---- by William Pawlett
  The virtual is an important term in Baudrillard's later work, used frequently as a noun and also as an adjective in his notions of virtual events, virtual war and virtual power. The most important dimensions of the virtual or 'virtuality', for Baudrillard, are information technology and the news media, artificial intelligence and cloning. Baudrillard associates the virtual with the 'fourth order' and 'integral reality', that is with a new phase or tendency beyond that of simulation, or alternatively simulation's 'highest stage' (LP, 44). Virtuality consists of 'an identical copy of our world, a virtual artifact that opens up the prospect of endless reproduction' (VI, 8). In a sense the virtual is the ultimate system of control because instead of exerting control over the world it attempts to jettison it and produce a substitute, double or clone of the world. Yet Baudrillard insists there is also a more benign potential within the virtual, one that hints at a 'new freedom'.
  For Baudrillard the notion of 'virtual reality' is an 'oxymoron' (PW, 39); he contests the commonplace neo-liberal perspective which contrasts 'the real world' with 'the virtual world' of new technologies and the information superhighway. For Baudrillard 'the real has only ever been a form of simulation' and the virtual 'is merely a hyperbolic instance of this tendency to pass from the symbolic to the real' (PW, 39). The 'real' and the 'hyper-real' are both orders of simulacra (SED), that is they are generated by images or signs, firstly through representation and then simulation. The fundamental distinction, for Baudrillard, is not then between real and virtual, but between the symbolic and the successive attempts to neutralise it - the real, the hyper-real and the virtual.
  The term virtual has a long history. Firstly associated with the spiritual and divine, in modern usage it referred to potentiality, to that which might become real or actual. Today the term becomes more restricted, 'no longer the potentially real', the Virtual is 'non-referential - orbital and exorbital it is never again intended to meet up with the real world. Having absorbed the original, it produces the world as undecidable' (IEx, 15). Virtuality is 'the reality that [is] . . . perfectly homogenised, digitised and "operationalised" . . . verifiable and non-contradictory' (PW, 39). The virtual is not unreal; it is more 'real' than the hyper-real: 'more real than what we have established as simulacrum' (PW, 39). The virtual then is not of the order of images, it is not a simulation because it 'murders the sign': 'if the phase of simulation is indeed that of the murder of the real, the virtual, for its part, is the phase of the murder of the sign' (ExD, 76). More devastating than the murder of reality; the murder of the sign is also the 'murder of illusion' (F, 46) and the final elimination of the 'symbolic dimension' (LP, 68).
  The virtual replaces the sign as its 'final solution', a term Baudrillard adopts from the German Endoslung, the term used for the final annihilation of the Jews under the Nazis. The virtual, he suggests, may be catastrophic in its annihilation of both symbolic forms and the sign. The virtual tends to make historical, political and critical analysis impossible 'in the sphere of the Virtual . . . nothing is representable . . . neither distance nor a critical or aesthetic gaze: there is total immersion . . . not of the order of representation, but of decoding and visual consumption . . . it is impossible to work back from them to some tangible reality' (LP, 77). Virtuality then has dire consequences for the understanding of historical events, such as war: '[War] is no longer representable, and to the ordeal of war is now added that of the impossibility of representation . . . [f]or there to be critical perception and genuine information, the images would have to be different from the war' (LP, 77). But the images are the war, 'the specificity of the Virtual is that it constitutes an event in the real against the real and throws into question all these categories of the real, the social, the political and history - such that the only emergence of any of these things now is virtual' (LP, 83). The virtual threatens the very possibility of critical thinking by producing information to such an excess that it becomes impossible to contextualise, digest or apply. This produces virtual or 'non-events', and because 'we shall never get back to pre-news and pre-media history' (IE, 6) we cannot know how events would be had they not been mediated.
  Yet Baudrillard suggests, frequently in his later work, that the virtual may bring some surprisingly 'happy consequences'. While the screen's virtuality 'screens out any dual relation' (LP, 78) it also falls prey to 'objective irony', to a sudden reversal. For example, far from being spellbound into passivity by the media, people increasingly disbelieve everything they see on a screen, which, in a way, confers a 'new freedom'. The virtual, for Baudrillard, is a mode of disappearance: 'the disappearance of the real in the virtual, the disappearance of the event in information, the disappearance of thought in artificial intelligence, the disappearance of values and ideologies in the globalisation of trade' (IEx, 121). And disappearance may even 'clear the way for the exercise of a thinking freed from all purpose, all "objectivity", and restored to its radical uselessness' (IEx, 111). Writing on artificial intelligence, Baudrillard suggests 'leaving intelligence to machines is, in the end, relinquishing the responsibility of knowing, just as leaving it to politicians to govern us relieves us of the responsibility of power' (IEx, 114). Virtual technology may be an 'ironic strategy' on the part of the species, involving 'a superior intuition of the illusoriness' of the world; indeed, virtuality 'is perhaps all we have left of the original illusion . . . [and] preserves us from any temptation one day to possess the truth' (LP, 85).
  Baudrillard's comments are clearly highly speculative and he does not explore the notion of a digital divide, of cyber-serfdom, which is unfortunate given that the liberation into purely experimental thought 'free to lead nowhere' (IEx, 120) is likely to be the preserve of the elite. However, Baudrillard certainly does not claim that such a positive outcome is imminent and emphasises that other 'catastrophic' outcomes are perhaps more likely. The situation is rather one of radical uncertainty; virtual technology may be what 'frees us from the world of value' and 'liberates us from technology' (PW, 42) or it may be what destroys us, or helps us destroy ourselves.
   § code
   § disappearance
   § hyper-reality
   § real
   § simulation

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.


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