Angels and Avatars

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Angels and Avatars: does the internet provide us with a metaphor for intersubjectivity (Dan Holloway)

Put simply, the problem with talking about a relationship of two equals is that we don’t have a vocabulary for doing it. The erotic discourse bequeathed us by Platonism and the Abrahamic covenantal traditions provides us with a raft of metaphors – God/human; penetrator and penetrated; admirer and gazed upon; active/passive; spirit/body – each of which throws those who relate into positions fixed at either end of a hierarchical pole where one is totally swallowed up by the other (the very best we can say, with Derrida or after Freud, is that things are the opposite of how they seem – the one who fixes his gaze is not objectifying, holding prisoner the one he gazes on but is, rather, overwhelmed by the need to gaze, held prisoner by his addiction to his muse).

My four years of doctoral study were an attempt to resolve this problem, as most eloquently put by the Belgian theorist Luce Irigaray, who also hinted at the answer I was looking to flesh out.


Angel, as you probably know, is a word derived from the Greek angelos, or messenger. An angel is, literally, a go between, delivering communication first one way then another and so on.

Irigaray believed the best hope for getting out of the fix of creating hierarchies between lovers, or having one swallow the other whole, was the metaphor of angels, of go-betweens, of something outside of both parties where the interacting between them would take place without touching their subjectivity, but where something of themselves would actually be able reach so that interacting could happen. Sort of like a one-way permeable membrane, some kind of valve, where you could, once the relating had happened, change the direction so that you could reclaim your interacted-with self so that it wasn’t lost on the space walk.

Irigaray thought the most promising way of thinking about this was mucus, a very bodily way of conceptualising it but nonetheless a very fruitful and interesting metaphor, albeit one that was limited in scope by the fact the mucus membranes she identified were human lips and the female sexual organs.

I found a promising metaphor in the most unlikely setting of seventeenth century Puritan marriage tracts. There was one particular use of the term Special Providence that was unlike others, the long and the short of which was that a separate space – almost a forum or agora – was created where relational duties could be bargained.

Now, my doctoral studies were curtailed by a massive breakdown in 2000. Which isn’t a plea for sympathy. Rather, it’s an excuse for not having explored the path of enquiry that seems, as I lay out the problem like that, bleeding obvious.


Now, of course I was aware of the internet. I used it largely to access documents and articles. What I wasn’t really aware of was the burgeoning bulletin board culture. And when I emerged several years later into the world of chatrooms, Second Life, and social media with its avatars and gravatars, I had a full time job I needed to pay the rent and the hours in the day and spare brain capacity for study just weren’t there.

But it’s been there, gnawing away, the book I know I should have written, the chance to get my doctorate at long last, maybe even the chance to have a few years of an academic career in the twilight of my working years, or at least a punt at cultural punditry.

The internet is, of course, a buzz topic in academia. And bulletin boards and social media are buzz topics within buzz topics. There is plenty of cultural theory about subjectivity, crowd-sourcing, ghosts in machines, post-modern accretion and eclecticism; social theory about the way online communities behave. But I haven’t sensed much in the way of rigorous attempts to dial that in to two and a half thousand years of erotic discourse.

I don’t want to begin speculating about answers (but all thoughts are welcome), but it really is about time I started asking the obvious questions:

  • To what extent is the internet a “separate space”?
  • And the sub-question – to what extent are our avatars separate from us?
  • And how does this change across the spectrum from bulletin board to Second Life?
  • How does the interaction of our avatars take place and what is the permeability or leakage between that interaction and the people we “really” are?
  • When we talk of “our own subjectivity” being preserved in online intersubjective relations, are the degrees and nature of retention different for the “our own” and “subjectivity” part of that statement?
  • How do we tease apart the metaphorical and the actual? Or, can we talk about eroticism in terms of avatars?
  • If the interrelation of avatars is angelic in Irigaray’s sense, does that make the internet a paradise offering genuine intersubjectivity, or an inferno into which our bodies banish us?
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10 Responses to Angels and Avatars

  1. Pingback: Angels and Avatars | dan holloway

  2. Viv says:

    Extraordinary thoughts.
    Some years ago I had a series of dreams which defied language to explain what I saw but the one tiny part of my brain that did somehow comprehend what I saw and experienced is now jumping up and down and saying, “yes! yes! That’s IT!”
    Sadly the rest of my brain, the bit that needs to have words to use, is saying, “Oh do shut up and sit down!”
    I’ve begun to find a version of myself, a form of avatar without image, that exists within the confines of the internet. Standing outside myself for an odd moment(the equivalent of sneaking out for a crafty fag) I can see that this form both resembles closely and is entirely different from the me that people might meet face to face.
    Sorry, got to go and put my head in the freezer; brain’s overheating here.
    I must come to Oxford and talk.

  3. sandra murphy says:

    I love this topic and some really heady questions. Don’t know if I’m off the topic but I’m in the middle of studying autodictates, autobiography as objectification and abjection (see Julia Kristeva). Foucault’s theory on the panopticon works well with the idea of inscription on the inner self by way of the body. Perhaps the web is merely an exterior body we hurl portions of ourselves into. Then again, I guess the question of who we are outside of a dialect with any form of ‘other’is a hard subject to pin down. Mary Douglas the 20thC anthropologist had some interesting ideas on that place between the body and the exterior – specifically on the ideas of bodily fluids.
    Thanks for the interesting read!

  4. danholloway says:

    Hi Viv, apologies – *sending you some virtual freon*. I know exactly what you mean with standing outside yourself and seeing both selves (I’m reading Murakami’s 1Q84 at the moment and it’s full of that). The real key is how, and through what mechanism, those two selves interact.

    Hi Sandra. Definitely not off-topic! You may find Quiet Riot Grrl’s blog interesting, in particular her Foucault posts ( – these are subjects she comes back to again and again (she also compiled a fascinating collection called Objectified that touches on the autobiography & objectification subject The work you’re doing with Kristeva sounds fascinating – I’m most familiar with Strangers to Ourselves which raises some questions that are very relevant about where we are “at home”

  5. Viv says:

    I wonder if the issue is actually one of linguistics and not of concept. I have synaesthesia to some degree and part of the problem with this is of finding adequate words for communicating certain impossible things. So a colour that isn’t exactly a colour but is more of a sort of singing texture……there just are not words to use for this sort of thing.
    So perhaps it is the naming of the mechanism that is the jinxed bit; you are aware of the mechanism itself but lack the way of naming it so that someone else can see more or less what you see?
    In the case of the internet, we’ve all become accustomed to the phrases using the word virtual, and it’s an accepted shorthand for something few of us can readily define, and yet, it means nothing.
    going to stick my head back in a bucket of iced water and watch it steam, the way highly trained monks of Tibet can make wet towels dry out by raising their skin temp…..

  6. Viv says:

    Physics may be the key: the two selves do not interact because they are at one and the same time, two different things, a wave AND a particle.

  7. danholloway says:

    I like the idea of some kind of dual aspect way of looking at it. That may be close to the truth, but that may not make it easy to use it as a way of talking about non-hierarchical relationships

  8. Unconsecrated says:

    I’m going to stray off-topic a little, but remain in orbit of the sub-question in bullet point two.

    Stanford and Indiana did a couple of in-depth studies on avatars, with rather interesting results. In the case of Stanford, they found that the more an avatar resembled the person using it, the more the actions of the avatar in the virtual environment would affect the subject using the avatar in real life. Extrapolated a little – the more similar an avatar you are using is to you, the more likely your online persona will affect your real life.

    In Indiana’s case, they did some interesting work, finding that people used avatars in uncertainty reduction with about as much credibility, albeit not consciously, as viewing the person in real life. Thus, the more anthropomorphic an avatar is, the more trust, credibility and affection it will engender. Further, men tend to choose hyper-masculine and women tend to choose hyper-feminine avatars (not limited to anthropomorphic), and androgyny in an avatar tends to have an adverse effect on those observing.

    Painting in broad strokes, then, this would seem to indicate that avatars are not necessarily separate at all, but indicative of what we would like to see in ourselves and, much like the studies in Kibbutzes in Israel (where androgyny is encouraged), would seem to indicate that both male and female seek to amplify their gender, rather than reduce it. Given these last points, it’s not surprising that the Stanford studies found avatars affecting the real person – that the online or virtual affected the real and not the other way around.

    Leaning towards Personal Construct Theory, as I do, when you break it down to its bare bones, our personalities are a set of self-constructs and they are awfully flimsy – thereby neither you nor your avatar are concrete in any way. Not being concrete makes them impossible to separate with any level of certainty.

    Sorry to stray, but message-boards are rather interesting to me.

  9. Dan Holloway says:

    mm, very interesting. It makes me think even more what I was thinking when I was writing about the idea of emanation and return (and the Arian christological debate of the 4th century – whether God is diminished by begetting a son or whether the son is an emanation from a being whose essence remains unchanged). I’m not wholly sold that identity is 100% construct but I do like the idea of a dialogue, as though our identity runs through a dialysis machine, the “real” and the “virtual” iterating around one another (sometimes collapsing, sometimes ending as bi-polar stars?).

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