Introduction: From Possible Worlds to Virtual Reality

By Ryan, Marie-Laure | Style, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

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. …

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