Lacan concludes his lecture “The Third” (1974) with a sentence that remains as topical as ever: “the future of psychoanalysis is something that depends on what will come out of the Real, namely if gadgets, for example, will really get the upper hand, if we ourselves actually come to be brought to life by gadgets.” It is true that the modern era is characterised by an onslaught of technological objects that are promoted as causes of desire, manufactured especially for the purpose of replacing the lacking Being with a too-rich Having. Their life is short, and they are destined to be thrown away. As they are constantly replaced by new future rubbish, they end by becoming the object of scorn. These objects may be deemed as being emblematic of a new anthropological condition where digital technology plays a starring role.
In his book “The Nonhuman Environment” (1960), Harold Searles stresses the influence of the world of objects on the formation of the human psyche; the focus is no longer just on inter-subject relationships, but also on relationships with objects, which today include digital screens. In this respect, it would be interesting to see how a virtual environment tends to replace or even reduce the extent and importance of the real environment. Or even to examine the uninterrupted continuum of the real and of the virtual environment as a modern condition where people develop their psychic life. In fact, the nonhuman virtual environment of screens tends to take precedence over the real environment, especially in periods of lockdown, such as during this pandemic.
Avatars are a typical example of the crystallisation of the real and virtual world continuum. The word comes from the Hindu religion and denotes the incarnation of a divine entity. However, while in Hinduism the term refers to a spirit made flesh, in the virtual world a reverse course is charted: the avatar is an incorporeal representation, a discarnation of the embodied self. There is a question here that is begging to be asked: what is the relation between the virtual and the real self?
We can identify two classes of avatars. The first is an idealised version of the self: the avatar is what I would like to be. The second serves as a symbol for a repressed part of the self, of a concealed residue, of an otherness within my very identity that is free of the censorship of the real world. In this case, the avatar is something that I avoid being in real life but with which I can identify in the virtual world. In any case, the choice of an avatar focuses on the subject being able to make the pronouncement “this is me”.
The creation of avatars is related to the phenomenon of “identity shift”. As the avatar becomes independent from its creator, it can exert an influence on the user by transforming their perception of themselves. For example, no-lifes, i.e. people who spend too much time on/in digital games by limiting their offline lives to a minimum, feel like the kings of the world while in the game, and are rewarded just for playing. Digital life does not temporarily replace their real life: it is their real life.
As the real self determines the characteristics of the avatar, so the avatar can influence the real self (someone may act based on what they think their avatar would do in a similar situation). The relationship, therefore, of the real self with the avatar is two-way and presupposes, like any interaction, that the elements that interact have something in common, a common “nature”; they are not the elements of two incompatible and foreign worlds, but those of a common, unique world in which the boundaries between real and virtual have become completely blurred. Here we come across an uninterrupted continuum that can be represented by the Moebius strip. It allows us to use an original approach to thinking of the relationship between the real and the virtual, the bodily self and the disembodied avatar: the transition from the former to the latter and vice versa is continuous, making it impossible to detect the point of transition.
This logic of a continuum showcases the avatar as a “cyberbody” with its own “materiality”. This distinct cyberbody, located at the intersection of technology, fantasy and the symbolic, constitutes a new social imaginary where the body is reshaped through a complex grid of image, culture and technology. We can borrow a term from Husserl and speak of this grid as the new Lebenswelt, the new “lifeworld”, the new world of digital life we might add.