A brief working definition of the Virtual

The ‘virtual’ in the philosophical sense is not restricted to Virtual Reality.

Think of the boiling point of water. Humans have measured the boiling point and have figured out that it is 100C. The boiling point is real; you can actually witness water boiling, but on the other hand, depending on the energy introduced into the water-boiling system only small amounts of pure water at sea level will boil instantly and turn into steam. (If there is a large amount of energy released into a system, such as a nuclear weapon, then larger bodies of water will boil and evaporate instantly. Instantly still not being ‘instantly’, it still takes some time for this to happen, relative to our human frame of reference, it is an ‘instant’.)

In all other situations, the boiling point is virtual because it is actualised in different ways according to the variable constraints that move the water-boiling system from the ideal model (small amount of pure water at sea level pressures). Super heated water, for example, is water that has had extra energy added to it (heated) beyond the boiling point, but kept under extreme pressures. The boiling point remains virtual, it is not actualised, but the variable constraint of pressure (nominally at sea level) has not been fulfilled.

Now, instead of the boiling point, think of something social, for example the passage from being a child into becoming at adult. Similar to the water boiling example, this passage is a phase space. There is a process of transduction from one energy state to another. Think about how different your power relations are as an adult (expressed in terms of freedoms and responsibilities) compared to that as a child. In most cultures there is some kind of rite of passage from childhood into adulthood where the subject is forced through particular experiences that endow the subject with the memory of such experiences that are then shared with others in an economy of memory-experience.

Unlike water-boiling, we remember the passages of experience in our lives. The events (collectively belonging to a series of events known as a ‘rite of passage’) through which a subject experiences becoming an adult can then be drawn on, either explicitly if a particular piece of esoteric knowledge has been handed down, such fixing a car or cleaning the house, or through a particular constellation of affective states (confidence, respect, patience, etc.). The rite-of-passage series of events are more or less virtual. They exist not in the location of electrons around a nucleus of a molecule in a bunch of molecules determining the phase state of the bunch of molecules (solid, liquid or gas), but in the embodied memory of the subject. When ‘adulthood’ is performed by a subject through particular actions or whatever, the virtual events of the becoming-adult rite-of-passage are actualised.

The function of media in all this is that they can distribute events that implicate the audience (viewers/readers/users/participants/etc) in the events. The audience has to learn how to be implicated. For example, you need to learn the rituals based around watching ‘the game’ on television. This implication in events can be in a passive way (a broadcast medium, some print) or active (social media, video games, some print). Breaking down the word ‘implication’ we get im-pli-cation, ‘pli’ being the French for ‘fold’. Implication is a kind of enfolding or enveloping in this sense.

Now think about which events you’ve been implicated in that have transformed your subjectivity, perhaps through repeated exposure, that have created new behaviours or modes of action. Examine emergent or changing patterns of behaviour. Think about the way memories exist in your present experience of the world. This is the virtual that already belongs to your reality. You do not need fancy VR goggles to access and contemplate it.

In my own work I am mostly interested in the virtual belonging to the future or relations of ‘futurity’ for given subjects. Think about this, following the above schema, in terms of being memories of the future.

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