In this paper, I consider virtual reality in terms of a culmination in the history of visuality in which visual technologies can most appropriately be understood in terms of mechanisms through which the observing subjects to whom they are directed may be apprehended and controlled. Because it is impossible to understand the cultural implications of virtual reality without first understanding its roots within visual history, I begin this analysis by discussing the camera obscura and illustrating the various ways in which subsequent visual technologies (film and virtual reality) depart from this first apparatus by rendering sight into an act of penetrating inscription rather than reflective introspection. In doing so, I arrive at what is perhaps the most important and culturally significant effect of virtual reality: the way in which it severs the observing subject from the human faculty of imagination. Finally, through the destructive replacement of the imagination with virtual simulation, I argue that virtual reality can be understood only in light of what Jean Baudrillard refers to as the “hyperreal”: a state of simulation that not only replaces reality but, by virtue of replacing it, also holds it in contempt and seeks to destroy it.
When sitting down to watch television or when walking into the movie theater, it is always important to consider the ways in which visual technologies aim to reflexively construct the observing audience to whom they are directed. The relationship between the observing subjects and the visual media which they consume is never historically or culturally inert; rather, visual technologies present themselves as one nexus within much vaster power networks, and it is only by paying acute and critical attention to these nodes that we may then begin to discern the system itself in its entirety. But it is not in specific visual apparatuses that we may find evidence of the larger power systems that give rise to them; as Jonathan Crary argues, the politico-economic implications of any new visual apparatus do not manifest within the apparatus itself but are inextricably interwoven within the construction of the observing subject to whom the apparatus is applied. Crary furthers:
The problem of the observer is the field on which vision in history can be said to materialize, to become itself visible. Vision and its effects are always inseparable from the possibilities of an observing subject who is both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification. (5)
Any theory or application of visuality must recognize the social construction of an idealized observer as a process in which historical conceptions of vision turn inwards on themselves; it is in the eyes of the observing subject that models of vision “can be said to materialize.” At the same time, this necessarily implies that visual devices and practices render the observing subject into a space of physiological “subjectification” as their bodies are utilized as the “site” of scientific conjecture and experimentation. In this way, the history of visuality is always intertwined with the history of power; it is through these “practices, techniques, [and] institutions” that power is materially exercised over (and, as we will see, inscribed within) the human body.
Thus with Facebook’s multi-billion dollar acquisition of the California technology company Oculus Virtual Reality and the subsequent development of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, the imminent arrival of virtual reality (or VR) devices within the global marketplace forces us to consider the extent to which this technology promises to re-orient the figure of the observing subject by bringing new manifestations of visual power to bear upon them. But in what specific ways does virtual reality reconstruct the power networks surrounding the observing subject and what kinds of relationships between the observer and their society do these reformulated networks portend? We must also consider virtual reality from within the precise set of cultural, economic, and historical circumstances that gave rise to it. While many visual technologies have preceded virtual reality, how do these technologies deploy visual power as a means of constructing and regulating their observers? While donning the virtual reality headset, what techniques and practices does this technology borrow from its predecessors in order to exercise its power over the physical (as well as virtual) body of the observer, and in what ways does it enhance these practices?
To answer these questions, I will begin by contextualizing the historical emergence of the observing subject around the apparatus that first gives rise to it: the camera obscura. From here we will then move on to the rise of positivism in the nineteenth century and examine the way in which this period’s physiological approach towards vision and visuality dismantles the very concept of an “observing subject” and instead forces us to consider the observer as an “inscribed object”: a term that refers to the insistence within nineteenth century ocular theory on framing the visual field of the observer in terms of a space that is constantly susceptible to external control and manipulation. In turn, this historical thread will eventually deliver us to the early twentieth century, where, in the work of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the popularization of film begins to blur the distinction between the real and the imaginary; it is these two authors who will at last provide us with the theoretical equipment necessary for us to begin our discussion of virtual reality in the contemporary moment. But it is only by challenging and critiquing Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of film and instead reconsidering it within the context of virtual reality that we will be able to make productive use of it. Through this critique of Horkheimer and Adorno, we will then take the leap towards “inscribed imagination”: a model which, by stressing the significance of the observer’s access to peripheral vision, explains how virtual reality threatens to expose the imagination of this observer to a gradual process of appropriation and degradation. As we will see, this shift represents a complete collapse of visual autonomy to the point that visual technologies may penetrate even the imagination and the interior mind of the observer and appropriate these spaces as sites of external regulation. Finally, we turn to the work of Jean Baudrillard, where the notion of the “hyperreal” will allow us to understand virtual reality technology for what it truly is: a simulation which does not reproduce reality as such but instead annihilates reality through the creation of a state of hyperreality.
Our journey, then, is not just theoretical but also historical, and this is by necessity; without the camera obscura and the theories surrounding it, there can be no virtual reality. Thus in order to confront the theoretical status of virtual reality and its observer, we must begin with this first apparatus and then move forward and outward from there. In doing so, we will arrive at a critique of virtual reality by stressing the way in which this technology, having invaded and colonized the furthest conscious reaches of the human mind—the creative imagination—seeks to place the observer within a state of complete political immobilization.
Visuality and Modernity: From Camera Obscura to Inscriptive Vision
I now turn my attention towards a more thorough analysis of the observing subject’s arrival on the plains of history. This narrative begins in the sixteenth century within the walls of the camera obscura. But exactly what is the camera obscura and why is it relevant to virtual reality? Based on the physical and optical principle, “When light passes through a small hole into a dark, enclosed interior, an inverted image will appear on the wall opposite the hole…” the basic design of the camera obscura is that of a closed box with a single aperture through which light filters into the apparatus and produces a projection of the outside world upon the opposing wall (Crary 27). But the significance of the camera obscura extends far beyond this optical novelty. It is because the camera obscura was not just a “neutral piece of equipment or a set of technical premises to be tinkered with” but was also “embedded in a much larger and denser organization of knowledge and of the observing subject” that it established a precedent of mutually reflexive construction between visual apparatuses and the observers who utilize them (Crary 27). The camera obscura provides the central foundation upon which every subsequent development in visual technology is built.
What is unique about the relationship between the camera obscura and its observer, however, is the degree of autonomy that the former affords the latter. While the observer sits within the camera obscura and reflects on the images projected before them and the manner in which these projections have been generated, the apparatus “performs an operation of individuation” and “impels a kind of askesis, or withdrawal from the world” (Crary 38, original italics). While contemporary visual technology—culminating in virtual reality—is designed to produce an immersive experience that captures the observer within a digitally produced visual field, the camera obscura functions by severing the observing subject from the object of their perception. In this way, the camera obscura posits a model of visual observation in which the observing subject is an explicitly “sovereign individual” who is protected from external regulation by the physical architecture of the camera obscura itself (Crary 38). It is precisely this sensation of separation, of “askesis” and “withdrawal,” that signals a key point of departure between the camera obscura and the nineteenth century: while the camera obscura encourages the observer to think and reason on their own, later developments in visuality seek to employ calculated and modulating design features that are meant to elicit particular physiological responses that will frustrate and disrupt the observer’s ability to think independently. Thus, despite the fact that the camera obscura establishes a precedent in which visual mechanisms shelter the observer and protect their sense of personal sovereignty, this paradigm never extends beyond the camera obscura and instead dies within the very walls of the apparatus that gave rise to it.
It is in the nineteenth century that notions of positivist physiology begin to relocate our understanding of vision from within the camera obscura to within the human body. With the rise of the empirical sciences, the camera obscura is no longer seen as an adequate model of how vision operates; its place is superseded by a growing body of scientific discourse aimed at generating a more physiologically accurate description of how vision functions. In the work of Hermann Von Helmholtz, for example, the idea that the body can be externally acted upon in order to produce particular physiological effects is explicit. Helmholtz writes:
Nerves have been often and not unsuitably compared to telegraph wires. Such a wire conducts one kind of electric current and no other; it may be stronger, it may be weaker, it may move in either direction; it has no other qualitative differences. Nevertheless, according to the different kinds of apparatus with which we provide its terminations, we can send telegraphic dispatches, ring bells, explode mines, decompose water, move magnets, magnetize iron, develop light, and so on. So with the nerves. The condition of excitement which can be produced in them, and is conducted by them is…everywhere the same. (148-149)
By regulating the strength, lateral movement, and termination point of electrical currents, it is possible to produce an entire host of effects. For Helmholtz, this is also precisely how one should understand the performance of the human nervous system: because sensory effects are the result of nerve stimulation, it is possible to artificially stimulate nerves in order to produce a desired physiological response. At the same time, we should not understate the significance behind Helmholtz’ departure from the camera obscura to the more mechanically and technologically advanced analogue of telegraph wire as an explanation of human perception. While the camera obscura isolates the observing subject and formulates vision into a reflective activity, Helmholtz’s comparison subjects the body to a system of external networks and forced physiological stimulation to which the observer maintains an ostensibly minuscule capacity to resist. Constructing the human body through an analogy to telegraph wire means much more than the death of vitalism: it also illustrates the idea that by gaining a sufficient amount of scientific and physiological knowledge, we can manipulate how the body functions. For the observing subject, this carries the implication that we may also regulate how the observing subject accesses and views their own field of vision.
It is for this reason that Helmholtz’s comparison of the human nervous system to telegraph wire provides a key example of how the nineteenth century contextualizes vision—along with the rest of the human sensorium—in terms of a process of inscription. Crary furthers:
…[T]he empirical sciences of the 1830s and 1840s had begun to describe a comparable neutrality of the observer that was a precondition for the external mastery and annexing of the body’s capacities, for the perfection of technologies of attention, in which sequences of stimuli or images can produce the same effects repeatedly as if for the first time. The achievement then of that kind of optical neutrality, the reduction of the observer to a supposedly rudimentary state…was a condition for the formation of an observer who would be competent to consume the vast new amounts of visual imagery and information increasingly circulated during this same period. It was the remaking of the visual field not into a tabula rasa…but into a surface of inscription on which a promiscuous range of effects could be produced. (96)
We can definitively see how positivist physiology reformulates the observing subject into a figure who is constantly vulnerable to apprehension and control; physiology constructs the observer as a dependent body, as a “surface of inscription,” an object comprised of “neutral” matter which is subject to external manipulation and animation. Here is where our conventional discourse of the “observing subject” breaks down. While undergoing this process of visual inscription, the observing subject is no longer capable of autonomously accessing their own visual field; they are no longer a “subject” in any grammatical or philosophical sense; rather, they are reduced to an “object”—a passive, “rudimentary” recipient of inscribed power. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, then, it no longer makes sense to speak of an observing subject but rather of an inscribed object.
At the same time, we can also see how this reformulation of the observing subject into inscribed object carries distinct politico-economic implications. As the preceding passage contends, the pathology of passivity which this inscribed observer manifests is aimed at preparing the object-consumer for the “the vast new amounts of visual imagery and information” that emerged in this period. In this way, we can discern an immediate relationship between the reduction of vision to an inscriptive and reproducible process and the cultural and economic practices that this notion would consequently support, justify, and entrench. Even in the nineteenth century it is already clear how scientific and technological notions of vision orient the attention of the observer within narrowly constructed avenues and therefore prepare them for economic consumption. By situating the observer as an object of passive reception rather than a subject with visual autonomy, physiological notions of inscriptive vision demarcate and denote the observer’s ability to psychologically as well economically consume boundless amounts of visual material.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault also substantiates the notion that visual power operates as an inscriptive force that functions by stripping the observer of the agency to act on their own behalf. For Foucault, the effectiveness of visual power lies in the way in which the object of this power “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” and “makes them play spontaneously upon himself” (202). Visual power carries a unique capacity to ensure that the subjects whom it targets participate in their own subordination; this is particularly true in the case of heavily surveilled systems like prisons—or, more specifically, the panopticon—because when an inmate is aware of the fact that they are surrounded by systems of surveillance and detection they are then forced to police their own behaviors. It is this moment in which visual power is internalized that it also becomes inscriptive; Foucault continues, writing that the inmate “inscribes within himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (202-203). In the prison, then, just as in positivism, visual power programs its recipients through an inscriptive logic that renders them impotent and unable to act—except in whatever ways the source of visual control deems acceptable. Understandably, prison systems utilize surveillance to ensure a compliant prison population, but capitalism gives its nod of approval only to uses of visual power that will guarantee a docile and economically active civilian public.
However, economic redirection only represents a small fraction of what inscriptive visual power promises to accomplish; the ability to impinge on the observing subject’s visual autonomy also demonstrates the ability to create a politically disabled observer. Crary argues that “no less than the panopticon,” positivism and the physiological construction of the observing subject into a “surface of inscription”
…involved arrangements of bodies in space, regulations of activity, and the deployment of individual bodies, which codified and normalized the observer within rigidly defined systems of visual consumption. They were techniques for the management of attention, for imposing homogeneity, [and] anti-nomadic procedures that fixed and isolated the observer using ‘partitioning and cellularity’…in which the individual is reduced as a political force. (18)
The observing subject is more than an anonymous figure within a scientific or physiological model; they also represent and mediate our understanding of the relationship between the subject as a “political force” and the visual networks and apparatuses which are employed to suppress and regulate this observer by reducing them into an inscribed object—a passive consumer of externally generated visual material. After beginning with an image of the observing subject as an introspective and isolated figure enclosed within the walls of the camera obscura, we now see how physiological notions of visuality limit the observing subject’s ability to act as their own visual agent by instrumentalizing and politically weakening them.
While a motor of scientific discourse propels this technique of inscriptive reduction forward and informs our understanding of how the observing subject relates to the physical and increasingly visual world around them, we must remain aware of how our own scientific environment continues to subject today’s observers to a process of technological construction. Now, with our awareness of the observing subject’s first stage of historical evolution—from observing subject to inscribed object—we are finally ready to do so.
Visuality in the Twentieth Century: Film, Virtual Reality, and Inscriptive Imagination
In the early twentieth century, it is the invention, rise, and eventual failure of film which later gives birth to a political and economic demand for virtual reality. By literally projecting an externally generated visual field over a passively inscribed observer, film attempts to initiate an erosion of the observer’s ability to distinguish between the reality of the film-world and the reality of the physical world within which the film is projected, but it is precisely because it fails to effectively do so that film quickly gives way to virtual reality.
In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the use of film as an inscriptive media provides the filmmaker with an unprecedented opportunity to invert the perceptive status of an observer to the point where they can no longer differentiate between the world in which they live and the world which is shown to them through film:
The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production. The more densely and completely its techniques duplicate empirical objects, the more easily it creates the illusion that the world outside is a seamless extension of the one which has been revealed in the cinema. Since the abrupt introduction of the sound film, mechanical duplication has become entirely subservient to this objective. According to this tendency, life is to be made indistinguishable from the sound film. (99-100)
Undoubtedly, the historical record exposes Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique as an exaggerated one. There are very few twenty-first century moviegoers who will view a film and then, upon leaving the theater, genuinely mistake the outside world as a “continuation of the film he has just left.” Nonetheless, it is important for us to understand exactly why this is the case because it is the correction of this failure—the inability to implement a technology which is truly capable of collapsing the visual experience of physical reality with the visual inscription of an externally generated field of vision—which finally gives rise to virtual reality. By discussing exactly how and why film ultimately fails at achieving this type of psychological and mental collapse, we will better equip ourselves for understanding the ways in which virtual reality attempts to supersede film by correcting for the latter’s mistakes and cementing an even stronger hold over the observers who utilize it.
In the above description, we see how, for Horkheimer and Adorno, film functions as an attempt at inscribing a visual field over a passive observer who is expected to simply and dutifully receive it, and, in this way, “life is to be made indistinguishable from the sound film.” But what Horkheimer and Adorno fail to consider is the way in which this process of visually confused apperception is prevented and halted by peripheral vision: this seemingly innocuous space that film is never able to successfully or completely subsume into its immersive illusion. It is this space, this constant visual field, unwaveringly situated on either side of the movie screen, that invariably punctures the illusion of inseparability between film and “real life.” When we enter the blackened world of the cinema and take our seats in front of the screen, it is the things we see in our periphery, the seats lined up in rows ahead of us, dimly lit floor-lights which align the pathways between aisles, glowing red “EXIT” signs, even the propped up heads of other moviegoers in their seats, not to mention those who speak to others or answer phone calls while the film is playing or who pass in front of the screen on their way into or out of their seats, that force an irreconcilable juxtaposition between our world and the world which is projected onto the screen before us.
Horkheimer and Adorno were correct in identifying the cinema as a space in which vision is mechanically inscribed upon a viewing subject, but it is not until the rise of virtual reality that this inscription rises to the true height of their prediction. It is at this point that we can understand why virtual reality represents such a marked and critical divergence in the history of vision. As Michael Heim explains, “The picture frame, the proscenium, the movie theater all limit art by blocking it off as a section of reality. VR, with its augmented reality, allows a smoother, more controlled transition from virtual to real and back” (127). The greatest achievement of this technology is that it engenders the capacity to not only cut out any unregulated peripheral space but also to subject these spaces to the same levels of inscription as every other point within our visual field. Virtual reality, rather than “blocking off” the imagery which it produces and thereby creating distinctly framed parameters between the virtual world and the real world, instead destroys the frame completely. Once we commit our vision to the screen of the virtual reality headset, once we flip the switch to “on” and enter the virtual world on its own terms, we only see what is programmed to appear before us: this is inscriptive vision par excellence.
Before returning to Horkheimer and Adorno, it is important for us to consider that VR technology directly stems from the removal of the inscribed observer’s access to peripheral vision so as to create the most immersive environment possible. Combining decades of experience researching virtual reality and its psychological effects, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson write:
Stimuli from grounded reality should be blocked out…if the person in the [virtual simulation] can see the carpet on the physical floor out of the corner of her eye, then the immersive effect of the simulation is diminished. Consequently, the most immersive display devices prevent users from seeing the physical world around them. From the earliest days, the military has been aware of this and took great care to develop flight simulators in which pilots were totally surrounded by the fictional cockpit and airspace. (54)
VR technology is explicitly designed to target its observer by apprehending and instrumentalizing their peripheral field and then integrating it within the virtual “fiction.” Horkheimer and Adorno’s fear that film would carry the capacity to destroy the observational difference between projected reality and physical reality may have been premature, but it would appear that within the virtual reality headset these fears reach maturity; VR systems are literally designed with the intention of eliminating this very distinction between projection and reality by “prevent[ing] users from seeing the physical world around them.” It was for this exact reason that the very earliest examples of VR technology, as Blascovich and Bailenson point out, were intended as pilot training systems for the military; when preparing for intensive combat situations, it is imperative that training exercises should remain as authentic as possible so that they more fluidly carry over towards real-life experiences.
Indeed, even the neurophysiological record demonstrates that these design efforts have been largely successful, as research increasingly reveals a worrisome inability of the observer to distinguish between what is real and what is virtual. While witnessing or participating in virtual simulations,
The brain often fails to differentiate between virtual experiences and real ones. The patterns of neurons that fire when one watches a three-dimensional digital re-creation of a supermodel, such as Giselle or Fabio, are very similar—if not identical—to those that fire in the actual presence of the models. Walking a tightrope over a chasm in virtual reality can be a terrifying ordeal even if the walker knows it’s virtual rather than physical. (Blascovich and Bailenson 1)
Already, the human brain struggles to react appropriately to virtual simulation even when the observer is made consciously aware of the fact that their experience is not physical. As the power of virtual simulation increases with the use of sharper, more immersive graphic effects, faster computer processing and digital rendering, and a widened capacity to cybernetically reproduce the human sensorium by incorporating tactile, olfactory, and perhaps even gustatory elements in addition to VR’s current visual and auditory components, it is likely that the observer’s ability to accurately distinguish between physical reality and virtual simulation will continue to erode.
It is for this very reason that virtual simulation poses yet another critical turning point in the evolution of the observing subject. While the camera obscura functions by isolating its subject from the external world within a cogitative environment, nineteenth century science wrests the observer from this meditative “askesis” and instead situates them as a passive recipient of physiological stimulation. With the invention of film, the mechanism of inscription becomes condensed and specific; it is projected over a screen which stands a concrete and measurable distance from the observer. With each successive step, visual technologies isolate new frontiers which they then seek to conquer and make susceptible to visual instrumentalization. Finally, inside the virtual reality headset, the eyes of the observer—merely fractions of an inch removed from the apparatus itself—are so thoroughly apprehended and controlled that they no longer represent the primary target of virtual inscription: it is not physical vision but internal (that is to say, mental and imaginative) vision which now finds itself the surface of external inscription. Again, our discourse breaks down; it is not the observer of physical reality but rather the imaginer of an internal landscape whom this new visual technology targets. In order to account for this change, we must shift our focus once more: this time from inscribed observer to inscribed imagination.
Yet, as the subject of our analysis shifts from physical to imaginary images, I would like to briefly clarify my use of the term “imagination” before applying such an ambiguous term within any critical capacity. While there are many separate theoretical approaches to the concept of “imagination,” I will be primarily focusing on the notion of imagination asserted by Jean-Paul Sartre in his work, The Imaginary, because it is this conception which most explicitly illustrates the way in which imagination functions as a primarily visual faculty. In The Imaginary, Sartre calls attention to the visual nature of imagination by centering his understanding of it around a faculty that he refers to as the “imaging consciousness.” Sartre explains:
This imaging consciousness may be called representative in the sense that it will seek its object on the ground of perception and aims at the sensitive elements that constitute that object…In perception, the actual representative element corresponds to a passivity of consciousness. In the [imagined] image, that element, in so far as it is primary and incommunicable, is the product of a conscious activity, is shot through with a flow of creative will. It follows necessarily that the object as imaged is never anything more than the consciousness one has of it. (15)
For Sartre, the imaging consciousness functions by reproducing the “sensitive” and distinguishing characteristics of objects as imaginary images rather than as sensory perceptions. Thus, Sartre understands the key difference between imagination and sense perception as one of passive versus active construction. In ordinary sense perception, the “the actual representative element corresponds to a passivity of consciousness” insofar as our awareness of the external world is generated by our bodies constant and automatic gathering of sensory data. When we open our eyes, we do not see the world because we will ourselves to do so, we see it because our eyes are biologically constructed to gather light while our brains are constructed to form this light into a cohesive image. Contrastingly, imagination is a process that requires “conscious activity” and “creative will” because it is predicated on our ability to form “primary and incommunicable details” that we must induce without the benefit of any direct sensory analogue. In this way, imagination is also a highly visual practice: it attempts to simulate the sensory experience of viewing a physical object or external scene but does so using only the creative and cogitative abilities of a single imaging mind.
With this established, we can return to Horkheimer and Adorno and see how their analysis, though faultily applied to film, ends up a highly prescient model once applied to virtual reality and the imagination. They continue the above passage, writing:
Far more strongly than the theatre of illusion, film denies its audience any dimension in which they might roam freely in imagination—contained by the film’s framework but unsupervised by its precise actualities—without losing the thread; thus it trains those exposed to it to identify film directly with reality. The withering of imagination and spontaneity in the consumer of culture today need not be traced back to psychological mechanisms. The products themselves, especially the most characteristic, the sound film, cripple those faculties through their objective makeup. They are so constructed that their adequate comprehension requires a quick, observant, knowledgeable cast of mind but positively debars the spectator from thinking, if he is not to miss the fleeting facts. (100)
Here we clearly discern the way in which Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument lends itself much more readily as an analysis of virtual reality—rather than film—as a tool which the culture industry aims towards the appropriation and destruction of the imagination. By apprehending the visual field of the observer and by severing the observer from the ability to access even peripherally un-inscribed and free spaces, virtual reality “denies any dimension in which [the observer] might roam freely in imagination.” More than even the most immersive theater experience, it is virtual reality which “positively debars the spectator from thinking.” As passive observers of complete and totalizing visual fields which are artificially produced, directly inscribed into our vision, and purposefully engineered towards the objective of removing any unregulated or unintentional peripheral spaces, virtual reality, with a voice as seductive as the very idea of technological progress, invites us to un-shoulder the heavy burden of our own exhaustively demanding imagination so that we can instead peacefully submit ourselves to the pre-programmed imagination of a commercialized device.
At the same time, as the above passage alludes to, there is one final way in which virtual reality as inscriptive vision threatens the eventual death of the imagination; not only does virtual reality portend a state in which we are explicitly prevented from accessing our own imaginative thoughts, but it also renders the visual space of imagination as a type of commodified and vacated real-estate: a real-estate which can be filled by the virtual images and experiences that consumers will ostensibly be paying to acquire. In this way, rather than a space which is specifically reserved as a personal retreat for the individual who must distance themself from their immediate surroundings, the imagination instead becomes the very thing which situates us in a state of complete accessibility. We are all rendered into commodities. As Horkheimer and Adorno further:
The power of industrial society is imprinted on people once and for all…Each [product] is a model of the gigantic economic machinery, which, from the first, keeps everyone on their toes, both at work and in the leisure time which resembles it…Each single manifestation of the culture industry inescapably reproduces human beings as what the whole has made them. (100)
Through products (like virtual reality) that seek to “imprint” themselves upon people in such a way so that the product ends up fabricating its own necessity, the imagination becomes more akin to a billboard which is filled out by corporate advertisements than a space of internal freedom and artistic creation. If there is one centrally important point to be taken from Sartre’s understanding of imagination as an active faculty, it is precisely that any apparatus which suppresses the active imagination in favor of visual inscription is one that seeks to sever us from the freedom of our own minds. As we experience the inscriptive force of virtual worlds which visual technologies digitally graft onto our field of vision, we become the recipients of a new type of economic power: a power which, by operating through the imagination—by turning our greatest means of independent thought and resistance into its very own mode of operationality—literally seeks to posit itself as a cybernetic “off”-switch that leaves us without the capacity to say “no.” As soon as we enter a virtual landscape that dictates, with every second, where the conscious thoughts of our imagination are to be directed, for how long, and for what purpose, we resign ourselves to the same mechanical nature of the technology that governs our thinking. When we reach this point, we no longer consume technology: rather, technology has already been turned towards consuming us.
Perhaps no critic speaks more prophetically to the problem of virtual simulation in the contemporary moment than Jean Baudrillard. In Simulacra and Simulation, he writes:
It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself—such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences. (2-3)
Though Baudrillard’s intent here is to arrive at an analysis of “simulation” in general rather than virtual reality as a specific manifestation of simulation, it should by now be clear to us how Baudrillard’s description of a “programmatic…machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes” identically matches our discussion of virtual reality. As the observer of virtual reality is severed from peripheral vision and faced with a technological surface which purposefully disrupts their ability to distinguish between reality and simulation, we too may conclude, “Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself.” Yet this death of the real simultaneously foreshadows a “resurrection” and reformulation of our understanding of reality through the emergence of the “hyperreal”: a state in which the real, having been made sensorially subservient to the stylistically superior visual saturation of simulation, becomes less privileged as a mode of experiencing the world then the simulation that replaces it.
But what truly marks out the hyperreal as such is the way in which it is “sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary.” Virtual reality, too, viewing the imagination as a potential threat capable of puncturing the virtual illusion, seeks to ensure that the imagination remains stagnant and inaccessible. Like hyperreality, virtual reality can only engender a substitution between reality and simulation when we no longer have any sense of the former; here we must confront the fact that the object of virtual simulation is not virtual reality but rather virtual hyperreality. In a sense, this should have already been obvious from the start; if the intention of virtual reality is truly to simulate the world as we already experience it, then the technology would be limited to merely reproducing the quotidian monotony which eventually drives people to desire new vistas in the first place. Rather, the appeal of virtual reality lies in its ability to remove us from these mundane sensory experiences, to overwhelm us with an effusive cinematic depth that we literally cannot turn away from because the simulated environment is three-dimensional and has already precluded our ability to do so. The aim of virtual simulation is not to reproduce reality, it is to eliminate our experience of reality by re-embodying us within a state of hyperreality, a space in which, as Baudrillard describes, we are left only with the externally programmed “orbital recurrence of models and…simulated generation of differences” that we are to receive, once again, as passive surfaces of inscription.
But although this notion of the hyperreal may provide us with a useful model for approaching the ontological status of virtual simulation, to stop here would be premature; it is not sufficient for any critique of power to remain enclosed within its own vacuum. Criticism must not simply point out how systems of power function; it must also point back to the reality in which these systems exist. It must expose not just the apparatuses themselves but also the logic through which they are derived. What, then, can be said of virtual hyperreality, not as a system, but as a symptom?
Conclusion: Externalization, the Dream Machine, and What Comes Next?
Earlier, I referred to the notion of what I have called “inscribed imagination” in order to discuss the way in which the physical proximity between virtual reality devices and the eyes of the observer allows this technology to access the imagination of the observer and render it into a site of visual inscription. If we are to take this gradual and increasingly invasive approach towards the observer’s eyes and body as just one additional step in a programmatic chain rather than a point of termination, then what is the ideology which fastens this chain together and where can we expect the next link to clamp shut?
The logic of visual modernity is a logic of penetration and externalization. We have come a long way from the introspective darkness of the camera obscura, but what this journey must have made clear by now is that the history of visuality is a history of the appropriation, externalization, and instrumentalization of the observer and their mental interiority. The nineteenth century and its new physiology of vision leaves the observer nothing more than a blank “surface of inscription” bereft of any visual autonomy. In the twentieth century, film attempts to mold this surface by fracturing the observer’s interior perception of the distinction between reality and simulation, thus further removing the observer from any capacity for independent political volition. Virtual reality, succeeding where film fails, occasions a complete apprehension of the observer’s ability to think and imagine: the VR headset leaves us with no space to do so, peripheral or otherwise. What is common to all of these cases is the use of visual technologies as apparatuses of penetration that grant external agents deeper and deeper entrance into the mind of the observer as well as the ability to make these internal spaces increasingly transparent to the outside world.
But in the complex depths of the human mind, even these technologies find their limits. Earlier, I mentioned that it is precisely the furthest reaches of the conscious mind that virtual reality accesses and appropriates, but it is in the recessed caverns of unconscious thought that the technologies thus far discussed finally meet a threshold beyond which they cannot pass; the depth of these waters, as it would seem, is where the pressure and darkness become too great even for the most formidable virtual reality devices.
However, if we are to view the unconscious mind with hopes of recourse—with the desire to escape towards a fortress more impenetrable than imagination—then we must temper our optimism with the imminent threat of colonization that looms over even this most fortified realm. By momentarily expanding our attention and considering recent developments in visual culture other than virtual reality—particularly those relating to the visualization of dreams—we can more accurately understand the severity of the situation. Crary furthers:
During the last few years, news stories have sensationally heralded research at UC Berkeley and Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for using data from brain scans of visual cortex activity in dreaming subjects to generate digital images that allegedly represent what the subjects are dreaming of. Big-budget movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception amplify the notion that dreams are effectively a product that can be used and manipulated like other kinds of media content. The currency of such fantasies is enhanced by the announcement of related developments in brain research: for example, the assertion that brain scanners at airports and elsewhere soon will be able to detect “pernicious thoughts” in potential terrorists. (97)
In the midst of these types of visual technologies and the notion of vision which they give rise to—namely, that vision is to be depersonalized and constantly subject to mechanical as well digital production, reproduction, and projection—it becomes clear that VR is only one point of a vast network of visual (and virtual) operationality in which each node is pointed past the observer’s eyes and into the space of their conscious and unconscious mind. Thus, to express concern solely for VR and its capacity to transform the observer while neglecting to extend these same concerns to other visual technologies is to leave the act of criticism within a state of paralysis. It is only by understanding the broader logic of penetration and externalization—of which VR is just one among many highlighting instances—that criticism can begin to say something truly meaningful about the state of the human being who is confronted with these technologies.
Initially, we set out to answer the question of how VR technology re-situates the relationship between the observing subject and the power networks which are applied to them. We have found our answer in the breakdown of the observing subject into inscribed object, in the cave-in of surfaces of external manipulation from the screen to the face and then to the mind, and finally in the collapse of reality into simulated hyperreality. But this is not the complete picture. What we must see—what we must liberate—is the logic of visual penetration which forms the driving force behind virtual simulation, which inspires the reproduction and apprehension of dreams, and which allows us to conceptualize thoughts and mental imaginaries in terms of “something like media software or a kind of ‘content’ to which, in principle, there could be instrumental access” (Crary 97).
Thus we end on a new question: how do we resist the apprehension of vision by technologies and agents which seek to commodify it and then sell it back to us? Ironically, it is possible that our best answer lies within the very thing that is targeted for annihilation. As Sartre writes, “Imagination is not an empirical power added to consciousness, but is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom” (186). We defend the imaginary by returning to it, because it is this faculty which provides the most important prerequisite for social and economic freedom; it is only through the imagination that we may envision a world without these restrictions and in which we may construct new ideals of how we are to live our best possible lives—and live them for our own sake and not the sake of any corporate entity that values human society only for the profit that it generates. We must value this strength and the freedom which it allows us to derive, and we must do so with such effusion and commitment that we reject all that seeks to supplant it; free of inscriptive projection, free of the headset, free of simulation, we must always imagine.
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