Humanizing the Avatar (Part 15: Avatars and the Name-of-the-Father)
The fifteenth part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.
In an earlier post I pointed out some studies that draw attention to the ways that being virtual and being real or actual are not opposites. I’ll add that while virtual worlds are not identical to everyday reality, everyday reality is not immune to virtual reality. For instance, while it is true that one can be whatever they desire in the virtual world, users tend to take predictable forms, usually adopting an avatar close (physically and psychologically) to themselves but with slight improvements (see the work of Yee and Bailenson).
Marshall Mcluhan’s idea that electronic media create an “acoustic/non-linear” space is germane here: the virtual world does appear to have a non-linear form, however upon investigation, highly linear activities occur there. Linearity stamps a certain order, or authority, on non-linear environments. One might take, as an analogy, that something like space travel entails the cold of infinite space, free from the pull of gravity or directionality, and the keen sense of finitude, mass, up and down that astronauts bring with them from earth. While it is possible to create situations and games within Second Life (SL) that exceed the physical possibilities of real life, a trip to the day’s SL hotspots would most likely involve primarily linear activities: watching tai chi in a park, trying not to disturb a couple dancing at an outdoor ballroom, checking out a group gathering to mourn the passing of the latest celebrity to overdose, and or trying out a fishing game. All of these activities have a set routine and purpose. Likewise, sex in the virtual world often “mimics the most loving flavors of sex in the offline world, or the blandest. Sometimes it begins as Sim love and later becomes the kind of relationships any of us could recognize from our own, offline lives” (Ludlow and Wallace 132). One way of understanding the persistence of this linear activity in a non-linear medium, involves recognizing that the Lacanian Name-of-the-Father, a fundamental linear property of the Lacanian subject, is active in the non-linear virtual world.
Lacanian Note: What is the Name-of-the-Father? Following the mirror stage, the infant is cut off from the mother, although he or she is not entirely removed from mOtherness; while the hope of returning to the Other is nullified, traces of otherness linger. Entering the Symbolic world of the Signifier does not eliminate the Real mOther, but masks it. Lacan uses the term “jouissance” to describe the gratification that we lost upon being “castrated” by language. Following castration, the ability to achieve satisfaction appears “excessive, overwhelming and disgusting”, but does not cease to be fascinating (Fink, Lacanian xii). Similar to the infant engaged in the Freudian game of fort/da, the Lacanian subject is a “fixation, a symptom, a repetitive way of “getting off’ and obtaining jouissance” (Fink, Lacanian xii). Our desire, as Subjects, to fill in the mOther’s lack with our own lack (that is , with ) and obtain jouissance can only be carried out from a distance; the Signifier allows us to derive jouissance from from a distance, without attempting to entirely fill it in. Thus, as Bruce Fink argues, the subject is the outcome of the Oedipus complex whereby the child finally accepts the father’s threat and is kicked out of the mOther (Fink, Lacanian 58). As in the Oedipus myth, the father acts as a barrier to the child’s desire to fill in the (w)hole of its mOther, or, in less familial terms, it acts as a barrier to encountering the unmediated Real as it exists prior to language and the Signifier. The Signifier leaves behind a gap between the mOther’s and the child’s desire.
In Seminar XVII, Lacan explains that the Signifier (or Phallus) acts as something like a crowbar [|] that stands in the midst of the mOther’s open “alligator” jaws of desire [<] (Lacan, Sem XVII 129 qtd. in Fink, Lacanian 55-56). The Signifier [|] acts to resolve fears of the collapsing jaws of desire [<], neutralizing the mOther’s desire that threatens to engulf the child. It is the Signifier (or Oedipal Phallus) that protects us from sleeping with our mothers, a “potentially dangerous dyadic situation” (Lacan, Ecrits 200 in Fink, Lacanian 56-67). Thus, the Name-of-the-Father, comes to stand over the mOther’s desire (Name/Desire). The Father’s Name (which Lacan puns as rhyming in French with “non” [non-nom]), no, saying, prohibition, the phallus, the Signifier of desire, and the [|] are all terms for that which comes to mediate the mOther’s desire; they allow us to symbolize it, transform it into signifiers, and, thereby, create a rift in the mother-child unity, producing a space in which the child can breathe easy (Fink, Lacanian 57).
Let’s be clear that Lacan’s concept of the Name-of-the-Father has already been fruitfully brought to media studies. Marc Santos and Sarah White’s essay “Playing with Ourselves: A Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill” explores the idea that the Signifier or Name-of-the-Father can be located in the activities that occur within, or using, virtual technologies (such as video games). Santos and White argue that horror themed games allow the user to “engage…the underlying structures of our psychology” such as the “Lacanian Real” from a safe distance (Santos and White 69). The game Resident Evil pays particular attention to eyes and gazing, in a way that exposes the “fragility of both our subjectivity and the symbolic order (that which founds subjectivity)…” (Santos and White 70). They emphasize, for example, the utterly human eyes of the undead cannibalistic zombies, which:
acknowledge us not as another subject, nor even a fantasy screen (as the petit object a), but as a thing to be consumed. The human eyes on the hideously monstrous face horrify us because they reflect a repressed aspect of our desire back at us – the deep repressed desire for nihilistic assimilation, the desire to be reunited with the maternal body, to be consumed (literally in this case) by the other (Santos and White 71).
The Resident Evil player attacks zombies and creatures that threaten to annihilate its self-stability, thereby “preserv[ing] the symbolic order” (Santos and White 72).
The authors compellingly argue that both the games Silent Hill and Resident Evil, “position the player as the defender of subjectivity [upholders of the Symbolic Order]; a player vanquishes monsters and clarifies ambiguities which threaten not only the stability of the player’s subjectivity, but also the psycho-social order founding his or her subjectivity” (Santos and White 70). These virtual horror-survival games, which rely on third-person points of view similar to SL, can be seen as instances where the player unravels a plot littered with “moaning abjections threatening the symbolic order” that culminates in a climactic battle positioning the player “against all-powerful phallic m(others), an ultimate manifestation of the Other that threatens our subjectivity and the stability of the symbolic order” (Santos and White 72). The final battle in Resident Evil: Code Veronica X, for example, requires a weapon, tellingly called the “linear launcher”, to defeat the final maternally-themed monster, “further illustrating how we must retain order, wield the paternal phallus that maintains the Oedipal order, and thus, emerge victorious from this encounter with the Real” (Santos and White 73).
The narrative and conclusion of the game Silent Hill is also evocative of the process of Oedipalization, where “following the Law of the Father, we provide a fetishized coherence and illusory linearity” (Santos and White 70). According to Santos and White, the final villain in Silent Hill, “represents the threat of the pre- Oedipal maternal body” whom the player must destroy to “preserve not only her own subjectivity but also the symbolic culture itself” (Santos and White 74). Similar to the argument that something exists beneath/beyond the clothing, hair and skin shops, dance clubs, and prim sculpting schools in SL, Santos and White insist that:
…these games are more than simply defeating monsters and shooting ‘bad guys’ – the ‘evil’ we encounter… represents the fragility and duality of our own psyches: the call of the Real that constantly threatens our own subjectivity. The artificially constructed space of the video game becomes a ‘safe space’ in which we can indulge in festishistic ‘play’ with a simulation of the Real (Santos and White 77).
Similarly, one could read SL as a non-linear space where the user practices being linear. As I have noted throughout these posts, many scholars emphasize the banality and orderliness of the virtual world. There is an obvious disjuncture between the possibility of being virtually anything and the fact that many users are concerned with being something real (or something close to it). One could argue, then, that users turn to SL in order to contain their anxieties about dyadic unity; rather than immersing themselves in the jouissance of being whoever they want to be online, they act in accordance with the Name-of-the-Father. Thus, activity in the virtual world falls in line with what Lacan refers to as “normal neurotic” behaviour that acts in accordance with the Father’s Name. In much SL behaviour avatars appear to be used for similar kinds of activities that characterize real life; they seem banal, orderly, and linear. From the standpoint of the Name-of-the-Father, this linearity could be considered as an attempt to obtain jouissance in a virtual world whose avatars and environment are asymptotic and unstable. What these linear activities do is place the Signifier in the Other’s threatening jaws in such a way that the subject (the user) can obtain some small sense of otherness. In order to avoid losing herself in the incompleteness of the virtual, the user preserves the symbolic order. SL users foster long-term romances in-world and can even be married by a virtual priest. Here, the virtual world is used for a straightforward game of “get[ting] closer to their object of affection” (Winder 58). These are instances where something, such as romantic love, which, in keeping with Plato’s Symposium is resolutely human, linear, and has a clear goal, makes its way into a space without inherent teleology and linearity.
In Being Virtual, Davy Winder recounts the details of one such SL relationship which resulted in marriage between two users. Rhonda, a 38 year old in a troubled relationship, is introduced to SL. She spends some time experimenting with the world, trying at first to create an avatar that looks like herself before finally searching for a “new look”:
I spent the first week in SL trying to figure out what there was to do and see. I found out that I could go shopping for things for my avatar to wear… What I [her avatar] ended up with was a very short, athletic build character, with small breasts and a big butt, everything that was nothing like me in real life. I gave her black hair and pale white skin the colour of a sheet of printer paper. Her body had tribal tattoos all over it and her lips were full and deep red. I loved looking at her. The contrast was beautiful. She only ever wore red, white or black. I sculpted a beautiful body for her and purchased my hair, skin, clothing, shoes and jewellery (Winder 63).
In order to be able to afford to keep shaping her avatar, Rhonda begun entering virtual world dance competitions. At one of these dance competitions Rhonda’s avatar, Heart Wishbringer, met Joe Stravinsky. Rhonda describes her first time meeting Joe, a 7’9 vampire:
I had never seen anything like it before. He was amazing to look at, the tallest avatar I ever had seen. The first thing I noticed was his boots…better than any boots I had ever seen on a man yet. I glanced up and he wore tight shiny black leather pants and his skin was almost as white as mine… stark white, his chest was almost bare except for the wet t-shirt he had on that was stark white again and his eyes had dark black circles around them, his eyes were red snake eyes on black, his lips were black and he had vampire fangs and his hair was a very long beautiful white Mohawk. I just sat there in awe. This man was artistic, his avatar was original and unique. Red, White, Black… my lips turned upwards into an evil smile as I clicked on him to read his profile (Winder 66).
One clearly gets the sense that Rhonda recognizes Joe’s “artistic” nature. She recognizes that he is an assemblage of red snake eyes, black lips, vampire fangs etc… Winder discusses the banal, soap-opera like, quality of their ensuing relationship. The users sent each other comments such as “I need you to love me, and I want you to need me” and search for their “better half” in a space of impossible fulfillment (Winder 71). This is something SL shares with real life: the user-as-avatar has to tarry with the same attempts to obtain jouissance as the real user does. When Rhonda exclaims “Why was it that we were making each other feel so whole, and so happy? Why was it that the love we felt here in Second Life felt so real and was so all encompassing?” (Winder 72). We note that this is the same language as one might use in the real world. Despite the fact that one can claim to be anything, or anyone they want in SL, users still seem to be looking for a better half, something, or someone to make them feel complete, or, evoking Arisophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium, whole. As in real life, all the subject can wish for is a temporary jouissance, a slight sensation of the Real, insofar as it is achieved through the linearity, and law, of the Signifier. Virtual worlds do not bypass the inertia of the user’s subjectivity; the user’s first life follows them into their digital second life. As Bob Rehak suggests: “The worlds we create …and the avatarial bodies through which we experience them seem destined to mirror not only our wholeness, but our lack of it” (Rehak 125).
Likewise, while the modification of bodies and identities is often associated with the breakdown of authority, it can be understood as precisely the opposite. From this standpoint SL avatar body modification acts out of the Name-of-the-Father; rather than being anybody or anything they desire the user recognizes that they are perpetually nobody, playing with a self that is always incomplete and partial. The endless malleability of the avatar is thus a testament to the Father’s law. If you get too close to believing you can be what you want in cyberspace, the threat of castration creeps in. To be who you want and find no teleological satiety is to recognize, and work with, the father’s castrating “no”. What we do in SL is act out the Father’s name. Rather than a realm of psychosis or radical freedom, SL involves becoming aware of the neurosis, alienation, and prohibited jouissance that characterize ‘normal’ subjectivity.
=Fink, Bruce. Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, Mass. :Harvard University Press, 1997
=Fink, Bruce. 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
=Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 2007 qtd. in Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995
=Ludlow, Peter & Wallace, Mark. The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007
=Santos, Marc C. and White, Sarah E. “Playing with Ourselves: A Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill” Digital Gameplay Ed. Nate Garrelts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2007: 67-79
=Winder, Davey. Being Virtual: Who you really are Online? West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008
=Yee, Nick and Bailenson Jeremy. “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behaviour” Human Communication Research 33:3 (2007):271-290
=Yee, Nick and Bailenson Jeremy and Nicolas Ducheneaut. “The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior.” Communication Research 36:2 (2009): 285-312