Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


the virtual and the actual: a discussion with Ian Douglas

Ian R. Douglas is director of the power foundation, <> and visiting scholar at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University. He is currently working on a project entitled "The Birth of Biokinetic Society", which is part of a broader project entitled "On the Genealogy of Globalism". Julie Murphy Erfani is associate professor of politics at Arizona State University West.

by Julie Murphy Erfani

JULIE MURPHY ERFANI: What does virtuality, and the virtual, mean to you?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: To me virtuality is something which happens to the body. Foucault used to say that it was always the body that was at stake; what marks it, transforms it, bends it or augments it. For me virtuality is a new departure in the history of the interaction of power with the body: it's new because with virtuality the body virtually disappears. This shouldn't be any great surprize to us. From the very first uses of the term in the 13th century, 'the virtual' has signified the transcendental. Precisely that which though material is disembodied. Virtuality now is allowing everyone to live like a God, though only in their own heads, or in the circuits. For me it's a dangerous time. All kinds of disappearances are occuring, as Virilio has pointed out. Virtuality as a kind of condition may portend the disappearance of the only thing which has connected us to the world—and which has slowed us down, or been our millstone: the body. Nanotechnologies is one thing, but noone seems to want to talk about forms of disappearance which, though not final are nonetheless significant. I have in mind the kind of disappearance which happens equally with websurfing as with driving. The virtual worlds we're creating seem made up of this empty, disappeared space. I sometimes wonder when people marvel at technology whether in actual fact they're marvelling at the disappearance of the body, which though disturbing to me seems a wonderous thing to many others. Maybe soon computers will allow us to forget we have bodies.

JULIE MURPHY ERFANI: What role does architecture play in the disappearance of the body? And, if the body is ultimately our ultimate dwelling place, how is virtuality undoing all aspects of dwelling?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: It's not so much that virtuality is undoing all aspects of dwelling; if it were I'm sure we'd see a stronger reaction on the part of people. But it does change the context of the individual's relation to the body. It's interesting that you bring up the word "architecture", for what is actually being transformed is the architecture of the body. Nanotechnologies are clearly the most obvious representation of this: constructing a new geometry within which the biological body is placed. Nanotechnologies are virtual insofar as they herald a kind of "remote control"—action at a distance, or removed even from the object being acted upon. In this sense they are virtual. But that's not really what you're getting at, for as I understand it you're interested in "real spaces" (or in other words, built environments). A couple of things: 1) clearly the whole question of "environments" is as important to programmers as it is to architects. In this sense though the actual spaces which result may be different, they share a common knowledge from which they're born. It's the same question of complementarity that Foucault addresses in The Order of Things. It is true that we don't have to look only to computers, or computation, to see virtuality. In this sense, the complementarity I just spoke of is visually represented, certainly produced, by the way that we interact with real environments in our real lives. I say "real", but of course the virtual is not dispossessed of reality. It is, as Deleuze stated clearly, a prerequisite of what we think of as being "the real"—it precedes it, in a certain way. That is why—though we often fail to see it—we're actually surrounded by the virtual; certainly in buildings, and in building types. Let me explain with an example. Jeremy Bentham wrote a series of letters to a friend back in England when in White Russia in 1787. He talks there of a plan devised by his brother for an architectural form, or a "new principle of construction", applicable to many types of establishment. He gives it the name "Inspection House", or "Elaboratory". We know of it now as the Panopticon. Here is laid out in twenty or so letters exactly how this building would function virtually. It's very design would produce something; produce behaviours. Is it any different now when we gaze upon Manhattan, or any other skyline borne of neoliberal capital? Not at all. So yes, buildings have a role to play in the emergence of a kind of "space of virtuality", and this has a long history. Bentham did not begin it, but he gave it new meaning. Just as computers haven't invented the virtual, but they give it new meaning.

JULIE MURPHY ERFANI: In an introductory passage to his new book (Patas Arriba: La Escuela del Mundo al Revés), Eduardo Galeano writes that the world in reverse as we live it now is "the illusion of life." Similarly, cinematic representations of virtuality, such as "The Matrix," also depict life lived as illusion. In both representations, virtuality reflects an interplay of space and time to produce a mind-body absence from place and time. In "Matrix", for instance, minds are roving around an illusory space while bodies are separately interned in pods. How do you interpret this?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: Galeano sets against it the right to dream.

It seems certain to me that virtuality is conditioning the human to live without place. Why exactly this is a goal is uncertain: could it be that what Galeano calls "the system" is trying to make us all homeless? As we know, a certain disenfranchisement goes with enforced nomadism. Paul Virilio makes this point in his Speed and Politics: that a transformation happens around the end of the 18thC, at the time of the French Revolution, where the "freedom to come and go" becomes and "obligation to mobility." To those who say it's all a matter of free choice, we can laugh. That's a definate lie. It's used in the first instance to create sales, but it works also in powerful ways to create disciplines. It's not so easy to say "no" when that being proposed is couched in the language of freedom. That—to me—is why someone like Eduardo Galeano is so important. He laughs at the lies. He sees what's intolerable, shakes with violence and turns his anger into courage. He says "no". Moreover, he also affirms an alternative, for all those who believe that a critique which stands on its own without follow-up "propositions" is invalid. He affirms the alternative of living—of living in one's body, not out of it. Does this amount to any kind of parochialism? Not at all. For what Galeano celebrates is what we can see in every city, no matter where: the incredible capacity for people to seek freedom. As Foucault was so aware, the fact that powers are not absolutely absolute is due to the fact that beyond all the humiliations, submissions and coercions, beyond all the menace and sadness, there is the possibility of the moment when life will no longer barter itself, when the powers can no longer do anything, and when facing the gallows or machine guns, men revolt. This possibility—which careful eyes see in the movements of every city—is essential to our human solidarity; it affirms that we are alive, and that we love being alive. Virtuality would have us be dead, or at least a kind of living death. Galeano's courage is to stand firm and love life. It's in his every word. That's why Eduardo Galeano—like Michel Foucault in a different time and space—is a truly dangerous and vital writer. His words allow us to live, by freeing us from lies.

JULIE MURPHY ERFANI: Could recent critiques of speed and virtuality by critical philosophers benefit from greater dialogue with feminist theories of embodiment and corporeality? Don't theorists, such as Paul Virilio and Elizabeth Grosz have alot to say to each other?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: It's true that for the most part the critique of technology has dancing in the background the corporeal body, in all of its splendor. That's why, on the contrary, I would argue that many would profit from engaging with their Other: a certain materiality not necessarily related to the human organism. In this sense I'm intrigued by the work of Haraway and Kroker, though I'm skeptical also. And of course, there is Deleuze, the true materialist, giving birth to a new generation of activists and philosophical historians (e.g., John Rajchman, Manuel De Landa). On the question of critique; I like Paul Virilio, but I wonder about the value of the body. I like Elizabeth Grosz, but I wonder about the politics of embodiment. But to get closer to specific question posed, I think you're right to identify a common ground between the critique of speed and the feminist concern with material being. Perhaps a coincidence however, more than something inherent to feminism; though if, as Paul Virilio argues, the woman was the 'first truck', the first vehicle, literally bringing man 'into the world', one might well expect that virtuality and the virtualization of the journey (light-speed communication, interaction, actualization) might well be problematized more rigourously, and earlier, from with a feminist discourse than without. And broadly—though I'm generalizing—I think if we're looking for reaction (though not necessarily direction) you can see very much already the recognition from within feminist discourse of the ripples caused by both virtualization and information-acceleration. 'Cyberfeminism' is now actually recognized as holding a place on the edges of mainstream critique; which of course is barely an 'edge' at all, if Foucault is correct that an order of discourse prevails, or better still, if Baudrillard is correct that's there's no such thing as critique from the outside.

JULIE MURPHY ERFANI: Ian, you describe your current project as a 'genealogy of globalism'. Most current commentators interpret globalism and globalization as a challenge to state authority. You do not. What does genealogy in this context mean, and in what ways does your own reading depart from that of the popular commentators on the fate of the state?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: You're right to identify genealogy as the key word here. By 'genealogy' I mean more than simply a diagram of the accumulation and circulation of capital (marxism), the history of the aggregation or assimilation of territory (realism), or even the internationalization of laws and regimes (liberalism/institutionalism). Genealogy, properly understood, is concerned with the formation of knowledge and subjectivity; the history of a broader "organization of forces" (of bodies, matter-energy, desire, etc) appropriate to the political horizon of a given historical moment. We might even say that genealogy is concerned with the imaginary, if by that we also understand the practical way in which the transcendental intersects with the material. With the interdependence of knowledge and practice in mind, the 'genealogy of globalism' entails not only a philosophical history of the concept, it's genesis, transformations and faultlines, but an archaeology of a certain 'space of existence' and practice of life, with its attendant social and political rationalities. A genealogy of globalism, in being attune to the interplay of truth and power, is concerned with a problem less appropriate to casual commentary as the State-discourse of war and the urban police: the question of security, the regularization, appropriation and management of the world. Less a history of the development of global institutions (the IMF, the UN, the WHO) than a history of the formation of a certain geometry of experience and ambition within which 'the world' becomes an object for knowledge, a genealogy of globalism would also be a history of forms of power in relay, connection and convergence toward a universal norm. This at least is a possible outline.

In terms of the state, I would first take a few words to clarify what I principally understand by the term. For me, the state, as usually referred to in discourse (and especially policy circles, though there actually very infrequently), is not nearly taken seriously enough. That's why I emphasise this word by capitalizing its 's'. Not as a mark of respect, but in an attempt to reveal what I see as its nature and force. Which is, in a word, Total. It seems to me that we cannot continue to think of the State only in terms of its juridical status. The force of law is the least of our problems. What is far more important, diffuse and effective, is the State as 'general effect'; the State as that which forms at the intersection of all of our ingenious and disparate systems and techniques of domination. I would take in account knowledge, minor practices (minor regulations, everyday permissions), urban planning, infrastructure design, the control of movement, of trajectories, of temporality, etc. It seems to me at least that we cannot continue to think of 'the state' only in terms of governments and bureaucracies; much more is at play, for much more is at stake (that space I already suggested within which forces in general, and populations in particular, are met by order). In terms of our contemporary situation I would say, contrary to most others, that what we are witnessing is the extension rather than the retraction of the State (thus conceived). This is clearly the correlate of 'individualization'. Self-management and autonomy have become to watchword of both left and right; individual biographies placed back in individual hands. No more will the State take responsibility in general for the duration and history of its populace. As biopower breaks down (at least in its first historical phase), it is being replaced by something akin to an absolute attack, whereby the individual him or hersef becomes responsible for everything. In some senses this is a radical withdrawal of autonomy, for there's no fall back. This absolute attack would not be conceivable if the State were not so heavily inscripted into our social and private lives. If big brother had not been replaced by little brother (by which I mean, of course, ourselves), nothing of what we're witnessing now would be. In the long and violent trajectory of the modern State it's very clear that the postwar period, as with the 18th century, was an exception to the general rule (the former as a result of State excess - the two world wars borne of imperialism and new military/communications technology—the latter being the first phase in the constitution of the populace as a force, and the formation of the State as the final guarantor of life). The 19th century and the present are by far in a way the optimal result: a general space of self-constitution and self-regulation wedded to a certain space of productive intensity (in the first instance that of nations, regulated by morals, and now that of the world, regulated by ethics). This is the illusion of the disappearance of authority. To the degree to which the State disappears we can chart on the positive scale its efficacy and power. To argue anything otherwise is to be captured by the tendency, and ultimately and tragically to produce alibis for a frightful attack.

JULIE MURPHY ERFANI: In spite of flamboyant claims regarding "MacDonaldization, etc., globalization has clearly not succeeded in creating global cultural homogeneity. In this regard, how do critical analyses of speed and political control account for continuing cultural differences as forms of resistance to productionism, speed, and globalization?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: "MacDonaldization" is surely too trivial a concept to capture the profound nature of what has been happening in recent years. Were it only that! How happy would I be were it only the same old story of big corporations, the pursuit of profit, cultural dominance, etc. This is not to say that such practices are not important, or that they do not have significance for the everyday lives of many thousands of real people. Of course they do. And these practices need to be interrogated at every turn, with their pathetic and insubstantial justifications exposed. Yet we cannot be content to stop there. More important than the minor players (MacDonalds, AT&T, Microsoft, etc.) is the rationality at stake. It is on this level that we can see - to my mind - something akin to an historical and cultural unification: indeed a kind of radical homogeneity that exists whether the world has 'access' or not. And here, we needn't conjur up the spectre of a 'universal operating system' (though in a sense, that is what we're talking about). Rather it's the 'substrata' that gives form to the whole. The skeleton of links, combinatorics, connections and vectors between the various parts that allows heterogeneous elements to be placed within a system of meaning, so that their existence and independence can be accomodated; their various forces identified and placed in correct correlation.

Part of this 'substrata' is clearly technological. I think Paul Virilio is quite right to be concerned with the effect on the world of the very possibility of 'telepresence', and 'real time'. Again, this is not a question of access. What kind of liberation is 'inclusion' anyway? Far more important is the question of effects.

It is from here that I would want to approach the question of cultural difference, and difference as resistance, and so on. Until we understand the difference between colonizing the world according to plan, and its colonization by the remote action of a system of meanings, we'll never get close to formulating an effective response to the question: 'What is it to rebel?'
Finally, to answer your question directly: I don't think that the categories of 'speed' and 'political control' should be made to 'account' for cultural difference, or any other social phenomenon. They simply open up a range of questions otherwise marginalized, and provide tools for analysing situations otherwise overlooked. Whether such tools can be effective in ongoing struggles is up to those who being implicated in certain relations of power decide to resist. Such questions are specific, differential. For me the questions of speed and political rationality are important, but I needn't speak for everyone. As Kabir said back in the 15thC: "Wherever you are is the entry point".

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