'Sense IV', in Second Life, photo by Tizzy Canucci

Virtual Existence, Gender and Embodiment

This week there was a story on Motherboard entitled ‘Avatar IRL’, by Cecilia D’Anastasio, about a transwoman, Veronica Sidwell. Following her experiences in Second Life, Veronica decided to transition in real life. Below the article lies the tagline: ‘Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form’.

Why did no-one at Motherboard spot the irony? No, more than that – the complete contradiction between the tagline and the story above? The story is about how essential the physical form is to being human and of human existence, both as a physical body and in terms of self-knowledge 1.

In The Visible and the Invisible, the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau Ponty 2 argued that the visible is part of the tangible, and every tactile being is visible. In other words, we need something physical to sense the world, be it eyes or fingers, and because of that, we are seen. The prosthetic body or automaton, which uses remote sensors, webcams or limbs, doesn’t get rid of the body – quite the reverse – it confirms that humans have a need for, indeed a ‘stubborn insistence’ 3 on, an embodied existence.

We are all a part of the tangible world – there is no gap where we stand and look round at our surroundings. The body, ‘the thickness of the flesh’ 2, is between the seer and what is seen, between corporeity and visibility. It is not an obstacle but our means of communication as a human being. Indeed, while there exists a world of abstract ideas, we are unaware of that theory until they are communicated by something or somebody with a physical presence.

In a view that still holds sway in Western thinking, Descartes argued that as the body acts mechanically and the mind acts by thought, there was a binary opposition or duality. However, it is contested; Gilbert Ryle argued that Decartes made a logical error, and in doing so coined the phrase ‘ghost in the machine4. Ryle argued that only things that are in the same category can logically be compared, but the mind and the body lie in separate ‘categories’.  The mind and body are inherently connected and interacting – inseparable – and our bodies establish our frame of reference in the world for our thoughts 5.

It is only the Descartian position that makes the idea of the disembodied mind possible. But there is no ghost inhabiting our body, sat in our heads; we are parts of a whole – mind, body and self-image – and these we draw together into our identity. What we see is what we are, or rather an interpretation of what we see. If we change how we look, it may change our ideas of who we are.

And so it is with avataric life. What we create always reflects what is within ourselves; our decisions of what we choose to change, whether or who we ask for advice, and what we keep the same. Those decisions reflect who we are (I wrote about it in a recently published book). And our creations speak back to us. Often this is quietly, informing where we go next without much conscious realisation on our part. But sometimes it is like looking into a mirror – and the reflection we see is startlingly different from what we expect. This is deeply embodied, visceral even: there is nothing waning about relevance of the body that sees and is seen. It may be age that startles, or it may be gender, or it may be for no apparent reason at all.

Through our bodies, whether virtual or real, we communicate who we are to ourselves and to others. ‘Veronica confided in me [Cecilia D’Anastasio] that, after her time in Second Life’s tranquil digital landscape, she had never felt more comfortable in her own skin.’ Our skin, our bodies; it’s the place where everyone needs to feel comfortable.

‘Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught’ (Leslie Feinberg 7 ). Maybe it’s those who have felt most uncomfortable in the past who understand this most.

  1. I should make it clear that I liked the story by Cecilia D’Anastasio and her sensitivity to the issues. It is how Motherboard presented it that I find odd – though it does give me an opportunity to explore these issues.
  2. Merleau Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968, 134-138.
  3. Beaune, Jean Claude, cited in Amelia Jones, Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006, 194.
  4. Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Penguin, 1963, 17.
  5. As an example – a Trabant and a Mercedes can be compared as they are within the same category of ‘car’. A mouse and a spaceship cannot, as they are too different to be compared as they have too little in common.
  6. Domassio, Antonio R., cited in Amelia Jones, Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006, 174.
  7. Feinberg, Leslie. Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1999.

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