Avatar: a mash-up

This piece is a mash-up of an undergrad essay from a couple of years ago, plus present thoughts, imaginings and speculation on the narrative of self in a virtual environment.

Storytelling is as old as humanity. The human has always actively projected him/herself into realms of fantasy (through song, art, drama, writing). Modernity advanced the visual aspect of imaginative adventure with diorama and panorama displays, museums, and the invention of photography.

From here on, global culture = visually excessive.

Current experience = deterritorialisation through photography, cinema, advertising, television and the internet. It has become necessary to visually immerse ourselves in narratives.

In a complex, rhizomatic pastiche of ‘real life’, one may construct an ‘avatar’ (a digital version of themself) and physically control this avatar in their explorations of the new world. It is both a phantasmagorical escape, a facade for the reality of alienated individuals, recreating themselves (in a new environment as a modernist ‘I’). But it is also a site of appropriation, subversions, contradictions and of course, commercialism.

There is no centre. One’s avatar may have the option of flying, to cover large distances.

In a heterotopic sense, the mind is engaged within the spatial explorations of the avatar – within three-dimensional virtuality (while the body is on firm ground). Physical room + virtual head = modernist ‘montage’.

This space inside the computer screen, an interaction with computer screens the world over, is hyperreal. Because while the objects and mobilities are often symbols (representatives of real life things) they are in fact ‘created’ from nothing but strands of numbers. Their workable reality effectively ‘replaces’ the things they are representing. They are simulacra, and this is emphasised by the fact that someone will actively create an avatar to ‘be amongst’ this new reality, in effect making even themself into a simulacrum.

There is not much need for a system of order, as De Certeau discusses with the city, because there is no sickness, no waste, no excrement, no death, and no bodily necessities. Shelter, food, sleep, are not necessary. It is Donald’s ‘un espace propre’.

Foucault describes a type of utopia –

…something like [a] counter-site… a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.

A utopia is still grounded in real life modernist principles, the advancement of oneself within technology – by property and finances (perhaps ‘social credit’ here).

Foucault’s heterotopias and the internet:

A crisis heterotopia exists for those who are in a crisis in ‘normal’ society, thus, they retreat to the formation of their own self and narratives.

A heterotopia of deviation could be related to the sexual aspects of the internet – people engaging in acts that they are unable to in real life.

A juxtapositional heterotopia ties in with the post-modern aspect of appropriation. Several sites that are incompatible in real life may be joined.

It is a heterochrony as it has its own time structure.

It is also a heterotopia with varying points of access.

The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains… Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned… Or else… their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.

Which do you think it is?

The individual is in a mode of excorporation – utilising a product (computer) to subvert the dominant system (not participating in real life and civic space).

Archetypal cyberpunk sardonically sends up the society of the frenetic information age, but the cyber-environment itself is a given, almost an object of desire… Cyberpunk characters are in a transcendent state when they’re in cyberspace. To be deprived of cyber-reality by burn-out or misfortune is almost an exile from Eden. (Watson, 2003, p. 156)

The internet also gives residents who may be reclusive or marginalised figures in real life the chance to be part of an imagined community.

[T]he internet is… essentially liberatory: if it is not under some centralised control, it can only be the provenance of free individuals and small groups, in an egalitarian world where the individual is unhindered by boundaries of nation, class, gender or property (Thwaites, Davis & Mules).

There is the argument that too much interaction online and an overstimulation of the visual could result in a loss of tangibility. The ‘schizophrenic exchanging of identities’ could also result in ‘dehumanisation’, the exact thing the science-fiction film often warns against. This could also be referred to as a contradictionbetween the site’s promises, and its denials. The cyberpunk novel, in a more post-modern fashion, embraces the consequences of this – the possible inevitability of it in the face of capitalist commodification. It could be argued that as a transgressive space, the internet is actually an escape from the dehumanising sphere of real life capitalism. It is a place to communicate unboundaried.

While one can be transported to places they cannot physically visit without considerable expense, the internet also reinstates other imagined communities and places of belonging.

The internet can be subversive by naturalising images that are ‘unnatural’ in real life. Cartoon avatars, abbreviated language (or created/altered languages i.e. ‘I can haz…’). Online, these are ‘natural’ and thus, these symbolisations are transgressive to real life ‘natural’ order. They are, in a post-modern sense fragmentary, indeterminate (can be changed at will) and distrusting of ‘totalising’ discourses (Harvey).

The internet goes further than film, television, literature and video games by allowing an individual to not just create a character, a modern self, but create a narrative. What is striking is that this is the path of real life. We are creating ourselves and we are constructing our path. (Is a duality of self/multi-projections of self our condition anyway? But online, the less normative self finds more spaces for expression/collection/acceptance?) On the internet there are less obstacles in the way of our constructed narrative, and there is variety. And on the internet, there is an off button.


Baudrillard, J 1988, ‘Simulacra and simulations’ in M Poster (ed.), Jean Baudrillard: selected writings, Polity, Cambridge.
De Certeau, M 1985, ‘Practices of space’ in M Blonsky (ed.),
On signs, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Donald, J 1995, ‘The city, the cinema: modern spaces’, in C Jenks (ed.),
Visual culture, Routledge, London.
Fiske, J 1989, ‘The jeaning of America’ in his
Understanding popular culture, Unwin & Hyman, Boston.
Foucault, M 2006, ‘Of other spaces’, in N Mirzoeff (ed.),
The visual culture reader (2nd edn), Routledge, London.
Harvey, D 1991,
The condition of postmodernity, Blackwell, Cambridge.
Olalquiaga, C 1992, ‘Lost in space’ in her
Megalopolis: contemporary cultural sensibilities, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Thwaites, T et al. 2002,
Introducing cultural and media studies: a semiotic approach, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndsmills.

One thought on “Avatar: a mash-up

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