Rhetoric and Virtualism

What does it mean to be virtual? Pierre Levy suggests that the virtual is the process of “becoming the other” – a process that moves from signification, to substitution, resulting in transformation (17, 115-118). Levy argues rhetoric (Levy defines rhetoric as that which “…designates the art of acting on others and the world by means of signs”) is the virtual aspect of language. Language, writes Levy, “…only truly comes into its own at the rhetorical stage, when it feeds off its own activity, imposes its objectives, and reinvents the world.” (117).

  In virtual spaces and VR environments, we continually encounter the process of virtualization. Individuals converge along points of interest, exchanging, internalizing, and spreading discourse, then transform into a communal identity at any given moment on the internet.  

In VR environments, you can “embody” the other or inhabit the other through exploration of virtual places. At times, VR experiences can be transformative for individuals (I’m certain you can easily find evidence of this through google searches). However, most VR experiences available in the consumer market are restrictive. You can think of the majority of VR as “gaming+,” meaning most are procedurally generated models of virtual worlds that have fixed parameters and goals/outcomes. In a majority of consumer VR experiences (as opposed to laboratory VR), you have a limited range of motion and interaction. Frankly, after taking some time to learn the process of coding for VR and Web VR, I can understand why. 

Programming for VR is inordinately difficult. The range of technology one can experience VR in is varied (everything from a cardboard VR for mobile devices to the Valve Index in the consumer market), and VR HMDs are fairly limited in capacity (as much as Lawnmower Man may make you believe otherwise). We haven’t yet mastered rendering graphics or sensors fluid enough to adapt to full body movements and augmentation in virtual spaces, nor have we begun to develop technologies that stimulate robust sensorimotor response (presently, we have some haptics for hand controllers and spatial audio, but little else). For the most part, VR enthusiasts and users frequently struggle to find sites of authentic virtualization as it is defined by Levy.

Despite our present limitations and options in the VR consumer market, Jaron Lanier, one of the progenitors of VR, believes that VR experiences should always strive to allow individuals to transform both the self and (digital) environment rather than act as tourist hotspots or curated events. If that seems like a lofty goal, it’s because it is. But Jaron Lanier is not the sort of person who thinks of near, or even remote, futures. Lanier virtualizes existence – seeing it as an infinite plateau with endlessly lines of flight (to borrow from Deleuze). The early development of VR required experimental intellects, such as Lanier, since computational graphics hadn’t yet evolved beyond pixelated symbols (often rendered on unwieldy displays): one needed to think beyond the massive CRT box.  

Lanier’s book, Dawn of the New Everything, is an autobiographical narrative of the development of VR.  Lanier’s personal accounts seem like something out of “a magical realism novella,” to quote Lanier. These bizarre, at times heartbreaking, and beautiful narratives serve as a testament to Lanier’s tenacious and inquisitive character – a brilliant and unique mind driven by a highly expressive vision of technology. These formative experiences inspired and shaped Lanier’s work and life – his 52 definitions of VR are interwoven throughout the narrative, as if to demonstrate that his vision of virtual reality was and is ever present in his life. Beyond the world of VR, readers also get a glimpse at the ethos of cyberculture in the 80s and 90s (which can only be described as cyberpunk).  

What I found most intriguing about Dawn of the New Everything is how Lanier articulates his vision of VR technology – what he hopes it will become. Although he never mentions him by name, Lanier seems to resonate with both Deleuze’s and Levy’s rendition of virtualism. Lanier believes that VR technology should allow us to explore other virtual planes of experience – other lines of flight, to use the words of Deleuze. “You should become an octopus” he might say in one of his numerous symposisms.

Image result for Lanier
taken from uploadvr.com

In Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier suggests that users should have complete autonomy of their virtual embodiment. With this affordance (i.e. full technical control and sensory immersion of various avatar presence(s)), users can experience the other, to echo Levy, through virtual reality technology. However, I want to couch this statement by noting that it is impossible to provide the experience of other individuals (that is to say, to replicate others lived experiences), but it is possible to provide simulations of lived experiences broadly (e.g. what it is to navigate the world with a lost limb) and to create a virtual augmented sensorimotor experience that are impossible for human beings by inhabiting alternate or speculative virtual presences (i.e. what it’s like to have the limbs and bodily mechanics of an otter or an alien with four arms and legs). Ideally, users could share these experiences in social VR, which exists in a fairly remarkable capacity currently through VR applications such as Altspace and VR chat. For Lanier, the social dynamic of VR is crucial since VR technology offers unique communicative capacities/affordances, expanding beyond aural and visual modes of expression and rhetoric. This interview with Lanier, hosted in a VR social space, delves into the socio-expressive aspect of virtual reality. MEU is a contemporary (still in alpha) VR social environment that best exemplifies Lanier’s vision of social VR.

Additionally, users of VR, according to Lanier, should have control of the entire virtual environment and be able to morph, shape, or transform virtual environment from one alien ecology to another. With this affordance, VR users engage in the rhetorical action of worlding, 

communicating through the ambiance and architecture of virtual khora. The potential applications for virtual experiences of that magnitude would be significant, but we’re simply not “there yet” with VR technology in the consumer market. Tilt Brush and other 3D modeling applications are as close as we can get for now, although all such applications lack the ability to experiment with embodiment through avatars presently. 

Lanier’s seemingly utopian perspective of VR is tempered by his concern over its potential to become the “ultimate skinner box,” or a device through which individuals can be conditioned not only through subliminal messaging, but overt manipulation through sensorimotor stimulation.

As I’d previously mentioned, research on VR as a form of treatment for PTSD, anxiety, and depression already suggests that there are real ethical concerns. If VR can aid in treating phobias, theoretically, it could also exacerbate and induce them.

In my previous entries, I discussed how immersion, presence, and place create rhetorical spaces/situations in virtual reality. If we consider Levy’s definition of rhetoric as “the art of acting on others and the world by use of signs,” or as an act of communication that is no longer “concerned solely with representing the state of things but also of transforming them, and creating a reality out of language,” VR technology appears to be a perfect vehicle for creating arguments beyond aural and written means. Users can experience arguments, expressed through sense of immersion, touch, sound, and sight in virtual places and presences. Still, more research needs to be conducted on user experiences with VR to determine how the technology acts as a rhetorical space/tool.

Author: Natalie Santiago

A PhD student and instructor of composition and rhetoric at Northern Illinois University; my research focuses on how VR, AR, and XR operate rhetorically and how this technology alters perceptions of ontology. My work typically builds on posthumanist, feminist, and minority studies frameworks.

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