- Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human
In a March 2009 New York Times Magazine article about art in the virtual world known as Second Life, writer Sara Corbett interviewed an artist, DC Spensely, who offered a perspective on expressive culture in the era of high-bandwidth Internet connectivity and pervasive computer gaming that cannot fail to be of interest to scholars focusing on performance. Speaking of what he characterizes as the irresistible appeal of “participatory” forms in new media, Spensely suggested that “if you like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’re going to like being the main character in Raiders of the Lost Ark even more.” Whether one chooses to accord some validity to this somewhat hyperbolic remark or scoff at its apparent underestimation of the immensely significant and hardly moribund “pre-participatory” [End Page 654] models of audience, the hugely important task for theatre and performance theoreticians is to explain what such a statement exemplifies: the new demands and expectations for more direct and immersive varieties of audience involvement at the scene of performance. Despite the salience of such concerns to performance studies, however, as of yet there have been few studies that aim at addressing the task at hand.
For this reason, although it is an ethnography of the culture of Second Life rather than a work of theatre or performance scholarship, Tom Boellstorff’s fascinating Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human deserves to be regarded as a noteworthy contribution to our efforts to understand the shifting technocultural ground upon which performance now increasingly operates. Noting that “the increasingly complex and interactive character of the worlds” created by video games has “provided concepts and programming architecture for virtual worlds like Second Life” (48), Boellstorff draws upon an impressively wide array of cultural theory to elucidate the idea that virtual worlds enable new possibilities for what he calls “techne”: “the bootstrapping ability of humans to craft themselves” (57). In such an analysis, Second Life participants’ adoption of avatars to engage in virtually staged social interactions of various types—which Boellstorff addresses in chapters focusing on things like “personhood,” “intimacy,” and “community”—becomes a crucial component of a wider “recursive” tendency to explore performance in cyberculture for “radically new ways to understand [our] lives as beings of culture as well as physical embodiment” (58). Like various scholars of cyberculture who have preceded him (Sherry Turkle, Lisa Nakamura, Ken Hillis, and others), Boellstorff suggests that in virtual environments like Second Life, “performative theories of selfhood” (149) (e.g., those of Judith Butler) acquire a still greater relevance than they originally had, while at the same time appearing to need revision to account for new modalities of performed identity and agency attendant to ongoing developments in the technoculture.
Throughout the text, Boellstorff mostly leaves aside the temptation to concentrate on some of the more spectacular manifestations (including the mounting of concerts and performance art pieces) of “performing selves” in Second Life. Instead, he takes it upon himself to descriptively capture and analyze what he broadly frames as “everyday Second Life” (8). Indeed, acting as participant-observer in Second Life—Boellstorff’s avatar and screen name (Tom Bukowski) appear in place of an author photo and bio on the back cover—he manages to collect some rich ethnographic material to illustrate what he has in view at this more quotidian level. At one juncture, for instance, he reports on a male participant in Second Life whose primary avatar is female and who discovers himself feeling desire for another participant’s lesbian-identifying avatar based less on his “own” sexual impulses (he claims) than on his sense that to do as much somehow “fit(s) the part” (149). Noting a kind of reversal of agential polarity between performer and persona/ role here, Boellstorff is prompted to ask (perhaps too loosely following postcolonial theory), “Can the avatar speak?” (149).
A question like this one already merits the attention of theatre and...