Boellstorff—Placing the Virtual Body

Placing the Virtual Body: Avatar, Chora, Cypherg

by Tom Boellstorff

[Boellstorff, Tom. 2011. “Placing the Virtual Body: Avatar, Chora, Cypherg.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment, edited by Frances E. Mascia-Lees, 504–20. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.]

Points

“to develop a theory of the virtual body that links

  1. ethnographic insights from prior work by myself and other scholars with
  2. a theoretical architecture drawing from a range of philosophical perspectives and
  3. the introduction of three new concepts: virtual chora, being-inworld, and the cypherg” (515).
  • chora—ancient Greek philosophical term; in Plato’s view chora is the basis of being, such that “forms come to be in it without ever being of it” (Sallis 1999: 109)
  • virtual chora—Virtual worlds underscore how chora is not place per se, but place-making or worlding (Zhan 2009), the embodied “dance” of techne making possible “being-in-the-world.” As this last term suggests, this reframing of chora links it to a phenomenology of the virtual body
  • being inworld—Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’ is not sufficient for the virtual, because ‘being’ is defined and experienced differently, depending on which virtual world one is ‘being’ in. So Boellstorff pluralizes and phenomenologizes the concept (through Merleau-Ponty). Being inworld is existenec (dwelling) according to the local virtual definitions.
  • cypherg—a mixture of Karl Jaspers’s cypher (an “objectivity which is permeated by subjectivity and in such a way that Being becomes present in the whole” (Jaspers 1959: 35) and Donna Haraway’s cyborg (part human, part machine, see Cyborg Manifesto). The cyherg itself is “virtual corporeality through which “a participation in Being takes place” (Jaspers 1959: 61), a participation through techne that makes possible the conditions for emplaced being itself. A recursive indexicality, made possible by the pluralization of being-inworld” (515).

“From virtual chora emerges the cypherg, a figure of online corporeality, a figure whose recursively indexical being-inworld stands to fundamentally reconfigure what it means to be human” (517).

Annotation Summary for: Boellstorff – Virtuality-Placing the Virtual Body copy

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “INTRODUCTION”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I will emphasize that avatars are not merely representations of bodies but forms of embodiment, centered on constitutive emplacement within a world. Thus, the key point I seek to advance is that virtual embodiment is always embodi- ment in a virtual place; as a result, the pluralization of place that virtual worlds entail holds foundational implications for online corporeality.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Rather than pursue the stubbornly elusive goal of transcending the binarisms of mind/body and culture/nature so embedded in this tradition, we can redirect the conversation by refracting these binarisms through a third binarism, virtual/actual.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “By the latter part of this chapter, I will suggest that this theory of virtual embodiment implies a new understanding of the “digital” itself.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “AVATAR’S AVATAR”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “(I never oppose “virtual” to “real;” such an opposition wrongly encodes presumptions that the online is not real, and that the real is technology-free.)”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “VIRTUAL EMBODIMENT IN PRACTICE”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Avatars in Second Life”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Residents do not always make use of these possibilities: most people, most of the time, have singular virtual embodiments that they see as resembling their actual-world embodiment, or that reflect dominant actual-world ideals of beauty and status. This often means light-skinned avatars, female avatars with large breasts, male avatars with”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “bulging biceps, and so on. However, even in such cases our critical impulse should not foreclose examining how such ostensibly normative embodiments may have different meanings and consequences online – not least because, for instance, the male avatar with bulging biceps may be female in the actual world.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “But it would be incorrect to construe such a perspective with being disembodied, for regardless of whether or not one is using a first-person per-spective, a third-person perspective, or switches between them, the avatar is the locusof perception and sociality.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “THEORIZATIONS OF EMBODIMENT”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is not coincidental that “avatar,” first used to refer to online bodies in the 1980s, is a Sanskrit term referring to the incarnation of a Hindu deity (Boellstorff 2008: 128).”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In only an apparent paradox, such scholarship has also shown how in many cultural contexts “the body has been and still is closely associated with women and the feminine, whereas the mind remains associa- tively and implicitly connected to men and the masculine” (Grosz 1995: 32; see also Bigwood 1991; Probyn 1991).”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “VIRTUAL CHORA”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Richard Bartle, a pioneer in the design of virtual worlds, noted succinctly that “virtual worlds are not games. Even the ones written to be games aren’t games. People can play games in them, sure, and they can be set up to that end, but this merely makes them venues. The Pasadena Rose Bowl is a stadium, not a game” (Bartle 2004: 475; emphasis in all quotations is in the original). In this sense it is “wrong to conceive of the virtual as a kind of indetermina- tion, as a formless reservoir of possibilities that only actual beings identify” (Badiou 2000: 50; see Deleuze 2004).”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “chora, most would agree that in Plato’s view chora is the basis of being, such that “forms come to be in it without ever being of it” (Sallis 1999: 109). Analogies Plato uses to illustrate chora include the wax upon which an image is stamped, the odorless oil used to make a perfume, and a mass of gold:”

Page 8, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “chora,”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A range of feminist thinkers have drawn upon this meaning of chora to develop feminist theories of embodiment (Bianchi 2006; Braziel 2006; Burchill 2006; Grosz 1995; Kristeva 1984; Margaroni 2005).”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we see here an emerging recognition that a precondition for activity is a place for it to occur,”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Virtual worlds underscore how chora is not place per se, but place-making or worlding (Zhan 2009), the embodied “dance” of techne making possible “being-in-the-world.” As this last term suggests, this reframing of chora links it to a phenomenology of the virtual body.

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “BEING-INWORLD: THE DIGITAL RELATION”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “on Pandora: humans had to embody using either Na’vi avatars or some combination of masks and robotic exoskeletons. Thisneatly sums up the difference between the avatar and the “cyborg,” a now-classic future in science and technology studies (Haraway 1991). In distinction to the still-earlier figure of the android (a robotic approximation of the human body), the cyborg is part human and part machine – predicated on relationships of interpenetration and attachment, as in the prosthetic relationship between artificial hand and severed arm. In contrast, the avatar is based upon a gap – there is a clear and ontologically founda-tional gap between Jake Sully’s avatar body and Jake Sully’s actual-world body in a control pod, just as there is a clear and ontologically foundational gap between an avatar and an actual-world person, and between any virtual world and the actual world. Ideas, metaphors, power relations, and even forms of materiality routinely move across this gap between the virtual and actual, but it is the gap and attendant movements across it – works of techne – that make the virtual possible at all.”

Page 10, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ““cyborg,””

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Merleau-Ponty’s ruminations on phantom limbs: To have a phantom arm is to remain open to all the actions of which the arm alone is capable; it is to retain the practical field which one enjoyed before mutilation. The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them. (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 81–82)”

Page 10, Underline (Red): Content: “(Merleau-Ponty 1962: 81–82)”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Embodiment as emplacement involves what Heidegger termed “dwelling.” For Heidegger – for whom only one world, the earth, was thinkable – “to be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell” (Heidegger 2001 [1971]: 145).”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Heidegger”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This is why Merleau- Ponty regarded embodiment not as “a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 250).”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “not Michelangelo so much as the famous Escher drawing of two hands drawing each other into being. Indexi- cality provides a different way of understanding the digital relation with regard to the virtual body.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “analysis, I have found it illuminating to turn to the phe-nomenologist Karl Jaspers’s notion of the cypher, an “objectivity which is permeated by subjectivity and in such a way that Being becomes present in the whole” (Jaspers 1959: 35). Derived from the Arabic word for “zero” – the binary “0” to the pointing “1” of the digit – the originary meaning of “cypher” is “an arithmetical symbol or character of no value by itself, but which increases or decreases the value of other figures according to its position” (OED 2010).”

Page 12, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “cypher,”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “(Jaspers”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “If virtual worlds can be considered instances of “the world of the cyphers” (Jaspers 1959: 49), then the avatarized subject of that being-inworld would be not the cyborg, but the “cypherg.” The cypherg is virtual corporeality through which “a participation in Being takes place” (Jaspers 1959: 61), a participation through techne that makes possible the conditions for emplaced being itself. A recursive indexicality, made possible by the pluralization of being-inworld, is quite literally the “point” of the virtual body.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “CONCLUSIONS: POLITICS OF VIRTUAL EMBODIMENT”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In this chapter, I have sought to develop a theory of the virtual body that links (1) ethnographic insights from prior work by myself and other scholars with (2) a theoretical architecture drawing from a range of philosophical perspectives and (3) the introduction of three new concepts: virtual chora, being-inworld, and the cypherg.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “it is through everyday online practices that new virtual embodiments will emerge”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In this sense “it is interesting that at just about the time the last of the untouched ‘real-world’ anthropological field sites are disappearing, a new and unexpected kind of ‘field’ is opening up incontrovertibly social spaces in which people still meet face-to- face, but under new definitions of both ‘meet’ and ‘face’ ” (Stone 1991: 85).”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “From vir- tual chora emerges the cypherg, a figure of online corporeality, a figure whose recur- sively indexical being-inworld stands to fundamentally reconfigure what it means to be human – even while drawing upon and even concretizing longstanding notions of the human. To what new possibilities does placing the virtual body “point?” At stake is nothing less than the “the digital” itself.”

Page 14, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “cypherg,”

Page 15, Underline (Red): Content: “Deleuze, Gilles, 2004 Difference and Repetition. London: Continuum.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Gee, James Paul, 2008 Video Games and Embodiment. Games and Culture 3(3/4): 253–263.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Haraway, Donna J., 1991 A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Donna J. Haraway, ed. pp. 149–82. London: Routledge.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Heidegger, Martin, 2001 [1971] Building Dwelling Thinking. In Poetry, Language, Thought. pp. 143–159. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Jaspers, Karl, 1959 Truth and Symbol. Translated and with an Introduction by Jean T. Wilde, William Kluback, and William Kimmel. Albany: NCUP, Inc.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Lefebvre, Henri, 1991 Blackwell. The Production of Space. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans. Oxford:”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1962 Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Humanities Press.”

Page 17, Underline (Red): Content: “Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo, 1998 Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4(3): 469–488.”

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