Friday, April 30, 2010

The Power of Name in Post-Pseudonymous Virtual Identity

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

From Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare


As I was thinking earlier today about a post in Phasing Grace on Second Life culture, it occurred to me that the same sort of semiotic questions I had in the quest to identify and name a distinct virtual Second Life culture also applied to personal identity.

In the mundane view of reality, a name is merely a word we use to label the particular entity that is specified. But the deeper truth is that a name plays a role in defining and maintaining our perception of the named object. At an even more profound level, a name actually brings the named into perceptual existence by separating a particular set of attributes from the universe into a discrete object or being.

One of the things I value the most about virtual life, is its power to shed light on otherwise obscure or invisible aspects of physical life. In this case, avatar "brand names" that also have a publicly disclosed human identity bring to light the almost mystical connection between the name (signifier) and our mental concept (signified).

For instance, although I know that on one level Dusan Writer= Doug Thompson, those two names still call up different metal models. Think of all of the well-known virtual identities you know with openly connected physical identities. Then go back and forth between speaking the avatar name and the human name and see what comes to mind and how it feels.For now, I am begging the question of what is "real" and only focusing on the action of names within our consciousness. Pretty wild!


Gwyneth Llewelyn said...

In the spiritual view of reality, a name is merely a word we use to label a particular entity that is specified. But the deeper truth is that the entity, in itself, does not intrinsically exist: it's made of separate parts, each of them put together, and conveniently labelled by our minds as an aid to communication :)

After all, if you take Dusan Writer apart... where is the intrinsic Dusan? In the head? In the arms? The torso? Well, perhaps in the head. But where in the head? Well, certainly not inside the nose, so we'd go into the brain, which is where Dusan's mind resides. But where exactly in the brain is Dusan? Well, we might conveniently split and splice Dusan's brain in individual neurons... but when we get to that point, we haven't found Dusan at all. And a brain without the rest of the body is, well, useless. We just have an epiphenomenal impression that Dusan's being, or rather, the perception of Dusan, spontaneously emerges from the aggregate that we call Dusan.

Switching name tags will make little difference. There won't be an intrinsically different Doug just because now we name Doug what was Dusan. Rather, it's not the name that conditions our perceptions, but the perceptions themselves that push us to project our expectations, anxieties, desires, hopes and so forth upon an entity which we feel to be real (as real as we are). We just project different perceptions upon Dusan than we do upon Doug. But it's not the name that makes the difference: it's our own mind, our own perceptions.

And I agree, it's pretty wild. What encourages me all the time is to see how many people are really following the same line of reasoning along the same path as you are — which is not much different than mine — and the long road along that path will bring you to some quite interesting conclusions about the reality of one's self and all that one perceives.

Shakespeare was right after all :)

Botgirl Questi said...

Gwyneth: As someone who has quoted the Heart Sutra in multiple blog posts, I'm in wholehearted agreement with you on the ultimate emptiness of Dusan. That said, philosophically I'm pretty much a Gelug School Tibetan Buddhist. So in addition to the ultimate view, I also appreciate the value of the relative view which uses the idea of personhood as a useful tool on the path.

Many traditions appreciate the power of a name. For instance, when one take Buddhist refuge in some Tibetan traditions, he or she receives an additional name. Another example of the power of name/sound is in the practice of mantra.

In Vajrayana practice, the sound of mantra is sometimes combined with the visualization of oneself as a deity. I think that both the name and image one chooses for an avatar may have deeper psychological ramifications than is normally appreciated.

I agree with you that our conception of Dusan is a projection of our own minds. I guess the difference in my perspective is that I think that both the visual representation and the associations we have with the name influence our mental model.

Anyway, I really appreciate your insights and suspect as you do that we're not that far apart.

Botgirl Questi said...

Wrote new post inspired by Gwyneth's comment and my follow-up.

Extropia DaSilva said...

'where in the head?'

Assuming dear Gwyn actually means, 'where in the brain', there is an interesting experiment that sheds some light on this question.

In this experiment, volunteers watch a movie in which a famous face slowly morphs into their own face, or that of a familiar co-worker. The volunteer must press a button with either their left hand or their right, when they think the image has become their own face (or the co-worker).

When the famous face morphs into the face of a familiar co-worker, both hands press the button at pretty much the same stage. But, when the face morphs into their own image, the left hand presses the button sooner. Since the left side of a person's body is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, the results indicate a heightened sensitivity to self in the right hemisphere of the brain.

Furthermore, given that multiple neural modules converge here, and it is implicated in complex linguistic and pre-linguistic representations, it seems reasonable to suppose that 'the self' is located primarily in the right hemisphere of the frontal cortex.

Botgirl Questi said...

Extropia: Interesting experiment. My sense of the result's implication is that the right hemisphere is more sensitive to visual self-recognition, rather than it being the biological home of the "self" (or even of the overall sense of self).

i suspect that multiple areas of the mind/body contribute to the sense of self, including the mere sense of vision that is fixed from the position of our eyes.

Since a particular human is quite different both physically and psychologically at the ages of five and fifty, it seems to me that the continuity of memory plays a major rule in creating the sense of self, along with the psychological process of mental modeling and narrative identity creation.