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Avatars and the Digital Self

Research project This project addresses the notion of self in the wake of changes evinced by emerging communication technologies. In particular, it investigates how the digital avatar revises our theories of selfhood by reconfiguring our experiences of time and space, and how these revisions affect our ideas of identity, presence and embodiment.

This project examines the digital avatar in terms of its ideas of selfhood, specifically in relation to issues of identity, post-identity, personality and posthumanism. Defined as "an interactive, social representation of a user" (Meadows, 2008: 13), an avatar acts and interacts in its virtual world in place of the person driving or controlling it. In so doing, the avatar transmits/transmutes an alternative self (of the user) - an investment of identity beyond the visuality of photography or of cinema. I explore the representation of this self vis-à-vis the avatar: How does the avatar reflect the user? How is the digital self fragmented or cohered in virtual worlds? What ethics govern the digital self? Using theoretical methods, the project critically investigates the nature of selfhood in the light of new media technologies through humanist and posthumanist readings, using, where appropriate, examples from film, digital art and other visual media as case studies. The objective of the research is to offer a new perspective on the human-machine relationship via digital media technologies, with suggestions for their wider implications on digital theory and culture.

Project overview

Project period:

2009-09-15 2010-09-15

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Humlab

Project description

Our world today is increasingly mediated by digital media such as video games, virtual worlds, internet and mobile phone technologies. As new media users continually re-create and re-shape their online identities, the representations of our selves as formed by digital technologies become increasingly complex, dynamic, personality-driven, disembodied and *dis-identified*.

The digital avatar in a virtual world is an explicit trope of this fluidity in re-creating and re-shaping identity. Defined as "an interactive,social representation of a user" (Meadows, 2008: 13), an avatar acts and interacts in its virtual world in place of the person driving or controlling it, in turn constituting a representation of the self (of the user) in numerous ways from movement to identity to visual representation. My project explores this concept of the self in the digital avatar, particularly by examining the avatar in its interplay with old media image worlds of art, photography and cinema, and their effects for the constitution of self and identity.
Representation in film and photography theory, for example, revolves around the photographic image's indexical capture of reality and its subsequent re-presentation, yet the use of avatars and simulants in new media is not only iconic, importing similitude and immateriality, but also, by virtue of its unique culture of user intercession, palpability and identity. New media representation thus not only takes on visual imports from old media, but also personality, shifting the discourse from a framework of the visual to one more aligned to the carnal and the haptic. Arguing this turn in our understanding of new media, I propose in my project to hone the theoretical registers of representation from film and photographic theory for the personality-driven nature of digital new media, to use it as a rubric to extend the conceptual radius of film and media studies, and to examine the socio-cultural and conceptual implications of these developments. What are the effects of these changes in representation--from visuality to personality--between old and new media? How may we use these theoretical imports of representation to conceptualise new paradigms of selfhood, identity and personality? How might these effects of representation translate into cultural shifts, trends of media consumption or methods of design and production?

The immediate modes of delivery for this project will be in the form of two publications in peer-reviewed academic journals, one of which will explore the issue of identity and avatars using close readings of Mamoru Oshii's two anime films, GHOST IN THE SHELL and GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE as case studies, while the other will be applied thematically in relation to a new media art work. The wider project will be to apply this research to a monograph on the re-fashioning of the self - our experience of being and identity - through new media technology. Future directions for my
investigations will include other digital media technologies and forms, such as social networks, mobile phone technologies and the internet.