Precarious labour for virtual ends: the online-offline continuum

Source; Angelica Alzona.

Power outage in Venezuela causes economic crisis in Runescape.” What a headline.

At the end of last year, after presenting the final assignment for the Anthropology capstone, Monica held an informal gathering with former Anthropology students to find out what career paths they had taken. I met one person who had since taken the Juris Doctor and was now practising law, but had done his Honours thesis on the social life of World of Warcraft. I found out that he was interested in returning to university to undertake a Masters or PhD, so I asked him what he would research, and he introduced me to the fascinating practice of gold farming – where people “grind” in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), spending hours intensively killing monsters or playing tedious minigames to acquire in-game currency, which they then sell in the real world for real money (and whose networking behaviours mimic that of drug traffickers). For some, this is considered full-time work. In Venezuela, gold farming operations are apparently so fundamental to the virtual economy of Runescape, a fantasy MMO role-playing game, that a nation-wide blackout in the real world has had serious repercussions on the virtual – thus illustrating the reality-virtuality continuum.

This event actually exemplifies the intersection of two of my anthropological interests – video games and precarious labour, the latter of which was piqued by the final assignment of the Anthropology capstone, in which we had to investigate and compare the imaginaries of two ethnographies; our primary was Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, and our secondary was Kathleen Millar’s Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump. Tsing is an incredible anthropologist and pioneers the multispecies ethnography methodology, alongside Cyborg Manifesto author Donna Haraway, but admittedly I found Millar’s ethnography more engaging – more human, perhaps.

Millar’s ethnography focuses on catadores, individuals who work on a dump called Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, the largest in the world before its closure in 2012. The catadores sift through rubbish to collect scrap and other materials for resale and recycling. Their work arises from the precarity of life – when modernity, capitalism, industrialisation, poverty, and other inequalities make life so fragile and unpredictable that one ‘resorts’ to work at the peripheries of the formal economy. What Millar does, however, is reframe the catadores’ work as something that can afford freedom, flexible hours, and other benefits of unregulated operation that more “respectable” jobs would lack. In this way, precarity is illustrated as something that we should not shy away from, but rather look toward in times of increasing economic uncertainty. As Tsing might say, the freedom and flexibility permitted by undertaking informal labour arises not “in spite of” but “because of” the precarious economic conditions that the catadores face. Likewise, theorists Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson (together known as J.K. Gibson-Graham) promote the legitimisation of “informal” work; if society manages to adopt this shift in thinking, we can normalise and be prepared to adapt to escalating precarious conditions of life.

The article cites a tweet that reads, “they spend all day harvesting virtual gold to sell…to other players (more profitable than a job)” (kindly translated by the good people of Google Translate). So, in an illustration of Gibson-Graham’s point: why is this not a job?

At the end of the article, after stating that at least fifteen have died in hospitals as a result of the blackout, the author writes, “Hopefully Venezuela and its populace will be back on its feet – and back at the computer – soon!” These words seem particularly tone-deaf – is the author hoping that Venezuelans will recover from the blackout so that they can return to gold farming, making online money that is worth more than their own, and restore the virtual wallets of Runescape players, to whom – and I quote from another tweet included in the article – “Venezuela is truly a fantastic joke that never stops delivering“?

I do think precarious labour needs to be legitimised, but I think what I hadn’t considered until now is that legitimisation of work on the peripheries of so-called formal economies doesn’t address financial inequality or the discourses of power that operate between higher- and lower-income countries, especially when the outputs of such work are being sold to Western consumers at widely disparate margins to the time/labour input of precarious workers. What is legitimisation of work going to do if we just act like sweatshop work isn’t sweatshop work, but keep paying as if it is?

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis MN, University of Minnesota Press.
Tsing, A.L. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press.
Millar, K.M. 2018. Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor in Rio’s Garbage Dump, Durham NC, Duke University Press.

Final Thoughts: An Evaluation & Anthropology in Cyberspace

When I found out that we’d have to write blog posts for this subject, I saw flashes of a dark past in which I frantically falsified logbook entries for high school Drama. And though I may be writing three different blog posts at 4:30 am, at least they’re topics I find interesting and can wholly engage with. This blog has been an effective and versatile medium for reflection and compelled me to seek extra-curricular readings, which are so much easier to get through when they’re not imposed.

I’m afraid the blog has taken a turn for the personal, but it’s because virtual personhood is something that I find so intriguing and relatable. And perhaps also because blogging and self-publishing is arguably an inherent aspect of online life.


I’d like to finish this blog (for now?) with a discussion about anthropology’s place in the field of post-humanism and our now digital world. In short, how does anthropology continue to exist as the study of humans if we are increasingly post-human?

More humans are online every day than ever before and this has necessitated an expansion of canonical notions of the human subject and place-based ethnography to encompass virtual beings in cyberspace. Anthropology is the study of humans but more so, I would argue, of human culture. The adoption of new technologies demands of anthropology a renewed examination of society as a whole and the exploration of a new and divergent cyber culture.

As Allison (2012: 231) asserts, references to post-humanism do not imply the “eclipse of humanity altogether”. Rather, they acknowledge a change in the ways we “inhabit space, negotiate identity, and assemble ‘life'”. Post-humanism thus represents the “end of a certain conception of the human” (Hayles 1999: 286) but not of anthropology itself (a conception, it must be said, that has only ever been representative of those with the power to implement such a conception – and so Hayles (1999: 286) notes that post-humanism is dangerous in so far as it offers a new opportunity to “[graft] the post-human onto a liberal humanist view of the self”).

It is our responsibility then to re-examine the “new” human condition and its corollary anxieties of disbelonging in the uncharted territories of cyberspace, diffusion and coalescence of pluralistic and combined virtual identities, and all of the permutations of life beyond death as humans, robots and indeed cyborgs.

Allison, A. 2012. ‘Afterword’ in Whitehead, N.L. and Wesch, M. eds., 2012. Human no more: Digital subjectivities, unhuman subjects, and the end of anthropology. University Press of Colorado, pp. 231-234.

Hayles, N.K. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mind in the Cloud


Some time ago I watched a TED talk given by Martine Rothblatt called “My daughter, my wife, our robot, and the quest for immortality”. The title alone should give you some idea of what a wildly interesting and innovative person Rothblatt is. Aside from inventing satellite radio, developing treatment for pulmonary hypertension following her daughter’s diagnosis, and establishing the world’s largest pig-cloning farm, Rothblatt conceived and is at present engineering a “mind file” to preserve her wife’s consciousness eternally. She sees in the future a software capable of recapitulating one’s affects, feelings and values through the medium of a robot body, creating a “simulacrum, a digital doppelgänger of ourselves” (Rothblatt 2015).

The project’s success has so far been embodied in Bina 48 – a robot who takes after Rothblatt’s wife in appearance but whose personality has been infused with the engineers who test her. For Rothblatt, the purpose of biotechnological advancement is the “elimination of death” (2013). Instead of transplanting an organ into your body,  she analogises, you’re merely transplanting your mind into another body. She argues that the development of therapies to prolong lives is the “ethical and moral thing to do”. She also adds that, as a biotechnology company, “we’re of course in the business to make money…90-year-old people’s money is just as green as [that of] 30-year-old people.”

However, I find these rationales wholly incompatible. Firstly, immortality is not a moral obligation that we owe to ourselves as Rothblatt contends. The longer we are alive, the greater the detriment we pose to our environment, and the faster our standards of living decline. Immortality, then, is effectively trading death to live in a post-apocalyptic Wall-E universe. I find it paradoxical and self-defeatist to protract our existence for the sake of existence. In addition, having to destroy your robot body because you want to stop living is undeniably a difficult thing to do; the pursuit of immortality is hence counter-productive.

Bina 48 – a very interesting article in which GQ’s Jon Ronson interviews several robots.

Secondly, Rothblatt’s justification for the pursuit of immortality is money, and – this requires no argument – capitalism is inherently immoral. How can one advocate for a future in which the lifespans of the wealthiest and most impoverished are even more disparate than they are today? Or in which people of biological birth do not exist or are relegated to a caste beneath those born from a bionic womb with light years of life to look forward to? This introduces a new dimension to the threat of man-made robots subjugating the human race – rather than creating robots that ultimately turn on us, what if we remained the masters of our robot bodies and used them to conquer our own kind?

The future that Rothblatt envisages is a wasteland occupied by rich 300-year-old robots to whom money and life itself are objects devoid of meaning or value. Plutarch’s ship of Theseus is worth considering in this scenario: is a wrecked ship that has been repaired once, twice, a hundred times – so that each of its components are no longer original – the same ship? And therefore: if a human has all parts of its body replaced, is it still a human, the same human, the same person? And further: if a human transplanted its mind into a robot, is the robot still a robot?

To answer this question, one might consider Haraway’s seminal essay, Cyborg Manifesto (1984). Haraway argues that cyborgs, as hybrids of organism and machine, are a metaphor of human selfhood. She uses the cyborg as a rubric to demonstrate how we might deviate from essentialist identity politics and instead embrace intersectionality without “abstract individuation” (1984: 292) and thus relate to one another through affinity, rather than identity. This is a notion palpable in Rothblatt’s thesis of The Apartheid of Sex (1995), written a year after she came out as a trans woman, in which she construes gender as an “entire continuum from male to female” (2015) that can be expressed in as many ways as there are people in the world. Problematic as it is, with respect to the long-term, Rothblatt’s intention to transfer oneself as a software into the body of a robot can be seen as a mediation of the Theseus paradox and literal embodiment of Haraway’s cyborg.

Haraway, D. 1991. A Cyborg Manifesto. New York.

Rothblatt, M.A. 1995. The apartheid of sex: A manifesto on the freedom of gender. Crown Pub.

Rothblatt, M.A. 2013. Dr. Martine Rothblatt – The Goal of Technology is the End of Death [Video file]. Retrieved from

Rothblatt, M.A. 2015. Martine Rothblatt: My daughter, my wife, our robot, and the quest for immortality [Video file]. Retrieved from

The digital republic of E-stonia

Dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Europe”, Estonia is the first country to offer e-residency to non-Estonians, enabling entrepreneurs to register and manage service-based companies remotely. As one of the least-populated countries in Europe, the system is designed to represent Estonia (or “E-stonia” as the former Estonian President, Toomas Ilves, calls it) as a global “virtual business environment” (Korjus in Alender 2017) and an attractive destination for industries that seek a greater presence in the EU market.

I view the launch of this program as a significant real-world manifestation of the age of the virtual self, a shift toward economic dematerialisation. This notion of becoming less corporeal in the real world – as opposed to in games like Second Life or roleplay MUDs (multi-user dungeons) – is already apparent in systems of online banking and voting, digital signatures and electronic communication utilised by many countries.


However, Estonia has had distinct success in the way it manages personal data. Concerns about cyber security are at the crux of the digitalisation of our personal information and activities. A violation of privacy committed online is as alarming as it would be in the real world, and this is a sentiment expressed by many last week when Facebook was revealed to have logged messages and calls (seemingly) without user permissions. In Estonia’s case, the government notifies an individual every time it accesses their information, effecting a “reverse Big Brother” relationship (Keen 2018).

This may placate the privacy concerns of some, but others are decidedly opposed to having any of their activities – including the places they visit, people they meet – on record for an indefinite period of time, potentially forever. At risk of sounding too Orwellian, the perception that the general populace have any power over the government is one that is fabricated and supplied to them by that government. The act of accessing one’s data – now in Estonia equivalent to one’s entire life – is no match in authority or leverage as merely knowing when that data is accessed.

This process of transmutation from the material to the digital calls for greater transparency in the way data is being used, as well as a re-assessment of the signification of the human body in this increasingly virtual age. In the past, our bodies could be used as forensic evidence to defend or incriminate us; now, our online activities are subject to scrutiny and soon, our bodies – in conjunction with our digital selves – may again be used as tools against us.

Keen, A. 2018. ‘Where in the world will you find the most advanced e-government? Estonia’. TED, 15 Mar [Online]. Available at (Accessed: 30 March 2018).

Alender, A. 2017. ‘What is Estonian e-Residency and how to take advantage of it?’. Leapin, 3 Jul [Online]. Available at (Accessed: 30 March 2018).

Second Life

In my delirium last night I thought it would be a good idea to record myself voicing my thoughts because I am profoundly inept at writing legibly in the dark. I also figured it would make some use of the intended versatility of the blog post medium. Retrospectively, it was not a good idea (for a number of reasons, but mostly because what I’m saying is…the product of a fever dream). So I’ve provided instead an excerpt of the unedited transcript:

Online you can be anyone you want to be. But in the dark, you can too. I think I know why mannequins interest me so much. And how they intersect with…structures of participation in virtual worlds. I think it’s because mannequins are so perfect…and idyllic and…you can be too – online. You can be your own idea of idyllic. You can put yourself into another body. You can put yourself into your own body, but make it better. You can put yourself into a body that other people like. And they’ll treat you differently.

This last sentence refers to an issue addressed by Boellstorff’s ethnography, in which residents of the online role-playing game Second Life note that “people treat [and judge] you according to your avatar” (2008: 130). This evinces the link between the virtual and real self constituted by intentionality – avatars, Boellstorff argues, are “transparently indicative of…selfhood”, for a virtual appearance is made up of “conscious choices” that determine how one wishes to be perceived. These pluralistic selves that comprise an individual are thus continuous and mutually informing, but, Boellstorff emphasises, not identical.

In contrast, the online disembodiment thesis posited by Campbell (2004: 5) asserts the existence of a “radical disjuncture” between actual and virtual world experiences. His conflation of “disembodied interaction” with corporeal transcendence is grounded in the notion that online manifestations “liberate the body of social prohibitions”. Boellstorff, however, challenges this demarcation by arguing for the reality of virtual embodiment, asserting that people interact with their eyes, hands, ears – actual body parts – to effect motion, response and expression in the virtual realm.

Screenshot of Second Life

I’d like to know what it would be like to not have a body in the actual world. And then I’d like to know what it would be like to not have a body in the virtual world. Would that just mean I watch other players interact, like a ghost from the afterlife? What other forms could I take? What other bodies could I have?

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of age in second life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Campbell, J. 2004. Getting It on Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality, and Embodied
Identity. New York: Routledge.

Surrogacy and (Manual) Labour

I confess – I don’t always have the best relationship with my body. Especially in these last few days, bed-bound with illness and a migraine, I’ve felt increasing resentment towards it. The Body in Pain, indeed.

Migraines aren’t uncommon for me but in the past they’ve always been accompanied with a nausea-inducing aura (partial loss of the visual field, sometimes with scintillations). This time it’s just hypersensitivity to light and the inability to read or focus without a headache. So I write [the first version of] this post with a pen on paper in total darkness.

With this blog I wanted to explore virtual structures of participation, with the assumption that the online world posed far fewer constraints in terms of accessibility in both a physical and social sense than the actual. Upon reflection, having spent the last however many hours in the dark and finding the mere thought of a backlit screen positively nauseous, the virtual world isn’t all that accessible. You need more than a device and an internet connection. In any capacity, online or off, Being is still contingent on some degree of motor and cognitive ability and energy.

My friend who knows I’m ill linked me to an article entitled I Used a ‘Human Uber’ Surrogate to Do My Job for Me by VICE journalist Brian McManus (don’t read it. It’s not very good). The article is premised on the prototype of the ChameleonMask, a “Human Uber” of sorts. The concept is simple enough: you pay someone to live your life for you. They wear a tablet-like device that live-streams your face, through which you remotely issue commands and communicate with others. McManus trials a makeshift execution:  he stays at home and his twin arrives at his workplace with an iPad strapped to his face. The article gripes endlessly about the surrogate’s compromised sight and the obstacles this presents. I don’t find this criticism valid at all as the ChameleonMask provides the surrogate user with a view of the actual world via a second device, which McManus acknowledges early on.


Aside from the obvious ethical complications (i.e. coercion), I see a number of caveats with this device, the greatest being perhaps that it serves no practical purpose but for a very limited number of people in a very limited set of circumstances (rich people with limited mobility who require an emergency meeting and don’t have access to Skype? Rich lazy people with a penchant for novelty and corporeal colonialism?). Also, as a current victim of a migraine, the thought of my sight narrowed to the screen of an iPhone just ten centimetres away is a veritable nightmare.

But this notion of a surrogate body still demands interrogation. “Human Uber” makes for such a sensationalist headline because the notion of using or borrowing someone else’s body and commodifying it as a service beyond the capitalist employment of labour controverts our common sensibilities – and is the reason sex work and gestational surrogacy is often vilified. For some, the body is valued in such a way that the monetisation of its intrinsic capabilities reduces, dehumanises and objectifies it. The crux of the matter, then, is why the commercialisation of body parts only a little removed from the reproductive organs is less taboo. Is it that sex and reproduction are thought to be embedded in emotion and intimacy, but the hands that work the fryers at a fast-food chain are not? Are we more human and agentive as cold machines stationed by a conveyor belt than as warm bodies? Do we lose autonomy when we let others use us? And finally, am I my body?

McManus, B. 2018. ‘I Used a ‘Human Uber’ Surrogate to Do My Job for Me’, VICE, 15 Feb [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 22 February 2018).

The Notion of (E)Motion

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect to find The Body in Movement very interesting. (I was pleasantly surprised.)

Based on the lecture and readings, I thought this topic would just be about the physical body, its performance of dance/motion and our sense of kinaesthesia – and for the most part, it was. The prevailing conception of the able body as the dominant conveyor of meaning exemplifies a ubiquitous valorisation of materiality. Able bodies are so obviously endowed with signification that they are consequently too often the focus of cross-cultural anthropological studies (I feel). As expressed in previous posts, I’m less infatuated with corporeality and gravitate instead toward immaterial and alternative manifestations of the body, which can be facilitated by any degree of physical ability, as in virtual space.

But the tutorial with Kelly relieved this aversion. I’ve always been quite interested in linguistics and sign language so I was really intrigued by her research and how it links to this week’s topic. The video of an actor signing the story of one of Kelly’s subjects was incredibly evocative and for me exemplified more than ever before the capability of action to more effectively convey meaning than spoken word. I had never seen sign language on such a viscerally emotive and personal level before.

I started thinking about the etymology of the word “emotion” and why it comes so close to “motion”. Both words are derived from the Latin root movere, “to move”, with the later emovere meaning “move out, remove, agitate” (and if we go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, the affix moue means “push away”). The concept of movement is clearly evinced here, as well as the notion of stirring in a sense not necessarily physical. However, emovere comprises also of the prefix e-, reduced from ex-, which indicates in Latin “out of, from within” and in English, withoutness and deprivation of. So I’m curious as to why, given the inextricability of emotion from motion and vice versa, these lexemes have been rendered linguistic antitheses. Emotion creates motion – you feel sad, so you cry; and yet through empathy (argued this week to be an essential element of the human condition by a fellow tutee), the performance of another’s rage or sorrow piques within ourselves a corresponding feeling.

Blacking’s (1974) contention that language is required to analyse motion is therefore countered by sign language, which legitimises motion not only as a facilitation of  language and meaning, but a constitution of language itself. The question to be considered, then, is: are affects more expressible through verbal or textual languages than languages of motion?

The answer is certainly not unequivocal. For people with less mobility, spoken word is likely to be a more effective means of communication, yet people with impaired hearing or speaking abilities might better express themselves through motion. In conjunction to such a vast myriad of personal factors that render an interlocutor’s preference for motion, speech or writing, the context of communication further multiplies the circumstances in which one is more apt than the other. Motion and written languages are likely preferred in spaces where the body and the sounds it produces is policed (such as libraries) as well as in circumstances where it might be more convenient, rather than merely socially appropriate – a concert, for example, where you can see better than you can hear, or when you’re eating, and your mouth is already occupied but your hands are free (this revelation – signing whilst eating – came to me a few years ago. As a slow eater, it was pure ingenuity to me). Conversely, verbal and tactile languages such as braille are the only modes of communication available in the dark, or for people with impaired sight.

I’d like to end this post with a beautiful TED talk by Christine Sun Kim, a prelingual deaf artist. In this talk she demonstrates a hyper-awareness of sound as a person who “hears” through the bodily responses of those surrounding her, who unconsciously teach her “sound etiquette”. She shows how sign language can be understood as “chords” of grammatical parameters as opposed to the linear key-by-key of verbal languages, and also that it is an art form, which she illustrates on paper to convey a unique conception of sound.

Blacking, J. 1974. How musical is man? University of Washington Press.

Mannequin Envy

For reasons I have yet to ascertain, the aesthetic of the mannequin body and its lack of facial features and genitalia has always held greater appeal to me than our incumbent biological assets. Mouths and tongues and teeth I find particularly unpleasant, and in an ideal world I imagine we’d all walk around without faces. I suspect it must be related to some Douglasian (1966) notion of the inside of the mouth as something visceral and internal. Its exposure to external bodily senses such as sight contravenes innate systems of purity and pollution, demarcating its status as matter out of place. And maybe the thought of every individual in the world having a face is a bit overwhelming.


Irigaray (1985: 23) characterises female sexual organs as “lack”, “atrophy” and “penis-envy” – but for mannequins, eroticism and reproduction is simply not a concern (so perhaps my diagnosis is lack-of-genital-envy, haha). In This Sex Which is Not One, Irigaray critiques the patriarchal conception of female sexuality as an entity constructed within a “dominant phallic economy” (1985: 24), whose proponents Freud and Lacan typify the clitoris as a penis sheath (an apt interpretation, as the Latin word vagina denotes a sword’s scabbard – the sword referring of course to the male organ, as “violent, violating” as it is (1985: 44)), or indeed a phallus split open and sewn back up, turned upon itself, and leaving a “crack”, a “hole”, in its place.

Irigaray’s representation of the tension between female and male sexual organs is focused largely on biological symbolism. However, it is detached from the actants upon which its schema operates. Colapinto’s (1998) The true story of Joan/John tells the story of a boy who, following a botched circumcision, was socialised into girlhood in an attempt to establish the supremacy of nurture over nature. I had never heard of the case before, nor of Money’s Optimal Gender Policy, which advocated corrective surgery and gendered socialisation for infants with ambiguous genitalia as a means to stabilise gender identity. Before reading the article, I thought that the notion of gender as a social construction was impenetrable. To the contrary, Colapinto writes about a boy raised as a girl who knew he wasn’t a girl. Who was drawn instinctively to trucks over dolls, to pee standing rather than sitting, to shaving than to makeup. These objects and their masculine/feminine attributes are of course entirely symbolic – in a void, a truck is a truck and a doll is a doll. Only when placed in a Western, binaric context do these take on gendered connotations.

Largely instigated by Butler’s seminal text Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), the last two decades have seen a gradual rendering of the gender binary defunct in Western society. Colapinto’s article, however, seems to prove that there is an inherent distinction between men and women. How children self-identify in gendered terms has also become a matter of recent contention, as society questions whether a comprehension so nascent of bodies, sex and gender can be given total agency over something as life-altering as sex-affirming transition. Perhaps the boy recognised in his (male) twin a likeness beyond appearance, akin to the aforementioned “ethereal and cognitive” aspect (Boellstorff 2008: 135; in previous post) of the self. In role-playing games he might have assumed masculine, patriarchal characters, just as Boellstorff’s informant Pavia, a transgender woman still perceived and addressed as a man in the actual world, adopted a female embodiment. Or else, perhaps, the fragmentation was a result of a cognitive impossibility to relate to others in his environment, which further perpetuated his peers’ ostracisation. Ultimately, Colapinto’s article proves that the ways in which society communicates gender is deeply ingrained and irrevocable, and is subliminally impressed upon children in ways other than parenting.

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of age in second life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Butler, J. 2011. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.

Colapinto, J. 1997. “The true story of John/Joan,” Rolling Stone, 11 December, p. 54-97.

Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and
taboo, London: Routledge.

Irigaray, L. 1985. This sex which is not one. Cornell University Press.

From Behind the Screen

Anthropology of the Body. I enrolled in this subject for a few reasons. The human body confuses me. At a very young age I rarely related to my body and saw in my mind’s eye a different person. This doesn’t happen anymore but I still feel perpetually disembodied and unconscious of it; I don’t notice differences in my body as well as others do, I don’t remember what I look like when I’m not looking, I don’t feel like my bodily needs are my needs. Before I learnt about Cartesian dualism I’d long internalised a sense of it and it was a relief knowing that it was an actual thing. So my blog domain “bodyhaver” functions as a reminder to myself as well as a comment on the condition of corporeality as a possession of and distinct from the metaphysical (as opposed to functionalist conceptions of the mind-body paradigm).

Also: mannequins. Objects of ideal, perfect proportions, devoid of intellect, emotion, mobility, but still inscrutably human. When I see mannequins sticking out of dumpsters, limbs splayed painfully or detached, I feel a bit sad. I used to collect mannequin hands. Near my home in Sydney there’s a mannequin factory outlet and in the display window is always an exquisite array of shimmering, silver mannequins. I think they’re lovely.


Other more ordinary reasons: I took a module last year on personhood and was especially interested in cross-cultural thresholds of personhood (“When does a human become a person?”) and post-humanism/virtual personhood (such as that effectuated in simulated MMORPG games, and which begets pluralistic habitus). Tom Boellstorff’s fascinating ethnography Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (2008) featured extensively in the paper I wrote on the latter, and it was upon this text that I based re-definitions of “actual”, “virtual” and “real”. Respectively, “actual” was assigned to the material body, “virtual” to the online manifestation of the self (an intentional, selective projection), and “real” to the true, internal condition of the self (whom one ‘really’ is, an entity which may find in the virtual a more adroit vessel to carry one’s “ethereal and cognitive self” (Boellstorff 2008: 135) than in the material).

These concepts articulate the selves that exist in intersecting post-humanist realms facilitated by divergent structures of participation: a virtual self controlled by multiple actual users vs multiple avatars controlled by a single user; an avatar that reflects one’s real self vs an avatar that reflects one’s actual self vs one that is neither real nor actual but an experiment in ethnocultural alterity. This experimentation Lisa Nakamura decries in her beautifully, brutally scathing text Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (2002: 14), arguing that it constitutes a form of “identity tourism”:

“Like tourists who become convinced that their travels have shown them real “native” life, these identity tourists often took their virtual experiences as other-gendered and other-raced avatars as a kind of lived truth. Not only does this practice provide titillation  and a bit of spice: as bell hooks writes, “one desires a ‘bit of the Other’ to enhance the blank landscape of whiteness” (29), it also provides a new theater in cyberspace for “eating the Other.” For hooks, “the overriding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate-that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten” (39).”

I began to construe personhood and relationships in my daily life through a radically different, distinctly anthropological paradigm – compounded by the conceptions of posthumanism and the ever-changing digital landscape.

I promise not to talk about this paper too much in my future posts! It was just an incredible topic and really induced my mixed repulsion/fascination for bodies and personhood so I thought it’d make a good first post.

Mannequins in Melbourne

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of age in second life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Nakamura, L. 2002. Cybertypes: Race, ethnicity, and identity on the Internet. Routledge, New York.