Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rock Lichen: Ethnography in person & Avatar-Ethnographer

Harbin ethnography:

... As salient aspects of Harbin's 'culture,' these latent 'codes' are examples of “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor 1871:1) as well as “practice - the ethnographic and polyphonic representation of ‘culture,’ shaped by conjuncture rather than essence – to shape specific understandings of cultural and historical identity” (James Clifford in MacLeod 2003), and of the focus of my anthropological study, ethnographically.

Ethnography in person, and ethnography, where an avatar, like mine named “Aphilo Aarde,” who builds a virtual Harbin in Open Simulator, which becomes part of a grid of virtual islands', and then, when avatars begin to visit it, starts to study what occurs communicatively there, raises fascinating and important methodological questions about culture and virtual ethnography – counterculture, in the case of Harbin - as well as the role of the avatar-ethnographer, in terms of how to conduct ethnographic research in virtual worlds. In terms of representation, for example, what is the relationship of ethnography, for example, with fiction, now informed by interactive multimedia, and the possibility for anyone to generate a virtual world or island, which then can become a social space; fiction writers have produced some of the most important interpretations of virtual world sociality thus far, as have blog writers and web site makers (Boellstorff 2008: 66). Anthropologists, among media studies' scholars, computer scientists, psychologists, sociologists, literary studies' scholars, and cultural studies' theorists are just beginning to contribute significantly to this conversation. Analyses of avatars, virtual worlds and the avatar-ethnographer vis-a-vis dividuals (e.g. Strathern), cyborgs (e.g. Harraway), posthumans, prosthetics, interstitial spaces, Actor Network Theory (Latour), hyperreality (Baudrillard), vis-a-vis culture, for example, are relatively underexamined in the discipline of anthropology. Perhaps due to the challenges that emerge in understanding and characterizing processes and temporalities of culture, emerging due to information technologies, the conjunctures between sociocultural processes, avatars, and virtual worlds have remained at some distance from central questions informing ethnographic practice in recent decades. In the case of this actual and virtual Harbin ethnography, an avatar-ethnographer who both creates a virtual Harbin in Open Simulator as well as helps Harbin residents and visitors to create it, and then lives in virtual Harbin for the next few decades, in seeking to understand the sociocultural life which emerges there, vis-a-vis on-the-ground Harbin, and writes about this, gives form to new and developing conceptions of culture {counterculture?}.

The positing of a culturally significant avatar-ethnographer both making, and studying, a field site like virtual Harbin Hot Springs, and avatars as Harbin visitors and residents, highlight the significance of not only interactive multimedia, but also crafting (Techne viz. Boellstorff) and, especially, communicative processes, as important in the practices of ethnography for the study of virtual culture. ...

( - November 18, 2010)

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