Introduction: From Possible Worlds to Virtual Reality
Ryan, Marie-Laure, Style
In: virtual reality. Out: reality. So claimed on December 31, 1994 one of those countless lists of predictions that invariably herald the coming of a new year.(1) What is out is the concept of a reality where the mind and the body encounter the resistance of matter, where the laws of gravity hold, where some events happen that you cannot take back, where you live only one life. What is in is a realm where all your wishes can be fulfilled, where you live multiple lives, where you can inhabit multiple personalities, and where nothing "counts" because it is only a game, an endlessly repeatable and endlessly variable simulation.
With this pronouncement, a major theme of postmodernism has gone mainstream. As Benjamin Woolley describes the contemporary mind set: "Reality has left the physical world and moved into the virtual one" (235). For the past twenty years, what has been "in" for cultural theory was any kind of concept that opposes and challenges nature, essence, and reality: copies, fake, fiction, conventions, the artificial, make-believe and role playing. The news of "the death of reality" and of its replacement by hyperrealities did not await electronic mail td spread throughout the cultural, critical, and literary scene. In an intellectual climate that regards concepts as toys to play with and that favors consensus over correspondence theories of truth (if truth remains an issue at all), professions of radical antirealism are often more an intellectual game than a metaphysical commitment, for such a commitment would reinstate "the absence of reality" as surrogate reality: this is to say, as transcendental object of knowledge. (Hard-core postmodernists would of course reply that playing games is the only metaphysical commitment left after the death of reality.) Games may be played in a spirit of nonseriousness, but they are part of a culture, and as such they must be taken seriously. Thus, regardless of our personal position concerning the nature, existence, or epistemic accessibility of reality, we must address the theme of its crisis and the emergence of alternative concepts if we want to understand the contemporary zeitgeist. The focus of this issue of Style is a conceptual space encompassing two manifestations of what may be called "the parareal": one--possible worlds, or PW--a philosophical notion currently developing into a tool of literary criticism; the other--virtual reality, or VR--a technological phenomenon that has recently captured the public's imagination, attracting along the way theoretical attention from the academic community.
The relation between postmodernism and PW theory can be described as a love-hate affair. The love part stems from the endorsement by PW theory of an ontological model consisting of a plurality of worlds. In this model, contemporary thought finds a philosophical basis for its endorsement of diversity in all its forms, from multiculturalism within society to a pluralism of coexisting individuals within the subject. According to Brian McHale, the transition from modernism to postmodernism is defined by a shift from an epistemological to an ontological dominant: "Intractable epistemological uncertainty becomes at a certain point ontological plurality or instability" (11). McHale's assimilation of plurality with instability--a fairly typical move in postmodern thought--points, however, to the hate part of the relationship. The rallying cry of postmodern theory is the negative prefix: as Linda Hutcheon observes, the term "postmodernism" is "usually accompanied by a grand flourish of negativized rhetoric: we hear of discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentering, indeterminacy, and antitotalization" (3). Encompassing all of these notions, of course, is the almighty concept of deconstruction. This approach to diversity runs contrary to the structure assigned by PW theory to its ontological model; hence the hate component. By designating one world of the system as actual and by opposing it to the surrounding nonactual possible worlds (as Saul Kripke defines the so-called "M-model"), PW theory postulates an ontological center that dispels any chance of equality among the members of the system. Choosing a specific world as actual may strike the radical postmodernist as a move as arbitrary as privileging the world view of a specific group. The concept of "actual world" and, by extension, of "reality" smacks of elitism, absolutism, monologism, logocentrism, and of naive belief in the transparency of the world to the mind. Postmodern thought would open its arms to the theory of possible worlds, if only it could do away with its inherent hierarchy, if all worlds could be regarded as equally real or, alternatively, as equally virtual.(2) In this egalitarian model, there would be no need for a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, both types of discourse being recognized as imaginary constructs nourished by cultural convention rather than by objective facts and as potentially constitutive of an image functioning as reality. For if postmodernism has lost belief in the real, it understands that something must take its place, and this something is what Jean Baudrillard calls the hyperreal: an image that "bears no relation to any reality whatsoever," that is "its own pure simulacrum" (170).
As resistant to postmodern ideology as it may seem, however, the ontological model of PW theory provides a privileged way to theorize the topoi of postmodern thought and to describe the structural idiosyncrasies of postmodern fictional worlds. It takes a grasp of the philosophical issue of reality to evaluate the claims of radical antirealism. It takes an ontological model based on the idea of a center to understand what is meant by decentering. It takes a theory of ontological boundaries to describe the postmodern games of transgressing these boundaries. And finally, it takes a doctrine of the unicity of the actual world to formulate the paradox of fictional worlds in which forking paths are simultaneously taken, leading to parallel realities. (Foremost among them are the worlds of hypertext-based interactive fiction.) In short, the more forceful the postmodern assault on the idea of an ontological system composed of one actual world surrounded by multiple nonactual possible worlds, the more urgent is the need of an understanding of this modal structure to describe the alternatives proposed by postmodern thought and fiction.
The contributions of PW theory to literary theory can be evaluated in two ways: how PW theory explains and reconfigures the phenomena described by other approaches and what new phenomena it allows one to talk about. By the first criterion, the contribution of the PW approach resides in redefining the notion of fictionality, in proposing an ontological account of recursive embedding and narrative levels, and in providing a basis for a semantic typology of fictional worlds. By the second criterion--the most heavily favored in a cultural climate that regards facts and data as products of the framework under which they are gathered rather than as objectively given entities--the significance of PW theory resides primarily in its insistence on the interplay of the real and the virtual in the semantic structure of text-created worlds. I do not mean to say that PW theory has a monopoly on the idea of virtuality. But while other theories tend to segregate the virtual from the real, ascribing texts globally to one or the other of these domains (depending on whether or not the textual reference world is presented as real or imaginary), the PW approach insists on the dialectical relation between the two concepts and regards the opposition actual-virtual as built into the semantics of every textual world independently of the question of fictionality.
This assumption has been particularly fruitful for narrative semantics. The PW approach has emphasized the network of virtual constructs--beliefs, hopes, fears, and plans--that motivates the actions of characters in a story. It teaches us that the universes of so-called realistic fiction are as full of virtual as of factual events. The trademark of realistic fiction does not reside in a limitation to factuality, but in its insistence on the difference between the actual core of the universe and its virtual horizon and in a subordination of the virtual to the actual. The "possible worlds" contemplated by characters are regarded as a rationalization of their physical, objectively observable behavior: a character's goals, plans, and desires are detailed as the motivation of his actions. The evolution from realistic to modernist fiction can be viewed as a shrinking and backgrounding of the actual core of the textual universe. As the relation of the private worlds of characters to behavior becomes more problematic, these worlds become worth exploring for their own sake, and they move into focal position. In postmodernism, this shrinking threatens to lead to an implosion, after which the distinction actual-virtual will be no longer be tenable.
As a movement-defining slogan, such a pronouncement is of course a schematic overstatement. Postmodernism may flirt with a model of universal reality-universal virtuality, but if this ideal were fully realized it would shut out the basic mechanisms of narrative comprehension and of world construction. The question, "Is this event described as real, or is it just a belief, hope, fear, dream, hallucination, picture, movie, or computer-simulated experience?" remains one of the most powerful strategies for taming textual chaos into an intelligible representation. For all their efforts to impede the process of sorting out the actual from the virtual, postmodern texts live from the frustration of this process, or at least they will do so until the reader becomes blase and abandons any hope of intelligibility. If we are forced to give up the attempt to construct an actual core, we may just as well give up the notion of textual world or universe, a step that Umberto Eco, in The Role of the Reader, is ready to take in the case of logically contradictory fiction.(3) In the absence of any concept of textual world there will be nothing to imagine, for imagining presupposes a world functioning as background or container for the imagined objects. In a worldless text, the only entity offered to the reader's contemplation will be a language that has been turned into opaque matter.
The development of virtual reality as a technological phenomenon suggests a different way to conceptualize the relation between virtuality and actuality. Rather than rendering obsolete the opposition real-virtual, the expression of virtual reality exploits this opposition by building the two concepts into an oxymoron. The concept of virtual reality maintains a conception of the real as a term involving absolute reference. Computer-generated worlds remain fundamentally opposed to "real" or "actual" reality (at least until virtual realities become so self-sufficient that users live and die in them). As Michael Heim observes,
Irrealism may be short-sighted. We may need to hang onto a notion of real world, if not out of abstract conviction then at least out of the need for occasional reality checks against our virtual-reality systems. ...
For the contemporary
line of thinking, reality has lost its meaning as a serious term. The coming VR engines may force a change in that general line of thought and shed new light on classical metaphysics. (131)
For Heim, the difference between real and virtual reality resides in three constraints that "anchor us" in the real world: our inevitable mortality, the irreversible directionality of time, and a sense of precariousness arising from the possibility of physical injury (136).
But if virtual reality is defined by its opposition to nonvirtual reality, the fact that both are called "realities" entails a relaxation of the term. Conjoined with "virtual," "reality" designates a way of experiencing a world, rather than a specific world. Virtual reality reconciles the concepts of virtuality and reality by allowing the user to live the virtual as if it were real, but it avoids at the same time the state of ontological anarchy that would result from the collapse of the distinction. This idea of experiencing the virtual as reality inverts the tendency of postmodern theory to virtualize the real. Far from undermining the foundations of PW theory-as would a straight denial of the distinction actual-virtual--the concept of virtual reality provides support to (or is supported by) at least one version of the theory: the indexical interpretation of actuality proposed by David Lewis. In the indexical interpretation, the term "actual" does not carry absolute reference but designates the world of the modal system in which the experiencer is located. This shifting value makes it possible for every possible world to be experienced as reality by its inhabitants. By maintaining the distinction actual-possible while avoiding the concept of a unique actual world, the indexical view of actuality offers an alternative to the rigidly centered metaphysics that has become the bete noire of postmodern theory without yielding to the temptation of a radically decentered universe. This alternative is a universe subjectively experienced as centered but allowing free recentering as a ludic activity. We may regard ourselves as bound by physical law or metaphysical necessity to a specific world, but we may relocate ourselves in imagination to other possible worlds and experience them as reality.
Access to these substitute, or virtual, realities requires a mode of transportation, and membership in them necessitates either an illusion or a willing suspension of disbelief. Until the development of VR technology, the available modes of transportation included dream and hallucination in the illusory mode and fiction, paintings (at least certain kinds), movies, drama, and children's games of make-believe (as described by Kendall Walton) in the suspension mode. The ambition of VR developers is to add to this catalog a mode of transportation that involves not only the mind but also the body: in an ideal VR system (a state of the art only crudely approximated by currently available technology), the computer-generated world will offer data to the sense of touch, and the user will interact with this world through physical gestures such as moving the head to alter the visual display, walking around to explore new corners of the virtual world, grabbing and moving objects to change the environment.
The analogy between being transported into a computer-generated reality and being recentered in a fictional world is strengthened by the metaphors through which VR developers describe the purpose of their technology:
enter the virtual world, their depth of engagement gradually meanders away from here until they cross the threshold of involvement. Now they are absorbed in the virtual world, similar to being in an engrossing book. (Pimentel and Texeira 151)
Other metaphors of VR reach even further back in time, linking it to the origins of art. For Howard Rheingold, VR originated in the initiation ceremonies that presumably took place in the painted caves of the Paleolithic age. As they descended into the cave to be initiated into the secrets of toolmaking, novices penetrated a sacred space. The pictures on the walls took on a spiritual life and were apprehended as a higher reality. For Brenda Laurel, the prototype of VR is ancient Greek theater when theater was ritual and not yet representation. The metaphorical relations between VR and ritual include the idea of a separate world that is entered for the sake of undergoing a mind-enhancing experience; an active involvement by the participant rather than passive spectatorship (interactivity is the essence of the VR experience); the participation of both mind and body in the experience (a slogan of VR claims that "your body is your interface"(4)); the presence of a regulative script (the ceremonial protocol or the computer software) that coordinates effects, assigns roles, and protects the separate reality from the apparent chaos of real reality; the denial of the difference between signs and that which they represent (a phenomenon known in ritual as transubstantiation and in VR as the disappearance of the computer); the experience of the immediate presence of spiritual forces or of virtual objects and the ability to manipulate these entities as if they were material bodies; and finally the extension of the power to control the environment beyond the physical confines of the body, an extension through which the body acquires a cosmic dimension (networking and telepresence).
Even before VR emerged as a "real" technology, it existed in the virtual mode as a literary theme. The general public's idea of VR stems as much from fictional constructs--such as the Holodeck in the TV series Star Trek, the movie Lawnmower Man, or William Gibson's novel Neuromancer and its notion of cyberspace--as from technical discourse or journalistic reports. Cyberspace, an expression coined by Gibson, not only lent its name by derivation to the literary movement of cyberpunk, it also became the accepted term in both the scientific community and the general public for (at this point I must leave a question mark, for the range of the metaphor seems to be an ever-expanding and ill-defined territory). The aggressive promotion of the term by the media and by companies interested in increasing the use of the telephone network may indeed have succeeded in covering up the vagueness of its meaning and, some would even say, its lack of referent. In the mind of the public, if there is a term, there is a thing, and if there is a thing, there is a need for it especially if the term and the thing enjoy the glamour of the new.(5)
The literary origin of cyberspace has now been largely forgotten, and what was once a metaphor is regarded as a literal designation. In the now accepted parlance, cyberspace is the other side of the screen, where one is when one is using a computer, whether one is playing games, word-processing, traveling the "information superhighway" or "infobahn" (another metaphor spun from the space of cyberspace), or "navigating" (still another official metaphor) without a map of the system through the maze of embedded menus of the Internet. (What cyberspace seems not to be, by contrast, is the physical space of the planet as traversed by the telephone lines that connect computer sites and allow the travel of data.) Cyberspace solidified as a metaphorical space when the idea of traveling information was replaced with the idea of a traveling user: the experience is not one of receiving data through the telephone lines--as in good old taken-for-granted telephone communication--but one of being transported to a site functioning as host, heart, and mother lode of the data. As it is now being used, the term blends two intrinsically independent ideas: the idea of networking and telecommunication and the idea of an alternate reality offering an escape from the real world. Both of these ideas are activated in the cyberspace experience described in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer. Gibson's cyberspace is a "matrix" containing:
A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. ... (51)
Cyberspace provides the euphoric experience of being immersed in a "sea of information" (239) where everything exists as electronic data, as a three-dimensional computer simulation. "Filtered through the computer matrix." writes Heim, "all reality becomes patterns of information" (90). The user "jacked" into cyberspace is inside this information, which becomes less information about something (the real world) than information contemplated for its own sake:
And there things could be counted, each one. He knew the number of grains of sand in the construct of the beach (a number coded in a mathematical system that existed nowhere outside the mind that was Neuromancer
an AI system
). He knew the number of yellow food packets in the canisters in the bunker (four hundred and seven). He knew the number of brass teeth in the left half of the open zipper of the salt-crusted leather jacket that Linda Lee wore as she trudged along the sunset beach. (258)
The source of the data may be technological, but the contemplation of information in the Matrix is nothing short of a mystical experience. In "The Aleph," Jorge Luis Borges describes a similar state of total knowledge, reached in this case through the contemplation of a cabalistic symbol:
On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. ... The Aleph's diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror's face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and dayfall; I saw the multitudes of the Americas; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid. ... (26-27)
After two pages of such enumerations the sentence concludes: "and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon--the unimaginable universe" (28). By refracting everything in the universe, the Aleph prefigures the ultimate network of "total information," the ultimate VR system.(6)
The assimilation of a system of information to a virtual reality may sound strange, but it is gaining acceptance, as everything computer related tends to be regarded as virtual (cf. Heim 132), including the data transmitted through computer networks.(7) In a narrow sense, of course, there is no reason to consider a world-spanning network, such as the Internet, as a virtual-reality system. It exists for the exchange of information, and this exchange can be a way of doing the business of the real world. The material (and I want to believe, very real) copy of this issue of Style would not have come into being without repeated exchanges of messages through electronic mail. But there are other uses of the network than doing the real world's business. One of them is to cruise around, grabbing every piece of available information not for its practical use but for the mere enjoyment of its retrieval. Another is to access bona fide fictional worlds in the form of text-based interactive role-playing games. In both of these uses, the Internet offers less an image of the real world than a substitute reality experienced for its own sake. In the mind of the general public, the virtuality found in particular pockets of the Internet or in particular uses of the system is now beginning to stretch over the entire phenomenon of computer networking. Computers take us into cyberspace, and cyberspace is virtual reality. As the domain covered by the term of cyberspace expands, and the once-live metaphor turns into a taken-for-granted lexical term (watch out for its appearance in the next edition of Webster's dictionary]), the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality looms larger and larger on the computer screen. (See Mark Nunes's article in this issue.) In this metaphorical expansion, computer technology is being recuperated by the postmodern project of virtualizing reality.
From cybernetics to cyberspace, virtual reality, and finally hyperreality--a concept that suggests no less than a Disneyland of the mind--the analogical process has slipped a long way from its point of departure. Through this process, the phenomenon of computer technology is being shaped for the collective imagination and turned into a cultural stereotype. The proper way to deal with the metaphors of postmodern thought (as well as those of any period or movement) is neither to regard them as literal pronouncements capturing absolute truths nor to denounce them as "only metaphors," but to recognize them for what they are: innovative uses of language that interpret as well as designate. As instances of semantic displacement, metaphors present their referent in a relative and partial but also revealing light, for their relativity holds the key to a mode of thinking. This approach is particularly appropriate for an age that suspects tropes in every use of language.
The papers in this issue retrace some of the stages in the quest and tribulations of the postmodern mind, a quest leading from the "here" of the real to the elsewhere of recentered and decentered ontologies, from these alternate ontologies all the way to impossible worlds and worldless textuality and back, if not to the really real at least to the substitute realities promoted by electronic technology. Ruth Ronen's paper explores the philosophical foundations of the postmodernism rejection of realism as well as its inherent contradictions. Lubomir Dolezel derives from the theory of possible worlds a number of theses on the nature of fictional worlds, theses that locate meaning in the interplay of filled and empty domains--fiber and holes--that make up the "texture" of the work. For Dolezel, fictional worlds are not ontologically complete objects more or less completely represented by language, but objects of variable degrees of incompleteness distinguished by the "saturation" of their matter, a saturation determined by the corresponding "density" of the texture. In contrast to theories based on the idea of an opposition between the make-believe "fullness" of the worlds of classical fiction and the ontological deviance of postmodern worlds, Dolezel outlines a semantics that treats all fictional worlds on a continuum from Goethe to Ronald Sukenick and from Benjamin Constant to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. William Ashline ventures into the realm of impossible fictions, surveying literary theoretical and philosophical positions with respect to a highly publicized aspect of postmodernism that has been too often glossed over. Whereas most theorists restrict the term to works that contradict the laws of logic, Ashline distinguishes two additional cases of impossible fiction: a work that cannot be written and a work that cannot be imagined. May Charles raises the question of what can be salvaged for the imagination when the notion of textual reference world is systematically undermined. My own paper mediates between the possible-world approach and the concept of virtual reality as it defines a technique of virtual narration through which the text takes a half step into higher ontological levels. By discussing the impact of this technique on the allegorization of the phenomenon of immersion in a fictional world, the paper establishes a conceptual tie with the field of VR since the purpose of the technology is to create an "immersive, interactive experience mediated by a computer" (Pimentel and Texeira 11). Within postmodernism, perhaps the only alternative to the games of mirrors of metafiction is cyberpunk, a blend of science-fiction and dystopic anticipation spiked with themes of contemporary counterculture. Lance Olsen goes back to the origin of the movement as well as to the source of the concept of cyberspace in his reading of William Gibson's Neuromancer. In a playful simulation of hypertext--a writing technique boosted by electronic technology but actually pioneered by Roland Barthes in S/Z--he develops a general poetics of cyberpunk out of a 34-word textual matrix that ends precisely with this word (matrix meaning here the locus of an electronic representation of all that is). In an age when theory has been accused of feeding upon itself, Mark Nunes takes it back, if not to the real world, at least to what is threatening to replace reality as he analyzes the phenomenon of networking and the metaphor of cyberspace in the light of Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality. The theme of this issue continues in the book-review section with the discussion of recent publications dealing with possible worlds, virtual reality, and finally hypertext, the electronic mode of writing and thinking that some theorists believe to be the decentered, interactive, nonauthoritarian, and nonlinear idiom that postmodernism has so long been searching for.
1 "What's Hot" 1E. Reality shares the dubious status of being "out" together with health food, jogging, and lists. Foremost among the "ins" is independent thinking.
2 An egalitarian ontology would, however, imply a radical departure from the patterns of thought encoded in language. Language is indeed full of semantic devices marking a distinction between the actual and the virtual: verbal forms such as the conditional; predicates such as to imagine and to dream; modal predicates such as possible, impossible, and necessary; the if operator; and last but not least the adjectives themselves, real and virtual.
3 The idea is that if both p and -p are asserted in a text, then this world is no longer closed under implicature: everything can be inferred from any sentence, and no world can be constructed. World construction is a process of sorting out propositions, retaining some as true and rejecting others as false. On Eco's rejection of the concept of world for logically contradictory fictions, see William Ashline's paper in this issue.
4 William Brickemp, quoted in Pimentel and Texeira (160).
5 In this spirit, a recent special issue of Time magazine on cyberspace turned out to be a giant infomercial for AT&T.
6 As Lance Olsen's paper in this issue demonstrates, the theme of the Aleph has indeed been picked up by William Gibson in connection with the concept of an electronic information system with mystical implications.
7 This association of virtuality with computers is rooted in the terminology of computer architecture: virtual memory (external memory such as disks functioning from the point of view of the user as if it were internal memory) or virtual machines (a machine that seems to understand a set of instructions formulated in a certain high-level language--such as BASIC, C, word-processor menu instructions, perhaps some day spoken English--when in fact the instructions have to be translated into another code (binary machine language) for the computer to execute them. In both of these cases, virtual means "as good as." The use of virtual to designate computer-mediated activities has gone so far that the relationship of people who never met in reality communicating via e-mail is now officially known as "virtual." An electronic journal (what else?) is dedicated to the study of virtual relationships and virtual communities (=user-interest groups accessible through computer networks). The term "virtual relation" would never have been used for old-fashioned pen-pals.
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