Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?
(John Keats, “Ode to a Nightgale”)
The literature and language of virtual worlds in general, and Second Life specifically, are replete with images of imaginative and psychological completion, transcendence, and creation. It’s an idea that is built into the very name of “Second Life,” which offers us (unlike most other forms of social media, especially Facebook) the opportunity to “live again,” and differently. Here we can be whomever we want to be, and do whatever we wish to do; here we have broken the fetters of quotidian existence. “Experience endless surprises and unexpected delights in a world imagined and created by people like you,” the Second Life web site urges.
And, it would seem, many tens or even hundreds of thousands of us do just that.
Inhabiting a world “imagined and created” by our fellow residents, we all become by extension artists and poets. “What’s your story?” the same web site asks us. We are simultaneously the authors and protagonists of our own narratives. Merely creating and customizing an avatar, “remaking ourselves” (often through content that we have actually bought from Second Life merchants), makes us artists. Elif Ayiter, a Turkish academic who has written about this virtual world asks, “Can we talk about ‘Avatar Art,'” and his answer is, yes, yes we can:
Even before entering the metaverse I had an idea that the avatar, in its endless capacity for shape-shifting, could be used as an agent of creative change. It was the avatar that interested me: Not the virtual building, not the virtual artistic activity – at least not in the Real-Life-like sense of the word, manifesting as virtual art shows and installations to be admired at a distance – but the avatar, the central actor of the self-defined ‘game’ itself. (“Avatar Art: The (Re)Creation of ‘Self’“)
For many Second Life residents, then, the virtual world is a canvas upon which to paint, a virtual world of “wonders . . . built from our imagination” as Honour McMillan (in a post that is, admittedly, somewhat tongue-in-cheek) says. It is entirely unsurprising, therefore, that Second Life has attracted so many self-identified or practicing artists (many of them very good). They too recognize that this digital sandbox offers astonishing potential for creativity.
The idea that art (or “Art”) is all about “the imagination,” “creativity,” and building new worlds that lead us outside of our sublunary one is, of course, actually a reasonably recent idea. Mostly it receives its first tentative expressions in the later 18th-century, and becomes a full-throttled manifesto at the beginning of the 19th. It was the Romantics who started all of this nonsense (well, okay, it’s not necessarily nonsense) about art as a pre-eminently creative enterprise, as an emanation of the imagination of the artistic mind. In such a context, the screens upon which our virtual sandbox unfolds itself are portals to another place that functions as the paintbox of our creative soul, “Charm’d magic casements” onto faery lands forlorn, as Keats might have put it (had Keats owned a 512 parcel with a window overlooking the Elven Realms).
Or, perhaps the computer screen is something else. Maybe what it overlooks is not a New-Found-Land of the imagination, but something more familiar? Take, for instance, this somewhat breathless description by Second Life artist Whiskey Monday:
The computer screen has long been described as a window to the world, and I do believe that’s accurate. But it’s so much more. I can’t even begin to fathom the role this window will have in our future lives, or how integrated we might be with them. By the time I get another degree to try to put words to my ideas, my ideas may be totally out of date. But I feel compelled to do this, and at the very least it’ll be an adventure.
For Monday, the screen is a portal, not to a world of the imagination, but “to the world.” It’s not entirely clear what she means by this, of course, but it suggests something more comprehensive and at the same time more limiting than our mesh-enabled “Charm’d magic casements”: it suggests that we are afforded a view of our world, of which Second Life is but a part.
For there is, of course, an older view of art that argues that it does not provide an escape from or alternative to our everyday lives, our RL, but offers rather an enhanced and clarified insight into it. Art in this view (the view of Plato and Aristotle, and of Shakespeare and Milton) “holds the mirror up to Nature”: it copies the physical world we inhabit, but in such a way as to provide a clarified and enhanced vision of what it has copied so that we can see it more clearly and more whole. So, a literary form such as the novel is “realistic” and represents a world that we can accept as either our own, or one at least that is conceivable, but it uses characters and narratives that teach us things about our own world that we otherwise might never have seen or recognized.
Second Life, I have suggested, is most usually conceived of as a place of magical enchantment, an artistic and imaginative escape from “real life.” But it is also, clearly, a mirror of our own, reflecting what is both most beautiful and most ugly about ourselves. Yes, we have breathtaking art. But we also have hideous malls and a consumer culture run amok. We have the ability to reconstruct the past and give virtual form to possible futures in Second Life, yet, when we do, it is almost invariably a dark and violent past and a dystopian future that we imagine. In these ways, perhaps, Second Life does not so much give shape to our dreams as reflect our nightmares.
I want to use this blog to look at Second Life as a mirror that shows us ourselves, “as through a glass, darkly,” in new ways and from new perspectives. “Dark,” in the context of the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:12 from which my blog’s title quotes, means “obscurely” rather than negatively, and I don’t mean to suggest that my posts here will focus exclusively upon “the dark side” of Second Life. But I am interested less in what this virtual world tells us about what we desire, than what it tells us about the failures of our imagination, and our inability to escape from our “real lives.”
But if, every once in a while, I should also sneak a peek through those charm’d magic casements, I hope that you will not judge me too harshly.