Humanizing the Avatar (Part 18: A(v)amorphosis)
The eighteenth part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars
The argument that the avatars provide an awareness of the Lacanian objet (a) is not without precedent. There is an instance where Jacques Lacan claims that works of art can provide glimpses of the objet (a) through aesthetic devices that skew the viewer’s perspective such as “anamorphosis”. In this post I will consider how Second Life (SL) avatars provide a glimpse of the objet (a) through a(v)amorphosis.
Lacanian Note: The objet (a), as remainder of the lack, void, or absence that inheres within the subject, resists specularization (Fink, Lacanian 91). Throughout Seminar XI, Lacan likens the (a) to a certain type of gaze or a certain tone of voice. For example, one can discern the gaze in the act of looking (Fink, Lacanian 91-92). These partial objects (gaze and voice) are unspecularizable; one cannot see them. Fink explains that at the most basic level, the (a) is a “certain kind of look someone gives you, the timber of someone’s voice, the whiteness, feel, smell, of someone’s skin, eye color, attitude…” (Fink, Clinical 52). The (a) can also be discerned in an object that looks back at us and reminds us of our own lack. The (a) is an instance of the uncanny, reminding us of the lack that lies beyond our desires. The (a) pre-exists the eye. Prior to experience we have, as the thrust of that experience, “the lack that constitutes castration anxiety” (Lacan, Sem XI 72). The (a) shows up as a “stain” whose “track”, “thread” and “trace” can be discerned in the scopic field (Lacan, Sem XI 72).
To offer an example of the object petit (a) though anamorphosis, Lacan looks to a “partial object” located in Hans Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors” (1533) (Lacan, Sem XI 88). “The Ambassadors” is a painting that depicts two male figures. In front of them is a skull, painted from a skewed, or distorted angle. The skull is painted using anamorphosis, the systematically distorted projection of an optical image which can only be glimpsed from an angle. Using anamorphosis, Holbein attempts to paint the unpaintable: death’s head – the ultimate symbol of the Real. The painting demonstrates the “imperceptible fallenness of the Subject”, “the inescapable lack and destitution that castration ordains for it” (Bowie 172). It also elicits uncanny emotions, as it depicts a moment where the Symbolic order reveals itself alongside the Real and the Imaginary. Amidst the vanity of the two wealthy figures in the painting is a reminder of the real, the (a).
The static figures and the room in Holbein’s painting can be compared to the avatars and terrain of the virtual world of Second Life. Unless the user owns the land his avatar is currently on or flying over, he cannot change or manipulate it. What can be manipulated is a small portion of the screen: their avatar. Thus, using the appearance sliders, the avatar contorts and transforms: it “gazes” back at the user as something different, while reminding them of the Real. The whole of SL, the user’s entire screen, can become an instance of the distorted skull in Holbein’s painting. This occurs when the user recognizes their sense of self as an:
effect of anamorphosis, a ‘shadow of nothing’; however getting rid of this insubstantial spectre does not leave [the user] with the simple reality of what [he or she] effectively is…what we get if we look at it straight on is a chaotic nothing. So what we get after we are stripped of symbolic identifications, [de-self-ed], is nothing. The ‘Death’ figure in the middle of the crown is not simply death, but the subject himself reduced to the void. (Žižek, Lacan 70).
My avatar, Dustin Mabellon, is a continually changing object through which I navigate the (virtual) world and is the focus of my attention. In the moments where I manipulate the avatar, attaching or detaching its qualities and attributes, I encounter its nothingness. Note: In The Ticklish Subject, Žižek discusses the nature of the postmodern injunction to “be yourself” (Žižek, Ticklish 458). What does it mean, he wonders to “be yourself”? When we are isolated from our surroundings we are confronted with a paradox, namely that “if you are completely isolated from your surroundings you are left with nothing whatsoever, with a void of idiocy pure and simple.” (Žižek, Ticklish 458) He continues:
The inherent obverse of ‘Be your true Self!’ is therefore the injunction to cultivate permanent refashioning, in accordance with the postmodern postulate of the subject’s indefinite plasticity … in short, extreme individualization reverts to its opposite, leading to the ultimate identity crisis: subjects experience themselves as radically unsure, with no ‘proper face’, changing from one imposed mask to another, since what is behind the mask is ultimately nothing, a horrifying void they are frantically trying to fill in with their compulsive activity or by shifting between more and more idiosyncratic hobbies or ways of dressing, meant of accentuate their individual identity. Here we can see how extreme individuation (the endeavor to be true to one’s Self outside imposed fixed socio-symbolic roles) tends to overlap with its opposite, with the uncanny, anxiety provoking feeling of the loss of one’s identity – is this not the ultimate confirmation of Lacan’s insight into how one can achieve a minimum of identity and ‘be oneself’ only by accepting the fundamental alienation of the symbolic network. (Žižek, Ticklish 458)
It is not by looking at the avatar that I encounter what Lacan refers to as “the gaze”. Rather, this phenomenon has to do with intuiting the type of object the avatar is. Through a(v)amorphosis, the objet (a) does not appear, but the user has a sense of its functioning. Lacan explains that “man, in effect, knows how to play with the mask as that beyond which there is the gaze: the screen is here the locus of mediation” (Lacan, Sem XI 107). For this reason, we are not after art criticism, which would amount to discussing the aesthetic attributes of the SL avatar (Lacan, Sem XI 109). Rather, while each SL user has their own life experience and unique position within their historical configuration, Lacan advocates considering “the function that the artist’s original phantasy played in his creation” (Lacan, Sem XI 110). In this regard, SL avatars are not “disproportionately interesting”, but are, rather, examples of the “generality of desire” (Lacan, Sem XI 110); (Bowie 171). What stares back at us is precisely the generality of our desire. Note: In this regard there is something intriguing about our new screens, wired into the internet, with increasingly realistic graphics. As things become increasingly realistic and mediated – perhaps what emerges not a breakdown of appearances (i.e. Virilio’s Open Sky) or a hell of the same (Baudrillard’s Transparency of Evil), rather, the Real emerges in new ways – perhaps en masse.)
The perpetual as-if quality of SL does not interrogate reality and move us to a place where reality is no longer at issue; rather it confirms, and makes explicit, the lack that haunts reality. It demonstrates that even in virtual worlds – where the real is supposed to have been rendered simulacral, or hyper-real – what we encounter is actually quite similar to our present non-simulacral reality. Rather than doing anything to reality, SL brings the fundamental, obscured, lack that is intrinsic to reality into focus; we are still working with subjects and objects, selves and others. Note: Here would want to delve in Žižek’s work, specifically his comments on virtual reality in The Plague of Fantasies (especially the chapter “Cyberspace, or the Unbearable Closure of Being”).
In Robbie Cooper’s photo-essay Alter Ego, one juxtaposition of avatar and user, that of Kimberly Rufer-Bach and her avatar Kim Anubus, stands out. The page portrays two versions of Kim(berly): on the left the physical Kimberly and on the right the virtual Kim. At first glance one might think that both images were photographs. Recalling that the death’s head in Holbein’s painting is “the subject reduced to the void…stripped down of symbolic identifications”, the virtual Kim leaves the reader with the unspecular virtuality that inheres within the physical Kimberly. In her comments about the juxtaposition, Kimberly explains: “[Kim] doesn’t have a separate persona or anything. She’s just an extension of myself in this virtual space” (Cooper). Despite the fact that Kim looks strikingly like Kimberly, she is not equivalent with Kimberly: she can be thought of as an externalization of the lack that subtends Kimberly’s subjectivity. Thus, whereas Kimberly’s fleshy real hands would bleed if they were amputated, one recognizes that Kim’s hands are made to be elongated, thickened, or amputated. Kimberly does not become Kim. Kimberly is always already (Kim)berly; to believe that Kim begins where Kimberly ends is to fall into what I called the “Posthuman” way of thinking in an earlier post. The avatar achieves the same function as the bony deaths head in Holbein’s painting; it is an interactive, geometric, prim-based deaths head, displayed on a digital canvas.
Here lies another example of a(v)amorphosis: The cover of Cooper’s book displays two individuals holding hands on a bustling downtown street. Tilting the cover of the book reveals their avatars superimposed on top of them and causes the individuals faces to blur with their avatars. Viewing the superimposed images from different angles reveals real fleshy faces merged with the digital faces of their avatars. The effect is unmistakably an uncanny anamorphosis. From one point of view a digital metal clad fantasy avatar, from another point of view a fleshy exposed body; beneath the fleshy exposed body is a digital metal clad fantasy avatar. Thus the avatar may be read as far more than a harbinger of what so many critics have described, either optimistically (i.e. Nick Bostrom) or pessimistically (i.e. Francis Fukuyama) as our posthuman future.
=Bostrom, Nick. “The History of Transhumanist Thought”. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 14 (April, 2005)
=Bowie, Malcolm. Lacan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991
=Cooper, Robbie. Alter-Ego. London: Chris Boot Ltd, 2007
=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
=Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future. New York: Picador Press, 2003
=Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI – The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller.Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998
=Žižek, Slavoj. Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. New York: Verso Press, 2009 (1999)
=Žižek, Slavoj. Lacan. London: Granta Books, 2006