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Adventures of Identity: From the Double to the Avatar

13 dec 2018 10:00 - 14 dec 2018 18:00
Institut d'études avancées de Paris
17 quai d'Anjou
Hôtel de Lauzun
75004 Paris

Conference organized by Andrea Pinotti (Università Statale di Milano / Paris IAS 2017-2018), with the support of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Parigi and the FMSH


Recent developments in image-making techniques have resulted in a blurring of the threshold between the image world and the real world. Immersive and interactive virtual environments elicit in the perceiver a strong feeling of being incorporated into an autonomous world. Such incorporation can be conveyed by the “avatar”, a digital proxy through which the subject interacts with synthetic objects or other avatars.

Far from being a term coined in contemporary times, the notion of “avatar” is rooted in the ancient Hinduist tradition: the Sanskrit term refers to the descent on earth, the material appearance, the sensible manifestation or incarnation of a god or goddess (mostly Vishnu). In Western culture, it has come to be associated with cognate notions such as the “double”, the “alter ego”, the “Doppelgänger”, the “hologram”.

Manifold transdisciplinary issues are raised by the experience with the avatar.

From the angle of the history of images, not only it constitutes a fundamental chapter in contemporary visual practices, but it also represents a significant variation of the genres of the portrait and self-portrait, which can hybridize as well with the production of the “selfies”. From a philosophical, anthropological and sociological perspective, the avatar impacts on fundamental questions related to identity, subjectivity and intersubjectivity. From a psychological, psychoanalytic and neurological point of view, it is linked to questions such as multiple or split personality, embodiment, body ownership, self-representation, proprioception, prosthetic implementations, empathy. From the vantage point of media studies it represents the digital intermediary through which the user interacts with the virtual environment and other users. Ethical, legal and political issues are also crucial in the avatar experience, since not only through avatars we operate in the digital world, but also avatars can reverberate their effects onto the real life, modifying for instance gender, ideological and racial biases. The avatar can be employed to stress the “authentic” representation of the self, but it can also be used to disguise one’s identity, becoming veritable masks: imitative simulation on one side, deceptive dissimulation on the other constitute therefore the two extremes spanned by the versatility of the avatar.

As always happens with technological and medium-related innovations, the diffusion of avatars triggers remarkably polarized reactions: on the one hand the techno-enthusiasts (who optimistically hail the possibility of living multiple lives inside parallel worlds), on the other hand the techno-apocalyptics (who fear identity loss, liquefaction and alienation). The rift between these two parties is expected to further increase in the next future, given the enormous technological and economic investments in the development of virtual environments in general and virtual avatars in particular.

By convening scholars from different disciplines, the colloquium aims to critically address these multifarious issues, discussing the problematic and controversial status of the avatar, which is in urgent need of definition.


December 13

Session 1
Chair: Andrea Pinotti (Università Statale di Milano)

10:00 - 10:30   Welcoming Speech and Introductory Remarks

10:30 - 11:00   “Tout le monde descend!” La notion d’avatar dans la mythologie et la spéculation de l’Inde hindoue
Charles Malamoud (EHESS, Paris)

11:00 - 11:30   Break

11:30 - 12:00   Neural basis of interaction with avatars
Alain Berthoz (Collège de France, Paris)

12:00 - 13:00   Round-table discussion

Session 2

Chair: Antonio Somaini (Université Paris 3 - Sorbonne Nouvelle)

15:00 - 15:30   The art of acting somewhere else
Dominique Moulon (art critic and independent curator)

15:30 - 16:00   Laughs best who laughs last: sardonic doublets of religious tools in Eighteenth Century Sardinia
Silvia Romani (Università Statale di Milano)

16:00 - 16:30   Break

16:30 - 17:00   Skeuomorphic Selfhood: a Kantian Take on the Avatar
Cheryce von Xylander (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

17:00 - 18:00   Round-table discussion

December 14

Session 3

Chair: Tamar Flash (Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot)

10:00 - 10:30   Being Someone Else – The Power of Avatar Self Representation
Mel Slater (University of Barcelona)

10:30 - 11:00   Playing for real. The avatar and the double in analytical psychodrama
Sara Guindani (FMSH - Collège d’études mondiales, Paris)

11:00 - 11:30   Break

11:30 - 12:00   Interacting with your avatar. Problems of gesture recognition
Barbara Grespi (Università di Bergamo)

12:00 - 13:00   Round-table discussion

Session 4

Chair: Giandomenico Iannetti (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Roma)

15:00 - 15:30   From the neuroscience of self-consciousness to virtual reality, digiceuticals, and human augmentation
Olaf Blanke (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne)

15:30 - 16:00   Break

16:00 - 16:30   From Superman to PJ Masks: how masks make us superhumans
Chiara Cappelletto (Università Statale di Milano)

16:30 - 17:00   Selfie nationalism
Giovanna Borradori (Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY)

17:00 - 18:00   Round-table discussion

Les inscriptions sont closes. Néanmoins l’entrée sera possible 5 minutes avant le début de l’événement en fonction du nombre de places disponibles.
Conference organized by A. Pinotti (Università Statale di Milano / Paris IAS 2017-2018), with the support of the IIC and the FMSH
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Contemporary period (1789-…)
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