Conference ‘Landscapes of New Media’, Aberdeen University
For better or worse … the whole of our environment – skyscrapers, highways, emotions, orchards, oil wells, terrorists, icebergs, tomatoes organic and inorganic, aquatic plants and Jason Bourne, pigeons, dogs, the smog in Brentwood, and the mountain dew in Colorado – is a virtual reality. Lewis H. Lapham, 2008
We’re living in a supernatural world … We’re surrounded by ghosts. Jennifer Egan. The Keep
Within the landscapes of the new media the virtual is everywhere. Virtual space, virtual particles, virtual waves, virtual machines, virtual memory , organisms, and environments, virtual molecules, virtual money and capitalism, virtual shopping, virtual books, virtual universities, virtual bodies, virtual sex, virtual reality, virtual subjects, virtual presence, virtual history, virtual keyboards, virtual war, and so on. In short, virtual X. where X varies with ever greater range over of familiar and previously stable objects, procedures and arenas of social, cultural, and scientific life. Why is this? Is the virtual a necessary result? an epiphenomenon? a collateral effect of electronic technology? Should one speak of an ontology of the virtual? How is the virtual related to embodiment and de- embodiment? To the unreal? To the being and non being of ghosts? How are we to think virtuality?
1 the virtual: virtual X
The most far-reaching and profound articulation of the virtual, one which dominates its contemporary discussion, is due to Gilles Deleuze. Citing on several occasions a formulation of Marcel Proust he never departs from, Deleuze insists: “Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’; and symbolic without being fictional.” Deleuze understands the real as comprising two distinct but mutually entangled and co-existent orders — the actual and the virtual. Bodies, sensations and processes of the world actualize the virtual and the past/future of the virtual inheres in and allows all that is or capable of being actual to emerge. The virtual is not actual but it is unquestionably real: “The virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object – as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it is plunged as though into an objective dimension.” (Difference and Repetition 208-9) The virtual is not, he is at pains to point out, the same as the ‘possible’. This is because the possible is merely that which lacks realization but which in all other respects resembles the real, whereas the virtual does not resemble, in fact is qualitatively different from, the actual.
A part of the object can appear to have “plunged into the virtual” because it already owes its being, as does all that is actual, to the virtual. The relation lies at the heart of Deleuze’s philosophy of difference, according to which reality furthers itself by actualizing the virtual through a perpetual differing from itself which he calls becoming. Actualization is the means of creation. “The movement of actualization is the opening up of the virtual to all what befalls it.” (Grosz 27), its perpetual encounter with chance and chaos: the new – objects, states of affairs — evolves out of the old, the real enlarges/creates itself, as the virtual crystallizes into a determinate actuality.
Deleuze details this evolution of the world from the virtual to the actual as passing through two stages of determination from what he conceives of as an aboriginal “virtual chaos”. In the first (“differentiation”) the virtual becomes consistent, “becomes an entity on a plane of immanence that sections the chaos” producing the event, understood as the virtual content of an Idea. In the second determination (“differenciation”) this virtual content, in all its internal relations and singularities, is actualized, its relations and singularities governing – manifest in — objects and bodies. “The event is not”, he emphasizes, “the state of affairs. It is actualized in a state of affairs, in a body, in a lived, but it has a shadowy and secret part that is continually subtracted from or added to its actualization. The event, in other words (words he takes from the Stoics), “is immaterial, incorporeal, unlivable.” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 156) It lives, or rather is lodged, is suspended, within duration, as a meanwhile (entre-temps) “where nothing takes place, an infinite awaiting that is already infinitely past.” (158)
This understanding of the enduring event derives from Henri Bergson who developed an idea of the virtual in Matter and Memory allied to a radical conceptualization of time as duration (durée). According to this, the past, that is, the present that has passed, the no longer actual, nonetheless exists and is real. Though accessed through consciousness and reminiscence, the past exists outside its human retrieval. For Bergson two temporal orders, two orthogonal dimensions of time preside over the real. Actual time, measured by differences of degree, and virtual time consisting of differences of kind. Actual time, what one might call the time of Chronos, is the familiar time of linear flow, a serial succession of actualities, clock time measured along an infinitely divisible spatial continuum of instants. Virtual time, a-synchronous time, what might be called the time of Aon, is time as a simultaneity, a multiplicity of co-existent moments differing qualitatively from each other. An “infinite awaiting” is thus a kind of phenomenological, subjectivist illusion of the virtual time of duration.
My interest here in Deleuze’s articulation of the virtual is pragmatic rather than explicatory, so that one needs to ask: how does it help, if indeed it does, to think contemporary virtuality? How does one arrive at the adjectival formulation — virtual X — from the substantive, ‘the virtual’? After all, in its contemporary usage virtuality is always relative, we call a thing ‘virtual’, we attribute virtuality to it, against something – X — not felt or understood to be so. Moreover, to complicate matters, the ‘thing’ we call virtual is not virtual at all: virtual X like X, is a state of affairs, an actuality. Thus if X is, for example, shopping in its customary sense, then virtual X is another actuality, a new form of – digital, on-line, electronic — shopping. We might accommodate this relative sense of virtuality — virtual X in the face of X — to the Deleuzian virtual by seeing it as the result of a kind of reverse engineering. Thus, before any question of virtual shopping arises we start from the fact that shopping in its customary sense, is already an actualization of a virtual event E, an event comprising a multiplicity of virtual relations and singularities pertaining to ‘exchange’, ‘choice’, ‘acquisition’, ‘goods’, ‘worth’ ‘bodies’, ‘a store’, and so on. But nothing is final: it is always possible de-actualize X, to return from X to the event E which it actualized, and through a new determination, a re- differenciation — omitting some of the relations within E, retaining others with different intensities and speeds – re-actualize X as virtual shopping. But then the question what makes us ascribe virtuality to the re-actualized form when, at least from the perspective of Deleuze’s ontology, it’s no more and no less virtual than X?
One answer would be to understand the feeling of virtuality attributed to Virtual X, the very reason for calling it virtual, as an effect of its co-presence with X.i The virtual event E, their common source, evoked in the juxtaposed presence of X and its re-engineered form – and thus made ‘visible’, able to be apprehended in a way not possible in the presence of X alone — allows the re-actualized form of shopping to feel and be designated as ‘virtual’. From the Proust-Deleuze formula, one might model this feeling as one of resonance — the apprehension of virtuality is then analogized to the ‘hearing’ of an interference between the two patterns of actuality. But it’s necessary to add a directionality to this symmetry. Whatever they are subsequently understood to share, virtual X arrives in terms of X and not conversely; it is a secondary object, one which in some way or other re-presents or re-enacts the meaning, the sense, the power or effect of X.
Precisely such an understanding underlies the dictionary definition due to Charles Peirce (1902): “A virtual X (where X is a common noun) is something, not an X, which has the efficiency (virtus) of an X. This”, he continues, “is the proper meaning of the word, but it has been seriously confounded with ‘potential’, which is almost its contrary. For the potential X is of the nature of X, but without its actual efficiency.” (A confusion formally identical to that identified for the ‘possible’ by Bergson-Deleuze.) He gives an example from dynamics: “A virtual velocity is something not a velocity, but a displacement; but it is equivalent to a velocity in the formula ‘what is gained in velocity is lost in power’.“ Peirce adds further examples: Edmund Burke’s notion of virtual representation of the American Colonies in the British Parliament; Milton’s question as to whether angels have virtual or immediate touch; and “virtual knowledge – a term of Scotus defined by him.” (1931-66, vol 6: 372) Elsewhere he characterizes animal ‘instinct’ as virtual, as the capacity to act without reasoning as if reasoning were present. Evidently, Peirce’s formulation directly captures the contemporary usage. Thus, provided the sense of the virtus involved is identified appropriately, each of the myriad virtual somethings confronting us in the electronic logos fits the formula: something not an X that has the virtus (in the identified sense), the power, the efficiency, the efficacy of X.
Peirce’s definition is part of his semiotic, his doctrine based on the triad of a sign, the sign’s object, and a sign-interpreting ‘mind’ whose activity gives rise to a new sign, an ‘interpretant’, and so on in a triangular spread he called semiosis. Within this ever- enlarging universe meaningful thought consists of manipulating signs and their interpretants according to procedures that are always futured: “No present actual thought (which is mere feeling) has any meaning, any ‘intellectual value’, for this lies not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought is maybe connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is altogether something virtual.” (vol 5: 289)
Meanings are certainly real and Peirce is distinguishing here two orders within the real: the actual, exemplified by bodies and feelings, and the virtual, their time-bound – futured — meanings: “At no instant in my state of mind is there cognition or representation, but in the relation of my states of mind at different instants there is.” These relations between states are not to be identified with their successive embodiments: “The mind is virtual, not a series of moments, not capable of existing except in a space of time.” (vol 8: 248 emphasis added). Peirce didn’t elaborate what mind – either individual minds or Mind as interpretive logos — existing in a “space” of time might mean, though he did have a concept of a ‘universal’ or ‘quasi-mind’ that points in that direction. Neither did he thematize the concept of the virtual as such, but rather located its meaning indirectly in relation to the metaphysics of Ockham and Duns Scotus, to what they called ‘virtual’ within their understanding of signification.ii Nevertheless, as is evident, the virtual for Peirce and for Deleuze cut along many of the same joints. For each of them the virtual is opposed to the actual as two orders of the real. Each insists (on identical grounds) on the necessity of separating the possible (potential) from the virtual. Each makes temporal non-seriality, a past/future simultaneity, central to the virtual nature of ‘mind’. On this last, it does no violence to Peirce’s thought to identify his temporal space of co-existing times with Bergson’s duration, suitably relativized to a semiotically conceived theoretical framework.
But we are still left with a question. If the virtual has always been the source of the real, an essential core of the never-ending business of becoming, as Deleuze says, why is it we are now so steeped in it? Why has ‘virtual’ become a universal modifier within present day reality? Obviously, it is the advent of electronic media and computational technologies, their alterations and disruptions of bodies and their re-engineering of states of affairs, that is responsible for a new irruption of the strange – not quite real — affect which we designate as virtual. The contemporary virtual is always relative to something: some actuality has been modified, virtualized. In which case it is Peirce’s sign-oriented version of virtuality, framed in media terms — virtual X is a re-mediated X — rather than Deleuze’s ontology that provides a more immediately usable vocabulary. I’ll return to contemporary effects of re-mediation later, but before this, I want to ask about the ‘virtual’ before the electronic era,. What about previous eras? Does a virtual, not-quite- real, affect emerge as an effect of previous re-mediations? What might this be for the medium of alphabetic writing? For spoken language itself?
2 Ghost Effects
The human world is full of supernatural beings, real, quasi-real, and/or imagined entities such as ghosts, specters, spirits, demons, devils, gods, and angels each with its own (disputed, problematic) relation to presence and agency. The attributes of the virtual we have encountered – real not actual, strange, no-quite-real, incorporeal, a-temporal, immaterial, unlivable, imaginary, disembodied – suggest that virtual things and ghosts are intertwined, that the virtual — incorporeal idea behind/inside and hidden in the actual, invisible structure and image of thought — is inseparable from ghost effects. One site where these effects emerge, where the virtual/actual nexus gives rise to them, is when a medium – any suitably complex communicational medium – impinges on itself.
Observe that any communicational medium posits a universal, virtual user, a figure as distinct from an actual embodied user as an algebraic variable is from any particular number substituted for it; a figure which presides over all past and future users of the medium. Given the right context, this virtual being can be reified, hypostatized as a ghost – an autonomous, free-standing agent – with the power to manifest itself in the world of human actuality. A simple example occurred in the context of the “electromagnetic unheimlich” associated with the medium of telegraphy (Erik Davis, 68), where the medium’s virtual user, an arbitrary, invisible and unknown sender, was identified with the spirit of a dead person, a spirit able to telegraphic its presence by transmitting information through a human medium who – shaman-like – accedes to or is possessed by its presence. Telegraphy is an electric form of written communication, its ghost spirits reflect and ride on the back of much older ghost effects witnessed in the uncanny presence of a voice stored in a scroll waiting to be ventriloquized into living speech. And behind this lies the incomparably more ancient ghost effect that comes into being with the advent of symbolic language, as an effect of human speech. So, two re-mediations, a double layer of virtual X: the alphabetic virtualization of speech, and then further back, spoken language itself as a virtualization of a prior medium, the iconic and indexical pre- speech language of gesture.
The more recent layer is the once ghostly but now naturalized voice of alphabetic writing. Within our textually dominated logos, the virtus of speech is identified with its meaning, what it signifies, its cognitive or intellectual content. In this sense writing perfectly fits Peirce’s formula as virtual speech: something not speech but with the efficiency of speech. Writing virtualizes speaking; texts are frozen — virtual — utterances. But not actual ones: writing is not speech. Its value and use, as a communicational medium, lies in its projective capacity, ‘speech at a distance’, ‘speech after itself’, speech whose sense and content is resituated from the time, place, and circumstances of its production to elsewhere, to other times, to unknown future contexts. It achieves this opening across space-time by a systematic de-embodiment: substituting for the here-and-now, breathing presence of the one who utters an abstracted, invisible author. Cutting speech loose, severing it from the voice, replaces an analogue spoken stream which unfolds and has a character and intensity and is modulated over time by a sequence of discrete word signs (themselves artifacts of writing). Alphabetic writing offers static inscriptions in place of the dynamics of speech. It ignores the movement, manner, style, and modulation of an utterance. It is deaf to the vocal affect projected/induced by tone namely, the entire field of mood, feeling, passions, and attitudes. This is because it is unable as a notational system to record sonic effects which extend beyond the single word — the hesitations, silences, changes of pitch, rhythm, emphasis, timbre, sharpness, and musicality that convey tone. In short, tone is the presence of the body inside speech, an auditory metonym of the gesturing body. Knowing nothing of tone, the alphabetic writing machine introduces the possibility of a de-embodied, affectless form of communication.iii
Could there be a being who communicated thus? A being whose voice was that of alphabetic writing? Yes, indeed. The God of the Torah, Jahweh, the one who announces himself on Sinai with the enigmatic formula “I am that I am” and instructs Moses that he be named to the Israelites as “I am”, is precisely such a self-ventriloquizing being. There is a double reflexivity at play here. The reflective act of self-enunciation, the saying/writing of I, and the recursion inherent in the peculiar form of Jahweh’s self- naming.
Self-enunciation is medium specific. Spoken and written ‘I’ are radically distinct: they have different relations to embodiment, operate differently in their milieus, and preside over distinctive forms of subjectivity. The classic definition of the former – “ ‘I’ refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is uttered and it designates its speaker” (Benveniste) — has no parallel for the ‘I’ of a text. There is no unique act of individual discourse, no physical body tied to it, and no necessary connection (let alone identity) between the one who may have written, or caused to have written, ‘I’, and the one or thing or fiction that might or might not be designated by it. In short, in relation to the ‘I’ of speech, the written ‘I’ is virtual.
But if, as at Sinai, there is an appropriate context of enunciation, these differences can be – and were – nullified, and it becomes possible for the writer and speaker of ‘I’ to be indistinguishable, for the actual and virtual to coalesce. A new kind of ontologically ambiguous entity, a hybrid agency, fusing an embodied speaking ‘I’ with the floating, disembodied presence of the textual ‘I’, comes into existence: an actual being with a virtual voice, a virtual being who speaks. Interestingly, according to Pascal Boyer’s evolutionary anthropology of gods and ghosts, hybrid beings which violate an ontological attribute but allow all others not affected by the violation to remain in place, are to be found in diverse human cultures.
Jahweh’s self-declaration “I am that I am” and the initial fragment of it “I am” are circularly related: each refers to the other for its signification: designation and designator, medium and its user, existence and its enunciatior are folded into each other and become One. The effect is to conjure Jahweh into existence as a singular and unique autochthon of alphabetic writing. By transposing ancient performative word magic – let there be light – from speech to its alphabetic inscription, Jahweh arises out of the written declaration of himself as an existent being. The move is a recursion made possible by and only exploitable within a form of writing. One might note that computer engineers, not coincidentally refer to a recursive operation within a program as the program ‘calling itself’.
What, then, might be the attributes of a being who speaks in a voice absent of all tone iv?
Human speech incorporates and is addressed to the other. It assumes an addressee, a speaking body like itself who listens. Tone metonymically witnesses the speaker’s body and signals awareness of the expected presence of a similarly voiced listener. But how could a voice neutral in tone – flat, expressionless, lacking all rhythm, having zero affect –- acknowledge or exhibit awareness of the presence of the other? Would it not, on the contrary, evince total indifference to the very existence of a listener? And would not such a neutral voice, one that does not, has no means to recognize my being, induce in me an emptiness, an experience of absolute – that is, inhuman — terror. Moreover, prosodic or tonal differentiation – voice — is from infancy one of the principal means by which humans individuate themselves and tell each other apart. In the absence of prosody, the bearer of such a voice is unknowable in an auditory sense as an individual, as a speaking being among others. “Voice”, Italo Calvino says, “means that there is a living person … who sends into thin air this voice different from all other voices.” (Quoted Caravero 2005, 1) Thus it is with the alphabetic God who exists and ‘speaks’ only as a voiceless writer. Short of invoking a plurality of indistinguishable and interchangeable speakers (like identical atoms or geometric points or arithmetical units), a toneless voice can only invoke a singularity, a one-and-only, self-identical entity comparable to nothing outside itself; a monobeing who is not merely one of a kind, but is its kind.
Thus, regardless of the truth or otherwise of the theological narratives that account for them, two of Jahweh’s principal features, a presence too terrifying “to behold” and his unique, monotheistic status, “There is no other … no God but me”, are media effects, the inevitable characteristics of a ghost revealed and known only reflexively within an alphabetic text, which from then on has served as a fetish for his invisible presence.
I turn now to an earlier reflexivity, one that engendered a more personal, less global and monolithic kind of supernatural spirit, what could be called the ghost of language. We’ve seen how writing’s ghost emerges out of the oscillating co-presence of the actual and the virtual via two self-enunciations, the spoken and written ‘I’, which by a confusing of media project a hybrid speaking/writing agency, the monobeing Jahweh who for so long has haunted the alphabetic logos of the West. Is there any analogous effect within language? An oscillating co-presence of actual and virtual agencies to be found inhabiting human speech, a ghost effect of orality itself, which arises from the very practice of spoken language? One that might likewise emerge from a juxtaposition of two self-enunciations – a spoken ‘I’ and a pre-linguistic ‘I’, that is, an a-linguistic dumb Me.
Evidently, each of these enunciations is a sign with an object and operating in an interpretive universe, a logos or ‘mind’ as Peirce puts it, which accorded it significance. In signifying itself the Me folds the medium of enunciation back on itself, the sign’s object is the body of the medium’s user. The only possibility for an interpretive universe within which such an ‘I’ before speech could be ‘uttered’ is the pre-human ‘mind’ presided over by gestural communication. Such an ‘I’, The Me of homo gesturalis would denote a kinesthetically and haptically experienced self mediated via reflexive touching and pointing. In terms of Peirce’s by now familiar formula, if X is the field of pre- human gesture then virtual X is speech. Thus as texts are the virtual forms of utterances which yield ‘speech at a distance’ so utterances yield ‘gestures at a distance’ by virtualizing the touching, pointing and signaling of the semiotic body.
What type of sign is the gestured ‘I’ ? Peirce identified three modes of sign use — iconic, indexical, and symbolic — according to whether their referents resembled, were contiguous with, or conventionally linked to their object. Any manner of self- enunciation, here the declared Me, is always indexical, it points to the physical presence of the signer; the gestured ‘I’ is also iconic, being a signifying movement of the body bearing a resemblance to its object. But it does not function in Peirce’s third mode: the gestured ‘I’ is not symbolic if, as seems generally accepted, symbolic reference seems inseparable from – indeed defines — spoken language. The coming into being of speech appears, then, as the acquisition of virtual communication, the achievement of symbolic thought from the iconic-indexical actuality of gestures. But how did the leap from actual to virtual gestures, the semiotic jump from homo gesturalis to the sapient use of symbols come about? v
This is the question Terrence Deacon’s account of the evolution of human speech addresses. Language did not arrive out of thin air, for no reason Deacon insists. Symbolic communication arose to solve a problem. It was driven by the need to regulate reproductive behavior in order to benefit from group hunting practices. This required the establishment of alliances and social contracts that only some form of symbol, albeit rdimentary and experimental, could represent. Once initiated, however, symbols would, Deacon argues, have become more prevalent and complex by a process of bio-cultural or Baldwinian evolution. The brain’s capacity to signify and the cultural environs in which it operates co-evolved in a series of feedback loops. Changes in the newborn’s brain, manifest in its cognitive abilities, work to determine which features of language it is capable of using and which not. These exert a selective pressure on the brain to develop along certain lines, which further impose/facilitate semiotic possibilities of spoken language available to the newborn, and so on. Deacon maps out the neuro-linguistic itinerary whereby symbolic reference grows out of and is distributed among layers of symbol-like tokens representing relations among indexical referents.vi The outcome of this co-evolutionary cycle, iterated over an unknown number of growingly less dumb generations, is fully symbolic human speech.
Speech entwines two forms of self-reference, an actual and a virtual, which alternate and impact each other; an interaction experienced by all talking beings as an ever-present self-doubling. The virtuality introduced by human speech ruptures the pre-linguistic subjectivity, the gesturo-haptic umwelt, of homo gesturalis. In this it allows an escape from the upper reaches of what Merlin Donald calls the “mimetic stage” of cognitive development (1991, 1998), from the Me into the symbolic domain of oral thought, at the same time as it projects this subjectivity into every spoken utterance.
Beyond its inescapable co-presence with the Me, the spoken ‘I’ cannot but fold within itself the co-presence of other selves, the ‘you’ and the generic ‘they’, to whom utterance is addressed and without whom human speech is impossible. On the understanding that human language evolved to solve problems of intersubjective agency and social alliances this seems conceptually inevitable: “One cannot conceive of oneself as oneself without also conceiving others as self-directed, egocentric agents.” (Corazza 348) This interfolding of actual and virtual reference, which shadows the uttered ‘I’ and enters into every occasion of linguistically mediated auto-reference, might be the basis, Deacon suggests, for a biology of ghosts or ghostliness, a natural origin for the psychological salience and subjective reality of non-mortal, non-natural entities: “The symbolic representation of self”, he says, “provides a perspective on that curious human intuition that our minds are somehow independent of our bodies; an intuition … translated into beliefs about disembodied spirits and souls that persist beyond death.“ 
A third wave of the virtual
Plainly, the gesturo-haptic Me does not disappear with its virtualization. On the contrary, homo gesturalis lives within us, enjoying/suffering new forms of corporeal affect and unspeakable subjectivity – music, dance, theatre, art — made possible by but inexpressible within language. Writing virtualized speech, it didn’t overthrow or marginalize it. On the contrary writing augments, disrupts, and recreates speech no less than displacing it. Likewise speech doesn’t put paid to gesture and dumb self-presence. In short, though each unfolds from its predecessor, gesture, speech, and writing co-exist and continue their mediations according to their own logics. We are now confronting a third wave of the virtual, a new universe of virtual X engendered by parallel computational technologies and networked media. It too will both transform and co-exist with all previous medial domains.vii In a diagram of successive logoi and their feedback virtualizations: gestural -oral – textual – computational
| | |
X <——- speech | |
ß——— X <——- writing |
ß——————— X ß——- networks
For brevity I’ve spoken of virtual X where X is taken to be an entire medium. This is shorthand for a distributed, heterogeneous global phenomenon, namely the coming into being of entire assemblage of virtual Xs as X varies over the objects, worlds, processes, practices, and states of affairs – the actualities – presided over by the medium in question; what is more, not only the medium in question but all previous media, so that numerous Xs are themselves results of prior virtualizations, and so on. Though no doubt the re- mediations can be extended further back along a chain of earlier modes of embodied communication and expression, we start here with gesture.viii Thus speech virtualizes individual and local actualities, states of affairs, held in place by gestural communication. The result is a gesturo-oral interpretive universe or logos. Writing likewise virtualizes the actualities given meaning and held in place in this latter universe to produce a gesturo- oral-textual universe of meaning. The actualities of this universe over which X ranges are variously gestural (dance), gesturo-oral (shopping), and gestoro-oral-textual, namely the myriad cultural objects, institutions, and practices of the alphabetically literate West, their virtualizations ushering in an electronic universe of interpretation.
Unlike the advent of speech and writing which, however diverse and complex their effects, are de-limitable as single media with an internal coherence, the contemporary scene comprises an entire ecology of electronic media effects which produce virtualizations of varying and divergent intensities and consequence. I shall consider two quite different sites within the electronic logos — money and the psyche. In the first, X is the medium of monetary exchange and virtual X has a highly material, geo-political dimension in relation to capitalism, in the second X is the ‘lettered self’ fashioned by alphabetic writing and virtual X has a phenomenological dimension on the level of individual subjectivity.
If X is monetary exchange might one expect its virtualization to exhibit effects, in some way analogous to those of speech and writing? Not necessarily the linguistic emergence of disembodied spirit selves or the textual coming into being of an autonomous, mysteriously external thing, but some more abstract and difficult to grasp type of ghost- effects associated with the virtualization of money? Certainly, the medium of monetary exchange is no stranger to autonomous, mysteriously external forces and invisible agencies. Contemporary money presents itself in two forms: actual money, the familiar circulating money of goods, services, and paychecks underlying the current workings of modern (still largely production-based) capitalism; and the electronically transformed, networked version of it – the virtual money of the transnational financial markets.
My focus is virtual money, but there is an aspect of actual money, its orientation to itself, particularly relevant to the theme here. Money operates reflexively, it recursively folds onto itself, precisely when it’s used to buy and sell itself; when a price can be assigned to it, when it becomes the object of its own mediation. The price assigned to capital is the interest on it – the amount charged/paid to own it over time. Charging interest on money
– usury — was evil, a grave sin within medieval Christianity which banned the practice on the grounds that usury created something out of nothing, a power only God could possess. Interest has thus an affect of the unnatural by reflection: money got by a satanic inversion of Jahweh’s powers, Christianity has long since abandoned its ban and made friends with usury. (Observe, however, the interdiction of interest survives, on religious grounds not dissimilar to Christianity’s, as a central principle of contemporary Islamic banking.ix An obvious question: does virtual capitalism, insofar as it operates reflexively, exhibit anything analogous to the phenomenon of interest? I suggest the answer is that it does, the phenomenon is a derivative contract.
As their name indicates, derivatives – options, futures, swaps, and a host of lesser known and arcane instruments — are secondary or meta-objects which derive their value from other assets. One buys or sells an option (or futures) contract, for example, which in turn allows one (requires one) to buy or sell some underlying asset at a certain price at a specified future date. Mathematically engineered, complex and frequently opaque with a “strangely imaginary or virtual character”, derivatives have been increasingly recognized as the crucial determinant of a new – virtual — phase of capitalism which feeds off what is perhaps the only new territory open to ‘late’ capitalism — its own future. Certainly, their constitution as instruments and the economic power of derivatives lies in their engagement with the future, with their handling of financial contingency articulated in the form of risk. They trade risk as a commodity with a price calculated on yet-to-occur events. “Derivatives”, it is said, “use uncertainty by virtualizing it.” (Arnoldi 23)
For derivative markets to come into being and reproduce themselves three transformations — virtualizations — each now an intrinsic element of contemporary capitalism, had to be put in place: (a) an instantaneous and frictionless storage and movement of capital, (b) a radically re-conceptualized understanding of financial risk, and (c) a model for assigning a price to derivative contracts based on this risk.
Ad (a), a suitably frictionless form of monetary exchange was initiated in 1973 when actual money was virtualized — made inconvertible, transnational and electronically mediated. The dollar was severed from gold to float and become a commodity price against other currencies. Financial capital could flow without hindrance in a web of global markets, an on-line virtual space of instantly executable electronic transactions not located geographically and operating outside the economic control of nation states. Ad (b), a new conception of risk, virtual risk, emerged from modern portfolio theory. Traditionally, risk concerns the likelihood that some future state – fall in price of an asset, rise of ocean temperature – will occur. Financially, this would be a prediction, based on the valuation in terms of its fundamentals, that the asset would lose value. Risk of this sort is actual risk. Virtual risk is not concerned with the predicted loss of value, the market price of an asset, but with the asset’s relative unruliness, the size of its variation over time. In climate terms, actual risk might concern a feared temperature increase or ice loss; virtual risk abstracts this into the frequency and size of weather extremes. Virtual risk is a mathematical entity which conceptualizes risk as “variance of return on assets” where variance (more accurately co-variance) is a stochastic, purely statistical measure of the volatility of an asset’s price over time, “the magnitude of swings in a price around its mean”; a measure, in other words, of relative, internal variability of an asset’s price and not of its absolute change. (LiPuma and Lee 77) Ad (c), 1973 also saw the introduction of the Black-Scholes model for pricing options. This put the concept of virtual risk, applied to the derivative’s underlying asset, at the center of the contract’s price which included a baseline interest rate (of non-derived actual money) and the amount or frequency of volatility over the time-period built-in to the derivative contract.
Derivatives are the means by which virtual money prices itself. They allow virtual capitalism to act on itself, buying and selling a fragment of the/its future every time a derivative is traded; a reflexivity internalized in their meta-leveled structure of recursive trading: buying/selling contracts to buy/sell an underlying asset. Like interest derivatives price money over a time period, but unlike interest on actual money the price is not future-neutral but impacts and is impacted by future states of itself. Derivatives, one can say, are a virtual form of interest.
Since the early 1970s the volume of derivatives has grown exponentially to many trillions of dollars, far in excess of the circulation of capital needed to service ‘real’ trade; a volume swollen by a derivative’s built-in leverage: its low price (in actual money) relative to the multiplicatively large amounts of derived — virtual – money it puts in play. Trading derivatives offers means of insuring or hedging against risk. But if derivatives use uncertainty by virtualizing risk, they also, it seems, abuse it. As the “functional form speculative capital assumes in the market place” (Nasser Saber, quoted LiPuma etc 24)
derivatives appear to add to the very forms of risk they are insuring against.x Whether this is the result of a self-fulfilling, feed-back and feed-forward mechanism –- hedge trades and speculation adding to the kinds of uncertainty they are designed to neutralize, a risk which in turn requires further hedging, or the result of some other dynamic of expansion, virtual capitalism has created an autonomous, eerily opaque financial instrument devoid of productive labor or material resources, a ghostly means of perpetual financial motion. Traditional ghosts come from the past, revenants, spirits of the dead that return to haunt the present. Derivatives reverse the flow. As we’ve seen they deal in futurity, they introduce the not-yet into a present. A present which as Rich Doyle points out is thus permanently “disciplined by the future”, one in which the (not yet dead) body can be the site of a futures contract on itself (with an unspecified settlement date) through the yet-to-be-realized magic of cryonic re-generation.xi
Enough about money in the electronic universe. I want to finish with the second example I mentioned, namely the virtualization of the self. Since its inception, reasoning and thinking in the West (historical, legal, religious, philosophical, literary) has taken place in/through alphabetic texts, resulting in a written discourse so pervasive and constitutive of what it mediates that its effects have been, from within it, almost invisible. Among the less obvious objects of alphabetic mediation is the self. Since the Middle Ages, Illich and Sanders observe, “one can always avoid picking up a pen, but one cannot avoid being described, identified, certified, and handled – like a text. Even in reaching out to become one’s own ‘self’, one reaches out for a text.” (1988, x), an effect only recognized, it seems, in face of the threat to the text – a clash of logics — posed by contemporary technology.
The logic of alphabetic discourse is serial and atomistic. Serial in two senses: the sequentially ordered lines of text which project the temporal order of speech into a linear space and the principle of alphabetic ordering that makes possible dictionaries, indexes, and the numerous other devices of post-printing textual discourse. Atomistic because the alphabet notates meaningless phonemes, sound bits that are irreducible, self-contained and unrelated to anything outside themselves. Both these attributes are nullified by the connectivity of computational networks. The logic of networks is parallel, it governs many actions at once not one after the other; and it is distributed, it points outward to an indeterminate plurality rather than inward to an irreducible monad. Thus, if the model of the lettered self is a unitary, enclosed, free-standing book which, like the bible, refuses pictures of a world outside itself, its virtual analogue, a network of open-ended text fragments interlaced with images (themselves operating according a logic of simultaneity), is internally and externally plural.
An internally plural psyche has been thought before. Among others, William James wrote of an inner mental multiplicity, Friedrich Nietzsche called for “a multiplicity of subjects whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness … My hypothesis: the subject as multiplicity.” (1968, 260). Earlier David Hume likened the mind to a “kind of theatre” and the soul as comparable to “a republic or commonwealth, in which several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination”. (1951) What gives these ideas contemporary truth is their engagement with external multiplicity, with the ecology of distributed effects and parallel – computational and imagistic — processes within which the virtual self operates. Ultimately, the inner and outer multiplicities engage as the separations between internal subjective and external technological, individual and social, the ‘I’ and the ‘we/they’ become ever more porous. The inner experiential and outer mediated forms of collectivity enfold each other. The private, monadic and individual is invaded by the public, the historical, the social; what was the outside world of events enters (and reveals itself as having always entered) the individual soul in the mode of personal destiny.
Evidently, a large-scale and radical transformation in the meaning of ‘human’ is taking place. Long-held ideas of human nature, the self, of subjectivity, of the human- technology nexus, of autonomy and agency, of communication, of the body and its mind, articulated over the course of nearly three millennia of textual discourse, are being overhauled, disrupted, transformed. We are undergoing a discontinuity in the human condition whose aftermath, for those who read ‘transformed’ human as humanity ‘left behind’, announces the advent of the post-human. But the prefix ‘post’ conveys a progressive or teleological sense that misrepresents the situation. Better alongside rather than beyond.: from what has been said about re-mediation, nothing is left behind. The era of speech obviously followed and fashioned itself against gestural communication, but it is no more beyond or post-gestural than writing is post-oral. In each case the actual and its virtualized forms co-exist and interact. Likewise, the logos being put in place by the parallel computational technologies and distributed electronic media both disrupts and works in parallel with the preceding logoi. Thus a more apt label, one which honors the dynamic of this co-existence, as well as the intrinsic parallelism of its contemporary mediation, might be para-human.
Para-humanity, then, would be a collectivity of para-selves, a pan-human assemblage of psyches, each conscious of its newly recognized status of being no longer an autonomous, serially proceeding monad inside an impermeable boundary. A para-psyche which recognizes the exteriority of its interior, sees its origin and destination, its coming into being and future, as simultaneously inside and outside itself. A psyche which recognizes its plurality, a Nietzschean construct consonant with the formulation “the subject as multiplicity”, and experiences itself as a play of multiple, divergent and mobile parallelisms. A psyche which recognizes its own virtuality, understands itself as the actualization of the event of being here and narrates itself accordingly as an
actual/virtual interstitial beingxii. In other necessarily paradoxical words, a self which re-
cognizes itself as its own ghost. Elsewhere (2008) I’ve sketched an idea of what the advent of such a para-self might feel like as it accedes to these multiple re-cognitions and enters a psychic space of becoming beside itself.
1 Abstractly, this evocation can be described in terms of the difference, emphasized by Peirce in his logic of relations, between the instantiation of a relation and the relation as such, that is, the relation severed from the particular states of affairs that actualize it. Kalaga 2003 makes ‘relation’ in this sense the basis for an articulation of Deleuze’s virtual as arising from relational “fibers” that constitute the “basic stuff … the infrastructure of the virtual”. See also Kalaga 1997 for the ‘semioticism’ that underpins this idea of infrastructure.
ii Likewise, though the virtual appears in Immanuel Kant’s thought, he wrote, for instance, of the soul that ”its presence in the world is not spatial, but virtual” (quoted Welsch 6), he didn’t develop any systematic account of the concept either as an adjective, or as in this example as a substantive. For an interesting explication of Deleuze’s “troubling notion” of the virtual by way of a comparison between his project of ‘transcendental empiricism’ and Kant’s transcendental critique, which “converts Kant’s argument from possibility to virtuality”. See Shaviro 2008
iii Of course, this is not to say that alphabetic texts (notably, in what follows, the Torah) cannot project their own forms of affect. They do and have done so from the beginning, precisely in response to a recognition of writing’s inescapable omission of tone: literature (in a media-logical sense) being the creation – by mimesis through written poetry and transduction through prose styles — of textualized affect.
iv To claim that Jahweh’s voice is without affect seems at odds with the Biblical depiction of him as jealous, angry, merciful, vengeful and so on. Two things need to be said. First, this is a depiction not of Jahweh – the one who enunciates/creates himself in writing — but of El, the oral god of the region adopted as their own by the Israelites. Second, Jahweh’s affect is conveyed in a narrative permeated by tropes, figures, and rhetorical devices externally: Jahweh’s speech/writing voice employs no such literary means; except, that is, for certain grammatically coded affects such as enunciation “I am” and interdiction “Thou shalt not” of the commandments. Over the course of two millennia Jewish mystical and philosophical thought downplayed and all but eliminated the presence of El within the alphabetic ‘voice’ of God. See my 2008, chapter 5 for an elaboration of this point.
v Levy 1998 refers to the advent of language as “the virtualization of the present”, that is, the virtualization of “ a ‘real time’ that holds the living captive in the here and now”, thus allowing humans to “inhabit a virtual space – temporal flux taken as a whole – that the immediate present only partially and fleetingly actualizes. We exist” ( 91 ) All of which is true. However, virtualization does not operate on abstractions such as ‘the present’ or ‘time’ but on actualities, X to virtual X, which by their co-presence make the virtual event of ‘the present’ visible or apprehensible. For virtual X to share a virtus with X both must belong to the same ‘form’ of the real. This means that language is the virtualization of a species of meaning-production and transmission – which I have taken to be gesturo-haptic communication
vi Lenoir 2008 provides or an excellent summary of Deacon’s bio-cultural account of how these tokens arise from their iconic-indexical substratum to furnish symbolic language,
vii One might compare this to the sequential unfoldings of the subjective experience of self during infancy charted by Daniel Stern (1985). The sequence – emergent self, core self, subjective self — that precedes the verbal self of speech are not stages, Stern emphasizes, like Freud’s oral, anal, genital stages of sexuality, but co-existent domains which, though each ‘prepares’ for its successor , continue to develop alongside each other and speech throughout life.
viii It’s possible to go further back. Susan Langer observes that gesture is the “basic abstraction whereby the dance illusion is made” an illusion that is a “realm of power – not actual, physically exerted power, but appearances of influence and agency”. In other words, gestures in dance are certainly “actual movement” but insofar as they are dance- gestures, are “virtual self-expression.” (1983, 28-9) It is reasonable to suppose that the gesturo-haptic communicational universe contained dance, for example the circle dance. In which case, homo gesturalis on Langer’s account could be said to be a symbol-user. The dance, composed of bodies enacting it, would be a virtual self-expression, the collectivity symbolically enunciating itself. To itself. To the gods,.
ix The nature of Islamic banking and the financial strategies it is in the process of constructing to circumvent the interdiction of interest payment is explored in Maurer 2005.
x See Mackenzie 2007 for an examination of the social and material construction of derivative markets including the legal maneuvers, different but overlapping in the US and UK, necessary to distinguish trading them from gambling as defined in those two domains.
xi See Doyle 2003, chapter 3 where the death/future nexus activated by cryonics is explored in relation to a particular and highly significant class of derivatives, the so- called ‘exotic’ or OTC (Over The Counter) derivatives. These are contracts that are not marked-to-market, and traded only on non-public networks making it difficult for them to be assigned an ‘objective’value comparable to their exchange-traded analogues – an unnatural and strange and as it turns out dangerously unstable status for a financial object. These networks form a $40 trillion ‘shadow market’ whose unregulated excesses and financial opacity are, as I write, being anathematized in the New York Times, (“What Created This Monster”, Business section, March 21, 2008) as the source of the current credit meltdown and recession in the United States.
xii What is involved here is an engagement with an actual/virtual simultaneity of affect. One might juxtapose it with Brian Massumi’s characterization of affect as such, his making this simultaneity the definition of affect. “Affect is the simultaneous participation of the virtual in the actual and the actual in the virtual … as seen from the side of the actual thing. … Affect is the virtual as point of view.” (2002, 35)
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