Humanizing the Avatar (Part 16: Engaging with our lack)

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

Davy Winder, author of Being Virtual, describes his sense of virtual selfhood:

…you can think of my personalities in terms of clothing, and I was simply trying on as many different styles to see which ones fitted, which suited me best of all. Of course, the truth is that there was no ‘best fit’ as it turned out. I was destined to become the sum of my parts, a composite personality: a little bit from here, a little bit  from  there (Winder 223).

Winder’s trying on of different styles, and his recognition that there was no “best fit” echoes my own experience with my Second Life (SL) avatar, Dustin Mabellon. My avatar only barely and provisionally covers the fact that, in SL, I have no organic or whole identity. Beneath the contingent constellation of body parts, clothing and skins that comprises my virtual self is an endlessly collapsing sinkhole, fading in and out of being. (The sliding “signifiers” that comprise my avatar body slide around this sinkhole similarly to the way that, following Einstein’s theory of relativity, a planet’s orbit is determined by the degree to which a larger body – such as a sun – is responsible for warping the fabric of space into a bowl shape. This perpetually incomplete aspect of the avatar causes it to resemble a series of sliding “signifiers”.)

LACANIAN NOTE:  Let’s turn to one feature of the Lacanian subject – the objet petit a. Lacan explains the relationship between the (a) and the subject as follows: “…the interest the subject takes in his own split is bound up with that which determines it – namely, a privileged object, which has emerged from some primal separation, from some self-mutilation induced by the very approach of the real, whose name, in our algebra, is the objet a.” (Lacan, Sem XI 83)

Once the subject experiences the mOther through the Signifier, as  , its sense of the unification between mother and child is experienced as prohibited jouissance. After the letter (the Signifier), anything resembling the mother-child unity is only achievable by (second order) jouissance; this Lacan equates with the objet petit (a). This (a), which stands for the little Autre or Other, stands for the rem(a)inder of lost jouissance  (Fink, Clinical 66). The (a), then, refers to the leftover of the Real in the Symbolic. In the conclusion to Seminar XI, Lacan writes that, “(t)his a is presented precisely, in the field of the mirage of the narcissistic function of desire, as the object that cannot be swallowed, as it were, which remains stuck in the gullet of the signifier” (Lacan, Sem XI 270).

We once had a sense of being unified with the Other (Autre), a sense of imaginary completion which, during the mirror stage, came from the world outside and other subjects (Mansfield 46). Once the mirror stage is complete, however, we are barred from the Other and must seek small (o)bjects that we mistake for the (O)ther. In Lacan’s own words, the a “fills the gap constituted by the inaugural division of the subject” (Lacan, Ecrits 270).

Let us be clear that the autre is not the Autre; the other is not the Other. The (a)utre is not the mOther, to which we are forever barred by the Signifier, but the sense of mOtherness that the Signifier leaves us with. Thus, it is not an object we can ever attain; it is the sense of otherness that haunts our desire. We strive compulsively toward the a, and, simultaneously, are never at ease with what we possess because it reminds us of our lost plenitude (Ross). We go from one a to another throughout our life; they substitute for the “huge, miraculous Other, hovering on the horizon of human possibility” – the lure of complete satisfaction and totality (Mansfield). Desire has no object as such, and is caused, or brought into being, by the (a). The (a), then, is the object-cause of desire (Homer 73). As noted above, desire seeks only its own furtherance. We desire to desire; we do not, ultimately, desire any particular object. This leftover of the Real acts as a void at the core of the subject’s being that the subject constantly tries to fill (Homer 87). Because of the (a), we have the sensation something is lacking from our lives.

The (a) functions as both object and cause of desire. As cause it is a void or gap of the Real that inheres at the core of the subject (and around which the Symbolic order is structured). As object it is “whatever momentarily fills that gap in our Symbolic reality”:

[T]he object (a) is not part of the signifying chain; it is a hole in that chain. It is a hole in the field of representation, but does not simply ruin representation. It mends it as it ruins it. It both produces a hole, and is what comes to the place of lack to cover it over (Homer 87).

It differs from the signifying chain because it is ultimately “non-signified” or the “beyond-of-the-signified” and has the status of das ding (“the Freudian Thing”); the signifying chain circles around it (Fink, Lacanian 95). The (a) “resist[s] symbolization, and thus resists the dialectization characteristic of the Symbolic Order, in which, one thing can be substituted for another…” (Fink, Lacanian 92). Mladen Dolar suggests that the (a) is an instance, par excellence, of the uncanny, where the Real erupts into the “homely” and we can comprehend the rem(a)inder that haunts real-ity (Dolar 13). Fink defines the (a) as “residue of symbolization, the real (r2) that remains, insists, ex-sists after, or despite, symbolization – as traumatic cause interrupting the smooth functioning of the law and the automatic functioning of the Symbolic chain” (Fink, Lacanian 83).

Through these posts we have encountered the ego (of the Imaginary) and the unconscious (the desire of the Symbolic mOther, or ) that operate within us. We are aware that the mOther is lacking () and the intermediating S(ignifier) has produced a remainder (a). Thus, Lacan takes the  and places it in relation to (symbolized by ) the (a). This reads as:   . Insofar as it is in relation to (a), the insatiable object- cause of desire, the Lacanian ubject acts as a gap in the signifying chain. Lacan explains that the subject is akin to an empty set {0}, meaning not that it is without ontological status, but that it is qualified as empty, a “spatial metaphor implying that it could alternatively be full” (Fink, Lacanian 52). The forumula   refers to the subject fading in and out of being in relation to the objet (a), the “phantasmatic partner” that ever arouses the subject’s desire. When something attempts to cover that object-cause, the subject acquires some being. Being is never solid, but is comprised of “metonymic slippage from one object to the next in accordance with the paternal” phallus/signifier that now mediates real-ity (Fink, Subject 91).

Rather than seeking to fill the (w)hole of the  with the lack in the  , the subject’s desire takes on a new role, the (a) (Fink, Lacanian 58). This occurs the moment the child recognizes that the A is in fact . Having to engage with Real-ity, (the Real mediated through the Signifier) is to engage with a mediated Otherness, the (a). Put differently, the (a) can be thought of as a rem(a)inder of the Other that allows the subject to sustain him/her self as a “being of desire” (Fink, Lacanian 61).

It’s easy to mistake something such as fantasy for the object of desire, but fantasy for Lacan, is the setting, rather than the object, of desire (Homer, Lacan 87). It is fantasy that supports our objectless desire. Through fantasy the subject attempts to sustain the illusion of unity with the Other and ignore his or her own division. Although the desire of the Other always exceeds or escapes the subject, there nevertheless remains something that the subject can recover and thus sustains him or herself. This something is the objet a (Homer 87).

I hope I have conveyed that Lacan’s sense of the subject (as interpreted by Fink and Žižek) differs tremendously from the Foucauldian one (Žižek, Sublime 197). Post-Structualism works with “subject positions” and the subject is reduced to subjectivation, while the Lacanian subject is a divided subject, that can be understood as a subtraction of “all the richness of the different modes of subjectivation, all the fullness of experience present in the way the individuals are ‘living’ their subject positions” (Žižek, Sublime 197). This subtraction reveals the Lacanian subject as an “empty place”…the “original void”…this “lack of symbolic structure”. The Lacanian subject, Žižek clarifies “is therefore to be strictly opposed to the effect of subjectivation: what the subjectivation masks is not a pre- or trans-subjective process of writing but a lack in the structrure, a lack which is the subject.” (Žižek, Sublime 197) The Lacanian subject goes through life attempting to find “a signifier that would be ‘its own’: the failure of its representation is its positive condition”. The subject tries to articulate itself in a signifying representation; the representation fails; instead of a richness we have a lack, and this void opened by the failure is the subject of the signifier…the subject of the signifier is a retroactive effect of the failure of its own representation; that is why the failure of representation is the only way to represent it adequately.” (Žižek, Sublime 198). [A sustained discussion can be found in Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject.]

The construction and manipulation of avatars render explicit our constant striving towards the (a) and the spectre of plenitude that propels this endless striving. Within SL the user has no proscribed Edenic form to return to. There is no final (or teleological) completion; the idea itself is senseless in the context of SL. So, SL avatarization can be thought of as a technique that engages the object-cause of our desire.

In “Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar” Bob Rehak claims that “avatars reduplicate and render in visible form their players’ actions – they complete an arc of desire” (Rehak 107). Avatars, or “avatarial mirrors” as he refers to them, reflect back the “desired and resented lost object, existing in endless cycles of renunciation and reclamation” and create a spectral-participatory relationship with onscreen traces of self  (Rehak 111). The user engages – via their avatar – with their lack, seeking to consume new and newer virtual objects.

The SL avatar tends to take the form of something animate. Users do not tend to encounter avatars of objects such as the monolith from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Avatars usually resemble some organism, whether it is the likeness of a cybernetic or biological organism. If one encounters an avatar, for example, of a cellular phone, it will likely be clear that the cellular phone is animate – it will likely have a mouth, eyes, and/or some other animate traits.

Rehak identifies Pac Man (1980) as featuring one of the first organic avatars. Prior to Pac Man, games were primarily focused on inorganic spaceships and missile launchers that would, anally, expel missiles or rockets. For Rehak, the Pac Man avatar, which consumes through his fleshy mouth rather than expels. In this sense, Pac Man is a:

semiotically collapsed  subject  (a  thing  that  eats)  with object (a thing that is eaten) to constitute a closed system of desire. Equally important, Pac Man’s body acquires its signification through a missing part (“the shape that was left”); Pac-Man (is) recognizable as Pac-Man because of what (is) excluded from its form. This pie-slice absence also structure(s) Pac-Man’s agency within the  game, its ceaseless voracity. … Pac-Man was never at rest within its infinite progression of mazes, consuming dots – his own objets  a, frail reflections, perhaps, of an eternally missing slice (Rehak 115).

Since the 1980s, virtual games have evolved toward more complex instances of this development, through Wolfenstein 3D (1992), Quake (1996) and now into virtual worlds such as SL. Here avatars became explicitly organic and humanoid, “confront[ing] players with detailed and lifelike ‘doubles’” (Rehak 118). Virtual worlds such as SL utilize more complex ways of creating closed systems of desire for increasingly organic doubles.

The SL avatar is far more organic than the consuming blob Pac Man. Whereas the user has to proceed by analogy to understand that Pac Man plays with its desire, playing with one’s SL alter-ego, which may or may not resemble the user, renders that desire far more explicit. The SL user has a deeper relationship to their avatar’s “lack of being”, than does the Pac Man manipulator. Not only is the SL user responsible for tending to the consumption of the lack, they are confronted with the fact that their initial sense of totality was itself an illusion. One does not question the form of Pac Man: he is a circle with a slice removed who appears once a quarter is popped into the arcade machine. The user engagement with their SL avatar, however, by continually questioning and constructing its form. Through the avatars of virtual worlds such as SL, users come to recognize the terrible lack and instability at the foundation of what and who they are.

=Dolar, Mladen. “I Shall Be With You On Your Wedding Night: Lacan and the Uncanny.” October Vol. 58 Fall (1991): 5-23.
=Fink, Bruce. Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis.Cambridge,Mass.:HarvardUniversity Press, 1997
=Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press, 1995
=Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. Routledge:New York, 1995
=Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink.New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
=Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI – The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller.Trans. Alan Sheridan.New York: W.W. Norton, 1998
=Mansfield, Nick. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. New York:New YorkUniversityPress, 2000
=Rehak, Bob. “Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar”. The Video Game Theory Reader. Eds. M. J. P. Wolf & B. Perron.New York: Routledge, 2003: 103- 127
=Ross, Stephen. A Very Brief Introduction to Lacan. (2002). Online.
=Winder, Davey. Being Virtual: Who you really are Online? West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008
=Žižek, Slavoj. Sublime Object of Ideology.New York: Verso, 2008 (1989)
=Žižek, Slavoj. Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology.New York: Verso Press, 2009 (1999)


~ by dccohen on May 30, 2011.

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