Envisioning the Virtual
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the status of the virtual in perception. As understood philosophically, the virtual (or “pure potentiality”) is strictly complementary to the actual, not in opposition or contradiction to it. The virtual is abstract by definition, which means that it cannot be reduced to the empirically present. But neither can it be separated from it. There is a reciprocity between the actual and the virtual that enters actively into the constitution of every act of experience. Although the virtual as such cannot appear in perception, as a factor in constitution of experience it cannot but make itself felt with each perception’s arising. The question then becomes, in what way does the abstractness of the virtual come with coming perception? How does it make its active implication in experience felt? What is a virtual image? Is there such a thing as virtual event? If so, in what sense can virtual events be said to have value? The chapter develops throughout a realist account of the virtual as “lived abstraction.”
Keywords: virtual image, virtual event, optical illusion, stereoscopic vision, perceptual judgment, lived abstraction, philosophy of value, A. N. Whitehead, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Raymond Ruyer
The word “virtual” came into everyday use in the 1990s, as a rider on “reality.” The rider overrode: the connotation was unreality. In the phrase “virtual reality,” the adjective virtual stood as a synonym for artificial. Artificial, in this context, meant illusionary. The context, of course, was the dramatic registering in the popular imaginary that enormous changes were on the horizon with the dawning of the digital age. The first tentative steps toward the construction of interactive immersive environments had triggered hyperbolic worries—or hopes—that the fabled “cyberspace” of 1980s futurist fiction was on its way to supplanting “actual” reality. The world would be swallowed in its own artifice. Synthetic imagery, animated with simulated events, would morph into an all-encompassing virtual habitat, somnabulist Matrix of the illusion of life.
The word virtual had a prehistory before its apocalyptic coming out into popular use. It had long existed as a specialist term in philosophy, where the noun form took precedence: the virtual. Almost synchronously with the sudden popularity of its adjectival incarnation, efforts began to bring the philosophical force of the virtual into evidence. These efforts built in particular on Gilles Deleuze’s late-twentieth-century reinvention of the concept, working in the lineage of Henri Bergson.1 As a philosophical concept, the virtual has precisely to do with force. Derived from the Latin word for strength or potency, the base definition of the virtual in philosophy is “potentiality.” What is in potentiality may come to be; and what has been, already was in potential. The virtual must thus be understood as a dimension of reality, not its illusionary opponent or artificial overcoming. The virtual, as allied to potential, belongs specifically to the formative dimension of the real. It concerns the potency in what is, by virtue of which it really comes to be. In other words, it connotes a force of existence: the press of the next, coming to pass. The virtual pertains to the power to be, pressing, passing, eventuating into ever new forms, in a cavalcade of emergence. For Deleuze, the question is then not “virtual reality,” but the reality of the virtual. Far from designating a sterile replica of the real, the (p. 56) virtual is the very motor of its continued becoming. Attributing such a moving charge of reality to the virtual leads to a conundrum, but also to an opportunity.
The conundrum is that potential never appears as such. What appears is that to which it gives rise—which is precisely not it, but its fulfillment. Potential’s fulfillment is unlike it: newly arisen but fully determined; a closed case. The openness of potential’s coming to pass passes into the over-and-doneness of what comes. Potential effectively disappears into what determinately emerges from its movement. It is recessive. And re-arising: no sooner has it disappeared into its own fulfillment than it makes itself felt again in the press toward a next. Potential is abstract: never actually present as such. It is as evasive of the present as it is effective in its formation. The question of the reality of the virtual is that of the reality of the abstract, as force of existence that never is itself; as formative movement with no proper form of its own. But then what can it mean to say that it “makes itself felt”? It is no accident that Deleuze reinvents the concept of the virtual working from Bergson, whose philosophy revolved around the rethinking of perception. The virtual cannot be separated from the question of perception. If the virtual is real as charged, then it must in some way bear witness to its own force. For it is the very definition of “real” to make a forceful difference. That which is real is effectively real. The difference made cannot but be apparent, somewhere, somehow, really, in effect. But how does an abstract reality effectively appear? How does what cannot appear by nature nevertheless appear, in effect? In what way is the imperceptible force of the virtual still really perceived?
The opportunity is that the question of the virtual, connected in this way to the question of perception, encourages a reconsideration of the place of abstraction in our lives. It forbids placing the abstract in simple opposition to the concreteness of experience, or plotting it mechanically into an alternative between the artificial and the real—as if the artificial did not have its own mode of reality. The issue becomes, not an epochal struggle between the artificial and the real, but more positively the formative relation between the virtual and what actually appears. The issue becomes the relation of the virtual to the actual, as pertains to perception. This question addresses itself as much to natural perception as it does to synthetic images or simulated events in a crafted domain such as that of the digital. It raises the possibility that we might find no less artifice in “natural” perception as reality on-screen. The question of perception is no longer one of truth or illusion, but of differing modes of reality, in the movement of emergence through which the forms of experience come to pass.
The answer to the question of the reality of the virtual—or how that which is abstract really appears—will necessarily remain as paradoxical as the question itself. If potential is about-to-be or already-fulfilled, still-to-come or just-past, then however it appears, it will always come too early or too late (perhaps even both at once). As a function of this untimeliness, it will always also come across as too little or too much: in excess of or superfluous to the being of the actual whose force of existence it always still will have been.
The only way to proceed is by example, catching the virtual in the act, then looking closely at how it works, and working from there to press its paradox into conceptual (p. 57) service in order to see what difference might be made in how we think about perception. In other words: to realize the virtual in thought, from and for experience, through exemplification.
What better place to begin than the species of example that would seem least amenable: optical “illusions.” The very name militates against taking what appears under the perceptual conditions in question as real. Take the classic case of the Kanizsa triangle. In its simplest presentation, it consists of three black circles out of each of which an angular bite has been taken, yielding a little company of what look like Pac-Man figures. But what grabs your attention is not the Pac-Mans. The bites face each other in a configuration that suggests the three apices of a triangle. What grabs you is that, although the triangle is not filled in by actually drawn lines, you see it as clearly as the Pac-Mans. To say that the triangle is “suggested” is an understatement. You not only see it—you cannot not see it. It jumps out at you so vividly that it backgrounds the figures that are “actually” there. It shimmers forth from their configuration to take center stage. It is what this occasion of perception is all about. It is what gives the experience its dominant character.
Now it may seem reasonable to call seeing something that isn’t actually there an illusion. But what do you call an illusion that you cannot not see? And not just you, but anyone who cares to look? What do you call an illusion that insistently refuses not to appear? Something that jumps out unrefusably is certainly exhibiting an effectiveness. The triangle appears, in effect. And it makes a difference. Its effectively appearing in this way determines what this experience is actually felt to be about. Looked at this way, the “illusion” robustly satisfies the criteria for being real. The question is, what mode of reality are we, seers of triangles that are not there, commonly engaged in unrefusing?
An immediate response is: a relational reality. The triangle emerges from the way in which the Pac-Man figures come together, separated from each other just so. Had the figures been too close or farther apart, the effect would have failed to take. Neither would the effect have come about had their configuration been skewed. There are conditions: a critical distance and a requisite configuration. When the three figures appear together under these conditions, the triangle appears, filling the distance between them.
The figures are actually separated and remain so. No actual lines ever join them. They are and remain disjunctive: countable one by one, no one accountable to any other. They are a disjunctive plurality, together in the mutual separation of their indifference to each other, just being what they are, where they are, in their individual Pac-Manliness. When the triangle comes to take the angle of their open mouths for its own corners, all of that changes. The figures instantly enter into relation, across their separation, because their separation has fulfilled certain conditions. The triangle takes them up separately-together into its own ability to appear. The Pac-Men now figure conjointly as requisite elements for the triangle’s emergence. They count for the triangle, conjunctively. But still at a distance. In virtue of their conjunctively concerning the triangle, they remotely but effectively concern each other. They concern each other through it, across their separation, as a taken effect of their disjunctive plurality. The effected triangle is their concern for each other. It is their coming to be in relation, in visible form.
(p. 58) The triangle is a coming into relation coming into sight—a being of relation taking perceptible effect. The effective seeing of the being of the relation does not replace or contradict the disjunctive plurality of the elements providing the conditions for its appearance. It comes in addition to their plurality. The oneness of the triangle superadds itself to the Pac-Men’s being just what they are individually, plurally one-by-one, each in its own disjunctive corner. The supervening triangle is the emergent unity of its requisite elements’ diversity. It unitarily occupies their disjunctive in-between, taking their distance from each other as its own locus.
Of course, it is artificial to speak as if the Pac-Men came first and then in a second moment a triangle took advantage of their separateness to add its alien unity to them. The triangle and the elements conditioning its appearance come strictly at the same time. They enjoy equal immediacy. They are equally insistent in their refusal not to be seen. But of course, there is a difference. The company of Pac-Men are “actually” seen: they correspond to regions of ink on the page, or arrays of pixels on the screen, whose presence strikes our eyes in the form of reflected rays of light.2 The triangle per se, however, corresponds to no such sensuous input. It corresponds, as such, to no material presence. And yet it shimmers. It is really seen, without “actually” being seen. It appears nonsensuously, in excess over the actual conditions of its appearance. It is a visibly real, virtual triangle.
This way of expressing the difference between the triangle and its material conditions creates a vocabulary problem. If we call something we really see without “actually” seeing it virtual, it sounds as if we are defining the virtual as the opposite of the actual, when we have just established that in this case the virtual effect and the actual elements conditioning its appearance come to perception strictly at the same time, with equal immediacy, and are equally insistent in their really being seen. A shift in vocabulary resolves this problem. If we work in the distinction between sensuous and nonsensuous (Whitehead 1967, 180–183), it becomes easier to articulate how the Pac-Men and the triangle through which they relate are equally real, in different modes. The distinction between the actual and virtual shifts accordingly.
We already have the basis on which to build an understanding of the difference in their mode of reality: the individual Pac-Men, as such, figure as a disjunctive plurality. This means you can count them singly, taking each separately from the others in turn, without it making any difference in what they are understood to be. Each is still a Pac-Man. A disjunctive plurality is a set whose members come separately together, countable one by one. They count singly. Together, they are an aggregate of singles. The triangle, for its part, appears as a unitary figure, directly and in all immediacy. It doesn’t count one by one. It counts, in all immediacy, as one. It is a singularity. Since this singularity corresponds to nothing outside itself on a material plane where elements of sets can be understood to figure separately, strictly speaking it has no parts. It comes as a unity in addition to the diversity of the elements conditioning it. It is a whole apart from that diversity, singularly occupying the distance between the elements. It dodges their plurality, making its locus precisely where they are not. Yes, a triangle has three sides. This is undeniable. Just count them. But: in counting, you are no longer dealing directly (p. 59) with the triangle as the unitary figure it is in all immediacy. You are dealing with a set of lines, taken individually one after the other. You cannot analyze the unity of the triangle into constituent parts without changing its nature: without resolving it into a plurality that it singularly isn’t in the immediacy of its effective appearance.
There is a mode of reality that is countable one by one, and there is a mode of reality that counts-as-one. These modes come together, as coincident dimensions of the same occasion of experience, with equal immediacy and insistence. What we actually experience is this insistent coincidence. What we actually see is the concernful binding of the different modes, effectively expressed in the appearance of a unitary form taking singular effect as the visible being of a relation. The relation is the taking-up of the disjunct elements in emergent form. What we see most saliently is that supervening form. The salience of the form is the product of the different modes’ coinciding. It is also their relation, made visible. The emergent triangle is what singularly comes of the modal difference between disjunctive plurality and singularity.
We can now take the word “actual” in its etymological sense: “in act.” The salient unity of the triangle and the disjunctive plurality of its conditions of emergence are in on the act of perception. They are constitutive dimensions of its coming to pass. They belong equally to the event that is this occasion of experience. From this point of view, they are dimensions of the actual.
This might seem like a counterproductive move. It now seems as if the virtual has been swallowed by the actual, when the whole point was to respect the reality of their difference. But progress has been made. We now can understand their difference differently, by returning to the distinction between the sensuous and the nonsensuous. We can understand it, precisely, in modal terms. Not as different “spaces” that are in opposition to each other. Not as real versus unreal. But as different manners of really belonging to the same event: different ways of being in the act, effectively bound in a relation of concern, to saliently figural effect.
The sensuous elements in the event do involve a necessary reference to space. To say that they are countable is to say that we can point to them “over there” one by one. The sequence of the counting corresponds to the sequential progression of our pointing from one “over there” to another. The demonstrative over-thereness of the countable elements locates them as projective space. It is important to be clear that it is not the space that is projected; rather, it is our counting that projects itself. Our activity projects itself. It is executed here, for counting over there. Stretching from here to there, it is self-distancing. This stretch of activity constitutes the “space” of our experience. Space is now in scare quotes because a “space” of experience is not just made of over-thereness. It is also made of a sequential progression that takes time to unfold. In other words, the space of experience includes a time factor. It is a space-time of experience. That which is sensuously real (i.e., the reality of which corresponds to physical impingements upon our body, as for example, and it is just one example, light upon the retina) belongs to a projective space-time of experience actively constituted by a counting of—or more generally and significantly, an accounting for—a plurality of disjunct elements.3
(p. 60) Compare this to the triangle. It jumps out at us, into our vision, bypassing any corresponding physical impingement upon our eyes. It dodges the plurality of the sensuous elements in play in eager display of its own nondecomposable unity, in all immediacy. If we treat it as though it were “over there” in the same mode as the Pac-Men and try to straddle it with our activity, the singularity of its appearance evaporates. For example, if we trace its nonsensuous form by passing our fingers along one side, then another, we have replaced the singularity of the triangle by a set of lines counting one by one. We have accounted for it by transposing it into another mode of existence, translating it in terms of figures it is not. Caress it with your well-considered thoughts, and you’ve done it again. Judge its geometry; likewise.
The triangle only appears as the singular figure it is as a unitary pop-out effect, in immediate offset from its conditioning elements’ disjunctive plurality. To experience it as it is, and for what it is, we must simply leave it be. There is nothing to be done with it that won’t change its nature. In its simplicity, it has a strangely compelling, shimmering sterility. It is simply there in excess over the disjunctive plurality that sensuously conditions its appearance—as well as any actively constituted space-time of experiential accounting for that plurality. The visibly appearing being of the relation that it is, is a dodge of sensuous experience. It is unitarily all and only a nonsensuous appearance. Lacking sensuous correlates, it has a spectral quality to it. It is a pure appearance. But once again appearance is used here in the strong sense: as that which effectively appears, regardless. The triangle effectively appears, in a dodgy, unrefusably nonsensuous mode of offset, pop-out reality. The mode of reality of the triangle is not projective but superjective, in the etymological sense of that word: “thrown over,” “going beyond,” “exceeding.” The virtual is the pop-out dimension of the actual whereby it really, appearingly, exceeds itself. The virtual is the excessive dimension of the in-act as it throws itself into experience over and above its sensuous conditions. It is the dodgy, supervenient manner in which the actual effectively appears to include more than can be sensuously accounted for: a reality of the abstract. The appearance of an abstract locus nonsensuously filled with a spectral being of relation.
Time is a factor in a much more primordial way than the discussion of counting let on. We don’t have to start counting the Pac-Men to constitute the space of projective experience to which they belong. Too late—we already have an intuition of their number and their mode of spatiotemporal existence before it even occurs to us to count them or ask ourselves about their status. This is because we have encountered many sets of sensuous elements in the past, counted many an element, actively accounted for many a configuration. The “intuition” we have of what might be done with their plurality and spatiotemporality is a habit we have contracted. The experience comes with the potential for us to account for them disjunctively in the same mode we have countless times before. This potential experience presents itself in the immediacy of experience, flush with the just-occurring of this event of vision. We already see the potential without having to actively plumb it, as if we had already gone through the motions—it has come too early for that. The unfolding of sensuous experience precedes itself in potential as a directly lived hypothesis—an “as if” directly experienced in an immediacy of seeing, too early (p. 61) for the hypothetical judgment to have actually occurred. That is why there was a certain circularity in our explanation. We began by remarking the distance separating the Pac-Men as a given, when in the theoretical terms set in place here that distance can only figure as constituted by activity in a spatiotemporal thickness of experience coming too early and too late. The circularity is real: what is given is a recursiveness of actual experience whereby it precedes itself in potential, already giving itself for the future.
Fundamentally, what is given is the thickness of potential. The given potential that the event is thick with is past activity making itself present in visible form, for the future. Neither the future, nor the past thickening the present for it, is sensuous. The sensuous elements in play envelop the nonsensuous past and future in the materiality of their impinging on the body. They are the leading edge of the forming event, bringing past and future together in the present of their bodily impingement (Whitehead 1967, 189). At the dawning of a perception, in the flush of its first occurring, we already find ourselves, too early, too late, in a being of relation in which sensuous and nonsensuous, material and immaterial realities, past and future, presently coincide, in act.
When we say that the presence of the Pac-Men is “sensuous” we really mean that the nonsensuous dimension of future-past recursivity is recessive. It is enveloped in the material activity of impingement that strikes as the leading edge of the event’s occurrence. The event is finally characterized at a second nonsensuous level: that of the supervening appearance of an abstract and immaterial pop-out reality, in this case an all-too-present triangle-form. That which is recessive in the act, enveloped in its taking effect, is “infra” to it. The enveloped nonsensuous reality of the past and future is infraceptive (etymologically, “seized within”). The sensuous is thus sandwiched between two virtualities, two ways in which sensuous experience exceeds itself. One is recessive, the other pop-out. One is infraceptive, the other superjective. One hits with the present of appearance, seized recursively within; the other doubles that sensuous impact, showily jumping out. One is enveloped, the other supervenient. One is thick with potential, the other superfluously ashimmer with sterile impassivity. Both aspects of virtuality are “immanent” (to the in-act; to the event of perception’s occurring). They come together in the recursivity of that event, across their infra-super difference.
All of this invites the introduction of a further term. There is a tension between the unrefusable just being-there of the Pac-Men on the one hand, and on the other the as-if of their appearing in all immediacy as a countable plurality, without actually having been counted. There is tension between the disjunctive plurality of the elements countable one by one, and the nondecomposability of the emergent figure that dodges them to count-as-one. There is a tension between the single and singular. There is a tension between the backgrounded impact of sensuous impingement and the impassivity of nonsensuous salience. There is a tension between the splay of space given “out there,” and the dynamic stretch of experiential space-time constitutive of it. There is a tension between the infraception and supervention.
The tensions are between modes of existence proposing themselves to the experience. The tensions come with the simultaneous contrast between the sensuous and the nonsensuous (Pac-Men/triangle, coinciding in vision). And they come recursively (p. 62) between aspects of the nonsensuous in contrast with itself (infraceptive/superjective in different tenses, future-past and present). The modes do not add up to a form. They are tensely, incommensurably different. Their incommensurability exerts a differential pressure. The pressure is unsustainable. Something has to give. What gives is a triangle. The appearance of the triangle resolves the tensions into its own emergence. And it is an “emergence,” even if we cannot place the triangle’s appearance after that of the plurality of elements conditioning it in chronological time. The order is logical, not chronological.4 The superjective figure of the triangle pops out from the tensional field, refusing to restrict itself to its sensuous dimensions. The dodgy superject is “new” vis-à-vis the sensuous elements in play in the sense of being beyond them, in excess of their figuring, singularly superadded to their plurality. By their sensuous logic, it is a supervening alien being (the being of a relation that does not concern them individually, but only as taken together, abducted, in the emergent interests of an added appearance “thrown over” their disjunctive plurality).
If we ask what the “cause” of the experience is, the only answer is: the nonform of the differential tensions between modes. Although without form, this is not nothing. The pressure is intense. This is a field of intensity for something to give. The pressure for resolution is a formative force. The “cause” is a force field of emergence resolving itself into the appearance of a superject.5 The Pac-Man configuration does not cause that event in any linear sense: the superjective appearance of the nonsensuous figure of the triangle dodgily lifts off from them. It throws itself over their distance, rather than following closely upon them. It does not follow through with them in like manner, as in continuity with their mode of existence. It supervenes upon them, jumping singularly out into its own mode. At the same time, the Pac-Men are required for the triangle’s appearance. Without them, it would not occur. They provide it the propitious conditions. That is exactly what these sensuous elements are: not causes, but conditions. Leading-edge conditions for an event that exceeds them.
Causes subordinate (the what-may-come to their own mode, asserting itself in the imperative). Conditions are jumping-off points (for the emergence of the new). Causes command follow-through in their own mode: they are conformal. To take a classic Newtonian example, if the impetus is a collision, the causal impact will govern an equal if opposite movement, accountable in like terms. Conditions do not command follow-through. They propitiate liftoff. The impetus is a disjunctive plurality, and what gives is a supernumerary unity counting immediately as one in its own singular way. Conditions are not conformal. They are formative field factors, giving figure to the new. Formation, in this emergent sense, is a conditional field phenomenon, energized by differential intensity. “Energy” here does not refer to matter alone. It refers to the tension between on the one hand the sensuous reality we associate with materiality, and on the other the nonsensuous reality of the abstract that sensuous reality envelops and by which, with equal immediacy, it is supervened (Whitehead 1967, 182–183).
There is one more term that needs to be added to tension: tendency. The role of acquired habit in the immediacy of experience was discussed earlier. Habit brought the future-past of potential intraceptively into the occasion of experience as a perceptual (p. 63) “judgment” occurring flush with the event. The “judgment” comes “as if”—as if an act of judgment, like counting, had actually been performed when the knowing comes so flush that there is no way that it could have been. Perceptual judgments are neither deductions nor inferences, but deserve a logical category all their own: “abductions” (Peirce 1997, 93–94, 242–247). In addition to acquired habits, there are also arguably innate “habits,” arriving from the genetic past of the species, that predispose perception toward the isolation of Platonic forms like the triangle. However they are contracted, at whatever scale of the past, habits are formative vectors: they exert a formative pressure in a certain direction, toward a certain outcome. They are one of the formative factors that give aim to the experience (Whitehead 1978, 25, 27, 69). Of course, the field conditions have everything to say about this. If they are propitious, the aim will culminate in a “new” emergence along habitual lines. Some conditions might throw the aim off, so that it will not reach its end. In still other conditions, the field may resolve itself in the direction of an emergence in a stronger sense of “new”: not a new iteration along the same lines, but a supervening appearance of something unprefigured that has never been seen before.
It is all a question of technique. The element of technique is how the experiential leading edge of the sensuous elements are disposed toward a nonsensuous outcome, how the conditions configure. This dispositional configuring of conditions may occur in a way we tend to call “natural.” Or they may be “artificial,” as in the setting in place of the conditions for an optical “illusion” to appear. In fact, it is always both. Producing an optical illusion depends as much on the human body’s “natural” propensities (its innate predispositions) as it does on artifice (such as the body’s acquired predispositions and the craft of configuring Pac-Men). It is entirely conceivable that under certain conditions a pop-out nonsensuous triangle might occur entirely “naturally.” There is nothing to say that a nonsensuous triangle could not pop out from a disjunctive plurality encountered in the woods, just as well as from a sheet of paper or a computer screen. Everything about the virtual is a question of technique. But the question of technique is not limitative, in the sense of being restricted to a given domain of activity. Nor is it categorical, in the sense of pertaining to the artificial as opposed to the natural. Techniques lending themselves to nonsensuous emergences are transducible to different domains of activity (Simondon 2005), where they come to operate to new effect. In whatever domain, they always involve a mixed regime of factors categorizable as natural and artificial.
If this is the case, then nonsensuous “artifice” must be found in even the most “natural” of experiences. Take the experience of depth in everyday life. There is a disjunctive plurality built into the human body: our two offset eyes. The offset creates a tension—the binocular disparity of two images that do not coincide. The tension is unsustainable. Something has to give. From the differential between the two, a singular image emerges to resolve the tension. What arises is not only a new image over and above the two built into our sensuous body’s apparatus. An entirely new quality of experience emerges: depth. Depth is an emergent property possessed by neither of the images conditioning its appearance. A new dimension, a third dimension, is thrown over binocular disparity. People who lack depth perception then have it restored describe the incredible novelty of seeing objects “pop out” into a shimmering salience of stereoscopic relief (p. 64) (Sacks 2011, 130). The objects of our experience as we “naturally” perceive them in all their 3D glory is a really appearing optical “illusion”: a really abstract, superjective emergence conditioned by our body’s innate “habit” of growing two offset eyes.
Acquired predispositions also play an essential role. It is well known that even with a well-functioning visual apparatus, depth perception cannot develop without movement. Movement indexes the reaching of our hands for things “over there” with our accounting for them visually “here.” It similarly indexes the experience of the steps we may take to reach them. We are seeing “as if” we were moving. Seeing an object’s three-dimensionality is seeing the movement without its actually having occurred. We are seeing in the “as if” of movement. In other words, we are seeing the potential stretch of our experience, in all the immediacy of an event of vision. We are seeing the stretch of our bodily potential in the pop-out form of the object. The differential tension between vision, touch, and proprioception (the disjunctive plurality of our separate sense channels) is resolved into the superjective unity of the object.6 Such is our perceptual tendency: to aim for the superaddition of objects to our lives.
The natural objects of our perception are virtual appearances (Noë 2004). Their arising is conditioned by the cofunctioning of the separate senses, and of innate and acquired predispositions, taking aim. The bodily artifice of binocular disparity is just the most proximate conditioning factor (being right in front of our nose). Other techniques involved in making objects appear may be artistic, craftsman-like, or technological. When innovations in art or craft or technology elaborate upon our “natural” talents for object perception to invent new experiential effects that have never seen before, they are not “extending” our bodies away from its natural conditions into the realm of the artificial (the “prosthetic” theory inherited from Marshall McLuhan). Our experience is already a stretch of potential. It is self-prosthetic. What art and technology do is extend the body’s existing regime of natural and acquired artifice, already long in active duty in producing the “virtual reality” of our everyday lives. The life of the body is naturally crafty.
There is an oddity in the emergence of 3D vision that adds an important lesson to how we understand the concept of the virtual. If the two images belonging to our respective offset eyes were actually seen, then there would be no pop-out stereoscopic vision. The disparity of the images would interfere with the emergence of the resolving image. They would conspire plurally against its unity, in competition with it. We are in the as-if again: it is as if the images were actually produced, when they can’t have been. The emergence of the 3D vision does not just resolve the disparity between the disjunct images. It makes as if they never happened. It offers its own emergence in their stead. It takes their place for its own locus, throwing itself over their conditioning differential. The contributory images are virtualized by the emergence of depth perception. They are recursively determined by the emergence of the new image never actually to have occurred.
But at the same time, the disparate images and their interference cannot not have occurred, being requisite conditions for the experience that did effectively came to pass. If the images cannot not have occurred, but didn’t actually occur, the only option is that they occurred virtually. They contributed their potential interference to the 3D image.7 (p. 65) The emergence of the 3D image resolved the potential conflict into its own effective appearance. The interference of the two ingredient images that did not occur figures, in 3D effect, as a virtual event.
The oddity is that events that do not actually occur can be requisite conditions for what does eventuate. To translate this example back into the distinction between the sensuous and the nonsensuous, in this case the sensuous elements (the images corresponding to the disparate physical impingement of light rays upon two retinas) are resolved by the superjective experience to have been virtual. They are, in effect, rendered nonsensuous. They are infracepted. This happens recursively. The superjective emergence backcasts its resolve into an imperative for its own conditions to have been otherwise. (Parenthetically, this could form the basis of a superjective theory of the will: an effective resolve lacking a subject separate from its own emergent pop-out effect, appearing as superject; the will as a really appearing “optical illusion” of abstract agency; in the terms of the concepts developed here, this amounts to a formative fielding of the will.)8
Nonsensuous rendering—the infraception of sensuous elements—is a necessary part of any theory of the virtual. The reality of the virtual is not only coextensive with the potential stretch and superjective resolve of our lives. The formative factors of that reality vary widely, even wildly. There is no once-and-for-all, jack-of-all-trades description of their role. They remobilize under continual transformation. The roles they play effectively vary, especially as techniques for the emergence of virtual realities transduce from field to field. Not only can they vary. As nonsensuous rendering shows, they can transmute, changing their very natures, as if by an alchemy of experience. This means that the account of the virtual, and the role it itself plays, must be continually renegotiated for every example considered. The virtual is all about creativity: potential and the emergence of the new. Its conceptualization cannot fail to be equally creative, at the price of failing to be true to the protean reality of nature’s artifice (and the nature of the artificial).
In the course of this account, we have “seen” the emergence of virtual figures, strenuously exemplified by a now very tired triangle. We have seen, more briefly but also more suggestively, that objects themselves are similarly emergent virtual forms (Massumi 2011, 6, 41–43). We have also seen that there are virtual events upon which perception depends (no relation to the cyberspatial notion of simulated events; or rather, related, but in ways we can only really understand thorough an exemplary rethinking of the artificial and of abstraction in terms of nonsensuous reality and its sensuous conditions).
One last form of virtuality must be mentioned to do justice to the full stretch of the virtual’s reality: value. A crawling baby, whose predisposition to continue in existence is not yet finely honed, advances wormlike toward a cliff edge.9 Its deficit of depth perception, and its lack of ability to “judge” with all immediacy, flush with perception, the hypothetical outcomes enveloped in locomotor experience, conspire to endanger its life. Not yet proficient in the perceptual judgment of the “as if,” it fails to register the “what if” of its crawl. Not so the distracted parent. No sooner has attention turned back to the child than the parent is launched into action, without pausing to think, too fast to have actually sized up the danger. The “what if” came immediately, in a blink, and was directly transduced into action. What the parent “saw” was not just a baby crawling. (p. 66) The parent saw a set of differentials: a gravitational differential between the top of the cliff and the bottom, coincident with the existential differential between life and death. The interference pattern of these differentials produced an unsustainable tension that resolved itself into immediate action.
Here, the experiential pop-out effect is not a figure or an object, although these also appear (the baby’s advance is perceived nonsensuously as an abstract line [Massumi 2011, 17, 106] of future-pastness; 3D objects of all manner populate the field). The launching-into-action effect may be conditioned by virtual events (including the usual tricks of our two not always watchful enough eyes), but these were backgrounded. What singularly came into salience, thrown over the plurality of the ingredient figural, objective, and evental factors, characterizing what this experience is all about, was a value. A life value. An existential value. What the parent “saw,” in the blink of the forming experience, was the life value of the child’s continued existence. This is a maximally abstract virtual reality. There is nothing “over there” to which it corresponds. The great “out there” is utterly indifferent to one infant more or less. It is only out of the tensional field of the parent’s love and desires, stretching their salvational potential over to the child’s oblivious locomotion, taking into that stretch the energizing motive force of the differential between up and down, life and death, that this singular experiencing of existential value emerges. Existential value is a virtually occurring added-value: a surplus value of perception (as are figures and objects, in their own virtual way). It is a really appearing, abstractly real superaddition of and to experience. Unlike the virtual figure of the triangle and the virtual forms objects, value is invisible. It is imperceptible by nature.10 Even so, like them its superaddition really makes a difference. It is what transmutes the world’s indifference into concern, for this event. As this happens, nothing of indifference subsists. The ingredient elements of the event, of whatever nature, are integrally bound together in the form of the emergent concern. The conditioning differentials and disjunctive pluralities are thrown over into this value integration (in much the same way our Pac-Men came to concern each other in the figure of the triangle, overcoming the separateness of their counting one by one in its relational counting-as-one). Value is the ultimate way in which the world’s actuality includes that which exceeds the just-being-there of the disjunctive plurality of its elements.
The virtual reality of the superadded value is immediately doubled by an action path. The perception of value and the path of action are in the closest of eventful embraces, but occur as on parallel tracks. The perception of value is nonsensuous and impassive, in the sense that it figures as something that will not change, and cannot change if it really be what it is (once a value, always a value). The perception of value is nondecomposable. This time, for all time, it is an existential value enveloping love and desire. Its nondecomposable once-and-for-all does not make it simple. It is singular, yet complexly conditioned: not simple, simplex. The other track, the causal path of action, is also complex, but in a different mode. It is sensuous, physically charged, and decomposable into separate steps: composite, emphasizing that word’s base connotation of disjunctive plurality (“made up of distinct parts”). In more inclusive examples, where virtual figures, (p. 67) objects, events, and values co-occur, the situation is always marked by this doubleness of conditioning and causality (of conditioned nonsensuous emergence and the conformal physical/sensuous causality; Deleuze 1990a, 4–11, 94–99). The sensuous and the nonsensuous, the simplex and the complex, the actual and the surplus values of its various ways of exceeding itself, are everywhere in the closest of embrace, and interlace (Deleuze 2002; Massumi 2002, 133–143). Even the run to the edge of the cliff takes effect in its pop-out way, as a dynamic unity of forward rush across the steps, filling the distance between them with its overarching of their separateness.
The reality of the matter is: virtual forms (figures, objects), events, and values always co-occur. Life comes in situations, and situations are complex—which is to say, simplex too. The different species of virtuality always occur together as part of a virtual ecology of sensuous and nonsensuous embracings and interlacings (Guattari 1995, 88–97, 109–110).
The point of this final example with which this account is crawling to its end is that the axiological dimension of our immediate experience—the value dimension—cannot be adequately described without recourse to a theory of the virtual. At its farthest stretch, as Félix Guattari reminds us (1989; 1995), the ultimate significance of the virtual resides in “universes of value” that are “incorporeal” in nature (nonsensuously real). In this axiological dimension, as relating to universes of value, the theory of the virtual is directly ethical: it immediately pertains to courses of action that make a dynamic life difference. What qualifies action as ethical is the doubling of its causal efficacy by a virtual transmutation of indifference into real concern for the event. The transmutation runs parallel to the action, in another mode of being, effectively on another track. It is singularly conditioned, arising as a simplexity of immediate experience superveniently overstretching the compositing of causes. Where we come to is a situational ethics—redefined as the axiological alchemy of the virtual.
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(1) . More recently, this Bergsonian/Deleuzian line of thinking on the virtual has cross-fertilized with Alfred North Whitehead’s work, in particular his concept of “pure potentiality” (Massumi 2011). What follows is strongly accented by this encounter. Deleuze’s sometime coauthor, Félix Guattari, develops in his solo writing his own account of the virtual, whose influence is also strongly felt here, particularly in the final sections. The key texts are Bergson (2004), Deleuze (1986, 1989, 1990a, 1994, 2002), Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Guattari (1989, 1995), and Whitehead (1978).
(2) . Although black is defined in optics as the absorption of all light waves, under real-world conditions there is never complete absorption. To be precise, “being colored black or white depends on the contrasts in the light intensity between adjacent areas….An increase in the brightness of the surround can drive a white area to grey or black” (Thompson 2005, 46–47). This relational fact of perception is of fundamental importance, but is not essential to emphasize for the purposes of this stage of the current account, where the operative distinction is between perceptual effects that are objectively plottable to the optical array and those that are not (developed below into the distinction between “sensuous” and “nonsensuous” perception).
(3) . On counting, space, and the space-time experience, and the relation between multiplicity and its unification, see Bergson 2001, 73–87. Bergson captures the “stretch” of the projective space-time of experience in the phrase “the object is where it is perceived” (2004, 311).
(4) . See Deleuze on “static logical genesis” (1990b, 118–126).
(5) . The field intensity of the sensuous array—the relational nature of its elements as discussed in note 2—is what links the level of physical causality to the emergent liftoffs it conditions. Intensity is the only common factor between the sensuous and the nonsensuous. Its transverality—its double featuring in both dimensions—is what binds them together as belonging to the same event. Of course, intensity features differently in each dimension. This difference marks the tension that registers the differential between them. This differential is discussed below as itself being the condition of emergence of value.
(6) . On stereoscopic vision interpreted along lines similar to this account (in terms of a integrative emergence resolving a constitutive tension of a differential field), see Simondon 2005, 208–209, 223–224.
(7) . In other words, the offset “images” contributed their differential—their disparity—as potential. They figure purely as nonsensuous differentials. This is an example of why the intertwining of the sensuous and the nonsensuous discussed below is necessary to the theory of perception. That intertwining can be carried to the sensuous level below that of the eyes as a whole. The retina, composed of a disjunctive plurality of rods and cones, is riddled with resident disparities. This all-the-way-down gappiness of the perception apparatus is what led cognitive scientist Alva Noë (2004) to argue that all vision is actually virtual. See also Massumi 2011, 94–97. On generative force of pure differentials, see Deleuze 1994, 170–182.
(8) . This requires a thorough rethinking of what constitutes the subject of experience. As Nietzsche famously stated, there is no doer separate from the deed (1967, 45). There is a multimodal fielding of activity culminating in the appearance of a superject. The arc of the fielding resolving itself in the superject is the subject of the experience (Whitehead 1978, 27–28, 166). In the triangle example, the triangle is finally the subject of the experience. “We” who come to claim it—that is, our bodies, our senses, our habits, our inheritances, our tendencies—are a plurally disjunctive set of formative elements in differential tension, whose roles are not so fundamentally different from that of the Pac-Men. The conventions of language make it difficult to speak without smudging this fact: “we” are the superjective perspective of the event’s culmination, recursively throwing itself back over to the cusp of its beginning, to claim the arising as all its own. It is more of a stretch to say “I” than one likes to acknowledge. The sense of self is an emergent nonsensuous effect whose reiterative rearising in the stream of experience is a renewed achievement, full of artifice and high craft. It is only the habit of saying “I” that makes it come as natural.
(10) . The really imperceptibly-abstract is a mode of the reality of the virtual that is of utmost importance. All virtualities that appear, as if in vision or other sense modes, whether they be figures, objects, or events (the kind that are not recessive but which we feel we directly perceive), are seized with relation (as we saw in the case of the virtual figures of the triangle as well as that of the object). Relation is by nature imperceptible. It is the ultimate really abstract mode of reality. It comes infraceptively in all experience. Value is imperceptible relation with the element of concern in relief, marked by a salient affective tonality that makes itself what the occasion is actually all about.