Rob Shields, Sociology/Art and Design, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
In this paper I deal with space, everyday and culture as ‘virtualities’ and as intangibles. These are intangible in the same sense that the term is used in economics. In the context of neo-conservative economic discourse and notions such as the ‘new economy’ or ‘knowledge society’, these are objects that confer value, for example, ‘goodwill’ built up toward a business or corporate image. Other examples of intangible assets might include the expertise and collective effectiveness of teams, as well as an organization’s overall ‘knowledge’ (Lipnack & Stamps, 1997; Jackson, 1999; Davenport & Prusak, 2000; Blackler, 1995). These are argued to be a source of value. While difficult to quantify they can be operationalized and performed in activities such as ‘service’ which can be assessed and scored. An ongoing project, coordinated through the OECD and IMF has aimed to make such intangibles into accountable assets so that they can be the valued for stock market purposes and can be the objects of investment and of cultivation or economic development in a region (Strambach, 2002; Lundvall, 1992; Maskell & Malmberg, 1999). What were once semiotic terms now appear in economic calculations. Intangibles such as ‘culture’ have become more integrated into the knowledge society as part of an economic logic – one might even speculate that ‘culture’ is being dedifferentiated as a distinct sphere within a more integrated knowledge society.
‘Service’ too is a quality; if it is to be understood as a thing, as an asset, then it too can only be an intangible rather than a tangible object or class of objects. Intangibles are therefore a mix of different elements – the term is a ‘scene word’ describing a number of elements or a scenario (Burke, 1969). Intangibles may also describe future potential or a spectrum of outcomes. For example, a ‘talent’ might be performatively actualized in a specific work, performance or oeuvre. Thus, intangibles might describe a capacity for action or creation rather than a specific action or thing (one of the most insightful texts amongst the dross is Patriotta, 2003).
We lack an adequate ontological theory of virtualities. A number of responses are possible to such intangibles. The first might be that they don’t exist per se, that is, they are mere abstractions or concepts. They could be then dismissed as phantasmagoria. But on second thought, one might recognize the probabilistic quality of intangibles as indicators and therefore their usefulness in socioeconomic calculations. A third, might emphasize intangibles as a terminology describing recipes and codings as well as positive types of emergence that generates valued outcomes, results and behaviours.
It is this third sense of intangible that I wish to deal with under the rubric of the virtual – not simply an abstraction but some ‘thing’ that has a ‘real’ existence, even if it can’t be seen or touched. Not just an idea but something with ontological being such as a code, habitus, class or even culture which exists even if one can treat it as a tangible object. Intangibles are often a mixture of abstractions, potentials and virtualities. In cultural studies and social sciences we deal all the time with intangibles without worrying too much or reflecting on their ontological status. Gender is a case in point – not a tangible ‘thing’ or materiality, not simply ‘sex’ but rather a performative identity, a theoretical object with predictive power, independent of the age or form of the body itself. Even the body has been argued to be much more than its material ‘stuff’ (Butler, 1993, Merleau-Ponty, 1968). One could add race – neither just ethnicity nor skin colour but something held to exist in popular racisms (Gilroy, 2000). Yet racialization neither reducible to a single material aspect of a body nor even a single category of embodiment – the shape of noses or other equally debunked trait which has been latched on to as an indicator of difference.
The social sciences and humanities are largely concerned with intangibles and virtualities rather than superficial, material objects. Signs, for example, are independent of a given set of print characters or vocalizations. Similarly, texts offer numerous interpretive possibilities. ‘Social facts’ including identity categories and social groupings are intangible but are widely felt, defended and held to exist – community, the public, gender, race, the ‘global’. The terminology around the ‘global’ has come to mean more than simply a specification of scale or a numerical quality such as a number of establishments ‘worldwide’, like a chain of restaurants. The global is not tangible but denotes a situation, an ‘atmosphere’ (phorie cf. Greimas & Fontanille, 1991) and outlook and a certain modus operandi (Bourdieu, 1972) Finally, ‘everyday life’ may appear to designate a banal material context but almost every theorist argues that it is more than the empirical (for a survey see Gardiner, 1999).
When challenged on one’s object of inquiry one needs to be able to precisely defend not only the terms of research but its research objects and foci. In the UK case during the early 1980s, a persistent critique of the social sciences was launched by conservative politicians and rhetoriticians. ‘Society does not exist’ was the infamous comment of Laclau and Mouffe parroted by Margaret Thatcher against the social sciences. This forced UK social science to elaborate an extensive theory of realism as a defense of central objects of research such as class, locality and gender (cf. the work of Bhaskar, 1991; Sayer, 1985; Bhaskar, 1991; Collier, 1994; Harre, 2002) – things that exist in virtue of other relations (of production) or are manifest only in their effects (i.e. virtualities, as defined below). ‘Society’ was not defensible within a reductionist Cartesian ontology, a nominalism of physical objects. Ironically, even if it is an abstraction within pure econometric theory, ‘the market’ as understood by economic and political actors is as much an virtuality as society (J Carrier, 1998).
The emphasis on materialism in Marxist theories has also restricted the examination of intangibles. In the case of cultural research, it is essential to have an epistemology and ontology which deals with more than the material. In attempting to critique conservative discourses on, for example, innovation – the ‘innovation agenda’ – a sound base for critique, notably of the virtual, of becoming, and of probabilistic entities is necessary in order to avoid false problems and definitional debates (Bergson, 1970; Grosz, 1999). This is essential to avoid having progressive social science research and analysis being co-opted into managerialist epistemologies of knowledge and is a requirement for critical reflection on the role of social science knowledge within contemporary political economic regimes.
There are several resources, one is poststructural philosophy such as that
of Deleuze and Guattari (Gilles Deleuze, 1981; Gilles Deleuze, 2000; Gilles
Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). Another would be historical analyses of the intangible.
(Gilles Deleuze, 1981; Gilles Deleuze, 2000; Gilles Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). Another would be historical analyses of the intangible.
Definitions of the Virtual
Dictionaries define the virtual in everyday life as ‘that which is so in essence but not actually so.’ Thus we speak of tasks which are ‘virtually complete’. More philosophically, the virtual captures the nature of activities and objects which exist but are not tangible, not ‘concrete’. The virtual is what is known not directly but by its effects. Dreams, memories and the past are famously defined by Marcel Proust in his correspondence on Remembrance of Time Past as virtual: ‘real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’. Proust’s comment provides an important historical model for the use of the term today.
The noun ‘Virtual’ comes to us from the Latin virtus, meaning strength or power. By the medieval period virtus had become virtualis and was understood in the manner we might understand the word ‘virtue’. In this older usage, a ‘virtual person’ is what we might understand in more contemporary usage as a person of some outstanding quality:
‘Virtual: Latin 1. virtus 2. virtuosus. Possessed of certain physical virtues or capacities; effective in respect of inherent natural qualities or powers capable of exerting influence by means of such qualities (rare)’, (Oxford English Dictionary).
The related term, ‘virtue’ (Virtu) is a personal quality: ‘The power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural or divine being’ (OED). Virtue is ‘an embodiment of such power’ (OED). As an adjective, a ‘virtual person’ was what we today might call a morally virtuous or good person: a person whose actual existence reflected or testified to a moral and ethical ideal. Thus virtue was historically understood as a power to produce results. Some even argue that ‘the virtue of something is its “capacity”’ or efficacy (Haraway, 1992:325). But Virtu is more an open, creative, potentiality.
Today, the ‘virtual’ is still redolent of its barely-masked links to the concept of virtue (with which it shares a root in the Medieval Latin virtus–from vir, ‘man’). Few remember that an order of Angels was said to be called ‘The Virtues’. However, womens’ chastity is still mentioned in dictionary definitions of ‘virtue’ (raising the patriarchal preoccupation with verifying the actuality of paternity). This strange twist in definitions in which we have ended up at ‘chastity’ points to the mixture of ambiguity and high stakes in social definitions of the virtual.
The virtual is rarely encountered in a pure state. Instead, it can be glimpsed as an attribute of objects that are simultaneously concrete and virtual, or as part of a complex rhetorical weave of different ontological states within descriptions of phenomena and experiences. It comes wrapped up with conceptual abstractions, direct references to the concrete and probabilistic intimations of possibility. Drawing on Proust’s quotation, these are summarized in Table I which presents ‘what exists’ in four categories rather than in the usual Cartesian dualism of objective materiality and subjective abstractions and fictions.
Ideal : virtual (e.g. memories) abstract (e.g. concepts)
Actual : concrete (e.g. material) probable (% e.g. risks)
Table I. Ontological Tetrology
Thinking beyond the Cartesian dualism expands the Real into both the tangible and intangible – categories of the concrete and virtual. Similarly the ideal is not only a matter of abstractions but includes the virtual as the ideally-real. The fourth category, the probable, is known mathematically. It is possibly the greatest accomplishment of modern calculation and social science knowledge and one which is routinely discussed without an acknowledgement of the intuitive status of probabilities as non-real but actual entities.
Adopting post-structuralist terminology of contrasting the real with the possible, the probable can be easily grasped as the ‘actually possible’. The possible is that which doesn’t really exist, but could to various extents. At one extreme is the absolutely abstract, an ‘ideal’ which, properly speaking has no existence, but rather only possibility. Closer to home is the probable, such as the likelihood of rain in the weather forecast.
The possible is never real, even though it may be actual; however, while the virtual may not be actual, it is nonetheless real. In other words, there are several contemporary (actual) possibilities of which some may be realized in the future; in contrast, virtualities are always real (in the past, in memory) and may become actualized in the present (Hardt, 1993:16 ).
The virtual itself can be said to be a capacity to be actualised as a singular, concrete object. Actualization is performative – the virtual itself is a multiplicity which can be actualised is different ways. If it is known by its effects, then it is known through a specific instantiation, not as whole. It thus retains its creative potential or character. The virtual is thus a key ontological category pertinent to discussions of change, becoming, genesis, development, emergence, autopoesis, the genetic power of codes as well as of codes themselves. It is also relevant to analyses of understandings of ethos, milieu, frame and problematique – a multiplicity of issues with many potential solutions, in contrast to an answer or syllogism which is definite and singular.
If everything about matter is real, if it has no virtuality, the proper "medium" or milieu of matter is spatial. While it exists in duration, while clearly it is subject to change, the object does not reveal itself over time. There is no more in it "than what it presents to us at any moment." By contrast, what duration, memory, and consciousness bring to the world is the possibility of unfolding, hesitation, uncertainty. Not everything is presented in simultaneity. This is what life (duration, memory, and consciousness) brings to the world... (Grosz, 1999:25).
For example, as objects wear or bodies age, their concrete materiality changes, but they retain their virtuality – their identity and their coherence with themselves. This close relation between the actual and the virtual, in which a quality becomes the essence of the matter, also appears again and again in contemporary understandings of the virtual. Objects are ‘the point of indiscernibility of two distinct images, the actual and the virtual’ (Deleuze, 1986:II 82; Deleuze, 1994: 209-210). Differentiation is the primary quality of this relation. The concrete is not a copy of the virtual - the relation is not one of resemblance or identity (Deleuze, 1994:212) as it might be between the concrete and abstract representations such as concepts or images. Unlike the realization of the possible as the real, actualisation is an inventive drama (Deleuze 1988:101) in which there is a ‘contraction’ of virtuality (Widder, 2000:129) which ‘always takes place by difference, divergence or differentiation. Actualisation breaks with resemblance as a process no less than it does with identity as a principle’ (Deleuze, 1981:125).
Virtualization is a creative process of questioning which opens up problem frames to critically question cultural formations, ‘the way things happen’. Virtualization moves from situations (‘l’actuel’) to create problem (in the sense of problematique) - a knot of ‘constraint and finality that inspires our acts. Final causes, the “why” of the situation...’ (Lévy, 1998:174). The virtual is neither absence nor an unrepresentable excess or lack.1 But it troubles any simple negation because it introduces multiplicity into the otherwise fixed category of the real. As such the tangible, actually real phenomena cease to be the sole, hegemonic examples of ‘reality’. The logical identity of the real with these phenomena is broken apart, allowing us to begin to conceptualize processes such as becoming in terms of emergence and dialogism (cf. Bakhtin, 1981) rather than only as a dialectic, as a negation of existing identities (Laclau, 1996:20-46). Phenomena take on an irreducible pluralism, continually differentiating themselves (Gilles Deleuze, 1988:101, 104).
Operating with a simple notion of the tangible and the original as the one and only ‘actually real’ leads to a series of conundrums over anything produced from a model or in a series, such as in the case of mass production.
In social science, attempts are made to interpret actual events. The stories constructed by sociologists, anthropologists and cultural analysts are argued to be more than mere abstractions, and more than statistical predictions - they are held to convey something that is really taking place ‘beneath’ the surface of events. Thus, for example, an uprising might be interpreted and argued to be a manifestation of class tensions around economic entitlements. Understanding global economic relations as intangible but powerful ‘virtual’ relations, frames our attitudes and actions toward national economic instability and the popular experience of change in the job market. ‘The virtual’ becomes a template for understanding and reacting to events in everyday life whenever societies face a situation in which distant events (a corporate merger) have local impacts on a related but quite a different register (prices for a service).
The real qualities of the virtual, such as a memory of an event, distinguish the virtual from the unreal or even surreal qualities of the abstract. But the strength of the above table is that it allows us to both distinguish the virtual from – and relate it to – worlds of material existence, the mathematical worlds of probability and possible occurrences, and the abstract world of pure idealizations. These relationships are mediated by human agency, the flow of time and concurrence of place - something that is captured in the everyday language of surprise at transformations, the calculation of risk and the invoking of spirits. A risk or myth, an event or dream draws on all aspects of the real and possible. Contemporary cognitive science and neurology shows Proust incomplete: in any dream, one could find not only the virtual but the concrete-present of neurochemistry, hormones and the electrical exchanges of brain cells. A caution against reducing to one element or another is therefore in order. Nonetheless, the table has an analytical and heuristic value: we can learn by considering social action in terms of each of the four aspects of the Tetrology and in terms of their exchanges with each other. No one would conclusively win an argument on the basis of complete abstractions; there will be attempts to test even the abstractions of theoretical physics against reality. This is not because every truth is empirically testable but because there is both a material benefit to extending theory toward controlling the real, and something akin to a compulsion to extend our understanding across the full range of ontological facets. Hence one marshals evidence (the concrete), chance and coincidence (co-variance and probability), and abstract ideals (moral values) in the assertion of regularity and of laws of social action (virtuals). Thought takes us beyond the present moment of the actual not only to abstract ideas but to general problematics, to the historical and to the realm of principle, all of which are virtual.
A dynamic understanding of the fluidity and intertwining of categories, is a further aspect of a four-fold ontology. The relationship between the Real and the Possible are described in terms such as realization and abstraction. Terms such as Idealization and Actualization describe shifts between the Ideal and the Actual. Within social and cultural processes, there is constant reference back and forth between categories. Traffic between them is heavily controlled through cultural protocols including manners, rituals, socially legitimated narrative forms and more complex, contested, formations of convention (cf. Shapiro Shapiro & Lang, 1991). These include cultural habitus as well as more time-limited and space-bound conceits and performances.
The shock of illicit transformations is evident in cultural forms such as ‘déjà vu’ in which the present and concrete objects and events are understood as already having been experienced in a dream. Thus the present is relived as a virtuality rather than as concrete, creating a surreal experience. Ritual actualizes latent possibilities, changing the being of situations and individuals, as in a coronation. Miracles are said to occur when the non-existing ideals suddenly materialize and so on (see Shields 2003: Ch.2).
Furthermore, there is a range of traditional ‘beings’ - our contemporary pantheon of spirits - who ‘figure’ these exchanges. Perhaps we most fear the figures of the past: Ghosts and apparitions are virtual (they are reputed to be real but have no material substance). They cross into actuality as manifestations that have actual effects (hauntings). Angels appear in dreams to foretell the future (probable-virtual). Angels as messengers, witnesses and guardians provoke chains of actual events, connecting the divine and concrete. To this day, Europeans perceive outlines of Greek mythical figures abstracted in the constellations (concrete-abstract). The figures of Fate and Time preside over secular, modernist mythologies of progress. And the almond-eyed silhouette of the Alien has moved ‘creatures from outer space’ from being fantastic (abstract) fictions into figures of the probable, beings whose existence is debated as much in the virtual mode of recovered memories of ‘alien abduction’ as in the fictional television series X-Files.
Recognizing the virtual allows us to see more clearly how it enters into categories of thought and into scientific descriptions of the world as well as embellished narratives which cast the world in a given light or frame problems. Moving away from the simple actual-ideal binary of (concrete-abstract) to recognize how the virtual fits in a relation with other ontological forms has important implications for how we analyse many of the intangibles which are so prominent today.
The Virtual in Everyday Life
Virtuality appears in various forms throughout history – and sometimes in forms explicitly called virtual. The idea and word are by no means new. The unwritten history of ‘virtual worlds’ includes rituals such as rites of passage, coronations, ludic events and memorials and the techniques of commemoration. It also includes simulacral technologies in architecture and visualicity such as the panorama and the arts of trompe l’oeil. This long history anticipates the use of information and communications technologies to make present what is both absent and imaginary through visualization and simulation. With the rise of computer-mediated communication and digitally-created virtual environments the virtual returns to ‘Western’ cultures in the form of absences made present. ‘The virtual’ becomes a template for understanding and reacting to events in everyday life. I have argued that it is indicative of a sea change in cultural attitudes: we are becoming more comfortable with absence, more nuanced in our use of abstraction, and more dependent on the past as a bastion of identity in the face of an non-linear global cultural and environmental future which no one can predict (Shields 2003 Ch. 2-3).
If digital virtuality does represent continuity from the more general, historical forms of the virtual, will it be possible to speak of a ‘virtual society’? Traditional virtualities may come to the fore, but a key shift might be the ever stronger foregrounding of mediated objects, such as brand identities, the importance of corporate images as virtual property, notions of credit and images of places and regions. It is important to stress, however, that none of these are purely virtual. Instead I am arguing that the virtual is a component or register of phenomena. The clarity of our understanding of contemporary society and our appreciation of the powers of phenomena are enhanced by delineating the partly-virtual quality of apparently concrete things, of abstractions, and of expressions of probability.
The ineffable status of virtualities raises the possibility that the virtual society will also be a society of virtual responses to concrete dilemmas: consumers who buy to improve not only their image but to cheer themselves up and to attempt to mask material ills. For organizations and governments, the virtual may equally figure in a society of disinformation, of dark media campaigns of slurs and innuendo aimed at damaging the virtual aspects of people or companies, including not only brands but charisma. And, where every action, every concrete situation and object have a prominent, virtual aspect, every action and object takes on greater symbolic importance as if part of a ritual. Everday interactions seem ‘over-lit’ by mythic qualities and brand identities almost to the point of paranoia.
‘Economic virtualism’ develops out of an overly abstract representation of the rational actor and economic action. Credit becomes a key valuation of money and solvency – a non-concrete, non-commodity-based ability of states and individuals to pay (J. Carrier & Miller, 1998; Petersen, 2002) The virtual is also crucial to the commodity form in its Hegelian sense as a beautiful but necessary illusion – a virtual image to the material object itself. Theories of fetishism stress the ascendancy of abstract images and conceptual fantasies around objects of exchange, but it is as virtualities not as static abstractions that commodities can be said to take on a life of their own and thus transcend their mere concreteness, use value or functionality (see Zizek, 1989).
Connectivity: the Virtual as Medium
In the case of branded goods, Lury asks ‘what is the “it-ness” of a brand’ such as Nike (Lury, 1997)? Today children understand that ‘Nikes’ refers to shoes rather than a speedy goddess of triumph – and the shoes are surely material, but they do not exhaust the ‘it-ness’ of branded goods such as Nikes; nor does the stitched logo – the image known as the ‘swoosh’ – nor the abstract slogan ‘Just do it.’ These, and particularly the swoosh, refer to something further, a virtuality which the promotional images are arranged to drawn down upon the material commodity. The brand is a virtuality which is consistent across different products – shoes, ball caps, shorts, watches – and can be consistently represented even if the logo is varied slightly in self-parody. It is independent of these objects. Branding is a non-monetary mechanism for consumer choice, but it also confers elements of the identity socially constructed around the brand on its consumers. As a media object, brands mediate: a brand is itself a medium which connects heterogeneous objects.
The phenomenon of sticking the logos of fashionable brands – pioneered in part by Apple Computer and many marketing-driven fashion accessories - onto a skateboard or onto one’s vehicle suggests that brands reach a semiotic ‘escape velocity’ at which point they are quite independent of the objects they were originally connected with. This phenomenon goes well beyond signalling product loyalty or grassroots-driven promotion. Others have observed the manner in which this allows the branding everyday objects as part of a lifestyle, making a particular brand into a badge of affiliation and inscription into a consumer ‘tribe’ (Maffesoli, 1981, Rob Shields, 1993). But what is it about brands which fit them to this social use, what allows them to be appropriated in this way?
This ‘connectivity’ appears to be a characteristic of all virtualities even if it is more often associated with media specifically. The virtual is used as a social resource for de-differentiating and bonding together ensembles of bodies and objects into assemblages. It is a resource for drawing things into a network of relations through virtualization, and thus making products, objects and subjects into social beings and socially-significant objects. Yet no single object can be used as a reference or baseline by which to exhaustively determine this virtuality. The relationship between the concrete (object) and the virtual (schema) is not one of mimesis but a performative relation of exemplification. These individual entities are like stars in constellations, drawn together into a type of diagram and this diagram is virtual, it is a schema. This is distinct from a process of abstract induction and deduction and is more akin to Piercean abductive logic. In the reverse movement, using the principle of connectivity, the virtual or the diagram can be actualised in the form of new objects which extend the class of concrete entities which share the same virtual pedigree.
Just as in the dramatology of ritual, one can observe the ontological mobility of branding in the above case of the stickers by which one may brand the object of one’s choice, as well as in advertisements which slide between different ontological registers – from the actual performativity of a shoe with better cleats (material) to the (virtual) life of the brand itself as a media object, to claims made, terms coined and ideas circulated about the product (all abstract representations) and the panoply of personal outcomes audiences are encouraged to imagine (probable). These are intertwined, and the mobility and shifting stresses in marketing brands adds to the liveliness of commodities. By taking on the virtual, commodities acquire a tinge of life. They appear to participate in the intercorporeality of bodies rather than remaining as mute objects. Their being becomes more vivid than an understanding of the bruteness of the concrete alone allows.
Branding represents the extension of commodification into the virtual. Could theoretical constructs such as surplus value be understood as neither just quantitative profit nor abstract idealizations or fantasy but as partially virtual? However, as a critique of the commodity form, drawing on the virtual must do more than acknowledge the virtual as the ‘life form’ of the commodity and source of its simulacral quality. It must also come to grips with the wilful suppression, in this four-fold ontological circulatory system, of the memory of the conditions under which commodities are produced and exchanged. There are spaces for the persistence of critical memories, crystallized in commodities internal contradictions between the ontological registers – such as between promise and actual performance, image and actual reality.
Branding is now central to the marketing of cities and regions to investors and tourists. Spatializations of places within complex webs of social meaning are precisely virtualizations of the concrete materiality of given places. Whereas urban or ‘place images’ might be abstractions or other representations of a place, by ‘spatialization’ I understand places and regions as being more systematically understood with respect to each other. The place image of one city is directly related to the contrasting place image of another city. In this cultural formation, places are legitimated only for certain types of socioeconomic and cultural action - places cast as ‘places for this and places for that’ (Lefebvre, 1974, see Grönlund, 1993, Pløger, 2001). This involves representations which legitimate or de-legitimate social action. Spatializations are heavily virtual because they consist of intangible attributes which may appear to be natural but are not necessarily rooted in the nature, the topography or geology of a place. Spatializations are as much about the absence of activity (located elsewhere in spatial-temporal networks of distance and difference) as its presence.
Branding travels easily via electronic media, extending the hold of spatializations on material cultures. However, the long history of liminal zones demonstrates that there is a history of the creative manipulation of spatializations. Liminal zones are areas temporarily set aside for ritual practice, such as the performative settings for rites of passage or areas construed as ‘outside’ of society, such as the jungle or desert. In liminal zones, initiates or ritual participants are ‘betwixt and between’ different social statuses, such as neophyte converts in a ritual of rebirth as full-fledged adherents of a religion. The virtual status of these spaces predominates over their concrete location and characteristics they are deterritorialized environments. Initiates first shed one status and then as particular individuals are reconstituted as singular members sharing a specific social status or identity with others of the same group with whom they are now connected.
Connectivity can also be seen in the inter-relational fabric of spatialisations. Even when contested, a periphery defines and is reciprocally defined by a centre, and inside by an outside, East by West and near by far. These are all relative terms. This ‘connectivity’ appears to be a characteristic of all virtualities that is more often associated with media specifically. This and other aspects of the way in which virtualities function, such as their ritualization, offer the promise of profiling the virtual and a methodology for their analysis. Currently, the analysis of intangibles and of virtualities more specifically is split up across multiple fields. Understanding that they all have a shared interest, could they learn from each other – economics from literature, cultural geography from ethnography – and so on? It may be recognized that these fields borrow from each other, but is not the shared focus on the virtual the driver of this trade between disciplines?
The virtual is only one component or register of phenomena. A four-part ontology has been sketched and further has been mobilized as a fluid set of categories which are continuously in play in a given phenomenon or situation. This brief survey arguing the increased visibility of the virtual in everyday life raises more questions than it provides answers. Recognizing this limitation, one might return to the suggestion that ‘connectivity’ is a characteristic of all virtualities. It is one aspect of the functioning of the virtual by which it can be approached more directly than through its effects. This furnishes a methodological insight that different disciplinary approaches to specific virtualities might learn from each other methodologically and analytically.
Two further observations are that the virtual has been invoked and integrated into social life via ritual practice and that the use of simulation in any context might serve as a telltale indicator of a significant virtuality at play. These might direct analyses to particular sites, institutions and practices. They may provide an interdisciplinary problematic for research on the virtual which is required for further progress in this area.
Politics and the virtual
In the context of an informational or so-called knowledge society (Rob Shields & Taborsky, 2001) the prominence of the virtual in the form of media objects makes it a strategic site for political struggle and economic context. IT has become a cliché to remark on the significance of information and communication technologies and the way in which work is virtualised or that the technology permits more visualizations and simulations. First, in understandings of the knowledge-based economy, virtualities such as organizational knowledge or the learning-capacity of a region are argued to contribute value (Matusik & Hill, 1998; . Second, In the case of branding, the virtual offers a mechanism to evaluation and adds value, even as the brand threatens to become detached from commodities altogether. Third, the virtuality of otherwise purely material objects and works such as cities is highlighted. For example, the tendency to conceive of society as informational and economic networks changes how we think about urban problems. Rather than as static ‘city works’, the infrastructure of cities is understood as networks facilitating different mobilities – of power, water, data, citizens, goods and so on (Graham & Marvin, 2001; Castells, 1997).
Hypothetically, the virtual becomes a ‘template’ for other aspects of everyday life. When this happens, the concrete is governed as virtual. In many cases this may lead not to a more complex approach but to the possibility of focusing only on the virtual and neglecting other registers – the materiality or the possible aspects of a phenomenon. This can be seen in over-valuation of information and computing company stocks in the late 1990s which led to the dot-com bust, or the manner in which hype and faith in the virtual mechanisms of markets could work as a smokescreen for fraud, as in the collapse of Enron (R Shields, 2003 Ch 3, 7).
To this hypothesis, one can also add the rising prominence of the virtual as an object of governance. In case of branding, the virtual is a framework of governmentality, structuring value and guiding evaluation and consumer choice – decisions and actions ranging from purchases to the actual use of products (de Certeau, 1984). But as an object of governance, virtualities figure in policy debates – around intellectual property, biotechnology products and the trade in information itself – and in understandings of the ‘games’ in complex product systems and supply-chains, industrial projects and infrastructural developments (Miller et al., 2000). What are the governmental mechanisms of the virtual?
Bringing these two interests, governmentality and governance of organizations and social bodies, together one can see that the virtual is important to projects for social control. The temporalities associated with the virtual include not only the past (memory) but also the unfolding development of objects. This is not a linear, evolutionary model. The virtual as a creative multiplicity burgeoning with options for enactment and actualisation has thankfully eluded linear and equilibrium approaches. However, the desire to structure choice, to spot the actualization of risk (probability) as it becomes a clear and present danger (concrete), to foresee what befalls us, suggests that the virtual offers an anticipatory edge. An example would be simulation models that work beyond simple probabilities in attempting to predict weather patterns. In another example, consider the use of simulation in military training (Hillis, 1999).
The virtual as a governmental form, suggests an anticipatory mode of power. This is distinctly different from the present-tense and localized spatio-temporal matrix of, for example, the society of discipline which Foucault figures in terms of Bentham’s Panopticon (Michel Foucault, 1975; see also G Deleuze, 1992; O'Connor, 2003). Anticipation is surveillance extended into the future. It relies on simulation and moves the terrain of struggle forward into the near future, the tense of the ‘next’. The use of simulation is a telltale indicator of the virtualization of the political and of other fields of social action, including the economic. The stakes in the virtual are ‘what will befall us.’ Cultural thinkers as diverse as Benjamin, Derrida and Deleuze argued in their own way that each moment prepared, dreamt, desired what follows in a continuous non-teleological ‘flow’ of unfolding (Benjamin, 1989; Jacques Derrida, 1994; Gilles Deleuze, 1989; J. Derrida, 1998).
It is obvious that power, as ‘action upon actions’ has a temporal repertoire which extends beyond mere action in the present – ‘doing’ (M. Foucault, 1980). It is also clear that the virtual is an important aspect of sense-making and thus has implications for the performative, ethical conduct of everyday life. But these temporalities have not been paid enough attention, nor perhaps did they matter as much. Now this criticality of time is novel: simulations assay the multiplicity of near futures in an effort to attempt to structure choices and outcomes. This concretises the open ‘near future’ tense of the virtual into the form of the future perfect. The aim is to shift unfolding processes that are described by discursive operators such as ‘virtually’, almost’ and ‘about to’ into definite outcomes - what ‘will have been’.
This necessarily requires a different response than disciplinary modes did. If ‘resistance’ and ‘critique’ are the hallmarks of disciplinary societies, what happens when the political stakes are virtual and are in the future? This challenges traditional modes of judgement and thus of responsibility and justice. It requires a rethinking of mobilization around future-oriented stewardship rather than present-oriented self-interest of individuals. One response which we find to be characteristic of North American youth cultures is the ‘whatever attitude’ – as in when one declines to respond, closes off a conversation, refuses responsibility or turns away from sociability with a shrug of the shoulders saying, ‘whatever…’ Non-committal passivity appears paradoxical within the simulacrum. It is a way of at least threatening to short-circuit the ‘social plot’ of what should come next. At a minimum it is defiance of the anticipatory circuits of capital and stalls for time. This is a similar but different mode of cool withdrawal than Simmel’s blasé attitude (Sharkey & Shields, 2005).
What forms does critique take when it speaks to and engages with the future? One form is a ‘critical hope’ (see Anderson, 2002). This and other ancient terms such as faith and virtue may be worth re-examining as part of a phenomenology of hope. This might lead to insights regarding a critical practice of virtuality. In ritual and in role-playing games can we find practices for engagement with an open future and resources for opening-up futures?
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