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Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


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virtually material

Ian R. Douglas is director of the power foundation, <www.powerfoundation.org> 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".

by Ian R. Douglas

The following are notes submitted for the summary report of a MacArthur foundation workshop on virtuality held at Brown University in the Fall of 1998


I argued in my comments that virtualization begins when the human animal begins to make promises and contracts. I argued that this emerges in its modern sense at the end of the Middle ages, when sloth becomes the first, and deadliest, of the Deadly Sins (cf., Johan Huizinga). Virtualization begins therefore with the discovery of work. I argued that the roots of this translation are in the complex interplay of concepts between the Scholasticists and the theological paradigm dominant at the time. The Scholasticists begin to chart the ways in which the transcendental can be practical, in other words material. The transcendental for them—defined as the ‘virtual’ (God)—is not opposed to the real, but rather to the actual, of which, nonetheless, it is a constituent and necessary condition (cf., Duns Scotus). This theoretical and theological thought lays dormant for just over two hundred years, but begins to reemerge in the practical actions of a range of city governors, princes and consuls; especially in relation to the problem of idleness and civil security. With the notion that idleness is an affront—or hubris—against God, the way is opened for something like a "political imaginary" that will be at once transcendental (in it’s attempt to organize the perceptual, linguistic schema of existence) and practical (in it’s application to the world of men). I suggested that the long history that Nietzsche termed the rise of "mnemo-technics" (the burning into memory of codes, disciplines, aptitudes) begins here, and finds its key theological and philosophical justification somewhere in the nexus between these practical and theological conceptions of the virtual. I then suggested that if we were to reconstruct the genealogy of virtualization we’d do well to keep in mind this way in which, at the beginnings of modernity as we know it (the transition from the Middle ages to the Renaissance), the transcendental is seen in material terms; or at least in no ways separated from the material. In short, the conquest of the material world (of bodies, flows, resources, landscapes) depended on this translation.

From here I suggested that the history of the organization of the material world (especially bodies, populations) was in some senses a project of "virtualization". By this I mean a practical project in the interconnection of the transcendental with the material. Something close to a "practical imaginary" emerges alongside the historical imaginary that was—previously—the domain of the transcendental (cf. Michel Foucault). We see this in the emergence in particular of medical and scientific, pathological, knowledge of the body; from Versalius’s first public anatomy to the aesthetics of Leonardo’s bodies of sinew and muscle; from the new focus on military training to the organization of urban space.

Somewhere in the rise to dominance of this practical imaginary the question of the material wins out over theological as the first domain of intervention; especially in the domain of politics, and the new emergence of what would become—later—to be known as ‘economy’. This is not to say that bodies were more important than minds, but rather that it was through the breaking, the taming of bodies that minds would be brought to reason (cf. Descartes, and later Kant). I suggested that ‘virtualization’, properly understood, might be a useful term to describe this practical organization of bodies from the beginning of modernity. At a certain point in the middle of the 18thC (a threshold which cannot actually be dated precisely, but nonetheless is apparent, if we allow ourselves to step back and see the overall effect) this practical organization of bodies reintegrates itself with the theological discourse of the virtual that was that of the Scholasticists. It does so by taking as it’s first duty the ‘care’ of the populace (omnes et singulatim). The political not so much breaks from the theological as takes on certain of the theological’s key technologies and aims. The virtual reemerges—though this is an unwritten emergence—in the discourse of state order. Man, conceived as a working machine, populations conceived as working machines, will be at once ordered and placed in the moral geometry of the virtual, or the Godly (reconceived slightly as the celestial). The state actually begins to base it’s legitimacy on the virtual (the rise of vitalism is especially important here). I suggested that it is at this point—though this is a difficult point to prove—that we see the emergence of a second face to "virtualization"; this being "disappearance". I mean by this the absolutely conscious state project of not only disciplining and ordering populations, but disqualifying them in favour of itself. Virtualization—or becoming virtual—(a question once of penance to God directly) becomes a question of "making tranquil" the "state of things" in general. In short, replacing the human body with certain movements, structures of command, along the lines of the ‘state axis’.

Jumping to the present I suggested we’d do well to further research this transformation of the transcendental into the realm of the practical world of organizing "men and things" in order to understand the political nature of the multiple disappearances we are witnessing as we reach the ends of modernity, and the modern project (cf., Paul Virilio). It is only now—after this history—that "virtuality" as a condition becomes understandable. In short, virtualization, I was suggesting, is a broader technology of political control. It is—understood correctly—a way to summarize the emergence of self-regulating, automatic society. When we look at prisons, at asylums, at hospitals, at the whole range of institutions that are born with the modern state, we see—I argued—a more material side to the question of the virtual: precisely the actualization that was from the beginning inherent to the virtual; to be achieved, as Deleuze wrote, first through language, and then through the event (in this case the birth of the state and organization of the human animal). The final event is "virtuality" itself; a kind of existence at once disciplined (brought to order), while self-constituted (‘panoptic’, cf. Foucault). Virtuality disqualifies the individual and the body. This, I suggested, might be one way to understand the question of ‘disappearance’; not in an aesthetic sense, but in the sense of the disappearance of intensity or intentionality (cf. Gilles Deleuze). Not so much the disappearance of autonomy—for afterall, the technologies of the virtual to which I refer (apparatuses of security, discipline, economy) are precisely built upon the autonomy of the individual. But this autonomy has been radically reconceived—if not irradiated—from that which we find in the Middle ages. It is different in the sense that the historical world of the individual—as Nietzsche argued—has been colonized by the virtual, or the contract, the promise. Disappearance, in this sense, is not so much a question of physical disappearance (as for example we witnessed in South America), or aesthetic disappearance (though the virtual does has a cinematic quality) as one of the emergence of a "space of existence" within which the (autonomous) individual will feel safe and at home. It is within the emergence of a certain set of parameters to human existence (seen best in the history of the constitution of reason) that would I chart both virtualization as a political project and disappearance as its endpoint. Disqualification is it’s endpoint (cf., Martin Heidegger). We might literally—with technologies of light-speed (telepresence)—be seeing this now.

The interesting question, I concluded by raising, is whether this project—now having reached it’s ideal form (the disabled body)—is now in the process of collapsing, or itself disappearing. Many more pages could be taken up with the discussion of what form this disappearance—a final disappearance—might take. I suggested that in the work, the thought, of Jean Baudrillard, we might be seeing the outlines of this more dangerous disappearance: this being the actual triumph of the material over the subjective; or of objects over subjects. In Baudrillard’s terms, objects take their revenge. Are we not becoming monitors to the prostheses that surround us, rather than they being monitors for us? If this were the case we might look at virtualization (conceived by most people as the emergence of a new world) as the end of a world: a world that had man at it’s center, now disappearing entirely—not only as a concept (which was Foucault’s statement), but as a material reality. Pure disappearance. The commutation of the historical world of the individual meets an end with all of us lifted out of history and revolving now around a depleted system of objects, which is in itself unrelated—separated—from politics. Virtualization, actual virtualization—in the sense of the emergence of a new world (cyberspace, and so on), would be an illusion already disqualified by the predominance of objects.



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