Virtualization of the Real and Omnipresence of the Virtual

This is an excerpt from Narrative Machines, available now on

“The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye, therefor the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain.” —Videodrome

According to Guy Debord, only the spectacle is real, only the performance of identity is a real identity. Only that which is recorded and presented has presence. He wrote this before the time of social media, but seemed to be writing with this sort of future in mind, much as Baudrillard with his Simulacra and Simulation.

This is the inversion of Walter Benjamin’s “aura” of authenticity which individuals and the sacred are said to possess — a quality that cannot be reproduced. Modernity is based upon utter reproduceability, and so we find that our identities, so much as they can be said to exist at all, are merely commodities. To the Suicide Machine we are only meat, and shouldn’t be so surprised to find ourselves in a factory marching slowly toward the killing floor when our use can no longer be fulfilled.

Being shut offline has a different significance now than it did even just 10 years ago. Our digital simulacra are the very things we’d need to delete to disappear from the world. What lies under the anxiety that would drive us to “delete ourselves” from our virtual societies? If deletion silences the real, can we finally say the one has subsumed the other — or more accurately, can we rather say that virtual and real has been shown as they truly are, a false binary?

Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

irl is an Internet neologism , “in real life”— though not so new, really, in a world where last week is ancient history — that we’ll be using mostly because rather than implying some “realer reality” in our bodies and minds, it defines our relationship with the so-called digitized virtual society. In other words, irl is all that is not a digital Other. Neither more nor less real, just a different way that we interact with the world and one another. The irl world seems a sea of strange faces floating by as we huddle aboard a subway car, illuminated by the lights of their phone screens — the “real” world mirrored back, and mediated by the true symbol for the self, not our body but the device in your hand. (Because all symbols lie in the intersection of signifier and sign). The real, then, is under your fingers, not just behind your eyes. That is, of course, assuming we can speak seriously any more of reality.

The “return to irl” is not a Luddite fantasy, a “nature” that has been corrupted by the digital. When we shut ourselves offline, we do not regain some unity with the silent heart of the world. We are, instead, increasingly barred from the village.

We have to recognize the significance of this process, which is so easily rendered banal — like water to a fish. We live at least partially inside a distributed network, where identity is performance and history is forever forgetful of itself. We have started a process of expanding and offloading our consciousness into the net. Before you write this off as nonsense, consider just how deeply Google and other info giants have entangled themselves in our memories, our identities, our most personal and inner thoughts.

Online, if you don’t speak, you vanish. For many of us, ties and boundaries and identities sculpted by long histories have already been cut. We have already started the process of irl disappearing. Forgetting always happens as minds are erased, but stories can keep these things alive —what I want, what you want, and why. We’ve come untethered, and this is yet another guise of the end of history. Let’s call it, instead, a death. After all, you will be forgotten and disappear into a silence that is not even itself remembered. That void is the true face of all our frenetic, virtual performance. Identity is now both performance and commodity, or it isn’t anything at all. Now the virtual seeks to usurp the manifest.

Do you even irl?

Can a People define themselves by the memes they remember from their childhood? Maybe they can, but it doesn’t bode well for the content of that communal memory. Bronies demand recognition of their culture, Jedi demand religious protection. Commoditized mythologies, utterly fungible and replaceable. Cults that can be bought and sold.

Sometimes we all get the urge to delete every virtual sign of ourselves we can — to run from it and try to create some bastion of irl reality, something with the feel of bedrock under it. “Get off the Internet for good, it’s been co-opted anyway”.

If you flee it all, delete what you can and reclaim the material, what have you done but lock yourself away from the rest of the world? Maybe a cell is also a form of freedom, in such a topsy turvy world. But what will you do there, exactly? Modern life demands, if nothing else, constant distraction and dissociation. The Internet is well wedded to that, even if it wasn’t purpose built. “Don’t worry,” they say, when you shut off your Facebook the 12th time. “They’ll be back.”

We yearn for something we can never fully satisfy — an immanent reality that can be controlled and curated like the virtual can. Instead, we find ourselves scribbling messages in bottles, without any real expectation of their being opened. Fragments of identity bob along like flotsam, friend and stranger mean nearly the same thing. (We especially mean the tracts of signifier and sign that we have strewn over a lifetime across the Internet — a curated identity and history that is not the life we’ve lived, not quite an echo or even a reflection, but something quite else. The virtual self as counterculture-corporate cargo cult.) Barthes probes in this direction with his essay, “Death of the Author.” We might not wonder at our intentionality with our texts, when we recognize that by building an assemblage (such as a book, or a twitter timeline) we are building sense. Writing and recording is compulsory because it is the only way we know to fight meaninglessness. We try to cocoon and thereby save what in ourselves can ever be saved. It is a play-fight, and one we always lose in the end. Once adrift in that ocean, the problem remains, and in a sense, heightens the anxiety.

( — And here we speak to a generalized kind of anxiety that many of us seem to be experiencing, a culture in a state of ruptured self-relation, more than a personal or particular sort.)

Walk around a city these days and you might find it strangely similar to the experience of wandering around Second Life in 2007. Amidst a random assortment of malls, casinos, and nightclubs, you see avatars mulling about, frequently freezing in place as the human behind the screen does something at their terminal, or heaven forbid, irl. Now our places have been reversed, we stop in place with the screen in our hand.

This speaks to our desire to get the goose out of the bottle and not only imagine a new world but inhabit it, yet lacking both the imagination and ability to do anything other than reify our world, our society, our identities in a hall of mirrors. A real relationship can happen in this sea of avatars and screen names. But what relationship do those doubles share with our inner life, and how do either compare with the bumbling idiots we encounter in ourselves and one another should we chance to meet irl?

What do we actually gain by accumulating likes in Facebook or on Instagram? The more you drill down into it, the more it might re-enforce a kind of movement toward “hygiene” — by removing all desire not at the root of desire, but at the point that desire is projected onto the Other. Digitization has yet to allow us to flee our material origins. Expect various fads involving cassette tapes and handicrafts to continue.

That very hunger that ceaselessly seeks something in the world to reflect our own image back at us is meat on the hook for Silicon Valley. “Who am I now? who am I now?” we ask our collected pantheons of branded media, and hear nothing in reply except the far off sound of a cash register dinging. We need one another to convince ourselves that our nonexistence is existence, and that something in this has meaning. It is a game we play. “I tell you that you are real, and you do the same for me.” We can’t possibly do this for ourselves. A person alone on an island survives, but they become, at least for a time, no longer entirely human.

If you are aware that identity is a manner of performance, it is at best a seduction — two lies told to create one shared truth, at least for tonight — then you can continue, even though you recognize it will vanish on light of day. Ultimately, the urge to delete all our doubles and vanish into the wilderness tends to pass, not because “it gets better,” but because it wouldn’t actually change anything. Without even the facsimile of a community, a common referent that goes beyond shared pop-cultural reference, our masks are just chattering at one another, repeating forgotten histories for no one. Underneath, we find nothing except more signs. If you return to the village, it has fallen in on itself, the windows cracked and soot-stained. It is eerily silent, with not even the sound of coyotes howling in the distance. Performance is not only play, it is an obligatory part of our existence. Even the gesture of nihilism remains a performance that defines our personal brand.

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”

’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play:

But I have that within which passeth show;

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

This line of thought gives lie to the conclusion of that famous stanza. Cease performing, and you cease existing. Even if you find Enlightenment in your LSD visions, the body still needs to pee. The heart beats on. What then?

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