Humanizing the Avatar (Part 17: Economies of Desire)

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

In Second Life (SL) shops one can purchase everything from intricately detailed houses, to avatar animations, to jewelry, plants and vegetation. But the most common SL shops cater to the purchase and sale of avatar skins, clothing, animations, hair, etc… We might consider this design, purchase and sale of scripts, clothing, and body parts in SL as an economy of desireNote:  For specifics on the SL economy locate Chapter 8 ‘The Fun Economy’ in Edward Castronova’s Exodus to the Virtual World as well as Chapter 8 ‘Political Economy’ of Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in SL.  It seems obligatory, in the literature on SL, to want to shock readers about a few individuals – such as Anshe Chung – who have made tremendous sums of money in SL, but while these individuals, themselves few and far between, are the subject of an interesting study, they offer very little to this post (Ludlow and Wallace 77); (Hof).

Skin Theft! (Personal Screenshot from Second Life.)

The phrase “economy of desire” has at least two meanings.
-One meaning refers to the economic management of the user’s desire: the production, development and management of the user’s subjective desire.
-Another meaning of the phrase “economy of desire” pertains to the production, development, and management of human desire in virtual worlds for profit in both real and virtual world currencies.
The first sense pertains to the effect that SL avatarization has on an economy of subjective desire, the second pertains to the form that this economy of subjective desire has taken; it has been rendered commensurate with the larger real-world financial market.

Note: This distinction may be better understood by returning to the etymological root of the term “economy”, the Greek term “Oikonemen”. “Oikonemen” designates “one who manages a household”: “Oikos” designates “house” and “Nemen” designates ‘to deal out/to manage’. Our first usage pertains to the affairs of the “oikos” (house), while the second usage pertains to the ‘nemen’ (management) of the house. This can also be understood in the dual sense of “economic” as pertaining to both (a) the “management of a household or of private affairs, esp. with reference to monetary means”, and (b) the “management of the affairs of a community, etc., with reference to income, expenditures, the development of resources, etc.

As has been demonstrated throughout these ‘Humanizing the Avatar‘ posts, SL avatarization can be understood as engaging with some interior psychical dimension of the human being. Through his or her avatar(s), the user manages his or her psychic resources in economic terms, playing-out their endless (mis)recognition and interacting with the remainder(s), the excess of the Real, leftover from their entry into the Symbolic. Places, people and things in-world reflect back to the user the absence which structures their subjectivity. Through avatars, users manage their subjective desire. The purchase and sale of new and newer bodies and prostheses for asymptotic avatars follows the Lacanian formulation .

Personal Screenshot from Facebook

A recent advertisement on a leading bit torrent site depicts a photograph of a woman’s face next to a cartoonish 3D model of his face. Beneath the juxtaposed faces reads: “Click here to see yourself as a cartoon!” Why might this ability, so similar to SL avatarization, be so appealing to the user? On one hand it could be lamented as a sign of the withering of the real body into a sterile digital space, on the other hand it could be celebrated as offering the user the ability to experiment with their body and try out new ones. But, what if there is another option – namely that the cartoon self (and the ability to pay in order to “cartoonify yourself”) is so appealing and lucrative because it exposes the deep core of human subjectivity insofar as it reflects a virtual self constantly unfixed and incomplete? Following this option, the ability to juxtapose the real user with their three dimensional avatar does not produce either an optimistic or nightmarish future for the self, but reconfirms the endlessly desiring subject as it currently exists.

The L$ (Lindex) Exchange

The production, distribution and consumption of virtual prosthetics – objects that assist in the management of the user’s psychic economy – have value and worth in the larger Second Life (L$), and world (US$), money economies. Linden dollars (L$) can be purchased on the Linden Dollar Exchange (the Lindex). Many users convert funds procured in the real world in order to participate in the psychic desire economy of SL. The formula for this exchange of psychical and financial economies might resemble something like:  i.e. refering to the way that the user’s psychical economy and the financial economy exist, in SL, in relation to the objet (a).

SL is free to join with a “basic” account, however this “basic” account does not permit the user to own land or any objects;  items a basic user creates are erased from the SL grid every 12 hours (while remaining in the user’s inventory). In contrast, a “premium” account, costing $9.95 USD/month, permits the user to own land, receive a weekly stipend of SL currency, called Lindens (L$), and allows them to build, store and display objects on their own land for as long as they please.

Much of the SL (L$) economy revolves around the design, purchase and sale of objects and body parts for avatars. It appears that the majority of SL users, myself included, do not design the attributes of their avatar(s). While they can manipulate their avatar with the customizable sliders, the avatar’s base hair, eyes, genitals et cetera are usually purchased using L$ from SL designers who sell their wares in virtual malls or shops. As in real-life, users who are skilled at building and crafting sell their designs and objects to others, and users who own land can go into virtual real estate, leasing or hoping to sell their land for monetary profit. Users can also offer services (such as working in retail or the adult entertainment industry) in exchange for L$.

SL objects are not bound by the same limitations as objects in the real-world. Hair, skins, cars and prosthetic genitalia (to name a few of the items users routinely purchase in-world) are constructed out of electronic “prims” rather than material objects. Accordingly, designers are not faced with issues of material scarcity. As SL user Tamara Kirshner explains:

When it comes to pricing, Second Life designers have a definite advantage. While they have to invest in design tools and spend a lot of time designing, just like real-life designers, they don’t have to pay for materials. It costs a Second Life designer the same amount to produce one pair of shoes as one thousand pairs of shoes. What that means for me is that Second Life designs are incredibly affordable and that I can have the wardrobe of my dreams in Second Life while shopping sale racks in real life (Rymaszewski et al. 264).

Another user, Madison Carnot, explains “my virtual closet will expand to hold whatever I can manage to buy…It’s pixels for the win in my shopping world” (Rymaszewski et al. 265).

The L’oreal campaign offered make up and skins featured by popular actresses such as Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson. (K-Zero Blog. “Virtual Celebrities”

The virtual world has piqued the interest of real world corporations such as American Apparel, Toyota, L’Oreal, Sony Music and H&M, all of whom have, over the past few years, launched virtual world marketing campaigns (Ludlow and Wallace 77). In these instances, where attempts are made to create real profits, we find a co- mingling of the real, virtual and psychic economies. K-Zero, the advertising company responsible for an in-world L’Oreal make up campaign, described its job as “metabranding”.

K-Zero defines “metabranding” as working with a brand that is “created to exist solely in a virtual space. It lives only on servers, is powered by electricity, experienced only on a computer screen to provide a service, solution or product to avatars living in a metaverse. A metabrand satisfies a demand that exists purely on a virtual basis” (K-Zero). It is important to stress the description of a metabrand as existing on a virtual basis, but also that it is for use by virtual objects; it is both the virtuality of the avatar and the virutality of the user to which a metabrand appeals. The avatar, as noted earlier, is marked by endless desire, and thus, can consume an endless supply of things. It is sensible, then, that the avatar consumes metabrands, which “satisfy a demand that exists purely on a virtual basis.” These virtual commodities work with our psychic economy, playing on our lack as Lacanian subjects. But this psychic economy can also yield financial profits in virtual, and more importantly, real currencies. SL Avatar users are consumers whose demands are endless, as the virtual world is constructed out of material prims that can be endlessly produced and manipulated. Note: The economy of desire might be considered akin to something like Georges Bataille’s “solar economy”, i.e. an economy that operates on the principle of jouissance-like excess rather than “scarcity”. Like the sun, which brims forth without scarcity, the “lack” is endless. See (Bataille, Visions).

SL provides advertisers and marketers the ability to do product testing, giveaways of cars, boats, houses, skins etc… and data mining for application in real life. Demonstrating the formula , the SL CEO Phillip Rosedale explains: “If you launch a clothing line in SL and it’s hot in SL, you can launch it in the real world … its telling you the same stuff. It’s telling you that it’s a cool, trendy, idea” (Ludlow and Wallace 77).

Note: Steven Levine makes a similar observation to myas he reflects on his typographic choice of the symbol “$” for the barred ubject and the symbol “@” for the object a:

Although not sanctioned by Lacan’s own typographic practice, I believe the split subject is appropriately designated throughout this text by the dollar sign – $ – inasmuch as it is the global flow of capital that constitutes us as conscious and unconscious consumers within the worldwide store of commodities on which our modern subjecthood of lack so largely depends. Objecthood for us resides in the empty form of the commodity itself – <> – for beyond it lies the unattainable object of the endlessly circleing corporeal drive, designated by the typographical sign for both an individual item’s price – @ – as well as a named individual’s concrete e-mail link to a disembodied web of commercial cyberspace. Barbara Kruger, an American graphic artist who escaped from the consumerist world of advertising, challenges us with a huge photograph of an empty hand seeming to hold a sign that declares, ‘I shop therefore I am’ (1987). … In the dollar sign the subject of the desired commodity is cleft in twain, making it an alienated Symbolic object – $ – to itself. Into the empty frame of the commodity is projected the Imaginary object – <> – that is desired just because it is that which the other is presumed to desire from among the ever-changing high-gloss and hard-sell images of the mass media. And in its repetitive encircling of the Real Thing – @ – as a popular cola calls itself, the corporeal drive pays again and again the price of its mad roulette wager to recover the original stake it has irreversibly lost. In the face of the unrelenting demand of the Other – $<>D – for me to be its lost object, I fashion for myself a fantasy – S <> @ – in order to protect myself from being drawn into the Other’s lethal grip. In the variegated forms of artistic sublimation I retrieve some abject scrap of materiality, which is all that remains from the primal severing of the voice, gaze, and flesh of the Thing. Subject, object, abject. Symbolic, Imaginary, Real. S<>@. (Levine 55-56)

=Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess. Trans. Alan Stoekel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004
=Hof, Robert D. “My Virtual Life.”  Businessweek Magazine.  <;
=Levine, Steven Z. Lacan Reframed. New York; London: IB Taurus and Co., 2008
=Ludlow, Peter & Wallace, Mark. The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007
=Mitham, Nic. “A Key Moment for Metabrands”. K-Zero.
=Rymaszewski, Michael et al. Guide to Second Life – 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2008


~ by dccohen on June 6, 2011.

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