Humanizing the Avatar: (Part 14: Avatars as Anchors of Subjectivity)

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

The avatar is similar to the Lacanian Subject (see the note at the end of this post if you’re unfamiliar with Lacanian ideas) insofar as it can be understood as an object represented by a signifier for another signifier. The avatar body as a commingling of various prim objects and scripts, is not entirely without a fixed meaning. Indeed, users’ avatars mean much to them, but these meanings never seem to be final, or complete. The avatar’s properties (comprised of virtual polygons and scripts) constantly slide around, but are held together at certain points that ensure the user is able to stabilize some meaning (and identity) from and with them. It is one “point of convergence that enables everything that happens in this [cyber] discourse to be situated retroactively and prospectively” (Lacan, Sem III 267-8).

For example, an avatar is a series of “particular” scripts, attachments and body parts tied together in some coherent way, without regard to any “absolute referent” (Fink, Clinical 94). In the Second Life (SL) appearance window one has the option to modify the shape of a number of body parts. Selecting appearance–>shape–>eyes provides the user with ten sliders, and describes the fact that they can slide from the left to the right (or 0% of a slider effect to 100% of a slider effect). In the appearance–>shape–>eyes tab the user can manipulate sliders for ‘eye size’ (from ‘beady’ to ‘anime’), ‘eye opening’ (from ‘narrow’ to ‘wide), ‘eye spacing’ (from ‘close-set’ to ‘far set’), ‘outer eye corner’ (from ‘corner down’ to ‘corner up’, ‘eye depth’ (from ‘sunken eyes’ to ‘bugged eyes’), etc… Moving close to either pole (0% or 100%) creates wildly exaggerated features. Dustin Mabellon’s average ‘eye shape’ usually ranges between 43% and 54% on the sliders.

While I interact with my shifting avatar each time I manipulate it, I do not verge closer to re-presenting something actual; rather, each constellation of virtual signifiers presents me with a new avatar body. Davy Winder describes his own avatar in Being Virtual: “…I did not regain a lost identity, even if long buried parts of my personality did make the odd appearance every now and then. I created an entirely new one” (Winder 119).

The fact that each avatar constellation is new and unique does not mean that it is meaningless. The avatar is not a haphazard constellation of virtual polygons and scripts but is anchored at various points, constraining the polygons and scripts from spilling wildly and meaninglessly out into the virtual world. Thus, Lacan’s description of the point de capiton is a useful tool for contemplating the avatar body: “(a)t best the [avatar] arrest[s] the movement of [the user’s] desire for a time before the tyranny of the symbolic order reasserts itself, the deep connection is broken, and the…[user]…is forced to move on in quest of another, more lasting gratification.” Note: The sentence originally reads: “At best they arrest the movement of desire for a time before the tyranny of the symbolic order reasserts itself, the deep connection is broken, and the subject is forced to move on in quest of another, more lasting gratification.” (Ross)

Image beside an advertisement for cosmetic surgery copied from my Facebook homepage.

In this regard, it is understandable that advertisers are currently using virtual worlds and social networks, both of which require the use of an avatar, to advertise cosmetic plastic surgery. One such advertisement, currently on Facebook, presents an image of two feminine faces with pink lips, protruding out of what looks like the sands of an elemental desert. The faces resemble mountains or rock formations, which weather and/or human processes have chipped away at or engineered over time. In the advertisement, the faces appeared to be something malleable; they are presented as an undisturbed block of granite for an artist to work with in order to actualize an idea that hitherto was a mere figment. A short sentence below the “faces” reads: “Facial Plastic Surgeon: If you’ve been considering plastic surgery, book a complimentary consult [sic] with Dr.  X to discuss your ideas and needs” [Emphasis mine]. The term “need” occurs here almost as an afterthought. Here, advertisers have recognized they have a set of potential consumers insofar as Facebook and SL avatarization itself represents working with bodies whose impetus is insatiable desire rather than satiable need.

Lacanian Note: What is the Lacanian Subject? One of Lacan’s sources for his idea of the “subject” is a scene in Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle where one of Freud’s nephews plays a game of hide and seek with a spoolThis game is a repetition- compulsion activity where the toddler re-enacts, using a spool, the loss of his mother; oscillating between the sorrow of the “fort” (spool is gone) and the joy of the “da” (spool is here). Freud interprets this fort/da game as the child’s way of mastering his mother’s absence (the child’s mother has died). The toddler practices averting the trauma produced by this predicament of recognizing he is distinct from his mother. In order to articulate his lack, he turns to the “concrete discourse [of those] around him by reproducing more or less approximately in his Fort! and Da! the terms he received from them” (Ecrits 319). For Lacan, this is a linguistic game; the child’s subjectivity is produced through language. The Lacanian subject is a “function of the signifying chain, a linguistic phenomenon produced by the Symbolic order which the infant enters in the originary moment of articulating the mother’s absence” (Ross).

The child’s acquisition of speech allows it to articulate its predicament and serves as a means of successfully denying things that are obstructing it from its prior position of constant and undifferentiated pleasure with the mOther. Here, the child comes to learn that it can have some control over the presence and absence of things insofar as this control is based in a linguistic game. The toddler begins to pick up on the law(s) of the Other, accepting his or her “integration into the dichotomy of phonemes, whose synchronic structure the existing language offers up for him to assimilate” (Ecrits 319). This logic of presence (da) and absence (fort) is at the heart of language.

In learning this language game the toddler is not only articulating the loss of his mother, but is also expressing his recognition of the possibility of otherness. The toddler recognizes that the spool is simply an object like any other, and that it, like all others, can disappear and reappear. He also learns that he is not complete in and of himself. This infantile activity has repercussions for the remainder of our psychical life. Lacan explains: “…the symbol first manifests itself as the killing of the thing, and this death results in the endless perpetuation of the subject’s desire” (Ecrits 319). These occultation games can be understood as a “killing” of the real mother and the replacement of her with a sound; it is the point where the recognition of self is transformed into the signifier “I” (Ecrits 262).

But why does this process result in the endless perpetuation of the subject’s desire? According to the rules of Saussurean linguistics, there is no necessary link between signifier and signified. A signifier only means insofar as we understand what it does not mean. This play of signification attempts to adequately signify, but, if we intend to search for totality, we will only experience frustration; signifiers lead only to other signifiers in an infinite web of signification, and so, the subject, itself only a signifier for another signifier, exists within the ceaseless flux of signification. The Symbolic order provides human beings with language to express our existence, but the Symbolic is inexhaustible and our entrance into it leaves us with a permanent sensation of lack and a perpetual desire for some sort of coherence and stability. This desire not only subsists on the grounds that language is a set of sliding signifiers, but also because the totality we are after is itself a (mis)recognition.

The Lacanian subject is constituted through language. As in linguistics, this means that the subject acts as a pronoun or a shifter – the least stable entity in language since its “meaning is purely a function of the moment of its utterance” (Sarup 53). Not only is it unstable as a pronoun, but there are also losses and difficulties in the word itself. During the game of fort/da, the infant, as a subject, comes to believe falsely in a point of certainty. The point of certainty is false because words only come to mean by signifying what they are not.

Lacan refers to this process of meaning as the product of “points de capiton” (Ecrits 303)A point de capitontranslated as a “quilting” or “anchoring” point, can be thought of as equivalent to the stud or button that holds an upholstered couch or piece of clothing together (Sarup 53); (Evans 149). Lacan uses the point de capiton to refer to the punctuation at the end of a sentence that halts an otherwise endless string of signifiers; it is the point in the signifying chain at which “the signifier stops the endless movement of the signification” (Evans 149); (Ecrits 303). Lacan is not claiming that there is no fixed meaning whatsoever; points de capiton allow for stable moments of signification (Homer 42). But, while meaning is temporarily produced or stopped, it is ultimately illusory. The Symbolic order requires this illusory meaning in order to function.

The Lacanian subject comes to terms with the crisis of the mirror stage. The subject is located in the system of the Symbolic replete with an endlessly circulating series of signifiers. The concept of the “I” in this Symbolic system “…provides an image of self, but only when selfhood concedes its meaning and definition to the system of signification, of which the signifier “I” is a part” (Mansfield40). Lingering amidst this endless flux of signification, however, is the Imaginary recollection of totality and wholeness that we experienced in our neo-natal months.

The subject, then, is ensnared in the promise of the Symbolic, the illusory hope that it can offer to us the sense of satisfaction we felt upon recognizing our self in the mirror stage; the Lacanian subject, then, is best described as “a subjectivized lack, not a lacking subject or a subject of impossibility, even though he presupposes the assumption and overcoming of a purely negative moment” (Chiesa 15). Until we reach the Symbolic, where we can recognize the irredeemable split between subject and object and thus have something to explicitly desire, there is no ego or subject. It is not until our recognition of a lack that our unconscious comes to be our explicit concern. Now we can see more clearly how the subject is differentiated from the ego insofar as it is a property of the Symbolic and located in the unconscious rather than being a property of the specular Imaginary.

=Chiesa, Lorenzo. Subjectivity and Otherness, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007
=Evans, Dylan. Introductory Dictionary to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1996.
=Fink, Bruce. Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1997
=Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
=Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
—. Seminar III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
=Mansfield, Nick. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. New York: New York University Press, 2000
=Ross, Stephen. A Very Brief Introduction to Lacan.(2002). Online. <;
=Sarup, Madran. Jacques Lacan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
=Winder, Davey. Being Virtual: Who you really are Online? West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008


~ by dccohen on May 6, 2011.

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