Ulmer’s Avatar Emergency Remixed

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I have cut large swaths from Greg Ulmer’s essay “Avatar Emergency,” emboldened key statements, and inserted my GLOSS on his ideas.  I have tried to indicate how students in Electronic Communication might think about, and practice avatar, not simply as the online identity they construct but the online identity that finds them, the identity they strive to be.  I run the risk of violating the Creative Commons “no derivatives” designation on this piece, but I think the risk is worth it.  I will take the post down if the Digital Humanities Quarterly or Ulmer make such a request.
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Something is happening to us and through us that goes by the name avatar these days. Some of us are present in Second Life through an avatar, or have had our identities stolen digitally, for example, added a photograph to our Facebook account or branded our blog with an icon of some sort, even designed and sold T-Shirts, skateboards, coffee mugs and the like with our personal logos emblazoned. All of that is just learning the alphabet of avatar. . . .  You and I need to meet the avatar that we already have, that we already are, now that it may be augmented within the digital apparatus (electracy) as a prosthesis of decision. Avatar knows more than you or I do, or rather, it knows better than you or I do about what to do now, or what you or I truly know and understand and value and wish in our various respective situations. This claim must be not only understood, but undergone. It is not only an idea, a theory, but an experience.
WE DO NOT CHOOSE OUR AVATAR, IT CHOOSES US, BUT ONLY IF WE ARE ONLINE.  SOME OF US HAVE BEEN INHABITED BY AVATAR, OTHERS ARE STILL WAITING. LOOK AT YOUR ONLINE IDENTITIES: HAVE YOU BEEN INHABITED YET?
The conditions described by Virilio pose a challenge, calling for the invention of a new apparatus (social machine), that does for digital media what the invention of literacy in Classical Greece did for alphabetic writing. The creators of philosophy in the Academy and Lyceum invented the very institution of school, and within it the practices of logic, rhetoric, poetics to support ultimately scientific and democratic civilization. Plato warned in the first discourse on method in the Western tradition, Phaedrus, that writing separated the speaker’s voice from embodied presence, allowing it to wander abroad without protection. The experience of one’s own voice returning in writing contributed to the formation of a new identity formation known as selfhood, as Eric Havelock demonstrated in several books. In electracy (the digital apparatus) the evolution of identity continues, this time through the phenomenon of avatar, of one’s image and reputation circulating through the Internet, subject to sampling and mixing, to return in the form of scandal, libel, fame, fortune. The invention of a logic adequate to the dromosphere (flash reason, a practice of epiphany for authoring on the fly in database environments functioning at light speed) begins with an investigation of the opportunity for further invention opened by the acceptance of avatar to name one’s representative in cyberspace. The implication is that avatar opens connectivity between you and techgnosis.
YOU WILL KNOW YOUR AVATAR HAS FOUND YOU WHEN YOU ASPIRE TO BE THAT AVATAR. THE MARINE IN JAMES CAMERON’S AVATAR BECOMES NA’VI. MY AVATAR ENGAGED IN ONLINE ACTIVISM, INCLUDING THE CONSTANT WEARING OF ISSUE T-SHIRTS, UNTIL I BECAME THAT PERSON. FOR ME, TO AVATAR IS TO ENGAGE THE WORLD SOCIALLY AND POLITICALLY.  THAT IS WHO I STRIVE TO BE.

Dromosphere

The guiding scene and proposed attunement for thought and action in electracy is player with avatar. “Play” is justified in this context not only because of the game analogy, but more properly in the ludic terms developed by Johan Huizinga, who argues that culture and even civilization emerges out of play [Huizinga 1950]. The historical or cultural source of this scene is the Sanskrit poem Bhagavadgita (“Song of God,” Book VI of the Mahabharata), a major work of the Hindu religion. The setting is the battlefield of Kuruksetra (a place of religious pilgrimage), with two armies in conditions of civil war in position to engage. Prince Arjuna is assisted in his battle chariot by Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Arjuna, seeing many friends and family among both armies, expresses to his friend Krishna his ambivalence about the situation, and the decision he has to make. The poem records the subsequent conversation between the friends about dharma (duty, virtue), and the meaning of life in general, the metaphysics of the Hindu worldview. Krishna is one of nine avatars of Vishnu that have incarnated, appearing at times of crisis, whenever dharma is in decline. Vishnu’s avatars include fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf, Rama the ax-wielder, Rama, Krishna, Buddha. A tenth avatar, Kalki, will appear in human form, riding a white horse, at the time of the crisis of our present age. The term avatar in Sanskrit literally means descent.
THIS PARAGRAPH HIGHLIGHTS THE PLAYFULNESS THAT MUST ACCOMPANY THE NOTION OF AVATARING, OR TO AVATAR–THE VERB.  THIS PROCESS IS NOT SIMPLE, TRANSPARENT, OR TO BE UNDERTAKEN LIGHTLY.  I AM NOT ASKING YOU TO MAKE AN ARBITRARY CHOICE OF IDENTITY; I AM ASKING YOU TO BE OPEN TO THE IDENTITY THAT HAS DESCENDED ON YOU, DESCENDS ON YOU OVER THE COURSE OF THE SEMESTER, OR COMES TO YOU IN THE FUTURE.
The secular meaning of avatar refers to the personification in human form of abstract principles or intangible qualities. Aaron Britt surveyed the usage.

The proliferation of avatar’s second meaning can be traced to Second Life, a multiplayer online virtual world, where players fashion their own online personae called avatars. The popularity of the game has shot the term into the mainstream. Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, defines avatar in the gaming sense as “the representation of your chosen embodied appearance to other people in a virtual world.” Considering that Second Life avatars may assume literally any guise — wings, a dragon’s head, gills and flippers — the key to avatarness, in Rosedale’s view, is user control. And insofar as a Second Life avatar does and is precisely what the player wants, not just a little Mario who can be made to run and jump or a shapely diva gyrating of her own programmed will, it comes far closer to being a full-fledged virtual persona.  [Britt 2008]

The value of avatar for us is that the name tags the site of electrate identity formation, and in its religious, secular, and literal senses indexes cultural resources that have yet to be explored for the insight they may offer into our question of deliberation in the dromosphere. Rosedale misunderstands avatar. It is indeed a relationship with self, but the power flows in exactly the reverse direction: the player is and does what avatar wants, to the extent that the player is prudent. Our point of entry into electracy is just this question of avatar: what it is, what it is for, how to do it (how to avatar, avatar as verb). A first lesson of our guiding scene for contemporary conduct – Arjuna with Krishna on the verge of battle – signals a shift in our approach to this usage, extending it to identify the site of subject formation itself in electracy. The scene shows us a relationship between self (player) and avatar. Self is Arjuna; avatar is Krishna. Here is a relay for understanding the status of one’s image (reputation, status, brand) in cyberspace. An online incarnation is not “self” or ego, but a dimension of identity emerging in the new apparatus that is unfamiliar to modern people, and for which the analogy, helping us to imagine what is happening and to guide the invention of this new formation, is avatar. The function of avatar is counsel in a situation of decision. Through avatar you go beyond the limits of “self” to understand action from the position of communal well-being.
WHEN I TOOK STUDENTS INTO SECOND LIFE IN 2012, ALL BUT ONE STRUGGLED WITH THEIR AVATAR. THEY WANTED TO BE THEMSELVES. THE ARTIST IN THE CLASS, ALSO A GAMER, BECAME A GIANT GREEN LIZARD; HE DISRUPTED MEETINGS EVERYWHERE HE WENT. HE WAS NOT A MODEL CITIZEN, BUT HE PRODUCTIVELY ERODED SOME OF THE SERIOUSNESS OF HIS CLASSMATES.

Metis

Avatar uses flash reason in order to deliberate on public policy issues in the dromosphere. Paul Virilio’s choice of the Greek term for race (dromos) to name the condition of dimension collapse in electracy is a clue guiding the heuretics of flash reason. The method poses a question: what is the reasoning that wins races; specifically (continuing with the tactic of retrieval), what was the logic of the race course in Classical Greece (grammatology, inventing electracy by analogy). The oral Greeks called this reason metis, (after Zeus’s first wife) and it survived in literacy as prudence, phronesis, practical reason. Plato configured it as his contrast while inventing the pure or contemplative reason and its logic of identity organizing the philosophy of Being. Metis, rather, is the logic of Becoming, useful in conditions of contingency such as those concerning ethics and politics, when the outcome depends on human judgment. A phronimos or prudent person is one capable of immediately assessing the givens of a particular situation, and drawing upon maxims formulated from past experience, making a decision to act in a way that foresees the best outcome in the future. In short, prudence is time-logic.
The details of prudence (metis) in their oral version are exemplified by Odysseus, who relies on cunning and deceit to overcome more powerful adversaries and forces. The same vocabulary was used in early literacy in manuals teaching hunting and fishing. The emblematic figure of metis, in fact, is the fishing net, especially the cast net with its encircling meshes. The net of network in electracy resonates with this skill of creating or escaping snares, traps, lures, or any sort of aporia — mastery of circles and binds. Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant use the race course (dromos) to map the operating features of metis that may be projected onto any situation (Arjuna and Krishna in the battle chariot). Prudence means not caution but foresight that prepares one for success in open circumstances requiring improvisation and instant thought. The race course holds three sites and moments of danger and opportunity: the starting line, the turn (bend), and the finish line. The charioteer stands in for any pilot (Arjuna in his chariot with Krishna), with the vocabulary of navigation, cybernauts, cybernetics, helping translate practical reason into flash reason. The ultimate test of wayfinding is that of a stormy sea at night, when all guidemarks disappear (the scene of aporia), whether this night sea is literal or figurative (projected into the arts of medicine, politics, rhetoric). Avatar as guide through Tartarus (the trackless realm beneath the underworld).
I’D LIKE TO THINK OF ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION AS A CLASS IN FORESIGHT. WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO? HOW CAN YOU HELP A NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION ARRIVE AT A NEW, SUCCESSFUL PLACE? CAN YOU DEVELOP THEIR MAP QUICKLY? IF SO, YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF TO BE A SUCCESSFUL GUIDE IN THIS UNCHARTED TERRITORY.

 

What makes the dromosphere so troubling is that it requires the invention of a new mode of governance. The rhetorical skills of deliberative reason within a public sphere that made democracy possible were inventions of literacy, and are not sustainable within electracy. The time of decision, the civic process of critical analysis and persuasion through argumentation, is a luxury we do not have in the conditions of Right Now. We need a rhetoric that is forensic, epideictic, and deliberative at once. What happened, who is responsible, what do we do now? Here is the point of departure for flash reason, the image logic of avatar. Avatar reason is as compressed as the compression ratios of the equipment supporting it. An apparatus is not only equipment, but also practices of thinking developed within emerging institutions, and behaviors of identity (individual and collective).
THIS PARAGRAPH IS RHETORIC FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. RHETORIC IS THE HISTORICAL PRACTICE THAT GROUNDS ENGLISH AND COMMUNICATION. ARTISTS HAVE TRADITIONALLY SEPARATED THEMSELVES FROM THE RHETORICIANS AND PHILOSOPHERS, BUT AS ARTISTS ENGAGE MORE AND MORE DIRECTLY WITH COMMUNITIES AND ISSUES, THEY LOOK MORE AND MORE LIKE RHETORICIANS, BRINGING ABOUT THE WORLD THEY DESIRE.
Flash reason must do for the image prosthesis what argumentation did for the word in literacy. The resources needed for designing a logic of an Internet civic sphere are already available in the same cultural history that produced the technology. Marshal McLuhan’s laws of media indicate that apparatus invention proceeds by the “obsoleting” of some current practice, and the “retrieval” of some obsolete practice, newly recognized as relevant to a contemporary context. The larger purpose of Avatar Emergency is to establish a collection of cultural inventions associated historically with fast or sudden thinking, and compose from them an experimental procedure for collective and individual decision-making Now. Flash reason, adopted as a practice of general electracy, is a civic basis for democracy in the circumstances of the dromosphere.

Orpheus

Our reconfiguration of avatar as a practice of electracy takes McLuhan’s advice about the laws of media: that with any artifact one must ask, what does it render obsolete, and what does it retrieve from the past? [McLuhan & McLuhan 1992]. As our guiding scene suggests, avatar’s history includes various incarnations and theorizations, as god, soul, self. It is not that literate selfhood is rendered obsolete in our context, seeking a practice of flash reason adequate to the demands of the dromosphere, but that this experience of being an autonomous individual is brought into relationship with a new dimension of reality produced within the epoch of electracy. Avatar is the name of this relationship, and it may be figured in an emblem.
WE WILL SPEND TIME WITH MCLUHAN’S LAWS OF MEDIA; TO WORK IN THE DROMOSPHERE REQUIRES AN UNDERSTANDING OF “MEDIA ECOLOGY,” HOW THE TECHNOLOGIES INTERACT WITH ONE ANOTHER, PUSH EACH OTHER AROUND.  WE WILL ALSO SPEND SOME TIME WITH EMBLEMS: CONDENSED VISUAL COMMUNICATION.
Avatar in our Internet public sphere is a relationship, and depends upon a certain kind of experience. Another relay (rather than model) for this approach to avatar is provided by Maurice Blanchot’s appropriation of the Orpheus myth as an emblem of his theory of writing [Blanchot 1981, 171]. The Greek myth recounts the life and death of Orpheus, credited as the inventor of writing. Blanchot focuses on Orpheus’s descent (avatar) into Hades, which he was able to enter through the power of his art. His purpose was to retrieve his beloved Eurydice, who died in an accident. . . . Catabasis connects avatar with the very structure of narrative, codified in the templates of screenplay authoring: the protagonist becomes hero by leaving home, entering the special world of the narrative (that is, descends into the realm of death). This model is only the point of departure for our project (becoming image), since brand as the identity experience of electracy no longer possesses the coherence of narrative form.
NARRATIVE: THE NAME OF A LOCAL ADVERTISING AND MARKETING FIRM IN FARGO.
STORYTELLING: UNDERSTOOD TO BE THE KEY TO BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS, TO CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE, WHETHER YOU ARE A POLITICIANS OR A MARKETING GURU.
IMAGE AND BRAND:  IDENTITY RECEIVED IMMEDIATELY, RATHER THAN PERCEIVED SLOWLY WITH THE UNFOLDING OF TEXT.
THIS IS A RHETORIC COURSE: ALL FORMS OF COMMUNICATION ARE IN PLAY.
Blanchot’s appropriation of the myth typifies a device of existentialist authors of his period (Camus and Sisyphus, for example), of updating legends, fables, myths, as allegories for contemporary experience. The lesson passed along for us is the analogy between the writer’s relation with the work and the relation of self with avatar. Blanchot developed his poetics in explicit opposition to Sartre’s endorsement of prose and an activist engagement with political polemics. Blanchot takes “the other slope of language,” that of poetry, with important implications for EmerAgency consulting. Poetry is “useless” in instrumental terms. Our purpose, rather, is to bring into ontology the disposition, attitude, virtue (desire) of the subject, in order to open a new front in the struggle for survival. Blanchot’s lesson is that the “entry into language” by a speaking being is a kind of avatar descent.
BECAUSE MY EXPERIENCE WITH AVATAR HAS LED TO “ACTIVIST ENGAGEMENT” I TEND TO APPROACH ONLINE ACTION AS PROSE, AS REALISM, AS PRAGMATISM. BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO, AND WE ALL SHOULD KEEP BOTH “SLOPES OF LANGUAGE” IN PLAY.  140 CHARACTERS MIGHT BE POETIC AND POWERFUL; A 500 WORD BLOG ENTRY MIGHT BE ALL THE TIME AND SPACE WE NEED (AND HAVE) FOR DELIBERATIVE ACTION IN THIS SPED UP DROMOSPHERE.
An instruction of this analogy is that avatar as the enunciation of flash reason performs an entry into image, and must be designed according to this conative or receptive stance. Avatar is not mimetic of one’s ego, but a probe beyond one’s ownness, as a relationship with community. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome is much invoked in association with the Internet. Our use of the figure follows their example of rhizome as a symbiotic relationship between two separate domains brought into mutually beneficial alliance. It is significant that one of their primary examples of rhizome (the wasp and orchid, or bee and flower) was also the chief guiding image for students in manuscript culture, who were advised to compose texts the way bees made honey: by frequenting the best flowers of rhetoric, to retrieve and store their essence, with which to create honey in the hive. Here is another analogy for the avatar relationship: player to avatar is as artist to work. Analogy depends upon the familiarity of its ratio. To understand your relationship with avatar, you are offered a comparison with authoring, or with art making in general. Blanchot’s allegory specifies the relevant part of the analogy: player with avatar in an Internet dromosphere is like Orpheus with Eurydice in Hades. Such is the counsel provided by our traditions and our artists, said to be the antennae of the race.
ONE CAN BE ONLINE WITHOUT BEING AN ARTISTS, BUT WHY WOULDN’T WE ENTER INTO THIS VIRTUAL UNDERWORLD AS STORYTELLERS, IMAGE MAKERS, AND LIFE SAVERS?
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One thought on “Ulmer’s Avatar Emergency Remixed

  1. Pingback: Blog Essay #1 | Jordan Rodewald

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