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The Virtual.

The Virtual. By Rob Shields. Key Ideas. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp xvi + 246, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations.

The Virtual, a volume in a series of equally ambitious titles (Culture and Racism are other titles in the Key Ideas series), is not a survey of literature on the virtual, but instead represents the author's own relationship to the subject. Thus Rob Shields' study takes an unwieldy concept and grounds it, for the most part, in everyday experiences. The virtual is integral to both work and play; it supports the continuous function of economies at local and global levels, and provides imaginary spaces for escapist fantasies. Each chapter presents a different approach to the virtual, offering readers an expansive, yet focused, view of the virtual that Shields patches together in a portrait of contemporary life. Shields begins by showing that the virtual is not synonymous with the digital or the simulated. Nor, he argues, is the concept entirely new. Virtuality has an established history in religion, philosophy, and the visual arts. Thus a contemporary treatment of the virtual ought not limit itself to cyberboosters, video games, or dot.coms. Instead Shields argues, "The virtual has become a key organizing idea for government policies, everyday practices and business strategies" (xv). As such, a historically broad and nuanced consideration of the virtual is important for cultural studies. Shields carefully tracks the relationship of the virtual to material reality, taking account of people that virtual technologies and theories of the virtual have tended to displace or ignore.

Shields begins his analysis of virtuality with sixteenth-century debates over the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. "[T]he conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ [was] actually real, material body and blood, insisted the Church. 'Virtually real,' argued Reformation theologians" (5). The virtual is defined in part by its proximity as well as its opposition to the actual; the sacrament is essentially Christ's flesh and blood according to Protestants, but is not actually so. This disjuncture between the virtual but real 'in essence' and the actual frames Shields' discussion. He relates the virtual to dreams, memories, and absent presences. Although lacking concreteness, the virtual is no less real or consequential for its intangibility. Virtuality is further linked to the virtuous; to spirituality, liturgy, and ritual as an ideal, a perfected and/or imagined but 'impossible' reality. Examples of virtuality as experienced reality include embodiments of the divine or supernatural, liminal zones, altered states, and periods of (social) transformation . The virtual contains within it the ideals of a society, whether manifested as embodying divinity through the sacrament or discarding cumbersome and needy physical bodies in virtual reality environments. "'Virtual' is a space," Shields argues, "it is places, relationships, and implies values" (20).

These relationships and values are of primary importance for Shields. He notes that cyberspace as imagined by science fiction writer William Gibson "describes the type(s) of social world that VR [virtual reality] might afford" (52). Cyberspace offered itself as "a haven for those who are otherwise labeled deviant or feel the restriction of social and moral discipline too strongly" (60). Cyberspace thus provides a liminoid space (akin to Victor Turner's liminal space, but evacuated of the transformative power associated with rites of passage) where experimentations with or expressions of otherwise socially unacceptable identities can occur. As Lisa Nakamura and others have pointed out, however, this may be more problematic than it seems at first glance. The Internet also fosters what might be termed 'identity tourism' where users can be a virtual 'other' (through avatars, etc.) without experiencing material repercussions for the identities assumed in virtual environments. Users thus misunderstand what it is to be 'other' as a result of their ability to play 'other.'

While Shields does give attention to philosophers of the virtual, such as Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, they remain of cursory importance to this project. In this regard, readers do not need to be familiar with the philosophical texts underlying Shields' work to benefit from this book. Indeed, Shields' real success is not his adaptation of Deleuze and other theorists of the virtual as an abstract concept, but his discussion of the virtual in everyday life, particularly in its redefinition of contemporary labor patterns. Shields criticizes the dehumanization of communication through the circulation of data that has replaced social networks as mechanisms of informational exchange (133-134). He argues that workers are further alienated from their labor in virtualized workplaces because they no longer deal directly with material objects. Embodied knowledge required to produce goods or perform intricate surgical procedures is replaced with mechanical processes. Now workers manipulate signs, images, and code as machines output standardized products (130-132).

Shields also criticizes the tyranny of work under the current regime of ubiquitous computing and endless data-management. There is no escape from the digital virtual technologies impinging upon the private sphere: telemarketers place carefully-timed calls based on database profiles of virtual consumers; employees work from home or on the road and are encouraged to stay 'in the loop' with cellular phones, e-mail, and other forms of instant communication. "The job never ends" for workers who have "acquiesce[d] in becoming cyberserfs-virtual slaves to technology and to organizations because of their surrender of control over their own attention (96-97, original emphasis).

While consumers may be reduced to their database counterparts and workers overtaxed by the surveilling presence of employers, the virtual contains yet another dimension. Consumers' relationships with companies or products are based on intangible, virtual qualities. Brand names inspire trust, and their promises of consistency act as a guarantee against risk (177-178). Virtuality is likewise fundamental to assessing safety and security, vulnerability, and danger (184). The virtual is also a mechanism of war, yet is perhaps simultaneously the antithesis of war as we have known it; a negation of war that Jean Baudrillard suggested in his essays on the Gulf War--a virtual war, a video game without blood or bodies. Shields rightly argues, however, that even wars fought on screens and monitors have actual, material consequences (211).

It is at the point of war that the path Shields traces through the virtual surprisingly comes full circle: the virtual as digital or technological collapses into the virtual as virtuous or ideal. In war, and more specifically in terrorism, technologies are put to use in the service of ideals as a "violent form of communication" (210). Shields explains, "In the hearts of those who sacrifice themselves for their ideals, the virtual reigns over the material." The promise of the hereafter, of justice (itself an impossible ideal), and of recompense takes precedence over and even justifies material consequences (i.e., deaths and injuries). For Shields, terrorism attempts to actualize the virtual, to bring to pass or make concrete an (in this case religious) ideality. Both terrorism and the 'War on Terror' thus represent "war[s] over virtualities, over 'real ideals'" (211). Reversing the argument, Shields states, "Virtual war is terrorism" (211). Virtuous wars, or wars of virtues and competing ideals, are terrorist. One must ask, when are wars fought for reasons other than competing ideals and opposing worldviews? Is all war therefore terrorist? Yes and no; wars fought as an attempt to actualize a religious or political virtue/ideal, presumably thereby imposing that ideal on other bodies, are terrorist in nature. This assessment is, of course, relevant to ongoing debates around the current war in Iraq, which many critics of George W. Bush have long called terrorist. In its theoretical and historical accounting of the virtual, Shields' argument lends credibility to such a characterization of the Iraq war, which might otherwise seem reactionary.

In the end, we must revisit Shields' statement that "'virtual' is a space; it is places, relationships, and implies values" (20). Just what are the values of the virtual, and where will they lead? Shields' open-ended critique is directed not at the virtual per se, but at abstraction--the denial of physical, material realities and their replacement by disembodied and immaterial ideals. Disjoining the ideal from the actual can translate, as we have seen, into violence. As long as the ideal remains an impossibility, something to work toward but which cannot (should not) in actuality be attained, this violence is kept at bay. Thus Marcel Proust's definition of the virtual as "real without being actual, ideal without being abstract" (25) also serves as a caution. The virtual may continue to provide a space for creation and innovation--"virtue," Shields reminds us, "[is] the power to produce results, to have an effect" (3)--but where the virtual lapses into abstraction and dehumanization, that same power and efficacy is deployed toward destructive ends.

Harmony Bench

University of California, Los Angeles
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Author:Bench, Harmony
Publication:Cultural Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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