Baudelaire, caricature, and avatar creation.
This is an article by Jeff Edwards, who has been on my show with me before. It’s a re-write of a presentation he gave to his class recently, and I thought it would be a great thing to include here. – AF
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently looking at the writings of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), one of the founding fathers of Modernism. Baudelaire is mostly remembered today for his poetry and art criticism, but I’ve been more interested in three essays he wrote on caricature (their titles are On the Essence of Laughter, Some French Caricaturists, and Some Foreign Caricaturists, and all three have been anthologized in a book called The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays).
In Baudelaire’s time, caricature was a much more lively and potent genre than it is today. Illustrations parodying the silliness of human behavior in polite society or savagely attacking the injustices of political and military life could be found throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. Caricaturists had a strong enough journalistic voice that governments were often wary of their power. Honore Daumier—Baudelaire’s favorite printmaker—was thrown in jail for his etching Gargantua (1831), which portrayed France’s King Louis-Philippe as a giant enthroned on a massive toilet, eating food provided by the National Assembly while a group of starving citizens looked on. Baudelaire wrote about caricature in an attempt to create a respect for it among the literati equal to its popular influence. He wanted it to be seen as a serious art in the same way that painting was.
His ideas on the topic are fairly easy to summarize. He argues that there are two types of humor in caricature. The first relies upon mere observation and verbatim description of everyday situations. It is a gentle, good-natured comedy that doesn’t go very deep, though it does make one chuckle a little at human foolishness. Such laughter is closely related to innocent, childlike joy, which Baudelaire dismisses as being almost vegetative in its dullness. (It is also important to note the subtle way in which such humor honors the status quo instead of challenging it.) He termed this first type of caricature the significative comic, due to its reliance on mere indication of social facts.
In contrast to this, Baudelaire preferred the absolute comic, which is driven by the grotesque. Although it often conceals a malicious intent, it is also bound to be more interesting, and make a stronger point. He locates its origin in what he calls satanic laughter, or the feeling of superiority one gets when laughing at the misfortune of others, but which in turn makes one look foolish. For Baudelaire, exaggeration is the key to revealing what lies beneath the surface of society, waiting to be dragged out into the light so that the darker workings of human nature can be dealt with. Though reliant upon mythic hyperbole, Gargantua is really all about the very real destruction of average lives by a greedy government run amuck. The ridiculousness of its image is what gives it its power.
The division that Baudelaire set up between bland humor and raucous parody got me thinking about Second Life and virtual environments in general. In particular, it drove me back to a question that arose for Amy very early in her SL career: given the potential for the free play of imagination that exists in SL, why is so much of what you see there so boring? I don’t have answers for that, except perhaps for those so obvious that they’re just as suspect as they are easy to swallow. It doesn’t really say that much to argue that most people’s avatars take the form of wish fulfillment and/or the correction of the cosmetic injustices that nature has inflicted on them. The mistake with such an assertion is that it tacitly accepts the terms of real-world beauty at face value within an environment where everything is equally artificial and the regular rules of physics and genetics need not apply at all. People who create outrageously exaggerated avatars seem to recognize the problem with blindly adopting mundane ideas of glamour as a default mode; this is especially true of SL users whose avatars are broad parodies of hotness (I’m thinking in particular of a few I’ve seen on W-Hat that take breast augmentation or the male ideal of big muscles and big teeth to a hilarious extreme). As Baudelaire might argue, grotesqueness is very effective in making a point, as long as it is tied to keen observation of what needs to be made fun of.
The interesting thing to me about avatar creation is that it represents a kind of self-caricature. One chooses how one is going to look to other SL users, and there are inescapable elements of communication and self-critique involved. The fact that some people have multiple, situation-specific avatars (aka, “alts”) shows how much they are aware of the way that appearance affects one’s reception by others. The dropping of one persona when business is over and adopting another for pleasure, role play, or whatever is bound to be accompanied by a certain amount of thoughtful tinkering, much in the same way that a teenager who is trying out various identities for the first time may spend hours before the mirror, fine-tuning the smallest accessories of his or her outfit. Given this, and given the deep drive within modern people to both stand out and engage in endless games of one-upmanship, I’m a little surprised that avatars haven’t become a lot more interesting by now. Still, one should never underestimate the influence of herd behavior and the need for acceptance in keeping people within set limits.
The opposition Baudelaire sets up between rote description and inspired exaggeration seems surprisingly relevant to the conventions of self-portraiture that have emerged in SL. The majority of nondescript avatars rely upon the conservative replication of old ideas about attractiveness without recognizing how stale those ideas look against a virtual backdrop. On the other hand, an unusual avatar not only has the potential to tell us a lot more about the person behind it, but also to open our own ideas to whole new ways of looking at the people and things around us, both in and out of SL. Creativity and inspired exaggeration have the potential to change the world, and it seems tragic to neglect them in a place specifically engineered to encourage the free play of imagination.
Journalistic satire and virtual reality are two very different things, and Baudelaire’s theory should not be twisted into a means for attacking the unimaginative choices people make about how to represent themselves in SL. Still, there is a need to deal with emerging standards of self-portrayal in virtual worlds, and his ideas open up one possible way of critiquing them. Such critique is important because these worlds have so much more potential than is being expressed right now, and some of that potential relates to whole new types of self-individuation that are open to us. We are all potentially teenagers again, facing the rare, historically unprecedented opportunity to become unique once more for the first time. It is likely that growing immersion in systems like SL will have major repercussions on the ways we think about ourselves and relate to others. It seems crucial to consider those repercussions now, so that we can take the best advantage of the possibilities open to us as old ideas of self-identity begin to transform into something that may be radically different.