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Into the Metaverse: Flusser and Virtual Reality

Written in


by Vit Van Camp


In his Into the Universe of Technical Images, Vilém Flusser presents his argument for a nascent “universe of technical images.” For Flusser, the reproducibility of the technical image constitutes a “cultural revolution” predicated on a radical break with the older system of linear writing which he understood as a receptacle for the historical form of temporality as such. Here, he understands the narrative form – for which language and writing serve as vehicles – as always circulating within an integral ideology of temporality, noting that in the post-modern technosphere, this “linearity is decaying spontaneously […] And so we have no choice but to risk a leap into the new.”[1] This new, “posthistorical, dimensionless state”[2] is seen as a “utopia […] no longer found in any place or time but in imagined surfaces, in surfaces that absorb geography and history.”[3]  Much like in the philosophy of Fredric Jameson or Jean Baudrillard, Flusser does not afford the same temporal sensibility to the postmodern condition, which he understands as being predicated rather on spatial modularity which transcodes and recontextualizes a finite database of items. This universe of technical images is ever further integrated within the symbolic economy of semiocapitalism, functioning within its own ecology of relations, brandishing its own icons, relations of indexicality, and symbolism. The internet is, of course the latest incarnation of this ever more complex attempt at a vast metaverse. Technologies of virtual/augmented reality constitute a radical step forward towards the post-historical metaverse of technical images which Flusser in his work heralded.

Vilém Flusser
Vilém Flusser – Image from:

Why a metaverse?[4] One of the principal characteristics of “the universe of technical images” is the attempt at showing and storing the myriad perspectives and subjective impressions of a world which, implicitly, is still understood naively and ideologically as singular and shared  (it is no happenstance that the universe of technical images and its molecular constitutive particle – the image complex – is often, for instance in the work of J. Baudrillard, S. Sontag, V. Flusser, or E. Weizman, associated with the politics of journalism). The logistics of such a drive toward semiotic sublimation are predicated on the ideation of technology as a form of neurotic defense mechanism. The specific dimension of Flusser’s universe of technical images is predicated on an indexical, metonymic logic of the part and the whole. As Flusser writes, “The gesture of the envisioner is directed from a particle toward a surface that can never be achieved. [italics mine]”[5] Much like in the famous J.-L. Borges story, “On Exactitude in Science,” such an endeavor may be seen as a form of defense mechanism against looming, psychotic chaos. The objective of such labor is to map the territory, so to speak, in an attempt to sublimate and encapsulate, in a strongly fetishistic gesture, the world as we perceive it. In the act of ‘working through,’ we remake reality in the virtual, and the connection of the technical image with its real-life referent constitutes the objective of such an attempt at verisimilitude.
Such reproductive apparatuses which facilitate this drive are ever changing, and it is necessary to attempt to theorize virtual and augmented reality within this very continuum of technological development.

The Apparatus

The development of virtual reality devices like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift constitutes one of the most recent leaps forward in the consumption of the universe of technical images. Entire 3D virtual environments can be mapped out for to the user/customer, offering a subjective experience bordering on the technological sublime. Especially when the user is still new to the experience, the immersion in a virtual 3D environment can, on a subjective level, seem quite paradoxically ‘eye-opening,’ and even after the user takes off the goggles which constitute the only point of access to the VR ‘Gamer’s Cave,’ the effect on the mind (which could be labeled as a type of ‘clearing’) is still palpable for minutes afterwards. The technical images coalesce to create a personalized experience and the feeling of parallel reality, or virtuality, persists even when after the actual experience is finished.

From Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, 2015/07/16/ gear-vr-just-got-the-best-game-about-disarming-bombs/

Even though many games offer a multiplayer experience, VR is a leap forward in the personalization of a user’s experience. Where the TV experience is still closely modeled on the familial ‘hearth,’ drawing together kinsmen for a shared experience in space and time, the computer game is a step away from such a dynamic, being more predicated upon the interaction of what Alex Galloway terms ‘Operator’ and ‘Machine.’ The computer gaming experience is more machinic and personal than familial or intimate – even more so than a console experience which, much like the TV session, is quite often structured around an extradiegetic social context of mutual sharing and human-to-human interaction. VR radically curbs such possibility of non-diegetic interaction (although some games, like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, deftly manage to incorporate it). Grafting itself onto the sensory organs of the Operator’s human body – her eyes and ears – the VR platform is in this sense a truly immersive experience, personal and most often socially passive. The bodily choreography of players immersed in a VR experience present a case in point, their idiosyncratic movements and myopia grotesquely showing their disassociation from the outside world. In previous times, such a lapse of attention may have cost one their life or their freedom. The question is, whether this wider, political reality has at all changed. How to combat the potential corrosion of public space, social cohesion and political agency in the face of a technology seemingly predicated on a social dynamic of interpassivity? To what degree do we allow the universe of technical images to consume a shared context of historicity, and how do we, faced with a utopia-machine of immense and fully personalized hallucinatory power, retain common spaces, both real and virtual?
Mark Zuckerberg - virtual reality


Gaming Ideology

If we accept Wendy Chun’s proposal that “computers […] are ideology machines,”[6] we must ask ourselves: what types of ideologies are being programmed and disseminated? In the same essay, Chun puts forth the idea that “Software is based on a fetishistic logic. Users know very well that their folders and desktops are not really folders and desktops, but they treat them as if they were.” This proposition applies doubly to games, which are in fact highly aestheticized ideological constructs which usually attempt to facilitate a rift with the wider political and historical environment in order to engender the absolute “as if” illusion for the user. This disavowed “as if” suspension of reality constitutes a fundamental feature of ideology as such.[7] Mainstream games have a tendency to use some of the best electronic hardware to suspend a shared, social reality fed by kinship relations, economy, culture, politics, physiology, etc. and replace it with a sublimated, virtual version of a similar world, but once removed. They perform an always-already ‘reduced,’ phantasmatic metaverse – one where the gamer feels safe within an algorithm of prescribed and numerated processes and functions.
The user always straddles two modes of subjectivity when gaming: one allegorical, predicated on a ‘speaking otherwise,’ the metaverse of an ‘other’ world which indexes the real; and one algorithmic where the gamer understands that she is not in the real world, but where only her avatar (and there is always a form of avatar subjectivity in gaming which structures the whole gamic experience) is subject to the game’s algorithms which are specific and relatively immutable. The first mode of subjectivity, the allegorical, attempts to neurotically preserve the ‘fourth wall’ of the illusion/ideology, while the latter, the algorithmic, understands the pixelated and algorithmic nature of the illusion. As such, the gamic experience is most easily theorized through the prism of the ‘allegorithmic mode’ which is based just as much on reading/scanning, as on actions (Galloway: “If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions.”[8]). On the part of the Operator, the ideology is both acquired passively, and reiterated and affirmed performatively in a mutually integrated feedback loop.
How then to limit the integrally solipsistic Operator/Machine dynamics of such a circuit?

Playing Against the Algorithm

Of course, the multi-billion dollar gaming industry is, at the moment, a budding venture market, but investment and turnover has been steadily rising ever since the 1983 ‘video game crash’ which shook up the industry. The connection of video games to what McKenzie Wark terms the ‘military-entertainment complex’ has also been duly noted, and previous consumer titles such as America’s Army or Full Spectrum Warrior testify to the usefulness of bringing an aligned version of world politics into young people’s homes. Such cultural developments have been getting progressively more attention in the theories and analyses of Peter Christiansen, Marcus Schulzke, Corey Mead and many others. There is much vested interest in the industry, and VR and AR are claiming (along with mobile games) an ever increasingly large slice of the proverbial pie. This is to be expected. But the threat posed to by the largely immersive VR environment only raises the stakes for the responsible use of such a technology.

In the past, when technical images were still inscribed within a two-dimensional medium and were always framed by non-diegetic backdrops and spatial contexts (the photo album, the cinema, the computer screen…) Flusser advocated for a ‘playing against’ the apparatus. In his Towards a Philosophy of Photography he writes: “The informative photographs of photographers playing against the program signify breakthroughs in the photographic universe – and are not predicted within the program.”[9] He repeats the phrase that “Freedom is playing against the camera.”[10] Such a logic applies equally to video games – at their time a radical step forward into the ‘universe of images’ due to their actionability – and has been extensively elaborated upon in, for instance, the work of McKenzie Wark or Alex R. Galloway. In his Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Galloway devotes much space to the logistics of what he calls ‘countergaming’ – a technique  which may use modding or hacking for various purposes, one among them being the countercultural, culture-jamming, archaic but still entertaining détournement. There are however other lines of flight: creative modding, video games as documentaries (such as in Brody Condon‘s Waco Resurrection), social commentary (Escape from Woomera) or relatively self-contained (that is, in Galloway’s typology, mostly unactionable “Machine-Diegetic“) art pieces. Such possibilities must stay open also for the new technology of VR, and it is nice to see that some university institutions (such as the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, for example) have devoted their time and resources to fostering an experimental, fresh approach to creating virtual 3D environments, as yet unencumbered by sales figures and market expectations.
To accept Galloway’s idea that gaming is commensurate with action, the proposition applies double to virtual reality, insofar as there is a much more elaborate bodily choreography (head bobs, turning, hand sensors, or eye motion) than that linked with video or computer games. The materialized ideology of the computer/VR game rewires the gamer more robustly and more surely than previous (textual or cinematic) technologies. It is also for this reason that, in Galloway’s words, “We need an avant-garde of video gaming not just in visual form but also in actional form. We need radical gameplay, not just radical graphics.”[11] As a digitally literate society, we must attempt to make sure that the potential of VR and AR is used in ways which would truly rewire the socio-political circuitry, rather than feed an ever voracious military-entertainment complex. A material, political audit of what Oculus inventor, former Facebook employee and alt-right enthusiast Palmer Luckey has termed the “final form of media”[12] is indeed in order.

by Vit Bohal

[1] Vilém Flusser, Into the World of Technical Images (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) 15.

[2] Flusser, Into the World, 6.

[3] Flusser, Into the World, 4.

[4] Steven E. Jones understands the metaverse as “a universe of networked activities attached to – and encoded in meaningful correspondence with – the material universe of physical objects and social relations.” in “Second Life, Video Games and the Social Text,” PMLA (January 2009) 266. As such, it always functions as an index towards the ‘real world.’ The Real, after all, is that which may not be symbolized, yet is insistent on just such a form of cathecting, or ‘working through’.

[5] Flusser, Into the World, 21.

[6] Wendy Chun, “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge,” accessed 29.6.2017 43.

[7] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 2002).

[8] Alexander Galloway, “Introduction: The Computer as a Mode of Mediation,” Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 2.

[9] Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Reaktion Books, 2006) 69.

[10] Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 80.

[11] Galloway, Gaming, 125.

[12] Maximum PC, “Palmer Luckey discusses the future of VR,” Youtube accessed 29.6.2017

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