Here is the scenario. You find yourself in a virtual game-world where you can be anything you want––say, a princess, a superhero, or maybe a dragon. Enter Micha Cárdenas. The question is this: in assuming a new identity, are you really leaving behind the actual “you”? Nearly two decades ago, a now-famous New Yorker cartoon made popular the adage, “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog,” referencing the presumed demarcation between virtual and real personas. But this begs the question of where the expression of the self resides, inasmuch as identity is a largely mental process. If identity is a way that people see themselves in a given world, can a virtual identity express a genuine aspect of one’s ‘true” self? This is hardly a new idea. Throughout human history, writing and art have allowed people to transcend the limits of the here-and-now to express alternate realities and ways of being. So has religion for that matter. In this sense, the more recent emergence of virtual worlds extends a human desire to exceed the limits of the real––or to question how we conceive reality itself. But can the immersive character of virtual worlds allow us to do more than this?
The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities by Micha Cárdenas and collaborators addresses this question, and a quite bit more, in exploring ideas about “multiple simultaneous realities” in art and everyday life. (See also, Transreal.org website/blog). The basic point is that human beings are a lot more complicated than a single strand of identity and that simple distinctions like male/female and virtual/real shatter under critical scrutiny, especially in an age of virtual technology. Cárdenas’ partly autobiographical work has appeared in a number of electronic, printed, and performance-art formats over the past five years, including the respected online journal C-Theory, which published Cárdenas’ “Becoming Dragon: A Transversal Technology Study.” In the essay, Cárdenas described a “transreal” identity something akin to Henry Jenkins’ “transmedia” model of communication. In both instances, use of the term trans implies something more profound than “across” boundaries––referring to immersion in multiple technologically enhanced experiential worlds at the same time. But Cárdenas takes the matter a step further, writing that “Millions of people today have identities which have significant components which span multiple levels of reality, including Second life avatars and other virtual worlds … The notion of the transreal can be a way to subvert the very idea of the true self, if one’s self contains multiple parts which have different truth values or different kinds of realness.”
In some ways this work represents an effort to formulate a broad model of human consciousness in a digital age. Yet Cárdenas gets a bit more specific in focusing on gender as a mutable and technologized category––much in spirit of work by Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, Jack Halberstam, and Allucquére Rosanne Stone (who is a contributor to The Transreal). As Cárdenas writes, “the Transreal is the embracing of an identity that is a combination of my ‘real’ body that I was born with and my personal history with another identity that I have written into my flesh, in words, in pixels, in 3-dimensional models and across multiple strata of communications technologies. To say that I am Transreal is a strategy for embracing a gender that exceeds daily reality on Planet Earth and that says back to all the people who have tried to make me choose between man or woman that I choose to be a shape-shifter, a dragon, and a light wave.” Cleary this work has significance on many levels, contributing to theories of virtual identity with complexity and nuance, while also extending discussions of gender at an especially conflicted political moment.