This book review of ‘Digital and Other Virtualities’ was published in Art Monthly issue 350 , October 2011
Cyberspace, the once maddeningly ubiquitous neologism coined in William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, has, since its heyday in the early 1990s, been relegated to the bargain bin of passé cultural terminology, along with its sibling virtual reality. Both terms were frequently used to explain old notions of what we thought the internet might turn out to be. Today most critical attention regards the internet as a kind of infinite information resource, or the central node connecting millions of people who are essentially generating and exchanging information. The internet is, by turns, the autodidact’s ultimate tool, a digital pool for the modern day narcissus, and the place where belief in freedom of information (to the frustration of governments worldwide) is most readily put into practice.
Two decades ago popular consciousness was preoccupied with perceiving and representing the internet as a doorway to an alternate digital reality: a space were the normal temporal and spatial laws of our physical world could be bent, broken or completely rewritten. Cyberspace and virtual reality were used as the catchall terms to describe this new digital realm, and going online was the way to gain access to it. Despite the popularity of films like Lawnmower Man and the brief sub-cultural dominance of cyberpunk, the promise of immersive polygonal worlds remained unfulfilled as the modern information-centred net experience emerged. Today virtual reality headsets and other cyber culture ephemera seem like embarrassing artefacts from an era of technological naivety from which we have thankfully emerged. Unfortunately this tendency to deride the products of an outdated interpretation of the virtual has somewhat undermined, or at least put the breaks on, serious investigations into the virtual as an idea ripe for dissection and analysis.
Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock’s Digital and Other Virtualities seeks to reignite considerations of the virtual by excavating the space between the virtual (comprising non-physically existent entities) and indexical realms (comprising physically existent entities and their referents). In order to sidestep the familiar Benjaminian cul-de-sac of considering the aura and representational truth in digital versus analogue photography, Bryant and Pollock invited ten multidisciplinary arts professionals to consider the conditions of virtuality and indexicality and to traverse the space between these two concepts, in reference to their own specialist areas of interest. The result is a book of 12 essays (Bryant and Pollock have also contributed) in which discussions of the virtual in light of the indexical are extended beyond the usual digital and net-based locations into film theory, textiles and other areas.
The book is part of a larger series, of which Pollock is the recurring editor, entitled ‘New Encounters’. Presented as a transdisciplinary initiative (for which read a project where specialists from different arts fields are invited to participate), the series’ unique selling point is that the ideas it seeks to explore are tested across different specialisms (this is where the encounter resides). The newness referred to in the series title points towards a move forward and beyond what Pollock, in her series preface, describes as a disdain for ‘Theory 101 slogans (the author is dead, the gaze is male, the subject is split, there is nothing but text, etc).’
Despite attempts to move beyond familiar theoretical environs, a lot of the texts are surprisingly weighed down by psychoanalysis and semiotics. N Katherine Hayles, professor of literature at Duke University in the US, manages to bear the psychoanalytical load by introducing the novel idea of a technological unconscious, resident in the hidden languages of computer code, in her text ‘Traumas of Code’. However the section which includes Mary Kelly’s ‘On Fidelity: Art, Politics, Passion and Event’, followed by texts on Kelly’s work by Pollock and Juli Carson, is dominated by references that will have you reaching for your psychoanalytical theory primers. There is nothing wrong with revision, but it is a little disappointing to be back in the well-trodden terrain of a Freudian landscape, turning the pages of old reference books, when a ‘new encounter’ has been promised.
The point at which this book really comes alive is in the cumulative effect of three successive texts by Bryant, Samuel Weber and Brian Massumi. Bryant’s ‘Of Mice and Mien’ explores the possibilities of brain machine interfaces, Weber’s ‘A Virtual Indication’ looks at the immersive world of online gaming (World of Warcraft and Second Life) pointing out the very real monetary correlates of virtual activity, and Massumi’s ‘The Future Birth of the Affective Fact’ is an astute text examining the skewed logic of pre-emptive strikes by exposing the virtuality of threats without a grounding in physical reality. At the end of these essays the idea of the virtual as a contemporary concept permeating multiple aspects of lived experience really comes through.
Digital and Other Virtualities is a smart and thought-provoking read, but it is not the iconoclastic (in relation to European critical theory) new encounter it sets out to be. By giving such weight to texts dominated by psychoanalytical and semiotic analysis the book locates itself in a somewhat rarefied world, at odds with our everyday experience of the virtual (off- or online). It is laudable that the idea of virtuality, because of its blinding pertinence to a consideration of modern life, is being resurrected from and expanded beyond its cyber-mire, but that does not mean that it has to be filtered through, and obfuscated by, the familiar channels of critical theory. That said, there are some great observational, and still academically rigorous, essays in this book, but it is surprising that nobody mentions augmented reality (AR), the term used to describe live views of real-world environments augmented by computer-generated audio excerpts, graphical elements, or GPS data. The Netherlands Architecture Institute has developed an AR smartphone application called UAR (Urban Augmented Reality). It allows users to point their handsets at empty city spaces and watch as digital renderings of buildings slated for construction, as well as historical buildings that have been demolished, appear. Now that is what I call blurring the line between the virtual and the indexical.
Digital and Other Virtualities: Renegotiating the image, Antony Bryant and Griselda Pollock eds, IB Taurus, 2010, 320pp, £16.99, 978 1 845115 68 6.