digital arts & culture 1998

Anita Hammer

Role and Theatricality in Virtual Worlds: Extending the theatrical, and investigating thresholds of mythic identity.

The Main Themes to be Examined by the Presentation:

1. Ritual Space in "Virtual" Reality.
a. Presentation/representation of ritual setting.
b. Looking at mythological contents of various metaphors within ritual space.
c. Modes of human representation and human action in "virtual" space.

2. Construction of Human Identity in "Virtual" Ritual Space.
a. Relation between "virtual" self and bodily self.
b. Role and change of role in presentation, degrees of "theatricality".
c. Multiple Identity as Ritual transformation of self?
d. "Virtual" ritual as liminal/liminoid phenomenon to a collective/society as a whole.

Chris Chester, in searching for an "Ontology of the Digital Domain"(Chester 1997:86)states that "If people and property cannot be lined up along perfect grids in actual space, they can in the virtual". The digital domains, Chester points out to be not spatial, but "universally addressable", only existing to "make invocation possible". Thus, one could argue that the boundaries of software-interface can be aligned with the boundaries of ritual invocation of deities. Subsequently one could also ask the question of the ontological status of the non-bodily "identities" being invoked within this space. When I enter into "virtual space" naming myself as a different identity from the one I am accustomed to in everyday life, and this representation of a "self" meeting there another representation of self, we are both, simultaneously, invoking both another "me" and another "you", in the lonely, but universally addressable space in front of the keyboard. On may consider that God, or all deities, as is now commonly believed, never existed as separate bodily entities, but as projections of what may be perceived as other parts of ourselves. And they may have been placed "out there", by the collective and by individuals, in order to for us to be able to control our lives better, or in order to confess and have a dialogue or an encounter with ourselves from a "different point of view". To my view, then, the road is not so far travelling from prayer to online night-chat. The need to be anonymous, or to leave the everyday-identity behind is also common to religious ritual and to net communication via "Second self representation". And what other activity than ritual would "enable an increase in interacting between individuals while at the same time increasing the anonymity of each member of that community", which is exactly the way "abstract Communities"(Holmes 1997:229) are defined. As from my approach there is, thus, two ways of which to approach virtual systems as mythic ritual structure.

My first approach is one of viewing the virtual system of community, its function as symbolic representation, as to be carrying emotional contents in representational form into transformative processes, and thus functioning in relation to society as a whole, as a shaper and/or re-shaper of social processes. This approach will be leaning on Victor Turner's dynamic analyses of ritual processes.

Turnerıs gift to the understanding of ritual practice in pre-industrial society is the drawing of attention to the transformative power of symbols when effected in ritual context. Looking at ritual as a performative genre, Turner then focuses on the relation of ritual to the overall social process of society, taking place when there is a breach of norm, or, as emphasised in his latest work, - when there is contents arising from the collective social sphere which is experienced as difficult to integrate. The performance of ritual then becomes central to what Turner names the crucial redressive phase of social drama. In this stage of social process,Turner argues, performance of ritual becomes the only way of integrating incomprehensible elements, or statements which to consciousness is experienced as paradoxical, that is, being simultaneously true and not true, or experienced as right to some part of collective consciousness, whilest unacceptable to another. The phase in which such temporary suspension of "normal" belief occurs, is now a well known anthropological term, the liminal. However misused this term may be, as it is now often used to describe any change or period of uncertainty, I will take the opportunity for a reminder that to Turner this was not meant to describe just any uncertainty, but what he calls chaos of an "abysmal depth". Thus, there is absolutely no certainty, to those involved, that the order of society will ever be the same. Whether the liminality will lead to re-integation of what was previously the order, or whether the preformance of ritual will enable new orders to appear, is entirely dependent on the strength of various forces activated during this process.

Now, Turner has suggested that social drama relates to aesthetic drama in the way of which the one functions as the deep structure of the other. Following this model one will assume that whatever occurs in the process of social drama, on a structural level will find its counterpart, and can be spelled out by asthetic structure in the asethetic drama. According to Turner, however, and especially developed by and through his work with the theaterpractitioner and theorist, Richard Schechner, there is no waterproof screen distinguishing aesthetic drama and ritual practice. Within the extended notion of theatre now commonly used, functional criteria, namely the one of efficacy toward and on behalf of a social collective, has been the ground of distinction. Neither aestheic structure, nor contents has been distingishable factors. One consequense of this, for me, is that it becomes irrelevant whether or not the simultanously interactive multi-user digital environments considers themselves as aesthetic genres or not. The fact that a MOO like Athe Moo identifies itself as a theatrical MOO may be desicive of the sort of clients attracted to the Moo in the first place, but it does not make this MOO mor or less "theatrical" than any other MOO, for instance LambdaMOO or "The Cold Dark", in which people enter into a world of digital representation of self, or "telepresentation", as Michael Heim insists on naming it, in order to distinguish between digital embodiment and various other forms of representation.

Entering into the various worlds of MOOıs is like being flushed back to names and contents of metaphor of ancient Mythologies which I have studied in the past. Sometimes I have even needed the help of "wizards" in order to keep on track. One cannot, of course, take the metaphors to be equivalent with contents. Still, I am enclined to move from Chesterıs statement of "Invocation" to Julian Dibbel, who in his well known story of "Rape in Cyberspace" holds that the kind of speech, or the "commands" made by the subject into cyberspace is "a kind of speech that doesnıt so much communicate as "make things happen". He calls these commands "incantations". So then what do we encounter here? Is this a form of religion? How can it be a form of religion when it does not have a common statement of belief shared by its participants ? Most of the people making invocations and incantations on a MOO would propably not identify with being described as a religious community.

In virtual space your telepresented self move around from room to room. You act and interacte with objects, some of which are other telepresented selves moved around by their own incantation of their own or others telepresentations. Anyone who has ever interacted in a MOO will know that the reality-status of self is either non or the other, when it comes to the body/mind as one, or to mind, projected as telepersona. Myself I was really scared to go on interacting in this world which I assumed to be a sort of LIMBO, in which I would feel disorientated and unable to know into wich category or level of reality I should ascribe my experiences. But I must admit I find it amusing and fascinating. Also, I will argue that it is no less than impossible to create my own telepresented persona in an image identical to any of my RL oneıs, and that is not only due to the problem of reception, but du to the unique quality of the media itself. One can argue that the same is also true when writing a letter, having in common with most MOOs that it is solely based on text. The shaping and creating of action, however, which is mutually increased and accellerated by players, combined with the computer-interface frame is what prompts me to call MOOing a Ritual Virtual Space.

The "doing things" with a body that operates within a matrixed frame, taking on a persona/character or identity which more or less differs from the one or ones used outside this matrix, is of course similar to what the actor has been known to be doing on stage, intentionally, and what we do less consciously, perhaps, but sometimes intentionally, in our RL lives. As long as the physical body is there, it requires specific skills and technique to be a convincing actor. Training of body techique is one of the most important parts of todays actors education. Actors, asethetic as well as ritual, has been making incantation on stage throughout our cultural history, within a frame of which the one action necessarily leads to the other. The physical action on stage is the base from which incantation emerges.

In virtual space, as soon as the invocation is made, telepresented actions unfolds which may be structurally similar to social dramas, but seen as from society as a whole, they may also be viewed as loopholes in which invocation of suppressed contents, belonging to the liminal sphere of paradox will appear. If it is true that experiences in virtual environments, as a textual based MOO, peoples behaviour towards me, and mine to them, effects me the same way as any physicla encounter would do, and the acknowledgement of this in turn will lead to recognition of psycis influence across space, without physical interaction, this may lead from the liminal MOOexperience to a re-organisation of the western enligthenment paradigm. In spite of it being subscribed to the 17th century, Western society today is still in the cold grip of belief in hard-core data and old-fashioned physical laws.

As accoridng to Turner, liminality is a state that can only exist temporarily. It always leads somewhere. The confusion and chaos canıt last. Human beings need structure of the psyche and of the world in order to function. Turner has created the term liminoid in order to describe such phenomena as are continually existing in a secular society, existing as alternative movements, corrections, or marginalised impulses. Should one then consider the appearance of digital personae as a marginal impulse? On the grounds of the fact of the speed by which digital media are today being domesticated, I will argue, to the contrary, that simultan interactive digital communication has got the potential to alter, and is already altering the way in which humans experience both their own selves and their most profound view of the relation between physical and non-physical worlds. What seems as just a play with spiritual metaphors from long gone world wievs now replaced by rationality, may come to show as not just a humorous touch after all.

One could, however, also approach the discussion from another angle. In doing that I will try bringing together some main ideas of ritual formulated by Turner, with some cultural analysis of ritual, and of the term Œritualı itself, presented in Eric Rothenbuhlerıs latest work on Communication Studies:"Ritual Communication". Apart from arguing that the ritual perspective on communication by its very notion has got the potential of revealing previously unnoticed aspect of communication which may change the whole area of communication studies, Rhothenbuhler brings foward some basic critisism in the western view of "religion". The argumentation departs from the work of Durkheim from 1912, and has been explored by K. Thomas in his work "Religion and the Decline of Magic:" It may be summed up as follows: The thesis of secularization implies a historically decreasing prevalence of ritual. If, however, one considers the thesis of secularization as an ideology, as much as an historical description, and look for religious aspects of modern life not by defining religion as "belief", which, as described by Thomas, is the "definition of religion in a pre-reformation society", but by the practice of ritual action in peoples lives, then we might not go to church to find religious practice. Rothenbuhler holds that "This changes questions of secularization fundamentally because then religion is not defined substantially as a specific set or certain type of beliefs, practices or institutions, but analytically by reference to certain social functions". Rothenbuhler thus opens the possibility of considering as religious "any set of activities that function for their adherents like religion does for its adherents, for example in defining cosmologies, values, group membership and individual identity."(Rothenbuhler 1998:118).We might find that in the desire of protestantism and positivism to make a world free of rituals, has freed rituals from belief and belief from ritual. One can argue that the actuality and active encounter between ritual and events of peoples lives has been the core of religion in pre-industrial society, and that beliefs-systems as mythologies and personified deities may have sprung from ritual action, not vice verca. The interaction of these will certainly have shaped what we today name as ancient religion. If considering MOOing as ritual practice, one may assume specific belief- and valuesystems to emerge from these ritual sites. And this, I will argue, is already taking place.

Liminality, as according to Turner, is never described as a result of belief, it is a breach of some rules which are explisitifications of an underlying system of belief. Social liminality is both reasoned by, and result of, ritual practice.

The underlying belief-system of MOOing may be stated in boots and ballots of LambdaMoo, in its urge for free speech and parallell explicitly stated need for personal security. Its discussion on social issues can compare to any public discussion in a community with conscientious participants. The imperative of the Incantation, however, is a loosening of the bonds of triviality, and the opening to possibilities of play, transgression of the physical laws and frames, and to mutually project hopes and dreams about oneself and others. Do I dear call it a worship of the self and the other, and above all the WE that constitutes all ritual action?

From this I would like to put forward my seocond point, which has to do with Theatricality and Mimesis:

In the study of myth and ritual, and the interrelating between these, I have found it fruitful to view anthropomorphism in myth and religion as a form of mimesis. This approach will require an investigation of the relations between human experience of self and body, and questions related to animation of objects, seeing this projective process as not fundamentally different from a process of identification, but suggestible as a continuum of distance between self and object, in which projection of self upon object does not differ fundamentally between objects defined as myself or objects defined as other self.

Rene Girard,(1977) in analysing the same underlying conditions of mimesis , in the actions of Greek tragedy, observes that "desire itself is essentially mimetic, directed towards an object desired by the model", and that "mimesis coupled with desire leads automatically to conflict".(Girard 1997:90) The semi-divine prestige lays in possessing kudos, which is the reward of identity, sought by the Greek warrior in combat. My point in bringing Girardıs considerations to the fore here is his suggestion that "What we are witnessing in this struggle for kudos is the decomposition of the divine". Girard suggests that prior to the time of Homer, there might have existed a personification of kudos, a single god whose presence "oscillated from one camp to another depending on the course of the battle". To my view, if kudos is to be considered the "object of desire", and the action of the battle is to be considered a mimetic action alternating between the two battling parties, with the one party alternately being mimetic of the other, then kudos, which is "being at one with the divine", may be seen as at the core of mimetic action. Here the relation between two different "selves" in battle is simultaneously identification with what we would normally identify as a "third", namely the divine "object". Perhaps this would indicate that one cannot consider acting at all as from the point of view of one actor, but has to consider that acting, and any projecting out of self, requires reciprocal mimesis. Between the two is the third, and the third may be considered not an "object", but a projecting out of a part of the "self" in mimetic action. It may be through this mimetic action that the third becomes, or comes to be considered as an autonomous entity. Mimesis considered as a constituter of the object desired, or the "divine", rather than a consequence of it, as would follow from a strictly Girardian interpretation of mimesis, opens up possibilities of looking at various aspects of the relation beteween telepersona and telapersonaes in virtual worlds.

Analysing modes of representation of "self" on the net represents a challenge to the post-modern notion of theatricality, while simultaneously an understanding of the theatrical may provide valuable tools for analyses of various net-activities. If man is "homo performans"(Turner 1988:81), ritual processes are at the core of all transformative human action.

The question of the "doubleness" of acting, its connection to trance based on body-technique as well as modes of identification has been discussed by Stanislavski, Brecht, Grotowski and Artaud. Philip Auslander(Aslander 1997:28-38), leaning on Derridaıs deconstructivism argues that even in their differences, particularly in focusing on mind verse body in the emphasis of actors attention and technique, these different schools of acting still relies upon the same philosophical paradigm, namely in that they "posit the self as an autonomous foundation for acting". They claim that "performance" can bet truthful only if it evokes the presence of the actorıs self" Auslander further argues that by using Derridaıs famous notion differance, it becomes evident that "the actorly self is, in fact, produced by the performance it supposedly grounds" and that "the actorıs emotional repertoire derives in turn from the process of acting itself, which necessitates the distortion of emotion memory." As regards the discussion concerning "truth" or "not truth" of actor projection or expression of self, whether or not this projected self is perceived as a "character", it may be legitimate to point out that the value and belief-system revealed through Grotowskiıs "holy actor", could be viewed as another form of "Puritanism", in which nothing but the purest assumed self of the actor is to be seen as valid acting. The Grotowski experiment, putting itself in a bipolar position to the body/mind(self) split of western philosophical tradition, may be seen as getting trapped on another level of the very same split of bi-polarity, namely the pair of clean/dirty, true/untrue, authentic/non-authentic(false), which is part of the same bi-polarity of the western cultural paradigm.

Not only the actorıs self, but also the human self in everyday life, is subject to the same discussion. Various theory of acting has attempted to describe variables of relations between self/body, identity of character and identity of self. Michael Kirby(Kirby 1995), in creating a continuum between poles of acting/non-acting, uses the criteria of acting activity taking place within a symbolised matrix as a major indication on differing between what he concludes in naming simple acting and complex acting. Kirby sets out operating with a quantitative formula, which is one of degrees of acting, from which it becomes clear that he considers acting in a non-matrixed context as a lesser amount, or less complex.

Kirby suggests, however, that it may be merely the use end projection of emotion that distinguishes acting from non-acting. The relation between subject and object position, as related to and individual identification of self, may become floating and unclear in the experience of the self in and out of role in interaction. This is due to the floating emotional contens between diferent spheres of reality not being clear cut and distinguished from one another, which is the way of the functioning of human role in everyday life. In the analyses of acting, however, at least on a basic level, this process may be more available to analythical approac, due to its conscious intentionality. Nevetheless, I will argue that it will be the same operators of projection at work, and that making models of some possible transactions caused by these operators, is necessary in order to perhaps be able to elaborate on the relations between roles in various realms, and how these may shape and reshape identity through various projections of role, personae and objects.

Here I will tentatively suggest a model including different projection operators from which activity results projections which is interpreted to the subject consciousness as objects or contents fundamentally differing in their relation to the subject.

One operator projects part of the subject on to an object and identifies the "subjectcontents" as part of an object outside the self.
A second operator projects part of the subject out on to an object and identifies this as a identical with the object.
A third operator projects part of the subject out and identifies it as another object.
A forth operator projects part of the subject out which is recoginced as part of the subject.

One way of understanding the confusion of self and other, is to assume that as soon as the projections are at work, and contents have been placed outside the subject, the various contents created as "objects" by the operators, which is held apart by the subject consciousness, can in certain circumstances start moving towards one another, without this being recognised by the subject.

Imagine this going on between two or more subjects simultanously. To my experience this may take place frequently in everyday life, more than we like to think of. But in social digital domains it is accustomed that you may do so.


What I have presented here are some ideas about how to approach role, theatricality and identity in virtual worlds. These approaches will be elaborated throughout my work with and experience on the net.



Auslander, Philip From Acting to Performance, Routledge 1997.

Chester, Chris ŒThe Ontology of Digital Domainsı in David Holmes (ed) Virtual Politics, SAGE 1997.

Dibbel, Julian A Rape in Cyberspace

Girard, Rene ŒFrom Mimetic Desire to the Monstrous Doubleı in Timothy Murray (ed) Mimesis, Masochism & Mime, University of Michigan Press 1997.

Heim, Michael ŒThe Design of Virtual Realityı in Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (ed) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk, SAGE 1995.

Holmes, David Virtual Politics, SAGE 1997.

Kirby, Michael 'Acting and Non-Acting' in Phillip B. Zarrilli (ed) Acting (Re)Considered, Routledge 1995.

Rothenbuhler, Eric W. Ritual Communication SAGE 1998.

Turner, Victor From Ritual to Theatre PAJ Publications 1982.

Turner, Victor The Anthropology of Performance PAJ Publications 1988.

Anita Hammer is a research fellow at the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (NTNU).




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Last update: 16th of November 1998.