I've mentioned Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek elsewhere before, and will doubtless do so again. The Slovenian polymath is both prolific and notorious, describing himself once as an 'orthodox Lacanian Stalinist', but he is of course much more than that. Å½iÅ¾ek is one of those authors who makes me want to steal his books, such would one's intellectual armoury be augmented if one could actually grasp a significant fraction of the ideas he throws at the reader. Browsing in the university library yesterday I happened upon a copy of his 1997 Plague of Fantasies which includes a chapter entitled 'Cyberspace, Or, The Unbearable Closure of Being'. At the risk of seeming an uncritical fanboy here is a selection of quotables from that chapter:
Does [cyberspace] not involve the promise of false opening (the spiritualist prospect of casting off our 'ordinary' bodies, turning into a virtual entity which travels from one virtual space to another) as well as the foreclosure of the social power relations within which virtual communities operate?
... today's process of transition allows us to perceive what we are losing and what we are gaining - this perception will become impossible the moment we fully embrace, and feel fully at home in, the new technologies. In short, we have the privilege of occupying the place of 'vanishing mediators'.
After a gentle, yet piercing, rebuke to Sherry Turkle among others, he cuts to the chase, the paradox at the heart of his argument:
... first, within 'objective reality' itself the difference between 'living' and 'artificial' entities is undermined; then the distinction between 'objective reality' and its appearance gets blurred; finally, the identity of the self which perceives something (be it appearance or 'objective reality') explodes. This progressive 'subjectivization' is strictly correlative to its opposite, to the progressive 'externalization' of the hard kernel of subjectivity. This paradoxical coincidence ... has its roots in the fact that today, with VR and technobiology, we are dealing with the loss of the surface which separates inside from outside. This loss jeopardizes our most elementary perception of 'our own body' ... it cripples our standard phenomenological attitude towards the body of another person, in which we suspend our knowledge of what actually exists beneath the skin (glands, flesh...) and conceive the surface (of a face, for example) as directly expressing the 'soul'. On the one hand, inside is always outside: ... techno-computerized prostheses ... function as an internal part of our 'living' organism ... the technological colonization of our body itself. On the other hand, outside is always inside: when we are directly immersed in VR, we lose contact with reality - electro-waves bypass the interaction of external bodies and directly attack our senses: 'it is the eyeball that now englobes man's entire body' [quoting Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor].
Thereafter follows a long discursus on cyberspace, heavily filtered through a Lacanian lens. Stephen Hawking as an icon of our time - 'his body, reduced to an immobile mass of flesh, kept functioning by mechanical prostheses and contacting the world through clicking a computer mouse, tells us something about the general state of subjectivity today.' 'Where is the decentred subject?', 'The phantasmic hypertext', 'Informational anorexia' ['the desperate refusal to accept information, in so far as it occludes the presence of the Real'] and 'What can meteorology teach us about racism?' [I'm still not sure].
At the end of it all, Å½iÅ¾ek poses this:
We thus arrive at the notion of a purely virtual catastrophe: although, in 'real life', nothing whatsoever happens, and things seem to follow their course, the catastrophe is total and complete, since 'reality' is all of a sudden deprived of its symbolic support .... As is well known, all large armies are today more and more playing virtual war games, winning or losing battles on computer screens, battles which simulate every conceivable condition of 'real' war [er, not quite, I would suggest; Clausewitz passim]. So the question naturally crops up: if we have virtual sex, and so on, why not virtual warfare? Why shouldn't 'real' warfare be replaced by a gigantic virtual war which will be over without the majority of ordinary people being aware that there was any war at all, like the virtual catastrophe which will occur without any perceptible change in the 'real' universe? Perhaps, radical virtualization - the fact that the whole of reality will soon be 'digitalized', transcribed, redoubled in the 'big Other' of cyberspace - will somehow redeem 'real life', opening it up to a new perception ...
Heady stuff. Of course, none of this looks like coming to pass just yet. As far as I'm concerned, the web - of which online virtual worlds are currently integral - still consists of physical space. Actions in the 'ether' reconstitute as physical reactions in the real world, just as thoughts, emotions and mouse-clicks are transmitted as physical particles across a physical network. So-called 'virtual war' in the contemporary context is still very much focused on gaining access to, and control over, material infrastructure, even if a casualty of a digital tussle is sometimes data.
Perhaps Å½iÅ¾ek is right, although it's hard to see in pragmatic terms how the 'virtual' will ever be anything but a function of physical reality. I see Å½iÅ¾ek's ideas on this issue as useful theorising, but would also say: approach with caution!