Avatars as embodiment in A-culture spaces.

[ser-vahy-vuhl] = n., subsisting under adverse or unusual conditions, currently complicated by playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, handing out D’s like candy on Halloween, and being really, really hungry

Creating avatars today reminded me of how much I want to do an avatar/macro deconstruction in class.  I’ve taught assignments on Second Life, where students created a 3D avatar, navigated the environment, and analyzed their experience, but lately I’m more interested in the static Internet macro as a form of embodiment in otherwise purely disembodied spaces.  Perhaps this is because I’ve been spending more and more time fruitlessly combing 4chan in the attempt to figure out if I can build a work-safe essay progression around it (lolwut).  At any rate, you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the Internet proliferation of macros–close-up photographed or drawn images juxtaposed with concise, often 1337-speak text–such as lolcats, or memes like the O RLY owl or any number of mock motivational posters, like the 2006 Viral marketing meme on 4chan’s /a/ or panda unrelated.  Though these macros tend to be created as humor, or as a response to someone’s/something’s popularity, they are also used to create avatars, which I think primarily cluster around LiveJournal, fanfiction.net, xanga, DeviantArt, and similar web communities.  In these cases, the juxtaposition of image and text seem to work differently than they do in memes and demotivational posters: instead of working in unrelated pairs, avatar macros combine a figure’s expression or gesture with text that either reinforces, opposes, or elaborates on that expression or gesture–in other words, it draws on “under-language.”

Coined by Alan Moore, this term refers to the kind of language that occurs in the interplay between text and image.  So yes, I’ve been over-thinking image/text juxtapositions lately, but the fact is the form has really taken off on the Internet, and in some places (4chan, which spawns most static Internet memes) it has become its own form of communication.  Rather than post an “OMG WTF” response to an appalling image, a user may post a macro featuring a surprised-looking Link of Legend of Zelda fame, or a generic anime girl with her eyes scrunched up in revulsion, featuring the text “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” (4chan). If a forum thread is particularly interesting to a user, s/he may post a macro of a cute bunny nibbling a tassel on a throw blanket, with the juxtaposed text “This thread is relavant [sic] to my interests” (4chan).  Or photographs of real people may be used, such as Iranian leader Ahmadinejad, pictured with a “ehh” expression and the text “Maybe want” if a user is somewhat interested in a forum thread, or pictured laughing and extending his hand to the audience with the text, “YOU FUNNY GUY I KILL YOU LAST” (4chan).  While the former may simply be using a well-known figure for laughs, the second does at least have a political context, suggesting that these macros are being used for more than just a cheap laugh.

In these types of macros, the viewer’s understanding of the juxtaposition increases depending on their knowledge of the figure in the image.  With regards to the Ahmadinejad macro, some knowledge of human rights violations in Iran is critical; even in humorous macros, such as the Viral marketing poster, the juxtaposition carries more meaning if you know that:

  1. the photoshopped head belongs to a character named Viral from the anime Gurren Lagann, and
  2. that in the anime Viral is a Beastman who gets completely owned in battle every time he faces off against the protagonist.

Put it all together and the reason for the image juxtaposition becomes evident, as well as why it would have to be easy for Viral to do it, though in his defense, he owns in his own right, especially when partnered with the protagonist.  But I digress.

User avatars on LiveJournal or xanga operate under similar principles: it is typically comprised of a thumbnail image, usually of an anime or video game character, combined with brief text.  Our knowledge of the character and the depiction of the character is ostensibly meant to give us insight into the user’s personality.  For instance, an avatar featuring a CG image of Sephiroth during the burning of Nibelheim (Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children) most likely indicates a fan who wants to portray himself as a bad-ass; but if the avatar depicts Sephiroth sketched manga-style, with a softer look, it likely indicates a fan who is drawn to the angst behind the character and whose sympathies ultimately lie with him.  Image selection could be based on the character’s aesthetic or emotional appeal (or, as seems to be the case at a glance, a combination of both).

The absent subtext is that the larger version of this cropped image depicts the protagonist Simon calling Viral “queer.” This is commonly accepted/perpetuated by fans, but what does it mean to modify such an image and reinscribe it under my own brand of personalization? What does it mean that I’m alternately counting on viewers to not “get” this subtext and hoping that they recognize its original source?

For myself, I considered images that had a specific resonance with me, and not necessarily with my intended audience (in fact, it’s a little startling to see a pop-culture icon instead of an real-life photo on an academic blog).  I knew I wanted a pop culture/cyberculture reference, as those are two of my greatest interests in and out of the classroom.  I like to think of myself as a stubborn bad-ass who rolls with the punches, and I am naturally inclined to tragic-ish villains/anti-heroes, especially those who eventually realize the error of their ways.  Combine all this with the fact that I recently finished watching Gurren Lagann, and the avatar image was practically guaranteed to be Viral.

As for the juxtaposed text, I wanted something that could double as something the character would actually say as well as speak to my thoughts regarding either pedagogy or this blog.  Cue the scene where Viral calls a morale-inspiring speech “a load of crap…but this is crap I can get behind!” (Gurren Lagann).  Then, factor in my feeling that this blog will serve as a way to boost my own morale by reasoning out the difficulty of adjuncting, and that it will probably inevitably devolve into posts like this where I muse on various pop culture exhibits and talk “a load of crap” about them…and hopefully it’s crap we can all get behind, in our lesson plans or the ways in which we approach pop culture outside of the classroom.  Hence the line “Now this is something I can get behind.”  It’s probably meaningful as well that I chose an image of Viral after he’s retired from evil and has begun fighting alongside the good guys, but before he’s obtained a permanent position with them (though he later goes on to become fleet captain and government emissary).

Is this making a statement on my own feelings and job position and security?  Possibly.  Is it an elaborate justification of this avatar?  Probably.  But I think that the way we choose avatars functions–if only on a subconscious level–a little more complexly than “I like it!”  Even though I do like Viral something fierce.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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