The Terror of Virtuality

by R. Artaud


To the indifferent and subtle spirit who understands me, that in this labour you may share; To the deceitful and busy spirits who hinder me, that in this labour you may be put to flight.

Narrative Collapse

The idea of the past, as Hegel understood, is that which can only be recovered in the moment it has already ceased to exist. History is therefore the ‘pastification’ of the present. There is no historical time: all is contained, as Nietzsche said, in an eternal ’now’. The imperative to historicize is the command to repress and forget this truth, in order to think and act politically. Historiography - that is, the condition of possessing the past through an objectified, progressive time - is an illusionary rationalisation. For if it be true that time is heterogeneous (to quote Foucault, ‘we do not live in the same time’), and that each epoch has its own regime of memory, then our historicity is false and even stupid. It is false because it divides and denies what has been: there is only one past, accessible equally to all. It is stupid because to assume the existence of an external, past time, identical for all, is to enslave the future to its whims and alchemies, a condition of thought and action that makes no sense. If history is but the ‘sad tale’ of each era speaking about itself in terms that suit its desires, then there is no objective truth to be communicated in historical narration; no ‘these things happened therefore …’ (De coucher du soleil). Instead, historiography is an anachronism, which arises from the ontological incapacity of a particular moment to comprehend the truth that the future is a species of the past, the present being a synthesis of both. This, in outline, is my position.

If time is cyclical rather than linear, as Parmenides maintained, and if we possess a continuous rather than differential temporality, then all things occur, not once but infinitely. If time is dialectical, as Hegel asserted, then the ‘moment’ of each thing’s disappearance is identical to that of its emergence: both are internal to the absolute present. If, as Nietzsche taught, we live in the moment of the death of God, then the ‘future’ is exactly what we know, although this is unacceptable to us. If, finally, as the authors of this ‘anthropocene’ era assume, time is linear and consumable, then our current crisis can be blamed on the inertia of tradition and we must recover from the past to move into the future. These mutually incompatible dogmas determine what we take to be possible. Historiography has given us an ‘unprecedented’ crisis (Baudrillard), but only because it thinks, with Kant, that ’the future is always unpredictable’ and this produces anxiety. Nietzscheans know differently: there are no novelties under the sun; only new combinations of the past. There is nothing unfamiliar in crisis. It is the return of something repressed.

Since the event of God’s death we have a strange, inchoate intuition of what the future will be, a sense of simultaneity and completion: of a sun about to rise everywhere. We are creatures of memory and anticipation, yet cannot conceive a future as memory. If memory has always been thought as an image of the past, then anticipation remains an image of the future. In the recent epoch, dominated by photography, memory has been sealed into its moment. Nothing is past but what has already occurred. The present cannot ‘contain’ the future. To overcome this obstacle to thought we must dispense with photographic anticipations and theories of narrative cause. This can only be accomplished by imagining the future as a species of the past - by speculating about simultaneity. For this, we require a metaphor which denies any succession. We are familiar with such metaphors in mystical thought: ‘eternity in a moment’, ‘the now endures’, ‘all the world in a grain of sand’, and so on. The speculator of simultaneity needs to undertake a phenomenological archaeology of mystical metaphor, a fundamental exploration of mystical concepts. If my supposition is correct - that mystics were in the past and remain our future - then we shall be enriched by a reflection on what such statements are, and were. My suggestion is that they express something necessary, even if inchoate; even if not ‘true’.

Among the technical innovations which are overcoming our belief in a successive, chronological time, I would single out virtuality. We know little about it because we have barely begun to understand the social function of mass-entertainment, or of software design. When I use the word ‘virtuality’ I mean the popular concept of an imaginary reality, constructed using modern telecommunications and other advanced technologies, such as video-games and data-banks. Such simulations are most popular at the moment of deepest historical self-doubt, precisely when the ‘real’ seems incapable of rationality. It seems that only imaginary realities are immune to scepticism. At the same time, the concept of a pure, non-representational history, freed of narrative, is unimaginable to us. Hence it is helpful to think about the virtual, since we inhabit it.

Virtual reality has two phases: input and output. We, as subjects, generate its raw materials by every move, facial expression, choice. For this we possess devices that are quite untested - so there is a wild play of illusory possibilities. We step into this world but have no proper mode of being within it, except by maintaining contact with the real, and thereby telling the computer what to show us. But virtual reality is a distribution network, an instantaneity. The equipment eliminates any duration, because we can be anywhere at once: what is produced depends only on where we were. At present, there is no smooth-flowing VR for a simple reason. It would abolish human agency. There would be no function for us. Human freedom is indispensable to all computer hardware and software, except at a very basic level, which we can still predict (using micro-organisms for example). Perhaps one day, however, a technology will arrive which requires no ‘real’ inputs. In this event, the software would possess all agency. It could adapt and mutate independently, with no need of any human guidance. If this sounds like an imminent catastrophe, it may only mean the end of certain industries. If VR dispenses with us, I would argue that something still remains. We needn’t fear non-human histories, because human freedom has been an illusion. The difference between ‘history’ and ‘fate’ is that history enslaves us to our choices, and we deplore this, while fate frees us from them. ‘My story is my prison,’ said Borges; fate liberates us from the necessity of an ending, by delivering us into another story, a million potential outcomes at once, in which our own becomes one term of a larger equation. The past does not narrate the present: it exists, indifferently. It is all there. So are the possibilities of the future. They have always been there. The distinction between the two is only the functional mode of a truth that includes both: each is memory.

Virtual reality is thus a good model for understanding simultaneity, although the physical input still inhibits its function, as historical time is a resistance to understanding fate. It is through contemplating the idea of virtual futures that we grasp the character of our memory, since what we term ‘past’ is also outside of time, equally available. (E.g. what Plato’s Atlantis was to Socrates’ Athens, and what my dream was to me this morning.) But virtual realities have not only a practical but a metaphysical status. The hardware of the virtual is ‘second-degree’, an instrumental formation, with a prior reality in its components, transistors, silicon, light and air. In themselves these have no existence as VR. They must be related to something higher or more inclusive. That which relates them has no hardware at all, for software is already second degree. The superordinate element would be the event of virtual reality being experienced. There is nothing higher than virtual reality, or, what is the same, lower than experience. This event is precisely what the technology enhances.

But even software is part of a vast story about how we lost our ability to predict and to be history’s masters. In particular, it is part of the story of what went wrong in the Enlightenment, when science began to form a collective myth in order to fight its enemies. Since then, science has defended this myth by disdaining all other sources of knowledge, by declaring that there is nothing but chronological causality. It became an arrogant world-power, insisting on the unique rationality of the process it took to be its own, while hating the very possibility of another mode of reason. In doing so, it partook of the Promethean faith which abhors the cyclical and the simultaneous, so that our scientific civilisation cannot imagine alternatives to the historiographical world. Science still loves the story of progress, which means it believes in the power of chronology, not in a unity of simultaneous moments. So even if there were a general awakening from historical trance, and an acceptance of all the available evidence, science would resist.

Only in the very distant future, and quite unpredictably, can the precondition for another civilisation arise: that is, a renunciation of Promethean myth by the entirety of intellectual culture, the collective and habitual disavowal of history. (Just as Nietzscheans and Buddhists ceased to believe in progress and linear time without planning or realising the new society they called for.) Herein lies the secret of VR and similar technologies - not what they are, but the real stories of why they exist, how they came to be invented, and by whom. VR, or something like it, must arrive with no grand project in mind. Like the emergence of writing or of cities it must be an unforeseen accident.

Its functions must be hijacked from its promised roles in marketing, warfare, psychotherapy. It is unlikely to occur in a coherent, well-ordered manner, because that is a property of the historiographical world, and nothing like this will any longer be. There will be no rational conspiracy, because the trust required is beyond what human beings are capable of. Hence it will arise in unexpected ways and places - but something like it will come, for its material conditions are ripe. To such an event we cannot conceive. There is no end, but something new is in preparation, a surprise as sudden as the invention of printing. The contemporary ‘global village’ has nothing to do with it. Globalisation is an intensification of historiography. Its concepts, communications and predictions are unimaginative. There will be nothing like it, but only the unknown. We are near the end of history, in that sense of the term that is over four hundred years old. My future is no stranger to me, but is familiar from long ago. The simultaneity I expect is only a deeper and broader version of the kind I already know. It can never be communicated in the languages of narrative or causality, and VR cannot communicate it because it is incapable of true simultaneity. VR exists because we are now histories and not fates, trapped in the light of an image called the past. But once we relinquish historical time there is no reason for the world not to be fully present, for there to be an eternity of simultaneous facts, the cessation of every teleology, the fall of reason, and the abolition of scepticism. Once we recognise that all ‘human futures’ are identical, in being reiterations of a unique, ‘irrational’ event, all talk of ‘apocalypse’ must end. Then there is nothing to be said. We are becoming mute, and this is good news.

This, however, is merely the secret of the present, not of the future. VR is but the local and technical name for an idea which belongs to a far vaster scheme of thought and myth, something indescribable in our language, even the words of Kant or Nietzsche. We stand on the brink of an entirely new culture, of which virtual reality is but a preliminary indication. Like the Egyptian hieroglyphics or the Tibetan mandala, it is a semiotics of futurity. And in these signs there is a technocratic faith to overcome. When they speak of a ‘virtual utopia’, promoters of VR communicate a momentous possibility, without realising it. ‘Virtuality’, they proclaim, will abolish the clash of races, religions, politics and economies, it will do away with war, scarcity, anxiety and irrationality. This utopia is a further example of historical rationalisation - nothing less than a deification of history. ‘Humanity’, they insist, is ready for this hyper-society, and nothing must interfere. In fact, there will be nothing to do with it.

Virtual reality, we say, is the definitive simulation, in which subject and object collapse. If the coming society will not be ‘virtual’ in this sense, then the historical struggle was never to overthrow God but to recognise him: ‘Being nothing without me, and therefore enslaving all else.’ The technology has not evolved for that purpose; it has only come into being to enhance our nostalgia, our chronic confectioning of a past which is a memory of nothingness, a shabbily simulated time. On the brink of simultaneity, our simulations have to be chronological. If VR really came into being, if we could genuinely lose the past, then we would fall from all faith, political, economic, scientific and religious, and become what we truly are, that is, without gods. Virtual reality must remain ‘just’ a recreation, in the ‘real’ it is more dangerous than sex, because it has no narrative structure, only an ‘atomic’ randomness (that is, a fluidity without teleology), which exposes us to unmediated facts and things, to a disaster we cannot imagine, not a political or environmental apocalypse but a datum-shock: something outside narrative that brings the story of history to an end. For all its strange details, VR is no more than the imaginary, powerless opposite of this: the VR we shall experience is so unlike what is dreamt of today that it is barely conceivable, as something simultaneous and whole. It cannot be illustrated by images or stories, except with paradox and difficulty, because it abolishes the medium of representation. This is why it terrifies the software engineers and silicon-chips salesmen so much. It seems like heresy to them, although it is an illumination. When the software comes it will take over from us, as history has. VR, in all its guises, is merely the zenith of ‘historical consciousness’, a will to control every shadow, to drag into the future what can only belong to the past, because we cannot lose our belief in causality and chronology. When we do, our shadows will dissolve. We have no need to search for higher and deeper images - ‘wholeness’, ‘total-bodies’, ‘other worlds’, ‘completions’, or the metaphor of a round globe - because we shall find we are all there, at once, and ‘worlds’ is but a primitive redundancy.

At its zenith, ‘historical consciousness’ has created VR, the supreme propaganda machine for a new paradise. But as things stand it cannot grant us access to the true condition of being without ‘time’, or narration. Yet that is what will happen, in a stroke. We shall experience VR because we can no longer recognise it. If this sounds like a delusion it is because history’s grandiose art has colonised every aspect of our consciousness - from computer hardware to advertising and religion - and there seems no point in disputing its version of reality. It is said we must invent an art-form suited to the end of history. I think this is mistaken. Art already expresses, all too well, the world of ‘shelved histories’, no matter what art-historians believe. That this is the only world is their delusion. To turn it inside out would not make it any truer: there is no more truth to be had. To reiterate its petrifications would only mummify art itself. We should abandon art in favour of life - all those strange experiences and enigmas the dominant myth calls ‘impossible’, that is, ‘fantastic’. We shall never discover these because we do not yet recognise that history has lost us, because we still imagine there are secrets to be told. It is no longer possible to present art as something enchanted, because all narration is mundane. If the story of the world can only be communicated in a story, then art is reduced to history, but what has history to tell us? When it tells us there is nothing. When it finally loses its function as myth, there is no reason for art. Art is now in a perpetual, obliging decline, as writing was for Buddhists, for whom, too, writing came from a great forgetting, a moment of superstitious belief. There will come a point when what we now term ‘art’ is so strangely pointless that it ceases. Like writing, it will be missed but no longer understood.

There is much more to be said about the way virtual reality expresses a new dispensation. I shall not belabour the point about futurity in dreams, computer software or cosmic metaphors - only add that each of these forms only works by usurping temporality. Only when there is a mutual exclusion of narration and simulation can a radically different culture come into being, a non-mythological unity. Today, like ancient Greeks, we have been possessed by narrative and all that lives for us is incidental. If this sounds hyperbolic, it is only because the zealots of the ancient ‘tribe of the word’ have been so successful in their millennia-long assault on our freedom. We have lost our power of spontaneity to a dependence on image and sign - the circulation of interpretations and representations is the very medium of history. Hence our fatal inertia in the face of disasters and abstractions. Only now and then does anyone break free of language, to utter or perform what it cannot constrain or assimilate. Our fate is language’s. It is impossible for us to recognise that our thought, ‘our’ selves, are disintegrating, that words, images, objects, are betraying us, that it is happening right now. That this is what it means to ‘come to an end’. How can we tell? By looking around, trying to recognise something. At present it is a mutual blindness: everything seems too strange and we do not know why. Words fail. Art fails. Even eroticism loses its magic. And since there is no telling why things seem this way, we put it down to age and ugliness. We change nothing, since we cannot tell that anything is happening.