Humanizing the Avatar (Part 22: On Humanist Posthumanism) – CONCLUSION
The twenty-second (and final!) part in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.
In contrast to claims that the avatar represents a posthuman body, I have proposed that avatarization is not (for better or worse) an overcoming of any human condition, but rather an interactive technique that works with the unconscious drives that persist in comprising our complex humanity.
Whether ones impression of avatarization is pessimistic or celebratory, both positions are enriched tremendously by at least a consideration of the Oedipal dimension
of the self, something both positions, hitherto, have tended to consider outmoded or invalid.
The analysis of Second Life carried out over the past twenty odd posts suggests that Oedipus ought always be thought alongside Epimetheus. A binocular approach, merging humanist Oedipal conclusions with a posthuman Epimethean position,
regards avatarization through the lens of a humanist posthumanism.
This humanist posthumanism challenges us to reconsider the virtual avatar as symbolic of the transubstantiation implied by “avātara” or “incarnation” without neglecting to account for the ways the virtual avatar does alter the user’s sense of self, and is reflective of the contingency of social life. The conclusions yielded by this binocular merger of Epimethean and Oedipal readings of avatarization, suggests three general tenets of a humanist posthumanism that might be applied to future studies of media technologies.
Humanist posthumanism welcomes the always-already posthuman and its perpetual overcoming of new types of bodies and senses of self only insofar as it also recognizes that all-too-human lack and psychical structure are associated with these processes. Humanist posthumanism regards the self as both a “thingless thing”, a “wind being…between jouissance, which longs for words, and the Name-of-the-Father, which orders them” and the historically contingent articulations of this “thingless thing” (Lander 44). Read through this lens, the SL avatar can indeed be considered a harbinger of the new and different, but only insofar as the new and different act in concert with what is old and long familiar.
Some final observations:
-Interacting with new types of (virtual) bodies and senses of self involves tarrying with the return, and a reminder of, a fixed set of psychical structures: we encounter the new but the old returns or remains.
–The overcoming of a fixed body or solid sense of self is due to the presence of the
user’s psychical lack: we are always overcoming, but we do not overcome lack
The psychoanalytic study presented through the preceding posts ought to be considered alongside an Epimethean reading of what is new about avatarization. This binocular reading could align Foucault’s assertion that “man” is only one historically distinct form of the human with the claims of Lacanian psychoanalysis. It becomes possible to fuse the potential latent in a reconfiguration of subjectivity as a materialist process with Lacans conception of the subject of the “lack”. Reading these positions together invokes a view of the subject as it is constituted through relations of power and its inner psychic dimensions.
Note: I do not think my views regarding a place for limitation and structure alongside becoming and contingency are in disagreement with posthuman/cyborg scholars such as Donna Haraway and Kathrine Hayles. For Haraway, remaining open to the unexpected does not come without conditions. The “death of the subject” (that is, “the opening of non-isomorphic subjects, agents, and territories of stories unimaginable from the vantage point of the cyclopean self… the satisfied eye of the master subject”) is, for her, a “painful” process (Haraway, Leaf 113). “Such considerations” she writes “are always about coming back to a consciousness about finitude, about mortality, of limitation not as a kind of utopian glorification, but a condition of possibility of creativity in the most literal sense, as opposed to negation. And I feel this is something I learned from feminism too… The insistence on a kind of non-hostile relationship of the mortal body with its breakdowns [denaturalizations].” (Haraway, Leaf 115). She opposes radical transgression, without consciousness of finitude, mortality, and limitation: the “…affirmation of dying is absolutely fundamental. Affirmation not in the sense of glorifying death, but in the sense – to put it bluntly – that without mortality we’re nothing. In other words, the fantasy of transcending death is opposed to everything I care about” (Haraway, Leaf 116). Neither does Katherine Hayles advocate a full blown posthumanism where anything goes. Consider her comment that “If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather that the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being…” (Hayles 5)
An individual today looks out their window and sees a different vista than the one they would have seen a hundred years ago. Smart Cars zoom by instead of horsedrawn carriages, but both the Smart Car driver and the coach driver could appreciate Swann’s desire for Odette, or Koheleth’s lamentations in “Ecclesiastes”.
Likewise, the Pac Man user and the SL user both are high-tech externalizations of the all-too-human search for lost wholeness (Rehak). This humanist sense of something persisting throughout the succession of techniques and ways of life ought to be thought akin to the ebb and flow of the tides. The tide flows out only to return to the ocean, each surge forth is a surge back. I have tried to argue throughout these posts that life does not only appear to be endless flow, but that it also entails endless ebb.
Nietzsche’s much misaligned Overman is not he who embraces merely the flow of life, but he who can stand between the world’s flowing contingency and its ebbing which prohibits endless contingency, namely the eternal recurrence of the same. That is to say, while the world always changes, one has to confront the possibility that what is has been, that what is new is linked – in some way – to what has already occurred. On one hand the world flows, it is “a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing…” (Nietzsche, Will 550). On the other hand the world ebbs, it is “…eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms” (Nietzsche, Will 550). With the right framework, an analysis of the flow of virtual technologies reveals an uncanny ebb. Note: It reveals, in Heraclitian terms, that the variability and plurality of human beings can be explained as a systematic flowing (the river) toward a trace of otherness directed by the structural Signifier (the riverbanks).
Despite that I have insisted, that we, as posthumans, are subject to new and different Epimethean ways of being and knowing the world, my sense is that we remain hardwired into Oedipal triangulation.
Note: Perhaps we could inquire further into the question of whether a user’s avatar is “really” them. Here lies one possible answer: The Epimethean dimension, I suggest, is phenomenal and visible; the Oedipal is intellectual and invisible. The Epimethean sociologist turns his attention to understanding, and making sense out of phenomenal and visible data; the Oedipal playwright attending to what is intellectual and invisible. So which position is concerned with what is the real truth? Are there two realities, and so are we to conclude – as Plato does with his Forms – that one trumps the other? And where does this leave us given that the avatars found in virtual worlds such as SL are so frequently discussed in terms of their similitude to real life? Georges Bataille cites Georges-Henry Luquet’s suggestion there are both “visual” and “intellectual” forms of realism: “An image is a good likeness for an adult when it reproduces what the adult eye sees, and for the primitive when it translates what his mind knows.” (Bataille, Cradle 38). These posts have, using Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, demonstrated that the relationship between the real user and her virtual avatar is a dual one, co-responding to visible and intellectual, Epimethean and Oedipal, historical and entropic forms of realism.
Hidden Oedipus remains coiled around the frenzied, in-your-face, Epimethean, succession of new media technologies. Throughout the preceding posts I have attempted to articulate a theoretical framework capable of evaluating techniques such as SL avatarization in relation to this often overlooked Janus face of (post)human subjectivity.
Note: Readers interested in approaching the question of the human, posthuman, and inhuman, from this standpoint will find Dominique Janicaud’s On the Human Condition of interest. Janicaud argues that humanity occupies a chronically unstable middle ground between the “inhuman” and the “superhuman”, between regression and overcoming, beastiality and angelism. Once we recognize this, he argues, we are in a position to consider a cautious humanism that can open up to the disturbing, strange, and radically creative (and cooperative) forces that lie dormant in us. Evoking Freud’s uncanny, Janicaud writes: “…man thinks he can leave his condition behind, whereas all those ‘departures’ only take him back to his fundamental truth. Humanity is the unfathomable overcoming of its limits.” (Janicaud 30).
The notion that electric culture initiates a break – for better or worse – from a linear sense of time, Cartesian subjectivity or the regime of vision unravels spectacularly upon a posthumanist humanist analysis of a virtual world like SL. This is not to argue that new types of identities are not engendered and one does not see the stirrings of new forms dynamic life. However, the mutations and transformations of body and self that users experience through their avatar(s) appears to remain intelligible against the horizon of linearity, identity, tragedy and myth. Something ancient stirs in the fibre optics.
How long will Oedipus remain an issue? Nothing is to say that techniques, or forms of society, may emerge that succeed in obliterating the horizon of tragedy and myth. As Lacan notes “[the] Oedipus complex cannot run indefinitely in forms of society that are more and more losing their sense of tragedy.” (Lacan, Ecrits 668). New forms of life come into focus as nature and the body are increasingly experienced, and acted upon, as technological entities. Optimists may celebrate this as the liberatory point where Western metaphysics, tragedy and myth are brought to their conclusions. Note: This form of life could no longer be understood in relation to Heraclitus’ ancient maxim of the “same river” where “different and again different waters flow”. Pessimists may consider the technologically mediated hybrid of self and the world, without the authority of having set (albeit ultimately contingent) boundaries, as nihilistically whirling around in a ceaseless technological orgasm. Note: The image I am trying to convey here derives from the punishment of sinners in the “Circle of the Lustful” found in Canto II of Dante’s Divine Comedy I: “Like the starlings wheel in the wintry season / In wide and clustering flocks wing-borne, wind-borne / Even so they go, the souls who did this treason, / Hither and thither, and up and down, outworn…” (Dante 99)Posthumanist humanism reminds us that we have something to lose and – rather than celebrating or despairing in the face of technologically mediated forms of life – leaves us on the shores of disturbing, yet productive, biopolitical questions: “Is the posthuman gamble on pure difference worth the risk?” and “Can we resist forms of government and economic systems that use logics of identity and repression for destructive purposes without discarding the identity and repression that has hitherto been a central feature of the human subject?”
==Dante. The Divine Comedy 1: Hell. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. London: Penguin Books, 1949
==Haraway, Donna. How Like a Leaf. New York. Routledge, 1998
==Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999
==Janicaud, Dominique. On the Human Condition. Routledge,
==Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
==Nietzsche, Friedrich. Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kauffman. New York: Random House, 1968
==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