[-empyre-] Virtual Construction::An Avatar Manifesto

I sent this out about 1 hour ago, and I have yet to receive it, so I am resending it.
Sorry if you receive a double post...
-----Original Message-----
From: Gregory Little [mailto:glittle@oberlin.net]
Sent: Saturday, November 16, 2002 10:53 AM
To: empyre@lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
Subject: [-empyre-] Virtual Construction::An Avatar Manifesto

Greetings empyreans!

What follows is a cut and paste summation of the first half of my essay, An Avatar Manifesto.  A little background on what led me to this point......Through the 80's I was a painter working with installations, shaped canvases; all related to post-cubist, synchronous investigations of the human body and spatial disruption, multi points of view, etc.  In 1989 I met Jarion Lanier, and had my first experience with VR, using an HMD and dataglove.  Although the world I was in was very unimaginative, and Jarion's rhetoric far to utopian for my world view, I was enthralled by the potentials, problems, and questions this new space offered, and by the sense of embodiment, or bodily awareness I experienced when in VR.  For me it was, among other things, an extremely physical experience.  One of the first things that occurred to me was the question of self-representation in these spaces, and the constellation of possibilities that came with that.  With no computer experience or training, I dropped the paint brushes and began to investigate this zone, first producing a number of images I called "identity constructions", which can be found at:  http://art.bgsu.edu/~glittle/IDs.html  After several years, these constructions came into existence on the internet, in the form of 2d and 3d chatrooms, under the label of avatars.  I later wrote the manifesto.

I hope to spend maybe half my time here discussing the manifesto, but since it was written a few years ago and much has changed (and much has not) since then, if the flow of discussion permits,spend the other half addressing my current work, gaming, and what happened to the avatar?


Cut and paste Synopsis of Part One of "An Avatar Manifesto"

"AVATARA-Sanskrit.; ava-'down', tarati-'he goes, passes beyond' literally, 'a descent', a conception described in the Bhagavad gita, 4th Teaching, 1-8 where Krishna confides: "when goodness grows weak, when evil increases, I make myself a body." (OED)"

"Originally referring to the incarnation of Hindu deities, avatars in the computing realms have come to mean any of the various "strap-on" visual agents that represent the user in increasing numbers of 2 and 3D worlds. (Lonehead, par. 3)"

to compare the avatar to the cyborg......

"The term cyborg was coined in 1960 with the appearance of "Cyborgs in Space" by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. Clynes and Kline argued that altering man's bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments was more logical than providing a controlled environment for him in space. Their "self-regulating artifact-organism" (Clynes and Kline 31-33) would be free to explore space without remaining anchored to a cumbersome artificial environment: "Solving the many technical problems involved in manned space flight by adapting man to his environment rather than vice versa, will not only mark a significant step forward in man's scientific progress, but may well provide a new and larger dimension for man's spirit as well" (Clynes and Kline 33). This early cyborg is the human enhanced, a hybrid physical construction of wetware, hardware, and software who is without conscious effort able to adjust its homeostatic mechanisms to provide stable if not superior operation in a variety of friendly and unfriendly environments. The cyborg incorporates body and prostheses in the forms of mechanical, optical, coded, pharmacological, electronic, telematic, genetic, and biological agents, hosted by an original human consciousness to form a unified but hybrid lived body.

and the digital avatar........

In contrast, the avatar is a mythic figure with its origin in one world and projected or passing through a form of representation appropriate to a parallel world. The avatar is a delegate, a tool or instrument allowing an agency to transmit signification to a parallel world. The cyborg and the avatar, then, share the purpose of facilitating operation in another environment. The cyborg has been described as a unified but hybrid "other," whereas the avatar is born of a telematic split; the original remains in its originary environment while sending a tool of signification, the avatar, into a second. In that it never detaches from its referent, the user, the avatar differs as well from virtual software agents produced by artificial intelligence and neural networks. It is not independent and does not in itself learn. The avatar is inseparable in nature from its host, the human user. The virtual avatar is software. Its conditions are those of a coded environment. The avatar is essentially a visual representation, a virtual instrument or imaged prosthesis of its referent-the user, and so fundamentally related to linguistic signs and representational icons. In this sense, the population of avatars could come to include the history of portraiture in painting, photography, and sculpture, as a projection or passing through of once living individuals into the virtual, timeless space of representation, metaphor, and mimesis. .........It is in the very space of choice, from highly personal to non-consensual, that the unique power of the avatar is problematized. The most significant use of the avatar is the freeing of personal identity from outmoded relationships to consistency and social consensus. The "strap-on" (Lonehead , par. 3) persona, the irrelevance of grounding identity in communal agreement, and the "wholesale appropriation of the other" (Stone 83) open the self to new territories of signification, connection, desire, and empowerment."

and the current state of the avatar...that is, current in 1998 when I wrote this essay, there were many online 2D and 3D chat rooms, the majority of which contained extremely generic, homogenious representations rooted in prevailing constructions of commodification and accumulation:  pop icons, juvenile fantasies, young, white "perfect bodies" (like poser-people)......

"A tool with the potential for the playful generation of territories of signification and empowerment, the avatar is being used instead as a weapon against its own referents to seize this terrain of potential as part of a rabid process of accumulation. Whether the avatar is a physical, earthly body inhabited by the immanence of the metaphysical (Krishna), or the reverse, a virtual representation of a corporeal body (a " strap-on" visual agent) the creation and use of an avatar involves a pairing or doubling at a metaphysical, semantic, and dimensional level between the corporeal and the immanent, language and thing, image and imaged, mind and body, and, as we shall see, between self and commodity. The avatars inhabiting the World Wide Web have been co-opted by forces beyond the user at the keyboard. As I have noted, the original avatar marks a top-down descent of a force beyond the human, like a Hindu deity, but in our current cultural condition it is Kapital, not Krishna, that makes itself a body."

"If your avatar, your self-image, becomes a covert instrument of ( for example) Fujitsu, then the Enlightenment agenda of Cartesian bifurcation is complete, although warped from "I think therefore I am" to "I shop therefore I am" (Kruger): "The individual is displaced from its central location by the (commodity) object, which established priority and sovereignty, over the subject" (Linker and Kruger 78)."

"The mind/body dichotomy is a red herring. The most dangerous and incarcerating binary is the fabricated pairing of self and commodity, between lived processes and production/accumulation."
I then work at setting the stage for the criteria for the creation of what I call an "unconsumable self-image" by first discussing desire and lack........
Rather than free-floating, pure, generative, self-gratifying desire, on line activities form a closed system of self perpetuating personal pathologies serving a thriving system of commodity exchange: "lack is created, planned, and organized in and through social production. . . . The deliberate creation of lack as a function of market economy is the art of the dominant class. This involves deliberately organizing wants and needs amid an abundance of production; making all of desire teeter and fall victim to the great fear of not having one's needs satisfied" (Deleuze and Guattari 28). Being in the body is to be aware of this fear, this emptiness. Movement out of the body is movement toward resolution of lack through acquisition. Disembodied is valorized. When bombarded with countless representations of the latest model/celebrity/product, we are confronted with intentionally unattainable cultural ideals in the guise of an attainable personalized commodity. What we lack, have lost, come to desire, and cannot attain through the actual is valorized and can be attained only through the commodified, fetishized virtual; just for this moment, and always at a cost.......Far from "the freeing of personal identity from its outmoded relationship to consistency and social consensus," personal identity is insidiously seized on both levels, at the level of the flesh as we willingly sit for hours motionless at the keyboard, and the artifactual body or avatar, an insignia of capital in the guise of personal choice....For the highly susceptible, to "shut down" and walk away is too painful, as the virtual collapses back into the screen and one becomes painfully aware that everything is, to quote the Talking Heads, "the same as it ever was." 
thank you,
hoping this stimulates some discourse...
Gregory Little

Gregory Little
Visiting Professor of Digital Arts
Bowling Green State University

Visiting Artist/Researcher
The Innovation and Virtual Reality Centre
The University of Teesside, UK


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