Friday, July 4, 2003

On the virtual: cognitive science meets cultural theory

The ever-insightful Matt Webb has been reading and quoting from some of my favourite books recently. First, he made available his notes on Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus - and it's both fascinating and heartening to see what someone with a cog-sci background takes from the book. (Incidentally, Abe Burmeister has also been reading ATP, and notes "Of course D&G are so dense you could probably find traces of anything in their work. It's sort of like the bible, whatever you want is in there ...")

But most recently, Matt's taken up a short history of the virtual and cyberspace as a paratactic aggregate. And given my studies, how could I not be impressed? But let's take a closer look.

So the virtual worlds constitute a strand of thought that stretches back through history, a mindset that produces and complexifies a whole series of worlds, the latest being cyberspace ...

Yes. But since I'm not a cognitive scientist, I would replace the word "thought" with "practice" and "mindset" with "social practices" (or "cultural rituals" or even the more obfuscated "performances").

... and virtual meaning these aren't within the real world: A virtual world has to be brought into being by explicit statements (this means this, that means that), as with cyberspace which itself is an offshoot of cybernetics, and so the statements are cybernetic feedback loops: this means (read: causes) this, that means (read: causes) that.

OK. But virtual worlds are REAL, if not material, so it's more precise to claim that the virtual may be ACTUALISED (made actual or "brought into being"). In this sense, the VIRTUAL is always already possible or potential until it is actualised through EXPRESSIONS (see Massumi's Shock to Thought and Hallnäs & Redström's From Use to Presence).

The design of the virtual world must now therefore take its clues from humanity's interfaces with the pre-existing universe, and build in equivalents. The virtual world may then re-merge with (deterritorialize back into) the real world.

OK. And quoting Feyerband's excellent critique of Kuhn:

Not every feature of an archaic list has representational value just as not every feature of a written sentence plays a role in articulating the content.

Not every-thing (space or time) has REPRESENTATIONAL value. Yes again. This is where PERFORMATIVITY comes in; there is the space of potential(ity) rather than of actual(ity). (In D&G, this manifests itself in the Body Without Organs.) But Matt is really on to something when he suggests (and please tell me if I am reading too much into this) that cyberspace is a peculiar conflict of representation and performance (a desiring machine?):

Cyberspace is still a paratactic aggregate. This is a bad thing -- this particular manifestation of the virtual worlds is now complex enough to shape thoughts, but tyrannised by the minority who are the only ones able able to state the propositions to shape it ... Cyberspace is characterised by parataxis - defn: "The mere ranging of propositions one after another, without indicating their connection or interdependence; -- opposed to syntax".

But here's where Matt loses me: He appears to be suggesting territorialisation and de-territorialisation, but something makes me think that when Matt writes about the need to "return" to the "real world" he is referring to what exists after RE-territorialisation, and re-territorialisation can be OPPRESSIVE. The space of FLOW is de-territorialised, full of potential (and risk), and it is that space I am interested in exploring. I am interested in technologies that do not seek to re-territorialise, or to maintain the status quo. I would think that the more de-territorialised space our technologies create, the more chance we have to make them do what we want ...

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