Virtual Reality on the Loose

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Spirits in the Material World: The Challenge of Technology. Gilbert G. Germain. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.

 

With the publication of Spirits in the Material World: The Challenge of Technology, Gil Germain returns to the problem of disenchantment he first explored in A Discourse on Disenchantment: Reflections on Politics and Technology (SUNY, 1993). That early work employs Max Weber’s classical statement of the problem as a template for the analysis and then explores and critically assesses two contemporary attempts to respond to it: Jurgen Habermas’s critical theory and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.

In Spirits in the Material World, Germain continues the analysis by examining the manner in which modern technology has accelerated and exacerbated the experience of disenchantment that Weber identified and has led to a “spiritualization” of human life that calls into question the very notion of material or somatic reality (xix, 43, 191). Germain wisely chooses to conduct his analysis through a critical examination of four post-modern theorists: Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and Jean-François Lyotard. Post-modern theory is arguably the new orthodoxy in discussions of the reality problematic and thus tends to be repeated more often than it is read.

In Spirits in the Material World, Germain abandons orthodoxy in order to consider his authors seriously. This means reading them carefully to discover what they have to report about the status of reality in our time. His aim in doing so is to learn what resources these authors might offer us in our effort to understand the modern loss of phenomenal reality and its attendant worldlessness. Germain’s account of the origins of contemporary disenchantment is not given at once but emerges slowly as the analysis unfolds. Though its particular construction and orientation are unique to Germain, readers of the historiographies of Hannah Arendt, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss will find its basic contours familiar.

Modernity is a titanic enterprise, guided by scientific rationality, to move beyond phenomena to discover the true reality that underlies them. This underlying reality is truer or more real than the sensory objects we experience every day, but is itself not a product of observation but an achievement of human reason through the application of mathematics to phenomenal reality. Reality thus remains for moderns of paramount importance. But it is no longer the transcendent and ineffable reality of the gods of antiquity. Reality is now immanent, knowable, and, therefore, in principal open to human intervention and control (xii).

According to Germain, it was a short step from this account of material reality to the creation of the technologies that are now ubiquitous in contemporary life. Yet in an odd twist these technologies have abandoned the principle that guided the scientific rationality that gave them birth. Modernity sought to discover material reality free from religious and metaphysical encumbrances. Modern industrial technology created machines that made that reality more bearable and diminished human suffering. Modern digital technologies furthered the project by creating a virtual reality to replace material reality.

However this virtual reality has come to resemble the very religious and metaphysical encumbrances that science originally sought to expose and overcome through its technological achievements. We once fought the gods in the name of phenomenal reality; we now fight phenomenal reality in the name of the code (38). This outcome in turn points to a paradox in the nature of modernity that has consequences for our understanding both of its pursuit of reality and its relationship to post-modern thinking.

Post-modernity rejects modernity because modernity’s pursuit of reality leads inevitably to the political and intellectual totalitarianism of the twentieth century. In this regard modernity is the fulfillment of ambitions that originally took shape in the ancient world. Post-modernity departs from both traditions by abandoning the search for reality altogether in favour of a pluralism of image and sign. But since modern technology too abandons reality, Germain’s analysis encourages us to reconsider the distinction between modern and post-modern and even between modern and ancient.

One of the great strengths of Germain’s book is his description of the manner in which digital technology directs and shapes our experience of the world. His discussion of its consequences for our experience of space and time is compelling (73-95). Even more compelling is his account of the price we have paid intellectually and morally for the loss of this type of experience.

The “real time” existence made possible by the luminal speeds of our technologies has brought with it many financial and military advantages. However, these advantages seem negligible at best when measured against the consequences of such an existence for the human world. Life in real time abolishes time in its three dimensions in favour of life in the immediate.

Life in the immediate is not life in the present because the present has meaning in relation to the past and future. Living in the immediate is therefore to lack a present or presence. Without time in this phenomenal sense thought too disappears. “If thinking is a form of slowing down, then it holds that a world which operates at the speed of light is ill-disposed toward the cultivation of thought” (93). No one who teaches in a contemporary North American university will find this description excessive.

Students are certainly doing something in our classrooms and in their written work, but it is not thinking. And that change in students is being carefully watched and accommodated by all levels of the university administration. If the culture does not require thought, then the university will cease to require it as a sign of preparation for meaningful participation in the culture. Germain exposes the ethic of efficiency on which such a culture rests and demonstrates convincingly that when pursed to its final term that ethic entails the disappearance not only of politics but of human sociability (33-38, 94-5, 183-187).

Contemporary disenchantment is less pathos than project. And there are advantages to its achievement, the first of which is the satisfaction of certain utopian aspirations (97, 100, 153-157). Material reality gone, we become angels or spirits, free to create what realities we may. Thus, while modern disenchantment is sad or despairing and therefore produces art, post-modern disenchantment is fun and exhilarating and therefore produces entertainment and kitsch (98).

What has been the response of post-modern theory to this disappearance of phenomenal reality and its attendant the culture?

The bulk of Germain’s analysis is taken up with exploring this question critically through an analysis of Derrida, Baudrillard, Virilio, and Lyotard. His judgement is stated in the concluding pages of the opening chapter of the book: “My aim in providing an overview of the tension between a phenomenological and a postmodern reading of perception is to show how the latter reinforces the ethos of spiritualization that is allied with the essence of technology” (21).

That is a very clear and astute observation, but it is one that is nuanced considerably as the analysis progresses. It may well be that Derrida’s repudiation of a metaphysics of presence put him on the side of the spiritualizers. Indeed one is inclined to agree with Germain on this point. But the same cannot be said of Baudrillard, Virilio, and Lyotard. Their relationship to reality is much more complex and problematic than Derrida’s easy worldlessness, and Germain does a very good job of explaining how this is so, beginning with an important differentiation within post-modernism itself.

Today the appellation “post-modern” is usually interpreted as synonymous with anti-realist. This is a mistake. Germain, whose sympathies and concerns are clearly pre-modern, finds in these post-modern theorists an attempt to move beyond both the anti-realist worldlessness of post-modernity and the realist worldlessness of modernity to restore something like the tragic realism of the ancients.

In Baudrillard’s case this involves, among other things, exposing the illusion of perfection created by our digital technologies. No matter how hard we try to expunge all traces of negativity or evil from the world, something always escapes our control. Worst still, Baudrillard warns that the prophylactic and security-minded society these technologies encourage has left us exposed on all sides to a type of catastrophic evil that takes shape in the void created by our whitewashed and sanitized culture, like the super bugs that appear in hospital surgeries and the cancers that ravage our immune-deficient bodies.

To use another idiom, human beings live in the tension between good and evil. Any claim to have overcome this tension leads to the great error of calling good evil and evil good. As Baudrillard himself says, that is when nothing makes sense any longer.

Virilio distinguishes realism from totality in order to show how moderns and post-moderns alike are unrealistic in their rejection of incompleteness as a fundamental and insuperable condition of human life. For Virilio the pursuit of luminal speed and its corresponding desire to live in “real time” indicate a desire for simultaneity in which all distances, physical and mental, are abolished and completion is achieved.

Lyotard, perhaps the most ambiguous of Germain’s authors, argues that the history of human life is a movement of “complexification” in which human life is gradually systematized in such a way that it is freed of “all extra-systemic forces” (123). At its highest level of operation, such a techno-scientific monad will constitute a world apart that will “no longer require for its continuance the site [the phenomenal world] from which it sprang” (123).

This is the ambition of modern digital technology. However, though he believes that life is somehow fated to move in this direction, Lyotard also laments the loss of the “human” that fate entails and attempts to rediscover in the “withdrawal of being” on which it rests an absence that will restore our sense of the “sublime” (112, 114).

In addition to exploring these theorists’ insights into the character and causes of modern disenchantment, Germain also notes the limitations of their analyses. All of them have an Achilles heel and, in each case, that weakness is related to an ambiguity in their work concerning the problem of developmentalism and utopianism. We have already noted this ambiguity in the work of Lyotard: reality is moving toward a self-managing “negentropic” system that eradicates all transcendence, yet it is precisely the absence of transcendence or the sublime that makes such an existence “inhuman” (119-129).

For Virilio modern digital technology produces false utopias that create the appearance of having overcome the problem of human incompleteness without actually doing so. In this regard Virilio’s critique of virtual reality is very close to Eric Voegelin’s claim that modernity is an “immanentization of the eschaton” (100). For Virilio, virtual reality is a Christian heresy (101). Reality is moving toward an exodus from structure. The problem with modern technology is that it gets the methodus and telos of that exodus wrong, but not the movement itself.

Baudrillard presents perhaps the most complex case in this regard. As Germain notes, there are moments when Baudrillard seems to suggest that reality itself has disappeared beneath or behind its hyper-realization through modern technology, thereby affirming modern dynamism and historicism (60). This is the “postmodern” Baudrillard. However, there is also the Baudrillard who is critical of modernity and post-modernity and who exposes the language of reality’s disappearance as a fraud. How are we to reconcile these two Baudrillards? (57-ff).

Germain suggests that a solution might be found in the ironic character of Baudrillard’s writing. Baudrillard’s post-modern language is provocative and playful and we misunderstand it if we read it too literally. However, in the end Germain concludes that the contradiction is real. For him the difficulty is that Baudrillard’s assertion that “the uncertainty of the world, of reality, stems from the fact that it has no equivalent, that ‘it cannot be exchanged for anything’” renders any determination of the “reality of reality” futile and thus lends itself to the anti-realism of orthodox post-modernity (64-65). Perhaps.

But might we not also argue that Baudrillard’s insistence that reality is a gift for which we have nothing to exchange is precisely an affirmation of transcendence in the fullest sense and denial of totality that promise a way out of the modern/post-modern predicament? Baudrillard himself suggests as much: “Viral, pernicious thought, corrosive of meaning, generative of an erotic perception of reality’s turmoil” (The Perfect Crime).

This is not far from the language of another critic of modernity who struggled to find the words to express his experience of reality. I am thinking of Eric Voegelin, who insisted more than once that life is an “erotic tension” to which the lust for “massively possessive experience” is anathema, even the lust for meaning.

But these are interpretive nuances in an otherwise compelling account. Moreover, given the inquiring tone of the book, my guess is that Germain himself would welcome them. What we have in Spirits in the Material World is a comprehensive and illuminating analysis of the phenomenon of modern disenchantment in the context of post-modern theory. For anyone interested in what has become of the “reality problematic” in our time, Germain’s book is essential reading.

Ronald D. Srigley

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Ronald D. Srigley is a Board Member of VoegelinView and its former editor (2013-16). He is an Adjunct Professor of Human Studies at Laurentian University and Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Humber College in Canada. His books include Eric Voegelin’s Platonic Theology (Edwin Mellen, 1991) and a translation of Albert Camus' Christian Metaphysics and Neo-Platonism (Missouri, 2008) and Albert Camus’ Critique of Modernity (Missouri, 2011).