Sunday, March 2, 2008

Second Life 2.0 is here, Part I: A sense of permenant exuberance

"The stage is false, the feelings on it are real."

It was in the middle of the Ming Dynasty when novelist and dramatist Yuan Yuling offered that insight on what was important about the stage. It is also what is important about SL: the stage presents images, but the move hearts behind them. It is almost in the inverse of Aristotelean Catharsis.

My bibliography for my rl writing project is thick with the works of Craig Clunas, who I believe to be the most brilliant synthesizer of Chinese Art history, with no qualifications, writing in English. His Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368-1644 has a scope and yet compact argument which makes accessible the broad trends and meanings. His Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China documents the rise of capitalist aesthetics in China. As the editor of the Oxford History Art in China his hand kept in focus what could have been an unwieldy introduction.

In the art of the early modern period in China had the same motivation, it was stylized, but intended in its stylization to produce disproportionate emotion. The flowering of semi-depictive art in Chinese decorative aesthetics coincides with the flowering of a great period of optimism and economic expansion. As importantly it coincides with the growth of a consumer idea of culture. Many people are too attached to having the arrows point only one way. Material objective requirements are said to produce alienation form production and then the turn to consumption for the alleviation of alienation... and so on so on so on.

Instead cultural and physical forces are in tension and compression with each other. Objective culture places certain requirements, and opens possibilities. Some of these possibilities are opened by the cultural zeitgeist, which itself is often far out of sync with what is materially required.

Instead emotive forces are also at work, even if the objective material culture frame around them is unreal. Or, if I can say it another way, people often have a reason for why they do something which is rooted in supposed objective needs, but which is really emotional in its genesis. I would point to the war in Iraq as an example, there was a plethora of reasons put forward rooted in supposed objective realities, most of which turned out to be complete fabrications and fraud, but the real reason was an emotional need to prove America's ability to do things with its military arm. This emotional need, not the objective physical reasons, real or false, drove us to war.

In consumer culture there is often a nominal reason for an object. It's "reason in use" if you like. Then there is the exuberance of the possession itself. I think that second life proves that there is an exuberance of possession. We don't need much in the way of clothes, but there it is, the great waving red flag of temptation. The rise of consumer culture is not driven by objective material needs, but by perceptions, the perception, chiefly, that one can buy things and not have them taken away, not least of these. It also comes from the belief that there is a stability to economic function and relationship. Or, if I may, that what you are doing works, and you can keep doing it.

I bring these two points from the development of Chinese commercial and material culture in the Ming Dynasty for a reason, namely, they are points which are very active in Second Life right now. The first is that Second Life is intended to produce greater flowering of emotion than real objects would produce, the second is that there is an exuberance to consumption which is an emotional response itself. The two feed off of each other: impact leads to attachment to consuming, and the passion to purchase leads to greater impact.

Not only is the world a stage, but the better the costumes work, the more attached to them we become.

An example of how exuberance and consumer culture go hand in hand can be seen in this piece from the Yung-lo reign in the Ming dynasty. The Ming Dynasty established an imperial porcelain factory, a practice that would be common in Europe once porcelain production was attempted there. However, instead of traditional designs, the Yung-Lo reign saw an explosion of color, free hand, and ungeometrical shapes which can only be called organic and romantic in contrast to the more formalized designs which came before. This was the emperor who moved the capital north to Beijing, that is, "North Capital" and built "the Forbidden City." His reign was considered the peak of the Ming dynasty, and it shows in the porcelain bearing his regnal mark.

More over, the pieces of this time were very thin walled, called "bodiless," and are extremely light. There is a search for the most delicate moment between objects in their aesthetic and useful frames. Later reigns would scale back both the exuberance, and the delicacy of the pieces. This exuberance would only really return with the Manchu based Qing dynasty, which pursued and even more florid style of silk and porcelain production.

Thin was in, and later out. Some of the reasons for out were export. In 1400, there was no foreign market to consider, in 1600, there was a booming market to Europe. In 1400, production from the imperial factory was for the emperor alone, in 1600, it was a commodity. However, these physical factors are enhanced by something else. In 1400, there was no past, in 1600, everything had pastness. In 1400, everyone was new to their places, the dynasty having just taken power from the Mongol Yuan dynasty. In 1600, there was a web of business relationships that had grown up after the financial crisis of the mid 1400's. People bought things to last, because their world had lasted. Susan Mann pointed out that in the mid-Ming dynasty, it was courtesans who dominated the world of letters among women, where as by the mid-1700's, at the century mark of the Qing Dynasty, women from households, that is married women, came to the front of literature, and the education of families, including daughters, was an important consideration of the middle and upper classes. This indicates that there was a growing stability of the middle class outside of the court area. Courtesans are functionaries of court, even if poorer courts, where as the stability of married life and the expansion of women into the intellectual sphere from the home indicates a rising sense of permanence.

I'm going to stop here, for the moment, because the comparison to SL is important. Before, there was a sense of impermanence about content, which showed in the rushes to release and release, and the waves of new objects. That is changing. Not that the pace of new content has slowed, but there is a greater and greater sense that content is going to last. This has led, in turn, to exuberance of quality which is far above the previous patterns. My next piece in this continuing article is on the nature of those changes in content, and how they show a greater sense of commitment to Second Life.

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