Virtual Bodies


Of course Teufelsdrockh’s Philosophy figures clothes – in one way at least – as the invisible fabric of society, but this passage – with its crude literal denunciation of clothes – does indeed convince us to desire a “world out of clothes,” though our German philosopher would have us believe we are nothing but an “air-image” in this “so solid-seeming World.”

From Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored) [1832-3]:

“While I – Good Heaven! – have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! Day after day, I must thatch myself anew; day after day, this despicable thatch must lose some film of its thickness; some film of it, frayed away by tear and wear, must be brushed off into the Ashpit, into the Laystall; till by degrees the whole has been brushed thither, and I, the dust-making, patent Rag-grinder, get new material to grind down. O subter-brutish! vile! most vile! For have not I too a compact all-enclosing Skin, whiter or dinger? Am I a botched mass of tailors’ and cobblers’ shreds, then; or a tightly articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?”

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According to this New York Times article, social interactive web sites ala MySpace are cropping up that are targeted at young girls with their simple communication tools. More specifically, most have in common the real-life obsession girls have with “dress-up.”

Sites like Cartoon Doll Emporium feature a selection of dolls kids can personalize. “Belle of the Ball,” the doll I personalized below, is the only doll which had the selection features we’re used to in Avatar designs, such as Zwinky. But most, oddly, were basically online versions of paperdolls, in which we drag cutouts of clothing onto the body of the model. (Perhaps these dolls are targeted at a younger age set, who might delight in simply dragging and dropping the doll clothes. I think it’s a poor use of technology.)

What surprises me most is how much I loved personalizing my “Belle of the Ball,” as I do all the avatars I create for myself. Am I creating a technological image of the person I perceive myself to be? fantasize myself to be? I never know. And yet there always seems to be “rightness” in each color or style of clothing I select. It’s an amazing power to be able to fashion oneself without limits, without consequences.

As I was taking a walk around the block in (what has been for days) the smoky and stifling air of North Central Florida, I realized two things about my previous post. (1) In my catalogue of “vital stats” one might wish to know about another person passing in the streets, I thought only of superficial mostly virtual details and nought of what might concern us in encounters of the flesh. On the streets, would we not also be tempted to want to detect in our hand-held monitors anything and everything from the common cold to STDs to genetic diseases, if we could? That is, if technology and society fostered such a practice? I say this as I imagine, my eyes still sore from the stinging atmosphere, that disease will soon consume us.

And so my rose-colored invention darkens.

Even more so in my second realization: (2) Environmental pollution and disease have not yet consumed us, which suggested to me the idea that it will consume us, and therefore this rosy world I live in is an environmental equivalent of the pre-9/11 world. The Floridian atmosphere struck me as so unhealthy as to not want to be out in it. My absence of concerns about disease, pollution, or any other condition of the fleshy world, in addition to my fixation on the rainbow-colored MySpace visions of the virtual world, suggest to me that life remains uncomplicated as far as public health in the U.S. goes. Yet that smoke-laden polluted air dropped a heavy veil over my lungs, rendering my previous post suddenly bittersweet.

I previously wrote on the idea of my life as a character, i.e. what if I had an author hovering above me, narrating my every thought, sensation, memory, or basically any quality not visibly or audibly expressed. I think of the novel as a technology for reconfiguring the presentation of the individual, and as such, the novel enables me to conceive of additional categories for understanding my life.

Computer technology takes this reconfiguration of life to a new plateau. In our experience of other people on the Internet, we almost always have access to all sorts of vital stats for other people–we can see a name, a photo (or many, representing multiple times and situations), birth date, location, interests, habits, videos, blogs, etc. In other words, I’m provided with a predictable frame for beginning to know someone, without ever having to enter their physical space, or even introduce myself.

Aaahhh, so I think, what if, out on the street, someone could do the equivalent of hovering their mouse over my image to access all this information about me, before even waving at me? More practically, what if I simply had a chip embedded under my skin and as others pass me, they could scan me with their palm-sized computer and retrieve any number of stats–am I single? what’s my occupation? how old am I? where am I from, where do I live? do I have anything in common with you? It would make the introductions between strangers much more efficient, no?

Sound crazy? Not really, it’s simply a more real-time version of what we get on the Internet. The reason I’m thinking of this now is that on today’s Rocketboom I was introduced to project WoW, created by Aram Bartholl of Denmark. His concept for the project stemmed from his experience of gaming technology in Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, such as World of Warcraft, that feature characters’ names hovering above their heads. (I wonder, of course, why names are so significant in this game and whether or not if I click on the character I get access to additional information.) In any case, I am fascinated by Aram Bartholl’s decision to carry out a performance of this concept of names hovering over heads into the streets.

The result, while clumsy at times, is rather startling. As I watch the videos, my impulse is to hover my mouse over the person to find out more information. Which led me to the subject of this post, and my invention for replicating virtual life on the streets… It’ll happen.