Avatar (Sanskrit avatara,”descent”), in Hinduism, descent of a god into the world of human beings for the duration of a human life span. Avatar is similar to the Christian concept of incarnation but is different in two significant ways. First, a Hindu god can become incarnate in many places at the same time through “partial” avatars (amshas), while the main form from which the avatars emanate remains entirely “full” and can converse with the “partial” forms. Second, the avatars do not fully participate in human suffering or lose the knowledge and power of their divine nature. The god Vishnu is most famous for his numerous avatars, which include Krishna, Rama, and the Buddha, but other gods, such as Shiva, also have avatars. Many charismatic leaders, such as the Indian mystics Chaitanya and Ramakrishna, have been regarded as avatars.
In Hindu belief, Avatars are not representations, but manifestations which occur in response to a particular event or crisis.
Avatar / Avatara (Sanskrit) - manifesting, descent, more than, less than, reducible, functionary, reductionist, removed, representational, transformative, embodied what? removed from, visitation, almost, virtually here-there, more real, prosthetic, additive, other, parasitic, sentient, entity, controlled, controlling, holographic, AI, ephemera, corporeal, temporal, swift self, peripheral, surrogate ...
I am suggesting in this post that avatar presence has always been with us, yet defined over time, through difference. Historically we have moved through fields of alterity or otherness, in Real Life brushing up against an ephemeral host sensed at our shoulder yet which has refused, until now, to have its coming-out party. (cite references here) Avatar presence, like human presence, has increasingly been defined as a becoming state of being within the temporality of our quotidian and progressively emergent with regard to the notion of companionship for humans. (Dr Donna Haraway - A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. and When Species Meet). The virtual self has always been here/there but under different guises. This post examines certain aspects in the re-constitution of companionship through avatar agency, under terms which for many are still centred in the virtual and therefore not as compelling as that construct we define for ourselves as Real. My contention is that under the post-modern construct whereby we find that we can de- and reconstruct everything, our self becomes another location for re-invention in a world where for so many, such an array of opportunities for transformative practices has not previously existed. Until now. Now, here, avatar presence can populate the Real with increasingly corporeal solidity.
'If one looks back at one life`s life, it`s like seeing a series of different people.' Anna Meara, Playwright and Actress.
'When I`m online, I`m 37, tall, blond and raring to go'. Bene Weinberg, 68, retired social worker with Parkinson`s disease.
'I have re-invented myself every 10 years and I recommend that everyone else should do the same'. Nora Ephron, writer.
'A ruler wages ... warfare against spontaneous and uncontrolled transformation'. Elias Canetti, writer
'The post-modernist temper demands that what was previously played out in fantasy and imagination must be acted out in life as well ...' Daniel Bell, American sociologist
Extracts above from, McCracken, G D. Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture, (2008) Indiana University Press (p.ix) and ... 'I am known to everyone professionally as Mr William Muirhead-Allwood - but for years I have called myself Sarah'. Surgeon who has operated on Britain`s Queen Mother. McCracken (p.xxii)
Lived transformative practice does not require the projection of desires or intent through a digital interface. Humans have been engaged in this practice since our life events began to be documented. McCracken tells us that, 'All humans have the ability to "assume shapes of a different kind". Self-transformation is the native gift of every member of the species'. (p.xxiv)
McCracken, in 'Transformations ...', "Candice Carpenter (and Swift Selves)" (p.122) affirms (for the protagonists, this is not revelationary) the existence of extreme sports as a contemporary manifestation of seamless engagement with the moment - a no-mind response from the human body as organism initiated by the pressing business of survival-in-the-moment. When this state of engagement with another in-world surface emerges, as it must during an occupation like extreme rock-climbing, the climber appears to defy gravity, floating or adhering to the rock face as if the climber were a pond skater on surface tension experienced vertically - a mutually-experienced link between two surfaces - that mobile volume of the climber and the lived and living surface of the rock becoming one surface of intent. Negotiating internal and external terrain under stress forces a state of involuntary response '... The hand is set in motion with no clear knowledge of where it will come to rest. But it must eventually come to rest. Momentum is everything ...' (p.122) The hand unerringly finds a ledge, a crack, a way in to the moment energetically using that momentum; a continuous fusion of intent and velocity, through to what manifests as that indeterminate core of mobility.
After fourty years of martial arts training, I remember back to the randori sessions under my Bujutsu Sensei, John Goldman, in Exeter, Devon in the UK. The training, during partnered combat on the ground, involved a studied practice of letting go. Letting go of an untenable hold that, if it was to work, required hard, muscular force which was counter to the philosophy being nurtured - that of Kyu Shin Do (reciprocal learning - the person being thrown learned as much as the person initiating the throw). Instead we practiced listening to one`s opponent through the instrument of the whole body, floating to another hold - capitalising on the forces prevailing within the moment, rather than struggling to maintain a place in space. Often the best place to be would be underneath one`s opponent, not on top. This was a process which, initially, required the recognition that a choice existed, then making a decision which way to direct one`s intent. Eventually however, no choice recognition was required; the body as an organism would take over and simply respond. One`s other self became a functionary within the activity and the dialogue between you and your opponent settled onto a level where the conscious self became implicit in the interaction. No mind. This has become a cliché now but it reflects a truth. Arresting insights can be encountered in these situations. I have been a surfer and bodysurfer for more than 30 years, occasionally finding myself in life-threatening situations and I can vouch for this. When operating at the extreme edge of our capabilities, our senses are honed to a level not usually witnessed in the everyday, requiring not merely absorption with the task but a coincident blending with those prevailing moments, themselves the product of conditions in flux. Big Wave riding demands a state which, while fully present with the internal self also projects beyond that self into the unknown through one`s 'other' allowing us to engage with these conditions . When in the lineup on a really big day, breaking waves also become something 'other' Titus Kinimaka asserts - 'there are hidden things in there' ( 'Laird' Biography on Laird Hamilton).
Jim Clark, the creator of Netscape and one of the key figures in the evolution of Silicon Valley and the New Economy was engaged in a flying lesson in a McDonnell Douglas helicopter. During the flight, Clark turned to his instructor and said, 'Were you controlling it?', 'That was all you Jim', 'I felt you controlling it', 'No, no, its been all you', 'This really pisses me off'. (p.122) Clark, not used to being controlled by anyone or anything was deeply immersed in a situation of extreme flying, endeavouring to be just in the moment, to become an instrument of reciprocity with the machine, a transponder - creating a seamless exchange of information in and adjustment/transformative response out. He didn`t need a third party coming between him and the machine, mediating his moment while he aspired to cyborg status, he and the helicopter engaged in extrapolating mutual lineaments of prosthetic extension and dialogue. Control. A subjective condition, fluctuating in authorship from moment to moment. Often, while immersed, we notice it as a facility managing the task only when we begin to lose it.
The quality and effectiveness in reciprocity of information/data moving across interfaces or osmotically through surfaces is often subject to the indeterminant whims of both, the conversers and forces existing outside themselves. Where does user control begin and end and something outside this - the avatar, cyborg, prosthesis, the moment itself - take over and in its turn, relinquish the reins? I have proposed in this blog manifestations of that entity I have termed 'the Roaming Body', that temporal conduit which allows indeterminacy to surface and take hold of our lives.
Here is another body entity which may arrive in Heidegger`s definition of 'human' which is not so much an entity in itself, but a 'clearing' in which entities may appear.
The Swift Self
Candice Carpenter asserts that in extreme activities individuals define themselves as '... creatures in process'. (p.123) The self in this context is viewed as something in motion. The swift self is an entity which, '... defines itself by rushing into the world, which itself is relatively inchoate and emergent (and doing some rushing of its own)'. The mobility of the swift self comes in part from our own individualism, from paring away existing connections, contexts and constraints that surround a traditional description and status of the transformative self. Individuals have become increasingly capable of extraordinary transformative mobility in themselves, due to exposure to the notion that as beings with the potential to re-invent we have the ability to modify or even by-pass domestic, social, ethnic, class and gender constraints, which can be said to impede the self. Swift selves cast off definitions of the self and rushing into the world, find and identify new ones. The swift self is unbound.
Carpenter suggests that the mobility of the swift self comes from its affinity for instrumentality. The self becomes, (in its search for itself, my words) a means to an end to fulfil a purpose. This description is cultivated to make it more effective in the world, upon the world. '... swift selves do not believe that their value comes from their uniqueness as individuals or the distinctness of the self. They are prepared to conform to the demands of the role. They are prepared to be seen as substitutable'. Carpenter maintains that ultimately, the mobility of the swift self comes from the willingness to give itself over to whatever may happen next. Indeterminacy is embedded here and the swift self is in its element, responding moment by moment in pushing that intent outward and engaging with that indeterminate world.
Swift individuals fear the threat of stasis, (if stasis were a condition which actually existed instead of a perpetual state of becoming) being never happier when in motion. Arrival is not an option. Multiple descriptions and processes of travel are everything. Swift selves prefer means rather than ends, applauding velocity and momentum over stability and equilibrium. It can be seen that perhaps individuals who may fall into this definition of self may also be likely to actively seek out and use any kind of instrument which lends itself to extending their reach into the world. If we acknowledge the potential for this description of human entity/self to exist, it suggests that this extended reach lends itself very ably to the acquisition and consequent evolution of a formidable array of bodily/self extensions.
The Roaming Body and the Swift Self. It seems that these manifestations or body entities are aligned as two of a likely portfolio of entities in our archive of selves. However, it appears to some extent that the swift self is a conditional response to the world at large and that we may have choice in the matter of its manifesting within our lives. I maintain that we have no choices to make with regard to the influence of indeterminacy through the vehicle of the Roaming Body and that this entity must therefore underpin the swift self and other entities in our personal quivers. Many people given the choice, would eschew the entity of the swift self within their bodily makeup as being too self-serving and demanding at the expense of those other facets of ourselves which clamour for attention. Carpenter tells us that the skeptics of cultivating the swift self as a reliable member of our self community are numerous:
'Academics tend to see them as thoughtless, unreflective and self-aggrandizing. Envrionmentalists see them as a danger to the planet, so relentless in the pursuit of short-term opportunities they cannot see long-term costs. Those with New Age sympathies see swift selves as worldly and opportunistic, the humans most likely to offend against the natural rhythms, larger verities, secret forces, higher unities in which the world consists. Religious leaders see swift selves as too much persuaded of their agency, and therefore guilty of hubris. Individuals concerned with community development and social capital ask, "Is the swift self a member of the community - or freestanding and irresponsible? Is the swift self constrained by anything?" We regard swift selves with ambivalence. We look upon them as the English looked on Americans at the end of World War II - as creatures without finesse or understanding but manifestly the new custodians of empire.Too often swift selves and societies have forsaken some of the things that give richness and subtlety, trading away nuance for power.' (p.135)
Having introduced the notion of the swift self, let us move on to consider its transformative potential. The articulation of the swift self in the world is flexible, adaptable and open to change in its pursuit of its ability to operate effectively in the world. The swift self will change the external body as much as the terrain within. Swift selves, Carpenter tell us, are prepared to commit to regimes that are thoroughly punishing and sometimes masochistically brutal. Witness this phenomenon in any single-minded athletic endeavour in the pursuit of excellence. (This ethic,of course, is portable and emerges equally in commerce, industry and management, where individuals harden themselves to care, not about the people with whom they are working or apparently sharing a common goal, but about their own performance and personal goals). Carpenter assures us that swift selves will be the first to install cyber-technologies in their bodies. Movement of one kind enables movement of another kind. The swift self desires that both are efficient and effective in the roles for which they have been designed and trained. Running fast in the body, or moving fluidly as a prosthetic. Carpenter says that, 'Among swift selves, the confusion of humans and machine is no secret fear but a not-so-secret-hope.' In swift selves always resides the intent, when not engrossed in the present, to relinquish that same present, for an investigation into the possible and this includes stabs in the dark toward untried surrogate, other identities - like avatars. 'The swift self is nothing if not swift and no-one if not relationless.' (p.277)
I would add to this by suggesting that the swift self, I believe, is that vital catalyst, that scouting agency which seeks to negotiate the gap between what is known in us and what is strange, other, foreign; an ambassador for self-extension and rather than a relationless entity, one that perhaps may harbour a multiplicity of relations which is the essence of becoming in humans.
Urban legend tells us that the MUVE online world of Second Life was an extension in its original formation, of Burning Man the annual festival which occurs in the Nevada desert, in an effort to create a consciously-inscribed if temporary, virtual world community. The desert becomes surrogate for virtual space. Before the festival, the desert is devoid of human residency. After the festival, everything is taken away and the desert resumes its identity. Carpenter, writing with apparent prescience assures us that, '... When Burning Man can be held online, it will be. And when individuals can take up residence in the Burning Man, they will. Whatever the means, whatever the destinations, virtual space will be irresistible to the swift self.'
A forecast indeed. Second Life (only one of a number of MUVEs) now has more than a million regular online visitors, several hundred thousand residents and a minimum of fifty thousand in-life whenever you log in. Are these all swift selves? Given the nature of Second Life as a fully-immersive environment, sharing, in a fractional way with the Internet the capacity to be driven, monitored and maintained by its residents, I would say that there is a very good chance that swift selves proliferate within its mixed-reality boundaries. Both Burning Man and Second Life present territories irresistible to the swift self in terms of immersive transformative practice, the embodiment of imagination and technologically realised desires. (In the Free Online Dictionary, McGeorge Bundy asserts that, 'There is no safety in technological hubris"). Both locations on this same world-surface constitute the potential for extending the description of companionship to include otherness in the form of avatar manifestations.
Carpenter, C (and Swift Selves) Postmodern Transformations in McCracken, G. D. (2008) Transformations - Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture, Indiana University Press (p.122-125)
To be continued ...