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?


Terry Wright said...

Equating Jesus' identity and deeds may be so, but this identity-as-action would have appeared differently to the onlookers: To the sinful, as Judge; to the oppressed, as Liberator; to the unloveable, as Lover; etc.

The other thing is that the virtual world is what it is only because of the (ontologically?) prior existence of the 'real' world. But I don't think this alters your point about the difference between the two being simply nominal.

A good, interesting post, Ben; thanks.

Danny said...

"? 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?"

What "being" is manifesting itself or surfacing itself into material relations if not the "essential" self? (I'm thinking Augustine here...)

I'm also confused about what it would mean for Jesus to have no inner life. Certainly whatever inner life he has would consist of "mental deeds"; why think just because we don't see them that they don't exist?

TW said...

Gnosticism, the uglier twin.

paul said...

Loved the Dylan link. I didn't realise that in 1964 Bob had already predicted the recent financial crisis: "The kingdoms of Experience / In the precious wind they rot / While paupers change possessions / Each one wishing for what the other has got." Very Girardian.

IIRC, in one of his odd but interesting books (I think it's God Is With Us) Ladislaus Boros suggested that the divinity of Christ is revealed in the perfect and unique coherence of his inner life and outer deeds.

roger flyer said...

The Irish poet David Whyte:

“…As human beings we are actually the only corner of creation which can refuse to be itself. We can actually not only refuse to be ourselves but we can actually hang a mask over our face and pretend to be something that we’re not. And we can even take another virtuosic second step and forget that we’re wearing a mask and become the thing we were actually pretending to be in the beginning.

And so it’s quite remarkable to think that we’re the only corner of creation that has the experience of exile…”

Zwingli 2.0 said...

The Boros reference is particularly helpful when read alongside John 2:24-25:

"But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man."

In Christ, it's as if God, to borrow Dan Via's terminology from "Self-Deception and Wholeness", is "re-creating the self-related wholeness that God effected in creation but that has been lost in sin."

Zwingli 2.0 said...

Besides the nature of identity, I think Ben's line of thought raises some interesting questions about the Last Things.

At marginalrevolution, Tyler Cowen linked to a fascinating (very) short story about the Christian version of 'afterlife' being replaced with mind uploading, etc.

The story has a twist, which I won't reveal, but the area of virtual reality raises some big questions for theology.

What would an extreme transhumanism (e.g. Kurzweil's) mean for Christian notions of resurrection and eternal life?

kim fabricius said...

I think that what Ben is gesturing towards here is not a rejection of "interiority" or the "inner life" as such, but the Cartesian version of it which Wittgenstein deconstructed, but which tenaciously hangs around: the notion that there is a real, disembodied "me" that lives inside my head, which we can at best infer, more or less, from a person's actions and behaviour.

Rowan Williams has two splendid essays which explore the matter: "The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer" (1988), reprinted in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (2007), and "Interiority and Epiphany: a Reading in New Testament Ethics" (1995), republished in On Christian Theology (2000).

In the former essay, Williams approvingly quotes Fergus Kerr (from his great book Theology after Wittgenstein [1986]): "the depth of the world is on the surface, so to speak: but also, what is most secret about the self is public knowledge."

Daniel Imburgia said...

"Man multiplied by the machine. New mechanical sense, a fusion of instinct with the efficiency of motor and conquered forces." Marinetti. "The Poem in the Machine."

Well, yes it all does 'sound rather postmodern' Ben, you say that like it’s a bad thing! But, that Jesus had "no inner life," that his Being was exhausted by his actions...that's not the same as saying their was no contradiction between his inner and outer life. Did Jesus have secrets? Were the bread and wine simulacra or synecdoche? Was the Temple (2.0) a salvation Technology superseded by Jesus 3.0? Was the cross a parallel reality or parallax, Is David Whyte an “Irish poet,” as Roger Flyer says (he lives just down the street here in Langley on Whidbey island, hi David) or an American poet? Or was Jesus like the Irish king Cuchulain, who, as M Joyce writes in his poem, “fought the tide with his sword, they lose who would battle waves on the shores of light. The book is slow, the network is quick, the book is many of one, the network is many ones multiplied: the book is dialogic, the network polylogic.” Marinetti was a Nazi but not anti-Semitic. I bring the prayers of friends to Israel to tuck into the cracks of the Western (Wailing) wall. I have told them one can now fax the prayers to Israel and for a donation they will be placed in the wall for you. Another option is to ‘phone it in’ for a fee, one can see Hasid’s with one hand on the wall with a phone to their ear praying. You can watch this on-line in ‘real time.’ Did Jesus know about this? Or was it a secret? Obliged, Daniel on Whidbey Island.

Unknown said...

I don't know, Schweitzer didn't do that bad of a job (but, then, maybe because he grasped well what Kim is getting at above).

Tyler Wittman said...


I'm interested to see how this whole thing develops, keep the "trash" coming.

Zwingli 2.0 said...

But doesn't this understanding of identity (with which I'm sympathetic) have more general implications beyond Jesus?

What would it mean for Christianity if we could effectually 'resurrect' ourselves by means of whole brain emulation? We could re-create our personalities (or whatever you want to call them) with virtual bodies and continue existing in virtual worlds.

Anonymous said...


In light of this, I would be interested to hear your take on Jesus' teaching in Mt 15:1-20 (for out of THE HEART comes . . .).

Thanks for the stimulating post.


Mel said...


You seem to dance around the concept of hyperreality here. While originally coined in relation to phenomena such as photography and holograms and Disneyland, hyperreality is the authentic fake (as Eco puts it, I believe). The term has greater semantic compass than the commonly used 'virtual reality' because it affirms the continuity with the real while birthing a concept to convey another plane of existence and interaction. It is a participatory removal from physically-mediated interactions and a removed participation in cyber-mediated interactions (though still allowing for mouse clicks and key strokes). Cyberspace as you explore it here seems to slide right into the conceptual framework of hyperreality. The avatar, as in Second Life, seems to be the hyperrealization of the self. Perhaps this could be a unique framework for approaching the relationship of the Spirit and the ascended Christ, particularly if you are suggesting a shift away from classical metaphysical construals of the self by identifying Jesus wholly with his deeds. The Spirit, in effect, is the doer of the ascended Christ's deeds in his removed participation in the ongoing history of the world.



bruce hamill said...

If this is trash I'll take more crumbs from the table

Fat said...

Great controversy ensued when the line between real and imaginery lives was blurred in one of Australia's largest MSN groups. It led to legal threats and the moderators (Who were ultimately responsible as was MSN for content remaining in public view) were also forced to seek some legal advice and to heavily censor threads to keep within the same parameters as a daily paper or other public forum.

It was a difficult time - of course everyone 'knew' who the person was and had already tried him/her on the basis of media evidence, delighting in placing their latest theory in the public forum - meaning that the Moderators were faced with constant supervision duties removing even sly asides.

People seemed to delight in revealing information about themselves (which may or may not have been true) and others seemed to delight in putting together what they could glean to connect a real person with the imaginery nic-name.

In another case a fellow received threats to his workplace and at another time a group formed to "bring down the board". I guess community takes in all kinds of personalities and the anonymity of the internet allows the fostering of the basest of emotions.

Sadly MSN eventually deleted all it's groups (some with 10 years of community and over a million posts) The reformed groups on other forums have not thrive as they once did without the feed in of new people that MSN afforded (via the 'have your say' button) though some are still active.

There is a very relevant picture here.

It is entitled "Remember, on the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog"

roger flyer said...

@ Daniel-
Wow! I didn't know David had emigrated to the new Irish coast.

Daniel, if you guys are friends out there--tune him into the blog. Things will really heat up then! He is a brilliant thinker.

Daniel Imburgia said...

Roger, I have been to readings, and see him around, and worked on his house some years ago but we are not 'friends,' so to speak (he couldn't pick me out of a crowd). The island is a celebrity rich environment, actors, writers, and artists, oh my, and one learns to not to be fawning and overly familiar. But if circumstances thrust us into a conversation I will certainly introduce him to F+T, obliged, Daniel

Michael said...

The distinction between real and virtual reality is purely a nominal one? Sounds like nominalism to me!

Seriously, I really appreciated this deconstruction of our ability to maintain a Cartesian distance between our 'real' self and our 'virtual' actions. I suspect something similar is at work in the popularity of cosmetic surgery - the goal being to redesign our outer shell so it more closely resembles the 'authentic' self (ghost?) inside.

Mike Higton said...

Loved the post. One quick comment, though: you seem to suggest at one point that the uninhibted self might be more real precisely because it is uninhibted. Isn't that buying into the whole model you're rejecting: that if it weren't for my 'inhibitions' my real self could be expressed? If I am what I am in my relationships, then aren't I my inhibitions, even if no set of inhibitions exhausts me?

Fat said...

Is it sin if your Avatar does it?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these extremely interesting comments, which have given me lots of new things to think about. A couple of quick replies:

Yes Mike, you're absolutely right: it was a little dishonest of me to use the word "uninhibited" in this context, since it blatantly contradicts this whole (anti-essentialist) approach to anthropology. I guess I was just using the word for rhetorical effect — and I wondered if anyone would notice that it makes absolutely no sense in this context. So thanks for pointing it out...

Mel: I love your comment on "hyperreality" — that's not something I've ever thought about before, but you've certainly got me thinking about it now. Ditto for the great comments by Daniel, Zwingli 2.0, et alia...

As for whether Jesus had an "interior life": personally, I really don't see how he could have had an interior life, since he had not yet had the benefit of reading Augustine. (For more, see Phillip Cary's book, Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self.)

But anyway, all the excellent questions raised here (and my inability to answer them satisfactorily) give a clear picture of why I decided to delete this stuff from my paper! But it's a topic I'd like to return to some time, and see if I can think about it a bit more carefully.

In the mean time, though, I am suspending all my opinions about theological anthropology until I've had the chance to read David Kelsey's magnum opus on the topic (a massive 2-volume, 1200-page work on being human; coming soon from WJKP).

Okay, that's enough from my blog-avatar for tonight. My non-virtual self is in desperate need of about 11 hours of sleep...

Pablo said...

This post is tremendous. Especially, "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."

I tend to be far more violent & aggressive (& some day, erotic) when slamming my avatar around the Internet than when I arrive somewhere with my ugly mug in real life to haggle & concede.

brian said...

Ben, can I assume you know what an avatar is and why I think it concerning why people call these images avatars?



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