Virtual Selves, Avatars and Life in the Spirit

Virtual Selves, Avatars and Life in the Spirit

Talk delivered at the Bondi Chapel by the Sea, July 2011

 By Geoffrey Sykes

This talk is an inquiry, a work in progress, and a hypothesis. Its aim is to create a conversation between two ways of thinking or discourses, or theories, or belief systems, namely between media and Christian theology. It is a conversation that does not comfortably exist. There will not be time tonight to focus on all aspects of the dialogue between media and Christian theory in the twentieth century. Nor will there be time to comprehend all varieties of media type or theory, or all form of relevant Christian belief.

Tonight I wish to focus on one hybrid line of inquiry that provides, conceptually at least, a shared point of reference about an approach to questions of self and spirituality, as well as process and images in so called new media. That hybrid approach will elaborate on the rich connotations of a key media term “virtual selves” (also known in the abstract noun ‘virtualities’), and seek to apply or extend the term in an historical, theological and spiritual dimension.

The paper in a way is etymological or conceptual. It presumes that theoretical inquiry as well as practice and application in an area such as media depends upon and can be facilitated by good clarification and invention of terms. The need for such clarification is especially true in emerging and hybrid inquiry and practice such as we are attempting in a theology of new forms of social media.

The current usage of “virtual selves”, along with associated terms such as “virtual reality” refers specifically to animated characters, settings and narrative in digital games. The term also applies to the sense of having an on line alter ego, when one uses a fictional name to creating an anonymous identity such as making a comment on a newspaper blog site, or creates a pseudo identity in a program such as “Second Life”. The term more widely refers to a group or community of participants who know themselves mainly or solely on line or via email, web contact or blogs, in contrast to more traditional or face to face social communities.

Yet however convenient, widespread and vague these senses might be, I argue that much of the populist current usage should generally be seen as semantically diminished, in terms of the phrase’s potential meaning. We are surrounded in our culture by semantic tokens that are as commodified and packaged by marketing and sales managers, users and consumers, and designers, as the proliferation of games, computer products and accessories. While the terms might seem exhausted and overused, exploration of rich and historical senses can assist in conceiving of deeper senses of identity and imagery that are potentially suggested by the term but constrained through its popular uses.

 In part what one is doing is to challenge the popular and spoken use of words by looking at their written form. Words can become capsules of past and potential ambivalent meanings that challenge the appropriated and regulated popular use by a speaker or marketing manager. Such ambivalence gives abstract words a potential and future sense as much as an archival or classical one. Complex words of the bible can assume a promissory or prophetic role. The sayings of Jesus are full of such promissory implication: he is the one to come again as well as one who once was.

This conceptual strategy, of probing key terms, was frequently used by a philosopher like Jacques Derrida, and is the core sense of his deconstruction strategies. In the case of virtuality there is, for instance, a modern and almost contradictory sense of the word available in media literature, and this is the sense coined by Paul Virillo, the Catholic theologian, in his critique of mass media. Virillo, I think, was responsible for disseminating the term in media theory – his aim was to identify conceptually the false consciousness and illusion at play through the effects of television in particular. The narratives and images of television were constructed and virtual: their virtuality was contrasted to the realism of the actual world, in which values were invested. Virtuality had an entirely negative sense of being false and misleading, quite at odds with the current popular uses of the term. Virillo’s writing paralleled the tough critical studies of the so called Frankfurt School that identified dysfunctional elements in consumerism and modern society as constructed through media effects.

Virillo’s work also parallels and elegantly expresses the conservative presumption about the media of many churches and Christians: that our spiritual and ethical life is that which is lived out in everyday actual interactions, and in the main physical assemblages of services of church. These are the mainstay contexts of faith. Media, even books and writings, can be seen as a secondary, potentially solitary expression of faith: a supplement to the main realm of life and faith. In this sense the popular and theological sense of the word “virtual” does have something in common with the medieval sense of effect. A “virtual community”, “virtual sex”, “virtual worlds”, “virtual friend” – these are all secondary effects or images related in effect to actual sex, friends or communities. An effect can substitute, it can be distorted, illusory, imaginative, or dreamlike – but it is still dependent on an actual world.

At worst, according to the religious thinking of Virillo, media is an illusory escape from the realities of faith. Of course, such a simple contrast of media and natural worlds ignores the extent to which the rituals of religion are as constructed as films: those religious events are mediated by the environment and space in which they occur, whether the space is made of celluloid or bricks.  The contrast also ignores the central role of the print media, especially the Bible, in constructing faith communities.

Part of the problem has been that media production in the twentieth century has been in the hands of a select few – with mass audiences seen as passive, manipulated and alienated from the sources of production. The lessons of propaganda have always been close at hand, especially in the last war and in advertising. There have been many attempts to evaluate the positive and active role of interpretation in television audiences: however there seems a fundamental difference between one to one communication and the one to many dissemination of messages. Virillo’s negative sense of virtuality echoes a deep and widespread mistrust of media that needs to be challenged conceptually and theologically if religious approaches to media are going to engage truly with the potential opportunities of new forms of production, delivery and programming.

Media today are more than extensions or tools for the main business or normal tasks of church worship and communication. The old one to many mass media paradigm has operated for evangelical purposes, such as on television, for decades, but it is time this paradigm as a whole, in churches and society, was open to analysis. The battle that Virillo fought has largely been lost: whether or not the effect of mass media is false or illusory, the influences he opposed have made huge inroads into public life, and the life of churches generally, and to a large extent may be responsible for emptying of the pews. Yes, some churches have seized mass media strategies in terms of immersive environments of screens and projections within their meeting place – presumably to counter the allure of television and film in the outside culture. What we seek is a shift in thinking about mass media altogether, to an alternative, more participatory and positive model of both media and churches.

The contrast of media and social communication has changed considerably with the emergence of so called minority, alternative or social media later in the twentieth century. The division of producer and audience has been blurred; media has become flexible and part of our everyday lives. We need new terms and practices to explain and apply the social effects of such media.

One initiative I would suggest is to look forward and back: on the one hand to a third, ancient etymology of the term “virtual”. In Latin the term means “excellent”, and it has the root of virtue or virtuous. That is, the virtual has value in itself, its value being not only derived from something more real. To be virtual is to be close to but different from another reality; the good or virtuous is not ideal or part of another reality altogether. The virtual has a sense of clarity or essence that is close but different from the everyday. It locates a quality that can be termed spiritual within the grasp of quotidian or everyday life. Instead of a natural/constructed contrast there is a co-existence of two levels of types of perceptions, two selves, and two realities.

Now some games addicts might want to valorise their virtual worlds as having more value than anything outside it. But generally many current forms of social and digital media maintain an ambiguous relationship between the virtual and actual, and one needs to step forward a little to see media practices that invite a deeper sense of virtuality that is more in line with the original Latin sense of the term.

In terms of the potential for video enriched messages in fast broadband, many of the key platforms such as Facebook seem static and limited, part of a narrow band period compared to the opportunities for diversified video transmission in fast broadband. It is in the emerging video environment that a more immediate sense of virtual self is possible, a luminous copy or dynamic mirror, a moving sign of everyday reality that is simultaneously captured, yet immediately subject to all the transformations of time and space, of filmic representation and style, of movement and montage, as well as actor presentations.  Virtuality is freed from superficial questions of anonymity and fiction – the term invites deeper inquiry about personal identity, self perception, social interaction and self consciousness, mediated by the continuing presence and convenience of a plethora of community, small business and domestic studios and production.  

I would like now to begin to link the full etymology of the term virtual to a sense of New Testament spirituality. The aim is part of a wider inquiry towards a theology of new media, in this instance focused on a biblical sense of the spiritual that can be extrapolated to an enriched sense of values and perception at play in our secular society. Religion has generally attributed to individuals special symbolic or honorific titles and qualities that embody otherworldly realities as well as tribal memory of esteemed ancestors. The roles of shaman or priest or wise man are common to many traditional religions, and one can say that the costume, ritual and experience that go with such roles produces and creates a sense of otherness or virtuality designated individuals. This was no less the case in the traditions of orthodox Jewish religion present at the time of Jesus, and especially so for a religion that denied any direct knowledge or presence of God. Knowledge of God was mediated through the signs, images, rules and rituals of faith. Those epic stories of myth and religion had secular representation in film practices of the twentieth century, with stars assuming the stature previously reserved for holy men and women.

What is charming about the gospels which has lasted to the modern day is the close intersection of spiritual and everyday, in what we can call the actual-virtual modality. That intersection of everyday and spiritual life can be explained as a  direction of the New Testament away from a hierarchical, traditional symbolic organising of culture to one where the names and gifts of prophets and priests, including that of the High Priest, were distributed through the community to an unprecedented extent. Ordinary individuals could also assume a high symbolic and spiritual virtual reality – such experience of a virtual spirituality was expanded in the ministry of Jesus when he fed and anointed five thousand with ministerial powers and authority, and also at Pentecost when the community as a whole assumed the priestly authority and saintliness of their Lord – who was dead but who now lived in them, in a virtuality labelled by the testament writers as being of the Spirit. That is, the actual, humble world of rural Palestine at the time, the setting for Jesus’ ministry, became charged as it was mediated and reflected through a virtual sense and naming of collective spirituality. The radical promise of Christianity’s early mission did not last, in its pure form, for a long time – in many ways, like Jesus’ own rule on earth, it was incomplete, and believers ever since have sought to regain and fulfil the innovative sense of faith that belonged in early communities.

What I argue for tonight is for a rediscovery of that sense of collective and individual virtual spirituality, through the medium of emerging media – for some renewed vision of spirituality achieved through mediation of the actual by the virtual self known in media processes. At least I argue for the essential role of media in redefining faith and spirituality – that media no longer be regarded as an optional tool or distraction from religious business at normal. I believe the latter is the common and widespread attitude in the church – that media are not taken seriously enough, and that the essential practice of faith remains traditional.

There are many directions that a theology of media could explore. For example, we can have a argument about media illusion or simulacrum that Virillo and Baudrillard opposed has come full circle: we all now live with rich layers of representations and imagery that mirror, replicate and mediate our actual lives. We all have a simulacra of the self. Instead of distracting or depleting everyday life, we need to ask how media forms can have the potential to co-determine and transform everyday life into a richer form of virtual experience. How they can  show forth, reveal, and manifest the detail, the quality and aspects and potentiality of everyday life that is not readily available or perceivable. How media can offer a heightened, infused sense of the everyday. I argue for a new chance for revived transformed Christian theology, and mission, motivated by the forthcoming forms of media technology.

To argue like this is to invert the priorities and values traditionally and conservatively associated with media by Christian thinking: rather than media being an option or supplement to core spiritual experiences, or a tool for ecclesiastical business as normal, the essential virtues of the spirit can also be found in media images, and traditional forms of expression of the religious life will continue on a more optional basis. The buttresses of the cathedral of faith are no longer bricks and stained glass, but the impervious infrastructure of optical fibres and luminous screens. Prayer will feel equally at home in the self conscious state or sign of the self mediated in video montage, as it is in the silence of the individual at home at night or passive in a pew. The fabric of church as a faith community can forever and essentially be bound to that representation of itself in digital networks and local studios. The need is for churches to become adaptors, not merely followers, of media trends, to find new links and associations with surrounding communities and in doing so to find a new inclusive sense of Christian identity and mission. Above all the need, and it is a question of priority, is to develop a theology that conceptually meets, explains and sustains the task of practice.

Of course this prospect is not one sided – media does not only determine what is virtuous. In Dylan’s terms there is spiritual warfare – and at present the video on demand horse has largely bolted along the pornographic track. What is pornographic can be regarded as a premature dysfunctioning aspect of a larger potential, and it is up to the church to help fill that need and opportunity for content and image on fast broadband. 

Finally, there are outstanding matters mentioned in the abstract.

One was the promise of news on actual community video. The consequences of this paper are to endorse and encourage a wide range of localised differing experiments and initiatives by local congregations – websites, classes, workshops, local communities. I don’t wish to elaborate on any particular project tonight, although am happy to discuss any.

Second, was the use of term avatar, in the heading of tonight’s paper. This word has come to be a popular synonym of the term virtual. An avatar is a cartoon picture or name that stands for a game player or blog participant.  The picture is a shorthand or secondary effect of the actual person. The word in science fiction also has the sense of an alien visitor. Both of these senses are derived from the original Hindu and religious meaning of “descent from heaven to earth”, especially the descent of Supreme Being or incarnation. Thus in a rich semantic history and in terms of orthodox Christianity, it is quite suitable to call Jesus the Christ as an avatar. It is this loose sense that applied in games – where the player is incarnate in a crude secular way. We can extrapolate then another ancient religious sense at play in digital environments, and use the semantic play to open a discourse that is more substantial than that about virtual selves.

Whereas discussion of virtual inquiry involved a more personal and social spirituality, avatar implies a journey to a more full and transcendental reality – if you like the potential for answers and experience of metaphysical things and knowledge of god being achieved through media. Here my talk stops – just where terminology seems most frivolous in terms of popular culture, it potentially becomes the most serious, to the extent that I defer further inquiry.

We have truly been involved in a process of what I will term semantic convers(ion)ation: this paper, introduced informally as a “conversation”, has made progress in subverting, reclaiming, and renaming, popular and secularist presumptions, and opening opportunities for relocating and reviving questions of faith and spirit with the fabric of digital culture.

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