Blog Post

DHQ review: Gregory Ulmer's “Avatar Emergency”


Hi HASTAC Community,

Below is a meditation on (rather than straight-up review of) Gregory Ulmer's “Avatar Emergency,” an essay published in DQH. I've posted one such meditation in the past; please feel free to comment below!

Ulmer, Gregory L. “Avatar Emergency.” English and Media Studies, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Ulmer's essay engages Christian and Hindu mythology and cosmology to make etymological, theological, and ontological sense of the early 21st century emergence of the “avatar” in online communities. Ulmer posits that the “Avatar ... is a practical point of entry for theorizing the emergence of the new identity experience of electracy, that is supplementing and displacing selfhood, the identity formation of literacy. Playing one’s avatar is to electracy what writing an essay is to literacy."  Focusing on rhetorics of incarnation and embodiment suggested by the conflation of Vishnu and Krishna, and considering also the myth of Orpheus, Ulmer points out that the literal meaning of avatar in Sanskrit--“descent”--bears substantially upon the ways in which the body and personhood have been construed in Western cultures. More than merely suggesting the notion of identity projection through virtual communication (through avatars linked to email, MMORPG’s, or blogs), Ulmer points out that the avatar has accrued newly ontological status: when I present virtually with my avatar, there is a real sense in which “I,” and not some representation of me, is actually there, imbricated within and interpellated by that discursive system.

I appreciate Ulmer’s essay not only for the originality of its observations and questions, but also for its engagement with archival and historical research. Moreover, throughout the piece, Ulmer links his findings usefully and compellingly to philosophical questions about the meaning of identity in the 21st century. I think the essay presents a model of scholarship in digital humanities that most closely approaches cultural studies, which makes me question where one field quite begins and the other ends. Ought a scholarly project concerned with digital philosophy fall under the rubric of “digital humanities”? As scholars interested in material culture continue to probe the meaning of the digital in relation to traditional humanistic questions, it will be interesting to see how such research becomes codified and organized on a disciplinary level. In other words, it will be interesting to see if, in twenty years, certain work published in DHQ might be regarded as having participated in intellectual projects that have very little to do with “digital humanities” per se, as it is understood even in the contemporary moment. 

Check out Ulmer's article here:

Please post any feedback or recommended further readings below!





1 comment

Hi Don,

I am a graduate student at University of Florida in the Art + Technology department and our seminar is reading Avatar Emergency as part of the coursework. Greg Ulmer also sits in on the class and discusses his text with us. It is a remarkable piece of philosophical literature and thoroughly bridges the gap between orality, literacy, and now electracy metaphysics in a way that is very crucial to understanding how selfhood is positioned  in our digital age.

I don't know if you have looked at any of the other publications from Ulmer, but Avatar Emergency is actually the fourth book in his EmerAgency series. 

I'm not one for a long, one-sided comment post, so if you're interested in discussing these readings more just respond and I will be happy to share with you my thoughts on the subject.