Mark Poster’s “Postmodern Virtualities” and Pierre Levy’s “Becoming Virtual”

In this reading, I’m going to be looking at both Mark Poster’s “Postmodern Virtualities” as well as two chapters from Pierre Levy’s Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. I will indicate their respective passages, but will also intertwine them in my notes, as they comment well on one another.

Poster: The discussion of postmodern culture focuses to a great extent on an emerging new individual identity or subject position, one that abandons what may in retrospect be the narrow scope of the modern individual with its claims to rationality and autonomy.

Poster begins his article by talking about a misconception of postmodern culture – that it represents an improved society through the development of new communication systems and technological advancements aimed at advance the quality of human life. His primary interest in postmodern culture is the way in which it has affected technical increases in information exchange, and how the subject is no longer constituted by institutions, but by its role within an existing network. For Poster, modernity has limited the individual from establishing his/her own identity, which is a similar stance taken by some other theorists, namely David Harvey. In The Condition of Postmodernity, Harvey also talks about modernity being about progress and the individual’s spatial existence as defined by their role in production and consumption, rather than by their own needs.

Poster: The term “virtual” was used in computer jargon to refer to situations that were near substitutes. For example, virtual memory means the use of a section of a hard disk to act as something else, in this case, random access memory. “Virtual reality” is a more dangerous term since it suggests that reality may be multiple or take many forms.

Poster considers the virtual as something that is not actualized, not physical, and virtual reality as the implication of more than one kind of reality. Levy starts off his chapter on the nature of virtualization in a similar way, that is, he explains: The world “virtual” is often meant to signify the absence of existence, whereas “reality” implies a material embodiment, a tangible presence (23). Here, Levy breaks down the virtual as something that is imaginary and not yet physical – “yet” meaning that virtual is something that may be actualized, it just has not undergone any kind of concretization.

Poster: The terms “virtual reality” and “real time” attest to the force of the second media age in constituting a simulational culture […] By directly tinkering with reality, a simulational practice is set in place which alters forever the conditions under which the identity of the self is formed. Poster is suggesting that the virtual creates its own universe that is very different and separate from the real. It is not a copy of the real; it is a simulation that is meant to act and be viewed as its own environment. Thus, the occupants of that simulated reality must create identities that are different from the ones that they have already established in the physical world. Since the virtual has not been actualized in the same way as the physical, these new conditions require a new approach.

Levy believes that the virtual is quite often literally “not there” (27), meaning that it is not the same physical space that we are accustomed to in the first digital age. Virtualization, or the movement of reverse actualization, is necessary for the creation of reality.

Levy: Imagination, memory, knowledge, and religion are the vectors of virtualization that have enabled us to leave this “there” long before the appearance of computerization and digital networks (28). To leave “there” is to reject the idea that we can only exist in one place at one time, and are limited by our physical locations and bodies. For Levy, virtual reality reinvents a nomadic culture by using a medium of social interaction and connectivity.

Levy: […] the fact of not being associated with any “there” of clinging to an unassignable space (the one in which the telephone conversations take place?) – none of this prevents us from existing (28). This new space that is created when one enters into the virtual space of a telephone conversation is a form deterritorialization – that is, the person is interacting and engaging in a place that is not limited by their body, and they are not confined to a specific place. This third space calls to mind Hansen’s “mixed reality,” in the sense that the person’s organic body merges with technology to create a new space within which they can extend themselves.

However, Levy reminds us: They are not totally independent of a referential space-time since they must still bond to some physical substrate and become actualized somewhere sooner or later (29). I believe that what Levy means here is that a person cannot exist in the mixed reality, or in the virtualized space forever – at some point the telephone conversation ends or the person goes offline. He could also mean that even in this third space, the person’s experience is still mediated and tied to a physical device (i.e. the phone, the computer). Either way, Levy admits that although we do not know exactly where telephone conversations exist, they still take “place,” and it is through our own deterritorialization that we escape from the “here” and the “now.”

Levy: The contemporary multiplication of spaces has made us nomads once again […] we leap from network to network, from one system of proximity to the next […] forcing us to undergo a process of heterogenesis (31). For Levy, interaction is no longer constituted by place and time as separate entities – they blend together in what he calls the “Moebius effect,” which is the mixing of public and private, personal and shared, all through the medium of communication devices. An example of the Moebius effect is when virtualization allows a person to merge the private space of his home to the public space of his workplace through telecommunication. This is an instance where virtual reality does not have clearly defined limits, as physical reality does.

Harvey talks about this as well in his chapter, as he believes that in the time of postmodernity, we must challenge the idea of a single and objective sense of time or space, against which we can measure the diversity of human conceptions and perceptions (246). Levy’s heterogenesis is the new person that exists through virtualization, through extension, through imagining an alternative that has not been actualized, but nevertheless exists.

Levy: The acceleration of communication is contemporaneous with an enormous growth in physical mobility […] the growth of communication and the generalization of high-speed transport are part of the same process of virtualization affecting society, the same tension that drives us to get away from “there” (32).

Levy’s “there” means several plausible things; firstly, he is talking about the physical body and its human limitations insofar as the senses mediating all of our experiences. He is also talking about the physical location of the body in time and space, and how it is not possible to exist in more than one physical space simultaneously (not counting virtual or hybridized space). He is also likely talking about “there” as the conception of the modern man pre-postmodernism, the man who is a constituted subject and not in control of his own identity. With the growth of communicative devices and the potential of connectivity, we are, as a species, constantly striving to extend beyond our physical means, as Nayar talks about throughout his discussion of mobile technology in his chapter “Bodies.”

Poster: The information superhighway and virtual reality may be interpreted through the poststructuralist lens I have used here in relation to the cultural issue of subject constitution […] The shift to a decentralized network of communications makes senders receivers, producers consumers, rulers ruled, upsetting the logic of understanding of the first media age.

Poster does not clearly define the “first” media age, but what he says here is comparable to Levy’s position on the subject’s re-definition once human beings become part of a network. Through interactivity and connectivity, people using communicative technologies have begun to gain a kind of agency and ownership that informs the second media age.

Poster: What distinguishes the telephone from the other great media is its decentralized quality and its universal exchangeability of the positions of sender and receiver. Anyone can “produce” and send a message to anyone else in the system and, in the advanced industrial societies, almost everyone is in the system.

Like Levy, Poster recognizes that the telephone, as a means of connectivity and communication, creates exchangeability between two persons regardless of their physical locations. Poster focuses more on how this form of technology allows us to enter into the virtual system and regard ourselves as virtualized producers of content as well as carriers of information.

Observers of and participants in Internet “virtual communities” repeat in near unanimity that long or intense experience with computer‑mediated electronic communication is associated with a certain fluidity of identity. This is similar to Howard Rheingold’s take the cultural effects of the Internet and of the constant connectivity of the individual. In this second media age, identities become fluid and we can exist in more than one way, contrary to the notions of modernity. We can also exist in spaces that are not limited by temporal frameworks, as again, time and space need not be regarded separately.

Some other passages to think about from Poster:

Katherine Hayles defines the “revolutionary potential” of virtual reality as follows: “to expose the presuppositions underlying the social formations of late capitalism and to open new fields of play where the dynamics have not yet rigidified and new kinds of moves are possible.” 

Internet interface must somehow appear “transparent,” that is to say, appear not to be an interface, not to come between two alien beings and also seem fascinating […] The problem of the Internet then is not simply “technological” but para-machinic: to construct a boundary between the human and the machinic that draws the human into the technology, transforming the technology into “used equipment” and the human into a “cyborg,” into one meshing with machines. 

 As well as Levy:

With respect to this meditation on the escape from “there,” we should bear in mind that virtualization does not simply accelerate already known processes or suspend, or even annihilate, time and space, as Paul Virilio has claimed. Based on expenditure and risk, it creates qualitatively new velocities, mutant space-time systems (33).

Virtualization […] calls into question the classical notion of identity, conceived in terms of definition, determination, exclusion, inclusion, and excluded middles. For this reason virtualization is always heterogenesis […] We should not confuse heterogenesis with alienation, its intimate and menacing opposite, its enemy sister, which I would characterize as reification, a reduction to the thing, to the “real” (34).

Works Cited:

Harvey, David. “The Experience of Space and Time.” The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. 201-284.

Levy, Pierre.  “The Nature of Virtualization.” Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. 1-34.

 —.  “The Virtualization of the Body.” Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. 37-44.

Poster, Mark. “Postmodern Virtualities.” The Second Media Age. Np.

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