Getting A Head
(paper delivered at Society for Science and Literature, October 2000)
Robert R. Cheatham
Phil. 2:6 sqq.: “Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied [ekenosen] himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as man.”
Definition, Catholic Encyclopedia:
“Avatar (Sanskrit avatara,”descent”), in Hinduism, descent of a god into the world of human beings for the duration of a human life span. Avatar is similar to the Christian concept of incarnation but is different in two significant ways. First, a Hindu god can become incarnate in many places at the same time through “partial” avatars (amshas), while the main form from which the avatars emanate remains entirely “full” and can converse with the “partial” forms. Second, the avatars do not fully participate in human suffering or lose the knowledge and power of their divine nature. The god Vishnu is most famous for his numerous avatars, which include Krishna, Rama, and the Buddha, but other gods, such as Shiva, also have avatars. Many charismatic leaders, such as the Indian mystics Chaitanya and Ramakrishna, have been regarded as avatars.”
:At least one encyclopedia entry asserts that ” the [Hindu] avatars do not fully participate in human suffering or lose the knowledge and power of their divine nature”. In that statement one can properly see the imbrication of the concept of trauma, pre-eminently a circumstance of duality, of event and its echo, action and deferral, as well as the concept of the spectral, or even hydraulic, body as they relate to the hauntologies and and emergent poststructuralist technicians of the uncanny now being extruded from the nineteenth and twentieth century concepts of the sublime. Questions of the ethical and the epistemological become hopelessly entangled and suspended, generating shadowlands (arenas of ‘myth’ thought to have been banished with the policings of the Englightment) wherein can ‘live’ our emerging dissociative others. We are not entering the realm of avatars since in fact we have never left them. However, like powder dropped on a doorjamb at the scene of a crime to pick up traces of fingerprints, with bodies long vanished, the uncertain ghostly outlines of the avatar double, in its very nature linked to vast power bases as well as the scenography of traumatic re-enactments, does seems to be re-emerging through the aegis of a highly technically mediated infra-structure. A few questions remain.
“Can anyone deny that we are haunted? What is it that crouches under the myths we have made? Always the physical presence of something split off.”
“This sister universe, contemplative, concealed, waits in our future as it has refused our past.”
Jeanette Winterson / Gut Symmetries
“Man is such that, to be himself, he must necessarily divide himself.”
Between the front and the back, the singular and the general, lies, in no particular order moral or otherwise, the head of the family, the head of state, Bill Gates, Guatama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Adolph Hitler, Grendel, your major professor, Barbarossa, your president, your CEO and all the dead ring leaders now dead and yet to come.
Instantiation. The becoming head, the coming of a head, the coming to a head, the very instance of an arrival of a beginning, an origin, ahead of us as well as behind us, the avatar must confound history because it is the very writing of history which will antedate and postdate such recordings of arrivals as heads, lending a decipherability to what is fundamentally indeterminate. With the arrival of the avatar, the fix is in, in an attempt to freeze all bets, all chance occurences, through Eternal Returns.
As befits the dual nature of the concept of avatar, it is both impossible to believe and yet seems to inhere in the necessities of matter, time and consciousness. Already cartesian presumptions lead us to the possiblity of a parsed gridwork of interlocutory detachments and subsequent re-attachments.but re-attached with mechanical precision and from offstage-sacrifice done away with but only because robot surgeons have encapulated heads in glass cases.
Precisely at the rift known as an ‘avatar’ resides that abyss wherein is sutured the two modes of happiness of our species which Benjamin characterizes as “the two antinomical principles of happiness: that of eternity and of the one-more-time,” through which every idea of the singular and the general must eventually be threaded. (Quoted in ‘Benjamin and the Demonic’ in Agamben/Potentialities, 155.) Agamben glosses those two instances in the following way: “Today we are confronted by two forms of historical consciousness. On the one hand, there is the form of consciousness that understands all human work (and the past) as an origin destined to an infinite process of transmission that preserves its intangible and mythic singularity. And on the other hand, there is the form of consciousness that, as the inverted specular image of the first form of consciousness, irresponsibly liquidates and flattens out the singularity of the origin by forever multiplying copies and simulacra.  The idea of origin contains both singularity and reproducibility, and as long as one of the two remains in force, every intention to overcome both is doomed to fail.” There resides the sacrificial battle which the avatar always fights and/or advances and in loosing, wins and in winning, looses.)
“Too bad for the wood which finds itself a violin if the copper wakes up a bugle, that is not its fault.”
Gilles Deleuze in Kant’s Critical Philosophy
the elements of the avatar:
Fundamental to the idea of the avatar is a temporal constellation of: multiplicity, simultaneity, periodicity, historical intrusion in, and often for, a sacrificial economy; then, lurking to the side of, and perhaps inherent to ‘avatar periodicity’ is trauma, suffering, and re-gathering or redemption. Although foremost in its mystical and millennialist form, this phase is rarely considered in technical circles where representation of a ‘personality’ or type or even representation itself, in the case of post-structuralism and postmodernism, is foremost. The avatar is also ‘powerless’ in a fundamental sense whence derives the concept’s great power and a strategy of winning based on loss, defacement, and dis-ability a position which would seem to put it at considerable odds with the calculative power of techne and sacrifice even as it opens it to the concept of ‘collapse’ as integral to the technical.
(One could also make a point that techne is coterminous with reclamation, gathering, collecting and that chasmatically indigenous to the density of collapse and catastrophe is redemption. That density finds its aufhebung, relief, or grace in Christian kenosis. The notion of kenosis, or self-emptying, allies with both Avataric and Lacanian suturing / point de capiton, a point that is extruded by and makes oblique the forces which ‘quilted’ it into existencethe suturing of the Real and the Symbolic similarly forms a visible ‘ridge’ which simultaneous indicates and obscures its processes of creation. This is all too similar to the Catholic Church’s dictum that “According to Catholic theology, the abasement of the Word consists in the assumption of humanity and the simultaneous occultation of the Divinity.” [This also very close to the Heideggerean assumption of both the uncanny and the divine as “the Being that shines into every thing ordinary” (PARMENIDES, pp 101 and 115)] There is no getting to the ‘other side’ of the process because human reality is stitched together in such a way that ‘both’ sides are always present, but the visibility of one always obscures the other. Compare with kenosis, for example in Philippians 2:6 : ” “Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied [ekenosen] himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as man.” The notion of kenosis also overlaps certain eastern spiritual concepts as well as an emphasis on concepts such as the impersonal, the inhuman, and the extreme in Lyotard, Agamben, and Benjamin, among many other modernist philosophers.)
The ‘hard’ definition of avatar is the descent of a god into matter of many different forms, a rotation of divinity into humanity, a form of incarnation but without exhaustion of the godstuff, plus a plenitude of representatives popping up occasionally through history.
Perhaps the avatar, in both the mystical and the technical variant, could be thought of as a leading edge of a foreign mass which becomes intimate with the crudities of barely conscious matter (that is, us humans), the simple animacy of animal life not being sufficient for its purposes. (though it does raise the question of whether animals can have avatars and whether an avatar is a three-way or two-way mimetic consultancy.) For consciousness which has suffered a fundamental fall into the darkness of matter, the avatar is a guide back to the homeland of consciousness through avenues of delay, return, suffering, redemption, witnessing. Without separation and suffering there would be no need for the concept of avatar to have developed.
Without resorting to some version of scholasticism, we are unable to go any further than a simple designation of the relation of the avatar to the divine, a category now largely empty for many. A mere two centuries ago would have been sufficient time to have imbued the avatar with the halonic glow of sublimity, the ‘vast, cold and indifferent’ warmed by the breath of the human into a viable proposition, at least for the duration of a life. Even a Kantian manifold might not have been enough to have exhausted it as long as it remained on the distaff side of the sublime, unreachable by any means.
We are reminded of kant’s little tract against a sublimity that gets a bit TOO warm, in Dreams of a Spirit Seer, a spirited rationalist diatribe avant les Psycops, thereby linking the policing power of the Amazing Randi and Immanuel Kant. There, and completely at odds with the great Islamic scholar Henri Corbin’s judgement in quoting D.T. Suzuki to the effect that Immanuel Swedenborg was the Western Buddha and should be avidly studied, Kant attempted to pickishly short circuit any kind of avatared tomfoolery, feathering it with the wisk broom of proto-scientificity as he attempted to brush such phenomena, not against the grain, but to the sidelines of history. [Even, it must be noted, as he was appropriating Swedenborg’s systematics for his own purposes.] However little did he know that the rationalist enterprise would be blindsided by the very forces which he was exhalting, the planar machinations of extreme and industrious inventiveness of everything, including the nature of the rationalist materialist project itself under the combined assault of information mechanics and quantum dynamics most recently. In attempting to discredit Swedenborg’s otherworldly visionary corpus, and, really, as an attempt to keep Swedenborg from claiming any singular position as ‘leader’ or avatar of any immaterialist tradition, kant asserts that the only ‘good’ or positivity that can come out of such a spiritualist enterprise would be in fact a kind of apophantic or even negative dialectics based on what is NOT there.that is, the hoodwinking in the perjorative terms of an emerging industrious positiveness of phantasmatic invention or fiction. In Kant’s terms. “the possibility of such [knowing of spiritual entities can only be known negatively and] rests neither upon experience nor upon conclusions but upon invention.” Kant’s commonsensical pulling the wings off Swendenborg’s angels can only stumble over the shifting sands of what constitutes a ‘communis sensis’ now being exploded almost daily by a technological infrastructure whose very raison d’etre is extreme invention.
Kant’s attempt to de-symmetrisize and de-stabilize the hold of the uncanny will, however, merely act to create an oppositonal category which aids the growth of such. To quote Michel de Certeau, : “All stability rests on unstable balances that are disturbed by every intervention intended to reinforce them,” revealing rifts, cracks, porosities in those social stabilities such that in fact “Mysticism and possession often form in the same pockets in a society whose language thickens, loses its spiritual porosity, and becomes impermeable to the divine. In such a case, the relation to a ‘beyond’ vacillates between the immediacy of a diabolical seizure and the immediacy of a divine illumination.” [p6/Loudun]. After being basted on Charcot’s grill, the hydraulics of Freud’s suppressed pneumatic body [not only as the washed out, haggard old man reflection in his uncanny essay, but also the literal plump body of his approaching occult nemesis Jung] become visible here, Kant studiously oiling the valves/values of Maxwell’s demon’s little device for separating hot and cold, the canny from it’s un-wed bride, real from unreal, the merely ornamental from the truly valuably beautiful, real work from its desouvrement-ed version, etc., all the deconstructed binaries we have come to know and love or hate so well for the last thirty years being laid out in neat little garden rows, weeding done, pesticides applied, Avatars Need Not Apply, Position Has Been Eliminated.
This multiplicity, which really DOES become a duplicity in the eyes of those such as Perry and Eschverra in UNDER THE HEEL OF MARY, an account of Marian apparitions and the political profiteering and appropriations to which THAT particular avatar has led, begins to lead to dis-possession, the evacuations and zero-degree tolerances of the Frankfurt school and beyond, to the hollow transgressions of late-night televison, avidly tarring our brains with the latest incursions from Madison Avenue, the true leading edge of a monstrous mechanism, the electrocapital complex, always remaining full, even as it empties itself into us night after night, even being stimulated to OVER production, verging both on ‘diabolical seizure’ and ‘divine illumination,’ making good, really, only on the first promise. This is not the territory of any sublime mountain in the distance but more like some version of Hegel’s bad infinity topped off with philip k. dick’s uncanny kipple-debris proliferating everywhere, a fungus in some weird mutualism with the socius, aided by our technofreak friends from Frolix 8.
(In doing a web search on the word ‘Avatar’ I came across a Cody site, AVATAR Fragrance for Men, the fragance being subtitled THE FRAGRANCE OF POSSIBLITIES. The web page has real-time clocks for New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, also included is the phrase “it’s your world, make it happen,” with a male model superimposed over a map of the globe.)
At any rate, kant gets paved over (as does everything else apparently), not by multiplicities, but by simultaneities. The Coming Avatar will/does look like the Einstein/Rosen/Podolsky formation of inextricably entwined quantum particles around a perfume bottle shaped like a nude male with an erection. I say that because the very next item on the search engine was for the description for www.avatarmag.com as ‘shove your cock in tiffanys tight ass lesbian slut eating pussywhat an ass-shot! barely legal-ball sucking slut pussy man pussy licking man barely legal asian girl spreads her pussy cum guzzling whores’clicking on the link merely takes you to a portal called webhideout.com which features the usual generic ‘music shopping entertainment sports travel’.
Finally, one is led to think of Catastrophe and Splitting, cloud chambers with particles being split, huge energies, some residue, trace left of those huge (‘divine?’) energies and then the dissociative investment of the left over of those energies into the inanimate (the bag wafting in the breeze in the movie American Beauty). One is immediately led to a linkage between the avatar, the examplary, and the fetish. The fetish IS a kind of inanimate avatar, apotropaic as well as propadeutic, apprehensive as well as prehensive holder of numinous energies which we have now further sliced off into the psychoanalytic part/whole distinction, probably the closest that ‘theory’ gets to any sort of avatar in most senses of the word of course the computer version now is a pale reflection [another split off] of that part /whole distinction, more like a dissociative spit-off of some aspect of the user personality.The ‘incompleteness thoerem’ which the fetish seems to represent brings in its wake again some sort of mimetic consultancy in an epochal manner which immediate places us in millennialist recursions and excursions. Whether we think the fall is behind us or ahead of us [I’m reminded of Heidegger in PARMENIDES that ‘In essential history the beginning comes last’] or ongoing in the case of the intimacy of technology and collapse, just a constant suppurating wound called ‘consiousness and communication’ (perhaps in some fashion they are ALMOST one and the same. Perhaps the remainder, that can’t be accessed, veers off as a sort of Blanchotian ‘powerlessness of the night’ which can never be accessed but yet upon which efficaciousness itself rests, and has the whiff of the Avatar (theologically speaking perhaps ‘toil not as the lilies in the field’ or however far that precesses from blanchot of course. As de Certeau puts it, “the supernatural is on the side on which there is no work”.) and yet if you look at all the ‘avatars’ in the strict sense, they have all rehearse a sort of ‘powerlessness’ against power, as a higher (non) power. [this is from the introduction to PROXIMITY: LEVINAS, BLANCHOT, BATAILLE, AND COMMUNICATION by Joseph Libertson:
“An element implicit in difference or discontinuity escapes the power of comprehension, and even the possibility of manifestation. Within the system of tendencies and predications which characterizes formal discourse, however, this escape of alterity is most often understood as an escape which preceeds from its own substantiality: the unknowable in itself of things, of subjects, and of generality. Alterity escapes the power of comprehension, on the basis of its power to escape this power. That which escapes the effectivity of consciousness, escapes on the basis of its own effectivity.  The great anti-intellectualists of modern thought, including Nietzsche, Proust and Freud, have sought to give formal meaning to consciousness’ experience of an incumbence of alterity in a dimension outside manifestation [.] the common denominator which links these thinkers and which produces the provocative and controversial aspect of their texts, is their refusal to characterize alterity as a power or effectivity, and their concomitant tendency to thematize subjectivity itself as a radical passivity or heteronomy: not a dependence upon another power, but a pure passivity in a reality without power.”
so at least in that sense the idea of ‘divine intervention’ is problematic since immediately the closest becomes converted to the most distant, the most distant becomes the closest, and that which intervenes least ‘accomplishes’ the most. Or rather more obliquely ‘divine intervention’ now takes on the faceless face of technology itself.
( We are immediately in the region of Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura’ the perception of a distance in what is closest and Giorgio Agamben’s modification of that into ‘halo’: “One can think of the haloas a zone in which possibility and reality, potentiality and actuality, become indistinguishable. The being that reached its end, that has consumed all of its possiblities, thus receives as a gift a supplemental possiblity. [.] This imperceptible trembling of the finite that makes its limits indeterminable and allows it to blend, to make itself whatever, is the tiny displacement that every thing must acomplish in the messianic world. Its beatitude is that of a potentiality that comes only after the fact, of matter that does not remain beneath the form, but surrounds it with a halo.”
The extent to which the halo registers the “inhuman” in its indeterminate bordering between potentiality and actuality, as Agamben has it, has this ‘supplemental possiblity’ of the halo as being nothing other than the possiblity/necessity of techne (extension, framing/ gestell itself), of “matter that does not remain beneath the form” (Agamben). Like Cerenkov radiation that delineates a black hole, a split halo of half particles, high relief of an accomplished density gradient which nevertheless cannot come into full view, a region of occluded space/time, an absence which announces its presence, faint spray of light, avatar of presence, matter coagulating , splitting, radiating at its point of escape/confinement, higher order skin composed of light, ever osculating muscled aureole conforming to/moving with. boundary layer of, dimension X, gratuitous periodic assault, periodic collapsing of/by/into: submission, assault, submission, assault, alternating-current style (lagging behind, register of hysterisis and oblique forces), beckoning from the crossing of the X . as the medievals had it: “supreme visibility requires the deepest darkness.” Halo as heatwave, febrile intoxication at the borders caused by consciousness subliming into its environment and vice versa the core visibility [the very essence of ‘visibility’ in fact], the macula of visibility at the ontological level.)
Even the lisp and rustle of language becomes problematic and turns apophantic, blank, silent under the pressure of this leading pointbut since SOME work must be done, split off a little sum’pin’ sum’pin’which MIGHT mean that everything outside the godhead (which is maybe either, eventually anyway, everything or nothing) is machinic, which would put the Machine into a category with the Cloven Hoofed One, the Red Caped Crusader himself as an oppositional avataror maybe Machine.ok we’re getting hopelessly tangled which is a good place to start in the E/R/P paradigm BUT at the very least we would seem to be in that very forbidden territory of miraculation, which now and forever has always rested in the arms of TESTIMONY and testifyin’, all the way from the purported Beginning of the Word made Flesh made Evidence, to X-Filers who report that The Truth is Out There to a sound track of bumps in the night, with little corroborating evidence but their own sense of what constitues late night efficaciousnessafter all, what IS a ‘true’ avatar (christ, buddha, zoroaster, Windows 2000) but a Fair Witness, the fairest of all, to the human condition, the human epoch practically that alone constitutes every sacred text: “I see you, I see all of you, I see everyone of you, I witness you fully in everything you do, i testify that you fully and completely exist throughout all time, My Eye is on you, sparrow and in fact I AM you sparrow. I will even split off a portion of Myself in order to see the seer more fully.” And this is the Fairest Witness of all because at its heart, which is at the heart of the human, is the Inhuman, the non-human also the address of the technical, the calculative, the speculative and the miraculous.
and here, here even a passage from a Derrida:
“(I [.] say ‘miraculously’ to suggest [.] that any testimony testifies in essence to the miracuous and the extraordinary from the moment it must, by definition, appeal to an act of faith beyond any proof. When one testifies, even on the subject of the most ordinary and the most ‘normal’ event, one asks the other to believe one at one’s word as if it were a matter of a miracle. Where it shares its condition with literary fiction, testimoniality belongs a priori to the order of the miraculous. This is why reflection on testimony has always historically privileged the example of miracles. The miracle is the esential line of union between testimony and fiction. And the passion we are discussing goes hand in hand with the miraculous, the fantastic, the phantasmatic, the spectral, vision, apparition, the touch of the untouchable, the experience of the extraordinary, history without nature, the anomalous. This is why also it is a canonical passion, canonizable, in the european-Christian-Roman sense.)” p 75 Demeure/Jacques Derrida
In the film American Beauty, Kevin Spacey has to be his OWN witness, even as he is dead at the beginning, incarnated as his own filmic avatar, flying above the housetops maybe that’s the main Witnessing given to us pomo folks now, the video/filmic Eye, which is all we have now to register our pains, and sufferings (I guess we don’t need witnessings for our joys, it is always sufficient unto itself if there WERE such a thing as unalloyed joy, joy uncontaminated from painbut after all, what was it Nietzsche said: ” In order to deny the existence of a suffering that could remain hidden and undiscovered without witness mankind was almost compelled to invent gods: that is, beings able to see through darkness and interested in painful spectacles.” There is only time to allude briefly to a sacrificial economy which the avatar is inextricably immersed in. In some cases attempting to short-circuit such an economy, while in other cases the avatar seems to feed the cinders of history, hence ‘faith’ needs no ‘evidence,’ no sense of that ability to see though darkness because the gathering of ‘evidence’ relies on a certain efficaciousness and power and determinability which a simple witnessing doesn’t need and which in fact is at odds with witnessing. The bad policeman says: ‘I will FORCE you to testify’ thereby completely obliterating the testimony, blinding the eye (of course that is precisely how science operates: who needs a witness, with all that indeterminate fragility, when you have the certainty of mechanical reproducibility coupled with falsifiablity? Though the avatar would declare that it is not perhaps the one-two knockout punch which the kantian scientifistical avatar would have us believe.) All witnessing, all work, all evidence begins and ends with the avatar.
But what does this have to do with the emerging electronic environment? To what degree can our mechanical minons witness for us, be transports for our selves, something which goes even beyond prosopopaeia?
The conjunction of the theological and the technical with invention, even as Benjamin’s relation of ink and blotter, finds its appropriate manifestation in the autonomous consistency of the non-human, the ur-iginal blooming of matter into consciousness and its threatened reversal, at the porous threshold of matter into its bright shadow. Here the avatar finds its mute companion, spread out and gathered behind in speechless matter, and here arises the avatar’s purported interface with and mouthpiece for, the dead, whether literally or as the racial/geneological/cultural instance or paragon or as an ongoing fictive counterpart to reality, no more possible to eradicate than a shadow at high noon.
The avatar composes itself on the sacrificial alters (sic) of the possibilities of matter that Heidegger found higher than actuality. There where matter bleeds into consciousness, there where is found the necessity of the inventio, a position which the avatar would like to found and discredit, the invention of its own necessity.
The coming avatar will come from this point de capiton, the
possibilities that the poet Paul Celan delineates as a ” going beyond what is human, stepping into a realm which is turned toward the human, but uncanny, the realm where the monkey, the automaton and with them . . . oh art, too, seem to be at home.” There is where the avatar is quilted/born/made/found/constructed. And there is where some of us must stop. ===============================
Henri Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, tran. Leonard Fox. Swedenborg Foundation, West Chester PA 1995.
Gilles Deleuze, Kant’s Critical Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Immanuel Kant, Dreams of a Spirit Seer.
Daniel Tiffany, Toy Medium, University of California Press
Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000.
Michel de Certeau, Possession At Loudun
Jacques Derrida, Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. Andre Schwer and Richard Rojcewicz.. Bloomington , IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Robert Cheatham, The Ante-Millennial Doll House, in perforations 5
Mary Ann Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe.” In Logics of Television, ed. by Patricia Mellencamp, 222-239, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Georgio Agamben, Potentialities: Selected Essays in Philosophy. ed., trans., intro. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Joseph Libertson, Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and
Communication. The Hague/Boston/London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982.
Person, kenosis and Abuse:
Hans Urs von Balthasar and Feminist theologies in conversation (Paper presented to the Boston Theological Society )
Kenosis: The Other Within
John A. Mills
East-West Dialogue: Sunyata and Kenosis
James W. Heisig
The Catholic Encyclopedia