Saturday, 18 July 2009

Once more on the self in cyberspace: a theology of avatars

I’ve been revising my recent conference paper on blogging for publication. I don’t mean to bore you with more excerpts – but here’s a brief section that I ended up deleting from the paper. (Technically, that means I’m posting my trash here. Sorry about that...)

In Cities of God, Graham Ward worries that virtual reality is becoming not “the other of the real”, but “a parallel world to the real one”, so that the ontological difference between them collapses. Ward’s analysis is, I think, correct. But this is not something to be lamented – as though the solution were to drive a deeper wedge between “real reality” and “virtual reality”. Instead, the significant point is precisely that the distinction between “real” reality and “virtual” reality is purely a nominal one. The virtual world is not a different place, an indistinct zone which one occasionally visits; it is simply the name for particular sets of practices and social relations.

Such a recognition – that cyberspace is no less “real” than the tangible, material world – is essential for any Christian ethical reflection on cyberspace. If I consume internet porn, I am not indulging in a “virtual” (i.e. less-than-real) act. If I have a conversation with someone on a blog, this is not a “virtual” act either; it is a practice involving particular kinds of relations between persons. If I have an avatar in a gaming environment, or in Second Life, this too is not merely a virtual representation of my true self; it is in some sense an extension of the self, a manifestation of the self under different social constraints and conditions. If my cyber-self is far more violent, more aggressive or more erotic than my non-virtual self, this might have more to do with the differing sets of social constraints in web environments: so that it is sometimes tempting to regard the avatar not as a virtual reality, but as an uninhibited, more real manifestation of the self.

If you want to insist that such an avatar could never be the “real you”, then you might consider how the “real” self is manifest in various day-to-day relationships. In our differing roles and relationships, we all deploy various personae or avatars: I have one persona at an academic conference, but quite another when I’m talking with my one-year-old son, and a different one again when I’m talking with a close friend, or with my employer. Which of these is the “real” self? Isn’t the self precisely an assemblage of such avatars, without the guarantee of any deep underlying essence?

This might all sound very postmodern and constructivist. But think for a moment of the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels. Many scholars have bravely tried to develop a psychological profile of Jesus, to plumb the mysterious depths of his inner self. But the reason such attempts have so notoriously failed is that Jesus simply has no inner life; his identity is his deeds. One can know everything about him simply by observing what he does on the surface. When John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire after Jesus’ identity, Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22-23). The true self is right there in front of you, right on the surface.

At a 1964 Halloween concert in Carnegie Hall, Bob Dylan offered the humorous remark: “It’s Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.” Is not every self an assemblage of such masquerades? Do we need to imagine the self as some deep underlying essence? Is the self not rather simply the continual surfacing of one’s being into material relations with others?

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