience the sensation that they are surveying a land built with human desire. While building, or sculpting prim-based objects in the virtual world, a user is arguably working with the fundamental building blocks of desire.
What I mean by the fundamental building blocks of human desire can be elucidated by focusing on one of the most compelling features of SL avatars and objects: their inherent incompleteness. Using my SL avatar, Dustin Mabellon, I used to chat with SL users about what they claim their avatar provides for them. Often the conversation will turn to the idea there is no prototypical or normal SL avatar. A SL friend once described this non-normalcy as the state of being “normal-plus”. She claimed that this state of normal-plus exemplified a way of being that was “freer than RL [Real Life]…freer from reality’s limits”. This sense of normal-plus is intriguing because the majority of popular literature about SL describes participants who claim to use the virtual world in order to become normal or to make up for some real-life imperfection. The comment above, however, seems to indicate that achieving a point of normality is not the SL avatar’s raison d’etre. The virtual space of SL makes explicit that there is no normal to which to aspire, no way of ever being sated or completed. “Being the real you”, my friend explained, is always already a “More You you”. At the very moment the avatar becomes sufficient, it often becomes insufficient. In this light, the virtual avatar could be described as a truly asymptotic object. A virtual avatar offers the user the ability to interact with a self that perpetually approaches finality or wholeness, but never arrives there. The avatar is never fixed: it has no essence except for being “in essence”.
What does it mean to have a prosthesis, or double, that represents a “more You you”? What does it mean to have the sense that the real me is an endlessly desiring “more Me me”? In a Lacanian parlance, this suggests that the user is always in excess; there is always a remainder that evades the Symbolic. The avatar is something that represents the contingency that is integral to the self. Looking at my avatar, Dustin Mabellon, I notice the pixilation; manipulating his body I recognize his utter contingency. This helps me to reflect on the contradictions that comprise my own subjectivity. Note: For Slavoj Žižek “the dialectic is simply a process for the production of contradictions; as thesis generates antithesis in the progression of the dialectic. Žižek’s claim is that a merger of Lacan and Hegel reveals that final resolution of the dialectic remains an impossible dream. Just as the Lacanian individual subject has a permanent lack at the centre of his or her being (desires that can never be met), so the Hegelian dialectic has a contradiction. In neither case can the desired object be reached, and we are left with the experience of difference and contingency instead (Sim 85). Via the avatar, we have our desire standing before us, desire that inheres at the core of what we are but would likely go unnoticed in real life. Thus, by blurring the real, the imaginary and the code, the SL avatar, uncannily, gets at the heart of us.
A constantly changing avatar may be seen as the harbinger of both a “remixed” self, intelligible against the horizon of so-called late capitalism and against the horizon of Swann’s desire in Proust’s great novel: an impassioned building, which endlessly condenses and evaporates and can never be sated. As one SL user, Davy Winder, explains: “I can relate to the concept of self as a paper doll, a plaything to be shaped and coloured as the moment requires, and discarded, crumpled and torn, when that moment passes” (Winder 117). Individuals “keep moving and don’t commit [themselves]”, welcoming both fragmented physical bodies and senses of self (Sennett, Corrosion qtd. in Elliot, Concepts 138). On the other hand, avatarization can be understood as an externalization of something that interacts with, but is not reducible to, the impact of one’s subjection to contingent historical themes, practices and techniques.
LACANIAN NOTE: During the mirror stage (refered to in my last post) , the infant’s ego arises as a “crystallization/sedimentation of ideal images tantamount to a fixed/reified object with which the child learns to identify with himself”. This learning is due to the parent or caregiver telling the baby: “baby, that’s you!” (Fink, Lacanian 35). At this stage, we learn behaviours that are dictated by our parents; for example we learn what it means to be a good or bad boy or girl (Fink, Lacanian 35). We learn to internalize an imaginary production of images of ourselves reflected back to us by Others (or mOthers) (Fink, Lacanian 84).
But, at this point the infant also begins to ask, using language, what the Other wants of them. The infant is no longer at one with the mOther, but is now aware of the mother, and is in possession of desires s/he does not yet understand. This is horrifying to the infant because there is now a blank spot of uncertainty in what was hitherto a period of non-individuation. It is at this point that desire is born in the infant and the specular ego has another dimension to grapple with: specular wholeness may not actually be what his or her mOther desires.
In this respect, Lacan’s seemingly puzzling statement that “man’s desire is to be desired by the Other” or “man’s desire is the Other’s desire”, becomes easier to understand (Fink, Clinical 59): From the outset of our psychical development, the mOther’s desire has been internalized and adopted as our own. From the moment the mOther speaks and confirms that the image in the mirror is our self, we have been “deciphering” what the mOther wants from our ego (Fink, Clinical 54). In this moment, we also learn that there is the possibility of a not-self, something other than our own ego. We learn it is possible to err. We learn about doubt and the impossibility of knowing for certain that we have satisfied the mOther’s desire. This impossibility becomes part of our own desire. As a result, our desire becomes structured by a wandering, hopeful pursuit of the mOther’s desire. The logic of desire, then, can be regarded as an “asymptotic progression that never succeeds”, a “perpetual approach” that “never arrives and yet constantly promises to coincide with that toward which it tends” (Lacan, Ecrits 251); (Ross). (A fine example of asymptotic desire would be the numerous love interests in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In this work, Proust emphasizes that desire cannot be sated. Our desire does not yearn for fulfilment, but only the desire to desire. In Proust’s novel, Swann’s desire fades when he has obtained his desired love object; desire is rekindled when he is provided the opportunity to seek out a new object of desire.)
What Lacan refers to as “separation” designates an attempt by the child to come to grips with the mOther’s desire: separation is the point at which the child recognizes that there is no mother-child unity (Fink, Lacanian 50). The child’s sense of lack (at the level of the mOther) is engendered when the mOther demonstrates to her child that she too is incomplete and has the same endlessly wandering desires. Now we have two lacks – the lack in the self and the lack in the mOther. Still attempting to achieve a sense of totality and fullness, the child, attempts to “gain a foothold within the divided parent” and does so by “lodging” his or her “lack of being (manqué-a-etre) in that place where the Other was lacking” (Fink, Lacanian 54). So, separation is an attempt to fill the mOther’s lack. The child attempts to fill up the (w)hole of the mOther’s lack, her whole space of desire, and, by making their desires coincide, tries to be everything to her (Fink, Lacanian 55). But, desire can never end in satisfaction because it coincides with the Other’s desire which we can never know in its totality.
Lacan reads this state of the Other’s impossible desire through Sausurrean linguistics, which serves to de-biologize the Freudian ideas with which he is working. He reads the encounter described above between self and other (infant and mOther) as the submission to, and internalization of, language. Language here acts as the third – triangulating – element of the Oedipus myth. Thus, the father (Laius) is read as the linguistic Signifier. The Signifier comes to replace/symbolize/neutralize the Other’s desire. Without the Signifier we would not cease attempting to fill up the mOther’s lack (incidentally, non-internalization of the Signifier is how Lacan defines psychosis). Once the child has internalized the Signifier, he or she has undergone the process of subjectivization: the subject, then, is the child with an intermediating third factor (in this case the Signifier/language), which acts to ensure that he or she is not overwhelmed by the Other’s desire.
=Fink, Bruce. Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, Mass. :Harvard University Press, 1997
—. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995
=Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
=Ross, Stephen. A Very Brief Introduction to Lacan. (2002). Online. <http://web.uvic.ca/~saross/lacan.html>
=Sennett, R. Corrosion of Character: Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York: WW Norton, 1998 in Elliott, Anthony. Concepts of the Self. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008
=Sim, Stuart. Irony and Crisis. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books, 2002
=Silverman, Kaja. “Subjectivity and Identity: The World Wants Your Desire.” n.paradoxa. 19 (May 2006)
=Winder, Davey. Being Virtual: Who you really are Online? West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008