Humanizing the Avatar (Part 20: Performing a Striptease for the Gods – The Future of the Posthuman Drama )
The twentieth part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars
What sort of tool is the Second Life avatar? Rather than regarding virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL) as techniques that take us beyond the ‘subject’, I have attempted to regard SL as a technique that renders explicit the deep core of subjectivity.
In one famous selection from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator recounts his first telephone conversation with his grandmother. Through the medium of the telephone Proust’s narrator recognizes, for the first time, aspects of his grandmother’s voice that had always been present: “Having her [voice] beside me, seen without the mask of the face, I noticed in it for the first time the sorrows that had crackled in the course of a lifetime”. Through the medium of SL, the avatar bodies we encounter that act as doubles for our own, demonstrate our sorrows stemming from the alienation that has “crackled in it in the course of [our] lifetime”. Our primary lack stemming from the Other’s desire and our castration by the linguistic Signifier, issues that had been hitherto unimaginable, peer through the virtual medium: that which was once well known returns. And it does not return via some supernatural, or inexplicable, means.
Note: In ETA Hoffman’s “The Sandman”, Nathaniel’s symptoms are associated with different characters, either the Sandman himself (in the guise of Coppola or Copellius) or professor Spalazani, confronting Nathaniel with a new tool. In the first instance, Nathaniel is told of the Sandman’s dust and his children’s owl-like beaks. In the second instance, Nathaniel encounters Copellus and his father tending to the hot coals of the brazier. In the third instance, Copellius the optician sells Nathaniel weather glasses. In the fourth instance, Nathanel becomes aware that Spalazani’s ‘daughter’ Olympia is an automaton. In the fifth, and final instance, the spy glass – purchased from Coppola – might be understood as returning Nathaniel to the initial scene of his ‘castration’: having his testicles/eyes poked out and burnt in the brazier by his father, also signifying the Law (the lawyer Coppelus) of the Name-of-the-Father. But in each case it is a given tool (blinding dust, knife-like beak, the brazier with its eye/ testicle-like coals and castrating/enucleating poker, weather glasses that bring the eye/testicles into focus, the fragmented body of the automaton Olympia, and the fatal spyglass) that, in its own way, reminds Nathaniel of the fundamental fantasy – until his symptoms leave him in a fit of madness he leaps from the clocktower. Each of these tools can be thought of as interrogating the idea of wholeness: Nathaniel is confronted with enucleation (castration), and the loss of bodily stability (lenses), and ultimately the entirely mix-and-match body of the automaton Olympia. Thus, I have attempted to discern the ‘uncanniness’ of SL, locating it primarily in the sense of body destabilization that the user encounters when navigating a virtual world through their avatar.
At one point near the conclusion of Seminar XI, Jacques Lacan mentions the ‘mass media’:
Perhaps the features that appear in our time so strikingly in the form of what are more or less called the mass media,…whose place I have indicated to you in a fundamental tetrad, namely the voice – partially planeterized, even stratospherized, by our machinery – and the gaze, whose ever encroaching character is no less suggestive, for by so many spectacles, so many phantasies, it is not so much our vision that is solicited, as our gaze that is aroused (Lacan, Sem XI 274).
This claim by Lacan that the mass media arouses our gaze along with our vision is striking and reinforces what has been argued throughout the last 19 posts; the user’s activity with their avatar offers an opportunity to engage with their insatiable desires and to experiment with covering the void at the core of the subject. SL speaks to Lacan’s thoughts on the “features of our time”; an uncanny comingling of hi-tech machinery and the solicitation of the primordial, ancient gaze: the objet petit (a)vatar.
According to Daniel E. Bassuk, Hindu avatarization and Christian incarnation are associated with the reconstitution of a community’s myth in flesh and blood, a “vehicle” the community uses “for expressing its own self understanding” (Bassuk 192). The avatarization, or incarnation, of the deity designates a “type of theological strip tease, hinting that there is more beyond what is actually seen and tantalizing the viewer with what is beyond the veil” (Bassuk 192-194). As noted in the introduction, the SL avatar presents us with something of a secularized avatarization, whereby the connotation of a “descent” to an earthly community is replaced by “ascent” to a virtual world. We might argue that, while religious avatarization provides a “haunting awareness of transcendental forces peering through the cracks of the visible [or physical] universe”, secular avatarization provides a haunting awareness of the visible [or physical] universe that peers through the cracks of the transcendental. In other words, the secular myth of avatarization, or incarnation provided by the virtual-avatar, is one whereby the community performs a “strip tease” for the Gods who dwell “beyond the veil”, tantalizing them with the fleetingness of their flesh and their lack. It provides a taste of linearity in a non-linear space. In this sense avatarization remains a “vehicle” for understanding the processes of selfhood and subjectivity. SL users garner understanding, not for what is beyond the human or what the human is turning into, but rather for what is all-too-human!
In spite of the fact that my avatar Dustin Mabellon looks physically different from Dustin Cohen, my avatar bears tremendous psychical similarities to Dustin Cohen. From the perspective of Epimetheus, my avatar is a self that is reflective of changing historical structures; from the perspective of Oedipus my avatar is reflective of a self that persists alongside, but is not reducible to, the contingencies of history. But, in the end, Dustin Mabellon is neither one nor the other. Our virtual doubles are selves situated at the nexus of a contingent History and the memories of a Time “old and long forgotten” whose tendrils we can never entirely escape.
Thus, even the avatar, understood as a posthuman assemblage of haphazard parts without recourse to Edenic, or Organic, wholeness, can be explained by what is most human: the object (a) understood as the object-cause of the endlessly desiring (a)vatar.
Note: I want briefly to turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, as you may have noticed that the prior paragraph contains both Oedipal and anti-Oedipal elements. Although Deleuze and Guattari argue that desire is “not the proof of an original nothingness; nor is it what remains of a lost totality” the Lacanian object (a) – which is generated by our ‘original nothingness’ and ‘lost totality’ – undergirds an excessive body moving through an endless surplus of new identifications and identities (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti 9). In other words, while the desirious object (a) is necessarily a product of “lack”, its functioning seems to coincide with the endless desire of a Deleuzian “desiring machine”. With respect to the functioning of the object (a), I think that Deleuze and Guattari and Lacan are in agreement. (Theorists such as Jerry Aline Fliger suggest that Oedipus “may actually be read as an emblem of the very desiring machine in whose name the plaintiffs [Deleuze and Guattari] are bringing suit” (Flieger 93) ). But whereas Lacan regards the object (a) as the rem(a)inder of the Other left behind by the subject’s “castration” by the linguistic Signifier, Deleuze cannot tolerate the subject’s object-cause of endless desire being tied to the barring of the Oedipal mOther by the Signifier [Signifather].
In Anti Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari do distinguish between the Other and the object (a): Lacan’s admirable theory of desire appears to us to have two poles: one related to “the object small a” as a desiring machine, which defines desire in terms of a real production, thus going beyond both any idea of need and any idea of fantasy; and the other related to the “great Other” as a signifier, which reintroduces a certain notion of lack. (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti 27)
For Lacan, however, the two are inseparable. One cannot, from a Lacanian point of view, have the “desiring machine” without the “notion of lack”. The excessive, and endlessly desirous, object (a) cannot be separated from the big Other , the Signifier, and the parental formula . The excessive surplus value of the Lacanian subject functions insofar as it revolves around the Other’s lacking desire.
Without the impossible object of desire what would drive the subject’s insatiable and excessive desire? And if the object (a) is itself a “desiring machine”, why would one need to replace the generator of that desire?
I have maintained that the (a)vatar allows the user to explore the excessive surplus of his or her subjectivity, but I have not severed this from lack. The Oedipal triad – when pushed to its logical conclusion – can be regarded as responsible for a Deleuzian sort of desire: the mOther, blocked indefinitely from the Oedipal subject by the Father, hovers on the horizon. As a result of the Father’s prohibitory “no”, the subject orients itself toward a trace of the impossible mOther, becoming an asymptotic, endlessly becoming, “desiring machine”. I have not felt obliged to engage with Deleuze as I consider the ubject’s relation to the to be sufficient to account for the vibrant, rich, desirous (a)vatars utilized in virtual worlds such as SL.
The avatar offers an opportunity to articulate a humanist posthumanist investigation of technology that seeks to preserve the wisdom of Gilgamesh, Job, Koheleth, Freud and Lacan: a 21st century marriage of Oedipal fallenness, suffering, and lack, to Epimethean flux and contingency.
Davy Winder writes that in virtual worlds like SL “the traditional understanding of identity, which says we have a single, overriding, core personality that defines us as an individual is just no longer valid as we rush headlong into the digital era” (Winder 223). I have been challenging such claims. A single, core, overriding (Lacanian) subject can be understood as the motor for the vibrant difference of a postmodern mix and match identity.
Marshall Mcluhan notes that “men at once become fascinated by any extensions of themselves in any material other than themselves” (Mcluhan 63). In his reading of the Narcissus myth, Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection, but rather does not recognize his own reflection: “The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by the mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image.” (Mcluhan 63). Technologies of avatarization can trick us, not merely into narcissism and self-love, but into a numbness to, and blindness of, the resolutely Oedipal and all-too-human self that pokes through the strange new “prim” bodies on our monitors. The radically decentred and heterogeneous appearance of the avatar ought not to lead us, automatically, to toss the notion of a core subject out the window. A mix and match identity, I insist, is not incommensurate with the possibility of some kind of core personality.
As such, I challenge cyber optimists and critics of cyberspace. In The Ecstasy of Communication, Baudrillard claims that the “screen and the network” have obliterated the opposition between subject and object, an opposition previously guaranteed by the “mirror and the scene”, an explicit reference to Lacan’s mirror stage. Baudrillard’s argument that the “screen” (where the entire universe unfolds) has destroyed the “stage” (that which was “once preserved through a minimum distance and which was based on a secret ritual known only to its actors”) does not hold in the case of SL (Baudrillard, “Ecstacy” 21). His worry that we have lost “the private universe [that] was certainly alienating, insofar as it separated one from others, from the world in which it acted as a protective enclosure, as an imaginary protector” does not appear to be the case (Baudrillard, “Ecstacy” 21). These “Humanizing the Avatar” posts have attempted to demonstrate that this shift from the mirror to the screen, and from the scene to the network, is not a total one; it does not move us from reality to the “absolute space of [virtual] simulation”. Instead, we might think of virtual worlds as a mirror-screen and a network-scene; the stage is the network and the screen acts as a mirror. In SL, a subject exists who is at “odds with his objects and his image” and these posts have articulated SL as a space where otherness and alienation thrives (Baudrillard “Ecstasy” 16). To read SL as an “obscene” site, where “every-thing becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication” would be simply incorrect (Baudrillard “Ecstacy” 22). Everything is not immediately transparent and exposed; the body of the avatar may be manipulated in a way that seems “obscene”, but it is also possible to read that manipulation as reflective of a deep, lingering alienation. Rather than a space “where we no longer partake in the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication”, it is possible to read SL as a space where the (Oedipal) drama of alienation is rendered explicit and heightened.
The gaze exists in SL, and one can still discern, in the newest screens and networks, the “secret” that Baudrillard claims has been rendered “entirely soluble in information and communication”. As Anthony Elliott notes, “the modern sense of self [i]s constructed around subjective elements, such as the passions, guilt, and conscience, or the Freudian unconscious; against this backdrop meanings (are) attached to identity, as concealed or hidden, with depth of self or interiority as a key theme” (Elliott “Concepts” 150). In this context, Baudrillard’s position – sure that the modern sense of self is no more – neglects to focus on what remains, or persists, of a depth of self or interiority in the contemporary information technology user. The virtual space may contain obscenity, but it is not obscene. Treating the user as if he or she were an obscene “servomechanism” (Mcluhan) of technique, as Baudrillard does, ignores the otherness that the corporeal, alienated user brings to that technique. After all, a medium mediates users as well as information, and for this reason it is important to recognize that new mediums, such as virtual worlds, make it clear that technology does not exist in some realm cut off from human subjectivity. Thus, while something like pornography is obscene, pornography is not entirely reducible to obscenity: it is littered with codes, plot devices, and angles that speak to alienated subjects, not obscene servomechanisms of the object.
While it is not outside the realm of possibility that everything may – in the near future – become obscene, and that the stage may become saturated with the plasma of the new screen, we are not nearly there yet. While the future may well be that of the obscene inhuman cyb-ject, at present, we risk throwing away the all-too- human subject just at a point when technologies, such as Second Life, can teach us so much about its secrets. The accusation levelled by cyber optimists and pessimists that communication technologies such as Second Life override or “free us” from “the void of our own [all-too-human] mental screen” ought to be re-evaluated (Baudrillard, Transparency 14).
=Bassuk, Daniel. Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity: Myth of the God-Man. Bassingstroke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1987
=Deleuze, Giles and Guattari, Felix. Anti Oedipus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta, 1983 (1972)
=Elliott, Anthony. Subject to Ourselves: Social Theory, Psychoanalysis and Postmodernity. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers, 2004
=Flieger, Jerry Aline. Is Oedipus Online? Siting Freud and Freud. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005
=Hoffman, ETA. Tales of Hoffman. Trans. RJ Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1982
=Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI – The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller.Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998
=Mcluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: Extensions of Man – Critical Edition. New York: Ginko Press, 2003
=Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time. Trans. Charles Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Modern Library, 2003
=Winder, Davey. Being Virtual: Who you really are Online? West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008