Over-Writing the Body: Virtual Reality and Cartesian Metaphysics

By Switzer, Robert | Philosophy Today, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Over-Writing the Body: Virtual Reality and Cartesian Metaphysics


Switzer, Robert, Philosophy Today


Reality is already "virtual." Our world is bathed and reflected in the blue light of video; in the glow of our monitors we immerse ourselves in the latest software and games; we thrill at our new deftness in surfing the net. And even when we are not given over to computers and the electronic media, we remain dominated by the cultural norms, the linguistic practices, and above all the images that proliferate through and around them.1 Thus today our lives are already being shaped-as in the near future they may be dominated-by the fastest growing new technology in history: Virtual Reality (VR). Yet for all its possibilities and seductions, a great part of the significance of VR is that it draws us to reflect on a broader, and far older, process, which could aptly be termed "virtualization"-and to recognize it as not merely a cultural, but a metaphysical, transformation. As "virtualized," the environing world has been reduced to an equipmental array, with Nature merely the quantified raw material banked and ready for our manipulation, transformation, and control. This technological domination of the "real" represents a victory of abstracting, and seemingly disembodied, intelligence, over a more corporeal and elemental engagement in what is. The physical bodies that constitute our world, and our own involved and empowered bodies, have been virtually "overwritten" by symbolic representations, by relational formulations and equivalence-by code.

The phenomena of "virtuality" takes us to the metaphysical assumptions and underpinnings of the contemporary world which has produced-at last, and as its completion-the technology of Virtual Reality itself.2 It is this epoch of ours, with its scientific comprehension of nature, which has made VR possible, and the structure and evolution of which VR will profoundly effect. This reality of ours, as already "virtual," as already discounted as mere phenomenal "show," remains characterized by the feature Heidegger named forty years ago: the domination of what is by technicity-which is to say, the completion of metaphysics.

But the peculiar fate of monolithic metaphysical thinking is that it continually subverts itself; even in Plato, the eros that is to propel the soul upwards towards the Hyper-Uranian Forms remains stubbornly and inalienably corporeal in its origin. The body not only resists the superimposition of reductive textuality, but itself underwrites the logocentric excursus: as I will argue, the virtualization of reality fails in its totalizing aspirations because it arises out of a prior insertion into, and implication with, the flesh of the real.

My intention here is to phenomenologically interrogate the VR experience. As the foregoing suggests, I shall pursue this questioning in term of Heidegger's critique of technicity and the later ontology of Merleau-Ponty. VR has intriguing possibilities; I do not mean to deny or downplay these.3 But, even as we rush headlong into it, we need to examine it philosophically: what motivates and undergirds it? The view I develop here is that VR furthers both the project of Cartesian metaphysics--the domination of nature and of our own bodies-and the postmodern trend towards what Dillon has called "semiotic reductionism." For Virtual Reality, at least in theory, reduces to a kind of digitalized abstraction my own corporeity, and the flesh of the world. But, as I shall argue here, on closer examination it becomes evident that it achieves its effects only by assuming, and building upon, a more primordial, embodied encounter with what is; the metaphysical fantasy of total comprehension and control--an old dream with new power and new dangers, in the hands of a new elite of magician-programmers-remains the fantasy of living, corporeal humans, and thus rooted not in a putative Cartesian certitude, but marked with the provisionality and partiality of an existential stance.

Virtual Reality technology involves, in its very name, the project of creating a "life-like" simulated environment, an experience which is "virtually" real. …

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