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Avatar Emergency

Gregory L. Ulmer
Avatar Emergency describes flash reason, a practice for deliberative reason,
for public policy formation, making democratically informed decisions in a moment,
at light speed, against the threat of a General Accident that happens everywhere
simultaneously. Inquiring minds might wonder about the relationship between avatar
theorized here and James Camerons dramatization in the blockbuster film. It is
fortunate for my account (given the influence this film will have in shaping the
discussion) that there is an important aspect of electrate avatar captured by
Camerons treatment. Avatar as an experience is an event of counsel. It is an
uncanny encounter with ones better self, as undergone in the several wisdom
traditions noted here as analogies for the flash reason made possible through avatar
practice. Through avatar, players come to understand the General Economy of the
universe, so to speak, represented as nature or the Gaia spirit of Pandora. The jarhead Sully, incarnated in his Navi simulation, transcends his Marine training as well
as his other limitations both physical and mental, to oppose the actions of the
military-industrial-complex corporation that are threatening the natural order. It is
perhaps understandable, if not inevitable, that the screenplay uses the shorthand of
the Frontier myth, in high-concept reconfiguration (genre hybrid), to express its
values. Camerons Avatar is a Western. Avatar Emergency, in the spirit of heuretics
(the logic of invention), outlines the poetics of mythography, and even proposes an
alternative American myth, based on Jazz, as a relay for deliberative flash reason.
Perhaps in the sequel, Sully will not have been Geronimo, but Charlie Parker. The
book unfolds as follows:
Introduction: Electracy.
The introduction explains the concept of electracy, relative to literacy and
orality, as a term clarifying that digital technologies are part of an apparatus (social
machine), as much ideological as technical. Arts and Letters disciplines are as
central to the invention of the practices forming the skill-set needed by citizens to
become native to electracy, as science and engineering are to the invention of the
technology and equipment. The introduction provides context for placing the
invention of image metaphysics under the notion of avatar by reviewing the
arguments of Lev Manovich and Mark Hansen, taken as representatives of
contemporary thinking about hardware, software, new media, and interface culture.

1. Avatar.
The function of avatar in electracy is as the site of a new dimension of identity
formation, supplementing spirit (oral) and literate (self) formations. The character of
this expanded understanding of avatar is developed by means of analogies, to show
its potential functionality as a practice of deliberative (practical) reason appropriate
for a digital prosthesis augmenting individual and collective judgment (decisionmaking). Analogies for Internet-assisted judgment reviewed in this chapter include
several relationships, modeling the relationship between player and avatar: Arjuna
and Krishna (in Bhagavadgita); citizen and Socrates; Socrates and his Daimon;
Titians Allegory of Prudence; querent and sage in the I Ching; writer and work in
Blanchots revision of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The rationale for this approach is provided by the popular culture usage of
avatar to name a players icon in online venues. The argument explores the
practical consequences of taking seriously the full potential of this Sanskrit name and
tradition. Avatar means descent, referring to the incarnation of a god at a time of
crisis. The crisis in our context is that of the General (Internet) Accident described by
Paul Virilio: the dromosphere (dimension pollution). The player-avatar relation is
associated with the history of practical reason and the virtue of prudence, or good
judgment. The proposal is to upgrade prudence from literacy to electracy. Prudence
in practice names the ability to use experience of the past to make decisions in
present circumstances leading to good outcomes for the collective order in the
future: it is a time logic. Virilios point is that in the dromosphere (light-speed
mediation) all dimensions collapse into Now. What is prudence for the dromosphere?
Apparatus theory shows that this upgrade involves not only the outline of a new
mode of inference, but a new mode of identity as well. Avatar is identified as the site
of a new experience motivating a shift in behavior and even of being, both
individually and collectively.
2. Mythography
Avatar, within a database prosthesis and oracle interface, supports an Internet
public sphere. Individuals have always made decisions at the speed of light, at blink
speed, in situations of emergency or crisis. Habitus expressed through stereotypes
(individuals) and myths (collectivities) guides decision-making even in modern
literate democratic states. Image metaphysics, through the practice of flash reason,
brings this blink dimension into a medium and expression, opening it to ontology, and
hence to revision and education. The point emphasized within apparatus theory is
that these cultural operations are invented. The primary mythology organizing

American public and foreign policy is the Frontier. Our most recent, and probably not
the last, cowboy president was George W. Bush.
Electracy dates from the rise of the industrial city, beginning in the
nineteenth century. The new recording technologies invented in the modern city,
most of them institutionalized in forms and modes created by Entertainment,
functioned to help citizens adapt to industrialization. The closing of the historical
frontier near the end of the nineteenth century motivated the creation of the Frontier
myth. The names and dates of this invention are well documented. The purpose of
this chapter is to extract from this history (in the account by Richard Slotkin) not only
an analysis of this myth as a world-view guiding policy formation as well as
Entertainment forms, but also a poetics that may be generalized as a means to revise
the Frontier or even to author a new mythology more adequate to the global
conditions of electracy. Within this general poetics the creation of several character
types is reviewed: the cowboy (becoming hard-boiled detective), Salome (becoming
femme fatale). A counter-mythology of the (European) artist hero is reviewed as well,
representing an acephallic stance in the cityscape capable of thinking with the
seductions of surface special effects, alternative to the nostalgia for rationality and
individualism that still inform the common sense of American national identity.
3. Jazz Scenario
Avatar is electrate politics and ethics. Since avatar is part of a new apparatus,
its creation takes place at the level of metaphysics itself, giving this practice access
to the dimension of culture that actually motivates individual and collective striving
to persevere (the life force). Avatar brings into players experience the source of
motivation (disposition and its formation through habitus, to use Bourdieus favorite
term for conatus). In practice this means that avatar (collective) as the site of
identity formation in electracy, is authorized as mythographer. This chapter models
mythography by applying to the creation of Jazz in America the poetics of myth
extracted from the Frontier (using Slotkins three-volume history as the archive). Jazz
historically is not completely separate from Frontier, but is a version of the Frontier
told from the point of view of the Crowd. Its dominant mood is not anxiety but joy.
The poetics of Jazz shows in principle its features as worldview, and hence as
strategy for everything from daily life to foreign policy. It is not about playing music
anymore than the Frontier is about herding cows. It is rather a state of mind, an
attitude, a framing of experience guiding a certain approach to well-being more
adequate to the conditions of globalization in an Internet public sphere. The
appearance of Frontier as myth coincided with the closing of the historical frontier.

Jazz as myth similarly emerges even as the historical moment of the music has
passed.
4. Category
Avatar operates in the imagined community. Citizens have avatars the way
they have cars and drivers license. Avatar consulting addresses several layers of
wisdom formation: witness (accumulation of observations); scenario construction for
mythography; category in image metaphysics. Avatar attunement of a zone (as
demonstrated by Revelle in Miami) is to electracy what definition of a concept is to
literacy. The analogy for the vicissitudes of avatar as image category is Blanchots
updating of Orpheuss descent into Hades to rescue Eurydice. The insight is
descent, that the experience of being/having an image in cyberspace is understood
as mourning, or the entry into language. To say that avatar is to electracy what
category is to literacy means that imaging must function as measure, as organizing
system articulating reality out of the Real, for me (distributed metaphysics).
Metaphysics is singularized, but reassembled and correlated in the KaChing.
This chapter outlines the logic netizens learn in order to function categorially
in cyberspace. The practice of tagging and formation of folksonomies now
commonplace online are the behavior to be augmented by this metaphysics. The
chapter demonstrates the usefulness of the grammatological analogy for inventing
an image metaphysics. An image category system evolved along side the word
categories of conceptual logic throughout the epoch of literacy, but framed always
within the terms of substance (properties selected to serve the ends of definition of
essences). Flash reason is created by extracting this latent system of imaging from
literate configuration, in order to develop a metaphysics (ontology) of the image
relative to electracy. The archive sources include practices from Ancient mnemonics
and Christian iconophilia to Lacanian theories of the object @.
5. Chora
The formal operator originated with Platos account of chora, a third order
introduced to mediate Being and Becoming, a measure sorting chaos into order.
Following the previous chapters genealogy of chora through several key moments of
invention and development (Aristotles categories, the commonplace and topical
pedagogy of manuscript culture, especially its use of the virtues and vices as primary
categories; the icon in Byzantium) this chapter extend these instances of chora to
the society of the spectacle (the dromosphere). Kants introduction of aesthetic

judgment as a bridge between Being and Becoming (Pure and Practical Reason)
updates choral measure for modernist art as the basis for an image logic.
In electracy chora absorbs topos (topic) and resituates its organizing practices
within the diegesis of the imagined city, the cityscape, especially as dramatized in
the genre of film noir. Situationist psychogeography (drift, detournement, mapping)
provides a relay for choragraphy as category formation. The relevant lesson
concerns how to restore visibility to the city through affective mapping, thus
countering the information sprawl of the dromosphere. Mediated through Sartres
existentialism and films such as Naked City, psychogeography demonstrates how to
configure information space (extrapolated from unitary urbanism) by means of
Stimmung or Mood.
6. Judging
Avatar within electracy as apparatus is appropriated as the vehicle and site of
flash reason, making it possible for citizens to participate in deliberative democracy
even in the dromosphere. Avatar is practical reason against the Internet Accident,
meaning that it updates prudence or good judgment. The challenge facing the
temporality of prudence is speed, dimension collapse, in which past-present-future
are Now. The method of heuretics applies McLuhans principle of innovation through
retrieval of obsolete practices from the archive. In fact the Western tradition has
dreamed of sudden thought or flash reason from the beginning, always associated
with images (as opposed to linguistic discourse), and attributed to the mind of God.
God in electracy moves from grammar to the Internet. Flash reason extracts from
the genealogy of sudden thought a logic of imaging, involving a modality of timespace formulated in German philosophy as Moment (Augenblick). Heidegger shifted
the orientation of category from Aristotles juridical indictment to poetic epiphany.
The work of inventing flash reason is to adapt the formal operations of
traditional prudence or practical reason to the aesthetic forms of art. Good judgment
was understood traditionally as the ability to formulate maxims based on past
experience, and apply them ad hoc or on the fly in the midst of problematic
situations leading to beneficial outcomes for the community. This kind of wisdom
based on the authority of experience is destroyed by the industrial city, creating
conditions that Kant euphemized as the sublime. The dromosphere is sublime, a
condition in which individual experience is impoverished and without access to the
causality at work in events. This chapter establishes first the nature of Moment or
epiphany as experience of ones own limits, threshold, mapping the contour of insideoutside through the composition of a figure. In addition the logic of Moment invented

and enhanced by modernist arts is described: the bachelor machine, exemplified


most purely in Marcel Duchamps Readymades and Bride works. Avatar is a bachelor
machine.
7. Hegemony
This chapter places the proposals of flash reason in the context of
contemporary political theory. Avatar as an updating of prudence for the
dromosphere marks it as the latest development of hegemony. Machiavelli did for
practical reason (ethics and politics) what Descartes did for pure reason (scientific
method), by putting some distance between reason and Religion. Machiavelli
thought it possible for virtue to triumph over Fortune through a certain craft of
thought. Virtue is the dimension of human experience ontologized in electracy. This
craft of decision was updated by Gramsci, who replaced the Prince with the political
Party as leader. Hegemony is revised for poststructural theory by Ernesto Laclau,
whose description of the empty universal and its isotopy with Lacans object @ and
the commodity sign show the point of application of flash reason in contemporary
society. Avatar shifts the role of Prince and Party to the distributed sage, whose
witness and decision are correlated in the KaChing database interface.
Contemporary emancipatory politics proposes that it is possible to sustain democracy
in the absence of a people (a unified body politic), through the transformation of
the crowd into a multitude.
The rhetorical unity of the multitude is achieved through the bachelor logic
of Freuds Rat Bridge, according to Laclau. The electrate image category, that is,
functions at every level, from language to society, to gather or form assemblages. It
is a metaphysics, after all. Assemblages (the new abstraction, electrate logos)
form not through the common sense of shared intentional content, but through the
bliss sense (jouissance) of repeating signifiers, the prototype of which is found in the
dreamwork or jokework of the Unconscious. Freud is a logician of the new prudence.
The fullest development of flash reason in support of Moment, the temporality of
judgment in the dromosphere Now, is by Jacques Derrida. Laclau referred to
Derridas differance as one of the keys to group formation through disjunctive
relationship. Derridas choral trace works with the musical slope of language, as
distinct from the semantic slope cultivated by literate ontology. The history of
vanguard innovations across all the arts is the context for this non-objective
reasoning, which ontologizes the urbanized body, what Cezanne called his little
sensations, and Deleuze formulated as the capacity to be affected, derived from
Spinozas conatus. The next step is to design databases using choral ontologies to

supplement the semantic ontology still informing most contemporary database


design. Aristotle still presides over semantic web ontology.
Conclusion: Miami Virtue
The practice for encountering avatar is not itself new, in that it is the mystory
pedagogy first introduced in Teletheory (Ulmer, 1989), and developed in subsequent
books, through Electronic Monuments (Ulmer, 2005). What is new in Miami Virtue is
the extension of the mystory into a group collaborative mode of inquiry. Mystory, in
the digital prosthesis, allows the consultant (egent) to think in four discourses
simultaneously. The group mystory described here models how avatar functions as
consulting. The public policy issue used as prototype is the Caribbean Code safety
policy that excluded Haitian trading boats from the Miami River port. Documentation
is used to establish the atmosphere of the setting: news reports, tourist guides,
policy pamphlets, interviews, all relevant to the consultation. The rationale for this
documentary approach is to allow readers to discover and track the constellation or
choral pattern as it emerges within the archive of the policy zone.
The theory of choragraphy motivating the design of the Miami consultation is
explained, relating the four popcycle discourses to the tradition of allegory. Fredric
Jameson noted the relevance of medieval allegory as a relay for understanding the
need for a microcosm-macrocosm connection, which he sought through architectural
cognitive mapping. Mystory is a genre for writing/thinking in all four primary
discourses of modern life at once. The flash of flash reason occurs through the
bachelor machine superimpositions of four dimensions of experience, producing an
emergent pattern. The relay is from medieval allegory of the sort Dante used to
structure his Comedy. The four levels are the literal (Old Testament story of Israel
coming out of Egypt), allegorical (Christs Passion); moral (the believers personal
salvation), anagogical (redemption of the world at the end of time). This structure is
updated, secularized, by translating the quartenary into modern discourses: history
of the community; entertainment identification with a celebrity; personal habitus;
discipline or career field. Lacans four categories map readily onto the system:
Symbolic, Imaginary, Symptom, Real.
The querent with the assistance of the diviner (the FRE in this case), receives
from the archives (the documentation of the zone) information selected through the
filter of the personal anecdote. The individual symptom, in other words, replaces
anagogy as hegemonic in the allegory. The formal details of Revelles ordinating
anecdote featured a mattress. This mattress becomes the hinge of the system,
opening passage between microcosm and macrocosm, finding matches in each of the

other registers. This pattern of repeating mattresses includes Revelles memory of


the childhood game in the basement of the mattress maker in Skeeversville; the
Haitian trader Simon Lubin, whose impounded boat was loaded with used mattresses;
the analogy of the quilting point in Lacans psychoanalysis; the bedroom tactics of
the femme fatale in neo-noir narratives. The querent receives the pattern as
uncanny, recognizing the truth of the pattern as an answer to the burning question:
in my relationship with my partner, I am impounded (like the derelict Haitian trader).
Here is a goal of this project, of the figure as rhetoric opening the avatar relation (the
relation between self and image): an affective encounter with my disposition, nature,
virtue, daimon, genius, limit. Simon Lubin is avatar.