Saturday, June 5, 2010

Avatars of Desire

Many of the submissions for the Hack Gender project are essentially anonymous: they are attributed to handles, to screennames, to identities that have been constructed in LiveJournal or Twitter but that maintain a degree of separation from the writer's "real" identity. The ability to have a discussion behind these avatars is a phenomenon of online spaces, where identity can apparently be completely constructed in correspondence to but not in direct correlation with an individual body. As Tim Hardy posted in his thoughts on the project, "On the internet where 'nobody knows you're a dog', I find gender often takes a back seat and communication becomes a conversation first and foremost between individuals. In other words--online, we all pass."

In another piece for the Hack Gender project, Virtual Crossdressing, John Murray wrote about the creation of online spaces where the assumption of a gender role can be challenged and responded to by others: taking on an identity is not a static process, and other people within a virtual world can make judgments based on a virtual body in the same way that the physical world demands. 

The tone of the project would change if an image, a set of identifiers, a full name, had to accompany each submission. We take for granted the cultural signifiers of other people’s bodies. We judge a person’s heritage from what we see, whether those symbols are inherent, such as skin tone or eye color, or chosen, such as clothing and hair style. Yet each year we have further and unprecedented control over the body we present to the world: and in a virtual space, that control is complete. We might comfort ourselves with the thought that if we were, today, to be thrust knowingly into another body, it would not much change who we are. Yet every day another man or woman seeks another type of comfort in the arms of a plastic surgeon who offers transformations more minor in scale but with the promise of change for the better. We constantly clothe ourselves in different labels and trends and change everything from our nail color to the layering of our hair to better reflect, or create, our self. We may judge if someone is “like us” or other from the first glance. While we believe we clothe ourselves in the trappings of personal identity, those trappings are very much linked to a stronger cultural identity. Our body is the essence of our social connection. Without its distinguishing factors, we’d be hard pressed to find our community—even a child’s resemblance to her mother would disappear.

"Walking" into a virtual space, I don't *do* anything particularly remarkable. I am still sitting behind the same computer desk as always, ensconced comfortably in my apartment. No one else is around, and yet suddenly I am among many people--not friends, no, perhaps not even acquaintances, but people nonetheless. Most of them do not appear at first glance to be the type of people I would invite back to my apartment, as women dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch with augmented porn star bodies are rarely my guests here, but suddenly I don’t have much choice who I invite onto my desktop. People wander through the scene without paying me much attention; each of them intent on whatever task brings them to the virtual realm, whether it is for work or play. The world is so vast that it’s rare to encounter a large collective, but the groups that do gather have purposes as diverse as any mass in the so called real world.

There are even freedoms it takes time to recognize: a virtual body can be any color, any size, and any combination of gender identities [as the avatars come without sexual characteristics, only with a vague gender label, the possibilities are fairly endless]. The choice of these characteristics is heavily waited precisely because it is a choice: while one cannot pick his or her race at birth, in virtual space skin color is simply a digital paint job. Making the assumption that anyone who is white in the game is actually white anymore than it is safe to assume that a woman is actually a woman. We take all our biases and stereotypes with us to the virtual realm even though nothing in that realm is as it seems.

In the Matrix films the “residual self image” of Neo upon entering the Matrix knowingly for the first time projected the best in how he remembered himself: without the scars of his time as a battery, hair longer and styled, clothes impeccable. While I do not upload my own residual self image directly, I do possess it, and whether positive or negative it distorts my virtual self. The more recognizable and to some threatening form of deception in the digital self is the deception of others. Digital form allows us the possibility of becoming something that would have been previously impossible: we see ourselves as we wish to, and can project the gender identity that best represents us.

To look once again at Neo, we watch as a withered man emerges from tube with atrophied muscles and with the addition of a net connection becomes a bullet dodging kung fu master. He gives others the impression of the best he believes himself capable of. With the same application of data, Neo could transform himself to other forms in the manner of the Sentinels—to become the alluring woman in the red dress or a child seeking a companion or any number of creatures, as chosen by the shaper of data. Fantasies prior to the digital era were confined to the relatively impersonal realm of look don’t touch media—magazines, videos, and other such non-participatory media. Now such fantasies are easily in reach, even if such contact can only in the end be avatar to avatar. The contact is between user and machine, and between user and other users, geographically separate but within the instant touch of data streams. Such actions seem unreal, and thus without consequence—but in their anonymity, in the freedom they offer, can be realizations of desire.