The Avatar and Online Affect, Ken Hillis

  • I organize my discussion around the figure of the avatar in multiple-user virtual environment (MUVE) platforms such as Second Life and also make reference to a subset of MUVEs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft
  • While avatars can be operated by forms of artificial intelligence, one of the acknowledged purposes for which humans fabricate avatars is so that they can serve as stand-ins for human individuals seeking to communicate affectively with one another both in and through virtual environments or space.
  • Avatars have a capacity to generate seemingly independent forms of networked affect unrelated to their human operators. An avatar in Second Life that turns to look back and wave at its human operator as it walks across a virtual space, for example, has the potential to induce for that operator and others the perception that it has about it intense qualities of liveliness that are seemingly independent of its operator

  • I examine four networked phenomena that, when conjoined, constitute a mechanism or assemblage capable of producing a range of fields of intensity also identifiable as forms of networked affect:
  1. metaphors of virtual space,
  2. the allegory of networked telepresence
  3. the use of indexical signs and sign/bodies that take the form of lively digital avatars
  4. the contemporary reification of virtual mobility
  • Textual and visual metaphors of virtual space abound on the web. We get to the internet with Safari and Explorer. We “visit” “sites” on “platforms” and sometimes find “pages” that are “under construction” in retro but by-no-means abandoned “cyberspace.” Such metaphors work to naturalize the idea of internet addresses as material places one might visit, even though we know intellectually that we don’t really go “there.”
  • Humans retell the story in myriad ways, textual and visual; MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and Star Trek Online are predicated on it
  • The trope of a hero negotiating a journey through an allegorical landscape has broad cultural affect, and its availability for individuals to enact its components through interactive and lively avatars has assisted its passage or translation into digital realms.
  • Indexical signs are a third mechanism and a component of the assemblage that works to produce networked affect. The idea of the indexical sign was first theorized by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and is arguably his most important contribution to semiotics and sign theory.
  • Peirce recognized that the relationship between a sign and the object to which it refers lies not only in connotative mental associations between representation and referent but also in a direct, denotative, existential, or causal relation of the sign to its object ( smoke, for example, is an indexical sign of fire)
  • Online avatars operate in a parallel manner. They are indexical signs of their operators.  As moving images that speak and circulate in and through online virtual environments composed of naturalized spatial metaphors that their operators allegorically enter, avatars direct attention to themselves less as representations and more as actual traces of human operators, rendered lively and available through telepresence. This indexical relation between sign (avatar) and object (operator) is tacitly understood by all who witness the avatar.
  • the sign and the object would merge with the interpretant
  • Avatar&Human – are affected by and connected through the sign to themselves and others as interpretants who make affective meaning of the signs that point back to themselves as interpretants. In such a recursive fashion, avatars become flickering indexes hovering between conscious and nonconscious, human and machine, forms of agency
  • Deleuze identifies the rise of the cinema as pivotal in revealing the phenomenological limitations that ensue from the naturalized binary that places images in the qualitative realm of consciousness and movement in the different realm of quantifiable space.
  • Deleuze notes that such a binary—one erected between idealism and materialism, interior and exterior, and, by extension, sign and referent—serves to divorce consciousness from the thing itself. The movement-image allows a film’s spectators or interpretants to bridge this gap between perception and ideology
  • The sign/body occupying networked virtual space points to those online forms of signification mounted by web users and participants, whose practices and techniques reveal the broader project of using the web to collapse the binary that Deleuze identifies; that is, to render the web as the realm both of the image and consciousness and of space and movement, and thereby to reconnect consciousness to the thing.
  • Brain science research using immersive virtual reality (VR) technology confirms that individuals lose track of their body locations in virtual settings.
  • Deleuze, Ehrsson, and Lenggenhager, et al. confirm in different ways that moving images hail perception autonomically, and the viewing of a moving image of an object, thing, or event has the potential to authorize the perceptual sense of experiential access to a trace of the referent
  • Avatar, a Sanskrit term, translates as “he passes or crosses down.”
  • The rise of the avatar moving effortlessly through virtual space points directly to the related issue of mobility. While many fleshy bodies sitting in front of screens large and small may feel, or be encouraged to feel, that they are insufficiently mobile for the dictates of today’s just-in-time, do-it-yourself, overworked world, in settings such as Second Life, their avatars are body doubles that can seem to constitute a kind of individuated virtual public as they move about the ersatz spaces they appear to populate at will
  • Second Life’s participants imaginatively transcend the here and now. In a world of individuals who have been raised with the illusion that they are in full control of their lives but who have come, as commodities, to understand otherwise, the avatar deeply resonates with the need to maintain control over some part of one’s life. MUVE operators fabricate body doubles, and through these indexical sign/bodies seem to achieve self-control as they merge with the immanence of lively and expressive technical affect, if only for the moment
  • I would also note that at times of great sociopolitical and socioeconomic uncertainty, art forms, including popular art forms such as those crafted in virtual worlds, can serve as forms of becoming—as forms of collective conversation about the limits of our reality, our perception, and our understanding of what we mean by the self

Ken Hillis; Susanna Paasonen 1975-; Michael Petit; IEEE Xplore (Online Service), distributor.; MIT Press, publisher.2015

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