Angels and Avatars: does the internet provide us with a metaphor for intersubjectivity (Dan Holloway)
Put simply, the problem with talking about a relationship of two equals is that we don’t have a vocabulary for doing it. The erotic discourse bequeathed us by Platonism and the Abrahamic covenantal traditions provides us with a raft of metaphors – God/human; penetrator and penetrated; admirer and gazed upon; active/passive; spirit/body – each of which throws those who relate into positions fixed at either end of a hierarchical pole where one is totally swallowed up by the other (the very best we can say, with Derrida or after Freud, is that things are the opposite of how they seem – the one who fixes his gaze is not objectifying, holding prisoner the one he gazes on but is, rather, overwhelmed by the need to gaze, held prisoner by his addiction to his muse).
My four years of doctoral study were an attempt to resolve this problem, as most eloquently put by the Belgian theorist Luce Irigaray, who also hinted at the answer I was looking to flesh out.
Angel, as you probably know, is a word derived from the Greek angelos, or messenger. An angel is, literally, a go between, delivering communication first one way then another and so on.
Irigaray believed the best hope for getting out of the fix of creating hierarchies between lovers, or having one swallow the other whole, was the metaphor of angels, of go-betweens, of something outside of both parties where the interacting between them would take place without touching their subjectivity, but where something of themselves would actually be able reach so that interacting could happen. Sort of like a one-way permeable membrane, some kind of valve, where you could, once the relating had happened, change the direction so that you could reclaim your interacted-with self so that it wasn’t lost on the space walk.
Irigaray thought the most promising way of thinking about this was mucus, a very bodily way of conceptualising it but nonetheless a very fruitful and interesting metaphor, albeit one that was limited in scope by the fact the mucus membranes she identified were human lips and the female sexual organs.
I found a promising metaphor in the most unlikely setting of seventeenth century Puritan marriage tracts. There was one particular use of the term Special Providence that was unlike others, the long and the short of which was that a separate space – almost a forum or agora – was created where relational duties could be bargained.
Now, my doctoral studies were curtailed by a massive breakdown in 2000. Which isn’t a plea for sympathy. Rather, it’s an excuse for not having explored the path of enquiry that seems, as I lay out the problem like that, bleeding obvious.
Now, of course I was aware of the internet. I used it largely to access documents and articles. What I wasn’t really aware of was the burgeoning bulletin board culture. And when I emerged several years later into the world of chatrooms, Second Life, and social media with its avatars and gravatars, I had a full time job I needed to pay the rent and the hours in the day and spare brain capacity for study just weren’t there.
But it’s been there, gnawing away, the book I know I should have written, the chance to get my doctorate at long last, maybe even the chance to have a few years of an academic career in the twilight of my working years, or at least a punt at cultural punditry.
The internet is, of course, a buzz topic in academia. And bulletin boards and social media are buzz topics within buzz topics. There is plenty of cultural theory about subjectivity, crowd-sourcing, ghosts in machines, post-modern accretion and eclecticism; social theory about the way online communities behave. But I haven’t sensed much in the way of rigorous attempts to dial that in to two and a half thousand years of erotic discourse.
I don’t want to begin speculating about answers (but all thoughts are welcome), but it really is about time I started asking the obvious questions:
- To what extent is the internet a “separate space”?
- And the sub-question – to what extent are our avatars separate from us?
- And how does this change across the spectrum from bulletin board to Second Life?
- How does the interaction of our avatars take place and what is the permeability or leakage between that interaction and the people we “really” are?
- When we talk of “our own subjectivity” being preserved in online intersubjective relations, are the degrees and nature of retention different for the “our own” and “subjectivity” part of that statement?
- How do we tease apart the metaphorical and the actual? Or, can we talk about eroticism in terms of avatars?
- If the interrelation of avatars is angelic in Irigaray’s sense, does that make the internet a paradise offering genuine intersubjectivity, or an inferno into which our bodies banish us?