Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

Spectral Machinery (or beyond Essence and System)

Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

Spectral Machinery (or beyond Essence and System)

Article excerpt

The Question Concerning Synthetic Worlds

... by what means did I end up here? "Here" is what Edward Castronova has called a "synthetic world," (1) but which most users call a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game or MMORPG. Castronova's term is preferred because MMORPG has a sense that the environment is typified as a "game" whereas Castronova's term covers environments in which world-like economies operate and might even, "in principle, affect macroeconomic conditions on Earth." (2) A sine qua non of a phenomenology of synthetic worlds must be that a phenomenological attitude can be adopted toward this object: it must be bracketed in a process analogous to stepping back to apprehend it in its distinctness. Yet "stepping back" presupposes having already stepped forward to the object: there can be no phenomenology of synthetic worlds from the perspective of one who has never fully engaged with the experience of such a world. Two terms remain fundamental as a result: "I" and the "here/there" of the synthetic world. In order to step back, I am obliged to ask how it was that "I" came to the "here" from which I wish to withdraw, hence the first question--perhaps the question: by what means did I end up here?

Martin Heidegger argues that to understand the essence of technology, we must eo ipso disregard the technological writ large, separating the essence of technology from its functioning in terms of means and ends. (3) We have nevertheless already found ourselves constructing our question in just these terms that Heidegger would keep separate: by what means did I end up here? Yet Heidegger's deliberations steer us away from any thought of there being any single (or "the") question concerning technology; rather, he argues that phenomenological questioning is itself undermined if understood as means to achieve an end. Essence is never an "end" of phenomenological inquiry, a product of the questions we ask. We arrive at what might already seem an impasse: the "here" at which "I" end in synthetic worlding is incommensurate with Heidegger's separation of questioning from ends. Bernard Stiegler's critique of Heidegger in Technics and Time, 1 provides the impetus we require. (4) Indeed, treatment of questions concerning technology has been drawn into the Heidegger-Stiegler divide in the past decade. Taking Stiegler's critique of Heidegger as a starting point, it will be shown that these two positions are not entirely incompatible despite Heidegger's crucial focus on "essence" and Stiegler's opposing focus on "system," and that a move beyond this distinction will pave the way for phenomenological inquiry into supposedly "virtual" phenomena of synthetic worlds.

For Stiegler, the avoidance of a language of means and ends should not also derail the phenomenological project: accordingly, we seek to circumvent any mode of analysis that, "opposing means and ends, remains hampered by categories that can no longer speak to what technics is." (5) Stiegler notes that technology apprehended as technics is not to be confused with technique; rather, technology is "either the discourse of certain types of procedures and techniques, or that of the totality of techniques inasmuch as they form a system." (6) For us to understand this totality of techniques in the formation of a system, it is necessary to also understand the history of this system inasmuch as it is a product of the coming together of multiple techniques over a period of time. This may seem redundant, yet scholarship of "cyberspace" or "virtual worlds" has tended either to focus unduly on the technology of the cyber- in the manner of a Heideggerian search for essence or to treat the internet as a "system," pace Stiegler, with the result that histories of techniques are seen as interesting contextual fodder but separable from the task of apprehending the "virtual" as such. After examining this essence-system split, we shall explore three intersecting histories of the evolution of some components of the technical system of a synthetic world. …

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