Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Political Lives of Avatars: Play and Democracy in Virtual Worlds

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Political Lives of Avatars: Play and Democracy in Virtual Worlds

Article excerpt

More than any other folklorist, Jay Mechling has helped us to see the serious nature of play and its implications for broader social and political negotiation. Through his many nuanced and careful readings of children's folklore practices, he has added important ethnographic dimensions to classic theories of play, thereby extending and challenging conventional ideas about the voluntariness of play, the boundaries of the play frame, and the assumptions that play is based upon shared cultural beliefs and systems. Mechling has shown us that moments of play might provide ways for young men to explore normative masculinity in the Boy Scouts (2001), ways for children to develop linguistic and verbal proficiency while also resisting hegemonic (adultist) moral lessons through their playful proverb use (2004), and even ways for people to explore the nature of human subjectivity and interspecies communication (1989). Through these varied cases, Mechling reminds us that play and non-play are not only co-constitutive but also co-extensive with our deepest cultural meanings and values.

While Mechling is perhaps most well-known for his studies of children's folklore and his theorization of play, many of us have also drawn inspiration from his longstanding commitment to politics - from his inquiries into our scholarly practices to his rhetorical analyses of the political realm. In his seminal article "On Sharing Folklore and American Identity in a Multicultural Society" (1993), Mechling traces the contours of folklore studies and cultural studies to demonstrate the deep allegiances between the two, the ways in which close ethnographic readings might anchor more abstract theorizing while more extensive theoretical framing might likewise open up new perspectives on specific cultural practices as they relate to mass-mediated discourses. This move alone represents a particularly important type of scholarly politics (or politics of scholarship) for folklorists, but Mechling takes his politics further, situating such a collaboration between folklore studies and cultural studies at the center of attempts to establish "a middle ground for ethical discourse in a plural society" (1993:286).

As Mechling points out, interrogating the ways that people respond to mass-mediated discourses helps us locate what John Fiske terms the "moment of semiosis," the intersection of the mediated and the folk. Through such semiotic negotiation, we might arrive at a "semiotic democracy" based on authences' "'power to construct meanings, pleasure, and social identities'" (Quoted in Mechling 1993:280). Mechling himself points to several lines of investigation involving children's folkloristic responses to the television show The Simpsons to illustrate how we might collaborate ethnographically with Fiske 's theory. This is, of course, one way in which our work is always already in the political realm. For Mechling, however, the political project extends beyond an identification and analysis of the "moment of semiosis"; rather, he pushes folklorists to reach beyond the safety of interpretation to the discomfort and potential danger of "opening up the private space of the 'moments of semiosis' that happen when folk and mass-mediated discourses come together" (ibid., 287). Mechling's politics inspire and endure precisely because he challenges us to consider and participate in the difficult "public conversation in search of solidarity" (ibid., 286) and what Jeffrey Stout calls the "'thin conception of the good'" (Quoted in Mechling 1993:286).

Mechling's theoretical insights into play - together with his calls for a politically conscious investigation of semiotic democracy - anticipate several foundational theoretical and political considerations that arise as virtual worlds are instantiated jointly through technological innovation and folkloristic praxis. While not conventional mass-mediated cultural productions, virtual worlds are nonetheless deeply enmeshed in systems of capitalist production and consumption; at the same time, they are populated by individual participants and truly brought into being by diverse styles of play and unscripted forms of engagement. …

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