Which transformations virtual worlds may be doing in understandings of the body, online but also offline? Which experiences of embodiment online and offline conform new subjectivities? How might these virtual worlds also recall us to enduring conceptualizations and experiences of embodiment? Then, what does it mean to have a body?
Boellstorff: in-world pluralities
This first post starts with this reasearch guide questions that are mostly addressed by Tom Boellstorff in Placing the Virtual Body: Avatar, Chora, Cypherg (2011). There, the author analyzes avatars in Second Life platform (henceforth SL) emphasizing “that avatars are not merely representations of bodies but forms of embodiment, centered on constitutive emplacement within a world” (Boellstorff; 2011: 504), or, as him prefers to refer to SL: in-world.
From his ethnographic work in SL, Boellstorff explains that, even though the platform allows to select nearly unlimited formats of avatars, most people, “have singular virtual embodiments that they see as resembling their actual-world embodiment, or that reflect dominant actual-world ideals of beauty and status” (Boellstorff; 2011: 507). To do a critic analysis in that sense would be the most expected, but Boellstorff argues that we should not close in that direction, because, for instance, the male avatar with bulging biceps may be female in the actual world. “Regardless of the form an avatar takes, a fundamental way in which it constitutes a kind of embodiment is as an anchor for subjectivity” (Boellstorff; 2011: 507).
The author affirms that there is an ontologically foundational gap between an avatar and an actual-world person, and between any virtual world and the actual world. Ideas, metaphors, power relations, and even forms of materiality routinely move across this gap between the virtual and actual, but it is the gap and attendant movements across it that make the virtual possible at all (Boellstorff; 2011: 509). It is possible to have more than one avatar in SL, also there are avatars that emulate deceased relatives, others are like alter egos, others have animal parts of body.. Although the formats are almost unlimited, the interesting approach of Boellstorff lies in the analysis that takes into account the existential aspects of bodily experience and subjectivity anchor in addition to the formats. In that sense, “culture and self can be understood from the standing point of embodiment as an existential conditionin which the body is subjective recourse, or the intersubjective experience base” (Csordas; 1999: 181) but not an object to be studied in itself.
For Boellstorff, virtual embodiment, is is always embodiment in a virtual place.i1 (Boellstorff ; 2011: 504). Virtual body and space are mutually constituted. From the ethnographic evidence, the author explains that stories and conversations in SL exemplify how aspects of virtual-world embodiment sometimes distill or even concretize what it means to be embodied in the actual world (Boellstorff; 2011: 509). And proposes to think about indexical relations, and frames: “the theoretical framework needed is not teleological but indexical. For virtual embodiment, but for all aspects of virtual culture as well, the gap between virtual and actual is constitutive of bidirectional meaning-making, value production, subjectivation, and social praxis”(Boellstorff; 2011: 509). This indexical relation is emergent in the relation between actual bodies and their emplacement in landscapes of perception and sociality, both online and offline (Boellstorff; 2011: 514).
We are then confronted to new corporalitieslinked to the potential of virtual worlds allows us to be ourselves in different spaces and sociability. “The potential of virtual worlds for embodiment lies in how virtual corporeality co-grounds culture with a being-inworld founded in new pluralizations of place and sociality. (…) (generating) figures whose recursively indexical being-inworld stands to fundamentally reconfigure what it means to be human” (Boellstorff; 2011: 517). A participation through techne that makes possible the conditions for emplaced being itself. A recursive indexicality, made possible by the pluralization of being-inworld, is quite literally the point of the virtual body, the author explains.
Massumi: Complementary to complete
In the chapter The bleed. Where body meets image of book Parables for the virtual (2002), Brian Massumi makes an exhaustive analysis about two types of visions about ourselves. One is partial and complements us, the otherla, total, completes us as subjects:
Mirror-vision is by definition partial. There is a single axis of sight. You see yourself from one angle at a time and never effectively in movement. If you keep your head motionless and your eyes level, you can see parts of yourself move, for example your arms, from one perspective. You can change perspective by inmobilizing your body and moving your head. But if you try to move your body and your head together in an attempt to catch yourself in motion, you only succed in jumping from one frozen pose to another (Massumi; 2002: 48)
Then, the vision or axes of vision of other complement us:
In the everyday intersubjective world there are of course multiple axes of vision, but they are still strung out along a single line that subordinates them to resemblance and self-sameness. This line is itself nonvisual, it is a narrative line. In the family or at work, you perform your assigned social role. You interpret the script, you visualize or form a “mental picture” of what it means for you be what you are, parent or child, mother or father, boss or employee, cop or criminal, and embody that visualization for the benefit of others occupying the contrasting but complementary character roles For each role there is a privileged other in whose recognition of you, you recognize yourself. You mirror yourself in your supporting actor’s eyes, and they in yours (Massumi; 2002: 48).
In the particular case of movement-vision the narrative line breaks and a space for change opens. Movement-vision is a kind of rupture that causes an itself estrangement, as part of an extreme experience that complete oneself instead of complement, as the mirror-vision does. It the experience of “to see oneself standing as others see one is not the same as seeing oneself walking as others see one” (Massumi; 2002: 50)
Furthermore, for Massumi there is not mediation between both visions. Vision-movement generates a real movement of change which is continuity at the same time: “the subject departs from itself. The subject-object symmetry of mirror-vision is broken. (…) The gap left by the subject’s self – departure is filled not by a new subject or object but by a process encompassing their disjunction in a tide of change” (Massumi; 2002: 50)
“It is an opening onto a space of transformation in which a de-objectified movement fuses with a de-subjectified observer. This larger processuality, this real movement, includes the perspective from which it is seen. But the perspective is that of a virtualobserver that is one only with the movement (of the subject’s self-departure). (…) The elementary unit of the space of movement-vision is a multiply partial other perspective included in a fractured movement-in-itself: change. Change: that which includes rupture but is nevertheless continuous” (Massumi; 2002: 51). We may say then that this real movement, that is constitutive of change, becomes continuity while writing the narrative of the subject.
This acumulation of perspectives is called the body without an image. Massumi defines as an aditive space of total receptivity, reteining and combinating past movements in present terms. It is less an empirical space than a gap in the space, a suspension of time, which is a real movement at the same time. “In its spatial aspect, the body without an image is the involution of subject-object relations into the body of the observer and of that body into itself. Call the spatiality proper to the body without an image quasi corporealily. The quasi corporeal can be thought of as the superposition of the sum total of the relative perspectives in which the body has been implicated, as object or subject, plus the passages between them” (Massumi; 2002: 57-58)
This real movement that enable an virtual observer of itself, open and organize an space of past and present perceptions. In terms of the author, the spatiality of the body without an image can be understood even more immediately as an effect of proprioception, defined as the sensibility proper to the muscles and ligaments as opposed to tactile sensibility (which is “exteroceptive”) and visceral sensibility (which is “interoceptive”). Tactility is the sensibility of the skin a s surface of contact between the perceiving subject and the perceived object. Proprioception folds tactility into the body, enveloping the skin’s contact with the external world in a dimension of medium depth: between epidermis and viscera. (…)Proprioception translates the exertions and ease of the body’s encounters with objects into a muscular memory of relationality. This is the cumulative memory of skill, habit, posture (Massumi; 2002: 58-59)
From the author’s philosophical-scientific approach, we could say that virtuality (the subject as virtual observer himself) would result in a plurality of corporalities, from a quasi corporeality, organized from proprioception and brand newperceptionsincorporated as proprioceptions.
On the other hand, it is interesting, along the entire exhaustive descriptions of Massumi, the importance of the production of subjectivity, from relationssubject-object and intersubjectives, forged in these moments of change, of real movement.
Gaps between men and technologies, spatial gaps, visual gaps, but mostly experiential and perceptual. Both authors draw our attention about gaps that, in our everyday life (actual or virtual), constitutes us.
Visual processes, experiential and perceptual of Massumi submerge us in a quasi corporeality that constitutes changes in the narratives of the subject, in a body without an image, open to the space of multiplicity.
Processes, also visual, perceptual, experiential, that Boellstorff explains from his ethnographic study, submerge us in a multiplicity “being-inworld” (virtual), founded in New pluralizations of place and sociability, indexicalizing the forms of being-in-the-world.
Virtuality is central in both cases, while generating corporalities virtual or actual, always real.
Maybe to put in dialogue authors, albeit from different disciplinary fields, propose new threads, helps to move forward and to continue to reflect about the initial questions, so as “opens possibilities for internal and exter-nal reconfigurations of Western ontologies of place, body, and the social (and thus new deconstructions of the internal/external dichotomy itself) (Boellstorff; 2011: 514).
1 “virtual” and “online” are equivalent in this text, as well as “embodiment” and “corpo-reality”.