“Virtual Reality” Reconsidered

“Virtual Reality” Reconsidered

Garfield Benjamin
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 24
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8205-4.ch009
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The term ‘virtual reality' is used widely in contemporary culture to evoke the false worlds of the imagination digital technology has enabled us to create. However, the term itself remains ill defined, particularly amidst recent developments in theories of virtuality and reality that have left contradictory marks on VR. The phrase ‘virtual reality' has become problematic, and is in need of a reconsideration for its continued relevance. This chapter assesses the term throughout its development and in the context of other theorisations such as cinema and cyberspace that have dominated recent digital theory. Taking the Deleuzian expansion of the Virtual and the Lacanian expansion of the Real, the chapter interrogates the constituent processes of VR to suggest a new mode of conceiving the technologies in terms of a parallax between virtual-real and physical-digital within contemporary thought, which will then be applied to a conceptual framework for digital creative practices.
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Within the many varied, and often incongruous, theories of digital technology and its culture there are two strands of the discussion that have emerged in which the very terms of the field are challenged. These are centred on the problematic notion of ‘virtual reality’ that has dominated cultural depictions of the digital world, usually taking either ‘virtual’ or ‘real’ in an expanded definition to draw out a deeper understanding of the fundamental differences, connections and interdependency between physical and digital spaces. Digital media has called into question the appearance of ‘reality’, forcing all theories of contemporary culture to take into account the possibility of other spaces with which the (physical) human subject can engage. There is a need to expand and intersect current discussions of the relation between virtual and real by exploring the antagonisms that arise through developing both sides of the term. This chapter will therefore readdress the term ‘virtual reality’ in the context of ongoing debates in philosophy, technology and creative practice in a discussion of subjectivity in contemporary digital society, to insist on a constant re-evaluation of the terms used in such a discussion and their ramifications for its application in digital media and creative technologies.

The expansion of the term ‘virtual’ often takes into account the definition developed by Gilles Deleuze (2004a; 2004b) as a surface that is not actual but with which the subject can engage. This has been applied to digital media as an alternative to the conflation of ‘virtual’ as ‘digital’, as is implied in the labels ‘virtual reality’ or ‘virtual worlds’, to instead connect the fluidity of digital surfaces to consciousness in a relation consistent with other generative effects within the structures that form the idealist element in Deleuzian philosophy. Anna Munster (2006) emphasises the role of affect by placing the virtual as a part of the materiality of the digital. While this work and others take important steps towards establishing the problematic of embodiment, the focus on the materiality of the digital obscures its relation to consciousness and leads back into limited use of the term ‘real’. There is a clear Deleuzian influence in Munster’s work, and both Deleuze and Félix Guattari are referenced heavily in relation to the virtual, as well as notions of flow, diagram and time. Between the two expanded terms, however, there remains little crossover in current literature. Rob Shields (2003), Brian Massumi (2002) and Andrew Murphie (2002), for example, all utilise the Deleuzian virtual while persistently conflating it with the digital, and largely fail to mention the real outside of its direct and ‘common sense’ connotation of the physical.

How the individual relates to the plethora of potential realities available in contemporary society and its philosophies (physical, digital, social, semantic, oneiric) can be understood in redefining the term ‘real’ according to Lacan (1977), particularly as applied to cultural phenomena by Žižek (2008a). Writers such as David Gunkel (2010) have furthered this notion, drawing out the real across physical and digital worlds as the hidden causality (for example, quantum wave functions, DNA or bits of computer code) that underpins the appearance of objective reality. This real is inaccessible and terrifying, embedded within the psychoanalytical construct of contemporary subjectivity. Throughout the field, the antagonism between virtuality and reality persists as a theoretical pariah between physical and digital reality, media and creative processes. Žižek’s (2012) own discussion of the matter simply places Deleuze’s virtual as Lacan’s real. While acknowledging the importance of the reality of the virtual opposed to ‘virtual reality’, Žižek confuses the nuances of the two processes within consciousness and their functions in the generation of contemporary subjectivity, creativity and society. The antagonistic relation between the real and the virtual, in the expanded sense of both terms, will form an integral method of analysis throughout the chapter, and reconciling Žižekian and Deleuzian philosophies will provide an informative step towards understanding the relation between virtuality and reality.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Consciousness: Thought as a machinic process; the self-positing of the subject as a virtuality in thought; the gesture of the cogito; the surface assemblage of the subject.

Meaning: Essence; signification; less what is communicated than the conditions of truth that enable communication; information as this shared process of flow.

Cybernetics: ‘Steersmanship’; the study of systems with a circular causal feedback loop; the expansion of human intellect with machines; the understanding of understanding.

Subject: The perspectival position from which consciousness is thought; the assemblage of consciousness around this parallax void; the individual or collective potential for creative activity and shaping the future of human society.

Existence: The conditions for being; the gaze and the appearance of external objects it denotes; an observed world (either physical or digital).

Cyborg: The human subject between physical and digital worlds; the self-aware expanded cybernetic consciousness; the resolution of the internal antagonisms of the cyborg can be considered a state of posthumanism.

Parallax: The relative displacement of objects by a change in perspective; the ontological change in objective reality created by an epistemological shift in subjective position.

Digital Divide: The disparity in access to technology and information along geographical, ethnic or economic lines.

Real: The objectification of the void of the contemporary subject, as both the gap within consciousness and the gap of the physical-digital divide. This is linked to the Lacanian objet petit a and the perpetual drive of the loss as such that defines desire.

Virtual: The role of consciousness in perpetuating itself; the subject as process; the function-function of consciousness in which the subject imagines and posits its own functioning. This appears as desire, always moving towards contact with the unattainable Real.

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