Online a Lot of the Time: Ritual, Fetish, Sign

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Overview


A wedding ceremony in a Web-based virtual world. Online memorials commemorating the dead. A coffee klatch attended by persons thousands of miles apart via webcams. These are just a few of the ritual practices that have developed and are emerging in online settings. Such Web-based rituals depend on the merging of two modes of communication often held distinct by scholars: the use of a device or mechanism to transmit messages between people across space, and a ritual gathering of people in the same place for the performance of activities intended to generate, maintain, repair, and renew social relations. In Online a Lot of the Time, Ken Hillis explores the stakes when rituals that would formerly have required participants to gather in one physical space are reformulated for the Web. In so doing, he develops a theory of how ritual, fetish, and signification translate to online environments and offer new forms of visual and spatial interaction. The online environments Hillis examines reflect the dynamic contradictions at the core of identity and the ways these contradictions get signified.

Hillis analyzes forms of ritual and fetishism made possible through second-generation virtual environments such as Second Life and the popular practice of using webcams to “lifecast” one’s life online twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Discussing how people create and identify with their electronic avatars, he shows how the customs of virtual-world chat reinforce modern consumer-based subjectivities, allowing individuals to both identify with and distance themselves from their characters. His consideration of web-cam cultures links the ritual of exposing one’s life online to a politics of visibility. Hillis argues that these new “rituals of transmission” are compelling because they provide a seemingly material trace of the actual person on the other side of the interface.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[A] rich volume in theory and striking examples about the virtual phenomena of avatars, webcam personas, rituals, fetish and signs. It’s a must read for everyone interested in the field of virtuality. A book that has grabbed the fullest of my interest due to my own personal interest in the virtual phenomena of avatars, the rituals in play and the digital ‘body’. . . . So this book is a keeper, you should try it!” - Denise Pires, Masters of Media

“Hillis provides a rich and extensive span of academic and cultural references to contextualise his claims. I found this invaluable in providing a framework in which to situate Hillis’s contribution to the field of theory, including work on ritual, fetish, sign and discourses of virtual presence and online identity. . . . This book can be recommended to researchers and enthusiasts interested in online interaction, virtuality and social study, as well as standing out for its succinct and thoughtful exploration of ritual, fetish and sign theory.” - Hilary Wheaton, Media International Australia

“[A]n expert account of online relations in general and the relation of user (or participant, in Hillis’ terms) to avatar in particular. . . . As a trans-disciplinary work it will be a valuable resource for those working in a wide range of fields, such as media theory, cultural studies, sociology and philosophy. . . . [A]lways an interesting, provocative and insightful read. This is a fascinating account of life online.” - David W. Hill, Continuum

“[A] strong contribution to the sociological study of communications technologies: the location of online interactions within broader socio-historical context and cultural theory. . . . - Sarah Michele Ford, Contemporary Sociology

“The real strength of the work lies in the sustained historicization of ‘virtual’ life and Hillis’s perspective on the temporalities that are at stake in online life. On these counts, there are some real delights to be found.” - Dawn Nafus, American Anthropologist

“Ken Hillis has written an engaging philosophical exploration of the dilemmas confronting Euro-Americans when they begin to use online communication. He is intellectually generous to anthropologists and their conceptual impulses, exploring a series of questions that can aid ethnographers interrogating Euro-American media ideologies surrounding new media.” - Ilana Gershon, American Ethnologist

Online a Lot of the Time tackles the complex subject of telepresence more convincingly than anything else around. It suggests that the sign/body of an online digital avatar occupies a ‘middle ground,’ analogous to the ‘middle voice’ produced through the novel’s technique of free indirect discourse, in which the avatar functions as more than an image but less than an autonomous agent. Moreover, because of the psychic investments that operators project into the avatar, it also functions analogously to a fetish—or rather, a telefetish. Building on previous theorizations of the fetish, the book makes a decisive intervention by showing that these concepts can fruitfully be extended into the virtual realm. With an impressive range of references, including commodity theory, media theory, the history of the telegraph, and a host of other areas, Online a Lot of the Time is essential reading for anyone interested in virtuality and its effects.”—Katherine Hayles, author of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary

Denise Pires

“[A] rich volume in theory and striking examples about the virtual phenomena of avatars, webcam personas, rituals, fetish and signs. It’s a must read for everyone interested in the field of virtuality. A book that has grabbed the fullest of my interest due to my own personal interest in the virtual phenomena of avatars, the rituals in play and the digital ‘body’. . . . So this book is a keeper, you should try it!”
Sarah Michele Ford

“[A] strong contribution to the sociological study of communications technologies: the location of online interactions within broader socio-historical context and cultural theory. . . .
David W. Hill

“[A]n expert account of online relations in general and the relation of user (or participant, in Hillis’ terms) to avatar in particular. . . . As a trans-disciplinary work it will be a valuable resource for those working in a wide range of fields, such as media theory, cultural studies, sociology and philosophy. . . . [A]lways an interesting, provocative and insightful read. This is a fascinating account of life online.”
Hilary Wheaton

“Hillis provides a rich and extensive span of academic and cultural references to contextualise his claims. I found this invaluable in providing a framework in which to situate Hillis’s contribution to the field of theory, including work on ritual, fetish, sign and discourses of virtual presence and online identity. . . . This book can be recommended to researchers and enthusiasts interested in online interaction, virtuality and social study, as well as standing out for its succinct and thoughtful exploration of ritual, fetish and sign theory.”
Ilana Gershon

“Ken Hillis has written an engaging philosophical exploration of the dilemmas confronting Euro-Americans when they begin to use online communication. He is intellectually generous to anthropologists and their conceptual impulses, exploring a series of questions that can aid ethnographers interrogating Euro-American media ideologies surrounding new media.”
Dawn Nafus

“The real strength of the work lies in the sustained historicization of ‘virtual’ life and Hillis’s perspective on the temporalities that are at stake in online life. On these counts, there are some real delights to be found.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344483
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ken Hillis is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality and a co-editor of Everyday eBay: Culture, Collecting, and Desire.

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Read an Excerpt

Online a Lot of the Time

RITUAL, FETISH, SIGN
By Ken Hillis

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2009 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4434-6


Chapter One

Rituals

In reading the literature on ritual one is struck by the ongoing, evolving sets of disputes among researchers, often anthropologists, over the definitions, meanings, and purported utilities of the idea of ritual. "There is the widest possible disagreement as to how the word ritual should be understood" (Leach 1968:526). Ritual is a Western academic invention (Bell 1992:ch.1; 1997:253) that "will not stay neutral" but can be made to conform to whatever purposes the researcher intends her or his analysis to serve (Bell 1992:14). Ritual is a slippery concept, variable in its meanings, mechanisms, and dynamics. Many activities are considered rituals and many perspectives of analysis compete, contradict, and inform one another. Ritual is less a formal category of human behavior than a historical and cultural invention to distinguish various modes of religiosity, cultural determinisms, and rationality (Bell 1992:14; 1997:ix-xi). Nevertheless, the idea of ritual has been widely popularized and taken up by all manner of cultural actors. Ritual has real affect, and individuals, consciously or not, are inventing new forms of public and private ritual practices. This chapter discusses the concept of ritual as articulated by various theorists in order to provide a multilayered definition of the term, its disjunctures, and its applicability to online settings.

In their traditional and commonsense understandings rituals are associated with ceremonial performances that signal an exceptional event or transition in status in the life of a community, social group, family, or individual. Rituals may be state sanctioned, as in the funeral of a sovereign or head of state, or more localized, such as the baptism of a child. They are understood as rites of passage set off from daily routines. They may signal, for example, the importance of birth, marriage, and death-events a newspaper editor once referred to as "the hatched, the matched and the dispatched." Rituals work to induce qualities of social coherence and order among participants. This is why they are often understood as stabilizing and containing social relations that favor the maintenance of elite or dominant powers. In a ritual, everyone participates; there are no observers. At a funeral, for example, everyone is expected to pay respect to the deceased; it would be taboo to denounce the dearly departed during the ritual. Such rituals, we are given to understand, have invariant rules of conduct rooted in hierarchy governing how people should (and should not) act during what is positioned as a sacred moment.

Traditionally, people associate the idea of the sacred with religion, and many commonsense understandings of ritual draw from religiously inflected practices. Religion is constituted in a set of ideas and practices by which "people sacralize the social structure and bonds of community" (Bell 1997:24). Religion, like ritual, works to ensure the primacy of group or communal identification. At base, however, this traditional understanding of ritual assumes that rituals are only performed to induce a sense of unity or collective social cohesion among people-as noted above, to stabilize and contain. Such naturalized and commonsense understandings of ritual bear a considerable debt to the ongoing influence of Émile Durkheim (1857-1917), a founding figure of sociology. Durkheim developed his theories of ritual in part by reading the published ethnographies of nineteenth-century anthropologists. When early anthropologists, as part of the colonial encounter, first observed the indigenous practices they would identify as rituals, they were studying premodern cultures organized according to highly developed and hierarchical understandings of group identity. The ceremonies they observed frequently engaged the entire society or a significant number of its members so as to constitute a noteworthy subgrouping within the society. This reportage and Durkheim's analysis of it focused on ritual as a group process and associated it with the maintenance of tradition that, in turn, has been associated by many subsequent ritual theorists with the idea that a ritual is invariant. Tradition is always a social force, so it is not hard to understand how rituals have come to be associated in theory with the production of group cohesion through traditional, invariant practices. As a consequence, however, we are left with overly narrow popular understandings of what qualifies as a ritual and what does not, including ideas about the "proper" social scale at which a ritual occurs. That is, we generally equate ritual with a group and with an assembly of this group in the same place.

It is important to note that the indigenous cultures observed by early anthropologists were not yet unduly inflected by modern capitalized social relations marked by the privileging of the individual and practices of individuation. They were positioned geopolitically as static, without a modern sense of progress and therefore of mobility. Protestant-inflected, on-the-go Western modernity defined itself in opposition to this purported stasis, and it is interesting to consider the relationship between this created opposition and a Protestant deemphasis on most forms of ritual, as in "they have rituals, we don't." Protestant and, more generally, Western privileging of the individual has difficulty fitting into these theories except insofar as they position individualism as a problem that ritual might help solve (for example, Durkheim 1965 [1912]).

Today it would be difficult to find a culture uninflected in some way by capitalized social relations and modern forms of individualism. Would this mean that ritual no longer exists-that it has been completely dismissed as atavistic, given capitalism's interest in continually transforming the status quo and upending tradition in favor of mobility, flexibility, and flow? Scarcely. Not surprisingly, in an increasingly networked and individuated world rituals also operate in more complex, hybrid, potentially messy, contradictory, and less binary-dependent ways. There is no compelling reason why a ritual need always be religious in nature. Neither are there compelling explanations, for example, for why a ritual cannot be an individual public or private act, or why rituals cannot be mobile. There is no inherent reason why mobility itself cannot be ritualized, particularly given its (ironic) centrality to contemporary social order, or why rituals cannot be performed electronically among individuals who remain geographically distant from one another but nevertheless have some common desire or need to commingle through online settings.

One issue for which ritual theory applied to contemporary circumstances must account is the ways that capitalism and Protestantism have worked to naturalize social arrangements based on an ideology that individuals, not the collective, are discrete entities responsible for their own self-determination. A "tradition" in the West at least two centuries old holds the purportedly autonomous individual as responsible for determining his or her own roles. As part of capitalized and increasingly technicized social relations, individuals enter into an order composed of myriad forms of contractual and economic relationships with other individuals and organizations. Self-determination is a contract with oneself and it, too, can be ritualized in many ways as part of making sense of one's place in this larger order of individuals. Moreover, a contractual, economically oriented worldview devalues (but does not dispense with) traditional forms of group relationships. At a metalevel-in terms of a capitalized structure of feeling-the West's longstanding emphasis on individualism forms the trajectory of a tradition that earlier ritual theorists such as Durkheim were not prevented from considering yet for the most part overlooked. The emphasis on individualism is not the only unrecognized tradition worth noting. Paralleling it is the by now naturalized tradition of commodification of the individuated self on the part of those born modern-a tradition empowering those who seek to transmit traces or doubles of themselves through online settings.

Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), argued that rituals enact or perform ideas of the sacred. Periodic in nature, rituals allow participants to identify with a larger reality than themselves-such as venerated ancestors or a god figure, which, Durkheim argued, is really the collective in a disguised form. "God," he is attributed as having said, "is society, writ large." Durkheim believed that individuals, as part of the social collective, need some form of faith in order to bear their own mortality. He turned to the possibility that rituals, repeated over time, could serve as a principal functional means for inducing and maintaining group cohesion and social comity. In certain ways, this understanding can apply to the Web settings described in the introduction. The wedding in Second Life clearly fits within these parameters. A university graduation ceremony, though secular in nature, does as well. It marks a sacred or consecrating and collective moment in the lives of the (largely) young adults ready to embark on the next phase of life's journey. Visitors to online memorials who leave comments often indicate that they did not know the deceased, yet they also believe they are participating in a collective or public sense of mourning. The fourth example of having coffee with distant friends with the help of a personal webcam might seem less like a ritual to those adhering strictly to the traditional associations just noted, but it too reinforces our collective sense of remaining a group.

Durkheim understood religion as "the medium through which shared social life was experienced, expressed, and legitimated" (quoted in Bell 1997:25). Religious phenomena, he observed, occur when everyday activities (the profane) are separated from the extraordinary and the transcendent (the sacred). All religions, he believed, organize the world into the sacred and the profane. Insisting on a strict sacred/profane binary is also an insistence, however implicit, on holding apart the social and the political. Nevertheless, this binary is at the center of Durkheim's theory of ritual even though he favored a secular, rational form of life. Durkheim examined ritual from a positivist perspective. He believed that science was asserting itself over religion as the basic means by which people make sense of everyday life; over time, he suggested, religion would take on ever more secular forms.

Yet in contrast to the ritually induced social cohesiveness Durkheim identified as a feature of "primitive" or "mechanical" societies, he "was struck by what he saw as the pathological state of his own society, signified, as he saw it, by the lack of public rituals. He saw this lack as an index of social pathology, of a transitional state of 'uncertainty and confused agitation'" (Lukes 1975:291). This lack, I suggest, also reflected the increasing secularization and individuation of late-nineteenth-century French society. Durkheim's theories, then, constituted a form of cultural intervention on his part-an attempt to mediate his own historical moment. In writing about the Zeitgeist within which Durkheim labored, Jacques Rancière points to the connections among the "haunting" of the nineteenth century by the perceived "democratic dissolution of the social body, by the fanciful correlation between democracy/individualism/Protestantism/revolution/the disintegration of the social bond," and the rise of "sociology as a science ... born from this obsession with the lost social bond" (2004:57).

Durkheim's articulation of ritual to induced social cohesion remains valuable in thinking through how rituals operate, but it is not the whole story. His metaphysically inflected idea of a "collective consciousness" holds that the totality of a society's shared social norms and values constitutes its common ground of meaning and ensures that everyone acts in agreed-upon ways. Saluting the flag, covering one's mouth when one coughs, and driving on either the right or left are examples of such norms.

Durkheim's conception of how ideas (or morality) influence material reality (and the aesthetic of the surface appearance of rituals) is an early form of ideology theory apposite to his theory of ritual. Connecting the dots linking ritual to ideology is productive. It allows for identifying the ways that religious institutions organize the performance of ritual practices as meaningful forms of "lived hegemony" (Williams 1977:112); it positions ritual as a model for understanding and for constructing ideological practices based on hybrids of persuasion and coercion; and it facilitates looking at ideology promoted through forms of lived hegemony as a contemporary, secular form of ritualization. Capitalist consumption practices, for example, are forms of lived hegemony that provide consumers with something of value in exchange for their consent to be governed by the logic of capitalist ideology. Thus shopping, as an outcome of capitalist belief, itself constitutes a secular ritual practice, promoted as invariant, that promises qualities of transcendence associated with traditional religious experience. Shopping as ritual both confers order and allows for certain expressions of self within a system of mass individuation. To refuse to see how contemporary forms of capitalized expressions (including my virtual coffee klatch) constitute rituals because they do not conform to the idea that rituals are invariably associated with tradition and religion is to have bought into a specific form of ideology that gains power precisely in separating itself from ritual. It works to suggest that contemporary forms of consumer expression are all about individual freedom and never about producing social conformity in the same way that ritual does. A refusal to see how ritual practices evolve in tandem with broader forms of political and social organization is, in terms of capitalism, a refusal to see that capitalism-its logics and techniques of greed and accumulation unable to mount convincing moral arguments that would cause individuals to cohere sufficiently so as to preserve the capitalist system-itself relies on traditional ideas and practices productive of social cohesion that it absorbed from the earlier patriarchal and noblesse oblige social systems it has also progressively moved to undermine.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Online a Lot of the Time by Ken Hillis Copyright © 2009 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments....................ix
Introduction Rituals of Transmission, Fetishizing the Trace....................1
1 Rituals....................47
2 Fetishes....................79
3 Signs....................103
4 "Avatars Become /me" DEPICTION DETHRONES DESCRIPTION....................133
5 So Near, So Far, and Both at Once TELEFETISHISM AND RITUALS OF VISIBILITY....................203
Afterword Digital Affectivity....................261
Notes....................267
Works Cited....................287
Index....................303
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