Review essay

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Paul Manning

trent university

Can the Avatar Speak?
Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human [Boellstorff]. Boellstorff, Tom. . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. 328pp.
Other recent books discussed in this essay:

Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds [Pearce/Artemesia]. Pearce, Celia and Artemesia, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. 308pp.

Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media [Ito at al.] Ito, Mizuko, et al. Cambridge: MIT Press, Forthcoming.

Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life [Malaby]. Thomas M. Malaby,  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. 175pp.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals [Azuma]. Azuma, Hiroki. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Koro. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota press, 2009. 173pp.

Phenomenology of a Puppet Theatre: Contemplations on the Art of Javanese Wayang Kulit [Mrazek]. Mrazek, Jan. Leiden: KITLV Press. 2005. 587pp.

Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture [Taylor]. Taylor, T. L., MIT Press Cambridge MA. 2006. 197pp.

I borrow the title of this review essay from a question asked along the way in Boellstorff’s book, Coming of Age in Second Life (Boellstorff 149, with a nod of course to expanding the famous question associated with Gayatri Spivak, “can the subaltern speak?”), to draw attention to the ways that the ethnography of virtual worlds presented in this book and some of the other recent books discussed here point up a number of largely unexplored analytic and ethnographic potentialities for linguistic anthropology. As the explicit intertexts of the title and various chapters of Boellstorff’s book suggest, the book’s central conceit is to explore the use of ordinary empirical methods of ethnography and participant-observation to an extraordinary topic: to use an absolutely ordinary, conventional genre (ethnography), in book form, no less, to study an online community (Second Life, henceforth SL) (Boellstorff 29-30). The author makes no secret of this, and, indeed, makes intertexts with many of the central canonical ethnographies (Boellstorff 30-31), as well as with his own earlier work in Indonesia, to establish a continuity of method from actual to virtual life.

This alone has attracted a certain amount of controversy. I think much of this controversy relates little to the specific contents of this book, whose method and manner of exposition I find to be accessible and informative, representing a virtual world and its community in a way that I, as a gaming “addict” and confessed geek, find to be both sympathetic and illuminating. Rather, as Boellstorff suggests (27, 32, 240), it is illuminating about our own everyday ideologies about “technology”, an ill-defined category that represents a kind of “shifter”, a referential-indexical term whose concrete referents change constantly as the today’s future become tomorrow’s past.

Because technology is a shifter, defining its essence at least partly in terms of novelty (Boellstorff 32), what is true of technology in general is even more true of the latest wave, captured under terms like “virtual” and its quasi synonyms (Boellstorff 16-19, 25, chapter 2). As a result of such unexamined assumptions, the very exoticism and novelty of virtual communities, themselves founded on a number of such transformative technologies, appear to demand new methodologies, even new categories of humanity (such as the “posthuman”, which the author sees as being of limited usefulness in analyzing the sociality and subjectivity of virtual worlds (Boellstorff 27-9), and “cyborg”, which the author usefully points out refers to a completely different kind of nexus emphasizing the continuity of human and non-human (Boellstorff 138)). Boellstorff helpfully reminds us throughout that if we assume (following this narrative about technology as novelty) everything about virtual worlds is novel, we will never actually find out which things about them actually are novel, and which are not (Boellstorff 25). Therefore this book (like the books by Taylor and Pearce/Artemesia), instead of assuming a novel methodology for a novel technologically mediated form of community, instead seeks to explore the technologically-mediated “gap” between actual and virtual life precisely by approaching these novel communities using the most traditional, time-honored method of anthropology, participant-observation. Interestingly, this very method is precisely what most convincingly reveals those gaps that there are between the two kinds of community, actual and virtual, and shows that a sense of virtualness is constituted precisely by the meta-awareness of this gap between the actual and the virtual (and not, for example, by immersion in the virtual world as if it were another actual world (what Boellstorff calls the “immersive fallacy” (112-3))). It seems to me that this aspect of the book (“the gap”) is one which has a number of homologies in linguistic anthropological theory (in particular the reflexive metapragmatic awareness of mediation, the maximization or minimization of “intertextual gaps” that Bauman [2004], for example, shows to be constitutive of ‘mediational performances’) and which provides many interesting avenues for research for linguistic anthropological research. To paraphrase the modernist puppet theatre theorist Meyerhold (discussed below), the purpose of the “techne” of avatar embodiment is not to erase the gap between the actual and the virtual, but to create it.

The book, then, takes on, and to my mind, banishes, several pervasive dystopian assumptions about virtual communities (Boellstorff 25-7). Other recent ethnographies of online communities (Taylor, Pearce/Artemesia, Ito et al., Malaby) also discuss this set of assumptions and other points covered by Boellstorff; rather than engage in an extensive separate discussion of these books, I will occasionally note here and there places where these other books make parallel or complementary points.   One, of course, is the “moral panic” about the very idea of a virtual life, that life spent online is dangerous, addictive, escapist, diagnostic of social pathology or individual social death. Such a view is that found in popular Western media representations like the infamous South Park episode on the online game World of Warcraft.1 Another is the argument that such online worlds, inasmuch as they are wholly owned by corporations, are pervaded and formed at their very roots by capitalism. Fair enough. But then, as Boellstorff points out, so is everything else in the actual world (Boellstorff 25): if anything, this suggests that such online worlds, far from being irrelevant sideshows to the “real” object of ethnographic description (whatever that is), might provide an interesting window on capitalism (the matter of “creationist capitalism” that Boellstorff discusses in chapter 8; here Malaby’s ethnography of the “technoliberalism” of the designers of SL should be read in tandem). Lastly, the pervasive tacit assumption that such communities, not being based on face to face interaction, are simply unreal (an idea that T.L. Taylor usefully problematizes in an earlier article on avatar embodiment and “presence” (Taylor 2002)). Many of the forms of moral panic associated with such communities seem to be related to the way that “unreal” online interaction can “leak” consequentially into “real life” (generating new technologically mediated hybrids of anonymity and intimacy discussed under the rubric of the “intimate stranger” in Tomita 2005). Any situation where virtual worlds have actual world consequences, whether virtual goods sold for real money, virtual friendships, flirtations or even sexual dalliances or marriages that are subsequently consummated in the actual world, generate states of moral panic or analytic interest seemingly disproportionate to the stimulus. This fear of “avatars out of place”, the mixture of virtual and actual lives, is perhaps the most tenacious set of fears about the virtual life. But all of these caveats also seem linked to a primordialism which seeks to locate social reality only in the domain of an authentic world of “face to face” community or interaction, from which mediated and ludic forms of community and interaction appear to be excluded as being either pathological or inconsequential. In addition, these dystopian narratives of escapism, addiction, social or individual pathology are linked to a methodological codicil, that such virtual communities can only be studied in the “real world”, if they can be studied at all. From this perspective, the book might be faulted for not doing, at minimum, “multi-sited ethnography”, talking to the technicians, the code-writers, at Linden Lab (the producers of SL) as well as online. As the author points out, there is nothing wrong with that particular methodology, but it asks different questions than this one (Boellstorff 60-65, see Taylor and Pearce/Artemesia for ethnographies of virtual worlds that explore both actual and virtual world activities, and see Malaby for a complementary “offline” ethnography of the producers of SL). The book also complicates several utopian narratives of virtual life, showing that the virtual life is just as capable, for example, of replicating essentialism of actual world status attributes in virtual life as it is of erasing them, and that precisely here we find some of the most striking normative conflicts between members of virtual communities (for example, the discussion of in-world polemics about the introduction of voice chat into SL is particularly interesting for linguistic anthropologists (Boellstorff 112-116); on voice technology as producing a form of “ludic leakage”, see also Pearce/Artemesia 177-181).

As with any classic ethnography, particularly ones like the one from which it takes its title, this ethnography first situates us with respect to the virtual world, setting us down on an unfamiliar beach in an exotic locale. Of course, the exoticism here has to do with the fact that this is a virtual locale, and it is precisely defining this concept in an operationalizable way (in relation to the actual world), both qualifying in what ways this new form of sociality is continuous with those based on the actual world, and in what ways not, and also, in what ways virtuality has always been part of actual life, that occupies much of the first chapter. From there, the author gives a kind of orienting introduction to the Malinowskian “imponderabilia of everyday life” of this virtual world, much as one might give such an introduction to any field site. After a “walk through” of the virtual world, the author returns to definitional issues, locating the opposition between virtual/actual in relation to a series of other competing candidate characterizations and terms, and centering the discussion on precisely how the awareness of the gap between actual and virtual life, both the separation of these categories and the constant hybrid traffic or leakage across these boundaries, is a constitutive feature of the virtual (Boellstorff 23).

Perhaps one of the most striking features of this chapter is not, for example, the careful separation of virtuality (which is predicated on a techne-mediated gap between actual and virtual life) from other competing concepts like “cyborg” (predicated on a continuity between human and non-human) (Boellstorff 138), or the refreshing polemic with the all-too-rapid assumption of that virtuality involves a radical discontinuity with existing actual forms of human sociality, captured in the concept of the “post-human” (Boellstorff 27-9), but rather, a brief but telling linking of virtual life to Benedict Anderson’s notion of an “Imagined Community” (Anderson 1983; Boellstorff 24, also 36). Certainly the parallelisms with other kinds of non-face-to-face, imagined but consequential relationships such as are constitutive of nations, publics, and other social imaginaries, reminds us that the virtual has long been consequentially part of the actual. The author also explores the concepts of “game” and “play” (drawing on Huizinga, Boellstorff 22-3), to show that while the concepts of game and play are relevant to online worlds (many of which explicitly or implicitly define themselves as gamelike), cybersociality is not inconsequential or trivial, as the game or play analogy would suggest (see also Pearce/Artemesia 2009). This should not be a novel observation to anthropologists, after all, the “play” analogy informs George Simmel’s classic discussion of “sociability” as the “play-form of association” (Simmel 1949: 255), for Simmel an omnivorous re-keying of each and every imaginable purposive form of social behavior as play. No one would suggest by now that the study of sociability, the “sociological play-form”, whose prototypical exemplar is idle conversation between peers (Simmel 1949: 259), is an idle or inconsequential topic, particularly in linguistic anthropology. In fact, Ito et al. usefully link the many practices related to new media ecologies, including virtual worlds and online gaming, to more complicated vernacular typologies of kinds of sociality and sociability, social networks and levels of involvement and participation, ranging between casual “hanging out” and “messing around” to more involved “geeking out”.

Here Boellstorff’s discussion invites comparison with Barker (2008), who invokes Simmel’s concept of sociability in a fascinating discussion of virtual relationships mediated by rhizomatic neighborhood interkom networks in Indonesia. Like any virtual world like SL, the “hard-wired” rhizomatic interkom network shows a situation in which “online” (virtual) relationships are technically and normatively segregated from “on land” (actual) ones. The fact that online interaction in interkom, like with SL, is interaction pursued for its own sake, a classic example of Simmel’s sociability, does not mean that such sociability is inconsequential or uninteresting. For example, I invite a comparison between Barker’s discussion of interkom personae and Boellstorff’s characterization of virtual selves, in particular the use of pseudonyms and even the vocal equivalent of avatars, what Barker calls “voice personae”, achieved by using technical effects to achieve an “on air” voice distinct from one’s “on land” voice (Barker 2008: 137):
Users drew a sharp distinction between interkom life and regular life…. between an ‘on-air’ (di udara) world (sometimes ‘on-line’ or di jalur) and ‘on-land’ (di darat) world. Everyone who used interkom had both an on-land name (nama darat) and an on-air name (nama udara)…. Some people had different on-air names for different lines, while others kept the same name regardless of which line they were on. People who were frequently on-air together eventually learned each other’s land names. But when invitations were sent out for social events like picnics and anniversary celebrations, they were addressed using people’s on-air names. Even in person people referred to each other by these names. One thing these on-air names did was to provide a space for people to construct a sense of self that was different from the one they had on-land. Rather than being based on one’s familial ties, the place one lives, or one’s looks, this sense of self was established largely on the basis of one’s discursive style and sound on-air. The types of adjectives people used to describe the voices they liked were gentle (lembut), sweet and melodious (merdu), exquisite (bagus), attractive (menarik), and easy on the ears (enak didengar). People were always experimenting with their voice modulation by speaking in different tones and trying different bass, treble, and reverb settings. Since they could not hear the output of their own speech as it sounded on-air, they relied on others to help them find the settings that generate the most attractive sound.
But here, too, there arises a kind of moral panic that results from the idea that these different personas, “on land” and “on line”, will leak into one another in consequential ways: as with SL, interkom online relationships seem to generate moral panic when they become consequential for “on land” relationships, when the network is used for other than pure play forms of sociability. The hazards and disappointments here are the same as with avatars in an online community, the fear, for example (familiar, too, from personal ads, see for example Lemon 2008 and references there) that the projected “on line” persona will not match up to the embodied one, or that on line relationships will compete with or complicate on land ones (Barker 2008: 138-9).

While both SL and interkom relations are technically mediated in very different ways, they both produce an analogous and problematic opposition between the actual and the virtual, as well as generating a set of very similar moral panics that result from mixtures of the two categories. Boellstorff suggests other places that one might look for the idea that technically-mediated forms of presence might potentiate analogs of virtual cybersociality (which could, in turn, lead to actual sociability), for example, “Pen Pals” and other private relationships mediated entirely by the postal system as a form of virtual world (Boellstorff 36). More generally, Boellstorff notes that these novel phenomena should be situated within a “broader history of technologically mediated intimacy going back even to love letters” (Boellstorff 167). Here Boellstorff gives us the opportunity to see parallels not only with technologically mediated forms of stranger-sociability, such as print and internet publics (what Ito et al. call “networked publics”), but also with technologically mediated forms of private intimacy, where technological mediation provides instead an asymptote of im-mediacy and presence, such as love letters (Ahearn 2003), and also the hybrid forms of sociality between stranger-contemporary and intimate-consociate that Tomita subsumes under the term “intimate stranger” (Tomita 2005).2

If the first chapter locates us in a virtual “place”, the second chapter locates this place in a history of the virtual, in particular a discussion both of virtual technology and concurrent, but independent, development of kinds of imagining of secondary worlds (particularly drawn from science fiction and fantasy literature and early paper-and-pencil gaming adaptations of these imagined worlds such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)). This observation recalls a major thesis of the book, that I find to be congenial as a participant as well as an observer, which is that the primary appeal of virtual worlds is that they involve alternate social worlds, and not, as Boellstorff notes is often assumed, alternate social selves (Boellstorff 17-8, 31, 91, this is something that Taylor (chapter 2) discusses under the rubric of ‘worldness’, also Pearce/Artemesia chapter 2). It strikes me that this theme (which Boellstorff develops with respect to SL in chapter 4, Place and Time), along with the co-constitution of actual and virtual, and the mediating role that techne has in constituting this opposition, forms one of the crucial observations of the book. As Boellstorff notes, Tolkien’s specific imagining of a fantasy world contained in Lord of the Rings, along with his specific theory of “subcreation”, played, via its reception in role playing games like D&D, the source and continued inspiration of many of these online universes (Boellstorff 37-8, see also Taylor 20-24, Pearce/Artemesia 9, Balfe 2004). When we study virtual online worlds, then, one context to place them in is an ongoing study of imaginative geographies that not only potentiated them, but continue to be ongoing parallel practices of popular geographical imagination, virtual or otherwise (see Pearce 2009 for a fascinating example of the production of the same “world” across different platforms by an exiled virtual community). As Balfe notes “the ways in which imaginative geographies are promulgated and consumed remain largely mysterious” (Balfe 2004: 88). Except, of course, in virtual worlds, where, as authors like Boellstorff, Taylor and Pearce/Artemesia show us, we can actually watch these practices ethnographically online.

Part of the value of Boellstorff’s book, then, by thematizing precisely the way that much of the appeal of online worlds is precisely that they are worlds, is the way he indirectly draws attention to the way that such fantastic, fabulous, and imaginative geographies underlying these online worlds are in themselves worthy of more attention than they have been given (Pearce/Artemesia’s discussion of attempts by the Uru diaspora to recreate their lost world on other platforms is an exemplary study; for a fascinating broader intellectual history of these “third worlds” belonging neither to fact nor to belief but to imagination, see Nelson 2001). Certainly for linguistic anthropologists, there is a clear relevance in the related topic of the imagined languages, almost always with their own special arcane alphabet (an attribute of the exotic that dates back to John Mandeville), that, like maps of imagined geographies, seem to be crucial semiotic technologies of the imaginary world (Rosenberg 2009 and references there), just as Benedict Anderson’s famous triad of “census, map, museum” is for imagined communities of the nation (Anderson 1983: chapter 10). Just as maps of imagined geographies recapitulate the crucial role that technologies like maps play in constructing nations, there is no question that many of these imaginary languages recapitulate the basic outlines of 19th century ideological preoccupations with language, including the basic romantic impulse to allocate to each imaginary ethnos its distinctive language, and perhaps territory or culture, inherited from romantic philology and continued into disciplinary linguistics. Such tendencies are well illustrated, after all, by Tolkien himself, the professional philologist and amateur constructer of languages, giving Elvish a respectable philological Stammbaum. Constructed worlds (“conworlds”) seem to demand constructed languages (“conlangs”). The practice extends to virtually every kind of imaginary world: recently I was looking through a web site of a “guild” from the game Ryzom whose members are typically members of the “Tryker” race (see Figure 1 and 2 for a typical Tryker), and discovered that someone had decided to give the Trykers their own language, replete with typical phrases used in the game!3 Similarly, Pearce/Artemesia notes that refugees from the vanished world of Uru in part constitute their diasporic virtual ethnicity on other platforms by greetings from one of the languages of the lost Uru “homeworld” (Pearce/Artemesia 98, 121). While linguistics departments seem to occasionally use problem sets derived from admitted conlangs like Klingon and Elvish alongside at least partially constructed languages like Modern Hebrew, Modern Welsh or Indonesian, there has seemingly been little interest in linguistic anthropology in “technologies of the imagination” (Ito 2007) such as conlangs which form part of the media mix associated with virtual worlds as well as a constitutive aspect of fan subcultures more generally (Pearce/Artemesia 156; Nelson 2001: 121-3,180-1).
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