4 models of social relations among avatars

by Feels Empty

1. Introduction

 photo ha_zpsqmte2oty.jpgWith this essay I hope to introduce a series of thought experiments running through the Second Life experience. I have a specific psychoanalytical framework I am using – Lacan’s 4 discourses – and if you are unfamiliar with this, that is fine, as I hope to illustrate the formula while the experiment plays out.

I begin with the premise that subjectivity is split, which we can read through a myriad of problems in psychology and philosophy, such as the Freudian division between the conscious and unconscious (which is something I subscribe to) and unresolved metaphysical problems in Cartesian dualism. For the moment, let us focus instead on what is going on when you identify with your avatar – when a typist “breathes life” into an animatronic doll in a virtual space.

When I say that subjectivity is split I am first of all acknowledging that virtual reflexivity is infinite. There are an infinite number of possible identifications I may have towards my avatar in relation to another one – I could focus on gender, race, signifiers of class, or an intersection of these different factors pertaining to myself and my understanding of how I want to be perceived. In a virtual space defined by multiplicities, where everything happens at once within a flattened terrain where the homogenous and variable happen concurrently, the subjective split marks a finitude to endless reflexivity. This is to say that these are not physical or temporal limitations that stabilize the subject-avatar, but a kind of active ‘bracketing out’ of things within the realm of your subjective experience – here we are not talking about things you don’t know, but rather things “you don’t know that you know“.

When I started off in SL hubs I studied trolls a lot, observing many psychological duels – I have noticed that in such confrontations the troll who adopts a kind of ‘conscious ignorance’ (“just hangin’ out in the hubs, being ignarent”) has a distinct advantage over one who is preoccupied over the consistency of their relationship with their avatar. I once witnessed an avatar attack another by commenting on how “ratchet” they looked and making fun of her for loving black men. She responded by affirming everything the other said, intending to prove that, no, she didn’t have a problem with black people and that anyone who would call someone out on the basis of race was an idiot. As the abuse went on her strategy backfired and resulted in a kind of recursive loop where the more she tried to prove that she was resilient towards trolling, the more she appeared insecure and defensive. Her voice got softer and choked up, and soon she was reduced to muffled sniffling.

In a troll relationship, determined by relations of psychological dominance, the one who takes their avatar at face value has more control over it than the one who goes beyond face. This brings us to our first social relation – the discourse of the Master.

2. Mastery

This ‘taking for granted’ of the social coordinates generated via the avatar’s image can be represented by the symbol S1, the Master Signifier. This is to say that the avatar unifies a network of associative material (S2) only on the basis that it conceals the truth of the split subject ($). S1 conceals the fact that it is not S2, but speaks in the name of S2.

Let’s say you have an avatar who looks like you or is named after you – let’s say you are called Michael (S1). You will find yourself doing things to sustain the position of your avatar’s “Michaelness” (S2). Even when you try to do something counterintuitive it will be on the basis that it is counterintuitive to an idea you have of yourself as a coherent entity. The master signifier will always be at work to ensure a parameter around the chain of signifiers, S2, that determine your subjectivity at any given moment – Think of this chain as an associational network of concepts bound together by “Michael”, aspects of your personality, character, belief system, etc. S2 is enacted in order to sustain the technical position of S1. There is an absurdity inherent in this, because S1 is within, yet outside this signifying chain – something overdetermined in your consciousness, projected outside of it (see picture in introduction), a thing you avoid questioning the legitimacy of in order to sustain a stable and continuous relationship with your avatar from a position of control. S1 is an empty signifier, more like an image or name than a word you’d find in a dictionary, and any attempt to root out its fundamental inconsistency in the scheme of things results a double-bind where you disarm yourself while attempting to establish your agency (which is another kind of discourse/ social relationship, which we will discuss in the next section).

 photo donkey-and-carrot_zps5bv24wum.jpgThe split in subjectivity produces an excess (a), some “Michaelness” out of reach that you are always striving for, the proverbial carrot tied to a fishing pole attached to a donkey who follows it. Because all of us want to think that we have absolute mastery over our avatars, we strive for a kind of unattainable consistency, always attempting to incorporate the excess into S2. This is to say that there is always something that exceeds our attempts at being ourselves.

To illustrate – I offer my own subjectivity in the moment. I am writing, right now, in the name of my avatar, following a desire to demonstrate a reflexivity over it, a mastery over my “Feels Empty” persona. As I read these words while I write, however, I become plagued with a kind of insecurity – I feel that I, like the girl responding to her troll, am writing to compensate for a certain sense of inadequacy, a feeling that my experience on Second Life is hollow, perhaps. These leads me, right now, to add an extra layer of reflectiveness in order to try to incorporate this sense of something exceeding my conscious intention, to take account of something driving me to write this, beyond the desire to share ideas. But by attempting more control in questioning myself this way, I produce more tensions that I will feel compelled to account for – what if I come off as too pedantic, as trying too hard to sound clever? What am I trying to hide from myself? What if the reader sees through me? In attempting to exercise agency over this particular identity, I produce more points of vulnerabilities I will never finish mastering.

Those of you who think of Second Life as a video game may find it interesting to consider how it is a game where you create your own rules, and if we can accept this basic premise, gameplay can be described as the creation and indefinite extension of the player’s desire. There is no point of playing if you do not create these excessive moments and feelings for yourself to resolve. This applies regardless of whether you are on Second Life to troll, or for intellectual, romantic, or educational pursuits. The relationship of mastery is thus always negotiated and never totalized, but it is the default relationship when people interact with each other – everyone assumes that everyone else has control over their actions.

3. The fundamental framework behind the four discourses

Before we continue, here is the formula of the master’s discourse, as things might get a little convoluted otherwise:

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S1 marks out a position of the subject’s agency, $ the truth of its inconsistency. S2 connotes the ‘Other’ (in Lacanian terminology the Other is used to convey language, which is ‘other from’ the biological human), a field which the agent ‘talks to’. a is what is produced by this discourse as a social relation. From this formula we get 4 positions:

Agent > Other
Truth / Product

“>” means, simply, that the agent speaks to the other. The “/” symbol between the truth and product represents the impossibility of “a” ever representing the truth of the subject ($) and thus resolving its split. The four positions sets the framework for the other 3 discourses, which move around the positions to create different relations. First of all, let’s examine what happens when we move these symbols, ($, S1, S2, a) around a step clockwise…

4. Hysteria

How do we account for the type of subjectivity on Second Life that is based on tentativeness, uncertainty, obsessed with the act of radical questioning? There are avatars that don’t resemble humans, destabilize the gender binary, and don’t seem comfortable with any dogma or orthodoxy regarding the stability of their identities. These avatars seem to adopt identities and subvert them, consciously or unconsciously.

A discourse of hysteria occurs when the split subject is given the position of agency, when the division of the subject is employed to question the legitimacy of S1. There is a self-contradiction in this act, because the hysteric simultaneously appeals to S1’s legitimacy while questioning it. Let us consider the SaveMeOh project, sui generis in the sense that it is called many things – an avatar functioning in a mode of satire and criticism, a person performing theater on Second Life, a virtual spin on the ‘happening’, a griefer using art as an excuse to indulge in bullying. I’ll put aside my personal opinion on these activities (which I have had no first-hand account of) to note how I find these contradictory views telling. Is this not an instance of a kind of discourse that, for better or for worse, generates a multiplicity of readings (S2)?

 photo Hd-4v_zps8pqm9rjp.jpgThe SaveMe project is multifaceted, all marked by a failure of some entity to ‘come together’ as a person. The primary modus operandi revolving around the project is performance as protest, disruptions to scheduled Second Life events with loud gestures and motions. There are other pranks that would be illegal were they enacted in real life: Entrapping avatars in skyboxes and implicating them in sexual photos, showing up at virtual funerals to mock the deceased’s relatives, and other behavior deemed sociopathic by commentators. The majority of actions are documented through a blog where chatlog transcripts are ‘saved’ (is the avatar’s name a pun on this?), in, as many have noted, edited.

Some have commented on this editing to further make a point about SaveMe’s lack of ethics, though I prefer to read it as part of the fabric of their art. The Second Life researcher and writer Humdog wrote that the internet is thought of as a Utopia only in the sense that it is literature, and can be edited (which I interpret as saying that perhaps the kind of freedom the internet provides does not exist in the moment, but is retroactively assigned to the archive.) What is interesting to me is how SaveMe’s editing serves as another dimension of performance. As people have noted, the editing betrays notions of the SaveMe persona as an irreverent entity, who could care less of what anyone thinks about them – it can be read as a kind of artistic generosity in that it reveals something fundamental to our self-presentation online – we all edit. What SaveMe demonstrates satirically, is that the freedom we all engage in on Second Life is, paradoxically, the act of reproducing the conditions of our unfreedom – by excluding things that systematically come back to haunt us (i.e. the more you edit something out the more you draw attention to what haunts you – a “return of the repressed”).

 photo 4_zps4vqqdpw5.jpg

In reference to the formula above, I see the SaveMe project as a kind of Hysteric’s discourse in the sense that it doesn’t seem to have a stable political agenda, instead driven by a kind of excess (the truth behind its agency – a). It is defined in relation to the master signifier via a kind of simultaneous resistance and attraction typified by the split subject, a fixation with art establishments and the personalities in art communities in conflict with SaveMe’s simultaneous tirades against them. What is produced through this hysterical engagement is more S2, more chatlogs, more art, more space of reflection over interactions on Second Life, though of course whether these produced material is good art or not is subject to debate.

5. Analysis

 photo Capture_zpsylfpu7co.jpg

If the master’s discourse can be said to be an act of addressing an avatar without taking into account the complexities behind their subjective position (S1 not being put into question), the hysteric’s discourse addresses an avatar as someone conscious of the irreducible complexities that structure their position. The analyst’s discourse takes a step further, and requires a great deal of compassion – it is a discipline of addressing avatars while taking account the complexities they are not aware of. If you listen to anyone long enough you will notice inconsistencies in their speech and behavior. The challenge of the analyst is to not to let your observation of this phenomena be reduced into a relation of mastery. How do you allow someone to register the inconsistency of their own position, without lording your observation of their hypocrisies in front of their faces, making their pain worse?

 photo 1_zpsh5sq38lh.jpg

With the analyst’s discourse we address the question of how identities become transformed in Second Life, how new master signifiers are produced. We enter more intimate, perhaps enigmatic, territory. If what sustains the horizon of subjectivity is this condition of “not knowing that you know”, how does one account for these repressed thoughts (S2 as hidden knowledge in the position of truth)? The answer lies in avatars that embody Lacan’s ideal of a psychoanalyst, avatars that embody an agent who desires (a) to put (self-) knowledge in the place of truth (S2). In this relationship, what is emphasized is the impossibility between truth and words that are produced (S2/S1), addressing the impossibility of the subject to be consistent with itself ($). The analyst is fixated on the fact that a master signifier cannot contain and determine the signifying chain. New S1s are produced in order to avoid a psychic stagnancy.

This is where the question of anonymity and ‘opening up’ to strangers take place. I came on Second Life looking for therapeutic relationships, finding real life confrontations with psychiatrists an uncomfortable experience. More than often, the identities of my psychiatrists and their politics (a lot of them were unconditional advocates of the pharmaceutical industry) affected my communications with them. Using Second Life to establish a therapeutic network can be liberating. A great deal of my conversations online revolve around the discursive position of an analyst, giving a listening ear to others, and, reciprocally, talking to others about my problems. Often I find it easier to share my thoughts with someone I’ve never met as opposed to someone playing an active role in my life. During these encounters I’ve noticed that the ‘veil’ of the avatar is something that sustains the position of “a” – it fosters a desire to reach out and be reached out, appealing to everyone’s hope for an ideal listener behind the screen.

Before we get too excited about the prospect of using Second Life to conduct psychoanalysis, I should note that I once contacted a Lacanian analyst on Skype and he told me that ‘professional’ Lacanian analysis wouldn’t work over the internet, because observing real-time inflections in the voice and body language plays a big part in the relationship between analyst and speaker. Regardless, I will affirm generalities about carving out a space for interpersonal release online.

6. University


 photo 2_zpscyupiewe.jpg

We’ve touched discourses that mediate power relationships of self-mastery / mastery over others, relationships of destabilization and compassionate ones. This leaves us with a final question – what kind of discourse am I partaking with you, the reader, right now? All these thought experiments are best described as an employment of knowledge (S2) to interrogate “a”, an attempt to ‘tame’ the production of excesses, in the sense that I have attempted to systematize my own vulnerabilities, as well as unsavory behavior (e.g. trolling and SaveMeOh) by using a particular field of knowledge to account for it. This is the discourse of the University, apt considering the context of my being part of a virtual University whose publication these words appear in, but even in this attempt at domesticating “a” there are problems that arise.


First, let’s consider the fact that there are dogmas and ideologies behind my ability to function in this virtual environment. Tom Boellstorff once noted that there must be something in real life that is already ‘virtual’ for us to be able to adapt so quickly to virtual reality – something unreal in our fabric of existence that we accept unconditionally. We all agree unequivocally that we are ‘free’ on Second Life, that our independence of thought is guaranteed. Let me suggest that there is always a minimal fallacy behind this. Without turning this into a hysteric’s discourse, let me pay lip service to the fact that in assuming an agency over my knowledge I take for granted things like:

  • the conversion of my activity into social capital as I write right now (not to mention the lack of transparency over who profits from the labor I have enacted in writing for this blog)
  • my defaulting into an identification with my avatar in social relations of spectacle instead of real ones, and even
  • my Lacanian theoretical leanings

all could serve as master signifiers in themselves. There is always some dogma behind the university, an S1 behind the scenes. I can’t help but notice that even in the virtual university that represents an alternative to the limitations of real life ones, some people are inadvertently excluded via a kind of ideology of happiness than privileges those with the ability to enjoy more. I see this as more insidious than any kind of political bias, because it’s a sort of ideology than masks itself as a non-ideology.

What I have produced with this writing, is thus a subject itself, in my universalizing of the coordinates of my internal divisions ($) as I act out the truth of S1’s dominance over my psyche in this attempt to theorize. I will leave the reader to decide what the conditions behind these words are, as well as the type of subject produced by it.

Author: Feels Empty

New media artist & writer with an interest in theories of human subjectivity. Email me for CV and list of works.

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1 Comment

  1. That first pic makes me think of the old tv show Lost. 🙂

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