The definition of the term virtual existed long before associations with technological simulations or immaterial spaces. The word comes from the Latin virtualis meaning possessed of certain physical virtues or capacities; effective in respect of inherent natural powers; capable of exerting influence by means of such qualities. Under this definition, the virtual is not the opposite of the real. Describing something as being virtual is to say that it has qualities that make it practically indistinguishable from what it is similar to.
Henri Bergson describes the virtual as being, “the intertwining of the past and memory, the future and imagination, and present-tense perceptions that drop out of our viewfinders” (King 102). To Bergson, this is what persists and accompanies our perception of the world around us. Though Bergson doesn’t believe that our interpretations of the world around us are necessarily repressed material of our unconscious, what he does seem to hint at is that it’s the “intertwining” of the past, future, and present that is then projected onto the experience and is given context for the viewer.
Though Bergson rejects a psychoanalytical approach about the virtual, he actually further solidifies both Lacan and Jung. In Steven Z. Levine’s Lacan Reframed, he discusses how the gaze of the other attempts to appear through the act of art making by writing, “The eye made desperate by the gaze seeks relaxation from its duress by making still more art, by showing still more art, by viewing still more art, again and again and again. And that is why we have an endlessly changing yet repeating history of art” (Levine 90). Through this act of making and seeing repeatedly we build up our past and present language of what the other is saying through the art and it in turn influences our perception of the art.
Jung argues that only the contents of our consciousness can be stored into our subconscious such as our desires, impulses, intentions, affections, observations, and intuitions. However, there are times where we either forget or cannot recall where specific stored information comes from. Jung called this cryptomnesia. The past memory aspect of our interactions with the world around us could very well be built off these cryptomnesiac moments from our childhood. It’s these memories that Bergson himself states to be an aspect of virtuality, which in fact interacts with our present perceptions and future imaginings.
The most common contemporary use of the virtual is to describe a space that is acknowledged as not being real. Even virtual reality is being described as something different than the original definition would depict. VR is proposed as a different reality from the one we normally experience. It’s a space to escape to when the normal reality is not what we would have hoped for. This desire to escape the physical plane is troublesome. King writes about Hannah Arendt’s parable about the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in her book Virtual Memory. She writes, “Arendt noted a collective sigh of relief from Earth’s inhabitants at the satellite’s dispatch: a general sense of optimism in the face of this ‘first step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth’” (King 1). The imprisonment on the earth implies that people want to escape, but escape what? King then writes, “The longing to escape the planet and the idea that earth’s inhabitants were imprisoned or shackled to its surface went hand in hand with the degradation of tangible, incarnate, sensory experience, along with the kinds of thought, speech, and action that are made possible by embodied perception” (King 1).
The decline in sensory experience and embodied perception alters our relationship to virtuality and is probably where the definition has changed. The definition no longer refers to something being completely similar and related to something that actually exists but now refers to something being completely similar but is in no way related to something that actually exists. The search for other inhabitable planets is just like this. We hope to find a planet that is completely similar to that of earth but is not related to this planet whatsoever. It is in this phenomenon that virtual reality is also a similar yet not connected experience. Both are modes of dissociation as ways to fix our problems instead of confronting them and learning to accept our limits as individuals and as a species.