Authentic Avatars?

The Myth of Deep Authenticity Online

Since the publication of my Salvo piece on church in the Metaverse, something has continued to bug me: the claim made by proponents of virtual reality church that avatars are deeply authentic. Pastor of VR Church, DJ Soto explains it this way: “the metaverse church is fertile soil for people to be more authentic than the physical church has seen in a long time. We believe this is true because the anonymity of the avatar drives deep authenticity.” Several people who read my piece have zeroed-in on that quote, too. Which means something is there for further investigation.

The language of authenticity is ubiquitous in our culture today—from the calls to be your authentic self, to corporate discussions of brand authenticity, to social media debates about authenticity versus curation. Also, as Soto’s point makes clear, a frequent rationale for embracing virtual reality and avatars is that such things enable individuals to freely express their true selves without any limitations—that anonymity allows one to be deeply authentic.

But anonymity and digitality run in the opposite direction to authenticity. Anonymity is inauthentic. Digitality is disembodied. Authenticity is to know and be known by the other; to expose oneself as one truly is—warts and all—to the other and to the world. But in a culture consumed with authenticity as self-creation, the avatar seems like absolute freedom. While an avatar is anonymous and nearly unlimited in how it can be constructed, it ultimately ends up being a circumscribed self-projection. As contemporary philosopher Byung-Chul Han will help make clear, true authenticity requires much more: bodily risk, embracing an external order, confronting materiality, encountering people.

The Cult(ure) of Authenticity

Han argues in The Disappearance of Rituals that contemporary culture creates a “narcissistic cult of authenticity” where “only a spontaneous emotion, that is a subjective state, is authentic” (22-23). Only relationships and identities that are self-chosen and internally derived are seen as authentic. He explains further:

In the society of authenticity, actions are guided internally, motivated psychologically, whereas in ritual societies actions are determined by externalized forms of interaction. Rituals make the world objective; they mediate our relation to the world. The compulsion of authenticity, by contrast, makes everything subjective, thereby intensifying narcissistic tendencies. Today, narcissistic disorders are on the rise because we are increasingly losing the ability to conduct social interactions outside the boundaries of the self.

This is precisely what manifests in the digital world, where the self sets the parameters of reality as expressed online through avatars, social media personas, personal profiles, and what one follows or not. The self remains wholly self-contained, and anonymity further accelerates the process, making the avatar an epitome of such self-creation.

To summarize, today’s cult(ure) of authenticity says that to be a truly authentic person, you must express your internal feelings as freely as possible. The true you is inside and must be brought out. Digital living fosters that, as anonymity allows for a more uninhibited expression of the real you. Thus, the avatar is the authentic you, since it is self-chosen, anonymous, and created on your own terms. But this version of authenticity breaks down.

True Authenticity Requires External Forms

An anonymous avatar might seem authentic for the reasons mentioned above, but true authenticity requires abiding by reality as it is, not how we wish it might be. The self does not get to define reality, nor even itself. Reality is what it is. Reality doesn’t submit to our wills; we submit to it. And when we submit to reality’s hard edges, we are being authentically human, acting in accord with our design.

Even the unbounded freedom of online anonymity that supposedly drives deep authenticity really just leads to a set of new boundaries and limits created by the self. There is still a “this, not that” even in the digital world. Online one says, this is who I am, and not that; this is my profile, and not that; this is my avatar, and not that; this is my community, and not that. Limits, boundaries, and forms are inescapable—which gives all the more reason to embrace the forms that are true to reality and that transcend individual feeling and definition. There must be something external to the self that provides meaning beyond the self-referential creations of the human will.

Han explores this concept too, and really flips the avatar-as-authentic-self on its head.

We may imagine a ritual turn that re-establishes the priority of forms. It would invert the relationship between inside and outside, spirit and body. The body moves the spirit, not vice versa. Body does not follow spirit, but spirit follows body. We may also say: the medium produces the message. The is the force of ritual. External forms lead to internal changes.

Han flips the script, moving from the inside-out nature of self-understanding today, to an outside-in approach. Your embodied self is who you are. You are given an identity and a form. The world itself is given too, and has in-built forms and structures that imbue life with meaning and enchantment as we participate in them. Han concludes, “beautiful forms of conduct are becoming ever rarer. In this respect, too, we are becoming hostile towards form. Moral inwardness dispenses with form…. Against this formless morality, we must defend an ethics of beautiful forms”.

When it comes to defending forms—and beautiful forms at that—we should start with the body itself, and its centrality in what it means to be human—something, I might add, that cannot be duplicated online or in virtual reality. In the words of Hubert Dreyfus’ classic What Computers Can’t Do, “what distinguishes persons from machines…is…an involved, situated, material body.” Dreyfus echoed this argument years later in On the Internet when he wrote that we must “affirm our bodies, not in spite of their finitude and vulnerability, but because, without our bodies…we would literally be nothing” (144). It is in our bodily life with one another that we experience true authenticity—through exposure, risk, and confronting material reality. This is how we know and are known.

True Authenticity Requires Being Known

Certainly, there is a sense of existential risk and exposure to our embodied life together—a vulnerability and resistance that can be frightening. But it is in such embodied experience that we find what it means to be human and to be truly authentic. In his new book Non-Things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld, Han offers further insight into the differences between online experiences of digitality and real experiences of physicality.

A person or a physical object “is something that [can] turn against me, that [can] oppose and resist me.” Han calls this aspect of experience the “negativity of resistance.” However, this opposition or confrontation with things and people is smoothed over in the digital world via screens, swipes, clicks—and avatars. And therein lies the problem. As Han puts it, this “smart environment of digital non-resistance impoverishes world and experience” since “it is precisely the negativity of resistance that constitutes experience.”

True authenticity comes not through a digital projection of oneself, but through the embodied, creaturely self—the real self—encountering the world and one another. Removing layers of mediation (like screens, online personas, avatars) between people helps us live authentically since technological mediation creates distance, and though distance might seem self-protective, it is also self-limiting. Online, digital, and virtual versions of authenticity ultimately fail to be authentic because they are disembodied—and therein lies the definitive reason that avatars can never be deeply authentic. The anonymity of the avatar does not drive deep authenticity; it leads further into the self. Instead, we must be brought outside ourselves to embrace bodily life and to encounter others—and that is where the real person resides.

Further Reading

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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