Humanizing the Avatar (Part 19: LCDesire – Teleporting the Fundamental Fantasy)
The nineteenth part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars
In the weeks after I first downloaded Second Life, I spent a great deal of time with the sliders in the appearance window attempting to create an avatar that looked like myself. After spending hours adjusting the sliders, and being content that my avatar had a body as close to my own as I was going to get, I exited the appearance window and began investigating the virtual world. The next time I logged in the shape I had spent so long meticulously manipulating was nowhere to be found. I panicked, quickly chose a pre-made body shape, and went to work again creating a new avatar. But this time I had a different feeling about what I was doing. I realized that what caused my panic to subside was adopting a new avatar body. My panic was tied to not having a body. This causes me to ask myself “Is creating a look-alike avatar really what I am doing with my avatar? Was I not, more fundamentally, attempting to create something with which to identify that would cover over my lack?
Given this, avatarization might be considered as “traversing the fantasy” – a crossing over, or traversal, of the fundamental fantasy (Fink, Lacanian 61). This fundamental fantasy is the trauma of primordial repression provoked by castration (Kay 68). In order to traverse this fundamental fantasy, the avatar takes the role of the objet (a): it embodies desirousness, subjectivizes trauma, and allows the user to act out the impossibility of filling the lack in the Other (Homer 89). In this way, the avatar allows us to consider the way the imagines him or herself in relation to the (a) and the Other’s desire (either as or ). It allows us to experience the process of obtaining our (second order) jouissance (Fink, Clinical 66). Furthermore, insofar as it enables us to traverse the fundamental fantasy, the avatar allows us to recognize the objet (a) for what it is: “a contingent imposition of fixity and consistency on the otherwise empty place of the subject” (Kay 68). [Note: In his discussions of cyberspace Slavoj Žižek touches on the idea of traversing the (fundamental) fantasy. He explains that the art of cinema arouses and plays with desire, but keeps it at a safe distance, domesticating it (Žižek, Perverts Guide to Cinema 26:00). Interactive virtual mediums can also assist us in confronting and “traversing the [fundamental] fantasy”, but, as opposed to cinema, they “externalize our innermost fantasies in all their inconsistency, [and] open up to artistic practice a unique possibility to stage, to ‘act out’, the phantasmatic support of our existence…” (Žižek, “Cyberspace”). Provided here, for your use, is every sustained instance I know of where Žižek discusses virtual technologies: The Reality of the Virtual (film), The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (film), The Plague of Fantasies (127-163), “From Virtual Reality to the Virtualization of Reality”, The Indivisible Remainder (189-198), “A Cup of Decaf Reality”, “Cyberspace, or how to traverse the fantasy in the Age of the Retreat of the Big Other”, “Hysteria and Cyberspace”, Looking Awry. Serious engagements with, and criticisms of, Žižek’s position on cyberspace can be found in Jerry Aline Flieger’s excellent Is Oedipus Online?: Situating Freud after Freud.] Thus, far from enslaving us as the post-Oedipal cybertheorists would have it, cyberspace “enables us to treat [our fantasies] in a playful way and thus to adopt towards them a minimum of distance — in short, to achieve what Lacan calls a, “going-through, traversing the fantasy” (Žižek, “Cyberspace”). In SL, this interweaving of contemporary technology and fundamental fantasy is rendered explicit.
In one of her more recent pieces, “Computer Games as Evocative Objects”, Sherry Turkle explains that computer games are objects to think with (Turkle, “Computer” 267). These “evocative objects” allow us to see ourselves in the computer and cause us to reflect on philosophical and psychological questions. The computer, acting as a “second self”, provides opportunities to project ourselves into the simulations we play on screen (Turkle, “Computer” 270). What is projected on the screen before us is, indeed, an uncanny double, but as an “evocative object” it is not something to be feared. Instead of looking at the avatar from the perspective of a monstrous double, we could see our interactions with our avatars as revelatory and capable of rendering explicit underlying dimensions of our selves that evade us in our day-to-day lives. In The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges reminds us that the double is not always an omen of ill fate. He explains that, for the Jews “on the other hand, the apparition of the double was not a foreshadowing of death, but rather a proof that the person to whom it appeared had achieved the rank of prophet” (Borges 62). Here the double is revelatory. Bringing this idea back to avatars, online personae might be considered revelatory “objects to think with” that we manipulate in the “spirit of self reflection” to search out, and play with, our desires (Turkle, “Computer” 271).
Let’s not be overhasty and immediately celebrate these “traversals of the fundamental fantasy” or revelatory “objects to think with”: perhaps avatars are not only objects to think [about the fundamental fantasy] with but rather evidence that contemporary mediums such as SL are examples of corporately owned technical systems capable of manipulating our psychical – unconscious – desires as well as our conscious ones. On one hand it can be liberating to act out what one really is, but from a darker perspective, virtual worlds represent the commoditization of the unconscious: a state where real world advertisers, SL merchants, and Linden Labs itself (to whom [premium] users pay their dues) hawk us their virtual wares and tell us that by consuming virtual objects we can “be who we really are”.
Yee and Bailensen’s study (discussed in an earlier post) on ‘the Proteus Effect’ aimed to understand the flexible “protean” bodies of virtual worlds such as SL. But let us note that Proteus, the mythical sea God from whose namesake the term “protean” derives, changed form because he wanted to avoid capture by his opponent Menelaus. In response to the threat of capture by Menelaus, Proteus changed form and rendered himself flexible and versatile. Proteus is not a God whose shape is formless; he has a true shape but was changed to become “Protean” under duress. It is threat that calls him to “cycle through” shapes. Likewise, there is order and structure to the Lacanian subject, but it is also possible to obscure that order and structure by paying attention to only the appearance of the self. When we focus on what we appear to be, we have no sense of the ‘lack’ that subtends subjectivity. We can even make the error of believing that all that exists is our appearance. Perhaps virtual worlds such as SL represent a threat, like Menelaus was to Proteus, that causes us – like Proteus did – to begin cycling through forms and identities. We know our most dear secret, that of our subjectivity, is under threat and we work to obfuscate it as best we can: by changing form compulsively and unconsciously taunting our assailant with cheers of “We’re nothing”, “We’re what we think and say we are”, “You will never discover our secret”. Meanwhile a whole new realm of control has been opened up where creatures that refuse to return to some static form endlessly cycle through bodies and identities come to live in corporately controlled reserves for contemporary Proteus’: virtual worlds.
=Borges, Jorge Luis. The Book of Imaginary Creatures. Buenos Aires: Penguin, 2005
=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
=Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. Routledge: New York, 1995
=Kay, Sarah. Žižek: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA :Blackwell, 2003.
=Turkle, Sherry. “Computer Games as Evocative Objects: From Projective Screens to Relational Artefacts” Handbook of Computer Game Studies. Eds. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005: 267-278
=Žižek, Slavoj. “The cyberspace Real”
=Žižek, Slavoj. “Hysteria and Cyberspace: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek”. Telepolis. 07.10.1998.
=Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder. New York: Verso, 2007 (1996)
Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992
Žižek, Slavoj. Pervert’s Guide to Psychoanalysis. Film.
Žižek, Slavoj. Plague of Fantasies. New York: Verso, 1997