Humanizing the Avatar (Part 21: Lack and Excessiveness)
The twenty-first part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars
It has been noted that video games “enable[s] players to think through questions of agency and existence, exploring in fantasy form aspects of their own materiality” (Rehak 123).
At one point near the conclusion of Seminar XI, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan briefly mentions the ‘mass media’. He writes:
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 brief remark that the mass media arouses our gaze rather than our vision is striking, and reinforces what has been argued throughout my Humanizing the Avatar posts: the user’s activity with their avatar offers an opportunity to engage with their insatiable desires and to experiment with covering the void that is at the core of the Lacanian subject.
Insofar as virtual worlds allow thousands to of users to simultaneously interact with one another’s (a)vatars, they can be considered as a clear example of the gaze soliciting ‘planeterized’ and ‘stratospherized’ attributes of modern machinery. Note: But this does not mean that they are not also evocative of what the ‘posthuman/posthuman (capitalist) theorists claim about the effects of “information technology, computerization and [the] wholesale commodification of everyday life” as engendering a new sort of fragmented self. In this regard, ‘casino capitalism’ “mobilizes the self (or at least its narcissistic element)” (Elliot 171). Second Life (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.
What might be the impetus behind avatarization? From a Lacanian point of view, the SL user sets up a dialogue with the objet (a), and is capable of briefly considering the remainder of the real from which his or her subjectivity hangs. In order to elaborate this idea let’s consider avatarization aesthetically. The American painter, Frank Stella, explains:
the ephemeral quality of painting reminds us that what is not there, what we cannot find, is what great paintings always promise… Painters intrinsically look to the mirror for reassurance, hoping to shake death, hoping to avoid the stare of persistent time, but the results are always disappointing. Still they keep checking… (Stella 6-9 qtd. in Bowie 169)
Malcom Bowie elaborates:
The death haunted painter, striving toward an impossible completeness of vision and retreating periodically to the consolations of the mirror, lives out by the sweat of his brow the dialectic of the Symbolic and Imaginary…And the huge, brightly coloured and many-plated constructions that Stella was working on at this time are a tribute to the erotic power of the cut and the margin (Bowie 169).
In other words, Stella’s work is a tribute to the presence of the (a). Perhaps the (a)vatar is an aesthetic object that functions in a similar way. The SL user is something of an artist; he works on objects that are impossible to complete. Note: “The death haunted [SL user], striving toward an impossible completeness of vision and retreating periodically to the consolations of the [screen], lives out by the sweat of his brow the dialectic of the Symbolic and Imaginary…And the huge, brightly coloured and many-plated [avatars and virtual prim objects] that [the user] was working on at this time are a tribute to the erotic power of the cut and the margin.” (Bowie 169) One SL user Tasrill Sieyes, known in SL for creating abstract avatars, explains SL as a “new medium” where one can watch “people think about avatars [as] walking art and sculpture, not just a pretend human” (Rymaszewski et al. 74). The virtual world of SL is a space where the user is provided with the tools to mutate and mutilate their screen double(s). In this regard, avatars, comprised of partial objects without the hope of completion, are highly evocative of the user’s original phantasy.
On one hand, the user’s ability to mutilate these virtual doubles is evocative – as the scholars discussed in an earlier post contend – of a manipulatable, and flexible, self. In this case it is easy to concern oneself with each specific manipulation by each specific user. But, in the conclusion to Seminar XI entitled “In you more than you”, Lacan paraphrases the analysand’s attitude to their analyst: “I love you, but because inexplicably I love in you something more than you – the objet petit a – I mutilate you” (Lacan, Sem. XI 268). Thus, on the other hand SL is not about political-economic instances of culturally oriented flexibility, but an “effect of mutilation” stemming from the (a), the leftover of the real.
Could we not read Lacan’s comment above from the standpoint of a SL user’s attitude to their avatar? Likewise, could we not consider the artist Stelarc, who mutilates his body by attaching biological and non-biological objects, claiming them to be prostheses and “not as a result of lack”, as alternatively demonstrating a cyborg body whose excessiveneness is generated by its lack? The avatar plays a similar function to the skull in Holbein’s painting: it confirms our lack. Here, the impetus for the user’s manipulation of their avatar is the ‘effect of mutilation’ whose cause is the objet petit (a).
-Elliott, Anthony. Subject to Ourselves: Social Theory, Psychoanalysis and
Postmodernity. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers, 2004
-Elliott, Anthony. Concepts of the Self. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008
Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI – The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller.Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998
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
-Rymaszewski, Michael et al. Guide to Second Life – 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2008
-Stelarc. “Interview” Voiceworks 62 (Spring 2005) Available Online: <http://www.benjaminteicher.com/folio/interview-with-stelarc/>
-Stella, Frank. Working Space. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986 in Bowie, Malcolm. Lacan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991